WITH “Y” AS AN ABSENCE OF PAIN
by Sarah Sarai
Cici squints at Agatha’s toes, bunched together like an Indy 500 pile-up of smashed, shiny speed-racers. “And that’s why you wear socks in bed,” she says, leaning against the short kitchen counter as she points a slice of toast dripping with butter and honey at her wife’s feet. “It’s good you’re getting them looked at.”
Being urged to take care of herself is one of the benefits of marriage, Agatha reflects. She likes someone watching out for her, though she wishes that someone would use a plate when eating toast, but that’s also a benefit of marriage, the gift of being challenged by petty habits. “I’m glad we’re legal.” She dives in for a buttery smooch.
Both women bear the names of Christian martyrs, although, in fact, Agatha was named after her grandmother’s best friend, who stayed in Sweden when her grandmother moved to New York, while Cecilia’s is a family name going back to some long-ago relatives, “cotton pickers on Satan’s plantations.” Both women are feminists. “Ya think?” is what Cici would say should anyone inquire.
So today is podiatrist day. Agatha leaves work early and happily, work being a pharmaceutical ad agency where she edits and fact-checks. She is not the medical profession’s greatest booster, but she knows podiatrists are mild-mannered specialists and not Guantanamo interrogators the CIA disavows. But she’s jittery. Her feet have been aching for months, the very feet she walks upon. That’s the thing—what if she’s grounded or benched?
Dr. Logan agrees that something’s amiss. Ag strains to hear what she doesn’t want to hear as he offers prognosis and options, the first option being to return every few weeks for the rest of her life so he can hygienically razor skin from her toes. This is not such a great choice, considering the longevity that is part of her family legacy. Does she want to be in the proximity of a razor-wielding podiatrist every few weeks for the next half of her presumed eighty years of life?
His second and recommended option is “the procedure,” in which he’ll carefully break a few of her bones and set them in a sort of cast so the bones reassert their natural shape. It’s just a toe or two, Ag argues with herself, noting how untroubled the doctor is by his suggestions. So what if it’s broken and she has to recuperate for weeks? Weeks! In bed and on the couch!
Leaving the office with a slick brochure in-hand and a few sympathetic words from the receptionist, Ag is soon on Bleecker in the Village, leaning against a large restaurant window and wiggling a pebble from her shoe.
“Lady!” A goon of a chef flaps his mildly white apron at her. “You wanna wash our windows?”
There is a third option. There’s always another option, she reckons as she hobbles on, not quite alert to direction. This third option involves calling Cici and crying. It is a good option, which she realizes into being as she limps west, away from the heavier foot traffic of Seventh Avenue toward Hudson Street. It may be January, but the day is sunny, and that church, Saint Someone’s, has a little garden in which she can sit. Saint who? She can’t recall the saint’s name.
Cici Ebenezer answers on the first ring. Ebenezer means “stone of truth,” as she has boasted more than once with a pride Ag finds reassuring. Her wife is solid and truthful. Sometimes her honesty is a byproduct of stubbornness, and she refuses to tell the graceful lie, but among your friends, not to mention wife (they’re coming on their five-year anniversary), honesty is much-desired. Ag sees herself as more of a wimp. She’s not wrong.
No sooner does Cici say, “Hello, honey,” then Ag breaks down, sobbing not how but that her life is over.
“No, it’s not, baby, it’s not over.”
“What about Mrs. Heimlich?” Who lives on the first floor of their building. “She’s never been the same!”
“She was run over a cab.”
“Her foot was!”
“It was a maneuver, ta dah dah.” Heimlich maneuver jokes never get old.
Five teenagers cross Hudson Street, the lowering sun outlining them. They are Black, though none as Black as Cici. Their loss. “Ma’am.”
Agatha nods. They walk on, joking with each other. “You got too many left feet,” one of the kids goads the other. Everywhere, feet.
Something nags at Ag. “What’s a chiropodist?”
“Say what?” Cici’s closed her office door. Agatha hears a keyboard click and knows Google is being Googled. Google-izing-in-action. The Google-ization of the globe. “Aha.” She imagines Cici’s triumphant expression when she scores big in Scrabble. “A chiropodist is the same as a podiatrist, only British.”
“So Ebenezer Scrooge would have seen a chiropodist?”
“If he’d been willing to cough up the co-pay.”
The kindly receptionist slipped Ag two Advil, which, on top of the two she found in her purse have finally kicked in. Still on the phone, she decides not to go to the church garden—it’s Saint Luke, she forgot about Luke, a fairly prominent participant in the religion’s beginnings, and heads south a few more blocks to Leroy Street, where she turns right, with the subway entrance at Houston and Seventh in mind. It’s a happy block with tall trees and a branch library next to a playground. Here and there tree roots have busted through the sidewalk.
“I’m on Leroy,” Ag says. A gull heading back to the river, or the High Line, or New Jersey—what does she know of gulls’ travel itineraries?—calls loudly. Keow, keow.
“You’re on Leroy? Hope you’re wearing protection.”
“Ha ha ha.” Ag removes her knitted cap for a good scratch. Her hair springs free like children when the school bell rings.
“Ag, your feet ache, yeah, but you’re not getting them bound. Kathy Bates isn’t about to hobble you.”
“The doc is trying to find a fix for you. You’ve been hurting.”
Agatha wants to whine but checks herself. Settles on the middle concrete step leading to a red brick apartment house. Her butt feels the cold. Her appointment had been scheduled for 2:30 p.m., and the doctor, the chiropodist diluted to an American podiatrist, was running late, so she didn’t see him until closer to 3:30 p.m. Now it’s nearing 5 p.m. and distinctly chilly—the nip of winter air is insufficiently warmed by the exploding climate. And she’s hungry.
