In the last few weeks with my face, I studied it closely. Every morning I ran my fingertips cold over my skin, pressing into the hollows of my skull. Closing my eyes, I tried to bind the sensation to memory. Then I performed my usual morning ablutions, washing my face, painting careful, clean, decorations around my eyes and cheeks.
The day of the surgery, Mahika came to pick me up early. In her car’s cupholder was a paper bag of tiny, sugared donuts with raspberry jam, and some coffee, hot and dark. Good morning sunshine, she said. She was smiling, and when the morning light moved through the car it slipped over the almost invisible seams on her face.
Did you take your pills? she asked. They’re super important. One time I forgot to take them, and I woke up too early from surgery. Had an out of body experience. It took me while to recover.
You never told me about that.
I didn’t want to scare you, Mahika said as she pulled into a narrow driveway.
There were fresh blood-red lilies at the clinic counter. We signed in and waited on lounge chairs. Mahika picked up a few magazines.
You’re lucky, she said. Your eyes are in season.
I looked. The last few years, everybody wanted the same eyes: domed like lemons, with precise, symmetrical lashes. But now in the magazine I only saw rows of creaseless eyes flushed clean, tilted to the temples – the same eyes I had.
A nurse called the name my mother had given me and led me into a room entirely sheathed in blue PVC. There was a mirror on the ceiling, and I saw my face for the last time. The doctor entered the room, pressed her hand on my shoulder. I went to sleep. When I woke up, I was changed.
Mahika had sold her deep-set eyes, her nose, her dimples, her lips; Jumana her sharp, symmetrical cheekbones; and Rui her high auspicious forehead and small ears. I was swapping out my entire face. We were known as Patchwork Dolls and in our contracts – each worth thousands of dollars – we agreed to exchange our features with moneyed people seeking an upgrade to newer, trendier faces.
The name had been coined in the 1970s and referred to the method of transdermal patchworking devised by plastic surgeon Jill Anderson, which meant swapping out facial features wholesale. It was height of second wave feminism, and Anderson led the scientific guard, claiming that her process preserved the agency of women. She experimented and performed the surgeries on herself and others in a Spring Street loft. Her needling techniques were crude and unrefined, and often she worked in thick fleshy squares, not the tissue-paper-thin, circular patterns commonly used today. You could see the delineations very clearly – visible scars around her eyes and lips like the tiny perforations on stamps – which led to her being called Doctor Patchwork in the media. The twenty-year experiment was documented in a series of photographs by her partner, the performance artist Mara Weiss. MoMA acquired them in the 1980s.
When I looked at those photos, I noticed that Jill never changed her hair. Blonde, long, straight, just past her breasts. In later images, it became clear that she started dying her locks to cover the grey, but otherwise, the style remained unchanged. I thought of us, the newest generation of Patchwork Dolls, the stitches glossier and finer than ever. Were there features of ourselves that we were more willing to swap out? Were there some that we would never let go?
We met for lunch two weeks after my surgery, Mahika, Jumana, and I. Rui was recovering from an operation the day before.
I think she’s done after this one, Jumana said.
Like, done done?
Yeah. She said she’s sick of the recovery periods. She has enough to start her business now anyway.
When the appetizers – rounds of heirloom tomato slathered in olive oil and rock salt – arrived, I asked: Do you think we only hung out together at school because the other girls hated us?
They didn’t hate us, Jumana said. They were scared of us. I used to hide in the music room and scratch the walls. Remember?
Yeah, and Miss Walker always asked me where you were, Mahika said. Like, where’s the other brown girl? Surely you would know.
Our lobsters, charred and dashed with lemon, were placed on the table. We had booked the restaurant two months ago, and it was a celebration of our various birthdays, which clustered around the first half of the year. Our hair was shiny, straight, Olaplexed. We began our birthday meal with the ritual of standing to measure our height against one another, something we used to do back when we all still lived in Queens and dreamed of moving to Manhattan. Miraculously, we were all still around the same height. There was a wall somewhere in Jumana’s family house that carried markings, like lopsided stars, of our gradient growths.
