A Serious Man

The fingers fit perfectly, as did the wrists and hands. Not because his hands were delicate or small, but because hers were thick and work worn and because she kept her own skin on when she slipped into his. The arms she had to pin and tuck under the pits. The torso she let out here and there, pulling and replacing stitches to accommodate her soft middle, her moderate breasts. She was careful not to leave marks or add new holes or show her work, lest he find out. But she was an expert seamstress. That’s why he’d married her. There were other things between them, but those skills were her greatest asset—the one most relevant to a man who wore his skin as a suit during the day and shed it each night.

When he was naked, red and exposed in his hyperbaric chamber, with its gel and its misters, its white noise machine and temperature controls, when she’d laid a stretch of silk across his lidless eyes, a mask over his nostril holes and toothy mouth, and closed the cover of his box earlier that night, she’d felt his equal. She was proud to tend and mend and moisturize to keep him whole.

When she wore his skin, though, she felt more like she did when they were out together. She noticed all the ways he was larger than she was, the places he was leaner and more fit. Even with padding, her shoulders didn’t seem as broad or confident as his. Her back curved, a quiet question. His face on hers was not his face. The cheeks sagged and the chin pulled, making her look both younger and older than either she or her husband. She could not have impersonated him. She might have been able to pass as a relative—a cousin or nephew—but never as the man himself. It was ok. That was not her intent. She did not want to imitate him or to be him. She did not hold the delusion that by walking in his skin she would understand him any better. She knew how upset he’d be to know that she’d worn his most precious possession when her only job was to maintain and care for it. And yet, she could not help pulling it from its rack as he slept and fingering its edges before altering it in so many small ways. She could not help but catch a breath and slip into the skin that had, through the years, become more familiar than her own.

Over it, she put on a second suit of worsted wool, lined in the same silk she used to store his skin when he took it off. The silk slid up each leg, pulling all the small hairs gently against the grain. She folded the extra flap of torso into a soft paunch and belted the trousers in place. A fleece pocket held the empty dandle between the legs. She buttoned her shirt high enough to hide the stitching at his throat and covered that with a padded jacket that masked just a little more the irregularities beneath. From vanity or from professional pride, she’d cut the wool to its most attractive fit, its darts edging in to emphasize the line of the waist and what shoulders there were. Next, she donned the specialized hairpiece and dabbed adhesive under his lips and eyelids, affixing them firmly to her own. When it was dry, she stretched and contorted her mouth and blinked her eyes rapidly to make sure the glue held fast. As an added precaution, she wore a false mustache and a pair of tinted glasses just dark enough to obscure her doubled lashes.

She left the apartment quietly, nodding to the doorman on her way out, then turned right onto Lexington and started downtown, taking long strides so that her husband’s shoes wouldn’t catch on the sidewalk. She’d learned to shove unspun cotton into his hollow toes to cushion her smaller feet, and then practiced in the apartment for weeks before developing the balance and reach to put each unwieldy foot in front of the other, rolling forward from ball to toe without a hitch. The stride gave her a purposeful air, and she would surely have walked all the way if it hadn’t been a warm night. With the layering of suits, she risked impregnating the skin with her sweat. That would mean hours of stealthily washing and drying after she got home and before her husband woke. Instead, she raised an arm and hailed a taxi down to 14th Street.

When she got there, she walked again, past toy stores for pets, bakeries’ ornate and rainbowed displays, and brick walls painted with ads, a century old. A young couple strolled by, whispering. Across the street, three teenagers with skateboards kicked up and off the curb and the arrhythmic clack of wood on cement followed her for blocks. She paused only at clothing boutiques. Many in that area were consignment shops, but there were real designers too. One window was full of men’s jeans that had been posed to look as if legs were walking, jumping, crouched. In another window stood three mannequins in varying stages of dress. Only one had a truly admirable fit, but the man who owned that suit would have to be perfectly mannequin sized himself. She disdained clothing off the rack, but she knew that not all men had her husband’s resources. Not all could afford a tailor and far fewer would marry one to keep him in dress. 

