The Unexpected baby chronicles (Part 3)

MICHAEL HARSHBARGER

 

Time just disappears in emergency rooms. The waiting takes on a religious quality — it makes you feel like a monk performing some kind of mortification of the mind instead of the flesh.

They verify her name at every point. Every time someone new enters the room or sits at a computer in the near vicinity, she is asked to recite her date of birth.

“Eight, fourteen, eighty-four.”

I must have heard it a thousand times that day.

And then: more sitting, more waiting, more being cold — why are hospitals always so insanely cold?

She’s convinced; I say we don’t know anything yet. They haven’t told us anything yet, but they never really do, do they? Piss into this, follow me this way, open your vein, take off your clothes. They ask for everything, and then tell you everything except the precise bit of information you need: the only conceivable reason you would hang around this soul-sucking place.

As they take her vitals for the third time she gazes straight ahead, not seeing anything through eyes glossy with tears. She knows. I do not. The hospital does not. She is beautiful and far away in this moment. She is terrifying in her certainty.

An exam. Another ultrasound. We have a heartbeat, and it’s the right kind of heartbeat. More waiting.

I try to lighten the mood with a weak attempt at being funny.

“Not right now,” she says, not unkindly. More like how a mother would react to her babbling three-year-old in church. I lay my head on her knee and she lays her hand on my head.

It feels like the kids we already have won’t remember who we are, should we ever get out of this place. Life is rushing by at a breakneck pace just outside the heavy glass doors. People are doing things. Business is getting done. We are cut off from that, immersed in stillness, while the minute hand winds down towards the end of the world.

We are released back into the wild after five hours. Five hours in that alternate universe where you are greeted with unfamiliar eyes and cold hands, where answers such as “Everything looks OK, just rest, here, let me prescribe you some meds,” are offered as if they are substantial and pertinent. As if, “Well, yeah, should be fine, couldn’t really see anything out of the ordinary. Oh, all the blood and pain? That just happens sometimes, everyone is different, bye,” is an acceptable thing to say to someone.

 
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We are home. We get the kids in bed. She needs a bath. I want to read.

Michael!

There’s nothing like hearing your name called in that way. It’s seared into my dendrites. My first reaction is blankness. My mind feels like it has been completely bleached, like it’s an empty warehouse, but filled with bats.

Survival instinct kicks in: I’m sure it’s just blood, and the pain, I’m sure she’s just in a lot of pain and there is a lot of blood and I will help.

I proceed down the hallway with considerable apprehension and what seems to be a tiny troll hacking away at the back of my skull with a pickaxe.

I step inside. She’s crying; she can barely breathe. Her hand is cupped around it as she holds it up. Lightning flashes as the troll in my brain makes solid contact.

 
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It didn’t look like I was expecting it to look. In all the renderings they look like aliens, barely humanoid, especially at seven weeks. But ours — our failed attempt — didn’t look like that.

It could have been the state we were in, but it appeared serene and miraculous and beautiful.

We had no idea what to do. We tried to fight through the tears and confusion to make some rational decisions, or at least, to figure out how to get her out of the bathtub.

In the end, we ended up holding each other and crying, her on the inside of the tub, cold and wet, me on the outside, dry and warm. That is an apt description of the differences in our experience of the same event. I can only use how I feel to estimate: her feelings of devastation and sorrow must be ten times that of mine. She had ached for this, desired it more than I have ever desired anything. I was OK with it eventually. There is no comparison.

 
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We have to tell the kids; they were so excited. We have to tell our friends and family, who were so happy for us. The love and support we are given are sustaining. Many have gone through the same thing and that means a great deal.

But, really, it’s just the two of us left to deal with it behind the walls we have been building for the last 16 years. These walls are strong, and it is warm inside, but pain and heartbreak still pour over the top.

Still further inside, she is left to wonder why. Why did it happen? What was the cause? Is it something wrong with her, or was it something specifically wrong this time around? It happened to us before, but we had been successful two times since. Was she done forever? Would she be allowed another chance?

