Johnny knew when it was coming on bad.   It always started the same.  First thing in the morning before he was awake, he’d swallow and there it was; a taste that wasn’t  a taste, a tickle above his throat, something floating over his soft palate. 

So almost tangible. 

Rodin’s Gates of Hell – Stanford University – photo by Joell Dunlap

Perfectly out of reach. 

Impossible to touch –  not with his tongue, not with his finger.  He’d  shut his eyes and look down and in and try to see it.  The taste wasn’t bitter or cold or warm, it was simply unclean. 

When he was a teenager, he thought it was a tumor.  He convinced everyone he had headaches. The pills they prescribed could numb him until it was almost bearable.  Later, he’d learned to mix the pills with wine, then whisky or dope and for awhile that helped to block it out like one of those bizarre photos where the eyes of the innocent were covered by a band of black tape.

Nothing washed the uncleanness.  He’d scrub his mouth with toothpaste  then rinse and gargle and repeat the whole process over and over again.  His mouth would bleed and tingle but the taste would laugh and linger – dangling just out of reach. Unbeknownst to each other, Johnny regularly saw three dentists and their capable and meticulous hygienists who would pick and pry and blast away with their bevy of sharp sanitized tools.  He’d shift and pray that the serious woman might slip and fall forward gashing into his head with a razor sharp scraper.

Ann told them a story over dinner one night.  Mark had pressed her to tell the most disgusting horse story she knew.  She talked about a horse with a swelling at his throat, it got so bad the horse couldn’t turn his head.  In desperation, Ann lanced the swelling with the corner of a razor blade, and she showed them pictures on her phone of the grey yellow ooze that dripped from the hole.  She described the fetid smell of the ooze, the acrid bite that gagged a groom from 15 feet away. She flashed another photo, this one  showed the eyes of the horse half closed in palpable relief. “Look at him” Ann said “no drugs or anything.  He was so glad that we lanced this, he never even moved.”

Johnny couldn’t shake the image from his head.  He’d been trying for weeks.  That release, that let down, that purging he craved.  He pictured a pustule of sickness swelling and growing deep in his head.  His tongue[ now what?  johnny wants to kill himself – jude’s career is going up in flames (what about the cool vet and the sheathed investigator?), lavinia has a new trainer – nobody knows where Invictus will be – Roxy is coming along as an artist – Dee is on her way to Nates to meet Paul (unknowingly) and bring home VCD (unknowingly) Ann still has a cast on her leg and Julie has walked out on her father.  I need to sketch this all out on paper and be true to each character.  The GOOD news is that it’s all here and it’s what I needed it to be – now just wrap it up.  Seriously – wrap it up – it’s going to bring joy to some horse lovers all over – ] would reach and scrape the hardness of the roof of his mouth to seek the soft spot behind it and he knew that right above that somewhere is where is was festering.  Where it laughed at him, hovering out of reach, out of sight.  He imagined that it was full of the most foul smelling pus and if he could release it, it would no longer live inside him.  It would be out, gone, exorcized. 

It was growing and he hated it.  He hated himself for fostering it all these years.  He pictured it’s angry epithelium stretching to accommodate the the growing, smelly purulence.  

He could feel it flaring and he knew the meanness was not far behind.  He’d find himself desperate to hurt someone to share the pain.  He’d go to the dojo and pick a fight with the master.  He’d insult someone at the grocery store. But most mostly, no matter how hard he tried, his ire leaked out onto Mark. 

It was a mystery how Mark was able to bear it.  He’d try to rein in the meanness, but the harder he tried, the more cruel he became.  Other lovers and countless friends slunk away or stormed off waving their fists in anger and hurt.  Mark bore it.  He’d even stand up and face it telling Johnny “you don’t mean that!” And Johnny would stare hard into Mark’s amber eyes alternately wanting to rip out Mark’s throat and wanting to throw himself at Mark’s feet and beg forgiveness.

 He knew everyone had a breaking point.  A point at which they would no longer take his biting humor, his relentless criticism, his uncanny knack for finding a way to hurt someone the most. He wondered if people knew how easy they were to figure out.  The vain man could be leveled by a point and laugh at a new haircut, a bold female boss by reminders that she was childless.  He wanted to be hated. It was his due punishment for the festering lot inside him. 

There were times of course when he could forget about it.  When things were good.  When his laugh was loud.  When he could enjoy good food, beauty and friendship. He wondered why he was so drawn to Ann. He loved the way her powerful compact body moved, her ferocity and her capability to handle just about anything.  He wanted to be near her, he wanted to protect her.  He wanted to pick her up and carry her away from anything that might hurt her and he also wanted to curl up in her lap, let her run her fingers through his hair and tell him it would all be okay.  There was a time when he worried that what he felt for her was romantic love, but he quelled that by imagining her with a perfect lover and realized there was no jealousy in him, only joy for her. 

She was the mother, the sister and the daughter he never had.  She filled all these roles splendidly. He wanted to shower her with expensive gifts, he needed to hear her voice daily. He’d had scores of women friends over the years.  The “fag hags” that loved him through school were fun. Vapid, but fun.  He admired women friends who were born with style. Their many lesbian friends were warm and funny and easy going.  But none of them were Ann. 

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