Seemingly overnight, everything reaches its full bloom. The dogwoods burst forth. Bird song is so strident it makes people pause their conversations, or speak more loudly in order to be heard. Flesh is visible, yards of winter white leg and pretty clavicles festooned with glinting strands, as though celebrating their liberation from turtlenecks and heavy scarves. Surprise and a few of the girls from her business classes or young entrepreneur’s club or whatever she is involved with these days—I went from losing her little by little to losing her at a hundred miles an hour, this spring—“go tanning,” borrowing upperclassmen cars or taking the bus to the tanning booth to work on their “base tans” before baring almost all at Beach Week, when much of the college disperses north, along the various towns on the coast. The freckles Surprise had when we first met have resurfaced, and others have joined them. She has a red seersucker bikini and new jewelry from her boyfriend, and she walks like someone who has a lot of staid sex—a clenched swagger.
Overnight, too, I am swelling. I wear more and more layers. My mother’s loose dresses, now getting tighter, or tee shirts under long sleeve shirts under my denim jacket or oversized button-down sweater. My body rejects this weather, the seasonal call to undress. My pants still fit with my rubber band contraption holding them together, but they are not particularly comfortable. My entire biology is forging on ahead, carrying on without me. I feel like a citizen of a country with a tyrannical regime. Time is not heeding my ambivalence, if that’s even the right word for it. I smell different. In the mornings, I make my way to the shower, where I can safely be naked. I miss being touched but I can’t conceive of being touched, so the water’s steady pulse against my skin seems like the right compromise. I make it as hot as I can handle, and when I can’t take it anymore, I turn the faucet almost all the way to cold. Sometimes I vomit, quietly, right into the drain. At the end of the night the smell of me—like blood hatching, like an eruption of cells in a Petri dish—is so thick that I take another shower, soaping and re-soaping every crevice. I wear an old flannel nightgown of my mother’s and I make sure that when I finally pull it on and get into bed, I’m too tired to have any thoughts left in me, and fall thickly into sleep.
It’s getting harder and harder for me to find the right words for anything. Conversation has become thorny.
In three days, campus will shut down. I have not begun packing, have not made arrangements to go home. My father has called and left messages and I have called my father and left messages. We always say the same thing: “Hello, I’m just calling to say hello. Call me when you can.” My father says “convenience”—“Call me at your convenience.” Not inconveniencing people is the first tenet of his religion, a religion based largely on politeness and unobtrusiveness and yes, good-heartedness—but it is a religion too that reviles the dirt and grit and pus and indignity of being alive. Like in those World War II movies where one soldier plunges his hand into the wound of another, to fish out the shrapnel, to save his brother—I wonder, could my father ever be capable of that. If I lay bleeding. If my mother lay bleeding. Because even without the blood, he is too easily embarrassed, too fearful of the mess, of the risk one takes when one tries, in earnest, to save another. It’s not his fault. He wants to be invisible. Or he wants everyone else to be. He wants everyone to be always alive and always happy and always not immediately in front of him. Upstairs, or downstairs, but not too close. If he knows we are okay then that is enough. Maybe he knows my mother is okay. Or he forces himself to believe she must be. So that he doesn’t die, so that he doesn’t sweat. The point is, there is this point with my father where refusing to be a burden becomes its own kind of burden. We become burdens to each other, in our nonburdensomeness. It is contagious. Our bodies repel one another in a weird tango of deference.
I walk around, aimless. Everything I see feels like the first thing I see, feels like the last thing I will see. I wonder if my eyes are different. I go into the chapel one morning and each of my footsteps sounds like four footsteps—the step, and the step’s echo, and the echo’s echo, and the echo’s echo’s echo. Amazing, I think, that one person’s being here is louder than many people’s, that without other people to absorb the noise of my movements I am terribly loud, noisily alone. I sit in the first pew and look up at the ceiling, the solemn sturdiness of the exposed beams, the iron chandeliers hanging from thick chains. I feel moving through me like spilled water an inexpressible love (is it? Who can know?), messily filling in the corners and fissures. I imagine the moisture getting trapped there, mildewing like in the dorm showers, a sealant of dead bacteria to protect me from the contagions of fear that are also seeping inside, from some other hidden inside.
What is this love? Why am I beholden to it? Is it strictly hormonal? Some conditioning of the body, some biological coup?
Or is this not at all love. Is this something else.
I have no idea, I’m learning, what love is. Each day I am certain of a little bit less. I am getting bigger but there is less of me. There is size but no space. All that I was, all that I knew, is being squeezed out by this void-growing-a-body. What will transfer, I wonder. Is there any such thing. What am I giving away, and what will I get back. And what is mine in return. If anything. If nothing.
I leave the chapel and wish for another chapel. I wish for a room filled with people. A room filled with people all feeling the same thing in the same measures, heads bowed, unspeaking, together in our separateness, the air around each of our bodies hemming us in, holding us down, commingling, air doing the work that we ourselves usually do, touching, talking, acknowledging. I want to do none of it, now. I want to see how still I can be, to see if stillness leads eventually to nothingness.
Kristen Iskandrian lives in Birmingham, Alabama. This piece is from her novel long in progress. She recently received an O. Henry Prize. She has been featured on Everyday Genius before, here and here. Her daughter would like her to tell this joke: Knock Knock / Who's There / Shelby / Shelby who? / Shelby comin round the mountain when she comes...