There Are Only Two Chairs, and the Skin is Draped Over the Other
by Alexia Antoniou
Behind Catherine’s house is a stream that smells like hard-boiled eggs.
There is also a white iron table so orange with rust it looks like someone had a pizza party on it without any plates, and two white iron chairs to go with the table, and a netless soccer goal.
But the stream is what is important and what is interesting about Catherine’s backyard.
The stream brings us presents. Sprite bottles – the glass kind – and magazines with all the pages wet and stuck together, ink so blurry you can hardly tell what’s a boob and what’s an elbow (Catherine lets me take these home, where I spend a lot of time trying to Find a Nipple.) There is one very exciting time when the stream brings us a toy boat, the kind a little kid would take to the beach, and at the bottom of the boat is a key on a hard plastic keyring with a picture of a pig on it winking and saying HOGWILD.
But for the most part, the presents the stream brings us are objectively trash.
Catherine and I do not mind. We’ve been interested in the stream for a long time now, since at least the third grade.
It’s the summer before eighth now. We hang out back there and pretend that we are very lost, that we have to follow the water back to Civilization. Catherine likes to lick her lips behind me and I like to pretend I don’t see her lifting a heavy wet tree branch so she can knock me out and eat my butt meat for survival.
We hang out back there and pretend that Catherine is a water nymph who has seduced and drowned my husband, just for fun, and I like to scream and pummel her chest with my fists until we tumble into the water, which is shallow and weirdly warm.
Something about the stream makes our hair dry hard and stinky. Catherine’s mom breaks three teeth off a plastic pink comb one night trying to help us brush it out. We give up and eat pizza bagels in front of the TV with the comb still dangling from Catherine’s hair. My mom has asked Catherine’s mom many, many times to not let me play back there, but Catherine’s mom does not seem to know how to stop us. She does, however, make us put a towel across our pillows to protect the pillowcases while we sleep.
One day, while we are pretending that the stream behind Catherine’s house is a Holy Stream and that Catherine is my mother, dragging my small and awful body by the armpits to be healed, the stream brings us a new kind of present.
Catherine sees it first, of course.
“Oh, gross,” she says, and drops me, which I do not like.
I roll onto my stomach and grab for her ankle, but then I see the thing that she sees in the stream and I let her shake me off.
It is … confusing in a bad way to look at.
Half of it is in the water and half of it is out, pooling and folding over itself on the mud-and-gravel shore at Catherine’s feet. It is very, very smooth, the color of chewed gum – and, as Catherine said, immediately gross. I want it not to be here. But since it is here … I want Catherine to touch it. Which she does, holding it dripping from the water like the worst laundry.
“It’s heavy,” she says, “really heavy.”
And even though I know that it is impossible to see the stream from inside Catherine’s house, because it is down a little bit of a hill, I still check over my shoulder. It feels like we are doing something so unallowed that no one has ever had to say in words that we are not supposed to do this.
“It’s got a belly button,” I finally say (because it does.)
“I hate you,” Catherine says, “That’s so gross.”
-several moles, including one like half a grape tucked inside what is clearly an armpit
-little cuts, practically everywhere, that flap pinkly at us but don’t actually bleed
-and the vulva.
This is not a word we say out loud – we just make very disgusted eye contact and Catherine says, “oh my god,” and I roll onto my back and cover my whole face.
I don’t want to keep looking at the skin. So I just stay like that, on my back. I try to focus on the places where I am lying on a stick or on a rock, picturing, in my head, little blue exclamation points pinging above my body where it hurts. I try to focus on the sky, which is so white it makes behind my eyes feel fuzzy. But what I hear is Catherine, who won’t stop noticing things out loud.
“There is, like, no hair. Anywhere. No tan lines either. That’s weird, right? We should be writing this down.”
And then she says, “I really don’t like its face.”
And because this time her voice is so tight and so small and so high that I feel it in my own chest, I sit up and look at her.
She is holding what is, terribly, the face of the skin. She’s got it spread across her two hands, holding it with her fingertips like she’s about to play cat’s cradle. She is staring softly through wetly clumped lashes into the empty holes that must be the skin’s eyes.
So I stand up, and I bite her.
Just on the arm, and it’s mostly sleeve in my mouth anyway. But Catherine yells and drops the skin into the water, which is good, even if the noise it makes while falling is all wrong – a sucking-and-or-gasping sound I can’t tell if Catherine even catches in her anger.
“You promised to stop doing that,” she says. She is clutching her arm so dramatically away from me that she is bent almost in half.
