Monday, September 15, 2014

Fiction #54

New fiction! Issue #54
Submissions now open for #55!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #54: Christine Peterson

Lutroo

The fish are supposed to be dead when they get to Davi Kell’s department. All Davi Kell is supposed to do is sort through the frozen stock of heaping sea meat, take it out to thaw and once it has thawed, place it in the display window for purchase.

She’s obviously merely the middle-woman for the job between fishing and catching.

Davi Kell is in the process of rubbing her hands together, shivering from the man-made cold. She isn’t sure if she is more upset that her boyfriend is hiding something or that she has to be up and working so early in the morning while he sleeps.

Davi Kell puts her bare flesh hands into a box, digging out the frozen tilapia. She screams in fright when she feels a sinew-like sensation. She gasps when she sees a fully intact live tilapia, saran wrapped and clambering for air.

Paralyzed by the fear of the slimy texture and the irrational fear that it would bite her (she never wanted to work in this department anyway—why couldn’t she be moved to floral?) Davi Kell summons the courage to dig out her keys, hacking away at the clinging plastic. She glances around the freezer area, wondering if there is the occasional manager looking for her.

Davi Kell grumbles as she takes hold of the scaled flesh. The tilapia looks up at her as if to say something, but then huffs, suffocating. Davi Kell shoves the tilapia into her apron pocket, running outside of the freezer to try to find a dingy cup in the break room. Luckily, the old goat of a cashier isn’t there sipping coffee and rambling about illuminati theories at this time of day. She finds a discarded Big Gulp cup and fills it with water. She places the tilapia in it and continues to work.

*

Davi Kell spends the rest of her day flustered. She wonders how the tilapia managed to be wrapped up alive—not even skinned or beheaded (shoot she didn’t know the real terms). During the busier parts of her shift she forgets the fish, but thinks back to the problems with her boyfriend, and more particularly her boyfriend and “the female.” Davi Kell wipes the fish counter more aggressively. She was fine for Ted before—fine for him these past five years, but ever since he got his degree and his fancy entry-level yuppie job—all he can talk about is the competitor’s business salesperson.

Quitting time comes, and none too soon. Davi Kell wipes off her blood soaked hands on her apron and walks nonchalantly into the break room, where she starts to unlock her locker. She sees one of the slower cashiers at that instant, middling around about to drink out of the Big Gulp. Davi Kell runs to take the cup out of his hand. “Wait!” He promptly spits out the water only for Davi Kell to find that the tilapia is no longer there.

“What’s wrong with you Davi?”

She doesn’t know what to answer.

The drive home is long.  It usually takes only fifteen minutes but with the soundtrack of the day’s events playing through her head, Davi Kell takes back roads. She wonders about the tilapia: how did it get so lucky to survive? Or is it still alive? How would it be to lie suffocating in plastic, amongst your dead friends? She thinks about the shipping process: who catches the fish? Would the fisher have as much of a fleeting connection as she did? Or was she only drawn to the fish because it was just out of place?

She turns into her apartment building. Today is one of the increasing many that she is upset she opted to share an apartment with Ted. She begrudgingly walks up the steps, up to the top of the third floor, turning her key into the slot. There is nothing and no one to greet her. She slams her worn nametag and keys on top of Ted’s makeshift bookcase. She wishes there is a section of the apartment where she could go and think about the tilapia in silence. Thankfully with Ted’s new consultant job, he can afford an apartment with a built in laundry room. She opens the door, turns on the dryer and lets the choppy rocking motion calm her down.

Ted comes in a few hours later. Davi Kell can hear him pacing around the apartment, turning on lights. He doesn’t bother to call her name. It takes him a few more unnecessary paces before he decides to open the laundry door. His tie is already loosened.  She looks up at him.  He comes over to her. He remains standing, not even slinking to get comfortable. He just stands there, in the shadows.

“Have another lunch meeting with the female?” Davi Kell looks at him square in the eye, not accusing, not pouting, not even with a tear in her eye.

“It was a company meeting.” Ted stood still, he doesn’t reach out to her. The dryer starts slowing down its cycle. He leans over to turn the knob over for her.

“There’s just a lot I am able to learn from her,” Ted asserts. Davi Kell nods. She wonders about the early stages of their relationship, when they didn’t talk about work, and then the new post-honeymoon phase, when he inquired about her work with curiosity and as means of being able to talk. Now, he doesn’t bother.

