by Irina Popescu

||

short fiction

It was noon when she prepared her lunch. She loved cereal with the passion of a child who has just discovered that sweet things can come in boxes. She could stomach it easier than other foods that left too many flavor imprints in her mouth. Things like soup with all those mushy vegetables stewing in salty water, each unbalanced bite, an attack. She had no memory of ever eating soup though she knew how to imagine it working its way into her stomach. Even though none of her memories never took shape, she craved recollection, though the act of remembering discomforted her, as being unwillingly privy to the emotional sensations of strangers often does. She hated words for their feeling outlines but she loved the feeling of the word fuzzy on her lips.

F-U-Z-Z-Y. Unexpected word. Yes, but hateful? This word-hate made reading seem distant and strange, even though she enjoyed getting lost in a book once in a while, especially during the winter months. Someone once told her the act of reading used the body to store words and the memories of words– what a beautiful thing to say about dead trees, she thought as she watched his mouth speak. His mouth, a circle. All mouths, circles. Maybe dancing could have been that for her– storing the memories of movement. When she entered the College’s dance academy, they told her that dancing is the body’s response to the feeling of music, or that’s at least what she thought they said as her body began taunting her with the invisible key that she assumed led to whatever version of freedom a word like freedom could encompass. If words didn’t exist then maybe bodies could be a thing of the past.

Two elastic bands formed oddly shaped X’s across the top of her feet. Shades of the noon sun gave way to tiny freckles near the center, where tendons met bone. Was the X a reminder of something? Is it stop or no? Should she remember? Was it a ghost? She would never remember enough. Only the images of words appear, at random moments during her days. Conversations without ends and beginnings, astounding her in the few moments of serene wakefulness she possessed; word outlines. Or maybe her mind refused them? Inside the shoes, the impression of two deformed bottles of poison kids accidentally stumble upon in their mothers’ dressers takes shape, leading her to question the possibility that the persistent dark circles under her own mother’s eyes disguised her hidden murderous bent. Her shoes felt soft yet inflexible- thin soles so worn that she could hardly tell the difference between their existence and being barefoot.

Years ago, when she still lived with her parents, she had a reoccurring nightmare where her feet melted off in a car accident, fusing together with the lower part of the dashboard. When the paramedics came, she witnessed the stunning contamination of flesh and plastic. G-R-O-S-S. When her body suddenly swelled with goosebumps, she awakened. For minutes, the pain made it so all she could do was look around her room, eyes glazing over the posters of various dead ballerinas in perfect positions. Ghosts? She could never tell. Is death gross? Her feet were gone–without them she could disappear, forgetting her body. Bodies are gross aren’t they? So unpredictable and disgusting, she thought when the pain subsided. She’d be a circle, if she could, formless yet intriguingly curvy, with a complicated, divine center. Although she worked hard for circlehood during her nightmares, each time she felt her toes wiggle underneath the sheets, her goosebumps faded with the knowledge that she remained whole and predictably fleshy.

But how, how? How can I not think about it?

Drink some water.

I’m not thirsty.

Doesn’t matter if you’re thirsty. Drink. It’ll help.

But…

Listen to me. Just listen. I know better just trust me. Water. Now. I’ll put a tablespoon of salt in it, fills the belly.

(I know better) Where is that coming from? Here? Do I store it here? In this center?

*It’s grosser that way.

Gross? No, this is gross. And this. And this too.*

Ugly word that sounds like its meaning. Even the spelling looks nasty: G-R-O-S-S. GR makes it aggressive and the double S has to be biblical in some way. Maybe the snake that tempted Eve? Isn’t that the whole point of the Bible? Bodies. Gross? How? Are circles gross? Would anyone call a circle gross?


Look. It’s hard to say but her memory might just be fuzzy.

(There’s that word. But what memory is this? Where does it store itself?)

Forever?

It’s really hard to say because everyone develops differently.

Fuzzy? (Does the form make it concrete?)

Yes.

Will it ever get better?

It’s hard to say.

Well what can you say then?

With this kind of disorder we can’t say much. We’ll have to wait and see how it progresses.

Why is this happening to her?

Impossible to tell if anything really. Sometimes it is linked to a posttraumatic episode or stress but often it is rather random I am sorry to say.

(Is this where the conversation ended?)

