“Some Case Studies in Failure” by Rebecca Rubenstein

K is failing to digest her food properly. The abdominal cramps came on suddenly, flash floods of pain that seized her mid-region, and now she eats a steady diet of rice and vegetables, because everything else is too heavy, and nothing comes out right anyway. She forewarned me once, that things were about to get graphic, then revealed that every time she bothers to look in the toilet, the aftermath reminds her of a science experiment. When she and her fellow classmates cultured bacteria in college, this is what it looked like. Sometimes I’m convinced I see leaves, twigs, pieces of string in there, she says, or a centipede. Sometimes it really looks like there’s a centipede swimming around in the contaminated water. After months of tests, the doctors still don’t know what’s wrong.

When she visited New York, V failed to present her ankles. Below the calf, the skin had ballooned into an impossible shape. It looked like something out of science fiction: the flesh loose, encompassing the hard top of the foot. This occurred on both legs. For days, V elevated her feet and iced them. She applied sports balm. She ran a bath of epsom salt and let her legs dangle over the edge of the tub to soak. When asked what had happened, V didn’t know what to say. It’s never been this severe, she replied. I feel like a monster. I feel like I have Frankenstein feet. She had experienced this before, while working retail and standing for hours on end, but never while traversing a city.

J is failing to buy towels. He roams the aisles of department stores, perusing the home sections, his ragged cuticles brushing against cotton, linen, patterns of spots, stripes, solids. He begins each morning with eyes focused on the classifieds, intent on hitting an employment jackpot of some kind, then finds himself wandering onto the subway, heading downtown, into foreign lands full of fake fruit, glass pebbles, wedding registries. This is really important, his wife continues to say. We’re having guests, and the least you can do is take this seriously. The weeks are winding down. These aren’t just guests, and J knows it. An editor—a former flame—that’s who’s coming to stay. J wonders if this man will swap his wife for J’s, or if the two will just sneak away to some boutique hotel, completely illicit, reveling in each other’s company while J and the editor’s wife make uncomfortable small talk over cups of overpriced and under-roasted coffee. He wonders, and his stomach lurches. This isn’t about towels.

D is failing to keep her fists to herself. L tells me this over lunch one day. We’re both eating burritos, beans and rice and small chunks of avocado cascading down our chins. There is no way not to make a mess, and we look like modern-day peasants, hoods up, relying on our sleeves instead of napkins. L takes a sip of horchata, licks her teeth. How’s that? I ask. L inhales deeply, then says, She just keeps punching me in the face. Doesn’t matter if we’re on opposite sides of the bed, or if I’ve got her in a hug. I don’t know what’s up with her body, but nine nights out of ten now, I’m waking up to her knuckles popping me in the jaw. Christ, I say. Yeah, L says, and downs more horchata. She’s got a nice shiner beneath her left eye. I don’t know what to do, L says. No one wants to hire me, they think I’m some kind of abuse victim. In some ways you are, I tell her, and she immediately insists that I fuck off, grinning. Our therapist, L continues, says she’ll grow out of it, but I don’t know. D once told me when she was a younger, maybe twelve, she shared a hotel bed with her mom, and the next morning, her mom said she felt sorry for whoever D would eventually sleep with. Well, I say, maybe she just needs to have better dreams. L raises her eyebrows. My god, she says, her voice now a pitch too high, I think you’re right. I think I’ll just run out and buy us the biggest dreamcatcher I can find! And then she mutters something in Polish, which I don’t catch, because I don’t know Polish.

All her life, B has failed to collect and use coupons. The only time she had any interest was when she played Shopping as a little girl, where she used them at the check-out her sister dutifully operated. As T, two years younger, ran each grocery item through the imaginary scanner—T chirped the sound of each beep—B presented her coupons, often numbering between ten and twenty, all given to her by her mother well past their expiration dates. And T, like a proper cashier, would accept them all, scanning the barcodes at the end. You’ve just saved yourself two dollars and seventy-seven cents! T would exclaim, and B would smile, the gaps in her teeth a severe contrast to her kewpie doll appearance. Later, older and without capacity for such trifles, B couldn’t be bothered. Using coupons brought her no joy, no release. If anything, they made her feel cheap. Did she really need to shave off twenty cents every time she needed a new box of tampons? Even though she received envelopes full of coupons in college—her mother still thought of her as that child who liked to pinch pennies—not once did she present a cashier with any motivation to save. And now, as an adult, as a woman with a full-time job and family and 401k, she continues to receive these envelopes. B files them away, forgotten in some drawer in the basement den, and every week, over the phone, she thanks her mother for the contribution.

X—well, X is just failing. At taking vitamins. At fully committing himself to the idea of dental hygiene. At opening beer bottles and wine bottles and most bottles made of non-synthetic material. Give X something with a metal lid, and he’ll give it right back to you. I don’t do glass, man, he’ll say, but that’s just because he’s embarrassed. Despite having a Master’s, X can’t seem to get the hang of opening jars. Even screw tops evade him. Which is a shame, really, because most good things come in glass nowadays. I once knew a girl who wrote me the most beautiful poem, or so she said. X likes to tell this story at parties. He thinks it makes him sound like a tragic figure. So this girl, she wrote me this poem, and she went through all this care to make sure her gift to me was unique. We’re talking calligraphy on parchment paper that she burned the edges of. Old-school pirate shit. Anyway, so this girl—really sweet, really well-meaning—decides the pièce de résistance of her gift will be to shove it in a bottle and set it afloat in one of our mutual friends’ bathtubs. Except—and this is usually where people at the party groan, since it’s pretty apparent what happens next—no one told this girl about my problem, because she corked the bottle. And I don’t mean delicately. I mean she jammed that sucker in there. BAM. Oh no! someone at the party will usually exclaim, and then someone else will gasp, right on cue. Oh yes! X will say. And then, less than half an hour later, X is zipping his hoodie and leading some pretty young thing out the door, cigarette tucked behind one ear, saluting me with two fingers pressed against his temple as he passes. Thank you and goodnight, he says. And then, whispering: She just has to see what’s in the bottle. Which is locked in a trunk at the back of X’s closet, and which he will never, ever allow anyone to disturb.

More fiction at Used Furniture.


  1. Jean-Jacques Poopooface says:


  2. This is a wonderful piece.

  3. retiredbutmissthekids says:

    This is an interesting and wonderful vision.

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