Amber Taliancich Allen
What It Is to Preserve
I once locked you in a closet. I never told you I was sorry.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
The body is only thirty-three. The body is found and then the body is taken.
I was never sure I wanted to have children. I would look at my sisters and friends who had babies and think, No. I would watch my sister’s belly grow and grow with your cousin and think, No. She would ask if I wanted to feel a kick. No. She would ask if I wanted to talk to her belly. No.
And later she would ask if I felt like my body was my body as my belly grew and grew. No.
Then the body is cold.
I had you on a cold cold night. The snow was piled high. A winter storm that no one had expected. Your father shoveled for three hours and never reached the road.
I had you on the floor in our kitchen, your father at my feet, praying, while I cried and cried.
The clothes are removed.
My body was never quite my body again. My breasts were more plump, yes, but so were my thighs and my arms and my face. And when I would lay in bed and turn on my side, my hands were lost at the soft sac of skin on my belly, for once wishing it weren’t so empty or that it had never become so full.
The body is bathed.
I was afraid to scrub your skin. I knew not to scrub hard, but when I imagined running a cloth over your chubby arms or your chubby legs or your chubby everything, I feared you would just peel away. You were so delicate then. It looked as though you would just peel layer by layer if I even breathed too close to you.
Stiff limbs are rubbed and massaged and broken down.
I once danced on American Bandstand. It was 1962. Freddy Boom Boom Cannon sang.
That was the year before I met your father. I don’t think I’ve ever told him the story. My cousin Sue, who was just a few years older than me, had fixed my hair. Our parents, of course, didn’t know. Your grandmother would have never let me go. But then your Aunt Sue happened to turn on the television right as the camera panned over to me and Danny dancing. The Madison, I think. Step left, forward. Place right foot next to left. Clap. Step back on right. Move left foot back and across the right. Move left foot to the left. Move left foot back and across the right.
Your grandfather said I had never looked more beautiful.
Cotton wool is packed in the nose, down the throat. The mouth is sewn shut.
My mother’s advice the day before my wedding: Have dinner ready/ Take fifteen minutes to rest and refresh before he arrives home from work/ Be a little more interesting for him/ Clear away any clutter/ Be happy to see him and show sincerity in your desire to please him/ Listen to him/ Let him talk first—his topics of conversation are more important than yours/ Don’t greet him with complaints and problems/ Speak in soothing tones/ You have no right to question him/ Never question his integrity/ Make him comfortable/ Arrange his pillows and offer to remove his shoes.
A good wife always knows her place.
An incision is made in the femoral site. On the thigh.
Your father always said I looked like Ginger Rogers. It may have been my blonde curls back then or my red red lips, but it probably had to do with my thighs. I had amazing dancer’s thighs. But the first time we danced together, I was wearing these tall pink heels and, of course, I was so nervous, so I must have stepped forward and right when he must have stepped forward and left because I planted the pick of my heel and twisted on his poor big toe and he howled loud enough to overpower Chubby Checker himself.
An incision is made just under the rib cage.
There, of course, had been complications. I bled and bled on the kitchen floor. Years later, I can still see bits of bits stained in the lines of the tiles. Once the roads had cleared enough to get me to the hospital, the doctor had said I was lucky to be alive. You were lucky to be alive. And after he told us what needed to be done, he said I should be happy I at least had you. Even after they took you away to clean and weigh and measure, he reminded me again, at least I would always have you.
The body is drained.
After you were born, we went days without sleeping. You never slept and your father never slept and I never slept. I looked like the living dead. When friends would see me, they would always say, My! You look like the living dead!
What was drained must be replaced.
For a while, I didn’t leave the house with you. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t sure if it was worry or fear or selfishness. But at some point, I realized I would go mad if I stayed inside any longer. I dressed you in one of the outfits your grandmother had loved. It was one piece, a white cotton and lace romper that came with a little white cotton and lace hat. I put you in the stroller and we went on a walk around the street and I worried over how pink your chunky cheeks were turning. We passed lady after lady pushing stroller after stroller, each one stopping to say how beautiful you were, how lovely you were, how much you looked like your mother.
