Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

I N V I S I B L E M O N S T E R S Chuck Palahniuk W. W. Norton & Company New York
• London For Geoff, who said, “This is how to steal drugs. ” And Ina, who said, “This is lip liner. ” And Janet, who said, “This is silk georgette. ” And my editor, Patricia, who kept saying, “This is not good, enough. “

CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE CHAPTER THIRTY CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER O N E Where you’re supposed to be is some big West Hills wedding reception in a big manor house with flower arrangements and stuffed mushrooms all over the house.

This is called scene setting: where everybody is, who’s alive, who’s dead.

This is Evie Cottrell’s big wedding reception moment. Evie is standing halfway down the big staircase in the manor house foyer, naked inside what’s left of her wedding dress, still holding her rifle. Me, I’m standing at the bottom of the stairs but only in a physical way. My mind is, I don’t know where.

Nobody’s all-the-way dead yet, but let’s just say the clock is ticking. Not that anybody in this big drama is a real alive per-son, either.

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You can trace everything about Evie Cottrell’s look back to some television commercial for an organic shampoo, except right now Evie’s wedding dress is burned down to just the hoopskirt wires orbiting her hips and just the little wire skeletons of all the silk flowers that were in her hair. And Evie’s blonde hair, her big, teased-up, backcombed rainbow in every shade of blonde blown up with hairspray, well, Evie’s hair is burned off, too.

The only other character here is Brandy Alexander, who’s laid out, shotgunned, at the bottom of the staircase, bleeding to death. What I tell myself is the gush of red pumping out of Brandy’s bullet hole is less like blood than it’s some sociopolitical tool. The thing about being cloned from all those shampoo commercials, well, that goes for me and Brandy Alexander, too. Shotgunning anybody in this room would be the moral equivalent of killing a car, a vacuum cleaner, a Barbie doll. Erasing a computer disk. Burning a book. Probably that goes for killing anybody in the world.

We’re all such products. Brandy Alexander, the long-stemmed latte queen supreme of the top-drawer party girls, Brandy is gushing her insides out through a bullet hole in her amazing suit jacket. The suit, it’s this white Bob Mackie knock-off Brandy bought in Seattle with a tight hobble skirt that squeezes her ass into the perfect big heart shape. You would not believe how much this suit cost. The mark-up is about a zillion percent. The suit jacket has a little peplum skirt and wide lapels and shoulders. The single-breasted cut is symmetrical except for the hole pumping out blood.

Then Evie starts to sob, standing there halfway up the staircase. Evie, that deadly virus of the moment. This is our cue to all look at poor Evie, poor, sad Evie, hairless and wearing nothing but ashes and circled by the wire cage of her burnedup hoop skirt. Then Evie drops the rifle. With her dirty face in her dirty hands, Evie sits down and starts to boo-hoo, as if crying will solve anything. The rifle, this is a loaded thirtyaught rifle, it clatters down the stairs and skids out into the middle of the foyer floor, spinning on its side, pointing at me, pointing at Brandy, pointing at Evie, crying.

It’s not that I’m some detached lab animal just conditioned to ignore violence, but my first instinct is maybe it’s not too late to dab club soda on the bloodstain. Most of my adult life so far has been me standing on seamless paper for a raft of bucks per hour, wearing clothes and shoes, my hair done and some famous fashion photographer telling me how to feel. Him yelling, Give me lust, baby. Flash. Give me malice. Flash. Give me detached existentialist ennui. Flash. Give me rampant intellectualism as a coping mechanism. Flash. Probably it’s the shock of seeing my one worst enemy shoot my other worst enemy is what it is.

Boom, and it’s a win-win situation. This and being around Brandy, I’ve developed a pretty big Jones for drama. It only looks like I’m crying when I put a handkerchief up under my veil to breathe through. To filter the air since you can about not breathe for all the smoke since Evie’s big manor house is burning down around us. Me, kneeling down beside Brandy, I could put my hands anywhere in my gown and find Darvons and Demerols and Darvocet 100s. This is everybody’s cue to look at me. My gown is a knock-off print of the Shroud of Turin, most of it brown and white, draped and cut so the shiny red buttons will button through the stigmata.

