Rumpus Exclusive: “Field Medicine”

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Rent was due, so I did my makeup and took my card table to the farmer’s market. My hand-lettered sign said Spirit Healing, Love Signs, Femme Magick. Each tarot reading was an easy twenty bucks, and all most people wanted was to feel as if someone was listening—and the sparkle, the magic. For readings, I wore my candy-pink wig and painted glitter triangles on my cheeks and forehead. I looked like something from a world where human kinds of trouble don’t exist. My femme power was real, too. Its vibe was big and rosy and sympathetic, and people were drawn to it like butterflies to blossoms.

That’s what healed people: kindness. When I held someone’s hand, they immediately relaxed. What I did was field medicine: not a permanent solution, but the help that gets you to the thing that will save you. The in-between help that, no matter how small, can turn the tide of a person’s life.

I set up my table and did a quick meditation, trying to dispel the jitters that had kept me up worrying. The day before, Gloria’s mother had fallen down the stairs and shattered her skull—an actual tragedy. Gloria never let me read for her. Even if I’d seen her mother’s accident coming, I don’t think I could have told her. Between getting her into a cab at midnight and worrying about my rent, I was energetically drained.

After I centered myself, I brightened my smile and beckoned a few women toward my fortune telling booth. I made money easily because of my Capricorn rising sign, but my Mercury was too close to Pisces. Easy come, easy go. My friend Jenna told me that my problem was, when I had money, I never knew what to spend it on.

When their readings were done and I’d tucked the money into my shoe, I reached for my phone to see if Gloria had called. Nothing. I put the phone back in my purse and when I looked up, Sophie, holding a canvas bag stuffed with kale, was standing over my table. In spite of all my banishing rituals, she was here in my booth: Gloria’s ex.

She sat down and folded her hands on my table. “Hi,” she said.

“I don’t do palm readings,” I said. “Cards only, and it’s twenty bucks. Cash.”

She nodded, slid a grubby bill to me. I put it under my lucky obsidian owl and started my opening spiritual patter while I sized up old Sophie.

That morning, she looked tired. She wore a wristwatch and a braided sailor’s bracelet whose shabby strings had felted into one dull hank. She was too young for her clothes, which belonged on a middle-aged woman: gray, deep blue, bamboo, cotton, wholesome. Her cis-ness was cloying, offensive.

She had curly, terrier-colored hair and a puppy-dog nose. I couldn’t imagine her in the leather collar Gloria used to put on her, or the rubber pony gag. The fuzzy socks in our toolbox of toys must have been Sophie’s size, since they didn’t fit me. Those and a vibrator still sticky with lube and her body’s oils, a nylon bondage rope. What I knew about her private life was at odds with the fresh-faced girl who sat across from me.

Although she didn’t know it, Sophie had been a fixture in my life since I started dating her ex. Gloria told me, right off the bat, that she wasn’t completely through being in love with Sophie. I said, I don’t care; I don’t really date butch girls, just to let her know I wasn’t getting invested. I said, How can you be rejected by someone who never wanted you in the first place.

No matter how tight my boundaries were, information leaked through them: Sophie’s birthday; her favorite restaurant; little things that I tried to ignore, even though they made my tongue itch. When Gloria told me Sophie’s name, I laughed. “That’s her name?” I said. “That’s a dog’s name.”

Because I thought I was safe. I was wrong.

I drew red stars on the sidewalk outside Gloria’s house, praying for relief from her obsession. It worked, but the energy that lingered around her flowed into me, filling me, until I was the one who couldn’t stop thinking about Sophie even when I wasn’t awake. I knew that Sophie was not gone, but a ghost, clinging to the edges of my life. For the first few months of our relationship, every time I fucked Gloria, I felt as if I’d been inside Sophie, too. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night, certain I could hear her breathing.

 

“Do you have a question in mind?” I asked, after I’d explained the three-card reading and said a quick incantation to invoke the insight of Athena.

She nodded.

“You don’t have to tell me, but it’s helpful,” I said. A flake of glitter fell on the velvet cloth I used to decorate my table.

“Someone I care about is in a lot of pain, and I want to know if I can do anything about it,” she said. “A lot of pain. The worst, maybe. It’s just so sad.”

“What is?”

“Impermanence.” She looked at the food cart next to us, decorated with a rack of pastel-painted vintage ice cream scoops; the menu was scrawled under them in chalk. “This will all go, someday.”

