by Stephanie Mataya
A scowling kid followed shoppers with a mop as they entered the Harmacy, halfheartedly working to preserve the white of the floor. With specks of glitter embedded in the faux marble, the tile’s effect was gaudy and bizarre, contrasting with the rows and rows of colorful vials, syringes, and bottles of pills waiting to induce some illness or other. The kid looked bored, probably forced to work by parents who thought too much free time was a hazard, like asking for bad habits to form.
People filed in every few minutes with wet shoes dragging in the dirt of the city street. The scowling kid trailed behind each new entrant, pushing that mop back and forth with a lazy energy, leaving a gleaming floor behind, however temporarily. He dragged the soap bucket around with him, one wheel eeking out occasional sharp squeaks that scratched the eardrum.
The items on the shelves seemed to be organized by color rather than function, an inefficient choice, but aesthetically pleasing, somehow. It reminded Polly of the way she used to arrange Legos when she was a child, small to big, light to dark. She caressed the edges of a particularly brightly colored vial with her fingertips, turning it around to read the highlighter pink details on the backside. FLUretanol: induces feelings of achiness throughout the body in combination with interspersed waves of fever and chills. Relaxing sense of illness guaranteed to last 24-48 hours. Only one drop needed! Handy to-go size! Polly turned the bottle back into place. The scowling kid grazed her shoe with the soggy mop, drenching the side of her sock in an instant.
“Fuck,” she said under her breath, making her way away from him as quickly as possible. In the back of the Harmacy, the shelves were stocked with paraphernalia; pill cases with every possible branding (Ferrari! Louis Vuitton! Peppa Pig!); 10-packs of empty syringes in shades of neon, metallic, and pastel; pill cutters shaped like turtles or Pacman, and one designed as a row of teeth that Polly found especially disturbing. One lone employee manned the counter in the corner, and the line was long; fifteen people, looking bored, waiting for the prescriptions that would grant them a day or two of escape.
Polly had always avoided the Harmacy, thinking herself a pretty content, competent person. She was only exploring because of the insistence of her brother Travis, who sang the praises of the Harmacy. She knew she was strange in her denial; everyone else at her office took at least ten sick days a year. Yet Polly had never taken a day, never took the easy way out by swallowing a dose of pneumonia, gurgling a bit of bronchitis, or shooting up some blood poisoning. Everyone thought she was so old fashioned.
The truth was that Polly liked to be happy and healthy. When people detailed their sick days with glee, she simply couldn’t understand it. While the monotony of the day to day could get tedious, the snotting, vomiting, feverishly shivering alternative was not appealing.
“It’s about balance Polly, I’ve told you this,” said her brother Travis, as she sat in his living room later that day. Polly handed him a tissue and averted her eyes as he cleared out his nasal passage with a horrible honk. Smirking, he threw the dirty tissue back at her, and Polly grabbed a magazine from his coffee table and held it up to her face just in time to divert the sticky, crumpled mess.
“You asshole!” she said with a laugh. “That’s disgusting, you know. Ever think about germs?”
“Polly, really? Germs? You know this cold was expensive, they wouldn’t give me germs with it too so I could pass a freebie on to a buddy. Seriously, the way you talk it’s like you’re grandma and you still think that you can pick up a cold on a dirty subway car. Fuck, I wish. These are different times, you know.”
“Yeah yeah fine, but I just don’t get it. You look like shit. Can’t you get ‘balance’ from just living your life, without intervention?”
“Abso—ah-choo!—loutely not. I’m living the life today, total relaxation. Another tissue, if you don’t mind.”
“Get one yourself, you dirty bastard.” Polly laughed and feigned running away out of fear, detouring into the kitchen to grab a glass of water. On the counter by the sink was Travis’s bottle of pills, one left. She read the description on the side: Coldexetrin: catch a simple cold, perfect for a three-day weekend! One pill generates an ideal amount of fatigue to justify a day at home, while leaving you with enough energy for regular mobility. On the opposite side of the bottle was a removable coupon, offering two-for-one boxes of tissues. Travis shouted at her from the living room.
“Don’t you care about your poor, ill, bitty baby brother?!” he added a brief fake cry at the end, a throaty sob that might have had her convinced if she didn’t know him so well.
“You did this to yourself kid, and I’ll never understand it.” She made her way back to the couch, cautiously reentering the line of fire of tissues. “Anyway, can we refocus, or is there snot clouding your eyes too? We need to make some decisions for this party.”
The siblings had been instructed to plan a “surprise” twenty fifth anniversary celebration for their parents and were supposed to be picking out stationery for the invitations, selecting flower arrangements, choosing a cake topper. Their parents had requested the party.
“Don’t you think it’s all kind of bullshit?” Travis asked.
“No, I think it’s kind of nice, in fact. Celebrating the endurance of love, life, etcetera, etcetera. What’s bullshit about that?”
