It wasn’t until I cut myself that I realized I was made of meat. I am made of meat. I suppose I always knew in a cloudy, unformed sort of way, but what I didn’t know, at least not concretely, not consciously, was that I could be sliced into so easily. That the same utensil designed to separate flanks of dead cow, for eating, could cleave me. I didn’t cut myself with a steak knife. I cut myself by accident. With the jagged edge of a can of straw mushrooms. It wasn’t a deep wound; simply an imposed disunity between skin and meat, as though someone were preparing my thumb for mealtime and trying to reduce calories. Blood pulsed from under the leaky skin door, still attached on one side, unevenly hinged.
“I cut myself,” I said calmly as the sink filled with watered-down red. My brother did not look up from the cabbage he was grating into thin purple strips. He was in town from Beijing and teaching me to cook. He’d been against the canned straw mushrooms, but we were in the Valley, and on a time schedule. All of our relatives were coming over to eat the results of our lessons and hear tales of his journeys abroad.
I bandaged my thumb tightly, using all of the gridded white gauze from the first aid kit in my father’s glove compartment. The thumb looked clean and exaggerated, an animated papier-mache.
As I was finishing the application of surgical tape, my cell phone buzzed. Lucia. I always answer when Lucia calls, because she hides her cell phone in her closet and only unearths it once or twice a week, when she’s read or seen something she wants to tell me about—a new species of dinosaur has been discovered or she’s predicted 60% of Pitchfork’s best-of-the-year list correctly. I don’t know whether she calls anyone else.
I’m not sure why Lucia hides her phone. She says looking at it gives her anxiety. Maybe its ring startles her from her patterned existence in a way that is unpleasant. Maybe she thinks the cell phone is like a remote control or a motion sensor. Maybe each time it rings, she hopes it’s someone calling to tell her a piece of exciting news that will change her life forever, and it’s only her boyfriend calling to ask her to pick up coffee on the way home.
“I cut myself on a can,” I said. “The thing is, it’s fine. I’m at my parents’ though, and I know they’ll insist on going to the hospital for stitches.”
“You’re lucky,” Lucia said. “I’ve always had to go to the emergency room alone. I could be bleeding from the head and no one would offer to drive me. I could die and no one would notice until my apartment smelled really bad.”
“Josh would notice.”
“Josh wouldn’t notice until the lights went out because no one was paying the electric bill.”
“I would notice.”
“You live three thousand miles away.”
“I know, but if you died the world would feel different. And probably you’d tell me.”
“Yeah. I would tell you. I’ve heard of dead people doing that.”
“Anyway, Josh would take you to the emergency room if you needed to go.”
“Josh wouldn’t take me to the ER unless I was hemorrhaging from all of my orifices. All of them. He’d need extreme visual proof of emergency.”
An image formed in my mind—Lucia’s green-white, waify form splayed on the ground in a cream silk slip—the ends of her copper mermaid hair sticky in a dark red pool, blood rivulets trickling from her eyes. I knew she’d put the image there, it was a typical Lucia-image, but also that it wasn’t that hard to access. Lucia looked somehow as though she could crack at any moment, begin bloodletting.
My mother rang the bell with her elbow. I watched her fidgeting through the window, shifting the weight of comically dwarfing paper grocery bags from hip to hip of her purple nylon jumpsuit. I told Lucia I’d call her later and opened the door with my left hand, clenching the gauzy right one into a fist. I began to reach for a grocery bag with my left arm, but my mother gasped, pulled back.
“Talia! What happened to your thumb?”
“Oh, I just cut it a little. Very surface, no big deal.”
“Unwrap it. Let me see.” She ushered the groceries quickly into the kitchen and reappeared in the hallway, hovering over my hand.
I sighed and undid my handiwork. The inside of the gauze was smeared with fresh, bright blood. The skin door was already whitening, bloating, overtaking its frame.
“We need to go to the hospital, now, Talia!” she said.
I reminded her that we were having twenty people over for dinner. I wouldn’t die if we waited. “Besides,” I said, “it might look better by then. We’ll see.” I hadn’t lived with my parents for more than ten years, but whenever I visited, they acted as though I had never passed a moment unsupervised.
