Fiction · 09/08/2010

Maybe Gravity Is

Sam says that, theoretically, medicine is easy. With a detailed enough history, he says, you can diagnose anything. Then you just deal. There are diseases you can cure, conditions you can treat, and situations you just manage, or wait out. He says this when we’re on the steps that lead from the highway down through the woods to where the Cut River meets the lake. I’m trying not to look at my feet, at the metal grate of the stairs and the dizzy space below. We passed a sign in the parking lot at the top that reminded us we’ll have to climb back up every step we go down. There’s 231 steps in all, it said, and no other way up.

I tell Sam that can’t mean doctors don’t get stumped. Aren’t people sometimes just inexplicably sick? I’ve had a lump in my throat for two months now. That’s biology. How could history matter?

Inexplicably, he says. Like why it gets dark every night is a mystery until someone tells you how it works. Like gravity is a mystery.

And then we argue about whether anybody knows how gravity works. I don’t think they do. I think they just have a name for it.

We’ve stopped here on our way downstate. His family has a Fourth of July party every year, and this is my first time going along. We’ve been married a while, but we tend to break up in the summers, me staying at my sister’s or him getting a motel. His folks have never come up to where we live, in a little red shotgun house that sits nearly on the street and doesn’t have much room for company. His mom says she’ll make the trip when the baby comes. Every time he tells me that, I say, what baby?

Not that Sam knows medicine. Sam installs signs. He climbs ladders in front of restaurants and motels with tools in one hand and the wind whipping around him, and when he falls someday, it won’t be much trouble to diagnose his broken neck: he fell because he took a job installing signs. And then, I guess, because of everything that led to that.

Maybe history is the only thing that matters.

Some of the trees we pass are labeled — ash, white pine, tamarack — the words carved into little wooden rectangles and nailed into the trunks. The Latin names are written beneath in black sharpie, in some forester’s cursive. Sam reaches out over the railing and squares a tilted sign. His mom is sick, but he says it’s one of those things you manage. Or wait out.

So it’s probably not good timing that I’m going to leave him again when we get home, that I want to move into my own little apartment. A loft, maybe, with tall windows. To a place with brick walls where nobody will hang pictures of ships made of swirling, vertiginous string.

The doctor says the lump in my throat is really in my head. He’s taken x-rays and ordered ultrasounds and put his hands on my neck, his fingers pressing hard, which makes me want him to kiss me. There’s nothing there, he says.

At the bottom of the steps we slip off our shoes and walk out onto the beach. Sam says he’s happy I came with him this time. He hugs me and over his shoulder I think I see a face etched into the bark of a birch tree. The Virgin Mary, maybe, or my own mother. I tell him she’s going to be fine.

When I meet Sam’s mom, I’ll tell her that too, and that the reason I’m not pregnant isn’t because of anything we can diagnose, however detailed the histories we relate to the doctor. That we’re still trying, I’ll say. It’ll happen. Because my mom could have babies, and so could her mom, and her mom, and her mom. It’s the only thing anybody really has in common. Everybody in history.

So the doctor says there’s no medical reason it’s not happening, but I think it’s because of how we are, how we leave each other: because the pull of our little red house isn’t strong enough. Because gravity would trump history if we had any.

Sam’s too old to start med school now, but he says he’s looking into it. He didn’t even finish college, and he must know he can’t cure any of us by learning more, by getting some degree.

Good idea, I tell him, let’s both go back to school. Let’s read and read and figure this world out. Though the part of the world I understand least is my own body, which nobody has written about — why I can’t get pregnant and I can’t stay put and why nobody can feel the lump in my throat from the outside. I pull him back towards the first of the 231 stairs. We need to get back on the road if we’re going to get there while everybody’s still up.

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Jennifer A. Howard lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she teaches and works as an editor for Passages North, but her favorite stories are her daughter’s fan fictions about Doctor Who.