This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
The paint had chipped off of one of Mary’s eyes and the other had faded and begun to fleck off in places, mutating her maternal gaze into something more sinister, full of agony. I held eye contact with those eyes or, the one eye and the plaster hole where the other used to be. How long she and I remained locked in that stare, I could not say, but when the doctor called my name, I felt the ache in my jaw and joints from the tension that strung through me, pulling my whole body taught in that stare. The doctor wore a sympathetic smile. My muscles were too stiff to return the smile, but I tried somehow to exude human sympathy in his direction as I tucked our blessed mother into the large side pocket of my coat.
In his office, he begins to describe the difference between surgical and medical abortion, as if it is already preordained that I will get an abortion. I will. I have decided. But it is jarring to get straight to the business of it. I had expected some sort of dance around the topic, “Are you sure you don’t want to have a child right now?” “Is adoption definitely out of the question?” But there was none of that. I had prepared all of my justifications to legitimize the procedure, but he asked for none of it, asked only which procedure I preferred. It all felt so ordinary.
But I knew that I would cry, that I would see those plaster eyes of the Virgin whenever I closed my own, that I would need absolute dark and solitude, not the bright sanitized atmosphere of the doctor’s office. I wanted to really wallow in it. I did not want to feel ordinary. It was the least I could do, the minimum debt I could pay to this potential life, to at least hurt and agonize while it was pouring out of me. I chose the medical abortion and said so and prepared to deliver a sanitized explanation about how I’d prefer to do it in the comfort of my own home.
He asked for no explanation, simply ticked the box and began explaining how the procedure worked, what symptoms I could expect, what complications might occur, and when it would be necessary to call a doctor (him). The number he had scribbled on the paperwork was his cell, he explained, so that I could call him any time of day or night if I grew concerned.
The first step was to take the first dose, orally, right there in the office. Before handing me the pills, he asked me to confirm that someone would be at home with me in case there were any complications. “Yes,” I lied and put out my palm to receive the pills. He dropped them into it and gave me a paper cup of water. I swallowed.
“These pills you’re taking now might cause some nausea and mild cramping,” the doctor explained, “but the real pain comes with the second dose, which you will need to insert vaginally. As they dissolve, the cramping will get much worse and it won’t ease up for a few hours. I am sending you home with a Vicodin. It will not be enough.”
On the bus back home, the winter sun was blinding, the sky cloudless and blue. In spite of the cold air, my body began to flush with heat, my stomach turned over and I had to close my eyes against the sun so as not to throw up. The doctor had warned that I should not throw up for at least an hour after taking this first dose, otherwise I would lose the pills in the vomit. Expel the wrong thing. My eyes still closed, I pressed my forehead against the chilled windowpane of the bus, hoping the cold would push back against the nausea.
* * *
In a one bedroom in Paris, I wake up, wrapped in starched white sheets, my fevered aching body recoils from the faint roar of beings, alive in the night beneath the window, the curtainless window that looks out over low trees, bare of leaves, flanked by brick walls. I wake up. I ache. I sleep. I burn. I wake up. I ache.
I dream of an unknown woman, cut open—broken open.
In an empty one bedroom in Paris, I wake up. Empty—save for me. What has been saved for me?
Alone, I choose starched white sheets, admiring the cleanness of them, knowing that my body wrapped in them will soil them. I will sweat. I will bleed. I will ache. I will burn. And these starched white sheets will turn a dull gray, acquire stains, lose their crisp form to wrinkles and distended patches of worn fabric.
* * *
I reach my hand down between my legs and when I withdraw it, it is slick with strange blood. It is not like my blood, not the same as what came out of me when I’d slice a finger or scrape a knee. That blood was hot and came down in bright, branching, wild streams. This blood is cold, inert. It lays motionless on my thighs and where it has transferred to my palm. Meanwhile, my bones from hips to knees pulse with pain as hot as I believed all blood to be.
I drop from the toilet where I had been shakily perched down to the floor, smashing my knees against the ceramic tile. Everywhere else, I am feverish and aching except there. Cold. I folded over to lay my sweating forehead against the cool tiles. They choke me with the stench of bleach. My womb continues to thrash and gnaw at the walls of me. I clutch with bloody hand my abdomen, as if trying to excise the source of the pain manually.
* * *
I worry about my sheets, whether I should have bought a darker color, whether I should have bought a more durable, a more forgiving fabric. I worry, too, about this one bedroom in Paris, whether the higher rent was a smart investment, whether the decision to move was truly in my best interest or just another attempt to “start fresh” which is another way of saying to leave behind the problems I could not (would not) confront.
