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Fall 2021 Featured Prose

The Young Woman

by Justin Portela

Upstairs, a simple laborer complains of an infection. At reception, a new widow seeks relief from a nagging cough. In the middle of it all, the Young Woman awaits the News. Under the fluorescent half-light, the Young Woman melts like snow to pissing dogs.

The Young Woman arrives in a near-hyperthermic state. Beeps and clicks perform their own private marching song. Countless people speak across each other. Quickly through the gallery of lights, that off-white glaze, fading to black on rhythm. Light arrives, light departs, dark arrives, bleeding hearts. Sharp pins wince—two, three, four. Inside of eyes, umbrellas to storms. The Young Woman thinks of “It’s a Small World,” and about the season passes to Disney she will probably never use again. 

The attendings surrounding her speak of numbers and they wonder about many things; the Young Woman wonders only about the News. 

She wonders about the Bearer, about how he will present the News, the worry that he might not shoot her straight. He might attempt to cajole the Young Woman—to wrap the News inside semantics and history and justifications. If he does this, he will speak in the language of why. He will try to account for everything: each stray hair in the brush, every face-down phone, every early bedtime. All of this will feel fatally important to the Bearer: the details as penance, the accuracy of the brushstroke as a substitute for the evil in the frame. All of it will only further excruciate the Young Woman. Excruciating, at first, in the expected way. The Bearer’s craving for immediate salvation, the frantic apologia, the endless self-pity like a one-man special victims’ unit. It will all come together; to humiliate, to discolor, to crumble the Young Woman’s spine like dry cracker—to slice through flesh too surprised to know how to bleed. 

Excruciating, too, because she needs to hear it. The Bearer’s excuses, however malignant and self-serving, will strike directly at the millions of insecurities and anxieties that have completely overtaken the Young Woman in the wake of all of this. The curiously self-destructive member of her mental family is burned for confirmation. Whether she likes it or not, the relationship between the Young Woman and the Bearer has lent to a peacock’s frock of irrational emotions—the kind that would oblige any warm-blooded creature to sit there and take the beating, licking the wounds only after the blood has taken a moment to clot, knowing, by which they are born to feel, that there can be no return to real life until every last bit of stuffing has been ripped out of them. 

If and when the Bearer arrives with the News, the Young Woman wonders about the way that the Bearer will lie. His lies might be short and clerical: It happened on this night, we met at this place, I don’t know what came over me, it will never happen again. In this story, each detail will be its own weighted formality, each will serve the plot, each more divorced than the previous. 

Or perhaps his lies will be ornamental like fables, meant to coax the Young Woman, however briefly, into the Bearer’s shoes: It was a dark and stormy night, my new blood pressure medication had begun acting up, I had momentarily entered a state of paranoid delusion. Whatever the story, it will, of course, also be complete fiction, but a different sort of unhappy fiction, since this will be the one the Bearer actually believes, the one he has rehearsed, and the one he has come to love. It will all be invented, nonetheless. Even if it sparkles as genuine, even if the Bearer might hold deeply to its authenticity, the Bearer has no capacity for truth. The Young Woman has seen this before. This trait was, at first, endearing—the Bearer does well at parties, the Bearer gets on with parents, the Bearer dances slowly in burning rooms, etc. But now this charm is something else, in the aftermath of something serious, in a world where people cry and things matter. Now, only the rotting and decomposed roadkill on the shoulder of the major freeway. Whether the Bearer is in his current haze of crocodile medications and performative self-discovery, or in some new state of complete and total dissociation from reality, it will all be the same, still jamming like thumbs through blanched eyeballs. 

The Young Woman is wrapped in layers of blankets and warming structures. Her body is littered with treatments and therapeutics. Some numbers on the screen glare red, others sit still in green and blue. The well-educated men and women treat themselves to her body until the numbers change and a new crowd wanders in. The entourage talk, smooth but cold to the touch, think hand-carved iced at whiskey hour; the words to them come effortlessly. The leading man in the room makes the same tired joke about a smoke break after all of this. He makes this joke to every new person he sees. 

The Young Woman cannot shake the grumbling thought that her receipt of the News will reflect as much on her as on the Bearer. The antagonist clings to a script, there are only so many ways to play the part. This gives the Bearer something of an advantage. There is not much for him to do but apologize, to trim the foliage at its edges. But for the weeds, there are choices: She might hurl insults. She could attempt to empathize. She could cut the Bearer off before he’s even given the stage. She wonders if there is such a thing as nobility in the world of victimhood. 

