“Termite Walks Into a Bar…”
“Stop,” she said before I reached the punch line. Tears streaked down her face, large drops that pooled under her jaw into even larger drops that fell onto her blouse. She rubbed her eyes and nose, let out a moan. “No jokes. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Jokes always got me through uncomfortable situations. I wondered what normal people say at moments like this.
“Are you hungry?” I asked, and she looked up at me as if I were crazy, her eyes still oily with tears.
I wasn’t handling this very well.
The cab ride home had been rough — silence, broken only by the occasional sob. I worried that the driver would think we’d had a fight, that I was some cruel boyfriend. And she did hold herself as though she’d been beaten up, which of course she had been, sort of. All I could do was hold her hand and stare out the window at the gray buildings floating past.
Now she curled herself into a tight ball at the end of the sofa.
“How about some chamomile tea?” I asked. She loved chamomile. She drank it when she was tired.
She didn’t say no, so I went into the kitchen and boiled some water before remembering that we’d run out of tea. I leaned against the counter and shook my head, trying to will myself out of this situation. If only… If only…
“It hurt,” she’d said when she came back into the waiting room. “It really hurt.”
“Don’t they use some sort of anesthetic?” I asked, wrapping my arms around her. I hadn’t expected this. The other women had come out a little dazed, yes, maybe walking a bit slowly, but no one cried like this. Some had been alone, had walked out from the back rooms and headed toward the door as if they’d just had their teeth cleaned. One girl pulled out her cell phone, dialed a number, and said, “Yeah, I’m on my way. I need to get drunk.”
I returned to the sofa and sat beside her. “We’re out of tea. Sorry.”
She stared off into space. It was a little scary. The stare of a war veteran reliving combat.
“Did I do the right thing?” she asked.
“Hon, we’ve been over this.”
“I feel like a monster.”
“It’s not just you,” I said.
She looked at me as if I were trying to horn in on her prize money. “You weren’t there,” she said. “You were outside reading a magazine.”
It was true. I’d been reading an article about electric cars. There was one that went two hundred miles on a single charge. But what was I supposed to do? Go in there with her? Watch those people go through the gruesome motions? Was I supposed to bleed too?
I mean, two hundred miles!
“Actually,” she said, “there is something you can do for me.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a slip of paper.
Relieved, I plucked the prescription from her hand. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
I paused at the door. “Termite walks into a bar,” I said, unable to stop myself, “and says—”
“‘Is the bar tender here?’” she said, her voice fading into a flurry of sniffles.
Of course: she’d heard the joke before. I had to face the fact that she knew much more than I did. She even knew whether I’d come back.
“Goodbye,” she said.
Chris Belden is the author of two novels, Shriver (Touchstone Books) and Carry-on (Rain Mountain Press), and the story collection The Floating Lady of Lake Tawaba (New Rivers Press). He runs writing workshops at Westport Writers Workshop and a maximum security prison on Connecticut.
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