Phoning in sick wasn’t hard to do when you were being a phony. Not that I would have been categorized as a true imposter. I just gave excuses. Deceptively. Repeatedly.
This time it was a chronic case of acid reflux. Last week it was food poisoning. As a columnist for the food section of the weekend paper, gastrointestinal ailments seemed the most believable excuses, and they weren’t a complete lie. I was ill.
I fetched the bucket. The vomiting came on so fierce that I almost missed the sound of tiny footsteps making their way up the stairs.
“Mom? Are you sick again?”
I focused on the form standing in the doorway: the flaxen hair, legs polka-dotted with bruises and scrapes, a pair of cornflower eyes that focused on me sharply. Abbie was looking wiser than her six years, but she was still my baby.
I dabbed at the corners of my mouth. “I’m fine, sweetheart. Mommy’s just fine.”
As an author, I had found ways of hiding behind characters, donning their dramas the way actors did costumes for stage productions. Writing was like performing without ever having to set foot on a stage or swelter under the intense heat of the spotlights. I considered myself a pro.
Yet the expression on Abbie’s face made it clear that no creative use of language could hide my illness. She knew I was sick, she just didn’t know how or with what, and I justified my little white prevarications as coming from a place of benevolence, like a con artist with a heart committing extortion for a noble cause.
I was just as vague when I called my staff earlier at my bookshop, giving excuses that sounded like ones Abbie made for not wanting to go to school. I was trying to protect my image, of course, the author version of Sherilyn Kirsch, though there wasn’t much to protect. Frozen Vision and The Fire of the Words never earned me a spot on The New York Times bestselling list. Only about 435 copies combined had sold online.
Sometimes misfortunes, even tragedies, were better off reinvented as fantasy.
I thought of Picasso’s painting Girl before a Mirror as I watched myself, detached from my own body, affixing into place my cranial prosthesis, a term that sounded more technical than wig. How my hairstylist was able to produce an exact match for my auburn coiffure was nothing short of a mystery.
If only the rest of me could look the same. The woman staring back at me was hardly recognizable: stitches where there used to be a breast and purple circles under her eyes like the hollow of an empty clam shell.
I made my way down the stairs and thanked Ashley, the teenaged daughter of a family friend, for watching Abbie on yet another Friday.
“I’ll, of course, give you extra for the trouble.”
I had never mentioned the c-word but Ashley’s eyes told me she knew.
“Mom, is this special medicine ever gonna make you feel better? I want us to go to the park.”
“I promise I’ll take you, sweetheart. As soon as I’m all better that’s the first place we’ll go.”
I got into my sedan, reluctant to spend another afternoon in a doctor’s office, and turned the ignition. When I looked in the rear-view mirror, I did a double take. I had just seen myself sitting in the backseat, not with a wig, but with the copper highlights of my real hair glowing like the embers of a dying blaze.
Janelle had to be the most upbeat nurse I ever met, with a voice so animated and syrupy I was sure she outdid Pollyanna. I suspected one needed to be that way around patients when administering their anti-nausea meds, soon to be followed by their strange brews. Mine was cytoxin and adriamycin. I’d rather have been drinking some unusual craft beer, and I wasn’t a beer drinker.
“Any changes since last week’s follow-up session?”
“No. Not even the vomiting.”
She furrowed her brows. “You can go ahead in. I’ll be right there with your brew.”
A woman I had never seen before was seated in my usual corner, in the chair that was closest to the window. I seized that seat every time I came to treatment because the motion of the clouds had a soothing effect, one that would put me in a meditative enough state that I’d forget my ordeal and churn out some decent sentences for a developing story about women who worked in the ammunition factories during World War II and found illicit romances, suffered heartaches and losses, and through it all, cultivated solidarity and family in each other.
I thought I had left enough of an energetic imprint in the chair to ward off anyone who dared to sit in it.
An impulse came to let my seat-stealer know she was occupying the only space where my muse visited. But when she looked up at me with inquisitive and bright amber eyes, her full bow-shaped lips curving upward, I considered it an innocuous offense.
“Hello,” she greeted.
“Yes,” she said as she fixed her kerchief with thin, diaphanous fingers. “I’m Ellen, but I go by Quinn.”
“Quinn. A bit androgynous, but I like it. I’m Sherilyn. You can call me ‘Sheri’ for short.”
“Nice to meet you, Sheri. So which kind?”
I knew what she meant. I pointed to my right breast, or rather, to the prosthesis that had replaced it.
Quinn nodded in understanding. “Seems to be lot of that going around,” she sighed and looked down at her own chest. “Mine’s inflammatory. Have to do rounds before these two sisters disappear, then another kind of therapy before radiation.” She looked down at my hands and then back up at me. “Can I ask you how your husband’s handling it?”
