Friday 21 January 2022

The Half-Life of Life


by A.E. Guinn

Spanish coffee

When Vivian was in medical school she was taught to suture. She had liked the surgical rotation in general, recognizing in its discipline and precision her own mental tidiness and desire for order.  Her fellows in the rotation also prized surgery; it was the glory field, famed for luring the best, most competitive students.  But with surgery came suturing and most of them hated it, impatient with what they considered scut work that they would eventually be allowed to delegate.  Vivian liked suturing though, and practiced by repairing the frayed edges of the expensive Pratesi sheets her mother had given her as a graduation present when she finished university. She didn’t mind that the silk that she had bought to practice with was black or that it stood out on the pristine white edges of her sheets. Its darkness allowed her to gauge the length and spacing of each stitch and was a reminder, as she stood hunched over the table upon which she had laid out her mother’s gift, that she should value the piercing, the closing, the necessity of the scar.


 Natalie, Vivian’s wife, is the Mark Dana fellow in microbiology at the hospital where Vivian is the Associate Director. They laugh that they both deal with shit, just at different ends of the spectrum. They are a power couple − everyone says so − energetic, respected, and secure.



When Natalie becomes ill, Vivian finds the situation absurd. As she goes with Natalie to her appointments and comforts her as her prognosis becomes increasingly grave, Vivian feels nonplussed, as though the constituents of Natalie’s situation were transposed. Natalie is a healer, not a patient, an agent of life, not a vessel of decay.  

     Occasionally, when she can’t stand her grief, Vivian goes down to the lab and sits among the objects that Natalie loves, gazing at the microscope, the racks of tubes, and the machines, and tries to find Natalie there.  She longs to stay in the lab, to sit at the microscope and retreat to a world where events aren’t capricious, where she is confident and calm moment by moment. How comforting it would be, she thinks, to be small, to slip inside the eyepiece, to compress into a molecule of herself and climb down a twisted strand of Natalie’s DNA, rung by rung, until she finds a place where she can cling and rest and eventually be absorbed.


When she was hired by St. Martin’s, Vivian hadn’t believed that she could fall in love with a woman or that she was capable of the high emotions that have characterized their life together. But her love for Natalie had unfurled as if conjured. It had spilled out of her unexpectedly like a magician’s scarf, silky and knotted and endless. She hadn’t known it was hidden in her sleeve. Natalie had summoned it, bent over her in their bed, whispering into her ear the dark secret words that had pulled it from her. Natalie had awakened it and now Vivian trusts that it will hold fast, even when Natalie lets go.


Since Natalie’s relapse, Vivian has become a more intense lover. When they make love, she longs to get into Natalie’s body with her. It’s not that she wants to penetrate her in the traditional sense, but that she wants to enter her bloodstream and share her flesh. She kisses Natalie more deeply and frequently, presses her weight onto her, reinitiating lovemaking immediately after they have climaxed. She grasps Natalie’s hands, her buttocks. If they have broken eye contact for too long, she searches for Natalie’s face, her eyes conveying what she thinks her arousal or caresses cannot. She strains to press their bodies together in a way that she thinks will conjoin them. Each time they part, the realization that she cannot cure Natalie by loving her rises like a poisonous gas. They cannot see through it, nor hide, nor breathe.


Natalie looks in the bed like a ripple in a bank of snow. Her bedclothes are immaculate and smooth; she appears to have drifted up under the blankets instead of having been laid there.  Though her body is angular, it creates no angles. There is only a soft draping, an eddying, and a shallow gathering and sifting as her chest rises and falls.

     The lights in her room are dimmed, but it is not dark. The monitors light the bed and throw shadows into the bare corners. Wires and tubes connect to her arms, her chest, and her nose, and they spoil the pristine hills of cotton. The chirping of the infuser has been quieted at Vivian’s request.

     It’s been days since Natalie’s been conscious. Nonetheless, Vivian sits with her in the evenings, often reading to her from the medical journals that are starting to collect on the kitchen table. It’s too much, thinks Vivian as she lets the journal drop into her lap. I cannot bear it.



Vivian finally picks up their laundry and there, nestled between her suits and blouses is a new lab coat she had bought for Natalie, stiff with the extra sizing that Vivian ordered for her. She leans in to smell it, the starch and hot-iron smell evoking Natalie’s chiding about the uselessness of starching something that will inevitably be soiled and wilted by the end of the day. She imagines pulling apart the pressed-together sleeves and popping the shoulders so that were she to shrug it on, the coat would lie in crisp and professional drapes, Natalie’s inner self reflected casually in this outward display that is reproduced a hundred times in the coats of the hospital’s doctors and technicians.

