A SCALE TO MEASURE HARDNESS
by Signe Bergstrom
Marta sat on the fold-down seat of her medical walker, her feet firmly planted on the white tile lining the pool’s edge. The ruffled skirt of her pink bathing suit peeked out from beneath the folds of her abdomen like the tendrils of a sea anemone. Hooked up to a portable oxygen machine, she sounded like a living, breathing wet vac. The cabled prongs that curled inside her nostrils reminded her of shriveled escargot. She thought to tell this to her daughter, but then thought the better of it. Sunlight flecked the water. Marta’s physical therapist had cancelled their appointment at the last minute. Having already trundled their way to the pool, Bella and Marta were now waiting for Solomon—Bella’s brother and Marta’s youngest—to pick them up. Solomon, however, was stuck behind an overturned truck bound for the Denver Mint that had spilled tons of blank pennies across the highway. “It’s total fucking mayhem here,” Solomon said to Bella before their call dropped. Bella imagined people rushing from their cars to scoop up the copper-plated zinc disks by the handfuls. “If you had a car . . . ,” Marta began. “But I don’t,” Bella replied. “If you would let me drive—” “But I won’t.”
“We’d be home by now.” “Your car,” Bella said, “is a Soviet-bloc biohazard.” The last time Bella had driven her mother’s car, a 1982 Yugo, its engine had burst into flames in the parking lot of the farmer’s market. A quick-moving fish vendor had dumped buckets of ice over the hood. Unfortunately, the buckets had also held filets of tilapia, salmon, and sardines, all of which Bella was forced to purchase. Months later, the engine still reeked of charred fish. The two women waited. Bella felt the humidity coiling her hair. Soon her head would be a mass of tight ringlets. Marta fiddled with the cord of the oxygen tank and pushed her bifocals up her slender nose. So this is what recovery looks like, Bella thought, staring at her mother. Marta fidgeted with the ruffles of her suit. On the geological Mohs scale of mineral hardness, Marta used to be off-the-charts: a diamond, one mark above the crystalline corundum. Her personality, cutting. Her beauty, sharp. Many had considered her handsome. Now Marta was talc, more powder than mineral. Even her skin was paper white and flaking. They hadn’t anticipated her hair would fall out but it did. Clumps fell from her skull like wads of meringue. Stress, apparently, being as powerful as chemo. At least the hematoma on her thigh had gotten smaller, its color more mango than its original eggplant hue. Bella had begun to fear that people suspected her of elder abuse. Bella sat on the pool’s edge and wriggled her toes underwater. The water felt cooler than last week even though the reading on the temperature gauge was no different. A submarine toy listed in the pool’s deep end. Bella imagined a platoon of little plastic men inside the submarine, floundering, their rifles thrashing in the chlorinated water. Marta pulled the nasal prongs from her nostrils and recklessly twirled them in the air, a motion that made Bella uncomfortable; it made her think of strippers’ tassels. Marta made an announcement: “Today’s special is tomato soup and grilled cheese.” Although she was discharged from the ICU two months ago, Marta still phoned the hospital’s cafeteria to hear the daily menu.
Bella sighed. “Why do you keep calling the lunch lady?” “Because she always answers.” “And I don’t?” “You don’t cook.” “I do.” “No. You reheat.” “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you miss the hospital. Ice chips and IV drips. Vanilla Ensure.” Marta was silent. “Are you getting in the water?” “At least they cared about me.” “A bit melodramatic, don’t you think?” “I was dead for three months, I’m entitled.” “Lucky me. You survived.”
“You’re damn right. I came back from the dead. Lucky us,” she said. Her voice wavered but was defiant. “Anyway, I’m not going into the water without Marcus. You don’t know how to hold me.” This was true. A former nurse with the physique of a beach-toned bodybuilder, Marcus, Marta’s PT, was accustomed to carrying around and moving dead weight in ways that Bella obviously was not. Bella loved the moment when Marcus would maneuver her mother’s bloated body into the pool. Marta’s left leg, still partially paralyzed from nerve damage caused by the hematoma, would reanimate itself in three feet of water. It was amazing. It flopped with wild abandon, writhing and turning while Marcus gently encouraged the movement, saying things like, “Dive deep. Surface now. Spin the ocean.” These were names of exercises that Marta was supposed to translate into strength-building, synchronized movement but that only yielded identical-looking convulsions.