I say, “Yeah.”
But I am looking at the skin. Beneath the water – beneath the leaves and the dead dragonfly and the empty sweet-and-sour chip bag – the stream is bubbling through the hole that is the skin’s mouth, opening it and closing it again and again and again so that it looks like it is saying something.
• • •
That night, Catherine and I do not talk about what happened at all. Which is weird for us.
We come inside to wash our hands and find that Catherine’s younger brother has gotten a very good grade on his final report card or has won a contest or maybe it’s his half birthday; there is a party feeling all around us during dinner, and after dinner, strawberry sheet cake with strawberry frosting. I am delicately wrapping a second square of cake in a paper towel to take to Catherine’s room when I hear Catherine ask who wants to play Scrabble.
Now I know she is avoiding being alone with me.
I sit on the tight carpet floor of the den and watch Catherine’s family play Scrabble. I pick cat hair out of the carpet and keep track of the points – I am not allowed to play because I only ever make up words – and because I am keeping track of the points, Catherine wins by a lot. She even tries to get a second game going but, mercifully, we are made to go to bed by Catherine’s mom.
I try to catch Catherine’s eyes in the mirror while we are brushing our teeth, but she is only looking at herself.
“Catherine,” I whisper directly into her face when we are finally in her bed. The yellow sheet, gray in the dark, is pulled all the way to her chin, and she is making a face I can tell she thinks is a sleeping face, but is actually more like the face a teacher makes while going, “Well, how old do you think I am,” (but with her eyes closed.)
I touch my forehead to her forehead and whisper again, “Catherine.”
“Stop,” she says. And I can tell from her voice that I am being too much.
I roll as far away from her on the twin-sized bed as I possibly can, howling in my body long after Catherine’s thick breathing tells me she’s actually asleep.
• • •
The next morning, Catherine has a dentist appointment. I wake up alone in her bedroom and am out behind her house in ten minutes, wearing a big soft shirt of Catherine’s and a pair of my own gym shorts that I find folded up in her dresser.
The egg smell rising up from the stream is powerful. I creep past the rusted white iron table, finishing my square of leftover strawberry cake, and I creep past the netless soccer goal and I creep past the chairs, all of which are pearled over with humidity. The cicadas are making their alarm bell noise but otherwise everything is just silent and soggy, even the pine needles so wet they’re unpokeful on my bare feet.
I am slow and careful walking down the almost-hill. And the skin is not in the stream.
• • •
I do not see Catherine for a few days; my mom thinks it is healthy for me to live at our house and sleep in my bed and have dinner together every now and then. But I call Catherine a lot on the phone, and some of the times she answers and some of the times she does not – which makes my stomach hurt.
“Why do you think that happened to us,” I ask over the phone.
It is our second call of the day, a little after lunch. It’s been cloudy since morning, all dark and very still, and with the lights off in our house it almost feels like I am hiding. I am sitting against the wall in the hallway, curled ammonite-like over the phone so that my mom (who is peeling apples over the kitchen trash can) does not hear. My mouth is chalky and my breath bouncing off the receiver smells like mixed berry antacid tablets; I almost ask Catherine if she can smell it.
“Never you mind,” she says.
I hang up on her.
And then I call her back. She’s taken the phone off the hook, which is annoying and just like her, so I tell my mom I am going for a bike ride and when she asks me where to, I say to hell. And I ride over to Catherine’s.
Even without the sun, the air outside is hot. The whole ride over, it feels like a big animal is breathing down on me and I am sweating by the time I get to Catherine’s house.
I dump my bike in Catherine’s driveway, which is empty. Her yard is droopy with purple coneflowers, at every center a bee circling like a dizzy moon. I cross the buzzing yard and I pass along the side of Catherine’s house, where the windows are all half-open. I can hear her brother (or someone else who is just okay at piano) practicing the same tripping notes over and over again.
And behind her house, Catherine waits for me with the skin.
“Hi,” she says, “You took forever.”
They are sitting at the white iron table, or at least, Catherine is sitting, swirling a wine glass full of water very close to her eyes. It’s stream water, I can tell, yellowish and full of dirt and bug parts that twirl in Catherine’s hand. A second wine glass sits dripping on the table.
I look at Catherine and I look at the skin. I look behind me into the dark kitchen window, where nobody is watching us. Sweat is finding the open bug bites in the spaces behind my knees, but I don’t itch them and I don’t say anything until Catherine puts her wine glass on the table and closes one eye at me in a way I know means she is concentrating.
“I think we should be careful about whatever we’re about to do,” I say.