Her directness took me by surprise.
“I’m widowed,” I whispered.
“Thanks. He passed in the middle of our divorce.”
Quinn’s eyes softened and she placed her hand on top of mine. The pressure she applied was firm but soft.
“That must have been hard.”
“It was,” I admitted but said nothing else. I didn’t want to resurrect the guilt. Not that I had anything to feel guilty about. Ben was the one who had made the choice to drink and take more anxiety medications than necessary. Yet maybe he wouldn’t have made that choice if he hadn’t had such a hard time coming out and if I had handled things better. I tried, because I loved him, but it was still hard to think that the romantic and sexual component of our lives together had been, for the most part, a performance.
“My husband hasn’t been handling this well at all,” Quinn admitted. Her frown helped form a slight dimple in her wide chin. “Wants me to have reconstruction after all of this. Won’t even touch me.”
She bobbed her head up and down. “Says it’s too much for him.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but we women have sexier parts than our breasts.”
“I think Sam’s forgotten that,” she chuckled. “I wish he’d go to counseling.”
“Men are a different sort of breed. They internalize a lot. Maybe he’ll come around in time.”
She rolled her eyes. “I doubt it.”
It was nice getting to know Quinn. I appreciated that she didn’t lay on the kind of bullshit most women did. She was neither the soccer mom who went on about how great her kids or husband were, nor the New Age kinesiology or reiki practitioner who made money off the spiritually vulnerable. She was real and honest, unpretentious, vivacious, smart and kind, not to mention gorgeous with those ochre eyes and patrician nose peppered with little freckles. I cursed her husband under my breath. If he was smart, he would have appreciated her.
Abbie was with Ashley in the family room watching a movie when I got home.
“Mom,” she exclaimed as she sprung to her feet.
Those little legs. They would grow into a woman’s legs someday, legs made shapely by high-heeled shoes and hours spent at the gym.
A sickness rose in my stomach, the type of queasiness I got on the amusement park rides Abbie loved and that I hoped to brave again with her.
I kneeled and swept her in my arms. Her little fingers clawed into my sides.
“How did it go, Mrs. K?”
“Fine, Ashley. Just fine. But I’m exhausted. You wouldn’t mind hanging around for one more hour, would you? I think I need to lay down for a little bit.”
“No worries, Mrs. K. We’ve got to see if Jack rescues Santa and gets him back to Christmas Town,” she winked.
I put Abbie down.
“I’ll fix your dinner when I get up, sweetheart, all right?”
No reply. Abbie had already returned to the world of song and fantastical creatures in which she and Ashley had been engrossed, a film I wasn’t so sure was a good choice, but there was no time to dwell on it. I needed to get upstairs to the bathroom.
My legs were weak by the time I finished emptying my guts.
Though I was sure I looked a fright, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw in the medicine cabinet mirror, a face—no, two different faces that bisected each other—staring at me with blank expressions. The left side looked very much like me at my most vibrant and youthful: my milky skin flawless, my lips full and red, my auburn hair blazing with accents from the sun, my blue eyes sparkling like crystals. The other side, however, was pallid, the skin translucent and marked by several spots, the lips thin and blue, the hair wiry and greying, the eyes like ice, yet with a bluish glow extending from within the iris. The longer I gaped, the more that left side’s eye began to change color, shifting from steel to amber.
An awful, twisted sort of moan seemed to be coming from the mirror and I couldn’t help but think back to the Irish legend that my father once told me of the Fetch, a doppelgänger, the sight of which often portended death as the double came to “fetch” the soul of the dying.
I covered my ears and prayed for the vision—surely a byproduct of overworked nerves—to pass.
Death would not come for me. I’d see to it.
Little footsteps thundered up the stairs, followed by slower, lighter ones.
“Mom, are you okay?”
Abbie and Ashley stood in the doorway peering at me.
“Mommy just got scared by her own shadow,” I assured. “I’m fine.”
But I wasn’t fine, even as I drew Abbie to me, taking in the scent of the strawberry smoothie shampoo that still lingered in her hair.
“Maybe you should just go to bed, Mrs. K,” Ashley said. “I can make Abbie something and tuck her in. I’ll lock the door on the way out.”
“Mom usually reads me a story,” Abbie whined as Ashley took her downstairs.
I let my body’s weight sink into the mattress and vowed I’d start writing fairy tales of my own for Abbie to read.
I’d gone a whole month without being haunted by distorted likenesses of myself, and Quinn and I started seeing each other outside of chemo. We’d go walking together, to the movies, sometimes out to dinner.
