This week, the art and literature magazine Paper Darts has a short story about the expectations and invasions of walking through the world in a female body. Not the obvious, more aggressive ones, the catcalling or man-spreading; instead, “Personal Space” by Susan Fedynak details the subtler, quieter transgressions, some perpetuated by other women, some perpetuated by ourselves, and often more insidious for it.
The woman who touches my face and goes tsk tsk uses a cotton thread held between her teeth, then looped through her fingers and twisted tight like barbs around a wire. She removes one hair at a time, plucking them away with the taut thread, quickly working to make my face look more like my face. You’re good at your job, I say when she’s done and she hands me a mirror. Of course I am, she says. In my country, I have a terminal degree in math.
In concise, understated prose, Fedynak gives us six scenes from a woman’s day, from eyebrow threading to bus ride, from orthopedic doctor to x-ray technician, from napping in a waiting room to waiting on the subway.
On the bus, the woman observes a nanny holding a toddler in her lap, the toddler silently kicking his feet and throwing his body back and forth. Even though the toddler is quiet, the nanny shushes him: “I’m sorry, she says to me, to the top of the boy’s head, to anyone listening.” The nanny apologizes for taking up space, or for attracting too much attention. Our protagonist consoles her and engages her in conversation:
She volunteers that she’s superstitious about keeping exactly three cough drops in her pocket at all times. If I discover I have only two, I absolutely go to pieces. I tell her I obsessively apply lipstick before doctor visits. Is your doctor cute? No, but I have a fear of disappointing him. I’m on my way there now—how do I look? Do I look disappointing? You’ve got a mouth red as a fire truck, I think you’ll be A-OK.
The power of these exchanges is so subtle it can be easily missed, overlooked as friendly banter or routine details of a day. Isn’t this what so many women are accustomed to, after all? Removing body hair to look more like “yourself,” applying makeup to merely appear in the world, apologizing for existing on a bus with a toddler being a toddler. Being underestimated, undervalued. Fear of being disappointing. The way Fedynak teases out these details is casual and heartbreaking and true to life, making the story a layered and valuable read.
The protagonist of “Personal Space” isn’t named, and we aren’t told her age or the reason for her medical appointments, other than what we can surmise from the words “orthopedist” and “x-ray.” She’s nervous, though, and there’s a feeling she has waited too late, as she says to the eyebrow threader who tsks her for letting her eyebrows go too long: “I always wait too long. For everything, I say.” But the exact nature of her ailment is less important than what Fedynak does with it. As the orthopedist tries to diagnose our protagonist, questioning her about her pain, Fedynak transforms the pain of the body into a different kind of pain, an existential one perhaps, a pain carried far too long or for a lifetime, a pain so much a part of us that we can’t remember life without it:
At the orthopedic clinic, the doctor wants to know how I’m doing. Anything different from last week? He lists a menu of sensations like a living thesaurus of hurt. Does it pulse, does it radiate, does it feel like hot coals or like being smacked with a hammer? Does it feel like a bee sting, does it feel like a breakup, does it throb, does it ache, does it go away when you think about something else, is it all you can think about? Can you remember a time when it didn’t hurt?
Logo art by Max Winter.