Friday, March 27, 2020

Friday, March 27, 2020: National Women's Month: Toti O'Brien's short story "Tanked"

Daniel was on top when I heard rasping at the door. Knocking, lightly… that must
have been what she meant, but didn’t quite dare. The closed door intimidated her.
She wasn’t accustomed to barriers, especially not between us. I was still flesh of
her flesh, was I?

She might have thought a doctor was in (that would have commanded her
respect, her obsequiousness—all things uniformed did). Maybe more than
one—a few, and nurses as well, performing a procedure of sorts. Such
hypothesis would have stopped her in spite of curiosity, sent her back
to the hall. She would have sat on the sofa, waited like a good girl.

Was she listening for a scrap of conversation, out there? Whispered
orders? A sound? Surprise! We didn’t make any. I was so weak I
could barely breathe, certainly couldn’t exert my muscles and s
imultaneously vocalize. For the time being I had given priority to
motion. Tension, to be exact. All my energy concentrated in
my full-extended arms, wrists locked, fingers clamped around
Daniel’s fingers.

No hands, at the moment. Lips, tongue, genitalia, but no hands. Maybe later...
For now I wanted him to be crucified over the cross of me, and the other way
around. We both arched like a double bow, rose and fell, every inch of our
skin making contact—besides hands.

Mute... we hadn’t exchanged a word since we met, meaning three fucks
ago. No way to tell time otherwise—curtains were never drawn and lights
were always on, sometimes lowered by a dimmer a nurse shifted on
occasion, not sure why. I assumed Daniel had always arrived during
nighttime. I couldn’t be sure.


He was clean—his skin smooth and dry, rubberlike... The air conditioning
prevented us from sweating. Its low, constant buzz isolated us in a kind
of capsule—the room was that tiny. Yes, we could have been in space.

D. had no body odor, not a distinctive one. He had a hospital smell, bland and
vaguely sweet, sadly clean yet rotten underneath. The same smell I exuded,
I guess. We could have been two Barbie dolls out of the same box. His head
was fully shaved, a hint of regrowth pleasantly brushing my palms. Not
now—hands weren’t allowed... Our fingers, intertwined, fettered us together.

I sighed noiselessly. Her presence, outside, had returned me to earth,
interrupting my flight. I was cooling fast. Alas, Daniel caught my
fading vibe. He slowed down, then he lay beside me on his stomach—
his face niched between my shoulder and ear. I felt the whole of him,
not only his penis, deflate. I hated those aborted rushes, miscarried
ecstasies. Yet our present posture was the closest to tenderness we
had ever shared—our fingers relaxed, still entangled, unwilling
to let go. We said nothing. I waited for my mother to leave.

She should have gone for good, not just to the adjacent waiting
room, to allow for Daniel’s exit. Would she? Were we stuck?
Would we be discovered? Not that such eventuality troubled
me. What could happen that hadn’t already? Could I be punished?
More? About him… if he took the risk to ignore regulations and
come frolic with a female patient, he mustn’t have much to lose.
I shouldn’t over-worry for Daniel.

How did I know his name? He hadn’t spoken a word since fuck one.
You assume it was penned on his gown, do you? I never checked.
He dropped the thing on the chair, by the door, as soon as he
came in. And I couldn’t have possibly… Had I wished to get
up, I couldn’t have. Not walked, not… Daniel yawned and I
lost the train of my thoughts. My eyes wandered around,
then fell onto the crowded surface of a minuscule bed stand.
The glare of my amber ring—such a cute perfect egg—caught
my gaze, as if concentrating all brightness the dull, somber
room contained.

And I suddenly knew what Mother came for. The amber. She
wanted it back. She must have looked for it without finding
it. Suspected, then realized I had stolen it. Borrowed? Giving
back the ring was the way to get rid of her. Could D. slip into
the bathroom, hide a while? I’d let Mother in. I would give her
the ring with due apologies, then I’d ask her to go. Should I tell

How did I learn his name? I didn’t. I don’t know how he calls himself.


I know I have fallen on a plane.

Not ‘from’ a plane, dummy. On it, more specifically into my seat, seatbelt duly
buckled. I remember being sick, a part of me desperately wishing for help. A
doctor! Isn’t there always a doctor aboard? This sure was no exception. By
the way even a nurse would do. Someone help me! I was sick like a dog. I
remember, though I can’t feel it right now. Those states evaporate. You l
ose the picture—only the captions remain. Your brain stores a few stickers—
brief descriptions, adjectives such as ‘awful,’ ‘unbearable’. Or a simile—‘like
a dog’.

