I never noticed that small crack in the upper left corner of the bathroom, winding its way toward the pinnacle of the ceiling. A bit of mold grows around the base, a sick greenish-black splotch. I open the old mirror and its hinges squeal in protest. From within, the remains of a previous life stare back at me. I avoid looking at the floss in its small rectangular box. It taunts me; reminds me of what used to be.
Sylvia used to make me floss every night. Said it was good for me. I haven't touched the stuff since she left and took the kids. I don't notice a difference in my teeth. I feel around with an index finger to make sure. As I am doing this, my eyes land on other containers. The shaving cream I bought the week after she moved out. It's not as good as what she got me, but I don't care. I don't have to care anymore. My razor, the dull blade reflecting the glare of the overhead bulb. A pack of cotton swabs she would use to clean the disgusting wax from the caverns of my ear cavities. My mother used to do the same thing when I was six years old. I see peroxide for my little cuts, bandages for the larger ones. My gaze shifts to the tweezers sitting next to the bandages. She used to use those to pull little hairs right out of my skin. God, how I hated that. God, how I loved it.
Sylvia left behind what she didn't want at her new place, the overstuffed plaid couch we found at a garage sale the year we were married. Our cat Diana, before we even started talking about having children, used to eat the white fluff that poured from its sides when she scratched it with her long, merciless claws. Diana lives with Sylvia and my children now. I think they even got another cat.
I see Sylvia took all the "female" stuff from this squeaky cabinet. The makeup, the hair ties, the pins, facial cleanser, hair spray. All the pills she had to take for allergies, headaches, muscle injuries. And the bottles that would make her smell nice when we were alone without the kids. I don't need to smell like a damn thing now. I'm still a man, aren't I? Our gender was never supposed to smell like roses. Just like we were never meant to clean up after ourselves. Don't even think on that kitchen right now. Focus on the task at hand.
My eyes arrive back upon the tiny white box of string. If I am going to do this, affirm that I'm ready to move on, it's best to get it over with while I can. I don't see or feel anything wrong with my teeth. But I'm not looking hard enough. I reach out and pull the little box down to the sink. A string dangles from the edge. I grab it taut and pull out a length of it. Start on the back, I tell myself. That was always the hardest. Six months ago my dentist said a cavity was forming here. Sylvia said to just take care of it; we'd worry about how to pay for it later. I should have listened to her. On the bright side, there is nobody to nag me about what to eat now. I wonder what's left in that refrigerator. Ouch. Focus.
Damn, this hurts. More than it did last time. I shouldn't have broken this habit. I shouldn't have done a lot of things. We thought new trips would help our situation. Did our ski vacation in Denver last winter? Not according to my bruised ass, and damaged ego. I didn't know the pain of snow grinding against flesh quite until then. Charlie, our oldest, almost slid right into a tree. And the traveling out east to see some of Sylvia's judgmental relatives? When we left screaming out the door on the way out to our rented minivan, Uncle Mike said in mighty plain language we were not welcome back. Sorry I brought up how good I thought oil was for the country at large. Didn't realize it was still so communist out there. What's been happening to this country.
My thoughts return to the slow movement of my fingers, moving along the right side. This side hurts even worse. Could there be another cavity forming here? Why wouldn't the dentist have told me this?
Sylvia, you shouldn't have taken the kids. I lost control of the narrative. Christ knows what she's telling them about their absent father. About what a jerk, what a loser he is. He doesn't even floss, Charlie. Did ya know that? Doesn't even take care of himself. What kind of man is not able to continue basic hygiene once his partner is gone? Not somebody she wants you to know, Lisa. I suppose it's more important she knows what men are like, now, before she grows up. Before she goes into this world, and finds out what it's really like.
Forget about all of that. Keep going. I am doing this because I want to, not because it was a routine, like all the others only you could keep me doing. Not because it reminds me of the ways you affected my life. I'm conducting this painful exercise, this tour of duty because I want to, and not for any other reason.
This part, in the front, doesn't hurt so much. This is what it's supposed to feel like. Gives the mouth a nice clean feeling. Doesn't that feel better, Sylvia would say. Yes it does, I would say in grudging reply. You were right. I got used to saying that quite a lot. She nailed the fact that I wouldn't be able to keep that job in her father's firm. Of course, there was more to it than that. Besides, I got this new job at the diner. Pays the bills for this place, for now. I'll find work elsewhere. It's not like I'll be working at a suck hole restaurant down the street for the rest of my life.
