Horror Hurt/Comfort

Sam & Maria

June 12, 2019
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Average Rating: 3.8

I

The house at the end of the cul-de-sac shook that night from one last fight, one last shouting match to shame the others, which had occurred with unplanned regularity for the duration of Sam and Maria’s nine years together, which had driven them from their condo in the city, police knocking at two a.m. because neighbors had called in another noise complaint. In the suburb nobody would hear, but the couple would find that with the absence of neighbors’ ears came the amplification of their shouts within their own.

The house’s walls vibrated from the shouts. The diplomas on the wall vibrated in their frames, rattling against creamy yellow paint. The photos of nine years vibrated in their frames on book shelves. Statuettes vibrated and moved across the mantle.

Her last shout followed the shattering of a plate against a wall.

“No! That’s IT!” The front door opened, her silhouette framed in a long shadow across the front lawn. “You don’t listen. You don’t hear. Listen now—” She plowed through his objection, her Nicaraguan accent rising from dormancy. “Hear me now. I…am…not…coming…back.”

In a sense, she was right. He was listening and he did hear, but what he heard was this: “I am going over to his place and I’m going to suck his cock. I’m going to fuck him until I forget your face. I’m going to fuck him like you and I fucked in the beginning. In the morning I will wake him with a fuck and he and I will shower together and we’ll laugh over brunch about how stupid you were for having not seen this coming.”

“Shut that fucking door and get back in here.”

The expression on her husband’s face, contorted and red, no longer frightened her. That would be the expression she would think of in the future when she had doubts about having left. When she’d remember a time he was sweet and be tempted to call. When someone (her mother) would callously remark that he had been such a catch – a doctor – and that she should have tried harder (“You were always a quitter.”). That face – that alien face – the last she would allow herself to see, now defined him.

“No,” she said, firmly, evenly, closing the door behind her. It was the calmness with which she delivered the word that raised a roadblock in his throat, which kept him from following her out, which planted him in the hallway, hearing her car door close, hearing the engine start, hearing it pull away, down the street, until he became aware of the silence. Silence, echoing in the halls. His blood rushing in his eardrums, he stared at the door, waiting for it to open.

But it didn’t.

He paced, footsteps echoing off the hardwood. Where would she go? Her mother’s? Doubtful. Her co-worker/lover’s? Maybe. No, too late for her to call him. She’d go to a motel. Or her sister’s. But she’d be back the next day. He knew it. He poured a Scotch, neat. He sipped it, then gulped it and poured another. He contemplated calling her. He did, leaving an angry voicemail. He hung up, repeated. The Scotch warmed him. The peat smell filled his sinuses. He put the phone on the kitchen’s island and went to his chair in the great room to sip from the glass, waiting for the call, for the car in the driveway, for the door to open, for the long hug, the kiss, the apologies and the promises it would never happen again.

He went to the kitchen and poured another. He checked the phone for a text. Nada. Back to the chair. He waited. She would come back. He knew she’d come back. His phone was in his hand. No message. He called. It rang, the sound of the ringing a sort of comfort. He left a message. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Please come back.” It was closing in on 4 a.m., and he had work in a few hours. It would be an office day. Throats, ears, and coughs. An hour later he checked the phone again. No missed calls, no messages. He laced up and did a slow mile on the treadmill, then showered and got dressed for work.

 

II


Getting on without sleep wasn’t as easy as it used to be. In med school, all-nighters were regular things, the following day a manic euphoria, sometimes fueled by coffee, sometimes by amphetamines, sometimes only by the joy of having not missed a minute of existence. It had carried on after graduation, through their courtship. Weekend trips to Spanish clubs, sunrises over the Delaware, endless streaks of life in concentrate, interrupted only by a triple shift in the hospital. There was a club in Greece, in a cave that opened on the sea, the entire world taking form as the sun broke the horizon. Back home, the club’s rhythm continued pounding in their blood, subdued, but rippling out, giving vibrancy to banalities in the days that followed. It had been fun.

But Sam was older now. Though it didn’t show, he felt it. His eyes burned. His hands vibrated, imperceptible to no one but him. There was a slowly growing weight dragging on every muscle in his body, pulling him toward soft things he could recline on, where it would be easier to breathe. But for his patients he had only smiles and competent demeanor. They’d never be cured of their need for attention – his confident assurances did more for their health than the prescriptions he wrote. They could not see that he wasn’t paying attention to their stories of deep struggles with their imaginary pains. They could not see that a rage burned coolly in the pit of his stomach as he became more and more certain that Maria was with that co-worker, that she was crying on his shoulder, that he was consoling her with gentle touches that metastasized into caressing fondles, probing gropes, thrusts, moans, and worst of all, laughter. Maria’s laugh belonged to him, and the thought of her giving it to another man was—

“You okay? Seem a little off today.”

Elaine, the nurse and receptionist, had popped her head in. He looked at her, thought about telling her, but changed his mind. No need to suck her into his drama.

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? Mrs. Jackson was upset after you saw her.”

Sam opened his eyes with mock surprise. “Why? I told her there was nothing to worry about.”

“Um, she said—she said she didn’t feel she received the normal level of attention you give her?” Elaine had picked up a habit from her teen-age daughter who was going through that phase of ending statements with a tonal upswing, turning them into questions. On most days it was only a minor irritant. Today, Sam boiled at it.

“Maybe I’m a little tired today,” he replied. “I’ll call her this afternoon with an apology.”

Elaine lingered at the door. She felt like there was something that needed to be fixed, but wasn’t entirely sure of what it was. “Thank you, Elaine,” Sam added. She nodded and closed the door.

Sam was finding that in private practice, customer service was vitally more important than medicine. Each day he came into the office, the realization that he was a highly skilled clerk grew a little. He missed the hospital in the city, St. Constance Lytton, and its variety of maladies, the faster pace, the arguments with other M.D.’s, the feeling that every day he had solved a significant problem for someone. Now it was high blood pressure, acid reflux, and fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia, for fuck’s sake. He’d felt disgusted with himself the first time he’d passed that diagnosis, and now it was pretty much all he saw. Every god damned day, he thought. If this is it, forever, just kill me.

He looked at his phone. No messages, no calls. He called Maria but didn’t leave a message. Fuck her. He went on-line. His last Facebook entry was four months old, announcing the move into the new house, which was still sitting at 117 likes, mostly their friends – her friends now. A few photos of their vacations. Santorini – Was that already five years? They looked so happy, but he knew that her smile covered up the discomfort from a UTI that had kept her in the hotel room for most of the trip, which he’d given her grief for. Who goes halfway around the world to sit by the fucking hotel pool? You’ve got to tough that shit out or it owns you. That’s what he’d said to her. Five years later he could see her smile, forced for eternity, silently mouthing the first half of the word “asshole.”

Sam went to her profile. Her status hadn’t changed. No updates. Her last photo was still the one of her and her co-workers at Karaoke, posted at 12:43 a.m. Friday night, three nights before. They were smiling wide, mid-laugh, her eyes flashing a brightness he hadn’t seen in person in what felt like years. She was too close to the piece-of-shit co-worker. Was his arm around her waist? Sam couldn’t tell. He thought maybe it was.

12:43 a.m., almost two hours before she’d gotten home.

Sam called her phone again. This time he left a message. It wasn’t pretty. He called again and left an angry follow-up, using the name she’d told him he could never use again. No, not the B one, the C one. Two minutes passed and he called to apologize, his voice on the edge of weeping. “Please call me back. Please. I need you. I love you. Please. You are everything. My rock. Mi piedrita. I’m so sorry.”

There was a knock on his office door. Sam looked up as it opened, hoping it was Maria walking in. It was Frederick, his partner.

Frederick smiled. “Hey buddy, I’m heading out for lunch. Want to check out for a bit?”

“Freddy! Thanks, I’m, uh, I’ve… Sorry, I already ate. Maria packed a salad.”

“Well I’m disappointed you didn’t call to share. You know I love her cooking. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Yes, you got it.”

The head withdrew. A few seconds later it popped back in.

“You all right?”

“I’m fine, thanks. Didn’t get any sleep.” Freddy nodded and disappeared again.

Sam sat in silence. Freddy, his friend since med school. Happily married to Jeanette, Jeanie. The same Jeanie from college. The same Jeanie who’d gone down on them both that one night. Also that other night. And then again when all four hopped to Ibiza. After Maria had left the club early, not feeling well. The good thing about European clubs was that you could find a quiet corner to fuck and nobody paid any mind. In the States, somebody always stopped for a shocked gawk. Sam had never told Maria about those nights, and as perceptive as she was, she’d never guessed. The one secret he’d been able to keep had been the worst.

Just what the hell did he mean with that comment about loving her cooking?

A half-hour later Sam stopped at Elaine’s desk and let her know that he needed to take the afternoon off. Tomorrow probably too, but he’d let her know. Would she mind rescheduling his appointments?

“Of course,” she told him. “Hope you feel better!”

