I’m writing you a letter. An exercise, an assignment. I must have read about this in a heal-yourself book. Or it’s like something I would have done in middle school: Write a letter to your favorite historical figure. Invite them to dinner! Tell this person why you admire him/her. Tell him/her about the lasting contributions he or she has made. Dear Eleanor Roosevelt, You seem really funny. You have a good smile. I like how your teeth look. I would like to tap on them. Or something like, Pretend You are a Hamburger: tell us about your journey through the Digestion Process! Tell us about what happens to you as you are broken down and absorbed. I was always good at these assignments, the teacher writing, How creative! What an imagination you have! Dear Yellow. Or this is maybe something a therapist would have me do. She’d sit across from me in a mud-colored office, a Navajo rug on the floor, river-smooth stones and dry yellow grasses placed here and there, she’d be sitting Indian-style, her shoes off, her socks thick and clean and comfortable, and she’d smile at me and say, “You can write anything you want. There are no restrictions, no rules. Explore. See what you find out.” A way of naming you, imagining you, understanding you better. I want to ask you questions. How did I look? What did you see? Did you arrive suddenly, by chance, like a car accident, or had you been waiting and plotting, lurking for months, for nine years?
This is what I think of as the night we met, your grand entrance, now almost a month ago, although you may have been there before. It seems important to tell, these are the stories people have. I was with Gretchen; she was wearing a turquoise dress and drinking Southern Comfort and Coke. We were at a bar, a place I hadn’t been before, it was somewhat Irish and somewhat sportsy and somewhat divey. It was just a place anybody could go. It was a place that could be familiar to anyone, and you could never see it again without missing it. It had a bar that looked cared for, the wood smooth, honey-colored and shining with varnish, and Gretchen and I sat up there on stools. I hadn’t gone out with Gretchen before. She was radiant in her blue dress, her skin pale and freckled. She told me she was once fat. She leaned in close, I could smell drug store lotion on her neck, Jergens, and she said, “Guess what? You don’t know this, but when I was little, I was a tub of lard.” She said tubalard, one beautiful, bouncy word, a good word for lips, full of shame and affection. I looked her over, looked at her legs straddling the bar stool, looked at all her curves–calves, hips, cheekbones–at her hair in a high fountain of a ponytail, and I could actually see it: she moved her hands like a fat girl, her fingers stubby and busy, clutching things, her drink, my pack of cigarettes, a wadded napkin. She was touching her mouth too much, hiding it and checking it and remembering it. I shrugged. I was supposed to tell her a secret in exchange, even a lie, but I didn’t.
This was when I was still working at the daycare, Wee Tots, with Gretchen. The smell of pee and apple juice was always on me; it was in all my clothes, a fermenting, circussy smell. I’m filling you in: My Past. The time before. Now I get to look at it, back there. Rita ran the place. She kept all the Arts & Crafts supplies locked away so we’d never run out of quality crayons and markers. Instead, on the way to work I had to stop at Price Chopper and buy 99 cent bags of dry beans and boxes of macaroni and make the kids glue them on paper, or count them, or make patterns, or put the macaroni on string, anything I could think of to do with dry beans and different macaroni shapes. Today we are making soup! I’d announce, beaming, and then I’d have little bowl-shapes cut out of paper, and the kids would glue in what the recipe called for: 5 beans, 3 macaronis. Rita would wander out of her office in the afternoon and look at all the colored paper, covered in beans and glue, drying, and she’d touch the beans lightly, mumbling, “Very creative, the children are encouraged,” and then wander back to her office. Rita was always tired, and terrible, mundane accidents were always happening to her, a fall in the parking garage, or burns from exploding potatoes. She’d often arrive bandaged or freshly bleeding, holding a Kleenex to some part of her face, letting it fill with blood.
When it wasn’t Craft Time or Circle Time or Snack Time or Nap Time, Gretchen and I would sit in the sandbox and watch for somebody not sharing trucks or throwing sand or trying to unhinge the gate, and we’d talk, Gretchen squatting across from me, poking at the sand with a plastic shovel. She told me how bananas were the perfect fruit, because they came wrapped up like a present, neat and tidy, and that she wanted to become a wigmaker–you could make a lot of money, like $200.00 a wig, you could make people look famous–and how one time she was sleeping with her landlord and got a rent reduction, and how she had a past life regression and found out she was once a very brave Civil War soldier who died in a burning barn with the horses screaming. I never told her much.
