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October 17, 2018 | Rome, Italy

The Ache

By | 2018-03-21T18:20:53+00:00 December 1st, 2006|"Short Fiction"|

Eric knew it would never work, the thing with Charlotte — he ached too much — but that didn’t stop him from obsessing about her on a biweekly basis to Lisa, his confidante from band, though he kept Charlotte’s identity a secret from Lisa, referring to her only as his Lady X. The Wednesday phone conversation followed the same pattern as the others until Lisa, two and a half hours in, lost patience.

“Just tell me who she is, this Lady X!” Lisa pleaded. Her cell phone radiated more heat into her tired, swollen ear but despite the growing concern about her battery’s fissile potential, she could sense he was about to break, so she persisted and tried a more patient tact. “At least, give me an initial.”

“It’s Charlotte Marlin,” Eric blurted.

Stunned by her success, Lisa paused to process the information. “Charlotte Marlin? From Geometry?”

“Yes.”

“Why isn’t it Alison Grange? She’s prettier.”

“Because it’s Charlotte Marlin,” he snapped back.

“Well, well. Charlotte.” She could see it now. Charlotte was pretty, but not as pretty as Allison, and was popular, but not as popular as Allison. Ha! She wished she could tell Allison Grange right now, I know someone who doesn’t have a crush on you. “What are you gonna do about it?”

“Nothing,” Eric said, leaning back on his pillow.

“Why not?”

“Because I ache,” he said, exhaling deeply into the phone.

“I have to finish studying. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Lisa flipped the phone shut, rubbed her ear, and picked up her chemistry book. Eight blocks away, Eric closed his eyes and fell asleep on top of his covers, his clothes and lights still on.

Built in the early seventies, East Grove High School was divided architecturally and philosophically into three box buildings: A Building held the gym, pool, shop classes and basketball courts; B Building housed academics — math, science, and humanities; and C Building was the repository of theater and band. With concrete, glass and a department store floor plan, East Grove had become an institutional model for having successfully divided all human endeavor — the intellectual, the physical and the artistic — into separate, absolute and inviolable spheres, to be managed and conquered. While proud of their achievement, East Grove feared that their high profile had placed their honored A, B, and C buildings on certain maps, maps which now circulated throughout caves in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The first bell rang as Eric ran through the corridors of C Building; a nervous hall monitor yelled at him to slow down. Eric stumbled into the band room, his coat half-zipped, his eyes sunken, and his wet hair half-frozen from the February cold. A cowlick near his temple served as the base of a sharp, protruding icicle. Lisa studied the wretch before her, shook her head and said, “Okay, now I’m worried.” Eric threw his jacket on the ground, grabbed his oboe, and took his 2nd chair place next to her 1st.

“Maybe she feels the same way.” Lisa knew it was a lie as soon as she said it — they both did — but she kept a straight face. Lisa wasn’t attracted to Eric, so it was hard for her to imagine anyone else being attracted to him either. She watched him rummage through his jacket in search of a tissue to wipe the stream of clear mucous that was pooling in the dimple above his upper lip. He was a gangling fifteen-year old, and while he summoned enough coordination to make the JV golf team, he hadn’t quite applied that coordination to other parts of his life, like walking fluidly or speaking without letting his head roll to the side. He did have his attractive qualities, she thought — his ears and eyebrows in particular — but surely no one at East Grove shared her eclectic and highly developed tastes. This obsession of his, however, was becoming quite unattractive. “Just get it over with. It’s got to be better than what you’re feeling. What was it again? What did you call it?”

“An ache,” said Eric.

Lisa lifted the oboe to her lips, and waited for Mr. Loren’s cue. The class broke out into the East Grove Eagle fight song, the traditional start of every class. On this morning, her playing was more spontaneous and upbeat, while his was somber and dirgelike. The two oboes together expressed a reveille and depth of feeling heretofore unknown in a high school fight song. Some would later say that it was the melodic meeting of John Philip Sousa and John Lee Hooker. Mr. Loren didn’t seem to notice.

“Describe this ache,” Lisa said, leaning on the locker next to Eric’s.

“I can’t,” Eric said and grabbed his history book.

“We’ll start simple. Is it a crush?”

“No,” he said, cutting her off. “This is much more sinister.”

