Joyland

Canada |

Purple, Savvy Fish

by Julia Tausch

edited by Kathryn Mockler

I popped the balloon. Stabbed it really. My fortieth birthday party, filthy drunk, wrestling the thing on our gray knobbled couch. The memory is smeared with garish, shimmery music, a clenching of the gut, shadow-taste of rot. But I was having fun!

That much I know. 

“Screeching! Positively screeching!” said Ray this morning, and chortled, which caused me to mash my entire face into my pillow and push until my nose-bone felt that painful pressure, my nostrils uncomfortably stuffed.

Ray had put the message in the balloon himself, thinking it would pop easily with a pin into a million perfect shards, the message floating floorward like a feather till I scooped it with my agile hand to hold to my breast, flame-bright with love. Is that what he pictured? I love him, but he can be a bit dumb. Hasn’t he seen a balloon pop before? Often more fizzle and shrink than explosion. 

I think I told him this last night, two or three times, blurred and slurred, as I went at it with a steak knife, the balloon rolling and dodging on the sofa like a purple, savvy fish, our friends roaring and cheering in the background. Or did they ignore me? I don’t quite remember. I’m pretty sure there was some kind of roar.

*** 

Ray and I met in Montreal, at a club. We were both on Ecstasy, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.

The thing is you need to get to a place sometimes in life where you really let the whole mind expand, you know? Unpack its cranky old limbs. Hear them creak! Let them go! Thunk, thunk, whoa, that guy’s got three knees! What is that even? Tentacle? Tail? Just let them unfold, man, unfurl, even flail a little bit, even shake. Best not to be afraid. Best to hear the night pounding through your body like blood; best to feel your breath for once for what it is—a fully fucked gaseous mystery that will one day simply cease. 

I may have said all of this, more or less, that first night we met, sitting on a hand-shaped chair covered in fuzz, across from Ray on his own mirrored cube. Or maybe he said it. Or maybe it was both of us and there was deep connective nodding that felt like an undulating beam, both of us swaying back and forth, luxuriating in the beam’s furry light. Yes. I think that was it.

Later he asked, “Could you put my insulin in your purse while we dance?”

Later still he said, “It was very moving to me to give you my diabetes stuff. I’ve never done that before.” As he spoke, I watched a bead of sweat gather at the tip of an exertion-soaked spike of hair that arced over his forehead. The bead threatened to fall, but never did, into his eyes that were flat and shiny like brown Smarties. “It’s so important for me to know where it is at all times because I literally need it to live,” he went on, swaying. “I felt like I knew exactly where it was the whole time.” The bead, still, stayed where it was and I saw the world and a rainbow inside.

You might think we would have made out wildly then, or at least kissed, but Ecstasy has always made me even less bodily sexual than normal. Which is not to say it puts me all in my head. For sure I get focused on bodies—my own, other humans, ants, pigeons, gut bacteria by the billion, gifting us life. Ray’s gangly beauty shook through me that night, hard, hard. I just didn’t need to feel his trembling wet parts or watch his face dissolve into shreds. There was time. I just wanted to hold his long fingers in mine, light and loose, and hear the insulin sing in high trills from the fake-leather bag between my feet.

*** 

“Lemonade?” Ray asks the morning after the balloon-stabbing. He has made a large batch, lemon carcasses everywhere. I’ll clean them up later, a kind of penance I will relish. I am so grateful to see that pitcher, filled to the brim.

“Why are you so ashamed, babe?” he asks, handing me a glass.

“Oh man, is it really so obvious? Does my shame actually smell?”

He smiles, doesn’t laugh. “You get drunk all the time!”

“I know.” I lean against the wall and literally put the glass against my forehead like in an eighties iced tea commercial. I hope this is how Ray sees it too. “It’s just that I’m forty now, right? You’d think I might have pulled it together.”       

