When you sit across from me I don’t see your face,
your brittle hands twisting in your lap,
your mouth pursed in anticipation of bad news.
I see the black lines I will etch across your chest, around the sagging flesh that I will cut away. I see the rawness of your fear and your flesh and I know that only I can make it go away.
I will tell you kindly that there are precancerous cells,
that you are in danger
and that I can save you.
I will look away when you turn to your husband and choke on your words.
I will leave just the right amount of time before I stand up and shake your hands, clasping them in my reassuring, steady grip as I tell you not to worry.
You will walk out, trembling and small,
and I will rock back slightly in my chair,
my eyes narrowing imperceptibly.
I will see you lying before me,
a congealing slab of meat that I will mark and press and slice.
The first cut is not the deepest.
It is more like a stroke, teasing the skin until it yields.
The blade will slip further into the warmth of you
and your blood will flow thick and iron-tanged.
I will turn you inside out, bearing virgin flesh to the air as I cut and tear.
You will leave without your breasts
and you will never know that there were no precancerous cells.
But I will tower, godlike, above you, and I will be your saviour and
you will send me a bottle of whisky to thank me for violating you.
Branded, you will always wear my scar.
A large room, rimmed with paint pots, palettes and jars of brushes. The flaking white walls are covered intermittently with sketches and paintings pinned with shiny tacks. Light from the high windows (positioned to protect the models’ modesty) rains into the circle of easels and chairs, set around a small podium in the centre. Dust dances in a beam that glances off the chin of the man who stands naked on the podium. The room smells of paint, pigment, chalk-dust, charcoal, sweat, turps. There is silence. Of the eleven people sitting at the easels the naked man stares only at one.
She is in her early twenties, fair, pale, delicate-looking. She holds her pencil lightly, sweeping it across the paper, looking back at her subject to check she has captured his proportions correctly. She turns his lines and sinews into pencil strokes, reconstructing him through the filters of her gaze. He stares at her. She sees a briny grin behind his neutral expression, a wolf-light flicker in his eyes. The force of his stare seems to scorch a hole in her picture, the burning paper dissolving as she draws. She tries to focus, to see only the shadows and form of his tangled pubic hair and the feathered brawn of his arms. He is just flesh and muscle and angles. Yet he continues to stare. He is challenging her with his nakedness and his eyes and the lick of his jaw.
She feels sweat beading on her face, a redness rising with the effort it takes to catch and contain him with her pencil strokes. He is like a mantling hawk, his heft and body spreading over his prey as he tears off pieces of her with his eyes. She swivels in her chair. Her pencil clatters to the floor. She leaves the room, feeling like she needs to gasp for air, a fish dangling from a mouth-tearing hook.
At first I enjoyed the work. Yes it was exhausting and repetitive, but there was something satisfying about getting it right. And it beat flipping burgers or mowing lawns. My dad worked there until his arthritis got too bad, so it seemed natural that I should end up on the same assembly line. Some of the other workers knew my dad, said they would look out for me, but that didn’t last long.
I worked the early shift usually, arriving just before the sun climbed above the huge hangar-like building. There were two guys either side of me and at first they would make quiet comments – just under their breath – about what I was wearing. I ignored them mostly, and just got on with my work. I focussed on the rows of cars moving slowly past me, playing my part in turning them from skeletons into finished vehicles. I watched the robots bend their yellow necks, imagining them keeping watch over me, like mechanical sentries.
Even though the factory floor was hot and airless I stopped wearing shorts so I could avoid the stares and whistles that followed me down the production line. It’s funny how you can hear those whistles over the sound of clanking metal, the hiss of giant power tools, the rumbles and squeals and bangs. Sometimes the noise built in my head like a brutal symphony.
Then one man stopped me as I went on my break. He got out his phone and showed me a photo of his dick. My mouth went dry, but I managed to make a casual laughing sound and walked on. A few days later I turned around and he was standing right there, watching me. With his dick in his hand. Enclosed in his stare was an implicit violence. I didn’t say anything to anyone. I’d heard stories of people having their tyres slashed, being denied bathroom breaks or prevented from doing their job because they complained about someone. I just hoped it would stop.
But this behaviour had an impetus, a desire to grow and bloom that seemed to have an energy of its own. I knew it could only get worse. It was like the continual movement of the cars in front of me, and it became as relentless as each day began to feel. Him standing there watching me, flies unzipped, his erection looming through his scrappy jeans. The endless onward march of time as I fixed and checked and turned screws and lifted machinery, always wondering when he would appear next.
The only way to deal with it was to stop feeling anything. I slowly dismantled myself. I stripped back the shame, unscrewed the fear and drilled into the anger until I was nothing more than a piece of machinery. A husk of a person, with the jerky movements and blank stare of the yellow robots. I moved along the line as he watched me. I tried to take up as little space as possible.
When did you become invisible?
You walk past people and they look right through you; doors are slammed in your face because nobody sees you.
It’s only been the last couple of years that you’ve really noticed the not noticing. Since your hair turned grey and lipstick started to slide off your dry lips.
It’s not that you always turned heads before, or that you were followed down the street by catcalls and lusty glances.
But you were seen.
What place is there in this jumbled world for a woman of your age?
You could dye your hair, get some surgery to rearrange your face.
But why would you?
You actually enjoy this vanishing.
There is something liberating about not being on the end of a look.
You are no longer seen as something with which a man might choose to have sex – despite the deepening orgasms and spangled intensity of post-menopausal arousal.
These are secrets you hold close.
They are not for the muscle-bound coffee-shop boys who serve you your lattes, nor the sweaty gardeners who rake leaves in front of the park bench where you like to stop and watch the world go by.
To feel no eyes on you has released you from the tyranny of your looks.
What is emerging is a force that would strike awe into these people, if only they knew.
But you keep it hidden, turning inwards and recalibrating your thoughts.
You have no use for their gaze.
You are watching now.
Lulah Ellender is the author of Elisabeth’s Lists, available now from Granta Books.