From outside comes the scour of frost, the trail of a lit cigarette catching at your eyes. You drag the bathroom window shut and go back to watching your face mask harden into a white crust.
A rap on the door, and there’s your mother’s soft voice: ‘Chhori, I’m making momo for dinner tomorrow. You’ll be home, right?’
You twist open the tap and massage the mask with wet hands. The motion is soothing. But this skin, it won’t let you be. It’s tightening even now, pinching at your chin and nose.
Speak, it commands.
The words tumble out instantly: ‘Hang on, I’ll be done soon.’
A flash of a memory—your mother on her knees, scraping mould sunk into the grout, your father looming behind. You shove the image away and scrub your face. When it’s dry, you unscrew a glass bottle and squeeze out a few drops of night recovery oil, a birthday gift from Eddie. Its fragrance, that sweet smell of wealth, wafts around you. Everything feels clean and new.
Your nails creep up to scratch at the line where your right ear meets your neck, the skin sliding with reptilian ease. There’s a hard nub of heat below your lips. When you were young, your parents took you to Biratnagar for the summer holidays, airfare for three and gifts for the sprawling family bought on credit, and you returned with a month’s worth of mosquito bites. You haven’t been back to Nepal in years, and still this familiar bump has appeared on your face—as if the skins are malfunctioning. Every hour you spend huddled in classrooms, galleries, darkrooms, your armpits prickle with monsoon sweat, nose peeling like you’ve spent hours under a scorching sun, when outside, the London sky is speckled with ice.
You look at the pot of face scrub—perhaps one more round will leach the unseasonal tan from your cheeks—but your mother is waiting.
Go outside, the skin commands. Immediately, you are at the door, palm wrapped around the knob—
‘Did you ask her about her plans?’ Your father’s rumble cuts through all other sound.
Go outside. An immense pressure on your back. Speak to him. You shake your head no.
‘You’ve been too lax with her.’
Your mother’s placating murmur. That low rumble, then your mother again. A pause. The creak of footsteps disappearing down the stairs. Finally, your breath evens. You wait till you’re sure no one is standing outside before you leave the bathroom.
Your bedroom door is ajar, your mother’s shadow falling across the table where you work. You think about what is hidden in your wardrobe, the pouch you carry everywhere: tucked inside, the skins. Now here’s your mother, standing so close to it. There is a hot beating in your ears. This house, it cherishes your mother; it’s prepared to open any door for her. She’s the only one who tends to it, even when her knees and spine ache from hours of drudgery at the nursing home. Yet the house never considers what else it can do to make her life easy, never thinks of heels slipping on the jut of a step, a body thudding, a crooked outline on the floor in the shape of a man. Only you think of that, and every time you do, this skin grips your throat tight.
Inside, your mother is looking with interest not at your wardrobe but at the prints scattered on the desk. You watch her reach for one, perhaps the image of a pyre or urn drawing her curiosity, but at the last moment something makes her hesitate and draw back from the fresh-cut edges, their promise of blood.
You walk to the mirror and pick up a tube of eye cream, making sure you can speak calmly. ‘I have dinner with friends tomorrow. It’s in the city, so I’ll stay over with them.’
You dot the dark patches under your eyes, though nothing ever lightens them. You know without looking that your mother’s expression has changed: a downturn of her mouth, that familiar groove on her forehead.
‘You don’t know them.’
‘We’ve got an evening exhibition.’ The lie sharpens your words.
Her mouth will have drooped even more. Still, you don’t turn. Your fingers feel swollen against the crush of skin.
She sighs. Before she leaves, she comes to kiss you, a good-night ritual she will never forgo. Her breath is milky with a trace of Tiger Balm, and it dredges up a flicker of the past: you’re sniffling under heavy covers, cocooned in her arms, her palm smoothing your back over and over. That cigarette sting is in your eyes again. Your skin is shrinking and—
—you slam the door as your mother steps out and snatch at your clothes, sloughing off the skin. Its seams tear open. You spill out, a slop of a mess. But you don’t care, because the slippery brown thing is in your fist, and at last, even if for a moment, your pulpy body breathes.
