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"Tectonics" by Jocelyn Jane Cox

Appointment 1 Instead of stomping the slush off her boots, Regina wipes her feet on the mat with a restrained marching motion, almost baby steps. Bill is already in line.

She waves and points to the tables. She eases into a chair gingerly then unwinds her scarf.

Bill sets down the purple tray with their bagels and peels off his coat. “So, talk to me,” he says. This is a phrase he picked up while studying to be a social worker.

Regina drags her paper plate toward her, trying to remember Dr. Terry’s exact terminology. “He says I have… a subluxation of the second thoracic vertebra affecting the function of the brachial plexus.”

“That sounds serious.”

“I guess so,” Regina says, though she hasn’t yet put it to herself in this way. Bill looks at her, patiently awaiting more information.

“Did you end up telling him how it happened?” He’s still feeling responsible, no matter how much she tries to convince him otherwise.

“Of course not.” Regina gestures to the wintry scene outside. “I said I slipped on the ice.”

It had happened in bed two weeks ago. Things were progressing nicely when suddenly she felt as if an ax had been hurled into her back.

Since then, she’s been trying to manage the pain with stretching and ice. Bill’s well-meaning massages haven’t helped.

So Regina set up an appointment with a chiropractor named Dr. Terry. He’d started today’s appointment by taking X-rays. When they were ready, an assistant came in and clipped them up on a back-lit surface.

“Wow,” Dr. Terry said then started penciling notations on the films. When he finally moved aside, Regina stepped forward so she was face to face with herself.

Her eyes, nose, and mouth looked like gaping holes. Her hands: a string of pointy bones like links of a chain. And her softer tissues – the tendons and ligaments – resembled smoke.

In an attempt to connect her dots, Dr. Terry was forced to draw all kinds of crooked lines. He explained, “It’s like plate tectonics. One part of the earth shifts.” He pointed to her illuminated spine, right at the second thoracic, which did look quite off-kilter now that she looked closely. “And the part next to it shifts as well, or gets damaged in some way.” The doctor put his hands out horizontally before him then collided them together. “Chiropractic adjustments will gradually maneuver everything back into place.” He returned his hands happily side by side.

Regina dabs her bagel at the stray sesame seeds on her plate. “I think skeletons get a bad rap.”

“How so?” Bill backs up on his chair and crosses his legs, another counseling idiosyncrasy: the listening pose.

“Every Halloween they’re depicted as villains, symbols of death. The thing is,” she continues, “we all have them.” She taps her sternum. “We’re all concealed skeletons.”

Bill nods his head thoughtfully. “Let me see if I understand: the Halloween hype, the skeleton frenzy, is yet another form of commercialized self-loathing?”

“Yes, yes it is.” Regina smirks, pleased, as always, with their banter. Though they met a year ago and have lived together almost as long, she’s often still amazed they found each other. Sometimes when she thinks about Bill, she clasps her hands together, as if holding something embarrassingly sentimental, a gush of some sort, between her palms.

As they walk toward the door, she doesn’t hook her backpack over her shoulders, but carries it in her hand down at her side, like Dr. Terry suggested.

“We should do this every week after your appointment,” Bill suggests as they step out onto the slushy street.

“Sounds good.” She likes meeting up with Bill, like this, during the day.

He pecks her on the cheek and they walk in opposite directions: he, toward his office, she, toward her 12 o’clock seminar on Surrealists, a class that pays almost nothing, but she loves to teach. That is, when she isn’t in pain.

Appointment 6

Regina arrives first and orders their bagels. A few minutes later, she sees Bill tying her dog to the No Parking sign out front. She usually walks Scott mid-day, between her classes, but it hurts to do almost everything now. In fact, even sitting is excruciating, so she stands up beside the table. At home, she even stands to watch TV.

When Bill reaches the table he stands as well, until she gestures for him to sit in the chair. There’s no reason they should both be uncomfortable. “So? How are you feeling today?” he asks.

“Worse,” Regina sighs. She has recently started wondering if Dr. Terry is running a racket, if he’s overcharging Regina for something he knows is never going to work. She read somewhere that any “perceived” chiropractic strides are easily undone, anyway.

“It’s a process, Reg,” Bill says, kindly.

“Maybe I’ll never get better. This is me now,” she says with more bitterness than intended.

“Try to have some faith,” Bill says. Give it time, he has been telling her. Patience. She rolls her eyes and instantly regrets it. She tries to backpedal with a nod of agreement. He’s right, and he helps people feel better about things for a living, but she’s annoyed anyway, mostly with herself. She’s been a jerk lately. She isn’t hungry and doesn’t want to hear herself complain more. Instead, she leans her hip against the table and watches snow accumulate on Scott outside. She rescued him and named him before she met Bill, when she thought for sure she’d always be alone. She imagines the little dog under attack now, each snowflake like a wheel of spinning daggers. She’s not an artist, but often she re-envisions scenes in her mind how they might be depicted on a canvas. It’s her own secret creativity.

Since she’s been getting Dr. Terry’s weekly adjustments, she’s been experiencing pain all over her back as if the soreness is nomadic, roaming from the second thoracic to the ninth, then up to the fifth.

“This is perfectly normal,” Dr. Terry had reassured her today. “In fact,” he made the tectonics sign with his hands, “it indicates we’re getting somewhere. Things are changing.” Things are changing all right, Regina had thought to herself.

Bill reaches into his backpack. “I got you something,” he says and places a tiny pot on the corner of the table.

“A cactus,” she says, looking down at it.

He nods up at her, grinning.

They’ve remarked on this before, how all kinds of people have these little upright penises on their windowsills and mantels.

The cactus stands erect between them. It has now been almost two months since she got hurt.

