Rocks at the Bottom
Tristan is lying face down on the floor of her bedroom, which is where I find her after three days of calling with no answer.
“You haven’t been to work all week,” I start in, but immediately regret it. My voice sounds accusatory, even to me, but that’s not what I meant. What I meant was to say “Are you o.k?” and, “I’m worried about you.” And I meant to be saying this as I rush over to her and check her pulse and turn her over to make sure she isn’t dead. She looks dead, lying there on the floor, and it scares me. That she might be dead scares me and makes me say impractical things like, “You haven’t been to work all week,” as if those things matter to a dead person.
She is not dead, and turns over (looking quite well, I might add) and offers me a weak smile.
“Hello Lizzie,” She offers. Then. “Will you bring me a glass of water?”
My initial reaction feels more appropriate now, and I repeat — a bit louder this time — as I step over her towards the kitchen to fetch the water, “You haven’t been to work all week.” I decide to repeat it one more time, with emphasis, because now I’m angry at her for making me think she were dead, “Why the fuck weren’t you at work, Tristan?”
I hand her the water glass and sit on the bed. The room is a mess. I run my finger along the window sill and make a line in the dust. I’ve hated dust ever since high school when my chemistry teacher told me that it’s made up mostly of tiny particles of old skin cells. Which is disgusting and I’m not sure why I’m touching her personal dust. Tiny pebbles of a person. The dust, the clutter make me uncomfortable and I let my eyes rest on a picture of Tristan and her dad fishing in Alaska that is propped up on her dresser.
Tristan, with great effort, has raised herself halfway up and is taking small sips of water. Maybe she doesn’t look so well. She’s barely moving and oh god, I’m a jerk. I’m a jerk who says “why the fuck weren’t you at work” to a friend who can barely move. Still, it takes me a second to go to her. I hate things that are out of the ordinary; dust, death, and friends face down on the ground. They make me anxious and uncomfortable. Probably because I’m a jerk. Probably because high school chemistry class teachers used to say things like “there’s no such thing as touch because of the space that surrounds the atoms makes it impossible for anyone to really, truly, literally touch someone else. It’s just space touching space.” And it makes me uncomfortable to be there and there’s no touching, and what do you do if you can’t touch, and I’m thinking about all that, even though I haven’t thought about high school chemistry class in years; but now I am thinking of this as I watch her face down on the floor. Because what do you do if you can’t touch? And anyways, I don’t want to touch her. I don’t want any of this; people face down. Because all of this is very strange. Tristan is my 12:00 lunchtime friend, not my face-down-on-your-messy-apartment-floor-asking-about-water-lying-in-dust-friend.
But I love Tristan. We work at the same insurance company as claims investigators that take regular lunches at 12:00. We’ve taken our lunches together every working day for five years now. Five years. And she wears the clothes I wish I could wear if my hips were smaller and my breasts were smaller, and when you talk, she always looks at you. Some people will go out for coffee with you and the entire time they will only half look at you and half scan the room as if they’re waiting for someone better to come along to talk to. Tristan always looks right in your eyes. And you get the feeling, that even if someone better did come along, she’d keep looking at you.
So I kneel beside her now and look her right in the eyes. Which makes me uncomfortable, so I change my mind and glance at the Alaska picture while I support her back and help her take another drink of water. And say, again, only this time softer, “You haven’t been to work in three days. No one’s heard from you. And your apartment door was wide open. I was able to just walk in. Do you know how dangerous that is? If I were to have stolen something you couldn’t have claimed it because the door was unlocked, you should know those things.” I’m avoiding the real issue, I know, but it takes me a while to get to the important things. But I do, “Are you o.k, Tristan? Are you o.k?”
Tristan looks at me with big scared eyes, “Yeah, Lizzie, I’m alright. Just horribly tired and terribly terribly heavy. It’s strange how heavy I feel. No matter where I sit, my body seems to end up on the ground. I’m just too heavy for beds and chairs anymore.” She sounds resigned as if this is normal.
But it’s a strange thing to say because she’s a tiny, tiny person. Perhaps a tiny tiny dehydrated person I think, and I push more water at her.
“It’s just been getting worse and worse,” Tristan continues. “Do you remember last week when you were driving me home?” She pauses for my nod, “and I kept falling over into the window? Did you think that was weird? You didn’t say anything, but that happens all the time. I can’t sit up straight anymore, Lizzie. I think my weight has just been thrown off. Because that happens all the time. I’ve gained more than 35 pounds since last week and I don’t know what to do with 35 pounds.”
I did remember her tilting over in my car, and I just thought she was tired or low on sugar. As for gaining thirty-five pounds? Yeah right. Unless tiny new muscles are ridiculously dense, and she suddenly has tiny new muscles. Yeah right. It must be the dehydration talking. I raise my eyebrows at her, but she isn’t looking, she is staring off to the side and continues talking.
