Rumpus Original Fiction: A Hundred Orbits
Blood streaks the toilet water, an unfurling blossom of iron that I watch, even as we miss the usual train to class, even as Anoushka bangs on the door, even as I remind myself to catalogue, catalogue, catalogue. 8:34 in the morning. Tuesday, April 2nd. Stool more watery than last week’s. I keep a notebook using lacy scrawl, the words illegible curlicues that I only show to the doctor. On my last visit, Dr. Pfeffer recommended steroids, but I refuse to fill the prescription. It lingers on my dresser, in a platter shaped from a mirror, facedown. The white, plain square guilts me into nothing.
I flush, careful that nothing stains the white bowl Anoushka scrubs diligently on Sundays. She hates cleaning days, but keeps the house running anyway, a paragon of care whenever she can be. Two weeks ago, I left a long line of blood running from the seat to the floor. Too scared to tell, I’d claimed it was just my period when Anoushka pointed it out to me. Too scared she would say: Your ass is bleeding? That’s fucking gross. At my request, Anoushka made me buttered noodles instead of talking about it.
The need to go wracks me again. It hadn’t been as bad in February when the blood started, but now, just six weeks later, I spend almost thirty minutes sitting on the toilet, expelling wave after wave of my colon’s productions.
“I’ll be out in a minute.” I shove my jeans down my chafing thighs. “Give me a second, honestly.”
The knocking grows louder. I think she might be using her foot.
“You need breakfast,” Anoushka says. She never eats it, but always tells me to at least grab a granola bar. “And we’re already late. I was supposed to shower.”
“Who needs breakfast? Fuck the calories,” I say, mostly because I can’t handle breakfast in any form. Not bodega bagels with cream cheese or raspberry pastries with sticky sweet white icing or toast with red jelly globs reminiscent of blood on porcelain. It all sends me back to the bathroom, legs shaking, neck sweating, ulcerative colitis clawing. “You can shower after your poli sci class.”
I lean over, still emptying myself, and turn the sink knob so it sounds as though I’m brushing my teeth.
“I always do it before,” Anoushka says, her voice dulled by the running water.
“Come on.” I finish and inspect the bathroom and wash my hands and log: 8:39 AM. Just pus this time. “We can catch the next train in.”
“You owe me.”
Anoushka is right, as always. I owe her for a lot of things: buying chicken and chive dumplings to eat with me in the park when I feel lonely, scoring me a fake ID from England just like hers so I can go out, too, teaching me how to make small talk by the wine and cheap Brie wheel at parties. She introduced me to my boyfriend, Nate, at one of those parties, calling him the most interesting boy in her philosophy class. She said, holding his hand, that she’d always wanted us to meet. I owe her.
While we walk to the train, Anoushka tenderly untangles my hair, brittler these days, from my lapel. She smooths her hands over my coat and leans over to kiss my cheek, in the romantic-with-friends way she picked up studying abroad in Florence last summer.
“You are beautiful,” she proclaims. She is sweaty from the miles and miles she runs every morning, and yet she glows. She kisses again, rougher. “Even though you take far too long in the bathroom. Does Nate think so, too?”
Anoushka, I want to say, how long has it been since you really looked at me? And yet I’m proud that she can’t tell anything about what is happening inside me: the open sores, the inflamed organ, the dark globules of pus and blood marking me. I’ve hid it well, just the way I think Anoushka might be hiding how she feels about Nate. Whenever she says his name, she purses her lips and adjusts her cleavage, lower.
“Looks don’t matter to him.”
I used to like that he said that, back when we first met. Now, I see Anoushka, lithe in clothes she stole from my closet, and wonder if he always thought she was the prettier one, even before the blood and the cramps and the shit everywhere.
“Well, I think you’re beautiful, even if he doesn’t,” she says. “The loveliest of them all.”
The train speeds in, and the doors shriek open. She boards first, and I hesitate, watching the doors tremble and close again. Anoushka, I want to say, remembering an old phrase, “beauty is pain,” I could tell you a lot of things. She turns back, beckoning with one hand, and in the last second, I leap and make it.
