BY NAOMI BENARON
There are five fingers on Dee's left hand. Five fingers on the right. Her nails are clean, and the chewed tips are imperceptible without close scrutiny. Good. She kicks her feet free from the sheets and raises them in a V. Five toes on each foot. Nine toenails perfect and shining, one a barnacle-scarred scallop shell, the victim of a recent marathon.
She analyzes her hands and feet in the wash of Houston lights that filter through the hotel curtains. An anemic yellow light. The light from the clock radio is nausea-green. Prime numbers. Primary colors. Primal scream.
Dee stretches her arm toward the light switch but pauses mid-air. In the darkness she feels the ridge of fresh scar between armpit and left breast. Nothing new. No new growths multiplying in the terrible darkness between midnight and 5:20 A.M. No new clusters of uncontrollable cells expanding by powers of two. She feels one more time, sweeping her fingers in tiny circles across her flesh. Inert. Her cells, her breasts, her life. She turns on the lamp.
The numbers on the digital clock radio read 5:20. Twenty divided by five is four. Two hands plus two feet. The number five seems suddenly and terrifyingly significant, as if the universe itself expanded and contracted in beats of five: in two three four five, out two three four five.
In her house in Dallas it is also 5:20. How many miles from Houston to Dallas? She guesses around 200. The flight takes approximately fifty- five minutes. An estimate, but still: you see?
Five is also a Fibonacci number, the series of sums of the previous two. Zero plus one, one plus one, one plus two, two plus three. Dee breathes in this truth: the natural world spirals in an endless Fibonacci sequence. The numbers of leaves, petals on flowers, the secret inward curl of the nautilus shell. The number of pairs of rabbits multiplying, multiplying.
When Dee left her house, Clay sat at the kitchen table, pulling the thick skeins of his hair into Rasta braids. Sheet music lay scattered on the floor. She had to step over it, wobbling on her thin-spiked heels, to kiss him good-bye. She wonders if he is home sleeping now or out prowling for the nearest available female, sampling the just desserts of a Jazz Musician's gig. Musicians. They will promise up and down their sad sweet riffs, but they will never change.
She does not have to leave the hotel until eight. Her presentation is at nine. They are sending the manager of Research and Development to pick her up in his fancy gas-eating car. Special Dee, whippet-thin, with her oil company job, her fancy PhD, her melon-gold curls and sexy black-stockinged-high-heeled legs. They will never guess that her breasts are inert and a melon-ball shaped lump has been scooped from her hungry flesh.
What to do, what to do with this stretch of time. Reading is impossible; her mind flips and spins on the sentences, spirals off on its own untraceable journey. Her lecture is packed in neat memorized boxes of words. She knows it down to the smiles and pauses that will make her audience laugh.
There is a pool in the bowels of the hotel. It opens at 6:00, but today she can't swim. Seven days out of the pool following a biopsy, said the doctor. It has only been four. Looks good, said the doctor, ninety-five percent sure, but she knows better, knows how men and statistics lie.
Why did mammogram lead to ultrasound lead to needle lead to knife? Why did descriptions zigzag from 'diffuse' to 'suspicious' to 'inconclusive?' Dee imagines evil looking cells in trench coats making shady deals.
The pool is twenty-five yards long, three lanes wide. Dee swims here whenever she is sent to lecture in Houston, wowing the fat red-faced Oil Men who float in the Jacuzzi stew with her swim- team perfect butterfly. Back and forth Dee flies, her body undulating with her powerful dolphin kick. Streamline off the wall, kick two three four five.
They will never guess that she is forty-seven with a child of her own at Harvard, intent on his own fancy PhD. They will never imagine the nights, husband Missing In Action, when she stood in the darkness by the child's bed, breathing in the sweet hay smell of his dreams, trembling at the café-latte perfection of skin - the harmonic mixing of Clay's dark wood tones, her Irish-linen-whites - in paralyzed awe of his very creation from two simple cells.
Lester. Young Lester, Clay had joked. Dee allowed him this name, this tribute to the great jazz legend. Clay held the accidental gift of their union in his arms, dreaming, she knew, of those tiny fingers sliding up and down the scales of a saxophone. Never, she vowed. Never, Never, Never.
