I try on other people’s syntax like a second skin. I dance their moves, walk their walks, I copy their laughs. Sometimes I imagine their catchphrases lined up on shelves like produce. Like a snooty chef I handle the goods, picking them up and squeezing them, tossing those bruised or past their prime.
Any day I might be someone new, or several someones, with my borrowed laugh and pilfered body language. The woman who serves me coffee, I love the way she stands. No one else stands the way she and I do; we’re goddess statues in the Parthenon, we’re so perfect.
“What can I getcha today, hon?” she asks me, her weight on one foot, hip cocked, and other foot pointing out perfectly in her sensible shoe.
“Coffee and eggs.” I enunciate every letter. This is always my ordering food voice, copied from a schoolteacher I knew once.
“How d’ya want the eggs?” she asks.
“Over medium, please.” M-e-d-i-u-m.
She turns on the ball of her foot, perfect economy of movement.
At parties sometimes the sensory information overwhelms me, and I can’t remember the skin I am wearing that night. This is why friends are a dangerous proposition – a friend would notice my artificiality.
The day I meet Naveed, I am wearing four skins at least. And then I look at him and he looks at me, and despite my cute top and skinny pants, I’m naked. All of my armor, my protective pretense, falls in shreds at my feet.
We don’t speak; we only stare.
The librarian asks, “Could you spell your name, please?”
“N. a. v. e. e. d,” he says. I love the way his voice curls around each letter.
There’s nothing special about him, really. But I eyeball his ruddy brown skin, softly waving black hair, and slightly arched nose over sensitive-looking, full lips. The face of a poet.
She asks more questions while I hand over the stack of books to be assigned to my care for two weeks. My heart thumps unmusically in my chest. Arrhythmia, I am certain. Undiagnosed congenital heart defect, impending death. Without doubt.
His dark brown eyes, large and slightly sleepy looking as though the weight of his lashes is too much to bear, wander over my books, and then find me. The world continues rotating, but we don’t travel with it. Ungracefully, my body disgorges all available moisture into crevices. Armpits, cleavage, groin, fingers and toes. Even the little crease inside my elbow breaks into a sweat.
How’s that for romantic?
And that’s how I know the moment is real. Perhaps the first real thing in my whole fantasy-buffered life. Because no one sweats in the stories they create for themselves. In my borrowed personas, I am mistress of my body, but it has disobeyed orders. Betrayal.
And as I grab my books and move out of line, I watched n.a.v.e.e.d. decide whether to approach me. I step in his direction – a graceless step because for once, it is my own. But it is enough.