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The Barcelona Review

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Cal stood by as the movers filed out with the last of Maeve’s haphazardly packed boxes. He watched her heave the churning, yowling cat carriers and walk away. The door slammed. He shivered in its slight breeze. Then he realized she had taken his skin.
       He glimpsed his hand and was fascinated, then appalled. Muscles, membrane, veins, capillaries, and nerves, a palpitating, nauseating mess. He looked to the mirror he’d hung by the door for her. His hair, recently thinning, was now gone, replaced by a skull of a color best described as bone. The substructure of his nose, cartilage of pearly blue. His ears, dreary yellow nubs. A girdle of translucent gray fat spanned his gut; he needed to lose some weight.
       By the time he chased out of the apartment after her, she was down the elevator and gone.
       Maeve shed entanglements like her cats shed fur—effortlessly. And although he wanted to believe there was some part of him she couldn’t let go of, he knew the likely explanation was her habitual disorganization and chaotic packing process. He pictured his crumpled skin in a box wedged between thrift shop coats and peasant skirts, bouncing in a sputtering van over a bridge into Brooklyn.
       Cal, who moments earlier had sworn a silent good riddance, jumped at the chance to text—all caps. Her response, prompt and blithe as always, indicated she’d keep an eye out while unpacking.
       The revelation of his inner self, so repulsive, so human, sickened him. He retreated to bed, where even the sheets caused him pain. The room grew dark. It grew light. He reached deep within himself (figuratively) to call in sick. When he finally gave in to hunger, all he could manage was wonton soup. The delivery guy didn’t even look up.
       Four containers, four days. Nothing from Maeve. He texted—lower-case followed by a string of question marks. She responded the kitties, traumatized by the move, got upset when she approached the boxes. Soon, she said, when they acclimate. Cal, angry but unsurprised, threw the phone at the mattress.
       Another container, another day. Tedium frustrated his grief. The morning of his shrink appointment, his reserve of self-pity low, he was ready for professional empathy. Clothing irritated and abraded; and the temperature being suitable, he chose to go without, the better to parade his suffering. But the glorious weather mocked him. It was a great day for skin and everyone around him seemed bathed in a vitamin D euphoria. If Cal was seen at all, it was with vague distaste. The cops he passed did not respond to the crime perpetrated upon him. But on the subway a hysterical toddler calmed to marvel. Cal gave her a sad smile. On the platform, a homeless man raging at an invisible boss or lover stopped mid-rant to ask if he was okay.
       When his shrink, Geistwiesel, emerged to beckon him in, Cal noted only a single raised eyebrow on the doctor’s stoic face. Once they were seated across from each other, the doctor fixed Cal with his highly honed stare, blank and expectant. Just another session.
       “Maeve left me.”
       Geistwiesel’s mouth arced down slightly.
       Cal waited for more. As he raised his arms to the doctor, the vinyl armrests made a soft unsticking sound. “Look at me!”
       Faint creases around Geistwiesel’s eyes showed just enough compassion to confirm Cal’s loss. The sialic acid of a single tear stung his infraorbital nerve. But still, silence.
       “I’ve been flayed!”
       Geistwiesel inhaled, leaned slightly forward, and delivered his diagnosis. “You’re feeling vulnerable.”
       “I’m in agony!”
       “Yes, that’s clear.”
       Cal’s left carotid artery palpitated. “So? What’s the cure?”
       “There is no cure. Grief is the price we pay for love. Embrace it as you once did Maeve. To give it up would be to give up your humanity. That’s not our mission here.”
       Cal’s frontalis contracted to raise nonexistent eyebrows. His heart pounded oxygenated blood, pulsing his veins rust-red to crimson, rust-red to crimson, like a neon sign. “This—,” Cal flailed muscle and bone, “is a nightmare! Every goddamn nerve exposed in a world of sandpaper and thorns!”
       Geistwiesel sighed. “You want the impossible. A perfect, inseverable connection. That cord has been cut, my friend. It was a condition of your entering the world. I wish I could tell you otherwise.”
       Cal left Geistwiesel’s office and veered toward work. A few hours of writing code might palliate his torment.
       He cut through Bryant Park, stealing glimpses at the eyes and breasts of the women he passed—imagining them naked. His eyes alit on the contour of a female figure. She was black— not black, but mahogany—not mahogany, but red, peeled, raw. He looked away. On the street, another gruesome figure strode beside him, a reflection in a window. Cal hurried on, his eyes down.