I remember I was liquefying, vanishing, yet strenuously trying to stay seated,
hoping no one would notice my (temporary, I hoped) defection. I had decided,
after all, I shouldn’t get aid. The sicker I was, the more paranoid I became
for some reason. Terrifying scenarios accompanied my vertigo, my nausea,
my cold sweat, my tremor. I shouldn’t attract attention. Shouldn’t let them know
… I would get in trouble. They would send me… Would lose my carry on. Should I…
At that point, the subject of this frantic monologue I left the stage.

When I reemerged I didn’t recall who I was. Not my name, yet it mattered
little. I could have dispensed with it. But I missed some general
information—any kind—for operative purposes. Knowing nothing about
my identity left me vulnerable, helpless, in terms of what I should do next.
I didn’t dare moving. Luckily I was still seated and buckled.

I knew I was in transit—an in-between situation, a passage, implying after
and before. That much was clear. Slowly the idea of a vehicle came forth.
Getting that part right was reassuring, paradoxically grounding me. Only
later I figured out I was in flight. An airplane! Now I had a where. Not a

‘I’ was coming back, though. ‘I’ (yet unnamed but present, comrades,
present!) was on a plane, transiting from an origin to a destination.
When? Oh God. The question caused another burst of vertigo. A number
of references fluttered through my brain (which felt as mushy as a pudding
somebody forgot to refrigerate). I saw bits and pieces of facts, clueless about
which had already occurred, which were current indeed.

When was I? The search was exhausting. I gave up. Similarly, a few idioms
were struggling on the very tip of my tongue. I could speak more than
a language, apparently. Such skill seemed redundant, embarrassing. I was
frightened of expressing myself in the wrong idiom, irrationally persuaded
my mistake would have catastrophic consequences.

I tried to pay attention, listen to the words others spoke. Why hadn’t I yet?
I saw people talking. Uniformed people, standing by a small metal door,
busy in conversation. Stewards? Hostesses? Was it a door? It looked like
a gate. My sight was still blurred, I noticed—hard as I tried, I couldn’t
properly read those folks’ lips. Then I realized they didn’t make
sounds. No one—nothing—did. All was perfectly mute. We were fish,
sealed inside an aquarium, underwater. I gasped for air.

Then I screamed.


I must have dozed off. I thought I was recollecting the events leading
me here, putting them in a logical sequence for your perusal—but I have
fallen asleep. For how long?

Daniel is gone. No surprise. It has happened before. We have napped after
sex, like two cherubs. Each time, I have heard him snore—gently, like a cat—
then I have snoozed away. When I later awoke, he had left. Then he came
back. I can’t measure time in between. He is my watch.

Now I’m all-alone. I feel like a half moon. A sick sickle. I shall sleep again.

Then I see her. She is sitting on the metal chair, in a corner, close to the
curtained window and far from the bed. Far from me, yet staring at me like
a bird of sorrow. Could you stop, Mom? Cease being yourself, could you?
Of course I don’t ask her.

She has still her coat on—neat and tight, wide lapel emblazoned with a black
cameo. Winter coat, the color of petroleum. Her hands clasp her purse. How like
her. Her hands… I glance at the bed stand—a chaos of bottles, sparse tablets, empty
boxes, tissues, powder and spills, even a tube of lipstick… What a mess, and yet I
can tell the amber is gone. Mom! The scream scorches my throat. It hurts like spitting
blood. Did she hear me? I’d like to sit, prop myself upright, but I can’t. I am furious.

She stands. She looks uncertain—her features betray anxiety, then panic. Should I
pity her? She is coming towards the bed with such tiny steps! Unbelievable. Why does
she walk that way? She’ll never make it on time.

I am dizzy. Come here, for Christ’s sake! Where did you put the ring? Why did you…
I know it’s hers. I know how much she cares. But she could have asked.

Now, when you lose consciousness, where do you go? I mean, when we sleep we
dream. We go into dream world—a kind of separate realm, not indecipherable.
When we faint, have a seizure, fall into a coma, where do we go? What’s there when
awareness fails us? I wish I could tell.
When you fall unconscious you don’t die, don’t vanish... Well, the ‘you’ does. The ‘I’—
I told you how long it took to come back, on the plane. Thus the subject of the
conversation—monologue—is cleared out, but something remains. Quite dense.
Struggling. Aching. Laboring. Sweating. Trying to make it back to the surface from the
very bottom where it crashed, apparently. From the gluey, muddy hole.

