Julie Wernersbach

RATIONS

Half a Dry Onion

LAURA PEELS OFF HER SPORTS bra and spandex shorts and tosses them in the hamper. She stands naked in the middle of the hallway, grabs her hands behind her back, and pulls. The skin on her chest stretches tight. I can see the shape of her ribs beneath spreading like wings. “What’s there to eat, anything?”

“Anchovies, artichoke hearts, capers, asparagus.” We keep the refrigerator of the defiantly childless.

“Not takeout again. The sodium’s drying out my skin.”

In this household we are vigilant soldiers in the war against sodium, sugars, and empty carbohydrates. Saturated fats, artificial colors, and high-fructose corn syrup are also on the shoot-to-kill list. Laura was overweight as a child. In family photos, she is the one it takes me a minute to recognize, her future face floating inside a pink balloon of flesh. She struggled to lose the fat when she hit puberty. Slim Fast. Weight Watchers. A summer at a camp where they measured her waistline before breakfast. Her senior year of high school, she stayed alive on plain white rice and apple slices. In college, she replaced the rice with diet pills that smelled like seaweed and made her clean her bathroom tiles with toothpicks.

I pour us each a glass of carrot juice.

“God, I’m exhausted. Ginny called out so I had to teach spin twice in a row again. My ass is made of rocks.” My wife assumes the lotus position on the couch. “But they’re making a decision about Fitness Director next week.” She flips on the television. “How was work?”

I watch her from the kitchen, looking out over the breakfast bar where we eat our scrambled tofu and flax seed in the morning. There’s a radiance about Laura at the end of the day, an aura of having kept her heart rate elevated for several hours. My wife is a pulsing golden goddess on our plain beige couch. The body of the defiantly childless.

“Fine.”

“I worry about your back at that desk all day.”

In the crisper I find a mummified lime, half a dry onion. The white walls glow like a space-age incubator around the empty racks. In the freezer, there’s an empty ice cube tray, a bag of peas. No frosty bottles of vodka, no sandwich bags of pot. The freezer of the defiantly sober.

“Man, this is pathetic, we don’t even have quinoa. I stretched at lunch, I told you.” The taste of carrot juice on the back of my tongue is doing unpleasant things to my stomach. I try the freezer again, still nothing, the cupboards. “I think we have some barley? Or is this bulgur.”

“I worry about your hands, too. All of the repetitive motion on the keyboard. We should get you wrist braces." 

I met Laura on the sidewalk outside a Milwaukee bar right after I put my fist through a bouncer’s teeth. There was blood on my knuckles. She was walking home from a volunteer shift at a hotline for victims of domestic abuse. She was still in crisis mode, she says. Laura took me to a CVS, bought bandages and hydrogen peroxide. In her apartment, she made me oolong tea and burned a kind of incense shaped like cones. She made me sit cross-legged on her living room floor and told me to take deep breaths. How did she know I wasn’t a criminal? How did she know I wouldn’t steal everything she had in the middle of the night? “You looked too tired,” she told me. “And scared. I don’t know, I took a chance.”

I shut all the cupboards. “It’s either takeout or grocery shopping and I’m too tired for the supermarket. Golden Duck?”

“Steamed broccoli and tofu. I don’t need the rice.”

Laura turns off the TV, gets up, and leans her elbows on the breakfast bar. There are pictures of Laura in college where her skeleton juts against her skin like an impoverished child. Her grin in those pictures is terrifying. Her hair is thin.

I lift the bottle of carrot juice, chug what’s left and try not to smell it as it goes down. Not everything that’s good for you is also pleasant. Laura looks up at me and in her eyes I see the absolutely blind and unwarranted faith of a stranger in Milwaukee. “How was your workout?” 

Faith that has become expectation.

I open the cupboards all over again, the empty freezer. “Fine.”

“Treadmill or stair climber?”

“Twenty treadmill, fifteen stair climber, fifteen treadmill.”

“Tell Golden Duck no sauce on the broccoli and tofu. They sneak things in there.”

She comes around the corner into the kitchen and puts her glass in the sink. I put my arms around her from behind and press my face to her neck. I’m still in my gym clothes, the thin T-shirt and soft shorts that let me feel her whole body. “Sweetie,” she says and pats my arm. “I have to shower. Call Golden Duck. It’s already late.”

I let her go.

 

Limp, Unsalted Fries

“It was summertime, right? Sunset? We stopped for dinner. We were both riding in the backseat. Or you were in the front seat.” 

