Liable To Spontaneously Explode
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Remote"
Originally featured on 12-04-2009
As part of our series "The Future Was Now"

The poet’s name and appearance have not been confirmed, but according to folklore, all of his or her works — most likely published under a pseudonym or multiple pseudonyms — are composed at coffee shops, and while writing longhand in a shabby notebook, every time he or she breaks through to a moment of truth, a glass or mug at a nearby table inexplicably shatters. So the next time you’re chatting with your compatriots at the Red and Black, sipping herbal tea at the Southeast Grind or getting your caffeine fix at Backspace and your cup becomes a jigsaw puzzle in your hand, steaming liquid bursting all over the table, splashing onto your lap and the floor, before you attribute the accident to a chemical quirk of hot liquid, look around you for a scruffy character aged twenty-five to fifty hunched over college-ruled paper with a writing utensil in hand, isolated in a corner, wrist moving furiously like the wings of an insect stuck to the ground, his or her whole body galvanized with an internal symphony manifested in his or her spine. Reports of mysteriously exploding coffee have also arisen from several other anonymous coffee shops. Any connection between these events is mere speculation, although

 

Selena stopped reading the article, stuffed her magazine neatly back into the crate it came from and crossed the street. Moisture still hung in the air like a threat. She had long since stopped giving a damn about the hip and the less hip neighborhoods’ efforts to perceive themselves as artsy. She no longer cared for street musicians peddling their recordings at the Saturday Market, or the self-important novelists who saved up their money to publish with the singular goal of marking their territory like a dog, donating shiny copies of their manuscript to the establishments they frequented so that when parlaying with strangers in the hopes of getting laid they could smugly point to their mettle on the bookshelf. Selena knew better than to sleep with any more of those types and wake up to hear them whine about how they’re too pure to be marketable, and wouldn’t want success anyway, given the lowest common denominator of audiences.

Selena did not give a damn about those few well-dressed pedestrians she passed in the intersection in their high heels toting umbrellas. She refused to make eye contact with anybody pathetic enough to own an umbrella. The rain had come down earlier — she had glanced out the window during lunch — thick enough to make bird feces fade from a windshield, but not enough to render a bicycle’s brake pads frictionless. There were no torrential downpours.

If the clouds could pace themselves, so could Selena, which was why twice daily she locked the door to a public bathroom, filled the sink with hot water, lowered her face into it and held her breath. She felt the bitter pinch to her chin as she slowly submerged it in the hot water. She scrunched her eyes and her lips as the rest of her face felt the scald all at once, the water screeching into her forehead, her nose, her cheeks and the base of her ears like swallowing something deadly from the outside first.

Her skin shot out a layer of sweat like a parachute against the heat. Her eyes constricted tighter and her teeth shivered. She held her face in as long as she could and counted to herself without moving her jaw or opening her lips.

One one-thousand.

Two one-thousand.

Three one-thousand.

Four one-thousand.

Five one-thousand.

Six one-thousand.

Seven one-thousand.

Eight one-thousand.

Lifting her head from the sink, she gasped, filling her lungs with air that felt thicker than mayonnaise. Exhaling felt no different than taking a shit. By then the salty, syrupy tears were tickling her cheek and dripping to the floor. The pain did not make her sob or wail or become in any way vocal. Weeping calmly twice a day was enough.

She did it quietly and then let the sink drain out and filled it back up with cold water. Next she held her breath and dunked her face in the cold water.

Eight one-thousand.

Seven one-thousand.

Six one-thousand.

Five one-thousand.

Four one-thousand.

Three one-thousand.

Two one-thousand.

One one-thousand.

When she saw her reflection, she squinted so that she could not look at it. She did not look in the mirror until after patting down her face with the blue washcloth she kept in her purse. Once she looked presentable, she would re-button up her blouse, fix her hair, unlock the bathroom door and return to the public.

It was as good a habit as any other. It was better than drinking or smoking or running on a treadmill. One visit to the bathroom before lunch and one after dinner. Nothing else in the course of the day could make her upset or frightened after her bathroom.

 

A pebble-shaped drop of rain burst on her shoulder as she walked under the telephone pole. The business-formal umbrella holders had cleared the intersection and were no longer in Selena’s vision. The air still threatened to become vertical.

She had had one bathroom today — in between the conference with the urban planners and the internal audit — and was looking around for prospects for her second bathroom. She had never told anybody about her bathrooms, but it would be no big deal if she did, because bathrooms were no big deal.

Her boss lit his shirtsleeve on fire in the parking lot and then changed into a different shirt. Selena had seen him do it more than once, and it was not worth mentioning. The secretary answered phone calls with balls of wasabi in the back of her mouth shifting around like sucking candies. Everybody had some unique way of making it through the day. Selena made it through every day, and woke up too early to remember her nightmare, the one where she stands in a generic bathroom with her face buried in the wet pain and hears a knock at the door.

She continues to count, suspending her breath. Three one-thousand. Four-

The knock comes louder. Her stomach jumps up inside itself like popcorn.

One-thousand. Five one-thousand. Six one-thousand.

The doorknob jangles and shakes, and then a most unnatural sound of metal grinding against metal. Selena quickly lifts her head from the sink, her hair flinging water against the mirror. The room is melty like wax through tears. She wipes her eyes.

The door is open and a stranger stands before her, feet drifting closer through the doorway without taking steps. Selena has seen this stranger’s face a thousand times but can not recollect any of its features or its gender.

