The unit's white tiled floors remind me of a bathroom; the hallways are too long; the windows are too high. All day, the doctors and nurses of Unit 12F measure the vital signs and eating habits of the girls who won't love, attempting, with EKGs, CAT scans, and MRIs, to penetrate the core of hardened hearts. There are almost no boys with this affliction. The boys meet every criterion except for one: if they don't love, it is because they cannot.
For some, the transition is swift. One day they are willing to love, and the next, their eyes grow cold and they pull away, torsos inching slowly into space. For most, though, the evolution takes a while. It comes in sputtering stops and starts until one day they realize they have not loved in months. These girls are harder to cure.
My mother is of the second group. Hers is a strange, late onset case. The girls who sit icy eyed beside her on the softly upholstered sofas, slowly swinging their legs back and forth, are all teenagers. When my mother was admitted, they crept slowly from their perches on chairs and floors, windowsills, and sofas. They circled her like suspicious dogs. The girls didn't make eye contact and neither did my mother. That's how they knew, I suppose, that it was she, and not I, who was one of them.
The girls are civil enough to each other, and sometimes they play checkers or do a puzzle, their eyes opaque skipping stones. My mother does not join them. Mostly, she stays in her room, stays to herself. She is cold, she says.
And yes, the doctor has affirmed, there is a mind/body connection with this illness. He has pointed to a model heart, gently prodding the ridges of its ventricles, miming, with his fist, the opening, the closing. My mother's heart is pumping colder blood. It started with her nails, but now it has spread, up through the bony web of fingers, to her arms, chest, and face, tingeing every visible stretch of skin.
When I tell people about my mother, their eyes grow wide with imagining, crimson apples and poison-saturated ribbons dotting their pupils. But my mother's unwillingness to love has not translated quite into hate. She is, for the most part, polite and courteous. She treats me as she might a lurking maid.
When I brought my mother in last month, I almost thought she'd turn to me and say, "Sarah, this is ridiculous! I don't need to be here!" Her smile would be like I remembered: sweeping, luminous.
What she did was cock her head, flutter some fingers. "Bye now."
The doctor had asked me the questions she would not answer: Duration of the illness, onset, progression.
"When I was eleven," I told him, "I did not need to think about my mother. She was there. When I was twelve, I started to think. When I was fifteen, my mother and I fought. When I was sixteen, she slapped me and told me to get out of her house. When I was eighteen she forbade me from leaving. Now we are here."
"So it began when you were twelve, and how old are you now?" he asked.
"How old do you think?" I met his eyes. His wedding band was made of thick gold, but still.
He frowned. "Date of birth?"
"It's been seven years," I told him, disappointed.
The doctor was interested in knowing that my father died when I was fourteen. "Two years in," he murmured. The doctor hadn't dealt with a woman her age before, but he suspected this not loving could get tiring for a spouse. "Well," I countered, "it wasn't suicide." The doctor nodded quickly, but I'm pretty sure my father's cause of death won't go into the case study. An arrested heart, I can see how close that is to redundant.
We, the relatives, are called by force of habit, the loved ones. It's a cruel trick of speech, but even I've felt myself slip. They have a special multifamily support group for us. I am the only daughter. The parents are all in love with me in a way that makes me wish I were prettier and smarter than I am. But I could do basically anything, and I'm not sure it would matter much so long as I look at them when they speak and smile when they joke. All nine sets of parents hug me before and after every session. At first, they kind of drifted over until their hands were rubbing circles over my back, but now they line up.
Today we are discussing Positive Displays of Affection. Last week it was Intimacy, and the week before, Healthy Attachments.
"I just don't understand," exclaims Pam, a woman my mother's age with blond hair the consistency of wool. Her jowls tremble. "Stacey was such a good child."
Her husband shifts. His shirt is on inside out.
The counselor nods, but hastily; she does not want us to get off topic as we have in weeks before. She rolls a blue Sharpie between her palms. She stands and writes "Positive Displays of Affection" on the dry erase board positioned in the center of our ungainly circle. Her letters teeter and slope.
