Story: Places We Call Home
By: Hannah Thurman
Olivia realized, for the first time, how quiet everything was.
She had just gotten home from her job at the lab, stepping carefully around the gouges in the lawn left by the renovators’ ladders. The seeds Carl had sprinkled still lay barren on patches of frozen mud. She set her keys on the table, called up to Carl who was watching TV in the second bedroom, and then had to sit down as the emptiness pressed into her ears.
She dropped her briefcase on the floor. The silence broke then swelled back even harder, pressing her down to the floor. For a moment, she couldn’t move, filled with a frayed pounding that did not feel like her heart. She closed her eyes. After a minute, her stomach began to hollow out and she stood up again, shaking.
Her breathing slowed, her hands cooled, but as she touched her face, she knew that something had stirred within her like silt in a stream, frenzied and murky.
The mirror-lined room at Body by Debbie was packed with 26-year-olds wearing neon tank tops and Lululemon spandex, so Olivia approached the only other woman her age, a middle-aged black lady wearing a gold watch. Her name was Gail and she was a lawyer, recently divorced.
“You don’t need to lose weight,” Gail told her after she introduced herself.
“I just want to get in shape. Be, you know, stronger.”
“I get that,” Gail said, and it seemed like she was telling the truth. “I, on the other hand, could stand to lose a few.”
“I don’t think so,” Olivia said. “You’re beautiful.”
“Huh,” said Gail. “Huh.”
After class, Gail asked if she had any plans and she said no so the two of them went to a bar and ordered margaritas in their running shorts. When Olivia got home, Carl asked where she’d been and she said work.
She and Gail met up after class the next day, and the next, and soon began going back to Gail’s house each night to drink brandies in her gleaming kitchen. Olivia liked Gail, who complained affably about her own problems but didn’t ask about Olivia’s, and one night, as the sun drooped low behind the hedges, Gail asked if she would stay the night. Olivia thought of what she would say to Carl on the phone.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Yes, you do,” said Gail and touched the spaces where her fingers came together.
Olivia liked being told how she felt. “Okay,” she said.
Each day after work, she went to the gym, and when she had sweated through her sports bra, she bought a metallic-tasting chocolate shake that came in cans from the gym refrigerator. She watched the muscles in her arms grow hard and smooth as eggs, felt her skirts loosen as they hung around her hips.
On the night of Carl’s birthday, she came straight home from work instead. They ordered in tortellini and began watching Citizen Kane on the flatscreen. He put his arm around her and said, this is everything I ever wanted. Hearing that made her feel so guilty she began to cough.
She told him she was going to the bathroom, and stepped outside. It was the first warm day of spring, and the tarry smell of the gray roads drifted through the air. She drove to the lab and let herself in, watching the LEDs on the machines blink off and on. Inside them, in tubes, blood thick with cancer spun round and round.
She stopped by one machine and turned it off, then reached inside for a vial. It felt warm in her hand. She brought it halfway to her pocket, then threw it on the floor in disgust.
As soon as it hit the ground she felt lighter, so she reached into the cabinet for more tubes.
She threw them on the ground then flung open more machines, collecting glassware in her arms and crushing it under her sandals. The room began to smell like old blood. She stomped and stomped until her legs began to tire and only when she locked the door and got back into her car did she realize what she’d done.
Carl stayed home with her for a week, smiling widely, asking do you remember:
–Do you remember how Sal used to hide her bones in the bed?
–Do you remember when we saw John Travolta at that bar in Toronto?
–Do you remember when you saved me from being hit by that car?
They had sex most days, but on Sunday, he was gone when she woke up and didn’t return until 5 p.m.
“Where were you?” she asked, anger rising.
“I went to go see my brother.”
“Why didn’t you take me with you?”
“I didn’t think you’d want to go.”
She began to cry. “You’re embarrassed by me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said. That night she fell asleep on his chest, and dreamed she was lying on a tightrope.
She got a new job, grading essays on the biology SAT II’s. This was more tedious than working at the lab, but gave her no time to think. She earned $2,000 every other week and with her first paycheck, bought tickets for her and Carl to go on a Caribbean cruise. He printed out a picture of the boat and taped it to the refrigerator. It was white as bleached teeth with two black windows that looked like eyes.
She started going back to Gail’s house after the gym, and Gail never mentioned her absence. Although she didn’t sleep over again, sometimes the two of them would swim naked in the pool. She liked the feeling of Gail’s hands supporting her as she floated, and kept perfectly still as she watched the light summer sky fade to black.
One day she was told to go through the stacks of tests and pull one belonging to a boy named Andy Strayer. He had died in an accident and his science teacher called the testing foundation to tell them not to send the scores to his parents.
Olivia felt the booklet grow heavy as she picked it up, and instead of dropping it in the shred bin, she put it in her bag. When she got home, she broke the paper seal and leaned against the doorway, shaking.
She told Carl, “I can’t work there anymore.”
He didn’t smile. “Then what can you do?” he said.
She drove to Gail’s house, and Gail let her in and wrapped her in her arms. Olivia sat for a few moments, breathing in Gail’s lavender deodorant, but then her neck began to hurt. When she stretched it, Gail murmured poor thing and tried to kiss her.
