TWO KINDS OF UNCERTAINTY • by Carter Merenstein

Desi leans against the car, struggling to control her breathing. She straightens her airway like the doctor taught her. Breathe in, breathe in again, then breathe out. She closes the trunk of her father’s station wagon and cranks the cold engine awake. She feeds it gas, begging for warmth in return. It groans. One more cold-ass North Dakota morning, she whispers, pointing her nose south toward US 2. Then she’s off.

She doesn’t stop until gas and coffee in Fargo, blowing through three hundred miles of corn by 9am. She’s not sure if they grow corn in Pennsylvania, but she hopes not. She hopes it’s filled with oak trees.

In Minnesota she pauses on the far bank of a muddy river, to relish becoming one of those people who’d been “east of the Mississippi”. She drives on and wonders when she’ll feel different.

On Wisconsin public radio they’re talking about some new kind of birth control, something they shove up inside you and then forget about for five years. As if you could forget about something like that. The host says it’s 99% effective but doesn’t explain what that means. Is there some one percent of people that it never works for, or does it just fail randomly, one percent of the time? Desi isn’t sure but both scenarios make her feel uneasy.

In Milwaukee she rests on the back seat of the wagon, watching the sunset transform the clouds over Lake Michigan. There’s a moment when the world sits at just the right angle to show her how big it really is, but then her chest implodes again. She curls up in the car to wait out the attack, listening to the Christians talk on the AM band.

Back on I-94 she sees the eerie glow of Chicagoland before she even enters Illinois, a second sunset feebly challenging the real thing. Not as bright but longer lasting, different strengths and weaknesses.

She calls the friend she’ll be staying with, the only person she knows out east, and he comes outside to parallel park for her. Desi studies him as he floats the car in between two pillars of the elevated train tracks. He’s cut his hair short and dresses like he belongs here now. Maybe he does. She thinks if things work out she’ll come back here, see what it’s like to wear city clothes and squeeze cars together like rows of spring wheat.

They get takeout Chinese and fuck on his couch. Maybe it’s so she can feel like she isn’t dying, or maybe so she can feel like she is. She wheezes and fights back convulsions, but manages to keep things in the realm of normal sex noises rather than a dead girl’s screams. Afterwards she finds the overlap between the two slightly unnerving. Would anyone know if she drowned?

She stares at the condom in the trash and again wonders what it means to be some percent effective. Whether every time is a new roll of the dice, or if there is some hidden logic adding up complex causes and predetermined effects. She falls asleep wondering if anyone else thinks about this as much as she does.

In the morning she crosses Indiana, then Ohio. It turns out that Pennsylvania does have corn, but not as much, and there are also oak trees. She stops for gas on the far side of the Appalachians, less than a hundred miles from Philadelphia, and again her lungs seize up. The air is thicker here, not as painful as the ice that whips across the prairie but harder to move in and out. She leans forward and breathes in, once, twice. The third time she gets it, air begins to move again, and she’s back on the road.

The cousin she’s never met lives in a house smushed together with both of its neighbors, like pennies on a railroad track. They’re all like that here, he explains, then he leaves her alone. She sleeps on a pullout sofa in his study, a soft grey cat resting at her feet. If things work out, Desi thinks, she’ll get a cat too.

She takes a bus to the hospital and the elevator to the tenth floor, but it’s the wrong building. A security guard walks her across a skybridge and she lingers for a moment in the air.

The doctor explains everything, the drugs they’ll give her, where they’ll cut, how long the machine will breathe for her. He reminds her that there’s no guarantee, there’s a chance it doesn’t work. She may reject the new lungs, or they may end up just as scarred as her old ones, there’s a lot of uncertainty. All told, he says there’s a four in five chance she comes away totally healthy.

Desi sits in silence, staring across the river at the crystal skyline, focusing on her breath. She listens to the way it rattles a little, even when air is flowing smoothly. It occurs to her that this is the first time she’s been in a room with someone who thinks about lungs as much as she does. She looks him over, and tells him she’s ready.

She drifts in and out as the drugs kick in, until suddenly she’s back home. She’s standing beneath an oak tree, surrounded by a sea of corn. Everything is calm, like a sunset but blue. The doctor waves at her from the back of her father’s station wagon. He pulls out a chalkboard with some math on it. He explains to her, there are two kinds of uncertainty. In one kind the result is already fixed, but we don’t know which path we’re on. In the other, the outcome isn’t decided until the moment it happens. We think about these things a lot, he says, but it doesn’t matter now.

Everything fades away, and outside, a saw begins to cut open her chest.


Carter Merenstein is an amateur writer from Philadelphia, PA. He is currently a PhD student studying computational biology.


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