“The Split” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

When Emma moved to Oregon with her girlfriend she left part of herself behind. Her parents inhabited a two-story on eight acres in Texas where Emma had lived for the whole of her life. Oregon was an adventure. After all, she couldn’t rely on family forever. Here was a chance at a new family, built from the ground up. Emma seized it. But when she and Lin arrived at the rented house in Oregon, Emma realized she was missing half her body.

The hard part was getting out of the U-Haul with one arm and one leg. Lin hoisted Emma down and let Emma lean on her as they hobbled through the front door. She leaned Emma against the wall and carried in a chair from the truck.

“Thanks,” Emma said. “Guess I found a way out of unpacking.”

Neither was sure how they’d gone so long without realizing that Emma was missing a half. They’d been in the U-Haul for three days straight, stopping along the way at roadside rest stops and gas stations, but Emma, who with each mile had grown more lethargic, hadn’t once left the truck. Since Lin stocked up on Red Bull and caffeine pills, she hadn’t thought of relinquishing the wheel to Emma.

At the house, however, they were caught by the delicacy of the situation. With half a body, Emma lacked the strength she’d possessed before. She wasn’t able to lift her suitcase, let alone help lug the couch indoors. The neighbor boys offered to help, for a fee.

“What happened to her?” they asked when they saw Emma, half her head in her one hand.

“I’m sick,” she said with half her lips.

With the furniture inside, the house looked more like home. From her chair Emma surveyed their belongings: a couch, four of Lin’s metal sculptures, their dining table and four wood chairs, boxes upon boxes of dishes and appliances, all marked with Sharpie: FRAGILE. Lin’s belongings looked strange mixed with her own.

Lin took the truck back and returned with a cane from a local gas station: black wood, ornamented at the top with a grinning lion’s head.

“I thought it would help you adjust,” Lin said as she helped Emma hobble from room to room, showing her the places they would hang Emma’s artwork and the corners in which they might place Lin’s sculptures. Over the years Emma had spent most of her money on friends’ art: bright red and blue abstracts, a portrait of a fairy poised to disappear into the labial wound of a tree trunk. Now she would hang them on new walls.

Lin led Emma to the bedroom, where the mattress lay on the floor. They sat on its edge. Lin pressed her hand to Emma’s cheek and looked into her one blue eye. “You’ll learn to love it,” Lin said, “as much as I love you.”

Lin kissed her, half her lips pressed against Emma’s, half against air.

*     *     *

The half of Emma left at her parents’ was the half that bled. As the truck journeyed north, Emma’s other half appeared piece by piece in the driveway, first a splotch of skin like a puddle of water the shape of half a body, then an arm rising up from the concrete, a leg, a torso, until one morning Emma’s mom found Emma’s other half curled in a ball on the concrete. Emma’s other half forced herself to stand, unfolding her body as if it were a wrinkled sweater. She felt as though she’d been ripped at the seams. She pressed her fingers into her side and felt stringy tissue and loose skin. Her hand was bloody when she pulled it away. In ten minutes a thin film of flesh spread over the wounds.

Her mom cupped her hand around Emma’s other half’s shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll be back one of these days.”

Emma’s other half shrugged. “I don’t care.”

No one, not even Emma’s older sister, who was preoccupied with the presence of a baby in her belly, was fooled.

Emma’s other half shivered in her childhood bed, and the things that used to bring her comfort—taking a bath, eating a whole batch of chocolate cookies in one go, even her friend Mike’s art show—no longer made her happy. Her melancholy wasn’t due to the absence of half her body, not literally; it was the hole in her bones, as though she would never be the same again. It was also the absence of Lin. She’d grown used to Lin’s smell, oily and old as Lin’s thrift store jacket. Without that smell in her blanket she could not sleep.

Her family tried to cheer her up. She wished for their sake it would work. Her mom bought old movies for her to watch, comedies, humor helps the healing process, and her dad tried to interest her in jigsaw puzzles and thick black beer after dinner. Her sister invited her to shop for baby clothes, and though seeing her sister fondle the pastel fabrics made Emma’s other half hopeful for the future, it didn’t take her mind away from the thought of Lin’s hands buried in Emma’s hair.

