Seeing Other People
Gina and Stress went to the coffee shop to discuss the future of their
They waited in line behind a worn-out woman and her Stress, who looked like a
big thug. He wore decaying clothes, and he smelled sweaty and unwashed. On the back of his wifebeater T-shirt was one word, in black: Jobless. While Gina and Stress waited, Jobless pressed down on his partner’s shoulders three times. She moaned each time but didn’t try to evade him.
The woman ordered two of the house blend, and paid in change that included
Glad I don’t have her problem, Gina thought. Her stress looked catchy and
Gina’s Stress was dressed in newspapers with scary headlines trailing up and
down her arms (“Terrorist Threats!”), outlining her breasts (“Cancer!”) circling her torso (“Murder! Rape! Fatal Accident!”) and wrapping around her legs (“Earthquake! Fire! Flood!”). She wore a shawl of unpaid bills, estimates on home and car repairs, and scary insurance company letters advising upgrades. She had a rosy zit in the center of her forehead, and a pot belly her clothes didn’t quite cover. Her feet were large and bony.
(Gina’s first boyfriend had been brutal; he had a way of talking about Gina’s
faults that burned them into her brain.)
After she and Stress chose a table, Gina opened with, “You’re too clingy.” She
had ordered iced raspberry chai, and she took a sip. Staring at Stress’s belly, she realized she should have ordered the artificially sweetened kind. She sighed. “I’d like some alone time. It would make me appreciate you more when we’re together.”
Stress said, “You love me so much, how can I let you go? And speaking of, I
want you to stop spending so much time with Sleep. You know how jealous I get! The whole time you’re with him, you totally ignore me.”
“That’s not true. Even when we’re doing it, I think of you.” Stress smiled over her mocha latte frapuccino with extra caffeine. Gina glanced at the other tables. Most hosted pairs of women, leaning close over
their coffees, murmuring. She recognized Stress’s many sisters and occasional brothers. Everyone was married to Stress these days. “Do you guys talk to each other?” she asked. She knew so little about where Stress came from, what she did outside their relationship. Did Stresses meet for kaffeeklatsches, exchange tips on how to get the most out of their partners?
Stress surveyed the company. She shook her wrist, making the garbled phone
messages and unanswered e-mails on her charm bracelet jingle. “We don’t have much in common. But I’m the best of the lot, don’t you think?” She cocked her head.
The other Stresses looked more normal than hers, Gina thought, or at least more
coordinated. Of course, she wasn’t seeing the fine detail from here; she’d forgotten her distance glasses. Stress had driven them here.
A slender woman with coffee-colored clothes was sharing pastries with House
Payment, and a frazzled-looking redhead with cat’s-eye glasses was arm-wrestling with Deadlines. A very fat woman and her extra-large Stress stared at a plate with one cookie on it, both of them miserable and wanting. A pale woman in dark clothes by the flavored syrups display was chatting with someone who didn’t look like a Stress, but Gina couldn’t tell who he was. The woman put her hand on his, stroked it, clasped his fingers. He drew his hand away. “Not now,” he said, in a deep, chilly voice.
Gina’s Stress might win a Stress Beauty Pageant, depending on the criteria:
most well-rounded? Diversified? Best accessorized?
“This brings me to my point,” Gina said. She set her drink down and clasped her
hands, trying to hold onto her determination. “I want to see other people.”
Stress stared at her, then laughed. “I want to go on dates without you chaperoning me!” Gina said. “It’ll never happen.” Stress held Gina’s hand. Her touch was so familiar, an
ache and a comfort. “You can’t live without me.”
“I’d like to try.” “That is so mean!” Stress pouted.
Nicotine and Liquor came in the door with an inrush of fresh air, supporting a
sleepy, grumbling woman between them. Several of the Stresses blooped into bigger versions of themselves, dwarfing tables, chairs, and their companions. The woman with the man by the flavored syrups waved to Nicotine and Liquor, and they waved back. The man turned and cocked an eyebrow at them. They blew kisses.
Whippet-thin Caffeine came out of the kitchen. The three addictions and the
woman in their grip settled at a large table. “Who’s got the cards?” asked Caffeine.
