Maria Adelmann's novel, AFTERMATH, which reimagines fairy tale characters as modern American women in a support group for trauma, is forthcoming from Little, Brown, who will also publish her short story collection, GIRLS OF CERTAIN AGE. Her fiction has been published by Tin House, the Indiana Review, The Threepenny Review, and Epoch, among others. She lives in Baltimore, MD. Her website is www.mariaink.com.
Age 35. With them absent now for years you find yourself standing straighter, aching less, running faster. You sleep prone. You can do the military crawl. In the park women run past with neon sports bras, tanned stomachs. Little girls skate by, halter-tops almost falling off, no thought of boys.
Age 34. When you’re bored you press the glowing circle of a cigarette butt into your arm, hot and sweet and scarring. Your heart has been rope-burned from moving so fast, holding on so tight. The Man is gone, replaced by a memory like a magazine cutout tacked to your brain with sharp metal. Who broke up with whom, anyway? You had known it wouldn’t last. While he slept, you used to rub little tufts of his red hair between your fingers. Once, you chased him with silver sewing scissors. “I need a lock for myself!” you shouted. “I’ll need it to go to sleep!”
Age 33. The Man has bright red hair. He is prettier than you, skinnier than you, happier than you. You meet in cafés, bowling alleys, movie theaters. You meet in bedrooms, bathrooms, basements. You meet halfway. You meet all the way. You meet crying in the dark. You meet friends, you meet parents, you meet sisters. You meet everyone with red hair. You eat eggs in the mornings, white encircling yellow, circles encircling circles. You hike together to the soft, snowy tips of mountains, your faces blushing red. His hair feels like fire. When you touch him you think your fingerprints might be burned off. When he touches you, you feel as if you could burn right to the ground.
You take The Pill daily at 4pm, on schedule exactly because—just imagine: your children would have his fire red hair, and your terrible, errored DNA.
Age 32. When The Man puts his cool hands on the slight curve of your waist, you take a deep breath, as if about to dive into dark waters. You remove your shirt swiftly, like drawing back the curtain to reveal the lie: the nearly empty length of you, navel to neck flat and white except for those two horizontal flaws—pink lines, double-dashes that mark off the missing, inset like the slits of eyes on a swollen face, the skin tight and bumpy, squeezing in, tight as pursed lips. He doesn't sigh, he doesn't stop, he doesn't flutter his hands against you in some symbol of acceptance, he just pushes you backward on the bed and whispers in your ear, "What do you like?"
Age 31. You meet a man in line at the grocery store. You meet another at the Laundromat while you watch clothes turn in white circles. You meet one outside of a diner in the rain, your hair wet and stringy. You want nothing to do with them. You are wearing something plain: a high school swim team sweater, a baggy T-shirt with no logo, a black raincoat. Anything to cover what isn’t there. The men look at you, and you look down at your hands, the bare, white fingers, even whiter where they clutch at the clear container of pointed, pale meringues, or a pocketed white bra, or the white paper coffee cup growing soggy from the rain and too many refills. Your fingers are toothpicky, you’ve always thought, a ring would fall right off of them.
Age 30. The mirror takes courage. You start high. Your irises are light gray, like the moon, like your mother’s eyes. Your pupils, wide as marbles, wider than most, like your father’s. Everywhere, circles encircling circles. And below your neck, the fresh absence of circles. Frankenstein, you think. A monster, you think. No, no, no, you think, a marvel of modern science. Have you dodged a bullet? There’s the possibility that you never would have gotten sick at all, in which case what you’ve done is cut and run before even being called to battle.
Body parts and the dead seem to float around you, invisible and heavy, like phantom limbs. In your wallet, a picture that you carry like a membership card. The picture is of you and your aunt and your mother in the backyard, bright yellow leaves poised in the blue-gray air, mid-descent. You are young and pigtailed, your aunt holds you above her head, you hold a shirtless Barbie above yours. You know nothing about your future, about the fates that are coded inside you.
Age 29. Before the surgery, you spend days wandering through the grocery store listlessly. Is this what it’s like to be a man? Seeing them everywhere, in the configuration of fruits, on poultry labels, in the curved shape of pink ribbons? They stare up at you like eyes from magazine covers and five-dollar romance novels. You get it now, that men don’t really see the shirt’s neck at all, but what is contained in its inverse.
You consider the jokes you could make if people didn’t look at you with such pity, something about making a clean _______ of it, getting things off your ______. It’s not really a joke, you guess. Really, your heart hammers in your ______, and sadness rises in your ______, and you think perhaps you’ve always played your cards too close to your ______.
You seem to be levitating in a white room. Blue curtains swing back and forth as if you are on a stage, an opening act. A nightstand fills with cards, a windowsill with flowers. Your mother reads the cards aloud, all of them, word for word, even the words that aren’t handwritten, and then she describes the fronts to you as if you no longer have eyes either. “Get well soon,” she says. “And, look, flowers on the front, all purple.” Your father brings you books, the funnier the better. “Look at all of those cards,” he marvels. “Just look at all of those flowers,” he says, rubbing the petals softly between his thick fingers. In your dreams, cards and flowers float around you in circles. They have eyes that glance in all directions but yours. You look around deliriously, trying to catch an eye. “I forget the end of my sentence…” you say. Someone in the room is laughing. “I forget the end… I forget it before I get to the beginning.”
Age 28. The stars align, misalign, realign. Your horoscope makes claims that may never come true. A comet zooms through the sky, sperm-like. Can you wish on those? Your mother waits with you in a cold, pastel pink room that’s full of women wearing scarves, hats, wigs, women whose eyes are bulging from skeleton faces and blackening sockets, a room like where your mother went weekly when she was sick, while you stayed home with a friend, almost gleeful about the free reign, watching TV all evening with a bowl of ice cream approximately the size of your head. You wait, your fingers wrapped tightly around a Styrofoam cup—the tea bag has broken, and little confetti flakes surface, forming unreadable shapes. Soon, you hold the results instead, pinched between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, the way you might hold a cookie’s fortune. Your mother’s face is as flat and white as paper. Your face betrays nothing. Your body seems to be betraying you.
The doctor is pale with gray hair and a starched white coat. Perhaps he works