In times of trial the body operates on some kind of auto pilot. It is how people survive torture, war, their own deathbeds. Functions change, adapt as necessary. You may be breathing differently but still breathing nonetheless; staggered, coughing, dry or drowning, gasping. The lungs contract, expand. Hands reach. .Time continues to move, arms swing in time with legs to maintain stasis, tongue clucks to swallow or speak at the guard and whatever the five women were doing to me to get me through the turnstile was working. Pushing from beyond with taunts, no mercy, but great indignation. They say I am jealous but there are five black winged crones with their dust tongues pressed against a corpse’s teeth trying to inhale the light. I could see them peering over the escalator handles, perempory gazes veiled only slightly by their adorning capes.I could see those high-handed brows from behind the trees: yellow-eyed and low to the ground.
“I want a pretzel,” I said.
Before Laura could stop me, I wandered off alone to the kiosk. Gurgling, my stomach had been begging for hours or days. I had lost track of time. My brain finally giving in to the inveterate hum of its empty vessel devouring itself with need shot or the first soft thing it saw. Teeth still clenched, chewing was a hardship. Some habits, even in derangement when all is lost, are automatic, ineradicable. My mouth watered and agape, some drool fell out.
I stood slack jawed in front of her unaware of myself.
The attendant was young, surly, inefficient I could tell. I have an eye for these things. Preternaturally gifted with judgment, yet beaten by my peers to doubt these assumptions, I was usually right.
“I guess with about a 98.6% accuracy,” I told her.
She was engaged with her phone, absent from the exchange but kind of eyed me without looking. If I hadn’t felt so volatile inside, I may have felt intrusive just asking for something. That’s what my peers had done: guilted me. I heard a snicker behind me. The women were laughing.
“One pretzel. What do you think?”
The girl was still holding the phone in her hand but squaring me. A misstep of mine. I had already forgotten what I said but I could tell by my tone, it was wrong.
“One pretzel please.”
I smiled and extended my left arm robotically, the debit card clutched yet again between index and thumb. I had no recollection getting it out but I was grateful. Catarina, one of them said.
Smarmy. I had been trying to think of a word to describe myself for days. During my most piqued, I can mask, armor in unctuous servility if only to maintain some relation. So as not to erupt. Something less than charming but more than obvious, however, could be ingratiating at times. When pressed, I am smarmy unable to contain all resentment but southern still.
When she handed me the pretzel, we locked eyes for seconds which is long considering our culutre of disposability. Neither I nor her was afraid of death, that was clear, however, it seemed I was closer to it. I was the alpha indeed. As she yanked her hand away from me, disgusted, I wanted to whisper it’s not contagious but i wanted to spit on her too.
I threw up half the pretzel but didn’t tell Laura.
In the bathroom, I could see my eyes had dark circles under them like I was a raccoon. Even though I had slept for twelve straight hours or more, (there are no clocks here), if I knew Laura wouldn’t possibly call the police on me for my sudden vitriolic fits and fainting and skin changes, I would have curled up in the sink and fell dead back to sleep.
“Yes,” I said aloud as the woman to the right of me backed away from me, not taking her eyes off of me until she had to turn the corner to leave the room. Not totally afraid but not comfortable around me. “Yes,” I repeated. “Not transmissible.” And I spit on the mirror.The rest of the ride was nothing. We had no layovers so no obstacles. Well, that’s not true. It was an obstacle in course, in fact. My nausea was unnerving to Laura and I spent a good chunk of time bent over the toilet but didn’t make a sound. So as not to u n n e r v e her. Stay quiet. I ran the water even though nothing came out. Luck though (Luck! You are on an adventure! or maybe it said Look), we were in the second to back row and Laura gave me the aisle seat.
“I’m petrified,” I said to her, returning.
“What? What is happening?”
But then as if that never happened, I fell soundly asleep.
That I recall but no other words were spoken. Laura would tell people all sorts of rambling I’d disown had I been at the party to share my version. Had I been invited.
She would say, it was harrowing.
There they all were in their black cocktail gowns and partial masks, their wine spritzers and garrulous cheer. Some with their amber beers. Some with their magic brownies. All in their festive adornments and fangs and just so much laughter bellowng from them. She would say she kept moaning about the snow, about the tread of her boots and not being able to, Laura would stop to adjust one of her left straps as she realizes mid story that the dress fits improperly and she is now self conscious about wearing it even though it looks good in fact. I would have told her it looked good. I would have said your tits look great, friend and smacked her back like a football buddy. She would say she wasnt going to be able to cross the whole thing. Laura was gesturing to the party that I was tossing my head side to side and speaking matter of factly, I will not be able to cross the whole thing, no, I can’t. And she would do it in an accent. A sort of London accent but not really. Like when Europeans learn English. Or kind of New Zealand.
“That’s how you sounded,” she said to me.
That was the second thing I said. First I said, I’m petrified. Then, I said What?”
“I can’t cross that,” she held her hands out, which I did apparently. “Do you remember? You said it just like that. In that accent.”
Scrunching my face up, I turned away from her, let my cheek rest back against the seat and let the wave swallow me first, then the black of the hole, then the women in black boots, toes facing me as I shuddered from deprivation .
We waited to get off plane in silence. I was sweating profusely again and Laura whispered, “I am going to call you a doctor when we get outside.”
Groggy, I nodded, compliant. In earnest surrendered but also still smarmy. Southern, just politely pleasing each mistress with no intent. Fall. I wanted to collapse.Had I been sleeping standing? I felt Laura’s tepid fingers press my lower back when everyone started moving and I too began to move. Why I didn’t bite her after she ignored my first warning is between me and God because I wanted to. But I also wanted to fall.
Laura and I boarded the Lyft inconsequentially though she would tell it differently.
She began screaming so the Lyft left us. I had to call another. And I was frightened of her. Her skin had become sticky and kind of gray. Waxy. Normally, she’s kind of dark. And this is July, so tan. I was scared to touch her not because of catching it, whatever it was, but I was scared of her sudden rage. She had an unimpeded violence pouring from her.
I don’t think she said unimpeded. I think that’s what the woman said.
“You will walk across the frozen lake unimpeded.”
“But I can’t.”
“But you will.”
The woman had an unimpeded violence pouring out of her. Her black boot coming down on me but playfully, almost with love or almost with remorse.