by Genevieve Hudson
My nurse’s English is bad, but my Dutch is even worse. Every four hours she comes to my bed and shoots a mixture of water and Tylenol up my feeding tube and connects my IV to an antibiotic drip. My veins keep pushing out the IV, so each time the nurse arrives to give me a dose of antibiotics she has to thread the needle back into my skin. She’s stained the inside of my arms purple.
The nurse tells my girlfriend she lived with a feeding tube for years. I take this common suffering and place it under my tongue like a smooth stone and hold it there. It makes it easier when she says I can’t go home yet. In the mornings, she unwraps the gauze that covers the drain in my neck and evaluates the amount of discharge. The second drain, the one that isn’t wrapped in gauze, empties into a clear plastic ball that is clipped to my hospital bed. I call it my blood grenade because it is filled with thin, bright liquid.
“Veel puss,” she says, showing me a glob of yellow material produced from my throat.
“Okay,” I say, my voice graveling and sore.
Before my first operation, they told me I might lose my voice. The fistula in my throat snaked right by my vocal chords. The chance of clipping a chord was high. After surgery, I writhed in my post-surgery gurney, surfing the green wave of morphine. The head of a beautiful man with wide pink eyes floated above my bed. Stethoscope, dangle of curls, dimples. From his perch on the ceiling, he smiled thick slabs of tooth.
“How are you feeling?” whispered the disembodied head.
I gave the beautiful head a thumbs up. Universal sign for perfect. The head grinned again and injected my calf with a blood-hot liquid.
I didn’t attempt to talk for hours. I was terrified my voice would be gone. When I finally opened my mouth, I was back in my shared hospital room. A curtain hung between me and another woman. I felt intrinsically connected to her. She would be breathing the same air particles when I found out if I could still speak. I would be skating through my opium daze when she got the worst news of her entire life. I opened my mouth and a frightened noise appeared in my ear. My voice. Still there.
“Hello,” I said to myself. “Hello, hello.”
Time is thick. I crawl through each minute on my knees. Instead of sleeping, I scroll social media on my phone. I stop on a picture of Tonya standing next to a houseboat on the King Canal in Amsterdam. She is gripping her hat as if the wind might flip it off her head. Above her, seagulls slice the sky. I see pictures like this all the time: people I know walking along the cobbled roads, under scalloped roofs and seventeenth-century facades and beside houseboats moored to the side of city streets. But Tonya, she’s not supposed to be here. She’s supposed to be in Colorado posing next to life-changing Summer Body shakes she made as part of her ketogenic diet and updating her followers on her progress toward becoming a personal trainer.
Something sad skitters alongside Tonya’s pictures. Maybe it’s her absent husband, that droop-eyed, Ken-doll of a man I’ve never met. When I probe his Facebook, I find pictures of him posing with AK-47’s in army fatigues, his bloodshot eyes boring into the lens. I find anti-Muslim explainer posts and memes of Barack Obama dressed up as an ape. The husband is military, serving overseas for his third time. Tonya’s personal trainer posts are punctuated by updates on her husband’s tour. There are pictures of her and her dog, who she refers to as her son. She does not smile with her eyes in these pictures. But she never has.
The woman I share a room with has cancer in her jaw. The doctor plans to remove part of the woman’s hip bone in order to make her another jaw. My girlfriend reports this to me as she listens to the doctor explain the woman’s prognosis on the other side of the curtain. I hear the woman crying in Dutch.
When we are alone in the room at night, noises come from the machines that have been inserted into our skin and tucked into our orifices. I hear the steady drip, drip of the feeding tube filling my stomach. I hear the woman next to me snore and groan. Her IV bag sizzles. Her moans are guttural. No translation necessary. They come digested, one animal to another.
I fart and burp because the feeding tube liquid burns my gut with its lactose formula. The stuff is probably packed with BPA and GMO and other acronyms I try to avoid. I take a selfie with my head on the pillow. God, it’s pitiful. I text my mom the picture.
“Hi, Mom,” I say in the text.
Robot emoji, robot emoji, robot emoji, robot emoji.
The feeding tube extends from my nose like a string of misplaced intestine and the drains drip from my neck. Bionic person, I think. Tubing going in and out. Non-human fluid mixing with human stuff. Human stuff draining out. Robot man.
“You look beautiful,” my girlfriend’s aunt told me when she saw me. She meant I looked skinny.
I Google feeding tube diet, and it actually exists. Models use it to regulate their caloric intake. They languish in bed for weeks, just like me, pumping nothing but liquid up their nose. When they emerge from their purge, they are thin as a sprig of clover.
I look out of my window. The square of world: my view for the last month. Pink dawn light. Cold outside, though I can’t feel the air. The way the arms of the trees look from my window just tell me, it’s shivering. People who visit bring the smell of winter on their sweaters: leaf and sleet and tongues of coffee.
