The Ark

The Ark

The Ark 1080 1350 Analee Kirby Kluge

The bartender cracks an egg and passes the yolk back and forth between the two pieces of broken shell. The white drops into the glass below. Some at the bar scowl in disgust, tongues wagging. The customer takes a delicate sip. Her eyebrows shoot up as her mouth breaks into a smile. The bartender nods in return, shooting sideways I-told-you-so glances to the other patrons.

From across the room, I attempt to count the bricks as they climb the wall behind the bar. I am overwhelmed by the amount. The ceiling must be thirty feet high. The precision of pattern created by the masonry of mortar prickles my skin.

My husband walks toward me from across the room, dwarfing the crowd. I study the outline of his shoulders, jaw, and the planes of his face. With pocketed hands, he weaves around the tables and makes his way into the bar area. He catches my eye but looks away.

Fear floods the corridors of my heart. Words, unspoken, catch in the doors and float in the rising waters. All our unity and joy seems to have ebbed away. I want to pull pins from my pocket and tack his mouth into a grin, stab the corners up just so. I want to pull a matchbox from the other pocket, flick a flame into being, and light it behind his eyeballs.

“The table isn’t ready yet.” He lets out a sigh and leans against the bar rail.

“That’s okay, they’re running late anyway. And it’s still pouring outside.”

A deluge had begun when we’d arrived at the restaurant. My hair, still damp, smells like rain.

“The Robertsons are always late.” He scowls, takes a swig from his glass, and swishes it around in a muted gargle. I watch his Adam’s apple move up and down.

We stand still and quiet within the crowd, waiting together. I count fifty L-shaped angles in the tributaries of mortar that run throughout the expanse of the wall, then give up. The rain continues without sound, slashing the high windows in grey streaks. Lightning flashes every now and then, but the noise of the restaurant swallows the thunder.

“I’m hungry.” He sighs again.

“Yeah. Me too.”

But we both know it’s a lie.

I haven’t felt hungry in weeks. My appetite, lost.

I have become too thin. I know it from the way people look at me—a gaze that slides away, half pity, half hate or disgust. Is there a difference? The intrinsic physiology of consuming food seems to have unstitched itself from the biology of my body. My hunger has been hushed into a silent numbness. I only eat for the benefit of others, for their sliding eyes and at my husband’s prompting. Every time I do, I feel full and the fullness of my belly reminds me of my once-full uterus. Body surrounding body. Soul surrounding soul.

When our friends arrive and we finally sit down, I do not explain myself as Jack points at me and chides with a jovial laugh, “Order the porterhouse. You need some meat on your bones.”

His wife, Morgan, elbows her husband. “Stop it.” Her smile is grim with quiet rebuke.

My husband pretends not to hear, eyes scanning the menu.

The conversation moves along, weaving itself through our ordering and eating. I strain to move with it, to smile, to laugh when needed, to join in. Eventually, when dessert arrives, my husband and Jack fall into their own conversation. Morgan pounces on the opportunity, leans across the table, and asks in a low tone, “Are you okay? We heard what happened.”

I clench my teeth. Damn this small town. Damn this restaurant and this stupid dinner.

Her eyes widen at my silence, her voice tinged with desperation. “We heard, but we don’t know everything. I mean, I don’t know what happened.” She furrows her brow and looks down, wiping the sweat from her glass. “I’m sure it’s been really awful. Anyway, I shouldn’t have said anything. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. Are you?” She throws me a furtive glance. “Are you okay? I mean, I’m sure you are.”

I know what she wants to hear—what she needs to hear. “Yes, I’m okay. I’m fine.”

“Good.” Her head bobs up and down in a satisfied nod. “Good, I’m glad. I’m sure you did what was best. Those kinds of choices are always so tough. What do they call it? I should remember…” She gazes up at the ceiling, scrunching her nose.

The answer crawls out of the pit of my stomach and waits at the back of my throat.

“Oh yeah.” Her eyes light up. “T-A-S.”

I want to spit on her food. I want to spit in her face and scream. A feeling I cannot share or name sits on my tongue as a weight, anchoring the words I long to say. And Morgan will not shut up.

