I’m here, tunneling through. In a space that’s tighter than skin, there’s nowhere to go but forward. So I press on, ripping back curtains of viscera, tearing away fistfuls of damp meat, while my eyes sting with tears and blood.
Like all stories of loss and being lost, this one begins with something empty. Specifically, a glass canister. I ran out of sugar while baking a cake. I’d just finished making candied violets. It’s March, after all. (Or at least it was, out there. I don’t think time even exists in here.) You have to make candied violets with the first violets of March: that’s the rule. It was Lee’s rule. Preserved by egg white, super-fine sugar, and low heat, the violet petals live on, ossified versions of their former fragile selves.
Then, there was the cake. Three slim layers of white cake: sweet as laughter and light as marshmallows.
Then it came to the frosting.
I’d run out of sugar.
Generally, I’m a responsible baker. I check my supplies before I begin. Sometimes I even spread all the ingredients on the table so I can double-check. I clean as I go, ferrying broken egg shells to the trash immediately, rinsing oil-slick measuring cups in scalding water, maintaining a tidy kitchen environment. I’m like that. Not a fan of chaos, even controlled chaos. Not a lover of spontaneity and whimsy.
(That was Lee.)
And I am definitely not the kind of girl who wakes up tear-stained and hollow-cheeked on a bright morning in March and decides that today must not pass like other days, and so begins baking a cake that no one will eat. Not the kind of girl who goes out into the yard and the unexplored fields beyond to pick the early violets. Not the kind of girl who sits on the kitchen floor, cradling an empty canister, marveling at the drifts of crumbs and cobwebs and fluffy snarls of cat hair collected below the cabinets.
I raised the glass. Peered in. Jostled it to dislodge the last few grains, just enough to coat a moist finger tip. Licked the fleeting sweetness.
I’m not like that, but today I am.
I needed half a cup of sugar. And a broom.
It’s getting hotter now, and the pulse is beating like a hollow drum in the walls. I’m on a journey to the center.
I’m not the kind of girl who wanders outside, barefoot and clad in an egg white-streaked apron, tear-stained cheeks camouflaged by flour smudges, clutching my empty measuring cup like a baking beggar woman.
Supplicant with measuring cup, my triptych could be called.
Halfway down the path I realized I’d forgotten my shoes.
The old lady gave me shoes, but those are gone now too. And the measuring cup. I think I dropped it on the way up the ladder.
I am that kind of girl. I lose things: small things, big things, everything. It began with thimbles, left socks, right earrings. Grocery lists. Birth certificates. Phone numbers. Light bulbs. Favorite books. Favorite lovers. Things I love.
The first neighbor didn’t say anything about my bare feet. She wasn’t wearing shoes either. She stood inside the house with a baby on her right hip and a little boy clinging to her left. He stared at me as if I was the one who lost all his Legos. “You’re the lady who moved in couple weeks ago?” she asked, friendly. “Stop staring, Jack.” But she didn’t have sugar. She sent her little daughter to check; the daughter came back chewing her hair, complaining that there were no Pop-Tarts, either. “I should keep a better pantry,” the young mother said. “Come back, later? Soon.” I thought she was about my age, young beneath her worry lines. I guess we all lose something, no matter how hard we try.
She sent me to Don, the graying divorcee down the street. He didn’t have sugar, either. “Since Susan left, I haven’t done much cooking,” he admitted. “But if you ever need to borrow a frozen dinner or a can of pork ‘n’ beans, I’m your man.” He laughed loudly, like his own private tragedy was the funniest thing going. I laughed, too. “You shouldn’t run around without shoes, though,” he said. “Catch your death of cold, this time of year.”
“I know,” I said.
“Who’s the cake for?”
“My sister. It’s her birthday.”
“Try Miss Harriet for the sugar. And tell your sister I said Happy Birthday.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
Right now I keep wondering what I meant by that. If I already knew, somehow: there would never be any cake. If I really wanted this, whatever this is. If I had a plan. If I meant anything at all.
Don pointed me down the narrow country road to a house two doors away. I walked along the shoulder, shuffling and pirouetting through the winter thistles and shifting gravel and greening kudzu vines. Budding branches cast angled geometries of pale sunlight on the warmed asphalt. Birds sang in the crooks of branches as if it were the happiest day they’d ever seen. Maybe it was.
I thought about the cake. The cake, when finished, would be beautiful: three luscious layers, topped with drifts of glittering white frosting, piped around the edges in curlicues of lace, sprinkled with petals of candied purple violets.
(White is mournful and pure. Purple is mysterious and powerful. It was also Lee’s favorite color.)
Miss Harriet took a long time to come to the door after I rang, so long that I almost walked away. She was dressed in a floral housecoat, the white strands of her hair pulled into a walnut-sized knot at the nape of her neck. “Hello?” Stooped, she stared up at me, squinting in the sunlight.
“The very one.”
“Don said you might have some sugar to spare.”
