Dave’s wife was a lip balm addict. She stashed it everywhere: the car, her two purses, and in each of her coats. Cindy used all the brands she could find, without loyalty to any one. Blistex, Chap Stick, Carmex, Vaseline Lip Therapy, what have you. She employed an evenhanded, unscientific approach to selecting which stick to apply—closest one to her lips wins. Flavors were many. The basic fruits like Super Cherry and Lunar Lime. The sweets like Gum Ball Galaxy. Those named after famous people: Shaq-a-licious Surprise and J. Lo-Co-conut. And combinations like Very Berry Katy Perry and Jackie O-range Diamond. Some had an SPF of 45, but that was gravy.
She made Dave carry one with him in his front pants pocket, just in case she forgot hers. It was a strange thing to Dave—that Cindy sometimes forgot the thing she most needed. But he found it sweet that she relied on him in this small way, especially after his career had veered into a ditch. He needed that vote of confidence.
Dave had an advanced degree in economics. He’d been a star at school and at work. That people had once listened to his ideas was a badge of honor he’d worn with the pride reserved for the greatest of achievements. He could picture himself, and he often did, in a victory lap around the inner perimeter of an open-air stadium filled to capacity, flags of every color and design waving, adoration being foisted upon him. This was a thing that could not be matched by any remuneration. For Dave, it was never about the money. But then his firm had shut down under the shadow of a billing scandal. The events had left Dave’s resume with stains he couldn’t scrub off, and his ambition dormant. Now, a comparable job was out of the question. Headhunters wouldn’t touch him. He finally settled for a job down at the commercial docks gutting and cleaning the daily catch, figuring that doing so would be incentive not to remain inert. Problem was he was starting to like it—the repetition, and the certainty of how he measured his daily success.
Cindy worked full time. At night, she kept lip balm under her pillow like a tooth for the tooth fairy. Dave tried it himself once, without telling her, just before they’d gone to bed. He wanted to understand and for about a minute he thought he did. His coated lips felt impervious to the summer heat. He believed, at least for the short time he’d rubbed his upper and lower lips together, that he was protected. He lay there naked on his back watching the ceiling fan overhead until Cindy came to bed. Their lovemaking that night lasted for hours, each of them finally falling away from the other in sweaty exhaustion.
He fell asleep satisfied, believing things were on an upswing. I feel better, he thought. But at three a.m., when Cindy couldn’t find the lip balm under her pillow, she turned all the lights on in the bedroom. Frantic. She shook Dave awake, demanded he help her find it. The thing must have rolled off the nightstand, he said, where he’d put it while they were rolling around. But they never found it, as if their lovemaking had removed it from existence.
Cindy had a four-year business degree and a secure job in software development. She left Dave later that same year he lost his job. This was during a September when it rained a lot, and the rest of the fall would be much the same. On the day he moved into his new place, his landlord helped him with the furniture. They carried a wooden library table up a long flight of stairs, around a sharp bend onto a landing and into his kitchen, placing it in the corner. It was big, oak, rectangular, with one drawer filled with something that rolled around every time he and his landlord repositioned it. He’d found the table with Cindy years before, second hand. She said they should buy it and refinish it. They’d be doing something together, she said, and it made her feel good. It would be a symbol of strength and longevity in their relationship. After Dave’s friend Richie lent them his truck to bring home the table, Dave and Cindy spent four days sanding the thing, making sure to rub out every bit of its previous finish. They coated it with a reddish-brown stain, and then used three coats of glossy polyurethane to complete the job. The new surface gleamed. He liked to rub his hand over it, to feel its smooth surface and the newness of what they’d done together.
During that last summer Dave and Cindy were together, they would sometimes lay in bed naked and sweating beneath the whirring fan. When the wind was right, the fan cooled them with fresh air off Narragansett Bay. Most days, though, the stagnant air hung over the town, wrapped it up so tight that no matter where you were in town you couldn’t breathe without smelling the daily catch from the docks where Dave worked.
