Pamela swallowed a cactus and grew spines. They shot up through her pores, inches long and thick and stiff. They lay flat with the hair on her head. Everywhere she had hair, she grew spines instead. She enjoyed it, that first day, feeling them push up through her skin. Every time her skin was shoved upward and held taut, every time it stretched, and broke, the pinpoint head of a new spine sticking through, she knew she had made the right choice.
Her boss wasn’t thrilled. Pamela had a customer-facing role. But the law prohibited firing on the basis of appearance and HR was strict. They ignored the Post-its that kept getting stuck to her spines, looking as if they were floating two inches above her skin. Pamela kept them there, a floating garden defaced with her scrawls, a to-do list hovering on the small hairs on her fingers.
She hadn’t known until now how many places she had hair, the little tangles on the knuckles of her big toes which caught on her socks and the small prickles around her nipples which kept snagging on her bra.
Once she had gotten home and taken off her clothes to get ready for bed, she ran her hands over her body, and there wasn’t a single place which was soft. She loved, so deeply, being an untouchable thing. The spines even poked out of the corners of her eyes, and when she cried, droplets edged out along them instead of running down her face, making the leap from eye to floor without touching skin.
She wouldn’t have cried at all—this changed body seemed to want to preserve its moisture—except for Lydia. One evening, she got home early and made a special meal, turning the garlic in the saucepan just like the book her mother had given her said, browning. The book had been an anniversary present. The dinner turned out decently, if she did say so herself. Pamela had always been good at following instructions.
She laid the table with the family china her mother had given her when she had finally realized that Lydia and Pamela were certainly going to move in together without getting married. She took out her nice, long-stemmed glasses, uncorked the wine. Placed a small cactus by Lydia’s plate.
It had a pot—decorative—and a large glass of water next to it. Not much bigger than a pill, round, cyan, shot through with spines.
The last course. Hopefully.
Things had been different since Pamela swallowed the cactus. The sex was certainly more creative. Lydia would crack her open now, stroke the moist, water-bearing seams that made up her insides, moving with exquisite care. Pamela would wear gloves.
Pamela didn’t plate the pasta until she heard Lydia’s car. She hadn’t intended to be nervous. She’d spent all day picturing Lydia with spines. The way they would feel shivering across her skin. The way they would both get caught in the down comforter and laugh and laugh. The only thing she had missed was cuddling, something they could only manage if Pamela was entirely wrapped in a thick blanket. But these past few days, Pamela had felt her skin puff up, harden. It had a sheen to it, stretched and stiff. She could picture them both like that, hard and poky, curled one against the other.
All day in the mirror, practicing the words “I want.” Practicing the words “Would you.” Practicing the word “Please.”
Lydia called hello from the doorway. Pamela heard a thump when Lydia put down her bag, leaving it in the hallway where anyone could trip on it, as always. She appeared at the threshold, long hair falling over her shoulder and her skin as soft as a baby vole or some other hairless, wet thing that had never seen the sun.
“Have I forgotten an anniversary?” Lydia said.
“I wanted to treat you,” Pamela said, pouring the wine, hardly daring to take her eyes off Lydia’s face. She wanted to see her expression. That is where the truth was, in the first second, in the first, strongest reaction.
Pamela hadn’t consulted Lydia first—that was one of the things they fought about. Lydia sat down, smiled, pulled her chair in. She probably thought this was Pamela’s way of apologizing. Of mollifying her—when in truth, Pamela had nothing to apologize for.
Pamela sat down across from her and waited, the way a family waits to say grace, the way a dog will wait with a biscuit on its nose. It was probably the waiting which caused Lydia to look down.
“Oh, Pamela,” she said, that same soft look she had after her parent-teacher conferences with her most useless students. “Oh, Pamela.”
All her practice did her no good. Pamela couldn’t even manage please. Instead, she looked at her hands.
“I can’t,” Lydia said, and what she meant was, I won’t. “What would my students do? I can’t be poking the second graders.”
“I just thought—” Pamela said, “If you wanted—”
Lydia shook her head. “It was sweet of you.” She placed the small cactus to the side, like it, too, was a dinner guest.
