Static Electricity

By Rosalia Scalia

y twin sister Raisa and I are in our childhood home. Overstuffed with clothing, furniture, drapes, toiletries and all kinds of things that our mother loves and uses daily, the room feels empty even with us in it. On each of her closet doors an elephant garland with vibrant colors, bells, and beads jingles every time Raisa opens and shuts them, the garland a remnant of Mom’s days as a hippie. I’m sitting on Mom’s bed above which hangs a giant portrait of our grandmother—Mom’s mother—painted by Mom’s ex-boyfriend Tim when Grandma was struggling with Alzheimer’s and spent most of her time in a hospital bed installed in the living room.

We’re going through Mom’s stuff deciding what to bring to the hospital, and while we both find comfort in touching her things—as if doing so would change the situation back to normal, back to the way it was just the day before or last week—it’s a colossal waste of time. We should have stayed at the hospital. Raisa believes it’d be a good idea to clean the house before Mom returns, but it’s busywork, a way to stay frenetic, which is how Raisa deals with things. The house is already tidy and clean, but Raisa likes to submerge herself in frenetic activity whereas I prefer to observe and study things before taking action.

Mom kept the masking tape labels posted all over the house from when Grandma first moved in, labels identifying what things could be found in the drawers and what things were named—useful until Grandma lost the ability to read them. In Mom’s large block letters in black marker, the labels are everywhere: “mirror,” “bathroom,” “underwear,” “linens,” “door,” “window,” “spoons,” “spices,” “pots,” and an array of other words. Raisa wants to remove them, but I veto that, reminding her that it’s not her house.

Raisa rolls her eyes. “It probably never occurred to her to take them down. She’s always so oblivious.”

“It’s her house,” I say.

“Like she’ll even notice they’re gone?” Raisa says, but leaves the labels alone.

As she packs things for the hospital, I’m jittery, wanting to return as soon as possible. Older by two minutes, Raisa always tried to boss people around. She’s already switched off Mom’s waterfall wall in the hallway, saying it makes too much noise reverberating throughout the house; unplugged the aromatherapy diffuser, saying it stinks; and stuffed her refrigerator with chicken and bacon, knowing Mom, a strict vegetarian with a “Meat is Murder” bumper sticker on her car, has avoided bringing meat in the house for ages. When I turn the water wall and the diffuser back on, Raisa shuts them off. I don’t want to fight with her.

“We should call Tim,” I say, changing the subject.

“No,” she snaps. “Her phone number hasn’t changed in the last hundred years. He’s the one who should be calling us. Or her.”

“Maybe he hasn’t seen the news…?”

“Maybe if he lives under a rock,” she says.

I text Tim anyway. Raisa leans over and pulls a small suitcase from under Mom’s bed and moves the curtain. Outside, people approach the house with arms full of flowers. Some carry teddy bears and others lighted candles, large handmade posters, and mementos of all sorts. Not wanting to see the spectacle, Raisa shuts the curtains abruptly, but I’m comforted seeing Mom’s positive impact at the school having value to others in our town.

“We should just go,” I say. “She doesn’t need anything from here.”

Raisa insists on completing the packing.

I don’t remember consciously thinking of myself as a twin, and Raisa and I never treated each other like twins, although, growing up, others often confused us. We always acted like sisters. Born three minutes earlier, but smaller, Raisa fought for her life and perhaps never graduated beyond the initial drive to survive. Raisa tosses Mom’s underwear into the suitcase. Her robe, her slippers. She tosses in perfume, cosmetics, sundries as if packing for a vacation instead of the hospital, overpacking useless items. I want to leave so I hurry her along.

Raisa points to the portrait. “Grandma at her best. Not as the demented, diapered old lady who failed to recognize any of us,” she says.

“I’ve always loved it,” I say. “And Tim, too. What a good egg.”

Raisa rolls her eyes. “Such an annoying man!”

Raisa says the same thing about my husband, Tony—that he’s an annoying man. From day one she’s disliked him and created tension between them. He prefers to avoid her when she’s in town. When we were newly engaged, she’d implied he was too lazy or dumb to go to medical school instead of becoming a physical therapist and smashed an egg on the top of his head. We were all shocked. She called it a joke and accused us of lacking a sense of humor.

“Now I know the reason you can’t keep a boyfriend and will never marry,” Tony told her while sopping the egg off his head. “It sounds like ‘rich.’”

“Something you’ll never be,” she said.

Tony stays at home with the kids, and it’s OK because she doesn’t ask about any of them. We’re thankful that our kids attend the school where I teach math in the next town over. He and I chatted before he put the kids to bed last night, ourselves numb and dazed that this happened so close. I stayed with Raisa at Mom’s house.

