It started off as a patch of skin, just at the swell of her calf. While eating her cereal at the kitchen table she crossed her ankles, enjoying the repulsive sensation of her winter-hairy legs rubbing against each other, and felt something smooth and slippery on her left leg. She ran her hand along her shin and found it: a quarter-sized patch of skin absolutely numb to the touch, as if it had fallen asleep. Slapping it did nothing – neither did pinching or scratching. It refused to feel. It was strangely soft and smooth, like someone else’s skin.
But then it was time to get dressed in her office clothes. She had Baron that week, so she took him to day care. All day she was busy at the home insurance call center, patiently letting people talk themselves out, then diverting them down the various lines to their destinations, from which they never returned. By the time she got home from work, the numb patch had grown to the size of a postcard. In her khakis she hadn’t noticed it, but after she picked up Baron and went home and changed into a nightshirt so she wouldn’t get spaghetti on her work clothes, her bare legs brushed against each other and there it was, that inhuman smoothness.
She fed Baron, and he only needed three stories before he fell asleep. She had settled onto the couch and turned on the television when Steve called. As usual, he asked how she was doing. No one else had asked her. She muted the TV and said, ‘Fine, but something strange happened today.’
‘What do you mean, strange?’ She could tell he was listening intently. Sometimes he got this voice, this waiting voice that reminded her of a dog crouching down with its ears pricked, waiting for a ball to be thrown.
‘I’ve got this thing,’ she said. That sounded too dramatic. ‘This little patch of skin that’s all numb.’
‘Are you in pain?’
‘No. It’s numb.’
‘You mean asleep?’
‘No, like when you go to the dentist, but not really. It’s just the skin.’
‘Oh. Well if it’s just the skin . . .’
‘And it doesn’t hurt at all?’
‘No. I guess I’ll just watch and wait.’
‘It’ll probably go away on its own.’
‘That’s what I was thinking.’
‘Well, aside from that,’ Steve said. His voice was sly now. ‘Why don’t you tell me about what you’re doing right now?’
‘I’m standing in my kitchen, not wearing anything,’ she said. ‘I’m running a spoon up and down my thighs.’
‘Are you? What are you going to do with it?’ The dog waited, watched.
‘What if I dip it in some oil,’ she said, ‘and rub it over my breasts. Like this?’
Steve coughed. She tried not to make any noise as she shifted her body on the couch. Once he had gotten mad at her because he could hear her turning the pages of a magazine.
‘Keep going,’ he said. ‘I’m hard. We’ve got it.’
As usual, it took about ten minutes. Steve was fifty-five, overweight but not bad-looking, and made enough money to send his kids to private colleges. He lived in Denver and refused to touch another woman because he loved his wife, but he just couldn’t get sexually excited in her presence anymore. That was how he described it when they met; they had been seated next to each other on a flight from Los Angeles, where she’d gone to attend her mother’s funeral. Within an hour he was trying to convince her to go into the airplane bathroom with him. He said he’d pay her two hundred dollars to masturbate while he watched. She would have done it, but Baron was barely three years old then and she couldn’t leave him alone in the airplane seat. Steve gave her his email address before they landed in Denver, and she went on to the East Coast with Baron. After a week, she wrote to him. Now, every month, Steve sent her four hundred dollars through PayPal. ‘You’ve got a sexy voice,’ he’d said on the plane. ‘But more than that, now I know exactly what you look like. I’ve saved you in my head.’
The numb patch grew overnight. When she woke the next day, it had encircled her ankle and spread up over her knee. Still, nothing hurt; instead, she spent so long in bed stroking the strange, supple skin, the delicate veins that wound around the ankle bones, that Baron woke up on his own and asked when they were going to eat breakfast.
On her lunch break she called the health hotline that her company subscribed to instead of an insurance policy. The woman at the other end listened politely and asked, ‘But it doesn’t hurt?’
‘No, it’s numb,’ she said, wondering why this word wasn’t self-explanatory.
‘It could be you’ve got a pinched nerve. Try doing some light stretching. Maybe jump up and down a little bit.’
In her cubicle she bent and touched her toes, then stood up and leaned back with her hands on her hips like she was pregnant. She didn’t feel clumsy or awkward. When she rubbed her leg, it was still numb.