I can’t offer any satisfying answers to these questions and it makes me feel useless. I can’t know the acute pain — physical and mental — this causes, I can only experience it adjacently, removed from it physically and, mostly, psychologically. But I am here, and she knows that.

 
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Do I want to try this again? Do I want to risk this happening again? Do I want to rip another soul of out nonexistence and set it off on a path towards the countless potential terrors of life? I don’t know.

For a long time I didn’t want to. I felt it wasn’t worth it. And then the unexpected baby came along. I came around to the idea. Holding your baby is an experience that defies description. Watching your child grow and learn and become who they will become is not something you can do vicariously.

In the end, it is not about me. It’s about us. It’s about her. And she deserves another go. She deserves to take on all the potential pitfalls and horrific outcomes. She deserves the maximum amount of happiness possible in one lifetime.

Who am I to deny that?

 
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Michael Harshbarger lives in Southern Indiana with his wife and two children. He reads as much as possible and attempts to write whenever he can find time. In addition to his day job, Harshbarger writes about sports for FanSided.com. He believes the best axiom in the world comes from Cinderella: Have courage and be kind.

A Wild Yard

Dayna Patterson

Deep in dream, I’m startled awake—a scream. Piteous, terrified, screeching, the sound is almost human.

And another noise—a low, throaty snarl outside my bedroom window.

I think, What the fuck was that? But it comes out as: I think a bunny just died.

My husband, also tense, awake, whispers in the dark: Yeah, but what killed it?

I wonder the same. The deep growl is something I’d only ever heard on TV, on National Geographic or Animal Planet. Then, there was the buffer of screen, electricity, distance in miles and time. Now the menace is immediate, proximate. Even though the window is shut, locked, a wall between me and whatever lurks out there, I am deeply unnerved. I want to house-ground my children for life at the same time I want night vision goggles to peek outside.

When we first moved into our home almost three years ago, we were enchanted by the wilderness of our backyard. It stood in marked contrast to our neighbor’s. While they had a neatly manicured lawn, a tidy gravel path from deck to trampoline and gardening shed, and a fence along the perimeter, we had towering pines. A massive cottonwood. A felled tree or two. Blackberry brambles. Ferns. Wildflowers. Mushrooms. Stumps, one of which had been carved into a squirrel feeder, now full of spider sacks. There was evidence of some half-hearted attempts at control: a rotted retaining wall of railroad ties, a dirt trail that wound its way casually to the northeast corner of our lot, a string of barbed wire delimiting the back property line.

We thought, how enchanting for the children! Trees to climb, nooks to explore and make their own, hours of green. We made a few changes once we moved in. We had to cut down the cottonwood, its branches leaning dangerously over the roof. My husband built a treehouse on its massive stump, and he made a swing to hang from a tree at the end of the trail.

Three years later, I’m simultaneously proud and irked by our wild yard. Proud that it provides natural habitat for both plants and animals. Irked that the invasive strain of blackberry vine spreads aggressively. Bothered by a big cat slashing me from sleep. Delighted to see deer and rabbits peacefully nibbling, uninhibited by fence or dog. Vexed that all the vegetation could be the perfect groundcover for a warren of rats. Satisfied to see stellar jays and pileated woodpeckers and hummingbirds and flickers and chickadees visiting the branches. Peeved that the girls uncover a nest of gardener snakes they pick up and play with, staining their clothes with acid yellow shit. Nettled by the mud wasps hiving between the cracks of our decayed retaining wall. In short, happy that we have unlimited access to this slice of forest paradise right outside our door, annoyed that it is not paradise.

My husband wants to move, settle in a home with a “normal” yard that he can mow on Sunday mornings rather than attack with pruning shears and thick leather gloves—the spines on those blackberry vines are evilly long—but I’d rather stay and turn the backyard into what we want. The problem is, I’m not sure what I want. Wild and tame? Is that like having my honey and eating it, too?

