What She Is Not
You stood with the fat girls on the corner of Leavenworth and O’Farrell. Junkies nodded down on Eddy, and boys posed on Polk. You weren’t fat, but you were a freak, and the fat girls let you stand with them because no one else would.
Elvis Presley played in mourning from radios as the cars circled around and around, Valiants and GTOs slowing, men scanning the merchandise, settling for the most their money could buy. The ones who stopped for you didn’t know they were looking for you. How could they have imagined your eyes, which showed up on your face along different planes? The way one eyeball floated away, so they couldn’t be sure if you were looking at them or the moon. They wouldn’t have thought to crave your uneven, cone-shaped tits. But they stopped for you anyway. A good excuse not to have to look at you as they came in your hand, your mouth, your ass, between your pitiful breasts, on your ugly face, however they wanted, yelling at you, bitch, cunt, whore, slapping you, punching you, pinching your half-assed tits, hating you while they fucked you in their dark cars, grateful that they didn’t have to think about you afterwards, a crumpled $10 bill stuffed in your sticky hand. They drove their rusted Plymouths and Pontiacs back into the night while your stomach growled.
Those summer nights the fog rolled in early, kept you cold, but awake, watching the drivers. Sometimes the shape of a head glimpsed just beyond the glare of headlights made you think of your mother. But of course it wasn’t. It wouldn’t be. Not this far. Not looking for you, she wouldn’t have come looking for you. For a moment, on those cold, foggy summer nights, you’d remember the sticky hot of North Carolina in August, ice melting in a glass on the front porch, as you and everyone sitting on their front porches for miles around wiped sweat from foreheads, necks, yearning for the cool you felt now, standing on the corner, shivering in it, not yet old enough to buy a bottle of bourbon to warm you up or remind you of home.
When Arielle came, she wasn’t driving herself. From the back seat of a black Lincoln, she lowered the power window. You could see only her eyes, big eyes, beautiful, the way a fly’s eyes are beautiful when you see them close up, huge and rainbow-black.
“I’m curating an evening,” she said. You couldn’t see her mouth. You didn’t know what it meant to be curated.
“Are you a girl?” she asked.
You saw yourself reflected from your hips up to your neck in the half-open window. “I’ll be anything you want,” you said.
Inside the car it smelled like leather. Lim Grey was singing through the speakers about how high love could take him.
“This song,” you said.
“You like Lim Grey?” she asked.
“Doesn’t everyone,” you said.
She picked up your hand. You thought she might want to start her time in the car, but she examined your nails, dragging a long, manicured thumbnail under each one, digging out lines of dirt.
“You need a bath,” she said to you.
“Whatever you want,” you said.
“If you clean up nice, maybe I’ll introduce you to Lim Grey.”
“You know him?”
“I know everyone,” she said. “Everyone who needs something.”
Her apartment was white, everything, walls, furniture, towels in the bathroom. Your filthy clothes on the white bathmat, your skinny, awful body next to hers in the mirror. She washed you, kneeling next to the bathtub, scrubbing behind your ears the way you’d heard mothers were supposed to. The washcloth between your toes. Her finger inside you, cleaning you, reminding you of the way your mother used to remove marrow from bones. You thought she was the trick.
“I’m the curator,” she said. “Arielle,” she said. Like her name was an explanation.
After the bath, she stood behind you, both your reflections in the mirror. Her sharp white fingernails over your shoulders, down your torso. She scooped up your puny breasts in her long fingers. You could see the outlines of your ribs like a secret she was baring.
“Stay here,” she said.
She came back with a fishing tackle box. Inside were several pairs of scissors, thread, rolls of thick white bandages, hemostats, sponges, hypodermic needles.
“Arms up,” she said. You lifted your hands toward the ceiling. “Not all the way. Out at your sides.”
“Pay me first,” you said, and she laughed like a bullfrog.
