The tailor is leaning over me, peering at the dimensions of my head, going so far as to feel my skull with his plastic-man hands. He makes guttural cawing sounds as he begins lifting my varied limbs, pulling at them, checking their mobility and lengths. Then he rechecks my air-tight body diaper for leaks; pores aren’t a problem, anything else is risky, he’s said.
I am staring at the wallpaper, jungle leaves and birds, like illustrations in a child’s book; I focus on the macaw, toaster sized, on the upper far-right corner of the room. There are no windows, but I can hear traffic spurting outside the building. This is rush hour.
“We are ready to rumble!” the tailor shouts. Two assistants enter, their presence emphasized by their near transparency. They are tall, slightly smoldering, and they stink like squashed entrail juices.
“Michel and Jean will be assisting today.” The tailor’s eyes hover at my chin. Sweat from his hair drips just above my upper lip, he wears a fruity hair mouse. “Are you ready, Sweetheart?” I don’t want to respond to him: what is “ready”? But my Second, the me I’ve learned to keep specially for answering sweetheartedly, says yes. I close my eyes and wait.
“Sit up straight,” says the tailor, hooking his fingers into my nostrils and pulling me to a fast ninety degree position. He inserts my head into the cavity, a giant helmet that is shaped like a liqueur glass, so that only my mouth is left uncovered. Momentarily the cavity will seal my eyes, nose, ears, and mouth in a quick-setting liquid rumored to be hard as resin and tasty as orange Jell-O. The seal protects me from an accidental blow-up, the flavoring is supposed to remind my body of the familiar—an essential requirement during the re-constructive process.
“Open your mouth,” the tailor says.
“This is going to feel unusual and uncomfortable,” whispers Jean.
“It will be so piteously painful and destructive that you won’t be able to scream,” Michel adds, as he joins hands with Jean and they dive into my mouth together: a single thread of purple, nasty essence. Almost simultaneously, the helmet falls another few inches, Jell-O tickles and solidifies, and my head is scorched by a dry ice cast that only burns during the atomic moment before my throat swells and sobs in hysterical protest of the assistants’ Liquid Draino-like descent into my innards.
The Michel-Jean stream smacks into body parts that have never been touched before; at the same time I am absolutely certain that it is my lungs, then my heart, ribcage, stomach being brushed against, boiled by their lava-like, contaminated forms. At my vagina they split: one tears left, the other right. Once they have pierced the inside of my toes they begin ballooning themselves, stretching into my skin so that it becomes something the tailor can work with. My toe-nails half-peel and half-pop from my feet at inflation, and the assistants move on.
Howling! My skin bites and roars at its intruders, who continue expanding rapidly and violently, puffing into my entire legs, my torso and arms, my head, at which point the helmet falls away: my head survived the worst, the snap filling of it, so the cavity has performed its purpose. The assistants are still at work, though, emitting dank, cold, gooey jelly: they are cementing my body into position, forcing my back muscles to collapse, but my neck and my mouth to open.
“You can leave now,” the tailor, who I’d forgotten, says. And like a good girl, I release my soul and float to the top of the room. I can see everything at once like this, can see every reflection the light makes on the sink’s faucet, the tailor’s slim legs from every perspective, all at the same time. Beneath me I see my deserted body, which looks more horrible than any blow-up doll because the skin is woman skin, is my skin and not plastic. It is two times my size, thusly blown, and I discover that despite their lack of shell, souls gag.
A woman enters, a brunette with curly hair, wearing a white dress. She closes her eyes, opens her mouth and inhales. I watch her to calm the disaster of my own feelings.
“Honey Buns, hop to it,” the tailor says then, “this woman is not a television.”
I am supposed to dive into her mouth. I know that.
“Now!” he screams, but I don’t move. The tailor reminds me of a demonic chicken. I hover in the corner, next to the macaw, full of something like stage fright.
“You know,” he clucks, “if you don’t get in soon I might get so upset that I accidentally pop you with Jean and Michael inside. It’s been known to happen…”
I hesitate still, but when he picks up his silver shears I dive into the woman’s mouth: hot cinnamon breath, pink lips, shadowy, spongy tongue, darkness, black everything as my soul sinks into her body and the whole world is turned off, sounds, sights, smells; I am the channel not being watched. I don’t wait a long time in blackness, but I’m there long enough to panic, to understand that forever is not merely a description of time, and I start thinking about it’s relation to insanity about the time I’m suddenly the right channel again, and seated in a chair next to the tailor. The first thing I notice is that my hands are her hands and it startles me so I sit on them and concentrate on the tailor.
“Can you speak?”
“Yes,” I whisper.