“So, they saved the DNA for you, didn’t they? I mean, you can always redo when you’re ready. That’s what’s so nice about all that.” She waves her hand in the direction of my husband. “And I’m sure he’ll find a new job soon too. How’s that going?”

I pick up my drink and take a long pull. I imagine the seam of my endometrium unraveling. The left-behind threads are floating in the chasm of my uterus. I draw the glass slightly away from my mouth and say, “It’s fine. He’s had some interviews.”

“Good, good.” She continues talking while twisting strands of her long hair around her fingers in an oblivious way.

“Your hair looks like a double helix when you do that. Like DNA cleaving together, then coming apart.” This I do not say.

Instead, I pretend to be interested in whatever Morgan is saying. Her words move around and over me along with the chatter of the other patrons and the clanging of utensils. Out of her mouth comes noise without meaning, sound without sense.

The doctor made TAS sound easy—terminate and save. The cells could be easily harvested, kept, and stored until a later date when my husband was back on his feet and we felt more financially comfortable to move forward. Sure, there were risks to my body, but as with any medical procedure, that was expected. It was everything the doctor hadn’t said that seemed to weigh so heavy.

We accepted every word of it, never expressing our doubts to one another. Except for one moment—me waiting in a white gown, my husband sitting silent in a chair, the walls of the little room closing in on us.

“Should we…” I spoke but could not complete my thought.

He locked eyes with me, and a stasis seemed to envelop us. I held my breath. Doubt hung in the room like humidity. Whatever he might have said or felt in response was interrupted by a light rapping on the other side of the door. Then it swung open and the doctor entered, sucking the air out of the room like a vacuum.

I realize my face has begun to reflect my thoughts, because Morgan stops speaking and says, “What’s wrong?”

I work quickly to screw my muscles into a grin. “Oh nothing.” I motion my hand toward her. “Go on.”

“Oh, I was just saying I need to use the restroom. Do you need to go? Come with me.” She pushes her chair back and stands, waiting.

I hesitate, but I do need to go, so I grab my bag from where it hangs on the back of the chair and rise to join her.

Morgan smiles and announces, “We’re headed to the ladies’ room.” When our spouses don’t respond, she rolls her eyes. “We may or may not come back.”

Unexpected laughter tumbles out of me. As we leave the table, I notice my husband’s eyes flit up and down the island of my body. I think I feel his gaze follow me across the room but do not look back to find out.

We have not touched in seven long months.

Morgan and I make our way past the tables and through the people standing around at the bar. As we move among the crowd, the lights go off. Startled, we stop. Lightning flashes through the high windows. Almost in unison, the overhead lights wink back on but continue flickering from bright to dim. We peer up and people point, gesticulating at the ceiling. “It’s a rave,” someone yells and the room erupts in laughter. The lights stop their dance and return to normal. Morgan and I continue to the back corner of the restaurant toward the restrooms.

When we enter, a group of younger women are chatting and touching up their make-up. I find an empty stall and relish the break from Morgan’s rambling, even though the surroundings are far from quiet. The lights pop off again for just a moment, but it is long enough to cause one of the girls to shriek, sending the rest into hysterics, laughing. As they leave and we come out of our stalls, Morgan and I find ourselves in a silence I think even she is glad for. We are the only ones in the restroom and stand at separate sinks framed by a single, large mirror. While I am washing my hands, I glance up and our eyes meet in the reflection. Her features, usually animated by talking, appear disturbed. Idle from lack of expression, her face is grave.

“You know—I’m a double…a clone, I mean.” She pauses, watching the water rinse away the soap from her hands. “My mother did TAS because my dad was sleeping with someone else. But later, when she felt ready, she had me. Or her. But it’s me.” Morgan grabs a paper towel from the dispenser and wipes her hands slow and deliberate, her reflection staring out at me from the mirror. “You know, I sometimes wonder if I’m her.” She points at herself. The reflection points back. “Or I wonder if she was me. A whole other me.” Morgan shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head. “Who was she? Or, I mean, who would she have been? Completely like me. But not.”

“A whole other you,” I murmur. My heart beats wild, on the edge of some abyss. I stand motionless to keep from tumbling in.

