Best of the Net 2011  

Window Woman

I have colorless skin. Not Caucasian skin, whitewashed peachbrown: I mean transparent skin, skin you can see the world of ticking arteries and flexing muscles and bubbling sacks and grasping tubes through. There is no sleeve long enough, no concealer thick enough, to hide the red rushing insides of me.

When I was a child, my father bought me elaborate anatomy books with sharp-colored pictures of translucent people and I stared at them in bed at night and wondered where those people were and how I could meet them. My father dressed me in long-sleeved dresses, elbow-length gloves, scarves, and, of course, my satin pink ski mask. He gave me an allowance in an envelope outside my door on Tuesdays and spent his hours trading stocks in the west wing of the house (off limits to me) or abroad. When summer camp was over, aged fifteen, he never sent a driver to pick me up.

I threw my ski mask away. A family from a church took me in, gave me their basement. The mother, Angela, who covered her face with her hand whenever she spoke, sewed me a custom shroud. It was floral, made from an old sheet, with eyeholes like a ghost. She said if I didn't wear it I was not invited upstairs to dinner. I am apparently an unappetizing sight. While I ate with them, I stared at the flashes of tongue and uvula between their moving lips, Angela's husband's Adam's apple's visible dance as he talked. Angela's tense smile-muscles, the tic of her cheek, the barely-discernable rhythmic vein on her forehead as her husband complained about another day manning the antique store. Their son Brady banged his rubber spoon on the high chair, his blond wisps of hair not quite covering his shadowy fontanelle. These people didn't have to wear shrouds to cover their insides but mine were shudder-ugly and sheet-covered. I chewed dinner and watched their pink peeking gums as they laughed and wished that their peachbrown skin would spring leaks and imagined it peeled away like picked fruit.

I met Henry at a bus stop. People were staring at me as they usually do. A girl with a thousand little braids said I was a monster, and her mother told her not to say that, and they walked up to the next bus stop. I was on my way to the antique store where Angela and her husband made me work in the back polishing lamps and candlesticks and vacuuming velvet furniture 10-8 Mondays through Saturdays. Henry, a brilliant twenties med student with a British accent, shiny-bald already, stood next to me and held out his whistewashed peachbrown hand, unafraid. He said I was a novelty. He said I was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen. We took the 88 to his apartment, wall to wall shelves filled with physiology textbooks, framed sketch-drawings of bones, and even a small torso-up model of a plastic girl who—skinless, made to represent the digestive system—looked so much like me I teared up.

Henry and I drank wine on his sofa. He unbuttoned my blouse and peered at my ribs, touched them each with his hairy fingers. He traced the curves of my pectoral muscles and put his palm to the ticktock of my hidden heart. As I gulped from the goblet, he watched the purple travel down my esophagus and into my stomach, where it danced and gurgled. He drew things in a black notepad and kept saying, fascinating, you are fascinating. When I tried to kiss him, he asked me to take off my pants. He asked me to turn over and drew more pictures in his book. He tentatively touched my ass and I breathed in, feeling woozy, wanting him to take me now on his couch, now, half-drunk on wine in the mid-morningtime, I wanted to be loved and for my invisible skin to be forgotten. I turned over and opened my legs and he said, you have a perfect anatomy. He touched me. I shuddered ecstatically. He made another notation. I asked him to make love to me and he sighed and said unfortunately he was terminally impotent. But he asked me if I would like to work with him in the physiology lab he taught to undergrads. If I would like to be the first living, breathing model. I could sleep on his couch and eat his food. Yes I said.

We rode the bus together each day. He held my hand, turning it to watch the veins, smiling at them. When people stared at us he shhhed them and snapped at them to mind their own business. The university was breathtaking, gothic castles and forests in the middle of the forgettable city. The Life Science halls were filled with window displays, diagrams and skeletons and plastic models that looked like me. Students stopped to question us and stare, not horrified, but fascinated, taking out their notebooks and their cameras, shaking heads, biting lips.