That night at the bar we started out talking about work, babbling. This kid Alex can’t stop biting, and Mike C. won’t use the potty. The parents want the kids to learn how to draw trees and rain, and they mean rain that looks like rain, fat, blue droplets, not just scribbling, anyone can scribble. Lizzie likes to peek down Gretchen’s shirt and yell, “Boobies!” There have been some missing shoes at the end of the day, and the parents won’t put up with it any longer, those little shoes are expensive. Sierra’s mom might be a hooker. And poor little unhealthy Megan only has junk food in her lunch box. “Pure junk,” Gretchen called it. “Twinkies,” she said. “I look in there and she’s got Twinkies and this cup of Jell-O on the same day. I wouldn’t let her eat the Jell-O. I took it away. You should’ve heard her screaming.” Oh, but it’s a fun job, we agreed, it’s creative, it’s better than retail, you can try new things, and they are cute, their hands cupped to your shoulder or thigh, the soft rounded warmth of their heads, their tiny toes in rows. I kept smelling my shirt cuffs, apple juice, pee, apple juice, pee, it was becoming an odd comfort.
Gretchen smoked one of my cigarettes, but not like a smoker, the cigarette bobbing and bouncing between her lips like a toy, puffing too much, her Vienna sausage fingers clutching the cigarette in one hand and her drink in the other. That’s when the bartender came over, this scrawny guy, he cocked his chin and gave Gretchen this twinkle-to-the-eyes look and said, “So how come I never saw you light up my bar before?”
It’s amazing, I know, that people are willing to say things like that, but they are. Gretchen blinked at him, bit her bottom lip, and shifted her breasts around so that they were suddenly bouncing up to the bar like two tempting loaves. She said, “Because I was never here before.”
“And where have you been, if you haven’t been here?” he asked.
Gretchen started giggling and rolling her shoulders, looking over at me as though I might supply the answer. The bartender nodded at me and said, “Who’s your friend?”
“That’s Karen,” Gretchen said. “Hey Karen, meet the bartender.”
“Danny,” he said, but to her, not to me.
I took up some time staring at myself in the mirror over the bar, my face between some bottlenecks. I inspected: nice eyebrows, expressive shape, fine eyes, green, clear, but the rest, too thin, and my ravaged skin. I picked at my face for years, leaving pits and scars. It was like a pastime. I had rituals and methods, performances at the sink with steaming face cloths and ice, with home-made avocado and oatmeal masks, with scrubs studded with broken shells, with stinging tonics, with tiny metal wands for pressing each pore clear, with alcohol and cotton balls. Nothing ever worked. I think my skin made the Wee Tots parents suspicious of me, it was like the mark of a child molester, it was a record of an unwholesome past, or even, a past. I once read a book that said, Acne = Unresolved Anger. The anger stored inside takes on a form, bubbles up and demands territory, recognition. Sickness as a kind of honesty, an admittance. Gretchen looked like a giant toddler, unmarred and gleeful, and she dressed to look that way, in her tennis shoes and jumper-dresses. She looked milky and fun, ready to romp in the hills, grow vegetables from nothing. The children clamored for her, the parents cooed.
I think of you as being drawn to me, not coming from within, but from outside, scanning the room, choosing, then latching on, entering.
Every time Danny had customers, Gretchen was all over me. “Hey,” she said, “he is so cute.”
“He likes you,” I told her.
“I like him,” she said. “This is fun.”
Danny kept doing these little jigs back down the bar to us, between customers. “Done yet?” he asked Gretchen. He bobbed his chin and looked up at no one in particular and announced, “This girl’s a real drinker.” Then he took the glass out of Gretchen’s hand, careful and slow and ceremonious. “This one’s on me,” he said. He made her another drink without taking his eyes off her and put it on the bar and watched her take a sip like it meant something, like she was trying something on. Then he said, “Did anyone ever tell you how blue your eyes are?”
“I don’t know,” Gretchen said. She put down her drink and wiped her bottom lip with her thumb, back and forth a couple times.
“Well, they’re pretty blue,” he said.
I didn’t leave. I didn’t want to see the way my feet would look on the sidewalk in these cheap biker boots I had on that looked corrective, like I had some kind of degenerative shin-twisting disease and the boots allowed me to walk with minimal pain. I made some plans: drink plain hot water every morning from a white mug, visualizing the warm, clear water running through me, washing my organs clean. Eat only cabbage and yogurt for seven days to cleanse my adrenal glands of twenty-four years of excess cheese build-up. Brush my hair more carefully, one hundred strokes with a boar-bristle brush, condition with something called Rainwater Rinse. Clean the bathroom with only one Q-tip dipped in bleach, as an exercise. Maybe film myself doing it. I wasn’t planning on you, I didn’t will you, I was still thinking self-improvement, cleansing, stripping. Emptying.