I nodded. I didn’t mind. One day, she would be dead. I would be dead. The people we loved, separately or together, would be dead. This park would be condos populated by people who had never heard of any of us. “They tell you, when you decide to love people, to buy a black dress,” I said. “Because you’ll wear it to a lot of funerals.”

She rubbed her forehead.

“Think about death, and I’ll cut the cards,” I told her. I divided the tarot deck into three equal parts. She watched my hands, as if expecting me to do a parlor trick with them.

“I lost three friends in the last six months,” I offered, though she hadn’t asked. “It’s an occupational hazard, being trans. High risk. We get sick, or somebody murders us. The grief doesn’t get easier, but it does make me value the days that I have with each person I love.”

“I don’t know any dead people,” she said.

Of course you don’t, I thought. You’re a child. We weren’t just different; we weren’t even the same species. For me, life was tempered with joy. Pain was inevitable; suffering was optional. My grief did not limit me or make me averse to feeling more love. By the time I was Sophie’s age, I’d gotten used to it. I’d lived in my car before I’d miraculously found an apartment. I had to lie about my gender on my housing application and also to get food stamps. I’d considered going back to sex work to make ends meet. I couldn’t legally travel, get married, receive medical care, apply for a passport, donate blood, choose the bathroom I wanted to use, or adopt children. I’d lost more friends than I could count to overdoses, suicides, and “accidents.” I was dating a butch, cis woman for the first time in a decade. I paid my rent by trying to read someone else’s future in a deck of cards. I was forty-three, past the life expectancy for my demographic: old, for a trans person. And yet, my life was beautiful. I wanted to tell Sophie that. I wanted to say, Pain doesn’t always mean you’re in danger; sometimes it just means you have a decision to make. I could easily have ended up like her, had I not, at one time, chosen to be brave.

I shuffled each of the three stacks of cards while she talked. Her voice was low, like mine, and pleasant, soothing.

Once, before cell phones, Sophie told me, her mother had stopped at the grocery store on her way home from a day trip to LA. It had been a short delay, but in the hour past the expected arrival time, Sophie had worked herself into a panic. She was in the grip of adolescence and still living at home. She used the phone; she called the people her mother had been to see in LA. She called emergency rooms and transportation services. She convinced herself that her mother, an older mother than other people’s mothers, had gotten into a horrific accident on the drive back to Ojai and was, in that hour, creeping in and out of consciousness, crushed into the tin can of the family’s Saab.

You got yourself that wound up, I said, but Sophie did not hear me because she was still talking. She tugged at her curls. I’d found strands of her hair by Gloria’s bed. If I’d been a different kind of witch, I would have collected them, put them in a mirror box, and filled Sophie’s life with smoke. I turned over the card on the top of the first stack. The Tower.

She was an orphan whose parents weren’t dead yet.

“The Tower, reversed, is the sign of false fear. We assume that our pain is a symptom of something deeper. A splinter that feels like a spear.” I put the card in front of her on the table. I tapped the flames that erupted from the peaked roof of the citadel and the bodies flung from it. “See? Reversed. It can stand for resisting change, anger that festers.”

She looked down at the picture on the Tower card as though it was an image of a real catastrophe. I reached for the second stack of cards, feeling certain I could read her mind or had enough information to make a highly educated guess.

 

No matter where I went, Sophie cast a blue shadow on me. Last summer, Gloria hiked with me to the first summit of Dog Mountain. Sitting beside her, I cut juicy slices from a mango and looked down over a field of wildflowers. Beyond that was the Columbia River, a luscious blue that caught the shade of the summer sky and threw it back onto the evergreens lining its banks. It was a perfect day. The mango juice attracted bees to my hands. Later, Gloria would let me diagram her star chart, then ignore everything that I intuited for her, saying she didn’t believe in fancy hoodoo. Typical Libra. The breeze from the valley blew up the mountain, cooling our sweat. She wanted to talk about her ex, and, since apparently I had no way to avoid Sophie, not even on a mountaintop, I listened.

As our relationship grew, time eclipsed the loss of Sophie. Gloria talked about her less and less. Maybe the red chalk stars were working. I burned purple candles and meditated, visualizing a huge, pink eraser removing Sophie’s outline from my life. Her presence became easier to tolerate. The hole where she’d been healed. When Gloria reached for me at night, I knew it was me she wanted. She held me and told me that one of the things she admired most was my strength.

