Expansion at a Time of Great Leavings
“If time has to end, it can be described, instant by instant,” Mr. Palomar thinks, “and each instant, when described, expands so that its end can no longer be seen.”
—from “Learning to be Dead”, in Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino.
“They got it wrong, this time.” She sighs and looks for tell-tale furrows, leaving the thought undone. That happens more and more. Each day her urges mature, exponentially. She ponders Derrida’s philosophy, dreams of peach gelato and recalls the fading blue of glacier ice. All the while her skin smoothes, blemishes fade, wrinkles flatten against tightening skin.
Now she moves quickly from tiny room to room. Passes over paths carved between chairs and boxes of canned vegetables to cluttered countertop, to closed window. Tasks pile undone, stale bread wrappers litter the bed, faint soap scum rings the sink. Books lay open in every room of the apartment. At deep window sills grit-dams form on the outer ledge. Swirling piles reconstitute themselves every dull orange morning.
Once a day, before the dust storms gather, she visits the small balcony cantilevered off her main room. A folding chair is wedged between desiccated tomato plants and the clean surface shaped to her bottom will be erased before she goes to sleep tonight. The metal chair is askew, startled by her rough movements when she jumps at the sound of frantic knocks barely heard through the closed glass door.
He puts a cigarette in his mouth and tumbles a plastic lighter through his fingers as if it were a coin in a child’s magic trick. They both know he won’t light the tobacco — this is just for show. It’s impatience, as if he couldn’t be bothered with this moment, one he is swatting at like a bothersome fly. He’ll soon leave, before the chill of the room can penetrate bodies at rest.
Plucking the cigarette from his lips, he spits out words stiffly, “They’ve come for Jamie. I thought you would want to know.” She picks at a frayed place mat and flicks a seed husk to the floor. No, she thinks. The cigarette is a statement of inherited wealth. He holds it like it wasn’t the last one he’d ever own. As if the paper was still white, as if it was still a perfect cylinder, fragile and solid. As if the spittle-stained wrapper was fresh and there were 19 more to be had any time he wanted.
The lighter is empty, and has been for months. She glances at him, past her long bangs, to fingers fondling a milky white edge, ragged and dirty where the lighter’s end was smashed by someone against brick. Precious liquid used to start a rubbish fire. The clear blue plastic is as much a relic as glacial crevasses; it’s as inconsequential as bergschrunds reduced to ashy heaps.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replies. She stays still, doesn’t reveal that she caught the flicker of surprise he brushed away after her response. He is studied nonchalance. Her hair is a veil that’s been growing, faster and faster. Scissors and a toothbrush rest together at a dusty bathroom sink. For a time the change was imperceptible. She didn’t notice the gradual increase until she had to trim her bangs every few weeks. Now she cuts both morning and night.
She can no longer find rubber bands large enough to bind up her brown hair in camouflage. A twisted ponytail won’t do. She plaits it, impatient for time lost to grooming; she could be reading. She wouldn’t bother at all, except she has become a curiosity and she doesn’t want rumors. At one time she could have donated all that long dark hair to wig-makers who specialized in chemo-kids and women. But there are no children, and the one shop still in business would be suspicious if she came once a month to donate, when there was a time it had taken her years to grow hair long enough they’d harvest it. It’s a shame. All that hair, wasted. If she weren’t so distracted she’d learn to spin yarn from her hair. She’d make ropes, or jackets. Perhaps nets.
But libraries are bare. There are no reference manuals for what she needs to know. The homesteading books were the first to go with their promises of lost-art knowledge: How to survive. And what she hadn’t been able to steal from the book-burner’s pyre became fuel. Momentary warmth and light, a way to sanitize water, make thin grey tea.
This visit is in the early evening, twilight in dusk, so she pushes her fringe aside to look at him straight on. “It doesn’t matter,” repeating her conviction when he swears under his breath, “Why do I bother? I have better things to do than to walk all the way over here.”
“No. You don’t.” His eyes widen the thickness of a lash. He’s polished his fuck-off attitude until his face is an immobile stone facade. But even stone crumbles, especially from her vantage — a receding figure in the foreground; illogical but undeniable. Her body will grow younger and younger as the weeks and days go by. Her body will return to preconception while her intellect expands until it will know no bounds, until it knows too much. And she will disappear. She’ll stretch between expanding and receding states. A human experiment shaped like a rubber band. One day. Pop. She won’t be in this apartment.
“It doesn’t matter?” he snaps. And hisses, “Oh, it does. It does.” He squints and then opens his eyes wide, pretending to yawn. She knows. He doesn’t want her to see rare moisture forming the sliver of a tear.
by Deb Scott