In the first photo, she sits half-submerged on a rock in the Gunpowder River. Smiling big, pink bikini top, hair straightened. It must have been the summer before senior year, because that’s when she remembers buying that swimsuit. Specifically, she remembers worrying that her back acne would be too apparent with the cut of the top. But it wasn’t. She looked fantastic.
Liza looks different now, but there are no up-to-date photographs of her, so she uses the old ones for her profiles. Tells people she’s a young-looking twenty-four. It’s not like she ever had a baby face, and men don’t usually question it.
She’s improved since her accident. Her mobility, at least, has improved. She can walk with a cane now, but it hurts. It hurts even more than sitting down, and in every part of her body sometimes – a nagging pain that won’t let her think straight. And there isn’t really anywhere to go. Mostly she’s been sitting on her ass for the past three years. Fat builds on her body like dust on a shelf. It’s not really much of a concern anymore.
It’s not like she never leaves the house. Just most of the time. Once every two months, she meets her dealer in the parking lot across the street in the dead of night to pick up a quarter of weed. Her dealer is a pretty, fun girl around the same age, and it’s difficult for the both of them to look at each other, albeit for different reasons.
Liza is hard for anyone to look at, a mess of burnt and stitched-together flesh, hair gone from half her head, grafted skin melting into her neck, limping like a zombie, and she stumbles over her words when she speaks too – not for any medical reason but because she’s so out-of-practice. She doesn’t speak much anyway, because she has nothing good to say anymore. Instead, she pays in silence, croaks out a pathetic thank you, goes home and scrapes her arms with her fingernails until she can feel the skin come off like the back of a lotto ticket.
This is usually around the time she ends up breaking things off with one of her boyfriends and telling him never to contact her again. Then she gets high and masturbates until she falls asleep.
But she can’t break up with Matthew just yet, because he’s just wired her $400.
Matthew is in his thirties and works as a security guard, and he wants her to come visit him in Charleston. Thinks she is going to, in fact, on the 29th.
They’ve been talking for nearly two months now, almost daily. Liza jokes that she’s mostly just excited to see Morty, Matthew’s dog. She sends him a selfie she took during senior week, right before the accident, and he tells her he’s never seen a girl look so gorgeous with no makeup on.
He’s right – she was gorgeous, with or without makeup, but she’s wearing it in the photo.
When you’re sedentary as Liza is, a lot happens without you noticing. Liza learns this slowly as the friends who used to bring her flowers in the hospital become slow to respond to her texts, as her old clothes start to get tighter, as she accidentally mentions something she shouldn’t know about but does because she has been frequenting every dark corner of the internet in the time she’s had to herself.
Then she learns it abruptly when she decides to try walking to the store with her mother one summer night and she is taking too long with her cane and people are watching, and her mother insists they go back for the wheelchair but Liza is sweating and her throat is getting tight and she screams at her mother and calls her a stupid fucking cunt right before she manages to pass out on the pavement.
It’s a gradual descent, but the bottom is solid. The bottom is very clear and undeniable.
Liza gets lonely fast, but it takes a while for the loneliness to differentiate itself from the kind of loneliness she’s familiar with. Lying to men on the internet does nothing to placate it.
She tries porn, but it only makes things worse. It never did much for her to start with, but now that it’s her only available outlet, the problems with it are glaring. Pretty girls with ugly old men or pretty girls with other pretty girls. There is nowhere for her, nowhere for her to look, and rather suddenly, she wishes she were just dead.
Perhaps the desire has been there for a while, latent, but it hits her with alarming strength at this precise moment. What’s the point anymore?
She doesn’t understand why her body hasn’t given out yet, why it still has needs at all. Why should she get tired? Hungry? Horny? What is it about her biology that separates her from herself in this way? What right does she have to want?
More and more often now, she feels shallow. She’s always been somewhat of a visual creature, but she used to speak, and listen, and now all she does is watch k-pop videos on mute with her hand down her pants and hope she can suspend her self-hatred long enough to finish.
Sometimes she feels like a dirty old man.
The 29th approaches and Liza is in a terrible accident. Not really, but as far as Matthew knows.
Liza messages him as the sister of the girl she is pretending to be.
“Tara’s car was hit by a drunk driver last Saturday. She’s in the ICU.”
She keeps the message terse. She imagines that’s how it would sound if it was real. She is playing a traumatized character, a girl who isn’t ready to talk yet.
But she does make a website for donations and send Matthew the link.
“She needs to get a job,” Liza overhears her father say one night. He’s not necessarily wrong. It’s been three years, and he has no idea about the secret funds Liza’s been accumulating. “She’s going to waste away here if you don’t get her out.”
How typical, she thinks. Her mother has always been easy to fool, but her father somehow seems to know her better without even trying. He knows better than to humor her.
“She needs help, Hector,” her mother says.
“Then get her help then! Christ, she won’t even answer the goddamn door anymore. When’s the last time you saw her leave the house?”
“She goes for walks,” Liza’s mother insists.
The kitchen is quiet for a moment. Liza stands still by the stairs.
“It’s going to be hard for her to find a job, you know,” her mother says, so quietly she can only just hear it. “It’s not like she can just wait tables. You know how people are.”
Liza laughs out loud.
“Liza?” her mother calls out.
She hobbles back to her bedroom.
