Photo by Margo Steines

I begin to break, slowly and without fanfare. My hip goes first, sending high-pitched clamors of pain streaking up and down my left side, too loud to ignore, though I do my best. Next, my feet, searing with hot electric sensation. The sheet of muscle next to my ribcage pulls apart, like a seam burst and frayed. My right forearm goes numb. The heels of my hands develop pins and needles that do not go away.

I have been making money with my body for ten years by the time these afflictions assert themselves. I work with metal, steel mostly. From six in the morning to three in the afternoon, I lift, hoist, drag, pull, push, reach, carry. I climb columns with fifty pounds of ironworker tools hanging from my body: a twenty-pound fall-arrest harness studded with chisels and hammers like Christmas tree ornaments, wrenches crammed in my pockets, bolt bags spilling over with half pound bolts. I crouch, crawl, shimmy, and squat over I-beams with the heavy copper coil of my welding leads strung across my shoulders. My posture is not good.

Doctors give me names for my pains, names that satisfy the part of me that likes to inventory my problems. Bursitis, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, torn intercostals. I am twenty-seven. These names feel like afflictions of the elderly. The men I work with carry great creaking bodies whose strengths are belied by the gnarls of their knuckles, the hunches of their shoulders, the crackles of their backs. These men can raise steel, but at a bodily price.

At work, I walk around corners and the men pause their merriment, last gasps of …in her ass or …she choked on it trailing off like exhaled puffs of smoke. They call one sixty-fourth of an inch a “cunt hair”—as in, move it just a cunt hair to the left—and conspicuously apologize afterward, every time: Sorry, girl!

The men are twice my size. My arms are too short to reach the bottom of our cavernous tool box, where my soapstones and welding rods fall and accumulate. We carry steel together and I feel pieces of my body pull and stretch and rend. I watch the men perform terrifying acts of bodily annihilation, extruding their egos through the materiality of cleaving bone, ripping lungs, tearing muscles. My welding partner, John, gets cortisone shot into his spine once a month so he can stand straight enough to weld. Dave loses the tip of his pinkie finger when the crane booms down too fast, and Jimmy gets zinc poisoning from galvanized steel, his face going white and clammy like a bad piece of fish.

What the men don’t know about me is that their pubescent humor pales next to the things I say at night. I have been making money with my body since long before I walked onto their jobsite and ruined their ability to make hooker jokes without worrying about getting sued.

At work, I do not speak of my pains. Among the men, in the jobsite shanty, conversation topics revolve around the incompetence of the other trades, collective right-wing rants, and current bodily damages. My knee, my back, my neck. Treatments, too: spinal decompression, Vicodin, surgery, Genesee Cream Ale. I want to chime in, to share in the bread breaking around our wreckage, but the tolerance of my presence in Men’s Land is delicate, and an overt admission of physical weakness is bad strategy.

The pains in my feet send me to a specialist, who diagnoses neuralgia: nerve damage, a result of ten years in six-inch heels. The men do not know and would not believe that the industrious, baggily-clothed girl they work next to is also one of the women in their punchlines.

Human feet contain over seven thousand nerve endings. The foot is a miracle of structural engineering: a rigid lever that can also flex; thirty-five joints, twenty-eight bones. I have two lives, two jobs, two names. During the days, I wear steel toed boots. Every few nights, I cram my swollen feet into stiletto heels for a single hour. I double, sometimes triple my income. I live with the burning pain in my feet and an ever-present buzz of anxiety beneath my sternum, borne of the fear of my two worlds colliding.

The women in my crew’s jokes are all sex workers. There’s nothing funnier, it would seem, than a dead hooker.

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