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Cover image for COPING MECHANISMS by Rebecca Jones-Howe.

Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca Jones-Howe

All rights reserved. This story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

The lineups form long before store opens now. The hoard is out there every morning, ready with their shopping carts and their trolleys. Panicked. It used to be the free samples were the best part of Costco. It used to be I was comfortable with crowds, handing out crackers with Asiago dip or simmered cocktail wieners on toothpicks.

Now I’m showing new hire Brendan the ropes, showing him how to be an “essential employee” in the middle of a growing pandemic. Gary’s task was to get us to hang up all the new signs in front of in-demand products before store opening. Products like hand sanitizer and bleach and Lysol wipes.

LIMIT TWO PACKAGES PER CUSTOMER.

The printer broke, though, so that delayed us twenty minutes.

We get to the toilet paper aisle and I glance at my watch. “Oh shit.” I move faster, the scotch tape sticking to my fingers in my rush to hang the signs. We’re barely halfway down the aisle when the store opens.

The store breathes life with the sound of the rolling shopping cart wheels, empty metal cages waiting to be filled with product. People scream. They laugh. They give to the pressure of panic buying.

I glance at Brendan but he tapes up another sign.

“We should go,” I say.

He shakes the rest of the papers in his hand. “We have a job to do.”

The rattling builds, echoing within the vast expanse of the store. Customers round the corner. They fill the aisle with their carts, all hasty and frantic and driven. It’s a joke to some but a life or death situation for others. I twist myself out of the chaos, elbowing bodies toward safety, but Brendan turns and raises his hands. A middle-aged woman pulls up beside him. She grabs two bulk packs of 50 rolls and tosses them inside. Then she turns and fists two more.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but the sign says—”

“I don’t fucking care what the sign says!” She shoves past Brendan’s extended reach just as another shopper pushes their way into the aisle. Carts clang. A commotion builds. Customers decimate the skids. The stacked packages give under the fury and people stumble into the mess, grabbing at the plastic.

A few voices express concern but the wall of carts only strengthens. People stumble over him in their attempts to reach for the dwindling stock.

“Stop! You’re hurting him!”

A shopping cart rams against my hip. I press through, reaching out to grab the orange of Brendan’s Costco vest. The crowd mutates into a wave of desperate bodies, forcing my steps forward. I trip over the exposed corner of a pallet and collapse over Brendan’s narrow frame.

Bulk toilet paper falls around us, but each package is subsequently grabbed and replaced with eager limbs. A foot steps over my leg. A knee lands against my hip. We slip between the compromised stacks and my elbow crashes through the splintered pallet wood.

“Fuck!”

Brendan’s groan slips against my ear. He grips my arm and scrambles onto his feet, pulling me with him beneath the metal racking.

We hide behind a display of dish soap and wait out the crowd, our gasped breaths dulled between the cardboard displays. It’s not until the carts are muffled that I realize he’s still gripping my elbow.

“This is fucking crazy,” I say, prying myself out of his hold. “We are not getting paid enough for this bullshit.”

“Don’t swear,” he says. “It’s fine.”

People laugh as they scramble into the next aisle, filling what space they have left in their carts with beans and pasta and bulk packs of frozen chicken breasts.
The discarded signs flutter over the cement floor.

LIMIT TWO PACKAGES PER CUSTOMER.

“This isn’t worth it,” I say.

He wipes his forehead against the sleeve of his blue polo shirt. “We should probably tell Gary.”

“He’s not going to give a shit.” I dab a tear from my eye before touching the sore spot on my elbow.

“Stop swearing,” Brendan says. “And you’re not supposed to touch your face, remember?”

Red seeps from beneath the torn flesh, but the wound is more of an impact than a scrape. I bend my arm and the sting gives way to an ache that works all the way up the bone. My jaw tightens. My lips contort. Emotion takes over and another tear slips out that I can’t wipe away without him seeing.

Fuck, I think.

Fuck this.

