Charlie hungered for the bag of blood the nurse pulled. She knew how hospitals worked though, and she knew she had to keep following her own empty-handed healthcare professional.
“When will I hear?”
“We’ll call you in exactly a week.”
“And you’ll know if I need them cut off?”
“I’m optimistic we won’t. But yes, we can recommend surgery, if we think it’s appropriate.”
“And if you don’t recommend surgery, can I do it anyway?”
The doctor gave her a stern look. Charlie knew better than to push it. She didn’t want the doctor asking if she simply didn’t like her breasts. That felt like a schoolgirls’ problem – insecurity. She wanted them removed. Never replaced.
She had a week left. A week to carry on with the illusion that she’d get to have her breasts cut off. It was enough to hang onto hope that she might. To pause her life, avoid looking into the future at all, and fail to address any of the many things that needed addressing. C did not deal in factuals, she dealt in hope. The hope that when she’d cut everything out, breasts and all, she’d be able to see.
The clock started now.
Charlie returned to her office. Charlie had a law degree, but she’d never used it. The law was just clutter and bureaucracy. Charlie wanted to create less. Instead, she was doing the Lord’s work, people would say. She was helping the sick, the vulnerable. Blood was like water to them. Charlie thought she gave more to the donors though. She was eliminating an unnecessary body part. Cleaning them. Or facilitating it, at least. By checking them into their appointments at the blood drive.
On her lunch break, Charlie stared at a bag of blood about to be transported to the hospital. She gazed at it lovingly. Everyone deserved to have fun once in a while. She poked it with her finger. She imagined the original owner of the blood before and after the removal. How much lighter they must have felt, as she herself had been many times before. A weight being lifted, like finding out you don’t have cancer, or, in Charlie’s case, finding out you do. The bag of blood was everything C wanted.
It was a common misconception that Charlie loved blood. As fluids went, it didn’t even rank in her top five. You couldn’t even see it, so it was hardly causing mass chaos. It certainly wasn’t a breast. A life without breasts meant you could stop buying a whole article of clothing. You stopped producing an entire food supply. A life without breasts was free and empty.
Charlie returned to her desk.
“Does it hurt?” a woman in the waiting area asked.
“When they draw blood?”
“Oh no,” said Charlie. “It’s wonderful.”
“It would be interesting if you had your tits removed, since you have a guy’s name,” Jeff said that night.
“My name is Charlotte.”
“But you go by Charlie.”
“Why not go by C then, if you’re so obsessed with brevity?”
It wasn’t brevity. It was elimination. Jeff had never understood. He made a fair point though. The ‘harlie’ had to go.
“What’s feminine about tits?” C asked. “If anything, I believe an extraneous limb is more of a man-thing. To have something you don’t need.”
Tits weren’t limbs. C pointed to the two boxes stacked by the door.
“Thank you for packing them,” Jeff said.
“I needed to clear them out. I was running out of space,” responded C. Her apartment was nothing but space. There was one bed, one chair, and a shelf built into the wall on which her laptop stood. There were two trash cans – her prized possessions. She had a small box on a counter that held Q-tips, tweezers, waxing strips, an enema, laxatives, scissors, razors, and Band-Aids. None were for self-harm. All were for self-removal.
Jeff’s face flushed, as though blood had rushed to his head. The fool. If only he’d already had that blood removed. Then he’d be free.
“Well, it’s still considerate that you did something nice for me. I mean, we were together for over a year.”
“Yes,” said C.
“He didn’t fit. He had to go,” C said.
“When do you hear?” Shania asked. She wasn’t interested in discussing C’s breakup. C’s romantic choices made precious little sense.
C had one friend left. She wasn’t cruel, she’d just stopped responding to the others. Shania was the most persistent. Maybe C was cruel.
“I have six more days,” C said. “Till I learn if I get to have my tits removed.”
Shania laughed, assuming C was making a joke. C didn’t make jokes.
“I’m sure you’ll be so relieved when you hear,” said Shania.
“Yes, I think so. Things are too cluttered now, I can’t see,” said C.
