Over the course of my pathetic life, I’ve learned the value of not saying what you mean. For example, “Yes, Linda, your open-toed shoes are really chic and hip!” Translation: Your rancid troll feet are about to get a restraining order against any human contact. See? You just don’t say that to a co-worker. That’s day one stuff.
Or, “Of course, Janice, I’ve listened to that band a few times. Interesting sound. Can you pass me the fork?” In other words: Please let me borrow your fork so I can stab my eardrums out. Just thinking about the music you like makes me question whether or not culture died.
Or what if your mother asks you for the hundredth time if you’ve looked into any new jobs related to your bachelor’s degree in philosophy? Do you tell her, No, Mother, I haven’t. I’m going to suck the teat of the government checks until the money runs dry and Avery eats her own tongue to survive? No. You say, “Well, I’ve sent out applications to a few hundred jobs on Indeed in the last week or so, and I’ve had some really good hits–” (from some questionable Russian companies looking for freelance writers to write their spam emails for $3 an hour) “–but nothing that really hits the sweet spot yet. I’ll keep looking, though. Thank you for asking.”
“I prefer them mushy.” Regular avocados are too expensive.
“No way. It’s already been a year? I’m so sorry, officer.” This smokestack on wheels never had a chance of passing inspection.
“She never showed me any math worksheets.” I may or may not have needed extra rolling paper.
“It’s really not a big deal. Don’t worry about it.” It’s never too early to try ED pills.
“Oh, it’s nothing.” Car keys aren’t too sharp.
It’s just easier. People don’t want to hear what you have to say. They want to hear what they want to hear. Makes me wonder why everyone stopped reading as much. Life is just reading people like a bad book where the ending is a dead giveaway. And it gets a lot easier when you write it for them.
A couple of weeks ago, I met up with this guy Janice set me up with. Roger. What a sophisticated name. Like he owned a whole string of car repair shops in the suburbs or something. Name like that, I could see black grease on his fingers, working their way greedily at the zipper on my cheap, department-store dress, or yanking at my pullover bra, thinking it has a hook so he can show me how experienced he is. Beard scratching my increasingly bouncy jowls, smelling like American Spirits. The red ones. And not that I want any of this. It’s just what I know I’m going to get. Roger.
“I’ve worked for HP for going on twelve years now. Building hardware.” Roger’s scrawny fingers scratch the thin, combed-over hair hanging too high above his forehead.
“Oh, yeah? And you enjoy working there?” Why’d you do that with your life?
“It pays the bills. Pretty well, actually.”
“Well, God knows that makes it worth it.” Is it enough to pay for your inevitable hair transplant or surgery to remove the bags under your eyes or the mail-order Russian wife you’ll end up with in your sixties? Jesus.
“You’re not wrong. And it’s just really nice to be on the cutting edge of modern computer science. You wouldn’t believe the kind of stuff we’re coming up with.”
“That’s really interesting.” Where’s the check?
“It is, right? So what do you do with your spare time?”
“I don’t know. Watch shows, mostly.” Drink wine and kill time until I pass out, rinse, and repeat.
“What shows are you into?”
“Oh, I’m not picky. Lately I’ve been watching The Vampire Diaries.” That’s true, actually.
His face held back a grimace. “Really?”
“Yep.” Back off, snob.
“Isn’t that like some kind of vampire-romance soap opera or something? Why do you watch that?”
“Oh. Well, what I’m really interested in is the notion that in any genre, however fantastic or unrealistic or immature, stories can still find a way to capture real human drives and emotions. Real relationships, and all the tragedy and comedy that comes with surviving in any world.”
He leaned back, only glancing at my cleavage for a split second. “Wow. That’s…a fascinating way to think about it.”
I smiled, knowing what I really meant was, You can’t tell me you wouldn’t want to binge-watch bloodsucking teenagers bang it out.