Then I’m wearing yards and yards of black organza veil wrapped around my face and studded with little hand-cut Austrian crystal stars. You can’t tell how I look, face-wise, but that’s the whole idea. The look is elegant and sacrilegious and makes me feel sacred and immoral. Haute couture and getting hauler. Fire inches down the foyer wallpaper. Me, for added set dressing I started the fire. Special effects can go a long way to heighten a mood, and it’s not as if this is a real house. What’s burning down is a re-creation of a period revival house patterned after a copy of a copy of a copy of a mock-Tudor big manor house.

It’s a hundred generations removed from anything original, but the truth is aren’t we all? Just before Evie comes screaming down the stairs and shoots Brandy Alexander, what I did was pour out about a gallon of Chanel Number Five and put a burning wedding invitation to it, and boom, I’m recycling. It’s funny, but when you think about even the biggest tragic fire it’s just a sustained chemical reaction. The oxidation of Joan of Arc. Still spinning on the floor, the rifle points at me, points at Brandy. Another thing is no matter how much you think you love somebody, you’ll step back when the pool of their blood edges up too close.

Except for all this high drama, it’s a really nice day. This is a warm, sunny day and the front door is open to the porch and the lawn outside. The fire upstairs draws the warm smell of the fresh-cut lawn into the foyer, and you can hear all the wedding guests outside. All the guests, they took the gifts they wanted, the crystal and silver and went out to wait on the lawn for the firemen and paramedics to make their entrance. Brandy, she opens one of her huge, ring-beaded hands and she touches the hole pouring her blood all over the marble floor. Brandy, she says, “Shit. There’s no way the Bon Marche will take this suit back. Evie lifts her face, her face a finger-painting mess of soot and snot and tears from her hands and screams, “I hate my life being so boring! ” Evie screams down at Brandy Alexander, “Save me a window table in hell! ” Tears rinse clean lines down Evie’s cheeks, and she screams, “Girlfriend! You need to be yelling some back at me! ” As if this isn’t already drama, drama, drama, Brandy looks up at me kneeling beside her. Brandy’s aubergine eyes dilated out to full flower, she says, “Brandy Alexander is going to die now? ” Evie, Brandy and me, all this is just a power struggle for the spotlight.

Just each of us being me, me, me first. The murderer, the victim, the witness, each of us thinks our role is the lead. Probably that goes for anybody in the world. It’s all mirror, mirror on the wall because beauty is power the same way money is power the same way a gun is power. Anymore, when I see the picture of a twenty-something in the newspaper who was abducted and sodomized and robbed and then killed and here’s a front-page picture of her young and smiling, instead of me dwelling on this being a big, sad crime, my gut reaction is, wow, she’d be really hot if she didn’t have such a big honker of a nose.

My second reaction is I’d better have some good head and shoulders shots handy in case I get, you know, abducted and sodomized to death. My third reaction is, well, at least that cuts down on the competition. If that’s not enough, my moisturizer I use is a suspension of inert fetal solids in hydrogenated mineral oil. My point is that, if I’m honest, my life is all about me. My point is, unless the meter is running and some photographer is yelling: Give me empathy. Then the flash of the strobe. Give me sympathy. Flash. Give me brutal honesty. Flash. “Don’t let me die here on this floor,” Brandy says, and her big hands clutch at me. My hair,” she says, “My hair will be flat in the back. ” My point is I know Brandy is maybe probably going to die, but I just can’t get into it. Evie sobs even louder. On top of this, the fire sirens from way outside are crowning me queen of Migraine Town. The rifle is still spinning on the floor, but slower and slower. Brandy says, “This is not how Brandy Alexander wanted her life to go. She’s supposed to be famous, first. You know, she’s supposed to be on television during Super Bowl halftime, drinking a diet cola naked in slow motion before she died. ” The rifle stops spinning and points at nobody.

