Eileen Merriman

Eileen Merriman’s debut young adult novel, Pieces of You, was published in June 2017 (Penguin). Her second YA novel, Catch Me When You Fall, will be published in January 2018. Her awards include three times third place winner in the 2014- 2016 Sunday Star-Times Short Story competitions, second in the 2015 Bath Flash Fiction Award, and commended in the 2015 Bath Short Story Competition. Her work has previously appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including the Sunday StarTimes, Smokelong Quarterly, The Island Review, Literary Orphans, the Bath Short Story Anthology, the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, F(r)iction, takahē, Headland and Flash Frontier. More information can be found at her website: eileenmerriman.co.nz

Writing, to me, is like breathing – essential, and life-sustaining. I particularly enjoy writing for young adults, as this is such a fascinating time of transition, of first times, and see-sawing emotions.

Artichoke Tears

a. We sit watching the dragonflies skim over the mirrored surface of the lake. The wind stirs through wheat heads, hush-hush. I rest my head on your shoulder, listening to the ease of your breathing. If I close my eyes I can almost hear your voice.

b. You had a newscaster’s voice. That was what the other nurses told me, when I joined the practice. One day I picked up the phone to tell you, your blood test is through and it’s fine. How fine? You asked, your coffee baritone flowing into my ear. I curled my fingers around the receiver, imagined you curling your fingers around my knee. Very, very fine, I said. I fell in love with your voice first.

c. You rang me back the next day and asked me to read all your results out to you. Your haemoglobin, your platelets, your white cell count. I said, they’re perfect, you’re still in remission. No leukaemia cells. You said, does that mean I’m no longer an ethical dilemma? Is it a conflict of interest if I ask you out to dinner? I said, I’ve never been to dinner with an ethical dilemma before.

d. I’m glad I wasn’t your doctor. I couldn’t have stood it, pouring poison into your beautiful veins, the blue tributaries running beneath your caramel skin. They killed the leukaemia, though. They killed your bone marrow too, so they had to give your sister’s to you. It changed your blood type from O to A. Now it squats in your bones, like a cuckoo in its nest. You laughed when you told me. You said, I’m in touch with my feminine side. Give me an A.

e. Words, words, you twisted them around me like a ribbon. I’m in marketing, you told me on our first date. I could sell you anything. Then you sold yourself to me, meted out in pieces over the next month. One morning I arrived at work and opened my emails. I flicked past Norovirus Upbreak and Update on Splenectomy Guidelines and Influenza Vaccination Clinic Open Now. I opened Artichoke Tears, and it was a poem, from you. That was when I fell in love with you, all of you.

But I did love your voice.

Artichoke Tears (i)
it was once enough
to be near you
to hear your laughter
and make it mine
to find the artichoke
heart inside

f. I wonder if it was there when I met you, the berry-like sac on your middle cerebral artery as it coursed along the outer surface of your brain. I wonder if it pulsated and bulged every time you laughed, or rode your bike, or made love to me. Our time together was measured in heartbeats.

Artichoke Tears (ii)
a stray touch, a look,
the warm length of
your body next to mine
an arm, a curve
i’ll take that for now
but it’s not enough

g. Six months later, you took me on holiday. We hired a double kayak and glided over the champagne waters of the Marlborough Sounds. You stopped rowing and took my hands. You said, I’ve never met anyone like you. I feel as if we’ll never run out of things to talk about. You asked me to marry you.

Artichoke Tears (iii)
i want to run my tongue
along your lower lip,
you’d taste like ocean
instead i drop words in your ear,
like pebbles
solid, irretrievable

h. I remember the date. It was the nineteenth of May – three months to the day since we’d got married in the Cook Islands, our frangipani dream. We were driving over the Auckland Harbour Bridge. You were telling me about the book you were reading, how it was a Booker Prize winner but you could hardly get past the first chapter. All of a sudden your words started to go mushy, like slugs in your mouth. I looked over at you and you had the strangest expression on your face. I said, are you OK? You said, oh. That’s all you said, oh. Then you put your hand up to your head, and your eyes were glassy and wide, like marbles.

You took your hands off the steering wheel, and your eyes rolled back, as if you were trying to look at the calamity going on inside your head. I reached for the steering wheel so far it was so far and the cars were streaming and someone honked the horn I hated them and then your arms and legs started to jack-knife. I yanked on the handbrake and it was lucky no one went into the back of us, lucky we weren’t killed but sometimes afterwards, sometimes, I wish we had been.

i. On our first date we stayed up until five a.m. We had dinner at a restaurant on the Viaduct, and you talked to me about your love of science fiction, George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut and Cory Doctorow.
After dinner we sat on the couch in your flat and drank Baileys with ice. I sipped on your voice as you told me about your mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, and how it tore you apart every time you saw her. I told you how I took an overdose once, but I didn’t mean it. I was worried you would think I was crazy, but you said, I get that feeling. I do.

