Except for the pie, Janet hated David’s office parties.
Smile, chit chat, shake hands, suck in belly. Why did I wear this dress?
Wait. Who is that young brunette? Is David whispering in her ear? I think I’m going to vomit.
Janet rushes outside, gasping and gulping in the frosty air, and sees the dark clouds unfurl from the bright full moon. No longer in the dark, she sees a large stone sitting in the middle of the sidewalk that she hadn’t noticed when they had arrived earlier. She walks over to it for a closer look.
A few minutes later, Janet slowly opens the front door, and notices David and the brunette have disappeared.
Conversations are suddenly being hushed among the now-tipsy and giggling party-goers, who huddle together, not acknowledging her entrance, and avoiding eye contact with her.
I know they’re talking about me. But that’s OK. Just smile.
She walks over to the dessert table, slices herself a large piece of pie, and releases the belly she has been sucking in all night as she walks to a chair in the corner, and sits down alone.
She will just enjoy her pie here alone, as long as it takes for David to eventually reappear, and tell her it’s time for Janet to drive them home.
As she takes her first enormous bite of delicious cream pie, Janet closes her eyes, and visualizes the large stone now hiding in the trunk of their car.
Chew. Wait. Patience. Savor. Smile.
It will be over soon enough.
* * *
Lisa Molina is a writer/educator in Austin, Texas. She is a 2022 “Best of the Net” nominee for poetry, and her digital chapbook “Don’t Fall in Love with Sisyphus” launched in February 2022. Her poems, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction have been published in Bright Flash Literary Review, The Potato Journal, Sky Island Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Epoch Journal, and Beyond Words Magazine. Her next chapbook is slated to launch in spring 2023 by Finishing Line Press. In addition to writing and reading constantly, she works full-time with high school students with special needs.
My mother staggered across the lawn in short shorts and a halter top, barefoot, with a mason jar full of gin in her hand, to harvest the strawberries for my father’s favorite dessert. That night, she would slice the berries directly into our bowls at the table, her turquoise mood ring catching the light. Even dulled by gin, my mother sparkled. We sprinkled heaping spoonfuls of sugar over the berries before passing around a carton of heavy cream. “This is how you eat strawberries,” my father said with authority while my sister and I rolled our eyes at each other from across the table. He always thought he was right.
My husband preferred strawberries pulled from the plant and devoured on the spot with no adornments, warm from the sun, their green leafy tops tossed into the soil to fertilize the next crop. After his stroke, he carefully maneuvered his bright yellow motorized wheelchair around the retaining wall, easing up to the plants. With just one functioning hand, he had to work hard to pull a single berry from its stem without crushing it. He never stopped loving the feel of dirt in his hand. We learned to measure victory in berries harvested, hurts forgiven, and pain that made sleep difficult but not impossible.
Later, victory was a gentle death. After taking my husband off life support, I wandered through the house made unfamiliar by his absence. On the kitchen counter, I found a white ramekin filled with a handful of strawberries he had harvested two days before. I imagined him picking the berries, resisting the urge to eat them, bringing them into the house on his lap and leaving them on the counter for me to find. I held the ramekin, feeling the ribs of the pottery under my fingers. Just a few hours earlier I had held my husband while he drew in his last breath and let it out just like any other, only there was no next breath. I leaned my nose in, inhaling the luscious scent of the bright red berries.
I put the ramekin in the fridge, and every time I opened it for the next month, I thought, “Tom’s last strawberries.” One morning, I stood in the kitchen, his plaid flannel shirt shrouding me, wedding band still on my hand, opened the fridge, and carefully took the ramekin off its shelf, the berries resting inside now shrunken and dark. Their tiny seeds popped against the shriveled flesh. I ate them quickly, afraid I would lose my nerve. Even a month old, even shriveled, they were sweet and lush, the little seeds bursting in my mouth like bubbles in the sun.
The next spring, a cousin will remind me to begin watering the garden. I will hire a friend to weed and maintain the beds. Strawberries will appear again, as if Tom were still alive, tending to them. They will not know he is gone. They will not care. They will glow like jewels against the mulch and drop me to my knees in the dirt. Even in my mouth, even as they are being thrashed apart, the berries will seem joyful and exuberant.
