Blue Foliage

“Emboli” by Jennifer Phipps

15 November 2019 on Nonfiction   Tags: , , ,

Last weekend you wore long, loose shorts. Your workout clothes— billowing, breathable black t-shirt and those silky, baggy shorts—obstructed my view. I’d wanted to see your legs. But when I say your legs, you know what I really mean. I wanted to see your thighs. We exchanged details about our son, but then you left.


When we lived together, your thighs magnetized me. I’d press the pads of my thumbs up and over them in our bed. As I applied more pressure, stroked deeper, you drew your breath and arched your back.

“Whew,” you’d say. “Not that one. Too intense.”

You moved my hand to other places—to your back or arms or even your calves. I complied. But those big beautiful muscles under your curls of dark hair were the ones I longed to touch. They seemed most like you. So much like meat, those slippery pads of flesh curving off the bone, just like Thanksgiving. And in the beginning we feasted on one another nearly every night.  


Eventually we stopped the nightly touching, tracing, caressing, even accidental grazing. It happened when you worked your software developer gigs without end. You came home and you ranted and insulted. The louder you got, the less I heard, and the less I heard, the less I reached out and touched. By this time we were married and I raised our son.

In the afternoons my mind would drift and I would daydream about our past. That’s right. It’s hard to believe now. But for a while I fantasized about you.

One afternoon I got lost remembering the President’s Day trip at the beginning of our relationship when we rode the Clipper speedboat from the docks of Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia. We spent the entire weekend in the Empress Hotel, a stately building that almost looked like a low, grounded castle. The thin walls surprised us. Still, we acted as if we were one skin, until pressure of bone found fragrant depths, muscles expanding and contracting, contracting and expanding. Our bodies lit by votive candles we packed for the trip.

When we did leave the room we indulged more. Roger’s Chocolate Victoria Creams of maple nut, caramel, vanilla, coconut. Each night we went to the same Mediterranean restaurant where belly dancers performed. We sat in our booth eating gyro and falafel sandwiches, juice dripping down your hands and tzatziki down mine. We finished with dessert wine, baklava, admiring the dancers as they moved around us and then shimmied their way to other tables.

I suppose during those afternoons of daydreaming my longing functioned as some sort of blocking. It kept me from absorbing my role as your wife. Wishing for those years barricaded me. Yearning for what used to be, but was no more.


When you worked and I stayed home with our son, you started each day with a stomp of your feet on the carpeted floor. You’d moan, stand, stretch, and rub your left thigh.

“It still hurts,” you announced.

We examined your leg and your thigh held a huge bruise—deep violet, nearly black. Even in the dark of morning, the bruise got my attention.

I rolled over, continued to study it. I asked where you’d gotten it. But you didn’t know. You thought you must have bumped into something in the night. I studied the path from your side of the bed to the bathroom, but saw only wide-open space. You slept on the side of the bed right next to the bathroom. And the carpet was so thick, almost like a cushion.

After thinking about the bruise during the day, that evening I told you to go see a doctor.

“I can’t. I have to work. It’s what those of us who aren’t home all day do. You know, to keep a roof over our heads,” you replied.

You knew as soon as you said it, that was my bruise. The fact I stayed home with our son and no longer earned money.

“I’ll research it,” I said. But then I glared, stopped studying you.

You climbed our rental’s stairs when you arrived home each night, but you huffed and you puffed all the way up the single flight to the main floor where you then collapsed on our couch.

“Call a doctor,” I said. “Plus, you’re pale. You don’t look like you.”

“I cannot do that,” he said. You spaced out the words as if I were slow and needed a delayed pace. “I am not a stay-at-home mother. I do not have all day to do whatever I want to do.”

We stared at one another. Then you closed your eyes, sunk into the couch.

I could have kept fighting, could have insisted. I could have made the appointment. I could have told you, ‘This is when I’ll pick you up tomorrow, so that a medical professional can examine your skin, your lungs, your thigh.’ But I still believed we existed as independent selves. It was your body, your decision.

Instead, I said, “Fine. Walk through the world as some tech worker ghost.”     God. I actually used those words, didn’t I?


We woke arguing after this. I considered that I’d actually married a jerk.

On Saturdays I began to fight for time. You remember. It’s why you called me selfish. But days at home with a toddler accented by nights with a barking husband in a string of new places—following all your jobs—made me feel like I’d lost my wits, all ability to function, like I didn’t want to return to our rented townhouse after an afternoon at the park with my son. I wanted to drive us from the park and go anywhere in the world, but home. I wanted to find a new place. That’s not right, is it? No. I wanted to find a new life.