When the morning grows grayish light, husband goes out back to check for paw prints, hoping to discover how large the animal was. He paces slowly over the yard, head and back bent, scanning the ground like a wildlife detective or a trapper. When my husband was young, he devoured stories about Jim Bridger, Jeremiah Johnson, Hugh Glass, John Colter, and frontiersmen like Pa Ingalls. When asked, he told anyone who’d listen how he wanted to be a mountain man when he grew up.

He comes back in, a little crestfallen.

I can’t see any clear prints, but there are signs of a scuffle. It doesn’t look like it was very big. Maybe a fox or a bobcat?

Do foxes growl like that? I ask.

Bobcat, then?

I don’t know anything about bobcats, but my husband allays my fears by telling me they are nocturnal, hiding out in the mountains most of the time, and shy of humans.

Our neighbors have let out their little dog by now, who has begun its theme music of incessant yapping. I wonder out loud if we should text the neighbors and let them know. Their little yipper would be a perfect meal size. But, they always bring her in at night. Probably nothing to worry about. Kids or dogs, my husband seems utterly unconcerned.

As I get ready for the day, I’m replaying that rabbit’s scream in my mind, trying to get at why I find it so unsettling, why the wildness of my yard weighs and lifts me, its paradox. What do we want from our yards? Why do we go to such great lengths and pay exorbitant sums to landscape our lots? Why do we plant grass, rip up native plants, clear trees and rocks so we can plant the right trees and cultivate the plants of our choosing and place the decorative boulders just so? I’m not asking to be polemical or preachy, or even to take on the role of diehard ecologist. I ask because I genuinely don’t know, and my yard, in equal parts, repels and ensorcells me. I love its disorder and I want more order. I love its natural state and want it to be less natural. I want the blackberries without the thorns, the bunnies without the big cats.

My neighbor, Joe, told me that theirs was one of the first houses in the neighborhood, and their yard used to be identical to ours. He confided to me that one of their trees blew over in a storm, actually hitting our house two owners ago. A handyman, he repaired the damage himself. But after that, the big trees came down, and over a span of several years, he planted grass, staked a fence. Maybe we cultivate our yards simply to keep nature and her violence at arm’s length. I have a harder time imagining my neighbor’s now-neat yard as hunting grounds, although undoubtedly the hunt happens there. Nature and her indifference to human efforts. Witness the spiky arm of a vine reaching its menace over the neighbor’s hedge. Witness a wind-toppled sapling leaning against the defiant, immobile, wind-resistant fence.

Before the kids wake up, we decide not to tell them. Even though it’s a curiosity they might relish, we don’t want to risk encouraging agoraphobia. When we’re all dressed and ready, I shepherd the kids quickly into the car—I can’t help myself. We drive along the edge of Lake Whatcom on our way to their school, which sits astride a hill overlooking the water. I’m reminded later in the day that just last spring, someone snapped a photo of a cougar swimming in that lake, its eyes two glowing amber discs above the water.

We drop them off, and I kiss their faces, yell, Be careful! I pull them in for an extra hug, and they tug at my squeeze, a silly leash. Kids in boots and bright coats funnel towards the playground for morning recess, chattering like birds. They swing red lunchboxes, drop backpacks, play.

A wild wedge of forest sidles up to the back half of the school, tall firs and deciduous trees creaking in October wind. As we drive away, I don’t want to imagine a big something curled up on a limb, watching the herd of colorful, noisy animals below.

 
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Dayna Patterson earned an MFA from Western Washington University, where she served as the managing editor of Bellingham Review. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Psaltery & Lyrewww.psalteryandlyre.org

jellyfish blue sandals

shlomit miky dan

Israeli army helicopters hovered and whirled above the hospital helipad that skirted the shores of the Mediterranean. With their rotor blades still whirling, the choppers’ doors opened like the dark maws of whales, spilling out the wounded: Israeli and Lebanese soldiers and civilians, among them women and children. The hospital bustled by night as by day. I was a nurse on the tarmac during the armed conflicts between Israel and militant Palestinians in southern Lebanon in the seventies. Palestinian civilians suffered significant casualties from the constant fighting, as did Israelis living in the north of Israel.

