They bombed the clinic again at seven a.m. that Friday, between my shower and the hunt for a clean pair of socks. I came into the kitchen for breakfast to find Colin burning the eggs and CNN at the scene, reporting in front of the flaming windows of the office next to mine.
Smoke wafted from the stove, acrid and sour. Colin swore. That’s when I had to sit down.
“. . . three separate explosions rocked the Bruce Clinic early this morning,” chirped the blonde reporter onscreen. The serious reporter face couldn’t hide the little sparkle in her eyes: dog scenting news. “Responsibility has been claimed by a group calling themselves the Black Panthers, and demanding an end to—quote—the dilution and undermining of black identity and culture advocated by the clinic. The act has been condemned by the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, and a link between the bombing and the Black Panther Party vigorously denied—”
“And five bucks says I get pulled over going to work today,” Colin muttered, and I put my head on the table and burst into tears.
“Hey,” he said, hand landing on my back. “Didn’t mean it like that.” He rubbed my shoulder with his thumb. I forced myself to relax; even gentle pressure hurt.
“S’not your fault,” I sniffled, and reached back, held onto his fingers. White on brown. It’d looked so good in the wedding pictures, in that one with the cake. We, he’d whispered, brown lips on white collarbone the night he gave me the ring, are gonna make beautiful babies. “Today’s gonna suck,” I said, and hated how it trembled.
He whacked at the remote, turned off the TV. “You call if it’s too much there. I’ll take the day off with you.” He didn’t say anything about quitting. Not this time. His hand squeezed mine tighter.
I kissed him and we ate our burned breakfast, and then I put on my shoes and dropped him off at the train station, took the car to work myself.
It wasn’t a day to be stranded in the city.
The protestors were already there when I pulled into the pay parking lot across the street from the office. The clinic rose through a thicket of signs, cardboard and duct tape bending in the stiff lake breeze. Sun glittered off broken glass. Everything reeked of smoke.
The pro-choicers were on my side of the building, the rest of them on the other—under a whole smorgasbord of names like Spectrum Heritage, Diversity Alliance, Save Black Culture. The wind fluttered police lines, paper, hair. I ducked and twisted through the crowd to the front.
The pro-choice slogans were familiar: today’s contestants seemed to like Walk a mile in my shoes, which I had to admit didn’t suck so bad as some of them. There was one that said Not an Oreo anymore: it made me wince. But the girl carrying it had a firm smile on her face, and her eyes were calm and angry.
I only caught one sign on the other side of the building, before the cops checked my ID badge and waved me in under a lattice of protective arms. Fight the Man, don’t be him it said, scrawled in red crayon. The protestor’s other hand was firmly around a toddler’s arm, brown skin under brown eyes under black hair, mouth open and fascinated at all the activity. He looked like Colin’s baby pictures: those astute little eyes. I looked away before the idea of Colin, quiet wind, a green day in the park got too strong.
Another day at the office.
“The mission of the Bruce Clinic is to provide choice, not take it away.” Dr. Safood was speaking into a news camera in the lobby. He fidgeted when he interviewed; broken glass and scorched marble crunched beneath his shoes. The air was too warm, summer fighting the AC and winning. “Just as some biological males identify as females and vice versa, some members of ethnic communities identify as members of others. We’re here to provide that choice,” he said, and smiled.
The standard Bruce Clinic mission statement, as written on the investor reports, the press releases, pretty much every piece of paper that ever left the office. Providing choice. Opening doors. Supplying, for everyone, their options.
He didn’t get into the secret mission; we all carried that carved into our eyeballs and never put it to paper if we could help it. Make race a choice. Make it an aesthetic. Make it nothing. The day I was hired Doc Gennison told me that Bruce wasn’t his friend or his brother or himself: it was for Lenny Bruce, ’cause we were gonna say nigger nigger nigger until the world never made anybody cry again.