“You never feel sorry for yourself,” she said to me. “You’re not a victim.”

Of course I heard the comparison in her voice.

So I was strong for Gloria, even when my heart was hurting. I was the calm one when Gloria got in a cab in the middle of the night without kissing me goodbye. I texted her my love and compassion when she said she would have to take her mother off life support. Leaving. Always hard. My mother stopped speaking to me the day I came out. We didn’t exist for each other anymore. Sophie would say she understood Gloria’s pain, because one day, her mother would go away, too. Maybe she was right. I was the one with no mother to bury.

“It’s natural for children to outgrow their parents. It’s a law of nature,” I said, drawing the King of Cups. “Are your mother and father happy?”

“Happy? I don’t know. They don’t tell me things. They don’t want to worry me.”

I laid the King of Cups next to the Tower. “A positive sign follows a painful one. This king is gentle, and this card promises a balance of masculine and feminine energy. Together, the two suggest that it is time to heal imbalances or to find a calm anchor in a storm of anxiety.”

“So you’re saying that my friend will come through this? That it’s a good thing?”

“It’s all a matter of perspective.”

“I don’t see how death could be anything except sad,” she said.

“Was the dead person someone you know?”

“We were supposed to meet,” she said. “It just never happened. And now I guess it never will.”

Her voice shook on the last word. I saw self-pity move over her face like a silver ripple and under it, anxiety. She knew just enough about life to know that she should be afraid. The cards had that power over people, too; they could reduce people to tears or coax them into divulging secrets, dreams they’d never told anyone. Jenna, who taught me to read tarot and many other things, told me that our real power is helping people remember who they were before they decided to be grown-up. This was the opposite. I perceived Sophie’s deeply held womanhood. Her maturity was dying to come to the surface, but she kept it submerged, bubbles dribbling from its mouth.

She was a mermaid, half of two things that wanted to kill one another, always divided.

 

“I don’t know what I’d do if she said she wanted me back,” Gloria said one time.

I licked my lips. My head was still fuzzy from sex. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “What’s to know?”

I rolled over. She followed, putting her arm around me, drawing me close.

“You’re my favorite,” she whispered in my ear, Sophie’s ear, every girl’s ear.

 

“My mother has a death plan,” I told Sophie. “We’ve been talking about it since I was in high school. If I don’t follow it, she says she’s going to haunt me.”

“Really?”

“That’s not in the cards, though,” I said, trying to lighten her mood. I liked to bring the third card out with an affirmation; it helped people feel as if they got their money’s worth. “And this reading isn’t about me, it’s about you.”

“Are you sure about that?”

I felt the vibe shift, and the hair stood up on my arms, all the way to the shoulder. Suddenly, it occurred to me that the energy lines that connected me with Sophie might be two-way. My phone jingled, but I didn’t pick it up. I knew what that call was.

A moment later, Sophie’s rang, too.

“I’m not answering,” she said. “We both know what she’s going to tell us.”

I turned over the third card, the Eight of Swords. A blindfolded woman, wrapped in chains, stood in a ring of swords, symbolizing self-imposed immobility. My fingers itched, so I turned over the next card, too, crossing the Eight. The Lovers: a relationship, gained or sacrificed.

The reading started to click into place; shapes darted through my brain.

“You are my mirror,” I told Sophie. “And I am your reflection. When we refuse to see ourselves clearly, other people reflect to us the aspects of ourselves that need nurturing. That’s the good, bad, and ugly. Not just the self we wish others to see.”

There is a difference between transparency and vulnerability, I thought. Vulnerability is not a performance. It’s a transfer of energy or understanding, an experience that transforms the listener’s understanding of the speaker. It does not require total honesty. What it does need is truth, which is something distinct from the terms we use to define ourselves. Vulnerability occurs in the temporary absence of fear, the natural reluctance to be seen. Vulnerability does not announce itself: it does not say Look, I’m So Brave. It expects nothing in return. True vulnerability, I realized, is a pure act of love that momentarily punctures the illusion that we are unconnected, inviolable, alone.

“You’re not afraid of losing people,” she said.

“I am. I don’t grieve for people I’ve never met. I can’t take the whole world on my heart, right? Is it anyone’s responsibility to carry that?”

“Gloria asked me to come to the funeral, when this is all over.”

