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The days after Becca and Vernon’s shitstorm of a party were golden, as if he and Gretchen were finally alone. As if her depression had moved house, left the country, waved goodbye. They laughed and fucked, got drunk or didn't. Did drugs or went dry. Or kissed. For hours. Leaning against the brick wall of some local dive turned glorious oasis because of her lips.

He hadn’t realized it had been so crowded.

Every now and then he'd catch her staring off into space, the whisper of a frown on her face, and he'd think—there it is. Still out there, sending postcards, planning its inevitable return.

**

“Buy me an ice cream. And I'll let you eat me out later.”

Her hat is enormous and he loves it. She's a proper vision of a California vixen. He lifts the brim to get closer.

“What will I get out of this?”

Gretchen raises a brow. “Research. Call me Walinda, little baker boy.”

Her German accent is really rather gut.

The walls are tight on either side and carpeted a lurid red. The floor is not; it's hard and shiny, not quite marble, not quite vinyl, but something synthetic, durable, easy to clean. The lights overhead are also red and flicker weakly along to the muffled music pulsing from the various suites. Gretchen’s face tilts up at him, the whites of her eyes below her irises, mouth, cheekbone, all with a glimmer of shine; a nude knee peeking out from a panel of her black dress. The overall aesthetic is pornography by way of Kubrick. For the moment, life is sweet.

Jimmy toys with the long silver necklaces layered over her décolletage. “Yes, miss.”

They kiss and sway tipsily to the side, a step, then another, her arms around his neck, the scratch of carpet at his back. She’s wearing strappy heeled sandals and he fights the urge to slide down her body and kiss her toes in them—her toenails painted an inky almost-black burgundy. Christ, they’re pretty. He gazes at them with contented longing.

The door opens down the corridor and—for a smattering of seconds—they hear Edgar bellowing a crap grunge number from the ‘90s. He’s singing way too close to the mic, distorting the vocal in a wild burst of feedback. Mercifully, the door soon closes, putting an end to the caterwauling.

Jimmy bangs his head back against the wall. “Oh my god, why am I here? I HATE karaoke.”

“Because it’s fun. And everyone's too drunk to notice when I stick my hands down your pants.”

“That is a plus.”

“Are you gonna sing for me?” Gretchen throws her head back, turning on the full majesty of those eyes. “You spent an hour going through that book and didn’t pick anything.”

“The selection is dreadful! What kind of self-respecting karaoke establishment doesn’t have Spandau Ballet’s Gold?”

“The dudes that sang that “I know that much is true” song? I didn’t even know they had another song.”

He phfffts. “Some music professional you are, not knowing a classic. I love this hat, by the way. I won’t even make fun of you for wearing it inside, at night.”

“Good. Keep playing nice and you might just get your balls sucked later.” She takes his hand and pulls him back towards the room. “Come on.”

“Oh, do we have to?” Jimmy drags his heels, keeping one hand on the wall as Gretchen pulls him along. "Vernon is here. If I have to hear him enthusiastically rap the n-word one more time, I’m going to—”

“You invited him!” Gretchen laughs and there’s a bit of a snort in the curl of it.

“What?!”

“You were wasted last night and texted him the details. You did it to quote unquote ruin this joke of a celebration of a relationship that shouldn’t be happening.”

“Who was I talking about?”

She doesn’t hear his question, and keeps going. “I wasn't much better. I smoked some weed that theatre chick brought over and I’m pretty sure it was laced with PCP. I think I prank called that little bitch Ariana Grande.” Gretchen pauses. “Or a Starbucks.”

“You. You’re trouble.” Jimmy plays with her hair, winding it up in his finger and yanking on it. “Why are you so much trouble?”

They tussle, play fighting and rutting-lazy, and then they’re back in the blare of the packed karaoke suite. He doesn’t recognize half these people, they’re some of Edgar and Dorothy’s actor friends, Shitstain and his surprisingly super hot girlfriend Jacqueline; a hirsute, tattooed fellow he dimly recognizes from Gretchen’s office; and Lindsay and Vernon, who are up on the tiny karaoke stage performing that horrid commercial jingle by Charlie XCX about being fancy. Vernon leans over and Lindsay spanks his bottom in time to the chorus which she sings lustily in her demented soprano.

Jimmy shouts into Gretchen’s ear. “NO, REALLY, WHY ARE WE HERE? AND CAN WE LEAVE IMMEDIATELY?”

“LINDSAY WANTED TO CELEBRATE GETTING BACK TOGETHER WITH PAUL,” she shouts back.

“OH, FUCK THAT.”

“I KNOW. TO BE FAIR, I DON’T THINK LINDSAY IS ALL THAT HAPPY ABOUT IT.”

“BUT WHERE IS PAUL? SURELY, HE SHOULD BE AT HIS OWN CELEBRATION?”

“LINDSAY SAYS HE HAD STOMACH ISSUES.”

“HE SHOULD TAKE THAT AS A SIGN.”

Vernon jumps between them suddenly, like the great big ginger knob that he is, screaming and shoving a mic between them.

“IT’S YOUR TURN, GRETCH-CUT.”

She takes her place on the mini-stage and when the title card comes up, Underneath It All by No Doubt, she looks at him and grimaces apologetically. On the screen the countdown begins, the numbers super imposed over images of cavorting dolphins.

Unexpectedly, Gretchen has a lovely singing voice—hesitant, a bit nasal, but pretty. One of the improv guys joins in on the rap part and she makes no effort to hide her revulsion to his clowning.

The song takes a turn, towards the end there, somewhere between the tiresome repetitions of the chorus, Gretchen seems to go from embarrassed to invested, and suddenly it all means something. It’s profoundly moving, this stupid little pop ditty a symphony, and Jimmy, to the best of his ability, fidgets away the feeling before it becomes overwhelming.

