“Cigarette?” demanded the punk, getting right in my face as I walked past him with my mango smoothie. He was an angry white man with a face tattoo and a black rat on his shoulder. Half his face was inked to mimic a skull—black around his eye, a triangle on half his nose, teeth and gums in black ink around his jaw. A skull on top of a skull, and piercings in the tats; it seemed so redundant that I grinned.
“Sorry, I don’t smoke.”
“Sorry; no change,” I said, patting my pockets, which was the truth. But sorry was obviously not what he wanted to hear, because as I walked by, the punk punched me in the stomach. The rat gripped him with its claws, swinging its tail for ballast and hanging on tight as the punk hit me.
I dropped my smoothie—mango slush all over the sidewalk—and doubled over. When I could stand up again, he was nearly out of sight, weaving between cars at something between a jog and a run. I held my stomach for a moment, trying to catch my breath, and then I carefully stood up and began to walk down the street.
I found it hard to walk. I was dizzy. That punch hurt so bad. I leaned against the wall next to the Starbucks, clutching my stomach. A mom was sitting at a table, nursing her toddler.
“Excuse me, are you okay?” she asked me. “He hit you pretty hard.”
I took my hand away so I could brace myself against the wall. “Oh my God!” said the mom. I looked down. Blood leaked through my t-shirt. The toddler pulled off the boob with a loud pop and stared at me. “Owie,” he said, pointing at my t-shirt. Her nipple shot a fine spray of milk at me until she tucked it back in her blouse. I wobbled.
“Sit down. I think you got stabbed. I think he stabbed you,” said the mom, reaching for her phone. “Can I get some help here?” That’s all I remember. It was like staring into the sun. Everything went red after that.
I often thought about that punk and his rat in the long days and nights of my recovery. His knife pierced my large intestine, and I went septic. I had to have a length of bowel removed, and for six months after I walked around tethered to a bag of my own shit. I lost over a hundred pounds. The police interviewed me, of course. They told me it might be too late to catch the punk. But that turned out not to be true, because, he did the same thing to someone else, a dude this time. I thought we should meet up for support or commiseration, but the doctor said they couldn’t release the other victim’s name. I figured he was at the same hospital on the same floor I was, and was also likely to survive. That was kind of interesting. “Maybe he’s the one,” I told the night nurse, Rie. “Maybe we’ll meet and fall in love and have a wedding with his ‘n hers colostomy bags.”
The nurse patted my hand. “Be glad you are alive,” she said. “Focus on that right now.”
I was more ashamed to be wearing a colostomy bag than glad I was alive. I didn’t want to be discharged from the hospital at all, ever. But the doctors called me strong, and the doctors called me lucky, (though if you ask me that was debatable) and the plan to send me home was never challenged.
They encouraged me to join a victims’ support group. I did, but the result was the opposite of helpful for my situation. I learned that people are terrible to each other, especially if they are related, especially if they are men. I learned that there is a certain class of men who likes nothing more than breaking the bones and teeth of whichever woman they happen to be fucking. This I knew, I suppose, but to see the result up close and personal was something I could have done without. I dropped out of the group and tried to pick up the pieces of my life. As the doctors constantly reminded me, I was lucky to be alive.
I am a fat girl, I should probably mention that, or I used to be before I got stabbed. My fat was my armor, and I have needed armor for sure. I’m now a fat girl trapped in a skinny girl’s body. That man stabbed right through my armor.
I wasn’t on speaking terms with my parents, but my twin sister Stephanie came out to stay for a week right after I got discharged. She was shocked to see me so changed. “Piper, you look amazing!” she said, meaning: not fat. “You look so beautiful.”
“Yeah, this was the best thing that ever could have happened to me,” I said, gesturing to my bag of shit.
Stephanie hugged me. “Not the best thing, but maybe a blessing in disguise,” she said. She meant well. I tried to swallow the sarcastic words, because the fact was she had taken her vacation days to come and help me clean my little stoma, to drive me to physical therapy, to watch Friends on an endless loop, to bring me meals on a tray. My twin. We used to be so close, before the incident that happened when I was eleven, the one she doesn’t like me to talk about.
“Dad and Mom are great,” she said, though I had purposely not asked. “Mom’s diabetes is under control. Neither of them exercises. Uncle Eddie and Aunt Donna are going on a cruise with them. Yuri and I are thinking of joining them, though I’m not sure if it will be fun. The problem with a cruise is you can’t get off.”
Having nothing to say, I said nothing.
“What do you think, Piper? A cruise to Jamaica! Yuri thinks we should go, since Uncle Eddie’s paying. I wish you’d come for once.”
Uncle Eddie is Dad’s twin. Twins run in the family. So does silence.
Steph left after a week. We both spent a lot of time staring at each other, longing for our severed twin-ness, saying nothing that was real. I got some assistance from Victim Services, and got used to that term as one that belonged to me.
