they say it hurts if it’s true which is the deadest-on thing I ever heard. Case in point: when my sister-in-law says to my wife, “Least you’re dropping a few pounds, Bea,” my wife gasps, Nurse gasps, the walls. My wife was sexy-thin an hour ago but now she’s a weepy sixty-year-old tub. Apparently her hysterectomy has jacked up the hospital’s space-time-continuum—something to do with endometriosis and ovaries, Nurse says. Up and down the halls I keep seeing dead people very much alive and also folks I’m pretty sure are yet to be born. Twice this kid has come up to me thumping a baseball mitt, saying, “Wanna play catch Uncle Robby?” When I gave him a buck to scram he cried, “Aw, shucks!” Nurse says he’ll stop existing soon, which works for me—I just want things back to how they were. This new world is too complex: besides the unborn and undead, there are also different-age models of the living. I saw myself an hour ago pissing at the next urinal. We glanced over at each other all stealth-like, not wanting to seem, well, gay. (I was bigger.)
We’re at St. Mary’s in downtown Reno, the worst little city in the world. I’d light a match and napalm it but who has napalm anymore? The hospital walls are wood-paneled and hung with pictures of Reno over the years, neon-days, pre-neon days, old cowpokes herding cows over the Truckee River. An hour ago a limping bronc rider pointed at a photo and yelled, “Why, Lordy in tarnation that thar likeness is yers truly!” No one was impressed. Enormous pregnant women waddle past every few minutes. “They look like penguins!” Kathy, my sister-in-law, said. My wife snapped at her for being clichéd. “Penguins, Kathy? That’s the entirety of what college has taught your brain to think?” Kathy was chastised and glum which made sense seeing as how at that very moment she was a pig-tailed ten-year-old. Usually she’s twenty-two, my wife’s cute kid sister, and every time we visit her crummy apartment and she’s wearing paint-smeared sweatpants and looking all artsy, I get a hard-on. Her hefty bazoombas being key, and just now she changes back into her actual age, and I pat her on the back, sort of glancing down her t-shirt, and I say, It’s okay, your sister’s so mean, and she smiles at me with deep gratitude. Yeah, I’m horrible. Just like every other human on earth, only I’m honest about it.
Kathy says to my wife, “Want a mocha, Bea? From the coffee cart downstairs?” We look at Nurse who sits in judgment upon the high chair beside the door. She considers, purse-lipped, and nods. My wife’s wrinkled old lady face shatters into a painful grin, and she says, “Great!” but the second Kathy leaves the room my wife flips off the door. “What a thing to say, that bitch! Dropping pounds? I’m dying here!” She’s not really dying, it just looks that way, especially now, as she grasps for her silver vomit bucket. I stand out of the way and after a minute or so of deep retching, Nurse gets my wife calmed, does the whole wiping off of face and neck with damp washcloth, and I’m the lucky guy who gets to see his elderly wife’s naked, jiggly back, the top of her huge salmon-colored panties biting into pale veiny flesh, which I’d say looks like marble but is more like bleu cheese left out too long. I didn’t sign up for old and fat. We’re in our early thirties and this is horrible and then Kathy bounds back with the coffee drink and my wife waves her away and Kathy starts to complain about shelling out five bucks and Nurse shakes her head and points for her to sit down. Kathy slumps. Out in the hall, a pregnant woman waddles past, loosing a rumply fart. Kathy slurps the coffee. “When do we get to leave, anyway? This is boring.” My wife leans back, wan, and I start my departure, “It’s been nice, folks, but.” I kiss her but she’s drugged and dozing as I bend close to the sour whiff of puke on her lips.
Nurse stops me outside the room and stares at me in her maddening, non-committal way. I ask what she wants but she gives no indication, just her cold blank stare. “Nurse! What? How am I supposed to read your mind? How can I know everything you’re thinking? What is it?”
She looks down. She’s holding my cell phone. I blush like an ass and, before you start thinking you’ve entered yet another hyperreal fiction, I leave the hospital and return to the real world. It’s a drizzly night in Reno. Neon reflects against black-slick streets. People are crappy drivers in this town, all brakes. I honk at four SUVs and they do the wonderful Reno thing of honking back, like, Honk at me? I’ll honk at YOU! I stop for Thai and once home I devour green curry, spring rolls, pad Thai, tom yum gai. The shit is good. My nose flows from spice and my mouth is aflame and I shove it in like it’s going to quench itself, sopping up the last tinges of coconut-spiced broth with bits of egg and noodle, licking the container lids, putting my sweet-soured fingers in my mouth, suckling that final pungency. Apparently deep hunger accompanies rifts in the cosmos. Our bodies must think, Crap, I’m about to die, Eat!