Pamela blinked, watching Lydia’s fingers curl around her fork. In the light, her skin looked almost soggy with the surfeit of moisture. She’d been seeing it more and more around the city, this impossible, obscene excess.
The words finally came to her. “Please,” she said. “It’s sublime, once you try it. I couldn’t be happier.” She picked up her glass of wine and her spines clacked against it, loud and out of sync. She couldn’t take more than a sip or two of water at a time anymore—anything more made her feel like she was drowning. She’d begun to use oil on her skin instead of water, polishing herself to a sheen, soaking in it, and any water would roll off her without ever sinking in.
Lydia shook her head without even pretending to spend a moment in contemplation. “I couldn’t possibly,” she said, an old joke between them, a polite refusal which meant no, absolutely not, and don’t ask again.
The next morning, Lydia ran her fingers down Pamela’s back, flicking a few of the spines playfully.
“You have a few lumps,” she said. “Is that normal?”
Pamela shrugged. “I guess I’m growing lumps now.”
Lydia leaned down and kissed her carefully, between the spines, her lips as soft as waterbeds. “I’ll be home late tonight. I’m staying after to direct the new class play.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing it,” Pamela said and meant it. There was something tender in watching the children try so hard and so badly. She’d been picturing their child on that stage, with Lydia’s eyes and hair full of spines.
Lydia’s fingers hesitated slightly where they’d been stroking down her back. “You’re going to come?”
“Okay. That’s fine,” Lydia said, lifting her hands away. She kissed Pamela’s shoulder, right between the spines. “See you at seven?”
Pamela nodded, spines catching on the pillow. When she had thought about the future, she hadn’t thought it would look like this.
Before she’d swallowed the cactus, she’d visualized the change incessantly, a creeping alteration, like vines in concrete, worming their way into every small crevice she possessed. Instead, it had been more like free radicals, like infrared. It had gone right through her all at once, her skin taking on a turquoise tint in an instant, veins shading to a darker teal.
Everything was still so new. She wondered if the spines would eventually grow through her pupils, in place of her fingernails, out of her ears. She hadn’t dared pluck the spines that had grown in place of her eyebrows and even now they were creeping towards the center. It would have mattered to her except she didn’t need to care about being beautiful anymore.
And everywhere, this strange overabundance, this ridiculous fecundity. The world seemed laden with water, with gifts, like the earth itself was Marie Antoinette, flaunting her wealth and covered in diamonds. When she woke, their front yard was covered in dew and she wanted to faint from the richness of it. The feeling wasn’t entirely pleasant—she had dreams of the strange softness, in which she might sink and drown.
It was not the first time that she thought she could not raise children here but it was the first time that thought had come to her with such force, such convincing animus, like it had been a pronouncement from the Lord.
That morning, Pamela walked through the nearby park on her way to work. The sprinklers must have gone off in the night and mud squished unpleasantly under her shoes. The squelch of dirt, the soft give of the ground under her feet, had begun to unnerve her. To sink into dirt so wet was to be engulfed. To be lost.
She took refuge for a moment at the park bench, curling her legs up so her feet rested on the wood. She tried to brush her hair out of her face, forgetting, in that moment, that her hair was mostly spines. Her fingers snagged on something and without thinking, she pulled, gasping as it came loose. The separation was jagged, fraught, a shock accompanied by a sharp pain.
She picked up the thing that had so recently been part of her—a small chunk of skin, no longer than her pinkie nail. It was covered in spines so small and delicate as to be nearly invisible, dotting the azure surface like whitecaps on the ocean.
This must be one of her lumps. She’d run her hands over them after Lydia had left this morning, and she had thought about going to the doctor and she had wondered if this was how she did pimples now and then she had simply forgotten about it.
She studied it, becoming more certain. It lay completely still in the palm of her hand, tiny and prickly and stubbornly alive. Hard and round and genderless, with tiny spines that looked as soft as cuticles, ready to sprout and grow. Pamela set it on the ground by the foot of the bench and walked away from it, feeling freed.
Pamela slipped into the back of the auditorium, nearly fifteen minutes into the play. She’d spent almost an hour after work trying to arrange her spines, putting on makeup and then taking it off, appalled at the garish sheen of the powder over sea glass skin.
