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Fiction

The Squeeze

by Carmen Maria Machado

Q:

A: So right before the funeral, she walked in on me. She saw what she saw. 

Q:

A: Not the kitchen. She keeps saying it was the kitchen. It was the bathroom off the kitchen, which is an entirely separate thing.

Q:

A: It was extremely clean. There was a little couch in the alcove. There was a potted plant next to the sink—an African violet. This was not some dirty unisex bathroom in a rest stop off I-80.

Q:

A: I-70, then.

Q:

A: It was not mountain of bloody rags. She keeps saying that phrase, but it was not. They were tissues, and there were five of them.

S:

A: Please tell her—

Q:

A: Thank you.

Q:

A: I prefer to say that I take very good care of my skin.

Q:

A: Two years now. Together for two-and-a-half, if you count the six months of dithering we both did before we stuck labels to our foreheads.

Q:

A: I only count the labels.

Q:

A: Funny you should say that. The first time we had sex, she was feeling under my bra and caught one of my band-aids. She asked me what it was, and I told her that it was a sore, and she didn’t seem to think anything of it.

Q:

A: I keep a lot of band-aids in the house. She noticed pretty soon thereafter.

Q:

A: I have a lot of white sheets and white clothes.

Q:

A: I guess you could say—my mother. My mother was a squeezer. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone’s mother whom you know is also a squeezer. Perhaps even your own mother. I’m told it’s pretty common.

Q:

A: The caterer had told her where I was. I still can’t believe it. It seems as if the same professional courtesy of privacy and protection for their clients required of doctors and lawyers should extend to those who specialize in lines of work that deal with the grieving.

Q:

A: Certainly a large percentage of her clients must have been people at funerals. She was recommended to me by the funeral parlor.

Q:

A: I mean, what if I was the sole survivor of some horrible tragedy?

Q:

A: A natural disaster, let’s say. Let’s say I was the only one left in my community after a terrible flood, and this was one of many funerals that I attended as the grief-stricken, wracked with survivor’s guilt, barely on the edge of a total and complete breakdown. Would she have told on me then?

Q:

A: Needless to say, I did not give her a very large tip.

Q:

A: Well, the food was quite good.

Q:

A: I mean, really good. I need to email her to get the recipe for that bread-pudding thing.

Q:

A: A secret? What, you think that now she’d develop some professional ethics?

Q:

A: Unbelievable.

Q:

A: I don’t want to talk about that.

Q:

A: You said that I didn’t have to talk about anything I didn’t want to.

Q:

A: Yes, of course I miss her.

Q:

A: She was a good mother. She took care of me, even when I was at my worst.

Q:

A: I hit puberty, zits flooded my face. She helped me.

Q:

A: I put my hand on my chin a lot in school, so that didn’t help. And ironically, my mother’s hands all over my face also probably didn’t help. And I’m half Cuban, so my skin is oilier than some. Certainly more than my mother, the Caucasian half of my family.

Q:

A: Yes, she was. I mean, there are only so many places you can get to yourself, y’know? I mean, obviously, it’s ideal to be working on skin that is easily accessible to you, but sometimes you’ve got them in your ears, on your neck, on your back…

Q:

A: I picked up on it pretty quickly.

Q:

A: You could say that I’ve always had a refined sense of grooming. As a teenager, I went through a hair removal period. 

Q:

A: More than just that.

Q:

A: I don’t mean, “I shaved my underarms because that’s what everyone was doing.” This was a more of a precise, controlled exercise.

Q:

A: Nair, tweezers, waxing kits. I even bought that stuff off the infomercial—Nads? You could eat it?—and tried it. Of course, I forgot to pull my skin taut, and fuck if that didn’t hurt. I did it late at night, locked in the ‘kid’ bathroom, the one that I shared with my brother.

Q:

A: You’re supposed to pull the skin taut, before you pull the cloth strip. I didn’t. I ended up with a bruise that was almost black that lasted for weeks. My pores leaked blood like sweat.

Q:

A: Ah. I guess you would call it the “bikini line.”

Q:

A: But that didn’t last. Shaving the hair from my arms was a weird experience. I still think about it, sometimes.

Q:

A: Very typical, I’d say.

Q:

A: I got a degree in psychology and moved to California. I was poor and ate a lot of squid.

