Swati Sudarsan (she/her) is a poet, writer, and avid reader based in Oakland (Ohlone Land). She works in cancer research during the day, and writes in the margins of her life. Her work can be found in Our Name is Amplify magazine, Entropy Mag, Drizzle Review, and Gertrude Press (forthcoming). She can be found on IG and Twitter as @booksnailmail.
She was used to the squeaking by now. From her hips to the tiniest joints in her wrists and toes, the tinkling, at least to her, was indiscernible from white noise or the cosmic microwave background of the universe. It was a subtle sound except for the one that came from her left knee, which chirped in a vibrato accented above the rest. Over the last year, the knee’s squeaking had heralded a new taxonomy of circadian rhythm to her days – the morning noise ground effortlessly like her coffee beans. It built-up throughout the day, indicating her routine activities in succession. When the sounds became disruptive in the evening, she coaxed them away with extensive oiling. In fact, oiling was how her knee came to be that way in the first place, when she had mistakenly used castor oil in place of her usual goji berry. Today, she could not ignore the commotion as she tried on permutations of outfits. She needed to settle on one before heading out for her first date after a year of semi-Replacement surgeries.
Before she became semi-Replaced, she had dated men capriciously. She wanted to find love badly, but she had hit a wall in every relationship. It was not until she had her body flayed open to strangers on a semi-regular basis that she had also cracked emotionally. With every new part inserted into her, she slipped closer to the realization that it was not the men she dated that fell short, but her acknowledgement of her sexuality. After the final procedure, she had joined dating apps that included all genders. She felt nearly ready to be vulnerable with another woman after being vulnerable with herself all year, but one question lingered: Was this woman semi-Replaced like her? There was no way to tell from her photos, which revealed no mechanical body parts. Her own reflection in the mirror before her also gave nothing away, but in the corner of the mirror, she noticed her phone glowing. She pulled it off the charger, and saw her date had texted:
Running early! Come soon, I already put down our names for a table. ;)
That meant she was running late now. She vigorously unscrewed her oil jar. She wanted to come out as semi-Replaced, but on her own timeline, which meant her knee could not squeak in front of her date tonight. Perhaps she would tell her date about her surgeries, but it would be after she had discerned her date’s views on it. She felt vulnerable after spending the last year recovering in isolation. As her bruising had faded into hairline scars, her friends had made demeaning remarks that assumed she had been unsatisfied with herself, or worse, was trying to play God by picking and choosing her parts. She already knew the fully Replaced community would not accept her unless she completed her transformation to full mechanization. She had no plans to ever do this; she had specifically chosen semi-Replacement to luxuriate in the benefits of both worlds.
She considered packing her oil for a fleeting moment, but it resided in a cumbersome bottle. She had no time to transfer it to something more delicate. In fact, she was surprised her date expected her early. The men she had previously dated loved the anticipation and intrigue of waiting for her to arrive. She wasn’t sure what she preferred and didn’t feel like diving into it just yet. She worried that by virtue of being a semi-Replaced woman, all her opinions were now “semi-Replaced Woman Opinions.”
Taking one last look in the mirror, she smoothed down her white slip dress, which contrasted with chunky black boots and a vinyl black purse that boldly declared “PRADA” across the front. Only bags could so tritely declare the origin and caliber of their birth while retaining their elegance. If only emblazoning her label across her chest would transform her from merely functional to an investment piece. She dabbed on a lip color and ran out the door.
Her phone glowed again with a ping:
I’m here! Wearing white.
She sharpened her pace, glad her date was wearing white like her. The only way she knew how to pass as Pure anymore was through imitation.
As she turned around the block, she saw the restaurant’s buzzing neon signs and under them, her date. Her date’s white dress reflected the glow of the signs, making her look angelic. She was even more beautiful than in her pictures. Her hair was cropped into a pixie cut, and she wore a black choker that clutched her throat so tightly it looked like it was holding on her head. As she took a step towards her date, she heard one tiny squeak cut through the din of the restaurant atmosphere. Shit. She knew it was futile to feel betrayed by an inorganic knee, but the way it lacked consideration for context was aggravating. Unfortunately, it was too late to turn around now. Her date was waving at her.
She hobbled timidly to her date and gave her a hug. She smelled like lemon verbena and vanilla, reminiscent of a candle she had long ago burned until it overheated and burst. She had loved that candle, which automatically warmed her toward her date.