“What about lust? Steamy, nasty lust?”

“Closer.”

“Ah-ha!”

“But incomplete,” he quickly added.

“Do you think it’s…. love?”

He paused before answering her with a soul-searched “no.” At fifteen, Eric already had enough of the word love. Love was what his parents said they would feel toward him no matter what, and they repeated this to him many times throughout their separation, divorce and eventual custody agreement. This didn’t feel like that. He had heard the phrases, “you’re confusing love with lust,” “love is a mystery,” “and “I love you but I’m not in love with you,” many times on talk shows, in church, and under the stairwells at school. There is no confusing ache, he thought. And as for lust, he could if given the chance, right there, unleash a reproductive fury on just about every girl walking past. His lust was boundless, but his ache was precise. There was Charlotte, his one and only ache.

“Those are my only choices?” he asked Lisa.

“Look,” she replied, in a tone that said, “buck up.” “It’s either love or lust. Make up your mind.”

The next hour, in B building, Eric failed to turn in his History assignment, and the hour after that, he flunked another Spanish test.

“You’re failing Chemistry, ” said Mr. Mouskalous, after fifth hour. “What’s going on?”

“I’m not failing chemistry. Chemistry has failed me.” Eric collected his books and walked out.

In A Building, Eric failed to perform a single pull-up. He hung there in defeated silence for a full minute before letting go, just in time to get to eighth period Geometry — a subject Eric had hated ever since he sliced himself open with a defective protractor while bisecting a rhomboid. Twenty-three hours had passed, and now there was only her entrance to wait for. He positioned himself carefully in his desk, two seats behind Lisa, who struggled to see what was going on behind her. The bell rang, and before he saw Charlotte, before he heard her voice, he could smell her scent wafting across his desk. The fragrance, sweet and common, was popular with many of the girls in school, but Eric only associated it with her. Charlotte took her assigned seat two rows over, as Mr. Huffman drew a parallelogram on the board.

For the entire period, Eric concentrated on her fragrance, tuning everything else out. Each new breath, like a tile in a complex mosaic, revealed one more detail of his attraction. He finally opened his eyes, breaking the revelation before it became too intense. The problem had been isolated, he thought. He was the victim of a secret research project conducted during the Second World War by Soviet and Nazi scientists working in concert that was discovered by the French Resistance, given to the pope, sold to a U.S. pharmaceutical giant, whose president, in league with an ancient Canaan god of mischief, marketed the product as a body wash under the brand name “Meadow’s Blossom” for the purpose of bringing the genetically preordained to their knees with unspeakable desire, and thus advancing the agendas of all parties involved: the communists, the fascists, the papacy, the pagans, corporate interests, and the love-sick French. This bit of spontaneous paranoia briefly relieved Eric’s anxiety, until he looked up and saw Charlotte staring back at him. She darted her eyes upward and away, but the damage was done. With her flashing glance, his little theory crumbled.

“What’s with the sudden courage?” Lisa asked, holding the phone with one hand while painting a toenail with the other.

“It’s now or never. Tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day.”

“No. Saturday’s Valentine’s Day.”

“Yeah, but tomorrow’s the last school day before Valentine’s. It’s like Valentine’s Day observed.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Look, if I tell her tomorrow, there won’t be a Valentine’s Day,” Eric said with the histrionics of an action hero, explaining to an unconvinced bureaucrat that the clock was ticking and the world would end if action were not taken. He hung up and thought, now that he had gone on the record with Lisa, he would have to follow through. His action hero bravado turned to supernatural doubt upon realizing that he had never actually conversed with Charlotte. Except for last October when she laughed at a quip he made about the wall going up outside C Building, his exchanges with her took the tone of Victorian formality. When responding to her rhetorical question, “You psyched for the four-day weekend?” he replied, “One must show proper restraint in such matters, mustn’t one?” Where did that come from, he thought? Interactions like that normally require one to doff one’s stovepipe hat or wipe clean one’s monocle afterward. He promised himself that he would not be so anachronistic.

