CANDOR

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I went to Brett’s work and asked him, point blank, what he saw in his new girlfriend Stella.

His eyes widened as I approached him, like he wasn’t happy to see me. (Is there anything worse than a lover shifting course? There is no way—no way at all—to make them see you as they once did: as sexually and intellectually intriguing).  He even did that thing where he used his thumb and forefinger to smooth down his bushy eyebrows while baring his tiny teeth like a rabbit. It was my only signal, during our relationship, that he was uncomfortable.

“Kat, why are you here?” he said. “I thought we agreed not to speak for a while.”  He did the eyebrow/teeth thing again.

“I want to have a drink with you,” I said, as calmly as possible. “Just one drink.”

We were outside his office where he worked as a civil engineer, designing roads, bridges, and water supply systems for overseas firms. He made six figures (though you’d never know it, based on his penchant for Blimpie Subs and Groupons). It had been two months since he left me and moved in with Stella.

He looked at me. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

I took him by the shoulders and shook him, well, as much as a 150-pound woman can shake a 200-pound man, and said, “You have to have a drink with me, you have to have a drink with me, if you don’t have a drink with me I don’t know what I’ll do. I still love you, you son of a bitch.”

When I said that, he smiled. He’d been fat in junior high, insecure and unpopular, and wanted to affirm his appeal any chance he got. He also had difficulty asserting himself with me, a fact he’d admitted during the lone couples therapy session we’d attended shortly before he left me.

“Okay,” he said, “Okay. Let’s go to the place with the coffee.”

“Wine,” I said. “We’ll go to the place with the wine.”

*

A week earlier, I’d ordered Candor from Amazon. The description:

REAL Truth Seeking Serum. Drop into your lover’s drink or foodstuff.
Within seconds they will answer all of your questions honestly.

There were over 5,000 reviews of the product, and the overall quality score was 4.5 out of 5. Really does work, said Ada from New York.  This isn’t a scam, said Ron from Virginia. May give the victim a stomachache, warned Mohammad from Maryland, but my wife admitted she did not love me and so I divorced her. Saved a lot of wasted time! The serum itself cost fifty dollars. I placed my order.

The package arrived at my door: a small cardboard box with my name and address on it, and a return shipping label. I took it inside my apartment and hastily ripped open the seal, more eager than I’d expected to be.

The amber liquid floated in a glass bottle with a white dropper. The bottle itself was heavy and old-fashioned.  Two drops, per six ounces of water or food. I had enough to last for several months. I only needed enough for Brett.

The reason I purchased the serum to begin with: spending money on an unproven product excited me in an almost erotic way. Sure, Candor had a decent Amazon rating, but for all I knew those reviews were paid or written by bots and yet I bought it anyway. In many parts of my life, I appreciated facts and evidence. I was an academic as well as an atheist. I argued with my mother when she said global warming was an idea invented by Toyota so they could sell more electric cars. I told my students that the fate of the world depended on their careful consideration and understanding of research.

All of this made my desire to believe in the unbelievable even stranger. Perhaps it came down to being raised in a non-religious family, and wanting to have faith in something I had never seen with my own eyes. In my heart of hearts, I worried that scholars, scientists, writers, doctors, and lawyers didn’t understand the world entirely. We pretended to. There were the crop circles, the Bermuda Triangle disappearances, thin people who ate whatever they wanted, and the 1976 UFO incident in Tehran. There was Jesus and Roswell and the pyramids. There was the Yeti in Nepal and Bigfoot in Washington and the Loch Ness Monster in the Scottish Highlands and the potato chip that looked like Mother Teresa in Mexico. Once I saw the shape of a woman’s figure, curvy and sensual, in the mirror hanging above my living room sofa. I turned to face her and there was nobody there. Another time I had a dream I’d been abducted by aliens and when I woke up there were red teeth marks on my wrists and ankles.

Yes, the world was full of mysterious things. Part of me believed that maybe, maybe, the serum could work. Maybe, maybe, the serum could be part of the world’s mysteriousness.

