It was less than glamorous, working in a butcher shop—I smelled so much of meat that dogs would try to break free of their leashes to chase me home and vegetarians vomited and wept in the wake of my passing. The cuts were less than attractive, too.
After six months of this I thought I’d developed an entirely new set of fingerprints.
I seethed through clenched teeth as my knife caught the ridge of my index finger, which I had been pressing against a juicy lump of beef as I partitioned into pieces for a customer. A drop of blood blossomed over the latex, and I stopped to wash quickly. I was grossed out by the idea of my blood mixing with the cow blood already pooling around the meat.
My boss, who was my big Greek uncle in his spare time, detected the slight variation of sound waves and said, “You gotta learn to be more careful or you’re gonna cut off your whole hand one of these times.”
“I’ve read that human hand is considered a delicacy in some states,” I replied. “We could make a profit.”
He wrinkled his curious nose—aquiline in slope but bulbous around the nostrils, like an infant onion—and slapped a fresh pair of gloves into my hands. “Sandra, this is not a funny joke. A man’s—or woman’s—or whatever—the hands are essential, without them nothing can be accomplished, nothing can be moved.” He glanced at the meat and added, “Or cut.”
“Maybe,” I said. I finished the order and slid the damp package down the counter.
There would be no more opportunity today for me to injure myself with knives, at least not in a work setting. It was ten past five, and I had to get home.
“I will see you Tuesday,” my uncle said. “Be careful.”
“No promises,” I said.
Late summer in Vinton was slightly cooler than early summer, in the sense that the vitreous fluid in my eyeballs merely bubbled instead of evaporating completely. As I walked down the block, I could feel the air quiver with heat, and envisioned the multicolored, comic lines of scent coming from my body: Herbal Essences shampoo, Secret deodorant, coppery traces from my wounded finger, and the bitterly rank, salt stench of raw beef overwhelming all my attempts at personal hygiene. My hair clung to my neck, heavy with sweat and sausage grease, my palms were rubbery and wet.
I would have appreciated a shower, but I had seven blocks left.
People surged around me, and if they caught whiffs of my bloody work they showed no reaction. Contrary to my imagining, it was difficult to judge how offensive I was to the world at large, because decorum demanded that if the words or appearance or bodily odors of a person bothered passers by, they would go home and complain to their friends about it. I would never be told, because after all, how was it my business what strangers thought of me?
Even so, I apologized silently to anyone who brushed close enough to intersect with my stench squiggles, feeling inordinate shame for my job. It wasn’t my first choice. I had wanted to work in a bakery, but I lacked uncles who owned pastry shops. My family dealt in the blood of livestock, not strawberries. It didn’t bother me, not that much.
Two more blocks. Evening was progressing rapidly into straightforward night. The cars on the street had their headlights on, and people walked a bit faster towards their houses or their bars or their movie theaters and so on. I didn’t much like bars or theaters, especially not bars because I was waaay too young for a bar and the concept of a fake ID made me nervous. The dark, suffocating chill of a theater made me nervous too, and the thought of all that stuff stuck to the floors—popcorn, soda and other base fluids, bits of candy and pennies stuck in gum. A lot of things made me nervous, to be honest. It wasn’t even that bad though, or at least I didn’t think it was because I didn’t take pills for it and nobody had ever diagnosed me with anything. Nobody with a reputable degree, anyway.
My stomach cramped as I hurried across the last intersection. It was the end of August already. If I lived in the days before calendars, that might have been useful. I knew what day it was because something was being destroyed inside of me. Sunday, almost always. Cycle of violence equaled cycle of time.
I guess it wasn’t as dramatic as all that. But it sure felt pretty violent. The cramps I endured every month did need pills, but I didn’t have them with me. I would have to suffer until I got home. Only a block away now.
My mother was already asleep when I got in, even though it wasn’t yet six-thirty. Ever since Dad left a few months ago, Mom had been taking pills that she referred to as skittles. The skittles made her drowsy and slow, but she swallowed two or three of them every day.
I touched her hair. “Hi, Mom.”