Fuck everything.

ac_unit

Brendan shows up for his next shift, because just like the rest of us, he has bills to pay. He enters the lunch room while I’m on my break and I pull out one of my headphones to listen to him shuffle through his locker.

He pulls on his orange vest and hangs his badge from the pocket of his navy blue polo. Then he pumps a few squirts of hand sanitizer onto his palm, wiping it over his hands before glancing up at the clock.

He looks at me and pulls up a chair.

We’re supposed to sit at different tables now. We’re supposed to be practising social distancing but he sits close enough for me to smell his aftershave.

“Can we talk?” he asks.

I’m chewing through my lukewarm Pizza Pop. The cheese is cold in the middle but I nod as I swallow it down. I pause the music on my phone and Brendan glances at the screen.

Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails.

“You shouldn’t have tried to save me,” he says.

“It wasn’t like you could fend them off yourself,” I say.

His lips part and I pull the other headphone out.

“I did it out of solidarity,” I say.

“What?”

I hesitate, pressing my lips together, but my throat’s tight and my chest’s pent up and he’s already seen me cry. “They tell us that we’re essential but it’s not like the company’s going the extra mile to protect us. We’re basically hostages. We don’t even have any fucking masks and I’d totally wear one because my dad’s a fucking boomer diabetic who doesn’t even wash his hands properly at home.”

“Don’t swear,” he says.

I take a breath, my shoulders tight. “I can’t help it. I’m pissed.”

He glances at the clock again.

I breathe, exhaling deeper, letting the tension out before easing back into my seat. My elbow hits the back of the chair and I bite over the pain.

“Your bruises look worse than mine,” he says, rolling up the sleeve of his shirt to show off the patch of yellow on his bicep.

I take another bite from my Pizza Pop. I chew and I swallow, allowing the the dull ache to work through my nerves.

“I thought I had control,” he says. “I thought people would listen.”

“You’ve never worked retail before, have you?”

“I supervised a Virgin Mobile once. I was good at it.”

“It’s okay to not be good at this,” I say. “This is shitty.”

His head cocks. “Seriously, don’t swear. You’re at work.”

I push the last Pizza Pop into my mouth, chewing over the hard corner of the pastry. “Everybody swears here. Even Gary swears.”

“You’re the worst, though,” he says. “And you don’t have to apologize. Just stop doing it.”

“Around you, or altogether?”

He laughs, leaning in a little.

“I won’t lie,” I say, taking a sip from my Diet Coke. “It felt kind of good.” I put the can down and gently rap my elbow against the chair.

“What felt good?” he asks.

Nobody else is in the break room. I lick at my lips, allowing the hollow space to echo with my response. “Giving in, I guess. Accepting that we have no control.”

He studies me, allows the silence to linger.

“I can’t get to sleep at night,” I say. “I’m always terrified of coming back here. Every time my throat feels weird I think it’s the virus. I just want to go back to not caring about this stupid fucking job.”

He scratches beneath his chin. He shouldn’t do it but I’m not the sort of person who’d correct an innocent mistake in a time like this.

“I needed the adrenaline rush, I guess.”

He nods, his attention focused, making my heart throb, my pulse quicken. My tongue dries against the roof of my mouth. I take another drink. I rub at my temples.

“Don’t touch your face,” he says.

“Fuck. Sorry.”

“And you really need to stop swearing,” he says. “I already asked you twice.”

He stands and swipes in for his shift, soaking his hands with another few pumps of Purell. He works the agent between his fingers, over his thumbs.

He’s not my supervisor but he could be.

He smiles like he could be, backing himself against break room door, returning to normalcy, or whatever is considered normal now.

“Have a good break, Jamie,” he says.

ac_unit

Somebody coughs in the clothing department.

Today I’m folding leggings and all the customers linger around me, pretending like they care about their quarantine wardrobe when they’re really just waiting for the next pallet of Lysol wipes to be wheeled out onto the main track of the store.

I want to say that we’re the virus but I’ve seen enough memes about it already.

The truth is that all this hand washing has aggravated my eczema.

