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.
“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…
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.
He pushed me away and grabbed at my shirt. “Booboos,” he commanded.
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.
He wiggled and I caught him before he fell and took my nipple to the floor with him.
It was nice to be sitting down, at least.
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 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.
“They give you any idea how much longer?”
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:
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.