In the abyss between beeps, I come awake. Before me is a sanitary fog; white, dull-white, white, soft blue. My eyelids shuffle and rollick, stretching florescence into crossroads, and my fingers curl in search of a grip. I am held buoyant by the foam of a thin mattress, cocooned in the kindness of tucked sheets. All of me surrounds a fresh void near the center of my body. It is alive. It pulses with interstitial fluid and gratitude. What a relief it is to be here. What a relief it is to have this moment alone.
The coats of doctors billow by the open door to my left. When they see my eyes, they send someone in. I don’t need the nurse to tell me the surgery was successful, but I am nonetheless pleased when he does. He has a luxurious smile and a carbonated voice. He updates me on the state of my being. He speaks of skin below skin. He speaks of the nonessential body. He speaks of swelling, pain, stitches, rupture, and routine. He lingers for my questions. I have none. My stomach sighs like a diver coming up for air, and I attempt to glimpse the incision hidden under layers of cloth, but the nurse catches my hand. Now, now, he says. You’ll need to take good care of that. The bandage stays on and dry for 24 hours, the stitches come out in 14 days. Then you’ll be nice and healed. Back to your old self, good as new.
Those are very different things, but I don’t tell him that.
The remaining hours in the hospital dawdle like a pleasant mist. I’m doing so well, they say, I can leave early. The kind nurse parts with a list of reminders that double as a manifesto for a gentle life. Be patient with your bowels, he tells me, and I agree with a quiet laugh, but the thought lingers on the ride home. I will be patient with my bowels, I mutter to myself. The driver’s eyes stab at me through the mirror. I will be patient with my bowels, I repeat, a little louder, and smile into her silence. She turns up her music with an aggressive twist of a knob. EDM or something like it, loud enough to rattle the car’s plastic lining. I understand her. She needs it to be loud. She needs to wrest back some power over her own car, from me and my bowels, from the company that exploits her labor, from the mass of other quickly-forgotten names that could have picked me up instead. That’s okay. The music’s not actually that bad. There’s comfort in the long builds and the delayed catharsis. Flush against my thigh, my phone buzzes a competing song. The vibration is nice, its rhythm soothing and predictable. I tip my head back to the headrest and feel everything buzz and buzz and buzz.
I’m greeted at home by the anxious mat-mat-mow of my cat. His excitement is so pure I want to cry. For breakfast, I take slow steps around my apartment and spoon yogurt out of its plastic. I hum as I put on my softest sweater and spritz lavender oil around the room. When I lay on the couch, the cat joins me, his little gray legs gravitating toward the spot of my incision. It doesn’t hurt at all. Good boy, I tell him, massaging his little hanging pocket of fat. So chubby, so beautiful.
And then, we rest. It is still morning. Perhaps, it will always be morning.
The sweet boy purrs us both to sleep.
My dreams are infiltrated by an incessant hiss and at once I’m awake and I know something inside my body is wrong. It’s pitch black inside and out, hours since I drifted. My phone writhes against wood. I struggle to hold my eyes open, and before I have the clarity to stop old instincts, I answer the phone.
Uh, I groan.
Hey, Stephen says, his vocal fry flaring with urgency. Are you okay? I’ve been calling. I thought you said six. I’m at the hospital.
Oh, I say, and force myself up. A shockwave erupts from the slit in my stomach. I do my best to stifle a shout. It’s the first time it hurts like this. An elemental pain, like my insides are thickening. I’m okay, I tell Stephen. I’m already home.
There’s a pause, long enough for me to fantasize about a broken connection. I nearly hang up when Stephen grumbles, Wait, what?
I’m at home, I affirm, pain clinging to the fringe of my voice.
No, no, I’m here to pick you up. At the hospital. You said six and I’ve been here for three hours, waiting and calling.
I got released early.
What the fuck? Are you okay? Did something happen?
No. Sorry. The surgery went well. Sorry. I just got a car home.
I’ve been here for… Stephen trailed off, and I could hear him take a few breaths. Are you okay? Really?
Yeah, I insist. I just forgot, or am still in a druggy fog, I don’t know.
You don’t sound like you.
I’m me, I say, and press a hand to the bandage. Something is bulging underneath.
I’m really sorry, I add.
Fuck. It’s fine.
Stephen makes a scoffing noise, like he’s rejecting this whole situation from his body.
The silence that follows is a relief. I try to distract myself, and my eyes find nuances in the dark surroundings. The TV, stoic and too-large. The twin bookshelves, overstuffed. The little neon toy mice, scattered about the floor. The walls, blank except for a single framed poster of a band I once loved. I blink in my home and am stung by a thought: None of this belongs to me.