"What can we do," the counselor asks, "to positively display affection? Any cognitive strategies? Group?" Her cheeks sink into dimples. I imagine inserting drills into the twin holes, reaching deep enough to extract.
Girls shrug into shoulder shells. My mother's face is impassive. The silence bathes the room. I feel it flow over my scalp and down my back, washing. I can smell the tangy acidity of my mother's perfume. I almost feel the weight of her arms encircling me, my nose pressed against her breast, inhaling.
My mother breaks the silence. "Yes," she says, waving a hand in my direction, "she was also a good child."
The counselor makes fumbling noises with her throat. She shuffles some papers, moves to pass them around. Someone laughs, a short and husky sound.
I miss the hospital when I'm not there, which is a strange thing to say, I suppose. But when I go to work—I'm a nanny—I feel like I've stumbled into a different time zone. My movements feel slower, like I am somehow wading air. I thought I might like the job until I did it. I have strange thoughts, sometimes, which can make me dry-heave. Once, I was holding Delilah, and my hands started to throw. I caught myself, but my god, what if I hadn't.
I take Delilah to the park and bounce her on my hip. She laughs and watches me with her eyes. She is OK, at least for now.
I am somewhat in love with her father. His name is Ralph, an awful name that does nothing to describe him. He is sexy in a way that's like staring at your nose for hours until it doesn't belong on your face. The first time I saw him, I thought he was chubby, middle-aged, and without any discernable chin. Now, all I see are his teeth, which are alarmingly, arrestingly, straight. They do, they dazzle.
His wife is fine. She flits in and out. Julie. She's a lawyer, which I guess is enough about her.
In addition to the multifamily support groups, we have family sessions, my mother and I. Every week, we meet in the doctor's sprawling office and attempt to order the past. We have not made progress, and the doctor notes this. We have spoken, at length, about what happened at my twelfth birthday:
I was unwrapping presents, and when I got to the one from my mother, it was her wedding dress. I wasn't sure what to say. I'd wanted a special kind of locket that opened into a pot of lip-gloss, and had told my mother this. I picked up the dress, stood it upright like a person.
"Darlene?" My father's forehead folded in like a fan.
When the doctor asked my mother to explain the gift, she shrugged. "I didn't need it anymore."
Today, she gives another answer: "It's better to give than to be stolen from."
A blanket is wrapped over her shoulders like a shawl. Her veins map her skin.
"What do you mean by that?" the doctor wants to know.
"Well," my mother says calmly, "she would have taken it eventually."
The doctor asks me if I would like to challenge her statement.
I shake my head. I am nauseous. My mouth is sand. What I want to do is leave. I want to travel far from this medicinal-smelling room where the heat is always on too high and the cushions itch like spiders over my skin. I want to levitate, shoot through the ceiling, crumble the bricks of this hospital into a fine powder and sprinkle it, like mist, over a field. I want to make grass grow with this place; I want to use it to feed.
The doctor sighs, turns to my mother. "Darlene, I don't think you are making an effort."
She readjusts her blanket, wrapping the corners over the jutting ledges of her shoulder blades. She blinks.
"Sarah? Thoughts?" the doctor prompts.
Good night, Sarah. Love you, Sarah. How was your day, Sarah. These are the things I miss. It feels like paying for sex, hearing my name from him.
"I don't know. I don't know what she's saying. Mommy, I don't know what you're saying."
I meet her eyes, and god, even the irises are blue now.
She looks through me. "There really wasn't any room left."
"Room?" The doctor leans forward, palms flat over knees.
My mother breathes. I imagine it's a sigh, though, really, it's air.
"At twelve, Doctor, she started to turn into me. When I looked at her, it was a mirror. At first, I thought I could love her in a way, in the way I'd loved myself, exactly that way. But the mirror changed. It became only her. She left me for dead. I could not love her. I couldn't love myself double. There wasn't room enough."
She is matter-of-fact. She is merely explaining the birds and the bees. She does not have to think, or search for a reason. It's there like the sky.
