Bitumen

Earlier that day while getting dressed, slowly, painstakingly, the same dirty flannel as yesterday and the day before buttoned one plastic button at a time, something in Adrian snapped. The beige walls of his father’s home closed in on him. He had to get away.

As he walked to his car, the sole of his right loafer peeled from the outer edge. They were the particularly ugly pair that Marlene had gifted him at Christmas two winters ago. He had forgotten to thank her right away, absorbed in examining their awkward stitching, and by the time he had remembered, it felt too awkward to bring up.

But he shouldn’t be thinking about her anyway.

The museum had been renovated since his last visit. An unexpected windfall from city hall had bolstered a turnover of not only the facilities, but, as Adrian had very personally discovered, the employees. He didn’t understand how there could be that many people in the job market for museum curators. But maybe that’s where all the jobless liberal arts majors were ending up now. Museums. A long, curated exhibit of jobless, indebted young people strapped to their degrees. A bachelor’s, a master’s in fine arts, a mile-long trail of empty ramen cups.

Strangers mistook Adrian for younger than he was, slipping student tickets into his hand to his chagrin. He pre-emptively handed his ID to the woman at the counter, a receptionist of massive proportions. Absolutely massive. He was certain she thought he looked emaciated and sick but hah, he thought, at least I have an excuse. The pink of her sweater made her look swollen, spilling forth from the reception desk, through the neat rows of pamphlets and museum maps and custom-made museum-insignia-plastered pens, over the ebony desk top like waves of human stench.

“Sir? I said that will be twenty-five dollars for one adult ticket.”

“Right.” His voice came out like worn leather. His tongue was dry; he realized he hadn’t spoken to anyone in days. He cleared his throat and tried again to the same results. “Right.”

He handed her two bills and she slipped the ticket to him. “Enjoy.” The oil on his fingers slid slowly on the gloss of the ticket. It was holographic, showing two different images depending on its angle to the light. One image showed the front façade of the museum, designed to look like some bastardized combination of austere New England brick and classical white pillars; the other, the featured exhibit: a long row of sarcophagi whose blue and gold faces seemed to drift off into infinity.

“We went with a more engaging design for this exhibit. All the posters and tickets are by a new graphic designer. She adores this place, and I think it really shows,” said the pink woman, gesturing to the wall-length posters. The words burbled out of her. Clearly, she was new. She paused, waiting for him to smile back. The small rotating fan on the desk blew a wisp of her hair behind her wide grin. He swore he could smell her. Like old meat.

He shuffled away from her to the exhibit. He looked back momentarily, but the pink woman had already shifted her attention back to her desktop.

He shivered entering the exhibit, both from cold and from a sense of awe. Immersed in darkness, surrounded by walls painted with descriptions, and then panes of glass and lines of black or white framing case upon case of rediscovered beauty. The museum was the only luxury his parents had afforded him in childhood, once a month, and it still felt like a treasured occasion to visit as a guest. Strangely, Ba had always refused to buy the membership, a habit that, though in all logical sense must have wasted money better spent on the electricity bill or new shoes, continued in him, like other remnants of his father that refused to budge - his juvenile appearance, the stubbornness of his character, or the way his lips tightened at the edges in moments of anger.

The mummy exhibit was itself a tomb, cold and empty and possessing a hollow resonance. As the end of the path, Adrian recognized the face of a man he knew-a curator, Thomas-who stood stationed at the corner between a case detailing canopic jars and a placard describing the mummification process. His shoulders tensed as he walked past Thomas. He and Thomas had both started working at around the same time, bonding over shared confusion and excitement. Adrian had often saved Thomas from the embarrassment of not being able to answer a patron’s question, swooping in at the first glimmers of panic in Thomas’s otherwise eternally calm demeanour. He held his breath as he walked past his colleague, as though he were a child again walking past the earthy musks creeping from his parents’ herbal medicine shop on the way to the bus stop on Main and East Hastings.

Thomas didn’t notice him. He probably didn’t recognize him anymore.

Entering the final hall spilt pins into Adrian’s feet. It was a place of calm. He nodded slightly, silently giving approval to the display that drew the eye towards the focal point of the sarcophagus. He felt a calm settle his twisting gut. In the years he had worked in the museum, there hadn’t been an exhibit like this, the contents of a tomb complete with an internationally revered mummified resident.