“Do you think they’re upset, at work? I wanted to call,” Tristan rejects the water I push in her face, “I really did, but I just couldn’t seem to make it up off the floor.”
“I should think they’re upset alright,” I respond, happy for something sensible to talk about, “Three days and no call? Greg was cursing all morning because he had to fill in for you and I don’t think he’s personally taken a customer call since 1994. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were fired.”
Tristan has closed her eyes and rolled back over onto her face. This makes me feel bad, so I quickly add, “But don’t worry. You haven’t missed a day in five years. I’m sure if you talk to him everything will be fine.”
She lets out a sigh that comes out more as a squeak against the hardwood floor.
So I ask her again, because this is getting ridiculous, “This is ridiculous. You haven’t even told me what’s wrong and why in the world are you lying on the floor like this? Seriously, are you O.K?”
She turns her face to rest sideways at me and glances up with grateful eyes, which makes me feel good at my role as a comforter. So good that I venture reaching out a hand and resting it on her back. A “there there, poor thing” sort of gesture, I suppose.
“It’s the pebbles,” Tristan moans.
“Yes,” she’s crying softly now and I take my hand back because why is she crying when I’m patting her so nicely? “Yes. The pebbles.” She looks off to the side, “So many little pebbles.”
“What pebbles? Tristan you’re not making any sense.” I think about the little pebble claims that people make all the time. These are the claims that annoy me the most. The little pebble claims that fly up and crack windshields.
“The pebbles from all the people.”
It’s like pulling teeth.
“What pebbles?” I can hear the exasperation in my own voice as I say this. Tristan; always the good listener, always the good friend, always the wise, stable, sane, sensible, gentle, adult one is curled on the floor like a child talking about pebbles. I don’t have patience for stuff like that. I give her a hard stare.
“Pull my pant leg up, Lizzie,” Tristan says to the floor.
I don’t want to at all, but I do anyways. I pull her blue plush sweatpants up to her knee and stare down. Tiny bumps are sticking out all over her calf. I put out a finger and push down on one of the bumps; it’s hard and pointed like a small little rock.
“What the fuck, Tristan?”
“What are they — how did they get in your leg?”
“Not just my leg, they’re all over my body, Lizzie and I can’t get rid of them.” I can see the small rocks jutting out against her leg, and now that I’m looking, I can see their tiny protrusions popping up against her sweats.
“What are they?” I ask, pushing the bump in her leg again. There’s no give and it’s sharp. I don’t know what to make of it. So I sit and stare. And stare. And push against her leg, and, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand what’s on your leg?”
Tristan is silent on the floor. The pause feels full in the room, uncomfortable. Heavy; a weight all its own. I have no idea what’s going on. My leg is twitching and my palms are sweaty, and no wonder she’s dehydrated because why is the room so goddamn hot?
Tristan holds the silence, then, “Tell me a secret, Lizzie.”
“Tell me what you told me last week, about your dad?”
“About him embezzling from his job?” The words fall out of my mouth as a hard little rock and drop themselves onto Tristan’s right ankle. They burrow under her skin like a tick; sharp, hard, and terribly, horribly, wrenchingly gross. What the fuck? What the fuck? I want to vomit.
So I do. I go to the bathroom and vomit. And the vomit turns into a panic that I inhale and suddenly all I can think is revulsion and vomit and I can’t breathe and how can my words burrow into a leg and I have to get out of there. I have to get out of there. It’s so goddamn hot. So goddamn hot. I’m embarrassed and ashamed and I don’t know why I do it, but I step over her facedown, there on the floor. I step over her and lock the door behind me. And I think I just need some fresh air; that’s all I just need- some fresh air. But I get in my care and I drive myself home. All the way home to a dinner I don’t eat and a night I don’t sleep. I push against the stone that is growing in my stomach. I pull against the stone that is growing in my stomach, trying to pry it out, desperately. I don’t want any of this.
The next day at work I tell Greg that I found her lying sick in her apartment. I lie and tell him that I took her to the doctor and that it’s extreme dehydration and that she’ll be back next week. He looks relieved and says, casually, on his way to his office, “It’s a good thing you went over there Liz. I think about things like that when I’m sick —about how isolated we all are. I live in a city of eight million people and I could have lain there for weeks before anyone noticed.”
I eat lunch by myself then I drive over to Tristan’s apartment and knock on her door. Locked from yesterday. I knock and knock and knock and then start pounding and pounding and then banging for twenty-eight minutes, until, slowly, feebly, tired little Tristan opens it and then collapses back down to the ground, like a stuffed animal made of beans.
And then what do you do? What do you do with words and secrets and everything that is so heavy there in your friend there on the floor? The room is hot and I never wanted this responsibility and I think again how nice it would be to vomit.
I walk slowly over to where she has fallen and I lie down next to her and whisper in her ear, “Tristan, tell me your secrets.”
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED