The Rib is the Oracle of Malice
Yvette is late so she gives herself the penalty. Five minutes is a small cut in the thumb. Ten, below the nail. Today it’s fifteen, so she goes into the bathroom and stabs the loose skin between the thumb and the index finger. The blood of tardiness is in the hands.
She emerges from the bathroom with a cloth around her hand and takes a seat next to her brother Avon. She looks across the table at Janet. The crook of Janet’s smooth brown arm is pierced with staples.
“Who?” Yvette asks.
“Lucy,” she says, nodding towards me. “I brought a chocolate cake. I forgot she is dieting.”
I smile back at them, a little woozy from the bloodletting in my pale thighs. Just before Avon came in I made a tactless allusion to Ron’s ex-wife right in front of Janet, and the thigh is the cradle of unintentional pain.
It is eight o’clock and Ron is the only one of us who is eating merrily, even helping himself to seconds.
“Why, Ron, you’re the only one without a flagellation,” Avon says.
“The night is young,” Ron says, smiling around a mouthful of roll.
You would think Ron just gets off scot-free because it was his idea. But Ron will throw a spike in his hand with the best of us. He will do it cheerfully, without complaining, without being asked.
That’s the brilliance of it: having us do it ourselves. We flagellate ourselves for transgressions we never would have penalized in others.
The other brilliant thing is dating. For example: when Avon showed up for our first date with a bunch of fish hooks in his shoulder. I ended it then and there. Who wants to date a guy who gives backhanded compliments?
There is no point in burying the remorse inside, Ron says. So we wear it openly, in our flesh.
After the wine goes around a couple of times we start to loosen up a little. Soon, Ron is telling us singles the story of how he first met Janet.
“We always went to the same cookie stall at the farmer’s market downtown, the one in the square, on our lunch breaks,” Ron says. “I recognized her from my building elevator and I just thought she had such beautiful brown eyes.”
“Janet does have lovely eyes,” Avon says. “You can hardly tell that the left one is a bit shy.”
“So I got there early one day and I had her a cookie made,” Ron says. “A big jumbo-sized oatmeal raisin cookie.”
“Really jumbo-sized,” Janet says. She mimes a huge circle with her hands. “You couldn’t have one of those, of course,” she adds, nodding apologetically towards me.
“What did the cookie say?” I ask.
“It said Call me in raisins,” Ron says. “Then it had my number going alongside the bottom, curled up, like a smile.”
Yvette gives a little squeal. “That’s so sweet,” she says. “I wish someone would make me a love cookie.”
“I wouldn’t give him too much credit,” I intrude. “He did the same thing with Marcy.”
“Oh, Lucy,” Avon reproaches me.
“I’m just a sap, I guess,” Ron says humbly, looking sideways at Janet. “A sentimental fool.”
“Fishing for compliments,” Yvette says, raising her eyebrows at Ron.
Janet stirs, irritably.
“It’s okay,” she says. “The truth is, Ron isn’t perfect.”
We were all gathering our implements, heading towards the bathroom to perform our remorse, but we fall silent at this. Avon sets his fish hook down on his empty plate with a little clanging sound.
“What did you say?” he asks.
Janet shrugs. She is not smiling and her voice is steady.
“Just what I said,” she repeats. “To be honest, Ron’s not perfect.”
“It’s true,” Ron says. “I am kind of a one-trick pony. Especially with dinner recipes. And sexual positions.”
“It’s not just that,” Janet says. “It’s also the dirty laundry and all of the late-night phone calls to your sister. I mean, did you ever meet a guy who was so obsessed with his own sister?” She turns to Avon and Yvette. “Who talks to his sister about his sex life?”
Avon looks stricken at this. Yvette and I lock eyes across the table.
“Will you excuse us, please?” Yvette says to Ron and Janet, her voice artificially high.
The thing is, we have no plan for this. There is no flagellation ritual prepared for the open insult, the uncloaked hostility between lovers. All of our rituals address subtext: the little rudeness, the unwittingly tasteless joke, the casual but thoughtless remark.
“I mean, Ron’s compliment-fishing is one thing,” Avon says, pacing back and forth in my bedroom. “But just insulting him like that? Right in front of us?”
“And causing discomfort,” I add. “Really a lot of discomfort.”
Yvette sits on my bed. She presses gently on her reddening cloth.
“Maybe that’s just it,” she says. “The point is self-awareness, right? And locating the proper organ. So Janet needs to be the one to show remorse.”
Avon nods, thoughtfully.
“Maybe we left too fast,” he says. “Maybe she’s done something already.”
The three of us lock eyes, our hooks and studs gleaming in the lamplight.
But back in the dining room Janet is obstinate.
“No,” she says. “I don’t think I did anything to feel remorseful about. I’ve been keeping that in for a long time, and now I feel better. Thank you for letting me share all that in a safe place.”
She turns to Ron, beaming.
“Quite right,” he says, patting her arm. “I’m glad you felt you could be honest with me. Although you were a little harsh, you know.”