“Half now, half later.” She took a crisp hundred-dollar bill from the bottom of the box, folded it, and placed it against your chest. You reached for it, but she hissed at you, began wrapping the bandage around your torso, making your ugly breasts disappear—your body and the money, swallowed by a layer of white bandage—wrapping you all the way down to your hip bones.
“Can’t breathe,” you said.
“Breathlessness is a virtue.” She smiled, her teeth white against red lipstick. “Now your hair.”
You grabbed her wrist as she reached for a pair of scissors.
She tapped her long nail on your bound chest, the spot where the money was buried, and brought her lips close to yours. A smell of crimson wax. “You’ll make a pretty boy,” she said. You released her hand. Scissors clack-clacked around your head, close to your scalp. Scraggly bits of hair fell to the floor like the wings of dead insects.
With each clack of the scissors more of your face was revealed. Your jaw, sharp and pointed. Your reflection in the mirror somehow more true than what had been there before. The wrapping defined your body into something new, something not beautiful, but tight, contained.
“I can’t tell if you’re looking at yourself or at me,” Arielle said. You slid your eyes to hers in the mirror, and she said: “Oh.”
Arielle ran her fingers through your hair, now short and spiky. “You’re no longer a girl. You understand?”
Your stomach growled.
“What’s your name?”
A shallow breath pressed the binding against your ribs. “Winifred,” you said.
She shook her head as she buttoned a light blue shirt over your flattened breasts. “Now it’s Freddie.”
She handed loafers to you, a size too big. She stuffed toilet paper in the toe.
You nodded, though your stomach strained against the binding.
“Hunger is a virtue,” she said. “We’ll eat later.”
She pushed you into a colorless chair and told you to wait. “Read this.” She dropped a magazine onto your lap. Seventeen. The same age as you. “Page 26.” You opened to a full-page photo of Lim Grey, his right arm cradling the hips of a woman. A movie star or a model. “He thinks he’s in love,” Arielle said.
Behind her bedroom door, she did whatever she did. She came back wearing a dress that molded to her body. Two sheer pieces of material attached at her shoulders and floated down her back, wing-like. They lifted and lowered as she walked. Her hair was slick, curving behind her ears, curling out at her neck. She was not large, but her body was rounded. It snaked into itself and then out again. She smelled like earth.
“You almost really look like a boy,” she said. She took your arm. As if you were her date. Arielle ran her hand over the top of your scalp. “You’re beautiful.”
“Even with these weird eyes?” Your stomach growled.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” she said. “They’re perfect.”
The man’s suite at the Fairmont had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, which you’d only seen in bits and pieces, peeking between buildings, because Van Ness was as far west as you’d gotten, and Post as far north. He showed you the telescope, pointing out Orion. The sky was unusually clear. You got down on your knees to look through the lens, your torso numb.
He asked if you could see out of that eye.
“Everything,” you said. “I can see everything.”
The man was the same as any other man, gentler perhaps, his wealth made fact by the softness of his skin, but he grew hard in the same way, and held your head in his hands, and moaned like he was trying not to. It was you who were different. You were a boy, and you touched his body as if the feel of him could mutate you into his male shape. His cock became yours. You wanted to swallow him so that he became you.
“You’re a good boy,” he said.
Later he called down to the bar where Arielle was waiting.
“Perfect,” the man said when he opened the door to her. She entered the room like she’d been there before.
“Not girl on girl,” Arielle said in your ear, while the man watched you from a corner armchair. “You’re a boy. Fuck me like a boy.”
“He’ll see that I’m not.”
She showed you her teeth. “He knows you’re not. That’s what he’s paying for. Girls pretending to be boys. Girls pretending to be fucked by boys. All of us pretending.”
Arielle turned her back to you. “The zipper,” she said. You unzipped metal, moving down the ridges of her spine. Her breasts were huge and heavy. You tasted her with surprised hunger.
Arielle told you to stay with her. You asked if you could keep the clothes, and she laughed her bullfrog laugh. “I can keep you working.”
You mentioned a room you shared in the Tenderloin.
