Centerpiece

Ramona had decided to try to spit up the hard lump of discontent that rolled around her gut. She was a little hesitant because she had no idea of how big it might actually be. It might lodge in her throat and suffocate her, and that was really the opposite of the effect she was looking for. She wanted some kind of relief but not the permanent relief of death.

So Ramona enlisted her best friend Jacob, who was not only fastidious but who had also already seen her at her worst. He would either try to Heimlich it out or push it back down with a long chopstick should it get stuck. Because Jacob liked to be prepared, he had also watched a video on how to perform an emergency tracheotomy should it come to that. In preparation, Ramona fasted for two days, drinking nothing but juice and tea.

Jacob turned up the music to mask the retching sounds.

“Well,” Ramona said, “ready?”

“Let’s do it,” Jacob replied, clapping his latex-covered hands.

“I like your enthusiasm.” She’d never been bulimic, so she was not adept at making herself throw up. Her arsenal included her own index finger, ipecac, and a perfume that generally made her want to puke. She hoped one of them would do the trick.

She stuck her finger down her throat and gagged. “God,” she said, her eyes watering, “how do people do this all the time?”

“Practice and determination,” Jacob replied. “Come on, try again.”

She tried a couple more times. “Hey,” she said, “it felt like it bounced up a little on that last one.” That was all the encouragement she needed. She opened the ipecac, slugged it down, and deeply inhaled the perfume.

That stone of discontent came flying out of her with such force that it ricocheted out of the sink she’d tried to contain it in and landed behind the toilet.

“Fuck that hurt!” Ramona said, standing up and wiping her eyes. “Jesus Christ!” She saw Jacob on his hands and knees.

“Got it!” he said triumphantly and held out his palm in which sat a malt-ball sized blue grey blob. “Tah dah!”

“Wow,” Ramona replied. “It’s smaller than I expected. Is it hard?”

Jacob pushed his open hand closer to her and said, “Put on some gloves and see for yourself.” He went to fix them both drinks, something celebratory that would also soothe Ramona’s throat.

Ramona held it in her hand, riding alternate waves of nausea and wonder. It felt warm through the latex.

She tried rolling it in her palm. It wobbled more than rolled, and so she took it between her forefinger and thumb and tried to make it more of a ball shape. She hesitated at first out of some fear that her actions would hurt it or her. It was still an extension of her after all. It was her discontent.

She found that the rolling soothed her. Whether it was just the act of massaging it or if there were some kind of physical connection between it and her, she didn’t know. She removed her gloves. “Fuck it. It came from my body. If it’s toxic, then I’m toxic, and we cancel each other out,” she said as Jacob handed her a drink.

“What’s it feel like now?” he asked. “Is it still warm?”

“Yeah. I expected that it would cool down. I don’t know why, but I kind of thought it would be cool and hard instead of warm and malleable.” She rolled it between her palms like a meatball.

“What are you going to do with it?” Jacob asked.

“I don’t know, but I’m definitely keeping it.”

That night she found an empty ring box and set the lump in it. She’d grown fond of it over the day. It felt a bit like a cross between a pet rock and a baby. It inspired tenderness.

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Illustration by Maggie Meshnick

The next day she tucked it in her bag when she went out. She wanted to have it near, partly out of a sense of connection but also as a way to keep an eye on it should it suddenly change. At one point she found herself standing in a post office line, the kind filled with people who have not bothered to prepare their forms before stepping up to the counter. She started to get annoyed and felt her anger rise. Then she reached for the lump.

Removing it gently from its velvet resting place, she started to roll it between her hands. It calmed her down, and instead of focusing on the line, she focused on the smooth warm feeling in her palms. As she went to return it to the box, having finally neared the front of the queue, she noticed that it seemed a little bigger and a little less dull.

 

That night Jacob came over to watch TV with her.

“Hey,” she said to Jacob. “Check this out.” She handed him the ring box.

“Well, fancy, fancy,” he said.

“No, open it. I want you to look at it.”

“I was getting there. Don’t rush me.” Jacob opened the box. “It seems bigger. Did you do something to it?”

“I only rolled it in my hands while waiting at the post office,” Ramona explained. “It kept me from throttling the people in front of me.”

“Handy little thing, then, isn’t it. Can I pick it up?”

“Sure.”

Jacob picked it up gingerly with his thumb and forefinger and brought it to his eye. “The shape is more uniform. Do you think it’s settled or something?” Jacob asked. He gave it a gentle squeeze. “It’s pretty hard now. Maybe exposure to the outside world has cured it or something.”

“I don’t know. It just seemed a little bigger and even a little shinier after I’d rolled it around.”

Jacob replaced the lump in its box and handed it back to Ramona. She looked at it briefly and then snapped the box shut.

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About a week later, it no longer fit into the ring box. It had clearly grown. Jacob found this fact a little scary. Ramona was protective. She found a fabric bag to put it in and continued to carry it with her, petting and rolling it while in lines, on the bus, or even at her desk occasionally.