That the doctors gave her memories the texture of an ugly pink sweater really messed everything up. From that day on she didn’t trust herself to remember. She didn’t know her own pain. Godparents are weird concepts. That parents choose these guardians for their children without their input is a version of child abuse, unless the godmother is better than the real mother, which in her case was true. What does god have to do with a replacement parent anyway? Can orphans even believe in god? Godmother makes no sense because god makes no sense beyond the plastic nativity scenes mothers put around the house during Christmas and promptly remove on the 6th of January. But when she told them about her worries, they told her to mind her own things and they’d mind theirs– they always minded theirs. Even when she told him what her Mama was doing to her. She knew he wouldn’t be able to trust the fuzzy outlines of her awake memories. And she couldn’t take matters into her own hands then. Matters into her own hands? Fuzzy. She kept hoping Dina would get her when they died– even if her perfume did smell of dead roses being burned on a hearth, sprinkled with goat blood.


The cereal box was advertising the Olympics but she was unclear of who was on the cover even though she tried to piece together the overly excited athletic smile staring back at her. Looked just like her father’s smile. C-O-R-N-F-L-A-K-E-S. Words that for some reason mean something. Don’t they? Do they? What do they remember? One thing her brain outlined a few times a week were fragments of her father’s weekly journal, which he used to hide in the basement underneath one of the old mattresses they stored there. Maybe it was journal though it read like her medical report at times, and he never kept any sense of time within it so she had a hard time piecing it together. He must have known more than he let on. Because parents always know what the other is up to. Don’t they? God-like? She discovered it one afternoon, after her dance practice, while hiding from her mother.

medicine

crazy? Not not.

sleep pain

combination narcolepsy

her mother keeps

dancing

true not or maybe

talented

I should

reality

know

She was eight when she first discovered the journal, but she wasn’t dumb. She pieced together her father’s word-outlines though many she didn’t understand then. She could’ve told the doctors way more than they could. Would she have? Why didn’t they treat her like she was a person? To be born with a made-up talent, her mother’s, seemed unjust in a world where superhero movies have such a mass following by kids and adults alike. When she was thirteen she saw more words but the journal was leather bound this time and she could see the outlines of her ribs.

t-r-a-u

Skinny (was there a ?)

cornflakes

I see that

(see what? see?)


Calories. Per cup. Stupid to still count but habits are hard to break. One hundred per cup. Add milk. Skim? Then less. But she always got whole because it tasted better. She learned to give in to at least a few of her desires early in her thirties. Now at thirty-six and with a dead mother, she felt justified by the wholeness in things.

(this begins like this but it could begin in another way too)

Because you should have listened.

(do memories of conversations need punctuation to alert others that they are memories?)

I did. I just had no idea, you…

Me nothing, I told you. You didn’t believe me. I told you more than once.

It seemed like another nightmare. You were always having them. It was hard to know what was real by that point with you. You have no idea how….

I have ideas. Didn’t you see how I looked?

Sure, but you were always skinny. And dancing… all the girls…

Fuck all the girls. I was your daughter. Did you ever see me like I was?

You’re still my daughter. I know. I should have believed you.

She was crazy and you knew that. You just ignored it. For years, you did nothing, and pretended it wasn’t anything. Like nothing was happening at all.

I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure. I knew she was difficult, but….

If you tell me she wanted what was best I’ll leave.

Okay.

You were gonna say that weren’t you?


Shaking the pieces of flakey corn into an oversized red bowl shaped like a cup, she held onto a secret hope of finding a sticker or fragmented toy to add to the collection she started many years ago when she snuck sweeter cereal into the basement. Adults don’t deserve stickers, she thought. Or toys. Two mornings ago, at the supermarket, a woman named Sadie asked her if she needed any help as she stood, for more time than it takes to choose a box of cereal, contemplating the shelves. She knew when buying the box two days ago that the bottom shelves held the sticker-filled cereal and the adult shelves, though higher up, held no surprises. Sadie’s face was very close to hers when she finally awoke to find herself screaming and thrashing on the ground. Her arms, burnt to a crisp, the fingers blowing away as the arctic wind picked up around her, dispersing pieces of once-flesh into the horizon. First sign of relief was feeling the weight of her fingertips as they traced the cold floor underneath her; never before had she felt so grateful to have fingertips– acknowledging their ability to feel the ground was a feeling she swore she’d try to cherish. Grocery-store strangers huddled in the corners of her eyes with faces of horrific wonder, as the preposterous act of pretending to not look combines with the desire to look, a desire far stronger than humanity. When she finally stood up, she pushed her basket to the checkout counter with a perturbed strength that only a woman who has lost and gained both her arms in a fraction of a second could muster. Her nose was removed and reshaped after a bus crashed into her while crossing the street during an early morning dance practice a few years ago, when her trainers first realized she couldn’t be trusted to perform for paying audiences and decided that she’d work well backstage. She full-heartedly began appreciating her nose, until one day she forgot all about it and resumed the life of the ungrateful smeller. She wondered how long she would appreciate having two arms. Do people who believe in god appreciate their body parts more? Is that what faith gets you?

