Juliet first notices the patch of scales while looking at herself in the bathroom mirror after a shower. Just under her shoulder blade, the scales flash silver. She awkwardly reaches back to touch them, and they feel smooth and slightly raised. The patch is the size of a penny. She puts on her bra and adds see the doctor to her mental list, right after e-mail Chuck to let him know the project will be late, buy shoes that don’t pinch Amanda’s feet, and don’t screw up and buy cookies with nuts for Amanda’s class party. Although Juliet isn’t tall, her body is lean, and her hair falls in smooth lines. She applies her eyeliner, standing in her bra and underwear while her daughter retrieves the brush from the bathroom counter. Beneath her bra, the scales are safely hidden.
By the following week, the scales cover her entire back. She sits on the exam table in the doctor’s office wearing a paper gown that rustles as she shifts position. The rooms smells of disinfectant, and pictures of beach landscapes hang on the wall in shiny gold frames. The effect is cheap, but her eyes are still drawn to the relentless waves, and beyond, the deeper part of the ocean in the distance, painted darker, the place where sometimes people drown. She wonders what kind of disease mimics creatures from the sea, and if she were to walk into the waves with her scales, would she be able to breathe among the shipwrecks on the ocean’s floor.
She has taken to locking her bathroom door when she showers, afraid her daughter might see the scales and worry. Juliet first learned that motherhood often means no privacy while holding three-month-old Amanda on her lap, taking a shit as her baby leaned against her chest. Her husband had just left her, and all she wanted was an adult timeout to do her business, tears blurring her vision, but Amanda could cry louder—not wanting to be left alone for even five minutes—and so Juliet had taken her baby to the toilet, where they’d both settled into a numb silence.
She won’t be one of those mothers who lean too heavily on their children. Her own mother would rant about her ex-husband: mouth downturned, voice storming louder, taking on a steady rhythm like shutters clapping against the windows in the wind. Juliet pushes the memories away. Her mother was more than that. And Juliet is careful with her own daughter. Amanda sees her father every other weekend, packing her leopard-print duffel bag, always bringing home a new toy, telling stories about her half-brother who’s now five years old and starting kindergarten, showing off her toenails expertly painted by her stepmother.
What does Juliet feel in those moments when her daughter first walks in the door, smiling and ready to share? She’s afraid to examine those feelings. She shuts them down. She’s proud that she can do that, that she can shut those feelings down for the sake of her daughter. But she can’t erase them. The feelings churn in a deep place so that sometimes she feels heavy, as if another world with its own rules has formed inside her.
The door opens, and Dr. Levine walks in with her clipboard. She’s a big-boned woman, sturdy. Juliet guesses the doctor is a few years older than herself, approaching forty. Dr. Levine smiles at all her patients as if they are at a beach bonfire together, faces softened by flames and wine, and as the doctor asks questions, Juliet almost forgets her arms are cold and that she’s sitting on an exam table in a paper gown.
“Maybe it cleared up on its own,” the doctor says amiably, standing behind Juliet. “There’s nothing here.”
“Don’t you see it? They’re everywhere. They’re all over my back.”
“What’s all over your back?” The doctor’s voice has changed, suddenly neutral. “You said the rash looked like fish scales?”
“You don’t see anything?”
“I see a mole. But it’s not irregular. Nothing to worry about.”
Juliet’s breaths are quick and shallow. Juliet understands that she’s crazy. She’s seeing scales that aren’t there.
“You’re right. It must have cleared up,” Juliet forces out.
When Dr. Levine stands in front of Juliet, her face looks different, and it takes a moment for Juliet to recognize the expression as wariness.
“How have you been feeling? Other than your back?” the doctor asks.
“The same as always.”
“How’s your daughter?”
“Well, she’s taller than when you last saw her. I think she’s going to be taller than me,” Juliet says, purposefully warming her voice, putting on her friendly persona like a yellow summer dress with little white flowers. She also wears this version of herself as she makes her afternoon rounds among the cubicles to talk with coworkers, holding her mug of coffee. On weekends, she and her daughter curl on the sofa together in their baggy loungewear, watching movies with their hair uncombed. Juliet prefers unkemptness, the wildness of an abandoned house, the holes in broken windows forming shapes in the sky of glass.
As Juliet continues to talk about her daughter, the doctor relaxes. And Juliet makes a decision. She will cope with her own insanity just as she has coped with everything else in her life. She won’t tell anyone else about the scales. She’ll ignore them, and perhaps they’ll go away. If they don’t—or if any other new symptoms develop—well then of course she will see a psychiatrist and take whatever drugs are necessary. She may be crazy, but unlike her Shakespearean namesake, she considers herself practical.
