So-I'm all good. I can relax now.
I can't really describe how much work it takes to write a 400 page book in a year while you're sick and living in a FEMA trailer with no heat- except to say that in my mind I kept imagining it like a marathon (if the marathon was in the desert and you had a broken leg and no Gatorade and a pack of wild hyenas was chasing you) and the little voice that kept whispering-
belonged to an imaginary person I hadn't met yet,
waiting for me to finish
so they could read it and know that they are not alone.
"If only one person gets it exactly when they need to hear it," I kept thinking. "Then all this was worth it."
So Thank you Dana-wherever you are :)
Beauty Tips for the Bereaved, A Survival Guide
I was chewing on the skin around my thumbnail when my husband, Greg, smacked my hand away.
It was our fifth emergency room visit in three weeks. My father had driven down to Austin for the birth of my child. Although his original plan was to stay for a month, he had been lingering in Austin for over a year, taking various temporary sublets and trying to spend time with me before his liver failed. His face was gaunt. I could see his skeleton grinning out from underneath his skin.
They told us he had end-stage liver failure from the Hepatitis C, which causes cirrhosis, the disease that takes out a lot of alcoholics. He had about ten percent of his liver function left. At this point, most people would be waiting on a transplant list, but since my dad didn’t have any health insurance, he just kept bouncing in and out of the ER. The doctor continued.
“Unless he has a transplant soon, things look very grim. He will continue to bleed, and we will continue to fix him up with a band-aid until finally the band-aids don’t work anymore.” The doctor held out both his palms in a gesture of helplessness. I felt myself tumble out of his open hands like a doll.
When I am nervous, I will chew all of my nails until they bleed and think, “That was stupid,” but eventually I always do it again. On that day they were stubs. I had tried to hide my anxiety by putting on a clean shirt and brushing my hair. The doctor directed his statements to my husband as I paced back and forth and chewed, chewed, chewed. My father was dying, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do but bite my own hands.
After weeks of researching transplants and liver disease, I had a dream. I opened a hotel room door and discovered Greg taking out our daughter’s liver with an X-Acto knife. I pushed him out of the way and sewed her up with fluorescent orange embroidery thread the way I saw my Granny repair my doll Pearline years before. Later in the dream, I was searching his pockets and her little liver shook out. It had dried hard and translucent like the crescent of a fingernail so I popped it in my mouth.
I took the ease of these endeavors for granted. Men fell in love so easily. It was up to me to choose. It never occurred to me that my luck in romance would someday reverse itself. I met the father of my child at a Mexican restaurant. I was sitting in the sun reading a book about string theory at an outdoor table when he approached me.
“I read that book,” he said, shading his glasses with the back of his hand. “It’s pretty good.”
“I’m just carrying it around to look smart,” I joked to my suitor, purposely leaving the book open, as though I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep reading or continue talking to him. “It’s hot, man,” he said. “I’m sweating like a rapist.” I laughed, and fell in love. Just like that.
I had been making enough money with my dress business to avoid getting another job, but just barely. There were fashion shows and young women would approach me afterwards and ask to be my intern. I began to realize that from the outside I looked a lot more together than I actually was. If anything, being self-employed made it easier to drift. I continued to meander from one relationship to the next, in and out of friendships, across the country and back by myself several times, always running away when anything looked permanent or got too hard. The only constant during the early years of my business was the unremitting drone of my sewing machine over the sound of my father’s voice from the phone tucked under my chin.
Greg had a low-level job answering the phone at an insurance company, a guitar, and a shitty apartment in a complex populated with crack-heads and Jehovah’s Witnesses. When we met, he’d been home just two months after spending four years teaching English in Spain. “I only came back to find a wife,” he joked on our second date. “I’ll go to Spain with you,” I told him, and I meant it. “We’ll be really poor,” he warned. “Teachers don’t make a lot of money.”
“I don’t care.” I said. “I can sew dresses anywhere. Besides, I just want to be happy.”
“I just want to make you happy, petal,” he said, taking my hand. “I just want us to be free.”
“No one understands string theory,” my Dad told me one night. I was embroidering a Chinese dragon onto a vintage slip while we talked on the phone.
“Whatever. He’s really smart and funny and I never get tired of listening to him talk. We’re going to move to Spain in a few months.”
"Wonderful!” Dad chuckled. “You haven’t had an adventure in a while! Now, let me explain some things about physics that will blow your mind. Then on your next date you can explain it to him.”
This is how I understand string theory. (It’s probably not accurate.)
You know how Einstein created the equation E=mc2 that kind of explained how everything worked? And all the scientists were like “Wow! Now it all makes sense. Let’s go look into atoms and see what they’re made of.”
So they did, and what they discovered was that atoms were made of even smaller things called particles, which were made up of even tinier things called quarks which are probably made of tinier things, and so on into infinity. These particles drive all the nerds up at MIT crazy because they don’t follow any of the laws that govern larger things.
