The Shape of Skin by Kristina Jipson
Content Warning—Please note this short story and author’s note contain reference to childhood sexual abuse, the sex offender registry, and child pornography.
In this riveting and creepy short story, “The Shape of Skin,” Kristina Jipson uses the technique of an unreliable, unlikable narrator speaking in first-person point of view to explore a young convicted sex-offender’s complicated motives for photographing children. The prose is clean and often beautiful; it stays out of the way, letting the fiction do its job. The tension is masterful. By getting inside the mind of a perpetrator and seeing him as he sees himself, flaws and humanity and all, Jipson tackles a serious issue in a fresh, compelling way, offering a story with a strong arc and careful insight into the narrator’s evolution and interiority.
We know that fiction provides a space to consider and expand empathy. Research confirms that reading literary fiction “support[s] and teach[es] us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves,” and that fictional “characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes.” This piece challenges and disrupts; it questions where the boundaries lie between art and exploitation, child and adult, observer and participant. With allusion to the work of several well-known and important photographers, “The Shape of Skin” exposes tragedy and the role of visual art on multiple levels. —CRAFT
The professor’s kid was cute. Like, normal cute. Pigtails and a fat face. She looked kind of dirty even though I don’t think she was. She had that kind of skin. “Babysitter problems,” the professor had said at the start of class. She’d been breezy about it, getting the kid all set up at the front of the room with crayons and Play-Doh and this little ocean puzzle with magnet pieces you had to fish for. Didn’t seem too professional to me, but what did I expect from a community college in central Maine? I mean, thanks to the social worker, I didn’t even have to pay for my classes.
The kid had been quiet as a rabbit up there the whole hour long. Still, it was hard not to watch her, like it would be hard not to watch a video of a kitten playing the piano on the big white screen behind the professor’s back. Anyway, the rules don’t say I can’t be anywhere a kid happens to be. I just can’t go to places meant for kids. Schools, playgrounds, places like that. Brenda’s house, because she still fosters. But it made me nervous, and I never would have gone up there to talk to the professor after the first class, except we had a homework assignment that was due the next day, and I couldn’t go online to turn it in. I couldn’t even email her about it like she told us to if we had any problems.
I planned to keep my eyes off the kid the whole time I was up there. And I would have, too, but this skinny tweaker of a lady got to the professor just ahead of me, so I had to wait while she went on and on about some problem she had with reading numbers that made it so she mixed up due dates and turned her homework in late. She was making it up, obviously. But the professor nodded all serious while the lady talked and talked, her voice all raspy like a bottle was breaking in her throat every time she opened her mouth.
The whole time I waited, the kid was sitting right beside me, sliding her little ocean pieces into each other on the table. She made funny noises, like the fish had tiny bombs inside them that blew up when they touched each other. She was so quiet, I wondered if she’d been doing that the whole class and none of us could hear her. So I looked at her face—just for a second, just to tell her I heard her and it was funny how she was pretending the fish were exploding in the water. And she must have known that’s what I meant, because she puckered her lips together and flashed her eyes back at me. Then she slid one of those fish right over to the edge of the table and into my thigh, so its little wood fish lips poked into my jeans just when that stupid tweaker finally decided to shut up.
The professor chirped, “Who’s next?” in a way that suggested she was pleased as could be to have another one of us morons to talk to before she could pack up her kid and go home. But when I looked up from the fish inside the kid’s grimy fingers to meet the professor’s eyes, I swear I saw them narrow, like her blink got stuck halfway up. I just stood there getting red around my neck while she peered at me through her glasses like she was remembering something else.
It wasn’t that she looked at me like she recognized me, exactly. It was more that she looked at me at all. Straight at my face, not at my nametag.
I was paranoid, I know it. But I had good reason.
“Shawn,” she said, “how can I help you?”
