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What We Have Left

Summer 2007. The subprime loan market has tanked. All day long the media bleats meltdown, fallout, crisis. Because the housing market appears so uncertain, Steve and I have abandoned any thought of buying a condo, or maybe a ranch-style house, and have settled into an apartment on the west side of Columbus. It seems possible, though, that we are too old and set in our ways to live comfortably in such a small space. He snipes at me about filling our squat apartment-sized refrigerator with what he calls "unnecessary backups." An extra quart of milk. Dijon and regular yellow mustard. Thirty-two ounces—a three-year supply, goddamn it—of minced garlic. I wonder if we really need to have five hundred remotes cluttering the coffee table. Some days it feels like every sentence is sharpened to a point. But we do agree that we like the quantity of light that fills our apartment, something you can't take for granted in this gloomy city.  


Our living room has floor-to-almost-ceiling windows, with a sliding glass door in the center that opens onto a small court yard full of activity. From morning until evening cardinals and chickadees have food fights at our feeder. Squirrels dig maliciously through my flowerpots and tear the zinnias out by the roots. Hummingbirds siphon sugar water. A rabbit on military time nibbles down the dandelions every night at dusk. It is Steve who notices how dependable she is and begins tracking her arrivals.


"Okay," he says, from his vantage point on the couch, eyes on both the clock and the courtyard, "cue the rabbit!" 


And there she is, squeezing under the gate and hopping to a clump of greens where she chomps away, jaws working like small pistons. When she is done she turns her head and looks at us with unblinking black eyes. Two humans in a box. 


Steve has the primary progressive form of multiple sclerosis. Or he doesn't. His doctor insists on calling his condition ms-like. She stresses that there aren't a lot of treatment options, but she has prescribed, with a what-the-hell shrug, an experimental drug that Steve injects himself with every other day. It won't improve his condition, but it might arrest his decline. Or not. The last three years have been a series of small losses, a crossing off of ordinary tasks, things requiring only normal amounts of strength and dexterity. Like changing a light bulb. Or tying his shoes. Or adding a quart of oil when the car's trouble light blinks on. And though he can—for now—still lift a mixing bowl out of the cupboard, if I forget and nest the bowls, the additional weight defeats him. This doesn't help our space problem. 


But the real trouble is his legs. He lurches. Head, then chest—a beat, two beats—then his right leg, foot dragging—a beat, two beats—then his left leg follows. Finally. Because of his extensor spasticity, his legs don't bend at the knee, and so his gait reminds me of when I tried, in sixth grade, to learn to walk on stilts. It's hard to believe that the problem really begins in his brain. He gives his legs directions, asks them to move, but the electrochemical signals leak away. The communication gap between brain and legs—think of a poorly connected intercontinental phone call—keeps him permanently off balance. I know he is falling when I hear his yelp of surprise. At first he appears to topple; there seems to be enough time to help, but there never is. Then he goes down hard, like a hundred and seventy-five pounds of granite. We have made concessions for this without really talking about it. Most of our furniture is from thrift shops. Nothing is so precious it can't be broken. Still, absent towel racks and holes in the walls are a problem. Another thing we don't talk about is why we never have anyone over.  


One Sunday I came home early from a weekend away with girlfriends to find him sitting on a utility bench in the hall that leads to the living room. The hole he was patching was the size of a basketball. It wasn't a new hole; we'd been living with it for months. I had already bought the wallboard and had it cut to fit, but I hadn't gotten around to the patching part. Actually, I didn't know how to patch such a big hole. Steve knew, but imparting that knowledge was problematic. Be my hands, he liked to say, and this worked well enough for simple tasks. Trouble was, he really did think of my hands as his prosthetic devices. If they turned things the wrong way or moved something too fast or too slow, he got frustrated and then I got angry. Major patchwork, we both knew, was too difficult for our rudimentary teamwork. So it was a stalemate. I'd gotten pretty good at ignoring such things, but for Steve the hole was a reminder. Fixing it was a task he could have knocked out during commercials, back in the day.  


I let my overnight bag drop with a thud, and he looked up, startled. He'd been concentrating so hard on smoothing out the spackle that he didn't hear the door open. It was clear he was doing a good job, but it must have taken hours and hours, and he'd waited until I wouldn't be there as witness to his struggle. In that moment of surprise his expression was so filled with shame and self-loathing that my breath snagged in my chest. It was as if I'd caught a child hiding his sheets after wetting the bed. A terrible thing trembled between us. Then I said Hey and he said Hey and I picked up my bag and went upstairs to watch tv.  


We are both tired. Steve works in the technology division of a large insurance company. He still goes into work most mornings, then telecommutes from home in the afternoon. I stay at home in the morning and go to work in the afternoon.  It's a good arrangement. In the morning, when I'm alone, I'm supposed to be documenting my experiences teaching English to Somali refugees. There are tens of thousands of Somalis in the Columbus metropolitan area (nobody knows exactly how many for sure). We're the second-largest host city in the U.S. behind Minneapolis St. Paul. My students range in age from seventeen to seventy-something. They are black and they are Muslim. They are poor. Their country has been at war for two decades and without a centralized government for sixteen years. Most of them have lived for many years in refugee camps before appearing here, in the heartland, like guppies in a cornfield. I thought I wanted to write about what this might mean, for them and for us.  


Lately, though, it's become obvious I'm not writing very much. So obvious that Steve and I never even mention my project anymore. At my desk every morning I stare at the clock in the lower right-hand corner of my computer screen and wait for it to be time to escape into the classroom. 


It's one-room-schoolhouse teaching, except that we are all adults and the only real test is survival. Many of my students have never been in a classroom before. Several are learning how to hold a pencil. Some have moved on to the alphabet and phonics. Some are concentrating on basic conversation, vocabulary, grammar rules. Some are focused on job readiness and citizen ship, but they are all struggling. Often, they don't just have to learn a word—how to hear, say, read, write, even conjugate it— they have to learn what it is. Things like basement, gallon, pie, daisy, hamster, dishwasher, Congress. 


Teaching at this level has a Zen-like aspect to it. Language is stripped to its most basic. Rhetoric is impractical. I repeat the same lessons over and over and over. Add an s here. Change the y to an i. Ph sounds like f. Sometimes ed sounds like t. It's comforting and hypnotic, this closed circuit of grammar and phonetics. And there is something about the way the women dress—almost always in ankle-length hijabs, with faces showing only from eyebrow to chin—that intensifies this distilled atmosphere. On the day we learn the word uniform, they pluck meaningfully at their hijabs. I take this opportunity to relax my personal dress code and sometimes I wear the same clothes two, three days in a row. No one cares. We are faces, hands and feet—a pocketful of words.