One night Emma’s father took her aside after dinner.

“If you need to go, go. We’ll understand,” he said.

Emma’s other half shook her head. “I want to stay.”

For she knew that for all her missing Lin, leaving wouldn’t help. Sure, having Lin around made her family, their bickering and pestering, bearable, but the opposite was also true. Without her family Emma would have no reprieve from the intensity of her love for Lin. Because while her love for her family was the kind of love that heals and understands, her love for Lin was so hectic she sometimes feared it would scald what was left of her skin.

*     *     *

Three thousand miles away Emma coped better with the loss. She wasn’t immune to feeling like less of a person, but she faked it. She didn’t, after all, want Lin to feel as though she had ruined her life when it had been Emma’s decision to come. Lin had done an excellent job with the house. Their things, so many things, filled each cranny of each room, overflowed from the cabinets and the closets. Tapestries served as curtains, pinned to the wall with pushpins, and all they wanted for were cleaning supplies.

Lin had a shop out back for sculpting paraphernalia, her posters of classic love sculptures pinned to the walls: Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, Rodin’s The Kiss. It held her tools: the soldering iron for piecing together her metal birds and bees, her welder for the bigger pieces. She’d moved to teach at the university, a worthy job for a sculptor as inexperienced with the world of academia as she. When Emma imagined Lin before a classroom of eager students, she was proud to be hers.

At home, Emma gardened. She’d grown used to getting around with the help of the cane and discovered that she loved nothing more than digging in the wet dirt as the constant drizzle wet her hair. At first the rain bugged her, but she soon realized that without the rain the garden would not be as green, the evergreens which lined every street would not be as thick and tall, like heavy green giants. This was the trees’ territory; Emma was happy to share it.

Eventually there were no more rose bushes to prune, no more blackberries in the alley to thin, no more winter flowers to plant. Emma stood in Lin’s workshop, watching her attach the stem of a recycled metal dandelion with her welding torch. A break in the flame allowed her to clear her throat. Lin turned and lifted the shield of her mask. “You make me nervous standing there. Why don’t you look for a job?” she said.

“Who would hire me?”

“There’s something out there for everyone.”

Emma searched the personals until she found a job at a chocolate raisin factory. Emma’s job was to pull three levers four times a day, once in the morning, once at lunch, once after lunch, and once in the evening. If there was ever an emergency, the manager told her, she would be the most integral part of the team.

The first two levers were black and powered the line and the mechanical dealimabobs that poured the chocolate. The third lever was yellow, the paint chipped. No one knew what it powered.

“No one’s known since the factory changed hands, back in the ‘70’s,” the manager told Emma with a shrug. “Just pull it.”

While waiting to pull the levers, Emma tried to link up with her other half. She closed her eye tight until she felt her lid strain. She concentrated until her head pounded and sent her other half all the words she wanted to tell herself. Don’t forget about me. I miss you. Don’t forget about her. I miss you. I hope you’re happy where you are.

She never got a reply.

*     *     *

Emma’s family received the telepathic messages from Emma and her lever through their home telephone, a string of words with no breath. When they tried to respond to the ramble, their response went ignored, the phone clicked, the connection ended. They wrote the messages on a pad. Emma’s other half ignored them.

Emma’s mother and sister called Emma to check up on occasion but never talked for long; they were busy, and talking to Emma made them sad. Emma and her father talked every week, always in private. Her father knew Emma’s other half would feel threatened. Even the name spoken sent her into a sulk, no matter which half it was spoken about. Emma and her dad talked about the factory and the weather, safe subjects that would not remind them they were far apart. He told Emma that her other half was unhappy. Emma tried to seem ambivalent. If her other half wouldn’t respond to the messages Emma’s father swore he passed on, Emma couldn’t be expected to care.

