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Gila River Review
Melissa Qualls

The Crying Bench

            Kids ran around the Formica tables in a frenzy.  Probably loaded up on sugary soda, and trying to avoid eating the bad fast-food.  The awful screeching-cat vocalist, coming from the speakers in the ceiling, forced me to remember when I used to sing.  I would open my mouth, push with my abdomen and feel the air rush out of my lungs.  I had known exactly how to form my tongue, pressing it against the back of my bottom teeth, to get the best, clearest tone.  I had smiled through even the somber pieces.  I could not help it.  I had felt alive when I sang, my body buzzed with the energy of it, but I did not sing anymore.

            A little blonde girl stood in the seat of a booth on the opposite side of a Plexiglas partition.  Her belly and elbows pressed against the glass.  She dipped a straw into a tiny paper cup and then sucked ketchup off the end, lookng at me.  Her nearly white hair reminded me of my sister.  
            I stared at her small round face.  It had been nearly two years since my sister’s death and the beginning of my depression.  The question of suicide verses accident still floated around silently during rare family get-togethers.  It was never spoken about, but always there like a wisp of smoke in the air, sometimes choking us.

            I looked at my creamy, froth covered, chocolate drizzled coffee concoction and wondered if this is what my husband had meant when he suggested I go out to lunch before my appointment.  I think he must have imagined me being served a nutritious meal at a tastefully decorated table with my girlfriends, all with glasses of iced tea, lemons garnishing the rims.  Instead I sat by myself on a red, plastic chair that swiveled but had been bolted to the floor.  I hadn’t wanted to put forth the effort to call my friends who I had not talked to in months.  I hadn’t wanted to stop for lunch at all, but I wanted to be able to tell him when he came home that evening that I had done it.  Perhaps that perpetual disapproving and helpless look would leave his face. 

            I took a long pull from my straw.  “Yum.” I said out loud to no one, my voice deadpan and dripping with sarcasm.  The drink tasted like a liquefied candy bar with barely a hint of something that resembled coffee flavor.  I scanned the room, searching for a clock.  A mural of rolling hills started on one wall, a village of happy creatures appeared, a hairy purple thing grinned psychotically at me as he rode a bike, a box of French fries resembled an octopus swimming, and a cow with pink pigtails and a tutu skipped with a gigantic ice cream cone in her hoof.  I am sure there was more but I stopped looking.

            I rose slowly from my chair so someone more enthusiastic could sit there and trudged stiffly to my car.

            I drove a block down the road to my Rheumatologist’s office.  I stood in the waiting room that mysteriously smelled like wet carpet.  I had to decide if I wanted to sit by a sickly looking obese man, with a bulging belly, the chair arms digging into his thighs.  Or, a heavily made-up, middle aged woman.  I could smell her musky perfume from the door, her wrinkled cleavage exposed by a plunging neckline.  The decision was taking too much effort so I just stood, shifting my weight from aching foot to aching foot.  I felt so much worse this visit than I had the last two.  My entire body hurt with a humming consistency, and sharp ribbons of fire seemed to shoot through me periodically, across my shoulders, up my spine, jabbing through one knee.  I had the brief hope that my horrible discomfort today would actually make Dr. Bruner believe me this time.  He had never said it, but his tone had implied that he thought I made up the pain, some kind of hypochondriac.    

            “Stacy Mitchell” a faceless voice called, and I went toward the half open door preparing myself for the infuriating helpless shrug of the Doc’s shoulders.

            Two hours later I walked to my car, packets of papers stapled together clutched against my chest.  I was acutely aware of the three small, square prescriptions that my Doctor had just written for me, Hydrocodone, Soma, and Wellbutrin.  I cringed, rebelling against the idea that I may actually need them.  I flopped everything onto the seat beside me and pointed the car dejectedly toward home.  I left the radio turned off, as usual.  What little energy I possessed had completely drained from my body.  I planned on going back to bed, curling up in the patchwork quilt my mother had made as a wedding present, and falling asleep, forever.