At Evie sobbing, Brandy screams, “Shut up! ” ” You shut up,” Evie screams back. Behind her, the fire is eating its way down the stairway carpet. The sirens, you can hear them wandering and screaming all over the West Hills. People will just knock each other down to dial 9-1-1 and be the big hero. Nobody looks ready for the big television crew that’s due to arrive any minute. “This is your last chance, honey,” Brandy says, and her blood is getting all over the place. She says, “Do you love me? ” It’s when folks ask questions like this that you lose the spotlight.

This is how folks trap you into a best-supporting role. Even bigger than the house being on fire is this huge expectation that I have to say the three most worn-out words you’ll find in any script. Just the words make me feel I’m severely fingering myself. They’re just words is all. Powerless. Vocabulary. Dialogue. “Tell me,” Brandy says. “Do you? Do you really love me? ” This is the big hammy way Brandy has played her whole life. The Brandy Alexander nonstop continuous live action theater, but less and less live by the moment. Just for a little stage business, I take Brandy’s hand in mine.

This is a nice gesture, but then I’m freaked by the whole threat of blood-borne pathogens, and then, boom, the ceiling in the dining room crashes down and sparks and embers rush out at us from the dining room doorway. “Even if you can’t love me, then tell me my life,” Brandy says. “A girl can’t die without her life flashing before her eyes. ” Pretty much nobody is getting their emotional needs met. It’s then the fire eats down the stairway carpet to Evie’s bare ass, and Evie screams to her feet and pounds down the stairs in her burned-up white high heels.

Naked and hairless, wearing wire and ashes, Evie Cottrell runs out the front door to a larger audience, her wedding guests, the silver and crystal and the arriving fire trucks. This is the world we live in. Conditions change and we mutate. So of course this’ll be all about Brandy, hosted by me, with guest appearances by Evelyn Cottrell and the deadly AIDS virus. Brandy, Brandy, Brandy. Poor sad Brandy on her back, Brandy touches the hole pouring her life out onto the marble floor and says, “Please. Tell me my life. Tell me how we got here. ” So me, I’m here eating smoke just to document this Brandy Alexander moment.

Give me attention. Flash. Give me adoration. Flash. Give me a break. Flash. CHAPTER T W O Don’t expect this to be the kind of story that goes: and then, and then, and then. What happens here will have more of that fashion magazine feel, a Vogue or a Glamour magazine chaos with page numbers on every second or fifth or third page. Perfume cards falling out, and full-page naked women coming out of nowhere to sell you make-up. Don’t look for a contents page, buried magazine-style twenty pages back from the front. Don’t expect to find anything right off.

There isn’t a real pattern to anything, either. Stories will start and then, three paragraphs later: Jump to page whatever. Then, jump back. This will be ten thousand fashion separates that mix and match to create maybe five tasteful outfits. A million trendy accessories, scarves and belts, shoes and hats and gloves, and no real clothes to wear them with. And you really, really need to get used to that feeling, here, on the freeway, at work, in your marriage. This is the world we live in. Just go with the prompts. Jump back twenty years to the white house where I grew p with my father shooting super-8 movies of my brother and me running around the yard. Jump to present time with my folks sitting on lawn chairs at night, and watching these same super-8 movies projected on the white side of the same white house, twenty years later. The house the same, the yard the same, the windows projected in the movies lined up just perfect with the real windows, the movie grass aligned with the real grass, and my movie-projected brother and me being toddlers and running around wild for the camera. Jump to my big brother being all miserable and dead from the big plague of AIDS.

