It happened first in the shower. Sasha stood, scrubbing her body, her mind occupied on the day, on when the man might be answering her earlier text when—just as easily as one might tear a page from a book—the skin on her forearm peeled off. What was most curious was the brevity of it; how it came off quickly, painlessly, as though she were some type of amphibious being shedding her top layer. As it happened, Sasha felt only a passing coolness, like a breeze had blown the skin away. And when it was gone, it didn’t bleed. All that was left was a fresh pink scar.
She stared in silent shock at the skin dancing and swaying around her feet as the water pressed down upon it. She turned off the water and stepped out of the shower and toweled off, applying a burn cream to her arm—the only thing she could think to put on, fumbling for a first aid kit unused and tucked away in a back cabinet. It felt like nothing when it went on, just like rubbing lotion onto clean skin. She should go to the doctor, perhaps. But she couldn’t remember her doctor’s name and she had other things to do. There were always other things to do. Instead, she dressed and pulled the long sleeves of her shirt down over her arms.
Waiting on the man’s text, she accepted an invitation for lunch with a friend.
“Show me!” the friend said.
Sasha carefully pushed up the sleeve of her shirt. Her arm was still freshly pink, still missing the swatch of skin.
“What?” her friend asked.
“What do you mean, ‘What’? Look at my arm!”
Her friend glanced from her arm back to Sasha. “Aw, Sash, is this an inside joke I don’t remember?”
Sasha was confused. “But, you don’t see…?”
Her friend frowned and turned to the restaurant menu on the table in front of her. “So, what are you thinking? They’ve got really good lentil soup here.”
The second time, though, she wasn’t alone.
It was later that night, much later, when Sasha was invited over to the man’s house.
“Oh, hey, you’re here,” he said, when Sasha arrived after midnight, his face in the doorway looking sleepy. He pulled her in close and she felt all of him, his whole body pressed against hers.
“I missed you,” she said.
He pulled away and looked at her, almost studying her face. “You look pretty today,” he said.
She offered a soft smile and moved straight past him into the bedroom. She took off her clothes while he grabbed some vodka and Pepsi from the fridge. She stood and stared at her naked body in his full-length mirror while listening to his kitchen sounds: ice popping from the tray, utensil drawers opening and slamming.
“You want ice?” he called.
The scar was still there, but had lessened a bit, no longer appearing with the bright sheen like it had earlier in the day. She lay herself down on his mattress on the floor, pressing her body between his dirty crumpled sheets, and gazed at the belongings that made up his room: clothes hamper in the corner, guitar with broken strings against the wall, loose change on the floor and the dresser. All of these things, unmoved from their respective locations, had become constants in her own life, comforts of the man’s that she observed from her place here near the floor.
There were times when the man was attentive; someone who listened to her thoughts on all kinds of things: her many failed attempts to become a vegetarian, her questions about the universe, specific character and plot details about the script she was going to start writing tomorrow. There were moments when she had his full attention, when he looked at her as she spoke and seemed to actually hear what she had to say, when he responded with answers that proved he had the power to appreciate her, those were the times Sasha clung onto and reminded herself of on the many other occasions when he wouldn’t look at her as she talked, or when she wasn’t clear on the details of his day, or when he wasn’t sure of the next time they could hang out, or when he wouldn’t answer his phone or respond to a text in a 24 hour period, or when he ignored the drunken voicemails she had (once or twice) left for him, acting as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened while instead bustling around the kitchen preparing dinners of nachos and cheese and vodka and Pepsis and asking how her day had been, indifferent of her answer.
He entered the room topless, wearing only bright blue basketball shorts of a color not found in nature. He carried the two plastic cups and handed her the one with a certain Disney princess, now faded from overuse.
“Like that? Got it when I was like, seven. Ariel is super hot.”
There was sex without kissing, and after, lying together in the dark, she asked him, but he said he hadn’t noticed that she was missing any skin on her arm.
Just as she was sinking into the expanse of sleep, she felt him stand from the bed. She watched him pull his shorts back on and tuck his feet into running sneakers. “Going for a run,” he said. Sasha nodded. It was three a.m. He always went for runs.