I visit my mother on Saturday. The two of us used to garden on the weekends, tending to little azalea shrubs and the early sprigs of trumpet honeysuckles that weave around the front awnings of our New Jersey house. Her in kurta pajamas, me in jeans, both of us in the soil, pulling weeds and packing mulch around green stems. I visit at least once a month because loneliness leaves Mumma agitated, playing Solitaire for too many hours at a time and cooking pounds of pakoras that no sane family could eat. But today, instead of gardening, Mumma and I watch television and I try to ignore the tightening in my anus so she won’t ask again what’s wrong and if the spice level was too hot in the lunch and if the cramping has gotten worse or better since the morning. I try to avoid the bathroom at Mumma’s house so she won’t ask about the color of my stool or the amount of blood. I regret telling her anything at all, but she and Papa pay my medical insurance, so they’d see the bills.
“Every time I text you to ask how you are, you just say, ‘I am fine,’” Mumma complains. The laugh track to a sitcom plays in the background. “What is this, ‘I am fine’? Shouldn’t a mother know how her daughter really is?”
My fragility frightens Mumma because it shakes her faith. There is a theory Anoushka and I—detectives of Mumma’s trauma—have gone over, about how my Nanima invoked Ram and Sita whenever Mumma named an unfairness, from being left at the railroad station when she was seven years old to getting a rock to the forehead when a neighbor boy called her an ugly witch casting spells on the rooftop. She would shove a ladoo into Mumma’s mouth and tell her God would provide as long as she believed enough. But sometimes Mumma’s god doesn’t come through.
“At least I text you back. Most daughters wouldn’t even do that much,” I say to Mumma’s miniature rant. There is probably more coming.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replies. “Drishti Chandra calls her mother twice a day, once in the morning, once at night to go over all the events. Most daughters would come home for the semester in this state.”
“Good Indian daughters. You let me go off to New York City. You don’t have one of those.”
Mumma ignores this comment and pulls up a website on her phone. It features close-up shots of dried lavender and belladonna in a tube. She tells me, “Swami Govindan is a doctor. A very, very big doctor. He is coming to the temple next month and doing consultations. I have already made you an appointment, no arguments, okay? Saturday, May 5th. You can change your plans.”
I push the phone away. My anus puckers again. I don’t want to wade through these alternatives for desperate people. Mumma’s eyes go doe-eyed wet, as they do when she does not get her way, but I don’t need any of this treatment. I want to believe that with time, my body will heal.
“I don’t need to talk to some old man with a mehendi beard.”
“Arre, what’s this? How can you say this about a holy man? He will help you. I always told you, if you have your body, you have everything. You can always walk on your own two feet. Now what?”
She turns to her nails to pick at her cuticles. A bad habit she picked up after the diagnosis. Often, the tiny strips of skin bleed around their root. They heal quickly enough, but I hate how she always picks again, bleeds again.
“I’m sorry, Mumma,” I say. Sometimes a fast apology works, unless she is in the mood to be angry, in which case she’ll find something else to latch onto. I try not to call her a child in my head, but it’s an insult that helps me cope. “I’ll come if you want me to.”
Mumma sniffs. “You’re not taking those steroids, are you? I read up on them and they are not for you, okay?”
She means the side effects she has listed out for me over and over again until I can repeat them: acne and increased appetite and possible weight gain and mood swings and a swollen, moon face so everyone will wonder what is wrong and depression and anxiety and unseemly hair growth. With long-term use, I might lose my bone strength or see an impact on my blood glucose, but Mumma doesn’t worry about that as much. She was raised in a world where what other people can see matters more. It’s why she always keeps that innocent little smile on her face, even when she wants to scream. It’s why she bandages up her fingers after I go home, so no one can see the tears around her nails.
“Besides, what will Nate think if he sees you dumping all that into your body?”
“I don’t care about that,” I say.
She likes Nate because he eats all her papad without chugging a glass of water after, and because he goes to temple whenever he visits. She thinks they are confidantes, that he will always agree with her. He might. He does like to shop organic. Mumma knows what will get to me.
I say, a little fretfully, “And I’m not taking them, I promise.”
I excuse myself to the bathroom. 3:17 PM, actual stool this time. The gas is loud and I’m sure Mumma is listening. While I’m on the toilet, Mumma texts me the link to Swami Govindan’s website again. I wish instead she would just suggest a nap in my childhood bed and leave a glass of water on my bedside table. But of course, Mumma always opens the windows at the crack of dawn and tells me to shower early to meet the sun. She says a god pulls it across the sky for a reason, just like everything else. She says I am made of the world’s will and should submit.
