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Ladykillers

by: Claire Burgess

Audrey couldn’t stop thinking about her daughter naked. She’d gone to the grocery store because she found it therapeutic: the achievement in finding the perfect peach, the authoritative control of what goes into the cart, the simplicity of the grocery lists, the chemistry of cooking. She enjoyed pushing her cart slowly through the aisles, squeezing the fresh fruits, perusing the meat cuts, the daily specials, all that sustenance stacked neatly onto shelves. It was better than normal shopping, because this was shopping to keep yourself alive. But as she took an apple into her hand to search for flaws, pressing her fingers lightly into its flesh to find soft spots, there it was again, in her mind—her daughter’s breasts.

It was because of the phone call that morning from Kate, who she had roomed with in college so many years ago and who had been one of her bridesmaids and who she did a bad job of staying in touch with other than through Christmas cards, but who had called her anyway, seemingly out of the blue to tell her something Audrey would rather not have known and was trying very hard to not think about, which is why she had gone to the grocery store—but it hadn’t worked. She was still creating different bodies for her daughter in her mind, proportions based on her daughter’s body in clothes, but everything else imagined. There had been mention of a tattoo, and Audrey moved it around her daughter’s skin like a stamp in her mind—back, hip, shoulder—somewhere Audrey couldn’t have seen it at Christmas.

Kate had asked her if she was okay right off the bat, immediately after saying hello. Audrey was sick of being asked this, was sick of people reminding her that she was sick, or used to be, or might be again. As if she could forget. I’m doing horribly, she wanted to say. I’m lonely; I’m tired; I’m angry. My own body tried to kill me. And how are you? Instead, she said she was fine, getting better every day! And then Kate told her the thing about her daughter.

“Listen,” she said, “I hate to tell you this, but I think it’s something you would like to know.”

It wasn’t. She really would have liked never to know, to spend her whole life not knowing.

Something she’d like to know? What a stupid thing to say about bad news.

Kate had a 19-year-old son who was still living with her, and she had “walked in on him while he was on the internet.” And guess who was on the screen? Audrey really, really would have liked not to know.

Audrey found three good apples—Galas, her husband’s favorite—and turned to the grocery cart parked beside her. The large, grimy silver hull of it seemed to her at that moment like the dry cup of a womb, empty but for the narrow shapes of the cucumbers and ears of corn and bananas resting in their loose produce bags in the upper, fold-out part of the buggy, which is where she always puts her produce, and which is where she used to place her daughter, Maggie, when she was small. She would kick her pudgy legs out the leg-holes, occasionally making contact with Audrey’s stomach, and Audrey would play along and make an “oomph” sound and double over. Maggie would laugh and laugh, high and gleeful.

Suddenly, Audrey was incredibly conscious of the empty space on the left side of her chest. She could feel the subtle unbalance of weight, the slight tilt of her shoulders to compensate. She remembered her mother scolding her in high school for wearing her book bag slung over one shoulder. It’ll make your spine crooked! Audrey wondered if that would happen to her now, if her spine would curve away from that empty space as plants will grow away from bad soil. Except she was compensating for missing weight instead of added, and she was too old for her spine to grow crooked, anyway, except one day with the gradual stoop of old age. But still she forced her back straight, leveled her shoulders, and resisted the urge to look down. She knew what she would see, after all. The same thing she’d seen the last thousand times she’d checked: the brown tips of her boots below the cuffs of her jeans, the surprisingly flat plane of her stomach, and above that, the pleasant, round, and full swell of her sweater where it pulled taut over her breasts. Breast. Breasts.

If one of them was a silicone insert in a special pocket of a tailor-made mastectomy bra, could she still use the plural? Audrey hadn’t yet gotten up the nerve to go to the website. Kate had given her the name and had assured her that it’s not as bad as it could be; it’s really just pictures, rather artful sometimes, actually. Porn’s such an ugly word, Kate had said. Porn. This wasn’t really porn. More like subversive art. Kate had said “subversive art” like she was reading it off a cue card, and Audrey got the feeling that she was probably repeating exactly what her son had told her in his defense. It was a nice gesture. Softening the blow.

