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  • Writer's pictureAva Emilione

lovely specimen

Ava Emilione by Zelle Westfall

every hand that touches my hair doesn’t love me

most of the time, they’re just fascinated.

this is what i learn the summer before i turn 17

when the jersey heat made my head expand like

discount party city balloons.

two white girls approach me in the stairwell

and ask if i’ll let them touch.

by this age i know my lines —

thank you

yes, this is my hair

yup, i don’t really get lice

yeah, i only have to wash it once a week

i know that “no” isn’t a part of the script

but i can’t bring myself to say yes

so i nod and keep my mouth shut

as their fingers fall into my curls

like lazy flies onto rotting fruit.

i wait until they’re done

until they’re satisfied with

knowing how people who look like me

feel like in real life.

i wonder if what i let them do to me that afternoon

made their day.

i’ve been a performer in a strange circus

for a very long time.

a part of me has learned to enjoy

the glistening eyes in the seats

the hazy darkness in the theater

where i am witnessed but never seen.

on the ride back home that day

the curtains close and

they close and they close and keep closing

and i swear i will die alone

but i can still hear rapturous applause in my sleep.

the girls never speak to me again

but years later there is some boy

who looks like he can be their brother

and he looks at the top of my head

before his reflection in my eyes.

his eyes are maggot-shaped

and on the root of my scalp

i can feel them tugging at my follicles.

i know the story he is telling himself

and i know what character i play —

the role is easy enough to wear

and while i hate how my dead ends

feel brushing on my forehead

he can’t tell the difference between

what lives on my scalp

and what has died of natural causes

and what has been killed

so it really makes no difference.

we kiss goodnight and when i get home

my hair feels like an overripe orange

pried open by curiosity’s sticky fingers.

a maggot swoops down from a strand of hair

and it asks me if i’ll ever let anyone

touch me again.

by now i’m scared of bugs

and other people’s fingers

so i tell the maggot to leave me be

to decompose by myself.

but then there is the shower i take

when the jig is up.

i can tip my head back

and wash all their cuticles off of me.

sometimes i indulge —

pretend there is

a soft, sweet soul behind me

with a smile as broad

as the parking lot behind the theater —

washing the soap off my back

cupping the base of my skull

and feeling where my body begins.

in these moments i imagine my body


translucent and gaseous

with a skull that is so bare that it inspires no fascination

no awe, no surprise

no questions of where it came from

or what it looks like when i’m soaking wet.

in this fantasy

there is a hand that loves me

and in the presence of true adoration —

god, i have forgotten all my lines.

Edited by: Rachel Goulston

Issue 17 Credits

Photography: Zelle Westfall

Creative Direction: Payton Selby, Ava Emilione, Leslie Vargas, Zelle Westfall

Photography Assistants: Ruby Summer, Jewel Simpkins

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Nov 10, 2023


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