October 15, 2014
Okay. Say the reason you’re stuck here in limbo is totally unclear to you. Say you were a woman who cared about little but treated others basically well. Say you had a twin who was married to a doctor, but because you were so ambivalent, you never agreed to partner up, never liked anyone enough to commit or even give someone a real chance, to ever approach the situation where you might have to explain these feelings to another human being because you’ve joined to have and to hold, in sickness and in blah blah blah…
But every once in a while, because it seems harmless and because sometimes your sister needs a break and because you gave up on that theater degree long ago but missed the thrill of lying, of being genuinely dishonest—let’s say ever year or two you relieve your sister, and unbeknownst to her husband you replace her for a week or two, tops. Your sister’s husband is the most crass and unpolished doctor you’ve ever met. He’s a rube with a medical degree. You don’t even recall the branch of medicine, so uninvolved and detached are your interactions even when you’re pretending to be his wife. Somehow this man is actually a really good doctor—top of his field, full of expertise.
You live in a big city in a small neighborhood when you’re playing his wifey. When you’re you, you live on the other side of town. No one really knows you. The grocery store clerk might recognize you if you smiled at her once in a while, but as earlier stated, you’re a bit heartless, so you haven’t. Most people who see you assume you’re your sister on a bad day. Let’s say your sister comes to you and tells you her husband’s really in a 39 mood lately and though she still loves him, to be around him right now is to tear her hair out. “Please,” she says, “Be me.”
You shrug. Agree to it. Let her know what’s going on at work, switch cellphones, squeeze into those pointy-toed shoes she thinks are chic, erase yourself into her. Drive in her car, to her house, and get ready for a week off. Cook some lobsters for dinner, listen to their screams without interest. Smile at the rooftop garden, at her husband’s color-coded tie rack, at that godforsaken dog confined to the laundry room.
When her husband gets home, you know what she means immediately: he’s acting up. His eyes clock around, avoiding your face, landing on it at every quarter hour and ticking away. His facial hair seems mangy and patchy—like he’s been letting the razor slide around willy-nilly. He unloads groceries and you’re surprised he’s done shopping. This doesn’t seem like him, but then you see that it’s nothing to be floored by: ten pounds of center-cut rib-eye, two hundred massive garbage bags, straws, beef jerky, a box of donuts. You look at him, and in your best impersonation of your sister, you say, “What the hell is all this?” He grabs the bundle of zip ties from you, and replies curtly that it’s stuff he needed from the store that you (your sister) had not gotten for him. You pluck the lobster from the warmer and say, “Dinner, mon cher, is served.” He plops himself down and before you have properly buttered your meal, he’s inhaled his and is heading towards the garage. “You’re welcome,” you call, and his response is an insouciant, “Fuck you.”
You know what’s going to happen before it does, and you don’t do anything to stop it. He’s down in the garage with his supplies defining the margins of his sanity. He’s making illegible decisions and convincing himself he’ll decipher the handwriting later. Here is your sister’s husband, your husband, for the sake of the rest of the story, and he’s planning her demise, your demise, accordingly. And you know it’ll be complicated for your sister when all of this unravels: but there’re no children involved so you say, “What the hell?’”
You wonder about your sister’s blaming herself but figure she’d rather feel guilty than dead. You, however, are ambivalent. Here’s what will happen. Your husband will come upstairs and apologize. He’ll ask if you want to go get a drink. He’s had a wretched week. You’ll say, “Where?” He’ll say, “How about we just head around the corner to Ray’s?” You’ll say, “Sure,” and head for the garage. He’ll rush after you, pull your arm, suggest you just walk. The car’s been acting funny. You can imagine what he’s got laid out in preparation in the garage already. Trash bags, cutting tools. If he’s smart: some lye. God love this man and his nutty streaks. He has no idea anyone is onto him, least of all, his victim. You think how foolish he is to do it in the garage— the concrete will stain— but it’s not your problem. You think of calling your sister and saying something cryptic that might ease her guilt after the fact, but decide it might be too fishy. You want her free and clear of this nut job ASAP.
Birds glide beneath your skin. For a moment, you think, who’s the nut now? You’re convinced this joker’s gonna kill you tonight. What? Suddenly you’re clairvoyant? But you know too well; he has that calm about him where he’s sure of himself and he doesn’t need to do any convincing—he just needs to let the story unravel.
The birds keep chirping, but you’re still convinced you cannot get gone enough. He’s sure this will solve all his problems, but you know this gesture will be read like a waste land. It doesn’t matter what’s been or what will be. Tenses have been paved over.
Say you walk to Ray’s. You sneak to the bathroom. You examine your face in the mirror. You’re pretty sure you don’t believe in an afterlife, but in the event there is such a thing, who knows if you’ll be able to see anything, much less your own face. You look at the blue-flame tinted circles beneath your eyes. You think of all the deaths you’ve avoided: the canoe trip in the storm, the mugging, that time your appendix jammed itself huge into the rest of you. All incongruous warnings for the decision you’re making right now.
You look a little longer. No, you’re not getting sentimental, but you want to make sure there’s enough time for the sedative to dissolve in your drink. You don’t want to wake too early to a gray foggy cloud of your own bright scarlet. You don’t want to see the brownish tint of you as the yellow pages sop up your gore.
You emerge, and the bartender gives you a look like he has a secret he knows he should tell you, but you look away quickly so he doesn’t feel implicated. The whiskey barks down your throat all familiar-like, but husband is all fanned eyebrows and tilted breath.
You gulp the drink down and smile at husband and bring his hand to your mouth for a kiss. It is sweaty, but you make nothing of it.
The rest is blurry: you get loopy and other patrons notice. Husband takes you home. He butchers your somnolent self like a fine-boned rabbit. He flushes fourteen pounds of you down the toilet. He files a missing person’s report and your sister grows confused. They never find the rest of you.
Stories start coming out around the neighborhood: large purchases of rubber gloves, trash bags, knives and saws. A regular at Ray’s says he saw the two of you there and tells how you’d gotten wiped out with one glass of whiskey. Husband’s office reports missing quantities of sedation samples.
The police find the wad of your muscle and fat in the septic tank, but your husband’s lawyer argues a person could survive the loss of this much flesh. He charms the grand jury into thinking the evidence is inconclusive. Turns out it doesn’t matter if people recognize you buying the damning supplies. Husband remains a practicing physician in the free world. Your sister can see what happened, and as soon as the trial is over, she runs as far away as possible to start a new life.
About a day after you’re chopped to bits, you wake up in some mental state at Ray’s, bodiless. “This must be the ghost life,” you think. But you never cared about anything. What could you have to settle? And here? Say this boredom is eternal. “Well, then,” you think half-heartedly, “all these men are stuck smoking with the wrong sister.”
JAC JEMC lives in Chicago where she writes fiction and poetry. Her first novel, My Only Wife, was released by Dzanc Books in April 2012 and is a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction. Her first full-length collection of stories, A Different Bed Every Time, is due out from Dzanc in October 2014. A chapbook of stories, This Stranger She’d Invited In, sold out at Greying Ghost Press in March 2011 . Jac’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize many a time and her story “Women in Wells” was featured in the 2010 Best of the Web. Jac received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has completed residencies at Ragdale and the Vermont Studio Center. She is a web fiction editor for Hobart and curator of the Non-Reader Spotlight, a series of interviews with people who claim they don’t read. She is poetry editor at decomP and has served as a guest editor of Little White Poetry Journal and Hobart Web, and worked as a reader at Our Stories and The Means. In 2012 she was the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grant.
Excerpted from A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc, by permission of Dzanc Books. © 2014 by Jac Jemc.