Dee swings her feet onto the carpet. She rises, stretches, takes a few deep breaths. She walks toward the bathroom but stops abruptly two steps, maybe three, short of the bathroom door. She realizes two things: first that she has counted her steps, and second that sometime between the hours of midnight and 5:20 A.M. she has come to believe that her life must proceed in countable units divisible by five. She has taken eleven steps. Had she understood her predicament sooner, she could have traversed the distance in ten bold paces.
What shall she do? If she takes a step backward, does she subtract or add? Is a march in place zero or one? Despite the urgent press of her bladder she sits naked on the floor and begins to cry. No, she says, swallowing sniffles. Not now. Rules - she must establish the rules. A step backwards is subtracted. The smallest stomp of her toes is added. This last thing she concedes unwillingly. It seems like cheating but is necessary, she knows, to conceal behavior that may be construed as bizarre.
She pushes herself up, takes a small step backwards and bounds onto the bathroom tile. She feels a warm trickle against her inner thigh. On the cold white seat she allows herself to weep in terrified, uncontrolled gulps.
Dee is no stranger to counting. Swimming since the age of five, she counted strokes, laps, seconds shed from her times. She and her sister Rachael counting cars from the window of the station wagon on the way to practice. In school she built worlds from the unfaltering predictability of math.
During the times when her father was drinking, tearing through her evenings with his furious binges, she began to count steps, dogs in front yards, cracks in the sidewalk. How many stepped on 'til you break your father's back?
When the punishments started, her body folded in a stiff V across a stool, she catalogued the blows from his belt that seared her bared buttocks like a brand. At night, huddled in bed with Rachael, Dee would guide her sister's fingers across the fresh wounds.
Dee wipes her cheek with the back of her hand. She turns up the shower until it nearly blisters. She scrubs her thighs until they are lobster red, lathers face and neck with five swift strokes, steps out and surrounds herself with the elegant white towel. She takes up her brush. How many strokes to ensure healthy hair? Was it fifty? Per side? Her hair is beginning to thin; it comes out in thick snarled clumps at certain times of the month. She fears that fifty per side will leave her hideous and bald.
The hotel gym opens at 6:00. There are rows of gleaming handled treadmills and exercise bikes with enormous front wheels. Dee hates the sweaty closeness of gyms, prefers to set out by herself along the black gumbo trails around the lakes.
She remembers when Lester was three or four her sister came to visit. Rachael sat at the breakfast table with a newspaper and a cup of tea, her milk-skinned daughter bouncing on her thigh. Young Lester sat spread-legged on the floor crashing trucks together, his wooly curls a-tangle.
“They found a body at the lake, Dee. A body. Right where you were running.” Rachael looked up with rabbit-scared eyes.
“Death is death,” Dee shrugged. “When it comes it comes.” It was the first time she had said it aloud, the first time she realized it was true.
She didn't tell Rachael that it was only the current of Lester's heart that pulled her along, kept her afloat through evenings of guessing the hour when Clay would come home. The current of Lester's heart and the wonder she saw in his eyes at the very existence of the world.
The years, Dee realizes, have made her cautious. She dresses, puts on her shoes and heads for the hotel gym. She has no desire to end her life on a filthy Houston street. Cancer, at least, has a tragic dignity about it. Does it? She reconsiders. Seems fifty-fifty to me.
There are four people in the gym. Two older men walk on treadmills, last night's beer bouncing in bellies that hang over the elastic of their shorts. A woman with headphones and a praying mantis waist lifts weights; a man with a ragged Exxon t-shirt and bulging calves rides a bike.
Dee hoists herself onto a treadmill. For sixty minutes she counts her steps at 7:50 minute miles or calculates the Fibonacci sums as high as she can manage in her head. The rhythmic sums comfort her. Their smart crisp edges push away cancer and march over visions of Clay's earth-dark arms entwined with the icy limbs of coeds. From her headphones the notes of the Brandenburgische Konzerte drift into her blood and calm her nervous heart. No jazz for Dee today.
The telephone confronts Dee when she unlocks her door. It seems larger than the television, larger than the comfortable armchair, as large as the room itself. Look at me, it says. I am your connection, your mainline to the world, your bearer of news. Seize me in your fingers if you dare.
She sits on the bed and pulls the cell phone from her purse. Ridiculous, she knows. There were no messages at midnight. Clay is sleeping or fucking, and her surgeon to the rich and famous won't be in his office before nine holes of golf. She turns on the phone and checks.
