One morning, after her husband had left for work, Clara noticed a ticking in her house. She mentally retraced their steps that morning to see if either of them might have accidentally left an appliance on: They’d gotten out of bed and hunkered over the kitchen counter for coffee in silence as they usually did. Stan had spent most of the time on his phone, trying to snag a reservation for the new restaurant downtown for their three-year anniversary. Then he’d showered, dressed, and sped out with a “Have a nice day!” thrown over his shoulder like a pinch of salt.
She ransacked the house looking for the source of the sound. In the living room, she flipped cushions, shook lamps, and pulled down their wedding photos so she could press her ear directly to the wall. In the study, she yanked their massive shared book collection from the shelves. In the bedroom, she clawed through seemingly bottomless drawers, digging up loose socks, expired condoms, and chargers for old electronic devices that were, for some unfathomable reason, sticky. Wherever she went, the ticking followed, as loud in the bowels of the laundry room as it was by the front door.
That was when she realized: the ticking was coming from inside herself.
“Did you do something to the house?” Stan asked when he returned that evening. She’d tried her best to put everything back, but now at his squinty expression, she was noticing all the details she’d missed. The photos on the wall canted drunkenly. There were lines in the carpet because she hadn’t pushed the furniture back to their exact previous positions.
“I lost an earring,” she said.
He turned to hang up his jacket and said without looking at her, “Oh. Did you find it?”
She made a humming sound.
“Want me to help you look?”
“They weren’t that expensive anyway.”
“Did you check the bathroom?”
“The bedside tables?”
“I know how to look for things, and I said it was fine.”
They cooked dinner together and then ate it in front of the TV, half-watching a home renovation show. An over-manicured blonde in a white pencil skirt sat on the floor, legs bent to one side at such a drastic angle they seemed not a part of her at all, like a magician’s prop. With one hand she swished a paint brush up and down a doorframe as if to prove to unbelievers that she had the right to be hosting a home renovation show.
“Is this woman serious?” Stan said. “I feel like we’re more qualified than she is.”
The two of them had bought their place at a government auction a little more than a year ago with the goal of fixing it up themselves. Which they had—kind of. The living room they finished first (art nouveau style, with viney chairs they’d acquired at an estate sale, the armrests carved to look like flowering boughs), the logic being that they had to entertain friends somewhere. The kitchen came next because they’d shared concerns about the safety of the old gas range. But the rooms deeper in the house showcased gouged walls and wires chewed through by rats, plastic sheaths flayed from the copper in a way that made her skin crawl. When friends visited, they closed the doors to all the back rooms and hoped people wouldn’t ask for tours.
They had plenty of time to redo the rest of the house, they told themselves. It wasn’t like they wanted kids.
“You okay?” Stan asked. “You’ve been quiet tonight.”
She didn’t want to worry him by telling him about the ticking. His company had recently found itself in some kind of financial crisis. “Are you still going away for that conference at the end of the month?”
He frowned. “Yeah, that’s why we booked the dinner reservation for after our actual anniversary, remember? You sure you’re okay?”
“Oh, right.” She stood. “Guess I’m just tired. I’m gonna go to bed early.”
“I’ve got a little bit more work to do,” he said, turning his attention to his laptop.
In the bedroom, she lay still in the shape of a starfish, trying to figure out which part of her body was generating the sound: somewhere in the torso, as far as she could tell, in that moil of organs all sloshing and pumping and squeezing, but of course that wasn’t terribly helpful in terms of a diagnosis. Humans take a lot on faith, she realized. We expect what is already working to keep working, which is why we’re so blindsided by the tiny fractures and sore points that inevitably appear.
After a while, she gave up. Their bedroom was one of the rooms they hadn’t gotten around to renovating yet. There was just enough light from the hallway for her to see the cracks that veined the beige plaster ceiling. A bare bulb oozed from the middle like exudate from a wound.
Why had they put the renovations on pause again? Part of it was finances, sure. Between her not working and his company’s difficulties, spending money on nonessentials hardly seemed prudent. But really, the two of them had run out of energy. The house had so many rooms.
When Stan came in more than two hours later, she considered greeting him. Instead, she pretended to be asleep.