“Endurance of love, my ass! It’s about flaunting success in front of other people. It’s about winning. Everything is about winning.”
“You’re such a cynic, Travis. I think it’s sweet.” She paused. Even as she said the words, she wasn’t sure if they were true. Perhaps she was old fashioned, but she wanted to believe that the celebration of love was something pure. One pure thing in the world that was increasingly tinkered with, increasingly subject to intervention. Love doesn’t need injections to make it successful, does it? Happiness with another person doesn’t require pill popping, does it? Her parents were happy, they must be. They still held hands when they walked down the street; they still called each other each evening when they were apart. If that’s not love, or at least an effort to maintain love, then what is? She pushed the thought aside and continued:
“Now, which do you think suits Mom and Dad best, yellow or coral?”
“Coral, if you’re gonna make me choose. Yellow is the color that liberal parents paint baby’s rooms. Giraffes and sunshine. Not very fitting for an anniversary show-off celebration, wouldn’t you say?” said Travis, in a moment of legitimate insight.
“I suppose that’s true. Looks like you need another tissue, kid,” Polly said.
The celebration turned out to be a modest affair; coral roses set in bud vases, a superfluous number of votive and taper candles. Polly and Travis’s father made half of their guests well up with tears as he gave a speech, thanking their loved ones for their support over the years, and thanking his wife for loving him.
“…and finally, to my Dorothy, for putting up with all of my shenanigans, and my socks all over the floor. For being my alarm clock when I inevitably sleep through mine, for being the mixologist to my chef, and for occasionally being my chauffer—all those scotch nights—am I right boys?! Getting back on track…for all of the beautiful vacations together, and all of the wonderfully relaxing sick days that we’ve enjoyed in one another arms. Sometimes I think those days have been the best of all. Sleeping in, cuddling each other’s feverish bodies. I feel truly blessed that we have been able to be ill together so many times. I never feel closer to you than I do at those times. The way we care for one another, I think it’s beautiful honey, I really do. You are beautiful, and wonderful, and I am so over the moon to shout it at the top of my lungs; we made it! We did it! Twenty-five years together, and happy as ever! We really did it! And one big thank you to all of you in the crowd tonight. We love all of you guys, we truly do. As a final note, the bar is open!”
The finale of his speech was met with a wall of applause, as though the audience was trying to clap away his words, one by one. Smatterings of laughter punctuated the applause, a perfunctory acknowledgement of Dave’s attempts at humor. Polly leaned over to Travis, whispering, “see, wasn’t that adorable? I think they are sweet. I want that someday, don’t you?
“Ha! It was exactly what I expected. The gloating at the end? ‘We did it, we did it! We won, we are better at marriage than all of you chumps!’ Great, really classy.”
“God, Travis, you look at things in the worst way. Is it really so terrible to be self-congratulatory on occasion? Are people not allowed to say they are proud of something they’ve accomplished? Don’t you ever pat yourself on the back?”
“Do you know how many pills Dad is taking?” Polly felt her face go pale; her smile dropped.
“What are you talking about? He seems really great, he’s happy.”
“You’re so fucking naïve, Polly.”
“Yeah, well you are fucking drunk, Travis,” she said, pronouncing his name exaggeratedly, in mockery of his tone.
“So what? He gave himself cancer, you dumb fuck.”
Polly stared at him in shock, not processing what he was saying, how it could be true.
“Fuck you. Go have a cup of coffee and go home.” Polly’s face flushed back to red, her cheeks burning. She guessed that was the end of their civil period. The two of them never went more than two months in each other’s good graces. The mere fifteen-month difference in their ages meant they were always at each other’s throats. As children, always in competition for attention from their parents, always fighting over friends, always arguing over the differences in their privileges. As adults, it hadn’t been any better. Differences in salary, competitions for the most attractive partners. His cynicism to her optimism.
She visited her parents a couple of weeks later, when they got home from their self-dubbed “honey-versi-moon.” Her mom’s skin had taken on a tan hue, camel, nearly matching the leather couch she was sitting on. She radiated health, looking better than she had when she was young, when her face was shredded to exhaustion by the burden of raising two small, feisty children. Her father, conversely, was weathered to the extreme. His eyes looked as though they had deliberately retreated further into his skull to avoid the dangers of the world. There was far too much blue tinting his skin to be healthy. When Polly went to hug him, she strangled the gasp in her throat. She’d seen him so recently, how had he deteriorated so quickly?
“So, how was Tahiti? All beach huts and glass-bottomed boats, I presume?” Polly dialed up the cheeriness in her voice, choosing to ignore whatever was wrong with her father. She hadn’t forgotten what Travis said.