The military crews liaised seamlessly with the hospital teams awaiting them. Their faces marked by fatigue, they assigned the injured to the trauma centers where medical specialists triaged them to urgent operations, ICU, or other assigned departments.

Buzzing like angry hornets, the empty helicopters would take off, banking northwards to scoop up the next human casualties. The blades’ blasts made us bend our heads and shoulders as though we were taking part in an eerie Japanese ritual on a surreal film set. Yet, I asked myself, where and who was the director?

A young Palestinian woman with a knee injury was lying on one of the stretchers on the tarmac. Although she had been sedated to reduce her pain, she was observing her surroundings with alert eyes. When our eyes met, she blinked slowly.

Checking her IV and oxygen mask and the condition of her knee, I caught sight of a pair of blue jelly sandals, the sort we wore on the beach in the summer to protect our feet from sharp-edged pebbles and jellyfish stings. Dusty and weary-looking, they poked out from under her silver foil blanket. They appeared to be asking what on earth they were doing here in this well-organized, smoothly-functioning chaos.

I wanted to make sure that the blue sandals did not slip off the stretcher as it was wheeled to the OR, but I had no time.

A doctor approached with quick steps to check on her, all the while updating me on her condition. His combat uniform was damp, creased, and flecked with stains. Sweat ran down his face and over his chin and neck.

The young woman kept following us with her eyes, exhausted, watchful.

The doctor gazed at me, tired, wide-eyed. Clamping his jaws, he shook his head. Was he simply exhausted, or losing hope?

Could he still feel the nightmare scenes he was witnessing: evacuating and tending the wounded and the dead from battlefields where, in times of peace, children had played football and farmers cultivated olives and oranges?

Do we lose our ability to shed tears when we witness this constant stream of horrors? Do we become indifferent? Will I lose my capacity to cry? As the questions crowded my mind, I knew I had no way to tell him that I shared his silent message. He raised his hand in resigned farewell and we went to our separate tasks.

On another stretcher out on the tarmac lay an unconscious young Israeli soldier with a head injury, on his way to an emergency operation. A lock of fair hair had escaped from under the bandages and lay damp against his forehead. He looked painfully young.

Hardly able to breathe, in a daze, I shut my eyes and turned on my heels in slow motion. When I opened them, still unable to inhale or exhale, I found what I was desperately seeking: the Mediterranean—the closest, most faithful and best friend I’d ever had.

He responded to my awestruck gaze, his shimmering, early morning, pale blue ripples tender against the white sands of the deserted beach.

I stared at him.

Are you taking pictures? Can I trust you as my war correspondent?

It was at that moment that I set myself up as an independent, resolute witness. I would assess the broadest range of information possible and engage in a constant flow of internal questions. It became a steady process that would shape and guide my future experiences.

During my nightshift my brief was to report on conditions in the different departments. Some ran out of medical materials such as metal suction tubes. Such situations were a nightmare for the hospital staff. We had to improvise, find solutions to unexpected emergencies. We were always on the run, without the luxury of taking breaks. I kept up that rushing pace for years to come, unable to halt my stride, even with mundane, day-to-day activities.

Working through the night, I learned that the young soldier with the head injury had undergone several operations. He was still in a coma. Towards the end of my shift, I met his parents. Sitting on a bench in a long, fluorescent-lit corridor where day and night fused, they looked anxious and drained. Their faces reflected the sudden, shocking realization that their beloved son’s injury might involve a lengthy healing process—perhaps taking years—and that their lives would never be the same.

“But the doctors told us that this hospital has the best American surgeons, the most up-to-date hi-tech equipment in the world!” It was a plea, asking me to reassure them. I nodded, but felt my neck stiffening.

Would it not be better to avoid armed combats instead of repeating the mantra of having the world’s best/highest/most?

I sat with them for a while, wishing them the best for their son, and begged them to get some rest. The hospital offered folding beds to those who refused to leave their injured relatives. I took my leave and resumed the madcap pace of my routine.