“Thank you,” she says. She bends her knees a few times. Standing this long makes her legs tired. She knows this is a jokey attempt to cheer her up, rather than an act of foreplay, but she takes it as another opportunity to feel bad about herself. Lately, she’s started thinking she doesn’t deserve Bill, that he’d be better off with someone who can move around the world normally, as if not made of cement.

Bill is the polar opposite of other men she’s been with. Since he’s a good listener, she has often found herself revealing things she’d never expressed to anyone before. After their first date, he’d perched on her couch, knees under his chin, as she described the artists she liked to teach most: Rothko and Diebenkorn with their corridors of color. Frida Kahlo with her mix of realism and fantasy. She told him about the succession of drawing and painting classes she’d taken since she was a little kid. She admitted the truth: “I can understand art, but I can’t really create it.”

He nodded. “Sounds like your talent is in sharing these artists with so many people.”

“Maybe,” she swallowed. It wasn’t insta-validation and it wasn’t something that had never occurred to her, but it was what she needed to hear. That night, he recounted his parent’s divorce when he was eight, and meeting with his first therapist. He said he loved this woman almost more than his parents and thought maybe I could do this one day. Even though she retired, he was still in touch with her.

To Regina’s amazement, Bill broke his lease the next month and moved in with her.

Regina looks at the cactus, his cute gesture. But it looks less like a penis to her now and more like a spine: misshapen and misaligned. Regina examines its thistle vertebrae, touching one of the spikes. She wants to tell Bill that sometimes she doesn’t want to move, that she’s started worrying this sharpness she wakes up with, walks around with, reads with, will never go away, that this is now just how she is. But she doesn’t want to keep putting all of this on him. He has to listen to other peoples’ problems all day. Plus, her problem has become his too, a fact that pains her almost more than anything else. She presses her finger harder.

She thinks of Frida Kahlo and how excruciating it must have been for her to have sex with her husband, the famous Rivera, after all of her back surgeries and miscarriages. Regina can only imagine this: the piercing, again and again like lightning along the spine. Maybe Frida kept trying. Or maybe she didn’t.

“Woah, be careful,” Bill says, and takes her hand in his. Her index finger has a tiny dot of blood. He dabs at it with the napkin. “Hey,” he moves his face up closer to hers. “You’re going to be okay,” he says. “If this guy can’t help you, we’ll find someone who can.” She nods her head, genuinely this time, her eyes filling.

Appointment 12

Regina sits down by herself and starts eating her bagel while it’s still hot. It’s the first day in months she hasn’t experienced even a prick of pain. Dr. Terry announced she was almost entirely “in line,” that her treatment would last only a few more weeks, followed by monthly maintenance visits. When he said this, Regina imagined her skull winking back at her from the illuminated wall.

She watches pedestrians navigating the sidewalk, a bunch of bundled skeletons. It has been sleeting since yesterday, turning to ice when it hits the pavement. Road salt hasn’t yet managed to eat through the slick surface. She’d taken Scott for a quick walk before her appointment even despite these conditions and she felt fine. Bill can’t join her today because one of his evening clients needed to meet earlier. At least this means he’ll get home early.

Realizing this, Regina feels a sudden surge of energy. She swallows another bite then swings her arms above her head and arches. She stretches as far as she can, as if she’s just woken up from a three-month slumber. There’s no pain whatsoever, not even a twinge. She looks at her phone. If she hurries, she’ll have time before her 12 o’clock seminar to pick up a bottle of celebratory wine. Maybe she’ll stop at that lingerie shop she’s never gone in, and buy something lacy and transparent.

Regina thrusts her arms through the straps of her backpack then heads quickly toward the exit. On the sidewalk, she moves carefully: she looks down at the ice and thinks about each step. She waits for the WALK sign then crosses the street with precision. Halfway across, she catches a hint of something in her peripheral vision. She rotates her head to see a tan sedan skidding sideways toward her, its tires locked in place. Regina lurches forward. The car’s front bumper just misses the back of her thigh. Her boots slide across the ice.

She manages to regain her balance. But as she does so, there is a rift, a violent shifting in her spine. Another ax has been hurled into her back.

Regina shuffles her way to the curb, each movement more painful than the last. She drops her backpack onto the ice at her side. So it was true about chiropractic. All that progress, easily undone.

Regina closes, then slowly opens her eyes, the only movement she can muster. Car tires spin, exhaust fumes swirl, and the air is streaked with falling ice. She envisions the self-portrait she’ll never paint: the tectonic plates, the ax, a single, blood-tinged tear rolling down her cheek. Even though the famous Rivera, who was said to resemble a frog, hopped around the world and into the arms of countless other women, he kept coming back to Frida’s bedside. Was this love on his part? Or devotion? Guilt? Maybe it would have been better for them both if he’d just stayed away.

Regina stands undecided. All she wants is relief. There’s no way she can pull herself together to teach another class in pain. Dr. Terry’s office is two blocks east, and the apartment she shares with Bill is four blocks north. All destinations seem far off, like sinkholes in the distance. She decides they should break up. Bill might be resistant to this idea or maybe he won’t.

Regina picks up her backpack. She grits her teeth and heads slowly toward class. Sleet has the nerve to pelt her cheeks, her eyebrows, and her lips.

A word from the author: I hold an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. My essays, fiction, CNF, and humor have appeared or are forthcoming in Roanoke Review, Penn Review, Brevity Blog, Belladonna Comedy, Slackjaw, Leon Literary Review, Rougarou, Five Minutes, Slate, NBC Think, Newsweek, and Chill Subs. I have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I live in Nyack, New York with my husband, son, and my antique eyeglass collection.

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