excerpts from upcoming novella woman | ize
We are in the dentist’s office. My mother and I.
My mother wears a silk scarf at her neck, a pink dress and a light beige trench coat. Pearls in her ears, ring on her finger. Not a single bracelet. She has spoken quietly to the lady at the front window, the woman keeping track of our appointments and whom I do not see. From the back her calves raise sharply, the nude stiletto point casting a shadow on the shoe sole, very slightly worn, and I trace this all the way up her legs, past the drop of the thin coat to the curt, skinny bend of her elbows, hanging off the ends of the counter, her fingers tapping. This is where my gaze pauses, watching her golden ring lift up and down, the bones in her hand rippling. I envision the thin line her lips are making. We were late, it was my fault.
I didn’t know what to wear.
My mother had let me choose. She had assembled three outfits: a corduroy skirt, blouse and cardigan; a navy dress with a jacket, or pastel capris and a knit sweater. The white sandals would go with any of them, I already had the small diamond earrings in my ears. I had stood at the bed, baffled.
“Kom,” Mama persisted, “Pick one.”
My mother never lets me choose.
I was terrified of getting it wrong and none of them looked comfortable. I liked spreading my legs and I knew that this was the wrong thing to do. I didn’t want to embarrass the dentist. I didn’t want to wear a jacket or a sweater, but I also knew I couldn’t show my arms. Unless it was warm enough outside, and never a T-shirt. A sleeveless shirt. And if it was a sleeveless shirt, you’d wear a necklace instead of earrings. Never both. That was too much jewelry.
There was no sleeveless shirt on the bed.
I chose the capris. Mama lingered over dress, the polished nails of her fingers hovering, grazing the trim delicately. “Are you sure?” She asked. I nodded quickly. Her eyes flitted down and she swept it up, folding it in her hands, picking up the other outfits, putting them away. I began to get changed, too slowly, wondering if actually the dress would be more fun, the wind coming up between my legs and maybe spinning so I would feel the cloth, just a little when no one noticed, thinking I should maybe say this, but I didn’t want to upset Mama and then she caught sight of her watch and made a noise and we were late and suddenly she was hauling my arm, just as I was struggling to get into the sleeves.
My mother is coming toward me now, she smiles and squeezes my hand, sitting beside me, slowly bending into the chair, careful her dress doesn’t raise, a hand discreetly pressing the edge low over her thigh, then relaxing limp on her lap as she fully sinks into the seat. “It’s good you brushed your teeth before we came,” she whispers to me. Mama picks up a magazine, holds it out. “Look at her teeth.”
The model is in a bright patterned bikini, grinning and making a muscle. There are brightly colored words around and over this image but I don’t look at them. I know this pose because our teacher makes us do it in school after playing, to show how strong we are. “It’s good for you,” Mama explains, her finger now gliding over the lip of the model. “Very good things in here. Sometimes I get recipes from this magazine. Look.” Mama is showing me a cartoon picture, of a woman bent at a strange angle, and then unfolding, and then back again. Her arms are in weird positions. “See? This is my exercise in the morning.” I don’t fully understand the connection between this cartoon and my mother but that they share something in common interests me.
I see the ribs, the small pop were the bust is, the smile, very straight hair. My mother’s hair is shorter than the cartoon. I picture my Mama with long hair, picture her face there, a photograph pasted on top of the model.
I flip the page.
This page is filled with food, fruits and some sort of orange sauce dripping from the air, against a sky background, into a cookie crust. It doesn’t seem healthy to me, especially because on the side there is a big tin can in a burst of light, and we never buy canned food. Never.
Mama lets me flip again and realize the magazine is filled with women. I have seen these magazines in the house before, but I’ve never really touched them. Papa reads other stories to me. Now I am looking, and I notice they all look like mama, but maybe taller, and some are tan, which I know is also not healthy. Sun gives you cancer. I don’t see why the magazine is healthy, except for the woman look very healthy, and I guess it is the cartoons, but they’re confusing so I skip them.
Then I’m being taken by the arm again.