“We were in the backseat. We stopped at a gas station for dinner. I got Cheetos. You got Funyuns.”

“And orange soda.”  

Lunch is going lukewarm in my lap. A veggie burger from a drive-thru window. Limp, unsalted fries. An extra twenty minutes on the treadmill.  

“If I can just isolate that final feeling—but it wasn’t ‘good night’—the last moment when—”

“Jen, you’re breaking up.”

The problem with eating lunch in the car is it gets stuffy and if I roll down the window I can’t hear my sister’s voice. She lives out on the edge of the continent, close enough to the ocean that sometimes her voice comes through in broken fits like she’s calling from someplace much farther away than California. China. Turkey. The moon.

“—been confusing dreams with memories, you know? Your stories.”

I was twelve and Jenny was six when our mother dropped us off at our grandmother’s house and never came back. To me this is a thing that’s happened. To Jenny it’s a creation story. Our mother is a mythological creature she sometimes remembers is real and the remembering is like taking a sledgehammer to the stone tablets where she’s written the most recent version of the story of her life. Then she finds a new therapist and rewrites everything again. My sister thinks there’s a deeper bedrock truth, some place she can lie down and look up and understand everything that happened like an astrologist reading constellations. Here is the bedrock truth: we’re getting a little too old for these conversations.

“Listen, I have to go. Lunch is over.” I burp into the phone. “Really should’ve skipped the fries.”

“You know—Maura had us on this raw food thing but—non-dairy, non-ovo pescatarian now because—something about the way—baby boy chicks—some of them get tossed live into a grinder.”

 

Outside the front door of the office building a woman from HR blows smoke into her cell phone and says, “Well someone’s got to do it already, because I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore. This is no way to live and he knows that.” I haven’t smoked a cigarette in four and a half years. I hold the smell all the way to my desk where I put a square of gum in my mouth and position the headset over my ears. At the end of the day there will be a dent in my hair and a dull pain in my lower back. The clock flips to 1:00 p.m. The program logs me on.

“Thank you for calling CellUVerse customer service. My name is William. May I have your name please?”

“This phone’s a real piece of shit.”

“Certainly. Let me transfer you to our technicians… Thank you for calling CellUVerse customer service. My name is William. May I have your name, please?”

 

Meatloaf, Macaroni & Cheese

In the locker room, naked men send emails from the palms of their hands. They rub lotion into their shoulders and athlete’s foot powder between their toes. Someone farts. Someone tells someone else, “The industry isn’t what it used to be.” An old man with a white towel wrapped around his ballooned stomach eases down onto the bench beside me. Brown spots mark his arms. He looks at his lap and sighs. “Sometimes just the changing’s a workout.”

I tighten my shoelaces. The locks on these lockers are not the kind you can pick. You cannot do anything here without someone seeing you, not in the locker room or in the weight room or on the racquetball courts or in the café. I watch the old man slide a heavy platinum watch over his knuckles. Ten years ago, I would have memorized his locker number. 2307B. I would have known his schedule. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Pool then sauna, or pool then massage. I would have helped him drop his wallet and pick it back up. Asked him when he was married because nine times out of ten the anniversary is the pin. Ask him what year he came back from the war.

“Excuse me,” I say. “You dropped this.”

I hand him a gold cufflink.

 

“Which machine’ll get rid of this?” A large woman grabs a roll of her own stomach in either hand and looks at me in the mirror where I’m watching myself lift a thirty-pound weight towards my shoulder.

“Excuse me?”

“I’ve tried them all. Swear to God. Every damn machine in this room. And look at me.” She shakes her head and stands sideways. The orange ponytail on top of her head wobbles. “I’m like, what—a watermelon on a toothpick.”

Two toothpicks, technically.

“Once I was skinny as that one over there on the squatting thing.” The squatting woman exhales mid-squat. One of the stars of Laura’s intermediate Zumba class. She is looking at us as this woman’s voice rises above the clanking of the leg machines.

“It seems hopeless, but look at everyone here—there’s something they’re doing right. I’m not saying I need to look like the skinny one, but a few pounds here and there...”

I set down the weight and tighten the knot in my bandanna. Her T-shirt is gray with sweat where it folds into her stomach. There is something extraordinary about seeing so much body at once, something marvelous about knowing a body can take this shape, this space. A body broken out of the confines of the spandex ideal.

“What do you charge?”

“I’m not a trainer.”