He drove home, the anger that had pulsed throughout the day gone. The closer he got, the stronger his certainty that when he arrived, he would see Maria’s car in the drive. He would walk in – no, he would bound up the steps and he would find her inside, on the couch, waiting to talk. He would apologize – he would mean it – he would mean it for real this time. She would be angry, and the talk and his promises wouldn’t fix it, but the sex – the sex afterward would fix it. It always did: a drought-busting storm to clear the dust and make things grow again. Afterward she would hum and bounce and gush about how much she loved the way he held her, and he, finally, would get some sleep.

 

III

 

Sam sat in the car staring at the empty driveway. The fatigue came back, soaking his muscles, burning the backs of his swollen eyes. Now he really wondered where she’d gone. Had she been in an accident? Was she—no. Any situation like that and he’d have received a call. He pulled into the driveway, got out of the car, and took the front stairs with slow and heavy steps.

Sam noticed something was off the minute he walked in the door. The air was different. The light was different. Even the sound of the empty house was different. He walked the halls with a gambler’s compulsion, certain, against odds his own cognition was telling him were unfavorable, that he would find Maria in the next room. It wasn’t until he got to the master bath that he discovered why everything seemed off.

Her toothbrush was gone. He opened her cabinet to see that it was barren of all jars, vials, tubes, and devices. He slammed the cabinet. In the bedroom he flung open dresser drawers. Empty. Her walk-in closet was empty except for a few dresses and lingerie he’d bought her. He fingered one of the dresses, then looked up and jolted to his own closet, where he hurriedly keyed in the password to the safe, and found, only somewhat relieved, that the petty cash, all thirty-thousand, was still there. With less urgency, he went downstairs, through the halls, the rooms, taking appraisals, not noticing that anything else was missing.

He poured a Scotch with ice and went to his chair to sip. She had only taken her things. Their things had not been disturbed. All of their memories. Their wedding gifts. Their wedding album. Their porn. Their dishes. Their furniture. Their skis. Their tennis rackets. Their everything remained in the same places they’d decided on in the first weeks of moving in.

For a while he sipped, banishing questions of what he may have done to push her to an extreme she’d never gone to in all the fights before. Did she want more? She always wanted more, and he’d always given it to her. More house, more vacation, more activities. She’d never wavered from their shared desire to remain childless, except for that one time she’d cried her doubts until he’d convinced her to stick with their agreement. Oh, and that other time she cried, sob-shouting that she had wanted to keep it. How could she still have felt that way? He told her they could keep it if she’d only said she wanted it, but she’d never expressed that. Just a long silence before a nod, and then three years of silence leading up to the sobbing regret. That kind of silence is dirty pool.

He’d supported her drive to move up at work, from marketing manager to director of marketing to VP. He’d propped her with glowing words, affirmations, assurances. What else was there? The only thing he couldn’t give her was the excitement of another man’s cock, and she, perfect and proud Latina princess, had never asked for that. But he’d known all along that was what she’d wanted. He’d caught her glances, her laughing at other men’s jokes. She’d been spending more time at work with the excuse that it was what the job demanded, and if he didn’t like it, he could have married down.

And then, over the last year since she and her sister had gone back to Managua – the big sister trip, the great return home – he’d felt her putting walls up. Less affection, less demanding, less laughter, fewer dinners, silent breakfasts, less sex, cold sex, would-rather-be-washing-dishes sex. She’d started taking classes. She’d joined new teams at work. She’d seen a career coach to help her figure out how to get where she wanted to go. Always she came back from these extra-curriculars with bouncing effervescence that had caused him to accuse her of not wanting him anymore. He’d been a jack-ass every step of the way, and she, luckily, had been accepting of his apologies.

But only to a point, apparently. Why was it different now?

In the empty house at the end of the cul-de-sac, staring at a part of the wall a little to the right of a black-and-white wedding portrait, a moan simmered within Sam. It forced its way up from the diaphragm and erupted in a long, slow, single sob.

All that he’d given, all that he was. It just wasn’t enough. And that bitch. That inconsolable, insatiable, unappeasable, greedy bitch! She’d broken the vow. She’d broken their trust. She’d

Sam grabbed his keys with the intention of going to her sister’s house and forcing her to talk to him. If she wasn’t there, he’d make her sister tell him where she was, and he’d find them and make her—Jesus, he thought. Am I really going there? That’s what emotionally stunted, white trash wife-beaters do. I’m a fucking M.D.

He sat back down, pulled out his phone and went to facebook, fully intent on flaming Maria’s page, but when he searched her name, her profile was not on the short list of Maria Orlov’s that came up. The hell is this? He went to his page and immediately saw that his status had been changed from “Sam Orlov is married to Maria Ortiz Orlov” to “Sam Orlov is married.” He shut his phone off. He turned his phone on. He stared at it, then turned it off. He turned it back on. He called her, hearing the familiar ring coming through the audio, followed a few seconds later by the sound of her ringtone coming down the hall from the kitchen.

Sam jumped up, taking long strides, hearing the ringing get louder, and burst into the kitchen expecting to see Maria, his mouth opening to let it all gush out.

But the kitchen was empty.

The ringing came from the island, where Maria’s phone vibrated on the counter. The ringing stopped. The distant sound of her voicemail message came from his hand down by his waist. He looked down and hung up, and walked slowly to the phone, reluctant to pick it up. How had I not seen it? Had she come in after? Is she still here? He listened for sounds but only silence returned. He went to a front window and looked out, but the driveway had only one car.

Sam turned on her phone and punched in her pin. 47 missed calls and 12 new messages. He clicked the notification and saw that all had come from his phone in the last 24 hours. Had it really been that many? He exited to the main screen. The apps had all been removed. He went into her contacts – empty. He went into messages – empty except for the three texts he’d sent. He didn’t look at them. Everything in her phone was empty, except for his impetuous vitriol. He opened the text thread and closed it immediately after seeing the word “CUNT” jump from the screen. The word made him blush.

He stared at her phone until the screen went dark. He set it on the counter and went back down the hall to his chair. For a while he stared at the spot on the wall next to the wedding photo. He had no idea where to go from this moment.

 

IV

 

It was a nice night for a fire. Like so much else of all the stuff they owned, they had never used the fire pit in the backyard. After four months, Sam was finally breaking it in.

The smoke was black, fortified with toxins released from melting plastic and Chinese paint, from fine furniture lacquers, from colorful, flowery underwear that melted into nothing. Sam didn’t bother covering his mouth. He coughed out the smoke when it blew his way, distantly noting that it was probably dangerous, but he took a gulp from the Scotch bottle. In the E.R., he had treated survivors of fires, people who coughed up strings of black plastic and black ash. Sam thought about that. Then he didn’t think about it.

He didn’t bother to take the glass out of the picture frames. Some of it broke when he threw it on the fire, and other times it cracked with a tink from the heat. He took a seat in his camping chair. “Fuck recycling,” he muttered, followed by the thought, this whole goddamn world is going to shit, can’t be saved, and will be better off barren. He stared into the flames. A $3,000 photo that had hung above the sofa was now browning and bubbling inside its glass frame. Maria had cooed over it at the gallery, deeply moved, but had looked at it maybe twice in the two years since. Sam grumbled, “Fuck this whole stupid Earth and fuck all the stupid cunts that fill it.” The glass in the frame cracked and tinked, popped some pieces, allowed in the oxygen, and the paper caught with a chemical-laden blue hue.

Sam pulled out his phone and opened his facebook page. He thought about deleting his profile. Instead, he went into his photos and deleted anything related to Maria. She’d blocked me? I’ll block her. He removed photos. Entire albums, gone. He went to his friends list and unfriended anyone Maria would take in the divorce. He’d never liked most of them and he knew they didn’t favor him either. He scrolled, he deleted. Over and over.

It was 1:30 in the morning and the to-burn pile was getting small. Sam looked at it with an exhausted slump. He still hadn’t had any sleep since, what, two days ago? It had taken four hours for him to move it all out from the house and another four hours to burn the lot of it. Chairs, tables, art, photos, tables. Anything that Maria had picked out, or had been a wedding gift, or had come from some friend of hers, went on the pile. That heavy and hideous duvet had almost smothered the flames. The cherry-framed mirror, a gift from Maria’s mother, had slipped from Sam’s grip and fallen on his left foot, and he thought from the pain that he might have broken the big toe, but it had subsided to a low throb and didn’t hinder his movement. He’d worry about that tomorrow. Some of the larger pieces he’d broken down in the house with a sledgehammer before moving them outside. There would no longer be a need for a love seat, a china cabinet, or a large antique chest to hold antique pieces of fabric that nobody would ever fucking use.

