“Bile” by Kat Saunders

Image by Ming Ying Hong / mingyinghong.com

“AAA says there’s at least an hour wait,” my friend Madeline says, sullenly dragging a hand through her hair. It is a muggy July night and we are sitting in the parking lot of a Sunoco gas station in Columbus. It is after midnight. My own hair is lank, grimy, and it still smells faintly of cigarettes, the pine bite of gin—the scent of last night. I pat it self-consciously, but all I accomplish is making it lie flatter still. We have been waiting here for several hours.

Five minutes into our trip back from Columbus to Athens, where we live, Madeline’s huffy Plymouth Horizon had given out. The lights on the dashboard flickered erratically, and Madeline swerved to make the first exit we saw. On the ramp, a few hundred yards away from the Sunoco, the Plymouth shuddered and stalled. We had rolled the car into the Sunoco lot with the help of a man who had been loitering in the gas station parking lot.

We call Madeline’s boyfriend, Graham. “You’re in a bad neighborhood,” he scolds us. The blue sailor dress I’m wearing is rumpled, its once stiff collar, limp. My underarms are ringed with sweat, and they smell like a cup of milk that’s been left out on the kitchen counter for too long. Since we’ve sat here, the inside of the gas station has closed, and now patrons have to speak to the greasy adolescent cashier through a smudged window.

A middle-aged man in a vividly colored suit—neon orange or green—jabs with an index finger at the cigarettes he wants to buy, but the cashier keeps pulling out the wrong brand. Madeline and I watch them quarrel, and Madeline takes notes on the scene in the little red notebook she is never without.

“Graham was being weird on the phone,” Madeline says, glancing up from the notebook.

“Did he sound drunk?” I ask.

“Of course he’s drunk, he’s at a wedding,” Madeline sighs. Graham didn’t invite Madeline to the wedding, and I know she’s mad; she has been grinding her teeth all day. Instead of stabbing at an overcooked steak and staggering towards an open bar, Madeline has spent the day complaining and shopping with me. She mentions several times, hungrily, that Graham must look so handsome in his suit. Today, she bought extravagant underwear for him to peel off of her the next time they are together.

Madeline and I recently became good friends when we both fell in love with two men who shared the same apartment. Madeline and Graham are still together. My boyfriend and I aren’t, but we were last night, on the air mattress in Madeline’s front room. I don’t remember much about it. Sean kissed me, he undressed me, and I bled all over the air mattress, as if my body was rejecting him, as if when he touched me he created a new wound. When I woke up, he was gone. I was crumpled on the mattress alone, and I didn’t know where he was. He may have been smoking a cigarette outside or feeding the parking meter. Most likely, he was scoring drugs from a grubby house on the west side of town.

By the time he came back, I was dressed. Madeline made us grilled cheese sandwiches cut into triangles, which we devoured at her vinyl kitchen table. The three of us chewed in silence, pouring more Tabasco on the stale bread with every bite. After we ate, he belched and left town, a pile of crumbs left behind at the place where he sat at the table.

“You’re not supposed to get laid in my apartment before I do,” Madeline complained in the car on the way to Columbus. She had only been living in her new place for a couple of weeks.

“Do you think I’m proud of it?” I asked, thinking of the blood‐streaked underwear I’d left wadded in the trashcan in Madeline’s bathroom.

Sitting in the Sunoco parking lot, I think about calling Sean because he’s from Columbus too. He and Graham have been friends since high school, but it’s sometimes difficult to see why they’re still friends now. In the fall, Graham will move to Chicago to attend law school. Sean will start a new job and use his salary, rather than his trust fund, to buy cocaine.

“Call him,” Madeline urges, “Didn’t he say he was coming back to Columbus when he left? Maybe he can pick us up.” I shrug, choosing instead to watch the woman pumping gas several yards away from Madeline’s car. She’s smoking a cigarette. Two children sit in the backseat of her battered convertible, kicking at one another, their faces streaked with what looks to be a mix of grime and tears.

“Knock that off!” the woman growls, stubbing out her cigarette, wearily resting one hand on her hip as she holds the gas pump with her other. I wonder why these kids are still out, still wide‐awake after midnight. They can’t be more than five or six years old. They’re still squabbling. One pinches the other. “Goddamn it!” The woman stops fueling the car and leans menacingly over the backseat. “You’re not getting any candy when we get home. And you’re going straight up to bed,” she threatens.

“Christ, they should be in bed now,” Madeline says, rubbing her eyes. Wails rise from the backseat of the convertible, but they are lost in a roar as the woman restarts her car, lost as the convertible squeals out of the parking lot.

We wait for the tow truck. An elderly man buys gas and then offers to give us a jump, but it doesn’t take. He is hard of hearing and he keeps screaming how sorry he is. He’s not sorry enough to stay with us. Madeline and I watch as a woman wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of panties walks up to the glass window of the gas station store. I’m not sure what she buys, but she saunters away, her legs swinging loosely. She’s laughing, probably at all of us.

I text Sean: “Stranded at a gas station in your town. There is a pants-less woman and no one seems to think this is strange.” I don’t ask him for help. I know he’ll be too messed up to pick us up, even if he answers his phone, even if he decides that he wants to help us.

