Three days after the fight with Cody, my stomach started to hurt. At the table, staring down into alphabet-o’s that refused to spell out any sort of truth or fragments of such, my side caved. The groan I let out carried across the slick, shining hardwood floors, up and out the front door we kept cracked after somehow fudging up the handle so badly, it stayed perennially locked. Jason then broke his key off inside of it, somehow not making the situation any better or worse. So we come in through the back door now, with a key hidden under a plain old brick sitting next to a key-holder faux rock. Not one person has broken in yet.
Ceiling shaking, rumbling, and I’m sure this is the end. I am going to either vomit or shit actual fire and then collapse as the town home burns around me. Then a hum, growing louder. It starts to sound like Morrissey, spinning like DNA strands down the stairs. The hum stops. Then I hear it again it perfect repetition. “Son of a bitch” I think to myself. And here he comes.
First a sock, then a bare foot, then two tan, hairy legs. Boxer briefs. And a smiling Jason is downstairs, prancing (almost tapdancing) across to me.
“Sounded good, right?”
“Yeah, like a bullshit Morrissey”
“Even that sounds pretty good,” he said grinning.
I took another bite of cereal and met eyes with Jason. He was still grinning.
“You got any extra cereal left?” He always had the strangest ways of wording things. One of the reasons I didn’t mind living with him: a linguist’s dream. “extra cereal left”.
“Nah, bud. Fresh out.”
“Can I just get one bite? I’m starving after that workout.” He balled his fist and cranked it through the air.
“Second thought: all yours.” I pushed the bowl but when standing up, felt that same sharp pain in my side. Jason responded to the noise by asking with the spoon still in front of his lips, “You alright, man?” He seemed genuinely concerned, his dull brown eyes now drooping, empathetic.
He must have remembered about my fight with Cody. Before I could reply he looked down at the bowl and spooned the milky sentences into his mouth. I wondered in that moment if he could vomit out the cereal to form any phrase to spark me, then recoiled at the thought.
“Gotta go to work, see you later.” I mumbled, shutting the front door hard behind me.
Work was hell with my stomach matching scene, the constant ring of high schoolers’ required reading and teen pop albums grossly pressed on vinyl deafening. I kept zoning out, using muscle memory to type in barcodes and passkeys and returns, avoiding questions about which Modernist authors were better than other Modernist authors, which dead white men were better than other dead white men: an incestuous game for incestuous crowds all jerking off about their horn-rimmed glasses and Infinite Jest tattoos. The thought came to me and almost pushed my stomach past my femurs: this is my life now.
I shuddered and rang up a copy of some other monolithic Postmodern novel the young, pale kid standing before me would almost certainly never read. “Quit now,” I wanted to tell him. “It doesn’t get better than this.” But he and I both knew that wasn’t true. The guys get hotter in grad school, and the young professors too, and there’s certainly more to live for. Instead I smiled and threw him a righteous thumbs up. “Good luck, bud.”
Running the bath is a tricky art for the uninitiated. The only trick is: turn the fucker all the way up. Blast that hot water. Then leave the room. A watched pot never boils and a watched tub is good for nothing but sulking. Eventually, towards to top of the bath’s filling, the hot water will run out and it will spit out the coldest water this side of Juneau, thereby evening the temperature to a warm, warm 100-105 degrees. Hot tub water.
Cody called while I was peeling off my briefs directly under my ceiling fan: the only solace in the East Texas summer. Nearing august meant there was hope for fall, and so far not one high school football player had died training. It was a half-Christmas miracle. Cody calling wasn’t quite such. I stared at the phone laying on the bed, screen cracked right across the middle from the fight. I thought about throwing it against the wall or Kobe-shooting it right into the bathtub from the bedroom. What a shot, that arc, spinning maybe, right into the steaming bathwater. Then I answered.
He continued, “Look, I’m really sorry, Matt. I didn’t mean to hurt you the other day, it just scares me that you spend so much time with Jason.” I heard him breathing softly into the receiver, struggling to find the words for an apology that I almost definitely wouldn’t accept. “Plus, you know, Jason does his weird thing and it freaks me out. All the sounds and the groaning.” He paused again, “It’s just fucking weird, baby. And I want you all to myself. I’m jealous for you. You know that.”
“I’m just so sorry.”
I felt my stomach seize up and I groaned.
“Are you okay?” Cody asked.
“What happened?” I heard him gasp after asking. I wanted to burst out laughing at him.
“Some fucking asshole pushed me into a granite countertop stomach first.” I chuckled. “Would you believe that?”
“I’m sorry, Matt. I’m so sorry. I just reacted when you slapped me and if I could take it back I would. I swear to god, Matt. I would. I’m so sorry I hurt you, baby.”