“SHE HAS A REALLY GOOD VOICE, RIGHT?”

Lindsay nods at him. She’s a regular ninja, sneaking up on him with the stealth of a flatter-chested woman.

“YEAH. SONG CHOICE IS A BIT ON-THE-NOSE, THOUGH.”

She pinches his arm viciously.

“OW.”

“DON’T FUCK THIS UP, JIMMY.”

“WHAT IS THERE TO FUCK UP, YOU ABUSIVE COW? GRETCHEN AND I ARE GREAT.”

She narrows her eyes at him and gets up, undulating over to Gretchen like a curvaceous sea snake. The two of them dance out the fade and stay up, bouncing along to Edgar’s heated interpretation of Straight Outta Compton. Gretchen and Lindsay mouth along to the lyrics and fall down at one point, laughing into each other’s hair.

His girlfriend is happy again. He just has to make sure she stays that way and all will be well.

**

He did not miss the rain. Or the squalor. No. What was missed was the smooth taste of new skin; elbows and pulse points—all her slowly discovered corners. His need to know and learn them. Touch. Fill up.

The cursor blinks and Jimmy zones out briefly, blinking his eyes along to its pulse. Fill up? Miss the rain? Well, that’s several shades of shit. What he really needs is a break. A drink or a game or a wank. Jimmy could crack open the whisky he'd been saving. Put on his Songs for Intimacy playlist. Luxuriate. Writing is bloody hard work. Self-rewards are practically mandated. Because all work and no play...well, a couple of snifters and he'd be right back at it with renewed vigor.

He's mentally selecting lubrication when Gretchen walks through the front door, playing with her phone and absentmindedly tossing her several-too-many bags down on the floor.

“Do you mind? I’m always tripping on your detritus.”

Gretchen doesn't look up from her phone. “Do you know about the Russian astronaut that fell from space and died?”

“Yeah. Vladimir Komarov and it’s cosmonaut, not astronaut.”

“Whatever; he bit it. I'd never heard of him or anything about the Russian space program. He was kind of cute. By the way, I might have pussy cancer. Ew, there's photos. This cannot be real.” Gretchen turns her phone sideways. “Yeesh. He looks like a pile of charcoal brackets.”

“Why are you looking at photos of cosmonaut remains? Wait. What?

“I clicked on one of those top 50 disturbing historical photos thingies. You know I can’t help myself. Morbid listicles are my crack. They’re so addictive and mind-numbing. Like Candy Crush or that TV show about people with stupid business ideas.”

“That’s not—”

“What’s it called again? Swimming With Sharks? No, that’s a movie. Nevermind. I’ll Google.”

“The other thing you said. About,” Jimmy swallows. “Cancer. What was that exactly?”

At that, Gretchen looks up from her phone. Her face is paler than usual, making her dark eyes black, freckles stark against her skin. She frowns, a small frown, and brings her hand up as if to reach for him, before quickly curling it back into a fist.

“Okay, maybe I don’t have cancer, it could be something else. Inflammation or an infection. I don’t know. Something’s up with my cooze. The gyno explained the various possible reasons for my getting those results but I zoned out while he was talking. His voice has zero modulation. Doctors, amirite?” Gretchen scratches her nose with a knuckle.

Jimmy shakes his head. “What happened?”

“I went with Lindsay to the OB/GYN to have her parasite checked out.” She yawns for a long time. “Sorry. I made an appointment too because why the hell not, it’s been about four years since I’ve had my legs in stirrups. You know, let's be an adult. Anyway, long story short, I just got my test results and no bueno. Abnormal cells, blah blah blah.”

“So what, is it growths?”

“Gross. Naah. It’s probably nothing. Don't worry about it.”

“What does that mean? What are they going to do?”

“The doc’s gonna freeze my hoo-hah. On Monday. So how about you? Get any writing done? Sexy times or NCIS? Oooh, pretzels.” Gretchen reaches past him and grabs a fistful from his snack bowl. “They told Lindsay she couldn’t gain more than fifteen pounds,” she says between crunching. “She is PISSED.”

“Freeze your what, now?”

She points down, then shrugs. “Control your face, Jimmy. You look crazy right now.”

“They’re going to freeze your vagina?”

“My cervix. Man, I hate that word. It sounds like robot parts.”

“What does freezing do?”

“I dunno. Kill shit. I can’t fuck for two weeks so you better stock up this weekend.”

“Eh...”

“Well, I guess we can do butt stuff. I should probably ask though, just to be on the safe side. Don’t want your dick to get frostbite.”

Jimmy tries to say fine, that's wise, or a repeat of okay. His tongue isn’t working properly. It's like that time with the pineapples. “Bahama mamas,” he whispers, like an utter gobshite.

“Huh?” Her phone chimes. “Oh shit, that reminds me… so I’m throwing a little get-together thingy here tomorrow night, I forgot to tell Edgar I need him to cook for it. Do you think Killian could bartend? No? Nevermind, I’ll ask him myself.”

Jimmy shakes his head slowly. “He's away, spending the next few weeks with his mum. Asked me to make sure his dad doesn't burn down the house. Do I look like a babysitter for divorcés?”

“Aw, it's kinda sweet how you're his designated grown-up.” Gretchen paws at him the way she does, like a small, pampered dog that wants treats. He frowns at her hands. She sighs.

“Sorry for not telling you about the thing.”

“What do you mean?”

“The little party. I thought you might say no and I thought, fuck it. Doing it anyway. Who knows? You might have fun!”

Gretchen gets on her tiptoes, kisses his cheek, and walks towards the stairs shouting Edgar’s name with a zestiness he’d missed. He watches after her, turns back to his laptop and writes nothing.

