The Woman and the Watcher

Melissa Hunter Gurney

            There’s an oddity that comes with being told you might die. An ability to float above yourself, as if you’re dead already. An eerie feeling that your insides have fallen out—left your body empty, yearning, while they watch from outside. You become two people—the woman and the watcher. It’s the watcher who eventually tells the story—the watcher who knows everything each time you try to forget.

The woman asked cancer how long the ravaging usually took and whether there was a way she could make it beautiful. She wanted to keep cancer to herself—as if it were part of a dreamworld, as if explaining it would somehow make it less fantastical, as if it was a sexual experience that only her and cancer could understand—an intimate moment not to be shared. She whimpered, stroked the ribs along its stomach, nuzzled her head into its armpit, and closed her eyes. She asked it what it meant when death happened in a rented apartment. Asked it if people felt better when they died in nature—beneath long strands of willow or curled up in the crevices of oak. She asked it if it was true that people could heal themselves. She asked it if Western medicine was a farce. She asked it if she could keep it to herself—die in the night without anyone noticing. Her talking turned to whispers and then she went silent. She came to an unknown length of time later, like those moments when the driver all of a sudden realizes they are driving but can’t remember the road behind them. She looked up, towards the shadow of a neck, and mouthed the words—I’m on the left before allowing herself to cry.

            The woman told cancer the history of those words. She told it how a childhood friend and she invented the saying, on the left, as they moved into the realm of adulthood. She told it she didn’t remember when they came up with it, or what exactly the context was, but she knew it had something to do with the panic that came with perusing one’s existence and something else to do with being a girl who would turn into a woman. A girl who would turn into a woman—she tongued the words between breaths. There was something mystical about it, she said. She knew that somehow, during this transition, being able to say— I’m on the left today—was imperative. She told it that the left was representative of a place inside themselves, a place that caused fear, angst, and sometimes revolution. She told it that she knew the simple murmuring of those four words to a friend who understood what they meant, would bring relief. Even if the depth wasn’t understood, there was one person who would relate to the girth of it, she said—one person who would know what it meant to be on the left, too. She waited, but cancer was silent.

            Two months after the day she was told she had appendiceal cancer, two long months of living on the left, she was in the hospital for a second surgery. Five more scars on her belly, three feet of her insides removed, and a wound vac pulsing right below her heart. The nurses told her she had to walk today. The catheter slithered out and with her fluids removed, she went cold. Cancer was lying next to her. It was time to fly through the sky like an angel in heat. This isn’t what the nurse said, but it’s what the woman was imagining—flying through the sky like an angel in heat. She repeated it softly so the cancer could hear. There was a patient on the other side of the curtain, a patient she shared a room and a toilet with for five days, a patient who was ninety-seven years old and spoke Spanish, a patient who had a son, a daughter-in-law, and a cancer too—a patient who had priests in and out of her room at night. So, when the woman woke up, she found herself thinking about religious ordinance and places in the sky she’d never seen before. She asked cancer if it mattered that she wasn’t religious—if it was where we believed we’d go that we actually went. If not knowing, and therefore not believing anything, meant she’d float into an unknown field of matter. She asked it about the heat too. Maybe the heat’s because I’m a thirty-nine year old woman still wondering what it would be like to go through the pains and pleasures of pregnancy, she said. I never had a strong belief around babies either, she whispered. She asked cancer if it meant something. If lying in a hospital room, having had three feet of her insides cut out, no one coming to bring them back in a cute little bundle was symbolicshe left it for cancer to think about. The woman wondered if she’d ever feel heat again, or if from now on the only heat she’d feel was the heat of her own urine as it ran through her. Cancer never responded.

            The nurse was still talking, singing almost, you’ll have to walk today, my darling. But, the woman couldn’t hear her. She asked cancer what it meant to be in heat—for your body to change like the colors in a light stream—for parts of you to fly through the sky while the rest stayed on the ground sifting through dirt. She asked it if some wombs birthed death instead of life—empty sacks filled with disease. She asked it if walking was merely a distraction from flight—if she was meant to be here to begin with. When she finally came back into focus, she desperately wanted to send a message to her childhood friend that read—I’m on the left . . . help. But she didn’t.. She realized she was in her first trimester and cancer was the father—the only one she was allowed to rub her belly in front of, the only one who understood the fragility of what grew inside.