“I slapped you because you were being a jealous ass!” I could feel spit running down my lips. Was I yelling at him? When did I start yelling? “Insinuating that I help Jason with his process!”
“You mean masturbate.”
“I mean create music, Cody. But I guess they didn’t teach you about the artistic process in your little accounting class, did they?”
“I just don’t understand why he can only create music when he climaxes. Really, that’s all.”
“Cody, I don’t tell you how to live your life, do I? I don’t tell you how to do your job. And neither does Jason.”
Cody didn’t say anything. I said goodnight.
The bath was cold. The weight of the hard water on my soft abdomen, the talk with Cody. I wondered for a moment if maybe I had Stockholm Syndrome. Then I didn’t wonder anything, slipping beneath the surface and staring up at the wavering light fixtures situated above me. It came again with the pressure in my ears: this my life now.
Jason was creating again as I lay naked in the middle of my mattress, watching the ceiling fan spin and remembering the days when Cody and I would have to slide our boxers and briefs off the blades the morning after our trysts. In the beginning.
I could hear Jason frantically pounding, humming softly, warming up for the climax of his stunning song. I heard a click: the record button on his old 8-track analog Tascam. Then louder he hummed, and kept humming. Then full on song. I shut my eyes and felt the warmth of a slick, salty tear slide down my right cheek, dispersing in my hair and drying, like me, under the spinning fan.
“Sounds good, right?” I heard Jason ask, coming out of his room to use the bathroom across the hall.
“Sounds good, bud.” I answered, promptly falling asleep.
There were no more high schoolers in the bookshop, only little, shitty kids. It was a reading day. One of the maternal staff members would pull up a comically small stool, plop down on it, and read groups of 5-8 year olds picture books about voracious caterpillars and dogs without mothers. It’s strange what kids find entertaining. Although I guess no stranger than my brother liking Davy Crockett or me liking cartoons about Saudi Arabian thieves and genies.
Martha was reading today. She pointed to a copy of the book she was reading, Sand Dunes and Dan’s Food, asking me to bring over a copy for one of the little kids to buy. I put on my “happy face” and waved as I walked by all the staring, snotty faces. When I bent over to give Martha the book, I nearly fainted.
“Oh, Jesus Christ.” I strained out, wide eyed, mouth agape.
“Excuse me?” one of the little assholes’ mother asked me, eyebrows furrowing. To which I responded with a brief wave and brisk walk to the bathroom.
Apparently they found me on the bathroom floor, passed out in a pool of sweat. An embarrassing stroke of luck. It was 5:00 in the evening, the sun bright in its slip through the cheap plastic hospital blinds. The doctors said something about Toxic Shock or Appendicitis. I woke up to it being 8:30, the sun setting, letting a soft orange glow into the room. A knock on the door.
“Are you feeling well enough for a special visitor?” The nurse asked, Stepford wife face stuck in permanent smile. I stared at her taut skin. She couldn’t be more than 30, but her eyes were so—
I felt my stomach. The pain now ghost, stomach empty, abdomen finally alright. I nodded, “Yes, Nurse Jenny.” The light vanished from her eyes and I regretted the joke—a stupid one she gets all the time, probably. Has to. She wordlessly walked out the door and I waited for Cody to come in. I had forgiven the fight, in my mind at least. Cody was my friend, my boyfriend, my emergency contact.
“Un-fucking-believable” I said as soon as he walked in the room.
“Hey, bud! Hope you’re feeling alright! I’ve almost got this song finished.” Jason looked at me, smiling ear-to-ear. “You mind if I use the bathroom real quick? Like ten minutes, I’m gonna finish this song. Promise.”
“Alright, ten minutes. See you in ten!” He rushed into the bathroom, taking the Tascam with him, and I heard the sound of the toilet seat quickly adjusting and readjusting in time with his creative process. I heard it then, the click. The hum, the beautiful crescendo, and then the most triumphant sound I’ve ever heard Jason make.
“Oh God, Matt: it’s beautiful. Listen. Just listen.”
“Alright, come sit down on the edge of the bed and we’ll listen.”
And Jason was right, as I stared at the popcorn ceiling, past my hospital gown. Past Jason—my strange, terrifying friend with creative methods unmatched. Past the phone that Cody should’ve tried to call at least once. Right up in the popcorn ceiling. And I almost ruptured my stomach stitches laughing when I saw it, something the alphabet-O’s couldn’t give me. Up in the ceiling, spelled out in big, fat, popcorn plaster letters: this is your life now.
C.T. McGaha is a writer from Charlotte, NC. His work has been previously published in Potluck Mag, 90s Meg Ryan, Word Riot, and others. He's an avid lover of sesame tofu and George Saunders. Once a year, he re-watches Arrested Development.