It turned out the table was ready, so they walked into the restaurant. The loud crowd outside had drowned out the sound of her knee, but inside the atmosphere was dark and intimate. She hobbled with a straight leg to the table, a half meter behind her date. As she sat down, the darkness became a blanket of anonymity. It canceled out her ability to discern if her date had any tics of semi-Replacement, and they both glowed the same amber under the votive candles around them.
The lighting made her comfortable, relaxed, and even drowsy, but she forced herself to stay alert. Her date mirrored each of her instincts in opposition. Whereas she posed questions meant to breathe space into the conversation, her date returned banter like a ping pong ball. Though she had been perusing the food menu, her date suggested they start with a round of drinks when the waiter arrived. Now her date sipped a seductive mezcalita while she choked down a vodka soda because she had forgotten the names of even simple cocktails when put on the spot.
Her drowsiness dissipated as the liquid slid down her throat. She was unclear if she felt effervescent because of her date or the drink, but they had two more before they ordered their food. Her date ordered a light Tom Kha Gai soup, while she was in the mood for Pad See Ew. She joked about carbo-loading, to which her date giggled non-committedly.
As she polished off her third drink, she felt an urge creeping up her leg. It settled into her diaphragm like a tug, and she recognized it as the most dogmatic of human needs: urination. There was no way she could make it to the restroom without her date hearing her bad knee. She chastised herself for not taking the time to pack some oil with her. She could have discreetly oiled her knee under the table, just as some Pure girls bragged that they put on tampons in public without notice.
It was becoming difficult to concentrate on what her date was saying. Her focus kept straying back to her bladder, which was painfully compressing. This is why she had started Replacing in the first place, to shed the vestigial aspects of being human, like forthcoming arthritis, painful periods, and children who would likely die of miasma anyway. However, she considered taste and olfaction inextricable pleasures of life, and out of necessity she had kept her digestive organs to retain her ability to eat. Now, she questioned that decision, and every decision leading up that one. The harder her bladder compressed, the more she spiraled towards regret. Regret for the decision to start the surgeries, to lose her friends over them, and to even come out on this date. What was she even doing out? Maybe she was a plebian trying to play God. She was starting to cross into the territory of panic, so she slowed her breath, using the meditation to puzzle out how to get to the restroom discreetly. If her date needed to use the restroom first, she could follow after she went in. But her date was talking rapidly, with no pause for breath. She tried to listen to what she was saying, but it made her feel like she couldn't breathe either. She darted her eyes at other tables, checking if someone happened to have spare oil. Surely, the kitchen must have some that they cooked with?
She was running out of time and needed to get up now. Still, she did not want to surprise her date with her knee, so she took in one last deep breath to gather her confession. She locked eyes with her date, who stopped talking mid-sentence, surprised by the sudden attention.
“Look, I need to tell you something about me,” she started, “I have been –” but she was cut off by their waiter arriving with their food.
“Sorry to interrupt ladies, but I have soup and noodles?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows and smiling to confirm.
“Yes, the soup is mine,” her date said without looking away. Her eyes bore into hers with an unsettling intensity. The waiter placed a semi-opaque soup in front of her date, and she felt dread gurgling inside her.
“So these must be yours?” the waiter turned to her, pointing at noodles that were shiny as plastic. She noticed green peppers sprinkled through the dish, serving as a reminder of the food’s organic origins.
She breathed out an affirmation, and the waiter said, “Be careful, they’re hot!” as he began to place the dish in front of her. With sudden and great clarity, the type that only comes from imminent necessity, she knew what to do. Just before the plate reached the table, she grabbed it from him with a forced clumsiness. The steaming dish slipped from his grip and landed on her lap. There, the food mutilated. It looked like her own entrails had spilled out of her.
Before she had even looked up, she was already pissing. The shock of the moment registered slowly across the room, starting with her date and trickling out in concentric circles. Similarly, the noodles moved with tectonic viscosity down her leg. She basked in the bliss of losing herself to the sauce, which consumed all uric semblance upon impact. She was drifting into reverie, though she knew that somewhere, there was a waiter running to grab dish towels, and people at neighboring tables were gaping. Through the dimness of the restaurant, her date’s eyes cut through like headlights. Not just like headlights, but with a literal flicker. She knew her unfinished confession had said everything her date needed to hear.