Half of Me

by Dan Gutstein

Violetta took me back only after the accident, only after I’d been turned sideways. (For good.) “Now that you know what it’s like,” she’d said, but that’s totally ridic! She’s not sideways but she’s dying; I’m not dying but I’m sideways. I say “dying” because she says “dying.” Do we really know?

We went on our first date in more than fourteen months. A support group re: medical situations, except that no support (whatsoever) could emolliate them. School-kid chairs in a big circle, very romantic. Violetta’s uncle—her Uncle U.—led the meeting. He spoke by touching a device where his voicebox should’ve been. Everything he said sounded like automated banking. Cantankerous automated banking.

“Sweets,” he said, his fingers to his throat.

(I’m Sweets.)

“Sweets!” he repeated, but it sounded like a desperate, gravelly, “Sh-Wheats!”

The people there had goiters. They had subluxations. They had syndromes and palsies and pleurisies: these were the hopeful cases. To sit straight, I had to sit sideways; I was sideways to begin with. Wasn’t it obvi? Totally ridic.

“To sit straight,” I said, “I must sit sideways; I’m sideways to begin with. My feet to the left. The chair, left. Me facing the circle. The fuck do you want me to tell you guys? That the asshole isn’t the bright bell of the fart? I’ve been accused of cruelty. Various people have accused me of cruelty on more than one occasion.”

When the group-sharing module of the program had concluded, Violetta made me a coffee. Uncle U. made me a coffee. One of the syndromes made me a coffee. The three of them offered me the beverages simultaneously. As if I had three hands. The syndrome kept offering, and kept offering, even as I’d accepted from Violetta and Uncle U.

If I swiveled, it was like two swivels. People were constantly rotating into view, out of focus. It was a very progressive church building, where the group met. Late day dust motes. Apse-y. Pew-y. Cherry-wood somber. Poorly lit and folksy lit. Cluttered with knickknacks and clothing well beyond the everyday inattention of god. Had I not known differently, it could’ve been a thrift store.

I stood in a corner bawling convulsively. Half of me facing the dwindling support group. Half of me like an exotic beast out of Greek mythology (a faun?) sentenced to a time-out on account of an attentional infraction. It was terrifying. I didn’t think I’d stop. Someplace—in an antechamber?—in a vestibule?—Uncle U. and Violetta were fare-thee-welling the last few group members. They were bidding adieu, when the syndrome reappeared, offering me the same styrofoam cup of coffee, lukewarm and burnt.




Later, Violetta and I repaired to her breezy apartment, where she desired to make love. I say “desired” because she exited the living room to freshen up, and when she exited her bedroom (freshened up) she’d changed into the jeans with flowers on the back pockets. An ancient signal we’d worked up in lieu of having to utter dumb shit like, “Gee whiz, you wanna have a wicky-dickery kind of a day?” She interrogated me (severely) with her eyes. So I said something stupid: “What about the incontinence issue?”

“We’ll just deal with that—”

“As it ‘arrives?’”

“Ha. Ha.”

She would be risking a vigorous, unstoppable urination. But she was wearing the pocket flowers.

There were other preparations of course. Violetta engaged the record player. She owned Charles Mingus albums—she called him Charlie Mingus—but no other records. Pepper Adams tore into “Moanin’” on the baritone saxophone. That sure was love-makin’ music, but to be fair, not for a guy perpetually turned sideways and his terminally ill girlfriend. Totally ridic!

Violetta always leaves her top on. A lot of guys like that sort of thing. I’m one of them.

She had arranged her items on the nightstand. (The worst case incontinence items, one, two, and three.) She kneeled on the bed having tugged down her jeans. I can only relate that I loved Violetta during our fourteen month separation, and I loved her before our separation, and I sure as shit still loved her, for me to have been crawling toward her, contorted, right over left, uncontorted, left over right. It was obvi how much I loved her and totally fucken ridic! Until the top of my head collided with Violetta’s worked-up body, below the abdomen.

The ensuing rash of sensations—the hopeful odors, the regularity of gentle collisions—did not produce a bathroom emergency. We mistook wind in the starchy curtains for rain in the parched autumn trees. We mistook the thumping pulse in the ear for the electric ejection behind every single genesis. Gratitude sprang forward. We sprang forward. (Both of us banged our heads on the headboard.) We remembered to exhale. We rearranged ourselves.

