Two About One Guy
Inside the house is fine. No one can see it. I can see it. That bothers me. What I think doesn’t matter, though. I have to live with it. It’s other people I’m worried about.
Outside the house is not fine. I can live with my self-judgment, but it’s the looks that linger a little too long that hurt. I make it hurt. I’ve got bite marks on all my knuckles. Some of them are scabbed. I can’t help it. I get embarrassed and I bite down before I can think about it.
Sometimes I la-la-la out loud to myself so I can’t hear the little voice narrating every embarrassment I’ve ever suffered. How much am I expected to take? A person has limits. I’m not special.
The la-la-las started making me even more self-conscious, so I trained myself to stop doing them. Sometimes I slip up and one gets out. I try. I try very hard.
You’re such a stupid asshole. You idiot. You don’t try. You’ve never tried in your life. If something isn’t handed to you with no effort on your part, it’s the apocalypse.
I’m bleeding. The pain in my hand does a better job of distracting me anyway. I walk into the park and turn the music in my headphones up louder. Metallic racket to drown out what people say. I don’t want to hear it. They look at me and make little asides to their companions. I’m not a prop for your routine. The jokes aren’t funny. I haven’t heard any, but I can tell.
The first lap begins. Every day it’s the same path, taking the same forks, entering and exiting from the same gates. Sometimes they do work with these trucks. Hoses running everywhere. It blocks the paths. And then there are the kids from the school down the block getting marched around for whatever reason. Impossible to get around them. It makes me so mad. My teeth grind thinking about it.
I’m conscious of my breathing and how my limbs look while I move. I tuck my arms in closer, opening and closing my hands. Over by where the bathrooms are, I see a woman looking at me. It’s for less than a second, and she averts her eyes. It doesn’t mean anything. I’m almost done with my lap.
She’s onto you. She knows all about you. She’s going to tell her friends about it later and they’re all going to laugh at you.
I saw this guy in the park, she’ll say. There was definitely something wrong with him. And then I catch him looking at me. I thought I was going to have to hide in a toilet.
The thought of it makes me want to throw up. My nails are digging into my palms. La-la-la. I’m telling myself it doesn’t matter, but I don’t believe it. I have to know what she saw. I need to defend myself. I am not fodder for your big night out. I round a corner but stay close enough to see which way she goes. She’s heading for the exit I don’t usually take. I feel a strain, but I have to do this. I feel like everyone in the park knows what I’m about to do. They’re pretending to hold conversations while they keep one eye on me.
Discreet, I think. I am now going to be discreet.
I follow her from a distance out of the park. The streets aren’t too crowded. I catch some glances here and there, but I’m so focused on her that they don’t bother me. I know she won’t see me. I can’t let her. She’ll recognize me. The man with that face and stuttering gait. Walking like a freak. I move fast. This goes on for blocks. The sidewalks empty out as we move off the main avenues. Residential streets with one or two people passing.
I fall back more, hoping it makes me less noticeable. People have a right to walk around their neighborhood. How many people even live around here? Half a million? Mind your business. But she turns her head, and I feel my stomach try to escape out of my throat. La-la-la. She keeps walking. She didn’t notice me. Oh my God. Oh my God. I think my heart is going to stop.
She’s making her way up the stairs to the entrance of her apartment building. I speed up as she unlocks the door, to try and get in behind her.
I just moved in, sorry. We haven’t met. Yeah, I’m on the third floor.
That sounds good. I’ll say that. Except I’m not quick enough, and she’s inside before I can reach the top of the stairs. I watch her turn down the hall from the other side of the glass. I give the knob a defeated jiggle, but it opens. The luck of a cheap landlord. I step down the hallway I saw her enter and there she is, putting the key in her door. For the first time, she sees me and jolts. She recognizes me. I know it.
I go into the story anyway.
Hey, I’m sorry. I just moved in. Can I ask you something about the laundry room?
She’s not buying it. She knows I’m the man from the park. Her keys drop out of her hand and jingle against the ground, like a horror movie.
Okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t live here. Please just talk to me for a second.
Her eyes widen as she fumbles for the keys, trying to pick out the right one again.
I’m not going to hurt you. Please. Do I look like I’d hurt anyone? I just need to ask you something.
She looks like she’s about to scream, but I have to get the question out.
What did you see back there? In the park. What do you see right now? Help me understand. What do you see when you look at me?
