blackbirdonline journalSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
an online journal of literature and the arts
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This morning, the lake is boiling, steam rising toward a brilliant sun. But the water isn’t hot; it’s freezing or in the process of freezing. The air temperature is -3° as I stand in the snow on the shore. By the end of the week, the lake will be frozen solid enough to walk across.

The sun on my face is warm, but the weather service is warning the weather is dangerously cold. The snow underfoot crunches, too cold to be soft.

And I love it. I cannot wait for the lake to be frozen.

I feel alive with the pain of the wind on my face.

So bitter, so sharp, I can taste it.

The last time, of many times, my father was in the hospital, I stopped in the hospital’s combination gift and snack shop and ordered a Diet Coke. My father had a bad heart. I didn’t know this would be his last trip to the hospital, but we all knew we had entered a sad countdown.

I’d never had a Diet Coke before. I had a friend who was so addicted to TaB, that precursor of Diet Coke, that after it disappeared from the stores, she hoarded boxes of it in her garage. I had seen friend after friend turn to diet sodas as a tool in the war against weight. But I was thin then.

My father had been rail thin as a boy. His weight so low he told me he had to spend a week eating bananas and drinking whole cream to pass his physical to get into West Point. But as my father, he had been round. A man with an extra chin and a stomach he could rest his hands on like Santa. In our family, he’d said to me, we start out thin and then go pear shaped. Still, I don’t think it was worry I would end up fat or have heart attack after heart attack that made me order that diet soda.

I think I wanted to drink something bitter. To taste something as not sweet as this moment in my life.

And the Diet Coke was bitter. Or at least not sweet in any conventional way. Like a spoonful of the kind of medicine no one gives children anymore.

The taste of the day my father would die—served in a paper cup full of crushed ice.

Ash-good-sharp-love, the nurse tells me, is the word for needle in another patient’s language.

As a translator, I have two immediate responses to that:
A. it seems entirely possible.
B. it sounds like a mistranslation.

But I am here for genetic testing, a different kind of translation, and I don’t want to distract her. I want to find out if I have a set of genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that make it more likely I will get breast cancer and which, if I have them, I may have passed on to my daughter as well. One of the two carries an increased likelihood of ovarian cancer, which is even deadlier. It could mean, at the very least, no grandchildren. Or, worst case, losing my only daughter.

The nurse asks me about my family medical history. My father’s dead, I tell her. But not cancer, heart attack. No history of cancer. My mother had breast cancer. My sister, too, though she’s still alive. The nurse hands me a health form to fill in even more details. It asks for generations of sad history. Aunt—bone cancer. Grandfather—stomach cancer. Grandmother—I have no idea. My great grandparents—I don’t even know their names.

“Sign here,” the nurse says.

Then she sticks the needle in my arm, digs around a little trying to get a vein, then fills a vial with my blood.


I don’t, it turns out, have either of the BRCA genes. But there are new genes being discovered all the time as we struggle to translate the language of our cells into a prognostication of our future.

When my mother was dying, my roommate set out to teach me to drink beer. There was a bar near the house we shared that offered free beer on Ladies Nite, but she refused to take me until I proved I could drink at least one whole can. She bought a six-pack of Busch, what the bar in question offered. I managed to drink one, chugging down what tasted to me like cold aluminum and cigarette ashes.

Then we went to the bar in her pickup truck.

When he was alive, my father hardly drank. A scotch and water once in a blue moon. He didn’t drink coffee either. Or tea. But my mother drank bourbon on the rocks, far too much of it. Black coffee and, when ordering iced tea, always asked the waitress for a little tea and a lot of ice.

What I remember about Ladies Nite was that after the second can of Busch, I lost count. I remember going to the ladies’ room and finding the floor flooded—with water, beer, pee? And my roommate laughing, pointing to her feet and saying, That’s why I wore my cowboy boots.

Finally, later, somehow, we were out in the parking lot, trying to find her truck in a sea of night and black asphalt. Was this blur how my mother was seeing the world right now, looking out her hospital room window? The whole world washed the blue of a Busch can? Here it is, my roommate said, pointing to the rear gate of her pickup. I slipped between her truck and the one next to it, and for no reason a sober person would ever understand, put one hand on each pickup, lifted myself up, then swung myself up and over and into a headstand, something I had not done since junior high. Something I had never done well.

