Milk, Not Cream, Emma Carte


            Dana Thompson stood in front of the mirror, cheeks flushed and lips stained faintly purple from the bottle of wine she had polished off before dinner. She gripped the marble countertop and closed her eyes as she counted aloud. It was smooth beneath her fingertips. When she got to four, Dana inhaled sharply before collapsing onto the floor in front of the toilet. Her body heaved as her stomach emptied itself until, exhausted, she curled up on the cool tile and watched the water drip from the faucet in the tub.
            One, two, three, four, five, six, she counted, and by seven was asleep.
            After she awoke, she showered and dressed in a gray pencil skirt and long-sleeve, black, fitted top. Her hands trembled as the soft brush glided across the contours of her cheekbones and while she lined her empty, black eyes with a dark brown liner. As she walked through her house, Dana counted twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, to quiet her thoughts. After adjusting the pillow on the black leather couch in her living room, she grabbed a juice from the otherwise empty fridge. The sharpness of the cayenne and ginger lingered on her tongue.
            The wind pierced her eyes as she drove through the winding roads, the scent of cigarette smoke settling on the tips of her fingers and seeping into the sleek, pulled back strands of her hair. She felt the remnants of ash on her skirt as she smoothed it out. Inhale, exhale, one, two, three. She brought four daisies that brushed against her thigh with each step she took. She didn’t stay long. The drive home always felt twice as long as the drive there. Static from the radio was filling the car as she wound home, past the prison and past the country club. When she got home, Dana poured herself a drink and sat at the kitchen counter, sipping and staring.
            “Did you go?” Troy asked, walking into the kitchen where Dana sat.
            She nodded yes, paging through a pile of take-out menus. She could feel him looking at her.
            “You want a glass of water?” he asked.
            “I already have one, thanks.”
            “How about I top you off,” he said. He could smell the scent of liquor on her breath.
            “No that’s okay,” Dana said, carrying her glass and the menus to the kitchen table. Her ring finger scraped against her thumbnail. “How was the trip?”
            “Same as they always are. Spend six hours in the airport, to stay one night in the city, to talk about what we could easily talk about over a conference call,” Troy said, slipping off his oxfords. He walked over to the table and stood behind her, tall and broad. She looked like a doll next to him. Her body tensed as he rested his hand on her shoulder, giving it a light squeeze. He leaned down towards her ear as if he were going to tell her a secret, put his cheek against hers and closed his eyes.
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            Dana sat on the porch and watched the rain melt into the pavement in front of their house while she smoked a cigarette. Four, five, six. She shivered underneath the blanket draped over her shoulders as her cold fingers traced the scar on her stomach. She could remember the smell of rain against hot pavement when she got into the car that day. She didn’t remember what she was wearing or what she had been doing when she felt the warm trickle splash against the back of her calves before it hit the floor. She remembered a single gasp escaping her mouth and seeing both terror and ecstasy in Troy’s eyes. She remembered the gut wrenching pain in her lower abdomen, as if someone were trying to push the organs from inside out. She remembered that everything went white.
            “I want you to keep breathing Dana, in and out, we got you in good hands doll.” She could recollect bits and pieces of voices.
            She remembered a sense of panic all around her. She remembered the squeaking of white tennis shoes against linoleum floors and the clinking of metal tools and the steady breathing of the surgeon. She remembered the cool gliding, like butter on toast, across her belly as they sliced it down the middle. She remembered a single moment during the operation that wasn’t hazy—three seconds of clearness as black and vast pupils swallowed the nurse’s copper eyes whole and then everything went white again. She remembered the dull ache behind her eyes when she woke up and looked over at Troy who was sitting in the chair beside her bed staring at the wall.
            “Where’s my baby?” she had asked.
            “Sweetheart,” he’d said to her.  
            Porcelain shattered against the concrete.
            “Jesus, Troy,” Dana said, wrapping the blanket across her chest. “I hate when people sneak up on me like that”.
            “I would hardly call opening the front door ‘sneaking,’” Troy said, chuckling while he picked up the shards of broken mug. “I have to go see a client, just real quick…apparently there’s been a financial crisis,” Troy said.
            “That doesn’t sound good.”
            “Yeah it’s a real tragedy, guy needs a second boat as collateral to his wife for the mistress”.
            “Life’s dilemmas,” Dana said, rolling her eyes.