“But look at you, you must know something. I can do three times a week.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not a professional trainer. They have them here. You can sign up at the front desk.”

This woman comes to me and squeezes my biceps in both hands. Her thick floral perfume invades my space. I can taste it in the back of my mouth. She smells like the women who used to pinch our cheeks in the church basement and cut us the first slices of pie after the service. Women who felt sorry for us and applauded like they were our own mothers when we traipsed up the aisle dressed as shepherds and kings. Her grip is firm. “I don’t care. You look like you could play one on TV and that’s good enough for me. Plus, those training sessions don’t come with membership, and the membership’s expensive enough. My name’s Joanne.” She sticks out her hand. Her palm is soft and meaty and a little sweaty.

“Will.”

“Look at you. People could bounce quarters off you.”

“I’m not an expert.”

“Teach me the basics, then. You’re an expert in the basics. I’m an expert in meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, that’s it.”

The squatting woman smirks in the mirrored wall. We’re all picturing the same thing, this woman keeling over from a heart attack in her gray, windowless apartment with ten cats watching and a tub of ice cream melting on the coffee table. Her voice gets louder.

“Or I could just follow you around. Mimic what you do.”

“You can’t do what I do.”

Joanne puts her hands where her hips should be. “Why? Because I’m a woman?”

“No, I mean—”

“I’m kidding. This body can barely handle a sit-up. Please,” she lowers her voice and leans in towards me, “even if you just give me a few pointers right now. You seem like a nice guy; I don’t mean to be annoying. I just don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to be doing, and I can only fake it for so long. The doctor said join a gym. He didn’t tell me what to do once I got here.”

Her cheeks are flushed. She’s standing close enough I can feel the heat of her effort coming off her body. I can hear the tension in her shallow breath, a soft, desperate wheezing.

“You need to start small,” I tell her. “Five-pound weights. One day at a time.” I give her a hand weight. “Here. Face the mirror. Spine straight.” I put a hand to her lower back in a room full of mirrors with everyone watching, half of them smirking, women already telling themselves the story they’ll tell their friends of the fat woman who had the audacity to demand help.

This is how it begins.

 

A Cookie, A Slice of Cake

I knew when we got in the car that we weren’t going for ice cream. Our mother didn’t have the short-trip look in her eye. I remember it better than my sister does. The interstate was no surprise. I knew where we were going, and I was glad. At our grandmother’s house, the refrigerator was always full. My summer wouldn’t be coopted by spontaneous trips to museums and homeless shelters and halfway houses where our mother thought we’d learn important lessons about all the conditions of humankind. I once had a recovering junkie take my face in her bony fingers and kiss me on the mouth. She wanted a taste of youth, she said. The worst our grandmother would do was force us to go to church, where fat-fingered women would squeeze our faces and kiss us on the cheeks and at least give us a cookie or slice of cake at the end. At least every other Sunday I got to stand in line for a shot of wine my sister couldn’t have and a wafer I told her tasted like candy instead of like nothing at all.

 

Whole Fucks

“We really need to go food shopping.”

“Not Golden Duck. There was MSG last time.”

“They were plain steamed vegetables. You didn’t even get tofu.”

“I’m telling you. My body knows. There was MSG. You saw how bloated I got.”

“We have oatmeal. That’s it. That’s everything in the cupboard.”

“You know, I’m really not that hungry.”

“You have to eat.”

“Go to Whole Foods. Buy us big salads.”

“Whole Fucks closed an hour ago.”

“Don’t be childish.”

“What?”

“You know what. You’re being judgmental.”

“Of what?”

“Everyone who shops at Whole Foods.”

I shop at Whole Foods.”

“Well then be kinder to yourself.”

“I’m calling Golden Duck.”

“You like their salads at Whole Foods.”

“I’m getting lo mein.”

“Well now you’re just being belligerent.”

“Pork fried rice and an egg roll. Yup. I’m a total asshole.”

“Salads and fruit. Pineapple. One of those wheatgrass things. They make it right in front of you.”

“They closed an hour ago. Hi, I’d like to place an order to be delivered.”

“Tell them no MSG this time or I’m sending it back and leaving a bad review on Yelp.”

“Yes, same as last time. Thanks.”

 

Vitamin Water

Joanne wears the same black spandex pants with a rotation of SmartLab Enterprises T-shirts every time we meet. Today it’s a powder blue shirt that says, SmartLab Enterprises: Forging the Future.

