Under the Skin – Brenna Hagan
October 24, 2023
There were mostly toddlers in the waiting room. Jude was watching their mothers silently. It was March, but everyone was wearing long coats and hats, balancing their leather pocketbooks on their laps, and watching the flatscreen television screen beside the receptionist’s desk. The time was 6 pm, and so the local news was on. The newscasters were talking about an abduction case from ten years prior. Jude remembered his father sitting his siblings down to watch the story on their TV when it was going on. He must have been in third grade then or something. They were all freaked out, especially his sister. The girl who was abducted and assaulted was on the screen now at the doctor’s in a sit-down interview. She had a kid, got married, and answered the questions with prepackaged answers. Like, my family did all they could have done given the circumstances.
Jude heard his name called. It came from the squat nurse with round pink glasses who had called out Evie’s name thirty minutes prior. The mothers turned away from the screen and watched him as he stood up and ducked his head beneath the door the nurse had propped open with her rubber-soled foot. The exam room she led him to was small and sterile, smelling of bleach and cherries. Jude saw stickers on the wall from some show he had watched as a child. The nurse had a cartoon frog beside her name tag: Norah. She told him that Evie had passed out during blood work. “Split her lip open on the floor,” she said. Between lip and open, Norah clasped her hands together at her chin for emphasis. He imagined Evie hitting the floor, banging her face to the sound of Norah’s clap, and counted the wooden sticks standing up in a glass jar by the sink to give his mind something else to think about.
“She’s okay. Just a little frazzled. They’ll have to refer her to the city hospital to get all stitched up,” she said, typing on her laptop. “We don’t do that here.” Jude felt lightheaded. He had forgotten to ask if she was okay, which would have been the first thing to do. Recently, he had watched a crime documentary where a father who murdered his wife and children, upon receiving the call that they were dead, forgot to ask how they had been murdered. They knew he’d done it after that. He didn’t think this line of thinking made him a serial killer or something. He just thought maybe it was telling of something else. After a few minutes of Norah’s clicking on the laptop, Jude asked why she fell in the first place.
“Seems like she got up too quickly,” she shrugged. “It’s rather common, you know. Passing out during the whole business.”
He thought it was a weird way to describe it. The whole business. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “Not the falling on the face, though, I’m assuming?”
“Correct, sir,” she said, nodding. “You’d be correct on that one.”
Jude returned to counting the tongue suppressors and then moved on to the long-stemmed cotton swabs. He lost track at seventy-three.
“You can sit down if you’d like,” Norah said, looking at the chair, “I’ll go get her.” He listened to her and spread his thighs wide on the chair, letting his neck hang heavy between his legs. As he did this, he felt the blood rushing to the top of his head. The rest of his face was numb and tingly.
When Evie stepped inside, she looked the same as when he last saw her leaving the waiting room, except she held a wad of bloody gauze under her lip. Norah was beside her, holding Evie’s winter coat under her arm. A line of blood was down the front of Evie’s shirt like an ice cream cone drip, and Jude couldn’t take his eyes off it. It looked like fake blood – too dark and thick – like when kids go as vampires for Halloween and pour the stuff from the edges of their lips.
“Hi,” she said, removing the gauze. When she did, a splat of blood hit the floor. Jude stood up and walked toward it. The blood was watery; he could see the white tiled floor through it. Evie started apologizing, shaking her head and clutching at her face. “I’m a mess, I’m a mess,” she repeated. Her voice was hoarse, like she needed to clear it. They didn’t sound like words after a while – just one endless stream of syllables. Norah motioned her toward the exam table, but Evie didn’t follow her. She said she’d be back with paperwork and something else Jude couldn’t hear because he was too focused on the blood. It landed right at the point where two tiles met. He saw a pack of tissues near the sink and grabbed one, bending down on his knee to clean it up.
“Don’t touch it,” Evie said quickly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Just leave it.”
“It’ll drive me insane to leave it there,” he said. Evie sighed, and he balled the tissue in the palm of his hand.
“I don’t care if it annoys you,” Evie said. “I don’t want you to do it.”
He held Evie’s elbow as she went atop the table. She gave one more imamess as he laid her down. Evie’s legs hung against the edge at a right angle; her body was too large for the child-sized table. Jude could hear a high-pitched cry coming from another room.
“You can sit, Jude,” she said. “I’m okay.”
“Right,” he said and then took his hand away. “Everyone keeps telling me to sit today.”
“You must look tense or something.”
“I’m starting to think you might be right.”
