A Decline in Natural Numbers

Kristen Arnett

5.

Working backward from the ends, Brianna rolls her hair in a twist without looking at a mirror. It takes one long pin to pierce it, stabbing down until the rubber tip scrapes against her scalp. In the past, it was always done without much thought. Her mind had focused on what came after: queuing the music, relaxing her limbs into pretzels shapes on the floor, the feel of the slick wood under her fingertips. Now when she twists the knot, the hair pulls loose, slippery like dishwater. Her hands don’t remember how to shape it. Instead they crawl slowly, a foreignness that makes the roots of her hair itch. Brianna looks at her reflection over the barre to see where the hairline shows crooked. Too much on the right side means she has to shift everything over to the left, like a fifty-year-old man working at his comb over. She gets a headache from yanking at her hair, some of it coming out in her hands when she gets frustrated and pulls too hard. It’s not like before, where pain at practice meant muscle memory and the ache was a familiar outcome of hard work.

Pain means something different now. Brianna stumbles over simple movements she’d learned in primary when her limbs were still doughy and pliable. There’s agony in rolled ankles and pinched nerves in her neck from improper turns. When she folds over to stretch her back and legs, her vision darkens into pinholes like punched tin. Lifting upward again, her head is a balloon that floats gently toward the ceiling. Her warm ups are punctuated by these gravitational pulls, swooning from the altitude shifts, her breath kisses the mirror when she presses her face against it, trying to regain balance.

At eleven in the morning, the five year olds arrive. Babies with grown up hair, except their arms are pudding and their round bellies are full of sugary breakfast. Sweet girls, thinks Brianna, who used to leave the building once the youngest class started warm ups, but now she stays and sits in the corner to watch. Their arms quiver above their heads. Fingers interlocked, knees dimpling below their tights. How the girls all sway, side-to-side, even before the music starts. Their bodies are primed for movement. This is an introductory class, but all young female bodies must begin alignment here with their tendons like rubber bands and their muscles like cream ready to be whipped.

These girls have no breasts and some of them never will. One girl with dark eyes has good feet, and she’s already turned out. Brianna wants to tell her what the future looks like: a big wooden floor that happily comes up to greet you—sometimes with a smile and sometimes with a slap. 

 

4.

“Do you ever worry that your brain has rough patches?”

Brianna’s younger brother sits on the floor with a deck of cards. He’s stacking them in piles of four, each topped with a different queen. They have faces like royalty inbred for five generations. He doesn’t answer, so she asks again.

“Rough patches? What do you mean, like a golf course?”

She sits across from him on the rug and scoops up all the cards. “No. Not like that. Like god was sanding it down before you were born, but maybe he got busy and missed some parts.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sure it does.” She fans out the cards. “Maybe you don’t notice those parts of your brain until you’re older, because you don’t need them right away, but then they’re too craggy to use.”

Jack, two, five. A card with a man on the front but she can’t remember what he’s called. The crown man with the sash and scepter. His profile looks wise.

“Your brain wrinkles when you learn something new – it forms ridges. A smooth brain is a baby brain, Anna.”

There are two children in the Crimm family, and their names both start with Brian. Brianna is older, but she didn’t choose the nicknames. Brian calls her Anna, and she calls him Brian – never Bri, like his friends call him when they come over to play videogames and eat all the food in the freezer. Their parents collectively call them BC, which they say stands for Before Curfew, because before they had the kids they could leave the house on a Friday night.

“This is boring,” Brian says, taking the cards from her hands. “Let’s play war.”

He shuffles. His fingers are thick, and dark hair curls right above the knuckle. When he gives her half the deck, she cradles them in her lap and waits. She isn’t sure what to do. He flips his first card so she flips hers, laying them side-by-side on the floor between their bodies. He has a three, and she has a seven. She waits. He pushes them across the rug toward her. She picks them up and holds them until he takes them away again and sets them in a pile next to her legs. The next time they flip their cards, they simultaneously reveal a pair of threes.

“What happens now?” she asks. “Now what?”

 

3.

In the tube there are white lights, blinking softly like Christmastime. The sides curve upward, bright and smooth, but she’s not supposed to move her head to look at them. Brianna wears a paper gown, short like when she’d danced the part of Giselle last spring. When she moves her legs, the paper crinkles, and in her ears it’s like she’s unwrapping a gift, over and over again.

“Ten more minutes. Try to remain still, please.”

The woman operating the machine had already explained what would happen while Brianna sat on the table with her hands in her lap. She must lie face-up in the tube, perfectly still, while the white lights spin around her head. A round circle slowly halos the patterns of her brain. Then the picture will be sent to the neurologist, who will talk with Brianna’s mother in private. Brianna is always the last to know.

Last week Brianna’s father and mother had talked with her about staying home from school. Just for a little while, they’d said, and maybe Brianna’s mother could show her a few things from her textbooks. Just try to relax, her mother had said, but Brianna already felt too relaxed. The kind of relaxed that came from sleeping in late and drinking bottles of cold medicine and watching daytime television, the kind of relaxed that can’t wake back up again on its own.