To her surprise, Steve called again that night. ‘I just wanted to know how you were doing.’
‘It’s gotten a little bigger,’ she said, thinking it was nice of him to call. ‘But it still doesn’t hurt.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
She was wondering what else they could talk about when he said, ‘You know, just getting you on the phone is pretty sexy.’
‘I can’t right now,’ she said.
‘I bet you’re driving them crazy,’ he said, ‘all those people who call you at work.’ His voice sounded young, reckless.
‘I’ve got to get up really early,’ she said, rubbing one leg against the other. It was like sliding your leg along a satin sheet.
‘Okay, fine. I hope you feel better,’ Steve said, and hung up. In bed she found it soothing to touch the numb leg until she drifted off. She had never thought skin could be so soft.
The next day, when the numbness spread over her left thigh and buttocks, she decided not to tell anyone else about it. The numbness wasn’t bothering her, after all; there was no pain, no discomfort. Instead, she shaved the numb leg with extreme care and put on a skirt and no leggings, even though it was early February and still very cold. While listening to the irate, the tired and the dejected in her call center cubicle, she stroked the thigh. Without its hair, it was now even softer and smoother than before. At lunch she went out to CVS and bought a bottle of lotion. While she took calls, she gently worked the cream into the leg; she was worried it was getting dry from the winter air. The day passed more quickly this way.
Baron’s dad took him for the week. Steve didn’t call. Maybe he was angry with her. The numbness spread past her hip and waist and covered her left breast and shoulder in its hush of silk. How much easier it would have been to nurse Baron, if she could have had the numbness then. Nobody told you how much that hurt.
When Steve called he sounded anxious, as if he had been waiting next to the phone ever since their last conversation. He didn’t even ask her how she was feeling; instead he demanded, as if he couldn’t wait another second: ‘What are you doing?’
She tried to think. In the past she had invented so much, had sat on the couch with the TV on mute and tried to gather ideas from the commercials. ‘I’ve got a carrot,’ she’d said, or, ‘I’m in my car, I’m humping the shifter.’ Her creativity seemed to please him. Sometimes he’d even laugh for a moment afterward, tell her that was a good one, before hanging up. It was funny to hear him laugh. With each phone call he worked himself into a kind of trance, but once it was over he always seemed eager to get back to his life.
This time she took the phone into the bathroom and locked the door. She turned on the lights and stood naked in front of the full-length mirror. She held the phone to her ear with her left hand and ran her right hand along her right hip and thigh. It felt normal, hers. Then, hesitating, she placed her hand on her left ankle. ‘There’s a woman here with me,’ she said to Steve.
‘Holy shit.’ He gave a little laugh. ‘Wow. What are you guys doing?’
‘I’m touching her,’ she said.
‘I’m starting with her ankle.’ She stared at the body in the mirror, trying with her mind to block out the right half and concentrate on the left. ‘I’m touching her calf. I’m touching her knee.’
‘What about her thighs?’
‘Be patient,’ she said, moving her hand up. She was shaving the leg every day now, and putting lotion on it every night and morning. She had recently started putting lotion on the shoulder and breast, too, which were even smoother and more delicate-feeling than the leg, and which she supposed required at least the same amount of attention. ‘Everything’s so soft,’ she said. ‘The curve here. It’s unbelievably soft. I never knew she could be so soft.’ She had the feeling as she moved her hand over her stomach and ribs and breast that she was touching a very expensive sculpture in a museum. When people talked about touching yourself they meant it in the dirty way, the way Steve meant it. But this was different altogether, because she couldn’t feel her hand at all. Instead, it was her hand that felt something, a something that seemed to go on and on.
She had almost forgotten about Steve when he said, sounding angry, ‘Well, are you doing it? Do you have your hand in her pussy? Do you? Do you?’ He grunted and his voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Fuck,’ he said. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck.’ He hung up.
She put the phone down on the sink and looked in the mirror. Her right hand smoothed the left shoulder of the other woman, perfect and unyielding.
