Christina McDaniel

Then

The cousin with the scar was the only one to laugh. She tossed her head back and let it out—a terrible roar. Putting her right hand up to her mouth, she pressed her lip against a silver engagement ring. The unscarred one considered what was said with a frown furrowing her brow. Sitting cross-legged on the hospital bed, the two twenty-four-year-olds gazed at the off-color TV that turned the comedian’s skin neon yellow like a cloud of mustard gas. He slithered around the stage. His suit glittered with plastic scales. His audience’s guffaw was dying down.

          A knot settled in the unscarred cousin’s stomach. The second hand had traveled half-way around the clock. She couldn’t laugh at the funny thing because it was already gone.

          “So,” the comedian, Eddie Izzard, said, “God’s teacher gave him seven days to create the world. For the first five days, God played Halo 3. Bang-bang-sha-bang, oh no, you’re dead! God’s Mom said ‘get off the computer, the world is due tomorrow.’ And God was like ‘oh fuck off Mom’. Then, by the time the sixth day rolled around, God started biting his fingernails—‘oh, shit, I have to create the world, it’s a very big job … very big. I’m going to have to cut some corners—I’m going to get a very bad grade.”

          The cousin with the scar from ear to ear, Michaela, let out a snort. She doubled over; her breath escaped in hisses, a sound that Maya always believed Michaela would make as she lay dying. Michaela’s IV chemo drips dropped down the tubes like gumballs drop down a gumball machine.

          “So, that’s what happened,” Michaela smiled at Maya and dosed out the words between chortles. She banged her fist against the bars of the hospital bed. “I hope the world wasn’t like twenty five percent of His grade, his final. He would barely pass the class.”

          “No.” Maya looked at her cousin’s IV pole. Her blue eyes glazed over. “I would have thought the creation of the world to be more of a beginning-of-the-semester project in a gen-ed class.”

          The comedian started up again.

          “So God thought; oh, maybe I should plagiarize. Then he realized, oh no, I can’t do that, no one else has created the world. In the last hour before the deadline, He created Africa and toaster ovens and grandmothers. He looks down at Grandmother and sees that she is incontinent. Oh fuck it,” He flipped his ring-covered hand in a dismissive wave. “I don’t have time to fix it.”

          “Hey, Maya?” Michaela said. “What else do you think God created in the last hour?”

          Fear, Maya thought.

          “Blind spots,” Maya said.

          “Wonder bread.”

          “Frat boys.”

          “Jury duty.”

          “Highways.”

          “Hospital Jell-O.”

          The TV zoomed in on the audience. Their laughter had all been silenced except for one man—the only proof that their humanity had not been replaced by an automated laugh track. Maya was unsure of whether he was brave or stupid, a rebel who still couldn’t catch his breath.

          The stage went black. Static danced across the screen. Maya’s hands started to sweat.

          The nurse was from Kentucky. She had pinned a picture of her homeland on the lapel of her scrubs. Sometimes, Maya caught Michaela looking at it with a far-off look in her eyes. In the photo, a mare galloped through a field of golden grass. A barn and a broken fence behind him cast a shadow in his path. A wall of conifers separated the Earth and the Sky.

          She was unhooking Michaela’s IV, a process that Maya could not watch. Michaela regurgitated a giggle as she looked straight at the needle coming out of her right hand. “Maya,” she said. “Don’t you think the show was funny?”

          “Sure,” Maya lied.

          “I didn’t know this hospital showed anything but Teletubbies, and the hospital channel,” the old nurse said.

          “It doesn’t,” Michaela said, her face flushing. “We bought pay-per view. We’re hoping insurance covers it.”

          “It doesn’t cover birth control, so I don’t think it covers comedy shows,” the nurse said.

          “Full body radiation makes for excellent birth control—and insurance does cover that,” Michaela said.

          “Does it hurt?” Maya asked.

          “What? Full body radiation or this?” Michaela said.

          “All of it.

          “No,” Michaela shook her head. “I barely notice it anymore.”

