The Joke

by Jennifer Fliss

“The Joke” was selected for THE BODY microprose longlist.

How’s the joke go? Doctor, it hurts when I do this. And the doctor says, then don’t do that. I don’t know how not to. Mark says the insomnia is in my head and I wonder if that’s worse. Hysterical, women are always so hysterical.

It’s 3:14 am and when I bang my head on the headboard I feel something shake loose. Mark, long relegated to the guest room snores and only occasionally asks in the morning why there is a blossom of a bruise on my forehead and why the long face? My right eyelid is permanently drooped, having been forced to see things it didn’t want to.

I say tonight will be different. But it’s not and boom goes a thunder clap, but where we live this doesn’t happen often. Where I grew up, there were storms every night. Here it will make the news and as the storm rolls around our house, it tosses the shutters and downs powerlines and trees, I close my eyes and my nervous system turns into a dahlia – all segmented pieces bursting from the center and hard as fuck to grow but if you do, people will tell you all the time how beautiful they are.

My daughter sleeps in the next room where underwater sounds issue from a machine and at 3:16 I think please don’t drown please don’t drown please don’t drown.

I turn on the lamp, grateful the power hasn’t gone out. I survey my toolkit: an award-winning novel bookmarked at page seventeen, has been there for a month. The dried carcasses of contacts, blue and useless, my grandmother’s bible that has been stripped of its cover and is blanketed in dust. I have nothing.

At 3:24, Mark stumbles into the room.

“You okay?”

“No.”

“No?”

“Yes.”

His eyes are hoods, only seeing a fraction of what I do. He sits on the side of the bed, the weight is ten times his own.

“You need some help. I can offer some assistance.” He has on his I-want-sex voice. He drags his fingers along my side, protected under the comforter we purchased as a set. I hate it. It’s maroon and gold paisley. His choice, but he doesn’t even sleep in here anymore.

“Mark, I’m not really in the mood.”

“Oh, I don’t mean–” he says. Yes he does.

At 3:31, he is done, already rolled off me and snoring atop the comforter, leaving me underneath, pinned like a butterfly, arms above my head, legs wide.

I laugh—one might say, hysterically, but he doesn’t wake. I flip through the thin flimsy pages of the bible for some insight, but all I get is an inhalation of mites. I stick a dried out contact in my eye and it burns. I leave it. I do the other too.

I make a doctor’s appointment in the morning. Mark says he’s proud of me, taking control of my life like that. I want to sleep through it all.

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and will be in the 2019 Best Short Fictions anthology. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, jenniferflisscreative.com.

Artwork by: Ivandrei Pretorius