After Molly received the breast implant, she’d become lethargic, couldn’t get through gnawing on her usual half-roll of toilet paper per day, and had lost interest in running on her wheel. Of course, the implant made running difficult, but Toby thought Molly’s eyes had lost their gleam, too. Even her tail seemed limp, and she’d started biting it. Maybe she was suicidal like all of those Danish women he’d read about in Archives of Internal Medicine. The separation from the other rats probably didn’t help, but Kate, Gertrude, and Beebe were doing fine post-op. In fact, Gertrude seemed more gregarious, and Kate’s energy had increased, though she seemed extra fixated on cleaning herself and her cage; her heart rate was up, too. Molly’s vital signs hadn’t altered though, and since there were no boxes to tick for mood changes, Toby felt even more useless than usual. Maybe her malaise was linked to the specific implant type, but that’s not something you’re privy to as a blind clinical investigator. “Anyway,” he thought, “the others keep things from me.”
The whole rat colony vibe had changed since the girls came back implanted. The yet-to-be-modified rats seemed a bit paranoid, and sniffed the air with deeper and longer whiffs, as if they could smell their own impending doom. It freaked Toby out the way they’d line up along the cage wall nearest the girls, with their tiny paws wrapped around the bars, their noses quivering, eyes ogling. Some rats had become more aggressive, and one had even started nipping at others occasionally. Toby took their temperatures and other vitals for baseline information, and tried not to think about the Danish women. But they came to him, blond and sad, in pale flashes.
The Danish suicides bothered Deb, too. In fact, her whole life had changed since she’d read that study. In just more than three weeks, she’d signed up for half a dozen Yahoo groups and accumulated quite a database of research materials, even confidential literature sent from the implant manufacturers to her boss. Deb felt she was on the verge of a breakthrough, but work kept getting in the way.
“Dr. Darling needs some letters typed,” said Leah, the office manager, coming around the reception desk, which was like a mini fortress, allowing Deb time to minimize the windows to Medline and PubMed and maximize her game of solitaire before Leah got to her.
“He needs them A.S.A.P., and I’m swamped,” she said, and proceeded to do some yoga-like back and shoulder stretches that showed off “the girls,” as she called her double-D Perpetugels.
“How are you feeling? ” asked Deb, going to her invisible doctor’s clipboard.
“I’m fine,” said Leah defensively. “You look tired. You could use some lipstick.”
“Maybe she’s on to me,” thought Deb. But Leah wasn’t looking at Deb’s computer, or her face for that matter, she was looking at her chest, with that bad-taste-in-her-mouth look. Here, people stared at small breasts—“mosquito bites,” as Leah called them. Everything was ass-backwards if you asked Deb, though nobody asked her.
She was promised a fifty per cent discount on surgery when she was hired, and Deb thought it was a good deal at the time. Now, with her wisdom teeth poking through sideways, she’d rather have the dental coverage, though she was learning strange things about dentists, too. In fact, she’d lost faith in all doctors. But a twenty-four-year-old single girl with so many flaws and nobody to love can’t trust anyone in this day and age, especially herself. “Day and age,” she snorted. But, really, what with all the old ladies coming through this place, it obviously doesn’t get any better. Life must do terrible things to a person to make them more insecure as they get older. What a huge burn.
The letters were the boring kind—the ones to anti-aging trade shows or V.I.P. patients doing philanthropic work—asking Dr. Darling to donate his services to the odd charity “roadkill” surgeries. These occasional good deeds helped him sleep at night without drugs, and reminded him why he chose plastic surgery in the first place: to correct deformities and make people look normal, average, ordinary, common, even natural. He had entered college with his own burning desire to blend in, along with buck teeth and zero knowledge of female anatomy. (Dr. Darling’s mother, a strict Methodist, hadn’t breastfed her two sons.) But all of that changed when the birth-control companies starting sponsoring med-student parties, supplying free booze and caseloads of pills to the nurses. “Gyno rounds” soon became the code name for nights of drunken dorm-room debauchery. And he quickly realized there’s no such thing as anatomical normalcy. Sure, Darling liked the sex, but all that fumbling around in the dark to get inside a woman was ultimately a much less alluring kind of power than enticing her to strip down naked in broad daylight.