An unusual energy started developing between us, as if we’d known each other for years. I didn’t let my guard down with most people, but I did with Quinn. In fact, I revealed things to her I normally wouldn’t to anyone else, things like my bucket list wish to visit a clothing-optional beach and my awful habit of avoiding eye contact with people when speaking to them. I felt safe with her and, oddly enough, never avoided her eyes. They were as hypnotic as a prism.
During our times together I shared stories of growing up in Manhattan, about my mother who worked in theater and whom I barely saw, and of how the girls at school used to throw spitballs in my hair and make faces at my egg salad sandwiches.
I wasn’t a loner with Quinn. She made me feel, perhaps for the first time in my life, as though I belonged. Maybe because she listened. And because she engaged.
We were what one would call mirror images. Soul sisters. We liked a lot of the same things—hiking, Buddhism, yoga. Quinn was also a kindred creative soul, her art resting in the strokes of a brush whereas mine was fulfilled by a pen. She showed me photos of her provocative oil paintings which depicted the female body as landscape, literally in the mountains and trees and rivers, each figure-landscape hybrid creating its own sensual tale. She had real talent.
One day she invited me to see her studio. She beamed with pride as she gave me a tour of what was half-active art space and half-apartment equipped with a bedroom, bath, and kitchenette.
She put on a kettle of water of tea.
“I come here whenever I want to work or to be alone,” she admitted, motioning for me to join her on the couch in her work space. “You’re welcome here anytime.”
“I don’t want to intrude if you want to work or be alone. I know how important it is to be with your own thoughts, to concentrate.”
“You could never intrude,” she replied, looking into my eyes. “You’re special.”
I felt myself blush.
“I’d love to paint you,” she continued, “to show you through art how wonderful you are.”
Did she really mean what I thought she did?
I gulped down the remainder of my honey-sweetened ginger tea and set the dainty cherry blossom-patterned china cup down with trembling fingers.
“A one-breasted woman?” I quipped. “It’d be like painting cyclops. Plus, I’m a prude.”
She leaned back and continued to sip her tea.
“How about a portrait if not a landscape? Also, I was thinking maybe we could work together on a project. An image and text hybrid, maybe? We’ve got to get your creative juices flowing. I can’t believe you haven’t written fiction in a few years. I’d die if I went without painting.”
“I like that idea.”
“Definitely working on a project. I feel shy about a portrait.”
She put down her empty teacup next to mine, then turned to face me.
“You don’t have to feel shy. It’s me, remember?”
It was hard to resist the pleading in her eyes. It was obvious she really wanted to do this.
“I’ll do it only if you promise to take some years off my face.”
Quinn had me sit on a hard stool, under hot and blinding light. She would make quick strokes along the canvas, then make slower, gentler ones. At times she would stop and measure. Sometimes she would approach to get a closer look. Once she touched my cheek to trace the bone line. Her fingers were soft and graceful.
It was strange to be the object of someone’s gaze, even if you were the subject of their painting. How was she seeing and depicting me? Was she including every imperfection right down to the perspiration forming on my upper lip?
“Done,” she beamed once she put down her last brush. “Hop off that stool and come see.”
I came over to the easel. My jaw dropped.
Did I really appear that way? Did I really have the innocence of those rosy cheeks yet the experience of pensive eyes? How was she able to paint my real hair with its flaming copper highlights?
“Well, what do you think?” she asked, offering me a glass of water.
I took a sip. “Where’s the rest of me?”
She winked. “That I can do from memory.”
“I never knew I could look like that, so healthy and…”
“Beautiful,” she finished with a grin spread from ear to ear.
“You captured a more vibrant version of me, the me before chemo. You’re very talented.”
“I have a good muse,” she said. Her smile then evaporated like water on pavement in the heat. “Things are okay, aren’t they?”
“Sure. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I had a strange dream about you the other night. You looked…I wouldn’t even know how to describe it. I sketched it when I woke up. Strange. Like there were two of you in the same face. Then, in that same dream, I was standing in front of a mirror and my face looked the same way. Weird, huh?”
A chill passed through me.
“It’s partly why I wanted to do this,” she continued. “To change what I saw, to drive that haunting image out of my head. What do you think it meant?”
“I’m sure nothing more than we both have overactive minds. This experience we’re going through together can do that. It screws with your head.”
“But you’re okay,” she persisted.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I assured, squeezing the fingers of my left hand with my right. “In fact, I’m feeling good today so I’m planning on taking Abbie to the park. I’m even thinking about starting work on a fairy tale reboot for her.”
