Driving to Ithaca
Chicken eggs, the word MICHIGAN, your own face in the mirror: things began to take on a falseness if you thought about them long enough. On Tuesday, Maggie went to the doctor. The act required driving three hours back to the university clinic in order to see a doctor in-network, but the effort seemed necessary—the lump, and the thought of the lump, and the thought of the thinking of the lump, had taken on a bright, gummy urgency.
Do you smoke? Do you have five drinks a week, or more like twenty? Does your grandmother on your father’s side have a heart condition, or is that your mother’s mother? Did you have your tonsils removed as a child—are you sure? The basic facts steadied themselves, and then tripped and fell. For the first two forms Maggie made confident NOs below the question, ARE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT STDs? By the third, her pen hovered.
Fidelity was a twisted thing when you were always calling things off, when you had grown to love and be so unsure of somebody else. You could mock up a sheet of their desirable qualities—face, body, SAT scores, grasp of current events, grasp of historical events—and she would score higher on most. But standing uneasily in line at the DMV, or waiting outside a concert hall, and he was the one who could softball a dry, observational one-liner out into the crowd so that it fizzed with relieved laughter. It wasn’t a dazzling talent, it wasn’t really even wit, but it was a quality that could get you much further in life than one exceptional, perfectly constructed joke, one spent years in the making—a joke that was prismic and complicated, that had depth. Those were her jokes.
They’d met at the community college in a demeaning COMM 101 class. They agreed that it was demeaning, afterward, smoking cloves in the parking lot—an astral, weedy lot that ran up against miles of dark woods. She was delighted by him. He was not weird. He wore nice plaid shirts and liked dark beers and probably wanted to marry her.
“I can speak Elvish,” she blurted out apologetically as they stood there beneath the parking lot lights, swaying. He turned to her and a slow, patient cowboy smile spread across his face.
“Sick,” he said. He flicked the smoky brown bit of his cigarette into the nearby parking space. After a few minutes, he walked over to retrieve and throw it away.
Once, years later, she had asked him what the worst thing he’d ever seen was. It was a leading question, asked on Christmas or near Christmas. They had broken up and gotten together again—once, twice, three times, four: a domestic routine like making and unmaking the bed.
They were lying on his bed when she asked him the question. It was a nice bed, too, an actual adult bed—she was always meaning to tell him how impressed she was by the whole getup—a box spring and two stiff, square gold decorative pillows that he gently piled on a chair in the corner, each night before he climbed into bed. He was not a messy man. He owned a rice cooker and even used it, too, arriving home each night, just in time to switch it off with a pioneer pleasure. He owned three towels: two for him, one for a guest. She was the guest. But she wouldn’t have minded sharing a towel, even one damp and gamy from use.
“I bet you’ve seen things,” she said, running her striped, socked foot along his. “On the job, I mean. What’s the worst thing? The worst thing you’ve ever seen?”
She knew it was a bad question because he sat up and made a joke, holding the pillow close to his chest. “Maybe all the zombies that I’ve seen go running into the woods screaming ahhhhhh, yowwww.” He laid back down.
There was a time when her questions did not land this way. There was a time when her romantic questions, the ones designed to bring them closer, didn’t come out sounding instructional.
“Haha, yes, the zombies, always the classic woodland zombies.” She stroked his back. “But seriously, what? Or maybe not the worst thing, but, like, ‘a hard thing?”’
“Ugh.” Flatly. “It’s just—not everyone wants to get home from work and then say shit about it.”
They lay there for a while. She began again.
“I heard a story on a podcast, I don’t remember which, about a woman who is driving and sees a body on a billboard. It had gotten flung from an accident, which I guess was at night, so nobody had discovered it yet? Or something. Anyway, the body didn’t have a head.”
He rolled over, unhooking his foot from her legs. “Maggie.”
“That came out wrong. I just thought, I mean, you never talk about what happens, and I know it’s traumatic, I know it is, but it’s become this big, huge part of your life and you never talk about it. And sometimes I think that, maybe—I think that maybe you might want to.”
“If I was the guy that gets home and wants to talk about his job, I’d be the guy who gets home and wants to talk about his job.”
They’d just gone to see True Memoirs of an International Assassin, which had gotten a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. They liked bad action movies, though. Surely that much had been agreed on, early in the relationship.
To make up for the bad question, she inched closer and murmured sexy jokes about body doubles into his ear. After a few jokes, he walked out of the bedroom and then came back wearing oven mitts. He clamped them around her breasts, red paws, like he was taking something from the oven. The pressure hurt a bit, but because it seemed to be an absolving gesture, she said nothing.
In the waiting room, her pen came down. YES.
“Hmmm,” the doctor says, the very first thing when he walks into the exam room. He looks young. He looks like he has just finished pledging a frat, as if he has just returned from doing humorless, humiliating things. He smooths his hair back. “One form here says you aren’t concerned about STDs, but on this piece of paper, here, it says that you are.”
“I guess I wasn’t sure.”
“When I read the question again, it seemed to ask if I was concerned about their... existence. Like, concerned that they exist in the world. And I am. Gun violence, STDs, the opioid crisis. They are all, you know... as it were... great public health risks.”
“Would you like to get tested for this particular public health risk today?”