“Hey, you,” she said, reaching for her lip balm. As she applied it, she rolled over, her head on his chest, and looked up at the ceiling. “Let’s play ‘Do You Think?’” She rolled over again, her dark hair falling onto her shoulders. She was on top of him now, smiling. She put the stick under her pillow.
“Do you want to play?”
“Where are you anymore?”
“What do you mean?” Dave said.
“I don’t know. You just aren’t here sometimes.” She straddled him, her hair falling off her shoulders and her breasts rubbing against his chest. She put her hands on his collar bones, gently, slowly moving toward his exposed throat. “Do you want to play or not?” she said, her shining lips so close to his he could smell the lip balm: Calypso Punch. She backed away her hands, pushed down hard on his chest and then shook him.
“I just want to feel better,” he said.
“This will help,” she said, straightening up.
“Okay, okay, I give.”
“No, you start,” he said. He couldn’t think of any questions.
“Okay, then. Me first.” Cindy thought for a moment. “Do you think we’ll have any children?”
They’d met five years before and had been together since. She told him then that they’d be with each other always because he understood her needs and that she always admired a man who knew interesting things—things you could talk about at dinner parties, like the ones with Dave’s co-workers who were important enough to have catered affairs serving food prepared by the best local chefs. Sometimes Dave’s company even brought in a chef from Boston, like Todd English, to do the cooking. Those were the nights, Dave thought, when he most tangibly felt his success—eating the food of kings. It was said by several of Dave’s now-former executives that before Dave’s time at the firm, Julia Child had served French cuisine one evening. At the dinner party where Dave and Cindy had first heard the story, told with the greatest of reverie, they’d passed a satisfied glance to each other. The lovemaking that followed later in the evening had, to Dave, validated everything he’d done to that point in his thirty years on earth.
Dave looked at her mouth now as she spoke. He thought about how her smile had attracted him to her in the beginning. How her lips looked just after she’d rubbed her tongue over them. Soft, silky smooth, and a shade of pinkish red. He thought about how his current career trajectory no longer fit with Cindy’s desire for important people and dinner parties.
“Right. Okay. What was yours?”
She was getting pissed. “Do you think we’ll have any children?” she said again.
“Do you think we’ll live until we’re eighty?” he said.
“Do you think Elvis will be elected President?”
“Do you think Richie’s cute?”
“Do you think I belong in a nunnery?”
Dave had counted 15 places where Cindy had stored her supply of lip balm, including one on the shower shelf next to his razor blades. She’d found this one at Banana Republic next to a sock display: Peach Peridot Almond. She’d gone there to buy him socks for a job interview. He’d needed those socks the next day when he’d been scheduled to speak with a company about selling their business equipment and supplies. The guy on the phone practically guaranteed Dave the job. “Just come in tomorrow,” he’d said, “and talk to Jack. Jack will love you. I know what Jack likes and you sound like what Jack likes.” Dave’s impulse had been to say, “Of course Jack will like me,” but he hesitated. Desperation can do that, he thought—hide your confidence so far out of reach you wonder if you ever had it in the first place. Maybe it was a dream.
Cindy forgot the socks but remembered the balm. Dave’s smart new suit and shiny polished black shoes couldn’t overcome very old socks with holes in them. On the walk over to the interview, the pain from the backs of his heals rubbing against the insides of his shoes pissed him off to distraction. This and the oppressive summer air clouded his ability to form coherent thoughts. Not surprisingly, the interview went badly.
Rain fell hard later that afternoon while he walked home, defeated, his clothes soaked through to his skin. He looked up and squinted, as if by doing so he might see between the raindrops and the thick cloud cover all the way into the blue sky and beyond. He saw himself just above the clouds carried by the wind, skipping along the tops, feeling them soft and smooth. As he floated, lighter than air, he slowly blended in with the sky so that all the molecules of his body scattered, and as the warming sunlight hit them just before dusk, they caused the clouds to evaporate, radiating colors so striking they brought people to their knees, crying with joy.