More strangers congregate behind the one. A crowd of expressionless onlookers stand outside the bathroom. Her bathroom. As they drift closer toward her, toward the sink

Seven one-thousand. Eight one-thousand.

she hears herself in a conversation; time splits into a twin continuum like a finger seen double when held in front of one’s eyes. She’s draining the sink so that she can fill it up with cold water and complete the ritual, knowing that while counting with her face in the cold water, she will feel the clammy hand of the stranger clasping her hair, dunking her head under and not letting go. At the same time, she hears herself having a conversation with a coworker. At an ambient bar, on a Friday night. Simultaneously she’s in the generic bathroom and also hears herself at the bar telling him about her bathrooms and he has taken a half-breath into his jaw, unsure if he should laugh or sympathize, and has said something middle-ground, something like that’s fucked up.

Selena tells her coworker at the bar on the Friday night, speaking with the indifferent sarcastic tone that all Portland sophisticates use as if it’s a language, Oh, well, thank you, it’s good to know that. Please enlighten me on what symptoms I’ll develop if I continue in my fucked up ways. Will my face fall off?

In the generic bathroom, the cold water laps at the edge of the sink. She turns off the faucet and begins. Eight one-thousand. Seven one-thousand. The malevolent stranger is right behind her.

The coworker at the bar on the Friday night quips, I don’t know. I’ve never met anyone as fucked up as you. You’ll be the first to find out.

Her face no longer stings, but she’s crying so hard she feels her legs becoming lighter from the liquid drawing up to her throat and out through her eyes, making the cold water in the sink brim and spill over the edge. She counts faster. Sixonethoussandfiveonethousandfourone The stranger’s hand is reaching for her neck.

Selena presses her palm above the coworker’s knee at the bar on the Friday night and says, When’s the last time you cried?

thousandthreone three one three one her mind hitches. Any moment, the stranger

The coworker at the bar on the Friday night says, Why do you ask?

Why do you ask? becomes drowned in the blare of Selena’s alarm clock. The day.

 

She would ask because she once dated a thespian for a few months. The thespian was a jerk, but she liked the first question he had asked her, sidling up behind her while throwing darts. He had wanted to know the last time she cried, and had asked it in a conversational voice that might have been used to ask someone what time it was. When she asked him why he wished to know, he said because she looked like she could use one. After a thousand possible retorts ran through her head, she locked eyes with the thespian and deferred the question back to him.

The thespian looked at his watch and said, “About an hour ago.”

Losing interest in the darts, she said, “I’m intrigued” and led him back to her table.

“Well you shouldn’t be,” said the thespian, “emotions are like urine. I don’t care how you feel as long as you let it out. Americans are afraid of emotions, it’s a fact. Imagine if everyone out there could read your mind, knew the future, could turn doorknobs with their mind, sense water underground, felt the motion of the planets and the stars. Then we’d all be in psych wards because the radio and television signals and all the noise would be too much.” The thespian snapped his fingers. “Darwinism. Thousands of years ago, we were all psychic. Are we better off now? It’s the same with emotions. It used to be no big deal when people cried or blushed or got angry. It’s the modern work ethic; you have to be focused on boring shit all day and get it right.”

“What do you do for a living?” Selena asked the thespian. When he said he was an actor, she laughed so hard she cried a little bit. The thespian was fun, but Selena was over dating actors; after booting the jerk out of her life, she started bathrooming.

 

It was raining heavily now as she walked past the gas station toward her car. She was done. Done with this town. Done with bathrooms. Done with underachievers who proclaimed their uniqueness through bumper stickers. Done with the automatons crossing the street under their clean umbrellas. Fucked up…? Fucked up was the cold hand of a stranger drowning her face in the tap water of her dream, the procession of cyclists blocking off entrance to the bridges and the highways in a carnival atmosphere while the traffic honked and clamored, the asshole men at bars who seemed so flamboyantly complex and endearing at first approach and the disappointment that so shortly after followed. Fucked up was a culture where nobody enjoyed telling the truth.

It had stopped raining. Temporarily, at least. Even the rain was inconsistent, ruled over by the whim of the moment, too proud and righteous to make a commitment and fucking decide to show up. She worked too hard to care beyond her sixteen seconds of submerged emotion. The thespian was right, but also very wrong; boring shit was important, and Selena remembered times and places where people appreciated the minutia of their boring shit and, through it, knew where they stood.

It had not stopped raining. She saw it coming down, pelting off passing cars. She also heard it pattering on the umbrella that she was standing under. Her gaze snapped around to see the smiling, innocent face of a short Jewish looking man wearing shorts and a tank top. She wondered foolishly how long she had walked under this stranger’s umbrella without noticing that he was holding it over her, without noticing him.

“I couldn’t help overhear your internal thought monologue,” said the short Jewish man. “Might I entreat you to coffee?”

Selena felt her lips slither away from the center of her face. She hated to smile involuntarily at a man’s advance, but reminded herself that emotions were as insignificant as urine. “If you read my mind,” Selena said through her smile, “You’d know that I despise umbrellas.” She gently pushed the umbrella’s stem away from her and felt the delicious falling drops on her nose and collar. “You’re sweet, and if you knew what I was thinking, you’d know that I’ve made up my mind to move back to Boston, so you shouldn’t waste your time having coffee with me.”

The sweet Jewish man put collapsed his umbrella, stuffed it in his briefcase and took Selena by the arm. “Bullshit.”

“Bullshit what?”

“You’re right about umbrellas. I call bullshit that you’re moving to Boston. You’re going to have coffee with me and you’re going to give Portland another chance.”

She retracted her forearm from his, crossed her arms and said, “Why?”

He thought for a moment, wrestling his tongue against the corners of his mouth.

Selena said, “Okay, one cup of coffee.”

 

As she lifted the mug to her mouth, she felt the tremor on her palm just before the splash on her lap.

The sweet Jewish man had the look on his face that he was about to say something truthful, something that was no big deal. And before he said it, the staff hastened to their table with a mop, paper towels and apologies.

In his briefcase was a shabby notebook.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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