In Henry's classes I stood onstage with him in front of an audience of students. Sometimes they circled me and took notes, discussed and prodded me. He used a pointing stick to demonstrate my various functions—the circulatory system, the grids of muscles, the bones in my hands and feet. He had me drink more wine to demonstrate its trajectory through my stomach and small intestines. He provided me with a bucket to urinate in, and the students oohed and ahhed and clapped as the purple turned to yellow in my middle and exited me. Maybe it was the wine—I wasn't used to wine, especially without breakfast—but I felt like a celebrity. I understood, for the first time, what that must be like—to “blush.” To feel feverish but unsick. I bowed. The students raised their hands and asked questions, like who was I? Where did I come from? Were there more like me? But Henry clapped the class saying ok, enough now, let's stay on subject.

I lived in Henry's blackout-curtained apartment for six months, eating his salami and crackers, attending classes as his assistant during the day. If I threatened to leave, he would remove his glasses and kiss me, on the nose, the earlobe, the hairline, and let me lay in his bed with him until I stayed. The local paper did a story on the physiology lab instructor with the living physiology model. So did MD Today, a monthly magazine. I spent my evenings drinking bottles of wine and watching the surgery channel. I called my father once. A woman with a smoker's voice picked up like I'd awakened her, and I hung up the phone.

Sometimes I stood in front of the mirror, naked after a shower, wondering what was even further below than the muscles I could see. Wondering if the sight of my own heart would finally scare me. I hit my chest with my red-muscled, white-boned knuckles. I thumped my stubborn ribs twice and thrice until tears sprang to my eyeballs. Later, I would see the bruise form, a violet cloud above the crisscrossed wires of my veins, and I liked that I could finally initiate a change in my complexion.

In the summer, Henry received a grant and began packing up his apartment. Celtic tapestries stripped from the walls. Textbooks stacked back in milk crates. I wanted to go with him, but he said where he would be going, he wouldn't need me; they had corpses donated by morgues that you could even open up and dissect. I cried and begged him. He kept packing. I screamed. I stamped my foot. He put on the stereo and turned up Vivaldi. I hit him in the head with my knuckle and he turned around and hit me back, a weak punch on my cheekbone, and the surprised pain on my face was glad, glad, glad. I pushed him on his twin bed and straddled him and while he thrashed, I pulled off his wire frames and drove my fingernails into his eyes until he kicked me off. As I fell to the carpet, he said, I can't see, I'm blind.

I leapt up and left. Out the door. Down the stairs. Ran past the bus stop, and another, and another; ran until the trees changed and the street names changed. The hills became steeper; the streetlights gaudier; the names familiar in a sick way. I found myself on the doorstep of my father's house, rang his doorbell, listened to the harmonious tinkling of his yard-fountains. He answered the door in his bathrobe, finger in a novel like a bookmark. He flinched at the sight of me and tried to close the door. When I wept and stopped the door from closing, he stared at his slippered feet and heaved his chest. I asked him why he left me at camp. He mumbled that he didn't know what to do with me. Lord help him, he couldn't stand the sight of me. A woman called his name in the background. I begged him to let me stay in the basement. I promised to never come out again, if he would only give me a sack of food and water outside my door on Tuesdays. Just go, he said. And if you're down there, don't make a sound. Don't be seen. Don't be heard.

Down the wooden stairs, it was cold. There were crooked shelves with jars of rusty nails. There were car parts piled like amputated limbs, random torn wires, scattered dead batteries. I slept in a pile of old laundry, shuddered, and thought of Henry.

When I awoke, there was a quilt-covered mattress in the corner, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a plastic bear of honey; and a stack of those old elaborate anatomy books with sharp-colored pictures of translucent people. Those people contoured with red muscles, their limbs climbing with highways of veins. I touched my cheekbone bruise and shook my head, the basement a blur of shadows. I sucked my fingers, which I thought still maybe tasted like Henry's eyeballs. I crawled into bed and flipped the pages, peering at those happy skinless people, those fictional skinless people, who never felt their own pain.

-Faith Gardner (from decamp)