**

Jimmy ditches the dinner party half-way. If pressed, he could blame any number of things. The music. The mediocre frozen drinks festooned with pineapples and teensy umbrellas. Edgar staring at him like an Irish Wolfhound expecting a walk. Gretchen, beautiful and funny, laughing in a way that makes him feel sick. He convinces himself that because it’s him and his poorly written tale of a life, his girlfriend who he’d just drunkenly admitted to loving, is definitely going to die of cancer. Thus his walk out into the night. No explanations or goodbyes. A miniature bottle of spiced rum in hand which he sips as he goes, making his way up and down the hills of Silver Lake. Nobody stops him. Nobody speaks to him. He’s a free man. Or invisible.

He stops at Keune’s and walks in, sitting heavily at the bar. Nina is working and she strides over like a woman intent on giving her piece, but her face softens when their eyes meet.

“You okay?”

“No. I’m not.” His tongue feels like it’s covered in fur. “Can I sit here?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I drink for free?”

She smiles. “Absolutely not.”

“Fair enough.”

He takes out his wallet and a photo of Gretchen falls out. It was a joke; she'd snuck it in there; a photobooth laugh in black and white. Her hair is in braids piled on top of her head like a sexy Heidi, a fantasy he never expected to actually be into but most assuredly is.

“What if I told you my girlfriend has cancer?”

“Oh my god. Gretchen has cancer?”

Jimmy shrugs, “She might do. I dunno.”

She makes an odd sound, like a hiss. “Honestly. I don’t know whether to kick you in the fucking nuts or have someone take you home. What kind of person lies about something like that?”

He struggles to look her in the eyes. “Just give me a whisky neat and don’t be stingy, baby.”

She serves him. There’s some giggling on his part, and possibly some crying. He orders another whisky when the first one is done.

As she pours, he asks “Does it ever stop? Is it always gonna be crisis after crisis?”

Nina doesn’t charge him for that one. Or the one after that. Eventually, she puts him in a cab home, politely moving her face away when he leans in to kiss her cheek goodnight.

Edgar is still up, talking to Gretchen outside on the stairs. He joins them.

“You okay, buddy?”

Jimmy takes her cigarette and doesn’t answer. “Should you even be smoking?” he says tetchily, taking a drag and exhaling up towards the sky, away from their inexplicably serene faces. The smoke curls, blows west, vanishes.

“Why can’t I?” She steals the cigarette back. “Jimmy, stop being a drama queen, will ya? It's just lady stuff.”

He gets up without looking at her, because she is too pretty to look at. “Pick up your cigarettes ends when you’re done. These stairs are starting to resemble the waiting room at the dog track.”

There are tobacco bits on his tongue and he spits them out in the sink, one by one. He brushes and brushes and brushes his teeth, on drunken autopilot, then falls to bed, his brain roaring to life the way it does when all you really want to do is forget it all and sleep. The shadows in his room move around, gray and black projections, moving in stuttered patterns, and outside, the faint shimmer of Gretchen’s laughter. He wants to eat the sound, it’s that delicious.

She gets into bed not long after that and pokes his chest once. He brings her hand up to his lips and kisses it.

“I’m sorry.” Even he knows it sounds surly. Desultory. Uninvested and untrue.

“For what? Running off to a bar like a weirdo?”

He smacks his lips in response.

“Look, Jimmy. I only told you because fucking is off the menu for a while and I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to. I do.”

“Okay.”

He pushes a strand of hair away from her face. “The room is spinning under my body. Is it like that for you? Are you made of air?”

“Yeeeah. I’m going to go get you a Gatorade.”

His eyes drift shut and he thinks about ballroom dancing on the telly. Crisps. Being a child, being endlessly bored. Waiting for real life to finally begin.

There’s a shift in the mattress. Gretchen’s in a t-shirt and comfy striped purple pants he secretly adores. The light outside is changing gradually and for most people, it would be the equivalent of an HD reveal: hairs in odd places, wrinkles, and spots. Not on her though, she looks a dream. Jimmy sits up a little and sips some of the proffered purple liquid. It tastes like berry-flavored piss.

“This would go wonderfully with vodka.”

“Gross.” She pushes his hair to the side.

“Why was Paul not here? Again. Dare I ask? Does Lindsay even have any friends besides you?”

“I don’t think Lindsay told him to come. She’s been acting so weird. She cried during a commercial for ziplock bags yesterday. I keep telling her it’s not too late for an abobo but… Yeah. I genuinely think she wants to keep the parasite.”

“Who? The baby or Paul?”

“Nice.” She high fives him. “Man, it’s gonna be so weird. Lindsay as a mom.”

“She’s going to be one of those people who leave their sleeping baby in a pram outside the restaurant and claim it’s because they’re Swedish.”

The pale blue light outside grows brighter. Her hair is messy and wild about her head; a dark, deep red. If only he were a painter, he’d be Dante Gabriel Rossetti to her Elizabeth Siddal.

“Do you want children?” she asks.

“No. They’re loud and covered in sick and they don’t let you sleep.”

“Yeah.”

“How would I ever write?”

“Seriously. Or do anything?”

Jimmy laughs, once. “Right?”

The warmth is coming on, the spread of encroaching sleep and Jimmy surrenders slowly. Somewhere in the fog of it, he hears Gretchen’s voice, its see-saw intonations, but doesn’t understand a single word of it. The meaning is lost to the haze.

**

Jimmy runs into the OB-GYN office on the day of the procedure. He’d come straight from a meeting with his editor and in a foul traffic-assisted mood. He's only five or ten minutes late, give or take, but the receptionist says that Gretchen has already left with a friend. He texts Lindsay, who answers with a series of emojis he can’t decipher: a snowflake, a thumbs up, a taxi, a turd, a house, knife and fork, a second knife and fork, and an Albanian flag.

