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It's amazing how many strands go into one hook in a carpet. Lily counts fifty-seven grey fibers and moves on to the next hook. She has already counted the holes in the ceiling: nine white squares above her with one hundred and ninety-two holes, give or take a few--because sometimes, she found, one hole in one square bleeds into a hole in the next square. Eight ceiling squares the width of the room, fourteen squares the length. She swallows the lump in her throat, shifts uncomfortably in the metal folding chair, and begins to count the feet of the other women.
It is deadly quiet but for the low drone of the counselor in the corner; such a change from the previous area where the men are, where Jake would be waiting if he weren't so busy at work, she thinks. She smells the faint aroma of disinfectant but notices the pine doesn't cover the deeper musty odor of something old and unused. The smell is the color grey, like the walls; not a crisp starched grey or even a warm charcoal, but, she realizes, the color Mom was after the heart attack.
The dizziness that has become familiar to her over the last few weeks washes over her again; a feeling, she imagines, akin to falling through space. She grabs the small medallion of the Virgin Mary that hangs from a thin gold chain around her neck, fingering the raised cameo and delicately ribbed edge. She is always comforted by the contours of the Virgin's silhouette, so peaceful under her thumb. It reminds her of summer evenings on the farm when she was a girl, when the smell of fresh grass and of Mother's prized daphne bush would drift up the porch and in through the screen door. The sweetness would waft in incandescent sheets around the family seated at the dinner table; the scent clinging gently to Mother's skirt as they finished a batch of cookies, the coffee percolating in the corner, while Father helped her two brothers with their homework. There is nothing quite so magical as those years to her--when the family was still together, and the future looked like one endless parade of those warm nights.
The pads of her fingers know every millimeter of the medallion, recognize the hills and valleys of Mary's chipped robin's-egg-blue robe. Fading though the gift may be, it is still as precious to her as the day that she received it. Her mother had given it to her for her Confirmation, as her mother had given it to her, and as she imagined she would one day hand it down to her own daughter. It is one of the few things she has left that belonged to her mother. She rarely takes it off.
She sticks a finger in her mouth and begins chewing. Finding no nail left, she bites her cuticles. She wonders if this counts as eating; when Jake had called to make the appointment, the woman on the phone had told him no food, drink, or cigarettes for at least eight hours before. She'd cheated. She had half a cigarette on the way here, smoked until the nausea kicked in. Inhaling deeply, she resumes counting feet.
Shoes really tell you a lot about the person wearing them, she thinks. She counts mostly sneakers, a couple of pairs of loafers, and one hideous pair of blue suede platforms the like of which she hasn't seen for twenty-three years. Who let these come back into style?, she wonders. The 70's were a hideous decade; she thought so when she was a child. Now, a thirty-year-old woman, she believes it even more strongly. As far as she is concerned, some things are better left dead.
She looks down at her own feet and wonders what her shoes say about her. They are her favorites, a present from Jake for her birthday a couple of years back. Black leather cowboy boots, the gleaming pointed toe peeking out from beneath the faded cuff of her 501's. They are great for New York City, but she never takes them back home with her. Her father, a Montanan all his life, who has been wearing boots since he took his first step, would only tease her.
She misses her father, misses the farm. She hadn't realized how important it was to her to watch the change of seasons come over the land, how much continuity it gave her life. She even misses cranky Mrs. Delvecchio, her father's housekeeper, who, with the full force of her personality anchored behind nearly 300 pounds of dimpled flesh, would always prod Lily about Jake. When was he going to cut out all his tomfoolery and make an honest woman of her, give her a few babies to keep her busy? "It ain't right," she'd say, and with her requisite sigh so expletory that Lily was sure its boom traveled well into the next county, and could be heard over the sound of a tractor on which a farmer was sitting, she would end, "Well, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free."
Lily does not acknowledge her loss very often. New York is where the Stock Market is, where Jake's career and future are. Where Jake is. New York is where she must remain.