Audrey moved on to the zucchinis. She never chose the ones in the front or on top of the pile, because that’s where the grocery people put the oldest produce to get it sold before it goes bad. The fresh stuff is always at the back or the bottom. As she dug through the pile, trying to focus only on zucchini, the cold air goosebumped her arms and she felt her nipples harden. Both of them. This happened sometimes. Like phantom limb syndrome, but with breasts. Phantom breast syndrome. What an appropriate name. Her breast was a phantom, a ghost, haunting the space just over her heart.

She went for a promising-looking zucchini from the bottom of the pile very carefully, like playing Jenga, and was pleased when the pile remained intact. She smirked at the zucchini pile as if she had won some victory, but as she turned to the vegetable cupped in her palm, still smirking, she was struck with an odd sense of recognition, a kind of tactile déjà vu, and reflexively looked over her shoulder to see if anyone was staring at her, if anyone had read her thoughts. Because Audrey was abruptly and horribly aware of the shape of that zucchini in her hand, the way her palm and fingers wrapped around it. A pang reverberated deep in her abdomen, like a shock wave after something large is dropped.

Audrey moved to put the zucchini back with the others, which now seemed to hold the arrangement and threat of stacked dynamite, and then realized how incredibly silly she was being. It’s just a zucchini, a type of squash with a funny name. Zucchini. Squash. Zucchini squash. If you say it enough time, it loses all meaning. And this is just happening because she has sex on the brain, because of Kate and her damn son. And Maggie.

Audrey shook her head at herself, pulled a plastic bag from the wheel with a snap, and slipped the zucchini into it, adding a second zucchini just to prove she wasn’t rattled by their shape, what that shape reminded her of, what one could do with that shape. She dropped the bag in the cart as nonchalantly as she could. When her daughter was small, small enough to fit in that cart, Audrey would hold things in front of her and say their names. Maggie liked the funny ones best. Zucchini squash, ha-ha.

Maggie was now 21 and attending a university 500 miles away. Audrey hadn’t seen her since the operation. She had missed a week of class to come visit and would have stayed longer, but Audrey had made her go back to school. It was her senior year, after all, but really Audrey wanted to be left alone. Like over Christmas, when she had found out two weeks before about the tumor in her left breast, a small, hard lump, almost too small to feel. When she kneaded it with her fingertips, it reminded her of gristle, something you’d spit into a napkin. All Christmas, she sneaked away to slide her hand under her shirt in bathrooms and bedrooms and closets, to caress her breast for that alien lump, convinced either that it was growing bigger or that she’d cup her hand around her breast and find the lump gone, disappeared, a Christmas miracle.

She needed to remind Maggie to do her monthly breast exams. She wondered what strangers were examining Maggie’s breasts on the internet. She pushed the cart resolutely forward, trying to ignore the misaligned wheel that pulled persistently to the right, toward the misting wall of vegetables, as if some unseen force was tugging her toward them.

She stopped and pulled the crumpled grocery list from her pocket. What did she have left? Cantaloupe. Hamburger meat. Milk. Pretzels. French bread. Spaghetti sauce. Cantaloupe, that’s another one. Cantaloupe, ha-ha. She lifted one, knocked on it like her mother taught her. A hollow sound meant they were ripe. Or was it unripe? Knock-knock.

The hollow space on her left side felt vast, the vast negative space of a black hole, pulling all the light and matter of Audrey into it with the gravity of its emptiness. She was imploding, gradually collapsing inward into that aching void, and it wouldn’t stop until she was swallowed completely, until she disappeared with a pop like opening the lid on a vacuum-sealed jar, which would be the sound of air rushing to fill the space where Audrey once was, where her breast once was, but isn’t anymore.

Once, Maggie was inside of her, but isn’t anymore.

Everyone always says Maggie looks just like her mother. She had Audrey’s unnaturally red lips, her static-y white-blond hair, her brown eyes so dark they were nearly black, her thin, thin skin that dried out too easily and through which you could see shallow veins on her wrists and face. Maggie had acquired nothing of her father’s that Audrey could tell, except his height, and this had always secretly pleased her, even though she loves her husband. Maggie was all hers, only hers. A cell had budded from her uterine wall and divided, divided, divided. Multiplied into an exact copy of Audrey through a miraculous case of asexual reproduction, an immaculate conception of her own will. Her husband had nothing to do with it.

