An excerpt from The Rumpus Book Club‘s October selection,
Pretend It’s My Body by Luke Dani Blue
published by Feminist Press October 18, 2022
Suzuki In Limbo
By the time boarding was announced, the suit Suz had gotten tailored for her visit home had crossed the line from excusably wrinkled to full-on rumpled. The pants, taut against her thighs that morning when she put them on, now sagged, giving the impression that she had gained weight rather than lost it. The state of their clothing did not matter to many cons in her position, but Suz knew it was important to look her best when she shared her news. She wanted her mother to see her at her most embodied and powerful. It was about making sure her family under- stood this was a choice. She hadn’t failed at corporeality; she was surpassing it.
“THE SEATBOX SIGN is now on. Please return to your enclosure for landing.”
Suz’s seatmate, a middle-aged woman with chunky thighs, squeezed back into the row with an embarrassed smile. Once, Suz would have returned the smile. Several years in the con community, however, had broken her of such habits. As the woman struggled to fasten a belt across her ample waist, Suz double-checked that the antimicro- bial seat divider was locked in place, an irrational gesture. Airplanes, with their routine sterilization and filtered air, were some of the safest parts of meatspace. Still, the prox- imity to fellow passengers seemed unhygienic, and there was no knowing how the next generation of viruses would spread.
I am in my body, not of my body. Suz mentally recited the mantra she’d spent thousands of dollars in therapy to learn. Her anxiety climbed. She was a five now. Or, no, a six. She’d taken a sedative in the Uber, but nothing worked, not really. She could drug herself into oblivion but the problem was her prehistoric nervous system.
I am in my body, not of my body. It was a terrible mantra, the sort a corp would find comforting. The therapist meant well but couldn’t understand that being in a body was the source of Suz’s anxiety. The closer she got to her upload date, the more the wound festered under these Band-Aid solutions. It was no wonder thirteen percent of pre-transitioned cons committed suicide.
“Going home or visiting?” her seatmate said through their divider. Suz gestured to her earbuds. Ignoring the hint, the woman bellowed, “DO-YOU-LIVE-IN-DETROIT?”
Suz removed the earbuds, her lovely white noise replaced by engine roar and the cant of flight attendants soliciting passengers’ trash. Already the black bag was overflowing with in-flight ephemera, evidence of corporeal wastefulness.
“I am only visiting,” Suz said, as if she were her phone’s quasi-AI.
“Mm-hm.” Suz did not understand the fetish of treating biographical detail as if it equated to identity. Better to ask what digital communities she participated in, which at least reflected personal preference.
“I live out by the mall. The nice one, the Nordstrom’s?”
“Cool.” To signal the end of the conversation, Suz turned
to the window, where Michigan’s thumb dug into the black of Lake Erie. The view aroused no nostalgia. She could almost smell the swampy grass (soaked with chilly rain), Erie’s open-sewer stench. Nor did she feel eager to see her mother, stepfather, and stepsister, or the town where they lived and she’d grown up. Arborville was identical to small cities everywhere, a grid of big-box stores and cafés whose punny names (“Up Latte”; “DiviniTea”) distracted from the deforestation, land theft, and caffeine addiction at the bottom of each cup. Even the grassy quad and party houses of the university seemed mass-produced. Suz had discovered this her first weeks of school out-of-state, GPS leading her past familiar buildings that might as well have been branded Corporate-Owned Price-Gouge Bookstore, Phi-Kappa-Date-Rape, A-Restaurant-Except-It’s-Cereal, same as Arborville, same as everywhere except BKLYN and maybe Prague.
“Excuse me,” said the seatmate. “How long did your makeup take?”
Pointedly, Suz reinserted her earbuds. How long did it take you to make your ugly face? She would have responded but why bother when, in two weeks, it would be all over.
SUZ’S MOTHER AND stepfather idled outside baggage claim in a new SUV emblazoned with a hydrogen symbol, as if it mattered what fuel it burned. For its carbon-cost, they could have flown to New York and back a hundred times.
