She balances a leg on the edge of the bath tub. Down and up, her hand glides, pulling soft hairs against the grain of the skin. She squirts foam into her cupped palm, spreads it thickly. Then, taking a razor, pink, in tumid curves, she clears lines of flesh in long, premeditated strokes, letting the lather fall like shed skin to the water pooling at her feet.
Looking down the length of her body, she runs her hands over the reddened skin, pokes a breast with a finger, pinches a roll of flesh around the waist. Got some meat on her bones, doesn’t she? her grandmother had said, fish-eyed over the rim of wireframe glasses.
Turning her face to the stream of hot water, her eyes closed, and droplets fall into her half-open mouth, trickle down the back of her throat. She swallows.
She runs her hands over her face, chances upon a small bump, round and tense, centered precisely on the chin. She scratches lightly at the surface with a nail bitten to jagged edges until the pimple grows sore under her prodding finger.
Looking down, she notices that the water is swirling pink around the drain. She follows a reddening trail back up her calf, swipes at the blood. She holds up a finger, surprised at the cut, silent, painless, known only through its traces.
She turns off the faucet and dries herself off, ignoring the crimson streaks left behind on the towel. She presses a bandage above her knee, smoothing the edges seamlessly on her skin, turned a yellowish shade against the buff colour of the plastic.
Steam shrouds the mirror and she wipes at it with a wet palm. Nose brushing the dewy glass, she eyes her image up close, pulls at the skin around the pimple. Her lips stretch taut; her cheeks push up until her eyes – hazel, she was once told – squint. Under her fingers, the pimple remains hard, a perfect orb under the skin, rolling over her jawbone like a marble.
She retreats, observes the reflection in the mirror. Often the word comes back to her, Birdy, next to her name, written in block letters traced over twice, the graphite dark and smudged. By the time it was passed to her under the desk, sticky fingers pressing paper into her hand, the note was crumpled and pockmarked with leaden fingerprints. Anyone could have written it though she didn’t question the source, reading the word over again, Birdy.
She regards herself in the mirror, wondering what it is exactly that gives that impression: the generous cheeks? The slight hook to the freckled nose? The amorphous chin? The eyes – wide, large, almost bulging?
The bathroom fan is broken. In the unmoving air, the steam is condensing, running down the tiled walls in soft, echoing drips. The humidity has sapped her skin, leaving her greaseless and rubbery. Pruned fingers squeaking, she grips the corners of the towel and opens the door to the weightless, dry air of the hallway.
She leaves a watery trail as she beelines to her room, a small, dense space, where her arms spread out to the side would graze the walls. But she has made it her own, covering every inch of white wall with ripped magazine pages. Vignettes of models, angles, geometry: long legs perched on rocks; slender bodies curved against walls; round, unblinking eyes topped by curlicues of hair as implacable as bronze. One square after the other, around the room, interrupted only by the full-length mirror framing her reflection, stock-still but for the occasional drip from her hair.
Underneath the towel, she slides on underwear in a polkadot pattern grown faded and grainy with lint. A purple sock, a black one, pulled from the drawer at random. Letting the towel fall to the floor, she positions the bra, the back facing forward, around her waist. She does up the hooks over her navel before turning the bra the right way, measuring out the length of the straps, sliding her arms through. She turns to the side and, eyeing the profile of her body, props up the foam cups with both hands until the flesh is compressed into twin mounds, tumescent and firm.
She laid out the outfit the night before, shivering at the thought of Abigail’s tickling breath, the voluptuous lips that grazed her ear. He thinks you’re cute. She had blushed, then reddened further at her own blush, and had turned away from Abigail’s gaze, accented by the thick liner rimming her eyes.
The sweater is large, flowing, falling just to her knees. She rolls down the purple mohair collar, letting it settle in loose folds around her neck.
She tugs the black pants over her legs, jumps up and down to pull the elastane over her hips. Standing in front of the mirror, she fingers the roll of flesh pushing over the waistband, tucks it in with a snap. She’s always been a little big for her age, she had once overheard, her mother’s voice carrying across the dance studio, through the squirming bodies around her, while she looked down and plucked at her leotard, pulling it apart like a second skin.
