Jenny Xie | Once More, With Feeling

One day, when they were giving the dog a bath, he proposed. He swished his arm around in the tub and produced a ring that winked its white glaucomic eye. “Now, how did this get here!” he said in a sitcom voice.

It was bad timing, and not only because they were in the middle of Sally the bichon-poo’s fur-lathering process. As it so happened, she was having a deeply insensible summer. There was something the matter with her nerves. She felt nothing: not within, and not without, not even when she sawed the bread knife back and forth across her thumb until the skin was filed open to a glistening red smile.

It was awkward; she was supposed to say yes, but already too much time had passed. Ideally, you’re supposed to say yes before he finishes the sentence. It’s like that joke with the interrupting cow. You’re supposed to make the ugliest face you can physically and emotionally make and gasp yes as though his hands were crumpling your windpipe. Then the hired photographer casts off his bush costume, his face painted army green, and takes a picture of you weeping.

Sally the bichon-poo whined, confused as to why her sudsy massage had ended. He let his arm fall as steadily as a lowered drawbridge, and she left the room with soap-leeches clinging to her elbows.

 

Fortunately, a blind tax attorney named Geoffrey lived in her town. Geoffrey was offering room and board in exchange for a pair of eyes—or a single discerning one, said the ad. She appeared for the interview with a packed suitcase, which was presumptuous, but Geoffrey couldn’t see that. He looked like a well-rested Abraham Lincoln, an Abraham Lincoln who had been shaved and fed a diet rich in omega fatty acids. When he spoke, he looked her steadily and eagerly in the eye.

“So you teach at the university,” he said, guiding her through the handsomely outfitted house. He had a keen grasp of color theory. “What a relief the summer must be.”

“Yes, I feel relieved,” she parroted. They wound up the staircase to the third floor.

“I have a nephew who just graduated,” said Geoffrey. “He spoke very highly of the school.”

His office was a small room with a slanted roof. They sat at desks facing each other, she in front of a computer and he in front of a talking keyboard. His face was long and serene. His face reminded her of standing at the riverbank and whipping the fishing rod over her head and hearing the determined whirr of the line arcing towards the water.

She read his emails aloud, and he dictated his replies. You should invest in an orthopedic shoe, she wrote. Heaven knows Tracy didn’t fail for lack of trying.

At the end of the hour, he gave her the position.

“Thank you,” she said. “May I see my room?”

 

If she were functioning properly, she would have appreciated how seamlessly Geoffrey integrated with his environment. He could tell her that downstairs, in the nook by the front door, there stood a console table with mother of pearl inlay whose leftmost drawer contained an envelope marked “Sunday.” In it she would find his ex-wife’s passport photos and an extra house key. She explored the woman’s brown, hesitant face and tested the key’s teeth against the pad of her finger.

He knew the titles on every bookshelf in the house. “Here it is,” he said, running his hands across their spines until he counted to the creased paperback. “You’ll get a kick out of this one.” She read the sentences and understood them and that was all. Closing her eyes, she slid her palm over the pages, imagining them eroded of meaning.

He had a driver who bore him to work and back, but at all other times Geoffrey relied on her. She shuttled him to the bank, the grocery store, the mechanic, the deli. He gave her directions with oracular precision, telling the turns by the quality of the road. Under regular human circumstances, she would have been impressed.

 

“My nephew will be visiting this week,” he told her. “I hope that’s alright with you.”

She set the morning’s mail on the desk. She experienced an itch on the backside of her right eyeball, and she had to roll it around in the socket to placate it. She couldn’t explain what was happening. Her heart thudded from the new sensation; then it all went dead again.

“Of course,” she said. She picked up the first envelope. “This one’s from Rodney’s Pest Control.”