The truth is that these crowds are freaking me out.

The truth is that Brendan isn’t working today and the only distraction I have is banging my bruised elbow against the tables while I fold. All the leggings are made of fucking Lycra and the synthetic fibres catch on my scaly eczema palms. The dry March air creates a static energy that coils up through my hair and makes my bangs stand up on end.

I reach up to smooth them back into place over my forehead and a customer gawks.

“You shouldn’t be touching your face, you know that!”

I drop the leggings and press my elbow back against the edge of the table, forcing my brain to produce adrenaline over dread.

ac_unit

The carts still rattle. They’re still filled to the brim with the essentials, which aren’t really essentials but the things that we’ve perceived to be essential. Toilet paper’s still stacked high on the orange trolleys and I can’t help but wonder if my parents have enough at home.

Costco’s banned the return of specific products now, in order to prevent people from buying too much.

Our breaks are staggered now, too.

We’re supposed to sit at different tables in the break room. We’re supposed to stay at least three feet apart but six feet is better. I swipe out for my break to find Brendan sitting at my usual table, his computer open and his and his headphones in.

Just like me, he looks up and pulls an earbud out. The music’s loud enough to decipher.

“Is that Pretty Hate Machine?” I ask.

He smiles. “It’s good for coding.”

I pull today’s Hot Pockets out of the freezer and toss them into the microwave, tapping the buttons, the BEEP BEEP BEEP like a vital monitor. Everything makes me think of my parents, of my fingers, of germs. I go to the sink wash my hands and I can’t help but look at the stupid hand washing graphic that Gary’s posted there.

PROPER HAND-WASHING TECHNIQUE WITH SOAP AND WATER

20 seconds kills the virus, so I sing Happy Birthday in my head, hesitantly working the soap over the cracked skin of my knuckles.

“Fuck.”

“You really need to stop swearing.”

I gasp and turn. Brendan’s standing there, close enough to make me appreciate his aftershave, the memory of it. He always shaves so close to the skin. It makes him look so young. Not my type at all, but then he touches my elbow again. He presses his thumb hard against the bruise and he smiles at my delayed reaction.

“You’ve got a dirty mouth,” he says, and I gasp and flinch away.

“It’s eczema,” I say, holding up my soapy red hands. “It’s stress-induced. My skin’s already dry as fuck and all this fucking hand washing is making it worse.”

He shrugs, smiles. “What’s better? Taking the pain or spreading the virus?”

Steam rises from the sink basin. His loose headphone dangles against his chest, spewing out the chorus of “Sin” by Nine Inch Nails. My favourite.

He points at the hand-washing sign about the sink. “Take it seriously, Jamie.”

So I do what the poster shows me to: fingers together, scrub the thumbs, deplete my skin of moisture until everything hurts and aches and screams. He watches me follow the proper hand washing protocol while Trent Reznor croons from the tinny little speaker between us.

You give me the reason, you give me control.

He touches my elbow again, presses his thumb down until the pain feels good. Then the door opens and Gary enters, waving us apart.

“Hey, guys, come on. Social distancing is important.”

Brendan laughs. “Sorry, Gary. It won’t happen again.”

ac_unit

I take the only remaining seat on the bus beside a senior woman wearing a mask. She watches me eat my granola bar, watches me lick at my fingers after, watches me wipe my fingers over my jeans before gripping at the handle over the seat in front of me, hanging on as the bus rattles and wobbles on the trip home.

Shit, I think.

I fucked up, I think.

“You should stop swearing,” Brendan would say.

At home, I wash my hands. Twenty seconds.

Happy Birthday Mom.

Happy Birthday Dad.

The news flips through B-roll images from Italy, where they’re now storing their dead in ice rinks because there’s nowhere else to put the bodies. I switch over to Netflix and watch a few episodes of Tiger King instead.

I don’t know how many times I touch my face.

I don’t know what I’m bringing in.

