I cringe as the words leave my mouth, even though I’m not speaking to anyone other than myself, me in the mirror. Not even the mirror, actually, just the semi-reflective surface of the fridge door. I can only handle my own image in hazy form. It’s not like I haven’t tried. I’ve read the think pieces on decolonizing beauty, I’ve thumbed the self-care articles written by my peers, I’ve tried acupuncture and therapy and meditation. But all these supposed cures have only left me despising myself more. Here I am, mumbling my abject truth. Gross and embarrassing. I open the fridge even though I know it’s empty.
It’s nearly time. I force myself out into the sun’s white blaze. In this city, spring’s arrival offers no idyllic flush of leaves and flowers. It’s bare and bright, a bracing slap. The covers being ripped away after a long muffled sleep. There’s dog shit everywhere, it turns out. Dog shit and soggy mountains of trash. And people you don’t want to see. Too late, I notice the man who has sidled up to me from who knows where.
“Mam’zelle, mam’zelle,” he paws at my coat sleeve.
“Can I help you?” I say, just in case he really is lost or in some sort of peril, which they never are.
“You are so exotic, so beautiful,” he mumbles. I can smell the inside of his mouth. “You must be asiatique, orientale, mixte, I can always tell.” I wrench my face to the side, try to pull my arm away.
“I watch you from across the street—nous sommes voisins! Neighbours!” Like it’s a fun surprise, a point of mutual joy.
“Thank you,” I say, against my will. I shake him off as hard as I dare, and walk-run towards the bus stop.
The 80 rumbles down Parc, and I’m calming down, lulled by the white noise, the predictable creaking of the bus, when a familiar scent alights next to me. Cedar essential oil, orange blossom. Today of all days. My younger sister, Ruby.
“Babe!” she says, like I’m one of her many girlfriends. Her half-shaved head draws immediate attention, her vintage fur coat frames her just right. She pulls me close, even as my body tenses up. “Omg where are you going this early, I haven’t even slept yet, I was at Le Circuit all night, it was amaze.” I don’t answer her question. She never waits long enough for me to say anything. I settle into her chatter, a familiar mode. She says something about Ma calling her while she was super high, something about her new naturopath, something about “weaving a diasporic familial tapestry.”
“I can’t believe you answered while you were stoned,” I say. “I just never pick up at all, it’s easier.”
“Emmy,” she looks into my eyes. Her pupils are huge. “You really need to keep in touch with Ma and Dad, they’re our family. We can have divergent values and still be rooted in love.”
Ruby. Never embarrassed or constrained. How are we related? I marvel at the way her makeup highlights all her features, rather than blending them in or obscuring them, the way I try to do with mine. She has that YouTuber glow. Is it just because she’s six years younger than me?
“This is me!” The bus is juddering to a halt. She unfolds her long limbs, stands in her platform boots. “Let’s have brunch soon, you need to leave the house more, I’ll text you! Love you!” I nod and mime texting, relieved she’s getting off before me.
“Emerald Liu-Willis, dix heures,” I mumble at the reception desk. I’m always afraid that francophones will make fun of my accent. Do I say my r’s like une asiatique?
The clinic is welcoming though, the lighting warm, the surfaces rounded. Best of all, no one looks at each other in the waiting room. We’re artists of the averted gaze. Before the first consultation, I had imagined a lab-like atmosphere, like when my mother used to bring me to work on snow days. I’d sit on a stool and watch her peer through microscopes, listen to her say swab and biopsy and abnormal tissue. I thought those were regular, everyday phrases until I noticed that no one at school or anywhere else ever said them. Just like no one else ate the food we ate, and no one talked to me at recess, except to pull their eyes back and chant that rhyme about Chinese Japanese dirty knees look at these. I never stuck around long enough to find out what these were. I would climb the scraggly pine tree at the back of the yard and count the minutes until the bell.
