Monstrous Femme

Ally had a sniffle.

The subway was crowded, and she sagged against the pole, acutely aware of the contact her hand made with the steel. She imagined it crawling with tiny germ commuters, germs jostling one another en route up and down the stanchion. Germs being shuttled by germ trains. Germs touching poles and getting even smaller germs. The doors opened, and she wiped her palm on her jeans as she pushed her way to the exit and joined the flow of bodies stumbling upward into the open air.

The sky was overcast and the day cool, though she felt warm. A woman dragging a small child by the wrist bumped into her from behind and apologized. Ally broke into a sweat.

Dammit, she thought. The last thing she needed was to be getting sick. She had two deadlines this week, and that planning meeting, plus she was supposed to have drinks with her sister on Thursday, and they’d already rescheduled twice. The thought of it turned her body to lead. She cleared her throat.

The straps of her bag were cutting into her shoulder, and she slipped her thumb beneath it, her elbow a chicken wing as she hustled the last few blocks to the apartment. She went by the colorful, symmetrical piles of the greengrocer, where she should have stopped for flowers for Kenna. Past the loud heating vent that rattled year-round below the broken fire escape. Through the delicious cloud of air that hung in front of the Greek bakery, around the corner, then down a long block. The faces she encountered became soulless blurs, inanimate bits of scenery as she passed, as she armored herself against the empathy drain of urban life. It’s not that city dwellers are rude, she’d always said. There’re just too many people around to see their  humanity. That much contact can kill you.

She remembered with a sniff that there was that thing tonight for someone’s—a coworker’s?—birthday. She didn’t even know them. They’d worked on the project before last, the one for the city park. Taken credit for one of her ideas. The doorman of the building with the blue awning nodded at her, and she had to dig deep to find a smile to offer in return.

She sneezed as she fished out her keys.

She’d be fine.


“What’s wrong?” Kenna pulled away to look at Ally’s face.

“Nothing. Why?” She swallowed thickly and cleared her throat. “Nothing’s wrong.”

“You flinched.”


Kenna sat up in bed, the sheet falling away from her body in a way that looked somehow rehearsed. Casually, artfully slutty, like a model hitting a pose. Ally found it equally hot and hollow. Like so much of their relationship, she thought. She suddenly felt very tired.

“You flinched,” Kenna repeated. “When we kissed.”

Ally sucked at the corner of her lip. “I’m sorry baby. I think I’m getting a cold sore. Am I?” She peeled her lip down and leaned in.

Kenna squinted and wrinkled her nose. “I guess.” She sighed, falling backward onto the pillows with Victorian disappointment. Ally could tell she was pulling her arms in to her sides to make her breasts look rounder. “No eating this pussy.”

Ally made an apologetic whine and buried her face in the soft expanse of Kenna’s belly. It was like being suffocated in warm dough—pleasantly so. Kenna ran her hand down Ally’s back, and Ally could feel the path her palm had taken as if it left tracers in her skin. She imagined a glowing trail of warmth. Heat, in fact. It felt hot where her girlfriend had touched her—hot hot, Tiger balm hot. Cut-jalapeños-without-washing-her-hands hot.

“What the fuck?” Kenna’s voice sounded raspy behind her. “What’s up with your back?”

“Huh?” Ally sat up. The heat on her skin was curdling into an itch.

“Oh my God.” Kenna pulled herself upright. This time she covered herself with the sheet.

The itch felt as if it were a living thing, something crawling down Ally’s trunk. Not across the skin, but under it. She turned one way and then the other, trying and failing to see her own spine. She swatted at it, but her fingers couldn’t reach the spot Kenna had touched. She could almost feel the path of it bubble against the underside of her skin as the itch warmed to a burn, and the burn to searing, crisping pain.


Ally hissed as the nurse switched out the lancet. It didn’t hurt, exactly, but being pricked and poked a dozen times felt mean-spirited and made her tense. She watched the nurse make a show of tidying up all the bits of plastic wrap and other sterile insurances in the treatment room before offering a blank smile and closing the door behind her, leaving Ally and her pricks to react or not.

She stared at her forearm, sorted into neat little territories with a ball point pen. It reminded her of the drawings they put on the paper menus at her favorite rib place on the east side, the one with pictures of pigs and dotted lines showing their cuts of meat. Kenna didn’t like that place, so she hadn’t been in a while. She wondered which of her tiny arm steaks would reveal the source of her suffering, which common, everyday, utterly non-poisonous substance her body was doggedly pumping out antibodies to protect her from. It wasn’t a virus, the doctor had assured her. The histamine reaction indicated something environmental, an irritant of which her system had finally had enough.

She tic-tocked her legs absently off the end of the table, the paper beneath her a crinkly metronome. It was chilly in the little gown they’d given her, but it helped cool the inflammatory fever that had taken hold of her body. Now that she was alone, she actually felt a little better.  Ally glanced at the clock. Her phone buzzed in her bag on the chair, and she sneezed. She ignored it, considered a rumpled magazine in the wooden rack, decided just to sit. Her nose cleared momentarily, and she took a deep breath, the scent of rubbing alcohol and vinyl both an anxiety and a comfort. The odor rankled; it was site-specific, attached to memories of shots and broken bones and menstrual complaints. That smell meant something was wrong. But no germs crawled here, that was for sure. She could probably lick the counter by the handwashing station, not that she would.

Fifteen minutes passed—the benchmark for initial response. Ally checked her forearm for telltale wheals, but the tiny jabs looked the same. Grass, tree pollen, dogs, dairy—none seemed to be the culprit. They had said that some things could interfere with the reaction: medications, for instance, but Ally had obediently cut out everything on the list.