For a moment, he felt as he always felt surveying a new exhibit-exalted, connected to a grander sense of self-and then a biting, tar-like bitterness swelled in the back of his throat, choking him. Bile. He pressed his hand to his face, breathing deeply, still struck by how prominent the bones of his jaw had become, holding in his retch. The nausea crested, then fell away.

When Marlene left the last time, it came as a surprise to the both of them. She stood in the doorway for a few moments, breathless. It was the usual tableau: eyes red, hair pulled in tangles through a rubber band, an overnight bag in hand. Phone and keys in one hand, a power move. Feverish cries, face sapped of its usual grace and smile. One moment, Marlene had been holding him, taking a break from preparing their dinner, humming a tune, playing with his hair. Next, she stood on the threshold of their home, against the railing they had had painted just the previous summer. It was all too familiar, but this time, he was too weak to run after her. This time, she didn’t come back.

“It’s just too much,” she had said through her tears. “Each day I’m waiting- waiting for you to…” Her voice gave way to further sobbing. “It’s my fault. It’s me, I swear. I’m just weak. If I were-I couldn’t, I can’t be there for you. I’m too weak. I’m so, so sorry.”

It was always the same words, some frantic combination of “can’t” and “weak” and “sorry” strung together in gasps. Her self-inflicted blame drowned both of them and through the cocktail of medications in his system slowing his thoughts and numbing his nerves he moved too slowly, mustered words too trite, and by the time he even said anything, Marlene was gone.

Still, his mouth moved slowly to say––

“It’s not your fault.”

He said it dumbly, to no one in particular. Of course, no one replied.

Since then, one shameful call to his father later, he had moved back home to finish his recuperation. He had an entire liver to integrate into his system. Or rather, a fifth of a liver. A fifth of Marlene’s liver. A literal, aching reminder of their relationship. He had a part of her with him at all times now. Always. And thinking of it pulsating within him, he would imagine Marlene saying “always.”

The first night in his childhood room, the walls full of holes from where posters of world artifacts used to hang, he threw out his nausea medication. It clattered in the ashy-coloured trashcan.

It was still there, useless, when he awoke abruptly after two hours of fitful sleep and stumbled to the bathroom. He vomited straight into the toilet bowl. When he stood up to rinse his mouth at the sink, he noticed the stench of his own breath. It made his words taste like the bitterness of roots and herbal teas.

He breathed a cloud of condensation onto the mirror. With his index finger outstretched, he hesitated a moment, then wrote her name. The curls of the e – n – e wanted to go on forever, so he dragged a long tail from the final stroke.

 

***

 

Recovery was painfully slow. The organ wasn’t taking as well as it should have. Marlene was being rejected in flares of fever and inflamed flesh.

His father kneaded his feet each night. Thirty minutes, each foot, the exact same spot on both, until there was a perpetual purplish tinge of a bruise resting on the raised bone just to the left of the centre of both feet. He practiced reflexology, believed strongly in traditional medicine. Adrian tried to protest, embarrassed to see his aged father working his wrinkled hands on his feet, but Ba insisted.

“This and ginger tea. Red dates. The liver needs warmth to recover.”

After smelling Adrian’s rancid breath, he began kneading twice as long.

 

***

 

He had met Marlene early in their college days, just as the leaves started to change colours. They grew close quickly, over midnight strolls in dewy air after last-minute races to paper deadlines, over long conversations about their mutual longings for home. The first night he stayed over at her dorm, she had remarked that his sleeping face reminded her of her brother’s. She had quickly laughed it off at the time, and he had quickly forgotten the strange comment as he got to know her better. It wasn’t until months of dating when he visited her home and met her parents and the well-polished photo of her brother on the altar by the incense that the comment bubbled back into Adrian’s consciousness. Her brother had been a freshman in college doing a summer course. Marlene had been at sleepaway camp, and hadn’t found out until she came home.

It began to rain heavily, those few days of his visit. With little concern, the leaves turned to mush beneath their feet.

 

***

 

Once, he and Marlene lay nude over the sheets together in the heat of August. The thin cotton stuck to their backs; still, Marlene kept her left leg draped over his right. The hollow under her kneecap was warm with sweat. He had been released from the hospital just two days earlier, fit enough to walk, to prance even, the doctor had joked. Poorly. His recuperation was going splendidly.

Marlene let her index finger trace over the Y-shaped line of scar tissue, first on his body, then on her own. It was reverential, in Marlene’s strange way. She leaned over carefully and kissed it, up and along the line of raised, motley tissue, then gave it a little lick like a cat.

“Does it still hurt?”