I bounced home that day with my job offer in hand. Colin read it over gravely, cheap student spectacles we’d replace with the first full-time paycheque balanced on his nose.
“Sure this is where you want to be?” he asked, and took my hands in both of his. Brown on white.
“Yeah, it’s . . . a good opportunity. For both of us.” I wanted to say It’s good work. He looked so serious. It caught in my throat.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” he had said, and I was never sure thereafter if he’d meant the firebombs, the newspaper denunciations, or something else entirely.
“Any first-year anthropology student knows that race is nothing but a social construct,” Safood continued, and I picked my way through the half-swept crumbs of glass as quietly as I could.
The innards of the clinic were sound; the guts were all right. The fire inspectors were letting us work so long as we stayed off the crime scene, thank god. I didn’t want to be the one who called all our bookings for the next week and put it off, made a hard decision even harder. There was only the faintest echo of burning in the meeting room, where the staff were slowly gathering over coffee and case files.
“What’s this gonna mean?” I asked Francesca, our in-house lawyer, as I sat down next to her with a mug. She dumped another cream in her own coffee and shook her head.
“Don’t know. Haven’t talked to insurance yet.” She almost spat the word. Her specialty was haggling with government agencies to accept new photographs on all the major ID, not haggling with insurance companies to fix our fire-damaged lobby for the third time this year. “Damn good thing they made a crap firebomb.”
People straggled in; the receptionists, our two psychiatrists—one to pre-clear, one to help adjust after—the other nurses, and the doctors. I drank my coffee black and picked at a too-sweet Danish, feeling better already. This was the only place I’d ever worked where everyone came in on time the day of a major catastrophe.
It’s the only place you’ve worked where there are regular major catastrophes.
My stomach burbled. I put down the Danish.
Safood slipped in looking anything but camera-perky and took his seat, and Gennison started the meeting. “How’s everyone feeling?” he simply asked, and we looked around the table at each other. There were a few sparse nods. Nobody spoke.
“All right,” he said, with a hint of a smile that said he’d known it all along. “Let’s get down to today’s cases.”
My first patient that day was a big-boned, nervous white girl with a milk-chocolate-coloured baby in her arms, sleeping rag-doll like newborns do. Brown, I corrected myself as I smiled the absent smile of the attending nurse. Not milk chocolate. I’d read a paper in college on the use of food descriptors for skin colour; how the eating metaphor was a leftover of colonial resource rapacity gone wild. And I still hadn’t broken the habit.
“Hi there . . . Emily,” I said, glancing at the sheet. I always called my patients by their first names. Made me feel like less of a mad scientist.
“She’s Emily,” the girl said in a soft voice, jerked her chin at the baby. “I’m here for her.”
I leaned back hard onto the table, crinkling paper. The kid couldn’t have been more than a few days old. “What’s your name, then?” I asked, scanning the paperwork for it at the same time.
“Janelle,” she said, and propped the baby carefully against her shoulder: brown against cool hospital blue walls. “But I don’t need nothing.”
I put down the file. The kid was so small. My finger would make ten of hers. “Why?”
“Going back to my mom and dad in Detroit next week”—Christ, young enough to call them mom and dad—”and they won’t take us in like this.” She didn’t look at me. She looked at her hands. She looked at her kid.
“The father’s no help?” I asked, and immediately wished I hadn’t. I was a nurse, not a social worker. If she could pay for the procedure and was pre-cleared by the psych department, it was none of my business.
She shook her head without looking at me. “He can’t. He’s got school.” A pause. “It’ll be different once he’s done.”
It was more a plea than a statement. I nodded and brought in the syringe and vials.
It is the patient’s choice, I told myself firmly as I re-prepped the injections, cut down the inhibitor to 3 cc’s like the file I would have read more carefully on any other day recommended. She’s being a good mom. Giving her kid a stable home the way she knows how. The kid stirred, squalled a little as the first one went in. Janelle held her head and kissed it, made little whistling shushing noises. She’ll keep this kid out of the ghetto.