Q:

A: It’s cheap protein! Very healthy. I mean, the trick to it being so cheap is the fact that you buy it unprocessed. So you have to cut it up and take all of the bits out yourself. God, what a mess. Wet, gray. Ink everywhere. Seriously. All over the knife, my hands, the cutting board, the counter—it was messy. But nice. You had to peel the hard—well, I guess it’s not a spine. There’s a cartilage of some kind inside, and you have to remove that. Take the head from the legs. Clean it before it can be eaten. I’d cook it in olive oil or butter. It would go opaque and curl up and stain the butter a little. And the tiny little suckers! It was darling. I loved eating squid. It just had so many details.

Q:

A: No. My theory is that Americans, at least not most of them, don’t like food with details. We like our meat simple. In slabs. My theory is that detailed meat reminds people of their own bodies. The squid tentacles are as precise as a baby’s hand. It shakes something in people.

Q:

A: I guess I couldn’t say there was one single moment. No epiphany, if that’s what you mean. I just realized that I loved the process.

Q:

A: Those people can suck an egg.

Q:

A: Teach my grandmother to suck eggs? That doesn’t even make any sense.

Q:

A: No, no, I believe you.

Q:

A: Sadie is very critical of my habits. I mean, we’re here, right?

Q:

A: She thinks that something is wrong with me. I think this is a very unfair characterization of me and what I do.

Q:

A: Well, okay. It would be insane, for example, to coat my face, or some other area, such as my inner thighs, in vegetable oil, overnight, in an attempt to “sow the seeds” of some truly magnificent blackheads, or to somehow otherwise encourage these anomalies to sprout, in order to then “harvest the crop.”

Q:

A: You know, spend a long evening sitting in front of a large mirror, squeezing rows of pore obstructions. It would ruin your clothes, first of all, the oil, and your other linens, and you could do some long-term damage to your skin.

Q:

A: I mean, that would be insane, yes?

Q:

A: Sadie often compares me to cutters—

Q:

A: People who cut themselves—she compares me to them in an attempt to shame me. To get me to stop. This is unfair, to say the least. 

Q:

A: Cutter. It’s an unnecessarily cagey term for someone who takes unsheathed razor blades to their skin. I would call them mad.

Q:

A: So you can see why I find Sadie’s comparison so utterly insulting. A cutter who takes a razor blade—I shudder at the very idea—to their skin is marring something. Violating one’s contract with their skin. Undoing work—in this case, the work of nature, the work of their very bodies to knit together the fibers that make up this sack of skin. There is good skin and there is the cut, and the two cannot be in the same place. But what I do is an entirely different matter. The blemish in question, whatever it is, is the marring. It is the problem. Squeezing as I do—even if I do it more frequently than the average skin-owner, which is entirely possible—is not creating an injury, it is systematically restoring order. The temporary side effect of this restoration—as dramatic as it may look—is no different than the flurry of paperwork that flows off the desk of the administrative assistant as he or she converts an office’s paper files to digital ones. It would be rude, for example, for her boss to sidle into her work space—imagine him clutching at a large, round stomach, his buttons straining—press his thumb to the side of his nose, inhale deeply and with the faintest ruffle of phlegm, and inform her that he dislikes the disorder that she has created, and furthermore, it makes him question her ability to do her job. The very mess is an indication that the job is being done, that order is on the horizon. When I take to my skin as I do—and I admit, my techniques are probably more aggressive than most—I am the loyal administrative assistant, logging in all of that time to keep things running smoothly. When I see someone with a blemish, especially one that looks unmanaged and painful, I am filled with the most unimaginable sense of pity. To be so negligent in your affairs! It is no different than the proverbial mustard stain on one’s tie. But there is no shame in pimples, no disgrace in clogged pores. We are human, it is one of our many burdens. Incidentally, there is a mustard stain on your tie.

Q:

A: You could take it off or turn it over.

Q:

A: Actually, take it off. Sorry. Where were we?

Q:

A: Have you seen these videos? The ones on YouTube? Sadie showed them to me, in a moment of weakness, back when she still thought my habit was quirky but harmless (it is still both; only her opinion has changed). There are, as it turns out, hundreds of videos of people fixing their own imperfections. But the palate is not limited to your ordinary, run-of-the-mill pimples, oh no. The subjects take sharp objects to all manner of problems—cysts and boils, botfly bites, abscesses of varying types, zits that have ascended to another level, usually on backs or jaws—and lance them. Some of them are wise, have doctor friends—or, at least, people wiling to play doctors, usually only their blue-gloved hands in the frame—wielding a scalpel, cutting these precious little muppet mouths into the boil, squeezing.

