BY ERIN PIASECKI
Her face goes numb in the middle of a call. The script, laminated and with crimped edges, hangs on her gray cubicle.
Am I speaking with <caller name>?
Either yes or no. <If no, you must ask, May I know who I am speaking with?>
Good <morning>, <caller name>. I’m <your name>, and I’m calling from LitheLife Supplements. Our company has a very attractive subscription service. Can I take a few of your precious minutes to explain it?
Linda always tells her, Be sure to include <your name>. Says, Think of the call script as your bible, even though she has heard that speech before. Good morning Dorothy, I’m <your name>, I’m calling from LitheLife Supplements. How are you today? She stares the woman who sits three rows away. The woman wears a red sweater. Good morning Katherine, I’m <your name>, I’m calling from LitheLife Supplements. Red Sweater has paired said sweater with a grey skirt that falls at the knee, but seated rides up and exposes her legs. They are without pantyhose and patterned with tiny spider veins. Specks of broken capillaries. Someone brings around baked goods on a sad flowered plate. Good afternoon, let me redirect you to customer service. No, I cannot cancel your subscription. Let me get you over to customer service. No, there is no release clause. Yes, you were charged $429.99 up front. Let me transfer you to customer service. Excuse me, that language isn’t necessary. Linda rips the headset from her hair and handles the call, then passes the set back smugly and says, Transfer them immediately next time. Your time belongs to the company. Good afternoon Clarissa, how are you today? She flicks away hair that sits in a curl on her desk. Holds a bite of cookie under the pink flag of her tongue before spitting it into her napkinned palm, then throws it away. Good afternoon Suzie, how——
That is when the words taper off, and she mumbles an apology and hangs up. She finds the whole ordeal awkward. If she fainted, she wouldn’t need to explain. Everyone would gasp, and Linda would run to her, insist someone drive her home after she has a drink of water and some crackers. This is a memory from middle school: being nursed with those orange peanut-butter sandwiches, a wax cup. As it is, she picks her dead face up and walks to Linda’s office. She taps on the glass. Linda waves her in.
‘My face is numb,’ she says, but it comes out wrong. Warbled. Linda must believe her.
‘Are you having a stroke?’
‘I don’t know. No.’
‘Well, stay off the lines for a while.’
Linda’s tone tells her that’s all. In the breakroom, women strip the rinds off fruit. Obsess over pinches of fat. A side effect of selling diet supplements. Or maybe it is what attracted them in the first place. She unfurls her lunch and takes a bite of the sandwich. Wipes a smear of mustard away from her lip. Chews gracelessly, mouth still anesthetized. One woman, who was against carbs last week, declares herself now off sugar. Sugar is the main cause of stomach fat, the woman says to the soda drinker beside her. The verbal equivalent of pulling her pigtails.
She thinks the anti-sugar zealot’s name is Gwen. She turns to leave but is caught by Gwen’s eyes. The thrill of being seen. Gwen asks, What’s your name again? then invites her to a party Collin is throwing tomorrow. Happy little accidents, Gwen’s mug reads. She doesn’t know who Collin is but she finds herself saying, I’ll see if I can make it. She throws away her plastic wrap and goes back to her cubicle. She waits until she has her mouth again, can sculpt it carefully into the shape she uses during calls, and then resumes. There is no time to waste. She stretches her face in between making sales pitches. Smiles at the bare cubicle wall.
After her shift she texts a college friend for a drink. The friend picks the place, a strange cave modeled after some death metal band the friend likes and she doesn’t even know. Wednesday means $4 mules on special. They order four. An hour in, a man leans over and oozes out, I’ve been fighting the urge to hit on you two. He touches her on the top of the head. She can chart the pads of his fingertips like spots on a globe. The friend says, Piss off and he retreats quickly to the outdoor smoking area, periodically returning to eye them where they sit below the sign for ASS JUICE ($1, free on Mondays). She tells the friend about the call and the rude prospect because these are the kinds of stories they traffic in. Discontentment. While she slurs her story, the friend keeps sipping her mule, unbothered.
‘And my face just went numb,’ she finishes.
‘Everyone hates where they work,’ the friend says, and that’s all.
Nightly routine: forget to brush her teeth, gulp down the evening pill with an ambitious glass of water, leave the axis of bobby-pins at her nape. By morning they make the back of her head an angry snarl.
