I’ve always hated the mall but it is the only place where retail experience is worth anything so when the Armenian mobsters in Oakland County all drained their in-ground units simultaneously, the pool supply store let me go and I headed for the King and Queen to drop off some resumes at the dirty gift store and the puffy-paint t-shirt place and the ice cream ball bearings stand. I got a position at a mid-tier sportswear shop where I folded neoprene leggings for eight-hour shifts before driving back to my hot-plate efficiency in Exton where I stayed up all night shooting strangers on my Xbox and listening to highway traffic.
It was a Centennial of something and I was running late. We were supposed to park by the movie theater but I snagged a choice spot in front of the cheapo department store, the one that puts the self-propelled mowers next to the crotchless panties. I was almost through into the main mall when a frizzy-headed gal stepped into the alley between the glass-topped perfume counters, trying to fog me up with some off-brand cologne. I reached out to try to block her and my hand brushed hers and we switched, I mean who we were changed, we traded consciousnesses and pop, there I was fumbling to catch the perfume mister before it smashed on the ground, dosing my pumps with honeysuckle. I shook my head no and saw the woman’s bleached hair swing in front of my eyes—hay-straight with burnt tips—and I screamed. A security guard came to escort me who-knows-where and I popped inside of him, staring down at my coffee-dark hands, surprised at how heavy the gun was hanging on my hip.
There was noise and I ran toward it. The food court was anarchy, people shrieking, weeping, smashing sneezeguards, punching their hands into deep fryers. An Asian woman wearing a pencil skirt and no top zombie-shuffled toward me. She put her hand on my cheek and everything went white and I tasted a dozen different lives, pain and fear, virtues and regret. When I found myself again I was alone in the men’s room, imprisoned in a large woman’s body, squatting beside the toilet in a glossy gray pantsuit, my nails caked with gore, my saggy cheeks bloody.
It was happening all over, the switching, although we didn’t know it then. Personalities changed over any point of contacts—an Amtrak officer passing change to a commuter, strangers sharing the peace, friends embracing and couples flirting, a fingertip tapping against an elbow, two palms pressing neatly together in a handshake.
We jumped into toothaches, abdominal cramps, Celiac Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, migraines, myopia, gout. We jumped into thinning hair and spreading waistlines, pigeon toes and duck feet.
The radios and TVs all put out the same message—Stop Touching—but by then it was too late. We saw it in the eyes of our favorite newscaster, the older lady with the swooping curls. We saw it in the searching looks of people on the subway, in the elevator, in the stew of emotions rolling across their faces: confusion, disorientation, uncertainty, displacement. We saw it in the mirror.
We searched for clues to understand our new lives. The food in or missing from the refrigerator hinted at potential allergies. The size of our beds and the pattern of the sheets suggested certain—and not other—sleeping and sexual positions, denoting levels of kinkiness and related issues, an overweight partner, possibly, or a tilted uterus. It was a real birds-in-the-water-fish-in-the-air feeling in the beginning, and no matter what we did we were constantly tasting the difference between this and then. But soon that changed, and the person we had been before became blurry and then blank, and our need to constantly conjure our old life became less necessary and less comforting.
Going through my sock drawer, I found loose change, a receipt from an upscale candy store, and a stack of business cards. The frightened feeling I had been carrying with me since the switch swelled, shifting into something more profound as I stepped into a cubicle filled with photographs of the body I wore hoisting a silver-and-purple fish into the air, of my body hugging a golden retriever, of my body kneeling on the beach dressed in beige khakis and a foamy sweater.
Later, other people filtered into the office, strangers in suits, laughing anxiously, humbled by how little we understood, by how much we needed each other. Out of habit or desperation, we worked. We were careful with our computers and each other, shy to talk, eager to listen. I don’t think any of us ever developed more than a vague idea of what the company we worked for actually produced but it only took a few days to get the basics of our responsibilities, what documents we wrote or destroyed, where the replacement toner was stored. Months passed. Eventually, we began to feel like we weren’t just pretending to belong where we were. Except for Marjorie.
Marjorie never settled. She leapt out of her chair at any noise: the rattle of metal clips in a paper cup, the popping sound the suction strip on the refrigerator door made when it opened. She refused to eat with us, to speak after 10 a.m., to stand within a dozen feet of a window. One time she came in wearing a leather miniskirt, go-go boots and a platinum wig with a wad of what might have been mayonnaise stuck to the side of it. She spent most days either making lists at her desk—we didn’t bother to wonder what was on them—or else picking her nails in the break room, knees together under the table, her expression blank as a turnip. Some nights we retired to one of the junior executive veepee’s nearby industrial lofts, and as we listened to the exposed piping swish and gurgle we talked about Marjorie, how pity for her soaked our hearts, how her behavior must be some kind of phase, that she was—had to be—harmless. Then we came in one morning and found her sitting on the break room’s formica counter stabbing her legs with scissors and knew that we had been wrong.
She hung herself that night in her jail cell, the buckle of her belt tucked neatly under her chin, eyes shut defiantly, toes pointed in.
After she was dead, we finally worked up enough courage to go into her cubicle. The surfaces of the desk and computer were covered with lists, lists of emotions—LOVE PITY FURY GALL HATE—lists of body parts—HAIR FACE HAND NECK TONGUE. There were lists of other things, too, algebra terms and zoo animals, as if she was reminding herself what words went together, as if losing her body had been the beginning of a broader, more pervasive decline and objects and ideas had been the domain of that other, earlier self. We left the lists and slunk out of the office, snapping the lights off behind us, shrinking into our coats and cars, escaping into the dark.
Huge questions loom, swamping us in their shadows: Should I trust my neighbors? Who are my parents, and do they love me? Why do the president’s clothes always look too big for him? Yesterday, I was on my way home from the office when I recognized my old body—those bony hips, and flat, overbrushed hair—stepping out of an ice cream shop. I froze, shocked, watching whoever was inside of then me now enjoy a double scoop of strawberry, light pink with chunks of fruit, organic maybe, and I stood on the corner watching what felt like myself—the person I was supposed to be, not this flabby coil—make those crazy faces that people make when they’re eating ice cream, tongue all over the place, eyes everywhere but on the scoop. I looked around at the people stumping down and up the sidewalk, arms stiff at their sides, passing briefcases and purses back and forth between their hands as they restlessly eyed the pedestrians swimming around them, searching for something familiar in the faces of strangers. This is what we are left with: no physical affection, no sense of belonging to our bodies, just the cheap novelty of catching yourself in the act of doing something mundane—tonguing ice cream, removing staples, checking the expiration date on a bag of bread—a modest shock and then the long, lumpy aftermath.