I’m going to come over to your place, Stephen announces. I feel like I should check on you.
I swallow, and notice the harsh pinch of a swollen gland on the right side of my throat. There’s a knot in my neck from the couch pillow. My left foot is numb.
Okay, I say. That’s nice.
He’s silent for another few seconds, so I add, Of you.
He mutters a few more things, all indistinguishable against the warble of his engine starting. Then he hangs up.
For a few minutes, I recover and let myself fill the room. With careful movements, I stand to drag the clothes off my body. I step between twin closet mirrors in the hallway, and behold. With the lights still out, I’m more shape than skin. Curves and bends, tufts and twigs. In the middle of my nude form is a square patch of cloth, bright despite the dim. It bends outward from the flat of my skin, distended by a bulbous egg filled with who-knows-what. I stare at it and sway. For as long as my eyes remain affixed to it, there is a separate pressure that presents itself at the center of my stomach. This pressure is not sharp and physical like the spot of my wound, it’s peripheral, floating. A coalescence of energy just below my sternum. I know this feeling. It is familiar to me. It is the part of me that hardens when I wonder why I’m so unhappy all the time. When I question if everyone would be better off if I disappeared. When I wish I was anyone else.
Only, next to the throb of my flesh, this energy feels different now. Like maybe I’ve had it wrong. Maybe it’s not sadness, but the sensation of longing, something straining to break free, and I should feed this feeling. Maybe all it needs is space.
Why not, I say out loud, and my voice sounds firm. Why not, I say again, and I can find no answer.
So I decide to take the bandage off.
First I find the edge of the tape with the edge of my fingernail, and pry just enough to grip. Skin clings to the adhesive as I drag. Sharp spikes of my body release and roll back. I pull from the corner towards the center. The rectangular patch becomes a diamond, and my tongue goes taught against the back of my teeth, mashing through the gaps. The last of the bandage slides off, easy, and I stand unveiled. I am pale, discolored, imprinted, textured. Shiny black shapes swim across my stomach to form a striated line. The lesion is inflated, every stitch straining against varicose skin. I know I wasn’t conscious, but it’s almost like I can remember everything that happened in that spot. I see green-gloves wedged between the folds. Silver instruments, wiggling about. Thread snaking and squirming its way through my skin. My fingers shake as I touch the wound. There’s a slight film to it; some transparent ointment. I wonder what it would be like to snip it open, stitch by stitch, and watch the chasm grow.
A knock at the door shatters the infinity I’ve found between the mirrors. I put on sweat pants and open the door, hands cupped to conceal the blistering gash.
Whoa, shit, Stephen says, shielding his eyes. Don’t you want to put on a shirt or something?
I shrug and leave the door open for him to enter while I pull on an old, oversized concert t-shirt. My eyes burn when I return to the living room, where Stephen stands by the glaring light he’s turned on, letting my cat sniff his arm.
I look at him for a moment, and he looks at me. Then I smile and walk by him to the fridge. You want beer? Wine?
Can you drink after surgery?
Probably not, I say. But you can.
That’s okay, he mutters, so I let the fridge shut and settle on the couch, pulling my knees up against my chest.
Sit down, I offer, and he does, on the opposite side of the couch.
We breathe. It becomes apparent that he’s waiting on me. The role I am supposed to play is obvious, but the scripted lines are heavy in my mouth.
That was very rude of me, not letting you know that I was released early. I should have contacted you. You were doing me a kindness picking me up, and I wasted your Tuesday.
Stephen stares at the ground, eyes wide and searching.
It was really rude, I repeat. No excuse. I’d be pissed at me, too.
His chest betrays the strain of his breath.
I’m very sorry, I add, and he finally exhales. It’s almost laughable how much those words do help.
He responds slowly, every syllable a unique effort. That’s okay. I was just worried.
On that last word, he shakes his head. I catch a glint of what might be a tear in his eye, and it makes me realize I am exceedingly tired. What I would give to be back asleep, like I ought to be.
Is there something else you need from me? I know I was a jerk. I owe you, obviously. So I can keep apologizing. But…
My voice fades, and it’s lucky timing, because my stomach seizes under a rasping pang.
No, he says. It’s okay. I appreciate the apology. I do. I do. I’m just struggling to find the words.
Again, I search my room for distractions from the pain. All I find is dread. Chips in the wood of my coffee table. The awkward splay of my legs on the couch. The swell of my gums around my teeth.