Maybe not, though. If starvation comes with cosmic rips, why are Americans always hungry? Why aren’t we ever satiated? Do our bodies know something our brains don’t?
Can they sense that there’s something big and ugly tumbling down the turnpike?
I settle on the couch and bask in Sportscenter. Oh no steroids!, ironic commercials, slam dunk, slam dunk, Lebron James smiles warmly at me. The phone rings. “Hysterical,” my wife says. “You’re so funny.” She sounds like herself, svelte sarcastic Beatrice who teaches Pilates and is a bad-ass skier. Earlier today I said, “What’s hysterical about a hysterectomy?” (Nurse didn’t smile.) My wife says, “Rob, you sure you’re okay with all this? No little Robby Juniors running around? No Beatrice Juniors getting tattoos at an early age?” I laugh tiredly and say I think I can handle it. She laughs, too. We’re not having kids, ever. It’s hilarious. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. So much empty laughter in this world. Beatrice says, “Kathy says you’re working tomorrow? You won’t visit me?” Bea and I first screwed when we were sixteen. High school skiing trip. I had this awful blackberry brandy and we got drunk and did it and now I’m married. We always planned on kids, but she started having cramps that left her doubled over in pain, which really were cysts, which really was some crazy fizzy bacteria in her junk. Now? No kids.
I’m fine with it, really, I just need the universe to get normal again. Bea? I’m not so sure.
I tell her that tomorrow I’ve got hiring forms to fill out for new part-timers, W2s and so on. Mainly it’s a good excuse for me to avoid the temporal weirdness of the hospital. “I’ll try to come by in the afternoon,” I say, and, “How’s the Fenergan working?” The horse pills my wife slides into her rectum to treat nausea. Nurse has assured us they’ll help whack time and space back into line. Bea sighs. “I puked six times, was eleven years old, and had a torrid crush on Kirk Cameron. Want to hear a joke? I’m sick of this. Good one, huh?” I half-heartedly try to cheer her up but she gets nauseous again. A minute later, Kathy, still at the hospital, calls and describes the vomit. “Robby, it’s this wonderful, I don’t know, fire-engine red? Candy-apple red? Pretty bold, I don’t know, maybe even rocket-fire red? I might use this in abstractions class. Puke Series: Our Innards’ Truths by Kathy.” Usually I’d laugh (bosoms). Instead I say, “Kathy that’s fucking lame how you ratted me out for working tomorrow, thanks.” I hang up satisfied, pour a whiskey, check scores. The A’s still suck! And I’m in bed and my body’s radiating so much heat I’m kicking off layers until I wake at dawn, naked and heart thumping, shivering, but it’s all just a side-effect from the space-time thing, Nurse told me so, including the sinus-deep headache, pain swooshing around my head like I’m wearing a halo of angry light. I honk at six cars on the way to work. (Three honk back.) My office is in a crummy part of town. Hannah’s Human Resources. Hannah’s, the sixth biggest casino in the city, is located a mile away in the renovated downtown along the pretty river. Here, everything looks gut-shot. Leafless trees, gray skies, busted roads. I used to spend mornings warding off existential angst by ignoring the meth heads in the streets and debating lunch options – burrito? pastrami from Silver Peak? Pastrami? Del Taco? – and screwing around on ESPN.com. To fight off the long despair of the afternoons? Whiskey. You know what I mean: pointless job extending into oblivion and you suffer it because, what, health insurance? And what do you look forward to at home? The new season of 24? Not quite. And now no kids to look forward to, no meaningful change. Just a future of sameness, only older and broken down, a fat wife, a fat and angry self. How wonderful.
Willow, my boss, is in the pantry on a step ladder, hammer in hand, swinging at an air vent. She’s wearing a smart corduroy jacket, collar flipped. I pat her ass. “I’m going to blow this building up,” she mutters, whacking at a bent nail. I help hoist her up and my fingers slide near her butt-crack. She cries, “Damn, Robbo! That’s harassment! You’re fired!” She looks good, though. A shiny blouse accentuates her small breasts, something I never thought I’d go for (small breasts). Her legs are tan. She’s got these silver earrings that just dangle. It kills me. She drops the hammer and we go into her office and light a joint and she reaches down my pants but she’s off-limits. Her period. I think I can smell it a little but don’t say so. Her windows are tinted. As she tugs me to conclusion, I make a funny sound, like a cough, but I don’t even feel sick.
