Scrubbed

The waiting room is empty, but they sit together instinctively before they consider it might be better to be far apart. Each of them could have claimed for their own a dozen molded plastic seats, two chemical green walls, one glowing vending machine dispensing cold drinks and recyclable breath masks. Instead they are huddled together in the center of the room, and the fluorescent banks in the ceiling might as well be a spotlight.

The man is not quite a young man anymore. Mid-to-late twenties. He has a flat face, sunken eyes, the vestige of an expensive haircut unstyled and overgrown like his wiry beard. He wears acid yellow pants and a charcoal gray shirt opening two buttons deep on a sunburnt chest. His expression is blank, his posture is relaxed, but one knee is pointed slightly inward, so his leg doesn’t touch his companion’s, and the lanky arm splayed along the back of the seat leaves a sliver of plastic between itself and his companion’s shoulders.

The woman is older, late thirties. She has an angular face, sunken eyes, a small, pale mouth. When she opens it as if to speak, and then only breathes, a crooked tooth she never had fixed shows. There are flecks of black mascara on her cheek and flecks of silver in her short black hair. Her shirt has zippers that aren’t designed to be pulled and tendrils of a tattoo reach across her collarbone. She sits very upright in her seat with her shoulders drawn back and then relaxed, a precise kind of posture compensating for an old dance injury. She leaves her bag on her feet, balanced centimeters over the dirty floor, instead of holding it in her lap.

The man turns his head so she knows he’s looking at her, but his eyes don’t actually fix on her face. They slide past to land on the wall, where the smartpaint mural — done back when it was a different sort of clinic — shows red balloons drifting across the green.

“If we have anything else to say, I guess this would be the time to say it.”

“Reckon so, yeah.”

“I never thought I’d be here with you.”

“No, Jasper. Nobody does. Nobody’s at home daydreaming about this kind of trip to the clinic.”

“I just want to make sure this is your call. Your idea. Not me putting ideas in your head.”

“In my little head.”

“What?”

“The way you said that. You might as well have said ‘in your little head.’”

“Your head’s huge, Bea.”

“Oh? Yeah? Since the —”

“The haircut, yeah. It’s huge. It’s enormous. How’d it ever get out the birth canal?”

“Cesarean.”

“But what I actually mean is you’re smart. Real smart. And I guess if I put ideas in your head you would chuck them right back out, because you’re smart. And you’ve got a good haircut.”

“All these compliments. So nice.”

“No.”

“No what?”

“I’m not. Not nice. I’m an asshole.”

“Sure. If that makes you feel better. You’re an asshole, Jasper. We are here because you’re an asshole. Case closed.”

“It doesn’t make me feel better.”

Her voice crackles angry for the first time. “Of course it does.”

“How could it?”

“Self-flagellation.”

“Is that when monks hit themselves in the balls?”

“Yeah. You like beating yourself up. It gets you off. I know you.”

“Isn’t that better than not feeling bad? Don’t you want me to feel bad about it?”

“I don’t care about your feelings, Jasper. I’m here for me. Not you.”

“So maybe only you should do it.”

“The process takes two people. That’s how it knows how to rewrite shit. Perpetrator and victim, working together, hippocampuses allied.”

“I thought you hated ‘victim.’”

“I’m not a survivor. I didn’t survive you. You’re not bad enough to have to survive. You’re just the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s all. You’re a straw.”

“How is your back?”

“Not bad on two tabs an hour.”

He pivots all the way around on his seat, one leg pulled up to his chest, so he can face her. His voice is stretched. “Remember when you needed someone to drive you to the hospital for a colonoscopy? And I did, and for the spot on the form where it said ‘relation’ I put ‘grandma’? Then later I picked you up and you were loopy as fuck?”

“I remember.”

“You wanted chicken fingers and a big blue slushie. Blue-flavored, not blueberry.”

“So?”

“I’m going to see if the vending machines have anything good. You want a drink?”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

He glances toward the empty service desk. “Wouldn’t it be awful to have the guy look you right in the eye and recognize you and you realize you’ve been here before?”

He gets up and goes to the vending machine and trails his fingers over the glowing buttons. She takes three pills from a bottle in her purse. He comes back and sits down.

“The next day I didn’t even remember it. It was only when you told me. Then it hit me like a fucking brick. And I thought, how? How could I do that? But I remembered.”

“That’s why we’re here.”

“I want to keep saying I’m sorry forever.”

“I get that, yeah.”

“But I might not be.”

She blinks. “You might not be.”

“You might be right about it all just being performative. Monks hitting themselves in the balls. How can I tell if I’m really sorry? Especially now that we’re here.”

