by Lina Ferreira
A whole world isn’t the whole world, isn’t seven billion specks of abstract dust, it’s one, or two, maybe three people made of hangnails, and earwax, and billions and billions of told and untold stories. Intangible incipits of infinity. The whole world is never the whole world and it takes imaginations to perceive reality.
This is the way it goes. Lina hears a pop. She wonders what it is. Not a pop though; there is meat in that sound, around it. Then a scream. It’s Lina screaming, but she doesn’t realize that right away. Then an instant without thought or sound.
Kai is standing over her when she opens her eyes. Lina’s on her back and she is stupid, but Kai will help her up. Though he will, however, still tell her she is an idiot when she puts weight on her leg.
“Stop standing on it, you idiot,” and she smiles, maybe laughs a little. Children run to her because something different is happening, and different is close enough to be exciting for them to bounce up and down and up and down asking, “What happened? What’s wrong? What happened? Are you ok?”
And of course, Lina says, “Of course, I’m fine!” But she’s wrong. Kai knows it already, but Lina is stupid when it comes to these things, so she repeats, “I’m fine.”
When she drives herself home in a blizzard, and warm things begin to get cold, she’ll feel something rattle inside her leg. Only then does she start to get it. “Please, please,” she’ll say, “Please God. Don’t let it be as bad as it feels.” She may cry a little and clutch her knee as the snow falls on the road, but she will still somehow remember to return that movie she never watched to the video store.
Needless to say Lina does not go to a hospital. She is a cliché and the knowledge that this is true does not save her from it. Though that is not exactly why she does not go to the hospital; even clichés have occasional lapses of common sense, and there is nothing like raw, torn things to snap you into them. But just as she remembers to return that movie because she can’t afford the late fee, she also remembers that she has terrible insurance and she can’t really afford a trip to the ER, and though she does not yet know it, it will take her a full year of dodged, past-due phone calls to pay off the cost of a torn knee. So instead, she drives herself home—though first to the video store.
She’s a little distracted, and the tires slide on layers of black ice and dirty snow, so she ends up parking about two feet from the rusted, dumpster-like Hollywood Video drop-off box, which is about two feet too far for her to reach. But she tries anyway; she’s like that, knowing how something’s going to end and doing it anyway. She lowers the window and tries to lean out by pivoting on her ribcage, by stretching her arm out, long and taut like a tug-a-war rope. She is almost there, she tells herself, “Almost.” Though she is not and for an instant she is hanging halfway out of the car window with a DVD case between her fingers before the pain in her knee slurps her back in, like a loose strand of spaghetti. So she falls back inside, she clutches her knee with one hand and turns the steering wheel with the other, moving slowly toward an empty parking space across the street while the driver behind her plays a Morse-code symphony on his car horn.
Then, as she steps out of the car, she briefly hopes she is exaggerating and the pain is really mostly in her head, “I’m actually fine, all fine, no harm done,” but then immediately she feels a tightness in her chest as she contemplates the prospect of paralyzing hypochondria and a kaleidoscope mind that bends light and a world like balloon animals and melting metal beams. So she self-corrects, and hopes it’s actually much, much worse than it feels. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” she thinks, “to be numb and brave.”
The road is Teflon and loose gravel. Ice covered oil spill, and she has to stretch out both arms like a tightrope walker to simply stay upright. She tries to walk across the parking lot, tries to imitate her normal gait, but it is like walking through a nursery of sleeping infants with a gameshow buzzer strapped to the soles of her shoe. Weight on her heel, Buzz! Weight on the outside of her foot, Buzz! Tiptoes, and grimaces and stiff limp. Buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz!