Where Sam had collected experiences, Maria had been a collector of things. She had told him that she liked old things because they gave her a deeper sense of the past. She’d gone on and on about it. She liked to imagine the women who made the quilts and the children who slept in them. And on and on and—

The image of Maria’s naked ass jumped into Sam’s mind and he was instantly aroused. She had a glorious ass. In jeans, in slacks, in a dress, in underwear, it bounced with a determined vigor, with a beckoning smile. She could have worn an astronaut suit and that ass would have made itself known. It had a life of its own, a personality that Maria did not seem to be aware existed apart from her. La Cobrita, he had called it, and like any charmer he liked to make it dance. No longer feeling exhausted, Sam’s hand went to his zipper, and he quickly lowered it, the vision of Maria ahead of him, walking, her skirt bouncing, the noon tropical sun bouncing off white stone pavers to give her smooth, kahlua legs a soft glow from below. The cotton fabric of her skirt sliding over the bulbous contour of La Cobrita, rippling in the wind, gliding over the outline of her panties. Sam’s hand worked. He thought of Maria in the shower, their second time having sex, only twenty minutes after the first, impossible because of mucal coagulation in the water, but still electric to run his hands over her skin, down her curves, which merged with his edges as he nibbled her ear from behind, eliciting a laugh, that glorious laugh, which shook her through, and he quickly, without warning, darted his finger across her labia, causing her to shriek, turn around, and gobble him with a predatory fierceness, and–

“HEAR ME NOW!” Maria’s face angry, hurt, her voice cracking, the door closing with a room shaking thump – finality.

He lost it, and it had been so close. He opened his eyes and looked around at his fire-lit yard. No. God damn it, I need this. He searched for other memories, flashes from clubs, of legs, of breasts, of hips and necks, in their bed, her on top, the silk Maria wore like an Aegean wind. Of Maria, below, her ass high, her vagina clamped on his cock. Flashes, none sticking. Sam searched, striving for a moment, an image, and what came up wasn’t Maria, but Monica, the performer one of the guys had called up in Vegas for Freddy’s bachelor party, who’d come to their suite and peeled off her long coat to reveal leather and vinyl and a body that was a caricature out of some middle-schooler’s wet dream. Monica had stood above each of them in turn to dance, hurl insults, and drive her stiletto heel into their scrotums. The guys, all eight of them, had laughed and hooted and splashed each other with beer and vodka that stung the eyes. When it was Sam’s turn, it suddenly wasn’t a ridiculous cliché. He looked up at Monica, who grinned devilishly as she pressed her heel into the skin of his scrotum, stretched across the wood of the chair he sat on, and said to her, “No, do it for real.” She cocked her head, her grin flickering then flashing wider, “You sure?” The others went silent, then whooped up with splashing guffaws. “Do it,” Sam told her, the laughs dissipating into distant ether, and she, Monica, the ball-stomper, slowly pressed down on his left testicle. The pain flooded in and Sam groaned, his body jerking heavily. “No, God damn it… DO IT FOR REAL!” She hesitated and he yelled again, and she drove her foot down, slapping his testicles with the toe of her boot.

And that was all it took. In his backyard, Sam pressed down on his balls and closed in on his orgasm, remembering the curling pain, how he’d shot a jet of semen that stained his shirt collar, how the guys had reflexively let out a chorus of “OOOOOOH” that quickly evolved into them all rolling on the floor in laughter as Sam shook in his chair, returning to his senses, Monica looking down, wearing an expression that bordered on amusement. “You okay, baby?”

“Fuck yeah.”

In the backyard of the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, in the dying light of a black-smoke fire, Sam ejaculated into his hand with a silent, lips-pursed shudder. He reached down and wiped his fingers on the wet grass. Almost immediately the fatigue rolled in, flickering his eyelids, then clamping them shut.

 

V

 

Sam checked with Elaine before going in to use the X-Ray on his toe, which was bothering him with a dull and steady pain. It didn’t appear swollen or even bruised, nor did it hurt with pressure or movement. It just delivered a cold reminder that he’d dropped a dysfunctional family heirloom on it the night before. From all signs, it most likely was not broken, but he had to make sure.

The image showed no break. Sam stared at it, looking for anything at all that would explain the pain, which – am I imagining it? – felt a little stronger than when he’d come in. He went to lunch with Freddy, who twice asked if Sam was all right. “Fine, fine. Kicked a table leg in the dark.”

“D’you break it?”

“X-Rays say not.”

“Want a second opinion?” Freddy asked with a grin, but Sam didn’t appear to get the joke.

After lunch, Freddy came into Sam’s office for a look at the image, and after a minute of study, agreed that it was negative. He laid the X-Ray on Sam’s desk and slid it across. Sam picked it up and began tapping it on the table. He was at a loss, and grimaced suddenly at a jab from the toe.

“You okay?”

Sam looked up. The concern in Freddy’s voice was mirrored on his face.

“Maria?”

“Yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with my toe.”

“What happened?”

Sam looked away. His mouth opened. He looked at the X-Ray. His mouth closed. He looked at the frames on the wall. His mouth opened. He looked at a sleeve of pharma brochures on his desk.

“She… She left.”

Freddy nodded. “One of you is always leaving. She’ll be back.”

“No. I don’t think she is. She’s cut me off.”

“C’mon. How many times has she done that?”

“Something’s different this time. I don’t know. She’s cold.”

            “Do you know where she went?”

Sam thought about telling Freddy about the co-worker. “No. Most likely her sister’s.”

“Are you going to go over? Try to work it out?”

“No. She said, and I think she meant it this time. She told me not to call her or try to see her.”

“Jesus. What the fuck did you do?”

Sam thought about telling Freddy about the co-worker and Maria’s late nights. He shrugged. “You know me. We’ve always been great together, but, you know, it can get ugly.” Freddy’s slightly raised eyebrow went unnoticed.

“You got something on the side?”

“No. No. This time it wasn’t me.” There it was. It had just slipped out.

“What are you talking about. Nobody’s more singularly devoted than Maria.”

“And how would you know that?”

Freddy laughed off Sam’s accusation. “Keep this on yourself. She’d have never stayed with you all those times if she didn’t love you with a stupid kind of gravity.”

The toe sent out a lightning strike that reached up Sam’s leg, and his eyes opened a bit wider, but he didn’t let on otherwise.

Freddy continued. “Now why do you think she’s sleeping around? What’s got you worked up?”

Sam told Freddy about the late nights and the co-worker, the nagging feeling that she was distancing herself on purpose. Freddy nodded along with intensifying consideration.

“That doesn’t sound good.” For a moment, their eyes locked. Freddy was surprised at the wholly open vulnerability in Sam’s face. Over the years, he’d seen a variety of expressions, but Sam Orlov had never been a welcoming host for desperation.

“What are you going to do?”

Sam studied a blank area of his desk before looking up with a shrug.

“Maybe take a couple days off,” Freddy said. “Get out of town. You want to go to Vegas? The City? Tear it up?”

Sam thought about it. “Nah.”

“You sure? I could use a little time off from the old lady myself.”

“I’ll be all right.”

Freddy shrugged.

“You could do me a favor, though.”

“What you need?”

“Write me a script? This toe’s not getting any better, and I want to sleep it off if I can.”

“You got it.”

Freddy stopped at the door on his way out. “Let’s run some tests. It’s not a fracture, but maybe it’s something else. Have Elaine draw some blood and let’s send it out. And after work tomorrow, let’s go down to the hospital and run an MRI.”

Sam nodded, but something told him any further tests would come back just as inconclusive as the X-ray.

 

VI

 

He didn’t go to work the rest of the week, nor did he make any of his tests. For the first two days, the toe, along with just about everything else, was whispering from fifty miles away. He lay on his sofa and found he didn’t need the remote. All he had to do to change the TV was close his eyes. Blink, new movie. Blink, new show. Good morning, Philadelphia! Good night. He was glad the pain was masked, but he hated this feeling. He didn’t understand how people could get addicted to this stuff. To be on tape delay, out of control of your own appendages, felt disgusting. He would have to cut the dose by Sunday if he wanted to make it to the office.

That didn’t matter, as the toe started to override the Oxi on Saturday evening. He was blinking through an episode of Friends. Ross and Rachel were on a break. A punch line dropped and the toe sent out a sharp reminder.

Sam sat up and lifted his leg to get a look at the toe. How could it not be swollen? How could that kind of pain not be coming from a mangled, flattened, blackened phalange? What the fuck is it? This is no bruised nerve, no stretched ligament. This is no break. It’s not a swelling tumor pressing on the tissues. Whatever it is, it’s getting worse.

What if it never gets better?

He crawled up the stairs. He leaned against the wall and slid down the hall. In the safe were the last three Ecstasy pills from Vegas. He took two. An hour later his teeth locked. He shuffled through some tunes, settled on old Tiësto, Nyana, went to the back porch, and sat down to feel the breeze on his arms.

Maria should be here for this. But she had never clicked with E. Coke had been her thing. He called her anyway. Nada. He grinned. She hadn’t changed her number. That was something to hold onto.

Oh, that’s right! She did change her number. She left her phone here. He laughed. “Dumb-ass!”

After a few hours he took the third pill to maintain the roll. He built another fire and raised his arms to the sky, an unstoppable grin. No more Oxi. Things were gonna be okay.

 

* * * * *

 

The toe woke him with a ferocity that gave him certainty that it was being fed upon, and he jerked awake, blinking stupidly, trying to figure out why there wasn’t a badger gnawing on his foot.

Just a normal toe.

He took three pain pills and paced the room until his vision narrowed and he stumbled. He had to concentrate on turning his head, but the pain had not been dulled. This was not manageable. He yelled at his toe. He pulled at it. All it did was scream. The flesh was peeling off. The bones were being ground into shards that tore into the muscle. He thought of the skeleton in the Mütter Museum, fybrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, the bones that had fused and grown calcified knives, stabbing the poor guy in a thousand places every time he so much as breathed. Is that what this is? No. Maybe? That guy’s condition had precipitated from an otherwise innocuous injury. No. It would have shown up on the X-ray. Sam drank two quick glasses of Scotch and had to force himself not to take a third, aware, somewhere, that this was not sustainable. This was how celebrities died.