            I saw the mud brown bricks of the public library slide by me as I drove.  I continued another block before the old Stacy won the internal debate and I turned the car around and pulled into an oil-stained parking spot.  I found a large cushioned chair in the back of the library.  I  dropped my weight into the seat.  Then I just waited, wishing I had not stopped at the library, but had just gone home, to not think or care, to be in my safe, familiar, depressed, cocoon.  I forced myself to turn to the first page of the information packet.

            ‘Fibromyalgia Pain Syndrome’.  I read the thick bold letters and then the list of symptoms:  ‘Chronic widespread pain, burning in the muscles, weakness, fatigue.’  The list continued, covering a wide range of issues.  There may be something to this.  These few badly photocopied pages of information described what my life had been like for the last year or so.  I read further about the treatment options.  Thoughts of the prescriptions crumpled deep in my purse caused a slash of fear to quicken my heartbeat.  I felt a sudden burst of something, something besides sadness.  Was it anger?  Motivation?  It drove me to learn more.  I rose slowly from my chair and wobbled over to the help desk. 

            Hours passed.  I don’t know how many, but the library had gotten quiet, and the sun had set outside the windows.  “The library is closing now.” A statuesque woman informed me in an exaggerated whisper.  She had appeared out of nowhere and had to touch my elbow with her wide manicured fingers to get my attention.  

            The streets in the rural community were dark and bright at the same time.  Headlights glared, streetlights dangled, and stoplights burned red as I drove home. 

            Aiden looked at me, mouth gaping, when I walked in the house from the garage.  He was standing in the kitchen, hands dipped into a sink full of three-day-old dirty dishes.   

            “Where were you?” he asked as he dried his hands on a red, rooster patterned hand towel.  “I’ve been home for two hours and didn’t even know you were gone.”  He followed me into the living room and kissed me sheepishly on the temple.  He smelled like citrus dish soap.  “I thought you were in bed,” he said. 

            “You didn’t notice the car was gone?” I dumped a stack of books and papers on an end table and slumped onto the couch beside a pile of unfolded laundry.  One of my bras was draped to the floor.  It was pink and shiny; the cups held their breast-like form.  I hadn’t worn that one in weeks.  I wondered how long it had been on the couch.

            “No, I checked the mail when I got home and came in the front door,” he explained, and began to sift through the papers on the table.  His white shirt sleeves were unbuttoned and turned up to his elbows.  “What’s all this?” 

            “Just…some information,” I nervously tried to pull the papers from his hands.  He let me have them, but grabbed another one off the stack of books, and bounced away from me.  I scowled at the teasing look he gave me, the skin at the corners of his blue eyes crinkled.   

            “’Fibro…my…algia Pain Syndrome:  You Are Not Alone,’” he read, all teasing swiftly disappeared from his face.  “What is this?”

            “Dr. Bruner gave me a diagnosis for all my…issues.”  I looked at my hands when I spoke. Wondering why it felt as though I was about to tell my husband I was dying of cancer, when I wasn’t.  “He said that I have a chronic pain syndrome,” I told him.
Aiden sat down beside me, our thighs touching.  “What does that mean?”  He was uncharacteristically still. I wanted to ask him what he was concerned about.   That I could get better, or that I would stay the same? 

            “It means that all the things that are wrong with me are really only symptoms of one disease,” I heard a catch in my own voice, a little rise of excitement.    “It all makes since.”  I opened one of the books and flipped through until I found a piece of torn book club flyer tucked in the pages.  “Look,” I said and pointed to the words as I read.  “’…alpha-delta sleep disturbance...’” I looked at his face as though that would explain everything.  “The brain waves that tell your body to wake-up interrupt the deep sleep brain waves and the body cannot produce enough of the chemicals and hormones that keep the muscles and nerves healthy,” I waited for my husband to say something.  His engineering brain must have been left at work, I decided, when he blinked at me a few times.  “Basic health class, baby.  When you…”  I patted his leg.  “…do…um…pull-ups, you rip and tear your muscles.  During the following few days the hormones produced by your brain are used to repair and build the muscles,” I paused, questioning.