Her husband’s name was Greg, and they hadn’t had sex since Audrey lost her breast.

Audrey hefted a hollow cantaloupe into her cart and pushed forward.

Audrey had just put the water on to boil when Greg came home. She could hear his car in the driveway and the slam of his car door, his keys jangle and slide into the lock, and then the turn of the knob and the clack of his shiny black office shoes as he walked into the hallway, paused to listen for her, and then made his way quickly through the front hall and past the kitchen to the master bedroom.

There was a time when he would call out her name the minute he was through the door, when he would greet her by sliding his arms around her waist and kissing her cheek, every day. But not anymore. She had not yet decided if she would tell Greg the thing about Maggie. She had not yet decided if she believed it.

Twenty-one and a half years ago, when the doctor had spread the cold jelly on Audrey’s distended stomach and rotated the ultrasound slowly, squinting at the grainy black-and-white picture on the screen which Audrey thought looked more like TV static than a sonar image of the life growing inside her, and had offered to tell them the sex of their child, Audrey had declined.

There was a time in her life when she liked surprises.

She had the mastectomy three months ago. One fourth of a year, one trimester of pregnancy. If her lack of breast was a fetus, it would have fingernails now. Soon, she would be able to tell if it was a boy or a girl, with a small margin of error. This time, she would say yes.

Tell me. Yes. Audrey no longer enjoyed surprises.

Audrey listened to Greg’s footsteps clack past the kitchen door and knew exactly how her evening would play out. Greg would go straight to his closet in the bedroom, where he would carefully take off his shiny black shoes, slide their cedar-scented shoehorns into place, and set them in the line of other shoehorned pairs. He would hang up his tailored suit and starched shirt and replace them with an old pair of jeans and one of a collection of ancient frat T-shirts from college.

Then he would pad down the hall in his sock feet and stick his head in the kitchen door to ask what’s for dinner before disappearing into his basement TV room to watch re-runs of courtroom or medical dramas, which you can find on some channel or another at virtually any time of day. When dinner was ready, Audrey would call, “Dinner’s ready,” down the stairs, but not actually walk down the stairs, and Greg would emerge the next commercial break. Once, before the shoehorns and the suits and the reruns, Greg had been an artist.

“What’s for dinner?” Greg asked.

“Spaghetti,” Audrey said without turning around. She hadn’t had the nerve to cook the vegetables.

They were shut into the crisper as soon as Audrey got home, where she hoped she would forget about them. No luck yet.

“Garlic bread?” Greg asked.

Audrey’s shoulders tensed. She had forgotten the bread.

“Uh, no,” she said. “They were out of bread! Isn’t that the strangest?” Audrey grabbed a wooden spoon and started stirring the pot of water with nothing in it so she wouldn’t have to turn around and look Greg in the face. “But, you know, I think I have some of those frozen rolls and I could—”

“They were out of bread?”

“Yes! Well, no. Out of the bread I use for garlic bread, I mean. You don’t want garlic bread with honey oat or three seed or, or, cinnamon raisin, do you? Ha!”

Audrey stirred faster and watched the bubbles bead on the bottom of the pot. Miniscule grains of air, waiting to rise.

“Well, darn,” said Greg.

Darn. Darn. Audrey wished he would just cuss, say damn. They had gotten used to not cursing over the years, setting a good example for Maggie. But now Maggie was gone, grown, posing naked on the internet. Just say it—damn!

“I do love your garlic bread,” Greg continued. “It really makes the spaghetti.” He said this in a tone that feigned compliment but underneath suggested that Audrey could have changed the store’s inventory if she’d just tried.

“I’m sorry, honey! If you want to run to the store—”

“But they’re out.”

“The other store.”

The bubbles broke free and rose to the surface. Greg was silent on the other side of the room. Audrey hoped he couldn’t see inside the pot, see there’s nothing in it but water. She stirred.

“No, that’s okay. The rolls are fine. Let me know when it’s ready,” Greg said, and turned for the basement.

Audrey listened to his footsteps recede down the stairs and watched the bubbles rise faster, and larger, and faster, until the surface of the water was roiling, and still she watched until a drop leaped over the rim to land, burning, on her left wrist. She flinched and dropped the spoon to wipe it away, but there was already a welt there, red and slightly raised. She lifted her wrist to her mouth and sucked on it gently, running her tongue over it until the burning eased to an itch.

