“Opening” by Amy Prodromou

 

I had planned for Elian to leave her.  It seemed to fit the fiction, satisfy a need for
some kind of bitter, tragic end.  But now that it has happened I find it appalling to
write of his leaving.  I think that perhaps we have been preparing for the leaving all of
our lives.  That any time we willingly enter into a relationship, we enter a contract—
agree to being left.  We agree even as we welcome the other person with wide-open
mouths.  We agree the moment we sit opposite to them across a table, bodies leaning
towards each other—then with hunched, embarrassed shoulders, we let them leave.
We do not know this consciously, or perhaps, if we ever knew, we try to forget it in
the nights that follow, when their eyes are open only towards us.  But this promise of
their leaving lies always just beneath our skin.  When it rises, like a wave, we ignore it
or  watch as it breaks against broad backs during sticky nights, relieved when it
crashes and splits into harmless ocean spray.  And yet, we know even as it settles
across our faces that it is not gone forever—it has just disappeared for a while into
that part of the ocean that’s too far beyond our sight—gathering strength.

I suppose it was like this for Elizabeth when she met Elian.  You will know what I’m
talking about only if you have ever driven into a thunderstorm from a great distance.
You are in a black car.  It does not matter what car, only that it is sleek, powerful, that
it lurches towards the future with just a tap of your foot.  Beside you, the evening sky
is still a pale magenta, behind, still lit up from beneath by the sun.  But in front of
you, you see that it is already night.  And as you move forward the air coming in
through the windows gets thicker, coats the hair on your forearm.  You have a
destination and cannot ignore that just because wet weather waits for you.  The
lightening is still far off; to your right, it splits the darkened sky, but only occasionally.
There, the clouds have parted, like flesh, to reveal an insistent shade of pink.  You don’
t know where it comes from—the sun is behind you.  But you drive towards it and can
still see its beauty for all that it gashes across the sky and lasts only for as long as
you divert your gaze.

It happened the way bad news always does. A car accident, the questions posed
but left unanswered, the sleepy stumbling into jeans and T-shirt. But it was the
first time it had happened for Elizabeth. It was nothing less than theatrical.

Carla was being moved to the Nicosia hospital. To Intensive Care.

The early-morning sun makes everything on the highway look gentle. At 6:30 a.
m., there is not much traffic yet on the road to Nicosia. The tarmac stretching
ahead of Elizabeth has a compassionate glow. She grips the steering wheel,
praying in a low voice, not for Carla, but for herself, and for Elian.  She thinks, this
will bring him back to me.  Nothing matters except that she is here for him now,
when his mother has twice had to have life shocked back into her.

It was December, and Elizabeth was sitting in Carla’s living room. She hadn’t
expected to be made to feel so welcome; this visit was, after all, for Katerina and
Juan. Yet here was Carla, winking and nodding at her over ashtrays and plates of
cashew nuts. Her hair shone golden against her black dress. She was holding her
slender arm out, the red wine in her glass shifting comfortably with her
movements. Carla spoke with her whole body. Wide, generous movements of hips
and shoulders punctuated her sentences, while her eyebrows and mouth moved
to somehow hold everyone in the room. When Carla embraced her, Elizabeth felt
the full pressure of her breasts against her rib cage, felt the squeeze inward of
her hands against her lower back. The gaze from those brown eyes reached out
to caress whoever they were looking at. Elizabeth felt there was a secret there
held for her alone.

Elian was sitting across from her.  Elizabeth was only half-listening to him while
she studied his face. His nose spoke precision.  Everything seemed carefully
placed—the outlines of his eyes straight and deliberate—looking directly at her—
no questions or expectations there.  The open gaze of having been honestly
placed in the world.

Once they had gone out, he seemed shy around her, and they didn’t talk much—
the music was too loud, and after trying to coax a few comments from him, she
gave up. She spoke instead to her friend Maria, both of them comfortable with the
intimate distances and hot whispers of nightlife. At the club Elizabeth’s gaze
rested on Elian’s small hand awkwardly cupping Maria’s knee. So none of them
were prepared for what would happen on the way home.

