Are they gonna let me say goodbye to my foot before they saw it off?
That would be nice. You never think about these things until moments before a masked stranger takes up something sharp and shiny, and designed solely to lop off pieces from human beings.
"Ma'am, would you like a moment to bid adieu to your…whatever."
Don't hold your breath. Closure for life's less savory, signature moments is a close cousin to caveats before embarking on life's chancier ones. It would've been nice if, on our first date, Whit had said, "Clara, can I let you know just how deep my emotional issues run before you decide to proceed further?"
No such luck there either.
Best I got with the former situation was when a nurse asked me only an hour ago through an off-putting chipper smile: "Would you like your toe-rings in the same bag with your other personals?"
I replied: "Do you have a hospital-issued jeweler's velvet pad I could use?"
Ten days ago when I was admitted for severe sepsis, the predominant question was a variant on, "Any idea how you acquired the initial infection?"
And despite my knee-jerk impulse to come back with, "Isn't that your job to tell me?" I merely confused them further by saying: "His smile killed me."
This is what I'd tell the coworkers, the busybodies, the three-appletini-deep TAs at academic parties whenever they asked what I thought about Whit the first time I met him.
This is what I just told the new nurse prepping me for surgery, a bug-eyed greenhorn named Lisa, with a bun of ginger hair pulled so tight it made her face appear as if on the verge of jumping into hyperspace with all those distending freckles and acne around her hairline.
She looked more scared than I felt, but one gander at my engagement ring and she jumped at the chance to chirp on about the lucky man who put it there. Chit-chatting's crucial to the medical assistant's job for one major reason: to keep the patient's mind off of what's being done to their bodies by grownups in fuchsia pajamas.
The problem is, Necrotizing Fasciitis is the hands-down, all-time champion elephant-in-the-room. Having some RN behind a face-shield snip buntings of dead flesh the color of blackberry fruit-roll-ups from your thigh for a week going isn't like a needle prick to the shoulder you can just glance away from. Nor does lancing a wart hold a candle to having strips of still-healthy skin uprooted from your back to replace the putrefied swaths pared from the limb in question.
So they preempt the mutilation with small-talk, usually revolving around happy tidings or events like wedding, even if they're not happening anymore.
They don't know this. At least I don't think they do, so I keep quiet unless they push for details, which they haven't dared to yet. I sensed that Lisa was about to before one of her more seasoned cohorts shot her a look that could freeze gasoline. But the broken record of cordial smiles and subsequent, abrupt silences tell me that they already know enough.
• • •
Regarding Whitney McKee, PhD, a few words on our meet-cute moment.
I was still wonderfully whole on that day. Except for my eyes. Despite their debatable status as my finest features, they were faulty from the start. Seeing far for me is a three-alarm poop-grimace even with my contacts. But that day I'd opted for the slutty-grad-student look, which only meant a slightly darker lip-gloss and my Tom Ford Cat-Eye frames.
Because I'd heard that Whit was a looker, I figured my odds required little handicapping. Being a fair looker myself, friends have often cited vainglory as my biggest foible, to which I'd just smile back roses, stifling every urge to retort that my biggest foible was keeping around friends who would cite self-awareness as a foible.
So back to Whit, my fossil expert. When I first laid eyes upon him he was about to give a talk at the school entitled From Skinny Shrew to Megalodon: Tiny Progenitors and Shrinking Giants.
Now I don't usually attend stuffy dinosaur symposiums, especially ones with a woman-to-man ratio of ten-to-one. The first five rows were a Justin Timberlake concert with the smattering of men present—those who'd either lost bets, or were in the process of making up for some moronic overstep. But like I said, Whit was easy on the eyes, and even straight men can respect the spite-motivation that only a handsome hombre can galvanize.
Watching him take the stage in his folded brown shirt-sleeves and wrinkled khakis, one abiding comparison prevailed: the Indiana Jones of Alameda County.
Shorter though, and with slightly more bee-stung features. But damn if he didn't pulled it all off, the way certain women can pull off baldness. Add to it the pursed, pensive lips, and a chenille voice that spoke of those extinct animals with the fondness of one sharing photos of his children, and you'd soften fast too.
After a series of overheads and requisite Q & A on the 160 million-year-old opossum-like varmint called the Skinny Shrew, the announcement for the book-signing portion of the evening goosed the ladies into action.