I felt invincible.

Then one of my elbows gave way and the next thing I knew the back of my head hit the pavement with a thud like a watermelon dropped from a height. Like a cartoon, I saw bright yellow stars. My teeth hurt like I’d been bitten down hard on aluminum foil or ice. But I was laughing.

And I felt totally alive.

When I think of that kind of sharp pain, I can’t help but think of a file.

I imagine a prisoner filing away at his shackles, the bars of his cell, ignoring the cake his wife baked so she could smuggle in this fantasy of freedom. In the warden’s office, the secretary stands at the filing cabinet: each prisoner a file, a number in order, each trip to the parole board means pulling a file, sending it downstairs to the hearing room, putting it away when the parole is granted or, more often, denied.

A dentist files down a tooth for a filling. During a root canal, round files are used to smooth the narrow canals of the interior of the tooth. Files have their own teeth. A rasp is a form of file with distinct, individually cut teeth used for coarsely removing large amounts of material. In the end, my mother’s voice was no more than a hoarse rasp. Get me out of here, please, she rasped when it was her turn to be wheeled into the hospital one last time.

In the thirteenth century in Paris, delicate ornamental iron work was done with the aid of files, but the process was secret, known only to a few master craftsman, and has disappeared as thoroughly from history as those files in the warden’s office, as the bodies of all the disappeared: prisoners sent to the guillotine, children in orphanages no one bothered to feed, young Argentinian communists thrown from planes into the ocean, my mother. Did I mention my mother?

Among the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci is a sketch of a machine for cutting files (the chisel would make one strike, swaging a tooth, then automatically advance into position for the next tooth, and strike again). If we could make our own files, could we escape? Could we sneak into the principal’s office and leave notes explaining our actions in our permanent files? The cut of the file refers to how fine its teeth are. They are defined as (from roughest to smoothest): rough, middle, bastard, second cut, smooth, and dead smooth.

The one I imagine they allowed the prisoner to keep is dead smooth. It will take millennia to cut through those bars.

But I own a rat tail file. Rat tails are used for finishing intricate parts and are good for filing and enlarging holes. Year by year, I imagine using mine to cut an eyehole, a delicate round window to peep out at the world.

See freedom.

See my last name in that file drawer.

But only my children’s children will live long enough, wear down enough teeth, to finally break out.

If my children live to have children.

After my mother died, I went north to Iowa for an MFA in creative writing. I had been born in France, grown up in Florida. I had, up to that point, never lived so far north. One Friday night, when I was supposed to be going to a reading by a visiting writer, the weatherman announced that the weather was dangerously cold, below zero with a wind chill that pushed the temperature down into instant frostbite territory. Trust me, you guys. Not a night to go out drinking, the weatherman said.

He said “you guys” because that is the plural you, the “y’all” of the Midwest. He warned about drinking because Iowa City was a college town. Every morning, the local paper, Iowa City Press-Citizen, published a lengthy list of drunken students arrested for urinating in public after the bars closed. This was an overwhelmingly gendered crime (i.e. men) but once, near the end of my two years there, I did see the name of a woman. She’d been a student in my freshman English class the previous semester and I’d given her an A.

That freezing night, I looked out the window at the snow and wondered if it was too dangerous to walk to the reading. I thought of the passages in The Travels of Marco Polo that told how, in Russia, it is so cold in the winter that women who go out of their huts to pee find themselves frozen to the ground. Surely, I thought, no students would be out drinking on a night like this.

I did go to the reading. A friend with a car volunteered to swing by and pick me up. And we drove by the usual crowds of drunken students, many not even wearing hats or socks. I felt a collective wave of worry for them.

At the reading, the room was crowded, and the visiting author soft spoken, nearly inaudible. Afterward, at the reception, everyone got very, very drunk. But not me. My mother’s death and the concussion in the parking lot had cured me of wanting to drink. And not the author, who had once been a famous drunk but now was in AA.