She muttered something I couldn’t hear and reached up to clasp my hand in hers. Then she rolled over and tucked my hand under her chin like a small, fleshy pillow. Her eyes stayed shut. I waited for a few minutes, silently willing her to wake up and look at me.
I said, “Mama?”
Nothing. I wriggled free, checked for drool, and went to take a shower.
I worried a lot about my mother, about her ability to survive. Although she had a degree in finance and used to work in banks, Mom quit her job after I got born and after fourteen years out of the game she worried she was too out of date to go back. She worked part-time at a women’s clothing boutique with a bunch of clucky girls half her age that she couldn’t stand but she won’t quit because the store gives her a discount and she’s addicted to shopping. Dad leaving only made it that much worse, which was unfortunate since he earned or used to earn the bulk of our money.
I worried about money a lot too, even though Mom told me not to, told me we had plenty of money and although I wasn’t told about anything I suspected that if we did have money it still came from Dad, on account of he’d had an affair and so despite being divorced from Mom he wasn’t off the hook.
I slathered aromatherapy vanilla coconut body butter all over my body and worked a bubbly lather of shampoo into my greasy mop of brown hair. As the oil and stink of the day washed off of me, I frowned down at the drain in disapproval. Red from my blood discolored the soapy water. I hated the look of it and the smell but the feel more than anything, especially the squelch between my legs when I stepped out of the shower to towel off. All that cleaning and I was still fundamentally filthy. I felt like those pieces of meat at the butcher shop, soft and plump and constantly oozing.
I put on clean everything and got into bed. It was still only
a little before eight, but who was I to challenge the restful silence of
the apartment? I stared at my dark ceiling until I fell asleep.
I didn’t dread school, precisely.
It wasn’t my favorite place to be, but it was a place to be, a place that didn’t include my mom’s watery, insecure face or my dad’s guilty but defiant shrugs. Still I was self-conscious, especially during my period. Like on the street, I was convinced that my body radiated its uncleanliness, from scent to squelch. Problem was that, unlike the street, the halls were crowded with kids, who pushed and shoved their way to classes, more out of necessity than meanness. Teachers tried to herd us along, waving their arms and frowning at the cliques of kids who clustered against their lockers and talked, blocking the tight hallway space. I wasn’t any bigger than a thimble, so I slipped and slid by, trying not to so much as brush anyone’s elbow. When I finally got to homeroom, I curled up in my desk like a jumbo shrimp. In the past year I had put on a lot of weight, most of it gathered around my hips and thighs and (to my great shame) chest. I reckoned that at this rate I’d be human blueberry size by the time I graduated from high school.
My first class, after homeroom, was Art. I wasn’t good at art and so didn’t like it, nor did I like that the art room had no proper desks, just long tables covered in paper and markers and watercolor paints. I took a random seat near the back and wondered if anyone would sit with me. The chairs closest to me usually stayed empty, as though I really did radiate something foul. Part of me was okay with that. If no one came near me, no one could notice how gross I was. But it was a little too quiet, alone in the corner.
Surprisingly, my table began to fill. A boy named David took a
seat on one side of me, and his friend Nathan sat on the other side.
Tobias, a boy I knew vaguely but not in a sense close enough to call friend,
sat down next to David with a sullen expression on his face. Tobias was
He looked over at me. His lip quivered. I pretended to study the lettering on my folder. He looked away. What was he thinking? Was he horrified by my ugliness? I patted down my hair, which was free of grease but still frizzier than a crow’s nest.
David quietly observed this silent exchange. He was a big guy, twice the size of Tobias, well-known and good at sports. On the football team or the soccer team or some other sweaty thing.
The teacher came into the room then, hushing the chatter for the moment. She drew a few shapes on the blackboard—a cone, a sphere, and a cube—shaded them, and told us to do the same. Then she went to sit at her desk and read a book.