Elizabeth Kleinfeld is a writer and professor living in Denver, Colorado. She blogs about grief, disability, and Buddhism at https://elizabethkleinfeld.com/revisionspiral-3-0/. Her superpowers are killing plants, embracing paradox, and Swedish death cleaning.
You decide on the carafe. You found it on the back shelf of a Crate & Barrel, as you referenced the printed wedding registry in your hand. Or, maybe it’s a decanter. At this point, you can’t remember. At the time, you didn’t know the difference. Large and made of glass, the carafe-decanter was so nondescript that its blandness gave it personality. It seemed appropriately fancy and elegant to give as a wedding gift to your first friend to be married, a woman you met in kindergarten.
On the morning of the bridal shower, you rifle through recycled gift bags at your parents’ house, where you are living for the next few weeks before starting graduate school. Just as you think there won’t be a bag large enough for the carafe-decanter, you find one.
“Aha!” you exclaim as you pull the bag out to examine it. It is white, with a giant exclamation point in the center. Rows of smaller, brightly colored exclamation points dance in the background. You have no idea where this bag came from, though, if you had to guess, you’d say it had been used for a gift from a student to your mother, a middle school English teacher and a lover of grammar. It’s the perfect size for the carafe-decanter.
You create a cushion of tissue paper on which to place the carafe-decanter and add more paper on top, so it rises from the bag like peaks of soft meringue. It looks exciting, festive, happy.
“No,” your mom says when she spots the wrapped present on the kitchen table. “You can’t bring a bag like that to a wedding shower.”
She explains that exclamation points are inappropriate, and your father runs out for something more fitting. He returns with a roll of wrapping paper: white, with shiny, delicate silver hearts.
You arrive at your friends’ parents’ house, a place you remember playing as a child, where you sometimes hung out as a teenager, for the shower. In the backyard, you sit at a picnic table with the bridal party, women your friend met in college and graduate school. They live in the same city, nearly 3 hours across the state, and are part of your friend’s life in a way you no longer can be. This is the first time you’ve met these women, and they are gracious and kind. They ask about your grad school plans. They tell you living alone takes some getting used to, but assure you you’ll love it in time.
They have apartments and advanced degrees and jobs and boyfriends/husbands/fiancés. They understand the etiquette for wedding showers and wedding shower gifts. They seem so wise.
As your friend and her future husband unwrap gifts, you’ll think back to that moment in Crate & Barrel when you chose the carafe-decanter.
“I like watching people open gifts at their shower,” the friend who was with you said. “You can see what their home will look like.”
In your head, you replace “home” with “life.” What will their life look like? You wonder that day at the shower. A mixed bag, but, hopefully, mostly good, you think as your friend unwraps present after present – the carafe-decanter, towels, a memory foam mat to stand on while washing dishes.
You look at her and see your future. This is what happens when you leave home. You find a partner. You make a new home somewhere else.
In the coming years, you’ll attend many more weddings and showers. Eventually, you’ll tire of being a guest. Again and again, you’ll find the gift table and understand just how tacky an exclamation-pointed gift bag would have been. Sometimes, you’ll giggle about it, because it was so out of character for you – you always do what’s expected. But sometimes you’ll feel sad, too, because you are not married – or even close – and gift wrapping is just the start of things you don’t understand about marriage and partnership and long-term commitment. You worry it means you don’t understand something fundamental about life and love.
Later, after graduate school, still living alone, you’ll realize that the bridesmaids at that first wedding represented one version of a future, not the only version.
You’ll become a teacher and work hard to be a good one. You’ll try to write. You’ll buy a house and get a dog. You’ll adjust to living alone and – like the bridesmaids had said – learn to love it, most of the time. You’ll even acquire your own carafe-decanter. One that belonged to your grandparents. Or maybe it’s a carafe-vase. Still unsure how to use it, you store it with your flower vases. On weekends, you’ll sit on your porch or prepare dinner while an audiobook plays in the background. You’ll enjoy the occasional glass of wine, poured straight from the bottle.