As for me, I bee-lined it straight for the closest male at the front of the line.
"Think it'll count against me that I forgot both my book and signing ticket at home?" I asked the Vonnegut doppelganger. He was in mid deep-throat of his glasses for a fog-and-wipe, though I doubted he needed them; my eyelash flutter was wicked-good and I had legs going to the moon. My prided dancer's legs, never mind that I never boogied a lick in my life.
The way he squinted back put my own eye-pinching to shame. He might as well have been gawking at a yak, and only after slipping his glasses back on did his eyes recalibrate to trace a meandering path down the vintage floral print of my dress.
"I don't see it being a problem," he said, and following a bonobo grin that dog-fart lingered, he carved out a spot for me in front of him.
With six women ahead of us, it took nearly forty minutes to get to Whit's table where I could finally snag a book from the pyramid that had been set up on one corner. All the while, the Vonnegut clone kept rapping in my ear in a staccato drone that drove an itch into all my unreachables—topics from DOW stocks, to auto racing, to the impressive girth of the Megalodon tooth gracing the book's cover.
Watching the head-cocked, snaggletoothed smile of the mousy coed in front of me was only annoying for as long as it took Whit to move her along with an indulgent smirk reserved for chatty toddlers and grandmothers.
Finicky and reticent. That in cahoots with anime-wide green eyes had me jonesing for him all the more, and after checking that I was adequately boosted and wrinkle-free, I squared myself up and opened with a salvo of pearly-whites and dimples.
"Amazing little creature," I said, handing over my freshly pinched book. "Does every first-thing on Earth hail from China?"
His smile was slow to curve, glowing-white teeth stopping just short of touching, as if contact would've ensured some premature and irrevocable commitment.
"In terms of human civilization…yes," he said.
A gulper too! Both of our hooks were set.
"But we're also a geological hiccup time-wise," he added. "First life started in the oceans, actually."
I flipped through his book, not bothering to even slightly feign interest in taxonomy or radio-isotope dating.
"And what other brilliant insights will I find lurking between these sky-blue covers?"
Another gulp. Whenever he did, his eyes flashed more quiet panic than at a Vatican ball.
"Well, there's always the…"
He sized me up suddenly, as if elbowed into it by invisible toadies.
"Are you in one of my classes?"
And yes, I made one of those exaggerated big 'O' faces.
"Oops. And here I thought I'd wandered into Dr. Hekler's OCD forum. No wonder I couldn't pinpoint which possum-toothed member of your panel skinny shrew was an indictment of."
Those big eyes of his billowed atop his cheeks like spinnakers. It was my first taste of his disapproval—a feeling akin to a loosed boulder slammed on your foot.
I guess he could tell that I'd already sensed the jutting elbows of some murkier presence lurking behind those irises, for he initiated a half-dozen blinks in rapid succession before both corners of his mouth dimpled again.
"Who should I make this out to?" he said, reaching for my book.
"To Clara." I leaned forward so he could take in as much as he dared. "The same woman you're taking to dinner this Friday."
His own surprised 'O' was a more subnormal, rhomboid version of mine, and eventually he dove into the book for a John Hancock that took an epoch to evolve. No sooner had he handed it back that he looked right past me to his next fan. I lingered a beat before stepping down. If I'd ever been blown off before, it sure as hell hadn't been with such pussy disregard. My immediate impulse was to hurl the book at the stack on the table and hope for a seven-ten split at the least, but I wanted a gander at his signature first. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was hung-over. Either way, his signature wouldn't lie. You could tell aggression or submission by the way a man spikes his consonants or dangles his vowels.
At the foot of the dais, and within his view, I opened the book to the flyleaf. His signature, tight and controlled, with all caps and lower cases peaking at the same height. But what floated under his signature redeemed him somewhat, at least in the balls department. His scribbled phone number went all over the place, mad and unruly, like an exorcising demon.
I looked back and just caught him whipping his eyes away from me and towards Vonnegut-lite, his grin wide and pressed into action.
Yeah, his smile killed me alright. That sixteen-point ivory picket fence letting the cherubs out while keeping the pucks in.
• • •
But how I loved to trigger that smile. And at a time not so long ago when I seldom got into a dither over the why's and the when's of anything, charming out that beam became a daily preoccupation. Nowadays, not so much.