“Our whole point is to make people click something. We stick an animated GIF in your face, you click it, take a survey. Maybe you win something.”

I tuck her elbows in. People spread their arms out like chicken wings when they work their triceps. Her skin where I touch it is warm and soft, and it’s easy to think of her like dough, like an unbaked lump of bread. “What are the surveys for?”

Joanne exhales. “Who knows. I’m in ads. I buy up virtual space on every crappy little site you’ve never even heard of. I’m an expert in the unknown and the no-one-wants-to-know.”

“Abs in. Tuck your gluts.”

“Any bozo can figure out you’re signing yourself up for a lifetime’s worth of spam. Oh God.” Joanne drops the dumbbell and sits. I hand her a water bottle and towel.

“You’re doing great. Five more to go.”

“Cut a woman a break. This isn’t speed dating, for Christ’s sake. You ever done that?” She pats her whole face. “You go and you line up like horses at a gate. They give you name tags and a little glass of wine. Last week, first guy up—I was sure this was the guy. Plenty of hair left, a little pudgy. The timer buzzes, and the first thing he does is talk about his job and where he sees himself in five years. Outlines his whole future for me. He’d rehearsed. The buzzer goes off again and I never say a word. Next guy was so nervous he couldn’t even look me in the eye.”

She stands up and reaches for her toes. Her back is to the mirror and across the room I see a man look at Joanne’s wide reflection and look away and look back again. She stands up slowly, moaning. “But anyway, the spam stuff’s a job, you know. How many people are actually satisfied with their jobs?”

Up above us Laura is teaching Zumba. The beat of the music comes through the ceiling. Joanne wipes her forehead with the towel and drops it in her lap. Dark sweat circles the arms of her T-shirt and forms a triangle against her lower back.

“The other day, you know what I did? I actually went to one of those meetings. Overeaters Anonymous. You think speed dating is depressing, Jesus. How about a room full of fat people all worried about breaking the folding chairs. And it’s all one day at a time and finding your higher power. At the end, the guy who runs it, this guy who’s skinny now because he cheated and had that gastric bypass, he says, Let’s all get down on our knees and thank our higher power. People three hundred, four hundred pounds. You should’ve seen the terror on their faces. They don’t even have knees anymore. No one did it. You could feel everyone making the decision without saying a word.” She lies back down on the bench, feet on the floor, and puts her hands on her stomach. “It made me feel good, though. To go and see how it could be worse.” 

Ginny, the spin instructor, passes through the weight room picking up paper cups and towels. She looks at me and waves.

 “Let me ask you something. First impression. Am I likable? Personality-wise. Do I come on too strong?” 

I shrug. “Sure, you’re likable.”

“Well, thanks for that rousing endorsement.” 

I gather up our towels, my empty Vitamin Water. “Yes, yeah. You’re likable. Of course.” 

Joanne smiles.

“Better hit the showers. See you Friday.”

 

Week-Old Lo Mein

“How was work?”

The TV’s on. A foreign correspondent narrates a jerky video of a ransacked house and a man with a rifle standing inside a dark doorway. I watch from the kitchen.

“Fine.” Sixty are dead in the village, the correspondent says. I open the foam lid of a takeout box and sniff week-old lo mein. “This might be okay.”

“Any of that steamed tofu left?”

“I don’t think it’s tofu anymore. I think it has eyes.” The half a dry onion has a mold spot on it now, and there’s the brown carcass of another lime next to it. When do we even use limes? The plastic gallon of V8 has about a glass left in it.

“Guess what?” The station plays the same fifteen-second footage of a burning car over and over again, the orange and white flames consuming the metal shell in a loop I don’t realize is a loop until the third time around. “Ginny’s pregnant.”

The refrigerator door falls shut. Artichoke hearts rattle against the jar of capers. Two lonely containers making themselves heard in the dark. “Didn’t know she was with anyone.”

“She’s not. And she won’t say whose it is, either. Of course, everyone’s speculating a member. I mean she’s in the lobby with Chris all the time.” The newscaster’s grim face cuts to commercial. Laura turns and looks at me from the couch. “Of course, not to jinx it or anything, but it sort of makes Fitness Director a given. Unless they hire in from the outside, which I don’t think they’ll do.”

“Congratulations.” I lift my glass of V8.

“Not yet, not yet.”

“So dinner.”

Laura leans her head to one side and pulls the elastic band from her blond hair. She closes her eyes, shakes her hair at the scalp. “Ginny said she saw you in the weight room with some woman today.”