The bell chimed on the door as someone left the diner. For whom? Not for me, unfortunately. Roger was clueless to my boredom. His lips slithered sideways into some form of seduction. “So…what are you doing after this? Any plans?” He wiped the pork chop juice off his chin. Well, most of it. “The night is young.”
You’re not getting your hands on this tonight, pal. I winked at him. “I’m game for anything. Your place?”
I took my daughter to my friend’s clinic recently. It reminded me that obligations to go outside are becoming more and more like non-consensual enemas.
“Stick your tongue out like this, honey,” Gina told Avery. Avery made like a dead animal, tongue draped over her bottom lip, her eyes rolled to the back of her head. I never have the heart to tell her how ridiculous she looks. I love her.
Gina jammed the popsicle stick down her throat, then pulled it out and started snapping off her latex gloves. “Looking good, girl. Perfectly healthy.”
“Hear that, Mom? There’s nothing wrong with my mouth.”
“Hey, I’m glad to hear that!” I wish she found cancer in your mouth so we can cut out whatever makes you talk so damn much! Don’t hate me, but it’s just what’s in my head sometimes. I still love her, like I said.
“Avery, can you run out to the front desk for me? I think I might have left your lollipop with Miss Amber.” (Oh, I can do this one for you, too: Get out of here so I can shove an emotional popsicle stick down your mom’s throat for a minute.) She winked at Avery, who flew out of the room like a ravenous stray dog. I did feed her that day. Probably.
“Yes, Dr Sadler. Your diagnosis?”
“What is it? Cancer? Juvenile diabetes? Ovarian cysts?”
“Why are you like that?”
Shit. I forgot the rules. “I’m sorry. What’s up?”
The syringes in the glass jars by the wall looked delicious. I don’t know how Gina ever goes home. “I just… wanted to know if everything’s okay.”
“It’s fine.” Please stick me with those needles.
“Because Greg and I were wondering if maybe you’d want to come over Friday night? Like you used to before?”
“Oh. Well, yeah, that could be good, I think.” Get out of my ass. People live in separate houses for a reason.
Gina lit up. As she smiled, her lower lids formed pools of water under each eyeball. Gross. “What do you think about this Friday, then?”
I scrunched my face up in thought. I’m not a great actor, but I think she bought it. “Hmm. This Friday? I’ll have to get back to you on this Friday.” Bitch you will not be hearing from me this week.
Her smile held on for dear life. “Okay, that’s fine. Rain check for next week?”
“Absolutely.” Almost certainly not.
Avery’s flip-flopped feet slapped back into the room. “Mom, they had the purple ones! Those are dad’s favourite!”
“That’s great, honey. Don’t let it stain your tongue.” God, oh God, why are you doing this to me?
I went to Kroger the other day. Dear Lord in heaven: our greatest tribulations should never include the buying of our daily bread.
First, the sad, disenfranchised people at the front smacked their bells at me and asked me for money. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any loose change on me.” Get your own welfare check, cry-baby.
Then, as I wandered through the Mexican food aisle, staring up and down at an assortment of different-coloured sodas whose price and existence seem questionable at best, an employee whose name tag read “Ted” leaned over me, his hot salsa breath too close for comfort. “Is there anything I can help you with, Miss?”
He went for Miss. Bold. “No, thank you. Just sort of aisle gazing.” Nobody needs a professional grocer. Let me grab my coupon food in peace.
“No problem. If you need anything, I’ll be around.”
“That’s very helpful, thank you.” You’ll be around? What the hell does “around” mean? Do I have to look for your shifty eyes in the reflection by the meat fridge? For God’s sakes. To be sure, I gave every aisle a sideways glance to make sure I didn’t have to run into hot-breath Ted again.
Even the cashier gave me trouble.
“Are you putting it in the right way?”
“Yes, I believe so.” I can read a goddamn sign about how to stick a credit card into a machine.
“Okay. Maybe it’s rejecting it for some other reason?”
