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In This Skin

Emma Pattee

“The difference between a good butthole and a bad butthole is the wink.”  This is the best man talking.  

“The wink?” The grease of fried fish shines off my manicure.  “When it’s small and tight and looks like it’s giving you a wink.”   “The worst,” the groom chimes in, “is when you’re dating a girl and  she’s super cute but then you find out she has a bad butthole.”   I’m sitting on the patio of a hotel bar in Maui with a one-word  name. Quiche or Cliché. Everything smells of cigarette smoke and  sunscreen. I’m here for the wedding of a cousin I vaguely remember  as a sensitive boy who liked Buzz Lightyear and who has grown into  a tall, bronzed fraternity man with well-informed opinions about  butthole diameter. 

It’s past midnight; everyone else has gone up to hotel rooms full of  spouses and children, and now there are just four of us left at the table:  The groom who is too drunk to stand up, the bride who is afraid to  leave the groom alone in case he runs off, the best man who looks like  he is just getting his night started, and me—the overweight cousin in her  thirties who is avoiding the hotel room she is sharing with no one.  

I’ve had four, maybe five blue drinks. I try to make eye contact with  the server to get my check; he’s preoccupied with a bachelorette party  splashing around in the pool. 

My butthole, I’m guessing, isn’t winking. The rest of the situation is  equally grim: my arms spread like an egg out of the shell, thick and fluid.  The red lines in my neck are a sunset. Even now, I might be fused into  my chair, growing through it the way a tree warps around the hard edge of a metal fence. I already know what I’ll see in the mirror when I get  back to my hotel room—long welts along my hips and thighs, like I’ve  been publicly whipped. 

I came to Hawaii alone not because I wanted to, but because I had to. My  husband was abducted by aliens or died trying to save a child’s beloved  ferret or something like that. Maybe he just packed up a bag of work  shirts and told me not to text him. The point is he’s gone, so now I’m  here alone. 

If my husband were sitting here, his hand would be under the table  resting on my thigh. Every time the groom said butthole, he would  squeeze ever so slightly. This is how we used to keep track of what we  want to laugh about later, lying in our starched hotel bed, bringing our  familiarity to every new place. 

This is the part of the story where I could say a lot of things about Hawaii:  what the landscape looks like, how different the air feels from Minnesota.  Humidity and all that. Perhaps a quaint detail that I happened to note at  the airport. But see, I cannot remember a quaint detail from the airport.  I can only remember the way the shirt rode up across my back as I leaned  forward to haul my suitcase off the conveyor belt. How all around me,  fiancés and husbands and boyfriends and fuckboys swung suitcases as  effortlessly as performing monkeys. You want some details? Airport  bathroom and I’m afraid to meet my eyes in the mirror, afraid to make  some kind of connection between the feeling of soap sliding between my  palms and the sweaty woman in the mirror wearing a wrinkled Banana  Republic shirt that looks exactly like mine.  

The bride leans across the table: “Is this your first time in Maui?” Her  arm is the width of a garden hose. 

I shake my head, “I came here for my honeymoon.” Seven years and  forty-five pounds ago. 

 She looks pained. I wasn’t supposed to say that.  

 I try to think of anything (anything!) I can say to her about life, or weddings, or plastic bags in the ocean, and I come up with: “Are you  excited for tomorrow?” 

“I’m just praying I can fit in my dress,” she laughs. Her ring hangs  loosely. Even the skin on her finger looks like it’s barely holding on to  the bone. 

There was a moment during my wedding, during the first dance. You  know how it is—the music at such a perfect volume, the smell of my  new husband’s nervousness, such a relief to be here finally. Married. No  longer searching. And then my husband’s hands on my back, where my  skin met my dress, squeezing lovingly. I shrank away, I couldn’t help  myself. “Don’t touch my back fat,” I pleaded, and the look he gave me  was like he was seeing me for the first time and didn’t like what he saw.   “I’m sure you will,” I tell the bride. 

“I better,” she says, and then in a conspiratorial tone, “I haven’t eaten  in like a decade.”  

I had a high school friend who died of bulimia. I think so at least.  The post on Facebook wasn’t very specific. The last time I saw her, she  couldn’t close her hand around her seat belt and I had to lean over her— my bloated ear to her wispy innards—to strap it in. 

Even knowing how sick she was, I couldn’t help but think how much  prettier she was. How she might not live another year but she would  never have to awkwardly share an armrest with the stranger next to her  on a plane. 