I return to the city instead of staying late at Mumma’s. She minds, but I cite important papers and a study group. Really, I have to pick up a large case of enemas from Duane Reade. The pharmacist can’t find it at first until I point it out to her. Then she asks me if I want a bag—she says she might have one big enough—but I unload them from their paper boxes and arrange the silver packages in my backpack with practiced ease. I’ll pile them on the bottom of my closet floor when I get home and be thankful we do not have a cat to seek them out and tear into their little plastic bottles or chew on the long straws I have to wedge up my anus.
Dr. Pfeffer says I might wean off the enemas after I use the Prednisone and that tempts me. But I’m skeptical of this, too, seeing as he was so certain the anti-inflammatory he started me on in February would work when it didn’t. On the forums, people say doctors don’t really know what they’re talking about and that autoimmune diseases have a will of their own no one can predict. I know Dr. Pfeffer means well, but sometimes when I’m alone in the bathroom with my shaking legs and my involuntary spasms, I think I’m the only one who can really hear through the patterns and signs. Maybe everything will just take time. Maybe it’s all under control and I just need to believe in the process. And besides, I don’t want those side effects. I don’t want to feel uglier in my sickness. I share my cataloguing with the doctor, but not much more.
With my heavy backpack, I seek out Nate, who always drinks coffee outside his favorite café on Sundays. He stands when I walk up, and the wicker chair behind him goes tumbling into a Brooklyn-pampered wiry-haired dog. It yowls, but the owners are still inside, probably buying butter-laden croissants and crusty baguettes for a park lunch.
“Sorry, bud. Brush it off,” Nate says to the dog. He clears a spot for me. “Babe, I thought you’d be with your parents all weekend. Super cool you came back early.” He glances at my backpack, at the odd bulge of it. “Hey, what’s in your bag?”
I kick my bag under the table, but I’ve been thinking about telling Nate anyway. Hoping he’s the one I can trust. Except it feels too late to confess. I should have told the truth months ago.
“Books. For a paper. Mumma was in one of her moods and I wasn’t up for it this time around,” I say. “And of course, I missed you.”
“Coffee,” he offers. “I’m buying.”
“Sure.” Coffee is a trigger and I’ll probably be on the toilet again and again after this, but it’s our thing. He drinks his black, only with sugar if he’s hungover, and I always get a latte, streaked white with a lazy heart. “You know what I want.”
After he orders, he says, “Your mother just doesn’t like that you’ve grown up.”
“Uh-oh, what’ve you been reading now?” I flip over the cover of his Moleskine. On the first page, he has drawn a cartoon Schrödinger’s Garfield sneaking out of a box to chase a meatball. “Sounds like psychobabble at the library.”
“Sure, it sounds Freudian, but think about all the parents you know. Especially the ones from the suburbs. Aren’t they totally freaked when their kid escapes them? Like, isn’t that the norm?”
The coffee comes, saving me from answering him. The mug is hot in my hands and the latte steams through me. I love Nate, handsome and honest, and oh-so-very intellectual and progressive. I always wanted a love like him, safe and easy, but sometimes he forgets that complicated things really are complicated. This is an ease afforded to him by his whiteness, by his athletic build that allowed him to play football in autumn and soccer in spring, by his upper-class Martha’s Vineyard lifestyle that he eschews now but enjoyed with ice cream as a child. He doesn’t know, but these days, when he tucks his hips against mine, I’m afraid my gut will pop and I’ll have to rush to go. When he enters me, I still twist and bob with pleasure, but my two canals seem so thinly connected and I worry I’ll leak out dark mucus from my crevices and that it will leave a musky wet spot on the sheets, inexplicable without the truth.
“Do you want to hear about a dream I had?” I ask. Anoushka hates hearing about my dreams. She says I go on and on, without a point. My mother says the same. Nate loves it, even keeps a list of funny images I’ve told him. He uncaps a pen, and I tell him about the glass prism, reflecting out more than just a rainbow. The light emanated into ghosts of shadows, a concept I can’t explain. But there was another something out there that I could just barely see.
“Another consciousness, I don’t know.”
Nate says, “Man, babe, I will always fucking love you. You’re fucking wild.”
I laugh, despite my secrets. I don’t tell him about Swami Govindan or the prescription or that every morning I wake up and wonder if I’m already twenty years older than all my friends and on my way to dying faster. For a brief moment, until the latte’s last dregs, I believe none of it matters. I think of love and how it must be a hundred orbits, never touching, but acutely aware of the comfort of each other’s presence.
