Quinn yanks back the shower curtain and says, This isn’t about sex, scanning my body in suspicion. She’s naked and startling with her milky blue eyes. Her tuft of blond hair is tangled and slick. Her body is still recovering, the skin around her stomach and hips a fat pudding. Good, I tell her, the shower still cool. Then it feels like an entire year goes by, every season in silence, and I wonder how long we’re going to be like this—if anything will ever feel like it did before. There was a time when just a glimpse of her bare, shiny shoulders would make me want her in this desperate, end-of-the-world-fuck-each-other-to-death kind of way. Apocalyptic love. But now when she steps inside the water spurts and chokes and goes icy cold because the pipes in the apartment are terrible and fledgling and the old woman upstairs lets her faucet drip and drip 24/7, and I flinch and curl to hide my parts like a secret is scribbled in bright black ink across my stomach as Quinn brushes by me and says, What’s the problem? I tell her the water is too damn cold and she nods once like she isn‘t buying it but like she also doesn’t really give a shit, and I swear: the end times could come crashing through the bathroom window, the stars burning up and the moon melting into the sea and the waves swallowing up the shore, and we probably would just look at each other and shrug and wonder what all the noise is about.
I’m running late, Quinn says. It’s just a convenience thing. What, do you mind?
No. I crack my knuckles. Not really.
It’s Quinn’s first day back at work. She’s taken some time off her gig as a receptionist at the gum factory in Cicero. It was only supposed to be a few days but it’s turned into damn near three weeks by now and I miss the way she used to smell of spearmint, how she’d fill the apartment with her minty flavor. I work there too on the loading dock, which is how we met, one afternoon when she came looking for one of my boys with a phone message from this girl he was seeing. Man, you should’ve seen Quinn cross the dock, real graceful and smooth like a movie girl on camera with a click of her shoes and that slim, bendy figure, and when she asked me if Tommy was around, the note feathered between her fingers, I looked her up and down and said, Tommy ain’t gonna appreciate anything you give him.
Honey-tongue, she said, and then boom, it seemed like we were living together in a matter of seconds.
That note: Tommy’s girl was pregnant. She called reception. She left a message. Quinn took it down—With child, yours, for real.
Quinn said, I didn’t want to tell you like that, sandwiching my left hand between hers one night on our sofa not long after she moved the last of her stuff in, empty boxes stacked near the back door. She was smiling. Red orbs for cheeks. And then she wasn’t. Wasn’t smiling. Wasn’t pregnant. Wasn’t orby or colorful. Just like that. Just a few months in and everything went haywire inside her. I told her it’s like running the ball up to the ten yard line and then not being able to get it across.
What does that even mean? Quinn asked from the far side of the kitchen table, knees up, shaking her head. She was half down a bottle of gin a night or two after we lost the baby. Windows open, sky perfectly dark, like the stars skipped town. She was wearing my sweatshirt and nothing else and the lone bulb above blinked and dropped shadows onto her the slope of her nose. This was our daughter, she said, Not some dumbass football game. Jesus.
I think this might be where the trouble started, because even though she was pissed at me about the football thing, I think she was terrified of being alone now. Like she had gotten used to always having something—or someone— so close. When I’m in the house, she can’t let me alone. When I’m dropping a deuce, she leans against the closed door and talks about a Judge Judy marathon she’d watched that day: And then the mom was screaming at the daughter and the daughter was screaming at the mom and it was great. She calls me at work and when I answer she says, It’s me, and I say, And? and she replies That’s all, and I tell her goodbye and she says, No, not yet, and makes me stand there listening to her breathe heavy and muffled as if the receiver is tucked inside her mouth.
When I get home and dinner still isn’t ready yet, she asks me how my day was and before I can answer she’s off to the races gabbing on and on without letting me have a turn and nothing short of telling her I’m going to knock her to the moon can stop her. Or she hops into the shower with me, like right now, just slips right in while my face is sudsy and my eyes are shut, and either just stands there and watches or maybe Nairs the tiny freckles of hair beneath her nose.
She angles some water into the crook of her armpit. The piney smell of an unwashed body fills the air. She doesn’t say much, not anymore. It’s like losing the kid had broken her tongue, and she doesn’t even look like my wife anymore—her underarms are doughy and rippled and can swing like a hammock and she has sallow cheeks and gnarled fingernails. She looks like an impostor. A dime store Quinn. But I guess that’s the thing when you lose a child: everyone looks poor and fake and remarkably unfamiliar.
But the worst part, the absolute worst thing of all, is those stretch marks. Those pinkish-brown lines etched from her bellybutton down to her hips. They still haven’t cleared. Fact is, it looks like they’re getting darker, more pronounced. Is that even possible? How much worse can it get? I want to ask her and like she can tell, Quinn rinses herself thoroughly, one side of her body and then the other, and then squirts some watermelon smelling shampoo onto a washcloth and works the white foam over those marks, back and forth. She goes up and down. She scrubs hard. A housewife trying to pull a stubborn bourbon stain from the good carpet.
Then she stops. She pinches the washcloth between two fingers like how we were told to hold a dirty diaper. She lifts her head to the ceiling, to the watery shine of light coming down. Her neck is all lines and veins and she says, If you don’t stop looking at ‘em, I’m going to pull your fucking eyes out, her voice so soft and low that for a moment it doesn’t even register.