* * *
Erica M. Dolson lives in Pennsylvania and teaches in the English Department at Elizabethtown College. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, and her nonfiction has been published in Culinate.com (now defunct), Full-Stop Magazine, Critical Read, Hippocampus (“Writing Life”), Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere.
The cabin belongs to him for the weekend: timeshare.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
It has been three years since he visited the timeshare. His mother and stepfather took it the previous times, but this year, when he tried to give it up, she said he needed this. But this cabin with a view of the water drowns him with memories he cannot forget. His work is a faceless office job that requires less than ten hours of work a week, but he stretches it to fifty.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
The back porch hammock is new since the last time he was here. And here he rests—back and forth—with a Business Book in hand. Rest, he tells himself. Read this book. Smell the warm tree air. You’ll feel better. Listen to the birds cawing.
He knows he should have brought something better for rest. A business book is a wasteful book, but the material assuages the guilt he feels for leaving work. He plays an important role as the Manager of Company Resources.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
Two years ago his mother told him that the owners had added a row of trees at the front of the cabin to hide it from the road. The precocious conifers have a long life to lead at the timeshare that will be, if he can’t rid himself of the cabin, a mark of his own time passing.
A bird croaks, and a boat passes by. He flips the page, and a gust blows it back.
When his wife picked the place ten years ago, he liked it. He adored anything she suggested. His ideas and her ideas flowed in such a way that it was impossible to remember who was the originator, but the good ideas he always attributed to her. They were in sync. That summer they brought the children—grown and disenchanted by cabins now—to enjoy swimming in the lake and warming in the hot tub. Playing pool was the crowning activity in those days. He and his wife made love on the table most years before laughing and spraying bleach so the children could play in the morning.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
She’s gone now, and he wonders if that was a good idea. The woman he sees now doesn’t know he’s a survivor. They meet a few times a week to commiserate about their jobs, the weather, and the difficulty of living. She was not invited to the timeshare. He couldn’t bring her.
Dead, he thinks, she’s dead. She was here once. Here with me. It’s holy ground. Stop. Flip the page.
I’m tired of telling you this story. How did she die? She died by suicide. What more could you want?
Back and forth. Back and forth.
He puts the book down and closes his eyes. The kids weren’t there. He smells bleach and thinks of pool tables and blood-covered linoleum that won’t clean. Bleach is a perversion of water––breaking the flow, removing the mess. She never cleaned up after herself. The pool table was covered before the trip, and he won’t play.
Hard work removes the bleach. But it’s Saturday, and he’s on vacation with an inbox he emptied last night. Alcohol smells too much like bleach, and weed was never an option. Smoking he gave up when the children came, and he promised her. He can’t bring himself to let the promise go.
A bird lands on the porch, but he does not see it because his eyes are still closed. He lives in a haze, and he imagines her face above him wider than ever. She wears the hoodie from their first trip here that she bought at the gas station because August was colder than expected. Her hair is graying, and in a few years, it will all be gray. Her face drips. She swam in the water, and I am tired of telling you this story because it is true.
The water drips from the face. He lifts his hand without looking. He asks: you went without me? Can I come with you tomorrow? She nods, but he sees that the hand is red. The water turns to bleach, and the woman changes. She’s lost weight, and her haggard eyes are damp. The child has died again, and she will too. He twitches, and he’s awake. The Business Book sits on his stomach. His hypnagogic hallucinations are always her. His dreams are too.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
He goes to the kitchen to find salt and vinegar chips. His mouth is wet from drinking too much water, and the tartness dries it out. For a while, he kept buying her favorite chips, to taste the memory. But neither sour cream nor onion alleviates grief.
April is when it happened. The season changes were always hard on her. Depression feeds on inconsistency, even temperature. But the winter change had been smooth; spring to summer was the killer. She died of temperature change. I tell myself it was more—that her death was deeper than the fear of hot weather. But searching for rationality in the irrational is a fool’s quest. And do I want suicide to be rational?
He turns on a documentary about living with purpose. It’s religious in a subtle way. He falls asleep to the sound of an old man talking about the search for meaning.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
In the morning, he rocks on the hammock, reads, and sips coffee. At lunch, it will be time to go, and he will hope he can pass the timeshare to someone else next year. He will not come back. It will be empty if no one takes it. If he progresses with his partner, maybe they’ll find somewhere to visit.
