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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

In This Light (10 page)

BOOK: In This Light
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She sips at her too-hot coffee, burns her pursed lips, says,
Fine, that would be fine.

Roxanne will never agree to it. He knows this. He sees the glow of her cigarette moving in the dark, hand to mouth. He knows he won’t ask because he can’t bear the bark of her laughter. He doesn’t turn on the light, doesn’t speak. He sees what’s happening, what will happen—this room in winter, the gray light leaking across the floor, the windows closed, the rain streaming down the glass.

He lies down beside her. She stubs out her cigarette, doesn’t light another, says nothing but moves closer, so the hair of her arm brushes the hair of his.

He knows she hasn’t eaten tonight, hasn’t moved all day, living on cigarettes and air, a glass of orange juice he brought her hours ago. Roxanne. But she must have stood at the windows once while he was gone, he sees that now: the blinds are down; the darkness is complete, final, the heat close. There’s only sound: a ship’s horn on the canal; a man in the distance who wails and stops, wails and stops, turning himself into a siren. She rolls toward him, touches his lips with her tongue, presses her frail, naked body against him. He feels the bones of her back with his fingers, each disk of the spine. He knows he can’t say anything—now or forever—such tender kisses, but he’s afraid she’ll stop, that she’ll break him here, on this bed, so he holds back, in case she says she’s tired or hungry, too hot, though he’s shaking already, weeks of wanting her pulled into this moment. He touches her as if for the first time, each finger forming a question:
Here and here, and this way, can I?
He’s trembling against his own skin, inside. If she says no, he’ll shatter, break through himself, explode. She’s unbuttoning his shirt, unzipping his pants, peeling him open. She’s tugging his trousers down toward his feet but not off— they shackle him. And he knows if they make love this way, without talking, it will be the last time. He wants to grab her wrists and speak, but he can’t—the silence is everything, hope and the lack of it. He wants the dark to come inside him, to be him, and there are no words even now, no sounds of pleasure, no soft murmurs, no names, no gods, only their skin—hot, blurred—their damp skin and the place where his becomes hers no longer clear, only her hair in his mouth, her eyes, her nose, her mouth in his mouth, her nipple, her fingers, her tongue in his mouth, brittle Roxanne going soft now, skinny Roxanne huge in the heat of them, swollen around him, her body big enough for all of him and he’s down in her, all the way down in the dark and she has no edges, no outline, no place where her dark becomes the other dark, the thinning, separate air, and he doesn’t know his own arms, his own legs, and still he keeps moving into her, deeper and deeper, feeling too late what she is, what she’s become, softer and softer under him, the ground, the black mud, the swamp swallowing him—he’s there, in that place, trying to pull himself out of it, but his boots are full of mud—he’s thigh-deep, falling facedown in the swamp, and then he feels fingernails digging into his back, a bony hand clutching his balls. He tries to grab her wrist but she’s let go—she’s slipped away from him, and he knows he never had a chance—this swamp takes everyone. He’s gasping, mouth full of mud, and then there’s a word, a name, a plea:
Stop, Sid, please
, and then there’s a body beneath him, and then there’s his body: heavy, slick with sweat, and then there’s a man sitting on the edge of a mattress, his head in his hands, and then there’s the air, surprising and cool, the fan beating and beating.

He opens the shades and rolls a joint, sits in the big chair, smoking. She’s fallen asleep—to escape him, he thinks, and he doesn’t blame her. If his father moved out of these shadows, Sid would say, Look at her. It was like this, exactly like this. After the rain, after the toe heals, after you don’t die of malaria. The sniper’s bullet whizzes past your ear, and you’re almost relieved. You think this is an enemy you’ll know. Bouncing Bettys and Toe Poppers jump out of the ground all day. Two wounded, two dead. The choppers come and take them all. You expect it to happen and it does, just after dark: one shot, and then all of you are shooting—you tear the trees apart. In the morning, you find them, two dead boys and a girl in the river. Her blood flowers around her in the muddy water. Her hands float. Her long black hair streams out around her head and moves like the river. She’s the one who strung the wire, the one who made the booby trap with your grenade and a tin can. She tried to trip you up, yesterday and the day before. She’s the sniper who chose you above all others. Her shot buzzed so close you thought she had you. She looks at the M-16 slung over your shoulder. She looks at your hands. She murmurs in her language, which you will never understand. Then she speaks in your language. She says, Your bullet’s in my liver. She tells you. Your bullet ripped my bowel. She says, Look for yourself if you don’t believe me. You try to pull her from the water. You slip in the mud. The water here knows her. The mud filling your boots is her mud. Slight as she is, she could throw you down and hold you under.