What a very long time ago it seemed to a girl like Deb, who’d been on the birth-control shot for two years now. Deb thought, “Maybe I’ll go off, since I’ve only had sex with four—no, five guys, two of them pre-shot. It can’t be healthy anyway, never getting your period, can it? Maybe I’m just part of the experiment, the giant long-term clinical trial called modern life.” Leah thought Deb’s lack of a love life would change “pronto post-op,” especially if she got lip injections at the same time. Leah never veered into ass-lipo territory, though, Deb would give her that. In fact, she rarely criticized anyone without cause, and often praised Deb’s nose; it was probably the reason she got the job in the first place.
The V.I.P. buzzer rang, and since there was nobody in the waiting room, Deb buzzed open the secondary entrance door marked Private on both sides. A woman came in wearing a big, black mink coat, her face mostly obscured by bandages and dark sunglasses. Tears ran down her taut, fragile-looking, translucent cheeks, but they might not have been tears of sorrow. They could just as easily be eye-lift-related croc tears.
“Hi, Mrs. Yardmouth,” said Deb. “How are you? ”
“Terrible. I can’t close my right eyelid.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Let me—”
“Sweetheart,” said Dr. Darling, coming out from behind the Oriental screen where he often lurked, listening to the waiting-room gossip or the exhilarating sound of Deb’s rapid typing. “You should be in bed.” He gave Deb his comic-book grin as he guided Mrs. Yardmouth toward his office.
“I’m a monster!” Mrs. Yardmouth said, and really started crying, her tiny mink-cloaked shoulders heaving up and down as she scurried down the hall, her untied belt dragging behind her on the carpet.
Forty-two rats from the reproduction-and-fetal-development trial were on the day’s “sacrifice” schedule. So many bits and pieces of their bodies had been removed for pathology testing, they weighed less than Toby’s lunch bag. He placed them in the hazardous-goods bin en route to the lunchroom, where Victor sat reading a Popular Science magazine.
“How do you think they make the rat implants? ” he asked Victor.
“They’d have to have special tiny machines exactly like the normal machines to have the same…” He searched for the right word. “Integrity.”
Victor just shrugged.
“Have you ever felt one? ” He was about to add, “subcutaneously,” but Victor beat him to it.
“Subcutaneously? No, never.”
Toby thought about all the breasts he’d seen in his life. Some flashed vividly before his eyes, but the rest had been drowned out by other things, mostly humiliations related to his performance or drunkenness at the time.
“I hear they get cold,” said Victor, adding, “I’m more of an ass man myself.”
“Molly’s acting weird. I think she’s suicidal.”
Like those Danish women. Victor shot him a look.
“She’s a rat, man. You need to get laid.”
Leah kept piling on the work, so Deb had no time to do research or interrogate patients, all of whom seemed manically cheerful anyway, in their terry cloth sweatsuits (post-op, hoodies oozing cleavage) or stylish suits (pre-op, as if applying for a job—and indeed, Dr. Darling occasionally rejected a patient). She wasn’t even able to escape to Starbucks for lunch, because Dr. Darling ambushed her as she was tidying one of the consultation rooms filled with sculptures of headless goddesses with large breasts and wings—but no arms and, sometimes, no legs. Just off a particularly rough tits-and-ass procedure, he chattered about the weather, the whole time looking her up and down, thinking, “Shame about everything except her buccal fat pads, and of course, her nose: exquisite alar nasal cartilage.” He felt covetous as usual. Only nature could make something like that. Ah, youth was wasted on the young, and he could already see the signs of age around her infraorbital rims.
“I hear you’ve been saving,” he said.