Each day was like opening an elegantly wrapped box and finding something inside that you had wanted for years. The numbness grew slowly, by degrees, until it mostly covered the left half of her body, including her neck and, soon, very delicately, the edges of her lips, her left cheek. She couldn’t smile very well, but she could talk normally, which mattered more for her job. And more importantly, she had been eagerly waiting to discover these yet-unknown parts of the other woman – the skin of her neck, the line of her chin, the moist, vulnerable lips, so different from any other type of skin. Even when the numbness swallowed her left hand, she enjoyed it; now she could appreciate the elaborate mechanism of the small bones, feel all the different textures – the delicate skin on the back of it, the nails like little beetle shells, the finely wrinkled knuckles, the minute furrows in the fingertips.
For the first time in years, she was happy.
She was sleeping, and Baron was burrowing into the bed with her. ‘Mommy,’ he said. ‘Mommy, wake up.’ He was moving something heavy in the bed, moving it clumsily back and forth. It was her body.
At first she tried to go on normally; after all, she hadn’t been hampered so far by the numbness of her skin. She managed to get out of bed and go to the kitchen, pour cereal and milk into two bowls. But although she could wrap her hand around the spoon, she couldn’t feel the milk against her lips. It splattered her nightshirt.
‘Mommy, your hand,’ Baron said. She was gripping the spoon so hard that her palm was turning dark red. She dropped the spoon and stood up, clutching the hand, the beautiful hand! But then she worried that one hand would strangle the other, and tore them away from each other and forced them down at her sides.
Baron cried as she put on his clothes and jacket. ‘You’re hurting me,’ he screamed. When she tried to get him into his boots, he tripped and stepped on her hands, but she couldn’t feel it. It was almost impossible to get dressed, so she shoved her feet into slippers and struggled into her parka. Because she didn’t trust herself to carry Baron, or to drive, she told him to hold her hand and not let go.
She led him out of the condo into the parking lot. It was a beautiful day. The sky was completely clear and so intensely blue it seemed to be trying to tell her something. The big pile of plowed snow twinkled in a friendly way. She saw her hair blow across her face and the ice glitter on the sidewalk and knew it must be extremely cold.
She started across the lot toward the road, keeping her eyes on Baron to make sure that he didn’t let go of her hand. She was halfway there when someone called her name. It was her neighbor Mrs Bell, the retired lady who brought them white chocolate bark at Christmas.
‘Are you okay?’ she said, hurrying over. She was wearing a mauve puffy jacket, a scarf and a woolly hat. ‘Oh, my God. You must be freezing!’
‘I need to go to the hospital,’ she said, or tried to say. What came out was a spitty slur that did not sound human.
Mrs Bell was staring down at the ground. ‘Your feet. . .’
She had lost her slippers on her way out of the condo. Her feet were beautiful – pale lavender, sprinkled with snow, like something you would buy at a cake shop. ‘Oh, my God,’ Mrs Bell said again.
She slipped in and out. Noises, lights. Sometimes hours of quiet. What she felt, she felt as pressure – something small and pointed against her wrist, the firmer pressure of the doctors’ hands, her son’s weight on the bed, the heaviness of his head against her neck. His skin did not warm her; his tears did not wet her. And yet he had once come out of her body. The pain then had been unimaginable – everything had torn apart. She’d bled endlessly, as if from a fatal wound. And she would have died, if not for the doctors sewing her together, patching her, filling her up. The doctors hovered now, saying something. They held a piece of floppy black film in front of her face. They were angry, accusing. Came back clear. More tests.
Later. Baron’s face against her lips. Someone else – his dad, maybe – lifting him up, holding him there so he could be kissed. She thought she cried then, but she couldn’t be sure, couldn’t feel anything at the corners of her eyes. Little growth, she thought, I love you so much. He screamed and the person took him away again, behind a pink curtain. Someone dimmed the lights.
She opened her eyes. She was alone in her curtained area, her head peering over the sheeted landscape of a body, white peaks and shadowed valleys, two feet like twin cliffs in the distance. Beyond the pink curtain she could hear chatter, and beeping, and the squeaking of gurneys and carts, and music, familiar, getting closer now.
A nurse came in. ‘You’re awake,’ she said. She waved a ringing cell phone at her. ‘He’s been calling you nonstop for the past two days, but you’ve been pretty out of it. Want to give it a try?’