After a thorough morning shower, full of reflection and strategy, Eric walked back to his room, and opened his dresser. He reached for the deodorant, which stood atop the card Eric had picked out the night before. He lifted the Valentine and studied it carefully while applying an extra-thick layer of the pine-scented gelatin onto his armpits. He switched the card and the deodorant between hands and repeated the process, trying to convince himself that this would work. When he finished, the deodorant hung like mint jelly from his armpits. He left early and spent the moments before band in closed-eye meditation.

“What’s the plan?” Lisa asked, coming up behind him.

Eric’s eyes opened. “I have a card,” he said without inflection.

“That should work, ” Lisa said while removing her oboe from its case. She was proud of herself for staying positive. Mr. Loren raised his baton, and the band started playing the Fighting Eagle anthem.

Before Geometry, Lisa took Eric outside to view the wall outside C Building — a usually private afternoon ritual of hers. Construction had halted for the winter, but a backhoe remained next to the single-story, single-sided, concrete structure. Speculation at first was that it was to be the new D Building, but since no one could think of any subject or discipline that was not already covered within the first three buildings, the rumor was put to rest without further discussion. “It’s a blast wall, so terrorists can’t drive explosives into us,” Lisa said to Eric, lecturing him. “They got Homeland Security money for this, you know.”

Eric reached into his backpack and removed a folder containing the valentine.

“Is that it?” Lisa said, not taking her eyes off the wall.

“Yeah.” Eric opened it and handed it to Lisa, who glanced at the card and handed it right back.

“It’s nice. It’s simple. It conveys the point,” Lisa said, in a businesslike manner.

“But it doesn’t describe the ache,” Eric said, carefully putting the card back into the folder, then the folder back into the backpack.

“Believe me, that’s a good thing,” she said, returning her attention to the wall. “What’s your plan?”

“I’m gonna hand it to her,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Sounds flawless.” After another moment’s reflection by the wall, Lisa turned back to Eric. “Well, it’s time,” she said, slapping him on the back. They walked though the doors and headed for their eighth and final hour.

The bell rang and with it came Eric’s Pavlovian flaring of his nostrils in anticipation of her scent, which this time did not come. He looked around and focused on her empty seat. She got sick, he thought. Perfect. Her illness gave him a better plan. He could visit her on her sickbed. Maybe even bring a pain reliever. What better way for a romance to begin? Destiny seemed to be on his side, and clarity returned. He found he could focus on the world around him again, but the respite was brief. The door swung open, and Eric was hit with the narcotic scent his body craved, overwhelming his still-developing brain. The fragrance wafted through the air and arrived at his nostrils faster and in greater concentrations than ever before as Charlotte raced to her seat. Her attempts at apologizing to Mr. Huffman while stifling laughter belied sincerity. Eric knew this could not be good, and his fears grew when he saw Laird Simmons waving at Charlotte though the small window on the door, and were tragically confirmed when, after class, she ran into his arm and kissed him; but it was the applause of his colleagues for this ridiculous spectacle that really infuriated him. Lisa walked over to console him with a gentle touch of the shoulder.

“You could’ve told me,” Eric said to her as he pulled away.

“I didn’t know. I still don’t think she’s that pretty!”

Lisa wanted to give him time and space, but decided against that, and called him later that night. “I just wanted to call to say I’m sorry for the way things turned out,” she said.

“It’s not your fault,” he replied vacantly.

“Well, if you need anything,” she said.

“Tell me. How long do couples stay together?”

“Two and a half years, I think I read somewhere.”

“That’s a long time.”

“Think of the positive. At least you won’t have this ache anymore,” she said, trying to lighten the mood.

“No. That’s all I have,” Eric said. “What was a threesome is now a twosome. It’s just us now. Me and my ache.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes. It’s better this way. Really.”

“Can I see you this weekend?”

“No. My ache and I need to be alone. Goodnight. Thanks for calling.” Eric dropped the phone next to him on the bed and picked up the unused valentine. “Insipid,” he thought, finally finding the right context in which to use that word.

Lisa didn’t know what to expect that Monday in band. When he didn’t show, she immediately phoned. The call went straight to message, where she heard the voice of the old Eric, a voice that, to the trained ear, revealed just a hint of optimism under the thick layer of monotonic sarcasm. “Just want to know where my 2nd chair is. Give me a call.” She picked up the oboe and, on Mr. Loren’s command, played.