Normally, when we talked about being younger, we didn’t mention how teachers always mixed myself and Rui up or how one time, three girls had locked me and Mahika in a cupboard and left us there during recess. Even then, I suffered from panic attacks – so extreme that my mother would pin me down with her elbows – and when the door opened again, I almost fainted with relief, light, air. Then I saw Mahika step out, and in her hand was the wire hanger for the janitor’s threadbare blue jacket that had been right there all along. This was me, struggling to stay upright, and that was her: a long wire ahead, pulled straight like a tongue.
But all that was old news, and the past wasn’t worth repeating. We were eating lobster; we were sitting in sunlight; we were happy, even if we no longer looked like ourselves. The money we had made was just enough to afford these meals and expensive clothes, but not enough buy houses or pay off all our student loans. The tiny yellow dancing orchids on our table made me feel rich, if only for that day.
Oh babe, it looks like you need to check your scar, Mahika said. Here, let me. She took one of the restaurant’s pristine white napkins and touched my face. As it came away, I saw the mucous streak. Startled, I reached up toward my ear, where a faint ache had appeared that morning. But Mahika pulled my hand down. Don’t touch it now, leave it alone, she said, and like always, I listened to her.
Mahika’s first operation had been years ago, although she doesn’t like to be reminded of that doctor, the one in the dingy sub-basement office with questionable ethics and an untraceable anaesthesia process. The mattress had been covered only in a light blue sheeting, she remembered, and although she had been unconscious, she swore he had turned the television on – her dreams were full of fuzzy soap operas and daytime commercials for printer paper. After, he had proudly shown her the specimens in his fridge. There were eyes, noses, lips, a rare ear or two. Her lips were there too, a small jelly of fat and tissue resting on a sleek digital scale. Just above a pound; more than they had agreed on.
“Discrepancies occur,” he had said, although he paid her the same flat rate, all in cash, no contract or papers. We all knew of many girls who had gone back to him, simply because he was fast – sometimes even operating on the same day as consultation – and paid immediately. There was a rumor, later confirmed in a cheap periodical, that his clientele was more colorful than advertised; he catered to both fetish and crime unquestionably, parcelling eyes to mafia and painted lips to men who hung them like game trophies above their bathroom mirrors.
After that ordeal, Mahika did some research and found Doctor Wong: female, younger, Ivy-League-schooled. Mahika’s last three operations – cheeks, eyes, nose, in that order – had taken place in her Upper East Side clinic, a noticeably fridge-less place. Doctor Wong took a 30% cut, but that was totally reasonable, Mahika said, considering the health risks involved and the clinic’s notoriety for discretion. The purchasing clients could select their desired features from categorized databases, but the seller would not be privy to any of this information. Transactions were, to an outside view, clean and closed. But there was one telltale clue. Because Doctor Wong had trained under a doctor who followed in the school of Jill Anderson, her contracts included a legal name change to indicate our status as Plastic Donors – although, of course, the media and everyone else always called us Patchwork Dolls, or PDs. This was how Mahika Nair became Mahika PD Nair, and how I, a few months before my 28th birthday, became Sophia PD Leung.
In that first week after my surgery, Mahika took me to Chelsea market to pick out some fillets of salmon, something we had never previously allowed ourselves to buy. In the aisles we imagined the feasts and banquets we would make for our friends, how we would squash platters of shaved truffle and garlic-fried ramps and whole cumin-roasted lamb onto the tables of our duplexes and mansions. With our new faces – mine still bandaged – we tasted squares of peach, kettle chips infused with rosemary and jalapeno. Then, as we neared the cold counters, she pulled me aside, whispering. Her eyes were on a brunette woman in leggings and a jogging bra by the salad bar, picking out leaves of kale into a tub. It seemed as if she were using the tongs as tweezers, and each leaf was inspected for a few seconds before being dropped slowly into the container. We watched for a while, and I commented amusedly that the woman seemed very fastidious in her selections.
No, Mahika said. She’s had the surgery. I think she’s lost her depth perception.
I looked again. I couldn’t see any visible scars on the woman’s face, but the areas around her eyes seemed vaguely mismatched in tone, as if bleached by the sun. How do you know?
Mahika laughed, but it sounded like the laugh my mother used to make when she heard news about her hometown in China on the radio. We continued quietly through to the beds of ice, the limp, shiny fish, and molluscs with shells, stinking high of another kingdom. Everything shone as if coated in an inky glaze. After we left the market and got back into Mahika’s car, she finally turned to me and said, I’m pretty certain, Sophia.