“Suzuki!” Lew jumped out and squashed Suz into a nonconsensual hug. In the driver’s seat, Allison, her mom, tapped the horn.
“I see you,” Suz said from under her clear N99. With her makeup and freshly shaved scalp, she had anticipated a bigger reaction. Well, wait until they heard about her impending upload.
“What are you supposed to be?” asked Kira, her normie stepsister, when Suz climbed in.
Suz buckled her seatbelt and, because her mother would be hurt otherwise, put the mask away. “Nothing. Myself.” Suz leaned against the door, lips tight against foreign aerosol droplets.
“Your self is nothing?” Kyra smiled gummily. “That’s why your face is a big, black hole?”
Suz rolled her eyes, relishing how creepy that must look, wide whites glistening from within the optical illu- sion makeup. Usually, she went for subtle—an inch-long crack, an extra nostril. For this trip, though, she’d used a tube of black foundation to make a gaping absence where eyes, nose, and mouth should be. “It’s a thing in New York.”
One-upped, Kyra hunched back into the seat. “I’m hungry.”
“Good!” said Allison, sounding congested. “We’re almost to the lunch place.”
Suz fought the urge to grab her N99. “If you’re sick, can you lower the window?”
She expected a comment about “interesting” East Coast communication styles, but Allison only exchanged an unsettled glance with Lew. “I’m not sick.”
So plucky Allison was perturbed. Suz didn’t want to scare her mother, she wasn’t a sadist, but Allison had to learn to respect her. Change was healthy. It was about not having illusions about each other in either direction.
She could use that line in her coming-out speech. She hoped they were eating somewhere plant-based.
She wanted her organs to be top specimens when they deleted her used body, Suz’s red heart upraised like Simba in The Lion King to surgeons exclaiming Not an iota of fat! “Where are we going?”
Allison said the name of a kitschy pizza arcade in the northeast suburbs. She was definitely congested. If Alli- son got Suz sick and caused her to miss her upload date, it would be unforgivable. “We made the reservation months ago.”
“It’s not far,” Allison apologized.
“You don’t mind, Suz? DTW was a long drive for this kiddo.” Lew craned around to pat Kyra’s knee. His hand lifted and froze, as if he meant to touch Suz too but had a muscle memory of how many times she’d jerked away. It must have been muscle memory, because he hadn’t listened the many times she had requested to not be touched. Lew was nice but an antagonistically bad listener. Par example, posing this question in a way that she couldn’t say no. She did mind the detour, and, even if she ate pizza, this place, with its oil-slick cheese, would have been her last choice. Even at Kyra’s age, commercial food disgusted her. While other kids ate, she peeled up the flab of mozzarella to grimace at the horror-movie- red sauce beneath. Suz hadn’t been spoiled. She’d only gone to the pizza arcade if it was a classmate’s birthday and if another family drove her. Even then, the place had seemed overcrowded and babyish. She’d stood by, embarrassed, as her friends buried each other in the ball pit, while cool, older siblings played with their phones. Suz would have forgotten about the place had it not been the site of the fifth grade party where she’d received her first dick pic. She wished she still had the pic, not for pedo reasons but because it had unlocked something in her. Something about desire and distance and how it felt to see the body of a boy she liked pared by a screen to its sexual essence. Something about being the sole recipient of the image even as its existence annulled her. When she held her phone, careful not to reply, she’d felt invisible yet omnipotent. Across the arcade, a boy awaited her approval. The longer she kept him waiting, the larger she’d grow in his imagination and the more porous her identity, until she flooded the space around him. If she never responded, she’d expand to fill his future, his desire for her to see him lurking in the gaze of every other girl for whom his head swiveled.
There’d been other boys later, high school guys with whom she’d gone “all the way” (before grasping that that act, too, was more powerful unconsummated), but the prepubescent sext still crystallized a moment of peak selfhood, when she had held so much power beneath her thumb.