The serum also gave me an excuse to contact Brett and perhaps force him to divulge his secrets. I really wanted to know why he left me. The real reason. Not just the other woman.

The breakup went like this: Brett told me he didn’t think we had a future together and that he’d met somebody new. A week later, he was cramming underwear and dress shirts into a suitcase and babbling about paying the next month of my rent and letting me keep all the furniture. I hadn’t been sleeping since he booked it and I’d even reduced myself to going to the apartment he shared with Stella and dragging a key across his car door and smashing a cage-free egg into his windshield. My teaching suffered as well. I was a tenure-track English professor at the University of Arizona and ran undergrad seminars on Herman Melville as well as fiction workshops for the graduate creative writing program, but I could no longer coordinate discussions or socialize with students individually without getting tremendously dizzy and losing my speech. I compensated by canceling class often.  

The only thing that made life tolerable was thinking about Brett, or following him on social media. He posted pictures of Stella occasionally but mostly he was silent. Human beings repeat behaviors that bring them the most pleasure: in lieu of any pleasurable options, I’d resorted to clicking on Facebook photos, trying to piece together the last five years of my life. What happened? I asked aloud. How did he go from posting pictures of me in my bikini, to posting pictures of Stella in her bikini? How did I go from being a successful writer and professor, to feeling like my identity and happiness depended on “solving” the mystery of why Brett left me for another woman?

Many people—including my own mother, whom I saw regularly but was not actually emotionally close with—might argue that Brett left me for painfully cliché reasons: Stella was 28; I was 40. Stella was Brett’s secretary; I was financially independent and had a demanding career.  I hated the idea that men secretly preferred passive dolts and so I hoped that the reason he left me was more complicated. Unfortunately I could think of a few examples of men passing up perfectly beautiful, successful women in their forties, in favor of slightly stooped, pimpled girls in their twenties who worked at thrift shops or cafés part-time. Then again, that data was anecdotal. It’s not like it was peer-reviewed or anything.

*

We drove separately to Maison Richard.  I ordered two cold poached eggs on a bed of baby greens and he ordered quiche Lorraine and a bottle of sauvignon blanc, the cheapest they sold.  

He leaned back in his seat and said, almost bemusedly, “I’m not sure this meeting is appropriate, Kat.”

“I’m not sure you get to decide what is and isn’t appropriate,” I said. “You owe me a drink.”

As I spoke, my entire body radiated heat. I wasn’t sure if I was going to vomit or pass out. Not only that, I felt like I was biting down on tinfoil, like blood was filling my mouth. That’s how it had always been, the entire five years we’d been together: I was sad or mad or nervous and he was seemingly calm. Even after our worst fights, he’d eat a huge hamburger or read a newspaper cover to cover. I’d sob for hours.

“Would you mind getting my jacket out of my car?” I asked abruptly. “I’m freezing.”

He had to leave the table, for just a moment, so I could put the truth serum into his drink.

“Excuse me?” he said.

Just then, his eyes flickered up toward the front entrance of the restaurant and widened with recognition.

An old man with thinning yellow hair came over. Brett shook his hand furiously, the way men only do with other men. I could barely hear their words: then again, the inside of my head was filled with loud, rushing water. I’d never drugged anybody before, after all. I lowered my own glass of wine and took the bottle of serum out of my pocket. Drip drip. Then I exchanged our glasses.

The old man left. The luck: that Brett had seen his colleague at this restaurant, at this moment, just when I needed him distracted.

“Did you switch our drinks?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. He didn’t seem alarmed exactly. More like confused.

“No,” I said. “What do you take me for?” I laughed too loudly.

“Well anyhow,” he said, “what have you been up to? Besides teaching?”

With that, I told him about my novel, to pass the time until the serum took effect. A story about a woman in her fifties who travels to Algeria after having a dream that her husband, a drug addict who disappeared several years earlier, is living there in disguise. It didn’t matter if she found her husband or didn’t; it was a journey of faith. Brett had read multiple drafts over the course of our relationship. He was not a bad reader, exactly. He’d comment on the characters, on the plot. He’d say it was interesting. I’d push further; what should I change? Does the opening of the second chapter confuse you? What about the gender stuff? And he’d say, I don’t know. It’s a good book.

