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n truth, I cared very little for the rat itself. Nor did I, when she first disappeared, feel very strongly for the girl who had left it to me. Our relationship was brief. I met her in June one year, and by August of that same year she had disappeared. She didn’t leave much else to remember her by.    I don’t feel justified in saying that I missed her, at least when she was first gone. We were not on good terms at the end, if we even were at the beginning. But we spent a generous amount of time together. Had we, for instance, been imprisoned in the same cell we would have seen no more of each other. For the first week after 105


the surrogate we met we lay in bed together, sticking things in holes and pulling them out again. If we ate, I don’t remember. By the eighth day, the sheets were so laden with protein that I thought, in my half-conscious state, that I was lying on a corrugated roof. Over the next two months, I stared at her sometimes for hours without moving. Once she got so sick that she refused to put a tampon in and I had to do it for her.    I should say, with a number of qualifications, that in our short time together I grew to love her, or at least said so, or at least attempted to say so. I made my first admission in the darkness. But was the apartment ever light? Had the electric company, at that point, shut off the power, or did that happen later? No matter. I used the words, I think I’m falling in love with you. How contrite I must have sounded lying in that confessional bed, waiting for her absolution. But it was all for not. Conceive of the father who, after you’ve repented, falls asleep, or was never awake in the first place to receive your sins. I’ve decided that she must have been unconscious the first time I poured my heart on her. Imagine being in a dark room, holding a precious glass of fluid—mercury perhaps. It isn’t, like gold or platinum, sought after for jewelling, but it is nonetheless expensive 106


kaelan if you are the one extracting it from coal smoke. I have taken pains not to say that I poured my heart out to her. That would have been too sentimental. But there I was in a dark room, on the bed, holding a cup—the cup of my heart. How pretty that image is. And I was offering to let her drink from it. But she passed out before I could put the rim to her mouth, and so I poured the contents all over her face. It is not pleasant, I’m sure, to have a heavy metal decanted on the head, but for her sake, it was less injurious than had she drunk it.    At two other junctures I tried again to profess my love. I realize I didn’t describe the first one very well to you. But I did the best I could. This is all very vague to me now. I’ll do better from this point on. The second time, as always, we were lying on the bed. I had my fingers on her carotid artery, feeling her weak pulse, and she was mumbling about a goat, or a boat, or a goat on a boat. It’s not the content, but the sonority of her speech that I remember now. Goat, boat. Perhaps I was pushing too hard against her windpipe, and she was actually saying throat. But she seemed vulnerable, either because she was suffocating, or because she was babbling like a child, and I felt compelled to say, I love you. She did not respond, though, so 107


the surrogate I’m inclined to believe that she’d fallen asleep again, the somniloquist. She kept me up most nights with her prattling, stringing words together without any semblance of logic. Noun, noun, verb, for instance. Verb, noun, verb, for another. I tried to find patterns at first, much to my dismay. Later, I simply listened, as one might to the neighbor’s radio leaching through the wall. And later still, her sleep-talking comforted me. I felt as if she were speaking honestly to me, as if when unconscious she could better express her thoughts. Goat, boat, she said as I asphyxiated her, and I said, I love you. How tender it all seems now.    Our third exchange was the only time I can say for sure that she acknowledged me, because it was her, and not me, who initiated the vow. She woke me very early, although telling the time in my apartment, without a clock, with the curtains always drawn, and the window looking out into an alley, was unscientific at best. Though early seems like a good estimate. She dug her nails into my arm and said, I feel very strongly about you. I think I’m in love. I responded by saying, I think I am too, which she, in her semi-consciousness, misinterpreted as, I thank you. Had she been more apprehensive, she might have wondered why I included the 108


kaelan pronoun I, when the conventional response is simply, thank you. But she was dim in the mornings. And this particular morning she must have suffered from that illogical ruminative condition between sleep and wakefulness where the brain is less concerned with the construction of a response, as it pertains to linguistic conventions, formal and informal, and more attentive to its preliminary, in this case, misunderstanding of what has been said. I suppose I didn’t speak as clearly as I could have, but I put the blame on her. She didn’t respond immediately after I spoke, but lay there chewing the words I hadn’t said until, minutes or hours later, she felt the impulse to hit me. I think I’d fallen asleep again by the time she dealt me the blow, but I was promptly awake thereafter, and in quite a state of confusion. How dare you say thank you, she said, when I’ve just said I’m in love with you? Because this was the first I’d learned of her misconstrual, I didn’t know how to defend myself. I made a valiant effort, I’m sure. No, no, no, I must have said. You misheard me. But the damage had been done. Suffice it to say, I never felt obliged to confess my love to her again, having failed three times already.    Then one morning she limped out of the bathroom naked. I hadn’t heard the toilet flush, 109


the surrogate but because neither of us had spoken a word in two days, I said nothing. I had no intention of breaking the silence to quarrel with her about etiquette. She sat down at the foot of the bed, facing away from me. I remember her scoliotic spine quite clearly, her right shoulder blade always lower than the left. Thinking back now, I picture her as a cripple. Perhaps, for her, my apartment was an infirmary, and I was her nurse. But those were not our roles. I needed her, to drag me from the kitchen to the bedroom, or from the shower to the sink, as much as she needed me. And yet, as she sat on the bare mattress—we’d discarded the sheets some weeks before—I could sense that something terrible had happened.    I stood up, naked myself, and limped into, much as she had limped out of, the bathroom. In the toilet I found the clump, lying in the water like a furled rose. Despite having never seen one, I knew far too well what it was. I turned towards the bedroom, and through the open door saw her slumped over, her legs spread immodestly, a trickle of blood running down her inner thigh.    Why should we have cared about a parasite? Good riddance, we should have thought. We were in no shape to administer care, to say 110