“Well, you’ve worked out wonderfully so far. Leah is very pleased with your skills, so I don’t see why we can’t waive the six-month waiting period.” He looked at his watch, then her eyes: a rare look. Glabullar lines appeared between her brows, and he saw hesitation there, too, which angered him. We must be decisive in life, whether in the O.R. holding a scalpel or elsewhere, we must take charge! Deb could tell he was frowning back by the way the outer edges of his eyebrows twitched.
“Why don’t we do a consultation now? I have a few minutes.” He tried to wink, but his eye wouldn’t go, only the outer edge of his eyebrow. He could feel it quivering and thought, “Calm down on the Botox,” and other fear-based thoughts that irritated him even more. So, he smiled at Deb with his big fluorescent white teeth and chiselled cartoon jaw, but it was the kind of smile animals make when they’re backed into a corner. Closing the door gave him a rush of power, but rolling around the room on his medical stool to fetch a clipboard and a marking pen, he felt waddly and effeminate.
Deb just stood there feeling claustrophobic, feeling like an idiot, telling herself, “It’s O.K., this is just research now.” But it was hard to trust yourself around Dr. Darling. He was very persuasive, and preyed on suggestive types, even using neurolinguistic programming techniques.
“Oh, you can throw on a gown,” he said, as if a gown was a very childish thing.
“That’s O.K.,’ she said, and went to the examination chair and took off her sweater, then her cotton tank top. As he waddle-glided toward her, she turned a deep red right down her neck, mortified by the raised nipples, but what could she do? The rooms were purposely kept too cold.
“Still thinking a C-cup,” he said to her breasts, his mind racing with the usual initial thoughts of fraudulence verging on perversion, but his face intently blank of emotion.
“Ah, yeah, saline.”
“I could get you the silicones you know. They do make exceptions,” he said, as if her breasts were special cases.
“That’s O.K.,” she said and fixed her gaze on the smooth marble breasts of the Venus de Milo as he started marking her chest with a blue marker. She couldn’t help but shudder when he brushed the side of his hand over her nipple as he sectioned off her chest. Then two Polaroids, one for each of them. She felt the worst shame looking at herself mugging for the camera.
To maintain blind-trial standards, there were no corporate names on the boxes of tiny implants, just “SALINE,” “SILICONE,” “MIXED,” and “PERPETUGEL.” The only way for Toby to find out how these implants were made would be to ask his boss, and he might not even know; they made a point of keeping the research compartmentalized. Toby wasn’t looking for trouble. He desperately needed this job to get his student loans paid down, so he just pocketed two adult-sized silicone implants (the saline ones were too soft and ripply). On the way home, he went to a boutique lingerie store to purchase a bra, feeling like a complete perv eying the lingerie. It was torture making small talk with the fragrant, tanned, voluptuous cashier as she carefully wrapped a black bra in pink tissue paper and garnished it with bath beads.
But walking back to his apartment with the small pink bag with silky handles, he actually felt pretty manly, thinking, “People will think a beautiful wife is waiting for me at home.” He pictured Brie St. Croix, his favourite porn actress, and threw on one of her DVDs, even before he’d taken off his coat. Rigging everything up took some of the lustre out of the whole thing, and when he saw his groping reflection in the TV, he knew there wasn’t going to be any relief tonight. “This is no way to live,” he thought, lying in bed with the sheets tight and his hands folded over his heart like a mummy. The rats came to him in his dreams, in tiny lace bras, trying to bite him.
Dr. Darling accosted Deb once more as she was putting on her jacket to go home. He had an urgent E-mail for her to send.
“I agreed to this thing months ago, but I’m going golfing in Maui this weekend,” he said, handing over a folder. “Tell them my mother has suddenly fallen ill, and I have to go to her.”
He bounced out of the office feeling great—no hematoma, no deep vein thrombosis, all’s well in the world. “Note to self: get case of macadamia nuts for mother.”
