“The Woman With No Skin” by Sarah Layden

Happy Halloween, Story366! I’m sitting here on an overcast Wednesday, a bit bummed out because it’s supposed to start raining here at the exact time trick or treating starts in Springfield. I’m also sad because I haven’t figured out a costume yet. I took my kids to Party City yesterday and got them set up, but cheaped out on myself, as adult costumes were forty bucks each and me and the Karen both needed one and I started thinking how it’s only a few hours of … I cheaped out. Big time. I bought an inexpensive, extensive grease paint kit instead and convinced myself I’d do some elaborate makeupcentric costume before we head out. In the pouring rain. That’s my plan. Sigh.

I remember Halloween two years ago, during the everyday Story366, driving back to Missouri from Chicago, the Cubs having just won Game 5 of the World Series, Halloween the travel day, the next two days two of the most exciting, nerve-racking, and happiest days of my life (the bliss to end, with a vengeance, just over a week later). On that trip, I stopped at a Barnes & Noble in suburban St. Louis, planning on buying Stephen King’s story collection to cover for that day’s post, only to buy and post on Neil Gaiman instead. I made it back just in time to usher my kids into the neighborhood, full of hope and soon to be full of candy.

Today, two years and a much less stringent posting schedule later, I read Sarah Layden‘s new short-short chapbook, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, just out from Sonder Press as the inaugural winner of its chapbook competition. Not a bad way to spend a rainy morning, reading a really cool chapbook—I didn’t even plan on reading the whole thing, but that’s how it turned out, as Layden’s writing pulled me through the forty-eight pages. I read most of the stories twice. I enjoyed it that much.

It’s not often I read an entire book before posting, so I can literally pick any story to focus on here today. I have to admit, however, that today’s choice isn’t all that organic, despite my options: I picked the story before reading, based on its title. I knew I wanted to post today, that I’d have time this morning. I also knew that I would want to post on a Halloweenesque story, meaning I’d either have to run to the local B&N for that King collection (which I’ve still never done) or some other horrorish book; or, I’d have to scour the dozen or so books I have on deck here for something that sounded like a Halloween story. I’d just received Layden’s book in the mail last week, so that was near the top and I circled in on “The Woman With No Skin” right away. I flipped through the ToCs of the other books and found one story with “blood” in the title, but decided to go back the first book I picked up. I’m glad I did.

As it turns out, “The Woman With No Skin” isn’t as much a horror story as the title might imply (at least to me). I mean, having no skin would be pretty horrific, right? How painful would that be? I’ve watched Game of Thrones. I’ve seen horror movies. I’ve skinned my knee. Ouch!

But that’s not what this story is. In Layden’s tale, a woman finds herself without skin. Or really, she’s never had skin, so it’s not some Gregor Samsa thing where she suddenly wakes up like that. It’s just what it is from the get-go. When she looks at herself, she sees all the muscle that we think she would see, that person from the medical textbooks, pink and strong and meaty as all heck. Holding it all together—so she doesn’t, like, fall apart—is a thin, clear membrane, almost like cellophane, that does the skin’s job—except for the visual part. Oh, and the membrane is permeable to things from the outside, like pollen and gum wrappers, which stick to the woman almost as if she’s flypaper.

Our hero’s problem isn’t that she’s some horrific freak who would no doubt live her days in a lab, if not a circus. Instead, she just doesn’t want everything and everyone to see inside her, to break that barrier that we all have (literally and figuratively). You could say she’s the anti-exhibitionist. In her case, however, it’s hard to call her shy. Clothes don’t work because she can feel the fibers digging into her tissues. Considering, she’s pretty calm about the whole thing.

A scientist friend constructs a brown polymer suit, one that keeps everything out, though makes her look frumpy, like a gingerbread person. She perseveres, but Layden throws her another curve: People’s words, and their thoughts, seems to stick to the polymer suit, printing themselves as if she’s taking dictation. Soon, she is walking around looking like a newspaper, random fragments about her printed across her body, along with random facts not about her. She sucks up everything and carries it with her. Wears it. This, to her, is even worse than everyone seeing her guts, all that stuff clinging to her innards.

Remember, this is a short, meaning we’re already pretty deep into the word count at this point, so I won’t go any further, reveal anything else. What I will say is that this character, unnamed but otherwise exposed, uses her situation, her predicament, to explore herself, to see what everyone else is seeing, to obtain a more objective view. This allows for Layden to hint at, use, and exploit a coterie of thematic connotations: this character allowed to see inside herself, to see who she really is, etc., plus all jockeying of the exterior vs. the interior, as well as notions of violation, what it means to be exposed and vulnerable. Still, there’s no lesson, just a creative, fun (if not Halloweenie) conceit, one that gives the author a chance to explore her character, a character that achieves a better understanding of herself via this unusual condition.

That’s what Sarah Layden does in most of the stories in The Story I Tell Myself About Myself. Protagonists find themselves in a peculiar circumstances, outlined in the first line or two of the story, then Layden just explores, has fun with the concept. There’s a story about a couple having to have timely sex, as prescribed by cycles and baby doctors, and how that weighs on their relationship, their desire for children. There’s a story about a woman who’s a house—complete with siding, gutters, and little tchotchkes on the inside. There’s a guy waiting for a comet. A woman who is dying with a baboon waiting for her heart. A woman waiting to hear the secrets of the rest of her life. This style/approach reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Aimee Bender, how she just throws her wildly creative and wonderful concepts out in the first sentence, then goes from there—I’ve tried to copy that for the last twenty years or so, to varying degrees of success. Layden is way better at it than me. That’s why I like this book so much, I think, because it reminds me of what I love about writing, what has always inspired me, what inspires me today.

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