‘Sluts get cuts!’ the first sign says, in pink curly handwriting, as though that might soften the blow. Behind it, there are dozens more.
‘Jesus,’ you say, your breath catching in your throat. You park, hauling on the handbrake, and sit, keys in your lap.
Open the car door, you tell yourself, you can do it. Watch your hands go through the motion, see the line like a surgeon’s mark on your finger where the wedding ring used to be. One step at a time. Just follow the instructions.
Keep your head down, you think, watching as one foot lands in front of the next. You notice the one blade of cut grass stuck to the toe of your sneaker, the crushed white gravel that spills over the wooden edging of the path like confetti. Look up to see how far you have to go, the door like the horizon line. One foot in front of the other.
A woman ducks under the rope, muttering, ‘It isn’t too late. You don’t have to leave him. Marriages and bodies should be whole.’ She reaches out and grips your arm, pacing backwards as you continue to try to walk. ‘We can save you. We can save your marriage.’
Shrug her off, twisting your arm inside the sleeve. Say, ‘Just let me go,’ and notice that the words sound more pathetic than you could have imagined.
The woman looks at you with pity and says, ‘I can save you’, and you think, Lady, you don’t even know the half of it, just as the doors of the surgery slide open.
Step inside. Behind the glass doors, the reception is warm, a glow of light running along the oak reception desk. Behind you, the protesters open and close their mouths like angry goldfish.
The receptionist smiles. ‘Just ignore them,’ she says. She enters your name and address into the computer with her index fingers. ‘Have a seat. The doctor will be with you shortly.’ She turns back to her screen.
You turn into the waiting room. Eye the other women carefully. Are they here for the same reason as you? Choose a seat as far away from them all as possible. One of them lifts her head to smile as you sit down across from her. She wears an eyepatch with a smiley face on it, a bright yellow ball just where her eye used to be.
Smile back at her, but let your eyes slide away before she thinks you want a conversation. Give yourself something to do and pick up the top magazine. Open it without looking at it. Turn the pages, viciously, snapping them over while you wait. Notice that the woman across from you raises her eyebrows every time you do. Snap the pages harder.
It’s only when you toss it back down on the table that you see the cover. A glossy image of a smiling woman, the man behind her resting his hand on her shoulder. You shudder. Reach forward and flip it over.
‘Excuse me, miss?’ A nurse stands in the entrance of the waiting room.
Stand, pick up your bag, knock the pile of magazines off the table and hurriedly stack them up again. The top one now shows a woman smiling, her arm in bandages, her teeth big and white. The sunshine yellow title says A Woman’s Right to Choose. Flip that one over too.
‘Don’t worry about those,’ the nurse says. ‘They don’t get read much. So, according to your notes, I think in the past you’ve seen one of the other doctors in the practice?’
‘Yes. Usually it’s Dr Hevent. Is she here?’ Walk with the nurse along the corridor. One foot then the other.
‘She’s on leave, but I’ve put you in with Dr Coltz. She’s just getting up to speed. Here she is,’ and the nurse gestures expectantly to a closed door. Put your hand on the handle, and turn back to look at the nurse. She smiles. Turn the handle.
The office is a blank slate, white walls, a bed covered in clean linens and the doctor in her lab coat, her hair scraped back off her severe face, shuffling papers at her desk. She gestures to the chair on the other side of the desk.
Put your hand on the back to sit. It’s cold, vinyl on a metal frame. Your fingers can’t get a grip. Say, ‘Hi. I usually see someone else, but …’
The doctor gestures towards the chair again. You take the hint and slide into the seat, the cold seeping through your clothes.
‘Oh, Dr Hevent? She’s on medical leave, a relationship breakdown, I’m afraid. I’ve taken over her cases. I have her notes, of course, but it would be useful if you let me know what you need. You’re here to end a relationship?’
‘Yes.’ You’re not. It’s already ended, but you’re here to do the necessary paperwork.
The doctor notes something down on her jotter.
‘Right. And how long have you and your husband been together?’
The doctor puts her pen down and leans back, looking at you through eyes you can’t read. ‘Is this your first relationship to end?’
‘No. This is my third.’
‘So, you’ve seen the paperwork before?’
‘Yes.’ You’ve filled in forms, weighed the options and made your choices. You’ve done it enough to know that you dread it.
‘Have you and your husband already completed the End of Relationship form? And filed it?’
‘Yes. I needed my own bank account.’
‘And you know that the consequences escalate?’
‘And I can see from your notes, you’ve had tonsils and your appendix out. They were sensible choices. Very disposable. I’m afraid we won’t be able to hide it as well this time.’
‘No, I know. I was just hoping there were some options.’
