Square Wave

By Mark de Silva

Two Dollar Radio
February 2016


One whore pushed the other along the sidewalk leading out of the city hospital. The wheelchair wobbled and bounced along the cracks, and with each impact Jen's body came throbbing back to life. She was swathed in gauze, soft and hard, for the three cracked ribs, the two snapped clavicles, the broken orbital, the dislocated shoulder, and the subluxated elbow of the opposite arm. (These were just the injuries above the waist.) Her limbs felt as if they were not quite hers, as if a slightly firmer shock might separate them from her altogether. Perhaps that's what was needed, the thought came to her and went.

Mariela, the other whore, born Ecuadorean into respectable circumstances but long since transplanted to the social fringes of North America, led the chair down an incline to the pavement. The jolts came in a triplet, the first and third accented. The chair crossed that neat, narrow avenue, freshly corrugated after a recent collision, under heavy rains, between a Camaro, a Kawasaki, and an ambulance carrying victims of another car accident. The motorcyclist left with a bruised femur and a wrecked bike. The Camaro's passengers, four teenage boys, were effectively cremated on site, their bodies being inextricable from the flaming car. Those in the ambulance escaped unscathed, though the two in the back died shortly after of their original injuries.

"I need a couple of things," Mariela said. "We do. But I can do this after, if you want." Jen's head shook and then bobbed fractionally. Her eyes held a long blink as her head came to a rest, slumped.

Mariela steered the chair through the propped double doors of the grocery. The clerk gave her a glance before fixing on the blue rubber wheels of the chair. He made his way up from the loose sweats Jen wore (Mariela's), the billowy sleeveless shirt, the soft cast at the elbow, the sling, and the figure-eight splint peeking out at both shoulders, to her right eye, watering lightly, the lens saturated with blood on the outer half. His gaze flicked back and forth between the splint and the inflamed eye.

"I'll just get this stuff real quick," Mariela said, mostly for the clerk. She picked up a green basket from the stack beside the door, leaving Jen near the deli counter. Wax paper separated the slices stacked into squat towers, of beef, of chicken, of sausage dotted with bright white fat, and of hams and turkeys, honeyed, baked, boiled, smoked, and cured.

Around the towers plastic wrap had been hung, so that the top slice, not being papered over, could be plainly seen. Despite the wrap, the meat on top had suffered; the edges of the slices had dried and darkened. Near the center the textures were more natural. Each was a signature, each played on Jen's eyes: the slick marbled surface of rare roast beef, heavy with blood; the fine uniform density of ham; the coarse grain of roasted pork; and the lighter, airier textures of chicken.

Behind the stacks, more tightly wrapped in plastic than the slices, was a small slab of the corresponding creature, prepared just so. In the case of the chicken slices, it was a half of a chicken behind them, the only animal whose form remained. At the other end were the sausages, where the shapes of the creatures going toward them had been entirely erased.

"Turkey, right?" Mariela returned with a full basket.

"Thank you," Jen said, with a gravity that seemed to transcend turkey. The clerk came around and took off the plastic wrap on the slices. Jen motioned to the slab instead. "Thin."

He hoisted the animal and pushed the saw pedal. The blade whirred, the teeth flashed. The man drove the bird through the ring, shaving nine or ten limpid slices from the slab that collected on the far side of the blade in a translucent pile.

"That it?" the clerk asked the women as he wrapped the meat in paper and dropped it in a plastic bag.

"Is that it?" Mariela asked.

Jen turned to the basket. Tuna, skim milk, English muffins, a six-pack of Michelob, a small bottle of Advil, then cold udon in a ginger sauce and a bag of green apples under that. Her eyes lingered on the fruit, though she had something else in mind.

"Cigarettes?" she said.

"Yeah," Mariela said.

"Dunhills," Jen said.

Mariela gave her a funny look. Jen had started smoking them as a joke, back at UVA, when as a sophomore her interests seemed to have turned a bit tony in her friends' eyes. She'd declared in classics that year. She'd always loved to read, to disappear—in fiction, in plays—so why not find out where it came from, how it first happened? And if you didn't actually use a pipe, like a don in an old leather chair, weren't Dunhills what you smoked reading Aeschylus?

Now she enjoyed them. Somehow they smoked as if they weren't even burning. But the tragedies ended up unfinished—she dropped out in her junior year. Or took a break, really. Even three years later, that's still the way she saw it, still the story she told her family, even if they didn't put much stock in it anymore. But that last year in school, she hadn't even been able to make it to classes, let alone pass them. So why hang around campus pretending you were in a condition to do what you couldn't?

The origin of that condition was still obscure to her. One thing she knew was this. Over those months, nights reading the ancients sipping wine had turned into mornings swigging vodka curing hangovers. At the same time she remembered an encroaching feeling of uselessness, uselessness to herself. Her family had picked up that something was wrong, her brother especially, but they avoided the questions—about the missed Christmases, the sporadic silences, the slurred speech—for fear of the answers.