       When Cal stepped into the dead chill of KnowWare Systems, the receptionist, on her perpetual personal call, did not look up. He wouldn’t have minded a Welcome back. As he headed to his cube, coworkers’ eyes averted as if a pimple oozed blood or his fly were open. Monica, eager to brief him on a project, took a step toward him, then wavered. When she saw Cal had noticed, she forced herself forward. During their conversation she looked everywhere but at him. It wasn’t until Dennis, one leg shorter than the other, the skin of his neck lobster-colored and in a perpetual boil, pushed past with his mail cart, that Cal received the response he’d secretly hoped for. “Whoa, dude!” Palm outstretched to block the sight. “You been flayed. Let me guess: girlfriend dumped you?”
       “I’m touched by your concern.” Cal’s voice trembled.
       “Pull it together, dude,” Dennis said as he rolled away.
       Cal took a breath and shoved aside the stack of work orders, spec sheets, and usability studies and restarted his computers. While he waited he fired off another text to Maeve—upping the ante with all caps and a string of exclamation points. It brought a prompt, chipper bing. Hasn’t turned up. Movers lost some boxes. Tracking them down. Checked *your* closets??? He flung open a work order and started coding.
       His work, creating elegant, hermetic worlds through tidy, math-like languages, had always soothed him. When he surfaced, several hours had passed and a few serene, out-of-body moments. He stretched his eyes across the workspace; they found, and settled on, the new girl’s ass. He felt his first rumblings of actual hunger since Maeve had left.
       He made it to the cafeteria just before closing and brought the last remaining tuna sandwich back to his desk. He ate and surfed listlessly. The interesting stuff was all NSFW so he turned back to the new girl. His attention turned to her face, cheeks lustrous as she changed expression and aspect. He coveted that glorious skin, ached for it.
       As his coworkers headed home, the new girl remained busy at the printer. Cal lurked, savoring their intimacy. He opened Facebook, changed his relationship status and, hideous forefinger hesitating momentarily, unfriended Maeve. He immediately planned the new girl’s seduction: the offer of a drink, a baring of souls, her moving in, and happily ever after.
       The dismal sound of Windows shutting down shook him from his thoughts. Purse on her shoulder, the new girl headed toward the elevator. He sprang after her, the resulting breeze a reminder of his skinless condition. He could only hope she would find his vulnerability endearing, like those hairless cats and dogs people so adore.
       “Hold that please!” The doors were closing. “Down please!” In a desperate, heroic act he stuck his arm between the doors, braced for the pain. It was electric. When the doors bounced open he shot a wounded look. But her attention was on her phone. Her earbuds were rattling tinny music. She tapped the phone’s screen and the music stopped. “Hi,” she said.
       “Hey—” Cal perked up.
       “Yeah, just leaving now.” The screen of her phone showed a guy younger, better-looking than Cal. “Roast chicken? Great. Half an hour. Love you.” The doors opened and she was gone.
       That evening Cal fell into bed, hugged the pillow with the filigree of a single hair, last remnant of Maeve. She was so sleek, so elegantly detached. No wonder she was gone. Sialic acid leaked, drop by drop, stinging his infraorbitals.
       The next day he dragged himself to work. Monica phoned from across the workspace instead of stopping by. A project manager emailed him a question from two cubicles away. When he entered the maw of the cafeteria, tray clutched, head oscillating, there was not a single empty table. All these people, they had people, he thought. They even had people to talk to about the people they had. These bubbles of camaraderie, which would he burst? Certainly not the new girl’s, with her bevy of new friends. Not the hipster-coder posse, talking roommates and hookups. Not the suburban dads, the black grandmas, the sisterhood of brides-to-be. Not the painfully obvious whispering adulterers. There was Dennis, hunched over, eating alone.
       “Mind if I sit here?
       “Nope.” Dennis did not look up from his sandwich.
       Cal took the seat.
       Dennis’s enthusiasm—for his sandwich, for life—perplexed Cal. The mystery meats and trickling slaw, the gimpy leg and carbuncular skin, all made Cal queasy.
       Mouth full, Dennis asked, “So what the hell happened anyway?”
       “What do you mean?”
       “I mean…”—he gestured the sandwich at Cal— “what? You get dumped?”
       “Why do you think that?”
       “Look at you.”
       “Hey, I don’t ask you about your personal life.”
       “Here’s what you do.” He pulled a card from his wallet. “You go to this place. Show them this card.” A crude hodgepodge of fleshy protuberances with neon type in a collision of fonts. “Wait.” He took a pen and scratched a D in the corner. “So I get credit.”
       “I’m okay, thanks. I don’t need—”
       Dennis waved the card at Cal like a cat toy. “Take it, take it, take it, come on, come on…”
       Cal snatched it to end the burlesque. Majic Touch Therapy/Massage. 24 Hour.