“They’ll replace you,” she said.
They’d find you. Make you pay the rent you owed.
“They’ll be looking for a girl,” Arielle said.
An ugly girl.
“You have an odd sense of yourself.”
She kept the apartment clean. The garbage was filled with Chinese take-out cartons and hypodermic needles.
The boy who drove Arielle’s car changed the linens on your bed, your towel in the bathroom. Arielle gave him a large envelope when he was done cleaning. As he walked through the door you noticed that his hips curved slightly from his waist.
Another man, Tony, came over sometimes. He didn’t have eyelashes.
“Don’t stare,” Arielle warned you the first time he came over.
He looked like an unfinished painting.
Tony would deliver bags and leave with envelopes. You didn’t know what was inside. Plain-wrapped packages disappeared quickly, into closets, pockets, any place dark and concealed. “My best friend,” Ari said of Tony. “But also my partner.” You didn’t ask her what she meant.
Sometimes men watched you and Arielle in hotel rooms, or Arielle watched you with the men. She gave you money, more money than you’d ever made for doing anything. She bound you anew each day. You watched in the mirror as she wrapped fresh bandages around your breasts. The more your body was hidden from you, the more yourself you became.
Sometimes you slept in a room off the kitchen. Most times you stayed in Arielle’s room.
“You have an appetite,” she said.
She held an invitation. “The Transbay is reopening as The Utah, and we’re invited. Lim Grey is playing. Business and pleasure.” You didn’t know what business she had with him. You didn’t ask. “He’ll be there. With his girlfriend.” You hated Lim Grey’s girlfriend already. You wondered how young he liked his girlfriends to be. You wondered if he’d know that you were a girl.
You put on a silk dress shirt and a pair of white jeans Arielle had given you. “What size are these?” you asked. You’d been eating more than you remembered ever eating, your mother’s refrigerator mostly bare except for bottles and cans.
“Let me,” Arielle offered, but she unzipped, pulled the jeans down and off, turning them inside out, lowering herself to her knees, her tongue on your clit. You reached to the wall behind you for support.
“You taste different,” she said. “Metallic.”
Afterwards, you still couldn’t get the fly buttoned.
“Let me,” she said.
The bar at the Utah was several people deep: men in cowboy hats, their arms thrown around each other, women with eyes circled in black, glittered legs in platform shoes, shiny fabrics, red lips on boys and white on girls. You moved down the length of the room, Arielle guiding you. That room led into another room with a stage. Skinny men in black were unwinding cables and plugging guitars into amps.
“Upstairs,” Arielle said, and led you to an enclosed staircase almost hidden to one side, dark and narrow. The top step was in full darkness, but as you turned into the room, a bare light bulb glowed in the center. A balcony with no seats. One lone couch in the middle of the floor.
A group of people gathered around the sofa — something that looked like it had been rescued from the street, green and flowery. Lim Grey leaned against the back frame. His arm rested over the shoulders of the woman from the photo in the magazine. She was knitting. Her silver needles clack-clacked as she poked and looped the yarn. She had straight, blonde hair like a folk singer your mother had started to listen to on lonely nights before you’d left, the singer’s voice high and trembly and sad. The bulb overhead caught glass bracelets on the woman’s arm as her hands moved through the light — colored glass circles that fell against each other in high-pitched jangles, the knitting needles clacking underneath the bells of the bracelets.
Lim Grey wore a dark t-shirt with the word RENTAL spelled across his chest in green letters. He appeared slighter than in the poster you’d hung above your now-deserted bed in the Tenderloin. Arielle called his name and he came toward her, glancing briefly at you.
Your mother had taught you that the place where men pushed inside you was called the hollows. You hadn’t questioned it. The hollows. It seemed as good a term as any other. But with Lim Grey’s eyes on your body, even for a brief moment, you understood in a way you thought you’d numbed yourself against, as a bird fluttered from your hollows up through your stomach, beating its wings in your chest.
“Temptress,” he said to Arielle.
