Fiction by Christine Ann Olivas
It’s the night of the third debate, and Julie will soon be empty. Her boyfriend is in the living room, watching in disbelief, and the candidates’ words drift into the bathroom, where she lies on her side, loose pants around her ankles, toes flaccid on the cold tile, plastic tube filled with liquid partially inside her. It hurts to be stretched, but she is the perpetrator, so she penetrates, pressing the large circular end to fully submerge the cylinder, eyes closing in discomfort, waiting only a moment before acid fills her, bubbling up from her loins to her stomach, until she stands up and sits, letting it all come out.
It’s a small apartment, and she hopes he can’t hear her. “Hurry back,” he says above the noise. “You’re missing it.”
“I’ve just been stressed lately,” she had told the gastroenterologist, who sat in his horse-brown chair, leathered fingertips pressed together. In truth, she responded to all of life’s events, both mundane and unusual, with drinking, smoking, eating, sex — any excess required to crowd herself inside.
“I see,” he said, grabbing an expensive pen and scrawling on a notepad with Prilosec branded on top. His skin was rich, patterned with vitiligo, like ivory countries etched on a husk-tinted map.
“Do you think I’m dying?” she asked.
He knitted his grandfather eyebrows and enunciated each word. “The amount of bleeding is not unusual. To be safe, however, I do recommend a biopsy.”
She had pressed him, her stomach leaping, prolapsed in fear. “I’m young, though. I should be fine, right?”
“Please, my dear. Make an appointment for the exam. The front desk will give you enemas.”
Julie returns to the couch, weak and defeated. It has been hard not to eat all day, to quell the itchiness of a vacant stomach, scratching at her breasts, clawing at her throat, tugging at her brain matter, wrapped in an intestinal coil. She thinks of a woman gnawing on an animal’s raw flesh, and marvels at being able to be empty — before media, before history, before fetishes, before love.
Her boyfriend is cursing at the broadcast, shaking his fist, making caramel waves in his glass. “There’s no fucking way,” he says. “This lunatic won’t win. This isn’t a fucking TV show.”
She stares at him with foreign, sober eyes and hopes he’s right.
She wakes at five a.m. They are still on the sofa, clothed, wrapped in a fetal embrace. The glass is on its side, amber liquid pooling around it. The cat peers from the corner, investigating the scene. A newscaster raises his voice, with the Las Vegas stripscape looming behind him. “First debates have always been low-investment, high-return,” he says. “Third debates are like going to the high-roller room when you’ve never gambled before.”
She doesn’t have to perform the second enema until seven a.m., so she climbs on top of her stirring boyfriend, slides him inside her, and moves her hips back and forth, staring first at the window, where the colored reflections from the screen spin by, like fruit in a slot machine, and then at the overturned highball, fantasizing about the burning-sweet taste.
Everyone had watched the first debate at a bar. Julie and her boyfriend joked that it was like the Super Bowl, or a premiere of The Walking Dead, best enjoyed with beers, wings, quesadillas — and the cheering and booing of a like-minded crowd.
It wasn’t long before someone at the communal table suggested a drinking game. “Every time he makes a non-sequitur, shot of Fireball!”
They all played along, throats burning, reveling in the ludicrousness of it all.
“Shot,” they cried out when he excused not paying his income taxes.
“Shot,” they yelled when he claimed he wanted the housing market to crash.
“Shot,” they screamed when he said his opponent was unfit to serve as president.
“Shot, Shot, Shot.”
When her boyfriend and she left, laughing and dragging off their cigarettes, they could still hear the chant from a few blocks away, echoing into the ghost-town streets.
“Just imagine the memes,” he said.
“Yes. It’s too easy. That puke-orange face.”
He howls into the night. “‘I do stupid things! That makes me smart!’”
The next morning, she called for him from the bathroom, and he bent down beside her, so she could smell the alcohol, sour on his breath.
“There’s so much blood,” she said. “I’m scared.”
“You’ll be okay. I promise.”
When Julie arrives at the GI clinic, she feels hacked, like her body is crudely constructed, frayed rope duct-taped together.
The bright-sweatered manager at the front desk greets her at high volume. “You did both the enemas?”
“Yes,” she responds. “I came prepared.”
She waits her turn, staring down at the carpet, flat and coarse like cowhide. When she glances up, she notices a middle-aged man, his eyes inspecting the lines of her chest, then lowering to her pelvis. It is no different than any unwanted stare, she decides, even if they are both sitting gingerly, burning below, scared of what they might learn.
The doctor calls her name, and she follows him into the back. As she lies on her side and goes under, liquid salt cold in her veins, she sees an older woman, standing stoic in a desert, her porcelain skin relaxed around her bones, and her hands glowing red with fresh blood.
Julie comes-to, still folded in half, with the doctor standing over her.
“All done,” he says. “Let me help you up.”