“Is she still an unreliable narrator?” Brett asked.

“She’s perfectly clear-headed,” I said. “Since when are you using that kind of jargon?”

“Since now,” he interrupted. “Is that why we’re here, so you could tell me about your book? I always liked it.” He poured a fresh glass of wine, and topped me off. He loved to drink.

“Are you flirting with me?” I asked.

“Let’s not get carried away,” he said.

“Why do you love Stella?”  

He raised his eyebrows. “Well that’s a loaded question. And if I answer, it will be the opposite of flirting.”

“Answer carefully,” I said.

I observed him: his usually puffy eyes looked clear and young. His face glowed, like the serum was coming out of his pores, cleansing his soul.

Then, it happened: he started to blab.  It took me a few moments to realize the serum was working.”Let’s see,” he began. “I first noticed her because she really is a wonderful office manager.”

“Office manager?” I said. “I thought she was a secretary.”

“She prefers office manager. Isn’t secretary kind of an outdated term? Anyway.  She’s meticulous, thoughtful, organized, level-headed. I got to know her and she just has this interesting history. She was on the honor roll in high school and yet didn’t go to college, which, yeah, is weird but kind of bad-ass. She did some work for Sears a few years ago. I’ve seen the catalog. I know, it’s corny. I was embarrassed when she first told me. But then I saw the pictures and I was actually. . . proud. She’s a hard worker. A go-getter. It isn’t easy to get those modeling jobs, even the silly catalog shit. You really have to open yourself up to shame and humiliation. And she did. She’s brave. And she gave the money to her goddamned mother, who raised her alone. She’s utterly immune to criticism, she’s not competing with other people, she doesn’t care about how people view her. She does what she does because she thinks it’s right, not to gain some elite status or whatever. Stella cares more about growing as a person than advancing socially or professionally.  She has character.”

“Character?” I said. A sensation like rubber bands snapping against my face.

He nodded. “Yes. Character. That’s what people like you can’t seem to accept. That a person can be loved for something other than intelligence and status, that they can be loved for, yes, being smart, but also for being sweet and kind and giving and selfless and faithful and dependable and all those wonderful things that Stella is. When I was younger, I dated women who were on my level in terms of education, aka, women like you. It gets boring, just debating about politics and books and theater all the time. Or, in our case, books. All you ever talked about were books. And you rejected every opinion I had about them. You were an insufferable know-it-all our entire relationship. You had very few friends and I always wanted to tell you, that if you’d just be less condescending, people would like you more. I only pretended to enjoy poetry so as not to bear your wrath and I agreed with all your opinions on your favorite poets because I knew it was the way into your heart.”

I shook my head.  “All those poems we read together . . . all the readings you attended. That couldn’t have been fake.” Poetry had been one of our common bonds, other than food; we had always been able to talk about it.  He liked T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. His taste wasn’t original but it was good.

He laughed. “I guess I was a rat,” he said. “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings and of course I wanted to impress you and make you happy. Those are good things, right?”  

“What do you talk about with Stella?” I asked.

“I talk about Netflix with Stella, I talk about food, I talk about celebrities, I talk about my favorite band, and I feel smart, damn it, I feel like the smartest person when I’m with her. Why must Stella be an intellectual?”

I curled my toes underneath the table. “Well there are a lot of reasons for being intellectual. For one thing it makes you more curious, a better researcher, a better conversationalist. . . .” I drifted off, unable to summon anything else.

He smiled and tipped his head back so he was dreamily gazing at the ceiling. “Stella’s hair is blond,” he continued, as if I hadn’t spoken at all. “There’s something extraordinary about a woman being so blond. I guess men always look for something extraordinary in a woman. I mean, maybe, maybe not, but for me, if a woman is extraordinary, I’ve got to have her. I’m not saying you aren’t extraordinary—this is going to be cruel!—but what I am saying is that you’re cute, you’re cute like Drew Barrymore-cute, but Stella is beautiful like she-just-stepped-off-a-private-jet-and-she-wears-expensive-underwear-beautiful. That kind of beautiful. I like your hair fine. But I like hers better. Stop looking at me like that. You wanted to know the reasons. I’m giving you the reasons.”

