Fiction 2010 / Issues / Spring 2010 / Volume 40

Stronger than Skin — Brandon Boudreaux

I think that’s a ghost – it’s difficult to determine at sixty miles per hour. The weather makes visibility on the interstate erratic, but I speed by what is no doubt a person trudging through the snow bank. I don’t see anyone in the rearview mirror, which is a shame because I would have given this traveler a lift; we all need someone to give us a lift from time to time. Michelle would call it “interaction with a straight face.” That is, interaction while being serious about it, which is to say not the most effective kind of interaction. According to Michelle.

My car fishtails as I change lanes. I regain control, chalking the skidding up to the icy roads. I look into the rearview to find that the wanderer has disappeared and maybe wasn’t there in the first place, but in this weather there aren’t any cars on the road, either. I see an exit to a town called Bennington.

*     *     *

When I first met Michelle, she was standing near the corner of Westwood Bank and the Goldbrooke Inn in an overcoat, sunglasses, and a fedora. Pointing to the red suitcase at her feet, I commented that her disguise was brilliantly inconspicuous. “James, pumpkin bear,” she would later say in the hospital, “I never was wearing a disguise.” She lifted the red suitcase and plucked a couple of strands of black hair out of the frame of her sunglasses. Leaning close to me, she asked in a whisper if I had seen a tall man in a top hat with a monocle. I covered one of the lenses of my eyeglasses with my hand, leaned closer, and told her that I had to ditch the hat. Her green eyes widened and she had to struggle to continue speaking in that low, conspiratorial tone. She asked if I had the materials. I looked around the street and handed over my business card – the ostentatious one with glitter over the bar’s logo – and told her I would be there that night. She said she would meet me at the drop point, and held back her smile, putting my card in her small breast pocket. The night in the hospital, all those months ago, was the only time she called me by my real name.

*     *     *

I find the Kirkside Motor Lodge once I get into Bennington, and ask Bill in the office to give me the room furthest away from everyone else.  After settling in, I bundle up and head out through town on foot. It’s stopped snowing, but the clouds are still screening the sun that’s a few hours away from setting. There aren’t many people in the streets, but after seeing the few around that are braving the weather, it’s painfully obvious that every one of them is Michelle. Every woman I see has the same long black hair, bangs cut straight across the forehead, high cheeks and short, precise steps. On every woman’s right cheek there is the same tiny mole, and if I was rude enough to look, I’m sure they would all have the same pair of elliptical imperfections in the irises of their left eyes.

As I cross the street, I step over the snow that has been shoveled onto the curb and watch a plump mother-Michelle holding a stout daughter-Michelle by the hand, pulling her away from the street every time daughter-Michelle gets too brave and takes a step towards traffic. There’s punk-Michelle leaning against the South Street Café’s façade with an eyebrow ring and pink leather jacket, smoking a cigarette and looking with narrowing eyes at other pedestrians. These are all Michelle; none of them are Michelle. Punk-Michelle smiles at me and probably wants me to join her, but I’m rationing my remaining smokes, and so I just nod and walk past her into the café.

*     *     *

Once, over a coffee in a similar place, Michelle slammed her mug on the table across from me and said, “And by the way, Darren, I know what you’re up to.” We were sitting next to the floor-to-ceiling windows while passing cars cast moving shadows over her face.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, dude,” I said, raising my falsetto to make sure everyone around noticed. “Dear.” The only other people in the café were two middle-aged chess players and a young blonde reading a book and listening to her head phones.

“Don’t give me that crap.” Slam went her palm on the oak. “I’ve seen the notes she leaves on your, in your briefcase. Explain that, mister.”

One of the chess players turned to face us while the other chuckled to himself, staring at the pieces. “You’ve been going through my stuff. My things? Oh, how could you?”

“How could I?” She balled her hands into her eye sockets and pushed her chair back. “How could you?” she screamed at the ceiling. Then she bolted up with a piercing gaze. “That’s it, you, you bastard,” she sneered. “I’m going to find her.” She had gotten the blonde’s attention, as well as the coffee-servant, who looked back and forth between us and the small back area of the store.

