A woman in a paper bag dress has been outside the diner for three hours. She’s soliciting.
“Have you seen this body? Please—I’ve forgotten it—like a language.”
I’ve been inside for four, re-reading her love letters. She hasn’t noticed me yet. If she comes in, it’d be for the coffee. She’s waving a poster of herself in a bikini, gesturing to the stomach, the hips, the breasts, the collarbone.
“Excuse me—sir! This torso: nice, right? Have you seen it?”
Her legs sprout from the bag, pale, like mung bean sprouts. I could fit my whole hand around her thigh, the muscle slim as a handle.
“I could hold you like a purse,” I’d said.
“Oh?” She ran her hands over her breasts. “Would I have anything inside me?”
“The Death Star. Aurora Bourealis.”
“Don’t forget my Macy’s card.”
We were great together—everyone said so. And the sex had been great, before she started misplacing her limbs. Mid-fuck, she would want to pull my hair. I’d wait for the burn of her nails, her peeling me away from myself—but then, nothing. She would look down, see her shoulder bone rotating like a moon, and curse.
“I just had it, goddammit!”
I’d glance downwards. “At least my cock doesn’t disappear.”
“You filthy optimist.”
Afterwards, she’d sigh, “That was my dominant side.”
Two women clink their teacups together in the booth in front of me. They’re whispering about how lucky they are to have daughters who turned out “alright.” As I stare out the window, wondering what part of her body is missing, now, I feel one of them smiling at me, whispering, matchmaking.
Outside, a father covers his son’s eyes. I faintly hear his “can’t you…?” and his “your pants?” Her response is loud enough to hear through the windows.
The ladies gasp two delicate gasps. I laugh behind the napkin dispenser. She wanted to have sex on a playground, once; when I said no, she growled: Puritan. She liked to make fun of people. Compulsive shoppers, helicopter moms, Korean pop stars—her doctors. We mocked their gravitas in every room of the house except the kitchen. She never let me in the kitchen with her. I got used to coming to this diner for brunch. Crispy bacon. She’s been on a diet since she was fourteen. It took me years to pop the question.
“Is that why you started losing yourself?” We were shopping for a new birdhouse.
“It’s not like I wanted to.” She picked up a palatial feeder with miniature shutters, flicking them back and forth as if her fingers were gusts. “Well, that’s a lie—I did want to lose. I just didn’t have a say in what parts.”
We bought the chateau and set it up the same day. She watched from the front porch for hours, waiting for birds. Even a chickadee would have provided a substantial snack. She left the light on for hours, for sparrows. I carried her upstairs, whispering something—I don’t remember what—to find that her ears had fled. The bed welcomed her for several days.
It looks like her whole torso is missing now. A large loss. Her largest loss, if I remember right. But usually, after a few days—or even a few hours—her body parts reappear. The littlest ones would re-materialize without our notice: an eyebrow after dark; a big toe in the shower. Mice in her architecture.
“So nice of you to stop by,” we would joke.
She’s sitting down on a bench outside, holding her head in her hands like a cantaloupe. A mother walking by grabs her son and pulls him in close.
I push away my empty plate, sweep the bread crumbs to the floor, and spread out her letters. They’re written on all different surfaces—covers of magazines, credit card statements, linen napkins, index cards. Calling them “letters” is my uncreative interpretation. Mostly, they’re words that made her think of me.
“How do you decide?” I asked once. She cocked her head.
“I don’t. The words do.”
The welcome bells on the diner door jingle and the owner’s face vibrates. There she is, waiting to be seated in her brown paper bag. He greets her.
“You alright, miss? It’s cold out there.”
“Fine.” She tosses her wispies. “I’d like to sit down.” The man is chewing on a thought, teeth mucking with something grisly.
“My customers are upset by your appearance.”
“What,” her eyelashes shimmy, “Don’t like my dress?” If she had hips to pop, they would have.
“I’m asking you to leave.”
“How sweet of you to ask! My answer is no.”
I feel my body getting up before I permit it to. It has that conviction. My fingers find her shoulder, and I don’t realize it until I see my hand there, calm like a dog afraid to be struck, erotic in the fear.
“She’s with me.”
The owner looks at me, then at her. “You two. Together.” I am attractive by all standard definitions. In shape, able-bodied, “nice eyes,” gamble, vitamin.
“Us two. Hungry.”
His face falls. Not all the way off, but almost. “Coffee’s on the house.”