            I hear it’s time to walk. The woman’s partner was in the room staring at her—he’d clearly said something she missed while she was in conversation with cancer. Heeeelloooo—where are you . . .? he said as he put his hand on her arm.When she came out of herself and saw him, heard his voice, she had a momentary flash to a version of life where their child had just been born. She envisioned passing the baby to him and watching his face as he held it. This is the only way she would have imagined their partnership in a hospital room before. When her eyes came into focus, she saw him looking at her with pain and worry, covered in death—the death of spontaneity, the death of safety, the death of everything that comes with knowing the people you love are healthy. She turned away from her partner, leaned into cancer. Don’t let him see me like this, she whisperedHer partner placed his hand on her chin, gently turning her face back towards him. He used the voice he used when he was trying to make her laugh—a voice that seemingly hid the fear within. Don’t do that, he said. The woman saw him—his flesh, his truth, the vastness of his humanity filling the room like the song of a babies’ first cry—the palatable smell of metal waste bins and empty syringes brought her back. She put her head in her hands wanting to hide her tears. I can’t walk, she said. I’m not ready—it hurts too much. Her partner leaned in and put his forehead to hers, something they did by mistake one time that somehow became a thing. When she closed her eyes and felt his skin, she pictured cancer watching them. She asked it to stop. She asked it to leave them alone. She asked it why it was doing this to her—why it implanted itself between them.  Cancer ignored her. I’ll do it, she blurted—I’ll walk.

            She had no idea that upon trying to walk for the first time she’d once again run into the concept of lefts. She closed her eyes as her partner helped her get to a sitting position on the side of the hospital bed. The messy braid her hair was in fell across the middle of her breast and she could feel her gown separating in the back—air wrapping around her incisions. The wound vac continued to pulse, but the pulse felt more like a stab—a heart that was trying to kill her. She could hear the patient’s son entering on the other side of the curtain while her partner moved her pole, her bags and her wires closer to her. Hola, mi amor, the son said, and the sound of dry, tired kisses rose to the ceiling while the woman rose to her feet. She stood hunched over, holding on to the metal pole as if it was a life force. The woman would never forget that moment. It was the first time in her life she knew she couldn’t escape. She’d fractured a bone in her foot when she was younger, but even then she could crawl or hop out of a room, move quick enough to hide beneath a bed or behind a curtain. 

            Now, she was stuck in limbs and muscles that didn’t work. Stuck in the realization that death was in her—some kind of gene mutation—a conspiracy of her body and mind. How could death be in her? She couldn’t imagine it. Stuck in something so beautiful—a symbiotic river of power and life, a luminescent shell holding everything she knew to be her. Stuck in a womb pulsating blood and nutrients to her emotions, her mind, her heart. Stuck in a sensory being that glows with ecstasy when others touch and peruse its crevices, fondle its curves, lick its paws, breathe its scent, taste its pleasure. She turned to cancer. How could this vessel that holds all the mystery, all the beauty, all the secret worlds of me—all the whispers, all the dreams, all the characters, all the philosophies, all the empathy, and all the fucking love? How could this place I worship, this place I learned to treasure so much so that I carved my entire life around it—the choice not to get married again, the choice not to yearn or plan for children, the choice to build a sanctuary around this body, this constantly evolving root entangled with the vastness of the universe. The choice to allow those who want to come to come, those who want to leave to leave. How could death be in this vessel of mine? She repeated it sharply so cancer could hear the pain as it tinged through her wounds. 

            Her partner brought her back again. Heeeeeey . . . are you with me . . . we can do this, you know. With his help, she pushed the pole and moved one foot in front of the other again and again until they were in enough of a rhythm that she could go back—back to the left where she’d been residing quite permanently now—back to cancer. She asked it how death got in her. She told it that she understood it would happen one day. She told it that when she was little, the thoughts of death came in the night—she’d pictured a man under the bed with a knife waiting to pierce each layer and turn her into a bird. She told it that as she got older she imagined the walls dissipating when the sun went down—her body vulnerable, seen by the ghosts of those who entered before her. She told it how a snake would slither in from the wilds—the kind of snake that takes birds from their nests and swallows them whole she whispered. She told it about the human hands pushing her in front of the train as it rushed into a station. She told it how she thought about the bridge collapsing while she was driving across, the explosion rippling through the subway tunnels and the being alive for a few hours buried beneath a city and a people—buried beneath breath. She told it she thought about the plane going down, smashing through a mountain range or into an infinite ocean. She told it the sharks were a constant—piercing her flesh between coasts. Rising up from dark harbors. Tearing through a leg where rivers fall into seas.