I picked up a pencil and started to draw with my usual lack of ability. Halfway through a shape that might have been cube if I lived in another dimension, I noticed David and Nathan looking at my paper. My instinct was to cover it with my hand, like I did during math tests, but they had no reason to copy me. The drawings were awful. Maybe they were laughing? I hunched over the paper and let my hair fall over my face in a fuzzy curtain.
I gave up on the cube and started trying to fill in my sphere. We were supposed to shade it in a gradient, going from light at the top to dark at the bottom. My markings were heavy and rough, the transition between shades was sudden and unattractive. I frowned at the paper so intently that when I felt the pressure on my chest I thought I’d forgotten to breathe again. But no. I was being squeezed.
In horror, I looked down and saw David’s hand clutching my right breast. With his other hand, he pretended to draw, and he kept his eyes on his paper, but his lips were drawn together tightly like a person in deep thought. He rolled the lump of my skin between his fingers, slow and appraising. I didn’t know what to do. I started to shake. Then, as if he thought I didn’t notice, he pinched a bit of my flesh, dug his nails into the upper part of my breast. Later I would find crescent-shaped marks there.
I gasped, I dropped my pencil and I stared at him. David pulled away and faced me, but his expression was without shame. He wasn’t triumphant either. His eyes were coolly neutral, his posture relaxed. Angry bells rung in my head, how dare he, how dare he do that, he had no right to touch me no one has that right how dare he. Clashing with the bells was a confused, quavering ‘why,’ which wondered what I had done to provoke him, if he disliked me somehow, if I had injured him in some way before this moment. But I barely knew David, I barely knew anyone. I didn’t even think I registered as existing at my school.
I tried to glare at David, but my eyes were moist and my splotchy cheeks red-hot with humiliation. Tobias leaned over, his mouth open and his whole body scarlet-colored. He had seen. I turned over my shoulder, to look at Nathan, who was grinning wide. Was this a show? I hated all three of them, instantly and purely, with an intensity that prickled at the back of my watery eyes.
I said, with all the fierce determination of a three year old, “I’m telling the teacher.”
David shrugged. “No one would believe you.”
His tone was matter-of-fact, confident, but not smug. I had never felt so self-conscious. I was aware of my skin: clammy, dotted with goosebumps and beads of sweat, I was aware of the muscle beneath, taut and burning, I was aware of the bones, threatening to splinter. In my stomach, the acid swirled. I thought, he’s wrong.
He said, “Why would anyone believe I had touched you?”
I swallowed, and shifted in my seat, feeling the weight of my thighs rub across the plastic chair. He was right, of course. Nobody else had noticed, had heard my little gasp or anything that followed. The other kids kept drawing and talking, the teacher turned a page in her book.
The bell rang. I practically jumped over my desk and ran to the bathroom, although of course what I really wanted was to go right home and curl up in my bed sheets and just die. But I had to get through the rest of the day. At least I wasn’t working again until tomorrow. I don’t think I could have tolerated the butcher shop right then, wasn’t sure I’d be able to tolerate it the next day either. But first I had to deal with now.
I took deep, healing breaths and tried to think about nice things, for example daisies, and very small kittens. It wasn’t a big deal, what had just happened. It was a moment in time. The smallest of events. David was just a jerk filled jerk with jerk coating. Not worth getting upset over.
Still, my chest hurt.
I got through the rest of the day by limiting my thought process to only the most basic of commands: go left, go right, sit here, stand now. When my mom came to pick me up I climbed into the back of the car like a robot child. Unfortunately, she noticed.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” she asked as she pulled out onto the street. She kept her focus to the road, thinking probably that I had just gotten a bad grade.
“Nothing,” I said. She frowned, her head turned slightly.
“Why didn’t you come sit up here with me? You think I’m your chauffeur now?”
“No,” I mumbled.
“What’s wrong then?”
We stopped at a red light. She shifted her body so that she was looking directly at me. I couldn’t help it, I started to cry.
“Nothing,” I repeated, but now the lie was obvious.
“Oh honey,” she said. “What happened?”