            “I’m with you,” Aiden said.

            “Well, those chemicals are only produced during sleep, and people with fibromyalgia don’t have enough of it, so their muscles stay sore, and their nerves stay damaged for a long time,” I said.

            His eye brows shot up.  “Aaaaah!” he said. “Why do you…what causes it?” 

            “Well, from what I read it can be triggered by a physical or emotionally traumatic experience,” I said. “A person may be predisposed to have it and then they have a trauma, like a car accident or…or they are attacked.  It can trigger the chemicals in the brain and makes them have this sleep anomaly,” I said.

            Aiden began to rub his warm hand in circles on my back.  “What about the fevers, the dizziness, and…”

            “They are all part of it,” I interrupted him.  “But I don’t have all the explanations tonight.  I’m just trying to wrap my head around one thing at a time,” I told him.   

            “So, what do we do from here?” he asked.  Some tension lifted from my shoulders when I heard the ‘we’. 

            “The problem is that doctors really only know how to treat the symptoms, they don’t know what to do about the cause.” I took a deep breath before continuing.  “They give sleeping pills and pain killers that temporarily mask the symptoms.  This is not something that goes away,” I stared at my hands again.  “It is something that has to be managed, like… like…diabetes or lupus.  It might be a life-long thing,” I waited.

            “Do you have to take sleeping pills and pain killers every day?” His voice was disapproving.  “Honey,” he said, with a stern look from under his brow, like a father admonishing a child for eating too much candy.  “Are you really ready to be dependent on drugs?” 

            I slammed the heavy book closed, scowling at him. It was a good question, infuriating, but good. I had been desperate for relief earlier in the day.  Desperate for the pain to go away and to be able to move unhindered, but I knew the problems that pills could bring. 

            Aiden stood up and placed a hand out in front of me a little apologetically.  “You’re not going to figure this all out tonight.  Let’s go to bed.”  I placed my hand in his like I had so often before and he pulled me to my feet.

            I lay staring at the wall that night.  The little girl from the restaurant popped into my mind along with a long forgotten memory. 

            I was with my big sister, running behind her through tall grass.  I could hear the sound of my father’s lawn mower in the distance.  A little girl’s giggle escaped me when Alicia’s long feathery hair tickled my face.  We were dressed in matching dresses, pink with puffy sleeves.  The sun felt hot on my head and the ground was cool under my small bare feet.  The air smelled almost sickeningly sweet from the peaches that had fallen from the trees in the orchard, rotted and disappeared into the ground underneath.  The tall grass broke and I bumped into the back of Alicia when she suddenly stopped at the line of trees.  She spun swiftly and grabbed my hands. 

            “Listen,” Alicia said.  “The demon has stopped growling.”  We stood silently, clutching each other’s fingers, listening to the absence of the lawn mower.  Then we both burst into a fit of laughter when we heard our father’s familiar, monstrous sneeze.  “He’s coming!” Alicia screeched, turned and sprinted into the orchard, pulling me behind her. 

            Pain suddenly seared through my thigh.  I sat up in bed, clutching at my leg.  The long muscle above my knee was hard as a rock, twitching.  I tried not to make a sound, clinching my jaw, squeezing my eyes shut, while I vigorously rubbed the cramping muscle with the flat of my hand.  It would not stop, and a muffled moan escaped from my throat. 

            “Are you okay?”  Aiden growled from his pillow without turning around, his words sounded squashed and muffled.  He would sometimes rub my muscles for me, but I knew he was tired tonight.  My tossing and turning was probably keeping him up.   

            “I’m fine,” I said quickly, before pressing my lips firmly together.

            “Love you,” Aiden mumbled.   I focused on the sound of his breathing as it became deep and even again. 

            I heaved a breath of relief when my muscle finally relaxed.  I did not dare move my leg, in fear of it cramping again.  I gingerly lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling fan, rotating around and around, until I fell into a half-sleep.  I felt the time pass; Aiden turned in his sleep, the current from the fan blew a piece of my hair across my ear, the shadows from the moonlight stretched and shifted across the room, Aiden’s alarm went off, the shower ran, the sun peeked through the blinds, getting irritatingly brighter.    