Yesterday the doctors took more of my left leg, this time to just below the knee. They did their best to save it, of course, but Herculean efforts are a poor comfort when you're being reduced by base-ten percentages every other day.
This is the strength of Necrotizing Fasciitis: its power to deplete on emotional as well as physical fronts. For the first time, I'm truly starting to understand the chokehold that depression had on Whit, though to be honest, better-late-than-never just doesn't pack the consoling punch it used to.
How I caught this lovely malady to begin with, no one could say. Not at first. By the time they could it mattered about as much as the concept of nuclear fission to the blind Hiroshima fisherman dragging the scorched train of his skin over the black glass that used to be his beach.
To refer to this blight by its more common name of the flesh-eating bacteria would be a bit of an inaccuracy; it doesn't eat flesh so much as kills it outright, doing this to one in every four-hundred-thousand lucky contestants or so.
Odds fixation. What used to be a casual diversion has now become my full-blown obsession.
If there's a psychological term for this, I haven't been able to find it. What I have found is that I was twice as likely to get struck by lightning than getting this infection. Four times more likely to die choking on a non-food item, a la Tennessee Williams. Twenty-two times more likely to be the victim of murder. A hundred-and-sixty times more likely to die from slipping in the shower—or maybe not anymore at this point!
Remember all of this the next time anyone crows to you about the virtues of originality.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves; I'm not dead yet, though what's left of my drumstick from the knee up is a Josef Mengele quilt of lipstick shades. The newer wounds are meshed over with vacuum dressings to promote blood flow in anticipation of future grafts. Most are no bigger than the very ring of my nurses' unwitting curiosity. Some push the size of hockey pucks. A few are as large as coffee saucers.
Each a portal into my subcutaneous world. Think the eye of Jupiter rendered in acrylics of fat primrose, blood crimson, and canker plum.
The nurses do their best to keep things light and upbeat as they patch me up while I strive that much harder to out-cool them. The way I see it, you can either agonize and mope, or you can leave the world a deeper impression than what you made while whole and ambulatory, all with the easiest of smiles.
• • •
It didn't take long with Whit and I. Three months and we moved in together. A hiccup in relationship time.
The first night in our new apartment, he stood in his boxers and grey Cal shirt in the middle of our bedroom, surrounded by the skyline of boxes we were too tired to start unpacking. He was gazing up at where the walls met the ceiling, a slight quiver to his chin as he kept grinding his teeth.
This was Whit in contemplation mode. His brooding and gnashing had increased exponentially since we became official, but considering that he hardly fluttered a lip or twitched an eye even when he came, I quickly grew to relish any flaunt of emotion, however mopey.
"Was that crown molding always up there?" he asked.
I'd just walked out of our bathroom, Chanel Precision spackling my face.
"Yes. In fact I made a big to-do about it when I first saw the place. About that trim not belonging in a Spanish revival and so forth? Remember?"
He glanced back, smile wide and languid—those addictive grins that seemed to atone for past fibs and larcenies. Along with the occasional ear-popping belly laugh, he was an unwitting reminder of those very famines in my own life. That he could laugh more richly than most mentally-hale men only made it worse, though I supposed the meds loosened that up in him. A kind of humor expectorant.
My fucking Kryptonite either way, the dark behind the light.
"I remember the landlord couldn't take his eyes off you," he said. "Never would've gotten those free repairs on my own..."
The lotion on my face warmed suddenly. As much as he claimed to love my looks, he also resented them the way some people of comparable talent did in each other.
"Yeah, well the toilet still overflows. Maybe another inch of thigh would've scored us a handyman not from the seventh page of a Craigslist ad."
His eyes moored themselves to the trim-work again. I was tempted to hurl a pillow at the back of his head, but the only other time I'd done that he wallowed in a butt-hurt daze for an entire day.
"Next time I find a place," I said. "I'll be sure to consult Architectural Digest for design integrity."
He held out his hands as if anticipating answers to questions posed in a dream before letting them fall and walking back. On his way to the bathroom he paused to peck me on the lips.
"It'll all work itself out," he said. "I have no doubt about that."
It was a struggle not to roll my eyes at either his optimism or his breath, each being a mercurial thing with Whit McKee. Beneath the broad cheeks and sandy-blond hair, what appeared to be healthy, gleaming teeth barely clung to receding gums the color of corked wine. It wasn't something you'd notice under the glow of swapped pleasantries as he signed your book, but eat enough meals with someone, share enough sweet-nothings over mutual pours of Chablis, listen to their erratic, nocturnal chewing, and you'll start to spot the gaps in the wall.
