And now for something near and dear to my heart, the first piece of fiction I’ve written in a long time that has meant more to me than a collection of plot points and images. The first thing I’ve ever written that I would say is “good” in some way.
I might submit it to Glimmertrain for their fiction contest. If I can get over the constant, nagging, horrendous self-doubt that threatens to topple my sanity and my sense of purpose in the world (More, oh much more on this later). Here goes:
I weighed myself after the surgery. The scale showed I’d lost half a pound, and I felt a split-second of Pavlovian glee left over from years of weight consciousness, followed by a wave of sorrow spilling over into wrongness and flooding into loss.
I googled: “How much does a human kidney weigh?” The first result said: “The kidney does not weigh very much. It weighs between one-third and one-fourth of a pound.” Poor kidney. Not heavy at all. Three weeks ago I had two, but they’d cut me open and scooped one out. But how to account for the rest of the weight I lost? Perhaps my body sent along some mourners for the deceased – a procession of blood, sugar, and sweat.
One quarter of a pound. I could have held it, cupped in my hand. Such a slight burden. I wanted to keep it. You know, after it was out, but Karen said that kind of thing isn’t really done. That doesn’t make any kind of sense to me. It was my kidney after all. I grew it, housed it in my body all these years; took it with me from place to place… If a thing as personal as a kidney doesn’t even belong to you, then what does?
“What could you possibly want with it?” She asked me.
“What could they possibly want with it?” I answered.
“It’s no good to you anymore.” She replied.
“It’s no good to anyone else.” I answered.
“They might want to study it. Biopsy the lump or whatnot.”
Karen. An answer for everything.
Lump. One of those words that sounds like what it is. A miniature hill, sloping out of the greater flesh of my organ, waiting, as the shadow of the scalpel descends.
I can see it now. A white, fluorescent room. Stainless steel tables. Lots of sinks. And my kidney lying in a petri dish. Absent of human context, a pinkish lump of flesh. The carcinoma visibly splayed on its upper right quadrant.
Carcinoma. Another word that sounds like what it is. The insidious hiss of the second C, hidden within a trio of broad, round vowels.
It would have slid its secret tendrils into my liver, my stomach, my lungs. Killing me.
But what do they do with it afterwards? Some sort of waste disposal system? My kidney, wrapped in plastic, dumped on top of dozens more? A mass burial, then, of the afflicted ones.
I run my fingers over the stitches on my flank and think about the empty space within. The light turned off. The untenanted room.
When Greg cleared the patch of thistle in our back yard last spring, I planted a flower garden. Watched the buds poke through the dark, damp earth; that small green hope more beautiful than the riot of summer. But I can plant no tulips or zinnias in the darkness of my interior.
My father once stepped barefoot on a piece of glass, cutting open his foot. The wound closed over. But two months later, he said, he felt something itching, pressing at a blister on the edge of his heel, and when he peeled it open, a blade of new grass pushed its way out of his body.
“Yes way. And when I pulled it out, a root this long came up after it.”
This he swore as we gawped, open-mouthed, at his thumb and forefinger held two inches apart. My mother smiled, listening in, but Karen quickly hid behind the new mask of scepticism she’d acquired at Middle School.
“What about photosynthesis? How did the chlorophyll consume Carbon dioxide and produce Oxygen from inside your foot without a source of light to power the process?”
“Well, I spent that whole summer swimming, face-down in the pool. Must have kept my heel exposed to the sun.”
“Mom! He’s lying.” When mom only smiled again, putting her arm around my father’s shoulder, Karen scowled and turned back to him. “Come on, dad. The chlorine would have killed it off.”
“We didn’t chlorinate pools in the 60s, we used salt water. In fact, the Hawaiians next door used to keep a school of tropical fish in theirs. But the neighbourhood tomcat eventually got to them.”