Evie looked skinnier than when he’d seen her last. That was January, a week after the new year. They were at a mutual friend’s party, and Evie had shown up late with her boyfriend, Warren. It was mostly a miserable time for him, and when the clock struck midnight, he went into the bathroom to avoid seeing him kiss her. Now, her body looked pinched, like one of the vacuum-sealed plastic bags full of clothing that Jude kept under his bed. He noticed as she readjusted on the table that her hip bones were protruding against the fabric of her pants. The bones of her neck, too, Jude saw, were visible beneath the thin skin there, and when she was doing the whole imamessimamess minutes earlier, he had watched the rhythm of the constricting muscles there. He counted her saying imamess eight times.
“I’m afraid of needles,” she said, tapping her heels against the table. “Did I tell you that?”
He shook his head. “You must have left that bit out.” Jude tried to remember when they were together – when they talked about things like fears and pet peeves. He watched Evie’s thighs vibrate as they banged against the table.
“I could have sworn I told you.”
He shrugged. “You could have. I could have forgotten,” he said. “I forget everything.”
“Yeah,” she said, going back to the heel tapping. She paused. “Are you mad at me or something?”
“No,” he said. “No, I’m not mad at you. Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know. I know you’re busy with work,” Evie said. “I just didn’t know who else to call.”
“You’re fine, Evie. It’s fine,” he said, attempting to reassure her. “I barely have anything to do at work.” He smiled, then remembered she was not even looking at him. A photo of a pink hydrangea surrounded by green leaves was taped on the ceiling. The colors were dull – the image clearly from a low-ink printer—a distraction for the kids. At the oral surgeon, when he got his wisdom teeth pulled in high school, they had the same kind of thing.
“The nurse said something about taking me to the hospital,” she said, sitting up. “I’m not going there.”
“You should go if they tell you to go,” he said, taking a long breath. “If they think it’s serious enough, you need to go.”
“Ever since you drove me to the pediatrician, you’ve been acting like my father,” she said, glancing at him and then back up to the ceiling. “Not saying I don’t appreciate you. Just something I observed.”
Jude looked down at his hands, then at the spot of blood. “What’s so bad about the hospital?”
“It’s going to cost me everything I own, for starters,” she said. “Like actually everything I own.”
“I’ll pay for it,” he said, then felt stupid for saying it. “If you can’t, I mean.”
She studied him briefly, then shook her head from side to side, “No way, I won’t let you.”
He opened his mouth to respond just before the sound of Norah’s footsteps reached the hallway. She knocked twice before she let herself in. Once inside, Norah bent over and wiped the blood on the floor with a towel.
“You should be covered for the stitches under your insurance,” Norah said on her way up from the floor. She handed Evie a new piece of gauze for her lip. “Provided that’s all they want to do to you,” she continued, tossing the towels and old gauze in the trash. The lid slammed down loudly. “You never know with them.”
“Does he know what it is?” asked Evie after a pause. “The doctor, I mean. Is it mono or something?”
“He can’t make any judgment calls yet,” said Nora. She repositioned her glasses on her nose. “A high white blood cell count could mean a lot. You’re certainly fighting something.”
When Norah left, Evie sat up and looked at Jude. Her pupils were dilated– the entire sphere was nearly black. The blood had stained her chin, and it wouldn’t go away, even as Jude watched her scratch at it with her fingernail.
“You haven’t seen me in months, and this is what I look like,” she laughed. She looked around the room. “You must think I’ve really gone off the deep end.”
He smiled. “No, I don’t think that. You look fine; you look pretty.” A few seconds later, he suggested that she should tell Warren. “He’ll be worried about you,” he said. He could feel Evie staring at him. As he waited for her to respond, he read and reread a poster on the wall about tick prevention. Use repellent, avoid long grass, check behind your ears and scalp.
Evie had started dating Warren after she and Jude broke up the previous year. At a party over the summer, Jude got roped into a conversation with him. He was a Pre-Med major and played soccer for the college team. They talked about the Manchester United game from that morning. Evie seemed happy with him.
“We actually broke up a bit ago,” Evie said. She inspected the bandage on her arm covering the vein they drew the blood from. “I didn’t want to tell you.”
He paused. “Right,” Jude said. He tried to keep his voice still. “When did that happen?”
She shrugged, “I don’t know, the timeline is all screwed up.”
Jude didn’t say anything. He just kept nodding his head. “You’re serious?” he asked. His voice went up an octave. “Like actually serious?”
She looked at him wide-eyed. “Yeah. Very serious.”
“I’m sorry about that.” He returned to the tick poster, then moved on to the one about infectious diseases.
