Tonight, neither of us are in our own bodies. In fact, no one here will ever be. But everyone still likes to talk about how unnerving it is to be outside themselves, to adjust to their new bodily possessions over tentative sips of cheap red wine. There is some comfort found in talking with others—some, since the whole breathless spiel about their arrival to their new selves grows exhausting after the hundredth time. We all share essentially the same story. The only thing that separates us, really, is our clothing, our names, our faces. But even our faces are beginning to settle into the same wraithlike glow. We all try to convince ourselves that, between wine and feigned interest, it will be enough to forget that we are all dying, already dead, or in the body of someone else.
Tonight, I am in the body of a former funambulist, infamous for his tightrope walking through icy tundras, who had been diagnosed with an improbable ailment in his knees. This body is soft, the bones are broad, so there is not much to adjust to. Sometimes, in the brief moments when I lose control of his conscious, he says things like, “I was a star back in the day, you know,” even if I know this body was not, nor ever will be. Whenever I try to heave myself from the stool, something in my knees feels like it’s crumbling, as if I am becoming paper. Most nights inside him go like this. I never keep anyone more than a month, but even in the short time I possess a body, I could still feel the man’s conscious squirming around as if gasping for air, trying to resurface after spending so much time drowning under the weight of my presence. This is why every few minutes the name Amalia falls from my lips with a tinge of indignation. This is why I find myself saying her name over and over again, each time more longingly than the last. I am reaching my arms out to a nonexistent woman, unclenching my fists as if I could wrap my arms around her, as if I could draw her toward me so I can kiss her, but the impulse dies within seconds. “I’m sorry,” I say to the body slumped next to me. “I don’t know what happened there.”
The body—also inhabited by a bodiless thing like myself—assures me it’s alright. Tonight, she boasts, she is a former performance artist. Among the sea of aimless people, I couldn’t stop looking at her: how she pulls her halter top over her supple breasts, how she reaches for her afro haloed around her round brown face as if trying to convince herself she’s alive. She doesn’t remember much other than the impact (impact from what, she couldn’t tell me), but she speaks in quick, rhythmic fragmentations that remind me of the scattered notes of a doo-wop. She smells like lavender. Her hair flaps like wings. She must have been new, given how eager she is to tuck her finger into every fold, every mound of flesh she could find like she’s trying to uproot flowers. She stares at me blankly, then she laughs, then stares blankly again, constantly skittering between bewilderment and joy that’s impossible to distinguish as the body’s former conscious or the occupant. She stifles her laughter with a sip of her wine. Burrowed between her every giggle is a tiny murmur, a whisper. A small voice that says, “It’s you.” I say, “Yes, me,” because I’m not sure what me means, I’m not certain if me is possible to exist. My tongue latches onto the word you, me, you, as if repeating the words fast enough would be enough to understand. But when I don’t, I ask, “Pardon?”
The woman blinks out of her stupor. “Sorry,” she says. “I’m not sure what happened there either.” But the conscious takes over again because the day is still young, because evening hasn’t fully settled into night yet, and we could both see rosy strands of clouds move across the sky. The moon isn’t out. Neither are the people. They are all here, moving, breathing, squirming against the rising crescendo of electronic music coming from the stereo. But suddenly, I hear the name again: Amalia. Her lips are moving, but maybe I heard her incorrectly. But when the music settles, I realize it’s the woman beside me saying how she’s Amalia. She tells me she loves me. While I try to sip my wine, she places a hand over mine. We marvel at how easily our palms slide into each other, how the warmth emanating from her palms spreads like wildfire. The occupant tries to tell me how she found this body two streets away down 112th Avenue, but she slips into another digression about how she’s Amalia. She asks, Haven’t I been looking for her? Haven’t I ever tried? Have I forgotten I loved her?
The ring, she says suddenly, while twisting a diamond-encrusted ring on her pinkie finger. Remember the ring?
“No,” I say, the inhuman part of me talking.
“Of course,” she says, the inhuman part of her resurfacing, too. “I don’t remember either.”
But some part of this body does remember. In this bar, the bodies like to talk about their new selves. How they found each other, how it feels to imitate living in a tiny forgotten bar on the fringe of a forgotten city. Never any questions about who or what their body might have been. I try to appear normal, or at least as normal as inhabiting a person’s body could be, and smile for a stranger who may or may not have been mine in another life.
My new body fumbles between sputtering a response and remaining puzzled. With every sip of my drink, a new memory floods my senses. I am proposing to this woman from a tightrope over the icy tundras. A breeze whips harshly against my threadbare clothes as I stagger to maintain balance and peer down to the woman below. Here, I am kneeling down on the wire to present her a ring carved out not diamonds but ice crystals. I am yelling I love you, but I do not really mean it. I fall from the tightrope in my attempt to propose before landing onto snow, still feverish with anticipation of my future wife and my shattered leg.
Remember the ring?
“No,” I force myself to say.
She raises her brows. She sips her wine. Her gaze flickers between boredom and anger, but she’s struggling to stifle the body’s conscious from surfacing. Not that I blame her. She deserves to feed on a soul in peace. But the constant diversions proved to be a nuisance, and worse, the woman is still clutching my hand. Her nails dig into my palm until I am certain my body’s arm is bleeding. She’s laughing, a bright, full laugh that sends shivers down my body’s spine, perhaps because I am in pain and confused, perhaps because she is still thinking how she’s Amalia, how she loves me, how there is some rift that cracked our relationship like an egg. I say, Amalia, but there’s a pang of regret in my voice. I find myself saying don’t leave me, I love you, without meaning it. I am reaching my arms out to this woman, unclenching my fists as if I could wrap my arms around her, as if I could draw her toward me so I can kiss her, but the impulse dies within seconds. In those seconds, I am rubbing my blood-streaked arms over my chest, over my stomach, still trying to accustom to the body that is not mine. Still wondering why we have so many names for ghosts when they’re only people.
About the Writer
Brianna McNish's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Literary Orphans, Juked, Unbroken, and elsewhere. As an undergraduate student studying creative writing and film at the University of Connecticut, she is obsessed with fabulism and finding a happy medium between the fantastical and mundane.