Dad just had gallbladder surgery a few days ago. He’s on the mend but I don’t know what the fuck I’m bringing home, how toxic I am. I wash my hands again and grab a bag of popcorn from the pantry. Mom still has the news blaring on the television in the kitchen. Now it’s showing of declining stock market and the reporter’s talking about the long-term effects the pandemic will have on the economy. All I can think about how is how I’ll never be able to pay off my student loans, never be able to move out of home, never be able to start a life.

Instead of eating my snack, I bang my elbow against the wall in my bedroom.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!” The jolt surges up my arm, burns through my fingers and sends me to my knees with my eyes slammed closed. Tears stream past my eyelids but I don’t wipe them away.

“Stop swearing!” Mom yells.

It’s not the same, though.

ac_unit

I wash my hands over the trough sink in the Costco’s public washroom. We’re all here, women standing in front of the mirror, scrubbing harder than we once did.

We’re all singing Happy Birthday now.

The soap suds gather around the drain at the centre of the trough. Germs. Potential virus germs.

We all stand at least three feet apart with dripping hands, waiting for our turn at the Dyson Airblade, which roars like a jet engine and whips the dribbles of water all about.

Somebody sneezes behind me.

Somebody coughs.

Somebody sniffs.

I accidentally wipe my forehead on the way back to the sales floor.

Somebody grabs my elbow and I whip myself around.

“I’m going to tell Gary you were touching your face,” Brendan says.

He’s joking with me, playing with me.

I go back to fold the leggings, thinking maybe I should buy a pair. My hands crack. My hair stands on end but I don’t touch my face again, as much as I want to, need to.

The virus could be anywhere, but I think of him instead.

ac_unit

Mom’s always got the news playing in the kitchen now.

I don’t work today but I have Brenden’s number now.

He updates me on the day, makes it seem like I’m there.

They ran out Purell wipes in under two hours.

I’m on break, listening to our song.

Then he writes: I hope you’re holding up.

It makes him seem normal, makes the circumstances seem normal. Our relationship seems almost normal, whatever it is, whatever it’s becoming.

The television cycles through footage of hospital beds and massive crowds and a bunch of college kids on spring break not giving a shit about social distancing.

“Serves them right if they get sick,” Mom says.

“They’re just going to spread the virus when they get back home,” I say.

Mom laughs and rubs my shoulder. “Good thing you weren’t that stupid in college, baby.”

“I quit college,” I say. “That’s why I still have to work during the fucking apocalypse.”

Mom’s disapproval settles over me, but then the toaster pops out two slices of bread. Dad gets up, pressing his hand over the surgical site as he stands. He butters the toast, puts peach jam on each slice. His fingers twitch and the knife slips out of his grasp, clattering across the linoleum like the shopping cart wheels. Orange jam splatters across the floor.

“Oh, come on, John!” Mom says.

“My blood sugar’s low,” Dad says. “Give me a fucking break.”

I write to Brendan: I’m worried about my fucking parents.

I press send without thinking.

His response: Wash your hands, Jamie. It might help.

ac_unit

Gary gathers the staff in the break room and we all arrange ourselves six feet apart like we’re front line soldiers in battle formation.

“Now, I don’t want to alarm you but one of our associates tested positive last night.”

I glance down at my angry hands, at the flushed and burning skin.

“Was it Amy?” somebody cries.

“It was Jarad!” somebody else yells. “He was coughing up real fierce last night. I told him to get tested but he insisted it was a cold.”

“I didn’t call us here to speculate,” Gary says. “We’re here to provide for our customers and we’re here to do as best as we can. As long as we adhere to our sanitation procedures, we’ll all be okay.”

“We don’t even have masks!” somebody protests.

I clench my fists. The skin puckers and cracks over my knuckles. A little blood dribbles out and I glance across the room at Brendan. His gaze narrows and that’s really all I need to get up, to walk over to the sink, to ease the tension.

“See?” Gary exclaims. “Let’s all lead by Jamie’s example here. There’s no need to panic.”