“I’m over it,” she said, throwing her hands in the air. “Anyway, he’d be a terror in this situation. I can see him now acting like he knows more than the doctor.”
Jude could see him too. Evie smiled, and her whole face wrinkled up.
“Warren is a good enough guy, though, isn’t he? He probably took the break up okay,” Jude said.
“Well, he broke up with me, actually.”
“Shit,” Jude said. Evie raised her eyebrows and sucked her lips into her mouth. Mhm.
“You want to talk about it?” he asked.
She rested her hands back on the table. “Maybe later. It’s all very mundane and boring,” she said. “Not much to report.”
The gauze at her lip was turning darker. Jude thought that in minutes, the whole thing would be covered in blood.
Only four hours earlier, Evie called and asked him to take her to the doctor’s office. She said she felt like her bones were splitting like chalk. He was sitting at his desk at the engineering firm, shuffling and reshuffling a deck of cards a coworker had left there months before when she called.
“That’s not good,” he told her on the phone. He couldn’t think of anything better to say. When she said the thing about her bones, he felt physically sick. He could very clearly see all the bright white tissue separating beneath her skin.
“Where’s the doctor’s office?” he asked.
She cleared her throat. “It’s near the Whole Foods off of the highway.” She gave him the address, and he looked it up on his GPS app.
“The pediatrician’s office?”
“Yeah,” she said. “And before you say it, I know it’s outrageous.”
At the engineering office, Jude spent most of his time organizing documents from projects he’d already completed to pass the time. He spent the mornings reviewing the online files in the shared cloud drive and renamed them in a uniform naming convention. He ate at the fast-casual places down the road with his coworkers and tried to connect with them. Mainly, he thought about Evie. Sometimes, he would picture her sleeping with Warren and dig unraveled paperclips in his wrist until he forgot what he was thinking of in the first place.
After he got off the phone with her, he didn’t bother to ask his boss if he could leave. He just went out the back door into the cold and figured he’d tell anyone who asked that he had a family emergency or something else that didn’t warrant further questions. On the way to her college, he listened to an album his father had given him for Christmas to soothe his mind. It was the only album he kept in the car, and he knew all the words. He didn’t particularly like the music, but it was comforting to know which words were coming next.
The drive from Evie’s college apartment to the pediatrician was short, and during the car ride, they talked about her upcoming spring break and her post-graduation plans. He thought about the last time she was in his car and then quickly pushed the thought from his mind.
Norah returned with the paperwork and walked them down the hallway. Jude fought to urge to loop his arm around Evie’s – to protect her from getting hurt again or something.
“Do you know what the doctor said when I first described how I was feeling?” Evie asked him once Norah was out of earshot.
Jude shook his head. Standing beside her, he noticed that the skin beneath the bandage on her arm was starting to bruise. She was very pale, and he could see everything like he was looking through cellophane. Jude imagined the blood streaming through her sinewy veins and felt his chest constrict.
“He said it’s most likely anxiety. Anxiety.” She laughed, glancing at him. “I might be the first person to get stitches for anxiety.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” Jude laughed. “You can’t be the first.”
They checked out with the receptionist. There was a jar of lollypops beside her keyboard. Jude counted forty-six of them while the woman tapped at her computer and ran Evie’s paperwork through a scanner. The receptionist told Evie that she had to find a general physician soon. She had red lipstick on that had peeled away in the dry corners of her mouth. “We start cutting patients off at twenty-two.” She gave them directions to the hospital and a stack of papers to show to the front desk once they got there.
It took thirty minutes to get to the emergency room. At minute twenty, Evie asked if Jude found her to be an anxious person. He did, but didn’t want to say so. Instead, he told her: “No, not clinically.” Her skin looked paler in the car than in the exam room. The spot covered by the bandage was darker and had expanded like roots beneath her elbow. Jude pulled up to the clerk and paid the parking fee. Beside him, Evie drew down the sun shield and surveyed her face in the mirror. “It’s not anxiety,” she said, peeling the gauze from her lip. “I’m sure of it.”
When the doctor put the stitches in at the hospital, Jude held Evie’s hand and winced with her as the needle pierced her skin. The doctor was tall, blonde, and attractive by anyone’s standards, and Jude hated him from the moment he saw him. As he worked on Evie’s wounds, he made jokes and looked at Evie and Jude separately at the punchline. He wanted to tell him to focus on what he was doing. That he should just do his fucking job. By the time he was done, there were little half-moon crescents from Evie’s nails all over his palm, and the doctor was smiling and making more jokes.