This is the worst thing about my body. It has turned me into somebody  I don’t recognize—a writhing snake at the bottom of the pile of all the  women I’ve ever met, desperate to claw my way to fresh air. Fingers in  eye sockets, I don’t pay attention to the crunch beneath my feet. I’m not  trying to be on the top; I’m just trying to survive here. 

I can’t speak. If I open my mouth, I’ll say something like: are you  fucking terrified and do you have a soul and you don’t have to marry  him and have you ever stood in front of the mirror and stared at yourself  naked and cried so hard you couldn’t breathe because you just so much  want it to all be different and you know it never will be.  

We both pick up our phones and pretend we got texts. 

The reason nobody can afford to go to Hawaii isn’t because of Hawaii.  It’s because of all the shit you have to buy beforehand so you can feel  skinny enough to be allowed to disembark. The cover-ups, the bejeweled  sandals, the self-tanner and bronzer and skin brightener and coconut oil.  $150 for a swimsuit that wasn’t pilling in the crotch. $79 for eyelash  extensions. $35 to get somebody to wax the hair off my toes. I had to  take an extra day off work before I left just to go to all the appointments.   Here’s my internet search history from last week: 

How to lose ten pounds quickly
Best beach on Maui for sea turtles
Where is the best poké in Lahaina
How many calories are in poké?
Do sea turtles bite? 

The sea turtle thing started because of this fitness blogger I follow—a  southern belle who makes money by posting a picture of her salad every  day. (Oh feminism, so naive. All you did was get women to stop referring  to it as a diet and start saying they were trying to get healthy). 

This Birmingham bitch, I love her. I can’t help it. The day I left for  Hawaii, she wore a gauzy peasant top with flared sleeves and $400 velvet  flats. Posing on her doorstep with a basket of tulips. And there I was:  dirty Ikea couch, dark apartment, laptop balancing on thighs the size of  carry-on bags. 

This is the kind of thing that drove my husband nuts, the hours I spent  sliding my finger over other people’s lives, other women’s skin, pictures  of their food. “You know this shit is fake, right?” he’d ask, looking down  at my phone: “That girl probably ate a Big Mac an hour before she made  that nasty-looking smoothie.” 

She is the one who told me about sea turtles, this blogger. And when  I say, told me, I mean that I saw an Instagram post of her, stretched out  underwater like a mermaid, and there, less than five feet from her dainty  pale hand, was a sea turtle. 

Nature vibes. That’s what she wrote in the caption. And for a moment,  I let myself pretend that she meant vibrations coming from deep sea  levels, that she meant she could feel a volcano preparing to erupt, that in mere moments, her whole body (moisturized elbows, limber hamstrings,  yoga-straight spine) would get sucked up by the earth. Devoured by a  force too primordial to accept the currency of her sweet freckles and  pianist fingers. 

But of course no luck for me on the turtle front. Seven hours I spent  on the beach today. Seven hours stuffed into the kind of swimsuit that  promises a miracle. The kind of swimsuit only moms wear. Seven hours  letting the Hawaiian sun turn me into a lobster-red internet meme. And  nothing. No dark rounded head peeking above the waves, no beaky face  scanning the shoreline. When the sun finally set, I threw in the towel  and headed here, to this bar, to this moment. Turtle-less. 

“Oh my god, Danny, tell her about how you fell on a sea turtle.” That’s  the bride talking. 

Danny is the best man. He seems like a guy who had a traumatic  hazing experience in the military and has been taking it out sexually  on women ever since. He’s already spent half the night talking about  his three tours in Iraq and showing us pictures of “his baby,” a yellow  Corvette he bought with the proceeds of the terrorists he killed. 

“So…” he starts, and leans back in his chair until the two front feet  hover above the ground. This is a man used to people leaning in to  hear him. This is a man who talks in slow, emphatic strokes, like he  learned to speak by following the rhythm of his relentless hand jerking  himself off. 

 I lean in a little. 

Turns out, Danny was also down by the beach today hunting for sea  turtles. Armed with a kid’s plastic snorkel and a pair of Speedo goggles  he found by the pool. A full hour he spent monitoring the situation,  pounding Corona after Corona until even the poolside bartender  wouldn’t serve him. Then, there! In the distance, a head bobbing like the  tip of a sea monster’s giant dick (“a sea monster’s giant dick!” the groom  repeats, amazed at the astuteness of the comparison).  

And there goes Danny, off like a missile strike, wading through sand and water (“You think that’s hard? Try running through the fucking  desert while you’re being shot at,”) and he’s so close, within a grenade  throw of it, this giant ancient glorious beast, and he can see it now,  diving beneath the water. But what he doesn’t see is the rock that the  turtle is diving to nibble on. “And just like that, bam! I’m falling face-first  onto this thing’s back.” He pulls up the sleeve of his shirt to show a dark  blotchy bruise on his hairless bicep. 