Maria was in the passenger seat, while Elian sat still and quiet in the back. Elian
lived out by the cinemas, and logic predicted that Elizabeth would drop him off
first, and then Maria, on her way back to her house. So even Elizabeth didn’t quite
understand it when she found herself maneuvering the car through the road
works just outside of Maria’s house, deliberately not looking at her.  Deliberately
pushing the image of Elian’s small hands from her mind.

Maria got out of the car and Elizabeth took a deep breath as Elian walked around
the car and let himself into the passenger seat. He wouldn’t look at her, making
much of fastening the seatbelt securely around him. She drove to his house a little
too quickly.

When they got there, he turned to her and tried to smile, said “Thanks” quickly,
and made as if to leave. There was an awkward silence where Elizabeth could
almost hear the condensation forming on the windows. He breathed in sharply
and she realized he was about to say “Goodnight,” about to open the car door
and escape the sticky intimacy that was growing around them, pushing upwards
and outwards against the car’s interior. Her hand moved almost instinctively to his
leg, a gentle pressure meant to stall him. He looked at her, then away again, his
head tilting deeper towards embarrassed shoulders.

“Are you sure you have to . . . .”  The question, unformed, died, but she caught his
lips just as they curled to form words. They kissed deeply, almost immediately,
embarrassment fading behind generous, sucking mouths. Elian held on to both her
ears as though he was steering a yacht, or as someone might carefully maneuver a
periscope from within the confines of a submarine to see—incredibly—what’s above
water.

When she moved her hand downwards, fumbling with his zipper, he grabbed it and
shoved it away, reaching again for her ears, clinging, steering them back on course.

The hospital horrifies her. The strong smell of sickness and its futile antiseptic cures
hang heavily around the information desk. Pipes are visible outside of concrete
walls—nuts and bolts rusting—things not meant to be seen. And everywhere the
blue and red pipes lie exposed.

When Elizabeth reaches the 4th floor, she sees them all sitting on a wooden bench
in a small corridor. Katerina, Juan, Michali, Diana, her husband, and their baby.  Elian
is closest to her; his arms are folded on his knees and his head is buried there. He
doesn’t see her walk towards them; he sees nothing. When she reaches him she
gives him an awkward pat on the top of his head. He looks up briefly with red-raw
eyes, then cushions his head once again between his elbows..

She realizes when she talks to the rest of them that she is no good at consoling.
She is sharply aware of the importance of looking concerned, but feels completely
outside of their grief, as if they have wrapped a makeshift shelter around
themselves, and there is no room for her.  Her brain quickly conjures up the bodily
speech for worry: it wills eyebrows to knot together, lips to purse and curl down.

She looks hard at Elian’s sister, Diana, trying to gauge how bad things are with
Carla, and with them all. Diana’s features point towards some strange place at the
centre of her face. From her Elizabeth discovers that they don’t really believe their
mother is going to be all right. This astounds her, because she knows—she knows—
that Carla isn’t going to die. But for now she enters their emotion, keeps pace with
the fear running in visible lines around their bodies. She tisks and shakes her head
slowly, mimicking the movements of many grieving Cypriot grandmothers in scenes
on TV, old, bent women who lost their sons in the Turkish invasion of 1974.  She
asks about Carla and hears that she almost died twice in the Larnaca hospital, that
she’s already undergone two surgeries, and that the third surgery here is an effort
to stabilize her and get her out of critical condition. At the Larnaca hospital, there
weren’t any specialists who could breathe air back into lungs, sew together
ruptured spleens, re-build rib cages, or fix damaged livers.

She asks about Carla, but she is more worried about Elian now, especially because
she can feel that she’s already missed out on so much; they’ve already almost lost
her twice, as a group, up all night, and she wasn’t there—didn’t see him bang his
head against the wall when they brought out his mother’s light green shirt with
blood on the frills.

