I’ve been in my bed for 46 days now and I have no intention of leaving. I am fascinated by the way my body seems to have exhaled a sigh and simply never inhaled again. My bones are growing soft. I can feel them sinking like dough.
I chose the roses on these sheets myself, pinks and reds scroll in a brocade. You can’t see them until you peel back the thick down comforters, filled with white feathers. I like the way they emerge. Like August under a snowstorm.
I used to run. The thought of it bewilders me now. How my body could remain in motion for hours. I remember the feeling of feet on pavement. I remember the sound of the voice on my iPhone that relayed my distance and timing. I remember running thirteen miles in one go. I remember lacing my sneakers and stepping outside but I don’t remember the voice in my head that said, “Now. Start.” Or the way my body continued to go just because my mind said so. My sneakers are tucked away. They used to be in the front closet, but they were too loud there. I heard the squelch of their rubber from under my pillow. So I stuffed them under the couch cushions, I shut up the living room.
It was Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell who figured out the cure of bed rest, and who coined the term ‘phantom limb’, but I am not interested in the latter. He wrote Fat and Blood in 1872, advised rest for his patients, mostly female, mostly suffers of hysteria. Mitchell’s disease is named for him—blocked blood vessels in the hands—fingers swell and burn and puff and warp in pain.
I wonder, when you are a Doctor, will you have a disease named after you?
The triangles are all wrong today. Usually I can get them to line up like a row of teeth grinning from the half moon of my cuticles. Like one of those pumpkins that are carved and put out on doorsteps on that day in late October. I draw and draw and lick at my hands to erase the pen and start over, but I can’t get the triangles right, so I stop drawing. My left hand is smudged with greying ink.
I can order anything I need from the Internet. My most recent purchase was a 5 lb. tub of Twizzlers. They were delivered to my house two days after I clicked purchase. I eat them with a knife and fork because I want to. No one can tell me otherwise. The front door remains locked. If I get a package is delivered the UPS man rings the doorbell and leaves it on the front step. I will spend an hour or two working up the courage to retrieve the package. Sometimes, it will take a full day. When I feel ready, I will peel off the sheets, put on a pair of socks and slide across the hardwood to the door. I don’t like to lift my feet, the thump is deafening. Sometimes after this sliding, I will take a break, lean against the knob and catch my breath. Then I will open the door, tip the package across the threshold, and coax it to my bed with my foot. Sometimes this endeavor exhausts me so much, I won’t order anything for a week.
It’s been snowing the whole time I’ve been in bed. I have been counting the flakes from my window. I can hear each one as it hits the earth. It’s the sound of one pill hitting another, or a cigarette being stubbed out, or the scoop of a spoon in thin air. Sometimes it is hard to sleep with the crashing of snow.
I had thought getting on a plane and heading south. Maybe to Florida, or some British Virgin Island. I wouldn’t bring any luggage. I would just step of the plane and walk to the closest beach and curl up in the warm sand. I would bake in the hot sun until my body dried to a cracking wheeze. I like that idea, my organs turning to raisins. A pruning pancreas. A shriveled liver. But surely, even buried in the hot sand, I would eventually be in want of a bed. How to get a bed in
Florida? I’d succumb to a map. Or the exhaustion of reading signs. Finding a hotel of sorts. Producing a credit card. An interaction with a man at the front desk who I am absolutely sure would ruin everything for me. Just the sight of his face would ruin everything. Having to push words from my mouth to talk to him would ruin everything. I prefer it here, anyway.
Things I remember my mother saying to me more than once:
1. Sleep is the best medicine.
I used to eat a bowl of cereal every morning. I stopped doing dishes two weeks before I took to bed. I was going through bowls like playing cards. I ran out of bowls and I ate from coffee cups and glasses and Tupperware boxes and measuring cups. Stacking dishes in piles that reached my waist. Glistening with the sheen of leftover milk. How they tipped and bobbed, those stacks. How they collected flies. Like the weighty heads of roses, drooping, nudged by hungry bees. I feared these stacks would crash, so I shut up the kitchen. I don’t need bowls now.