She gave the kid a breast when it was done, and winced a bit as the little mouth clumsily latched on. I left her alone for a second to hit the dispensary for the accelerants and grab the attending physician to finish up. Dr. Safood was at the front station, dropping his last file off with Macy, the internal receptionist.
“Emily Cutter’s ready to see you,” I said, quiet and professional as I could, and he glanced up. He already looked tired; now he looked drawn.
“You all right, Kim?” he asked.
I looked around. Nobody else was in the hall. “That was . . . a rough one,” I said, and put the brown bottle with the accelerant pills on the station. “And I have no idea how she’ll get the accelerants into a newborn.”
He shrugged. “Grind them up and put them in the formula. Won’t be a hundred percent, but a kid that young won’t need the full course anyway. Just a nudge and the system should do it on its own.”
“We cleared for that? Newborns?”
“Francesca checked into all of it. Three times,” Safood said, but his Mantle of Medical Authority was shaky today. He rubbed his eyes. “Really bothers you.”
I put the file on the curved, laminated lip of the reception counter. “The mother has the legal authority, sure, but you can’t make a decision at three days old.”
“There’s a disclosure,” he said as I turned away, and I stopped. “She has to tell the kid when she’s old enough. Jetse made her sign it.”
“How’re we gonna enforce that?”
“D’you wanna go home?” Safood asked, lowering his voice.
I shook my head, hard. Sometimes motion cleared it, and even if I hadn’t said anything in the meeting, I was not doing well today. “Nah, Mo. I’ll cope. Just need some air.”
The sun was bright outside the back door. I leaned against the wall in my scrubs and soaked it in, tried to ignore the protestors and their chanting contest around the front of the building. It was all right for them. It wasn’t their lives. A patient slunk past me, not looking up, tucked himself compactly through the door.
“Spilt milk,” I told myself, the fire truck parked between two police cars on the street, the protestors who couldn’t hear me, and God. “If it’s messy it means we’re really changing something. It’ll get better.”
I went back inside and paced past Legal, past the washrooms, past the two tidily-appointed psych offices to internal reception.
“No, I don’t see why Mr. Janson’s insurance should be adjusted,” Francesca said evenly into a phone as I passed her office, leaning forward on her elbows. “Are you implying that epicanthic folds affect how a person drives? Please . . . yes or no, sir.”
I closed her office door carefully, and she gave me a brief smile before it clicked shut. She looked tired.
I picked up the next file from internal and glanced over it. Male, thirty-two, Semitic-to-White. Sound mind, sound body, and definitely of legal decision-making age. I whispered a little nothing thanks up to God and went for a clean set of syringes.
I poured myself a glass of wine when I got home and downed the whole thing, then poured another. I was halfway through the second once Colin came in with the mail, jacket slung over his shoulder, white shirt wilted and speckled with sweat. “Hey, go easy,” he said, and I tilted the angle of the glass to something slower.
“Really bad day,” I said when I could, and refilled the glass again, but only halfway. I hadn’t said a word from picking him up to us getting back home, and he hadn’t pushed. I’d been sober to drive. Now I could do whatever I needed.
He took off his shoes, put the umbrella in the stand. “Your mother called. She couldn’t reach you.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “My work extension’s probably melted.”
And here it came. “You think it’s time to get a different job?”
My hand paused on the glass. I put it in my lap. “Nobody else is quitting because of the bombing.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said gently enough, and I pressed my mouth shut tight.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“You’re grinding your teeth at night,” he replied, and went into the bedroom to change.
I knew. I fumed. I hadn’t kept my lunch down either—my stomach hated stress—but I wasn’t about to tell him that now.
“It’s not just a paycheque,” I said when he came back in a faded tee shirt and shorts, and banged the pasta pot down onto the stove. The extendible hose from the faucet was slippery; I dropped it in the sink, swore, tested it twice to make sure it still worked. “We’re doing something bigger, okay?”