Then the brain and lungs and stomach and so on and so on are taken and placed in jars, placed next to the body.
My mother’s advice on babies: Always nurse the baby/ Ensure the baby gets sixteen hours of sleep a day for the first year/ Don’t shake your baby, even if you really want to/ Don’t pick up the baby if she cries/ Don’t put anything sharp in the baby’s nose or ears/ Don’t leave safety pins open around the baby.
Don’t be a martyr to your baby.
The eyes are dried. Plastic is placed beneath lids. Eyes are glued shut. Skin, moisturized.
The body appears natural, asleep.
My sleeplessness wasn’t always your fault, though. Even when you slept, I couldn’t leave your side. I would press my palm flat on your belly and wait and wait until I felt you move again. And then I’d wait and wait until I felt you move again. And then I’d wait and wait until you’d made it to another morning.
The body is bathed again. The hair is washed.
You always had crazy hair. Tangled hair. After your baths, you would cry as soon as I took the brush from the stand. But I would sit on the edge of the bed and make you sit in my lap and I would run the brush through your dark hair that was always so much darker than mine and you would keep crying and you would keep crying and you would keep crying until I would cry with you, and then, as if stunned, you would finally shut your mouth.
Glass is removed from the chest and shoulders and forehead.
You almost drowned once. You were just shy of two. We were in the backyard, in the pool, resting on a large yellow float. Yellow seemed to be your favorite color, even back then. The radio was on and the sun was high and the water rocked us back and forth and back and forth until I, and maybe even you, had fallen asleep. I’m not sure what woke me. Maybe it was the sudden song change or the chill left behind with your body gone or the splash you made after you rolled off. I’m not even sure how long you were under the surface. But by the time I had looked over the edge, you’d already sunk beyond my reach. Your hair cascaded out and with your eyes wide open, you stared up at me as I stared down at you. You waved your arms and opened and closed your mouth. Maybe you were trying to tell me something. Maybe you were trying to ask, Why aren’t you moving.
The cuts are sealed, covered as if never there.
I always thought I would be the one who would leave. There were times I would stare at your father as he held you. I would think, It would be so easy. I could go somewhere warm and sunny. California, maybe. Maybe I could dance or sing. Maybe I could be in the films. I was often told I looked like Doris Day or Ginger Rogers, sometimes even Marilyn Monroe.
The chest, the breasts reformed, the large wound filled with putty. The dress will keep it hidden.
I modeled once, you know. It was while your father was stationed in Hawaii. You weren’t born, yet, and so I often found myself bored while your father was away. And so one day I went down to the beach in my new suit. I was so proud of it. Two pieces. I’d gotten it shortly after we’d arrived. It was powder blue with bright green palm leaves. They were having some sort of contest and a man asked if I wanted to enter. Said I had amazing thighs. And wouldn’t you believe, I won the thing. They did a photoshoot the following week. Your father loved the pictures until some of his shipmates caught wind of it. He said I couldn’t enter any more contests, but it didn’t matter so much, what he said. By then, I’d already found out about you.
The nails are cleaned and trimmed and polished.
You used to have the tiniest fingers. I was fascinated by them. I would dot them with pink or sometimes purple or sometimes yellow and curse when I always colored your skin more than the nail. When you were a little older, you would ask if you could paint mine. And I would always say, No. And when you were a little more older, you would ask, again, if you could paint mine. And I would always say, No. And you would always ask and ask, and again and again, No.
The face and skin are covered in foundation, powder. The eyes are lined and lashes are darkened.
My mother’s dating advice: It’s only proper to introduce your date to your parents/ Always give an immediate answer once you’ve been asked out/ Never break a date without a valid reason/ Be ready on time—never make a gentleman wait/ Don’t apply makeup in public/ At the restaurant, tell your date what you want for dinner so he can order it for you/ Don’t humiliate your date by trying to pay.
Only floozies ask men out.
Pink added to cheeks. Lips, painted red.