Morgan looks unsettled. Watching me, her eyes grow wet with tears. She sniffs and clears her throat. A bleak smile parts her lips. “You know Jack and I have been thinking about trying too. Before our counts deplete—while my eggs are still viable.”

Her attempt to lighten the leaden air fails. I remain arrested, staring in the mirror, a throbbing pressure building inside of me.

Morgan’s face falls. “But I keep thinking about her. The other me. What about her eggs? What about her viability?”

Her questions are catastrophic. A wave of emotion, deep and aching, rises, crests, and crashes over my heart. The veil shrouding me these past, long months is rent and torn apart. I feel violently deceived, eyes opened upon a sham.

Grief. I have been unable to name it until now.

My head drops into my hands. I fill them with warm tears. Words climb my vertebrae and explode upon my mind: termination, generation, obliteration.

My hope of saving for an ideal future drowns in loss.

Morgan draws near and puts her arms around me. Rage wracks my shoulders in jolts. I grab onto her like a buoy. She shushes me into stillness and we stand in a silent embrace. Body surrounding body. Soul surrounding soul.

Another woman enters the restroom and we release one another, exchanging embarrassed expressions. I grab a handful of toilet paper from one of the stalls.

“I must look like hell now.” Morgan dabs her eyes.

“No.” I shake my head. “I do. Is my mascara all over?”

“No. Well. Just there.” She gestures for me to see.

We turn and face our reflections again. Our noses are pink, our lashes wet. As I pat away the spots made by my mascara, the lights begin to flicker again. We are strobed in the quivering glow of the mirror. I see my friend as if for the first time. Morgan is beautiful. What other words had she spoken tonight, that I had not heard?

This time, the lights do not stop. We head back to our table. The room is illuminated in pulsating on-again, off-again beats.

“We thought you weren’t coming back,” Jack says, as we sit down.

“Can you believe him?” Morgan glowers, feigning annoyance.

We laugh.

Jack, confused, asks, “What?”

As if in answer, the lights go out. We are in utter darkness. No emergency or secondary lights switch on, and the air becomes charged with a kind of panic. Many grab and fumble for their phones—a room full of adults, afraid of the dark. Brief shots of lightning flash through the upper windows, redeeming our fear, or for some, enhancing it.

I am enveloped in quiet, tranquil grief. It makes me brave. I reach for my husband’s hand.

He takes mine into his own and our fingers interlace.

His touch sets my skin ablaze.

From across the expanse, his arm encircles my waist. His face nods down and rests in my hair. He draws in a breath and leaning further into me, speaks in my ear, “We should have left. I should have grabbed you in that gown and taken you home.” I feel another inhale of his breath pull at my hair. “I’m sorry,” he exhales in a whisper.

Peace floods the darkness like light.

We sit together in silence, everyone else buzzing in the chaos. The rain continues, battering the panes. The restaurant becomes lit up by a spectrum of sources, throwing various tones aloft, coloring the air in strange beams. My husband and I decide to leave, even though, to everyone’s glad surprise, the bar is remaining open.

I hug Morgan’s neck.

Jack is incredulous. “You guys are leaving? But it’s awful out there. At least stay for one more.”

I tell Morgan how glad I am that we met for dinner. I mean it.

She smiles at me with a knowing look.

“Why don’t you wait it out? You’re gonna get soaked,” Jack says.

“No,” my husband replies. “We’ll be alright. We’ll make it.” His voice is firm and sure.

The water pelts us as we dash through the parking lot. I feel woven into the fabric of the storm, each raindrop threading me, stitching me to solid ground. I am made whole, my grief known and set free.

My husband makes it to the car first and, like always, opens my door, waiting.

But I stop, grab onto his shirt, and squint up at him through the downpour.

“What is it?” He uses his hand to shield his face.

“I’m sorry too.”

“What?” He yells, unable to hear me.

“I’m sorry too!” I scream it out into the torrent.

Jack was right. We are soaked through.

My husband enfolds me in his arms.

Body surrounding body. Soul surrounding soul.

Header photography © Liz Baronofsky.

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