 

The boy who swung his duffel bag to the floor was Toby Whitaker, whom she had taught in a freshman composition course. He had not spoken much in class, but she had given him an A minus. She had not expected his student evaluation, in which he had rebuffed her written comments in great detail and indignation, its vitriol capped with, I can’t wait to find her in a dark alley. She had reported this to the department head, who had commended her bravery in coming forward and understood her concern, but did she see how it would compromise the validity of student evaluations if word got out that a student was persecuted for something he thought?

“Holy guacamole!” said Toby, extending his hand to her now. “What a coincidence! Are you still teaching?”

“I am.” She caught and released his hand. It was her turn to ask a question. “Are you…do you sit down?”

“Haha! The heat’s got you scrambled.” He scooped the dark frill of his hair away from his forehead. “Uncle Geoff, you got anything to munch on?”

“Help yourself,” said Geoffrey, “but don’t go overboard. We’re just about to start dinner.”

“I can help with that,” said Toby.

“No need, no need. You’re the guest, you relax.”

The boy’s skin was so pale it was almost translucent, showing the red capillaries threading through his cheeks and down his neck. He caught her looking and gave her a lipless grin.

 

There were groceries to put away before they started dinner. She declared each item as she handed it to Geoffrey.

“Olive oil,” she said, and he placed it on the countertop.

“Bacon,” she said, and he opened the fridge.

“Broccoli,” she said, and he nestled it in the crisper.

“Cereal,” she said. “Corn flakes.” He tucked it into the pantry.

“Cantaloupe,” she said, or was about to say, when she felt the chafing of its fibrous skin against her palm. The roughness illuminated her hands. “Cantaloupe,” she forced herself to pronounce, holding the orb towards Geoffrey. They botched the pass, and it landed on the floor, where it splattered into mounds of overripe flesh and stringy innards. It slopped over their feet. The mass was that of twenty cantaloupes; the smell, sweet and obscene.

“You could say I’ve dropped the ball,” said Geoffrey.

“No, that was my fault.” As she scooped up the mess, she couldn’t help marveling at the slime that coated each seed, how the flat pills slipped through her fingers when she closed her fist. She felt like a baby and wanted to say “da” like a baby.

Toby came into the kitchen and snickered. “Say, why didn’t the melons get married?” He drew a breath. “Because they cantaloupe!”

 

Her bedroom door crept open as she slept. When she opened her eyes, it was the deepest part of night. Though she couldn’t make out anything beyond the foot of her bed, she sensed that the door had moved. The silence had a different texture to it: like static.

She parted the darkness and came to the door. Placing one hand on each doorjamb, she beckoned fear to approach her, but it stayed there at the end of the hallway. It was a shiny black, a bear made of black rain.

In the morning, the walls were the color of cream. She dressed Geoffrey in seersucker and denim. Toby was downstairs, microwaving a glass of milk in five-second intervals to achieve body temperature. He had loathed Virginia Woolf, she remembered. Glancing at his text in class, she had seen entire paragraphs crossed out.

 

Geoffrey had a doctor’s appointment. It had something to do with his spleen. She knew some facts about spleens from her sixth grade report on them. Her elementary school report topics, in order of appearance, were how to make lemonade, foxes, recycling, arctic foxes, Martin Luther King, herself, Tennessee, spleens, the Wright brothers, Lord of the Flies, and high fructose corn syrup.

Did you know, in ancient times they thought the spleen made black liquid called bile that made people feel woebegone? The fact is that is not true. Spleens recycle old red blood cells and make white blood cells. They are purple and shaped like a fist. They are about four inches long, which is the average length of a sardine (yuck!). They also fight bacteria, so it is very significant to take care of your spleen.

Afterwards, back at the car, the door would not open. She mashed the button on the keys while Geoffrey tried the handle. “This has never happened before,” he said.

She tried fitting the key into the lock, but the teeth snagged, and the metal groaned as she yanked it out.

“What are you doing to my car?” yelled a man who was galloping towards them.

