Magda was in pieces again. As she bent to pick up the largest shards, she caught the curve of her shoulder, the palm of her outstretched hand, her nostrils, obscene from this angle, and a thrillingly blank piece of ceiling. Since discovering her reflection, Gracie had been trying to ascertain if it was friend or foe, and the new dog had finally knocked the standing mirror down. Magda had only just settled on its final position in the foyer, having spent weeks shunting the heavy glass from room to room, her own image clasped to her in an awkward embrace. Since the procedure she had been struggling with the subtleties of Feng Shui: You wanted a mirror near your entryway to offer a positive glimpse of yourself on the way out, but not to reflect you within five feet of entering your home, which would cause your chi to bounce right back out the door. It had taken patience to find the place from which she could see herself leave but not return.
Magda herded the quivering sheepdog into the yard, where she promptly began running laps around the freshly laid grass. She would not, she resolved, replace the mirror, which was in fact already a replacement. She had returned the previous one to the eastern imports store a full two years after purchasing it, having one afternoon seen swastikas, or things that were not unlike swastikas, thriving in the elaborately-carved wooden frame. She had been susceptible to signs then, omens and portents, counting the number of flies on the windowsill each day in the year after David had died. At that time such a burst of bad luck—seven years—would have transformed her into a shrew knitting her own nerves.
But this was the new Magda, she reminded herself, and she would not be rumpled by such a thing now. The transformation had begun last year, when, on the fifth anniversary of his death, David had appeared to her in a dream, naked and beaming, borne aloft in a giant egg, and she had woken flooded with radiant happiness. Soon after, Magda had begun. She acquired a puppy and a host of spiritually apposite furnishings: a set of singing bowls, an acacia-wood bodhisattva, and a coffee table that had, apparently, been a rafter in a Tibetan temple in its previous life. She had even begun dating again. Friends set her up with nephews, late bloomers, or men who had married out of the faith and learned their lesson, who had good health insurance, good teeth, and needed only to be delivered into the hands of a good Jewish woman. They had bored her into the same calm suspension between comfort and sadness that she felt in the moments before falling asleep.
Magda was running a vacuum over the plush white carpet for errant shards of glass when the landline rang shrilly, startling her. She let it click through to the answering machine out of habit. “I know you’re there,” Rosemary said after the tone. “Don’t make me sing.”
After Magda’s breakdown, Rosemary had been positively dogged, vaudevillian, the fool to Magda’s stricken Lear. She had sung the chorus of “Good Things Grow in Ontario” into the answering machine until she went hoarse or Magda picked up the phone.
“Cal might be a little late,” Rosemary said, when Magda picked up. She explained that he’d explained that Friday traffic made patients fragile and his schedule sometimes ran behind.
“I don’t know why you won’t give me his number, Rosemary, or for that matter tell me his full name. I’m over 50, what surprise is there left to spoil?”
“He’s a doctor,” Rosemary said. “What more do you need to know?”
Indeed, there was not much more that Rosemary could tell her, just that he could shuck a shrimp practically by looking at it. Rosemary had met him by the seafood tower at one of her benefits, something for children with cleft palates. Rosemary, Magda knew, liked doctors: their job security, their bedside manner, their general disillusion with the body. Though Rosemary had never aspired to the medical profession herself—head like a sieve, she said, and no stomach for blood—she had prescribed remedies for grief with the brassy assurance of a born crank: a fluctuating regimen of meditation and medication, a gluten-free diet. She had come to the house twice a week to instruct Magda in mindful Pilates. Together they practiced lifting their legs and locating their entire being in the secretive, stubborn muscle between buttock and thigh. By such a means, Rosemary said, a body, a mind, might be entirely transformed.
Rosemary had disapproved of the surgery, though. She believed in transformation, but she did not believe it happened overnight. Night, however, was when David had appeared to Magda in his egg, the meaning of it clear to her even then: David had been reborn, and now she could be reborn too. But the body resisted such airy notions. It lumbered towards the fall, remembering old lovers and old wounds. The body betrayed you; to have too much of it was unseemly and unwise.