          The nurse patted Michaela on the hand. “All done,” she said. She put her fingers to her lips. “I won’t tell anyone that you charged extra channels to the hospital.”

          “Go ahead,” Michaela said. “I have it too good here anyways. I get a cure for cancer, a haircut, and birth control all in one.”

          Michaela grinned and held up her right hand. Her ring was an intricate coil of silver lines. “And,” she cocked her head, “Seth asked me to marry him.”

          “Oh my goodness, Miki, congratulations!” the nurse said. “When was this?”

          “Two days ago,” Maya said.

          “Yeah,” Michaela nodded. “He came to my radiation treatment. Right after the radiologists took my mask off and let me off the table, he met me outside the chambers and got down on one knee. I was hobbling out in my hospital gown, ready to fall over.”

          “He cried,” Maya said.

          “Oh, what a prince!” The nurse took Michaela’s hand and examined the engraving on the ring. “What does it say?”

          “It says, ‘I had a dream that love is service’.” Michaela blushed.

          “Mhmmm,” The nurse pursed her lips. “All night long, day in and day out, love is service.”

          Hanging across from her bed, beside the nurse’s button; Michaela kept a photograph of herself in front of the Habitat of Humanity cottage that she had helped build over a period of ninety days. The heat had appeared to have its own gravitational pull. Two workers had been rushed to the hospital for dehydration. She was twenty years old then; a proud and beautiful carpenter leaning against the porch column. Seth, the next door neighbor of the family who inhabited the Habitat House, wrapped his arm around her. Falling into him, she was a little off balance. The tumor had already started to grow. Maya was certain that he had only stayed with her after diagnosis as an act of charity. They were on their way to see Invisible Children—a documentary about child soldiers in Sudan.

          He wore a once ripped plaid shirt that she had patched up for him. She wore a blue tank top and striped shorts which clung to the subtle curves of her body. Her hair was parted down the middle and pulled back into a high ponytail. Her long nose, her boomerang shaped eyes, and gap tooth smile completed her kind face. After she got sick, the space between her front teeth was just another thing that made her appear broken.

          Her formerly bright brown eyes gazed up at the photograph. Her face turned white—not from the Methotrexate, but from a melancholy that seemed to multiply within her.

          “Maya,” she said, rolling her eyes down to the hospital bedspread. “Will you help me take a shower, get the chemo smell off of me?”

          “Sure.”

          Maya pulled back Michaela’s covers, unveiling legs that melted into the mattress, shriveled up things like dried-out zucchinis. Letting out a whimper, Michaela looked away from them and clenched her eyes shut. She took off her wedding ring.

          How do I help her out of bed without humiliating her? Maya thought. She grabbed Michaela’s ankles tenderly so that her fingernails didn’t add another scar to her cousin’s skin. To see someone in this condition, she knew, was a covenant and a moral responsibility; it was probably like losing your virginity all over again. It was one thing to give away a healthy body—but it was almost unthinkable to give away a damaged one. Maya slid her cousins’ legs onto the linoleum, and they fell like water over rocks.

          They journeyed, arm in arm, to the bathroom. Michaela had been here in room 482B since the birds came back, and the lilac’s odor saturated the air. The kids were going back to school now. The birds were leaving again too. This was Michaela’s second relapse. Maya was sure that she could still smell the peach and pomegranate of her cousin’s hair even though she’d lost it all half a year ago.

          She gazed up at the walls. All over them, Michaela’s life was eerily preserved in photographs and postcards of the twelve countries she had traveled to. Maya mouthed the names to herself: Nigeria, Bhutan, Haiti, China, Germany, Malawi, and South Africa. She had never crossed the border. She had never even driven the highway except for three minutes on her Road test. All those cars cannoned towards her, threatening her hopes of graduating from community college and becoming a kindergarten teacher.

