f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: "Holy Sonnet" by J. Mark Bertrand

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, December 30, 2005

"Holy Sonnet" by J. Mark Bertrand

Everything breaks.

Bones and promises and pencil points sharpened too fine. Chains break. Hearts break. Backs and arms break. This perpetual snapping, it’s the white noise of existence. Deaf to its beat, we move to the rhythm of breaking.

I’m sore from the strain of holding my forearm up for their colored markers. The line still stretches out from behind my cubicle and into the lobby, and now that the graphic designers have gotten to the front, it’s taking longer than ever. Pierce is doing Celtic knotwork at the edge of the cast, just at my elbow crease, while Amy Lovell scouts for virgin plaster near the wrist. It’s flattering, all this attention from people who took no notice of me before.

Just because my fiancé broke my wrist.

My ex-fiancé, I guess I should say, or you’ll think I’m one of those weak women who wants to be hurt. You’ll think I’m a victim.

“You’re taking too long,” somebody tells Pierce.

I think so too, but I’m not saying. Pierce smells like mint and studies his work minutely through ice-blue eyes. This is the closest he’s ever been to me.

Every so often the phone rings and I have to answer with my good hand. My smooth receptionist voice, no hint of accent left, the one thing I can still be proud of.

When I was in college ten years ago, my best friend dated an art major. We used to hang out for hours in the studio where the art students worked. It was stupid, but I always had this fear that was also a dream: that one of them would ask me to model. It never happened, and maybe I would have been too scared to say yes if it had, but sometimes I could see myself reclining like an odalisque, a center of attention, an object of desire.

Now I must be content to serve as canvas.

“Maybe,” Pierce says, “I could come back after lunch and color some of this in.”

“Move over, Michelangelo,” Amy Lovell tells him. She nudges Pierce aside and turns my forearm just so. Amy wears a black turtleneck and black designer glasses. The fine ridge of her nose, the swell of cheekbones—up close she’s like the women who grace the pages of the magazines stacked under my desk. As her felt tip touches the plaster, I notice the chipped polish on my nails and wish I could hide them from her.

Amy sketches an abstract design that wraps over the place where the cast bridges between my thumb and forefinger, then inks her name along the side. When she’s done, she rubs her hand over the cast as if it were my skin, and finally looks me in the face. Her gaze goes through me and into me, like she knows more than I dare tell a living soul. Apart from you.

“You take care of yourself,” she says. Her voice trembles at the last.

::

Here’s what I didn’t realize before: when he hurts you, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. I’ve been where you are, sneering at the stupidity of a girl who goes back for more. Was she an abused child? Does she have low self-esteem?

This is the one sacrifice you can make that no one respects.

But say he does love you, only there are demons, dark muses who give him visions of rage to act out. And there you are, available. An object, a canvas. Say he’s the only one who ever has loved you. How can you give that up?

“He doesn’t love you,” your mama says, “or he wouldn’t do this to you.”

And when the pain is fresh, that makes sense. You remember the sound your wrist made when it popped, and how you curled in a ball on the linoleum with the cat worrying your face, and there was nothing you wouldn’t have given for it to stop.

But then you lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling you knew as a girl, the hard cast propped on the swell of your hip, and you think what it’s like to be alone and unloved. You want to tell your mother—you want to tell them all—not to worry. But not so loud that they can hear you and answer back.

“It’s all right, mama, not the end of the world,” you say. “Everything breaks.”

I can’t expect you to understand.

It’s winter still and easy enough to lie. For my mother, a story about sliding on the ice and breaking my wrist as I broke my fall. I hold back a few vivid details, saving them as a response to her questions, only she doesn’t ask any. She doesn’t want to know why I’ve moved out of my shared apartment and back into my childhood room. She doesn’t want to know where my engagement ring is, which saves me from lying about a damaged prong and a trip to the jeweler. And I’d just as soon save myself the lies.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,” she says, and offers to do everything for me. I’m thirty, a grown woman, but I let her baby me all the same. She is good about not mentioning my fiancé and I am good about not noticing that she doesn’t. We have a lot of practice, I guess, from all the years of not mentioning my dad.


* * * * *

Turns out an English degree is perfect preparation for temp work. I can sit for hours with a dog-eared copy of the Norton Anthology open on my lap, routing calls and signing for packages and reading metaphysical poets. When I get bored with that, there’s always a stock of wrinkled fashion mags built up by receptionists over the years. I leaf through the oldest ones and see if I can still smell the scent in the perfume samplers.

