SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Bonnie West
Twins, the month before birth, behave inside the womb as they will eventually behave outside the womb.
Years ago she’d seen spectacular footage of twins exhibiting in utero behavior and had learned the twin who pushed, even punched, for more space in the womb continued to be the the more aggressive twin after birth.
And now here it is: her own memory of two tiny beings interacting in their watery world. She, stronger than he, pushing this way and that, shoving forcefully and making more space for herself. What chance did he have? He had Down syndrome and she did not. Of course she was stronger.
They didn’t call it Down syndrome in her day. The syndrome was Mongolism and the individual a Mongolian idiot. Doctors and social workers examined the two of them repeatedly as it was rare to encounter twins wherein one was a Mongoloid and the other was not. When they were toddlers the physical and cognitive tests, involving piles of colorful blocks and wooden puzzles, continued. She, the twin known as Rachel, would stack the blocks and assemble the puzzles, and he, Richard, would chew on the pieces. She didn’t care what he did. She loved him no matter what.
She did love him, didn’t she? In truth she doesn’t know if she loved him at all. She doesn’t really remember him. He was sent away on a summer day the month before they turned four. He died two thousand miles away from her when they were forty-eight. She continued living and at ninety-six has lived exactly twice as long. She wonders if the fact is somehow meaningful.
* * *
She is still Rachel. But at this moment she’s trapped in the bed and can no longer move on her own. Sometimes she cannot speak. But her mind is clear.
I’m here! she thinks to the nurse who is patient, who is gentle when she rolls her to one side, tugs the sheets, and rolls her back. This nurse has soft hands and massages pink cream on Rachel’s back and arms and legs. She presses on the soles of Rachel’s feet and rotates her ankles.
Rachel thinks the nurse somehow must know she wants to be touched. She has wanted to be touched ever since her husband died, although she’s never revealed it, not such a thing, to anyone.
She means now to tell everyone. Touch me, touch me. Touch us old people for we miss the feel of that much-loved foot against our leg when we wake in the morning, the squeeze of a strong hand on our shoulder while we sip our coffee. We miss being rubbed gently on our back, miss the stroke of fingers across our forehead. Long to have that casual contact back once more. But understand; you don’t need to have sex with us.
No! Please. Don’t.
Rachel knows it happens to old women in nursing homes. She recalls a particularly grim story of a man slipping into the facility to have sex with his completely demented wife in front of her also demented roommate. Upon leaving he tossed the lingerie he’d dressed her in, into the wastebasket. It was how he got caught.
No, no, not that. Only touching, simple, touching. Fold your fingers between mine, trace words on my back, rub my forearms, paint my toenails and dab perfume on my wrists.
She thinks she might have meant to tell someone but she never bothered to, and now cannot. But this nurse understands. Rachel wants to say, “Yes, bless you too,” to the nurse when she, as she always does before she leaves, gently presses the top of Rachel’s head and whispers, “Bless you.”
But she is gone again. What was she thinking? Oh, yes, her sweet twin, Richard. He was sent to live in the special school run where her parents had been assured he’d be taken care of, be taught, be loved. Where even the doctors said he’d be better off. Her mother fought it with all her might, the child being wrenched from her, but her mother’s might wasn’t so strong as her father’s. He had the final say and in the end, he and even the doctors, convinced her mother it was best not only for him but for their older son Theo, and for Rachel, so her mother gave in. Weeping long hours into the night (Rachel imagines) and finally coming to some kind of peace with it (again, she imagines) so she was able to go, productively and kindly, on with her life.
Rachel and her other brother also went right on, as children do. Although she wonders now, did she cry for her twin when she found herself alone in their room in the dark? Was his highchair gone the next day or was it still there, empty, at the table. She was four. Wasn’t she worried for him? Did she believe what they must have said that it was for the best? Or did she think something else? Was her older brother afraid he might also be sent to a school for special children? Perhaps he too, thought he was special.
