Frenzy of Fireworks by Alisa Clarke; for more information, visit

Frenzy of Fireworks by Alisa Clarke; for more information, visit

Body Language

by Mike Nagel

I fall in love with anyone who looks at me over the top of their sunglasses. I met a man whose body said, “I have made sexual advances toward your most vulnerable co-workers.” Later I found this to be true. His skin was made out of top grain cow leather. Animal hide. Augustine worried about the way an animal’s hide could move on its own. The twitch and shudder. A body with a mind of its own.

I am an interpreter of bodies. Body scientists believe that our bodies, not just our minds, are capable of intelligent thought. Our bodies are multilingual. Maybe even universally fluent. They could get jobs as bank tellers.

In order to explain certain irreconcilable equations, mathematicians have concluded that, in all likelihood, we don’t exist. Still though. At dinner Steve and I swatted flies off our burgers. Afterwards we shook hands. Randall Jarrell: “Someone has said, about people: ‘Let us act as if they were real; who knows, perhaps they are.”

When I talk to Matt on Skype Thursday night he’s all face and no body. Later I wonder why I would think that. Of course the face is part of the body too. We are all body. And a little bit of hydrogen.

For awhile it looked like we were running out of hydrogen but lucky for us scientists found more yesterday. It was underground, in a cave.

I knew that hydrogen was good for blowing things up but I didn’t know it was also an essential element in MRI machines, a piece of technology that lets us see inside of bodies.

Bodies communicate in two ways: by what they say and by what they don’t say. For example, a body might say, “I have no interest in this conversation.” But it probably won’t say, “I have stage four lymphoma.” We need special machines for that. We need hydrogen.

Hydrogen is one of the six essential building blocks of life. Right up there with sulfur. It’s part of how we exist.

Now that I think about it, Matt was neither face nor body, he was an imitation of both. An unreality. In all likelihood: a simulation of a simulation. I wiped a smudge off his face while he spoke. The glass gave a little squeak. I’ve read that soon it will be impossible to tell the difference between a copy and an original. Even the original won’t know for sure.

The girl in the park asked me what I was reading and I said I was reading Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution. It was hot but we were in the shade, on a bench. I asked her what she was smoking. She said she was smoking cigarettes. “Oh,” she said, and held her cigarette out. “American Spirit.”

It was almost the 4th of July. I told her that I heard American Spirits were some of the healthiest cigarettes you could buy. She asked what could possibly make them healthy. I said less chemicals maybe. She pointed her cigarette at me, “You mean additives.” Her body said that she had never been in a meaningful long-term relationship.

“You’re in advertising?” she said.

I said, “Yes, but how did you know? Is it my glasses?”

She waved her palm like wiping fog off a window.

“It’s the whole thing,” she said.

Often what a person says and what his/her body says are two completely different things. But I once saw the end of a man’s life and in that particular instance he and his body were both saying the exact same thing. They were both screaming. I have heard of similar cases where both whisper but I’ve never seen such a thing for myself.

I am creating a body of work. I am writing in the body of documents. I am an apathetic member of a student body. When I was in Africa, instead of asking how you’re doing, they asked, “How da body?” Da body fine. I’ve been jogging.

“In the absence of religious or secular myth we have left our personal fulfillment entirely in the hands of our jobs,” Matt tells me over Skype. I think: Our jobs have hands?

On the walk home from Old Chicago J asks me what’s wrong. I say nothing’s wrong. I’m carrying my leftovers with both hands. J feels me up and down. “You feel weird,” she says. She reads my body like braille. When J and I are together we are in a constant state of reading and being read. It is almost impossible to know what your own body is saying. You have to look at pictures later if you want to find out. The body almost never lies. Neck down, it’s all twitch and swell. We have trustworthy erections.

“One would have said her body thought,” Randall Jarrell writes in Pictures of an Institution. “And her body had kinder thoughts than she.”

I believe one could say the same thing about me.

If you saw me naked, my body would tell you that it’s not being taken very good care of. I am covered in alligator skin. You might think I was transitioning back into a fish. An evolutionary sling-shot-around-the-moon. I’m crawling back toward the sea. You might also think I was hungry. The doctor said that my body can’t process sugar. She had a thick Mexican accent. She said, “Mr. Nagel, you are starving to death.” I’d wondered why, after all these 7-Eleven cream cheese taquitos, my body hadn’t gained a pound.

There are some things that a body can only say to another body. We will never know for sure, though, even if one of those bodies is our own.

Graham wore a button-up shirt to his daughter’s birth so that he could hold her against his bare chest and some language could pass between them. He told me that this was an important part of the bonding ritual. A baby’s body speaks right out of the womb. Sometimes even before. Both baby and body come into the world screaming. What a terrible symmetry if they leave the same way.

I see no problem loving a person for their body. It will change much more slowly than their mind. Or haven’t you seen the latest public opinion polls re: Chipotle?

Too afraid to talk to a girl I loved in high school, I read an article online about how to communicate using nothing but body language. The technique mostly involved staring, and the occasional wave.

I don’t take my position as interpreter of bodies very seriously. All of my work is done in passing. On the train. In Starbucks. At the gym. If I were to devote myself entirely to this work I might develop a somatic lexicon for the anatomically tone deaf. I might apply for certain grants and prizes. Or am I just looking for an excuse to stare at some ass?

At sand volleyball, under the lights, the guys from Cross Fit take off their shirts. Their bodies say that they like to have sex in athletically challenging positions, often holding their partner airborne during climax. It’s July 4th weekend and there are fireworks in the distance. They’re exploding just above the ground. “That must be Lake Lavon,” Josh says. He is slapping the sand off his arms. “Lake Lavon,” I say. A body of water known to contain dead bodies. A body of bodies. This is what’s coming out of our taps. Body water.

I was raised in a culture of sexual abstinence and evangelical finger wagging. We were terrified of what our bodies might say to each other if they ever got the chance to be alone. One night a youth pastor squeezed out a tube of toothpaste. “The things you say can never be unsaid,” he said. We watched the white paste drip onto the floor and understood that he was making some kind of a point but didn’t understand why we were all so turned on.

Recently educators expanded their definition of intelligence to include physical ability. A genius of the body. Mike Tyson has an honorary PhD from Central State University.

“Cheer up,” I tell a homeless woman, crying outside the library, her body babbling in tongues and codes. “In all likelihood you’re not even real.” This would turn out to be true.

On the 4th of July J and I take the train to Fair Park and watch the fireworks above the Ferris wheel. We feel the explosions in our chests. I imagine my ventricles popping. I’ve heard that a heart attack feels like getting hit with a baseball bat. The air smells like gunpowder. I watch the smoke trails of the previous fireworks wilt and drift. A document written in smoke. Skyroglyphics. A bottle rocket detonates close to the ground and everybody jumps back. A brief synchronization. A collective animal twitch. In moments of stress we revert to a previous stage of evolution. Our bodies do all the thinking. J touches her nose to my neck and smells my deodorant. Then I feel her teeth. It’s a little-known fact that the first creature to crawl up onto the land took one look around and went straight back into the sea.

About Mike Nagel

Mike Nagel‘s writing has appeared in The Awl, Hobart, Salt Hill and the Paris Review Daily.