That was her job. To talk to her students like people. To stand there polite as can be after the first class and answer dumb questions like, “Do I have to buy the textbook?” and, “Is it okay to miss class when my boyfriend needs the car?” Or mine: “How do I do the assignments without an internet connection?” Because the lady at the office had said I wouldn’t need to get online to pass the classes I was registering for.
The picture. That’s what I thought about while the professor looked at me. It’s what I always thought about. I’d changed everything about my looks that I could after that picture went up. But it didn’t matter. You could still tell it was me. And while the professor talked to me, her hand kept fluttering over in the direction of the kid. Like her body knew she’d already done something wrong, not standing between her daughter and me.
I didn’t blame her. What’s anybody supposed to think once they see that picture? That’s what I’d said to the social worker when she helped me register for my classes.
“It’s a formality,” she’d said, “nobody pays attention.” She said I should count myself lucky the judge had gone as easy as she did. And it was true, it all could have gone a whole lot worse for me.
But it could have gone a lot better, too. The judge could have budged on that frigging registry so my whole damned life wouldn’t wind up being about a mistake I made before I was old enough to know any better.
The professor said she could give me paper copies of the assignments and handed me directions to an office on campus where I could take them when I finished. “Just put them in an envelope with your name on it,” she said, handing me a stack of papers from her binder.
I know she meant I should put my first and last name on the envelope. But immediately I thought how unless she complained, I’d just write Shawn, English every time.
All the English classes have different themes, and I was a little surprised the social worker had said it was okay for me to take the photography one. “Photography isn’t the problem,” she’d said, “kids are.” That’s why I called her to make sure it was okay before I stared for hours at the first picture the professor gave us to write about.
The naked girl, with her skin like peeled shrimp before you cook it. The other kids around her, running in that up and down way kids run with they’re scared. All of them with their mouths open like black skies are falling out.
I guess it’s a famous picture, but I knew I’d never seen it before. I would have remembered, because it’s incredible. Better than a hundred other pictures I’ve seen before and thought, if only I could ever make something like that.
One of the articles we had to read about it said the photographer caught shit for taking the picture before he stopped to help the girl. That’s crazy to me. I guess he did help her right after he took the picture, anyway—apparently, she survived thanks to him and is a lawyer or something up in Canada now. But if you ask me, even if he couldn’t have done anything—even if she died—the picture it would have been worth it.
I mean, really, that picture would have been worth ten girls dying. Not that I’d want them to die. I’d want them to live. But tons of kids die for nothing at all. At least being in a picture like that, dying would mean something. Like, thousands and thousands of people have seen that picture, and I bet not a single one of them looked at it without stopping to think: Jesus, is that really what we’re like?
I couldn’t write that in my paper. About the picture being more important than the girl. But it’s always pissed me off. This high and mighty attitude people take about what happens to every single person. In our next class this one guy said you’d have to be an animal to see somebody suffering like that and pull out a camera. But it’s the other way around. It’s animals that can’t stop and think about the big picture, and people that should.
Sometimes, shit happens that people need to see. If you’re the one holding the camera, it’s obvious. Unless you’re an animal, you take the picture—you show it to as many people as you can.
I keep telling Ron he doesn’t need to drive all the way down to Bangor every day. I could just take the bus. But it gives him something to do. He ran a train most of his life, which you’d think would make him a pretty efficient driver, but most days I wind up waiting around for him outside the school. He says it’s because I keep changing the time, but I write it down for him and stick it to the fridge every goddamn morning.
Anyway, waiting for Ron to show up is how I ended up seeing that damn kid again. I was just standing around out in front of the school like I did most days after class, listening for Ron’s Chevy rumbling into the bus lane to come get me, when the kid came running out the side door of the Penobscott Building.
