In the morning Sam Mercer wakes with a headache to fissure earths and a fiery heat in his chest. The sixth month of the same daily agonies, though he’s sure they’ve persisted for well over a year. He’s never been particularly good at measuring time.
He tries to shift out of his bed but his body creaks in protest. He has to gather all of his available energy to wriggle out of the moist gray sheets he’s drawn in a cocoon around himself and rise. He wobbles on his heels before finding uneasy balance, then hobbles to the door across his bed, wiping his forehead gone clammy from the effort.
The knob is cold and clicks when he turns it and the sunlight from the broken window within is so bright it numbs his eyes. He looks away to protect his vision and glances at the fingerprinted mirror above the sink. There’s a man standing in it. His skin is flaky and his hair is half-gray and he looks like the physical embodiment of illness. Sam has seen this man every day for the past twenty-seven years in mirrors similarly foggy, surely in times healthier and happier. But now, he doesn’t recognize him. Not his gangly body, not his sunken face, not his colorless expression. And he hasn’t been able to since the heart problem began.
He looks down at the sink. Around its porcelain dish are dental hygiene products. A toothbrush with bristles bent in all directions, a bottle of mouthwash, a bitterly-wrung tube of Colgate toothpaste whose innards taste like some bizarre mélange of mint and horse shit. Just behind the faucet is a translucent bottle of little green pills, the heart medication he hasn’t touched in two weeks because it left him impotent and struck with insomnia. Though the latter might have been more a result of a particularly embarrassing sexual encounter brought about by the former. Embarrassing because the woman, Gail, whom he’d liked very much, and who was much better-looking than he had ever been, backhandedly apologized for apparently not being pretty enough to please him, then changed her phone number after he called asking her on a fourth date, which he promised would include good wine, delicious steak, and a fully-functioning member.
Though he’s off the pills, he still isn’t able to sleep normally. Maybe because he believes that he and Gail would be together were it not for the cruelty of his disease and its faulty treatment methods.
He realizes he’s been eddying in a negative thought loop for at least a few minutes now. He tries to break out of it by debasing his toothbrush with a few liberal squirts of toothpaste and scoring the inside of his mouth until his gums feel sore. When he spits into the sink there is blood in the froth. Thankfully, this makes him forget about Gail, but he now starts to worry about how much blood there is, and he wonders if the bleeding will worsen, and what will he do if it does not stop, if it continues forever, and he starts to breathe heavily and moan under his breath, and then his apartment’s doorbell rings. He swivels around, whole face furrowing into folds. He hadn’t invited anybody over. Part of him wishes it’s Gail, come to reconcile the relationship, and this makes his heart thump hard. He clops jovially to the front door and jerks it open.
There’s a woman at the door. Not Gail. This woman is old and short and fat, carrying a gaudy designer bag. She looks either worried or angry; he cannot quite tell. He straightens his back.
“Mom?” he says.
She’s staring at his mouth. He realizes he hasn’t cleaned the blood. He probably looks like some cannibalistic madman. He wipes his lips with his hand and steps back a pace in a gesture of welcome. She enters, blinking madly, the heels of her boots clopping against the dusty floorboards.
He follows her into the kitchen. She sits on at the dining table on which there are still mealy flakes of the Raisin Bran he ate yesterday morning. She picks away some remnants while he fumbles for a rusty tea kettle in one of the cupboards and fills it with water. He sets it clattering on the stove and flicks on the gas.
He turns to her, trying to smile, and clears his throat. “Been a while,” he says. She glances at him, looks out the window over the sink, says nothing. “I’m sorry,” he continues, frowning.
She sighs. “Sorry about what?”
“That you’re not happy to — ”
“You’re telling me I’m not happy?” She squints at him. He puts a hand to his stinging heart. She leans toward him, her chair tilting. “I heard what you did to Gail.”
He clenches his jaw. He did not expect her to know about this newest romantic blunder.
“I wasted two weeks,” she groaned, “two weeks trying to convince that girl to give you a chance. That beautiful girl. Perfect for you. Thought you two’d be married by the end of the year. But then you . . . you start calling her six, seven times a day? Following her around at night? What the fuck is wrong with you, Sam? You think that’s how you get people to love you? You say you want kids, a family, a happy life. But Christ, you’ve gotta be fucking normal for that. You’ve gotta be clean, have a job and some values. You can’t . . .” She stops for a moment as though she realizes something. One of her eyebrows ticks up. “You haven’t been taking your meds.”
He had expected this. She’d made it her business to call him, admittedly infrequently, to ensure he was taking the heart pills, which were always too big for him to swallow comfortably, and he’d respond, as if by rote, Of course I am. Why the hell wouldn’t I? You don’t need to ask every time you call. He feels the urge to deny the accusation, to avoid another of her long, rambling lectures, but she’s always been able to read any hidden truth in his face. So he says, “No. They don’t work. First two weeks I took them, they made my heart worse, I could feel it. They’re supposed to be, you know, cleaning out the gunk, not — ”
“What did you just say?”
“They’re — they’re making my . . . my heart worse, Mom.”
She looks at the floor in something like supplication, tapping her foot vigorously. When she looks back up she’s biting the inside of her cheek so hard he’s surprised her teeth don’t tear through. “So now you think they’re for your heart?” she croaks. “God, I thought the whole ‘allergy meds’ phase was fucking bananas. You don’t prescribe heart medication when someone tries to hang themselves in their fucking bathroom, Sam.”
She looks away to dab her tears. Sam has seen her like this many times before, especially recently, so he’s not surprised. Still, seeing her so frightens him, as it usually does. It’s a fear that deepens, deepens, becomes black and depthless.
Maybe this is why his heart problem has gotten so bad. If only she could understand.
Before he can say anything else she stands, clutches her bag to her chest, and slips out of the room. A few moments later, Sam hears the front door slam. A few moments after that, behind him, the tea kettle erupts in a vengeful screech.
His head pounds. His heart feels ready to burst. He feels like he’s losing his balance, so he sits down in the chair his mother left warm. He watches the dull gray smoke plume out of the kettle’s spout.
He’s not sure why, but he starts to cry.