Twelve Songs for a Broken Ankle
(originally published in Eclectica)
Before she even notices my leg’s
in a cast, my daughter’s friend
Eleanor, age five and a half,
stares at me and says solemnly,
your voice sounds different.
Different how? Does it sound better
or worse? I ask her, laughing.
It sounds darker, she answers with a frown,
and suddenly it’s not so funny anymore.
I remember hurting myself
trying to fly. Jumping down
out of trees; sometimes my ankles
would ache for days afterward.
We ate fudgsicles up in the trees
all that summer. We liked to spy
down on the older kids, kissing
and kissing and kissing below us.
I would caress the rough bark
under my fingers and hold on tight,
never afraid of falling, only forgetting.
In high school, I fell in love
with a boy on crutches. His ankle
needed a metal plate to keep it together.
Years later, after he became a priest,
he wrote, remember all those times you carried
my books up and down the staircase
for me? Did I ever say thank you?
In the emergency room, Dr. Scarlett
tells me about his young daughter,
how his wife broke her ankle
just before she went into labor.
Now his beautiful daughter loves
to dance, she twirls and twirls
in her new frothy ballet skirts
in front of the triple mirrors
at the department store. I’m afraid
I don’t have any good news for you, he says,
shaking his head, patting my shoulder.
All of a sudden, the laws of physics
I’ve always sneered at seem
terribly, terribly important.
Simple issues of mass, density,
velocity, and villainous gravity
loom unsolvable. As a baby, I walked
suddenly, at ten months. Lessons
I thought I’d mastered are now swept away,
each step is like that very first one.
The nurse applies the fiberglass
wrap with firm, even motions.
She is made dense with fat,
and as she bends forward
to wrap my sore dangling limb,
I watch her enormous breasts
heave up and down. The heat
from the casts’ chemical hardening
feels like my leg will surely blister.
Be sure to keep your heel down, sweetie,
she murmurs, her breath brushing my ear
gently again and again and again.
When bone breaks, it bleeds. The blood
pools underneath the skin, turns
purple then green then yellow
as the liver labors to reclaim it
for the good of the body. The frayed edges
of the broken bone reach out
to one another like pale garden tendrils
reach toward the sun, and soft new cells
form, caressed in that delicate vacuum. I sit
and feel my leg healing, it is like praying.
We are skating when it happens. I have just remembered
years ago, the first boy who ever asked me to skate
with him. He was a friend’s handsome
older brother, we’d never exchanged a word
before. He knew how I was waiting for him
to come to me, he felt everything before I did.
My hands slipped against his, both our palms sweaty —
then on the turns, he pulled me close against him
so we could go even faster. We went faster than anyone.
He was a better skater than I, he wasn’t afraid.
First, I put on the skates. Orange wheels,
black laces. I tie them tight, then stand
and make a few tentative forays
with my feet. The gliding sensation,
the lack of friction and stability,
seems much scarier than it did
ten years ago, the last time
I had skates on. Who needs this? I think.
I’m too old now. Who needs
to break an ankle? I take off the skates,
pad around in my thick white socks.
For a while I just watch the other skaters,
some are little tiny kids no higher than my thigh
zipping around like they were born with wheels.
I watch my daughter and her friend
cling shakily to each other and scream
with delight. I put the skates back on.
It’s not just my ankle that breaks when I fall.
A little girl has fallen; she is afraid.
Let me show you how to lift yourself, I tell her.
I kneel, the world turns too rapidly, odd
thoughts fly past, time rushes over me
with a powerful thrill; the next moment
I know myself, I lie awkwardly
upon my twisted ankle,
which does not hurt exactly, but tells me,
in a strong, eloquent voice,
lie still, stare at the ceiling
for a little while. Forget everything but
this moment, your sudden brief flight.
Faces peer down, but I hardly see them.
When I saw you lying like that,
the girl says after a moment,
I thought you were dead.
She knows more than I.
A certain elaborate lacing, drawn and wound
tight around my heart to keep it
from expanding beyond a certain girth,
from expecting more than was practical,
from beating with too much tipsiness,
apparently gives way in that moment as well.
The young manager is so kind, he unlaces my boot
and — oh, so carefully straightens my leg.
His fingers upon my skin as he regards me
with his dark, thickly lashed eyes
are as smooth and tender as a lover’s.
Can you move it? he asks. I try, tell him
a slight crunching sensation ensues,
but happily report there is no pain.
His handsome face falls nonetheless.
Perhaps he doesn’t get it. I, on the other hand,
feel unusually light, buoyant, unafraid.
I do not care who is sad; however unseemly,
I am glad I had a few moments in the air
before I came back down to earth.
As moments go,
surely it’s worth repeating?
Though I didn’t know it at the time,
my life will never be the same.
The stolid laws of physics
will have their way with me,
weak as I am — bone mends stronger
for the break, while once-bound hearts
are never any better off
for being allowed out
of their wrappings; it’s too late —
old scar tissue and scary
skipped beats cloud and darken
the intricate red lace
of frantic working muscle,
obscuring and confusing the memory
of that one important moment, in free flight,
how life seemed so beautiful, so terrible,
so clear. And the darkness spreads
outward, outward from my voice.