He gets home to find Gretchen and Lindsay on the couch watching Bring it On. Nothing seems amiss. Gretchen grins at him sleepily. “Jimmmmmmy.”

“I gave her a couple of valium,” Lindsay explains.

“Jesus Christ, Lindsay.”

Jimmy rushes over and looks at Gretchen’s eyes. She holds his face tenderly, her giant mirrorball pupils reflect his face.

“What? The doctor said she could take Tylenol or Acetaminophen.”

“Yes, well, a Valium is neither.”

“Close enough. Where were you? Where are my hand rolls?”

“I was at an actual work meeting with my editor and then I got stuck in traffic. Hand rolls?”

“I sent you an emoji text.”

“Oh, you mean the Albanian flag next to the cutlery and the shit with eyes? Sorry, I don’t speak insane illiterate hieroglyphics.”

Lindsay rolls her eyes. “I had my hands full with Freeze over here.”

“Then leave a voicemail like a normal human being!”

She holds up her phone. “The emoji clearly says that the procedure went great,” she points to the snowflake and thumbs up. “That we were taking a cab to your shitty house,” the turd and the house. “And to pick up some take-out for us,” the knives and the forks and the flag. “Any stupid could have figured that out.”

Jimmy sighs.

Lindsay peers at the screen. “Are you sure that's not the flag for Japan? Because it looks like it to me.”

“Quite sure—about two colors and a whole different design aesthetic sure.”

Gretchen, having fallen asleep face down on his forearm, snores softly. He settles her back on the couch and Lindsay covers her up with a blanket.

“How did it go?” Jimmy asks, after a moment, wrinkling his nose.

“The whole thing took like, five minutes.”

“So she’s actually frozen. Down there.” He gestures vaguely.

“Yeah, she has a popsicle cooch. You can’t touch it or do anything fun for two to three weeks.”

Three weeks?”

“Something like that.” She turns to Jimmy with huge eyes. “Oh my god, if you go down on her, will your tongue like, stick to her pussy lips? Like that kid in that movie about Santa and guns?”

“Don’t eat the macaw,” Gretchen murmurs in her sleep. Jimmy looks at Lindsay, who shrugs.

“Should I put her in bed, you think?” he wonders out loud.

“Nah, leave her where she is. Go get us food, delivery takes too long.”

Normally, he’d wait until Edgar got home and make him do it. Jimmy innovates and delegates; he doesn’t implement. Gretchen murmurs again, something about a cookie, and he doesn’t even think about it. There’s no question, it’s an immediate imperative. Fix it. Make it better. He goes.

**

Nina is wearing a blouse with odd see-through panels of branches and things. Jimmy keeps getting distracted by it. It’s hideous but alluring. She seems unaware of its effect.

“So she’s good? Getting around, working? Hanging out?”

He nods and spins his near-empty glass on the bar, watching the liquid slosh about. “Exactly.”

“So…what's the problem?”

“The problem is that she's acting as if everything is hunky dory. I’ve barely seen her, she’s always working. Or with other people. Smiling. Like everything is…normal.”

“Maybe it is.”

“It most certainly is NOT. I’ve been cooking. For her. I watched a documentary about Justin Bieber because she wanted to watch it. Last night, I massaged her feet and, ” he leans in to hiss the words, “she fell asleep.”

“Yeah, I think something is getting lost in translation—”

“I’ve been emasculated.”

“Oh god.”

“I am a shell of myself.”

Nina pours another drink and before he can swipe it, she swallows it in one gulp.

“She doesn’t need me,” Jimmy says slowly, touching the bar with his fingertip for solemn emphasis.

“Alright. That’s less crazy. Go on.” She pours him a drink.

“Why?” He shakes his head.

“Why what?”

“Why doesn’t she need me.”

He has a sudden urge to put money in the jukebox which means he's drunker than he thought.

“Why do you need her to need you?”

“I don’t know. I just do.” He licks his teeth.

“Do you need her?”

Jimmy snorts. “No. Don’t be disgusting.”

“Okay, then.”

He taps out a beat with his empty glass until Nina takes it away. His eyes trail up her arm, tawny and covered in fine blonde hair. She’s nice, Nina. But she smells of musk instead of flowers and her eyes aren’t brown.

“Neeeeeeh-nah,” he sing-songs, leaning in to look at her with the same pleading eyes he’d use as a child to get an ice cream. “Do you have a quarter I can borrow? I fancy some Blondie.”

Her expression is baleful but she eventually gives him two.

**

And this is what I mean; you do not need me, you do not wish to hear me. Your eyes black against mine, giving nothing. Your mouth turned down, lips tight against your teeth. The insouciant arch of your foot resting in my hand. You will give me this, though it is no gift. I am your supplicant. I kneel and lift your skirt, rolling the fabric up your legs, the material hard on my palms. The ruddy red splotches of your knees—

“How can anyone finger themselves to this?” Lindsey’s mosquito buzz of a whine is right next to his ear. It smells of fluff, that disgusting marshmallow goo that comes in jars and which he’d previously been blissfully ignorant of. Americans.

She rests her cleavage on his shoulder. There is nothing sexual about it. He’s a table, that is all.

“Do you mind?” Jimmy angles his laptop to gray the screen. “Where’d you come from anyway? How did you get in? Gretchen isn’t here.”

“I know.” Lindsay steps back, licks her lips and keeps licking, an insistent dart of her tongue. The same faintly coral-coloured corner spot over and over. “Gretch told me you were writing smut.”

“No. I am writing literary erotica.”

“Same diff.”