“You okay?” Willow says, waving the joint to keep it lit. “You look pale. Pasty.”
“Wow, ‘pasty,’ thanks,” I say. “You’re ugly, too.” There’s a chime at the front door. I buckle and fix my hair. Willow wipes her hand on her jeans. In the lobby, I greet three college-age Asian kids, Zen, Mai, and Wei, Hannah’s newest cocktail waitresses. They’re overdressed for such a shitty job—soft gleaming loafers, charcoal gray suits, very nicely stitched pin-striped shirts. Probably lady thieves from Hong Kong scamming the casino. What do I care. I ask for necessary documents. They have everything they need. Of course they do. They’re Asian.
“We are so thankful to this opportunity at serving the pleasure of Hannah,” they say.
I say Hannah’s pleasure is right this way and head toward the copy machine.
I mean, kids, what the hell, right? This world is exploding with rice-eaters and taro-eaters and potato-eaters and cow-eaters—and we need more mouths to feed? More consumers of energy? I’m glad we can’t have kids. I’m pleased as punch. Don’t tell my wife I said that. She’d think I didn’t love her. She’d think, Oh no, maybe we’re not in love, maybe we fell out of love, blah blah blah. Bea’s weird that way. Too much Cosmo. I do love her. It’s not like the difference between love and being “in love” is some deep spiritual thing, some hugely ingrained psychic love philosophy. It’s all just a momentary whim. How you feel on a certain day. The present amount of bullshit in your life, such as how long you had to wait in line at the grocery store buying fresh Rosie Organic chicken tenders because that’s really what you need for dinner, fresh fucking Rosie Organic chicken tenders, at least according to Beatrice. I would have been perfectly satisfied with take-out chicken tacos, five minutes at the drive-thru, but no, we need the Rosie Organic chicken tenders, and of course on the way from parking lot to apartment the Rosie Organic chicken tenders drip disgusting chicken juice on me and I have to wash and wash and wash—and right then? At the sink? I’m not in love. Sure, in the abstract, I “love” my wife. But I’m too annoyed for love. I’m “in love” with nothing. See the difference?
In love is just a whim. Love is what remains when the whim stops blowing.
“What is whim?” says Wei, looking up at me. We’re in the copy room. Willow’s taking hair samples from the other two girls and I’m stealing the moment to enjoy oral sex from Wei. It was totally Wei’s idea—she locked the door, bent down on her knees, and said, “May I to please you?” Absolutely! I started blabbing about the space-time continuum at the hospital. I was all, “Wei, don’t you get it? Time and space are totally screwed there! Dead people walking around! The unborn! I saw me!” She said that I should have talked to myself, that we could all learn a lot from ourselves. She asked if the other-me was older or younger? I said older. She said I should have asked him the secret to happiness because everyone knows the secret to happiness in retrospect.
“Whim is like wind,” I explain. “Something here, something gone.”
She makes a sound that I can’t understand. “What?” I ask. She pulls away.
“Ephemeral,” she says in unaccented English. “This is the word you seek.”
“Ephemeral,” I repeat.
“Whim,” she says.
I look down. My dick isn’t hard anymore.
There’s a knock and I zip up. Wei wipes her mouth on her sleeve. I open the door and Willow looks at me suspiciously but only says, “Phone call, take it in your office.” In the hall, Wei’s two compadres are doing card tricks, shuffling long rainbows of Hoyle through the air. “Wonderful!” Willow says, clapping. “Perhaps one day you can be real dealers!”
She takes the Asians to Hannah’s and I’m supposed to file their paperwork, but I leave the office and soon I find myself idling outside my sister-in-law Kathy’s place. This is one of those days where you just think, Fuck it, I’m screwed as it is, might as well go all in.
The cell phone rings. “What are you doing?” a female voice says accusingly.
I recognize her but I can’t pin her down. “What are you doing?” I retort.
“Not being a stalker outside my sister-in-law’s apartment, that’s for sure!”