He couldn’t carry the elation all the way home, though. He found Cindy in bed, waiting, but the sex lasted just a few minutes as the rain hitting the roof caused Dave to lose focus and think only about it breaking through and flooding their bedroom. He imagined them being carried out the window, down the street and into the Bay, all the while holding on to each other tightly as they floated farther and farther away. He rolled off her, and lay beside her, listening for the rain to ease up. They were both silent.
“Hey,” he said, finally. He left the lights off.
“Do you want to hear about today?”
“How’d it go?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean the interview. That was a disaster.”
He told her about his vision, the one where he floated above the clouds. He could feel himself getting excited as he explained it, painting her a vivid picture of what he was now calling “his revelation.”
“Can you see it?” he said, when she wasn’t responding. “Cindy?” He turned on the light now, but somehow she’d slipped out of the dark room as he’d been talking. There was no lip balm under her pillow.
Now, when they made love, he’d feel that they were together, again, in the same bed where she hid a stick of lip balm, and nothing more. Her lips stayed soft, and varied in taste and smell, but nothing could change the feeling that the two of them had gone flat.
“We need to spice things up. Do you think we could?” She said this one night after he’d finished a bowl of cereal. He’d gotten home just a half hour before from ten hours out in the sun. His boss said he’d seemed off that day. Like he wasn’t interested in his job anymore.
“What do you mean?” he replied to Cindy.
“It’s just that I’m getting to a point.”
“A point,” he said. “What point is that?”
“Well, you know, people are always getting to points in their lives. I just think that we’ve gotten to one.”
“So it’s both of us, is it?”
“I just want us to love each other the same way we always did, is all. Do you think that’s asking too much?”
“I’m tired,” he said. “Do you think we could talk about this another time?”
“Do you think that Richie would do it with me and you together?” She was next to him in bed, her left arm draped over his chest, her left hand clutching Ruby Red Surprise. The air in the room contained none of the vibrancy of times before. Just a sheet covered them both, and his feet stuck out the end so that his heels rubbed along the footboard. He didn’t wear socks.
“What did you say?” he said. But he’d heard her. He felt his heart pound harder in his chest. He bent his knees so that the arches of his feet could rub along the footboard.
“Richie’s game for anything,” Dave said. “But I don’t think I could—you know—participate.”
Cindy turned away, onto her back. Looking disappointed, she stared at the ceiling. She licked her lips and then, without looking back at him, said, “Would you watch?”
Heavy rain battered the sidewalk and trees outside Dave’s new apartment. He sat at the library table, his landlord standing next to him looking out a window. Dave couldn’t get comfortable. There was all this oaky, grainy space in front of him. He ran his hands over its surface: smooth, like silk, just as it always had been since he and Cindy had worked on it. He had positioned the table in the only spot it could fit, just below a small window, the one his landlord looked out now. He wondered how he’d gotten himself to a point where he was alone and worked five days a week at the docks. This was not a possibility he’d imagined when he first bought this table with Cindy.
“Got a great view of Narragansett Bay from this window,” his landlord said. He was old enough to be Dave’s father, but in great physical shape. He wore a dark blue T-shirt, now with sweat stains from moving the furniture. His biceps bulged through the sleeves. He had more hair on his arms than Dave had ever seen on anyone. The hair was mostly black, with gray scattered throughout.
“Do you know anything about gutting fish?” Dave asked, rubbing his own almost hairless right forearm.
“I know they stink something fierce when it’s hot like it was this past summer,” his landlord said, continuing to look out the window. He folded his arms, showing off his Schwarzenegger biceps, and nodded slowly. “I do know that.”
Dave opened the table’s drawer and picked up a stick of Strawberry Garnet Glaze lip balm. It was one of about a dozen little-used sticks that had been rolling around in the wooden drawer while they moved it.
“My wife,” he said, showing his landlord the stick. “She had the softest lips.”
“They all do,” the landlord said, taking it and studying the writing on its label. He held it close to his nose, breathed deep and closed his eyes. A faint smile came over his face and then quickly disappeared as if it had never been there. He placed the stick on the table and looked at his new tenant with an expression that said he understood but didn’t want to discuss it, and moved his gaze back out the window to the heavy rain.