“We’ll stay home. I’m up for take-out.” Ag is envisioning Cici envisioning the feel of Ag’s soft round body and Cici’s lean frame against each other, in motion, both knowable and mysterious in bed, with a mostly eaten carton of rice next to a pillow. “And getting cozy.” She is not one for sweet talk on the phone, but Ag surmises her meaning. “Thai food sound good? Spring rolls, those curry puffs, maybe duck. Hey, that how-to I told you about is finally out of my hands. Celebration time is here.”
They met at the School of Visual Arts, where Cici teaches one class a year. She designs book covers for one of the big publishing companies and has won a few industry awards. Agatha was looking at a friend’s daughter’s show in the gallery.
It is dusk. As Ag winds her scarf around her neck, she notices, sauntering along Seventh to Hudson, the same group of high school kids she saw on Bleecker. She observes the teens’ various stances and general air. They are having a good time in the slightly loud way dumbass teenagers have a good time. She remembers giggling through Southern California malls with other girls when she was in junior high. They would dab perfume on each other until the sales lady hinted they could leave, then race up the down escalator. One time she stumbled in her rubber zories and was administered first aid by a guard. Her feet have always been out for her.
As the kids pass by, the shortest trips on a tree root, which had powered through the sidewalk years back. “Fuck that shit.”
He is laughed at by his friends, one of whom is considerably taller than he is. The two of them are directly in front of Ag. “Apologize to the lady.” The taller teenager nods to her.
The kid who tripped glares, then shrugs. “Sorry.” He struggles against his sweet smile.
She waves her hand, no problem.
“My brother is learning manners.” The oldest kid is being an oldest. Maybe a little too much so, Ag thinks. She is a veteran of older siblings, the having of.
But whatever. “Continuing education, I’m a believer.”
Another of the kids invites her to join them. “We could party.”
“Yeah, right.” She is secretly pleased.
They walk on, and she’s back on the sidewalk, slowly squeezing her toes into her splendidly pointy shoes and rubbing her cold butt. Hot soup would be good. She texts Cici to add Thai coconut soup to the order.
Noises from down the street reach her. A bar fight? she wonders, not convinced. Henrietta Hudson, the dyke bar nearby, is pretty easygoing and certainly so in the afternoon. She hears a specific sound like a large snap. The cloud of gentle neurosis that’s shrouded her is replaced by straight-out fear. Suddenly there are sirens. She hurries the best she can back down Leroy to Hudson. In the streetlights on the corner, she sees a body, inert on the sidewalk.
The oldest of the teenagers, the tall one, is shouting, “Why’d you do that?” Cops are milling and showing their muscle. Some women from Henrietta Hudson are standing as close as they are allowed and have apparently caught whatever happened on their cell phones.
“What’s all this about?” Ag doesn’t need an answer.
It is the shortest teenager, the one who apologized to her, who is down.
He’s dead on arrival, the kid, Victor Soto. Ag and Cici learn this when they watch the reports of the shooting on the news. The phone videos taken by the dykes from Henrietta’s have been leaked. There is nothing new to this particular story. A white policeman; a rookie; a quote/unquote misunderstanding; a split-second decision—well, not really a decision, because a decision requires consideration. More a nasty-as-hell impulse on the cop’s part. And that’s that for the teenager, the goofy kid.
“The Daily News website says Bratton is backing the cop, the lying fuckhead.” They ate all the dishes they ordered, but without their usual gusto. Cici phones her brother. Then her cousin. After each call, she reports their reactions to Ag. Each one asks what Agatha saw and if she will be a witness, and Cici tells them that a beat cop wrote down Ag’s story and her details. “Ag got their details, too. The beat cop’s badge number.”
It’s been a few hours since Agatha abandoned the high heels, and her feet have stopped throbbing. Her feet—not throbbing. Just like that, a + b – c = y, with y as absence of pain. The equation says, “Here I am, lady. You can just stop wearing those pointy shoes.” That’s it, and of course the podiatrist didn’t mention that possibility—no money in it for him. If she doesn’t wear pointy shoes, her toes won’t look like they are wishing for good luck like fingers crossing. Her two feet and ten toes will be out of harm’s trap. Open-toed shoes and square-toed boots are her salvation. Her aha moment. Like supper, there’s no gusto.
The next night she and Cici join a rally against police malfeasance, also known as bullshit, also known as murder, at Union Square. A week later, she testifies to the teenagers’ politeness immediately prior to the shooting. “And sweetness,” she tells the grand jury. “He was sweet.” Sweet Victor Soto.
A few weekends later, she carts all her pointy shoes to the Goodwill and follows through on her plan by buying sensible footwear. Her toes untangle. Dr. Logan fades into old memory. Victor Soto does not return to life. The body sometimes heals, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. None of the murdered ever return to life, including the martyrs, like Saint Victor, who kept on being who he was, in his case a believer, a silly believer. Emperor Maximian had him killed.
Sarah Sarai’s short stories have been published in Gravel, Connotations, Fairy Tale Review, South Dakota Review, New Madrid, The Antigonish Review, Wilderness House, Devil’s Lake, Tampa Review and many other journals. Her MFA in fiction is from Sarah Lawrence College. She is also a poet, with many poems out and about. She was born in New York State, grew up in California, and now lives in New York City.
Image credit: rselph on Flickr