The phone rings and I answer in that cool, professional tone, uttering words I know by heart. Silence follows, full of presence.

“Hello?” I ask.

“It’s me. Don’t hang up.”

His voice breaks and he starts to cough. I wait. The pulse thumps hard in my wrist like it’s going to shatter the cast.

“Are you still there?”

Now it’s my turn to be quiet.

“You know I’m sorry,” he says. “That wasn’t me, not the real me.”

Part of me wants to say: I know. Part of me wants to cry or scream or both. Now my heart beats so strong I can feel the pulse in my breath. The pause lasts. We sit there listening to each other’s breathing.

The lobby doors swing wide and a bicycle messenger walks in with a long, cardboard tube. He hasn’t bothered to take his helmet or sunglasses off. He passes his clipboard over and I sign for the package. I check the label and see that the delivery is for Amy Lovell. Without saying a word, the messenger turns to go. I watch him swish through the doors and disappear.

“You can come back,” my ex-fiancé says. “I swear to you that won’t happen again.”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Don’t know what?”

“I need time.”

“Time?” he says. “So you’re thinking about it, at least.”

“I don’t know,” I repeat. I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know what I want or what I’m going to do or what I’ll regret.

“I’m not going to pressure you,” he says. “Just remember I love you, baby, and I’m so, so sorry. Let me make it up to you.”

The tears break before he finishes and come so quick they blind me. I mop them up with Kleenex as best I can.

“You’re crying,” he says. “Don’t cry.”

I look up and find Amy Lovell standing there. She reaches across the counter and grabs the package, then stops when she sees my face.

“Look,” he says. “I need to see you. I don’t want to do this over the phone. Let’s meet somewhere and talk.”

Amy comes around the divider and kneels next to me, just like she did when she wrote on my cast. This time, she reaches for the switchboard and cuts the line. Then she holds my bandaged hand in hers the way she might hold a kitten or a bird. I must be really crying now, because she puts my head against her chest and hugs me. All I can remember are the wet marks on her silk blouse and the sparkle of the cross at her throat.

::

Amy’s afraid, I can tell. Scared of being my lifeline. Scared I might pull her under.

And I might.

She’s a nice girl from a nice world where nice men don’t twist your arm behind your back until you scream. But if they did, Amy would know what to do. No doubts, no second guesses. Amy would do the right thing—the obvious, rational thing—just like you would. Just like anyone would. The truth is obvious to everyone but me.

She takes me out for coffee after work, and we end up getting dinner and spending hours talking, though mainly about nothing. We’re about the same age, but have almost nothing in common. I hate her music, she hates mine. I’ve never seen any of her favorite movies and she rolls her eyes at mine. It doesn’t seem to matter, though. We get along.

“You’re not just doing this, right?” I ask her. “Out of pity, I mean?”

I figured she’d deny it right away, but instead she gets thoughtful and runs her hand through her hair.

“Honestly,” she says, “I saw you crying and I felt bad. I signed your cast, and I didn’t even know your name.”

“The temp,” I say.

“But I felt like I should know it. In fact....”

“In fact what?”

“Don’t laugh,” she says, “but I felt like God wanted me to know it.”

I don’t laugh, but I don’t know what else to do, so I just look away.

“You’re laughing.”

“No, I’m not.” I have to make eye contact to prove it, but instead my gaze fixes on her little cross. It dangles back and forth in the fold of her blouse. Not just a fashion accessory, I guess. She notices me looking at the cross and pinches it between her fingers to bring it out into the light.

“Well,” I say, “God got what he wanted.”

“You think I’m crazy.”

“No,” I say. Who am I to judge? “I’m glad you listened to him.”

::

So it’s midnight and we’re sitting on the rug in Amy’s apartment, using the couch as our backrest. Her pad is like her: clean lines, a little expensive, everything in its place. The gas fire whispers behind glass, and on the mantel she has black-and-white photos of herself posing with family and friends on ski slopes, at beach houses and on the decks of ships. We couldn’t be more different.

She says she wants to know what really happened to my arm, so I tell her and she nods the whole time like she’s already heard the story.

“You’ve been through a lot,” she says.

More than you know, I think, but then that look of hers stops me. Maybe my whole past is written on my face. Maybe she sees everything: my dad chasing me with the belt, the bullies all through school, the first guy I ever slept with (who never called me again). And maybe she’s been through more than I give her credit for. Not as much as me, I hope.

It’s no big deal,” I tell her, running my fingers over the graffiti on my cast. “It’s the way of the world, Amy. Everything breaks.”

