Skin

Skin was published in On The Side, UTS Writers’ Anthology 2009.

The pre-op nurse points the permanent marker as purposefully as a scalpel. Its wet tip releases a sharp, chemical odour that hits the patient’s nose before evaporating in the ammonia-drenched ward. When the nurse lifts the patient’s robe to mark the breast to be removed later that morning, she sees two breasts that are so different to each other that a texta cross won’t be necessary. She places the marker back onto the tray.

The nurse studies the C-cupped bosom that will never be suckled by a baby’s mouth. She thinks of how her own breasts – strapped safely in their yellowing bargain bin bra – are getting heavier each year, not from the tea lady’s biscuits, but from the lack of feeling the lightness of a lover’s tongue.

Taking the clipboard from the end of the bed, she unsnaps the biro from its springed clip. ‘Sign here,’ she orders. The patient signs the release paper, splattering Rorschach inkblots on the page. She places the biro back into the perfect metal mound in the centre of the clip, careful not to snap it.

‘The doctors won’t be long,’ the nurse says. As she walks to the next ward, her white hospital-issue shoes squeak against the lino floor, sounding like a character in a Disney cartoon.

The patient waits for the cavalcade of doctors to arrive – the anaesthetist, the oncologist, the surgeon – with the inevitable scrum of amphetamine-eyed interns. She lifts the top of the sheet over the thin waffle-weave blanket and folds it back into a wide flap, carefully smoothing out any creases. She looks out the double-glazed window and sees no brightness in the air, only a sky that weighs heavily. Low green-grey clouds suffocate the sky. The very same colour she recalls, that ushered in the hailstorm of thirty-two thousand insurance claims a year earlier.

***

That day when hail tap-danced on her rooftop and she ran through the house with buckets and bowls to catch all the leaks. That day when she rushed to her teaching room and closed the piano lid and put the violin in its case. That day when she ran up to the attic to cover her husband’s computer, but instead of shielding it with plastic, clicked on a cute-sounding icon and followed her curiosity until it became disgust. That day when she thought of all the little children she’d brought into their house. That day when feeling at first a dry retching, then a spasm in her stomach, she cupped her mouth and ran downstairs to their ensuite spraying freshly squeezed juice in bright orange streams between her fingers. That day when she emptied his sock drawer onto their bed and stuffed her gym bag with his rainy day stash. That day when she left the house open and ran onto the road, oblivious to the balls of ice pelting her. That day when she walked block after block, past the display-centre houses with their empty gardens and over-chained dogs, along the tree-lined streets strewn with blown-off branches and overturned bins. That day when she realised how the signs were always there, how the obvious had been so cleverly avoided. That day she left.

She walks aimlessly that morning, crossing roads without looking until a cab starts crawling beside her. She asks to go to a part of town where a bar would already be open. The driver adjusts the rear vision mirror to size her up. He drives slowly – much slower than the rain requires – down back lanes and narrow one-way streets. He stops at an art deco pub sitting proud on a corner across from the greyhounds. He keeps the change without it being offered.

She sits at the bar, making a puddle under her stool, while her fringe drips camomile-scented tears. She drains four martinis, then hates the fuss and switches to vodka straight up. She thinks about her husband, about all their hopes and promises. She thinks about her after-school students and his casual offers to give them a lift home.

She moves to a table closer to the door. Uni students run in from the street, hugging the entrance until the rain pauses for the clouds to suck in air like a diva’s gasp before expelling the next operatic downpour. An old man shuffles in to place bets and winks at her when he’s not watching the TV screen flick from race to race. She thinks he mustn’t see too many suburban housewives getting drunk on their own in the middle of the day – and she wishes she’d brought sunglasses or a scarf to shield her shame. His head jerks slightly with each wink and, after the fifth one, she realises it’s not a come-on, but a tic.

Hours pass and the sky clears while the air inside thickens with alcohol and cigarettes. She lip-reads the muted evening news. Black-clad roadies set up a makeshift stage in the corner and she gets drunker as the crowd reverse-ages a couple of generations. She stares at the bouncer with arms tattooed up to a perfect sleeve line around the rim of his T-shirt. Skinny girls flirt with him and flash their freshly laminated ID cards. She sees her students in them, in the way they move with a jittery sensuality. She thinks of all the children she’s taught in her music room. And her husband, spending all that time alone in the attic above.

She wants another drink. The barmaid gives her a coffee. When it cools, a thin layer of milky skin forms on the surface. An hour later the barmaid takes the cold coffee away and gives her a key. ‘We rent rooms, if you need one.’

She takes small steps up to the second floor. A dying potted palm and tatty personalised mats outside each door give away that they’re long-term rentals. She counts six doors on each side as she trespasses down the corridor. Her room has a single bed pressed against the length of one wall, the mattress soft and bow-shaped. An oil painting of a dusky bare-breasted maiden hangs benevolently above the bed, her furtive smile reassuring in a room rank with the smell of stale semen. She lies down, but can’t sleep. She needs to wash.