“Well, I guess being stimulated by things other than demanding customers would lead you to learn new things,” Davi Kell adds.

“Hmm. Maybe.” He starts running his fingers across the t-shirt material. She notices this as she notices all his nervous habits.

“How long do you think a fish can live covered in saran wrap?” Her question doesn’t throw him off, she is always thinking of nonsensical things.

“Probably wouldn’t live to have the saran wrap placed on it. You know,” Ted’s arms started to cross. “They do need water to breathe, sweetheart.”

The sweetheart comes at her out of nowhere. She flinches-it feels like what she imagines her manager’s- long sinew-slicing knives coming down on the fish, taking the heads off. Discarding fins.

Ted seems to notice his mistake. He leans toward her and kisses her. It is clumsy and out of habit as well. They both know as their bodies’ angles slacken, that it is only out of the comfort and familiarity with the other that they are doing this. Their sighs are not of happiness or of meeting desire. His sighs denote that he wished he were with a white-collar girl. Her sighs are of figuring out how to escape this trap of love.

*

He leaves her on the dryer. Davi Kell refuses to go to sleep in a bed that he bought—her credit didn’t extend that far. She closes her eyes and sees a busy traffic street—with Ted on the other side, two blocks up. She is trying to get to him; anything to get to him, but the people, these seemingly throngs of people, walk hurriedly synchronized, the opposite way. She can see Ted talking to a female in an emerald shift dress, talking to the female about Davi Kell, and the female is laughing. The people around her start to lose shape, they became swirls of color. All she can see is the couple laughing and a life she can’t push through to, no matter how hard she tries.

She gets up and pours some corn flakes. She knows it will make a ton of noise-the crackling of the bag, but she doesn’t care. It is 2:20 in the morning.  She trudges on to Ted’s room. She sits on her side of the bed. She sits crunching on the flakes, wondering what happened to the tilapia, and what would have happened if she had brought the tilapia home.

“There was a fish. There was a fish Ted. And it was there in the freezer, its poor,” Ted keeps his eyes closed, he is used to her having anxiety attacks late at night, followed by nightmares of flesh-eating bacteria. “Its poor heart, how can it still beat in cling? Oh Ted I was so afraid but it looked like it could have said something…. Its heart just beat on my hand. I should have brought it home.” Her voice goes in and out of the night air quivering.

“Dabs, sounds like a good lawsuit to me—food contamination, animal cruelty and what not,” Ted sputters as he rolls over in bed.

And that’s when she knows he isn’t listening: he hasn’t called her Dabs since year 3 ¾ .

Davi Kell goes to work the next day. Davi Kell goes through all her pre-service chores such as wiping down the counters with disinfectant, putting up fliers of the specials going on, and rotating the meat in the block. She pushes through all these duties, and although she feels that it was juvenile to think that the fish would somehow magically be back in the freezer, she goes there with a religious-like curiosity.

She opens the freezer door’s compartments and looks for the day-old shipment of tilapia. Davi Kell brought her box cutter with her this time. She slices through frozen bag after frozen bag looking for the fish.  Her mind goes numb, as it usually does in the extreme cold. She thinks of 9/11, of planes crashing into tall, tall towers that she had never heard of before in a city she will probably never see. She thinks of Mrs. Pfirman, crying, calling into her phone, checking on her kids, while her sixth grade students, Davi included, sat perplexed watching the television. Davi Kell thinks of the femicide posters she and her mom walked by in the mall one time. The girls’ faces juxtaposed with images of corpses. Her mom had ran her past them, before Davi Kell could look at a girl named Esme, missing and presumed dead. She comes back to her task at hand and feels the knife in her grip. She sliced on, making big Xs in the boxes. Davi Kell continued to think-she thought of the time in 7th grade when most of the girls in her class had bragged about being kissed, but Davi Kell hadn’t at the time. She thought of the Spin the Bottle game that they played and how boys kept calculating the force that would be needed to be to not kiss her.  Davi Kell thinks of how she paid her brother’s friend three weeks of allowance to spread a rumor about them making it to second base so that she could finally be in the second-most popular girl group at school.

Davi Kell sits down, exhausted. A box falls, and on its tumble down some bloodied saran wrap flies out with it. She picks up the saran wrap and sees the tilapia.

“I always come back,” the tilapia said.  Davi Kell looked at the fish in disbelief.