He places his hands on her shoulders to elevate her, and his wild arm hair scratches her bare forearms. She wants to demand answers, but her face feels heavy, so she says nothing, looking up at him with anticipation.
“We’ll send the biopsy out as a precaution,” he says, stepping back in front of a poster of the digestive system, framed in maple. “But just a precaution. You have a rather large, but benign, internal hemorrhoid.”
She knows she should be relieved, but her brain remains reptilian, anticipating signs of chaos. “Are you sure? That’s really it?”
“You’ll have to get it removed,” he says. “And get more fiber in your diet. Cut way back on the alcohol. Less stress. But, yes. You’ll be fine.”
Alone in the room, she pulls on her clothes, her skin thawing under the layers. It is a few minutes before she leaves; she wants to take in this moment, both comforting and transient.
When she returns to the waiting room, the older woman is arguing with the front desk manager, whose face is flushing salmon, like his turtleneck.
“I can make it there just fine.”
“Ma’am,” he says. “This is our policy. All patients under anesthesia must be accompanied home.”
“I’m walking. I do it all the time.”
He makes an audible sigh. “I can’t stop you, but I strongly advise against it.”
“I’ll take her home,” Julie says, taking the old woman by the arm.
“You need to be accompanied, too,” the manager says, rolling his eyes.
The old woman turns toward Julie. “Please. Let’s go now. I’m Dolores.”
Julie and Dolores walk down the avenue, fleshy upper arms pressed close, and they keep mostly quiet, as if to make room for the city.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Dolores asks.
“I’m going to get you there.”
“Everything seems overwhelming.”
“Let’s walk through the park.”
As they turn down the tree-lined thoroughfare, a trash can shakes, and they both jump as a bloated rat darts across their path.
“Little bastard,” Dolores says.
“Better than a big bastard.”
Dolores laughs. “I guess that’s right.”
They arrive at a large brownstone with the blinds drawn, and Julie helps Dolores up the steep stairs, each one a challenge. When they crest the landing, Dolores fumbles for her keys, and Julie catches her breath.
“Let me help you inside,” Julie says with a shiver, pulling her jacket closer.
“Oh, don’t be silly.”
“I’ve come this far. Just let me get you situated.”
“All right. Thank you,” Dolores says, looping her fist back through the crook of Julie’s arm.
When they enter the apartment, Julie examines the walls of the foyer, filled with photos of people who may already be dead. They stand without smiling in front of fields, shanty homes, and barns, washed in sepia and yellowed with age.
“I’m originally from Iowa,” Dolores calls from the living room.
Julie approaches. “Do you miss it?”
“I suppose. Sometimes.”
Above the fireplace hangs another portrait, this one much larger. It’s of a younger Dolores and a portly man, his friendly features recessed into his head.
“And, yes, that’s my late husband,” Dolores says, collapsing onto the forest-green couch and patting the cushion. “Please. Take a seat.”
Julie settles into the velvety, forgiving fabric, and leans back, taking the pressure off her lower half. The room is warm, and her hands un-tingle. Dolores turns on Food Network, where Bobby Flay has just challenged a young Puerto Rican chef. To win, she must convince three judges that her signature native dish of mofongo is better than his version. As the timer winds down, she moves deftly between tasks, hand-mashing plantains, grinding spices with a mortar, and shelling shrimp with a paring knife, while he hurdles giant battered prawns on the grill amid oohs and ahhs from the live audience. After the blind tasting, the panel makes their ruling. “Dish number one is more complex, but the second dish is just indisputably delicious.”
“My. Now that hardly seems right,” says Dolores, shutting off the show.
Julie stretches, and her stomach makes a bellowing sound. “I should probably go.”
“Wait. Please stay awhile.”
“I don’t want to impose anymore,” Julie says, although she’s not sure she wants to leave. She pulls her phone out from her pocket to notice a few texts from her boyfriend, then slides it back in without reading them. “You’ve been so kind.”
Dolores doesn’t respond as she gets up and goes into the gourmet kitchen, where dirty dishes are strewn across the counter. She opens and slams cabinets and the fridge, then returns, an overflowing plate in one hand and an unopened wine bottle in the other. She sits down, this time much closer, places the plate in her own lap, and gives the bottle to Julie to uncork.
“I figure we deserve this,” she says.
So the women sit, again in silence, savoring brie and honey on crackers, washing the crumbs and cream down with generous rivers of wine. They realize they will need to do more, find other sources of self-protection, but for now they stay still, relishing in the temporary satiation.
The 2017 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
FOURTH PLACE WINNER
We are pleased to announce the fourth place winner for the 2017 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
Christine Ann Olivas is an emerging writer who recently completed her certificate in fiction from UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, as well as advanced fiction workshops from Catapult and Sackett Street. She is a top contributor to Career Contessa, a career advice site for Millennial women, and her short fiction can be found in Pure Slush, New York Dreaming, and Breakwater Review.