But this torture could not be endured.

Suddenly it became very clear. The toe was no longer him. It was separate, and it was letting him know in the fiercest possible way that it was now in control. Sam looked at it with fear, and then his lips pursed. No. You fucker. You don’t make the decisions here.

He grabbed his keys and went to the office.

 

* * * * *

 

It was nine in the evening when he slammed the brakes in his driveway, the car parked askew. His toe pulsed acid. He went straight to the master bath and sprayed it down with disinfectant. Sitting on the edge of the tub, he pulled off his sock and washed his foot, grimacing and grunting at the water’s torture. He made three injections of local anesthesia, not in the least surprised that it had no affect on the toe’s pain. He dried the foot with a sterile towel and wiped iodine. He unwrapped the scalpel and did not hesitate for a second, making three confident, efficient cuts through the flesh and muscle on each side of the toe at the metatarsal-phalangeal joint, cutting until the nerves were exposed.

He stared curiously. The pain retreated. He had never seen his own muscles before. His bones, his nervous system, his skull, his brain: all of these things were integral to his entire life. They were more him than his face in the mirror, but they were strangers. He could not look upon them, sense them, or determine their reality. How could something so profoundly part of me be such a mystery?

He stared for a while longer. Gradually the toe began to ache again, and without further hesitation, Sam cut the nerves: first the outside, then the inside.

And just like that the pain was gone. He exhaled, watching the toe to see what it would do in revolt. Other than a slow pooling and dripping of blood, nothing happened. He prodded the tip of the toe with a suture needle and felt nothing. He slowly drove the needle under the nail until a line of color showed beneath, but felt nothing. There was something very unsettling about the disconnection of sight and sensation, but, fully satisfied that the pain had been contained and silenced, he dropped his head, and released a chuckle that morphed into a relieved “Aaaaah.”

He wiped the needle with alcohol and got to work sewing up. He hummed a song, a favorite of his and Maria’s from long ago and far away.

 

* * * * *

 

The following day he rested. While his toe no longer gave him any cause to worry, he’d been absolutely brutal to the rest of his body. He could feel his heartbeat under his skin, a warm sensation that must have been high blood pressure. He thought about checking but brushed it off. He drank several glasses of water and took a few aspirin. He started to make coffee, but reconsidered and mixed a smoothie instead. Frozen berries, almond milk, Greek yogurt. Some lime juice and mint leaves. He sipped it looking through the kitchen’s bay window at the blackened pile in the fire pit.

That was not a rational thing I did. But these have not been a rational few days. Is that what pain does? Jesus, it wasn’t even the pain, but the fear that it would never end. That was too much. Now there is no pain. I will never take another step without thinking of that pain, and I will be grateful that it is gone. What if it comes back? Am I going to be able to jog?

Sam tested his toe. He sent the message for it to move, but it gave no response. This was frustrating, but he knew it would pass. He’d probably not even notice by next week. He walked the halls to see if his gait was affected. He caught his foot a few times and adjusted, feeling his weight more than usual. Aside from his awareness of the numb sensation, there didn’t seem to be any significant issues. Unless you were a rock climber, toes were pretty useless in the modern world, appendices the human race would discard over the next million years of evolution.

He sat in his chair in the living room and put on a Sunday morning news program. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something had changed irrecoverably. It was just a toe, he thought. Was this the pain that chronic patients endure every day? I’m going to have to pay a little more attention to that.

And later: Was that what Maria felt with her UTI? I really was an asshole. Oh, that’s terrible. I need to call her and apolo—

No. And even if I could call her, she does not want to hear from me. That might hurt her more than—

One evening years before, in their first apartment, they’d been preparing dinner to go along with their wine. They playfully bumped hips while they chopped, taking turns to toss veggies into the stir-fry. On one of his turns he bumped the chef knife he’d been using and it slowly slid over the edge of the counter, falling point down, landing on – no, in – the center of her left big toe. The blade had penetrated the nail and the knife remained vertical.  They both looked down with their mouths open, unbelieving what had just happened. He looked at her with shocked guilt. She, unexpectedly, was about to go into a laughing fit, but the pain curtailed it and the eyes she gave him filled with a vulnerability that hit him in the stomach. It was strange that she didn’t cry as he fixed her up. She cried about every other thing, but being stabbed had somehow elicited a toughness he’d never seen in her. He’d been proud of her behavior through that, and was overly doting and supportive as she healed.

Oh, those eyes, brown and wet and open. She’d looked like a child with those eyes, and for one of the very few times in their relationship she had stirred his protective instinct.

The memory of that feeling – protector – was when it really set in – the knowledge that it was over. She would never again press la Cobrita into his crotch. He would never wake up to her smile again, nor hear her laugh, which sounded like—

“Ah, the hell with that.” He stood up too fast and stumbled, but quickly gained his balance, and set to work on the more constructive distraction of cleaning the house.

 

VII

 

After work on Wednesday, Sam and Freddy met up for dinner at the Whip Tavern. Even though it was out in the country, the Whip was a warm, darkly lit place with an English menu and the kind of noisy atmosphere that allowed privacy while making even the barflies feel like they were part of something. It was a step up from the taverns they had frequented through college and the years after, but their conversation that night was largely a routine that Freddy was glad to initiate, trying to bring his friend out of his post-Maria funk.

“I think you’ve caught the waitress’ eye,” Freddy jabbed.

“Fuck off.”

“You remember that one in Manayunk?”

“Fuck off.”

Freddy leaned over and put his hand on Sam’s shoulder, laughing. “She called you at six the next morning!”

            “What exactly was it you wrote on the check that got her so worked up?” Sam brushed Freddy’s hand from his shoulder. “Did you even think about what would happen?”

“Nope,” Freddy said. “Never thought she’d call you, that’s for sure.”

“That’s a fun way to start a day. You ever break a woman’s heart at dawn?” Freddy howled and Sam looked into his ale. “God, that was sad. Poor thing,” Sam grumbled, but he was starting to smile. “You’ll notice that I’ve never left the bar before you in all the years since.”

“It had to be done if you were ever going to get that tolerance up.”

“Pity we never found a waitress s’good as Susie.”

“Ah, Susie,” Freddy smiled.

“She was so much more into me than you.”

“Bullshit.”

“No, really. Honest truth.” Sam crossed his heart with his pint glass, spilling a few drops on the way. “She asked me out.”

“So what? She asked me for a checkup in the back alley.”

“Oh really. And what did you discover beyond the remnants of my passion?”

“If you’re referring to her vast network of genital warts, then nothing to get worried about.”

Sam leaned forward with a serious look. “Do not speak ill of sweet Susie.”

“Ah, sweet Susie.” They clinked glasses.

“What ever happened to her?” Freddy asked, even though he knew.

“We actually kept in touch,” Sam replied. “She went off to N-Y-C. Studied linguistics. Wanted to be a speech therapist.”

“As mean as she was to us, I’d have never picked her for a bleeding heart fixer-upper.”

“She was a good egg,” Sam said. “And she could talk about just any subject.”

Their waitress came to the table with an easy saunter. The happy hour crowd was clearing out, giving her a little freedom to work up her tables’ check averages, and playing the boys against each other always gave a nice boost.

“How we doing?” She caught a playful twinkle in Freddy’s eyes and gave him a grin, which he took as an invitation to start up his and Sam’s old routine.

“Tell me,” Freddy demanded, “if you had to guess which of us was Skeeter and which was Possum, which would you say is which?”

The waitress grinned. “Oh, he’s definitely Possum.”

Sam slammed his glass to the bar. “Why would you say such a thing?”

The waitress laughed. “Oh, you two are going to be a problem for me tonight, aren’t you?”

Freddy flashed his dimples. “Only a good problem!”

“So that’s another round of the same?”
Freddy raised his eyebrows with a smirk. “What’s your name?”

“Alex,” she said, sticking her hand out for Freddy to take. “What’s yours?”

“Skeeter,” Freddy beamed. Alex got an angry look and slapped Sam’s shoulder. “See! I knew you were Possum!” They all laughed and she bounced to the taps.

“I love when they have boy’s names,” said Freddy. “I told you she was into you.”

“Nah, she’s just into the tip.”

“Just the tip?”

As their laughing cleared, Sam said, “Maybe I will ask her out. I haven’t felt this good in ages.”

Freddy paused and peered at Sam. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, brother. I was a little worried.” Sam didn’t respond, though he suddenly had a compulsion to tell Freddy about his toe.

“You guys still haven’t talked?”

Sam shook his head. “Not gonna happen.”
“Jeanie and I have wagers on when you’re getting back together.”

“Let me in on that action then, because it ain’t fuckin’ happening.”

Freddy leaned in, trying to get a better read. He leaned back, satisfied, and raised his glass. “Good, then! Our competition for Alex’s affections shall commence in earnest, and I expect you to walk out of here with tonight’s trophy.”