Rachel read a novel a few years ago, when she could still read and had not reluctantly switched to audio books. It was a mighty, bestseller featured on bestseller lists for months and months. Perhaps they’ll make it a movie, she thought at the time, but knew she’d never see it. At first it intrigued her, being a story like hers, of a little girl whose sibling had been taken away. But then it annoyed her, because in this story the little girl remembered it all, every tiny bit, every minute detail of the events, even though she was only five. Rachel found it hard to believe any five-year-old would remember everything. Additionally, Rachel became inappropriately angry when the narrator revealed way, way, too far into the story, the sibling was a not a real sibling like Rachel believed, not a child, intellectually challenged, but a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee! The young girl in the book didn’t understand she wasn’t exactly like her monkey sister so she tried to swing in the trees and climb on the furniture and eventually broke her leg or arm or whatever, and because of the incident the sister/chimpanzee was taken away.
I don’t remember. I don’t remember. How could that fool child remember everything so vividly? But then Rachel thinks, jealously, a monkey leaping from chandeliers, shattering crystal vases on the floor, half destroying the house was probably more memorable than a silent, slow brother who could only stand.
He stood! Does she actually remember? No, it’s the small black and white photo with deckled edges she’s remembering; the one where he is holding himself up on the bars of the crib watching as their brother Theo, wearing a cowboy hat, chaps, and boots, points his cap gun at her. Theo probably shot the cap with a bang and she probably fell down dead with a thud, but she doesn’t remember. Did Richard remember?
Did Richard have memories? Did he remember the bedtime ritual they had, her reaching across from her small bed to his crib, wiggling her fingers to make him understand, saying, “Reach to me.” She would say it again and again until he put out his hand and they touched each other’s fingertips. Did he remember? Did he think, when he was away from her, Reach to me?
* * * Light is hitting her face now. She can feel a breeze through the open window, a perfect day to sail. She’s a sailor. She remembers nautical names: sheets and halyards, deadeyes and cleats. She remembers her quickness and strength hoisting sails: the main, the jib, the spinnaker. She remembers feeling accomplished taking the tiller, jibing the boat, like when she learned to drive a stick shift or pitched a ball so hard the boys did a double take. And she remembers Richard sprawled on his back in his crib. And she, where is she when he’s sleeping in the crib? Why, she’s in the big bed. He’s in diapers and she goes on the potty. She thinks she remembers saying, “He’s not stupid, he’s just slow,” to Charlie Hartman, or was it the Monroe boy? Was it later? Would she have said such a thing? Was she a loving twin? Of course she was. Once she knew him, once she knew the boy who didn’t even try to fight for the space in the womb, because he couldn’t, because he didn’t know he should, of course she was a loving twin.
Her mother never knew, in her lifetime, the horrors inflicted on her son in that home, that New York State School, whose downfall came with an investigation that revealed the children had been used as guinea pigs, inoculated with diseases, hepatitis, infections, had been rolled around in bins like garbage, had been left naked and dirty, though all dolled up for appointed visits from social workers and families. It was why, she realizes now, just this moment, the one time she visited him by herself, when she was in her twenties, the staff took such a long time to get him ready. At first they told her she had to have an appointment so she could not see him at that time.
She sat down on the wooden bench in the lobby. “I’ve come a long way. He’s my twin. I’ll wait for as long as it takes.” It was more than an hour before an aide brought him downstairs. When she saw him she recognized him right away even though so many years had gone by. And she believed somehow, he knew her. He was laughing and all dressed up in clothes too big for him. (A blue suit, if she remembers correctly, and brown shoes.) She held him by his rough small hand and walked him out of the building and onto the lawn. He was so short. He was so happy. She tried to talk to him and he made sounds that seemed like they might be words one day. She cried when she hugged him goodbye but he went back inside without protest. She cried on the way home. Eventually, tired of weeping, she stuck the whole experience into a far closed corner of her mind.
There was a time in the country when people believed what they were told, believed the authorities; a time before people stopped trusting one another. How could her parents have known the way he was treated? When she found out the truth, when the media revealed the truth, in her forties, she wanted to go back again, this time to bring him home to her own family. She even went so far as to telephone the authorities but she was assured he’d been relocated to another smaller, safer place where he would live out the rest of his days with trustworthy caregivers and the other living children (adults now) he’d known all his life. So she left it alone. In truth, she was relieved. He was never out of diapers, never potty-trained like she.