“Oh, don’t do that.” I half-stood out of my chair, indicating that we needed to wrap this up before we got kicked out of the place. “That would be bad. I promise honey, I’ll change.”

“Don’t Promise Honey me, mister,” she yelled and waved her arms, and everyone else in the place turned back to their respective activities. “That’s it. I can’t live in this world any longer. Enjoy the rest of your life with your, with your ladies of the evening.” Before bolting out of the door she struggled to put on her coat, then narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. She rubbed her left earlobe, the signal we had worked out to mean, Get home very soon, for this interaction has made me very horny. I spent the next ten minutes finishing my coffee and paper, and then went straight home.

*     *     *

I grab a chair near the window of South Street Café and wait for my coffee to cool. I pull a notebook from my bag, touch pen to paper, and gaze at the pseudo-cubism spattered on small wooden rectangles and hung on the walls. The table next to me is empty, but a drawing pad and a collection of pencils sit waiting for someone to return to them. The music is hardly audible, but a guy at the counter wearing a fedora nods absent-mindedly along. Just as every town is a little different, every café looks unique. This seems intriguing and somewhat exciting at first until you realize that all the towns that you will ever visit are all the same. Yet, here in Bennington, Michelle is everywhere.

Trendy-but-sophisticated-Michelle sits on the couch, wearing a black dress and dark eyeglasses and scribbling something in a small notebook. Skinny-Michelle is still wearing her pink parka and pecking away on a laptop. The few men here are normal – that is to say, all different. But that doesn’t stop the one sitting across skinny-Michelle rubbing her foot with his sneaker. Punk-Michelle, now finished with her smoke break, walks in and sits at the table next to me, picking up a pencil.

I stare at the thick clouds through the potted plants in the window when she speaks. “Business or pleasure?”

The question breaks my concentration on the small lattice-work fence across the street, and I have to ask her to repeat herself. She points to my notebook and asks if I’m a professional or amateur writer, and apropos of very little she begins explaining the existential nature of art and corporatization, and then moves on to something about the free market and its commoditization of human emotion.

I stare at her eyebrow ring. That’s exactly something Michelle would do.

While speaking, she notices me looking at it. She stops mid-sentence, and says, “You’re one of them. You know what this is?” she asks, pointing to her decoration. “A test to see who can’t handle a woman expressing herself.” She sighs, and her whole body reverberates in the chair. She rests her chin on one hand and the other is rolling its fingers in an uneven rhythm on the table.

Not wanting to be one of them, I smile and straighten in my chair and try to grimace at everyone else in the café. “Dude,” I say, “I totally get you.”

She narrows her eyes at me. “No. Not at all. You get nada.” She looks down at her sketch pad, and I see just the slightest of smiles. “Anyway,” she looks at me again. “You’re a complete dork.” Michelle wouldn’t be so direct. I think. She turns back to her doodling. Or maybe this more focused contempt for people is something new for Michelle. People change. I think it’s healthy to harbor just a little suspicion of people, as long as you keep a straight face about it. These are people, after all.

After a few minutes, her cell phone rings. I make a show of turning notebook pages to let her know I’m no longer paying her any attention. “Yeah?” she says into the phone. “Coolness. I’ll catch you at Carmody’s later on. Tell my mom the beach house will be fine.” I hear her snap her phone shut. She stands up and gathers her materials and then turns to me. “It’s okay. Sometimes dorks can have friends, too.” She leaves, and through the window I watch her dart across the street and pass the lattice-work fence.

*     *     *

We had to jump a fence to get to the beach. Summer homes lined the strand, but it was a bit late in the year and too rainy for anyone to occupy them, and so we settled on a modest pseudo-Victorian to spend the day in. The second-floor window was left open, and I employed every skill of espionage I could remember – climbing up the lattice-work, hopping over the balcony – until I entered the house and opened the front door from the inside. Wearing a tee-shirt and bright green skirt, Michelle waved and cheered me from the ground.

Later that afternoon, she went for a walk to search for any message-harboring bottles which may have washed ashore, and I was doing a few dishes in the kitchen, whistling along with the radio. I saw Michelle through the window standing on the shore; she seemed to be yelling something to me. When I stepped on the front porch, the noise from the rain battering the roof almost drowned out her voice, but through matted hair and outstretched arms she yelled, “Javier! Javier!” I figured I should join her.