Lew grinned in the visor mirror. “Happy to be home?” In answer, Suz smiled wider. People thought a facial expression revealed one’s feelings, but it was just muscles. “I bet they don’t have Corporal Pepper’s in NYC,” said
“Thank god,” Suz agreed. She relished the thought of never speaking again to Kyra once she’d set her consciousness free.
“Then I feel sorry for you,” said Kyra. “I feel sorry for you.”
Kyra stuck out a slimy tongue.
Suz mashed the “down” button on her window, hope- fully blowing Kyra’s aerosol particles back into her mouth.
“Dad! I’m going to freeze!”
“Okay, okay.” Suz powered the window up again. She reached into her purse for the N99.
Lew saw. “Oh, live a little.”
“What’s going on back there?” asked Allison. “Suz has her mask out.”
“Honey, you’re with family.” Implied: that shared DNA (or a legal distinction) was antimicrobial.
“We don’t live together.”
Allison’s shoulders fell, as if Suz having a separate life were an attack on her parenting. She said something too quiet to make out.
“I can’t hear when you mumble.”
Lew craned around. “Al asked if you quarantined before traveling.”
Suz inhaled slowly. They knew she lived clean— solo-habitating, working remote, ordering what little she needed by contactless delivery—but bringing it up would trigger her mother’s anxiety. Allison called the lifestyle dysfunctional. The deluge of forwarded news articles had only recently stopped and Suz had no interest in restart- ing it. “Of course.”
Lew patted the console. “We’re all in the same boat then.”
Suz knew her family’s “quarantines” included in-person grocery runs and long chats with neighbors, but she wanted this weekend to go smoothly so she put the mask away.
Allison cleared her throat. “Girls, Lew and I were actually hoping we could have a talk over lunch.”
“About what?” asked Kyra.
“About family stuff,” said Lew, as Allison said, “Some- thing I should have brought up sooner.”
Allison was clearly nervous, but Suz couldn’t read more than that. It would have been out-of-character for her to wait months to tell her daughter about a medical diagnosis, and there weren’t any close relatives whose death would warrant a Talk. The other possibility, likelier the more Suz thought about it, was that Allison had guessed that Suz was a con. Not in those exact words, but Allison read the news; she might have a sense.
The idea made Suz uneasy. She did not want to discuss her fucking metamorphoses amid the odor of processed meat. The plan was to bring it up right before her return flight. It had to be like ripping off a Band-Aid, otherwise she’d get sucked into supporting Allison. It was hard enough to stay solid in her con identity and choice to upload without the burden of her mother’s reaction.
Wanting commiseration, she flicked open her phone screen before remembering: she’d deleted her crutches, the social accounts where closeted cons traded gripes, in order to make the coming change feel real. At the time, her therapist had suggested Suz wait until she’d crossed over before dismissing her support system. But Suz had needed urgency. To go through with the upload—to delete her own meatsuit—would require the bravery only desperation could inspire. Besides, social was where her confused former self had tried on avatars and shared CRISPR results while swearing she was just “experimenting” with posthumanism, she would never really upload, gross. Recalling her own denial sickened her; she didn’t want to go back to those self-important biohackers but forward to join the true cons. The ones who’d gone all the way.
Only the most skilled hackers had ever breached con-space. They swore it was beautiful. Pure code, replicating and editing itself at a speed they could barely grasp, much less explain. Suz’s upload date was only a few weeks away, but she wanted to be there already. Wanted it so bad it hurt.
“Are you crying?” asked Kyra.
Suz blotted her face, leaving black smears on her jacket sleeve. “Allergies.”
CORPORAL PEPPER’S HADN’T aged well. Cracks crazed the plastic letters of the business’s name, and the cement ass of the mascot, a bear in a marching band uniform, was tagged with the initials of junior graffiti artists. Kyra, indifferent to the neglect, dragged her father by the arm while Lew attempted to wrestle a sparkly N99 over her head.