“What’s that?” he asked, a shadow in the other room.
“Subverting the whole idea. Making it not count.”
“Why?” he asked, equally patient, and I leaned my head against the upper cabinets. “Why not teach people to have pride and respect?”
“Because it don’t work,” I said bitterly, and remembered five crumbling blocks of neighbourhood, nigger nigger nigger muttered on the corners as Colin walked my bookbag home from third grade in his Salvation Army jeans and hidden scowl. What’s that word mean? I asked my mama, and she slapped me and told me never to say it again.
I rubbed my nose; took the nice lid off the nice pot on the nice stove in my nice house. “People are hateful.”
“And that’ll stop,” he muttered, and the TV clicked on to the news. Atrocities were solemnly reported from the Middle East, South America, Sudan, and here at home at the site of the Bruce Clinic. I made dinner. When Colin came to help set the table, I went into the living room and turned the TV off.
The fire marshals left with baggies of evidence and grim faces. Construction crews repaired the lobby over a week of banging and clattering that made the patients jumpier than ever; I learned to time my injections between the beats of a carpenter’s hammer. The clinic staff and patients kept coming in through the back door, because the protestors kept showing up at the front. Dr. Safood and then Dr. Gennison himself gave interviews every morning. I stopped watching them after the first week and a half.
No arrests were announced.
I helped a half-Chinese girl look all Chinese, a few Indian girls look a few shades more Brahmin, a white man look Hispanic, and a black man look white.
Emily Cutter came back for her followup in her mother’s arms, and she was no longer brown, but a dark-browed, dusky cream.
Her eyes were open now; that kid was gonna be a looker. One of the girls the boys liked because they were exotic.
They went out through the front door, and I went for my next file, and then there was a roar of shouting I could hear all the way through the reconstructed lobby, through the supposedly soundproof doors that blocked the clinic off from the rest of the dirty world.
I slapped the file down and ran.
Janelle Cutter was back inside the lobby, cradling her screaming kid; Jason, one of the other nurses, examined Emily carefully, big hands moving daddy-delicate over the fuzz-haired head. The private security guards Gennison’d hired once the protests went into week two blockaded the door, radios and nightsticks out.
The cheer-off that went on outside all day long was an ugly, incoherent roar.
“What happened?” I asked Jase, out of breath.
“Fucker threw a rock,” Jase said. His fists were clenched. “Almost hit the kid. She’s okay,” he said to the wide-eyed, sobbing mother, and led her back into the clinic for a glass of water.
I stood in the new marble lobby for a moment, and then peeked outside.
The cops were hauling a guy off, spitting and shouting. He looked young, clean-cut, Middle Eastern, and for a second I wondered if it was the kid’s father, if he hadn’t known and agreed—or at least not disagreed—after all. If he felt like all the him in his baby’d been taken away. Or maybe he was just another loony. I couldn’t decide which was better. He struggled, a cop cuffed him, and then the riot was in full force, swarming and shouting and hitting as pro-choice and heritage marchers crashed together with the force of an opened artery.
“Ma’am, inside,” said the wide-eyed, snappish-stressed security guard, and I scuttled into my exam room to wait.
We closed the clinic. I went home early and drank down three glasses of wine before Colin got home from work.
“You’re okay,” he breathed as he half-ran through the door, jacket off and tie loose and face lined with strain, and then: “You’re drunk.”
“Not drunk. Tipsy,” I argued, and leaned my head on my knees. I should have called him. He must have been frantic. I was having such a shitty day. “They threw a rock. At a three-week-old baby.”
“They,” I whispered. I didn’t even know which ones.
“Shh, babe,” he said, and sagged against the kitchen counter, slung his suit jacket over a chair.
I rubbed my eyes. “I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why they can’t just leave us alone.”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t answer long enough that I looked up and saw the tight line of his jaw, the press of his lips. The fists.
