Exaggerations Acceptable
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Crusade"
Originally featured on 11-19-2009
As part of our series "The Words That Seem to Justify Anything"

In the future, there will be an epidemic sickness unlike any other disease to afflict humankind. The medical community will not recognize it as a sickness according to any definition. The pathology will not be associated with vomiting, fatigue, headaches, impairment to senses, cognitive disorientation, heart palpitations, nasal congestion, coughing or depression. The sickness will not be identified as the direct cause of any deaths. There will be no known ways to avoid the transmission of the sickness. The only recognizable symptom of the sickness will be sudden unexplained relocations. You will be jogging down a wooded path on a Sunday afternoon, or doing laundry or eating ice cream, you’ll blink and you’ll be floating in the middle of a cloudy lake surrounded by verdant trees. Your body will feel certain you’ve been in the lake for a long time and the previous place you were was a daydream. You’ll swim ashore, find your clothes on a dock, walk out a path of thickets to a dirt road and follow it to a corner store where you’ll get your bearings and then hitchhike home and resume your laundry or your jog or your ice cream. Nobody will express concern over your absence.

The first time it happens, you will be alone in the lake, and it will be silent except for the call of a loon. The second time you will notice a shadow in the water, a dark, oily patch. As the sickness advances to a more heightened stage, your visits to the lake will be more frequent, and the dark spot will cover a larger radius of the water’s surface. The sickness causes you to become violent in your daily interactions. The darker the water in the lake, the more likely you are to commit spontaneous acts of murder in your real life.

The government will issue a warning to those afflicted with the sickness: if you ever find yourself to be actually enveloped in the dark water, do not attempt to find your way home. Just stay in the lake and hope that you drown. The television announcement will never spell out explicitly what would happen if you return from floating in the black water. The horrific nature of what that would entail is not necessary for anybody to have to think about.

That’s how Zack tells the story. The crackle of fire enveloping his marshmallow makes his face look leaner and angrier in the dim flicker. I think Zack overdoes it.

Minnie, taking the marshmallow from Zack and climbing into his lap, tells a different version of the story. She leaves out the nonsense about the sinister dark water and the spontaneous murderous acts attributed to its exposure. Like he said, the first time you’re at the lake you’re all alone, and it might be a delusion or it might be real and everything else is the dream, but that’s beside the point. After a few recurrences of the sickness, if you look hard enough, you’ll see that you’re not alone. There’s a human figure in the distance. Just one other person. You can’t see anything about them, except that they’re there, off swimming at the other end of the lake, or walking on the shore, or sitting on a dock. You won’t clearly see that it’s a person unless you really truly look. The truth is, that person… Her shoulders settle back against Zack’s and her mouth relaxes. …is your soul-mate. Of course the temptation will be to swim toward them, but you are advised not to, for reasons you’re not expected to understand. If you try, they will evade you, and you’ll never get close enough to take a good look. Bud if you do catch them, you will not like what you see. If you catch them…you will see their ugliness.

I look at Bianca, huddled in my Archer Camp sweatshirt pulled over her knees looking disinterested, holding a marshmallow several feet above the fire without looking at it. She’s either looking at the sky, collating the stars into centipedes — she sees everything in centipedes — or her eyes are tearing up from the smoke and enjoying the sting.

Bianca says, “What if you’re already in a lake when you, um, disappear to the lake. Do you just, um, stay where you are?” Although she speaks with a complete lack of interest, her voice sounds clearer than Zack’s and Minnie’s.

 

Bianca is steering the canoe. I sit in the front, talk to the water ahead of us and assume that Bianca is listening. “I dreamt last night my boss asked me if I could speak German, I said no, he said ‘Well you’ll be speaking fluent German by Saturday, make it happen.’ Automatically I called you.” Breath hitches in my throat. “I’m not being completely truthful; my boss wasn’t actually in the dream, and I don’t remember if it was German I had to learn, or if it was something else. It’s easier to make up the details-”

“Yeah, I got it,” said Bianca. “Dreams are a general feeling of something and only make sense if you tell the general feeling in its own terms. It doesn’t matter if you exaggerate. It’s not like you’re telling a lie; a dream’s a made-up story anyway.”

“Right.” I imagine the look Bianca and I would be exchanging if I were to stop paddling and turn to look at her. “So German it is. I call you, and it’s businesslike. You tell me you can pencil me in between Four: Fifteen PM and Five PM Friday, to teach me, I guess, and I say that’s fine. That I’m not making up; I remember it was Four: Fifteen.”

“Watch yourself,” Bianca says.

“Huh?”

“You just splashed me a little.”

“Oh, sorry. I start running my mouth and I get clumsy.” I dip in and complete a stroke with exaggerated good form, keeping in sync with hers’.