“Please, you have to stay still.”

In class she’d been raising her hand but forgetting the question. Or she would forget the words for the questions: who, what when, where why how all written down in even letters on the tops of her notes. Or she would be talking to a group of friends at lunch and suddenly look at the moon of someone’s face and forget who they were or how she knew them, like she’d been dropped from a great height into an unfamiliar scene, and she would get scared and hyperventilate, and then someone would call her mother.

Brianna, her mother would say in the car in the parking lot with the heat turned up so that it burned her face, we have got to stop meeting like this.

“You’re doing so great, baby, just five more minutes.”

The other morning, Brianna had gone downstairs to get breakfast, and the lady behind the fat granite island in the middle of the kitchen had smiled at her. Brianna had thought who is that woman, did we hire a maid, and she’d stood there in the doorway, waiting for an introduction, until the woman had asked what kind of eggs do you want this morning, sweetheart? Then the woman had turned into her mother and it had scared her so badly she’d started laughing. Her mother had laughed, too, until they were both laughing in the middle of the kitchen and neither one of them were really laughing, and actually it sounded a lot like crying.

“Just one more minute.”

There was a hissing in the tube like a balloon slowly deflating. The lights circled Brianna’s head, and she counted them in sets of five until she couldn’t remember the numbers after forty.

 

2.

Every time rain drips on the windshield, the wipers come up to smear them back down to the bottom of the glass. The water pools there, and Brianna looks at it, and it magnifies the colors of the outside world: brown and green and another color that she can’t remember the name of, but it looks like how the sky looks when it’s wet, it’s the color of nighttime creeping in before bedtime on school nights when you’re not ready for your eyes to close, it’s the color of the rat animals from the park that like to eat nuts from the things with the leaves.

“Are you hungry? We could pick something up.”

Her mother speaks, her mother with short hair, but it used to be long like the picture that Brianna carries with her so she can remember the specifics: M O T H E R it says in black pen, M O T H E R with long hair and a big nose and space between the things in her mouth that chew food.

“Bread with the brown meat that makes it wet.” Brianna breathes on the window. Wet bubbles up, and she uses her finger to make a shape like two snakes kissing. “The yellow sauce and red.”

“Hamburgers, got it.”

Now Brianna makes forgotten words longer by turning them into sentences. Sometimes she remembers the words this way, or sometimes she still forgets them, but making the long sentences takes time, and her tongue flaps around in the cave space, and it makes her want to think them instead of say them, so Brianna talks less than she ever did before. M O T H E R says where is my little chatterbox, where has she gone, where is the girl who used to talk with her dolls and her stuffed animals all night in bed, the one who would play hide and seek with her daddy but could never stay hidden because she loved to shout where she was? Is she hiding in your throat? M O T H E R with the wet in her eyes and then wet on the pink face, wet like when the rain falls on the windshield and the wipers swoop in like rubbing hands to scrub it off again.

In the car they sit in front of the big plastic pictures of the meat and the bread and the sound comes out of the metal plate that asks if they would like to supersize anything. Brianna’s mother drives the car and gives the money for the paper sack that Brianna holds on her lap like a warm puppy. It smells like the holiday with the grill that her father loves to use outside, the wet coming out of the long green rubber onto the long yellow rubber that the kids throw themselves down, and then it is nighttime and the flashes pop open in the sky like bright flowers.

“Fourth of July,” says Brianna. “July the Fourth.”

“Let’s get home, I bet your father and brother are hungry.”

M O T H E R puts the wet bread and meat on the glass circles, and Brianna has a purple fruit to drink. Brian sits across from her, and she tries to kick him under the table but he is looking down at the bread and the meat, and his mouth is moving fast to get the food inside, big gulps of purple fruit so he can go upstairs to the colored screen to talk to friends. Not many people come over to their house now, not since Brianna stopped dance and not since Brianna stopped school, and not since M O T H E R quit work and stayed home so Brianna would never be alone again after she put the bread and the cheese on the red coils and did not remember to use the round metal pan.

Here is where the man shows Brianna the flashcards, after the dinner. M O T H E R has cleared the long wood and taken the glass circles to the big tub with the wet and the soap. The cards have pictures on them and Brianna must give up the words, and if she gives up the words that go with the cards, then Brianna can watch her dance videos for one hour after dinner.

“What’s this called?” The man lays the card flat on the table and points at it. “We know this one.”

The man says “we” when they look at the cards, but he really means Brianna, because he already knows the answer, and he won’t tell her what it is. He will point at the card and make his face get very pinched and say c’mon we know this one, we know this, we looked at it yesterday, Brianna, why can’t you remember this one? If you got it yesterday, then you should be able to get it today, right? So what’s this word? I’ll give you a hint— it’s one of your favorite foods, and it starts with the same letter as your name: Brianna, B for Brianna, so that means that it starts with a B for beautiful, just like you! Can’t you tell me this word?