Sleeping or fucking, the hotel phone whispers. Do you have the guts to know? Can you run this little experiment to its conclusion?
Dee lifts the receiver, puts it down, lifts again but keeps her finger on the button. In two three four five, out two three four five she breathes.
Before the pea size lump presented itself to the underside of Dee's third finger, she was ready to leave. Enough is enough, she said, for the three hundredth or three thousandth time. To hell with this love thing that slips its fingers inside my ribs every time I turn my back. Enough is enough is enough. She made a list of things to take, things to do, words to say.
She can't remember the last time they made love. Sex, yes. But sweat drenched teeth grinding screaming out love? A far away dream.
The blame is partly hers, she knows. She can drink all the soy milk she wants, stuff her squirrel cheeks with boiled salted soybeans till the cows come home, but her hormones are jumping ship. Tiny estrogen cells scurry like rats from the flushed, open pores of her skin. And Clay follows their trail to tree shaded sorority houses on the campus of Southern Methodist University. There the well-bred girls of Texas study music and other arts from a locally famous professor: a wild-eyed saxophone player with hair that sprouts like kudzu vines from his head and delicate fingers that dance up and down atonal scales of air.
Dee lifts her finger from the button and calls. Five rings. I'll give him five rings, no more. On the fourth ring she hears the phone picked up, dropped, picked up again.
“Clay,” she says. It's all she can manage.
“Mellow-Dee, what's up?” He hasn't called her that in years. She hears puzzle or worry in the sleep- thick whisper. She never calls home.
“Clay,” she says again like some stupid schoolgirl. She listens for the telltale rustle of a sheet, a dream-muffled female sigh. “I'm scared.” She puts her fist in her mouth. She hadn't meant to tell the truth.
“What is it, Baby?” She hears him sit up. She thinks of his warm skin and wants to cry.
“Clay, would you notice if suddenly I had no breasts?”
She has not told him about the lump. Rita, her computer tech, drove her to surgery. A foot thing, she said. I'll be sort of groggy tonight. On the way home she wrapped her foot in gauze. She wore a t-shirt to bed, turned breast and tear-salted cheeks away.
Dee hears Clay's belly-laugh and starts to giggle herself. She clutches her stomach and squeezes her thighs together to keep from losing control.
“Dee, what are you talking about? For a genius, you are making no sense a-tall.”
Dee wipes away a tear, then two. “I just miss you, that's all. I wonder sometimes if you miss me too.” She hears shuffling, but she thinks it's him.
“I'll see you tonight, Baby. Only nine hours away.”
She looks at her watch. “Ten. With luggage and traffic, ten.”
“I love you, Dee.” She hears him yawn, imagines his long body stretching.
“I love you too,” she says and pushes the button down.
Well? inquires the phone. Was he alone?
Inconclusive, she answers. Ninety-five percent sure.
The hotel breakfast presents Dee with a new set of challenges. She wants cereal, but does she have to count the flakes? Chex are easily counted, but she hates them. She prefers Granola but could not manage the sums. Her hand wavers above the row of cheery boxes, reaches for Blueberry Lo-fat Granola. Count, her brain commands. She chooses Chex. At the table she pulls an eight- ounce carton of soy milk from her purse.
Her feet in their sensible shoes are hidden by a long skirt with spiraling Indian patterns. Her high heels and short dress are packed in her bag. How could she five-step in her shiny black spikes?
Chex are larger than she remembers. She picks up a teaspoon, puts it down, asks the waitress for a soupspoon.
“I'm starving,” she explains, at the woman's slight smirk.
The Chex float away like rafts on a sea of milk. In desperation, she scoops an uncounted mound into her mouth. She nearly chokes, spits the half-chewed pulp into her napkin.
For the first time tiny fingers of fear tickle Dee's ribs. They poke at the lobes of her lungs. How long will this go on? Will she have to count drops of chemo as they drip into a line in her chest? Will she have to wonder sleeping or fucking as she heaves up her breakfast, pulls out handfuls of hair at the bathroom sink? She picks up a newspaper and pretends to read.
The date on the paper is May 17. Tomorrow, she realizes, is the twenty- second anniversary of the night she met Clay. It is also the twenty- second anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and the night she knows with absolute certainty that Lester began his life from the encounter of two erupted cells.