Jump to me being grown up and fallen in love with a police detective and moved away to become a famous supermodel. Just remember, the same as a spectacular Vogue magazine, remember that no matter how close you follow the jumps: Continued on page whatever. No matter how careful you are, there’s going to be the sense you missed something, the collapsed feeling under your skin that you didn’t experience it all. There’s that fallen heart feeling that you rushed right through the moments where you should’ve been paying attention. Well, get used to that feeling. That’s how your whole life will feel some day.

This is all practice. None of this matters. We’re just warming up. Jump to here and now, Brandy Alexander bleeding to death on the floor with me kneeling beside her, telling this story before here come the paramedics. Jump backward just a few days to the living room of a rich house in Vancouver, British Columbia. The room is lined with the rococo hard candy of carved mahogany paneling with marble baseboards and marble flooring and a very sortof curlicue carved marble fireplace. In rich houses where old rich people live, everything is just what you’d think. The rubrum lilies in the enameled vases are real, not silk.

The cream-colored drapes are silk, not polished cotton. Mahogany is not pine stained to look like mahogany. No pressed-glass chandeliers posing as cut crystal. The leather is not vinyl. All around us are these cliques of Louis-the-Fourteenth chair-sofa-chair. In front of us is yet another innocent real estate agent, and Brandy’s hand goes out: her wrist thick with bones and veins, the mountain range of her knuckles, her wilted fingers, her rings in their haze of marquise-cut green and red, her porcelain nails painted sparkle pink, she says, “Charmed, I’m sure. If you have to start with any one detail, it has to be Brandy’s hands. Beaded with rings to make them look even bigger, Brandy’s hands are enormous. Beaded with rings, as if they could be more obvious, hands are the one part about Brandy Alexander the surgeons couldn’t change. So Brandy doesn’t even try and hide her hands. We’ve been in too many of this kind of house for me to count, and the realtor we meet is always smiling. This one is wearing the standard uniform, the navy blue suit with the red, white, and blue scarf around the neck.

The blue heels are on her feet and the blue bag is hanging at the crook of her elbow. The realty woman looks from Brandy Alexander’s big hand to Signore Alfa Romeo standing at Brandy’s side, and the power blue eyes of Alfa attach themselves; those blue eyes you never see close or look away, inside those eyes is the baby or the bouquet of flowers, beautiful or vulnerable, that make a beautiful man someone safe to love. Alfa’s just the latest in a year-long road trip of men obsessed with Brandy, and any smart woman knows a beautiful man is her best fashion accessory.

The same way you’d product model a new car or a toaster, Brandy’s hand draws a sight line through the air from her smile and big boobs to Alfa. “May I introduce,” Brandy says, “Signore Alfa Romeo, professional male consort to the Princess Brandy Alexander. ” The same way, Brandy’s hand swings from her batting eyelashes and rich hair in an invisible sight line to me. All the realty woman is going to see is my veils, muslin and cut-work velvet, brown and red, tulle threaded with silver, layers of so much you’d think there’s nobody inside. There’s nothing about me to look at so most people don’t.