          The Bhutanese flag hung above the hospital bed like a cross. It was the only flag in the world that was not a square, but rather, it was in the shape of teeth. The post card from France was Maya’s favorite. It captured a bushy-haired little girl in a sailor’s uniform. She crawled on a stonewall, and reached towards an apple tree branch that grew out of the sky. She wanted a little girl like that some day, grabbing for things that weren’t there. The stamp from India made her dream, a clouded leopard with legs so high that he looked like he was on stilts.

          Below it, Michaela had pinned up a picture of herself and Maya when they were girls at the Great Wolf Lodge, an indoor water park. A wooden fort, supporting the waterslides, towered above them. Two cousins; Michaela, the oldest, born in spring. Maya born the next fall. Michaela’s black hair was soaked. Maya’s hair was dry. She had yet to learn to swim; but Michaela had braved even the longest water chute, spitting water like the current of the mad Mississippi. Maya preferred to stay warm and dry with her hands folded on her lap. She hated how she kicked her legs slower than the children, how the ripples on the slide made her feel like she was going to pee her pants. She often pictured herself doing so, her body losing control. Strangers would forever keep that image of her. She liked it better on shore with the grown ups. I’ll try it next time, she told them.

          A tear rolled down Maya’s face. Whether it was for sadness or envy, she was unsure. She focused in on the picture of Michaela with a battered Haitian and his two daughters. The Earthquake had cut their faces, killed their mother, and filled their eyes with debris. They were no longer bleeding because Michaela had come bearing bandages. The father and his girls were grinning. That was only last summer.

          Maya thought back to a spring day, two and a half years ago: the drink dispensers at the fast food restaurant had saturated Maya’s water with the taste of Coca Cola. Michaela had just told Maya that she had cancer. Michaela had just ordered a hamburger, hold the onions. The diagnosis was Medulloblastoma. The tumor lounged on the part of her brain responsible for all the things she could not control. My cousin has no need to fear death, Maya thought, I hate her for this.

          After seven years of working for a Crisis Hotline, Michaela had touched the woman whose husband had shot her in the foot, the mother whose son tried to stab her in her sleep, and the chemo patient facing her first haircut in ten years. Her callers’ futures were her futures; their laugher, her laughter; their children, her children.

          Every time her callers had a birthday, the death date on her grave stone should climb so that she suddenly had the longest life of anyone in the cemetery. Those numbers etched in stone will turn as quick as those in the slot machine. The marker will say Michaela dies in 2032, 2085, 2457, somewhere in the future.

          The mirth of the shower reverberated through the room. Maya rolled the scratchy washcloth over Michaela’s shoulders who was curled up in a fetal position. Her body was a poorly made jungle gym of bones. Her scar looked like a red mouth, a smile on the wrong side of her head. Her tears were disappearing down the drain.

          Though Maya did her best to adorn her best British accent, she managed only a blend of Cockney and Southern: “On the seventh day, God created dog walkers who leave their dog’s shit behind on other people’s yard.”

          Michaela turned her triangular, heart-felt eyes towards her. “And, the Secretary of the State’s office …”

          Michaela started to giggle, pulling her knees away from her chest and relaxing against the title floor. How many people started to die by degrees right here? These must be the little things God had nightmares about as he thought of the school bus approaching in the mist: the burns from the radiation, the blue ink dots on the nape of her neck, and her shaved head like a poisoned field which Maya glided over with the wash cloth.

          The water was getting cold. It was starting to hurt Michaela. The longer it beat down on her, the more Maya saw her cousin changing. Michaela closed her eyes and drew a long breath. Her hands turned into claws as if she was grasping for something that wasn’t there.

Now

          Maya was looking for a new dress to wear to a wedding and another to wear to a funeral. She flipped through the magazine. The wedding was scheduled for Saturday.

          Maya looked up from the magazine at her two-year-old daughter, Maria, pioneering the floor. The little girl hobbled. She had yet to master her balance. She was Maya’s greatest accomplishment, a child who was bold enough to let her fingers merge with danger at every chance she could. She liked stoves, and electrical outlets, although Maya did her best to keep her away from them.

