When Smiles Stretch Translucent
by Mel Bosworth
Sandy cried when she caught me pushing the needle through a pinch of flesh at my ankle. I was sitting on the bathroom floor, naked heel pressed firmly into the carpet to steady my leg. I had to finish sewing before I could comfort her. The skin was so thin, it being so close to the bone and all, and I couldn't risk a tear. A few fish wire stitches were all I needed to pull things tighter, thicker. Fish wire was better than thread, like I was catching myself somehow.The door was closed but not tightly, and Sandy knocked it open. Three knocks, and then I was hers to see. She slumped against the doorjamb, her hand pressed to her forehead. She took in the scene with a moan that hurt my heart. I looked low at her blue-dotted dress, her orthopedic shoes, mindful to avoid her eyes. I felt like a guilty child. But I understood the sewing was something I needed to share, which is why I continued. Sandy came down beside me, curling her legs beneath her. She watched me work, silent. Between knots, I pushed her red hair from her face with my lips so I could kiss the freckles on her cheeks.
I'd been sewing myself longer than she knew. My wrists were the first, and I'd sewn them just after our fortieth anniversary, now nearly five years gone. I was thankful that day for having been born ambidextrous, and the seams were nearly indistinguishable among my wrinkles. But despite the craftsmanship, I continued to hide my work as best I could, usually by wearing long-sleeved shirts, even in the summertime, or by sporting wrist bands, though I never played any sports. I was worried about the reaction the scars might cause, or, perhaps more so, I was unready to admit the fact that my body was in decline.
But lately, my ruse had grown burdensome, particularly when Sandy and I we were beneath the covers. She had recently taken to stroking my forearms until she fell asleep, her hands searching out their warmth and softness in the darkness. I'd catch her hands in mine, keep her sated with my fingertips where my pulse was strong. But sometimes she'd elude my grasp and brush the raised flesh. In the morning, her green eyes would question, though her mouth remained still. Seeing her like that, doubtful, afraid, I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to divulge my secret.
On the bathroom floor, Sandy dabbed the blood at my ankle with the bottom of her dress as I cut the last of the fish wire with the scissors from the kitchen. We looked at each other, embraced long and hard, and then fell asleep on the carpet, a tangle of love and aging limbs.
I dreamed about my mother. She'd passed early, thus I learned how to sew at an early age. The first time I saw her sewing herself, my youth and her coolness kept me from being alarmed; she acted as if she were doing something as common as applying eye shadow. I rushed in from the yard, sweaty and breathless, excited about this or that, a boy's wild imagination, and saw her sitting at the kitchen table, hands busy on her face. I slowed my breathing, moved to stand beside her. After a few moments, I asked, "Can I help?"
I cradled the mirror from her vanity table while she carefully pierced the folds held by clothespins around her eyes. My mother was a beautiful woman with pale skin and high cheekbones. Before my father died in the war, he was fond of calling her his Irish Queen. She liked to sew herself with white thread because it blended well with her complexion, but she said I could choose whatever I wanted when it was my time. I'd tell Sandy the same thing.
I'd been going for years, slowly separating as if my skin longed to fly. Unlike my mother, it wasn't cancer that weakened my body; it was time that pulled me apart. And it was often hard to see, a lover's aging face pressed so closely to yours on the pillow, lines growing from lines, deepening, then thinning. Smiles stretched translucent. It was difficult to catch every day as Sandy and I moved numb to forward, hapless to now. The crawl of familiarity offered an easy blindness to us both.
But once the veil was lifted that night on the bathroom floor, it was simpler for us to see where things were letting go, and Sandy grew harder as time went by. When my neck started to give way just after Thanksgiving, she helped me to the chair by her vanity table and then told me to sit still. I asked if it would be easier to go out to the garage, because suddenly finding myself surrounded by make-up and hair brushes, I felt foolish, somehow less of a man.
"I can make a table that's level with the vise on the work bench," I suggested. "We can put my head in the vise."
But Sandy said no, and I acquiesced. She squeezed and laced small folds along my neck, mindful not to stab my Adam's Apple. When she was finished, she carefully rubbed salve along the seam. My blood and whimpers didn't bother her. She was focused when she sewed me together, her eyes like diamonds. I think we knew each other best during those intimate moments of shared strength, vulnerability.
I wore a red and green turtleneck when our daughter and son came for Christmas. When I spoke to them, I turned with my entire body because my neck was still sensitive. My daughter, a wide but pretty girl with her mother's red hair, pretended not to notice my stiffness. She knelt at the base of the pine tree in the living room, her hands touching popsicle stick ornaments she'd made as a child. My son, thick like his sister yet handsome like his father used to be, was the more overtly astute of the two. He narrowed his dark eyes as he studied me, ran his fingers through his curly hair, a near gesture of exasperation that was admirably restrained. Perhaps some of his restraint could be credited to my calm demeanor. My mother taught me well.
At the dinner table, our plates piled deep with cuts of ham, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, I offered the children kind, encouraging words, words I hoped meant something, if not then, later, when they found themselves in quiet spaces. I stood up from my chair and made my way around the table, touching their skin. They let their cheeks fall into my palm. I kissed their wholeness with my eyes, my lips. Then I looked to Sandy. She sat at the head of the table, dressed in a ruffled, red gown, silently observing my goodbye.
I'd kept my secret from the children for too long, and when I was gone, Sandy would need to show them how to sew. I imagined her sitting at her vanity table, her red hair covering the cracks on her small shoulders, cracks I'd noticed as I watched her sleep, cracks that would soon broaden.
"Are you ready, Mom?" my daughter would ask.
Sandy would lace her fingers beneath her chin to form a basket with her hands, and then she'd lean forward, wary to keep her head back. She'd whisper she was ready, and then she'd wait for the needle that carried the white silk of her wedding gown to the nape of her neck. My son would watch from the doorway, fingering the shallow, damp laugh lines at the corners of his mouth. Then he'd step into the room, a question bending his lips.
Mel Bosworth is the author of Grease Stains, Kismet, and Maternal Wisdom (Brown Paper Publishing, 2010), and Freight(coming 2011, Folded Word Press). His writing has appeared in BLIP MAGAZINE(formerly Mississippi Review Online), Annalemma, PANK, Dark Sky Magazine, and Wigleaf, among others. Visit him at melbosworth.com