Into a small white corridor, fluorescent light, into a doorway, a small room with a big leather chair, all in shades of grey, the scent of plastic.
When I sit on the plastic chair it crinkles unpleasantly and I feel very heavy and big. The chair still stretches above my head and long past my legs but I want to get out of it.
I can’t. Not allowed to. Mama doesn’t say this, but the way she pointed at the chair, same way she did at a plate of something with a name I didn’t understand and had to eat anyway. There wasn’t a question.
“Hi honey,” a woman’s voice says. I turn my head against the plastic chair to see Mama nod at a new woman. The woman is dressed all in green, green pants and green shirt and she fastens something over her mouth, a blue napkin with rubber bands on it. She’s fatter than Mama and a little taller. She has her hair in a short ponytail. She didn’t strap me in like in a car but she did put a bib on my neck and I felt humiliated but didn’t say anything.
“Wouldn’t want to ruin your clothes,” the woman says kindly. Her voice comes out funny and then she puts on huge goggles. She snaps on plastic gloves. I see she has cut nails and the glove ends are a little loose over the tips of her fingers. Then she pulls the big bright light over me.
I want to close my eyes but I also want to look.
I blink into the light until the black object in front of it becomes the woman’s face. It’s huge. I am horrified, peering into the gigantic nostrils inches above me, pinched a little in the middle the way a rubber band gets when you hold it upright between your fingers.
Her nose is full of hair.
“Open wide, honey,” the woman says, and suddenly her fingers are in my mouth. They taste like plastic.
Her enormous eyes flash, magnified by the goggles-- watery blue, googly and unreal. I can hear her breathing inside the napkin. I shut my eyes and then open them quickly, looking back at the portals of her nose.
I am fascinated. The hairs stick out in all directions. I try to distinguish them, individually, almost squinting, picking them out from the black depth.
A cool touch is spidering around my teeth. To distract myself I try to count the hairs. The woman is saying something loudly, clumsy and hot from under the napkin. How does she expect me to answer when her fingers are in my mouth? I’m not listening and so she gently props open my jaw further, splitting the lines of my teeth away from each other.
This woman could be a cartoon. Her face is so big! A huge flat forehead, swiping across those massive googly eyes, her nose pressed flat and round and bouncy in front of me, massive round cheeks looming up over the napkin. There’s nothing small and pretty about her face. It’s all flopping out, demanding. She probably has big droopy lips, big big teeth.
I fail at counting the hairs, envision furry caterpillars instead. Small creatures in the spikes of her nose. Some hairs are grey, like the highlights my mam gets. They all poke out at strange angles from the walls.
Mama and Papa got in fight about my hair. Not the hair on my head. The ones on my legs and my arms. Mama was worried about it. I heard them after I went to bed, after my shower. I forgot to pee and went back out and downstairs. Papa was saying “She’s seven. She’s supposed to be a little hairy now.” He sounded annoyed. “You don’t shave the legs of a seven year old. Wait till she’s twelve, thirteen.”
“You’re not a girl,” my mam says. “She shouldn’t go out like that when all the other little girls have nothing. She’ll be self-conscious.”
“Did you shave at seven?”
“I don’t remember. Girls develop sooner nowadays.”
“She’s not developed!”
“She is, Stefan. She’ll never have boobs, like me, but you can already see her legs get chunkier.”
There’s a pause and I hear my mom decisively, “I’ll sign her up for that kids running group. She’s seen us run all the time, she’s probably a runner.”
My father doesn’t say anything. Mam continues, “She hates her gymnastic class. Mrs. Senfel said she has no hand-eye coordination.”
“Okay,” Papa says finally. I had forgotten to pee again and I went quickly, shutting the bathroom door.
I know this woman should not have hair in her nose. I know she should not use a rubber-band to put up her hair. Rubber bands are wrapped and snapped around asparagus, around broccoli, around flowers, around the lids of peaches when you go to the country in the summer to can them, so you can grip them and unscrew them in the winter when you want sweets. Not for little girl’s hair.