My mother yelled upstairs for my father. I heard his feet dragging across the hall and down the steps, until he appeared, stomach-first, before me. “Let’s see, baby,” he said, taking my thumb between his thick index fingers, narrowing his eyes. “We better take her to the hospital.”
My mother nodded gravely at this verdict and grabbed her keys. I walked toward the kitchen to finish the dumplings I’d been making. “After dinner,” I called back. Both parents stared.
“Boy, she’s gotten tough,” my mother said.
Everyone complimented the food and ate and ate. We looked at pictures. My brother and his students, everyone lined up and smiling. One of him and pointy-looking green hills. He said something about rice paddies. Everyone said he was very adventurous. Then it was time to look at my thumb. Four aunts crowded around me on the couch as I unwrapped the gauze. There was gasping and tongue-clucking. Stitches, was the unanimous decision.
Both parents wanted to come to the hospital. We left my brother at home with the remaining relatives.
My thumb was sutured. There was a triangular flap of live skin and a woman named Irina stitched this skin to the meat of my thumb with a needle and thread. She was not only stopping the blood-flow; she was saving the still-alive-but-dangling epidermal tissue. Irina’s process made me think I should have gone home, used the sewing kit wedged between the thesaurus and the meditation guide on my bookshelf, in the objects-for-just-in-case section. But Irina told me a version of her life story as she pulled the string taut again and again and I felt glad I’d come.
Irina had once been a veterinarian. She performed small surgeries on dogs and goats. Surgeries on goats had prepared her for surgery on me, and I found this comforting, my similarity to a goat. And I loved the way my thumb looked, neatly sewn together with leggy black knots.
When we returned, we all huddled on the couch and watched a mediocre romantic comedy, and then I drove home from the Valley down the 405, intermittently checking out the cleanly-packaged thumb. I called Lucia on the way. She answered.
“Hi.” Her voice was drab. “I’m driving home.” “It’s so fucking cold here I could die,” she said.
“And god forbid we should leave the heat on when we’re not home. The environment is more important to Josh than my continued survival.”
“You should move to Los Angeles,” I said.
“No,” she said.
“There are avocado trees here,” I said. “Avocados. They just grow in your backyard. Even if you’re kind of poor.” It was all I could think to say.
“You always say that,” she said, “but I’m not sure I believe you. I think your avocado tree is the only one. No one else talks about avocado trees when they talk about Los Angeles.”
“And it’s sunny here. You won’t have to scrape ice from your windshield ever again. Your hands will be soft.”
“My hands will never be soft.”
There is silence.
“But sunshine sounds good.”
In the days that followed, I picked at the black strings and they unraveled. I was careless and Irina’s handiwork was undone. The triangle door of skin began to unpeel from the flesh beneath. The flesh looked translucent red, like jelly shoes. The loose skin slowly died.
The last time Lucia visited was a year ago. We’d stayed up until four a.m. smoking cigarettes on my lawn and then until six lying in bed because Lucia couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t sleep because my house didn’t seem burglar-proof enough so I couldn’t sleep either. I lay awake while Lucia told me about padlocks, alarm systems. Then she said, “This house you live in was built by a baby.” She said it decisively and I could see a semi-transparent baby tradesman sawing and welding, laying boards across the hole in the floor near the door below my lofted bed.
“Please stop,” I’d said.
“I can’t,” she’d responded.
“Yes,” I said, “always.”
I loved my house. It was basically one small room floating in expansive yard, surrounded by all kinds of fruit trees. It felt cobbled together, but perfectly so. After Lucia left though, the baby tradesman stayed, and I was kept awake, haunted.
When the skin is dead it is striated and thick, like elephant skin or cooled wax. When the skin is dead you can spear it with the flat edges of your front teeth. You can tell it’s dead because the teeth will sink through easy, tear the dead skin from the live. The tearing will look painful, but dead tissue doesn’t feel. You can tell it’s dead too because it’s white.
“Listen, I think the people at work are robots.”