She saw a girl once in a commercial. A thirteen-year-old named Dorothy, who sits in the oncology wing of Mt. Sinai, having has her video taken for fundraisers. You have to wonder about this girl. Does she like 80’s movies? The Breakfast Club? Sixteen Candles? Ferris Bueller? The real kitschy ones. The big homecoming dance, the male protagonist is out with the hottest girl in school, the tomboy girl-next-door walks through the door with ‘Only You’ by Yazoo playing in the background. Those kids are coming of age in the library and Dorothy watches her doctors whisper poorly about months and years remaining. 

Does Dorothy empathize with the cancer? Does she hope that the cancer will one day get its act together? Does she hope for the cancer to learn to tell the truth, for the cancer to go to therapy and really try this time? Even if the cancer could become capable of love and romance with somebody else’s body, doesn’t Dorothy know that she could never trust the cancer again? Dorothy might feel some pull towards history, wondering about the days when the cancer wasn’t so cancerous. There was a day when stage three leukemia was just Dorothy’s nose abruptly bleeding into her middle school boyfriend’s mouth. These were the days when the Young Woman dealt with the cancer’s bad PCP trip—clearing the guests from the apartment, rubbing his hair for 5 straight hours, taking him in and out of the bathtub as he continued to scream about how he couldn’t feel anything but also couldn’t tolerate the constant tingling across his skin. These also included the days when the cancer, instead of piggish obscenities during sex, would grab the Young Woman’s hair and tell her how badly she had ruined him, how he’d kill himself if she left him, how he’d never be able to fuck anybody else again. The Young Woman would latch to him like a spider monkey, wondering if somewhere deep inside she might feel the same. 

The Young Woman lies like a snow angel as the PA screams code blue. The capable bodies scamper and beg one another for tools and needles and paddles. A doctor barks twice for a tube and the machines kick and scream on behalf of the Young Woman. The whole room makes discordant sounds like black reapers with scraping steel on stones. It all proves unintelligible. 

In another room, unrelatedly, a kindly nurse with a face like oatmeal is on her lunch break. Like every day, the nurse sits haggardly at the feet of a coma patient. She swallows three bites of a cafeteria panini and starts to think aloud. 

“From what I heard, there was always some tension. But where isn’t there? Are there perfect families out there? I haven’t seen them. Most girls start acting up at thirteen, so I guess they got two or three more years out of her. But you know how girls can get. 

The first time I heard anything was the night with the house party. Amy brought a few friends over. Maybe five, maybe six, apparently, they find themselves in the liquor cabinet. Cheryl was always something of a wino so I’m not surprised it was stocked. But I guess they got pretty rowdy, real rowdy I suppose, since a few of the other neighbors called it in. Not me though. I know how kids can get. You have to let them live a little bit. But this was different, you know? These girls had a little too much fun. I heard that when the police walked in, Cheryl was holding some poor boy’s face above the toilet. His hair was in the toilet water. Disgusting. And then, later that night, even after the cops leave, one of the girlfriends is in Amy’s bed with the skinny boy who bags groceries at Pathmark. And would you believe they broke the bed?! They don’t teach you what to do in a situation like that. They do not come with a manual; I’ll tell you that. 

But it all really turned to shit when He came home that night. He wasn’t happy of course. You know how men can get. But that was the first time it got messy like that, from what I can remember. You could hear it down the block. He was doing this ‘I’m not your father but I will raise you like one’ routine. But Cheryl said it was something else that time, like something had really made Him afraid. Like Amy’s sitting on the split wooden frame on the ground and He’s in the doorway giving her everything He’s got. He’s going on about everything. He’s going on about the rabble in this town, how she’s a whore here, how she’s a slut there—all of that. Amy’s crying something serious, but He isn’t fazed the slightest bit—which is when she knew something was off. 

After that, I started to hear something here or something there. I ran into Lucy at the Bloomfield Bakery, and she told me that Amy got her belly button pierced on a weekend and that He put a hammer through a television. Another day she found a pack of cigarettes in His pillowcase, and would you believe they didn’t speak for weeks? Cheryl tells me He would lay in bed at night, muttering to Himself, “to get respect you got to give respect.” She kept trying to tell Him. ‘She’s 15, you’re an adult, this isn’t a level playing field.’ Nothing got through to Him. You know how men can get. 

