Metaphors; or: A Headless Rat
Stefani Nellen

At first, the deterioration of their relationship didnít matter much to Sue and Greg. It came with a wealth of significant images, brooding symbols of doom serving as a safeguard against real suffering.

Gregís worn toothbrush with its chewed-on bristles: Fresh passion turned limp and a bit yellow.

The espresso powder he kept forgetting in the espresso machine, where it congealed into a solid patty: Heat and aroma turned into dried out trash.

As long as they agreed on the meaning of the images, they couldnít really separate, could they?

Once, when he shifted back and forth on top of her (he still called it “making love”), the bed frame creaked, a corner of the mattress dropped to the floor, they tumbled with the mattress, his chin hitting her shoulder, both their legs sticking in the air, and at the same time, an ambulance drove by outside—emergency, our love is dying! They both recognized the scene, her gaze locked with his, and they laughed, reunited for a moment.

* * *

Sue began to panic when Greg stopped seeing the images and coincidences mirroring their common truth. The knowing glances between them died out.

They sat outside the Kiva Han, let the cars and buses roar past them, and had a cappuccino each when their girlfriend Bev came along, rammed her newbornís stroller between their chairs, and joined them for a chat.

Weaving her dreadlocks around her fingers, Bev asked them how they were doing, what they were doing, what they would be doing next week, next year. Bev wasnít close enough a friend to know that Sue and Greg argued about the sticky shelves in the fridge, the endless process of her graduation, or his habit of flossing his teeth in public.

No, Bev didnít know of these things and kept addressing the couple using the plural “you.” She smoked, her arm poking into the air as she maximized the cigaretteís distance to her sleeping newborn in the stroller.

“First thing we had to do after we got the house in Arizona,” she said, “was to get rid of the scorpions. They were everywhere. We couldnít move in for a month.” She took a drag from her cigarette and blew out the smoke immediately. “I thought, sorry scorpions, but youíre a danger to me and my child. Youíve got to die. Sorry.”

Sue stared at her cappuccino. The scoop of milk foam on top seemed to grow into a white mushroom cap with brown chocolate dots. Perfect foam, she thought. Sweet, yet empty. Itíll inflate and go bad very soon. What a perfect match for this conversation.

She glanced up at Greg, expecting him to look back at her, to join her in silent appreciation of the phenomenon, but he didnít. He flashed his teeth at Bev, his fingers touching his chin, and nodded as if her chatter unraveled the very essence of the universe.

* * *

Released from the combined force of her and Gregís appreciation, the world ceased to be remarkable to Sue. Dust became dust, the smelly trashcan remained just that, rain became droplets teaming up to soak a woolen coat, and that was it. Now that she perceived the world alone, it became indifferent, even hostile.

One evening she said, swaying back and forth on the high heels sheíd felt like wearing, “It canít just end like this.”

Greg rummaged around in the bathroom. “I canít find it. What did you just say?”

“It canít end like this. The tree in the garden should combust. A dead bird should splat between our plates when we eat outside. Something should happen that tells us itís over.”

Greg came out of the bathroom. “What? Sorry, I didnít hear you.”

Sue didnít say anything.

“Anyway,” he said, “look what I found.” He held up a plastic stick with yellowing bristles on top. His old toothbrush. “I need something to clean the disposal. Thereís a rubber band in there, or something.”

He bent over the sink and poked around in the disposal. His hand with the toothbrush disappeared halfway in the hole. Sue stood next to him, where the switch for the disposal sat below the countertop. Greg yanked at something inside the disposal, cursing under his breath. She caressed the switch with her fingers.

She thought, the stuck disposal is my heart that can take no more junk. He should let warm water flow over it, or gently strip away the stuck rubber, but all he has is his old toothbrush.

She squeezed the switch between thumb and index finger and imagined the whirr, the disposal going chomp-chomp-chomp, Gregís shoulder jerking back and forth, his wide eyes. Blood mingling with water in the steel sink, his white skin, hairs on his arm blacker than usual, and more blood. Bone?

What a good, honest image.

She let go of the switch. “Good idea,” she said.


“To use the toothbrush.” She let one of her heels click on the kitchen tiles.

* * *

Between them in the shallow water lay a headless rat, black and sleek. Its bloodless paws clawed at the air. Transparent intestines dangled out of its rectum and, intertwined with the pink tail, floated in the water as it merged with the beach.

The sun emerged from behind a cloud and illuminated the ratís shimmering fur.

“This,” said Sue. “What I wanted to tell you. This.”

Greg sneered. “Subtle.”

Sue asked, “What?”

Greg laughed, two dry syllables. In the end, he looked tired. “I know weíre through,” he said. “But,” he nudged the rat with his foot, “does it really have to be that obvious?”

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