When the AAA man finally shows up, it’s past 1 AM. He is friendly, apologetic, and he chuckles softly about the “colorful clientele” milling around the parking lot. Madeline and I climb into the cab; it’s probably too small to accommodate three people, but we crush against one another, Madeline seated in the middle. The tow truck driver makes small talk that I mostly ignore, stifling yawns, staring out the window at the dark pastures we pass, the scenery blurring and slipping. Madeline laughs at something the tow truck driver says. I press my cheek against the cool glass.

Once we’re back at Madeline’s apartment, we fling off our shoes. We speak of showering, but open beers instead, draping ourselves across her three-legged sofa. Madeline calls Graham to tell him that we made it back, but he doesn’t answer. He is either dancing or sleeping. She acts as though she isn’t upset, but she leaves most of her beer unfinished and gets up to wash her face. I think of making a joke as she pads across the room: Isn’t it funny? The only man you can count on is a tow truck driver. But I can’t bring myself to speak the words because I know that if I do, my voice will catch, my face will fall.

A few months after the night at the Sunoco station, I begin my sophomore year of college. Madeline should have been living in the dorms as well, but she finds a loophole, something she was always good at doing. “I’m an orphan and an independent,” she tells the people working at the housing department. “I don’t have a home address somewhere else, so why can’t I make my permanent home here?” They can’t argue with her. At nineteen-years-old, Madeline doesn’t have a legal guardian anymore, and her mother’s house in Toledo is empty and for sale. She quickly settles into her shotgun style apartment, paying her rent with government money and wages from the hot dog restaurant next door, where she works late nights.

On Sunday nights, I go over to Madeline’s apartment, and often, she makes me dinner. In the dorms, I subsist on microwavable cups of macaroni and cheese, so I’m grateful to eat something home-cooked. I don’t know how to cook yet myself, but Madeline can prepare complicated dishes. She had to learn how to cook for herself when her mother got sick. Tonight, Madeline makes aloo gobi, curried potatoes and cauliflower. Her apartment always smells of spices—turmeric, cumin, star anise, whole peppercorns. She hasn’t lived here long, but already her scent is embedded in the apartment’s walls. In five years, when she doesn’t live in this town anymore, I wonder if the apartment will still smell like her.

I sit at Madeline’s antique yellow dining room set, watching her peel potatoes, their skins unfurling in tight coils. We both sip screwdrivers, the taste of vodka in them so strong that I wrinkle my nose. My cup leaves a ring on the table’s surface, and my throat burns with each acidic mouthful. Orange pulp lingers on my tongue, leaves a film across my gums.

“I keep waiting for Graham to tell me when I can visit him,” Madeline says, neatly cleaving a head of cauliflower. “It’s his birthday soon.” Madeline has saved enough money for a bus ticket, but Graham hasn’t told her which weekend she can come stay with him. She has already prepared his gift—a wedge of Gouda cheese, Graham’s favorite, and a homemade CD of all of the soul songs they used to make love to. She minces ginger and garlic, adding them to the pan. “I have the outfits planned.” I ask to see the outfits because I’m curious, and because I think that if we can talk about clothes rather than the man she hopes to wear them for, she might be distracted, she might stop looking as if she is about to cry into the curry simmering on the stove’s hot lip.

Madeline fixes me a plate of food—a scoop of rice, a spoonful of curry, a dollop of cool yogurt. She rummages through her closet as I sit eating on the sofa in the living room. She produces black nylon slips with lace crisscrossing their bodices, their scalloped hemlines. She mentions that she’s thinking of wearing one as a dress on the Megabus.

“Do you think that’s a good idea? Wearing lingerie on a bus?” I ask. I think of a boy from my hometown. He had been a football player. He rode a Greyhound and was mugged at knifepoint by another passenger when the bus idled at a rest stop. Madeline rolls her eyes at me. She has arranged the outfits carefully, as if she is ready to leave at any moment should the phone call come.

I think that as long as I remain sitting upright on this sofa, promising her that Graham will call, then I can pretend that one of us is well enough to take care of the other. I can pretend that the calls that never came for me will come for her.

Madeline models a mustard yellow pencil skirt, and then one in deep evergreen. Both are wool, a sign of the changing weather. And there are princess style coats with collars and cuffs trimmed in blonde mink. Madeline sweeps one of the coats in her arms; it is faintly moth‐eaten, a button is missing, a seam has burst. She searches for a sewing kit and then returns to the living room, seated on the floor with her legs crossed, threading a needle.

I don’t know what I’d wear when I see Sean again. We broke up again—finally—at the end of the summer, after I met him at a hotel near my parents’ house, after he handed me a warm Rolling Rock and patted the empty bed beside him, after he cradled me in his arms and promised that he would treat me better and call me every night, after he fucked me and I wept in his open mouth as he kissed me. After all that, I drove home in the dark because I still had a curfew. After all that, nothing was different between us. He didn’t treat me better, and he didn’t call me every night.

