Pruning

Author’s note:

The following short story was shortlisted for the 2022 Grit Lit Festival Short Story Contest. (Congrats to the winners, by the way! You can read their amazing stories here.) I wrote it quite some time before the pandemic when I was in the thick of parenting two young kids. I updated it for the festival amidst the fallout of the pandemic and encampment evictions here in Ontario. I played with the idea of submitting it somewhere but ultimately, I have very little time and want to focus it more on playing with stories again. Enjoy!

It started with my feet. I noticed because I had these calluses, the kind that split and bleed and make it impossible to get nylons on without tearing them. I know, it’s not pretty, but pretty wasn’t really on my mind at the time. Well, I mean, sometimes it was on my mind but then it would get shoved out of the way by teething or snot or dirty diapers or something.

Anyway, yeah. Big, dry, annoying calluses.

And then one day they were gone. I didn’t think much of it at the time; it was weird, but mundane enough that I could find a hundred reasons to explain it away. Besides, good riddance right?

It wasn’t until the toes that I started really paying attention.

This may be horrible, but I’m not even sure when they went. I mean, how often do you actually stop and count your toes? If it had been my kid’s pinkie toes I probably would have noticed the moment they vanished, but mine? Maybe it was the same morning that I realized my flats were actually comfortable for a change. Maybe it was a week before then. Who knows. Point is, one moment they were there and one moment they weren’t.

Needless to say, I was not quite as laissez faire about the toes as I had been about the calluses. There are significantly fewer reasons to explain vanishing digits than there are a bit of extra dead skin. And I was pretty sure they were significantly more important.

So I got my husband to book a precious half-day from work to watch our seventeen month-old, Toby, while I went to see Dr. Vivani.

“Have you noticed any pain? Tingling?” he asked, peeking at me over his medical mask while he examined the seamless flesh that lined the outer edge of my foot.

“No, nothing,” I answered, certain there had been no signs, no evidence that I was about to lose two rather substantial pieces of myself. That’s when I remembered the calluses: “I did think that my calluses had gotten thinner. On my heels.”

He gently twisted my foot and ran a finger along the smooth curve of my heel. He wiggled each of my eight remaining toes. “Can you feel everything? Any numbness?”

“Nope. About the numbness I mean. Everything feels normal.”

With a nod he released my foot and sat at his computer, the back of his crisp white coat facing me as he typed away. After a moment he paused and asked: “How have you been sleeping?”

My laugh escaped with a snort. He swivelled his chair toward me, his expression sharp enough to eviscerate my good humour. “I mean, not great,” I admitted.

“Why not?”

“I have a toddler,” I reminded him with a shake of my head. Dr. Vivani had given Toby all of his shots and seen him for every ear infection and rash, it wasn’t as if what I was saying was news to him.

“Sleep is essential,” he lectured, and this time I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “It’s important you aim for at least 7 hours a night.”

I would have laughed again, but something about this sudden shift in conversation was turning my stomach.

“And my toes?”

He sighed and removed his glasses to rub his eyes. The skin around them was as dark as a thundercloud, and when he opened them I noticed the red lightning striking out across the whites. Hypocrite, I thought.

“There’s no scarring,” he said, looking up at me with fatigue and concern. “From what I can see there was never room for a fifth toe on either foot.”

“Are you trying to tell me I never had ten toes to begin with?”

He gave an almost imperceptible shrug. “Sometimes when we’re tired and anxious it can lead to confusion.”

“I had ten toes,” I insisted, glancing impotently at my narrow feet and their infuriatingly flawless skin. I looked up again, challenging him to contradict me. “Wouldn’t it say in my file if I didn’t? If I was born with only four toes on each foot?”

“I was not your doctor when you were a child and I don’t have those files. All I know is that it does not say anywhere that you were born with five.”

