[Image collage: “The Skin That Dies”]
I found the Craigslist ad when I first showed up in Phoenix, in those early days that were spent scouring the internet, waiting for something to materialize. I didn’t know what I was looking for when I opened my laptop day after day—something that paid, something that could make this place feel real to me, something to solve my problems. Craigslist was the only way I knew to do anything, and I had decided to throw caution to the wind by responding to anything and everything—ads for sublets, ads for jobs that were not quite jobs. Searching for a band-aid that could get me through the dead space between moving somewhere and that somewhere becoming home. When Russ’s ad showed up, it felt like an answer to the call I’d been putting out into the world, my desperate plea to find something that might keep me afloat.
I wasn’t sure what made me come to this city exactly. I knew nothing about it. I had never even visited the southwest. But when I graduated college, everyone was suddenly asking me where I was going, what I was planning to do. So I made a plan that I could say out loud. The very first thing that came to mind was, inexplicably: I’m moving to Phoenix.
And it worked. Once it was out of my mouth, people seemed to feel that I had it together, that I was going somewhere. I liked the way it felt when I said it out loud, liked the way people stopped asking me questions once I’d given them a satisfying answer. So I decided to stick to it. Any plan was better than none.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about Phoenix, but it was pretty clear it didn’t like me. I wasn’t prepared for the strength of the sun. My whole life living on the East Coast, my body had been impervious to sunburn, so I foolishly marched about here in shorts and tank tops with no sunscreen until I found myself blistering red and peeling all over, my shoulder blades bubbling and cracking, arms crisped and sandy to the touch. All of my skin was turning into hardened rock, molding to its new landscape. I was learning to adapt, building up an outer shell of old, dead skin that would eventually peel off into fresh, new, Southwest skin. A rebirth—the old Lacey gone, a new Lacey emerging.
While I waited for my skin to reset, I sat in my closet of a room at a wobbly Ikea desk, sweating from every crease on my body in front of an ancient rotating fan, wishing desperately that I had enough money to buy an AC. I spent days, then weeks, with my face in my laptop, flicking through page after page of thinly veiled requests for sex, a couple ads asking for a busty naked maid, and many open calls for servers that I wrote down in a notebook so that I could attend them when the time came. I was four pages deep when I saw the ad from Russ. There was no picture and very little description, just the headline “46 M looking for F to accompany him to the Grand Canyon” and the description “nothing weird, just want company. will be well compensated.”
I had never been to the Grand Canyon, and a trip that was not only free but “well compensated” sounded like something I shouldn’t pass up. I was aware that this could easily veer into sugar daddy territory, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that kind of commitment to a person or job, so to speak, but I decided to hedge my bets and call the phone number listed. On the phone, Russ didn’t sound like anyone I should be scared of, though most men don’t and that’s how these things usually start.
“You should know, I’m very sunburned right now,” I said. “If you want me to look nice, we should probably wait a week.”
“I’m not picky,” he said. “You can be covered head-to-toe for all I care.”
I sat on my bed, knees to my chest, and stared out my window at the bald sun beating down on the sidewalk below. I dug my nail beneath a scale of scabbed skin that had turned grey and peeled it off, satisfied at how easily it stripped away from my body, and felt my lips twitch upward at the soft pink that appeared beneath it.
“This isn’t about some vendetta against women, is it?” I asked. “You aren’t going to throw me over the edge?”
He laughed. It was a good laugh. Kind, with no discernable trace of bitterness. “If that were the plan, posting a Craigslist ad would be easy way to get caught, don’t you think?”
He had a point. Not that I expected him to admit it if he was planning to throw me over the edge, but I was hoping to gage something from his reaction—a defensiveness maybe, or the kind of laugh that sounds like a threat. But his response satisfied me, quelled any amount of concern I had.
“Will you pick me up in Phoenix?”
“Right at your door. Or elsewhere, if you’d rather I not know your address.”
“And the pay?”
Russ paused. I wasn’t sure what to expect. “Well, it depends how long we stay in the park. It’s about a three-and-a-half-hour drive, so if we stay too long we may need to grab a motel somewhere. Don’t worry, I’d get you a separate room. So, let’s say, $1,300 if it’s a day trip, $2,000 if it runs into two days, plus I’ll of course cover the park pass, food, and motel if needed. Sound fair?”
I felt my chest go tight, heart racing at the idea of making so much money for one single day. I thought about how long I could keep myself afloat with that kind of money while I waited for a real job to present itself to me.
