Teresa Milbrodt is the author of three short story collections: Instances of Head-Switching, Bearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. Milbrodt lives in Salem, Virginia, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Roanoke College. She believes in coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, real-time conversation, and writing the occasional haiku. Read more of her work at: http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/
My barista sets clean coffee cups on the shelf behind the counter while she explains how the first-year med students do anatomical body painting at the end of the semester. They've spent three months working on a cadaver, but need to be exposed to all kinds of bodies and navigate the experience of touching people. Live ones.
“You've been working on one cadaver all semester?” I peer into my coffee cup.
“It's not gross once you get used to it,” she says. “But I'm excited that we're graduating to the next level. Not everyone wants to paint people, and our prof said that's fine. They can hold brushes.”
“Why are they going into medicine if they don't want to touch people?” I say.
“They have three more years to get there.” She shrugs, less concerned than I am, but the prospect of being painted is interesting. “You can decide which room you want to work in.
Different rooms focus on different parts of the body. I'm planning on bones. You're welcome to come and bring friends. We always need more bodies.”
On Wednesday morning I pick up my sister for this excursion, since she's arranged to leave her two-year-old at play group for three hours. She's said we need to have girl time, though she wants to be in the room with organs, and I'm going with bones. Afterward we can have coffee and a chat.
“And pictures,” says my sister. “We have to take lots of pictures.”
I wear a sports bra and biking shorts under my t-shirt, a loose layer I strip off when I walk into the bone painting room. My sister was more slender than me when we were growing up, but now she has her baby body, and a bulge over her biking shorts. I wonder if they will paint her uterus.
I stand by the window and stretch my arms over my head, then wave to my barista who's by a gurney. The students painting me won't be able to tell I have thinning bones, the result of being a teenager who got painfully skinny. My doctor says I have osteopenia, so I've been taking calcium and hormone replacement therapy and lifting weights to strengthen the structures no one can see. In seventh grade we had to memorize the names of our bones. That was when I was thirty pounds overweight and being prodded by my pediatrician to eat less. But it was the fear of dating that worked miracles in my mind, which was hopped up on hormones. I lost too much weight, along with the names of most of the bones in my skeletal system. I remember fun ones, like tibia and metatarsals and phalanges. My barista already asked if she could paint me, which is slightly less weird than painting a stranger.
She waves me over to the gurney to signal they are ready to begin, and asks if I would like to sit, stand, or lie down. I say whatever would give them the best access, and wonder if I should tell them to paint my bones to look thin, like they could crack if I fell the wrong way. Someday these med students will have to ask people like me for their medical history, but now all that matters is where my bones are.
My barista says it would be great if I could lie down, but she realizes the gurney doesn't have a pillow, so she excuses herself to find one. The pause gives me time to compare my body, childless and forty and sagging in the usual places, to other bodies in the room. According to my barista, last year there was a guy who had weighted three hundred fifty pounds, dropped to two hundred, and wanted people to see his skin folds. There was also a woman who'd had a C-section, and whose ribs had shifted position while she was pregnant.
“We need to feel for bones that aren't in the same place on bodies as they are in the pictures,” my barista said. As she brings my pillow, I watch a woman pace by the window, wearing a sport bra and biking shorts much like mine.
“I can do this, I can do this,” she says.
We are ready to donate our bodies to science for the afternoon. Perhaps I'm willing because I've seen too many doctors in the past year due to a bad bout of bronchitis that held on for months. Now I can choose to be vulnerable and educate someone, rather than being compelled to hop on that table.
When I lie down I wish I would've asked to be seated—it feels too much like I'm having an operation--but my barista says not to be shy to ask for fruit or water. They'll let me know what and where they're painting. Someone announces they're going to work on my scapula, another person on my ribs, my barista will start on my leg bones.
I hum the song “Dem Bones.” Someone giggles, and the artists chat about when they have broken bones. I feel the tickle of four paintbrushes, hear the slosh of water as they clean off one color and ready for another. The guy painting my scapula says he broke his arm while skateboarding. My barista broke her wrist while rollerblading. The guy working on my ribs fractured his ankle while playing basketball and going in for a slam dunk. Eighteen years ago when I was still a college student, I was walking across campus and watching two guys do skateboard tricks when I tripped and hit my arm on a curb just above my elbow. My joint absorbed none of the impact, breaking my bone neatly in two. I wore a hinged brace for two months, one with two metal bars that attached to my arm with cuffs. The hinge was set for a certain number of degrees so I couldn't move my arm too far.
I wait for someone to ask if I've broken a bone, but nobody thinks to do this. I'm a canvas. They talk about whether he's painting my ribs too wide, and how are they going to fit all the tiny bones in my hands?
“I'm going to work on your feet,” my barista says.
“Great,” I say. I understand why it's easy to talk around me, but when the scapula guy starts working on my arm without letting me know, I clear my throat and ask for a drink of water.
“Sure, you want a break to sit up?” says my barista. I do. She brings me a bottle and a banana. I stretch and shake my shoulders, admire my feet with the rainbow colored tarsals and metatarsals. The two other models are lying down. At the end of the day we'll look like Day of the Dead skeletons. The thought of death usually doesn't occur to people when they're young. It's a theory, a figment. Does it have to occur to medical students, or do they only believe in its prevention, even if they've spent a semester working on a cadaver?
“You're good at this,” my barista says. “You stay so still. Maybe you can come back next year.”
I smile and wonder if I should chat more to distinguish myself from a dead person, but when I lie back down and the scapula guy asks if it's okay for him to paint parts of my skull, I say go for it. So much for chatting.
