Valerie Pavilonis

My special-occasion soap, the lemon verbena with the exfoliating beads, was not behind the half-empty Free and Clear conditioner bottle where I’d left it, which meant Heather had taken it again. I pushed back the shower curtain with my nonshampoo hand and hollered in the general direction of the kitchen. Heather practically lived in that coral tile and linoleum room. It was the heart of our apartment — all corridors led to the kitchen — and she laid in wait there every evening, like a spider, to ask me about my day.

“Heather— ”
“What’s up?”
“My soap.”
“Oh, your soap!” She poked her round face into the bathroom and pointed, her eyes squinched shut. “I put it with the good green razor. I had a couple of ingrown hairs.”

I fumbled for the soap and ran it along my arms, rivers of ashen skin flakes flowing down my body and into the drain. Only new skin allowed tonight. Infant skin, buffed red, untouched by mortal cares. I would scorch myself in hot water and rise renewed from the ashes like a phoenix.

I reached for the good razor.

Heather had left the door slightly open. Heather. She was a vet tech and talked about her body in the same casually explicit way that she’d talk about dog bodies: the smell of her period blood, the regularity of her bowels, the color and consistency of her phlegm during allergy season. She kept asking why Brett never stayed over at our apartment. I only ever get to see the back of his skull as he walks you to his car, she’d say. But Brett was classy. I couldn’t introduce him to Heather and her ingrown hairs.

I massaged soap between my toes and excavated gunk from under my nails with a scrub brush. Brett had the wiry build of an ex college runner. He wasn’t much taller than me — he’d spent his pubescent energy on speed, not height — and his colors were muted, like he’d been left out in the sun too long. Sandy hair, sandy eyebrows, sandy lashes, sandy skin. He was distant last week, I thought, as scorching rivulets of water pooled in my clavicles and traced the insides of my thighs. Probably trouble with Christina. I’d keep the conversation light, at first. Don’t pry, don’t fidget, don’t laugh like a goddamn mental patient.

Steam turned the bathroom hazy and smoothed the sharp edges of the countertop and doorframe. Eddies of warm, wet air curled around my hips and my feet looked faraway. I turned off the shower, stepped out of the tub and groped for a towel. There were no towels on the rack. Heather. I pumped some lotion into my palm and reached for my legs, but my fingers grasped mist. My shoulders were obscured by shower fog. The mirror had become an opaque, unhelpful, grey blue rectangle. Where are my legs? I threw open the bathroom door and entered the kitchen, where Heather was making hot chocolate.

“What, in your medical opinion, is going on with me?” I asked. Heather turned around and gave me an appraising look. The mist had followed me out of the bathroom. Where my body used to be, there was a vague, swirling pinkness.

“In my medical opinion, I don’t know,” said Heather. “Do you want a Pepto?”
“I want you to fix it.”
“Hmm.” Heather put her hands on her hips. “Okay,” she said and left the room.

In her absence, I took stock of my situation. I felt fine. My head, my hands and my feet were solid. The rest — incorporeal. A smudge. A waste of a good bikini wax. Not ideal for a high-stakes date night.

“Try this,” Heather said, handing me a dark bundle of cloth. “It should hold you together nicely.” I slipped the long black shift dress over my head. It had a turtleneck and wrist-length sleeves.

“I look like a dowdy witch.”
“Or a sexy nun.”

The dress corralled me into a rough woman-shape. But my waistline was nonexistent and my midsection undulated like a drunken snake. Heather took a step back and squinted.

“We’ll belt it,” she said.


Dinner was delicious. I ate two slices of honey butter bread, carrot soup in a wooden bowl, beef stroganoff, a quarter of Brett’s Tex-Mex salad (off the low-cal menu) and a scoop of pistachio ice cream, all without feeling bloated. Then, Brett drove me to an abandoned Jimmy John’s parking lot. “Christina’s been staying over,” he explained, before reaching for the hem of my dress.

I suffused the inside of the car, fogging up the windows, twisting through Brett’s hair, settling on his eyelashes and in the swirl of his ear. The skin on his hands was leathery, the skin under his armpits and behind his knees was tender. I glowed, like predawn light. Brett looked at me the way I’d always wished he’d look at me when I had a body — with awe and desire, as if the conglomeration of parts that made up me was somehow uniquely attractive. As if my arms were better than two million similarly-shaped arms on a million other women.

“Come closer,” he begged. I floated under his eyelids and nestled in his lungs. He reached for me, but his hands grasped the air.

“Where are you?”
“I’m right here.”

I watched him while he searched for me in the empty car. His mouth was open, his lips were dry, his skinny arms were flailing.

Brett — a creature of defined veins and skim milk and fitness powders of various colors, functions and flavors, of stringency and self-discipline, of tall iced tea women with hair ties on their wrists — made me sad. Try as he might, his body would never be purified. I evaporated out the tailpipe and into the sky, and he didn’t notice when I left.


“How was your date?” asked Heather. As usual, she was waiting for me, an “I’m Having One of Those Decades” coffee mug in her fist.

I spread across the floor and covered Heather’s slippers in dew. “It went alright,” I said.