Q:

A: I mean, I’ve already been quite forthcoming, but I’m not sure that you—

Q:

A: All right. Well, one squeezes. And what comes out depends, you know, on the type of ailment that has led them to that place. There is your standard white pus, something clear like plasma, sometimes yellow, and almost always, blood. Sometimes, different chambers within the imperfection will burst, and there will be some irregularity to the order of fluids because of this, but blood always comes at the end. The way that it all comes out depends entirely on the size of the hole, the nature of the blemish. There are definitely explosions, though. Arcs of blood that spatter the lens, if the blemish is full and the hole one has created is small.

Q:

A: Some of the videos are better quality than others—cell phone cameras versus a more high-end video camera, for example. I obviously prefer the higher quality videos to the others, but as long as blocky pixels don’t interrupt the visual plane—

Q:

A: Yes. And of course, the good ones follow the natural arc of the process: the slit, the initial squeeze, the draining, the explosion, the final trickles of blood. There’s an art to it. You can’t just show the explosion. It’s a waste.

Q:

A: What you have to understand is that this is not a niche, not a fetish. These videos have millions of hits. People watch them over and over again. In the comments, they tell other viewers of the best spots in the video. “Money shot at 2:08!,” that sort of thing. It’s like a romance novel with a creased spine that falls open at the good bits. There are classics of course, the most-viewed ones have the ideal ratio of video quality to sound to fullness of wound to length of video to completeness of drainage.

Q:

A: Oh, yes. Sometimes doctors, sometimes friends. Another thing that separates the good videos from the bad is the screaming. Often, there is a lot of howling and shrieking from the observers who are neither being drained nor draining. The person doing either of these—some noise can be forgiven, surely. But if spectators are drowning out all thought with a cacophonous roar—forget it. It just reminds you that some people will watch anything.

Q:

A: Yes. Sadie hates that I watch these videos, which of course, is hypocritical, considering that she was the one who showed them to me in the first place. She would act, when she saw me looking, as if I was watching pornography. As if she’d caught me watching pornography. And I would say, “Sadie, darling, this is not pornography, it’s a video of—” and then I’d tell her what the video is, precisely, but let’s say in this case it’s a drained pilonidal abscess, those can be doozies, “—it’s a video of a pilonidal abscess being drained, and it’s gonna save this young man’s life! This is a miracle of medicine, that we can fix these now—” but usually by then she’s walked away angrily before I can explain that people used to die of this very disfigurement.

Q:

A: She gets frustrated. I mean, I love Sadie, and she does have the patience of a saint. But sometimes she would go to kiss me, and it would be very lovely, and as soon as my bra was off, she’d notice a band-aid next to my nipple, almost over it entirely, and one on the bottom of my breast, and then another near my collarbone. I have a lot of tough, reoccurring problems in these places. And then she’d be counting, pointing, asking me about each one, no more kissing, just pointing. This is a very embarrassing exercise; it happened many times.

Q:

A: Not embarrassing because I felt shamed, no. But I imagine it’s the same as a person with a broken leg having the broken leg pointed out to them all the time—they know. It’s on their body.

Q:

A: Well, all right, it’s an imperfect analogy, given that a broken leg is a deviation from health. Then, it’s like someone pointing to your skin and saying, “You have skin!” Yes. I know I do.

Q:

A: What I really don’t understand about all of this judgment is that Sadie is an eyebrow-plucker. She loves to take tweezers to her eyebrows as a matter of daily routine. And I have not said a word to her, not a single word. And now, she has no eyebrows! Well, she has them, but they are very thin and she is required to shade them in with pencil on a daily basis. She wakes up looking as if they’ve been burned off in a terrible accident.

Q:

A: Yes! Is that not the most ludicrous thing? It looks like a child’s colored pencil. It’s not, of course. It’s from a drugstore. From the makeup aisle. But that’s what it looks like. My tools look like those of a doctor, and hers like those of a preschooler.

Q:

A: Exactly. And I want to say to her, “Look, Sadie, you have plucked the hairs out of your face—hairs that are part of the natural order, no less—to the point where you need to color them in with a pencil, and you give me a hard time. The very moment I get an infection or blood poisoning, as you are always certain that I will, the very second, you can feel free to scold me.” I don’t say that, of course.

Q:

A: Yes. Until now.

Q:

A: I admit, my personal process is probably very alarming to someone who has not seen it before. But anyone who has a personal process of any kind—any kind of routine—knows that there is a certain amount of ritual involved.

Q:

A: Yes! Sadie is also an observant Lutheran, making this whole charade even more hypocritical.

Q:

A: More than the relationship? No, I suppose she keeps everything in perspective.

Q:

A: It’s not the same.

Q:

A: It’s not.