I am in a university hospital, so I see students most days. I scrutinize the sidewalk as if Tonya might be there because that’s the age she’s frozen in my mind no matter how many Summer Body photos she posts of her as a thirtyish woman. She’s perpetually seventeen, always in soccer shorts and that lucky number 7 jersey sprinting down the field.
Next week, I will do a swallow test where I take a sip of something bright purple and poisonous-looking. An X-ray will capture the liquid dying my throat as I drink. I imagine the ink streaking my intestines full of radioactive fluid. If the liquid goes straight down and doesn’t slip through a fistula, my surgery was successful. If the fistula is still there, I’ll have to have another surgery. Each subsequent surgery gets more complicated. The scar tissue will be thicker, denser, and the chance of permanent damage to the area increases.
Once I leave the hospital, after my drains are removed and my stitches clipped, I will have a scar braided across my throat. Tonya has a scar, too. Hers runs along the spine. Scoliosis. During college, she would go into the bathroom stall to change out of her soccer jersey. She didn’t undress in front of the team like the rest of us to reveal a sports bra and rolled up Umbro shorts cutting into her girl belly. She kept the spine scar hidden. She kept the body hidden. But I had seen it, thick keloid of a thing snaking from shoulder wing to sacrum, in my dorm room while candles burned inside paper lanterns.
My doctor, who looks like a literal angel, comes to my bed and tells me in perfect English that he has a positive feeling about the surgery but also that it took longer than he expected and that the scars were so bad from the previous infection that he could hardly see anything. I imagine his thick fingers holding tiny utensils that can repair tissue, vein, and chord. But I can’t. The doctor, Van Stijn, reeks of cigarette smoke. He is younger than I am. A practical teenager and smelling of nicotine. His eyes are tired and alive. His hair is smeared in greasy curls just above his eyebrows. I’m reminded of an anecdote my girlfriend told me once about a brain surgeon friend who binged on cocaine and OxyContin and would spend entire weekends in the Hilton with a fleet of French escorts. The brain surgeon would perform surgeries completely hungover or high on speed.
It doesn’t seem fair that Van Stijn has seen inside my throat; that he has fucked with my fifth chakra, the chakra that if fucked with can hinder creativity, create shyness, heighten anxiety, cause detachment and fear of speaking—and I know nothing whatsoever about him. All I know is that he smokes and has skin like poured cream. I want to know about his sex life. I wish, very sincerely, that he is gay. It seems important that he own a cock ring.
Van Stijn asks if I have any questions. I freeze. I have an immense amount of questions. My questions can fill the room. They can last all day. But I can’t summon a single one.
“Not really,” I say. “All good.”
When I met Tonya, she was dating a hippie who was an active member of the Young Unitarian Universalists of Alabama. He made the best Irish soda bread I’d ever had. The only soda bread I’d ever had. He baked it in the off-campus house he lived in, a Georgian-style mansion with a sad paint job and a broad front porch that leaned to the left. He wore suspenders over his tie-dye. A boy who bakes! Tonya liked to say. Tonya and I were freshmen. Both strikers on the college soccer team. A waiter asked us if we were sisters, which we loved, which made Tonya shriek. Sisters! Soon, sisters turned to twins. Are you twins? People would ask. We didn’t look alike at all. The twinning was psychospiritual. Tonya was feline and loud. I was canine and quiet. I walked her to class, right to the door, because I didn’t want to be apart a second longer than necessary. We swallowed each other’s sentences, spoke in a garble of code words and pseudonyms that only we could decipher. I’d never wanted to be so close to another person. If I could find a zipper on her scoliosis scar and pull it down, step inside her skin and into the wet of her, I would have.
“Lesbians,” I heard a teammate mutter.
The word twisted and burned in my ear. We bought matching puka shell necklaces. We filled a Nalgene with stolen granola from the school cafeteria and lived on the sugar-hardened buds for days. We discovered French press coffee and drank it by the liter until our chests pounded and our hands shook. We snorted cayenne pepper. The fastest way to see God. That’s what Tonya told me. She believed in God. I began praying to impress her. I got on my knees and recited beautiful sonnets of prayer. I memorized Bible verses, wrote them on construction paper with smelling magic marker, and taped them over my desk. One day, my dormmate disappeared without a word and left all her stuff behind, even the 3-D velvet poster of a jaguar she had hung with care on our armoire. Tonya moved in. We slept in the same twin bed as if fulfilling the prophecy others had made about us. Twins. The top bunk. Lesbians. She kept saying how she was going to find me a hippie, too. She’d say this while she curled up against me, hot buttered breath in my ear.
When Van Stijn leaves, my nurse comes in and hooks me up to my antibiotic drip. She looks like Tonya. I notice it then and not a second earlier. After the drip is done, 25 minutes, the nurse says I can take a brief walk around the hospital as long as I drag my IV station next to me. I figure out how to loop my blood grenades through the IV rack securely. I’m terrified the grenade might fall and rip the drain out of my neck with the sheer force of gravity.
