Equivalent Exchange

Vanessa arrived home just after 8 o'clock. Delays on the MTA again. Switching problems or trash fires or both. They never explained and Vanessa never asked. She had enough of her own problems.

Like Mom. Poor Mom, who finally got out from under Dad's drunken rule just for the doctor to tell her she had cancer. Fourth stage. "Could be two months," she'd said. "Could be two years. With treatment, of course."

Of course. Vanessa took Mom in to her small Flatbush apartment. Cooked for her and cleaned her up and took her on the four hour subway round-trip to get chemo. She dropped out of the art program at Pratt, went back to the dismal accounting world to pay for the ever rising medical bills. She was Mom's mom and it didn't do any good – she lost weight, lost her hair, grew sicker and grayer every day.

But still she hung on. They hung on together for eighteen long months...

Mom sat wrapped in an afghan on the couch, Vanessa's old wool stocking cap covering the few remaining hairs. She greeted Vanessa with the usual coughing fit. A good two minutes of wet, ugly hacking before she could finally croak out, "Hi, sweetie. You have a good day?"

"Oh, you know," Vanessa always said in response. Not much to tell after a day spent in a cubicle sifting corporate numbers. Not even her own cubicle, just whichever blank spot happened to be available. They called it "hoteling" and dynamic and other excuses but as long as it paid the bills Vanessa told herself she didn't mind. "How are you?"

"Oh, well –" Mom tried to say before the next coughing fit started.

"It's okay," Vanessa said. "I'll make some tea. It'll be okay..."

As Mom drank the tea, Vanessa asked, "Do you think you can eat something?"

Mom nodded. Hesitantly. "I think so. I can try... Do we have any more of that pudding?"

"You need more than pudding, Mom," Vanessa said, the exhaustion straining her voice.

"I know, honey," Mom said meekly. "But I just can't right now."

Vanessa brought Mom the pudding and made a grilled cheese sandwich for herself. She would have like something more substantial – for both of them – but between the rent and the gas and the chemo they barely scraped by. At best, they could go out to a diner for breakfast once a month. If Mom had the appetite.
They put on the TV while they ate their dinner. Mom made it through half her cup of pudding before setting it down on the cluttered coffee table with a weary sigh. "It's okay," Vanessa assured her while she coughed some more and dozed off. Vanessa laid another blanket on her before finishing her own dinner and leaving the few dishes in the sink.

She finally had the time she needed. But she had to work fast.

Vanessa quietly took slipped out of the little apartment and took the stairs back down. All the way down, through the moldering old lobby and through the door to the basement. Further down, where none of the elevators ever reached. Through a pre-war iron door in the basement, its hinges always sounding like an old woman crying in pain.

She'd found the room years ago. Back before Mom's cancer and Dad's craziness, back when she'd just started at Pratt. A studio – her very own studio, left behind by some bohemian artists' collective who'd claimed the space a whole generation before. Though it had been old then, too. Not just pre-war but pre-century, the stark concrete blocks of the walls the wrong color, the wrong seems with the old iron door and the ceiling with its lone bright bulb. The walls formed seven corners, the better to accommodate the work tables and easels – even a kiln – left behind by the previous owners. No, residents. No one could own this, Vanessa knew when she'd first stumbled in. Only occupy the space. For a time. And how the kiln had occupied her time.

Back when she and Mom still had a future, Vanessa planned to be a sculptor. A long shot, even in the long shot world of the fine arts, but she'd really been on her way. Her professors at Pratt couldn't compliment her enough, promised gallery showings and fellowships – and then Mom's cancer happened. And Vanessa shelved her dreams along with her sculptures. Gladly, so she told herself, because Mom needed her.

She still sculpted though. Thanks to her own studio, her own kiln. Without them, she wouldn't have the little collection arranged on the work tables. And two months might not have stretched to eighteen.
She selected a recent piece. Abstract but elegant. Unpainted – she'd long since stopped adorning her sculptures in any way, the better to speed up production – but still catching the stark light from the single ceiling bulb at a sublime angle. She set in the center of the studio, the exact center of those seven corners, and allowed herself a moment to admire her own work. Then she returned to the work table to get the sledgehammer.

Vanessa felt that sinking sensation again as she hefted the sledgehammer and loomed over her sculpture. That feeling she'd had the first time, an errant venting where all her dreams were dying just as surely as Mom. And beneath the anguish and bitterness, a great sinking. An impossible weight dragging all things downward. Needful, insatiable, like gravity with malicious intent. Swinging the sledgehammer with well-practiced form, she split her sculpture into three crooked shards and a puff of debris. She continued swinging until she'd pulverized the very last speck of her art, until that grasping and dragging sensation abated. Sated. She did the work faster than those first two months since she didn't cry anymore.

The next morning, Vanessa awoke to Mom bustling around the apartment. Fresh from the shower and more energetic than she'd been in weeks. "Why don't we go out for pancakes?" she suggested as she folded up her blankets from last night. "I haven't had pancakes in so long."

Vanessa had bought nineteen months now. Twenty if they were lucky. As always, she tried real hard not to think about what might change past that two year mark. "Sure thing. I'm starved."

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