I was only a step or two off the front porch when she started running towards me, then looked around, thought better of it, and waited for me to come to her, arms extended. When I was close enough for her not to have to shout too loudly, she said, “Oh, Javier. I’ve dreamt of this moment since forever.”

“Oh, Jane. I’ll never leave you again.” Then I grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her what was probably one of the least enjoyable kisses in recorded history. The icy rain pelted our faces, splashing into our nostrils and wiping her hair into her eyes, no matter how many times I would tuck the renegade strands behind her ear.

She giggled and coughed a bit, and as I was about to lead us back into the house, her eyes clenched. I didn’t know where she was going with this so I tugged my left earlobe.

“No, no,” she said, and started hugging her chest. She slumped to the ground, resting her chin on her knees and rocking back and forth in her sandals. “I think,” she winced. “Doctor.”

I broke every speed limit on the way to the hospital. Once we got there, she said the words “chest pains” which got her up to the front of the line. After taking her blood-pressure, asking her questions, and then taking some of her blood for good measure, they moved her into intensive care, the partitioned space of the hospital where I couldn’t follow.

I sat for an hour in the small waiting area before a doctor came to speak with me.

“The good news” he began, “is that Michelle isn’t in any pain. We’ll keep her overnight for observation.”

“So she’s okay? Can I see her? What’s wrong?”

The doctor scratched his goatee. “Well, you see, she isn’t having chest pains because, well, there’s nothing inside to hurt her.”

“What?” I said, and wondered if he was screwing with me. I looked down the hall, and saw a nurse with a clipboard walking towards me. Black hair and a mole on her right cheek. “What do you mean?”

“There’s nothing, well, nothing much, inside of her abdomen anymore. It’s fading.”

“It’s fading? Is that the technical term?”

“Evanidus humanus. We’ve been seeing more and more of these cases. I’m sorry, but she doesn’t have long.”

“These cases?”

“People seem to be vanishing more and more from the inside out. It usually begins with the heart. You may have read about it.”

It was another few minutes before I could go to Michelle’s room, and she was unconscious when I tapped on the wall inside her room. There was an IV sucking on her left arm and a blanket up to her waist. I sat in the only chair and held her hand.

“Dude,” I whispered and put a hand to her forehead. She didn’t answer, but shrugged her shoulders and cracked an almost imperceptible smile, reminiscent of the times I would rub her feet while she slept. She looked fine to all outward appearances. I pushed aside her hospital gown to examine the skin of her chest. I held my head there, listening for anything out of the ordinary.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered to the top of my skull. “It’s still there.”

*     *     *

It’s dark by the time I leave South Street Café. It’s gotten colder and no one is walking the streets as far as I can tell. Bill from Kirkside recommended a couple of taverns and I hunt for names I can recognize as I make my way across Main Street. I walk into Carmody’s. Since I’m not hungry, I pass the tables into the small bar partitioned off from the rest of the restaurant. I order a pint of whatever is local, and the bartender slides over a beer called Magic Hat. Etched in the bar beneath a clear plastic coating there are these little placards engraved with messages from locals and patrons passing through. Messages such as “Cheers from Finland!” and “Uncle Ted McCreedy: RIP” are etched in gold letters on black plaques measuring a few inches by a few inches. In a newsletter by the stack of coasters, I learn that for a fifty-dollar donation, I too can leave a message for posterity.

The music is a louder in here – this kind of folk-country-rock blend that I don’t care for at first, but the lyrics about aimless driving are slowly winning me over. At the end of the bar sits a middle-aged man in a red flannel shirt drinking something significantly darker than my wheat beer. His back is against the bar, his attention aimed at a tiny dancing-Michelle, who can’t be older than six, shake her hips and pump her fists with the music. Not to be outdone, he sways in his chair whenever she looks up to him for accompaniment.

She dances her way over to me, and in a tiny voice, “You wanna dance?”

“No.” I turn back to my notebook and beer.