But he still shows up in Athens. The last time I saw him was a couple of weeks ago when he was here for Homecoming. This time, he didn’t try to sleep with me. I’m not sure what’s worse—his feigning interest in me so I’ll sleep with him, or his utter indifference. That weekend, he told Madeline that he thought my hair was too red. Since then, his cat has died, and I’m not sorry about it. I realize that when I see him again, it won’t matter what I decide to wear because he won’t be paying attention.

“When Graham left for law school, I vomited bile,” Madeline says from the floor where she is sprawled. Her voice is soft and unsteady. “I haven’t done something like that since the night my mother died.” I refill our glasses with vodka, ignoring the orange juice, as she tells me about how her uncle Joe had come home from the hospital with news that her mother had finally succumbed to the cancer she’d fought, defeated, and fought again. Madeline describes how she sprinted to the bathroom, how her hands gripped the ivory toilet bowl, how her body shuddered and heaved, emptying itself. I sit quietly, turning my glass in my hand. I’ve heard the story before, but never like this, not in such detail. I know the role I need to play. I must reassure Madeline that the trip to Chicago will happen, that those outfits will be worn. I must make excuses for why Graham hasn’t returned her calls, and I’m prepared. I can make the same ones that I made for Sean when he wasn’t calling me.

Madeline weeps into the folds of the fur coat she’s holding. A musky scent rises from the mink as it dampens. Madeline is a beautiful girl and a spectacularly ugly crier. She sobs with her whole body. She doesn’t beat the floor with her fists like a tantruming child. She doesn’t pound her chest or wail. She is quiet, her shoulder blades flexing, neck veins exposed and taut. I want to join Madeline on the floor, now, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I think that as long as I remain sitting upright on this sofa, promising her that Graham will call, then I can pretend that one of us is well enough to take care of the other. I can pretend that the calls that never came for me will come for her.

And I, too, want to bury my face in the glorious furs spilling across the hardwood floor. I cannot weep as Madeline does, so openly and unselfconsciously. When my grandmother died the previous summer, I waited for hours until the house was shuttered and asleep, and then I crawled, wearing only a nightgown, onto the driveway to cry so no one inside could hear me. I long to cry as Madeline does; I have never vomited bile.

Four years later, Madeline and I are in the same city again. She has recently moved out of Athens, but I’ve stayed behind to attend graduate school. Madeline visits often, and when she’s in town, we go to bars. We twirl our straws and twist lime garnishes into our cocktails. Sometimes men approach us. They talk to us; they ask what we’re studying in school, what we’re drinking. They ask us who our people are.

“I don’t have any,” Madeline always replies.

“Huh?” The would-be suitor asks.

“I’m an orphan,” Madeline answers, “a triple orphan.”

“How can someone be a triple orphan?” the man asks, reeling.

Like this: Madeline’s father, a boxer, drops dead from a heart attack right around his thirtieth birthday. Madeline’s mother dies from cancer when Madeline is a teenager. After that, Madeline’s uncle Joe becomes her guardian. He is a kind man. I only meet him once, but he always asks Madeline about me after that day. The summer after Madeline moves out of town, the summer I turn twenty-three, Joe is killed in a motorcycle accident.

When Madeline’s mother died, Madeline vomited. When Madeline’s uncle died, I vomited. I was sickened that someone so young could lose so much. When I hear Madeline explain her triple orphanage, I appraise her face—her almond shaped eyes, her high cheekbones, her curled lips—and I wonder how she has been able to withstand these losses. I marvel at her because I have people. My parents are alive, and the only deaths I remember grieving are those of my eighty-five year-old Granny and of my childhood dog.

Madeline and I attend our friend Jenny’s wedding a year after Joe dies. We are both dateless, drinking too much wine from the open bar, and we feel uncomfortable at our table, which is filled with people we don’t know very well. After a dinner of shrimp Alfredo and chicken curry, we stand outside the venue to stretch our legs. Some of the groomsmen are smoking cigars, and many of their faces are red with wine already. The maid-of-honor comes outside to announce that Jenny is about to dance with her father. People toss away their cigarettes and shuffle inside to watch Jenny’s father guide her across the dance floor. I turn to Madeline and ask her if she wants to go back inside.

“We’re going to miss it,” I say.

“That’s okay,” Madeline says, “it’s hard for me to watch the father-daughter dance.” One of Madeline’s most prized possessions is a photograph of Joe and her mother at Madeline’s parents’ wedding. It is a candid snapshot. Madeline’s mother is telling Joe something; her brows are furrowed just as Madeline’s are when she’s in the middle of a story. Joe smiles widely at Madeline’s mother’s side. I know why Madeline doesn’t want to go inside the reception. Joe will not be there to beam like this on her wedding day. He won’t be at her side to escort her down the aisle, or hold her in his arms as music swells. Madeline and I stand in the fading daylight, facing away from the room where Jenny dances with her father. We wait until the music fades. People inside clap and cheer, and then we go back inside.

Later that night, Madeline and I dance together.



Kat Saunders is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at West Virginia University. She is a 2015 graduate from Ohio University’s MA program in creative writing. Saunders resides in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she teaches, edits, and writes.