Before I even open my eyes, I am conscious of the inhale and exhale coming from the closet. The exhale sounds like the soft gurgling of a coffeemaker near the end of its brew cycle. I sit up and scratch my fingernail from wrist to elbow; a welt rises like a hard line in the road. I guess I'm not dreaming. The breathing is still there, feather-like in my ears but regular as a metronome. They told me this would happen. "Plastic Respiration" is what the man who helped me called it, and he assured me that once the product reached "maturity" it would no longer need to "breathe. " I'd almost made a joke when he said this, because the look on his face was free of the irony I felt our situation required. Only a weak little joke, along the lines of: Mark never matured in life, leave it to him to wait till death to do it! or So you're telling me I still haven't escaped his snoring? But I bit my lip and nodded, worried he was waiting for any hint that I was not the right kind of customer. I took the thing home in an improbably small vacuum-packed bag, unpacked it, took in the measure of its flaccidness, and wept. I ignored it for a week. I had been sleeping on the couch since the car accident. This is the first morning I have faced our bedroom in daylight alone.
I hold my breath a second so that the Plastic Respiration catches up with my own and we breathe together, me and the Skin, until it starts to sound enough like a perversion of Lamaze that I roll over into Mark's abandoned indentation in the bed and let the sheets I still haven't washed soak up the only tears, I promise, darling, that I'll shed for him today.
Whenever I asked about some piece of evidence that called his fidelity into question, Mark liked to speculate on how the things he did now might affect his next life, or lives. "The way I see it," he'd say over his sixth beer of the night, "I'm sort of ruining the next guy's learning curve by being good and getting all the lessons on the first try. It seems best to make lots of spectacular mistakes and go out on more limbs without a clear way back to the trunk, if you know what I mean. Otherwise I'm kind of fucking him over, right?"
"First off," I'd lay in, "I think it's rich you just assume your next life is as a human male. What a joke! A man is the luckiest thing on the planet. What makes you think you'll ever deserve that particular privilege again? I vote female slug. I vote female slug born in a salt factory!" I was moody as a feral cat. I knew that the mistakes he planned to make, was currently making, had more dramatic measurements than mine. I also knew that I would not leave him. All of his indiscretions broke over me pre-forgiven, as if my pride had met its match.
"Slugs are hermaphrodites, babe," he'd croon, putting down the beer and stalking across to where I'd have my swollen feet up on the arm of the couch, "and anyway I have to be male. So that I can come and find you wherever you are, always female and luscious, and put a baby right here," he'd start rubbing my belly and kissing his way up my legs. I'd just begun to show at the three-month mark and he was already demanding that I leave my job at the jeweler's. "I can't wait to find you over and over and over again." And then the way he was so gentle with me as we lost our breath made me drop it until my next suspicion, which always came quickly.
It's just like I imagined it would be, inside. What if death did not us part? Close and hot, but comfortable and right-feeling. We are taking a stroll along the shore a couple towns over because Mark's being recognized would result in a scene. You could never get close enough to her. The salt air smells amniotic. I imagine that my sense of smell is sharpened through his nostrils. He was always more sensual, more alive than I was. In him, I am taller, more commanding of my space. I stretch out all the way to the fingertips, to the scalp, to the tip of our cock. I stretch full out rather than shrinking in on myself, like I do in just my body. That Mark was—is—one of the most handsome men I have ever seen still makes me flush with pride. My face went hot in front of the mirror when I finally slipped into the Skin this morning, my head swimming in him. I've fallen in love with him again through our reflection. The way I would have if I'd gotten the chance to meet our baby. Women follow him, us, with their eyes far more often than they ever did when we were out together, hand in hand. I never knew what he was up against, but I knew instinctively to forgive him. I forgive us, Mark. Seeing the curious, sometimes openly hungry, looks in the eyes of these strangers is erotic in a way I did not anticipate. I almost want to make love to them all through his skin. Wouldn't that be the perfect revenge, to fuck them all?
BIO: Maria Pinto's work has appeared in Broad! (a gentleperson's magazine) , The Drunken Boat, Spirited Magazine, Laurel Moon, and The Missing Slate. She received a BA in creative writing from Brandeis University and was the 2009 Ivan Gold Fellow at the Writer's Room of Boston. Her debut novel is currently under construction.