Jimmy tries to hold her stare but he is too disquieted by it. There is more there than her usual sloppy avariciousness; she looks…contemplative. It’s an alarming thought, that—Lindsay thinking. He scoffs, picks up the laptop and moves to the table furthest from her. Jimmy tries to pick up where he was but the wooly scrawl of Lindsay’s presence makes it impossible to focus.

“I like smut,” she says.

“This isn’t sm—oh, for God’s sake.”

There is no point in arguing. He looks back at the screen. He doesn’t even know what he is saying. It seems sad, not sexy. Which is how he feels. Sad, Not Sexy: a Novel by Jimmy Shive-Overly.

“Aren’t you worried about her?”

“Don’t be stupid. Of course I’m worried.”

“Then where have you been?”

He groans in exasperation. “Here. I’ve been here. She’s barely spoken to me. She goes in and out of doors like a bloody Alan Ayckbourn play!”

“I think you like this.”

“What? Rejoicing in my girlfriend’s possible cancer?”

“You sure are rejoicing in that Little Miss No-Tits bartender.”

Jimmy glances at her over his shoulder, scowling. “She’s a friend. She’s a very nice pers—”

“Ugh. Nice. Can you hear yourself? The pretzels boys turn themselves into to justify their boners for basic bitches.”

“Nina is in no way basic. She's an Olympian.”

“Please, Jimmy. She’s some chick who spends half her day doing hot yoga and the other half at her shitty hipster bar flirting with losers like you. She probably reads assy Chuck Poehlerchek books—”

“For the billionth time, it’s Palahniuk,” Jimmy yells at the ceiling.

“—for funsies and masturbates when she purges.”

“There is nothing going on with Nina. I couldn't even if I wanted to; I did and I couldn't.”

“Oh, Gretchen told me. She told me all about your skeezy bar hook up. You may not have sealed the deal, Jimmy, but you know that doesn't mean shit. If you're the kind of person that looks for strange at the first sign of trouble that's what you'll always be. It was Sheena Horseface last week, it'll be some other slizz soon enough.”

“Well, that's quite rich coming from you.”

“That's right. I know, Jimmy. I’ve lived it and I know. I know what you’re doing.”

Lindsay has tears in her eyes, fat and glassing her gaze. She slumps forward and wipes slowly at her face, two fingers on each side, like a child. The curve of her back makes her seem vulnerable in way that's too real.

“Hey.” He leans towards her, but stops himself from reaching out. She's Gretchen's after all, not his. “Abnormal cells, that's all it is. You can't let yourself get worked up about it. It’s been handled.”

Lindsay stands up, and picks at her cleavage with two fingers, eventually pulling out what looks like a piece of lemon cookie. She pops it into her mouth and glares at him in a way no cleavage-cookie-eating person has a right to.

“Can you just try not to be a cliche? Gretch’s vag becomes an igloo, now your dick is lonely. Boo hoo.”

“It’s not my dick that’s lonely.”

If he was expecting sympathy, that’s not what he gets. Lindsay walks over to him purposefully, bending from the waist to get in his face. He sees Becca in her glare, and braces himself.

“If you’re lonely because your dumb, self-involved bullshit is too boring for her to deal with right now, then talk to her about her. Make it about HER. GOD. Fuckboys.”

Lindsay storms off, slamming the door behind her. The door opens a crack moments later, her voice soft. “Tell Edgar I need to borrow the thingy for the mixing. The thingy,” she repeats. “He’ll know. Bye.” This time, there is no door slam. Just a quiet, too careful snick.

**

Jimmy takes a break from writing to finish his daily Knausgård; an act which serves as the opposite of inspiration. And yet, he can’t stop himself. To read it is to feel understood, and that is in short supply nowadays.

He hadn’t been writing anyway. All he thinks about is Gretchen and when he types, it’s her name. Every single sentence turns into her.

As if summoned, the door opens and Gretchen walks in, sunglasses on, carrying a bag of take-out.

“Hi.”

She stops. “Hi.” Her sunglasses are nearly as big as her face.

“You’re here.”

“Yup. I went to Samosa’s. I got enough for us both. Plus extra Naan. The uze.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you feeling okay?” She lowers her sunglasses; she’s like a sexy insect in those things.

“I’m fine.”

Gretchen puts the containers on the table and holds out a fork. He sits. She looks…good. Healthy, even. He’d listened to her showering this morning and briefly considered joining her before remembering.

“So, no PR emergencies from Sam and his crew?”

“Nah, the boys are in a honeymoon phase. What about you? How’s the writing?”

He shrugs noncommittally, biting into his Vindaloo and letting the wave of inferno-like heat go through his esophagus. “Took a break to read. Preserve my inner resources. Nothing is worse for writing than forcing it.”

“Riiiiight. Why are you reading about Nazis anyway?”

Jimmy coughs. “I’m not reading about Nazis.”

“Oh, so it’s satire?”

“What? Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle is not satire.”

“Then why did he call it My Struggle? That sounds pretty damn Hitleresque, Jimmy. You don’t name your book that for no reason.”

She chews slowly with a small smirk of a smile. Jimmy considers going into a diatribe about clever thematic linchpins but decides against it. He’d rather sit closer to her. So he does, he scoots closer. And closer. Until he’s close enough to kiss her nose. Gretchen opens her mouth slightly. Jimmy takes advantage of it.

“I was starting to think you were avoiding me,” he says, struggling mightily not to sound like a wanker.

“I thought you were avoiding me?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because of the vaginal elephant in the room. You've been mighty squeamish so far, Jimmy.”

He nods to the side and crosses his arms. “Okay. Point taken. So. Talk to me about your chilled cervix.”

Gretchen's smirk deepens. “Oh, the sincerity.”

“How do you feel? Down there.”

“How do I feel down there?” she repeats. “Meh. I feel annoyed, I guess. Tired. Like I’m having the world’s longest, crampiest period.”

