Short fiction by Whitney Curry Wimbish
The fog had unsnagged from Russian Hill and sunlight sent a flash of silver up the side of the lemon tree. Sita gazed at the yellow fruit through the kitchen window. Her mind drifted in and out of thought. She could still feel a dull ache below her bellybutton. When she placed her palm where it hurt, she wondered what it would be like to touch herself there out of affection instead of pain relief.
The house was silent. No one else was up. Not her husband, not their flat mate in the upstairs second bedroom, the one he’d agreed to vacate, if it ever happened.
So far: Nothing.
So far: Frustration.
So far: “At least it’s fun to try, right?” and “Everything happens for a reason,” and “You must be so upset,” which sounded to Sita like a command. Oh, must I? Above all, so far, a lot of advice. “You could always adopt” was exhausting to hear over and over. Last week, before the surgery, she had lost her temper during happy hour when someone said that very thing.
“As an adoptee, I’d just really like to meet one blood relative before I die. Even if I have to make them myself.” The sharp tone shocked her friends and she immediately tried to fix it. “You know, so I can get my kidney donor lined up!” But the mood had soured and the night out ended soon after.
Sita left her hand on her belly and thought of last week’s outpatient surgery – a weird memory that was like watching someone else. She watched herself sign in, watched as she struggled to breathe steady, keep calm, fit feet into the stirrups.
Her annual examination had discovered a patch of cancerous cells on her cervical wall, which this surgery would remove with a tool that seared tissue as it cut, sealing the wound.
“Now then. We’ll numb you up and you won’t feel a thing,” the doctor said. She nodded and her hair made a dry scratching sound against the paper-covered pillow.
Years ago, when Sita first moved to San Francisco and began doing adult things, like selecting dentists and doctors and paying bills on time and making sure to buy groceries on the weekend for the next week, she had chosen Shera Abu-Rustum, MD, out of the phone book because she thought the name belonged to a South Asian woman, like herself. In fact, it belonged to a Lebanese guy from Baltimore. But he was in her insurance network, so she buried her disappointment. What does it matter who my gyno is anyway?
The doctor fiddled with a speculum. Sometimes, during gynaecological examinations, Sita tried to thought-experiment her way into enjoying herself. What if it was some kind of kinky foreplay? Or, what if the procedure was conducted by the doctor going down on the patient? It never really worked. Sometimes, like today, her mind went to the dark side and conjured up the latest news story about rape-as-punishment in a faraway corner of the world. Those thoughts evoked a low-grade sense of panic that stretched twenty minutes into twenty billion years. Such a place could have been her home, in a different life.
She tried another tactic and reminded herself that soon this minor outpatient surgery would be a memory safely in the past, and soon she’d be doing other things. She could go to the pier for lunch and eat oysters. No, not oysters. Burgers. After this, I will get lunch at In-N-Out and it will be awesome. She focused on that, then decided “in-n-out” was an unhelpful mantra for this particular procedure.
A syringe flashed between her knees; a wave of tension washed from her middle, up and over her forehead. Her lower half faded. The doctor taped the grounding wire of his cauterizer to her inner thigh, then flipped the switch and disappeared between her legs again. She gripped the gurney mattress in anticipation of pain but felt nothing. She considered asking why electric whirs at the doctor’s office are so unsettling but kept quiet.
“There now, we got that piece, and that’s all she wrote,” the doctor said a few minutes later. A nurse adjusted the bed so Sita could sit up.
“Can I see it?” She said. Dr Abu-Rustum held out the little sample jar. A wafer of tissue was suspended in goo.
“That red dot, that’s the carcinoma in situ. We’ll test you in a couple months to see if we got it all. I’m pretty sure we did.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“It’s right there, see, the red blotch,” he said. It was barely discernible, this tiny deadly thing.
The pain set in later, after the burger, a dull, rhythmic cramp that kept up its drumbeat all afternoon and into the night. It was still there two days later when the doctor called with the results.
“All clear!” he said. “I’ll see you in six months for a check-up.”
“Say, I have a question,” Sita said after a pause. “You said this won’t affect fertility, but I wanted to double check. It won’t, right?”
“Oh no. Nothing to do with that. Just give it two weeks to heal. After that you’re free to try any time you like!”
“Great!” she said. Is three years ago a good time to start?
Sita had never before wanted children. Even as a pre-teen she had dreaded the idea of becoming a mother, a prospect whose awfulness was highlighted by middle school, the precursor to high school that dragged on forever, though it was only a few years. Why would anyone want to take care of these brats she went to school with? One of them, Amanda, had been going through the halls during the passing period telling people she had a secret for them and then screaming in their ears when they leaned close. Sita’s ear rang for half an hour after she fell for it. Though she longed at times to know why her birth mother had put her up for adoption, she felt it could be, simply, that the woman decided she just didn’t want a kid. Kids are terrible!
The moment it occurred to her that she too could opt out of children was in Mrs Bezo’s health class.