Carla and Juan were shouting at each other outside of Elian’s room. Elizabeth
listened to them, catching her breath. She felt her heart squeeze tightly with each
beat, leaving her shoulders raised almost to her ears with the strain. Elian sat
beside her on the bed and they stared forward, faces strained towards the back of
the white door. The shine on it reflected the bright afternoon sun which flared and
waned with the intonation of the voices just outside. She couldn’t understand the
Spanish, so she listened instead to the sounds.

Carla was high-pitched and wailing. “Aiyee! Aiyee! Aiyee!” Her voice held and
contained Juan’s outbursts, his screams flooding, rushing through the cracks
underneath the door. Elizabeth tried to process his rage.  It oiled the sides of his
throat, letting the untapped sounds within him rush out in a stream of accusations.
A furious ache unleashed. Den eisai mamma!  He was speaking Greek.  You’re not a
mother!

And then Elizabeth heard another voice. For a second she thought that their
stepfather, Michali, had joined in. The voice was deep and guttural, resonating with
a raw, unreal echo, as though they were hiding a synthesizer somewhere in the
hallway. It was impossibly deep. But this voice was speaking Spanish—it was their
mother. Elian had been smoking a cigarette and nervously pacing. Now he stubbed
it out and came to kneel by Elizabeth’s legs, wrapping his arms around her calves.
But the next instant he was on his feet again and moving towards the door. His
hand reached out to the white door handle.  It stayed there.

Elizabeth had read of fury like this. She had read of sounds that goaded, that tore
up a person, trembled and shook bodies; she’d heard of fury that was beast-like,
that had no place in real life. But she didn’t recognize the intensity of hatred that
twisted Carla’s vocal chords, mutated sounds into a spitting, frothing ooze. When
they heard the banging noises Elian came again to kneel by Elizabeth’s. It sounded
as if someone had lifted the couch and thrown it against the wall. Elizabeth watched
the white shine on the door ripple with the vibration. She looked down at Elian’s
head in her lap, at the early bald patch forming amid the black tangles, shiny and
porous. She considered asking him if he should go out, at least, to see if they were
okay. Juan’s voice was now pleading, his pain cushioned in Spanish vowels. Carla
called on Greek gods and Spanish angels to help her.

Then there was sudden quiet, a slammed door and a ripple, and Elizabeth loosened
fingers that had been clutching the black hair in her lap. She whispered into it, “I’m
sorry.”

She felt his fingers, buried in the backs of her knees, work down her legs and curl
around her feet. “You make me feel safe,” he said to them.

She is sitting next to Elian on the bench. There isn’t much room, and she has to sit
close.  She doesn’t know what else to do because he won’t look up at her, and
Diana has already pressed her hand meaningfully and thanked her for being there
for her brother. His silence embarrasses her.  She looks around and wonders if
anyone can see that they don’t look like two people who love each other. Mainly
because she can feel their eyes on her, she leans and whispers into his left ear.

“Eisai kala, are you okay?”

His head moves forward in a noncommittal nod. He keeps looking at the floor. She
places her hand hesitantly on his neck and squeezes, then realises how inadequate
this gesture seems, like football players reassuring themselves before a game.  So
she puts her arm around him and kisses his neck. But it’s no use. Now Elizabeth can
see only the curl of his shoulders rounded firmly against her, even the hairs on his
neck seem to shift and bristle away from her touch.

It had never occurred to Elizabeth how incredibly intimate feet are. She
thought that they were generally the ugliest part of the human body—too
wide or too calloused, most often deformed in some small way, but then, no
one really sees this. Toes fan, splay, protrude, curl themselves one under
the other, vie for dominance (“Is your second toe longer than your big toe?”
This was the question that had most occupied her as a child), but always,
ultimately, balance.

She had always said to friends that she would rather sell her body for sex
than have anyone touch her feet.

So it was a bit of a shock when she found out about Elian’s obsession with
feet. He had seen hers first, after the first few times they had sex, when
they had started leaving the light on. She was always embarrassed of her
feet, and tried to fold them underneath her when she was sitting, or tuck
one under her bottom, one under the sheet when they were in bed, trying
to look casual. But he found them out—he would slide his hand down her leg
and grip her feet, hold them up, kiss the sole until she jerked away and
pulled him up to her, focusing his attention somewhere else.

