Image source FUMIGRAPHIK_Photographist, via Flickr.

I tilt my legs back and forth; draw my knees together, cross one leg over the other, my shorts pushed up on my thighs. I’m trying to catch the weak overhead light. I position my phone above my lap, higher. I take the picture. I take another and another until the disembodied legs in the image, so much apart from the rest of me, look the way I want them to look—the way I think pictures of body parts sent by lovers, otherwise unattached and free to send such pictures, should look. I send the picture to the man who I know is waiting for it, though he hasn’t asked for the image. Not specifically. He has only suggested it. I was shopping at the grocery store when he texted What are you wearing? and I began to compose the image in my mind. He hasn’t actually asked me to do or say anything. He’s only been available, interested, a repository I toe the edge of.

While I am texting, sneaking off to the parking lot of the grocery store to talk to the man, bacteria is growing inside the body of my nine-year-old daughter, and inside the body of her best friend, Jane. But we don’t know this yet. My daughter and Jane are at a volleyball game where Jane spikes a serve and my daughter cheers from the bleachers. Afterwards, they share a root beer, a hot dog. Jane’s father, who is chaperoning, texts me updates throughout the day. He’s taking them to an indoor amusement park where they will ride the bumper cars, the merry-go-round, the tilt-a-whirl. They’ll eat ice cream cones, drink large sodas. My daughter will sit close to Jane in a vinyl restaurant booth and pose for a photo, her arm flung around Jane’s shoulder. Their cheeks, arms, and legs touch. Both of their smiling mouths are covered with chocolate. I receive these pictures on the same phone I use to tell the man what I’m wearing—a gray sweatshirt, black jeans, loafers. I tell him I’m shopping at the grocery store for ice cream and tampons.

I don’t look at the pictures Jane’s father sent until after I learn that Jane is very sick. My daughter has also become sick, but it’s nothing new. She’s had strep throat several times since starting elementary school and by now we know the drill. We pick up the sweet, liquid antibiotic from the pharmacy, which she struggles to get down between bites of vanilla ice cream. She watches the Disney Channel and bounces lightly to the theme song of her favorite show. She relishes her freedom from school, but she soon grows bored, anxious. She’s been home two days by the time I notice the pictures Jane’s father sent, and I wonder when I’d received them. Maybe it was while I was driving and texting the man, while I was telling him about the photos of my body I would be sending later. Or maybe it was while my husband, whom I love, napped on the couch with the cat curled in his lap, and I searched the Internet for screenshots from the Godard film, A Married Woman.

The man has not replied to my last text, so I pace the short length of the living room in bare feet while my daughter concentrates on a book or game, occasionally flicking her eyes up at me.

I move to the kitchen, where I wash plates and mugs with one hand while checking the man’s social media accounts with the other. My daughter plays with her phone, too—an old iPhone that used to belong to my mother, with type set large for an older woman’s eyes. A gentle chime alerts her to a text message: Jane is in ICU.

I don’t know who sent the message, even now, years later. It could’ve been a parent of one my daughter’s friends, or a child, one of the increasing numbers of fifth graders with cell phones that year. But the acronym, ICU, seems too sophisticated for a child, too clinical.

My daughter’s fever is still low grade, but Jane’s been in the hospital for a few days, I learn, and has been in and out of a medically induced coma. Over text messages, Jane’s father tells my husband that Jane’s arms and legs are hugely swollen, despite the massive doses of IV antibiotics. When I ask about bringing my daughter to the hospital to visit Jane, he says no: He doesn’t want her to see Jane like this.

Just over a week later, I’ll hear the whole story from one of the other terrified parents while we wait outside the school, between the picnic benches and the parking lot, to pick up our not-sick children. Jane’s parents took her to the ER when her fever was 103. The doctors sent them home with an antibiotic prescription. Something’s going around, they said. The next day, when the fever was 104, Jane’s parents packed Jane and her sister into their SUV and returned to the ER. Again, they were sent home. It was only the third time, when Jane arrived with calves swollen to the size of small tree trunks, screaming in pain, that the hospital finally admitted her. She was in septic shock.