“Sugar? Well, come in, come in. It’s cold out here.”
Inside her living room it was warm and stuffy, thermostat set to eighty at least. A gray cat napped on a pink plastic-covered couch. There were knickknacks on all the coffee tables and faded photographs on the walls, full of memories from forgotten years when everybody smiled.
I could never be old, I thought, because to be old you have to accumulate a lot of stuff. And I lose everything first. My living room would be bare with despair.
But I’m pretty sure I will never have crocheted pillow covers or a ceramic owl sculpture or a Coca-Cola cuckoo clock, even to lose.
I followed her into the kitchen, frozen feet tingling with the sudden heat. She was old and lonely; the stalling was inevitable.
“What’s the sugar for, darling?”
“I’m trying to bake a cake.”
“Sugar. Let me check.” She peered slowly into a couple cabinets around the kitchen, like she couldn’t remember where anything was kept. “I was just getting Mr. Roberts his Fancy Feast.”
She peeled open a tin of cat food: salmon and tuna. The cat mewed and pleaded, throwing itself ecstatically at her ankles. I watched.
“Why are you baking a cake, dear?”
“For my sister. Today’s her birthday. She’d be 24. But she’s dead.”
“When did you lose her?”
“Last summer. Car accident. This is her first birthday after being dead.” I started to cry. “And. It’s a really fucking terrible birthday cake without frosting. So I like. I really need some sugar.”
I know that old lady had sugar. I can visualize her kitchen with perfect clarity, and there’s the sugar bowl, sitting on the counter in plain sight: plump ceramic, the lid ringed with a maudlin circle of blue ribbon and dancing ducks. Why didn’t I just grab it and run? I could have been back inside my house before she even made it across the street.
(Heat stroke must be making me loopy. Normally I would never even consider stealing an old lady’s sugar bowl.)
Blinded by tears, I didn’t think of asking for it. I was too confused by what she said next.
“Have you seen the heart?” she inquired, stooping as she clutched the cat’s dish.
“The. . . what?”
“The heart. When you came to the door. I thought it might be yours.”
Snotty-nosed, violet-stained and flour-smudged, I gaped at her.
“Follow me,” she said. She gripped my elbow in her bony fingers and pulled me out of the kitchen and across the dining room, cluttered with detritus of opened-mail, half-finished craft projects, gifts for grandchildren. Everything smelled like floral perfume and old meat gravy. She pushed me to the window.
I looked out at the backyard, sticky with mud and gleaming blades of new grass, a dry birdbath and a weather-faded gnome. Beyond the backyard lay a burnt wasteland, the ground a jagged scar, flat as a dinner plate. A dark mass jutted against the horizon, inarticulate and vague.
A twisting path began in the backyard and wound its way through the wilderness, fading into the haze. A few fires burned, contained. Even the sky was ashen gray.
“It just landed there. A while back now,” the old woman said. “I was thinking it might be something important, but I have trouble getting around.”
“And? What does it have to do with me? It’s not a gigantic lump of sugar, is it?” (I was still crying, more pitiful than bratty. Though maybe both.)
“Well, I called my son about it. He didn’t seem to understand. He thinks I should be in a home, you know. But Mr. Roberts. . . I don’t think he’d like that too much. . .”
I took a tissue from the box on the table and blew my nose. “So you want me to go check it out.”
“I thought maybe I could call the police, but it’s not really committing any crimes, is it? Maybe. . . trespassing?”
“I’m not even wearing shoes.”
“Oh, don’t worry, dear. You can borrow mine.”
She gave me her house shoes, the only ones that fit. And then I set out.
I walked the winding pathway, toward the fires burning in the distance, flickering beacons with drifting columns of smoke. The feverish air was clogged with smoke, hard to breathe. I held my apron to my mouth and choked through. Rocks stabbed my feet through the slippers, and the scorched earth burned my soles.
But already I’ve almost forgotten that journey, as I’ve begun another. The present absorbs the past, so that even memory is lost or becomes impossible to hold. Even candied violets won’t last more than a few weeks; maybe I should have made sour pickles.
A crow flew past, then landed by my feet. It hopped beside me, a crude blotch of a bird like a child’s drawing. “Where are you going? What are you doing?”
“I’m looking for sugar.”
“Where are you going? What are you doing?”
“I’m investigating the heart.”
It cawed harshly in a caustic imitation of a laugh, then flew away.
On the horizon, the inarticulate mass grew bigger, until it blotted out the sky and I walked in its shadow. The bloated contour remained blurry, undefined. I guess that’s what a heart looks like when you view it from the wrong angle.
Blood leaked down the side, trickling like a stream down a cliff face. Beneath the heart, the black ground was sodden with blood. I placed my palm against the pulsating wall, and felt the shuddering beat reverberate through my body, struggling to keep time when so much else was lost.
I circled the thing.
There, on the far side, leaned a ladder—like it was left for me by firemen, or a hapless teenage lover caught climbing into my heart’s window. The ladder was narrow yet sturdy, expandable and made of aluminum.
