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September-October 2017

The Two-Handed Cloud

New fiction by Rudrapriya Rathore

Rudrapriya Rathore@rrudrapriya

Screen Shot 2017-10-02 at 11.42.58 AM

Illustration by Rachel Wada.

Dizzy lay in bed on Monday, grocery day, feeling like she’d reached the end. She said a silent goodbye to the creamy swirl of crown molding on her ceiling. It was one of the reasons she chose this apartment. The daily golden light in the bedroom was another. She had not been very pretty in her life—not as pretty as she would have liked, anyway—but she was glad she would at least be found, after the fact, in beautiful circumstances.

Even as the pain shot through her skull and descended to her pelvis, using her spine as a ladder, she hoped her skin was clear. She’d tried to hydrate, counted out glasses of water. Last week, she ripped the dirt out of the pores on her nose. This was a process she loved. It was indulgent because it was very bad for you, naturally, to tamp down on that strip of cotton so that all the glue on one side filled tiny, invisible crevices in your skin. But just having the strip there, pasted across the bridge of her nose, made Dizzy feel like she was bettering the world, cleansing herself. She relished the pain of peeling it off after the recommended six to eight minutes and settled into a corner of the bed. Switching on the reading lamp, she got a good look at every glorious, longstemmed blackhead.

If she wasn’t dying of her disease, another process was certainly taking place. The new ache felt sudden and cellular, a vacuum suck latched to her innermost spring. Maybe she was developing a brain leak, or a hematoma. Rupture or clot, that was the question. It was a shame about the pain, because in the hours she had left, she would have liked to begin one of her long mornings. She’d start by drinking decaffeinated tea (caffeine, like most things, aggravated her condition) and nibbling on jammy little cookies. Some were still laying out in a fancy dish from when her mother visited last week. Then she’d read the paper the mailman dropped through the slat in the door, making notes that would turn into letters on the stories that made her feel anxious about not being out in the world. She was 30 and completely unable to do most of the things she wanted to do. If it wasn’t for her condition, she felt, she could stop half the things journalists wrote about from happening in the first place. She often wrote in about her ideas, the simple solutions she had to contribute. She could help the homeless by putting unemployed youth on volunteer runs to feed them. And she’d make it so everyone donated a little bit of their free time to rounding up criminals. Just because the government wouldn’t do it didn’t mean no one else could. Why were people complaining when they could be doing important jobs? Someone could get materials to clean up the toxic river, for God’s sake, someone else could make sure children didn’t lick the playground metal with lead paint on it. Her letters were never published, which mystified Dizzy. Maybe they were ashamed they hadn’t thought of such things themselves.

After she read the paper, she’d do some light stretches and try to email her mother before a headache had any chance to set in. When she had a headache, there was no way she could handle looking at a screen. And if she didn’t manage to send a message, however brief—often, just FINE TODAY. LUV was enough—then her mother would check up on her. Once the spare key turned in the lock and that disapproving, creased, pig-like face appeared in the doorway, Dizzy’s day was down the toilet.

In the fog between the pain and the nausea, it occurred to her that the first person to find her body must not be her mother. First, if Dizzy looked as good as she suspected, the effect of her pale frailty would be wasted, and secondly, even a mother like hers didn’t deserve to discover the death of her only child in such a way. Poor Ma might keel over right there on the pale shag carpet that had been bought with her money. Dizzy braced herself against a wave of agony before sitting up to look for her phone.

Before she could manoeuvre her way to the side table, she heard a knock at the door. It couldn’t be Ma, not here, not already—it wasn’t even noon—and anyway, Dizzy realized as the sound went on, her mother never knocked like that, quietly and insistently, a long series of steady taps. She swung her legs over the side of the bed with a groan and padded to the closet to pull a long shirt over her underwear. In the mirror, she shook her hair in a way that she hoped disguised the swelling around her eyes.

“I’m Adam,” the guy at the door said. It took Dizzy a moment to look past his black The Who T-shirt and realize he wasn’t a teenager. “Your neighbour? The mailman keeps leaving your mail at my place.” His shoulder bones poked up through the shirt. He extended a hand, though not the one holding Dizzy’s envelopes, for her to shake.