• • •
The next evening, down rain-slick steps on a Soho side street, inside a low-ceilinged bar, you take a sip of a cocktail to give your hands something to do. The liquid is muddy, fuming its way down. Eddie got the drink for you, jostling against elbows and shoulders, the bar too crammed for him to check if you wanted a different taste on your tongue, something sharp and clean. You glance around the table, the familiar bodies leaning towards one another, you perched at the edge. You feel your face beginning to unstick. You stand with an abruptness you don’t intend. ‘I’ll be back.’
The girls from art class—your friends—are flushed, cradling goblets of wine, stroking the rims of shot glasses filled with top-shelf tequila. They are deep in conversation. None of them look up as you leave, not even Eddie.
In the toilet, the light bares you. Lipstick is smeared on your chin, a spot of grease at the corner of your mouth. Your eyebrows sit misaligned; in this moment, their shape is so like your mother’s, you feel that familiar pang.
Your mother, cheeks rosy from the kitchen heat, will be wrapping momos, popping them into the oiled base of a steamer, even now glancing at the door to check whether you might step through. She will pick up the just-cooked parcels of minced lamb and drop them into a container, blowing on her burning fingertips, humming off-key to old Hindi songs. Your father will be away, working a night shift, and the house will float with her.
There’s a yearning inside of you: for that kitchen, for your mother, for the bite and burst of momos.
You should have stayed, then, comes this skin’s spiteful voice.
You yearn for it only in your father’s absence—but he’s there, all the time.
Better to be here, with the flow of drink and laughter and Eddie, dear Eddie, your ticket out, ready with his credit card, impatient to whisk you away to his king-sized bed and have your tongue work him. His presence here has done it. You’ve been accepted into an inner circle you weren’t quite part of, now good for plus-one invites and double dates, no longer the spare wheel unable to afford lavish weekends in the countryside.
When you first met Eddie, a friend of one of the girls’ boyfriends, you’d paid him no mind till he asked if you wanted fresh air, offered you a smoke. That quirk of his lips, how he leaned in close to the shivery curve of your ear, zeroing in on you and only you; you’d felt the lick of fire inside. When you went back into the bar, the girls had raised their eyebrows, stroked Eddie’s lapels, impressed with what they could scent burgeoning between the two of you. Drink, your skin had urged, and when the room grew hazy, drink, it said again. Later, on the curb, his jacket draped around your shoulders, a garbled text sent to your mother—you can’t remember who leaned into who, whose hand held what, but the next morning, you found it: the singed spot where a cigarette tip rested for a brief moment on your lower lip.
Now, this skin—the lightest, brightest one you reserve for Eddie and your friends—is coming loose. Today, there are two mosquito bites pulsing on your chin. You glance around to make sure the cubicles are empty before you peel off your face with a slow ripping sound.
You readjust the lining, then layer it back over your eyes and mouth, swiping away the ooze. The skin is still sinking in when someone enters, pauses. You catch the woman’s eyes in the mirror. The stranger’s lips curl—her nostrils flare—then she disappears into the farthest stall.
Your fingers tremble as you lift the lipstick. You can’t hear the woman rustling or splashing—as if she’s standing by the door, inert, ears pricked to the telling sounds of you. The tube clatters into the sink. Here it is, the creeping doubt, the fear that even with Eddie’s diamonds draped around your wrists and neck, his gifts of expensive perfume, they can smell the real you underneath.
Get a grip, the skin hisses.
You lean against the counter until the pounding in your ears quietens. You practice moving your mouth, fish out the lipstick, and slick on the glossy red. You dot on concealer and rub until everything appears smooth.
When you walk out, your face is fixed into a bright smile.
• • •
In the classroom, the heating is cranked up so high it’s drying you out. The world is a black mass outside, though it isn’t five yet, the nights encroaching earlier and earlier. Every time you look up from your laptop, you are startled by the ghost of your pale face reflected in the windows.