“Did she.”

She stretches her long, nude legs out in front of her. “Who is she?”

“No one. Just a member. Giving her some pointers.”

Laura straightens up and pulls her hair into a tight ponytail. “You haven’t mentioned her.”

“Just met her at the gym.” 

“At the club.” Laura comes up to the breakfast bar. Her chest is pale. Her nipples are flat. She crosses her arms beneath her breasts. “How long has this been going on?”

“Nothing’s going on.”

She squints at me the way she used to do when she wanted to know if I’d smoked a cigarette. Like her eyes are a lie detector test. Like it might be a terrible idea to trust me. I toss the rest of the juice in the sink and rinse the glass. “I’m just ordering takeout then. Thai Palace?”

“What’s her name.”  

“Don’t make this a big deal. It’s not a big deal.”

“If it’s not a big deal then why didn’t you tell me about it?”

“Because there’s nothing to tell.”

She goes to the bedroom and comes back in tight black pants, tying the long bottom of one of my T-shirts in a knot at her hip. “Where are my sneakers?”

“You’re going for a run? Now? It’s dark.”

“I need to expend some energy.” She jerks her sneakers on her feet, ties the laces tight.

“Babe, come on.”

Laura hops on her toes and stretches her calves like I’m not in the room. Like her body is a thing I can’t see or touch or make listen. I come around the bar.

 “You’re blowing this way out of proportion.”

“You’re keeping secrets.”

The V8 throws an acidic flame up the back of my throat. “This woman needs help. She asked for it.”

“Which is why we employ professional personal trainers.”

“I don’t need your permission.” 

“Oh give me a fucking break.” Laura straps her iPod to her bicep, presses the buttons on the player so she can’t hear me anymore, opens the door and slams it shut behind her.

 

It was Laura who insisted we spend our first Christmas as a couple in Horace with my grandmother, watching TV and going to church and drinking grainy coffee brewed with well water. Listening to the clock tick and staring out at the hard, white, icy ground while my grandmother said again and again how good it was to be together after all these years. How much she had missed me. Laura sat smiling on the couch, satisfied with herself, while I blinked away the retinal stain of snow and the creeping fear that I was falling backwards through time.

It was Laura who made me call my sister after we visited my grandmother. Laura who took me through the weight room in the Milwaukee Y and taught me how to isolate every muscle in my body and make it work the way I wanted.

She gets into bed smelling of cucumber soap. “Set the alarm for six. I have an early class.”

It’s Laura who danced with me in her small apartment after our first dinner. Who can bend her body into the shapes of flowers and birds. Whose heartbeat I can feel when I pull her up against me at night, steady and reliable. A strong heart.

“Alarm’s set.”

She turns on her side and is asleep.  

 

Vanilla Milkshake

The chicken sandwich is my favorite. Crispy skin, sweet-honey mustard sauce.

“I was thinking. What if we visited Mom.”

I stuff French fries in my mouth four at a time. I had ordered a vanilla milkshake in addition to the Coke. Told the drive-thru speaker to leave off the lettuce and tomato and make the chicken extra crispy. Extra mayo. “Is this your new therapist’s idea?”

“Aren’t you curious?”

“You were really young. You don’t remember.”

Jenny sighs. “You know, I’m really tired of you telling me what I do and don’t remember.”

She hangs up, and I sit in the car with the windows up and the radio on, leaning a greasy hand against the steering wheel and thinking about Joanne at her desk eating something she’ll never work off. The whole car smells like chicken.

With my clean hand I slide the screen on my phone and tap a message.

What are you eating right now?

Can’t tell you. You won’t like it.

I just ate a McDonald’s chicken sandwich.

I don’t believe you.

Okay, then I had a salad with edamame and beets.

I had KFC but I ordered carrots and hummus instead of fried chicken and biscuits.

We’re going to live forever.

 

Cherry Pie

A nearby park maintains a paved trail that’s mostly flat. We meet in the parking lot in our workout clothes. This is how we start to see one another outside the gym.

Joanne’s idea of running is to walk with her arms bent, pumping her fists. I jog backwards. “Got that heart rate up? You feeling it?”

“Honey, all I’m feeling is the ache in my back and the arthritis in my knees.”

“You’re too young for arthritis.”       

“Forty-eight? I don’t think so.”

“Come on, you can kick it up just half a little notch.”

“I’m tired, all right?”