“You’re stuck.” The tilapia added.

“Pfft, you can say that again. I’m 23, I’ve been at this job seven years. I know nothing and I am nothing—unless it comes to retail. My boyfriend hasn’t proposed because he’s ashamed of me. He’s been seeing this female for a while. He says he met her at work, but I think they were in class together. He doesn’t love me anymore, but he hates change.”

The tilapia’s expression doesn’t seem to waver, but Davi Kell doesn’t take offense. She isn’t sure what all it was capable of.

“Take me and leave work.”

“I don’t thin—”

“Just take me and put me in your car!”

Davi Kell looks around for something to put the tilapia in. She finally decides on placing an ice block in her apron pocket, then wedging the tilapia in. She hurries out to her dilapidated car, past one of the cashiers who was busy reading Cosmo.

The tilapia fits on the console. Davi Kell tried to prop it up in the cup holder. The tilapia’s head glazed over at the clock, its fins grazed Davi Kell’s wrist as she holds onto her stick shift.

“Tell me about your boyfriend.”

Davi Kell keeps driving, her fingers tapping on the steering wheel, her left hand holding what seems like her whole world up.

“There’s not much to tell.”

The tilapia looks at her. Just looks. There is no gaze of urging her to go on, nor is there any sort of gaze to ask for a stop.

“Ted is very charismatic. So charismatic that he could probably woo a nun. We haven’t been happy in forever. He works at this job that has cubicle offices and paid luncheon in-services. There’s this girl in a competing company that thinks he’s a big shot. They’re screwing each other. The more they screw the less he thinks of me—and I don’t mean of my feelings. He doesn’t think highly of me, like I’m just some, trash. ” She fiddled with her blinker, debating whether to turn it to left or now.

“Stop.”

Davi Kell takes that to mean literally, and she brakes. However, the tilapia just sighs. Her foot descends onto the gas pedal again. She plays with her blinker again and again, until finally noting that that is what she finds the tilapia thinks of as unbearable.

She turns onto her street.

“I have this notepad app, I keep in my phone. I have a goal: do 200 exhilarating things in 52 weeks. The most exhilarating thing I’ve done is watching Rocko’s Modern Life on Netflix. I haven’t been trying, I know. I could blame work—work is always such a sucker of time, but I know that’s not what’s it. I just—I am frustrated because I’m content—I’m perfectly happy with this life. And the life I grew up wanting, I am definitely not happy with.

Davi Kell parks the car outside of her apartment complex.

Davi Kell turns to the tilapia and looks at it, pondering what to do with the situation. “I’ll be right back,” she says gently, putting her hand out as if to pet its scales, but then retracting it back.

Davi Kell treads on the rocks, past the little black kids exchanging Valentine hearts, past the old Euro-Asian lesbian couple on their porch, past the lurking creeper, staring off his balcony. She hates this place, hates it hate it, because she doesn’t deserve this.  But she is content in not deserving more. She can feel the heat come up from what felt like a resurging pit in her stomach. She flings open her apartment door, looking for Ted. It is Saturday after all--normal people usually just sit on their asses on Saturday.

“Ted.” She feels the air escape her throat.

“Ted!”

Ted comes out of the kitchen, wearing his ‘non-work’ boxers, ones with Mickey Mouse on them.

“Yeah-”

“I hate it—I hate this all this”

“What?” Ted asks, scratching his left butt cheek and rubbing his forehead with his other hand.

“I hate this feeling. What happened to me? What happened to you?”

This gets Ted’s attention, and he straightens up.

“Yeah, go ahead and straighten up, trying to get a power stance on me. May I remind you I’m the one who paid your bills all through school—the one that wrote every damn important paper in your life, minus writing your name on the actual degree?”

“Really, Da-”

Davi Kell feels the urge to move and to move fast and repetitiously.

“What happened to your view of me? What happened to mine?” Her head feels jumbled as if a concrete completed jigsaw puzzle was just dropped off a high rise. “I need to show you something. Please.”

“I’m really not—”

“Interested? I don’t give a shit.”

Ted stares at her, concerned.

“Ted, Ted please.” She whimpers.

Ted sighs and tries to locate his shoes. Finding them, Ted slips on his loafers. He follows Davi Kell down the steps, down the rock path and to the parking lot.

At the car, Davi Kell sees the tilapia on the console, bigger, fleshier and healthier looking than ever.