The shared unisex bathroom is next door. The lock is chipped off, she thinks it’s in case one of the old guys slips in the shower. She steps inside the thinly curtained stall and turns on the tap, the boiler rattles and coughs up rusty spurts of hot water. She usually loves bathing. Loves feeling water run over her. She washes quickly with a small blue disc of left-behind soap, its edges pale and glutinous. Water rises above her ankles like a little bath. She bends down to clear out wiry grey strands from the drain, but the water level doesn’t drop. Stepping out of the shower, she catches the familiar shape of herself in the long stretch of mirror above the basins. She sees average height, average weight, shoulder-length blondish hair. No children, no nips, no tucks. She sees a body that hasn’t varied, that’s just got a little looser as if her skin had stayed the same size, but everything inside her had shrunk, giving her baggier elbows and knees and skin she can now pinch away from her tendons.

She thinks of her husband, leaning in to their sanitised ensuite doorway each night to watch her bathe. She always liked being watched. She turns her head away from her naked reflection. Putting her musty clothes on again, she decides to do something that will give her a body her husband has never met.

She goes downstairs, past the emptying bar and onto the street. She asks the bouncer if he knows a good tattoo parlour.

‘That depends,’ he shrugs.

‘I’m just curious.’

He looks her up and down. ‘Are you alright?’

‘I’m fine,’ she lies.

He looks away and speaks as if he’s talking to someone else, ‘Well, there’s one a few blocks away. Close to Chinatown.’

The hill down to Chinatown is steep and dark. The air, still and sticky. She crosses to the other side, which is illuminated in patches by neon signs. She walks fast, past a closed pizzeria and a strip of empty shops. A few blocks later, she passes a milk bar with tomorrow’s newspapers stacked in squat bundles in the doorway, the red plastic tickertape slackened, where a few copies have already been ripped out. She passes a row of Chinese grocery shops, their padlocked roller doors barely shielding the smell of vegetables fermenting inside. She hears the clack-clack-clack of Mahjong tiles from an apartment above the shop. She walks toward a string of gelato coloured lanterns zigzagging from one telegraph pole to another. She stops at a pawnshop, its window over-crowded with beat-boxes and VCR machines. The next shop down sells guns. Must be handy for some, she thinks. She presses her forehead against the glass windowpane to look at the neat row of handguns lying side-by-side like spooning lovers.

A few doors down, she sees a dimly lit sign hanging off its awning. The hand-painted gothic letters spell out ‘Skin Deep’. The window of the small shopfront is blacked out, so she goes through the open side door. She expects a room full of hairy bikies, but it’s empty. Buzzing and low moans ooze from behind a curtained-off area in the back corner of the shop. Her husband’s disapproval fills her head. She sits on a lumpy old chesterfield and opens a photo album lying on the coffee table, carefully turning the peeling plastic-coated pages. Faded photos of Celtic symbols wrap around tanned arms, prim roses peek out from creviced places and a kaleidoscope of butterflies flutter about the thin ankles of convent schoolgirls. The buzzing stops and a few minutes later a man walks out from the back room. She scrutinises him for signs of his newfound transformation. She scans his body – tall and lean with skin like homemade caramels. She wants to touch his thick auburn ringlets, but twirls her fingers round her own hair instead.

A taller man comes out from the back room. His shirt unbuttoned, his hairless chest partly bandaged. When he pays up and shuffles out, the tattooist sits close beside her. Her skin gooses. He shows her a volume of illustrated body parts, but she can’t stop looking at the tattoo on his arm.

‘I want the same as yours, but here.’ She places her hand on her right breast.

He tells her to sit on a red leather chair. It reminds her of being at the dentist. He draws an outline on her bosom and feeling a hard disc of tissue where her breast and armpit meet, stops drawing and puts the pen down.

‘Do you know about this?’

‘It’s nothing,’ she says, taking his wrist. The room felt hot.

‘I can’t tattoo you there if there’s a problem’

‘Then do the other one instead.’

She likes the attention, she wants to feel the pain. Shame and excitement battle in the pit of her stomach. She feels the sudden sting of the needle and her skin starts to numb. He redefines the outline and colours it in with small rhythmical dots reminding her of a Lichtenstein painting. When he is finished, he places a cotton wad over her breast and tapes a bandage on.

She gets a cab back to the pub, but the bouncer has gone and she rattles the door until a red-eyed man lets her in. She goes to the shared bathroom. She knows it’s too soon, but she has to see it and takes off her clothes. She lifts back the muslin. It sticks unevenly to the wound. She peels it off and the imprinted shroud falls to the tiled floor. Her skin beneath is raw and black blood cakes around the etched edges. She looks at herself in the mirror. Staring back at her, a fierce dragon spits defiant flames across her heart, its long serrated tail coiling protectively around her breast. She runs her hands over the skin along the length of her torso and feels her body as both subject and object, at once familiar and dangerous.

***

The patient wakes too early from too little anaesthetic and wishes she’d told the doctor of her history of antidepressants. The post-theatre ward is quiet – a relief from the endless buzzing of the nurses’ bells and the canned laughter from sitcoms on the daily hire TVs. A freshly lopsided woman on a trolley next to her makes little morphine murmurs, soft self-satisfied sighs that she’ll soon forget.

The strip lighting grids on the ceiling cast a cold blue light onto her dragon. The space where her right breast was is now concave and bandaged tight. She feels a sharp sting from her newly carved reality and tries to imagine the bloody imprint that will be left on the wadding. She closes her eyes and runs her finger lightly over the bandage, drawing the lines where her next tattoo will go.

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