by Sherri Cook Woosley
We remember that Myra and her daughter, Little Jessica, were the first to Break. Myra moved into our neighborhood pregnant, her belly swollen and her face glowing. The couple loved the paved sidewalks and road signs that cautioned Slow! Kids at play. They would be safe here, they thought. Then, after Jessica had been born and grown into an adorable pony-tailed preschooler, she pulled on her mother’s arm and demanded a second ice pop in a whiny tone. Myra was standing outside talking to another neighbor. Myra grasped Jessica’s forearm – everyone agreed that it was no firmer than normal – and gave her a little shake. “You need to wait until the adults have finished speaking before you interrupt.”
Little Jessica dissolved into tears and sank down to the sidewalk. Her mother grew from angry to alarmed as the violence of the sobs increased. With an apologetic look at the neighbor, Myra sank down and touched Jessica on the forearm. “I didn’t hurt you, Jessica. I just wanted you to wait a moment.”
Myra pulled up the preschooler’s long sleeve and the material snagged at a certain section. Tugging harder, Myra gasped. Jessica’s arm had broken clean through, the section from forearm to fingertips gone solid as a store’s mannequin. No blood or broken flesh. Jessica’s stump was jagged, hard as plastic. The stump’s edges had caught the sleeve.
Today, right now, my husband says, “Why don’t you want to go to my mother’s house for the holiday?” He emphasizes the word “don’t” instead of “why” and I understand this to be an argument rather than a conversation. Already I am exhausted. Not by the fight, but from biting my tongue. Anger grinds in my throat and I swallow, imagining little bits of my esophagus flaking away, falling into my stomach, and floating in a sea of gastric acid.
Danny was our second neighbor to Break. An adult. No one touched him. He was the kind to push down his anger, chew on it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then, he’d explode and we’d hear him yelling from a couple houses away. He was always sorry, embarrassed afterwards. His family was embarrassed too, but he never hit them or anything. The damage was to himself.
And so it was. We heard the yelling and came outside. Danny stumbled from his house, his neck straining, his face red. He looked like that old TV show The Hulk, but this wasn’t special effects and it sure wasn’t funny. His hands were around his throat as he struggled to breathe. His chest heaved and we saw it expanding, his shirt stretched to the point of buttons popping off. It was a race between his red face and his exploding chest and then both burst. Bits of plastic flew outward from the force. We shooed the kids inside, of course. His body buckled at the knees and fell, headless, to the sidewalk. Like Little Jessica, the chest turned to mannequin plastic, the neck sealed off, too. We remember how, after, the parts we picked up were still warm with his breath.
More cracks appeared after that. Two fingers missing from a hand, a pair of jeans stapled below the knee, an eye turned plastic that only looked forward. Our Breakage was visible, scars on view to each other. We found a kind of freedom, a raw honesty, in this inability to hide our pain. Our community became close; no one moved in and no one moved out.
I say to my husband, “It’s not fair to the kids. Traveling four hours in the car to spend two hours visiting. I’d rather stay here and work in the garden, maybe use the grill. Things we don’t have time to do during the week.”
“We’re going,” he says as if it were decided. He’s not like me, like us. Instead, he’s so confident in his ability to shape and push what he wants that he doesn’t feel the helpless anger that Breaks us. He sees the physical manifestation of our pain as a weakness.
My daughter stands in the doorway. I don’t know how long she’s been listening.
I drop my eyes to half-mast so I don’t have to see him, to see any victory on his face, or worse, dispassion. I give a nod, acquiescing before there is more Breakage, but as I do I hear the static of minute fractures like ice on a pond. Instinctually, I tighten my body to hold it together, afraid to release and find Breakage in my neck or maybe in my shoulders this time. It is not enough to speak agreement, but swallow frustration and hurt. I need to keep talking.
Last week it was two teenagers. Mixing hormones and drama makes Breakage inevitable, but still devastating. Jimmy Warcol, who used to knock on our doors, mowing in summer and shovelling in winter, fell in love with Carrie Ann from the cul-de-sac. She was pretty with long hair and those strong legs from playing varsity soccer. We saw the Breaks when they stopped dating, both hurt. We thought he needed more sympathy because he had trouble breathing after. Our guesses were his lungs had cracked or maybe some words had gotten trapped in his throat and caused a plastic blockage, the tissue no longer sliding as it should. But then he started dating another girl and the next day Carrie Ann was dead. A broken heart is what we agreed on, but some said it was the jealousy of being replaced. Whatever it was, Carrie Ann’s heart fractured. Her mother said she could feel pieces hard as a stone when she tried to revive her dead daughter.
After Jimmy heard the news, he crawled into his closet, shut the door, and curled into a ball. His family found him there, his body entirely turned to plastic, forever in fetal position.
“I don’t want to go.” I unspool the words like a necklace of pearls.
“Then stay here.” He shrugs. I can tell he thought we’d finished the conversation. “I’ll take the kids.”
It feels like a threat of abandonment. “I don’t want to be left behind.” I try to find the true words underneath the fear that tells me to lash out. “I want to enjoy the holiday with my family, in my own house, with no pressure.”
“It’s okay, we can go.” My daughter wants to make peace. She understands.
“Make your choice.”
My hands clench and my jaw is so tight that my head aches. These emotions that make us vulnerable, that make us whisper when we argue, are the flip side of the love we can feel. All the parts make us human.
I bite my tongue and feel my teeth sink down. I open my mouth to answer and a small piece of pink falls out. My cheeks flush with anger as I pick it up. The tip of my tongue turned to plastic. I open my mouth and run my finger across the new edge, trying to remember which taste buds are on the tongue tip.
Sherri Cook Woosley earned her M.A. in English with a focus on comparative mythology from University of Maryland. Her short fiction has appeared in Pantheon Magazine, Abyss and Apex, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Her debut novel Walking Through Fire is coming out in 2018 from Talos Press. Find her at www.tasteofsherri.wordpress.com or @SherriWoosley.