You are scrolling through images of a havan and don’t notice Caroline until she’s right behind you. ‘How’s the research coming along, dear?’
You feel a sudden urge to angle the laptop away from Caroline. But you can’t do that. This laptop is borrowed, university property, and this woman is the judge of your worth. In a couple of months, Caroline will pull a number out of thin air and tell everyone whether your work is good enough—and wrapped in this bleached skin, best suited to boozy brunches and alpine breaks, you need to please Caroline.
Smile, comes the command, and you look up and stretch your lips.
‘Hmm,’ Caroline says, ‘seems you haven’t made much progress.’
Your face floods with heat. You’ve spent hours in the darkroom, attended a string of obscure exhibitions, written pointless reflective pieces. The stack of theory books next to you: Caroline could leaf through any of them, quiz you about the dense prose within, and you’d respond with confidence.
But that’s not the progress Caroline’s talking about. A few weeks ago, Netflix released a documentary on the modern-day practice of sati. The documentarian, descendant of a celebrated colonialist, was lauded for his commitment to social justice. You shouldn’t have been surprised when Caroline said: ‘Suttee is the perfect subject for your project. A regal pain. Why don’t you play around with some props, create a suttee scene? We’ll put in a low-income funding application to get you resources. They’re generous with those.’
Your hands had shaken throughout. Thank her, your skin had commanded. But you hadn’t gushed, hadn’t said a word, afraid of what might spill out. The same day, you’d asked a question in front of the whole class and Caroline had paused and looked at you with bemusement, perhaps sensing the impostor couched in the foreign inflections of your tongue.
‘Babe, you should totally do it,’ Eddie had said when you told him about Caroline’s idea. He’d watched the documentary too and was writing an essay on it. ‘You can look over my research if you want.’
This project is the crux of your three years at university, to be presented at the student show where curators, magazine editors, private buyers, and collectors will swarm. It’s meant to give you a foot in the door of an impossible industry. After this, you will all be cast out on your own. You should do as Caroline says, you know that very well—and yet, deep inside, underneath all the skins, you feel a flicker of dissent.
‘Did you research the suttee goddess I suggested?’ Caroline removes her glasses and peers at you. ‘Only a few weeks left now.’
Sati. All those brown bodies, breasts and cunts, burning alive. To recreate that as Caroline demands—the women would completely disappear. Only their bodies would remain, charred and mute. And you know something of what it is to be a skinless thing, waiting to have words put into your mouth by someone who isn’t you.
As Caroline walks away, you catch Hye Jin’s eyes and note their flatness. Caroline must have spoken to the other girl already. You can’t give Hye Jin your usual commiserating smile. Instead, you turn back to the laptop and close the tab of images. You ignore Caroline, ignore the squeezing of your skin, and read instead about men who burn themselves in protest and are called blazing beacons.
• • •
That evening at Eddie’s flat, in the stolen hours between class and home, Eddie asks you the question again. You feel a heaviness in your limbs, a weight attached to their ends, dragging. ‘It’s just that,’ he says, waiting until you look up from the buttons of your SLR, ‘you’ve met William and Liz, and they adore you. Don’t you think it’s been long enough?’
William and Liz.
Eddie, dear Eddie, who calls his parents by name and won’t understand that you can’t ever do the same.
The first time you went to his parents’ house—decked out in pearls, a chiffon blouse, a fur coat you returned after wearing only once; armed with your slickest voice, dripping private school vowels you’d borrowed from Eddie—you struggled to cut the slab of meat on your plate. You’d only just started eating beef and had discovered a surprising penchant for rare steak, its velvety bites, the juices that flooded your mouth. But the steak on the mint-green dinner plate in front of you had been too polite. Like Eddie’s mum, perfectly coifed and manicured, and his dad, wool-jumpered and monosyllabic. Only their teeth, the insides of their lips, the secret glimpses you got as they ate, were stained red.