Then she turned down the heat, grabbed a handful of spaghetti, held it over the now simmering water, and cracked it in her fist before letting it drop.

Audrey didn’t tell Greg the thing about Maggie. They had dinner, watched some TV, and went to bed. How could she broach the subject of their daughter’s incredibly public sexuality when she couldn’t even talk to him about their own sex life—or lack thereof? And anyway, she didn’t even know if it was true. Secretly, she had decided it wasn’t. Secretly, she knew it was.

She wanted to cry, to go to the website, to call Maggie and scream at her like she had when she first discovered that Maggie was having sex—in their backyard pool, to be exact. Maggie had left her wet pool towel on the hardwood floor of her bedroom, so Audrey had, of course, picked it up, as any mother would, always cleaning up after everybody. The condom had tumbled out and onto the floor with a wet slap. Audrey could still smell it, the sting of chlorine mixed with the sweetish odor of ejaculate.

But Audrey was no prude. In fact, she had previously thought of herself as sexually enlightened. She was a teenager in the ‘70s, for Christ’s sake! She had her first boyfriend at 16 and had sex for the first time at 17, just a year older than Maggie had (but which she realized as an adult was far too young). Seven men had come before Greg, who made eight, and she and Greg had lived in sin for a year before marriage, to her mother’s horror. Audrey had been skinny dipping with boys, had sex outdoors and in cars, had gone to a Grateful Dead concert and done ‘shrooms, even had two one-night stands with virtual strangers.

Audrey hadn’t given it too much thought, but she (formerly) held the loose conviction that if people liked to look at porn, then they had every right to look at porn. She had actually gone to a strip club once with a bachelorette party and had felt alternately thrilled, embarrassed, and anatomically curious when one of the strippers spread her legs a foot from her face.

And once upon a time, Audrey had been Greg’s muse. She would take off her clothes and pose for him while he was in art school so he could study the human form. He did sketches of her full-length and close up, capturing the curve of her back, the line of her leg, the angles of her jaw and neck and clavicle. The shadowed V where her thighs met. The hang of her breasts.

And now, at age 48, where was that person? Might she be there still, buried under the hardened ash of decades? Could Audrey chip away at herself and find her, a gleaming fossil of bones, perfectly preserved? No, no. More likely that girl was lost, gradually sloughed away with so many years of dead skin and hair funneled down so many different shower drains. Now she was a wife, a mother. It seemed her life could be quantified, added up to a sum—she used to be even, but now she was odd. One husband plus one daughter plus one breast equals three.

The next day, since the grocery store hadn’t worked, Audrey went to the mall to avoid thoughts of her daughter. She was supposed to be picking out new drapes to match the new couch she and Greg had ordered for the living room, but she couldn’t concentrate on the fabric swatches, couldn’t picture the exact color of the rug, the exact color of the couch on order. She should have taken pictures. So instead, she looked at clothes that she would not try on for fear of seeing herself in the unforgiving dressing room mirrors, had two egg rolls from the Chinese place in the food court, and then perused the bookstore for a couple of hours, not buying anything. And the whole time, in the back of her mind, her daughter was taking off her clothes.

Audrey lasted till almost 4:00, and then she drove home and turned on the computer. She had at least an hour, maybe two, before Greg got home. She’d be late putting on dinner, but then again, she didn’t feel like cooking anyway. The computer was in the basement, Greg’s basement, so she didn’t use it very often. She always felt as if she was trespassing when she entered his domain. After Maggie moved to college, Greg had taken it over and started jokingly referring to it as his “man cave,” which Audrey had always thought sounded Freudian, like a euphemism for a male uterus.

As the computer booted up, Audrey felt her heart beating faster than normal, pounding on the inside of her ribs beneath her missing breast. Audrey dashed upstairs to check the driveway for Greg’s car, which wasn’t there, and then poured herself a very large glass of red wine and took the bottle with her to the man cave. By the time she gathered the nerve to actually type in the site’s address, she was on her second glass.