Government jobs, Dizzy wanted to reply, should only be for people who can do them well. By the time she opened her mouth and began to uncurl her fingers from the doorframe, a familiar buzzing had already begun. The jagged blue and yellow lines of the hallway wallpaper fuzzed into a bright puddle, followed by the sparse hairs on Adam’s face. Damn it, Dizzy thought as darkness encroached. She’d been in this moment before the fall so many times that she nearly managed to warn him with a raised finger. Then, in a crystalline rush of antigravity, she felt two palms push against her shoulder blades. Her knees made contact with the jutting bit of wood between her floor and the hallway carpet. An audible crack sounded as she twisted onto her side, and numbness blossomed up into her crown.

People didn’t realize she never lost consciousness during a fall. “Jesus,” Adam said as he hovered over her. “Oh God.” Dizzy couldn’t feel whether or not the shirt she’d put on had climbed over her hipbones. Was she wearing nice underwear? If it was the pair she thought it was, she didn’t really mind. The scalloped edges on those were very prim. She felt Adam grab her under the arms and drag her into the living room, which ignited a different, duller fire beneath the roaring void of her backbone. Her head came to rest on the rug, which was kind of sweet.

“Christ. Shit.” He touched her forehead and checked her wrist for a pulse. Dizzy heard him walk into the kitchen and turn the faucet on. Don’t splash water on me, she thought desperately. As his footsteps neared, she forced her eyes open. “Oh thank fuck, you’re alive,” Adam said, setting the glass down on the table.

Though she couldn’t move enough to communicate yet, Dizzy blinked a few times to bring him into focus. He could be cute. He wasn’t very tall, but he could be one of those guys who was unexpectedly cute. This made her feel a little further from death. Maybe, she thought as he began a chorus of Are you okays? and Should I call 911s?, he would be the kind of guy who’d overcompensate for being not very tall. He might make a lot of brunches, or pay for nice clothes. He might even be an impromptu-vacation type. Dizzy had never been on a vacation that wasn’t meticulously planned around her medications and their side effects, but she could see herself on a cruise now, tanned a deep brown while looking over the railing of the ship, her pink sarong fluttering in the breeze.

“Daratty? Dur. Ratty?” Adam was staring at one of the envelopes in his hand. Dizzy would have rolled her eyes if the blood in her head wasn’t pounding against them.

“Just call me Dizzy.” Adam peered at her dumbly. “No one calls me Dharati except my dad.”

“Sounds kind of like Dorothy,” he smiled, laying his hand on her forehead. “Isn’t that funny? Dorothy was my mother’s name. She passed last year.” Dizzy saw his eyes soften as he touched her hair, his fingers finding more purchase on her scalp with every stroke. “Should I call 911?”

“No, this happens to me a lot. I have some medical issues.” She paused. “Menière’s disease. It’s like chronic vertigo.” She thought about the set of hands that appeared so briefly before she crumpled. Were they new, she wondered, or was she only noticing them now? In the past, she’d only felt her head spinning as she fell. She couldn’t help but feel that this was connected, somehow, to the pain that arrived that morning.

“Wow,” Adam nodded. “That’s terrible. You’re like one of those old-fashioned girls. With their smelling salts and all.” He looked around the apartment. “You should get a fainting couch.”

Dizzy felt that he’d combed her hair so it was all fanned out in a ring around her head, the dark strands curling, emphasized by the pale tufts of the rug beneath. An image from some billboard or movie came to mind, of a woman laying like a fallen angel in the snow. “Those women wore corsets,” she said. “That’s why they were always passing out.”

“Yeah, of course,” Adam agreed quickly. “Awful. Stupid way of dressing.” He slid a hand under her neck and helped her sit up. The living room spun and a leftover buzz sounded in her ears as he rubbed her shoulder—a bit awkwardly, Dizzy thought—and handed her the glass of water.

After she’d thrown back a couple of strong painkillers, Adam asked if she wanted to get lunch nearby. Was it lunchtime already? While he waited on the couch, Dizzy wiggled carefully into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, hating that she was too bruised and tired to put together a real outfit. They headed down the stairs, Adam perpetually looking over his shoulder to ensure she was making it safely down each flight. “Whoops,” he steadied her wrist once, thinking she was off balance.

On the best of her long mornings, Dizzy woke up clear and hollow. Hours passed at the pace of minutes. Her head was like a bell, and her thoughts rang through it before dissolving. She wasn’t tortured by reminders of her uselessness or her pain-filled future. She didn’t mentally stage arguments with her mother. She was empty and clean. On those days, Dizzy watched long hours of sitcoms with barely a twinge in her whole body, able to focus on other people’s lives. How might you find a place that wasn’t your home to feel at home in, so you could call it “the coffeehouse”? How could you always be on your way to or from it? There was nothing she wanted more than to feel busy and needed. If I was just a woman in a diner, waiting for my friends, she’d think.