          Maria ran her hands along the couch pillows. She picked up every bit of dust and hair left behind there. From the other room, Maya’s husband, Ethan, was laughing to his sister on the phone.

          Maya fingered a scar on her neck. It looked no more threatening than a cat scratch. Tears filled her eyes.

          When Maya saw the dress she wanted, she became dizzy. Choosing this dress symbolized another door closed behind her. She did not understand why she wanted that dress. The thing was covered in blue and white circles, a reminder of the Cosmic forces that feed off each other, turning ghosts into humans and vice versa. Maybe, they were just flies buzzing around the cloth.

          The V-neck displayed most of the model’s cleavage. Maya was ashamed of her own plum-sized breasts. The skirt terminated just a few inches above the knees, so short that she’d be committing infidelity just by wearing it outside. She thought, I am finally learning the importance of feeling naked in public every now and then. She stroked the glossy face of the model, a brown eyed girl with Egyptian hair, Michaela hair, streaming down her back. The model was looking backwards.

          Closing her eyes, she stood up and inhaled. The phone wasn’t on its hook. Her husband was talking on it. The absence of the cordless was a sign that she should not order the dress. She would be better off if she saved the task for later.

          Ships in five to seven business days.
        Order it today. It gets here Friday. One day early.

          The clock struck five—Maria and Maya both stopped in their tracks to look up at it. The post offices were closed for today. They’d wait until tomorrow to send the package out. She had to have faith that the rain wouldn’t hold up the UPS truck. At the last hour, and only at the last hour, the dress would come.

          A photograph of a bald bride guarded mother and child from the mantle. Her head peeked over her beaded veil like the Earth peeks over the moon during an eclipse. She leaned into her husband. He offered her absolution from the weight from her body which now tilted to the right. Her organza gown caught in the wind. She’d chosen the most basic one, without lace or ornamentation; a gown that, like her, had been distilled only to its essentials.

          The tumors pressed on her eyes. Her vision grew hazy. Her gap-toothed smile blazed through her parted lips. She was laughing.

Then

          The most excruciating question: How does the bride laugh when she slices the wedding cake?

          Maya stood on the balcony of the resort nestled in the Bahamas. She looked over the tops of the palm trees, and towards the sea itself, paved and hungry. The night had held nothing less than immortality. All of the bride’s gestures—how she rested just her fingertips on her husband’s cheeks when she kissed him, or rearranged her veil and tucked away a non-existent hair when she caught him looking at her with tears in his eyes—had been committed with such confidence that her scar and her prognosis seemed imagined. Even if they weren’t, even if for a brief moment Maya believed in dying young, it was happening somewhere else.

          She told herself that God had created Death on the seventh day—and because of that, He had made it quite stupid. Death had taken the wrong exit on the highway somewhere. Perhaps it had missed its opening while merging on. In the rear view mirror, it had not seen the mini van drive into its blind spot. The van slammed into Death and abolished it altogether. In its last minute, Death laughed because it did not know what was happening. And it closed its eyes upon humanity.

          It would not come for them after all. The wedding tent, the champagne, and the gummy sunset had hung around them in an incredible stasis. Maya reached for Ethan’s hand, balanced one year old Maria on her knee, and smiled from the front row.

          The bride, with her precarious gait, cut a diagonal down the wedding cake. Her husband grinned at her. He said: You never could lay a straight plank. She touched her throat. The vibrations overflowed from it. When she tossed her head back, it was towards eternity.

          Maya considered the possibility that there were no such thing as days, seasons, or even, now. She did not doubt the palpability of everything that was in front of her. She tasted it, felt it all undeniably. She knew the snow and the leaves fell sometimes. But it was these labels, where we stood in relation to the moment…”now”…”then”…”this evening”….that we had all dreamed up.

          Three pools sprawled out below Maya’s hotel room: a children’s pool, an Olympic sized pool with a mermaid mosaic glowing at the bottom, and a pool with a tiki bar in the middle of it. When Maya spotted a white silhouette with her legs immersed in the children’s pool, she felt a snag in the air. The silhouette had no hair. She was crying.