Ted sees it too.

“Dabs, I didn’t know you could fish.” He surveys it through the car window. “It looks so good. When can we eat it?” Ted opens the passenger door, about to grab the tilapia but Davi lays her hand on it. She feels the coldness of its gills.

Davi Kell turns back around to look at Ted. She feels close to fainting.  Her hands start tapping against the car. “No.” His lungs are pressed against her back, she can feel them through his body, exhaling, trying to keep his questions aligned.

Davi Kell had memorized his body a certain way: Oxford shirt (cerulean, not blue) three-inch wide tie, hair pushed to the side, slicked back. She had forgotten this body—the mole on the top of his right shoulder, the faint scratch marks he has on his neck from his eczema.

“What is it, Davi?”

She says, “I see you in me.” 

Opening up her grip, she notices the tilapia has disappeared.

*

Hailing from El Paso, TX, Christine Peterson is a college instructor and a dual masters candidate within the education department for Language, Literacy and Culture (reading education specialist) and within the English department: Master of Arts in Fiction Writing: emphasis ethnic and border literature at New Mexico State University. Christine’s passions include bridging the bilingual literacy gap in the southwest, writing prose with religious undertones and helping English as a second language and learning disabled students succeed and love literature as well as become writers themselves. In addition to this, Christine is an editor for Tlaa.

Photo taken by Barbara Peterson

Fiction #54: Joe Milan Jr.

Dreams Obstructed

At night, in a dance studio hidden in the bowels of the LPK Entertainment building in Gangnam, Seoul, with mirrors fogged and the speakers wailing like dying hyenas, the computer crashed. All four members of 2Qtoo collapsed to the floor. Violet – the “sexy” one, Jazmin – the “baby” one, and Mimi – the “dangerous” one, all cursed under their breaths. They held their sides and looked at each other as if to say the bastards are trying to kill us. They, remembering that they were looking at their competition, returned to their brave faces: masks that smothered daydreams of pulling hair and tossing each other down flights of stairs.

The fourth member, Tiffany, the sweet one, the cute one, the oldest one at twenty-five, looked at no one. She lay on the linoleum floor holding her stomach. Just below the skin something was whipping her. Stabbing her. Pushing a moan up her throat.

“Like fucking Shanghai all over again!” Mr. Lee, the manager, railed the assistant by the laptop.
Gut twisting squeals continued and grew from the speakers. Even as they covered their ears, feedback sliced through their hands and into their skulls and no one heard the blaze of insults spilling from the manager’s lips. Finally, the assistant pulled the plugs and quiet inhabited the room.

Mr. Lee slammed his fist on the desk, “Well?” he bellowed. 

The assistant stared down at the desk. He hadn’t heard exactly what the manager said but understood, whatever it was, the correct response was to look down at the desk.

As the ringing left their ears they all heard the moan. They looked. They saw Tiffany on the floor holding her stomach. It wasn’t the normal moan of fatigue. It wasn’t cute for one and a stray tear dripped from her eye to the floor. Then, as if the other girls were about to pounce on her with their manicured claws outstretched, Tiffany bolted from the floor and out the door to the bathroom.

“What the hell is wrong with her?” Mr. Lee asked.

The three other members of 2Qtoo shrugged and kept their silent hope of a recently mopped bathroom floor. They listened for a catastrophic slip and a head-splitting fall.

It didn’t come.

*

Falling and breaking her arm during the first rehearsal with Jelly hadn’t done it. Her lips didn’t quiver when company managers told her to go back to the training pool. The bout with H1N1 that sidelined her from joining SuperNoBa! hadn’t even brought a sniffle. With 2Qtoo she had tumbled off the stage during sound check in Shanghai – which Tiffany suspected Mimi had something to do with, had the little hairs on her left arm singed by the pyrotechnic mishap in Bangkok – maybe Jazmine? She didn’t moan, didn’t whine. Even the break up with Sungyup didn’t bring a tear. But this, the jaws of whatever was inside her now, gnawing on the soft spaces of her stomach, forcing her to seek refuge on the toilet, was the first she could remember to actually bring tears to her eyes. A torn muscle? Appendicitis? Indigestion?

