No one should ever speak to anyone else if they aren’t willing to risk total exposure. Alex had a nasty habit of twirling her hair, twisting it into beetle-dense knots, and tearing out the entire cluster. It always amazed her that her scalp never bled from this nervous ritual. She figured there was not much blood between her skin and her skull in the first place, and imagined what a fat scalp would feel like, if its spongey loam would burst with blood at the slightest hair tug. This was arguably the skinniest part of the body, an area that would remain skinny regardless of global tumescence. She recalled a man she once dated briefly who had one of those rare perfect dicks, and how one time, he was talking about his moving ordeal and described the books in their milk boxes as tumescent. She had never heard this word outside of the male member and she recalled how goddamn pretentious he was and how beautiful that cock looked wearing the word tumescent, like a sleek mink stole around the neck of a nutrient-glowing aristocrat. She wept for days when he stopped calling her—for when he plunged into her, it felt like an entire ocean of deeply human secrets were filling her every corner, turning all errors and doubts about the universe into round, warm animals.
“But that was ages ago and Alex had stopped considering his forearm dick, this man who renamed himself Apollo for no apparent reason other than in the hopes that, like the poorly applied word choice tumescent, it might stick in the tastemaker’s selective mind. It normally did. These days, Alex ripped out clumps of hair and inspected her cheeks each morning, annoyed by the uncertainty of whether they were fattening with age prematurely. Was it even premature anymore? She was 29 after all. She should stop drinking. Every time she got drunk around artists, she lied about her life. The lies were less irresistible than they were impossible to avoid, like an addict’s taste for whiskey which isn’t as much about the taste than the solution to life’s inexhaustible disappointments. It was in regards to this that Alex Simone lied. The lies would creep up on her and before she knew it—wine-lipped and bug-eyed as a half-drowned marsupial—she was explaining to Paul her stymied career as a flutist for the National Orchestra.
Later on at home, Alex would fact-check her own lie and confirm that, yes, it was plausible that one who played in the National Symphony Orchestra or the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America might term it National Orchestra for short. She might spot her flute pushed haphazard in its case beneath the couch, its movements over the course of years due only to the accrual of clutter and a neglect Alex was beginning to suspect was not only an extension of her personality but perhaps the only one for which she truly honored.
She really did play flute but she did so acceptably and without passion, and would play even the most amusing songs like “¡Tequila!” with the same bored discipline she might the C scale. She brought her flute to college and played in some failed indie bands but never live—only in recording sessions where she was asked to hold the high C and the breath would sleepily drift to B and D and so on. She was paid in PBR and sometimes handjobs. The bassists always had nimble pencil dicks and to stroke them was to encourage two decades’ worth of insecurity realized in flesh and blood. She brought the flute to her first New York apartment and then the next one and the next one, only once removing it from the case and twisting its head to the faint pencil mark on the barrel rod. Her mind flashed on Keith’s violent-red penis and she exhaled, yanking the head joint from its body with too much strength and returning it to the plush lining.
Occasionally a Google alert would inform her that one of the bands with which she played—Twilight of the Idle or Face to Your Lodestar or Hurricane Failure—had credited her in a YouTube clip. And so mindfully, with the validation that a quick search of “Alex Simone” and “flute” would yield approving results, she would nestle up to the lie, warmer now, and see to it that she spoke with enough humiliation and defeat that it would be irrefutable. She was so good at this part, so natural, that it never occurred to a single partygoer that there was any reasonable doubt. Why would someone lie about something so sad? She should really stop drinking.
On this particular day, she was sitting in her office plucking out her eyebrow hairs with professional focus. She was hungover. She attempted to remember the previous night’s conversations, a task so difficult it was like asking a flower to wiggle and wag its petals. She sipped her green juice. She needed to keep track of her lies else she get caught in their proverbial web. She disliked this habit of hers to lie so much but she could only preen the edges of that hate, confront it with the dissociation that went into any coping mechanism. What had she said this time? Think, think, think. She plucked her eyebrow and inspected the gritty brow salt. The lies were always inoffensive, save for the rare moments she found herself lying about her origins. That was a gray area to be sure, but who could blame her? Over tacos, her friends told her they envied her because she was so ethnically ambiguous and they so WASPy. Even the way they said WASPy was WASPy. It was the way bougey people said things were bougey, clinging to the belief that they could dispel their own privilege through stilted expression and false accountability. What did ethnically ambiguous even mean? And so she exercised defiance here, challenging the dumb curiosity that her dark features inspired.
