Saturday, October 14, 2017

Nicole Flattery / Bottle Man

Bottle Man

A short story by Nicole Flattery

Out of Ireland summer fiction: this is the last in the series

Sat, Sep 2, 2017, 06:00

The morning I moved into the bottle, I was at home with nothing else to do. Many people before me have been in the same position, but have somehow avoided detaching their limbs and re-assembling themselves inside a bottle like a miniature ship. It wasn’t dark inside, indeed it caught nice light, and I stood straight-up and accepted my new glass confines. Limbs came easily away from the body and I’d always liked bottles. My father won a globe-shaped drinks cabinet when I was a child, and I remember popping open that globe and being delighted by all it could store. I think this is where my interest in science came from – the idea that a father, my father, could raise a club high and that golf ball, with speed and velocity, could spin over the heads of lesser golfers, resulting in a drinks cabinet being placed prominently in the hall of a family home until a woman, not my mother, smashed it to pieces with a three-iron. I’ve no background in science, and know almost nothing about the physics involved in a situation like that. I’d finished work a few weeks ago. I’d finished work permanently and, to pass the time, had been reading up on science. When I entered the bottle I kept my glasses on in case there was anything worth examining. Nothing that unfortunate had happened lately. I had one standout bad day. Unlike most people, I could go hours without panicking. Then all the panic would come at once. There was no even distribution. I was either suffocating or I wasn’t suffocating. I’d been looking for somewhere to put myself, a safe place, a space with minimal obligations for some time. In that bottle, I couldn’t touch anybody. Outside that bottle, I just didn’t exist.
* * *
Am I lying when I say nothing unfortunate had happened? Absolutely. You can’t write these things off. Recently, I’d gone to visit my girlfriend in her workplace. I sailed in the front door of her building with my hands in mock-surrender as if to say, “I pose no threat. I’m here to see the woman I love.” Not that the security guards were heavily armed. This isn’t going to be one of those stories where everything seems normal, but at the end, boom, big reveal – we live in a totalitarian state. And sure, yeah, a while back, I’d heard words like you might hear in a totalitarian state. Words like “cold” and “unbearable”. But in a totalitarian state, any small talk can suddenly turn, there’s a couple of tricky, high walls and maybe some heavy surveillance. And what else? You feel like you’re being buried alive all the time. And there’s fire. Flames everywhere.
And that’s it, I think. I don’t know. I’m more of a science guy. History is a bit like my girlfriend’s cooking, which was one of our specific, humorous bits. I’d take a bite and mime dying. This is the last time I eat anything of yours, I’d say. This is the last time. Now, I’m nostalgic. Not for the cooking, which was bad, but for the humorous bits. Everything, all of it. No matter what she did with the ingredients, it always came out looking the exact same. That’s how it was like history. It just repeated and repeated. Yuck, history.
In my girlfriend’s office, there were many people, many faces and a lot of quiet. I felt foolish being there, unwanted, like a bland man booed off a dating show. I felt like a shirt basically. A shirt with a collar on it. I was a piece of clothing. It didn’t help that the room was the way rooms are – with chairs and tables and computers and women in it. To relax, I pictured my girlfriend in this room. There she was by the water-cooler, being self-deprecating. There she was by the far-right window, being self-deprecating. I told her to cut that behaviour out. She told me it integrated her with the other women. I told her the other women were half-wits. She told me I didn’t know what it was like. I told her I did, that women liked to cluster in small-to-medium sized groups and be competitively self-deprecating, but next time it occurred just to ignore it, pretend it wasn’t happening. Go outside. Have a drink of water. Walk it off.
“Hello,” I said to the receptionist, “I’m here to see my girlfriend.”
This woman was called Judith. My girlfriend asked me once who I would like to sleep with if I wasn’t sleeping with her, as if who you slept with was a matter of choice and not just total chaos. I think I was supposed to say a celebrity – someone rich, thin, criminally unavailable. I said Judith. We’d been having a good day right up until that moment. Judith had beautiful eyes, like clear, understanding pools. And when I stood at that desk, those pools looked at me like they had never seen me before in their life.
“Hi,” I repeated my girlfriend’s name, “is she here?”
Judith stared studiously past me. She was managing many different calls at once. What I liked most about Judith, apart from her general air of kindness and great capacity for joy, was her ability to handle calls. I don’t know much about celebrity women, but I doubt they can handle several administrative situations. They’re probably so pampered they can’t even handle one. Not Judith, who I believe was raised in a single-parent home, a home allowed no luxuries, where she had to assume responsibility early. These things matter to me: character, resilience. I imagine she smelled sensible, like disinfectant.
“That person doesn’t work here,” Judith intoned.
“She’s left?”
“I don’t know that person,” she said, switching expertly between calls.
“She’s worked here for three years.”
“I don’t know that person.”
I’ve long held the belief that there are two types of women in the world: those who become more attractive as you get to know them, and those who become less. Off Judith went, with all her belongings, to the second camp.
“Judith,” I said and made an unfortunate yoo-hoo motion, a motion that could be perceived, if you didn’t know me, as condescending, “we met at the Christmas party.”
I regretted that motion almost as soon as it happened. I thought of my father’s golf-ball soaring high, in wrong, zig-zag directions. I remembered him telling me the best way to ruin your game is by thinking about your game. I don’t know if that advice was referring to golf. I still don’t know. The first time I met my girlfriend she came straight up to me and asked my name. That’s known as a statistical fluke. Sometimes, it’s just simple. Judith looked like she was doing calming exercises in her head, as if she were mentally squeezing a stress ball.