Neither Raisa nor I could focus on anything else and obsessively watched the news about the shooting: the timeline of events, interviews of the parents of dead or wounded children and teachers, and vigils that we skipped because we didn’t want to talk to anyone. We didn’t want to be present watching all those people who lost nothing chasing their fifteen minutes. We looked through Mom’s photo albums, laughing at all the crazy things we remembered from the photos—when Grandma danced and sang with a wooden spoon microphone; when our father, still alive, planted the gardens that continue to bloom around her house in waves of colors as the season change; when Tim and Mom painted the delicate and beautiful strands of green ivy still circling the top of each doorway; when Raisa and I were dressed in identical clothing, but in different colors, doing different things. Also in the photo album are shots of Grandma, Mom, and us in front of Capital Police Headquarters where they took Mom after she was arrested for protesting Corcoran’s cancellation of the Mapplethorpe exhibit. In the photo with us, she holds her sign “Censorship is obscene. Not Art.” Angry that politicians could cancel an art exhibit because of a bunch of unenlightened prudes, she participated in the group that projected Mapplethorpe’s work on the walls outside the museum. We were too young then to appreciate her courage. In all the photos, including the ones after she was released from police headquarters, Mom’s perpetual smile stretches across her face under her serious-looking, black-plastic framed glasses.

In the drab trauma waiting room, parents and family members of those injured in the school attack drape themselves over the chairs, pace, squeeze their hands, stare at the TV without actually watching it, or sit cross-legged on the floor. Worried, weary, clutching cell phones, water bottles, brown bags, snacks from the hospital cafeteria and vending machines—they, like Raisa and me, wait. Good news. Bad news. Any news. The principal approaches us and tells us Mom’s a hero. He says she yelled “Shooter! Shooter! Protect the students!” at the top of her lungs soon after the gunman entered the building and the havoc began.

“She ordered her aide to hide her students in the windowless room with her art supplies and to barricade the door after she left the room,” the principal said. “She grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran down the hallway toward, instead of away from, the gunman, and then aimed the fire extinguisher at the shooter and sprayed him with the foam,” he says.

The white foam caused the gunman to cough uncontrollably, disrupting his progression through the hallways for a short time, he told us.

“Without actually seeing her, the shooter turned and shot her, hitting her first in her leg, then in her gut. She sprayed him until the extinguisher was empty. Then she hit him with the cannister, and that’s when the he shot her a third time. She tried to stop him,” he says. “She succeeded for a minute.”

The principal sounds as if he’s told this story one hundred times with the same level of disbelief and shock. He takes my hand and envelops it in both of his—his eyes shiny, bloodshot above the puffiness beneath them. “I’m sorry.”

He tries to envelop Raisa’s hand but she pulls away. “How did this monster get in?” she yells, her voice shattering the uneasy silence of the waiting room. “You only said those things to avoid a lawsuit. How the fuck did you witness this interaction without helping her, and where the fuck was the security guard when Mom was confronting the gunman by herself? Alone.”

No answers. The other families shift their gazes between Raisa and the principal. They, too, want answers that aren’t forthcoming. I thank him for telling us as he backs away. He looks at Raisa with eyes as large as tangerines while Raisa says nothing, shredding the tissues in her hands.

I picture Mom’s school building, try to imagine the altercation between her and the gunman. How incongruous it must have been for her amid the brightly painted walls, the bold blues and greens, the happy yellows and cheerful reds that fostered positivity and learning. Mom’s middle school students’ colorful lanterns—fashioned from empty gallon milk jugs and LED lights—hang from the ceiling in school’s corridors like a luminous, aerial, 3-D cross-stitch. Her students’ life-sized self-portraits—their outlines traced onto paper, cut out and decorated as mini-me’s—line hallway walls leading to her classroom. Outside her classroom door tombstone etchings of the town cemetery grace the wall—a project of the older students. Her mission as an art teacher, she once said, meant helping her students see beauty in the world around them, even in the most routine things. Yellow police tape now surrounds the property as an active crime scene, and I wonder if blood spatter now mars those beautiful lanterns, self-portraits, and etchings.

A nurse in blue scrubs enters the trauma waiting room and calls our names. Raisa and I hold each other’s arms as we follow her into a trauma bay where Mom lies connected to tubes and machines. A ventilator breathes for her, and I imagine the long recovery ahead as I watch the machine inflate and deflate her chest. The nurse stares at us. I know she’s puzzled by the fat and thin versions of the same face and body type standing before her. She holds a clipboard but doesn’t speak for a long time. Usually one of us speaks first, explains that we’re identical twins, but this time neither of us does that. Mom appears small and breakable, her face pale as a waning moon, and her body surrounded by tubes and beeping machines. We fail to notice the nurse leaving.

I swallow a wail that fights to escape my throat because Mom looks so delicate, fragile, amid the tangle of corded machines. We flank each side of the bed and hold her hands. Raisa leans over and whispers into her ear. “Don’t worry, Mom, we’re here!”

“People in a coma can still hear,” she tells me in her Know-It-All voice.