“Tell her how big it was,” says the groom. “It was the size of like a  shark.” 

“Like this.” Danny stretches his arms out, like he’s reminding us that  he owns this land as far as the eye can see. “It was a giant fucker.”  

My husband was not like Danny. He did not speak in a way that  expected other people would listen. He would stare out a café window,  lost in thought, and then turn to me and say, “You know what I was  just thinking?” and it would be something about the invention of the  microwave and climate change. He would have spent this vacation  under the shade of an umbrella reading about the plight of the Hawaiian  snail, nursing the same bottle of beer for three hours. If I told him I  wanted to see a sea turtle, he would have smiled softly at me and said,  “But does a sea turtle want to see you?” Like PETA is handing out awards  for self-righteousness or something. Give me a break.  

The idea to go hunt a sea turtle is the groom’s, but soon Danny starts  chanting, skinny dip, skinny dip, skinny dip, while slamming the table with  his hands. The bride laughs nervously and then whispers something in  the groom’s ear. He shakes her off and starts to head down the sandy  pathway to the beach. She follows reluctantly, trying to fit this turn of  events into her night-before-wedding narrative. 

After standing and stretching, Danny glances across the table at me:  “You coming?” 

I shake my head. “I’m waiting for my check.” 

“Already paid it,” he says with a worn-out grin, “You’re drinking on  me tonight.”

I stare at my fingers, the way the tiki torches defending the bar area  glimmer off the fried-fish shine of my skin. I was not expecting this. I  was not thinking that I would have to explain why I do not want to get  naked and go stand in wild dark water with people I don’t like and in  firmer body skins than mine. 

He sees my hesitation and lurches forward, leaning over the table  until I can smell the exact vintage of his Corona breath. “C’mon,” he  says. “Don’t you wanna catch a turtle?” 

“You can’t catch them,” I say, but he’s already stumbled into the  darkness beyond the tiki torches. I follow him down the winding path  to the water. Just because I want to see a sea turtle. That’s what I’m  telling myself. 

The three of them are ghosts on the seashore. Out here in the dark, it’s  easy to forget that these people are even human. Their bodies reflecting  moonlight like signal lamps for ships at sea. Clothing in lumps like kelp  on the sand. Laughter like the barks of sea lions. 

It is not easy to get naked. The physical motion of removing clothes  is easy—hand on dress, dress over head—but this doesn’t accurately  represent the complex mental gymnastics it takes to bare yourself in front  of others. Like, what’s the big deal, nobody here is going to fuck you  anyways. And you know what, screw them! Screw their skinny limbs.  Screw their perfect bodies. Followed up with. maybe you’re not as fat as  you think. Maybe they’re drunk enough to forget. Maybe the cold water  shrinks fat. Maybe in this lighting it’ll all look… You get the point. 

I wait until everyone is in the water before I turn around and I hold  my hands over my breasts so I can hoist them up. You’re not even real,  I tell myself. You’re just a bunch of atoms. And maybe they’re drunk  enough to forget. 

“I think I see one,” yells the bride. 

“Hang on!” Danny shouts and tries to run gallantly through the waves  to her, but ends up stumbling and dropping his bottle of beer.  By the time he gets to the spot she is pointing towards, there is  nothing there. Just flaccid water. We all stand in mournful silence, scattered like kids at a swimming pool who don’t know each other but  are painfully aware of the distance between each body, half in water and  half in air. 

We start searching the ocean with hands outstretched like nets.  Danny is de-facto leader, yelling out instructions that barely make sense:  Look for a dark shape in the water. Turtles have to breathe every two minutes  so wait until they surface. Stay in formation so he can’t get away

In recent years, sea turtles in Hawaii have started to grow tumors on  their faces. So where a smooth green forehead should be, instead a  rocky boulder sits. A helpful pamphlet found in the hotel lobby states  that despite not being necessarily harmful, “the growth can restrict  the ability to perform basic functions such as eating, breathing and  maneuvering.” 

I’m telling you this to say that maybe this is why my husband is  gone. Because I attached to his body and grew round and calcified  until he could not even perform basic functions such as breathing and  maneuvering. 

Maybe the turtles are asleep. Maybe they heard us coming and slipped  deeper into the dark. Maybe they’re all extinct by now.  The bride is complaining loudly about the fact that the groom is  hammered and hasn’t finished writing his vows, while the groom is  attempting to piece words into a sentence while simultaneously staying  upright in the waves. Danny is kicking at the water, like he’s trying to  make contact with a turtle’s startled face. 