I fumed for the entire bus ride home, my angry sighs fogging up my glasses so that I had to constantly reposition them over my mask. The man across from me had no such problem, his nose emerging from the top of his mask like some taboo organ. For a heartbeat I met his eyes and could sense a smile in their crinkled corners. I gritted my teeth and looked out the window instead, counting the boarded-up shopfronts down Barton Street East.

We stopped at the lights just before Woodlands Park, and I tallied tents instead: only four. There were at least three times as many at the park across from my apartment, though I didn’t take an exact count. I dropped my gaze quickly, hardly noting their details, and strode across the street.

At home, T.J. – that’s my husband – comforted me while I cried. They weren’t tears for the physical bits of me that I’d lost, but for something less tangible that I could feel slipping away. They were tears of anger and embarrassment, of lost pride and confidence. The problem was, I wasn’t entirely sure who I had lost confidence in.

“He’s probably just in over his head. You said yourself that he looked tired, right?” T.J. leaned down and kissed my forehead before I buried my face into the stretched collar of his shirt. I breathed in the familiar mingling of coolant and sweat, and let my body rest against his solid frame. A month of interrupted sleep suddenly weighed heavily on me, and I wanted nothing more than to collapse against him, let him carry me into the amniotic darkness of our bedroom.

Maybe Dr. Vivani was right. Maybe I was just sleep deprived and this whole thing was a big nightmare. The toes, the appointment, all of it. If I could get one good night’s sleep…

“Mama!”

I inhaled deeply and in that moment felt like a balloon, carried by nothing more than the inflation of an empty space inside of me. T.J. reached out, but I waved him off.

“I’m alright.” Is it really a lie when the other person knows you aren’t telling the truth?

I scooped Toby into my arms and violently kissed his fluffy curls. He giggled and I pressed him more tightly into me.

I’m alright.

He pushed me away and grabbed at my shirt. “Booboos,” he commanded.

I’m alright.

I took him to the nursing chair and fished out a breast. He stood on my leg, bending over and tilting his head sideways to nurse.

I’m alright.

He wiggled and I caught him before he fell and took my nipple to the floor with him.

I’m alright.

It was nice to be sitting down, at least.

I’m alright.

I ran my one free hand through my hair as I sighed. I rubbed my neck and reached up to fiddle with my earring, but it was missing. Along with my ear lobe.

I found my earrings near the apartment door, one on the door mat and the other hanging out of one of Toby’s rainbow-coloured rubber boots. Turns out both my ear lobes had vanished. I think I would have cried if I hadn’t gotten it all out with T.J. only moments before. As it was, all I managed to think was: Well, at least I’m going symmetrically.

“Go to the hospital,” T.J. commanded, scooping Toby up into his arms before he could reach me.

“It’s not safe,” I insisted, tilting my head toward our son, “If I catch something, I could bring it home to him.”

“And leaving him at home alone with a person who is slowly falling apart is a better option?”

I glanced at the clock, more as an excuse to blink away the hot sting of his words than anything else. “I have to make dinner soon,” I told him.

“Damn it… we’ll order out. We’ll be fine.”

I shook my head. Toby was starting to get agitated, wriggling frantically and reaching for me. What if they wanted to keep me overnight, I thought, would he sleep if I wasn’t there to tuck him in? What if I really did get sick?

I reached up again to touch my earlobe; it’s funny how you don’t notice your own nervous habits until you can’t rely on them anymore. I felt the smooth skin, tracing the firm cartilage down and around until I touched my neck. I could hear them already: “M’am, are you certain they weren’t always this way?”

“Look,” I told T.J., snatching our son from him before he could protest, “Dr. Vivani ran some blood work and said he’d call me tomorrow. Let’s wait and go from there.”

He narrowed his beautiful charcoal eyes at me.

“It’s my body,” I told him, disguising my doubts behind a confident smile. “I’ve got this.”

“Nom booboos.” Toby began reaching into my shirt. Again?! I wanted to shout, but instead I took the opportunity to escape the conversation.

