FEVER TO TELL
“Why did you let me drink so much?” Karen asked from the bathroom, and then vomited loudly. Kevin thought she was trying to make it sound worse than it was, but he couldn’t be sure. He turned his mug to make a ring of the moisture that dripped across its base, and then he drew his finger through it, a bold slash.
“You like to drink. You told me before we left, and I quote, ‘I need to be fucked up,” Kevin didn’t move from his seat. Her heaves resumed. “You’re a big girl. You can take care of yourself.” It was true: she was old enough to hold her own hair back, old enough to know when to say when and old enough to suffer the consequences when she overdid it. He was old enough to leave her alone if she’d just let him. He put a glass of ice water at her place at the table, and four chewable children’s aspirins because she couldn’t swallow the adult pills.
It was his fault Karen’s life was so hard, he told himself. When Kevin first told Karen that he’d got a job out here, he should have told her she couldn’t come. There was that moment, in the stairway outside her apartment, the white walls and the chipped white paint on the stairway that led up to the apartment she shared with two other girls, and she’d asked how it went. He could’ve told her anything.
He practiced on the way there, clomping through snowbanks after he’d taken the call from the HR person and negotiated compensation, practiced telling her it was good news and bad news, that he got the job and that this meant goodbye. He knew what he wanted, and he wanted her to have the chance to find out what it was she wanted to do for herself. He owed her that.
He practiced saying it, exhaled foggy gusts of breath into the night air, there’s good news and bad news. And then when she asked, he said, “There’s good news,” and gave a weak smile. She jumped on him in her stairwell and pressed her tongue into his mouth, and he thought, well, the bad news could wait, and here they were now, four years later.
“If I could take care of myself, I wouldn’t feel like this,” Karen said, walking gingerly from the bathroom holding her forehead in her hand. “And anyhow, what would you do if I started taking care of myself?” She scooped the aspirin into her palm and took the glass with her other hand. She emptied the pills into her mouth and dumped the water in the sink and asked, “Who does a girl have to blow to get a drink around here?”
There was a time when comments like these were Karen’s favorite gambit. The first night they met, Kevin walked up to her at a party and engaged her in conversation even though she was standing by her roommate. He thought himself quite brave, but after a minute talking, she shot back at him, “Are you planning to fuck me tonight? Have you got a big dick? Because if you don’t, I’m moving on.” Something swelled inside Kevin, and he whispered yes, not even knowing if it was true, and then leaned forward to kiss her. But when comments like this became every day, it got a little grating, and over the years, Kevin found himself responding to her breaks with decorum with formal responses.
“I’d prefer it if you weren’t drinking,” he said.
“Oh, poor baby. When have I ever cared about the way you feel,” Karen whined back at him. The question its own answer. “And the way I feel? It’s not looking good for you.” She pulled open the door to the other side of the sink and pulled out a cloudy glass bottle. ”Ah, the hair of the dog.”
Kevin got up from the table and stood behind Karen before he even knew what he was going to say. His hand was locked around her elbow, forcing the bottle in Karen’s hand to knock against the side of the sink. “I’d prefer that you didn’t drink. I’ll make you some toast.” He took a deep breath and reached around her, taking the bottle in his hand. “Why don’t you sit down?”
He returned the bottle under the sink and refilled Karen’s water glass and brought it to her where she was sitting, more like pouting, at the table. He didn’t say anything, and neither did she. When they first moved, he knew it would be hard for her, but Karen caught some flu bug and then it sort of lingered until she barely got out of bed at all. When she did it was to watch TV wrapped in a ragged old blanket. She would tease him in a British accent, pretending to be Heather Mills. “You need to build me a trough in the middle of the bed, so if I need to shit or piss I can just roll over and do my business. “
Kevin had no sense of humor about Karen’s infirmities anymore. He didn’t laugh, and six weeks after moving, he hated coming home. Instead he went out with his friend Bernard for drinks at a place Bernard used to drink when he was in college. It was fun, and for a while at least Kevin forgot how he got there or that he had to come home. When they finished at the bar it was well past dark.
When he stepped into the apartment, not a single light illuminated the ground floor. Karen’s voice came from upstairs. “Is that you?” she asked. “Where were you? I thought you’d left me.” One comment after another tumbled down the stairs toward him. As he climbed, he imagined himself as Mario fighting off Donkey Kong’s flaming barrels. He’d definitely had too much to drink.
“I went out with Bernard from work,” he told Karen and flopped down on the bed beside her. He didn’t know if it was the drinks or the fear (hers and his) or if it was just time, but he and Karen had sex that night for the first time since they’d moved. He wanted to call in the next morning and lay in bed all day, but he was the one who worked, so he forced himself up and out.
Karen got bored easily; maybe that’s what finally got her out of the house. First she joined a book club, then she took a couple yoga classes, and finally she got a job organizing craft sessions at one of the local fine arts outreach programs, helping kids glue googly eyes to egg cartons. And while the bread was toasting, she got bored then, too, unable to stay mad or sulky with Kevin. “Why don’t you want to let me drink? It’s the only thing that’ll make me feel better.”
“You’re pregnant. Drinking will only hurt the baby.” He wasn’t sure how long he had until the toast was ready and was surprised, for once, to get a whole thought out without interruption.
“As if,” Karen scoffed, but half-heartedly. The toast popped. He brought it to her on a plate, along with a jar of preserves from the fridge and a knife to spread it. She twisted off the lid of the preserves, squinted one eye inside and took a deep whiff. “This jelly isn’t any good. It’s lumpy.” And then she was off again, dashing to the bathroom. The toilet seat clattered against the tank. A second later, she was vomiting again.
“The puking. The way you feel. It’s not from drinking. It’s morning sickness.” There was silence from the other room, which would’ve freaked out Kevin except he was still floored at how much he’d been able to say without being interrupted.
“I’m having a baby,” Karen said. “Holy fuck, is that even possible?” There was another pause. “Oh, Kevin, will you let me keep it?”
He answered, but the sound of his words were drowned out by the flushing of the toilet, and then Karen was on his shoulder, crying. He didn’t know that he’d ever have another chance to say no.
Matt Dube‘s stories have appeared in 42Opus, Pindeldyboz Web Edition, Porchlight, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and American lit at a small mid-MO university and is the fiction editor for the online journal H_NGM_N.