“Maybe what they’re upset about,” he said tightly, quiet, short, “is treating what people are like a medical condition.”
My mouth opened and hung there; my hands came up, palms out. Warding off thrown rocks. “We’re not saying they’re sick or something—”
“How many white men show up wanting to be black?” He shoved the chair back against the table, stalked into the living room, and turned on the TV.
They were dying in East Africa. They were dying in Iraq. They were rioting in front of the Bruce Clinic. “Enough.”
I went right after him and muted it. It was nothing but reports of the riot anyway. Stood up, stood still a moment, counted to five before I turned. “Colin, talk.”
“It’s not skin,” he said quiet, staring at the pantomime shouting, the shakycam faces twisted up with rage. “Things happen because of skin. But it’s culture and history too, and that isn’t going away anytime soon, and maybe it shouldn’t. Things gotta fix. People gotta take responsibility, and people gotta have time and place to be who they are. The Bruce Clinic isn’t gonna save the world.”
Isn’t, I mouthed. Usually he’d say ain’t around me, like we did when we were kids in the same five crumbling blocks of neighbourhood and neither of us thought we’d go to work wearing suits.
“We ain’t pushers,” I said, hands tense at my sides. “They choose it. I’m just letting them choose it.”
“Because anyone’ll choose different,” he said, and turned back to the TV.
“Just say what you mean.”
“That’s what I mean—”
“No. Say it.”
“Because,” he said, and looked right at me, “anyone’ll choose not to be white.”
I marched over to the TV and turned it off.
“And why,” I said with a jaw so tight it hurt, “am I supposed to feel guilty about being born white?”
“You know the history,” he said toneless, always toneless when we had these fights, when the shit my mother’d pulled about marrying out being stupid because a marriage is hard enough started making frightening sense.
“I wasn’t them,” I said, like I always did, and hit the arm of the couch so hard with my fist it hurt all the way up to my shoulder. “You know where I grew up. You know where I worked to get through school. I never pulled that shit on nobody.”
“Yeah,” he said. “My cousins couldn’t get that job.”
“That job was shit.”
“Too good for a black kid.”
“Bullshit, mister. Like you didn’t get into a good school and a good job. Like you didn’t get out.” My stomach twisted again. I swallowed sick. I couldn’t go to my mother’s because she’d tell me that’s what I got for marrying out. I couldn’t go to work because there were protestors there all the time now, night and day. I didn’t want to spend the night holed up in a diner, because god knew what kind of people did that in New York City. Poor people. People who didn’t make it out. People like I used to be. White or black ones, Kim?
“I busted my ass for that and I shouldn’t have had to,” he boomed, and I shrank into the counter. No matter how much I loved my husband, no matter how much he loved me, he was terrifying as hell when he was angry. “I shouldn’t be pulled over for driving that car. I shouldn’t have lost the United job, and it took five years for me to make Regional Office, and you damn well know that wasn’t about no good school and good job.”
“It’s not fair,” I mimicked. “Y’know what, every shy kid or ADD kid or poor kid shouldn’t have to work harder for it. I shouldn’t have to work harder, nobody should, none of it’s fucking fair—”
“I can’t believe—”
“What makes you more special ’cause my mother was white when when we grew up down the fucking hall from that crack house? What makes your shit worth more than mine?”
“You don’t understand—” he snapped.
“—’cause I’m not black, huh? Doesn’t make me stupid!” I said, and put my hands over my mouth.
We’d sworn it in our wedding vows, the ones we took the night after the ceremony in bed together, covered in sweat.
We were never going to go there.
“Oh, baby,” he said, eyes wide, and I went across the room to him and held him tight. He squeezed me against him until both our arms complained, and I still didn’t want to meet his eye.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered into his shoulder. It smelled good: sweat and sweet and the cologne I’d bought for his birthday. “Fuck, I am drunk, I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” he murmured into my hair. Kissed my head, over and over. Lifted me clumsily by the waist until I sat on the kitchen counter, wrapped my legs around his waist and cradled me, cheek to his shoulder.
