I woke up huffing and nauseous that day at the clinic, my neck like a spike at the edge of the chair. I called her for the first time six weeks later, totally unaware of the spell. My swelling had gone down. My cough was less wet. She was shocked when I told her how sick I’d been.
I remembered her necklace, a hanging gold cross, laying flat on her papery hospital gown. She had dyed blond strands in her pulled-back hair. A pecan-coloured forehead, plush-looking cheeks. I stared up, worm’s eye, at the coils of her profile.
“You look pretty,” she said, as soon as I woke.
She handed me a pink plastic hand mirror. My lips were skinless, like livers.
“It takes at least twenty-four hours for the swelling to go down.”
I saw girls being led into the clinic through my stunted peripheral vision. My nurse had a doll’s pucker. She took back the mirror.
“If you have any problems,” she said, slipping me her card.
I knew she was doing her job and lying to me. I already understood that plastic surgery reordered society. You were sliced and then let loose to climb up the ladder. It was metamorphosis, sanctioned by the state. And your family was free to psychologically manipulate.
At home, I couldn’t stand up or shower. I didn’t want to brush my teeth. My mother begged me to get out of bed. Go outside, see your friends, they won’t even notice, she said. But I tracked each new cell of topographical lip skin: I’d become amphibian.
After I’d told my nurse on the phone that I’d been in the hospital for a week, she said, “Oh God. Thank God. Thank God you called.”
Then she paused for a very long time.
I waited in the kitchen, on our phone attached to the wall. There was an air pocket in the wallpaper; the lines didn’t sync.
“Why?” I said, into the void.
My nurse was mixed, model-like. I imagined her partying life.
She cleared her throat a few times. Pieces of our wallpaper were not glued down right. Sweat seeped under the receiver and penetrated my cheek.
“Are you still there?”
Her voice felt like a rush, the beginning of pain. I knew my mother was insulted that I didn’t want her face.
“I think maybe it’s better. . . . Do you want to meet up?”
I thought I’d called her out of boredom. I thought I’d called because I could.
She told me to meet her at Mindu, outside the cafeteria. My saliva tasted bitter. It had been almost six weeks since my procedure. I’d met her just once at the clinic, before I got sick. She’d seen me unconscious. I forgot my sunglasses. I was not thinking straight.
It took me thirty minutes to walk there through Novo Aleixo, where you could buy liver, intestines, and feet. Blades of grass floated in the bloody corners of butchers’ windows. Mindu Municipal Park was for tourists, with pink and yellow painted bridges in a maze. I pretended I didn’t see her walking up to me. Sun sliced my eyes. Children licked soft ice cream. I felt this force field between us. She wore bright red lipstick, a bathing-suit-style dress. She really looked like a model, a lingerie one. I saw a little roll of flesh above the line of her underpants. Kids ran around like puppies, mothers yanked arms like tails. Her hair was wild, all black. There were no more blond streaks. Immediately, I knew coming here had been a mistake.
She squinted at my mouth.
“Are you happy now?” she said.
I licked my lips and folded them in.
“You look good. It’s all healed. You look sexy,” she said.
I could tell she was nervous, talking quickly, in spurts. My stomach was mangled. I felt like throwing up.
“Hey. Looking sexy is a compliment.”
We were the same height, the same body type. I felt like she could be my sister from another life.
She asked if I wanted coffee, if I took sugar or milk.
“Anything,” I mumbled.
My face had been replaced.
I wanted to get away from all the families. It was too hot for coffee. I watched her walk into the cafeteria, wiry spandex wrinkles around her waist. It felt as if my tongue was stuck in the ridges of the tube that children’s ice cream coils pushed through.
My mother had led me into a factory for faces. I imagined an arena, everyone rapt when I spoke. When my nurse emerged from the building, she held out two Styrofoam cups. Her nipples looked like thumbprints. Dead leaves rose from the ground. I thought that with my new mouth, people would listen to me.
“Thanks,” I said. My voice was hoarse.
She kept looking over at me as we walked down the path.
“Is it O.K.?” she asked.
I nodded and scalded my tongue. The plastic top of my coffee leaked a pustule of foam. We approached a green, armless bench in front of a crooked rubber tree.
“Here,” she said.
I put my drink down on the bench, twisting to sit.
“You have a bit on your nose,” she said, inching closer, reaching out.
Before she could touch me, I swatted my own face.
“Are you O.K. with us meeting?”
I guessed that she was at least twenty-one years old.
“Look, I just need to tell you something,” she said.