At the corner, a distinguished man with an open gaze walked right towards her, and she endeavored not to look away. Looking away drew more attention than a little measured eye contact. In her own body, she went mostly unnoticed, but the polished glow of the skin and the fine cut of her suit drew more attention than her own dowdy looks. The secret was not to smile. Women smiled. A nod, perhaps, and a distant glare were enough to pass undetected. 

She walked by a store in whose windows sat racks of limp hanging clothes—a tantalizing bit of color and the hint of a known designer drew her close. She’d never been a designer, had only ever assisted others in her early career. Most in her field were either artists or craftsmen, seldom both. Men’s clothing, especially, owed more to tradition than to innovation, and the skill of the craftsman far outshone the vision of most artists. Still, she knew artistry when she saw it, and could not help but admire the elegance of a perfect drape.

She turned on Christopher Street with a little thrill and walked past the beautiful boys with their fresh haircuts and fitted jeans. They evaluated her with keen eyes, eyes that saw the cut of tailored slacks, even under streetlights. These were men who, even if they couldn’t afford better, made sure every item they wore flattered. She did not shy from their gazes, from taking them in. She nodded approval at the young ones who looked her over diffidently. A few of the more desperate-seeming pushed their pelvises out in offering. Those too, she passed. Up the block, an older man in loose Dior was lighting a cigarette when she slowed to admire his cuffs. He held his pack out to her, asking her wordlessly to join. She blushed underneath the face, declined politely, and turned the next corner without looking back.

The heat travelled down her neck and she had to stop a moment in a shadowed spot. Her heart refused to slow. She pictured the man’s broad hand coming toward her again, cigarette proffered, eyes already alight. If she was being honest, that’s what she was here for—that singular draw. She wanted to be seen.

She’d been too bold though. With men there was risk. Men weren’t afraid to approach you. Men weren’t afraid to touch. Most expected a speed from meeting to bedroom that she couldn’t afford. Their overt physicality drew her, but it was also a trap. She would never risk damaging the skin for a cheap thrill with some stranger. How thrilling could it even be? She couldn’t feel human touch as more than pressure through the skin. Besides, the fasteners would be visible, the open holes at her hips. Even if she rigged the flaccid space between her legs with some device or insert, how could she be sure not to mar that finest and most delicate of parts?

When her husband had come into her shop and proposed to her that she take on this life, this partnership, the seamstress had assumed that sex would be a part of their arrangement, that any man who trusted her with so much physical intimacy would eventually share his body in other ways as well. But that had never happened. It seemed he did not use the skin in that way at all, with anyone, ever. When she was cleaning it, she’d examined that place. Throughout their marriage, it remained pale and untouched, as soft and pliable as a child’s. Maybe he had a mistress, another professional with the skills necessary to elicit response with little to no damage. Maybe he’d perfected some sort of self-stimulation by which he could climax without touch. She herself had never been good at masturbating. She pursued it furiously but only found herself mounting to higher and higher peaks, never breaking over or releasing, just accumulating a growing frustration, a storm of anger that pushed so hard she had to give up altogether. There was a quieter joy to be found within his skin, the way it’s babysoftness surrounded her, comforting and whole. 

She checked her phone. There was still half an hour until her date. She’d set it up online so she could prescreen and plan. She’d chosen a woman her own age—one she knew would be grateful for a nice dinner and conversation, some wine to share—the kind of woman who would appreciate the attention and wouldn’t push for more than a gentle kiss at the end of the evening. 

She went straight to the restaurant and took a seat at the bar where she nursed a glass of whiskey and waited. The woman’s name was Janelle. She wore her hair long, in a spiral perm that hadn’t been in style for decades. Her profile listed music and travel as hobbies. They had nothing in common. The seamstress spotted her as soon as she walked in. Janelle wore an off-the-rack fuchsia shift and chunky jewelry. She had on more makeup than in her profile picture and seemed particularly uncomfortable either because of the poorly made dress or the tight space of the entryway. The seamstress let her wait another minute, watched her check her phone, glance around, and check again. She finished her drink, slipped off of her bar stool, and crossed over with her confident stride. She touched Janelle’s arm at the elbow and introduced herself. 

