Elizabeth Barns’s lips are thin. She presses them together and when she does it looks like there are no lips on her face at all. It’s a habit of hers, pressing her lips together like that. She was pressing her lips together when she first saw it. It made her do a double take—what she saw. She always noticed when anything was different.
She is used to obsessing about her body, to examining it in the mirror. She sees it covered in foreign marks. Each speck and splotch is some disease: the pink blotch on the back of her knee (she is sure is melanoma), the bruise on her stomach (probably a sign of leukemia), the brown circle on the bottom of her foot (a splinter that will become infected and the infection will spread to her brain and suddenly strike her dead at fifty).
Elizabeth’s body is not particularly interesting. She is skinny. There are no patches of cellulite on her frame. But her color is pale and her hair is mousy brown-gray. She has a nice long neck but otherwise her features are unremarkable.
Elizabeth goes to work for a man she doesn’t like. This makes her feel a part of the world. Most people don’t like the men they work for. Elizabeth works the morning and lunch shifts with Trish and Peg. Trish’s husband is a truck driver and she likes it that way. Well, sometimes she likes it that way and sometimes she doesn’t. Once she told Elizabeth that she could never find peace at home. When her husband is gone she misses him and the house feels empty but when he is there she feels cramped and counts the days until he leaves again. She is like a Goldilocks who never finds the baby’s bed. Peg is younger than Trish and she doesn’t have a husband, just like Elizabeth doesn’t have a husband, but unlike Elizabeth, Peg has a little girl.
The café where Elizabeth works is out by a couple overlapping state roads. So there are a lot of locals going out to the factories and into the city to work. There are also, at times, many travelers. The people that drive through and want to stop and have eggs in the restaurant by the road on their way to look at water falling down mountains or leaves becoming discolored and falling.
The old café is unremarkable. That might be why it’s so popular with the locals. There are plenty of booths and people like to sit in booths. But there is also a bar where people sit. The people that sit at the bar mostly drink coffee and, usually, it is only regulars who have the guts to sit there.
Elizabeth has to wear a uniform to work and this makes her feel like a communist. Standing around with three other women wearing the same rose-colored dress with a sewn-in blue apron, putting food in front of people, is not her idea of a good time. But Elizabeth needs the money. And as far as jobs go things could be worse. This morning the café is already crowded, the old wood booths are filling up, and Peg is fighting with Ron in the kitchen about pancake batter.
This act, fighting, makes Elizabeth remember a different time. A time from a past life. Fighting is something that Elizabeth has not done in quite some time. It’s hard for her to remember whether fighting was something that gave her pleasure. But watching Trish and Ron fight, her heart lurches. How nice it must be, thinks Elizabeth, to be able to raise your voice.
When Elizabeth sees Peg standing at the coffee counter arranging cups and pouring cream she can’t resist the urge to go and talk to her. She knows Peg is busy, she knows that she should go punch in and start her shift but she can’t. She heads toward Peg. If she doesn’t ask someone about it then the chance of her dying from it is greater. It should not be overlooked. When things like this are overlooked they become big, serious, unfixable problems. If someone else tells you “it’s nothing” it prevents a jinx.
“Hey Peg, can you look at my lip?” Elizabeth asks.
“Heavens are you just getting here?” Peg is startled. “Pull that extra sugar down for me. Why do you want me to look at your lip?”
“There’s a spot there.”
“Oh honey, you know it’s nothing. Let me look at it later OK, when the morning lull comes.”
“Can you please look at it now Peg?”
Peg stops and looks at Elizabeth. She grabs Elizabeth’s chin and leans her down.
“Let me have a look then… hmmm,” says Peg. “Yes I see it. It’s a burst blood vessel. Now go take table three’s order.”
Elizabeth considers her lip in the back of a spoon. Is it really a burst blood vessel? Why would a blood vessel just burst in her lip? That is something Elizabeth would have felt. A burst blood vessel seems like something you would feel.