For a second, it looked like she was all by herself. I leaned back against the bus shelter. But the professor was standing behind her in the doorway, digging through her bag. She was watching her, I guess, even though the kid was a ways out ahead of her, singing a little song. “This way, this way, this way,” it went. “This way, this way, mom-mom-may!” The professor smiled as she pulled her phone out of her bag and answered it, but she didn’t look up to follow the kid’s hand to where it was pointing in rhythm with the song. I was glad, because it looked like she might be pointing at me. That’s the last thing I needed, to have that cute little kid run over to me like I did something to encourage her. Or to have it look like I was waiting around for her to notice me—to bring her mother over.
Things had been going okay so far. I laid low in all my classes, but I made sure to turn my work in on time, and I was getting pretty good grades. I’ve always been a quiet guy, so keeping a low profile was fine with me. But English was the one class I sometimes wished I could talk in. I only took it to fulfill the requirement, but I liked it.
I still didn’t like how the professor looked at me, though. Sometimes her eyes landed on me in the middle of class like she was about to call my name, but then she didn’t. She was pretty young, and you could tell she liked to feel like she was relating to her students. Like, she cussed in class. But if she’d seen the registry and what it says I did, how was she supposed to buddy up to me?
Anyway, I guess the kid didn’t see me. Or if she did, she didn’t care. She changed her song, turning her fingers up to sky. “Up way, up way, mom-mom-may!” She stomped her feet. The professor looked up then, propping the phone between her shoulder and her ear to hold a finger out like a number one in front of the girl like, please, just shut up for one more minute.
And that’s when the professor’s saw me. Over the top of the kid’s head. By then I was looking right at them, because I thought I was safe, so I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see her eyes open wide behind her finger, which suddenly seemed to be held up just for me since the kid had already run off in the other direction. Wait, Shawn, her face was saying, hold on a minute.
I knew it was an accident, her signaling me, but there wasn’t anything I could do. I waited while she nodded into the phone. I thought about how I would tell her right away I was just out there waiting for my ride. That I was on my way home. By the time she caught the kid with her hand on the back of her head like a net, I was sweating and I needed to spit. They were headed straight for me. The kid twisted around at the end of the professor’s arm, and the professor was smiling ear to ear, like seeing me was the one thing missing from her already fan-fucking-tastic day teaching dummies to read. I couldn’t help it—I pulled my hat down over my forehead, pinching the bill inside my palm. It’s a nervous habit. The social worker had said I should get rid of the hat altogether—that people would trust me more if they could see my whole face. She was trying to help, I guess, but I told her she could go straight to hell about my hat.
Anyway, I had no choice but to look the professor in the face because she came right up close to me beside the bus shelter and put her hand on my shoulder.
“Shawn!” she said, like she was out of breath. “I’m glad I ran into you. You’re a hard person to track down.”
It was true she had left a couple of notes on my assignments saying could I come by her office, she’d like to talk. I’d ignored them. I did think about going, but every time I looked at her up in front of the class with her big glasses and her Indian-looking shirts, I was sure that if she did know who I was and still wanted to talk to me, it was only because she wasn’t from around here and still had ideas about being a certain kind of good person.
Plus, you never knew when she going to have her kid with her. It seemed like she brought her to school half the time. She didn’t wear a wedding ring, so she was probably just short on childcare, but Eastern isn’t where I would have brought my preschooler if I could help it. The kid probably knew more of the alphabet than half the students there.
I meant to explain why I hadn’t come to see her—and what I was doing out in front of the school just then, staring at her and her daughter like I was a dog left out in the yard, but when I opened my mouth, only one thing came out: “My damn grandpa.” I shrugged and tugged at my hat.
But the professor nodded like that made all the sense in the world. “Sure,” she said, “sure!”
Meanwhile, the kid was crouched down behind her mother’s legs, peeking out at me with wild eyes. She had a funny, falling apart kind of look. Like nobody helped her get ready in the morning. And she had fat little hands with dimples over her knuckles. They looked like baby hands, even though her hair was long enough to be in her face all the time and she could duck and weave like a quarterback. I tried not to look at her directly, but I couldn’t help seeing her out of the bottoms of my eyes. She looked like she was about to pounce.