Emma’s father was an inventor who had achieved success from a cat collar that squirted water when the cat jumped on the counters. Unbeknownst to Emma, his most successful invention was a lever that would transmit the emotional energy of the environment in which it was placed back to company headquarters. The raisin factory’s headquarters had long ago closed, so its data fed back into her father’s lab. He could tell from the smell of the data that Emma was on the other side.

He had recently finished another invention: an artificial system of limbs that would allow Emma’s other half to walk without assistance. The metal wrapped around her neck and hips, and the metal arm and leg, which stored the energy exerted from her real limbs, were thick and sturdy enough to allow her to run and swim, which was good because the summer was hotter than it had ever been before. She finally gained the nerve to see her friends again. They touched the cool metal of her father’s new invention and envied her robot parts.

“You’re like the Terminator,” Mike said.

Her family noticed a change right away. When her mother suggested Emma work with one of the family’s friends, she agreed. The woman was a local jewelry maker, and Emma’s other half’s new arm allowed her to string beads at an alarming rate, and to knot the knots tighter than any human hand.

After a while she created her own designs. She paid no rent to her parents, and every penny earned went back to her beads. She strung bracelets with beads that clanked against one another and made songs of glass. Eventually she made enough to sell some, but she had no one to sell them to save the jewelry maker, who bought them at 10 percent above cost and displayed them as part of her own collection. Emma had all the business savvy; she was the one who would have been able to entice others into buying the bracelets.

“Do you miss her?” Emma’s mom asked one night after dinner over her famous ice-cream brownie sundaes. Beside Emma’s other half, a bracelet lay half-finished: E-M-M, read the letter beads.

Emma’s other half didn’t answer.

“I do,” said her sister. “I wish I knew she’d come home eventually, but what if she doesn’t?”

“She will.” Emma’s dad scooped fudge into his mouth. It dribbled down his chin. He didn’t wipe it away. “Don’t you worry.”

That night Emma’s other half drank down two icy glasses of whiskey. She filled the glass again. The ice melted and turned the drink lentil brown. She sat on the first step of her parents’ porch and looked up at the stars, clear as glass. Most of her parents’ live oaks were dead of rot. Their bare branches reached out for Emma’s other half’s hand. If they hadn’t been so far away she would have taken their handshake or let them lift her onto them with their scratchy grip and bring her as close to the stars as she would ever be. She had always been afraid of climbing trees.

*     *     *

In Oregon Emma had trees to climb aplenty and soon found a new love of climbing the apple tree in her backyard to eat the apples, letting the naked cores fall to the ground. She would eat until she’d ruined her dinner. Lin would scold her, joking, but really Lin loved that she had found niches for herself in the glum of rain.

At the school, Lin made friends with whom she shared drinks after work. Her sculptures grew more intricate and skilled. But at night when she came home and Emma was weeding or pruning the apple tree from the inside out with her long-handed scissors, Lin cried. The first time Emma heard Lin’s hiccup sobs she was fascinated by the ache in her own stomach. It was one of these nights beside Lin that Emma realized she hadn’t cried since she left her other half behind. In fact she hadn’t felt one surge of sadness. She had looked on the trees and felt joy, she surely had felt a brutal ambivalence, but pain had disappeared.

Confused, fascinated by this too, as she was fascinated by so much these days, Emma tried to hurt herself. She fell from the tree. Her body cracked when she landed, but when she woke from the blackout on the couch, nothing was broken, nothing twisted, and Lin had been by her side the whole time. She told Lin she didn’t love her; when Lin’s quivering expression became too much Emma pulled her close and admitted it was a lie.

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t,” Emma said. “So I could go home to my family.”

She found it odd she could see and experience the pain in her girlfriend’s eyes but not her own body. Suddenly her skin felt foreign to her, and the numbness spread from her brain to her foot. At work she didn’t pull the yellow lever. Nothing happened. No one noticed.

*     *     *

Pain wasn’t hard to come by for Emma’s other half. While the metal half made life easier, it also made her real half sore. Every step sent a shock up her spine, a needle into her muscles. Her father told her she would get used to it. She did not tell him about the bruises that had appeared, after Emma’s fall from the tree, down her body like purple birthmarks. She cursed Emma for leaving, and for not realizing that her pain affected them both; at times she thought she hated that half of her guts. Other times she wished she could trade places.