As Deb waited for her computer to reboot and looked at the New You trade show package, an idea started to form. She found a photo of Dr. Darling among the list of speakers and tried to find something endearing there. But no, it was too late for him. She pocketed the V.I.P. ticket and sent an E-mail marked Urgent to the show organizer, purposely dropping a letter in the address. A delivery notification failure bounced back immediately and she deleted the E-mail, feeling an intense rush of something like excitement. The idea had turned into a plan by the time she’d driven home, fed herself and her cat (with the same can of tuna), read all of the day’s fifty-seven E-mails from the Survivors of Silicone (S.O.S.) forum, and got into the shower to scrub the blue marker lines off her chest. The blue ink trailed down her body in rivers, leaving a blue ring around the drain, and humiliation mixed with anger and righteousness in her heart. She climbed into her cold bed and thought, “Now, if only I can get through the next four days without Dr. Darling getting his hands on me again.”
During the night, Molly tore out the contents of her chest and stomach with her tiny claws and teeth. When Toby arrived, she was dead, blood-soaked, curled up in the fetal position, stiff with rigor mortis, except for the sagging implant hump on her back.
“So, she did it, just like the Danish women,” Toby thought. His boss showed absolutely no sensitivity, really couldn’t have cared less, since this job was just a stepping stone to human trials, preferably in the more glamorous pharmaceutical field. Toby felt the eyes of all the other rats boring into his skull as he cleaned up the entrails and organs and took them, along with the rest of Molly, to the pathology lab.
“You should list her as a suicide,” he said to Boris, who responded tersely, “There’s no box for that.”
Toby had gotten a look at Boris’s wife’s sizable breasts in the parking lot the other day and thought maybe they were fake, too, causing who-knows-what problems for her, for Boris, for their relationship. Toby thought about the last pair of breasts he’d actually seen in the flesh and they reappeared throughout the day, swinging just out of reach in front of his face.
The sky was pink and gold by the time he left the lab, winter coming too fast and still no hope of a life. As he exited the building, a blond woman approached and said, “You work at the Institute of Pathology.”
She looked familiar.
“How did you know? ”
He wore glasses too big for his face, and had bad skin. She’d pictured someone taller, darker and more handsome.
He laughed awkwardly and briefly because she was glaring him down.
“I read your study. We need to talk,” she said in a low voice.
Toby blushed. Even his colleagues didn’t read the Annals of Small Animal Research, and they got free subscriptions. She was quite pretty, really, and had nice greeny-blue eyes with startlingly large pupils, and a beautiful nose. She reminded him of Julia Roberts, except for the height, and the body, and the rest of the face.
“I work for a cosmetic surgeon, and I need your help,” she said, looking him in the eye. It made him think his fly was open. Nobody had looked him in the eye in a long time.
“I need documents. From the corporations, from lawyers, whatever you can find.”
“I don’t have access to those kinds of things. We just do animals, and they’re not typically litigious.”
She didn’t even crack a smile, just took a sip of her rum and Coke and asked,“Do you have any friends who could help? ”
“I don’t have any friends. I just moved here this spring.”
“I mean people at the human research labs, even cadaver researchers.”
“She’s not curious about me at all,” he thought.
“No, I’m sorry. This is all pretty new to me. I didn’t even plan to be doing this kind of thing,” he said.
“So you won’t help, then? ” she said, and started pulling out her wallet, even though the last thing she wanted to do was leave.
“No, wait. I didn’t say that.”
“Don’t leave me,” he thought, thinking about the sad rig hidden in his closet. “Please don’t leave me to my own devices.”
He told her about Molly, and an intense sadness came into his eyes, magnified by too-thick lenses. He had these nice, brown, trustworthy eyes and was kind of attractive, even if he was a bit thick in the middle and had pockmarked skin. She told him about the women from S.O.S.
“What if the illnesses are unrelated? ”
“I think about that, too. But what about the rats? ”
“Yeah, they can get capsular fibrosis and malignant tumors. But that’s already been documented. Nobody’s hiding that information.”
“Yes, your study was really thorough. But which implants were the worst? ”
“I’ll have to look at the data, but I think the Perpetugels are the worst. Of course, it’s hard to tell whether the pathologies are caused by the implant material itself, or simply foreign-body responses. That can happen with anything: a splinter, a synthetic hip, a pierced ear. The body wants to get rid of it, and when it can’t, it just walls it off from everything else. It’s really pretty incredible actually.”