“I don’t want to hold you up,” the professor was saying, while her kid rocked forward on her toes with her arms spread out beside her like wings. “But I’ve got something I think might interest you—based on your writing.” She rummaged through her bag. Behind her, I could hear the kid winding up. She was making a little takeoff sound inside her mouth. “Ah,” the professor said, “here we go.” She pulled a book out of her bag and held it out for me. There was nothing for me to do but reach out and take it and then look down at the cover with a serious face until she stopped looking at me.
When I did, what I saw made it feel like the sidewalk was lifting off underneath me.
Two girls. Twins. Maybe six or seven years old. Standing side by side in matching dresses. The picture was in black and white, and their dresses looked kind of like the ones nuns wear, but shorter, because you could see their little legs poke out just above the bottom frame of the picture. You could tell the tights they were wearing were the thick, uncomfortable kind, because they were all wrinkly under their knees, like old skin. But it was their faces I couldn’t look away from. Their big, heavy-lidded eyes. They reminded me of these giant turtles we saw pictures of in biology class once. The way their eyelids half-covered their eyes almost made you wonder if they were retarded—if that’s why they were on the cover of the book. But there was something kind of knowing in their faces, too. Wise, I guess you’d say, like those turtles, which live to be like two-hundred years old.
I stood there staring at the book and wondering who those girls were until I almost forgot about the professor and her kid. But the kid shook me out of it, suddenly cranking up her takeoff sound and blasting off like a rocket from behind her mother’s legs. “Pa-shew!” she howled. I saw little spots of her spit land on the toes of my shoes, and for a second I was afraid she’d crash right into me. But instead she made one of those kid moves that doesn’t make any sense unless you actually know how to fly. She jumped head-first over her toes, barely coming up off the ground before she tipped so her face crashed right into the concrete.
Right before the kid started screaming and I put the book down on the sidewalk, thinking I might need my hands for something, I noticed that the only words on the cover were a woman’s name under the picture, Diana something. The professor got down on her knees and the kid grabbed onto her neck, sobbing like kids sob—like she was throwing up. Her mouth was bleeding like hell.
“Okay, okay,” the professor said. She blotted at the kid’s face with her shirt. “Let’s have a look.”
“No, no, no!” the kid screamed, squirming against the professor’s grip.
With the kid howling and the professor shushing, I just stood there, looking around, wishing somebody else would come along. And when Ron finally did pull up beside us, the truck exhaling into the bus shelter like an old smoker, something in how his face shrunk down under his hat told me that waiting around beside them was the wrong thing. He leaned across the cab of the truck, pushing the passenger door open so it swung out over the curb. He looked at me hard.
“Up and in, son,” he said, so quiet I could only tell what he was saying because I was staring at his mouth, afraid of what his face was telling me. Then, as I grabbed the frame of the door with a sweaty hand, I saw his face widen into a diner breakfast kind of smile. He looked past me at the professor, who was cradling the kid with the same kind of smile.
“The devil at that age, aye?” he said.
“You bet,” the professor said, one of the kid’s wet hands grabbing at her glasses.
Then Ron was reaching over my lap, tugging my door closed behind me. He stared straight ahead as he accelerated out of the parking lot. But I couldn’t help craning my neck to look back at where I’d left the book, face down on the pavement beside the professor and her crying kid, so those twins were left staring out in their ancient way into the hard darkness of the concrete.
After that, there was no way I’d let myself wind up face-to-face with the professor again. She must have known it, too, because she stopped leaving me notes about coming to see her, and in class she didn’t look at me like she was waiting for me to say something anymore.
She didn’t really look at me at all.
But she still wrote long comments on everything I turned in. Questions about my ideas, or names of artists for me to check out. I got a pocket dictionary at the campus bookstore so I didn’t have to ask Ron to go online to look up the words she used—words I thought I knew except they didn’t make sense how she was using them. But there wasn’t a lot I could do about the artists. The library mostly didn’t have books about the people she mentioned.
