Four. The size in inches of the raw discoloration on the right hip.
Annie’s body no longer has an owner. After leaving Gertie, her body
tells her to return to its owner, to go back. Her body puts her on the
wrong train after work, the blue one that takes her to Wicker Park and
Gertie, instead of the red one that takes her to her tiny, empty studio
in Uptown. She dreams of puzzles missing pieces, socks without their
pairs, graves on the edge of cemeteries.
There’s a night when Annie’s friends take her out, the friends still
around since the divorce. Engaged Anya and married Chanda and partnered
Michael and open-marriaged Marcus. At dinner, ceviche and margaritas
with salted rims, they speak from a script. What really happened, they
ask. I can’t believe it, they say, which is also a question. Both sound
like an accusation.
Annie says they fought a lot, her and Gertie. More than they let on.
Her friends fidget. Anya bites a purple-manicured nail on her
wedding-china-white hand. Chanda nibbles her straw through too-white
teeth and plum lips. Michael taps his pointed-toe loafer on the floor
and his skeleton fingers on the table. Marcus checks his phone for
Scruff hits on his BBD profile. They ask questions that are not given
voice in that fidgeting. Aren’t you supposed to persevere? Past the
fights, the boredom, the disappointment?
Annie says she is sad and would like to change the topic. Her friends’
relief is a mass exhale of tangy lime breath.
They eat, they drink. They cab to Boystown, Buddy’s for the guys, then
The Closet for the girls. There is dancing to Rihanna and Madonna and
Ariana, drinking of vodka sodas and tequila shots. Annie becomes one of
many twisting torsos across the tightly-packed dance floor. She and her
friends turn into strobes of smoke, and she waves her arms above her
head, watching her limbs lengthen with the black and white elegance of a
Marlene Dietrich film. Her sweat smells sweet amongst the humid cloud of
humanity, tinged with Coco Mademoiselle and the salt from margaritas.
She is light as she bounces on her toes, insubstantial, incorporeal. She
could leave her body behind on this dance floor, float between the
speakers and the rafters, through the TVs playing a loop of pin-up
pictures, beautiful butches and femmes, into the crisp autumn air, up
where the stars are hidden by the orange glow of street lights.
Her friends want to leave. But if Annie stops moving, she’s afraid she
One of the shapes surrounding her resolves into a recognizable form, and
Annie sees black skin and a soft brown crown of hair. A short white tank
top, tight high-waist jeans. Annie’s hand meets round hips. She is happy
the woman has softness where Gertie had muscle and bone. She is sad that
this woman does not have the shape of Gertie.
Dancing in the space between the strobe. Drinking. Talking. Annie
forgets the words as they leave her mouth and hit her ears. The woman
kisses Annie’s neck, her lips, then pulls her off the dance floor. Annie
screams over the music, a line that’s been in her head all morning from
an old Pixies song.
The woman leads Annie into a back storeroom, or maybe a closet or
kitchen. Annie can’t tell in the dark. Then the woman pulls up Annie’s
shirt and bra, tongues her breast, while also slipping a finger into her
cunt. Annie breathes deep, leans back, stretches towards the tongue and
finger. It’s a comfort to know her body is real, that it’s seen and
felt. Annie feels a vibration, something searing, and for a moment she
thinks it’s a new form of release. It’s exciting, thinking she will have
a new kind of orgasm to herald her new life and new lovers. But then the
woman extricates herself from Annie’s body, jumping back with a shriek.
She pulls Annie into the bathroom, her jeans around her knees and
breasts out. The woman pushes Annie onto the lip of the grimy sink.
Annie doesn’t understand until she feels the cold water on her hip and
looks down. There’s a bright pink spot. The woman says something about a
pipe, radiator, burn. Annie watches the water, waiting to feel it, feel
the cool or the burn. Nothing. When she looks up the woman is gone.
The next morning Annie remembers the burn by scraping her underwear down
her leg. She wants to vomit, but instead she applies Vaseline, unsure
what else to do. Only after, as the burn stings and aches and hisses
through her hip, does she remember the woman’s tongue and finger. That
at least is something.
Three. The height in inches of the subdermal black ink on the back
Annie passes a tattoo parlor on Broadway every day on her walk home from
the train. The door is sometimes open to the street, and she sees red
walls and thumbtacked prints of comics. The speakers scream Social
Distortion and Fugazi.
Gertie didn’t like tattoos.