“What’s out here?” Dave asked. He removed the cap from the lip balm and held it close to his nose.
“Everything. Town’s going to float away,” his landlord said. “Where is she now?”
“You can probably see her if you look hard enough, floating away with everything else.”
“Yeah,” the landlord said, still looking out the window. “Sounds about right. They do that too, don’t they?”
After the landlord left, Dave removed all the lip balm from the drawer and lined them up on the table, as if they were standing at attention. He counted 14 in all. He would start with the Strawberry Garnet Glaze. One by one, he uncapped a stick, turned it so the balm poked out, and then applied it to his lips. First the upper and then the lower. He rubbed his lips together to spread it around more fully, making sure to coat the entire surface.
“More,” he said out loud to the empty room. He grabbed a random stick and turned it to expose more of the balm and rubbed some into his forearms, onto his nose, his cheeks and his ears. When he ran out of a stick, he moved to the next one. He closed his eyes and used it on the lids, and then on his forehead. When he’d applied some on all the exposed areas, he took off his shirt and rubbed balm into his chest and his stomach. Then he went to a mirror in his bathroom and contorted himself into a pretzel as he applied the last of the balm onto his back. He placed the empty tubes into the drawer where he’d found them and slid the drawer shut, deriving comfort from the sound they made as they rolled around—hollow, empty. “Good,” he said.
Shirtless and barefoot, he went outside to watch the rain. Water flowed down his street, pushing its way easily toward the bay off in the distance. He put his feet in the warm current as it carried leaves and twigs and trash from the gutters, passed overflowing drainage grates as if they didn’t exist, forcing its way along a predetermined path away from here. The rain pelted his shoulders and chest, but he was impervious to its attack. Nothing could get through the balm’s protection. The nights with Cindy—the panicked moments when the balm could not be found—suddenly made sense to him. How he could not have understood then what was so apparent now was laughable, unimaginable. He laughed out loud at the skies pouring down on him, drilling at him in vain, water bouncing off him and into the gutter. Nothing, he thought, could penetrate this protection, this impermeable coating.
Then he had a thought so lucid he felt scared by his own self-assurance. It was as if the coating of the balm had had a completely unexpected effect. His brain had been cleared of all residual input, and what was left was one thing, a singular idea of such simple beauty tears began to fall down his cheeks. He hadn’t felt this way for a long time, since the days he was the superstar for his clients, when he’d speak and they seemed to agree with everything he said.
And the thought was this: Let it in.
He peeled off the rest of his clothes, tossed them aside and looked up into the sky, naked, with arms reaching up. The rain fell too hard for him to see between the drops, as he’d tried to on the day of the failed job interview. As it fell even harder, he brought both hands to his face, and with his fingernails scraped the balm off his forehead and cheeks.
He felt the drops begin to work their way through the first layer of his skin on his head. For a brief moment he felt an irrational fear, and began to move toward the shelter of his front door. But when it didn’t hurt, he stopped.
Soon the raindrops penetrated all the way through so that his skin began to wash away, exposing his skull. Tissue began to mix with blood, all of it dissolving into a rapid torrent of himself washing down his body and into the gutter. He scraped off more and more balm from his shoulders and chest, his forearms and back. When all his skin had gone—and slowly, painlessly, all of his bones—his veins and all his organs liquefied completely into the rushing torrent. This wasn’t what he’d expected, this ending, far from skirting atop the clouds and flawless sunsets with people on their knees crying at the beauty they’d beheld—this was better. As he rushed with the water toward Narragansett Bay, he remained aware of himself spreading rapidly, freely with the current. Before he knew it, he stretched a hundred yards, now two hundred, gliding in the warm flow. He entered a storm drain—the bay would be next, where he’d be dispersed into the cloudy, cold water. Look at me now, Cindy, he thought. I’m everything.
Author's Note - this is a gently edited version of the story that appears in Chagrin River Review