“Janelle,” Janelle said. A trace of lipstick on her front tooth.

The seamstress signaled the host, who brought them to the corner table she’d reserved. She sat with her back to the window, where the bright street light behind would help avoid at least some scrutiny. That, plus the candles on the table and the wine they’d soon drink, made it so no date had ever looked too closely at the way her mouth moved under her husband’s lips when she ate. They listened to the specials and she ordered a mid-range bottle of red. Janelle did not protest. 

“I recommend the trout,” the seamstress said, her voice pitched in her best baritone, lilting down at the end. Women liked it when you took charge or seemed knowledgeable.

“Is that what you’re having?” asked Janelle.

“Or the prime rib,” the seamstress said. She’d been practicing. 

“Oh,” Janelle said. “I don’t really do red meat.”

The seamstress did not remember that from Janelle’s profile. Was it a rebuff? She was not much better at dating than she had been before marriage. As Janelle read over her menu, the seamstress felt deeply the pause in conversation. She’d done her best, when searching online, to choose talkative types, the kind of women who would prattle on about themselves and fill the space so she didn’t have to. She’d assumed from Janelle’s lengthy and lightweight profile that she was just such a woman.

“It really is a beautiful night,” she tried.

“Oh yeah,” said Janelle. “I’ve always loved the springtime.” 

That was better. Light, easy. The seamstress did not rush in to reply. Her husband was a man of few words. She shifted in his skin, determined to inhabit this second silence. The waiter returned with the bottle and the seamstress relaxed into the ritual pour and swirl she’d seen so many times. She smelled it and then held the glass up to the light. She tasted the wine and pretended to contemplate its nuance. She let the waiter fill their glasses, then raised hers. Janelle met it with their own.

Janelle ordered first and the seamstress made sure to get something slightly more expensive for herself.

Once the waiter had left with their menus, the seamstress asked, “Do you live around here?” even though she knew from the dating profile that Janelle was from Jersey City.

“No,” said Janelle. “I’m a bridge and tunnel girl. You?”

“Tribeca,” said the seamstress. It had seemed both neutral and up and coming when she chose it. “And you’re a legal aide?” the seamstress said.

“Yeah, over in Midtown,” said Janelle. “And you’re a software guy?”

“Yup.” The seamstress waited for Janelle to initiate the next small exchange. She sliced and buttered a roll but didn’t bother eating it. Dates were different from daily life. All of the getting to know one another required conversation. It was expected.

“What are your hopes and dreams?” the seamstress asked.

“Ha!” said Janelle.

“Ha ha,” said the seamstress. Janelle looked back over her shoulder, maybe for the waiter, maybe for an exit. The seamstress eyed a stray thread at Janelle’s neckline. There really was no excuse for such carelessness. 

“I haven’t done this in a while,” said the seamstress, even though she’d been in this very seat two nights before.

“Really?” said Janelle. “I do this way too much.” She looked at the seamstress more closely then, as if taking her in for the first time. 

The seamstress sipped her wine and wiped her mouth so as to stay in motion. In motion, she was more convincing.

“You know how it is on these sites,” said Janelle. “Lots of likes and hey beautiful, and guys trying to take you home, but then what? Either they don’t call and that’s it, it was all a lie, or they do and you’re dating someone you don’t even know. I’m not sure why I try.”

The seamstress refilled both of their glasses. “To trying,” she said. Janelle toasted.

“No offense, or anything,” Janelle said. “I just don’t always know what to talk about with strangers.”

The seamstress waited.

“Like am I supposed to tell you about my childhood? Or complain about work?”

“I don’t know,” said the seamstress. “How was work?”

“Pretty boring, if I’m honest.”

“What was your childhood like?”