You helped me buy this mattress, remember? We lashed it to the roof of my car and you drove it the two miles back to my apartment that still smelled new. You said I would like it here, it would be good for me.
When the closet yawns, I cannot help myself, I do too. How many clothes line the jowls. I don’t need these shirts with buttons and zips and clasps and ties. So foolish, so wasteful. My bureau is dripping with old necklaces and bracelets and cheap beads from parties I’ve since forgotten. Bottles of make up and powders and perfumes and dried up lotions and moisturizers—oh rotted attempts to keep soft—and salves to conceal and wands to reveal and bottles of glitter and shine and matted flesh tones—still there, all of them. The pictures of you and I, however, I took those out of the frames weeks ago.
I’m drawing an octopus on my left arm. For the past few hours I have been working on the tentacles, tracing them around my wrist. I don’t know how many suction cups are on a single octopus tentacle, but I guess thousands. I will draw them one by one.
Remember when I asked you about the way that we feel? Remember when I asked you about the way that our hearts hurt and break? Remember when I said phrases like sickening guilt? And gut-wrenching? And soul-crushing? It’s so physical, these feels. You told me it was the vagus nerve. That’s all, you said. You learned it from your anatomy textbooks. As if it were so simple, written on the page in black and white. Dr. Mitchell, perhaps he knows better than you. “If such a person is by nature emotional she is sure to become more so, for even the firmest women lose self-control at last under incessant feebleness…If no rescue comes, the fate of women thus
disordered is at last the bed.” Emotion is a natural state, a drowning force, causing your lungs to suck moisture. I have no rescue. This is my fate.
I turned my lamp pink a few days ago. I found and old tube of lipstick—a shade I can’t remember ever wearing myself. It’s a shade that reminds me of the books I would rather inhabit. The fat books with the spiraling gold threads on the cover, the books that look just as luxurious as the lives of the characters inside. Parties with crystal champagne glasses and white gloves and pearls and fleeting glances and where a glimpse of a lady’s stockinged ankle would send a man into a frenzy, where people are lovesick and hopeless and desperate and die from broken hearts. I took that tube of lipstick and rimmed the entire shade of the white lamp. Colored the spaces between the seams of the fabric like a coloring book. It was immensely satisfying, drawing with lipstick. Now my light glows with a waxy orange pulse that I think I could fall in love with.
My muscles are raspberry jam. I am sure they would be sticky if I were able to peel back the top layer of my skin and prod at them a bit.
I don’t know why the character in The Yellow Wallpaper took a turn for the worst. Women in the walls? A yellow smell from the paper smeared on her walls? What madness. A lifetime in bed, who could think of anything more wonderful?
I once ordered a pound of spirulina. I thought it would be good for me. I thought it would make me a better person, this “superfood.” Though, I don’t know what constitutes a superfood. I guess an unprecedented amount of vitamins and minerals and folic acids in one teaspoon. I think a
superfood also needs to be harvested from somewhere remote—the bowels of the Amazon, the farthest corner of the Serengeti—and discovered after the year 2000. (No one would ever call something a superfood in the 1900s. Any food would be a superfood.) The powder arrived in a plastic bag. Spirulina is made of algae. Perhaps that is what appealed to me at the time. Eating something that had been scraped from the surface of the ocean, where beforehand, it had simply bobbed along, wafting and waving in the tides. I scooped a heap of powder into a glass. It smelled like the underside of a water-clogged dock. But when I poured water into the powder, it rebelled, fluffed in a great cloud, it shed all over my counter tops. Deep blue and green smeared everywhere, dying the linoleum. I tried to drink the mixture but it tasted like pondscum, like low tide, but not in the good way. My mouth filled with chalk and my body felt no better. The spirulina powder must have cost a fortune. I don’t remember how much. But I remember weeping over the loss.