Brendan crosses his arms and smirks.

ac_unit

The TV in the kitchen blares out the new report of cases and deaths. They replay Justin Trudeau’s announcement to the country. Dad picks up another slice of pizza and Mom slaps his arm.

“Your blood sugar, John!”

“Leave me the hell alone.” He takes his plate into the living room and watches the news on the couch.

“It’ll be his fault if he gets sick,” Mom says.

I reach for another slice before realizing that I didn’t change out of my work clothes, didn’t wash my hands, didn’t shower, didn’t take any of the fucking precautions after coming home from work.

“Enough is enough,” the Prime Minister says. “Go home and stay home.”
Mom slams her hand down on the table. “For once, he’s actually right about something.”

But I can’t do the right thing. I can’t stay home.

I have to go back to work tomorrow, where the virus is.

My hands itch and I scratch at the left and then the right, staring at the Trudeau’s stupid salt and pepper beard. He keeps talking. His mouth keeps moving. The black and white keeps shifting and I shut my eyes as the headache of information comes on.

I pull my phone from my purse and type: Are you scared?

Brendan responds: Of course I’m scared. I’m trying to control what I can.

Dad coughs in the living room and my heart throbs. The headache builds. My fingers tremble over the screen: I’m going to have a fucking panic attack.

His response: I’d control you if you were here.

I retreat to my room, to my bed, imagining him sitting alone. Maybe naked. Maybe jacking himself. It’s not right to picture it but I do. I can’t help it. I start to type but then the phone rings.

“You okay?” he asks.

I nod but he doesn’t see it.

“Jamie?” His voice registers, soft, calm, concerned.

Silence drifts between the line, makes me tense, makes me swallow. “I should probably wash my hands.”

He exhales over the line. “Let me listen,” he says. “Sing Happy Birthday out loud.”

ac_unit

They only let a certain amount of people in the store at a time, now.

Gary had us put down arrows on the floor, tape at the registers to keep people the proper distance apart.

Gary moves Brendan to the front door to control the lineup.

I’m directed to bring stock out as quickly as possible. Whatever we have goes out onto the shelves.

Cans of beans.

Blocks of cheese.

Bottles of hand sanitizer.

I arrange them, face them.

Somehow I’m supposed to smile, supposed to pretend like I’m still giving out free samples. Customer service. Essential service.

Everything gets pried out of my aching gloved hands.

ac_unit

My job at the end of the night is to wipe down all the surfaces in the frozen food department. I’ve got my clinical blue gloves and my utility cart with a bucket and a rag soaked with bleach. We’re supposed to clean everything until it shines, until the germs are sanitized the threat is gone.

Smile.

Be nice.

My face hurts now.

The store’s closed now, so I allow the exhaustion to settle, forming bags beneath my eyes and cracks in the corners of my chapped fucking lips. I wipe at the freezer door handle and stare at my reflection in the glass.
I’ve seen enough memes thanking me for this service, for saving the world with my underpaid labour.

In another aisle, somebody coughs. A co-worker, a potential carrier.

I clean more vigorously, until the sweat inside of the latex gloves aggravates my eczema.

A shadow appears in the aisle.

“You want to spend the night?” Brendan asks.

I swallow and step away, leaving enough space for social distance.

“I live alone,” he says, scrubbing the fingerprints off the glass. “I have Netflix. I have games.”

I smile, but this time it isn’t forced.

“I’ll teach you how to play Settlers of Catan,” he says.

“You can’t play Catan with two players,” I say.

He moves to the cart, takes his gloves off. His hands are red, not as bad as mine but still dry, still compromised. “We could do other things, if that’s what you want.”

He stands in his blue polo shirt, always a stupid blue polo shirt. He has more than one, I’m sure. He looked like a novice who needed saving a week ago but now he takes a step too close and he pinches my elbow where there’s still a bit of bruise left to trigger me.

It’s not the bruise I got with him in the paper goods aisle. It’s the one I’ve modified to keep him close when he’s not.

Sin. Sin. Sin.

