/

Great. Good. Perfect.

Kathy met the one she’d been waiting for while scrolling makeup tutorials in case she ever got asked out again, sprawled ¾ drunk and alone on her couch. 2:16 between Sunday and Monday. She’d stopped caring about work in the morning two and a half quadruple fingers ago.

Half-drifted, her fluttering eyes flashed open when a whisper rustled her left ear then right, through brand new wireless headphones she’d spent more on than was wise. The salesperson at the kiosk had been just liberal enough with eye contact and an overenthusiastic smile to coax her dangerously-full credit card from the pocket where it lived in her wallet. Out of sight, out of mind – one of hundreds of micro-lies she told herself daily, which she inevitably beat herself to sleep over, sprawled ¾ drunk and alone on the couch. Sometimes 2:16, usually later. Rarely before.

how are you doing? the whisper said, and her focusing eyes wobbled to rest like a spun coin on the same pretty young woman from the last tutorial she could remember. Dressed as a doctor, the woman was stumbling through the beginning of a check-up like a shy kid playing the game. Swallowing wet and gentle, she clicked her tongue off neat, white teeth. Asked in breathy whispers, what seems to be the problem?, then stared firmly through blue glow eating the dark, into Kathy’s red, swollen eyes. She vomited her answer:

Where to start?

The doctor listened intently, clucked with pursed lips; Kathy felt them like gropes of echolocation. Shivers tight-roped her spine to the sparse beat of rubber gloves snapping on wrists. Ears rustled, rubbed with cotton, followed by scratchy inspections of neck, face, and head with hands tickling and brushing the frame. The doctor pressed Kathy’s chest with a stethoscope and led her in long, deep breaths, prolonged exhales warbling one ear at a time, the patient’s efforts praised with hard-hit consonants in good, great, and perfect. Kathy’s eyes fluttered again as the doctor raised slender fingers to both her left and right, then ordered her patient to watch her nose and announce on which side the finger bowed. Kathy stared pirate-eyed at the doctor’s delicate snout. When the first finger bent, her working eye fell to dewy lips.

She woke up with a hand shoved down her saggy, grease-spotted pyjamas, face crammed, sweaty and stuck to the faux leather couch she’d claimed from the curb the day the young couple downstairs finally split for good. They’d been nice enough that she hadn’t minded their twice-a-month payday wine and coke binge that resulted, one hundred percent of the time, in loud, shitty music and shittier singing changing like a bullet to bloodcurdling fights and smashed glass that lasted till dawn, when they’d loudly and tearfully decide to stay together for the future kids and then fuck as loud as everything else till they passed out cold.

Rolling and lifting her phone from the floor, she thumbed the screen over and over till she was forced to believe in its demise, and scrabbled for a charger. Once it was suckling, she flew through a cursory brushing of both her teeth and hair, unknotting the more obvious wrenches in her once-chestnut mop that snuck closer to sandy with each step she took into middle age. A few wake-up splashes of cold water and she hurried back to the phone, where a single percent charge displayed a no shower reality, and that morning break would be her earliest chance to caffeinate. She threw on the top layer of unfolded laundry and ran out the door.

Her day was preoccupied with blurred memories of the whispering doctor. A bouquet of spreadsheets open on her screen to shield her daydreaming eyes, four fifty-seven struck and Kathy strode out without her routine angling for a stop-and-chat with anyone who glanced up as she passed. She weaved through traffic like an ambulance, gasped relief when a rare spot within two blocks of her apartment was available earlier than two a.m., and scurried like a trench coat john upstairs to her penthouse suite/attic. Shedding her jacket like a one day cold and kicking off her shoes, she paused in the kitchen long enough to extract whiskey tucked in the freezer, out of sight, out of mind. Tossing herself on the couch like a body off a bridge, she snapped on her headphones and opened the app – the doctor was playing therapist at the top of her suggested feed. Little on the nose, she thought but clicked anyways, gulping two mouthfuls while the video loaded. When ads blocked her on the cusp, she slammed the rest of her drink and hurried for a refill. Propping her phone on the counter while she poured, the ads ended and whispers hit her veins like the first shot after a shitty day, or any. She splashed the glass quickly and abandoned the bottle on the counter, overturned cap bathing in golden spillage.

how was your day? the therapist asked as Kathy dropped back on the couch. She was surprised at the tingle, but knew why without a thought – it was the first time anyone had asked her that in as long as she could remember. The therapist gazed through the glow with intensity again, mutually held like Kathy was dangling off a mountaintop and both their survivals depended on it. Okay, Kathy whispered back, feeling foolish but lifted. The therapist scratched her pad with a pen, sending shivers down her client’s limbs to the tips; as she reeled, the therapist launched a line of questions, none receiving answers even after Kathy caught her breath. She listened, let them shake unwanted flesh. It was the best conversation she’d had in months. Longer.