"But Mom," I hear myself, even though I know there's no point, "I'm not you."
This conversation is tiring her. Idly, she runs her nails against the wall. Her nails are nearly purple today. It makes me gag to look, and so I don't but then I do.
The radiator hums, and the things I want to say coat the inner lining of my stomach until I burn.
"Of course," she shakes her head briskly, annoyed. "Of course you are."
The doctor taps his pencil against his notebook. Tap tap tap. Tap. Tap tap tap tap.
I want to smack him, but I have an urge, also, to kiss him, both of which I do not do.
He is in his late forties, and while he is almost completely bald and so tall I sometimes feel dizzy looking from his legs to the crown of his head, I would like very much to touch the space between his earlobe and jawbone, on either side. When he speaks to me one on one, I focus on not kissing him. The immediacy of his face disorients me. My eyes cross. I feel the lids slit half-way, stop myself. When he shakes my hand, as he sometimes does, I can't help but enjoy the hairiness of his knuckles.
"That statement is irrational," the doctor tries to reason. His eyebrows merge. He wants my mother to listen.
"Are you a mother?" she says, and when he gives the answer, she wraps her blanket tighter. "Then please." Her eyelids flicker shut.
I leave the hospital, twigs cracking under my boots, brittle as my mother's slowly-freezing bones. In an X-ray, they have detected the thinnest veneer of frost.
Today is Delilah's first birthday. In this spirit, I am wearing a yellow dress. It is my mother's, and my stomach presses and strains against the taut fabric.
When I get to the house, Delilah has spit-up all down the front of a ruffled pink and purple polka dotted dress. Her wispy hair is gathered in a matching pink bow. She laughs when she sees me, and lifts her arms. I take her from the highchair and bounce her up and down on the fleshy cushion of my hip. Julie is a very thin woman. I have seen her smoke. I have heard her say, to her friends, "God, do I need a vacation!" And I know, am sure of this, that sometimes, when she says she's at work, she is somewhere else: the mall, I imagine. With another man, it's possible.
Julie comes over and sniffs Delilah's diaper. She asks if I wouldn't mind taking care of it.
I carry Delilah upstairs, wipe her clean. I am used to the smell, so pungent it is vaguely sweet. After I'm done, I hug her close, breathe in her powdery cleanness like an animal imprinting. I'm glad, suddenly so grateful, that Delilah's been here, in this world, for an entire year. A year is not nothing.
I hear Julie's heels and stiffen. I hand her the baby, smile, wipe my hands on a towel. Julie blows into Delilah's belly-button. "Who's my big girl?" she says, her pitch high as a flute.
When standing becomes too much, I try to remember how people speak. "What lovely weather we're having," I say.
Julie squints at me, and I realize my mistake; there is black ice on the ground.
"Yes," she says finally, "we're lucky it's not worse out."
Downstairs, Ralph is hanging streamers, whistling. His belly spills out from his shirt in a way that may not sound appealing, but briefly suspends me. He smiles, and my spine just about turns in.
When the guests shuffle in bearing gifts of dolls and stuffed animals, puffy, age-appropriate books, I tuck my hair behind my right ear and then my left. I do it again.
The doctor has told me not to worry, but my mother isn't making as much progress as the others. One girl, Alicia, looked her mother in the eye the other day.
It happened during visiting hours. I was sitting next to my mother. She kept a polite distance from me, hands folded neatly in her lap. Jeopardy! was on.
Alicia's parents were talking to her in the vague, under-water way people sometimes speak when there are too many wrong things to say.
"We picked up some hotdogs," her mother was saying. Alicia's mother used to have red hair when we first met but now I can see it's more brown than anything else. It always comes as a bit of a disappointment, finding out something like that.
When she got talking about firing up the grill, how the coal had taken so unusually long to stoke, Alicia's eyes darted out from behind her hair for a split second, beady and rat-like. The room stilled.