“The way I am,” I said, “you can spoon me, and cuddle me, simultaneously.”

“Mmmm,” she said.

“My pelvis was facing the proper direction, anyhow.”


“I guess that’s pretty fucken obvi, by now.”

If Violetta said “mmph,” I don’t recall, but soon she succumbed to the sleep that the dark-haired peoples sleep, her small, pudgy lips completely still. Her name—Fioled, originally—may have been bestowed upon her from some great (Welsh?) distance. As from the story of another woman who died knowing that her children would dedicate themselves to the perpetuation of her hot indifference. FML. Even as they pushed dirt into her grave.




As an adult, I developed a portfolio of savings accounts. I say “portfolio” but Violetta accused me of worse. She said “hoarding.” That I was “hoarding” bank accounts, not to mention the “free” gifts, which were occupying (she would say “overflowing”) the den in my average apartment. Sporty cushions, little chic travel bags, sleeves to keep beers cold, pennants, black and white Philco television sets, transistor radios, photograph frames, thermoses, flashlights, and toasters: obvi! Also, a complete set of four (baseball) bases and a home plate. Each account contained the starting investment—fifty bucks, two hundred bucks, whatever—plus a few bucks of interest. Violetta demanded that action be undertaken. That I unburden myself, and herself, although her claims to be victimized by my accumulation of savings accounts (and gifts) didn’t go uncontested. I say “hoarding” because she says “hoarding.” As if that made me a freak.

The old Shel Naylor tune “One Fine Day,” was playing, one fine day, so we asked Google where I could close my first account. The first branch that Google directed us to, didn’t exist any longer. The windows were mostly papered-up. Inside, there were cans of paint and drop-cloths, as well as something that looked like a tennis ball covered in mud (or shit) except for the rodent tail protruding about four inches. Even before the tennis ball creature moved, it was totally ridic!

Thus, we got a pint, and a pint led to bubbles and squeak, and bubbles and squeak led to a series of gigantic whiskeys. Basically, we fucked-about. We did little else, besides fucking-about. Violetta shook her head as I tore up the banking list. “No more—new—accounts,” I promised. She seemed to be swimming in circles along with the ceiling fan. My legs facing the aisle, so I could face Violetta. “Tussle me hair,” I said, in a crap accent. So she tussled me hair.

We squinted as we emerged from several hours inside the bar, a real neighborhood joint that featured a warped, waterlogged door, one that would be eventually secured by a grate and a padlock. The sun lay at 6:00 o’clock sharp, which was strange, because it was only 3:00 o’clock sharp on my wristwatch. There, returning our squint, was a shirtless, precocious youth wielding a red whiffle-ball bat. I say “wielding” because he wasn’t menacing. He had nowhere to stow the thing, so he had no choice but to “wield.”

“Why you two so drunk?” he said.

Up and down the street, young men did wheelies on loud, bright motorbikes.

“What’s your name?” said Violetta.

“Baby Fat.”

“Are you going to be in a whiffle ball game?”

“Naw,” said the boy.

“Then what’s the bat for?”


“Oh. What’s growing in your garden?”

“I don’t got no garden,” said Baby Fat. He was impatient. Or he was matter-of-fact. “Why you two so drunk?”

The motorbikes were just then—excruciatingly—loud, but it was part of a harmony. Nobody flinched but us.

“If y’all so drunk at 3:00,” he theorized, “what y’all gonna be like at bedtime?”

“Baby Fat!” rang a woman’s voice from an open window, two stories up, across the street. “I’m gonna give you a whupping!”

“Awright! Awright!” he replied. “I be up in a minute!”

“Now!” said the voice.

“I guess you’d better go,” said Violetta.

“Hey,” said Baby Fat, glaring at me. “How’d you get to be that way?”

“You mean my disability?”

“How’d you get to be with such a beautiful girl?” Then, clarifying, he addressed Violetta: “You got a little sister?”

“Now!” rang the voice, which had issued from a stern, stormy face glowering down upon the three of us in equitable amounts of dissatisfaction.