* * *
She hates these thoughts she’s having now. Hates herself for never doing anything for him. Hates thinking he might have lived a happier life. Hates her parents for causing it to happen. She squeezes her eyes to distract herself, tries to press her nails into her palms. But she cannot feel if she has.
Why didn’t anyone tell her dying would be like this? The things you think of. The things you remember! Who would have told her? Who could have told her?
* * *
And now she’s remembering the turtle she found. It had been on one of the coastal islands where she’d anchored her boat. She was in her thirties. She’d taken the boat out single-handedly; the weather was clear and she, a capable solo sailor. Usually she sailed with a friend or two, but she’d wanted to be alone. She was feeling sorry for herself for whatever reason, (why can’t she remember that?) and was happy to sit alone in the sand, making a trough by pushing her feet back and forth. She was watching the sea fill the holes her feet made, when she saw the poor thing. It couldn’t have been very old because it wasn’t very large, but it wasn’t one of the tiny turtles you see in nature films running frantically to the sea after hatching and it wasn’t a big lumbering, burdened mother either. It was just a turtle. And it was nearly dead. So she’d sailed home with it and set it in a deep basin of sea water with sea grasses, algae, and a sunny, rock ledge. She named it Kjell (so clever!) and fell in love. She nursed it, talked to it, stroked it, and promised it would get better. The poor thing tried to stay alive, tried hard, she was sure, but died anyway. She couldn’t believe it hadn’t lived. She wept over it. And then she couldn’t believe she was crying. Over a turtle! Why had she even found it? Why had it been there, still alive, for her to find?
God is only toying with us. Toying? Rachel repeats the word in her head and finds it’s the wrong one. Fucking. There she found it. God is always fucking with us.
* * *
But here! Here now, is not a thought, but something solid, something good. Here is her son. He squeezes her fingers. He’s using a different voice so she knows something’s up. She wants to reach out and pat his hand. She wants to lift him high, high in the air and hear his laugh.
He is her first-born. When the little nurse with the strong scent of citrus came into her room two weeks ago (or three days ago or not but a moment ago) and he was sitting at her bedside and she remembers she introduced them, telling the nurse how he was funny and kind and how she knew he must have blushed.
Sixty-eight-years old and he blushes like a schoolboy she thinks and wonders where it comes from, that cliché, then the words, barefoot boy with cheek of tan pop into her head and she can’t remember who wrote the line, can’t stop the free-floating thoughts. Where is she now? Oh yes, with her son, her handsome, but such a shy boy, son. So shy, she wonders how he wooed that sweet wife of his. And now she remembers how surprised she’d been at her son’s wedding when the flower girl, skipping down the aisle tossing rose petals on the path, was a Down child, like her twin Richard. And later, at the reception, the same girl clamored to dance with everyone. She could talk! She could learn! Oh, Richard. Did they lie about you and others like you? Could you have learned? Did they not know?
Do not, do not, do not, have these thoughts.
“Are you okay, Mom?” He son is speaking.
“I’m better,” she says. Then she relates a funny thing that happened in the school cafeteria and laughs but she can’t hear herself but she can sees him lean down and turn his ear to her mouth. “It was funny, maybe a dream,” she says as loudly as she can.
He stands back upright, looks confused but gives her the thumbs-up sign anyway. She wishes she could grab his thumb and make him press his palm to her face. And at once, her wish is granted! He presses his palm to her face. Did she say it? Or did he just know? He always was a little psychic with her, just like his sister. She had to be careful around her children. They were so tuned in.
Last night. Last night? She dreamed her daughter was a baby again. And in the dream her daughter told her all babies are blind at birth, then only shapes appear, black, white, and close, close up. So, still in the dream, Rachel bent over, close, close up to her daughter’s little face until she was certain she’d been seen. And when Rachel knew her daughter saw her, she felt her heart split with love.
Is this what death will be? Heart-splitting love?
* * *
Maybe her mother will appear. She’d like to run into her mother’s arms. But this time, happily.
Rachel vividly remembers when she was ten running home from school crying into her mother’s arms. Rachel’s fifth-grade teacher had marched her to the front of the classroom for misbehaving, then told her classmates that she, Rachel, had a habit of misbehaving and that she, Rachel, had a twin brother who lived in an institution because of mental retardation, and the reason he was retarded was because Rachel, misbehaving, had cut off his oxygen when they were in their mother’s stomach.