       “Experts,” Dennis said.
       “Sorry, don’t do the exploitation thing.” Cal extended the card back to Dennis. “Thanks, though.”
       “Bullshit, man. You need this.”
       “I don’t want it.”
       “Trust me.”
       “Take your card.”
       “Sorry, dude. No backs.”
       The tawdry card in Cal’s hand felt conspicuous. He slipped it under his thigh. He’d throw it out when he bused his tray.
       He spent the remainder of that Friday writing distracted, sloppy code. At five he slunk past the groups making happy-hour plans.
       The slam of the apartment door sent cat fur swirling. He was like a lint roller. The evening sun was bright, the weekend starting. Raucous music, a woman’s laughter, floated in, poisoning his thoughts, filling him with desperation. He texted Maeve a trail of question marks. Regaining his skin was beyond him at this point. The simplest form of contact, an electronic pulse, a signal from somewhere in the universe acknowledging his existence, would have been enough. He crawled into bed, phone in hand.
       He bolted to consciousness, caged in throbbing, lurid need. Suffocating in isolation. 3 a.m. No text. To the window. Not a soul. He tried to calm himself, but each next breath grew more uncertain. Terror welled, and his heart pumped it, red-black, deep into his muscles.
       The empty city felt fake. He ran in no particular direction, but always away from where he had just been. Veins throbbing, a trail of red footprints, a blue pain in his side, he doubled over, his panic exhausted, on a ratty block behind Port Authority, where the city drained through the tunnel into Jersey. A sign, crudely lettered, beckoned. Majic Touch Therapy/Massage 2 Floor. He jabbed the intercom button, waited a few seconds, then turned away. Two steps later a burst of squabble stopped him. Another burst called him back. “Massage?” Cal said. A sharp buzz.
       Up a listing staircase, down a narrow hall. A door cracked open; an unwelcoming eye looked Cal up and down. “Dennis sent me,” Cal said. The eye just glared. “Bad skin, limp?” Cal’s face bloomed red under the scrutiny. “Dennis?”
       “Ah!” A note of comprehension and disgust. “Fucking Dennis.” The door opened. There stood a thug, muscle tee, delts and biceps bulging, fierce tattooed claws swiping from his shoulder. More caricature than threat, Cal hoped. There were mismatched chairs and well-thumbed magazines. The thug, standing between Cal and the door, barked indecipherably toward a curtained doorway. The curtain did not stir.
       Cal shifted, folded his hands over his groin. “I can come back.”
       The man shouted again, angrier. The fabric fluttered. A woman emerged cinching a short robe. Her face was imprinted with sleep, eyelids heavy, a strand of hair in the corner of her mouth. She slipped into flip-flops and shuffled toward Cal.
       “So sorry,” he said. “I thought, twenty-four hours...” He stepped toward the door, which the thug blocked.
       “Yes,” she said. “Now.”
       “You were asleep. I feel bad.”
       “I’m awake.”
       “Maybe another time.”
       She gave him an examining glance. “I think now.”
       Cal wavered. The thug said something to her, a taunt, foreign but clear.
       “He says you think I’m ugly.”
       “No, not at all.” He looked at her, slight and pretty, with warm, mournful eyes. Looking into them he felt something—beheld. “My god, you’re beautiful.”
       “Okay, so let’s go. I’m not getting younger.”
       She led him to a small, jerrybuilt room. When its door shut the walls trembled. A futon lay on the floor, a folded sheet atop it.
       She spread the sheet.
       “What’s your name?”
       “Hi, Apinya. I’m Cal.”
       “Face down,” she said. She knelt beside him and surveyed what remained of him, the raw, sickening mess. “So you got dumped, huh?”
       “God, you can tell?”
       “Totally obvious.”
       “Yeah, girlfriend walked off with my skin.”
       “Happens.” She kneeled beside him and held her hands hovering an inch above his back.
       “Do you think—”
       He felt a spot at the center of his back grow warm, then warmer as her hands moved gradually closer. Then the small ecstasy of his exposed nerve endings, extending toward, embracing her flesh. The light pressure of her hands now in full contact with him. He felt cradled. She started singing quietly to herself. He followed the path of her voice to a place beyond himself. From the corner of his eye, a white flutter of panties. She perched straddling his lower back, her folds feeding his raw and wanting nerves, suffusing his spine with gratitude. Then the soft sound of her robe falling to the floor, and she folded forward, laying her torso fully against his back. Her nipples, the sweep of her hair, the hint of her breath on his neck. Her arms, legs stretched along his own as she wrapped herself around him, enveloping him. Two people, one skin.