“Tour of my bar?” I heard Danny say, and I turned to see Gretchen pop off her stool and pass through a section of the bar that Danny was raising for her.
“Hey wow, I’m on the other side,” Gretchen said, and she waved at me as though she was far away, as though she’d boarded a ship.
“You like it over here,” Danny said. He cupped his hands to her shoulders, and I was thinking he was about to swing her around or kiss her neck, but instead he just stood there staring down at her head. “I’ll show you my downstairs,” he said. “I bet you didn’t know I have a downstairs.”
“A downstairs?” said Gretchen, in that same thrilled-about-everything voice we used for the toddlers. Although I will say, it does get so you can’t speak any other way. Danny directed her forward, his hands still on her shoulders, like they were playing choo-choo train, and then he stopped her at the end of the bar and squatted at her feet and lifted open two doors in the floor. I leaned over the bar to see Gretchen lowering herself feet first into empty space. I imagined the musty cool darkness at her ankles and I started thinking of headlines and crime scenes, Girl Last Seen Descending into Bar Cellar, a stained mattress in the corner behind some kegs, blood and dust, a bright scrap of Gretchen’s dress.
I lit a cigarette and started coughing, but I kept smoking it anyway. An old woman wrapped in a purple scarf glared at me, shook her head and said, “You go ahead and keep it up, honey. You’ll die.”
I shrugged, smiled like maybe she meant it sweetly.
Then this guy moved down a couple stools and hoisted himself up next to me. “That your friend?” he asked me, nodding at the floor.
I gave him a look with my eyeballs flat and hard and said, “We work together.”
He looked me over and tilted his face and said, “You got a cold?”
“Yeah,” I told him, “I have a cold,” even though it hadn’t occurred to me before. It made sense; the minute he said it, it was true.
“You know what you need,” he said, “what you need is a Hot Toddy.”
“I need to get out of here,” I told him.
“Well,” he said, “I think you better have a Hot Toddy first.” He whistled for Danny, and Danny’s head popped up out of the floor, smiling and flushed.
“Hot Toddy for this sick one,” said the guy.
Danny nodded and pulled himself up. “That’ll be good for you,” Danny said. “That’s a nice old remedy.”
Danny brought me my Hot Toddy, swirling amber liquid in a clear glass, a floating lemon slice studded with cloves, and then he disappeared again down into the floor.
Sometime soon, I thought, I will have to sit in the sandbox and hear the details of Danny’s penis, how it was so white like marble and surprisingly smooth, with some odd freckle, and what the secret basement looked like, how he had a pretty tapestry on the mattress.
This other guy told me, drink that and you’ll wake up cleared right out. He said it’d rip all my junk right out of me. I sipped it, little nips that cut down my throat and burned at my eyes and nose. “You feel it?” the guy asked. “You feel that, don’t you?” He elbowed me.
The scarfed crone leaned over the bar and filled her own glass. She winked at me. I thought, I’ll finish this drink, and that’s Gretchen’s time limit. The Hot Toddy guy shifted in close enough for me to smell his coat and his skin and his breath, a winter smell, wool and cherries, canned soup, radiators. I suppose he and the woman were like messengers, or maybe they just recognized you, or me, a fellow citizen. The guy told me how some state college had once screwed him over, and how he knew Russian literature, he lived it, and how in his opinion Chekhov was actually a snob, but no one was willing to admit it.
I scootched off my stool and went to find the bathroom. Nearby, there was a back exit, the door was propped open, there were some metal steps into a back alley, and next to the door there was a counter with a loaf of bread and a knife and two bottles of ketchup, and there was some coffee brewing. I saw that it was raining, lightly, and I smelled the metal steps outside in the rain, the wet grates, mixing with the smell of the coffee. I stood for a few minutes breathing, filling my lungs with cold, wet air, looking at the open door, thinking, just from looking at the wet grates and the pot of coffee and the bread, that I didn’t mind going out, that I didn’t mind being part of the world. Now I have to think, this was your moment, the moment you really took hold. Like in old westerns, or Victorian times, or even a tragic 80’s movie, a brown-haired woman at her most radiant on the cusp of sickness, TB or Syphilis or cancer, glowing and flushed, full of energy for her new disease.
When I got back, Gretchen’s head had risen up out of the floor and she was squinting into the light, like an albino mole. “You’re here!” she squealed when she saw me.
“Can we go?” I said. “I’m tired. I might be getting sick.”