 
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I discovered that the Palestinian woman with the knee injury had had an operation. The doctors told me her condition was improving. I tiptoed towards her bed. She was awake. Her face seemed to be glowing when she noticed me.

Or was it simply what I wanted to see?

I gently stroked her hand. Her forearm was marked by blue, green, and violet flecks from the IV punctures. Her toes stuck out from under the light blanket; it was a hot summer night. She grasped my hand in her bony palm with a feeble yet confident hold, and smiled. I pulled out the bedside chair and sat down beside her. She was missing her three young children, she told me.

Silence settled in. Then she asked me where I lived. Here, in Haifa, I told her.

Her eyes gleamed. She was born in Haifa, she said. She still remembered the family villa they had to leave to resettle in the refugee camp in south Lebanon. Her voice softened as she spoke, her eyes shone. Vines entwined the marble fountain in the courtyard, the grapes produced homemade white wine. The family spent summers with their Lebanese relatives on the Haifa beach. They were Christians, she told me. “My name is Marie.” Her tale wafted around the room, as if trying to soften its angular corners.

“My father taught me to swim,” she said. “I competed with the boys and sometimes won.” A grin spread from her lips to her eyes. “I still feel the soft sand beneath my bare feet.” She wiggled her bare toes girlishly.

I asked if she and her family knew the Souidans, one of the few remaining Christian Arab families in Haifa. They ran a spice boutique in the old town that I had enjoyed visiting. I told her how I remembered the high, vaulted windows filtering the dazzle of daylight, the dark recesses of the store haunting my imagination. A fairy-tale prince would glide in through one of the windows on a beam of light. He’d be lounging on a magic carpet, his head swathed in a silken turban. With a swish of his shiny satin gown, he’d invite me to explore exotic aromas and flamboyant hues… I could almost smell the spices displayed on round silver platters engraved with Arabic calligraphy and floral designs.

Marie’s hand hold strengthened.

“You are talking like my oldest son. You have the same spirit,” she said. We both laughed, giggling like children. For a moment, the constant hustle and bustle, stress and noise of the hospital receded, and I went on, lost in my daydream.

The Souidans were patient, amused by my persistent demands to know the origins and uses of the spices. We never left the shop without sipping, first, a cup of bubbling black coffee, or a chestnut-colored sweetened mint tea offered by the courteous hosts. Next to the spice boutique was a restaurant owned by the family, its porch adorned by cascades of blue-violet bougainvillea. On weekends the winding street leading to the front door would be filled with Arab and Israeli Haifans, chatting with each other, waiting in line for the trademark humus and pita.

Did Marie remember the place? And did she know the other unpretentious but popular restaurant by the port, run by the Diab family? Like the Souidans, they were Arab Christians who had remained in Haifa, with relatives in Lebanon and Canada. This was our favorite stop after a weekend of sailing. The local fishermen, their faces sun-tanned and wind-roughened by the sea, came to Diab with the catch of the day that frequently ended up on our plates. Dining at Diab’s felt like a homecoming, part of our childhood.

The restaurant was suffused with the old harbor’s odors of aging wood, petrol and freshly grilled fish. We would stroll in, dressed in summer clothes and beach sandals, dripping seawater onto the stone floor. One of our favorite starters was minced meat baked with fresh tomatoes, flavored with rosemary and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts. We would then opt for the speciality of the house, dorade, the silver skin fish grilled with thyme. No meal at Diab’s would end without a cool, snow-white Labané, a Lebanese dessert made of yogurt spiked with fresh green pistachios and crimson-red grenadine syrup, accompanied by small squares of luscious, almond, pistachio, and honey-filled cookies.

Dessert over, we’d be presented with a thick black coffee, prepared in front of us, in a metal finjan, a Middle Eastern coffee-pot, and sprinkled with green cardamom. We would then be joined by Diab, the patriarch of the family. Lively yet unhurried, he exuded amiability, and we would spend a happy time swapping anecdotes.