Certain of what?
You can’t tell? After all those years?
Certain of what? I grew impatient. She fumbled in her bag, and I thought she was looking for her keys, but instead she took out a pair of sunglasses she had bought recently in Seoul. They were oval, sleek, but the way she put them on shakily made her look comical, like a popstar caught in the crosshairs of camera flashes.
That woman, she said finally. She has my old eyes.
Somewhere between Anderson and Doctor Wong, transdermal patchworking had become taboo, then radical, then taboo again, and now it was a nationwide, money-making industry that entangled dozens of doctors and hundreds of women. There were investigative essays. There were opinion pieces written by women – on both ends of the transaction – who were grateful for the legality of the procedure, others who regretted their surgeries. Slate published an anonymous tell-all by someone who worked at a pharmaceutical conglomerate, claiming that big pharma industries were making billions off of these surgeries and their collateral medications, foundations, toners, and diamond sandpaper smoothers. The past few years had seen heightened discourse around the murky racial inequities embedded in current practices, with people pointing out that the majority of buyers were affluent white women dabbling in ethnically ambiguous faces, and the sellers were primarily disadvantaged women of color. Academic papers on the topic surfaced on JSTOR, proclaiming zoomed out, distanced theories around why we, as children of immigrants, were doomed to sell ourselves, and how colonial practices were inherent in the purchasing of such flesh. Twitter couldn’t decide where the fault lines lay. Some strangers weighed in sympathetically, noting that while the buyer could flaunt their upgraded features, the seller could only hope to assimilate to their haphazardly cut-and-paste bodies, made up of buyers’ discards. At best, we were just victims. At worst, they accused us of complicity in modern slavery; profiting off oppression; undoing years of intersectional feminism.
These accusations were hard for me because the truth was none of us had heard about Patchwork Dolls until Mahika met Harriet. Hattie was deer-limbed, red-haired, and operated like all great orators did, with equal measures charm and tyranny. She was in Mahika’s gender studies class at college, and within days of their meeting they became a couple and moved in together. Three months in, Mahika found the documents and papers in Hattie’s desk.
Mm? Oh, nothing, just some research. Have you ever heard of Jill Anderson?
It was eight years ago. A revival of PD practices was in motion after a long drought – in the 1990s, Anderson had been found guilty of malpractice by a board of male doctors, and she had her medical license revoked. The thing they stuck her with, Hattie explained to all of us, was her lax approach to patient-doctor confidentiality. She pushed forward Anderson’s memoir, which contained dozens of case studies. But it was unjust, she told us. She was a pioneering queer feminist. She helped hundreds of women. And those men? They targeted her because they didn’t like that. As women, we have to highlight the injustice of this treatment.
In between classes and lecture halls, I would join the occasional march. I had never seen Mahika look so happy. I’ll always remember her old face in those days, sweaty, shouting, a sun all in itself.
As for myself, I thought I was being a good friend, holding a picket sign every once in a while, talking to Mahika while she printed flyers in the library. Generally, though, I really tried to stay out of it – I also hadn’t joined the college debate team, or the nascent, small activist groups on campus. It was something my mother had taught me: don’t make waves, but ride them if you need to.
Everything became complicated. Hattie would tell us that in order to radicalize our political selves, we had to give in to the system and then subvert it; then she would tell us that by being complicit in a system, we were denying others the rights to choose. I would see others slide close to her, then fall away, like a circle waxing and waning, her at the boiling center. I don’t think we ever stopped to think why we were following orders given by someone who looked nothing like us: someone who had spent her summers in a lake house upstate and whose parents who were on museum boards; who protested injustice with obscure theoretical Instagram posts written while she listened to experimental ska on her vintage speakers; who never asked who we were before we met her, who never was able to unpeel our identity from how we looked. It all felt twisted, but it was thrilling too, a drama that we could, on good days, distance ourselves from, and on bad days shroud ourselves in. So we followed her nonetheless, my old, dear, childhood friend Mahika now the meekest, tamest of us all.
When Hattie suggested that they swap their lips, Mahika called me.
I’m so excited, she said. I’ve always hated my big lips. Hattie already found someone. He said he can do it soon, like tomorrow.