She realized that this was not Geoffrey’s black Chrysler. “Sorry,” she said as the man placed a proprietary hand on the trunk. “Wrong car.”

“I’m blind,” offered Geoffrey.

The man pointed a finger at her—for whose benefit it was unclear. “Then you might want to get a driver who can see.”

Geoffrey’s black Chrysler was further down the row. She pressed the button. The doors floated open like puffs of milkweed.

“At this hour, the traffic on the main road will be tolerable. When you exit, make a left,” said Geoffrey.

She took his direction. “Is everything okay? With your spleen, I mean.”

“Yes! Better than okay. I have two healthy spleens.”

“Ten percent of the population has an accessory spleen.”

“Yes, I am part of the ten percent that has more than they need.”

A throb of agitation made her clench the wheel. She wanted to wipe Geoffrey of his presidential calm—cure him, as she couldn’t herself. The car bounced when she braked at the next stop.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked.

“Nothing in particular,” she said.

“Next right.”

“May I ask when you lost your sight? Have you always been blind?”

“Actually, my eyes began to go when I was fourteen.”

“That must have been hard.”

“Yes, but—”

“It’s a terrible time as it is. You don’t know where you fit in, and you’re obsessed with what others think. Everyone bullies each other. In high school, a girl named Hallie Grossman squeezed a ketchup packet on a picnic bench and asked me to sit down. I was wearing white shorts.” She relived the moment with surprising relish. She remembered the girls’ faces blossoming with laughter as soon as she had taken a seat, and she experienced a rush of malicious joy. “A boy I liked felt me up and then told everyone I had three nipples,” she continued, gripping the memory between her hands as though it were the veined, vaguely cancerous skin of a cantaloupe. “To get a peek, his new girlfriend lifted my shirt in history class. I squealed like a pig. Even the teacher had to try not to laugh.”

“For exactly those reasons,” said Geoffrey, “going blind was not my biggest concern with being fourteen.”

 

Toby was halfway through mowing the lawn. “How did it go?” he called, pushing the blubbering machine towards them. She imagined the blades sloughing off layers of her flesh, leaving trimmings of her body behind.

“It went well,” pronounced Geoffrey to the trees. The noise made it difficult to look his nephew in the eye. “I’m as healthy as a horse, as they say. A horse with two spleens.”

“Glad to hear it!” said Toby. He came nearer, the lawnmower chugging at their feet. If he got any closer she would be obliterated. She welcomed it. She would be mashed forever into a smear of ketchup, baring her third nipple to the world. The rumbling came through the soles of her feet, which were twitching in anticipation of blood: toenails sheared off, each nugget of bone sent through the chipper. Toby, she realized, was laughing. She flinched—he turned and pushed the mower toward the far end of the lawn. The bear of rain stood at her back, darkly glistening.

 

Soon after, she announced her resignation to Geoffrey.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Have I done something to offend you?”

“Not at all,” she said. “The truth is, I’m a runaway. I have a partner waiting at home, and he doesn’t know where I am. He will be worried and confused.”

“I understand,” said Geoffrey. “Well, I can’t keep you here.”

Pins and needles pricked her organs as her body awakened. She returned to the apartment and found Sally the bichon-poo shivering in the tub. The soap had dried and spiked her fur. He was still kneeling on the rug, his face sharpened from not having eaten. The room had the cloudy stink of urine.

“Darling!” he exclaimed.

For the situation that faced her now, she felt it all: a fantastic guilt, a terrific pity.

.

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Jenny Xie graduated from the MFA program at Johns Hopkins University, where she also taught creative writing. Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Ninth Letter, PANK, Adroit Journal, Phoebe, and Hyphen Magazine, among others, and has received awards from Glimmer Train, Devil’s Lake, Narrative Magazine, and Gulf Coast. In 2016, she was named one of Narrative Magazine’s 30 Under 30. She lives in Oakland, California and is currently at work on a novel.

2017-03-25T01:01:44-04:00