n. infantile pattern of suckle-swallow movement in which the tongue is placed between incisor teeth or between alveolar ridges during initial stage of swallowing (if persistent can lead to various dental abnormalities) v. [content removed due to Bush campaign to clean up the internet] n. act of nyah-nyah v. pursuing with relentless abandon the need to masticate and thrust the world into every bodily incarnation in order to transform it, via the act of salivation, into nutritive agency

Monday, April 17, 2006

fiction: Swallow

Some of this is rewrite, but most of it's addition. POV is Tahina, place is the hostel in Barcelona.


Six and a half days left, and I have locked myself in the room until night. Inside my body, the myelin has been under attack. I can feel it in the slow acts of balance. I perch on my bed and stare out the window, where the sky changes slowly slowly, and if I blink for a second it’s gone. Today has been draped, the sky’s morning nakedness eventually swathed in a muggy white. A trickle of sweat falls down the inside of my shirt, and I hold a piece of chalk in my hand.

This morning when I went out for my kilo of strawberries, I fell down the stairs. I could almost hear the crunch of my skin as I hit. With each crunch, I could see a new rock, a new ridge of cement, a new dustball stuck to the cement, a new crack in the wall, and even the insects peering from the cracks. I thought for a second I could almost see the stonemasons as they carried the stair stones and set them into place. Also, the carpenters who built the foundation, and the cement boy who poured bags of sand into the concrete mix. At the bottom I stayed still for a few seconds to review. Then I got up. Nobody had seen my descent.

There’s nothing more to it than that, which cheered me as I went shopping for my strawberries. A little fall, some crunches, nothing broken. I could see the outline of a few bruises rising on my shins, and I knew I’d find more along my hip when I got home. I limped a little, but as soon as I had my strawberries in hand after a price discussion with the open-market vendor, I felt better and the limp disappeared.

There's a self-help rule to be found somewhere in all that. I feel on the verge of seeing something. Some particular drift of light perhaps.

So back in the room, I decided to lock myself in for a while. I took a stick of chalk I kept in my backpack, a stick broken from quarry. The self-help writer’s little tool to dowse for all words and drawings and acts that which will lift us on up past primordial stupor. I took the chalk and marked a line on the floor of my hostel. This side, that side, me in the middle like a drunk trying to convince someone.

On one side of the chalkline: the spider that still crawled from corner to corner. My skin, numb on the thigh, but my tummy all full and round from the salad I heaped high with tomatoes and tuna fish and four squeezed cubes of lime. Cat hairs floating around the room from the breeze that drifts under my door. The hairs carry the scent of the mad hostel woman with her five cats that prowl and strip the walls of mice and spiders. She’s knocked on my door both mornings I’ve been here and asked me if I’m sure. Sure about what? All I’m sure about it the thrum in my uterus, somehow excited by the fever that carries me along. Outside the window, the constant sound—at night, brawling crescendos of prostitutes and johns. During the day, the cry of cars as they turn corners, and the voices of walking-vendors as they holler their wares. Helado, helado! Naranjas, fresca! Inside the window, the scent of things ripe, dusty tuna full and the strawberries, heating next to the window.

On other side of the chalkline: the history.


When I was finally diagnosed, it was halfway done over the phone. Halfway because the nurse was reluctant, but I was insistent. And halfway through my insistence, I realized why she was reluctant. So I went in and talked to the doctor, who was expressive and straightforward. He put everything in scientific terms so that I could see myself as a creation of vast intricacy and thus hope. I was stewing by that time. It had taken them far far too long to figure what was going on. Months of my hypochondria, months of returning in tears. “How can I be a hypochondriac,” I wanted to ask them, “when I hate you so much I’d almost rather die than come back.” But I had my revenge, if that’s what it could be called. It turned out that I was right.

When I was finally diagnosed, I left the doctor’s office and my day continued in a normal so intense it made me feel ill. After my hour lunch break, I went back to work, where I was filing papers in manila sleeves and alphabetically placing them. The fluorescent lights were bright overhead, and I opened drawers and closed them. My eyes had been blurry for three months. A counselor told me it was stress, but now I knew what was happening. I tried to clear the letters. I knew what they were from their shape. Around me, lawyers and their assistants brisked through the room, tossed files, stopped to chat. I was quiet, busy.

James came up to me at two and touched my shoulder. I stood up and looked at him in his crisp white shirt. Under his sleeves, two sweat marks were enlarging, and I wondered if some day this might halt his political aspirations. His tie was neatly arranged though, and his hair was brushed down in lines.

“Hi,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you knew I wasn’t avoiding you.”

“I didn’t think that,” I replied, standing awkwardly, not sure where to place my body. I was thinking so many other things.

“Yeah, well,” he said. “Thinks have been weird. You know. But I think about you all the time. It’s just not a good time right now.”

Everything about him hit me. And I thought I saw Arshwin’s form passing in the hallways. I thought I saw the bob of his head, his black hairs sticking up in the back even though he combed everything else down. But it was a blur, and I turned back to my work, turned back to the piles of envelopes and forms.

You don’t know me, I thought. What a normal, normal day.

“Tahina,” James continued. “I’m sorry. Don’t be angry at me. Let’s meet sometime this week, okay, and I’ll take you out to dinner. Anne’s going to be busy on Thursday, and we’ll just get a little time in, it’s the best I can do right now.”