“Lim Grey,” she said to you.
“The one and only,” he said.
But the woman on the sofa distracted you, the way the people surrounding her leaned into her, the way she barely looked at them while she clacked her needles, the way her not looking made them lean into her more. For the first time since Arielle had cut your hair, you wished you were not just any girl, but that girl. That woman. You wished you’d been born perfect like that.
You hated her for making you wish you were her.
A speaker buzzed with feedback. Arielle spoke your name as a conversation on the floor below erupted into laughter. You stepped forward to take Lim’s outstretched hand, twice the size of yours.
“You shake like a girl,” he said. “What did you say your name was?”
“Winifred,” you said.
“Freddie,” Arielle shouted over the rising noise.
Lim smiled at you the way a man smiles at a boy and not the way a man had ever smiled at you before. You would have taken a deeper breath if the bandage hadn’t been wrapped so tightly around your ribs. Your face grew cold, as if the bird in your chest suddenly flew out through the top of your scalp and left, in its trail, a howling wind.
“He’s white as his jeans,” someone said.
Lim caught you. You didn’t realize you were falling until you were in his arms.
“Easy, fella,” he said.
“You have that effect on people,” Arielle said to him.
Bodies stepped aside as he led you to the sofa. The cushions were soft and lumpy. You sank further than you had expected, falling into the knitting woman despite yourself. She let you lean against her shoulder a moment before shrugging away from you.
“Maybe we didn’t eat before we came,” Arielle said. You heard the words as if their meaning applied to someone else.
Hunger is a virtue, you thought.
Lim circled around to stand behind the woman, the light catching them together. “Maggie will look after him,” he said. She looked up, and he bent over to kiss her, his tongue sliding into her mouth, their lips open. You thought maybe you should look away, but you couldn’t. A light flared. A camera. The flash surprised Lim, made him draw away before the kiss was finished, their mouths still open to one another. A thread of saliva stretched from his mouth to hers. The woman, Maggie, brought an arm across her face, breaking the thread, wiping it away, her hand catching on Lim’s leather jacket with a slap, glass bracelets clanging together against the metal of a buckle as a knitting needle clattered to the floor at your feet. Time had slowed and, for a moment, stopped. The camera flashed.
Lim wiped his mouth. No one moved. You picked up her needle from the floor and handed it to her. Only then did you notice the blanket that covered the lower half of her body, hanging down to the floor.
“A gentleman,” she said. She took the needle.
“Let’s do our thing,” Lim said to Arielle, holding out an open palm to block the camera.
The group followed them. One by one, they disappeared down the stairs, leaving just you and the woman on the sofa in the small circle of light. Her needles clacked in the long silence between you. You hated her for being left alone with her.
“How’d you meet him?” you asked.
“Same way I ever met anyone,” she said. You waited for her to continue, but she didn’t.
“What are you making?” you asked.
“A blanket,” she said.
“How long does it have to be before it’s finished?”
“I decided that if I finished it before the baby was born, I’d keep it.”
“Keep the blanket?”
“Keep the baby.” She lifted the blanket off her body, showing a huge, rounded belly. “Any day now.” She dropped the blanket and continued knitting, the needles clacking, the glass bracelets sliding up and down her arm.
“Seems like it’s done,” you said.
“How would you know?” she asked.
Her clacking needles sounded like ice in your mother’s glass, the way it used to rattle against her teeth. You had an image of your mother standing in the kitchen in North Carolina, holding a cigarette away from her face, the ash longer than the filter. An ache in your hollows stretched up through the bridge of your nose. Maybe Arielle had cut you inside with her long nails.
Lights dimmed. The room below had grown full with people. They hummed and shouted in a wild chorus. Drunken cheers of voices were broken by the lone scream of a girl. You put your head between your knees. The binding cramped your lungs, cut into your stomach. Arielle had wrapped it too tightly. If you could just lie down, curl up in a ball, stretch out, something.
“If you’re going to be sick, there’s a bathroom downstairs,” the woman said.