Until lunch, he reads the business book, taking breaks to cry.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
* * *
Alexander Holcomb is a marketing specialist working in the technology industry. His work has been published in Poets’ Choice, The Friends of The Knox County Public Library Newsletter, and various student publications. He lives in Knoxville, TN with his wife and editor Olivia.
The old man with a graying beard and blotchy skin wandered to the cavern’s end. It was the only cavern he had ever stumbled upon. He bowed before the living mouth, which sported ridged lips and teeth of kaolin clay. The mouth opened and closed twice daily, once in the morning and once at night. He slept on the tongue when its teeth unfastened. When the mouth opened for a second time, it squirmed until it threw him naked to the freezing rock. He would bring back the food he collected, lay some of it on the tongue, and the mouth would give him security another night and nothing more. This was the life he had always known.
The tunnel-like walls had cracked blemishes leading him to the mouth. How long the mouth existed, he did not know. The old man crawled inside and planted his hand firmly on the tongue. He rested his temple gently on its outer edge and shut his eyes. When they next opened, it was morning.
Winter beckoned its welcome. The old man saw the glimmer of a new day at the cavern’s entrance. He strolled from his place to that light, the coos of the doves greeting his ears. Dressed in a wolfskin hide, he took steps into the frosted grass of the meadow. The sun shone brightly upon him as the air turned bitter. He picked a peach from the ground and held it to his chin. Rotten all season. The old man looked at the other peaches whose shapes had wasted away. He smashed his foot on that peach and crushed it, attracting flies.
The old man crossed the meadow to the river bank. No fruit. He shivered as he traveled beside the stream for miles through the afternoon. It was not until near the river’s source that he discovered fresh berries growing patiently on the vines. They were on the margin of the stream, filled with thorns, laid out on a steep incline. The river roared past him as he trudged down, waist-deep in the icy waterway. He looked up at the berries, licked his gums, and planted his feet squarely in the mud. His nostrils flared heated breath.
He crept his hand toward the vines, pain hammering in his wrist up his forearm. The thorns peeled his flesh back in his skin. The old man stepped nervously on an upward mount to get closer, agony building within him. His foot landed on a frail twig that snapped. The undertow, wasting not a moment, swept his weight below him toward the thorns. He screamed as the spikes impaled him from cheek to ankle, his hand swimming in the berries he still could not taste. Blood drained into the river, tainting its hue with scarlet. He fainted in a swirl and lay unmoving.
The old man awoke later to the sun dawning in a lavender sky. His garment kept him warm in the chilling wind. He limped back, shin revealing trench-like scars. He clutched the berries he managed to keep in the palms of his hands. Tracks from wounds not yet healed followed him on the flat stone into darkness, covering all the ones from before. In the cavern, he felt at home, the harsh outside now escaping him, the light fading behind him. He collapsed to the ground, releasing the berries and letting them roll away from him.
Lying on the ground, the old man waited for his heart to slow and his nerves to calm. He could hear a sound. But it was not the mouth; it was insects. The insects emitted high-pitched clicks. He craned his neck over his shoulder to peek. A speckle of light appeared from across the dense tunnel, then another, and another. He rushed against the wall. There were hundreds of them. They soared like particles rebounding on a fluorescent court, illuminating the air with their golden light.
He could see the cavern unveiled for the first time. There was something on the walls. Paintings. He thought them only blemishes in the tough rock, but no, they were images. He saw figures with bodies mirroring his shadow. Figures with gripped hands and kicking legs. They were dancing in a circle. Some figures had long or short hair, and some had no hair. The parts between the figures’ legs did not always match either.
He pointed at the figures on the walls with outstretched arms and an eagerness decorated on his mangled face. He looked to the mouth for a visual response of the same demeanor but saw none. The old man laughed, choking on the blood that turned to concrete dust in his lungs. A smile crept from the corners of his mouth, and his pupils dilated.
