Playing in Reverse

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They put us in charge of a petri dish in fifth grade life science. Made us mayors of our very own amoeba city. At home I set the microcosmopolis on kitchen counter uncluttered by hospital bills, unplugged the toaster to make room for my microscope. They consumed their prey the way I imagined the disease was taking my father: closing in and around, enveloping, like a nurse encircling him in curtain on bad days when I’d “just have to come back tomorrow.”

I did my homework in the waiting room. When it rained, the drops became paramecia; a hidden universe, something you couldn’t see but knew was there. I asked Dad if amoebae could contract AIDS, if he thought they’d have hospitals and single-celled doctors and nurses and sons. He looked out the window and laughed so I couldn’t see his eyes. Sent me off with a buck to get a rice krispy treat.

Mom took to sleeping on the couch, blanket as shawl. She’d go out only to drive me to the hospital, stopping in front of the entrance and letting me out. Said she had things to do when I’d ask. After a while I stopped asking. I showed Dad the sketches I made in between sips of water I’d help with, Dad’s lips contorting to find the straw, cheeks caving in on themselves. He’d pencil in party hats, villainous moustachios.

Dad’s face had a tributary system of veins running down the edges of his eyes, pooling in bags, skin melting like an ice cream on the sidewalk with gumballs for eyes. I asked Dad if he fucked another man like I was asking for an extra bag at the grocery store. I filled in some cilia, labelled cell walls. He asked where I’d heard that, but his voice quivered. We looked out into the rain, at the drops racing each other to nothing down the window.

In the onset of summer I watched puddles evaporate from the outside in. Dad was a hundred pounds, subsisting on grapes and coffee, the only things he could manage to keep down. The wrinkled hand of evolution had brought us to shore, onto land and out of our burrows, into the trees and out of them again, through huts and under blankets in hospital rooms, taking in energy and putting out our own, teeth chewing and eyes seeing and voices carrying. Withering in beds but telling stories anyway.

Together we wrote a story about an astronaut marooned from his ship, still in radio contact with the rest of the crew but with no points of reference to guide them to him, only endless black punctuated by a few blinding pinpricks in all that emptiness. Of space-swimming with no propulsion to help, just drifting wherever. Another about a man who lost his face, condemned to a life of wandering endless countryside in search of it, all the land indistinguishable to him, just one big canvas his steps would paint on. We wrote fast.

I was home when they called. Mom picked up, told me to go in the other room, play with my science experiment. The silence of her listening as I eavesdropped from the kitchen. As I took a napkin and brought darkness to the petri dish. Mom’s breath like a punctured tire letting out its air. Me grabbing the matches from the cupboard they were hidden in. Running the tiny flame around napkin’s edge till it was burning from the outside in. The fire fizzling out in spots but me putting more napkins on, paper plates. The fire rising. Catching the curtains and travelling upward, like opposite raindrops playing in reverse.

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