 

            Dana rifled through her pile of take-out menus before she decided on a little Italian bistro. She drew incessant circles on a sheet of paper as she ordered and grabbed her keys. She counted, one, two, three, four as she approached her Audi, sitting in the car for a minute—inhale, exhale—before she started the engine.
            It had stopped raining, leaving the sky a milky white. When she pulled up to the coffee shop where she knew they’d meet, she parked, rolled down her window and pulled out a cigarette, noticing the chipped nail polish on her thumb.
            She watched them from the window, sitting across from each other. Pieces of pink paper fell from Troy’s fingers as they spoke. Twenty minutes passed as Dana watched her put her hand on his and watched him rub his temples and tear up sugar packets, before she left to pick up dinner. On the drive home, the scent of creamy pesto and bacon wrapped tightly, like the arms of a mother, around sweet, plump dates all coated in balsamic vinaigrette nauseated her. She began setting the table as Troy walked in. Drips from the faucet echoed from the bathroom as they ate.
            “Is something wrong with the food?” Troy asked.
            “No.”
            “You’ve hardly eaten a bite,” he said, fishing the last date off of the tray.
            “I’m not hungry. I put out silverware in case you didn’t notice,” Dana said.
            Troy licked the sweet syrupy balsamic off his fingers. “Just thirsty then I guess, huh?” he asked.
            Dana stood up, six, seven, eight, nine, the faucet continued to drip as she poured the last of the red wine into her glass, then ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen as she climbed the steps.

             The suds looked like tiny, blank eyes, a million of them, looking up at Dana with accusation as she soaked in the bath. The lavender bath salts calmed her nerves. She remembered when Troy had gotten them for her. She had been preparing for the interview for weeks. When she came in that day, there was a purple cylinder on the counter where Troy was sitting, reading his book.
            “I did it. I got the promotion,” she had told him, smiling.
            “I knew you would. That’s what these are for, to relax. Being in charge ain’t easy,” he’d said holding up the cylinder.
            Dana finished her glass and got out of the tub, slipping into her black, silk robe and into a deep and sobering sleep.

 

            Troy woke up the next morning with a headache. Steam rose from the mug that was sitting on the bedside table next to him—a splash of cream, no sugar—almost exactly the way he liked it. He preferred milk in his coffee. There was a note underneath the mug reading, “went for a run, back in an hour” in perfect cursive. He splashed cold water on his face and looked in the mirror studying the wrinkles that had not too long ago been non-existent. He slipped on his sandals and a gray t-shirt. On his way out he opened the fridge. Green and yellow and orange and purple juices labeled in the same cursive as the note lined the top shelf, next to a tall carton of organic cream, and no milk. He shut it.
            The drive to the office was dull. Dull buildings, dull people all meandering about, but the sun felt nice. Troy remembered when he had gotten ice cream with Michael at the shop on the corner of the intersection where he now waited for a green light. It was after Michael’s first day of sixth grade. They sat silently on the bench, watching people pass by. He remembered the old woman who was standing at the corner. There was nothing much significant about her, Troy remembered, but he was mesmerized. Her thin fingers had been wrapped tightly around a rolled up piece of paper that he’d imagined to be scripture or a photograph of a dead husband or a letter to a lonely sister. Yellowing fingernails scraped against the paper in her hand as she waited for the cross walk to tell her that it was safe to cross the street, which she did. She turned the corner. He’d had the urge to follow her—he didn’t. Later that night, Troy had tried to picture the old woman’s face but it was just a blur of flesh. Troy’s head jerked up as the car behind him honked at the now green light. He looked nervously down the side street, behind him, and in front of him, waiting to see her.

