The Hardness Factor

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I open the red door. It gives way with a dispassionate heave, a dry suck. Winter moths, clustered on the glass skull of the outdoor lamp, scatter like tiny dunces or the chaotic snow falling, hither-thither, inside me. I step into the foyer with its jagged pieces of slate cemented to the floor and think that this is a map of my mind, those jagged shards cutting deep into brain mass, heart mass. My cement is my anti-psychotics which don’t always hold me together so I squeeze myself tightly, scream somehow tightly while my thoughts scatter chaotically like tiny dunces, cold, cold snow.

But at least not for now. I breathe in air that is thin, flat, like blood without cells, champagne with no bubbles. It is the only air available the way the shadowy light in the foyer is the only available light and I borrow this thin, flat air, shadowy light as if I could give it back. In the kitchen, a drawer opens and closes. I remember, without knowing why, that I love the spoon better than the knife because spoons can make music and knives cannot. Knives long to slit the delicate skin on wrists, to make the blood without cells can bubble to the surface, go from blue to bright, bright red. I know this because I have done it, went down on my hands and knees to sop up the blood flowers, legions of them, prolifically blooming.

That I survived slitting my wrists was just another injury, an injustice, but I was only nineteen and believed that all I would be delivered onto was darkness darker than the darkest dark. That darkest dark clings to me as I stand in the foyer on this early December evening. The shadowy figure of my husband moves from the granite kitchen counter to the granite kitchen table. They say that diamonds win the hardness factor among gems—does granite win the hardness factor among stones? It is terribly unforgiving, as is my husband.

“Hi,” I say—yes, “hi” is a word that cannot be ridiculed, but no “hi” comes back, only a dull hello like an echo inside the shell of a bell. “I’m home,” I cry as I take off my coat of many colors, my animal hide boots and slip on my boiled wool slippers. I move quietly in my slippers—quiet is good, cannot be ridiculed, even children understand this. In order to please the shadowy figure I call my husband, I would willingly bleed silence, blood flowers of silence, legions of them that would not need to be mopped up.

I go to him. I always go to him to receive his ghost kiss, let out a dry sigh. My husband is tall and so I must look up to him—he wants this, all men do—and when I look do up, I am penitential. “Forgive me,” I want to say because I say this often in my sorry little voice. Instead I whisper, “did you?” Fear, like a well-kept secret, wallows in me, fear that is always the harbinger of tears.

My husband rolls his eyes—hazel eyes with tight black pupils—hard as granite, that winner of the hardness factor, then shrugs his shoulder as if they itched. “I forgot,” he says and that fear which is always the harbinger of tears, comes up as a dry heave. Dry heave follows dry heave, followed by a combustion of tears.

I cover my mouth to stop the dry heaves, but I cannot stop the tears, never the tears, so I run into the bedroom, hit the floor, go into the fetal ball and bang my head against the radiator, hard. I bang my head again and again, vainly trying to end the pain.

No gift on this darkest of dark December eve. The one I shyly, no apologetically asked for, the gift I wanted for staying out of the psych ward for one long year. I did this by walking with winter, day after day, hour after hour, minute by minute. Yes, I walked with winter, day after day, for one long year even in a summer of a thousand Julys.

As I bang my head, chilblains grow in my fingers and toes. I suddenly understand that I have been freezing to death for nearly a decade. That is when the death head of madness and illness first reared its hideous head, became my Medusa. O how my Medusa loves me. O how my husband does not.

My heart mass is breaking and I whisper to myself, “sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if to forgive myself for the wanting of a gift for staying out of the psych ward for one long year. Slowly, very slowly, I sit up—my bones are but dog bones and I have begged like one before my husband who now stands in the doorway like a scarecrow with the hall light shedding bloodless cells on his itchy shoulders. He stands there the way my father used all those nights, snapping his belt while saying, “Shut up or you’ll get this.” Even if I did shut up, I got the belt anyway.

Would I get it now, the belt instead of another ghost kiss and which would be worse? “Elizabeth,” he says and I remember, distantly, almost ironically, that this is my name. I am proud that I have remembered my name, the way a school child is when she recites her numbers properly.

My husband goes on in a droll, troll voice, “Elizabeth, of course, I didn’t forget.” “Forget what?” I return in a wisp of a whisper as I have forgotten what he has forgotten because my husband always remembers to forget everything. He even forgets that he no longer loves me.

“The gift,” he answers. He pauses, then adds, like a weary parent, “I was only teasing you.” I sigh a dry sigh because teasing always makes me cry. Father teased me relentlessly, told me I was his lucky rabbit’s foot and pet me until I bled.

“Okay,” I say and start crawling like some prehistoric beast, move from crawling to standing, from standing to walking. I go to him because I always do—he is my husband and it is the work of wives to go to their husbands, especially wives who have stayed out of the psych ward one long year.

I take the gift, say “thank you” in my sorry little voice. I open the gift, it is in a jewelry box, and there it is—a necklace upon which hangs an onyx pendant studded with faux diamonds. What, I wonder, is the hardness factor of faux diamonds? Surely my husband would know this as he is a scientist and all scientists know about the hardness and he is brilliant the way diamonds are brilliant, even faux ones.

I do not ask him about the hardness factor. Instead, I return his ghost kiss with a ghost kiss of my own, put on the necklace with the onyx pendant, which will become the last gift my husband ever gives me. That was nearly six years ago and I no rather walk with winter or take anti-psychotics to cement the jagged shards of my brain mass together. Rather, I summer in a summer of a thousand Julys, live on my own without fear, that harbinger of tears, and I have turned my Medusa into a beauty by loving her and that beauty is me.

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