“Let’s have some milk before mommy starts cooking.”

That night I couldn’t sleep, partially because of a tiny foot sticking into my jaw, but also a jolting sort of worry that cycled through my mind like an off-balanced load of laundry.

What next?

What part of me would slip away while I slept? What if it was something important this time, like my hands or my eyes? The foot tucked under my chin pulled away and Toby giggled in his sleep as a sudden panic struck me. I reached my hands up to find my breasts, brushed my fingers over my nipples and exhaled when I found them fully intact. I mean, that would be one way to wean him but I cringed to think of him so distraught, his tiny lungs screaming for that soothing reassurance while I tried to explain something even I didn’t understand:

Mommy’s disappearing, sweetie. The booboos are gone, but I’m still here.

“I’m still here,” I whispered into the comforter, clenching my teeth against the sobs clawing their way up my chest and throat.

Across the bed, I could just make out the dark mass that was T.J. bundled in the blankets against the wall. I willed him to sense that something was wrong, to reach for me, hold me, kiss me. If I could lose myself in his warmth for an hour, maybe my muscles could unclench enough to let this fear go.

But the toddler between us, in all his tiny fragility, was a chasm too deep to cross.

It was a stranger who greeted me in the bathroom mirror the next morning. The eyes were mine, if a little bloodshot, and the nose and mouth, but the face wasn’t. I was missing my freckles, my constellations, and without them I no longer knew how to navigate my features. I poked and prodded, but my brain refused to register the empty canvas as mine.

I kept my reflection in my periphery as I brushed my hair and teeth, refusing to meet her eye. I didn’t cry this time, reminding myself to be grateful it wasn’t something more important.

Dr. Vivani called shortly after lunch: the results had all come back normal. My iron was a little low, he said, but nothing some lean meat and leafy greens wouldn’t fix. I was eating well, wasn’t I? Oh, and make sure you get some sleep, he reminded me.

I hung up the phone and Toby crawled into my lap with the same copy of The Ugly Duckling I had already read half a dozen times that morning. I squeezed him into me, pouring all of my fear and frustration into a gesture of affection. He wiggled and kicked, but I thought if I could just hold him for another minute these ugly feelings growing inside of me could transform into something beautiful, something as hopeful as the white swan rising up from the worn cover of his book.

I released him and began to recite the familiar words, closing my eyes and turning the pages by memory. The warm weight of his tiny body squirmed in my lap, and I told myself that it was enough.

T.J. argued with me about going to the hospital again while I cooked supper.

“Screw the blood work. Something is obviously wrong here.”

“If it was that serious, I’m sure it would have come up,” I told him, “and I mean, it’s not like it’s really affected my life.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“It doesn’t hurt, and I can still do my chores and everything.”

“Pieces of you are disappearing, but it’s okay cause dinner’s on the table when I get home?” His voice was too loud, Toby would hear him and come investigate.

I shushed him. “You’re going to worry Toby.”

Raising his voice even louder, he shouted: “Good! So why don’t you worry a little too?”

“Okay,” I said, wanting to end the fight as soon as possible. “I’ll go this weekend.”

Both eyebrows shot up this time, so I added, “I promise.”

The ER of the Hamilton General was flooded with people trying to maintain an impossible distance. Four hours crawled by before my cell phone rang.

“You still waiting?” T.J. asked without saying hello.

“Yup.”

“They give you any idea how much longer?”

“Nope.”

I could hear frustrated toddler grunts in the background.

“Hold on a sec, sweetie, gotta talk to your mom,” he said and the grunts began to rise into shouts, “Shh, honey. Look, babe, you need to let the nurse know this is serious. Give ‘em hell if you have to.”

“Uhuh,” I said.

The shouts turned into crying and I took a deep breath, feeling an unpleasant mix of relief and guilt at not being there to help my upset son.

“You go deal with Toby,” I told him, “I’ll be home soon.”