     When she hangs the coat in her closet, Vivian gives it pride of place, and every day when she pulls out her clothing, she touches its sleeve, trying to catch on her fingers its scent, which doesn’t linger for more than a second.


Looking back on it later, Vivian marvels that the pivot point of her life lasted just a few seconds. It was such a small hinge, she thinks, that moment when she acknowledged that Natalie would actually die, a small hinge that swung open a terrible door. And now, every day, no matter what she does, the door is open and she steps through it.


Vivian sits in the dark watching the lights on the medical equipment. Machines note Natalie’s blood pressure and blood oxygen level, record her heart rate and rhythm, pump oxygen through a tube into her failing lungs, administer precise doses of pain medication. Red and green lights on little tan machines, marking everything down.

     All of this data, she thinks bitterly, and not a bit of it reflects the truth about Natalie. Where’s the machine that records her loyalty or her empathy? Her sweetness, her wit, her fucking goodness? Any resident with the right clearance can look at a file that charts her resting heart rate, but who will open that file and see her heart? How brave, how smart, how loving, how generous she is? The things that make her the only one, the only one of her? Vivian is outraged. A lifetime of study and devotion, and for what?  For the first time, she hates the science.



She hates her desk, her assistant, her windows, her good shoes. She hates that she is as competent and diligent as an administrator as she had been as a surgeon and that she must divert her full attention from healing Natalie to the dozen other projects and labs that she supervises. It pulls at her, this divided attention, like brooding a cowbird egg while her own baby withers and starves. As she flies about to secure funding, checks Natalie’s lab to see how they are faring without her, consults with the doctors who manage Natalie’s care, and supervises programs and clinics from her office, she searches far afield to find any bit of research that might help nourish the chick. But despite her faithful efforts, her little redbird is getting weaker, and no matter how many times Vivian flies home to warm and feed her, Natalie will no longer open her mouth.


No one but Vivian is present to tell Natalie goodbye. She sits beside the bed, silent and still, holding Natalie’s cool hand in her warm one, and begs, over and over, for one more moment. She feels as though she should be doing something to ease Natalie’s way, speaking to her or singing, stroking her arm or smoothing what is left of her hair. But she can’t. She is immobilized by the feeling that she herself is about to die and that Natalie will be left alone.


     Vivian buries Natalie in an old cemetery that has statuary − angels and lambs, urns − instead of in-ground stones. She goes, at first, every few days and watches as the grass on the grave begins to heal. The groundskeepers had stripped it off in two large rolls and when the interment was complete, laid it back down so that it could re-root. In a couple of weeks there will be no scar and Vivian will find something else to focus on while she waits for Natalie’s headstone to be installed.

     Instead of being numbed by the death, she is vigilant, hyper-alert. It is its own suffering to be so aware. It’s like endlessly anticipating the other shoe, a shoe that doesn’t exist. She goes back to the hospital almost immediately, and strangely, doesn’t think much of Natalie; she concentrates on inconsequential things. There are men hammering in the new wing. There is a scratch on her laptop. These things sting her awake. They swarm and pierce, heralds of acceptance. They speak of the quotidian, of solitude, and of a thousand other things that bite and buzz.



     Vivian sits on the edge of her bed, unable to draw up her legs and lie down. She hesitates each night before pulling back the bedding, pausing to touch the memory of her pale lover on the cool sheets. These memories are rubbed smooth now from so much caressing, but she says her little rosary anyway: Natalie resting on her breast; Natalie arched beneath her in a wanton’s bow; Natalie offering herself like a cup, to be filled and lost. They had been supplicants here, their mystery unfolding as flesh was joined, exploded, and resurrected on this white and fragrant field. But the bed is only an object now, like a pin or her keys; she no longer enters it with any reverence. There will be no communion, no salvation, no transubstantiation of love into flesh. It is only an abandoned altar upon which she lies and prays for silence.

     She turns to pull down the sheet but tonight she cannot manage it. She gets no farther than the sutured edge and turns back. Perhaps she will dream of Natalie, she thinks; perhaps the dream will be good. Perhaps she won’t dream at all, which will ease the morning. No matter. What is torn in her cannot be mended. She will always be an unraveled thing, hunched over Natalie’s memory, binding up her edges with precise black stitches made by her own hand.

About the author

A.E. Guinn is a woman of a certain age who is devoted to a good meal, a good book, and a healthy houseplant. She holds an MFA from Randolph College, and would rather write than anything else. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with her wife and elderly cat. 


No comments:

Post a Comment