This is a short story I wrote for class about emotional manipulation in relationships, vulnerability, and the start of recovery. It’s loosely based on my own experiences, as well as the notion that romantic relationships between women are dramatic because we’re more “in touch with our feelings” or whatever. I think that’s a pretty reductive way to look at it, but there is substance to the claim that queer relationships and friendships in general have a life-or-death, fight-or-flight weight to them. It’s hard enough surviving the world, yet we kind of also have to survive one another.
Content warnings for: graphic bloody imagery, vomiting, and emotional abuse (gaslighting-adjacent, and sort of denoted through imagery of physical harm).
(Image by me)
by Stephanie Ahn
This time when I go home, she is with me. She holds my hand on the plane as the city tilts away from the window, feeds me raspberry chocolates while I stutter in Korean to the bank teller over the phone, and unlocks the hotel room door when she hears me outside, sniffling pathetically as my keycard clatters over and over against the card slot.
She makes soothing noises while I ramble into her hair, about dinner with my family that I left before dessert, about the You could hide it if you tried and You should get Botox and You aren’t dating anyone, are you? The pressure in my ribcage when my mom’s lips stop pursing over a tiny bite of fish to say something else, crowding my lungs so I can’t breathe, can’t speak, and I’m convinced I have to pop myself like a balloon to let it all out—the crawling of something under my skin, like the cysts I get that turn into keloid scars that never stop itching under the wrinkled pink shell, this need to claw at the surface blemishes and hook into what’s underneath, to dig it all out—
She says, Hey, look at me. And I do, my nose flowing freely. She has this grave look on her face, which is weird, because she’s usually very irreverent.
Look at me, she says. Do you really want that?
Do you want to be skinned alive? Do you want me to set you free?
We met online, which isn’t very romantic, but it felt romantic to me because she approached me first. That had never happened to me before, being viewed as a potential partner by a stranger who’d actually seen my writing. It flattered me, but also made me feel like a catfish—because I write about love and loss and high seas adventure on this blog I’ve had since middle school, but really I have trouble ordering in restaurants and didn’t know how to take the bus.
I learned to ride the bus just to go see her.
And then she was my girlfriend.
She doesn’t talk about it again for weeks after. The skinning, I mean. I’m impatient to ask about it, but apprehensive. I can’t tell if she’s keeping some secret schedule or if she’s just forgotten all about it. I want to remind her, but I don’t want to rush her, and I don’t want to insult her by questioning her—so more weeks pass, until she tumbles through the front door of our studio apartment with two plastic bags smelling of crushed flowers.
This is the fun part, she says, stripping my clothes off all business-like, peeling the seals off little bottles of oil and pouring them into her hands. She starts with my hands, entwining her fingers in mine, kind of squishing them, working her way up my arms.
So, I say, a rainbow between my ears, this is happening? This is really happening?
Of course it is, she says. Her thumb lingers over a scar on my left shoulder, a botched vaccine spot that stretched into a caterpillar with my growth spurts. Did you think I’d just forget?
She makes my heart and head lighter. I just don’t have to carry so much baggage anymore. I don’t know why I lugged it around in the first place, really. Except, sometimes, I have these flashes of—concern? Like when a friend leaves town and I don’t even notice until they’ve been gone a week, and when I call, they say they texted me and I never responded. And I think, is that what I’m doing? Losing touch? But no, it can’t be. The lightness feels good, it’s good for me. She’s good for me.
I’m giddy, bubbling, gurgling, spitting, puking my guts into the toilet bowl with one of her delicate hands fisted in my hair and the other patting the bare back of my neck. It’s okay, she says, it’s just part of it. All part of it. Purging, it’s just cleaner this way.