“It’s a yummy yellow smile.” Brianna rubs the card. “Eat it and your stomach is happy.”

“No, this is called a banana. B A NA NA.”

“BAN AN A.”

Cards cover the table in slick piles, and M O T H E R comes and pets Brianna’s head while she looks at them and tries to remember the words. The man still wants to look at them and M O T H E R says okay, Mike, I think that’s enough for one night, don’t you? Look at her – she’s tired, she can’t do this anymore right now, and then the man says goddamnit, Maggie, why can’t you just let her try? 

Up the stairs, climbing on sticks that the card called L E G S, and Brianna’s feet are tired. When she walks past the door to Brian’s room, the light from the box shines through the cracks and onto the carpet. Brianna opens the door, and Brian is in the bed with the lights off but the sound overhead is a clack-clack-clack; that means there’s a breeze with Brain and there’s no clack-clack in Brianna’s room. She crawls onto the bed with Brian, and he moves over so they both can hide under the nest of soft and pillow and blanket. They lay together and Brian’s face has the wet. When Brianna touches his eye he tells her to go to sleep.

 

1.

Maggie Crimm has one daughter and one son, but everyone knows which one she’s always preferred. G I R L, what the flashcards call her daughter, long hair and soft pink dresses and a pretty way with walking and talking. Maggie had been too tall and gangly, and her mouth had been full of crooked teeth. There was a wide gap between the front two that her own mother had said looked loose and easy, and it made her want to smile with her mouth closed.

They are alone here, Maggie and her daughter and the instructor, it is late at night after the studio closes, but Maggie thinks it’s probably better that way. The other parents look at her with pity that makes her angry. It makes her want to smack her own child in the head so that something might break loose, like a record player needle looping in a deep scratch.

She watches from a corner chair and plays the past in her head. She’s been doing a lot of that the past few weeks, sitting up late at night in bed with the old home movies, the volume on the television muted so she won’t wake her husband.

Movies on loop, forever, did you see that, did you see me do that, mommy, recitals where the other little girls and her daughter showcased all of the new things that their bodies had been conditioned to know. hey mommy, did you see me, baby daughter in pink tights that dragged down her chubby little legs until she yanked them back up from the crotch, saying but that’s where they’re falling down, mommy, and how after the recitals they would go out for brunch, but her daughter would only eat the pancakes if they had a face made out of cut up bits of fruit; the banana sliced neat like slick coins for the smile.

Now they weren’t paying for lessons, but they were paying for specialists—neurologists and doctors who couldn’t explain the sudden memory loss, not a brain tumor, not anything like that, but no one could tell them what was happening. It had started slow, but then avalanched into forgetting faces and people and the word for dog or cat or tree or sometimes even forgetting her own name – B R I A N N A, the name she’d learned how to write with a fat crayon when she’d been less than four years old.

what if she’d been raped? She’d had to whisper this to her husband, in the dark, in the safety of her bedroom, because she couldn’t bear to think of anyone else hearing the words. what if someone hurt her? But there was no way to prove that was true. It could just as easily have been the result of some lingering illness, or a genetic abnormality that finally decided to show itself.

Things she did not say out loud: what if it was something I did, what if it was from the time she rolled off the bed when I was changing her clothes when she was three months old, what if it was from something I fed her, what if it’s because I didn’t make her wash her hands in that public restroom?

When the instructor leaves, she pats Maggie on the shoulder, and it feels like one of the doctors saying we’ve done all that we could. She goes to collect her daughter, who is spinning slow circles in the center of the room.

“My baby, it’s time to go home.” She puts her hand on Brianna’s shoulder, and her daughter laughs and twirls away.

“N-O,” Brianna says. Her face is shiny with sweat and tendrils of hair curl by her temples. She smells like a puppy that’s been playing outside.

Then her daughter’s arms are around her waist, and they are smoothly moving together across the floor. To the mirror, across the middle, no clearly defined destination, just a movement from one place to another.

Back in the middle of the floor, they stand linked together. They sway back and forth. Maggie hums the music from the Nutcracker under her breath, and Brianna asks what the song is from.

“It’s your favorite,” Maggie says. “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. You love it.”

As they spin in smaller, tighter circles, Maggie thinks that maybe her daughter is moving backward in time to start all over again. If memory loss is a precursor to a complete loss of self, maybe Maggie can just tuck her daughter back up inside the womb and cook her up all over again. This time she’ll prepare everything just right, a cake batter with the perfect ingredients to ensure a successful delivery.

Maggie stops humming, and they stand pressed together, bodies posed like two kids at prom.

“Again,” Brianna says. “Mother, again.”

 #

Kristen Arnett is a fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Tin House, Kenyon Review, and Lambda Literary Foundation. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, the Normal School, Superstition Review, Blunderbuss Magazine, Hawaii Pacific Review, Timber Journal, the Rumpus, the Toast, and Burrow Press Review. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett.