Catherine Kwon

She took the small, white pill. She looked at his pleading face, so large and angular, and hoped it would start to shift around in her eyes. It did not. This was not one of those pills, one that would mutilate anything outside of her. The pill was meant to scrape out a mistake, a liquid exchange he wanted to take back. He stayed perfectly still, tank-like, until she swallowed.

The room was small and undecorated and he had brought her a small banana yogurt to eat. This was an essential step of the pill-taking process. The banana yogurt had to be eaten, all of it had to be inside her, coating her insides like some housing plaster. Building up floors inside her. With her first spoonful, she felt it clinging to her jaw, hanging there with a sort of chemically sweet claw. She sat the spoon back down.

He left for class, a military history lecture, and told her he would rush back if she called and was throwing up or feverish or any of the other possible bodily horrors printed on the pill box. But only for that.

What if I call you just because I want you to rush back to me? she asked. What if I urgently want you to peer at me, from a great distance? He said no. He said: only call if there is puke in the toilet.

She nodded like a soldier. She sat and tapped her foot and thought about throwing up the pill. Maybe it would feel like a great, important change. Like a werewolf, a growing-odd from within. Coursing through her body, there was an unnatural addition of a natural thing. She had added a masculine component, blocked a feminine course. She was altering the very make-up of herself, forcing blood out. Forcing everything out, at once. A military excavation. Maybe the pill had reached the very center of herself. Maybe the pill had started stripping her walls, her extra floors, crashing her elevators.

She was going out. She was not going to hold herself captive to that pill, that crusting banana yogurt, that bare room. She was going to get herself a proper breakfast, eggs and sugared bread and strawberries with a mound of whipped cream poised on top. He had given her that artificial paste, that banana yogurt, maybe because he hadn’t wanted the pill to work. Maybe he didn’t want it to go down all the way. Maybe he wanted her to protect his mistaken exchange, to document it, to inscribe it into herself. She would spite him. That pill would dissolve into her very fiber. That pill would expand its contents all the way into her feet. That pill would war with the feminine procedures of her insides and it would win. It would defy procedure. It would create new filing systems inside her, create new specifications for her interior. That pill would reupholster the old leather of herself, put down blue velvet.

She got dressed in a silk olive-colored dress. She would be uniform today. Regimented. She put her hair in a low bun. And then stepped outside, not even putting away the yogurt-covered spoon, the pill box. She liked them sitting there on the table, something for him to tend to when he returned. Non-urgent, like houseplants.

The street to the nice restaurant nearby was long and impersonal, and she marched along it as if she was just one in an army of other women dissolving small white pills, waiting for the procedural turnover to occur. A parade march was what exactly, she wondered. A group dance. A tap routine. A stretch of the calves. Everyone on the street was walking as if no internal turnover was occurring. Fakers! She knew. Perhaps many more pills were inside the walkers of this street, dissolving into brain stems and neural pathways, quickening hands and stilling feet-tapping and opening and closing internal bleeding and holding off boys from flinging themselves off buildings. And goading them on, too. The pills weren’t innocent.

Her pill was likely one of the least innocent on the street. It was dissolving into complicity. Just by being a place to dissolve into, a holding into which chemicals and powders and liquids could disappear, she was complicit. She went into the restaurant and sat down and looked at the menu like it was a complicated map. It was past breakfast. The menu was for lunch now. She felt the image of her vindication crumble. She stared, determined, at the food of everyone else. As if claiming it. A girl resolutely spooned lobster bisque into her mouth. A boy clawed at mussels in a clear white wine sauce, a lunch choice too mature for that age. A man loosely stabbed at pasta, dragging it onto the tablecloth when he took a bite.

She ordered the mussels. The mussels and a glass of white wine and a slice of coconut cake. She ordered it all in one breath, as if directing an army. She stared at her reflection in the restaurant window. Her hair was clawing out of her bun, hanging over her temples like limp tree branches. She imagined herself aged, how her face would fall from its invisible clothing line clips. She could look earthy and distinguished, then. Sometimes she looked at her face and saw the older version staring back, fleshier, hurried. She imagined herself like her great-aunt, maybe, wearing roomy dresses, naming her child after a deceased pet rabbit. Eating brown bread and pickles. Unpeeling an artichoke like a marvelous secret.

