(an excerpt from After The Flood)
I awake to a shooting pain in my lower back, sharp and piercing, and my immediate assumption is that my wife is trying to stab me again.
When I roll over to face her though, she is not there, and I recall that I am not sure whether she is supposed to be there at all.
I climb out of bed slowly, the pain in my back now paralyzing, and I squeeze my eyes shut as little dots of light bounce across my brain.
Stumbling down the hall, the air is moist, the carpet spongy to the touch, and the stink of the flood is still lingering in the walls. I try to focus on one breath, then the next, lips pursed, cheeks sinking in and out, and in again.
My wife is sitting on the couch eating a bowl of cereal in the dark, her long hair backlit and shimmering in the moonlight creeping through the blinds, a small ethereal glow emanating from her flawless, nearly translucent skin.
“Hey,” she says in her husky voice, the word disappearing in a puff of smoke even as it leaves her mouth.
“Hey,” I say, “problem sleeping?”
“Not really,” she says smiling.
“No, I suppose not,” I say, “now is that because you’re not really supposed to be here, because I’m thinking that maybe that’s what it is.”
“Maybe,” she says, turning back to her cereal.
A slight clanking sound is emitted each time the spoon hits the side of the bowl. She always hated that sound, but maybe that was before.
“Cool,” I say, “I mean not cool, not really, but fine. Anyway, did you try and stab me again?”
“No,” she says, “why would you ask that? It was just that one time, and that was like an accident.”
“As accidentally as stabbing someone in the back can be,” I say, not angrily, though maybe a little nostalgic for what we once had.
“I hope you’re not trying to speak in metaphors,” she says. “It doesn’t suit you.”
“No,” I say, “I’m just in pain here.”
“More metaphor?” she says.
“No, seriously, my lower back, is killing me,” I respond, “for real.”
“For real, cute, let me see,” she says.
I look at her. I miss her. I really do, the intimacy, her touch, being in love, all of it.
“Come here,” she says.
“Not for that,” she says, “I can’t do that, just let me get a look at your back.”
I walk over and she looks at my back.
“Oh fuck,” she says, probing my back, lingering there, her fingers papery and unforgiving.
“What, you’re freaking me out?” I say.
“I don’t know,” she says, “it’s like a growth, not a bump, more like a nub, it’s not soft exactly, but there is activity. You need to get that looked at.”
I turn around to look at her, hug her, kiss her, have her tell me it’s going to be alright, but she’s gone, the house empty, devoid of life and love and anything that used to look like it.
I walk to the doctor’s office. I feel the air caress my face and I am scared by the intimacy that even nature can bring.
When was I last outside of the house?
Before the flood certainly, but when was that? And when was the flood exactly? It seems so long ago, and yet, there are still tree branches strewn about, and power lines hanging limply from the sky.
There is less pain in my back now, however, though the throbbing is there, lingering, low-grade, just below the surface, and as present as my wife is not.
The doctor is young, skinny, and very pale, too nervous really, but my wife found him and I’m not ready to give him up.
“What brings you here today?” he says fidgeting and uncomfortable. “Is it about, well, you know. Do you need someone to talk to?”
“No, that’s fine,” I say, “she’s good.”
“I mean, it’s good, it’s about my back, I feel like I’ve been stabbed. Like something is growing there,” I say, deciding not to mention my wife again.
“Really, okay,” he says, “why don’t you stand-up and lean over the table.”
I lean over the table, lay my face on it, and the cold metal shocks my skin. The doctor lifts my shirt up and runs his fingers over my lower back. They are firm, but light to the touch and pulsing with heat. The hair on my neck stands on end, alive and wiry.
How long has it been since someone touched me like that?
“Yeah,” he says, “wow, we don’t see this often, but it’s what I thought it might be. Take a seat.”
I sit. My hand runs to my lower back, the throbbing is more intense, my back is ready to explode.
“What is it,” I say, “and can you treat it, what, tell me, please?”
“It’s not like that,” he says, “its loneliness.”
“I don’t understand,” I say, “it’s a lump, something happened, maybe I was exposed to something when I was cleaning-up after the flood, like mold or whatever?”
“No,” he says firmly, “it’s not about anything that you’ve come into contact with. It’s about what you haven’t.”
“I’m confused,” I say.
“I understand,” he says slowly, calmly, speaking more gently now. “Look, you’ve been exposed to death and decay, the flood, your wife, yet denying all of it, suppressing what’s inside you. But it needs to come out. And it will come out. It has to.”
“I still don’t get it,” I say.
“This is about trauma, and fear, and what happens when we can’t, or won’t, face loss and sadness,” he says. “The only recourse is taking these haunted, confusing feelings and exposing them to the world.”
“How do I do that?” I say.
“You leave the house,” he says, “like you’ve done today, and you re-make a life for yourself, a real life. It’s not a cure, but it’s the only way.”
“Just leave,” I say.
“Yes,” he says.
“And my wife,” I say, “what will happen to her?”
“I think you know the answer to that,” he says.
So I sit here, back throbbing, my wife on the couch reading a book, though intermittently looking at me, not talking, just looking.
I have my shoes on, and I’ve even packed a bag, but I am hesitating, wondering what I can live with, and ultimately what I cannot.
About the Author: Ben Tanzer is the author of the books My Father’s House, You Can Make Him Like You, Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/
Photo Credit: Loran Smith