But he persevered, and finally she would let him hold onto them for longer
and longer periods of time. She began to think her feet were beautiful.

She noticed that whenever she was shy and insisted keeping her feet to
herself, he became sulky and the sex was never as good. So she started
letting him slip a pillow underneath her tailbone, so he could reach her
better and still get to touch and suck her feet.

The first time she watched him—watched his eyebrows come together in
almost-pain, whining, until his head, hands and chest jerked in separate
directions and she held up her arms protectively in front of her, so absolutely
sure was she that his dead weight would fall on her and crush her, because
he had seemed to have absolutely forgotten she was there. But he
managed to clumsily break his fall with bent wrists at her sides, breathing
heavily across her, their flat chests sliding on sweat, making soft sucking
noises.

After that, he didn’t let her keep her eyes open.

He sits up and looks at her. His face pulls downwards with weariness. He
lets his gaze rest on her, then sighs, looking resigned and determined to
make her understand something. “You don’t have to be here.”

Her throat is thick when she swallows. “No, I don’t mind. I called work.
Anyway, I want to stay.”

“I’ll be fine. Just go home.” He straightens up slightly, shifting his thighs
from where they had slumped against her own. When he looks at her at all,
his gaze is accusing. He is regal in his grief.

It suddenly occurs to her how unfair this is. She is uncomfortable and no
longer tries to touch him. He has cocooned himself in a shell of self-righteous
pain. He almost seems to be enjoying his right to push himself over an edge
he could only have imagined before the accident. Look at me. My mother’s
dying. Aren’t I lucky?

In the time before sleep, and never when he was completely, consciously
awake, Elian saw things, and he spoke what he saw. They were /images;
random /images he would describe, or people he would have conversations
with, until something would jerk him upwards into a whimper. He never
remembered what he saw and was never conscious of what he was saying,
only Elizabeth, bent towards him and holding her breath to drown out the
drumming in her ears, would hear clearly. It wasn’t the mumbled confused
talk of sleep—it was full sentences and scenes spilling perfect descriptions.
“I have to lift it off you,” he was saying one night. And then she knew it was
falling, whatever it was, because he was saying “No,” and shaking his head,
“No, no,” then the jerk, and the whimper. He opened his eyes, and she
knew he was glad that she was there. Not because he smiled suddenly—
though he did—but because the down-turned mouth that followed was like
a child’s, who, while reprimanding his mother for having left him too long, is
happy, all the same, to go to sleep once she has returned, arm flung around
her, wildly forgiving.

“I lof you.” These were the only times when he would say it, and she would
try not to giggle at his Spanish accent, would hide her wide mouth in her
pillow to catch any sound. It was the only thing he said to her in English,
and it always reminded her that he was strongly, solidly Colombian behind
the polished, school-boy Greek. “I lof you,” and the “f” was soft, like the
“ph” in “cacophony,” not hard like “fox” or “fish” or “fear.” The words were
soft in her ear—cushioned—and there they would hover,  merging gently
into the whimpers that would come once more from his dark, troubled sleep.

“I want to go to the pish.” Carla was already unsteady on her feet, and it
was only eight o’clock. Spittle collected on her lips.

The Irish Pub.

“Okay, ma, okay,” Juan said.  He pushed her thighs more squarely onto the
white kitchen chair.

Elizabeth watched as Carla’s head kept falling forward. She remembered a
time in college. She had been asking for the pital. To be taken to the pital.
“Alright, alright, we’ll take you to the pital,” Regis, the star basketball player
had said. Juan’s tone now reminded her of him, brought his face leaping into
her thoughts. “But I don’t think you need to go to the hospital, baby. You
just need some sleep. They ain’t gonna help you at the pital.” And then he
laughed. A deep, sympathetic laugh. A jazz player’s laugh.