She claws a hand across her face. “This is ridiculous. It’s still about you, right? Still somehow about you.”

“It’s about both of us. But I only get to see out of my own eyes and brain and whatever, no matter how hard I try not to.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And when I lay it all out, like all the facts, I know I did something really shitty…”

“You keep saying that. You keep talking about this ‘shitty thing’ you did. You’ve never actually said what it is. Were you scared I would record it?”

“I didn’t want to say what it was in case it was different from what you remembered. I didn’t want to skew things by accident.”

“Okay. I’ll tell you what happened. We were splitting a hotel room at the conference. Because we’re friends.”

“We are.”

“What?”

“We are friends. I mean, all the other stuff, all the good things, those are still real things.”

She looks him in the eye and speaks evenly. “You climbed into my bed and hugged me and said it was nice catching up with everybody and then you pushed my head all the way down your chest to your pulled-out cock.”

His flat face goes red. For a moment he’s silent. “I thought I didn’t do that kind of thing.”

She gives a half laugh. “Thing! Thing. You thought you didn’t sexually assault people.”

“It wasn’t that simple.” He has a sly venom in his voice. “You already admitted it wasn’t that simple. The second message.”

“Bet you screenshotted it.”

“No. Everything’s gone. I used the same virus you did. With the rewrite algorithm. Our new conversation was about truffles. Like, if people still eat them.”

“I saw.”

“We’ve hooked up before.”

“Before I was married, yeah.”

“That night, when we went out to celebrate the book. We were flirting. You said that in the second message.”

“Yeah. Yes. We had been drunkenly flirting at dinner. It wasn’t supposed to go anywhere.”

“And you said you touched my chest.”

“Yeah. When you got into bed, I touched your chest. I was drunk.”

“I was drunk. So don’t call it that. Don’t call it assault. Don’t act like it was a crime.”

“It was disgusting.”

“Yeah. But you let me hang on a meathook for a whole day before you sent that second message. You let me think I did it out of nowhere.”

“Boo-hoo for your bad day. I let this eat me alive for three weeks.”

“I’m sorry.”

“If you’d tried to kiss me or something, that would have been different. But you just grabbed me like I was a prop. Like, lucky girl, you have the correct assemblage of orifices. And people have been grabbing me like that my whole life. And it makes me want to scream.”

“You can tell people. What I did was shitty. I can’t make you not tell people. It’s completely your right to tell people.”

“I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that to my partner. Don’t want to do it to myself. I don’t want to be one of those brave women, okay? I don’t owe brave to anybody. Unless.” She pauses. “Unless I thought you were going to do it again. Or do worse. To somebody else.” She looks at him. “And I don’t think you will.”

His gaze flickers to one side.

“Jasper?”

“Bea.”

Her breath is a shudder. “You said you never expected to be here with me. Did you expect to be here with someone else?”

“Eventually.” He peels the word up like a scab. “Maybe. I don’t know. I wouldn’t mean to.”

“What does that mean, you wouldn’t mean to?”

“Things happen. You party. Partied. You know what it’s like. People who say it’s always this clear-cut thing, this easy thing, it’s like they’ve never been fucked up in their life, you know?”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because it’s true. Things are messy in the dark. There’s stuff I don’t remember. Not because I scrubbed it, but because I was blackout. The way I grew up, small town, oil town, it was like, men do this. You’re a man, so you do this. And women want that. Even if they act like they don’t.”

“Stop talking, Jasp. Just stop.”

“I can’t. This is my one chance to say it. This one time, this was middle school, we were all in the basement, and my friend’s brother had a clip of this girl sucking his cock, and he was showing us. And he was telling us about these other girls, all these other girls. And he said, sometimes girls don’t know exactly what they want. Sometimes you have to nudge it a little. Force it a little. And he took this big swig of beer, real solemn, and everyone nodded and drank their beers too. And I was holding it in my mouth for the longest time, the carbonation, the bubbles, all crackling and burning in my mouth, because I still hated beer. It was Heineken. And then I swallowed.”

“Yeah. I get it. You swallowed. All you have to do is shut up, Jasper. Just shut up for a second, just one fucking second. I’ve been shutting up my whole life, and even now, even when you do this to me, you’re still the one talking. Why are you still talking?”

“I’m sorry.” He pauses. “It’s because that’s the only thing I’m good at. Is talking.”

“Debatable.”

“And if I never moved away, I’d still think that way. That basement way. And those people who think that way, they’re not evil. They’re not monsters. They’re just people. Lots of them are my friends. And lots of them grew up. Some of them didn’t. But they’re not monsters.”