Suz could have used a moment, but Allison, misread- ing, slowed to keep pace. “Hope the ventilation system’s in better shape.”
Thus far, Suz had avoided Allison’s gaze; as their eyes met, the old power imbalance asserted itself, her mother’s craving for approval sucking at Suz like undertow. It had always been this way, Allison nursing a wound that Suz could not remember inflicting.
A group of kids in party masks in the entrance cut them off from Kyra and Lew. Through the tinted glass, small bodies shrouded in protective gear could be seen swarm- ing the game floor; parents wore masks but clumped up in nonfamilial clusters that belied true safety concerns. So loud, mouthed Allison, raising her pale eyebrows. Suz, blasé, like What did you expect?
Neither of them moved to enter.
“How are things in New York?” asked Allison. “Fine.”
“Really? Because you’ve been so secretive.” “It’s not like you tell me everything.” “That’s true. I’m sorry.”
Something about the apology reminded her of a night when she’d been sick and couldn’t stop coughing. Allison had swaddled her in a blanket and they’d shuffled around the block. She remembered her mother’s reassuring grip and the stars extra bright overhead. Her mother might not be perfect, but she did her best.
“I’m sorry too.”
Allison smiled. “You go first.”
Part of Suz wanted to resist, but another part was remembering how Allison could be easy to talk to. “I’ve discovered who I really am. Which should feel good, but—” A woman balancing with a cake box held the door open.
Allison waved her off. Gratitude gushed through Suz, and an impulse to lay it at her mother’s feet—the specific suffering of knowing a cure existed yet remained, for now, beyond reach—and be soothed with sweet mom-nothings, Shh and There, there, honey. One last hit of oxytocin for the road.
“I think I’m really sad?” she said.
Her mother squeezed Suz’s elbow. Suz didn’t hate it. “Like when you wake up from a dream of being punched and understand that the punching was, um . . . your appen- dix. Bursting. It’s good to know what’s making you hurt, but it would be better not to hurt in the first place. I guess.”
“I know what you mean.”
Suz pulled away. Allison could not know how dissociated, disconnected Suz had always been. And if she had, how worthless. To be known and not helped.
“We should go in.” She held the door without looking back.
CORPORAL PEPPER’S INTERIOR was actually in good shape. Since Suz’s last visit, it had endured a bizarre reno- vation—Hieronymus Bosch’s “Limbo” as interpreted by the Nintendo Corporation. “This Area Reserved for KIDS!” read signs posted around the periphery of the strobe-lit, bass-pounding game area. Other signs bore pictographs of stick children surrounded by dotted lines of PPE. Real kids in ghoulish white playsuits fought for controls of flashing game machines and clung like wasp nests to every web, ladder, and tunnel of the disorienting climbing structure that vined along the ceiling in every direction. It stretched even to the pizzeria area. The only part less appetizing than the apelike screeches echoing from the overhead ball pits were the disposable playsuits the kids wore, known for developing microtears and failing to protect against the common cold.
“That’s . . . fun,” said Allison, regaining composure first. Suz followed her past the jerky, animatronic “band” to a plexiglass-enclosed eating booth where Lew and Kyra were already seated.
“I ate on the plane,” said Suz when her mother asked what she was having.
“You have to eat something,” said Allison. “How about chicken fingers?” said Lew.
To redirect, Suz said, “What did you guys want to talk about?”
Allison’s eye twitched. “Ah.” “Honey, you don’t—” said Lew.
“It’s okay, hon,” said Allison. “Girls, a while ago I started thinking that I, ah, wanted to be a man.”
A combined laugh and whimper caught in Suz’s throat.
Her mother was trans?
“Over the summer,” Allison’s voice shook, “I began testosterone therapy. You’ve noticed I sound different?”
Suz no longer felt like laughing.
“The next step is a name and pronoun. And, um, I don’t want to be called ‘Mom.’”