Anoushka borrows my clothes even when she calls them ugly. She tells me that I wear sweaters like someone’s white grandmother, but then she fits them over a tight black skirt and exposes her shoulder and the look comes together. Often, she opens up my cluttered jewelry box and pairs up the earrings. They are fake, picked up from Mumbai peddlers, but Anoushka covets them all the same. She puts them against her ears, but never in the holes. When she refolds them into tissue paper I say I’m lucky to have a friend who takes care of my things.
On Thursday, Anoushka tries on outfits, then lounges on my bed, flicking her phone screen fast. Once in a while she scrolls back up and pinches a photo to zoom in close. This time it is a picture of her as a teenager, heavier than she is now. I lay on my back next to her, massaging the left side of my belly. Though Dr. Pfeffer doesn’t like it, I’ve lost the pounds I’ve always sworn I would work on. It makes the pain in my side a little bit worth it. When Anoushka cuts a glance at me, I pretend to pick lint off my shirt.
“I have to admit something to you,” she says. “I don’t want to do this, but I’m your best friend.”
“You can tell me anything.”
Anoushka plays coyly with a silver necklace with a pentagram pendant. She twists the chain around her fingers until she cuts off the circulation.
“The other day, Nate—he asked me if I needed a running partner.”
“Okay. I mean, do you?”
Anoushka’s finger swells and I put out a hand to stop her from pulling the chain tighter. “He wanted to start running with me, you know? He said you’re not into doing the miles, and I guess he sees how hard I go every day. Anyway, I didn’t say yes yet. I wanted to tell you because you know, we tell each other everything.”
“He never asked me.” That isn’t true; he asked me a few weeks ago if I’d go for a jog in the park and I’d rolled my eyes and called him vain. Besides, I’d be slower than him, less coordinated. He’d shrugged, but I wish he’d pushed it, said I was the one he wanted no matter what. I pick at my nails, just like Mumma. He probably only meant it as friends with Anoushka, but what if he didn’t? I wish she hadn’t told me, but not telling would be worse, almost like a lie.
“He probably doesn’t think of you like that. Your first date was a whole pizza each, right? So cute,” she says.
“I brought some home. You ate the leftovers.”
Anoushka puts her hand on my knee, then the other bony parts. My collarbone, my elbows, the two protruding edges of my hips. I swat her away, but she presses a fist against the center of my stomach. It’s different than Dr. Pfeffer’s. He always applies pressure to the left side, just above my uterus where the bulk of the inflammation mushrooms: Does this hurt? How much, on a scale of one to ten? Yes, ten being the worst. After, he pats me. Nate sometimes tries to touch my belly, but I ask him not to grab me there, so he touches my butt instead when I’m on top. I too avoid touching my middle, due to the angry heat that emanates through the skin. But Anoushka can’t detect the illness or she doesn’t care. She draws close and inspects my tightened abdomen.
“You didn’t look like this before winter break. You barely looked like this last month.” Anoushka taps my stomach with two fingers. “I’ve never thrown up myself, if you want the truth. Not brave enough. But you make it look great. Does it hurt?”
It feels like my entire stomach might be coming out of me, like my intestines are being turned inside out, I want to say. I want to tell her that I can’t figure out what to do. I want to tell her that yesterday morning I started crying on the toilet and couldn’t stop. But who could understand that without finding it disgusting? Who could accept it? When I look at her now, I know I haven’t been watching her the way I used to during these months of my illness. All those runs, all those lunches that are just dry salad greens right out of the carton. All of it, more extreme than in the past. I almost take her hand. Anoushka has been seeing me, the way I used to see her. I should hate her for that, as much as I should hate her for probably wanting Nate behind my back, but I understand it. I understand in the way that I too want to be better than what I am, want to have better than what got dealt to me.
Slowly, Anoushka reaches for my dresser, too close to the Prednisone prescription. If she accidentally flips it over, I’ll have to tell the truth. She picks up two matching earrings: long ones with black jewels that could be grapes on a branch. They have hooks for backs and she finagles them into her ears, wincing when they pull at her lobes.
“So does it hurt?” she says. “Puking?”
“I don’t throw up,” I say. The moment is gone. The prescription remains untouched, and I won’t risk her disgust—or mine—after a confession. “And you shouldn’t either.”
Anoushka sniffs, sharp and short, meaning she doesn’t believe me. “I know you too well to let you lie to me.”