Then you kissed me and we went to bed. You weren’t the first, but you were the most tender and afterwards we talked until the birds woke up. You said, you’re really good at listening. And then we talked about how, with some people, all you hear is ‘I’.

But I wanted to hear your ‘I’.

I loved your voice.

Artichoke Tears (iv)
my lips on
rose-petal earlobes
deliciously cool
i set them aglow
i know you
i know

j. When we got to the hospital, the paramedic told the Emergency Physician that your Glasgow Coma score was three, which is the worst score anyone can have. They put a tube down your throat and you didn’t move. I thought you were dead. They inflated your lungs with a bag and mask, and then they put you on a ventilator in the intensive care unit. They asked me if you had ever talked about donating your organs – your heart, your lungs, your eyes. Of course, I said, he would want you to take it all, but then they heard about how you’d had leukaemia and they said you weren’t a suitable organ donor after all. A drunk driver would be suitable but you weren’t.

When they scanned your head they found blood flowering deep within your brain, a death blossom. They showed me the scan and it seemed as if the blood had infiltrated through half your brain. But they took you to theatre and clipped the aneurysm. Afterwards you lay in the intensive care unit for two weeks. I thought you were going to die. Every day I sat watching the machine breathe for you, wondering who was going to breathe for me. I hadn’t imagined a life without you. We’d hardly even begun.

Artichoke Tears (v)
i dream of you
before i go to sleep
and when i wake
once, twice, three times
it’s your breath
in my ear
i reach for you but
you’re not there.

k. But then you woke up. You opened your porcelain-blue eyes one day, and when you looked at me I thought I was going to shatter into a thousand pieces. I pressed my lips to your cheek, waiting for you to say something, but you didn’t. I said, it’s OK, don’t talk, you’re going to be OK. You squeezed my hand, and when you blinked a solitary tear carved a line down your cheek. I touched my tongue to its silvery trail and said, I love you, I love you, I love you.

You didn’t reply.

l. The therapists came to see you every day – the physiotherapist, the occupational therapist, the speech language therapist. You began to walk again. After a few weeks one couldn’t even tell you’d had a stroke, from a distance. But then someone would ask you a question. You would open your mouth, and nothing would come out. We gave you pen and paper. We said, write it down. You would draw shapes on the paper, sometimes letters, but they were disjointed, meaningless. The neurologist said you had Broca’s aphasia. The part of your brain responsible for producing language had gone. I knew, because I’d seen the black hole on your scan.

But your eyes told me all sorts of things. They said, I am trapped, and I hate this, and I wish I were dead.

m. After three months of intensive therapy all you could say was yah. Yah, yah. On the day you came home we sat on our couch, drinking shiraz and watching the sun spread over Rangitoto Island like a bloodstain. I told you about my day. I told you about the young woman who abused me because the doctor was running late, and the elderly man who brought me a banana. The young woman was pregnant and the elderly man had melanoma. The melanoma had spread to his liver, black spots coalescing like the bruises on the banana. You said, yah yah. After a while I trailed off, and we sat in exhausted silence. The wine turned to metal on my tongue, and when we kissed you tasted like tears. We hadn’t made love since your bleed. We didn’t make love that night either. At one a.m. I got out of bed and sat in the washhouse so I could cry without you hearing. There was nothing wrong with your hearing.

n. We went out to our favourite restaurant and sat by the window, watching the moon come up over the tinfoil surface of the sea. I told you about the patient who took vitamin C instead of chemotherapy, even as his tumour carved a crater into his leg. I told you how Pete and Joe had split up. I told you how Mindy and Al were expecting their first baby.

Your eyes widened and narrowed as I fed each piece of news to you. When I told you about the baby you put your hand on my knee and gave it a squeeze. I watched the tears shimmer over your eyes, deep like ocean, and prayed you wouldn’t start crying in the middle of the restaurant. The stroke had made you labile like that. I said, it doesn’t matter about the baby. It’s not the right time. You said, yah, but your eyes didn’t agree.

I said, we can’t afford for me to stop working right now. We can’t even afford your speech language therapy. You took your hands off my knee and spread your hands, as if to say, fuck the speech language therapy. I thought, yes, what a joke, but I didn’t say that. It wasn’t a joke.

o. You used to massage my back when I had my period. You’d stretch out beside me, murmuring into my ear. I’d close my eyes, drifting as you told me about a piece of poetry that had touched you, the tangerine sunrise as you cycled to work.

Sometimes we would talk about starting a family but we always had other things we needed to do first – our trip to Hawaii, long hours for you so you could get a promotion. Two weeks before your bleed, you said, I can’t wait any longer, I want a little girl or boy, I don’t care which. I said, yes, let’s, I don’t care either, but I did. The first time we made love without contraception, I thought of a coffee bean growing inside me, a little boy-bean with porcelain eyes and curly brown hair. I wanted him to be just like you.

p. One morning I woke up to find your arms and legs contracting, just like the day we were driving over the bridge. You were making a rhythmic grunting sound, uh-uh, uh-uh, and your eyes were rolling back in your head. As I called the ambulance I thought, this is it, you’ve had another bleed, oh God, maybe you’ll die but even worse maybe you’ll turn into a vegetable, oh God, oh God.