“I’m okay.” Your words muffled between your legs.
Voices on the main floor rose in whoops. You lifted your head. Between the wood slats of the banister, you saw the band as if broken into an old-timey movie. Lim Grey floated onto the stage. Was he floating? His body surfed the audience beneath him, hands passed him to other hands, delivering him to the stage. Musicians circled Lim’s light. The guitarist ran a hard thumb across his strings and a sharp note of feedback bounced across the floor.
“This,” Lim said, and the crowd quieted, “this is for the boys. For boys everywhere.” The bass player plucked five notes, each one lower than the one before, followed by a moment of hush — on stage, in the crowd — and then the drummer clicked his sticks four times, went into a riff, and the band kicked into a song that sounded like the rotor blades on a helicopter.
“What’s your name?” the woman yelled over the music.
You reminded yourself. “Freddie.”
You leaned your mouth toward her ear, too close, your nose in her hair. She smelled like flowers. “Freddie,” you shouted.
Her needles clacked. You couldn’t hear them over the music, but you knew.
“My father named me Margaret,” she shouted in your ear. “But everyone calls me Maggie.”
The ache beat inside you.
The woman — Maggie; Margaret to her father — held the knitting away from her. “It is a really long blanket,” she said. You counted the glass bracelets on her arm: three orange, two blue, one green, two red.
The bandage was too tight. You forced yourself up from the sofa and braced yourself against the railing, your back to Maggie. The band was ending their first song, loud music fading slowly to just the bass, plucking its way down to a note so low that you felt it more than heard it, and in the moment before the applause erupted, you heard her behind you. She said, “Oh.” And then again: “Oh.”
“Freddie,” the woman said. Her hand was on your back. You hadn’t heard her get up.
She was standing close. The smell of flowers made you think of your mother, but you didn’t know why. Your mother had never smelled like flowers.
“Don’t feel so good,” you said.
“Stay close to me.”
She held your hand down the stairs like you were a child. Let go of me, you thought, but held on anyway. On the main floor she moved behind you, steering through bodies, her belly bumping into your spine.
“That way,” she shouted in your ear. Bodies parted for you. A rope of pain stretched down your thighs.
“Excuse me,” she said to the line at the bathroom. “We have an emergency.”
Girls turned to look at you, their sweaty faces curious, then disgusted. “The men’s room is on the other side of the stage,” a girl in glittery make-up said, pointing at you. “Or get on line like the rest of us.” Maggie didn’t stop for the glitter girl. She walked past everyone.
Sorry, you wanted to say. You wanted to lie down. A stall opened and Maggie pushed you forward, followed you in before you could think to close the door, to lock it.
“Hey!” the glitter girl called.
Maggie turned you toward her in the small space, her belly bumping against you, and reached between her body and yours to unzip your tight white jeans, pull the denim down past your thighs, your underwear too. She pushed you down on the seat so that you could see the stain that had soaked through all of it, the red blood of your undeniable body.
“It happens to everyone,” Maggie said.
“Not everyone,” you said. “Just girls.”
If you weren’t sitting on a toilet, bloody pants around your calves, you would have punched her in her pregnant stomach, killed the baby that she didn’t even want. Her belly at eye level as you sat on the toilet, so close you could tilt your head and rest your cheek against it. You hated her for being there, for thinking she was helping, for seeing you bleed.
“I haven’t …” you started. Nothing was worth saying. You’d stopped bleeding years ago, time that you’d given up on remembering because nothing was worth remembering. You’d been hungry and now you weren’t hungry anymore and now you were bleeding and it was some sick joke that your body was playing, some sick reminder that no matter how far you went you would always be who you were.
“It doesn’t matter,” Maggie said.
You leaned your head back on your terrible neck. “How would you know?”
The toilet in the next stall flushed.
Maggie unbuttoned your shirt. She unwrapped the binding. You wanted to stop her, but you were grateful too, hating her as she unwound, around and around, until, finally, your body spilled out. An unexpected moan from your throat.