Shania, wearing a gray tank top, raised her arm up to order more drinks, and that’s when C noticed it. Shania’s armpit. It was covered in hair.
C’s lips curled into a dark smile. Her armpits hadn’t had that much hair in them since…ever. She wasn’t disgusted by Shania’s display of excess. Quite the opposite. She was jealous. There was nothing C envied quite as much as a person who had so much to eliminate, should they decide to start. It was the envy reserved for those who’ve just begun watching your favorite show for the very first time. The knowledge of what excitement lies before them.
C looked down at her phone. She tried to turn it on. It wouldn’t start. Her night had gotten even better. After wasting a law degree, she couldn’t justify deliberately trashing expensive electronics. What she could do was wait for them to die. And once they did, they were gone forever.
She dunked her phone into a glass of water.
“I was going to drink that!” Shania said.
“It was broken,” said C.
“Don’t you want to see if you could have it fixed?” asked Shania.
“It’s an Apple product, it can’t be fixed,” said C.
“I get it, honey, you’re going through a breakup.”
C nodded along, not listening.
Jeff was just the latest in C’s elimination. Like most freaks, people assumed it started when she was a child. No, C was a late-onset oddball.
She wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the date of the arrival of her obsession even if she were aware of it. It probably began the year after college. C had always been vaguely sad, but post-college brought on a new desolation – the delayed sorrow that hits when you realize you’ve never known joy, but you’ve always had more school to look forward to, in the vague hope that a professor would teach you how to be happy. C floated about odd-job to odd-job, listless and sad. And still no answer. She didn’t have the funds to accumulate, but she needed a change. So, she shed. It wasn’t because she was a defeatist. It was quite the opposite. She thought the key was right in front of her, and she just needed to clear away the rubble before she could see it.
Did she have a goal in mind? Sure, who doesn’t? Did she expect to get addicted? No, who does?
First, she Marie Kondo’d her apartment. This was well and good – admirable, even. Classic self-improvement.
Next, she cut her hair. Saves money on shampoo, her mother said. It works with your cheekbones, lied Shania. With this came all the other ordinary eliminations – she loved to shave, have her ear wax removed, freeze warts off. But who didn’t?
Next, her subscriptions. Who needs Netflix? C liked her asceticism. She thought being a person without streaming services would make her more interesting.
Next, the blood donation. This was just social consciousness, she claimed. She was being a Good Samaritan. It would be once a year. Twice a year. Three times a year. The maximum amount the blood donation center allowed. Iron supplements were cheap. She’d eat more spinach. She’d be fine.
Next, processed food. This was healthy, after all. She had to remove all ingredients she couldn’t pronounce. She made her own buckwheat flour, what was wrong with that?
Along the way, her sorrow hardened. It grew more specific. She had less in her life, so there was less to make her sad. She probably expected the result would be less dejection overall, but she was wrong. More dejection in a more concentrated form. If only she’d realized this. But Charlie was nothing if not committed. So she kept eliminating.
Next to go was her career. She’d wound up in law school, as so many college grads searching for meaning do. But she wanted a simple job with simple responsibilities. A job that focused on less. So she set $200,000 on fire by refusing to take the New York State bar exam. She could always take it later, her friends would say. She wouldn’t.
Her most recent elimination was Jeff. Not the right relationship for her! Jeff had six chairs. Six? For a man who lived alone? C had a cushion.
And now, her name.
Last, her breasts.
They were her last hope. C was characterized by her optimism, but this might be its last hurrah. The day she found a lump on her left tit was the happiest she’d had in years. You can’t very well get a doctor to cut off other body parts – C had tried. If she could get her tits removed, surely she’d find some answers in there.
Her strangeness made itself known to her community, even when C was ignoring it herself. People started to wonder if it was OCD. But she didn’t own soap. Was it an eating disorder? Possibly, but no more so than most women. Should she go to therapy? C resented the idea that therapy was a catchall for all problems. That once someone was in therapy, they were on the path to be cured, and friends and family could stop worrying about them. It was treated as a black box on which to offload the problems of loved ones.