Seizing a comb, she pulls at her hair until the strands slide smoothly through the teeth. She arranges the locks symmetrically on either side of her face, making a neat, centered part down the middle.
She glances in the mirror one last time. If she angles her head down just so, the pimple is barely noticeable, half-hidden in the shadows of her hair falling forward. Head fixed in place, she grabs her jacket and steps out the door.
Meet at noon, the text had said, a bubbled box on the screen under her hovering thumb as she scrolled up and down.
She looks down the end of the road, beyond the passing cars, to the point from where the bus will come. A coarse wind penetrates the thin nylon of her jacket, teasing up rows of goosebumps along her arms, blowing hair across her face in a series of sweetly-scented lashes. Brown leaves crackles under her feet as she shifts her weight from side to side.
At the sound of the engine, she looks up, catches her image in the glass doors of the bus as they split apart, opening onto rows of seats dotted with passengers and a near-tropical humidity flush with the tangy smell of skin. She fans herself with the sides of her jacket as she enters, giving rise to a salted, sweat-laden breeze.
The rear of the bus is nearly empty. She huddles down, her knees propped up against the back of the cracked vinyl seat in front of her. She pulls her phone from her pocket. Absorbed in the screen, she does not see the old woman making her way down the aisle until she is already there, hovering over her, curved as a hook, staring at her with an uncertain gaze obscured by cataracts.
“Do you mind?”
The brittle voice is hard to decipher through the rumbling motor of the bus. She rights herself in the seat and shrugs, while eyeing the empty seats all around her. She returns to her phone, images churning under her thumb, conscious all the while of the faint rasping breath and the slight mothy smell of the old woman sitting beside her. On a curve, the frail body falls against her.She pulls herself in to the side of the seat, unable to ignore from the corner of her eye the skin waggling under the old woman’s chin, the spindly hands that lay limp like a pair of dead fish in her lap. Stiff wisps of white hair extend from the maculated scalp.. She turns to the window, listening to the dry smack of the old woman licking at her cracked lips while the buildings become sparse, the spaces grow wide and paved, finally smoothing into a parking lot. Beyond the rows of cars, the glass dome of the shopping centre emerges from its stuccoed foundation.
As the bus comes to a stop, she rises to leave but is blocked by the old woman, gripping vinyl for support as she makes her way down the aisle in inching steps. She waits behind the shuffling back, hands clenching the lining of her pockets, the raw, cold air piercing her humid nostrils. At the open doors, waiting behind the curved form in front of her, she looks up to check herself out in the driver’s mirror, then turns away quickly from the clouded, drooping eyes staring back.
The glass doors part. A gust of arid air sends her hair billowing out behind. Underneath a wafting, wordless melody emanating from overhead, she can just make out the vague cascading of a fountain beyond.
She peers through the shifting crowd, spots Abigail standing next to a pot of green stems topped by lush blossoms. She is dressed in a slinking red over dark, hugging jeans; a leg slightly bent, a hip pushed out to the side, a finger twirling a tress of midnight hair.
She approaches, arranging locks of flaccid hair around her face.
Her voice cracks on the air.
Abigail nods as she tucks her phone into a small purse dangling from her shoulder, then takes off down the concourse, hips jouncing side to side, heels tapping on the tiles.
She follows in the wake of the streaming hair.Something flickers in the corner of her eye. She turns, catches their reflections passing across the display windows, a thin patina traversing the mannequins. Their bodies are almost opposites: Abigail’s pert, buxom frame, the thin waist burgeoning at both ends like a squeezed tube. By comparison, she is like a dashed line, a thick hyphen: straight and sturdy all over.
Head turned to the side, watching the display window, she does not see that Abigail has stopped. She collides into a buoyant hip, a resilient breast that yields gracefully under the impact.
“Sorry,” she whispers.