When his back turns, we have no one to acknowledge but each other.
She folds her arms across herself; there are no ribs to rest them on. Her entire existence is tenuous—a balancing act even to stand.
“Doc.” Thank god. She went first.
I exhale: “Delaney.”
We don’t talk while she drinks her coffee. She told me once that if she’s eating, or drinking, she needs to concentrate fully on using her mouth for that—nothing else.
“What kind of god creates the same body part for eating and talking?” she’d rant.
She agrees to a walk, gumming her photo with her thumbs. I catch glimpses of her in the bikini: green with yellow stitching. The wind tosses the paper back and forth as if she’s dancing. We could make small talk, but that’s not what she needs. She’s plenty small already.
“How’s your bod—”
“How’s your mother?” She tosses me a smirk.
“Still glad we broke up.”
“Not my fault my nose ran off during dinner.”
It had been a pot roast with all the classic vegetables. I noticed first, and for a minute, I pretended nothing was wrong. I started itching my nose and staring at her, willing my eyes to be big. She was smiling and laughing and shuffling her potatoes and carrots around on her plate like children in a queue. My mother was mesmerized by her knowledge of nutrition, haikus, and bird watching. When she saw the bone peeking out in the center of Delaney’s face—undeniably bright—she screamed, squeezed my arm, sunk in her nails.
It took two weeks for the nose to come back. My mother never came around.
Delaney kicks a rock as we walk. It clicks against my ankle, and I almost stumble into traffic. I grab at her arm for balance, just skimming the soft side of her wrist.
“How about you tell me how long your torso’s been gone?”
“I can’t find it anywhere.”
“Delaney. How long.” I grab her arm; the bones shift underneath the pressure.
“Two months.” A little girl rides by on her bicycle and smiles at us. I keep her wrist, slim as a ticket, between my fingers. I lead her to the back of a nearby school building. I press her body against the bricks, perfectly flat—a makeshift gurney. She keeps her eyes open as I run my fingertips along the soft edges of the bag, the places frayed by sitting, and sleeping, and sit-ups.
I wonder if this will feel like lifting her bridal veil. I often muse at that day that never happened: her eyes, painfully bright; the dress, draped on her frame. I peel the bag upwards, up to her head, until it covers her face. There is nothing between her limbs, just a big, empty hole. I can see right through her to the mortar and brick, to tiny scratched graffiti indicating that TH&SP will be together forever. I plunge my hand into the emptiness, and it feels cold, like winter water. I place my head in it and cry with her.
“Have you seen this body? Please—she’s forgotten it—like a language.”
We’re outside a different diner this time. She brought a crossword along to help “pass the time,” as if you could hand time to the person next to you, hot as fresh bread.
“Baby toy,” she quizzes. “Six letters.”
She scoffs. “I never played with Barbies.” She gets up from her perch, knees popping. She’s moving her body as if she needs to crack her back (she can’t). The sky grows fat, plum red as we linger in the lot. With her pointer finger, she sketches something out in the air, and snaps.
I grumble. She’s gotten nearly all of them. A woman zooms into the parking lot and emerges from her SUV with a cell-phone attached to her ear.
“Ma’am!” I mouth, pointing to Delaney’s photo. “This body?”
She tosses a five-dollar bill at me and continues towards the diner.
“Guess we’re hobos now.”
“Maybe it’s my dress.” She twirls and the empty space gulps her silhouette.
“Why do you wear it? You have some nice things.” I remember a primary green dress. I remember because she wore it one dinner, and she liked the dinner, and she liked it in a primary green dress.
“It’s the most honest.” An ingrown hair on her knee takes precedence as she talks. “This guy at a bar came onto me a few weeks ago. I was in some typical sheath. He smelled like cheese. He was quite surprised when he smacked my ass and found I didn’t have one.”
I laugh because she wants me too. I want to know what’s holding her together. I want to know where her food goes when (if) she eats it. To her calves? To her hands? Are they both filled with rice and with broth?
“Infatuation. Four letters.”
“Love.” I place my hand on my belly, and faux-opera belt, “All you need is love!”
When she moves her lips, they shuffle in a shiver, like a small mammal trying to get warm.
“Why not ‘hate?’” She lays her body on the pavement, right in the middle of the parking lot. The cars have stopped coming. It’s too late for a civil meal. A fissure of poorly laid cement zags underneath her head, a soft decapitation. “Hate is infatuation.”