Dr. Mitchell chronicles the typical patient, offers and account in Fat and Blood. He says, “A woman, most often between twenty and thirty years of age, undergoes a season of trial or encounters some prolonged strain.” Perhaps, he musses, she has taken on a hard task, or had emotional excitement, or has been swayed with hopes and fears so strong that she becomes forgetful of herself. “But, no matter how it comes about, whether from illness, anxiety, or prolonged physical effort, the woman grows pale and thin, eats little, or if she eats does not profit by it. Everything wearies her,—to sew, to write, to read, to walk,—and by and by the sofa or the bed is her only comfort.”
I suppose I should say, I do get out of bed occasionally. Not to be lewd, but certain business must be attended to at times and I take care of that in the proper manner. I want to keep my roses in season for as long as possible.
I have written you a letter every day that I have been in this bed. You don’t know I’m here, like here-here, under sheets and pillows and white down, covered in petals. All you know is that I am not there. I had to write you letters, because the night of the party…the night when I drank too much…one of the nights I drank too much…I erased your number from my phone. I am not going to send you the letters of course; they refuse to be torn from the pages of my notebook.
In the house I lived in before this one, I left medals. Running medals. Medals with American flag straps and silhouettes of muscular men and city skylines and feet with wings. I didn’t win those races but I ran them. And I guess crossing the finish line deserved a medal. Thousands of these medals, unpacked from cardboard boxes and looped around necks of runners corralled through the gates without ceremony. Certainly, there were leftover medals at the end, once the last runner gasped across the finish line. Better to have too many than to few. What happened to those extras? Did they simple get thrown away? Devalued without a neck to cling to? I hung my medals on a peg by my door. Sometimes I can hear them clink clink clink, shedding their coats of dust, 3,000 miles away.
Today I have been pruning the roses on my sheets. Tending the faded pink rows, smoothing them one by one. Some of the roses are wilted, stained with age, lined with a layer of skin and grime.
Here are the things I have on my nightstand: Scissors (for opening packages). A jar filled with black fine tipped pens. A notebook. An empty tube of lipstick. A stack of novels I haven’t read yet. A wet rag. A box of tissues. A tube of chapstick. Cold cream. Twizzler wrappers. A scented candle (no matches though). A folded receipt. An empty glass. A bottle of bourbon.
I suppose true exhaustion begin with a hangover. Or I suppose all hangovers begin with drinking. And all drinking begins with desire. And all desire begins with loneliness. It began with whiskey and then it was beer and then it was more beer and then it was tequila and then it was beer and then it was tequila and then it was beer. This is not uncommon. Before taking to bed, Dr. Mitchell explains, “Every effort is paid for dearly, and she describes herself as aching and sore, as sleeping ill and awaking unrefreshed, and as needing constant stimulus and endless tonics.
Then comes the mischievous role of bromides, opium, chloral, and brandy.”
The party was red and filthy. I swayed between taking shots at the bar and dancing on the floor. The music filled my head, but not enough. There was still room to think. The party was a fever. I remember the hot press of someone’s body against my back. His hands ran down my sides. He turned me around and kissed me. I felt his lips through his beard. They felt nothing like yours.
This made something deep in my ribs cramp with sadness.
I don’t know how I got back to the house that night, I was wandering the streets for hours, hitting road blocks and dead ends. Clawing against chain link fences hiding darkened tracks and football stands. I curled up in someone’s yard, folded up like the morning paper. I called you and you didn’t pick up. Not that it would help. You couldn’t see where I was. I tried to make sense of the
street signs—everything moves in order, the avenues are numerical, how could I not find 13th?
Perhaps I crashed through the hedges. Perhaps I was rolled there in a trashcan. Perhaps I was mailed in the midnight post. Perhaps I was drawn by the lamplight, the call of the doorbell. But either way, my knees hit the porch steps and I was there.