I wasn’t really sure if she meant all those questions she wrote to be like new homework assignments, but I always wrote down my answers to them as best I could, and I turned them in every time I left her a new packet.
The truth is, thinking about the questions she asked me was more interesting than a lot of what I was filling my days with, and it got so I looked forward to working on my English homework. Especially when she gave us our last assignment.
“Pick a photograph that’s been especially important to you in your life,” she said in class, “and tell me why.” It was supposed to be a personal essay—we had to use I and talk about our feelings.
I knew right away what I wanted to write about, even if it meant talking about things I don’t like to talk about. It was the first picture I ever took. The first private one, I mean—the first one that went into the boxes under my bed that the police took God-knows-where after Brenda found them and kicked me out of her house to squat with her dad, Grandpa Ron, until social services decided what to do about me.
It had been an accident, mostly. Me taking the picture in the first place. I was just trying to help those kids. A big sister and a little brother. They were new to Brenda’s foster palace, and even though I’d been there for years by then, I could still remember what that was like. The girl was kind of fat, but her brother was so skinny you could see the veins in his cheeks. I liked looking at them right away because of that, and because the sister was always standing a little bit in front of the brother with an arm reaching back around him. They looked like a pair of those Siamese twins who have one strong half that sucks up all the nutrients from the other one.
They were supposed to be asleep. But new kids never went to sleep when they were supposed to. My room shared a wall with the bunkroom where my foster-mom Brenda usually put the newest kids, so I always heard them. Thumping around or giggling or crying or whatever. These ones seemed like criers—they’d been creeping around the house all day, looking like they just did something bad, and at bedtime they went straight into their room without making a sound.
But I didn’t hear crying. Just a creak-creaking sound like someone walking on the roof.
I guess if I’m being honest, I was curious about what they were doing in there. But mostly I wanted to make sure they weren’t afraid. And then to surprise them, so they’d jump around and holler like regular kids.
A lot of people don’t know how easy it is to get places without being seen. I’ve always been good at it. I pushed the bunkroom door open just wide enough to slip inside. Then I crept close to the ground all along the far wall to the closet. I didn’t look back to the corner of the room where the bunk-bed was until after I was hidden behind the slats in the closet door. That’s part of the trick. Keep your eyes on where you’re going until you get there. Don’t ever look at whoever it is you’re hiding from until you’re all the way out of view.
So when I finally did look, it was through the slats on the folding closet door, which sliced my view of the nest those kids had made together in the bottom bunk into a dozen pieces. Still, I could make out everything—those two kids’ bodies, stripped all the way bare, and pressed, somehow, into one: four pale arms wrapped around one quivering gut; one misshapen head with a two-sided mouth puckered up like a clam inside shell; a whole map of skin, all carved up like sand on a beach when the tide goes out.
I know it wasn’t something I was supposed to see. It wasn’t something anyone was supposed to see. But I always come back to this: why was that camera just lying there, on the shelf right beside me, if I wasn’t meant to take that picture?
And honestly, if I could go back in time to that exact moment, I’d take it again.
That’s what I wanted to explain in my paper—how, if you thought about it, that picture wasn’t any different from the one of the girl running away from the gas. I didn’t make those kids do what they were doing in that bed any more than that photographer had dropped a napalm bomb on that little girl. And I knew that shit like what was happening between those kids in that bottom bunk had happened there before—to lots of kids. Just like that photographer knew that little girl was just one of thousands of kids stampeding her country like gore on fire.
When I sat down to write my essay, I thought about the cover of the book the professor tried to give me—those two little girls’ faces like big dumb moons under the mushroom caps of their hair. Their bodies were stuck all the way inside their skin, but they had their wide, glassy eyes trained on something else—at a faraway point just above the camera, like their next blink would take them far into the future, to the moment when I’d be standing on the sidewalk beside the bus shelter looking right at them, thinking: Yeah, I see you.
