The same girl from the same coffee shop is pestering Peter for his number again. Carmen watches the exchange comfortably from her seat, watching as her boyfriend smiles and nods at something the girl says. His eyes glance over at Carmen and she raises her eyebrows, holding up a hand. Peter rubs his neck and says something to the barista who is after him. She finally nods and smiles, but there’s a dimness in her eyes.
“She’s cute,” Carmen says as Peter walks back to their table and collapses on the seat in front of her.
Peter doesn’t hide his smile. “Yeah, I guess.” He loves to get the attention of other girls. He rubs his hands together, leaning forward. “But I love you. Down to the green skin underneath those bones.”
Carmen rolls her eyes and leans forward. “And to all the warts you’ve got on your nose.” She finally smiles again, finishing their mantra. They go pick up their drinks and walk out of the coffee shop. Carmen looks back and sees the barista who pestered Peter now looking at both of them. It strikes Carmen that had the girl really known Peter, known what was on the inside of that flawless tanned skin and easy white smile, maybe she wouldn’t look at him the same. She’d probably want nothing to do with him.
The couple walks down the street toward their house. Peter has his arm slung around Carmen’s shoulders. Carmen’s fingers wrap around his. She feels the glances of the people who pass by them on the street. They are a beautiful couple, after all. Catalog worthy, definitely not your average Tom and Jane. They get to their house wedged in the middle of all the similar ones. Close the door behind them and it’s Carmen who puts the lock this time.
Peter sets his coffee down on the dining room table and fixes his face. It’s started to shift down on one side. Carmen goes to the bathroom and fixes her wig. She lounges on the couch and waits for Peter to finish his video call. He begins to take off his face the minute he’s back on the couch. “Get comfortable.” He teases Carmen. She shakes her head and watches him step out of his skin.
“Please don’t get anything on the rug, I just cleaned this morning.” Carmen presses her face against the cushion. Peter sits next to her and strokes her hair. Her hair catches on his skin, but Carmen doesn’t mind the yanks.
“Do you ever think about how it’d be, to be like this all the time?” Peter’s voice is the same, rich and warm. Peter guesses.
“Like you, or like me?” Carmen giggles.
“Like, how the world sees us.”
“Annoying?” Carmen sits up. Peter is looking at his arm. The skin is neon. He leans back, looking at the ceiling. His real hair is brown and fuzzy, not the black mane he sports outside.
“No, really.” Peter scratches his chin. It sounds like sandpaper scratching wood. Carmen finally takes off her wig, feeling her real scalp cool immediately. Her face lands on the coffee table when she tosses it. Carmen looks down at her legs, long and tan and smooth. Once while Peter and she were on vacation at a beach resort, one of the bartenders had given Carmen loads of free drinks, calling her ‘mommy long legs’. It had been a childish name, but Peter and Carmen had accepted the drinks and the bartender had been left to pay the tab. Peter had called her that same nickname the rest of the vacation and even did so on occasion now. Carmen feels around behind her skirt and pulls at the waistband of these nude flesh tights. She’s at home now, she can rest.
The sun goes down while the couple lounges in their true form and flip through the channels on the television. Peter likes to watch movies, and Carmen likes cooking shows. Peter doesn’t have to do any work today for the first time in forever, and Carmen’s office job is forgotten every day at 4 pm until the next day. Peter tells Carmen she doesn’t have to work, but she needs to get out of the house or she goes crazy.
Carmen doesn’t remember not knowing Peter. They go together like every sensible pair in existence.
Peter also likes to watch sports, baseball. Carmen falls asleep during one of the games and wakes up with Peter wearing his face again, standing by the window. His body is obscured by the curtains, so he looks like any young man looking out into his street. Carmen watches Peter take a step back, letting the curtain fall.
They’ve been alive for one hundred years, and yet Carmen doesn’t feel like time has slowed for her. She likes to walk outside and stand in their tiny backyard, always wearing her face. She usually throws on a robe so her real body can breathe for a minute. Peter is always wearing his other face and body by the time Carmen wakes up each morning. They wash the sheets and make their bed together, as their real bodies leave stains like oil spills. Carmen takes long to wash and get ready. She wishes she could step outside sometimes, bare. Peter laughs when she tells him. “They’d have us locked away in no time. Or cut us up and put us under a microscope.”