“Yes,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. Trying to make it sound like this is the sort of thing I do all the time, like I was familiar with the usual rates for such a thing. “That sounds very fair.”
I gave him an address a few blocks away where he could pick me up, letting him believe it was my actual address so that he could start off from a place of perceived trust, while I could at least pretend that I was being safe and taking precautions here. We agreed on Thursday, three days from the date of our phone call. When we got off the phone, I set to picking an outfit that might appease both Russ and the weather, and shoes that could handle however much walking and exploring he might want to do. I set the outfit on top of my dresser, then marched back to my laptop to shop for a window unit that I’d soon be able to afford.
Thursday arrived and my skin was slowly shedding its outer shell. I had painstakingly covered the areas that were not yet new. At just past the crack of dawn, I stood out front of the address I’d given Russ with a leather bag slung over my shoulder, rocking back and forth in my Keds, trying not to feel like a child waiting to be picked up from school. Up pulled a silver Volvo hatchback, a fine car albeit not what I expected a man paying so much money for my time to be driving, and out came Russ. He circled around the car to come shake my hand and give me a light, respectful kiss on the cheek before opening the car door for me. I examined him closely, looking for signs that would hint at whether or not he was dangerous. He was certainly middle aged, though not yet balding. Average height with brown hair spotted through with grey, though the shade of brown was close enough to the grey that it wasn’t immediately noticeable. He seemed to have some sort of rosacea dotting his cheeks, which I found oddly endearing. He was neither fit nor potbellied. He was decently dressed—nice, dark wash jeans and a button down that felt casual enough for such an occasion but nice enough to make it seem date-like. All things considered, I judged him to be exactly average in all ways visible to the eye, which made the situation feel less potentially dangerous. A man too unattractive might have resentment in his heart, and a man too handsome would only pay this much money to spend time with a woman if it involved murdering her or some other closely related sick fantasy he couldn’t otherwise get a woman to perform. A man in all ways average could still very well be dangerous, but he is the most likely type to just be looking for companionship. The type of man who isn’t paying out of desperation so much as simple laziness.
I slid into the front seat, and Russ set up the GPS before picking out music I didn’t recognize but that felt familiar all the same: some strummy, croony folk-rock I could picture my dad listening to. The GPS promised a three-hour-and-thirty-six-minute travel time. I wondered what this man could possible do for a job that paid so well but also allowed him to go to the Grand Canyon on a random Thursday that might bleed into Friday.
Since arriving in Phoenix not quite a month ago, I hadn’t yet left the city limits, and as we wound our way out of the city and onto the highway, I was surprised by how quickly the landscape gave way to desert. I watched all signs of metropolitan life drop off into long stretches of lightly trafficked highway flanked by sand and more sand, what felt like millions of cacti crowding the parched earth like stars in a moonless sky. I was surprised, too, by the size of them—their masses stretching to double or triple my height, two, four, six arms and sometimes more clamoring out and up toward the sky as though they were congregating here in prayer. Out ahead the road stretched far into the distance, tapering out of sight until it blended into the horizon. The one constant that I’d come to expect here was the ever-present blueness: a lack of clouds, the sun always beating down onto the earth. In a city, it is easy to forget that your environment is determined by the sun and sky, but out here the cloudlessness and blaring sun had undeniably created something I’d never seen before—a world that should be dead, but is somehow thriving. Even on hostile soil, something had taken root. It had taken root and grown and grown and grown.
Russ seemed calmly confident in his directing, even as we entered stretches with no cell service and his phone’s GPS sputtered and halted altogether before flickering momentarily back to life. I suddenly had a flash of him pulling over and forcing himself on me, thick tongue shoving through my sealed lips, sweaty palms pawing at fresh skin. I recoiled, felt myself pressing closer to the door, suddenly unsure about this decision, though I knew that it was too late now to take it back, that I could not be dropped onto the side of a desert road without the chance of summoning a greater danger than this one. I desperately did not want to taint my new skin with bad memories. I prayed that if he touched me it would only be on my lizard skin, so that I could shed it off soon and still have a chance at starting anew. I clenched my teeth and tried to calm this sudden welling of unwarranted dread. I blinked my eyes closed and when I opened them, Russ once again seemed harmless, like the benevolent father of a childhood best friend.
He caught me looking at him and gave me a smile. “Do you know it takes one of those cactuses around a century to grow a single arm?” Russ said.
I wondered if he’d noticed me staring at them in awe. “That’s incredible,” I said.