“Get a room,” someone called outside the stall.
She peeled the jeans off your legs, bright blood on white denim like a red jellyfish you’d once seen washed up on the sand of the Outer Banks. Pulling her long gauzy dress over her head, she hung it on the door hook. Underneath she was wearing a cotton slip, which she took off and handed to you, the material limp in her hand. “Put it on,” she said. Cotton underpants bunched up beneath her belly. You were surprised to see how small her breasts were. You held her blue eyes, hating her, grateful, and she didn’t look away, didn’t ask whether you were actually looking at her with your weird eyes. You followed her orders, the slip hanging loose.
She handed you her underwear. “It’ll be too big on you, but it’s all I’ve got.” Her dress of gauze back over her head, the long, transparent skirt around her legs, her naked body both visible and not through the shifting fabric.
“People will see,” you said.
She shrugged. She almost looked pleased.
“I feel sick,” you said as you followed her out, the ache spreading in all directions from your abdomen.
The mirror caught your reflection as you walked by, and though you turned your head quickly, you couldn’t help seeing the strange, short-haired girl in an oversized slip of a dress, her eyes looking and looking away at the same time. You and not you.
“It’s just cramps,” Maggie said, leading you out of the bathroom.
“More than that,” you said, but she didn’t hear as she pulled you through the bar and out to the street. Arielle was sitting on the pavement, her back against the outside wall, her eyes glassy. She looked at you but through you.
“Freddie?” she said. “Why’d you change?”
Even without the binding you couldn’t get enough breath.
Arielle squinted and nodded. She started to say something, the tip of her tongue pointing between her upper and lower teeth, but her eyes closed and the sound ended in a hiss. You bent down to study her face, but really to get closer to the ground, to use your hands to help hold you up. Maggie’s slip was heavy, weighing on your bones. You felt the white of blood leaving, a hot white, swift and furious, so violent that, there on your knees, you pressed your forehead into the cool hard night embedded in the cement.
Someone spoke from far away, a name in the darkness. Was it your name? Hands on you, under you — she’s burning up — words coming to you through a soup of air, your body curled in arms, head against a chest, a smell of smoke on clothing, your nose pressed into vinyl, an engine, your hot skin against a cold seat, bouncing, rolling, your eyelids opening with each bump, closing with each curve, arms under you again, pulling you into the insides of a womb, or a room, a bed, wet washcloth on your forehead — shh, shh — and you fell, finally, the whole of you, fell away, and out, and down.
- You should take her back to your place.
- Not yet.
- We can’t let her stay here.
- It’s fine. We’re fine.
You couldn’t picture the voices. They floated beneath you, fathoms deep.
- Let’s get through the fever.
- You shouldn’t be around someone that sick. In your condition.
- Should we call a doctor?
- Can she afford it?
Something familiar to each of the voices. A rasp. A croak. A sound like a buzz or a click. Or a hum, like katydids hidden in darkness on a hot night.
A fish was speaking. You tried to open your eyes in blinding sunlight. Sand, like glue in your eyes. I hear you, Fish, you wanted to say.
Freddie, the fish said.
She lifted one of her beautiful fins, and it made a sound like ice cracking and bells ringing at the same time. You remembered your mother, rattling the ice of her drink against her teeth. The fish ran her wet fin across your forehead. It was cool, smelled like flowers.
The sun beat down on your chest. It was impossible to draw a breath in that sun.
The fish started gasping for air.
Get back in the water, Fish, you wanted to say. You can’t breathe without water. But the sun pressed on both of you, and the sand pulled you down, further down, covering your body in a warm blanket.
You opened your eyes to the wall, a sound of breathing behind you. You rolled yourself over. It took several years at least. Lim Grey in a chair, transparent, his eyes closed, his breath slow. I’m sorry you’re transparent, you said. You wanted to say. You wondered how long he’d been there. You wondered how long you’d been asleep.
Your mother was calling you for school.