On a day the hum in her hip recedes a bit, and the hum in her head
re-emerges, the one that begs her to go back home, Annie goes through
the door. A man with an orange clawed hand stretching across his neck
guides her to a table that could be used in a gynecology exam. A college
girl on the next table has stripped to her bra and jeans as her silent
artist chisels a sword along her ribcage. A skate punk next to her has
stripped to his boxer briefs to get a Lannister house sigil engraved on
his thigh. No shyness or qualms in the name of art. Annie takes off her
The artist prepares his surgeon’s plate of sterilized needles and guns.
He keeps another one on his other side, for ink, gauze, and cream.
Tattoo artists are not hair stylists. They don’t want to know the mind
inside the skin they carve. The man behind her is silent, and Annie,
tired of talk, is happy at this silence.
The college girl breathes in a thin rattling whistle between gritted
teeth. The skater tugs at his snapback hat with the weed symbol, takes
it off, folds it, back on, grimacing. There will be pain, that is what
Annie sees. It’s what she expects, and without it will be disappointed.
She hates the firstness of this moment though, wants it to be over.
Social Distortion stops, and the air gets loud with moans and gasps from
the others. A metal hum. A troll with elvish markings across his arms,
legs, and shaved head appears from behind a tartan curtain. He marches
to the counter in his board shorts and flip flops and pushes buttons.
Then horns, and Otis Redding. Try a little tenderness, he sings. Annie’s
shoulders sink, leaning back into relaxation again. That’s when the
machine begins behind her ear and the needle bites into her back.
Annie breathes in sharply, a gasp and catch and stiffening. Painful,
yes. But more.
The gun vibrates, and the needle stabs in quick succession, and the
artist wipes away inky blood, and there is nothing else she needs or
wants and nothing else to think about. She remembers this feeling is
Otis sings, an entire album of pain and pleasure at once, while the gun
and the need and the artist do their work.
Finally, they are done. The artist wipes once and then gives Annie a
mirror. A small black dove flies on her left shoulder. Cut her open, and
there it was.
Two. The centimeters disparity between the length of the legs,
measured from hip socket to bottom of fibula.
Annie runs. It is Thanksgiving morning and it is snowing and she runs
for an hour. She runs a rectangle from empty Uptown to quiet Lincoln
Square to vacant Roscoe Village to silent Lakeview and back. Her earbuds
pump out White Stripes and Peaches. Her left hip twinges in mile two,
then pulses in mile four, then screams in mile six. During her two block
cool down, the music downshifts to Cat Power and she limps along to her
howl about a metal heart not worth a thing.
This is not the first hip pain from running. But it is the worst. So
Annie gives in this time and visits a doctor. The doctor sends her to a
physical therapist. This therapist watches Annie walk and run on a
treadmill. The therapist wears Lululemon pants and a hoodie, and she
speaks to the top of Annie’s head, saying words like IT band, excessive
mileage, improper gait, misalignment, corrective exercises.
Annie has been walking wrong her entire life, the therapist says.
Annie’s legs are not the same length. Annie’s body has finally had
enough and will be heard.
Left alone for a moment as the therapist writes up a treatment plan,
Annie thinks of pairs. Her legs are pairs, as are her arms. Her hands,
her buttcheeks, her ears, her eyes. Her body is made in dual shapes.
Under the therapist’s supervision, Annie practices balance exercises on
a Bosu ball, rolls her legs with a foam roller, performs deadlifts and
squats in slow motion to correct the form. At the end of the
appointment, Annie is sweaty and sapped.
The therapist has Annie lay down on a long rectangular table reminiscent
of the tattoo table. The therapist stretches Annie, folding her left leg
and pushing it into her chest. The therapist’s face hovers over Annie’s.
She has a mole on her white forehead above her penciled-in eyebrow, gold
triangle earrings that dangle near her cheeks, blond hair that curls
over her ears. She looks nothing like Gertie. But there are two people,
a pair, in this moment, and they are touching limbs, and can feel each
Annie’s hip throbs when she leaves, and her underwear is damp.
In her empty studio, Annie stretches out her legs on her emaciated
futon. There are different patterns of moles and freckles on her legs,
and one knee has a patch of long brown hair she missed when shaving. She
tries to eye the difference, see the extra length the right has over the
left. But they look the same.