And then the big light is pulled back up and flashed off, and the woman swings her face away from mine, lifts the blue napkin over her head, smiles and says “All done!” and she’s giving me a small plastic bag, because I’ve already moved my legs off the side of the big chair and I take the bag and I stare at it. I don’t look inside I just hold it.
I wonder what it would be like to stick my fingers into someone’s mouth.
We are about to leave. We’re standing at the sill, the counter sill again, my mom back at the window, talking to the invisible lady she has to pay, when a girl my age walks in.
She is wearing something I have never seen before.
Her mom has sunglasses on and doesn’t take them off inside and I know she isn’t supposed to do this, it’s rude and I can’t see her eyes but I’m not really noticing because I’m noticing the girl. She’s wearing a jacket and pants and they match, green like the dentist’s. But hers are lime green. She has gold sandals.
Unless it’s an actual metal, you don’t wear gold. Because it’s fake. Why would you wear anything that’s not real? But the girl’s tan feet look beautiful, strapped in that gold. And her jacket. Her jacket! It’s lace!
I have never seen lace on a jacket. Lace goes on dresses. And it’s white. This was green, and it was a jacket.
The girl comes right up next to me. Her mom is next to her at the counter, the two of us separating our mothers separated from each other. She smells very good and doesn’t look at me, focusing on the ground.
I want to say something but I don’t know what. The small holes in the lace make patterns breaking around, twisting across the fabric. There are so many! I never look at lace, especially this close, it’s pretty but not comfy and it’s only on dresses. But this is green and it’s close. The holes wrap into each other, fitting together perfectly somehow. To my awe when I blink I realize they make the shape of flowers. Green lace on a jacket! Does it make the jacket fancier?
I get the thought that the mother must have cut up the dress to make the jacket and pants. Like my mom does when she buys new clothes, cutting and sewing because they don’t fit right, they’re always a little big.
Mam is squeezing my arm. “Don’t stare,” she hisses. Barely, but I can always hear her. Mama never hurts me the way some mothers do, but she pinches, very hard, in a way that no one can see. I always am careful to look at people’s nails. We leave the dentist. I don’t get to see the girl’s mom, but I should have. The girl watched me as we left.
The next week when my mother asks me to pick a new jacket I try and try to find a lace one. We don’t find it so I look for pants. When I find some I think she’d like she shakes her head.
“No. You need them to come up, up here.” Mama points at her belly button. “You can’t have them low on your hips.”
I look confused.
“You’re like me,”my mother told me irritably, “You are straight, all angles and no curve.”
Mam pulled the pants up over my legs, her fingers very cold. They always were, she had poor circulation. Not enough red meat, doctors would tell her.
“So we fake it, hm? When the pants come back up to here, it looks like you curve in.” I didn’t get it until I saw the mirror. Like a rubber band!
From then on I decided I would only wear pants.
Later I would always be fascinated by lace, lingerie in particular, lingering in the aisles, rubbing the material between my fingers, examining the intricate loops and holes stretched in precise shapes, coming to fit squarely together. My first purchase at fifteen had me in a secret, transcendent joy. But I never wore it. I never made those beautiful garments casual, routine purchases. I just liked to look at them.
The wall is cool and thudding, slightly. I know this because I’m leaning on it, my whole back, the backs of my arms. A little while ago I stuck my hands in my jeans, to avoid having my arms crossed. The wall’s a yellowed white and I can feel the slight bumpiness of its texture on my skin. The Haukland summer cabin paint has dulled.
The music is coming from the next room and I’m watching people tromp in and out of the kitchen in front of me.
One drunk blonde appears swaying in the doorway, makes her way to the sink. She doesn’t see me, stretches, going on her toes to reach up into the already open cupboard, grabbing a glass and tipping it back so it falls in her hand. Later when I go back to America I will remember this, how parties in Norway always use glass and silverware.