Alicia's mother let out a strangled sound of joy. "Oh! Oh!" Her arms flailed. Her smile cut her face open, making me think about tongues until I half-believed mine was the size of a cow's.
"Sarah," Alicia's mother said, her skin so bright I thought for a second she was sweating. "You'll see. It'll happen. Just you see."
Her eyes were suns and I had to look away. Alicia's father had out a handkerchief which was disconcerting, and so I left the room.
I almost thought my mother might follow.
I came back, and said, "Mom. Hey, Mom." And it got pretty awful, because then I was on her lap, which is bony, and I was saying "Mommy, Mommy," and people weren't sure what to do. A nurse came, and she was pretty good about it. Her face was empty like she understood.
My mother, very delicately, tried to entangle me. "You're hurting my legs," she said. And when I got off, she looked back at Alex Trebek and it's very possible that she smiled.
I've taken to sleeping in my mother's bedroom; it makes the house seem less empty. I sit upright on the throne of her mattress, photo albums surrounding me like petals around a stigma. I run my fingers over the surface of my favorite picture. In it my mother and I grin into the camera, our thumbs obfuscating a side of each of our faces. This is how it happened, this day: I was ten. I had woken up for school, was eating my oatmeal and twirling my hair, all set to go, when my mother kind of smiled and said, "Today feels like a mental health day, doesn't it?"
We waved away the school bus, giddy. We drove over two hours to an amusement park, with the top down all the way. We twirled in teacups and just about touched the clouds on the Ferris wheel. There was a stuffed elephant that I wanted, and my mother gave me roll after roll of quarters until finally I won. She let me eat cotton candy and caramel popcorn for dinner.
"It just felt like one of those days," she smiled, her arms carelessly over mine. "Just us girls."
In my eighth grade class photo I do not smile. That was the year I needed a bra. "Look at you," my mother said. She went to her room and brought me one of hers, handed it over like allowance. That bra sagged over my ribcage for a year, then grew too small.
"I knew it," she said. "I knew it." Her breath on my face was the temperature of mint.
I kissed a boy when I was fifteen, and here he is, a loose Polaroid floating between the pages of a family vacation in Disneyland. He was shorter than me, I remember that now. After I kissed him, I hurried home and filled four pages in my journal. And then, I wrote. And then. Hearts in the margin, swirling curlicues.
My mother came up behind me. "What are you doing?"
My father had been dead a year.
The other girls on the unit have begun to make eye contact, one by one, until my mother is the only one left unimproved. Some allow themselves to be hugged. Their bodies seem limber, lithe, and it is only now that I realize how tightly they have all been holding themselves. The unit is shot through with color, though outside, winter spreads its shadow over the sun. Every day, some girl or another will laugh.
Their parents still give me hugs, but they are half-hearted now, and sometimes they forget. My mother pushes an IV pole. Warm fluids go directly to her veins now, but it has not stopped her skin from turning a mottled blue-gray.
Alicia is discharged, on account of kissing her parents. It was slow, almost grotesque to witness, though we all did: small quivering lips puckered tightly, the head dragging incrementally forward until lips scratched against skin and it hadhappened. The second kiss took so long, I wondered if Alicia's neck might snap from the pressure. But she pulled through, and when it was over she was smiling. The nurses threw a party, and there was cake.
Without my mother, the study would have been a grand success. But, like they say, there is always an exception to prove the rule. They are thinking of discharging her too, along with the other girls. She is dragging down the spirit. She is fogging up the windows.
For dinner tonight, I set the table for two. I use the good china. I make steak. I prepare bundles of green beans, snow peas and carrots, tied in the center with a ribbon of scallion. I roast potatoes. I bake a pie. Carefully, I cross the crust, over-under, under-over. The house smells like unplaced memory.
I fill two plates. "Some for me, some for you," I say. And then, because my voice sounds like an echo, "Mmmm."
I concentrate on the flavors, the contrasting textures, the sharpness of a spice, the smokiness of the meat. I fold a napkin over my knees. My fork and knife scratch the china, and it could be music, if you listen right. It is not unpleasant. I sprinkle pepper, then salt. I try to think about what's missing, and then it hits me: ketchup. I kick back my chair. My napkin sticks to my knees, then floats to the ground.