She jumped at the perfunctory double knock that announced the return of the doctor.

“What have we found out?” he boomed, scooting towards her on the squeaky wheeled stool. She leaned away from him, the air in the treatment room suddenly stifling and hot. The doctor grabbed her wrist without warning and twisted her arm one way and then the other, examining it in the harsh fluorescent light.

He was bent over her forearm, gripping into her skin and hunched in a way that gave her the uncanny impression that he was preparing to eat her, that he would simply lift her wrist and sink his teeth into those little arm steaks as if she were a cob of corn. She turned her head and picked a spot on the wall to look at instead of his flaky scalp with its too-coarse salt and pepper hair.

“Huh.” He dropped her wrist into his lap, and she let her eyes creep back in his direction. She noted with disgust that he was not wearing gloves. “None of the usual suspects, then,” he announced loudly, as if he were speaking to a crowded auditorium and not just her in a cramped acoustic space. The doctor levered his gaze over the top of his glasses and held her captive with eye contact as he clamped her arm across his thighs. Ally felt the coals of her inflammation glow inside her, her core temperature climbing to create an inhospitable environment for attackers, her body flooded with tiny warriors ready to defend.

“So what is it then,” she said flatly, trying to pull her wrist from his grip.

He looked down at her forearm again, wrinkling his brow, a fortune teller extracting hidden futures from a palm. He ran two fingertips the length of her skin from elbow to wrist, presumably feeling for raised bumps, but all Ally could feel was the dry, intrusive pressure of his skin, closely followed by an agony of burning itch.

She watched in horror as a double streak of blisters erupted through the tender skin of her forearm, the pustules forming with the speed of boiling water, marking the path his fingers had traced. They glistened and bubbled; one burst and leaked a thin, yellow plasma down the side of her arm. Ally wanted to rip off her skin and scream, but it was the doctor who screamed, instead.


Ally staggered through the lobby and into the street. Her eyes streamed and her lungs felt as if they’d been packed with hay, full and prickling and difficult to fill with breath. She smacked the arm the doctor had touched, desperate to interrupt the sensation that was now threatening to drive her mad. Her arm was aflame, was being cooked over Bunsen burners, being corroded by acid, devoured by ants. She waved it in the air and hailed a cab, threw herself into the back seat and spat her address in a breathless sob.

Her voice was carried to the driver via a small speaker; the passenger area was surrounded by bulletproof glass. Through the rearview mirror, she could see that they were wearing sunglasses and a surgical mask. The driver said nothing to acknowledge her, and she slumped against the cool of the window in relief. She pressed her raging arm against the glass, and it helped, a little. She took a few ragged breaths and collected herself.


Ally had never really liked most of her clothes. It didn’t take long to gather the few things that genuinely felt good on her body, plus a couple of jackets and a range of shoes for different weather.

“What is going on?” Kenna’s voice was sharp and strained behind her.

“I went to the doctor today, like you said.” Ally continued stuffing things into her large duffel bag, opening and closing drawers and closet doors as if she had a plane to catch.

“Yeah, and?” Kenna blocked the doorway, hands on her hips.

And—” Ally drew out the word, cramming a pair of pajamas into a corner of space in the bag and zipping it shut. “And it’s bad. It’s really bad.” She left the bag on the bed and went to Kenna. Part of her wanted to touch her, put her hands on the soft shoulders, cup that familiar face. Most of her wanted to get the fuck out.

Ally sneezed.

“What is it?” Kenna demanded. She eyed the bag over Ally’s shoulder, then looked down at Ally’s crossed arms and crossed her own. A standoff. She shifted her weight in the way she always did when she wanted to be bossy but also cute. “What the fuck?”

“It turns out that I have a bad allergy. Maybe even a life-threatening one. And I’m going to have to make some changes.”

“Baby,” Kenna breathed. Her body language melted, turned to one of softness, of self-conscious, performative concern. Ally could see a flicker of the girl she’d thought she wanted to date before the wall went up again. “That’s so scary. Whatever you need—just tell me what we have to do. I can totally give up dairy if you want. You know, to support you.”

“It’s not dairy.”

“Okay, well, whatever it is. We’ll cut out gluten. Get an air purifier. Change our laundry detergent…”

“It’s not—”

“Ooh! We can do the mold abatement!”

“I’m not allergic to mold.”

“There’s that naturopath we met at the brunch thing! She’ll know—”


Kenna blinked at her, eyes shining. Ally could see the thrill of a new project welling up inside her girlfriend, could feel the other woman already distracted and chasing after a new and shiny thing to control.


The delivery van crept along the last few lengths of the gravel road. She knew the driver was eyeing the house and wondering how on earth to work the gate. The vehicle stopped and a uniformed man got out, stared at the several electromagnetic bolts preventing entry to the farm. She watched him through her binoculars for another few moments, allowing herself the small, perverse thrill of it, then picked up the mouthpiece for the PA, pushing the talk button with her thumb. This was her favorite part.

“You can just leave the things at the gate, thank you.”

The driver jumped. His head whipped back and forth, finally sighting the loudspeaker mounted on the fencepost. He stood for a moment, staring at the house, then went to open the side door of the van. She put down the binoculars. The fun was over.

She waited contentedly as her groceries and monthly supplies were unloaded. A fat orange cat twined around her arm, having woken from its sunbeam spot on the small table below the window. She stroked it, her fingers absently rubbing the shed hair from their tips, which drifted in tufts and strands in the shaft of light.