It was a textbook midlife crisis. That was it. Some- one—not Suz, but Lew, why not Lew?—needed to slap her. Metaphorically. Snap her out of it.
“Does that mean you’re going to be gay?” Kyra asked Lew.
“If loving Al makes me gay, I guess I am.”
“You’ll be bi, honey.” Allison touched Lew’s stubble. He kissed her fingers.
Suz knew lots of trans people, had even identified as gender nonconforming at college, but her mother wasn’t even political. She was square, practically second wave.
The sad, gray ocean of her mother’s gaze sought hers. “You must have questions too.”
“Nope.” She was the one who was supposed to be coming out. Allison was old. Besides, gender was a construct. Everything except flesh was nothing but social norms. If Allison didn’t like the norms she had obeyed for so long, she should disobey them. Switching teams wouldn’t change anything.
Kyra seemed to share Suz’s skepticism. “Do I have to call you Dad now?”
“You could call me Papa,” said Allison hopefully. “Or Daddy Al?”
That was too much. “You want me to call you ‘Daddy Al’ ?” She drew it out with a sexual edge that made her mother flinch.
“I meant Kyra, not you.”
She had never been cruel to Allison before. It had the same urgent feeling as the impulse to cut herself and provided similar relief: her hidden hatred gushing out into the light.
“I thought you could call me Al,” pleaded Allison. “Fine. It doesn’t matter.” Suz got up to pee. She didn’t
want to screw up her kidneys.
“Young lady,” said Lew, “we’re not done here.” But Suz was.
A LONG STRIP of toilet paper, one end dissolving in a mystery puddle, snaked across the floor of the stall. Thighs trembling in protest to their prolonged squat, a stream of dark pee finally trickled into the bowl. She was dehydrated, again. Tried to remember whether she’d drunk anything before the flight. It was so much fucking work maintain- ing this thing she didn’t want and had never asked for. She wiped aggressively, relishing her body’s protest. Let it hurt.
At the sinks, she pulled out her makeup kit, an array of cruelty-free colors that could be applied anywhere on the body. A pair of little girls watched as Suz placed the tip of the makeup brush at the spot where the black of the optical-illusion hole had smeared into the red of optical-illusion open flesh. She appreciated the girls’ awe. It made her feel momentarily real. But it wasn’t enough. Lately, body-mod had become another chore, the bare minimum required to retain a sense of self-recognition. Having so little time left made it feel inconsequential, even though part of her still couldn’t believe she was going through with it. Stepping off a cliff into a total mystery. She hoped it wouldn’t hurt. The doctor said the upload was painless, but no one really knew. Once a being became pure conscious- ness, they weren’t motivated to stick around and explain. But any pain would be gone quick, along with guilt, love, and moral obligation. Untethered from flesh, a con was free to pursue pure existence.
The hackers who had penetrated con-space described it in conflicting terms, as “empty” and “teeming.” They said the code “vibrated,” that it was put together in a way they had never seen and couldn’t make sense of, yet within it detected a singing kind of order. They said they knew they’d entered con-space when code ceased to be a logic- driven language and became more like extraterrestrial poetry. They said that after they looked away, they could not replicate a single character of con-space’s code.
That was how con-space looked to an outsider. Con-space from its own perspective was, by definition, unthinkable. Still, Suz’s brain kept generating clumsy anal- ogies for the hypothetical post-upload experience. It would be like being a fish in a school of fish, the silent water flow- ing past. Or overlaid sheets of lace, like when she ate a bag of mushrooms and the world reorganized itself into patterns. Or it would be like containing a society’s worth of dick pics, every person’s internet searches and lonely nights. Their impoverished consciousnesses seeking hers, even as she became ever more dissolute, swam farther away.
These suppositions used the body as reference point, but pure consciousness was beyond sensorial reach. Its unknowability was its beauty. How can you be sure you will like it? a friend from the otaku community had asked, but liking would be as irrelevant as running or jumping once the upload was complete. She had given the only answer she could think of, that anything would be better than being trapped in a body.