“Chili’s is a robotic place.”
“No, but really, they might be. I have seen no one bleed or cry. This is a place with sharp things. People are mean here. There should be tears and blood.”
“Is that all?”
“No. All of them have perfect skin. I’ve seen no one else with such perfect skin, ever. Other people have scratches, bruises. I have burn marks from plates all down my forearm.”
“Where do you think they come from? Do you think they were manufactured by Chili’s?” I laugh.
“I think they were humans.”
That night I dreamt of robots. The first dream was robots invading my room. They were silver and boxy, eighties caricatures of robots. The second dream was of blonde Chili’s waitresses being secretly injected when they punched out, their skin hardening into metal. It would stay metallic-looking for a second. Then it would look like skin again.
When I woke up, the phone was buzzing. Lucia asked what I dreamt and I told her. She sounded relieved. “I also dreamt of Chili’s,” she said. “Only I dreamt that I brought someone a Mango Margarita instead of a Cherry Mai Tai and I got yelled at. I think this is where they get you. In your dreams.”
“So, what then? Are you going to stop sleeping?”
“No. It might be cool to be a robot.”
When the skin is dead, it will curl and stretch in your mouth, fibrous. When the skin is dead it tastes almost like the skin of cooked chickens and almost like nothing.
It’s unclear how I met Lucia exactly, only that in college in Chicago I’d go to the Silver Dollar to read for class and she’d be there, sitting at the counter flipping through her Sunday Times with calloused hands, drinking her root beer, chain smoking. She was reed-like in her tight jeans and white v-necks, flatly thin and flexible only to a point. She possessed the sort of platinum skin that belonged to icier regions of the world, but her hair was the color of chestnuts. She didn’t seem to have any friends, but the waitresses always eyed her jealously from afar, and joked with her admiringly as they re-filled her root beer.
Eventually she and I just started talking about whatever was happening in her paper that week, making jokes about gay penguins and falsified memoirs, and soon we spent all our time together, walking around the city sharing packs of cloves and drinking wine in her apartment late at night. She showed me independent art house films and lent me books by bell hooks and Howard Zinn. I’d never known anyone who read nonfiction that wasn’t assigned for class.
I didn’t have any college friends before Lucia. I had decided I didn’t want anyone to influence me anymore. I was going to be a satellite. But Lucia charmed me immediately, and I forgot.
We spent two years after college sharing an apartment in Ukranian Village, making pots of noodles with hot sauce and watching thirties horror films. These had been Lucia’s things, but they became ours. I got a job at the museum after graduation, and Lucia started working at the Silver Dollar. She was a terrible waitress, always showing up late or forgetting to hold the onions, but everyone there had loved her for too long to ever fire her.
The skin died because it was no longer attached to the meat. The skin died because it was no longer attached to anything alive. With no meat and no bone to protect, the skin was functionless. With no function, the skin died. With no meat and bone to attach to, the skin was lonely. Without being attached to anything alive, the skin forgot what it meant to be alive.
I looked at my thumb and thought of grafted fruit trees. Edible fruit is grown by grafting. This means the stem and leaf of one fruit tree are inserted into an already-living tree. If not grafted, not attached to an already-alive tree, the stem and leaf would die. But by being attached to a live tree, the stem-and-leaf not only lives, it provokes the entire tree to bear its particular sort of fruit.
Last time I saw Lucia, the whites of her eyes were opaque and the skin underneath swelled. Lucia’s thick shiny hair hung matte like greened metal down the middle of her back. I imagine that if I sifted through it, I would find exposed patches of scalp; that my fingers would leave her hair with long strands between them. I wanted to touch my skin to hers, to reinvigorate her, to graft her to me. But what if the grafting only resulted in my skin flaking off, my eyes drying up, too? Besides, Lucia and I rarely touch, and then, only superficially.
I looked at my thumb. It was healing. The triangle flap of skin was hanging dead. It could fall off by itself, or I could tear it easily with my teeth.
I walked outside. There was an avocado tree outside. I wondered if it was grafted. Round green buds dangled from every branch. These buds would be avocados.