During the lull between breakfast and lunch Peg paints her nails. She doesn’t do this every day. She does this today because she has a date tonight. While Elizabeth watches Peg coat her nails in the hot pink polish, she wonders who will watch Peg’s little girl while Peg is on her date.
Trish and Ron eat soup and share the paper. Elizabeth’s boss inspects the kitchen. Elizabeth stares into her coffee cup and thinks about her lip. She knows something is wrong. She cannot bear the idea of the doctor’s office—too many germs congregated in one place. The doctor’s office is not a place for Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth gets home that afternoon she is tired and her feet hurt. The house is cold but Elizabeth cannot afford to keep it warmer than sixty-one degrees. Elizabeth is cold natured so sixty-one degrees is cold for her. She wears layers in her house. There are scarves and socks and sweaters all over the furniture. Elizabeth heats up a cup of black tea in the microwave. She wishes that she liked green tea. The health benefits of green tea are superior to black tea. But you can’t help what you like.
After stripping off her uniform and bundling up Elizabeth cannot resist looking at her lip. The spot looks bigger now even from this morning. Elizabeth fights the urge to call her mother. There is no one in this “fresh start town” for her to call. So Elizabeth calls no one.
Elizabeth uses each of her towels only once before rewashing—this includes kitchen towels, bath towels, beach towels and the like, so there is a lot of laundry for her to do in the afternoons. This afternoon, though, she turns the television on and lies in bed with the covers pulled over her head. She does her best not to think about the spot on her lip. This night, for dinner, Elizabeth cooks herself some noodles then cleans the wooded floors of her apartment with vinegar. She falls asleep, fingering the spot on her lip.
In the morning Elizabeth gets up for work. She showers, uses a towel then drops it in the dirty laundry hamper. She makes her bed. She puts on her communist uniform. She does her best to avoid looking in the mirror. If she looks in the mirror her eyes will go straight to her lip and she knows that she must not look. She keeps her eyes closed when opening her medicine cabinet, to avoid the mirror. She takes one yellow pill from the bottle and swallows it. Elizabeth is good at swallowing pills. She no longer needs water to help her get them down.
She gets in her car to go to work. Elizabeth drives an old sedan that her mother gave her for her big move upstate. Elizabeth’s car has 113,537 miles on it. Every day she puts three miles on the car. It takes her one and a half miles to get to work and one and a half miles to get home. The only other time that Elizabeth puts miles on her car is when she drives to town. This happens twice a month. Sometimes she puts miles on it driving back to the city to see her mother. But Elizabeth has not made that trip in some time.
Today it is Trish and Peg who are fighting. As Elizabeth approaches them she feels light. The rosy dresses with lace trim and their blondish ponytails make them look like school girls. This is a hopeful moment for Elizabeth, as she approaches them from behind. She thinks that maybe Trish and Peg have been replaced with younger versions of themselves. But as Elizabeth nears the coffee stations and sees the varicose veins snaking around Trish’s ankles and the loose skin draped over Peg’s elbows, she knows there has been no overnight transformation. Trish and Peg are the same as they have ever been.
Elizabeth nears the coffee station and punches in while she eavesdrops.
“Please forgive me, Trish,” says Peg.
“If you want me to watch her, fine, I don’t mind, but you can’t expect me to sit and wait for all hours of the night for you to come home. I have to take care of myself. You know I have to come to work early,” says Trish.
“I know; you’re right. I’m sorry. I never get to do anything like that and this one, he was just so handsome. We were having so much fun, time just flew and I lost track,” says Peg.
“You know,” says Elizabeth, “I could watch her sometimes for you, Peg.”
Trish keeps her head focused on pouring the coffee and doesn’t look up. Peg pulls a tight smile and looks at Elizabeth with tired eyes.
“Thanks Elizabeth. It’s just that my girl’s real particular about who she stays with.”And with that she hoists a tray up and turns to the men at the counter. Trish still doesn’t look up from what must be the most well-stirred coffee in the history of time. Elizabeth takes her own tray and begins serving.