“I mean, it was ok. Just normal kid stuff. Bikes and suburbia and school or whatever.”

The seamstress had spent much of her own childhood in the back of her father’s shop. She’d had few friends, but many dolls, cut together from scraps of cloth, pinstriped and paisley. She’d gone to grade school in Queens and then to high school a few blocks south. When her father died, she’d dropped out to run his shop, but few of his customers had trusted a teenage girl with their suits, even though she’d been doing most of the sewing for years. The workmanship was still there, that she knew, but she lacked something in the fitting rooms, some ease of carriage that her father had inhabited naturally. Customers went cold under her touch, or worse. The middle-aged man with a gut like a sack of flour who’d petted her neck as she measured his inseam had then held her hand against him as he’d grown thick beneath the all-too-thin cloth.  

None of this seemed worth sharing. Janelle was right. They were strangers.

The waiter brought their food and she focused on that. It was work to keep her mouth fully closed while she chewed. Cutlery was also difficult. Her nimble hands were clumsy in his, even though she’d spent hours at home relearning how to hold her fork and knife, how to cut her food. The skin had become heavy and the seamstress felt the heat of the wine. This was supposed to be easy: ask questions, get answers. Listen and laugh at the right intervals and watch the woman loosen. Smile and nod and let her talk about herself and her life and grow familiar over the course of the evening.

“So, fuck it,” said Janelle between bites. “I was married and now I’m not. Is that what you want to know? I hate it, and I don’t want to be here, and you’re perfectly nice or whatever, but it’s just so hard.” Janelle shoved a new potato in her mouth then washed it down. “I guess dating is better than crying. Or not.”

“What happened?” the seamstress asked.

“He was a shithead, but I loved him.”

“Why?”

Janelle smiled for the first time that night. “Probably because he was a shithead. It’s how I’m built.”

Something in her voice made the seamstress want to reach out to her. Janelle flipped her hair and the seamstress admired her thick jaw. The seamstress let her leg brush against Janelle’s under the table. She felt only a slight pressure, but she imagined the texture of the wool against Janelle’s nyloned knee, the spark those two fabrics might create.

Janelle shifted away but met her eyes. There was no dampness in their corners. 

“Besides,” she said, “the sex was good, even in the end.” The statement seemed cutting, as if Janelle knew that the seamstress slept alone. 

“You look beautiful tonight,” the seamstress said.

Janelle tilted her head. There was something in her face that the seamstress couldn’t identify. It was not attraction. Nor was it indifference. It may have been pity, as if Janelle sensed all of the complex expectation the seamstress had brought to this date. They chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed until the waiter returned with dessert menus.

“No, thank you,” said Janelle, placing her fork and knife across her plate. “I think I’m done.”

The waiter started clearing, and the seamstress flipped him her credit card without asking for the bill. She downed what was left in her glass and poured herself the rest of the wine before the waiter took the bottle.

Janelle put her napkin on the table then checked her phone.

“I can handle this,” the seamstress said. “You don’t have to wait.”

Janelle thanked her but didn’t linger. She slung her knockoff purse over a shoulder and stood. The seamstress focused on the back of Janelle’s dress. Its seams were even, its cut serviceable. There was no pilling, and the fabric flowed well, considering its quality. 

Outside, a light drizzle had slicked the streets and fogged store windows. There was still an hour at least before the seamstress had to be home. She wound her way through the damp snarl of the village until she found a bar that appealed—an old favorite, not too much neon or noise. Inside, she ordered another whiskey. 

“A serious drink for a serious man,” said a stranger on the stool next to her. She hadn’t noticed him when she’d sat down. He was smaller than she would have chosen, but he looked trim and cleanly dressed. She considered her reply, but he didn’t seem to need one. He was completely engaged with his phone. He showed her a picture of a shirtless man with gelled hair.

“Jackrabbit here says he’s a buck sixty. Maybe back in high school. I can smell that muffin top from here.” He swiped to another picture and glanced towards a couple in the corner. “Airbrush much?” He thumbed through a few more, writing quick messages here and there.