Annie does the work, attends the appointments, until her insurance
allotment runs out. She walks instead of runs. The work doesn’t take
though. Her mismatched limbs no longer respond to her commands.
One. Toe with an empty nail bed.
Engaged Anya and partnered Michael and open-marriaged Marcus gather at
married Chanda’s condo in Humboldt Park. It is mid December, and this is
a holiday party with a large invite list. Annie drinks three gin and
tonics before the Lyft arrives. Spouses and significant others will be
at this party.
Chanda and her husband are agnostic, but they have a real pine with
string lights in their den, stockings above the stairwell, Bing Crosby
on the Bluetooth speakers. Sequin dresses and tights on the women,
sweater vests and oxfords on the men. Annie wears Converse and a knitted
hat topped with a pom.
There is apple cider and bourbon, and on her third mug Annie talks to
Chanda’s brother Chase. He is asking about Gertie, and Annie shakes her
head and drinks the shot she poured along with her cocktail. No really,
Chase says, his twenty-something white male face a blank space on which
she can paint her own pattern. Tell me, he says.
And she does. Annie tells Chase that she’d been in love, or at least had
convinced herself that she was, and was there really a difference? What
you think you feel, you feel, she says. But that feeling, that belief in
a feeling, changed. There wasn’t a specific event to point to, she says.
She and Gertie argued about what mattress to buy, what shade of gray to
paint the condo’s living room, and the right amount to spend on a bottle
of whiskey. They occasionally yelled at one another, when they could not
yell at their supervisors and their parents and their elected leaders,
and most of the time they understood this need to vent, this role that
they played for each other, and any resentment and hurt feelings could
be forgiven. They stopped surprising each other. Consistency is a kind
of comfort, Annie says. It’s nice to know what to expect. But, for
example, the punctuality of their weekly sex at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays,
after an early dinner and a movie in Streeterville, became a series of
known steps, all enacted in the same order, for the same amount of time.
Like laundry and an annual Pap smear.
Really, Annie says to Chase, the things she liked changed. Ten years is
time for that to happen. Dairy and steampunk and mid-century design, all
things she loved at 25. Things she couldn’t stomach at 35. Gertie was
one of those things.
That’s depressing, Chase says. Annie says yes. Aren’t you supposed to
change together? Annie says yes.
They drink to the disappointment of reality. They keep drinking, as the
music gets louder and segues to disco, as the veneer of mid-thirties
adulthood slips from the people in the room and they remember what it
feels like to party without responsibility. Vests are shorn along with
shoes and there are shots and dance-offs. Someone breaks the rule of
smoking only on the step-out Juliette balcony and lights up in the
Chase is very close to Annie, the two of them wedged into a corner of
the living room. He’s speaking into her ear and his lips brush her hair
and cheek. It’s been a long time since Annie has flirted with a man, had
sex with a man—college perhaps. She always appreciated the beauty of
some men, even of their cocks, brainless worms that they were. She
appreciated them, even if she preferred the shapes of women. She puts a
hand on the front of Chase’s pants, feels the outline of him through the
After a moment, one where they gape at the other like witnesses to a
three-second knockout, where Annie holds her breath and Chase gasps, he
pulls them into the hall. Chase grabs her hand, sticks it down his
boxers. Her senses are heightened yet slowed, so it takes a moment for
her to grip, to feel it grow. A kind of victory, the speed at which his
body responds to hers.
And it’s fine, and she thinks it might be fun to feel the tip of his
penis nudging around her vagina in the way that they do. But Annie also
feels nauseous, the bourbon returning back the way it came. She pulls
her hand out of his shorts, scraping her nails on him, and he yelps. She
run-stumbles, her left Converse coming loose, to Chanda’s personal
vanity and shower. Her left foot wedges under the thin particle board
door of the bathroom. Something rips, and there’s stabbing pain in her
toes, but she’s got a bigger problem, and it’s coming up her throat in a
hot gush. Her vomit just misses the toilet, spraying the tile and shower
curtain, brown and curdled.
Ah fuck, Chase says. He’s followed her, the perfect gentleman, and she
looks up to see him dry heave and turn his back.
Annie winds wads of toilet paper around her hand and pools the puke. She
stops to vomit again, in the commode this time. Chase says he has to go,
apologizes. Annie thinks the apology might be to himself, to his body,
his squeamishness getting in the way of sex.