I shuffle through the halls of the hospital. The walls are painted a soft orange and art hangs on them. I stop in front of a mural of TLC. Lisa Lopes looks like a kind of saint of pain. I shuffle on. I walk out of the front door even, and no one stops me. There are a few patients outside in their smelly sweatpants and loose sweaters. The air stiffens me, but it feels so good to encounter anything other than the sterile machine-washed buzz of the hospital against my skin. I breathe until my lungs go raw. I’m so hungry. I want to chew anything, sip anything. My nose hurts, and I feel the tubing scratch against my tonsils. I told my girlfriend to ask the nurse about it.
“That’s normal,” the nurse had said, sad-eyed with understanding.
Tonya’s photos. A ferry ride to the film museum in North Amsterdam. A solemn selfie in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum.
I could just say, “Hi, I see you’re in Amsterdam.”
I could ask what she is doing here, tell her I live here, too. We could get coffee in the hospital cafe. Or she could. I could continue extracting nutrients from my feeding tube drip while she drinks her latte. I could ask her how she got from dating a no-nukes Jesus-loving hippie in Birkenstocks to being married to a member of the NRA.
Tonya must know where I am. That I’m in Amsterdam. We don’t have to tell anyone basic details anymore. Everyone just knows. The internet fills in the past. I imagine deleting all of my social media accounts and internet-disappearing for a year, then mailing postcards with updates to 10 chosen people. Tonya has seen me in my new pictures. Thin chin fuzz. Boyish slacks. Chest I’ve tried to flatten down with two sports bras. I wonder what she thinks of this new identity, the queerness I now wear on my body like a tuxedo or a second skin. Maybe this person was a secret I had been keeping from her.
It was our last night in Alabama before winter break. The spins or something worse. Cayenne up our noses. Stumbling home in the cold. Cold! Alabama could get so cold. The damp air teemed with winter. Tonya and I were singing a song by Hole, and her hippie was trailing us. His cowboy boots beat the ground like a heart. The sodium lights rounded the quad and the kudzu vines ascended the buildings. Or was it ivy. Something green and smothering. Before I knew it, the hippie was in front, and the three of us were running over the pavement toward the cemetery. We found a headstone and sat in front of it, above a buried body. Tonya and I looked at each other like creepy.
“This didn’t use to be a cemetery,” the hippie told us. “This used to be a home for orphan girls. Then one girl fell asleep with a cigarette in her fingers and BOOM.”
The way he said boom lit a match in my mouth.
“The whole placed burned up, and a bunch of the girls died,” said the hippie.
“Died,” Tonya said.
I could tell she wanted to be awed by this story so the hippie could feel like he had said something interesting.
So many dead girls, I thought. The faces of tombstones stared at me white as ghosts. I could almost make out lips, mouths, girl nose, eroded into the marble.
Who was this girl before she died? The one whose grave grew the clovers on which we sat? I looked to Tonya, and she was looking at her hippie. I’d seen that expression before in other girls, parted mouth, delicate raise of one eyebrow, when they gazed at their boyfriends. Adoration. Or something. I’d seen that expression in the way she looked at me, too. I willed it out of her, her desire. In my mind, I said: Look at me like I’m your boyfriend. And she did.
I hobble to the elevator. It opens, and a mother and child catch me in their plate-sized eyes. My throat gauze sags with pink soggy stuff, and I’m clenching my blood grenade in my fist.
“Sorry,” I gravel.
“It’s okay!” The mother practically screams.
I see a pleading in her eyes, but I don’t know how to help her. The elevator shoots up. I stand, wide-legged in the middle of it, hunched over in exhaustion.
Back in my room, I sleep the feverish sleep of someone on medical grade paracetamol and vitamin-enriched nose sludge. I thrash and toss in my bed. My roommate is in surgery, so it’s only my machine that’s making noise. I wake up when they wheel the woman back in. She’s moaning a kind of boozy nonsense. Throughout the afternoon she starts to vomit blood. I push the button near my bed that’s shaped like a stick figure wearing a dress. It means: Nurse!
A nurse runs in and wheels her out quickly.
“Hi,” I write to Tonya through an Instagram DM.
Five minutes later, under my message, is the word: Seen.
“Hey,” she writes back.
First words exchanged in years. Normal enough.
Where is she? A brown bar on the Herengracht? A coffeeshop in the Jordaan? I don’t ask.
The hippie passed out against the headstone with his pants undone, his dick in his fist. Ostensibly a threesome was supposed to happen, but he drank too much moonshine. At first, we were afraid he died or went blind because when you drink moonshine that can happen. Then he started to snore, and we knew it was okay. Tonya started telling me made-up stories about the dead orphan girls who burned up in the fire. Then her stories were over, and it was just the two of us without a man to normalize our desire.
