Isaac James Baker
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My parents were supposed to visit me in the ward after dinner. But I was on restriction, which meant no visitors. I had Kim, the charge nurse, call them for me. Since I was on restriction, I couldn’t use the phone to tell them that I couldn’t seem them that night.
I wasn’t that upset about it. I had Charles Bukowski’s “ Hollywood ” to finish up and a couch to stretch out on. It was a dark night, and after dinner, I relaxed on the couch and watched the trees sway in the wind.
Eva moseyed into the room. Her sapphire eyes spotted me through the strands of pitch hair that fell all around her face. She smiled, walked over and sat down Indian-style in front of my couch.
“Hey, sister,” I said, clipping my paperback shut.
“Hey,” she said. “You hangin in there?”
“I don’t know. I guess so. You?”
“I’m always barely hanging in there.”
“Know what ya mean.”
Eva breathed out and looked over my shoulder at the darkened sky. She stretched her arms out and circled them a few times. As her wrists stuck out from beneath her baggy flannel shirt, I noticed some swirls of dark green ink etched into her bony forearms.
“I can see that,” I joked. “What is it?”
She pulled up her sleeve slowly. I had to catch myself from gasping. The inside of her arm was stained pink and purple with dozens of sharp scars. A series of eight or 10 cords of shredded tissue ran horizontally over the tendons that stuck out like tight cables from beneath her freckled skin. There were also at least half a dozen scars that tore down the length of her entire forearm, crisscrossing like lashes from a whip.
These were no cry-for-help scars. These were deep, angry, determined ones.
“My…” was all I could say.
“Indeed,” she said coolly.
Eva chuckled and whipped her hair back behind her shoulder. “C’mon. You’re a smart boy.”
I stared at her arm. “I know… but…”
“I’d had enough,” she said.
“Which time?” she replied.
“The first was ‘69.”
“Christ… the summer of love?”
“Ha!” she laughed. “Yeah. I was 11. What a summer.”
“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging her bony shoulders. “You can count and add them up if you’d like.”
“Sorry,” I said mechanically. “I didn’t know or I wouldn’t have…”
Eva shook her head and peered into my eyes. “Stop,” she said. “They’re big honking scars. What were you s’posed to say?”
I looked away out the window. My face was flushed with embarrassment. After a few seconds of silence, Eva drew my gaze back to her sharp, rugged and beautiful facial features.
“I kinda like em now,” she said. “Not that tattooing myself with these things was the goal. But,” she continued, “they kind of remind me, ya know?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”
“My last try, I took a paring knife and sliced up this one really good,” she said, pointing a bony finger at the biggest scar. It was deep purple and curvy, shaped like one of those sloping Medieval daggers you see in history museums. “A homeless guy found me in a gutter.” Eva sucked in air between her pressed lips like she was taking a deep drag of an imaginary cigarette. “He carried me on his back 15 blocks to the E.R. They stitched me up and pumped me full of lots of other people’s blood. The bum waited there at the hospital with me for four days until I was finally stable enough to leave.”
I didn’t say anything. Even a “Wow” or a “That’s incredible,” seemed like it would sound crude and base. I just stared at her scars.
“After that last try,” she said, “I figured, I owed it to that fuckin bum to at least live it out until death takes me for good. Death doesn’t need any help from me.”
“So…” I said uneasily, pointing to the ink on her wrist, “what’s the tattoo about?”
She pulled up her sleeve and stuck out her wrist. Overtop of the tail ends of several of her scar streaks was a forest green marking that looked like the top of an ice cream swirl.
“Well,” she said cheerily, “I figured I had enough paring knife and razorblade tattoos, so I got this one. It’s the symbol of recovery.”
She looked up and smiled at me.
“Yup,” she said.
“I like that tattoo the best.”
“Me too. It’s my favorite.”
Copyright © 2010 by Isaac James Baker. This excerpt is from his forthcoming novel Broken Bones, which chronicles the journey of a young man through a psychotic ward for individuals with anorexia nervosa.
Isaac James Baker is a 26-year-old writer originally from New Jersey . A journalist and reporter by trade, he currently works as a communications specialist for the federal government and is working on a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University . His first novel, Broken Bones, the story of a young man’s struggle in a psychotic ward for individuals with anorexia nervosa, is being published by Historical Pages Company in 2010. He lives in Washington , D.C.
E-mail this author at email@example.com
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Deciding what to wear to class, she flipped to the cobalt blue blouse Jerry had given her the day she now realized he'd started cheating. She pulled it out on its hanger, enjoying the slide of silk against her fingers even as she imagined him walking around Annapolis, footsore, thinking he shouldn't come home empty-handed – he must've spent all of five minutes choosing this. Now she noticed the indifferent workmanship – unclipped threads, shoddy buttonholes. She hooked the hanger on the showerhead and amazed herself, setting the silk on fire.