I lean over and cup my hand around one of the earrings, holding it up as though I am weighing it. “The earrings look nice. You should keep them. I never wear them.”
“My ears will pus. They never take to that costume crap well.”
Still, she wears the earrings out that night and then to bed and even the next morning. I can smell the telltale scent of a recut wound emanating from her, but she just blots at her skin with her fingers every so often. I could warn her of infection, but girls our age don’t think about those things, so I let it go, promising to say something if it gets worse.
We catalogue without saying so. Anoushka tells me about the salad she had for lunch in too much detail, from the salty, briny olives that added enough taste to make up for no dressing to the reminder that celery burns calories to digest. She starts to pee with the door half-open so I can always see her. I need more liquids, she will say, it’s a little dark. Or—clear like water today, doing good. She never writes down any of this, but meticulously notes on her phone the weight she pressed at the gym and the 5 AM miles she runs in Prospect Park each day. Those numbers climb higher into mid-April. I used to suggest fluffy Belgian waffles and pancakes and crisped-up turkey burgers—which sit the best for whatever reason—and pasta drenched in olive oil and salt and lots of toast, with butter, not seeded jam. Low-residue foods, as Dr. Pfeffer calls them. But I realize, these lists, calorie- and carb-laden, unnerve Anoushka, and she eats less. They won’t impress Nate either, and I start to talk about the long periods where I don’t eat between classes. She approves and somehow we are closer than ever.
The last weekend of April, Anoushka suggests our first Coney Island trip for the year. She says I can bring Nate if I want, but I don’t. On the beach, the wind whips the coast, but New Yorkers have stripped down to swimsuits and keep warm with towel capes. Bodies and skin and bodies and skin. Preteen girls whose angles haven’t softened into curves. Children whose rounded stomachs won’t matter for a few more years. I hitch my sweatpants up a little higher on my hips and untwist a bathing suit strap.
“Hand me a magazine,” I say. I’m really measuring the size of my thighs against a frisbee player. At least the sand is warm and soothing against my abdomen too. Last voiding: 11:14 AM, no stool, just bloody mucus.
Anoushka tosses me one of the glossies we picked up outside the subway station. I flip the cover back; Anoushka undoes her braid and reties it. She blocks my view of the frisbee player with her own taut body. She possesses what I do not: lean muscles and a tiny, sexy mole on her upper thigh and white teeth and glassy, warm eyes framed by dark, arched brows. Even her mouth, too big for her face, just seems wide and spacious and fun when she laughs. I’ll never achieve any of this and with that my stomach roils, anxiety clambering alongside the eggs I ate earlier. Normally, those sit okay, but I must have miscalculated. I launch to my feet. One of the restaurants nearby has a bathroom that I sneak into. I sit too hard, and the porcelain shifts under me, making my seat unsteady, but my colon empties anyway. Tarry, black pus, like how I imagine a starless, deep space. It takes almost ten minutes and I worry that someone will knock and demand to know what’s taking so long.
“Hey, is there something going on?” Anoushka asks me when I return, sandaled feet dragging.
“I had to shit,” I say, before I can scramble for a better lie. It’s strange to admit it to her and for a moment the pressure—even in my abdomen—lessens. “It’s a myth that girls don’t do it, Noush.”
“I just—there was blood in the bathroom this morning.” She is tentative in a way unlike her. “Again.”
“I have my period. Again.” I squeeze my left fist tight. I thought I’d cleaned things up better. “Do you want to hear about my dream last night?”
Anoushka regards me. She knows my cycle since she is the one who takes out the trash. She knows I am lying and she wants to press me with that appraising look, but I won’t budge.
“No,” she says. “I want to know what’s really happening. In real life.”
“You know what’s going on. It’s the same as what’s going on with you.”
There’s truth in it. Even as I strain on the toilet, I’ve started to tell myself these are toxins leaving my gut. My stomach is flattening. My body grows stronger and purer. I am clean. Nothing can get worse; in fact, things are every day getting better, more balanced, more whole inside me. I don’t deserve anything less. Anoushka has convinced me to appreciate the emptying as I refill, righteous and angry.
On Saturday the 5th, Mumma picks me up from the PATH station so she can take me straight to the temple to meet so-called Doctor Swami Govindan. I sulk, and she talks about how all the auntys are so pleased that I, out of all the other girls, wanted to participate. My head bounces against the window glass. Since I last saw her, Mumma’s been sending me Ayurvedic articles from the swami’s website about how my doshas are out of balance. They come with recommendations to eat more mung daal and spread castor oil on my belly.