The rest of the night was spent down a spiral of intimate artifice, slivered with progressively thicker refills till the bottle was dry, Kathy bent in wreckage on the couch again. Sticky and twisted in her work clothes.

*

After waking up sad, she called in sick when she was already late then walked to the liquor mart on the corner where, as the first customer of the day, she bought the biggest, cheapest bottle on the shelf. Drunk before noon, she scored a dime of dirt weed off her neighbour’s daughter who was skipping class with her friends to pierce each other’s belly buttons with sewing needles and a Bic. The complicity was unspoken but understood, the transaction painless and nearly as silent.

She passed out for an hour in the late afternoon, and woke up hungry and bleary enough to think going out for a meal was a great idea – squeezed into a cocktail dress from when she was years and pounds lighter, hair and makeup styled through her haze with a cartoon blunderbuss. Jamming her nearly-full credit card in her too-tight bra, she hobbled downstairs in precarious heels towards the rock bar on the corner.

Stepping inside the clamour, her first thought was longing for nights when bouncers bothered asking for ID. The second was wrestling her panic over the young and copious crowd, the screeching Janis-wannabe fronting an off-key band bleating Baba O’Riley. How much easier the bottle in her freezer would be than sitting alone in a bar, glancing around and wishing desperately for eye contact, a smile, but ending up shovelling poutine down her throat and stumbling home alone to drink herself to sleep, alone.

Someone came in behind her, brushed past, a wide, strong hand placed softly but confidently in the small of her back. She turned her head and woke up panicked with the sharpness of betrayal – he was snoring. She peeked, watched his thick, inked shoulders shudder with each rumbling breath, the blurred image of a neatly-stubbled jaw the best she could muster. Her chest pang bloomed like an atom bomb as choppy fragments of memory flickered on the backs of her eyelids, leaving her feeling like she’d failed the person with whom she would’ve rather spent the night, sipping one-sided splashes and nodding to unanswerable questions through the glow.

She dressed quickly, silently, and slipped out, inching the door softly closed till his wheezy grunts became another memory she’d be forced to lie about to herself, till it felt equally painful but unrecognizable. Regret was simpler blurred. Abstract.

She took a cab home, but her credit card had reached the top during the night and she was forced to beg the driver to skip the cops. She had an American fifty in the bottom of her purse from a trip to Chicago nearly a decade before, and asked the driver if he could make change.

I’ll take it all, he snarled. The splintered toothpick pinched between his brown, square teeth bounced like a seesaw with each spittle-damp syllable.

But the fare’s seven bucks, she said, sliding a hand over her purse and stepping back. And the exchange.

Look lady, he said, with thinly-feigned compassion. It’s the Grant or the pigs. And I know where you live.

She sighed, surrendered the bill, and padded inside as the cab growled into grey dawn. Climbing straight in the shower, she stood frozen under water so hot her skin was scraped raw by her threadbare towel, nose and shoulders beading with tiny flecks of blood; brushed her teeth twice and swished mouthwash till her cheeks puckered and pinched. Creeping into different but equally saggy and greased pyjamas, she crawled into bed and squeezed on her headphones to quiet the hangover before it took hold. After scrolling playlists she’d been over for months, she folded and opened the app, then the clip at the top of the suggested feed.

hi, said the hairdresser. nice to see you again. you have an appointment?

The answer caught in Kathy’s throat.

Stephen Ground

Stephen Ground is a writer, poet, filmmaker, and picture-taker wandering Winnipeg, Manitoba. His fiction has featured in journals like Lost BalloonSoft Cartel, and Bending Genres, and his flash “July First and Last” was selected for Best Small Fictions (2021) after appearing first in Orca Lit. Find more at stephenground.com.