“No, not much anymore. The painkillers are fantastic. Though I do miss the morphine drip.”

She frowned, touching the space between his brows gently. “You’re tense.” She kneaded his forehead, coaxing relaxation.. The pads of her fingertips felt like warmed silk. “Tell me.”

“It hurts.”

“A lot?”

“Bearable.” He rolled onto his side, facing the digital clock. It was blinking the incorrect time. 4:38. 4:38. 4:39. AM or PM? he wondered, though it was moot either way. The blinds were drawn. Neither of them had been to work in weeks. The days were sliding by like spilt crude pooling onto the sea, and he imagined his body sinking into the bed deeper, deeper.

“Still. You gotta tell me. You know I worry about you. I love you.” Her voice had risen in pitch. She drew closer to him, the heat of her body warming, then burning his thin form.

“Ah.” A sweat drop lingered on his temple. He tempted gravity and turned slightly more to the side. It continued to linger.

4:39. 4:39. 4:40.

 

***

 

Three months into at-home recuperation, he was scheduled to return to work. He shaved for the first time in months, swiping away the patchy stubby. He caught glimpses of his own smile in mirrors and vainly, in the backs of spoons and the oil puddles on streets, for the first time since the surgery.

Marlene busied herself, tossing out the doctor’s guides and patient-care pamphlets, bringing gluten back into their meals and recycling the old orange pill bottles. She ironed his shirts and played music from the year they had met. They were the awful pop hits of the year, and Marlene knew every single word. It was the music she always described as captured in the amber tones of their meeting.

“Amber, like fall, like insects caught in tree sap,” she would muse, hands in his hair to pluck stray leaves from their midday walk, which had slowly grown from five minutes, to a quarter of an hour, to two. His hair’s curiously curled texture made it a magnet for bits of tree. Once she had found an acorn cap and found it so funny that she kept it on her nightstand for months, long after the leaves had melted into the soil.

Marlene was at home that year, completing a degree in graphic design online after quitting her office job shortly after his liver had failed, before her own donation. She seemed satisfied by the meandering loops their days had become. She talked happily about his return to work, chattering more brightly the more Adrian’s life restarted. She chattered and forgot things and fidgeted, coffee spoons left pooling milk on the dining table, shoes flung one over the other by the front door, bits of paint chipped off cupboard corners by nervous fingertips.

On the morning of, he felt a tug on his arm as he began to roll out of bed. His phone alarm began to play softly. The digital clock on the nightstand continued to blink the wrong time.

“Don’t go.” Marlene had been awake for some time. “What if something happens?”

He smiled placatingly at her concern, already moving to stand. “It’s going to be fine. I’ll make breakfast.”

When he stood at the stove ten minutes later, the weakness returned. And then with the aroma of coffee percolating and the steam of oatmeal pushing at his nose, a sudden nausea roared through his form. He curled over the stove. A tearing sensation coursed through him, then heat. What followed was the smell of burning oats, the sound of Marlene’s cries, his body forced atop a rolling and shaking surface.

 

***

 

He dreamt of their fourth Christmas together, the first in which both of them were employed, renting the basement suite of a family home, Marlene insisting that they keep the holiday to themselves, rather than their usual trek to her parents’ home. His father was in China visiting relatives.

“Won’t they miss us?” Adrian brought his coffee cup to his lips, frowned slightly, placed he cup back down and dribbled in more honey from a squeeze bottle.

“But don’t you think it’ll be a romantic way to celebrate the day, with just us? It’ll feel like we’re our own little family.” The last few words were spoken awash in the sound of rushing water as Marlene rinsed off a hot skillet. A plume of steam rose from the cool water hitting hot iron.

When he looked at her that day he recalled he found the usual charm of her crooked-tooth smile to be ugly, and he had had to look away. He loved her. He knew that. He was sure he knew.

And he woke up to that smile, her face hovering over him.

“The doctor said three more months at home would be plenty of time,” she said, “I knew you weren’t well enough to return to work.”

She looked triumphant. At ease. Adrian closed his eyes.

“But I’m here for you.”

 

***

 

Alone in the exhibit, Adrian absent-mindedly touched the scar on his abdomen through the cotton of his shirt. In Ancient Egypt, the liver was considered sacred enough for preservation in canopic jars. It was guarded by a god with a human-head, the only organ protected by a man’s face rather than a baboon’s or a jackel’s. He wondered what happened to his liver, choked with decay before its excision.