“I don’t think you should play the martyr,” Yvette says. “After all, you begged the compliment that probably made her upset.”
Avon and I nod solemnly at this. False humility we had something for. Two quick jabs in the spleen.
“Well, all right.” Ron takes out his pocket spike. “You might have something there.”
Avon shakes his head. “Janet needs to be first.”
“I told you. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Why don’t we take a vote?” asks Yvette.
The results are Innocent (1), Guilty (3), and Abstain (1). But then we hit two more snags.
The first snag is: What?
And the second: Who?
“It just boils down to one question,” Avon says. “Where is the seat of open, gratuitous hostility?”
“The ribs,” Ron says.
“The mouth,” Yvette and I say together.
Avon nods. “Yvette and Lucy are right,” he says. “The mouth is the nautilus of indiscretion.”
Ron begins to sob, quietly. “But I love her mouth,” he moans.
“And not her ribs?” I ask. “If you love her mouth, then shouldn’t you love her ribs? Shouldn’t you love all of Janet?”
“You don’t understand,” Ron says.
“Who should go in?” Avon asks.
We all fall silent and stare at the table. Janet’s cries drift down the hallway from the bathroom, the only room that locks from the outside. We listen as she pummels the door.
“That’s easy,” Yvette says finally, turning her green eyes on Avon. “She needs to do it herself.”
“What if she doesn’t?”
“Then someone needs to make her.”
“I’ll do it,” Ron offers, meekly.
“No. Not you.” Now all eyes turn to me. “It shouldn’t be person who was the victim of the rudeness. We can’t trust you. And, besides, you abstained.”
“Fuck,” Avon says.
“The women, then. Yvette and Lucy. You do it.”
“Why us?” Yvette asks.
“She said it in response to you guys, right?” Avon says. “So you and Lucy should lead.”
“The women should do it,” Ron agrees, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “It will be kinder for Janet.”
When I see her I almost lose my nerve. She is sitting on the edge of the tub and her eyes bore straight into mine. But Yvette pushes me into the bathroom and slams the door. Janet is unfazed.
“Tell me you wouldn’t get tired of him, too,” she says, glaring at us. “Tell me you never get tired of eating novelty cookies. Tell me you never get tired of dirty laundry balled up and resting on top of the hamper.”
I begin to relent a bit, at this.
“She has a point.” I turn to Yvette. “I mean, you went out with Ron once, right?”
“Don’t listen to her, Lucy,” Yvette says, glaring at Janet. “She’s just trying to appeal to our female solidarity.”
“I don’t feel any solidarity with you,” Janet says. “I’m just trying to argue a point.”
Avon thumps on the door.
“Everything all right?”
“We’re fine,” we chorus.
Yvette advances with the piercing needle. “One on either lip,” she says. “Make it quick.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then we will.”
Janet takes the needle from Yvette. Calmly, without taking her eyes from us, she begins to drive the silver point upwards through the far left corner of her lip crease, right where the edges of a smile join.
She keeps her eyes locked on ours the whole time, as if it were our smiles she is murdering.
Yvette and I are transfixed. It is like watching a stranger undress and shower and touch herself; it is like gazing at someone else’s x-ray, peering into someone else’s hidden organs; it is like squinting, while still living and numb, into the cold, remorseless face of the embalmer.
Afterwards Janet strolls into the dining room with a bloody grimace. We follow, drying our hands. Avon and Ron are sitting at the table, where Janet’s cake is all laid out on a platter. Avon looks up at Janet and quickly back down again. Ron starts from his chair, his face aghast. At a cold look from Janet he sits down again, clumsily, and buries his face in his hands.
“Maybe it would have been better if I had done it,” he mumbles through his fingers. “My precision is not too bad.”
“Janet, you look so pretty tonight,” Avon offers. “You can barely see the entry wounds.”
Janet parts her slaughtered lips and, with difficulty, finds her voice.
“Who wants dessert?” she says. “Lucy, not you.”
“I can make an exception for tonight,” I tell her. “It’s like Marcy always said. You have to cheat sometimes or else everything seems forbidden.”
We take our places around the table. Janet cuts four slices: one for each of us, none for herself. As she leans over the cake with the serving knife, the blood from her dripping smile weeps onto the frosting and slides down the sides of each slice, sinking in to the chocolate like raindrops seeping into a rich, loamy soil.
Of course, this is passive-aggressive.
But no one speaks.
Janet passes the slices around. Ron picks up his fork with a delicate, impossible slowness. Avon stares down, forlorn, at his icing flower, at its wet red center. Yvette drags her finger through the tainted frosting. I bite into my slice and taste the faint bitterness beneath the flavors of the cocoa and the sugar.
Barbara Barrow is the author of a novel, The Quelling (Lanternfish Press, 2018), which won Gold in the Literary category of the Forward Reviews Indies Awards. Her short stories have appeared in Cimarron Review, The Forge Literary Magazine, Folio, and elsewhere. She teaches at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.