No, I said, Don’t do it. And I would still say the same thing today.
Mahika hung up. Later I wondered how Hattie had proposed this to her. Had there been something romantic, electric, to the suggestion? Had it been brought up over dinner, over wine, while they had been kissing, sucking each other’s lips, wondering what it would be like to kiss yourself, to love yourself? Was it a pity transaction – Mahika embodying charity – an act of mutual witness, or self-loathing? Lust, or envy?
Even Mahika seemed to know that after the surgery, Hattie would disappear. Her life is about controlling people like us, she said bitterly to me, since she can’t accept the fact that she was born so rich, so white, and so ordinary. Later, I discovered Hattie had been romantically involved with multiple people, and she orchestrated the same dance, holding power over several small groups of friends at the same time, knowing that we tended to stay loyal to one another, even when those friendships became toxic. Her vanishing was a relief. It seemed like a hat trick, a Gordian knot that wrestled loose at the magician’s touch.
The week after we were free of Hattie’s influence, Mahika seemed to revert instantly back to her old self, and furiously researched a new doctor who could fix her botched lips. A few months later, Jumana and Rui signed up. I was the last one, not because I was apprehensive of the surgery, but because I still wasn’t sure how to trust my own morals, my own instincts. Following Hattie had been easier. The discomfort had only briefly clashed with the addiction of belonging to something larger than ourselves. Maybe that’s why I eventually signed up for the program; not because I had figured everything out, but because even then I was still in that cupboard, waiting for Mahika to open the door. And I saw how my friends changed with the money, how much more they could breathe after paying off huge chunks of student loans. How easy it was to walk past a boutique and buy something, to regulate routines of self-care, to settle rent and plan a holiday on the same day, to be able to pay for others to cook for me and wash my hair and fix my teeth. As I prepared for my surgery, I privately said goodbye to the parts of myself that had once seemed so special, so unique, and then compartmentalized them down to little icons on a screen, something with a tiny little price tag that a buyer could click on.
When I received my first check, I took a photograph and sent it to our group chat. Drinks on me tonight, I wrote, Also, I really want to check out that new Korean fine dining restaurant that just opened!
My face hurt, everything hurt, but I could drink through a paper straw and eat soft foods if I parted my lips very slowly and dribbled something inside with a spoon. My friends, with their salon fresh hair and new lips, eyes, foreheads, cheeks, noses, and chins, congratulated me and drank and ate more on my behalf. I kept half-expecting Hattie to suddenly show up, and once I even lifted my head after hearing a voice that sounded like hers. But there was nothing in front of me but the thronging crowd of a packed bar, and a wide, oily mirror that reflected back my bandaged face, blurred and bright in the velvet shadows.
My body was rejecting my new face. There was a zero point zero zero five per cent chance of it happening, but it was undeniable: my new skin was clamoring to get out. It wanted to return to its original host. In the mornings I felt my flesh melting out of my skull; I had to use my palms to push it back in, and when my fingers came away they were coated in a rusty discharge. My eyesight deteriorated, but most of all it was difficult to breathe; I found it hard to move my new lips, not knowing which muscles to use, and everything kept sliding around. Sounds felt like hollow thuds in my ears. Every day I went through multiple rolls of bandages. I wondered if the woman who had my face was reacting the same way, if she was suffering as I was.
I called the clinic and they asked me to come by immediately. Doctor Wong was waiting for me in a room I hadn’t been in before, along with a nurse, a lawyer, and a woman pouring out increasingly burnt coffee. It smelled like motor oil and hand soap.
I can assure you this has never happened in my clinic, Doctor Wong said. The lawyer in the room chirped: And you agreed to the risks when you signed your contract.
I didn’t understand what they meant at first, but then I looked up at their faces and realized they were telling me I couldn’t sue.
I just want to know how to fix this.
There’s some medication we can prescribe, the nurse said. Also, you may need to come in for some tests.
Doctor Wong walked over to my side of the table and sat down next to me. May I? She gestured to my face, which I had bandaged that morning in a fine wheat-colored gauze, clear enough so that I could see, but layered in ways that abstracted what was beneath it. Sometimes I saw girls shopping together at Sephora or Forever 21 with these coverings. So young. I wondered how long their friendships would last.