Whatever it was, it bit hard. Harder than her tormenters from childhood: your face is like monkey butt. Your voice sounds eight-bit. A three-legged dog dances better. That was until the dream, fueled by her parents’ unrelenting fervor and sacrifice, kept her in academies dancing and singing until her feet bled and every breath sanded her throat, strapped her to plastic surgeons’ tables and molded her face into something cute, something marketable, until the dream had gotten her accepted into the LPK Entertainment talent pool. Tiffany knew pain. But this was unreal.

A couple of days earlier, during a press conference announcing 2QToo’s second and final world tour, “Lollipop to the World,” she had winced, bit her lip, and it subsided as quickly as it had appeared. Each hour it shadowed her more and refused to be tamed by Pepto or Multigrain Super-Lax. She hoped it would pass like preshow heartburn, but of course it didn’t. Nothing came so easily under the tight gaze of the company. A misstep in rehearsal, an unsteady hand during an interview, an angry red bump on the sculpted nose, any little thing could cause the company to lose faith. And the company’s faith was everything now. After the final tour finished LPK would choose one, and only one, girl to become their next superstar. The others would fade into nostalgia, only to work birthday parties and karaoke bars on Wednesday nights. 

But now, on the toilet, the dream of fan clubs squealing her name, not 2QToo’s, felt so far away, so distant. And this thing in her, could kill it.

Once, when she first joined the talent pool, as a teen, doubled over on the dance floor, she had looked up for sympathy from the dance instructor who bent down and asked in her most motherly voice, “What is pain?”

“Weakness.”

“Yes. And what is weakness doing?”

“Leaving the body?”

“Exactly. Now get up, and stretch.”

“But it hurts, like so bad,”

“Weakness remember?”

After fifteen futile minutes on the toilet, as she imagined the fan forums discussing her own death, came a bang on the bathroom door. The assistant’s shaky voice echoed in, “Um, the speakers are fixed, we’re waiting for you.”

Her stomach twitched as if relishing the thought of pelting her some more. She breathed deep. “Leaving the body,” she hissed.

“What?”

“I’ll be out in a minute.” But as the footsteps shuffled out, a little voice in the back of mind whispered, Leaving the body my ass.

*

In her room of needles and glass cup vacuum bleeders, Doctor Pak eyed Tiffany over her glasses. “So, how long has it been since your last bowel movement?”

“Like, about a week?” Tiffany said.

“A week, or about a week?”

Tiffany counted the practices, the photo shoots, the interview on the comedy show set in a fake sauna. “Maybe ten days?”

“Stress?”

Tiffany looked around the room for cameras but there were none. She had worn a sweatshirt, sunglasses, no make-up, and had taken three different taxis to shake any possible tail the company would have put on her. She avoided the eyes of the nurse at the desk and the elderly women who gossiped in the lobby. She had made the mistake of running to the company doctor before and had come to this old doctor on the edge of Seoul precisely because this doctor wouldn’t know anything about pop, wouldn’t recognize her, wouldn’t tell anyone about her problem.

Stress? she thought. That talentless group who always sings and dances like drum majors having seizures? “No, no, no, I’m not in a pop group.”

The old woman sighed. “Do you have a lot of stress?”

“Well, um, it’s like, I don’t know. You know, I guess anyone that’s anything has stress.”

“Do you drink or smoke or eat western food regularly?”

“Um, well, no?”

“Look, this is very serious–” then the doctor looked at Tiffany as if she considered giving her the best advice money could buy, but instead she showed her a plastic model of an intestinal track. She told her about the possible obstruction high up in her track. She explained it could be serious and that they would try coercing it out with an enema.

Tiffany took off her sunglasses. “So, it’s just…”

The old woman sighed. “Yes, but this is serious.” A nurse entered the room with a long metallic hose.

*

The drugs were strong enough to dull but not strong enough for her not to feel the tentacle snaking inside her, or to watch the screen as the camera travelled the tunnels of her bowels. She took out her cellphone and searched her name on the internet and avoided giving the younger nurse a good look at her face. There were few photos of her and they were all the same: her hair swept by a fan, her cherry lips sparkling and pouting in the light, her hands up as if her head was on a mantle. If only the photos weren’t cutouts from band posters. At least there were more hits of her cutouts than the others.

If she could get through this and survive the attempts of sabotage on tour, it could really happen. With the exception of the forbidden boyfriend Sungyup – which she dumped as soon as she was told to – she had been stellar. No drunk driving charges like Violet. No rumors of drug use like Jazmine. No gambling debts like Mimi. Tiffany washed her face with perfect pore saving swirls and always smiled, never betraying her role as the cute one. She had endured.