“I’ll never understand,” I said heavily, and he shook his head.
“Didn’t mean that, Kim, I didn’t. Just got frustrated,” he said, and kissed my scalp again. “You know I didn’t mean that.” Softer: “You know I love you.”
I didn’t look at him. I knew he had.
“Would you change for me?” I asked, unwrapped my legs until they dangled from the counter like a kid’s. “Not forever. Just try.”
He paused. “Change like be a white man?”
His hands stilled on my back, warm and quivering slightly in that way that let your skin know the difference between an alive thing and an inert one. “Dunno,” he said, quiet. “Would you change for me?”
A little shiver rocked my stomach. “Yeah,” I said, not sure I meant it. “If we both did. Together.”
“I can’t go make myself a white man.” His voice was edged; fear was expressed as anger for men. They’d told us that in the rudimentary psych we got in nursing school. “It’s letting down the side. I worked my ass off to make them accept me the way I am. It’s not just for me, it’s for every guy after me.”
Fight the Man, don’t be him, I remembered. Duct tape and cardboard waving brokenly in the breeze, and big, brown, serious eyes.
“And if I go making myself a black woman I’m inauthentic,” I said, soft and flat. “A poser. A white-guilt liberal ass-kisser trying to co-opt what they genuinely are.”
He held me closer. Protective. “You’re nothing like that. I’ll kneecap anyone who says it.”
I leaned back to look him in the eye, swallowed hard. “D’you want me to understand, then?” I asked.
I went into work early the next morning, through the police barricades that now kept people from gathering at its door, and I took Colin with me. “I need to ask a favour,” I said to Doc Gennison when he came in shaking his umbrella, and he looked at me, looked at Colin, nodded.
“I hope you won’t be leaving us,” he said, and unlike some bosses I’d had, I was pretty sure he meant it.
I looked down at my feet. “I, ah . . . I wanted to know what the issues were around staff undergoing the procedure.”
He looked at Colin. He looked at me.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff I’ll need you to sign off on,” he said. “I’m not going to make you pre-clear with psych. You know the before and after of this as well as anybody.”
I did. I knew the fear that made a patient look over their shoulder even in the examining room, even as I injected the mix of hormones and chemicals under their skin. I knew how they came back to us acting the stereotype for the first few checkups, doing everything the way they thought was most Asian, Middle Eastern, Black, White, Native American. And then they forgot, or got less vigilant, and the real personality bloomed again, and we met our patients for the very first time.
I didn’t think I would overcompensate like that. But I didn’t think a lot of things about myself that had turned out to be true, over the years.
“I know,” I said. My voice was thinner than usual. I wanted to look over my shoulder. “I’ll visit with Jetse or Lise afterwards.”
He went into his office and came out with a sheaf of forms, standardized and sorted. I read through them and initialed again and again and again. “Came prepared,” I noted.
“You’re not the first,” he said quietly, and the little shock distorted my signature on the second-to-last legal release. He looked through the papers when I handed them back, nodded, and patted my shoulder. “Prep up,” Gennison said. “I’ll meet you in exam three.”
I went into my exam room, where the pictures of Colin and me on our wedding day sat in a discreet corner, and sat on the paper-covered table. Colin helped me put the pressure cuff on, take my own blood pressure. A little high, but stable. Our patients always had heart rates and blood pressure that were a little high. I found a good vein in the crook of my elbow, tested it, swabbed it down with an alcohol wipe or two. Hi, Kim, I said to myself to prove I wasn’t a mad scientist. How are you feeling today?
“Do you want to stop now?” he asked. His hand was tight on mine, tight as the pressure cuff on my arm. The paper rustled as I shifted on the table.
