Mothers liked me. I was prim, with straight hair. They delighted in how I didn’t need wrinkles or children to make me bitter, as I already was, and had been for a long time. I was smart for this, they ascertained, precocious. They went on to appreciate the neutral palette of my clothes, and then my culinary preference for thin soups and fresh meats, and then the precision of my parallel park. I was a serious woman, they deduced. I’d protect their sons. I’d keep them warm.
But mothers were wrong about me; their sons withered. In my arms, those sweet boys bruised like flower petals. I don’t know what’s happening, I tell Paula over the phone as I work my fingers through her son’s hair, watching it fall lank against the brass frame of the bed. I’ve never met Paula. I’ve only seen her in a photograph hanging on our fridge: innumerably freckled on a powdery beach, laughing and bending toward her impossibly small son as he barrages fearlessly into the waves. He’s comatose now, I tell her. I’m worried. The doctor’s worried. I think you should fly out. Paula agrees to come, and the phone call ends. I lay down by her son and watch his stomach struggle to rise and fall. His chest is bare and burning up, boiling down the ice cubes I’ve placed on it. It’s January, and every window in our apartment is open. Snow is heaping on the floor. The thermostat registers a temperature of twenty-two degrees, but by him I’m uncomfortably warm.
The problem’s with my blood and how I’ve never spilt one drop of it. I’ve laid in a humming, silver tube as a nurse – unbearably sweet and apologizing constantly – scalpeled columns of tiny cuts into my legs. Woozy with painkillers, my smile was weightless and uncomprehending. Don’t apologize for anything, I told the nurse. You’re the sweetest fruit on the tree. Can’t help but eat you. I gazed up at a screen in the tube and watched the scan of my body take place. I remember my blood, represented as only a frothy flow of darkness, ebbing upwards from my legs as the cuts were drawn, receding deeper and deeper into me, retreating, gathering in my chest like a black cloud. I remember my legs going numb, the flash of fear on the doctor’s face as he stood behind the glass with his clipboard, struggling to come up with the words to write down.
The doctor tells me I can’t blame myself for what happens to the boys. Think of yourself as a tornado, or tuberculosis, he says. Through all our years together, he’s never once looked me in the eyes. People shake their fists at you, sure, of course they do, but you’re not choosing to do harm. All you’re doing is existing. Can you be blamed for that?
I’ve chewed over this for years. Sometimes it sours in my mouth and other times it’s easier to swallow. I’ve never felt like a tornado, but often I think of myself as a disease. It helps me make sense of myself. The symptoms: Malaise, fever, confusion, arrhythmia, strange dreams. Usual onset: six to eighteen months after exposure. Treatment: Palliative.
Paula’s son is the fifteenth, but he reminds me of the first. He didn’t moan at the sunlight when I opened the windows, or gasp haggardly in the middle of the night and startle me awake. When his hands trembled, they did so politely, almost with gratitude. Whereas all the other boys bristled with suspicion before they slipped into coma, as if the equation was finally riddling out in their feverous brains, the fifteenth looked up at me with the clueless, imploring eyes of an injured doe.
But, with the first boy, I didn’t yet know what I was. I was sixteen, in a hospital room, and sitting on a gray sofa with his mother, our tiny hands entwined and bruising one another. We watched his heart rate whirl on the monitor, his nostrils fog the plastic breathing mask, the clear serums of antibiotics and steroids and opiates tubulate under his pale-blue gown. I didn’t yet know what I was. When the boy died, that’s when the doctor pulled me aside and I started to understand.
I don’t blame myself anymore. With Paula’s son, it’s hard not to. Unlike the first boy, he wasn’t a victim of my ignorance. He is unlike the fifth as well, who I loved, who was supposed to be safe after he sat on the papered bench and the doctor injected a sunflower-yellow serum into his veins. He is unlike the tenth boy who, without warning, whacked the amber of a beer bottle from my lips and kissed me hard on a beach. I don’t blame myself for any of these boys, but I don’t think I can get away with that for the fifteenth, whose only error was in his eyes, and how they were green and not like forests but like limes, and that was so strange to me, so unprecedented and brilliant with significance, that my curiosity swelled until I forgot all about the part of me that was poison, and in the lift of that feeling I pivoted on my heels, latched onto the corduroy elbow of his jacket, and asked him for the time.
Now I put iced rags on his chest, whispering in his ears scenes of sunrise and tulips, but there’s no saying if he can hear me.
It’s 3:22 A.M. Paula is on a plane flying in from Minneapolis. The doctor will be here when she arrives. He will have put her son in a paper gown and intubated him with saline solution. He will have set up an IV machine and a heart rate monitor and a sturdy cart of syringes and vials. All these items are props he uses to make the scene more familiar, easier to navigate. Paula’s first question will be: May I touch him? Of course, the doctor will say. She’ll ask: Is he in pain? Is he still there? The doctor will answer: No, yes. But I’ll tell you the truth: these things are impossible to know.
Cradling into his ear, her face will redden from his radiating heat. Confessions, laments, consolations. She’ll gag for breath, and I’ll look away. The zag on the heart monitor will slag, unkink, and the fifteenth boy will die. The doctor will offer condolences to Paula and his black eyes will shine but with what I don’t know, have yet to figure out. He will close the windows and the snow will begin to melt.
The doctor will insist we give Paula a moment of privacy. Stepping out, he’ll swing his arm to crank up the heat. He’ll mutter something to me about trapeze artists. Teamwork, he’ll say. He still won’t look at me. On the brick steps of the apartment, he’ll light a cigarette and move his hand over mine and squeeze. You can’t blame yourself for this, he’ll say, the thin smoke rising. You’ve got to remember what you are.
When he says this, my mind will wander into the afternoon I realized what I wasn’t: a child paring a mango. Before my blood was a black cloud and the words devised on the clipboard, before the boys and their mothers, the knife slicked on the fruit’s pit and wound back to nick my arm. I was standing on a stool in the kitchen, not quite tall enough to reach the counter. I waited for the cue of blood to cry, but none came. I pressed the knife down to replicate the sickle-shaped cut. I was gentle, but curious. One overruled the other. Soon, my arm resembled woodwork intricately carved in waxing crescents of moons and forked serpentine tongues. I was amazed by the sight and the sensation: the feeling that I was draining out of my arm, that I could abandon parts of myself. It felt as if my arm was tethered to an innumerality of helium balloons. It felt as if I was soon to float away into the clouds where god himself must be waiting for me – what was I but a miracle? I ran out onto the lawn with the dying grass and plastic flamingos and spread my arms and waited to ascend. I screamed for my mother to come and see.