Q:

A: What about you? You belong to a profession with a strict code of conduct. You have rules, rites. When we leave this room, you are going to sit down at your computer and write up notes. You do it immediately after the session because it makes sense to you, logistically—you get to it while it’s fresh in your mind, at a time that maintains order in your professional life. It’s a type of ritual. What makes mine easier to judge than yours, or Sadie’s—

Q:

A: Mine involves the pins.

Q:

A: As you might imagine, scalpels and similar types of instruments remind me too much of the trials of the cutters, so I eschew them in favor of safety pins. I always have a variety pack of safety pins handy in my bathroom, behind the mirror, in one of the drawers, and in my grooming kit for travel. There are few things worse than needing a safety pin and not having one.

Q:

A: It all depends on the type of blemish. There are standard blackheads and zits on the face, which rarely require anything but a steady pair of hands and gritted teeth. To find the blackheads, it is best to pull the skin taut and search for deviations in color. Fluorescent lights might wreck temporary havoc on the appearance of your face, but they are excellent for locating blackheads. Once I have done this, it’s the chin, then the nose and between the eyes, my cheeks. I have even found several of them in my very eyebrows, so now that is part of my search as well. My hairline, too. My temples. They hide in very interesting places.

Q:

A: Blackheads are nice because they’re easy and not messy. You squeeze, a miniature loaf the color of wax emerges—or a plug, if you like—occasionally topped with a spot of black, and then it’s done. This skin is slightly red for a bit, but it subsides. About the removal of blackheads, skin seems the most grateful, don’t you think?

Q:

A: It is if you think about it. Pimples are trickier, of course, because when you get rid of them, the temporary integrity of the skin is compromised. Blackheads never close over the obstruction, hence the neat little plug. Pimples, though—well. You’ve popped a pimple. Pus, blood, mess. Sometimes a scab. Think of blackheads as yanking an exposed rock out of the ground. There’s always a neat little hole left behind. But if you have to dig to remove the stone, the result is inevitably messier.

Q:

A: No, I don’t care for digging or stones.

Q:

A: Yes. I always take that into account, contrary to Sadie’s theories. I sterilize my needles. There was a time when I run them through the flame of the burner of my gas stove—oh, that moment where the needle goes red! It’s sublime. But as it turns out safety pins are merely plated, and so the fire burned away the plating, and the blackness was not as clean as I’d thought, and so I scrapped that. Now I use rubbing alcohol. And of course, after a while the plating is worn away from use, and then I replace them. I go through a standard variety assortment of safety pins approximately once every six months.

Q:

A: Six dollars a year, maybe.

Q:

A: The largest kind are certainly the most tempting to use, but only occasionally appropriate.

Q:

A: You would certainly never use the large ones on your face.

Q:

A: Inner thighs. That’s my best spot. I guess you could call it my trouble spot.

Q:

A: They come from sweat, from pressure and rubbing. I wear pants, I sweat. Some people are more prone to them than others.

Q:

A: I often find myself giving the skin of my inner thighs a sort of… feel, I guess. I can identify the tiny blackheads, the large and clogged pores, the places where I need to work. I can often feel the swollen passage where the problem resides. Then I have to find the bump of the entrance where I should be squeezing toward. If one doesn’t do this, one risks forcing the contents backwards into a new and painful passage, deeper within the skin.

Q:

A: Again, the squeeze is the thing. But the inner thighs often produce another type of boil—a sort of blood blister, common in people with large stretch marks. These have no head, no pre-built pressure or path. So the pin is necessary.

Q:

A: Usually one stab. The pin slides in, it hurts like the dickens for a few seconds. I always swirl the pin around a bit. I am convinced that the blood exists within these blemishes, in cavities of sorts, and so this swirl breaks down the walls. I withdraw and put the tiniest bit of pressure on it, and bam.

Q:

A: Blood. This sort of two-toned blood, some of it thin and almost pink, speckled with a dark red blood, almost black. I am convinced that the pinkish blood includes a bit of excess plasma, and the dark blood is what causes the blemishes in the first place.

Q:

A: It just seems to make sense.

Q:

A: I ran this theory past my doctor, who I had shown the blemishes to, initially.

Q:

A: She was reluctant to confirm or deny my theories. 

Q:

A: Oh no, I love doctors. I was annoyed at this particular doctor because she pulled a Sadie on me. She told me to leave them alone.

S:

A: No, no. If you can drag me in here because of this, now, then I can refer to all of this as “pulling a Sadie” because that is what it is.

Q:

S:

Q:

A: This is what I mean.