The woman fumbled in her large sequined handbag and pulled out a poker chip
dispenser and two decks of plastic-wrapped Bicycle cards. A noisy game ensued.
Gina watched. “How come we never do anything fun like that?” “I think you’ve lost track of all my fun-loving qualities,” Stress said. “We’ve
forgotten how we began. Didn’t I get you through all those nervewracking first days of school, those danceless high school dances, those college classes and exams, those painful dates?”
“You did. You were always there for me,” said Gina. “How can you even think about asking me to leave?” “I’m just so tired.” Stress rubbed Gina’s shoulders, stroked her back. “I know, honey. Nobody
“I’m tired of spending all my time with you,” Gina said, and a sob bubbled out of
her, unexpectedly. “I need a little variety.”
“Like what?” Stress sounded more interested than concerned. “My friend Emily set me up on a blind date with Meditation.” “Oh boy. That’ll never work. Can you say capital D-U-double-L Dull? Ten
minutes with him, and you’ll be bored out of your skull.”
“Aromatherapy and a hot bath,” Gina said, though these were only feints. “Please. Enjoy,” said Stress. She gave Gina’s back one last stroke, slightly too
hard, and sat in her seat again. “I’ll be waiting when you’re done.”
Gina glanced toward the poker table. She wished she loved Liquor more, but the
few dates she’d had with him had made her sick.
“I want to go out with Shopping,” she said at last. “Be my guest. I love a nice fluffy debt dress; it’s so shiny!” She checked out the woman by the flavored syrups. Her date looked bored. He
also looked tall, dark, handsome, and intriguing. Ready for a change; maybe Gina could be that difference. “I want to go out with him,” she said.
Stress laughed, a guffaw this time, so loud that everybody in the cafe turned to
look. “You’re not ready for him, yet, darling. I keep you too well-balanced for that. Even that fool isn’t ready; she’s just playing with fire.”
Gina tightened her grip on her drink. She felt trapped. “But I want—” She
wished her voice didn’t sound so high and childish. “I want a divorce.”
Stress’s hair changed into Medusa snakes, and all the snakes turned their
gleaming eyes at her. Only one of them hissed, though. “If you didn’t have me, how would you ever get anything done?”
“Maybe I wouldn’t,” Gina said, her voice wobbly. “So what?” Stress’s lips tightened. She straightened. “Fine. Just try it and see what
happens.” She rose, grabbed her purse, and stalked off.
As Stress headed toward the coffee bar to consult with the barista, Gina grew
lighter. She felt as though she could float up to the ceiling, and maybe, insubstantial, slip right through and rise through the sky. “Oh. Oh, my god.” She laughed. “Wow. I just—wow.” At the other tables, women stared at her, and so did their Stresses. Only the woman by the flavored syrups paid no attention. She was playing with a flower from the narrow vase on the table, a single daisy; she tapped her date’s cheek with it so that she left yellow pollen smears.
Gina stood. “I feel great!” she cried, and spread her arms wide. The other
women cowered. One hid behind her hands. None of the Stresses looked worried.
“Great!” Gina said again. She lowered her arms. The left arm dropped to the floor with a meaty thud. “What?” Gina lifted her shoulder, looked down at a smooth place where her arm
used to be attached. “What?” She stooped to pick up the arm, and her right arm wriggled, then pulled free. It didn’t fall directly to the floor; the hand clung to the back of her chair, fingers convulsing as they tried to support the arm’s weight. Eventually the hand lost the battle.
Gina straightened, stared down at her arms. They were finger-waving at each
other. The left dragged itself toward the right, using its fingers to crab-walk. The right hand gestured as it waited, a complex series of signs Gina couldn’t read. How had her hands learned a language she didn’t know?
She glanced toward her chai, realized she couldn’t pick it up to drink now. She
headed for her chair anyway, thinking if she sat down, bit the edge of the cup, and tilted it, she might be able to sip. Before she reached the chair, her left leg flexed and hopped out from under her. She teetered on her right leg, wondered whether to try for the chair or collapse where she was. The leg decided for her, folding down so that she sprawled on the tile before it unhooked itself and rolled away. Bracing itself on the upright left leg (those strappy sandals didn’t look as good as she had thought), the right leg managed to push itself to its foot. The legs leaned against each other.
