“True Neutral” by Nathan Stormer

Ypsilanti, Michigan, Georgia Hampton

My friend and his fiancée are the first people I know to own a house. My friend’s fiancée is a mortician, so the house is connected to a funeral home and my friend can’t park in the garage because that’s where the hearse is kept. 

My friend says the house was owned by a Russian family before it was sectioned off into apartments for a few decades. He’d found a box of old photos in the garage rafters. He said the people in the photos looked miserable and wrinkled. 

You’re miserable and wrinkled,” I say, joking and not joking. I have this tic.

We’re smoking a bowl in the garage, taking a break from the move. Everything smells like paint. 

On their first date, my friend’s fiancée talked about her job. She’s a mortician. She prepares cadavers for a funeral, cremation, or whatever is decided. She cleans the cadavers and replaces their blood with pink embalming fluid. If she has to apply makeup, she does. She thinks of herself as an artist. She makes clean portraits. She said that word a lot. Cadavers.

My friend and his fiancée dated for just a few months before my friend proposed to her at a winery that served sweet chardonnay and hot dogs from a rotary toaster oven. My friend and his fiancée have a house and a whole life. My friend thinks the events of his life happen the same way planets collide with each other. When he started seeing a therapist, I laughed. Pay to tell someone you hate your mom. Try SSRIs and SNRIs.

I first saw a therapist after having an episode. I had community service and court-ordered group therapy. The basic thing is that I’d gotten high and paranoid, so I filed a false missing person’s claim about a cult kidnapping my friend’s fiancée. The story was that they all got each other pregnant and harvested the fetuses for skincare products.

“My friend might be a masochist,” I tell the group. 

The therapist says, “Let’s focus on you.”

“I’ll focus on you,” I say. I can’t help it. 

“You’re here, all of you are here, because you made the decision to be,” the therapist says.

“My friend got me here,” I say.

“Speak on that,” says the therapist.

“At their engagement party a while back, my friend told me something strange his fiancée did to a body. Apparently there was this accidental death of a guy who’d drank too much with his prescription and passed out near the fairgrounds where he choked on his vomit. My friend said that when he was found early in the morning, the guy had a temporary tattoo of an eight ball with a cobra wrapped around it on his cheek. I picture him holding a beer-soaked napkin against his face to apply the tattoo, unaware he’d be dead a few hours later. He probably bought a few tickets for the split-the-pot and tried to guess how many marbles fit in the big mason jar. When she cleaned the guy, my friend’s fiancée had to really wipe hard to get the tattoo off. I thought this was the part of the story that was strange. But, he’d said that she’d been scraping at his face so hard that a bit of blood came from his eye and, without hesitation, she’d swiped the small drip with her index finger and put it in her mouth. My friend said it was one of those mindless things a person does, like wiping your child’s face. When Buddhists die and are left to lie for a time, for their souls to have that last chance to get out of the body, cease the grasping and the whole cycle, they say there’s always a little bit of blood coming from the ears and mouth from the soul escaping. I think a person’s heart can be measured by the amount of blood that leaks from their body after death. When my friend brought up the blood with their couple’s therapist, his fiancée denied it. She said she didn’t have any memory of a body with a temporary face tattoo at all.” 

When I tell this story to the group, I hear my voice and realize what I’m telling them, in so many words, is that my friend never wanted to get married. At the time, I didn’t think of this at all. I just took a shot with the bride-to-be’s father. Me and my friend, we’re the same person.

My fiancée gets paged at 2 a.m. I pretend I’m asleep while she gets dressed and steps into her boots, whispering the address to herself and pulling her hair back and walking out the door. I walk into the dark, through the sliding door from the kitchen onto the back deck, and smoke the last bit of weed I got from this girl in group. During the break, she’d showed me a grid of pictures of Macaulay Culkin on her phone labeled from Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil. I stared at the image and began to sweat. I saw my friend staring back at me in the center, True Neutral square, but my friend’s face wasn’t his face anymore. It looked like me, my friend, and Macaulay Culkin, our three faces had melted into each other. I dropped the girl’s phone on the sidewalk and scurried to pick it up, apologizing. I walked to the bus stop, forgetting to pay her. 

If you were watching from inside the house, you’d see my hoodied contour pace slowly around the damp, rotting wood of the deck, my cat brushing by my ankles, and the orange cherry on the bowl faintly glowing. The back deck faces a small cluster of woods with a highway just beyond a concrete sound wall. 

I’m told to find hobbies. In group, there’s always talk of filling downtime with meaningful activities to decrease the risk of relapse; the best way to endure cravings is to find something else that occupies the space. Life isn’t going to be filled with absinthe and opium and tattoos on the soles of the feet. Have fast Internet and stay on the medications; gain some weight so the world will cease to be slippery, to quote the therapist.

I make up stories about my friend and me for the group. I say we can hold hand sanitizer in our mouths for longer than thirteen minutes without throwing up. That it was a game in college. The secret is you take a shot of tequila beforehand to prime your mouth. But, I leave that part out. I always held in my hand sanitizer longer than anyone. 

I clear the bowl out and go inside and change my clothes so my fiancée doesn’t smell the weed on me. I search for mouthwash in the bathroom (there’s none). I take my fiancée’s bottle of nail polish remover from under the sink. I swish it around in my mouth and set a timer. I feel the burning against my gums, my tongue tingling at the tip and the bitter pink edging to my throat. I hear my friend’s voice behind my shoulder, counting every second at a mockingly slow pace – the way he always has. 

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Nathan Stormer’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oyez ReviewSilent Auctions MagazineSobotka Literary Magazine, and others. Nathan grew up in Ross, Ohio, and currently lives in Chicago.