Content advisory: This story contains references to sexual assault.
Rosalind Peters had been living without her body for so long that she was unsure of what she would find when she finally decided to coax it out of her basement. It hid there, buried among the party clothes she had thrown down the stairs when she couldn’t bear to look at them anymore, swaddled in silks and crushed velvets, using the garments as a shield. Her body did not want to be seen and she did not want to see her body, so for eleven months the basement door stayed shut.
Rosalind tried to forget that her body was down there. Tried to convince herself that she had never had a body, allowed herself to drift through her days as a translucent cloud of a girl. Her gray limbs protruded from a near-formless torso and trailed off into wispy fingers and toes. Long trails of mist flowed out from the top of her head, a vague approximation of hair. When she spoke, her words blew out of her mouth like a warm breath on a cold night, and hung in the air long after her thin voice had gone quiet.
Although she was an odd sight, people rarely noticed the bodiless Rosalind. They let their eyes glance through her without recognizing the shape of a girl. She was a trick of the light, an odd shadow from a tree, something just visible out of the corner of your eye if you bothered to look. The girls that she lived with, who had once been her friends, didn’t know what to do with Rosalind. At first they had asked her where her body had gone, but she only shrugged her shoulders in response, throwing her torso into a rippling motion that cascaded all the way down through what would have been her legs. This happened whenever she moved, no part of her able to isolate itself completely from the rest, and the other girls found it unsettling. She no longer made any sound when she walked, and they were often startled to turn around and find her in the same room, her cloudy form slowly coming to rest. Eventually they, like all the others, allowed themselves not to see her, only registering her presence in the house by the sound of her bedroom door swinging shut. It was easier that way.
Before she locked her body in the basement, Rosalind Peters had been beautiful. She had hair that glowed golden when the sun caught it in its beams, and eyes that lit up when she laughed. She was the most beautiful when she was laughing because she didn’t care that her face would scrunch up and her laughter would spill out of her mouth just a little bit too loud. Behind her she always left the faintest scent of sweet alyssum, those tiny white flowers that bloomed in front of her parents’ house and smelled to her like childhood. She rarely left the house without her lips carefully painted in a muted red. Her body had caught the gaze of the people on the bus and the people on the street and the people in the grocery store. She was rarely free of the feeling of being watched. Eyes followed her, devoured her. But it wasn’t just eyes. Whistles, jeers, sugary hellos that turned sour if she did not mask her disgust in a smile. She learned the difference between a compliment and a threat disguised as praise. Hands grabbed at her when she got too close, used any excuse to brush against her waist or the small of her back, or to creep slowly onto her knee. She did not want to think about that anymore. It was her body that these things happened to. Without her body, she was safe.
But Rosalind now stood at the basement door, her hand on the knob, intent on getting her body back. She had spent the last eleven months trying to forget about it, to convince herself that she had never been anything more than a shadow of a person, but now that she was beginning to believe herself, she was terrified. Because if Rosalind had never had a body, then she would never have one again. She had been so sure, at first, that that was what she wanted. If she didn’t have a body, she would never be afraid of what might happen to it. No one could hurt her if there was nothing to hurt. But the months passed, the anonymity became isolation. She was trapped outside of herself, and she did not want to be a cloud anymore, barely real, barely there. Just a trick of the light, the sound of a door swinging shut, something better ignored. She didn’t know if taking her body back would fix this feeling, didn’t even know if it was still waiting for her in the basement, or if it had ever been there at all. But in a moment of strength, she found herself determined to try.
The doorknob was icy to the touch, and let out a high metallic groan when she twisted it. Rosalind had to give the door a firm push to convince it to open, its resistance a question: Should you really be doing this Rosalind? Don’t you know what happens to girls with bodies? But she ignored the door and shoved, and the staircase appeared behind it. Her hand groped along the wall in darkness, searching for the light switch.