It’s a look that says: Thank you for not sharing. “May I introduce,” Brandy says, “Miss Kay Maclsaac, personal secretary to the Princess Brandy Alexander. ” The realty woman in her blue suit with its brass Chanel buttons and the scarf tied around her neck to hide all her loose skin, she smiles at Alfa. When nobody will look at you, you can stare a hole in them. Picking out all the little details you’d never stare long enough to get if she’d ever just return your gaze, this, this is your revenge. Through my veils, the realtor’s glowing red and gold, blurred at her edges. Miss Maclsaac,” Brandy says, her big hand still open toward me, “Miss Maclsaac is mute and cannot speak. ” The realty woman with her lipstick on her teeth and her powder and concealer layered in the crepe under her eyes, her preta-porter teeth and machine-washable wig, she smiles at Brandy Alexander. “And this . . . ,” Brandy’s big ring-beaded hand curls up to touch Brandy’s torpedo breasts. “This . . . ,” Brandy’s hand curls up to touch pearls at her throat. “This . . . ,” the enormous hand lifts to touch the billowing piles of auburn hair. “And this . . . ,” the hand touches thick moist lips. This,” Brandy says, “is the Princess Brandy Alexander. ” The realty woman drops to one knee in something between a curtsy and what you’d do before an altar. Genuflecting. “This is such an honor,” she says. “I’m so sure this is the house for you. You just have to love this house. ” Icicle bitch she can be, Brandy just nods and turns back toward the front hall where we came in. “Her Highness and Miss Maclsaac,” Alfa says, “they would like to tour the house by themselves, while you and I discuss the details. ” Alfa’s little hands flutter up to explain, ” . . . the transfer of funds … the exchange of lira for Canadian dollars. “Loonies,” the realty woman says. Brandy and me and Alfa are all flash frozen. Maybe this woman has seen through us. Maybe after the months we’ve been on the road and the dozens of big houses we’ve hit, maybe somebody has finally figured out our scam. “Loonies,” the woman says. Again, she genuflects. “We call our dollars ‘Loonies’,” she says and jabs a hand in her blue purse. “I’ll show you. There’s a picture of a bird on them,” she says. “It’s a loon. ” Brandy and me, we turn icicle again and start walking away, back to the front hall. Back through the cliques of chairsofa-chair, past the carved marble.

Our reflections smear, dim, and squirm behind a lifetime of cigar smoke on the mahogany paneling. Back to the front hallway, I follow the Princess Brandy Alexander while Alfa’s voice fills the realtor’s bluesuited attention with questions about the angle of the morning sun into the dining room and whether the provincial government will allow a personal heliport behind the swimming pool. Going toward the stairs is the exquisite back of Princess Brandy, a silver fox jacket draped over Brandy’s shoulders and yards of a silk brocade scarf tied around her billowing pile of Brandy Alexander auburn hair.

The queen supreme’s voice and the shadow of L’Air du Temps are the invisible train behind everything that is the world of Brandy Alexander. The billowing auburn hair piled up inside her brocade silk scarf reminds me of a bran muffin. A big cherry cupcake. This is some strawberry auburn mushroom cloud rising over a Pacific atoll. Those princess feet are caught in two sort of gold lame leg-hold traps with little gold straps and gold chains. These are the trapped-on, stilted, spike-heeled feet of gold that mount the first of about three hundred steps from the front hall to the second floor.

Then she mounts the next step, and the next until all of her is far enough above me to risk looking back. Only then will she turn the whole strawberry cupcake of her head. Those big torpedo, Brandy Alexander breasts silhouetted, the wordless beauty of that professional mouth in full face. “The owner of this house,” Brandy says, “is very old and supplementing her hormones and still lives here. ” The carpet is so thick under my feet I could be climbing loose dirt. One step after another, loose and sliding and unstable. We, Brandy and Alfa and me, we’ve been speaking English as a second language so long that we’ve forgotten it as our first.

I have no native tongue. We’re eye level with the dirty stones of a dark chandelier. On the other side of the handrail, the hallway’s gray marble floor looks as if we’ve climbed a stairway through the clouds. Step after step. Far away, Alfa’s demanding talk goes on about wine cellars, about kennels for the Russian wolfhounds. Alfa’s constant demand for the realty woman’s attention is as faint as a radio call-in show bouncing back from outer space. ” . . . the Princess Brandy Alexander,” Alfa’s warm, dark words float up, “she is probable to remove her clothes and scream like the wild horses in even the crowded restaurants … The queen supreme’s voice and the shadow of L’Air du Temps says, “Next house,” her Plumbago lips say, “Alfa will be the mute. ” ” . . . your breasts,” Alfa is telling the realty woman, “you have two of the breasts of a young woman . . . ” Not one native tongue is left among us. Jump to us being upstairs. Jump to now anything being possible. After the realtor is trapped by the blue eyes of Signore Alfa Romeo, jump to when the real scamming starts. The master bedroom will always be down the hallway in the direction of the best view. This master bathroom is paneled in pink mirror, every wall, even the ceiling.