Nice calves, Gina thought, but the thighs are definitely too doughy. And those
Gina sighed, rolled her head to stare up at the ceiling. It was dark blue, with a
scatter of tinfoil stars with Christmas lights in their centers.
Suddenly a face intruded into her view. Snaky hair, narrow eyes with that
glowing zit centered above them. “Had enough?” asked Stress.
Gina considered this question as though it were not rhetorical. “No,” she said,
though out of the corner of her eye she noticed her legs were wobbling toward the cafe’s door. Her arms had pulled themselves over to the poker table, and Liquor had dealt them into the game.
Stress humphed and strode away again. Spwop! Everything below Gina’s ribcage detached itself and rolled away,
stomach, pudenda, hips, buttocks, the small of her back. Her underwear, unanchored by the legs, fell off as the odd-shaped ball toddled toward the door to the rest rooms. The rose she’d had tattooed on her left butt cheek during a drunken night in college winked pink at her as it surfaced, sank, rotated away and returned.
Gina sighed, tilted her head so she could see her breasts. Would they detach
The door rang as someone else came in. “Hey, sorry I’m late, I got to chatting
with someone on the bus,” said the woman who had entered. She wore tan Chinese silk and flat black tai chi shoes, and her hair was straight and clean. She was talking to Liquor and Nicotine. “What’s this?” She knelt, looked at Gina’s legs, which had lurched almost to the door before the newcomer came in. The legs crossed at the ankles in an attack of shyness. “Where are you going?”
The legs angled to one side, then the other, as though undecided. “Interesting.” She patted them on their upper surfaces and breezed on past.
“Did you save me a seat? Hey, those hands are cheating!” She laughed.
Gina saw her left hand trade three cards with her right hand. “You guys,” Caffeine said. “We only let you play because you promised you’d
The hands let their cards flutter to the table top, and finger-shrugged. “What’s with the body parts, anyway?” “Personal integration failure,” said Nicotine, waving a yellow-stained hand toward
The newcomer glanced toward Gina, raised her eyebrows. “Whoa! Pretty
advanced! Give me a minute, okay, guys?”
“Sure,” said Liquor with a shrug. The woman knelt to look into Gina’s face. “Hi there. I’m Prozac. Having
“I said goodbye to Stress,” Gina said, jerked her head toward the coffee bar,
where her Stress was comparing headlines with another Stress, whose newspaper clothes were written in Arabic and Hebrew. The headlines shifted, updating constantly.
“Interesting,” said Prozac. “How are you doing?”
“Not too well, actually.” “Want to pull yourself together?” Gina gave this the same consideration she’d given Stress’s earlier question. She
had many fewer worries without her body parts, but she had the niggling thought that sometime the cafe would close, and then, perhaps, cleaning machinery would be deployed. She didn’t want a face-to-string encounter with a mop or a face-to-straw encounter with a broom. Not to mention the dust and/or cleaning fluid, which always made her sneeze and her eyes run.
“I wouldn’t mind,” she said. “Give us a kiss, then,” said Prozac. She leaned forward and pressed lips to
Gina’s. She tasted like fresh mowed grass and work already completed.
When Prozac lifted her mouth away from Gina’s, Gina had all her body parts
again, though her lower torso was on backward, which meant her feet faced backward too. She couldn’t figure out how to stand.
“Oopsie,” said Prozac, and pulled her to her feet. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to
it. Come on, new best friend, let’s play some cards.”
Gina stuck her tongue out at her stress, and stumbled, in Prozac’s embrace, to
CURRICULO VITAE Lair Geraldo Theodoro Ribeiro, M. D., F.A.C.C. EDUCATION Educational Foundation Machado Sobrinho, Medical School of the Federal University INTERNSHIP AND POSTGRADUATE TRAINING Residency in Cardiology, Pontificia Universidade Catolica of Rio de Janeiro (RJ), Brazil Research Fellow in Medicine, Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston (MA
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