With the memories whirling around my head, I looked at Marie and was brought abruptly back to the present reality. As if deciphering my thoughts, with eyes veiled in sadness, she sighed: “There’s nothing left now.”

And I felt my neck stiffening again. We should all be free to stroll together down the winding, eucalyptus-scented streets. Her eyes bade me farewell.

I was about to leave the room when I caught sight of the light blue jelly sandals, clean and tidy, arranged by her bed. I felt they were challenging me to provide answers. Did her children miss the soft, familiar flip-flop of their mother’s blue sandals? Did they miss their mother’s hugs, her meals? Was their school still there, or had it been bombed too? Where were they?

 
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During my nightshift, I passed by the children’s ICU. One of the young patients was a baby Palestinian girl, evacuated by Israeli army helicopters. She had suffered multiple injuries from the compression waves emanating from the bombs Israeli fighter planes had dropped on her refugee camp. Just two years old: the same age as the daughter I'd left at home with the babysitter.

The mother stood tall and stoic by her child’s bed, her eyes following every move I made. She did not utter a word. I only had time to ask the unit nurses to update me on the girl’s condition. With the mother’s stare boring into my back, I hurried on to the next ward. During the week, the condition of the baby girl deteriorated.

My nightshift week was coming to an end. It was dawn, and casualties still poured out of the helicopters. Doctors, nurses, and staff swarmed over the hospital, failing, like me, to conceal their surging anxiety.

Overcome with fatigue, I stumbled into the children’s ICU. The baby girl’s bed was empty. I stood trembling as the nurses told me her condition had worsened overnight. They had called for the doctors, but they were all too busy treating the latest emergency cases. When they finally arrived, it was too late.

I shot out of the hospital, a missile.

I found the mother. She was standing still, her back against the hospital wall, facing the sea. I ran towards her, then hesitated as she looked at me. The light of dawn outlined her silhouette, her shadow on the whitewashed wall an echo of the statue of a Greek goddess.

Our eyes locked. She stared at me, unblinking. No tears. Silent. I could not utter a word. Her eyes followed me, the movements I made. Then she left.

In a slow, self-composed motion I took off my white nurse’s uniform.

I stood there facing the hospital’s whitewashed wall, my smock languishing on my arm. Overcome with emotion, I turned the other way, searching for the sea.

There he was, a blue-green glow spraying arcs of sparkling silver droplets.

“No, I can’t promise it will get better.”

I knew the voice I seemed to hear was telling me the truth. We were friends, we trusted each other. His ripples caressed my feet, coming in, then ebbing. I left the uniform at the hospital and headed home.

Mount Carmel was awakening, his shadows receding. The sandy beach was deserted. No hovering helicopters. Silence. The streets were quiet, the Haifans asleep.

 
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“You’re fifteen minutes late,” raged the babysitter, her nostrils flaring. Without waiting for an explanation, she stomped out, slamming the door.

My baby daughter and I stared at each other mutely, shocked by the blow. I was overcome with feelings of guilt and anger. Despite my belief in the values of nursing and healing the injured, we had just lost a baby girl in the hospital. Was I right to leave my own baby daughter with a furious babysitter? Didn’t she deserve to have a mother by her side?

The next day I told the hospital that I was not coming back. Some time later my husband accepted the offer of work overseas. We accompanied him. The moment I boarded the plane, I felt as though I’d grown wings, liberated from a suffocating place that had ceased to feel like home. Did my friend, the sea, have something to do with it?

 
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Years have passed. Yet, before I fall asleep, I rescan. I see the bare bed of the baby girl in the children’s ICU, her mother. I see myself searching for her in southern Lebanon, in one of the crowded refugee camps, or in one of the semi-deserted, semi-ruined villages. I wonder what chance I would have of ever finding her. And what would I say to her?

Before I fall asleep, I remember the lock of hair of the young soldier, peeping out of the bandage swathed around his head. My fingers yearn to caress it. I see his parents sitting in the dazzling light of the long, neon-lit corridor. Waiting for the doctors to come through the sliding doors of the OR. And tell them—what?