“Laney,” the man says, “Don’t bother anyone.” Then he turns to me and adds, “Sorry about that. Kids.” He tops it off with a chuckle. I shrug. I could never understand dancing, anyway. Such a pointless, vulgar activity that becomes merely a memory once the song is over. I’m really bad at it anyway, and could never find a suitable facial expression for it.

I hear someone behind me say, “Hey dork,” in a perky tone. Punk-Michelle walks behind me and over to dancing-Michelle. “Shake it up, Laney,” she says while wiggling her hips.

I watch her, and think back to the hospital all those months ago. I try to remember if there was any point Michelle could have escaped without anyone noticing her, fooling us all. She could have waited until I fell asleep that night and then snuck out of the hospital in her gown, maybe through the air-conditioning duct, then hid out for a few months, only to re-introduce herself to me here.

Punk-Michelle sits next to the man in the flannel shirt, and, when she sees me smile and wave, sticks her tongue out and turns her attention to the menu. This is Michelle. She’s being abrasive just to break us back into the old routine. I turn my attention to my notebook to let her know I’m hip to her little game, and now she’ll have to approach me if she wants to continue this. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that enough is enough.

A younger looking waitress-Michelle pulls up a stool a few seats away, waving at dancing-Michelle, and asks the bartender about the slow business.  Across the bar, a pair of men in overcoats chuckle about something I can’t hear. Standing just inside the entrance, hostess-Michelle twirls her hair. I finish my Magic Hat and order another.

*     *     *

Whenever Michelle would twirl her hair in public places, it was a signal for me to hang back in the crowd: stopping meant I should walk over tout de suite; arms folded meant to pretend I didn’t know her. And so, at a place called Bailey’s, she had been conversing with this guy in a sports coat at the bar while I was standing at the jukebox, and when I turned to walk back, Michelle was twirling her hair. I leaned against the bar, ordering a whiskey and a martini, watching her finger pirouette in and out of her hair.

She stopped the signal when she let out an exaggerated laugh, slapping the guy on the knee, and then sat back in her barstool with her arms folded. I carried the drinks over. When I was a few steps away from her, she looked at me as if I was emanating light. I held the drinks about chest high and returned the astonished look.

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” she asked me, and then sprung from her barstool and planted a wet one right on me.

“Wait,” said the man in the sports coat. “Do you know that guy?”

“I didn’t believe in love at first sight,” I told her. “I didn’t believe in love at all – until this moment.” I wrapped my arms around her, spilling a bit of the drinks, and lifted her a few inches off the sticky floor and kissed her again.

“Are you friggin serious?” said the man in the sports coat.

“I don’t know who you are,” Michelle said, “but I’m totally in love with you.”

“Run away with me, dude,” I said. She nodded, picked up her purse, and we began making our way through the crowd, leaving the man in the sports coat alone at the bar to wonder what the hell he had just witnessed.

We exited as quickly as possible, holding hands, parting the crowd as we went, trying to hold back laughter. Once outside, we couldn’t contain ourselves. A woman with long black hair cut straight across her forehead asked if we were okay, but we were too busy laughing to respond.

Michelle began coughing.

I held her shoulders, noticing the faintest hairline fissure in the skin around her neck, and the lines grew darker as she hugged herself together. The last words she said that night before losing consciousness was, “Run away with me.”

*     *     *

Carmody’s is much busier now that the night has dragged on. The patrons brave the snow and dangerous traffic conditions to fill up every booth, barstool, and much of the available standing space. I count about eleven Michelles, wearing everything from dresses to skirts to jeans. I lost count of Magic Hats at seven or eight, and that was probably about an hour ago. Dancing-Michelle is still here, oddly enough, though now she’s sitting next to the man in flannel and working through a bowl of popcorn.

“Grandpa says I can stay here all night if I want,” she explains to the bartender. “Tomorrow’s a snow day.”

The men laugh.

Punk-Michelle mingles with someone every now and again. I’m sitting across two Michelles who appear to be in an argument of some kind. Athletic-Michelle arching her eyebrows while suspiciously-tall-Michelle taps on her cell phone. I’m subjected to urbanite-Michelle slow dancing with this bald guy with glasses. I have to witness scantily-clad-Michelle attempt to flirt with someone in a letterman jacket.

