I’m so ashamed of blood — something inside spilling to the outside of me. It makes me feel dirty. Still, I’m well enough to have an unleashed walk with my dog, Georgia. We hike a section of the river that is full of jagged boulders torn out of the earth by the previous ice age. It’s nice to be in the outside air, a panic of prehistory in the ground. It’s fun to curse at my dog. I don’t really want her to come or stay. Spoken commands are sound effects. They cheat the other senses. The blue ones. The green ones.
My raspy sounds blend into others to which Georgia would rather listen. Maybe the sound of someone passing this way last week, her ankle musk worrying a leaf. Or the sweet vanilla scent at the base of a girdled tree that could mean aquatic mammals are present.
There’s music in a few languages. Not mine. Illness doesn’t attack any one part of you. It attacks who you are. Your personality. Your rhetoric. The only way for me to modulate syllables is volume, like an Imam with something very important to reveal. But I don’t have an amp in front of my tonsils. I ask questions by a shrug of the hand. If you see me waving my arm, that’s me, screaming.
The river is so loud in its froth. But it quiets in its veering east or west when the rushing water pools and swirls like a Van Gogh painting, ceaseless, frigid, mad for love.
Georgia chases a fawn with spots, shakes a bleat out of its throat. She returns with her prize to the edge of the polished trail. In the distance: shouting. The hunter who took down its mother. His back-slapping friends.
Tell me everything, I say. But Georgia doesn’t. She averts her gaze. I step away to give her space. She bites into the hide, spits out tufts until the backstrap glistens and her muzzle and jaws are red with fascination and globulins.
There’s a saltwater pool in the way back of the gym, on the other side of generous locker rooms. That’s what I’m here for: the salt, the buoyancy, the motion of dispersed particles under the influence of a spatially uniform electric field.
I pause at the defibrillator station to touch the cartoon heart surrounded by quotation marks. Touching it is as close to good luck as it gets for me, like counting coup.
One thing that happens when someone is sick inside — you try a little harder, make more of an effort to look better in contrast to how you feel. But disease also wants to free you of any shame, and the narcissism of that. It wants me to never feel embarrassed by the worst of me because that is all I am now, the worst of me.
The biggest rule at the gym is that no one is permitted to laugh at others. I wouldn’t care. I need to hear laughter. I want someone to laugh me back into the world. I want to say how the joke is on the fox when it comes around to sniff the red flowers I left on the trail.
Never laughing is more important than all the smaller rules combined. Obviously, no diving. Although the hot whirlpool can hold up to fifteen persons, bathing caps are strictly forbidden.
Of course, the saltwater pool isn’t very friendly to people with wounds or a fine mist of blood on their breath.
Most of the swimmers are doing butterfly strokes with lots of expressive limb gestures. Like they are urgently trying to speak, and no one is listening.
I walk back and forth. I walk the 25 meters, tap the coping, and turn around and walk to shallows again. For me, it isn’t about the pacing, or the length of my stride. It’s about making words in my mind with every step.
Big river, owls, eagles, deer, I say to myself. Deer hunters, dead deer.
I wear a flotation belt to walk in deeper water. The belt gives me a longer step like speaking into a microphone or walking on the moon. Except when swimmers splash me as they rifle adjacent lanes, I don’t even get my head wet. One guy is frog kicking. He pops his head out of the water to breathe and goes under again. Kicking and breathing and disappearing.
I looked in a shoe box once that was filled with photographs. One person resembled me, except his hair was yellow.
My eyes were green grapes then; the whole world was in them.
I feel weightless in the saltwater. My body free of its gravitational awareness, and point of view, and even its tone. Dolphins must think about this all the time. If you’re always weightless, do you realize you’re weightless? If you lived in the Atlantic Ocean, wouldn’t New York to Florida be your West Coast?
The sun doesn’t shine indoors but if it did I would lie on the hot sand and expose as much of my body to it as possible. I would say, my dear sun I am yours. I would say, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me.
One thing no one prepares you for is how quickly your body goes from a cool refreshing wet to shivering. For this, there is a sauna lined with cedar planks and pine benches. The single rule: bathing suits to be worn at all times. But I’m the only one who follows it. Most wear robes or shanked towels. Entering it, I pause as the steam hits me. “It’s OK,” someone says, someone who recognizes me. I crack a vial of gentian violet, pour it on the red rocks and quick my airways feel it. I’m breathing with my whole dumb face again.
“It’s a nice smell, whatever that is.”
“Just herbs,” I say. “Mint. Iodine.”
We sit on different benches. I’m higher, where the wet heat can really get to me and it seems like we’re talking but we aren’t saying anything aloud. We’re just hyper aware of each other. And maybe the need for space between us.
The door opens and two firemen come through. Their memberships are free—one of the perks of a job requiring a physical fitness exam. Young and tall with square chins, the men seem capable of rescuing someone just by looking at them. This is just a quick heat-up for them before clinging some big iron. As they get up to leave the sauna, she follows two steps behind them.
“Jesus,” she says, turning back to me. “Kind of makes you want to torch your own house or get stuck in a tree.”
I smile in deference. It takes another minute or so to ride out the last of my shiver.
I am on the porch. A whirring fan shoos away the sweat. A quartet of ferns and confederate jasmine keep the sun off my face. I sip a cup of ice as it melts, watching the berry bush. The wrens alight singly from all directions but leave as a flock. And repeat. And whir. And melt. And repeat.