And yet, sitting in the booth of exactly such a diner with Adam, she found herself hating it. The table stuck to her forearms wherever she rested them. Nothing bustled because the place was almost empty. Their waiter was also the owner and cook, and took their order while swiping at grey tufts of hair emerging from his nostrils.

Adam banged the bottom of the ketchup bottle and watched her bite into a soggy club sandwich. “Did you see the old jukebox over there? I think it might still work,” he said. “I really love places like this. They’re so few and far between.” Mayonnaise dripped onto her chin.

When Dizzy got up to use the bathroom, he slid to the edge of his seat as if to get up and lead her there by the elbow. In the years that followed, whenever she recalled the accident, this was the moment she always began with. It was the first time his compulsion stretched its legs and came to life. From then on, his body anticipated her intentions like a mimic, becoming her human shadow. He never seemed to believe she could make it anywhere by herself, not without the threat of injury. He held doors open with the same worried look in his eyes as when he watched her change clothes or turn on the bathwater. Straining a pot of boiling pasta over the sink for her made him glow with sweat and pride. If she carried the groceries home, he berated her; when she took the bus, he made her promise to sit in the marked accessibility seating. Then, when she was riding her bike home, her head spun a little—lo, the key to its lock was removed from her purse, and he became her chauffeur in his blue Volkswagen Beetle.

He was always in the next room, reading a magazine, or in the kitchen making soup—beside her at the movies or rubbing her forehead in bed. There in the fading light as the sun set outside her big windows, and there in the mornings, which were now cut short, abbreviated by the radio newscaster’s voice detailing the violent crimes in certain neighbourhoods. When he undressed her, he did it with a reverence, unhooking straps and brushing away hairs that got caught on her jewelry. He held her tight during sex, afraid that she would fall apart, making her slippery with his sweat.

She exfoliated and moisturized on a strict schedule, in case he saw something untoward on her body, and in this way managed to sometimes enjoy watching him as he watched her. Once, she cut herself while shaving with a leg propped up on the sink. The razor fell down, and Dizzy fell soon after. It was the second time she’d felt human hands in the middle of her back. So clear was the shove that she checked herself the mirror afterwards for red cartoon fingerprints. He found her on the bath mat, polka dotted with blood, and wiped her leg clean. “Poor Dorothy,” he murmured, “Poor girl, my poor girl.” With a cool washcloth on her forehead, he told her about his mother’s fall to the bottom of the stairs. “She was so pretty, almost as pretty as you. We thought the nurse should have heard her calling, since she’d started living in the house with us near the end. I don’t even know what she wanted—a glass of water maybe, some milk to help her sleep. She was so thin by that point. The cancer ate up almost everything inside her, and the chemo took what was left. She went a few days later, just like that.” He looked more like a boy than ever, stroking her arms as he cried, the lashes on his watery blue eyes fluttering as she reached up to wipe his cheeks. Then he insisted on carrying her to the bed, and fell asleep moments after lying down.

He was still asleep the next morning when Dizzy heard the spare key turn in the lock. Her mother was perched in an armchair, nervously fingering the knot on her scarf, when Dizzy came out of the bedroom. “Let’s take a walk, Ma,” Dizzy said, pulling on a coat over her nightdress.

Dizzy felt her mother took it all quite well: the neighbour boyfriend, the sleeping over, the lengthening weeks between phone calls. In the warmth of the spring morning, among the chirping sparrows, her mother looked less hostile. She wore her paisley pashmina tucked all around the collar of her puffy grey coat, and her brown eyes crinkled against the light. She absorbed the information Dizzy gave her almost gratefully, nodding her head and making the odd sound of surprise here and there. “How is the vertigo?” she asked, and Dizzy told her about the previous night. “I’m glad someone was there, at least,” she continued. “You never call me when it happens, even though you know we’re just up the road.”

“He’s very helpful,” Dizzy agreed. She suppressed the desire to tell her about the phantom hands. It’s just a sensation, she thought, a trick of the imagination. The brain’s attempt at making a story for its pain.

“Can I meet him?” Dizzy’s mother sniffed, rubbing her bulbous nose on her sleeve, as if she was ready hear a “no.”