“Yeah, sorry, that’s too much information.”

“Seriously?”

Before she can lay into him, Jimmy pulls Gretchen from her chair, onto his lap, and buries his face in her neck. He puts his hand on her lower abdomen and she puts hers on top of his. Music plays on the speakers and it’s louder in their silence; a dreamy bit of rubbish featuring a woman singing you’re my friend over and over like a half-wit. They look at each other and break, snickering like naughty children.

He kisses the exposed bit of shoulder afforded by her blouse. “It’s a diary of everyday life.”

She raises an eyebrow.

“The Knausgård book. It’s a memoir,” he explains. “Sort of. It’s one man making sense of himself, his family, his relationships.”

“So what makes him special?”

Jimmy frowns. “He’s a writer.”

“Right. But is he a writer that found the cure for AIDS? Did he invent something? Does he have a giant dong? Or discov—”

“Oh, I’m sorry. He’s only revolutionizing the modern memoir.”

“Sounds hella boring. I’d hate to be his publicist.”

“It’s really good! Brutally honest and beautiful. Quite juicy as well. You’d like it. His family all sued him for libel. His wife had a nervous breakdown.”

“Why?”

“She, uh…” Jimmy touches the birthmarks on Gretchen’s collarbone, tries to connect them. “You know what? Forget Min Kamp. I would like to snog you silly. May I?”

“Oh yeah? And asking so politely too. Go ahead, fancyman.”

He presses his lips to hers and there’s a faint burn of peppers and the tang of curry but also her smile. Just the right bit of sweet.

They kiss for a while at the table, finish eating, move the action to the couch, then downstairs to their bed. It’s different. Not better or worse. But different because he knows it has to stop. He shifts to avoid grinding his obvious erection on her but she looks him in the eyes and rolls him over; moving down his chest, lifting his shirt up and kissing her way down until she’s resting her head on his hipbone.

Gretchen unzips his jeans and looks up at him. Her hair fans out on his belly; the arms of a sun-flare. He hesitates before stroking the crown of her head.

“I don’t want you to do anything.”

She lifts her head. Her eye makeup is smeared and the effect is oddly endearing. Like a sweet, sad panda. A red panda.

“What?”

“I don’t need that. Just…come here.”

Jimmy pulls her back up to his chest and she burrows there. She tries to finger-walk back into his boxers but he firmly pulls her hand away, holds it tight, bringing it up to his mouth to kiss it.

“I know you don’t want to.” He murmurs into her skin, across her fingers, the silver and white gold of her rings.

“Jimmy—”

“It’s okay. It’s no fun unless you’re with me.”

Her teeth are perfect. Like a glossy advert. And he doesn’t know who he is anymore.

**

Becca opens Lindsay’s front door and Jimmy screams.

“Sorry, that was involuntary. What are you doing here? Where’s your undoubtedly red-haired spawn?”

She clenches her jaw like a steel trap and lifts her brows. “The baby is still in my womb, Jimmy. I haven’t had it yet.”

“Really? God, that takes a while, doesn’t it? You’ve been enormous forever.” He bends down and addresses Becca’s belly, “I know how you feel, you, stay in as long you can. Spare yourself.”

Jimmy straightens up and tries to look past Becca. “Really, though. Why are you here?”

“I came to drop off some of my maternity clothes to Lindsay. She already needs to wear them and the only things that fit are my third trimester dresses.” Becca lowers her voice to bitch-level, “She’s barely eight weeks.”

“Yeah, I don’t care. Is Gretchen here? She texted me to come pick her up. For some reason Uber wasn’t good enough.”

“Is this how you’re going to play it?” She has a dangerous glint in her eye. He knows; he’s all too familiar with it.

Best to act the simpleton. “Play what?”

Becca grabs his arm and pulls him into the house, slamming the door behind him. He knows he shouldn’t be afraid, but he is a little.

“Is this a pregnancy thing? I’ve read about this. I will not have sex with you, I don’t care what the hormones are doing to you.”

“I got your letter, Jimmy. I know how much you wish you could touch me, my much fuller breasts, but Vernon is my husband, the father of my unborn child, and I love him.”

“What are you talking about? Honestly, I’m delirious right now, I had two hours of sleep last night. Gretchen was sleepwalking, the lunatic kept babbling about how O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco was parked outside waiting to ‘pick her up’—”

“JIMMY. The love letter you wrote me. I’m not going to lie, it was beautiful, and I was touched that—”

“Oh, THAT.” Jimmy jumps up and down, waving his hands in front of him. “No, no, no. That’s not real. I was trying to motivate myself so I handed Gretchen three envelopes she was only supposed to post if I didn’t make my word count deadlines and the dumb dumb posted them that day. Can you believe it?”

“I don’t understand. Like, please mail in the event of my death sort of thing?”

Jimmy guffaws. “Yeah, right. More like under penalty of death. They had to be so awful I’d never want them sent, so, a donation to BAMLA, the love letter to you, and an offer of an all-expense paid visit for family. Can you imagine the horror? Those animals showed up with scant warning. It was like a Ken Loach film only not nearly as funny.”

Becca isn’t laughing. In fact, she’s a distinct vermillion shade.

“You are a horrible, horrible person.”

“You’re taking this poorly; it’s probably because of,” Jimmy points to her belly. “That.”

Becca smiles then, hard. “How’s your sex life, Jimmy? Is it going well?”

“What do you mean?”

“I hear you can’t have sex if you’ve had cryosurgery.” She crosses her arms.

“Yeah. How do you know—”

“I seem to recall Gretchen having cryosurgery in college. So this would be the second time. Oh wait,” Becca covers her mouth in a faux gasp, “She didn’t have cryosurgery in college. She just told some guy that so he’d stop pestering her for sex.”