Michelle would never go for a football player. After putting my notebook away, I stand up and finish my beer. I force my arms through my coat sleeves, being noticeably ignored by bucolic-Michelle, who’s had her back turned to me facing her crowd of friends ever since she walked in hours ago.

Outside it has stopped snowing, but has gotten colder.

I light a cigarette and watch my breath nearly solidify in mid air. Punk-Michelle walks out of the restaurant and lights one of her own. In a gesture of conviviality, she remarks on the weather.

“Cold as balls, don’t you think?”

I laugh. “I’m still trying to get used to it, dude.”

“Stop calling me that.” She stares at me, smirking and exhaling smoke through her nose. “It’s weird.”

“Oh.”

We stand in silence as I try to guess her angle. I want to tell her that she’s the one who’s acting weird. She’s leaving me out of this. I can’t tell if she’s upset with me, if this is somehow my fault. I want to grab her and tell her to snap out of it.

I look down the street, away from her, when a guy in a black parka walks towards us. When he’s close, punk-Michelle says, “Jimmy!” and rushes over to him. They hug, and I almost choke on my cigarette.

“Your mom just called,” he says to her. “They’re waiting for us.”

“Awesome.” She gives him a peck on the cheek. They turn to leave, but not before she turns back to me and says over her shoulder, “Work on not being a dork. See ya.” With her back to me, she raises a hand over her shoulder, finger-rolling a wave. Then, the pair disappears around a corner, leaving me on the deserted street.

“That wasn’t Michelle,” I whisper. “Not Michelle at all.”

When I step back inside, all of the stools at the bar are taken, so I stand at the corner of the bar in front of the taps and order a shot of bourbon to end the night. I ask for the check. Avoiding the eyes that aren’t watching me anyway, I turn my attention to the messages on the bar. One reads “I’ll be there when you go.”

I get my tab, pay with cash, and as an afterthought, leave a fifty-dollar bill and write instructions on a napkin to place the following message above it: As long as you keep a straight face.

*     *     *

At the hospital that last night all those months ago, I was holding Michelle’s purse while she once again passed through the ER. When the doctor came to meet me in the waiting room, I noticed he had shaved his goatee. “I’m sorry,” he said, “There’s nothing more that we can do.”

“Have you tried everything?”

“All of her internal organs have faded. All that is left is her skin, which is showing its own signs of deterioration.”

“Well,” I said, turning around in the hall, looking through racks of syringes, surgical masks, and other esoteric medical equipment. “Find something.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, sir. I’m really sorry.”

I ran down the hallway, into the same room Michelle was in before, and stepped to her bed; the soft blue light from the television was the only illumination. Michelle was awake this time. She gave me a quiet smile and a faint wave. I put my hand on her forehead, feeling the unusual amount of heat.

Her skin was colorless, a soft gray, with thin lines like cracks on glass all over her body. I asked her what was going on, how did she feel, did the doctors say exactly how much time she had left. Her body was just skin and irises.

She smiled.

I saw the fissures extended to every part of her body, even her fingernails and eyes. It was then that I noticed in the pupil of her left eye, the one that still retained color, the two elliptical orbs I had failed to notice in all of our time together. I knew she wouldn’t live out the night, but if I stayed awake she wouldn’t crack up and vanish all together. I tried retelling stories to keep us awake. I retold the story of us at the bar, but in my version we did not run out of there; we did not leave the man in the sports coat alone. We never kissed in the rain and got her hair up our noses; we never pretended to be secret agents the first day we met. I held her hand as we waded through fairy tales, with me dragging her kicking and screaming back into verisimilitude. In my stories, we had normal lives, lives that would protect us against this unlikely of endings. As hard as I fought away sleep, I eventually lowered my head next to hers, thinking about the first day we met. “You know,” I said, my dreams blending my memory, “The red suitcase ruined your disguise.” She put her arms around me, and whispered, “James, pumpkin bear…”

When I awoke, Michelle had faded, and only a tiny fragment of her green iris lay on the pillow of the hospital bed. The two ellipses glowed ever so slightly. When the nurse came into the room, she had turned into Michelle.

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