I twitch my hands in the air, jumping finger puppet rabbits up and down her head. “What do you hate, Dee?”
She squishes one with her fist. “You know what I hate.”
We sit in silence for a while. I pick up her book of crosswords. I think she’s falling asleep there on the ground. It’s quiet. I fill in a few words, and the world shrinks.
“Delaney—we were both wrong. It was ‘lust.’” She doesn’t reply. Her silence is heavy as wet jeans. “Delaney?”
We need to find her body. Today.
On the outskirts of town, I tug her along—a little boat. Her thoughts splash up.
“Tell me your love words. Tell me quickly, before I lose my ears.”
“I’m not as creative as you, Dee.”
All night, I compiled lists of places. Anywhere we’ve been, separate or apart, anywhere she’s afraid of. When her body leaves her, it must arrive elsewhere. Matter can’t vanish.
“There’s going to be a pile of you out here. I know it.”
“Doc,” her fingers amble down my spine. “Love words. I’m starving.”
“Dee,” I scream at the ground, “It’s my love word.”
And just like that, her mouth falls off.
Is it sentimental to say: “she always wanted to be an ice skater”?
This is no Olympic rink; it’s a free-skate on a Sunday, and she’s the recipient of five- year-old finger-points, mother-glances. I rent children’s skates that will fit her ankles. I borrow scissors and cut lines at the bottom of her bag, making a flapper dress. Her cheekbones wrinkle; it’s a smile, sharper in the absence of her mouth. It’s still beautiful. I still want it.
When we step on the ice, she wobbles, but only slightly. Her feet are calm. I feel like a cane as she grips my forearm. I could list all the things she makes me feel more like than myself. I’ve lived as a perch and antidote with her.
I think she’s trying to say something to me; she’s pulling me into a figure eight. We enter the center of the ring, and people clear out. A woman brings her fingers to her lips to check that they are still there. No one approaches us, but everyone stares. The rink is etched with failed axels. My footing is shaky; it wounds the ice. I reach for her back. And I reach for her back. It’s a strong wind pushing up against my palm: an immaterial weight.
“Are you glad I took you here?” I half hope that her lips will appear just to speak with me. She holds my hands and looks straight at me, skating backwards. The bag flaps around her.
“You have a nice voice. I listened to you singing in the shower.”
She winks. I bet she’s thinking: you pictured me naked. I spin her around, and into me, and I kiss her where her mouth used to be, where it’s smooth. She closes her eyes and her eyelashes twitch like spider legs. A few teenage boys catcall from behind the plexiglass. When she turns to give them the finger, her right arm vanishes. One of them screams.
We keep skating.
“That guy at the bar—I should have been there. I should have been your boyfriend, waiting for you with a drink.”
She tosses her eyes like Molly Ringwald tosses her hair. Her left leg vanishes. She’s oddly still in spite of it. I want to say something comforting, some few words like tinder.
“I’ll find you a new leg. Something funny, like an umbrella.”
Someone has turned on music in the rink. It’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” I fling my arm up towards the ceiling, our temporary sky, and sing, “What a glorious feelin’!” I look around for the sound box—for the responsible ghost, or romantic. Almost everyone has cleared out. There’s a couple making out in the last row of the bleachers, toying with my vision as they dip below the benches.
I’m laughing at clouds!
Delaney yanks on my sleeve with her remaining arm. I spin her in and every strip of her hair grazes my skin. She sinks her fingers into my chest. It hurts. I coil my arms around her, rustling her, looking for a raw hinge of her, whatever makes her swing back and forth—towards, away from, and into me. She falls to the ice, and she looks up at me—she’s not blinking—she looks up at me as her nose, her neck, her final leg and final arm disappear—as all that stays are her eyes and her ears.
With a happy refrain!
Her ears leave. It’s the eyes and me.
I’ve never seen her look so in love. Her pupils tilt backwards, and I wait for a big beam of light to rupture the ceiling, to take her, but nothing comes. In my mind, a birdhouse swings, and fledglings flood the exits—all the wings, just brushing the wood. My porch light might be flicking on now; my knees might be exhaling now. Her eyes end like the last note in a song: curling up, hooking up. The couple in the bleachers won’t stop kissing, kissing—a boy’s fingers on a girl’s chest, enumerating the goose bumps, the attempts. I press my palms to the ice, imagining: I still feel you.