Put It Together
by Alex Myers
Alex Myers lives and teaches in Rhode Island. His writing has appeared in a variety of journals, including Apple Valley Review, Drunken Boat, and flashquake. Full details are available at alexmyerswriting.blogspot.com. He is currently a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
They ask you a thousand questions on these forms and only give you two boxes, yes or no. No to a history of high blood pressure in my family. Yes, I am taking prescription medication. No, I am not currently suffering from delusions or hearing voices, except for the nurses at the desk. Yes to frequent sleepless nights. And on and on, when in fact there are only three things you need to know about my life: my older brother, my cat, and my legs. Just these three pieces and you have everything. Or at least that's what I'd like to think.
Chapter One--The Older Brother
Why did he do it? Did he hate me? Or hate the cat? Isn't causing pain to animals one of the early signs of being a sociopath? I think I read that somewhere. It's not like he's in prison now, though in other senses, the moment of him, me, and the cat does define him, does determine the events of his life, just as it has for mine.
Picture him then. Picture the scene. My father away at work, my mother in the shower. Were they? Or am I just inventing plausible excuses for them? In any case, this is the story of my life and either will do, either is true, because, whatever the reality, they were not there. But my brother was, in his green, little boy shorts and white shirt; I remember the brown of his arms against the white of his shirt. Midmorning. None of these details is important. But there they are. There he was. Snatching up the cat from the rug, where I was teasing it with a piece of string, running with it from the living room through the hallway to the bedroom. Notice that he did not use the living room window. Part of my brother is this: he wanted me to chase him, as if I had any choice, as if I'd ever be anything other than his little sister, he forever bigger, forever doing things first, and I inescapably tagging along behind. If he had used the living room window, would the course of my life be any different? There was pavement underneath both windows--below one, the street; below the other, the inner courtyard of our apartment building. Neither soft, neither safe, the same thirty feet of air through which to fall. So, no matter, let's say, and behold his little legs have already carried him and the cat to his bedroom, the open window, the screen that pushes out so easily, to the fire escape. Mark this too, his first (that I know of) illicit exit to this wrought iron expanse, but surely not his last. Through high school I will hear the shoddily muffled ringing of his steps up and down the ladder, his nocturnal passages, in and out that window of my fate. But now, still a little boy, he is out there, the cat held up, milk teeth and still-soft kitten claws meaning nothing, and then tossed down. I can see it fall, for just an instant, through the black latticework of the fire escape, before I, too, step off into the nothingness of air, begin my own fall, another hopeless pursuit. But for now neither I nor the cat matters; it is just my brother standing there feeling triumphant, his burden loosed, his foe vanquished.
There is a reason--I know there is a reason--that we forgive children, that we are not adults until we are eighteen, that somehow a five-year-old is to be excused. He didn't know right from wrong. He didn't intend for me to follow after the cat. It has been nineteen years, and I should forgive him. The cat forgave him. At least as much as a cat forgives anything. But I see him now, in his suit and tie, boarding the subway train in the commuter crush every morning, pressed up against normal society. I see him in the Christmas cards he sends out every year, the wife and children next to him and the tree, looking as they ought to look. I see him out there and I'm running after him. I didn't catch him that day and with my legs--the way they've been since that day--I'm never going to catch up; but I'm getting ahead of my story. For now, you can picture my brother as I picture him, because this is my story, not his. So forget that nine-to-five job. Forget the wife and the kids. Forget the briefcase and commute and golf on weekends. Picture him only relatively, his self defined only in contrast: bigger and stronger and older and faster than me, always and forever. Determining, with an indirect stroke, who I would be. My creator, in a sense, the one who caused my fall, who broke me and made me who I am. And who can ever know the mind of her creator? Was it out of boredom? Benevolence? Accident or intent? From where I sit now, everything looks like fate. It might as well be, since it will never change. Destiny, then. So be it.
Chapter Two--The Cat
The cat's still alive. That's all you need to know.
She landed on her feet that day, like me, but she walked off--probably gave her ass a couple licks in feline nonchalance--unlike me. Nineteen years. She's still here, still has the same black fur, the same white stomach and paws, like she stepped in a can of paint. The same green eyes that often seem not to blink. The rest of that summer while I lay in bed, both feet, both legs, in plaster, she sat on my chest, her four perfect little paws on my torso, her face up next to mine, staring. It was never clear to me, and perhaps never clear to her, whether she was there in sympathy or mockery. Her green eyes staring right into mine. What was she looking for? I thought about hating her. I thought about it often, as she jumped up to the table or down from the bed. As, two years later, I still leaned on crutches and, another year after that, gingerly took a few painful steps. Her watching all of that. But I'm getting ahead of myself--my mind's always moved faster than my physical world.