He comes closer and I take a step back. Aftershave. I breathe it down. I breathe it in. He kisses me against the unsanitized freezer door, tongue and all, saliva swap. Water drips off my gloves, spatters over the cement floor.

It’s quick and it’s wrong and my lips curve despite it all.

ac_unit

“Your hands are fucked,” Brendan says, staring at my knuckles on the bus. He’s right. They’re red from a bleach, the eczema spreading upward.

“Why do you get to swear and I don’t?”

“Because you like being told what to do.”

It’s late and our reflections blur in the lit glass. I take my phone of my pocket and scroll through the feeds. My phone is just a nightmare rectangle full of breaking news and annoying chalk heart hopefulness and memes about how Britney Spears wants to redistribute the world’s fucking wealth.

“Fuck this shit,” I say, showing him a photo of a grocery store employee who gets paid $7.25 an hour. The caption calls him A HERO.

He nudges my foot with his. “I bet it’s your phone that’s stressing you out. Not the hand washing.”

Everyone else on the bus is trying to maintain at least three feet of distance. They’re all staring, judging. Brendan nudges my foot again.

“You’re saving your parents,” he says, leaning in closer. “You’re a hero.”

I elbow his side, but it hurts me more than it hurts him.

“I’m glad you said Yes,” he says.

The truth is that I’ve had a quarantine wardrobe in my backpack all week.

I already told my parents that I wasn’t coming home.

ac_unit

We take turns using the shower to wash the Costco off. Our work clothes go into the wash and I pull out the the quarantine clothes I brought from home. A Costco hoodie. Costco leggings. Quarantine clothes.

We play Pandemic instead of Settlers of Catan. He puts on Ghosts V by Nine Inch Nails and the instrumental songs score the awkwardness of us failing to save the world together.

“Well, that was fucking depressing,” I say.

“Language, Jamie.” He watches my hands as I sort the game pieces back into the compartments of the box.

I sit up a little straighter, knowing what’s next. “I bet you’ve jacked off to the thought of me washing my hands,” I say.

He smiles. “What do you think about at night?”

“My parents dying. The economy crashing.” I stare at the board, a map of the world. I fold it closed. “I like guillotine memes, though.”

“And that gets you off?” he asks.

“Sometimes I joke that it does.”

“Do you want to get off?” he asks.

My throat tightens and I place the board into the box, closing the lid over it like a little coffin that I shove aside. We both have tomorrow off, a day in quarantine, a new normal.

He gets up from his chair and walks over to the kitchen sink. He turns on the tap and the water fills the room with white noise.

ac_unit

He stands behind me and holds my wrists beneath the warm water.

“Sing Happy Birthday to me,” he says.

The soap stings. The water burns. My throat constricts over the words, my body unwilling to comply. “It’s not your fucking birthday,” I say.

“Pretend it is.”

My laugh echoes against the metal walls of the sink, but the water pulls everything down. He brushes my hair away from my face and his breath touches my ear. He grips my injured elbow, his breath deepening, his voice hardening.

“You’re a brat,” he says. “You’re a brat and I like it.”

I start scrubbing my palms together, building a lather. My anxious breaths build as I work the soap between my fingers. I work up the nerve.

“Happy birthday to you…”

I want to sound like Marilyn Monroe but the words shake out of my lungs. I press my palms together, curling my fingers, getting the soap beneath my nails. I shrub my thumbs inside my shaking fists and then move to the backs of my hands, the part that makes my skin burn and throb.

“Happy birthday, dear Brendan.”

And I laugh. I can’t help it. My eyes slam shut and I writhe foolishly in this grasp. He leans over me, his erection pressing against my back. I shift against him, splashing water, slipping over the counter. I rinse the last of the soap off my hands, struggling to turn off the tap as he presses his hand beneath the waistband of my Costco leggings.

ac_unit

His stubble’s grown in by morning. The roughness scratches against my raw palms.

“Don’t shave today,” I say.

He sits up and scratches his jaw. “It itches when it grows in.”