But maybe if you turn to asking him for help.

Him? Come on. God? Honestly. God never existed.

Is that when you stopped believing in God?

No. Wasn’t then. I still didn’t really get that I could have opinions on things when I was that young.

When did you stop?

Believing in god?

Yeah.

Two years after. When she really started.

Starving you?

Yeah.

And you never told anyone about it? Were you scared?

I did. I told.

Who?

My Dad.

And?

And nothing. You can’t trust a psycho I guess.

You are not a psycho.

I’m kind of a psycho.

She made you feel that way.

Are you calling me a psycho?

No, I didn’t mean that, I just mean…

No one can make you that way.

Yeah, they can. She messed you up. Ruined your childhood, that’s not what being a kid is about trust me when I say that.

Martin…

Yeah…

Can we change the subject?

Okay, I just want you to know that I love you and I’m here if you need to talk about it.

Okay.


She sat near the kitchen on the windowless side, staring past the dining room table she never used, gently raising the spoon to her mouth while contemplating the delicate balance of milk and flakes she had mastered throughout the years. The thought of cooking for herself seemed absurd, not only after Martin left her but in general; she had no memory of enjoying the act of eating. The thought of having her friends over and setting that same table with plates and cutlery, fashioning up some meal she would only half eat while awaiting pretend conversations to happen around her, smiles and nods and, perhaps, even laughter as she made something that could qualify as a good joke, horrified her. Were these the things she was expected to do? Adult survival tactics grounded in small talk and halfhearted chuckles? She never felt like adulthood was for her. If only she was a circle having a cereal dinner with other circles who said nothing to each other yet, in their silence, found some solidarity and maybe, though it was a stretch, began approaching something akin to empathy or whatever it is circles are always desperately trying to approach. She didn’t care enough about things. Yet, if she were to ever have a dinner party, she knew one thing for certain: she’d join the decorative cloth napkins with elaborately etched copper napkin holders that couples always stock up on when they feel they finally have enough money to begin their life-long journey towards extreme wastefulness.

You don’t even care that I’m leaving, do you?

I care. Of course I care. But what am I supposed to do?

Honestly, anything. Do anything. Anything at all. But you see, you don’t care. You just can’t or won’t or whatever it is. It’s like you’re incapable of anything like that. I tried. You just never tried back.

Tried what?

To be happy. To live a normal life. Normal couple, normal life, just fucking have friends over and drink too much and play shitty board games and maybe think about having kids or a dog, something.

Normal? Are those the normal things? That’s stupid. It’s not like you didn’t know who I was. I didn’t hide it from you. Maybe I don’t get normal because I don’t like it. Sounds tragic.

What do you like?

I don’t know.

Dancing?

It’s fine.

No, you hate that too. You hate it all. You just don’t know how to enjoy anything.

I enjoy things.

Like what?

It’s like you stopped living or you never really started, I don’t understand why you still let her run your life. She’s dead. Dead. Gone. All that bullshit from when you were a kid….

Bullshit? That bullshit was not so much bullshit, Martin.

We get over our past, we have to. We can’t just hang out in it forever because then we don’t go anywhere else.

Okay.