“But we’re not going until later, ma.” Juan was humoring, gentle, deceiving.
“Why don’t you take a nap?”

Her head whipped up angrily. “No! I don’t want to go to sleep!” She
reached unsteadily for her drink that was perched on the table, ice cubes
leaking into whiskey, sweating through the glass.

Elian reached for it. “No, ma.  No, no, no.”  It was the same tone he used
with his baby cousins who had tried his patience with couch pillows and
piggybacks. But she was strong in her stubbornness and pulled the glass
from him, liquid spilling out onto the table in droplets that widened and wept
into the yellow tablecloth.

Elian wouldn’t catch Elizabeth’s eye. He had taken to pretending that she
wasn’t there again. He became engrossed with looking at the floor tiles
when she put her hand on his leg, smoothing his thigh. When everyone had
gone and Carla was in bed, she spoke to him hesitatingly. “Let’s just go and
meet them at the pub.”

But he just looked at his beer, his features straight and determined. “I’m
not going to leave my mother.”  Then a short pause before the obvious and
the unnecessary. “She’s my mother.”  Another pause.  “You go, if you want.”
His face had on it the kind of resignation that hurries in age.

Elizabeth stood up to leave. He had left her again with the uneasy feeling of
being stuck. She felt she would be equally unhelpful if she stayed or if she
went. She felt herself to be equally a burden and a release.

Elizabeth studied Elian sleeping next to her. They were turned towards
each other on his small single bed.  She absently smoothed down the
worn threads of the coloured sheet between them, looming large in her
line of vision, so that she could see him better. A few wisps of black hair
hung from his forehead, like jagged teeth, incisor-like. His eyebrows were
thick, spreading unevenly, like clinging strips of dark carpet. She imagined
his eyes opening to look at her—deeply black, expecting— promising
nothing.

She knew his face well enough to know that only the right eye had bags
underneath it.  Above, an inverted crescent cradled the eye, outlining it, a
punctuation mark for this window to the soul.  His nose was a sure slope
pointing forward, reaching beyond to something he was perhaps unaware
of.  Honest nostrils—a generous curve to them.  In sleep his mouth was
caught, suspended slightly open, as if in mid-sentence, or as if he’d
stopped himself from saying something. She could see the outline of two
teeth beneath the top slackened lip, squarely centering the mouth. His
top lip stretched upwards and parted in the middle, forming a “V” framed
by just a spattering of black stubble. The lower lip drooped, hanging
heavy in the middle, a shadow that came from being too often
disappointed. The chin added flesh to an angular jaw, embedding a soft
black patch of hair at its centre. But the cheeks were what gave the face
its generosity, softening the angles, cushioning cheekbones protruding
from within, the silent insistence left over from an almost-forgotten
American Indian heritage.

When he did open his eyes, the look was immediately inviting before that
first push of consciousness. Almost completely open but for that catch,
that split second of mistrust—resisting being studied so closely in his
sleep. His lips curved further downwards. When his eyes closed again,
she knew it was for his own protection.

Elian hovers near the doors that lead into the critical ward. He is anxious
and fluttering, his head strains forward to see into the secret rooms
beyond. He has forgotten to remove the blue sanitary bags puffing out
around his black trainers. He is pierced with a new energy now that he
has peered around the old white painted wooden doors to glimpse his
mother. He brings the restlessness with him as he comes back to sit down
next to her, static electric charging the very follicles of his hair. He pulls
the blue bags off of his shoes with a snap.

The wooden doors push outwards and the surgeon, dressed in blue,
adjusts his face to carefully reveal nothing as he makes his way towards
the group huddled on the bench. He addresses Diana. “We’re going to
have to wheel your mother out through here to take her to the operating
room.”

Diana’s face muscles click with this new information, jerked out of the
passive strain of waiting for hours with no news. “Is she going to be
okay?”

Again the doctor is non-committal. “We’ll know more after the operation.”
He seems like a man used to relying on the economy of language to
disentangle himself from the black-hole pressure of other people’s needs.
He turns his back quickly to Diana before she can form her next question.
It takes only a second for the wooden doors to close behind him.