Before I fall asleep, I review the sea. The one who inspired me to claim my freedom, my independence. Or so it seemed to me. I reflect on the price I paid by being far from him, of losing our daily contact. But our dialogue continues; he’s never far away.

Before I fall asleep, I contemplate the realities of the ongoing conflicts I witnessed; realities that others marginalized and later denied or sought to justify.

People who failed to question.

Before I fall asleep, I feel guilty. Even though I belonged to a minority.

Before I fall asleep, I see the look of resignation in Marie.

I see her bright jellyfish blue beach sandals.

Looking at me.

Unable to forget, blessed to remember.

 
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Shlomit Miky Dan defines herself as one of the international nomad tribe, living an enriching experience that continues to challenge her curiosity and learning. She studied Art History in Boston and Brussels, and received an M.A. in International Relations in Geneva, Switzerland. She has published interviews with writers, artists, arts-related personalities, musicians, and persons committed to human rights. her journalistic work reflects her interests in these areas, as well as in reporting on issues concerning international relations. She writes in English and French. These days she lives in Geneva, Switzerland, where she feels she has chiseled her writing by attending small workshop groups within the Geneva Writers' community. Some of her writing can be found at www.mikydan.ch. She can also be contacted at mikydan@mikydan.ch

homer's odyssey

therese gilardi

It’s 2:30 and I’m at Linda’s, sitting in her deep gray chair, the one that feels like a bunch of pillows sewn together. The green Buddha statue stares at me from a corner, beneath the mobile of butterflies that never moves even when the sliding door is open and a breeze runs across the oatmeal-colored living room. Some woman whose name I can’t remember reaches into an aquamarine bowl and starts rifling through the writing prompts until she finds one she likes. It’s cheating and clearly an indication that our session should be all about meeting her muse, but, whatever. I don’t mind; I need all the help I can get to pass this giant band of nothingness that stands where my words should be. I don’t care what the prompt is. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I tell myself. Until the woman says, “Write about a pet.” 

I don’t want to talk about my pets. Every time one of my animals dies I blame myself. My daughter says it’s dysfunctional. I say it’s a metaphor, some sort of spirit animal message I’m receiving, sent on a frequency only I can hear. 

One of the latest deaths was a few years ago, on one of those California days when the air is cool but the sun burns even in the shade.

“I think something’s wrong with Homer,” my husband said. 

He was standing on the uneven cream stone floor in the kitchen in his best British suit and scarlet tie, the gold on his black belt buckle shimmering beneath the too-bright iron and frosted glass kitchen chandelier. On the marble countertop in front of him, between the tarnished candlesticks we’d been given as a wedding gift and the stack of bills I always forgot to open, let alone pay, Homer floated atop the murky water in his tiny glass fish tank, his gills already pulling apart, as though waiting to be sucked into the small tank filter that was plugged into the socket behind the countertop. 

Homer, not this spotted corpse but rather, the original speckled fish, was a holdover from our son’s relationship with his college girlfriend. When the girlfriend left L.A. to study in China she asked our son to mind Homer. Which meant that the husband and I inherited Homer, who joined our stable of animals. Quickly Homer became my husband’s favorite pet. 

Every time my husband returned from one of his trips abroad, he’d rush into the kitchen and peer into the little fish tank on the counter, eager to watch Homer do a lap. Although most people don’t think a fish in a tank can communicate with the human on the other side of the glass, I swear Homer was different. Each time he sensed my husband watching him, he set off on a tour of the tank, swimming back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. He was an eager little fellow, for about two months. Until the day I found him floating along the surface of the scummy water I’d forgotten to clean. It seemed, from the look of things, that he’d been unable to breathe and, maybe, just maybe, he had drowned in his own filth. 

I was horrified. Horrified and embarrassed and desperate to ensure no one would ever discover that my negligence had killed Homer. Especially not my husband. Fortunately, Homer died while my husband was away, which gave me ample time to scoop his little body out of the tank with the net I should have been using to keep the damn thing clean, carry him to the front yard, and bury him under a rock. Pleased and relieved to have removed all evidence of my crime, I knew I needed to make things right again.