There was sweat beading on his forehead. He patted his face with a napkin. His eyes drooped. The youthful glow had turned into post-marathon exhaustion. For the first time, I seriously considered the side effects of the serum. It was crazy enough that it might be working; now I wondered if it could kill him. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

“I’m not looking at you any way,” I said. “I’m just listening. What else?”

“Last but not least,” he said. “Stella is great in bed. She’s passive but not too passive, sweet-eyed, child-like, but not in a porn-y way, not in a creepy way, in a real way, like, she’s just naturally vulnerable, you know? I won’t go into specifics or anything, I’ll just say she makes me feel powerful but also protective, like I could break her if I wanted to, only I won’t, because I’m a good person. You were passive in that phony way, or maybe more like a frigid way, and it wasn’t very erotic. You just laid there with a judgmental look in your eye, as if you were memorizing all my mistakes for later. Remember when you bought that lingerie? Can I tell you now, that it was pathetic? You weren’t pathetic, you really weren’t, you were funny and I thought your quirks were cute for a long time, I loved you for a long time, but the lingerie: it was pathetic.”

I’d promised myself not to get angry, no matter what he said, but there’s only so much truth a person can take.  While Brett had been many things, incredibly cruel wasn’t one of them. Well. Except when he left me. “What did you expect?” I said. “You asked me to be more adventurous in bed, to wear a corset, like I was some performing circus monkey. Of course I was awkward and pathetic.”

“We all have our bad moments,” he said.

I swallowed. “I suppose you’re right.” My voice was shaking.

He sat back in his seat, put his hands on top of his thighs, and shrugged. He was no longer sweating but his face was ashen. “Is that enough,” he said. “Does that clear everything up for you? Does it? Because, those are the reasons. Those are really the main reasons I love her.”

“Thank you for your honesty,” I said, draining my wine glass and then standing up to pour myself some more.

“You don’t need to stand,” he said. “People are looking at you.”

I poured my glass so full that when I brought it to my lips wine spilled over the top. Wine dribbled down my chin, onto the table. I sat back down.

“You know,” he said, “I think the wine’s bad. Slow your roll. My head is pounding.” He pushed away his glass. “I’m not sure I can eat. It’s like I’ve been drugged.”

“Slow your roll?” I said. Like him, I was vaguely nauseous, but for entirely different reasons. “Since when do you use that phrase? Does Stella say that?”

As if on cue, the food arrived.

“Cracked pepper?” the waiter inquired.

“No,” Brett and I said at the same time.

“That looks terrible,” Brett said, pointing to my plate.

I stared down at my salad. He was right: watery cold poached eggs and depressingly wilted greens.   

To spite him, I devoured my meal. The cold yolk reminded me of mucus and I suppressed the urge to spit it out.

Brett suggested we split the bill. As he fished out his credit card, he said, “It’s not really my responsibility to pay since we’re no longer together.”

“I didn’t ask you to pay.”

“You said I owed you a drink.'”

“You don’t owe me anything.” I handed him a fifty dollar bill.

“This wasn’t very fun,” Brett said as we walked outside into the late afternoon sunshine.

“Listen, I’ve got to go,” I said. I turned away from him without looking at him. I never wanted to look at him again.  I was talking to a stranger, or maybe just the real Brett, who had been hiding in plain sight our entire relationship.

In the car, I felt a deep sense of shame, the sort I hadn’t experienced since I read my mother’s diary when I was ten years old and learned she thought I was “fat like a cherub” and ate ice cream to spite her.  I stood in front of the bathroom mirror afterward and thought, I can’t unremember that. That is one thing we absolutely cannot control: our memory.

Back in my apartment, I took a hot shower so my skin turned lobster-red.  The burning sensation distracted me from my humiliation. The bathroom mirror steamed up and finally the water turned cold.