The good thing is that Carla is no longer in critical condition. She can be
moved. She can be wheeled. But in the wheeling, Elizabeth sees them all
line up to watch her, feels a piece of themselves separate and follow her
along the metal sides of the hospital bed.  She knows it isn’t a good idea
for Elian to see her.  She has tried to distract him, feed him. But she’s
feeble against this new need in him, this straining to climb into his
mother’s body.  Elizabeth tries not to look at Carla, but the blue and
purple skin holding her swelling eyes, the red jags across her forehead,
the sinking sheet over what she knows to be a full and rolling chest, hold
her mesmerized. The sound that comes from Elian is small—a catch in his
throat—only the beginning of his silent protest.

She has made it through the operation, and they can see her.  Elizabeth
sees Elian’s family hastily form and shuffle around what is to her an
unknown hierarchy as they wait in turns to see their mother. Elizabeth will
be last.  She wants to be last, to have the time to quench the nausea
rising in her throat, to loosen the tightening of stomach muscles.  She
cannot wait for Elian to see her, but he is fifth on the list. She knows that
when he sees that she is okay, he will come back to her.  She waits for
him to let her near, know it will come soon.

When he comes out of her ward he is visibly lighter. The dark circles in the
thinning skin around his eyes have lifted.  He smiles at Diana and they
hug for a long time.  Elizabeth watches the skin on his cheeks wrinkle
above his sister’s shoulder, sees the white patch among black hair as he
bends forward.  She waits to catch the smile with her own lips throbbing
from the strain of the last half-day. But when he straightens up, he walks
stiffly towards her; the smile fades.  She is not allowed in his joy.

She wonders what had happened to them between this moment and the
time when the airbags opened up to crush Carla’s ribs?

Elian asks her if she wants to see his mother and comes in with her.  They
bend together; the blue bags snap and close about their ankles.  He
stands by to let her go in first, and she is surprised by how beautiful Carla
looks.  She is propped up on white pillows, her golden hair tousled, but
splayed around her head like a halo. Her brown eyes have a softness to
them, a depth, an echo of the secret Elizabeth once saw there.  She is
pink, the gash above her head subdued now and almost cosmetic-
looking.  She reaches for Elizabeth’s hand, and Elian’s, and they sit on
either side of her bed, her legs small mounds of white between them.
She holds them together with bruised arms tracking blue up their sides.
She cannot speak, but looks at both of them, this glowing woman freshly
back from heaven.  Elizabeth turns to Elian, filled with the hope that
speaks from Carla’s skin, about to tell him she can’t believe how beautiful
. . . but the words freeze on her jaw as she sees the look.  She knows the
half-smile is for Carla.  And that he will not tell her just yet.

When Carla takes her hand away to reach for her neck, Elizabeth sees
how her head strains to one side, sees her try to pull away from the
plastic tube embedded there.

The final blow will be when he cannot bear to come home with her. When
Elizabeth will sit, for a moment, in her car, and see them all leaving
together. Juan will have his arm carelessly around Katerina, and Elian will
walk self-consciously beside them. Diana will follow, a little behind, hoist
her baby further up on her hip. They might share a joke, a moment of
relief brought about by the good news. Their mother will live. And
Elizabeth will watch them walk across the car park, silhouetted against
dirty hospital walls. She’ll see in the flap of Elian’s hair a breeze that can
mellow impossible grief and smooth blue lines of pain lying just beneath
our skin.

 

Amy Prodromou graduated from the University of Bridgeport where she received the Award for Excellence in Creative Writing. She is third-time graduate winner of the annual Southern Connecticut State University Graduate Fiction Contest (2000-2002). She has been published in some small magazines, such as Cadences: A Literary Journal of the Arts in Cyprus, and most recently in peer-reviewed e-journal EAPSU: An Online Journal of Critical and Creative Writing.  She has a Masters of Letters in Creative Writing (University of Sydney, 2005) and is working on a novel.

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