Halfway through the drive home, they stopped at an American restaurant with Christmas lights still hanging limply in the windows. From their booth, they could see the headlights of cars as they merged onto the off-ramp.
“You asked me the other day about work,” said Jude.
She nodded. “That’s a relatively normal thing to ask.”
“I guess I should tell you it’s horrible. The job, the people. I thought you might want to know.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” he paused. “It’s all very mundane and boring. Not much to report.”
“You’re using my lines now?” she asked, circling her finger over the rim of her water. Jude laughed and drank the beer he had ordered. She set her fingers back on the table.
“I’ll never understand you,” she said. Across the table, Jude lifted his head. “You’re always bringing things up you don’t want to talk about.”
The woman at the hostess stand had a stack of menus in her arm. Jude counted them slowly. “You really want me to talk about it?”
It was hard to see through the dark light in the place, and he couldn’t get the same number twice. Evie nodded, and he flicked his eyes back from the menus.
“Sometimes,” he started, clearing his throat, “I imagine you and Warren together. Or you and anyone together, really. And I get this visceral reaction to it.”
“Yeah?” she asked, shifting in her seat. “How visceral?”
He looked back at the stack of menus and the headlights from the highway. “I don’t know. I’ll hurt myself or fall into this hole of feeling sorry for myself.” He paused and took another sip of his beer. “I’ll only tell you this because I trust you. But the other day, I went into the bathroom and cut myself with one of the Xacto knives from my desk,” he said, swallowing hard. “I literally had to get the thoughts of you sleeping with someone else out of my body.”
“Jesus Christ, Jude,” she whispered. At that moment, a family of four piled into the booth next to theirs. The two of them stayed silent, averting their eyes from each other. He took a moment to collect himself.
“How bad?” she asked.
“I’m fine now. It was practically a scratch. I wasn’t about to kill myself in the office, believe me,” he said, running his hand through the front of his hair.
“That’s not funny,” she said.
“I’m not saying it to be funny or to blame you or anything. I’m just telling you that the whole thing hasn’t been easy for me,” he said. “And I don’t need you to respond,” he added quickly, “but I just can’t stand the idea of you being with him, with anyone. I don’t know. I can’t make sense of it.”
She stared at him for a moment, squinting her eyes. “Well, there’s no need to worry about that now.” She fiddled with her necklace. “No need to think about me sleeping with anyone. Unless that’s some fantasy of yours or something,” she said, reaching across the table to grab Jude’s beer. She took a long sip of it. “I’m trying to take a break, actually.”
“From dating?” he asked.
She looked out to the window. “From people mostly.”
The waitress walked up and handed them their food. She looked young, maybe fifteen or sixteen. Evie blew on her spoon for a long time before opening her mouth slightly to sip the soup. Jude said he could order her something else if it was too much for her lip. She shook her head and swallowed it down.
“And are you?” she asked him a few minutes later.
He looked up at her, “Am I what?”
“Sleeping with other people?” She tapped her fingernails on the table.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not in a long time.”
One Saturday night, Jude took the train into the city for a college friend, Ian’s birthday. He hadn’t left the house, save for work, since he and Evie had broken up. The party was at a rooftop bar with elaborate outdoor furniture and potted plants. There were portable heaters seeping warmth into the cold. Though he had met most people there at some time or another during school, he had difficulty remembering anyone’s name. He felt very far removed from them. Jude was seated at a table with a group of his former housemates. After graduation, they had all relocated away from the area and flown in for the party. No one had anything interesting to talk about, so they circled around the same few topics on repeat.
People asked where Evie was, and he didn’t know what to do except tell them about the breakup. He felt odd doing it – offering up information to people who didn’t truly care. After he told them, he ordered two drinks from the bar and drank them down quickly. On his way back, he saw a woman across the rooftop looking at him. She had red hair and wore tights and a short dress lined with beads. He asked the table who she was. One of his former housemates, Martin, said she used to sleep with Ian back in college.
Jude nodded and tried to remember seeing Monica in their old college house. “That’s where I know her from,” he lied. “He’s not with her anymore?”
“I believe they’re just friends,” he said, staring at her. “She has gotten hotter, hasn’t she?”
“Maybe,” he said, searching again for Monica’s gaze. When he found it, she was making her way toward him. Later that night, Monica went home with him, and they talked drunkenly together on the couch in his apartment for over an hour. At some point, she asked him plainly if he wanted to sleep with her. He said yes. She looked different here, in his crowded apartment, like something had changed between the ten-minute Uber and the party. It took her forever just to get his belt unbuckled. As Monica went down on him, he shut his eyes and waited for it to end. He thanked her afterward, and he could tell it made her uncomfortable.
