Today we begin our first Fiction Week of the year, featuring the work of a new writer each day. Enjoy today’s opening story.
by Rasmenia Massoud
Sarah eats dinner alone on the couch every night, seeking refuge in her imagination because of the things she didn’t do when her body was whole. If she had known half of her body would become useless by the time she turned forty, she would’ve danced more. Learned to swim or do Capoeira. Fucked more. Hiked more dusty mountain trails.
She tells herself this every day. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t the truth.
There are moments when she misses dinner conversation, but dining alone is easier. No one is there to see the pizza sauce smeared on her face. No awkward sympathy when the cheese slides off the slice into her lap. Alone, she’s free to eat the cheese directly off her pant leg with her good hand while the paralyzed arm rests on the cushion. With time, she has fewer food-related accidents and thinks maybe she’d like to share a meal with another person, but reasons that perhaps it’s been too long, now. A routine of solitude is easy to grow accustomed to.
No one is there to disrupt her imagination. She watches movies and TV shows until her eyes refuse to stay open. Anything with queens, warrior women, or amazons that portray women with strong, muscled bodies, fighting and defending. When everything outside her window is silent and it feels as though the rest of the city is asleep, Sarah drags the paralyzed, useless half of her body to bed, spends several minutes positioning her body and pillows in the way the physical therapist taught her, and pulls the blanket up to her chin with her good arm, then plays out long and elaborate fantasies in her mind. Behind her closed eyes, she stands with perfect posture in one of those strong, muscular bodies of the warrior women on TV. She wields swords and fighting staffs with superhuman skill. Does backflips and scorpion kicks. She runs and battles until she falls asleep.
In the morning, she stares into the mirror, at the reflection of a stranger’s face who holds her former self hostage. Her short, black hair is matted on one side, and poking up on the other. Drool crusted at the corner of her mouth. The corner that droops and makes her appear to be in a perpetual state of hopeless befuddlement. She wipes the sleepy slobber from her chin and tries to imagine how female superheroes sleep. Warrior women don’t wake to see themselves as a slack drool face. Do they? Of course they don’t. She imagines herself waking early, refreshed and ready for anything.
It never works, but she keeps trying to picture it.
Sarah’s friend Faye from group therapy used to prod her, attempting to coax her into signing up with this dating app or that. Other times, she’d mention “a friend” and say, “I think you two would hit it off.” It’s easy for Faye. Her stroke didn’t leave her with a monster case of hemiplegia. But, Sarah liked Faye’s penchant for profanity and telling inappropriate stories in group, so she let Faye set her up on a blind date.
Artie was a strange little man who was fond of wearing sweater vests and had no hair on his head, except for a thin ponytail of black and silver hair that hung down the back of his neck. On their fourth date, he invited Sarah to his place to have a barbecue and meet his 6-year-old daughter. Sarah was nervous around kids. They stared at her for too long and were too honest. She did her best not to make a mess while eating the sloppy, saucy, chicken. The corn on the cob was even more labor intensive. Artie didn’t appear fazed by Sarah’s clumsy, messy eating as she attempted to gnaw at her corn cob in a graceful manner. His lack of reaction gave her a tiny boost of confidence and she began to consume her food with a bit more enthusiasm.
Until she caught the little girl staring at her from across the table. “Oh my gawd.” The girl giggled. “You have barbecue sauce all over your face.” She glanced at her father, apparently expecting him to laugh along with her. His expression cut a knife through her amusement and through everything, leaving nothing but silence and the invisible, noxious cloud of humiliation.
Kids. They meant no harm, but were always the ones to make her self-esteem sink lower. Sometimes, Sarah believed she should’ve had kids before half of her body became useless. But, she never missed the children she didn’t have. For a while, not long before the stroke, she imagined she did have a child. She imagined so hard, that soon enough, he was very real to her. Bruce wasn’t a real boy, but she ate with him, watched TV with him, and told him important stories about how to live a good life and grow to be a good man.
After a few months, the effort of bringing up an imaginary child grew dull. Then she had a stroke; and with all the physical therapy and other recovery-related activities, Sarah didn’t have much free time left over for her make-believe offspring.
Sarah skips her next group therapy meeting after the humiliating barbecue date at Artie’s. When Faye tries to call, Sarah sets her phone to do not disturb. She gets herself dressed for her physical therapy appointment, but when the time comes, she doesn’t go outside to the bus stop. Instead, she sinks down on the couch, watching another low-budget sci-fi movie with another tough-as-nails woman soldier saving the day.
This becomes the new routine for a few weeks. Until she runs out of snacks. Sitting on the cold bench at the bus stop next to her wheelie bag full of chips, pizza rolls, and other delicious and unhealthy industrial noshes, she considers the eventuality that she’ll have to return to physical therapy and the rest of her life, wondering how much longer she’ll be able to postpone it. Amazon women don’t postpone things, they step up and get them done. She knows this. She tells herself this is just the defeat that happens before the heroine finds the strength to be even more super and awesome than before.
It doesn’t matter if it isn’t the truth. It only matters that it could be the truth.
A man at the other end of the bus stop with a protruding belly, olive skin, and a thick moustache wearing a tan corduroy suit jacket stands gawking at her, one hand in his pants pocket, the other holding his phone. Sarah glances, then attempts to ignore him, self-conscious of the paralysis showing on half of her face. Powerless to ignore his presence, she looks up again, and he’s still staring, but now he offers a bashful smile, gives a slight nod, and turns his gaze down toward his feet.
They continue this silent and awkward ballet for several minutes. Sarah grows more and more nervous. Unable to tolerate it any longer, she turns around and asks him what in the hell his problem is. Hasn’t he seen a disabled person before?
The man’s expression changes to confusion. “I’m sorry.” He puts his hands over his ears. “I don’t hear very well. Can you repeat?” He holds up his phone, the screen facing her.
She repeats, with less anger this time, making an effort to enunciate as best she can, leaving out the part about being disabled.
He reads the screen. His shoulders slump and he looks at her, sheepish. “I didn’t mean to offend or scare you. I only wanted to be friendly, but wasn’t sure how. It’s like I’ve forgotten. I failed. I’m sorry.”
She points at his phone. He holds it up and she dictates again. “I wouldn’t say you failed,” she said.
He explains to her that he has something called bilateral Meniere’s disease. She never heard of it, but Sarah listens patiently, being in no hurry.
The man continues. “I signed up for a lip reading class. I haven’t been attending my classes.”
Sarah notices how the man’s ears protrude in a way that makes him appear youthful, in spite of the fine lines on his face and receding hair line. She removes her own phone from her pocket and gestures for him to sit with her on the bench. He sits down and reads her message.
“That’s okay. My lips haven’t been easy to read since I had my stroke.”
He sighs, shrugs, then lets out a slight laugh.
For a brief moment, his laughter stings Sarah, and then she realizes he’s right. It is funny. She begins laughing, too. Shy and small at first, but she soon loses control of it and it has her, taking over her broken body in loud, tearful guffaws that almost knock her off-balance.
When it calms, she feels relief at seeing the man laughing along with her. He holds out his hand. “I’m Leo.”
Sarah introduces herself, and they talk this way on the bench for the next couple of hours, letting three buses pass them by.
When the sun drops and the sky turns to a twilight shade of pink, Sarah remembers her wheelie bag full of junk food. Almost as though it were some cosmic good fortune, she realizes that she bought only several varieties of finger food. Nothing too messy. She asks Leo if he likes movies.
“Very much,” he says. “As long as it has subtitles. All the other sounds I fill in with my imagination.”
Another bus slows down alongside the curb in front of them. This time, they don’t let it pass them by.