I knew him, Dee kept whispering into her margaritas. She had been saying it, thinking it since morning, when she heard about the mountain and the dead geologist, incinerated in a sulfurous blaze of pyroclastic ash. She was four years into a graduate degree and three hours into a good honest drunk. She began to fall in love with the saxophone player when he played his Charlie Parker riffs, the notes blowing and cascading in a fiery explosion of their own.
“Buy the sax player a drink,” she told the waitress, gulping the last of her own. “Tell him it's from me, a volcanicly eruptive fan.”
“Thank you,” he said when he sat at her table. “To whom do I owe this honor and privilege?” Dee felt the warmth of his body seep into her own, smelled his sweet hot sweat.
“Dee,” she said and tipped him a toast.
The sax player tipped back his head, laughed with his wide mouth. “Dee. Dee. Are you mellow, Dee? Are you mellow-yellow-Dee?”
At her apartment Dee showed him pictures she took of volcanoes in Indonesia, the aftermath of earthquakes in the Philippines.
“The Ring of Fire,” she said and showed him the map on her wall, pointing out the red circles and triangles that represented the earthquakes and eruptions lining the Pacific Rim.
She showed him pages of her thesis with their scrolls of equations. She told him how the symbols soothed her, transforming the violent chaos of the earth into elegant order. Clay traced the symbols with his finger and smiled. He began to hum.
“It's like music, Mellow-Dee. Some crazy atonal composition.” He blew his saxophone of air into the fiery night. “You know, we're inevitably united because math and music are two halves of the same beautiful whole.”
Dee began to cry. Margarita-sweet tears dripped onto Clay's arm. She told him about the dead geologist, how he worked in the lab across from hers at school, how she had gone to his presentations, talked to him about the magic of magma bubbling down a slope. She told him how his eyes burned when he spoke of the privilege of witnessing such primal power released.
Clay held her and rocked. He kissed her hair. “Blaze-of- glory, Mellow-Dee, what better way to go?” He sat her up, traced a grand explosion with his hands.
At that moment Dee understood two things: first, that Clay was absolutely right, that she herself would be happy to pass from this world in a similar manner, and second that she must be bound forever to this crazy music making man whose wild gestures she would never be able to quantify.
Dee's cereal has become a soggy mess. It is impossible to scoop her sums of five without pushing them onto the spoon with her fingers. There are also fractions of Chex to deal with, which demands new rules. Toast would have been the optimal choice, but people in the hotel business seem to think that whole grains are a foreign plot. She feels certain that the insipid white substance that passes for bread would turn to paste by the third chew. She has lost her appetite at any rate. She pushes away her bowl and signals for more coffee. She tries to drip countable drops of cream, gives up, pours for five seconds. Look at the bright side, she thinks. A fascinating experiment concerning the physics of food. She pulls a folder of overheads from her briefcase, organizes them for the twentieth time.
At twelve minutes to eight Dee sees the R&D manager in his dark blue suit and bright red tie. A rebellious lock of gray hair swoops across his forehead. He enters the restaurant with long fluid strides. No quantified steps for him.
She stands and waves for him to join her. It's a lady's prerogative to stay rooted by her chair. She scoops up her slides, returns them to her briefcase, pulls out a one-page summary of her talk. She notices a slight tremor in her finger, stuffs the latest urge to cry inside her chest. When did shining confident Dee, rising female star in the male Kingdom of Oil, become a sniveling mess?
“Hello, Dee, good to see you again,” the manager says and smiles. He takes her outstretched hand.
Shake two three four five. “I've been looking forward to it,” she lies. She drinks a third cup of coffee. Her nerve endings jangle with raw electric current. She never has more than two.
At the revolving lobby door Dee sees it is raining: a misty rain that washes sky, trees, road with gray. She unfolds her raincoat, slips hands inside their proper holes. The manager pulls an umbrella from his briefcase, snaps it open above Dee's head. Dee jumps at the noise. She ducks inside the SUV through the opened door, smells air freshener and a hint of smoke.
“Sorry, wife's car. Mine's in the shop.” With a wave of his hand the manager dismisses smoke, Glade, backseats sticky with candy and soda.
We cannot help our lives, she wants to say. I believe this: our fate chooses us. We do not choose our fate. Instead she nods her head and smiles.
