Cora Fiore was nursing a pain in her side. She estimated it was an eight on her personal pain scale. In therapy, she had learned meditation techniques to control her health anxiety, but that was for less acute symptoms, such as heart palpitations, rashes, and stomach upsets. Surely this pain needed attention, and although she was not supposed to search the Internet for health-related issues, she decided that this exceptional pain clearly warranted an inquiry. She curled around her spare pillow, drawing her knees up towards her chest and typed “abdominal pain” into the search engine on her iPhone.
Was it a stabbing pain or a burning pain? She wasn’t sure. Was it reoccurring, and had it come on suddenly? Each question sank her deeper into a mire of guilt –she was breaking her promise to her therapist. However, after responding to 15 questions on healthcheck.com, she learned that it was possible she could have kidney stones, gall-bladder disease, or just plain gas. She was in her mid-twenties, and fairly healthy, but she had to admit that her diet had deteriorated of late. She’d lapsed into a regime of convenient foods, frozen dinners, pizzas, and Chinese take out. Maybe it was just gas, and her gut was crying out for some fresh food. Maybe she just needed one of those colon cleanse kits; the kind advertised on the healthcheck.com website.
Cora put her phone down and decided she would first try some of her relaxation exercises, and if that didn’t help, she’d take some ibuprofen, and if that didn’t help, she’d go to the emergency room at the hospital. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She distanced herself from the pain, and labeled the pain in her head, and put that label into an imaginary balloon, and then visualized the balloon floating away. The balloon was purple, her favorite color, and it had rabbit ears because that was more amusing. But then she imagined her twin sister catching the balloon and popping it which was just the kind of thing that Iris would do. She hoped that her twin, wherever the hell she was, somehow felt her pain too. There was no empirical proof of twin telepathy, but right now she’d be ecstatic to learn that Iris too, was nursing a stabbing pain in her right side.
She groaned when her she heard several renditions of the 8-bit Legend of Zelda ringtone playing out on her nightstand, the perky synthesized notes were not matching her mood, which was more in tune with a melancholy Assassin’s Creed score. Cora grabbed her iPhone and looked at the caller ID. Shit, shit, shit, this was going to be bad.
There was silence on the other end. Then Cora could hear the familiar husky breathing, and sniffling, and finally the clearing of the throat. It was already noon, and she had broken a promise to visit this morning. She wiped her grimy eyes, stepped over the pile of dirty laundry on her bedroom floor, and walked into the bathroom where she sat on the toilet.
“Mama? Is that you?”
“I thought maybe you were unwell, mi Tesora.” It was true that she was unwell, but mentioning the pain in her side would result in an unpleasant interrogation that would only increase her anxiety.
“No, I’m good. I’m so sorry I forgot to call. I was up really late last night. How are you, mama?”
“I don’t blame you for not wanting to see me. Iris left me, and your father left me, why should you be any different? Why do I even bother? It would be better for everyone if I just passed on to the next life.”
“No, Mama. We all love you. Iris will come back when she’s grown tired of her adventure. And Papa would come back home if you’d just forgive him.”
“And why should I forgive that damn fool? It’s his fault Iris is gone. He gave her that plane ticket.”
“Mama, we’ve been over this a million times. How was he to know she wouldn’t come back?”
“If you’d gone with her, she would never have disappeared.”
“Mama, please. We don’t know that. Have you been eating?”
“I have no appetite,” she said.
Her mother was not a slim woman, she had a sweet tooth, and while she might skip meals, she would never skip her macaroons, chocolate cover raisins, or bowls of strawberry ice cream.
“I’ll stop by Gino’s and pick you up some chicken soup,” said Cora.
“Don’t trouble yourself. I only wanted to hear your voice. Did you get a call from my friend Susan’s son? You remember – the one in dental school?”
“Please don’t give my phone number out. I can find my own dates.”
“How? You only leave your condo to go to work or to check on me and your father.”
This is how the conversation went every week. Cora wanted to bang her head repeatedly against the wall. She would wring Iris’s neck if she knew where the hell she was. Her sister had no idea the havoc she had caused. Iris sent a postcard every couple of months, with sentiments such as: “ Just a quick note to say hello,” “Having a great time,” or “Hope you are well,” but never a “Miss you,” or “Wish you were here.” Faint circular stamps on the backs of the cards suggested Bangkok as an origin and never offered a return address. The pictures on the front of the cards depicted ornate temples with pointy spires, elephants, Siamese characters, and Thai dancers with golden temple hats and feet held up at acute angles. The handwriting belonged to Iris; Cora would know her spidery pen anywhere. But with each new postcard sending her mother into deeper depression, the situation was becoming unbearable. Cora had tried asking the postman not to deliver any more postcards from South East Asia, but apparently, that would have been illegal.
Her father had gone to Bangkok looking for Iris six months ago. He’d hired a private investigator, put up flyers with a reward, checked hospitals, the police, paid bribes, and finally returned home with a dry and persistent cough. Why was Iris doing this? At first, Cora suspected it was love, then a punishment for her not going along on Iris’ joy ride, but now she worried it was something more serious. And she realized she was never going to have any peace until she found her.
She searched for a bottle of ibuprofen in her medicine cabinet, while her mother described a rash she suspected might be an oncoming case of shingles. No wonder I have health anxiety, she thought to herself.
“Make an appointment with the doctor,” said Cora.
“Really? You think I should?” said her mother. She could picture her mother sitting in her wing-backed chair, her body splayed over the pretty botanical pattern on the fabric, her puffy feet up on the stuffed leather ottoman, and the fingers of her free hand running through her thick auburn hair, twirling a lock, while she considered seeing her doctor. She would be facing the back garden, her once lush retreat of apple and stone fruit trees, climbing roses, beds of leafy greens, trellises of plump tomatoes, grape vines twisting around the pergola that shaded her large table, green and red grapes hanging off its redwood lattice, and flowers growing everywhere. The garden was now choking in weeds, the beds dormant, tomatoes withering from lack of water, fruit rotting on the ground, and she’d noticed the grape vines were covered in a white mildew the last time she’d gone into the backyard.
“If you are worried, then you should go see your doctor,” said Cora. She was struggling to open the bottle of ibuprofen, push and turn, push and turn, and then finally she felt the cap give. She shook three red pills into her palm and then tossed them into her mouth, and washed them down by bending to the running faucet and slurping at the stream of water, which harbored a chalky taste of minerals.
“What are you doing?” said her mother.
“Nothing, Mama, just getting a drink of water,” said Cora. Then she thought to herself, what am I doing? Is this the life I want? But the woman staring back at her in the bathroom mirror looked too timid to make any big changes. She sighed to herself and began the process of winding down the conversation with her mother, extracting herself with vague and short replies, letting pauses slip into the exchange until it seemed a natural time to say, goodbye, Mama.