The rest of the night I can’t remember. Or won’t remember. Maybe that’s the same thing. Wet and tongue-y. I told her please don’t when she tried to touch my chest. I already knew I didn’t want my breasts to be touched like that, like they were just a part of some girl. Unzipped jeans. Sweet flower underwear. I stared at the hippie slouched and unconscious on the burial mound, soft dick gripped like a useless weapon in his large hand. Head fallen to the side, mouth gaping, eyes shut. An off-duty guard. Useless. Tonya’s hot hands against my cold skin. I wince at the memory because I could tell, even then, that she was making up those noises. Those noises weren’t real. She manufactured them just for me, in that moment, but I still can’t figure out why. She rolled on top of me and humped my leg. I held my breath until she stopped, and it was over.
Van Stijn comes into my room. Time to swallow test. He rolls me to the radiation room. No one puts one of those anti-radiation blankets over my womb or chest. They just have me chug a glass of bitter liquid, the first sip I’ve taken in a month, and stand behind a machine. They say: Klaar. That sounds a lot like Claire, which is what most people call me.
The woman with the cancer in her jaw is still gone when they roll me back in. I wonder where they took her. Beautiful yellow tulips appeared on her nightstand while we were gone. I wait for my results. The nurse comes in and gives me a shot that will keep my blood from clotting. Every time I see her I want to call her Tonya. Maybe Tonya is moving to Europe. Maybe her military husband will be stationed at the Campbell Barracks Army Base in Heidelberg, and they will live in Germany together, and Tonya will open her own CrossFit box. Maybe she will have a baby and bring the baby to see me and say this is your Uncle Claire.
I check my Instagram. Tonya hasn’t written anything after her Hey. She’s the gregarious one, the one who always knew what to say. Maybe she’s afraid that her humping my leg all those years ago turned me gay, that if she sees me, she’ll have to confront it.
Van Stijn. Here he is. His face is solemn. He claps his hands and rubs them together like he’s got a plan.
He says, “We’re going to have to do this all over again.”
The nurse lets me go for a walk again.
“Just please don’t smoke,” she says.
Her English is perfect this time. I wonder if she had been lying to me. I wonder if she memorized that one sentence. I drag my IV station past the picture of Saint Lisa and head to the cafeteria so I can watch people eat cheese sandwiches. The words do this over again wreck against each other in my mind. My gaze smolders on a man as he heads to a table with a sack of bread swinging at his hip. I imagined myself sitting down at a table and just stuffing food into my mouth until globs of chewed bread come out into my drain. Fix that, Van Stijn. Then, I see her. She passes by the hospital doors outside. Same long braid I’ve seen on Instagram. Same pink jacket. American mountain fleece. Tonya. Did she somehow know I was here? Was she coming to look for me? Maybe she went up to my room and found me gone.
I hobble toward the door. It slides open. A hard grey sky swirls above me and snow falls across the ugly compound. Tonya is walking quickly toward the sidewalk, taking the stairs two at a time, her head pointed away from the falling snow.
“Tonya,” I say, but my voice comes out in a croak, strangled.
I drag my IV stand behind me until I reach the stairs. I’m not sure how to get down them. I lean against the railing, call her name again. I tuck my blood grenade into my armpit so it won’t fall and start my slow descent. Tonya is almost to the street now. It looks like she has headphones in. Otherwise, she would hear me. She really would.
I hear a man rush up behind me.
“Oh,” he says, because now that he sees me he’s not sure what I am. “Are you okay? I can’t let you leave like this.”
He’s a nurse, but he looks so much like Tonya’s hippie. The hippie-look-alike lifts me up, and I almost drop my blood grenade.
“I know her,” I whisper. “Call her name. Say, Tonya.”
God bless him, the man does it. He screams Tonya. His voice is so loud. It is a booming man voice, and it commands the listening. Tonya turns. My chest falls. It feels like a hand is squeezing me. The hippie’s hands are squeezing me.
“Oh,” I say, staring into the woman’s freckled face. It’s not Tonya. Her forehead is too tall. Her chin is an odd geometry. It isn’t Tonya. There’s been a mistake, but I still lift my hand. The blood grenade is clutched in the hand I lift. I wave it back and forth. The blood sloshes in its clear plastic ball.
“Hi, Tonya,” I say anyway.
Genevieve Hudson is the author of A Little in Love with Everyone (Fiction Advocate, 2018) and the story collection Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books, 2018), from which the above story is excerpted. Her writing has been published in Catapult, Hobart, Tin House online, Joyland, No Tokens, Bitch, and other places. Her work has been supported by the Fulbright Program and artist residencies at the Dickinson House, Caldera Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. She splits time between Portland, OR, and Amsterdam.