Rachel, in her mother’s arms, refused to be comforted. No matter how emphatically her mother assured her it was false. Rachel refused to believe her mother’s word against her teacher’s. It wasn’t until Rachel was nearly sixteen she understood the truth.
Ah, but wait, Rachel thinks now. The true truth is the television footage. Remember the twin behavior in the womb? Remember the scientific proof? Proof of Rachel’s guilt! She was the aggressive twin in the womb. She did cut off his oxygen and what’s more, Rachel knows she is just the type of person who is not only capable but indeed, willing, to do such a thing. Can you not see it? Nasty, nasty, twin.
But no! No! Stop here!
What about the chromosome that causes Down syndrome? What is she thinking? Of course it’s the chromosome! Of course she was not nasty. She’s losing it. Oh, how she’s losing it.
Rachel doesn’t believe in life after death but now she thinks yes, she’d like to run into her mother’s arms and just stop remembering, stop thinking, stop dying. She’d like to run into her mother’s arms and rest.
She can hear herself coughing but she cannot feel the cough itself. And now she can hear her son saying, “Mom, Mom?” And now her daughter, “Mommy?”
What, what? She says to them. She thinks she tells them not to worry, she loves them, she is fine. But she cannot hear herself.
* * *
How exhausting dying is.
* * *
She wants the nurse with the cream who says, “Bless you,” to come soon. She hopes the cross one, won’t be back. The one who whispered to her children, “Your mother really doesn’t need this. She’s not in pain. Not any longer.”
Bullshit! she tried to cry. I am I am!
That same spiteful nurse, another time, had blathered on about bucket lists as if Rachel should have done more while she could have, before she got stuck in her bed. Sneering the nurse was. Of course Rachel should have done more. She knows it. Everyone knows they should do more. Everyone has read all the things dying people say they should have done. But everyone, even when dying, lies. Everyone still wants to be liked to the end. No one says I should have punched my boss or I threw out my neighbor’s mail when it came to my house. No one says I hated doing the damn grocery shopping and I left carts in the lot and not the corral. No one says I put empty envelopes in the collection plate. No one tells the truth. The only person who ever said what she meant when dying was Jackie Kennedy Onassis. She said she shouldn’t have bothered with all those sit-ups. Ha!
Rachel doesn’t have a bucket list. She hates the expression. And she hates the expression kicked the bucket. Who kicks buckets? What Rachel needs is to have written out instructions and not be lying here wishing she had. What Rachel needs is to have told someone what she wanted or didn’t want, for when this time came and she was dying.
She should have demanded she get more drugs. She should have insisted, had it notarized. She isn’t reviewing her life in some important fashion. She isn’t coming to great awareness or enlightenment. She isn’t full of understanding. She is hurting. She is hurting. Her bones hurt, her eyes hurt, her hair hurts.
But, oh, oh, here it is: the wetness of the drug on her lips and in her mouth. (Oh yes! Oh glad!) And now, so quickly instead of the pain there is no pain. She has sailed far from the shore; she has waved to her beautiful children who waved back until she is out of sight. Then she anchors the boat and finally there is only the feeling of sun and the feeling of lying on the deck of the boat, and the boat rocking with the swell of the waves and the halyard’s tinny jingle against the mast. Here is all that matters: the movement of the boat, the warmth of the deck beneath her, and the sounds of the sea around her.
With her eyes closed the sun is red beneath her lids and she is nearly asleep when the redness blackens. She rises up on her elbows, opening and shading her eyes with one hand, to see what’s blocking the brilliance of the sun.
She’s heard, like everyone has heard, of a white light, but everyone is mistaken. There is no tunnel of light, no crossing over. There is only the sun outlining his body as he stands above her. She knows him so well. How delighted she is. She never expected him, and yet, who else would it be?
Bending down and stretching out his hand, he says, “Reach to me.”
Bonnie West’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Redbook Magazine, The Minetta Review, and The Austin Chronicle. Her short story collection Boyfriends is available on Amazon or through her publisher InkTears (UK). Her bilingual Japanese/ English children’s book with Diane Carter, Hideki and Kenji Save the Day is available on Amazon. She is working on a novel of connected short stories.