I continue circling around these concerns while my eyes, fevered and aching, try to pierce through the grey dark of a Paris night seen through blurred vision. Instead, it is my ears that make out the contours of the tires grinding down the streets, the heavy footsteps stamping out a sidewalk, the laughter measuring the distance between walls—the shape of the space that now contains me. Tucked inside of it, I am breathing and worrying over the sound of my breath, the state of my lungs, the contents of my bowels. Alone, I am ruining a set of new white sheets in an empty one bedroom in Paris.
Empty, I dream (or am I awake?) that I gripped a knife, held it over this misshapen sweet potato on a wooden cutting board and as it hovered (the blade) as the fullness of the handle made its presence in my palm known, I could see the wrist, my wrist, turning. Then that thrust of the blade into my gut, the labored dragging of it from its entry point across to the other side, punching and scraping through organs as it goes. The blood, the thick warm blood of the deep core of me choking out of the wound I’d built. In chunks, it spills out as I watch. It spits out pieces of organs and intestines which drop to the floor with a decided plop. And suddenly I am standing, again with a blade clean, expectant over a sweet potato, its rust skin waiting to expose its vivid orange meat and my stomach contained also beneath clean, unopened skin.
I ache, on a winter night, a night made of bare branches still harboring the distant expectation of blooming giving way, finally, to those early buds. Does it feel like being cut open, broken open when the buds burst out of sewn shut leaves or through the hard ribcage of a trunk? Does a wound like that ever stop hurting, stop growing wider, gaping further, spilling out more of your vitals—your thick, mucky vitals?
I wake again into my fever, my sweating sheets, my window cracked open because hinges broken. Through the crack of the window, through the old sweater stuffed into the crack of the window, creeps the smell of dirt—not the dirt of the land but the dirt that has been stripped away from the land and spilled out over the asphalt; the dirt that has mixed with our refuse, our excrement, our city.
* * *
I move along the streets without real sight or awareness. I don’t know where I’m going and I don’t think to ask. I wish that it still hurt, that when I bent a certain way or my shirt brushed against my stomach just so, that there would be a twinge, a miniature alarum, enough to grimace, enough to feel sorry for a brief moment. Without that, the grief is unbounded, as if the process tore it out of me and filled the air with it.
I have come upon the cathedral. It is early enough that the crowds are thin but even so, there are still crowds. Inside, the cool, musted air of centuries envelops me. The visitors speak in whispers but the vaulted ceilings carry the small voices anyway so that a low, collective mutter gently ripples the air. I move toward the iron rack of votive candles.
I drop a 50-cent piece into a wooden collection box and take up a candle. It’s small, smooth body comforts my palm. I stand there, clutching it until the heat of my fist begins to make the wax surface slippery. I dip its wick into the provided flame and slide it into one of the iron rings. I place my knees, one at a time, down on the worn kneeler, fold my hands in prayer and stare at the flame of my votive. The light of the other candles form a soft glow around my periphery as my eyes narrow in on the single flame. Prayerless, I remain in this position, until my joints and neck begin to ache. Then, with difficulty, I unbend my stiff limbs to stand up.
Every morning is like this. I go to the cathedral, perform this same ritual. Months go by so that I no longer even question this little habit my body has picked up.
* * *
When I wake up this morning, my skin already knows something is off. The charge in the air is different. I ignore this until I make my coffee, splash water on my face. When I am ready, I take coffee cup in hand and go to the window.
Out past the rooftops, a thin orange tail of fire is flinging up a great, black funnel of smoke which unfurls and spreads crooked fingers out into the sky. I lean onto the windowsill, drinking deeply from my cup and waiting for the impulse at the base of my spine to spread through me, become movement.
* * *
As soon as I am out of the front door, I take to running, my feet immediately recognizing the path through the maze of narrow streets and alleys. Thinking all the while, “What have I done?” and then shaking the question out of my head. It’s meaningless. It’s just one of those thoughts that, without context or precedent, become present and then permanent. “What have I done? What have I done?” I ignore it and keep running.
As I get closer, the streets start throbbing with bodies. The police are scooping them back behind the line they had drawn in wooden barricades. The people are packed in so tight I can hardly look up, hardly see myself even, I am just part of this smear of flesh and readymade summer wear. But I push. I push through sweat-slick flesh and moans and hisses. I push in what I hope is straight ahead but, in truth, it is impossible to tell. My head is aching, I am nauseous and weak. If it hadn’t been for the bodies on all sides propping me up, I would have fainted. I might actually have fainted but had no space to fall so I just came to, still standing, still crushed.
