Katrina Petrova, American Girl with Russian Parents, woke up with a catastrophic nosebleed. Blood covered her almost mythically beautiful face, her arms, her stomach and our comforter. A whimper and a shake knocked me out of sleep. One look, I jumped out of bed. A coward's reaction.
I fumbled for the correct response.
"You really need to let Johnny Fontane in your picture."
My Godfather joke turned out to be the wrong thing to say.
"Are you okay?" I said correcting my mistake.
"My nobe," she stammered through clotted nasal passages.
She started to cry, which pissed me off. After a year of late night talks and breathless confessions about our darkest moments, she had not dropped a single tear. I thought somebody shut down her ducts. Closed off her emotional response system. Wired her for a future robot.
"Helb me," she said finally. "Blease helb me."
The Emergency Room doctor couldn't stop the bleeding. She did manage to stick an experimental camera up Katrina's nose, projecting her nasal passages on a large screen. We all looked at the fuzzy, dark images.
"Look honey, it's a boy," I said.
Katrina stared at me tragically. I failed her all the time. Jokes meant a denial of love, rejection of everyone's favorite myth. Just because she never cried didn't mean she didn't hurt. She told me that all the time. The doctor looked at me blankly for a second and then turned to Katrina.
"I really don't see anything."
Idiot I am, I thought it was good news. The doctor admitted Katrina to the hospital immediately for observation and a series of tests, days of probing, blood draining and scanning.
A nurse came into the room, hands covered in latex, and shoved enough gauze up Katrina's nose to stop all of the bleeding in the world. Katrina's impossibly tiny, porcelain nose stretched.
As they wheeled her away, Katrina grabbed my hand, trying not to drown in the blood swallowing her body.
"Don't leeb me," she begged.
"I have to work. I've been here all night."
The nurse raced her away. Katrina stared for a second and then crashed down onto her pillow, exhausted and scared. I waved at her weakly.
I get nervous when I talk to people. My ears fill up with a wet hiss and other people's words sound like an audio book version of Finnegan's Wake. I interrupt even the shortest statement, rushing to get my thought out as if there was a prize involved. Katrina ignored my talking over her. She shrugged off the fact that I would stare at her sentences as if they were actually Russian. Her beauty knocked me out, but her patience kept me around.
Three days later, after tortuous tubes and tedious tests, Katrina came home. Nose still packed, blood still seeping through every possible barrier, she shuffled into our apartment.
"How can nubbin be wrong wib me?"
I walked her into the kitchen and opened up the drawer where we normally kept our bills and rubber bands. I replaced them with 500 small, red dishrags that I planned to use to wipe every possible drop of blood that would fall from her nose. I had enough for two weeks. Then I would buy more.
Katrina cried again. It felt better this time, a mixture of gratitude and fear. My towels meant I cared.
"I want to mabe lub," she whispered in my ear.
I felt the blood drip into my brain.
"You know the rule," I said,
"In my house, we don't make lub. We fub. We fub are brains out."
Katrina went to work the next day, but she should have stayed home. At work, the place she felt most alive, the blood dripped onto her keyboard, into the coffee pot and down onto her bosses' new shoes. She used to say that work was her only real family, but even her closest friends stayed a few steps away. Where had Katrina's blood been? I slept with tattooed girls before I met Katrina. Katrina had, apparently, a long history of dating questionable men. The blood horrified them. No one said a word, but Katrina knew. She left at noon.
I always thought of other women when Katrina and I had sex. Her beauty lacked erotic appeal, made screwing a chore, extinguished lust. Like soiling a Vermeer. In my head, I banged short, large-breasted, thick-bodied girls with dark, curly hair.
Then Katrina's nose started to bleed. Our lovemaking became fevered, desperate, never denying the red that dominated our lives. The closer she came, the less her nose would bleed. Then, finally, dryness. She slept peacefully and no blood poured from her nose. Then in the morning, usually in the shower, it would start again.
