You began with a glass of wine, thick and dark and rich, the night J and I camped up in the mountains, so far north we walked right up to the snow, even though it was the middle of summer. Later, when he leaned toward me, I heard a wolf howl and knew instinctively that something was about to happen, something deep and binding and unforgivable.
I could have stopped, but I didn’t. I leaned forward, opened my mouth. I offered him my tongue.
You would have been a Pisces, a water child with strong, quick feet. When I swim my laps, I often imagine you beside me. We’re not in a pool, we’re in the ocean, in that gray, salty water, and you’re ahead of me, your dark skin gleaming in the sunlight. You never stumble or waiver. Your hands remain effortlessly curved, the angle of your back strong and steady. Unlike my own body which tires and ages, yours remains timeless and perfect.
In these dreams, these imaginings, you are always the better swimmer.
He was gone before I even knew about you, taking off one morning before the sun had time to rise over the mountains. He said that he couldn’t live in the desert, that the sight of so much land made him feel small, as if he could walk forever and never end up where he wanted to be.
I dreamed of you that long, hot summer as I sweated and kicked in my bed, the air conditioner clinking and clattering through the unbearable slowness of the afternoons. I dreamed of you in different stages of your life: as a toddler, pulling boxes and plates off the kitchen counter; as a schoolgirl, socks sagging down around your ankles; as a young woman, your face beautiful and secretive and uncertain.
I found myself waiting for these dreams, longing for them in that intense, almost shameful way that we always long for the things we cannot keep.
I went alone. I didn’t want anyone to see my face, I didn’t want to have to meet anyone’s eyes. I lay down on that table, my feet in the stirrups, the bleached whiteness of the sheet flowing around me like something fallen from grace, and there was no one to hold my hand but a nurse who didn’t know my real name.
Afterward, I asked to see it. They refused. But I stood there, in that small room, the blood running down my thighs, and demanded to see what was left of you.
There wasn’t much, clots of blood and a few meaty-looking pieces of membrane. I told the nurse I was thirsty, that I needed a glass of water. While she was gone, I picked up those bloody remains, wrapped them in tissue, hid them in my jacket pocket and rushed toward the door.
“Are you okay?” one of the nurses yelled after me.
I kept on going. When the sunlight hit my face, I felt branded and exposed. I felt suddenly ugly.
You would have been old enough to bleed by now. To know the thrill and embarrassment of your own body. To have your own child. To make your own terrible choices.
I almost died, they told me later. An infection, my temperature climbing higher and higher as I lay in bed, tossing against the damp sheets and dreaming of my Polish grandmother, who used to tell me stories of relatives caught in the war, caught in the camps; gone forever. By the time my sister finally found me, the whole apartment smelled of blood, and heat, and when I tried to walk toward her, I collapsed in the middle of the rug. I stayed like for a moment, in that sucking, whirling heat, in the comfort of that black wall rising up to meet me.
For a moment, I didn’t see the point of getting up.
This is what I’ve never told anyone, what you need to know. That before the fever climbed high enough to blur my mind, before the blood got so heavy I had to pack towels between my legs, before all that I stood in the bathroom and stared at my face in the mirror. I looked old and ghostly, as if I had used up all the years of my life. Suddenly I wanted you back, I wanted to know you were still in my belly, I wanted the luxury of being able to change my mind.
Maybe the fever had already crept into my head because I unpacked that Kleenex and folded those tough pieces of membrane, those small, blackish clots of blood, into my hands and held them up to my nose. They smelled of blood and earth and the secret, sullen smells of my own body. Before I knew it, my tongue reached out and pulled a small piece of what was left of you into my mouth. You tasted slippery and warm.
I swallowed without thinking.
Cinthia Ritchie writes and runs mountains in Alaska. Her work can be found in New York Times Magazine, Water-Stone Review, Memoir, Under the Sun, PMS:poemmemoirstory, Ghoti and others. Her first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, will be released from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group Feb. 2013