Princess Brandy and I are everywhere, reflected on every surface. You can see Brandy sitting on the pink counter at one side of the vanity sink, me sitting at the other side of the sink. One of us is sitting on each side of all the sinks in all the mirrors. There are just too many Brandy Alexanders to count, and they’re all being the boss of me. They all open their white calfskin clutch bags, and hundreds of those big ringbeaded Brandy Alexander hands take out new copies of the Physicians’ Desk Reference with its red cover, big as a Bible. All her hundreds of Burning Blueberry eye shadow eyes look at me from all over the room. You know the drill,” all her hundreds of Plumbago mouths command. Those big hands start pulling open drawers and cabinet doors. “Remember where you got everything, and put it back exactly where you found it,” the mouths say. “We’ll do the drugs first, then the makeup. Now start hunting. ” I take out the first bottle. It’s Valium, and I hold the bottle so all the hundred Brandys can read the label. “Take what we can get away with,” Brandy says, “then get on to the next bottle. ” I shake a few of the little blue pills into my purse pocket with the other Valiums. The next bottle I find is Darvons. Honey, those are heaven in your mouth,” all the Brandys look up to peer at the bottle I’m holding. “Does it look safe to take too many? ” The expiration date on the label is only a month away, and the bottle is still almost full. I figure we can take about half. “Here,” a big ring-beaded hand comes at me from every direction. One hundred big hands come at me, palm up. “Give Brandy a couple. The princess is having lower back pain again. ” I shake ten capsules out, and a hundred hands toss a thousand tranquilizers onto the red carpet tongues of those Plumbago mouths.

A suicide load of Darvon slides down into the dark interior of the continents that make up a world of Brandy Alexander. Inside the next bottle are the little purple ovals of 2. 5milligram—sized Premarin. That’s short for Pregnant Mare Urine. That’s short for thousands of miserable horses in North Dakota and Central Canada, forced to stand in cramped dark stalls with a catheter stuck on them to catch every drop of urine and only getting let outside to get fucked again. What’s funny is that describes pretty much any good long stay in a hospital, but that’s only been my experience. Don’t look at me that way,” Brandy says. “My not taking those pills won’t bring any baby horses back from the dead. ” In the next bottle are round, peach-colored little scored tablets of 100-milligram Aldactone. Our homeowner must be a junkie for female hormones. Painkillers and estrogen are pretty much Brandy’s only two food groups, and she says, “Gimme, gimme, gimme. ” She snacks on some little pink-coated Estinyls. She pops a few of the turquoise-blue Estrace tablets. She’s using some vaginal Premarin as a hand cream when she says, “Miss Kay? ” She says, “I can’t seem to make a fist, Sweetness.

Do you think, maybe you can wrap things up without me while I lie down? ” The hundreds of me cloned in the pink bathroom mirrors, we check out the make-up while the princess goes off to cat nap in the cabbage rose and old canopy bed glory of the master bedroom. I find Darvocets and Percodans and Compazines, Nembutals and Percocets. Oral estrogens. Anti-androgens. Progestons. Transdermal estrogen patches. I find none of Brandy’s colors, no Rusty Rose blusher. No Burning Blueberry eye shadow. I find a vibrator with the dead batteries swollen and leaking acid inside.

It’s an old woman who owns this house, I figure. Ignored and aging and drugged-out old women, older and more invisible to the world every minute, they must not wear a lot of make-up. Not go out to fun hot spots. Not boogie to a party froth. My breath smells hot and sour inside my veils, inside the damp layers of silk and mesh and cotton georgette I lift for the first time all day; and in the mirrors, I look at the pink reflection of what’s left of my face. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all? The evil queen was stupid to play Snow White’s game.