“It’s no problem, I’m fine, I just had a really bad day,” I said. I couldn’t seem to stop crying. Small rivers poured out onto my cheeks. The light turned green and Mom faced forward again, but I could see her reflection in the overhead mirror and her cheeks were reddening. I tried never to cry in front of Mom because whenever she saw that I was upset, she got just as bad, if not worse, than me.
“I understand,” she said. “My day wasn’t so great either.”
My tears set off a sympathetic vibe in her. But sympathy wasn’t the same as empathy.
“What happened to you?” I said, taking it as a good time to deflect questions about my own situation.
“Oh, well, I just, you know, I get to thinking about everything,” she said, her voice lowering and cracking. “Our utility bill was almost six hundred dollars this month. Six hundred! It looked like they’d put the charges from last month with the charge for this month, but that doesn’t even make sense, does it? Because I have it set to deduct from the checking account automatically … I don’t understand it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Are we gonna be okay?”
She made a show of taking a breath, of wiping tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. “Yes, we’re fine, sweetie. I get stressed out over the bills, but it’s not really anything.”
I figured that it was something or else she wouldn’t be stressed about it. I never understood why Mom told me not to worry about money when she brought it up every month. “I could help. I have some money.”
“No. No, it’s really okay. I don’t want you think about it, all right?” she said. “Let’s talk about you. Why was your day bad?”
I was quiet for a moment, and then I muttered. “Some boys were mean to me.”
“Men are scum,” Mom said emphatically. “What did they do? Do I need to call the school?”
I shook my head. “I’ll be fine.”
Mom parked the car in the garage affixed to our apartment complex. She opened my door for me and held my hand in a vice grip as we walked to our door.
“Do you want a skittle?” she said. I nodded. She mashed a white pill into a cup of chocolate ice cream and brought it to me. I ate the ice cream while we sat on the couch and watched sit-coms. I didn’t offer any more information about that day, and when I finished the ice cream I got up.
“I’m gonna shower,” I announced.
“Okay,” my mom said. She stretched out over the couch and closed her eyes.
Once in the shower, I sat down in the middle of the stall, drawing my knees to my chest and letting the warm water sluice down my back. Spiky knots formed in my stomach, the revenge of the cramps. A lump rose in my throat like a mountain from the ocean. Under the curtain of water, I cried. I didn’t know what to do, not for myself or my mother. I wanted to melt into the drain.
Eventually my fingers and toes pruned up. I remembered the utility bill and I turned off the shower, but I sat back down in the steamy wetness until I got too cold to take it. I stepped out, I put on fuzzy pajamas, I went to check on my mom. She was asleep on the couch. I nudged her.
“Go to bed, mama,” I said.
“In a minnit,” she mumbled hazily. A minute passed. She
began to snore. I was tired too, partly from all the crying, partly
from the effects of the skittle, partly from the sheer weight of the day.
I left her there and went to bed.
The next morning I hung out in the hallways until I was almost late for Art class. I walked very slowly, not looking at anyone, feeling just as squelchy and dirty as ever. When I entered the classroom almost all of the seats had been filled, as was my plan. The only table left was in no-man’s land, that is, the small table adjacent to the teacher’s desk. No one liked to sit there because the teacher could easily look up from her romance novel and see you text messaging somebody or reading a magazine or whatever. But today I wanted that surveillance.
The teacher had placed bowls of fake fruit on all the tables. The fruit was cut in half, to show the inside detail. Our assignment was to sketch the bowl and the fruit to the best of our ability. For the duration of the hour, I never let myself stray from the paper or the peach pit I spent the entire time trying to recreate. When the class ended, I ran out of there like I’d set fire to myself. I had to keep my thoughts controlled again today, had to limit myself to the imperative. Eat lunch. Read the passage aloud. Take the quiz. Answer the question. I had to do this, because if I did not exert this control then my mind would attempt to tease out all the knots in my stomach, all the pains in my chest. But I did not want to do this, because when I let even a part of that moment yesterday replay in my mental theater, I felt so sick that I wanted to vomit. And if I hated the blood between my legs, the oil on my skin, the dirt under my fingernails—and I did—I absolutely loathed the idea of vomiting. I held it in with the force of a drowning person holding her breath. I would not do it.