She tries to bend her body around the pain like those melting steel and curved light beams she keeps imagining. Anatomy and reality and self-contained agony. She tries to place all her weight on the inside of her foot, tries to bypass her knee and move with her toes, and she is trying an impossible feat when she hears tires spinning and realizes that she is suddenly standing in a blinding stream of SUV headlights. The car rolls slowly but inevitably toward her, and it is instantly clear that the driver has no intention of stopping. No plan of curving trajectory around her broken body and allowing her to continue standing absurdly in the middle of a black ice road. And yet, she does not immediately move. She stares into the light and feels winter chewing on her toes through her cloth sneakers, and trying to pivot on a torn knee, the feeling of winter teeth on her skin is replaced by the grinding sensation of untethered bones and snapped ligaments. The driver slams his fist into the horn and Lina feels the sound of it in the black pit of her curdled-milk stomach, so she shuffles forward. She tries, at least, dragging her feet across the ice like she is cleaning a spill with paper-towel slippers. But the road is at an incline, and she has not made it far before she begins to slide back down on black ice. “Hey! Idiot, move!” A man yells from the driver’s side. So she shuffles forward again, a little quicker this time, but then slides right back just as slowly. Forward, back, forward, back. Again, again. “Move!” Lina on the ice and on a loop, a honking horn and abuse yelled out a rolled-down window. So Lina looks up, a moment through a frosted windshield, a driver waving his hands like he’s trying to land a plane, and she takes firm hold of the car’s grill, puts all her weight on her injured left leg and pushes forward with her right.
A foot like a skateboard and the inside of her knee like the grinding gears of a shattered clock as she rides a torn leg to the edge of a metal Hollywood Video box and crashes into it. “Now,” she thinks, “I know for sure.” Feeling all at once the elation of certainty and the disappointment of surety. This, she realizes, is not an injury that can be thought away and muscled through, this is reality itself screaming and stomping and kicking down concepts and doors, so Lina begins whispering tragically predictable protestations into the opening of a frozen Hollywood Video storage box.
The pain she is feeling is neither special nor unique, but there’s nothing like pain to make one feel in high relief. Simultaneously carved out of existence and smack-dab at its center. But even then, she can’t tell one thing apart from the other. This irrefutable pain, she is sure, is not actually inside her leg. It is on the ground and on the ice. It is in trying not to slip, to keep a leg together, a life together, an idea of what she could be despite what she is together and intact. To keep it all in the tension and anticipation of an imminent icy blow. “If, I can… just…” Avoid every pebble, every crack, learn to float over the ice. “Just…” be perfect and perfectly still, be the sort of girl who doesn’t spend her nights doing things that tear ligaments, break bones and bruise knuckles. “If…” But she can’t even follow that thought through, because her knee has been turned into a tiny but powerful amp and she hears with pulsing nerve endings every imperfection in the pavement, every stone, every snowflake piled too high. The sound of an acoustic street travels through an electric limb and fills her like an avalanche in a concert hall. “LEARN TO WALK YOU IDIOT!” She watches the SUV drive away and understands perfectly that every bit of this is self-inflicted.
She hangs on the metal side as if it were the only fixed point in the universe and she is expecting a cosmic flood. She tries to remember that thing about reality people sometimes say, about how it is the thing that continues to exist after belief is dispelled, or whatever—a saying she doesn’t particularly like, but which makes her think, momentarily despite all evidence against it, that maybe it can work in reverse and if she can just believe enough, she will be able to wind herself back in time to the moment right before she heard that scream, and that pop, and Kai saying, “Stop putting weight on it, you idiot.” Or, at the very least, believe herself into a warmer place where people will agree in big exaggerated motions that this is objectively disastrous and nothing can compare, though even then Lina knows better.
So instead, she clutches the box with one hand, slips the video in with the other, and as snow melts on her bare skin, she reaches down, rubs her knee, and whispers, “I’m sorry.”