Bitch. “I mean, maybe. Card’s been on the fritz lately. Um, is there any way I can come back and get this stuff later, maybe? I can run home.” I’m embarrassed and I hate myself and you’ll never see me again.
The cashier glanced at the people waiting behind me. Their eyes cut away like they were letting someone get away with a crime. “Let me ask my manager?”
“You know what? Forget about it. Please forgive me for holding things up.” My daughter doesn’t have to eat tonight.
The worst is Dr Vaida. You can never say what you mean with psychologists.
Last time, I kept staring at his knuckles. It was like he was a werewolf and his hands forgot to transform back. He clasped them so gently over his crossed legs, but I knew he was just in grandma’s clothes, waiting to pounce and tear my clothes off and dine on my knobby flesh.
“How was your weekend?” he asked me.
“Did you make any progress with the journals?”
“A little.” None.
His gaudy grandfather clock ticked like there was a Keebler elf inside kicking the wood. “Selina, I hope you will open up with me a bit more this week. I’m here to listen. I just want to talk about you. I want you to lock onto your feelings so you and I can make real progress together.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. I understand.” Why are your feet so small for such a tall man?
He tilted his head down, his gaze still attached to me. I looked back at him uncomfortably, not knowing what he wanted me to say. What do you say to psychologists? His eyes bore into me like scalpels. Psychs look all over you, reminding you of the disturbing fact that you’re covered in skin. Like they want to rip it off and yank it away to see what’s underneath, as if they’re not just going to find the blood and guts and piss and pus that make up all of us. They’re searching for something they’re never going to find.
“Has there been anything you find yourself thinking about?” Dr Vaida asked.
Avery. Money. Sex. Cigarettes. The stain on my ceiling. James. “I like to think about food.”
“Yeah. Food. What the next meal’s going to be, you know? Sometimes I finish lunch, and then right after I’m like, ‘I wonder what I should make for dinner?’” Food is the only thing I can trust.
I nodded. Good enough for you?
Dr Vaida leaned in. “What about James?”
“What about him?” Jump off a cliff.
“What sort of thoughts are you having about him?”
I felt the sweat soaking the socks in my flip-flops. “I don’t know. Last time I saw him was…” I scratched my head as if I’d forgotten. “Ten weeks ago?” I shrugged. “Two and a half months? I don’t really know how to measure time at the moment.” He went away two months, seventeen days, and three hours ago. “Anyway, life’s pretty much the same, I guess. He’s just not there.” I wish he were there.
I could see Dr Vaida’s pseudo-telepathic wrinkles burrowing into his forehead. “How would things be different if he were there?”
“Excuse me?” Excuse me, asshole?
“Forgive me. I mean, I am interested to know, on an emotional level, how your days seem different now than they did when James was at home. When you could eat meals with him. When you could see your daughter with him. When you could go to bed with him. In those moments, do you feel the same, or something else?” He maintained that analytical stare. He had balls, I’ll give him that. Not once did he look afraid that I might come after him with a silver blade and chop off that werewolf head of his.
“I don’t know what to say.” Please don’t make me talk. I thought about James. About his face. His smile. His hands. I thought about the letters he wrote me, tied together by an old scrunchie under my bedside table. I thought about the backyard, and how the grass used to be cut so clean, so even. How he made a safe space of that tiny lawn for Avery and us to live in. A place that was ours. Our own fraction of the universe, carved out, small and beautiful. I thought about his thin crop of hair growing back. I thought about the long, curly mess he had when I met him.
I closed my eyes and sighed. “I love him. Still. And not like the cliché way people say that. I mean like I actively love him right now. Like I need to show him that I love him. I still do things the way he would want me to do them, hoping he’ll notice. I spent an hour and a half the other day making eggs Benedict cordon bleu, his favourite. Wasted most of the dozen just to get four to work, and the ham was cold. But I did it. Then I Saran Wrapped the other plate and threw it into the fridge. Sometimes I turn over in the bed so I can slide my leg between his and wake him up a bit. But I hit air. There’s a part of me that hates him. Like what the hell am I doing every day, trying to live my life, be a mother and father to my daughter. Why the hell did he leave? Did he think I could do this alone? I never could do anything on my own. I married the bastard not just because he loved me, or I loved him. It wasn’t just fairy tale junk. I needed him. I needed someone. I can’t do life alone. I never have actually been alone. That’s something I realized a few days after he left. Those were the only days I didn’t have someone to tell me what to do next.”
