This One Hurts
Ok. Here is another lyrical essay. It’s hard to figure out how to deal with time and perspective of this one, since I wanted to maintain the perspective a of young girl, but the story has to be told and move forward as well. This is a first draft. We shall see…
It’s cold. I remember that much. And I am four years old at Maxine’s house. Maxine is an adult and her body is like a big, soft pillow. She lets me climb on her sometimes, when the other kids aren’t keeping all of her attention. Maxine’s house is where I go after pre-school and it must be winter because there is a fire in the woodstove, down in the basement. We’re in the basement because we are noisy and babies are trying to sleep upstairs in the nursery.
Maxine’s teenaged granddaughter, Julianne, is helping out today because there are so many of us. How many? Maybe ten? Fifteen? Maxine’s house is big, though. There are always good hiding places or games to play with the other daycare kids. We’re playing house and Julianne is in charge since she is the biggest.
We’ve formed a single-file line behind her as she stands next to the woodstove, pointing to the red-hot heat inside and testing the cast iron for warmth. Her fingers pressed briefly to the stovepipe. The back of her hand along the side of the stove. Then, palms down, she presses her skin onto the top of the woodstove and says, “Yes, this’ll work.”
Turning to Thomas, who is first in line, she lifts him, lifts him and his little dangling denim-clothed legs on to the top of that woodstove and sits him down.
Thomas holds his body still. His feet hang in front of the stove doors at least a foot above the floor.
“Are you warm enough yet?” she asks. “Just say when.”
I study Thomas’ face for signs of distress. I am fifth in line.
“Ok,” he says, raising his arms to Julianne can lift him, return him to the ground. Then she reaches for Cynthia. Thomas moves to the back of the line and I follow him while Cynthia is hoisted up, her blond curls blowing slightly from the heat that’s coming off the woodstove.
Cynthia is wearing jeans, too, and she takes particular delight in the sudden warmth brought to the undersides of her legs as she sits atop the woodstove. The line inches forward. I keep ducking out, moving in a continuous loop between the middle and the end of the line.
Finally, everyone is satiated. Their little bodies are warm and maybe our game of house is over but Julianne coaxes me in all her innocence, thinking, No, wait. Everybody gets to have a turn. I take her hand as she walks me toward the woodstove and there is a moment before fear takes hold, a moment where I can feel myself become completely resigned. It is like the moment before a horrible car wreck. The kind of moment that becomes my whole body, my whole mind, the entirety of my voice as I hear it now, bellowing out of me from some place deep and scared and twisting with pain and oh, there is a smell.
* * *
I don’t remember Maxine hefting herself down the narrow stairway. I don’t remember the other children, the shock their faces must have shown. I don’t even remember my mother picking me up, taking me to the doctor’s office. But in the hospital there is me, lying on my back being rolled into a room. There are doctors, nurses. How many? Four? Five? One of them has scissors and he is promising me It’ll be ok and Mom is saying, “Katey, do you understand? They are going to cut your clothes off now. Katey, do you understand?”
My dress comes off over my shoulders. They cut through my little white tights and my underwear and there is no memory of pain. Only the memory that everybody is holding their breath, holding it, holding it, waiting to see what they will find once they pick the melted clothing away from my skin, and all I can feel is the breath they’re not letting go.
There is no end to this memory. I go to the place in between their inhaling and exhaling, an endless loop like the one I made trying to cut to the back of the line. I wait in this place where the doctors hold their breath and never have to find out how bad it really is, poised as if looking down at myself. I wait. And I decide to live.