Surfaces

For the third round of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction inspired by this photograph.


An open newspaper on a cafe table i i
Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo
An open newspaper on a cafe table
Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo

Lately, I am obsessed with surfaces; doorknobs, table tops, faucet handles, telephones, light switches —all the daily objects, touched a dozen, a hundred times a day by unwashed hands, fingering everything and leaving a film of microbes like the slime trails you find glistening in the morning after slugs have gone. Food is coated with the killers too, whole crowds of unseen pathogens, from the soil, the air, everywhere. Sometimes, ignorance damn sure can be bliss.

I was normal till the chemotherapy destroyed your white cells, making you a lonely island in an angry sea determined to reclaim its own. The doctors laid down the law before the transplant: no raw fruits or vegetables, no cheeses or anything with yeast, no tap water. No plants or flowers, either. Once I forgot and brought your favorite, cream-and-butter floribunda from our garden, and had to leave them for the nurses — too many spores, too risky.

Scrubbing is the most important, the nurses said, and I scrubbed till my skin was tough and shark-like. Days, I practiced the rites in the foyer outside your room like a good acolyte. Nights, every pore on the walls of that small airlock bored through my eyelids. The tiny plaster seas and craters enticed me, and like ancient astronomers I gave them names. Mare Serenetatis was the round spot by the inner door I always gazed at before entering, a watching eye assuring your existence. Mare Imbrium was a smaller dot above the sink, baleful and stern, abjuring me to wash one more time. My favorite was Mare Nubium, a dark splotch over the outer door. Each time I left the unit, I glanced up at its unblinking, cloudlike face, and felt less defeated.

Finally, they said the magic word: remission. The rarefaction of your face alarmed me, though I had to laugh as you named the forbidden foods you meant to eat in one gigantic binge: pizza and oranges, beer and spinach salad, sharp Vermont cheddar and a huge glass of cold water, straight from the kitchen tap! Fresh-baked dill rolls and peaches, smoked salmon and cucumbers, champagne and asparagus! We stopped at Winn-Dixie and bought it all. That spring blazed through us, so light and pure of aspect that I feared to wake each morning and put my clumsy hands around the tender day.

The plastic cheese in this breakfast sandwich, and the soggy roll that holds it, wouldn't make you covetous at all, my darling. There's a fly trapped in the light fixture overhead, buzzing away in futile irritation. A woman walks by outside, the tan undersides of her black pumps flashing up with each step, then down again, like the rump of a white-tailed doe moving in and out of trees.

They called just now to tell me they were ready, so I left the paper and its useless gossip on the table. I knew there would be roses in your room, permitted now that it no longer mattered. Love is dangerous, my book on flowers said was the meaning of the Carolina rose. I stumbled on the step down to the street, and caught myself against the building. As I pushed off from the plaster, a flake of paint clung to my palm. The scar left on the wall was dull grey, pocked and beveled like my little seas in the isolation unit. I have no name to give it.

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