Near the end of my time in Chicago, Lucia would come home and fling herself on our Salvation Army couch and proclaim herself a failure. She’d lay there and chain smoke and tell me she was doomed to waitress forever.
Other times, I’d come home to find her exuberant, having spent the day engaged in some weird project. Once she reorganized my closet while I was at work. I returned to color-coded subsections based on occasion. I asked her hadn’t she noticed that I wore the same clothes everywhere, that the corduroys and button-downs I wore to work served just fine for everything else. She said that occasion was something I should consider, that it would be better this way.
I slept and became a tree. My hands were outstretched branches. I was not a fruiting tree, but my roots ran deep into the soil, so I could bend my trunk sideways, raise and lower my branches, twist, and I was held. There was a single round, white fruit on a long stalk kind of floating through blue sky, making its way toward my branches. If I could name this fruit, I would name it Lucia. As the fruited stalk floated closer to me, toward my sky-facing palm, I tried to say “Lucia,” only I had no mouth. Still I could hear the word, ethereal and ocean-like, reverberating in my own, recognizable voice in waves through the wood of my trunk. The stalk of the Luciafruit punctured my open palm and traveled easily down my forearm, avoiding veins and nestling against the bone, until the stalk was no longer visible, and a single white bulb dangled from my hand, dainty and firm.
I could feel the fruit weighing down the branch. Soon there were white ovoids dangling from all my branches. Small, flying creatures traversed my trunk, buzzing with interest. Twisting, bending became more difficult with the weight of fruit.
I knew I was dreaming, that I wasn’t really a tree, but I didn’t want to wake up, in part because I was curious about observing this tree that I’d become and in part because I felt afraid that I would wake up and really be fruit-punctured the way people dream of peeing only to wake to a wet bed.
The buzzing of the winged things intensified. I felt invaded, surrounded by increasingly loud and close vibrations. I was suddenly human, under cold sheets. My phone was smacking against my night table.
The screen of my phone read Lucia. I envisioned a white fruit, but it transformed into Lucia’s face. Her face looked menacing, then calm.
I whined sleepily into the phone. “Why do you think I should move to Los Angeles, really?” Lucia demanded.
“Because you’re dying,” I said.
“Thank you for saying so,” she said. “I already know.”
There was silence. I closed my eyes and my fingers felt like branches.
“Dying is what happens if you work at Chili’s and hate your relationship and fail to transform into a robot.”
“You don’t have to be a robot.”
“Maybe I should be.” I rolled onto my side.
“At least it’s warm here.”
“Fine. I’m going to come.”
Before Lucia arrived, boxes of her things landed on my front porch. They arrived one or two at a time, over weeks, labeled in clean, rounded marker: Kitchen, Bathroom, Linens, Shoes. I laid them out side by side in a corner of my floor. They spread slowly, the bottom of my tiny house becoming raised brown cardboard with narrow maze-like passageways.
I sat on a box, my feet dangling into a passageway, and glanced at my thumb. It had healed, except for a thin white scar where the flap of skin once met the attached thumb. Where had the skin flap gone, I wondered? Was it in the carpet somewhere? In the backseat of someone’s car? Maybe it scattered into tiny bits, among books and bed sheets and the city bus. Maybe it attached to the angora sweater of someone with a very exciting life and was now in Venice with pink margaritas or at the farmer’s market looking at yellow striped tomatoes.
When I picked up Lucia at the airport, she wore sunglasses and a black velour outfit and didn’t smile. She walked stiffly toward my car and got in, balancing her wheeled carry-on atop her lap.
“Hey Talia,” she said, placing her palm against my bare arm in greeting.
“Hi. How was your flight?” “Fine.” She exhaled audibly. “It’s so fucking hot in this city.”
I looked at her dull, brittle hair piled on her head, at her jawbone jutting. I glanced down at my own tanned arm and saw white flakes of dead skin that had adhered. My body stopped stiff and I sat behind the wheel. Lucia sat next to me. Some amount of time passed before a security man knocked on my window to shout, “Can’t sit here, ma’am. Drive along.” I drove.