High Desert

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Fiction by Ramona Ausubel from her recent collection, Awayland (Riverhead Books, March 2018).


Two thousand years after her people left Jerusalem and eighty years after they left Turkey and fifty years after they left Poland and twenty-​nine years after the death of her daughter, the woman walks down the desert road and she feels her body letting go of her.

She is not dying. She is not sick, even. Her body is detaching itself. In fact it is just that her uterus is heavy and falling, but she feels like her body is untying the knots and setting off. The sky is rich blue, clouds puffed, the dirtroad dusts her shoes. She looks up at the mountains, the open sky.

The doctor’s secretary says to come on in. Each step the woman feels the falling thing. “Get back in there,” she whispers. “There is no place else to go, I’m sorry to tell you.”

“You aren’t dying,” the doctor says.

“Yes I am,” she tells him. “So are you.”

“Ha,” he says, “ha.”

“Anyway,” the woman prompts him.

“It’s not a big deal. Your uterus is falling, is all. It’s gravity, our old friend.”

“What do we do about it?”

“You won’t need it, I’m guessing?”

“How many women live in your house?” she asks him.

“Plenty, I guess. How many do we need? One is enough.”

~

The woman had a husband and she had a daughter and they lived on an island in the Caribbean and it’s possible to remember that time as good, easily and simply good. There was lobster and sun and the husband worked in a shop and the daughter went to school and every Friday they lit candles and put their hands on the same kind of bread while the rest of the country waited to pray until Sunday. It was good because it could have gone a different way. Because the parents of the woman and her husband had died and the uncles of the woman and her husband had died and the towns where they had been born were entirely emptied of Jews. But these two did not die and they crossed the ocean when they were still children and they were welcomed to this island and they grew up and met and fell in love and married and worked and had a baby and all they had to do was never look too far east.

But then this daughter, this girl, she went to the beach one day when she was fifteen and she did not come back. Her friends said it was a wave. The sea swallowed her up into its blue blue blue. The sea was hungry, or the gods of the sea were and they never spit the girl back out. There were searches by air and by boat and on land but the woman knew from the moment she heard the news that the girl would not be found. And when she wasn’t, the husband swam out, too, and let the sea claim him and the woman took a bag of things and set out to find a desert.

~

The doctor’s office features photographs he took himself of Machu Picchu, Ayers Rock, the Great Wall of China. He is wearing a huge turquoise bracelet and his arms are tan. He sees her looking at the photos and says, “There is nowhere like New Mexico, though. We are so lucky to live here.” The woman lives here because it is dry and far above sea level, but she admits that it is beautiful.

“We have two choices,” the doctor tells the woman while she lies down, feet in stirrups, legs up, waiting. “We fashion a kind of plug, made to fit you, which pins the uterus back up inside. You come in once a month and I clean the plug and replace it.”

“That sounds dreamy. I guess we get a lot of chances to get me in this position.”

“Oh, there is no need to feel embarrassed. I do this all day.”

“Option two?”

“Option two, we take the thing out. The whole apparatus.”

Apparatus, the woman thinks. As if it were rusted screws and oxidized iron.

The woman does not want to go home after her appointment so she takes the bus to the mall. She has no intention of buying anything. Unless there are any deals on practical handbags. She needs no more of these, has not needed more for decades. She has many small, sturdy purses with useful pockets nested in her closet. She does not buy them so much as adopts them.

On sale instead are bright lacy panties. Not cotton like she wears. She holds lime-green thong underwear in her hand. They are 75 percent off, today only. They look fertile to her and she finds herself wanting them, needing them, for the possibility of love more than the love itself. She takes four pairs to the counter.

“OK,” the saleslady says, “panties!”

Thinking of sex and fertility and bodies, the woman says, “People are probably having babies today.”

“I bet you’re right.”

“And dying.”

“OK,” the saleslady says, stuck now in a conversation she was not trained for. “Well, here are your panties. I hope you have fun with your panties. I hope you have a blessed day.”

~

The woman stands on the corner outside the mall and unbuttons her coat. Who knows what time of year it is on a day like this. The problem is not her affliction, which is painless and possible to remedy. The problem is that her body was once a house where her daughter lived. The problem is that the two of them lived there together. The room her daughter occupied, the room where she swam—it’s impossible for the woman to forget this fact, that her girl was a swimmer first—has been a silent comfort. All these years she has carried the tiny inland sea her daughter swam in. Thinking of it this way makes it more possible to survive against the real sea with the girl in it.