With this addition I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Visions of a young, tan Mrs. Kealoha in her polka-dot one-piece swimming with the fishes in her blue backyard pool flooded my mind. Such wonder tucked within the mundanity of our cul-de-sac.
“Really? Dad, really?”
“You bet your tootie, Little Miss Hootie.”
Tired of our father’s stories and my unbridled delight, Karen dismissed us, walking, stiff-necked and straight-backed into her room. She and her friends were practicing “model-walking” like a contestant on Star Search. Yet another activity her chubby sister was too dorky for. I retaliated by slouching, and referring to her as a zero-star contestant whenever possible. But if I got no reaction, it didn’t matter. I had my World, after all.
Mountain Home. I built it from the pieces of my father’s stories, the brothers Grimm, Patricia C. Wrede, L. Frank Baum, and stitched it together with the set pieces of any Disney movie I could get my hands on, it was my sanctuary, perfectly laid over the mundane features of my neighbourhood and school. Going there was as easy as opening a door, and I would get lost in it every chance I had.
Up until she was fourteen, I could still get Karen to come to Mountain Home if her friends weren’t around. With one of her feet planted firmly in reality and the other barely lingering in my world of ships lost at sea and enchanted swords that could sing the future, Karen made a capricious playmate at best. It got harder and harder to tether her there, and when mom got sick, she left altogether.
Overnight, it seemed, Karen started taking care of everything. She changed sheets, kept track of the medicine, booked appointments with the doctor, talked to insurance companies, bathed her, cooked, cleaned, got me to school, and dad off the recliner in the den after he’d fallen asleep on it again. She moved forward, always fighting, while dad and I receded. Him to his recliner, and me into my World.
After mom died, the last of the ties that bound us to each other slipped open. Left behind; the three of us drifted apart – each to our own realm.
Or rather, dad moved away from us by sitting still. He never really got out of his recliner in the darkened den. Physically, he moved, of course. To the store, to the unemployment office, but he’d found a corner to hide where the finality of my mother’s departure did not ring so hollow. I ran the opposite direction. Ready-built, my sanctuary extended wider than his twenty-foot square cube. There were underground tunnels that led from our back yard to the sea. There was an enchanted flower which would only bloom if you told it a secret. There was a winding staircase that spiralled ever downward even as I climbed it – at the end of my climb I would either be in China or face to face with a dragon who would show me the secrets to flight. There were no dead mothers. No sisters coming home from their part-time jobs stale and drawn, smelling like grease. No silent men, half stranger, half father.
I turned the mental distance between me and the remains of my family into physical distance after high school. Like an arrow, I shot off; arcing across the sky to the most foreign place I could think of. Hong Kong. My sometimes landing place at the end of the staircase. It was not what I imagined. The people were not porcelain-faced or wrapped in fine silks; they stared rudely at my red hair and my strange height. They did not move with slow-motion grace like actors in a Wong Kar Wai movie; they jostled me on the streets and shoved past me in the metro in their hurry to get deeper underground, under the sea. There were no rooms dimly lit by red lanterns; there was only my sweltering pillbox of an apartment. Some of the streets were lined with tall trees, but they were lined with spit and chewing gum and other substances much worse besides. But I stayed because I found a different kind of magic. The magic of neon, fireworks, glimmering lights set off in my head by the things I put in my mouth. Later, I stayed because I found Greg. Quiet and studious, at first it seemed he could never outshine my spinning night-time world, but he knew the hidden paths leading to another place. He knew about the staircase, had climbed a similar one in his own childhood. He knew how secret tunnels worked, and he knew the names of all the stars, hidden from us though they were by the haze of the city.
He gave me a flower in full bloom, and when I put it to my ear for a secret, he whispered three words. Words that gave me a reason to stay tethered to the world, to venture back across the sea, to find my sister, and bury my father.
Karen and I had both known it was coming. Neither of us could imagine him moving past our mother’s absence. It was a looming mass of thunderclouds in the distance. I’d sensed it, and I’d run for cover. Karen had done the opposite and constructed a shelter; the funeral, the flowers, the obituary, seamless, without a hitch.