            The time of day really did not matter when I pulled myself out of bed.  The room was well lit.  The sheets on the bed no longer clung to the corners, but were massed together with the quilt in a tangled mess. 

            I put my tennis shoes on, pulling them over my thick, treaded socks.  I pushed my mangled hair into a stretchy band, noticing how long it had gotten. 

            I stared at the inside of my front door.  It was stained in a dark finish.  The natural wood grain swirled and striped vertically.  An oval glass inlay mottled the view to the front porch.  I could make out the shape of an iron bench that we had brought from the tiny balcony of Alicia’s old apartment.  The urge to flop down onto the living room couch and rest my sore body was a tangible pull.  As if a bungee cord attached me to it and was stretched to the point of snapping me back.  I raised my arm, feeling as though it weighed a hundred pounds, and opened the door.

            I shuffled slowly down the street watching my shadow rock side to side with each step.  Ten minutes into the walk my muscles were warm, they began to loosen up.  I moved more freely.  By the end of half an hour I almost walked like a normal person, hip joints rotating smoothly, calves tightening and releasing.  Though, I could not escape the obvious limp, thanks to the charlie-horse that I had had in the night.  The constant, thrumming ache persisted, but some of the stiffness in my body was relieved.  I went home, planning to go back to the library.

            When Aiden came home that evening he stood still in the doorway of the kitchen sniffing at the air.  I watched his eyes rove over the room.  Grocery bags clustered on the counter.  Pots steamed away on the stove.  I stood at a cutting board, dicing vegetables.  The thing that must have surprised Aiden the most was Billie Holiday’s voice careening from the stereo.

            “Am I in the wrong house?” he said.  “What are you cooking?” 

            “Vegetable lasagna and artichokes,” I watched his face, trying to judge his reaction.  His brows were scrunched together, perplexed.  He was looking at the stereo. 

            “Mmm, sounds healthy,” he said. 

            “It is healthy.”  I returned to dicing zucchini.  “Did you know that certain foods and herbs are natural pain relievers?”  I threw a mushroom at his chest to get his attention.  “Mushrooms are an anti-inflammatory,” I said.  “They also help regulate blood-sugar.”  He walked up behind me to kiss me on the temple.  He wrapped his arms around my waist, resting his chin on my shoulder.  I continued to chop.  “Artichokes have a natural sleep-aid,” I said and fed him a sliver of zucchini.

            He seemed fixated on the music playing. “I don’t think you’ve listened to this CD since your sister died, honey,” he said in my ear.  “It used to be one of your favorites.”  I remained silent. 

            I stared at the dark room again that night and thought about how much I missed my sister.   

            She had rushed, with teenage excitement, around our upstairs bedroom.  The ceiling sloped down at the corners, windows on all four walls pushed outward in little square pockets. 

            “Come on, Stace,” she begged.  “I promise I won’t get it dirty.  It will be perfect for your recital tomorrow.”  She wore my new headband that mom had purchased specifically to go with my blue gown.  I thought that it looked much nicer on Alicia’s shiny blonde head, than with my dull brown.

            “No,” I said and reached to pull it off her head.

            “Why not?”  Alicia hopped onto her bed, the headband too high for me to reach when I jumped. 

            “’Cause, I don’t want you to go out tonight,” I pouted, shoving my arms across my chest, plopping onto the edge of my mattress.  “I wish I wanted to go with you,” I told her.  Alicia reached into her nightstand drawer and took out an amber prescription bottle.  “But I don’t.  Your friends are weird.”  She screwed off the top and popped two little pills into her mouth.  She threw back her head to swallow them.