There’s an age where a woman has to move on to another kind of power. Money, for example. Or a gun. I’m living the life I love, I tell myself, and loving the life I live. I tell myself: I deserved this. This is exactly what I wanted. CHAPTER T H R E E Until I met Brandy, all I wanted was for somebody to ask me what happened to my face. “Birds ate it,” I wanted to tell them. Birds ate my face. But nobody wanted to know. Then nobody doesn’t include Brandy Alexander. Just don’t think this was a big coincidence. We had to meet, Brandy and me. We had so many things in common. We had close to everything in common.

Besides, it happens fast for some people and slow for some, accidents or gravity, but we all end up mutilated. Most women know this feeling of being more and more invisible everyday. Brandy was in the hospital for months and months, and so was I, and there’s only so many hospitals where you can go for major cosmetic surgery. Jump back to the nuns. The nuns were the worst about always pushing, the nuns who were nurses. One nun would tell me about some patient on a different floor who was funny and charming. He was a lawyer and could do magic tricks with just his hands and a paper napkin.

This day nurse was the kind of nun who wore a white nursing version of her regular nun uniform, and she’d told this lawyer all about me. This was Sister Katherine. She told him I was funny and bright, and she said how sweet it would be if the two of us could meet and fall madly in love. Those were her words. Halfway down the bridge of her nose, she’d look at me through wire-framed glasses, their lenses long and squared the way microscope slides look. Little broken veins kept the end of her nose red. Rosacea, she called this. It would be easier to see her living in a gingerbread house than a convent.

Married to Santa Claus instead of God. The starched apron she wore over her habit was so glaring white that when I’d first arrived, fresh from my big car accident, I remembered how all the stains from my blood looked black. They gave me a pen and paper so I could communicate. They wrapped my head in dressings, yards of tight gauze holding wads of cotton in place, metal butterfly sutures gripping all over so I wouldn’t unravel. They fingered on a thick layer of antibiotic gel, claustrophobic and toxic under the wads of cotton. My hair they pulled back, forgotten and hot under the gauze where I couldn’t get at it.

The invisible woman. When Sister Katherine mentioned this other patient, I wondered if maybe I’d seen him around, her lawyer, the cute, funny magician. “I didn’t say he was cute,” she said. Sister Katherine said, “He’s still a little shy. ” On the pad of paper, I wrote: still? “Since his little mishap,” she said and smiled with her eyebrows arched and all her chins tucked down against her neck. “He wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. ” She said, “His car rolled right over the top of him. ” She said, “That’s why he’d be so perfect for you. ” Early on, while I was still sedated, somebody had taken the mirror out of my bathroom.

The nurses seemed to steer me away from polished anything the way they kept the suicides away from knives. The drunks away from drinks. The closest I had to a mirror was the television, and it only showed how I used to look. If I asked to see the police photos from the accident, the day nurse would tell me, “No. ” They kept the photos in a file at the nursing station, and it seemed anybody could ask to see them except me. This nurse, she’d say, “The doctor thinks you’ve suffered enough for the time being. ” This same day nurse tried to fix me up with an accountant whose hair and ears were burned off in a propane blunder.

She introduced me to a graduate student who’d lost his throat and sinuses to a touch of cancer. A window washer after his three-story tumble head first onto concrete. Those were all her words, blunder, touch, tumble. The lawyer’s mishap. My big accident. Sister Katherine would be there to check my vital signs every six hours. To check my pulse against the sweep second hand on her man’s wristwatch, thick and silver. To wrap the blood pressure cuff around my arm. To check my temperature, she’d push some kind of electric gun in my ear.

Sister Katherine was the kind of nun who wears a “wedding ring. And married people always think love is the answer. Jump back to the day of my big accident, when everybody was so considerate. The people, the folks who let me go ahead of them in the emergency room. What the police insisted. I mean, they gave me this hospital sheet with “Property of La Paloma Memorial Hospital” printed along the edge in indelible blue. First

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