When she finished with her bowl, she walked it to the kitchen sink in the way that dancers walk by ever so gently counting steps inside their heads. O-K-A-Y. Stupid word. Even an irrelevant one? Does it hold meaning? Does it agree or disagree? You say okay when you want out of a conversation but also when someone tells you something you’d rather not hear. A word filled with darkness. Ending a conversation with it doesn’t give the conversation an end. O-K-A-Y. Spelled out in her head. Her first class started at half past one, just enough time to lightly digest while walking the few blocks towards the studio. Her life was scheduled around her seemingly predetermined propensity to go unconscious at specific times during the day and, since that tended to happen in the early morning hours or in the evening, her afternoons were safe zones for moving around the city. When she had ambitions, she spent hours dreaming of owning her own studio. She would paint all of the walls pale yellow with ivory polka dots outlining the top part, so as not to distract her students but still give them enough space for whimsy. Aren’t ivory and white the same, Martin asked her once. She never forgave him for asking it. She hated men and spent years wishing she could be attracted to women but her dislike of the female body made that impossible. She also disliked: the concept of chewing, people who asked to see her feet and those same people who gasped nervously when she revealed them. In her studio she would sand the wooden bars and paint them sky blue. When the paint chipped after a few months, she’d sand the bars again and paint them a different shade of blue so that every few months, different hues would calm the children’s movements. She’d make chocolate chip pecan cookies on the last Friday of the month and watch their faces enjoy their grateful sweetness after rehearsal.

You need to.

I can’t anymore. I’m too tired. I don’t want to anymore. I don’t like it.

I could care less about what you like. This is important. It’s your life.

Exactly. Mine. So why can’t I? Can’t I do just something else instead?

You have a talent. No one will know about the disorder.

But I fell asleep in the middle of practice the other day.

Your trainers know about it and still think you have too much talent to quit.

I don’t feel good ever. My stomach hurts.

Have some of this.

No, it’s disgusting.

You’re so ungrateful.

As she finished washing her bowl and spoon, she noticed how stubbornly residual flakes gathered near the bottom of the sink, forming a porous obstacle for the water’s passing. Little flakey contaminations that she left in her bowl each time. She moved them around with her fingers, gracefully pushing them through the tiny holes at the bottom of her sink so that the accumulated water could breathe again. At the age of three, when she first started dancing, she stopped everything else and watched as her world reduced in size. Deep breaths became a luxury for a constantly shifting and contorting small body bound by revealing leotards and shoes one size to small because, as her mother would say, the spin was faster when the feet had less room to wiggle. It’s no wonder pedophilia exists, she thought years later when a man approached her after a recital and told her she had the body of a tiny Greek goddess. She tucked the cereal bag back inside the box, listening until the crinkling finally stopped as the bag settled into its contorted position.

She drove off the road madly, screaming and throwing the bag outside of the window. She watched the bag blow behind them and couldn’t see where it landed or if. Was this an episode she thought, a dream? The pain was in her stomach this time and she pinched underneath her arm trying to wake herself up. It spread to her throat.

They gave it to me because I was hungry. I passed out.

You always pass out, has nothing to do with this.

I was hungry.

You’re fine. It’s in your head. I can’t believe you told your Dad that anyway. I’m your mother. Remember that I know what’s best for you. I love you and I’ve spent my entire life protecting you and your future, why can’t you see that?

Love? This can’t be that. At least don’t think so but who can say for sure? L-O-V-E. V makes it sound spiteful. She takes off her ballet shoes and begins putting on her tennis shoes slowly. Walking down the stairs of her apartment carrying only a small orange duffel bag, her feet feel funny.

Mama, what are these things on my feet?

Bunions.

What’s that mean?

Means you’re a real dancer.

They hurt.

Well sure they do. They’re supposed to hurt. It’s fine.

And look…

What?

These things…

The little sores?

Yeah.

What about them? They’re tiny.

I think I need bigger shoes.

You don’t.

My feet hurt.

They’re gonna hurt. You need to stop complaining that everything hurts all the time.

She always felt bad for her toes yet maintained a healthy distance from them, as if she were making them do obscene acts, and she, like a drug addict or an abusive lover, couldn’t help but inflict pain on them. At the end of each performance she would remove her ballet shoes and look at her feet in the same way an empath looks upon a beautiful woman in her eighties sitting in a café while reading the obituaries.

The outside air vibrated around her. Air-jazz, she thought.

When she graduated from high school, a year after her mother died, she found a dozen or so jazz records in her parent’s basement. She never heard anything like it, so unruly and structured at the same time, voices unvoiced. It’s when she started dreaming of shapeless bodies entering swamps and returning as blue jays. Only that they weren’t really blue jays but weird humans trapped in the bodies of birds that really looked like flying circles and not birds.