She had six days left. Six days before she’d find out if all her dreams would come true, or if she’d have to reverse course entirely.
C awoke early the next morning. Without her phone to use as an alarm, she had no choice but to leave her windows open and wake up with the sun. Nature, she thought, that must be the answer. But what was the question?
“Ms. Barker says she didn’t sign up to give four extra vials,” Nurse Radi said when C got to work.
“It’s marked here that she’s giving the extra samples for the scientists to study, but she didn’t sign the waiver for that.”
Sometimes, donors with particularly high iron levels were willing to give just a bit more blood, remove just a bit more of what they didn’t need, for the sake of scientific research. And sometimes, they weren’t, even though it wouldn’t harm them at all. When this happened, C tried to restrain herself, She really did intend to hold her tongue. But often, she couldn’t, so she resorted to the only solution she could imagine – she’d simply sign the form for them. They wouldn’t even notice. And then they’d be less. They would thank her.
“Huh,” said C. “I wonder how that happened.”
“I wonder how it’s happened five times in the last month,” said Nurse Radi.
“But you don’t wonder that,” C responded. “You know.”
Nurse Radi gave her an expression like the one you give your child’s only friend when they’ve just stained your carpet. Constrained disgust.
“Be here at 8 am tomorrow. We’re having a meeting with Doctor Schultz.”
Doctor Schultz was C’s boss, and the meeting was for her to get fired. The prospect didn’t bother her. Nothing could bother her this week – this was the week she could continue to believe her breasts were going to be removed. This was the week she could still have hope. What’s more, the bags of blood seemed just a bit bigger that morning. Perhaps because C had been busy forging the forms.
Dori stood near the door. Dori was always standing near doors. If C wanted distance from everything and everyone, Dori wanted absurd proximity.
Dori was her next-door neighbor. Fitting. She was next to the doors. Dori had one of those faces that made you think, “I don’t like your face.” C didn’t like Dori’s face. It wasn’t that C didn’t like most people – she really thought of anger as unnecessary, like cooking oil. But Dori pushed her buttons. She had made all sorts of rude comments about C’s lifestyle over the years – how frequently she took out the trash, how she’d dump even one bottle into the recycling bin without letting it build up in her own apartment, how she never had anyone over. She must have knocked on C’s door twice a year, at least. C got no peace.
“I don’t think you should leave your windows open,” Dori said. “You heard about the mosquito outbreak?”
C smiled. She loved mosquitos. They shared a goal.
“How’d you know about my windows?” she asked.
“I saw them from the street.”
“You must have walked into the alleyway to look,” C said.
“This years’ mosquitoes are particularly vicious,” said Dori.
“I haven’t heard anything,” C said.
Dori moved to block C’s door.
“For the sake of the building, I can’t let you out of here until you close your windows. We could have a full infestation.”
C rolled her eyes. She turned back around and shut one window. She looked over to Dori as if to say, happy now? Dori wasn’t happy. C shut the other window. Her arms were tired by the effort. Why had she gotten an apartment with so many windows? Two – it was two too many. And why did she have no arm strength?
C arrived at work significantly earlier than she needed to, particularly as the only thing on her calendar that day was getting fired. Her boss commended her for her punctuality, at least.
“Usually, people show up late when they know they’re about to be sacked, just to waste my time,” her boss said.
“I don’t waste anything,” responded C. “And I don’t waste blood.”
C knew she’d done the right thing – she wasn’t bothered. She ripped an entire fingernail off. She felt so satisfied she tried to get another, but none of them were hanging.
“Well, it’s been nice working with you,” her boss said.
C nodded. She sat in the room a bit longer, trying to build up the energy to leave. Her boss left her there – it certainly wasn’t the type of firing where C needed to be escorted out. She was a peaceful person.
Eventually, she gathered her strength and left. She hit a bag of blood on the way out. Smacked it with her flat palm. It burst, and red splattered everywhere. No one saw. C didn’t care – the blood had achieved its goal, merely in its own removal.