A woman in her early thirties is asking, what is the secret of good love with a husband? I know her husband, but I’ve known Magda longer. Mike seemed like a nice guy when I met him.
I learned a few words once which I’ve never forgotten, and we lightly drum in her native Polish, but I switch back to English to tell her what I believe: don’t wait for the bedroom, start your kissing in the kitchen. Men have trouble with transitions, so it’s best to start some love before the bedroom. And: Boys want everything to be ‘situated.’ But of course, nothing is romantic about being situated. That’s our little secret. The secret of the wounded and the fluid.
Having a supporting role in Magda’s happiness consoles me. Maybe she is only sharing her sex scare about Mike to counter the physical one with me — she won’t get any closer than ten feet away from my cough. She doesn’t fear getting sick so much as passing my tuberculosis to someone else in Los Angeles, where she’ll return in a few days.
Another friend once drove to my curb, tanked down his window, waved, back up it went.
Then he called me, keeping his idle. I looked at my phone. Looked back at him. Waved.
Three days a week I push myself at the gym. I progress from a 28-minute mile, to 3 miles in 45 minutes. The last half mile always crushes me. My healthy neighbors in the treadmill queue can do twice that speed while watching television or reading Cyrillic novels.
In my yellowed copy of Chernyshevsky, some neighbors have hayed for each other, swapped parts and time for sore tractors. One has a dairy. One lives with his parents. His boy is just old enough to come along for Saturday’s hunt. The group stands over the doe. She doesn’t seem dead, but she isn’t moving.
The angel says, run a knife into a surface you cannot comprehend.
A man rips the blade from her throat to her heart. She’s bleedin’ now.
And still, its mouth forms an inscrutable smile. To be so aware of one’s own
personhood, and so anonymous, and so unable to describe it.
I try to establish consistent motion on the weight machines, setting the resistance to zero. I do fifteen repetitions of nothing per machine and do it again three times. It isn’t exercise so much as rhythm. Teaching muscles to remember something they aren’t strong enough to experience firsthand.
Nothing actually requires some effort. People urge me, harder, higher. One is doing a banding exercise next to me. A cloud of butterfly tattoos swoops her arms and shoulders.
Mandy shouts up the count of nothing — thirteen, fourteen…
There’s a trick where someone says, “I once lived next to a house…” He makes it seem as if he’s an expert resulting from proximity to the random.
I could talk about my grandmother’s orphanage in Toluca. Or dairy cows. Or the first splashes and dives I took as a child. I could talk about wanting to live underwater. I could describe my ear for the sitar of everything. I could say I’m dozing under a two-lane bridge. Traffic is just someone passing overhead, tires shifting from road to trellis, from smooth to grooved surfaces.
I’m sorry about the noise. I wish we could sit under a bridge that no one ever crossed, but then why would it exist? This one got built to handle fire trucks heavy with water. That was the problem. Lots of small bridges, but the fire brigade couldn’t use them. Always had to take some weird route to put out a fire or drive ten miles the wrong way to rescue someone down the
street. When the sirens sang at night, coyotes joined the echo. I’d hear the fire truck and then listen for all the coyotes singing back to it, singing love’s wild choir to dark.
A noise you can’t make go away is a noise you need to embrace. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder. Noise, I embrace you.
My raga is best on waking, which can be anywhere from 2:30 to 4:30, in the remnants of a bitter night sweat. Outside I shirk my robe, use the iron dark chill to settle my hots. Moments, all it takes. My thrive ceases at 11:00 or so. Afterward, light doings and generalized moods wait out my day. Maybe a few lie-downs or listening to Julia anguish her beloved Scriabin on the piano. The Russian was like Satie or Chopin. They’d always known melody could be playful. But what about harmony? Couldn’t that be playful too?
Preparing dinner, Julia leads me to a chair in the corner. I close my eyes, but don’t sleep. She brings a glass puddled with ice and water, and potassium salt. A sandwich plate with a few crackers on it. “Georgia’s excited,” she says. “She knows we’re having chicken. She’s begging and I haven’t even started.”
She prattles, thinks out loud, has a phone call with her friend Nice Kris. They call each other blood sisters even though they are not. Julia tells her sister I’m doing fine, that I can build to a crescendo of unresolved conflict as well as anyone.
“Mind if Georgia has one?” She takes a cracker from the dish. “Her favorite.” Some light-hearted commotion ensues. Julia pours me a glass of wine which I can’t drink. Picks it back up, says, “Hey is this good? Let me try it,” so that its level will decrease without my arid swallows.
These things, all to make it less apparent to some ghost spying on our lives that I’m not completely participating in it. Except through my nose, like a dog, living out the smells of caramel colors burning on a softening poblano. And not even the obvious smells of cooking but also of things about to be cooked, the release of a garlic bulb from its paper corset, the roiling boil of salted water.
A year passes, and no one has shown me how to make love without bleeding.
© Barrett Warner
Barrett Warner is the author of the chapbook collection, My Friend Ken Harvey, 2014 by Publishing Genius Press, and a book of poetry, Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? 2016 by Somondoco Press. He received an individual artist grant from the Maryland Arts Council for his essays in 2016. He is also the editor of Free State Review, and his essays have appeared in Sou’wester, Entropy, Superstition Review, The Puritan, and elsewhere.