I nodded to Doctor Wong, and she began peeling at the small, knotted nub at my chin. At the fresh contact with air, my new skin began to burn, tiny blistering pulses that itched at the seams. She frowned.
It’s been this way since the surgery, so about a month. I just thought it was part of the recovery.
You should have called us right away. Didn’t you read the instructions in your booklet?
I recalled Mahika telling me that I didn’t need to read that stuff, that she would tell me everything. For the past week, I hadn’t been able to reach her though, but that was normal – sometimes she would turn off her phone for a while without telling us, and when she came back online, she would say it was a necessary break from us, from everything. My mother had died during one of these disappearances. I had learned to stop being angry at her, to stop depending on my friends so much. We have each other, right? Mahika would say to me, and I always knew she meant only on her terms.
Doctor Wong made me sign more papers. I looked over them all carefully, but it wasn’t as if I had much of a choice. She would have to perform more surgeries, she said. It was worse than she thought.
You might notice that your face will be slightly larger. That’s because I need to graft another layer, which will help you develop thicker skin. This extra surgery can be subsidized by the clinic and the fees paid by the client, but I’m afraid you will need to pay for your medication, which we cannot provide. I will warn you now that it is expensive. You can give the prescriptions to a pharmacy.
I had already spent half the money on paying off a lump of my student loans, and frivolous things like clothes, jewellery, expensive meals. I knew I looked terrible whenever I left the house, but as long as I kept eating good food and drinking good wine, I could convince myself I was living, that I was making a good life. I was considering a trip to Spain the second my face cleared up. But when I realized nothing was clearing up, I called the clinic. In my head I calculated the costs of it all. If I sold something else, like my breasts or my feet, I could get back on track. Doctor Wong did not offer those services – she only did face – but I knew there were a dozen or so unlicensed clinics, just like the one Mahika first went to, around the city.
Isn’t there anything else I can do?
Doctor Wong leaned forward in her chair. I’ve only seen one case of this before, when I was an intern. Want to know what happened to the girl?
You know how if you scrape yourself, your body grows new skin in that area? The girl started growing another face underneath her new one. So, we had two choices: either we removed the new face, or we had to stop the secondary one from growing. But by the time we realized this, it was already too late. The girl died. She was trapped in her own face.
Doctor Wong put her hand over mine. Sophia. You don’t want to be like that girl.
When I was twelve, a boy broke my nose in the school courtyard by pushing me off the steps. His hand had appeared not on my bag or my hair, but on the thin bone of my shoulder, his thumb pressing dangerously into my clavicle. Seven pounds of pressure and it breaks, that bone, I found out later. If the boy had been bigger, older, fleshier, the weight of his arm alone could have shattered me. But he used gravity, instead, and I fell down the steps onto my nose, twelve years old, the gravel salting my skin.
Later, Rui suggested he had a crush on me; that to touch me, however violently, was a gesture of the shame that had developed from his desire. I asked her how she knew, and she said she overheard the boys ranking the girls in the class, and the one who said Sophia was laughed at. The other boys said: who, that Chinese monkey?
The woman who now has my old face does not know this story. She does not know, either, of how when I was twenty-one, a man followed me home and tried to rush me at my building door, and I, screaming, threw a fistful of coins to escape; later, I saw his face on the news along with tiny postcard stamp photos of other Asian women. She does not remember how it felt to have my mother poke my head during revision sessions, or the way my grandma would inspect the proportions of my face by measuring it with a ruler, muttering about superstitions. With money earned from my first part-time job I drew exaggerated inked arrows on the outer corners of my eyes to make them appear larger. An older, male, part-time colleague told me I had perfect hentai face potential. For my twentieth birthday, just before she died, my mother gifted me a costly snail mucin cream from Korea that turned out to contain flesh-festering levels of bleach. Padded bras, leg shiners, thigh binders, Blepharoplasty, chin firmers, fillers, perms and straighteners. Movies and pornographies about women that looked like me, sex dolls, doxxing, feminism. On a white woman, my face was desired, ambiguous, a symbol of power and wealth. But for me, it had been a curse, something I desperately tried to scrub out. I had been forcing my body to adapt for so many years – to witness the wretched ornamentation of my being – that this new suffering seemed an appropriate response. Finally, it was trying to wriggle free: enough, enough, enough.