“Freddie? Are you awake?”
Not your mother. Her name coming to you on a wave: Maggie.
“Your fever broke.”
You sat up. Too quickly. Maggie held your arm.
“You were a fish,” you said.
“I was what?”
“In a dream. I think. You were a fish.”
You were relieved to be able to open your eyes against the sun and the sand.
“In my dreams I’m a bird,” she said.
“That sounds nice.” You started to close your eyes.
“You need to eat some soup,” she said.
“How long have I been here?”
“Where am I?”
She didn’t answer, just spooned soup into your mouth. It tasted of cumin and metal.
“I didn’t finish the blanket.”
You tried to remember a blanket but all you could think of was an ocean and hot sand.
A pile of folded clothing at the foot of the bed. You put on black jeans, a grey t-shirt that seemed familiar, the word RENTAL spelled in green letters. All of it too big on you.
Maggie sucked in her breath, holding her belly, her fingers bent, tense.
“Maybe you need some water,” you said. For a moment you thought she needed water to breathe.
“They told me this never happens.”
“What never happens?” you asked.
“Water. Breaking. It only happens in the…”
“In the what?”
You drew your hand away from wet sheets.
They put her in a wheelchair. The skin on her face was pink and moist.
“Don’t leave me,” she said.
A nurse wheeled her down the hallway. You walked alongside, held her hand. She pressed your bones between her fingers as if she were squeezing them out of your skin.
“Small veins,” the nurse said as she poked Maggie’s hand, once, twice, three times.
Maggie snatched her hand away. “It hurts.”
“Breathe,” said the nurse.
“Don’t leave me,” Maggie said to you.
“Where’s Lim?” You spoke his name as if you knew him.
Maggie shook her head.
“Does he know?”
“I’m going to try to get the I.V. in again,” the nurse said to you, as if you were somebody. As if you were anybody.
From the window on the sixth floor, the city reached to the west, too far to the ocean to be sure it was even there. Your image reflected in the glass. RENTAL spelled backwards on Lim Grey’s t-shirt hanging from your shoulders.
A knock at the door. You turned. Maggie’s fingers, knuckle-white on the metal bed frame.
“Mrs. Grey?” a boy asked from the half-open door.
Maggie laughed like a bark but without sound.
“That’s not her name,” you said.
“Do I have the wrong room?” he asked.
“Can’t breathe,” Maggie said.
Breathlessness is a virtue, you thought. And then you thought maybe that wasn’t right.
“I must have the wrong room,” the boy said.
“Right room,” you said. “Wrong name.”
“Oh. What’s her name?” he asked you.
“Maggie,” you said. “But her father called her Margaret.” Once you said it you weren’t sure how you knew it.
“Childers,” Maggie said.
“The chart says —”
The young man fully in the room now.
“What?” Maggie yelled. A pitch you hadn’t heard from her. But you hardly knew her. You remembered that you’d hated her, and now you couldn’t remember why.
“I need you to sign a TPR,” he said.
“A what? What is it?”
He held the papers in front of her without answering. She signed. He gathered them and backed out of the room. “Termination of Parental —” he started to explain.
“Go!” she screamed at him. The word echoed down the hallway.
Her fingers grasped the blanket, eyes closed, teeth bared. Her throat opened, the air sucked deep now, a reverse scream, sound traveling from outside to inside. You lifted her hair and wrapped it into a knot at the top of her head. Long wisps fell out, sticking to her sweaty neck, cheeks, chin.
Maggie grabbed your wrist. “You must be my memory.”
“I’m here,” you said.
“You must remember everything for me.”
A nurse lifted the sheets at the foot of the bed. “You’re getting close.”
“The earth is spinning into my spine,” Maggie said.
The nurse eased Maggie back against the pillows, away from your hands. She curled into herself like the roly poly bugs you used to touch with a stick when you were a kid, her whole body except for one foot, which kicked out in a hard flex. The bottom of her foot was covered in dirt. You felt your stomach turn. You looked away, but something made you look again, look closer. Not dirt: a tattoo. Your finger running the length of her sole before you could stop yourself.