The ketchup is behind the orange juice and string cheese, next to the blueberry yogurt. Holding it, I am almost excited.
But by the time I'm back, pools of grease have formed beneath the potatoes. The vegetable bundles have partially unraveled. The steak is uncommonly bloody. I poke the congealed edges with the tip of my pinky.
I feel something. A little something inside me beginning to bloom, snaking like ivy up my trachea, wrapping around my esophagus. I am breathing in a way. The marbles of fat on the steaks are spongy like something internal. I squeeze, pump, squeeze, pump. "Come on," I say. "Come on, come on."
The doctor and I meet, briefly, to discuss my mother's discharge plan, her aftercare. "What should I do?" I ask him. He takes off his glasses, rubs them against the pocket of his shirt. He clears his throat, shakes his head. He sighs deeply and heavily.
I begin to wonder if he has heard me. I gather my split ends into a brush and guide them along my cheek.
"I'm sorry," he says. I look up.
He reaches out his hand, then pulls it back. "For now," he says, his voice gentler, "we are doing all we can."
"So," I say, smiling almost, though I am not sure why. "How long does she have left?
The doctor looks at me. Behind him, the clock ticks. He rubs his knuckles together, bone over bone.
Julie meets me at the door, exhaling in the contrived way of people not holding their breath. Her hands slice the air like windmills. I almost didn't go to work today. I almost called in sick. Julie has bobby pins between her teeth. I almost feel like leaving.
There is a crisis at the office, Julie tells me, she would hate for the baby to have to miss a week, would I mind taking Delilah to Mommy & Me at the YMCA?
It's my job to say yes, sure, no problem, and I do.
I feel that something. I swallow and swallow until my mouth is dry, but this time, it is ivy with thorns. It threads through my lungs and clutches at my throat.
The door slams shut, and I turn to Delilah. "It feels like one of those days," I say. I squeeze her close. I love her. Today, I love her. I take Ralph's car; he is away on business and will not miss it.
I imagine that Ralph is my husband, his heart beating, beating, beating, a steady, immutable rhythm. The doctor, I imagine, is my lover, there to catch the excess love when it bubbles over, too much for a single person. And Delilah, sweet Delilah, is my daughter, my truest love. My love for her is a wave the size and color of the ocean, forever rising and recreating.
I drive and drive, a map propped against the dashboard. It's been nine years, but I'm sure the amusement park is still there and that I will find it. The wheels glide over empty roads, a gentle lurch of motion. I feel the space around us opening, the world revealing itself, a slow, shy lover of oak, of wings, of moistly-scented air. Here is the Beginning; here is where we start. The white expanse of sky follows us like an epic moon.
I release the sunroof. "Just us girls," I say.
The air is immediate. Diamond-sized shards of ice pelt my face. Whoosh, whump, whoosh, whup. The heartbeat of an earth. My mother, they are packing her in heat.
At the base of my skull I hear a thin keening sound, like a tea kettle's whistle. In the rearview mirror, the baby's skin is egg-like, iridescent. Her heart is nearly visible through her chest. Delilah's neck falls back. The sound gathers strength. I press my palms over my ears. The car swerves.
The noise heightens. Louder, higher, piercing, urgent. It won't stop. It isn't stopping. I want the noise to stop. Stop, stop. I need her to stop.
Her screams are in my throat. My fingers are difficult to maneuver. They do not bend easily. The noise is the only noise in the world. Delilah's hands grab wildly.
Outside, the frigid wind is satin, caressing my skin, pressing my body close. It seeps deeper, deeper, flooding my veins, and I almost cannot stand it, and I want it, more, more. I unzip, unbutton, unlatch skin to air. My tears catch on my cheeks like stars.
I place the baby's head against my breast, and first there is nothing, but then, the sharp pinpricks of her teeth, her tiny, pounding fists, that desperate, hungry want.