Q:

A: Thank you. This is the thing. They hurt! Maybe not at first, but if I “leave them alone” as Sadie and this doctor instruct me, they get larger and rub against clothes and against my skin, and hurt very badly. And when I take care of myself, when I strip down in the bathroom and take out my pins in an attempt to restore order, what does Sadie say? “Stop, you’re hurting yourself.” I am in fact making myself better. The arrogance. The absolute arrogance. And then to criticize the scabs that result! Sadie calls them “beetles” when she’s feeling particularly mean. Beetles! Sometimes my fingers wander, open them up again. This is why I have the band-aids. I am doing the best that I can. I take care of my skin and it makes me feel better. I am doing the best that I can.

Q:

A: Oh no, my mother did not see me do this before she passed. I did not spend any extended time at home after I left for college.

Q:
A: Thank you, yes. She had been ill for a while.

Q:

A: No, she was very young, in fact. Cancer.

Q:

A: I did, luckily. I went home when they put her on hospice. I spent several days by her side as the life rattled out of her. My brother was nowhere to be found. Naturally. I left him several voicemails.

Q:

A: She was seeing things, and people. She did not appear to see me. Except at the very end, when her eyes cleared, and she touched my face. And then she let out a very soft sigh and she died.

Q:

A: Apparently it’s very common.

Q:

A: I finally got a hold of him. He did come for the funeral.

Q:

A: Look, Sadie was being overly cautious. She was concerned about my health. I was grieving. I am a very good planner, yes, but my brother’s failure to assist me with my mother’s last days or any of the funeral plans was not a kind thing to do. It was especially complicated because she’d given him this little envelope with all of her desired funeral arrangements, and he had to mail it to me to deal with—it was very difficult. I wish it had been in her house, or mine, it would have been easier.

Q:

A: I hadn’t showered in days, for fear of leaving her side. Can you imagine? Your mother’s last breath happening while you shampoo your hair; her dying, alone? I even peed in her bathroom with the door open, so I could see her. Though I suppose it would have been equally awful for her last breath to happen as I peed.

Q:

A: They took her body away. I called Sadie and we talked for a long time.

Q:

A: She says that I was distressed, but she was, I think, projecting her stress into my voice. I was very calm—as I said, my mother had been dying for a very long time. She, on the other hand, was worrying about cancelling work, arranging her plane ticket—Sadie is very caring. Very supportive. But she becomes stressed easily. 

Q:

A: As you can imagine, the lack of showering had done a number on my skin. I spent a long time in the bathroom mirror of my mother’s room, setting my face right. But I’d developed quite a few problems in other areas.

Q:

A: At the funeral, I didn’t have my usual tools. All of my planning and personal kits, and yet something had gotten lost in the shuffle of packing. I did have a political button on my purse—Obama 2012!—and there were rubbing alcohol wipes in the first aid kit affixed to the wall of the bathroom. It was a very nice funeral parlor. 

Q:

A: The pin was of sufficient length and sharpness. I removed the button part, which was quite simple. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.

Q:

A: I don’t know. Quite a few.

Q:

A: They were stubborn. I have this theory—it’s a strange one, just something that’s lingered with me for a long time—that the longer blemishes live, the tougher they become. These had been going on for days, almost a week. It was a nightmare. I was in quite a lot of pain.

Q:

A: All right. Maybe… two dozen?

Q:

A: I imagine it was a spectacular thing to see. There was some blood. Only that bad dark blood, though, I assure you. Nothing directly out of my veins or anything so dramatic. And my body was contorted from the effort of it all.

Q:

A: And yes, my thighs looked… troubled. But so does the upper lip, after a waxing. So does the athlete, after a sprint. Sadie loves me. But Sadie sees what she wants to see.

S:

A: NO. I don’t care, I don’t care! You can’t say that. You can’t draw that line! I would never do this to you, never.

Q:

A: She crawled under the stall door. That should tell you everything you need to know.

S:

A: Yes, you did, and you looked mad when you did it, down there on your belly. It’s a bathroom.

S:

A: Stop. Please stop. I love you, but I can’t—you can’t do this.

S:

Q:

S:

Q:

A: Please don’t.

S:

A: I can’t. I can’t.

Q:

S:

Q:

A: I suppose that’s it, then.

Q:

A: Yes, thank you. You’ve been very kind.

Q:

A: Just make sure you dry clean that mustard stain soon.

Q:

A: It just looks as if it’s been there for a while.



Carmen Maria Machado' photo

Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, The New Yorker, The American Reader, Tin House‘s Open Bar, Five Chapters, VICE, The Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She was the recipient of the Richard Yates Short Story Prize in 2011 and a finalist for the CINTAS Foundation Fellowship in 2013. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

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