They hung up and Magda glanced through the sliding glass doors that led onto the yard, where Gracie was destroying a flower bed. Alone with her, the dog was often frantic, her wet jaw flinching up in a bark that Magda could interpret as nothing but raw sound. The dog was still all animal to her, a blur of instinct and heat that had not yet gelled into personality. She’s only young, Rosemary said, when Magda complained about the dog’s incomprehensible energy. But youth did not seem to Magda to be an excuse for anything anymore, or a consolation.
People had kept telling Magda she was young after David died, as if this was supposed to help. You’re young, you have so much life ahead of you, so much to live for. What they meant was: You are young to be widowed. She was certainly the youngest woman in her grieving group, a spring chicken of 52. The other women clucked over her and taught her to use cold spoons and chilled potato slices to depuff her swollen eyes. They advised her to sleep with her head propped up on a firm pillow. The elevation, they explained, would prevent excess fluid from pooling in her face.
But in the immediate aftermath Magda had neglected such measures. She’d let grief remake her face and punished people with it, to make them keep away. She’d let her hair go as grey as the roots had been growing for years, her flesh hanging from her bones. Magda had lost weight radically after David’s diagnosis, as he had, as if death was just a new diet they were both trying together, and she would beat him to the goal. But Magda couldn’t keep up. He’d melted down to wax-wrapped bones in six months, turned yellow, turned gray, and died. Then David was gone but the weight had come back, her baffled, lonely body busy making more of itself.
Surgery had never occurred to her, but the grievers, as Rosemary called them, had been insistent, speaking of Dr. Levi as an artist or an angel sent to Earth to do good works. “I wouldn’t even call him a plastic surgeon,” Sharon had said, her forehead shiny with equanimity or Botox. “He’s a reconstructive aide. He helps people who’ve been in car accidents or had bad mastectomies. Age—grief—is a disaster too. And Magda, think what you’ve been through.”
Magda had booked a consultation, and though she had not liked Dr. Levi immediately, she had found him utterly plausible. There was something inevitable about the way he touched her body, a pragmatism and infinite understanding that appealed to her. This is what we have to work with. It is neither too little nor too much. There was no shame in feeling that somehow your body was no longer you, that you were no longer it, or wanting to resemble something you felt yourself, once and long ago, to have been.
The incisions to remove the fat would be tiny, Dr. Levi explained, tracing the retracted tip of a pen down the seams of her inner thighs, and could be disguised by a natural imperfection: a mole, a skin fold, even a stretch mark. It is imperfection that allows us to be perfected, he had said, clicking the pen and offering it to her with a consent form. He had developed the procedure himself, a cross between liposuction and cryolipolysis, by which cold energy was used to create a controlled injury to small volumes of fat. We don’t just want to remove the cells, he said, we want to scare them. Magda had felt a warm rush of pity for her fat cells, which she imagined as little animals storing energy for hard times to come. But hard times came and your fat did not help you. The injuries you sustained in this life were uncontrolled, uncontrollable. It was good to intervene where intervention was possible, and when Magda signed the consent form she felt the sweet relief of giving herself over to a higher power.
When, now, she was overtaken by that terrible paralysis, where righting the coffee pot at the end of a pour took all her earthly power, she reminded herself: There was before and there was after. Time did not stand still and you survived it. Now at least she had the photos to prove it. Dr. Levi had been as good as his word. By now the scars were nearly invisible.
* * *
Magda was early, seated at the appointed corner table near the back of the restaurant, considering the stuffed tiger beside her, which was standing behind a velvet rope on a shallow stage. She was fairly sure that it wasn’t real, or rather that the skin, which was sometimes stretched around something else and called a tiger, was also fake. The animal was mid-snarl but the face was all wrong, exploded with alarm like a cartoon reacting to dynamite. She turned to examine the discreet paper price tag dangling from the back of her chair, raising her eyebrows slightly at the number there. You could buy any of the elegantly mismatched chairs, any of the tables, probably even the tiger; this was the unique selling point of the restaurant, which had previously been an architectural salvage warehouse.