Deb thought about the horrible photos she’d seen and frowned him down.
“Giant lumps, leakages, D.N.A. mutation, mould. Incredibly disgusting if you ask me.”
“Of course, yeah. But you have to remember, there are levels of toxicity even in the controls. There are always acceptable risks.”
Her big eyes narrowed. “If it was your sister, would it be acceptable? ”
“I don’t have a sister.”
Deb blushed, and so did Toby.
“Yeah, two. I’m in the middle.”
“So, one of them has testicular cancer and has his balls removed, and then he’s offered fake balls.” She felt oddly erotic saying these things to a virtual stranger, and it was a bit of a thrill.
“I didn’t know they did that.” He was thinking about sex, too, of course, and wondering what her breasts looked like, but she hadn’t even taken off her jacket.
“Then, I would tell him to say no.”
“So, you’ll help? ” He really was quite attractive, and what a strange life he must have. She wished she’d worn a nicer outfit, put on some lipstick, been less harsh.
“Yes,” he said, thinking similar insecure and shallow thoughts.
“Good. We’d also like to have some implanted rats for the presentation. I’ll drive you back to your office so you can get your car.”
“I don’t have a car.”
No car was a major strike against him, but he had such beautiful long hands, and he really seemed to care about those rats.
Toby flossed twice, carefully, and even trimmed his pubic hair getting ready for their Friday night rendezvous at Deb’s place. So, it was a shock when a bald, elderly woman answered the door. There were seven other women in the living room, including a transsexual wearing giant pumps. They went apeshit when he opened the cardboard boxes and introduced Kate, Gertrude, and Beebe. Some clucked motherly words, others looked horrified, and one woman’s eyes filled with tears, but none of them wanted to touch the freakish-looking rats. One of the S.O.S. members had purchased a divided cage, so Toby transferred them and put a toilet-paper roll in each of their sections.
“Big crowd,” he said during a rare moment alone with Deb, in the kitchen. She looked so beautiful, and he wanted her terribly. When he caught her eye, something electric passed between them. Deb wanted him, too. Who cared about the weight, the skin, the lack of car, the looming unemployment. Certainly the dangerous nature of the situation, the potential for arrest and imprisonment fed the fire, but maybe no desperate, single, lonely, horny person needs much stoking. Idealism can be exploited just as easily as low self-esteem; maybe they even went hand-in-hand.
The electric moment passed when Toby brought out the regular-sized implants. It put Deb in a gloomy mood, thinking about Dr. Darling’s blond-knuckled hands on her breasts. These unwanted images had even infected her bedtime fantasies, which typically starred Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal. Now, Toby had also entered the mix, and what with all the excitement and these ghoulish surprise appearances by Dr. Darling, she’d endured two virtually sleepless nights in a row.
“Tomorrow the shit hits the fan,” said Georgette, who would pose as Dr. Darling the next day, since she had an Adam’s apple. The group went over the game plan and finished putting together the PowerPoint presentation with the latest documents from Toby’s lab. Then they talked about their varied health problems and commiserated with each other about bad husbands who’d left them, and bad doctors—sometimes you couldn’t tell which was which. Some of the details were downright horrendous, and it wasn’t the ideal place for a love story to begin, but it actually made Deb and Toby intensely curious about seeing each other’s unmodified bodies. They just wanted to get in each other’s pants.
When they took their clothes off, they laughed nervously at first, and so closed their eyes to each other and themselves so that they could get to it. But when their eyes eventually locked, they became very solemn and careful with each other. It’s scary to be needy and have nowhere to hide it. After, with the sheets pulled up to their chins, they listened to the girls in the living room, gnawing, pawing, and drinking from their water bottles.
“What are we going to do with them after tomorrow? ” Deb whispered.
“I don’t know,” Toby whispered back, but they were both really thinking, “What will become of us? ”