Carmen slides her skin down her shoulders, letting out a sigh as the rest of her body falls to the ground. A dress. Across from her, Peter keeps his skin on and collapses onto the sofa. Carmen takes a seat next to Peter, her fluorescent green skin a shock from his.
“I wish…I wish you’d wait a minute.” He brings his hand over hers anyhow. Carmen enjoys watching the contrast in their skin. The couple watches television until Carmen’s eyes are drooping. She puts her cheek against Peter’s arm. He shifts, but he doesn’t move away.
The end begins like this. The next day, Carmen calls Peter after she leaves the office and proposes a nice dinner at home. Peter tells her he’s going to hang out with his coworkers, and why doesn’t she meet them? Carmen is anxious to get out of her skin, but she agrees to meet Peter and he sends her the address. Carmen notices Peter right away, lively and laughing with a group of people. He wraps an arm around her and reintroduces her. Some people seem familiar, others don’t. There are the usual compliments of what a good-looking couple and Carmen notices the way Peter interacts. So sure, so confident.
“They like you,” Carmen says when they walk home after. Their shoes click down the street, and Carmen wraps her hands around Peter’s. Underneath her gloves, her skin is incredibly warm.
“Yeah, it’s nice. They like the real me.”
“Well, not the real you.”
Peter slows down. “They like who I am.”
“If they saw what was underneath you”-
Peter keeps walking. “They never will.”
“Right.” Carmen feels Peter draw his arm away from her. The night is cold and the break in contact leaves Carmen uncomfortable.
A couple of days later, Peter calls Carmen. She is home first and has taken off her body and thrown on a robe to stand outside. The sun is still shining beautifully. She fans her robe out. Their normal bodies are warmer than other people’s bodies. They are in a permanent state of sweat.
“Hello,” Peter says brightly. There is a yell in the background, followed by laughing.
“We just got a new client thanks to my team. We wanted to celebrate, so I invited them over to our place for dinner. Are you there?”
“What?” Peter has usually respected the sanctity of their house. This is where Carmen can take her skin off and finally breathe. Her wig has been causing her scalp to get irritated. Now, she scratches it and sighs into the phone. “I didn’t think you’d invite them to our”-
“I have to go. We’ll be there in about thirty minutes. I’m sure we have something tasty in the fridge.”
“Tasty in the fridge?” Peter hangs up. Carmen grits her teeth. Their plastic veneers are a lifesaver and don’t bother them as much. Carmen sometimes catches herself biting down rhythmically. Now, she is too irritated to appreciate the sound they make.
Carmen rushes to put her skin back on. The dress she wore is still on the ground in their bedroom, but she doesn’t feel like playing dress-up, so she slides the wrinkly fabric over her. Carmen wishes she could tear the damn wig off, but Peter and his friends are going to come bursting in at any moment.
And like clockwork, they do. Carmen is standing in front of the bathroom mirror, smoothing down a part of her chin that has folded inward. She hears the obnoxious laughter and voices of the same people she just saw. Peter’s laugh is easy to pick out. “Excuse the mess!”
Carmen goes downstairs, practicing smiles on the way. The one she slides on when she sees everyone feels incredibly stiff. They don’t notice. There are three men and two women. Average looking people and Carmen swears she’s seen one of the two women various times at a clothing store she likes to go into. “Hello!”
“Carmen, you remember…” Peter says their names and Carmen acts like she remembers. The names don’t stay long in her mind. She watches the way Peter laughs easily. His shoulder starts to sag at one point, and she brushes her hand along his back discreetly to fix it. He stiffens, but he doesn’t smile his thanks. He’s in the middle of listening to one of his coworkers’ joke.
The women ask Carmen about her skincare routine. Lots of water, and plenty of night creams from a high-end brand, she recites. The women nod and compliment her more.
Once they finally leave, the remnants of a dinner Carmen and Peter won’t touch still hanging on the table, Peter speaks up. “That was nice, huh?” Carmen shrugs, peeling off her face. Peter crosses his arms, not pulling his skin off.
“You shouldn’t do that so quickly. They could come back and say they forgot something. Or maybe someone wants to use our bathroom.” Peter moves his shoulders back.
“Then don’t let them in. I never figured you’d invite anyone over.” Carmen finally walks over to the table and begins to lift the plates. The food tasted bland, but in order to keep appearances, Carmen savored three or four bites in front of everyone. Peter ate almost his entire serving.