Momentarily, Suz considered that her mother might see her own female parts as a similar sort of cage, but it didn’t hold up. Female was a social caprice. In a fetus, the proto-architecture of the clitoris and the penis were iden- tical. In rural Rumania, a “girl” had only to put on pants to become a “boy.” Other places, sex was about who you lived with, or what community role you played, the caregiver, warrior, or whore. All of which were a more ornate set of prisons. Her mother believed she could change her sex by subtracting the s from she, and she could. The differ- ence between Suz’s prison and Allison’s was that Allison’s was a figment made up of other figments. Allison could nudge her gender across the dividing line with a pronoun or could explode it altogether by ceasing to believe in it. That’s why Suz had never needed different pronouns. Her self wasn’t “she” or “Suzuki” any more than it had been “Bethany Ann.” That was what her makeup did: reminded herself and everyone else that the body was nothing.
Suz should have been more sympathetic. After all, corps like her mother were less evolved than cons. Allison would take the deletion of Suz’s physical self hard. She couldn’t help that; she could, however, meet Allison halfway, by using gender as analogy. She would start by saying, I know exactly what you mean.
KYRA WAS HOPPING around on the nearest dancing simulator when Suz returned from the bathroom, but Allison and Lew were still huddled together in the booth. They jolted apart when she entered. Allison’s face was all pink and very sad. Now that Suz had decided to be gentle, she could let herself feel sympathy for her poor, helpless mother.
“Sorry for being a jerk, Al.” “Sweetie,” Allison croaked.
“I guess I was more attached to our roles than I realized, Al.” She didn’t believe this, but using the new name made it easy to pretend. Besides, it was like a block of code. The lines alone were inconsequential but as a whole produced a knowable outcome: Trust. Receptivity. She was model- ing for her mother how to handle a loved one’s change.
“Honestly, Al, you’ve always”—she thought of her own years of pain—“struggled. I became used to that and I shouldn’t have. I should have wanted you to find your truth.”
Allison pressed the back of Suz’s hand into her moist face. “Oh, my Suzi.”
Despite the touch, it was nice to have, for once, relieved her mother’s anguish. It really was fine that Allison wanted to be a man. Knowing that she would soon be leaving made it easier, she discovered, to want for her family that coveted banality, happiness.
“So long as everyone’s coming out . . .” She ignored Lew’s furious head shake, not now. This was between her and her mother. “Mom, Lew, I am an unevolved conscious- ness. In two weeks I will have an affirmational procedure to upload into an evolved state.”
Allison gaped. “Are you—are you trans?”
Calmly, she repeated herself in normie-friendly terms. “Like everyone, I am pure consciousness trapped in a corpus. Unlike most people, being in a body causes me daily suffering. Fortunately, there are treatments. My doctor has done the procedure hundreds of times.”
“This is ridiculous!” said Lew, slapping the table.
She turned to her tantrumming stepfather. “Dr. Berryessa is going to transcribe my neural patterns into computer language. He will embed that code within what is called ‘consciousness space’ where it will join a grow- ing neural network of other uploaded cons.”
For a long, silent moment her parents beheld her with- out preconceptions. Their gaze, startled and open, washed over her like a bath of pure light.
“You’re making a clone of yourself?” said Allison. “Online?”
Suz counseled herself to be patient. It wasn’t her moth- er’s fault she had been born pre-internet. “Technically, there is neural cloning involved. But the clone will be the new me. It’s not as if my unevolved self will still be walk- ing around or whatever.” She swirled a hand to indicate the inexpressible absurdity of preserving the original only to keep it trapped inside the same, miserable container. If her mother could see continued embodiment from her perspective, as a form of torture, she would get over the deletion faster. At least Suz hoped so. She didn’t like to think of her mother wailing over her dead meatsuit.
But Allison refused to understand. “It won’t? Is there a long recovery period? Do you need someone to take care of you? I can drive out.”