Before the stabbing, I played poker online, successfully enough that my earnings ranged in the low six figures, and I could eat all I wanted to with nobody judging me. I didn’t have to leave the house, and usually didn’t care to, except for between four and five in the morning, when my fellow humans were all asleep and the sky was just growing pink. So that’s what I returned to once I was discharged. I took my shit bag for a walk at this hour and tried not to think much beyond the next crack in the sidewalk. After a time the doctors tucked my newly shortened bowel back in my body, sewed up my stoma, that little shit-mouth in my side, and told me I was free to live a normal life.
Even after my stoma was repaired, I kept up the habit of walking when the streets were clear of men. It was just easier that way. I wished there were some kind of city ordinance: women-only streets from 4-6 a.m.., but I lived alone and could make my own schedule. I carried five rolls of quarters rolled in a sock. I can give quarters if someone asks me nicely or I can strike, depending on the situation. If you say I have been changed by the experience, you’d be right. If you say I’ve lost my trust in people, you’d also be right. Every morning was the end of my night. I’d get a Big Mac from the 24-hour McDonalds and walk slowly around my gentrifying neighborhood, appreciating my gut’s ability to digest each bite.
And so it was that I saw him one morning, slumped against a wall by a bank that didn’t open for another four hours. Again my first thought was, What kind of idiot tattoos half their face with a skull? He looked both satanic and unfinished. He had nodded off at a weird angle, slumped backward instead of forward, the back of his head resting on a bike rack so he looked, for a moment, dead. But I watched and saw his chest, slowly rising, slowly falling.
Something was squirming under his hoodie. I jumped back just as a pointed whiskery nose popped out from one sleeve. I didn’t scream. Fact: If you don’t scream when someone randomly stabs you with a knife, you are probably not a screamer. The rat twitched its black nose at me. From his pocket appeared another rat, just the brown head at first, and then the whole creature.
My stabber didn’t move. I made a great decision without thinking it through. I held out a piece of burger to the rats. All animals like meat when they can get it. Rabbits, rats, birds—they’ll go for the protein if they get half a chance. I gave my stabber’s rats a bite of Mickey D’s and they came home to Mama. They climbed from him to me like they were leaving the proverbial sinking ship. Stinking trip was more accurate.
And then an impulse rose, not in my mind, but in my hands. I had opened a pocket for the rats, and felt my sock full of quarters. Rats went in, sock came out. I felt its heft in my hand, looked around, and slammed the punk across the face with the sock. I heard the snap of his nose breaking. His eyelids fluttered before he went under. My heart was beating fast, but I was entirely unafraid of him. Had he woken up and tried to attack me, I would have done him bad harm. I know that with absolute clarity. But since he slept on, I took his rats, and broke his face. I hope his skull tattoo never lined up right again. I hope I left my own fucking mark.
I gave them each nibbles of bun and burger and offered them each a pocket, which they were disinclined to use. They rode my shoulders home. Once I got in the apartment, I put them in the bathroom until I could go out and buy a cage.
A day passed, then a week. I never bought a cage. It just seemed wrong. Instead I bought them their rat supplies and put them in interesting places: a wheel in the hallway, another in the living room where they could run and watch TV. I wanted to make their environment as stimulating as possible, since they couldn’t live in the wild. I made less money that month than I had in all my years playing poker online. I was too busy watching my babies. I named them: Beaux and Peep. I took them to a vet clinic where a vet tech named Kate with sad eyes and an even sadder smile held out her hand. Peep climbed right aboard, but Beaux watched, not as trustful. She was more like me. I learned that my rats were about a year old, sisters, in excellent health. Were rats born from the same litter sisters or twins?
I studied my rat babies so I could live like them. I bought a curved treadmill, one powered entirely by me, so I’m not using the electricity grid. We walked and ran together. I ate all the time, just like they did. I gained back the weight I lost. We grew sleek and fit. My fat changed texture, with a layer of muscle underneath.
I loved their feet most of all. Their feet were pink and precious. Fetus feet. They liked it when I stroke the bottoms of their feet with a finger or a feather. It made them chuckle.
You may not believe me, but rats can laugh.
My babies slept whenever they were tired. I can’t interrupt a poker game whenever I want, but I take my cue from my girls and monitor my energy levels. From them I learned how good it feels to sleep curled up in a ball on the couch. They sometimes held each other’s tails as they slept. It was adorable.
My sister Stephanie came to visit me again. I met her at the greyhound station. “You put the weight back on,” she said, as she stepped off the bus, which was bad enough. But when she came into the apartment, she said, “What the hell happened here?”
“What?” I asked. I was genuinely shocked by her hostile tone. “Oh, you mean the straw bales?”
“No, I don’t mean the straw. I mean all of it. It looks like a hurricane hit. And what happened to your bed?