The mouth was a peculiarly-shaped bedrock of stone with movable overhanging arches and contours that looked like lips. The tongue was a pebbled sheet blanketing the bedrock’s contour, enveloped in slime from the nocturnal creatures. He had not expected the mouth to look like this–just a part of the cavern. He ignored this. The insects’ presentation met an end. He collected the berries from where he spilled them and left some on the mouth’s tongue. The old man lifted the mouth open, crawled inside, and closed his eyes.
He will return to his resting place of one, taken by the shooting stars and planets lacking twinkle, and renew his strength until the sun has passed back to the start. He will meet no other human. The old man lay peacefully like a log on the unraveled tongue, waiting for the next day to come.
* * *
Ervin Brown is a fiction writer. His other works can be read in Art Block Zine, Willows Wept Review, twice in The Dillydoun Review, The Closed Eye Open, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, and Drunk Monkeys, among other places. He is a fiction MFA student at the University of New Hampshire.
Everything becomes romantic in New England precipitation. But it somehow doesn’t apply to the two-hour rain-slicked drive to Portland. You and Sawyer take turns on the radio that crunches on every station until you feel a migraine hatching. He begins talking declaratively (monologue-style) of the chronic irritation that comes from the grind of middle management in financial services—the job that he has held since you met him two years ago. Sawyer has just passed his CFA, or is it CPA? You stare outside at the grainy and malaised highway road, choked in vehicles driving faster than usual, whether by will or inertia. Green and yellow signs hover overhead.
Rows of coral begonias greet you amid waxy leaves inside the greenhouse’s nursery. It’s Saturday but Sawyer doesn’t take his eyes off of his phone long enough to notice the shopkeeper walking over. She smiles and asks if you need help. Sure, why not? She guesses at the occasion from your age and what adorns your hand and you say yes, yes, nearby in Freeport next spring. Sawyer is trailing behind as the shopkeeper peppers you with questions: colors, vases, and height. Pins or corsages? How many tables? Anything for the ceremony or aisles? When you hesitate, she comes up with suggestions: ivory and dark wine, vintage crystal, not too tall to obstruct conversation. The shopkeeper looks to Sawyer for an opinion, and he nods. You’re the expert, he says with his hands raised as if he’s committed a crime. She chuckles once before continuing, describing seasonality and price ranges given the supply chain challenges. It’s terrible, you agree, after a beat, even though you have no firsthand experience as a small business owner in a pandemic. You pass by a barrage of potted evergreens, thick and needly. Spears of perennial phlox and lupine in bright colors. From middle grade science you know that the difference between perennials and annuals is that the latter only lasts one season.
As you leave, you wrap your fingers around the brown bag with the split-leaf philodendron you’ve bought to commemorate the occasion and fold a matte business card into your wallet. Sawyer walks over to the driver’s side of his Subaru Forester while you unload the bag into the backseat. An unexpected red enters your vision: a single begonia bloom with two pairs of even petals. It may have been accidental, but the stem is cut. Clean. Nestled into the canopy of overlapping leaves of your purchased houseplant. It’ll be, in all likelihood, the most naturally-occurring vibrance you see for the next few hours. Tucking it behind your ear, you get into the passenger seat before the roar of ignition muffles the sound around you.
* * *
Mia Tong (she/her/hers) is an emerging fiction writer of immigrant stories and YA. She is based in the Boston area where she is pursuing a master’s in Creative Writing and Literature. Her work has placed in the top 5% of submissions in the Bridport Prize. She has a website with her writing samples for those interested, www.miatongwriter.com.
Elena arrived home from dropping her children off at school and stood motionless in the foyer of the empty house. It was a Wednesday morning in mid-September and outside the dreary scrim of clouds diffused but didn’t diminish the oppressive heat of southern California fire season. She was lightly sweating, and her teeth were unbrushed. She tossed her bag to the edge of the nearby bouclé couch and watched it tumble, open-mouthed, down to the floor. Dropping to her knees she rooted around in the pile of detritus and found the two Oxys she’d dropped into the bag earlier that morning. She rolled them around on her palm for a moment before dry swallowing them. “Oh well,” she whispered aloud and nudged off her shoes before walking up the stairs.
