Our Intemperate Flesh
Mialise Carney | Flash Fiction
In bed, Markus and I play doctor. Not in the kinky way, in the way that he lays crumbled in the blankets, and I ask him what’s wrong in a hundred different ways. We go in circles but it starts the same—I sit on an upturned basket and bite my pinky. He clutches his head, his stomach, his elbow, his heart. I think I’m dying, he says. What hurts? I ask. He explains the vibrant waves of pain like colors, electric orange peels shivering up his spine and exploding like firecrackers behind his eyelids. Sometimes it’s dark blue and heavy, a stone on his chest, or red and clot-brown pooling in his limbs so he can’t bear to move, he’s anchored. He says he can feel gravity pulling him back into the earth’s crust and I believe him, with how heavy his body has become when he rolls on top of me at night.
Do you know how many liters of blood can leak into the human abdominal cavity before anyone notices? he asks. He’s a surgical intern and I’m approaching my eighth year as a sales associate at a slowly bankrupting Forever21 so of course I don’t. I ask him what this has to do with his stomachache. He lifts his head enough that I can see his eyes, wide and disappointed like a creature happened upon in the night. Everything, he whispers, and I apologize while I stand and clip my nametag to my collar. I’m just like a real doctor—I never have enough time and I don’t know how to fix him.
Markus and I don’t talk about marriage, but we do talk about having kids. He says I’d have to go on a diet first, and I imagine my body like a fish tank in the back of a Walmart, half-full of brackish water sloshing grimly with every step. He doesn’t say diet like early two-thousands diet, like starvation, coke zeroes, and if you can pinch an inch—he slips into doctor-talk and says I’m going to need to make some lifestyle changes. It still feels the same, like I’m slowly killing myself and all these fragile fishies floating around inside.
I imagine a life without cheesecake, cappuccinos, sundaes—a quiverfull of vegan babies clinging to my tits. I say I’m fine with that if he lets me do whatever I want with my body until then. He agrees but stocks my fridge full of superfoods and seeds, we go on double dates with his nutritionist colleagues, he asks me about starting the gym. When he gives me my morning fistful of FDA not-approved supplements, I cheek them like I learned to during my first 48-hour psychiatric hold.
When he leaves for work, I spit the pills into my hand, bury them soft into the rolls of my stomach, between each of my sticky toes, behind my ear. Later, he will have to search me for them, his hands eager and kneading my skin, but I’ll hide them so well that he’ll never be able to stop looking. There will always be more.
After work, we sit on the couch and Markus says, I don’t think I can do this anymore. I scroll on my phone and breathe through my mouth to avoid the sterile way he smells, how he carries the hospital with him. We agreed we wouldn’t bring work home, so I can’t tell him about the customers who scream at me, who drop clothes like breadcrumbs on the floor so I have to follow them, hunched and apologetic like I’m paid $10.52/hour to do. But he finds ways around it, talks in vague emotional devastations.
I can’t be humiliated one more day, he says, wrapping his elbow over his face. I don’t know if he’s embarrassed by his overachieving peers or the body, the way it knots itself up tight or dissolves rapid into liquid and he can never set it right fast enough. The body is the only thing he wants but can’t control. Okay, I say, But what about your loans? He groans into his salad, and I like that, how we’re both knee deep in quicksand debt to the medical industrial complex, him through trying to get a better life and me for trying to end mine uninsured at nineteen.
When I get sick, Markus plays doctor. I lay in bed, and he scrolls through a list of diseases on his phone and worries through half-baked diagnoses. He doesn’t care like I want him to care, to caress my warm head or boil tea, sweet with honey. He stands by the door with his sweater pulled over his face and asks, Are you feeling confused or irritated? It’s probably meningitis.
I shouldn’t be surprised—he’s training to be an orthopedic surgeon, to focus on correction, breaking bone, forcing spines into alignment, hammering rods straight through snapped femurs. He’s more interested in precise, sterile solutions to our intemperate flesh.
I don’t even know what that is, I say, but he continues to explain that it’s expected that my immune system would surrender with the way I treat it, I’ve been eating too much sugar, too many processed meats, and he knows about the whiskey I hide behind the headboard because he can smell it leaking from my pores.
This is what happens when you don’t take care of yourself, he says, and it sounds more like, this is what happens when I don’t listen, when I treat my body as my own. I sneeze into my palm, and he retreats further into the darkness so I can only see his beetle-brown eyes, shimmering with afternoon sunlight. I try to convince myself that this too is caring, even when he quietly leaves for work and texts me later to say he’s staying over at his parent’s, only until my contagion period is up, only until I get better.
Mialise Carney is a writer and MFA candidate at California State University, Fresno. She is the senior fiction editor at The Normal School, and her writing has appeared in Barren Magazine, Alien Magazine, and The Boiler Journal, among others. Read more of her work at mialisecarney.com.