December 15, 2013 by The Citron Review
by Katie Cortese
Jim’s computer has a program that can age any face, or propel it back into youth. When she was first born, he aged Andrea’s any-baby features to a teen who looks part fairy—some narrow-boned nymph we joked would eat nothing but pollen, drink nothing but sparkling dew.
When we brought her home from the hospital, Jim framed the would-be portrait, hanging it on the nursery wall next to a close-up from hours after birth. “So like you,” he’d said. Then I was still happy to believe it. We were giddy with parenthood, thinking only of the future.
She is finally eating now, latching on with papery lips, trying so hard to suck that cords stand out between the blue veins in her neck. Before Andrea, I’d never known a skinny baby. I’d never known bones could snap beneath fingers only trying to caress.
The psychologist assigned to our case says no amount of bargaining can change the blueprint of her cells. No doctor, no drug can repair her. When we first got the diagnosis, I dug out my high school bio text. The cell chapter was covered with hearts containing the initials of boys whose names I no longer remember. The powerhouse of the cell, that’s how the book defined mitochondria. But in Andrea’s body, all her lights are at a constant flicker, and soon will go out for good.
Jim is banging in the cupboards now, home from work and hungry. In a moment, he will boil spaghetti and eat it plain, in front of the computer. His uncle died of Parkinson’s and his father is early-stage Alzheimer’s. I count the defects in his line like beads on my grandmother’s rosary. He ticks mine off on his fingers: my sister’s breast cancer, which is sometimes genetic, and the heart attack that felled my aunt. Anyone can carry the gene for mitochondrial ailments, we have learned. Anyone at all. Even without any symptoms. The psychologist reminds us blame is counterproductive. She reminds us what’s done is done.
Tonight, when our daughter is sleeping, we’ll plug her face into his computer again. Jim will cup the cool, plastic egg of the mouse, and bring up a portrait of Andrea as a curled-up little comma in the crook of my arm. “Well?” he’ll say, and wait.
“Terrible twos,” I’ll say, and we’ll marvel as two front teeth, miniature tombstones, spring from her gums like a magic trick. Then, “Kindergarten,” and we’ll watch her hair darken to jet—the narrow face that fills the screen the most beautiful thing I’ve seen. “Thirty-two,” I’ll whisper, and with one double-click she’ll smirk at us with thin, familiar lips, eyes dark and framed by a fine net of crow’s feet, hair inky, cheekbones high enough to cast shadows, nose sloped and neat and spare.
“So like you,” he’ll say, while the screen hums its tuneless song between us.
Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Sport Literate, PANK, Crab Orchard Review, Carve Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.
Such a tragic story but written with such beautifully poignant prose.