He nodded. “You’re a lady of few words,” he said. He said it calmly but it felt like reprimand, a judgment of my character, and I felt myself becoming defensive.
“I don’t have a lot of interesting things to say,” I said.
“Well, we’ve got a lot more time on the road today, just me and you. And most of this drive is a dead zone, so you won’t be able to use your phone much. Best way to get there fast is to talk through it.”
I felt unreasonably irritated that he would expect me to have a conversation ready, but then realized that this was probably an implicit part of these sorts of deals. Russ, clearly, was not looking to spend the day with someone who acted like an irritable teenage daughter being dragged on a family trip. He was looking for a female companion, a companion who at least tried to seem interested, and so far, I was failing at it.
“Okay,” I said, trying to sound perky. “Let’s talk. What do you want to talk about?”
“You,” he said, giving me a sideways glance. “I’d like to know more about you. How long have you lived in Phoenix?”
“About a month, give or take,” I said.
“Oh, a newbie! You ever been out to the Grand Canyon?”
“Not yet,” I admitted.
“Great. You’ll love it. Glad I could be your first time,” he said.
I blushed and wondered if he was attempting innuendo, if he wanted me to play some virginal role that started with being a fresh-faced easterner come west for the first time and ended with me pretending I’d never seen a penis in real life. I reminded myself again that he had sworn up and down that nothing sexual would happen, but I wondered if he expected things might lead there anyway, by my own free will.
“Where are you from originally?” he asked.
I considered for a moment that I could lie. That we could have a whole conversation in which I could be anyone in the world, make up any backstory for myself. I had the opportunity here to change everything about myself for this one single day, and live forever in this stranger’s mind as a person who does not really exist. But I had no backstory ready, nothing I’d dreamed up for myself, nothing I desired to have been or to one day become. That was how I’d wound up here in the first place. I felt suddenly very sad for myself—that I’d spent so much time and effort trying to become someone new, and here I was presented with the opportunity to be that someone, only to realize that I had no such someone in mind. I wanted to shed the old me, but the new me was nonexistent. She was nothing but a layer of new skin beneath the old.
“Connecticut,” I said truthfully, defeated by my lack of imagination. “I went to school in upstate New York.”
“Wow, long ways away,” he said with a low-pitched whistle. “What brought you out this way?”
“I just wound up here after college, I guess,” I said. “I just sort of picked a spot on the map and said, there.”
He glanced over at me, seemingly impressed. “A fearless girl. I like that.”
His teeth were bared in something meant to be a smile, but it made my skin crawl. I gave him a small, impenetrable smile back before turning to look out the window. My fingers tapped a jittering dance across my knee, tapping along to music I didn’t even enjoy, and I made myself close my eyes and picture the money I’d have when this was all said and done.
I decided to turn the conversation around. Maybe if I learned more about him, I could quell the fear pounding in my chest. “How about you?” I asked. “How long have you lived in Arizona?”
“Oh, some twenty years?” he said. “My ex-wife’s family is from here, so we moved out here when we got married, before our first was born. I’m from the Bay originally, so it wasn’t too crazy a move for me.”
Ah, so he was married. Or, he had been married, now no longer. And had a child. I ran the numbers. A child of roughly twenty. Just a few years younger than I was. So it was wholly possible that he actually had thought I was acting like a petulant teen being dragged to the Grand Canyon, that he might have been reminded of a real, recent memory of his own daughter on this very stretch of road just a few years back. I regretted beginning down this path of knowing more about him. It was raising more questions than it answered, and it certainly was not helping.
I kept my eyes straight ahead. As we passed under a highway sign, I watched a hawk lift up off the top of it and sweep out over the landscape, its wings spread flat and wide as it glided out over the vast nothingness. I longed for that kind of simplicity—a daily, monotonous routine. Fly, hunt, eat, sleep, repeat.
Russ read my silence, not inaccurately, as disapproval. “You think it’s weird that I have a kid almost as old as you,” he said. A statement of fact, rather than a question.
“No,” I said. “Of course not.”
“Yes,” he said. “You do. It’s okay. It is weird. I had kids young. I love my daughter, but I also wish I’d waited. If we’d waited, maybe I wouldn’t have wound up here.”
I watched him purse his lips, his forehead crinkled, a sadness creeping over him. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was a two-way street: we both wanted something from each other, and both didn’t want to have to want that thing at all. The two of us were here because we wanted, because we couldn’t meet those wants without doing something a little unsavory, a little pathetic. I felt myself soften toward him, my body language loosening. Legs turning forward rather than pressed up against the door as if waiting for my chance to escape. I waited for him to pass the buck back to me—the two of us in a constant volley, each wanting desperately to not have to speak about our own lives.