Sungyup had joked, “There can only be one!” and slashed the air with an imaginary sword. Of course he didn’t understand. He had never gone home from LPK dorms during the holidays after failing to get into a group. Never saw the disappointed faces as if carved from stone of a family who wished their daughter to be something greater than their modest lives as washed up cruise ship entertainers with sequined dresses and suits and old keyboards gathering dust in the closets. He had never grown up. He hadn’t learned that “I love you,” was just a catchphrase.    

There was a cool feeling in her stomach.

If she could just get through this.

There were more x-rays. They jammed the tentacles in her and inflated her and made her roll around on the table. They told her not to fart. When they finished, and after she finished in the bathroom and told the doctors that nothing came out, the doctor and nurse talked in hushed medical tones. Tiffany struggled into her jeans.

“I think I feel better,” Tiffany shook her hips.

“That’s the drugs,” the doctor sighed. “We weren’t able to get it. The obstruction is pretty well set.”

“So what do we do now?”

“Wait. Hope it passes.” The nurse nodded with the doctor. “We will give it a couple of days.” 

“Can’t we just do that thing again?”

“We’ll give you some laxatives. You’ll have to drink lots of water and try your best to relax. But if it doesn’t pass by itself in a couple of days we will need to surgically remove it.”

“Is this about money? I mean, I can give you more.”

“This is serious. It can become fatal, and trying to force it now might make it worse.”

“But…”

“Give her the pamphlets,” the doctor said quickly to the nurse and motioned her out of the room. The nurse led Tiffany to the lobby, where a new crowd of elderly women waited, and pulled a pamphlet from a drawer.

The nurse eyed Tiffany, “you look familiar.”

“I… Is there someone who could fix this now, I mean…”

The nurse shook her head and handed her a pamphlet. It had a smiling cartoon intestine with a tiny hand giving a thumbs up. Keeping your insides happy: Colostomy bags and You!
   
*

After reading the final page in the pamphlet where the description of colostomy bags ended with ten tips for maintaining the O-ring, Tiffany wailed. She hid in her apartment and alternated bottles of laxative with bottles of water. She jumped rope in her living room through the pain and hobbled the steps of the show until the feeling came. On the toilet she pushed. She scrunched her face until tears beaded on her eyelashes. Nothing happened.

She leaned back and tried to keep her focus. In the rehearsal space in her mind she saw the set-up of the stage for their hit single “All the Soul Needs is a Lolly,” but when stage lights erupted and she heard the swish of the bag hanging off her hip and the tidal wave of horror from the crowd. And she was back in the bathroom, on the toilet, coughing for air.

A few hours earlier she had been on the cusp of solo career. A superstar. Now, she scoured through her food diaries on her phone trying to see where she had gone wrong. Salad. Yogurt. Soup. Black Rice. And exactly two weeks earlier, there was a single blank entry. The night she had broken up with Sungyup.  She had snuck a single fried chicken leg and beer to soothe her nerves.

She called her mother – she had to talk to someone, anyone – but her little brother, a brother she had only seen on holidays, said that mother had gone to get a perm. She thought of calling Sungyup, but he was abroad, taking photos for one magazine or another. And even if he were there, would he talk? She could still see his mouth agape as she handed back the Pooh Bear he had given her on their first date, could still hear his stammering that rattled over the hum at Korean Fried Chicken. “Career?” he had echoed, “Career?”

*

After a couple hours of fruitless sitting, she left the bathroom and was almost out the door to go to evening rehearsal when the pain dropped her to her knees. Tears came again. By the time it relented enough for her to stand, something stirred inside as if it was falling through her.

In all the years she’d been with LPK, she had never been late. But as she held onto the handle of the door, shuddering, she knew that rehearsal would only be her staggering and howling, or worse.

She retreated back to the toilet. And with a trembling hand she sent a text message to the Mr. Lee: Can’t come. Sick.

*

The next morning, she woke to the sound of a key twisting the tumble locks of her front door. The shaky voice of the assistant called, “Tiffany?” Footsteps wandered the halls, stalked through the living room and into her bedroom. He knocked on the bathroom door. “Tiffany?” She could hear him fumbling with his sparkly tie.

“I’m busy,” she said.

“Where have you been?”

“Right here. Only here.”