“Was that the whole dream?” Bianca says. “I don’t speak German, by the way. It’s not any weird psychic thing, if that’s why you’re telling me.”

“No, no- well, anyway, it was just funny that I called you, like it was your job or something- I mean, it wasn’t funny, it was the natural thing to- I- anyway, so-”

“You’re splashing me again, Rick.”

I tense my shoulder. Apologizing twice for the same thing would be bad form. A gentleman apologizes once and then corrects the mistake. The second time, if you can’t think of a way to make it funny, you have to just suck it up. “So it jumps ahead to Friday, Five O’Clock, we’re done, you’re getting up from the table, we shake hands and I’m thinking, wait a minute, did I learn a word of German? What happened in there?”

I’m being careful not to splash, and there’s a cramp in my right shoulder just at the instant my paddle lifts from the water. I know that Bianca has shifted her weight — and hence I know she is listening — because I feel the boat tip jerkily to the left. I go on.

“Before you leave, I have to tell you something important. The handshake is prolonged — I can’t let go until I remember what I’m to tell you. You look at me with this look of- I can’t describe. Pity, I guess. It was a look of you knew what I had to say, and we both felt the same pain in our chest, like when you wake up and realize a cat is walking on your pelvic bone or you’re sleeping on a book with the corner poking into your ribs, one of those pains that takes you out of a dream, except I didn’t wake up, it was just me not wanting you to leave because I didn’t learn German and I needed to say-”

“Okay, I got it, you wanted to tell me something. You’re the worst story teller ever.”

I laugh. “See, the thing is, I know that the moment you walk out, I’ll remember, and I do. And all it was was I simply wanted to ask you out to a drink. But you’re gone.”

She continues to paddle. It is a lonelier sound than the water is accustomed to.

“It was all so I could ask you out for a drink, the German, all of it, it’s why my boss was there in the first place. I go to the bar myself, and before I get my beer, the bar crumbles to the grass and there’s nothing but an empty field with a few pint glasses. Somehow it’s more efficient than just closing. I drive home and I hear the sirens before I notice I’m driving two hundred miles an hour, and before I wake up, I’m ecstatic because at two hundred miles an hour with the city lights stretching past, I speak German.”

My stomach sours. I wonder if Bianca is listening. She says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, Rick. That’s just great. You can tell that to Zack, your mom even, you can tell that to your shrink. But Jesus, Lance, I really wish you hadn’t told me that.”

The canoe’s momentum slows like an elevator. She swings her paddle down at the water and splashes me. The cold on my back makes my butt lift several inches above the seat as my arms and legs find themselves. My paddle plunks against the wooden edge of the boat, and I catch it just before it falls in, making the boat rock sideways.

Bianca laughs. “Next time I tell you not to take something the wrong way, you’ll know what happens if you take it the wrong way, and you won’t take it the wrong way.”

Looking ahead at the verdant trees in the mist, and at the distant figure on somebody’s dock, I think of Bianca at the fire last night. I think of Bianca wearing my sweatshirt.

 

Zack is gutting a fish and humming the tune of ACDC’s Hell’s Bells when I sit beside him with my hamburger. I’ve had several hours to dry off since I was canoeing. Bianca and Minnie are off hiking. Zack and I sit on the edge of the dock.

“She’s cute, don’t you think?” Zack yanks a particularly tough string of fat from the fish’s innards and a few droplets of pink graze my eye.

“What?”

Zack looks at me like I’m dumber than the fish he’s disemboweling. “My cousin Bianca, terd-baller. You said you wanted to meet my cousin when I showed you her picture last week at Joe’s, so now we’re camping, and you’re acting like you’re trying to piss into a jar balanced on an electric fence wire every time she walks near you. Grow some of these, terd-baller.” Zack eviscerates the fish’s genital region from the rest of it and shoves it in my face, mashing it against the side of my nose.

“Why’d you tell that story last night?” I look out at the lake and it is clear that I asked Zack that question only to make conversation.

Zack puts me in a headlock. He does this when he’s about to tell me some wisdom I’m supposed to feel privileged to be hearing it from him. “Nature tells you to chew seventeen times before you swallow. Although sometimes it’s not exactly seventeen; instinct signals when you’re ready to swallow, and if you try and keep on chewing after it’s time, or if you try and swallow before it’s time, you almost can’t do it. Sometimes you bite something that just can’t get chewed right no matter how many times you try. Before long instinct won’t let you keep chewing, and won’t let you swallow. When the first Neanderthal bit into a piece of tree bark he probably chewed it a good thirty or forty times then spit it out, and that’s how humanity learned what’s food and what’s not — trial and error. Relationships take trial and error too; you’re hungry for it, you see something tasty, you grab it, sink your teeth in, close your eyes as you roll the juices around your tongue, but if you’re fooled by your taste buds, you’ll find yourself chewing over the same arguments, the same lies and deceits, the same disappointments, the same brick walls until you’re forced to spit it all out. And sometimes when you spit, you puke.”