I sat on the floor with people I didn’t know and drank water from a saucer. They were all on drugs. Girls crammed between the knees of guys who stroked their shoulders and rubbed their heads. I recognized one of them from a few days before; she had been waitressing at a restaurant. She served me a plate of falafel. Her shirt was low cut and I could see the pink line of a scar running down her chest. That scar that signified that at one point her chest had been cracked open, sternum severed through. Her heart exposed to the blue-latex air of the operating room.
She shouldn’t be taking drugs with a heart like that, I thought.
I don’t know why I ordered falafel. I had been to the restaurant only once before. I ordered the falafel. I didn’t like it. So why did I do it again? I remember when you told me the definition of insanity was doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.
You wanted me to stop smoking cigarettes and I said okay. But I didn’t. I told you I did. Sometimes, or at least now, if I have run out of canvas on my arms or my roses are pruned, I will crack the window and light a cigarette and smoke a few puffs. But the snow is relentless. I can feel it on my fingertips. It chills my nose. I hate having the window open too long because I can feel the flakes of snow being sucked into my body.
I’m almost done with the octopus on my arm. My forearm has tentacles and suction cups twisting all over it. When I am done drawing the octopus, I will wipe it away with the wet rag.
Maybe I will work on some rosebushes next. My arm is grey from so many erased drawings.
I paid my rent check. Slipped the blue envelope out the door with a stamp and my spit. I bought myself another 30 days.
It’s too late for me to have a lace robe, but I think I would like that. I think that it would fit my bed scene. Or perhaps just lace trim. Languid sleeves of yellow roses. A silk tie.
Maybe it was the advertisement on the coffee cup sleeve that did it. I was halfway done with the cup of coffee when I realized the sleeve was imploring me to come to an event on the 15th of
March. Had I not noticed the sleeves on these coffee cups? Had they always been asking me to do something? Who created these sleeves? The sleeves would only be relevant until March 15th, then what? Surely, there would be extras. Would they too be thrown away? I hated these sleeves. I wanted to cry over them. The thought of coffee makes me giggle now. Who would choose to take something that makes them stay awake?
My blood runs like honey. But I wouldn’t say my heart is a beehive. There is no buzzing frenzy of workers, no honeycomb cells, no din of wings flapping.
I hadn’t seen you for three months. I hadn’t noticed the time, but you did. We sat at your parent’s dinner table over Christmas and I wore a black sweater because I wanted to look thinner than I
felt, or thinner than you last saw me. Your mother passed the mashed potatoes around for the second time, and your father offered you scotch but not me. I drink more scotch than he does, I wanted to point out. But I didn’t. I said nothing and finished my wine. Your sister smelled the drink and wrinkled her nose. She couldn’t stand the smell. It was on your breath when you kissed me and left me at the airport and waved goodbye and I wanted to drink you. Now I drink bourbon in the afternoon because nobody tells me not to.
Perhaps this is why my bones are porous: I never drank milk when I was younger. Your mother is an orthopedic surgeon. Each day, she cracks bones and resets them. I ran too hard one summer and my knee was in pain every time I went up and down stairs. I would have to turn my foot ninety degrees and take the steps sideways, to avoid the sharp pain. Isn’t it strange—I remember the idea of pain, I know it happened, but I cannot feel it now. Your mother had me lie down on the leather couch and raise my knee. She cupped two hands over my patella and moved my knee slowly outward and down. She closed her eyes, feeling the squeak of my joints. She called you and your brother over and your entire family was there around my knee. Do you feel that crunching, she said. Yes, yes, you all felt it. You all felt the premature aging in my bone. You all felt my milkless history and I was deeply ashamed.
Are you going to be this way too? Are you going to reset bones? I like the idea of you in an operating room. I like it better than the idea of you in your living room. You don’t have bookshelves because you don't have books. I find this devastating.
Verity Sayles is an MFA candidate at Oregon State University. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Burningword Literary Journaland Dark Matter: A Journal of Speculative Literature. Originally from New England, she now resides in Oregon.