We stood by the front door, looking out at the night while he drank a cup of cold black coffee, leftover, I think, from the student host’s breakfast, and smoked cigarette after cigarette. In two years, he would be dead of lung cancer.

We talked, mostly, about the weather. It’s so cold out there, he said, if you were drunk and fell down, you would just lie there until you froze to death.

I don’t think any students did freeze that night. I think it would have been in the paper.

So there is a cold theme here.

The receptors on peripheral nerve endings that can sense cold are well known to scientists. They respond to cold temperatures, whether it’s the air on a winter day, an ice cube on your skin, or the water in a chilly swimming pool.

Interestingly, they also respond to menthol—the active ingredient in cough drops and some brands of cigarettes.

Cold thermoreceptors are 3.5 times more common than heat receptors.

But I also, I should confess, love a hot bath. One full of water so hot it cannot possibly be good for me. Scalding hot.

If your body gets too hot, among other things, the erector muscles in hair follicles relax, releasing any warm air trapped next to the skin.

Maybe I like to feel my hair follicles relaxing.

My daughter shares my love of hot water. A few years ago, I visited her in Japan, and she took me to Funaoka Onsen, one of the oldest public baths in Kyoto. It was New Year’s Eve, her birthday, and we walked through winding dark residential streets to get there. This was not a tourist bath, but a well-used neighborhood institution that mixed old wooden carvings and elaborate green tiles with vinyl couches facing a TV and where that night, a handful of men sat waiting for their wives to finish on the women’s side of the baths.

This night, all the women in the bath were tiny and ancient. Grandmothers. Maybe even great grandmothers. In the dressing room, one of them told Magda there was so much New Year’s Eve food in their houses they didn’t have to rush home to fix dinner and so were taking their time in the bath. We washed, sitting on small plastic stools and pouring water from faucets over our heads, and then there was a selection of baths for soaking, including an extra-hot bath and an herbal bath with tannin-colored water.

Magda settled into the herbal bath, chatting with the grandmotherly regulars. I asked Magda about one tiled bath which was only labeled in Japanese: 電気風呂. She asked a grandmother next to her and then said to me, It’s an electric bath. There’s current running through the water. She says it is supposed to be very healthy, but she has never been brave enough to get in it.

I dipped a hand in. It tingled, but just slightly, as if I had bumped my elbow. Then I slid in. It felt—odd. As if something amazing were about to happen and my body was tingling with emotional rather than physical excitement. I slid my shoulders under the water. It stung. But it also tickled. I saw my daughter looking at me and realized I was giggling.

Come on, Mama, she said, pulling me up. And we went to sit in the hot tub outside in the small, screened garden.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a masochist. I do not enjoy pain for pain’s sake. Two long spells of labor gave me two healthy children, but I would not volunteer to do that again. The older I get, the less I even like the popular pain that comes with eating chilis, though I do remember once accidentally biting into a habañero pepper that was decoration at a salad table at the Parisian department store Printemps so far back in the ’80s that I had never seen a habañero before. I thought it was a baby green pepper. My husband still remembers me sitting with my head resting on the white tablecloth, crying, my lips swollen, unable to speak. But I have many other memories of my times in Paris I prefer to remember.

And I don’t always like bitter either. I can’t, for example, stand tonic water. I would have to be a long time in a desert before I would willingly drink a glass of it. I remember ordering a gin and tonic only once, at a reception during a campus job interview for a teaching job. I did it because the male director of an all-male creative writing program kept teasing me in a way that was not at all a joke about not drinking, so I ordered the one thing I was sure I could carry around all evening and every single drop would stay in the glass.

But no matter what I say, I clearly remember all these incidents. I remember the sharp. The bitter. I remember that pepper and the labor. I remember what it felt like to swim in the ocean as a child and get salt in a cut.

I remember feeling alive in that moment, even if it was a moment I wished with every cell in my body would pass.

This December, in the second long year of the pandemic, my husband and I drove south from Wisconsin to camp in the Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. We just wanted to be somewhere where the ground wasn’t frozen. We hiked and read and stayed away from other humans—something we had been practicing so long it was second nature by then.