What are you talking about?
She tilts her gaze at me. Stop it. You’re always staring at them and it makes me feel like shit.
Quinn blows a breath through her nose in frustration and goes back to considering the ceiling, eyes closed. And here’s the thing: I’d be more upset or freaked out that she just made plans to remove my eyes from my head had she not caught me. Had she not been right. Busted cold. Red-handed thief. I know I stare at those stretch marks, at her flabby, there-used-to-be-something here stomach. Even through her t-shirts, especially through those papery blouses she wears that kind of flow and drip over her shape. I try not to but it’s no use. Tractor beams for my eyes, drawing me in, and I hate them. Reminders, you know? Like some fucking sick memorial of what we got so close to before ending up so very far from. They’re gross. I make a face, scrunch my neck. She must loathe this face as much as I loathe the very middle of her body.
Tell me, Quinn says, her teeth so close to my lips, my cheeks. Tell me why.
There’s nothing to tell. I love you. We’ll be fine. It’s just a rough patch. This is normal. We’re tough. Your body is like a fucking amusement park and all I want to do is go for ride after ride.
Put these under things I should say, things a good, decent husband would offer. But instead I jam my face beneath the shower head and let it wash through my hair and down my shoulders and say, I don’t know, but I can’t stand them and if I had X-ray vision, I would glare at you until they burned right off.
You’re so selfish, Quinn says, shoving the washcloth to the floor.
Right, ‘cause I’m the one who calls you constantly at work and won’t let you shit by yourself.
Her eyes thin to tiny slits and her chest heaves. I can hear the rush through the walls now and the knocking of pipes above and then the water temp spikes and we both hug opposite sides of the shower, careful not to touch the stream, errant spray finding our foreheads and toes. When it finally cools down and we step back in and come together, Quinn looks concerned and thoughtful. Her mouth is small and smart. She glances up at where the plumbing is still creaking.
X-ray vision, huh? she says.
I don’t know what that meant, I reply. Craziness, I guess.
Let’s try it, and she drops into a crouch over the drain, a leg on either side, and once she steadies herself she braces her hands flat behind her with her stomach sticking right in the torrent. She blurts a fat, drunk laugh, wobbling a little until she finds her center. She looks like a child crabwalking in the rain, hair pressed flat and mouth hanging open in excitement. She looks like she’s about to make right in front of me, but instead she jabs me with her knee and says, Make it hotter, Danny. Let’s do it. Let’s burn ‘em off.
Yeah, yeah, do it for me, her eyes lit and full. You know you want to, she whispers. You know you do.
Aches in my ribs. Pangs in my throat. My heart going off like a whole band of bass drums in my head. I watch her wait for it, the pain, the searing. I finger the dial. She winces. Steam gathers and grows and she cries and her entire body shakes like it’s coming apart from the inside and I keep on the dial, even after she stops asking me, the hairs wilting off my ankles.
Later on we’re in bed. Quinn doesn’t go back to work today. How can she? Her entire body is appled and sore and all she can do is lay on her back while outside the sky pinks up and then darkens. Of course it didn’t work and she says, That wasn’t really the point, was it? and because she says it like that, like a question, I feel guilty and mean. The words sound like blame. Her voice pitches it that way, like this is something I’m going to pay for. Don’t worry, she says after a while, moonlight fanning across our sheets. It was a grief shower. We’re weren’t thinking clearly. I feel her try to move now, stiff Frankenstein lurches as she reaches over and tickles a hand into my underwear and grabs my dick and starts stroking it. Halting. Awkward, but not entirely bad. This’ll make it better, she whispers into my ear. Pretend the world is ending. Pretend it’s almost over. C’mon, she adds, It’s nearly done.
I close my eyes. I breathe long. I let her keep going and whisper it sure feels like it.
Nick Ostdick is a husband, runner, writer, and craft beer geek who lives and works in West-Central Illinois. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and is the editor of the hair metal-inspired anthology, Hair Lit, Vol. 1 (Orange Alert Press, 2013). He’s the winner of the Viola Wendt Award for fiction, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Exit 7, Annalemma, Big Lucks Quarterly, The Emerson Review, Midwestern Gothic, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The ending, both in the original draft and subsequent revisions, really crept up on me and still surprises me even now, in part due to the rawness of it but also because that’s really where the story and characters took over and left me behind. Attempts were made in alternate versions to confine everything to the shower stall, however, these two characters kept resisting that containment from the get-go.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’ve been fortunate enough to study with, learn from, and buddy-up to a number of super-talented writers, which means I’ve been on the receiving end of so much wonderful advice it’s hard to zero-in on one particular dictum or mantra or code. But the one thread that sticks out amongst all the nuggets of wisdom is time and trust: in other words, writing is hard and you have to give yourself time to let the story unfold and trust that it’ll find its way. Of course, you have to work at it, but you also have to let the characters and scenes and ideas marinate and mingle. I think that’s a tough thing for a lot of writers.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago – J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories – Richard Ford’s Rock Springs – Junot Diaz’s Drown – and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. Phenomenal collections all.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: My ideal writing space is the one that’s working for me right now. In other words, some days it’s at the desk in the spare bedroom of my home, others it’s the back table near the men’s room at my local coffee shop, or at my desk during lunch.