That night, you’d seen them through a crack in their bedroom door: his dad on the bed, rolling a stocking off his mum’s raised foot. His mum had turned, and you’d rushed away before your eyes could meet. Early the next morning, after Eddie left for a run, you’d drifted in and out of sleep, hair sticking to your forehead with sweat, convinced that someone was dragging the duvet off your naked body, slowly licking the skin stretched across your spine.
‘Babe,’ Eddie says, behind you now, massaging your neck, ‘it’s important to me. I want to know your life completely.’
Eddie doesn’t know what he asks—this impossible thing—though you tried to explain it once, the many lives you inhabit. He’d looked thoughtful, then asked, ‘Is it like this for everyone?’
‘Everyone who?’ you’d returned, challenge flashing in your eyes, though your skin warned you not to push it. He’d stammered, not saying what he was thinking. Everyone. Your people.
Later, mid-fuck, he’d groaned, ‘Your gorgeous skin,’ like there was something about it he just couldn’t take, and you’d been too astonished to say anything—just let him thrust harder, the tearing pain jolting you out of desire. You wore your palest skin with him, bleached and waxed and plucked, a sleek humanoid who knew when to open her legs, when to open her mouth, when to suck and spit. Even so, he’d asked about your childhood, the sick hot poor place you came from, ready to take notes for an assignment he was writing on the humanitarian crisis and foreign aid.
Now, he moves his hands lower and palms your nipples. Fuck him, the voice says, so you lean against his hardening body. ‘I don’t want to be your secret forever.’
The laugh is almost pushed out by the secrets damming your throat, jostling for space. You let him press you into the bed. You sink into the duvet as he hooks his fingers beneath your underwear, pulls it down, and licks the truth of you.
When your pulse finally—yes god please—blooms out, the thought flits through your mind: if he didn’t make you shudder and clench, would you still be in this room, stroking his cock?
Just as swiftly, the answer solidifies: Eddie is your ticket out.
When he raises his head, mouth glistening, there’s something in his smile, something in the way he wants to eat you all up, which reminds you of his mum, of Caroline—and every time you see it, you shut your eyes and pretend you didn’t.
• • •
At the dinner table later, your phone pings. Babe, what if I came to M’s wedding? Might be the perf opportunity to meet everyone? x
You stare at the message. Delete it, this skin whispers. You swallow a spoonful of jaulo, the heat of it pooling in your belly. You texted your mother that you were feeling unwell, and when you got home, there was a pressure cooker full of the mash of rice, dal, and vegetables waiting for you. The clove-laced aromas of your childhood soothe you. Your father is at work, and the whole house is full of gentle warmth.
The phone pings again. Only if you want ofc. Tarantino marathon tomorrow? x
You swipe to delete the message and turn your phone on its face.
Your mother glances up, but only asks, ‘Will you be here tomorrow night?’
‘No.’ The word is curt. Please don’t ask any more, you plead silently, lies bubbling on your tongue.
‘Have some more chicken,’ she says, ladling out chunks. The gravy splatters on your clothes.
‘For God’s sake.’ The words erupt, and when she gets up for a cloth, you snap, ‘Leave it. I’ll do it myself.’
She sits. The house grinds down, detecting the heft of your father’s ghost in your words. Here it is, the thing you fear. The longer you stay here, the more like him you become.
Silence hangs in the kitchen. Both of your spoons lie untouched.
Then she begins telling you about an elderly resident who locked their carer into the laundry room and went for a stroll, a common occurrence in the care home where she’s laboured for the past twenty years, wiping shit and reporting dead bodies without complaint. The sounds of her Nepali carry the warmth of the jaulo, and you’re so grateful—for the softness, for the gift of words you aren’t brave enough to utter outside these walls, for the sudden loosening of your skin—that you duck your head and blink back tears.
This skin, though often shroud-like, bears the weight of your mother’s love, the lullabies of your youth.
• • •
The next morning, you’re putting on your coat, winding a scarf snug around your neck when—a shadow against the door. The stamp of boots, the scratch of a key in the lock.
