|My Last Best Losing Proposition
Fiction by Lisa Veyssiere, Art by Kees Terberg
You feel for all the world like King Solomon, as you split your house down the middle with your roommate. Sylvie is French, and it may be possible, likely even, that she likes you even less than you like her. According to her, you might not be sure of who it is that you think you are. It is all very confusing, but you are not sure you disagree. You are guests of Reunion Island, courtesy of the recent Chikungunya outbreak from the mosquito proliferation. It's something you will hear about, but you'll not see a single case. This is not meant to be a concern of yours. That information will be imparted later.
For now, you'll watch Sylvie, as she flounces into her bedroom. It faces onto Roches Noires Beach, but you find nothing at all interesting about black rocks and deadfall. Your bedroom has a door onto the porch. A porch is more suited for your immediate needs.
This is what you will do tonight. In fact, you will do this every night. You will bare your arms and sit on the last step, to face the ocean. With practiced restraint, you will watch as Aedes mosquitoes alight on your forearms. You hold great hope for these creatures. They are, you would say, your last best losing proposition.
It's possible, likely even, that you do not have much to be proud of. You are not proud, but you are satisfied that until now, you have avoided Antoine Ravat, the half-French, half-Lebanese Health Officer, attaché for the Ministry of Health and known throughout all the land as a blight upon the EIS fellowship.
He finds you next to an uprooted rose bush, at a cocktail for the 2003 fellows. He has many things to discuss with you on this night: the shortcomings of the island, climate change in the Indian Ocean, your life in New York. Lately, you feel as if you have forgotten nearly everything important that has happened to you. You are not at all suited to be a physician. Antoine is not happy with his station, he will tell you. He is a medical entomologist but misses, as he puts it, the touch of the humans. He implies that there are happier circumstances elsewhere, perhaps not too far off. He could show you, if you are ever interested. You are not, nor will you ever be interested. The indigenous residents are not cooperative. Golden retrievers are used as shark bait. There have been complaints. The tourists disapprove of the treatment of the territory, but are abhorred by the people themselves.
A losing proposition, you say. A losing proposition, he agrees. The good news is that there are locales, better islands, not too far off. You begin to understand that Mauritius is both accommodating and accessible, but you are not, and you stare at your shoes. There is nothing interesting about your shoes, and so finally you stare at Antoine's dentition. What you are is very young to be a widow, and entomologists love nothing more than a good oddity.
You drink gin on this night, even though it bites the inside of your cheek. You spill grenadine on your dress, and then leave it. Anyone who wears white asks for nothing but trouble. You wear a charm around your neck, not because it means anything in particular, but because the weight of it will remind you that you take up a certain amount of physical space in the world.
"That is," Antoine says, with a nod in the direction of a banyan tree, "your roommate?"
You turn around, to see Sylvie sitting alone under the tree, adjusting the strap of her shoe with great concentration.
"It's possible," he says, "that you've not made a good effort to let anyone know you on the island?"
You nod. It is possible.
It is possible that when you return to the house you share with Sylvie, you will miss your husband. It might occur to you that there is now nobody on this earth, who will know certain things about you. The way sunlight, for instance, as it filters through tall buildings, gives you blinding headaches, or your fear of mariachis. The way you used to listen to Christmas music in Riverside Park, every winter, even though you agreed to raise your children in the Jewish faith. The way you once could picture the vaccination scars of your children.
For nearly two weeks, the rains have been relentless, all over Reunion Island. There is a good likelihood that the entire Indian Ocean has been upended, and is now emptying itself onto Roches Noires Beach.
"It is not an easy place to find," Antoine will tell you, "but it's not a difficult place to stay." You have no idea why he cannot find somebody else to bother. You suspect he may be pathologically bored.
"That's fine," you tell him. "I don't really care."
Antoine will write a letter to your project officer in Atlanta.
"Dear Dr. Morrison-Halfman," he will write, "Annabeth shows great talent in research." He mentions the possibility of an authorship in the next edition of Harrison's Guide to Internal Medicine. In the second paragraph he implies that tropical medicine is under-funded, but has merits of its own, and you stop reading and let the rain smudge the pages.