The site was done in pink, black, and white, with “Lady Killers” scrawled across the top in the kind of font used in I Heart Mother tattoos. To the left was a photo of a pale girl with long, fire-engine-red hair and a nasal ring like a bull’s. She was cupping her breasts in her hands and letting the pink of one nipple show coyly through her fingers. Her name was apparently Poppy from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and she was today’s featured Killer. To the right of Poppy was a sort of mission statement, along with quotes from the LA Times, Rolling Stone, and Wired Magazine.

“Lady Killers is a community that celebrates alternative beauty and culture from across the globe. We’re here to celebrate ourselves, our individuality, our lifestyles, and our bodies, and we’re redefining beauty, every day,” said the mission statement.

Alternative pin-ups for the modern age . . . Fierce, in-your-face, and f*cking sexy,” said Rolling Stone.

Girls just like the one you always wanted to talk to in college but were too scared—because she was so hot, and because of that skull-and-crossbones tattoo on her neck,” said Wired.

Today’s real girls next door,” said the LA Times.

Oh great, it’s getting press coverage, Audrey thought.

Audrey clicked on the tab that said “Meet the Killers,” and was brought to a page saying it was members-only and asking for Audrey’s full name, age, email address, zip code, and 30 dollars for a six-month membership, none of which she was prepared to give.

There was, however, a free 200-photo preview.

Once, when Audrey was in junior high, a man had flashed her in the public library. The surprise and fear of it had hit her like a wave a nausea, the suddenness of that worm of flesh unexpectedly exposed. That’s how she felt when she clicked on the preview button and was assaulted with a black-haired, blue-eyed girl crawling towards her on a floor with her bare breasts hanging downwards like drops of water from a ceiling just before they detach. And the same again at the next picture of a girl peering flirtatiously over her shoulder with no pants on, her bare bottom seeming even more naked between her white tank top and cowboy boots.

Maybe a boy forced her to do it, Audrey was thinking as she made herself click onwards. Yes, she was suckered into it by a boy who told her it would be sexy. Or maybe she did it for money, but Audrey and Greg give her all the money she needs. Maybe she’s on drugs! Oh my lord, some boy got her hooked on drugs and now she’s doing this to support her habit, trading her body for chemicals to put in her body. She wanted to drive to Maggie’s university and burst into her dorm room and take her in her arms and tell her everything will be okay, she will take care of her, she doesn’t need to do these things, they’ll get her better.

Instead, Audrey kept clicking.

Girl with safety pins through her nipples, girl with a tattoo of an anatomically correct heart on her breastbone, girl lounging in a window seat quietly reading a book, naked.

This isn’t art, Audrey was thinking. This isn’t a celebration of the body. Or maybe it is, but it’s also porn. Audrey knows what Kate’s son was doing with these pictures of Maggie, though Kate skirted around it. Men all over the country—maybe the world!—are doing the same thing in their computer chairs, tugging at themselves while they stare at Audrey’s daughter.

When Greg was still hanging on to the idea of being an artist, he had taken her to a friend’s exhibition. The friend had done an “installation” of furniture arranged into domestic scenes for every room in a house. Audrey had said the person should be called an interior designer, not an artist. Greg had said that first of all, many people would say interior design is a type of art, like architecture, and second, art is anything that evokes a feeling in the viewer. Audrey thought that was bullshit. “Bad seafood can evoke a feeling,” she said. “You know what I mean,” Greg replied.

Could aroused count as a feeling? Because that’s the only way this was art.

Audrey kept clicking.

Forty-five minutes later, Audrey heard the groan of the garage door opening. She jumped as if she had been caught, well, looking at porn, frantically closed the browser, and dashed upstairs. Greg’s key jangled in the lock, and then Audrey was in the hall bathroom, locking the door behind her and leaning her back against it with the light off, panting. Greg’s shoes clacked down the hall towards her, echoing unbearably loud in the small room. Audrey held her breath as he passed, afraid of making the smallest noise, but that only made her lungs spasm for air, made her throat clench, made her choke.

When Greg’s footsteps disappeared onto the carpet in their bedroom, Audrey leaned with both hands on the cool porcelain sink and let herself gasp for air. She could hear the blood rushing in her ears, feel her heart pounding beneath her un-breast. Her skin was clammy with sweat, and there was a familiar but nearly forgotten feeling between her thighs, wet with more than sweat.