How would you kill me?

You know, with my body.

But you get her to the bank. You pull her from the river. Then the medic’s there and he tells you she’s dead, a waste of time,
unnecessary risk
, and you tell him she wasn’t dead when you got there, she wasn’t, and you look at her lying on the bank, and she’s not your enemy now, she’s not anyone’s enemy—she’s just a dead girl in the grass, and you leave her there, by the river.

Sid thinks of the doctors at the hospital, their skills, how they use them, their endless exchanges—merciful, futile, extravagant—hearts and lungs, kidneys and marrow. What would they have given her, what would they have taken?

If his mother had looked out the window soon enough, if Sid had been there to carry him to the car, his father could have been saved by a valve; but the man was alone, absolutely, and the blood fluttering in his heart couldn’t flow in the right direction. So he lay there in his own backyard, the hose in his hand, the water running and running in the half dark.

Sid no longer knows when Roxanne will be lying on his bed and when she won’t. She’s got her own life, she tells him, and suddenly she does: friends who call at midnight, business she won’t describe. One night she doesn’t come home at all, but the next morning she’s there, downstairs, hunched in the entryway, one eye swollen shut.
, she says.
Son of a bitch.
And he knows what’s happened. Even her cigarettes stolen. She forages for butts, checking the ashtray, the garbage. There aren’t many. She’s smoked them down to the filters almost every time, but she finds enough to get by while he runs to the store for a carton, for juice and bread, a jar of raspberry jam. He wants her to eat, but she won’t. She doesn’t give a shit about that. She doesn’t give a shit about him. One line leads to the next. He nods, he knows this. She says she loves whiskey more than she loves him—the park, the tracks, the ground more than a mattress on the floor. She says the bottle’s always there and sometimes he’s not and who the fuck does he think he is, Jesus? And he says no, he never saved anyone. And then she’s crying, beating his chest with her fists, falling limp against him, sobbing so hard he thinks her skinny body will break and he holds her until she stops and he carries her to the bed. He brings her orange juice, the jar of jam, ice in a rag for her swollen eye. She eats jam by the spoonful but no bread. He combs her tangled hair. He lays her down and she wants to make love but they don’t, he can’t, and he doesn’t go to work that day but he does the next and then she’s gone.

Days become weeks become winter, the one he imagined, the rain on the window. She’s here but not here. She’s left the smell of her hair on the pillow, her underpants twisted in the sheet at the foot of the bed, the butts of her cigarettes in the ashtray. He sees her everywhere. She’s the boy in the hooded sweatshirt huddled on the stoop, whispering
I got what you need
, trying to sell crack or his own thin body. She’s the bloated woman asleep on a bench in the park, the newspaper over her face coming apart in the rain. She’s the bearded man at Pike’s Market who pulls fishbones from the trash to eat the raw flesh. She’s the dark man cuffed and shoved into the cruiser. She turns to stare out the back window, blaming him. She’s the girl on Broadway with blond hair shaved to stubble. She’s fifteen. She wears fishnets under ripped jeans, black boots, a leather jacket with studded spikes along the shoulders. She smacks gum, smokes, says
Fuck you
when he looks too long. He wants to stop, wants to warn her of the risks, wants to say,
Just go home.
But she can’t, he knows; at least it’s strangers on the street, not someone you know.
And anyway, what about you?
she’d say. She’d drop her cigarette, grind it out. She’d whisper,
I saw Roxanne—she’s not doing too good, she’s sick—so don’t be giving me any shit about risk.

She’s the scarred man on the table with his twice-cleaved chest and gouged belly. When they open him, they’ll find things missing. She’s the woman without a name, another body from the river. He knows her. She rises, floating in the dirty water.

Dr. Juste says, “Shove her up there on the slab any way you can.”

This one’s fat. That’s the first thing Sid notices. Later there will be other things: the downy hair on her cheeks, the long black hairs sprouting from her blotched legs, the unbelievable white expanse of her breasts. And she’s dead, of course, like the others.