But Russ surprised me by continuing on. “My ex-wife, I would have done anything for her to stay with me. But she wanted to be done with the domestic. Our daughter went off to college, and she wanted to adventure. Wanted to do it alone. Filed for divorce and flew off to Thailand to do God-knows-what with God-knows-who.”
His eyes glazed over, and he stopped glancing at me. I felt like I should have a clipboard, take notes. I watched his face intently so he would know I was still listening, that I wasn’t tuning him out.
“She once hiked to the basin of the Grand Canyon, before I ever met her. Her and her brother. Hiked all the way down and camped out, and then hiked all the way back up. She told me it was the best two days of her life. Not our wedding day, not the birth of our daughter. It was seeing the Milky Way glimmering above her head from the basin. It was the echo of her shout when she first set foot on the bottom and realized that she had done it.”
I was drifting into the story, thinking about how beautiful that sounded. How freeing. How I would give anything to feel that kind of vastness. To feel myself become so microscopic up against the enormity of the universe. Stars on stars on stars. Ripples of rock for so many miles all around. From down there, you could look up and up and up forever and still there would be more to see.
Russ broke me out of my daydream with a bitter laugh. “Her favorite days of her life were ones spent pissing down her own legs in the shrubs.”
I looked at his face, the sadness replaced with hardness I didn’t want to see. It occurred to me that this was his revenge tour. Going to the places his wife had loved more than him with a woman much younger than her. It made sense to me now—his motivation, his willingness to pay generously. Nothing makes a man act out more than an injured hubris.
“Anyway,” he said, the hardness shedding off him as he attempted a lighthearted laugh. “That’s all in the past now. I’m just excited to see this place again with fresh eyes. It’s been a lot of years since I’ve been here.”
He placed his hand on my knee and tapped his fingers against it, and my whole body recoiled at the feel of his touch. I tried to remain still, but I could feel his fingers rubbing themselves in a circle, feeling the softness of the skin on my knee, the new skin, the skin I did not want to be touched. I fantasized about being able to disinfect the spot immediately once he removed his hand. Which he had not yet done, even as I had started to scoot my legs closer to the door.
Up ahead, I could see the desolate earth turning into civilization again for a brief stretch. Giant billboards advertising for food off of the highway. One, an enormous picture of something with refried beans advertising a “Navajo taco.”
“Oh, great!” Russ said, removing his hand to my relief. “We’ve gotta stop for these. You’ll love them. Are you hungry?”
“Sure,” I said, the word tight in my throat. “I could eat.”
Russ took the exit, and we headed toward the Navajo taco spot. I didn’t know what a Navajo taco was exactly, but judging by the sign, they were famous, and they were not what I typically believed a taco to be. But I was relieved to be getting out of the car, which was beginning to close in on me, small and tight and airless. I clamored out of it as soon as he pulled into a spot, tilting my face back to feel the sun beat against it, grateful for the arid heat, grateful for the warm breeze rolling over me.
Russ looked at me with frustration. “You should have let me open the car door for you,” he said, before forging ahead.
I bit my tongue. I did not want to apologize, but I heard one squeak out anyway.
The Navajo taco spot was located within a gift shop full of mass-produced Native American paraphernalia mixed with Grand Canyon magnets and Arizona keychains. Russ led us through the shop to the back, where a hostess greeted us and moved us into an enormous room with at least twenty tables draped with red tablecloths. Only about three of the tables were occupied. The emptiness made me nervous. I wanted more witnesses around, then felt immediately embarrassed by how I was suddenly treating this like some sort of hostage situation, rather than something I’d agreed to on my own. I tried to shake the feeling, tried to take deep breaths and tell myself I was overreacting, but I couldn’t make it go away.
Russ ordered for us, two Navajo tacos. He stared at me from across the table, and I felt his eyes lingering on my breasts. Had he always had those searching, beady eyes, or did they just now get that way? His knee bumped against mine, and I felt myself shrink my body smaller, trying to disappear my physicality altogether.
“You’re too shy,” he said, giving me a side smile. “Are you nervous?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not nervous.”
“Well,” he said, “I’m a little nervous. It’s been a while since I’ve spent so much time with such a pretty girl.”
I gave him a tight-lipped smile, my throat constricting as I felt his foot begin to inch its way up my leg. On my fresh skin. No no no no no no.