“See you later,” said Baby Fat, while he skipped across the street. The motorbikes swerved around him. He beat parking signs with the bat. He decapitated some weeds with the bat. He swung it against vacant bike racks and a fire hydrant, all the while vamping for the benefit of Violetta. Her phone had been booping. It was rushing vital messages to her. All of them were from Uncle U.

“He wants us to visit him and dad,” said Violetta. “Tomorrow.”

“In the country?”

“In the country.”

“Pops Uriah and Uncle U., bonded together by the same underutilized vowel. And the same ancient lovebirds.”

“Had there been a third brother,” she added, “there would’ve been—”



“—Ursula, but for a guy?—”

“Either way,” said Violetta, “we’ll have to drive.”

She might as well have bitch-slapped me with a five ‘n’ dime rubber chicken.

If I were a milquetoast sort of chap, a fedora-wearing douche-apple, I could’ve let that comment evaporate without presenting a classic fuss. But I’m one torrid bastard, and even though “life” knocked me a kiss (in the resumption of my affair with Violetta) I couldn’t stanch the bright blood of my wounded intellect. And besides, I found myself on the upslope of the alcohol effect. Hours later, during the humid, red-black swashes of the encroaching night, I might recollect my formidable limitations. I might succumb to the speckles of depression attempting to corrupt my waxy, waxy veneer.

“We’re here, having illuminating conversations with Baby Fat, surrounded by growling motorbikes and buildings and—god bless—the unresolved, petty gluttony of my savings accounts. So if you say ‘we’ll have to drive’ when referencing the necessary means of transport to reach an expanse of cultivated fields and overly-lubricated horsey farms, then my observation will be, every time, without variation, without any unusual emphasis or undue sarcasm: totally fucken obvi! It is totally fucken obvi that we’ll have to drive, and totally fucken ridic that you felt it necessary to enlighten me in that way! Augh!”




Simply put, I saw the accident coming. I sat at the steering wheel, agape, agog, as an automobile racketed toward the passenger’s side of my car. There was a driver in front of me and a driver behind me. All three of us had queued-up for the privilege to execute a left turn. Inexplicably, I swiveled my upper body to meet the collision. My arms shot forth in front of me, as if I could deaden (or catch?) the blow. I glimpsed my assailant while I was still an anatomically correct human being. Her hands were not in sight. Her eyes were calm. Her face was blank. As if she was nearing the end of a spa treatment. The impact drove my car across the double yellow lines into the southbound direction of the avenue. But somewhere between her fender biting into the metal of my sedan and the mushrooming fireworks of the airbags, a structure snapped in my dorsum. Tubercle, Process, Foramen, Promontory, Facet—these are none of it, but they’re unindicted co-conspirators, according to “medicine.” And the way I negotiated the accident—turned sideways—is the way I would negotiate the world. (For good.)

If I could’ve been granted a second chance at being a hapless victim, I’d have kept limpid and limp, I’d have absorbed the impact casually. Like my assailant. As the perplexed paramedics attempted to load me onto a gurney, she loitered between two deputy sheriffs, poofing into a breathalyzer. No luck there. She had shoulder-length blonde hair and thin, sexy fingers: she was a teetotaler. Her car had broken, simply. A mechanical defect. And I don’t possess the necessary reservoir of patience to comment on the litigation that has ensued. The medieval volleys of motions and briefs. At a particularly desperate interval, I phoned one of those numbers on one of those billboards for one of those specialists. I was on hold for twenty minutes while William Shatner sang “Karma Chameleon” more than once.

Since the day of the crash, I’d been in an ambulance, I’d ridden a bus, I’d taken the subway. But I hadn’t been in an automobile. Yet the mental residue of the accident didn’t prevent Violetta and me from approaching her vehicle. No, we both touched her car as if we were touching an extraordinary (specimen?) of livestock. Would I lay down in back, with my head facing the direction of travel? Would I sit in front, perpetually staring out the side window? We opted for the latter.

Violetta sped along tidily at first—the bullet-fire of the lane markers!—thus we zoomed beyond quite a few other motorists. Many of them double-took the shoulders and the face grotesquely hulking in the window frame. (Fuck off, motorists!) So I went on a clamped-eyes fantasy trip. Until a repeatedly blown horn alerted me to the presence of a bloke’s big hairy ass-cheeks being spread out the back of an SUV. Gratefully, an off-ramp drew this collection of humanity (magnetically) toward the sorrowful remainder of their Dairy Queen lives, but not before Violetta took heed. She braked. She constrained herself to the right lane.