During the morning lull, Elizabeth rolls silverware and tries not to think about the spot on her lip. Her boss has assigned her to roll the silverware and to polish the glasses. At these tasks, she is the best employee in the café. As she rolls the tissue-thin napkin around the aged flatware, Ron comes from the kitchen and sits across from her.
Elizabeth wonders why he has chosen to sit with her today. Usually Ron sits with Trish. Elizabeth looks at him and cuts a tentative smile, baring just the bottom of her top teeth as her thin lips disappear into her face. Ron’s face is spackled with pancake batter. His small, round black eyes shine through his wrinkle-folded skin and he stares at her. He smells like cigarettes and morning. He slightly grimaces at Elizabeth’s smile.
“You know you have something on your lip,” he informs her.
Elizabeth’s heart starts to beat. Her hands and the back of her ears feel clammy and she wants to get up and rush to the mirror in the ladies room.
“What do you think it is?” she asks, not even trying to mask her concern. She is grateful to have someone to talk to.
Ron looks at her like he’s trying to make sense of an invasive species. She can tell he’s not quite sure what to do with her sudden burst of energy. Elizabeth is usually tempered. Elizabeth is usually quiet. He licks his thumb and reaches across the table toward her as if he were about to turn a stubborn page. Elizabeth’s body tenses at this. Elizabeth has not been touched by a man in quite some time. Ron flicks the spot on her lip as if to brush it off.
“I thought it was something on there, not like a part of you,” says Ron.
“Oh, no,” says Elizabeth, “I knew it was a part of me.”
“Hmmph,” says Ron as he goes back to drinking his coffee.
“Do you think it’s cancer or something?” asks Elizabeth.
“How would I know what that is? I’m not a doctor,” says Ron.
Elizabeth continues to roll silverware but can think of nothing but the spot on her lip. She says she’s not feeling well and asks if she can leave early. “Don’t make a habit of it,” her boss tells her. Elizabeth has never asked to leave early ever before. Elizabeth has not missed one day of work since she started at the café.
When Elizabeth gets home, she goes straight into the bathroom. She takes off her communist uniform, drops it in the hamper. She is naked and stands before the full-sized mirror on the back of the bathroom door. At first she avoids looking at her face. She inspects her body for any changes or discolorations. She turns slowly, considering her legs and arms and torso. Nothing has changed. Elizabeth knows that now is the time to look at her lip.
It’s there. What she sees cannot be ignored. It looks as if it’s grown. Elizabeth steps toward the mirror. She puts her face so close to it that she’s almost touching it. When she presses the spot she notices how unusual it is. This does not look like anything that Elizabeth has ever seen on her body before. She pushes and pulls the spot to get a better look at it. The spot does not hurt but when she touches it, something inside her stirs. When she cannot bear to look anymore, Elizabeth washes her hands and dresses. She layers herself up and makes a glass of tea. Later, she starts the laundry.
That afternoon Elizabeth cannot stop touching her lip. It does not matter what she does, nothing works. She cannot distract herself. She cannot stop touching it.
Elizabeth does not go to work the next day. When she calls in, she talks to Trish, who doesn’t seem to mind. “We’ve got things covered here,” Trish says. Elizabeth wishes that Trish had yelled at her and made her come in; that’s what Trish would have done if Peg or Ron had called in sick.
Elizabeth wears mittens and sits on her hands so that she won’t keep touching the spot on her lip. When she has successfully not touched her lip for two hours and thirteen minutes, Elizabeth goes to take a bath. She fingers her lip the whole time. This does not give her any peace. The longer she touches it, the more something inside her stirs.
That night Elizabeth cannot sleep. She has given up fighting the urge and so lies there the whole night, her pointer finger rolling over the spot.
The next morning, when Elizabeth wakes up, she eats her oatmeal. She dresses without looking in the mirror. She thinks work will be more bearable if she does not look now. It is icy outside and takes extra long for her car to heat. When she gets to work she doesn’t talk to Trish or Ron or Peg. She serves the men at the counter eggs and coffee. She wipes up spilled milk and clears crumpled sugar packets from tables. Still, though, she is thinking of the spot and when she can, she sneaks a touch.