She was so thrifty – mending clothes anyone else would consign to the rag-bag, gluing a favorite mixing bowl when the rim got chipped – to purposely destroy such lovely material, shocked her. But she laughed as the fabric flamed up, blackened, then hung in shreds, dropping into the tub or dangling off the hanger like seaweed. The remains needed some special send-off, but they'd have to wait – she was late.
Stepping into low heels, she pulled a plain yellow oxford-style blouse from her closet and quickly buttoned and tucked it into her slacks, then raked the brush through her wavy auburn hair and hurried to her accounting class. Tonight anticipation made her voluble. As she and her tablemate Mr. Chandrapur were storing their notes – hers in a tote-bag, his in a well-tended leather satchel – he remarked on her acuity.
"Ms. Sanders –" pronouncing it muz not miz, "you are so lively this evening – please say why."
"I'm going to do some mischief," she whispered. Students moved toward the door, and as though pulled by an outgoing tide they followed, pausing at the foot of the outdoor stairwell.
"What mischief please?" he asked.
"I'm going to sneak onto private property and bury – oh. I don't have a shovel."
"My family has one."
"Could I borrow it?"
"I must come with you." His eyes were suddenly bright. "To see the shovel does not get into trouble you know."
"Well, it might," she laughed.
"What is this we will bury?" looking at the plastic grocery bag she'd handed him.
"A blouse." She explained how it symbolized the dissolution of her thirty-year marriage; this time it was easy to talk about, she didn't know why.
Now that she lived downtown she was appalled every time she drove out to that house, miles from everything. She turned at the subdivision entrance, parked at the next corner, and signaling her co-conspirator to silence, got out his shovel. He carried the bag as she led across the street to the four-foot stone wall which proclaimed EAGLE GATE in tall bronze letters; she pressed in against the row of junipers behind, Mr. Chandrapur trailing. Headlights swung toward them, they crouched like guilty teenagers; once the car had passed she half-rose and brought the shovel down – only an inch into dry ground. She grunted and tried again.
"Excuse me Ms. Sanders, may I do this?" With a gardener's practiced motions he dug out a wedge of hard dirt, but his next gouge hit rock – alarmed by the clang they ducked, peering out again into another set of headlights. Her hand, tugging him out of sight, tingled feeling his shoulder muscles just beneath thin layers of dress shirt and jacket. Thrilled by this subterfuge, she abruptly understood Jerry – adultery must've made him feel like a new man.
He could've worked things out with her, but when his body told hers the attraction was gone, that was it. She hadn't realized sex was so important – it wasn't spectacular or frequent – but without it their bond fell apart like wet tissue.
Losing Jerry's interest hurt her pride, and in the mirror she'd confronted her age: crows-feet, sagging jawline. She was ready to let everything go, stop dressing up or curling her hair and to hell with it – she'd be an old lady. Bless Fran Rutledge, who said a woman in her fifties had twenty more years and shouldn't surrender yet – picking her up to go to a movie she made Kate present herself, coaching her to fix her lipstick or put on different earrings.
"It's just a movie Fran – we'll be sitting in the dark."
"Not when we're in line, not parking and walking over, or afterwards..."
When Kate told her about the class, she knew the lecture was coming.
"You have to look sharp," Fran said. "Men who study accounting are smart, they'll make good money when they're certified – you have what it takes Kate – show it."
"Bookkeeping bores me – accounting will probably be stultifying."
"Doesn't matter. They're civilized, honey – you could do worse."
Which was certainly true.
"A man's attention will make you feel alive – you need that."
And right now, furtively digging behind a useless wall to bury an insincere apology, she silently thanked Fran. Because they couldn't deepen the hole – either one broad rock or a group of smaller ones lay a few inches down – they widened it, Kate reclaiming the shovel: this was her project after all. With the excavation about fifteen inches across she ripped blouse-rags smaller while Mr. Chandrapur held the flashlight. The collar hadn't burnt – as she tore loose the charred strips sewn to it, he stopped her.
"Please may I keep this scrap of blue?"
"Ms. Sanders, may we have first names please? I am Asit. And you?"
"My name's Katherine, but everyone calls me Kate."
"I like the name Ka-t'rin. May I call you T'rin?" His tongue abbreviated: T, a space, then rin. "You have been Kate very long, yes? Is it time for a new name?"
"You may call me T'rin," then added, "in private."
"I can be very private." He handed her the flashlight long enough to pocket the strip of blue silk, then she finished shredding. Together they pushed the dirt back and stomped it flat, but as they started to leave the junipers a police car came out of a side street. They held hands, motionless, and after it passed hurried to her car, throwing the shovel in the trunk. As she started to drive away, the police cruiser circling back turned on his flashing lights; she pulled over opposite EAGLE GATE.