            She told cancer that she convinced herself it was these thoughts that kept her alive. Predicting the danger before it had time to creep in. When she crossed the streets she pictured the trucks smashing her to the ground—the head she used to see in the mirror splattered across the ugly, flat pavement. It would be so much better if it was a dirt road, she’d think, and she’d walk across unscathed—traffic moving like light around her. She told it she was protected by stories, shielded by fantasy and fiction. Fantasy and fiction she hissed as she pictured cancer slyly smiling. She never imagined what it would be like if death was in her. Her feet came back into focus and she moved one hand to her belly—holding it so it didn’t have room to move. How are you doing? Her partner asked. Fine. She said. Do you want to get some tea or sit in a different space for a while? He placed his hand lightly on the edge of her back. No. She said. I want to go back to my room, I can’t walk anymore. She could feel the heat from his hand. Okay, he said, we’re getting closer, just a little further.She noticed a photograph of a mother and child sitting in a field of flowers. The mother wasn’t smiling though, her face was resting and the child sat beside her mimicking her stillness. Her partner told her to stop in front of it for a moment. He wanted to grab a coffee and he needed the nurse to watch her while he did. The picture of the mother and her child turned blurry and the woman turned to cancer again. How could this vessel, that she’d put so much into, be the murder and the violence, the death and the meal? How could this vessel be the monster she’d secretly and methodically been preparing for? How could this vessel—with all these roots and all this imagination and all this beating, screaming love—be the thing she had to fear most? When her partner came back, she looked at him and he looked at her. You’re doing great he said, we’re almost to the halfway point. When they started walking again, the woman looked at her feet, elbows and forearms resting on the rim around the metal pole, barely holding herself up in a hunched over position. I hate this, she thought, they can’t know how much it hurts. One foot in front of the other over and over again until she knew her feet would do it without her. When she looked up she could see the door that led her back to her bed. The number 223 B was getting close enough to read. She turned to her partner, moving slower and slower as she got closer. I never thought I’d be like this in front of you, she said. Be like what? he answered, his hands holding the unruly wires that kept getting stuck beneath her wheels—you never thought you’d be this beautifully human? She wanted to feel his sweetness but instead she felt shame and anger—the kind of shame and anger that made her want to tell him he should walk, not her. Walk away as quickly as he could.  It would only get uglier from here. Forget walking, walking was for people like her, he could run, he could do the escaping she couldn’t. She wanted to tell him she’d be fine, she had cancer now—she didn’t need him anymore. Just as she was about to say it, just as she was about to make herself look worse off  than she already was, she heard this loud rattling getting closer and closer to her, and all of a sudden a grey haired man, double her age with a Swedish accent said, passing on the left and whizzed by with his pole and the rickety wheels dragging behind him, trying to keep up. She stopped, looked at her partner, and they both broke out in uncontrollable laughter. The kind of laughter that caused unbroken people to lose their breath, but she was broken and it wasn’t her breath she lost, it was everything inside of her crashing together at once—an explosion of pain so sharp and so real she shrieked loud enough for the nurses to hear and come running. Stop laughing. She said please in a kind of whimper, I can’t . . . it hurts too much . . . stop . . . please. Her laughter turned to tears as the pain pulsed through and all the way up. She grabbed cancer, pulled it to her — this must be what it feels like to give birth, she said, and then she pushed cancer to the cold ground and felt heat again. When she finally got control of herself she looked at her partner and instead of telling him to run from her she thanked him for being with her during one of the lowest moments in her life. The moment a gray haired, Swedish man, double her age, outran her in the cancer ward. She turned back to see a shadow rising—maybe the left is where I need to be, she whispered loud enough for cancer to hear. 

Melissa Hunter Gurney is a Brooklyn-based writer, educator, and curator. She is the co-founder of GAMBA Forest, a community art space and literary lounge in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and Black Land Ownership, a grassroots organization put in place to combat systemic oppression around property in the Americas. Her work tends to explore the multifaceted experiences of Pan-American women and artists and can be found in various publications including: The Yale Review, Pank, Great Weather for Media, The Opiate, Paris Lit Up, Brilliant Short Fiction and Across the Margin.

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