He’s inside. At any moment, he will glance up. You want to open your mouth, gasp for air, but that would be too much noise, too much.
How could you be so careless? You carry the skins everywhere, afraid they will be found, afraid you will be found. You have strict rules about where and when you can change. But you overslept. You spent the night resting against your mother’s arm, under a blanket, watching one of those frothy romcoms you both love, something you haven’t done in a long while, and this morning, a pale sun filtered through the gaps in the curtains and you felt—light.
You thought it no great risk to change into one of your other skins here.
You are slipping, becoming reckless. Neither your mother nor your father have seen you as anything but what they believe you to be.
When you pass him—please don’t look at me—his eyes are fixed on your face. You imagine his focus blurring as he tries to make sense of you. He might’ve said, What have you smeared on your face? or What’s that smell? But you haven’t spoken to one another in months, not really. Your mother tries every few days to smooth things over: You know how he is, chhori. In those words, a soft plea: please keep the peace. Just as she has always done, just as she will spend the rest of her life doing.
Which is worse, the fear of turning into your father or of climbing into the husk of your mother?
He is looking, not saying anything. The thump of your heart is loud. You keep your head down, huddled into your scarf, and stride past—please don’t—stuffing your feet into trainers as you reach for the door.
Your skin tightens around you. Say something. This command, coming at the last second, is so incongruous from this almost-white skin that has always soothed your guilt, always said you need to get out of this place, that you are caught off-guard. You choke out a word.
You clamber through the door—letting it bang shut—into a gust of wind outside, walking fast, yanking at the scarf, trying to loosen its grip around your neck.
Later, as you wait for the train, your pulse finally stops stuttering; you find yourself back in the slip of time, just before the door slammed. You think you hear it, the sound of your father’s voice, giving you the answer you want but cannot bear.
• • •
When you get to the multimedia art show, notebook and SLR in hand, the time window printed on your ticket is almost over, but they let you in without fuss. The exhibition explores the state of modern relationships in parts of South Asia, everything from arranged marriage, elopement, and divorce to live-ins, dowry deaths, and sati. You wander through the rooms and loop back to the performance piece, watching it in the dark. There is a lunchtime Q and A for which you’ve shelled out an extra fifteen quid. On the stage, you see that only the interviewer is a brown woman. The audience is a sea of pinks, whites, and beiges, seashells and blanched bones found on a cold, sandy beach. A few brown faces are dotted here and there: three older ones at the back and two girls sitting in front, whispering softly during the break.
A woman with snow-white hair and a carefully lined red mouth, her face a papery crinkle, a glittering brooch pinned to the lapel of her cream-coloured suit, turns to the girls to say, ‘So how did you two get away from all this?’ She makes an expansive gesture towards the exhibition. The girls glance at each other, and the woman pushes on, ‘It must be hard, getting that kind of pressure from your family.’
Their answer is drowned out by the audience surging back with steaming cups, packets of crisps, and cookies crumbling in their hands.
You try to focus on the panel, to not look at those girls or that woman, but there’s a drumming on the right side of your skull, the throb of mosquito bites, four or five of them, hot and tight.
Later, when Eddie asks why you’re upset, you tell him about the woman. He rolls his eyes, says, ‘Generation gap’ and ‘Just forget it, babe,’ and turns back to his laptop.
You glance down at your phone: three missed calls from your mother. The flash of your father’s eyes. The world blurs as you stare at the unedited photos on your laptop. Eddie’s got the sati documentary on in the background to help you ‘get in the mood’. A close-up shot of a woman’s body engulfed in flames takes over the screen.
Your skin feels thin and taut, ready to snap.
• • •
‘Hey, what’s this?’ Eddie asks.
You’re engrossed in an article on political immolation, so you don’t look up immediately. He’s just back from a coffee run. The cafetière shattered that morning, and you spent an hour hoovering and fishing pieces of glass off the floor, slicing your palm only once. You stood for a long time at the kitchen sink letting the blood drip and pool before bandaging up.
The smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the room, and you turn to him with your left hand outstretched, anticipating its sweet bitterness.
You still when you see what he’s holding. ‘Where,’ you say through numbing lips, ‘did you get that?’
‘Oh, on the floor, fell out your bag maybe,’ he says, but you know you zipped up your bag and stashed it away like you always do. He grins. ‘Is it a treat for me?’
He thinks it’s lingerie.
The whites of your knuckles are jutting out, the wound on your palm threatening to split. You ease your grip on your laptop and conjure up a laugh-like sound. It’s brittle, like glass. ‘You wish. They’re body suits for slimming and shaping.’ You stand and take it from him faster than he can blink. He looks at you strangely, a curl to his lip, a slight flare of his nostrils.
‘Love the colour.’
You put the silken parcel, the whole truth of yourself, back inside the bag. A film of sweat dampens your clothes. His voice finds you through the walls. ‘Wear it to bed, babe, bet it’s dead sexy.’
You don’t respond, and by the time you emerge from his room, he’s busy tapping away. Your heartbeat is tripping. Eddie doesn’t know what he found. You repeat this. Your secret is safe.
But there’s something else too, under it all, deeper than flesh and bone.
How dare he touch you?
As the day unfurls, slow and lazy, the knotted muscles of your shoulders and neck loosen. You eat sashimi dipped in soy sauce thickened with wasabi. Placing slice after slice on your tongue, you binge-watch horror movies until they become a part of you.
Nothing happens—and though you don’t want to, though the thought of it makes you sick, this bleached skin makes you fuck, drink wine, and fuck again till you are raw and worn, and finally it makes you sleep nestled into Eddie—so you start believing it.
You are safe.
• • •
‘Babe, wake up.’
When you come to, your chest is on fire. Heat crawls into your stomach.
‘We have to go.’
The room is hazy. You drag in a breath and—you’re up, coughing hard. Something dry and ashy fills your mouth. Eddie’s tugging your hand. There is smoke everywhere.
‘Come on, please. We need to leave, right now.’
You let yourself be pulled. Eddie snatches up your phones, half-drags and half-carries you out of his apartment. Other bodies rush down the stairs. Instead of the cries of groggy children, shouts of parents, and drunken swearing, there’s a deafening hush. In his arms, you float out into the cold where a soot-covered swarm stands, solemn.
There are no sirens, no trucks, no hoses. The night sky blooms into dawn, and you watch black smoke plume from Eddie’s window. You step backward on the pavement, seeking Eddie’s warmth, when a sharp jab into your naked foot shocks you.
Wetness seeps into the ground, and you think immediately of rusted needles and infected blades. You can’t wait to get this thing off and change into another—
Panic, hot and electric, courses through your body. Your eyes are darting, searching. You need to get back up, need to get to your skins—
‘Hey, hey.’ Eddie is grabbing you, trapping you against his chest. There is menthol and tobacco on his breath. You don’t want his arms around you, but this skin, the traitor, makes you sink in, close your eyes; the bristle of his chin resting against your head, his lips moving against your forehead as if turning up in a smile.
Then, you know.
Eddie’s cigarettes. His habit of flicking them where he pleases, not checking if the life is crushed out. His habit of leaving butts on windowsills, where they can roll onto the carpet, into the bin, against the drape of curtains.
It rushes back. Your skins between his fingers. That look on his face. The flare of his nostrils.
Was it—did he—
You look down—Eddie’s the ticket—and see, with horror clambering up your throat, the only skin you are left with.
Your father’s face flashes in front of you.
Then your mother’s.
She is spooning jaulo into your mouth, smoothing your hair, smiling; she is on her knees, scraping mould sunk into the grout, your father looming behind—Eddie’s the ticket, you think, shoving him away to squat and retch on the pavement—Eddie’s the ticket—your skin tightening and shrinking until every single seam is stitched together at last.
• • •