When she felt the resentment boil she went to bars. She met women, and men, who seemed interesting, interested. They would run their hands down her metal arms, cool to the touch; they found her unsettling and exotic. She always mentioned Lin. They weren’t turned away. Once Emma’s other half said Lin’s name, however, she wanted nothing more than to go home alone.

She spent most of her time with her family. Her sister had her baby. The labor was quick, and once the cord was cut, the blood cleaned away, Emma’s other half held her nephew. As she looked down at the boy she couldn’t believe her luck. Here she was, able to share this moment with her sister. The baby a full person, both his halves intact.

But the disappointment of Emma not being there for her nephew’s birth soon overtook the delight of him. The pain of walking masked the joy of it. The only solace was her bracelets, the one for Emma still unfinished, and her family, who, without Emma, even in the presence of a new life, seemed half as lively, half as loved.

*     *     *

Lin had also been to bars in secret. This was one of the reasons she cried. She’d met a woman there one night, though they’d only gone as far as the parking lot before Lin lost it and left without her. It was far enough. She’d known something was missing since the day Emma left the truck less of a woman; in the parking lot, Lin realized that she needed that missing piece. Because Emma wasn’t Emma without her fear of trees. Emma wasn’t Emma without her fits of sadness, and Emma wasn’t Emma without her kooky father, her silent mother, her over-determined sister. She wasn’t Emma without the love for cheap liquor. She wasn’t Emma without her other half.

There were the physical implications of her condition to consider as well. She had one breast, the one without the single freckle at the nipple. She had half a posterior, and though her body had improvised in terms of the less savory aspects of bodily functions, half a posterior didn’t elicit the same sexual response in Lin. And she only had half a vagina, which gave her less pleasurable skin, only half a clitoris, and less room for error.

Emma didn’t know why Lin cried. She could feel the absence of her other half like a ghost limb, but she never thought that Lin could miss the qualities in herself she had always wished she could leave behind.

Without her knowledge, Lin called Emma’s other half.

“I’ve missed you,” she said.

At first Emma’s other half didn’t speak.

“Say my name,” Lin said.

“Lin,” Emma’s other half said. “It’s been fucking hard without you.”

They talked every day. Lin called her on breaks and on her way home from work. They whispered like lovers, scared of being overheard.

*     *     *

Emma’s other half caught her father during one of his own calls to Emma.

“Who are you talking to?” she asked.

“You.” Her father smiled. Then, seeing the anger on his daughter’s face, he hung up. “What’s the matter?”

“How could you?”

Calling Emma was more difficult after that; Emma’s other half’s eye remained watchful. Though she carefully monitored her family’s phone usage, she continued to carry out her own telephone affair with Lin. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to do this,” she often said. How Lin had missed the melodrama. No, not missed, but noticed the absence of with a wash of nausea; things would never be the same, and Lin’s life with Emma was inexplicably altered, forever, without her permission.

Her Emma at home didn’t find out on her own. She never snooped, never tried to pry under Lin’s skin. Not like her other half, who demanded the messy details of Lin’s every move. Emma didn’t notice that Lin had stopped crying, that her phone bill had risen. Instead Lin told Emma what was happening, an attempt to rattle her. “I’ve been talking to your other half.”

“Oh?” Emma was chopping a carrot but didn’t falter. “How is she?”

“She misses me. Us. Your sister had her baby.”

Emma stopped. “I leave messages. She doesn’t answer.”

“You do? She doesn’t?”

Emma shook her head. “My sister had her baby?” She frowned. “Why didn’t they call me?”

Lin shrugged, unsure of what to say. Emma continued chopping. Lin left the room without a word. Half an hour later she returned with two sheets of paper. “We’re going home for Thanksgiving.”

*      *     *

Without her family telling her, Emma’s other half knew they were on their way. She felt the tug of her skin tighten as the plane crept closer, and though Emma in the air did not feel a popping in her ears, Emma’s other half had to chew a whole pack of gum to rid herself of the pressure. For an hour during their layover in Denver, Emma’s other half itched so badly she had to take a hot bath in the hopes that it would stop. It didn’t stop. Not even when they’d arrived.