But Abigail has already stepped into the store, her figure outlined in the vaulted entryway by the glowing, fluorescent lights beyond, magnified by the white walls and polished pine floors. The store is sharply angled, filled with clothing in starched, parallel lines and piles of folded squares stacked on the tables.
She picks up a folded cardigan from a table, watching the sleeves flutter open under her hand, then lets it fall into a soft pile back on the table.
A rapid click of stilettos grows, approaches.
“The second is half-off.”
The store clerk, with a smile taut like cellophane, picks up the rumpled cardigan and folds it into an armless square, laying it neatly on the table.
She withdraws, shadowless under the fluorescence. Extending a hand, her fingers graze the cottons and silks as she walks down an aisle to Abigail, standing at the end with a blue dress held up to her chest. With each inhalation, the sequins scintillate in a ripple effect across the length of her torso.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, grasping at the edge of the hem wafting around Abigail’s knees.
With the other hand, Abigail holds up another dress, short, in a dark purple shade cut through by thick black stripes running across at odd angles.
“And I found this for you.”
The elastic fabric springs in the air, the dress growing longer and shorter under each twitch of the hand. She opens her mouth to say something but is already watching Abigail’s waist retreat between waggling hips and wafting hair.
The curtains slide shut on the stall. The dress rebounds gently on the hook. She slides it off the hanger, holds it up by the shoulder straps cut in thick lines that morph decoratively into the geometry of the dress.
She pulls off her turtleneck in a cackle of static that sends her hair up in all directions, kicks off the sneakers, wheedles off the pants one leg at a time. She touches the mottled red line that has formed where the elastic band pressed into her waist, feeling the ribbed pattern of her skin, before shimmying the dress over her body, inching the tight fabric down.
“Are you ready?”
The curtains are yanked open just as she is adjusting the straps. She looks up, bent elbows held out to the sides like clipped wings. Abigail is standing in the doorway, arms pushing back the curtains that frame her curving form, black hair afloat over shimmering sequins, breasts faintly bobbing through the décolleté.
There is no mirror in the changing stall. Arms crossing in front, she steps out into the hall, takes a look at herself from behind, from the side, notices for the first time that the backs of her legs are stippled like trodden sand. Facing forward, she looks herself up and down: the unmatched socks, the bandage half peeled-off and waving like a flag from above her knee, the underwear embossed like a road map through the tight fabric of the dress.
“Look at you,” Abigail says, while regarding herself over a shoulder in the mirror. “You wouldn’t guess it underneath that turtleneck. You should show off those legs more.”
She puts a tentative leg forward, like a toe testing water. It seems to extend from one of the angled lines running down the dress, elastane morphing into flesh straightening out before her, tipped by the socked toes flexing and pointing.
Alone again in the stall, she peers over the rise of her breasts, traces the bands running across the front of the dress with a finger.
There was that one time. He hadn’t said a word, only stood in front of her, looking over her head, as the spotlights spun around them, the gym walls only partially hidden by the artificial fog churning in the air. She had followed him to the centre of the floor etched with the delineations of a volleyball court, wondering how her body felt under his hand. That was nice, she had said in the silence between songs, as his hands retreated into his pockets, and he drifted away through the vapour.
The socks would have to go. She pulls them off, slides on the sneakers, wide and flat under her thin, bare ankles. She rolls up the pants and sweater in a ball that she carries under one arm as she strides to the sales counter, giggling with Abigail as the clerk scans the price tags hanging down their backs.
“Exchanges only,” the clerk says, as she snips the tags with a pair of scissors, the blades like ice grazing her back.
She piles the wadded bills from her pocket on the counter and shoves her bundled clothing into the proffered plastic bag.
The breeze tickles her bare skin as they saunter along the concourse, poking each other’s ribs, whispering under cupped hands, folding over with peals of laughter, bare shoulder grazing bare shoulder.
“I have to pee,” Abigail says suddenly, veering to the right under an arrowed panel.
She follows her into the bathroom. Naked light bulbs line the mirrors over the vanity like an old theatre dressing room, casting an unbridled shine on the lines of her face, the red contour of the pimple, the hook of her nose.