She splashes water on her face and rinses her mouth. Notices red on her
foot. Peels back her argyle sock and brings her big toenail with it,
stuck in the fabric like a macabre brooch. Her toe is all red and now
she feels the full hot pulse of it. She cries as she curls her leg over
the sink, runs cool water over her foot. She finds hydrogen peroxide in
the medicine cabinet and bites down on her palm when it sears her toe.
She picks the nail off her sock, and puts the scaly thing back on her
toe. Binds it together with gauze and tape from the cabinet.
This is not an adult solution. Her toenail will not reattach and grow
like a lizard regrowing a tail. But Annie is surrounded by adults who
are pretending they are young again, who have forgotten their world
weariness and ready answers for crises. And she is not an adult.
Annie decides she will handle this tomorrow. A solution will come to her
then. She leaves the party without saying words to Chase Chanda Anya
Michael Marcus all busy losing their minds.
At home, Chase texts her. Asks if she’s feeling better. If she wants to
meet some other time. Annie blocks him from her phone, changes her
bandage and hopes for sleep to heal.
On the train home. The right one, the red one. A few days before
Christmas. Annie is staying in the city this year, the idea of the pity
at home too much. Her parents and their spouses had been slow to warm to
Gertie, girl that she was, phase that they thought she was. But now. To
be alone at 36. Disaster.
Annie is thinking of Gertie, listening to Henry Rollins scream in her
ear buds about being a liar. She is thinking of the shit year it’s been.
She is thinking in her loop when the ache in her chest, the one that’s
been there all day, gets bigger. Louder. It covers the area under her
breasts, into her armpits, under her lateral wings.
And then her knees give out. She kneels on the floor, the curved metal
cutting into the flesh of her calves. She’s unable to catch her breath,
but at the same time she’s inhaling the stench of piss and bile and
slush down there, the stuff that no amount of industrial cleaner can
erase from these train floors. Sweat pops under her bra line and down
her back, pouring from her hairline. Someone says words to her, but she
can’t see this someone, can only see the vague outline of their shape
against the growing black of her vision.
The train pulls into Belmont, and Annie finds adrenaline and fear ready,
pushing her off the floor and onto the newly expanded platform. She
sprints down the newly metal stairs. Something is going to explode and
she’s not sure what or what direction it will be, but Masonic is two
blocks away. She runs, the long long city blocks to Wellington, and for
a moment feels happy that she is running again, freedom and power, and
she runs east and spots the ER and activates the sliding doors and stops
inside and pants and her bladder lets go a little before reasserting
control and she sweats and sweats and the hall is turning black and she
feels hollow and
Annie feels another body keeping her steady, strong arms that gently
guide her on quivering legs to a plastic chair. Someone gives her water,
and points a tiny desk fan at her face. Over long seconds, Annie’s sweat
cools, and her breath slows. Someone, maybe the same someone with gifts,
asks her what happened, how she’s feeling. Words come out of Annie’s
mouth and she thinks they are the right ones.
There’s tests, cuff on her arm, syringe in her elbow, electrodes on her
heart. All of them come back to smiles from nurses and technicians and
Anxiety, they say. Panic. That’s all. The body does funny things, they
say. When it’s under pressure. But zero heart irregularities.
Annie is not relieved, as perhaps she should be. This should have been a
heart attack. That thing in her chest should be shocked and broken. It
should be reshaping itself. It should look different and act different
and be different. Her heart’s resilience isn’t fair, the regularity
The doctor hands her a prescription for Lorezapam. Ten pills, without a
refill. Annie wonders if it’s enough, if ten will do the trick of
shutting this body down for good. She may have said some of this out
loud, for the doctor narrows his eyes, takes the slip of paper back.
Tells her to hang on a sec.
When he’s gone, Annie slips out the sliding door.
In her studio she lays on her futon. For a long while, she doesn’t move,
simply breathing and taking small pleasure in the lack of pain. Her eyes
are open, and she charts the stipple on the ceiling, the small bubbles
and patterns that form a sort of constellation.
Late in the evening, she gets up and eases onto her feet. In a slow,
careful trip to the bathroom, she assembles her tools. The cream she
eventually found to soothe her burn. The lotion to keep her tattoo
supple and bright. The tennis ball she rolls over her hip joints to ease
the strain. The new bandage for her toe bed.
Annie fingers her brands and scars. She hums as she works, the line from
the Pixies song, but also bits of other songs, and sounds that come to
her from nowhere. She hums and hums, making it up as she goes.