Phantom Limbs

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‘No…’

The words from my doorway felt like the last gasp of a fire sputtering and collapsing.

Two hours ago I was sitting in a conference room, surrounded by reasonable men and women in reasonable suits, saying reasonable things. They were asking me to leave; a drone of voices claiming an inability to help me had come to the conclusion that they were doing more harm then good. Pack tonight, out the door before breakfast.

Past the buzz of security lamps, the dirty sun struggled to breach muddied panes. Past the drug line and nurse’s station. Past the threat of the scales, where on Mondays they would strip my gown and pull at black boxer briefs looking for foreign material; returning to my room to gather up everything that had been collected in five long weeks.

She stood there, her arm propping her body against the jamb, skin in soft focus, dark crimson framing her face. She seemed more and less than when she arrived; a body beginning to reconstruct itself even as her heart broke in doing so.

I let the murmur escape through a buried sigh, ‘They’ve asked me to go.’

‘Why? I..I don’t understand.’

‘Something about not helping. Plateaus. I got a little lost after the ‘have to leave’ stuff. They also asked me a…a question.’

Regulation was everything and was not to be defied. You were not to have or show caring or empathy with one another, building relationships was strictly forbidden. I imagine this rule was put in place by a surgeon who, after harvesting and selling hearts on the black market, was resigned to writing policy after the scandal died down.

‘What did they ask?’

She moved closer in unsteady steps, her voice barely a whisper. I continued to collect bits and pieces. Pausing, I tried to find the right words, bony fingers pressed against either side of my nose.

‘Uh. Well…Okay. They wanted to know about the…nature of our relationship.’

‘What did you tell them?’

‘The truth, I suppose. That we’ve been there for each other when need be. That I care about you.’

‘So was that a reason you’re being removed?’

‘I honestly don’t know.’

She sunk into the starched sheets and thin hospital blanket that were draped upon a plastic covered mattress. Both were an ugly, flat green-grey. I listened to her breath, clipped and unsure, a slight shudder in her chest, as though she’d forgotten how. A slow exhale; words fell from her mouth; heavy things that tumbled to the floor with a discontented thud.

‘What’re you gonna do?’

‘I really don’t know.’ My hands held up against the back of my neck, ‘Go home, try to not fall down again….moping is likely.’

‘That sounds terrible.’

‘Little bit, yeah.’ I paused, ‘What about you?’

‘I dunno, can’t even think that far ahead.’

‘I have a prediction.’

‘Do you really?’

‘Uh-huh. You’ll get out, become a model for dietary supplements and from there, slowly but surely, begin your plot to have the planet under your thumb.’

‘Shut up.’ She replied through a wicked laugh.

‘It’s true.’

‘I don’t want the planet. Nope.’

‘What do you want, then?’

‘Quiet, maybe. Calm.’

Her eyes grew overcast and fell towards her feet as she shuffled them, finally settling, toes pointed toward each other. Hair fell across her face as though it was a warning that no one would ever get inside again.

‘Remember our first group session?’ She asked, ‘When they wanted to know why we ended up here? You never answered.’

‘Neither did you.’

‘No, I didn’t.’

Words can have a particular manner of hanging like mist in a room; enveloping, a fog of anticipation and worry looming, daring one to answer. And in this place, everything was raw and surfacing; felt harder, cut deeper, hurt more.

‘So?’ A quiver from her lips parted and gently spoke.

‘Why? The reasons aren’t the same anymore. At first, people told me I’d be more…accepted. When that didn’t happen, I used it as a weapon. I could throw it out there and see who was safe to be around. I probably bought into the romantic illusion of suffering a little too, if I’m honest. I thought it made me unique. Now, it’s…I…I just don’t know if there’s anything else left but this.”

I’d never say it out loud but I wanted to ask what she thought. I couldn’t. I don’t know if I was afraid of the response or if there was something else, but the threat of an answer turned my stomach over. And all she did was smile. Kind emerald eyes softened by florescent light.

Cautiously she asked, ‘Do you want to know?’

‘That’s up to you. It’s your story.’

She began by toying with the zipper of her slate coloured top. Up, down and again, until her eyes met mine, pausing a moment before pulling her blouse open. A ribbed white tank top beneath cradled the soft white skin of her shoulders. Tentatively, she drew her arms free. I faltered; there, carved over and over into thin, pale limbs, her life and history retold poorly in ragged ribbons.

‘What–what is this?’ I whispered.

‘This didn’t work.’

Each moment, every harm done or emotion felt she remembered; described in detail and related in such a matter of fact manner that it rendered them as objects; they were safer in that sense, able to be packaged, divided and stored away somewhere within her. Moments stretched and passed and became heavy, stopping just before releasing breath.

‘What are you thinking?’ She asked, eyes widening.

I’d like to say that I was able to offer anything. I couldn’t tell her that it didn’t matter. It obviously meant a great deal to her. I couldn’t argue that it didn’t define her, that it was a part of her but not who she was, that everyday she’d change and move further away from that version of herself. I didn’t believe that about myself. I couldn’t even rouse an attempt at humor. It seemed disrespectful even if it would possibly offer a sense of relief.

I drew closer and softly placed fingertips on her arms, tracing the marks. Small ridges rising , falling and crisscrossing, my hand moving up to her shoulder before resting against her cheek. She closed her eyes and leant into the cradle of my palm, her arms round me, fingers touching just above my shoulder blades. I felt breath escape my lungs, felt all of the anger and sadness and worry exhaust itself; our bones scraping together as we held each other, I fell into a dreamless sleep

I woke to a nurse hammering on my door.

‘Let’s go, out by seven!’ She barked.

Waiting for the sound of her footsteps to fade, I rose and looked around. My friend had left sometime during the night, her body replaced by a small oval box decorated in bright yellows, reds and greens. The box, when opened contained a scrap of paper neatly folded atop thirteen tiny figures, decorated with elaborate, spooling threads. Each represented one of the women on the ward while I was there. I placed the lid back on, removing the paper; placing it in the breast pocket of my olive drab army jacket and managed myself out of bed and gathered what I needed to shower across the hall.

Everyone — the girls; the fourteen other people in the adjacent trauma wing, were all still asleep when the sensible people in sensible suits ushered me out the door. The August sun was harsh, throwing unkind shadows. Colours were garish, harsh things that poked at the eyes. It all seemed so fast, so very loud. Shading my face, I pulled the message from my coat, considering what it might say. I unfolded the square and found it only had one word written on it: ‘Together.’ Lighting a cigarette and taking a deep pull, everything began to slow, quiet and become more gentle. Walking out with my luggage to meet my father, I felt somehow lighter.

I’ve thought a lot about her in the past eighteen years. How brave she was, after all that had happened to her, to still have it within her to be vulnerable. To share a part of her that had never been spoken of aloud. How that allowed for a version of myself that was free of artifice. We’d tried to keep in touch, exchanging pages long letters over the course of a few months afterward, but we noticed that in the end all that really connected us was a disorder. We’d hinder each other eventually, and I think we would’ve rather known each other for one night than for being triggers. Sometimes one night is enough. Sometimes it alters you and the memory of it will stay with you, quieting the incessant noise.

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