The things you overlook when sucker-punched by infatuation.
I waited for the requisite rattle of pills and the urine stream to reach its apex before asking, "Any news on the tenure track?"
The stream sputtered to a stop.
"I'm seeing Bill tomorrow morning," he said.
The bureau mirror threw back at me an incredulous mime in canary-yellow Victoria's Secret hip-huggers. I said, "Is it archery this time, or more skeet shooting?"
Whit's guffaw caromed off the porcelain and Formica.
"Exploding clay disks are a means to an end, love," he said. A moment later the toilet flushed, followed by the mumble of profanity, followed by the dribbling of water over the rim.
• • •
Yesterday morning they took the rest of my right leg at the hip.
The infection keeps spreading, never mind that I've been pumped with enough Zyvox and Cleocin to kill all the E. coli in Tijuana. This flesh-eating bug is the Jason Voorhees of bacteria. Not satisfied with a major limb, it has to keep hacking away. This morning they found four expanding lesions on my ass and the small of my back. Even now I can see them if I twist enough so that the split in my gown exposes them: bloodshot lazy-eyes worming through my flesh, trying to glimpse something of their surface host before taking it down.
I'm tempted to call a photographer to document the creature I'm becoming. I can already imagine the subsequent exhibit, likely in some abandoned warehouse at the Embarcadero: hipsters and academes in beards and horn-rims and plastic cups of cheap chardonnay, waxing eloquent on the golden ratio balance of my pustules to cysts.
Groggy as I still am from the Propofol, I'm already counting backwards from a hundred, anticipating the next surgery and that warm explosion in my brain that signals my descent from consciousness, usually before I reach ninety.
Those silly doctors and their tricks.
Whenever I need a real distraction though, I fuss over the fact that I'm two-and-a-half times more likely to die from the anesthesia for these surgeries than to have caught this infection in the first place.
Seven times more likely to perish from electrocution from all these wires and gadgets I'm hooked to.
Trust me, I've looked all this shit up. Not much to do between amputations and skin-grafts but dredge the internet where all these useless facts bob, waiting to be plucked by the next sullen girl in need of a pick-me-up. Try it the next time you're laid up with a bum knee or a nasty bout of the Hershey-squirts.
Just today I learned that Jim Henson died of this, though he got the internal sort that ate away at his organs.
Lucky me I guess.
• • •
Whit was on his knees sopping up curdled brown nastiness off the bathroom tile when I got home flushed with good news.
Before I could say word-one, he lobbed the shit-smeared hand towel at my feet.
"When you get down to it," he said, "it's always best to plan things out in lieu of constantly flying by the seat of one's pants. Odds of success increase exponentially."
This was Whit in asshole mode, though in his defense, it's been a recent addition to his repertoire. Something in the air had flipped on the jittery and snappy in him. Normally I'd sympathize and chalk it up to tenure pressure, but it was really starting to screw with my chi.
"I got the job," I said, opting not to entertain his toilet fixation despite the unholy waft of tarragon in the room.
His face torqued in lemony-sour knots.
"Which job is this now?"
This was Whit at his most unattractive.
"Oh, I don't know. The one I've been pining over since we've met?" I continued to watch his face as it strained for clarity, wringing itself of all remaining allure in the process. "San Francisco…?" I added to spur him along. I might as well have addressed the crapper.
He shuddered the way one does when remembering a shit chore still on the docket.
"Are you talking about that…counselor's position?"
"Yes, that very one," I said. I wanted to add that they were starting me at the high five-figures to suffer the septic-tank exhalations of washed-up rock stars on crack, but salary was never a preoccupation of Whit's. Only prestige mattered to him, a respect and a rank that he already enjoyed at the college, and presumed that I didn't also crave from the world. Because really, why would a beautiful woman want to slog through mires of petty politics for six-figures a year and summers off?
Whit opened his mouth to reply, only to suck in a mouthful of fetid air.
I walked back to the room and started opening all the windows. "Relax, babe," I called back. "I have a week before I need to give them my yay or nay."
"I'll hear from the tenure committee before then," he said, the relief breaking through his voice. "Bill assured me."