She does have the tree after all. Jake adopted it for her early last spring after a blowout over his refusal to move outside the City. He even helped her build a short picket fence to surround it, to help keep the dogs away. He painted it white and added a small red placard that says 'Mabel', written in green.
Lily now watches the seasons pass through Mabel.
For the first month, she spent at least an hour every day feeding and watering or just sitting on the stoop looking at Mabel. She likes to chart the scarred surface of Mabel's trunk, its gentle curve. It looks as if she is being pulled in opposite directions. Or frozen in some sort of ritual tree dance, saved for when the moon is full and the streets are quiet. A gyration to honor herself, digging her roots deep into the dirt like toes in sand, stretching her branches up and out to grasp at the sky, tickle the other trees, rearrange herself like a new hairstyle.
She remembers the weeks that she watched Mabel's tiny greenish-purple buds slowly open and flower. Mabel giving birth to herself.
She is shivering. It is February but she swears the air-conditioning is turned on. She also has to pee. She has been waiting three hours and has used the restroom nine times. That's three times an hour or once every twenty minutes, she notices. Now she has to go again. It's okay; the bathroom is only twenty-one steps away. She cautiously makes her way across the room and down the hall, careful to avoid eye contact with the others.
Enclosed behind the locked door she feels less conspicuous. She sits on the toilet, wraps her arms around her legs, watchful of her tender breasts, and rests her head on her knees. She counts the small black porcelain tiles on the floor, rocking slightly until someone knocks at the door. She quickly finishes, jumps up, and rushes to the sink to splash cold water on her face, noticing in the mirror how pale she looks, her red-rimmed eyes and auburn hair a sharp contrast to the white skin. The deep bruised circles under her eyes and high chiseled cheekbones give her a gaunt appearance under the shocking 100-watt bulb. A cadaver, she imagines herself. The Walking Dead counting twenty-one steps back to her chair.
She thinks of how, one warm Saturday afternoon in early May, on one of the rare days in New York where you can smell something other than carbon monoxide or urine, the scent of grass had drifted the two blocks from the park to their apartment. Kneeling on the sidewalk, weeding around the lush red peonies at Mabel's base, the buttery smell of the grass hit her nostrils, mixed with the rich odor of damp soil, and Lily remembered. The mystery of life, her mother once told her, is revealed in the kernel of even the tiniest seed.
She stands and follows.
Obediently, she changes into the thin cotton gown and slippers with the spongy bottoms. She is cold down to her bones, and a raw red rash has broken out on her palms, inflamed by her constant scratching.
This room is much smaller than the last, and only three other women are waiting. Two are chatting amicably, their motivation incomprehensible to her, and besides, it inhibits her ability to count. She closes her eyes instead and imagines that Jake is there holding her, stroking her hair back from her forehead the way she likes, and telling her that it will be all right, soon everything will be back to normal.
Jake is in her blood, as integral to her life as breathing. If it were possible, she would crawl inside his skin and meld sinew to sinew. She would kill to keep him.
She stands and follows.
Down the bright, sterile corridor she trails the nurse, willing her legs to move and counting each laborious breath. Everything is in slow motion as if underwater. Her vision ripples, and there is no smell, no sound except for the rapid beating of her heart in her ears. Time, standing still, rushes past her like a current that she cannot get hold of.
She climbs onto the paper-covered table, the cold metal of the stirrups burning into her heels. A frigid, oily sweat covers her body and drips down her forehead into her eyes. Her hands, like claws, dig into her thighs, and her breathing is shallow and rapid; she feels suffocated, she cannot get enough breath. She glances about, desperate to find a focal point, something to count, and finds nothing.
Hovering somewhere above her body and behind her head, she concentrates instead on reciting the alphabet, backward and forwards; then in Spanish. Over the crescendo in her own mind, she notes the motion in the room: the entrance of the doctor, whose cottony hair and portly stature remind her, oddly enough, of Santa Claus; the anesthesiologist setting up and going through the obligatory questions about her medical history.