Now it's time to floss the other side. This hurts like hell in the back. I must be developing more cavities. It's in my diet. Sylvia used to force me to eat the most disturbing foods. Healthy crap like broccoli, potatoes, carrots, and fish. Can you imagine much worse? And this was every night. She said it was good for the kids to grow up with healthy bodies. What about what might be good for me?
Sylvia and I used to have routines. Go out to the potholed street to pick up our mail together each night after work, dodging the kids on bicycles and then old folks out for their stroll. Sometimes we'd walk further too, out into the park across the way. We'd sit up late at night reading, her with a book and me with a hunting magazine, as the fire warmed. I don't even remember the last time we went out to see a movie. Not since the kids came along. They went to see their own stuff now, and we didn't because we were too exhausted. Routines are only held together by commitment. I'm finding that out now. I keep telling myself I'm doing this for my own good, but I know the truth. I'm doing this because she used to make me do it. I can't not do it. I want to be told to do it. To be held to a standard.
I pull out another strand of floss, circulate it to the lower regions. It still hurts, but not as bad as at the beginning. I should just go to the dentist. You would want me to do that, even after all of this. You forced these routines on me because you knew I could be better. Even through my resistance. You knew I wanted better. But maybe I don't want to be better anymore. You're not around to make me. Not since that night.
You had your suspicions. Lipstick on that envelope from my co-worker in your father's office. I know you had your father spying on me. In the break room, in my office, in the hallways. He even had his secretary looking through my mail. Why was I so stupid? I left that envelope out on my desk, knowing she would see it. Knowing you would find out. Maybe I wanted to be found out. Maybe I knew it was wrong all along. Plus it never could have worked out. The girl was half my age, didn't even know who Ronald Reagan was. I was a damned fool.
Truth was, I didn't think I was happy. I couldn't imagine getting that from you and the kids. I wanted out. And now that I am, it's everything I thought it would be. But much worse.
Back to the flossing, I have rounded third and am getting to the front teeth now. A piece of the frozen pizza I inhaled earlier is flung at the mirror. I watch as it smacks the glass, falls a few centimeters and gets plastered in place right above my left eye in the mirror. It takes up room among the other stains: toothpaste, soap, my own sweat, water marks. These things she would have washed off so I wouldn't have to look at them. It is time to be done.
I hold a lingering glance at the cabinet after I swing open the creaky door. The floss was left in there. You knew I'd want to use it again someday. My eyes fall on the rest of my products; drop to the sink as I close the door. I have to get that door fixed. Along with the crack in the ceiling. And the mold. You would have noticed that months ago.
My gums are on bloody fire, the pain is excruciating when I open my jaw. I recall you one evening yelling at me, telling me I had to endure the pain before I could understand it. The worst pain of all I brought upon you, and the children. I can never be forgiven for this. I'm not sure if I even want to be.
Back to the main room, where the ratty, comfortable couch remains. Nobody around to tell me I can't set my food plates right on the cushions, either. Like a disgusting hog in a pen.
I have everything I could ever need. Sylvia took all of her clothes, leaving metric feet of space in the bedroom closet. This is my chance to see how long I can make it with my current wardrobe. I told her once I could live in these clothes for years. Now is the time to prove it. I think it's time to get some beers from the liquor store across the street.
I will miss you. I will always miss you. I cannot dwell on the past, not when I have this sweet bachelor pad. Not when I have the opportunity to meet new people. It's easy to make friends after you turn forty, right? You moved on with your friends quite well. None of them want to speak to me, and it serves them right. I never liked them, anyways. Once the girl in your dad's office found out I was married, it was over. I guess women don't like to be deceived. Now I am on my own, for the first time since before I met you. I did it before, I can do it again. Right?
Shit, it is chilly out here. I wish I remembered to bring my coat. No bother. A few vagrants linger around the shelves in the liquor store, harsh white fluorescent light blasting the scene for the closed circuit cameras. I grab a twelve pack of brew from the cooler and hoof it to the counter, where two meth heads are dueling it out for supremacy over a large forty ounce bottle. See, there are a lot of people in this neighborhood to meet. Back in the apartment building, I run up the three flights since the elevator remains out of order. I need the exercise, just like I needed to floss.
Now I just want to settle in for some television. I click the button, but nothing happens. Damn, I forgot she paid for it. I should have asked her to transfer it to my name. I need my Spike-TV. Oh well. I suppose now I can relax on my own. Do some quality reading. Like we used to in front of the fire. Where's that Norman Mailer novel.