I walk past them, deeper into the ocean until I can barely touch the  sand and then I float on my back in the water, and stare up at the sky, let  the waves rock me side to side.  

Beaches were made over millions of years. Bodies are made of cells  that attach to other cells and turn in to organs. That Birmingham  blogger, she’s made of the same shit as me. Even my husband’s cheek,  if we’re talking in terms of humanity and cells and the meaning of life  here, is indistinguishable from my cheek.

When I look around, Danny is the only one left. 

He’s standing and staring out at the milky darkness of the horizon.  His chest is as smooth as the underbelly of a sea marlin, drops of water  shimmering like scales. When he turns towards me, the muscles around  his ribs contract in balletic formation.  

“Where’d they go?” I ask. 

“To get another drink,” he says. 

He starts telling me about his last girlfriend who used his credit card  to pay for fake boobs and then starting fucking her boss based on the  newfound status that her new boobs gave her (That he paid for! On his  goddamn AmEx!), and the whole time he’s stuck in Kuwait, jacking off  to pictures (pictures!) of these new tits, the way her golden skin stretches  over the silicone pouch, hairless flesh taut as an eyeball, the color of a  raccoon tongue. He can’t even download the video she sent. Can’t even  get the fucking video to stop buffering (That’s how bad the WiFi is. That’s  how much this fucking country cares about their soldiers) and she doesn’t  even have the courtesy to wait until he’s home to dump him, just does it  in an Instagram DM. 

“That’s tough,” I say. 

“Well, you’d know,” he says. “You’re single too.” As if it needs to be  pointed out, as if there are happily married people who come alone to  a wedding in Hawaii and skinny dip with a bunch of strangers, as if  everything about me just screams matrimonial bliss. “Dave said your  husband left you.” 

For some reason, that makes my eyes burn. Not the fact that he said it,  or that my dick cousin is telling all of his friends about it, but something  about how neatly it can be wrapped up into a sentence. That all the little  bouncy tassels on my cover-ups and overpriced tan lotions didn’t change a  thing and all night, everyone’s looking over at me thinking: well, no wonder.  And then maybe because he shared his whole fake-boob saga, or  maybe because I just want to tell someone, anyone, the truth, I say, “He  moved out. Eight weeks ago.” The ocean absorbs the truth, unimpressed.  What did I think would happen if I said it out loud? That I would feel  lighter maybe, cleaner? I just feel gutted.

“Why?” Danny asks. 

I want to tell him it’s because of my weight and in a sick way, it’s true.  Not my weight but the space my weight took up: in our conversations,  on our date nights, every time we went on vacation or someone pulled  out a camera. And all the diets: the keto diet, the lemonade diet, the  no-carb diet, the slow-carb diet, the meal replacements that came in the  mail. All those hours spent on Instagram, scrolling over the outfits and  the vacations and all that glowing skin. “Don’t you ever feel like you’re  waiting for your life to begin?” I asked him once.  

“He said I was stuck, and it was dragging him down,” I said.  “Tough,” Danny says, in a way that tells me that he’s about to invite  me back to his room for another drink. 

“Tough,” I repeat softly. Isn’t that just exactly the right word? The  goose bumps on my arms look like deserts of sand. How long have I been  in the ocean, naked? 

“You wanna get another drink?” Danny asks. “I’ve got the makings of  Jaeger bombs in my room.” 

And this, this is the problem with my body. I can’t even say yes to  casual sex with the best man at my own cousin’s wedding. Because  halfway through, my fingernails gripping a sweat-covered shoulder, I’ll  be wondering whether he’s fucking me out of pity or desire. Whether  I’m sexier than I think, or if he’s disgusted by the way my waistband  leaves a red belt on my skin. Whether he’s going to laugh later about this  to my cousin. Or worse, pretend it never happened. 

My whole life spent wondering: How fat do I look right now?   But what’s my other option: Sit alone in a hotel room? Sit with my  back to the full-length mirror and then give in and look?  “Alright,” I say to Danny. “Maybe just one.” 

Danny pulls his shorts on and carries his shirt. I try to quickly slide my  dress on but the cloth keeps getting stuck on my wet skin. The resort  shines with light in front of us but we walk slowly. We’re not in a hurry.  We’ve got nowhere to be and nobody waiting up for us. 

Maybe I will look back later and this will be the only enjoyable part of the whole damn trip: the walk back to the hotel room, sandy feet, the  certain way that the world holds you differently when you’re barefoot  and tipsy, the feeling of mystery that hasn’t yet dissolved into something  familiar that I won’t want to remember. 

