I stand in front of a room full of strangers in a suit that I bought on sale from Hennies. It’s a good fit at the shoulders but the sleeves fall short, swinging three inches above my wrists. The shirt’s wet beneath the armpits so I can’t take the jacket off; a paddling pool for my pit hairs. I keep looking at the graph behind me for answers but it’s pointing down and I’m riding it like a slide.
The mouth’s running dry and I’m swallowing rocks. Tongue’s getting caught in the rough slide against the roof of my mouth; might as well be against a brick wall. If only I could suck up that armpit moisture and get it where I need it. I’d lick it up like a cat at a bowl of milk.
I take a look at the faces around the table. One’s watching me with big bored eyes; she clips off my fingernails and stirs them into her tea. Another’s leaning back in his chair, clicking the clicker of his ballpoint pen with a thumb; with every click I lose half an inch in height. I must be around five foot four now, my feet disappearing into the carpet. If you went down to the office below you’d see my cheap brogues pierced through the ceiling and the trousers creased around my ankles. The third suit’s picking lice out of my hair with his eyes; he nibbles them between his front teeth and swallows them with a sour expression.
I run out of words. They’re somewhere there in my head, whole battalions of them. I organised them into ranks last night after I turned out the light, dealing them like a croupier into slick piles of complex and compound sentences, rhetoric and metaphors, even a couple of snappy one-liners. Now the army has fallen apart, a parade of ants dispersed by the first drop of rain. The words retreat to the depths of my brain, bouncing off the walls and disturbing all the wrong kinds of lobes.
I thank the suits for their time and they stand up. They each shake me by the hand and the prints from my fingertips fall in ribbons to the floor. I bend to pick them up but the suits tell me not to bother. They’ll let me know, they say, and show me the door. I nod and leave my things with them, including the six inches I lost beneath the floorboards.
I poddle back to my cubicle and assess the damage; close my eyes and plug myself into the socket beneath the desk. I’m down to three percent, a flashing red light, but Burns comes over to check how it went. I make some monkey noises at him, all I can muster at low battery, and he somersaults some consolation witticisms at me. I unplug myself from the wall and force my eyes open. He props his backside up onto my desk and takes a sharpener to the skin on the back of my hand; it collects on the carpet like dandruff. I thank Burns and he leaves. I’ll lick the flakes of skin up off the floor later.
* * *
I don’t have time for a full recharge before the dinner, so I throw shots of tequila into my mouth while I’m showering. Jung-mi says I need to wear my best tie; she wants to show me off to her friends. I ask her if I should bring my unicycle and juggling balls as well and she says I might as well. I change into a fresh shirt and take another three shots before I leave. One of them stings the raw skin on the back of my hand; another gives me an inch boost in height; the third one builds up a black bubble around my head. It’s a bubble of ink that I can only see through if I squint.
I’m late to the restaurant and everyone’s already sat around the table. I can’t look directly at them; seven pairs of eyes painting red sniper dots all over my face. Jung-mi gets up and kisses me on the cheek and holds me out in her palm for everyone to look at. I gurn for them and they all clap and ask if I’ve brought my unicycle. I tell them I forgot it and sit down; my eyelashes fall out one by one and feather down into the bowl of soup that’s already cold in front of me.
They start a parlour game while we’re waiting for the mains. Coming round in a circle; think fast, be witty, here’s a knife at your throat to make sure you do. My tequila bubble’s thinning and the heart’s pounding again like a silverback thumping his feet against my chest. My tongue’s drying out again and when I run it over my teeth they pop out from the gums. I swallow them one by one like pieces of hard corn.
It’s my turn. Eyes on me, Ol’ Dew Face. I stand up and excuse myself, hobble to the bathroom with my face burning. Jung-mi follows me, takes me by the hand.
I look at her through what’s left of the film of ink around my head. The room’s spinning, building up like a tornado hurtling through my chest and I just want to get out.
‘Breathe,’ she says, moving her hands up to my cheeks. ‘Just look at me, only me. Breathe. Deep, slow.’
I do what she says.
‘I’ve got a problem,’ I say.
She nods. She holds my face in her hands and looks into my eyes and just nods. I’ve said it out loud, at last.
TOMAS MARCANTONIO is a fiction writer from Brighton, England. He has been published in various journals and anthologies, most recently Ellipsis Zine, Firefly Magazine, Storgy, and The Fiction Pool. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom.
Image: Manuchi via Pixabay