I hurried to Petco, where I spent half an hour studying all the fish in the tanks in the back of the store, desperate until I found the one whose size and markings were close to Homer’s. Triumphant, I returned home and made the switch. By the time my husband returned from Paris a week later, Homer II had been a part of the family for so long that I had convinced even myself that it was our original fish doing laps around the tank. True, this new Homer wasn’t as enthusiastic an exerciser as his namesake, but I was pretty certain no one else had noticed the original Homer’s high amount of vigor. 

Alas, like the original Homer, this replacement fish was also not destined for a long life. Like his namesake, Homer II turned up dead one morning while my husband was out of town. Once more I whisked a dead Homer from the filthy fish tank, buried him beneath a flowering forsythia, and headed to Petco in search of a new Homer. 

And so it went for the next two years. My husband would go away and I would forget to feed Homer or clean the fish tank until one morning I’d wake to find the latest Homer face up on top of the water. I’d scoop up his corpse with my green net, carry him to the yard, and add him to the ever growing mound of Homers buried beneath my shuttered window. Then I’d clear out the tank, ready it for the next Homer, and head to Petco in search of a replacement fish. 

“We all wish we’d had a mom like you,” the clerk had told me when I was buying Homer VI, or perhaps it was Homer VII. “It’s so cool that you keep doing this. How old is your kid?”

I watched him tie the knot around the top of Homer’s bag. “Forty-five,” I said. “Homer’s owner is forty-five.”

The clerk’s mouth literally dropped open. I could tell he was horrified I’d been perpetrating this little fraud for years, but I couldn’t help myself. 

Replacing Homer was the only act of kindness I seemed able to muster for my husband. I couldn’t stop myself criticizing anything and everything about him, from his clothes, to his car, his glasses, his taste in books, even the way he chewed his food. I could, however, be sure that every time he returned, he came home to a live fish. As long as I could keep a Homer in the tank, I could excuse myself for lacking the courage, and the courtesy, of taking responsibility for the wrongs in my life and my marriage. Despite the deception involved in adding to the ever-growing mound of Homers buried in the back garden, I was able to convince myself that consistently lying to my husband about the fate of his fish was a legitimate way of breathing a faint gasp of air into a relationship in desperate need of resuscitation. It’s what I’d meant to do the day my husband turned up early and unannounced and found Homer, dead, in the fetid fish bowl. 

Although I had initially panicked when I discovered the latest fatality, I’d soon relaxed when I realized my husband’s plane from Paris wasn’t due for hours. I would have ample time to clean the fish tank, bury Homer XII, change out of my black knit dress which I knew would be damp with perspiration after I faced the disapproving glare of the Petco clerk, and drop the newest Homer into a pool of clean water before my husband had even cleared customs at LAX. Once more I would be able to carry off Operation Replace Homer. Or so I thought. I’d been about to head out to Petco, I even had the car key in my hand, when I heard a noise in the kitchen. It was my husband, standing in the kitchen, staring at the little speckled body floating in the tank I’d failed to clean.

Although it was still early in the day, time had run out. I could no longer go on pretending that our lives were fine as long as I kept replacing his dead pet fish. I had to tell the truth.

“That’s not Homer.”

My husband didn’t reply. 

For a moment I was afraid he hadn’t heard me. But then he reached into the murky water, gently lifted the dead fish, and carried him to the garden. After my husband buried the last Homer, he pitched the fish tank into the cobalt trash can, then rolled it out to the curb. We never had a fish again.

 
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Therese Gilardi is a poet, essayist, and short story writer whose work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the recently released final issue of Onthebus. Therese is the author of two novels, Matching Wits with Venus and Narvla's Celtic New Year. Therese is a member of the Women's Fiction Writers Association and the Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective, and a PAN member of the Romance Writers of America. After many years in France, Therese now calls a quirky house in the hills above Los Angeles home. Therese's obsessions include blue cameos, train travel and the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani. 

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