"Anything wrong?" she asked cheerfully.
"May I see your license and registration?"
"Can you first tell me please if I've done something illegal?"
"Someone reported this car sitting over there for about half an hour – this is a pretty quiet neighborhood ma'am – we want to keep it that way."
"I know it is – I live two blocks down," handing him her driver's license – she was waiting to get a new one til their decree, giving herself that long to decide whether to revert to her maiden name.
"Any particular reason you parked here? The caller said nobody was in the car."
"Some papers blew out my window – I was picking them up."
The cop looked suspiciously at Mr. Chandrapur, a misfit in this all-white neighborhood; she offered another bright smile and he handed back her papers. "Sorry for the inconvenience, Ms. Sanders."
"That's quite all right officer."
Driving back downtown the conspirators laughed uproariously, and she felt more could happen – nevertheless she dropped him off. She didn't even pretend to read when she got home, lighting a candle instead; listening to Bach's "Goldberg Variations" she thought about Mr. Chandrapur – Asit. While her mind mulled the classmate who asked detailed questions, her hand remembered his muscular shoulder. She was single now, but was she free or not? What would people say?
What are they saying now? That she couldn't keep her husband, that she'd dried up? No, Fran was right – too soon for that. Asit was attracted to her, and she was – Was what? Jerry was the only man she'd ever had sex with. She'd read, seen movies, liked to think personal experience hadn't completely limited her, but she hadn't even kissed another man's lips for thirty years – more than half her life. Intimacy was Jerry.
Of course she could have sex without emotional closeness, but what would she gain from that, versus what she'd lose, knowing how it felt to clasp a man with arms and legs, inviting him inside her, with hearts engaged? Without affection it would be some bodily function like digestion – was that even worthwhile? She'd felt such a spark with Jerry, she just knew they belonged together – this new attraction was shot through with doubts.
She didn't say anything to Fran because she would've had to tell her about burning that blouse: her secret with Asit, nobody else's business. Fran gave her one long look but didn't press her when they went to see "Never on Sunday" at an art cinema. Kate sympathized with the man's efforts to civilize Melina Mercouri, though clearly her morals were going to prevail.
Afterwards, Fran beamed. "Wasn't that wonderful? Shouldn't we all live such uninhibited lives?"
"That was a pretty rosy view of prostitution –"
"But to have sex without all the baggage – wouldn't you?"
"No one can guarantee –"
"Take a chance – otherwise you'll never know."
"Some things I don't need to know."
Fran confided she'd had four lovers since her divorce. The first was a husband substitute, and that breakup depressed her badly, but since then her expectations had been lower, her enjoyment greater. "I assume you're not in a rush to get married again."
"Oh lord no," Kate said. "I hope to get through this divorce with my sanity intact – why would I endure that again?"
"Just checking," Fran laughed. "Some women feel guilty if they don't have a wedding first."
"What makes you think I'm –"
"If you're not, you should be."
Fran was too keen – how long would it take her to sniff out Asit? "When I'm ready, something will happen – don't rush me."
That week Kate kept things at a genial distance in class, but the following Monday Asit asked if she'd go to dinner with him. Having spent the cold blustery weekend with that damned property-division list, she gladly agreed.
House of Bombay, in a little strip mall, was nearly empty. After the waiter had retreated with their orders, Asit regarded her in the dim light, his eyes glistening.
"In India, I married when I was thirty – she was eighteen – lovely girl. We thought she was pregnant but it was cancer – when she died she was small as a child. God shone through her suffering like light behind fabric – I thought of her when we buried that blouse – forgive me making my own ritual of it. I came here soon after, thinking I would only visit, but my grief for Avitra and for my country were the same – I had to start over. I work with an importer but if I am CPA I make more money, and perhaps it is more challenging yes?"
"I've hoped so – bookkeeping seems so limited." She met his eyes. "But in twelve years here, you haven't found anyone to marry?"
"An Indian girl you mean?"
She blushed, but didn't people gravitate to their own?
"I want to be American not Indian."
"But this is an Indian restaurant."
"Oh yes, but also I like American food – but not Mac Donald's."
"I never eat there."
"I did when I first came, but I didn't like it – I thought 'I will not stay'. But now I think every kind of food is American – I especially like salad bar, and also falafel. America is the most international country, do you know?"
She found conversation engaging, but by the time he drove her home she was too tired from listening past his accent, to prolong the evening. Double-parked outside her apartment he squeezed her hand, kissing her index finger; she pressed in response and let go, and she went in.
On the midterm exam they missed different questions, and dissatisfied with the instructor's cursory review, continued their postmortem at a coffee-shop – he got all the inventory problems right, she understood when debits meant adding and when they subtracted, which made no sense to him. They talked on over iced tea, surprised when the waitress said they'd be closing in five minutes. Kate invited him over to finish studying. They opened their books on her kitchen table but as she got out her pencil he put his hand over hers.
