Otherwise Panic

Mary Kuryla Click to

Mary Kuryla’s collection Freak Weather: Stories, selected by Amy Hempel for the 2016 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, has just been released by the University of Massachusetts Press.

Kuryla’s stories have received The Pushcart Prize and the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Prize. She is working on a novel told in documents, called The Onawayans.

Muscles tighten, noosing my neck to my rump, and this from a car wreck my husband says could not have caused such an ache. He’s the one suggested the swimming so my husband has only himself to blame for the backstroker eyeing the hairs lapping the edge of my swimsuit. Next thing I’m in the changing stall helping the backstroker tug the swimsuit down my hips.

“The rabbit was tranquilized for the bath,” said the animal technician, whose hands seemed to know better uses for such pets. “Otherwise panic, maybe drown.” He drew up my rabbit’s scruff, placed needle flush to the skin, plunged.

“It doesn’t hurt,” I said before he could, thinking what came over me in the pool — leaving waters where pain had no hold to do such a thing with a backstroker?

“Why can’t the doctor dispense the medication?” Marty said as I lined up syringes alongside my swimsuit draining into the tub. “I don’t do needles.”

I said, “When you see that bill.”

“Shoot him after. We’ll be late for the party.”

I asked around at the party if anyone knew how to give an injection. The great nephew of the birthday girl told me to pinch a flap of skin before sticking the needle. “Sometimes you hit a nerve anyway.” He tenderly patted his hip, where daily he injected insulin.

“Can I see?” I said, tugging up his shirt.

The great nephew grinned with slitty, stoned eyes, old enough to think everything was a game.

All through the song, the birthday girl’s husband never took his eyes off his wife. The flames of 80 candles undulated above the Olympic-sized cake. Yellow licks of light shone against the great nephew’s wet lips.

“Come home with me?” I said to the great nephew. “To inject my rabbit.” Plates got passed around, and my fingers forked up cake and pressed it against his closed mouth, frosting it aquamarine. I was willing to clean the mess with my lips, anything to avoid antagonizing my rabbit. It hurt that bad.

“Need a napkin,” Marty asked the great nephew, bringing a stack against my mouth.

The rabbit’s a friendly bastard but he sensed queerness in me, which he mistook for fear. Kneeling on the bathroom tile, syringe in hand, I was Nurse in a child’s game. There was a raw teardrop-shaped target on his neck left by the sickness. My finger stroked his veiny ear until I was out of what felt like patience — but was probably nerve — and discharged the syringe.

Toothbrush vibrating, Marty watched the prick of blood swell into air as the rabbit sprung out of my grip. Droplets of tawny fur splattering the floor.

I crawled under the sink after the rabbit. Marty spit out toothpaste before lifting a leg to let me pass. I pinned the rabbit’s head with one hand, the other hand aiming the needle for the nape — where was the third hand for pinching skin? — when the rabbit slithered belly out from under my palm, flashing dirty furred soles.

He crouched behind the toilet, thump-thumping his hind leg, alerting other bunnies that danger’s afoot. I popped my fist into its rump, and he walked out dog-style from behind the tender porcelain. I shoved the rabbit into the V of my legs. The time for stroking had come and gone. Thin grunts crackled up his throat. I pulled up the muscled jaw, needle-tapped the scruff, stuck, blood dotting, and entered.

“Leave him alone,” Marty said as he kicked crap balls the rabbit let fly the instant I hit maybe a nerve.

Motorized by pain, the rabbit bounded off tile, the loaded needle flapping from a neck the technician said was not so sensitive.

Birthday cocktail flooded my throat. “We could use that nephew who shot shots.”

“You sure could.” Marty shut the door behind him.

There is something about knowing you have caused the pain that makes you the shit that can follow it through. I snatched up the syringe from behind the toilet.

Marty said that all night he’d been thinking about ways to restrain our rabbit for this morning’s injection. He came up with this: set the rabbit in a shoebox then wrap and fasten with a cord. “If he can’t fight,” Marty said, “he won’t get hurt.”

The rabbit and I met again in the bathroom. It hopped out to greet me, not knowing that I was meaner than pain, and that was what it took. Marty’s shoebox idea guided me to the bathtub, where sunlight from one narrow window fingered the swimsuit stiffening there. Held in by four sides and me, the rabbit could only widen eyes as I pinched up skin at the hot target behind the ears and poked in. I hit the plunger. This time the rabbit just shook his ears, throwing off a bad thought.

“You did it so fast?” Marty said when I plodded out.

“I wouldn’t take the blame last night,” I said.

“That got in the way?”

The muscles in my back had shortened like leather cords in some desert torture. I would grow long again in water. As I tugged up my swimsuit, Marty handed over the bag but his fingers gripped the mesh. “There’s other uses for those legs,” he said.

“Marty, my body responds to the water.”

Floaters strapped on backs, the old have come out in numbers today. I dangle my legs over the lip of the pool, watching their heads turn tranquil as water. In water the body can cheat. These swimmers know this as they eye each other across lanes, remembering better uses for hips than straining over porcelain seats, believing, still believing, even after all those laps, that infidelity is balm.

I haul my legs out of the water. The time for stroking has come and gone. The rabbit will get hurt, but at least he can put up a fight.

Pain, Marty, is the shit that will get us through.


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  1. Pingback: Quick Reads (February 2018) | A Vase of Wildflowers

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