Violetta suffered from the kind of illness that skipped generations or didn’t. That weakened you rapidly or weakened you gradually. There was no specific diagnostic regimen to confirm the presence of the illness, only the judgment of the specialist. Yes, she could submit herself to the horrors of profiling, and punctures, and imaging, but she opted not to pursue those angles, and besides, the lot of them, collectively, could neither condemn nor liberate her. Apparently, she was weakening at a medium pace. Which, according to the specialist, was enough to categorize her as terminally ill. The lightly-weakening form of this malady could still admit a sufferer to the valleys of remission, but the medium-weakening form (and above) always resulted in the same destination. Violetta is dying. I say “dying” because she says “dying.” Do we really know?

The specialist had seen her just a few days before we drove to see her Pops Uriah and her Uncle U. And the highly-functioning twit, wearing his sterile stethoscope clipped behind the nape of his neck, had given Violetta the same disintegrating outcome—me alongside her, in the examination room—to look forward to. She’d been executed by this M.D. yet again.

I’d fumed at her the whole ride to her apartment building, on the local. I’d fumed at her while I staggered (like a mutant) down the sidewalk. We rode the elevator with some beaming imbecile, who’d forgotten which floor—and quite possibly which building—she needed to enter. Once inside her apartment, Violetta shoved me. I shoved her back.

“Go ahead,” she’d dared me. “Say it. Say what you’re thinking.”

“Next time, don’t report the new weaknesses,” I’d said.

“How can I not report the new weaknesses!”

“Force him to earn a living. To discover for himself.”

“He can’t do that. The patient has to say.”

“If you don’t say, then he can’t conclude. If he can’t conclude, then he can’t kill you off.”

“My body is killing me off. There are new weaknesses!”

Violetta had tried to outmaneuver me. Physically, that is. She circled me and counter-circled me, creatively, forcing me to shelter in place, at the island in her galley kitchen. It was nasty of her.

“Okay,” I said. “How do you know they’re new? (The weaknesses.)”

“You’re being ridiculous. I have weaknesses. New ones!”

“How do you distinguish a new weakness from an old weakness?”


“Stop enabling the specialist-twit—”

“Sweets!” she shrieked, smacking the island.

“Stop dying!” I roared, spittle hanging from my upper lip. I smacked the island as percussively as Violetta did. I smacked it, I smacked it, I smacked it, as percussively as Violetta had smacked it. “The minute you stop reporting new weaknesses, is the minute you enter remission. Don’t you see?”




Violetta’s dad, Uriah, and her Uncle U. occupied one armchair apiece, which were angled together like raised eyebrows. A rustic table between them. As for us, we were arranged on the extremely comfortable couch. I’d come to see myself as one of those awkward shapes in the block-building game, Tetris. (FML, but the blocks don’t stop descending in Tetris.) I couldn’t rightly pinwheel like some dolt onto the living room rug. Thus, I lay on my side with my feet over the armrest and my head in Violetta’s lap.

A funny, familiar pause percolated between us four. We’d run out of “U’s.” So we recycled a few.

“Uriah’s taken,” I said. “Unless you’re both named Uriah.”

“Uruguay,” said Violetta. “Uber, Ubermensch.”

“Ukulele. Ur, Ur, Ur—of the—Chaldees!”

“Uzbek. Utah.”

Uncle U kept threatening to speak. (He kept moving his hand toward the device installed in his throat.) But we kept waving it away. A fire crackled aggressively in the background. It wasn’t cold outside. It wasn’t warm outside. Pops Uriah had erred on the side of a blaze. It cooked like a gas fire, but for the malevolent hissing of the logs.

“Underwear. Ukraine.”

“Unique. Ursula, but for a man?”

“Wait a minute,” I proclaimed. “Oh, I can’t believe this. I know Uncle U.’s name.”

