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Mary Case, Glenfield

Writing Contest home

Mary Case, Glenfield
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers 2004
First Place in Category: Short Fiction, age 21+

Skin Deep

I dream almost every night. In the dreams I sometimes am a mysterious woman in a foreign country; sometimes a writer or a musician writing or playing in secret, but always I am beautiful.

This is not so in the daylight. I have the look of familial generations past-mother, grandmother, great-grandmother- a long line of Irish-German women. My features reveal and betray me. Short and stout with forgettable brown hair and dull gray eyes. I look in the mirror and pull at my face. The chin stretches but remains flabby. The flat gray of my eyes peer hopefully but doubtfully. I am no beauty. Having faced this fact, I go on with my life.

I am on the street glimpsing in windows at various items, but still I see the reflection. The one I can’t get away from. I try to stare away from it by noticing the people passing by. People of every size and shape. Some tall and sinewy; other petite-small boned, but all possessing a lovely symmetry I could never have.

I reach into my pocket; it’s a tight fit. The flab of my thigh and hand together force the pocket to bulge into an uncooperative yawn. I pull the card…”Jonathan W.Richards, 18 East Avenue, NYC.”

I press the button. He answers in a voice not quite a whisper.

He is not what I expected. He’s young and beautiful. So beautiful. His blonde curly hair lay about his shoulders with such softness and stillness that I had to keep from reaching out and touching it.

At first, the room is as expected. Several bottles of medication, a dried Ivy plant, and a small dirty glass line the windowsill. There are papers strewn about and furniture is sparse; nothing commands much attention in the center of the room, but my eyes are drawn to the corner. There it is. Written neatly, in mostly lower case lettering, in black marker, the words, “I am dying.”

We sit at odds, sipping ice tea and gazing around one another. He asks it; they all do eventually. At least that’s what they told us in our training. “Why would anyone want to do this?”

Jonathan is not expecting me; I can tell because his voice is thick with sleep or alcohol when I buzz to be let in. He’s wearing an old pair of gray sweats and a dingy black t-shirt; his feet are bare, and when he backs up to let me in, he steps on a bottle cap.

“Damn,” he says, “Sorry. I didn’t feel like cleaning up.”

The room is littered with beer bottles; there’s an ashtray jammed with smoked cigarettes. It’s as if I have walked into a party uninvited. We spend long moments in silence, and I have to leave after an hour or so to go to work.

I wait tables at a diner called Big Ed’s. My boss is Juan Carlos, but people who don’t know him assume he is Big Ed. I don’t know why since he is only 5’5 and 155 lbs. I guess people always believe what they read and not what they see. He speaks to me in broken English, “You’re a good waitress. Not like the others. They spend too much time talking. You…you take the order and go on your way. All business…that’s you Maggie.

The other girls, Lisa and Carla, make more tips that I do. Juan Carlos knows this and tries to keep me from quitting by complimenting me every chance he gets. He’s a smart man because he knows that I need compliments more that I need tips.

At first, I think that I am seeing things. No one would write these words on a wall. Jonathan follows my gaze and nods affirmably. It’s true then. They’re etched there. In that heavy, black marker. The words, “I am dying.”

It has been weeks since I last saw the words on the wall. Jonathan is hiding them from me. I don’t believe he knows he’s hiding them. Once he “covered” the words with a pizza box. I remember thinking that the pizza left in the box perhaps needed the words as much as Jonathan.

We shared a lot in this time together. I have sat for hours with him and listened while he prattled on about his days at college in Upstate, NY. He speaks as if it were only yesterday, but we both know that speaking about the past makes the future that much less intrusive.

Juan Carlos is weeping when I arrive to work. The restaurant is empty except for Carla and Lisa who are already putting on their coats. They say no words to me as they pass by me; they only shake their heads. I watch them walk into the street; this is when I notice that it has begun to rain. The door finally closes with a soft thud, and I turn to face the crying man again.

“I have to tell you some unhappy news,” he begins, “the restaurant is closing. I have no work for you.”

I kiss his cheek and say good-bye after 2 hours of sipping coffee and crying with him. He tells me we are family, but I know that in a few months, he will pass out of my life like so many others who have said those words, and so many who don’t even send a Christmas card. I will keep in touch too, I promise. I will go home and wait for Christmas when I can send a card that will come back weeks later stamped “addressee unknown.” Just like all the rest.

