Fiction · 06/27/2018

On The Nose

When I asked my friend about her summer, she told me about the fish that had died in her apartment. “I put it on top of the bookshelf,” she said. “It was Olley’s fish. She gave it to me. She said he was dying, and then she disappeared. I didn’t have food or anything. I didn’t know what to do with it.” As she told me this story, she became increasingly distressed.

We were sitting bunched together on the couch at an apartment filled with people. The room was loud and cramped and some women, drunker and more easygoing than we were, stood directly in front of us, throwing ping pong balls into paper cups on a table and chasing them when they rolled across the floor. I wondered who would want to play such a game. The joy of tossing the ball lasted one second and the annoyance of finding it, bending over, picking it up, wiping it clean, was endless.

“Olley?” I said. “Who’s Olley?”

“We dated,” my friend said. “I thought you knew that. She’s a clown, a real one.”

“A real clown?”

Someone tapped my foot. I moved it and tried not to stare at the adult woman on her hands and knees, reaching for a ball beneath the couch.

“We were sleeping together,” my friend said. “And one day she comes over and tells me out of the blue that she’s going upstate, and she doesn’t know when she’s coming back. She gives me the fish and leaves. Who does that?”

Another woman with bright red lipstick overheard. Unlike me, she had stayed in the city over the summer, and she knew Olley and the story of the fish.

“It’s not your fault!” the woman with the lipstick said. “You tried to save it.”

My friend covered her face with her hands and shook her head.

“No I didn’t,” she said. “I forgot all about it.”

I put my arm around my friend, trying to console her.

“I’m a vegetarian,” she said. “You know I can’t handle that kind of thing.”

The women playing with the cups and balls grunted and slapped each other’s butts. They were like giants, larger than us with their happiness and fun. The woman with lipstick walked away, and my friend lowered her arms.

“When Olley was gone, I had a rough time. I shouldn’t be telling you this. Not now.”

“Of course you should tell me,” I said. “You can tell me anything.”

She pulled at the ends of her shirt. The women hooted. Beer splashed onto the floor.

“I tried to kill myself,” she said. “Suffocation is harder than it looks. It didn’t work, thank god. Then I went to Lauren’s beach house with Lauren and Amanda and Sam and Alex. Two couples. I don’t know what I was thinking. It made everything worse.” My friend laughed in the loud way she does to cover the pain. “I just don’t think I need to be here,” she said. “If I died, you would be sad but life would go on.”

The ball rolled under the TV stand. A tall woman with zits on her cheeks kneeled on the dirty rug, snatched the ball, and put her arms around her girlfriend. She was happy, and I knew my friend was right. Life would always go on without us.

“Don’t do it,” I said. “It would hurt me.”

She scooted closer to me like a person who needed to be touched.

“I knew this girl from law school,” she said. “She was nice and smart, and she married a baseball player, and they got a big house in Memphis. She was great. Everyone liked her. Then I think about Clayton. He was nice and funny and, after our first year, he was riding on a motorcycle in South America when he hit a goat and got paralyzed from the neck down. He came back to school but he wasn’t happy. He killed himself in his room.”

Someone turned up the volume on the music. I put my arm around my friend. We looked at the floor. “I feel like Clayton,” she said. “I feel like I don’t need to be here.”

The hostess throwing the party came over with a box of wine. She held it over our laps and my friend picked up her mug off the floor.

“Where’s Olley?” the hostess asked.

My friend laughed. It was the same laugh as before, loud and irrational and pointed toward absurdity. She told the hostess what happened, how Olley left, and the fish had died. The hostess was surprised. She was smiling. Her cheeks were pink. “She left her clown makeup too,” my friend said. “Face paint, wigs and baggy clothes.”

“That’s amazing,” the hostess said.

“I know,” my friend said. “I want to have a party so we can all dress like clowns.”

“That’s amazing,” the hostess repeated herself, looking away. “I’m there.”

“Will you come?” my friend asked, turning to me.

“Of course,” I said.

The hostess walked away, and I got up to leave. I walked around the room, hugging goodbye to people I hadn’t talked to all night. They said it was good to see me again, and I told them the same. I said goodbye to my friend.

“I shouldn’t have told you all that,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m glad you told me what happened.”

I walked to the train and stood against the wall of the platform. Like a child, I was still afraid of the tracks, afraid of falling in. When the train came, I found a seat and closed my eyes. I fell asleep and dreamed in bursts. Now I remember only one. I was grasping the ledge of a tall building, curling my fingers over the cement to hold myself up. Where I had expected a smooth surface, I felt a cherry tomato. It popped in my fingers the moment I woke up.

+++

Erica Peplin is a fiction writer and film critic from Detroit, Michigan. Her work appears in Joyland Magazine, American Chordata, and McSweeney’s. She lives in Brooklyn.