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Damien, 32.


When I first started dating Damien, he told me that everything I knew about cancer was wrong. I had just survived a bout and it had been wrong. I was young, not very young, but healthy. I did yoga regularly and tended to my core with fitness videos I found on the internet. I drank fresh juice. Not knowing what came next was the wrongest part of all. So many holes opened up inside of me while I waited for the illness to go away, and when I got no answers the holes just filled with cancer. The experience wasn’t life-altering; it was like holding stale breath. I needed to regenerate, and so I fell in love very deeply. 

Damien may not have loved me back, but I was still special to him. This was a truth I knew from the details. Damien would date someone for one or two weeks and then disappear, without a trace. He had a list of usernames and avatars he’d cycle through so a girl could never find him again. A whole year’s worth of names, one for every month. He shared secrets like this with me. That is what I mean about how I was special.


I loved him so hard, and he treated me well for an entire month after the scans showed up clear. March belonged to Damien. He taught me many truths I will never forget, like how you can make something real just by wanting it. He shared pills with me. First, just a quarter of a pill and later the whole thing. I’d avoided alcohol during my illness, but gradually I accepted more of his whiskey into the cola I guzzled for sustenance. I took quick, darting trips to the vending machine to replenish our cups. We didn’t get drunk exactly, but we drank in a steady stream throughout the day, our drinks cooled with ice from the sweating plastic bucket we also kept filled. I didn’t touch a single drop of juice or eat a single uncooked vegetable. I was out of my mind. I mean, finally, I was all in my body, like I’d always wanted to be but hadn’t known I’d wanted. The cancer had been in my body, but I couldn’t see it, so it was mainly in my head. That had been my experience of it. Now the cancer was gone, and I slid into my skin. I filled my holes and caverns with sensation. 

I craved Damien’s touch as soon as I thought his name in the morning or opened an eye to the landscape of his back. We were always piled on each other in one way or another, and we spent days piled onto days in our stuffy motel room. The Casablanca, we called it. Really, it was the Sleep On Inn. Also fitting. Heavy curtains dragged like cartoon frowns onto the carpeting. The soap bars were the same size for the sink and for the shower. Small. We carved them into thin shells with our washing. The room fan was broken or worked very slowly, so the smell we made had a shape to it. Our smell formed a hovering cloud. The cloud also contained everything we ate, which was mainly Chinese takeout. We loved how easy it was to consume those slippery, oily noodles. A suck and a slurp, and they were gone.


Damien liked to do this thing where he put his thumb in my mouth, the way guys do, like a precursor to whatever else, except he’d hook the corner of my lips and pull hard to look down my throat. He stretched my mouth into a gaping grin. I felt like I was at the doctor, except the doctor was seeing without any light. A magic doctor. He’d pause everything else that was going on and really peer into my insides while he rubbed the spot between my gum and lips. So clean, he’d say. Then he’d close my mouth and run his wet thumb over the closure as if to seal me. Good, he’d say, you look so good like that. Because it didn’t happen every day, I wanted him to do it again and again. One time I experimented—I moved my jaw like a flash and clamped down on his thumb to make him stay in my mouth a little longer, but he jerked away. Stay still, he told me, I’m looking out for you. I had to open my mouth extra wide as punishment. He explained he was looking out by looking in.


Damien used a pink vibrator to massage his neck and one day he started using it on me. He’d bought the same model for one of the other women he met online and realized it was very good on his muscles. Open up, he said, after telling me to close my eyes, and there it was. The vibrator was on for long stretches; it hummed until its battery died. The humming was another layer to our cloud, background music that made all of our scenes seamless and drowned out the traces of anything outside. 


I couldn’t stand it when he left me. Once, he decided to take a bath by himself and my body couldn’t rest. All present comfort was gone and all future comfort became an impossibility. I flopped around in the nest of extra pillows we’d borrowed from the front desk. Nothing felt right. My calves twitched. I pulled off the sheets so my skin could breathe and was repulsed by the sticky bedspread with its stiff and scratchy underside. The underside looked sharp and mean, like fiberglass insulation. My legs had been beautiful and strong wrapped around Damien’s back, and now they were fat hams sinking into the mattress. We had no relationship, my legs and me. I was despondent. I heard the glug of bathwater gurgling down the drain and Damien emerged with a towel wrapped around his waist. Clean and smirking. Renegade droplets glistened on his shoulder. I came alive again, easy and elated, my limbs full of joy and possibility. My body forgot discomfort, just like that. Damien had said that my cancer came from thoughts dampened by negative pulsations, like the thing about my legs being fat hams. The negative pulsations were similar to waves or wind. Hadn’t I seen erosion on the side of a barn, or the smooth holes that water wears into stone? 