In the middle of taking an order, a little boy having breakfast with his father stares at her. He looks so hard it is like he is looking past her. She asks the little boy what he wants to eat. The little boy doesn’t respond. Instead he stands in the booth to get a better look. He holds her face by the cheeks and peers at her lip. The boy’s father is speechless. There really is nothing to say. All he can do is watch. The little boy pinches the spot on Elizabeth’s lip.
“What is it?” he asks.
At this, Elizabeth walks right out of the café. She doesn’t bother to put on her coat. She doesn’t bother to get into her car. She doesn’t think about where she is going. She just walks. Elizabeth knows that the little boy saw something deep. She saw his pupils swell while staring at the spot. The stirring feeling is in her now, whether she touches the spot or not. At this point, Elizabeth becomes too afraid to touch her lip; she is fearful of her own body.
There is a truck stop three quarters of a mile away from the café. Elizabeth is too cold to keep walking outside and so she goes in. But she is not thinking straight and the contrast of warmth on the inside startles her. She walks toward the ladies room. It is just big enough for two women. It has two stalls and two sinks. No one is in there now, so Elizabeth locks the door to the whole room behind her. She is not ready to look in the mirror and paces up and down the narrow space between the stalls and the sinks. Elizabeth is not comfortable in this room. Germs lie in wait everywhere, and Elizabeth knows that the germs are worse here than in other places.
Elizabeth can think of only one solution to the problem. If she looks in the mirror and the spot is bigger she knows what she will have to do.
She arranges her body in front of the mirror but keeps her head down. She reveals her lip to herself quickly in a one-two-three-look. And it is bigger. She sees now what the little boy could see.
Hanging on the wall in the ladies room is a first aid kit. The kit is white and made of plastic and has a blue cross on the front. Elizabeth pulls the kit from the wall. To open it she must break its seal. Elizabeth is thankful that it is still sealed. This means that no one else has gotten into it but her. She opens the box and finds gauze and aspirin and tape and Tylenol. There is also, in the kit, a tiny pair of scissors. Elizabeth turns on the faucet and waits for the hot water to run. When steam rises from the sink Elizabeth runs the scissors under the water but they are metal and small and heat up quickly. They become so hot Elizabeth drops them in the sink. But Elizabeth is not discouraged. She reaches in and grabs them and cools them on her apron. Now she barely notices the heat on her skin. She is too focused.
Elizabeth positions the scissors in between her fingers and timidly pierces the skin around the spot. It doesn’t hurt. She presses harder. She carves around the black dot, allowing the blood to release. The skin loosens as she cuts. Elizabeth feels no pain. The blood now falls from her lip onto her communist uniform. Once completely cut, the skin with the spot falls into the sink.
Elizabeth considers that her lip might look smaller than before. She presses her lips together and the blood smears on them. It’s no use stopping the bleeding because the blood is really coming out now, but Elizabeth does not want to the leave the ladies room like this. So she tapes some gauze to the spot. She washes her hands, puts the contents of the first aid kit back together as neatly as she can before she leaves.
Elizabeth walks back to the café. Now that the spot is gone she is able to focus on more pressing issues of the day. She is concerned that the man she works for will be angry at her for leaving during the morning rush and that he might fire her. She is worried that she will have to keep her house even colder if she has to find a new job. She is worried that if she is fired she will no longer see Peg and Trish—her only friends. As Elizabeth walks back to work the wind picks up and blows the gauze off her face. The absence of the spot on her lip becomes exposed.
When Elizabeth goes back into the café she is still bleeding. The boy and his father no longer sit in the booth. The morning rush has slowed. The man she works for comes toward her. He notices her communist uniform is decorated with a spray of bright red blood.
Elizabeth sees him examining her. It has been a long time since she has been examined by a man like this.
Photo by OnCall team