Afterward, I sat naked on the couch with my laptop. I logged onto Amazon and looked at the reviews for Candor again, as if they might clarify what I had just experienced. Frankly, I was in shock. Shocked by what Brett had said. Shocked that the serum worked. He had never been so candid before. In fact, during the course of our relationship, he generally shifted conversations away from his own opinion. Perhaps that is what sealed us together: he was agreeable, and I could take charge. The serum changed that.

Many people, 52% to be exact, had rated the serum 5 or 5 stars. I supposed the positive reviews were real, now that I’d used the serum myself. The lower scores were either because the buyer felt the serum didn’t work or because it gave them or their loved ones a stomachache. No reports of anything serious. So Brett wouldn’t die. Now I just had to find a way to deal with the truth.  Or whatever people call the cesspool of ideas and beliefs that fuel our choices day to day.

I had planned to grade papers, but instead I held the bottle of serum in my hands for a long time, smelling it, tasting just a little bit on my tongue. Rosewater and sunscreen.  I wondered how a small lab in China manufactured a product which dramatically impacted a person’s ability to censor their own thoughts. Once again: the mysteries of the world were far outside my understanding. Though I supposed LSD, mushrooms, and anti-psychotics altered people’s minds in extraordinary ways; maybe Candor wasn’t a mystery or a miracle, or maybe all mind-altering substances were a mystery and miracle. Maybe everything was a mystery and miracle.

*

In the week following the disastrous lunch at Maison Richard, I woke up repeatedly in the middle of the night. What did my ex John think of me? Marcos? Dave? Roger?  Did they think I was pathetic, as Brett did? A know-it-all? Frigid? And what about my own mother? My students? My doctor? My sisters?

I scrolled through pictures of myself on Facebook, trying to determine if I was truly “regular,” like Drew Barrymore (who I’d always thought was way above average, but even that basic fact was now in question). I didn’t bother looking at Stella’s profile picture; I knew how Brett felt about her, so it was no longer necessary to study her knees and armpits to ferret out her appeal.

At work, I felt alternately angry and paranoid.  After each interaction with a colleague or student, I cycled through what had been said; I wondered when and if they’d been lying to me to make me feel good. I’d lived my entire life in denial, or maybe just ignorance: I’d believed that people, even exes, regarded me neutrally.

I considered the reality of my professional life: The verb “mansplaining” had gained traction and my colleagues had jokingly begun using it to describe my interjections during department meetings. Kat, you’re mansplaining again! I could really go on a tangent when I was in the mood. I knew my behavior was annoying, but I reasoned that, as a woman, I had to speak twice as loudly to get heard anyway, so was my behavior really unreasonable? Yet Brett had said it: I had no real friends, beyond a handful from grad school.  

The only person I stayed in touch with was my mother, who came for a coffee visit the second week of each month. Brett had filled a much larger chasm in my life than I had ever realized.

One night as I was falling asleep it occurred to me: soon, the big drug companies would catch wind of the serum, and big pharma would manufacture it, and the FBI and CIA would use it to elicit information from terrorists and bombers and maybe even average citizens. They could put mothers against their own children, husbands against wives. For now, though, I could use it at my disposal.  This was a boon, a well of possibilities. Why hadn’t I realized that before? I could use the serum professionally, personally, to get ahead. I could even incorporate its existence into one of my novels, like Philip K. Dick, predicting artificial intelligence and the creation of cyborgs in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I could also, and perhaps this was not very exciting but it was a start, find out key information about my mother when she next visited.

To distract myself from all the negative feelings I’d been having, I plotted how I’d get the serum into her coffee. I shot out of bed and wrote down a list of questions to ask her: Why did you stay with Dad until he died? Is Maggie your favorite daughter? Are you a lesbian? Do you really like G.W. Bush? Do you believe in heaven? How many men have you slept with? Do you like me? Were you disappointed with your life? Are you proud of me? If not, why do you insist on visiting me so often?  It was a bad idea, horrible even, but I’d never been very good at regulating my behavior beyond pushing myself to work longer and harder at teaching and writing. I smoked cigarettes on and off, popped diet and pain pills, and drank two, three, four glasses of wine each evening.