 

            He sat in the waiting room and leafed through a magazine while the receptionist snapped her gum incessantly—pages of housewives and pies and men posing with dogs, children laughing, a little girl with no hair was holding a mother’s hand, but he was still thinking about the old woman.
            “Dr. Miller will see you now,” the receptionist muttered through her thin, chapped lips.
            “Thanks, Eden,” Troy said. He walked into Dr. Miller’s office. She was writing furiously.
            “Just a second, I need to finish this thought,” she said. Her skin was tan and supple, starkly contrasting the almost white, blonde hair that was piled on top of her head.
            Troy looked over at a painting of a sunset on the gray wall. “How come every doctor has a very subpar painting of a sailboat or a sunset or the ocean in their office? Is it supposed to be calming?” he asked, pointing at the far wall.
            She looked up at him for a couple seconds before returning to her legal pad. “Sorry about that, just had to finish something up real quick”.
            “Karen, why do you have that painting?” he asked.
            “A sunset can’t offend anyone,” she said tossing a brown leather wallet on her desk. “You left it at the coffee shop the other day.”
            “Shit, I didn’t even notice it was missing. Who gets offended by a doctor with decent art?”
            Karen leaned back in her chair. “People like to say things offend them. It gives them an opinion.”
            “I can’t stay in that house anymore, Karen.” Troy tilted his head back. White specks scattered like insects across his closed eyelids.
            Karen looked down at her desk. She picked up a picture and blew the dust off of the frame before placing it on the far corner of her desk.
            “You don’t know what it’s like being there.” He picked up a piece of blank paper off the desk and started tearing it into little pieces. “Am I a piece of shit for wanting to leave? Some days I think that, but then I remember that my son died too.” He balled up the rest of the paper in his fist before tossing it into the wastebasket.
            “Can I ask you to do something personal? It might be hard, but I’d like to try it,” Karen asked.
            Troy nodded.
            “Tell me about your last memory with Michael.” Troy told her about the time they’d gotten ice cream. He didn’t tell her about the woman.
            “Okay, now tell me about the last conversation you had with Michael, try and remember the specifics, words you actually spoke to each other.”
            He couldn’t think of a single one. “I don’t understand why you want to know so much about my dead son,” Troy said.
            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.” She twirled her ballpoint pen between her thumb and forefinger.
            “Can you just, I don’t know, tell me how to get her back to our life, our real life?” Troy rubbed his forehead, “Do you have any ibuprofen?”
            She handed him three pills that he dry swallowed. “You always call Michael your ‘dead son’.” She leaned forward, putting her elbows on her desk.
            Troy laughed. “I also call you Doctor, you know why? Because that’s what you are. And Michael’s dead. Therefore, Michael is my dead son.”
            “Can I ask you something?” Karen asked.
            “Sure.”
            “What did Michael look like, what was he like?”
            Troy frowned. “I’ve told you what Michael looks like before, haven’t I?”
            “Well yeah, generally, but you’ve never told me what he’s really like, what shade of brown his eyes were, how he kept his hair, what his laugh sounded like. I imagine him looking like you but you’ve never told me enough for me to be able to really picture him,” she gripped the pen between her fingers.
            Troy looked down at his watch. “Shit, Dana will be back any minute I gotta go.”
            “We’ll talk soon?” Karen asked, releasing the pen from her grip.
            “Yeah.”