Peter hasn’t taken his face off. He looks at Carmen. “What’s a guy to do?”
“You’re no guy!” Carmen’s voice shakes. The two stand at the dining room table that, save for this sudden reunion of Peter’s coworkers, is just another decoration in their house that goes unused. They eat with their hands on the ground, their faces smeared with the red of the raw beef they keep stocked in the freezer. Usually, it’s in the kitchen, as they don’t eat much of the outside food. Except for coffee. Something about coffee tastes nice and earthy on their tongues.
“I am a guy.” Peter rubs his face. The right side slants down, and Carmen laughs meanly.
“Fix your face.” Peter turns away at her words and locks himself in the bathroom. Carmen finishes cleaning up and then takes off her skin. Except for her face. She waits until Peter steps in, still fully dressed. She holds up her arms like a showgirl, kicking her leg up in the bed. “Is this what you’d like?” Peter looks at her and turns away, muttering something about going to sleep in the living room. “You’re going to mess up the couch!” Carmen yells after him. He ignores her.
The next day, Carmen calls Peter during her lunch. “Coffee?” They always meet up on Wednesdays.
Peter has an excuse. “I’ve got a meeting.”
Carmen goes to the coffee shop on her own. The male barista flirts with her. God, she wishes Peter were here so he could see this. All the baristas are usually girls, and Peter has the time of his life with their attentions. She’d like to rub it in his face this time, that this barista is trying to make conversation and looking at her legs when he thinks Carmen doesn’t notice. She sits with her coffee and lets it cool, suddenly sick to her stomach. Peter knows what’s underneath her, really underneath. None of these people do.
When Carmen gets home that day, she practices her apologies. Peter and her have never had tension that’s lasted this long. She’ll do whatever to get things back to normal again. Even if she has to see Peter’s coworkers every day for the next two or three years. It won’t even matter if Peter quits being mad at her.
Peter comes home late. He’s staggering slightly, and his smile is odd and lopsided.
“Are you…drunk?” Carmen is disgusted. Alcohol has the same effect on them as everyone else in terms of impairment, but when it goes down Carmen and Peter’s throats, it feels like acid. Peter must have been very desperate to fit in.
“No. Shhhh.” Peter lets out a laugh. He moves to the couch and collapses onto it, his body sagging to one side.
“You could’ve made a fool of yourself.” Carmen imagines all the scenarios. Peter’s face beginning to sag. His gloves slipping off and revealing a hint of his real skin. Carmen feels lightheaded. They joke about stepping out bare, but she’d rather not get exposed by Peter’s drunken mistake.
Peter sits up. “I have some self-control.” He takes off his gloves, smacking the flesh covered pieces lightly on the coffee table. His body shakes, and Carmen thinks he’s laughing. But it’s only when he wipes his neon hands on his face that Carmen can tell he’s crying.
“Take off your face. You’ll ruin it.” Carmen takes his pieces and puts them on the dining room table. Peter falls into her and lets her take him to their bed. Carmen helps him out of his skin, but Peter has to run to the bathroom to vomit.
When Carmen opens her eyes, Peter is standing in front of the bedroom window. He hasn’t put anything on yet, and he’s sticking his head out from behind the curtains. “Peter.”
“It’s fine.” He leaves their bedroom. When he comes back up, he’s wearing his face. “I don’t want to be late for work.” Carmen watches him get ready. He looks at himself in the mirror when he’s ready, fixing his wig and pressing his hands against his button-down.
Carmen has the best idea. “Why don’t you call in sick? We can watch movies. Get coffee.”
Peter shakes his head. “I have work to do.”
Carmen calls in sick from work and lies in bed. She doesn’t have to put on her skin. She looks at herself in the mirror. She straightens up and pushes her chest out, running her hands down her slick skin. Supposed the barista who flirted with her yesterday saw her now. A laugh escapes her. She’s tired.
Peter doesn’t come home. Carmen sits crossed-legged on the couch, fighting the urge to call the police. She’s never dealt with them before. Not even a traffic ticket. But Peter was supposed to come home hours ago. “Peter Peter Peter.” She finds herself muttering to the television. She even puts a baseball game on, as if that’ll summon him. He’s not picking up his cell phone.
Finally, he calls. “I had to leave. I have to think about some things.”
“Where are you?” Carmen’s chest is tight.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back soon.”