Gretchen stuck her face back into the cellar and called down, “Danny, I have to go.” She mixed a pinch of agony with her usual sing-songyness.
“Have to go?” his voice floated up. “Will you come back and visit me Sunday? I want to give you jewelry,” he said, like he wasn’t talking up through a hole in the floor, like he was right there cheek to cheek with her. “Gems. Lapis lazuli,” he said. “That’s the one for you. I can get a deal.”
“Sunday,” she called out. Then she said, “I love jewelry.”
All night, I skimmed the surface of sleep. You were settling in, taking form in my dreams: shards of glass that stuck in my throat, my fingernails, long, manicured, white and sharp reaching down along my pink gullet to remove the green glass piece by piece, lifting, sliding, later, cat fur that lined my tongue, filled the corners of my teeth. I woke up damp, rattling with junk. I spit a lump of phlegm as big as a baby bird into the sink. Yes, you had been there maybe weeks, breathing patiently, building strength, waiting for your moment. In the morning I pulled on a flannel shirt and walked to the store and bought Vicks VapoRub and a giant bottle of ginger ale and a can of chicken soup for the afternoon, and orange sherbet, like preparing for a guest. Then I stood in front of the quiet mirror bare-chested and rubbed Vicks across my chest, along my throat, my long fingers passing over me as though they were someone else’s.
I felt comfortable. Back somewhere, closed in. I set myself up on the couch. I remembered when I was little and I had a cold, how my mother would leave me with a camphor-soaked wool sock tied around my neck and a stack of Nancy Drew books next to my bed. I loved listening to her leave, the slam of the front door and then the far away sound of her car backing out of the driveway, the stillness of the house afterward, the light across the bed, the day going by, how it was a secret somehow that I wasn’t in it. I’d read through whole books: Nancy and her friends, the invitation to a lakeside bungalow or a ski lodge in the mountains, her father behind his desk giving permission, the housekeeper with her concerns. There was always a mysterious chest or door, a letter or a locket or a key, and Nancy in a candy-colored dress, kneeling at the foot of a gnarled oak, or peering into a dark corner. The footsteps behind her, the creak of stairs, the snap of a twig, the fear was familiar, it was almost plodding, the way you felt it coming for pages and pages, the way the dull mystery crept along beside every detail of Nancy’s life, what she ate, cold chicken, lemonade and pecan pie, the sensible clothing folded neatly in her suitcase.
That first day, I watched an old John Travolta movie, John young and thin, swiveling his hips in bars and parking lots and trailers, and I fed myself well. Then, during the week the movie was on again and again, every time I opened my eyes. I couldn’t understand how time was working. Those hips! Again and again, swiveling, swiveling; he hadn’t forgotten them, down below the bulk of his body, even now, those were the hips he moved. I slept sometimes with the sound off, the light flashing over my skin. I kept slicking myself in Vicks, morning and night at the mirror. I smoked one cigarette a day. I ate soup and sherbet. The rattle of the Tylenol bottle was always nearby. I called in sick. Rita murmured, “Yes, you will infect the children.” The phone smelled like bologna.
Gretchen and the toddlers sent me a package of macaroni and bean-encrusted hearts. I tended to you as a cold, although I felt you going deeper, something more inside of my bones, and in every joint, something that could go everywhere, that had nestled into even my inconsequential parts: hair follicles, armpits, ankles.
One afternoon I sat up, smoothed the afghan over my legs, and arranged my hands on top of the blanket like someone in a fairy tale. I wanted to make a decision, to know where this was going, and I had to see you. My mouth was rinsed in salt. I concentrated, trying to picture you like a monster, a toothy beast, a body that could be weakened, a sniveling, snotty form to kick and kick. I thought about getting out weapons, like they say to, and bombing you, seeing you blown to smithereens, or writhing and shrinking, pale, naked, bent, full of arrows. Or as some cowering, hairless dog, starving. I pressed my hand against my chest. I could drown you in a puddle. Hang you in a bag and beat you. Abort you in a bathroom stall at the airport. My room was gray and very still, the TV finally off, the quiet resting on the old carpet, against the white windowsill, the chipped paint. There would be rent due; there was mail to open. My clothes were dirty. I rubbed my jaw like an old woman, smiling, watching patiently until eventually your form came to me clearly: not any beast, but a yellow river, a yellow Midwestern river, swollen, your banks full of saplings and shopping carts and empty refrigerators and iron, tumbling forward, full, running swiftly.
Sage Marsters‘ short stories have appeared in Green Mountains Review, Rosebud, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fugue. She has also been awarded a Pushcart Prize.