The manager pulls away from the hotel, fights traffic onto the freeway. Dee counts trees, their rain- heavy Fibonacci-leaved branches bowing toward her. A solitary bird lifts off from its perch, flaps shining bituminous wings. Crow or raven, Dee wonders. She can never keep them straight.
The car accelerates to pass. For the briefest flash of time Dee wills their vehicle into oncoming traffic. Blaze of glory, Clay. Good-bye. But life pulls her stubbornly back. Our fate chooses us; we do not choose our fate. Incineration by volcanic eruption, the scattering of her parts by fiery explosion of SUV, these are not her endings to claim. She plods through one day after another one step or five steps at a time. Although her story was written when a snow capped mountain blew its top.
“Boy,” Dee's father said at her wedding. He winked and tossed back another bourbon. Clay slipped his shoe inside her satin dress, explored her calf with his foot. She wondered if dark skin flushed.
Her father threw an arm around Clay's shoulder. A pugilistic fist dangled from the sleeve of his tuxedo. Clay's foot was yanked like a lever, gave a kick she knew he didn't mean.
“I never dreamed my daughter would marry a nigger I would feel honored to call my son.”
Dee's mother patted and soothed, slid the glass beyond his reach. Rachael chewed her fingers and wheezed into her champagne. Clay's shoe reclaimed its territory, prowled upward toward Dee's thigh. He smiled, drummed his fingers in an Elvin Jones rhythm on the tablecloth.
“Man, you can move the Man from Mississippi, but I'll be damned if you can remove Mississippi from the Man,” he chanted in his velvet voice. Inside the calderas of his eyes bright magma smoldered.
I disown you, Dee vowed, watching her father's face turn from red to purple. I disown your fists, your belt, the weakness of your life. She counted cups, spoons, best friends. She counted the empty glasses by her father's plate. She counted the kicks of tiny feet inside the round white bulge of her belly. A breaststroker, she thought. I know a perfect frog kick when I feel it.
“I think I'll work for an oil company,” she said into the candlelight of the fancy hotel room, the last thing that would ever be paid for by her father. Clay worked at the floral patterned buttons at the back of her dress.
“Oh, my Mellow-Dee, what's happened to those brave dreams of research on the Ring of Fire? What about those beaming young students waiting to hang on your every word of wisdom?” The dress slithered down her body, fell in a heap at her feet. It made a sound like the rustling of leaves in the wind.
“You teach, I'll get rich,” she said. She placed a hand on her belly and counted big fat dollars rolling into a bank account, making piles of money for a college education.
Clay worked her backward toward the bed. He opened her with his hand.
“You can take the girl away from the money-man, but man-oh-man just try and take the money away from the girl.”
He sang to the rhythm of his movements. Dee felt tiny frog feet kicking in sync.
“Here we are,” says the manager and opens Dee's door. The smoked glass windows of the corporate office wink. The entire structure lilts toward her in the mist. She dangles a foot, tries to make herself move. In two three four five, out two three four five. It's a swim meet, she tells herself. Like diving off the blocks. She juts both feet forward and jumps. Her shoes make a tiny splash on the wet pavement.
Dee dismisses herself by the manager's door and heads for the bathroom. Safely inside the stall she practices deep breathing and hugs her chest. Her fingertips search the ridge of her left breast one more time. Four more hours and I can call.
In the meeting room people wait with pens and paper, mugs of undrinkable coffee. Dee counts four women - one more than the last time she was here. Four plus one makes five. There are six rows of chairs, four rows deep. There are four empty seats. She misses her tiny dress and smoky stockings. She feels like a grandmother in this skirt.
“Good morning,” she says. She walks to the desk at the front of the room, toe-stomps and sits on top, feet dangling. She shuffles through her overheads and slides.
The manager introduces her and offers her coffee. She shakes her head and pushes herself off the desk, sending her organized and sorted presentation tumbling to the floor. Slides and papers scatter. Crouching on her haunches, head bent forward, she counts them as she puts them back.
“Can we dim the lights?” she asks. Her voice squeaks: a ridiculous falsetto.