“I didn’t know India was giving out medical degrees to any old priest these days,” I say.
“Don’t be stupid,” Mumma says. “In this world you can be many things. Isn’t that why you went to go get this college degree where you learn math, science, and English? Now stand up straight when you meet him, okay?”
Swami Govindan sports a full beard and large blue topaz ring. The temple stations him in a back room with a cold, linoleum floor, so he wears fuzzy pink slippers and an oversized cardigan with tortoiseshell buttons. A few of the auntys tell me that his eyes will be sharp, a hawk’s, but I shouldn’t be intimidated. They offer him Styrofoam cups of fresh chai and samosas they stuffed by hand the night before. He waves them away, an aloofness they call enlightened. Truthfully, their cooking just isn’t that good.
“Come in, beta,” he says to me. “Sit, sit. Your mother has told me a lot about you.”
“Like what?” I teeter on the edge of a red foldable chair. I should lean back, fold my arms, glare. Make clear what I think of all this, but what if I was curious?
“She says you have always been a little angry, beta. Would you say that is true?”
“I’d love to know what examples my mother used for that.”
I do feel angry, but I try to diffuse the growing tension in my jaw by remembering that this is just Mumma’s way. It’s the only way she knows how to be. It’s what her mother taught and her mother before. Yet, I have to wonder why I’m the one pacifying her right now. Why her gods, little brass idols with opulent clothing that she talks to like friends, can’t be enough for her.
I say, “I’m actually very skeptical of all this, if you want the truth.”
Swami Govindan beckons me forward and asks to see my wrist. He claims that he can read pulses to see what is wrong with people. The auntys say he has predicted cancer long before any medical test can detect a trace. He counts the beats like they make up letters that make up words, not unlike how I’ve convinced myself my cramps have their own vernacular.
“An overheated heart,” Swami Govindan says. “Your diet needs work, certainly, but that’s easy enough. We will enlist your mother. I am sure she knows all about making a good kitchari, hm, hm? Good woman, your mother. And your sleep. It needs help. You dream a lot, don’t you, beta?”
I think of my dreams: dashing, mosaic visions that only halfway make sense. Flashes of color and image where I am running and running and running and the cutting grass against my legs in a field rubs hot and good.
“Dreams are where our mind vomits. You understand vomit, right? Throwing up. Your mind is throwing out god. You must calm yourself in your sleep. That is the only way you will get better.”
I think of my dreams. The only adventures. The only way out.
“You’re cracked,” I say, “I can’t be here right now.”
I expect the swami to stand up with thunder, to clap his hands and demand I leave, but instead he does what holy men do. He offers me a smile. I slide back in the chair and it screeches unpleasantly, but he won’t even flinch. He is wondering why I am running. Everything has its end, doesn’t it? The swami believes that I’ll see some light one day, some eclipsing brightness that will lightning-rod me to belief. He is willing to wait.
“God is with you, beta,” he says. “I will tell your mother we had a good talk.”
Back in the temple sanctum, I grab Mumma’s elbow, interrupting her prayer. I tell her the swami has given me a lot to think about and I won’t be back for a while. I need time to try out his slow breathing meditation technique and cook the right soft, cooling meals. I tell her I need the time for myself, which she cannot call a lie. We drive to the PATH because I demand it. Mumma says nothing when I climb out of the car, but I kiss her cheek anyway and remind her to send a photo of a good sunrise if she sees it.
As finals week ends, I can’t find an excuse to ignore Nate’s texts any longer. He reminds me that he is going on a trip to see his grandparents for a couple of weeks and then after that he’ll be back for a film class, but he’ll miss me, and he is already missing me, so can’t we spend just a few nights together? I let him up that Friday. He hands me pad kee mao that I will pick through; I should have asked for something milder, but that could make him suspicious. He kisses me once, twice, and then a third time while I’m digging in a drawer for real forks. Nate skips plastic if he can help it. It takes only a moment, with me distracted in the kitchen, unable to monitor his movements, for the unraveling. He goes into my bedroom to throw down his wallet and keys and when he returns, he has a slip of paper in his hands, white, folded, unfolded, refolded, so many times. I pivot on my heel, almost dropping the silverware, and try to grab at it, but Nate is taller and determined. He folds his arms against me and holds the paper hostage behind my back.