kaelan nothing of expressing love. But there we were, her sitting, and me standing, like a pair of real parents who’d drowned their child. After all our wasting away, we’d nearly engendered an heir, and now the blastocyst was hydrolyzing in the toilet. I could have flushed it into the sewer. I even returned to the bathroom to do so, but leaning over the filthy bowl, couldn’t bring myself to depress the handle. Instead I retrieved the embryo with my bare hand and dropped it in a glass of water. She got up from the bed and wobbled toward me. I handed her the cup and she held it to the light so we could examine its contents. There was nothing childlike about the little tumeral lump. It resembled a frontal lobe, or perhaps an occipital. The thought occurred to me that perhaps the brain develops first, and the rest of the body grows out from the nervous system. And the idea that we were inspecting an aborted mind, rather than a miscarried body, suddenly terrified me. No, terrified isn’t the right word, just as relieved is equally wrong. But I took the glass from her and poured it into the sink. Some of the excrescence caught in the drain and I had to force it down the pipe with my thumb. She fell to her knees, of course, slapping at me with her emaciated arms and yelling about how I’d killed this and that. I must have 111


the surrogate felt sorry for her in that moment because I bent down, and taking her head in my hands, told her that I would find her a surrogate.    I helped her into a pair of pants and put a sweater over her head. She was so exhausted that she could hardly keep her eyes open, and I had to support her as we walked to the front door. Neither of us spoke, but I assumed that she was as apprehensive as I was about leaving the apartment. Had we gone outside together? I must have met her in a bar or on a street corner, but I have no recollection of our first encounter. Memory shouldn’t be trusted, though. Each formative experience usurps the previous, or combines with it, so that in the end your recollections are an atemporal aggregate. Everything that ever was, once it is, has always been. So it was with her. She must have appeared, but once the shock of her presence had subsided, I only felt—and feel still—a vague anamnesis of trauma. I have no sense of my life before her.    We walked down the street to the pet store, located some two blocks from my building. Perhaps the shop was much farther, but had we needed to travel more than a few hundred yards, we would have probably aborted the mission. Regardless, we shuffled inside and inspected the cages, looking at the various inmates. A 112


kaelan white rabbit with urine-stained fur caught her attention, but I didn’t have enough money for it. She tried to pull a kitten out of it’s pen, but the owner of the shop yelled at her, and she dropped it from a height of three or four feet onto its back. It was too young, apparently, to land on its feet. But I needn’t ramble on about the animals we didn’t choose. We decided on a white rat with red eyes. It was all I could afford, and she was happy to have the little vermin, and she carried it all the way home, petting its triangular head with her thumb.    Over the next three days, she sang it lullabies to which she had forgotten both the words and the tunes—little incoherent melodies that some woman must have sung to her when she was young. And she fed it pieces of stale bread torn from a hardened loaf. I followed her for the first day, vying for her attention. The second day I sat in bed. On the third day I took the rat from her and carried it to the counter. She wrapped her arms around my neck, not in an embrace, but in an attempt to prohibit me from killing, shall we say, her descendant. With great difficulty—she was not strong, but I was very weak—I opened a drawer, removed a carving knife, raised it above my head, and brought it down on the rat. She screamed, and the rat 113


the surrogate squealed, and all three of us fell to the floor. I had tried to kill it, I think, but found that I had only chopped off its tail. When I had caught my breath, I struggled to my feet, dragging her up with me, and towed her into the bedroom. We made love. What a euphemism.    The next day I woke to discover, for the first time in two months, that she was not beside me. I got out of bed in a panic and hobbled to the kitchen. On the counter beside the sink she had left a pen and a note. Or I thought she had left a note until I examined the piece of paper. She had written Dear, but nothing else. Perhaps she had intended to write me a letter, but realizing that she didn’t know my name, was unable to continue. I certainly don’t remember hers, if I ever knew it. We had no need for monikers. There was never anyone else from whom we had to distinguish ourselves.   o contradict myself slightly, I must have felt some yearning for her when she left, but only the way a hen longs for its stolen egg until it lays another. Or maybe I only miss her now, and that emotion is washing over the past. Regardless, I might never have desired her again had I found another girl, or if I’d killed the rat, rather than simply chopped

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kaelan off a piece of it, as that’s all I could bring myself to do. But I failed on both counts. And because the rat survived, darting about in my peripheral vision, reminding me always of her, I had no choice but to look for it. I hadn’t planned to waste so many years in pursuit, but then again, had I wanted to find the thing, I would have set out traps or poison. And I didn’t. Over the course of my search, much to my dismay, I grew fond of thing, or rather fond of the hunt, as it kept her fresh in my mind.    Some thirty years later, I still often see the rat running across the kitchen floor. It moves more slowly than it once did, the little ghost, but I too have lost some of my alacrity. Our velocities, therefore, remain relatively the same. Its fur is not as white as it once was, an observation that has prompted me, on my darker days, to wonder if it isn’t a different rat altogether that has burrowed into my home.

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The Surrogate  

"The Surrogate," excerpted from WE'RE GETTING ON.

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