There were no windows in the dark bathroom, and for a long moment Audrey couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed. She could feel the mirror over the sink, watching her like a huge glassy eye, and she was convinced that if she turned on the light she would see someone else there where she was supposed to be reflected, a stranger standing in her skin. The hair stood up on her arms, her scalp shrunk around her skull, her ghost breast prickled. It was a feeling like doom and also like anticipation.

At Maggie’s sleepover party for her seventh birthday, she and her friends had locked themselves in this very bathroom one at a time and played Bloody Mary, the game where you shut yourself in a bathroom, turn of the lights, and spin around three times saying “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.” When you open your eyes you’re supposed to see her, Bloody Mary, staring back at you in the mirror, all horrifying and dripping and glorious with gore. Maggie had scared herself so bad that she came out crying and ran to Audrey, who was making them popcorn in the kitchen. Audrey had held her and stroked her hair, telling her it wasn’t real, she only saw herself, just herself. It only took Maggie sixty seconds to pull it together, and then she asked when the popcorn would be done and walked back into the den with her chin up and shoulders thrown back.

Audrey reached one hand toward the light switch, stared into the dark where her face should be, and flipped it on.

The face in the mirror was awash with blood under the skin, blazing her cheeks a gruesome red. Her eyes were wide and dark and glittering, her lips purple and parted. For a long moment, Audrey stared at the woman in the mirror, and then she slipped her hand beneath her shirt, touched the cold and nerveless ridge of her scar, watched the woman in the mirror do the same.

No, it was somehow still Audrey. Still Audrey. Still her.

After Audrey slowed her breath and cooled her face and scrubbed the wine stain from her lips with a wet hand towel, she emerged to face Greg’s questions about the conspicuous absence of dinner. She had been shopping all day for new curtains to go with the new couch in the living room, she said, and she had just arrived right before him. She was so exhausted, she said, could they go out for dinner? Audrey surprised herself by walking up to her husband and running her hand behind his neck as she said this, and he surprised her by consenting. Audrey changed into a white wrap dress with a blue floral pattern and a pair of matching high-heeled peep-toe shoes that made her feel like a sexy ’50s housewife. She even took off her reasonable nude-colored mastectomy bra and replaced it with one made of white lace. It was sexy and gave her right breast just the right amount of lift, and if you weren’t standing too close, you couldn’t even tell the flesh-color peeking through the lace on the left side was synthetic.

Before she put on the dress, Audrey stood for a moment in her underwear and looked at herself in the mirror, and then slipped on the heels to complete the picture. She looked at her pale legs and flat stomach that had been slimmed by the nausea and vomiting of chemo, the soft shadows cast by her hip bones and clavicle and bottom few ribs. “Just look how thin you are!” Maggie had said in the hospital. “And you didn’t even lose your hair! I wonder if Hollywood has discovered this yet.” Maggie had brought a tape measure and they had ordered Audrey new clothes out of catalogs to make her feel better. Sure, Audrey was thinner now, she could even wear the old pair of Levi’s she had saved from college with some room to spare, but it wasn’t the same. Instead of regaining her college figure, she had lost something, something other than her breast. There was a looseness to her skin now, a wan look like something vital had vacated her flesh, like there was no longer enough of her left to fill her skin.

She thought of the girls on the website, the firm skin of their bodies unblemished but for their tattoos, which somehow served to highlight the perfection of the rest of it. She thought of their breasts, some so small as to be androgynous, some so full she wanted to heft one in her hand to feel the weight of it. She thought of the flare of their hips, the fragile caps of their shoulders, the pinks and browns of their nipples, the graceful arches of their backs. She thought of their thighs and the place between their thighs, which they never fully showed, the site was classier than that. She thought of their faces, so brazen and fierce and luminous like saints on fire.

Greg let Audrey choose the restaurant, so they went to the little French hole-in-the-wall near their first apartment where they used to eat almost once a week in their twenties. Outside on the sidewalk there were white-clothed tables under an awning hung with multi-colored lanterns and Christmas lights. Inside it was dark and close, with irregular chairs and tables chosen from junkyards and garage sales and the sides of roads. There were tasseled pillows and curtains of dusty green velvet, cracking oil portraits of bleary-eyed strangers in heavy frames, knick-knacks like paste jewelry boxes and porcelain animals and faded silk flowers in wine bottles, lamps of red and green glass that hung from the ceiling and illuminated fallen moth bodies in silhouette. Audrey and Greg had come here often when they first started dating, when Audrey wore thin Bohemian dresses with no bra and Greg’s fingers were always tipped with crescents of paint under the nails. Greg had said it reminded him of a Van Gogh fever dream, and Audrey said he should paint it, and he said, “Yes, I should,” but never did.