          Maya placed her hand over her heart and asked herself: What would Michaela do?

          She was careful not to wake Ethan and Maria as she exited the hotel room. She went outside. Lights from below the water illuminated the pool deck. A wall of palm trees almost blocked out the sea. The silhouette wore a garter around her leg.

          “You shouldn’t be out here. You should be having a hot night,” Maya said with a nervous giggle.

          The silhouette stared straight into the palm leaves. She kicked the water, barely four feet deep. “I just wish I was three years old again, so that it wouldn’t all be almost over for me.”

          “Michaela, it isn’t.”

          “Yes, it is.” Michaela interrupted. “And I haven’t really done anything.”

          Maya sat down beside her. “Yes, you have. You’ve been to so many places—India, France, Bhutan, Kenya, China, Haiti, Malawi,…”

          “I’ve never been to Kentucky. Sometimes, I lay in bed and think how beautiful the horses, the farms, and the accents must be. I thought about setting the wedding there, but then I thought, that’s stupid. No one wants to go to Kentucky.”

          “So?” Maya said.

          “In Malawi, I saw a white-headed bird dancing a jig on a lake, a vocifer the bird is called. They look just like eagles, except with darker wings. His head,” she touched the back of her neck, “he looked bald, was turned slightly. A look in his eyes said no fish is going to pass me by. I thought to myself this must be the first thing God created—it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

          Staring at her, Maya burned to see the jigging King.

          “But I would give it all away, every country I’ve ever been to, for a stalk of Kentucky Blue Grass,” Michaela said.

          “What about the Earth Quake relief you did? The lady who got shot in the foot by her husband, and all your other crisis hotline callers…” Maya bit her lips.

          Michaela turned to her. Her eyes were crossed now. The doctors predicted that it would be four more months before the cancer wrapped its tentacles around her optic nerve and blinded her. She said going blind was a little like watching an off-color TV. The world in front of her was getting harder to trust. One day, she would try over and over again to open her eyes, only to realize that they were already open.

          “I’ve spent my entire life helping strangers that won’t even remember me. And I’ve never wanted kids, but every time I see Maria look up at you with those gorgeous blue eyes and think you have at least a chance of seeing what kind of woman she’ll be, it makes me hate you.”

          “I’m sorry,” Maya looked down.

          “I know you are.” She fingered her diamond earring. Maya thought Michaela would never wear diamonds, not even to her wedding. “It’s just, I can’t help but thinking, all of this time, I was supposed to be someone else.”

          Light-headed, Maya dropped her jaw and kicked the water. A white tower arose in her foot’s path. Her hands quivered. Even though the night was perfect for swimming, she was cold. “Why?”

          “Because, the girl I thought I was would have looked back on her life and been so very proud.” She put her hands in her face and laughed. “And I am so not.”

          In the furthest pool, a blue inner tube had been left behind. The moonlight struck it. A fallen palm leaf floated past it. What existence had the device been called to preserve? She would capture Michaela inside of it and hold her above the water.

          “My favorite irony of the night,” Michaela laughed with watery eyes, “is that Seth’s greatest dream is to be a part of Doctors Without Borders. Go figure, he marries me. While I was getting ready for the wedding night, he was making plans to install a bar around the bathroom in our new house in Grand Haven so I can find the toilet after I lose my sight. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

          Maya nodded.

          “Poor Seth thinks he can get it done in a week,” Michaela chuckled.

          “Well, we know that is not going to happen,” Maya grit her teeth.

          “If he tries to do it in a week, it’ll pull right out of the wall when I lean on it…and I’ll fall right over…” She inhaled.

          She turned her head towards the furthest pool. Her impatient scar looked upon Maya. Maya wondered if Michaela could see the inner tube that seemed strong enough to get her to Kentucky.