But still, I wanted more. I wanted Spain. I wanted sunlight. I wanted to eat at good restaurants. I wanted to feel less alone. I just wanted simple things, not to change the world, I told myself as I took the pills, prepared for the extra surgeries, texted people I had always avoided, who knew where these darker, damper, rooms of frozen body parts were. If this was the cost of living well, if this was the currency the world accepted, I could learn to accept it too. My body would forgive me. It always has.
The next time I saw Mahika, I was four weeks into my medication, two weeks from the last facial reconstruction Doctor Wong performed, and five days out from the other surgeries. My body was refusing to settle, but my attempts to placate it with a grotesque amount of drugs seemed to be working. Occasionally something in my veins bleated, my flesh curled, but then I took another pill and it went dead, silent. We met up at a small Egyptian café in the West Village and had pastries. I didn’t bring up my ordeal, and she didn’t ask. When she saw the medication in my bag, I just told her they were all necessary for recovery.
I went out for lunch with her, Mahika said.
The woman who has my old eyes. The one we saw in Chelsea Market.
I was quiet.
I went back there a week later at the same time, around lunchtime. She was there again. She works in the area as a gallery assistant.
Is that allowed?
I don’t see why not, Mahika said. There’s nothing in our contracts that says that if we happen to run into one of them in public, we can’t interact with them.
Did she confirm she’s a PD?
Mahika paused. No, she said.
Did she recognize you?
She sighed. No. I just sat there like an idiot, hoping she would bring it up or notice that I had her old eyes, but she just kept talking about work and her boyfriend. I tried to look at her name when she handed over her credit card, but then I remembered that clients aren’t obligated to include PD in their names. Only us.
My mouth was moving faster than my brain. There’s something weird about you meeting up with her, I said. It doesn’t feel right.
You’re really questioning the ethics of this?
I don’t know. It just feels wrong. I felt my skin pick the wind, turning cold.
I mean, what would you do? If you saw someone with your old face?
The truth was that I did not like thinking about the woman on the other end of the transaction. I did not want to confront why she had chosen to appropriate my face, out of all the others in the dozens of binders at Doctor Wong’s clinic. The image haunted me, and I pushed it away every time.
But Mahika didn’t push anything away. I had seen her get into fights at school with girls who cut her hair and stuck used sanitary towels onto her backpack. I liked when she stood up for us, admired her directness, but not when her accusations were pointed at me. I knew she was calling me weak, that I was a hypocrite, I could hear it in her voice. This was our friendship: a tug here, a tug there, and me trying not to unravel what was in the weave.
Why did you get the surgery?
The money. I answered this so immediately I surprised myself.
That’s it? So practical.
What do you want me to say? I’m fighting the system?
I think we owe it to ourselves to figure out how we play a role in all of this.
I’m not sure if that’s our responsibility, I countered. I’m just someone who made a choice, and maybe it was a bad one, but I can live with that. I knew I sounded defensive, that Mahika didn’t even know about all the other surgeries, but I needed to protect myself, to tell my body that this was the path I had taken.
I hope you don’t really think that. I hope you’re thinking about your purpose more seriously. You know there’s more we can do.
We’re icons, Sophia.
She plucked a yellow poster out of her bag. It contained instructions to bring comfortable shoes, bottles of water, and picket signs. The destination was Doctor Wong’s clinic.
One of the girls at the nail salon gave it to me. It’s a rally for women of color to fight for the rights of Patchwork Dolls. They’re targeting all the PD clinics, including ours, and they’re going to demand client transparency. Why shouldn’t we know the white women who have our faces, the people benefitting from what we had to grow up with, what we endured to get to here? Don’t you sometimes feel like we’re just being used in this giant, abstract, big pharma plan? Don’t you want to at least try and fight against all that?
Mahika, I said. I’m really tired. The medication? It’s expensive. And it makes me sleep fourteen, fifteen hours. Then I have to work. I don’t think I have time for this.
Rui and Jumana are coming, she said. I already told them about it.
I repeated myself, although I knew we had eased back into a familiar, uncomfortable dynamic: I don’t think I can make time for this.
It’s on a Saturday – surely you don’t have to work then? And maybe we can come over to make some posters the night before. You have a giant apartment. You should use it for something.