“Yeah,” she says, “but not for good.”

“He really loves me. He’s just screwed up like me. Like everyone, I guess.”

She takes a breath, and I fully expect her to launch into the usual speech. He doesn’t really love you or he wouldn’t have done this. As if it were that easy—either, or—and this is a social issue and not my life.

“He broke your arm,” she says. “Your arm will heal. So will you.”

She touches my cast with a cautious fingertip, then reaches and pulls me into a hug, the way a friend might, and I have no desire to cry. Call it a miracle, but I feel better.

::

Amy thinks she’s heaven sent and my mom is inclined to agree, so much so that all the pious talk I remember from childhood starts resurfacing. It’s Jesus this and Jesus that whenever Amy’s around, and I can tell it makes my new friend uncomfortable. Not that Amy doesn’t want to talk about Jesus—she does—but my mom believes in all religion equally for the comfort value. It’s what gets you through the day with a husband like she had, or without one for that matter. I try to explain all this to Amy, who seems baffled.

“Religion is her painkiller, like Marx said.”

“I wish I could tell you what it’s really like,” Amy says. “You’re saying life is hard, and faith makes you forget. But it’s more than that.”

“Life is hard,” I say. “That’s reality.”

“So is happiness, though. So is joy. So are all the good things in life. There’s more to reality than pain.”

I smile. “Maybe for you.”

She hates the implication of remarks like that—I’ve suffered and she hasn’t—but we’re close enough now for me to tweak her.

Amy shakes her head. “You make it sound like I’m blinding myself to how ugly the world really is. I’m not. I know what’s out there. I’m just saying that’s not all there is. Faith is a consolation, not a consolation prize. It doesn’t make you forget. It makes you whole.”

::

When he calls now, I don’t cry and I don’t hang up. But I don’t listen, either. He tells me not to turn my back on what we have. He tells me we were good for each other. He tells me he won’t take the ring back unless he can see me.

One time he sits in the parking lot of my building and waits for me to come out. I can see his car through the plate glass window. When I tell her, Amy goes out to meet him. He opens the door as she approaches and looms over her. For a second I have this premonition of disaster: Amy twisted up and thrown to the pavement. But she stands her ground and finally he leaves.

“The ice is melting out there,” she says.

I’ll put the ring in the mail. I should have done it a long time ago. Maybe he’ll open the package and take that as a sign it’s all over. Maybe he won’t. I’m not sure if it matters anymore.


* * * * *

It matters what you think of me.

It matters that you’re there. I have to believe that.

Otherwise who am I telling this story to and what does it matter? I could be fooling myself, lying to myself. I could be talking to myself. Then, this echo, this breath means nothing. This pain means nothing. Or it means what I make of it, which isn’t enough. I don’t know what it means. That’s for you to sort out.

Now I’m self-conscious like an old lady caught mumbling to herself, calling out to God knows what to break, blow, burn and make her new. Amy holds my hand like a kitten or a bird and says world without end amen and on earth as it is in heaven.

And I, in my still small voice, say it with her.

Tentatively.

Listening to see if anyone answers back.

::

Everything breaks. And everything also mends.

Now that it’s coming off, I am beginning to feel some affection for this cast. The nurse leaves me alone in the room to wait, and I spend the time studying the layered hieroglyphs on my forearm, including the one I made myself: a tiny Maltese cross, four triangles whose points touch at the center. I had asked Amy to do it, and she handed the marker to me.

The doctor catches me admiring the cast.

“Would you like to keep it?”

I shake my head. “Get this thing off of me.”

A few minutes with the saw, and then he opens the cast like a clamshell. Underneath, the skin is pale and lined. The cool air hits and I feel exposed. I move my fingers, rotate my wrist. As the doctor examines me, his fingertips send pulses through my arm.

“Good as new,” he says.

“Better.”

The halves of the cast lie empty on the examining table. I pick them up. Already it’s hard to imagine I was ever encased in this. Hard to remember the reason why. It was all so long ago, part of an old life. Something that happened to another woman. My finger rubs at the ridged surface.

“I think I will take it,” I say. “As a reminder.”

Outside, the air is crisp but not frigid. Birdsong carries over the sound of traffic. I thread my way through the parked cars, moving at an unfamiliar pace. I run my hand up and down my arm, feeling the muscles and tendons under the skin as if they were new flesh. As if not my wrist but my whole body has been mended. As if the world has been mended, too. It was empty and now it’s full.

So this is spring.