Now it's 2:00 am and darkened in this house we used to share. I forgot the damn light bulbs. I hear myself moan in the darkness as I lift myself out of the ratty couch. Leave those beer bottles for tomorrow. You have all the time in the world before you have to walk back into that kitchen. The stack of dishes can remain a mystery until tomorrow.
Sylvia, you were right to take the kids. Charlie and Lisa will grow up the right way under your guidance. I'm an unfit parent. Can't even take care of my fucking teeth. No child should have to endure that. I had do with my father, as I told you on our second date. You saw it coming a mile away.
I stumble into bed, using my phone as a flashlight. I forgot to brush my teeth. After all that work. This thought is borne away on a stream of false consciousness. When I think I am back in reality I see Sylvia, Charlie and Lisa in front of me, standing in front of this apartment, waving but moving out of my vision. And then they are gone, and I'm alone in this bed, in this apartment with my rotten teeth and my eternal misery.
Short stories - what are they? How do they work? This is a topic I have been struggling with since I began writing for this website (almost) four years ago. The first short story I ever posted here was a re-posting of a terrible story I wrote for a creative writing class back in my university days (if you’re a glutton for punishment, here are parts one and two of that initial workshop).
Since that time I have carved out a dedicated space each year to simply read short story collections. Beginning with Jack London and Neil Gaiman, I later moved the “pivot” into these collections toward the end of each reading year before finally realizing this type of writing cannot be constrained to when I would like to think about it. I began reading pairs of authors but also spent some deeper time with those I thought were the best. I also posted a few more stories to the blog in that time. One was political in nature and got a few good responses, but without a doubt the story that made the biggest splash was “Flossing,” which I posted in September 2017. (Here is a link for those who’d like to read the original.)
Since then I have continued working on it, combining aspects of another story and cleaning up the perspective and emotional tenor. To that end, I sent the revamped story to my “other” editor Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial to get her take on how this story could be improved. I also asked her if I could use some of our editing conversations for this post in order to try and show the process of how to write a short story, something that has bedeviled me for quite a while. Those who do choose to go back and read the original will see a clipped, single-perspective story concerning a man who has lost everything in his life. While I decided to keep that overall theme, I wanted to say more about the concept of toxic masculinity through what happens when we of the male gender act as is our wont. Thankfully this came through enough for Anne to see as well.
Of course, every editing partnership contains some give and take. My “main” editor Libby could attest to that, as most of our early working relationship involved her telling me how to make my books better and me not being willing to listen to some (or all) of it. I have since learned how to trust her expertise, and I am trying to do the same here even on our points of divergence. In the case of this story, there were two places in which I told Anne I didn’t take her advice, and here was her very thoughtful consideration when we discussed the second case:
“Everything I change or comment on are suggestions, for you to take or leave as you wish. After all, this is your story, and you know best what message you're trying to get across and how you want to get there. I see my role as being an outside eye and making those suggestions, but I certainly don't expect that every author will accept 100% of them.”
The first case was more subjective, involving the main character getting a job at his (now ex-) wife’s father’s firm and how that led him into temptation. Anne suggested I cut most of this, and I decided to go a different way and pull more of a narrative from that. When I told her so, she actually said she liked the changes. This is an example of how sometimes you should stick to your original thought, but be respectful in exploring how you came to that understanding. I’m very grateful that Anne is such an amazing editor (you should follow her on Twitter too) and is very open to such a back and forth.
There was also another point of contention regarding a change of setting, and while I’m still not sure I made the right decision in whether to keep it, sometimes writers are just bull-headed and want to keep stuff in their work. This is an impulse you should listen to every once in a while, but always keep it carefully weighed against what your (very smart, talented) editor has to say on the matter.
Besides those points of divergence, every other suggestion Anne had made this story much better. It is my hope that in posting it to the blog readers can see how much it has changed in nearly two years. I am also open to any thoughts/criticism regarding the theme, which I am still not sure I have hit correctly even with this rewrite, but I am trying...
In the interest of keeping this part to its own topic of introduction, I will be putting the actual story in its own post. And I look forward to any and all reader comments, since this thing will never see the light of day for publication in an actual literary journal but is a piece that will live on my blog for demonstration purposes. I do have a few other stories I have been circulating through journals and contests over the past month; more on that if I am lucky enough to hear back from any of those outlets (all rejections so far, but they’ve come with notes from editors which are usually great).
Thanks as always, for reading my work.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.