She fell asleep alone without him, and only vaguely heard him come back in and shower, then lay himself next to her in the bed at some very late hour.
In the morning, her hair was gone.
He was still asleep when she left, her head covered in a scarf she’d thankfully left at his apartment some night before. She found it tucked away in his sock drawer, mixed in with his things and hidden from view. She had been searching for something, anything, to cover up her balding and patchy-haired head. The hair that had come out during the night she’d swept off of the pillow and tossed in a plastic bag, taking it with her as she left.
On the train home she stared at her feet, and all the feet, really, shuffling along the subway’s corridor, stumbling when the train stopped too suddenly, tapping in time with music. Off of the train, she walked with her head down, still tucked away under the scarf. The plastic bag filled with her hair billowed as she walked.
Inside her apartment, looking at herself in the mirror confirmed what she’d already learned when pulling off the scarf: more hair had come out. Her long, dark locks, falling out entangled with themselves, sat in a bundle in the scarf. Stragglers landed on her shoulders. She brushed the strands away and shook out the bunch in her scarf, pouring it all into the plastic bag that she secured with a knot and tucked under her bed. In the mirror, she examined her naked head. She’d never before seen its shape, it’s up and down contours, the way it came to a soft point at the very top back. She rubbed her hands along it, feeling the slight bumpiness of freshly plucked skin. Without her hair she noticed the shock of her forehead, the expanse of skin behind her ears. Her neck looked like it belonged to someone else; appearing now as it did so outrageously exposed.
In the evening, she called the man, who didn’t answer. She poured a large glass of wine and typed “losing hair” and “losing skin” into her web browser, and immediately wished she hadn’t. She’d diagnosed herself with five possible ailments before falling asleep sometime after one. Sometime during the night she woke to a text from the man: where r u? in bed. wish u were here now
The next day was Monday, and life had to go on. The job she worked she’d found through a temp agency, as there seemed to be no work for film majors who minored in poli-sci. She’d been at this job for six weeks now, typing briefs and memos for a high-volume law firm, where thick files held together by rubber bands littered the shelves and, sometimes, floor. On some days, like today, when they couldn’t staff another temp to do it, she was tasked with organizing the files, alphabetizing and finding space in the cabinets that lined the perimeter of the office. The job required mindlessness. Which was fine, since her mind was preoccupied with other things. At noon she left for her regulated 45 minute lunch but couldn’t eat, instead spent the time staring at herself in the bathroom mirror of the café in the basement of the building, running her hands again along her bald scalp, equal parts horrified and curious at her reflection. She reaffirmed the scarf on her head and returned to the office to touch files and talk to no one. She managed to make it to three o’clock before anyone said anything to her.
It was in the break room. As Sasha dumped sugar and packets of cream into a mug of cheap office coffee, she noticed the girl, a coworker, sitting at a table, eating vending machine treats and eyeing her appraisingly.
Sasha’s hands instinctively moved to her head, where her scarf was still firmly in place. “Oh, yeah. Something I’m trying.” Then, feeling the weight of her stare, Sasha’s answer not sufficient enough to end the conversation, she added, “You like it?”
The girl nodded approvingly.
Back at her desk, Sasha had finished the filing and began translating a hand-written memo from a lawyer to a typed, finished version, spicing it up with words she never used, words like “Pursuant” and “Foregoing” and “Contemporaneously.” She was midway through the letter, deciphering one particularly loopy set of script, when her boss’s thigh appeared next to her desk.
“Hi. Sasha, is it?”
Sasha looked up. “Yes?”
“So, I’m sorry, but…” he stammered, looked around.
“Oh, I finished the filing. Judy told me when I came in that’s what I should do, but it didn’t take me all day.”
Her boss was a wide man. Wide stance, wide middle, wide face. “No, no, you’re doing fine, not that.”
Sasha looked at him, waiting for him to say more.