“Don’t you dare leave there without –”

I hung up, stood, and stretched my arms up toward the ceiling. I checked in with the nurse who said it could be another hour or more, and reminded me that if I didn’t feel it was an emergency that a walk-in clinic or family doctor might be more efficient. I thanked her and went to the bathroom to pee.

My clit was missing. Something didn’t feel right when I wiped and when I looked down, it just wasn’t there.

I nearly burst with laughter. There was probably someone in the stall next to me, but I didn’t care because it was then that I realized it:

I wasn’t going to die.

It’s hard to explain it, that confidence, but I suddenly found myself remembering this neurology lesson from grade twelve science. See – when we’re born and start developing, our neurons makes all these connections. Too many connections. And as we grow into adults, our brain trims them back, sort of like taming a path through a jungle of vines. Things begin to make sense, we learn, and the connections we don’t use shrivel up and die. They aren’t necessary anymore.

We all know the saying, “Use it, or lose it.” It’s all about efficiency, optimization, distribution of resources.

I remembered that word, the one that had been all over the news since the COVID-19 pandemic had begun over a year ago. The shears we’d all used to prune our lives into something that could fit into the space that was left for us:

Essential.

This was just a form of survival, right? And survival meant not dying, which was the entire point of coming to the hospital. I washed my hands and walked through the waiting room to the sliding doors.

Toes, earlobes, facial features, sexual pleasure… these were just extraneous bits of myself. They were the necessary sacrifices of our time, and who understands sacrifice more intimately than mothers?

I adjusted the straps of my mask over my much-diminished ears as I walked to the bus stop, tucking away the hair I had carefully curled to cover them. These are my war-wounds, I thought, why should I conceal my contribution?

I spent the entire ride rehearsing the inevitable argument with T.J., until the back door opened and I stepped down to the leaf-littered sidewalk. In front of me was an unfamiliar rectangle of grass, still green despite the frost. I braced myself against it like my own incongruous reflection, the uniquely jarring fear of reality not conforming to expectation.

By the time I understood that it was the emptiness that was wrong, the vacancy, I was already walking into the heart of it. I didn’t bother wondering where the tents were, the people they sheltered, because I was afraid that I already knew.

I tried to recall the word, the one that had given me confidence only moments before, but its edges stung like bile. I swallowed it and returned to the sidewalk, patting my hair down over my ears once more.

T.J. would be angry and, I hoped, maybe I could be too.

city girl

Give me the living lights
of these high-rise constellations,
and not just the pilgrimage of 
a billion lonely suns.
Give me the astringent musk
of a dozen factory workers
on the crowded bus home;
let our lungs pass oxygen
like relay runners
on the same team.
I'd rather be kept awake
by the drunken testament
to life on the other side
of paper-thin walls,
than spend my nights
pretending the universe
is emptier
than it already is.

Mom, why do you swear so much?

Because it's the only thing I've got 
to prove I'm not a child
aside from thirty some-odd years 
and years aren't quite as heavy
as they like to say so I'm afraid
my soul might be so light
it will float away before
its time and leave me here behind 
counting heartbeats like the ticks
of a clock always keeping pace
unable to remember when last
it raced when last it broke the rules
I've too few sins beneath my belt
too little skin beneath my nails
and too much across my knees
that never knew the pavement's
kiss and so continue to insist
that I've not bled enough for 
this right of passage and these
silly words increase my pulse
and weigh me down enough
that maybe I won't take off
in search of the conclusion
to the story of my youth
but mostly

because I fucking want to.

love language: a burning haibun

I love in apples: crisp-fresh, candied, or wrapped in my great-grandma's pastry. Her recipes were my first language, a silent tongue of peace; when have fruit and spice ever spoken of hatred? But making pie crusts with my mother taught me that words are not enough, some things have to be attempted and failed over and over until the knowledge trusts your hands so well as to call them home. When I bake a pie, every bite is a kiss years in the making. It gives without expectation. I can think of no purer way to love than this.