A circle, then we could meet without our forms and still know that my body doesn’t matter and neither does yours. I loved you once and now again because in dreams you are sweet and uninhabited. Sugar cubes could be circles too then the bowl would have another circle within it and Nina would smile again. And we could bounce, bounce here and there, no traction, just bouncing from place to place, emotions make no difference as we bounce around, you and I, and I and you, maybe we are the same. Maybe it’s your mouth saying words that I still dream of.

The two women sitting outside of a small café eating chocolate croissants stop to greet her and she can’t remember their names. Should she stop for longer or pretend she’s late? Is she late? She has to say hello and answer the questions politely. Are they following a script some part of some society deemed appropriate in moments such as this one? She forgot how small that one’s eyes are, made even smaller by the round glasses framing the face. She remembers when her father warned her about small eyes. This woman doesn’t look untrustworthy at all. What’s her name? Samantha? Maybe. But she can’t risk it. Tell them you are in a rush and just keep walking. Why is it so hard to say goodbye to people you don’t even want to talk to? What time is it? Should she turn to her watch and act surprised?

I never said you had anything to do with it, obviously. It’s just surprising is all.

Why? Why couldn’t I have been justified in doing something? She was…

No, she’s gone we can’t go back and talk bad about her. Nothing like that. It’s over. Justified? That’s not. Look, because I can’t see her doing that to herself. She was always so careful with her insulin.

That’s your problem.

Come on, this is not the time for all that past.

Time for what? All that past? Really?

For hating her.

Really?

Really.

After leaving the company of the two women, she crossed the main street intersection, heading towards the studio thinking about how many times she had crossed that same street, in the last five years. Have people thought this same thought before? Does that make her empathetic or is that something else? Thinking is so easy. She began crossing the street only to realize that the act of crossing was odd because the action implied necessity, and she prided herself on needing very little. Even when Martin left, she felt something akin to what others would call craving but only at night when she got cold and searched for his overly warm feet under the covers. They were married for four years and they shared nothing in common aside from a deep love of Nina Simone and the poetry of Sharon Olds. At first, she felt that was enough to connect them emotionally but it turned out that she needed more, like a deep understanding of approximate colors and perhaps the touch of another person who wanted to be a circle.

She opened the studio and went inside, unloading her bag onto the massive wooden chair near the entrance. She took off her tennis shoes and socks, putting them under the chair as she opened her bag to remove the ballet shoes. Squeezing them in her hand always produced the same effect in her. Her bare feet were lightly marked by the past but still very much resembled feet.

A grand jeté is almost like doing the splits while in midair and your feet have to be very taut, no space between the toes.

I know what it is.

You need to be more explosive! You need to build strength and take this seriously.

Did you see me fall last night?

Everyone saw you.

I could have been really hurt. Even paralyzed. Or at least broken something.

But you weren’t.

I don’t think there are many ballerinas with my condition.

Then you can be the first.

What if I don’t want to be?

That’s no way to talk.

If you love ballet so much why didn’t you do it?

You’re cruel.

If I can do it with narcolepsy, you can do it without a leg.

How can you talk to me like this? This is the thanks I get? I’ve done everything for you.

Looking at herself in the giant mirrors around the studio made her feel uneasy. She didn’t know how to see herself. Her legs were both there but one always felt it couldn’t keep up with the other. At her mother’s funeral she felt something akin to what others would call grief but only when she caught a glimpse of herself in tiny circular red mirror hanging near the front door during the reception. She was seventeen and kept hoping she could have an episode during the funeral. But she could never will them into being. She had to sit through the entire thing listening to people apologizing for her loss as if they had killed her mother or, worse yet, stood by idly as she accidentally overdosed on insulin.

Standing in front of the mirror, she watched herself put on her shoes, rearranging the X’s so that they resembled their straightest and best version. Her students would arrive in twenty-minutes, giving her time to warm her body up. She stood in front of the mirrors as her mind played the tune of Nina Simone’s “I want a little sugar in my bowl.” She started in third position and moved into a closed fourth followed quickly by the fifth, realizing that the echappé she was preparing herself for resisted smoothness because her feet did not transition in time. Her legs started shaking as she went down into the swamp. She wasn’t hungry but felt lightly ill, a pang around her lower back and stomach, slowly moving to her throat. What memory is this? She thought about the answer but stopped mid-thought to watch the pieces of her flesh disappear into the murky water. Her body slowly became impossible to understand as a body, as more pieces of her drifted away. She had no desire to bring them back to her, or search for them. She felt calm, letting the water circle around her, rounding her out.