I glance up. Kathy’s in the window, scowling at me. I smile and wave and thirty minutes later Kathy leans close and now here I am, post-orgasm and a little stoned. We’ve cooked up some Swanson frozen meals, one with chicken fried steak and the other Salisbury. It’s this awful meal, dry mashed potatoes, oily peas and carrots, a mini-brick of chocolate cake, rubbery salted meat, but at least I’m not in the twilight zone hospital, worried about trying to help my wife over the fact that she’ll never have kids because that’s what hysterectomy means. It’s the Big Blow To Our Marriage. The Dashed Hopes of Our Future. Kathy lights a cigarette and blows smoke in my face, and I sort of jiggle her lovely breasts, and this is all just a moment, a little better than most, and I think, Maybe I’ll have to end my marriage. Why not? What if space and time never get fixed? What if my wife always fluctuates from mood to mood? What if life is never quite as great as we always hoped it’d be? Kathy says, “What, what are you thinking?” and I say, “Shit if I know,” and she peers carefully at me. “You feel okay, Rob? You look ill.” I shrug. It’s too open a question, and besides, it might not be so horrible, leaving my wife. Lots of men do it. Newt Gingrich. John McCain. Last year we profiled a former governor who left his wife and six kids for a “trophy” bride (trophy my ass, I saw the pics). Even Jacob did it, the father of Judaism. It’s right there in the Bible. Page six.
“Tell the truth, am I a good artist?” Kathy asks softly.
I look around. A sheet of construction paper wraps two of the living room walls, hung with green thumbtacks. The paper is filled with letters the size of my head. Vowels. The vowels have thought bubbles. Inside the thought bubbles there’s white space. “Not really,” I admit.
Kathy goes into the bathroom and doesn’t come out. I hear sniffling. Artists. I feel a little guilty as I drive away, and on the way to the hospital I stop at Walgreen’s, thinking my wife would like chocolates. All they have are shitty Stover nut boxes and who likes nuts? I complain to the cashier, a chubby Filipino lady, and we get into a pretty loud argument and suddenly I’m nose deep in her vagina and she’s moaning and moaning. One of those days. I stop at a CVS for a better selection, some good caramels and creams, and I jerk off on the manager’s face. She says, Thanks, come again, and I start to realize that I do feel a little ill, after all.
At the hospital I see Nurse down the hall and sort of drag her into a supply closet. It’d be great to bang her most of all, but Nurse is deft. I maneuver, she evades. I thrust, she feints. I grasp, she conks my skull with the blunt of her hand and ties my wrists with gauze and she shuts the door behind me. I yell a while but no one opens up, so I bite into a supply box filled with scalpels. I slice up my arms trying to cut the gauze. It works, but I get a few gouges on the backs of my wrists. Luckily there’s a wealth of medical supplies. I wipe the wounds with burning alcohol. I wash my face. Pee in a pee cup. Drink some IV solution. I feel better. Rested.
Maybe I should stay in here forever. It’s safe. Closed. Unchanging.
But I hear voices outside, oddly familiar voices. I sneak down the hall—it’s empty—and I peek in my wife’s doorway. And guess what? There they are, happy as a pair of fucking clams: older-me and my wife. Not old fat Beatrice, not crying baby Beatrice. My wife. They’re playing Scrabble and they seem calm and happy. Even Nurse looks on with approval.
Older-me catches sight of me and waves. “Hey, Robby!” he says cheerfully.
That’s when I sort of faint. I vaguely sense people rushing around, great alarum. In the delirium my ears ring until I’m deaf, and I only see blackness, and everything stills. Eventually I can hear mechanisms in use. Levers. Ratchets. When I open my eyes I’m slumped against a pick-up in outer space and I’m surrounded by Mexicans in faded jeans and flannel shirts. One slumps against a jackhammer, sipping a Big Gulp. Three are smoking. They look dog-tired. “Long day?” I say. They nod. One reaches into a little cooler and offers me a red can of Tecate. I crack it open gratefully and look around. We’re in the shade of a big eucalyptus and the tree has a hole in the center. Tiny voices come from the hole, it sounds like babies, toddlers maybe, kids singing the alphabet song, and as I start to lean my head into it, I wake up on the floor of my wife’s hospital room, heaving my guts out.
My wife says, “Ew, that’s gross!” I wipe my mouth and give Nurse a dark look. “I won’t forget the supply closet,” I say. “I know where you stand now, Nurse.” She ignores me. I feel another terrible urge to puke. Beatrice leans over and watches. She’s five years old at the moment and points out the things that come out of me. “Chicken steak. Peas. Chocolate.” She must be at an age where names are important. I read about it in a parenting book. She holds a Raggedy Ann doll in her lap. “This is my first daughter. Her name is Selma. Next daughter is Oblivion. Third daughter is Nurse.” She looks at Nurse brightly. “For you, Nurse!”
Nurse looks at me sadly. I’m pretty goddamn sad at this moment, too.
Then Beatrice says, “Was I just five years old? When will the world make sense again?”