“You’re taking Pred?” Nate says. “They give that to my grandmother for arthritis flares.” He looks at the paper over my shoulder, and I can see him puzzling it out. His whole face wrinkles together, then releases. “You never filled it. Is this why you’ve been avoiding me?” He passes a hand over my collarbone. “You’ve lost weight.”
“Nothing is going on,” I say, even though just this morning I could barely bend down because of the pain in my left side. My inflammation markers are up, according to Dr. Pfeffer. He thinks I’m on the Prednisone and it isn’t working. He wants to try something else, a biologic, he says. The side effects of that are worse: joint pain, easy bruising, vision changes, seizures, jaundice, heart failure, stroke, lymphoma. “Why were you snooping around on my dresser?”
“Does Anoushka know about this?” he asks.
“She’s probably out. Or writing her last paper. Leave her alone.”
Nate marches across the apartment and raps against Anoushka’s closed door. She opens it, just a crack. When she sees it is him, she opens the door wider and leans against the frame and twists her hair around her finger. Her shirt rides up. Nate should notice how thin she looks, should compliment her, but he thrusts the prescription at Anoushka so she can read it too.
“It’s for my ulcerative colitis,” I say from the kitchen. Petulantly, I take a bite of the Thai food.
Nate starts to Google right there on his phone. He reads fast, his pupils speeding left to right, his finger swiping the screen up and down and then up again to reread a paragraph. I know what it says, the medical lingo of ulcers and inflammation, the clinical description of symptoms that have bifurcated my days into good ones and bad ones. I estimate he has probably gotten to the risks and complications section when he raises his face from the blue light glow of his phone.
The whole time, Anoushka doesn’t Google. She is refolding the prescription, right on the creases. She comes toward me and I say, “Nate is mad I didn’t tell him right away.”
“But you could have told me, at least. This prescription is dated for months ago.”
Nate says, “But are you really this sick? Are you going to be okay? I’ve never even heard of this thing.”
Anoushka hovers close for a hug and her collarbone thumps my shoulder. I step back and it startles me that she looks pale, that us brown girls can go that shade. Then I realize that her face is the same color mine has been for months now. I realize that she does not look beautiful, not one bit, with her skin marred by old blemishes, with blackhole circles under her eyes. Sick, sick, sick. This is why we leave the medicine cabinet open, so we can stare at products and pills instead of our own faces. I turn away, eat more, knowing it must disgust her.
“I’m fine,” I say, but fissure-like sobs hollow out my chest anyway. Why am I crying? Something carefully constructed is collapsing—oh, and I’m still chewing the pad kee mao, over-chewing it, in fact, so it goes gummy in my mouth. I swallow hard and choke a little, a sensation that makes me cry more because it isn’t lovely or sweet, it’s like a snot-nosed baby, regurgitating its torrid grief onto itself. Anoushka draws close again, and I say, “She’s the sick one. Look how skinny she is. She’s the one you should be worried about.”
We three, triangulated in this room, pause just long enough to consider. Anoushka wraps her arm around her middle, like she doesn’t want him to see, but tucks hair behind her ear with her other hand. She wets her lips and looks at Nate under her lashes, like this could be the moment. He watches me, while I watch her.
“It’s you I’m worried about,” Nate says. I think Anoushka might cry, but she pinches her thigh instead, like a reminder to stay in control. “We could’ve talked about this. Isn’t that what people do for each other? Isn’t that fucking love or whatever?”
But this is another world for us, I want to tell him. Would you be okay with a set list of restaurants that we don’t deviate from? I might spend extra time in the bathroom, and you’re not allowed to comment on it, all right? When we go to friends’ houses, I probably won’t drink or have dessert and people will ask about it every single time, can you handle it? I read about a lady whose husband would help her insert her enema, would you be up for that? The doctor doesn’t think it’s going to happen any time soon, but people with colitis have an increased chance of colon cancer, and that means you might have to hold my hand through chemo, how does that make you feel? Or what if they actually remove my colon—you know what that means, right? I’d have a pouch, and it’d fill up, and we’d have to empty it manually. Would that gross you out? Would you still want to sleep in the same bed?
“I’ll leave you two alone,” Anoushka says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. Anoushka reseals the to-go box my dinner came in, tosses it in the trash. She takes care of this place, so we won’t have to, later. I wish I could go to them both, but she is already leaving for her room. Who am I apologizing to? “I thought it would all just work out on its own.”