“And here comes that trophy!” Freddy grinned and Sam grinned too. In that moment he felt a deep appreciation for his old friend. Nobody could turn it around like Freddy. Sam looked up just in time to make eye contact with their waitress, who returned his smile before catching the toe of her sneaker on a chair leg, which caused her to stumble. While she was able to catch herself from falling, she was not able to keep the glasses on the tray from continuing their motion, from tumbling their contents onto her new customers.

Freddy’s eyes closed reflexively and he felt the shock of the beer’s frigidity go through his shirt. When he opened them again, he saw Sam lurched, pulling up his leg to hold his foot, his face in agony. Alex stood above him, mortified, and Sam looked up at her, his face contorted in an anger Sam had never seen.

“You stupid fucking bitch,” Sam growled slowly. The waitress’ embarrassed expression morphed into hurt. “You stupid, clumsy BITCH!”

“Hey!” Freddy reached out to pull his friend back, but Sam slapped away his hand.

“She dropped it on my god-damned foot!”

“C’mon, it’s not that big a deal.”

“You…don’t…under…STAND.”

The waitress had run behind the bar and was gesturing to her manager. The rest of the place had gone silent except for the sound of the television’s soccer announcers. Freddy reached out to Sam, who was holding his foot and groaning in agony. He was still confused about what had happened. “Are you okay?” He looked at Sam’s foot, expecting it to be spouting blood from where the broken glass had severed an artery, but could see nothing more serious than wet shoes.

Sam rocked in his chair. Freddy was concerned, but he couldn’t see what had happened to trigger that kind of response. From all appearances outside of his reaction, Sam should have been fine. They’d shaken off bigger indignities than this. Freddy looked up and became aware that every eye in the place was on them, boring in with judgment. Shamed, he looked at Sam with a different kind of concern.

The manager came up to the table. “I’m really sorry about that, but you guys need to clear out. I don’t care what happened – I can’t have you treating my staff like that.”

Freddy reached for his wallet but the manager waved him off. “Don’t worry about it. Just get out of here.”

“Yeah,” Freddy said, standing. He reached down to help Sam up. “C’mon, buddy. Let’s take off.”

Sam looked up at Freddy, his face a twisted mess of accusation, but then glared at the gawkers around the room. Sam again brushed away Freddy’s hand. “I’m fine.”

In the parking lot, Freddy watched Sam’s tail lights speed down the road. If that’s how Sam had talked to Maria, then that girl was right to have cut him off. That was downright abusive. Frightening, really. Especially that contorted look on his face. He’d known Sam since college. They’d been each other’s best men. And he’d never seen that side of him until tonight.

Freddy had seen a lot of that kind of descent. It takes a month of working an ER to recognize the frayed ends of ropes that had been all there was holding people above rock bottom. Once that behavior peeks out, it loses its timidity and becomes more and more brazen until it hits critical mass. While he felt concern for his friend – the break-up appeared to be hitting him hard – he was filled with a new worry about that behavior coming out with their patients. There had already been one complaint about Sam, and who knew what else was being missed? Freddy would need to keep an eye on that, yes, but he might also have to reconsider their partnership.

He also thought that he’d better have a chat with his lawyer. But before that, he’d need to talk to Maria and get her side.

 

VIII

 

A knock on the door opened Sam’s eyes on Saturday morning. He blinked awake, wondering if it had been real. The knock repeated, a firm and impatient call to action. He grabbed his cane and pushed himself up, and with considerable effort donned a bathrobe. He then half-stepped, half-slid his way down the hall, the knock steadied. He opened the door, leaning on the cane, to see a man wearing a suit and sunglasses.

“Good morning! Are you Samuel Orlov?”

Sam opened his mouth but nothing came out. Just an assenting grunt and a string of drool. He nodded instead, feeling that this was taking an immense amount of concentration to get to the wrong destination.

The man held out his hand. Sam looked down and reached for the envelope that the man was offering. As soon as it had been passed, the man in sunglasses turned and went back down the walk. “Have a nice day!”

The envelope fell to the ground, and it took what felt like five minutes for Sam to pick it up.

Back inside, he dropped to the sofa, breathing heavily. He held up the envelope and saw that the sender had an “Esq.” title. Divorce papers. Inevitable. This would be curious. What would the bitch demand that she hadn’t already taken? He opened the envelope and read, skipping the swirling ink of the legalese. Sam couldn’t find demands. He had to read through the coagulation a dozen times to realize that Maria just wanted separation. House, car, investments, the Practice, and any debts would remain in Sam’s possession.

He blinked: What message was she trying to deliver?

Just then his knee flashed pain and he jerked, brushing the robe aside, ready to pry open the bear trap that had clamped through flesh into the upper end of his tibia. Nothing there but his bald knee poking out from the bandages he’d wrapped around his now alien shin. Sam moaned, and after a while he moved to the bathroom to prep for surgery. He’d run out of local anesthesia with the shin operation. He made his cuts anyway, figuring that the pain from the scalpel would not be as bad as the undiagnosable but metastasizing condition.

Jesus, Sam thought. Fibromyalgia. Acute Chronic Fibromyalgia. He laughed a deep and pure laugh that transformed into a pained moan. “Fibromyalgia!” A tear fell on the mirror on the floor, and he severed the common peroneal nerve from the opening beneath the side of his knee.

Later he called the office and left a message in Freddy’s mailbox. “Hey, I’m sorry. I think this thing with Maria is hitting me a bit harder than I thought. You were right. I do need to get away. I’m going to hit up Italy for a week or two, clear my head. Really sorry. I’ll have Elaine move my appointments.”

He also made a call, not to his lawyer or hers, but to a medical supply company, where he placed an order for the least expensive wheelchair they provided.

 

* * * * *

 

For the next week, Sam drifted in and out.

On Sunday morning, Sam took considerable effort to move his medical supplies downstairs from the master bath. From now on, he’d do any additional surgeries in the kitchen. He tried to unscrew the mirror from the bathroom wall, but had lost his balance on the second screw and pulled it with a crack that shattered it. He considered himself lucky to have not been cut, and took care when bringing down the larger pieces he could salvage.

Sunday afternoon, Sam threw the remote at the television because it was showing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and there was no way that quack would have let that stupid girl work for him after she got her head wiped. Now the television had a spider-web crack in the left half, but the break allowed him to refocus on cutting through the tissues to get to the tibial nerve and finally silence the pain in his knee for good.

The wheelchair arrived Tuesday morning, which was good because he was going to have to cut the descending cutaneous, which would put his entire left leg out of the game. If he was still able to be upright, he’d be dragging 35 pounds of dead weight on crutches.

On Wednesday morning, Sam noticed that his skin was yellowish, which meant liver problems. He would need to take a few days off from the Oxi, the anti-biotics, or the Scotch. He didn’t. Instead, he woke up Wednesday afternoon with a gaping wound on the side of his right leg that had crusted and clotted. He made sure to sever the nerve before he poured the alcohol.

On Friday, after disconnecting his entire right leg’s sensation the night before, Sam actually felt no pain at all. He used this time to stare out the back window while idly rubbing his penis. He wished he had a photo of Maria to look at, but he’d burned it all and deleted her from his laptop. He settled for a google search. That did the trick.

That would be the last time he ever felt sexual pleasure.

The pain returned with a vengeance on Saturday. Now it was in his balls, his colon, deep inside his bowels. This cut was a struggle, and he battled with the decision from late in the morning through midnight, sometimes crying, but cutting that off with his mother’s words, “Leaders don’t cry. Followers cry.” Finally he gave in, shaking from the pain, and positioned himself on a backless chair from the dining room. He’d arranged the pieces of broken bathroom mirror so that he could see his back. He had to operate in reverse, and it took a few missed cuts to correct.

            There it was, the exposed spinal column. T-11 and T-12. The nerves were buried deep within the bones, and he’d have to use a saw to cut through the disc. That would be it. No more fucking. No more pissing or shitting. He’d be useless for all intents and purposes. Yeah, a guy without legs has it rough, but if he’s got a dick he’s still got a reason to go on. Sam stared at the prepped opening. Blood dripped and pooled on the plastic sheets he’d laid on the floor beneath the chair.

The pain won out, and, without anesthesia, Sam cut through the tissues between the bones, weeping and whimpering, and once again crying joy when he felt the snap that brought cool release. It was very difficult reaching around to stitch up.

On Sunday he saw the lines of stitches going up his legs. In the network of broken mirrors throughout the kitchen, they looked like flies covering his flesh. He had shit himself, pissed himself, and for the first time, he realized there was no coming back from this. His life was over. He wanted to talk to Maria more than anything. He wanted to call Freddy. But they could never see him like this. They wouldn’t understand.

The smell of his house made him gag. He thought of ways to cut olfactory nerves.

He finally gave up when the fingertips on his left hand started radiating the pain. Even worse was the fear he felt, that the pain would never go away. That his head would never quiet. He needed escape. He wished for more E pills. He wished for youth. He wished for Maria’s laugh. He even wished for his mother, surprising himself. She would not have been supportive of his recent choices. “Just like your father,” she’d have told him. Sam chuckled at that.