She wanted better secrets than that. And a more hardened face, one that had made decisions in a solemn and unsacred tone.

She wanted a pet rabbit that stayed alive and alive and alive. And a tight, tight dress made of jersey.

She wanted to stare back at her oldness, which seemed like it would, soon enough, tap her on the shoulder as if giving her back a scarf she dropped. She would coerce herself into not breaking her eyes away. No, she did not want to have shame for her future-self, its need to move around in large swathes of fabric. She would understand, she knew. She would wear low heels like her great-aunt and be quiet about it. And the rabbit would die and she would be able to keep its name.

But here came those mussels, opening their mouths to her like baby birds. She looked down at the bowl, at how the shells revealed themselves like shy tulips. She plucked the meat, vulturous. Her teeth were too lazy to grab on. She felt the first body, shriveled like an ear, slide down her throat. Joining the expansive heart of the pill, its insides now out. She plucked more,

more. Embryonic shrivels, yellowing sinews: she ripped at them with a procedural duty. The white wine sauce was translucent, shining. She felt herself perfectly placed in the restaurant. She felt herself perfectly dressed for her day, this day for herself alone. She would not face his angular head, its plastic hardness. No, instead she would approve of each table, each primly waiting for its sitters. Like ferris wheel boxes. She sat before her bowl as if someone might be taking a photograph.

And next to the mussels, a glass of wine. Sitting expectant. She grabbed the stem like it was a flower she wanted to pick, like she was ripping it from the table. The wine was sour and she forced herself to like it. She felt her head expand, warming into a sort of dizzied vagueness. She felt something rise inside her and sit back down. She felt it wobble.

And the cake! She lifted her fork in celebration. Its whiteness seemed impossible. It was rimmed with frills, beautiful linkages of icing. She admired her wrist as her fork sank into the cake, how it was balletic and bird-like. Veined and scrappy and thin. The cake tasted like chalk. The cake tasted like fancy shampoo. The cake tasted like holding a pill in your mouth too long.

She felt the lurch again. She felt the something inside her stand up and stomp. She felt it roll around like a marble. She felt it toss itself into its own hands.

She held the table. Her fingers looked like the fingers of a doll, so far away from her. They looked so stubby, so useless. She would never grab onto anything with a grip that would hurt. She looked at the other tables in the restaurant. They were each on their own ride. They were all going up, up.

Her mouth hinged over the cake. It was so white. It was so. The something inside her had had enough. She was stomped through. Up, up, up. Her mouth flared open and her eyes retracted and everything left her, storming every gate she had erected. It happened so easily, like an eye roll she hadn’t meant. She felt like a dog on the street. She kept her eyes down, she forced them to look at her production.

The cake was no longer white. It was the color of her, here she was. Her vindication, all her efforts. Here they were, in physical form. She sat, saw how small her protests would always be. How her attempts at living in a considered way would never graduate into anything but attempts. She wanted to make her voice low over a marble desk. She wanted to wear a pencil skirt that was made of a fabric you couldn’t pinch through, one that didn’t swish when she walked. She wanted to point at two photographs and instantly know which one held a secret out of frame. It was impossible for her to say these things, these small flashes of a life. They amounted to a glance, a gesture. They were not a guide to anything she could get up and walk to.

The coconut cake sat still like an accusation. It said: nothing inside her would change now. She had already been exchanged, mistaken. She felt the jumping something inside her like a friend. She forced herself to imagine a hand, shaking in greeting with the something. She imagined becoming business partners. She imagined a mutual tight, curt nod. She felt the redundancy of another swallowing, another chalked spoon, another eye roll of her gut. She wanted a noble, harrowing drama. She would never get one; all her dramas would be awkward, undetected. Curdled like a half-awake can, left in the fridge.

She called him. What army was he memorizing right now? What small deaths? Here was one, here was something to learn.

Can you come, she asked. It’s outside of me now.

Maia Siegel's writing has been published in Poetry London, The Bennington Review, Rattle, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She is a sophomore Humanities major in Pierson College.