I’m watching her plunge her hand in the sink, flip the sink lever up high so that the water gushes out immediately and violently. She has that thin blond hair, dirty blond, hanging almost greasily at this hour; strands that taper out at the ends, fall across bony shoulders, the thin black cotton summerdress. Great tan already for the summer, even some light freckles for good measure. She might be the sister of the girl who invited me to spend the weekend far away from the city. Invited everyone.
They’re dancing on the shag carpet in the next room, a chorus of mismatching voices rising loudly and then comically straining to hit the high notes. I can hear them stomping.
The girl doesn’t wait to fill the glass, snatching it out of the stream and letting the water run, drinking greedily. Water spills out as she drinks over her chin and she wipes her mouth with her forearm. She remembers the faucet is on and heavily slops a palm down on the lever, shutting it abruptly off.
It seems immediately quieter. The girl bends, resting the glass on the counter, then curls her other hand around the sink, pulling back her body from the counter yet anchored there. Her head hangs, the hair streaming down limply, covering face. I hear her breathing.
I am self-conscious of staring at her and then the boys come in.
“No,” she mumbles. She forces herself straighter, pushing herself up onto awkwardly erect arms, leaning her full weight on them over the granite, supporting herself sheerly through gravity.
“Aylaaa…” a boy sings out, laughing. “Aw, beauty queen.” They approach.
“What a mess,” says the other, curlier haired and wearing glasses. “Baby,” the first says, looping an arm around on the girl’s shoulder. Her elbows break out suddenly and she slumps into him, defeated. The boy is also blond, very tall, skinnier than is fashionable for a man. He’s not a man yet, only because he’s maybe the youngest boy here, around our age.
The one with glasses notices me. He must be our age too, but stockier and hairy enough to pass. He nods to me. We don’t exchange words.
The blond boy is murmuring to his girlfriend. Glasses goes to occupy himself to get a drink, shuts the open cupboard.
The stomping in the next room gets harder, to the chorus. I remember how the luxurious shag carpet feels under my bare feet, think it’s time to duck out of the kitchen. When the girls first arrive we all wear heels, it’s evening and the sun’s out, and then we don’t. At a certain point naked feet, little toes, smooth arches--become sexy. Free.
The dark haired boy looks disgusted and immediately exits, leaving the half-drunken glass on the table. His friend doesn’t notice and then tries to stand up to his full height, lifting his head. The girl drops back onto him and he realizes she can’t stand.
He turns, searching. His eyes lock on mine. “Hey.”
I know I’m supposed to help and so I push back from the wall slowly, come next to them. I see the freckles on the girl’s collarbone. She flutters her lips, making a childish sound, breathing heavily. “Grab her arms,” the boy instructs.
I step behind him, his thin shirt marked with vague impressions of sweat.
He moves and suddenly the girl is in my arms.
“Can you take her to the bathroom,” he asks, but he isn’t really asking, and he’s looking directly at me, so I nod and he nods quickly back. Is he her boyfriend ? He leaves me with the girl, turning immediately around, padding away into the room with the voices and the shag carpet.
I’m holding her, lifting up her bulky, clumsy body against mine. She is breathing kind of heavily now, and moaning. I struggle in the direction of the doorframe, the bathroom.
Then I hear laughter out from under the bathrooms closed door. We need to get outside.
From the music room there’s suddenly cheering.
We make our way clumsily around the corner, the open living room in view.
The group has arranged themselves in a circle. Two girls are in the middle. They’re smiling at each other a little shyly but with a hint of daring. The group is chatting excitedly.
It is hard carrying the girl and I pause to catch my breath, watch. Against my chest she seems comfortable.
“You won’t!” a boy is shouting. “You think I won’t?” One of girls in the center shoots coquettishly back. The other makes a V with her fingers, playfully rolls her eyes back, wags her tongue between them. “Do it!” someone else shouts. “Do it! Do it!” A chant rises up. And then the first girl springs forward, landing her lips on the girl in front of her.
The room erupts in hoots and claps.
I lean closer to see, try to set Ayla down. She’s moaning more audibly now and we struggle there, and then I find the wall again.