“Where are you? I’m worried,” she said after the beep, before sixth hour. By eighth period, she had given up hope of seeing him that day or ever again, but as she walked through the door, she saw him at his desk, the first one in class. “Eric?”

He turned around. “Oh, hey.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Just here for my fix.” A few classmates entered, ending their moment of privacy. Lisa took her seat in front of Eric and spent the remainder of the hour listening to his loud inhalations, which bordered on snorting.

“Why are you torturing yourself?” She asked him later that night.

“You know what I hate most about this card?” He said, studying the card. “That stupid heart. Who came up with the Valentine’s heart? It doesn’t look anything like a real heart. More like an old woman’s puckered lips.”

“It’s not meant to be anatomically correct.”

“Now that would be a card.”

“An old woman’s puckered lips?”

“No. A three-dimensional, blood-squiring, anatomically correct replica of a ripped out human heart, ventricles and all.”

“I can’t see anybody buying that.”

“It would be for those with my condition — placed not with the other cards, but behind the counter or with the prescription drugs, and unlike the typical valentine, it would be meant to elucidate, not allure.”

“Have you already designed this card?”

“No. I tried. But I’m limited. That’s what this ache is making me understand more and more just how limited I am.”

“Don’t you think you’re being a little hard on yourself?”

“No. It’s a fact. I lack the ability to fully understand this ache. At times, I come close. I feel like I’ve broken through the barrier, that I’m in the stratosphere, breathing the rarified air that only a few before me have breathed: Socrates, Plato, Nietzsche.”

“I take it back. Your misery has made you pretentious.”

“I’m just trying to document this process. So others may benefit.”

Lisa had had enough. “Well, good luck,” she said. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

It’s not that his pain was so unique, it’s that he attempted to understand it so uniquely. Eric spent the next several weeks plumbing his young psyche for clues, for truth.

“I realized I’m not an artist in the same way others realize they are artists,” he said to Lisa. “I know this because if I were an artist, I would be able to make something out of this. Like if I were a painter, I would emphasize her jawline. Let the hacks focus on her eyes, which anyone can appreciate. It’s the subtle shape of her jawline that makes her beauty exquisite. But I can’t draw. I’ve tried. I’d like to show you some of my etchings for your honest feedback, but I already know they’re crap.”

“Have a good spring break,” she said back to him. A week away from this will help us both, she thought.

On the drive back from her aunt’s place in Iowa, while her father mindlessly navigated the straight, flat highway, she phoned him. “Have you recovered from your ache? If not I don’t want to talk.”

“Where are you?”

“Almost at the border.”

“Come over when you get back.”

“I don’t know. I’m tired. I have to unpack.”

“I have something to show you.” He hung up before she could ask what. Was it the stupid drawings? I don’t have time to coddle his ego, she thought. She didn’t unpack. She dropped off the suitcase and, still queasy from the long trip, drove over to Eric’s. It was her third time out alone with the car since her sixteenth birthday, and she was careful, drove the 25 mile-per-hour speed limit, took the back way through subdivision, and gave every car that passed the widest of berths.

“I parked in the driveway. Is that okay?” She asked Eric at the door. Grabbing her wrist, Eric pulled her into the kitchen. The defrosting cow’s heart lay in the sink; Lisa could have sworn she saw it beat.

“I was rash. My uncle’s a butcher,” Eric said, trying to explain it all at once. Lisa gagged, took a deep breath and vomited on the kitchen floor.

Tears in her eyes, she screamed, “You can’t do this to an aspiring vegan!”

Eric quickly grabbed a roll of paper towel from under the sink, sprayed an extended stream of foamy disinfectant onto a wad of half-a-dozen sheets, and, with broad strokes generated by his long, thin arms, began to wipe the floor. Lisa pulled out a chair from the nearby table and reclined with her back to the thawing, bovine organ.

“I’ll get you some water,” Eric said, his head down.

“No, don’t.” She gathered herself before asking, “What are you doing with that in your sink?”

“I was only half-joking when I asked him. He picked it up fresh from the slaughterhouse two days ago. I hid it in the back of the freezer, behind the pork roast.”

“I asked why is that in your sink, not who gave it to you or where you hid it. Why?” The acidic burn still hung in her nostrils.