“Where are you on here, honey?” he asked.

“I’m not,” said the seamstress.

“Serious and mysterious,” he said, putting his phone down. He was not particularly handsome, so his confidence took her off guard. 

“Mine’s Danny,” he said. “What’s yours?” 

“Ronald,” she said. “Ron.”

“A serious name,” he said, “and a serious face.”

It was a comment she’d heard only when she was in her own skin. Here, it felt less like criticism and more like simple observation. Danny reached up to brush a lock of hair. An inch further and he would have grazed the elastic edge of her hairpiece. She didn’t pull back. There was attraction here, even through the layers between them.

“Such distant eyes,” he said.

“All the better to see you with, my dear.” She cringed as soon as she said it, but Danny laughed. It was close enough to last call that this kind of terrible line got a pass.

Before she knew, he’d ordered another round and laid a gentle hand on her thigh. 

She accepted the drink and let him talk to her.

When his phone lit up, he turned it over and shifted his hand to a spot higher up her leg. He looked more closely at her face than she usually allowed.

It was the face that had most interested her as well. From the first, she’d been fascinated by the details, its plasticity and resilience. The body, she’d understood. It was a beautiful piece, but its seams and fasteners were all straightforward in their craftsmanship. There wasn’t a stitch or cut that her father hadn’t taught her early on. The face, though, went beyond anything she could make herself. It moved almost intuitively with the muscles underneath and could easily track through a full range of emotions. Whoever had made it had pulled and stretched the skin to its most perfect drape. That artistry had made it impossible for her to decline when her husband asked her to take on this strange vocation, this project of care. He’d offered to keep her shop open, to buy the building and let her work as much as she wanted for other customers, but as soon as she’d understood the scope and skill required to maintain his skin, she’d lost interest in simple fabrics and known patterns. She’d wanted only to study this new, more challenging garment, to read up on leatherwork and taxidermy, anatomy and preservation. In him, she’d found her life’s work, a thing worth perfecting. How could she have known that it would leave her wanting?

Danny was still examining her. In fact, he was staring directly into her eyes when she felt his hand shift to a point even higher up her leg.

She jumped before he reached the top of her thigh and found what little was there. 

He pushed himself towards her, whispering sweetly, “It’s ok, baby, I can do the work.”

“No,” she said, “no.” She drew back further, knocking her barstool to the floor. She caught herself, but not before banging her calf on its upturned leg. She stepped over the stool as she backed away and then fled, leaving Danny and her drink behind.

When she’d made it a few blocks off, a coolness at her calf stopped her. The drizzle had turned to rain, so she ducked into a vestibule to examine herself. There was a rip in her suit. The stool leg had torn the wool and the satin beneath beyond patching. She fingered the hole and was surprised to feel sensation. She looked closer but could not see through her misty glasses. On the sidewalk, a clump of women in heels shuttled each other along to the next bar. When they’d passed, she removed her glasses to better examine what looked like a fresh tear in her husband’s skin. Rain dripped from her hairpiece down her brow and wet the space between her eyelids and her husband’s, dissolving the adhesive so that his slipped shut over hers. She propped them open but couldn’t get a clear view of the damage. The hole was about an inch long, but she couldn’t see if its edge was jagged or smooth. She needed a better look.

With a glance up the block, she slipped back into the shadows and unfastened the hairpiece. She tucked it in her pocket and unhooked the closures at the back of her skull, then eased the skin off of her neck and head first, being sure not to stretch or distort it. Cool air filled the space between his face and hers and she pulled the skin forward so it folded limply onto her chest. There was always a moment when she first exposed her own skin, a sensory shift where the world became louder, brighter, more immediate. Had she been at home, she would have done this all in the bathroom where she could keep the lights low and her eyes closed and slip into the shower, bending her head under the water until the room steamed to a blur, staying there until the hot water ran out. Here on the street, the rain was falling harder than she’d expected. It came at a harsh angle that hit her face and hair and blurred her vision once again. She stepped over into a covered area, even though it was brightly lit and someone passing might see her. 