I felt the wind blow through my ears to the bridge of my nose.
“Since you came to the clinic, I can’t stop thinking about you.”
She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking away. I forced myself to drink back more syrup and foam.
“Fuck. Do you want to just hang out again?”
I felt almost seasick. I liked how she said “fuck.”
“Does that mean yes?”
Yes. Completely struck dumb.
After my procedure, to make me feel better, my mother said, “You better get ready. Boys are going to be crawling to you.” I thought about boys on their hands and knees looking up at my lips, the exact same way I’d seen hers from underneath. I thought about slapping the boys, how I’d seen people do to their pets. I’d tower over them and big-toe their heads to the ground. I hoped my mother was right. I’d never had a boyfriend. Men had always flocked to her bedroom. I heard her grunting most nights. But ever since going to Mindu to meet my nurse, I’d stopped telling myself stories about boys, dog-like. My mouth had turned into a plump glossy blossom. I saw things in images now. Like her swinging gold cross. Her black and blond stripes. Thumbprints circling in spandex, nipples printed through a dress.
She was “fuckable,” I knew the guys in my class would’ve said. But the more days that passed since our coffee on the bench, the more it seemed, I guess, completely far-fetched. Like, why did she say was she thinking about me? And why did she want to meet again? Didn’t she know my real age? I felt my lips itch.
I was sure she stroked every girl’s arms going under. She greeted every single one with that same mirror when they woke.
I couldn’t function at school. I ate soft white ice cream and yogurt to cool myself down. I drank milk with a straw. I sucked slivers of ice. I tried lozenges, too. Questions got parsed in my head. What did her thinking about me actually mean? And how did looking sexy fit in?
I decided to put on lipstick for our second meeting. I wore a crop top and my jean short shorts. She’d arrived before me on our bench. She was sitting there smoking, with crossed legs in flip-flops, slick black hot pants, like a braided horse tail. God, what could I ever say to this person that wouldn’t make me sound dumb?
Tree roots twisted in front of us. My thoughts rushed to the future.
“Do you think I’m old?” she asked, bouncing her tightly crossed legs.
“No,” I got out, squeezing my thighs till they hurt.
I felt myself trying not to smile, staring up at the powdery sky.
“Well, I feel like I’m old. And I feel like you think I’m old.”
Before I could say no again, she told me she’d been working at the clinic for three years. She had a cosmetic assistant’s certificate and she wanted to go to nursing school.
“You think that’s a good idea?” she asked, blowing smoke away from me. “I was a real fuck up in high school. I don’t know if I could pass.”
My lips stuck together from the lipstick. The clouds were a graph made of pillows overhead. I tried to figure out if they were thickening or parting for the sun.
“I need a better job,” she continued. “So that I can do music. I love house. You like house? All my friends are D.J.s.”
I wondered which high school she went to. And what did “fuck up” mean?
“I bet you’re really good at school,” she said.
I tried to not think about how different I already knew that we were. I just tried to focus on saying something back to her. But I felt so embarrassed. I didn’t know house. My tongue lay in glue. I hadn’t told my mother where I was.
She sighed and stood up, lighting another cigarette. Her white tank top billowed, her hot pants reflected the sun. I liked English class and Spanish. I liked reading true crime. The thing was, this whole time, I’d assumed she was a nurse.
“I’m trying to quit,” she said, after a few puffs, throwing her cigarette on the ground.
I knew I was disappointing her by being mute again. I stared at her red shellacked toes and junkyard cigarette butt.
I dreamed of being an adult, escaping our house. My mother was teaching me how to clean chicken, how to separate eggs. “You need to learn how to function when I’m not here,” she said. We lived alone in our high-rise. It was always just us. I think my mother thought she was preparing me for the “real world.”
“Look, I’m just going to say it.”
Her eyes were glassy, laser-like.
“I think maybe I’m in love with you.”
My stomach felt like a balloon that had just popped. I was slouching in pain. I glared at the dry, broken ground. Dead leaves were burned here, I thought, to make mulch. I tried to stand up. She took a step toward me.
“I have to go now,” I said. I felt bile rise.
“Wait,” she said.
But I started to run. The whole sky white and electric. There was no real world.
I ran up the pathway, back to the cafeteria. I was sweating, so stupid. How could a woman be in love with me? I’d thought I’d loved this guy once, when I was thirteen. I felt sick. I felt dread. That was nothing like this. My flip-flops slapped the ground. Thinking about being in love was not the same as feeling it.