Yes, the cat's still here. She sleeps all day when I'm at work and I feed her and wonder sometimes why I jumped down after her. She was thrown--she had no choice--but I went willingly. At least that's what I tell myself. Did I not understand gravity? Perhaps I had seen too many cartoons and thought that I might somehow catch up to her on the way down, the way the anvil catches the coyote or whatever. I am certain she does not remember that day, does not think anything special--pity or sympathy or guilt--as she rubs her whiskers against my crooked shin bones. There is no symmetry between us; we are not twins, not veterans of the same war. At best, she is like my shadow, mostly there, but able to slip away, not under the same constraints of shape or place or time.
Chapter Three--The Legs
The left one tilts in, at an angle steep enough that if you were an alpine hiker trying to make an ascent of my lower extremities, you'd want ropes and a pick to make your way up the slope. No casual Sunday afternoon jaunt up this tibia. The right one is straight, with a massive bulge at the ankle, and the knee is turned to the side, away from the other leg, staring out into space, as if, long ago, the left kneecap said something offensive, and since then the right kneecap can no longer bear to be in its presence. Estranged forever.
They tilt and bulge and lean enough that I always wear long skirts, not that I am trying to hide, not that it bothers me so much if people stare . . . but sometimes, if I can look down at a smooth expanse of fabric, it's as if my legs aren't there any more--magic--just gone.
Once, at a clinic, doing recuperative therapy after a surgery, I met a woman who had fallen while mountaineering. Ninety feet, she said, straight down a rock face. That's three times as far as I fell. My own fault, she told me, an anchor she hadn't placed well, or a knot she'd tied incorrectly. My own fault. Her legs were still needle straight, but the doctors had put so many pins and screws in them that she didn't bend anymore, a rigid scarecrow of a woman. Her own fault.
My knees and ankles still bend; they just don't point me in the same direction, so that I am constantly carrying myself off course, veering to either side, unable to follow the most direct path. But at least it was not my own fault. Or so I tell myself.
Chapter Three and a Half--The Feet
They are what I landed on, like the cat. Except whatever it is that makes landing on the feet an ideal strategy for cats does not hold true for humans. Know how many bones there are in the human foot? Twenty-six. After my fall, or, more accurately, after my landing, I had fifty-two--every single bone broke. I call them humpty and dumpty. There's nothing that can put them back together. Ten toes, looking like cocktail weenies, sticking out of two potatoes. That's what I call feet. You try walking on potatoes.
Sometimes, I think about the falling itself. It's the last time I felt free, except I can't quite remember it. Because when I try to picture it, it is more of a feeling, the slow fall, the endless fall, no air rushing past my face, and the sensation--as if in a dream--that I will never land, that there is nothing there to stop me, to catch me. It seems to last forever, that moment before everything went to pieces, before those pieces became set, fixed. I try to imagine how it could have been otherwise: how I might have let the cat fall alone. How I might have pushed my brother off. But none of these things could have happened. I understand that.
It means I had to learn to walk a second time and, unlike the first, I remember this time. The knees unwilling to bend at first, swinging my legs from the hips, walking like a zombie. Frankenstein, my brother called me, while the cat just ran away and jumped to the top of the kitchen cabinets. Lumbering steps. At least I could take them.
Every so often a doctor will suggest a surgery, a new procedure. Break the bones again, reset them. Put in pins, take out screws. I shouldn't bother anymore. I can't imagine life without these legs. It would not be my life. My life is stiff and rigid, especially in the morning. It is slow and unwieldy; it is sometimes full of pain.
They never ask the right questions on these forms. There's only one here even remotely related to my brother: Do you have siblings? Yes. And that doesn't even scratch the surface of it. Needless to say, there are no questions about the cat. A great many, though, do address my legs, wanting to know in minute detail the nature of the pain: throbbing, burning, sharp, at night? Yes, yes, yes.
If they handed me a clean sheet of paper, I could show them what the questions should be. But I don't get to choose; they are determined for me. Go ahead and ask me what I dream of at night. Ask me whether it is my secret ambition to push my brother out a window. What do I hate the most? I hate to go shoe-shopping. What is my goal in life? A job where I can wear slippers to work. These aren't the questions they ask. To them, I am something broken, something they can try to fix. There's no room on this form for me to say, these are my legs, and I've had them so long that it seems that they make me who I am.
Rarely these days, but it does happen, the three pieces of my life come together: my legs walk into a room with the cat and the older brother. The pieces don't fit nicely; there's no pretty picture when they've been assembled. Now my legs wouldn't run after my brother if he took the cat, wouldn't jump if he threw it once more. Maybe the cat wouldn't live this time; I'm on the fifth floor now. He sets his briefcase down, takes the coffee that I offer him. It's all different. The cat sniffs his shoes while he shows me pictures of his new baby. And that's life. It's one thing after another, piece by piece, and we pretend we're putting it all together.
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