Download PDF Here 13th Anniversary
Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume One December 2022.
When This Became That, short story by Lisa C Taylor.
And what was broken did not get repaired. The boot was still missing a sole, the jumper, a button, the doorbell silent. How many broken things cluttered closets, desktops, drawers? Emah still opened the door as if the door had a question and it was embodied by the man in the dark tee shirt and smoky pants. Black-on-black. She knew he was standing just on the front step though there was no way to actually know. It was a sense she developed when Dr. Prong told her she had only 5-30 months to live. How do they come up with such guesses, she wondered. Five, as in October, thirty as in more than two years? Who could project what might happen in two years? Dr. Prong apologized.
“It is just an estimate. We know so little about this type of disease,” he said, pushing his too big feet in those awkward white shoes under the table. They were in the type of office every doctor seems to have; regulation oak desk, obligatory photos of a wife or partner and a child or two in the mountains or by the sea, bloody abstract that looked like a child’s drawing though it was professionally framed and signed by an artist. She wondered if there was a catalogue where one could order such things along with scrubs and PPE.
At the time, she pretended this was one of those dreams she had as a teen, a dream where the room got smaller and the objects seemed to rotate: a painting became a tasteful clear vase with yellow daffodils, the photo of the wife turned into a receptionist bringing a tray with coffee and croissants, the children were a blue plastic toy box with a one-armed teddy bear on top. We’re all different than what we seem, she thought just before she woke up. She’d wake up from this one too.
No one rang the doorbell because it was broken and they were of the opinion that doorbells were superfluous. No dwelling belongs to one person though she signed paperwork, alongside him, a realtor and a lawyer. They handed them a ream of papers with many signatures and lots of words on them. This was a narrative she could not follow and would never again read.
“Do you want anything?” her husband asked. She mulled this over, smiling for a moment. Of course she wanted things. She wanted a spotted puppy, a cottage on the beach with a bright red door, a kayak and a rowboat, a mandolin. She wanted her body to give up its pain and become weightless but as a story, not a death. She wanted hair down to her waist streaked with golden threads. Once they rode in a gondola in Venice. The gondolier was dark-haired with high cheekbones. He called her Senorita and presented her with a red rose. She wanted that rose and probably the gondolier as well. She wanted a Greek Island she could name and populate with children. All the houses would be white with blue domed roofs. The sea around would glitter with sunlight.
“I want to live,” she said simply.
Dr. Prong said he understood when she told him the same thing yesterday. It was as if she’d solved a math problem and could now move on to something more complicated.
“We will do everything we can,” he said, tapping an expensive looking green pen on the desk.
She wondered if the “we” referred to: RNs, LPNs, orderlies and maintenance workers. Was he plural in the same way her trans friend wanted to be called “they”? Did he fancy himself so powerful he became more than one person, like a superhuman?
The black-on-black man squeezed her hand and she thought, I feel that, therefore I am alive and this isn’t a dream. But could she be entirely sure?
“We’ll get through this, Emah,” he said as if he was the one ingesting toxic chemicals created to kill something even more toxic. Chemo was like a street fight. The person with the strongest weapon and fastest reflexes wins, if you consider winning something that leaves a trail of carnage. She thought it strange that scientists develop drugs to kill off bad cells instead of trying to understand how they proliferate.
As her mother would have said before she grew silent, it was kind of like putting the cart before the horse. He knew nothing except the running of a household. He would make her omelets and bring her fresh-squeezed orange juice when she could stomach it. His work would be oh-so-understanding which is pity disguised as helpfulness. Take all the time you need, Milo. Emile was off to school and Greta lived in an apartment in a city four hours away. She was trying to navigate her first professional job while training for the Olympics. They were having lives, something one does with an assumed future.
A diagnosis shrinks life so that Thursday becomes the future when it is Tuesday. Sometimes it’s possible to stretch to another season, anticipating leaves changing color or the first snowfall. She didn’t think about holidays though she loved the pomp of Christmas. Long ago she abandoned the dogma and guilt of religion but kept the colored lights, the complicated cakes and shoes filled with candy. Out with the old, in with the new, her mother used to say when she still talked.