I said her name like that, just once, and a man appeared, a man I felt a strong dislike for, a dislike possibly encoded on my DNA. He rested one hand on Judith’s shoulder, as if to reassure her. Was Judith crying? I thought of a holiday, a church in Rome, when my girlfriend, stupidly, bent down to light a candle. I told her not to. I told her it wasn’t a good idea. And then, you know what? Flames everywhere. On her head. That’s how I felt at that moment, panicked, like my head was on fire in a foreign church. They were happier times, when my girlfriend existed.
“We don’t know the person you’re looking for,” the man said, “and if you don’t leave we will call security.”
It was obvious that this man was together with Judith, or had a bad crush on Judith and wanted to appear big and that was fine. It seemed indelicate to get in the way. I understood crushes. I understood the primal urge. I wanted to wink but was unwilling to risk anything after the earlier disastrous motion.
So I left.
As I walked through the quiet of the office again, I sincerely started to come around to the idea my girlfriend didn’t work here. Maybe she had never worked here. And so what? She went out during the day and got herself iced-coffees from nine to five, and came home and lied to my face. Well, I couldn’t deny it to her. I felt kind of proud and not a small bit turned on. I thought of the technical planning involved. I thought of the oceans of flowers I had sent to her desk, gestures of forgiveness, and wondered if Judith had left them meanly in a cupboard to die. I was still marvelling at my girlfriend’s brazenness when I broke out into the bright sun, and a boy punched me in the face and stole my wallet. He kicked me too. I don’t remember the kicking motion but I do remember saying, “Please stop.” I remember hearing, “Please stop” and I think that small voice was mine. The next morning, after this spectacularly bad day, I inserted myself into the bottle.
* * *
When I was in the bottle, my father came to visit. My father once looked like a rich, young man but now he looked like a poor, old father. It had been a long time since I’d seen him. You know, fathers – they get to a certain age and you don’t know what to do with them. You put them in front of the television, they’re not happy. They think the programmes are conspiring against them. You stop visiting. He said he wasn’t surprised about my current situation. He asked me what the climate was like in the bottle.
“Not a problem for me, old man!” I said.
That nickname was a way of letting him know his days were long-numbered. Women always liked my father. They always liked him, until they grew dubious of him. Then, they hated him and quietly folded their clothes into bags. I didn’t covet him this. He was handsome and people, female people, hung around, expecting things. It was its own sort of jail. I always thought he looked lonely, like he was watching life from the car park. In westerns, they call that the strong, silent type. My father, the strong, silent cowboy. Parents are whatever way you spin them.
I told my father I’d misplaced my girlfriend and had been brutally mugged.
He said he wasn’t surprised.
I asked him what it was like when that golf ball swung upwards and he knew he was going to win the tournament.
“Beautiful,” he replied.
Then he was gone and I was left alone with my fantasies of being at sea. Standard freedom fantasies. I remembered the holiday in Italy, my girlfriend and I standing in the white surf. Then, my girlfriend was in front of me, her body distorted by the glass. She had a woman with her.
“Who’s that woman?” I asked.
“He’s not usually like this,” my girlfriend said, indicating the bottle.
The woman had an authoritarian look that many people, myself not included, enjoy. All sharp edges, but boxy, like a spiky square. I felt the way anyone feels when they see their girlfriend with a new partner – sad. Except worse, because this new partner was of the completely wrong gender. And I thought, this is it: I’ve been left for a woman. I will join the league of men who have been left for a woman and, in that moment, I wished my father dead so he wouldn’t get grim satisfaction. I wondered how I would be categorised in the league of men. I was learning so much about my girlfriend, what she liked and what she didn’t like.
“We need to talk about our future,” she said,
I pointed at the woman and asked, “Is she going to be in our future?”
So I made an impassioned plea. I figured it was time. I said you probably think it won’t work out between us because I live in a bottle now, but that’s not the case. I thought of the holiday when she wouldn’t let me take her photo because I didn’t know her angles. Now, I realised her best angle was when I was inside the bottle and she was outside it. I wanted to put my arms around her and kiss her, but I couldn’t. Then, I noticed her arms and legs were covered in bruises, waves of blue and purple, like she’d been dragged along the ground and kicked. And I thought – she’s been mugged too! Possibly by the same man. We could hunt down our mugger together. Before I’d a chance to say anything, she interrupted – “I can’t see you anymore,” she said carefully, like she’d been trained.
She turned away and I saw the right side of her face was burnt, badly burnt and scabbed. A memory of my voice saying, “this is the last time,” and then the stinging, final sound of flesh on fire. My girlfriend buried herself into the woman’s shoulder, like that’s what the woman was there for. As they stood up and left together, I remembered our holiday and the woman I loved smiling shyly at the edge of the ocean. It’s warm, I said, when you get in. You just have to get in, and I took her hand in mine.
  • Nicole Flattery’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the “Stinging Fly”, the “Dublin Review” and “The Irish Times”. An earlier version of this story appeared on BBC Radio 4. She is the winner of the White Review Prize 2017. Her short story collection is forthcoming from the Stinging Fly Press in 2018. Formerly resident in New York, she now lives in Galway

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