C tried to open her window back up. She did, but only barely. C had weak arms, and she felt a twist and then heard a snap. C didn’t like snapping.
C had no phone. She could have knocked on Dori’s door, but that would have brought the woman far too much joy. To have C owe her a favor – that was out of the question. C didn’t mind debt, as it was the opposite of excess, but she wouldn’t be in debt to Dori.
Fortunately, C could walk to the hospital two blocks away. The doctor said C needed a sling for the next two weeks. Before she put it on, she asked the doctor to shave her head.
“Is this a Britney Spears thing?” the doctor asked. “Because if so, I’m in.”
The hair was wiped and the cast was attached. C would be unable to use her left arm. Good, she thought. If I get on for two weeks without it, I’ll know I can someday have it removed entirely.
C hadn’t lost a parent as a child. She hadn’t lost any siblings. Not even an aunt, she didn’t think. Her parents split up, but not until after she’d gone to college. None of the canonically sad childhood events had transpired. So there was really no excuse for what had happened to C, but she had no control over it. There was no reason she should be eating raw lentils for dinner. She was from Westchester. People from Westchester didn’t eat raw lentils. C didn’t set out to either, but that’s where she ended up. And by the time it did, so much was unusual about her life that the lentils failed to register.
C’s mother opened the door. Her apartment was emptier every time C returned. This was due, in part, to C’s concerted efforts. Each visit, she’d explain to her mother she needed something from the apartment – perhaps a toaster, a rug, a can of black beans. And her mother acquiesced. The black beans C would eat. Everything else went in the trash cans. C loved trash cans.
“What have you been up to?” C asked. She knew the answer just by looking around the apartment. She’d been up to nothing. There were no changes, not even a shift in furniture. She’d arrived at a place of stasis. The most minimal state of all, in which you indulge not even in variation. C indulged herself in envy of her mother’s home.
Contrary to popular belief, C wasn’t depriving herself. She spoiled herself with elimination. She took it to the most extreme form for her own pleasure. It was about challenging herself to have less. Proving she was better than others because of how little she needed. And until her gluttony of elimination solved any problems in her life, it would continue creating them.
“Nothing,” said her mother. “Did you hear whether or not you need surgery?”
“No,” said C.” I have two more days of hope left.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” said her mother reassuringly, in the tone that you use when what you really mean is, ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine for me.’ C’s mother wasn’t cruel, but she didn’t take her daughter’s pain as her own. She didn’t even pretend to, as many mothers did. “Can I have a cup of tea?”
C stood up to get the kettle. She needed to hold it under water with one hand while the other lifted the top off it. But C had just the one hand. After shuffling about for a minute, she made do with her elbow.
“A second hand could have come in handy,” C noted as she set the tea down.
“Second hands are useful,” she said. “How long is yours out of commission?”
“Just one week,” C said. “I didn’t realize how much I used it.”
“How much you used a second hand?” her mother asked.
C crossed her arms on her chest haughtily and glowered at her mother. How dare she judge her. No one had ever told C she might need her second hand. Why wouldn’t she want to get rid of it?
“Your apartment is empty,” C said.
“Yes, there’s less for you to take this time. My therapist thought it might be good to donate old things I’m not using.”
“And is it?”
“I don’t know yet. She says change takes time.”
“Well, what do you see in the emptiness?” C asked. She felt no better than a cheap psychic. But seeing a newly empty apartment invoked the same mirth as a newly pumped bag of blood. She always wanted to confirm that the donors felt wonderful afterward. Magnificent, even. She hoped her mother felt the same way.
“Nothing. Isn’t that the point of emptiness?”
C returned home that night. There was a note from Dori on her door that read, ‘I TOLD YOU SO.‘
She’d left her windows open. The apartment was not strictly “teeming” with mosquitoes, but there were more than a few buzzing about. There was nothing she – a weak, broke, phoneless, single, one-armed lady – could have done to get them out if she cared to, anyway. But she didn’t. Her apartment was larger than it needed to be. It was large enough for the bugs. They deserved a home too. C went to sleep.