Now, as they sat across from each other on the sidewalk, their bodies occupying the same space they had so many times before in so many years before, it seemed to Audrey that their lives were all about places, coming to places and leaving them, and coming to them again as different people, changed. The colored lanterns cast their faces in reds and oranges, washed their cheeks with color, color almost like the blush of youth. They shared an eggplant pizza, eating it with their hands and licking their fingers. As they walked back to the car, Audrey tripped on her flirty heels and Greg caught her arm. In the car, they kissed, and he tasted like spicy marinara sauce and merlot.

At home, Audrey led her husband to the bedroom by one hand while he unbuttoned his shirt with the other. She sat him on the bed, untied her dress, and let it slide down her body to the floor, still in her heels. He ran a finger lightly down the hollow by her hip bone and then pulled her toward him with both hands so he could repeat the action with his tongue. Then she was on her back, then they were kissing, their tongues thick with wine, then Greg was kicking off his pants awkwardly and they were laughing, then Greg’s mouth was on hers again and neither of them was laughing anymore. Audrey felt her skin fill, blood rushing to plump out the deepening wrinkles, flood the gaps where things were lost, where Audrey had receded and her skin remained the same. Greg kissed her neck, skimmed her shoulder with his teeth.

Lights bloomed on the backs of Audrey’s closed eyelids like the lanterns in the restaurant bursting into flame, and she felt as if her whole body was pulsing with those lights, her very bones bright and burning like tubes of neon. It had been so long, so long, and every touch was like a sleeping limb waking, pins and needles, all of her buzzing with the ecstatic pain of feeling. Greg’s hands were on her breasts, pulling away the white lace so his mouth could get to her nipples. Audrey gasped, arched her back in anticipation, and then he stopped.

Her skin was suddenly cold where his hands and mouth had been. The lights died on her eyelids, and when she opened them, Greg was sitting up beside her with his head in his hands. He had momentarily forgotten about her breast, Audrey knew, cause so had she. He had pulled down her bra expecting it to be there and it wasn’t. Instead, he was face-to-face with the scar, pinkish and puckered like a gnarled kiss. Her skin felt loose and empty on her bones.

“I’m sorry,” Greg said, turning his body back to hers. “It caught me of -guard.”

He placed one hand deliberately over her remaining breast and left it there, heavy, unmoving, and it felt like a hand on her throat.

Audrey pulled away and turned out the light.

In the morning, Audrey faked sleep while Greg showered and got ready for work. The steam brought the scent of him, of his wet skin and soap, to Audrey in the bed, and it was all she could do to not get up and slip off her nightgown and step into the heat of the shower with him. But there would be her scar, lobster-red and glistening under the hot water. She rolled over and closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep and failed.

As soon as she heard the garage door close, Audrey rose and walked into the bathroom, the Greg-smelling steam curling the baby hairs on her neck. She brushed her teeth and splashed cold water on her cheeks and then stared at herself in the mirror. The fabric on her cotton nightgown hung deflated over her left breast, as limp as it would on the hanger.

Audrey walked straight down to the computer, not even pausing to pour herself a cup of the coffee that Greg made for her in a passive attempt at apology. Yesterday, she had been on photo 133, a platinum blonde named Diesel wearing only work boots and a neon orange construction vest, when she had heard the garage door and panicked. There were still 67 to go, and she hadn’t seen Maggie yet.