Ray looks at me for a moment, eyes a bit narrowed, half smile, half smirk. I try to catch up. Is he saying I’m right? Do I say this every week? Is he so sick of my shit? Then the smirk drops, he good-naturedly shrugs, and heads into the living room with his own lemonade. 

I slide down the wall into a crouch and stay there a moment, feeling a pleasant burn in my hips. 

***

What is happening here? Am I an alcoholic? What is my job? Do I have long hair or short? What’s the deal with Ray? Does sun dapple the lemon-littered counter or is there rain pouring down? Is there pathetic fallacy or what? Like, what

The fact is, Ray is great. We have fights and angst, yes, but not today. That’s not what I’m telling about. He can be taciturn, distant, but mostly he is nice and also funny like you would not believe. He’s a history teacher, he is my love, he reads my dumb stories like this one and makes lady-like suggestions in the margins, always posed as questions, which is what I think is right.

So is this woman versus herself? I mean, isn’t that what a hangover is? Ray’s right: I get drunk all the time; I often have fun; sometimes the next day my brain feels bruised; sometimes I’ve let secrets leak from my lips like abundant, ugly drool and wish for days that I were a different species, one without this kind of mouth. Not today. I feel embarrassed but also fine. The lemonade burns my gin-chiseled throat, but it also tastes great.

Sometimes when my therapist wants to add a point that contradicts the last one she made, she says and in a very big, poignant way, signaling loudly that she’s using “and” instead of “but.” She hasn’t always done it. I think she learned it in a course and it fully blew her mind. It gets on my nerves and I find that it helps.

***

Around eight o’clock, the evening of my hangover, I’m lying on the couch, flipping through a magazine I got for free at the health food store, unduly annoyed at the terrible copy—a monthly ritual of mine. I need to shit and am putting it off because I know it won’t be fun—it never is when I’ve had so much gin. There is sweat on my upper lip. Also a jagged loop lollops through my mind of my best friend Kathryn stumbling toward me last night, then crushing me in her beautiful bodybuilder arms, extra-hyper because she got promoted this week to VP of something largish in the coding world.

“My friends actually like me,” is something I’m supposed to repeat to myself, in order to form a new groove. I’ve noticed it’s mostly there now, washed out only occasionally by some unexpected storm. There were nine whole humans here last night, all of us yelling at the same time, all of us heating up the room, some of us dancing to songs we still love from the nineties, some of them problematic faves, some of us yelping each time one came on, “Problematic fave!” and dancing all the same. 

Now the apartment hums lightly with faraway thunder. In a way I hope it comes closer. I wouldn’t mind the show. I am too hot, but too lazy to move the fuzzy orange blanket from my feet. Our two cats, Richard and Jay, chase each other in the hall; their claws on ancient hardwood sound like hail. Or maybe that’s hail? So often things are both. Like that I’m forty and one hundred and was just barely born. 

Ray is sitting at his desk in the corner, wireless headphones on, clicking a new layer into one of the quiet, bloopy songs he makes with Garage Band. We haven’t danced since that very first night, but he did shuffle his feet last night and make an ironic, sexual face that made me, well, positively screech. 

Ray’s diabetes app dings, and I am not too lazy to get up off the couch and stand in front of him waving my arms until he untrances from his own beat and takes his headphones off. We smile at each other but say nothing. I shuffle back to the couch. He heads down the hall. I hear him stop to tell the cats that they are frisky ones and beautiful boys. I worry about his feet sometimes, and of course his Smartie eyes, and then I summon big gulps of air, scented tonight with gasoline and the heavy-metal-power-dirt smell of hard rain. The thunder’s a little louder now. There’s been a couple big cracks. I grab from the coffee table the crinkled little message that was in the balloon. “Happy fortieth to you!! We all love you so much!!” Such a hasty, simple thing to have gone to the trouble of wriggling down a tiny rubber neck. Yet somehow it is perfect, my breast does flame bright, what else am I supposed to say? There are days that have stories, sure. And there are other kinds of days and days and days and days and days and days and days and days and days.