Anyway, drugging my mom was a start: I was going to find some way to monetize or at least gain advantage from this serum. In all reality, it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I’d let Brett get in the way of my reasoning. He really had nothing to do with the serum. I had just used it on him.

*

My mother lived an hour away from Tucson in a small town called Bisbee, in a small house with an herb garden in the windowsill.  She’d been a school teacher most of her life and was now retired. She and my father raised their children in Marana, an underpopulated farming community just outside Tucson, because that’s where my father ran his medical practice. Where once she was beautiful with long blonde hair, now she was soft and pleasant-looking with a silver page boy. She’d turned into a hard-line conservative in her senior years, except when it came to abortion: she would always be pro-choice because having children was very difficult.

The morning of her visit, it rained. The moment I saw her, in her tan argyle sweater, jeans, and pink rubber boots, excitement tingled in my fingertips. I wondered if hypnotists felt the same about hypnotizing people. The power and control was intoxicating. I’d blocked out the possibility of finding out painful or disappointing information, as I had with Brett. This time would be different.

“Hi Kat,” she said, and leaned in for a kiss.

She sat down in her usual spot by the window. We exchanged niceties and I prepared our coffee, adding cream and sugar to both cups. I ducked into to the back room. I put one drop into her coffee instead of two, as if this were a compromise. She was my mother, after all.  I didn’t want her stomachache to be too severe.

I brought her the coffee and a tray of cucumber sandwiches with lemon dill dressing. We drank and ate. We discussed the price of groceries and an actress’ plastic surgery. We shared a few laughs about Old Man Ross, a neighbor who had asked her on a date. He was 98 and she was 63. There were awkward pauses (we had always been oddly formal together, never engaging in silly games or roughhousing even when I was small) and then finally: the bright, youthful look in her eye. The dewy complexion. I felt some mix of relief and fear.

“Mom,” I said. Suddenly the list of questions disappeared from my mind. My blood sugar dropped.  “Do you think I’ve done well for myself?” I hoped she didn’t notice my grimace. It was a stupid question, the wrong one to start with. I’d lost control already.

She smiled tightly. “Oh, sure.” She stared into my eyes. I’d always assumed that she thought I’d done well, despite her nitpicking about my marital status, my weight, my choice of apartment, my fashion choices; after all, I had published a book, and worked at the University. In the academic world, this was success. “You’ve done a lot of things I never did. All that writing you do. All that ambition. No time for marriage or kids.”

I saw this as an opening to redirect the conversation. She hadn’t said anything too heartbreaking or surprising yet and I wanted to keep it that way. “Was dad the love of your life?”

She shook her head. “No. I regret being with him. Marriage was an impulsive decision on my part. I settled. But your father settled too.”

To my surprise, I laughed. “You think dad settled?” This was hard for me to fathom: in old photos, she was slim and pretty in white boots like Nancy Sinatra, and dad was short and fat with a weak mustache. He became a doctor, and made good money, but lacked appeal otherwise.

“We limited each other,” she said. “If you put two average, boring people together, they’ll settle into a routine. Once you’re in a routine, you’re on your way to death.” She grinned weirdly. “Your father and I brought out the worst in each other. We were both so stable. Just living in Marana our entire lives, in that same house, right until he died. What’s the fun in that? It would have been better if one of us were special: very drunk, or very rich, or very talented.”

“Was I settling with Brett?”  

“Hmm,” she said. “He was handsome, polite, had a good job. But so greedy and stingy! Never offered to pay for our dinner when we all went out. Gave you cheap Christmas gifts. All in all, he was average. Like me. Like your dad.”

“Do you think I’m average?” I asked.  The train was off the rails once more. The serum was a bad boyfriend: you went back again and again, hoping for a new experience, to regain some control, but you were always at its whims.

“Yes,” my mother said. “Driven, to a point. But average.”

Of course I had been invested in being above average. “Even my book, you think. . . it’s average?”