She lifted her foot to the window ledge and poked the hole with her fingertip. She couldn’t feel much, but to free her hand, she would’ve had to take the whole torso off. She wiped her eyes and rolled up her pant leg to get a better look. The cut was rough edged and curved inward. It sat nowhere near a seam. Had the rip been closer to an existing scar, she might have been able to disguise it. Had her husband been any less meticulous, she could have folded it into a wrinkle or blended it with an age spot. But he knew every nick and cut—each had been his own mistake, a small worry he’d brought home to her with hope and gratitude that she might make it right. She’d worked to make sure the scars she left were minimal, a small discoloration on the arm where he’d burnt himself, a line where ankle met heel from when he’d slipped on the stairs. There was no hiding this one.

She glanced up and saw herself reflected in the shop window. It was a shock to see her own face there, sodden and strange, a middle-aged woman with a flap of empty skin hanging down the front of her shirt. She’d shorn her hair to fit more easily into the skin—it gave her a gaunt, stern look. This was not how she pictured herself. In her bathroom mirror, when she wiped away the condensation and tried to see herself how strangers might, she felt insubstantial, as if anyone would look right past or see right through her.

Beyond her reflection in the window was a cloud of fabric—no, not a cloud, a dress with a train so long it pooled on the floor and then swept out wide. Someone had pinned the train up in a giant spiral filling the display, the body nestled in its own periwinkle womb. It was draped with such audacity that, for a moment, the seamstress forgot about her leg. The dress seemed to both cradle itself and, at the same time, grow ever outward, expanding far from the body, piling excess without fear. Whoever had done this was not concerned with wearability or sales. The maker of this dress had created beauty for beauty’s sake. 

It may have been a minute. It may have been ten before the seamstress pulled her gaze away and took out her phone to call a car. 

There was nothing within half an hour of her. Damn the rain. She pulled up her collar and headed the four blocks up to the nearest subway stop. The only people she passed had their heads down, covered in hoods or umbrellas. None looked up or noticed her. She made it to the station and descended underground. It was warm and damp and smelled of earth and grime and human bodies. A train shuttled beneath her as she fed money into a MetroCard machine. She swiped it at the turnstiles and followed the signs pointing uptown.

The platform held few people—a man reading a newspaper, another scrolling through his phone, a couple of well-dressed and tipsy teenagers leaning on a grimy pillar near the stairs. None of them were interested in the seamstress or the flap of skin hanging down her front. Rain from the world above dripped from the grates, dampening the walls and bringing that loamy smell that exists nowhere else in cities. When the train arrived with its usual rush of wind and noise, the few people waiting stood at attention. She let the young couple climb on first, then stepped on and found a seat before the toll sounded twice and the doors whispered shut. 

The seamstress sat on an orange bench watching her reflection flicker in and out of view in the window across. In it, she saw the same face she’d seen in the store window earlier. It had not changed at all, as if she’d somehow crystalized into someone permanent, a person who could no longer be overlooked. She didn’t fiddle anymore with the cut on her leg. She knew her options. Given time, she could surely reduce it to almost nothing. She was an expert in repairing the small blemishes and minor mishaps of a life lived in this skin. There was a method of blending leathers that would require a patch twice the size of the hole. She could slice off a square of her own calf as she’d done before. It would have to be tanned and cured and color matched though and that could take weeks. Her husband, she knew, would notice the tear immediately. There was no hiding this, even if she did fix it. She had no choice. Her only option now was to go home and tell him what she’d done, to show him the first mark she’d ever left on him and find out what he might say.

“A Serious Man” by Mika Taylor is the Fiction Winner in Columbia Journal’s 2019 Spring Contest, judged by Alexandra Kleeman.

About the author

Mika Taylor was the 2015-2016 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin and holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in Granta, Ninth Letter, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Guernica, Diagram, and others.

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