By Rebecca Cuthbert
It was a tiny tear at first—barely noticeable.
Just her left ring finger detaching a bit. No big deal. Leah added a strip of silver duct tape and hid that with a flesh-colored bandage, then she got back to work, answering the phone and greeting customers and hustling hustling hustling at Giovanni’s Ristorante in the city’s second-trendiest neighborhood.
By the next weekend the finger had come clean off, and the other four fingers on that hand were separating too, but Leah fixed it with more duct tape and fancy, elbow-length gloves that she sort of liked. They made her feel elegant, even though she was just handing out menus and wine lists and rolls of polished silverware.
Plus, with her hands covered, and especially her left one, random dudes sitting at the bar stopped making bad jokes about how she wasn’t wearing a ring—a precursor, Leah knew, to hitting on her which would never go their way, because all she wanted was for Christine, the bartender with the cropped red hair and capable hands, to notice her.
She willed Christine to look at her in quiet moments, thinking hard at her, feeling harder. But Christine didn’t, or at least not when Leah was looking at her. The fall months passed and Leah taped her fingers on and brushed lint from her black gloves after rolling silverware, and she looked and she sighed but Christine, whose hands moved like a street magician’s trick in the bar’s recessed lighting, didn’t look back.
In January, things got worse.
Leah’s right foot snapped off as she was leaving work on an icy Thursday night. She cursed as she landed in gray sidewalk slush that soaked her thighs numb—cursed the heels she wore, the city she lived in, the bleak winter that seemed in the muffled frozen thick of it like it would never, never end.
Giovanni, whose real name was Gary but no one was allowed to call him that, insisted the hostesses wear black high heels, black dresses too short to comfortably bend over in and jewelry if they wanted, but only if it looked expensive.
No pants. No long skirts. No boots. So, no tape.
And how would Leah attract Christine or anyone else for that matter if she couldn’t even keep herself together, couldn’t keep herself composed, couldn’t do the basic, impossible job of being a whole, sufficient woman?
She tucked her foot into her purse and let her tears join the slush and gravel and road salt she crawled through to get to her car at the far end of the narrow parking lot.
The superglue had to be reapplied every two to three hours, and chipped bone at the ankle meant her foot didn’t fit exactly back into place. Leah hoped customers wouldn’t look down as she led them to their tables. She tried not to limp or wince or grimace or tell the truth when people asked, out of politeness and not curiosity, how she was doing.
And she reminded herself, every day in the mirror, first thing in the morning and before bed at night, that she was making it work. More or less.
Some days less. Most days, less. And Christine still wasn’t looking back at her, or maybe she was but how could Leah know and even if Christine was, it wasn’t—it probably wasn’t—the same way Leah looked at her.
And trying to problem-solve loose body parts was a slippery slope, Leah found. Before she knew it, she was overcompensating and solutions became their own troubles.
Leah focused on her face and head, hoping to distract people from her foot and hand that, she knew, flopped a little when she wasn’t careful. She braided in hair extensions, sweeping them over her shoulder in a low ponytail she hoped Christine would like. Dangling rhinestone earrings shimmered in the candleflicker of Giovanni’s mood-lit dining room and brought out the gold flecks in her gray eyes. Fringed, fake lashes added drama or at least the illusion of it.
When she passed Christine on her way to the kitchen for more clean silverware on a busy night in mid-February, ponytail drooping and sweat smudging her eye makeup, Christine looked back.
It was near the end of March when the hair extensions, growing out by then, pulled part of Leah’s scalp free from her skull. It folded over her ear like a banana peel—her ear which, Leah saw with dismay, was tearing away from her head, top to bottom, dragged down by her fabulous earrings.
Also, the fake lashes weren’t doing her eyelids any favors.
She bought more superglue, and at work, tried to hide her face from Christine, even though now, Christine looked back more times than she didn’t.
Giovanni noticed something was wrong—maybe not quite what, but he told Leah at the end of a Friday shift that she’d been looking unkempt and he didn’t know if it was emotional problems or what, but if she didn’t clean herself up he was going to have to put her in the back as a salad girl, if he kept her on at all.
So Leah tried harder. Double-sided tape, smaller earrings, staples, an expensive wig. Keeping her weight on her left foot for a six-hour shift wasn’t easy and after the last diner left and she could blow out the candles and wipe down the menus and sweep beneath the tables, she was spent.