As if enjoying the show the girls ham it up, moving their heads sensually around each other. Their mouths have come open, they are using tongue and you can see the muscles in their cheeks, their closed eyes. The brush of eyeliner makes them seem lush, in pleasure.
Something electric runs through me. I don’t want them to stop.
The girls come closer together as if they had done this many times, in crescendo, leaning on their hips so that they could lift up their hands, grasp the face in front of them, stick the fingers up through long hair. One of them makes a noise.
I snap my head back with new determination, pushing the body in my arms forward and ignoring the cheers. The door outside is close and I move the girl’s weight to the crook of one elbow, reaching out with the other hand, pulling the knob forcefully, almost pushing her outside.
We stumble out and it is cool. The girl is still moaning and I make her walk some paces away. Haukland is beautiful in summer, the wide barn houses and cabins far from the actual beach but placed randomly across fields, sprawling. The mountains encircle the lightly dotted plain in the distance. From here the water does not seem to have a single ripple.
I lower myself and the girl down. She buckles. I sit behind her.
In the house I can still see the group beyond the glass doors. The girls have stopped and there’s lots of clapping, and then a kind of a pause. Someone makes a loud comment that gets people to laugh. Then the room stutters into action, figures getting up, cutting against the light.
I look at the girl next to me, breathing deeply, her eyes closed. Her dress has bunched up around her butt, one leg jutting open and out, her underwear brightly visible. White with a lacy fringe. I don’t make a move to adjust this. Let her steady herself. I sit back on my arms, look up.
And then I notice the two girls have moved upstairs, in the window.
Just their heads, vaguely, one’s shoulder visible. They’re facing each other, not even looking out. Was it the upstairs bathroom? I try to see if there are more faces behind them, how big the room is. Neither girl is more masculine than the other. They seem to enjoy their conversation, they’re both grinning, maybe from the rush, but almost in that very specific way. The kind of way you see in movies.
They get up, vanish.
The drunk girl in front of me has her hands in her hair, clumping it in exasperation. Her face is pushed up into pain, a taunt grimace. She sucks in her breath sharply. Gasps. “Rahhh!” she utters, moaning. “Make it stop, oh my god, make it stop, I’m going to puke.”
She throws herself down on hands and knees, like an animal. Her dress falls back down over her underwear and her hair drags on the grass. She grips the blades.
“You need to puke,” I tell her.
Her head shakes vehemently, mumbling. “I don’t wanna puke.”
“You have to.”
“No. I don’t want to puke,” she blearily insists again, louder. Her body is rocking forward and back, as though getting ready to race, lurch forward.
“Come on,” I say helplessly. I get down next to her. I don’t know what to do with her.
“Mmmmm.” The sound pushes loudly out of her, her lips firm, her head shaking furiously, no longer committing to words.
“Sit back,” I tell her.
She opens her mouth and breathes rapidly.
“Come on.” I move to her, gently pushing her shoulders down, then a little more firmly. “Sit back,” I say again. She stops swaying and then acquiesces, letting me push her to sit back on her heels. Her head is thrown back and she thumps down awkwardly. She swings her legs around, panting.
I walk on my knees behind her, carefully touch her hair, sweep it up between my thumb and forefinger, hold it back.
Her eyes are closed and then her brows furrow. She faintly shakes her head to the sky.
“I can’t,” she barks out.
“You just...stick your finger in your mouth.”
The girl doesn’t move.
I need to leave this girl. “Do it,” I say more savagely.
She picks up her hand, puts it weakly in her throat, a wince rippling across her face. Pushes, gags.
“You’re not going deep enough.”
She drops her head down and I let go of her hair. She launches onto all fours again. Lifts a dirty finger, tries again. Gags. Her breathing has calmed down. I move in front of her.
“Deeper. It’s supposed to hurt a little bit.”
She tries again, continuing to gag, spits weakly, tries to steady herself.
“Look up,” I say. She does.
“Open your mouth.” Her jaw drops obediently open.
