Excerpts from In the Fat
The Real Problem was My Thigh
I know I’m dreaming because everything that’s happening has already happened. Hell, even this dream has happened before and I can’t get away from it. My brain just reruns the last year of life like bad television.
I’m in the bathroom at home. White tile, white toilet, white sink, blue walls, and a copy of a lithograph by MC Escher above the towel bar. The blood stains on the grout have been bleached away.
The kitchen knife in my hand is from a set in one of those wood blocks.
Not the largest of the set, not the smallest. Not the bread knife.
Just one of the middle ones. A white handle the right size to fit in my palm.
Jagged sharp edge. Sharp sharp edge.
And I’m sitting on the white bathmat, thinking about how this is a generous thing to do, that Mom can be happier and Andrew won’t have to worry and Zoe won’t think that her little sister turned out to be a total slut. How Mom and Ken can stay married because I won’t be around to interfere with them. How Andrew and his wife can raise Emily without her ever having to know that her real mother was thirteen when she was born. And, maybe if there is a selfish part to it, then it will also make it so I don’t have to deal with Ken anymore. And also maybe Mom will quit with the questions – “who’s the father, Skyler?” and “tell me the truth, Skyler!” and “I want to talk to this boy’s parents, Skyler!”
So in my dream-memory, I’m sitting here on the white bathmat, the blood pools around me, thick and dark. It spreads into a cloud shape. And two flies are buzzing around on the ceiling looking down at me and one fly says to his fly friend, ‘That blood puddle looks like a bunny – see the ears and the cotton tail?’
But he’s wrong, because it looks like a face, see the eyes and nose and grimace and…wait.
There weren’t flies on the ceiling. Not the day when this happened outside of my dreams. It was just me in the bathroom and I had Mom’s knife and no one else was home and I put the bathmat on the floor and sat down.
Since it’s a dream, I rewind, redo, go back to the beginning, and I put down the bathmat and sit again and there isn’t any blood yet. And the dark blue walls look like the nighttime sky and the sink is just a marshmallow cloud and I’m still a lot younger than I will be.
Medium sized knife in hand, bare leg. I sit looking at the knife, at my right thigh, back and forth, knife, leg, knife leg, knifeleg. Then the tip of the knife is on the thigh-side of my knee bone, right where the long muscle begins, and it runs along the skin, up from the knee toward the edge of my shorts, through layers of skin and into the top of the muscle and the knife is sharp enough that the cut stings more than hurts.
A thin line of red comes up. Like the knife’s a magnet and the blood’s metal.
And the pain that was there when this happened outside of my dreams, the pain that made my teeth and jaw clench, the pain like when I spilled boiling hot noodles and water onto my foot when Ken and I made spaghetti one night, the pain that almost made me stop but I didn’t, that pain isn’t there. The benefit of dreams. Instead of pain it’s all soft fuzziness while blood pulses out and all over the white tiles and white bathmat and maybe the flies are back and the puddle does look like a rabbit, who am I to judge what a fly thinks.
Then I’m falling.
The fall happens slow.
The fall starts with my shoulders sliding along the white edge of the tub aimed to the left. Then the memory of the pain that’s not really there in a dream makes me pull up and slide to the right instead.
As I fall, I see two long blue paint drips hidden behind the toilet and a small peek of the old yellow paint below the vanity cupboard and Mom’s going to be pissed about that.
And I see the blood drops, one by one, as they slow motion drip out of my body, out of my thigh, onto the bathmat, onto the floor, through the floor, through the apartments below me, into the streets, into the water of the Willamette River even though we live twenty-three blocks uphill from the river.
My blood makes its way there and spoils the water so even the fish and the boats and the rocks and the sand are all ruined for everyone because of me.
And the flies talk about that too.
“It’s a pity about the water,” the fly who saw the rabbit says.
“It used to be so clean,” the other fly says.
“She’s ruined it for sure,” the first fly says.
“Oh look, the rabbit has a tail now,” the other fly says.
My right shoulder hits the floor. Cold ceramic tile.
My right arm catches under my body like it did when this all happened in the world outside of dreams, but this isn’t real and my arm goes through the floor just like the blood did, through the floor and dangling somewhere above the river like a strange moving piñata filled with unfriendly things like blood and knife and death and naughty finger gestures, nasty surprises for eager children because I’ve learned that childhood sometimes has nasty surprises.
My face lands last.
The tile floor cold and hard and white and smooth against my cheek.
The edges of the blood puddle spread toward me, dark and thick, and maybe it looks like a rabbit, maybe a face, maybe a big-ass blood clot that’s been pulled out of me.
The blood rabbitfaceclot comes for my face and my eyes and the thought of blood getting into my eyes is too disgusting to think about so I close my eyes and I wait to die.
Monday, October 23, 2012
Mom’s all stony silence while we drive. Not even the damned radio is on, and we get satellite radio so we have a ton of stations and it’s almost always on. I think I can actually hear Mom’s heartbeat it’s so quiet in this car.
And it’s not a long drive, I mean Troutdale is only about a half hour away from home, not cool enough to be PortlandLite, it’s more like PortlandRedneck.
I stare at the red Honda in front of us, the one Mom’s tailgating, and I wonder what the people in the Honda are doing and where they’re going. I’d look out the side window, but all I can see is the soundproof walls that edge the freeway and the swoop swoop of wall breaks is making me carsick like when I was a kid. Well, when I was a younger kid. I’m thirteen now. Thirteen on the outside, something like a million years old inside my head.