Lydia knelt in the front, gesturing encouragingly at a small girl who seemed to have been struck with stage fright. Taking one of the metal folding chairs in the very last row, Pamela scanned the audience. She wasn’t sure what Lydia had told her coworkers—if she would be facing cartoonishly exaggerated support or suppressed discomfort.
To her right sat a woman, Tiffany blue, her skin haloed by light white fuzz, without a single spine. Her legs were crossed at the ankle and though she didn’t move one bit, Pamela’s eyes kept finding their way back to her.
It wasn’t difficult to get the permit, if you were of age and could pass a psychology test. The latter was made easier by a cottage industry of notaries, lawyers, and quasi-medical professionals. Sign away your life in waivers and visit one of the small stores—which were mandated to be a certain distance from the schools, just in case—full of various cactus clippings from lab-grown plants.
Pamela watched children sing and trip and dance and cry without seeing any of it. The curtain was not even all the way down before she turned to the woman, who also sat alone.
“Are you here for—” Pamela asked. She was strangely nervous. It wasn’t uncommon but Pamela had never met anyone in her social circles who had made the change.
“Malcolm,” the woman said and Pamela wondered if he was the reason she had eschewed spines. “Second grade. You’re Lydia’s wife?”
“Girlfriend,” Pamela said. “I’m Pamela.”
“Grace,” the woman said. “Nice to meet you.” She gave her a small, fixed smile and turned back to the stage.
Pamela blinked at her, full of questions the internet could only partially answer. Do you dream of deserts at night? Do you feel like your insides are changing, like spaces are hollowing out between or in place of your bones? Do you feel like a sea cave has been constructed in your rib cage, like you consist of crystalline structures slowly filling with water?
She turned back towards the stage and clasped her hands together, spines chafing in her gloves.
After, Lydia introduced her to new coworkers and some of the parents. Lydia didn’t wind an arm through hers, though that might have been the spines. Pamela shook hands with no one. When the principal congratulated her on being so progressive, Pamela smiled and pretended that she did not see the expression on Lydia’s face.
Pamela cleared their window box of geraniums the next day. She had purchased soil from a nursery and was patting it down around the little cacti, humming to them as she worked. Didn’t plants like music?
Lydia came up behind her. “Is this for clippings?”
“I’m shedding,” Pamela said. “Or budding.”
Lydia stroked one with the very tip of her finger, a movement so gentle it made Pamela feel squishy for the first time in weeks. “It’s illegal, isn’t it? To make more cacti?”
“These won’t become people or change people,” Pamela said. “They’re just what they seem to be.”
Lydia crossed her arms, then seemed to make herself uncross them with too much conscious effort. “I’m dealing with this badly, aren’t I?”
“There are support groups,” Pamela suggested.
“I didn’t know you were unhappy.” Then, looking at the planter, “I don’t understand.”
Pamela shrugged. She’d obsessed over the height of the saguaro, the wispy beard of the old man cactus, the plump lush fruit of the prickly pear. Had lain awake at night dreaming of a lifetime of deserts, the sort of wanting that could fill up the emptiness of Death Valley, of the Sahara.
It was a week later, maybe two, that she came home and Lydia’s things were gone. She should have been surprised or shocked. She should have dropped her bag and let her hands fly to her face, spearing them on the delicate spines in her cheeks.
Instead, she sat in the remaining blue chair. Lydia must have taken the matching chair, an equitable trade; she was fair-minded even in this. She looked at the folded piece of paper on the coffee table. As if a woman who taught reading would ever leave without a note.
She wasn’t sure where her new seedlings should go. Pamela only had one window box. Perhaps half of one, if Lydia had gotten to it too. She didn’t know much about how to raise a cactus, or what environment they liked best. She thought about that instead of reading the note.
She left it on the table that night. Washed her face in oil. She should have felt devastated and she kept waiting for the feeling to arrive, as impatient as a woman at a train station.
Instead, she spread herself all over the bed. Incapable of sawing it in half, Lydia seemed to have taken all of the expensive kitchen implements instead. Pamela let her mind wander, not thinking of the child she’d wanted, with dark eyes and ferocious spines, not thinking of the wife she’d wanted, strong and prickly, but instead thinking of the lumps on her back, the spaces inside of her.
Broken hearts leak water. What a waste.