If she weren’t so chicken, maybe she’d send an application in to whatever store or restaurant wanted help, just to see the look on their faces when she walked in for the interview. Of course no one wants their food served to them by a fucking burn victim. Even she wouldn’t. Her face looks like a health code violation, like at any moment a piece of her might come off in someone’s salad.
She knows how people are.
In August, Liza discovers she was wrong about there not being any recent photos of her. Apparently, there’s one floating around Reddit threads about the dangers of drunk driving, which isn’t even what happened to her, but there she is, lying barely alive in the hospital with a bag of shit hanging by her feet and a tube shoved down her throat, one eye cracked slightly open.
Her fingers begin to shake, her arms numb, her teeth grinding like bones. Her voice cracks on the word “Mom” when she screams it, and all of a sudden she is dry-heaving into her bedroom carpet.
Her mother yells something, footsteps frantic in the hallway. She grabs Liza under her arms and pulls her away from herself like a child with a frightened pill bug.
“What’s wrong?!” she yells. “Are you hurt?”
Liza slaps her hand in the direction of the computer screen.
Her mother is quiet for a moment, putting things together. Liza can’t stop sobbing.
“Baby,” her mother whispers, pulling her closer. “It’s okay. We’ll have it removed.”
“Oh my God,” Liza chokes. “You’re so fucking stupid.”
She almost laughs. Her mother doesn’t admonish her, just holds her there on the floor, rocking gently back and forth, an impossible contrast to her violent, impotent shrieking, and eventually she calms down. She does. It just takes a while and her throat is sore and she’s sweating.
She hasn’t seen the room from this angle since she was a baby.
Her next target, Chris, is a college professor, and old enough to be her father.
Liza never went to college, but she thought about it.
She tells Chris she’s in grad school out of state and won’t be back until Thanksgiving break.
“You’re torturing me,” he says.
She imagines once she might have found it thrilling to be coveted by someone so ostensibly worldly, intelligent, but somehow she can’t get herself to fall for it.
He says she is so mature, threatens to spoil her rotten, says she has him wrapped around her little finger. But that isn’t really the case and she knows it. If she had any real power over him, she thinks, he would be the one sending her suggestive photos he took when he was barely 18, and she would be the tenured professor 30 years his senior, and she would get to say he was torturing her! Making her wait like this!
In the end, she doesn’t even do Chris the courtesy of dying or going comatose. Eventually she just starts to feel sick, and stops responding to his messages after he sends her money for a plane ticket.
Once, before the accident, Liza went to a party at her friend Ray’s parents’ beach house in Ocean City, a tiny low-rent loft tucked away in one of the numbered streets off Route One – not the sort of place she thought of when she thought of beach houses, barely large enough to hold everyone there.
At some point, she migrated to the balcony, where a girl with French tips offered her a one-hitter made to look like a cigarette.
There was another boy there who Liza hadn’t met, and then Ray, leaning over the edge of the balcony, spitting the last dregs of vomit in his mouth into the alley before the next building.
“You little skank!” someone yelled from below. There was the sound of glass breaking. “I’ll rip your fucking hair out!”
At first, Liza thought they were yelling at Ray. She clasped a hand over her mouth and looked wide-eyed at the other boy and the girl with the French tips.
“Oh shit,” Ray said. “It’s a cat fight.”
Sure enough, there were two girls in the alley, wrestling each other into the asphalt next to Ray’s puke. Both squeezed into denim cut-offs and tube tops, one of them missing a shoe, the other with half her ass crack hanging out from the top of her shorts. A bright red wig lay beside them like a dead animal.
“Ew,” said the boy Liza didn’t know. “I can’t watch this. It’s not a cat fight unless they’re hot.”
“Are you afraid of ugly girls, Sam?” said the girl with the French tips. “What’s the difference between this and pay-per-view?”
Liza smirked. Sam looked stupid in the dying flood light, caught off-guard.
“Are you a dog, bitch?” one of the alley girls shouted. “Is that why you always got your mouth hanging open?”
Liza wonders what it would have been like to be born into ugliness, to know nothing but this.
To say she wasn’t thinking of surgery when she started saving money would be a lie. She was. She thought about how her face might look if she just sanded down the scar tissue, if she went even further than recreating her former appearance, made herself even prettier.
But somehow the more money she accrued, the more distant her goal began to seem, and now she thinks maybe there isn’t really a purpose to the money at all. Maybe there never was in the first place.
She has a recurring dream where her face and legs remain untouched. She can feel the damage still, and the pain, but when she looks at her reflection it’s fine.
Her arms are the opposite. She feels them there, each one of her fingers. She uses her hands to eat and put on lipstick. But when she looks, they’re cut off at the elbow.
She panics. She’s alone in a dusty, empty attic, standing in front of a full-length mirror, and then her mother appears like a magic trick, sitting in Liza’s old wheelchair.
“It’s okay,” she says. “You’re dreaming.”
There are no up-to-date photos of Liza anymore. She doesn’t really look the same as she did in the hospital. She’s put on more weight, lost more sleep, had a few surgeries. There is probably more she could do to take care of this melting husk, but why bother? She still spends as little time occupying it as she can.
It’s jarring when she catches sight of her little toe in the mirror, when she notices herself breathing, when she registers the familiar feeling of the carpet beneath her back or the warmth of the sun reaching in through the window.
Her newest boyfriend, Jake, is catfishing her and she knows it. It makes her wonder how many of the men she’s lied to knew she was lying and just didn’t care. She gets it. It’s nice to have someone to talk to. She’s been terribly lonely.
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