It was maybe 2 or 3 months after that when the call came in. Somewhere around Easter or the sort, I think it was the Thursday before. They find her wrapped up in a tent bag upstate. And, to make it worse, they found her wrists bleeding from the copper wire she’d been tied up with. A damn shame, isn’t it? But you know how men can get. By Friday they get Him at a truck stop buying cigarettes. Maybe it was Saturday? All I know is by Sunday service He’s locked up. Not much news coverage, which was surprising. It was kind of a thrill when they did come, marching on down the street with their big cameras and all that. I felt like I was on the Real Housewives or something, you know? That next week we all took turns making food for Cheryl. What a sin, to have to cook and clean and grieve. I came over that first Monday with a pulled pork. When I showed up on Thursday with the lemon chicken, I saw that Diane had brought over a half-tray of lasagna on Tuesday. Can you believe that? Half of a lasagna. She couldn’t be bothered to make the whole thing? She’s just lost a daughter for Christ’s sake. Does it get any more tone-deaf than that? But what can you do? You know how women can get.” 

Earlier, the Young Woman was playing with language. Specifically, she was working with a phrase. “I just need to know.” That was the phrase. She conjured this phrase for if the Bearer danced around the important questions. The phrase she coined. “I just need to know.” That’s what she would tell him. She would cut him off, mid-ramble or mid-soliloquy, and she would say, “please, I just need to know.” 

That was the worst part. This imagined dialogue. That it seemed so normal when she considered it. Nothing about it seemed strange. Maybe it was an attempt to salvage the Bearer’s feelings, maybe, instead the last hanging speck of social decorum, but this felt like a pedestrian thing to say. But how deranged is that? How laughable a self-betrayal, to think that it was her job to pull all this information out of him? That she had to earn his admission of guilt? That she should not only expect but delight in his finally telling the truth. That the bar is so cosmically low that him saying “yes, it’s true, I did sleep with her,” is somehow a point in his column? 

The Young Woman considers how this plays out in television. It is always in one of two ways. The first way is the classical way. The man has fallen victim to that dastardly bug of adultery and the woman he claimed to love is rendered a helpless shell of her former self. The shots write themselves: tissues pile up in the bed she cries in, her silence erodes once-friendly lunch outings, she breaks down crying in the middle of a blind date with an innocently adorable lawyer from the West Village. The woman on-screen is extinguished; some man somewhere has filled some subconscious fantasy or another. Somebody wins an award for this depiction. 

The second version is the strong woman. This has quickly become the favorite of the new-age Lifetime executive. This is the feminist adaptation on the age-old classic. The strong woman leaves at the first sign of infidelity. She immediately and unflinchingly drops all attachment to the man who tried to destroy her. She goes on to sell a company for a billion dollars and the Golden Girls demographic sit in the theatre and weep with joy at the bravery and triumph on the screen. 

But, as it is with everything, the Young Woman feels both. And of course, with the same unfairness that has encompassed it all, the Young Woman feels the intense inability to feel either of these emotions comfortably, with the thought that the embrace of one completely undermines the other. To be strong is to betray her true feelings and to be vulnerable strikes a blow to the resilience she knows exists inside of her. This leaves the Young Woman with no legitimate salvation, only left to swallow each spoonful of tar until the question itself subsides. But for now, every happy memory she can conjure is collapsed. Every first kiss becomes shards of glass and nostalgia for apple cider is to death like sand in her mouth. 

All of this culminates in the ultimate metaphor, which is the waiting. This is the Young Woman in her hospital bed, arriving from surgery, grateful to hear that it is only bones and a lung that have collapsed. This is the Young Woman with her eyes transfixed on nothing but the framed photo of the New York City skyline at the foot of the bed, old enough to see the Twin Towers standing proudly. This is the Young Woman trying to watch television, but every so often, like a nail in a tire, pierced by the reminders of the upcoming news and its disgusting bearer. This is knowing the embarrassment of knowing she let the butcher have his way with her skin, her nerve endings grated like splintered wood. This is to feel as though somebody has attached a fishing hook to her belly button and was attempting to pull her stomach out through her back. This is every trace of trust flattened and seared like cheap steaks. This is tallying the minutes and the hours. This is the haggard nurse stopping on the way home for 40 Marlboros and a Powerball ticket. This is knowing that the phone will one day finally ring. That it will sound from the table next to the bed and that the Young Woman leap to the beeping, hoping only to love and to be loved back. 

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