What?

“I remember. Lindsay told me. I guess he thought they were serious but she had other ideas. She’s smarter than she looks, that Gretchen, she knew that most men wouldn’t ask too many questions about that sort of thing.”

Jimmy looks around, certain that at any moment, Gretchen and Lindsay will jump out and say, kidding!

Becca rubs her belly slowly, face aglow with satisfaction. “She wouldn’t do that to you, though, Jimmy. Gretchen knows you’re not serious about her. After all, it’s not like you’re capable of loving anyone.”

“But. I am.”

Her nostrils flare. “Really? Aw. Then I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Karma’s a bitch, huh?”

He doesn’t understand. “So she doesn’t have cancer?”

Becca's face falls. “Jimmy. She’s lying to you about not being able have sex with you.”

“Yeah, I heard that. But you’re saying she’s okay.”

“You’re deranged.”

Jimmy hugs Becca and in his joy, he attempts to pick her up and spin her around but things aren’t quite where they’re supposed to be. She makes a strange, deep sound; a heavy mewl. He lets go and kisses her forehead instead.

“Thanks, Becks. And I mean that.”

“Jimmy. Wait.” Becca stands there, her eyes huge, hands bracketing her protruding midsection. “I think I just had a contraction. Oh my god. This is it. I’m going into labor.”

“Oh yeah? Congrats. ‘Byeeeeee!”

He jumps past her to the door and runs like hell to his car, jumping in and peeling down the street in a burst of adrenaline with Puccini blaring from the satellite radio. The high lasts about fifteen minutes until he realizes what it all actually means. He drives to Keune’s and bursts in through the unlocked entrance, his eyes adjusting from the sunglare of the parking lot to the dimness inside.

There’s an enormous all-black-clad biker with neck tattoos sitting on the barstool eating a sandwich teeming with lettuce. Nina is behind the bar filling up a cardboard box with empty-ish bottles. When she sees Jimmy, she stops packing, blowing her hair out of her face with an upwards pfffft of air.

“Jimmy, we open in a couple of hours.”

“I know, I didn’t come here to drink.” He taps the bar. “Though I’ll take one, if it’s free.”

“No.”

The Wall in the North grunts from his barstool, green bits in his incisors. “You need me to…?”

“Nah, Manny. He’s harmless. Can you give us a minute?”

“Sure thing, boss” Manny dabs daintily at his mouth with a napkin and steps out. Nina motions Jimmy to sit down. He doesn’t.

“Okay, so what’s happening?”

Jimmy jumps, fist raised in victory. “Gretchen doesn’t have cancer.”

Her mouth drops open and she spreads her arms, bringing them back together to clap her hands. “Jimmy, that’s great news!”

“She was lying about the whole freezing thing so she wouldn’t have to have sex with me.”

Nina doesn’t answer his smile with one of her own. She shakes her head. “What?”

“Yeah, isn’t that great?”

“Uh…”

“I mean, okay, yeah, it’s bad. She made up this ridiculous lie, which frankly, I should have seen right through, ‘freezing your vagina’,” he snorts, “It’s so obviously fake, right?”

“Actually—”

“But she’s okay. And that’s all that matters.”

Nine raises her arms again, a question mark in her voice. “Yay?”

“Yay,” he repeats, more definitively.

“So why are you telling me this?”

“Because that means I’ll be single again and if you, uh, want to get back on my dick. It’s available.”

Nina’s eyes widen. He’s not certain whether it’s in awe or surprise but either will do.

“As the man says,” Jimmy drops his voice into his very best Heathstead, “The butterscotch leather is very fine this year.”

“Eh. Jimmy.” She brings her hands to her waist. “I, uh, really can’t say how or why I still find you attractive, but I do. I actually do. It’s embarrassing.”

He gives her his best rakish smile. “That’s great.”

“But you’re desperately in love with Gretchen.”

“So?”

“Sew buttons, says Beatrix.”

Jimmy feels himself deflating, to nothing. He’s tiny. A tiny person.

“But she doesn’t want me. She got happy and changed her mind.”

“Has she though? Have you spoken to her about this?”

“No.”

“Maybe you should? Before you make any decisions?”

He runs out without thanking her.

**

When Gretchen gets home, the lights are dimmed to a warm glow, and Edgar is keeping Jimmy from putting his hands in the Mexican Lasagna by slapping his knuckles with a wooden spoon.

She clomps in, sunglasses on, lights flashing behind her. “Hey, did you know the house across the street was on fire? Firefighters just put it out.”

“No way,” Edgar runs to the door.

“What? The whole thing?” Jimmy goes to the window.

“Nah, like a corner. They're gonna have to pay a shit ton to fix that. Their kitchen is toast.” Gretchen laughs.

Edgar returns. “Firefighters say no one was hurt.”

“Well, that's a relief,” Jimmy says. “The last thing I need is for property values to depreciate in this neighbourhood.”

Gretchen notices the food, the wine, the table settings. “What’s happening here? Are you guys on a date?”

Edgar smiles then gives her an enormous hug. Gretchen scrunches up her face at Jimmy over Edgar’s shoulder.

“Enjoy.” Edgar plants a kiss on her cheek.

“You’re leaving?” she asks.

“Yeah. Dorothy and I are going to the movies. Star Wars.”

There’s a moment of quiet while Gretchen checks her phone and Jimmy savors some purloined sauce.

“Okay, bye then,” Gretchen says.

Edgar grins, gives her another hug, and heads out, tossing one last loving look over his shoulder.

“That was weird. Did I do something?” She puts the phone back in her bag.

“No.” Jimmy smiles.

“Did you do something?”

“Becca told me.”

“Becca told you what?”

Gretchen puts her purse down and takes off her jacket.