“That’s great,” she encouraged with a faint smile before pushing a long breath out from her diaphragm. “Looks like I’ll be getting a new start of my own. Sam and I are separating.”
She looked up at the ceiling. Her lips started moving while counting the tiles to herself.
“Well, if he sees your breasts as your measure as a woman, then you should leave him. You deserve better.”
Quinn began wringing her fingers. “I know. And I think I have. You see, I’ve been seeing someone. It was unexpected, but this person makes me feel amazing and free and full of life.”
I hadn’t expected Quinn to harbor such a secret. She’d seemed, up until now, so forthright.
“A whirlwind love affair, huh? Spill it. What’s his name?”
Quinn drew in a deep breath and let it out in small increments through pursed lips. “Her name.”
Her hazel eyes stared into mine in a way that made me feel naked.
“Oh,” my voice trailed. I began circling my glass of water around in my hands, first counterclockwise, then clockwise.
She leaned in closer.
“Well, aren’t you going to ask me about it?”
I looked down at my glass again. It was near empty. My mouth was starting to feel dry.
“Sure. How long have you been seeing this wo…this person?”
“A month,” she replied.
Her demeanor was calm, but her chest rose and fell at a noticeable rate.
“How did you two meet? Who is she?”
I couldn’t tell if her eyes were a brilliant amber because of the tears welling in them or if it was just their magnetism. Her bow-shaped lips formed a pout, as if she was about to shoot an arrow from them. And she sure did cast one.
It was a whisper and yet the word seemed to echo.
Spoken words are rawer than written ones, unable to be taken back, deleted or edited.
Never was this truer than in that moment.
Quinn placed her hand on top of mine. I didn’t shoo it away, but I didn’t squeeze or caress it in return.
“I don’t know what to say,” I finally muttered.
“You don’t have to say anything,” she croaked.
I turned to face her. “You think this meant something more?” I felt myself choking on the question, hearing its harsh sentencing as if it were a judge’s gavel. “I mean, we’re women, Quinn. We get emotionally intimate.”
She hung her head. “Sometimes you want to be intimate with someone in other ways too. Sometimes friendship can blossom into something more. Sometimes that something more is there from the start and you don’t see it for what it is until you remove the veil.”
We sat in silence.
I thought of all the moments she and I had shared: laughs about this one gentleman in treatment whose fly was always unzipped, our mutual disdain for soap operas, our walks in the park, conversations about art and philosophy and our personal lives over coffee or dinner. I thought, too, of the glances, the sparkle in Quinn’s eyes when they met mine, the way my heart leapt when she looked at me. I had told myself any man would be lucky to have her.
I was lucky to have her.
Why hadn’t I considered I might have feelings for her?
Maybe I hadn’t wanted to admit that I wasn’t entirely straight, maybe because of Ben, maybe because of the still-palpable pain of learning that your perception of reality did not reflect its truth.
How much longer was I going to go bending truths or keeping them veiled? When was I going to stop moving through the world like a stand-in for myself?
“I don’t want to ruin what we have going here,” Quinn began. “You’ve come to mean so much to me. Promise me it won’t, Sheri.”
I attempted a reassuring smile. “It won’t. Let’s talk about this another day, okay?”
The next day passed without a call from Quinn. I didn’t reach out either. I was still digesting her revelation.
She didn’t just love me; she was in love with me.
It scared me, maybe because deep down I knew I really loved her too and wondered how I could bring myself to place where I might open up and explore what that might have meant.
I tried to distract myself with work at the bookshop.
I got home much later than I should have. Long drives with the car usually provided comfort, sometimes clarity, when emotions ran high. This time it gave none.
When I pulled into the driveway, Ashley was still with Abbie. The lights were on inside, but the house looked uninviting, as if it didn’t belong to me.
I was about to get out of the car when a shadow, or at least what I thought resembled one, passed through the front bushes, pausing for a slight moment only to disappear in a gap between the edge of the bushes and the left side of the house. No vehicles had passed by, nor any birds or other animals that would have caused one.
My heart rate sped.
I darted out of the car and up the steps, pressing the tiny glowing button to the right of the front door again and again, as if doing so would get rid of the awful feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, a sensation of having fallen into a sinkhole and clambering to hoist one’s self out like a crab fallen on its back.
“Mrs. K?” Ashley answered. “Shoot, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Mom? Finally, you’re home.”
Dear Abbie. Why had I wanted to hide what was happening from her, as if she’d be a little girl forever, oblivious to the heartaches and disappointments and shocks of the world?
“I’m all right. Ashley, would you mind putting on some hot water for tea, please?”
“Sure, Mrs. K.”