And I realized that when I took that first picture, I wanted to do that for those kids. To lift them up out of time. To make it so that even in that very moment some tiny part of them would be traveling forward to the future, when someone would look at a picture at their two mashed-up bodies and think: Jesus, is that what we’re like?
I’m not a good writer or anything, but by the time I finished my essay, I was pretty sure I got my point across. At least I figured it had to be as good as the papers the other dummies in the class would be writing about pictures of their grandmothers or really big fish they caught.
Still, I almost didn’t turn it in.
It’s hard to explain, but it had something to do with the professor’s little kid. Like, I was afraid she might get close to it—that it would do something bad to her if she touched it. I knew it was crazy, but it bugged me, and I mentioned it to the social worker. Obviously I couldn’t tell her what I was really worried about, because it didn’t make sense. So instead I asked her if I could get in trouble for writing about what I did.
“Is it the truth?” she said.
I told her it was.
She could be kind of dense, but she made a good point: “If you’re so sure everybody already knows all about you anyway, what do you have to lose? Why not explain yourself?”
So I turned in the essay in a big orange envelope with tape around the seal and the professor’s name in red letters across the front of it. If she couldn’t keep a thing like that away from her kid, I figured, it was on her.
I didn’t hope for much. Actually, after I turned that essay in, I just wanted the semester to end.
But people will surprise you.
For all her keeping her distance after that day at the bus shelter, the professor walked right up to me on the last day of class and put her hand on my arm—grabbed all the way around it above the elbow so for a second I thought she was going to lead me out of the building.
But she didn’t. Instead she passed me an envelope of her own. Shawn, English, is what it said on it. “Beautiful work,” she said, and she looked at me through her glasses like I was supposed to know exactly what she meant.
The whole thing shook me up so that I didn’t really say anything back—I just grabbed the envelope and bolted. I hurried to the only men’s bathroom with a stall, hid myself inside, and tore it open. My essay was inside with a plain red ‘A’ at the top of it, and this note: “What happens if we apply your logic to a photograph like the one enclosed? Is this a picture that needed to be taken? Should it be shown to as many people as possible?”
And for some reason my hands shook like a junkie’s when I reached into the envelope to pull out the picture she had given me. It trembled in front of me like the view out a car window when you’re driving fast over a rough road.
What I saw was my own face.
My mouth was bent like I was biting down on something that wasn’t food and my eyes were shrunken to tiny pins inside my head.
It wasn’t my fault that I looked like that. That’s the shape my face makes in front of a camera every time. I always worry about the idea of someone I can’t see staring straight at me. Someone in the future, who knows more about me than I do.
But for just a second, before I understood what I was looking at, that future-person was me. Staring into the past at a mugshot of a creep. It was the picture from the registry. And when my now-eyes met my then-eyes in that bathroom stall, this is what I realized: That picture is true, and the judge was right—everyone should see it.
I imagined the professor after she read my essay, typing my name into her computer. She must have clicked on the image of my face to make it bigger before she printed it out, and I could see it—all pocked with pixels, knotted up into what the professor would have to call a smile, because I don’t think even she could come up with a better word for it. And I imagined her little kid, stacking up blocks like bodies on the floor while my face peeled itself mouth-first out of the printer and dropped onto the desk like a scab.
KRISTINA JIPSON’s first book of poetry, Halve (Tupelo Press 2016), was selected by Dan Beachy-Quick for the Tupelo Press Berkshire Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks: How Void of Miracles (Hand Held Editions 2009), and Lock, Means (Dancing Girl Press 2011). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI, American Letters & Commentary, At Length, Chicago Review, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere, and her first work of short fiction was recently published in Tin House. She is currently shopping her first novel, Before They Wake, about a frenzy of early adolescent experimentation on a Utah camping trip that leads to the deaths of two children. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a PhD from Notre Dame, and is a professor of English at Everett Community College. She lives with her husband and two daughters on a once-upon-a-time orchard in the emerald suburbs of Seattle.