In the darkened room, with her equations shining on the overhead, her muscles finally relax. She speaks of Laplace transforms and Fourier domains. With her mathematical magic she changes the music of sound sources towed by ships into pictures of oil- filled domes many layers beneath the surface of the sea. She shares her integrals and differentials but keeps her Fibonacci secrets to herself.
“That was fascinating,” says the woman Dee hasn't seen before as she collects her papers after the talk. The woman is wearing a bright orange skirt and a red silk top. Doesn't go with her hair, thinks Dee. But I'll bet her breasts are whole.
“Thank you.” Dee slips her folder into her briefcase, glances at her watch. I can check my messages now.
“I don't know if you remember me. I was a first year grad student when you were finishing up. I went to your thesis defense.” She pauses, smiles. “You were an inspiration.”
Another cop-out, Dee wants to say. I will tell you this: you should never lie to your dreams.
Her fingers are out of control. They are dancing, making their way toward scooped-out breast to check for the fiftieth time. She presses them into her armpits instead. She thanks the woman again and backs toward the door. Am I in negative territory here? Shall I count in sums of minus five?
By the time she gets to the airport in Houston she has checked her messages three times and called her surgeon once. He is out to lunch with his important friends. Did she detect a note of sympathy in the nurse's voice? Is the woman already counting the number of months until Dee croaks? She starts to call Clay, turns off the phone, fights back her hundredth tear. What on earth has become of me? Strong Dee, swim team captain Dee is drowning in a vat of brine.
The plane takes fifty-eight minutes to get to Dallas. Dee retrieves her bag and reaches for her phone. I will call when I get to my car, she says. If the number of steps is divisible by five, it will be a good sign. After one thousand eight hundred and ten she still seems continents away. To hell with it. Like it or not, I am giving up. She begins a high-step jog, bag bouncing behind her on its wheels. She breathes freedom into her lungs.
When she is safely in her car, she turns on the phone and calls. She would need a high- speed sensor to count the beats of her runaway heart.
“Just a minute, I'll put you through.” Does Dee hear doom buzzing through the line? Did she blow her one chance at salvation when she ceased to count her steps? She sticks a finger in her mouth and samples a corner of her nail.
“Good news, Dee. It's benign.”
Dee lets out her breath in a rush. “Are you absolutely sure?”
The doctor laughs. “One hundred percent.”
Dee thanks him twice and disconnects. She rests her head on the steering wheel and allows herself to cry. She believes they are tears of joy. Her mascara leaves gummy rivulets on her cheeks.
The windows in Clay's study are open despite the rain that has followed Dee home. She can hear the throaty tones of Billie Holiday and Clay's sweet alto sax. Dee leans against the car door, listens and watches. The rain feels cool and fresh. The light is on and she can see the forest of Rasta braids bending into the magic of notes.
I would miss him, she realizes. An immense loneliness, impossible to calculate. She walks to the door on shaky legs, a sailor too long at sea. She ascends uncounted steps.
“Hey, Baby, welcome back. What's happening?” He stands and bows, motions her into the room.
“I'm home.” Well obviously, you fool. She sets her bags down, steps toward him.
Clay puts his sax in its stand, embraces her. He takes her hand and leads her toward the bedroom. “Yes, if you're still wondering; I really did miss you.”
Dee slips off her shoes, yields to his pull.
“Sorry about that phone call. I was feeling a bit strange.” She sits on the edge of the bed. Clay coaxes her backwards. Sinking or swimming, she wonders.
“I almost left you,” Dee whispers into the dark curl of his ear. “I think if you hadn't been home this morning I could have done it.”
“I know it, Baby,” Clay sighs. “I could feel it in your skin.” He slips off skirt, pantyhose in one smooth movement. “That, and I found your list on How to Leave Your Man.” He brushes the inside of her thighs with his lips, tickles her stomach with his fuzzy plaits of hair.
This admission is his gift to me, she thinks, his offering. She allows herself to sink into the snowy whiteness of sheets.
His fingertips inch upward over the curved cage of her ribs. Lover man, oh where can you be, asks Billie from the other room. He's here, replies Dee, ninety five percent sure.
She takes off her blouse, unfastens and removes her bra. Clay continues his upward scales until he finds her breasts. He sits up suddenly when the fingers of his right hand meet the unmistakable ridge of scar.
“Benign,” she says. Six letters. The product of the two Fibonacci numbers that precede five, but not the sum. Benign is indivisible by five.