Something, not ‘a’ thing. The article is missing. Multitude. Legion—don’t they call the
devil that way? From hell, multitude tries to climb, crawl, creep up the abyss walls.
Legion is determined, strong—frantic to become one again.

I remember such effort, such desperate tenacity. Such absurd optimism, until all that
pixelation landed on my upper edge, made it to my skin pores, and I opened my eyes.
Tell you the truth, I like those crumbles of being—all scattered, all nameless—more
than I like myself. They are so innocuous. So pure.


When he first showed up I had just returned from one such. I mean seizure—fainting
spell—whatever they are. Still trembling. Still marveling, contemplating the sight of
those little spots swimming towards reality. Starlets, fireflies of mine.

Quietly, he pushed the door open. When he dropped the hospital gown he was stark
naked. When he lowered himself upon me I felt refreshed. Happy… about that? Of
course I kept it shut.

In my mind, I knew who he was. I had already named him.
Daniel was a prophet. He climbed out of the pit where they had tossed him—food for l
ions—a penance of sorts. Who decided it and why? Those questions never get answers.
Climbing out is what fucking with Daniel feels like. Here, now. Only, I’m not sure I
want to.
I have stolen a bunch of her jewelry, piece by piece. I have sold it within the hour, you
bet. Had to. Atrociously unfair. I know how much she cared. I know I’m unforgivable
and I deserve what I got. No excuse. On the contrary, Mom, please accept my apologies.

Still, do you remember Cornelia? Don’t look at me that way. Those tears in your eyes,
always on the verge of spilling, yet stuck. How I wish you would cry, period, instead of
giving me the lightning and thundering.

Cornelia, I was saying. I don’t recall details. Well, don’t recall a thing, don’t even know
if I liked the gal. But she went out to some balcony, her kids in her arms, right and left.
She said: “These are my jewels”. A proud thing—maybe a rebel thing—a great sort
of thing to do. Mom, you could have said nothing of the kind. Did you even hug me?
If you did, you sure weren’t proud.

I stole the amber last. Didn’t have time to sell it. Damn! You got it back. Then be it.
Would you let me sleep? I can’t unless you leave this room. Come back tomorrow,


The last time I saw my girl she was well fed, dressed, and pampered. We played all
afternoon. We drew on huge sheets of construction paper, in all available colors. I had
bought the largest pad at the 99 cents store. And markers, and scissors with a rounded

I had brought a bag of mess in my carry on. Mess is ribbons, barrettes, candy, safety
pins, stickers, make up, you name it. I pulled out a golden braid, slipped it through
one of the scissors loops, knotted it, then hang it around her neck like for a
professional seamstress. Same for myself. I had found scissors with plastic handles—
mine red, hers pale pink.

First we drew trees, flowers, boats, cars, houses, people, every animal we could think
of. “We say a thing, we draw a thing,” I had told her. She loved it. She kept singing
with her little bell of a voice—the prettiest of sounds—“now we make… a birdy!” “
Now we make… a lelephant!” “Now we make… a duck!” First her pitch went up—now
we make—then remained suspended like a kite—then came down like gentle rain.
Time flew.

I was about to leave, and we hadn’t started cutting yet. Can she sense how long are
my visits? All the same, between two shuttles. She said: “Mom, what’s the most
important?” I chocked. “Uh…” My brain raced and felt mushy at the same time.

Is it love? No. Believe? Believe… Faith? Come on, she isn’t yet four. Loyalty? Is it me
coming no matter what—no matter where from—going to the 99 cents stores, bringing
this bag along. Isn’t this the most important? Must be. Yet, shouldn’t this change at
some point? Could it?

Hope? Is it? Why are you asking, doll? Because you already know? Are you testing
me? Haven’t I failed yet? Then something lit up. “You mean, what’s the most
important among these, like… houses…” “Houses!” she said. She was smiling, her
fingers smeared black, tenderly caressing the contour of her drawing. “Houses, f
lowers, eyes, faces. Birds and trees,” I said, still uncertain. Maybe we should just
enumerate. Maybe she didn’t care about a first prize.

Now I did. “Baby,” I asked in turn, “what’s the most important?” She pensively
scratched the top of her head. “Fish,” she said. I sucked my cheeks, puckered my
lips, making tiny invisible bubbles, sending mute kisses her way. She laughed.
So did I.

(previously published in Duende, Spring 2018)

© 2020 Toti O’Brien

Bio: Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in ZiN Daily, Harbor Review,  Door Is A Jar, and petrichor.

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