"You show great talent," he says one day. You ignore him and take a pen apart at the night duty desk. By now, you know to never expect patients, at any hour. Tourists might occasionally stop in for a tetanus injection. The gynecologist performs diaphragm fittings in the women's clinic. Tonight you and the orderly are the only members of the night shift on the admitting floor. While Antoine stands in front of you, you reassemble the pen. Later he comes back.
"Really Annabeth," he will say, "you should consider research. You'd never have to touch a human being again."
When you think of home, you think of empty windows, vacated apartments. Sometimes, you close your eyes, and all of New York has taken to the streets, men, women, children, they've flooded the walkways and Broadway and the cobblestone paths; the housebound, the invalids and cripples, they stare, transfixed from windows, watching below, and it's like the Rapture, except in reverse. Instead of rising ethereal from the ground, bodies are descending from the heavens, through the sky, down onto the Manhattan sidewalk.
And then, when you are asked later, you will say it was nothing more than a period of classic fugue state. You have experienced a returning to terms now; you have come to your senses. As for the state itself, you will say, you are not really sure when it began. Perhaps it started on the night the girl with the bloody ear was admitted. It is not outside the realm of possibility that it may have started in New York. There were the obvious events, the divorce, the tragedy and your husband, the entire of the year. Everyone will nod in sympathy as you say this, and so you will stop here, and never mention that it was only days after the wedding, when you might have first detected a small shift. You are, after all, trained to note these things. You never wore a ring, only a necklace that had oxidized and was as thick and gauche as gypsy gold. This, even as a wife, you hid under your shirt.
Or it may be more recent: you can almost recall a fever dream, just the night before the evening when everything ended, when your tenure was aborted, and you were sent home. It is known to you that other residents have had similar pathologies, strange fevers of unknown origin, brought on by viral etiologies that have nothing whatsoever to do with widowhood or exhaustion or catastrophe. Could it even be, you might later suggest, over dinner in a Jacksonville restaurant, or in a progressive series of psychoanalysis, or perhaps even disclosed to a stranger on a plane, after one drink over the borderline of too many, that you may have succeeded in infecting yourself with Chikungunya? It was, after all, your last best losing proposition.
What happened was this: you left the girl asleep on the admitting table. She lay on her back, and the small rivulet of blood, from her left ear, was deceptive. You know to feel at the back of the head, at the horizontal ridge of the scalp, for the crusted blood.
It's a hard thing to tell from here, Antoine says, without a scan. He doesn't need to explain to you that the scan machine has broken for the evening. It may be a concussion, he says, nothing more. Perhaps residual positional vertigo. It's a contact wound, you say, from a blunt object, and at this, Antoine will agree. In fact, her father brought her in himself. But not cerebral hemorrhage, Antoine will say, oh no. He will shake his head at you with great authority.
You find Sylvie in the pathology lab reading a copy of last Thursday's Le Figaro. As you pull her by the hand, it occurs to you that in the entire six months you have shared a home with her, this is the first time you have touched her. From here, it is not hard to identify the father. He is the one who has passed out on a Naugahyde chair in admitting. His breath smells like a distillery, and you cannot take your eyes away from the blunt anatomy of his hand.
"I think," you say to Sylvie, "that the appropriate thing to do, would be to end his life." She gives you a look. It is possible that she has stopped being surprised by you several months ago. "What I mean to say is that I think it's better if he just does not go on living." Sylvie shakes her head and leaves the room. An orderly yawns. After a moment, you turn and walk down the hall to the girl's room.
"Annabeth," Antoine says, outside the door. He steps in front of you and holds your wrist tightly. "You do not understand a thing." After a moment, he lets your wrist fall. You watch as he watches you unhook your smock. He's content to let you do everything, but wants nothing in particular. It has not occurred to you before, that there can be such geography between affection and heartbreaking need. You hand the necklace to Antoine. He looks at you with only half-interest, and you put it on the table and walk out of the room.
That night, you will go home with only the intention of sleep. Tomorrow, you will know that it is still possible to wonder about the girl. About who she was, what she became, and what will become of her.