I peer briefly into the cavity and then stick my finger in, immediately striking. The girl’s hands fly instinctively to my hand, her eyes flashing open, gagging, but I hold her chin firmly in my other hand, turning my shoulder to ward her off, her arms batting weakly against the grip.
In her mouth the crevice grows smaller as I shove into the wet warmth.
Suddenly she lurches forward. I jump back. The rasp of fluid conjured up from her throat comes crudely out of her. Something splashes to the ground.
I wipe my hand on my jeans.
The girl pukes and continues puking, one after another, her shoulders heaving up around her and her body quivering, still on her hands and knees. I don’t reach for the hair, scraggly caging her face.
Then the girls who were making out appear in front of the house.
They are creeping up to the hay bales. I hadn’t seen a square of light from the front door slide across the lawn, hadn’t had a concept of the world beyond the braying creature in front of me. The two girls climb up the bales.
Are they actually gay?
They could either sit there to see the beach, the Norwegian mountains a dark form against the sky, the faraway water a bright, distinct shape. Or they could plunge down inside to the bound, dry flat blades, pointed and sharp in unpredictable spokes. Or they could drop behind the rolls, to the grass.
My heart is beating and I feel something sweet, sharp and demanding inside my body. I want them to make out again. I want to see a hand snaking up the rolled denim shorts, reach into a loose summer shirts. I imagine a warm hand on my own breast.
The girls stop, standing on the top of the pile, balancing on the unsteady curve. I control my breath.
They jump down after a moment, moving away the bales, walking onto the road, disappearing. Unlike in cities you can watch someone leave in the country, see them grow smaller and smaller, rather than be assuredly engulfed in the coalescing crowd.
Next to me the girl has gone silent.
I look at her. She’s sleeping.
Her mouth is open and she is not quite beautiful but she is calm, one arm strewn over her chest, as if she had just fallen back after throwing up and never adjusted to lay down comfortably. She breathes quietly.
I study this unmoving face, all its details relaxed and bared. I could kiss her, on her beautiful, rotten mouth. She is still and jagged, folded out of the world, unaware of the cooling summer air, the grass dew. I don’t kiss her. The scent of vomit infiltrates up into the clean night and I creep away, quietly, back to the house.
There’s the light.
It’s fluorescent and the ceiling tiles are cardboard, pocketed, with the plastic strip cutting them up into squares. Checkers.
On my right there’s a plastic white curtain. The mattress is plastic and white too, uncomfortable to the touch.
I’m in a hospital. There’s some shit clipped to my vulva.
I move and I feel it, a thin, flexible plastic tube curving down and cold between my legs. To my horror I realize I might not have been control of my bladder.
My fingers fumble and I yank the contraption off, a sharp pain biting behind it. I find the other tube taped down, stuck in the meat inside my elbow. The sharp point frightens me but only for a second, not more than the flimsy, half-full IV bag that hangs above it. This I take off forcefully, squeezing my eyes shut and wincing. A dull panic has risen in my chest. I swing myself upright, immediately dizzy. The tile is cold against my feet. I have to get out. Who knows I’m here?
I try standing, wavering. I shove the curtain aside weakly, standing and blinking in the leomelum hallway. There are nurses at machines, a long corridor of curtains, beeping.
“Hey!” A nurse has found me, purple hijab dark against her green uniform, black frame glasses. Impeccable make-up. I see her head half turned, glaring, rising from her bend over a desk. She straightens and I am moving, already looking on, searching for an exit. My clothes. I realize this too late because suddenly her hand snatches my wrist, the fingers spreading, curling tightly around my forearm. French tip. I look at her face. “Honey,” she says. She can’t be that much older than me. Eyeliner in swift wings. More gently. “You’re not ready to be discharged yet. Let’s sit.”
My throat has gone dry and I give up suddenly, nodding, following her. I slowly sink into the thin mattress, pull my legs in and hold them there. My eyes are closed as the nurse draws the curtain back around.
“I’m not going to hook the catheter back on to you,” she says. I keep my eyes shut. “But give me your arm. You need to eat.” This is all she says.