When Lina gets home there is about an inch of snow on the ground and her leg has begun to swell. She stands at the bottom of the staircase counting steps and patches of ice. She stares for a while, then counts again. It does not occur to her to call anyone, to ask for help. Though she does make a mental note to call work and let them know she might be late the next morning. She tastes the salt of drying sweat on her lip and worries it might be hard to take a shower standing on her one and only-working leg. She imagines a doctor holding his nose as he inspects her the next morning and, as the patches of sweat on her shirt begin to freeze, she decides that no matter what she will shower. It’s not rare, though perhaps worth noting, that she has not slept more than an hour or two in a couple of nights and perhaps she shouldn’t have been driving in the first place. Not “perhaps,” but probably “definitely.” She does not think to ask someone, anyone—her roommate who is awake upstairs—for a ride, however, this is within her imaginative realm. Nor is it asking for help now, so she counts the steps again. And again, and again until finally even the steps begin to feel unreal.
So she places her right foot on the first step like Thomas placed a hand inside an open wound. “There” she says to herself, “there you are, there you go,” and gripping the frozen rail with her bare hands she begins to pull herself up slowly to the second step. She wants desperately to be alone in a familiar space. She wants to lie down on her stomach, with her face on the carpet so the knotted, gnarled, and twisted branches of all her private heartbreaks and disasters won’t sprout out suddenly, ripping through her abdomen and tearing her to shreds. Ribs, leaves, red-green trees and Lina in a fantastic puddle of her own self-pity.
She curses. She’s loud—but it’s ok, she tells herself, because everyone is asleep. “Everyone is asleep,” she says to herself, and feels safe enough to mumble something like a prayer, nothing specific, just, “God, oh God.” She is aware of the length of ligaments and tendons, the woven hinges of shoulders, and elbows, and knees. She has dislocated shoulders and ribs before, sprained wrists and ankles, broken her nose and thumb. And she realizes, also, that this injury is a speck, and what it means to her is not what it really means at all. Its reality is subjective, and she’s subject to that. She sets down a foot on a frozen step, salt grains amplified, an electric limb orchestra and the prophetic pain of a lingering future limp. She reaches a bit farther up the rail, but does not pull herself up, instead she lays her forehead against the cold metal and feels the sleep that has evaded her for nights descend lightly atop snowflakes and an icy chill. “I’m an idiot,” She says, and tries to think things like work tomorrow morning, Kai and Sab on Saturday, and Korea in six months. Of course she realizes these things aren’t real anymore, if they ever were. And even when and if they were, they were only ever pieces of the cardboard corpse of the person she might have liked to be, and never was. Might have could have been, had she stayed in just one place long enough to be known for something other than being the person who came from somewhere else. And that’s when she hears the voice. “Help?” It says. “Help?” It repeats and looks over her shoulder in its direction.
Huh. She thinks to herself. Because it’s a strange thing to find in the middle of the night in the middle of a storm. A boy of ten, maybe eleven. Dirty and alone in the shallow darkness of a small college town. “Do you want help?” She hears him say, but still she does not turn. And feeling a sudden sense of urgency she grips the rail a bit tighter. “I said,” the boy starts again, “do you want help?” But Lina does not respond, she does not turn. She’s still stuck in a loop somewhere and she cannot bring herself out of it. “It’s like one of those jelly-thick postinsomnia dreams,” she’ll explain later, “Where you wake inside a dream exhausted and sleepless and can neither fall back into the sleep of sleep, or wake from it.” To anyone who’ll listen. “I know I am asleep, and that’s what I say to myself. ‘You are sleeping. You can’t be tired. This is not real.’” But the realization does nothing to the enormous weight she feels in her arms, in the dream, and the certainty that her blood has turned dense and toxic. So in the dream she lies down at the edge of a cliff and tries to fall asleep without falling off. She has insomnia, and she dreams she has insomnia, and all the websites she consults say that as long as she is still dreaming there is nothing to worry about, but she hangs her head off the edge of that cliff—red and raw, as if the gravel had sanded her down to muscle and bone—and she worries she might need to worry at some point.