I love in apples: crisp-fresh, candied, or wrapped in my great-grandma's pastry. Her recipes were my first language, a silent tongue of peace; when have fruit and spice ever spoken of hatred? But making pie crusts with my mother taught me that words are not enough, some things have to be attempted and failed over and over until the knowledge trusts your hands so well as to call them home. When I bake a pie, every bite is a kiss years in the making. It gives without expectation. I can think of no purer way to love, than this.

My great-grandma's recipes
were my first language.
Fruit and spice 
taught me enough:
to trust your hands,
to call them home.
A pie is a kiss
without expectation,
pure love.

My great-grandma's recipes
were my first language.
Fruit and spice 
taught me enough:
to trust your hands,
to call them home.
A pie is a kiss
without expectation,
pure love.

grandma's first language
fruit and spice taught me to trust
to expect pure love

(note: if you're not familiar with a burning haibun, it's a really fun format where you write a passage in prose and then erase portions to make a poem. From there you continue to erase until you are left with a haiku)

between

Closed doors
          are so much more
                               enticing
            than open ones.
Odd or familiar,
          cherished or abandoned,
                             they lead everywhere
                     all at once.
Infinite constellations
              collapse like dominos
                               into singularity with
                 the twist of a knob.
What am I afraid of?
                Flowers pressed to paper
                                       lose the vibrancy
                        of impermanence.
Let me exist in the
               moments between moments
                                   in the space between
                      thought and action.
Let me persist
                forever in the breath
                           before the door begins
                      to open.

Work in progress.

This is the poem I can't write. 
I've never hit the backspace so many times, 
never scribbled out so many lines. This is the 
ball of yarn I'm not sure I'll ever untangle. 
The knot I've left unbrushed since childhood, 
but now it's so matted, it breaks all my 
scissors and combs. Look at me hiding behind 
metaphors because I'm afraid I'll cut my fingers 
on the point. Because the point is that I use 
other women to determine my self-worth. 
That I'm never sure if I'm good enough 
unless I'm the best and there is always 
someone better isn't there? 
That another women's success feels like 
a personal attack, and shit I don't want to talk
about this but I think we need to talk about this, 
because every time I see a provocative woman 
I hate myself, and I hate her a little bit too. 
And I get the feeling I'm not the only one who 
uses an outdated rubric to determine their 
grade. The only one who needs a grade to
feel they have value. God I want to scrub this 
off so hard that it stings. This inky stain 
ignored for so long it's become a tattoo 
so ugly I'd rather pretend it's a birthmark.
Like envy was the sin assigned to me by God. 
Some days I look in the mirror and think I'm 
beautiful, not despite, not in comparison to. 
Just truth. And then I hear an old coworker
telling me the hottest women are the ones who 
don't know it. A chorus of lamentation about 
my fat thighs. All the careful reminders that 
boys will jump when offered something better. 
And there's always something better isn't there? 
Now I've taken you down to the bottom 
of the well. This is where the echoes live, 
the place where I point fingers at corpses. 
Where I use other women's bodies as 
stepping stones to try to escape. 
Because we all want to escape.
But this isn't a birthmark.
And I don't believe in sin. 
Or God.
Or unsolvable problems.
So why the hell do I believe that anyone
could be better? Or worse? 
And I think I'm scared to write because I don't
know how it ends. I wish I knew how to 
translate thought into feeling. 
To transfigure conviction into belief.
But I don't.
I don't.

Just in case.

We should have said goodbye,
but "I'll see you soon"
inflates the hours like balloons
and softens our fall. 
I think we all know
the movies are a lie:
goodbye is taboo
for all but happy endings.
So we just pretend
we'll see each other again,
and even on a deathbed
we'll say goodbye
without the punctuation
just in case.
Just in case.
Can you hear it too?
The phantom ringing of a phone
we set to silent?
Weren't we taught that 
unlocked doors are dangerous?
But then again,
what hope isn't?