“God, my back is killing me,” Ramona complained to Jacob over dinner a few days later. “I really need a massage. Pass me my bag. There’s some ibuprophen in there.”

Jacob grabbed her purse and as he lifted it said, “What the hell do you have in here? A brick? No wonder your back hurts.” He started digging through her purse and then extracted the lump, which had grown to the size of a softball. “Oh my god,” he gasped.

“I know,” Ramona said. “Crazy, huh?”

“You’ve got to stop carrying this around,” Jacob said, staring at his reflection in the surface of the lump. “Are you polishing it?”

“Not really. It just gets shiny when I handle it. I think it’s looking pretty cool now, don’t you think?”

“You need to leave this at home,” Jacob stated flatly. “Really.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s getting too big to schlep around.” She picked it up and cradled it in her lap.

“Come on,” Jacob held the purse open for her, “put it away.”

 

But it wasn’t that easy. Ramona tried to leave it at home the next day but ran back from the bus stop to get it just as her bus was coming into sight. She decided to stop at the dollar store on the way home to see if there was a little grocery cart or something that she could use to more easily bring it with her.

After a couple of weeks with her “granny cart,” as Jacob called it, she realized that he was right. She just couldn’t take it with her anymore. It would have to stay home. But each evening, when she came home and settled in front of the television, she took the lump into her lap and just rolled it and patted it as she thought about her day.

It developed a hard shiny coat, but if, for some reason, Ramona didn’t handle it for a few days, it would start to dull. It also grew – not dramatically but incrementally. At first Jacob worried that it might possess some supernatural powers but after a few months decided that the statute of limitations had run out on evil activity. The worst thing that had happened was that it slipped from Jacob’s hand once and caused a nasty bruise to the top of his foot.

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She finally told her mother about it. She’d been both reluctant and impatient to tell her, and now it had become such a regular part of her life that she found the subject creeping into every conversation, including ones with her family.

Nonchalance was the best approach. Amidst a wandering discussion of her cousins and their foibles, Ramona said, “Oh, hey, did I tell you about this thing I threw up awhile ago?” As soon as she’d said it, she chided herself for not coming up with better language. Throwing up is not nonchalant.

“What?! No, you didn’t tell me. Are you okay?” Ramona heard both the concern and the annoyance that were trademarks of her mother’s parenting style. “You’re not bulimic now, are you?”

“No, Mom, not at all. It was just that I’d been feeling this…well, I call it discontent growing in me, and it was making me sick.”

“What kind of sick?” her mother broke in. “And since when can you throw up discontent?”

“I don’t know. I was just feeling..” She couldn’t put into words the accumulating pressure and weight of it. Even thinking about it now brought back the sensation. “I don’t know..not well, and I decided to see if making myself vomit would help..”

“What do you have to be discontent about? Are you okay? Should I hop on a plane and come out there?”

“Mom, it’s alright.”

“You know, your father warned that moving across the country might not be the best thing for you.”

It had been three years since Ramona had moved for work, and it had been over nine years since she’d lived at home. “Mom, I’m fine. Really. The move was necessary, and I couldn’t be happier here.”

“Then what caused your discontent?”

Ramona could tell that the conversation had gone south. It was clear that while they shared DNA and gender, their experience of the world was terribly different. There was no way now that she’d tell her that the small orb had grown into a ball so large she couldn’t carry it around. “I don’t know, Mom,” was all she could say.

“Well, how are you feeling now? Are you better?”

This she could answer simply and honestly, “Yes, much better.” She hastily added, hoping to end the discussion, “I just think I hadn’t been taking care of myself. I let myself get run down. After I threw up, I felt much better.”

“Did anything come up?” her mother asked.

“Not much,” Ramona replied. “Anyway, like I said, I feel better now.”

“Well, that’s good,” her mother replied. “Did I tell you about Suzanne’s dog? She got hit by a car the other day,” and so the topic switched.

After she got off the phone, Ramona placed the ball in her lap and pet it over and over again. The conversation with her mother had demonstrated that the ball of discontent was not something everyone could understand. She started to downplay its significance to Jacob and worked to make it seem like it was a novelty item, something that was simply part of the décor.

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When friends came over, they’d immediately inquire about it. Sometimes she told them it was a bit of stone her great, great grandmother brought from Ireland and that it’d been used to drown her great, great, great grandmother during a witch trial. Other times she told them it was her discontent. More often than not, they believed the drowning story over the other.

Everyone wanted to touch it, but other than Jacob, who seemed to harbor an unspoken suspicion of the orb, she discouraged them.

Finally, she moved it into her bedroom where she alone could handle it. She was the one who polished the globe it had become, and this, in the end, pleased Ramona.

—–

Author Bio: After receiving her MFA from Columbia University, Claudia Manley moved to Hamilton, Ontario where she writes, teaches, and makes art. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals including Calyx, Night Train, and Joyland (Toronto). A recipient of both an Ontario Arts Council Writers’ Reserve grant and an Emerging Artist grant, she currently teaches writing at Western University in London, Ontario and is a member of the art collective Shake –n- Make

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