“I love you. Down to the green skin under those bones.”
“And all the warts underneath your nose.” Peter sounds deflated. But Carmen’s chest loosens. This is good. “Goodnight.” He hangs up.
Carmen has never spent the night without Peter. She lays in bed and feels the sheets cling to her real skin. The room is eerily silent without Peter breathing next to her. He’d be saying some joke he heard at work by now. Their elbows would be touching, and Peter would toss and turn for minutes before getting up and opening the window. But now, Carmen lays still.
“Where are you?” Carmen calls Peter the next day before work. She doesn’t want to go in, but if she does, maybe Peter will come back. She won’t be coming back to an empty house.
“I’m not that far. But I don’t think I’ll be back today.” Peter’s voice sounds weird. Carmen hangs up the phone. She calls in sick again.
The next day, Peter calls Carmen. She is excited when she sees his name. This is very good. “I’ll be back tonight.” Peter yawns.
“Are you ok?” Carmen feels light. Peter will be back and things will go back to normal. “It was a work trip right?”
“Something like that.” Peter yawns. “Goodbye.”
“Love you, down”-
He hangs up. Carmen goes to work and the hours feel incredibly long. Finally, she’s making her way back to their house. Peter will come, and they’ll go to the coffee shop, and the barista will flirt with Peter. Carmen will talk about the other barista who flirted with her, and Peter will roll his eyes. And things will be back to normal.
The house is still empty when Carmen gets home. She doesn’t even take anything off, moving around the living room. She turns on the television, but she can’t focus. Finally, the front door slides open. A man walks in. Carmen doesn’t recognize him, but he has the keys to their house. “Carmen.” The man smiles.
“Peter?” Carmen stays on the couch. Peter closes the door after him. He has his work backpack slung over his shoulder. He steps forward, the light of the television illuminating his face even more.
Carmen stands up. She walks up to Peter and touches his face. Grabs at his cheek and pulls. It is flexible, but it doesn’t tear. “What did you do? Peter?” Her voice catches. Peter’s eyes are bright.
He rolls his shoulders back. He isn’t as handsome as he used to be, but there’s a tranquility that hangs around him. Carmen crosses her arms. She hasn’t seen Peter that relaxed in years. Not even when it was just the two of them in their real skin. Her veneers grind together. “I’m real now. I’m a real guy.” Peter holds his arms open. Carmen takes a step back. “Carmen?” Peter’s brows furrow.
“You’re….you’re hideous.” Carmen’s voice catches. She turns on her heels, her tights whispering against the ground. Her legs knock together, but she manages to run up the stairs. She locks herself in the bathroom, leaning against the sink. Her chest feels like it’s going to explode. Her face is sagging, but her hands can’t stop gripping the counter. Finally, she rips her gloves off and brings the hands to her face, smoothing it down. The skin catches on her hands, but Carmen keeps doing it until her face is smooth again. The brilliant green of her hands is a sharp contrast against the smooth tan skin of her face. The television turns off downstairs. The stairs groan.
“Carmen?” Peter’s voice is outside of the door. “It’s still me. It’s still Peter.” He knocks.
“To the green skin?”
“The green skin underneath”-
“The bones.” Peter finishes. Carmen leans against the sink. She takes a deep breath and comes out. They go downstairs, and Carmen can’t even bear to take off her face. “Let’s go to sleep.” Peter’s voice is gentle.
“What about your job? They won’t recognize you.”
“I’ll get a new job. But…this feels good.” Peter slips into their bed. Carmen pretends to get ready for bed, but she hides in the bathroom until Peter’s soft snoring fills the room. Carmen steps out of the bathroom and comes closer to the bed.
Peter’s skin is waxy looking. When Carmen presses a finger against his cheek, the face doesn’t indent or sag. It snaps back to shape. Carmen moves back, leaning against the wall. Peter sighs, swallowing. The sound of his saliva seems to amplify in the bedroom. Carmen moves to their bed and lays down. She feels stiff and she can’t even bring herself to touch Peter again. She doesn’t like the hollows of his new face. It’s disproportionate. And it’s permanent. Peter rolls over, his back to her. What now? Will he want her to do the same thing? Did Peter not like his green skin? Does he even like hers? Carmen sits up on the bed, sliding off. Her residue is left over. Peter rolls over, landing on Carmen’s stain.
His side of the bed is spotless.