His scar’s raised texture made it feel like a foreign creature was clamped to his skin. A parasite guarding the wound, the tear in his abdomen. The doctor had called it a chevron incision. Like the pattern on his socks, his scar was chevron. And beneath the chevron incision, for as long as he continued to live, Marlene was filtering his blood, cleansing him.

And in Marlene, Marlene was regenerating. She had given up a fifth of her liver but it would have all grown back by now.

“It’s astounding, really,” the doctor had said at the consultation shortly after the diagnosis of his chronic liver failure, “the human liver’s ability to adapt to stress and produce new tissue is unparalleled by any other organ system.”

“Warmth,” Ba would say, shredding ginger into his rice porridge, steeping red dates in boiling, twice-distilled water. “The liver, when it struggles, needs warmth. The sick liver creates anger.”

“I’m sorry,” Marlene had said. He had screamed at Marlene that Christmas, as the roasted chicken and homemade mash sat on the kitchen countertop. She wore a red sweater embellished with bells that jingled slightly to the heaving of her chest with the heaviness of her breaths. He had called her sick. So tangled in her own past that she trapped him there, made him stagnate and rot in a romance that was built around the remains of a gone, absent, dead sibling.

She left that night, and was back by morning, curled at his side. Her breaths were ragged even in her sleep. When she woke, she apologized.

A week later, his eyes had yellowed like worn linen sheets.

 

***

 

And then the consultations, the paperwork, the reassuring toothy smiles and held hands; the blood tests, the pre-op, the calls to bosses and refinancing of Ba’s home; the drive, the caress of the IV, the final look before the drugs kicked in.

“See you soon, love.”

 

***

 

Memories roaring, forehead pressed against the glass, he let his body curl in pain, this time, the ache emanating from his chest and not the echoes of sutures across his abdomen. The smell of tar began to fill and stick to the moist walls of his nostrils. His liver was already gone, and so he imagined the cool touch of a hook snaking up, tasting of metal and coldness past the tingling masses of hairs and mucus. Through the cavern of his sinuses and deep into the mass of thoughts in his skull. He shuddered, even though he had read before that the brain cannot feel pain.

There was a click of footsteps. Adrian turned. It was time to leave, certainly a security guard was about to tell him that. Or worse, perhaps it was Thomas, here to greet him, to ask him if he was well, to tell him a false fact about the exhibit that he would smile and nod at.

He saw her crooked smile first. Her lips moved and her eyes darted but Adrian felt the words pass through him. She glanced at the crumpled ticket stub in his hand. She smiled, sadly. “Not a fan?” A nervous chuckle. “My work was never really your style.” She shifted her weight onto her right leg. Waiting.

Adrian imagined holding her. Taking a step toward her. She had come back. She would take him back. She would always, always, take him back.

Marlene moved to take a step forward. She reached a hand out to him––

––and Adrian fell back. His feet dragged unconsciously backwards as though the ground slipped beneath him as words tugged loose from his lips. “I can’t. I can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t––”

The words wouldn’t stop coming, words he didn’t realize had been festering and trapped in his mouth like the flesh in the cases that had for centuries been embalmed in bitumen and cloth. “Stop coming back, Marlene. Please, please just stop coming back.” He didn’t pause to see her reaction, could imagine already the way her face would distort and her eyes would tense and her hands would rise as though to catch him.

“Adrian––” And suddenly he making his way out of the museum with teeth grit so hard they sent ceramic noise through his skull, hands streaming with sweat, through the back exit straight past the woman in pink and her protests and her stench. The museum’s rear was framed in surprisingly large and full dumpsters. They reeked. The smell of city and rain mingled with the piles of trash. There was a hole he hadn’t noticed before in his loafers, and now they bid entry to a flume of trashsteeped rain, wicked to his skin by the grey knit of his socks.

A noise like raging wild dogs wrenched itself from his throat, and he felt his hand curl and smash into the brick. The numbing ache screamed relief. His chest heaved, his glasses tumbled from his face onto the asphalt, his flesh, his gut inflamed and tearing apart -

A car drove by.

A distant bird called. Another replied.

He knelt to pick up the frames. They sat crooked on his face. He rose.

Wetness on his hand. His thumb, bleeding. The lens had popped out and shattered. He set his thumb in his mouth, the taste of iron assailing his dry palate. The rain grew heavier.

Ba was waiting. There would be ginger tonight, ginger and red dates floating in lukewarm rice porridge. Ginger and red dates and rest days for warmth and health.

He waited there for many moments before taking the long way home.