None of us has an answer. I feel pukey again and soon another nurse comes in and wheels me away. The hall is thick with humanity. A Mexican janitor stares at me thoughtfully. I see Beatrice’s dad, who had a heart attack two years ago, wearing a blue robe. “Robert, you little sonofabitch, running around on my girl, you bastard,” he says. He swipes at me but the nurse adroitly avoids him. I see Wei dealing cards to bald children. John McCain draws laughs by impersonating Frankenstein. I see old Jacob in robes, playing chess alone. An elevator opens and Kathy comes out yelling. “Asshole!” She waves a chisel in the air with violent intent, so I execute a roll off the chair and start bouncing down the hall. I just want to get away.
I roll and roll. It takes a long time, the rolling. As I go, I stare in open doorways.
One room has two teenagers making out in front of a TV, popcorn piling in their laps.
In a second room, Emeril Lagasse is doing a cooking demo for Beatrice. Bam! Bam!
In a third, I see myself—only I’m a kid, staring out the window. I remember that day, I realize. I was grounded. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” I’m yelling. But at whom?
There’s a fourth room, a fifth, sixth. Some dim, some bright.
I’m in most of them. Beatrice, too. And usually, we seem happy enough.
Even if you can see the future, the past, the present—they never make now any better.
What a dopey life.
Finally I stop. Hands grab hold of me. Two belong to Nurse, who seems disappointed in me. There’s Willow, too, grinning salaciously. Next to her is an older version of Willow. Wei’s colleagues give me an Indian rug burn. “No Indian, it’s racist,” Wei says to me, putting needles into my calf. Is it acupuncture, I wonder? “It’s to cause great pain,” she explains. Kathy snaps gum. “You’re a boring dick, Rob. Pun intended! If I painted you, you’d be like an old boring portrait. You’d be Blue Boy, ha!” There’s even that little kid with the baseball mitt. “You suck, Uncle Robby, and Mom says you’re my real father and I HATE you!” and he spits in my eye.
There are many more. They tower over me. They seem pretty pissed. They look to Nurse, who nods. A pillow appears. “What the hell?” I say. “You’re going to kill me? Me? This is my life. None of you are real! I get to go home in ten minutes, assholes, while you’re all stuck in never-never land.” They don’t care. I start to panic and scream. Still, the pillow descends.
In the morning, the drugs have cleared. The fog has lifted. Finally I feel healthy—healed and whole, though I have to pee so badly my entire body throbs. I totter to the bathroom, past poor Robby snoring awkwardly in a chair. It’s a long pee, like I’m emptying myself to get ready for whatever the world wants to lay upon me: frazzled husband, no kids, dashed life-long expectations? It’s all right. I can handle it. I wipe and flush. I step quietly into the room and lean past Robert. Out the window, families have gathered at the river on blankets. Picnic day.
I feel a twinge—whenever I see happiness, I’m a bit jealous. I want it, too.
Is it the same with you? It’s saddening, isn’t it?
In his fever last night, Robby said something odd. It was two a.m. I was watching CNN. Suddenly, he spoke in full voice, and I didn’t even know he was awake. “Hey, guys, wait, chill,” he said, “I’m trying to hold the angry things in!” Then he fell asleep muttering about donuts.
Poor Robby. It’s so easy to get caught up in frustration. In the petty emptiness of life.
But look, there. A river! Families. Civilization. I live in a world where I can push a button and symphonies will play. I can eat food. I can breathe. I can stand here and think. I can close my eyes and remember. I can dream. I can appreciate. Even downtown Reno. Kayaking sportsmen. Couples eating at sun-lit bistros. That new coffee place roasting its own beans.
There it is. The world. So what if it doesn’t live up to my dreams? It’s pretty grand, anyway. I know, I’m rambling. These painkillers. A nurse looks in, whispers, “Hon, how you doing today?” Before I can answer Robby snorts in sleep. His pillow is dark with drool.
We look at him, smiling. I joke, “And to think, I wanted him to father my children!”
We both laugh even though it’s not that funny—because after all, in a way, it really is.
Sean Bernard is a fiction writer living in southern California. He teaches at the University of La Verne. His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Storyglossia, The Portland Review, and Copper Nickel.
“Pungent tomato vine, that greenest smell, accompanies my porches. My grandparents’ tiny raised porch in Yerington, Nevada, was turf-covered and edged with a white iron banister. I’d dangle my legs over and with my heels graze the potted tomato plants. My grandmother stayed inside, always; but my grandfather would gently water the plants, then slide on his brass knuckles, give the air a combo to the gut, and smile. I think I was five years old.”