He prepped the back of his neck for one last operation. He would aim between C-6 and C-7 and would have to do it by feel, which would be difficult as the throbbing in his left hand’s fingers increased. He dialed 9-1-1 and told the woman that the nature of his emergency was home surgery, and that he’d be paralyzed in five minutes. Please stay on the line, she pleaded, but he hung up. Calmly he waited for the sirens, for the knock on the door, for the door to open, for the officer to enter the house. Laying naked on his stomach on the kitchen floor, Sam sawed at his spinal cord until his arm went limp, dropping the tool to the floor. He couldn’t tell if he made it fully through, but the pain in his fingers, stomach, and chest was gone. He smiled in relief as darkness closed in from the periphery, and he thought of Maria, hoping she might—

 

 

IX

 

After an unknown amount of time in which Sam briefly opened his eyes to catch glimpses of different people, strangers, looking down at him at different times of day and night, he finally woke with clarity. From the noises around him, he could tell he was in a hospital room. From the light in the room he could tell it was afternoon. He tried to look at his body, but his head would not move. He remembered what he’d done, the escape from that relentless pounding, and felt relief that the pain was gone. He was still alive. This meant they’d been able to hook him up to heart/lung machine. He could feel the tube in his trachea and heard it breathing for him, and was immediately overcome with claustrophobic panic. Oh my God oh my God oh my God. His mind thrashed, telling his limbs to move, to get him out of bed, to breathe on his own.

Nothing happened.

What was left of his clinical, precise mind was telling him not to panic, to breathe, to be calm and to control the fear, to think positively and find a way to improve this situation. But that clinical mind had been battling a superior enemy for almost a month. The pain, the animal pain, had battered Sam’s logic to a tired acquiescence.

What have I done? Bring it back! Move! MOVE!” The thoughts looped in his head with increasing intensity until his thoughts went to static.

Because he could not move his head, Sam didn’t notice that Maria was sitting in a chair next to the bed.

Because Maria was immersed in a book, she didn’t notice that Sam had woken.

They sat that way for a while.

Maria came to the hospital after Freddy had called her. She had let the phone go to mail after the first call, but he left no message, and she answered his follow-up call angrily, expecting Freddy to be calling on behalf of Sam, but he’d just called to let her know that Sam was in the hospital. The doctors had given her more detail about what he’d done to himself, but nobody could explain why he’d done it. It was for that answer that she’d sat by his bed for more than a day. She didn’t know if she would even get an answer, as the doctors could not say if he’d had brain damage. All they could tell her was that his brain showed activity, but they wouldn’t know for sure until he woke up.

She had been shocked when she first saw him, prone and supine. That faded with each compression of the breathing machine, replaced with questions. Should I have answered his calls? Is this my fault? She cried several times. No, this is not my fault, she thought. He did this himself. All the anger he had taken out on me had to go somewhere with me gone. I will ask him that when he wakes, how it feels to be on the receiving end.

Sometimes she’d watch him sleep, with the machines doing the living part for him, and she was filled with pity or a memory, but for a month she had been preparing for the eventuality of seeing him again, and every time an emotion with any warmth toward her husband tried to bubble up, she forced the image of his face, that angry, accusing, ugly-to-the-point-of-being-alien expression, into her mind. After a dozen such suppressions, she was now able to look on him without pity from a remote place where Sam could not enter.

Now, after a full night and day in this room, she was idly focused on a story about a Russian who was chasing his lost nose all over town. Her focus on the story was broken by a sensation that something in the room had changed, and she looked up to see that Sam’s eyes were open.

Her mouth opened but stopped short of saying anything. She was shocked that he’d finally woken, yes, but was more rooted by the expression on his face, which was something far worse than his alien face, and which conjured a swell of pity that she did not think to suppress. He looked like a little boy, lost and trapped and terrified. She gasped and stood to look down on him.

As she came into view, his eyes widened.

The pain and fear that had been on his face vanished, replaced with disbelief that evolved into recognition. As she looked down she did not move. Those were the same eyes Maria had looked into for so many years, reflecting at different times warmth, mirth, and euphoric pressure demanding she let go and let him lift her, and when she needed it, they reflected safety. Those expressions had always pulled her closer, and she was compelled now to put her arms around him and bury her head in his chest.

But they had also been alien eyes. So many times they had blazed a crushing reminder that Maria was stupid, weak, and not worth more attention than an old sofa.

She straightened her back and crossed her arms.

“Why? Why did you do this?”

Sam, of course, said nothing. His eyes softened and his mouth opened as if to form a response, but nothing came out. His mouth just opened and closed like a fish that had found itself on the beach. “Why did you do this to yourself?” she asked with a firmer tone. His eyes now reflected a bit of fear, but Maria did not soften. She pressed into him with steadiness until he looked away. Then, with his gaze locked on the opposite side of the ceiling, his eyes closed and the cracks filled with water.

Maria wanted to turn his head to force him to look at her, but it was held in place with a stationary halo that would have prevented it.

“Please. Look at me. I have to know.” But his eyes did not return to her. “Is this because of me?” His eyes came back to her. “If it’s me, look left. If not, look right.” Sam’s eyes softened and filled with tears again, but they did not move. “Oh my God, you did this because of me? You’re blaming me for this?” Sam’s eyes widened and he blinked, then he moved them to the right several times. Maria checked herself from letting her anger come out with the kind of names he’d called her so many times. She looked down at her stomach and closed her eyes and exhaled. This was not going to work. She abruptly turned to grab her purse, and without looking at Sam, left the room.

Sam lay in the bed, trying his hardest to follow her out, but his eyes could only stretch so far. The next twenty minutes were very difficult for him, and when Maria came back into the room she saw that his eyes were wide with relief and need. She moved past him and put her purse on the chair she had been sitting on. Sam could hear the sound of a package opening, of plastic being torn. There were other sounds that he couldn’t place, and then came an unmistakable sound of a vibrator, which caused Sam’s eyes to widen with both confusion and alarm. When Maria came back into his view, she was holding up an electrolarynx.

“I don’t know if this will work, but we’re going to try.” Her accent was very heavy. She reached down and pressed the vibrator to Sam’s throat above the breathing tube. It echoed mechanically in his throat. He opened his mouth.

“Woooooow,” he said. Maria ignored him.

“Why did you do this?”

Their eyes were locked. Hers were both determined and concerned. His moved from her left to right eyes. His mouth opened and closed.

“Why, Sam? Please. Please tell me.”

His eyes softened and filled again. Had he said anything but what he said, her resolve might have broken and she may have let him back into her quarantined heart. The love for him was still there, aroused by concern, waiting and wanting to flood out and cover him with healing. Waiting for him to say I love you or I’m sorry or I miss you or I need you.

But he said none of those things.

What he said with an alien, robotic voice was “Can you get the nurse? I have a terrible headache.”

She pulled her hand back from his throat and stared at him.

It had always been about control with him. From day one. Even when they had danced, in college and through their twenties, it had been a glorious struggle for control. Usually it ended with a climactic, passionate truce, but when the dancing had stopped the control struggle had seeped into all other areas. He negated her every offer to truce, dismissed her every opinion as inferior. The house she’d come to hate so much was void of any accent. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Especially the neighbors, kept at a distance with a wide lawn and bookending tree lines, far enough away to not hear lawn mowers, clanging dishes, loud music, and quarrels. But also far enough away to discourage walking over to borrow a cup of sugar. Control is ultimately about solitude, and the quiet struggle that emerged had been the worst. When she finally closed her vagina, her last weapon, he’d only gone out and found others. How many others had there been?

And now look at him, impotent and immobile and still trying to control her by deflecting her questions.

“Yes,” she said. “Of course.”

She silenced the electric voicebox and turned to retrieve her purse, receding once again from his view. “I’m going to push the button to call the nurse,” she said. But she did no such thing. Instead, she examined the blinking machines that were pumping Sam’s blood and air. One after another, she unplugged them. When she finished she went back to Sam and looked down at his expression as it changed from vicious condemnation to a blank lack of recognition. Finally it faded completely and she plugged the machines back in. She walked into the hall and passed the nurse’s desk. Without looking back, she went to the elevator and repeatedly pressed the down button until the elevator toned its arrival.

 

 

X

 

Maria’s father, her Pápa, had been a university professor and a poet in Managua. She had not seen him since she was a little girl, when her mother had grabbed Maria and her sister in the middle of the night and left for the French embassy, where they waited for two days before sneaking off for a small boat in the harbor, which had taken them to Panama, where they went to another embassy, then to the airport, which connected them to Mexico City, where they waited for two years for news of Papa. When the news finally came, her mother was ruined. Her mother, Sarafina, a woman of aristocratic origin, reduced to cleaning Mexico City hotel rooms, took them to America. They settled in Philadelphia, where Sarafina taught Latin American history in a community college to supplement royalties from her husband’s work, which, 30 years later, was experiencing a rebirth in popularity in college literature courses.