But I couldn’t resist going to the Buckstaff, the one historic bathhouse still operating, nearly unchanged. The park service literature about the bath told me that, after I undressed, I would be wrapped in a bath sheet for modesty. Then I would be put to soak in a big old enamel tub filled with 100° spring water. After twenty minutes of soaking, my bath attendant would scrub my back with a loofah bath mitt to increase my circulation. Then put me in one of the vapor closets, a metal box with only my head poking out, which would benefit my lungs. Next would be the sitz bath, sitting tubs filled with 108° water, which were great for problems and pains in the lower back. Then would come applications of hot packs to provide heat therapy for specific aches or pains.

And finally, a cold needle shower.

Needle shower. I confess I found those words equal parts intriguing and scary.

While camping, I’d wanted to disconnect completely from the world, but my sister was in the hospital, suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. Because of COVID regulations, the only visitor allowed was her husband so I couldn’t drive even further south to Georgia to visit her. Instead, I called her from the campground on my cell phone every day. She couldn’t stand, couldn’t feel her legs. The doctors had given her endless IVs, running fluids into her like an internal mineral bath.

I thought about her as I climbed into the old enamel tub, chipped in places, a bit stained with rust, but filled with gloriously hot water. She had not had a bath in three weeks in the hospital. She said the nursing aids would just give her quick cleans with wet wipes, not even real washcloths. I thought about that as my attendant, a woman as elderly and nearly as tiny as the women in the Kyoto bathhouse, scrubbed at my back—hard—with the loofah mitt.

The general ambience of the Buckstaff was a mix of elegance (marble walls) with mid-century asylum (canvas curtains on rusting shower rings, fluorescent tubes flickering overhead). The steam cabinet looked like something from a black-and-white horror movie. The sitz bath had a bit of laundry sink in its marble shape. But the needle shower—well, the first word that came to me was medieval, though, of course, the Middle Ages were not known for bathing.

It was an iron maiden of pipes, surrounding me on all sides, and out of dozens of holes icy cold water needled my bright pink, overheated skin. My sister had told me all she could feel were prickles in her legs, maddening prickles, as if they had fallen asleep and were trying to wake up. Now I felt the prickles too, though all over my body. It hurt and it felt delicious and, because of my sister, also terribly, unspeakably sad.

I once heard Joyce Carol Oates say writing was like pushing a peanut across a dirty floor with your nose. You crawl, crawl, crawl along and whenever you look up: dirty floorboards as far as you can see, stretching to forever. I think she was talking about writing a novel. I think she was talking about Blonde, a novel she was writing then about Marilyn Monroe. But that is what it feels like writing this essay. Nose in the dirt, pushing, pushing, pushing and only a little progress. I feel myself struggling to break out of a neat little box of facts mixed with humor rising to a zing of cosmic meaning at the end.

I know because I’ve written essays like that. Still do. Essays too damn much like Methodist sermons I heard when I was young. First the joke about little Johnny and God where Johnny thinks the hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” is “Bringing in the Sheets!” And I realize I always thought it was “Bringing in the Sheep.” Oh well, guess I am damned. Then the metaphor about how driving with broken windshield wipers in a terrible rainstorm is like trying to fathom The Will of God (in both cases you have no idea where you are going). A quick reference to Scripture and pass the plate.

What about everything this sermon/my essay is leaving unsaid? About how we are dying, all dying, how people I love are already dead? This year maybe my sister, forty years ago my mother, forty-one my dad. In a day or a decade, me and you, too. Don’t kid yourself. When my daughter was four, she told me she didn’t want to die—or get married. Some days I know just what she means.

Once, for New Year’s Eve, for her birthday, I took her to see fireworks. We all stood on the frozen grass of the Capitol Square a few blocks from our house, watching them explode off the glass bank across the street. Glad that’s not our bank, my husband said, pointing at the fireman poised, hoses at the ready.

Each concussion was a fist in the chest. Each burst red/green/gold sizzling twisting stars falling out of the universe and into our eyes.

I started laughing. Then I started to cry. And only twenty years later, at the end of this essay, do I have some earthly idea why.  

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