Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4
Abstract

"Two" is a short tale about a big story, a creative answer to the well-worn question, "What happened to you?" It is also a poetic meditation on duplicity, loss, and discovery — discovery that one has a body just as it begins to disappear.

Once there were two, always together. Where one went, the other followed. Like twins, so alike one could hardly tell them apart. They usually dressed in the same clothes. Once there were two, lock step — day in, day out. When flirting they might cross, one poised on top, the other squashed below, feet tangled — no longer clear who was who. A toe of one probed flesh of the other; one pointed starboard, the other curled behind. Pause, wiggle, pins and needles, unfurl, repeat.

They would climb mountains sometimes. Here's how: one knee would bend, pull forward, a foot thud barely heard on dry powder, dust billows up sending a signal, calling her sister. Dirt clinging to skin dappled with freckles, blushing in the sun with a pink not unlike the pink on a little girl's tutu. One thigh leads, beckons, and holds, enduring the weight of herself and her sister and everything above — everything that held them together, the one who controlled what they did and yet seemed so unaware of what made it all possible.

("All" being to move, ambulate, loco mote. "Loco being not "crazy" but motion from a place, from here to there, from A to B.) So confident were the sisters in each other, they rarely paused. First one, then the other. Right-left-right-left-right: striding in rhythm, and every once in a while, just for fun, a hop.

This is a story about legs.

As one leads, the other follows. Foot arching, weight shifting: forward to toe, briefly suspended. Glutes — long strands of fiber — stretch and contract. The one lands, as did her sister. Then the thigh, like a soloist rising isolated from a sea of sound, contracts, lifts, beckons, assumes the weight of everything.

In the thigh are quads. Quads come in fours: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius. The vastuses are "vast", you see. But they are also delicate, nestled on top of each other as pedals on an unfurled bud. In the center, hidden below like a stamen is the femur. (Fer: to carry, bear, bring. Faci: a sheet of fibrous tissue.) Slip and slide. Slip and slide. Bone and muscle, flesh and blood: viscous.

Sisters. Twins. Two — always together, yet apart from the rest. Who controlled them? The one who hardly ever gave them a thought. So separate, remote, were they from she who had become lately more and more absorbed in crossing and unfurling ideas and words — long words like "hegemony," "transculturation," "instantiation," "sublimation," "dissociation." Her tongue slinging "tions" and "isms" and "ists," twirling them like revolvers in a duel — she of the cerebral cortex who had forgotten she had a body nestled below the folds her thoughts like a stamen.

This is a story about the first person, the divided self, pronouns separated from antecedents.

Hardly slept did she, ignored her bladder, ate erratically, drank too much. She recognized below the neck momentarily in sex, but daily it was mostly through her fingers that rattled across a keyboard, her body's expressiveness circumscribed by a plastic box. She was given to a tactile pecking that transformed her ideas into matter in a robotic process, a repetitive motion that hours on end produced pain and a posture of defeat.

One day — a day when nobody was looking, and for reasons even less understood — one so small it could only be seen through a microscope divided, and became two, and two became four, and four became eight, and eight became sixteen, and sixteen became thirty-two, and on and on and on it went like that, reproducing, replicating, dividing, colonizing as living things are want to do. It's done, you know, all the time in life, and it's not necessarily bad — replicating, making new life.

But this one forgot to stop. And that was the beginning of the end. Such a force gestating in a body means death.

(Pleomorphic: "many formed" and "protean," from the Greek god Proteus, prophetic old man of the sea, son of Poseidon.) A pleomorphic mass was hidden in the delicate bundle of vasts — the quadriceps, who in their vastness (vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius) harbored the insidious protean form that reproduced endlessly. Type A cells that never observed a weekend, or a holiday, so incessant were they in their productivity. They do email 24/7.

This was a neoplasm, "new growth."

Time became mass, and mass became massive, and things got very, very crowded — hypertrophied, in fact. A swelling capable of assuming different forms sent tentacles out, invading, investigating, claiming, consuming, colonizing. Who knew Proteus was so malignant?

How did she find out, you might ask, the one on high who had forgotten she had a body?

One day she was asked to get in a tube, and it was that day she remembered she had a body. She remembered she was alive, and that this thing we do called life, like cloud of dust, can suddenly dissipate, leaving one entirely exposed, as she was at that time, exposed in a tube of magnetic resonance imaging.