It was her father’s words that Maria returned to after leaving Sam. After crying in her car in the hospital’s parking garage, she cleared her eyes and checked her face in the mirror. She remembered her book and realized she’d left it in the room, but decided against going back for it, even though she had borrowed it. She would never finish reading that story. She pulled out of the spot and drove up two levels, emerging into a bright afternoon sun, and drove to her sister’s home where she’d been filling waste baskets with damp tissues for the last month. This afternoon she had the house to herself and she felt grateful for it. She pulled out a piece of paper that she had carried with her since she was a teenager. She and her sister had found this interview of their father, a clipping from a French magazine, while sneaking through their mother’s things, in a box of intensely profound discoveries that linked them to a man they’d never known.

In the interview, the writer asked Maria’s Pápa why he wrote poetry. The man said that he was not a poet, but a sculptor. “We are all sculptors,” he said, “and our lives, our personalities, our souls, are the rock we transform into something beautiful. Sometimes we chisel, sometimes we hammer carelessly, sometimes we work with intricate, dangerous delicacy and determined precision, but we must always be working to discover our final form within the piece of marble that God has allowed us. We only learn more of who we are by what we lose and what we let go. The poetry I produce is just the chips and particles that fly off when I use the hammer. The same is for you with your work.”

Maria and her sister had found that beautiful as teenagers. Every time she read it across the years, it still felt beautiful, but always in ways that felt new. The words, of course, were the same, but they connected to parts of her that weren’t there before. In many of her previous readings, her focus had been on the “final form” part. But now, after everything, the part in the beginning stood out more, about transforming ourselves into something beautiful. It felt more active, more powerful.

She read it again and smiled.


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Vivid and disturbing
Goomba rated this work:

June 13, 2019, 2:22 p.m.

Some overall impressions before I get into the section-by-section: your piece made me feel like I need a shower. It made me feel grateful for my friends, that I don't know anyone like Sam. Then again, I'm sure Freddy felt the same way. Sam's story was clearly meant to be hard to read, and throughout the piece the only thing that kept me moving through the disgust was an admiration for your writing. You have a particularly great ability to describe your characters' perceptions, no matter how twisted or conflicting they are.

Now into the section by section breakdown:

I:
"with the absence of neighbors’ ears came the amplification of their shouts within their own." "their shouts within their own" has that nice symmetry to it, but I did have to reread it once before being able to process what "their own" was referring to. Maybe there is a way to keep the symmetry while improving the pronoun agreement.

The next few paragraphs that follow are just great. Nothing much to critique, I just appreciate them.

The introduction of Sam's jealousy and insecurity is jarring in the internal fantasy monologue in a good way.

The POV switch you do afterwards was unclear to me the first time through. When I first read the story, I thought that the scenarios of being tempted to call and her mother criticizing her were actually going to play out. Obviously that's not the case, but I'm still not sure if this is my mistake as a reader or if there's a way to make it obvious that these are thoughts in Maria's head. The way I would describe this piece is third person over-the-shoulder, jumping between shoulders. I can't immediately think of anything similar and I don't dislike it, but it's an unfamiliar style for me so my input might not be the most useful here.

The terseness of the final paragraphs is great. My favorite sentence from them is "the peat smell filled his sinuses."

II:
The background on Sam and Maria here is well-placed and timed.

The possessiveness towards Maria's laughter in particular is great characterization.

I think that "teen-age" should be either "teenage" or "teen-aged," but the former is definitely the most common to the extent that seeing a hyphen was strange.

I'd like to say that the fibromyalgia twist was a surprise to me, but honestly Sam deplores the humdrum of diagnosing it so much here that it becomes kind of obvious that he will have it himself by the end of the story. His "treatment plan" however was not at all predictable. In this paragraph I also feel like there's some hint that the faster pace and competitive nature of his old job provided an outlet for his anger and a means of deflating his ego. I might be reading too much into it, but I would like another sentence or two hinting more at the difference that that made in his relationship with Maria.

Sam's paranoia about Freddy's complement towards Maria's cooking is great because it's contagious.

Sam's self-delusion that Maria is returning would be kind of sad here if he wasn't so clearly a major asshat.

III:
I can visualize the sequence of events here perfectly in my head. Pulling up to the house, Sam's stance and expression changing as his fatigue sets in again, walking into the house stripped of Maria's things and Sam confused until he finds the cabinets, running around and pulling open drawers, closet doors, the safe, pouring a drink in defeat. It all just fits together so perfectly. I think that your sense of space is a great strength and a source of inspiration for myself. I have only within the last few months started working on visualizing characters in real space and attempting to transplant the character into the mind's-eye of a reader, but you are a master of that task.

IV:
Sam's trip into a nihilistic depression here happens quickly. I've never been in his situation so I can't speak to its realism, but it just seems quite extreme quite quickly. The part about "Fuck recycling" and the world being better off barren comes off comically to me. It seems like the melodrama is intentional, but the contrast between that attitude and then immediately jumping on Facebook to burn his bridges is odd. If he is really nihilistic, why does he spend so much time and effort individually deleting friends instead of just deleting the whole page? Or not caring and leaving it and just not looking at it? The blocking retaliation towards Maria I understand. The effort spent on all the other people I don't.

The masturbation scene really takes Sam's twisted personality to another level. It's so weird and uncomfortable that I had to take a break. It's not bad, I'm just not used to such an intimate look into a character like Sam's head.

V:
Not much to say about this section except that the dynamic between Freddy and Sam seems regular and mundane especially following Sam's night previous. It also seems like the nihilism has been forgotten. The fibromyalgia toe pain plot toes forward well here.

VI:
And here it comes. I thought that IV was uncomfortable, but this actually made me put my head in my hands. There is a lot to unpack in the divorcing of Sam and his toe. It serves the narrative so well, yet is so insane that I could not suppress my wtfs. If only I knew what was to follow. I was so young and naive. The next part in the severing plot-line stole that from me.

Sam's revelation about his patients and Maria's UTI pain makes sense here, since the main marker of low empathy is not being able to imagine others pain without experiencing it yourself. It's also telling that he can't open up about his revelation to Maria, and even thinks that doing so would somehow hurt her. It's interesting, because I don't know if Sam is supposed to be a psychopath or not. The low empathy, uncontrollable rage, manipulative behavior, and even profession all fit the bill, but the word "psychopath" gets thrown around to the extent that I'm reluctant to apply that label on my own.

VII:
The interposition of Freddy/Sam scenes with Sam's insane solo scenes gives me a chance to breathe, but it also is so disconcerting to see Sam transition from crazed to bantering. The reveal to Freddy of Sam's uncontrollable anger is good, but I think that the last two paragraphs could be handled a bit more smoothly. They describe all of Freddy's thoughts, but don't transcribe any specifically. I think a mix of description and transcription would make the POV switch flow more smoothly.

VIII:
The connection between the divorce papers, Sam's repressed pain taking the form of confusion about the "message" of not wanting any of his assets, and his physical pain is pretty clear.

Really funny Spotless Mind reference.

This section was where I wanted to burn my laptop. So disturbing, so good, so disturbing. The writing here is good, but it takes a backseat to the shock effect. Even now I can't truly evaluate it logically because I can't get the image of Sam sawing away at his nerves and spinal column out of my head.

IX:
I understand the murder sequence for Maria here and I'm glad that she's free of Sam, but it's disappointing that she stooped down to actually killing him. Sam is clearly not going anywhere and would have had no ability to impact her life from his hospital bed. He's a pathetic figure and by acting vindictively she's freeing Sam from being forced to live out the rest of his life dealing with the consequences of his actions. I feel like Sam wins in a way here and that's fairly tragic. I'm not sure if that was the intention, but it feels like a letdown to build up this monstrous human being who is unrepentant and seems incapable of growth, and then just setting him free into oblivion.

X:
Here just seems like it's supposed to be the victory lap for Maria, but because of what I wrote above it rings fairly hollow for me. It seems unrealistic that Maria is supposed to be the person in the relationship who is capable of growth yet she feels no guilt about murdering the helpless shadow of her former tormentor. If she was so vindictive, why did she not attempt to take anything in the divorce? Also, I'm fairly sure that hospital computers can register when devices have been unplugged and alert nurses nearby, so I think that Maria will be doing at least 5 to 10.

Overall I thought that the story was a fantastic read and is easily one of the best or the best story I've read on the site. I dislike the ending, but it's entirely possible that I'm missing a character motivation in Maria since so much of my focus was on being revolted by Sam.

Plot Point of View Character Motivation

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cereed27:

Thanks for taking the time to write such a comprehensive response. A lot to take in and appreciate -- thank you again.

I think I'll go back to my original ending, as I agree with you. My beta readers weren't happy with it but I feel it was truer to the characters and plot (she leaves him on the bed, voiceless and limp, and doesn't bother telling the nurses about his headache).

Amazing. Literally could not look away.
naricorn rated this work:

June 13, 2019, 2:55 p.m.

What a long piece! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks so much for posting another work. I remember reading "Rodents" and loving it. Here are some thoughts I had while reading:

*"the couple would find that with the absence of neighbors’ ears came the amplification of their shouts within their own." It took me a couple reads to get this. I see what you're going for, but clarity is more important.

*I love the vivid images you create with your writing. Stories are an expansion and contraction of selected moments, and spending time on Sam's alien face was a great choice. It added to both their characters.

*The rhythm and urgency of your sentences are so well crafted. I missed reading your work(:

Part II
*Also love how you explored the concept of "life in concentrate." What imaginative descriptions.