Olivia clawed at Gail’s arms until she let her go. She did not feel like a poor thing, she felt like a wild animal, and when Gail reached out again she screamed, dyke!
She drove in the right-hand lane for two days until she reached her sister’s house in Wilmington, North Carolina, then slept, waking every three hours, for a week.
Maureen and her husband both worked for a natural gas company, and left at 6:50 each morning with their hair wet. A woman came each day at noon and 4pm to walk their English bulldogs; Olivia passed her sometimes in the hall but did not say hello.
She looked through all of the photo albums that had her in them, then all of the ones that did not. She thought about visiting the graves of her parents but decided against it. Carl called, Gail called, her college roommate Susannah called, but after a while they all stopped.
At night, she went out onto the beach to shine a flashlight on ghost crabs. They froze when the light hit them, then jerked away like moon rovers, disappearing into the blackness she could not tell was sea or sky.
When she got back home, Maureen would yell at her for not bringing her cell phone and then make her an omelet.
“What should I do today?” Olivia asked her each morning, but she refused to suggest anything.
“That’s up to you,” she would say.
Olivia wanted to hit her, too, but she never did.
Carl sent her a check for $1,500. I refunded the cruise, his note said. When you get a chance, let me know how you’re doing. The last time she had gone for this long without speaking to him had been before they met. She smelled the check (it smelled like nothing) and put it in her pocket.
She knew she should give the money to Maureen but instead started going to doctors, sometimes two in one day. She liked the antiseptic smell of the waiting room, the grip of the blood pressure cuff, and the tired look in all the nurses’ eyes. She always felt too awake.
“What can I do for you today?” the doctors would ask. “Do you feel sick?”
She sat up and let them listen to her heart and lungs. They always frowned. “I can’t—see—anything,” they’d say. “What’s bothering you?”
“I feel awful.”
She told them truthfully, which was different each time. Sometimes it was an aching in her wrists, sometimes a sharp pain in her thigh. They massaged and measured, and inevitably said, “Let’s do some bloodwork.”
This was the reason she came. She liked making a fist, feeling the pinch, watching as the line of maroon crept down the tubing. She knew if they pumped enough out of her, they’d find the grains of infections, suck them out, like she used to do in the lab. She wanted her whole life in a centrifuge, spinning out the parts undesirable.
“We’ll call you if there’s anything abnormal.”
They never did.
The day Carl sent her papers in the mail, she drove inland to Duke medical center for an appointment with a hematologist. He felt her glands with purple gloves. She swallowed reflexively, like a cat taking a pill.
“Does this hurt?” he asked.
Whenever people asked that, she felt her whole body go so numb she could barely feel anything. If she were caught in a bear trap, she wouldn’t feel any pain. The thought embarrassed her. She had never been caught in a bear trap, never felt anything worse than boredom or a sprained ankle.
The doctor frowned.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
She looked away. Her gaze landed on the headline of a medical journal on his desk: Tarfiramate Phase II results look promising.
“I did that,” she told him, pointing. “I did that trial.”
He stepped back. “You have renal cell carcinoma?”
“I worked in the lab.”
“Oh.” He smiled, taking off the gloves. “What do you do now?”
She shook her head.
“They’re always looking for lab techs here.”
“I don’t think so.”
He shrugged and turned back to her chart. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I can’t seem to find anything wrong.”
“What about a referral?” she asked.
“I don’t know who I would refer you to.”
She breathed out until she felt empty.
“Send me your resume,” the doctor said. “You’d be surprised.”
“At what?” she asked.
Her suit felt tight across her chest. She’d bought it with Gail when she weighed 140. Now she was 156, which felt better. Her thighs touched lower down and she was rarely cold in the chilly winter mornings.
She shook hands with the head of the lab, whose name was Lily. Lily had gray hair and a pointed face, and Olivia immediately felt at home. She was finished with beautiful people.
“Olivia,” Lily said. “Thank you for driving up. I understand you’re out by the beach.”
“You’d be okay relocating?”
The other woman smiled. “Durham is a beautiful city. Do you like historical buildings?”
“I prefer hysterical buildings.”
“We’ve got a fair amount of those too.”
Olivia continued to sit up straight.
Lily set down her resume. “Doctor Williams told me how interested you were,” she said, “But I need to talk to you about some of your references. I spoke with your PI at Lurie, and he told me about an incident this year. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Yes,” Olivia said. “I know exactly.”
She swallowed. “I broke into the lab and smashed some equipment. I ruined…many hours of hard work.” Sweat trickled down her side. This was the first time she had put it into words.
Lily leaned back. “Why?” she asked.
Olivia ran her tongue over her lips. They felt jagged, like another set of teeth. Her stomach roiled, but she filled it with breath.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But it won’t happen again.”
Lily crossed her arms. “Hm,” she said.
“Really.” Olivia leaned forward and was surprised how easy it was to look Lily in the eye. “I swear, it will not happen again.” She began to talk, more eagerly now, about her credentials and attributes—her passion, her teamwork, her motivation to succeed. I really want this opportunity, she said, and she did.
The other woman sat there silently for a moment, then smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “I think that answers my question.”
Olivia got to her feet and held out her hand. “Thank you for having me today.”
“I appreciate you coming in.”
Olivia leaned down to pick up her briefcase, feeling at peace for one moment, then two. And that felt like enough.