“Beaux and Peep sleep with me. I guess they chew things a little.”
“A little? There’s stuffing all over the floor. There are bits of stuffing clinging to the walls and the carpet is a disaster. Piper, this is crazy.”
“Beaux and Peep are my family. I’m choosing to live like this.”
“You don’t get to choose crazy. I don’t know even know what you’re thinking any more.”
“Stephanie. Don’t say that. You know what I’m thinking.”
She did know. She looked at her shoes.
“I need all of you. I need my whole family. I’m not strong like you, Pipes.”
“I’m not strong.”
“Yes you are.”
“No. Strong is what people call you when they want you to be quiet about your pain.”
“I just think you’re going off the rails, living here without seeing anyone for days at a time, calling these rats your babies.”
They are my babies, I think but do not say. They are the daughters Uncle Eddie begetted unto me.
“I mean, what do you do for fun? Who are your friends? Do you even think about a boyfriend? You can’t bring anyone home when you live like this.”
“You know what mom told me when I told her what Uncle Eddie did?” ‘He left you intact, Piper. He left you intact.’ People keep telling me it could be worse while I’m dying over here, Stephie. I am the opposite of strong right now. Why can’t you see that?”
“Mom loves you. She loves Uncle Eddie. She doesn’t condone what he did. It’s been a real strain on their relationship. But put yourself in her shoes. He was her hero, her big brother. I know it eats her up, that you’ve cut her off. And if she’d known what was happening at the time, I know she would have intervened.”
Peep started up the wheel on the coffee table. That was exactly how I felt. I wished I had a tail I could hold. Stephie and I watched her spin. I took a deep breath.
“Stephie? Mom knew.” I tried to catch her eye, but she got up from the couch and pulled out her phone.
“Yuri and I set the date. June 15th. We’re going to keep it small, no more than eighty guests.”
“Mom knew, Stephie.”
“I thought maybe you could pick out the bridesmaid dresses, since I’d like you to be chief bridesmaid. I bookmarked some sites I think have some good options.”
I went to my desk. I took out the note that was folded into the tiniest square possible. Written in pencil on lined paper when I was eleven, with a row of lopsided hearts along the bottom. I smoothed the creases out and pushed it in front of Stephie. I had kept that note ever since I gave it to Mom and she returned it, folded up small again and stuck under my pillow, like some unwanted gift from the tooth fairy. “Read this,” I said.
I waited until Stephie read the end of the letter. “PS Mom Uncle Eddie sometimes hurts my butt. Could you please ask him to stop? Love you to the rainbow and back!” All these years I kept that letter as proof.
I waited for Stephie to say something. Waited for her to put her arms around me. I tried to catch her eyes, which used to be like looking into a mirror.
My twin got up and pushed the window open. “My God! It smells like rat piss in here. How can you live like this? I should call one of those shows. Those hoarder shows. Buried Alive or something, and put you on it.”
I picked up Peep and settled her on my lap, stroking her curved back. She sniffed my twin, whiskers trembling.
“You are asking me to cut my life in half because of something I had nothing to do with, Piper. I didn’t do anything to you.”
I felt the same sensation I had felt when the punk stabbed me. Dizzy, like I couldn’t get enough air. Red swam at the back of my eyes. I gripped the sofa.
“I would have taken your part,” I told her softly. “Without question, without doubt. And the worst thing is, Stephie, you believe me. Mom believed me. You just don’t care enough.”
“That’s not true!” yelled Stephie. “I care about you throwing your life away. You live like a crazy lady here. What, you think you can turn into a rat? You need professional help. You need to move on.”
I threw straw in my sister’s face. She put up an arm. It got in her hair. She coughed and picked straw out of her hair. I threw more. I hit her in the face with a whole flake of straw. “Piper! Stop it. Uncle Eddie is paying for my wedding. He paid for my college, Piper. I sincerely believe he wants to make amends.”
“Get out,” I said quietly. This time she met my eyes. Her face was streaming tears, though it could have been an allergic reaction. “We’re done here.” And so I was orphaned, though Stephie would say I orphaned myself.
My baby sister, junior by three minutes, picked her way across the straw-strewn floor and let herself out. My twin, who knows every word I say, left me without a single word. My beautiful twin who is going to be married in June and is going to have a husband and babies of her own. The one Uncle Eddie didn’t favor, because why? Why? I have no idea. He picked me. I got picked that day, just like the punk picked me to stab out of all the people on the sidewalk.
After she left, my days went back to the new normal. I argued with Stephie all the time in my head. “Me, me, why didn’t you pick me? Why didn’t you side with me, Steph?” I spun, Peep and Beaux spun, we twirled through our long days and nights, scattering straw, spinning, spinning in our room, spinning one direction while the earth spun on another trajectory, distant from the gravity of human pain, shifting from light to dark, still constant in its orbit, still intact.