Milo would say they kept the good parts, like the smell of cinnamon sprinkled on hot chocolate and the songs she blasted as they decorated a tree. Greta spent last Christmas with her girlfriend but Emile was there with Leanne. Next year it might be Aubrey or someone with one of those new names like Aspen or Flicker. No, not Flicker. That was a story about a horse. Maybe Sky. She liked the name Sky. It could be spelled with an e for a girl or it could be open-ended in case the child was non-binary.
Milo had made a complicated casserole with every nutritious item he could think of—kale, pinto beans, organic root vegetables and herbs. He served it with a hunk of sourdough wheat bread he bought at a place called Bread for Life. The owner’s name was Sparrow and he had a long brown braid of hair and a sparrow tattoo on his neck. He told her he always wanted to be a baker. She envied him for knowing the secret of his life, that he could do this one thing and find contentment.
When she was nine, she wanted to be a doctor but got over it by ten when she needed stitches. At twelve, she thought she’d be a cellist. After hauling the instrument two blocks to school, she switched to violin. She trained to be a professor and wrote scholarly papers about the new renaissance of poetry in an increasingly violent society. Her dissertation was on WS Merwin’s flower references.
“Such bullshit,” she told Milo. “I make a living pontificating about the kind of writing that less than 1% of people even read.”
“You read it. Your students read it. Maybe that one poem will pull someone off a ledge or bring beauty to a student who has none.” Milo was a diplomat, transforming pollen into golden swirls and midges into small efficient machines.
“We’re all faking it,” he said. “Beauty is a bridge, a rope, a glimpse at the top of the mountain you’ll never be able to climb.”
Milo was always right. His logic proved irrefutable again and again. It was like the philosophy class she took as an undergraduate where the professor said philosophy offered a path to what would always be inexplicable. What did that even mean, she thought at the time. There was no path to get her to understand calculus or build a house or sculpt hedges into elephants and donkeys. Or was there?
Dr. Prong specialized in the impossible. He was the doctor of no hope and then a little hope. Her friend Carol told her that. Everyone has a story about someone who should have died and didn’t die—Uncle Ned, Susan who was still living with metastasized liver cancer, her grandmother, the lifelong smoker who lived to 96 with COPD. Carol’s father has had ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease for eight years. He takes a fistful of vitamins and the disease is not progressing as it should. It’s a badly behaved disease. What is it thinking, not killing him but just meandering enough to be present in the background like static?
“You will beat this,” Milo told her, making her a disgusting smoothie with way too much green.
Drinks are not supposed to be green,” she said and he added more berries and a few chocolate nibs.
She dreamed she was pulling a wagon of wood up a hill. An old man in a long fur coat stopped. He told her that she should lift it instead of pulling.
“Just spread your fingers and raise the wagon up. It will be easier.’
When she tried it, the wagon became a kite and she was only holding onto a string yet the wood was still there when it landed.
“The burden is the burden. The string is the string,” the old man said.
Even in a dream this made no sense. When she awakened, she felt a breeze ruffling her hair, the kind of lightness invented by spring.
Remission, omission. recession, succession. Maybe her body would kick the wagon instead of the bucket and float instead of trudge. And maybe that is all anyone could do, move burdens so they’re less of an obstacle and more something a person can puzzle into another form. Her body was broken. Their doorbell was broken. People still came to the door. She still opened it.
© Lisa C Taylor
Lisa C. Taylor is the author of three poetry collections, including Interrogation of Morning (Arlen House/Syracuse University Press 2022). She also has two short story collections, Impossibly Small Spaces (2018), and Growing a New Tail (2015). One of her short stories received the Hugo House New Fiction Award in 2015.
Her collaborative collection with Irish poet and writer Geraldine Mills, The Other Side of Longing (Arlen House/Syracuse University Press, 2011) led to both of them being named Elizabeth Shanley Gerson Readers of Irish Literature at University of Connecticut.
Lisa’s poetry has been published in numerous journals, literary magazines and national and international anthologies.
Both her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Lisa holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program. She was awarded a Colorado Creative Industries/National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2022 to create Writing for Resilience, a youth writing and art program. Lisa is currently working on a novel.