“It’s just… it’s company policy. No headscarves unless strictly for religious purposes, and even then we have to go through this whole thing, paperwork and appeals to headquarters and all that, it’s a mess, really, but, yeah, so.”
Sasha stared at him unblinkingly. His movements were forced and rigid as he spoke.
“I won’t wear it tomorrow,” she said coolly, turning back to her screen.
“Sorry, but, you’ll need to take it off today. Now, I mean.” He was gaining confidence. “Just because, well, like I said, it’s policy and if I allow you to do it then I have to allow Charlene to do it and it’s a ripple effect, you see? And then I get in trouble with headquarters and, well, to speak plainly I can’t lose this job because—“
“I’ll take it off. Just, um, give me a sec?”
His face relaxed with relief. “Thanks for your understanding.”
Sasha watched as he turned to move towards his desk. She looked around the office. Everyone else was either staring at a screen or looking for a file. No one was paying her any attention. Gently, she tugged the scarf loose and balled it up in her pocket. Seeing her reflection in her blackened computer screen, hot tears stung her eyes.
She gathered her things and stood, moving toward her boss’s office door.
“Hi,” she said, tapping the doorframe with her knuckle.
“Ah, much better, thank you for that. I know it’s silly, but the company has all of these rules—“
“I’m feeling sick. I need to go home.”
“Oh, okay. Okay. That’s fine. You know we can’t pay you for the full day.”
“I know, it’s fine. I just, um, got to go.” She turned away before her boss said anything else, and left the office. In the elevator down she stared at herself in the golden reflection of the elevator doors. Still bald. She pushed the sleeve up on her shirt to see her arm was still without its top layer of skin. She checked her phone. Nothing from the man. She sent a text, Boss is being a jerk. Stories to tell when I see you! She pulled the crumpled scarf from her pocket and re-wrapped it on her head, deciding to walk the twenty-three blocks home.
The evening was spent in her bedroom with the door shut, avoiding looking at herself in the mirror and willing the man to call. In desperation she texted him please, I need you, and was just drifting into sleep—lying on top of the covers, clothes on, artificial light filling the room—when her phone buzzed with a text from the man.
Hey u ok
She responded immediately, Can you talk? and waited an hour for him to text back or call, but fell asleep before he did, some three hours later.
The buzzing woke her out of a terrifying dream-filled sleep. In it, she’d become just a torso rocking in the wind, somewhere in a desert.
“Hello?” she said, catching his call on the fourth ring.
“Oh—hey, was just about to hang up. You asleep?”
“Yeah, I mean, I was. I’m up.” Her head hurt from being ripped to consciousness. She could hear shuffling in the background. “Where are you?”
“Just getting home. You wanna come over?”
Sasha pulled the phone away to check the time. Nearly two a.m.
“Yeah. I’ll see if I can get a cab.”
“Cool. See you soon, then.”
Sasha waited for him to hang up before she pulled the phone away from her ear. She felt all at once too exhausted to move, but did anyway, pulling herself out of bed to once again look at her face in the mirror. She felt hideous: a bald, skinless, freak. She pinched her lips together, something she always did when she was nervous or upset, her mouth forming a thin pink line above her chin. She tied on the scarf and picked out earrings of the variety she’d seen other women without hair wear and pull off: long, light feathers that nearly touched her shoulders. She pushed the earring in on the right side and approved of the look. But as she pushed in the left side, tugging gently on the earlobe, her ear fell to the ground with a soft plop.
She stared at it resting by her feet. How odd it looked detached from the body, like a bundle of curled baby toes. She was too shocked to scream (shouldn’t she be used to this by now?) and instead picked it up and placed it in the plastic bag with her hair. In the mirror, the skin had already covered over the place where her ear had been. There was no blood, just pink skin, as though she was made of clay and could be reshaped, adjusted.
By the time she reached the man’s doorstep, her face was swollen from the hard crying she allowed herself in the ten-minute cab ride to his apartment. She rapped lightly on his door, and, after a minute of hearing no answer, knocked harder. The door swung open just as she was about to begin her loudest, hardest knock yet.