The puke doesn’t smell, which is weird, but good, because the smell is usually the worst part of throwing up. Three objects float up to the surface: a green heart, a yellow spatula, and a red pencil. The spatula, that was a toy I had when I was little, I took it on a boat trip and lost it in the water. I bob towards it—she reaches past me and flushes the bowl. I watch the things I threw up swirl and disappear, and I tell myself, I feel cleaner. No one’s fingerprints on me, in me, except Hers now.
She has a reality knife. She says things and they are true. If they’re not true yet, she cuts and slices and rearranges the pieces until they fit the mold of her cherry-tart tongue.
Sometimes I think she might be using me. I tell myself it’s okay, because I’m using her too. Isn’t that what I was doing when I asked her to fly all the way across the ocean with me, to hold me while we watch horror movies I can’t handle, to stay on the other line when my mom calls? I’m using her too, just as any human uses another. I’m using her, because I need her, and if I didn’t have her anymore I’d just roll over and die.
With the oil massages and purging comes scented lotions, a strict shower schedule, and a plant-based diet. Loving her makes me take better care of myself, because I just have to think of it the same way I do making her bed, dusting off her kitchen counter, making sure to put her toothbrush back in the little mug on her sink when it falls out. I’m proud of the things I do for her. I’m proud of who I am when I’m with her.
She says, It’s going to be very scary, but you can’t tell me to stop unless you absolutely are going to die. It’s not something I can do slowly or backtrack or turn the dial down on. You have to really think about it if you’re going to say no. And then you have to think about it again, until you don’t want to say no anymore. You got it?
Yeah, I say, I got it.
I wait for her to tie me down, but she refuses. Says it doesn’t work like that. We do this together, and that means I have to stay put, on my own.
She takes her knife to my ankle and starts to cut.
She made promises and I wanted to believe her, I wanted that.
She promised to skin me alive… metaphorically. I wanted that.
It’s a metaphor for—for—she had a good answer for this. She has this way of wording things, of speaking my thoughts in a way that even I learn new things about what I meant.
It hurts, but like the way really good sex hurts, or at least that’s what I repeat in my head as a mantra until it slips from my scrabbling mind, and my hoarse voice is screaming things I refuse to put into words because if I said them in English they’d be stop and it hurts and I don’t want this anymore. I kick and flail and knock everything off the bed but I don’t run away, even as she tugs my loose skin taut and works the knife underneath, getting at that wet, tearable space between the muscle and outermost layer.
I didn’t know how soft and shreddable and yellow fat is. I didn’t know that there’s burning, like being on fire, and then burning, like your core is melting and everything outside is blistering to contain it.
Her hand slides across my ribs, my actual ribs, and it’s so much I wanna cry, I can’t stop crying—
There’s fog in my lungs, and I drown in it for a while. Feels like one long day, morning to night. But after I surface, gasping, I eyeball the empty space in the pill bottle she left next to my bed; it must have been three days, at least.
I look in the bathroom mirror and go numb with shock. I’ve never seen so much red. On the mirror is a Post-it that says, I’m at the tailor’s, won’t be back for a bit. The sheets are covered in blood, could you wash them?
I don’t feel free. I don’t even feel naked. I feel like one giant, oozing scab. I’m cold all the time, yet my outsides burn. Every breeze brings a carpet of prickling, needling cactus spines. Clothing helps, turns the pain into a more consistent, predictable thing, but peeling it off leaves fuzzy, dirty little fibers in the creases of my limbs.
A week without skin, and she breaks up with me.
She says they’re just no “spark” anymore, as she twirls in front of the mirror with her new coat. It’s a beautiful garment, made of this leathery material with a velvet surface and a butterfly decal stitched into the left shoulder. It’s not me, it’s her. She still cares about me though, so she’s trying to do this as gently as possible. I nod, numbly, on fire. When we met, she was just feeling really vulnerable because her grandma had died, you know? It’s not you, it’s me. Me me me.
Then… what am I?
She scraped me out like a barrel. She used me. You were using her too, I tell myself, but either I don’t believe it anymore or it hurts too much to believe.
