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  • I was running with them. I kept up with the group for three or four miles before I had to stop and walk back to school. It is cold. I am cold. My forehead, my nose, it is as if I’ve stuffed ice in my sinuses. I look in the mirror in one of the bathrooms on campus; my face is pale. My eyes are bloodshot and cast dark shadows on my skin. I change out of my spandex and long-sleeved running shirt, and leave the bathroom.

    I leave Morrill House and turn to walk home. The Nordic team is running down the street from the Western Promenade, toward me, and I furrow my brow at the brick sidewalk ahead.

    I’m supposed to be with them; it’s the first day of practice. I hear Max say something from across the road, but it doesn’t reach me. I turn right onto Storer, hoping to avoid them. A second later, I understand what Max said. “We can go down Storer.” Damn.

    I have on my jeans and sweatshirts, my headphones, my backpack, and a smaller backpack, in which I put my running clothes. The team catches up to me, two dozen animate, athletic bodies. I turn my head and say, “Surprise.”

    Josh immediately says, “Hey Kieran.” Our words collide awkwardly and fall to the ground, forgotten, in less than a second.

    “You feeling okay, Kieran?” Max asks, not changing pace.

    “Yeah,” I say. I see Sean, our coach, slow down as the team turns left toward Emery. None of them notice his stopping. I walk to him.

    “You feeling okay, Kieran?” He asks.

    “Yeah. I haven’t been feeling well the past few days.” It’s true. “I should have been running with the slower group, anyway.”

    “It’s okay. If you need to slow down or take a rest day for yourself, just let me know; I won’t hold it against you. You do what you need to do.”

    I will.

    “Okay,” I say, thinking. The rest of the team is inside; we’re alone. “Have you ever heard of pectus excavatum?” He shakes his head no. “My chest curves in,” I say, bringing two cupped hands together, nails touching, my knuckles facing him, “and one of the things that comes with that is decreased tolerance for exercise.” He just nods. I nod.

    “Could you come in with us a minute? I just want to say something to everybody.” I agree and follow.

    Pectus excavatum, it’s Latin for hollow chest. There’s a protein that I don’t synthesize the way I’m supposed to. That protein, fibrillin-1, is a component of connective tissue throughout the human body. In mine, it hangs slack, lengthens, and warps. My ribs, rather than meeting in an arch, bend inward.
    Sean and I walk to the second floor. People ask me where I went, am I feeling okay, how did I disappear. I tell them that I’m not feeling well, that I have a cold. Sean says a few lines about a learning curve, trying to figure out where the team will be over the next few days, and that he’s open to suggestions if anything he’s doing doesn’t make sense. It isn’t a speech, not even an oration, just some words. I turn away when he’s done, leave Emery, and walk home.

    If you change a few atoms on a single protein, cascading anatomical distortions quickly become problematic. The heart and lungs are not only bound in part by fibrillin-1, they are vulnerable to changes in thoracic structure. When I do sit ups, my ribs force air out of my lungs. I don’t know how much pectus excavatum reduces my lung capacity, just that it does. My heartbeat is abnormally loud because my chest is curved like the side of an acoustic guitar.

    The image of the human body is carved so deeply into our consciousness that we cringe when we see so much as a bone out of place. I look wrong to myself half-naked in the mirror, and I’ve lived in my body for seventeen years.

    I slump my backpacks onto the floor and throw my sweater on the couch. I check myself in the bathroom mirror. My shirt sags slightly where my sternum should be, a few inches beyond where it actually is. Watching my reflection, I adjust my posture until I’m satisfied with how I look. I’ve learned to do that, to shift my shoulders and stand up straight, to call attention to my bearing and away from my chest. I can laugh and run with the Nordic team, most of the time, and only I, caught darkly in passing windows, see my flaw.
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