“Mom, I made a diorama about bottlenose dolphins. Ashley helped me with it. Want to see?”
“Yes, sweetheart. Why don’t you get it?”
The doorbell rang while Abbie’s feet drummed up the staircase. A light rapping o the door followed.
Ashley shot me a questioning look.
I shrugged. I hadn’t been expecting anyone.
My brain told me not to go to the door, that whoever was ringing and knocking could have been the owner of the shadow I’d seen earlier, perhaps a prowler.
My gut, however, steered me to the knob.
A man in his mid- to late-forties stood with a giant canvas in his hands, the face of it pressed against his knees. He was tall and lanky, with hunched shoulders and a head that hung like a flag without wind.
He looked up when he heard the squeal of the door hinges, meeting me with moist eyes as blue as his denim jeans.
His tone contained more disbelief than inquiry.
“Yes. Who are you?”
“Sam. Ellen’s—uh, Quinn’s—husband.”
The knot in my stomach began twisting and untwisting and twisting again.
Had she told him of her feelings for me? Had he come to tell me to stay away from her?
Sam turned the canvas around. It was the portrait Quinn had done of me, only with more details added. She had me dressed in a flowing white garment, the kind associated with Greco-Roman goddesses. Lush mountains and a waterfall appeared in the backdrop.
Upon closer look, barely noticeable to the casual eye, the outlines of her facial features—those bow-shaped lips, that patrician nose, those hypnotic eyes—were hidden in the landscape, in the darker strokes that gave the green its bold texture. Connected to the head were arms, breasts, even more private lady parts, all concealed within the foothills and a cave into which a river flowed.
“I’m sure she wanted you to have this,” he said as he handed it to me.
“But she could have given it to me at chemo tomorrow.”
He shook his head. “There won’t be any more chemo.”
My lungs felt as though they’d been poked and deflated like a balloon.
“What do you mean there won’t be more chemo?”
“Do I have to spell it out?” he asked with a voice that began cracking. “She’s gone.”
Words. I lost consciousness of them—of the ones being spoken to me, of the ones forming in my brain. My awareness floated off to a realm that blurred distinction between reality and delusion. How long I spent there I couldn’t say. I just told myself that this had to be some sort of waking dream, that my mind was just processing and rewriting Quinn’s earlier declaration as an actual death. It was a writer’s fantasy. Nothing more.
Yet, if it had been nothing more than fiction, then why was I wondering how much time I had left or how many opportunities beyond Quinn I’d lose? Why was I wondering if Quinn indeed was gone and to where?
“But I just saw her yesterday,” I disputed. “We had a conversation to finish.”
“The arrangements will be announced in the paper,” he mumbled before turning and heading to his truck parked alongside the curb.
I closed the door. My hand and arm felt detached from my body.
Abbie ran to me with her diorama, full of plastic palm trees glued to the back of the shoebox and golden sands drawn and colored in underneath them. In the center, two plastic dolphins that were joined at the nose and floated in a bed of blue cellophane wrap that filled the bottom half of the box.
Quinn and I would never join lips, never know more. I’d never get to tell her what she meant to me.
I gathered Abbie in my arms. Her hair had maintained a trace of strawberry scent, though now it was soured by oil and sweat.
“It’s lovely, dear,” I whimpered. “You’re very artistic.”
She presented me with a little book. The dust jacket pictured a Victorian maiden with copper-highlighted hair.
“I like the pictures in this one,” she said. “It looks like a big girl story. Would you read it to me?”
Goblin Market. An illustrated version. Of all the books Abbie had to pick, it would be a story about two sisters, one who makes a sacrifice for the other, a story laden with imagery that made me blush.
But stories, even Rossetti’s, weren’t meant to be read with bashfulness. They were meant for unabashed honesty about the stuff of human life.
“Mommy doesn’t feel much like reading right now, Abbie. How about tomorrow we go to the park? We can feed the ducks and I’ll tell you a story about two big girls who were soul sisters, maybe even more. It’s going to be part of a new book I’m going to write.”
The light dancing in Abbie’s eyes made me think of landscapes, ones with amber and green tones and setting suns that casted glows resembling embers in the background.
Heavy rains washed the image from my mind and turned its palette grey.
Jennifer A. Hudson
Jennifer A. Hudson is an emerging writer from Connecticut, USA. One of eighteen finalists for the 2015 Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, her fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Colere, Meat for Tea, The Broken Plate, The Helix, Art Times Legitimate Vagina Exhibition Catalog, and The Second Genesis: An Anthology of Contemporary World Poetry. Ms. Hudson received her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut. She is at work on her first novel.
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