Tal, he starts, but a gulp gets in the way. Hearing my name out loud sends panicked thoughts to my brain, but I try to push them off. I don’t know, he continues. I feel stupid saying this now, when you’re just out of surgery. I just really feel like we’re barely friends at this point. And I’m struggling.
As he speaks, my fingers find their way under my shirt. The stitches are taut and biting. I trace the bump of skin and prod the twine, testing the resolve of each and every groove. Like a game of Jenga, I seek out the weak spots and press.
I was honestly relieved when you asked me to pick you up, he says. This probably sounds weird. It made me feel like I am still useful to you, in some way. Like there’s still some kind of value to our friendship, or something. Cause it’s just been empty, for the past however long. Years?
He looks at me, and the watery shine in his eyes is overpowered by the light catching on his wispy blonde hair. I remember when he kept it long, all through middle school and high school, most of the way through college. It circled his head like a million spiral staircases. I remember when he first cut it short. It upset me, because I knew that he had progressed beyond our shared adolescence. For nearly a decade now, he has kept it tight, a fade, classic LA. It probably does look better like this, but something in the way it was mussed tonight, with the gel’s hold waning, made me think his hair desired to run long again.
I understand, I tell him. Yeah, I’ve felt it too.
His head sinks, and I’m not sure if he’s pleased or angry, but then he’s nodding, and it’s relief, I think, that he’s not alone. That’s good. I’m glad for him. The plastic of the stitch is warm where I’ve been rubbing.
Thank you, he chokes. Fuck. I don’t know. I’m sorry to lay this all at your feet tonight. I guess it’s been building in me, and this was the tipping point. I’m really glad to know you’re okay. I did worry.
I nod. It’s all I can give him. The nails of my thumb and forefinger have found their grip on an end stitch. It was not so long ago I first woke up in the hospital, I remind myself. It was this very day.
A surprise wind stirs outside and makes its presence known through creaks and hisses. Seed from the bird-feeder next door sprinkles past. Scattered palm trees shake, their fronds splitting to terrorize the sidewalks. On a far-off balcony, a lone figure stands spotlit, shoulders hunched and arms extended as their hair thrashes and twists. Their joy in withstanding the tempest is palpable. They sway for a minute, until a silhouette beckons them back inside, behind shuttered blinds.
I glance at Stephen, to ensure he sees it all too. We both stare through the sliding glass doors, and along with the thrusts and swells, we think about the times we stayed up late playing video games and sneaking chips from the kitchen. We think about the worlds we invented in our backyards, with my trampoline, with his pool. We think about driving through empty neighborhood streets late at night, nights that always ended with us talking about our crushes for so long the car windows fogged up. We think about the pets that greeted us as an extension of our families, the pets that died. It’s been years since these memories, years we spent living together, flailing together, but we think less about those times. Maybe we’ll find the space to memorialize recent memories, but for now, we only find the firm ones. The ones polished into stone.
I don’t think I’m the same person I was, I say.
The words spew from my mouth as truth. I hear them as the truth. It could be made up, but I swear I feel air slip from between the folds of my skin.
Stephen’s face ripples. I recognize his confusion, and I consider tacking something on to undercut what I just said, to minimize its power. The words ‘I don’t know if that makes sense’ are waiting within me, pure reflex, but I manage to hold them back.
Oh, he says. He’s looking up at the ceiling, up above me, and I wonder if there’s a splintered image of me up there, the old me, the one he knows isn’t sitting across from him anymore. Yeah, he adds. Okay.
We leave it at that.
How long can a single night last? This one, forever. On and on, the world whips us by, spinning back through lifetimes towards some unknown place, some unknown time, some other people, some other love.
Then it is morning. I wake in a cocoon of warmth. I’m still on the couch, I discover, curled in a precise pitch of sun. I have no memory of falling asleep or Stephen leaving, but he’s gone. The cat has taken Stephen’s place on the couch, and rolls his belly open to me when I reach across to pet him. I immerse my hand in the sponge of soft fur and fat, and survey the aftermath of the windstorm. There’s trash strewn about the street, but the sky is viscerally clear, the mountains crisp in their desert textures. The early cars sound like slow-breaking ocean waves, and I can picture the drivers, so many of them, in the midst of their solitary hurdle. Their mouths are shut, their bodies are still, and they’re moving in the same direction, we’re all moving in the same direction, me in my apartment and the drivers in their cars, me on my couch and Stephen wherever he is, and it’s okay. This is what happens, I think, and it’s okay. Something sputters inside me, and I start to touch a feeling I’ve known only in glances. God. I want to call this feeling God. This must be how it happens; gradually, then it all spills at once.
Floating to the mirror, stripping to my skin
I feel so good
I rip the stitch right out