*Are all his patients supposed to be hypochondriac, or are you just trying to demonstrate how in his head Sam is? (Okay, coming back, having read a bit further. Why'd he leave the hospital in the city? How long has it been since Maria left?)

*Dang, I guess this is going to be one of those characters I understand but don't agree with. So he seems okay with himself cheating but not when Maria might be doing the same.

III
*The part with her having never expressed she'd wanted to keep the baby tripped me up. Had to reread it a couple times.

*How could there be only three texts he'd sent if she has 12 messages? Probably misreading.

*Can an ass have a beckoning smile? Otherwise, pretty realistic description of a guy obsessed with someone's ass. Also, gobble" is not the best word for that section.

VII
*I was so engrossed in the story that I couldn't take notes for a bit. I stopped here to note the abrupt switch to Freddy's POV after so much from Sam. Also, the awkward present tense (could use past, I think.)

*Freddy is supposed to be the normal character, right, but he strikes me as the least believable, for some reason. It might be because there was more telling in his section (where he describes his emotions and just tells us what he's going to do.)

VIII
*The time skip is confusing to me. Saturday morning makes it seem pretty close, timeline-wise, to the last scene, but then he has a cane and has operated on his shin.

IX
*What does "The house she’d come to hate so much was void of any accent" really mean?

Other thoughts:
*Some parts were not believable, like I don't think he could've managed without anesthetic.

*I like that we got to hear from Maria at the end and understand her, but overall it wasn't as strong/compelling as Sam's parts. The explanation of control was great, and her section is supposed to show her growth, but because she's been gone for such a long time from the story, I didn't feel like I cared as much for her transformation at the end.

Plot Point of View Character Motivation

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cereed27:

Thanks Nari! Always such positive feedback and good points from you.

You weren't misreading: I was toying with narrator perspective, bouncing from unreliable to objective, and trying to be subtle with it. Reality is fluid in bi-polarity, and it can be difficult to know where you stand as a partner or a reader.

With yours and Goomba's comments about the ending, I'll be reverting to the original. Thank you again!

Sam & Maria
mstabel rated this work:

July 10, 2019, 11:50 a.m.

I really loved the slow turn from (apparent) realism to horror/fantasy--it reminded me of some of Carmen Maria Machado's stories in HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, in that respect. We're dropped into a supposedly ordinary, present-day world, and then gradually realize that something is slightly off (maybe the protagonist is just an abusive jerk with a sadomasochistic streak). Excellent job slowly upping the ante (maybe he is a sociopath who's incapable of feeling empathy for his patients), until the *gasp* moment of the first toe surgery. Then we know that the rules of the game have changed, and we're in a world where more fantastic instances of horror are possible, and we need to be on the lookout for them. However, Machado's work is often feminist in its representations of female characters, their lives, relationships, and bodies. While I see that we're supposed to get the idea that Sam is a pig who mainly views Maria as a sex object, I think the passage fetishizing her butt and exoticizing her "kahlua" colored skin is bit overdone and some of the descriptive language is a little bit awkward, and in combination with the few snippets of other traits Sam gives her, she remains pretty close to the "fiery Latina" stereotype. If the purpose is to show that Sam himself has flattened her to this archetype in his mind, perhaps a bit more can be done to clarify that it's coming from his POV, rather than the author's. The scene where Sam and Freddy go to the bar and demean the waitress ("trophy") helps communicate the limitations of Sam's perceptions of women, but it's slightly heavy-handed. In order to remain invested in the dynamic between Sam and Maria, I needed a little bit more of an understanding of why she was interested in him in the first place--why would she stay with him for 9 years if their relationship is limited to sex and arguing? I wondered this all the more when Maria finally appears on the scene at the end in the hospital, because she is portrayed as intelligent and sensitive, in addition to passionate. The twist ending of her killing Sam and driving away without regrets, I thought, finally answered the question for me: she's got a streak of sociopathic (psychopathic? please pardon me if I'm using the wrong term for either her or Sam) tendencies, too. Maybe that is what drew and kept them together for so long. So in that sense, I really appreciated the ending. I do agree with the other commenter, though, who notes that she would almost certainly have been caught and is going to go to prison for murder. If some of the logistical details can be worked out so that she might actually get away with it, I think the ending will work well.

I loved the overarching symbolism of Sam finally feeling the pain he has ignored or inflicted upon others, and of trying to numb oneself, piece by piece, after a breakup. Because he's so emotionally stunted or inept, his pain must manifest as physical agony, and the only way he can think to remedy the situation is to hack away at the part that hurts. I also find this to be compelling commentary on the issues with a practicing physician who can only understand things in term so of the physical, and sees drugs and scalpels as the only tools for healing--that's a more subtle kind of horror. The flashback to the incident with the stripper in Las Vegas was an interesting complication to his relationship with pain--when is it erotic, and when is it something to be avoided, as with the surgeries? Did Sam and Maria ever engage in S&M, or did Sam save that as a secret fantasy outside the marriage? I don't think this necessarily needs to be explained further; it's a striking blip at that point in the story that indicates that things are about to get a lot weirder, and it raises useful questions about his relationship with Maria that are perhaps partially answered by the ending.

A very small item: the accent mark on Papá should be on the second "a," not the first one. I also wonder if there could be some more contextualization of the disappearing poet/professor father figure. Why does he need to be brought into the story at all, except as a device to explain Maria's philosophy? Could these thoughts on sculpting the self have come from her, instead? They might ring more true, if so, and it would help keep all of the "big picture thinking" in the story from coming from men.

Freddy could be fleshed out some more as a character. What makes him different from Sam aside from his lack of angry outbursts, or are we supposed to be frightened by the similarities between their generic misogyny? Like Maria, I wondered what would make Freddy maintain a friendship with Sam for so long. What does he like about him, or get from him?

Excellent pacing, and description of the physical processes of the surgeries, the blood dripping, etc. Just enough detail was provided to carry along a reader who is totally unfamiliar with anatomy/medicine and generate disturbing imagery, without getting bogged down in the technicalities.

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Sam & Maria
authortessagray rated this work:

July 7, 2019, 1:40 p.m.

This story contained very little about Maria, and what she added to the relationship. It's important for the reader to understand what Sam loves about Maria (in addition to having great sex). I felt as though the audience was cheated by only hearing Sam's perspective. Characterization is key in writing a good story, and I was troubled by some of Sam's behavior. He seems very self-absorbed, and for me, it made complete sense that Maria left him. It also seemed over the top when Sam envisioned her with other men, when he had nothing to base that on.
At the end, I did learn more about Maria, but it felt as though it should have been placed in the storyline much earlier. I would like to have heard Elaine's point of view at times because, since she worked for Sam, she'd have an interesting perspective about him. Some of the POVs (points of view) got mixed up, and that made it confusing. In scene II, you began speaking from Sam's point of view, but then you said: "Elaine felt like there was something that needed to be fixed." That change the POV from Sam's to Elaine's, and then you went back to Sam's point of view. To your credit, you have a good handle on dialogue, and I enjoyed some of the scenes with Sam and Freddy. As you write each scene, be thinking about the character's main goal, what motivates him to achieve that goal, and what the conflict is. The readers would have probably enjoyed knowing Maria's goals, motivation, and conflict, as well.

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admin:

Thanks for taking out the time to give such a comprehensive analysis.

Intense, through and through
eva rated this work:

July 12, 2019, 11:25 a.m.

This story held my attention for so many reasons - the pacing, the character and setting development, the weird/horrific twist, the end. Your use of imagery is compelling - there are many strong, vivid passages throughout. There's quite a build, too, that support the two main "unexpecteds" - namely, Sam's self-mutilation/disintegration, and Maria's appearance at the end.

Some suggestions:
* Change the title to something more compelling, more vivid. While most of this story is about Sam and his near-total disintegration, it *really* is more about Maria (even though we don't learn much about her).
* Consider adding more content (not endless copy) that help us understand Maria in greater depth. I LOVE that she doesn't take a lot of space on the pages yet I think you could use stronger language to help us understand how much she hates the situation with Sam at the start of the story, and how complex it is for her to appear at his bedside at the story's finale.
* Refine language (not just the random misuse of words, misspellings, or other nitpicky stuff like punctuation) throughout. A good scrub at the word/sentence level would really help tighten up this story, add to the flow of the plot, and the profiles of each character.
* Consider more impact at the end. It IS compelling, and weird, and twisted (which are all good elements!); there seems to be room for more/deep psychological exploration of both Sam and Maria at the story's end - again, not necessarily by expanding with more and more copy, but by refining/rethinking the language choices and what can be revealed within each character by being more vivid and succinct with what's going on with each inside their heads.
* Rethink the use of POV switching throughout - it can be confusing, or at least a bit muddling to the overall impact.
* Rethink/refine the timeline at a few different points in the story's arc. Sometimes, time seems to have gone by too quickly; other points could be sped up for additional impact.
* Sam's self-destruction needs more description and support. Such a narcissist/abuser would never self-mutilate - make the case for that stronger by exploring his psychology more thoroughly.

This is a really interesting, unique, strong piece and with more attention to detail it can be even more compelling!

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