“Um, Boss sent me to get you.”

“I know. Tell him I’m sick.”

“He’s pretty mad.”

“I know.”

“Mimi, Jazmine, and Violet are worried.”

“I’m sure.”

“So, can I take you?”

“No.”

“Um…”

“Go away.”

“I can’t do that. I mean, he’ll kill me. Or worse.”

“He won’t kill you if you tell him I was, like, not here.”

“I don’t lie well.”

“Did you see me?”

“Um, no.”

“Well, there you go.”

“Do you need help? I mean, I could help you.”

“Do you think you can help me?”

“Um, you’re not doing drugs or something, right?”

“Like, I would do drugs.”

“Are you?”

“Go away.”

“Um, I don’t think I can do that.”

“I’ll throw you in front of a train. Do you want that?”

“Mr. Lee would do that. Please, could you just come with me?”

“Fine. Give me half an hour. Go and get a Kim Bap across the street or something. There’s some money on the table. Take it.”

“Why not now?”

“Girl issues you idiot.”

“Oh.”

“Yes.”

“Half an hour?”

“Go already. This is weird.”

She heard the assistant turn and shuffle toward the door. Then he stopped, shuffled back a few steps, and finally turned again and left. She imagined him out in the hall, waiting for the elevator, rubbing his mopped hair, fixing his black suit, and debating to call the manager after food. Inside her, and below her, from the pristine toilet up, a terrible sinkhole of feeling opened.

She hugged herself and breathed. She had to get out of there. She had to go someplace safe, someplace quiet, away.

*

Soul music blared from the speakers as she drove up the mountains. Honking cars passed her on the straightaways. She was driving slowly, she knew. But for her, with a travel pack of tissues clenched in her fist around the steering wheel and one eye out for secluded bushes – just in case, she drove at the speed she felt comfortable. She had never driven during the daytime with so many cars on the road. She stopped at each rest stop, each time filled with hope, and each time leaving the wretched smelling bathrooms disappointed. When she reached the secluded house, it was dark.  

It was an old traditional house. It was Sungyup’s house. During their short romance he had brought her here, high up in the mountains, hidden in the dark of the trees. It was the only place she knew that no one would find her. It was the only place where there was no one watching, the only place she had ever felt safe. Under the rock beside the front door she found the key.

Inside was just like she had remembered it. Spotless. Photos blanketing the walls. But she paid them no attention and went directly toward the bathroom with the fancy bidet: a heated seat, drying fans, and filtered heated water. As she passed the bedroom, she saw the only evidence of their relationship, the Pooh Bear she had given back to him, the photo of their two coffee cups on the railing of a coffee shop balcony, their first date. She held the bear and brought it with her to the bathroom. 

When the toilet seat had heated up, a text message came. Mr. Lee: Answer or else.

Suddenly the phone rang.

“You’re with that photographer, aren’t you?” the manager growled.

Her stomach rumbled. She squeezed Pooh Bear in her hands, “I’m sick.”

“We have a schedule. That man is not on the schedule.”

“I’m sick. I just need a little time.”

“You know better. Think of the group, the stage crews, engineers, everyone who has been rehearsing, while you have been frolicking with that sack of shit.”

“I told you, I’m sick. Intestinal…problems.”

“Problems is right.”

“I just need time.”

“Photo shoot. Tomorrow morning. Six-thirty. After that you’re going to rehearsal and then a fan meeting. And when it’s all finished, you come directly back to the studio. You’ve lost your apartment privileges, it’s back to the dorms for you.”

Her hands clasped tightly around the neck of Pooh Bear. Somewhere deep in the coal furnace of her soul she wished its head would pop off. “I’m dying.”

For a while there was only the hiss on the line. Finally the manager said, “Uh, huh.” 

“Dying.”

“We don’t have time for you to act precious. You’re not special.”

“Didn’t you hear me?”

“Do. As. You’re. Told.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“You Tiffany, that’s what’s wrong.” His sigh crackled through the line. “Six-thirty.”

*

After the phone went dead, Tiffany threw Pooh Bear against the tiled wall and dropped the cellphone to the floor. She held her breath and pushed with all her might. But nothing moved. Nothing came. She flushed the empty toilet, and staggered out of the bathroom as if gunshot and screamed. If there had been a neighbor, if the house hadn’t been set on top of the hill, if it had been a music video, a man with messy, side-swept orange hair and a leather jacket would have kicked down the door and held her in his arms. But her screams fired through the house and vibrated through the double paned windows and out into the forest, and no one came to her rescue.