“Count backwards from ten, ma chère,” says Dr. Pelletier,hovering above me. I hate his faux-tenderness. I think about dirty knees biopsies slanty eyes telling lies as I go under. “When you wake up you’ll be brand new,” I think I hear him say, but I’m already gone.
On the intake sheet you’re supposed to write down the name and contact information of your accompagnateur, the person who will pick you up after the procedure and take you home. I left it blank even though the nurse frowned at me. After thirty-six hours, they release you, regardless.
I had expected pain, throbbing or burning, some swelling at least, but I feel nothing. My face is bare— I’m not in the mummified state that would have been necessary some years ago, back when New Horizons first opened. I carefully avoid looking in the spotless mirror that hangs near the cot. I’m tempted, of course I am, but I tell myself that it will be best to wait until I’m really alone. A smooth-faced attendant slides the sheets off my recovery bed and efficiently ushers me out. A small vial of tablets, a follow-up appointment in a month, and a strong suggestion to rate the experience on their social media.
The days are finally getting longer, but the sun is down when I emerge onto Sherbrooke. I consider taking a cab or an Uber, before remembering that I’ve drained my bank account. I’m too nervous to look at my reflection in the bus windows. I always look down when I ride the 80 anyway—I hate running into people in that cramped space. I hate running into people, period. But I glance up so as not to miss my stop—and spot my sister on the other side of the aisle, towards the back. This time, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude at the sight of her. I lurch over.
“Ruby!” I say, cracking my new smile.
She does a double take. Her expression remains questioning, slightly annoyed.
“Do I know you?” Her eyes slide over my face.
“It’s me!” I say. I try a casual laugh. “Hello? Emerald, your sister? Come on, I can’t look that different!”
“What the fuck,” she stands up and pushes me backward.
“I don’t know what kind of white nonsense this is, but get away from me.”
I reach for her, I have to explain—but the bus doors open and she’s gone. I manage to ride the rest of the way home without looking at anyone or anything. I slam my door shut, turn both locks, throw off my coat, and stumble into the bathroom just in time to vomit an acidic stream of nothing into the toilet. I rinse out my mouth. It doesn’t feel like mine. I brace myself. I finally face the mirror.
It’s everything I wanted. The ideal collection of features I’d always imagined, looking back at me.
I’m horrified. I can’t breathe.
I claw at it, I can’t feel anything, I can’t feel anything.
I hide the whole perfect terrifying thing in my hands.
I pass out.
When I can locate myself again, I sit up on the tiled floor. I tell myself to move slowly. I should call the clinic, tell them I want a reversal. They must do those, right? I made a mistake; others have surely come to the same conclusion. There must be a process. The number is right there, on the slim business card I’ve had stuck on the fridge for months. New Horizons: Upgrade to Your Highest Self. I should call immediately. But it’s too much for me today, the idea of having to explain myself in this state. I drag myself to my bedroom, choke down three of the pills they gave me to “ease the renewal process,” and fall into a heavy sleep.
I wake up the next day, or maybe the day after that. The sun creeps through my blinds. I reach out and check my phone automatically. A text from Ruby: EM this girl on the metro just pretended to be you WTF!!! I think it was one of ur weirdo white friends from McGill IDK? Whypipo so embarrassing srsly ( forehead-smack emoji Å~ 3). Two missed calls from my parents. An urgent email about one of my freelance contracts. I scroll through Instagram. Selfie selfie selfie selfie. I’ve never posted one. It was unthinkable then. Everything too flat, everything placed all wrong, not enough of this, too much of that. My whole life up until now: not enough of this, too much of that. It all felt impossible before.
I step into the kitchen and stand in front of the fridge. I register the contours of my new features in the glowing surface. I hold my own gaze. There’s no turning back now, I realize. A tidal sweep of relief displaces the tension in my shoulders, my back, my limbs. There will be no more in-between. No more mixed race, mixed messages, mixed prospects. A clear way forward. New Horizons: Make Your Best Half Whole. Today I’m beginning. I open the fridge and look inside, even though I know it’s empty.