It was stale in her bedroom. The angle of the sun through the blinds striped the dusty bookshelf, the pile of clothes, the tangle of greasy finger-printed action figures – dolls, Elena insisted on calling them, so that her two male children wouldn’t get the idea that they were above dolls – and on the bed a pile of unfolded linens, like a large bird’s nest. For a moment she considered folding them but instead pushed them to the floor, confirming to herself the idea that had been bubbling under the surface of her thoughts for the past week, since her husband had come clean to her about everything: perhaps she wouldn’t be putting things away anymore, nor doing laundry nor folding. She maybe wouldn’t be washing dishes or cooking. The mental load, the parties and dentists and teacher conferences, the therapists and shoe shopping and Christmas cards—she was putting it down, for now and maybe longer. The laundry was staying on the floor.
Elena looked out the window. The house and the street were quiet. It was only her and a few elderly neighbors home in the mornings, sequestered behind hedges and gates. All the useful people were busily at work, out in the world. The garbage trucks, the Amazon trucks, would faintly come and go; the neighbor’s hybrid car she recognized by its complacent vibrations as it rolled down the driveway next door. The hours, measured in the lift, lull, and drop of the painkiller’s high, would soon softly drain away, and another day would be gone. Elena began to feel as though her head was a hundred pounds, cradled by gentle, loving hands. She wouldn’t be making any moves, not today, not yet. She wouldn’t be thinking of her husband and the lies he’d told for months, the fake late meetings, the large transactions camouflaged from her indifferent accounting. It didn’t have to be dealt with now. She yanked her velvet curtains closed.
Lying down on the bed, not bothering to adjust the tangled duvet, Elena located the remote control wedged between the bed frame and mattress and flicked on the TV. The drugs continued their warm roll down her body, and she shivered with a feeling like joy. She was mid binge-watch of the TV show Dallas. It was a recent discovery – the thumbnail of cowboy hats and the glint of retro lip gloss had arrested her endless scroll, her interest piqued by the fact that it was a show from the time of her birth, the late 1970s. The drugs and the show complimented each other, she had found, the opiates easing her into an appreciative sedation and refracting the TV melodrama into more than the sum of its parts. She felt a tenderness for the actors of forty years ago. They had ill-disguised under-eye bags, crooked teeth. Their physical flaws were weirdly appealing, even touching, as was the show’s ugly and ornate décor. The Dallas ranch house was modestly white with prim yellow trim on the windows; the inside was hideous draperies and baroque mahogany furniture.
The television version of wealth back then, Elena observed, meant dressing for formal dinners served by maids in white caps. It meant tennis playing and business deals over three martini lunches. This was why she liked it. Dallas might as well have been taking place in a foreign land. There was no aspirational advertising lurking under the surface, prompting her to Pavlovian Amazon purchases. Dallas described a quainter, homier kind of capitalism, in which the capital – oil, cattle – was ineluctably tied to the ebbs and flows of geology and biology. The show’s villain JR, venality undisguised, chased women with a simple, atavistic drive. There was something gently titillating for Elena in the show’s unexamined patriarchy, the women suffering and the men fist-fighting and laying down the law.
As Elena watched, JR’s pregnant and long-suffering wife Sue-Ellen took to the bottle: humiliating herself at a party, falling down the stairs, and finally drunkenly crashing her car. After her baby was born, Sue Ellen sequestered herself in her low-ceilinged bedroom with its ruffled bedspreads and matching wallpaper, the layers of her night-clothes hiding bottles of vodka. She was a ruined woman, refusing to tend to or even look at her newborn as punishment to JR – a revenge that seemed classical in its venomous precision. Sue Ellen, a Medea in polyester. Elena drifted, bodyless, mind receptive and loose, wholly engaged. Another episode began and ended, and then another.
Five episodes later Sue Ellen was drying out and the afternoon sun was thrusting itself again through a gap in Elena’s bedroom curtains. The painkiller’s effects had abated in time for school pick-up. From being in bed all day she was lethargic and exhausted. While fitfully dozing the drugs had given her strange half-dreams; in an intensely sexual one she’d been french-kissing the former president; his lurid orange face had meltingly collapsed like rotten fruit, sliding down her throat, through her fingers. In another, her house and the Dallas house became imbricated, maroon carpets and crystal chandeliers frosting what seemed in shape and size to be Elena’s living room. She turned off the TV. Dallas had twelve more seasons and she planned to watch them all. She picked up a sheet off the floor and started folding.