The ceiling was cluttered with lights in a reckless range of styles. Magda was staring out across the dazzling room when she saw a man approaching her table with an air of expectation. She raised her hand slightly to signal yes. Their eyes met and her hand dropped, knocking a fork from the table. She bent quickly to pick it up, her mind dilating with recognition. His shoes arrived first. “Oh,” she said softly. Her fingers closed around the fork and the window of hope in her chest banged shut. Magda had seen these shoes before, their elegant tooling and wicked maroon leather, that afternoon in Dr. Levi’s office. During the examination, she had not known where else to look.
“You must be Magda,” he said, reaching for her hand. “I’m not late, am I?” He sank into the seat across from her and flicked the napkin open in his lap. She searched her disheveled mind, stalling—should she call him Cal or Dr. Levi? Dr. Caleb Levi: the name engraved in silver on the door. He looked perplexed, picture-book polite. She realized he didn’t recognize her. The man had laid her naked on a table, used a cannula and negative pressure to suck out her fat, and still he didn’t recognize her. She had stripped for portions of the consultation before and after, and with a deference she had found almost mocking, he had called her Mrs. Baer.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s—Cal, isn’t it,” and it was perhaps the voice that did it, like a cord plugged into a socket.
“Hell’s bells,” he said. His eyes darted to her face and then to the tiger’s, which he seemed to have noticed only now. Alarm ricocheted between their two faces. She felt a laugh rising like a bubble from the sickish swamp of her stomach.
“You could walk out with him, if you like,” Magda said. “The tiger. Everything in here is for sale.”
Cal smiled, wide and fast, using the joke to reset, scurrying through the appropriate expressions. Square teeth flashed in a square jaw, making his eyes seem falsely round. She could walk out too, she knew, but the thought remained stranded. She was rooted to her seat. Cal saw this and his smile settled.
“Look,” he said, “I try not to mix business with pleasure, but I’m ravenous and a reservation here on a Friday night is as rare as hen’s teeth. We can consider this a further check-up if you like and get to know one another a little better.” He smiled conspiratorially. And they had conspired, hadn’t they? Yes. They had committed the act together. She offered him a glass of wine. They drank.
When the waiter appeared Cal ordered a bottle of alkaline water and, after walking the boy through a maze of dietary restrictions, a steak. It was crucial for some reason that it be on the bone. Magda hadn’t looked at the menu, and when the waiter rattled off the last of the daily specials—a sea bream lying on something charred—she just said yes.
“Well, I’m sure this can’t be the first time you’ve run into a—” she did not want to say patient—“a client.”
“Never in these circumstances, I assure you,” Cal said, frowning. “But I did meet a woman at a Christmas party whose breasts I’d done. Her husband recognized me, actually, at the bar. Nearly shook my hand off.” His eyes gleamed like stones in a stream. “Forgive me for not recognizing you immediately,” he said. “In my office people seem—now don’t take this the wrong way—provisional somehow. Let’s just say I see their potential.”
“It’s nothing,” Magda said. “Really.” She swept wine over her tongue, swallowing the memory of the bright room, her nipples tight in the chill air, the gold seals of his qualifications winking at her from the wall.
“But that’s enough about my work. What do you do, Magda?” She felt again the faint sensation, cool then hot, of being mocked. I walk and talk and shit and take the dog out to do the same, she did not say. For long moments I become the subtle muscle between buttock and thigh. I wake and find that the world of appearances is still there, like a bandage hastily applied. I move carefully throughout the day to keep it from unravelling. No. She had been a housewife, she supposed, which made her now, what, a house?
“I’m redecorating,” she said.