Grabbing the Febreeze from the bureau, I spun twisters of meadows-and-rain before me as I returned to the bathroom doorway. "Yes, as you've told me. That's wonderful."
And just like that, he was vanilla-sweet Whit again with his penitent bugaboo eyes and bleached teeth.
"I'm sorry," he said. "This is sudden and…complicated."
This was Whit in his here-and-now mode.
In those rare moments of lucidity and consideration, he could be the kindest of souls, never mind that loving him was a constant bailing of water from a sinking boat within sight of paradise.
Of course, easy me buckled like a first-timer's soufflé, and I shuffled over and planted myself against him and let his arms cradle me against his chest where our hearts played a lazy ping-pong match. After a while he eased me away and took my hands into his, and only after the fact did I remember what those paws had been knuckle-deep in not two minutes earlier.
"I have a confession," he said. "A surprise really. The plan was to wait till the tenure announcement was official, but you deserve to know. It's been three weeks now."
"Since…I flushed my meds."
My right ear sprang weights suddenly, and my head inadvertently cocked to starboard.
"Remember the night we had Bill and Ilsa over for dinner, and the toilet backed up again, and you all but had a cow over it?" he said. "That was probably why."
I cupped his face in my hands. He was trembling.
"Oh, baby. You sure that was a good idea?"
He pulled me in again and rested his chin on my shoulder. "We'll find out together," he whispered.
We stayed that way till the creep of dusk swapped ambers for blues, at which point I told him I needed to go out for some contact lens fluid.
I drove to the school instead, this to meet the Vonnegut twin in the middle of the student union courtyard.
He had wanted to rendezvous with me in a nearby coffee shop, but this was my way of saying I only required the paleontology professor part of him, specifically the access such a title afforded.
"Got the chopper, Kurt?" I said as soon as he was within earshot, just to drive that all-business nail home. Kurt wasn't his real name, but it greased his wheels to be called that by little 'ole me.
"Not even a hello?" he said. His eyes tongued me head-to-toe the way they'd done in that line the day I met Whit.
Silly, hopeful old fart that he was. He did merit points for persistence though; for a simple transaction, he came armed in a paisley Mark Pendleton power-tie and a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo python loafers worth more than my monthly take-home.
For all of Whit's charms, a fashion maven he was not.
"Hellos are for the leisurely," I said. "Things have accelerated. Do you have it?"
He corner-smiled me with coffee-stained charm, but my return scowl and extended roll of cash flat-lined his ploy.
"You know what you could use, Clara?" He handed over the cloth-wrapped piece, attempting a failed finger-caress in the process. "A fresh tutorial on seeing the forest for the trees."
"You know what you could use, Lyle?" I dropped the wad into his frustrated hand before turning away. "Some gel strips."
Driving back home, I pulled into a Sizzler's parking lot on a whim and idled a while by the dumpster under the sodium-vapor spill of a street lamp. Pulling off my glasses, I pinched at my eyes, and after a while, began unwrapping Lyle's parcel.
I didn't touch it at first, remembering suddenly something Whit had once said about certain Egyptian artifacts from Tutankhamun's tomb, after being hermetically sealed for more than three-thousand years, essentially disintegrating upon exposure to air.
This wasn't papyrus though, and as I took up the three-million-year-old tooth, its heft assured me it would probably last another million at least. Certainly Whit would know best how to keep it safe and preserved. In any case, I couldn't imagine anything screaming resilience more than a shark tooth, especially from the sixty-foot, fifty-ton prehistoric version known as Megalodon.
Tracing my fingers down its striated surface, I knew the aspects of it that Whit would fixate on the most weren't the things he could weigh in his palm. The sallow light lapping across its four-inch pewter-grey length would only trigger a reverie of swimming alongside the gargantuan predator in the warm brine of Miocine waters. Its pearly, serrated edges and chevroned black root, so much like hammered iron, would merely evoke the thrashings of its final ancestors as they drowned along the dune shores of the Carolina sandhills.
I held it up and watched the light wrap itself around it some more, this reward for impending tenure as well as blow-softener should I land my own job. Whit's resentments have grown legs and have begun to lunge now and again like a chained pit bull, and nothing got those teeth grinding more than perceived ill-gotten gain, especially any benefit or achievement not earned through drudgery or payment of dues.
His constipated reaction to my news earlier was merely a prologue of such sunny possibilities.