I slow and take up the spot next to her, walking with a long stride. I can smell her sweat and the small flowers blooming on trees. We’re alone out here in the middle of the day. It’s spring, which in Minneapolis is like the dawning of a new era. Anything can be righted if you just make it to spring.

“You give up easy,” she says.

“No way. I’m a fighter.” I punch the air with my fists, feeling lighthearted, easy. I’m the only person in the world who knows where I am right now.

“Look at you. I say I won’t run and you believe I won’t do it.”

“I can’t force you into anything. You can’t force change. The person has to want it.”

Joanne squints at me and takes off down the trail, legitimately jogging for an eighth of a mile. When she stops, panting, at the half-mile mark, we sit on a bench under one of the trees.

“This is nice,” I say. “This is really nice. Beautiful day.”

She squirts water all over her face and licks it from her upper lip. “I quit my job.”

“Really?”

“I took one of my own surveys. Find your passion in ten quick and easy questions. In fifteen minutes, I had two dozen new emails for penis enlargement pills. Walked into my manager’s office, gave him my badge, and said I wasn’t coming back.” She shrugs. “Just a paycheck, anyway. Not my passion. I know what my real passion is. It’s pie. What do you say we go get some?”

“We still have another half mile to go.”

“Did you just hear what I said? I quit my job today. Fuck the mile. Doesn’t the gym-rat routine ever get old for you?”

We take two cars to the diner where the waitress sits us in a booth by the window. I spin the plastic salt-and-pepper shakers. Joanne tells me she used to be married to a used car salesman.

“Second husband. In bed at night he’d present his member like a new Cadillac. All his dirty talk amounted to things like, Let me take you for a ride. Nice, long shaft to help you change gears. God, he had no imagination. It felt like a commercial for sex where I was the actress and the customer.” 

I turn my coffee cup left and right and say nothing.

“You’re married to that aerobics instructor. That has to be interesting.” Joanne’s voice is loud in the small booth. Overbearing. I scan the faces at the tables, mostly senior citizens. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. The good feeling out on the trail has tightened into knots behind my shoulder blades.

Joanne follows my look. “Look at all these old fogies eating their early-bird specials.”

“My grandmother used to take me and my sister to Perkins for the early-bird special sometimes.”

Joanne’s hand moves across the table. I see it coming, red fingernails first. It slithers around my hand, which is gripping the coffee cup like a boulder I’m not strong enough to lift.

I pull away. Her hand hangs in the air, then returns to her fork. She sits there with a small smile, and maybe this is her way of avoiding embarrassment, pretending to be amused. Pretending to be more comfortable in her big, lumpy body. Heart disease. Diabetes. These are things she’s not thinking about.

“You look like a puppy afraid it’s about to be kicked. That’s the way you look all the time. This hangdog face.” The dull light coming through the window shows off all her wrinkles, all the small pockmarks in her cheeks. Her hand sneaks back across the table and crawls over my knuckles. I let go of the mug and grip her fingers.

“Joanne.”

“Just have a little pie. Look. Only a few bites left. I’m stuffed.” She lifts a piece of crust with her fork. Canned cherry filling glistens on the tines. “Just one taste. Come on. Live a little, Will.”

It’s not as good as it looks, but it’s not bad, either.

 

Brown Rice

After the night she rescued me, Laura kept me in her apartment for two weeks. She locked me inside. Her mom was a counselor at a rehab clinic and she said she knew what to do. I told her my mom was dead. While she was at work I pried the screen off the living room window. There was no fire escape; it was a split house, not an apartment building, and she lived at the top, three floors up. I was delusional. I was desperate. I jumped. The shock of the ground kicked up through my feet and jaw. I chipped a tooth. Twisted my ankle. When Laura came home that night I was sitting outside her door with a forty of Old English in a paper bag. I thought she’d step right over me, but she offered me her hand. With the other hand, she took the malt liquor and dumped it in the toilet. “You make a choice right now,” she said. And then she took off her clothes.

I thought she was making a statement with her nudity that night, but then it turned out the first thing Laura does every time she comes home is take off her clothes. Except now, since Joanne, she takes them off in the bedroom and not the hallway. She keeps the door closed.

Every body has its limits. You push yourself to the point of weakness, which is also your point of maximum strength. You see how much weight you can move without strain. Sometimes you overestimate. Sometimes you pull a muscle and your whole system is out of commission for weeks. Some injuries are permanent.

At home I brush my teeth and wash my hands. I shower in the hottest water I can stand. Clean and damp with a headache setting in, I knock on the bedroom door. “Going to the supermarket. Any requests?”