“I like it. It makes you look older.”

“Older?” he asks. “Or more aggressive?”

I roll onto my elbow. “Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t expect you’d have a dominant side.”

“The right people bring it out,” he says, shrugging his narrow shoulders. There’s still a little muscle to them, something that kept me pinned face down to the bed the night before. He called me a brat over and over, his grip over my hair, keeping me facing the window and the forbidden outside.

He shifts on the bed now, climbing over me, straddling my hips. He pins my wrists back and leans down. “I’ll leave it for today,” he says, the stubble rough against my ear. “It’s coming off before work tomorrow, though.”

I draw a breath. It fills my lungs, burns a rush down the centre of my chest that makes me squirm and shiver beneath his forced weight. “Can you hit me in the face?”

His grasp shifts. He maintains his hold but the deepness of his voice shifts when he leans back. “You want me to hurt you?”

“I can’t stop touching my fucking face,” I say. “I want a distraction.”

“How much of a distraction?”

I swallow. “Enough to feel for a few days.”

“You’re sure?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say. “Please.”

He raises his hand. I wince but he doesn’t strike, just lets the threat work me over. His chest rises and falls. He presses his lips together.

“You’re nervous,” I say.

This time, it’s him swallows. He moves his grasp and he cups my jaw. He leans in a little closer, his wrist pressing down over my throat. “You’re going to bruise.”

“Nobody will know it was you,” I say He shifts his fingers over my throat but I use my free hand to keep his grasp tight.

“Just start slow and I’ll tell you if it’s okay.”

He moves his right hand, raps his fingers against my jaw, slapping lightly, once, twice, going harder the third time, harder for the skin to sting.

“Fuck,” I say.

The pressure over my throat builds, unspoken tension, a power shift in the making.

“Harder,” I say.

He pulls his hand back further. His biceps flinch. His palm strikes my jaw hard enough for the pain to jolt through. I close my eyes. I feel the red.

He firms his grasp and I nod. I look at him. “Harder.”
Two breaths. Shoulders rise. Shoulders fall. He strikes and there’s black. The pain’s hard, dull, sinking into my skull.

DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE.

STOP TOUCHING YOUR FACE.

JUST SMILE. BE NICE. STOP TOUCHING YOUR FACE AND YOU’LL SURVIVE THIS.

Tears burn past the black. His hand leaves my throat he leans close, his voice breaking a little.

“Talk to me, Jamie.”

“It’s fine,” I gasp. The emotion breaks out, rattles in my chest. I turn my face and rub the tears away, the adrenaline in my limbs again. It shifts through my fingers, shaking in my nerves. Inhale. Exhale, air deep in my lungs. “I’m good,” I say. “I’m good.”

ac_unit

We both board the bus the next morning, him with his face freshly-shaven and me with a new bruise on my jaw.

I shift it all day long.

“Sorry, our limit is two packs of toilet paper.”

“Sorry, you can’t return items you overbought.”

“Sorry, we’re out of isotropic alcohol.”

I smile.

I’m nice.

People look at me but not because I’m touching my face.

I take my break just as Brendan is finishing his. He pulls his orange vest over his blue polo and pumps a few squirts of Purell into his palm. I go to the sink and turn on the tap, my heart pounding. I glance ahead at the sign on the wall.

You give me the reason, you give me control.

He’s replaced Happy Birthday, printed a new sign with that stupid generator. Now I can wash my hands to “Sin” by Nine Inch Nails. I glance over at him, rubbing the Purell between his fists, cracking his knuckles clean. He smirks.

“Have a good break, Jamie,” he says.

“Thank you,” I say, running my hands beneath the warm water, feeling a rush of adrenaline alongside the pain.

ac_unit

Extras

Go deeper into the story with images, playlists, and a curated list of blog posts.

  • Excerpt graphic from "COPING MECHANISMS".
  • Excerpt graphic from "COPING MECHANISMS"
  • Excerpt graphic from "COPING MECHANISMS"
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