“Topography” by Shoshana Akabas

I am thinking about gashes. Open wounds that cut into the fibers of each muscle. Layers of skin peeled back one at a time like turning the pages of a book. The top layer is the color of dried apricots and the deepest layer is crimson.

“Tell me what you’re thinking about,” she asks. Her hair is pinned into a bun and she looks like an ostrich.

“I don’t want to be here,” I say plainly.

The geometric pattern I drew on the back of my hand during math class looks like a star map.

“What else is on your mind?” she asks, leaning forward slightly in her chair. She crosses her legs. Then she uncrosses her legs. Then she reaches her long bony fingers up to her bun and secures one of the pins. “Can you tell me
what you’re thinking about?” she asks.

I look down and my long hair, the color of bricks and rust, falls over my face.

My best friend, Scarlet, told me she liked my hair down, liked my poems, liked my skirt, my earrings, my dresses, my shoes, socks, eyes.

She tilts her wrist slightly so she can see the face of her watch.

“How’s school going?” she asks.

I am thinking about Freddy, the frog we dissected in biology lab. Naming it was Sam’s idea; I tend not to get attached. I picked up our dead frog from the bucket at the front of the classroom on my way in, and, when I reached our desk, I dropped it on our tray. Sam told me to be careful with Freddy, so I handled the body delicately as I stretched out his arms and legs and slid the pins through the webbing of his hands and feet, deep into the cork. Sam said Freddy looked like he was being crucified.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind,” my psychiatrist says.

I tell her, “My hands smell like formaldehyde.” I hold my fingertips to my nose. “We had another lab today.”

“What animal did you dissect?”

“A frog.”

“You enjoy biology?”

I don’t think the question needs answering, but the way she sits completely still, eyes boring into mine, makes me realize that we are not on the same page. Now she is willing to wait for my answers. “Yeah,” I say.

“What do you like about it?”

Instead of answering, I tell her I’m going over to Sam’s house to work on the lab report later because I know that will catch her off guard.

I’m expecting her to question, but it still stings when she asks, in that surprised tone, “You’re going over to a friend’s house?”

After I had pinned Freddy down, Sam pulled on latex gloves and took hold of the plastic knife. Our class was larger than most biology classes, and, though there were plenty of frog corpses to go around, dissecting tools were in short supply. Freddy’s rubbery skin gave way as Sam sawed back and forth. I heard Freddy’s thin collarbone snap under the pressure of Sam’s knife and I winced at the cracking sound.

Cut horizontally, I instructed after Sam had executed a line from Freddy’s chin to his pelvis. Sam made four horizontal cuts, and then pealed back the two flaps of skin that once was Freddy’s belly, like opening double doors. I was ready with pins.

After putting on gloves, I fished a stray sliver of bone out from under Freddy’s liver and then pulled out the two large pieces of the broken collarbone. I pushed the tiny bones around in my hand for a few moments, testing the sharp end against my gloved finger. Then we followed the instructions in our lab manual, identifying and cutting out each organ, and placing it on the sheet beside the frog.

I don’t see the atrium, Sam said.

It’s the bright red thing there. I pointed.

That doesn’t look like a frog heart.

I narrowed my eyes. What’s a frog heart supposed to look like?

“Tell me about Sam,” she asks.

“His girlfriend is pretty,” I concede.

“You know her?”

“No, she doesn’t go to my school. I’ve seen her. Around.” I take my straight hair that hangs over my shoulders and I pull it back into a ponytail. But I have no hair elastic, so it just falls in front of my face again.

I don’t want to tell her about Sam. I know she would ruin him for me like she has everyone else.

After we had removed Freddy’s liver, pancreas, and fat bodies, Sam went in for the stomach. He borrowed a scalpel from the pair at the next table, and began to cut around the organ. As he caught a glimpse of the underbelly, the scalpel slipped out of his hands and off the table. I picked it up for him.

He muttered, There’s something gross under there.

I used the scalpel to push the stomach aside and saw lots of white foam. Ugh. Disgusting, I said, while leaning in to get a better look. Sam laughed and scooted his chair back.

Once I cleared out the foam with a paper towel, I could see a large white growth under the stomach. Extending from it were white, thread-like lines, like the limbs of a daddy longlegs extending from its body. They wrapped around the stomach, and down Freddy’s spine.

I think it’s a tumor, I whispered.

“I sent a memo to your guidance counselor at school a few days ago,” she says. “Told her to put it in your teacher’s mailboxes. It’s just to explain to the teachers what you’re going through so they’re more understanding.”

I am a mailroom memo.

I’m thinking about cuts – smaller ones this time – like paper cuts and blisters and sores. And then I’m thinking of Scarlet’s eyes when she found the medication in my bag.

You’re supposed to take it before bed, she said. We were sitting on the tiled floor of the girl’s bathroom on the third floor and the windows were wide open so the air off the river lined our lungs. Why do you need these in school?

In case.

In case what? Scarlet demanded. In case you’re Lily Bart? Planning to pack some stones tomorrow too? You gonna go Plath yourself on Friday?

Then she pulled out my copy of The Bell Jar.

I need it, I said.

No you don’t. You need to go to your session. You’re going to be late.

I’m thinking about layers of skin again.

“Why did you do that? I didn’t want my teachers to know,” I tell my psychiatrist.

“It’s not something to be ashamed of.” She reaches her hand forward to put it on my thigh, or my shoulder, or my hand, but I scoot my chair back and the rug picks up under my seat.

“I didn’t want to use it as an excuse,” I explain.

“I’m sure that’s not how they see it.”

The hands on the clock behind her remind me of thick, dark veins.

“I’m sure they’re worried about you.”

“I don’t think so,” I murmur, tucking my hair behind my ears.

“Scarlet is worried about you,” she says. “Isn’t that true?”

“Scarlet is worried about me,” I echo.

“She’s the one who pressed you to see me in the first place, isn’t that right?”

“Scarlet is just scared.”

“What do you think she’s scared of?” she asks. And I can see she thinks we’re getting somewhere – thinks we’ve finally gotten to the root of something. Like she’s pressed the scalpel far enough into my brain, scissored me open so she could understand like I am a cold body lying on an autopsy table.

That is what Scarlet fears – that I will cease to exist. That she will turn into who I am now. She will be left desperate, talking to me the way I talk to my mother (hoping that somewhere my mother is trapped, as I am, still trying, as I do, to communicate with someone she knows will never hear her).

I’m thinking of blood. I’m thinking about the map of veins on the palm of my hand. I wonder how many seconds it takes for an ounce of blood to travel around my entire body and end up back in that same spot.

Published in Penn Review Vol. 46, Issue 2

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