I often found you sitting at my dressing table. You’d piled books in the seat so you could see your face in the mirror. Blush painted across your face. Bright red lipstick caked on your mouth, and when I’d scare you, I’d see it smeared in your teeth. You were always very good with mascara, though. Your lashes so long, then, the tips dotted under your brow.
You never knew how long I would watch you powder your face and dust your eyelids pink before I startled you so and brushes clattered to the floor.
The hair is brushed and curled and set.
I always thought I looked more like Doris Day. And I was actually approached, once. Asked if I’d ever been in the movies. I, of course, told the man no, but he offered me a card and said he could fix that. I wasn’t so naive then. I knew he was just trying to sell me on something. But as he looked down at your stroller and I looked down at your stroller, we both knew, without a doubt, he’d wasted a card.
The body is dressed. A red dress, two sizes too small. The dress is cut open in the back and placed on the body. The dress is made to work.
As you grew older, you grew more and more beautiful. You grew to look more and more like I had when I, too, was young and slim and lovely. When you started to date, I would often find you digging in my closet, looking through dresses I’d never brought myself to get rid of because each one held some sort of memory.
The pink chiffon and lace one I’d worn to prom. The simple black A-line I’d worn to your grandfather’s funeral the year before you were born. The red sleeveless dress with the white collar I’d worn on my first date with your father. All still hanging in my closet, surely never to be worn, nonetheless fit in again. Because my body was no longer the body I used to know. My body could never be that body again.
And when I saw you push aside the champagne silk and lace tea-length from my wedding and wrap your fingers over a shoulder of red, I couldn’t help but snap, No.
Pearls are placed around the neck.
I always knew I would give them to you one day. I figured on your wedding day. I even told you this one time. But even as a baby, you were fascinated with them. You would claw at my throat, tiny fingers clutching and pulling. You snapped the string once. The pearls scattered and it took me months to gather enough to string them back together. Even then, it seemed, you felt they were owed to you. That they somehow belonged more to you than me.
The body is hoisted and carefully laid to rest.
Some nights, when your father had to work late, you would climb into my bed. I would always hear the door, but I would let you continue to sneak. To carefully pull back the covers and slide in and stay close to the edge in the hopes I wouldn’t notice. But one time, I felt you move. I could tell you were sitting up. I felt you watching me. I waited and wasn’t surprised when I felt your palm rest flat on my chest.
Watching and waiting. All night, watching and waiting.
The body is positioned.
I didn’t always think I wanted children. I didn’t always think I could be a mother who thought and acted and loved like a mother. I’m sure there were times you noticed, thought the same sorts of things. Maybe you feared for the same reasons I feared. Maybe that’s why you left.
Maybe you thought that perhaps it would be better to be motherless than to have someone who was less than a mother.
Moved and delivered and displayed.
I never gave you dating or marriage or baby advice. I don’t think I ever gave you any sort of advice at all.
I once found you hiding inside a bush in the backyard. This was after hours and hours of searching the house, fearing I’d have to call your father, or worse yet, my mother. I’d stepped outside to make the call, as though the fresh air would somehow make it easier. And that’s when I heard, Nine! But I couldn’t tell where your voice had come from. Ten! I called your name, but your only response was, Eleven! Twelve! Thirteen Fourteen Fifteen!
I looked up and saw streak after streak shoot across the sky. Once I’d found you, I crawled into the bush, which was large and hollowed in the center. I rested on my back and looked up. We were shoulder to shoulder, then. You pointed and continued to count. I counted with you. But at one point, you’d stopped, had fallen asleep. I turned over and placed my chin on your shoulder, my palm on your chest and counted, still. Time measured only in our breaths until I, too, had fallen asleep.
Amber Taliancich Allen recently graduated with her MFA in Fiction from the NEOMFA program out of Cleveland State University. She has worked as both the non-fiction and fiction editor of The Oracle: A Literary Review, as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Whiskey Island Magazine and the Managing Editor of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Her work has appeared in Gigantic Sequins and Entropy. She teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University and currently lives in Lakewood, Ohio.