When Rita had her first toothache, the dentist told her she needed an x-ray.
“Uh-Uh,” said Rita. “If you’re going to give me an x-ray, you’re not going to stop at the tooth. You’re going to do the whole thing.”
At home, I tried to talk her out of it. “Rita, you’re being ridiculous. You know your health insurance’ll never cover it. What are you trying to prove?”
Rita stuck out her chin like she was throwing an anchor, and I knew the argument was lost before it began. “Fine, then I’ll use my own money. Better this than what you’re using it for.” She stared pointedly at the pile of snakeskin high heels under our bed. “This time next week, I’ll know everything about me there is to know. And you won’t know anything.”
She called the doctor’s office, viciously stabbing the numbers into her cell phone. On the day of the appointment she only said, “I’m going.” I scowled until my lips felt pruned, then followed anyway.
You know,” I told her in the hospital waiting room, “a clean x-ray isn’t a clean bill of health. There are a lot of things radiation can’t see.”
She closed her eyes, and I knew she was thinking of her brother’s leukemia, the hot white blood bubbling from under his feet, scraping his vessels clean as stone. And of her mother’s diabetes – the weakening circulation, the plump and gangrenous leg. She was thinking of how goodbyes tend to fester, becoming blistered and red over time.
When she opened them again, her eyes were clear and bloodless. “Avascular necrosis, cellular death of bone components due to interruption of the blood supply. Osteogenesis imperfecta, brittle bones caused by defective connective tissue. Greenstick fracture –“
“You don’t have a fracture, Rita. You would have felt it.”
“You don’t know that. Things happen.”
“And they would have caught half these diseases when you were a baby.”
Rita scoffed. “Right. I forgot your little stint in med school.”
“My stint – ”
The technician called Rita’s name. She glared at me and stalked through the wooden door, leaving me behind with the smell of blood and bleach. I picked up a copy of Highlights magazine and x-ed all the page numbers. Across the room, a tiny old lady cracked her knuckles, one by one.
Behind that door, Rita was wrapping herself in a paper gown. She was lying on a table with her fingers splayed apart, radiation tasting her bones. A technician in a lead vest watched, waiting for her image to ghost across the screen.
Later, at home, Rita printed out a big list of all the diseases she didn’t have. With a black sharpie, she crossed out cavity (tooth). She taped her x-ray, all five feet of it, to the ceiling above our bed, and we both climbed in to look at it.
Under the sheets, Rita’s hand was brittle and naked. I could feel both our pulses singing together, competing for rhythm.
“It doesn’t even look like me,” Rita whispered. “It could be you, if it was a little bit taller. And if the head was a little bigger.”
I looked at her, and she was smirking. I traced the outline of her lips with my fingers, and felt the hard teeth underneath.
“You know,” I told her, “The first person to have her hand x-rayed said that she had seen her own death.”
Rita raised her eyebrows. “Melodramatic.”
“Well, she wasn’t a scientist.”
We both fell silent. It was jarring to see the totality of it – the whole system frozen by a moment of light. I felt like an intruder, slinking past tendon and sinew to lay my lips against a hard private place. I stared at the burgeoning rib cage, the protruding pelvis, the elegant dip of the collar bone. And around it, the faint miasma of skin and muscle, the thin cloud of material the x-ray failed to cut through. If I buried her today, the earth would peel away layers of soft skin until there was only this pale calcium outline. I would never see her more naked.
For a moment, I felt like everything would be ok as long as we both had our skeletons, as long as the same solid pattern lived inside us. There would be no more broken bones.
I turned onto my side to tell Rita, to kiss the truth into her lips, but her jaws were already closed, and she was already asleep.
Annesha Sengupta is a Manhattan-based writer, though she hails from Richmond, VA. Her work has previously been published in 100 Word Story and Jersey Devil Press, among others. She currently edits the Minetta Review.