It got harder and harder to face herself in the mirror as she repeated her mantra, as she told herself she was doing it, she was making it work, she’d figure it out, she’d keep figuring it out, it would all work out.
And in better news or worse, depending, Christine looked at her three times in the first week of April alone—as Christine washed bar glasses and Leah rolled silverware, as Christine restocked the wine rack and Leah Clorox-wiped door knobs, as Christine stood, motionless, behind the bar and Leah stopped, mid-stride, on her way to turn the muzak down.
But Leah didn’t have the nerve to talk to Christine—not now, not with the way Leah was feeling and what she looked like, despite her best efforts. A smashed marionette.
Giovanni kept a close eye on her, and Leah tried to stand up straight at the hostess podium, to smile with teeth at him and at every guest who walked through the doors—an act both aggressive and compliant, a sign hard to read, a weapon against suspicion and small talk.
Her teeth, at least, were whole and even.
On a Monday night in May, a night that was busier than it should have been long after the dinner rush with the kitchen closed and last call called, half the bar stools still sat full. Three businessmen sucked down flights of craft beer, a woman in a dress that was probably Versace sipped white wine, and an old guy held a glass of straight bourbon in his gnarled fingers but didn’t drink it.
Too many people to fall down in front of, though even half that number would have been, but that’s what Leah did. She’d forgotten to reapply the superglue holding her foot on, and when she headed toward the kitchen to run the candleholders through the dishwasher well—it just broke off, easy as half a graham cracker at the seams.
She fell forward, catching herself on one of the red leather bar stools thankfully unoccupied. She hauled herself up and onto it after hopping twice on her remaining foot, wishing she could dissolve into the grout between the fake marble floor tiles.
People stared, of course, it not being a daily occurrence to see a foot lying apart from its rightful owner. But then Giovanni came around the corner and he saw too, and his face darkened to the shade of russet potatoes, fists clenching into angry little balls.
He took a few steps toward Leah when someone—Christine—shoved him aside.
“Move, Gary,” she said, “I’m going on break,” and maybe because he was surprised, or maybe because he was embarrassed by his boring name being said out loud, he did move, sidestepping to take Christine’s place behind the bar.
Leah watched all this through a blur of tears. She felt like a jackass in front of these people, in front of Christine, but she was scared, too—she needed this job, and worried, because if she’d damaged her ankle further, how would she ever get her foot to stay on? But none of those emotions had time to seep in fully because Christine was heading straight for her, looking straight at her, and Leah held her breath.
Christine leaned over and picked up Leah’s foot. Then she approached and bent to one knee, holding up the foot like an offering, like it was something precious, and being one of the only two feet Leah had, of course, it was.
Leah looked miserably at her retrieved foot but then noticed, for the first time because she’d never been this close to Christine before, the tiny, careful stitches holding Christine’s hands on. The thread matched the insides of her pale wrists perfectly, looking more like textured skin than lines of silk or nylon. The precision was beautiful.
Leah exhaled and whispered “Yours, too?” She took her foot back, fingertips brushing Christine’s.
“Mine, too,” Christine said. Half her mouth bent into a smile and she stood, wrapping an arm around Leah’s waist to help her up.
Leah smiled back without showing her teeth, and together, the women rounded the bar, heading for the kitchen and the restaurant’s back door and, hopefully, Leah thought and maybe Christine did too, toward something else still too fragile to name.
But “Leah” Giovanni said before they got far and his voice was a sharp knife; the women stopped. He gripped the edge of the bar and leaned toward them. “You better pull yourself together by the weekend. I mean it.”
Leah thought he probably did and as she and Christine pushed through the swinging doors and whatever was going to happen, she thought she probably would pull herself together but maybe, also, she wouldn’t, and if not, well, there would always be whatever happened after that, the next bridge to come to, to look at, to cross perhaps (or maybe not), but she didn’t have to think about any of it at that moment, and instead, she concentrated on how Christine’s hand felt snug around her torso, like she was holding Leah together, and how nice it felt to be held together, how right there and then even with her detached foot clenched in her hand like a prize she’d earned and not lost, things were more or less and actually more than less okay. Maybe better, even, than that.
Rebecca Cuthbert (she/her) writes speculative, slipstream, and dark fiction and poetry. She loves ghost stories, folklore, witchy women, and anything that involves nature getting revenge. Her poem “Still Love'' is forthcoming in Nocturne Magazine. For publications and more, visit rebeccacuthbert.com.
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