I extend an arm outward. She takes it in soft gloved fingers. I feel something cool and wet dab at the wound of before, cleaning it. Unfold the rest of my body slowly, blinking, not looking at her, not looking at anything but the fluorescent light blaring from the ceiling. I lay limply. Another small bite. I want to cry. I fight it, shut my eyes.
The curtain has only just slowly rustled shut behind her when it zings back across, more violently. I turn, hyper alert.
She stands there in jeans, a wrinkled band T-shirt. A sensation overwhelms me. Suddenly a lump swells painfully in my throat, pressing hard into my airway.
“Hey,” she says.
“Rachel.” My new college roommate’s face looks frightened. The freckles have become pale, sticking out, pinpricks against her skin. She seems sick, unsure what to make of me, the responsibility she assumed. I can see the lines between her eyebrows where wrinkles are going to form, how her frizzing hair is unwashed. I make myself swallow, forcing spit down my throat. “Thanks for bringing me.” I say this calmly. I suddenly know it’s true. “Of course.” She doesn’t move. I continue.
“I’m eighteen. I don’t have my ID on me but I’m eighteen. I don’t need anyone coming down for me.” By anyone I mean family. She knows this. She studies me, nodding carefully. “Did you call anyone on my phone.”
“No,” she says.
A girl materializes behind Rachel. She’s taller, skinnier. Long braids and amber eyes. “My girlfriend drove you,” Rachel says. I look over the girl. Neither of us say anything for a moment. “Thanks.” She accepts this silently. Nods.
“How you feeling,” Rachel asks.
“Okay. I guess. I mean. Tired.” I try smiling.
Rachel sits on the edge of the bed. “My sister…” she pauses, searching. “I know what it’s like.”
I just stare at her.
“I have five sisters.”
I can’t imagine being surrounded by five girls. I imagine girls that look like Rachel, arguing, tugging hair, shoving clothes into drawers, yelling as they slam the door. So many limbs, the scent of lotion, different perfumes. Chatter.
“Yeah,” Rachel says, finally grinning. Shakes her head. “We’re pretty damn Irish.” She snickers. “It’s fucking nuts.” Then her face changes. “I mean,” she amends, slowly. “I’ve just been through this sort of thing, so.”
“I had a lot to drink. Lot of liquor.” I’m smiling again. Confidently.
Rachel looks at me. She leans forward as though she might touch my leg, touch me at all, say something else and then leans back. The sympathy is there, painfully wet in her eyes.
“I feel you,” she says simply. Then, “The nurse has my number. Whenever you’re ready just call. We’re going to run out to Duane Reade, grab some snacks. Want anything?”
I shake my head on the pillow. “No, thanks.”
Rachel nods, looks up at her girlfriend. The whole time she has stood behind her, a hand on Rachel’s shoulder.
“Your cellphone was with your things.” The nurse has come in again, holding it out. She waits.
“Thank you,” I tell her expectantly. Stare. The nurse registers that I won’t call home in front of her. She hands me the phone, turns and disappears.
I sit up. The phone feels heavy in my hand. I press the center button, the icons flashing to life. Quarter battery left.
Rachel remains on the corner of the bed but her girlfriend squeezes her shoulder, moving to gently touch her arm. Rachel looks up and then gets up quietly, closing the curtain behind them as they leave.
I move, sitting at the edge of the mattress, feet hanging down. Home. I dial. It rings and rings and rings. I close my eyes. My heart races again, I tell it to stop, make it calm, breathe.
“Well hello.” Mama. My eyes are open. Bright voice, amused even. “How was your first week at school?”
“Great,” I say. Saturday. It must be Saturday morning. I hear her in the background of the phone, doing something.
“You having lunch?”
“Yes liefje. Right now.” Pans are rattling, there is movement. She’s opening cupboards, she’s bending down. She’s wearing a dress, an apron maybe.
“What’re you having?” I relax. My breathing slows.
“Oh, you know. Some salmon. A salad. I just got these cherry tomatoes from the community farm. I thought they were out of season, but you know. Some people really have a green thumb.”