But she’s not exactly like them, not dead so long, not so cold or stiff. He’d thought he could no longer be surprised, but she surprises him, Gloria Luby, the fattest dead person he has ever seen.

She weighs three hundred and twenty-six pounds. That gives her eighty-three on Sid and the gravity of death.

Dr. Juste turns at the door. He’s lean and hard, not too tall, bald; he has a white beard, the impatience of a thin man. He says, “You’ll have to roll this one.” He says, “She won’t mind.”

Now they’re alone, Gloria and Sid. She was a person a few hours ago, until the intern blasted her eyes with light and the pupils stayed frozen. Sid can’t grasp it, the transformation. If she was a person in the room upstairs, she’s a person still. He imagines her alive in her bed, a mountain of a woman in white, her frizz of red hair matted and wild, no one to comb it. Blind, unblinking as a queen, she sat while the interns clustered around her and the head resident told them about her body and its defeats, the ravages of alcohol and the side effects of untreated diabetes: her engorged cirrhotic liver, the extreme edema of her abdomen, fluid accumulating from her liver disease, which accounted for her pain—were they listening to her moan?—which put pressure on her lungs till she could barely breathe—did they see her writhing under the sheets? it was the gastrointestinal bleeding that couldn’t be stopped, even after the fluid was drained from the belly.

She pissed people off, getting fatter every day, filling with fluids and gases, seventeen days in all. If she’d lived two more, they would have taken her legs, which Dr. Juste says would have been a waste because it wouldn’t have saved her but might have prolonged this. Sid wanted to ask what he meant, exactly, when he said

She’s valuable now, at last: she’s given herself up, her body in exchange for care. In an hour, Dr. Juste will begin his demonstration and Gloria Luby will be exposed, her massive mistakes revealed.

Sid thinks they owe her something, a lift instead of a shove, some trace of respect. He won’t prod. He isn’t going to call another orderly for help, isn’t going to subject Gloria Luby to one more joke.
How many men does it take to change a lightbulb for a fat lady?

Later, he may think it isn’t so important. Later, he may realize no one was watching, not even Gloria Luby. But just now this is his only duty: clear, specific. It presented itself.

None, she has to turn herself on.
He knew what Juste would say when the interns gathered:
Shall we cut or blast?

A first-timer might be sick behind his mask when they opened her abdomen and the pools of toxins began to drain into the grooves of the metal table, when the whole room filled with the smell of Gloria Luby’s failures. But everyone would keep laughing, making cracks about women big enough for a man to live inside. He knew how scared they’d be, really, looking at her, the vastness of her opened body, because she
big enough for a man to crawl inside, like a cow, like a cave. Hollowed out, she could hide him forever. Some of them might think of this later, might dream themselves into the soft swamp of her body, might feel themselves waking in the warm, sweet, rotten smell of it, in the dark, in the slick, glistening fat with the loose bowels tangled around them. They might hear the jokes and wish to speak. Why didn’t anyone notice? There’s a man inside this woman, and he’s alive. But he can’t speak—she can’t speak—the face is peeled back, the skull empty, and now the cap of bone is being plastered back in place, and now the skin is being stitched shut. The autopsy is over—she’s closed, she’s done—and he’s still in there, with her, in another country, with the smell of shit and blood that’s never going to go away, and he’s not himself at all, he’s her, he’s Gloria Luby—bloated, full of gas, fat and white and dead forever.

It could happen to anyone. Anytime. Sid thinks, The body you hate might be your own; your worst fear might close around you, might be stitched tight by quick, clever hands. You might find yourself on this table. You might find yourself sprawled on a road or submerged in a swamp; you might find yourself in a bed upstairs, your red hair blazing, your useless legs swelling. Shadows come and go and speak, describing the deterioration of your retinas, the inefficiency of your kidneys, the necessity of amputation due to decreasing circulation in the lower extremities.
Your legs. They mean your legs. You might find yourself facedown in your own sweet backyard, the hose still in your hand.

He doesn’t think about God or ask himself what he believes—he knows: he believes in her, in Gloria Luby, in the three-hundred-and-twenty-six-pound fact of her body. He is the last person alive who will touch her with tenderness.

BOOK: In This Light
5.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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