I spread my hands over the cards’ faces, covering them. I felt a low buzz in my palms that vibrated through the table and down into the earth. I could sense the trees around us, tall elms and maples digging their lumpy, twisted roots past the concrete and through the living, breathing foundation that connected us to one another. Sophie’s nervous energy touched me, but it was only a small, passing twitch. I ignored it, going deeper.

“Will you go?” I asked. I didn’t need to tell her that I wasn’t invited.

“I can’t,” she said. “It’s too hard. I never was that person she could lean on. I think the worst thing is showing up for somebody and then completely falling apart.”

“You feel guilty.”

“Of course I do. Everything about her makes me feel guilty. I can’t go, though, and I can’t figure out how to tell her I can’t.”

Why does she want you there and not me? I thought. I looked down at my hands and the pale webs between my fingers. I didn’t belong on this planet. This kind of place could not be my home.

She cleared her throat, drawing me out of my trance. “I didn’t come here to bother you. I do appreciate the insights. I wish—I just wish I had what you have. Your strength. You’re not afraid of anything. I wish you could tell me your secret.”

“It’s simple: I don’t put my pain on a pedestal,” I said. “I don’t worship my pain. If I gave it more attention than the absolute bare minimum, I’d go insane.”

“No matter who it is? Even the people you love most?”

“Even them. When it hurts, that means it’s real. If I feel guilt, it means I am not truly caring for someone. I’m bound to them by fear. Love is natural, so it’s free of all anxiety.”

She frowned at me, and her eyes were blank.

An inventory—like an invoice or a tax return—is transparent. It is only facts. It lies because it refuses to admit that there is a deeper story. I had plenty of facts about Sophie, but they didn’t add up because she didn’t know who she really was. She didn’t know how to be vulnerable, so I couldn’t help her open up. She bit her lip, and I realized that she was probably very good at talking to her therapist.

“They could die at any moment,” she said.

“But they’re not dying,” I said. I tapped the cards with my nail, pointing out the path to safety promised in each one.

It would have been cruel to say, Some people have real problems. Maybe I should have told Sophie the truth: that her problems were imaginary, that they were the natural consequences of the way she’d set up her life.

But I didn’t say those things. The situation was simple. She was in pain, and her pain defined her, and she was entitled to her pain, and the world was entitled to help her bear it. What really hurt her was her inability to make decisions for fear of the pain that might follow.

There wasn’t a card for that.

“Not today, I guess,” she said. The reading was over; I felt it. She reached for her bag of kale and lifted it onto her lap. She looked at me over the bouquet of massive, crude green leaves. “I’m glad I got to meet you.”

“Are you going to call Gloria back?” I asked. Our girlfriend’s name hovered between us. Its syllables twisted in the air. I scooped the cards into a messy pile and squared their edges, getting them ready for the next person who needed their help. “Let her know about the funeral?”

“She didn’t ask you, did she,” Sophie said.

“No.”

“If she did, would you go?”

I considered. “No.”

“Why not? She’s your partner now. The thing we have—I don’t think it’s built to handle that. It was supposed to be for one summer, not three years, you know?”

“She still called you,” I said.

“I just don’t think I did anything to deserve it.”

Me neither, I thought. But acting with mercy was part of my business. I looked at her again, noticing how her face was softened by a few extra pounds. She looked settled. The armload of greens couldn’t be just for her. She was taking care of someone else: not Gloria.

“She should have told you what was going on,” Sophie said. “I’m sorry. I can’t apologize for her, but I can say it for me.”

“She tried,” I said.

“She does that.” She left my table. I watched her disappear into the crush of people that always packed the market. In a moment, I couldn’t tell her apart from any of the others. She was a stranger again, in dull earth tones, taking organic vegetables home in her bike panniers to cook with care from scratch because one small, thoughtful act might avert an apocalypse, if you did it with kindness; it’s true, you could prevent the worst. That’s where my money came from: reminding people of their power, the best thing inside themselves. In every tragedy might be a grain of love and in every love, disaster.

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Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.

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Excerpted from Shine of the Ever by Claire Rudy Foster. Copyright © 2019 by Claire Rudy Foster. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Interlude Press.


Claire Rudy Foster is a queer, trans single parent in recovery. Their short story collection, I’ve Never Done This Before, was published to warm acclaim in 2016. With four Pushcart Prize nominations, Foster's writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and many other journals. Their nonfiction work has reached millions of readers in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Narratively, among others. Foster lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. More from this author →