The squealing of the train brakes makes the throbbing in the right side of my head so bad I think a blood vessel in my brain is about to burst. I stick my tongue behind my upper right molar for the hundredth time today. I feel the pencil eraser sized sac of pus I saw in the mirror early this morning after being woken up by a stabbing pain in my face.
An infection is setting in. There’s no denying it anymore. Could chew up all the aspirin in the world, won’t make a difference. The tooth has to go. Haven’t been to the dentist in close to ten years, I guess. I’m fine. A little blood sometimes when I brush. This is going to be a big problem, though. This could cost thousands of dollars. I already see it.
Well, we do have our own special payment plan for patients without insurance, the receptionist will tell me. Next thing I know, I’m sitting with their billing administrator haggling on prices. The dentist wants to pull all four wisdom teeth at once because this will only keep happening. That’s too expensive. I counter by asking to take the anesthesia off the table, since that’s the most expensive item, and let’s say we only pull the two teeth on my right side so they can heal together. A few changes in the spreadsheet and the number is still too high. Okay, only the infected tooth. What’s that cost? I see. Are you legally required to give me the lidocaine? How much is that?
The thought of it is getting me heated. And this god damn awful pain. I can’t stand it. I should just cut this abscess out with a razor blade waved over the stove myself. Swipe a few airplane bottles from the liquor store. That’ll have to do. It’ll buy me some time at least. Drain this sucker and stop the pain. Maybe do it again when it inevitably comes back.
I notice this guy got on the train at the last stop. He’s sitting across from me with his head down looking at his phone. I feel like I know him from somewhere. No, he just looks like a type of person. I give him a once over. Expensive looking shoes. I stare at the gap between his ankle and bottom of his pants and what showing that much of your silk socks is supposed to mean. It looks like flaunting to me. Look how much money I have showing all this leg. I have the best tailor in town. Oh, this sweater? Cashmere.
This guy is, without question, a huge prick. I know a million like him. Has opinions he got from a magazine. Maybe top fifteen percent income bracket and having a guilt trip over it. What are you listening to, friend? What score did it get?
He’s wearing huge over the ear headphones that probably cost four hundred dollars which comes out to equaling about half a wisdom tooth I would guess. Particularly the wisdom tooth that is at this moment pumping bacteria into my brain that’s going to drive me insane and eventually cause me to die screaming.
Half a tooth for the headphones. What else could I get off him? Maybe his satchel. There has to be a laptop in there at least. Possibly even his wallet if he’s an idiot which I am certain he is. Hell, even anesthesia might be back on the table at this rate.
Something shifts by my brow. It feels like a tap on my face and a change of a setting. My thoughts trail off and there’s someone else that sounds like me.
Strip him for parts, he says. How many people are on this train?
I scan the car and count eight people. Only a few more stops on this line and he hasn’t stood up yet.
You could hurt him really bad. This little prick. Useless. He’d probably be a better person if you kicked his teeth in. Humble him. Take his clothes.
I can’t do that. That’s insane.
A fresh sting travels from my cheek to the center of my head. I must be developing blood poisoning already. My brain is cooked. Go away. Shut up.
Give him a good smack. Stand up, walk over to him, and let one fly. Knock those headphones off his head. He’ll probably cry.
Stop, I’m mumbling out loud, stop. I can’t help it. Get out of my head.
Imagine if you had a knife.
The pain is unbearable. I can’t take the throbbing. Every pump of my heart sends electricity through my skull. I can feel my pulse in the abscess in my mouth. I can’t rob this guy. What was I thinking? I have to get home.
One good shot. Teach him something. Here comes your stop.
Those headphones alone. Just the one tooth.
I stand up too fast and it makes his face jump up from his phone. We’re looking in each other’s eyes. My opinion of him hasn’t changed, in fact, my mind is made up. And won’t this thing in my mouth stop hurting?
It hits me. Of course.
I pull my arm back and swing it around with all my anger. I tighten my jaw hard as my fist crashes into the right side of my face. A sharp, burning sting erupts from my gum and a wad of bloody pus flies out of my mouth and across his face leaving specks on his glasses. I can taste the damage. My mouth is already filling with my blood. Got you, you little bastard.
I give the guy a big grin, hoping my teeth are streaked red like I’m imagining. I look up and we’re at my stop. The doors open. I keep smiling while I snatch his headphones off. I dare him to do something about it and he doesn’t, and I feel more in control than I have in months.
by Michelle Hendrixson-Miller
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by Simon Graham
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