This time, she didn’t hesitate. She typed in the address without pause and clicked rapidly through the first 133 photos, her face inches from the screen. Girls flashed in front of her in mad, quick, vibrant succession, like film loose on a projector, too close to the light, catching aflame. There were girls with tattoos covering their whole arms and girls with none at all, girls with eyebrow rings and lip rings and tongue rings, girls with mohawks and girls with pin curls. There was a Japanese girl with pink hair, a lollypop, and a Hello Kitty tattoo; an albino girl with no tattoos at all, just her pink-rimmed eyes and pale hair and translucent skin whiter than paper; a chubby girl with bedroom eyes and heavy breasts and nipples the size of saucers; a waif-thin girl in combat boots and men’s boxer-briefs with ink sparrows perching on her hipbones. Two girls in black latex sprayed each other with hoses in a warehouse. A barefoot girl in a sundress hung upside-down from a jungle gym, the skirt falling above her panty-less waist. A bronzed girl in blue jean cut-offs and a white tank top you could see her nipples through ate watermelon on a picnic blanket, the juice dripping down her chin. Breasts, hips, hands, thighs, breasts. Flesh eyes tongues teeth flesh flesh flesh. And then there she was, so suddenly Audrey almost clicked past her, number 187:

Maggie.

There were no props, no gimmicks, just Maggie in a bare white room, pale shoulders straight to camera, the bottom of the frame ending right beneath her breasts. Audrey noticed things in pieces, the whole of it too much to take in at once. The brilliant red of her lips, the blush-pink of her nipples, the blue edge of a tattoo peeking from beneath one arm, the black of her pupils like holes straight into her head, holes straight through the photo and into Audrey. Her face was defiant, exultant, fearless. But what struck Audrey most was not the tattoo, not her daughter’s face, not the bare and whole pair of breasts. It was the way the large, arched window behind her let the bright flare of daylight into the room, burning her away at the edges, blazing her pale hair in a nimbus of white fire. Audrey thought of spontaneous combustion, of blinding angels, of staring into the sun.

Audrey remembered her daughter, newborn and pink like a soft dollop of flesh barely formed, remembered her adolescent with swinging arms and legs like awkward strangers. She remembered her own body in the mirrors of her youth, its firm tight flesh, both breasts still full and healthy, and how she would always find things to hate about it, how all women did, not knowing how wonderful, how perfect their bodies were, and how easily that would be gone. Her eyes touched every inch of her daughter’s bare skin, so much like her own once was, and she felt every emotion in her sharpen and purify, separate like light through the prism of her daughter, the colors fractured and thrown on a wall: fear, awe, loss, hope. She stared into the flare of her daughter’s white body until it seemed no longer flesh, until it was a bright daughter-shaped burn on her retinas that she knew would remain even when she closed her eyes. Seething, glowing. Painful and beautiful.

That afternoon, Audrey went to the grocery store to purchase the things she forgot two days before. She took the zucchini squash (ha-ha) from the fridge and washed it, chopped it, and sautéed it with some portabellas in marsala wine sauce. She thought about calling Maggie, but she didn’t know what she would say. Part of her wanted to ask Maggie about the website, to scold her, to remind her of the professional career and family she will eventually have and how this would ruin it all, and part of her didn’t. If she mentioned it, Maggie would get defensive. The distance between them would grow, and Maggie wouldn’t stop, she knew, just because her mother told her to. In fact, usually when Audrey told her not to do something, she was even more likely to do it.

Audrey thought about her daughter, this person made of the materials of her own body, thought about how amazing and terrifying it was that she had begun as a nauseated flutter in Audrey’s stomach and now she was walking around on legs separate from Audrey’s, a completely separate person, a person Audrey had never expected. She would not call her, at least not today, and she would not tell Greg. She would keep Maggie’s secret inside of her, make it her own.

When Greg came home and asked what was for dinner, Audrey had an answer: “Chicken marsala and garlic bread.”

“That’s my favorite,” said Greg.

“I know,” said Audrey.

Later, they walked down the hallway lined with Greg’s paintings like windows to the past, not looking at them, not seeing them. In the bedroom, they grabbed at each other like things they had lost and not quite found. Their bodies pressed like they were trying to rub away skin. But this time neither one forgot the absence of Audrey’s breast. When they removed each other’s clothes, Greg didn’t touch her bra, barely touched her breast at all. The scar stayed under the silicone pouch, hidden, untouched, aching, and when Greg removed her panties, he turned her over and entered her from behind. But Audrey allowed him this, because she could feel something stirring deep in the cup of her hips, a place she thought long empty, waking and stretching slowly like something long asleep, and when he thrust into her she felt it burst awake and lurch through her whole body and then away before coming back to her, a feeling like falling, falling, falling, and surviving.