“Well, alright,” Dizzy said, and asked for a minute to go upstairs and wake him up so he could get dressed. By the time she got up there, knuckles pale from gripping the railing, he was coming out of his own apartment, freshly showered and dressed, smiling like he was ready for anything.

They sat down around Dizzy’s coffee table as she boiled water for tea.

“How old are you, if you don’t mind?” her mother asked, hands clasped on her knees.

“Almost 26,” said Adam. He perched with some confidence on the arm of the couch, glancing now and then towards Dizzy’s movements in the kitchen, his compulsion doubly strong after the events of the previous night.

“Really? You have a very young face,” Dizzy’s mom replied. She pursed her lips and looked around, likely searching for the biscuits.

“Adam’s got the gift of good genes,” Dizzy said as she came in with a tray, feeling the tension begin to hum. “Haven’t you, hon?” She ruffled his hair affectionately. Adam hovered as she poured tea into their cups. “I got it, I got it. Go get the milk, if you want any.” He waited until she was safely sitting down before going.

“And what does your father do?” Dizzy’s mother called into the kitchen. Little bit of a ponce, she mouthed at Dizzy, who shot a glare back.

“My father?” Adam returned with the milk. “He’s a car salesman.”

“Right. And you?” her mother gestured for a spoon.

“Adam’s applying to business school,” Dizzy said as she got up for the spoons.

“Applying?”

“Yes. I think I’ll get in. Things were, you know, delayed for a couple of years while my mom was sick.”

“Oh, I see,” Dizzy’s mother said, smiling. She slurped her tea the way all Gujuratis did, pouring a bit into the saucer so it cooled first. “Are you working right now?”

“We’re both looking, Ma,” Dizzy said.

“I want to get a good job, good enough that Dorothy doesn’t have to worry about work. It would be really difficult for her, I think,” said Adam.

Her mother looked questioningly at the two of them. “Dorothy?”

Adam laughed. “Yes, my little nickname.” Everyone looked into their cups. “How did you get the name Dizzy, actually? Was it someone at school?”

“No,” said Dizzy.

“I called her that,” Dizzy’s mother said. “When the fainting spells started. She was home sick often, and we spent a lot of time together. I think it’s sweet.”

“That’s not true,” said Dizzy. “What happened was you and Dad were talking about tests and things like that in the doctor’s office, and the doctor couldn’t say my name. He kept messing it up and you kept trying to correct him. And then you,” she looked at her mother, “you said, ‘Well now that she’s got her diagnosis, we may as well call her Dizzy.’”

“I don’t think that’s exactly it,” her mother said, frowning. “

And you started calling me that around the house, and eventually it just became how I was introduced at school.”

“Your name means ‘earth,’ Dharati, the ground we walk on, and it’s a beautiful name. I chose it.” Dizzy’s mother put her cup down. She twisted a thick gold ring around her finger. “Anyway, thanks for tea. I should get going.”

Dizzy felt Adam staring, worry pooling in his eyes. “I’ll walk you down,” she said, and set down her teacup a little harder than she needed to. “There’s no need,” she snapped as Adam tried to help her with her coat.

They went down the stairs in single file, two sets of loud footsteps and then Adam’s gentler ones, all the way down to the street. Dizzy’s mother didn’t shake Adam’s hand, but she nodded abstractly when he waved. In her rush to get away, she chose not to walk a block up to the traffic light, instead stepping off the curb between two parked cars and looking for a way across. Dizzy began to walk back inside, but stopped, the air of the late morning cool against her skin. Traffic was heavy. There was an opening here and there, but her mother missed them, her small body stepping out and retreating both times. Then, as she and Adam watched, there was a large gap, wide enough for a crossing, and the older woman stepped out into it with one hand in her pocket just as a car turned the corner.

“Oh,” Dizzy said. She saw that the car wasn’t slowing down. Then she screamed. “Ma, stop. Ma!” The tires on the asphalt squealed in unison with her. She took a few steps to the curb and heard the thud. It was then that she felt the two-handed cloud sink down onto her head from its malevolent home. Out of her peripheral, it seemed Adam was lunging at her, as if to stop her from falling. The blur of time and light made it impossible to tell whether she was being pushed down or held up by the dreadful hands, and though Dizzy didn’t know if they were real or only a symptom, she knew she would have to live with them—she wouldn’t die this way at all.

Rudrapriya Rathore’s writing has appeared in Joyland, Minola Review, Carousel, the Winnipeg Review, the Walrus, and Hazlitt, among other publications. She lives in Toronto.

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