The feeling of his leg against mine transported me to my old skin. To my college apartment, with a boy I thought was safe. The feeling of his fingers making rough indents, tiny little bruises that would dot my arms and turn from blue to black to brown-yellow before disintegrating altogether. The way I had squeaked out the words not tonight and been ignored. The way my body eventually gave up trying to push against it and just let it happen. I had thought that I could push the memory of it away with distance and a new set of skin, but here it was anyway. Here it was in the way Russ’s fingers had traced my kneecap, in the way he rubbed his leg against mine even when I tried to gently nudge it away. In the way my throat closed up whenever I felt that unwanted touch returning to my leg again and again under the table. A woman in any kind of skin is never as safe as she wants to be, and so I thought if I just decided to be unsafe, to accept that I would always be unsafe and at least try to make the most of that, it would feel easier. But it wasn’t easier. I did not want this man’s leg to touch my leg. I did not want his hand to touch my knee. I didn’t want him to touch me, not even harmlessly, not even delicately, anywhere on my body. Not on my new skin or my old, and not for any amount of money.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said, pushing my chair back so hard it nearly toppled over. As I walked toward the restroom, I had the sudden fear that he would follow me into the near-empty hallway, would pin me against the wall and touch me again. I checked my phone and was flooded with relief to see that I had service. My heart pounded as I pushed through the door and locked myself in a stall. I let the minutes tick by. Heard women come in and out and in and out. Five minutes. Ten. I imagined him growing antsy. Our food being set down on the table and him waiting politely for me to return. I felt a twinge of guilt at the disappointment he might feel, but could not bring myself to move. He could feel disappointment, or he could feel anger. I did not know him well enough to know which it would be, and I wasn’t inclined to find out.
In the stall, I pulled back my clothing to look at my skin, and began to pick at what was there. Slowly at first, and then more frantically. I peeled away the dead skin to find the new skin underneath, my fingers sinking into the scabs and peeling my shoulders and down my arms and everywhere that there was a spot to peel, tearing and tearing until my fresh new skin appeared, pink and irritated and blinking its eyes open for the first time. Beneath this layer was another layer that would grow again when this one was ready to shed off, and beneath that, another. Layers and layers of skin like the layers and layers of rock at the Grand Canyon, which I would not be seeing today. My body was a landscape all of its own, was the only landscape I needed to see. As I tore and peeled, I felt tears dripping off my chin. I knew this was not the answer, knew now that I could grow myself into a new body a million times over, but the new body would still bare the weight of the old one. The memories my old body held would still be contained deep within the core of the new, and moving myself all the way across the country would remove me from a place but not from myself. No matter where I placed myself or what I did to my skin, the old me would still exist somewhere inside. I could not force her away.
I heard Russ’s voice suddenly, outside the restroom, too loud. “Well go see if she’s okay!” he was saying. There was an inflection in his voice that told me he was less concerned about my well-being than about his day being ruined. “For Christ’s sake, what if she collapsed?”
The door to the restroom swung open again, and I saw a pair of feet walking slowly toward my stall. They stopped before me, and I pulled my feet up to rest them on the lid of the toilet. My heart thudded in my chest.
A woman’s voice said quietly, “Miss Lacey? Your food is ready and your date sent me to look for you. Are you okay?”
I let my feet drop back toward the floor and pushed the stall open slowly. The woman was young, probably my age or a little younger, her face soft and slightly pudgy, her hair pulled back in a braid. She looked at me so gently I wanted to cry.
I shook my head no, my cheeks still wet with tears.
She nodded silently, and gave me a small smile. A wordless understanding. When she stepped out of the bathroom, I heard her say, “I’m sorry, sir. No one’s in there.”
I closed my eyes and waited for him to yell, to rage, to force his way in here. But if he responded at all, I never heard it. Everything fell back into silence. Still, I stayed in the stall. I waited and waited. I watched the time tick by and tick by. Eventually, he would leave. Eventually, the woman would come back to get me, and I could leave this stall and find some way home. It did not matter if I didn’t know how I would get back. I had nowhere, really, to go back to anyway.
Beneath the flickering glow of the overhead light, my new skin glimmered softly, touched only by own hands.
Katie Robinson’s short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Winter Tangerine and Furtive Dalliance. Two of her short stories have been named Honorable Mentions in Glimmer Train‘s final Short Story Award for New Writers and final Fiction Open, respectively. She holds a BA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and is a 2019 Tin House Workshop alum.