(Or at least, I think it.)
“Come here,” she says.
I do not want to. There are only two chairs, and the skin is draped over the other. Its neck is hanging down the backrest and I cannot see its face.
But I come over to Catherine and – so that she doesn’t think she can just tell me what to do – I pick up her wine glass and I drink about half of it in one strong gulp.
“You’re so stupid,” she says.
But she is smiling at me. She is smiling at me hard and the skin in the chair beside her is leaking water from all these little cuts in thin, clear streams. Catherine moves and I sit on her armrest, leaning against her arm. It’s surprisingly cold but still a little sweaty.
I try not to touch my tongue to the soft bits of bug that are caught between my teeth.
And as I watch, a fly lands just below the skin’s knee; it crawls, unswatted, down and around an unfilled shin.
• • •
To be honest, the next few weeks are a little weird. Catherine insists that the skin is a part of every game we play now, which I have feelings about, even if I can’t tell exactly what they are.
We hang out by the stream behind Catherine’s house and pretend that the skin is Catherine’s teacher, a wizard, who’s made a terrible mistake resulting in flatfulness that only her apprentice, Catherine, can fix.
We hang out by the stream behind Catherine’s house and pretend that the skin is a very ugly kind of demon that Catherine must outsmart in increasingly dangerous battles of wit. When the skin is defeated, I make it stomp its feet and shake its fists and throw itself down in the mud in despair over having lost Catherine’s precious soul. It is a relief, getting to drop the skin; it’s so much longer than me and heavy in my arms, and I find myself playing it more and more often.
One night, alone in my room, I write in my journal: I am its muscles and its bones.
I am not, I don’t think, its mouth – which is something I can’t tell if Catherine knows yet. I will say things, I mean, and I am saying them with my tongue and with my voice, but the words feel like the fruit of a seed planted deep inside me when I wasn’t looking. Like, when the demon is supposed to be asking Catherine riddles. The first time we play, I ruin everything because I cannot stop saying, “When is the glimmering and when is the spider,” and, “Who did this,” and “Who did this,” (again), until finally Catherine says, whatever this is, she isn’t feeling it, and I get upset and end up biking home.
Like I said, a little weird but not, I think, a big deal.
Until one day, while we are not pretending anything but are just sitting beside the stream trying to feed a cheese puff to a crow, I find myself telling Catherine that I would like to dance with her.
Which is not something I have ever wanted to say.
The skin, at that moment, is hanging in the tree above us, folded over a branch so that all of its fingers are reaching down. Gravity is pulling at the holes that are its eyes and the holes that are its mouth so they are very, very open, and I am telling Catherine over and over in a voice so low I can barely hear it myself that I would like to dance with her, I would like to dance with her, I would like to dance with her so, so, so, so much.
It’s terrible but I can’t stop. Not even with Catherine looking at me and frowning with just her eyebrows.
“I would like to dance with you,” I say again, and feel like a creep.
Catherine wipes her hands on her shorts. I watch her stand and take one of the skin’s dangling hands between her own.
“You want to dance with me,” she says. And because she is looking at her hands and what they are holding, it isn’t super clear who she is talking to.
My heart in my chest is beating fast enough to actually hurt. Even the crunch of the mud and gravel beneath my feet as I stand makes me feel jumpy. Jumpy in my cells, like my outline is fizzing. Catherine tugs and the whole of the skin slips over the branch and into her arms. It makes a sound as it falls like a sheet being shook. I think of my mom, suddenly, making the bed with me still in it when I was very little. And then I come and I take the skin from Catherine.
She’s frowning at me, still. I hold the skin by its empty wrists. I move our hands and I place them on Catherine’s hips. The head of the skin falls backward over my shoulder.
I don’t look at it.
There is still so much space between Catherine and me.
The legs of the skin are too long between us and there’s nowhere that our feet can really go, so we just stand there – the three of us – for what feels like a really, really, really long time.
• • •
And that night, I imagine, I will rise from my bed.
I will walk from my bed to the window between my desk and my closet and my footsteps will be invisible-quiet in the carpet. I will press a line of me – my forehead, my nose, my shoulder – against the glass, and the curtain will spill down my back like a wedding veil.
And in the street, there’ll be Catherine. She’ll be standing just outside the circle of light from my neighbor’s garage, and she’ll be holding herself by the elbows, embarrassed and very hard to see.
She’ll be wearing the skin.
I’ll still know it’s her. I’ll raise my hand up to the glass like, hey.
Copyright © 2023 by Alexia Antoniou