“About how you lied about the cryosurgery.”

She looks around for a moment, confused. “Huh?”

“It’s okay. If you don’t want to have sex with me anymore, I understand.”

Gretchen pales, shaking her head like the slow birth of a horrible thought.

Jimmy continues, gently. “She told me about you using it as an excuse to break up with that guy at university.”

Something dawns in her face, sad and tender. “Oh, Jimmy.”

“You don’t need to do that with me. I get it.”

“No, you don’t you dumb butt.”

She sits next to him and takes his hand.

Jimmy nudges her and looks away, his voice steady. “I’m just happy you’re okay. The rest doesn’t really matter.”

Gretchen puts her hand up to his face and moves it to hers, kissing him. When she pulls back, her eyes are shiny with tears, but she laughs as she wipes them away. “Oh my god, I’m crying. Finally. That feels so good.”

“It does?”

“Jimmy, my cervix was frozen.”

“Okay.”

“But not back in college. It’s true that I’d heard about the procedure from this girl in one of my summer classes and I thought it was HILARIOUS so I used it as an excuse to finally make a break from this guy that wouldn’t take a hint. This time, it really happened. You should’ve been there when the doctor told me, I couldn’t stop laughing.” She throws her hands up. “I mean, fuck, right?”

“You really had cryosurgery.”

“Yeah. Look, Jimmy, I’m a huge liar but sitting in an OB/GYN’s office with a bunch of preggo bitches, waiting for an Uber carpool because there were no UberX, and trying not to pass out on the sidewalk is taking it a bit far in the name of subterfuge, don’tcha think?”

“Well, I didn’t see that part.”

“No, you didn’t.” She puts her head on his shoulder and laughs. “Like I could bribe the staff of a lady clinic to lie for me. I don’t make enough money for that shit.”

“Please. That would be the easiest part of the plot. Three bags of peanut M&Ms and some Vitamin Water and those so-called medical 'technicians' would tell me you were having an oophorectomy on Mars.”

“Ha. That’s true.”

“But wait.” Jimmy opens his mouth, then closes it; his eyes darting around at everything and nothing. “That means—”

“No.” She shakes her head, smiling. “The puss is thawed. And I heard from the doctor today. The new test results show no abnormalities. Not ready for sex yet but maybe by Sunday.”

Jimmy grins, stupidly. He takes her hand. “So we’re good, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

He breathes out slowly.

“Hey.” Gretchen bites her lip. “There is something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

“What is it?”

“I started going to this shrink, for, you know, my brain, and he prescribed something. I’ve been taking it.”

“Really? You never said.”

“I didn't want you to know unless it worked.”

“Right.”

“Anyway, I stopped. Taking it. Last week. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to do it the way I did, not overnight. You’re supposed to phase it out slowly. Brain drugs are cray, as it turns out. So uh, yeah, I wound up totalling my car today.”

What?

“I’m fine, I just kinda fell asleep at the wheel. Aaaaaanyway, not taking that stuff anymore, the side effects are for serious. Like, I couldn’t cry or get mad or even think about having an orgasm. I felt…muffled. You know, I actually sat down in my car and tried to cry and couldn’t. I felt it but I couldn’t do it. Still wanted to though.”

Jimmy nods.

“The new anti-depressants my doctor prescribes might be more of the same. I may not want to have sex. I might not be able to eat soft cheeses. I might have to seriously cut back on booze. I might become... boring.” Gretchen laughs but there no joy in it. “What do you think about that? Is it worth it?”

Red lights flash through from outside, passing over their faces. Funny how he hadn’t seen them before. There always seems to be a fire nearby.

“It’s not too late,” she says, shakily.

Her eyes hold his. Those eyebrows of hers knitted together. He pets one.

“I want you well.”

She nods and Jimmy looks towards the lights outside, flashing closer then dimming. They keep holding hands, a v-shape of togetherness between them, almost like a Valentine’s Day card. The kind that usually make him retch.

“So what’s all this about.” She gestures to the spread. “You thought I was breaking up with you so you got Edgar to cook for us? Score!”

“I wanted to give us a proper send-off.”

“You’re a classy guy, Jimmy Shive-Overly.”

“I am, aren’t I?”

Gretchen snuggles closer. Jimmy kisses her cheek.

“Ah! I nearly forgot.” He jumps up. “There’s one more thing. A surprise.”

She startles a little, eyes wide, “Oh? Should I be scared?”

He goes into the garage and returns with Vernon and Becca’s small karaoke machine and microphone.

“Jimmy! Oh my god. Where the hell did you get that?”

“I bought it from Vernon. Apparently, he needs the money. And I, well, I owe you a song.” He grabs the mic and turns it on, there’s a small burst of feedback. “Hello, Wembley!”

Gretchen winces and covers her eyes. He selects the song: Perfect by One Direction, which Gretchen mentioned liking once, despite herself. Jimmy sings it as well as he can, which is really fucking well, because he’s a rock star of a singer, a fact that she was previously unaware of if the shine in her eyes is any indication. He channels each one of those little boy singers and she watches him, a bloom of red high in her cheeks and spread across her chest. He’s so in.

The pop paean to a one-night stand ends and he saunters up to her. “What do you think?”

“I am so aroused.”

“As you should be.”

“I’m serious. I really want to fuck you.”

“Too bad you can’t, Lady Snowblood.”

She grabs the front of his shirt and bites her bottom lip. “I’ll give you a footjob and you’ll like it.”

“Oh god, YES.”

“Come on.”

Gretchen takes his hand and they run downstairs. They are arms and feet and mouths and smiles and laughter and gasp-grins. This time, he says it, not in the throes but after, and remembers. The words and her face—the exact moment she hears him. Something to keep; a giddy wondrous truth.