       He rose to consciousness in pale gray daybreak. She lay alongside him. Her eyes were sleep-crusted; at the corner of her mouth, a glaze of drool. She was magnificent.
       Just after sunrise on that stifling morning, the back end of Port Authority had the dewy, radiant feel of a meadow as Cal rambled home. He threw out the empty take-out containers, bought vegetables at the Greenmarket, vacuumed tumbling cat fur, hummed.
       Sunday he returned to Apinya.
       Monday at work he got a Hey, Cal and a Yo! on the way to his desk. He Back atchaed each. When his computer chimed on, it struck an optimistic chord. Monica swung by to brief him and lingered to gossip. He approached the new girl at the printer and said, “Hey, I’m Cal.” She said, “Hey, Cal. I’m Deb.”
       After a pleasant lunch sharing a table with the black grandmothers from Queens, he got a text from Maeve. Lost boxes found! Smiley face. No skin. Frowny face. Prolly in bag of stuff to be donated. Check Goodwill??
       The bag of stuff he said he’d donate but shoved down the trash chute, angry that she could discard him but not threadbare jeans, orphaned socks, and duct-taped flip-flops that, apparently, deserved more love. The realization that this good riddance ended his chance of recovering his skin sent him running to Majic Touch.
       The muscular guy’s bark had a more aggressive edge, and when Apinya emerged her eyes were glossy wet. In the cubicle her touch felt distant.
       “Is something the matter?”
       “You can tell me.”
       “Maybe you stop with personal questions.”
       “We’re not personal?” He reached; she pulled away. “I feel so close to you.”
       She laughed, one cruel snort. “What do you know about anything?”
       “You don’t need this place; stay with me.”
       “Are you kidding? I have no working papers, no money.”
       “I have money, a job, an apartment.”
       “Two bedrooms?”
       “A queen-sized bed. It’s very big.”
       “Ah! So you mean boyfriend?”
       “Why not?”
       “Last thing I need.”
       “Okay, roommate.”
       “And rent?”
       “Why rent? No. Lie next to me. Hold yourself against me. Maybe clean. Do you like to cook?”
       “So girlfriend.”
       “No sex—unless you want. I mean, I want—with you, but you don’t have to.”
       “That’s ridiculous. A bad idea.”
       Pounding, as if the flimsy room were a drum. The air concussed. The vile punk was in a rage.
       Apinya moved into Cal’s apartment with one large suitcase, powder blue and flimsy, barely full. He capered through the apartment, pulling out empty drawers and opening half-full closets that could accommodate her things many times over. He watched her unpack. A few cooking utensils, a chipped enamel tea set, a hot plate that she seemed to feel had value. Cal showed her the stove and stashed her hotplate deep in a closet. A tin box full of the precious things—trinkets, magical pebbles, letters—that women keep in tin boxes, went in a dresser drawer along with her jeans and a small stack of tees. A silk robe was given a home in an otherwise empty closet. As she reached to the bottom of her case, she gave a moan that pitched into a wail. She faltered back. “Shit! Shit, shit, shit!” He assumed she’d forgotten something—whatever it was could be replaced. But she was reacting to something present, appalling. He was right there over her shoulder when she lifted it. Wrinkled, khaki, and folded in a loose, haphazard bundle. A suit of skin. A shade darker than Cal’s, less hairy, with a fierce pouncing tiger tattoo that read more gangster than hipster.
       “No,” Apinya said. “No.” Her eyes begged Cal’s. “I did not do this.”
       Cal was fascinated. “You’ll give it back.” He could not resist the impulse to hold it up to his own body. “Right?” He stretched the suit of skin against his raw, red wound of a body, smoothed its wrinkles. Held its hand in his. And at that point there was no choice. For are we not all of a common skin?
       Cal and the suit of skin grew to fit each other. The gut and hips stretched a bit, and Cal lost some weight. With the skin’s natural tendency to contract and some effort at the gym, the baggy shoulders and biceps problem was resolved. The legs were more complicated. As they stretched longer in one direction, they narrowed in another. The result was a subtle swagger. These changes, along with the tattoo, shaped a new persona, tougher, less vulnerable, that Cal embraced without regret for as long as he and Apinya were together.

© Ken Sandbank 2018    

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Author Bio
imageKen Sandbank left a career in advertising to study and write fiction. It's one of the best things he's ever done. He's enjoyed learning from many generous and talented people. "Bereft" is his first published work of fiction. He lives in Manhattan, a small island off the coast of Brooklyn.