“I can’t hear you,” he says, winking at me, “And I’m not even inside. Shout so that I can hear you and no more funny stuff.”
“Okay!” I shout.
“Good,” he says, “Remain calm.” He uses his hands to stretch my actual body’s mouth open, open, open until it is large enough for him to stick the top half of his body into.
“Keep it there, boys,” he says to Michel and Jean who, I guess, cement and stabilize the crevice. The tailor pushes a button that lowers the table my body is resting on, angles it enough for his entry.
“Great!” the tailor is beaming, he puts a miner’s head light around his forehead and bends right into my mouth. My skin glows pinkish from the inside out, its pores are huge, they look like giant fleas, it is absurd and I know it, and I try to keep calm. Contorted and twisted in that cartoonish position, my poor, foreign body shudders, somehow. The outline of his elbow bumps against my cheek, and I gag quietly as possible. When I notice my lips playing against the tailor’s khaki-clad hips, which are moving violently as he rummages inside of me, it is suddenly too absurd, and that’s when I lurch my borrowed self forward, screaming loudly about the ungodly, and then blackness: I’ve been turned off again.
I hear a car honking somewhere, the specialized stillness of the operating room, feet shuffling, and a cheerful, “Here we go, again!”, the tailor’s voice. I am blinded by a soft mask, bodily restrained by straps; I panic, I say, “God help me,” but it is not my voice. I am sobbing another woman’s sobs, and the tailor chuckles.
“Don’t fret, little one. These are all very natural reactions for a woman in your predicament.” I feel him stroking my hair and it accentuates my fear because my real hair is silky, and his hand rides the bumpy, coarse waves of a curly head. I shiver, ingest my fear to make him stop touching the thing that is now me.
“You’ll be fine, Honey. And don’t feel silly, at all, we’ll fix you. The best of us discover ourselves squeamish during this sort of procedure, but you are a good little girl for coming,” he consoles as he gives my borrowed head a final patting. He shuffles to my right, lifts or moves something metal from a table. Moments later I hear the sticky sounds of him re-entering my mouth, hear him shouting to me, “Now just listen closely to my questions, consider them, and loudly and clearly answer them. I’ve narrowed you down to three key reactions and I’d like to double check my analysis.” His voice echoes slightly.
I wait and I listen. He mutters and chuckles with the assistants inside my real body, too muffled for me to understand. Then he begins: “Okay! So why don’t you actually drive your car off of a cliff?”
“I don’t want to die!” I yell back with my borrowed voice.
“Death is inevitable,” he reproaches, “Though most people find the idea of it awkward. Do you think driving cars off of cliffs is a funny image, a statement about general ineptitude, or do you find the idea alluring? Think a few minutes before answering.”
I think hard.
“I love riding in my car, love cool air entering my vents in the summers. And I feel safe in my car!” I scream. “I like the beating of the tires on the road, the regular bumping of it. And how that bumping accents the tapes I play, increases the glory of the songs that I sing to. So I hate to get out of my car, I loathe having to end this sort of simple, primal comfort in exchange for a cold house, an unpredictable atmosphere, a random phone call!”
“Yah—hoooooo, here we go,” the tailor howls, I hear him pulling and stretching, I hear scissors clipping, “Keep going!”
“And I wonder if anybody else feels this way, if anybody else feels this way more than me, if anybody else has loved the idea so much that they’ve actually driven over a ledge to end their life contented and forever. I picture this, the low sound of the wind whistling as the car drops, the way it feels to tuft through the air, I think how that sound, with my music, how that lilting in my car, would be rapturous!”
“Aren’t we being a little too literal, Dear?” the tailor giggles before popping his head out, I can tell because his voice is clear, and right next to me ear. “Safety is a byproduct of fantasy and romanticizing,” the tailor reproaches, “seeking it out will drive you, forgive the pun, insane. You spend too much time in your car, Sweet Cakes, and that’s dangerous.” For five or six minutes, I guess, more tearing and ripping sounds. The tailor is mumbling to the assistants, I only hear random sentences like, “Hold this!” or “Not that far!” and then finally, “Good! Good! Good!” from the tailor.
“Oh-ho!,” he finally shouts, “Now we move on: And why did you call up the suicide hotline last week!”
“I was sad,” I say. Snip.
“I started thinking about the little kids making clothing in Indonesia,” I whisper.
“Louder!” he demands.
“The four and five year olds born to wake up, work in some factory and die old ladies at 15, never suspecting another kind of life,” I shout, “And I got really sad about it!”
“Are you serious?” the tailor nearly guffaws outright. Obviously attempting control he says, “Now that’s hardly worth calling the hotlines over. You know their existence is just a given, Dear Heart.”