“Jesus.” Nate crosses the apartment and flops onto the bed. It shakes under his weight because I never did a good job nailing the frame slats together. “Jesus God. Come here.”
“You can leave,” I say, though I’m already walking towards him, intent on burying my face between his pecs, where the triangle of my features fits well. He clutches me to him. I shift my weight onto my heels, uncomfortable with his neediness, but grateful for it all the same.
He never lets go. In Nate’s embrace, I try to focus on everything good: the warmth, the salty sweet smell of us, the way he doesn’t shy away from me, ever. I tell myself to trust him, but I’m imagining Anoushka walking back to her room. No one is waiting there for her. She smooths down the covers where maybe she hopes one of us might lay next to her, pointing to each protruding rib. Though maybe when she presses her cheek against the cold pillow, she is glad to be alone. When she is alone, no one can guilt her into confessing what she didn’t do and why.
The next week I perch on the exam room table, dressed in my regular clothes, waiting for Dr. Pfeffer. No one wanted me to go alone, and I can nearly see them in the corners. Nate flipping through his Moleskine, Mumma hovering over the computer trying to read my file, Anoushka fiddling with a stethoscope. But I refused their offers to be with me. I don’t designate anyone a care partner, the term too heavy when I try it out in my head. I thought I could ask them to share the title, but like a prism, everyone I love fractures me with how much they think they know best.
Dr. Pfeffer knocks then and shuffles in, medical scribes filtering in behind him.
“You’ve lost more weight,” the doctor says to me, glancing at my vitals. “Any changes with the Prednisone? Better bowel movements? Anything like that?”
“I never took it,” I say. I kick my feet, like how I think a child would in this high up exam room chair. “I lied.”
I expect fury, but Dr. Pfeffer lets out a long mhm and wheels up to me on his stool. He taps the exam table, signaling that I should lay back, and then applies pressure to the left side, just above my uterus. He asks how much it hurts, on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst. I answer a three and the medical scribes take this down in a flurry. The whole time, my phone vibrates in my bag. I can hear it go off. I know the names that must be swinging across the screen.
“The Prednisone is your choice, in the end. If you’re happy with how things are, then we’ll evaluate. It isn’t my life, but yours.” Dr. Pfeffer smiles genially behind his glasses. “What do you think?”
I am not happy with how things are, but at least I know what to expect each day. Then again, I don’t. I was told when I was diagnosed that it is an incurable disease; I wasn’t told how it would consume me.
“Okay,” I say. He regards me, his face trained to hide skepticism, but I want more than anything to be better. I know it now, the same way I know my fear. “I’ll take the steroids. I will.”
“Then I’ll see you in two weeks,” Dr. Pfeffer says, as he checks my ankles and feet and joints for any swelling with his cold, pincer fingers. His face is still careful, but I hope he believes me. “We’ll see how you take to the Prednisone. Who knows? Maybe that’ll be enough alongside the anti-inflammatory. Otherwise, we’ll move to biologics, or some immunosuppressive agent.”
Again, something new. It took me so long to get here, where I can see myself placing two tabs of Prednisone on my tongue, where I can see myself swallowing without gagging—and now, that might not be enough. Still, I say, Okay. I thank him for his time. Dr. Pfeffer says to wait here for the scheduler, so I can get my next appointment settled. After that, I’ll go in for the blood draw that will leave me mottled, like a dropped plum. Just another bruise in the litany of hurts I’ll collect over the years. I shake Dr. Pfeffer’s hand and then I am alone, and not. In my bag, my phone is still lighting up. They write: how is it going, and did you take your notes, and do you need to talk, and please, tell me what happened. Most of all, they say, you’ll be okay.
They say these things out of love, but I am still alone, as much as Mumma and Anoushka and Dr. Pfeffer and even Swami Govindan and Nate. We aren’t looking at each other, but we’re staring through that small window, into the sky, past the atmosphere, into the universe that we think we can imagine. We have heard that the galaxy is studded with milk-white stars that elude danger. We have heard that out there, people have the greatest sense of floating calm. We have heard of planets with swirling colors and flame, hurtling past debris. All of it beautiful in its own right. We think we see it the same as the person next to us and that we can trust in each other’s imagination. But none of us have really seen what’s out there, and probably never will.
Rumpus original art by Elly Lonon