Last Summer Karyn is a perfectionist who is prone to chapped lips. No matter how much water she drinks, no matter how much exfoliating she does, no matter how much shea butter she wears, her lips are rarely as soft as she wants them to be. Her boyfriend — now ex — says it is because she is a frigid bitch, exhaling frostbite from her wintry insides, turning her deceptively soft exterior to diamond. Karyn has never believed this to be true, not only because she has spent years trying to learn how to love herself, but because she can close her eyes and envision how her mother looks at her, how her little brother looks at her, even how her mother’s boyfriend looks at her — like she is the most precious and most pliable of carbon-based lifeforms. She knows that she is loved. She has been learning to love herself in part because she is loved by others, others whose judgment she trusts, others whose love she would not be worthy of, were she a frigid bitch. However, as she sits in a waiting room full of other discarded women, anxiously picking at the dry skin covering her lower lip, she starts to think that, maybe, her ex-boyfriend knows more about her than she does. Maybe, her ex-boyfriend is right. “Karyn Valdez.” It is not until her name is called that Karyn realizes she has made herself bleed, having peeled away the layer of new skin that had been forming underneath. Instinctively, she runs her tongue over the wound, polluting her mouth with the metallic taste of her icy, red-violet interior. Then, convinced that every pair of eyes in the room is fixed on her, she stands, self-consciously bridging the gap between herself and the nurse who addressed her. “Did you bring anyone with you?” The nurse asks, peering behind Karyn at the empty space she has left in her wake. “No,” Karyn replies, keeping her eyes down, biting her broken lip and making it sting so that she has something to think about other than the fact that she is alone. “When I called, they told me I didn’t need to. Is that wrong?” “No,” the nurse answers, handing her a hospital gown with noticeably feigned indifference; Karyn can hear the pity in her voice. What a poor little girl she is — with no one to sit beside her in the waiting room, with no one to offer her a stick of gum, with no one to hold her hand. “Follow me.” Karyn does as she is told, bringing her hand up to her mouth as she follows the nurse into the labyrinthine network of narrow hallways and cramped examination rooms that make up the clinic. She touches the pad of her thumb to her lip and withdraws it thereafter, discovering that the bleeding has slowed, but not stopped. When they reach the end of the hall, the nurse gestures to a single restroom. “Change your clothes in there and make sure your bladder is empty,” she says. The way she speaks is so clinical that it is almost robotic. “Then, go into the relaxation room down the hall. Someone will let you know when the doctor is ready for you, okay?” “Okay,” Karyn replies, waiting for the nurse to walk away before going into the restroom, her movements as stiff and mechanical as the older woman’s manner of articulation. She locks the door behind her, and — suddenly overcome by a wave of nausea — leans over the sink, dry heaving, dropping the hospital gown into a crumpled heap on the floor. Teetering on the edge of breaking down, she turns the faucet and splashes her face with cold water before staring at her reflection in the mirror. The girl who stares back at her is one she barely recognizes; she has the same long, dark hair, the same deep brown eyes, the same honey-hued skin, but the expression she wears is entirely foreign. She is a deer in the headlights, a damsel-in-distress. She is that girl. Reluctantly, Karyn kicks off her sandals and slips out of her street clothes, folding them neatly and setting them down on the edge of the sink in a futile effort to postpone the inevitable. She then reaches for the hospital gown, pulling it over her head and tying it as tightly around herself as she can, feeling exposed despite keeping her underwear on. She does not feel the urge to pee, but she tries regardless, and while she washes her hands, she gives her fearful reflection one last look, wondering how it will change once she leaves the clinic — if it will change at all. She continues to turn this thought over in her mind as she exits the restroom, hugging her clothes, and proceeds to the relaxation room. Once there, Karyn is unable to discern anything relaxing about the room in question. In fact, it looks suspiciously like the waiting room she has just come from, comprised of four gray walls and furnished with ugly, stain resistant chairs, a few potted plants, and several drab works of art. Unsure what her expectations should have been, she concludes that the ‘relaxation room’ is just another place for her and the other discarded women to sit in silent solidarity, confined to their private thoughts. It is just another place to sit and wait. So, for the second time that day, she sits and waits. For the second time that day, she picks and chews at her lip, wanting nothing more than to peel herself down to her carbon core and disappear. “Karyn Valdez,” another nurse says, after an indeterminate number of minutes have passed. “The doctor will see you now.” Karyn stands and follows her, her heart hammering against her ribcage with every step she takes, as though the weight of what she is about to do has finally hit her. “Will you come in with me?” She asks, before she can stop herself, her voice weaker than she has ever known it to be. “Please, I don’t want to be alone.” The second nurse, thankfully more human than the first, slows her stride and offers Karyn a sympathetic look. “Of course,” she replies, placing a hand on her shoulder. “But first, I have to ask: are you sure you want to do this?” Karyn takes care not think about her answer. She knows that if she thinks about it, she will change her mind, so — instead, she nods. “Yes,” she says. “I’m sure.” During the procedure, Karyn squeezes the hand of a stranger and stares up at the ceiling of an unfamiliar room, counting the seconds — one, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand — between her shaky breaths and willing herself not to cry. The nurse tells her to close her eyes and think about something else, something peaceful, but all she can see when she closes her eyes now is the look on her mother’s face if she were to find out where she was. All her life, Karyn had promised her mother that she would never be a deer in the headlights, a damsel-in-distress, that girl. She does not allow herself to cry until she is sitting in her parked car outside the clinic, bleeding from another place, her heart as empty as the womb she had consented life be sucked from.
Today Karyn is an insomniac who sleeps only when she is physically incapable of keeping her eyes open. Her loved ones tell her to talk to her doctor about a prescription for sleeping pills, to take melatonin, to sprinkle her pillowcases with lavender oil, but in spite of this, she does nothing. She does nothing, not because the advice she receives is bad advice, but because she knows that no amount of sleeping pills, melatonin, or lavender oil will be enough to make the nightmares stop. No amount of anything will be enough to make her forget what she has done. “Am I paying you to work or am I paying you to sleep?” Viktoriya snaps. Karyn wakes with a start, feeling her stomach lurch at the realization that she has fallen asleep at work, curled up in one of the armchairs meant to be occupied by friends of her clients. “I’m sorry, Viktoriya,” she sputters, without missing a beat. “I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again.” “No, it won’t,” Viktoriya replies. “Get some beauty rest tonight, Valdez. You’re starting to look like the living dead.” “I will,” Karyn says, pushing herself up out of the armchair and smoothing her tousled hair. “Sorry.” When Viktoriya leaves her to her own devices, Karyn excuses herself to the bathroom to regain some semblance of her usual composure. Heart hammering against her ribcage, she stands in front of the sink, in front of the mirror, and stares at her reflection. The poor little girl who stares back at her is one she does not recognize; she is a frigid bitch, exhaling frostbite from her wintry insides, turning her deceptively soft exterior to diamond.