Gone

Fiction by Ethel Rohan

         My fingers traced the diagonal scars that ran from my armpits and across the memory of my breasts, the stitches long dissolved and the red, angry skin faded to pink. My other hand moved to my stomach and traveled up and down its long vertical scar, this one more purplish than pink. All the scars dry and flaky. Fish spines.

          I listened to the birdsong outside my bedroom window and decided to put off going to the hospital until the afternoon. I was no longer a patient, but sometimes returned to volunteer. I liked to hold the babies that didn’t have visitors, to breathe in their freshness and sing them to smiles. I had my first Friday off in months from the diner and felt glad to be free of the customers’ small-talk, of their complaints and ogles. One thing I was never free of was the diner’s deep-fried air. It hung all around me and wouldn’t wash away. Still, I liked my job well enough and could do it robot-like while I day-dreamed. Jason, a handsome, square-jawed, blue-eyed regular who wasn’t coy about his wish to have me on the menu, would be disappointed by my absence. I smiled into my pillow. Sometimes, while I carried the trays and wiped down the tables, I fantasized about Jason and me going out together, to a movie or a nice restaurant. I wouldn’t let myself think beyond that. I couldn’t imagine the two of us alone together.

My neighbor’s colicky baby wailed. Their back door smacked closed. I moved from my warm bed to the window. My neighbor stood in her dark pajamas and bare feet in the grass, her hands on her hips and dark head turned up to the sky. I tried to remember her name. The baby’s cries climbed and my neighbor’s hands covered her ears. Months back, her husband had deployed to Iraq. He had yet to meet his son. She was always polite, but distant, and seemed to want to keep to herself. That suited me. In addition to the fussy newborn, she had two little girls. Her name came to me, Nancy. I dressed quickly, tried not to look at my too-big bed.

Just as I reached my front door, the kitchen phone shrilled. It was likely my dad, and if I didn’t answer, he’d worry. It turned out to be Jason. His voice sent me bobbing in warm, shiny water. He had bribed the new busboy for my number, said he never again wanted to have breakfast without me. He’d never had breakfast with me, I corrected, just delivered by me. The sneaky, small-eyed busboy had also given him my address. Jason asked to come over. I warned him not to dare. He chuckled. I pictured his thick, shiny-with-maple-syrup lips and again felt a rush of pleasure.

“I want to show you my latest drawing,” he said.

The next door baby continued to cry. “I have to go, seriously.”

“I drew you.”

My insides recoiled, and I rushed the receiver down.

Jason sometimes brought his sketches to the diner, mostly of hawks, trees, the ocean, and everyday people. Gifted, he managed to bring out in his subjects something I’d never have noticed: the hawks’ intelligent eyes and the blue in their black talons; green leaves so smooth, shiny, and thick I wanted to pet them; and emotions in people’s faces that lifted right off the page. He was gifted, yes, but he’d no right to draw me without my permission, to take from me like that.

I walked along the side of Nancy’s house and called out over her wooden fence. The baby wailed. Moments later, Nancy pulled open her front door. She stood tall and thin and appeared ill. Her face was pale, and she had greenish circles under her eyes. Her long gray-black hair was messed and unwashed. I tried not to react to her body odor, and followed the baby’s cries upstairs. The unclean smell pervaded the house and yet everything, the carpet, wallpaper, and furnishings, looked washed-out. There was also the smell of burnt toast.

The baby lay on his side in his crib, his face a dangerous red. His eyes were scrunched shut and his mouth was open wide. His colorless fingers gripped the bars on his crib, and I had to peel the spongy digits free. I lifted him, and he roared. I hugged him to my shoulder and shushed at his damp ear. Nancy apologized, explained. She had tried everything. I urged her to take a shower and to nap. I would stay. Nancy protested. She couldn’t, she shouldn’t. I insisted. His mother gone, the baby kicked his legs inside his yellow pajamas and jerked his fists. He cried harder. His large bald head pushed and rooted at my prosthetic bra and his greedy grunts turned frantic. I had only my baby finger to offer. The force of his suck hurt and frightened me, could rip my finger right off.

I carried him outside to the garden, the sky boy-blue and the sun hidden behind clouds. The cool breeze startled him into silence. I bounced him in my arms and praised and cooed. He started-up again. I sang to him, soft and low. Overhead, the plovers circled and seemed to listen, to sing back. The baby quieted and closed his eyes. We returned inside. I cradled him in his rocking chair and breathed-in his sweet-and-sour milky smell. My thoughts returned to Jason. I wondered how he’d drawn me.

For sure, at thirty-two, he would never have depicted me as scarred, breastless, and barren. I had chosen to hedge my bets and allowed the surgeons to get ahead of the white spots in my breasts and lymph nodes, to cut away at me.

On the street, a car slowed and stopped. Its door closed. I held the baby and my breath and strained to hear.

Jason waited on my front porch for over an hour. Twice, I’d signaled from the baby’s window and indicated he should go. He waved away my gestures and leaned back against my front door, his black artist’s case by his hip. I left Nancy recharged and her baby still asleep. At the end of her front path, I almost turned left instead of right, but pressed on to my house and Jason. His easy smile almost made me bolt. He wore faded, ripped jeans and a tight red t-shirt. Red, despite everything, was still my favorite color. We sat on the barstools at my messy kitchen island, there junk mail and other bits of me scattered about. I wished everything was more in order.

I followed his gaze to the reproduction Frida Kahlo on the opposite wall. He scrutinized Kahlo’s naked breasts, open torso, shattered spine, body harness, and the nails that punctured her flesh. He turned back to me with an uncertain smile. I offered coffee, but he refused. His attention turned to the single pine chair at my tiny kitchen table. I’d put its mate in the garage. He reached for his artist’s case. I jumped at the coffeemaker.

I put a mug of steaming coffee in front of him, and told him about the baby next door, the babies in the hospital. In the end, I was the one who reached for his portfolio. He’d captured me in profile, as I scribbled a customer’s order, the obligatory smile on my face. My dark hair was tied up and its loose strands caught behind my ear, curling toward my throat. My prosthetic breasts pushed against my pink uniform, smaller than my real breasts. He’d shaded my face, trapped me in shadow.

I pushed the drawing aside. “It’s not me.”

He looked from me to the drawing and back again, perplexed.

I reappeared in the kitchen, my shirt and bra removed and the black camisole clinging to my small boy chest. I dropped my hands to my sides. He searched my face, swallowing. I told him how much was gone. He held my gaze.

“You want to try again?” I asked, my face hot.

He nodded. I tried to slow my breath, to stop shaking. He moved the pine chair to the window. Seated, the sun warmed my head and shoulder. I peeled off the camisole and dropped it to the floor. I looked straight at him. His pencil danced over the paper.

Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say, PANK, 2011 and Cut Through the Bone, Dark Sky Books, 2010, the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in The Good Men Project, The Chattahoochee Review, Los Angeles Review, Potomac Review and Southeast Review Online among many others. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan is now a resident of San Francisco, California. Visit her at ethelrohan.com  and read her most recent work here.

Rohan’s “Gone” was featured in this post and lively discussion (replete with additional story and poem suggestions for further reading) here at The Lit Pub.

Read our interview with Ethel Rohan conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz: The Power of Domestic Realism, Male Protagonists and the Dual Degree: Mills and Motherhood.

 




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