Olivia Kate Cerrone
Building The Body
Lucia hesitated at the edge of the hospital bed as Nissim removed the safety bars from around the mattress. A year of immobilization had atrophied her limbs. Even the fall of a mere two feet struck her as an unnerving prospect—her muscles incapable of reflex, the bones shattering like thin candy glass. Still, Lucia managed to slide herself into the wheelchair and place her feet upon the felt-covered pedals of the small bike machine. Her oncologist insisted that she keep up with the physical therapy before the bone marrow transplant. She met Nissim’s eyes—warm and bright, the color of split cucumbers—and felt again a pressure expand within her chest.
He taught her the smallest movements. Every part of her it seemed, no matter how vestigial, needed to be relearned, rebuilt from atrophy, as if they were only carpenters together on a worksite. Lucia gazed hard at her left foot, willing its movement by concentration alone, before applying the necessary pressure. Heat rose through the emaciated sticks that were her legs, and with slow, careful effort, she forced the pedal downward.
“You see how the gastrocnemius and soleus move together here at the ankle,” Nissim said. Small and wiry, he spoke with subtle enthusiasm, expressing a fondness for those tiny, unknown muscles—the plantaris that helped flex the knee, the peroneus tertius that extended from fibula to toe, the lumbricales that reached between the latter—which remained essential to one’s capacity to stand and walk. He gestured along Lucia’s shin. For a moment she imagined his hand traveling up along the inner region of her thigh, reaching beneath her hospital gown and past the catheter tube.
How the old longings stirred, reminding Lucia of her former life, before the chemo failed twice and she faced the bone marrow transplant alone. She remembered making love to her husband in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, the one day they allowed themselves to sleep in after a long work week. He’d decided that the divorce proceedings could wait until she reached remission. If she reached remission. She remembered that look in his eyes, the one that wavered between horror and disgust, as he witnessed her body disintegrate, stripped of its femininity—devoid of hair and the soft curves that she’d once struggled against. Her paper-thin flesh, now white and translucent, framed blue veins against the skin. A transformation that reminded him of his own mortality, the ways in which the body could turn against you. Even with ten years between them, this world wasn’t what he’d signed up for. He amended their vows—to have or withhold, in sickness or in health. Till illness do us part.
Even now, Lucia felt a momentary flash of self-consciousness beneath Nissim’s gaze. She returned her attention to the bike machine, resenting the overwhelming sense of helplessness that resulted from her condition, remaining at the mercy of those nurses who fed and washed her, who carried her from bed to toilet, and waited within earshot as she relieved herself.
“Can you increase the weight?” Lucia said.
Nissim adjusted the tension of the pedals. “How’s that?” he said.
She nodded and worked her legs harder, as if that might somehow speed up her recovery. Some weeks ago when the doctors renewed their search for a donor match, her oncologist had made the odds clear.
“Hold up your hand and spread your fingers. Then pick one,” he’d said.
She did as instructed, but smiled, perplexed, and asked why. The oncologist deepened his gaze in a way that aged the rest of his round, boyish features. His eyes harbored a degree of compassion that she found startling.
“Because that represents your chances of survival,” he’d said.
Twenty percent. Uncertainty and risk, her most reliable companions. The options remained limited: she could try the transplant, or else frame the rest of her life around weekly hospital visits for blood transfusions—forever in the shadow of another relapse.
Lucia continued to pedal. She managed only a few cycles on the bike machine until an immense pain shot through her left calf muscle.
“Everything’s locked up,” she said.
Nissim frowned. “Do you want to keep working?”
He left the room for the cortisone, soon returning with a nurse, who wheeled in a tray of medical instruments. Lucia imagined her husband’s hands, the long tapered fingers she once loved, as Nissim readied the needle. It was her husband who’d suggested that they freeze her eggs before the chemo destroyed them. He believed once that another life awaited, even if her bone marrow would never again produce healthy blood cells. Twenty percent.
A tiny pinch diffused her thoughts. Nissim administered the thin needle into the joint of Lucia’s knee, his touch inspiring gooseflesh. A smile traveled between them. Through desire she found the continuation of herself. A moment passed and then another. Soon it was possible to move her leg again. They continued to work.
Olivia Kate Cerrone is a writer and educator. Her fiction has appeared in a wide variety of literary journals, including New South, the Berkeley Fiction Review, War, Literature and the Arts, JMWW, Word Riot, JewishFiction.net, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and The Portland Review. She recently won recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts with a “Distinguished Fellowship” to attend the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences. She teaches creative writing at the Intercultural Studies Center in Syracuse, Sicily. Contact her at: Olivia.Cerrone@gmail.com.