She found out by looking backwards through glasses — not rose colored glasses, but glasses with mirrors that allowed her to look behind while looking forward. She was in a tube, you see, like a tomb, a cocoon. But ever since she left her mother's womb she did not like small spaces. She was asked to climb into a magnetic womb so powerful that anything metallic would fly through the room to cling to it. But she was not metal; she did not cling to it.

They slid her inside, like a drawer in a cabinet, a knife in a sheath, a pea in a pod, hand in glove, cadaver in crypt. She convulsed with a need to flee, fingers white on plastic. As she pulled and clawed and clenched, the tube consumed her, dividing head from body at the mason dixon line of her neck. But all she could see was a blank whiteness and a tiny speaker, a circle of dots no bigger than the mouth of a choir boy singing "o."

It was cold like a morgue. It smelled of nothing. It reeked of death. She was not OK with this. What she knew in her throat, in her heart heaving, was that this tube was eating her alive.

"I need to come out," she said. That's when they gave her glasses and a pill — a pill to slow her heart, glasses to extend her vision, to give her perspective, to help her think outside the box, outside the tube, as it were, even while inside the tube (where they sent her once again, like a roast in an oven, she who's heart now slowed, she who looked behind through reflective lenses from inside to outside, from the horizontal to vertical, from patient to doctor, from sick to well) she heard the words: "Everything will be OK. Be calm. Just relax!"

But what they didn't know was that through the smoke and mirrors she could see them in their glass booth, glowing screens, faces blue. And they were not calm. They pointed and talked. They looked at each other. They looked back at the screen. They looked at her: head, glasses, mirrors, the one with no body. They picked up the phone. They looked at the screen. They pointed. They bowed their heads. Lips moved, no sound, as she lay nestled, stamen-like, inside. Their mouths opened and closed in silence, like guppies.

It was then that she knew she had a body, and it had mysteries, and betrayals — it of her and she of it. This is a story of betrayal.

She had stopped having a body gradually over time. When she was five, for instance, the two who were always together, the twins who loved to hike also loved to dance. They bent, they leapt, they swayed, they trailed and pulsed to the sounds of the Tijuana brass in the basement of her house where the family gathered in the evening, sound and coolness blasting against the wet July heat. Father and daughter, moving together as rhythms swept them away, the twins and the one above who at that time were all one in the arms of her father. He was warm, head back, eyes wide, face taught with joy, bending, leaping, swaying, trailing, their cheeks red, necks moist as lungs heaved a pulse of love and delight like the Christmas trip to the Nutcracker after which she and her sibling would jump off the couch in pink leotards, the plastic record player spinning a 45 of Tchaikovsky's greatest skipping as they landed on the floor, the two always together — left-right-left-right, inseparable together with the one above… (At that time shared they all shared one pronoun.)

She — head, throat, elbows, spine, thigh, ankle, and toe — loved to dance, and so she took a class: a room full of mirrors, and a gaggle of girls five years old who had studied ballet for six. In those mirrors, she saw herself from all sides for the first time. Copper hair clashed with pink tights; hips wide, stomach protruding, freckles punctuating a face stricken with panic. First position, À la seconde, plié, rond de jambe, relevé — steps recited at an impossible rate, traversing the room desperately leaping, a pathetic grand jeté, tripping, belly jiggling as perfect little girls giggled and jeered. That was the beginning of the end of her dancing.

The divorce of head from toe was gradual, with little cleavages and infidelities along the way so that it is hard to know now precisely when the separation was finalized. But surely bathing suits were part of it. The heat of fashion offering microscopic bits of fabric stretching to contain abundance and flesh that crisped in the sun despite all attempts to keep up with the other girls who sprayed on baby oil and water as they baked on Midwestern lawns heavily fertilized. The air still, a wall of heat, serenaded by the insistent trill of cicadas, sun penetrating so deep through skin without melanin that layers peeled off like tissue paper, aching at first, itching later, each movement noticed by nerves the sun's rays had abused — all in a desperate attempt to keep up with the brown Debbie's and Amy's who in their mellowing tans claimed a future of uncertain wonders that one needed a particular body to possess.