Mostly she lied about former careers, her misspent youth, stranger-than-fiction encounters. She definitely cried in public this time. She cried and remembered the person with whom she was speak-crying was also crying. So they were crying together. Good. It didn’t have to mean that she lied about something—she cried all the time in earnest. It was her most honest gesture. But this felt different, and she was certain—as certain as walking into a house filled with the aroma of a savory soup—that in order to achieve this level of camaraderie with another human being, she must have cooked up a whopper broth.
—Do you know what you are today.—her computer asked this as a statement. Alex paused her motion and considered this. When she started at her marketing company, Slim, she programmed her machine to possess the Purseonality™ Sartre. Each WePurse–owning employee had the option of syncing their WePurse to their computers using the Purseonality™ app, an interactive operating system aligned to a famous author’s character. Alex chose Sartre because she told someone at a party that Nausea was her favorite book and opined that its central struggle was how we re-allocate human anguish in the age of new technology. She hadn’t read the book but knew it as a key model of existentialism and later she learned that the lone image of a phonograph appeared many times and so her thesis seemed accurate enough. Other options were Baldwin, Plath, and Murakami. Her coworker Sam was very pleased with Murakami but she complained that her dreams had the shape and character of molecules when evoking scene instead of jarring expanses. Nobody ever chose Plath except for the Dark Wing kids, an opportunity Alex took advantage of at a bar once when she slyly complained about her OS Plath and the silly search results always accompanying the word “art.”
Alex rolled up to her computer and typed “Eyebrow dust” and hit Send. Sartre called up ten windows about face dander, David Bowie, sugar wax, the dangers of taking aspirin before eyebrow threading, 5 Ways Your Views Might Be More Like Kant’s Categorical Imperatives Than You Realize, and so on. Nothing interested her. She had a meeting in 15 minutes but she couldn’t tell if the sun was out or not. One reason she didn’t enjoy work was she couldn’t evacuate the contents of her stomach after a meal, not in the public restrooms anyway, an obstacle she was sure resulted in gray paste in her jowls.
All day long, she wrote copy for different miracle diet trends. This week, Slim had introduced her team to a project on FODMAPs named GaLactixa, a play on galactans and the galaxy obviously. Her project manager, Seth Demin, called all pills “projects” because, in his words, “Pills condemn; projects connote.” It was a meaningless phrase that Alex found herself parroting to non-work buddies with compelling gravity and for which her friends would solemnly nod in understanding. GaLactixa was a rice-based capsule that supposedly neutralized the fermenting bacteria in your intestines resulting from high FODMAP intake. It meant being able to eat beans and soft cheese after a workout without the worry that the intense core exercise and general time spent was for naught. Alex’s role was to brainstorm a tagline for their recent ad campaign proposal that would gain them a two-page spread in Persuasion Magazine. She asked Sartre about her breakfast choice—had she done alright this time? She had consumed steamed kale on arrowroot toast sprinkled with FeGGs, an ersatz egg protein free of cruelty and cholesterol.
—Hi Alex. Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you. Have you read the recent Scientific America article regarding aggressive FeGG consumption? Keywords: polyps, ass pimples, premature death . . . —
Alex didn’t read the article but vowed to throw out her FeGGs as soon as she returned home and lord over naive FeGG consumers at subsequent gatherings. She would tell that idiot Andy as he shoveled FeGG into his idiot mouth, “I read an article over at Scientific America that warned people who eat FeGG die young and full of back pimples and polyps.” She imagined him mid-shovel suddenly looking grim. To imagine his serious face was to imagine a beaver’s drowning expression once they realized they were trapped underwater by their own dam construction. She read the first 50 words about how beavers sometimes do that and could only glean that it was also an article about natural selection. Beneath the articles, banners blinked promoting a drug to prevent against knee cheese. There was a picture of a brie-like substance pushing out the hair follicles of a purple knee. She wondered about that particular knee model—what did they do for fun? Did they talk about this gig? Was it all a joke? She could only glean that Andy’s asshattery was also a matter of natural selection and he would die by his hand accidentally. Andy was like a hole in a sock at a party. Even if the rest of the party was great, his presence was a discomfort that you never settled fully into, one that you hoped nobody would notice or discuss. She really hated Andy.