“Everyone who asked if I was gonna ‘convert.’ I can’t even imagine what they’re gonna say—” I was babbling. Nursing psych hadn’t said women babble when they’re scared, but it was a common tactic used by the underprivileged or low-status. Attempting to placate the socially dominant predator. Showing your throat. Kissing up.
I am afraid that I won’t be who I am anymore if I do this, I didn’t say. I’ll be someone different and I won’t know her at all.
“Babe,” he said, cupped my chin. “You’re not married to them. Just you and me here.”
I leaned into it, my husband’s hand, and thought about what I really wanted.
I wanted proof.
That I wasn’t talking a line of bullshit about what we did at work. That I’d married Colin because of him—not because he was black, not in spite of him being black—because of him. Because he was clever and serious and cracked bad jokes when he got drunk, and met my eye and talked with courtesy, and all those other things that made a person underneath the melanin I tinkered with and the social constructs I fucked around with every single working day of the year.
Not because he was black.
And proof that he married me for the same reasons. Not because, not in spite of. For me.
I wanted to never have that fight again.
We must have been silent for a while, because the door opened and shut quietly, and Doc Gennison was at my side with the serum and syringes. “Kim?” he asked. I guess Gennison felt less like a mad scientist that way too. The look in his eye was the same as the one I remembered from my hiring meeting: Are you ready to commit to this cause?
I shut my eyes. I’d said yes then. I worked at the Bruce Clinic because there should never be something only some people are allowed to say. There should never be places people weren’t allowed to go because of how they looked, who their parents were. Because of all the things they didn’t choose.
I worked at the clinic because Lenny Bruce was not afraid.
“Okay,” I said faintly to Dr. Gennison. “Let ‘er rip.”
The pressure cuff tightened. The injections went in. Colin held my hand while I cupped and swallowed the first dose of accelerants, imagined the hormones stimulating my glands to produce more melanin.
I signed out the rest of the course and measured it into a little brown bottle. Nobody said anything as I drew Colin down the hall, picked up my jacket from the staff closet, buttoned it up. Gennison gave me a pat on the shoulder, a smile. “I’ll see you Monday,” he said, and went back to his caseload.
We went out into the summer heat, heavy with rain, and Colin drove us home in our nice car to our nice suburban house. We didn’t get stopped by the cops.
My skin came off in the shower in bits and flakes on the day I finished the pills. It started peeling off in strips the next morning, white dry parchment patterned with swirls and stress lines. I went back into the shower and sat under the hot water with my loofah, scrubbed at feet and calves and thighs. There was brown shining beneath it, hard to see, as if I was covered in cement dust.
It was just the first step. If I really went all the way there would be outpatient surgery to widen my nose, another shot to nap up my hair, yet another to plump my lips. It’d still look like me. Just . . . different.
“If that’s who I am,” I told myself. Well. That’s what we were finding out. We were going to try.
I scrubbed until I ached and stood under the water, washing the cement dust away. When I turned it off the bathroom was heavy with steam and I was mahogany, chocolate, coffee, unromanticized dirt brown. I turned my arms, touched my legs, inspected both breasts and my belly button. The stretch marks were gone too. My old vaccination scar was an echo of itself; I guess it had gone down deep. I hugged it with my free hand. It was mine.
The bathroom tiles were cool and slippery, and I stepped carefully to the door to call for Colin.
I huddled in my big soft towel, feet still peeling on the bath mat. It took forever for him to come. “It’s taken,” I said softly, and he looked down, a shadow through the crack in the door.
I opened it wide and he sucked in a breath. I closed my eyes, like we’d agreed silently. There were things you didn’t have to talk about after eight years married. There were things you just knew, and did.
“Mirror’s uncovered,” he said, clipped and choked. His hand landed on my shoulder, quivering. Strange.
“Okay, babe,” I said to him and dropped the towel. The cool air blew through the bathroom door and I shivered, dripping on the tiles. “Tell me when.”
His hands on my shoulders guided me to the bathroom mirror. “When.”
We counted three together, and I opened my eyes.