I told the doctor I often had the sudden feeling I was dropping something, and my body reacted reflexively, though nothing had been dropped. Maybe just a scrap of paper, a receipt inside a book. My forearms jerked together, trying to prevent whatever it was from slipping away. It felt like everything, not just postcards and recipes and lipsticks but everything, would fall to the floor and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I had a chronic cough according to the medical websites. The first thing the doctor said was, “Don’t google it.” It made me feel safe when he said that. It was the sort of directive I appreciated from medical professionals. If the doctor had said, “Add a teardrop of antifreeze to your morning coffee” I’d have done it. I was looking for guidance. But soon I realized his instruction had only given me what not to do. I avoided Internet search engines for a while but soon enough, after I’d cycled through the antibiotics and oral steroids, I went back like an old lover. I googled flutter in lower eyelid, then twitch in thumb. Soon I was convinced I had a fatal disease of the central nervous system. But then one day it just stopped. When my elbows itched once, I googled illness that causes itchy rash on elbows. Psoriasis popped up — my father had had terrible psoriasis when I was a child. But when I went to the dermatologist and sheepishly offered him my elbows, he handed me a bottle of moisturizer and charged me the forty-dollar co-pay.
I’ve always been like this. In elementary school, I had headaches all the time and I thought it was a brain tumor. Maybe I’d seen an after school special about a kid with a brain tumor, but day after day when the other kids were at recess I convinced the school nurse to let me lay down on the green cot with the scratchy blue blanket she kept in her office. She laid a cool compress over my forehead, and gave me a baby aspirin I’d hold under my tongue until it dissolved into a bitter puddle. I memorized the patterns in the pockmarked ceiling. The voices of my classmates rose and fell on the playground. Then it was time to go back to class. Maybe it was the stress of Andrew’s masters program, or the stress of trying to get pregnant, or rather, the stress of not trying not to get pregnant, but I thought there was something wrong with my body. I couldn’t put my finger on it. So I googled.
The cough started a few months before my husband began his masters program. He’d signed up for the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants plan. Every weekend for two years he would drive the 250 miles to Austin, spend three days in a classroom in the economics building above the strip, eat shitty food and sleep in a dorm room. Exactly like the kind I had when we met my freshman year of college. At first he’d call me every night as he climbed into the squeaky twin bed and we’d laugh, remembering my squeaky bed in college, how badly we fumbled with one another, shirts, dresses, zippers. But that was ten years ago. Neither of us really remembered many other details. He stopped calling me at night about 6 months into his program. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I figured he was beat, all the driving and studying.
When he started his second year of grad school I was pregnant. In August, when classes started, I noticed I was late. By mid September I had three tests laid out on the bathroom sink, each with its own pale-watercolor plus sign. It was so pale I thought it seemed undecided, so I didn’t tell anyone, not even Andrew. Instead, I went online and found babycenter.com, babywatch.com, and naturalbaby.com and bookmarked them all into my browser.
Andrew had set up his iMessage account on my computer, and one night after scrolling and clicking through baby websites, my curser drifted over to his messages. I honestly didn’t think they’d still be there because he had his own computer by then, the one he got for school. But the first message I clicked on had been received 35 minutes earlier. It was 1:00 am. It was from a 512 area code, not 713 where we live. There was no name assigned to the number. The message said “omw.” What is “omw?” I wondered. I typed it into Google. “On my way!” appeared like a fortune, like a secret message in a swirl of tealeaves at the bottom of a cup.
The next day, a Saturday, I took the fourth and final test. When I stood in front of our bathroom mirror I could hear the garbage truck on the street outside, it’s hydraulic breaks baying, its giant metal arms extending like forceps toward our garbage bin. A cluster of red blotches had formed on my chest, like a Rorschach test. Who was on their way? I thought. What was on its way? I wasn’t suspicious of my husband, not exactly. I rubbed hydrocortisone onto my collarbone and sat down on the toilet holding the stem of the test under me. 6 minutes later, what had been shadowy and pale was now red. No mistaking it.
It was only 10am. If I got on the road now, I thought, I could surprise Andrew and take him to lunch. There was a divey Chinese place he loved on Cesar Chavez. I’d surprise him and tell him over Lo mein and egg drop soup.
I packed the positive test into a plastic sandwich bag, threw a change of underwear into my purse and got on the road. I rehearsed how I would tell him. In Ellinger, I stopped for gas and to pee. I’d read on babycenter.com that pregnant women sometimes pee 5 times an hour! I’d been driving for an hour and a half and I had to go. I unscrewed the gas cap and set the pump inside the tank and went inside, through the sliding automatic doors into the convenience store. Rows of homemade pralines, hand-dipped chocolate pecans, rhinestone studded crosses, and wooden plaques to hang above your stove that read: I Wasn’t Born in Texas but I Got Here as Fast As I Could! I felt the cold air-conditioned air on my neck, already cool from the hydrocortisone. I felt it on my knees and breasts. I crossed my arms over my chest.
As I walked toward the cooler full of soda and water, I felt something warm and wet on my leg, on the edges of my jean shorts. I looked down. A slash of red, like in a painting, was splayed across the inside of my thigh. It was red like a brushstroke. Faint at the corners, deeper and darker at the center. I covered it with my palm and pushed my shoulder against the women’s restroom door. Inside, silk flowers, a broad countertop, and a framed photo of the Alamo. I saw my face, the side of my face, before I went into the stall. It was white. Whatever was leaking out of me was taking my face with it.
I felt no pain. That was the weird thing. I sat down on the toilet seat. I stayed there a long time. I stayed there so long I knew the timing of the automatic air freshener, every 13
minutes. I missed lunch. I missed Andrew’s break between classes in the afternoon. By the time I’d cleaned myself up, and changed into the panties I’d brought, and could swallow a few sips of Gatorade, it was 4:30pm. Rush hour. I bought maxi pads and climbed back into my car.
I’d forgotten all about “omw.” All I could think about was what if the rash caused it. What if I’d caught some weird jungle parasite when we were in Costa Rica last summer? What if the sushi I’d eaten the week before had been contaminated with mercury. I didn’t call Andrew. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
When I arrived on campus, I parked at a meter a few steps from his building. I knew we’d have to move the car before morning, but I was starting to feel hot knots in my belly, and I didn’t want to have to walk all the way across campus from the visitors’ garage to Andrew’s dorm.
I climbed the stairs. The building smelled like old food and aerosol deodorant, the kind teenage boys wear. I reached his door. 212. Second floor, room twelve. I didn’t knock. I tried the handle and it was unlocked and it was the smell that hit me first, a different smell from the rest of the building. Not blood, but like it. On the floor beside the narrow twin bed was something small and delicate. A piece of fabric. A woman’s piece of fabric, out of place in Andrew’s messy room. And then that falling sensation again. Like everything was slipping through me, past me. I wanted to dive for this falling thing but I couldn’t move. I stood there dumb as a rock in his doorway. Andrew’s bed was unmade, a hedge of tangled sheets pushed back against the footboard. I leaned down to pick up the piece of fabric and held it, silky and bloodless, in my hand.
Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Ecotone,Guernica’s “The Kiss,” The Literary Review, Houston Chronicle, Cease Cows, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University, and is at work on a memoir about religious and romantic obsession. www.camerondezenhammon.com
–Art by Magdalena Roeseler