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            Dana’s stomach dropped as she walked over the place where someone’s lover now laid. She counted the graves as she passed them—mother, father, mother, wife, wife, wife, husband, father.  She glanced around, noticing all the dead, forgotten flowers left to accompany the bodies beneath them. A man was standing in between two rows of headstones, whistling ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’. He looked down at his palm, then around, looking unsure and wary, but not much sad. Dana wondered whom he was visiting. She slowed to a halt and looked at the headstone in front of her—the small outline of the stillborn baby she’d carried. They never could find the right words. Underneath ‘MICHAEL’ it read ‘Beloved Son’. It was enough. It was the truth. She brushed off some pine branch from the headstone, leaving the tips of her fingers coated in sap. Her phone started ringing but she ignored it as she sat there with the child that she’d never know. She left the daisies on his grave before leaving. When she got to her car, she checked her voicemail and pulled out of the parking lot.
            “Dana, it’s Karen. Listen, Troy came to see me today. We need to talk. I’ll be at my office until six. Stop in when you have a minute or call me and we can meet tomorrow if today doesn’t work for you. It’s important.”
            She slid her phone back into her purse and made a quick U-turn.
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            Dana picked up the same magazine that Troy had leafed through earlier that day, listened to the same snapping of the receptionist’s gum as she waited. “Real Men Do Yoga” was emblazoned on the top of the page she flipped to. She skimmed the article until Eden told her that Dr. Miller would see her now.
            “Hi D,” Karen said as she stood up from her desk.
            “I know Troy called you to meet for coffee the other day, and I know what that means, and I know why I’m here now.” Dana was standing just inside of the closed door of Karen’s office, glazed over eyes glued to the desk as she spoke.
            Karen sat back down in her chair.
            “He was doing so well...” Dana said, still staring at the desk.
            “I know how hard it is to see him fall back into this. As your friend, I want to help you do this the way you see best fit, but as a professional, I have to do this one way or the other. I have to Dana, for both of your sakes,” Karen said. Her fingers drummed against the desk. “I don’t have anymore appointments today, let me grab us some coffee, okay?”
            Dana looked around the office. A diploma from Penn State hung on the wall behind the desk. She remembered when Karen had introduced her to Troy. She remembered how much she wanted to dislike him for being so classically handsome. She remembered how quickly she realized that would be impossible. The door clicked open. Karen set a steaming, Styrofoam cup in front of Dana.
            “I saw this coming Karen. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I saw it coming. I hoped that when he got back from his business trip he’d be, I don’t know, himself again, but he wasn’t. I saw it in him. I felt it the moment he got back. It just, it doesn’t make any sense to me. Is it something I’m doing?” She was staring into the cup as if the answer might be at the bottom of it.
            “No, no, D you have to stop blaming yourself for this. There are no explanations for the delusions that people suffering have. They come up with things almost entirely random and the paranoia…putting the blame on loved ones…it’s how they cope with the strangeness of it all. If the problem or whatever is throwing their life off is someone else’s, they’ll run with it to make the delusions more real.”
            “I know, but why this? What makes him want to believe that Michael lived longer than he actually did? That still leaves him with a dead son.”
            “Like I said, there aren’t explanations. I tried asking him to give me characteristics of Michael or bits of conversations they had to try and trigger something in him, to make him realize that he never had any, but he’s ill, D. He’s not well. 
            Dana drained her cup before standing up. “Come by in an hour?”
            Karen nodded. 