After an indeterminate amount of time, I see the helmet of a police officer. I had reached the line. At this, I rally and push harder, keeping that helmet always in sight and thinking of nothing at all except making sure that the helmet is getting closer. Tears stream down my face, mixing with rivulets of sweat. I meet the hisses and moans of the crowd with a sort of low growl of my own. I breathe deeply of the thick stench that stood in place of air and I push.
That sudden wall of cool, dry air— that is the first thing I become aware of upon reaching the police line. The next is the officer’s baton pressed hard up under my ribs, attempting to thrust me back into the mob—and the mob, trying to swallow me back into itself so that some other could be at the front. But I hold fast to that baton, to brace myself against the wet anonymous hands clawing at my back and shoulders. I still had not had a moment to look up or out or even really see with my eyes. I am still a blind, fleshy feeling thing, not yet distinct from the mob through which I had come. After a few attempts to press me back, I come to understand the rhythm of the baton and wait for his ebb to pull me just forward enough to have space to slide sideways along the edge of the mob. I slide in this fashion until I reach a space between baton-wielding officers. Then, I spread my haunches and stand firm to hold the ground I’d just gained.
From this position, I finally have an opportunity to look around, though not yet up because I need to keep mob and batons always in sight. Beyond the police line, firefighters dart about. Construction workers, lugging heaps of art and cathedral relics, shout and load their haul into trucks to take them somewhere away from the flames which I could not now see but knew were there. In an instant, I see my path. I wait for the two officers on either side of me to push into the mob and, while they are still encumbered with bodies, I slip over the barricade and break into a sprint. I hear shouts behind me but they blend soon enough with the shouts of the firefighters and workers. They could not chase me, could not risk leaving exposed too wide a section of the police line for the mob to break through.
The area is filled with firefighters, EMTs, and other workers but I pivot around them as they cross my path. Some are too focused on their work to notice me, others shout but can’t leave the task at hand. I keep running. I need to get around to the entrance on the other side, just to get into the cathedral, get a look at it. I need to see what the flames have done to its insides.
I am about halfway to the other end of the cathedral when a large elbow rams into the meat just between my ribcage and my hips. I slam to the concrete before I even see who had caught me. A voice asks me what the hell I am doing here and, not actually wanting an answer, immediately follows that up by commanding me to get back behind the barricades.
I tell him I will but I stay on the ground. When he returns to the fire, my hands begin to sting. I hold one up in front of my eyes and see that it is bleeding from scrapes, the wounds caked in a layer of gravel. The same gravel was pressing into my cheek which rested against the hot concrete. My breathing begins to slow, to relax.
For the first time since leaving the apartment, I am able to take in the fire. Up close, the flames roar with a fury I’d never heard before and the longer I listen, the more I can make out, beneath the roar, the creaking groans of scaffolding and roofing collapsing. It’s as if the screaming maw of the cathedral had opened up to the sky and proceeded to swallow itself. My eyes grew hot and dry from the heat, the ashes, the sight of this holy place swallowed up in fire. The streams of water from the firefighters’ hoses (strong enough to knock down crowds of people) look pitiful next to the flame-engorged cathedral.
It seems only to grow fiercer at every attempt to quell it. The firefighters work tirelessly. The roar of the anguished crowd blends imperceptibly with that of the fire. Then, a great cracking sound cleaves the air as the flames which had been licking at the base of the cathedral’s spire finally bite in and the whole structure bends and falls in slow acquiescence.
After the fall, an EMT begins running toward me and shouting. My eyes had become so dry from staring without blinking that it felt as if I would not be able to shut my eyelids around them. I place my hand over my eyes to manually push the lids down, feeling the blood from my fingers transfer to my face, the wetness of it a kind of relief. I keep my eyes shut a long time, allowing them to remoisten. When I open them again, the EMT is kneeling beside me, digging his fingers into my throat to check my pulse. “I’m okay,” I say. “I’m okay.”
RACHAEL GREEN is a freelance writer with a BA in English and Anthropology. Her fiction has appeared or will in Flash Fiction Magazine, MAYDAY, and The Sock Drawer. Her articles have appeared in A Little Bit Human, Bustle, and Benzinga. She currently lives in the Bronx, where she is working on a collection of short stories. You can find her on Twitter at @paperandwhiskey