I awake to the soft cicada hum of machinery. It soothes me, this sound I know so well, even without having heard it in years. As if it is a prehistoric soundtrack of insect wings and unsettled wind, a music that lives in the meat of my cells.
And this instinct keeps my heartbeat steady. I am still human, after all. Dr. Higgins said I would be, with the hint of an eye roll behind his thick-rimmed glasses. But I did not believe him. I am used to men telling me things I know not to trust, though I do them anyway. Maybe he was telling the truth.
Straps crisscross my chest. They’re tight and pinch the thin skin of my shoulders, but I can’t do anything about it. They’re there to keep me still, keep my neck from straining. So is the metal brace I wear over my head. All I can do is look up at the ceiling, as white and bare as a stalled iPhone screen.
The image jerks me back in time, to the leather-filled square of Dr. Higgins’ office. He’d sat there with his right ankle propped on his left knee. I watched it rise and fall like the beat of a butterfly’s wing, as slow as an afterthought. He clicked his pen as he walked me through the procedure. Scalpel. Bone saw. Nerve reconstruction. The whole while he looked at me through carnivore’s eyes.
And then the condescension. Our bodies are like iPhones, he’d said. You know, when the screen goes all white and there’s nothing there. It just takes a shut-down, that’s all. Letting the phone sit dark for a good minute before restarting it. Problem solved.
And I knew somehow, listening to him, that his wife smiles during the day and drapes her neck with floral scarves, and drinks at night, sips of tasteless vodka her husband will not smell on her breath.
I hate him now for those words, for that flippancy.
Yet, I cannot help but think of him and what just happened to me under his scalpel. My throat burns, a necklace of pain around my neck. I wonder if it looked like a tree stump, when Dr. Higgins removed my head. Were there rings inside, lighter circles amidst the dark ones? Could he read the years of my life in my flesh?
I can’t help but flinch at what he would have seen there.
Color enters my view, bobbing in from the left. A bouquet of balloons. They dance in small circles against the ceiling, buffeted by the radiator’s constant stream of air. They look like a small flock of birds in strict formation, silvery and light, flashes of red on their wings.
Then I remember. Jay. They must be from him. He would want me to have something to look at when I woke up. Something that would immediately remind me of him. When he showed up at my door after two days of silence, he had a fistful of balloon ribbons, so many balloons they subsumed him, threatened to carry him away. A few popped when he squeezed them through my door. But the survivors exploded into my living room, and there were still enough. Enough for me to know he liked me. That he wanted to fill my empty space with generic messages on painted foil.
And I do feel a flush of joy when I see the balloons, the sheer number of them thumping across the drab ceiling. But then they’re right in front of me, their blue ribbons knotted together. A fist, greedy and tight, ensuring that not a single balloon will escape, make it out of the hospital room door, into the corridor, and out an open window. And I remember that that’s why I saw Dr. Higgins in the first place. That knotted feeling I knew too well. Like I was being held too tightly.
“Ooh, aren’t these lovely?” It’s my nurse, back again. I know it’s her by her voice. I have to hold so still that I’ve only seen her head in patches. The side of her forehead. The flash of her green eyes. A full ponytail, hair curly and deep brown. “From your boyfriend?” She moves the balloons aside with a swipe of her arm.
Is he my boyfriend? That, I can’t remember. There must be a word for what he is to me—what we are to each other—but I cannot find it. But she is just making small talk, and my throat is too sore for words, so I decide to just nod.
The brace and straps hold me down. I am just a thin blue ribbon that might float away. “Yes.” My voice croaks, deep and unrecognizable. That’s not what I sound like. That voice is not mine.
“I’m sure he can’t wait until you get out of here, love.”
My wrist is in her hand now. She’s taking my pulse, her eyes on her watch. She doesn’t look at me, but I’m used to that.
“How are you feeling?” she asks. Another question I can’t answer. I blink my eyes and hope she understands. That if I could talk I would tell her that I don’t feel different yet. At least not different enough. Not in the way I thought I would. There’s pain and constriction and a different cast to the light, as if the air were something tangible I could touch. And that’s nice, I suppose, the weight of the air. I can’t help but appreciate it in a way I hadn’t before.