“Oh Polly, it was a dream. Does the sun have powers to reverse aging? I would wake up every day, take a dip in big blue, take a little sun siesta, eat exotic fruits—pineapple, passionfruit, and oh, what were they called, Davey? Oh yes, rambutan! Have you ever heard of them, Polly?” Dorothy laughed at herself, smiling and smiling, dancing as she spoke like a woman from an old film.
“Mom, you seriously look amazing. I think those fruits really worked for you. Something did over there, that’s for sure.” Polly turned the volume up on the TV to drown out the sound of her father retching.
Polly was supposed to visit her father in the hospital in the evening. That wasn’t a remarkable fact—rather, it had become the new normal. Wake up, brush teeth, work, visit Dad, order takeout, brush teeth, sleep. Her morning began as her mornings always did, with the alarm blaring, and Polly’s first thought being to change the sound that the fucking alarm made. The thought always left her mind as quickly as it entered, and she never remembered to change it. Plodding through her morning routine, her autopilot was interrupted when she walked into her kitchen with a splash. Half an inch of water covered the linoleum, the dishwater the obvious culprit. After the cleanup and calling the super and changing her socks, Polly’s mood was in the pits, and she was an hour late for work.
Rushing down the street to the office, her eyes landed on the Harmacy. The exterior of the Harmacy was brightly colored, the signage minimal and attractive. The modern design was well thought out, with the angles of the awning original and intriguing, the glass door a hexagon, strangely. Polly wondered how much that custom job would have cost. She was already late and a voice in her head said fuck it and she pulled the door open and stepped inside.
As always, it was bustling, strangers necessarily brushing shoulders in the crowded aisles. She did a lap first, curious. There were shelves in one corner with sliding plexiglass doors, secured with a tiny padlock. The sign on top said “Semi-Permanents,” with small, almost unreadable text below “Warning: overuse and abuse can lead to enduring conditions.” Those protected shelves were full of small vials black with droppers, brightly colored packaging abandoned for the particularly wicked illnesses. They looked familiar.
Polly thought about her evening plans with dread. Her father would be lying in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, while her mother sat bedside, holding his hand and alternating between solemnly gazing at his withering body and small talking with whoever was in the room as if they were all healthy and hanging out at home. Nurses would enter and randomly prod the semi-conscious man, and Polly would divert her eyes, which only made her awareness of the smell more pronounced. It all felt like such a terrible cliché. She knew he was dying, that he was nearly dead already, barely able to register the guests that came and went.
Polly left the Harmacy and headed back the way she came.
On the day of the funeral, Travis’s eye sockets were rimmed purple, the whites of the eyes themselves streaked with red as the myriad wisps of vein made themselves known. Polly, Travis, and Dorothy sat in the front pew of the church, Travis with a bucket tucked under his spot, just in case.
“I just couldn’t deal with this day with a clear head,” Travis had explained to Polly that morning, looking apologetic. She’d raged at him, pounding his arm in anger at what he’d done to himself. By the time she met his apology with one of her own for lashing out, his bruises were starting to bloom, like a spot on a canvas that a watercolor brush dipped in blue and purple has barely grazed.
In the church, Dorothy was sporadically silent and murmuring versions of “he just wanted a month off…it was supposed to be temporary.” She mostly sat with her head in her hands, until she had to perform the eulogy. Then, she stood, straightened her skirt, patted her hair, and made her way to the podium with shoulders back; suddenly looking more like a woman on a mission than a woman in grief.
“Dave loved life. He loved living every day with joy and finding excitement in everything. He would call me into the yard while mowing the lawn to show me the tiniest of frogs hiding in the grass. That’s a true story, if you’ll believe it. Davey was a soft man, in his heart. But life is hard. Life was exciting when we were young, when the kids were young. Oh, it was exhausting, but Dave loved chasing those kids around. Polly and Travis, your dad loved you so much. We’re so proud of them, and how they’ve gone on to build their own lives. But when they left and moved out, something changed. There was no hustle. No frantic activity. It was almost as if life stopped, in an unbearable way. You have all felt it, the monotony. The unchanging string of days that line up one by one and you can’t remember the last time anything notable happened. Dave was the best man I ever knew, but he was vulnerable to the promise of excitement. Excitement of any kind, anything that made one day look differently than the day before. I know I’m not supposed to say things like this on the day we put him to rest, but my Davey did this to himself. I hope that today you will all honor his memory and think about the fondest times you shared with him, but I also hope you’ll all think about stopping this. We all are doing it, and we need to stop.”
Polly looked down, mourning for her father, mourning for herself. She sat on her hands to hide the tremors that she couldn’t control, letting the tears fall down her face.
Stephanie Mataya is a graduate of Western Washington University, and spent her days there writing stories and reading books. She was shaped by her West Coast upbringing, and has taken great joy and inspiration from living in New York, Paris, and currently, Canada. Previous work of hers has appeared in Your Impossible Voice and Scarlet Leaf Review.