Leah Dworkin, ‘Bag Lady’ (2018) — drawn on Beverly Hills Hotel stationary for the Harper’s Books pop-up
¶ My whole life I was a pretty girl until one day I woke up with this hole in my face. The hole keeps growing. It’s not a surreal hole, there’s no going into it; the only thing that comes out of it is this yellow pus, which drips down my chin.
I was pretty and had a boyfriend before I got the hole. When the hole was just beginning, I was afraid to let him see it. You can’t come over, I’d say, the hole is still here. I don’t care, my boyfriend said, you have to let me see it eventually. He’d say, eventually, I’m going to look. He’d whisper the threat on the other end of the line, I have your key. Eventually I had no choice other than to allow him to see me, it—us. Anyway, now, I still have the same boyfriend because probably he was like, well, I can’t leave her now that she has this hole in her face. He doesn’t mind the hole too much, but he doesn’t live with me or anything. We’re in the kind of relationship that’s only as serious as two people who are never going to live together, so he chooses when he wants to see me, he chooses when he wants to care. I mostly stay in my very small apartment because the sun burns my hole. Dust, too, can be an irritant. I need to be cautious and treat myself gently, my hole and I are at risk. Not to mention, as an ex-pretty person, it’s hard walking down the streets and getting looked at in the way I get looked at with this fucking hole in my face.
Once every few weeks, my boyfriend will make me get out of the house. Like last week, he said he would take me to the movies. After work, he came over and said tonight is the night. His face, which has the right amount of holes, looked nervous, his brow expressing what he was too in denial to admit he was thinking, which was that he was embarrassed to be seen with me in public. To be fair, we live in a city, so you never know who you’re going to run into. I said I wasn’t sure about going out, but then I ended up letting him do what he wanted with me, because that’s how I am with boyfriends. At a point it’s just like, okay, sure, the movies. He’d been saying for a while that he was worried about what was going to happen to me if I stayed this level of inside all the time and then he said it again. His method of communication relies on heavy repetition. Okay, okay, I said. I get it, I said. We waited an hour, until it got dark. Then, he put a plastic bag over my head and took me to the movies. First, he slid his fat thumb through the thin plastic twice, to make holes for my eyes. ‘Most girls only have three important holes! And now you have double that!’ said my boyfriend, excited to see my face through the bag, reminding me I have good bone structure, maybe my good bone structure will still look good through the bag. More holes do not make you more valuable, anyone who’s ever had extra holes knows. But I didn’t say anything back because there was no hole to speak through.
The movie he brought me to was a cartoon about a little girl who was having problems with her levels of happiness. She is like you, said my boyfriend, who is an idiot, because we never knew what the girl was like, the movie only gives us a chance to see her chemistry. The happiness is a tribe of elves that live in her psychology, which is a gridded landscape in the arena of her mind. The elves are pastel and kind of blob-like, with high cheeks. They show a lot of teeth. The elves live and work on the grid, pushing around shopping carts, filled with yellow happiness eggs, from one grey line to the next. When she is happier, their carts are more filled with eggs.
Other than the cartoon outing, I’ve been inside for weeks. Most of the time, I am alone, so all of this is pretty usual, aside from the burning hole in my face. Tending to the hole takes up a lot of my time. I lump around the couch with my cotton swabs, patting at the stuff that oozes out of her, delicately wiping at my face in a way where she won’t rub. I protect what’s left of my face in veils of gauze. I unwrap, then rewrap the layers of gauze. It doesn’t take much to hurt. I sleep on my side so the stuff drips out of her and in the morning, I wash and change the pillow so I can go to bed imagining that the next morning the pillow case will be clean. I can’t lay on my stomach because that would irritate the hole. Even the lightest contact feels brutal, like real heat, real strain, real pressure. I miss sleeping on my stomach, and though I never liked it that much, I miss my face.
I had to quit sugar and soy sauce and cow cheese and crackers and bread because these things feed the hole, according to a theory. I consulted a woman in a batik tunic, and she told me what I needed to do. Change everything you’ve been doing, she said, and so I am. I don’t know if it will work. That’s the thing about theories. Apparently, and against modern medicine—to diminish it—I have to starve the hole of its fuel. My hole and I, the two of us, we’ll see how it goes.
Being inside all the time is okay. I mean, it’s not the worst, though it’s hard sometimes, like when I get hungry but I have to wait for my boyfriend to get out of work and then call him on the phone and beg him to come over.
I was just there last night, he whines through the speaker. He is sitting on his couch, I can tell, because he’s always sitting on his couch. I know exactly what he wants to do instead of be with me because speakers aren’t selective, and throughout this conversation I can hear what he’s doing; the sound of Mario collecting coins. Cha-ching.
Please? I ask four or five times in a voice that is saying, if you do not come over tonight, I might not be okay. Cha-ching cha-ching. I’m in pain. At what point will you just take antibiotics? asks my boyfriend. Mario yippee’s, jumps over speed bumps on a ghostly rainbow road. At what point will you let me alone? What level of emergency do you need to reject this magical thinking? Mario yahoo’s – he’s just been rewarded an extra life. I ask four or five times. Please? I am usually quite strong, independent even, but since this hole I’m literally pathetic. Also, hungry. I need to eat. If he doesn’t come over and bring me an onion, what will I have for dinner? Cha-ching. Shit is unbearable. chiiiiiing. I could die.