Was drinking a cause or an effect, though? AA people liked to say booze always masked other problems. But often it seemed to Jen the only problem she had with alcohol was the grace she found in it. She was perfectly fine without it, no tears, only a little lifeless perhaps, a little bored. But with it, and especially in the hour-long window before she'd had too much, she felt as if her inner life perfectly aligned with the one outside. Nothing was left out of place. She became herself, the best version of her. And if you discovered you could turn into yourself like that, wouldn't you do it as often as you could, come what may? The only time she saw surprise on the face of her college psychiatrist was when she told her this. It frightened her friends too. She had trouble explaining the thought any further, but the words never felt wrong.

Maybe now, though, crippled as she was, she'd have to find grace in the books again, to go back, to disappear properly. The clerk found the cigarettes on the shelves. Mariela paid for everything and hung the two plastic bags on the handles of the chair. She pushed Jen out the door, the bags swinging forward a few degrees, then back, as they crept back out onto the uneven sidewalk.

The sun was low and large outside. It gave light without heat. They trundled five blocks, across bone-white sidewalks and charcoal pavements, past public basketball courts, a narrow slate chapel, and a towering parking lot, almost a fortress, to 384 West—Mariela's building—a walk-up in white with green accents, simple lines, eight floors. Mariela rolled Jen into the shallow retrofitted elevator and the doors grazed the blades of her shoulders as they closed. Jen's slippered feet, wrapped in heavy black socks, pressed against the back wall and took on its angle from the ball up. They got out at the sixth, onto a hall lined with pastel green paper crisscrossed with long curlicues in a lighter green.

The apartment was shallow but very wide, with wood stained peach. Jen had been here before, though not in a while. Mariela was not a close friend, really. She'd arrived at this by a route so different, so much commoner, true intimacy seemed out of the question. By American standards, Mariela came from bona fide poverty, and her family was far away, in Ecuador, with so little connection to her now Jen couldn't remember Mariela mentioning them more than once in the time she'd known her. Meanwhile Jen had a radiologist for a father, and her family was just in D.C., a few hundred miles away, waiting, probably, for that first honest phone call from her that could turn all of this around, almost overnight. They'd bring her home, or start sending real money again, make all this unnecessary. In just months she could even be back in school, as if she had just taken a little break.

This made her the exception in Mariela's world. Sometimes Jen would marvel at how it had all happened, how, with so much opportunity, she had ended up just as alone. Wasn't that common ground between them at least? That life had managed, for the moment at least, to reduce both of them to wraiths? Life was doing that to all sorts of people lately, though. Which meant you couldn't take it personally, even if you wanted to.

Still, Mariela was here now, and Jen had very distinctly felt some of the tightness come out of her face when she appeared beside her bed in the hospital. Mariela didn't pretend to really understand her, that's probably what Jen liked about her most. Maybe refusing a false communion had established a different kind of closeness between them. In truth, Mariela probably understood enough of Jen, everything that counted now.

Mariela's place had been in worse shape the last time, with clothes and an unusual number of shoes strewn about the living room, beer bottles in the sink, half the lights burned out, and everything reeking of several types of smoke, each of them illicit. Now it looked vigorous and right, prim even. Maybe Mariela was different. Or maybe it was just a matter of courtesy, and had just been made up. She hoped it wasn't courtesy.

"I think someone will be here today, to talk," Mariela said while splitting the noodles between ceramic plates. She flipped the plastic box and poured the ginger dressing, loose as water, onto them. It splashed against the ceramic and dribbled onto the countertop. Bits of chive floated in these black pools. "Erin had to talk to them—"

"They came by the hospital to tell me." Jen's lips twisted. "It's fine." Mariela had left her by the long line of latticed windows. The view was not especially interesting—a jagged row of pre-wars—but she had a lot of it. Mariela was good at what she did, and she worked six days a week.

The steam radiator, painted a burnt orange, provided what the light could not. But the pale wash fell on Jen all the same, in a grid that located her in its lower quadrants. She turned her head toward the facing buildings. Her eye shifted off a bar of shadow and filled with too much light as her damaged iris failed to adapt to the change. She shifted back by reflex and the buildings were replaced in her view by the lamp and table at the far end of the apartment.

"She's fine now, pretty much," Mariela said. "She got out right after you went in." She held the plate out to Jen but she didn't reach for it. So she lowered it onto the sill, a third of it hanging over the edge, and tucked the tines beneath the noodles.

Mariela ate. She stood at first; then she sat on the sill. The noodles, bloated with dressing from their time on the store shelves, dangled from the fork as she conveyed them from plate to mouth. They sparkled in the soft sunlight, and they dripped, having absorbed what they could. She finished most of the plate and set the remainder next to Jen's.

"You're okay staying here?" Mariela asked.

Jen took in a short, sharp breath through the mouth. Her thoughts scattered at the question, forcing her eyes from the lamp to the blue-green fingers on the hand of her slinged arm. With her good hand she gingerly picked up the plate and, shoulder stinging, balanced it on the armrest of the wheelchair. The bruised fingers steadied the plate but just as they did the fork fell from its edge, lifting droplets of oil and soy onto the window and taking the noodles that were to have held it in place to the ground. They stared at the udon caught in the tines. Small rivulets of dressing formed.

Mariela held out her fork to Jen. She took it and began to eat.