Thursday. A pimple grows on her upper lip, and she picks and picks, enraging it; spackles over it with orange concealer. The friend is too hungover, which leaves her to bus over to Bonneville alone. She repeats her name twice when Collin answers the door. The party is upstairs, he says. He instructs her to throw her coat onto the pile in his bedroom, right there on the bed. It takes up the entire room. There is only one narrow, slanted window. Moonlight bisects a jacket sleeve. She totters, goes and grabs a glass of $3 wine, eats a few pretzels. She leans against an old Coke sign and is chastised by an onlooking Collin.
The way to the roof is to shimmy up the ladder, and there she finds familiar faces twisted by the pulsing fire. Music plays. Dancing Queen by Abba. She sits and readies herself. She is always attracting a certain kind of man. Men who explain music to her, explain philosophy to her, explain. She erects a particular seated position when they do this. (See Fig 1.) Notice the tightly crossed legs as well as the arms. This is a shrinking position. This is a position that says, dear God, please allow me to condense myself, slip into a pocket, and be mercifully carted out of here and away from these Tarantino-obsessives with carefully groomed stubble.
‘It’s not rage against women. It’s rage against a loss of innocence.’
‘Whatever,’ says Gwen, splitting open like a carnivorous plant. ‘She’s just there to fuel his foot fetish.’
The men laugh, too, take a sip from their drinks. She wants to have something more to say. Maybe Gwen would like her then. But she is not the kind of person who says things in the moment, without thought. She holds onto things. She collects them under her tongue to be dumped out at night; to unload down the bathtub drain, spit into a napkin.
She surveys other bodies. The sliver of ankle above sneakers. The baggy parachute dress and the skeletal arms peeking out of it. The grotesque whorls of hair, the stretch marks, the dimples of cellulite, the fuzz along Gwen’s upper lip. All these bodies not-quite-contained, always ready to spill. There is too much of her in her clothes. She wants to carve the excesses.
The plates of cheese frighten. All those irregular slices. She calculates mentally: that one is probably double the calories of the other, and jesus how much fat, and it probably doesn’t taste good anyway. She is concerned with containment, with keeping her excess at a minimum. She chokes down the dessert wine. Her tongue sandpapers against her teeth.
They all sit around the fire. It is a cold night in Vegas, the weather suddenly turned. She looks down over the thin seam of brick that separates them from below. She must shiver, because someone brings her a thick blanket and drapes it across her shoulders. A tartan wool in green and red. The man appears tall and vague, just brown hair and likely brown eyes and a faint swipe of beard.
He guesses her name but gets it wrong. She corrects him, but it comes out like an apology. Sorry, but she’s got it wrong. She has the wrong name. She herself is wrong. She will take her punishment in the form of a thunderous but underwhelming fuck against an Ikea wardrobe. (See Fig 2.)
She wants, violently, to be back home. Her phone’s clock reads nearly three in the morning, and the span of hours before are a gaping mouth in her memory. Gwen still laughs, red-tongued.
The man is still talking. His name is Tom and he bores her. He is saying something about Mumford & Sons being his favorite band with his hand on her thigh. She doesn’t stop him. She smiles along, says things like, Yeah, I know that one. Or, I’ll give them a listen, while he lists bands. He says it’s unfair, how Christian music gets a bad reputation. She is coming up with a response when she realizes Gwen has gone.
‘I’m going to refill my wine,’ she says to Tom. She snakes back down the ladder. Gwen is putting on her coat.
‘Hey,’ Gwen says, still smiling. ‘You wanna crash with me?’
She only knows the world is smearing. Only knows her mouth tastes unlike her mouth. Only knows she wants to sleep in Gwen’s bed, wants to look in Gwen’s medicine cabinet, wants to wear Gwen’s lipstick.
‘My place is close by,’ Gwen says, which is merciful because she has grown drunk, too drunk. They board the bus. Before their stop, she leans over and pukes a torrent of brown into the aisle. The bus pulls over and they all get out and stand on the street, everyone looking on at her doubled on the sidewalk. Gwen leads her to a tiny chicken shop and orders chicken, a big bag of fries. They sit on the stoop and feed handfuls into lolling mouths.