The morning after, he couldn’t look at her. Her body was pink and taut, and yet seeing her there beside him made him nauseous. After she left, he scrubbed his skin in the shower with a pumice stone until he drew blood. He threw the sheets they used into the garbage.
He told Evie the story, and they sat there silently for a few minutes.
Evie looked surprised, “Have you seen her again?”
“She doesn’t live around here,” he said, putting his glass down.
The sandwich he ordered was dry, and he had to take gulps of his beer to avoid choking it back up.
“That’s why you haven’t seen her, I take it?” asked Evie, smiling. “Just because she doesn’t live around here?”
“Does it bother you that I slept with her?” he asked. If she had said yes, he would have apologized right there. “You had Warren, all of that. I didn’t think I even crossed your mind.”
“Of course, you crossed my mind.” She shook her head and stared down at her soup. “I didn’t think you were sleeping with anyone,” she said, peeking up. “I thought that was something you didn’t need. Like physical touch and all of that.”
“Why do you say that?”
Evie rolled her shoulders back against the booth. “I don’t know. You just never seemed like the kind of person who really desired a relationship or to be with someone truly in that sense.”
He bounced his knees underneath the table and nibbled at his sandwich crust. “I do want those things,” he said. “I just don’t know if I’ve been in the right situation to express that.”
“Yeah?” she asked, pursing her lips. “Yeah, you just never found the right person?”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. “I’m just trying to understand why the shit with Monica would bother you.”
“I know you didn’t mean it.” She rested her spoon on the side of the bowl. “And no, I’m not bothered.” The waitress came back and asked if they’d like to see a dessert menu. Evie nodded, and the girl slipped off to the other side of the restaurant and returned with it a minute later. It was sticky with fingerprints. Evie gazed at it, unbothered.
“I’m happy you slept with someone,” she said. “I really, truly am.”
“Yeah?” he asked. “Is that supposed to make me feel better or worse?”
They sat silently as two busboys came by and grabbed their plates from the table.
“You’re a very severe person,” she said, studying him. “Did you know that?”
Jude looked away and asked if she was ordering dessert. Evie shook her head.
They went to Evie’s apartment that night after dinner. Her parents paid for the apartment, which was far too big for just one person. No matter how much furniture she purchased, it always looked empty. On the way home from dinner, Evie told Jude that Warren had texted her. He still had her location in his phone and saw she was at the hospital.
“I’m ignoring him,” she told Jude over her shoulder as she loaded dishes loudly into the dishwasher.
They were watching a movie together on her couch an hour later when Evie’s phone started to ring. She looked at the screen, then rolled her eyes. Evie told Jude it was Warren, so he turned up the television volume to try and pretend it could be anyone else. He watched the action movie they found aimlessly for ten minutes until he heard Evie nearing the living room. He saw she was crying; her eyes were nearly as swollen as her freshly sutured lips.
“You’re okay?” he asked her. She looked ghastly in the light of the television, green, almost.
“I think he’s right,” she said. “That there’s something wrong with me.”
Jude sighed. “He told you all that on the phone?”
“No, not just then,” she said. “Just in general, I mean.”
“Well,” he said. “What did he say to you just then? What did he want?”
“That’s not important,” she said, looking at him. The stitches were sticking off her lip like fishhooks – separating and pulling at the fatty skin there.
Jude avoided looking at her mouth as she spoke, staring instead at the sharp slope of her nose and patch of freckles collecting at the edge of her left temple. After a while, he finally gave in and looked at the stitches on her lip. The sight of them made him lightheaded. He opened his mouth to respond to her and then shut it.
“He was right to break up with me,” Evie said.
Jude looked at the television screen as the two main characters chased each other through traffic in sports cars. Then, he looked at her, her temple, and the thin blue veins beneath her eyes.
“Why is that?” he asked.
“Well, everyone has a right,” she continued, sitting down next to him. “Someone should be able to leave something when it’s not good for them.” She was looking at the screen, too, her eyes darting as she followed the cars weaving in and out of traffic. “You did that,” she said softly, not looking at him. “With me.”
Jude slipped his hand beneath his shirt sleeve and clawed at the skin of his wrist on the raised cut he’d made with the Xacto knife. He jammed his nail into the underside of his skin until he could feel his pulse pushing back against him.“Yeah, I did,” he said, digging deeper and deeper. “I don’t know why I did.” The blood came out in a tiny trickle, plummeting toward the little bowl of his palm and his middle finger in a straight line.