I put my glasses back on and for a moment imagined again Lyle's shameless ogling. Torn between finding his fleshy approval both impressive and repugnant, I crept the car onto the highway and rolled slowly home.
• • •
The time to start worrying isn't necessarily when your doctor makes that taut, sudden-turbulence face while examining you. It's when he calls in a couple of doctors from other hospitals, and they're all sporting that same mug in a loose huddle just outside your room.
As for my request for a photographer, that idea got eighty-sixed on the spot, though the look of complete stupefaction on the head nurse's face at the suggestion was almost worth it.
My parents flew in from New Haven last night, but I'd instructed the nurses and doctors not to let them in to see me. Their reactions would be harder to take than any gaping, festering sore. Since yesterday I've been plied with artificial grafts because they're running out of viable real-estate on my body. Half of me doesn't even look like flesh anymore, but a Dr. Frankenstein collage of mustard-and-ketchup gauzing.
Being simple blue-collar folk, mom and dad didn't need to know such an apparition could even exist, much less in the form of their only offspring.
Apparently when my Greek-American father heard about me needing skin, he naively volunteered to donate some his. Of course he was sweet to have done so, but imagine those hirsute patches! I'd be the little wolf-girl of Stanford Medical!
Just an hour ago they found a new sore budding between my right armpit and breast, so it's definitely moving north. It looks exactly like Gorbachev's birthmark, except for the bubbles of clear fluid leaching through the middle. For the first time I'm hearing rumblings of coma-induction. The specialist in from Cedar's is talking behind my curtain, whispering that the odds of septic shock at any moment are quite high, and putting me under is a more stable way of letting my body and the antibiotics fight the infections.
"Over my dead body," I manage through a sand-dry mouth. I doubt it sounds much more than a pained groan to them. But if I'm to go, I want to be aware and awake for it.
When the nice Indian doctor finally pulls aside the curtain and informs me of my chances of survival sans the coma, I reply, "Oh yeah? Well I'm twice as likely to get a tapeworm at least as long as the leg you people cut off the other day. I'm eight times more likely to be here delivering conjoined twins. I'm four times as likely to acquire a nasty staph infection while being treated at a major American hospital for the Wilt Chamberlin of staph infections…"
• • •
Scotch. If Whit had one escape beyond the dead and calcified world of his work, that was it.
He was already three-sheets gone and in the process of unfurling more canvas when I got home from work a few weeks after I procured the shark tooth. He kept pacing around the bedroom in a jerky oval, snickering at some private joke of a bawdy nature by the way he kept biting down on a balled fist.
"What's going on?" I said.
Not exactly a tower when temperate, being sloshed reduced Whit to a cardiganned pigmy skulking about on slightly hinged knees.
"The real question you're after…is who's going on?" And he chased the slurring with an open-mouth, pantomimed giggle straight out of a silent movie.
"Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
I wish I genuinely felt the surprise I conveyed to him in that moment, what with me still smarting over his non-reaction to landing my new job and all. I'd make a piss-poor Method actress.
From the same hand clutching the highball, Whit raised a sermonizing finger, grimaced ugly, then stifled his initial reply with a raspberry.
"I shot my first twenty-five today," he said instead. "That's what I'm saying."
I shrugged before dumping on the bed the pair of suit jackets I'd just bought and was hoping for his two-cents on. "Is that…a golf thing…?"
He wiped at the runaway snot from the snort that followed.
"It's a skeet thing, silly! A perfect score. Little 'ole Billy never shot that."
"I thought you didn't like shooting with him."
"I don't. But…he invited me to lunch today. Said he had something to tell me." He waved himself off through a wince, belched into his left hand, and tippled with his right. "You know, I never… I always wanted to tell it to his pouty lemur's puss…that I think he's nothing but a world-class suck-up."
The smolder in his eyes could've melted the ice in his glass had it been directed that way. Except that it wasn't.
"Oh, baby," I said, not evading his glare. "What happened?"
He glanced about suddenly as if his name had been called from the other end of a large party.
"No, no," he said, twisting around to home in on the phantom voice. "It must be stated. The world needs to be… It needs to know who its blowhards and its…fawners are! I mean, what's the worst kind of…?"
I stepped toward him and reached out to take his hand, but he started pacing again.
"Let's sit and talk," I said.