“Hey, can you hear me?” The boy stares up from an inch or two of snow and asks a third time, “Do you want help?”
And finally Lina turns toward him, and says, “No.” She doesn’t look at him, not really. Barely sees him, even. A blurry snap of a boy in a snowstorm before hastily turning back around while her heart races as if he were chasing her. Maybe it’s the knowledge that someone is watching, that after all she can still be seen that makes her this way. Wouldn’t it be nice…? She still thinks, Wouldn’t it? So, “No,” she says again, “I’m fine.” Again, “Just fine.” She lets go of the rail with one hand and picks up the pace. Then a thought which will later seems strange and inexcusable, though in the moment feels like the only logical conclusion. She leans on the rail and concealing her hand with her shoulder, she makes a fist. She begins to turn the heel of her good leg and thinks she can still pivot on her good leg and land a punch hard on the bridge of this boy’s nose—if she has to.
“If…” She wishes she had though, but what she really thought was, “When…” And “Come on, come close and meet me.”
Silence. “One more step,” she thinks, “One step higher,” picturing herself turning and driving a cold gravity lead fist into the boy’s face. So, one hand after the other, one foot, one step, one after the other, after the other. She pulls once more and then again, clenching her fist between each pull, waiting for a tug or a small hand on her back, to let her know when to turn around in a full swing, and plunge a fist into a small boy’s head. Later she will consider all this in the shocking calm of a university health center bed, but right then and there, there are no thoughts left. Only the intent to break something in someone else’s body like she feels she’s broken something in her own. So she pulls on the railing, she knows it’s nearly time to settle it and she begins to turn, begins to see it unraveling in her mind. Her fist on the bridge of a ten year old’s nose like a bridge collapsing over a sleeping man. She’s ready to pivot, ready to fall upon him as if she were his natural predator, as if he were hers. A boy’s body like a broken sled, wood and spine splinters against the ridged back of a frozen staircase.
But the tug never comes, the boy never speaks again, and by the time Lina reaches the top, he’s gone.
Then there’s nothing left to do. Lina limps the rest of the way, she doesn’t give the boy a second thought. She takes a hot shower, though she really should know better. The water will strike the surface of her knee and dilates already swollen vessels ushering in a flood of blood and liquid, making it swell like the small, distended bellies of parasite-infested children. And only then does she begin to think about the boy at the bottom of the staircase.
It was only a glance, she had a lot on her mind, and yet it has stopped making sense. How dark the boy’s skin, how strangely and lightly he had been dressed in the middle of a Utah winter. How perfectly alone, how terribly late. How much he looked like so many Bogotá homeless gamin boys, shelter kids and displaced children at intersections she’d left behind when she left Colombia. How much like a boy she saw once holding a rain-soaked sign with outreached arms. Like one sitting on a sidewalk and in the gutters, lighting up a cocaine-paste cigar, clutching his swollen knee and limping through the rain while yelling at huffed-glue apparitions—one too many hits, one too many blows to the head, one too many kids on the street. Like another who mugged Lina once by pressing what turned out to be a sharpened stick against her abdomen, right into the spot where red branches threaten to sprout. And it strikes Lina, suddenly, how she knows all her barely-in-their-twenties neighbors and how none of them have children, only one has dark skin, and when she thinks about it she can’t be sure if the boy was wearing any shoes.
Lina doesn’t sleep that night either, no more than one or two pinpricks of an hour. She’s stuck on a loop, hearing a pop and a scream, telling a barefoot child who leaves no prints in the snow that she’s fine, “Just fine.” Telling herself that this matters objectively, that she is who she says she is, that she is safe if not warm, and everything is going to be ok. And as she dreams of trying to put a five-hundred-peso coin in a homeless kid’s hand while he swats away invisible spiders, she lies half-awake on the couch holding her knee like a memory of a dream, like unreliable certainty, like the side of a metal box and the rail of a frozen staircase.
Excerpted with permission from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University