If I was using her too, why am I the one who’s left skinned alive?
Once she’s gone, it’s almost like I dreamt her. Six months, just like that, and I’m alone again. When my mother calls, I don’t pick up. My blog goes without updates, and eventually without readers. I can afford rent but not electricity, so at night I sit sweltering in the dark, hearing the ominous buzz of pitch black flies.
The only silver lining is that I now look as unprotected as I feel. Sitting hurts. Lying down hurts. Moving hurts. I can’t stop leaking gross shit. Strangers balk when I stand next to them at stoplights. Friends have the decency to feign normal, but the pretense shatters when they reach for my shoulder and I spasm like a marionette. I want to tell them, don’t be scared, don’t let me stop you, I still want hugs, now more than ever. I can handle it, I promise. But no one acts like they believe me.
A corkboard advertises a queer poetry reading at the library downtown. I have nothing but time. I could go. I take the bus, stiffening at every jostle of the seat against my back.
There’s a lot fewer and a lot more people than I expected. It’s surprisingly easy to blend in; no one notices a shock of red passing behind superhero hoodies and unicorn purple hair. Everyone seems to know each other, so I sit in the back, and no one approaches me. People start reading slam poetry, about love and loss, and, well—I guess I don’t like that stuff anymore, because I doze off in my seat with my hands tucked into my armpits.
I wake up ice-cold. There’s a pesky flame tickling my shoulder. Someone’s shaking it, delicately, with two fingers.
“Hey, the reading is over. You alright?” The voice is tenor-deep, some syllables stolen by a smoke-scarred throat.
“Don’t worry, I get it. First skin job?”
I blink the wet out of my eyes, and the stranger—big stranger, way bigger than me—is sliding off a leather jacket the color of coffee. I start to protest when it lands on my shoulders, bracing for the oncoming pain—but it’s a smooth, cool balm against my skinless tissue. Heavy, but in a total, blanketing way. I’ve heard that medieval armor is like this, bulky yet close-fitting, crafted to distribute weight everywhere so that, really, any scrawny punk could wear it.
TV static races up my calves as she—are they a she? There’s a sticker on the strap of their tank top that says Alex (she/her), so yeah, she—helps me to my feet. She keeps a heavy hand on my shoulder blade as I wobble and mumble something about skin, what did you say about skin?
“Don’t worry, it’ll grow back. Won’t grow back right, not ever again, but it’ll grow back.”
“How do you know?”
“How do you think I know?”
Her yellow-tinted glasses and the points of her canines flash in unison. I clutch the lapels of the leather jacket and stamp around the carpet until my feet wake up. She watches patiently, leaning against a foldable chair, and I feel like a puppy at a dog park. “What was your first, um, skin job?”
“More martyrdom than skin for me.” She raises an arm thick with muscle and fat. Right where hand meets wrist, there’s a horizontal, punched-in line, off-center. “They’re big fans of crucifixion in the South.”
“I’ve got more; I’m missing a lung and a spleen, got titanium supports in both my legs, and a patchwork you could play checkers on across my back. I’ve had it done to me, and I’ve even done it to others.”
I peek over my shoulder, toward the makeshift stage at the front of the library, then back to her. “How come you didn’t perform? You sound like you have stories to tell.”
“They make people uncomfortable.”
“I make people uncomfortable.”
“Well then, I’m in good company.” She puts her thumbs in her belt loops and grins, radiating warmth like a fireplace, or a sunrise. “Tell you what—come home with me. I’m cooking for my wife and fiancée tonight, and they like having dinner guests.”
My head spins. “Wife and fiancée? Like, two separate people?”
“Yeah, exactly. I’d have married them both by now, but Tara’s still running from a cult, so we gotta lay low.”
I find myself daydreaming about love and loss and high seas adventure, of suits of armor and fleeing through a cornfield in the dead of night.
“Dinner sounds great. Can I chop the vegetables?”