Now

          Maya itched in her new dress. It had come the day before the wedding; wrinkled and with an infinitesimal rip in the hem. A thread was beginning to unravel near the collar. The polka dots, breeding, infiltrated the white cloth. Ethan sat in bed, writing a toast for his little sister, the bride. He watched Maya sashay around the room, growing accustomed to a new skin. She was wearing her cousin’s colors.

          “We don’t have to tell anybody at the wedding,” he said. “It’s really none of their business.”

          She fingered her scar. “If we have the results back, I won’t be able to hold it in.”

          “We won’t have those back for a week.”

          “Up to week…” she corrected. “If the news is bad, we could get them back at any minute.”

          “Even so, it’s nothing. It is a quick operation and maybe some medicine. And then it is done for.”

          “It’s everything. It is our whole lives.”

          He paged through a book of love quotes, ranging from Lord Byron to Lucy Ricardo to Shakespeare.

          Maya lifted her pale hair off of her shoulders. It was just dead cells. “I have to leave for the funeral the day after the wedding. I have to leave at sunrise.”

          “It doesn’t take that long to get to Grand Haven,” he said. “Three hours tops.”

          “If you don’t take the highway, it takes five hours.”

          “You know, I’ll come there with you, for you. I thought she was a very good person.”

          “No, Ethan…” She grabbed a pair of scissors from the nightstand and cut off the tag. “I have to go alone.”

          Maya had stopped visiting Michaela some time ago. Michaela had taken to sitting on her porch. She’d look upon the dawn rising over the lake; the shadows of the in-coming water and the shards of color that she could still see. She kept her sight two months longer than the doctors predicted.

          The last time Maya was there, Michaela had said: I’m beginning to believe in Polytheism. It seems impossible the same God could have created that. She pointed to the lake and the children playing on the beach. And this.She pointed to herself. Maya laughed although she shouldn’t have, and said He was just an inconsistent student.

          Seth had indeed installed the metal bar in a week. It never ripped out of the wall. Although, Michaela had told Maya that she would have liked to die better that slap stick way. How thrilling it would be to hit the tile floor, bald head first, and close her eyes upon humanity.

          The oncologists had insisted she was too sick to travel to Kentucky. Maya asked herself: What would Michaela do? She’d go anyways. She’d spend her last days running after the horses and picking the yellow grasses. She didn’t. She stayed at home. Her service turned into small acts such as giving passing joggers a drink of water from her hose, or letting the children use her pass to the Lighthouse park. She beat the mirror, and lamented that the most beautiful thing she had ever seen was a fucking bird. She died listening to comedy shows.

Now and Then

          The wedding was held at the bride’s father’s house on the shore of his pond that was the sickly color of chemotherapy. Surveying the yard, Maya focused on the large patches of grass and the shriveled flowers. She thought of a wasteland.

          While Maya was standing in line for the food, she ran into the red-haired bride. A tattoo of a bleeding heart consumed the bride’s left shoulder. She smiled at Maya.

          “That is a stunning dress, Maya,” she said. She knelt down to talk to Maria who was holding her mother’s hand. “And what beautiful eyes you have, Mimi…”

          Maya cringed at how the bride called her daughter Mimi. She hated the bride’s daughter’s name, Prynne. She hated how the bride had delivered her with no father or doctor present, pushing for thirty six hours in the bathtub, guided by only a midwife. She hated how she herself had a panic attack when she went into labor, and had to go under anesthesia to deliver her child.

          “Thank you,” Maya smiled and grit her teeth. “It was a lovely ceremony.” The bride walked away.

          “Bye bye,” Maria waved.

          Maya stepped up to the buffet. She prepared her salad. She left off the onions. Her phone rang.

          “Hello,” she said.

          As she listened to the oncologist’s voice pour into her ear, she thought that she would take the highway to Grand Haven. She would go naked to the funeral. No one would laugh at her. No one would even notice her body’s presence, flickering in and out of focus like a candlelight. At the front of the funeral parlor; she’d gaze at the corpse in a black wig, holding a stalk of Kentucky grass and a hibiscus. Without blinking, Maya would reach for something yet to be created.

* * * * *