I Google septic shock. Mortality rate is somewhere between 50 and 73 percent. Reported odds for children are worse, or according to other sources, sometimes better. Jane’s father tells me about the teams of baffled infectious disease experts, the best in the country, who crowd Jane’s bedside; the surgeons who will cut away the infected tissue. They will cut away more tissue, and more, trying to save the limbs. They will keep her legs “open” for weeks as they watch the gangrene spread, a tent of fabric suspended lightly over them to protect the family from the sight of broken flesh.

The doctors say that what happened to Jane was a matter of timing, of bad luck. The bacteria was in her joints, they say. She was hit in the wrist with a ball at the volleyball game, sometime after that spiked serve, and the impact dispersed bacteria throughout her entire body, like shrapnel. It released poison into the muscles of her legs, into her wrists and hands. Presumably, since my daughter spent the volleyball game in the bleachers, the poison in her body—the same strain of Streptococcus A that Jane has—remains dormant, or at least partially dormant. I tell a few friends what the doctors say, testing the theory. They think it’s bullshit. I think it’s bullshit. I message a pediatrician friend of mine. What I want to know is why. I tell him that Jane and my daughter shared food, spent the afternoon together at the amusement park. I tell him my daughter got strep and got better, but Jane is in danger of losing her limbs, her life. “Medicine doesn’t have answers for this,” he says.

At bedtime, the night before she returns to school, my daughter asks if I think Jane will miss the dreaded compulsory state testing. “She probably will,” I answer. “No fair!” she says. She wonders if Jane will be promoted to the next grade. She tells me she thinks Jane will probably need crutches, though I know Jane is still fighting for her life; crutches are the best of all possible outcomes. “She’ll just need them for a few weeks,” my daughter says, reassuring herself. I say nothing.

As I lay beside my daughter while she tries to fall asleep, I think of the things I said to the man and the things he said to me. I wish I could hold you, he said, once. And then later, inexplicably, We can’t talk anymore, we can’t keep doing this. My daughter cries softly to herself, because she doesn’t want to return to school without Jane, though she is healthy and has already missed a week. “Jane is my only friend,” she says, clutching the Yoda doll Jane bought her for Christmas. I know this isn’t true, my daughter has other friends, but I understand her. I also have other friends. There are other men who will answer a text message from me. I am married to one of them. But we don’t want anything from those other friends, those other men. My daughter cries for Jane; I cry for the man. I focus and unfocus my eyes on the pattern of my daughter’s nightgown, on the decal, glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling.

What happens when we look away? My daughter and her best friend developed a bacterial infection that one of them shook off like a chill. I think about this while my child lays on the couch and plays Minecraft and asks occasionally, Who are you texting, Mommy? And, What will happen to Jane? I wonder if I would’ve let her go to the volleyball game, the arcade, the restaurant with Jane, if I hadn’t been trying to buy time alone to check my messages, to compose a few. I wonder if I would have sent a reply to the photos from Jane’s father, to the smiling photos of the two girls with arms wrapped around one another. Would I have said, gently, “Don’t share drinks! That’s how people get sick!” Maybe. But likely not. That would’ve seemed paranoid, like a helicopter parent.

Illness is a reality with kids, I know this. It’s something every parent deals with. Every time my daughter has gotten sick since she was a baby I’ve understood it simply as something to endure, something to survive—even the scare she had at two weeks old that landed her in the ER overnight, that required an IV be inserted into her tiny, two-week-old veins, a procedure before which the nurse had to retrieve me from the hallway where I’d gone to wander, to escape, because I was terrified and couldn’t watch, but my child was inconsolable until I was there with her, in the room, so I returned, and watched them struggle to find a vein in her small, plump arm. I thought I was powerless to help her, that my presence didn’t matter. I was wrong. Just my attention had calmed her enough to allow the doctor to place the IV. Maybe I hadn’t been powerless to prevent what’s happening to Jane, and to my daughter, either. What would’ve been different if I’d been paying attention? If I’d called, checked in, responded to those photos. Maybe everything. Maybe nothing. I check my phone, again. The man has still not replied.