“I was making a valentine. A real one,” he said, not taking his eyes off the floor. “I tried taking photos of it, but the flash kept going off which made it look fake. Then I realized,” he said as he stood and gestured toward the sink, “this is my valentine.” The bottom of the heart, which rested against the stainless steel surface, had melted faster than the top, causing it to roll over in the sink with a squishy thump. Lisa almost lost it again and slid further down into her chair.

“You’re going to give that to her?” she said, realizing his master plan.

“Tomorrow. I’m going to walk into class and place it on her desk.”

“You’ve really crossed the line.”

Eric’s eyebrows rose with pride. “I know.”

“I can’t let you do this.”

“Why not?” Eric asked as he disposed of the paper towels and, with them, all traces of illness.

“They’ll shoot you!” Lisa could see the police coming for him, cuffing him, placing him in an unmarked car. They’ll whisk him away. They’ll torture him.

“I don’t care. It has to be done.” Eric pulled out a chair and sat next to Lisa.

“She’s not that bright. She won’t understand. I don’t understand and I’m brilliant!” Lisa shouted, frustrated by her inability to comprehend her closest friend.

“So you’re saying it needs context?”

“No! I’m saying you can’t do this!”

Eric paused. “This heart is everything I can’t say, everything I’ve had in my head all these months.”

“Then you’re head is full of ugly, grotesque ideas,” Lisa said.

“Exactly! This ache has not made me noble, it’s turned me savage. This dead, heavy heart will speak on my behalf. It will reveal my failure and say to her, I ache. I ache every day because I discover a new freckle on your nose or notice a small line across your forehead that no one, not even you, will become aware of for another fifteen years, and for what? What good is this knowledge that I accumulate, knowledge that slowly slips away like sand through clutched fingers the moment I turn away? My memory can’t hold you; my imagination can’t recreate you; and because I can’t paint you or sculpt you or compose you or hold you or fuck you, I ache. This heart will shout out that while true love may be selfless, true ache is self-absorbed.” Eric walked over, lifted the heart out of the sink, and raised it above his head. Blood ran down his forearm. “This heart will tell everyone that everything we’ve been taught has failed us when it mattered most. I renounce everything and start over. I no longer believe in the Declaration of Independence. I don’t accept that Sacramento is the capital of California, or that a triangle has only three sides. I’m not an East Grove Eagle. I’m not Mid-Westerner. I’m not even an American. I’m an Apache chief, a Mayan priest, an African tribesman. I worship false gods, sacrifice animals on jungle altars and paint my face every night by the fire! I begin anew, starting with the mystery of this heart, salvaged from a slaughtered cow. What did this heart long for? Alas, poor Yorick, I know my supernatural powers are derived from superhuman uncertainty. Yes. ake me away and shoot me! I know the truth. I know why men get rich and why they blow themselves up. I know the beginning of time. In the beginning was the ache!” Eric placed the heart gently back in the sink and collected himself against the counter.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I don’t have anyone else.” Eric ran the cold water and rinsed his hands, arms and face.

“You could have spared me this and told your Lady X directly.”

“I wanted to tell you.”

“I hope you enjoyed this!” Lisa leapt from the chair and ran past Eric and out the door. She got in the car and sped back through the subdivision, nearly taking out a sapling as she turned into her driveway. She pulled the keys out of the ignition, leaned her head against the steering wheel and cried. But for what? For Eric? For the cow? She had no idea. After a few minutes, she gathered herself, restarted the car and drove — 25 miles-per-hour — back to Eric’s.

Eric grabbed the shovel out of the garage and walked across the cold, March mud to the garden where, behind the irises, crocuses, and daffodils, he dug a three-foot hole and buried the bleeding heart. Lisa had parked in the street around the corner and, from behind a tree, peered through the fence at the lone figure digging his grave. The shovel handle paralleled him in shape and, from a distance, looked like his little brother or son. She watched him tamp down the dirt and walk back to the garage. What a guilty thrill to watch him, unnoticed, in such a sacred moment. She studied his face, seeing past the stony expression to the hurt; she examined his spindly legs and their more assured strides; she watched him brush back his hair, hair greased with sweat from anxiety and anguish. She even allowed herself to look at his ears, shaped like question marks, dangling from each side of his head, and, without warning, she felt an ache.

— David Kosky is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.

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