“Whoa. What’s up with you?”
She pressed herself against his chest and wrapped her arms around him, noticing his wholeness, how complete he felt. If she could just stay there, maybe nothing more would happen, maybe she could just absorb all of him. “I don’t know!” she wailed into his chest, allowing the tears to flood. “I keep losing pieces of me! Like, am I dying?”
“Whoa, whoa, back up,” he said, pushing her away to look into her face. He studied her for several moments, peering intently at her eyes, her nose, her mouth, before saying, “What’s with the scarf?”
Sasha reached for the top of the scarf and yanked it off her head. She threw her arms up at her side. “See? This is what’s up with the scarf,” she shouted, pointing to her head.
“What? Bad hair day or something?”
“How—how can you not see this?”
The man held Sasha’s face in both his hands, and miraculously, gently, placed a kiss on her forehead. “Shh, you’re okay, babe. Bad day I guess, huh? Let me go fix us some drinks. You go to the bed.”
Sasha stood dumbfounded as the man turned toward the kitchen.
“I can’t—no, I need you. I need your help,” she said, in a voice too quiet for him to hear.
The man called from the kitchen, “You want ice?”
In his bedroom, carefully, quietly, she stripped off all of her clothes and once again studied herself in his smudged full-length mirror. Still, her reflection showed only parts of her—missing pieces here and there. But now something more, the flesh at her waist was somehow missing, her side appearing like a sickle, like she’d been carved into.
She laid herself down in between his still-unwashed sheets and pulled the blankets to her chin, waiting for him to return. When he did, she sat up, deliberately not accepting his outstretched hand offering her a plastic cup.
“Please, I’m, I’m freaking out here. I’ve had an awful two days and I just, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. No one else seems to see it and… and you’re never here! You’re here, but you’re never here. With me. You never are. You used to be, I think. But you’re not now.”
The man moved to his side of the bed while Sasha spoke and took a few long sips from his cup, finishing the whole thing in just a few minutes in the empty silence that hung between them. When he finished, he turned to her. “You know what? I’m gonna go for a run.”
Sasha watched as he stood from the bed and pulled on his blue shorts and running sneakers. She stared at him as he left the room, shutting the door behind him.
The silence of the room after he left was oppressive. Her cries began to pick up again, louder now, until her breaths came out in heaves and she let out a scream, a sound so foreign she almost refused to believe it had come from her. She began to kick things: the crumpled sheets that only twisted around her legs, the clean laundry left in a clump at the foot of his bed. She pulled the pillows from behind her and threw them across the room, where they landed in a too soft, unsatisfying way. The cup on the floor on his side of the bed she whipped hard at the mirror, causing a spider web to form along its length.
The mattress was on the floor, a mere six inches from the ground. Carefully, she placed a foot down, uncertain of trusting her body with her weight. But she stood, and she pulled on all of her clothes, and she left.
It was a chilly night, the October air just beginning to say goodbye to the last remnants of September. She pulled her jacket in tighter and cried harder—snotty, heaving cries—feeling confused and entirely alone. As she walked, strands of her hair, long and unkempt, blew across her face, grazing her chin. She pulled her hand from her pocket and tucked them behind her ear. She walked the entire way home and arrived at her apartment feeling exhausted. Only three feet through the door she took off everything, leaving her shoes, purse, jacket, and all of her clothes in a pile on the hallway floor. She moved to the bathroom and turned the shower water to its hottest temperature. As the small room heated up, filling the space with warm, wet air, she turned to the mirror and rubbed her hand along it to clear a space in the fog. In the mirror, water dripping down in front of her reflection, her hair was full, her ear in place, the flesh of her waist filled out. In a daze she left the bathroom and ran to her bedroom, intent on pulling the plastic bag out from underneath her bed. But when she bent down and threw the blankets up to look, there was no plastic bag, just balls of dust and a pair of old shoes.
She laughed through her tears. How absurd it all was.
The sound of the water pounding down in the porcelain tub pushed her to move. Back in the bathroom, climbing into the shower, she let the water run over every part of her.