“Of course,” he said. “People often find, after the procedure, that certain things don’t fit anymore. In particular, the place they called home has become something else: Perhaps someone else’s home. I have been told it is like living with the dead, but nothing that a new set of curtains won’t fix.” For some reason the words conjured an image of David descending into their basement with a toolbox to fix a leak, his sheepish face the next morning when they woke to find it flooded. She liked the smell of damp down there now when she pulled clothes from the drier, one of the reversals that marked the backward country of grief.
“I’d love to know,” Magda said, “where you buy your curtains.” She thought of Gracie, barking ferociously at the empty laundry room at odd hours, as if sensing some kind of presence. Magda always hoped that this was some trace of David, though he had never spent much time there when he was alive. It was perhaps an apology for just that. It would be like David, Magda thought, to come back and comfort her for the wrong things.
“My own home is rather Spartan,” he said. “I find that things so often fail to live up to my imagination. It drove my ex-wife crazy.” He brightened. “We worked together too, you know, she and I. I suppose it was my fault, in the end, if she was nothing like the woman I’d married.” He gave an abrupt, harsh laugh that sounded to Magda composed of many voices, like the laughter of an audience erupting briefly between changing channels. “What about you, Magda?” he asked. “Were you married?”
“Oh, once,” she said vaguely.
The room hummed with high spirits, voices resonating in the glassware and brass. A laugh arched over the room, and the buzz in the restaurant rose like champagne poured too quickly into an empty flute. Cal’s food arrived first and he smiled politely—at it, at her, at it again, his fingers stroking his knife. The waiter returned after a few minutes with a little trolley carrying a large silver platter and presented Magda with the fish. It had been roasted whole, the delicate fronds of tail and fin crisped a brittle gold. The silvery eye was pupil-less, opaque, the mouth turned down. The waiter was looking expectantly at her, but Magda felt frozen, her open mouth aping the fish. She jerked it up into a smile—was she supposed to clap?—and the waiter nodded gravely and wheeled the fish away.
“Well I hope they bring it back,” Cal said. The tiger roared mutely from behind the velvet rope. Cal had sliced into his steak and was peering into the incision, pulling the meat apart slightly with his knife and fork to see if it was cooked to his liking. A dribble of pink juice slid across the plate. The waiter brought the fish back as dinner, rather than itself: two white filets on a bed of blackened greens. There was less of it now, as there had been less of David the minute he’d left the bed he’d been lying in for two months. She had felt it from behind the bathroom door, a silence that had slipped into the space between two breaths and expanded until it filled the room.
David had been adamant that he wanted to die at home. In the final days he did not speak, except once, to insist that he be moved to his own bed. Despite her efforts to comfort him, he maintained in a whisper that the bed he was lying in was not his own. She had felt herself to be some terrible gatekeeper, a pain even now like metal screwed into bone. She had thought for a long time afterwards that death was perhaps a kind of mirror, offering an image of the world in reverse, only you could not say which was the reflection—this life here, or the one beyond.
“Charming,” Cal said, peering over at her plate. “I hear they helicopter it in from Baja so fast it’s practically local.”
Magda poured herself more wine and a drop slid down the stem, leaving a faint pink print on the tablecloth when she lifted it to her lips. The surgeon’s hands were quick and sure about his meal. Faint whorls of hair thickened at his wrists and disappeared under the white cuffs of his shirt. She felt herself cold, cold upon the table, her body still under this man’s hands. He had opened her up and removed a layer, the yellow fold that had thickened her back and thighs, where it was probably just trying to keep her warm.