“I hear you’re going to have a visitor today. Isn’t that exciting?”
I wonder if she can feel my pulse jump. Pick up speed. A visitor? I can’t talk. I can’t turn my head. I don’t want to see anyone, but I don’t know how to tell her that. Is it Jay? Is he coming already? My stomach lurches and I want to twist to the side, but I can’t.
“Apparently, she’s just outside. I told the receptionist to let me get your vitals first.”
She. My chest slows.
The nurse’s face appears right in front of me now. Her eyes are kind. They meet mine for a moment and then find my neck. She’s checking my sutures. Her fingers brush against my skin with each bandage she peels back. “Looks good. Call me if you need anything.” She wedges a rectangular piece of plastic into my open hand. The call button. I clutch it with the strength of eagles’ talons, afraid that if I drop it, I’ll float away, untethered.
The nurse is gone. I am alone. The silence doesn’t last, though, because then there’s another voice, this one tentative. Unsure. It wobbles. “Amanda?”
It’s Betty. My friend, Betty, the one who drove me here. The one who put her hands on my shoulders and turned me towards her in the front seat of the car. I can’t hear her words now, but I remember her eyes, the circles of them, how I was seeing more of her than she was of me, despite her trying.
“Amanda.” She says my name again, as if she is searching for me, though I am right here.
The mattress shifts, her knees on its edge.
I find her thigh with my hand.
Her face hovers over mine, then, and I watch her darting eyes, how they move in tandem, like synchronized swimmers, diving for something. I watch her eyebrows relax, her face slacken.
My own heart slows. She recognizes me.
But wasn’t I supposed to be different?
“The nurse told me you can’t really talk,” she says. “Still, I had to come.”
“And I wanted to see if it had worked. If you were . . . different.” She tucks her hair behind her ears and neck, but it collapses forward, the ends tidy and sharp. She brushes it back again and holds it tight. “Do you feel different?” She doesn’t seem to expect an answer. “I hope you’re not in pain,” she adds. “I see Jay’s been here.” She nods at the balloons. “He’ll probably never leave you now.”
It’s what I’ve always wanted. The reassurance of his presence. But her words gut me.
The only sound is the scratching of his Congratulations! balloons against the ceiling.
I try to focus on Betty instead. On the every-day stories she tells: the recipe for seafood chowder she’s tried, the construction on Hall Road that makes her late to work every morning, the male cardinal who shows up at her feeder each evening, just when the sky pinkens behind him. How his scarlet plumage reminds her of my favorite red dress, and how witnessing the flash of his wings and his accordion crest, the aggressive orange of his bill, helps her believe I will be okay. That this doctor can, in fact, reattach me to myself.
She holds a straw between my lips and lets me drink. “I have to go,” she says finally. “I’ll be back soon. And, of course, I’ll be here to take you home on Friday.” She kisses my forehead—her lips are warm and like nothing I can remember—and unfolds my left hand. Rests a photograph in my open palm. I can tell by the paper’s slickness under my thumb.
The mattress shifts again when Betty lowers herself to the floor. The whisper of her shoes on the linoleum, and then the silence, tells me she is gone.
All I have now is the white ceiling and the silver and red balloons. I swing my arm up to see what flimsy memory Betty has left me with.
Two teenagers, heads bent together. Betty on the right, lips pursed. Me on the left, mouth cranked open, one eye hidden behind tangles of corkscrew hair. We look messy and happy, our necks proud in their swan bends.
I barely recognize myself in this photo from seven years ago, but I am there all the same.
Seven years is a long time. Long enough for Jay to move in to my apartment. Long enough for him to scoff at my African violets, cluck at the leaves that dry on their stems and then crumble to the floor. So, I gave the purple, plastic pots to my neighbor, a woman with three healthy kids and a penchant for gardening. Next went my cat, Pebble, a shy girl feline who slept curled against my chest. Jay said the spot was his. I gave Pebble to my neighbor’s daughter, a sweet girl who looked like she could use a soft head pressed into her palm every once in a while.