 

            When she got home, Dana walked through the house, her heels leaving hollow echoes throughout the marble hallway. She studied her face in the bathroom mirror and counted twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, turning on the faucet. She could hardly feel the piercing of cold water on her scalp as she dipped her head in the sink. She changed into shorts and a white tee shirt. Before walking outside, she opened the cabinet under the sink and grabbed a clear bottle, unscrewed the top, and took a swig. Dana could hardly feel the thick burn as the liquor slid down her throat. She grabbed a pair of shears hanging on the wall of the garage as Troy pulled into the driveway, the bottle in her other hand.
            “Hey, isn’t it a little early for uh…cocktails?” Troy asked, getting out of his car.
            Dana walked straight towards him and stopped. He tried to look at her, but her eyes were so cold and scared. He looked down at her torso. With the palm of her hand resting on his chest, she leaned her forehead against him and sighed. She walked over to the front lawn, taking a swig from the bottle as she walked, before setting it next to her on the freshly cut lawn. Troy stood there watching her start to trim the hedges. He stood there and watched as Dr. Miller’s car pulled into the driveway. He felt something light within his entire body, paralyzing him, watching Dana while she kept trimming. Snip, snip, snip.
                                                                                                                                 __________

 

            Troy woke up in a dim room with two twin beds, one of which he was lying in. The walls were white, the carpet was taupe, curtains taupe. He switched on the lamp next to the bed he was in when he heard someone knock.
            “Hi sweetie, how are you feeling?” A short, plump Indian woman walked in with an orange bottle of pills in one hand and a paper cup in the other. She sat in the chair next to his bed and held out two pills and the cup of water. “You were a bit aggressive with one of the orderly’s last night so we gave you something to calm you down, to help you rest. You’re probably pretty groggy. These will help.” She shook her closed fist in front of him, urging him to take the pills. Troy shook his head.
            “Your loss,” the woman said, standing up. “Dr. Orren will be in soon to talk to you.” the woman walked out of the room and down the hall where Dana stood, leaning against the wall.
            “When can I talk to Dr. Orren?” she asked the woman.
            “He wants to talk to you before he talks to Troy, so if you’ll follow me I’ll show you to his office.” They walked down the fluorescently lit hallway. The woman knocked twice on a mahogany door before holding it open for Dana.
            “Come on in, Dana,” Dr. Orren said. His bald head glistened underneath the lamp next to his desk. A pair of round spectacles slid down the bridge of his perfectly sloped nose as he stood up and held out a large hand that emerged from his lanky arms. “Dr. Orren, but you can call me Graham,” he said as she reached out and shook his hand.
            Dana smiled, “Pleasure.”
            He gestured toward a green, pleather chair. “Have a seat.” Dana looked down at the desk as the echo of Dr. Orren’s voice buzzed in her ear.
            “Mild schizophrenia can most certainly be triggered by the stress that experiencing a loss brings, the stress increases the body’s production of a hormone called cortisol…we’ll get you some pamphlets, I don’t want to overload you with medical jargon so,” he cleared his throat, “Now since this is his second time back here, I think that the best plan is for Troy to stay here, just for a few days to talk and do some group therapy, and we can start him on some medication, which I have been told he stopped taking about a month ago, is that correct?” Dana nodded. “Okay, well we’ll go ahead and get him on Clozapine and, like I said, we’ll go over all the medical stuff later. I know this is a lot to take in right now. How are you feeling?” Dana shifted her gaze up at him and blinked.
            “Fair enough, uh well I’m going to ask that I talk to Troy alone and sort things out and then you can come by tomorrow and we can talk about a game plan. It’s easier emotionally, for both of you, to give it a day. Any questions?”
             Dana shook her head.
            “You go home and get some rest. We’ll be in touch.”
            Dana walked around the side of the building towards the parking lot. As she drove, her eyes stared mechanically at the road ahead of her. She took a left a few streets away from their home, parked, and walked over towards the park. There was a little pond down near the end of the trail just past the playground. The sky was a pale white, the air humid. When she got there, Dana looked out over the pond, slipping off her flats. Her feet sunk into the mud, oozing between her toes, as she waded in up to her ankles. There was no one around, nothing. The row of pine tress across from the pond did not stir, nor did the branches twitch with any signs of life. The birds did not chirp. Children were neither laughing nor crying. No one skipped a rock and no one read a book over on the bench. Dana stood looking at nothing and screamed. She screamed from the tips of her toes and up through her calves, into her stomach where it gained momentum and roared up her throat, into the emptiness of the pond. Her mangled cry echoed through the empty branches of the trees and the stillness of the air.
            At the top of the trail, Dana paused. Her hands trembled as she smoothed her hair into a neat bun just above the nape of her neck. Inhale, Exhale—one, two, three.