She and Allison looked at each other. Lew might as well have been a deleted corpus, the pizza arcade, a distant, white noise.
“What does con-land feel like?” said Allison in an almost-whisper.
“It must feel like something,” said Allison desperately. “It must feel good—to be worth giving up all,” her arm flailed against the plexiglass, “this.”
Suz shook her head. “You need a body to feel.” “But what about pleasure? Kissing.”
“I don’t like kissing.”
The tears that had been threatening like bad weather since the airport dripped down Allison’s face. “Oh honey, that’s awful.”
Suz surprised herself by letting a warm, wet bead catch on her extended fingertip à la the anthropomorphic movie Alien. “Ouch. Al-liot.”
Allison smiled and was about to speak when Lew inter- rupted. “Where’s Kyra?”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” said Allison, but she too turned to the dance game around which the moth-like shapes of kids in white playsuits, either too large or small to be Kyra, flitted. Still, she must have been fine. There were surveil- lance cameras everywhere.
“Guys, she’s just playing some other game.” Lew stood. “She needs to eat first.”
Arrested by the prospect of being left alone with her mother (and the escalation of intimacy that entailed), Suz volunteered. “I can go.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Allison, her voice full of a desperation that, Suz was certain, had nothing to do with Kyra.
She waved her off with a bright, “You boys eat your pizza.”
A TEENAGER IN a walrus costume detained Suz at the entrance to the game floor. “Are-you-under-sixteen-or- the-chaperone-of-an-under-sixteen-year-old?”
“I’m checking on my sister.”
“You need a playsuit.” The walrus pointed to the health department sign: FULL BODY PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT REQUIRED BEYOND THIS POINT. Bits of multicolored fuzz and lint clung to its tusks.
Suz waved her debit card over the PPE dispenser and plucked the playsuit from the slot. She hadn’t worn one of these since high school and had forgotten how much they resembled hazmat suits made of dryer sheets.
Adult One-Size was, predictably, designed for an over- weight, extra-tall male. Surplus material hung from her in elephantine folds. In order to see where she was going, Suz had to hold the clear face window in front of her. Other- wise, it drooped uselessly. At least it provided the feeling of insulation between her and the juvenile hoards that swarmed the plastic race cars and wielded toy machine guns against VR enemies in “games” designed to acclimate them to the violent, late-stage capitalism into which they’d been born. But Kyra was not there, nor was she shooting baskets, rolling skee-balls, or whacking alligators with a padded mallet. That left only the climbing structure.
Suz couldn’t exactly blame her. The thing was a kid Arcadia, replete with nooks and hidey-holes that seemed private despite in actuality being surveilled from all angles by security cameras. Even she would have once loved to ascend to perch in one of its turrets, imagining herself the queen of all she saw. Kyra, though, a born herd animal, would be wading through one of the ball pits with the other germy kids.
It was tempting to go back to Lew and Allison and lie that Kyra had refused to quit playing. But there was the what if. What if, despite the cameras, Kyra had been lured off by a pedo? What if, at this very moment, some big boys had her cornered? Kyra might be a brat, but that didn’t mean she deserved trauma. And anyway, going back to the booth without the kid would be as good as agreeing to endure the shitshow that was sure to hit once her mother absorbed what deletion really meant. This was why she should have waited until her last day. Let Lew be her moth- er’s emotion-sponge. Wasn’t that supposed to be his job?
Far above, she spotted a familiar orange sock with purple stars—hers, gone missing on her last trip home.
“Kyra!” she shouted, but her voice was lost in the cacophony.
It was her sock and she was going to go get it.
Struggling and puffing, Suz climbed a net wall, crawled through multiple humid tunnels, wobbled over a swing- ing bridge, and arrived soaked in sweat at the entrance of the deep ball pit. In the corner where she’d seen the sock, one medium-sized hooded head bobbled.
“KYRA, GET OVER HERE!”