Laura doesn’t answer. I open the door. My wife is sitting in the lotus position on the bed watching video clips of the news on her laptop. She’s eating brown rice from a white Chinese food container. Her hair hangs down her bare shoulders and back and I want to climb on the bed next to her and tell her sorry and thank you and let’s just endure this, but she is untouchable. When your body is your bread and butter, you need your space, she explained the first time she stripped and I put my hands all over her. There have always been rules.

 “No, I don’t need anything. Your pillow’s on the couch so you don’t keep using the throw pillows.” She doesn’t take her eyes off the screen.

“How’s the world holding up tonight?”

“Things in Syria are getting much worse.”

I shut the door behind me.

 

Bourbon

“I still don’t think this is a good idea. For the record.”

“I know.” Jenny holds out her hand in the passenger seat. I give her the bourbon from the back seat. Her face is tan and her long blond hair is a mess from sleeping on the plane. The lines around her mouth and eyes are deeper than I remember. She looks tired. She called me on my way to work this morning and said it was now or never and she wasn’t taking never for an answer. “I thought it’d be creepier. Like more institutional or something.”

The downtown facility where our mother has lived for thirty-five years looks like any brick building. Four stories. No nonsense. But there’s metal mesh on the windows, which is better than bars, I guess.

Jenny slouches down and puts her knees up on the dashboard, balances the bottle in her lap. “I guess we just walk in, right?”

The bottle in plain sight makes me nervous. I take it from her and set it down by my feet.

“She could be looking at us right now and not even know it,” she says.

The front door opens and a woman in a puffy maroon coat and mint-green scrubs jogs down the steps. She turns left towards a strip of sandwich shops and noodle restaurants.

“This is a bad idea.”

“The visit or the bourbon?”

“Both.” I pick up the bottle. Gray light seeps through the windshield. It’s already cold for September. Meteorologists predict a rough winter. When I told Joanne I couldn’t make it today, she said she was getting back into bed with a bowl of low-fat frozen yogurt and didn’t that sound good? Didn’t that sound just delicious?

“You sure it doesn’t bother you? Having this around?”

“Been around whiskey before. Can be around it again.” 

Traffic moves past, nondescript sedans and delivery trucks. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. “We’ll go out somewhere to eat tonight. Laura will be excited to see you.”

“I texted her already. She said she’s busy. Are you guys okay? Anyway I’m flying right back. Work in the morning. Lisa has school. She was pretty short. What did you do?”

“Nothing.” 

 The front door opens. A dark-haired woman in a wool coat and jeans walks down the steps. Jenny stares. “That could be her.”

“It’s not her.” My head moves in circles as if I’m the one who’s been drinking. Laura to cherry pie to treadmills to Joanne. The whole car stinks of bourbon. This was a terrible idea.

“You know, really, I think we’re lucky,” I say. “Maybe we’re fucked up, but imagine how fucked up we’d be if Mom had stayed around. If this is the kind of place she needs to be.”  The sky darkens. Up above the clouds, the sun is setting. “I’m glad I never had kids.”

Evening shadow settles over the street and inside the car. By now, Laura’s unlocked the door to an empty apartment and is wondering where I am, how long I’ll be gone. When I can barely see Jenny’s face anymore in the dark, when we're just silent and staring up at the glowing windows that may or may not belong to our mother, I start the car and drive to the airport. She chucks the bourbon in a trash can at the departures curb. 

 

“Well this is a surprise.” Joanne opens her door. It is not gray and dark and dismal inside. The walls are painted peach. Framed prints of ocean vistas line one wall. Sunflowers hang on another. The windows are open, and evening air blows in, fluttering the pages of books and magazines on the coffee table. The TV is turned off and covered with a pale orange cloth. Purple daises in a pot sit on top.

Joanne leans in and sniffs my shirt. “Oh, no.”

“Not me. My sister.”

“You have a sister?”

“And a wife and a whole life.”

She shuts the door behind me and pulls me over to the couch, brings me a glass of water, and watches me drink it all at once.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” she says. I shake my head. Joanne’s wearing pale-pink lip gloss and bronze eye shadow. Her hair is pulled back in a clean ponytail, and she’s wearing a long khaki skirt and pink top with three white heart shaped buttons at the neck.

“You’re dressed up.”

She smiles. “I have a date.”

Her gardenia perfume fills the apartment. I set the glass down on her table, lean over and take her face in my hands, her mouth in my mouth.