I didn’t want to disappoint Damien, so I didn’t tell him about my bad thoughts. My omissions weren’t lies, because in his presence the bad thoughts didn’t exist. In his presence I was a baby, a young pup. I was gleeful about color and the movement of air on my skin. Eventually, we bought a little table fan from the dollar store at the neighboring strip mall. The table fan stirred our heavy cloud and spun it in strands of cotton candy. I thought I might dissolve and become part of the airflow. I thought I’d awaken deep in the membrane of Damien’s throat.  


He always left his computer open on the bed. This was the one thing that sort of bugged me. At first, I thought he was live streaming us. I was so tired all the time and loved him so much that I didn’t really care, even though he hadn’t asked if he could. You’re so lucky I found you, he’d say when I remembered a detail from my past life. He’d shake his head, tsk tsk. He’d say it like a joke but also like a truth, and I’d open my mouth for his thumb. Eventually, I learned the laptop on the bed was for work. Damien coordinated food deliveries for a living. His company was national, so the lunch rush extended across several time zones. Lunch in California crept into our evenings. Damien reserved one eye for the screen, the other for whatever part of me he was touching. 


When I told him the cancer was back, he didn’t appear concerned. He didn’t smirk. When Damien looked up at me, his face was devoid of movement. He was counting cash he’d made manifest by converting some bitcoin. I felt the end rising, clean and immediate. There are people who get stuck in their head, he said, but he looked at the wall when he said it. On the mattress, I slid toward him on my stomach. The damp sheet bunched beneath me. Help me then, I breathed, but I knew it didn’t matter. My body was vincible and he had already changed his name. It was mid-April. Damien put on clothes that had sat mostly dormant and told me I could pay at the desk. He drummed the vibrator against his knee before turning it off and tossing it into his duffel bag. He added some unused towels and a miniature tube of shampoo. I watched as he unplugged the fan and hugged it beneath his arm. The white cord dragged, forlorn, as he pushed the unlocked door open with his shoulder. Well, get better, he said with a crisp nod. He said it in a neat and packaged tone, like the stranger he’d so expertly become. 


I never heard from Damien again, but I did run into his profile a few months later. He’d added a picture with a shiny silver gun sitting on his lap. Andy, 34. The gun made me laugh because it closed the door between us completely. I’m sure it gets some girls going, but I preferred his pictures of waterfalls. Ours had been a different season. In another image he seemed sad and drunk, waving a tiny American flag in celebration of something I could not comprehend. On the small screen, he appeared distant. His mouth hung open, but I couldn’t imagine him making a sound.


I didn’t die from the cancer, which went into remission. Still, I knew I had something else inside of me. I couldn’t discern its shape, but I’d feel it for an instant, like when you can’t remember a name but keep brushing up against the promise of it. I’d sense this thing and then it would go away. In the end it was his thumb. I coughed it out like an owl pellet one morning when I was standing by the screen door drinking coffee. The cement backyard smelled a bit like cooked dog pee, but the sun was warm and the breeze wafted through the spaces in the screen, tickling my face. I felt sturdy and simple and grateful for the nothing moments in between the rushing around. It was a nice sensation, and then I was hacking and the thumb shot out, condensed and pruned from having spent too much time in such a moist environment. It hit the screen and thumped to the floor. I had dissected owl pellets as a child in school, but I let this one go. I barely looked at it. From deep in my gut, I knew he hardly missed it at all. By this time I understood that Damien wasn’t actually that sensitive to details, though I’m sure things felt off-kilter when he tried to do something ordinary, like open a door or write something down.


_________________________________________________________________________________________ Johanna Povirk-Znoy is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. Her short story “Neon Fish” is forthcoming with Driftwood Press. She holds an MFA from the Yale School of Art and is currently working toward a degree in Art Therapy & Counseling at Drexel University. You can see some of her visual work at johannapz.com.

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