I did what anyone would do, confronted with such a ladder. I began to climb.
Yes. Now you see.
One foot, one hand at a time. Step, reach, climb. I dropped the measuring cup and began to climb faster. The climb continued. I lost track of time. I couldn’t see the sky: all I saw was the heart.
Finally I reached the top.
There was a gash, jagged like a logging scar. From the wound leaked blood, flowing in rhythm like waves, blood welling over the edge with each beat.
I stood at the top of the ladder and looked down. At this point there was no other way to go: either back down the ladder or down into the heart.
So I fell. Dived from the top of the ladder into the open wound. Into the narrows. Into the gash. Into the leaking canal. I tunneled and crawled, the warm blood dripping onto my face, the spongy tissue springy beneath my palms like turf in a playground. The tunnel angled downward, constricting then widening again. And I crawled and crawled, squeezing through the narrowest parts, flesh sliding against moist flesh. I lost my shoes and kept crawling, knees rubbed bare.
And now I’m here, tunneling through.
It’s hot—about 98 degrees, I guess. My salty sweat mixes with metallic blood, flowing down my forehead, stinging my eyes, collecting at the corners of my mouth. As I move toward the center, this constricted universe grows more tender. My hands sink deeper into flesh and viscera, sticking at times in the spongy ground. I imagine myself crawling through a Southeast Asian jungle, but all the foliage is dripping red.
Keep going forward. Keeping going forward.
With nothing else left to think about, I think about Lee. She’d just graduated from college. She was a dancer. She wanted to live in New York City. I would have visited her there: to fuss over sardine-can apartment, cockroach-infested kitchen, bedbug-colonized couch. Funny, I’m the one who finds myself in cramped accommodations now.
Keep going forward. Keeping going forward.
Endless summer evening, driving home from the airport, new darkness crawling the horizon as the sun crept away to its own side of the world. (You stay on your side. I’ll stay on mine.) There were two drivers involved in the crash. One of them was drunk. One of them was me.
I should have seen him weaving, but I was laughing instead. Laughing at Lee, telling a story about the flight.
(You stay on your side. I’ll stay on mine.)
He crossed the line, headlights in my eyes, and I swerved away, into the. . .
Into the future where there was nothing left to lose.
Keep going forward. Keeping going forward.
I hope I reach the center soon. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going.
A terrible thought strikes me. What if there is no ending? What if the tunnel goes on forever, down into the center of the earth and beyond? After all, it has been getting hotter.
I’m almost there. I tell myself. I’m almost there.
I’ve lost my apron. I’ve lost my shoes. I decide to take off my dress, too: it’s sticky and dripping wet, tangling around my knees as I try to crawl.
So I come to the center naked and empty, holding nothing.
The center is hollow, the size of a child’s tent. Finally I can stand, just barely: scraping my hair against the… ceiling? The walls glow translucent pink, light emanating from just beyond the flesh. I sit. I stretch my legs, then hug them to my chest.
Before me are two doors, side by side. Two dripping red doors with blown glass knobs. Etched on the doors is looping cursive, written in a language I don’t understand.
I feel I should know which door to take. I know my heart, after all. Don’t I? But I don’t. So I wait.
Curled up against the beating wall of my heart I’m calm at last, floating in a peaceful dream. Reliving lucid hallucinations of days past, memories more real than this surreal and unlikely place that I’ve come.
A tent in the backyard at midnight. A blanket fort in a sunny room. A hut at the beach. A fashion magazine shared under the covers, read by flashlight. Every small and safe place we ever shared together.
I pray to return to small and safe places. No more stretching highways, no more burnt wastelands, no more empty skies.
A picnic on a hillside in the spring, Lee pirouetting to her favorite song as it played on the radio. A breaking wave that sucked us under as we danced in the ocean, tasting salt. A clear night blazing with stars as we lay in sleeping bags and talked about other worlds.
Sleepily I dream of the worlds that were and the worlds that will be, but gently and firmly the center brings me back to the world that is.
Before me are two doors, side by side.
I press my face against the door to the right. I hear Lee’s favorite song again; if I’m very silent and very still, if I hold my breath, I hear her laughter too.
I press my face against the door to the left. There’s only the rhythmic silence of my beating heart.
The truth is you never know where the door will lead, but I still know which door to take. I take the door to the left.
Naked I emerged from this door, and naked I return. The glass knob is slippery in my grasp. The door swings open and I step forward, into the blinding light.
Another step, and the light fades into the cool brilliance and blue skies of a beautiful spring day. The breeze on my forehead cools the sweat and dries the tears. I breath deeply of fresh air that smells like heaven.
Another step. I take the winding path, rocky as ever but lush with violets. I don’t look back until I reach the edge of the old lady’s backyard. Behind me, on the horizon, the wounded heart grows smaller and smaller. Dark and vague as a bird in flight, it flaps its wings and flies away.