When he reached the bone he sighed, leaned back in his chair, took a deep sip of wine. “You may think a man like me cares only for the body,” he said, “but in my work there is no division between the body and the mind.” He reached across the table and placed his hand on hers. It looked much older than the rest of him. Thick veins stood out like the roots of a terrible tree. “Ask yourself, I tell my clients, is it fear you feel, or do you just have a weak chin? Are you tired and angry, or do you just need a brow lift?” He removed his hand and placed his index finger between his eyes, stroking it thoughtfully up to meet his hairline. It was dyed she realized, a harsh border separating the sleek and secretive head of hair from the smooth territory of his face. “The illusion of suffering is aesthetic,” he continued. “A great number of life’s sorrows can be attributed to the downward migration of the brows. People think that death is the fatal flaw, but life is the real problem.” The hand dropped to the tablecloth, picked up the knife. Magda watched, spellbound. “Life,” the surgeon said, “urges downward. It is not a circle, as some say, but a spiral.” He had begun to make a loose circling motion with his wrist, drawing the point of the knife down. “The sun, stress, gravity, turn the body like a screw and drive it into the ground. The eternal question is how to live in a world like that? Some say it’s a matter of changing the way you look at things, but I say why not start with the way things look?”
* * *
Her face in the bathroom mirror was pale and strange. Her pupils were dilated, her lips bloodless. She looked like she had seen a ghost. She fumbled in her purse for her lipstick and leaned across the sink to apply it. Her hand was trembling. Try, Magda, she told herself. Obligingly, her reflection smiled. She lifted the lipstick to her mouth and shuddered as if she had touched something unexpectedly alive. Was she smiling? She did not feel that she was smiling—and yet she saw that it was so. The shape of her mouth was unfamiliar, and she applied the color clumsily. Is this okay? she wanted to ask. Is this correct? The toilet ran senselessly in one of the empty stalls.
How do you feel? David sometimes asked, when Magda asked him how she looked. She would swat him away if he put his hands on her hips then, peeved by the evasion. David had been bemused by her dissatisfactions with herself, sometimes even childishly hurt. Tiger stripes, he called her stretch marks once, drawing a finger across the pale lines that marbled her inner thighs. She had pushed him away, and this seemed now like madness of the most reckless kind—the delusion that they had ever been anything other than gorgeous and alive. A tiger did not even know it had stripes, Magda thought. It knew its hot breath and idle power, pacing the warm night. A tiger knew it was a tiger because it felt like one, and it was this living sense, Magda realized, that she had neglected. Instead, she had surrounded herself with the signs and symbols of transformation, writing herself like an imaginary entity into an equation that she hoped would spit her out whole. She had wanted to be reborn, but she had not wanted to live. She looked at her foreign mouth and imagined kissing Dr. Levi. The velvet sensation of blackness like anesthesia. She had gone under so easily, he said afterwards, approvingly. It was only when she woke up that she had started, insisting for a moment that she be moved to her own bed.
At the table the plates had been cleared away. Cal signed the bill with a flourish.
“Do you need anything else for the house, Magda?” he asked, gesturing with his pen around the restaurant. The eclectic furnishings looked like props in an incoherent play and Magda wondered where they came from, estate sales or evictions. The whole place suddenly felt like a stage set assembled from other people’s ruined lives. Magda wished she could pull a lever and make the man before her disappear down a trapdoor. “I’d be happy to send you home with something for having been such a gracious guest—and for keeping this evening just between us.” Was it her imagination or did his eyes linger on the tiger? “Think about it,” he said. “I know that you’re redecorating.”
* * *
The metal gate on the patio clangs when she lets herself in and the dog barks. Once, twice, goes quiet. She sees herself now from the outside, as at a window looking in. Through the window a silhouetted shape moves across the room, and she understands that a mistake has been made: she has invited a thief and not a priest to perform the exorcism. The steps are dark as she fumbles with the lock which will not open. It is possible that these are no longer her keys. Inside the dog begins to bark ferociously, as at a stranger approaching the door.
Olivia Parkes is a British-American artist and writer currently based in Berlin. Her work has been published in Tin House, Electric Literature, Zyzzyva, The Masters Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Chordata, The New Haven Review, and Gone Lawn, among others. In 2016, she was awarded second prize in The Exposition Review‘s Flash 405 contest.