She scurries into a stall, letting the metal clang behind her. Toilets flushing all around, she pulls down her underwear and squats, the dress slinking up to her waist as she braces herself on the metal stall dividers that bear a single heart-shaped graffiti scratched into the grey paint.
Emerging from the stall, she washes her hands while Abigail spreads the contents of her purse on the vanity.
“You don’t wear make-up, do you?” Abigail asks, while arranging the multihued boxes in a series of concentric semi-circles.
She shakes her head, looking down. She feels Abigail’s hand on her chin, pushing up delicately, until she is facing that black-rimmed gaze, the eyes frank and clear.
“It’s good that you didn’t squeeze it,” Abigail says, nodding approvingly, tipping up the chin between her fingers to view the pimple.
Still holding the chin with one hand, she takes a beige tube with the other and applies it thickly to the pimple.
“Always go a shade darker. Otherwise you’ll end up looking like a mime,” she says, as she smears foundation in upward strokes, over the freckles, the nub of the nose.
“Might as well do this to,” she says, pulling out tweezers and carving sleek arches out of her brows.
With a large brush, she dusts her face in powder, stirring up a flesh-hued cloud in the air. Her closed eyes are then pried open by Abigail’s white-tipped nails, pulling down on the cheek to trace a line between the rim of the lashes and the moist red of the eye.
Humming, hesitating, Abigail peruses the palettes, takes up a purple shadow flecked with glitter.
“Close your eyes,” she says, pulling the loose skin of the lids across the eyeball as she smears on the shadow.
“Now look up.”
Staring up at the unfiltered lights, the mascara wand flutters across her line of vision, growing murky as her unblinking eyes fill with water.
When she lowers her head, Abigail pinches her cheeks between an index and a thumb, working both sides of the face at once, until her freckles are nearly subsumed by the blushing skin.
Then she pulls out a tube, impenetrably red, as though the container itself were the colour, not the viscous contents inside. Abigail purses her mouth as she applies the gloss in thick globs.. She resists the urge to lick at it, watching Abigail, who makes an exaggerated smack with her mouth, like a word spoken slowly. She imitates the movement, pressing her mouth tightly, then releasing the clinging, sticky lips.
Abigail steps back, nodding her head.
She turns to the mirror, stepping back, trying to see the overall effect but glimpsing only the parts: the sickle-shaped brows rising in surprise, the wide eyes starkly purple, the mottled cheeks burning under the porcelain pigments. Her lips, viscidly red, pull apart into a smile.
Light filters from the glass dome into the courtyard through the fronds of the palm trees. She sits on the edge of the ornamental pool, gripping the hem of the dress as she lowers herself down. She holds her legs together, then crosses them, balancing herself delicately on a thigh while Abigail taps into the rhinestone-studded phone cusped in the palm of her hand, the sequined dress shimmering against smooth, inert skin.
Her fingers trailing in the pool, flicking at the water, she spots something glinting at the bottom, leans in to take a closer look, loses her balance, totters precipitously over the pool, her tongue caught in her throat. She had fallen in once, had to be rescued by the lifeguards. She had flailed wildly in the water, weightless and heavy by turns, uncertain if the grasping hands were pulling her under or up. Her mouth opened to yell but filled with the chlorinated water instead.
“There they are,” she hears Abigail say.
She sits up tall, the waist tensile as she extends. She pulls at the hair around her face, then folds her hands on her lap, noticing how her tongue suddenly rasps against the roof of her mouth. Her lips, though sticky, are dry. She licks at them and her face puckers instantly, her tongue covered in the tasteless colour that mixes thickly with her saliva. She looks around, wondering whether to spit or swallow, sees only the sparkling water at her side. Dropping to her knees, she lowers her face to the water, carefully holding back her hair with the elbows extending outward, as she laps at the rippling image.
Born in Canada, Michelle Dobrovolny now resides in France. She works as a journalist but is increasingly drawn to writing fiction because she feels it is more honest. She has previously had non-fiction essays published in the magazines Bust and The New Internationalist.