In January of her senior year at college, Sophie discovered jagged bits of flesh blossoming from her vagina. She rubbed her hand over the space in the shower, feeling the burls that had sprouted from front to back.
Her worst enemy in high school had contracted genital herpes from fucking the boys who returned home from college during winter break. They came back wearing new clothes and listening to new bands, their stamens full of desire and disease. Sophie found it fitting that a girl with such a mildewed personality now had the twat to match. As if the ugly had moved from her heart down.
Sophie didn’t fuck those kinds of boys. Sophie had fucked only two boys. The nurse practitioner she loved now, and the unfaithful Chili’s waiter she had loved for the first three years of college.
The month before she sprouted the lumpy flesh, a story ran on 60 Minutes about a Mexican man who became a tree. The human papillomavirus wildfired from between his legs over the entirety of his body. The knots covered his skin completely, transforming him into a living willow. His flesh-bark pained him, and he wept sap as he spoke.
She told the boy she loved that she suspected she was now marred, expecting him to evaporate as she spoke. His hand was smooth against her burrs, and he swore he didn’t care. He told her that one out of four people had it. That it would not turn her into a tree.
They sat together on a worn quilt, its threadbare surface barely separating them from the cold earth. In the park, with tennis shoe scrapes and moss-covered trees filling the space around them, he asked her to move in with him. She agreed under the condition that he go with her to the clinic to burn away the ridged buds. By now, he had them, too.
They waited in the dingy room of the free clinic. The chairs were placed in rows so the patients could get a good view of the looping video about a guy who gave his girlfriend herpes. Sophie insisted that condoms always be worn. Flesh against flesh had been enough, though.
The boy she loved held her hand, pressing his palm to hers and squeezing the bones in her fingers against one another. She noticed a man in a sleeveless shirt and his girlfriend sitting a few rows in front of them. The man’s skin was yellow and his back muscles tensed through the thin, dirty cotton. When the video got to the part where the guy apologized to the woman for infecting her, the yellow man wrapped his forearm around the girlfriend’s neck. He yanked her close and held her there so firmly that from behind it looked as if they were one misshapen form.
After she was scorched with chemicals, the boy she loved took her home. He covered her eyes with his hands, and she felt the smooth pads of his fingers against her eyelids. She imagined the whorled print patterns of him and wished they could stay against her forever. He presented her with a green dress, something to make her feel beautiful again. Sophie pulled the dress on and asked the boy to dance with her. There in the living room of his house, he nervously put his hands on her waist. She wrapped her wrists around the back of his neck and thought of middle school for a moment instead of the stinging between her legs. He turned her on the hardwood floor, suddenly, and she felt her thighs rub against one another, sycamores peeling at their pinnacle. He stepped on the top of her foot as he pulled her back to him, but she let her head fall against his chest anyway. She closed her eyes, breathing him in and fighting not to scan the floor for any bits of her bark that may have dropped away.
Jamie McFaden is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Alabama, who holds an M.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of Alabama Birmingham. A former Thomas H. Brown scholar, she has been published in Aura, Birmingham Home and Garden, Kaleidoscope, Alabama Seaport Magazine, and Mobile Bay Monthly. By day, she teaches ballet-based fitness classes at Pure Barre and by night, she pours over her weird and wonderful life via the written word while sipping the finest red wine the Piggly Wiggly has to offer.