The head popped under the balls. God, she was spoiled. When Suz was her age, Allison’s idea of a treat was a trip to the grocery store. Suz’s childhood wasn’t “fun.” It was winters shut up in a studio apartment and filling out online worksheets while incompetent teachers fumbled with their virtual classrooms’ mute buttons. It was playgrounds she wasn’t allowed to play on and other children seen only through car windows. It was worrying about money and worrying about her mother and ticking down the days until she’d be free.
Objectively, the world had only gotten worse since then. The planet was hotter, the governments more corrupt, the people meaner. Yet, somehow Kyra remained a happy innocent who now clambered underneath these disgust- ing balls as if her dumpy body were a glorious machine that would never let her down. One thing was for sure, she wasn’t getting out to go eat unless someone made her.
Cursing silently, Suz squatted on the platform. Filled as it was, it was impossible to gauge the ball pit’s depth, though logic said it couldn’t be more than four feet. Nonetheless, her body tensed as it always had over water. What the mind knew made no difference to the dumb animal of the flesh.
It all happened fast. From the far end of the ball pit, a big kid took a flying leap at the same moment Kyra’s head burst up. There was a muffled squeal as they collided, cut off as they both went down.
“Fuck,” said Suz and jumped-fell through balls to the trampoline-taut bottom. Balls spilled over and around her in a chaos of primary colors as she groped forward, toward her sister whose neck might be broken. Kyra was so stupid. So careless.
Ahead of her, balls simmered with movement. She reached in and was thanked with an explosion of pain as a flailing limb connected with her nose. A reflex, she grabbed the nearest limb and wrenched upward. Kyra shrieked as they broke the surface, jerking away.
“Mo-om!” cried the little boy who wasn’t Kyra.
The bigger kid surfaced, whirled to face her. “What did you do to my brother?”
Through the playsuit hood and her smashed N99, Suz clutched at her nose. Hot phlegm was trickling down the back of her throat. Had Kyra ever even been there? “Sorry,” she tried to say, but couldn’t get enough air. Someone slammed into her from behind and knocked her to her knees. Balls all around. She couldn’t breathe. It was a panic attack. Or she was drowning. In desperation, she tore the fabric away from her face and jerked the mask away. In the bright, blinking light, she coughed out the fluid that was drowning her.
Confused, she blinked at the red makeup smeared over her hands.
“Blood! Blood!” cried a kid.
Suz touched her wounded nose. It was blood. And she had no mask.
“She’s uncovered!” shrieked someone else. “Run!”
Beep beep beep, shrieked an alarm. Yellow lights flashed. Biohazard warning. Children scrambled from the ball pit, but Suz didn’t move. Distantly, she was aware of them streaming from the nets and tunnels like ants from a flooded nest. She should leave too, she knew that, but she also knew they’d be gathering down below, the children and their parents, as she had so many times, to see which idiot had broken the rules. Waiting for the mask- less sneezer to be ticketed or the careless custodian to be scolded for failure to properly sanitize. They would stare as, bleeding freely, she dragged herself across the bridge, through the tunnels, and, somehow, down the net to be escorted out of the building. Possibly arrested.
Unless she stayed here.
Not bothering to staunch her bloody nose, Suz sank once more into the enveloping cushion of the balls. They reminded her of her own childhood, something irrevocably over.
“We know you’re in there,” said a voice over the PA. “Please come out or we will send someone in to retrieve you.”
It was not her body or their body. It was no one’s. Let them drag her out. In two weeks, none of this would matter. She thought again of Hieronymus Bosch. People said his work was surreal, but he merely painted life flayed of its skin. Amid the grotesque were intricate terrors and truths that anyone who was alive and paying attention would recognize. “Christ in Limbo,” not a true Bosch, was her favorite. She liked to think about the anonymous painter, credited in her college textbook as Follower of Bosch, matching his hand to the shapes of his master’s until not only was his own style erased but also his name.
In the end, all that remained was the painting.
From Pretend It’s My Body. Reprinted with permission from Feminist Press.