"Real Women Have Bodies", the fifth story in "Her Body & Other Parties", is a vividly told, deeply disturbing story that reminded me of how edgy speculative fiction can be.
Told from the point of view of a young woman whose name we never learn, the story has a veneer of engaging immediacy beneath which flows a deeply frightening idea. The imagery is as beautiful as the content is uncompromisingly brutal.
In another world, this would be the story of a young woman, recently graduated from college, burdened by student loans and the unfulfillable expectations of her parents, working a dead-end, minimum wage job at a dress shop, who falls in love with the daughter of the dressmaker.
In Machado's world, this story becomes something more as she adds an incurable plague sweeping across America that, through means no one understands, makes women fade into silent, sentient, incorporeality.
As the love story between our heroine and Petra, the dressmaker's daughter, unfolds, the plague goes from a gone-viral horror on the Internet, through a major topic of TV News coverage, to something real and deeply personal.
No one knows how the plague is transmitted or how the women are transformed but women affected by it slowly fade from solid flesh to something that can barely be seen. The first time our heroine comes into direct contact with these women she realizes that:
"...the room is full of women. Women like the one in the viral video, see-through and glowing faintly, like afterthoughts."
The symbolism of the faded-away-but-not-gone women is open to interpretation. In part, they seem to be being pushed into invisibility by a society that values them only when they are attached to things of beauty. In part, it seems to be an abnegation that is worsened by the fatalistic passivity of the women it affects. Mostly it seems that women are falling victim to an unavoidable fate which leads me to think that this is a metaphor for America's rape culture and the normalisation of misogyny. Although everyone knows about the plague in theory, they don't let themselves think about the reality of it until it touches them or someone they know. Women continue with their daily routines and hope to be spared. Male pundits become angry at the women for letting this happen to them and thus making problems for everyone else.
The fate of these fading women is contrasted with the robust solidity of our heroine and the strength of the passion she feels for Petra. Sex is positioned as the opposite of fading away. At one point, our heroine overhears two boys talking about only being attracted to solid women. They say:
“Hips,” Chris says. “That’s what you want. Hips and enough flesh for you to grab onto, you know? What would you do without something to hold? That’s like—like—” “Like trying to drink water without a cup,” Casey finishes.
Our heroine's response to this is to think to herself:
I am always surprised at the poetry with which boys can describe boning.
Her own approach to describing sex is initially more matter of fact. She announces:
Petra fucks me in room 246, which is around the back of the building.
Her description of her first orgasm with Petra reflects the hard, tense, focus of her need. She says:
I come fast and hard, like a bottle breaking against a brick wall. Like I’ve been waiting for permission.
Later, when her relationship with Petra has developed, we see a softer side of our heroine, one she is still becoming comfortable with:
“I love you,” I say. It’s the first time I’ve said it, and it tastes strange in my mouth—real but not ready, like a too-hard pear.
Our heroine's attitude to the faded women made the story for me. She is horrified but she feels compassion as well as fear and wants, somehow, to help them free themselves. This want leads to frustration as the women fail to behave as she would like them to and our heroine rages against the plague, the women and her own powerlessness.