I leaned back. Gravity increased its force in the room, pressing my shoulders and hips down into the chair. I wasn’t sure how I felt about saying all that. It just sort of happened. In my head, though, of course, not out loud. What I actually said was, “I feel the same.”
Dr Vaida’s eyebrow fissures condensed into a frown. You’d think the guy could handle his job better than he did. I couldn’t be the hardest person he had to work with. I’m not that screwed up.
Two months, seventeen days, and three hours before that, I wasn’t sure how I felt, either.
The wine buzz did more than anything else could have to keep me on my feet in front of James’s family, my own family, and our friends. I was afraid the constant, thunderous sniffling and moaning outbursts would knock me down before my nerves did. Aunt Helen had some mean pipes on her.
As I stood at the podium, I knew everyone was relying on me. Everyone needed me to sum things up for them. To give them the okay that this is what God and the universe wanted.
I hated it.
“Thank you all for being here. I know James is looking down, with a Busch Light in his hands and a stain on his white robes, laughing at all of your whiny faces.” If there even is a heaven.
“But seriously, Avery and I will cherish the memory of spending these last moments with James, celebrating his life, and moving toward healing together.” I will be drinking away this event as swiftly and as dangerously as possible. “As most of you know, James’s last few months were not pleasant, to say the least.” I’ve never seen so much underwear wasted day after day. Disgusting. “He fought and he fought, and he showed us how this thing can be beaten with enough determination. With enough grit. But in the end, his sickness was such that even the most valiant fighter had to submit.” And the longer he fought, the bigger the bills were.
Aunt Helen unleashed a piercing wail of pain. Way to steal the spotlight, Aunt Hell.
“But James is in a better place. I think we all know that. And if you don’t, try to take comfort in it. It’s what he would have wanted.” I’m not sure when our butts last touched a church pew. “If you knew James, you knew he wouldn’t want you here wiping your tears. He’d want you to wipe the barbecue stains off your mouths and call for seconds.” I am literally just making this up as I go. Maybe I should be in public relations.
“In all seriousness, I’d like us to remember something. James was one of those men who, just by being himself, could light up a room, or light up a smile on a friend’s face. That’s the true sign, to me, of a man we’ll never forget. Just by being in our lives, just by being James Buchanan Rudke…” I wiped a tear from my eye. “Just by being exactly who he was every day, James became the kind of man everyone would remember forever.”
I think I meant all of that, actually. And after a few amens and a few wet tissues, I cleared my throat and finished up.
“And I just have one last thing to say.” Please let me get one of the biscuits before the cousins get over there.
The people sitting in the pews went silent, staring up at me. Shit, this had better be good. I looked down at Avery sitting in the front with Mother, clinging to her arm, her face wet and red like a sweet cut of ham. Poor girl.
“I thank God that James was that kind of man, because all we can do now is remember him forever.”
It seems unusual at a funeral service, but everyone started clapping, some of them whistling, and the amens flew at me like rotten tomatoes. Pastor Jake stepped over and hugged me sideways, the holy way, and I mouthed “thank you” to him before I went back down and hugged what was left of my family.
I’m just really glad I didn’t say what I was actually thinking: I wonder, if I have time to make chicken parmesan tonight, can I use cornflakes to bread the chicken?
About The Author
Chris Marek is a husband and father, lifelong Texan, and proud alum of Sam Houston State University English Department, where his professors and peers encouraged him to read voraciously the words others wrote; finally, he felt like putting some of his own down. “Say What You Mean” is his first publication.
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