When the doctor comes, she tells us that they did everything possible, that the ventilator is the only thing keeping Mom alive, that her brain has ceased to function, that she’s not going to improve. She asks about Mom’s advance directives, if she has a do-not-resuscitate directive, because if she doesn’t have one then we must decide whether it’s time to turn off the life support system. She also asks about Mom’s organ donor status. Neither Raisa nor I know these things, and it dawns on me that neither of us knows much about Mom beyond her role as our mother. We don’t know why she and Tim parted ways, why she never remarried after our father died, why she chose to teach art rather than work as a medical illustrator like our grandmother—far more lucrative than teaching. Suddenly, all that I don’t know about her feels like a gigantic hole, a chasm of loss, a treasure stolen.

“Is your mother an organ donor?” the doctor asks.

“How premature. And insensitive,” I say, my turn to be indignant and accusatory. As I watch the machine inflate and deflate my mother’s chest, my math brain concentrates on the numbers of breaths a healthy person takes for granted: sixteen breaths per minute, 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year. If Mom were to live to be 80, she’d take about 672,768,000 breaths in her lifetime, and it kills me that my children are being robbed of seeing their grandmother take in and expel all those breaths. I imagine all my children’s milestones, and all their activities she’ll miss: birthdays, graduations, weddings. And mine, too.

“No response in the brain or the stem,” the doctor says in a matter-of-fact voice.

Hope clings to me like static electricity. Maybe time will restore her responses. It’s only been three days since the shooting. Miracles can happen. I believe in miracles.

I look at Raisa, her face identical to mine—but mine’s gone soft and full from pregnancy and motherhood, whereas Raisa’s remains sharp and thin. Her hair, thick chestnut sheets, falls just below her shoulders in a sexy bob, while mine, cut short, exposes my ears. We could pose for before-and-after photos for a weight loss advertisement.

“We did our best.” The doctor says the words slowly as if we are idiots who cannot comprehend.

I know they can’t turn off the ventilator until everything about organ donation and withdrawing life support is laid down, signed in triplicate, settled.

“Rumian, she wouldn’t want this,” Raisa says.

“She’s not dead yet,” I yell.

Raisa takes the clipboard from the doctor and signs away Mom’s organs as if she were signing over the title to her car. I leave the room.

A stony silence fills the car on the ride back to Mom’s house. Raisa’s driving. Wishing with every cell in my body that she was shot instead of Mom, I peer out the passenger window to avoid looking at or speaking to her. I want to put distance between us—to drive home to see my kiddos and Tony. I want to take a break from her—from this awful situation.

“She’s still on the ventilator,” Raisa says, as if that makes a ton of difference. “We have a lot to do,” she adds in that Know-It-All voice and begins ticking off a to-do list beginning with “make arrangements.”

“Shut up. Shut the fuck up,” I say, my words venom darts. “You’re going to turn her waterfall wall and diffuser back on. And you’re going to be polite to Tony and my kids when they arrive.”

Raisa stared at me with disbelief in her face.

When we turn into Mom’s driveway, a large object covered in thick brown paper tied with twine leans against the front door. Without speaking, I unlock Mom’s door, drag the package inside, cut the twine and tear off the paper. I immediately recognize Tim’s work. It’s a companion piece to Grandma’s portrait, capturing Mom in her youthful glory: Filled with energy, her eyes appear flashing behind those large black-framed glasses, her hair wild, curly, large, untamable. Love shines from her face as she smiles at us, her arm encircling Raisa and me, our young faces identical but slightly different with our heads forming the top slopes of a heart; her elbow, the point, and her forearm closes the circle.

___

Rosalia Scalia earned a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University in May 2003 and is working on her first novel, Delia’s Concerto. The first chapter was one of seven finalists in a competition held by the National League of American Pen Women and a more recent version was published as a story titled “Soul Music,” in Crack the Spine #109. Her story “Henry’s Fall” was a finalist in the Gival Press Short Story competition. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay; The Baltimore Review; Blue Lake Review; Crack The Spine; Epiphany; The Furious Gazelle; Hawaii Pacific Review; The Oklahoma Review; North Atlantic Review; Notre Dame Review; Pebble Lake; Pennsylvania English; The Portland Review; Quercus Review; Ragazine; Riddle Fence; Silk Road Review; Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore; Talking River; South Asian Ensemble; Spout Magazine; Taproot; Valparaiso Fiction Review; Verdad; and Willow Review. The story that appears in Taproot won first prize in its annual literary fiction competition for 2007, and “Uncharted Steps” merited a 2010 Individual Artist Grant from the Maryland State Art Council. “Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick,” first published by Pebble Lake Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005, appeared again in an anthology titled City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, May 1, 2010), a collection of stories by 32 Baltimore writers, including Poe, Anne Tyler, and Alice McDermott, among others. Most recently, her story “You’ll Do Fine” was a recipient of the Willow Review Award for the Spring 2011 issue. Her short story collection, Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick & Other Stories, was shortlisted in the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Fiction Awards.


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