“I’m getting in,” Bella said. “You’d probably let me drown anyway,” Marta said. Bella tucked her ears beneath her swim cap and pretended not to hear. Marta dangled the nasal prongs over the handle of her walker and squinted at her daughter. Through her goggles, Bella squinted back. Marta’s eyes looked like two black raisins sticking out from the doughy contours of her face. “When I was a girl,” Marta said, speaking loudly, “COPD didn’t exist. I smoked on airplanes. Doctors smoked with their patients. Imagine, Bella, if you were forced to give up something you loved: coffee or men or your . . . your rock collection.” Bella refrained from telling Marta that, as a field geologist, her “rock collection” was her livelihood and that she had, in essence, done exactly that: given it up, abandoned her career post on a museum dig in Tanzania to come stateside, bedside even, to stand watch over Marta in what Bella surely thought were her mother’s final days. The doctors suspected cancer until the cancer turned out to be COPD. Diabetes and septic shock caused by a freak, ruptured colon— because, why not?—were the cherries on top, two ailments of several more that wreaked havoc on the body of a sixty-nine-year-old woman whose profound distrust of the medical profession had kept Marta out of a doctor’s office for over thirty years. Before Bella slid into the water, she said, “Solomon would scold me for not telling you to put that back in,” Bella said, indicating the breathing apparatus. “And you don’t have to yell. It’s a swim cap. I can hear you.” “It’s the—” “I know, I know . . . the smell. It’s the smell. You miss the smell.” “Most of all,” Marta said, nodding. She waved her fingers in the air as if a cigarette would magically appear.
Bella adjusted her goggles and dove in, swimming the length of the pool in a single breath. She cut through a swath of floating plastic army men with the stroke of her hand. They spiraled in every direction. Bella loved this pool with its overly chlorinated water, its bin of scattered children’s toys, its overhead skylight flanked with plastic ivy nailed to the ceiling. Tucked inside the western-most cul-de-sac of her mother’s high-rise condo complex, it was largely empty save for the summertime when hordes of grandkids showed up. Bella didn’t consider herself athletic, but swimming was different. She thought of swimming less as exercise and more as a place to be, the water a room her body could inhabit. She knew one stroke—freestyle—and breathed only when she turned her head to the left. There was another woman, a Holocaust survivor named Hilda, who swam most afternoons, and Bella marveled at the ease with which this woman switched from backstroke to breaststroke, the evenness of her breath, and the way, in freestyle, her elbow and wrist formed a sharp angle to the water’s surface, and offered a small, triangular-shaped window through which Hilda’s head surfaced as she drew in sips of air. She made it look easy. Bella may have looked less polished, but she didn’t care. When her head dipped beneath the water’s surface, her whole body submerged, she felt water-chiseled, streamlined, and she liked that feeling very much. The fat that clung to her midsection seemingly dissipated. She felt her body stretch itself in every direction: Her fingers pulled, her toes pushed, and yet it was as though, strangely, her body—the head, shoulders, knees, and toes of her—no longer mattered. She was both embodied and disembodied. The skin and muscles and flesh of her dissolved into the watery molecules she swam through so that she became the very space she inhabited; she was a moving arrow with no beginning and no end. The essence of the water itself, she bore the chemical makeup of being mineral without the crystallized form.