For one thing, as they spin around in an orbit, sometimes they disappear. No one knows where they go. It really irritated Einstein, who spent the latter part of his life trying to come up with a universal theory that explained why all of these errant particles behaved so strangely. Now they think that all of those particles are actually vibrating on “strings,” which could also be called “dimensions.” Some people think there are eleven dimensions or twenty-three, or an infinite number of places those little particles disappear to without even leaving a note.
People who try to understand string theory say things like “Time is a sphere,” and, “Everything is happening all at once” at cocktail parties, and everyone nods, although none of us really know what that means. We struggle to understand concepts like infinity with our tiny brains, like a caveman turning over a transistor radio in his hand and scratching his head in wonder. I am fascinated with the idea that billions of tiny things inside me are disappearing somewhere and coming back. I think about how they always say that on an atomic level we are ninety percent empty space. I begin to feel like a hologram, blinking in and out of the world so fast it can’t be seen. But then again, since everything else I see is made of atoms, so is the rest of the world.
Because I am not a scientist, I interpret string theory through literature, telling myself stories about the “me” that made the left turn instead of the right, the “me” that went to Spain with Greg, or missed meeting him entirely. There are likely many dimensions in which I am already dead. There are stories that can’t be told. Perhaps there are 1,144,935 dimensions in which I am married to Greg, and within those we have one child, two, four, or none. Maybe in a few he is cheating on me, although I doubt it. Greg was faithful.
There might be one or two dimensions where he is a circus clown, or where I am obsessed with collecting Beanie Babies, because an infinite number of possibilities means exactly that.
In one reality, Greg and I bond quickly. The open wounds we carry from childhood resonate with each other. We try to cut and paste our incomplete, lonely lives into something that approximates a whole person. He sits on the couch, talking on the phone. My head is in his lap, my ear pressed into his skin absorbing the musical rhythm of his voice underneath the beat of his heart as he casually spits one of his back teeth into his hand. “Meth,” he whispers in response to my raised eyebrows, as he covers the mouthpiece of his cell phone.
“I’m glad you stopped doing that,” I might be saying in that universe. “You make me a better person,” he is replying.
In 749,998 universes, I cheat on him at a wedding two weeks after we meet. In some of those realities, I decide to be honest with him. In most of those, he freaks out and stabs himself in the arm to express his pain. His heartbreak is absolute and resonates throughout all of his manifestations. All of the Gregs-that-stayed-in-Spain, who never even met me feel a passing cloud of unexplained despair for a moment. They stop in the plaza, they choke on their tapas in dark, smoky bars, and place their hands over their hearts for a minute without knowing why. All of the Gregs-who-I-betray are devastated.
In many of these worlds, I come back to him and we decide to build a life together. There are days in the sun, eating popsicles like children in the grass. We are always holding hands, it drives everyone around us crazy and they roll their eyes. He sings to me and I cook for him and we read the same books.
There are layers of complexity to evaluating the happiness of a love affair. It isn’t a number on a scale that can be calculated. It’s more like an entity that breathes in and out on its own, something that eludes definition. No one really understands string theory yet, even all the nerds up at MIT. For me, I wonder just how real my experience is as I try to decide which story to tell myself about what happens in my life.
Of one thing I am certain; there is no universe that exists anywhere containing a version of the man I married who ever really forgave me for that early trespass. Even in the brightest days of our happiest possible worlds, the seeds of my transgression are irrevocably planted and begin to grow.
In the universe I currently (for the most part) reside in, we never made it to Spain. Instead we were given the adventure of having a child. Greg stood beside me as my doctor made the incision in my swollen belly and pulled her from my side. After wrapping her in a blanket, she handed our baby to my husband, who stared into her open eyes with wonder. Then he placed her on my shoulder. I felt a jolt of recognition as I recognized my cheekbones on her tiny face.
I know you, something sang inside of me.
Later, after I was transferred to a private room, Greg brought her to me again. As I held her in my arms, I couldn’t stop staring at her. It was like magic. I said a mental hello to her tiny organs, so independent now, tirelessly keeping her alive and healthy outside of my body from now on. I imagined her heart, the size of an apricot, beating in the rhythm of my voice as I spoke to her.
“Hello little thing.” She opened her eyes, unable to focus on anything but me. I picked her up and gently put my nipple into her mouth, feeling the milk burn as her gums clamped and siphoned nourishment out of me. “How does she know how to do that?” I wondered.
In my mind, I saw her lungs, fluttering open and closed like butterfly wings, filtering the oxygen her body needed to survive. I saw her intestine coiled like an earthworm, drawing vitamins from the milk she was learning to drink from my body. I imagined the complex beauty of her tiny reproductive organs—uterus like a teacup, her ovaries already containing the seeds of the next generation, like a universe of stars compacted into a pinhead. I saw her blood speeding through millions of veins, somehow knowing exactly where to go. Her brain seeking patterns, already making connections at the speed of light, storing memories of me that would make her feel loved and whole throughout her life, although she won’t quite know why.
“This is what it’s about now,” Greg said with tears in his eyes.
I named her after my Granny—Ruby Pearl. That’s my baby girl, I thought.
I will never leave you.