They took you to the hospital and scanned your head. The doctors said it was a seizure, just a seizure.

I don’t know how they could say just.

It wasn’t just.

q. But every day is so fucking hard. I don’t know if we can keep up with our mortgage payments. I’m scared to leave you in case you have another seizure. I turn down invitations to after-work drinks and nights out with the girls. Most of our friends don’t come by anymore. It’s not a conversation when you can’t talk back. I can’t do all the talking anymore, either. I have nothing left to say. I want our old lives back.

r. On New Year’s Eve we went out to a party. You wore navy jeans and a bone-white shirt, and you were easily the best-looking guy there. If it weren’t for the small bald patch on the side of your head, where they had lifted a flap of bone to drain the blood, one would never have known about the stroke.

Friends came to talk to us. You smiled, and nodded, and said yah in the appropriate places. Some of them spoke to you in overly loud voices, as if you had lost your hearing along with your speech, aren’t you doing well, I’m sure in a few months you won’t know yourselves, and one step at a time until I wanted to scream.
After an hour or so, you took my hand and squeezed it until my fingers hurt. I asked if you wanted to go, and you nodded. You weren’t smiling anymore.

s. When we got home, you disappeared into the kitchen while I curled up on the couch and turned on the TV. Julie Andrews was singing My Favourite Things, and she was so fucking cheerful I had to turn it off. That was when I heard it. Shattering glass.

I ran outside. I thought you were having another seizure, that you’d had a dreadful accident. Instead, I found you standing motionless in the middle of the lawn, your broken eyes on the remnants of the drinking glass by the shed.

It’s OK, I said, halting a couple of feet away from you. It was just an accident.

You shook your head, your hands opening and closing at your sides. That’s when I realised it hadn’t been an accident at all. I stayed where I was, and you stayed where you were, and I felt so far away from you. After a while, I went back to bed. I listened as the fireworks began to fizz, listened to the distant sound of cheering, and music and laughter. And in between, the muffled, choking sounds of your despair.

t. These are a few of my least favourite things.

(i) The way people talk to me as if you’re not there, even when you’re standing beside me.

(ii) That I miss you, even though you’re still here.

(iii) That, sometimes, I imagine a life without you, and it feels like liberation.

u. One morning in January I woke to find you sitting on the side of the bed, a glossy magazine in your hand. You pushed it under my nose. Beneath your fingers I saw the words Marlborough Sounds and Retreat. I looked into your eyes. They were wide with anticipation, no, with longing. I squeezed your hand. I said, a holiday? You want a holiday?

Yah, you said. Yah, yah.

We couldn’t afford to go.

We couldn’t afford not to, either.

v. I was always the quiet one, before. It had always been so much easer to sit back and let others do the talking. But as we drove the windy road from Picton to Marlborough Sounds, I chattered the whole way. You wound down the window, and tilted your head back, filling the car with scents of jasmine and freshly cut grass. I stopped the car so we could pick banana passionfruit from the overhanging vines. We split our contraband open with our fingers and sat on the side of the road to eat them. You leaned towards me and licked the juice off my face. I laughed, and kissed your open mouth, ripe like fruit. The sun was warm on the back of our necks and the sky was endless, and you tasted so sweet.

When we reached the cabin, you took my hand and pulled me inside. You made love to me with your lips and your tongue and your hands, and when you entered me it was as if we were pouring into each other, until it was impossible to tell where one of us ended and the other began.

Afterwards I lay with my ear on your chest and whispered the last lines of your poem to you. I listened as your breathing sped up, and I thought, this is our language. This is how we talk.

This is us.

Artichoke Tears (vi)
let me lay my head on your breast
So I may have your heart in one ear,
Your breath in the other.

w. Once upon a time there was a man and woman and they loved each other very much. The man had fought the cancer-beast, had smote it dead, and they thought they were safe. But then another beast came to seek revenge. It sank its jaws into the man and took away all the words in his head. The man and woman were very sad. They cried for two hundred days and nights, until their tears filled a crater the size of the Grand Canyon. But one day the man and the woman came across a Garden of Eden, and the vines were thick with a strange and forbidden fruit. They ate until they were satiated, and then they made love and fell into a magical slumber. A fairy goddess came to see them and told them they could have one wish. The man wanted a baby. The woman wanted that too, but she also wanted the beast to return the words it had stolen. The fairy goddess said, I can only grant you one wish but this will satisfy both your desires. And so it came to pass.

x, y & z. We have a son. He has porcelain-blue eyes, and curly brown hair. You cried when he was born. You held him up to the light and showed him the world. I said, he is your son and my son, and I will teach him all your words.

And so it came to pass.

I know you.

I know.