They don’t talk. She catches Gwen’s eyes and Gwen gives a wink. The chicken and fries sicken her, but she surprises herself with a deep-belly desire. She wants to wrap her mouth around Gwen’s forearm. She wants to open her. Wants to swallow. Wants to completely use her up.
She wakes up on the floor with a gingham quilt draped loosely over her. The smell of pork draws her to the kitchen. Gwen eats cuts of bacon seething with fat. She has a pulse in her head. She is wrong-side-up.
‘You had fun last night,’ says Gwen through a mouthful.
Last night; only dark. The spot on her face has a heartbeat. It thumps quicker.
‘You and Tom.’
She remembers spray-painting the bathroom. Wiping up with flimsy toilet paper, ruining already-snagged towels. Passing out.
‘You would’ve ended up in his bed if I didn’t stop you.’ Gwen snorts a laugh.
The headache cleaves the world in two. Gwen splits down the middle and she can see her pumping. Lungs working. Heart going. Gwen bleeds, too, onto the floor. Right in a puddle. It makes her understand Gwen, to see into her like this. Gwen is saying nasty things to her, but she can see the air pump into her lungs. (See Fig 3.)
Anger is gravity. A warm tear falls; she is betrayed, she is stupid; she must leave. She pictures the walls still smeared. She has left an installation in Gwen’s bathroom. She has left parts of herself. She pictures Gwen looking later, partly disgusted, then telling the others in the breakroom until they laugh, and laugh, and laugh at her.
The cardigan is burgundy polyester and itchy and has a pulled thread right above the breast. She buttons it all the way up to cover the gory Rorschach down the front of her dress. She stares at the empty desk in the corner; nothing left but a blank post-it note and some holdout pens, a strange memorial. Red Sweater is gone.
She takes lunch at her cubicle. In between bites, she sees Gwen walk to Linda’s office. She moves to bundle up her cling film but stops to imagine it stretched thin across Gwen’s face. Plastic growing foggy as Gwen struggles for air.
Tom calls. At her apartment, she stands across the way and watches him fuck her. There is a problem. She feels nothing. There is only the sensation of being rammed when he goes too deep. It is not pain, exactly. Just an awareness. The bend of her calf. The way her toes curl into the comforter.
When he has gone, she sheds her clothing like a skin. From the knee down on her left side she is dead. She pokes it, watches as it springs back up. A patch of numb encircles her skull. She prods around the slope of it, follows the curve, and locates some other spots. A section no bigger than a marble. In the bath she lathers herself with pink soap. She scrubs away Gwen, and Red Sweater, and Tom. She imagines herself gone. Her stretch marks like seams. A fat ruby of blood rolls between her legs; careens toward the drain.
The doctor’s office stings with bitter cold. He asks, What exactly is the problem and as he does rests a meaty palm against her leg. She doesn’t look at it, doesn’t mention it, doesn’t move it. She explains to him what is going on. She tells him about the call at work. The lack of sensation, not just pleasure but anything.
‘Psychosomatic,’ he says. A flash of something else: her peeling his hand away, throwing it against his own cheek. Leaving a sting of red.
The next day she grows puffy, distended. Annoyed with the fuzz of hair along her legs. She sits wrapped in her flesh-pink duvet, face blued by the phone screen, and searches:
Adds: vagina. Adds: sex.
There is the urge to tear apart.
She subtracts vagina, sex. Adds:
It yields no useful results.
She tries to locate the woman. Red Sweater has a Facebook, but there is only one photo. In it Red Sweater simpers and holds a sweating goblet of beer to the camera.
In the mirror, her spine is a fissure up her back. She has no handheld mirror, so she is forced to pull a kitchen chair into the bathroom and stand atop it. Strain to catch a glimpse in the tiny medicine-cabinet mirror. She can see a sliver of her thigh, the dense dark of pubic hair. She expects it to bloom, to bleed, to gnash like teeth. It does nothing.
She goes back to the doctor a few days later. Her nipples bullet against the thin gown. As he stares, she tries to explain about her job, about the pills they sell, about her taking them, about her having used them for years, about the Red Sweater woman. He does not hear her.
‘Vaginismus,’ he pronounces. She takes a little leaflet, thinks about the idea of botox in her vagina, tosses it into the lobby trashcan.