Jonathan sits hugging his knees in the room lit only with candlelight. He keeps the room dim since the chemotherapy made his hair fall out. There is a movie playing, but we are not watching it. We are listening to the sound of each other breathing. I listen to his because I fear I may not hear it much longer; he listens to mine because he believes he hears the sound of the ocean in my lungs. He has told me this. I smile when he tells me. I know that no one has ever heard much in me before. Perhaps no one has had as great a need to listen. He is pressing his ears between my breasts and asking me to breath deeply. I do this for him. The first time this happened he asks permission. He touches me with a sweet innocence. And I breathe…

I have been standing in the unemployment line for 45 minutes. My daily prayers have changed; I still ask to die so that I may get the chance to be beautiful, but I now also ask to die because in a short time I know that once Jonathan is gone, there will be no more ocean in my lungs-only Juan Carlos’ tearful confession, unemployment, and ugliness.

Jonathan hands me an envelope. I open it thinking it is money; he knows it has been nearly 2 months since I last worked. Lying at the bottom of the envelope I see several blonde tendrils. They are glowing. Jonathan is wiping the tears from my face; he presses his forehead against mine, and I rub my hands on top of his naked head. He kisses me. I feel no shame the way I used to when I kissed a man. Maybe because there is no shame in kissing an angel.

I arrived at Jonathan’s apartment an hour late because the first bus was too crowded, and I had to wait for another one. I have been pressing the intercom button for well over 20 minutes, and he does not come. Finally the man from apartment 4B lets me upstairs. He knows I am the one who comes to help Jonathan accept his death; what he doesn’t know is that I am the one who doesn’t want to accept it.

Jonathan’s door is ajar, and I softly call his name. I peer in only a little because I am afraid of what I will find. I do not find him gone.

He is in the corner on his knees scrubbing frantically at the wall. He scrubs hard then dips the brush into the bucket and scrubs again. I watch him do this 4 or 5 times before I go towards him. He seems unaware, at first, that I am there, but he knows because he tilts his head to assure himself of my footsteps.

There is an extra brush under the kitchen sink; I go get it, kneel beside him, dip the brush in the hot water and begin to help him scrub at the words-the words “I am dying.” They do not come off, even after long moments of hard rubbing.

They are written in permanent ink. I know this in my head, but it is my heart that does the scrub brushing.

He is scratching, clawing, pushing at the wall with the brush, and his grunts of effort are getting louder. He finally stops-as if a plug has been pulled. His forehead is pressed against the wall, and we’ve both stopped scrubbing. His hand loosens; the brush drops aimlessly, hits the side of the bucket and lands between it and the wall. He leans back on his heels and I touch his arm. He looks at me as if suddenly aware that I am here, and he says, in a hoarse whisper--“I am…”. I wrinkle my brow, and he knows I am waiting for him to finish it. He does. He whispers again, “I am dying.”

It was hours before I could manage to help him up from the corner and put him to bed. I watched him sleep and breathe. I practice it-his labored breathing-and I realize now that I have practiced well because every intake and exhale is in sync with his, and so I sit; he sleeps; and we breathe together, Jonathan and I.

It has been 2 months since Jonathan breathed for the last time. I have visited this grave-this piece of earth that encapsulates him…my Jonathan. At almost every visit, I find myself having to remind my body to breathe in and out. The rhythm of my heart pounds in my ears, and I remember I have to breathe even if every inhalation of air feels like the sting of a slap because I am here and Jonathan is not.

It is my fourth visit to Jonathan’s grave. The gray sky has been threatening rain all day. It makes good on its threat. A large drop of rain drips on the top of my head, and more drops follow until it becomes a downpour.

The rain jars my memory. Someone once told me that when it rains, it means some where in heaven, God is crying because he feels someone’s sadness.

I know in my heart that God is crying for me. It is my sadness he feels. I lift my face and accept the rain. I lift my arms to it. I am dripping with it and saturated by it—I accept God’s tears. I take a deep breath and despite the noise of the thunder, I think I hear. I know I hear. The sound of the ocean in my lungs. And I am beautiful.

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