I kept everything in until the end of the day, when I had to go to work. I exchanged no words with my mom on the drive there, but that itself let her know something wasn’t right.
“Sweetie,” she began, as she pulled over in front of the butcher shop, “if you don’t want to today, you don’t have to. We can go home.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Gotta make money.”
That was the wrong thing to say. Mom frowned.
“We have plenty of money, Cassandra. I hope you’re not doing this job thinking it’s something you absolutely have to do.”
“I’m helping Uncle Steve, too,” I said. I hadn’t lied, I just hadn’t told the full truth. I squirreled away most of the money I earned at the job, thinking that we’d need it someday, that eventually Mom’s worries would become realities and the money I’d saved would be crucial to our survival. I couldn’t help but think like that, with the way she got upset. It felt like the only thing I could do for her if it got right down to it, even though I’d only saved a couple hundred dollars.
“He works you too hard,” Mom said. “I should talk to him.”
Even though Mom couldn’t argue against me helping someone, I had forgotten that she could certainly argue against helping Uncle Steve. He was my dad’s brother, after all.
“You don’t look well,” Mom continued. “Are you sure you don’t want to come home?”
“I’m fiiine, Mom. And Steve is nice. He’s not like Dad,” I said. I started to get out of the car.
“All right, but if you want to come home early or if you don’t want to walk back home by yourself today, call me, please,” Mom said, ignoring the last part of my reply. “Please call me.”
“I will, Mom,” I said.
My uncle greeted me with a strong hug that I immediately squirmed out of. “Allo, Sandra, how are you today?” He smiled big at me, not seeming to care about my anti-hug behavior.
“Still breathing,” I said. He handed me a pair of gloves and I
went behind the counter to cut the meat. For about twenty minutes
I managed okay, treating it like I had the fruit drawing, just keeping
everything focused on the knife and the meat. But the plastic fruit
hadn’t had any smell, hadn’t had any pliable texture, and it hadn’t dripped
and soaked in a pool of its own juices. Keeping my head so low kept
my nose too close and the smell overpowered me. I had to lift my
On the wall to the right, my uncle had hung charts of beef cuts, those pictures of cows where their bodies were diagrammed and divided according to the type of meat derived from each part. I found myself staring at that diagram and imagining a human body, my body, instead of a cow, with all the relevant parts marked: breasts, neck, butt, thighs, ankles, and so on. The bile rose in my throat. I set down the carving knife.
Behind me, enormous cuts of meat hung from a rack, waiting to be taken down and sliced up. The meat was dark red and veiny, ridged and spliced with pale lines of fat. I rubbed my stomach and knew I had to get out of there.
“Uncle,” I called. He came around, his plump face open and curious. “Uncle, I think I need to go home. I really don’t feel good.”
Concern creased his expression. “All right then, you go on to your house. You’ll call your mother?”
I nodded. I wanted to walk, to show that I could, but I needed to lie down or otherwise I would lose the battle with my mutinous, nauseous body. I stepped outside, feeling slightly better to be out of the meat house and away from the salty, moist scent of dead cows, even though it clung to me as part of my very own skin. I called my mom on my cell phone. As I was asking her to come get me, someone came up beside me. I started, but then realized that it was only Tobias. I said goodbye to my mother and snapped the phone shut.
“Go away,” I hissed at him.
“I, um,” he began. His fingers were laced together, his gray eyes downcast. “Hey Cass, I, I’m sorry about what happened the other day. That was a real dick move from David.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” I said. “Any of you. Ever.”
“Well, um,” he said, “if you change your mind, and you want to talk to the principal about it, I would, I would go with you. Since I saw it.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I guess that’s fair,” he sighed. “Well, I wanted to say, I’m sorry again, and I’m sorry I didn’t do anything, and I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
I nodded, slightly. Tobias shuffled away.
My mother arrived. She parallel parked, opened her door, and walked over to me. She hugged me tight.
I turned my face into her blue cotton shirt, feeling a little better