Bella touched the opposite wall with her fingertips. She gulped air, turned to complete the lap, and the water closed in on her. From beneath its surface, Bella could see the liquidy, wavy contours of her mother. Hers was a presence Bella couldn’t see clearly but felt nonetheless. Ribbons of sunlight wavered on the pool’s floor. She surfaced the water for a breath of air. The body of an army man floated past her mouth. She bit his head and spat him out on an exhale. Then she put her head down and swam, counting the laps as she went. * Bella had, in fact, sworn off caffeine after her own health scare—a heart murmur—several months previous. She’d neglected to tell Marta and Solomon that the blood swishing around her heart was restless. “Turbulent,” her doctor had said. “Perhaps innocent, perhaps not. Time will tell.” Bella remembered this word: turbulent. She was shocked that a medical diagnosis could so perfectly dovetail with a lifelong emotional state. She had wanted to tell her mother everything— the swirling turbulence of her heart, its compounding restlessness—but Marta was already in a coma by then. “I’m doing it again,” she wanted to confess. “Stop sleeping with married men,” Marta would say. Perhaps her mother would even slam something down on the counter for emphasis, a rolling pin or the long wooden spoon she kept from Bella’s childhood. Bella had craved motherly recrimination that never arrived. As a child, Marta showered her daughter with attention only when she did something wrong. Bella lived for these moments: Her mother’s ice-blue eyes would bear down on her, harsh and unforgiving, and Bella would be forced to stutter a confession of wrongdoing. Marta’s punishments could be harsh: days without supper, weeks spent grounded in her bedroom, no social calls, and once, memorably, the paddle of a hairbrush swift and hard against Bella’s
backside. Bella knew, however, that Marta loved her, and if she weathered the punishments with no complaint, if she simply soldiered on, she would win her mother’s admiration. Marta was training Bella to be a diamond just like her. Hard. Strong. Cutting. Beautiful. This time was different, though. Even if Bella had yelled her confession at the top of her lungs, Marta wouldn’t have heard her. Bella would get no response from the woman who lay incapacitated in the ICU with tubes coming out of her mouth, her nose, her arms. Gita, Marta’s morning nurse, argued with Bella on this point. “The spirit can hear,” she had said more than once, but Bella didn’t buy it. Besides, she doubted Marta’s spirit—wavering on the brink of its very existence—would be interested in the never-ending chaos of her sexual escapades. In the hospital room, Marta’s eyelids fluttered open whenever Gita swabbed her lips with Vaseline and then they would abruptly slide shut, her baby blues rolling back into her head like glassy marbles playing Shoot the Moon. So many tubes and wires protruded from her sun- starved body that Bella thought of Marta as a science experiment gone awry. And yet whenever Bella got used to her mother’s vegetative state, she would do something Herculean—yank the breathing tube from her nose or aggressively swat the water pic from Gita’s hand. She clung to her diamond status like a person possessed. It would take more than a stint in the hospital to pull her down a rung. Solomon and Bella suspected that Marta was trying to fuck with them, maybe with Death itself: Is that all you got? “You know, like, in The Twilight Zone? That part in the movie when the doctors think the guy is dead but he’s just paralyzed? He can still hear and think and feel? Maybe it’s like that for Mom,” Solomon had theorized. He read award-winning books and The New Yorker out loud to Marta—stuff she wouldn’t be caught dead reading if she were conscious. He played Mozart from his iPhone. Who the fuck has Mozart on their playlist? Bella thought. Nonetheless, the message was clear: Solomon believed in Marta’s recovery. Bella did not. He held his mother’s hands and mopped her face of its sweat. He applied rose-scented lotion to her arms and legs, arnica for bruises. He was the first to arrive to her hospital room and the last to leave, and he did this, all of it, without jeopardizing his job security or his long-distance relationship with his boyfriend Eduardo. If anything, Marta’s impending death only strengthened Solomon’s personal resolve. He and Eduardo were going to get married. “Next spring, maybe,” he’d said. “September if there’s a funeral. Life is short, Bella. You love and then you die. You should try it, loving.” You should try it, loving. Bella replayed those words in her head and failed to source an adequate response above a playground taunt. Bella knew life was short—everyone knows that— but she wasn’t willing to wager it on love. What was that, really? Love was a hypothesis she couldn’t prove. During Solomon’s displays of filial affection, Bella snuck vodka into bottles of Sprite and chewed peppermint gum around the clock. She bit her nails to dirty nubs. Days passed. Then a month. Then two. She listened to rounds of doctors who ran tests and tests and more tests, and promptly forgot what they said the moment they left the room. She watched her brother watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, and she watched him watch their mother. They watched the Kentucky Derby together and Marta jostled awake long