“It was only a coffee date anyway,” she says and pulls the elastic from her hair.

 

Enough

On Friday, I meet Joanne at our spot in the park. It’s chilly. She’s wearing bright pink leg warmers over red sweatpants and a purple windbreaker. “Fifteen pounds as of this morning! Fifteen point six, actually. Starting to feel some room in some of my shirts.”

She hooks her arm through mine and we start down the path.

“Come on, let’s get moving.” I start to jog.

“But we haven’t even warmed up yet.”

I slide my arm out of hers so I can really move. After a few paces my legs forget her. I break into a full run. Trees streak past me, their blossoms long since fallen, leaves turning brown and brittle. The asphalt feels like a springboard and I can run all the way to California right now if I want.

Forty-five minutes later, Joanne saunters across the parking lot to my car where I’m sitting listening to the news. She pulls the passenger handle. It’s locked. She knocks on the window and I let her in. “What the hell was that?”

“I just had to move.”

“You left me in the dust.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No you’re not. I just walked that whole thing alone.”

“I said I’m sorry. Anyway, you were supposed to jog, not walk.”

“All right. Let’s stop pretending there isn’t an elephant in here.” She reaches for my hand. “You don’t need to be embarrassed about the other night. Our bodies aren’t machines. A man can’t just expect his—”

I take my hand away. “Enough. Just, enough. Just be quiet already, please.”

Joanne shoves the door open and gets out. “You know you could’ve just said something if you didn’t want to see me anymore. You didn’t have to literally run away.”

I watch her walk across the open lot, get in her car and drive off.

 

Applebee’s

Sober and alone, I watch for shadows in the windows, for the details of a face, but no one comes near.

If you work out on a regular basis and then stop working out, all your muscle turns to fat.

I have worked the memory of my mother into something hard and flat. A body made of stone. But she is real behind that brick. It’s possible her muscles have gone soft with age. Maybe she’s gained weight. Maybe she is not so hard to lift anymore.

I pull the keys from the ignition, cross the street, and go inside.

“I’m sorry, sir, but visiting hours are nine-to-five on weekdays.”

“It’s only six-thirty.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Can you just tell her I’m here?”

“You’re welcome to leave a message with me and we’ll deliver it for you.”

The nurse hands me a white square of paper and a ballpoint pen. She points to a bench. I sit there with the paper on my knee. Dear Mom. The tip of the pen pierces the page.

I fold the paper in half and stick it in my pocket, return the pen and get back in the car and drive until I hit Miles City. I get a room at a Motel 6 and walk to the Applebee’s two parking lots over. “Southwest salad, please, hold the cheese and dressings. And a Diet Coke.” 

As soon as the waitress is gone, I pull out my phone.

You won’t believe what I’m eating.

Will.

Triple bacon cheeseburger, extra cheese, extra mayo. Chicken nuggets on the side.

Joanne calls. “Sweetie, what’s going on? Your wife cornered me in the locker room today demanding to know where I’m hiding you. Did you split?”

“I’m going to my sister’s in California.”

“And you didn’t want to tell your wife?”

The table is sticky against my arms, the residue of cleaning products, of good intentions shoddily executed, reminding me that this won’t be my seat for long. Someone else is coming. Someone else is always coming. “We’re barely alive, and then we die.”

“So this is an existential crisis.”

“I’m sorry for the other day.”

“Which day? The day you ran away or the day we got in bed?”

The waitress brings my Diet Coke in a plastic cup big enough to drown a baby.

“I’m sorry I ran away. That was shitty. I’m just not in a place right now—”

“That guy I canceled on the other night? I un-canceled on him last night.”

The salad arrives covered in cheese and two kinds of dressing.

“He’s funny,” she says. “Makes me laugh. I’m seeing him again tonight.”

“Do I make you laugh?”

Joanne pauses. “No. You make me something else.”

After the salad, I ask the waitress for a cup of coffee and a cherry pie to go.

The pie rides with me down through Idaho and Nevada and all the way to the coast, as close as I can get to the edge of things. It isn’t good by the time I eat it, but it isn’t bad, either.


JULIE WERNERSBACH lives in Austin, Texas. She is the author of the nonfiction books Vegan Survival Guide to Austin and The Swimming Holes of Texas, and has published work in ArcadiaAustin Monthly, and Texas Highways. A former bookseller, she now serves as Literary Director of the Texas Book Festival. 


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