Why do you write?


Because I’ve never enjoyed a meal that wasn’t shared.

Because I feel lighter without shedding a pound.

Because all of my heroes are storytellers and if I am to meet them, I would have it on even ground.

Because it’s the safest kind of revenge.

Because taking your clothes off in public is illegal.

Because I fall in love with half a dozen strangers every time I leave the house.

Because every kitchen glimpsed through a well-lit window has a table I’ll never sit at.

Because no one tells me secrets anymore.

Because I am too greedy to live just one life.

Because my skin fits so poorly that I find my insides spilling out of my mouth.

Because right now I am a whisper inside your skull.

Because I like the feeling of my fingers tangled in your heartstrings.

Because I can make your emotions dance like marionettes.

Because I want attention.

Because it’s the only way I know how to do good while still feeling bad.

Because I am hungry,
			thirsty,
				greedy,
					bored.

Because writing is the power to turn that black hole into a sun.

Because if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

@amnotpoetry

My Favorite Weapon

The United States Supreme Court just overturned
Roe v Wade and people are mourning their own 
bodies while others celebrate. The only sense I can 
make is that line: "you're beating with a book everyone 
the book told you to love," but then I remember that 
Jesse Lacey groomed two teenage girls and I remember 
that we were probably the same age when my best friend 
was groomed by her high school internship supervisor and 
she told me he was just so lonely and his wife was cheating 
on him until she found out he had kids and maybe the age 
gap was more canyon than creek. And then I remember 
our religion group project on abortion when I looked my 
former-preacher-now-teacher in the eye and asked him 
if he was sure it was always wrong. Read him the article 
I found about the little nine-year old girl forced to carry
the spawn of incest. Read him the words she said when 
asked how she felt about having a baby:

"Will I have to share my toys?" 

He told me it would still be a sin. 
He slashed our final grade and any tenuous thread 
I believed connected faith and morality. It would
take another year before I would learn that my body 
produced natural lubricant when sexually aroused, 
probably another three before I learned what a clitoris 
was, five more before realizing it's normal for women 
to feel sexually aroused. I learned all of these things 
in bedrooms from nice boys who knew more about 
my body than I did and what if they hadn't been nice? 
Would I even know how to judge? Do I now? And all 
I can think is how much my body has had to rely on 
the niceness of men when my daughter asks me: 
"What are you thinking about?" I'm thinking thank god 
you live in a country with the right to abortion (for now). 
A country with decent sex-ed. Thank god your daddy 
is nice. Thank god you were born to a family who will 
teach you so you don't have to rely on the capricious 
charity of men. But then I remember that I don't owe my 
gratitude to a deity who can drown his misbehaving children 
and somehow retain the right to condemn a person for 
deciding not to have them in the first place. Instead
I give her the sharpest weapon I have.
Instead, I give her the truth. 

the empties

I got a case of the empties
and no I don't mean a box
of two dozen bottles
smelling of stale beer
waiting to be returned
to be filled with fresh beer
or shattered and melted
forged into shiny new bottles
maybe crafted to carry
something different
I mean the single empty bottle
forgotten in the basement
or under the patio
or by the creek behind your house
I mean the case of twenty-three
waiting by the door
until it's full enough to move on
I mean the case of eleven also
waiting because it was scavenged
to add up to twenty-four
I mean the case of five
eleven 
twenty-three again 
case after case after case
dangerously rattling for a gap
that keeps opening up 
until you finally go digging
in the basement
under the patio
by the creek
but all you find are the bottles
in old photos of your
dead grandparents and
the friends you never see
and you can't recycle a memory
so you keep searching through
the places you used to 
drink together
laugh together
be together
and nothing ever gets filled
or broken down into anything 
that can carry something new
I got a case of the empties
a glass-sharp rattle 
begging to move on
while I wait inside the door
in case that single bottle
decides to show up

@amnotpoetry