* * *

Jane has been in the hospital for one month, and it’s been a month since my message to the man went unanswered. Jane’s father says it’s finally okay to visit. Over the phone, he tells me that Jane has had several more surgeries, but she doesn’t want my daughter to know this yet. At the hospital, my daughter stands by Jane’s head, careful not to interfere with the machines beeping and monitoring, with the tubes and lines, though she does not appear to be intimidated by them. Jane’s legs are elevated and tented, and my daughter plays a New Direction song for Jane on her old iPhone. She holds it between their two ears, and they lean together, cheeks touching. They are so happy to be together again. They sing along to the song while Jane clicks the morphine drip beside her bed. When Jane’s father told me about the surgeries, he also conferred the good news: her fever had finally broken. The doctor said that the fever would not break until the infected tissue had been removed, and he was right.

It’s a simple thing that happened. I became obsessed with a man I could not see in person, had not seen in nearly a year, and would never see again. I didn’t often speak to this man. I want to see you like that again, he wrote, after I sent the first photograph. Send me another picture. I blocked and unblocked him on social media, erased and recovered his emails and text messages. I did this for months while my daughter grew taller. Joined choir. Wrote in her journal and formed a close friendship with Jane. Before Jane got sick, she and my daughter made videos together in their audiovisual class. I made short videos of myself and posted them on the Internet, hoping the man would see them. I planned trips, bought and cancelled plane tickets, browsed glass cases full of objects I wanted to buy for him. My daughter and her friend asked for play dates, sleepovers, and a budget with which to buy each other gifts.

I mark on the calendar when it has been six months since I’ve spoken to the man. I’m in the grocery store, and I remember part of a conversation we had, and the pictures of my body I took for him. I think of the way I took myself apart for those pictures, broke myself down to just the pieces, for reasons that are still unclear to me. I stop in the middle of the cereal aisle. I blink at the box of Captain Crunch in my hand.

Jane and my daughter are back in school together. Jane is in a wheelchair and my daughter has volunteered to help her navigate the school’s rickety elevator and not-quite-modern wheelchair ramps. They sit diagonally from one another; the corners of their desks touch. They pass notes, choose one another as partners on a Social Studies project. On the way to the cafeteria, my daughter stands on the back of Jane’s wheelchair like a captain at the bow of a ship, and together they sail down the hallway, long hair flying. After school they share a milkshake and French fries at the old-fashioned drugstore-soda-fountain in our neighborhood. A teacher posts a picture online of Jane and my daughter together on the playground, squinting into the clean sunshine.

My daughter wakes up with a small constellation of red spots on her chin. The doctor says it’s a common bacterial infection, so we get a special lotion from the pharmacy and she applies it each night before bed. I watch her closely, waiting for it to bloom into something unthinkable, but the marks disappear and her face is perfect again. Sometimes she smiles in her sleep, like she did when she was an infant. I wonder if she’s dreaming about Jane when she smiles like that. I send my daughter to school, to her desk that touches Jane’s desk. I climb into my car and head to the grocery store wondering which parts of myself I’ve cut away.

Cameron Dezen Hammon

Cameron Dezen Hammon is the author of the debut memoir This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession (Lookout Books, 2019), and a contributor to The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers (W.W. Norton, 2018). Her work has appeared in Ecotone, The Literary Review, Catapult, and elsewhere.

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2 Comments on “The Ways We Take Ourselves Apart

  1. Such an interesting and wonderful piece. Your daughter and Jane have the kind of friendship that movies are made out of (Hollywood, I want this to be your next blockbuster film PLEASE!). Thank you for sharing this essay with us.

    1. Thank you for reading and for these kind words! I agree. Their friendship is really something. :) Thanks again.

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