My diet is very restricted, so mostly I eat boiled onions. Sometimes I add a little salt to my onion, not just any salt. If I add salt, the salt I add is this exquisite red salt. This special salt is extremely rare, harvested by the Japanese in a particular remote and coastal village. For centuries in this particular village, the Japanese have rowed out to sea in especially narrow canoe-like things which look weak, like they’ve been constructed out of bamboo. One seaman per boat. Day after day, far out at sea, all the village men meet at a nautical point that they independently find by following an early morning star, the tip of a constellation believed to be the crest of a giant red bird. By noon, they’ve all arrived at the place, where igneous plutonic rocks form sea-stacks, random stone walls that look like a fallen barn. Here, their paddles dip into the reflections of the stacked rocks. Silently, they gather water. The water has rare and notable qualities, a result of ancient volcanic activity whose eruptions created a unique underwater landscape. The seafloor is now populated by a myriad of especially cleansing seaweeds and oceanic mosses. The Japanese seamen collect the water in awkward wooden buckets. In the direct heat of the sun, they row heavier canoes back to shore. On land, they unload, collectively pouring out buckets into the town’s huge vat. Then the water, protected, like me, by layers and layers of gauze, is set out in large wooden trays where it can slowly evaporate into the sunlight. After this stage, the remaining fluid is redistributed into small batches and brought into kitchens, where it is given to the wives. The wives use donabe clay pots, slow-cooking the water on the phosphorus coals in their fire pits. The red rocks heat away all liquidity. In the base of the donabe, crystals begin to form. What is left is this red salt. The salt gatherers, who have a name, have ancestral roots in salt. The Japanese men who collect the salt have fathers who, too, collected water from the same sea point. The women come from a long line of women who have spent their lives taking what bits of the sea their husbands have brought them and cooking it out. After it becomes salt, it is bundled and packaged, put into a fancy tin. My point is, it is a high-quality salt, with an exceptional minerality. Also, it is very expensive. And to be honest, though I occasionally might salt my onion, I remember to use this salt rarely. What is the point of salt if what you are eating is a boiled onion for breakfast, a boiled onion for lunch, if I’m still hungry, for dinner, a boiled onion. I am the only person in the world who knows what it’s like to exist off of only boiled onions, correct me if I’m wrong. Even my boyfriend keeps saying stop it with the onions. Can’t you just eat like a human being? he begs while offering me a slice of poison. I don’t even use a knife to cut my onions anymore. After I boil the hell out of one, I just slip out the slick inner layers by pressing each softened bulb with a spoon. I used to sauté, but now this happens rarely, though the added fat did once make the onions more palatable. Part of this whole situation is that the hole in my face has been making me very tired, so I try to avoid extra activities. For instance: washing pans.
Other than the obstacles caused by the hole in my face, the sex is pretty much the same. We can’t kiss at all, so he doesn’t look at my face, but like I said, the sex is pretty much the same. He thinks it’s kind of hot, me wrapped up in all these bandages, all this gauze. It’s like you’re straight out of an asylum, it’s like I’m fucking someone in the hospital, he says when he’s coming. He doesn’t know the things that have happened to me in the past, so I brush it off, make jokes like a well-adjusted, good-natured, deformed patient. The sex rigor causes the bandages to start peeling off my chin, so my left hand presses the cotton swabs to my face, holds the wrappings flush to what used to be skin, what is now a contagious and gaping infection. Whatever sex happens only happens to my back side. Darling, he says, petting the back of my hair like it’s a dead cat, my poor little sick darling.
Tonight, when he comes over with dinner for us, fried chicken for him and a boiled onion for me, I say, LETS PUT A BABY IN ME! All of a sudden, even with the hole in my face, I am enthusiastic. You can’t take care of a baby in your condition, he says, even though that’s not what’s stopping him. He doesn’t think replicating himself is a very good idea, no, no, no. He says, just stop for a minute and think about it. I stop. I think about it. Then, we agree; two of him sounds more terrifying than even the hole. Plus, what if we did, at some point, have a baby? What if someday our baby grew up and it got a hole like this too? Your mouth used to be so perfect, he says, before he mounts me from behind. I try not to let my weeping hole slam too hard into the pillow.
When he is gone, I feel so sorry for myself. I try to put a hunk of onion in the hole, because onions have absorptive properties, onions can draw poison out of our bodies, according to the theory. I drink mushroom concoctions, spoons full of electric green oil. I fill the hole with turmeric and this transcendental honey that comes from New Zealand, and at a real price. I mask my hole with it, sweet, sticky, orange. I dream of these bees, who become gods to me. The drones are hard at work, neon balls of pollen attaching to the hairs on their legs, buzzing, incidentally making salve for my hole. In the future, if I ever get it back, I might owe them my face.
Bees construct a specific cell for their queen, who, like me, stays in, trying to make as many babies as she possibly can while getting served the finest royal jelly. The workers live whole lives in service to her, sometimes aggressively stinging a predator only to immediately die. Unlike the rest of them, the queen is able to sting repeatedly, without dying, though, in her cell, she rarely gets presented with the opportunity to use her stinger.
Because of my hole, every morning, and every evening, I swath my face in theory and transcendental honey. The queen, unlike me, will be able to determine the sex of the eggs she lays. These bees, my gods, live in a rainforest, the plants that they draw from are potent, the gum trees curative, flocked with carnivorous, laughing kookaburras.
When I sleep in the honey, dreaming of folk songs, I wake up stuck to my pillowcase.
Just between you and me: sometimes, deep in my hole, I can feel the honey working. This is such relief. In this momentary relief, my nerves get the sense that they, like me, might someday have a future that will be bearable.
Leah Sophia Dworkin is a writer & artist living in New York City, where she is working on a collection of stories entitled Hey Whitefish, along with another collection of unnamed short stories, and a longer prose thing that might someday in the future resemble a novel. She recently got her MFA from Columbia University, and has been published in BOMB & elsewhere. Online she goes by frumperella. Some of her art is available at https://www.availableworks.net/frumperella.