“I know!” I scream, frustrated, “But our collective soul is as black as the dirt on the bottom of the stove because we can feel their misery soulfully, maybe, despite the given!” Now the tailor does guffaw outright, so hard he pops himself out of my body momentarily, I hear it, before bending back inside, mumbling something to the assistants, and chuckling.
“It is your soul that’s black, not the collective soul. But at least we know you know that, Toots, or you wouldn’t be here.” He sighs contentedly once he’s steadied his giggling, and pops out of me again. His hand rests on my shoulder. “So what did they tell you?”
“To volunteer and change the world one step at a time.”
“And did you?”
“Good!” the tailor says warmly, “You believe in faith but have none, am I correct?”
I think about it a minute, before answering: “Yes.” He moves away from me again, and I again hear him clicking and clanking with the scissors and other metal instruments. I hear the mumblings, hear the tailor run across the room, open a door to a refrigerator or cooler, run back. I am getting used to my new body; my left knee, which has throbbed every day since I was twelve, is blissfully pain free.
“There, Numbskull, there!” the tailor shouts from inside my body, “Right!” Snip, snip, scratch, twist, pull. “Done there!” A few moments later, he addresses me again.
“So now: why did you feel guilty about the English boy from the Butcher’s Arms?”
“His eyes were wide open and he was searching for truth in mine,” I say, “I was being dishonest, I was the one who wasn’t present, but I sat wide-eyed enough to fool him.”
“Present?” he shouts, “And remember to project!”
“He was trying to connect, he told me I was the sort of girl he could marry, and I smiled at him, thinking he was an idiot, but I liked him because he was sincere and he trusted me enough not think him an idiot after saying something so sentimental!”
“Why were you there?”
“No better place to be!” I bellow, “He was familiar, I’d hung out with him once before without staying the night…I had talked to him about television and politics and people; he listened, he talked back. When I left it confused him, he said his brothers had told him I was going to sleep with him, but that it was okay that I didn’t, he wasn’t mad, he was just surprised. I thought it was funny he’d tell me that. So unsuave, so unthoughtout. Next time I saw him I didn’t have a place to stay the night; I decided to stay at his house. We had sex and I hated his smell; I hated myself because he was sweet and I was empty. I stopped talking to him. He learned that my eyes weren’t vacant, they were derisive. And I felt guilty about that, too: he was a nice boy, and I made him feel like a loser.”
“You broke an unspoken trust!” the tailor happily sing-songs.
“Yes!” I wail, “and that’s unholy! But I don’t trust people unless I’m setting myself up, which is rare. When I meet people I make them trust me, and I know I won’t ever trust them, and when they trust me I think they’re ridiculous. Which is evil.”
“Good Lord, Hot Cakes! Evil? But just sit quietly. We’re about finished with you.” He snips, tears, scratches, squeezes, giggles.
“How long is this going to take?” I shout. “These wrists are throbbing, I think the bands are too tight!” And now, blankness.
I bounce off of the jungled wall, having been forcefully hucked out by the body’s owner. She storms out of the room, rubbing her wrists, slamming the door.
The room is brighter than I remember it. The tailor is removing rubber gloves from his hand, smiling up at me. The top half of his body is now covered in blood and soot, his hair drips an ashen goo.
“Well, hurry up, Sweet Thing. You won’t quite fit, so be careful about the way you reset yourself,” he chirps.
I dive into myself without looking at my demented form. Pain, the assistant’s presence, envelops me. My soul extends into my body, though, doesn’t fit properly.
“Boys!” he calls about the time the pain of reentry has convinced me to re-evacuate myself, and before I can act Michel and Jean bounce out of me like they’re riding a sling shot. Their absence is an immediate relief, like a good vomit. I shake my head and arms, I bend myself, and everything works: I am me—except for my exposed soul. It is too big for my body and it flaps out of my body in places, pushing through my skin, though it isn’t painful as much as uncomfortable; it feels like ice crushing atop a sensitive tooth.
The assistants are sitting on a couch by the window by now, leaning on each other, barely breathing. They would be invisible if they weren’t outlined in slimy, grey film. The tailor takes a bottle, aims it at me, squirts it. My exposed soul tingles, then is numb.
“Sit up,” he says. Even his face is drooping tired, his eyes vacant.
“What about my soul?” I ask, but charred, cardboard-like chunks of old soul fall from my body as I move.
I feel like singing.
“Take a shower before leaving. We’ll need a follow up in two weeks. Make an appointment with Becky,” the tailor says.
“Okay,” I say, smiling.