That’s the real problem. My head. My mother is driving me away from my home in downtown Portland and over to some loony bin for girls in the east-side suburbs because she thinks I’m crazy. Mom says it’s the most expensive private mental institute in Oregon as if that makes it better.
We turn off the freeway, and there’s new stuff to look at – a McDonald’s and hotels, gas stations and a half-dozen furniture stores. I guess Troutdale people like their furniture.
A few more turns and we’re sitting in front of this big building made of red bricks with a red brick driveway and a black wrought iron fence with spikes on the top. We’ve left Portland circa 2012 and driven into Suburbia USA circa 1950. The place to leave your crazy daughters, folks; away from the public at large; scary scary girls who slice up their skin and try to kill themselves and have to be locked away. Modern day Frankensteins.
And shit, “Mom is really going to leave me here,” that’s all I can think. What do I have to say? “I promise it’ll never happen again? Cross my heart, tried to die, stick a needle in my eye?”
But I won’t say any of those “I’m sorry” things. I mean, I said them before, or something like them at least, but I promised myself that I won’t say any of that ever ever ever again, because she’s not listening. Because I can talk and talk at her but it’s like she forgot English or like I’m talking at that stupid frequency only dogs can hear.
A long wet drip comes off my jaw and lands on my shirt. That’s when I realize I’m crying.
I wipe my eyes and suck in the snot and make myself stop it, except I’m scared and my leg jitters up and down. Mom’s got to see the leg, but she doesn’t say anything about it. And I can’t stay quiet any more. My voice can’t just be lost inside me, so I clear my throat, and this wussy-little-kid voice comes out.
“Mom, this is so fucking stupid,” I say, but I’m talking more to my hands on my lap than to her.
“Skyler, when you use that kind of language, it makes me feel disappointed,” Mom says. But she’s talking more to the windshield than to me.
She turns off the engine and we sit while the leftover energy in the car ticks away around us. The fine hairs on Mom’s arm right next to my fine hairs on the armrest, and I smell Mom’s perfume. She always wears Obsession and it smells like warm oranges and home. Her smooth dark-red hair hides part of her face from me, frames her green eyes and that small bump along the bridge of her nose. I don’t know how long we can sit here, but I know that I will never have my mother all to myself again, and the only thing I can think to say is please take me back home, but that’s stuck in my throat like I chewed up a whole bag of caramels at once and they turned into a solid mass of unswallowable shit.
Mom opens her car door just as the front door of the building opens and this tall black guy dressed in blue doctor-scrubs comes out, and while Mom opens the trunk and grabs the backpack with the little bit of stuff I’m allowed to have, the black guy opens my car door. I figure he opened the door for me so I won’t run off or something, like I could with my new bum leg. I consider trying to run for about a second, like it’s some mandatory crazy girl thing that I should do. Finally, I just unbuckle my seatbelt and get out.
The black guy has a nametag that says “Andre” then right under it “Orderly”. So I say, “Hi, Andre Orderly. I’m Sky Crazy-girl.”
Mom slams the trunk closed and gives me one of those looks that all Moms have, that they must have gone to Mom School to learn.
Andre Orderly just laughs and says, “Hi, Sky.”
I half expect Mom to say “don’t talk to strangers Skyler” because she still thinks I’m five, and I figure I’ll say something like “yeah well you’re leaving me with them so how strange can they be” but Mom says nothing so I say nothing and we follow Andre Orderly up to the front door.
My backpack with pairs of underwear and a brush goes into Andre Orderly’s hands and Mom steps up to the admittance window. I walk along the black and white checker board floor tiles, the childish rhyme of “step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back” sings in my head while I look around. While I avoid cracks.
The walls aren’t white. I mean, isn’t there a rule that hospital walls are supposed to be white? The walls are this tea-stained-beige color that’s probably supposed to be all calming, but I don’t think I calm that easily. And there are no pictures. Not even one that could show me who the Employee of the Month is supposed to be.
Across from the window Mom’s at is this metal plaque hung on the wall.
Dedicated this Twelfth day of July, 1962, in the Memory of St Ansbald
Abbot and Benedictine builder, Ansbald served as Abbot of St Hubert.
He then became Abbot of Prum, which he rebuilt in 882 through
petitions to Holy Roman Emperor Edward the Fat
“You reading about The Saint?”
I look up and Andre Orderly is back. I see the side of his head and notice that he has stripes shaved into the sideburn areas, and I want to ask why but I don’t.
“So, why this dude?” I ask. “What did he do?”
“He was a priest. The German family who founded this place honored him by naming the hospital after him.”
“So, this place’s called Ansbald’s?”
“Saint Ansbald’s,” he says. “At least by those of us who work here.”
“Other people don’t call it that?”
“Naw, the girls that live here, well, don’t tell anyone I told you,” and he darts his eyes back and forth like he’s worried someone will hear, even though no one else is around. He tilts his shave-striped ear to me and says, “They call it The Fat.”
Sally K Lehman is the author of the novels In The Fat which was on the Multnomah County Library list of Best Novels of 2016, The Unit – Room 154, and Living in the Second Tense. She is also the editor/co-editor of the anthologies War Stories 2016, War Stories 2017, and Bear the Pall, and is the Creative NonFiction Editor for the literary journal River & South. Her work can be found in several literary magazines including Lunch Ticket and The Coachella Review. Sally is a graduate of the Maslow Family Graduate in Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University, where she will be beginning an MFA program in June. She lives in the Portland, Oregon area.
Image: Flickr / Thomas Hawk