Light flickered on, the dull hum of electricity fading quickly into the background. Rosalind tested her weight on the top step and felt the wood creak, hesitant but sturdy. Her hand gripped tight to the rail, engulfing it in fog as she half-dragged herself down the stairs. In the corner, a pile of clothes marked the place where she knew she had left her body. She let go of the railing and slowly made her way across the small room. Even with the light on, the basement was mostly shadows, and the whole room smelled of mildew. She didn’t dare turn back to look at the door, knowing that if she did, she would dart back up the stairs and slam it shut.
Before she could stop herself, Rosalind reached out one of her wispy arms and began to dig through the wrinkled clothes. Her body gripped tightly to the fabrics that cocooned it as she struggled to peel away the layers. Beneath a velvety blouse, an ankle was revealed. A tight red dress was pulled back to uncover a stomach. Set against the fabrics, the skin looked particularly pale and sallow, lacking in life and light. The eyes, now dug out from beneath a pile of silky shirts, stared past Rosalind’s ghostly form from where they sat in their dark-ringed sockets. The body did not seem to register her presence at all until she reached out, almost unconsciously, to gently push back the mess of hair that had fallen across the forehead. The moment Rosalind’s fingers made contact, the eyes sparked to life and stared straight into Rosalind’s own cloudy eyes, their gaze sharp and intense. The body, it seemed, had woken up, and without making a sound it began to speak to Rosalind, who crouched frozen above it, staring down at herself.
We are lost. Our friends were next to us a moment ago, but now they are gone, swept away into the crowd of drunk partiers. He comes up to us, and we recognize him as a friend of a friend, and we are grateful when he offers to grab us a drink. He tells us his name, but the heavy bass of the music swallows the sound. The song changes to something we both like. And somewhere in that song, you leave me.
You come back to me and I am dancing with him. I catch the eye of my friend across the room. I let the music move me with a freedom that you rarely allow. His hands on my waist drift lower and I shift away from his touch. We are incredibly thirsty. I search for the space where I have just seen my friend, but she has vanished again.
You come back to me as he assures me that my friends know where I am, they aren’t worried, if they need to find me they can always text. It’s fine, he says. I’ve just lost them in the crowd. Isn’t that always the way with parties. You never leave with the same people you came with. We both laugh.
You come back to me as I am walking up the stairs with him, and when I scan the crowd that sprawls below us, I cannot latch onto a single familiar face. He leads me up the stairs and to a door, and you do not want to follow, we both just want to be under our covers and drifting off to sleep, but I follow him anyways and you do not stop me.
You come back to me because we are very cold without our shirt on, and you don’t remember when it came off.
You come back to me because his skin is sticky with sweat and you are drowning. I cannot manage to swim up.
You come back to me because you feel something wet running down my face. You are worried that we are bleeding. You do not feel any better when you realize that I am only crying.
You come back to me because we cannot breathe under the weight of him. You want to leave and take me with you, but I cannot move and you cannot stay, and so you leave.
You come back to me because I am finally alone, lying on unfamiliar sheets, staring at the light that seeps beneath the bathroom door, yellow bleeding into gray. You pick me up and move me one limb at a time, like a marionette, and carry me home.
You stare at me in the mirror, and watch my features morph and twist into something strange and inhuman. We do not like what we see. We do not want to see me. You drag me down the basement stairs. I am shaking. When you go, you do not come back.
The body began to cry, and without thinking, Rosalind wrapped her arms around it. Despite having been trapped in the frigid basement for the better part of a year, and despite its corpse-like appearance, her body was warm. She could feel her heartbeat pulsing beneath her skin, could sense the blood running through her veins. Rosalind pulled away and stared at her body, now completely uncovered. It was so much smaller than she remembered it being. In her mind it had loomed, giant-like and full of fire. In her mind it had been as large as that night, swollen with the weight of what had happened to it and covered in his handprints. But it sat in front of her, as small as the twenty years of life before that night, just human sized. Not a thing to be afraid of. Rosalind was still wary. She was so used to being a cloud of a girl that she didn’t know if she could ever fit herself into something this tangible and real again. But her body looked so sad and scared sitting on the cold concrete floor. Rosalind stood. She held out a hand. Still shaking and unsure, the body took it, and allowed Rosalind to help it to its feet. Holding her own hand, Rosalind led her body up the basement stairs.