C’s eyes were completely swollen shut from the bites. She couldn’t see. But what did she need eyes for anyway? She had never been able to see what she wanted to see. This new development left her unperturbed.
Unfortunately, the first hurdle of her blind day materialized almost immediately. She had to pee. She felt along the borders of her apartment until she arrived at the bathroom. Thank goodness she lived in a studio.
She sat on the toilet and enjoyed what was undoubtedly the highlight of her day. But then, she continued to sit. There was nothing left to do. C had no idea when this would end, and no way of finding out. She’d dunked her life in water, and it didn’t work anymore.
C tried not to panic. This is what she’d wanted all along. This emptiness. This is where she figured out the answers. What she was meant to be. What she ought to do. How to be happy. But no answers came. At last, though, she figured out the question.
“How do I get out of here?”
C had no choice but to knock on Dori’s door. And she was sure to be standing by it, smugly. Dori was always standing smugly by doors, as C had noticed, back when she had eyes.
C knocked. Dori wasn’t home. Did Dori have a day job? C had never thought to ask. She slumped down by the door. She’d wait. She worked so hard to empty all of herself, even her schedule, but she didn’t want to wait anymore. It was the satisfaction of cancelling plans only to find yourself woefully lonely.
C knew why she’d cut everything out. Being busy left her tired. Exhaustion was an understandable emotion – easy to predict, easy to fix. Emptiness was not. C hadn’t thought about the potential consequences when she made the exchange. But, now, she was confronted with them. And she began to cry. And that’s where Dori found her.
Dori was decidedly not self-righteous on the way to the Emergency Room, but she returned to her old ways immediately after. When the steroids had begun to work and C could see again.
“Do you see why I told you to close the windows?” Dori asked.
“Oh, yes,” C said. “I see all sorts of things.”
“Honestly, you could have infected the whole building.”
C smiled. She could have let more mosquitoes into the building. More for her neighbors. More for herself. More. More. More.
The floodgates had broken. There was so much she needed. A shield for her window was the very beginning. Toilet paper, floss, a second pair of shoes, almond flour, mason jars, duct tape, yarn, wrist braces. C wanted more. What was the most cluttered book, the one that fit the most words into the least volume? C bought the Holy Bible.
C shopped like a woman who hadn’t just been fired from her job. She shopped like a woman who hadn’t taken out $200,000 in loans to become a lawyer, and then become a receptionist instead. She shopped like a woman who didn’t live in a tiny studio apartment. She shopped like a woman who hadn’t committed herself to a life of less. She shopped like a woman who had friends to shop for, but instead of friends, she just had Dori. But she shopped for Dori anyway. She shopped like a woman with no credit card limit, and she shopped until her credit card limit made itself known to her. Then, and only then, had she accumulated enough.
The items spilled out into her apartment like that bag of blood. Taken from one place to another. People don’t eliminate blood, they donate it. C had never really gotten rid of anything, she’d merely redistributed. She knew there was a law of physics that addressed this phenomenon somewhere, but she didn’t need to know specifics. She was full. She wanted her hand back. And her hair. She wanted the space filled.
She still didn’t have the answers, but it was okay, because she didn’t have questions anymore, either. Stuff had taken their place. In the light of her crowded apartment, she realized what child’s play it was to search for “answers” to a “vague dissatisfaction.” She should have been searching for stuff. Stuff was great.
C’s phone rang. Her new phone.
“We recommend surgery,” the doctor said.
In her buying blitz, C had forgotten that her week was up today. The week in which she could still believe she might get her breasts removed. What a lifetime ago, C thought. How could I have wanted that?
“And if I don’t get it?” C asked. “I’ve decided I like my breasts. I’ve decided I shouldn’t just cut things off willy-nilly for no good reason.”
“You’ll most likely die within a year.”
C paused for a moment.
“Can I get back to you?”
Ginny Hogan is a satire writer, and she’s written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Times. She’s also the author of Toxic Femininity in the Workplace, published by HarperCollins in 2019.