To Whom Will You Seem Beautiful
I am eighteen when I decide. I stand by the bed of the creek, watching the light on the surface of the water, when a man steps down beside me. He takes my face in his hands and turns it, side to side, as I might inspect a puppy or an antique, and then says, ‘you’re at the perfect age.’
I think of this, day after day. I dream of clocks embedded in the back of my hands, my life ticking further and further away from eighteen. I imagine the skin around those clocks growing ragged from sun exposure, the cells of liver spots blooming on my forearms without any warning. Picture the nimble shape of my fingers swollen and craggy with osteoarthritis, my thighs softening with cellulite, my feet growing with horn-like skin that would slough away slowly, peeling back in butterfly layer by layer.
Catallus, I learn in my Latin class, asks his lover Lesbia cui videberis bella? To whom will you seem beautiful?
Women are most beautiful at eighteen, I say to the nurse who admits me, and he touches the top of my head and does not contradict me.
You look so young, he promises me. You will for all your life.
When I am anesthetized and suspended, magnified and silent, they extract my DNA. They thread like cat’s cradles between their gloved hands, and then bleach sections until they become fragile and porous. As a strand of hair opens before it can receive the dye. The doctors excise the places where I would fail, and insert 33,000 genes for protein coding, to bolster my fragile human frame. These, they say, will prevent graying, wrinkling, sagging, rippling.
A cephalopod is a radical choice, says the nurse, but a good one. Women tend towards aquatic animals: dolphins, yes, but also veiltails, lyretails, French angelfish. Strangely beautiful and yet alien, like supermodels with their cheekbone streaked in lavender. Untouchable. Men prefer wolves, or other thickly furred mammals—lions, tigers, and bears, oh my. I have chosen wisely. The invertebrate genome of the octopus inclines towards durability and intelligence. The zinc finger factors, expressed in embryonic development, function as recurring stem cells, forever restarting my cells from their most tender origins. They give rise to whatever I need: skin cell, hair cell, new ovaries that can produce cleaner hormones and fresher eggs.
I choose the octopus so my spine will never crack, so that silver hair will never grow in a perfect wave from my temple, as my mother’s hair does. So I would never be the horror that the world sees in an old woman. When I die, it will be because of some strange disease or unavoidable accident, not the human failure of my form.
But what they never tell you is that you will feel other things.
That you will gaze at yourself in the mirror and for one, perfect moment, your eyes will flicker and shift and become a match of the silvery gray glass, and it seems like you have no eyes but chips of mirror. Only a reflection of a reflection, and nothing in between.
That you will be able to locate your body in space without looking. When you close your eyes, you feel the pull of gravity beneath you. In the pool, I curl my limbs into my core, arms wrapped around my torso, and float through the space. I let the children around me push their tiny palms against my back and spin me. Blinded as I am, contracted into the space of a shell, I still touch my feet against the ground.
That you will begin to taste your lovers through their skin. Now that my acetylcholine no longer binds to certain senses, I touch their shoulders and taste the throb of testosterone, thick as roasted garlic; the salty tinge of adrenaline, like the briny water of an oyster slipping down my throat; the sweetness of estrogen and oxytocin that are nothing like food at all, but sometimes I taste them in my milky coffee, so much so that I hold a swallow inside my cheek, and I taste and taste.
The shell of my body remains resolutely human, but I do not feel as before. I press my cheek against my mother’s lap and feel her hands weaving through my hair and wonder why I ever feared to become her. I breathe through the thinnest parts of my skin when underwater, and feel oxygen singing through my blood. I see old women in the dressing room at the swimming pool and want to pray to the beauty of the broken skin around their eyes, the smooth thinness of their lips, the way they let me clasp their wrists and taste the richness of their lowered hormones, bright and shattering as spring water.
So I go back for more treatments, additional splicing. I sign waiver after waiver, acknowledging that there may be other effects.
The nurse watches me, frowning as my name loops onto the page into smooth swirls of ink. You don’t want to be one of them, do you?
As I breathe, shallow enough now in the cool air of the clinic, regulated for humidity, his words fade. His human mouth gapes and contracts. Cui videberis bella? he asks, or else I imagine.
I turn my head and look away, to the ocean visible outside the hospital room window, already imagining glad ripples of my skin expanding into the brilliance of orange and scarlet crepe. The spine that I feared to lose will now dissolve from soft-structured collagen into a wide and vibrant net of epidermis, fibers creeping from the surface to the central axial nerve. How good it will be to touch, with every sensory cell alive to the world, gelatinous and electric. I will be able to smell with the tips of my arms, sense light without opening my eyes. And when I am hungry, I will tear flesh with my beak, unafraid to feast.
C.A. Schaefer is a writer, editor, and instructor based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She graduated with a doctoral degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah. Before that, she worked as an editor, tutor, communications specialist, and administrative assistant.