"Where's the virtue in expressing pride over what you've amassed…if you gained it through flattery? Through dumb…"
I sat on the bed and patted the spot next to me. "Come talk to me."
"…dumb blind luck?"
"What did Bill say?"
At the mention of the name, Whit cackled to the ceiling.
"You wanna know who's worse than Bill though? Who cajoles and pilfers in lieu of…earning and laboring even more than that…that fraud?"
"Baby, did you flush all the Thorazine?"
"That no-talent…pompadoured carpetbagger, Lyle Mertz!"
He jabbed a finger at me as though I were the very individual of his scorn, and in the process spilled the rest of his drink on the carpet. I started digging through my purse for my phone.
"I'm calling your doctor…"
Whit all but pounced on me, dropping himself to his knees at my feet and swallowing my hands into his. His nails had been chewed raw—enflamed fingertips that matched cheeks pulled taut by an anxious grin.
"It's okay, sweetheart, I'm good. I'm fine. Really. I wasn't… I didn't mean to scare you and all…"
That smile again, killing me all over like that first time. Christ, I was such a sorry Juliet.
"I'm so sorry, baby," I said. I caressed his cheek and tried to hold his toggling eyes with mine, but that smile slumped into a simper that dripped pure bile.
"Hey, at least one of us landed our dream gig. We can move to the bigger city now. Go sailing more often. I mean, wasn't it always a town of…good fortune? Of opportunity for those born with the…opportune attributes?"
I drew my hands away. Suddenly I wanted to be a large body of water removed from there.
"Let's just go to bed. We can talk in the morning, okay?"
As much as my hands wanted to climb back up to take his face, I kept them clutched to the sheets.
"I don't need…" he started to say, scrunching his face to redirect his train. "I gotta use the toilet. Something at lunch…didn't agree with me. I'll join you soon enough."
He adjusted to a single knee then, his grip on my hands tightening.
"Let's get married."
I sucked in a breath and tasted the sting of his scotch on my tongue. In my ideal imagining, this would've been a flawless moment—without my insides feeling as though they were being drawn-and-quartered by rats.
"Ask me again after you sober up," I said.
He nodded most nonchalantly and planted a clumsy, slobbery kiss on my forehead before lumbering to bathroom. Except for a giggle or two, no other sounds issued from within, and at some point I drifted off to sleep at the foot of the bed and dreamt of winter weddings and of giant sharks with stubby iguana legs making landfall in a coordinated phalanx.
The blast startled me awake at 2:37 AM by the nightstand clock.
Too close for a car back-fire, though that had been my initial guess. My next coherent thought was that Whit wasn't in bed.
The bathroom door was still closed, the sliver of light under it broken up in a haphazard pattern. All the dread and terror I ever felt in the whole of my life rushed through my veins then in a single arctic squall, and it took everything to haul my legs off the bed and get them moving toward the bathroom.
When there was no reply to my knock, I told myself that he'd simply fallen asleep on the toilet—that what I'd likely heard was his dreaming body slipping off and taking out the glass shelf with my Felix the Cat toothbrush holder to the left of the toilet.
What I first saw upon easing open the door were his feet, canted to the side and staggered one over the other. A quarter-inch of water covered the black-and-white hexagonal tiles, brackish and speckled like the remnants in a coffee cup.
The toilet running over again. That fucking toilet.
Blood crept into the grit in inky swirls to the right of Whit's feet, but I didn't want to look up. I just wanted to grab the towel hanging from the shower door and damn up the slurry before it could get to the bedroom door.
No sooner had I stepped in that my bare foot gave out on the soaked tiles and I was airborne. I landed on my ass with a splash, the back of my head slamming hard against the tiled wainscoting.
For several minutes my eyes were lenses slowly being racked in-and-out of focus. I could feel the water against my leg and wicking into my skirt, cold for the most part, though warm in pockets. Sitting dazed on the floor, my head lolled unwittingly to the side until I saw Whit still half-perched on the bowl and leaning against the vanity, the top-front portion of his head basically scooped out and dispersed into the ceiling. Nothing remained above his eye brows, and the section of his mouth that was more-or-less still intact was a black grimace that implied something between empathy and shock.
When the weight of it dragged my eyes downward, it was to the shotgun on the floor. Bloody water was starting to draw into the twin maw of its stacked, engraved barrels.
Bill's final verdict, rendered via the walnut and steel antique Whit had spent a boatload on at auction.
