An Object of Concern
Tamara has retreated to bed. She hears an echo of a knock at her door.
No one is there. It is merely the ghost of a particular concern: that
her six-year-old daughter Lily, whom Tamara has tucked in, may never
have fallen asleep, or may have arisen from sleep in a nightmare state
and left her bedroom to stand outside Tamara's door: wanting, needing.
Tamara is ill. Not terminal, but incurable. Spirochetes and parasites
are everywhere that her blood has gone during the last four and a half
years. It began with a tick bite. The organisms multiplied, thrived,
will not be defeated. They do not date back to Lily's birth. They have
nothing to do with Lily. Tamara thinks: the object of my concern has
been displaced. Still she is terrified of disturbance, her daughter
recounting what happened in her own mind during sleep—a thing
that, Tamara knows, children often feel the need to do.
Tamara hasn't dreamt in months. She takes pain medication that, tonight
and most nights, she puts off ingesting. She has come to equate herself
with pain; and so, her body without pain is a world without her. "You
are not alone," is a thing that people have been telling her. She
thinks of how true those words are, but not for the reasons people
intend. Tamara is not alone because there is a child who does not know
how Tamara suffers, who is largely naïve to the meanings of
self and other, who has never left herself to travel upwards or
outwards so that she may truly see her mother. Tamara's anticipation of
her daughter is her constant companion; she must rouse should Lily
knock, hold her and smooth her hair, and listen to dreams about
toothless old women, ancient monsters of the deep, menacing
ghosts—all of them older than Tamara hopes ever to be.
On Tamara's lower abdomen, resting upon her uterus, she supposes, is a
book of poems that she loved in college. She has come to detest the
book's cover, which shows a male poet in profile, his nose like a
bird's beak jabbed into the literary canon. She puts the book on the
bedside table, sips water, and places the glass atop the book, knowing
a watermark will form. For many years before her illness, Tamara loved
flings: a succession of enchanting crescendos, which she abandoned
before the inevitable diminuendos. Lily's father had been one of them.
Tamara was always the flinger, never the flung. The doctor who treats
her, an elderly man who looks vaguely like the poet, has earned her
sympathy for his tireless efforts to help. Tonight, sympathy seems a
foolhardy sentiment. She has no patience for men anymore, a fact which
renders her boring to herself.
Tamara lost the lid to the bottle of pain pills days ago, so the bottle
sits open beside the book and the water glass, always in that spot, day
and night, which is not a safe thing when you have a curious child at
home. This awareness is vaporous, wafts away. Pain burns Tamara's
muscles and inside her shoulder and hip sockets; yet it is not pain,
but some other, automatic drive that leads her arm to extend, her
finger to pluck one, two pills from the amber bottle and deposit them
in her dry mouth. Tonight there is what Lily called a "hangnail moon,"
through a mouthful of toothpaste froth. It took Tamara aback. She had
never heard Lily say it before. Where did she learn it? Tamara has
always used this phrase, just never aloud. The pills on Tamara's tongue
have begun dissolving despite a lack of saliva. The memory of a knock
is not a knock, she tells herself. The disintegrating pills are bitter.
Tamara wonders whether her sister Carmen, who lives in Arizona with
three rescue dogs and a pot-bellied pig, childless, would—if
she had a daughter, and if she were chronically ill—feel the
same desire that Tamara feels now: a yearning for solitude in a life, a
house, a mind, which makes solitude, in all of its crisp and airy and
boundless splendor, an impossible thing ever to have. Tamara lifts the
water glass in her hand, fingers tingling with neuropathy. The pills
have softened and fluffed on her tongue. She hears an echo of Lily's
knock, which she knows is just a memory of all the times Lily has ever
knocked. The pills taste of doom or dregs of a certain liquor the dead
male poet may have liked. "Shut up," Tamara whispers, immediately
fearing that even this utterance might create molecular vibrations that
could wake Lily. An event inexplicable without a grasp on quantum
physics. Tamara has no such grasp, and this strikes her as perhaps the
greatest tragedy of her thirty-four years.
She has sipped water and swallowed the pills without realizing it until
now. It is time to surrender. Her mouth cool, she can discern only a
trace of bitterness. Lamp switched off, covers pulled up, head lowered
onto the soft pillow. Eight or ten minutes do not pass by Tamara so
much as move through her. Racking pain becomes a throb becomes an ache
becomes a gentle reverberation. It is always disturbing to her how
quickly the drug takes effect. Not a new medication, but an old
one—a staple of the canon.
Tamara's eyes shut. Some writers have likened sleep to death, but she
knows otherwise. Sleep is the direct route to wakefulness under yet
another sun. She hears an echo of a particular knock, one after which
Tamara had soon deduced, from Lily's frantic head scratching and what
first appeared to be dandruff, that her daughter had lice. Tamara is
without shape or form, having entered into the realm of half-sleep,
half-living, but still, half-listening. It is only when she lets go
completely, slipping like a fish into darkness, that
finally—mercifully—a knock comes.
Emma Smith-Stevens' debut novel, THE AUSTRALIAN, is due out in May.
Read her postcard.
See more of her work in the archive.
Detail of photo on main page courtesy
of Brian Fuller.
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