The guy painting my ribs says they're weird. I feel a tickle on my arm. Is that where the bone broke, just above the elbow? When my parents see the pictures of my bright bones, will they ask about the results of my latest dexascan to check my bone density, or reflect on their own bones and joints and organs? My mother takes calcium to prevent thinning bones. Dad's seasonal respiratory infections have been getting worse. His doctors have been monitoring his white blood cell count, but he hasn't told me why. Over the past year we spent a lot of time coughing over the phone to each other, discussing the next regimen of steroids that would hopefully dry out our lungs. My bronchi are still recovering, but my doctor says it will take a few months. I don't like the lingering hint of a wheeze in my voice. My dad sounds the same way.
“You look great,” says my barista. Two hours have passed and I can sit up and look at my brilliant self. The four artists stand back and nod at their work. I peer down at my limbs, which are the color of fruit-flavored breakfast cereal. It’s fantastic. My barista promised to take pictures of me and my sister, so we walk to the organs room where people have multicolored hearts and livers and kidneys and gall bladders. The team did indeed paint my sister's uterus.
“I asked them to,” she says. My barista gets twenty pictures on both of our phones. This is not the stuff of next year's holiday card, but it's interesting.
“I spent the whole morning with other adults,” my sister says.
“Did they talk to you?” I ask.
“Not much,” she says, “but it was time without educational books, songs, or videos. Lila is great, but sometimes I want to be more than a mommy.”
There are buckets of warm water and washcloths if we want to wipe the bones and organs from our skin, but now that we are dry and beautiful, my sister and I put on our shoes and oversized t-shirts and go for coffee in the student union since they gave us coupons for a free cup. My sister's organs are mostly concealed by her t-shirt, though I feel like an art installation and smile at people who look at me sideways as we're standing in line. After we order her mocha and my sugar-free vanilla latte, we flip through the pictures on her phone.
“I'm doing this again next year,” I say. “Maybe my circulatory system.”
“I might be pregnant by then,” she says. “If we time it right Lila will be three or four when she gets a sibling. I just want one set of diapers at a time.”
I look down to my invisible uterus. I've never wanted to grow round with the weight of an infant, but I've been thinking about bodies since I got this freelance writing gig for two medical marijuana companies. I compose content for their blogs, manage their web sites, and call clients for interviews about how their lives have been changed by the therapeutic qualities of pot. I hear about muscle pain and joint pain and incurable everything, pondering the politics of prescriptions while wishing I could find a job that paid a bit more so I could afford all the doctor's appointments I needed this year. My partner's insurance didn't cover everything.
My sister shifts in her seat and says she and my brother-in-law are drawing up their wills and wondered if I'd like to be Lila's guardian if something would happen to them.
“I know it's a big and awful 'if,'” she says.
I nod. When Travis and I got married we decided we wanted cats, not kids, but when it comes to being Lila's guardian, the answer is yes. Should be yes. I should say yes without hesitation. I'm her only auntie, after all.
“My father-in-law said we should think about stuff like this now,” my sister says. “But it does feel kind of weird.”
What would Travis say if I told her yes? Is this question scarier than it should be since I've spent all morning thinking about everything I usually forget is under my skin?
“You don't have to answer now,” my sister says, but I should respond with Yes, of course, don't worry about it. Hesitation feels like an insult. I've spent hours with Lila on my lap reading books to her as she fixates on the page, imprinting everything in her growing brain.
“I'll check with Travis,” I say. “I'm sure it will be fine.” He will look at me with his head tilted and nod slowly, not entirely okay with the prospect.
“It's fine if you want to say no,” she says.
“It's my niece,” I say. My DNA, some of it anyway, lodged in our bones.
“You still don't have to say yes,” she says. I don't want to ask who else she had in mind, but wonder what it would feel like to take a kid home after being told she's mine forever. Do I remember well enough what it feels like to be in a kid's body? When I have lunch with my sister and Lila on the weekends, we drink coffee as Lila brings us her toys, takes them back, and runs around the house after the cat. Did we have that some boundless energy in our bodies when we were little?
My sister is always calling to ponder another child-rearing question: When is Lila’s nose runny enough to call the doctor? How dangerous is eating chalk? What should she do when Lila keeps picking off the band-aids to examine her scabs? It's okay if she just eats peanut butter and crackers for a week, right? I thought she was embarrassed to call our mom for some reason, but could it have been a possible parent screening test?
I flex my multicolored fingers. My sister leans back in her chair and checks her watch.
“Another whole hour to myself,” she says. “We need to do this more often.”
“It's only once a year,” I say.
“You know what I mean.” She smiles. This afternoon I will call a grad student who's studying physical therapy and started vaping to help her musculoskeletal pain. I imagine her fluorescent bones aching.
“I think we'll say yes,” I tell my sister.
“You don't have to,” she says.
“I think we will,” I say. Why does the thought of letting my niece live with someone else makes my invisible stomach wrench in a way I don't understand? Another mystery of bodies. Will my sister's gut churn in the same way when she signs that document to signify her knowledge that her heart will someday stop beating?
I’d rather shove mortality to the side of my (unpainted) mind, think of my sister's brilliant blue uterus painted underneath her shirt, and if next year it will house the start of another life. Perhaps we'll sit here, bodies concealed and revealed, with more stories of doctor appointments and play groups. My latest dexascan will have (hopefully) revealed that I’m not becoming dangerously fragile. Dad won’t have told me anything more about his white cell count and I’ll still be worried, but assume that no news is good news in that delicate balance of trusting our bodies to carry us over the miles, but knowing not to trust them forever.