Over time, she of the books stayed in worlds that opened to her readily, leaving behind pubescent breasts, child-bearing thighs, buttocks worthy of an African woman, belly pressing at a button down waistline, levitating above bell bottoms that were all the rage on others but to her were a misfortune. The body became a vehicle for locomotion, nourishment, repose. It was not, hardly ever a place of expression, exploration, or joy, as was her mind.

But then came the tube, where everything changed. After that, head looked at toes, all ten of them, peeking out of white folds of a sheet; white curtains surrounding the table, white-coated people swirling in and out, poking, measuring, noting, writing, walking; white toes poking up, nails painted red in a last flourish of indulgence. She sat on the table, no food or water since midnight. Ten toes wiggled, flinched, and fluttered with memories of dust, and heat, and lifting, spinning, twirling, curling, sweating, digging into thighs, recoiling from a tickle, heal to toe, heal to toe, relevé, grande jeté, baby oil. Her husband bent over the table and kissed her foot goodbye.

And that was a terminal separation: a disarticulation.

What happened next was a new world: dots on white panels overhead, a rectangle of fluorescence, eyes closed, searching north to south and south to north, scanning for signals, information, records, messages, a second birth, a new body now profoundly asymmetrical, born skewered with tubes and lights, bells and whistles, pain blanketed in morphine telling the whole body, "Shhhhhhhhhh."

The first time she sat up the world turned, so light was she that head and torso floated like a helium balloon. She tipped over. Blackness crept into her vision, the room telescoped to a distant spot in her field of vision. A woman sitting in front of her gently coached, holding, steadying a trickle of water down her cheek that opened her vision once more. The room widened and everything came nearer as the woman lifted her torso again upright. She moved from horizontal to vertical, from sick to well. She sat on the edge of the bed and took an inventory. Looking down at a lap no longer there, or no longer what it had been; one foot alone in the world, missing her sister, her constant companion, came down to the floor, linoleum shockingly raw and cold. She sat, connecting mind to foot, foot to mind, looking down, looking ahead at her guide. What a strange job this woman has, to help grown persons sit up, to witness the newly maimed, to celebrate as the day's accomplishment simply resting on the edge of the bed.

The woman, a PT, a therapist of the physique, returned an hour later, and we repeated our duet, from horizontal to vertical. My torso now anchored by muscles insisting on gravity, eyesight not eclipsed but focused ahead on my companion, my assistant, and then down on my one leg, now orphaned, mourning her sister yet eager to test her autonomy. The woman gripped the white belt around my waist, and beckoned, her arms reaching around me in an embrace as I leaned forward on the bed — foot pushing into linoleum, toes grasping outwards to command as much space as they could. I leaned into her as thigh engaged, pulled forward, then pushed up, extending, lifting all that was above — abdomen, sacrum, vertebrae stacking one on top of the other until the head arrived. But the body did not stop. Left ribs now unmoored continued upwards and a lightness refused gravity. Perhaps all rules were now changed. I remember sobbing in the arms of a stranger whose job it was to witness and assist in this, the most private moment of my life, as mind and body became reconciled in grief.

Once two; now one. Once ten; now five. Constant companions before; now one stands alone. She stands, lies, and bends, and sits, but doesn't loco mote alone. She waits rather on the edge of the dance floor, her card awaiting signatures from new companions who are many: two sticks, for instance form with her a tripod. Together they poll vault. There is also a robotic companion who looks very much like her sister. When they go out together in the world they can pass as a woman with a limp or a bad hip.

Once there were two, always together. Where one went, the other followed, like twins, so alike one could hardly tell them apart. They usually dressed in the same clothes. Pause, wiggle, pins and needles, unfurl, repeat.

Now one (no one) standing alone, toes wiggling, center of gravity listing to the right, the weight of everything above unrelenting most of the time as she waits and waits and waits for her dance partners who are, alternately, metal, wood, cyborg, human, the feet of others — sometimes two, sometimes four, sometimes six — together forming a many-footed organism, a centipede, lifting, trailing, landing, springing, swirling in this post-biped world, dancing once more in my mid life crises of ambulation-post-amputation, articulation about my disarticulation, remembering my dismemberment, when I discovered that I had a body just when some of it disappeared I danced again: one foot in the grave, one foot in life. One.

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Copyright (c) 2008 Catherine Cole



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