So, yes, that fateful day we fought. I didn’t back down.

“It’s your turn to take him to the park. Just give me two hours. That’s all I need to feel human again,” I said.

I didn’t tell you I’d made an appointment for a massage after receiving a coupon in the mail. How I longed for touch. Yes. I made an appointment. Exactly what I should have done for you.

You told me that as long as I didn’t work a paid job that our son was my job. You told me you wouldn’t take my job on the weekend. You wouldn’t take the only thing I was doing with my life. You wouldn’t take him to the park.

You must know I loathed you by then.

It’s why I handed you the Winnie the Pooh diaper bag and told you to go, just go, go and be gone. I wanted you out of my sight.


When you called right after leaving, I almost didn’t answer. I packed my own bag with a notebook and a book called The Palace and the Snow Queen, about Kiruna, Sweden and the construction of the Ice Hotel. It was a place I’d never go. But I wanted to read it after my massage. Ever since I had our son I only ever wanted to read travel memoir. Did you notice that?

When I saw your name on my phone, I didn’t want to go through the whole thing again. But I answered anyway. That’s when I heard your jagged breath. Your soft voice that said, “Call 911.” You paused. You tried to steal more breaths.

“I’m on the sidewalk and I can’t get up,” you said.

I ran to the window and saw your legs on the ground. Our not-yet-preschooler sensing freedom, used his own legs to run up the sidewalk. I ran down the stairs, across the street, and to you. Then I ran after our son. Someone else had already called 911. We returned to you. We heard sirens. We watched as people gathered. We heard the EMTs whistle after they measured your oxygen.

Your eyes were still closed, like you were on a lawn in someone’s backyard for a picnic and had decided to take a nap. This made our son lie next to you, flat on his back, too, on the patch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb of the street.

The Emergency Room doctor gave us the diagnosis: Pulmonary Embolism.

Embolism. An obstruction. A ballooning of an artery connected to your pulmonary system. This big, bulbous balloon kept breaking off, inside your leg, and your system carried it, efficiently, quickly, straight to your lungs. And yes, all those clots came from the place I’d loved so much: your thigh.

The clot explained the black bruise. So many clots broke off there that they turned your skin black. They moved fast once in your blood stream, until they got stuck in the fibrous material of your lungs. Your lungs acted liked a net. Until so many stuck in your lungs they obstructed the oxygen flow.

Doctors ran tests and found you had no genetic predisposition. It was all due to the way you sat at work. Your legs were too big for the desk, so you bent them and this bend of your left leg, which was more dramatic to avoid the hanging drawer on the desk’s left side, positioned for too long, caused all those clots to form.

And those clots very nearly ended your life.


In that hospital, we visited death. You told me that earlier when you were lying on the ground outside you’d seen the great white light. Doctors interrupted our conversation to tell us there might be more. They had to run scans of your heart, your brain. The pile of clots had gotten so massive, newer clots glided right over the pile, and may have traveled to the heart and head. The doctor couldn’t yet predict what she didn’t yet know, but if they clotted your heart you could be in serious trouble. The woman who delivered the news stared at what must have been our blank faces.

She said, “You know, like the journalist David Bloom. It’s what killed him. It wasn’t a heart attack. Clots just like yours traveled to his heart.”

I had the ring on my left ring finger, my name on your insurance card, and appeared as the emergency contact on your paperwork. This meant that they delivered the news to me as much as they did to you. As if we were the same entity. I stepped forward when anyone with a long white coat entered the room. I answered questions. When I didn’t have answers, I made phone calls to your people—your mother and father, your brother, and then your sister.


What bothered me most during your hospital stay was the way they left your hospital gown open at your neck. You were strapped to machines and wore the oxygen mask, so you barely moved. They did it to give access to all the stethoscopes that would visit through the day. Your gown kept falling, flapping open to expose your shoulder. I didn’t like seeing you exposed at the shoulder. In any other situation, you would never expose your shoulder.

As you lay in that hospital bed, looking up at me, thanking me for everything I did, my heart filled again. From this vantage, too, I saw that our son had your exact eyes—almond shaped and deep royal blue.

After a week’s stay we took you home, though you almost didn’t want to go.

“What if it happens again? At least here they know what to do,” you said.

Every morning you still woke, stood, and rubbed your thigh. Though now, you pulled your hand away as soon as you made contact, as if you’d touched something so hot that it burned.