The sun lowers to a crisp the color of those little balls of sludge at the bottom of a tub of French fries that you’re not supposed to eat. Minnie and Bianca are still out on their hike. Zack has gone inside. He’s strumming a guitar and it sounds like indigestion. His riffs are melodic but reject cadence and seem to change key twice within the same note.

The lake is the color of a bran muffin traced with streaks of butter not quite melted. There is a brief few minutes in the evening before the trees go dark when the water looks like that. Zack comes outside with his shirt off and does not sit down.

The sickness in his story last night is his sickness. He brought us here because this is the lake he woke up in. It was probably after a night of drunkenness. Whatever happened, Zack couldn’t figure it out, so he made it a story. He came outside to tell me about his sickness. He crosses his arms and looks out across the lake.

“Where the fuck are they?” Zack lobs a rock into the lake. He picks up a smaller rock, throws it at my thigh and says, “How do you really feel about my cousin?”

I don’t think of anything to say in response to the question. Three years from now I will think of how I should have answered the question, after much thinking about it.

“I want to love her forever,” I don’t say but should say.

To which Zack doesn’t reply but should reply, “You don’t mean that.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Say what you mean.”

I would then say — if I were saying what I should say — “I will love her forever. I just, well, I’d prefer to do it with her than without her.”

After none of this is said, Zack tells me everything he knows about dating women. What he wanted to tell me, what he will later wish he had told me but does not tell me, is that when he was here before, when the visit was involuntary, he swam in the dark water.

“Listen to her. Listen to every fucking word she says, because listening to her will be the most fun you’ll have — better than eating the best pizza, better than baseball, better than snowboarding. Stupid idiots think they’re just waiting for the girl to stop talking. Guys don’t understand. If she wants to tell you about all the shit she had to deal with that day, and about how it made her feel, consider yourself blessed, and listen close.”

I swat a mosquito on my leg which still sting from the rock Zack threw at me.

“Pay attention, terd-baller.” Zack skips a rock on the dark lake. “She’s not venting for you, she’s doing it for herself. You’re not listening for her sake, you’re listening for you.” I want to acquaint myself with the minutia of her fury. I want to not because I understand what Zack is saying, but because I want to. It is immensely enjoyable to be a bystander to a woman’s vehemence when not directed at any person present or available object; it’s the kind of enjoyment you don’t notice until the object is you. Zack is right.

I hear a woman crying. It sounds far away, from down past the dirt road.

“Trust me, this will make sense,” says Zack. “When you’re boinking a girl, you care about the things she cares about. It’s like you’re the same person. She gets mad, you get mad. Sometimes the things that make you happy will make her mad, and that will make you mad, and then you’ll make each other sad, then you’ll get so sad you’ll make each other laugh, then she’ll reach for your shoulder and touch you gently, or you’ll touch her, then you’ll get that feeling like nobody else in the world matters because you’re boinking her and it’s the most incredible thing you ever felt.” Zack stops talking and listens.

I don’t hear crying anymore. I’m pretty sure I know what boinking is like.

Zack is wading in the water, up to his knees, walking slowly in. “The trouble with feeling the most incredible thing you ever felt is that it makes you tired. You don’t know it’s making you tired, but it’s making you so tired that one day you feel like you’re a corpse and don’t know why. So I’m telling you why, terd-baller. It’s because you didn’t listen. Get what I’m saying?” Zack is in up to his butt. “Later you’ll think back to the first times you talked to her, the times when it was simple, when all she wanted to do was talk about her day and all you had to do was listen, the times when you weren’t emotionally invested in what she was saying. That’s when it was fun, fun like the best pizza and baseball and snowboarding, but you didn’t know it was fun then, you only realize how fun it was now that you feel like a corpse because you love her so much.”

 

In the woods, Minnie chews on a pineapple weed and advises Bianca to “Shut the hell up. That’s what guys want, and that’s what we want. Do you want to start a friendship by talking about grocery shopping? This is a friendship of the deepest kind, a primal friendship. In the animal kingdom, that’s what I mean. Friendship, real friendship, is not about this.” Minnie maes a comical yap-yap gesture with her hand. “It’s about this.” Minnie reaches, grabs Bianca’s ass and grinds her hips into Bianca’s. Bianca laughs.

The next time they meet will be in the lake with no determinate shore to swim to.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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