“Oh shit.” Danny grabs my forearm, pointing ahead to a dark shape  by the edge of the water. 

“That’s a bunch of kelp.” I say. 

“It’s a turtle.” 

“Then why isn’t it moving?” 

“It’s asleep,” he says. 

We go closer. He’s right: it’s a fucking sea turtle. Facing the ocean,  its head on the sand, just inches from the water. Maybe it’s dead, with a  plastic straw up its nose or a fishing net caught in its throat.  I walk forward until I can see the markings on her shell, the soft  slump of her shoulder. Her eyes are closed.  

“They bite,” Danny says from behind me. A thread of uncertainty in  his voice. 

Everyone bites, I want to tell him. Everyone has a fishing net caught  in their throat. Everyone winds up alone on a beach in the dark, unable  to go forward or backwards.  

I kneel down and place my hand on its back, searching for life. The  scales of its shell feel like the surface of a boulder. 

“It’s a big boy,” Danny says, laughing a nervous laugh. “That’s for  sure.” 

Not a boy, a girl. The males stay at sea for their entire lives. Only the  females come ashore, hauling their thick bodies over miles of beach and  towering dunes to lay eggs and sink their flippers into the wet sand, to  make that slow desperate crawl back to the ocean, past gawking tourists  and dogs and shredded pieces of plastic bags. 

What kind of effort does it take to move that much mass through wet  sand? What kind of exhaustion causes you to give up so close to the water?  “I think she needs help,” I say. 

“Oh fuck no,” Danny says, still keeping distance between himself and  the turtle. “I’m not touching that thing.”

“They don’t bite.” I say. “I googled it.” Maybe she’s resting. Maybe  she’s playing dead. But she needs to get to the water. I slide my hands  under her enormous belly, but I know can’t move her alone. “Just help  me,” I say, and then, “Please.” 

Danny edges over to the other side of the turtle, carefully, like he’s  scouting for land mines. Reluctantly he crouches down, shaking his  head. 

“On the count of three,” I say, because that seems like what people  say in the movies when they lift things. We inch her forward. I can feel  my forearms and the tendons in my neck straining with the mammoth  weight. We lift again. And again. We’ve barely shifted the turtle forward  a quarter of an inch. 

Each time we lift, her front flippers seem to make little digs into the  sand, but are we doing that, or is she? 

After another six lifts, Danny leans back and shakes his arms out. “I’m  sobering up,” he says, doubt in his voice like he’s seeing this moment,  me, for the first time. 

“Just a few more minutes,” I plead, panting. 

“This thing is dead,” Danny says. He stands up and wipes his hands on  his shorts. 

I slide my hands out from under her belly and let myself sit back into  the wet sand. My arms are shaking and my legs are burning from being  crouched down and I am so tired. Tired of being so tired and so heavy.  The sand is sucking at my ankles. This beach has been waiting for me for  a long time. 

The night my husband left, he looked down at me, sitting on the couch  and said: “I left the garage opener in the kitchen” which was just an  excuse for me to stop him from leaving, since who gives a flying fuck  about a garage opener at a time like this, and couldn’t he have written  that in an email?  

Then he stood there, waiting. 

I didn’t say, I’m done with the dieting

I didn’t say, I’ll get unstuck.

I just nodded and stared at the TV, where a charming British baker  unfurled a long buttery strand of croissant dough. And my husband just  stood there, holding all his work shirts in a garbage bag watching me  watch TV. Then he left.  

“Are you coming back to my room or what?” Danny is looking down at  me, pissed. 

I’m about to nod, about to stand up, but then I see a small movement  in one flipper, just the tiniest flicker. Did I imagine it? We’ve moved her  far enough into the surf that the small waves are splashing against her  face. She’s so close. 

“Go without me,” I say to Danny, even though that breaks all the rules  of who gets to fuck who, and weeks from now, if he posts a workout pic  on Instagram, I’ll probably regret turning him down. 

“Are you kidding me?” Danny says, laughing and then not laughing.  “You’re fucking crazy,” he yells and kicks at the sand so it sprays around  me, sticks to my wet skin, lands in a heap on the turtle’s shell. He walks  away without looking back. 

I lie down next to the turtle. Lay my hand across her shell. From a  distance, I hear Danny yell that I owe him for the bar tab. Then silence.   We’ll just lie here for a while, I whisper to her. Just rest for a bit, you  and me. 

Above us the clouds move across the sky like a pair of thighs. The  stars search for themselves in the reflection of the ocean. Only the moon  knows exactly how big and small we really are.