“You think I don’t know a hundred guys like that?”

“So you know I’m not a monster.”

“What do you want from me? Seriously. What do you want from me right now, in this situation? You want me to tell you that deep down you’re a good guy? Or do you want me to tell you you’re an incurable asshole? Make up your fucking mind.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” He clamps his palms over his head, rubs his forehead with the heels of his hands. “When we gave each other signed copies of the book, the morning after. You wrote something in mine. You wrote, ‘You’re a good egg.’”

“That’s what I write when I don’t know what to write.”

“You didn’t know what to write? We worked on that book together for a year and a half.”

“Yeah, and the night before you tried to put your cock in my mouth.”

He sags. “How can I make it right? Because this, us being here, this isn’t going to make it right.”

She jerks up out of her seat and her bag nearly topples before she snatches it. When she speaks her voice is a snarl. “This is the only way it will be right.”

“It’s like running away.”

“I know what you want. I’ve got it figured out, even if you haven’t yet. You want to be crucified and exonerated at the same fucking time. You want people to tell you you’re a miserable excuse for a human, and then marvel at how sensitive you are for realizing it. That doesn’t happen. It never will.”

“Look. You shouldn’t have to live with it. I should.”

“You think I’m getting it scrubbed because I can’t handle the trauma? I told you, Jasper. You’re a straw. I’m getting it scrubbed because we work well together. We have another translation contract in June. And because, yes, when you’re not being self-pitying and shitty, you’re fun to drink with. You’re even dependable in the drive-you-to-a-colonoscopy way. And I’ve put too much time into you to cut you out of my life.” She sets her bag on the empty seat beside her. “Even if there was a way I could scrub it without you, we’d never have that back. You’d always be acting. Eventually it would slip. I’d know something was wrong. We’d drift apart. Be uneasy for months. Years. Then you’d call me up drunk one night and confess, and we’d be back to square one, wouldn’t we?”

He doesn’t reply. A cleaner wanders into the room on spidery plastic legs. It secretes a bright blue detergent onto the floor.

“If I don’t remember it, I won’t learn from it.”

She sits back down. “I’m not your teacher. If you didn’t know it was wrong without me telling you, you’ll never know. You’ll always just be going through the motions.”

“Maybe that’s the trick, then. Is just going through the motions.” His face is his idea of grave. “But I know myself too well, Bea. To say I’ll never end up in that kind of situation again.”

“Maybe stop fucking drinking.”

“Are you going to stop drinking?”

“No.”

They watch the cleaner work, circular brushes whirring and whipping the detergent into pale blue foam.

He inhales. “Okay. Here’s what it is. I tried to put your mouth on my cock. I made you feel like a prop. It was a shitty thing to do. All I was thinking, the only thing I was thinking, was that it would feel good for me. And you not wanting it didn’t even enter my brain. Maybe because of old memories. Maybe because I was wasted. I can say there’s no excuse, but I’ve always got more of them.”

She shakes her head. “Here’s what it is. In the big picture, you’re nothing. What you did was nothing. But in the little picture, it sucked. Because I didn’t think you would do something like that, and now I know you would. And I felt disgusted and disappointed and disrespected. And angry. I wanted to cut your dick off.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” His eyes are already lightening. “But I’m not a bad person. Or a good person. I’m just a person who does things that make people either happy or unhappy. Usually I do the happy kind. This time I did the unhappy kind.”

“Moral philosophy for toddlers.”

“If there’s nothing I can do to fix it, and if I’m not planning to do it again, then this was the best option. Coming here. You were right.”

“Yeah. I was.” She shuts her eyes. “I’m exhausted. I’m fucking exhausted and I don’t want to hate anyone or teach anyone or love anyone despite their bullshit. I just want it to be gone.”

“Gone. Yeah.”

The memory technician comes out, clutching a tablet in gloved hands. “Sorry about that wait, folks. Calibration’s finished. Integrated deletion for Jasper and Beatrice?”

“Yeah.” He takes a deep breath and stands up. “Here we go. I’m glad. I’m really glad. I value you a lot, you know, Bea?”

She stands up and walks with him down the antiseptic-smelling hallway. She doesn’t look the technician in the face. She knows better.


Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in the south of Spain, and now lives in Ottawa, Canada. He is the author of Annex and Cypher, as well as over a hundred short stories — some of the best of which can be found in his collection Tomorrow Factory. His work has been translated into Polish, Czech, French, Italian, Vietnamese and Chinese. Besides writing, he enjoys traveling, learning languages, playing soccer, watching basketball, shooting pool, and dancing kizomba.