It is certainly strange, to live the first few weeks in my new body. Perhaps the strangest part is how inconsequential the change feels sometimes. Not dying, no longer being in pain, these differences are so startling and so complete that it’s easy to forget that I was ever sick to begin with. There is no scarring, no residual damage, no daily reminder of the months I spent being mutilated by tubes and wires and needles. I have a full, thick head of hair. And I’m no longer as frail as I was in the beginning; slender stretches of muscle begin to form under the skin of my arms and legs. I look like I’m closer to running a marathon than dying of anything.
There are other things, too. Little things. My hearing is pin sharp, instead of muted by my years of rock concerts and riding on Jake Mariano’s motorcycle as a teenager and the clattering din of taking the Red Line. The little aches and pains I used to carry with me—waking up with a stiff neck, cracking the ankle I sprained playing soccer as a kid, the enduring tightness in my hips and the backs of my thighs from painting for hours on end—are gone. They are removed so thoroughly that I can’t remember exactly what they felt like. Any and all excess fat has been spirited from under my skin, leaving a thin, supple sort of body it its wake. The dimpling in my thighs and the small crevices of stretch marks in my sides, the handful of scars I’d amassed in my twenty-seven years, all have been replaced by tight, flat skin. It’s a body so perfect it is difficult to inhabit sometimes, because it’s difficult to imagine it’s really mine.
I focus on these things, the miraculous little details, the perks, to keep from thinking about why I kissed David Jenkins on the rooftop. I tell myself it was idiotic to let him follow me, particularly when I was feeling lost and wistful and unusually vulnerable. I think of the kiss, imagining myself as separate from my body, as if it had moved of its own accord because it needed so badly to be touched. It certainly doesn’t help that Sam is keeping his distance, as if I’m some foreign thing, a wax figure come to life, or the Stepford version of my old self. I try to ignore it, to focus on other things, my physical therapy, learning how to write again, practicing typing out text messages to Penny on my phone.
I told Penny about the kiss when she came to visit me on Friday afternoon, bracing myself for the hardness of her expression even as I let the words spill out between us. She chewed on the inside of her cheek, the way she does when she’s working on a painting that she can’t get quite right.
“Who is this guy?” she asked.
“Just a guy from my group. No one, really.” I pause, trying to think of something that will mitigate the awfulness of it. “He’s kind of a dirtbag, actually.” Nothing changes in her face in response to this, and I can’t tell if I’ve made things better or worse by saying it. Finally she releases her mouth back to its rightful shape and turns the soft pink of her palms to the sky.
“I don’t know, Han. I’m not going to be the one to tell you how you should or shouldn’t process all of this.”
It made me feel worse, I think, that she didn’t scold me, or reassure me. It made me feel even more adrift.
By the next Thursday I know any chance I’ve had of driving David Jenkins from my mind has been futile. Because there he is, ten minutes late, taking the seat across from me in our support group.
“Does anyone feel like they got the wrong body?” he asks, cradling a cup of hot cocoa between his hands. It seemed childish and silly to me, when we showed up to last week’s meeting, to find packets of Swiss Miss and a carafe of boiling water on the conference room table. But now we all drink it, tearing open the paper packets with our teeth and stirring lumpy chocolate powder into the piping hot water. It’s a good excuse to ignore one another for those first few awkward minutes, until someone gets up the nerve to speak.
“I mean, maybe not the wrong one, obviously, but, maybe the knockoff version?” David continues. Linda nods a little, but says nothing. Connie seems to be paying more attention to a chip in her nail polish than to what David is saying. Dr. Bernard scribbles on his notepad before looking up.
“You think that this body is somehow inferior to the one that you had before?” Dr. Bernard asks.
“What I mean, doc, is that I can’t prove this is my body,” David says. We’ve all adopted Connie’s habit of calling Dr. Bernard “doc” because it seems to annoy him quite a bit. It feels kind of good, to have someone to gang up on. Six weeks, I think. Six weeks was all it took to go from strangers to a merry little band of rebellious clones. “Everything I could point to,” David continues, “everything that I could identify as mine is gone. That’s a lot of history to lose.”
I brush my hand over my forehead and it’s perfectly smooth, though I persist in trying to find the little indent that used to be there. It was a scar from when I went head-first into a rocking chair as a toddler. I was too little to remember it, but my mother always seemed to enjoy recounting that particularly harrowing bit of childhood lore. Now the last bit of evidence is gone. The memory belongs only to my mother. If she forgets it, it will be like that unfortunate afternoon never even happened at all. So I know what David means about losing history.
“You know, even our fingerprints are different now,” I say, examining the pads of my fingers, as if I can tell that the patterns etched into my skin are altered. It occurs to me, again, how little I knew of the body I left. “They’re not genetic, fingerprints. They’re developed in utero, environmental, so there’s no way they could be the same.”
“I guess if you ever wanted to rob a bank, the time is now,” Connie quips. “I can’t stop thinking of what they’ve done with our other bodies,” Linda says. “What does it mean to donate it to science? Is it just sitting in a refrigerated drawer somewhere? Or, did they cut it to pieces like those fetal pigs we had to dissect in high school? Did they burn it? I know I shouldn’t be thinking about it, but it still feels like me. It’s still enough of me that I care what happens to it.”
We all look at her, flabbergasted, because this is the most any of us has ever heard Linda say. She’s twisting a piece of Kleenex between her fingers as she speaks. I wonder why Linda cares what they did with it, after eight years of being trapped within that defective vegetable of a body. I would expect her to be happy to be rid of it. But now that she’s said something, I feel it too, a sense of disconnection from my old self, like an amputee that still feels itching in a phantom limb. Though that body is pocked with tumors and damaged beyond repair, it’s still so kindred to me that leaving it to the whims of my doctors feels like abandonment. I try not to think of it, watching Linda twist her tissue. I’m sure a person could go crazy, thinking about it for too long.
Dr. Bernard is, as always, scribbling away in his notepad. Connie raises an eyebrow at me and I shrug. The questions are pointless. It’s been clear from the beginning that this man doesn’t have any answers for us. It’s how the pioneers must have felt, the explorers, riding their horses through tall, wind-swept grasses. That feeling of danger, lingering around the edges, making everything bright and clear and evident. How significant they were, by simply crossing that bit of earth. And I realize, perhaps for the first time, how alone we are, the four of us.
JESSICA CHIARELLA is the author of the debut novel AND AGAIN. She grew up in the Chicago area and has a master’s in writing and publishing from DePaul University. She is currently a student in the University of California, Riverside’s Creative Writing MFA program.
From AND AGAIN by Jessica Chiarella. Copyright © 2016 by Jessica Chiarella. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.