She twirled her hair and typed into her Sartre-based workflow app Autres, “Statistics have shown that having a soft belly makes you less likely to earn promotions or raise your child without traumatic consequence. Let GaLactixa help pave your way to a flatter, better you.” This was pretty weak but she found that it was when she committed least to projects and cast the most sweeping judgments she yielded the greater reward, and so with this in mind, she clicked Submit. She typed “FeGGs” plus “polyps” into Sartre and it pulled up a few articles based on Scientific America’s scoop. Oh. FeGGs prevented polyps, ass pimples, and premature death. She would have to recalibrate her fantasy to involve her cautiously biting into a FeGG-piled quinoa cracker, skinny and glowing as she told Andy, hand delicately over mouth, that he needed more FeGG in his diet. She imagined she was speaking to an Andy-shaped polyp.
Autres pinged. Denver had responded to Alex’s copy with “what statistics are you referring to?!!” It was flagged as a high-priority chat. Fucking Denver. She always wrote in lowercase, as if she’d lost her shift key long ago in a battle of morals and could write with only tightass lowercase penance ever since. If she really wanted to drive her superiority complex to homebase she would have restructured her syntax so it came out as “to what statistics are you referring?” But Denver was father time of amateur hour. what statistics are you referring to?!! Alex didn’t have real statistics. She only imagined a boss figure searching upon her open floor plan of eager hirelings for the one with the least protrusions to serve as the next team cupola. She imagined a child unable to walk after bouncing off her father’s long bellybutton and down the stairs. These were less statistics and more theories on accident, but surely the stigma had weight. She considered the sandwich she brought in on Monday and how it was still there and Thursday. She considered the way Esther asked her about her recent submission with an airy tone and her sandaled toes within the entrance of her cubicle. All of life’s promises were invasive. She’d throw the sandwich out later.
The day was awash and without statistics. She responded to Denver’s chat, not before unclicking the high-priority button: “You are more than a star when you take GaLactixa.” Submit. “GaLactixa: Why vote once when you can vote twice?” Submit. “GaLactixa: The priceless galaxy of misinformation called the mind.” Save as draft. Isaiah chatted at her privately so as to avoid conflict—typical—with
Can we lose the galaxy motif? It feels pretty on the nose and Sprout is preparing something similar with their proposal. We really need this one to work.
What did Isaiah the Project Manager know about strategy? Alex had officially committed an entire 20 minutes to thinking about this and wasn’t happy. She twisted her hair into an incendiary nest. Maybe she’ll start bringing a lighter to work. Seth always called this part the “ah-ha valley,” the vast plane between prompt and selling point where you’ve all but given up save for the small morsel of hope in the ah-ha moment. Seth said to forget about ah-ha’s when it came to marketing strategy because advertisement was an agnostic enterprise necessitated by subjective preference.
The closest to divine intervention was the time Bill just happened to have enough molly for the entire group at the last happy hour session and Alex had a heart to heart with Manuel in the bathroom about dealing with dying parents. She imagined her parents sitting at home, warm and healthy, a blanket of longevity pulled up to each of their neat little chins. Maybe Manuel was also lying? Now they nodded in orphan solidarity when they passed one another in the hallway to the kitchen. She wished she hadn’t done that one.
