A text by the 2011 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Jane E. Martin
Tomas insists the new exercises will help.
"Come on!" he yells, "like a clam! Clam!"
And even though his arm movements suggest the opening and closing of a shell, it takes me a moment to understand what he's saying. With his accent, I keep hearing "klum." I lie on my side and, with feet together, very slowly begin to lift my top leg, forming a greater-than sign.
"Come on," he says, "this is not geriatrics. Higher."
"Tomas. It's worse this time."
"Okay," he says, and gently presses on my shaking knee, closing the shell. He instructs me to lie on my back, sits, and bows his head over my hip like the Peanuts' character over his piano. He places a palm fl at over my scar, where the surgeons once went in to repair torn cartilage, and closes his eyes.
"Feldenkrais?" I ask.
"Of course," he says.
Two and a half years ago, still recovering from hip surgery, I moved from Boston to Ann Arbor, to take a job with GM. My mother had just died, the last of the New England family I wanted anything to do with. A few days aft er I moved, I limped into Washtenaw Orthopaedic and Sports and looked at the photos that hung beside the reception desk. I intuited that Tomas, of all the physical therapists, would incorporate untraditional techniques into his work. I also decided that he was gay.
A few weeks ago, I had to start coming here again. Tomas showed me the various certifications he'd earned since I'd seen him last. One in cranial sacral therapy, another in the Alexander technique, and the rest in the Feldenkrais Method. He held up a laminated certifi cate with one hand, as if he were wearing white gloves and was about to serve me choice gouda or kernhem from a silver tray.
"The man was a fucking genius," he told me, his green eyes radiating an intensity that made me blush. Tomas is not gay.
"How's Gaby," Tomas asks me now. He loves that I date women.
"You know," I say. "Busy. Preoccupied."
"If she goes to California, then I'll worry," I say, and just to see what will happen, "she worries when I come here." The truth is, Gabriella knows almost nothing about Tomas, only that he is my physical therapist, and that he used to be a professional diver for a tourist attraction on one of Michigan's islands – a detail that she fi nds fascinating because of a paper she once wrote on variety entertainment in America. But because this fl irtation with Tomas is new, I feel bold.
With his eyes still closed, Tomas snorts a short laugh, and, it seems, reddens a little. He takes his hand off my groin and places it on my face. "Feel how much heat I've captured."
In the lobby, Tomas and I kiss on the cheek, as we've begun to do.
"I'll see you in a few days," he says.
"Unless I find out it's cancer," I tell him. "Then you can visit me in the oncology ward." This is a useful habit of mine: embrace the worst-case scenario in order to feel relief when a less tragic alternative turns out to be true. ("No Rose," my doctor has told me, "lung cancer would not cause groin pain.")
Tomas says something in what I guess is Dutch, and points to the door. "You are a diffi cult cripple," he tells me.
"I have to go to California," Gabriella says.
I stop removing garlic, bread, pasta from a canvas bag that has a loose interpretation of Earth and her remaining green patches logotyped onto it. Gabriella sits on a stool and rubs at a spot on the kitchen counter, hopelessly beautiful. I realize that I look like I'm about to throw a green pepper at her, and lower my hand. A strand of her curly hair frees itself from behind her ear and swings toward her nose. Too often, in Gabriella's presence, I feel like the buck-toothed preteen desperately trying to prolong the moment when the popular girl – Jesus knows why – has turned her smile, her warmth, her dazzle toward me.
"What about our trip to Canada?" I say. Gabriella and I had talked about visiting my grandmother's hometown on Columbus day weekend, less than two weeks away.
"Rose, it's cancer."
"I might have cancer."
"You said it was bursitis." Gabriella looks at me in the same way GM's soft ware engineers look at code that has just failed, indignant about the inconvenient result. It's always at the same moment in a project: when all the parts the engineers have been working on in isolation are combined into one big program. I sit in my cubicle a few feet away from the commotion, amazed once more that they have not accounted for each other's existence. "They have no idea what it is. Even Tomas agrees its worse this time. They don't put people on medical disability for nothing." I am often more stoic when estrangement is happening to me. But Gabriella's recent insistence on prioritizing her ex's problems over my own is particularly hurtful. I'm in pain, I'm scared, and I don't feel like being tough. I feel like being covered with a hundred little kisses that tell me I will soon be able to go for a run again, or open a door, a window, all on my own, that I can go back to work, that I will not slip into disability every few years for the rest of my life.
Gabriella's eyes betray a small shift within her. It is in my favor.
"I’ll try to do both trips," she says. "Maybe I can fl y to California from Canada. It depends on whether my funding comes through." For now, I accept this small off ering. "Let me know when dinner's ready?" she says.
Gabriella crosses the kitchen to her study, which sometimes doubles as my yoga room. The ease with which she walks makes me sad. I've begun having dreams about being able-bodied, again. This happened the last time, too, many weeks aft er surgery, when climbing stairs was still an event to plan for, when getting out of a car had to be broken into a half-dozen ergonomic movements, when everyone, even the surgeon, was puzzled by how slowly the recovery was going. When my mother died, I used her cane. It comforted me, fitting my fingers into grooves her own fi ngers had worn into the wood. It was like holding my mother's hand through the wake, funeral, and slow dismantling of her home. Christopher Reeve said that he was never paralyzed in his dreams. He was always sailing or playing polo, the things he loved to do before his accident. Lately, in my dreams, I'm doing things I've never yearned to do: downhill skiing, rugby, and perhaps because I've begun going to Tomas again, contorting my body into several impossible moves as I fall from a diving board to water. Gabriella would have once analyzed these dreams with me, with more curiosity and pleasure than if they had been her own.