Mahika always had been very good at this: making you feel bad about certain privileges you earned, the money you made, the things you tried to protect for yourself. I knew it had something to do with Hattie, and all the therapy she had been to as a consequence – all the squares on social media telling her to demand more, to practice wellness for oneself, to be selfish. I understood all this. It was one of the only reasons I had any sympathy for her still.
My apartment is big because my mother died and it was passed down to me, her only child, I said. I don’t know what you want to me say.
That you’ll come.
I can’t. No.
I saw Mahika working something out in her mind.
Alright. You can come to the next one then.
Our tiny espressos arrived, with a biscuit wedged in the cup handle. We swirled it around in the dark liquid, the crumbs sugary and gold. Mahika paid the bill, then gave me a look that I still can’t figure out, no matter how many times I’ve gone over that interaction in my mind. I thought of the wire hanger she so meticulously untangled, how she knew exactly how to angle it in the keyhole of the cupboard. Mahika and I measuring ourselves on the wall of Jumana’s old house, our heights never too far from each other, a comfort and a threat. It scared me, her precision, how she knew exactly what to do, what our paths should be. She would often remind us of how she saved me, and how we were all, now, connected through these surgeries. But I could no longer follow her; I had already come apart and needed to find my own way out. She got up to leave.
Get some rest, Sophia. You look awful.
In the year after they vanished from my life, I would see them on the television, my old friends with their new names. Over time, the small rallies became a larger movement, and violent factions formed. They smashed and robbed clinics, some even selling body parts to the black market so that they could raise more funds for their cause. I knew this was a toxic cycle. I wanted no part of it.
My body, as I had hoped, learned to assimilate and live with the trauma. Once or twice a week I woke at night and felt myself separating, as if my flesh was radiating a homing signal to the other parts of me that were gone, but the phantom loss was easily squashed with a few more pills. When I showered, my newer parts felt chunkier, heavier, although overall I had lost a few pounds. At first, I panicked that somewhere there was a stitch undone, a patch loose, and moisture was getting in. But after I dried off, I would usually forget those anxieties when I looked at myself in the mirror, the boiling temperature of the water temporarily revealing the hairline fissures on my body, the swathe of skin that was pinker and puckered with white, the two new, pale moons on my chest.
When I was outside, there was little pain. Acquaintances remarked on my appearance with a slightly strained, yet encouraging tone one might use to register an unsettling change: Wow, is your – did you – change your hair?
I went to Barcelona and ate octopus every day, a dozen different ways: fried, stuffed, in olive oil, smothered in paprika, inky, and dark. I drank wine alone in bars; I wrote postcards to myself. I bought fruit from the market, pretending I was a local, although the men looked at me strangely – as if they couldn’t decide what kind of thing I was: a person, or an approximation of a person. I visited Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, the house of bones. Wherever I turned, there were curvilinear walls, windows like translucent cells, uneven floors that made you seasick. I read that Gaudí had designed the house to be devoid of any straight lines. It felt like the lining of a soft organ – not like bones at all, the only things, perhaps, in my body that I wouldn’t ever try to change.
When I returned to New York, I tried to be kinder to myself. I painted the walls of my apartment seafoam green in the spring. I put up photographs of my dead mother. I took calcium pills.
The movement was still going strong. The last I heard, Mahika, Rui and Jumana were moving around the country, but mainly stayed close to Seattle, where every year there was a giant global medical conference. I followed the news, and sometimes when I saw one of my friends I would gaze at them passively, just how I used to read all those articles that were about me, but also not about me. I saw that Mahika had changed her name; people were calling her a doctor of some sort, and she dropped the PD.
I kept my name because it cost money to change it, and because I wanted a concrete reminder of that time. I needed a marker to move on from. Whenever I was at the post office or the hospital and someone called out Sophia PD Leung, people would turn to look at me, but then their attention drifted away, as if disappointed by how ordinary I seemed. I wasn’t an activist, or a feminist, or an icon – I was just myself, with slightly more money than before and a history of bad choices.
Without my friends, I went to brunch. I went to happy hour. I booked trips to Kyoto, to Niagara Falls, to Paris, to my mother’s home city in China, and then back again. I listened to new music; I watched new films; I found ways to keep refreshing, like a browser window, in a world that was always changing.
Photograph © Igor Rand