enough to deliver a drug-induced punchline: “That jockey has something your father never did—stamina.” Bella refrained from noting that the Derby was the fastest two minutes in sports. The horses kicked up dirt down the backside, the jockeys pointillism in motion against the dun-colored track. Bella lied to her mother’s friends and distant relatives, telling them that Marta was making progress just so they’d leave the three of them alone. She contemplated reaching out to Marcus, her old high school boyfriend, while she was “in town,” and obsessively checked Facebook to admire his two young daughters, Becca and Maggie. She dreamt of the life she could have had as the wife of a prominent Colorado politician. The girls had auburn-colored hair and freckles the shade of new soil. Marta was combative at night so the nurses took to lassoing her ankles and wrists to the bedframe. “ICU Syndrome,” Thomas explained. Thomas was the night nurse and Bella’s favorite. He had wide shoulders and hair like Robert Redford in The Natural, and Bella was embarrassed whenever he asked her to leave the room so he could empty her mother’s bedpan. He was so sweet and nice and kindhearted, it pained Bella to look him in the eye. Solomon read up on this thing, this ICU Syndrome, that made the hospital staff treat Marta like a rage-filled, delusional animal. He itemized his findings to Bella, who listened with a buzzed attentiveness and then disappeared two floors up to sit in the quiet of the children’s wing. In the family waiting area, the walls were decorated with painted murals of balloons and cheerful-looking flowers and a rainbow that spanned two walls. Bella sat on an overstuffed blue couch and cried until her skin felt waterlogged. She avoided the sympathetic gazes of the other women assembled there, who assumed that she too was the mother of a terminally ill child. At night, she spent hours alone in her mother’s condo while Solomon slept in a luxury hotel downtown. She unearthed her childhood mineral collection from a carboard box Marta had labeled Bella’s Rocks & Equipment and kept in the hallway closet behind rows of partially used bottles of lotion and bathroom sprays. Just as she had done countless times when she was a child, Bella color-sorted piles of minerals against the green ceramic tile of her mother’s kitchen table, separating amethyst from jasper, tigereye from aragonite, carnelian from brown goldstone. Discovering her old rock tumbler, along with bags of unopened grit and satchels filled with coarse brown rocks, she filled the barrel of the tumbler with rough rocks and added different
types of grit or polish, eyeing the water levels as she worked. The sound of rocks churning against one another was loud yet deeply soothing, and Bella fell asleep on the couch, her arrhythmic heart pumping furiously. At the end of six months, Marta was discharged from the hospital. When Bella moved into an apartment two blocks away, she lined her newly polished gemstones along the windowsill. She stopped drinking. The heart medication worked but the restlessness was still there, the turbulence. She couldn’t make it go away. When she slept, she dreamt of the African sun, the savannah, and of Saul, her married lover she’d met there. In her dream state, she confused the radiator’s heat that licked her naked, sleeping body with Saul’s fingers and tongue. She took to keeping a water bottle by the side of her bed and gulped from it compulsively throughout the night. Awake, she saw flashes of Saul’s wedding ring everywhere. It appeared, suddenly, on her brother’s hand as he helped Marta into the rental car. She saw it reflected in the golden barrel of her rock tumbler. She imagined it nestled inside her velvet-lined jewelry box or floating in the night sky surrounded by twinkling constellations. As a lover, Bella knew that the fastest way to make a man leave, married or single, was by asking him to stay. As a daughter, she knew it was best to make herself small, a grain of sand, the better for her mother to shine. As a geologist, she knew that the creation of rock formation leads to structure. Geology is a slow process, each layer of strata, the minerals themselves created by the exertion of deep and prolonged pressure over millions of years. Once the irreversible, the unthinkable, happens—the volcano erupts, the earthquake displaces, the body weakens—the terrain markedly changes. Forever. It’s the erosion that tests and creates character. *
As Bella completed another lap, Marta coiled and uncoiled the cord of the nasal prongs around her index finger. She fiddled with her swimsuit again, tugging hard at the Lycra material until it snapped back into place, leaving a swollen red line against the skin of her hip. She watched her daughter’s sleek form slice through the water below and, as she did, her glasses unhooked themselves from behind her ears and fell into the water with an unceremonious plop where they sank to the floor of the pool’s deep end, their golden arms gleaming as they tripped the light. They came to rest atop the now-sunken toy submarine. Bella saw a flash of light without registering what it was, exactly, that she was seeing. For a moment, she thought her mind was playing games: Now you see it, now you don’t. From beneath the water, Bella saw her mother reach forward; her hand skimmed the surface. Time spiraled. Before Marta slipped and twisted