Still, Alex waited for a divine node in the case of GaLactixa. Genevieve and Fatimah had recently given her tagline a thumb’s up. Isaiah, that callow man, hadn’t done the thumb’s down. He thought direct criticism was best and maybe he was right if he wasn’t always completely wrong. Alex typed with her eyes closed, “The galaxy is said to contain an interstellar medium of gas and dust, but it doesn’t mean you have to. Try GaLactixa today and find your center among the stars.” Submit. She heard Isaiah sigh. Then she remembered it and felt air collapsing her bowels: breast cancer. She told somebody last night that she had breast cancer. Fatimah responded to her latest ping with “Ooooh, nice!” Fatimah was alright. They should get drinks sometime.✎
Alex never thought about her dealings with Slim after hours. She’d go home and resume the other part of her life like a bruise. She took out her WePurse to ask Sartre if pistachios were a healthy snack choice and Sartre’s field of answers suggested that they were probably not. She threw out the bag. She had read a paragraph of an article once that it was better to buy pistachios in the shell because prying each one open burned off some of the calories and it forced you to pace yourself. She opened the app Necessary Fats, a multimedia food diary tool, and reviewed her week. On Tuesday, her calories had spilled over 1000 because she had wine on top of dinner. Tonight she would stuff her mouth with butter lettuce and let it melt into a green goo before swallowing. She would record this intake and it would translate as “salad – 50 cal” in Necessary Fats. It would satisfy the third-meal requirements by displaying a gif with Alex’s avatar on a silver platter. The thought was you are what you eat and, depending on your track record for the day, and then for the week, and then again for the month, it would show Alex as smiling with a fingernail-wide waist or crying with distended, shivering haunches.
It had been a good day and so, like the adage The award for good work is more work, she disappeared into the bathroom with a glass of water in hand. She was happy to live alone when the loneliness didn’t hurt to bear. Each day, she would hear a choir of “We” sentences, a private, velvet grin surrounding the word. We watched Roasted this week and We tried that new restaurant on the corner and We fit so nicely into each other during intercourse. Even the bad stuff sounded like a glorious exercise in companionship. Alex had her fair share of We sentences, but it was limiting to always have a witness to a story. The one time Mark corrected her about the details of an event, she was so mortified that she proposed a break, moved out, and never answered any of his calls, texts, or purls. Sometimes she would wake up nervous that perhaps they were still dating after five years. Perhaps she’d been adulterous. She wasn’t completely sure how preposterous this fear was, but she wasn’t about to call Mark to ask.
It was all so hard to maintain, but she did it with the endurance of a bus driver. Alex lived in a one-bedroom railroad apartment on the border of two Brooklyn neighborhoods. One night she deployed her clever coinage, Bedswitck, and winked so mechanically she wondered if that person had run off to find her an oil can and wasn’t just cowering behind the conversation of two tall men. Her apartment was bare save for the shitty Dalí poster depicting Anthropomorphic Chest of Drawers that had traveled with her and her flute. It had the tears and wrinkles to show for it. Still, it was all she wanted up and never framed. Despite being able to afford the bounties of her gentrifying neighborhoods, she opted for dented aluminum pasta pots, a crooked bookshelf, and uncharming piles of books. She had watched a pilot episode where a quirky hipster lived with stacks of books all over his place and she wondered why the books weren’t covered in plucked hairs, toenail soot, and inexplicable gray wool. Simulations of a life lived always made her hot with guilt.
On the days when Necessary Fat summed up her dietary events as Crying with Distended Shivering Haunches, Alex refused wash or general hygiene. Past her chapped lips, she would hear herself repeat Better better better better until she felt the noise transcend into mantra. The days followed in a slow, magnified dimension the way sound taps in the ear submerged in bathwater. But today was a good day, the hangover gone by 3pm, Alex’s avatar smiling bright amid bright anorexic eyes. Who thought she had breast cancer? No way she was telling her therapist this, a frank woman of certitude with whom she had built up a respectable rapport. Most nights she wondered if she were her favorite patient because she was so clearly sane and only trying the sharpen the blurry peripheries of her sharply drawn mind. She even admitted to the occasional fib, to which the therapist would shake her head and remind her that she was only trying to protect herself from potential abuse in a world that had been so unfair to her.
Life had been unfair to her, to be sure. Men walked among her who had done terrible things. She needed to lie because the lies kept her safe from potential abuse. That was all fine and good but now it was possible, it was just possible, that her cancer lie blew her over the edge of damage control and into the uncanny valley of insanity. Would it make sense to tell other people she had breast cancer, just to cover the bases? No, no. What an awful thought! Today was a good day. Time would cover this up in its blind generosity toward the cruel and unusual. But she wasn’t cruel and unusual. She would take a bath. She would float her entire body beneath the soapless water as the annihilating sound of the faucet smashed her ears apart.
Natalie Eilbert is the author of Indictus, winner of Noemi Press’s 2016 Poetry Contest, slated for publication in late 2017, as well as the debut poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). She is the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she is serving a one-year academic appointment. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.