It was 1997. She was 12. They were studying “human sexuality,” formerly known as “sex ed.” But instead of using the upgraded moniker to harken a new age of frankness, Mrs Bezo taught by old-fashioned euphemism. Students in her class left slightly confused and fearful, closer to what their parents had experienced in gender-segregated classrooms than what their contemporaries experienced down the hall with Mrs Kallio, who had four life-sized pelvic models.
It was Friday. Mrs Bezo was speaking on the subject of consequences.
“Boys have less to worry about than us, isn’t that right, ladies?” She cleared her throat. “But that doesn’t mean boys can do whatever they want.” She withdrew two plastic cups from her desk. “Inside these are all your names. Boys in one, ladies in the other. And from this, we will learn what I mean.” She fished out a slip of paper. “Rodney, please come to the front. And now, the ladies.”
Sita had predicted the future with total certainty just once before, a year earlier. An image had presented itself to her mind’s eye as she’d brushed her teeth before church: Father Bierman would spill communion wine down the front of his tunic. An hour later, Sita gasped with the rest of the congregation when he did just that and it delighted her to think that she and she alone had foreseen the mighty slosh. Her subsequent predictions had been nothing more than guesses, and none had come to pass. But that day in Human Sexuality, Sita knew beyond a doubt that Mrs Bezo would call her name, and when she did, Sita shuffled to the front of the room as if in a dream.
Mrs Bezo rustled through a large garbage bag. “This will demonstrate the consequences of doing things before you should.” She withdrew two baby carriers. “Rodney, you’re first.” She strapped the carrier onto his front then returned to the bag. Rustle, rustle. She withdrew a hefty net sack of lemons. “This is twenty pounds,” she said. “The average weight of a newborn baby.”
Recalling that detail now was hilarious – and horrifying – but at the time Sita accepted it as truth.
“Good to know,” Rodney said and braced himself while Mrs Bezo wrestled the bag into the carrier. “That’s pretty heavy.”
Rodney was a cool skater-in-waiting. He could say what he wanted.
Sita, meanwhile, received her carrier in a state of shock. The lemons sagged low and lumpen to push uncomfortably against her bony hips. Her palms were sweaty. She said nothing. Rodney nodded sagely and rubbed his lemon belly. Their classmates tittered.
“Shh!” Mrs Bezo commanded. The students barely complied. “Now, class, this is only the beginning. There are difficulties you wouldn’t even think of.” She threw a coin near Sita’s feet. “Sita, please bring me that dime.” Outright laughter this time.
Sita did as she was told.
“Now tell the class what that felt like.”
Sita looked across the classroom, the sea of white faces and dingy orange carpet and beige chair-and-desk units. She looked at Mrs Bezo and her crest of starched blonde bangs. The heat that began on her cheeks spread and her eyes prickled. Her voice wavered.
“I guess it felt like a backpack on the wrong way with some lemons in it.”
“That’s right,” Mrs Bezo said. “And that’s what will happen if you do things ahead of time. You’ll be wearing the heaviest backpack of your entire life, for nine months.” She turned to Rodney. “And it will be your fault, which is why you, too, must bear these lemons today.”
Rodney turned to Sita. “Sorry in advance.”
A miscreant in the back row whistled.
Mrs Bezo sent them back to their desks still wearing the lemons, which required Sita to squash them past the immovable desk edge. The bell rang thirty minutes later.
“Thank you for being my little guinea pigs today,” Mrs Bezo said as she helped them out of their carriers. “The class learned a lot.” She looked pointedly at Sita. “And I’m sure you did too.”
Sita had been telling this story with comedic effect for years and her friends would laugh at the silly provincial thinking of small-town dwellers. But privately she wondered if Mrs Bezo’s class would be the only time she would carry a weight like that. And though she could not name all the reasons she felt differently than she did two decades ago, one rang out with absolute clarity. How could she not wish to look into someone’s face and see herself?
The lemon tree was dazzling in shafts of sunlight that sliced through the last high clouds. Sita could hear her husband fumble around for his slippers upstairs. Their flat mate was running water in the bathroom.
Many times Sita wished loneliness could be cured by good intentions. When her mother, a white woman, had given her a stuffed elephant for her sixth birthday and said it was from “your other mother in the sky.” Or when waiters routinely thought she and her roommate were the couple, not her and her husband, because she and Stav were the same color and pale Billy was the odd one out. Many times she wished thoughtlessness wounded her less thoroughly. The question, “But who are your real parents?” Or the winter Jack Daniel’s ads went up all over town featuring a bottle and a hand-written letter that said “Happy holidays little brother! Even though I still think you were adopted.” So careful the ad writers had been to avoid saying “Merry Christmas.”
A cramp rolled across Sita’s middle. She looked at the lemon tree and without thinking she was out the door, wet grass soft between her toes, cold air raising goose bumps through her thin nightgown. She reached for a lemon, pulled it from the branch, brought it to her lips, bit. The juice was bitter.