She held her stomach as she sunk into the leather couch. She sobbed. She pounded on her stomach with her fists. And when her arms tired, she gasped for air and gazed up at the photos that ringed the TV console: Sungyup’s travels. A desert sunset burned the sky above a sign – Welcome to Chile. A frog perched on a wide tropical leaf licked one of its giant red eyes. A mustached man smiled and held out a hot dog from behind a cart in New York. The lights of Shanghai’s midnight skyline beamed in the fog, or maybe pollution.

She hated him for it.

If her intestines were to explode, what would she be able to say she had seen? Craft service tables? The insides of vans, planes, and dance studios? A million flashing lights coming from those people she had never had, or would, meet? She felt a rumble inside her. She imagined gas inflating a bag hanging off her slender hip. That’s what it would come to: a bag hanging off her hip, worse than any muffin top.

The bag. Maybe she could make it a fashion statement, a swinging bag of debris in sequence with the performance. She could cover it with a sarong. But she knew better. There would be no more dancing. No more singing. No more pouting faces to cameras. The feeling came again and she went back to the toilet. She reached for her phone to look at photos of herself. But the first thought of cute poses, she decided that no, she didn’t want to see herself like that. That was the only type of photo she had: of herself as the cute one. No photos of the rashes she got from the sailor uniforms. No photos stony callouses on her toes and ankles from the six-inch butterfly heels. Nothing showed how damn hard she had worked, battled, for that moment on stage that left as soon as the stage lights went dark. How she gave up her only boyfriend. How she gave up her own real name – Sumin. How an obstruction clawed and clung to the walls of her bowels for dear life. The photos were all of her, but not her. Not what she saw. As if she had never been alive.

A thought cascaded from some deep place in her mind and filled the room with a simple fact: nothing was worth this. She was better, deserved better than this. She deserved fried chicken and beer. She deserved a sunset without a photographer telling her to move her head a little to the right and to stop blinking. Or that he loved her.

Suddenly, like a battered soldier scaling out of a foxhole, hands shaking and haggard from years of blood and guts, teeth grinding and eyes aflame, she grabbed the Pooh Bear from the floor and clawed her nails into its neck until she heard the slow crackle of tearing plush. It felt good. Then, with hands still shaking, her skin slick, chest heaving, she picked up the phone and sent a message to the Mr. Lee: I quit. 

She would not dance for anyone. If she was going to have to get some damn bag slung from her slender hip, she was at least going to do something for herself. Sunrise, she decided. Yes, she would wake to see the sunrise climbing the peaks to the west. Did the sun rise from the west? She had no idea. All those years of training and she wasn’t even sure which way the sun came. It didn’t matter. She would hobble toward it and bake in the light and the sweetness of fall pine. And maybe go back to school with two bags hanging off her side. With that thought rippling past her eyes she leaned back and slept on the toilet.

*

It was sometime around midnight, the sound of thunder woke her. Her eyes focused on the stuffing gouged from the bear’s neck. The rumbles were not of thunder, but within her. It came in bursts, like beats through the editing suite of the recording studio. Deep in her, guns fired, squeaky toys whined, and bass drums boomed. The smell, so caustic, made her eyes water, and she cried. For an hour, and countless flushes, she shat.

After the storm abated, she stepped out of the bathroom and went directly to the scale. Two kilos had left her and she felt as if she could be a gymnast. And she looked up to the clock. There was plenty of time to hop in her car and drive back to Seoul.

Then she saw the photo of a clean reef somewhere warm and far off – so pristine, so peaceful. She gazed out the dark window where all the sky was orange from the streetlights of Seoul and wondered if the sunrise could break through the clouds. She couldn’t remember if sunrises were better or worse with clouds. And she stood there behind the threshold. She felt a weakness, a hurt so deep in her body, she wasn’t sure if it was coming or leaving.

*

Joe Milan Jr. is a writer who teaches. Joe was born in Japan and has spent nearly a third of his life traveling and living outside the borders of the USA; his most recent landing is in Seoul. His work has appeared at Numero Cinq Magazine, and is upcoming in Transnational Literature and more. Check out Joe’s blog at www.joemilanjr.com which is a hodgepodge of Korea, learning and stories in progress.