What happens when the doom you have foreseen finally descends, and it is every bit as obliterating as you feared, and you are laid flat, smothered, crushed into the ground?
What happens after the doom?
You get a dog. You find an apartment. You go to college. You marry. You see your sister once a week on Saturdays and go shopping, and you let her make fun of your fashion sense.
Once in a while, you spend your time dreaming when you should be studying for finals or looking for a job. You spend some mornings lying in bed, whispering to your dead father or less often crying to your dead mother. But that is beside the point. A momentary lingering. A brief running of fingers over the past.
You walk away from Death one step at a time.
Until one day you glance back and find he’s been one silent footstep behind you the entire way.
When I told Karen and Greg what the doctor found, their reactions were so similar I might have laughed under different circumstances. They climbed over each other in their haste to start planning. Looking up oncologists, reading about chemotherapy, holistic healing, radiation, support groups. While I did what I have always done. Hide. Run. Burrow deep. I cocooned myself in the well-worn corners of Mountain Home. Barely lucid, so unaware of time passing that I was shocked to find myself in the operating theatre, bright lights above me, the haze, and then the deep blanketing sleep.
Since then, I have woken up each morning with a certain sense of wrongness; feeling like everything must be alright and then getting jerked back into reality. I always turn to go to Mountain Home, but find the way is lost and the door is shut. The road ahead is the one I have always walked, but I am less, and the things that used to matter, matter less. Greg, Karen, my stories, my flowers. I cannot feel them anymore. Worse. I cannot find the way into Mountain Home anymore. It’s like they cut it out of me along with the kidney. But the memory is still there, its hidden streams and horizon-less skies. Remembering makes it worse. I am an immigrant, cut off from her home, trapped in a narrow, bleak land full of things that seem so absurd to me now.
Asphalt. Barcodes. Gasoline pumps. Conversations about the weather. Plastic bags you get at the grocery store that are impossible to open. The sinister, sibilant names of chemotherapy drugs – Taxol, Herceptin, Adriamycin, Cytoxan. Eight storey parking garages filled with the hollowness of wind. Books about things that never happened and were never true. Houses and cars and Greg’s attempts to be cheerful.
They had a party for me when I came home from the hospital. I opened the door, and they were all standing there, waiting for me. A momentary pause while I stared back at them and all of them just stared back at me. Then the collective shout and my Surprise. I was surprised that I was able to recognize each of their faces, but could not connect the recognition to any emotion in my mind. But I smiled the whole way through. And I smiled the next day and the next. I’ve smiled for three weeks now, but I can’t smile for much longer in this place with no context.
What did they do with it? My kidney?
What do they do with it? All the wonder of life at its end? All the magic in our minds beneath the looming darkness?
What do they do with it? The empty space. The vacancy.
Standing at the kitchen sink, watching the sun set now over my flower bed, I feel the tendrils of a small something. Something like rage for the first time an emotion in three weeks I have been waiting and it is a bile-filled snake-like gorge rising up in me and I am out in the garden down digging on my knees and scratching, and clawing at the damp dark dirt and flinging the Zinnias the Poppies the Asters the Queen Anne’s Lace and the Cosmos and sobbing, the destruction I am sobbing at the destruction, at the lack and the wracking loss, at what has been lost and what I have done and what I have missed and what I have not been alive for, and I am staring at nothing, the all-encompassing Conclusion, at the cement foundation of my empty house dark in the hour before Greg comes through the front door and my ruined hands clench like the clutching of grief in my heart.
I am staring at a tiny crevice in the cement. At a slender blade of green poking through the crack. Undeterred. Rising, arcing toward the sun. Born in darkness but seeking the light. That aching newness, that tender green.
And I am remembering another story, about my father’s heel, and a pool, and a school of tropical fish.
And I hear the door opening inside.
And I rise up.