The house looked different to Emma. The smell was foreign but familiar, her parents’ carpet mixed with the cat hair, the pungent garlic from her mother’s cooking, the lemon and vinegar of the kitchen counter. The rooms looked larger than she remembered, the brown of the walls lighter, her sister fatter, her parents older. She’d missed so much.

Her sister hugged her close as she could. “Your nephew,” she said, pushing the child into Emma’s arm. Emma looked down into the baby’s face and felt as though she knew him already, a déjà vu. But in the pit of her stomach lay an emptiness she easily found the name for: regret. Because she hadn’t, in fact, met him before, hadn’t been there for his birth, and would never have the opportunity to remedy that mistake.

Emma’s other half ignored Emma at first, jealous of the attention. Her skin still itched, but she’d grown used to it. After dinner, which she took in her bedroom, and after most everyone had gone to bed, Emma’s other half emerged. She found Emma and Lin on the couch with their father, and she stood for a while silent in the doorway. They were talking about Oregon, about the twin rivers that ran through their city, about the pristine coast with water so cold you turned blue if you touched it. There was a spot by the river, Emma said, where she sometimes went to think after work. The width of the river made her forget she was only halfway complete.

They all knew Emma’s other half was there before she spoke. “I’ve dreamt of that.”

Emma looked at Emma. Emma’s other half approached and slid into the folds of the couch. With her other half, it was easier for her to talk openly. Before long the room emptied around Emma and Emma.

“How do you do it?” Emma asked. “Live away from the ones you love?”

“How do you?”

“Carefully,” they said.

*     *     *

In the night they slept with Lin between them. They felt like she was inside of them, as much part of their body as each other. In the morning they were woken by the smell of turkey, buttery and rich, of peach cobbler baking in the oven. At dinner Emma and Emma shared one plate but piled it twice as high. Emma’s other half showed Emma her bracelets. She promised to finish the one for her.

Emma knew then that they could never again be one. The wounds in Emma’s other half’s sides had sealed. Already they had grown without the other, had learned to walk without the help of others. Already they had found new loves they would not bear to part with: beads and trees and rain. With Thanksgiving Emma had been lucky to have the money and the time to come home. As in the case of her nephew’s birth, she wouldn’t always be so lucky; not every big event would wait for her. Things would change, people would die without warning, and Emma wouldn’t be there for all of it.

But part of her would. Part of her needed to be, or else she would never forgive herself all the missed memories she would suffer.

*     *     *

Before Emma and Lin left, Emma’s father led her into his chaotic laboratory, experiments abandoned and escaped, shattered glass glinting on the counters, cat posters on all the walls, and in the corner of the room, under a box of glass, a yellow lever. He told Emma to place her hand on it. The metal was cold and smelled like copper. She could feel the emptiness of the room distant on the other side; the factory was on holiday.

“I’ve made some changes, made it so it goes both ways. Every day you can pull it, and every day Emma will wait here until you do. You’ll be able to communicate this way, like you were side by side.”

*     *      *

Emma’s other half stayed behind when they drove her to the airport. She wasn’t good with goodbyes.

On the plane Emma couldn’t wait to get back. She missed her garden; she knew weeds would have choked some of the flowers, and the roses would be stunted with neglect. She thought about her place by the river, how the rocks had been made smooth by the current, how the landscape was always changing. How it would keep changing. How one day she might not recognize it. Until that day, she could only be happy to be home.

Bonnie Jo StufflebeamBonnie Jo Stufflebeam may or may not have split in two when she lived in Eugene, Oregon, for two years. Her fiction has appeared in magazines such as The Toast, PRISM International, Clarkesworld, and Hobart. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the USM’s Stonecoast program and curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth, Texas. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or at www.bonniejostufflebeam.com. She is represented by Ann Collette at Rees Literary for her first novel about a mother, a daughter, and a siren.


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