Three teenage girls approach in short skirts, and though it is a nice day for this time of year, it isn’t that nice a day. There is nowhere to go in this town, nothing to do, and the woman feels sorry for these girls who just want to take their young selves out and be seen. The woman studies their faces, just like she has studied every face of every girl in case it is her girl, in case her daughter has found her way home. Her daughter would have been forty-four now, but it is the faces of fifteen-year-olds that the woman always looks at.

“Here, have a pair of panties,” the woman says to one of the teenagers as the group passes. The girl does not take the panties. “Please,” the woman says, “take them from me. Nothing is wrong with them. Everything is going to be fine.”

“Fucking weirdo,” says the teenager, and goes on.

People want to buy things, but they do not want things for free. People do not know how to accept a gift.

~

The woman gets on the bus and looks out the window. A purple bruise of a storm darkens twenty miles away and the woman watches it move across the juniper and piñon. She knows she will be able to smell the rain long before it arrives. The old woman looks over a pamphlet given to her by the nurse. On the cover is a pencil-drawn picture, like an art-class sketch, of a naked woman with all her anatomy visible. The person, as these people always are, is standing with her arms a few inches away from her hips, her palms out. She looks like she is waiting to be saved, to be taken up to heaven or to dive from a great distance into a deep sea.

Above her are the words “Your Happy Hysterectomy!” Inside are facts.

One in three women in the United States has a hysterectomy by age 60!

It’s the second-most common surgery for women after the C‑section!

The hysterectomy can either be completed by making an incision through the abdomen or by going in vaginally!

If it’s possible to go in vaginally, the recovery time can be less than two weeks!

Having the uterus removed before menopause has greater side effects!

Ask your doctor about hysterectomy!

The woman puts the brochure down on her lap. The rainstorm is still far away. What are you so worried about? she asks her impatient body. We’re Jewish, did you even know that? We don’t have a heaven. We have Israel, but it’s easy to die there and it’s hot. They would like to think that you can get a good bagel, but it isn’t true. You helped me make a daughter. I’ll always be grateful for that. If there’s anything left of her, would you please leave it with me? I hope it works out for you, wherever you’re headed.

~

The day itself is easy. The woman’s neighbor comes with her, waits in the lobby, picks her up at the end and takes her home. The woman goes to sleep. When she wakes up she is foggy with worn-​down anesthetic and pain medicine. She looks up and there in the chair beside her bed is her daughter. She is dripping wet, her hair matted and green, her feet slightly webbed.

The woman cannot stand up, so the girl comes over to her and lies down beside her mother, soaking both of them. She smells sweet and reedy and the woman begins to weep and kisses her girl on the forehead. Her skin is warm, still warm, despite all those years in the water. The woman wants to lick her daughter dry.

“When you were a little girl, six years old, I came in and found you sitting on the floor looking at your palms. I remember you were wearing a T‑shirt with two cats on it that said ‘Sophisti-​cat‑ed.’ I asked you what you were doing and you said you were checking to see if you were a saint. ‘A saint?’ I asked you. ‘I’ll get cuts in my hands if I’m a saint,’ you told me.”

“This is embarrassing,” the daughter says.

“But you weren’t a saint, you were a fish. How could we have known?”

They lie in the bed for hours, possibly days. They drift off, awaken. No one gets hungry. No one gets thirsty. No one moves.

The room turns gold with evening light—who knows which evening it is—and the woman sits up for the first time and they look around. The brochure from the surgery is on the nightstand. At the daughter’s suggestion, they cut the figure out of the picture. The daughter goes to the kitchen, her feet awkward on the floor, slapping and leaving a trail of water, and comes back with a newspaper. She folds it into a three-​inch-​long boat. She turns the hot water on, leaves it running. She helps her mother into the bathroom and they both sit on the floor.

The daughter places the ship in the water. “Time to go to sea.” The bath fills higher.

The thing floats along, bobbing. Right away the newspaper soaks through.

“Did you ever encounter your father? He went in after you.”

“There are a lot of ways to take care of someone,” the girl says. “He did his best.”

“Don’t tell me if you suffered. Don’t tell me what it was like in the water before you got used to it.”

The bath is full to the brim but no one reaches to turn it off. The boat gets lower and the newspaper begins to bloom. The little lady figure is still slick and stiff. She floats on her back, her arms out.

The woman puts her head on her daughter’s shoulder. Water begins to spill over the lip of the tub. It is warm and good.

The floor is wet, the bathmat is wet, and the water keeps pouring. The little figure washes over the side of the tub and floats now on the pool gathering on the floor. The mother lies back in the warm wet room and the daughter lies back in the warm wet room and they put their arms out. They grab hands and float.


Image: O’Keeffe, Georgia. “Red and Yellow Cliffs.” 1940. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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