            “Pleeaase, Stace, just cover for me.”  She sat down on her bed across from me, our knees touching.  She leaned forward, an inch from my face, and sucked in her cheeks, making her lips pucker.  She started making kissy sounds.  I felt the muscles at the corner of my mouth twitch.  Alicia saw it.  “Thanks.  You’re the best,” She said.  She knew she had won.  She shoved the bottle into her miniature backpack, slung it over her shoulders, and headed for the window.   

            “Why are you taking your meds, Licia?” I followed her to the window.  “You know you’re not supposed to take them out of the house.”  She flipped one leg over the window seal, then the other.

            “My head has been killing me today.” she said.  “I’m taken ‘em with me, just in case.”  She shrugged one thin shoulder “Besides, I’m not supposed to sneak out on a school night either,” she laughed and shimmied down the rough, grey shingles to the porch roof.  “Don’t wait up,” she whispered before disappearing over the edge, sliding down the narrow metal pole.

            I woke to a morning that was still dark.  I could hear Aiden’s snores beside me.  I slowly rolled from my bed, repositioning the blanket over him.  I walked gingerly down the hall to the kitchen and began to make coffee.  I listened to the hissing drip of the machine, and stared at the digital clock above the stove.  A bird began making a twittering call outside the kitchen window.  The insignificant sound seemed unfamiliar, and I wondered how long it had been since I woke up early enough to hear the first sounds of the day.  I went out the back.  A dim glow peeked up from the east.  I stood very still letting the cool morning air wash over me.  My body ached like it usually did.  It was a dull, humming, throb that never fully went away.  I thought of crawling back into bed, but I knew that Aiden would be getting up soon.

            I allowed my mind to slide into another memory.  I was the one sneaking this time. 

            “Sshhh,” I told Aiden as I carefully put the key in the lock of mine and Alicia’s apartment.  “If we wake her up we won’t have the place to ourselves,” A breathy laugh escaped when Aiden placed his hand on my back, and whispered in my ear.

            “Well, let’s be quiet then, I definitely want you to myself,” His voice seethed sensually, and I felt the increasingly familiar warmth spread down my spine and pool in my belly.  I kept reminding myself that he was my fiancé.  It was unbelievable.  We would be married soon.  We had recently found the perfect house to start our life together.  The world seemed to be closing comfortably around me lately, giving me a sense of belonging and security.  The uncertainty of searching and waiting for life to unfold no longer existed.  It had already begun to unfold.      

            The evening had been amazing.  I could still feel the rush from when a wave of movement had filled the auditorium when the audience stood, clapping their approval after my performance.  Gossip of an excellent review had wound its way through the entire after party.  My only regret was that Alicia hadn’t been there.  But I knew that she had not been feeling well. 

            We quietly turned the door knob together, Aiden’s long hand on mine.  He did not take his eyes from my face when the door clicked.  He wrapped his arm around me, splaying his palm on the black satin material at my ribcage.  He kissed me as we entered the dark apartment, first on the small space below my ear, then my jaw, the corner of my mouth. 

            A beep from the kitchen, telling me the coffee was done, interrupted my reverie.  I entered the house, poured a cup of coffee to let cool, and began building an omelet.  I hummed to myself while the food in the pan sizzled.  I added some chopped garlic.  It masked the unpleasant smell of frying egg, tiny bits of the pungent white herb clung to my finger tips.  I had lost the mechanics of making an omelet.  It turned out to be a pile of scrambled eggs pretending to be an omelet in the shape of a half moon. 

Aiden sat at the table to eat his half.  His sandy hair glistened, wet from his shower.  I sat down across from him, sipping my bitter coffee. 

            “Are you drinking that black?”  Aiden asked, pointing the end of his fork at my mug.  His eyes were laughing at me, crinkled at the corners. 

            “Yes, sugar tends to aggravate the symptoms of fibro,” I said.  “Was I making a face?”                              

            “Just a little,” his brow furrowed thoughtfully.  “Maybe we could try using that sugar substitute,” he suggested.  “You know, the stuff that tastes like sugar, is made from sugar, you can bake with it and everything.” 

            I chuckled a little at his enthusiasm.  “I’ll look into it,” I said.