* * *
Chloe Coventry is writer and musician living in the hills above Los Angeles. She studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College before getting a PhD in ethnomusicology from UCLA. Her essays and poems have appeared in various places, including the Journal for Creative Communications, Words and Whispers, and The Whiskey Blot.
“I think we should do it,” he says, not looking at me, as he keeps his eyes on his phone. I hate that phone. He seems to love it more than me.
“I don’t know. The cost is astronomical. And do you really think it is worth it?”
His eyes come up and stare into mine. He hardly looks me in the eyes anymore and now he has cornered me with them.
“It’s cheaper than a divorce.”
It felt like he kicked me in the stomach. We have gotten to the point in our marriage where it is no longer should we get a divorce, but when? I look at his eyes. Eyes that swept me away and had such a power over me when we met. But now, I see all that is wrong with him in those eyes. Those eyes make me sick. “Do you know anyone who has had success with it?”
He looks back at his phone, our moment of connection gone.
“The Claremonts! Seriously? They are like the perfect couple. Had they ever fought in their whole marriage.”
The couple everyone wished they could be. They still found passion and joy in each other, always embraced as if they were high school sweethearts. They joked and flirted with each other. Really, they weren’t always like that?
My fingers squeeze my thighs. “So, I believe it is $3,000 a memory. We could afford to do three. Which ones would we do?”
Memories. Isn’t that what we are essentially made up of. Yes, we are taught to live in the moment, but the moment is so fleeting. It is the memories we base our life off of, the memories that flood us with joy, or drop us to our knees.
“Well, I was thinking about our fight over kids.”
Oh, that is a doozy. I wanted to start having kids when we first got married, but he said we should wait, enjoy life first. “We can start trying in five years.”
I hate him for that memory. We went back and forth over the decision for the first couple of years. He refused to give in. And then, into the fourth year of our marriage they found cancer in my cervix, and the hysterectomy made it so I would never conceive and give birth. I have never forgiven him for that one.
He didn’t seem to hear me as his fingers tapped his phone.
“If we are going to do this, then you need to be present. Put that phone down!” The memory had drudged my hate for him, and I had lost my patience for him. He stuffs his phone in his pocket and looks around me, but not at me. Do I really want to salvage things with him?
“And then there is the memory of you not letting me take that job with Steve Jobs. I had an in. I had an in.”
He slams his hand against the couch cushion as dust plumets out. I look away. I know he has never forgiven me for that. He would have gotten in with Apple shortly before they became the household sensation they are. He had an in with Steve, and we would be filthy rich. I wouldn’t mind letting that memory out of our marriage.
“And the third one…” I say. We both know what the third one is, but I need him to say it. Instead, he plays stupid and shrugs.
“Just say it,” I bark.
“Because, you have to.”
He looks at me again. “You see. It is these memories we trap inside us that have ruined our marriage. If only we could have forgiven each other, then I think we would have been like the Claremonts.”
“Why should I forgive you? Your betrayal to me is far worse than not taking a job with Steve. I made a mistake. You stepped out on me.”
“And that is why we need to do this. We need to erase those memories and have them replaced with something of love.”
I want to pick up the lamp on the end table and throw it at him.
He wants to just erase what he did to me, as if it had never happened. Convenient for him. He’d get his fun without any of the consequences. “I don’t know if I can just let that go. You deserve punishment for it.”
“Haven’t you punished me enough these last seven years? I have paid my penance.”
My face gets hot and I ball my fists. “You will never pay enough.”
He jumps up. “Well, it is obvious our marriage will never be saved if you cannot let go and move on. Listen, we can’t do this anymore. Something has to change. Next Monday, we will either walk into the Memory Alteration Clinic, or the courthouse to file divorce. It’s your choice.”
The alarm wakes me from my sleep. I look at the empty spot in the California King. He hasn’t slept with me for years. I look at the calendar next to the bed.