I’d hoped that after the diagnosis and treatment you’d return to being the guy who loved to connect, had a childlike optimism in trying new things, and that you’d want to spend time with me again. But that didn’t happen. If anything you got angrier and raged more about the inequality between us. You even kept using the phrase “female privilege” when you ranted. You wanted me back in the cubicle. You even threatened to quit your job just to see what I would do.

Then the day came when you couldn’t control yourself. At first you boxed the air. You read that human beings should stand more while working, so you set up our preschool son’s table from Ikea, azure plastic blue—ontop of our round oak dining table. When you worked from home that was where you stood.

You began turning from your computer and punching the air. Then you moved close to me as I stood in the kitchen, your face less than a foot from mine, and you began boxing the air on either side of me. Finally came the nights when you woke and began hitting our bed. Soon, hitting the bed wasn’t enough, so you punched the pillow where I slept. I looked up and saw your fist coming down at me, felt it land near my ear. That’s when I moved into the third bedroom. I lay awake at night figuring out our next move, until my mind shifted to consider what my next move would be with just our son. 

Did the ranting and raging start as a result of the clots? Or did the clots cause the rants to spiral? In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter. Once the ranting entered, it didn’t leave. And the ranting was what changed us.

We watched as the bruise lightened. It took so long. But eventually that bruise did leave your thigh. It turned yellow and then the color of your skin. The emboli as a unit disappeared thanks to all those shots of Coumadin you injected sitting on our bed watching The Lord of the Rings after dinner. They went away—of course they did—but their trail remained.


Finally, we returned to Seattle from Annapolis where we had met and fell in love, believing this might help. But you were still so angry. You woke me from sleep, yelling about money. Yelling about the futility of work. Yelling that I didn’t contribute enough. You threw your anger everywhere—at me, talking about your former bosses, even into a new exercise obsession.

I watched your body bloom. Though I can’t use that word without thinking about David Bloom. Every time I hear the word, I pause. But bloom is what best describes your body when we returned and you researched and created your own rigorous routine of fitness bodybuilding. Your body began to strain the buttons on your shirts. You had to buy new pants that would accommodate your muscular frame.  

I heard you wake at 4:30 am and head for the gym. I saw your body, but only your clothed back. And that was enough. I didn’t look for more. Even if the spark between us had withered, I’d always hold the history. And this made me root for you. It made me cheer for you to find your salvation in exercise. If that’s what it would take, then great. Go. Go, find your bliss.

Sometimes at night, even after we argued, you’d show off your muscles with a flex and a grunt, almost like some cartoon character. And, sure, it lightened the mood.

As the new you formed, I knew in the base of my gut that someone else would soon do the stroking, experimenting, embracing until she found just the right pressure for all those expanding muscles. You carved a new body. A body that had almost nothing to do with mine. You didn’t use your muscles to touch, caress, knead any of my tense muscles. You didn’t use them to clean dishes in the kitchen that constantly piled with our half-size dishwasher and sink that barely drained. You still didn’t use them to take our son to the playground, or to help him learn to ride a bike. No, all those things were still left to me.


Now your muscles bulge. They are an entity all their own. Wild, yet contained. Do you still exhale a ‘Whew’ and push your lover’s hands away? Or maybe they’re able to accept more? Maybe now you lie in a new bed completely tranquil. After so much working out, are you able to accept her touch, suggestions, massage oils, even directives? Perhaps she desires to accept the word wife, comforted by its soft opening, hard, firm, authoritative edges, and that long “I” in the middle, that all-encompassing vowel I never fully claimed.

As I began my journey of going, of striking out on my own, separating from you, you bloomed faster and harder. Your body is what you built. Nights now, I fall into deep sleep. I luxuriate in independent sleep. If I wake, it’s only from the sound of my son’s gentle voice. Though sometimes I do hear my own voice telling me to continue on my path one step at a time. Now I have vivid dreams, the kind that can only be had during a full night’s sleep. And in this way, I build myself, too.

Jennifer Phipps is a writer who lives in Seattle, Washington. She has been published in the Baltimore Sun, Seattle Times, and ParentMap Magazine.

Sean Johnson was born in Houston, Texas where she attended University of Houston. There she majored in Education and minored in Art. Though she has always been a writer, her interest in visual arts began in 2014.  Since that time she has been a featured painter, exhibition artist, and vendor at Block Market, Black Girl Excellence, Survivor Seminar, Midtown Arts Center, and a host of other events.  Sean has had two art exhibitions to date, and her work has been published in The Hunger, Boston Accent Lit, Homology Lit, Les Femmes Folles, unstamatic, and Street Light Press. You can find more of her work on her website.

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