I imagine the crunchy, peppered top of the fish skin. A thin, glistening slice of sweet pink salmon. I crave it suddenly, can conjure up the smell. “Sounds yummy.” Then I’m disgusted with myself. I turn to watch the drip of the IV tube, my stomach churning. My stomach must be empty, but I know the water-colored fluid is a trick. I am growing with every second. And then I feel actually sick. I look back at the floor, my chipped toe nails.
“Tell me more about school.”
“I like it. It’s fun. My roommate’s cool.”
“What’s her name?”
“I have two, Tom and Rachel.”
Over the phone the movement stops. “You’re living with a boy?” Her tone is ice.
“No, no. It’s a girl. Thomasa. She goes by Tom or Tommy.” I let my feet swing a little. “Haven’t seen her much.”
“Oh.” The movement resumes. Oil now, that the pan must be sufficiently warmed, that the spices are taken out, lined on the counter. The salmon breaded in a coat of all this, hard crystals of salt padding the skillet, just barely suspending the fish over the heat, steaming the soft underside.
“I’m glad it’s good. Your teachers are good, too?”
“Yeah. They’re good.”
There is quiet on the phone. I scan the rings of the plastic curtain above me, holding the sheet high along the metal rail. Like a shower curtain. Was I in the bathroom, when they found me?
Mam must be sitting now, on a chair between the oven and the window. She says it quietly. “Liefje, I think I’m moving back to Oslo.”
My head moves sharply, back to the blank white center of the curtain. Folds and shadows. “What?”
“Yes. It’s time. You’re in college now. You know, in Norway we don’t have dorms. I lived with my mam up until the very end. I always commuted to school.” She pauses. “But here you go, off on your own. And I...I don’t know what to do here, schat. I’m...I’m bored, I’m, alone. What do I have here?”
Me. You have me. I want to cry out on the phone. Oslo?
“I miss my friends,” my mother says. Her voice is distant. I’m picking at the fine holes in my dressing gown, the small squares quilting across it, almost like a paper towel. It isn’t cloth, it’s plastic, like for wrapping food, not people-- firm, white, nicked in shades of grey. Checkered like the ceiling.
“I miss my country. I miss my language, I want good food, I want to wake up in a beautiful place. This city...it isn’t the same, you know that.”
She’s getting up again. She’s checking the salmon, lifting the lid. Smelling it.
“When I came here with your father, it was a sacrifice. I didn’t know how to act, had to learn very quickly and don’t get me wrong, I love this country, it has been very good to me, to us--I mean, you were born here, it’s yours.”
Every summer I spent learning about you, trying to reach you mama, trying to reach the perfection there. Even when I was in it Oslo was so far away. I sculpted my body after you, my habits. My boyfriends, my passions, my tastes. Now I’m alone, with all this?
I’m looking at the ceiling. You’re going to live there. Okay. I breathe. Yes, squares and holes. I’m fenced in by all of this, the shivering sheet, the IV dripping that’s inaudible and I still hear it, plummeting into me. I still hear it.
“Yes,” she answers. I must have said it out loud. I must not be fully awake.
Does she feel helpless? Is that what this is? Giving up? The plastic strips, yellowing, running across the ceiling, holding the tiles.
“You’re a beautiful young lady.” Here she’s smiling. I can hear Mam smile over the phone. Through her sadness, maybe. I want to grab her. Her face. “I’m very proud of you.” I clutch the phone, hard.
“I know you’re going to do well. You’re very strong.”
“Okay,” I say, obediently. A whisper.
“Hey,” she says. I can hear the wickedness, the grin, the mischief-- “Guess what?”
I beat her to it. “I love you,” I blurt out.
She’s laughing. “I love you more. Call me again next week, okay? I won’t be moving for a while. Going to move into a cousin’s house.” She’s musing. “I’ll keep you posted.”
“Hou van jou,” I say again, weakly into the phone.
“Love you. Bye liefje.”
I put the phone down slowly. The tips of my toes in circles, grazing the cold floor. Suddenly, I am starving.