“You’re no Stephen King,” she said.  “All that stuff you wrote about the woman sitting in her apartment alone, looking out the window? Nothing happened.”

“Stephen King!” I repeated. “That’s apples and oranges!” My voice quavered with outrage, as it had during my conversation with Brett.  

“I like Shawshank Redemption,” she explained, shrugging inoffensively, sipping her coffee, as though she understood that her comment had been hurtful, that it was best not to explicate further. Even under the influence of the serum, she was somewhat reserved.

“I write about bigger things, more important things… the crisis of the soul, the constraints of modern society!” I actually liked Shawshank Redemption, but that was neither here nor there.

“You don’t need to yell,” my mother said.

As if on cue, she announced that she was tired, the coffee was bothering her stomach, and she’d see me in a few weeks.

“What else do you like about Stephen King?” I asked as she stood up. I grabbed her forearm.

“He’s not afraid to be liked,” she said. “He writes for the masses. He’s not trying to reach some stupid little niche audience.”

“Is that what I’m trying to do?” I asked.

“I didn’t say that.” She looked down at my hand. “But yes.” She shook me off of her. “I need to go now, Kat.” With that, she walked down the steps, onto the sidewalk. I watched her get into her car and drive away, taking all her secrets and previously suppressed opinions with her.   

*

Frankly, Ghost Husband wasn’t working. I wrote and wrote, and nothing clicked. I called my agent on the phone and complained to her about all her suggested edits. “You’re being stubborn,” she said.

“I refuse to give in,” I said. “I have artistic vision.”

In fact I’d lost my vision: I couldn’t remember why I’d structured the novel the way I had, or why the protagonist was so hostile and cynical.  

I remembered what Brett had said about me being a know-it-all.  I also recalled what my mother had about writing for the masses, not writing for a niche. I am not afraid to be liked, I wrote on a sheet of paper. Write for the masses. The words so went against my former beliefs about art, that I started to cry.

Over the course of a week-long writing binge during which I didn’t leave my apartment, I finished the edits on my novel. Each word I changed, each sentence I shifted, each scene I deleted, felt like a small step toward rightness. It was like I was living my life through my my characters. I let them love and fuck each other. I let them hit each other. I described their drug use in gratuitous detail. I let them get sick, vomiting and shitting. They drank bad water and ate bad food. They screamed and cried. I included a flashback of the main character’s rape as a child. I ignored the little voice in my head telling me a particular plot device was cheap or cliché or raunchy. After all, I’d been molested as a child, as had at least a third of my childhood friends. Even Brett had been fondled by an older brother. It was common. Why not write about it?

The characters came to life, waking me up at night. Showing up in my dreams. They were glad to be treated so roughly, to be opened up and exposed to the world.  I mirrored their behaviors: I drank even more heavily, smoked constantly, ate chocolate cake, put on weight, didn’t sleep, got a Tinder account, slept with a few random men. I felt alive.

Finally, as the novel neared completion, the characters reunited with each other, kissed and loved and lived happily ever after.  The narrator found her ghost husband, in a drug house living with prostitutes. She convinced him to come home with her. Full circle. Misery, then redemption.

My agent liked the changes. “Kapow!” she shouted. “You’ve done it! We can market this as a literary romance. Women’s fiction. Or maybe even mystery. Do you consider yourself a mystery writer?”

Stephen King, Stephen King, Stephen King. Write for the masses. “I’m willing to be any kind of writer,” I said quietly, “if it means I am published.”

She mailed the draft off to publishers with a cover letter and synopsis. Once the novel was out in the world, teaching got easier. My emotions for Brett shifted from intense and humiliating to only vaguely painful and now all those things he said seemed inconsequential. The way you can look back on a critical performance review at a job and accept your flaws, once several months have passed.

And, as far as my mother: ever since our tense coffee visit, our phone conversations were less strained. More animated. She was candid but kind each time I talked to her; it was almost as if the serum was still working, but not to its full effect. I told her that her advice had helped me become a better writer. “Oh, my!” she said bashfully. “Isn’t that something.”  