Then my closet emptied. The dresses were too short, he said, too flattering. He bought me mauves and tans, t-shirt dresses shaped like paper-doll clothes. Then my collection of mystery novels, the ones I’d pretend to puzzle over though I could always spot the villain in those early pages. I abandoned them at a library book sale, and they were taken by others, too. My friends dissolved next. First pushed to the edges of my time. And it was better, anyway, since he read my messages and warned me to keep our relationship to myself. Betty was the only friend that hung on. She must have remembered something about me that I’d long forgotten.
And then I awoke one day and realized that I was gone, too. Shriveled and curled in on myself like the African violet leaves I’d pluck from the floor and rub between my fingers over the balcony’s edge, returning nature to itself.
Wheels rattle against the linoleum, and my nurse returns. She parks a cart next to the bed. I can’t see it, though I know it is a naturalist’s collection of bottles and creams and that I must look like a specimen to her.
If Jay were here, he’d tell her to keep her witch medicine to herself.
Jay turned his back on science years ago, when he found his mom, bloated and stiff, in her bed. Jay blamed her doctor, but, really, who could have saved a woman who slept with a beer bottle balanced on the summit of her stomach?
Jay hasn’t had a check-up since. The only water he drinks comes in the form of coffee. He says it burns the bad stuff out of him, though I’ve seen blood in the sink, pink and feminine, part way up the bowl, where it splashes when he tries to chase it down the drain.
So I was surprised when he shoved a magazine in my face, its pages folded back into submission. He stabbed at a wrinkled page, the white lettering smudged with black from the press of his fingers, from the way he drags them across the words as he reads, like he has to take them with him, too.
A new procedure, he said. To fix you. To fix that feeling you told me about.
There are no words for this feeling, I realize now. How can you describe instinct and desperation?
The nurse is humming to herself, the way my mother used to when I’d sit on her lap and she’d rock me to the rhythm of her song and hold my temple against the pillow of her chest.
“What’s this?” The nurse tugs the photograph from my hand.
I had forgotten I was holding it. I am sure she can see the indentation of my thumb in the picture’s gloss.
“Is this you?” It is not a rhetorical question, I can tell. She holds the photo above my face so I can see it and taps at the girl with the too-wide smile and the bright red, strapless dress, and the wild hair. That girl’s arms are sinewy and strong, and her chin juts up at the world.
“Yes,” I say.
“Oh, honey.” It’s an apology. I know this not only by the softness of her voice but the gentle flutter of her fingers on my forehead and neck.
She knows, I think.
But it is okay that she knows what has happened to me. It is better. I want to tell everyone, now. Jay is not a secret I should carry.
The nurse finishes and takes her cart with her. I do not hear the click of the door closing, and I know that she has left it open.
Just a crack. But a crack is enough. It’s enough for me to forgive Dr. Higgins his eagerness to get at my throat. For it seems he was right, after all. I am new.
I watch as one of the red balloons, loosened somehow from its flock, skitters across the ceiling towards the rectangle of freedom. It flashes across my vision, a red blur as full of promise as Betty’s cardinal. I don’t see it dip its head under the doorframe, which is probably for the best. I am not sure I can bear to watch it escape with its Congratulations message angled away from me.
When I see the tangled ribbons of the remaining balloons, I only hope that the rogue one makes it down the hall and on to the elevator. And that when the doors ding open to the lobby, the knot of waiting visitors part for it, let it usher itself out the front door where it can spin its way into a rising current and taste a rush of euphoria before splitting at its sutures.
Elizabeth DelConte teaches English in Syracuse, New York. She earned her MA in English at The Ohio State University and has twice attended the Kenyon Review Writing Workshop. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in the raffish, Before After/Godwink, and Indolent Books’ “What Rough Beast” series.
Cagibi Issue 5
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