I picked up a file marked Straton and opened the cabinet door with the S’s. A vast ridge, tan markings, little tabs on the top. A mountain ridge of actions. My eyes were blurry, my heart thwacked away at everything. Behind me, James touched my shoulder again. The orange carpet seemed to have a thousand odors: the cleaning liquid, shit from a judge’s shoe, and just a drip of coffee spilling. I held the chart in my hand, resisted opening it and reading it like a horoscope. What I always liked about filing at the county court were the stories. If I opened this chart, there’d be a thin outline: “Broke restraining order. 5 am: trying to break and enter.” And so on. But this meant a life.

The man in this life had a hard childhood. Just rough, not anything to really notice. Enough food on the table, certainly, but perhaps his father had disappeared and his mother had to work too much to be able to give her children attention. She came home every evening with her hair escaping from her ponytail. The rings under her eyes grew and grew. So the children divided lots: one became over-eager and ambitious to get a good job so he could come home and support her. He left to make good his dreams. But our criminal was left there with the mother. Eventually she started yelling at him, got angrier as her carpal tunnel gave her increasing pain. She couldn’t ever see a way out of it, that pain, the endless work, the need for food. And our criminal got surly in return. He was too young to understand how pain can make a person mean. So he ran away as soon as he was eighteen. He went from crappy job to crappy job and then accidentally knocked up a girl. Because it meant that nothing was ever going to get better, he started beating her. That’s his side of the tale, and it went predictably but urgently from there.

Each person, their own cliché, their own lies. And in the end, it was all distilled down into a two-page police report and the prosecutor’s notes. A manila folder, a metallic filling cabinet and four drawer full of S’s alone. But all they did was note the result, and slap down the judgment. I liked the idea of responsibility back then, letting a person face their deeds. Not that I don’t believe that anymore; it’s just that in that moment, filing into the ridge, my eyes were blurry and my body ached. I wanted to believe in help.

“Tahina,” James said again. But I was burying myself, putting as many folders between us as possible. The files flipped past my fingers, which suddenly seemed like red rags gripping to the side of a mountain. I knew who I wanted and it wasn’t James.

I left work that night, my body exhausted. On the drive home, I started counting the joints: the elbows, the ribs, the knees, the ankles. Each one of them seemed to have it’s own ache, and I still couldn’t focus my eyes. Only twenty-five, I could hear everybody saying, what a shame. There’s no answer to what I had, no clear and neat little solution. Multiple sclerosis causes a degeneration of the coating around nerve cells, my doctor said. And it’s unpredictable where it will lead.

I almost blew through a stop sign two blocks from my apartment. Two kids running across the sidewalk stopped in front of me as I screeched almost up to their hips. Their mouths wide-open O’s; we were for a second, no more, in the same place in the world. A world in which a non-abstract body gets hurt: a world without the I in it. But there’s was over after a second, because I stopped and then they could keep running. They could go home, play basketball, and maybe casually mention to their parents that they’d almost got hit by a car coming home. The biggest child grabbed the little one’s hand and pulled her the rest of the way to the other side.

At home, I sat on my bed, legs crossed, and pulled the telephone into my lap. I thought about calling Neecie first. But I didn’t want her to know just yet. I wanted her ignorance for just a bit longer. Needed it, the blank unaware when I went home. I could call my mom and tell her, but then everyone would know within a half-hour. Muebla would have them all perched at the table, and she’d be crying. It would all be far too strategic. A couple of other names, maybe my grandma. I smiled, thinking about my grandma.

“Why, mi nina,” she’d say. “That’s just nonsense.”

“No, grandma,” I’d reply. “It’s the truth. That’s what I have.”

Hija,” she’d say, “Don’t you contradict your poor old abuelita. You sit down right now. That’s it, get on your knees. You at home? Good, you get off that big bed and set your knees on the floor. You still have La Virgen I gave you? You look at her, our merciful mother, and tell her you need to get right with our Lord. You ask for her infinite mercy and forgiveness, tell her you need her. That’s all there is to it.”

“Yes, abuelita.”

But that wasn’t what I needed or wanted as I sat on that bed with the red phone in my lap. I couldn’t say how many times I prayed to La Virgen to help me when Auntie Midge, my father’s sister, was dying of cancer, her whole body turning yellower and yellower like a marshmallow that had gone to the microwave. She just puffed up and then crisped before exploding. I had never told grandma how it’d had changed me, that year. I hadn’t exactly lost faith; it’s just that I saw mercy a little differently. And I didn’t want to find myself suddenly on my knees because the world was tough. That was something I already knew.

I also knew who I wanted to call. I wanted to call Arshwin. I wanted to hear his low voice, so smooth like a jazz piano on the roll. I wanted to feel the skin of him, his arms around me. The way he loved me like we could heal each other with our flesh.

But he had placed himself off limits. He had asked me not to call him again until he called first. I tried to block out the way his face looked when he told me that. I picked up the receiver, pushed the buttons I would remember for the rest of my life. Holding the phone close to my ear with both hands, I almost wanted to pray to La Virgen: have mercy and let him pick up. But the phone just rang and rang with a little click on the end when the tone stopped. I hung up before his voice-mail went on, and rolled over onto my bed. I pressed my face into my pillow and bit it hard between my teeth. But nothing would come. It was just a normal, normal day.
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