As I cut the green pepper into squares, and triangles, and shapes that have no names, I hear Gabriella talking. The study door is closed, but I hear the crests and dips in her tone, an intensity that lately is reserved only for Oriana.
Eight years ago, as an undergraduate intern in Special Collections at UCLA, Gabriella seduced Oriana, who, as University Archivist, was Gabriella's boss's boss's boss. Oriana had started out as the young professor from Bogotá, Colombia and had quickly turned heads in the UCLA Library and Information Sciences community. Gabriella was hired for a semester, to help catalogue collections related to the sauna practices of Peru's Aymara people, pre-Inca.
Over many horrible weeks, Oriana chastised Gabriella for sloppy handwriting, for mishandling bound records, and once, for mispronunciation of Qharaqhara. And then, one late aft ernoon, when everyone else was gone, Gabriella overheard a conversation: "That girl's inventorying is goddamned pristine," someone said. Gabriella looked on from the shadows just outside Oriana's half-closed offi ce door. Her boss's boss's boss was talking about her! Within a moment more, Oriana had sealed the deal with Work-Study: Gabriella would intern for Special Collections until the time she graduated. Oriana watered a few plants with the contents of a coff ee cup and smoothed her slacks before flicking off the light.
Gabriella was bold. "What makes you think I want to stay?" she said in the dark.
Startled, Oriana stepped backward into her offi ce. "Jesus, Gabriella. Why are you still here? Please leave."
Gabriella's eyes filled with tears. "I don't understand you," she said.
Oriana walked briskly past Gabriella, and past a clay hut, toward the exit. "See you, Thursday, then. Please don't be late."
The young intern ran after the University Archivist, and surrendered to an insanity that bubbled up from some strange brew of indignation and awe. Oriana was shocked, Oriana was confused, Oriana kissed and groped back. The two brought heat to the Ica stones in the Peruvian sauna.
It was each woman's first lesbian experience. Gabriella was twenty, Oriana, thirty-four.
Gabriella picks the green peppers from her spaghetti sauce, and adds them to the garlic sheaths and ginger ale cap that form a small garbage pile on the rim of her dinner plate. "They make my throat scratchy," she says when she sees my exaggerated look of horror.
"Whatever," I say, and then, "doesn't she get regular paps?"
"Of course. That's what's so scary. From one year to the next, her lab results go from normal to cervical cancer."
"It's a highly curable form of cancer." I spread my bread with several cloves of the garlic I've roasted for us. "When I was a kid, there was this Latvian woman in our neighborhood. It was really weird, a Latvian in Maine, but anyway, cervical cancer, stage two, and they do this cone biopsy, which these days, my god, is like bleeding people for colds..."
"Can we please change the subject?" Gabriella looks straight at me. Her eyes are soft . If I saw us from a distance, I would think this woman were saying something tender to me.
"What?" I say. "She lived to be ninety-five. I was being hopeful."
"How was physical therapy?" Gabriella asks, a question I wanted to hear two hours ago.
I stare at my plate as if the chunk of black-olive I see is unwelcome in my meal. I shrug. Gabriella reaches across our little table, which we once spent weeks looking for at garage sales, on restaurant websites, in foreign furniture stores, which we smiled and hooted at when we found – mosaic, art deco, unpretentious – in a suburban antique shop. She covers my hand with hers, a mother throwing her body over a shivering, feverish child.
"Since when are you allergic to green peppers?" I say, thinking of how diffi cult it was for me at the grocery store. Each time I reached toward a shelf, pain shot from my arm to my groin, like fire on a trail of gasoline. By the time I had all that we needed for dinner, my entire pelvis was ablaze.
"Oh, Sweetie." Gabriella gets up, and comes to me. "I'm the worst girlfriend ever." Gabriella's sweater is soft , her smell, warm. I close my eyes. And there she is, Gabriella, setting me down, carefully, in silky grass smelling greener than an August fi eld in full humidity. She removes her hands from under my lower back, from under my head, and straightens. Her head is like a sun beside the sun. And when I'm squinting up at her, I catch it, something she's understanding about me, us. Th at's it, right here, she's thinking. She's looking down at me, and that's what she's thinking: Th at's it. Everything. Th ere. She's seeing me in a way I understand myself and in a way I don't. Something in her eyes wraps around me like a sun-shiny blanket. Baby, you are mine. And my blood is enriched by this understanding, the same blood that my little heart pumps to my toes and my nose, forever and ever.
Jane E. Martin earned an MFA in creative writing in 2008 from the University of Michigan, where she received two Hopwood Awards for her work, as well as the Farrar Memorial Award for Playwriting. In addition, she has an MA in dramatic literature from Tufts University. For the 2009-2010 academic year, she was a Fulbright scholar at McGill University, where she studied French-Canadian history and culture to better inform her creative writing. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the The Southern Review, Massachusetts Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, and Prairie Fire (Canada). She recently narrated and co-produced two radio documentaries for the CBC Radio programme C'est La Vie. She currently lives and works in Montreal.