A million butterflies flutter in my stomach. No, not butterflies, angry hornets, and they are stabbing me with their stingers. I get dressed and skip breakfast. I can’t eat. I go into the garage and find him already waiting for me. I get into his car with him and the smell of pine hits me hard. I hate that smell because it reminds me of him. He has always used pine incense in his car since I have known him.
“Are you ready for this?” He asks as he backs the car out of the garage. I shrug. “We can pick the alternative,” he says.
I don’t know if we are making the right decision. Both options seem wrong, and yet right. We drive in silence and walk into the lobby with him several strides ahead of me. We wait in the lobby for them to call our names. There is no small talk as he stares at his phone.
“Bachelor,” they finally call. He stuffs his phone in his pocket at looks at me, but I refuse to look back at him. We walk into a small room that smells like paper.
“Do you have any questions?” the lady asks.
“Yes. I do.” I sit in the hard seat and shift my weight. “I’ve read the pamphlets, but I am still confused. So, you take our memories, and replace them with the ones we wrote out for you.”
“Yes,” she says, bobbing her head.
“What happens when we are with other people, and they bring up the memory you erased. Will that bring it back?”
“No, it is completely gone, and it has a blocker in place. Your mind will refuse to let it in. You will reject it as if they said something absurd, like your mother is an alien. You know from the fiber of your souls that your mother is not an alien, and despite the heaps of evidence they give you, you will never believe your mother is an alien. Same thing. If anyone tries to reintroduce your wiped memories, they will not stick. You will reject them.”
My body tightens. It is a good concept, but I still want to hold onto the betrayal, just a little. But I guess for the sake of our marriage, our fifteen-year marriage, I have to let it go.
“Any other questions?”
We both shake our heads.
She hands us paper gowns “Slip these on. I will come back in ten minutes to take you to the memory room.”
I hold the crinkly gown next to my chest.
She gives us a huge grin. “Get ready for your happily ever after.”
* * *
Stephanie Daich works in corrections and has the privilege of observing many types of people. She uses writing and poetry to capture the rich experiences of living. An example of magazines and books you will find her work in are Making Connections, Youth Imaginations, and Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul: Kindness Matters (publish date set for 5/2022).
I feel it in my bones, but not my body. The body remembers, but the bones bend. I count the days. My bones ache as I grow older. They stay inside me.
I have learned that a body is only a body submerged into water. It is a reoccurring dream of mine. I carry a rock with me, I sink. Every time I drown. Every time you drown with me. I close my eyes. I try to remember.
Here is my knife. The cost of safety is only one imagined. I speak in whispers. I hide from ghosts. They follow me to imaginary places. I touch my own hand and find that it is there.
I count to ten like you taught me. I name every thing I see, touch, and hear. I breathe in. I breathe out. I let myself expand. I take up space. I shut my eyes. I see sparks. I clench them harder. I would rather not know what is there, or what is not.
I am honest. I am good. I am kind. These are my daily affirmations. I look at myself in the mirror. I string out words. I repeat. I try to disappear. I am good. I am kind. I am good. I am kind.
Tenderness is not synonym to kindness. To be tender is to be an open wound. But I believe in goodness, and I believe in ruin. I believe in erosion. I hope everything I love one day kills me slowly. I wake up at 3 AM to smoke and soak up the moonlight.
You are gone and I am no longer brave. Do you remember when you would mold my skin into something fireproof? I withstood winters and I withstood time. Oh, I ache. I ache.
* * *
Alejandra Pena is a lesbian, Mexican-American poet. Her work has appeared in Words & Whispers magazine, and will soon appear in Another Chicago Magazine. She loves her pug Kiwi & the moon.
Short, yet endless gray Ohio winters weighed down my mind, even as a child.
In the thick of January, my mother set out striped beach towels, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut diagonally, slices of kiwi and starfruit. We listened to the Beach Boys and bathed in the sunlight streaming in from the back door.
It was only years later, with an apartment of my own, that I realized why she did this – and why we both needed it.
* * *
Erin Jamieson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published in more than eighty literary magazines, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She teaches at the Ohio State University.