“Hurry up!” Juliet shouts, dressed for work and waiting for her daughter by the front door. Juliet is always shouting. She lives in a world of extremes. Amanda never loads the dishwasher. Amanda always takes too long in the bathroom. Juliet never finds enough time. Time is a beast that wants to swallow Juliet whole, leaving her with nothing but ifs. If Amanda misses the bus, then Juliet will have to drive her daughter to school, and if traffic is bad, Juliet will arrive late to work again, and if she arrives late, Chuck will send her another e-mail, reminding her that work starts promptly at nine, as if she could ever forget.
But Amanda isn’t going to miss the bus. They leave on time. As Juliet drives her daughter to the bus stop in her Prius, the sun’s glare turns the windshield translucent. All she can see is the pollen on the glass and the broken-wing smear left behind by the ineffective wipers. She slows down, shielding her eyes with one hand. When she turns onto the next street, her view is clear again, and she observes the crowd gathered at the corner, the mothers huddled together chatting, the children running back and forth, a few fathers standing with their legs spread wide and arms crossed.
She parks next to the curb, but doesn’t get out. She has nothing to say to the other mothers. Juliet can afford to live in this neighborhood only because of her father’s help, his down payment an implicit apology for missing most of her childhood. He has seen his granddaughter only a handful of times although he lives in the same city. Why didn’t you ever marry again? Juliet once asked her father. I already had everything I needed, he answered easily.
“Are those vultures?” Amanda asks from the passenger seat, pointing at the sky.
Juliet looks up at the black birds circling. “I think so.”
“Do you like vultures?”
Juliet smiles. Her daughter often surprises her with unexpected questions. “I think they have a bad reputation they don’t deserve,” Juliet answers. “I mean, they don’t kill anything. They just wait until something dies, and they have to eat like anything else in this world. That’s not so bad really, right?”
“My teacher says they swoop in on other animals out of luck.”
“That’s one way of looking at it.”
“Jack looks like a vulture.”
Juliet frowns, twisting in her seat to better face her daughter. “Why would you say that?”
“He’s got that bald spot, right here.” Amanda pats the top of her head.
“He can’t help that, Amanda. People get older. Our bodies change.”
“You’re not old, Mommy.”
Amanda still calls her Mommy. Next year, she will start middle school and call her Mom, and wear contact lenses instead of the cute round glasses, and worry about the style of her hair cut, and wonder about kissing a boy, and look at her mother, really look at her mother, just as Juliet finally saw her own mother with clarity, perhaps clearer than her mother saw herself. But not yet. Juliet is still Mommy.
“Don’t you like Jack?” Juliet asks.
“I do like him. He’s nice.”
“He runs a marathon every year. He could probably bench press you,” Juliet jokes.
“I don’t think so,” Amanda says, unimpressed, and then glances up sharply. “Oh, there’s the bus.”
Amanda kisses her mother. Juliet watches her daughter spring from the car, drifting among the other kids, all of them moving in a chaotic mass, and Juliet thinks of her first dandelion, blowing hard, watching the seeds float out. It fills her with a sense of longing.
Over dinner that evening, Jack proposes. He’s wearing a blue polo shirt and round glasses. He and Juliet sit at a table for two by a large window overlooking the river. Skyscrapers hover on the other side of the bank, and closer to the window, a few small boats tied to the dock brace themselves against the river’s current. If she were outside on the dock, she’d hear the splashing of water against the stoic hulls of the boats.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” Jack asks.
“I’m just surprised, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry I don’t have a ring. I thought you’d want to pick it out yourself,” he explains, his skin flushing a harsh red. Juliet remembers the story he told her of his ex-wife, how she’d hated the square cut of the diamond he gave her, insisting on a new ring before announcing their engagement.
“It’s not that,” Juliet says, although it’s part of the reason. They will never be each other’s first. They are links on a long chain, the pattern already determined, and her thoughts drift further and further back into her own life, trying to find the beginning of that chain, to her mother’s choices, to her grandparents, to an ancestor crawling from the depths of the sea—and it’s that last ridiculous image that calms her, brings her back into the present. She’s being silly. She reaches her hand across the table, palm out, and he accepts the gesture, taking her hand in his.
He tries to smile. “Then what is it?”
“It’s a big step for me and Amanda. Can I think about it?”
“Of course,” he reassures, his tone kind because he’s always kind. That was what first attracted her to him when she met him walking his dog in their neighborhood. He wore a yellow polo shirt tucked into jeans and painfully white sneakers, but he was so patient with the graying Labrador who strained to sniff near the curb. When his sister moved to Chicago, Jack had agreed to give the dog a home, and this is the sort of man Amanda feels should be her future, someone who could be a good father figure for Amanda, who could stand next to Juliet at friends’ parties, her husband, her broken-home daughter no longer a child to be pitied by the volunteer mothers heading projects for the gifted children during school hours. And really, Jack isn’t so much older. He doesn’t turn fifty until August, and when he wears his sunglasses with a black button-down shirt, she can almost believe his stories from his college days: a younger Jack who experimented with LSD, and drunkenly stumbled across the quad, and said fuck among his friends—although did he really swear back then, or did he just try it out once or twice the way one looks at oneself wearing leather pants in the department store’s full-length mirror and decides against the absurdity?