Everything changed. We moved to another apartment, bought all new furniture, got rid of the tropical fish, stopped voting Green Party, ate more pork rinds, developed a disturbing addiction to Tetris, wrote essays supporting the sexual healthiness of watching porn, and created a Web site devoted to the television show Small Wonder. Nothing worked. Katrina bled. Katrina's nose gushed.
"We can't stop it," said the doctor.
"We have no idea why it's happening," said the other doctor.
"The orgasm thing is something though. Impressive at least," said a third doctor who smelled like crab cakes.
"We do know this," said number one doctor. "It's not really blood."
"What the hell is it then?" Katrina screamed. Her speech no longer garbled by the non-blood clogging her nasal passages.
"We have no idea. It's just not blood, or mucus. Or anything we've ever seen before."
"That's why you haven't died from the blood loss," chimed in doctor the second.
"We suggest you have as much sex as possible," said crab cakes.
"It's probably psychosomatic. In your head."
Katrina looked at me quickly, her eyes jumping with murder. She pulled the gauze out of her nose and shoved it in the doctor's face, without touching him.
"Does this look psychosomatic to you, motherfucker?"
I realized that I was in love with Katrina. Ever since a tall, sulky girl obsessed with Brit-pop broke my heart in my mid-twenties, I treated relationships as extended friendships, emotionally involved sessions of hanging out with the occasional blowjob. Then Katrina started to bleed (or something) from her face. Katrina, once a gorgeous placeholder in my life, the "who am I to say no to her" girl, jumbled my thoughts. She made me want to leave work early. She was always home.
Katrina dreamt that we were in Uzbekistan, or Chechnya, or somewhere in Russia, trudging through the snow, searching for a cure. We ended up in a little hut, walked inside and saw her parents, who both died in Brooklyn before we met, sitting at dirty wooden table in front of a small fire. They waved us closer.
"What are you doing with this schmuck?" Her father asked.
"Papa! What about my nose?" She yelled.
"He looks shifty," her mother said. "And so thin."
"What happened to that Pierre, from Petersburg?" Her father asked.
"I never finished War and Peace, father."
"Ha! A disgrace. You are not my daughter."
Her mother grabbed me by the collar and pulled me close to her face.
"The calamari tastes like almonds!"
Then Katrina woke up.
Doctors failed us, acupuncture just hurt, herbal specialists made her sneeze, the guy on the corner who sold her coke told her she would never bleed again. He was wrong.
Katrina never did coke. Katrina never did coke until after the nosebleed. It didn't help.
We stopped having sex. Just like that. One night it was really hot, and then six months later we hadn't done it for six months.
At night, she sat on the couch reading novels about Paraguay. I wondered where she found them all, or why she bothered.
"I want my nose to stop bleeding," she said to me one morning when I came out from a night of uneasy sleep.
"I've changed everything. Everything."
"Well, there's one thing."
"Honey," she said sadly, but without tears.
"It's my last chance. I want my nose to stop bleeding."
I didn't have anything else to say. I wanted her nose to stop bleeding too.
A few months later I ran into her as she came out of a movie theater with her new boyfriend. Her nose had stopped bleeding. I expected to find her happier, her spirit up buoyed. Not the case.
"My nose stopped bleeding," she said.
"I see that."
"Like right away."
We didn't bother to even chitchat, just sort of stared at each other for a while. As we both started to leave, I impulsively grabbed Katrina lightly by the shoulders and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
I felt her skin dissolve under my lips, as if I had just bitten into a croissant. I put my hand to her face and flicked away the skin. Underneath a heavy coating of make-up, Katrina's skin flecked and crumbled. I stopped, afraid that I could dissolve all of her right there.
I looked at Katrina again and noticed that she was covered from head to toe---gloves, scarf, hat and long coat---even though it was about 55 degrees and sunny. Katrina and her new boyfriend turned away from me hurriedly and walked away. I looked down at my hand, where I still had a piece of Katrina's face.
We all fall apart, I thought. Some just do it quicker than others.
About the author:
Jeff Barnosky lives in Philadelphia and has been published in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Exquisite Corpse, Yankee Pot Roast, and Haypenny.