She jerked back. “No!”
“Sorry,” you said.
Her eyes on yours, blue, almost purple, like the wild petunias that sprang up between trees and houses where you’d grown up, so common you’d forgotten about them until this moment.
A nurse: “You’re going to take a deep breath now. Can you do that? One big deep breath and then a push, okay? On the count of three. One, two —”
You asked if she wanted to hold your hand and she said, don’t leave me, she said, you have to be my eyes, she said, you have to be my memory, while a nurse wiped her forehead and Maggie said, I want to breathe your breath, and the nurse looked at you, her eyes smiling over the mask, she said, that’s not unusual, and you would not look away because you were her memory, and she pushed as they told her to, her cry becoming the cry of another as the body of a child passed from hand to hand, a boy from Maggie’s body, passed to a crib that they rolled out of the room, the baby disappearing as Maggie pushed and wailed again, the last of the bloody ocean forced out from her body, her baby rushing away, and she didn’t look, she never looked, never asked, the boy gone, the mother no longer a mother, and you, her memory, the keeper of the story, the witness, you, the eyes of it all, as the sun disappeared toward the unseen ocean to the west.
As she slept, you lifted the sheet from her right foot. The tattoo began just under her toes, across the ball of her sole, and curved down the outer edges, reaching the edge of her heel. You thought it was a bird at first. Brightly colored wings spread along the sides of her foot, green, yellow, red, like a peacock, or a parrot, but the head, which looked like a hawk, was drawn in profile in black ink. The torso, though, was a woman’s. Outlined in black, her hips gave way to legs that thinned into a tail. A mermaid with feathers instead of scales.
Maggie curled to her side, moving the sheets away from her other foot, the sole of which was bare and clean.
A nurse came in and felt Maggie’s breasts. “You’re lucky,” she said. “Your milk hasn’t come in.” She talked about women who had swollen breasts. She talked about infections they’d gotten after giving away their babies. “It might feel soon and sudden, but the best thing is to get back to normal,” she said. “To be safe, we ought to bind you. We wouldn’t advise that if you had your milk coming in, but in your case it’ll be a precaution.” She picked up a roll of bandages.
“I can help,” you said.
As the door closed you lifted the hospital gown off of Maggie’s shoulders.
“Arms out to the side,” you said.
You wound the bandages around and around her breasts, wrapping her tightly, but not too tightly, around and around, each circle a form of freedom.
“I’ll make room for you,” Maggie said, shifting to one side of the bed.
You lay your body next to hers. You wanted to ask her why she’d gotten a tattoo on her foot, where no one could see. You wanted to know what it meant. You wanted her to tell you how it felt to wear a bird-woman like a secret. “These lights are too bright,” you said instead, pushing buttons until the right one turned them off. Outside the night was dark blue. You reached your arm around so she could lean into you, rest her head on the spot between your shoulder and unbound breast. You kissed the top of her head, as if you were her lover, her mother. She smelled of sweat.
“I’m so hungry,” she said. “Aren’t you hungry? I’m suddenly so hungry.”
A siren faded into your hearing and then out again. You placed a hand on her abdomen and felt the beat of your pulse, like it was echoing in her hollows.
She hummed a melody that you recognized. You could hear Bing Crosby on the turntable, your mother singing along, but now you couldn’t remember the original words. You would have hummed along, but your voice was stuck.
“Freddie,” she said, “did anyone ever tell you that you have beautiful eyes?” Maggie lifted her head to look at you. “Like you can look in two directions at once.”
She shifted and you shifted so that you were now curled into her, your head on her chest in a way you’re sure you never remembered curling into your mother. Her arm around your shoulders.
“Shh,” she said, as if you were crying. As if you were a baby. And you were quiet, listening to the muffled thud of Maggie’s heart against the tight layers of bandages that you had wound around and around her barren breasts.
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