Juliet and Jack are making love now, back at his house on his full-size bed. The vanilla-scented candles on his nightstands flicker. She’s sitting on his hips, and his hands roam over her back, over her scales, and for a moment she wonders if he’ll feel them?
As she caresses his chest, she sees new silver scales forming on her upper arm, glittering monstrously in the candlelight.
If he sees the scales—oh, if he sees them!—he’ll know the truth about her, he’ll see her for what she really is, he won’t want her, he’ll be glad she didn’t accept his proposal right away, he’ll take the offer back, and she’ll be alone forever.
She interrupts their lovemaking and rolls onto her side, facing him. The scales are hidden.
He looks into her eyes. “Did I do something wrong?” His tone is naked.
He props himself up against the pillows. “Don’t do this again.”
“Do what?” When he is silent, she adds, “Cut me some slack. I’m barely treading water these days.”
“I know. I know it’s not easy for you. I want to help with that.”
“You may think you want to live with me, but it’ll be different when we’re around each other all the time. I’m not tidy. I’ve got a temper.”
He shakes his head and looks at her earnestly. “I love you. I want to marry you. Why can’t you believe that?”
Or maybe it isn’t earnestness after all. When she examines him closely, she sees that his face has hardened like an oncoming train.
“You don’t understand—” she begins, but he cuts her off.
“Don’t do that,” he demands.
“I’m a mess.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. Don’t be so self-absorbed.”
“Hey, I’m sorry,” he says, his voice softening. “I know you’ve got a raw deal, but we all do. You think I like working under a guy half my age? It’s like I somehow got left by the side of the road, and traffic is moving by without me. You think it was easy for me to leave my wife, after all those years, when I finally accepted we had nothing in common? At least I knew better than to have kids with her. My sister was home picking up dog crap in the back yard while her husband was out screwing another woman, but my sister, what does she do? She forgives him and moves to Chicago with him because they’ve got a fifteen-year-old kid who keeps trying to get into bars with his fake ID. My own mom never got the nerve to leave my dad, even though she should have, even though I watched her shrink into herself, folding laundry and washing dishes, and come on, don’t you see it? We’re all struggling. But you and I, we have a chance to build something real. We can have something better.” He touches the back of her hand. “What do you want?”
“We can’t building something real if you can’t see who I really am.”
“I see you,” he says gently, tenderly even.
“You don’t! You don’t see me!” She’s shouting, she realizes. She’s sitting now, her upper arm visible. She points at her arm. She twists so he can view her back. “Look at me.”
He studies her. They’re at a turning point, and she feels an easing in her chest, the way she once stood on the beach as a child at sunset and discovered a boat’s silhouette on the ocean’s horizon, the passionate sails open and full, the pennant and ropes drawn in crisp detail. The boat was perfect. She’s never seen anything as perfect since. Then Jack’s expression turns playful.
“Damn. You’ve got some beautiful skin.” He strokes her arm. “How did I get so lucky?”
“No fish scales, huh?” she asks, careful to hide her disappointment.
His eyebrows pinch in confusion, and then he slips his hand between her thighs. “Maybe I need to go deep sea diving,” he says. She can’t help smiling, even though the joke is terrible and changes nothing. He finds her eyes. “We’re okay, aren’t we? We’re okay?”
She leans forward, kissing him. She knows she can’t marry him, but doesn’t say the words. Not yet.
Standing in the kitchen the next morning, Juliet listens to her daughter laughing on the phone with one of her friends. Her daughter’s voice is still a piano played on the upper scales, high and light. Juliet swings open the refrigerator door and takes out the salmon to marinate. She rolls up her long sleeves to keep them clean, her exposed skin smooth and clear. Inside the glass dish on the laminate counter, the slab of fish is as innocuous as the dawn, its revealed flesh the pale pink of clouds in a waking sky, a thing freed from the weight of its living self, removed from its watery context, reborn.
Then Juliet flips it over to see the gray underside and clinging silver scales. It is still a corpse. She knows she is being melodramatic. She knows she is crazy when she sees her own scales spread beyond the sleeves of her blouse, trailing all the way down to her wrists, leaving only her fingers achingly human. Already she misses Jack. Or does she just miss the idea of him? She feels poised between ugliness and beauty and recalls the pike her grandparents served for dinner when she and her mother visited them in England. Before cooking the fish, her grandfather showed Juliet the pike’s impressive size, the creature’s mouth open, filled with a mountain range of sharp teeth.
Amanda, finished with her conversation, enters the kitchen. She has straight hair like her mother, and the hazel eyes of her father. No. Juliet stops herself, forces herself to view her daughter as a whole. She is just Amanda.
Amanda stares at her mother’s arms in surprise, and then slowly walks forward, reaching out to touch Juliet’s wrist. The scales glimmer in a hypnotic mix of light and shadow. Juliet holds her breath, both wanting and not wanting her daughter to see.