"Please T'rin –" he stood, the fingers of his free hand tracing the rim of her ear, and she rose in response, the caffeine from all that iced tea making her feel hollowed-out; she turned her hand in his as their lips met. His kiss was softer than Jerry's but attentive, as though he had no agenda beyond this moment. Her hands appreciated the body inside his shirt, his lips moving to her jaw, back toward her ear; she was surprised to feel his teeth on one of her ladybug stud earrings.
"Yes T'rin?" the sound of her name one more kiss.
"What do you expect?"
He pulled back, hands light on her upper arms. "What is it you mean?"
"I told you about my divorce – it's doubtful I'll ever marry again. I just think you ought to know that, before we go any further."
"Yes I see – you think you are a passport."
"I think I might be."
"T'rin, my sister introduces me all the time to Indian girls. Some are U.S. citizens – about those she is most pushy. If that is what I want I would have it already."
"You don't even know me."
"Not yet – but may I?"
His eyes were glowing with affection, in the back of her mind Fran was egging her on. Lend me some of that courage, she thought. I need to step out of this hard dead shell of the life I've known, and find out what I can still feel. She placed a hand on Asit's cheek, kissing him back while his hand covered hers, then walked him to the loveseat in her small living room. He guided her onto his lap, stroking her, fingers investigating through her clothes. The light from the kitchen felt too bright but as she glanced that direction he kept her close.
"Beauty is not only for young people – let me see you." His deft fingers had her blouse open, her bra unhooked; she undid his buttons, then they leaned apart to undress from the waist up. He had springy black and gray hair on his chest – more than Jerry – but only the slightest paunch – her palm running down his abdomen felt muscle not fat. His hands were smooth: on her back, cupping her breasts. This moment vindicated all her years of prudent diet and exercise – he pressed his nose between her breasts, humming, then turned to her arm, kissing just behind the hollow of her elbow, the tingle sparking clear to her spine. She involuntarily arched around that sensation, offering a breast to his exploring lips.
She and Jerry had given each other the best of themselves – what were their prospects now? He'd have said if he was still seeing Angie – he'd flaunt that in a moment of stress – the thought of him with a young woman made her suddenly perceive him not as her partner of so many years but as a middle-aged man who'd let his fondness for sweets conquer his physique. Though Jerry's breath was foul – she couldn't sleep facing him – she deeply missed his scent on her pillow. Asit smelled like humidity and apples, his mouth cool as he ran the smooth edges of his teeth over her shoulder and upper arm –
"Yes T'rin." He sounded like he was answering from down in a well, some faint echo leading and following his voice.
How could she ask without being colossally rude? "It's a long time since your wife died."
"Yes – many years."
"Have you –"
"Oh I see," he smiled gently. "For some time I had a girl, but last year she moved away – since then I must satisfy myself."
"So now you think –"
"This is what we make it T'rin – shall we discover?"
She and Jerry did nothing beyond what hands could accomplish until their wedding, but adding intercourse to the mix wasn't immediately satisfying – it took some practice for those new thrills to surpass what they'd already felt. Finally arriving in the wonder spot they'd been navigating toward from the first kiss, was like waking up inside bodies of angels – every other experience was demoted. Even after sex became brief and mechanical, sometimes they'd open their eyes to each other and once again connect completely. Share those feelings with someone else? Would Jerry sense it when another man pleased her?
Jerry doesn't care, a voice in her head observed coldly. She was emotionally adrift, betrayed, needing approval. She'd been ready to give up sex altogether – Asit was offering reprieve –
"Why don't you come for dinner Sunday?" she suggested.
"And now I should go?"
"Please – I'm still sorting out – we were married so long." Then surprised by her boldness she asked, "Are you willing to wait?"
"Our class runs another seven weeks – til then?"
"So if you don't like me, you don't have to see me there?"
"Oh –" From the back of her mind to the tip of her tongue – classmates might sense their intimacy – "By then my divorce should be final. I like you, I'm glad you helped bury the blouse –"
"Yes I see." He handed her clothes to her; still sitting on his thighs she hooked and buttoned while he watched. When she stood he put on his shirt, fastened three buttons then went to the kitchen, placing his things in his satchel with the defeated dignity of a salesman who couldn't close the deal. At the door he turned to say, "I cannot come Sunday."
Copyright © 2010 by NC Weil.
NC Weil prefers the elbow room of novels to the restricted arc of short stories, though she writes both along with songs, poems and film reviews. Her fiction has appeared in the anthology Electric Grace (Paycock Press, 2007). Weil is the President of the Washington, DC Chapter of the Women's National Book Association (wnba-books.org/wash), a network of women and men devoted to books and literacy for over 90 years.
Visit this author's homepage at http://www.ncweil.com