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THE PROBLEM WAS STARTING by Alex Behr

The problem was coming up with reasons to scoop rice on the plate one more night. The stove worked. She could boil water. Pasta. Rice. Pasta. Rice. Boil and pour and scoop and swallow. The problem was the streetlight. The streetlight leaked through the blinds, and she could put the extra pillow over her head, but she feared the nightmares. She waited until the birds started singing or squawking or whatever they did at 4 a.m. from branches the cat couldn’t reach. 

The problem was her son: she forgot to smile at him. But she scooped the rice. She scooped the pasta. She scraped off the leftovers and filled and emptied the dishwasher. She forgot to shave her legs. There’s hair on her toes. The problem was the weather forecast cycling through the months, and the egg yolk and wine glass stains on the tablecloth. The pieces of dried cat food stuck to the linoleum. The problem was she couldn’t delete the voice-mail messages from her ex-lover.

The problem was that photo of her on his phone (and hers), where she sits on his kitchen chair with orange peels balanced on her nipples. Her tits look fine, but she has bags under her eyes and looks demented. What is happy? This? Coming off sex drugs for the first time in years (divorce, you know) is like coming off cocaine addiction: but she never was an addict. She only saw them on TV. 

The problem was the orange peel photo somehow getting on her son’s friend’s Instagram account. (She never locks her screen.) She wasn’t a follower of her son’s friend, Josh, but she was on the PTA with Josh’s mom, Nancy. She got an urgent text message from Nancy through Instagram with the photo—a black bar over her eyes, and one over her tits. Nancy was Christian. Nancy sent a sad-face emoji with it and had typed many words, but by then the phone was thrown against the wall and the screen had shattered.

Oh, my god. She ran upstairs. Her son was in bed, under the covers, though it was the afternoon. The blinds were down. His phone was powered off, a bad sign. “I have to quit school. I hate you.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I can’t stop thinking about you having sex.” 

“Don’t think about that!”

“I can’t help it. It’s in this part of my brain,” he pointed to his right temple, near a large pimple. Her son was fourteen, and growing so much he went through two boxes of cereal a day, but he still had a stuffed bear under his pillows. 

“You shouldn’t think about me having sex. It’s gross,” she said. “Do you think about Dad having sex?”

“I don’t worry about him.”

He refused to go to school. He hit tennis balls over the back wall into the Georges’ pool. She watched him from the screen porch. It was easier to be silent with her son, too. She replayed the dead sex in her mind. The brain lit up the same parts through memories as if they were happening. Her ex-lover promised they would forget each other. He got colder the more she cried. She wondered how memories shifted and moved to different parts of the brain. Like clothes in a dry cleaners. 

Late-night Google was her companion. Dopamine and acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, helped form memories and damned her to nightmares. Her ex-lover said she was exquisite. He’d had cataract surgery; he couldn’t see her clearly. Did she end up in a Mary Gaitskill story on purpose?

The whole thing, all thirteen on/off months, was like having sex in a hospice, waiting for the death tone, but in this case the music was the krautrock group Can. They met in her ex-lover’s four-poster bed, whenever the wife stayed at her sister’s, or hotel rooms with wrought iron bedframes. Yoga straps. Useful. Do anything. Don’t leave marks. He can bruise. You can’t. Don’t look when his phone lights up. Don’t assume others. We are holes. 

Her son didn’t go back to school. Everyone he knew had seen his mom’s tits. She told the school counselor she would homeschool him. Instead, she bought them two prime tickets to see the Australian Open, blowing out the last savings from the divorce.  

She’d lost language during sex. Language rushed back on the plane with crying babies. Her son’s head rested on the fold-down tray table, while air currents buffered the plane above clouds. A red gash between them. Only in the air did people walk up and down aisles with blue pillows around their necks. She’d had a pain in her shoulder for months, during the sex thing, and her left hand would go numb at any thought of him, or any story that required empathy. 

When the wife came back for good and the marriage closed down, he said it might still open for others, but not her. The parts that want to come close and insert into other parts … that he would put the same parts into strangers, and them in him, and it would be the same release as with her. That is one clue. But he memorized her taste. 

She’d almost left her purse and iPhone by the charging station at the gate. She forgot to pluck the dark hairs on her chin and didn’t monitor her butter intake. The problem was her ex-lover’s last email. He’d love to be friends, but casual. The words vibrated on her new screen. He has no headroom because this is the worst, most harrowing time he has had so far with his wife. He wants her to be a friend who won’t care about him. She—with the perfect tits (maybe the wife’s are too)—is sincerely great, but he is not coming on to her. Gifts are forbidden: friends don’t send friends chocolate.

She had to scrape her skin off and grow new skin, reconstruct her body from the nights of drinking scotch, being thrown on the bed, dozens of times, but never food in the fridge. Cookbooks of the married kind. Never opened. Don’t spill lo mein on the sheets. 

Before the flight she’d texted, No, we can’t be friends, and more words in anguish, and a few clever things, and he texted, Peace. Healing. Respect. And his initial. In case she forgot. 

He bites her all over in a public park. He wants on the Fuck Train, and then he wants off. His head is on a stake. The problem are all the skulls, lined up on stakes, the sweet procession of ex-lovers, and now one more. 

A baby was wailing behind them on the plane. She said to her son, in the chill, “Should we kill the baby?” She tested out her old personality. Could she mother again?

He beat on the tray table with his knuckles, listening to Queen. Bopping his head. Took out his ear buds. “What?” She repeated herself. She hated doing that. 

“Think you’re funny?” her son said. “Think you’re funny about killing a baby?”

“He’s crying.” But she laughed. It felt. Good. She woke every morning feeling dead. Her secret. She monitored the icon of the plane on the map of the Pacific, not letting herself think of what would happen if it, and them, fell.

“Did you know when you were little, we put the toilet seat up on an airplane, and you put your balls right where men pee?” She would crawl out of this bad thing. 

“That’s sick. That means my balls have been to exotic places.” Her son showed her his phone. “If it’s 11:59 a.m. in Melbourne, tomorrow, why can’t they predict the future for us?”

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