She was able to nod. The nurse placed the phone on the pillow and left again. She wormed her head over, pressed her ear against the phone.
‘Hello?’ It was Steve. He sounded breathless. ‘Thank God you picked up. I was going kind of crazy.’ She heard him laugh. ‘Where were you, anyway?’
She concentrated very hard and said, ‘I –’
‘No, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Oh God, it’s so good to hear your voice, you know? God. Fuck.’
She breathed into the phone and said, ‘Mmm.’
‘I must have woken you up. Sorry. You know –’ He laughed. ‘I’ve just been thinking about you and your friend. I’ve been thinking about you two all week. Wow. Beautiful.’
‘Wow,’ she repeated; it came out as a guttural moan.
‘Jesus, you’re getting off, aren’t you?’ he said. His breath was coming faster. ‘Jesus. Oh thank you, thank you.’ He burst into a fit of coughing.
When he was done he said, in a much calmer voice, ‘You know, I was thinking. I have a conference out your way next week. I’d like to see you. No pressure –’ He laughed. ‘I’m still, you know, trying to figure things out with the wife. Nothing’s changed there. But I’d like to see you. I’ll buy you dinner. Would you like that?’
She couldn’t speak.
‘No? Well, think about it,’ he said. ‘Don’t write me off just yet. Take care.’
She cried out, but he was already gone. She lay still for a moment; then, shrieking, she butted the phone with her head. It clattered to the ground.
She was alone now. Steve was gone. Baron was somewhere else, somewhere on the other side of the curtain. She remembered him crying. She had frightened him. Good, let him stay behind the curtain, she thought. Let this happen without him seeing.
And then she felt something cool and dry – her right hand had twitched and brushed against the sheet. She concentrated, moved the hand deliberately now. Yes, her thumb – or rather the very edge of her thumb – was still awake, her last shred of sensation.
She brought her right hand under the sheet and moved it slowly, as if poking at something underwater with a stick. After a few seconds of searching, her thumb encountered a woman’s smooth thigh – warm, soft, alive, sprinkled with a few downy hairs. She had only ever felt the left side of the woman’s body. Now the right side was available to her. The woman was lying in the bed, calm and alive, breathing quietly, waiting to be discovered.
But as she moved her hand over the body, she began to notice small signs of trauma. The hand was scarred from collecting shards of glass a child had broken, the toes permanently callused from months of walking with swollen feet. There were old bumps near the groin from shaving in order to wear swimsuits, silky ribbons of scar tissue along the hips from pregnancy.
She felt things under the skin: scars where the body had torn during childbirth, clumps of cellulite, the complex network of lobules and ducts in the breasts. Behind those things, the exhausted cells humming, the wet blood being sucked through rubbery, delicate veins, the bones, honeycombed by a fetus exacting its toll of calcium. She touched these things in the other woman’s body and felt sorry for her.
And then it was over. The patch of skin on her thumb ceased to feel. It had been like the last weak beam of a dying flashlight, but now the light was dead.
For a moment she floated, utterly alone. And then she – the other woman – began to move. The legs drew up, the hips twisted, the feet dropped to the floor. There was an IV going into the left hand, but this did not stop her. The woman simply pulled it out and took a piece of gauze from the bedside table to stanch the blood. There was a pile of folded clothes on the chair, and the woman put them on, buttoned the jeans and pulled the shirt over her head, laced up the winter boots, slipped into the coat.
Stop, she thought, give me back, but the legs kept moving, bearing her out from behind the pink curtain. The hallway was bright and noisy, full of doctors and nurses hurrying off to their tasks, full of other prone bodies in gurneys, helplessly pushed along. They got in the elevator and a male doctor glanced at them. Help me, she begged, and for a second he seemed to see her, staring out from behind the other woman’s eyes, but he looked down again and scribbled on his chart. The elevator opened on the ground floor and he marched out ahead of her without another look.
As they crossed the lobby, she tried again to stop them, but the woman would not be stopped. She moved with purpose, as if she were in a hurry; when the automatic doors sighed open, she walked right out.
The hospital was close to the freeway. On the far side of the parking lot, red and white lights swooped against the purple sky. It was a winter evening, almost sunset. The air was freezing – it stung her skin.
Photograph courtesy of Tao Kitamoto