My boyfriend Shane crashes through our front door, a cigarette glued to the corner of his lip, hanging like a flaccid cock. I told him not to smoke in our caboodle-sized one bedroom because he burns holes in the carpet. He doesn’t pay rent, hasn’t worked in a year, and last week he scorched the kitchen tile while soldering a homemade fuzz pedal. I’ll never get my security deposit back, but maybe I can convince him to put the toilet seat down; I reach into my bag to make sure the bottle of NuRevel’s still there.
While he’s in the shower, I crush up two oval tablets and pour them into a newly opened can of Old Milwaukee. I need to give him two pills a day for three weeks, then the advertising promises he’ll be greatly improved: “NuRevel — it’s time for a better you!” I lied to the doctor and got the prescription for myself to improve my job prospects, but I’m not the one who needs to change.
As he towels off, I hand him the beer. He gulps it down, says “Spicy!”, then kisses me. His lips are soft, his tongue warm. We eat leftover pizza and watch a documentary about underwater volcanoes. We learn that’s how the Hawaiian islands form; lava pours out, the land puffs up, and when the volcano’s old enough, it goes dormant. Along the way, the lava can be fast and violent, or as quiet and still as a glass of tap water.
We have sex, and I run my hands over his shoulders. His body reminds me of a carrot, slender through the legs and waist with a broad torso. He has a quarter-sized birthmark on his chest shaped like the state of Ohio — or a heart, if you’re romantic, which I am not. His penis is long and thin like the rest of him, and while we do it, the tip stabs my cervix. In a good way. After he comes, he passes out on top of me.
The next morning Shane’s skin is clearer than normal, his eyes less bloodshot. He eats some of my oatmeal for breakfast instead of more pizza and actually washes his dishes. He takes the spiked OJ I offer him. When I leave for the florist where I work, he’s scanning through job sites on my laptop.
When I come home, though, he’s relapsed. He’s asleep, the laptop open to an anal porn site, and his still-burning cigarette has tipped out of the ashtray and onto the wooden coffee table. I make us grilled cheese sandwiches and crush pills into another beer. That week’s more of the same, gradual improvements followed by backsliding, but by day five, he smokes near the window and regularly cleans up after himself.
On day eight it happens. He gets a job, a good one as a manager at an online music store, where he’ll sell guitars and make sure the employees under him don’t steal. He treats us to dinner at the expensive bistro down the block, where we laugh and eat steaks and drink red wine until we can’t sit straight in the restaurant’s high-backed chairs.
He takes classes at night, stops smoking, and gets a haircut, one I don’t like even though it’s more fashionable. He’s so busy I never see him, but I have money now that I don’t need to pay all the rent and buy all the groceries. I’m bored so I eat more. I stop giving him the pills. He doesn’t change back. I realize I’m addicted to nicotine and am forced to buy my own smokes.
Shane becomes a careful lover, asks me where I want to be touched, goes down on me for as long as it takes me to come. The constant questions get on my nerves. He gets frustrated at my unwillingness to communicate and we fight.
I make an appointment with the doctor who gave me the NuRevel, to find out if he can reverse the effects. He studies me. I have bags under my eyes and a patch of eczema on my cheek from all the cigarettes. “I don’t think the change is as drastic as you think,” he says, and writes me a prescription for two more months, which I crumple into a tight little ball and shove in my purse.
Shane talks a lot about his coworker Chloe. She grows her own vegetables. Does yoga. I find her text messages in his phone, filled with LOLs and puppy emojis. I watch as he sleeps, carefully arranged on his own side of the bed, not snoring, not even dreaming as far as I can tell. I nudge him onto his back so I can touch his birthmark. I want to grab onto that miniature heart and refuse to let go.
It’s Sunday, so I sleep in, and wake to discover him slamming through the kitchen. The counters are spotless, and he’s mopping the floor. He’s cleaned up my cigarette butts and the dead flowers I brought home from work. He frowns at me. “When was the last time you washed those pajamas?”
I don’t mention my other pjs don’t fit anymore. He sighs, says he’s going into the office. He’s not scheduled but Chloe needs help. I want him to stay, but I need time to figure out how I’ll fix this. If I can.
After he leaves, I sit with the living room window open. I lay the pill bottle on the sill. Count the leftovers. There’s a week left in there, plus the two-month script. I open a beer and smoke each of my cigarettes, one by one until the pack is empty. There’s a moment when the flame meets the band of the filter. Each time, the fire extinguishes, a smoldering circle like a dying volcano.
Chelsea Voulgares has fiction published or forthcoming in Passages North, The Nottingham Review, Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, and Literary Orphans. She lives in the Chicago suburbs, where she’s the editor of the online flash journal Lost Balloon. Find her at www.chelseavoulgares.com and on Twitter @chelsvoulgares.
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