“Don’t say it,” said Uncle U. “Stop!” He could tell that I knew. And it was obvious, and we should’ve known, all these years, but perhaps it was too obvious, so we never inhabited the name with the sounds of our voices. The only question I had was—for whom, specifically, did he receive the moniker? From which culture did his parents take inspiration? America, Greece, Ireland…?

Uncle U. kept his hand at his throat. When Violetta needled me, tickled me, poked me, he activated his artificial voice box. “I like being Uncle U.,” he said. “Stop! I like being Uncle U!”

“You two,” said Violetta’s father, “should tie the knot!” He shook his fist merrily. “If you wait any longer, I’ll be too old to walk you down the aisle.”

“Uriah, you can’t walk her down the aisle,” said Uncle U. “I’ll walk her down the aisle.”

“You’re not gonna walk my own daughter down the damn aisle!”

“Hey,” I said. “You’re not going to start wrestling again, are you?”

“I’ll walk her down the aisle! You’ll be waiting at the altar.”

“I’m not waiting at the altar! You siddown the front row.”

“Wait at the altar!”

“Siddown the front row!”

They both jutted themselves out of their armchairs and wrangled each other’s collars, when there was a loud knock at the door. It was semi-urgent, but it was the country, after all. What could be semi-urgent out there?

“Come in,” hollered Pops Uriah. “Probably the dog again.”

The knocker admitted herself to the cabin. It was Callie, from across the way. The imagery didn’t surprise her.

“You guys wrestling again?” she said. She was a cowgirl by gender, but she (easily) exceeded the going rate of male toughness. She had the hat. She had the boots. She had the shirt and the jeans. Nobody could look her in eyes.

“Aw, hell,” said Uriah. “The dog?”

“You know me. I don’t care.”

“Yeah, yeah. Would somebody please go fetch the Reverend?”

“Can’t round up your own dog?” said Uncle U.

“Siddown the front row!” said Pops Uriah, and the wrestling—delayed for nothing more than a weakening devotion to ritual—began afresh. The rustic table spilled over. Inessential belongings trundled to the floor: an ashtray, a container of lighter knot, a bowl of loose change, coasters, antique golfing tees….

By the time Violetta and I stepped across the pockmarked dirt road to the fencing of Callie’s property, the cowgirl had vanished inside (or outside) her house. We called for the Reverend. The day was indecipherable, and if we didn’t know what season it was, we wouldn’t have known what season it was. We called for the Reverend a second time, when he came trotting-forth from the rim of the forest, accompanied by a mare. The contrast between the size of the horse and the size of the Reverend was totally ridic, especially when the Reverend seemed to be in charge.

Half malamute and half shepherd, he attempted to mush and herd (a herd of one) simultaneously. It confused all of us, but especially the mare. She tossed her head around, her voice like a flubbering wind instrument, to clarify what was expected of her. Ultimately, the Reverend urinated against an old, grey post with a pertinent display of modesty. If I’d have said “You’re the man!” he’d have said nothing. “Obvi!” would’ve been implied.

Hand-in-hand, Violetta and I started-up Pops Uriah’s long, gravel driveway, followed by the Reverend, who bounded (in circle eights) after an extra-seasonal dragonfly. My body squared itself off. I reinhabited my former gait. I existed in the space of one, unified person. It took until then to realize that there are many versions of every scene, and by admitting this to myself, I could disembarrass the anger that often blossomed inside me. Perhaps it was Violetta who facilitated this discovery, Violetta who learned how to stand beside the awkward rhythms of my new, tortured body. As we neared the end of Pops Uriah’s driveway, she took my elbow. The dog (sensing a moment?) stared up at the two of us, panting expectantly.

“What’s his name?” said Violetta.


“Of course it is.”

“Shall we?” I said, holding open the cottage door.

And we returned to this ancient kingdom—the kingdom of the infirm, the wounded, the disfigured, and the stunning beauty of the dead.


DAN GUTSTEIN’s most recent book is his novel, Buildings Without Murders (March 2020). He is also author of non/fiction (stories, 2010), Bloodcoal & Honey (poems, 2011), and Metacarpalism (poems, forthcoming 2022). He is also co-director of the forthcoming documentary, Li’l Liza Jane: A Movie About A Song, and vocalist for punk band Joy on Fire. For more information, visit his website at https://www.dangutstein.com/