Inferma

After four days of fever, I want to unzip my skin, abandon this body too ripe with sickness and strange. I feel wind-dropped and boozy, but I force myself toward useful action. Tonight, I will cook dinner, the way a good wife and mother should. Poor inferma, my husband says, we can get take out, but I will not be deterred. Go rest, you’ll feel better. No.

Today at the grocery store checkout, with my haul of out-of-season fruit and soup, the clerk weighs the peaches and asks, “Any ice or stamps, ma’am?”

Not long ago and without notice I crossed the threshold between Miss and Ma’am. Dirty hair pulled back into a knot, eyes puffy, downturned mouth of sad, middle-aged motherhood: Ma’am fits, and I resent it. The dreaded apostrophe signals absence. What have I lost? A consonant and time.

Once I was Miss. Always carded for cigarettes and alcohol and entry to clubs. Once I went to clubs. Men and women eyed me for sexual potential, pursued my body as if it concealed some rare object. My body never my own, but powerful because desired. The proof: shrines and stalking, unsolicited love letters and unwanted gifts, verbal lashings punctuated with the impact of fists. I knew myself as outline, as eye-reflection, as shadow in a stranger’s mirror. Always hungry, vanishing thin, but wanted. I considered starvation the price you paid for beauty. Much like bruises were the cost of love.

Now this body carries too much weight, a through-hiker’s pack worth of depression tucked into bulging pockets across belly, over hips, around arms, beneath chin, my cheeks chubby, squirreling away fat to hold me through a lonely winter. If I encountered myself, I’d think ma’am, too. Matronly, frumpy, fuzzy around the edges. Easily overlooked in crowds, but safe. Somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife, somebody else’s.

Somewhere in the past I read that cyanide derives from the pits of peaches. A marvelous logic—poison distilled from discarded pits, but only after the sweet peach flesh has been stripped away, teeth-torn, savored, swallowed.

My body exhausts me. All my selves nested inside each other, selves of pleasure and pain I wish discarded. Un-nest the nesting dolls, erase the shadow bruises of fist and boot, bruises healed decades ago but fresh as the morning after a rejected lover shoved the bath towel down my throat, so junkie neighbors wouldn’t hear me scream.

If I could have my wish, I would rip free from myself and step into a January morning, naked and sharp as crystal. Arctic air would coat my lungs with delicious pain while snowflakes, perfect pinwheels of light, collect in the newborn hairs on my head, cheeks, shoulders, breasts, belly, hips, pubis, thighs. I’d glitter with ice. My feet would leave no trail. No prior claims weight me into the snow. Neither miss nor ma’am, mother nor wife, friend nor stranger, death my only obligation, its warmth nestled behind my navel like the pit of an unnamed, succulent fruit.

Photo Credit: Shir Kehila

About the author

Erin Lillo is a teacher and writer with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Mesa, Arizona, with her husband and two children.

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