My head rolled from the gore and towards the bedroom. None of my bodily functions were under my jurisdiction anymore. The whole world had turned to Novocaine, and I was willing to dwell there forever.
From my seated position I stared at our still made bed, the only imperfection in the copper satin sheets being at the foot of the mattress where I'd dozed off. Then I looked towards the pillows, and I started to weep. Slowly at first, but as the reality of the situation hacked its way to the surface, my sobs turned to hitching blubbers, and finally to horrified shrieks that eventually pried our neighbor out of bed to investigate.
When the EMTs were rolling me out of the room some time later, I wanted to tell them that I'd put an expensive, museum-quality Megalodon tooth under Whit's pillow, but the tiny part of me that still refused to believe he was gone was reluctant to spoil the surprise.
• • •
Should I let them take my nose?
It's what they want. Well, it's what they're suggesting anyway. Hard to argue it when, if you cross your eyes just right, you can see the skin unfurling at the tip in a carbonized chrysanthemum. But this is my face we're talking here. Legs? Okay. Arms? Getting there. The skin from my right shoulder down to the elbow has the curled, blackened consistency of really good bacon. Would probably smell like it too if my nose didn't burn as if someone were waving a lighter under it every time I tried to whiff.
For the last eight hours, I've been in-and-out of the world. They've ramped up my antibiotics and pain drip. They did let me control the amount of Fentanyl at first, but since the sores appeared on my hands last night, I can no longer bend my thumbs or index fingers without a jet of puss squirting from the webbing between them.
No more phone privileges as a result. I haven't been able to use my laptop since yesterday either, so no more web surfing and no more odds. Numbers don't matter anymore, except for the dwindling of time and limbs.
Do breasts qualify as limbs? No? Well, they're on the pile now, too. That was the toughest to let go—worse than my precarious nose and, as of thirty minutes ago, likely my jaw as well.
How can I smile without a jaw? My Whit never could've won me over without his.
Never could've killed me so sweetly.
Soon I'll be a prisoner of my own shell. I don't mean in the slave way that all those real-life housewife bitches on TV are. I'm talking Johnny Got His Gun here. Real Diving Bell and the Butterfly shit. A brain without a body. Thankfully it won't last. Once it runs out of external flesh to feed on, the bug moves quickly to the giblets, and ultimately the noodle.
Forget your notions of infinite reduction, ladies and germs. It all starts and ends with the brain.
So, twenty-four hours give-or-take is about when I'll be topping off according to the doctors' latest estimates. They're amazed I've lasted as long as I have, and just as boggled by my indifference towards that. Except that I'm anything but indifferent. Distort the flesh enough, and eventually you transition from horror to a shocking tranquility and acceptance. All my fears and dreads of the whole of my life have been thoroughly supplanted by a myriad of tiny obsessions, one of which I've been trying to push away since I ended up in the ER sixteen days ago, a mere week after Whit made his graceless exit on the can. I hadn't even felt it when it happened. Bashing your head against the bathroom wall after finding your lover's basically headless corpse tends to relegate miniscule puncture wounds to the end of the line. But that was the culprit if you must know; a tiny nick on my foot from slipping on that soiled bathroom floor. That's what's currently taking me out. The doctors surmised that it was likely a piece of glass or tile that scored the sole of my right foot, and this allowed the swarm of bacteria to enter my body, and that's where it ended with them.
But not with me. Oh, I agreed that it was likely the tile—the actual bit certainly matched the pearly-white tone of the bathroom porcelain—so I didn't feel like I perjured myself too much in subscribing to their deduction. I didn't even notice it till I was released from the hospital after being treated for shock over Whit's death, but the pinch in my foot every time I took a step had eventually grown nagging enough to shake me from my daily broodings and stupors into prying out the offender with some tweezers.
I sat on our bed for the first time since Whit died to do this, and only then did I finally draw the shark tooth from under his pillow. Figuring I'd strip the bed afterwards to wash the sheets, I grabbed my own pillow, and that's when I found the engagement ring Whit had intended to surprise me with. Its sparkle was a birthing sun on my finger, and I admired it while I plucked out the sliver from my foot.
The shard echoed the same tapered contour of the Megalodon tooth, though it was only a fluke shape carved from the buckshot. A shred of incisor. A piece of a smile that I'll die forever craving.