            “I’ve missed that smile, Stace.” he reached across the table, wrapping his hands around mine on my coffee cup.  “I’m glad you’re feeling better, honey,” he said. 

            I had nothing to say.  The apology that was too important to utter came out in a pent up breath while we smiled at each other.  It seemed he would have waited forever for me to come out of my depression, but sometimes I had not been so sure. 

            I walked out with him, watching his car back out of the driveway and disappear down the street.  The air was still.  There was no breeze or even a hint of one.  I went to the iron bench nestled in a small alcove near the front door.  It squeaked in protest when I sat.

            The last time I had sat on this bench was the day after Aiden and I had celebrated our first anniversary. 

            “It is our anniversary tonight, Licia.” I had told my sister, as I punched the down arrow for the elevator.  I was clutching a stack of new music to look over, pressing the phone painfully against my ear with my shoulder.  “I have a show, and then Aiden and I have plans afterward.”  I heard a plea in my voice.

            “Can’t you stop by before your show?” she begged in a low mumble.  “I have not been able to leave the apartment for three days, my head feels like it’s going to explode.”  I had heard that one before.  I knew she was lonely and that her migraines sometimes kept her isolated, but I was just so busy. 

            “I’ll see what I can do, okay?”  I know my words were curt, dismissive.  I snapped the cell phone shut.

            The next morning I held an ice cold bottle of orange juice in one hand and a bag of bagels and cream cheese in the other as I bounded up the stairs to Alicia’s apartment.  I had not come by last night, not even called.  I knocked gently on the door and waited a long five minutes, before I pulled a key from inside the dead azalea planter, and opened the door. 

            I had expected the darkness in the apartment, but not the smell.  It was strange, thick and musky.  I made my way through the dim, familiar space, setting the food on the square glass-top table, and walked down the narrow, carpeted hallway.

            The bedroom door stood open.  A sliver of light splintered across the bed through an opening in the awkwardly tacked quilt over the window.  I could see Alicia lying in the bed.  She looked to be awake.  The light illuminated part of her pale face, eyes open. 

            “Liiiciaaa.” I sang gently.  “Rise and shine.”  She did not respond, not even stir.  A jolt of fear shot through me before I could form a thought in my head.  I felt as though my own heart had stopped beating for just a moment.  I flicked on the light, and looked in horror at the body on my sister’s bed.  It was her face, grey, purple around her eyes, nose, and lips.  Her small foot that stuck out from under the blanket, sick, bruise-like marks around her pink painted toenails.  Her blonde hair, splayed across the flower patterned pillow case.  It was her, but I knew my sister was not there.  I was alone. 

            I had sat on the iron bench on the tiny back patio, clutching the phone in my hand until Aiden got there.  Police officers and EMT’s were crowding the bedroom.  I had sat on the bench dry eyed and staring.

            Tears slid down my face now, a constant waterfall of them, as I sat in front of my house, grateful for the overgrown bushes that shielded me from the morning dog-walkers.  My shoulders heaved with the pain of losing my sister, like my chest was being split open.  Thankfully a breeze eventually stirred, wisping gently across my face, drying my cheeks, and bringing me back to the present.

            I rose from the bench and went inside.  I searched the house for the box of family pictures that had been stored away.  I sat at the kitchen table sifting through the photos until I found one of me and Alicia.  We were dressed in matching pink dresses.  We were sitting on the wooden porch of our parent’s home.  Our bare feet dangled, and pink lines of watermelon juice ran down our arms to our elbows.  We held half eaten red crescents near our faces.  Alicia was grinning, tilting her head, her light hair spilling across my shoulder.   

            I carefully placed the picture in a wooden frame and settled it on the empty mantle above the fireplace.  The lyrics of ‘To Be Loved’ filled my head.  In a quiet voice I began to sing.

Melissa Qualls: "I am currently attending Mesa Community College studying psychology and writing. I am first, a mother, then a chauffeur, cook, maid, family counselor, expert drama de-escalator, and lover of all things edible.  But mostly, I am a lifelong student and observer."

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