‘There will be, just I’m not sure how good they will be, so I have to ask you – is it worth leaving this relationship? A marriage, even one only five years long, carries …’ The doctor picks up another form. She runs her finger down the paper until she finds the consequence of your choice. ‘So, if you are thinking of something external, it’d likely be an eye or nose, or possibly a hand or foot. I’m afraid that once you move into marriage, small things like fingers and toes aren’t considered enough of a deterrent to leaving. If you are considering something internal, it’ll be something far more major. Maybe a lung. Reproductive organs. Something like that.’
Clear your throat. Ask the question. ‘I wondered … I heard that maybe there was a clause about abusive relationships.’
The doctor puts her pen down, and leans towards you as though suddenly more interested. ‘Yes, that’s right. It’s hard to do, though. If you can prove abuse, then we can look at applying for an exemption. It won’t remove all consequences, as you are still defaulting on a commitment, but it will mitigate it, and we can consider a lower-tier option.’
She pulls out a filing drawer and leafs through the files until she finds the one she wants.
‘This has all the information on it, however as your husband and you have already completed an End of Relationship declaration, the clock has started ticking, I’m afraid. You have six weeks from the date of filing to either complete the consequence or to prove extenuating circumstances.’
‘But what proof do I actually need?’ Your voice is shaking. ‘Can I just say what happened?’
‘I’m afraid the requirements are more stringent than that.’
‘I have photos of bruises. And there’s records of doctors’ visits.’
‘Yes, I’m sure you have that. I’m afraid the system requires evidence of who the assailant was, however, and none of those things will prove anything beyond the fact that injuries occurred. You’ll need two witnesses to the alleged abuse who are prepared to go on record. Do you think you can get that?’
‘No one saw.’ Look down at your hand and spread your fingers. The tendons flare out over the lines of the bones, blue veins weaving their way under and above like old friends. ‘We were always alone when it happened.’
‘That will likely make it difficult. I’m sorry. I think our best course of action is to select a consequence for both scenarios and we can see how you get on. How would June 16th suit you as a date? You’ll need some time away from work obviously, for recovery.’
Say, ‘How am I supposed to choose?’
‘The body part? Well, it’s always difficult, but you ended the relationship knowing this was the likely result. That was a hard choice too, so I’m sure you’ll be fine. If you like, I can send you to a women’s group who can help you make this decision.’
Touch the surface of the desk, watch the fingers of your hand run up and down the wooden edge, as though they aren’t yours already.
‘Of course, it’s also useful to consider your occupation. If a hand is necessary to you to continue working, then we must consider something else. Some find work-arounds; if you saw Maria on reception, you’ll have noticed she’s down to two fingers, but that really didn’t affect her typing skill at all – she’s always been dreadful.’ The doctor smiles at her own joke.
‘I don’t have a job. Ethan didn’t want me working.’
‘In some ways that makes it easier then. Fewer considerations.’ The doctor picks up her diary and flips the pages. ‘So, shall I pencil in the 16th then? I want to give you time to think, but I’m also aware of the time pressure on this. I’d hate for the consequences to escalate.’
She lifts some paper, moves some others around, looking for something.
‘Here. This has the detail in it about timelines and the options,’ and she holds out a glossy brochure. The woman’s smiling face reminds you of the magazines in reception.
‘I know it’s a hard choice.’ The doctor stands, and you stand too. The metal frame of the chair burns cold against your calf. ‘I’ll see you out, and I’ll send you some referral material to support you with your choice.’ She walks to the door, and you can see the plastic of her prosthetic leg between the hem of her skirt and the line of her boot. The doctor watches the line of your eye.
‘I do know this is difficult. But just remember: it’s always a choice.’ The doctor opens the door and you walk out. It’s just one foot in front of the other while you still have them both. Just follow the instructions.
Let yourself in the front door. As usual the key catches in the lock and you have to jiggle it. The door pushes open into the dingy flat. Drop the keys, your handbag on the bench, the brochure from the doctor. The smiling face looks up at you. Flip it over so she faces the table top.
Pull a red marker from the junk drawer in the kitchen and walk to the bathroom. Pull off your clothes, your T-shirt catching on your nose, your elbows, your underwear dropping limply to the floor. The light through the pockmarked glass turns your whole body grey. Look hard at the shape in the mirror. Soft in some places, angular in others. The light catches the hollows at the base of your neck, the curve of your shoulders, still a bruise – yellow. Your ribs ache from the last time they were broken. There’s a scar on your abdomen from the appendectomy that marked the end of a previous relationship.
Uncap the red marker and draw a line around the place at the base of your finger where your wedding band had been. It feels good. Draw a mark around your left wrist, around your ankle, around the edge of your nose. Draw a cross over one eye.
Move the marker in a jagged line across your belly, filling the blank space with angry red lines. Each mark will be easier and easier and faster and faster, so draw until your whole body is covered in red, raw lines.
Lines, like surgeon’s marks. Lines, like veins pulsing. Lines like a signature, like your name written over and over again, as though you are claiming this body for yourself.
Step into the shower and turn the tap. Let the water splutter over you, spitting flecks of rust along with lukewarm water. Watch the red ink run down like blood.