She is jolted back into her body by the chilling stickiness of the lubricant covered transducer being moved slowly and methodically over her abdomen. She clutches at her necklace, and feels its coolness soothe her itchy palm. Convulsively, she hugs herself, and cradling the necklace within her fist, nestles it safely at the base of her throat.
"I'm sorry, but you're not allowed to wear any jewelry during the procedure," states the nurse. "Take it off, please. I'll see that it's waiting for you in the recovery room."
Lily reluctantly unhooks the clasp and holds Mary in the palm of her hand, the halo and tranquil smile shining up at her through the tarnish. She hands her over, and realizes for the first time that she is nearly naked and very much alone.
The nurse finishes her measurements, wipes Lily's stomach, and pulls the machine back towards the wall. It catches on the electrical cord and slowly swings its monitor around to confront her.
The small screen looms over Lily, screaming its reality. She is pinioned to the table, unable to avert her eyes. Nausea buffets her. She had imagined it would be black and white, like a snapshot, but there really isn't that kind of definition to it, she realizes; just varying shades of grey. Grey that gently shadows and veils. She finds herself tracing its lines, adding the definition, herself.
The fluorescent tube overhead seems to grow brighter, glaring as if it were mad, glaring like oncoming headlights that mark her presence and shift to meet her. She feels blinded. The light sears into her exposed flesh, leaving it raw and tingling. The smell of the crisp, fatty singeing of her body fills the air and gives a smoky quality to the rubbing alcohol that covers the surgical tools lying at her feet. She believes that this is just.
A dark tunnel rises up from the edges of the table to surround her and rushes her past images that dance on her periphery. All a blur, just bits and pieces, like an old home movie whose colors are at once faded and unnaturally intense, its film jerking crazily while rewinding from reel to reel. She makes out her mother's flame-red hair as it passes and she can feel its thick texture in her fingers, can smell the lemon of her shampoo now mixed with the tears on her own cheeks. Speeding through the tunnel, she counts the seconds of each minute of each hour that it takes her to move past each brick in the masonry.
The electric hum of the monitor thumps and pounds in her head. She stares back at the image, and it begins to swell, to undulate, to take on proportions of its own, until it eclipses her own face reflected on the screen. It looks like an interstellar cloud, she thinks. A swirl of grey particles, rotating in on itself, and collecting into a…what's it called? Well, anyway, some kind of hot, heavy mass at its center. A solar system in the making. Or maybe, a Black Hole. She feels pulled by its gravity and struggles to exert her own force against it. Don't they say that Black Holes may be doors to other dimensions? That if we could only find out how they worked, then we could transport ourselves to worlds we have only imagined? That we could transform ourselves through contact with life perhaps older and wiser?
The image stares back at her. It peeps brazenly through the reflection of her own left iris. What makes an interstellar cloud first begin to spin?, she wonders. Is it Fate, or God, or just an accident?
A proto-sun. That's it. There's a proto-sun at the center.
She and the image stare at one another. Lily is suddenly struck by the universe of possibilities beating within the compact inch of cells. A kernel of mystery, she thinks, as she breathes in the thick fragrance of daphne that has begun to permeate the room, so pungent that she swears she is sweating the essence out of her own pores.
Visceral knowledge floats like a bubble to the top of her blessedly still mind. This is mine, she thinks. It belongs to her even more than she belongs to Jake. She need only utter one word to stop this now. One word. One.
White knuckled hands clutching the sides of the table, her heart in her throat, she wrenches her eyes away from the monitor and back towards the ceiling just in time to see the thick grey plastic of the anesthesia mask lower onto her nose and mouth. The smell of daphne is lost in the halothane. From a muffled distance, she hears the anesthesiologist say, "Count backward from one hundred, please."
Okay. Count. I can do that.
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