As for the truth serum: I searched on Amazon, and it was no longer available. I went on a three-hour Google deep dive trying to find evidence of it, but its presence had been scrubbed clean from the internet, as if I’d imagined its existence. Yet the bottle was sitting in my drawer.  

I knew I should throw it away, that if I kept it I’d end up using it in a weak moment. Yes, it had helped me with my novel, but I feared if I tried the serum on my colleagues, students, lovers, sisters, my version of reality could get totally skewed. My fantasies about using Candor to gain money, prestige, power, fame, faded. Let’s face it: Candor scared me. It was powerful and seductive and addictive. Like having heroin or a gun or a genie in your drawer.

*

One month after my agent sent out my novel, I got an offer from a major publishing house. My stomach leaped into my chest and I shouted out loud. It was triple what I got for my first book.

I called a man I’d met on Tinder, who was now my boyfriend. He was a bit old for me, but an accomplished scientist and saxophone player. I had not, as of yet, used the truth serum on him. I took this as a sign of my own maturity.

“Darling,” he said. “That’s amazing.”

“Do you want to come over and celebrate with a few drinks?”

“I can’t now,” he said. “I’m playing the sax. Tomorrow?”

I called and told my mother and she was as happy as she’d ever been, which is to say, mildly amused. “I’ll bring sugar cookies the next time I visit,” she promised.

I sat on my couch with a bottle of wine and flicked on the television. My feeling of triumph faded. I wanted to celebrate.  Dance. Sing. Scream. I wanted people to hug me.

The more I drank, the more I thought of Brett. I could call and tell him about the novel. That, at least, would give me something to do, would give me the thrill I was looking for. After all, he supported me through the entire process, bringing me liters of Diet Coke and take-out Chinese while I finished the first draft. He’d read it several times. He’d want to know.

Under the influence of alcohol, this seemed perfectly reasonable.

I drank a few more glasses of wine and then a few more. I called Brett on the phone. “I got an offer on Ghost Husband,” I said.

“That’s fantastic news, Kat,” he said. “I’m not at all surprised. You’re a great writer. I always said that. How are you, otherwise?”

“Amazing. Life is just moving right along.”  

“Me too,” he said. “Working long hours. Making lots of money. Stella and I broke up.”

I almost guffawed with gratitude.  “I’m sorry to hear that.”

He was quiet for a few seconds. “It’s okay. You know, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I treated you very badly. I should never have broken up with you the way I did. I just thought we’d both be happier apart and I went about it the wrong way.”

“I guess we are both happier,” I said. “Aren’t we?”

“Sure,” he said. “You’ve got your book and I’ve got my job.”

We exchanged pleasantries and then goodbyes. After we hung up, I felt satisfied. The conversation had gone better than I could have possibly imagined. As in Ghost Husband: misery then redemption.  

I ended up in the kitchen to get more wine but something was nagging at me: how did I know Brett was really sorry? Without the serum, he was likely lying again, saying whatever I wanted to hear.

I got the bottle of truth serum out of the drawer and brought it to the bathroom sink, prepared to pour it down the drain.  I had to forget its existence, go back to trusting people at their word, or at least accepting I couldn’t know everybody’s truest feelings. Hell, I didn’t want to know everybody’s truest feelings.

“Carpe noctem,” I said aloud.

But I hesitated. My mind flooded with reasons I shouldn’t dispose of it: Candor was no longer being manufactured. I could be throwing away the last bottle of Candor in the world. It might be worth money. I had a piece of the weird, the unexplained, in my home; it was like possessing a tiny yeti or Bigfoot’s paw. Or at least a world-changing pharmaceutical.

Rattled, I went to my room and placed the serum back in the drawer. I had one more glass of wine and fell asleep.

That night, I dreamed I called my saxophone-playing boyfriend and begged him to come over: Come over, I said, come over so we can have a heart to heart, maybe some coffee or tea. I have some questions I’d like to ask you.

Kindall Gray is a native of Tucson who writes across genres, and teaches Creative Writing and English at the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in One Story, Chattahochee Review, and Berkeley Fiction Review, among other places. She is at work on a novel.