Day rolls over. Nothing happens. Her life is squeezed between two sides of a threshold. She tongues a melt of chocolate on the linoleum counter. Flicks a light on, off. Inventories the fridge. Revisits the bathroom three times just to look. She prods along the flesh of her head, presses harder, so hard she fears she will puncture herself. Fingers stuck in her skull like gripping a bowling ball. She drinks and sleeps and sits without pants and watches shows she has seen before, many times. Bare legs slick on the futon. She ashes her cigarette on its arms. Leaves the futon on the curb. Sits on the floor. Watches French cinema. Smokes a cigarette in the way of Brigette Bardot. Throws out the cigarettes. Buys a green juice, necks it down.
She books a hair appointment. Are you sure? asks the hairdresser, smacking a thick wad of gum. After, the bangs sit black above her squinting eyes. She smears red across her lips. Haloes herself against a blinking casino sign and sends Tom the photo. Wow, he says. Very Mia Wallace.
It is important she treat herself. She goes to the store and picks camembert, gruyere, brie. Other things that stink of mold. A dry, red wine. She talks to men on the Strip who want things from her. She tells them her name. Doll face. On the curb, she swallows a hamburger with abandon. Drags her hands across her cardigan and leaves streaks of grease. A horn honks in the distance. The planes overhead like clutches of stars.
Then, at night, she wipes herself clean with a hot rag; smudges herself away, finds herself waiting in the mirror, right where she left her. The cheese is in the back of the fridge. She gets a low balance warning for her account. She orders Thai food for delivery, drinks a Diet Coke, covers herself in layers of blankets until all light is shut out and she can sink.
She and the friend meet at the bar again. This time it’s $2 tequila shots. Three each down already. Mildly woozy. The lights writhing, refusing to stay still. The floor coming up to meet her. Slowly remounting her chair. Ordering another round. Suddenly on Fremont drinking from tall frozen margaritas. The sound of flip flops smacking. The friend taking drags from a vape while they watch a man fit himself into a combination safe; bend each limb the wrong way, shut himself up inside. Someone ziplines overhead and gets stuck hovering belly-down above them. Measuredly, with great difficulty, she tells the friend all about Red Sweater.
‘I think the pills are laced,’ she tries.
‘Huh,’ says the friend.
Time misbehaves. Her cardigan is on the floor, wrinkled and stinking of chicken soup. Her mother always told her this, when she was sweaty: you stink of chicken noodle soup.
Before stink, before mother, before blood rolling out into the tub, before Gwen, before LitheLife, before body, before coalescing light, before the world-egg——it all began with a No. A rebellion against taking definite shape.
She is walking to the kitchen when the leg gives out beneath her. She folds in half, head cracking like an egg against the tile. Blood like yolk. She imagines Tom mourning her. Sees him poised over her body, shot of adrenaline in hand. Don’t, she begs. Leave me be. She imagines they throw an elaborate funeral for her at work. Her body fixed and whole in the casket. Red Sweater comes, alive and fine, still in that red sweater. They walk up, kiss her face, touch her hand. A ripe fig has buried itself in her sternum, and she must get it out. Her fingers come up browned from where they pull apart her chest. Her ribs are teeth. They chew on cling film. On a hollowed lipstick tube. A Bob Ross coffee mug. And there, at the back: the fig like a shriveled, displaced organ. She looks closer and it is a gleaming, black pill. It slides lower, into her lungs. Her stomach. It sits there, stagnant and scintillating. Inscribed on her insides like scripture:
Good morning, my name is <your name>. I’m calling from LitheLife Supplements. How are you today? How are we today? How am I? <Wait for prospect response.>
Gwen pads toward her across the expanse of black.
This isn’t a good time.
How about tomorrow? <Desire is a kind of violence. Get rid of it.>
I’m not interested.
<Remove and drop yourself in cuts of meat.> What could I have said that would interest you? <Let them fall with a thud.>
There is only that, echoing. A sob cracking like thunder. Casket sinking. Her shucked head going under——
Erin Piasecki is a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the new Design Assistant at The Believer. Born in Fredericks-burg but raised in Albuquerque, she returned to Virginia to receive her B.A. in Theatre from the University of Richmond. She has two pieces forthcoming from Conium Review and is currently working on her first novel.
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