mid-fall, she saw the points of each leaf in the plastic ivy cascading from the ceiling. She registered the bath-like temperature of the pool water as it touched her skin. She understood that it had been foolish of her to play with the cord of her oxygen tank so near the pool’s edge, but by then it was too late. Then again, she’d done far more foolish things in her lifetime. It was ironic, she thought, that she lived through hell only to find death in a community center swimming pool next to her daughter. In the water, strands of her silver hair shimmered beneath the liquid surface like the tangled line of fishing wire. Bella was more confused than shocked when her mother suddenly appeared before her as a weighted, pink, watery apparition. Bella swam to the pool’s edge, pulled herself from the water, grabbed a neon-green foam noodle, and dove back into the water. She positioned herself as far beneath Marta as she could and pushed her, heaved her toward the surface, where Marta flapped her arms around the flotation device. They surfaced together, limbs entwined. Bella touched her mother’s forehead with her own, and willed her to breathe deeply, calmly. Marta’s eyes blazed. She gasped and flailed and both legs frantically churned the water beneath her until she understood that she wasn’t drowning. “Float,” Bella said. “Spin the ocean. Dive deep.” Marta wordlessly resigned herself to the task. Her head, arms, and legs became the five rays of a starfish. Marta slowed down her breathing and let Bella drag her. Sunlight splayed across the water’s surface, reflecting patterns of liquid gold onto the surrounding walls. Bella gently pushed her mother to the pool’s stairs. They stared at each other. At forty, Bella was beautiful, more stunning, Marta thought, than she had ever been herself, and yet, Bella had no idea. Her skin like that of a pearl, smooth and clear. Most women, including Marta, procured all manner of expensive creams to approximate Bella’s natural glow. Her lips, rosy hued and thick, covered two straight rows of perfectly aligned teeth. Men were always falling for Bella, and the poor girl could never figure out why. “I must have unfinished work here to not die two times in a row.” Marta said this with a seriousness she reserved for moments of truth-telling. She opened her mouth to speak again but Bella edged in, saying, “Mom, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m a complete mess.” Marta felt compelled to laugh but, reading her daughter’s face, didn’t dare. She opted for another tactic instead. “Do you remember when I taught you to swim?” she asked. Bella nodded. “You told me to jump,” she said. “That’s right,” Marta said. “I said ‘jump,’ and you did. No safety net.” “No one to catch me.” “You didn’t need anyone to catch you, sweetie. You’re too strong to be pulled down.” Marta beamed at her daughter. Bella wasn’t so sure. They sat on the top stair. Marta clutched the silver handrail. When the two women had caught their breath, Bella swam to the deep end to retrieve her mother’s glasses. When she surfaced, she saw her brother standing in the doorway, a tray of Starbucks coffee in his hands. He took in Marta’s overturned walker, the evaporating sprays of water on the pool deck, his mother still heaving in the shallow end, and said, simply, “Bella, what the fuck?” “I went for a dip,” Marta said. She plucked an army man from the water and threw it at her son. “Come fish me out.” * Later that night, Bella poured grit into the largest of her tumblers. She sat at the kitchen table and listened as the machine knocked rock against rock. She tugged at the diamond studs in her ears, gifts from the man with the wife. It hadn’t been that simple, really: swimming. Bella had categorically refused to enter the mountain lake. Cool air blew across her exposed arms and legs. Her body shivered and the goose bumps came. She gripped the ridge of an immense boulder with her tiny toes. An eagle flew overhead, and Bella prayed it would swoop down and carry her away to some distant land. Marta repeated her command with the seriousness of a drill sergeant. “Jump,” she said. “Bella, jump. Godamnit, jump! If you don’t jump, you’re gonna be scared for the rest of your life. I am not raising a scared little girl.” When Bella still refused, Marta pushed the crying girl into the cold, dark water below. Bella plummeted like a stone. On the Mohs scale, she entered the water like gypsum or calcite, mere points from talc. There was no hardness to her, no quality that set her apart from any of the moss-covered, algae-eaten stones that lined the bottom and sides of the watering hole. She begged her body to do something special, and when she pushed against the water, she felt it transforming her. It chiseled away at the fear that kept her down. When her head breached the water’s surface, she screamed, a combined expression of joy, panic, and relief. On the scale of hardness, Bella thought, she’d entered the water a three and emerged, she’d say, a seven: quartz. Sturdy and shining, not quite a diamond, but almost. Almost.
SIGNE BERGSTROM, a former editor, currently works as an author and ghostwriter. She’s written The Archive of Magic: The Film Wizardry of Fantastic Beasts, Wonder Woman: Ambassador of Truth, The Art and Making of the Greatest Showman, and Suicide Squad: Behind the Scenes with the Worst Heroes Ever. She lives in the Hudson Valley.