She normally avoided going to the doctor, but for this, she made an exception. The physician, a woman with an intricate gray braid like a many-limbed arthropod pinned to a dissection table, tapped Clara’s knees with a little mallet, stamped her with a cold stethoscope, and declared her perfectly healthy. Clara was a thirty-year-old who lived an unimpeachable lifestyle, the occasional late night or carton of doughnut holes notwithstanding. Perhaps a referral to an orthopedist, the primary care doctor said. Sometimes, as we get older, joints start to unionize and protest their dangerous work conditions: the lack of protective padding, having to be on call all the time. The ticking she heard might actually be a clicking.
But the orthopedist found nothing and referred her to the audiologist, who also found nothing and offered to make a referral to psychiatry. Could be stress, he said, shrugging. Clara drew the line there. Psychiatrists had a tendency to read every little sign as portending some much larger catastrophe, and good luck trying to convince them otherwise because how would you know—it’s unconscious. A person could walk into a psychiatrist’s office with a broken toe and out with a diagnosis of trauma-induced dissociative fugue.
So she got better at tuning the sound out and continued with daily life: morning run, catching up on the news, chores around the house, and dinner prep, not that Stan ever got home early enough to have dinner with her these days. His job at the tech start-up occupied most of the weekday hours and some of the weekend. It was the way these companies were designed, all bouncy-ball chairs and on-site massages, catered meals by award-winning chefs, whatever kept their workers there, working. How was anyone’s house, let alone a half-renovated one, to compete? Clara told herself she didn’t mind. Stan was, after all, the breadwinner. He was clocking these hours for the both of them.
She’d quit her own job as a grant writer a year ago because of a pushy supervisor. For every sentence she wrote, the supervisor had inserted a comment box explaining why it needed to be a completely different sentence. Stan had come around to her decision after some mild convincing. “It’ll be a good chance for you to pursue personal interests,” he said. She didn’t, incidentally. Pursue any personal interests. She had trouble “committing,” a fact her mother liked to spitball at her over family dinners. Clara had clamored for ballet classes after seeing a production of The Nutcracker but then given up because all the other girls were more flexible than she was. After ballet there had been theater camp (couldn’t cry on cue), intramural volleyball (couldn’t do an overhand serve), and voice lessons (couldn’t hit a high C). In adulthood, there had been figure drawing, guitar, tae kwon do, and repeated bouts of knitting, like a virus lying dormant in the spine, waiting for the immune system to have a bad day. Giving up had always seemed more preferable to her than finding out that she would never be good enough, that things would never be perfect, no matter how hard she tried.
The upshot of all this was that Clara spent most of her days alone in the house, staring at the flaking paint and concocting home-improvement plans that never came to fruition because Stan certainly didn’t have the time and she certainly didn’t have the initiative, growing increasingly frustrated at the imperfections she saw.
It was after her morning run one day, about two weeks after the ticking first appeared, that she noticed the freckles. She’d just finished showering and was in the middle of slathering herself with lotion when four slightly off-colored, perfectly round freckles on her chest caught her eye. New, needless to say, or else she would not have reacted to them so strongly, and set in a square. She rubbed at one of the freckles, thinking it might be dirt, and as she did, the spot of skin flapped away, like the screen of a pet door, to reveal a screw underneath. The metal felt cold and rough and left a cross-shaped dent in her fingertip. She stared in horror.
Had she had a pacemaker installed at some point? A metal plate? It didn’t seem something that she would have forgotten about or that her parents would have neglected to mention.
She ran to a mirror and was even more shocked to see her normal reflection there. She dug her phone out from the bottom of her purse and snapped a photo of the screw. The photo showed a smooth expanse of flesh.
She seriously considered taking up the audiologist’s offer to refer her to a psychiatrist but decided against it. Not yet. She didn’t “feel” crazy (though she realized that crazy people rarely categorized themselves thus). She wasn’t experiencing any particular urge to check behind herself for men in black or swaddle her head with tinfoil. Just in case, she recited the alphabet backwards, twice, because she’d heard schizophrenics often struggled with organizing their thoughts. That she remembered such a minutia from a psych class she took more than ten years ago also seemed to bode well.
She pushed the flap of skin back into place and fell into bed, suddenly exhausted. The overlong curtains they’d hung without first tailoring shivered from a draft she couldn’t feel herself. She slept until Stan nudged her awake.
The internet failed her, as did all the medical references she managed to get her hands on at the library. For one, she had no idea whether she should be consulting psychiatry textbooks or bioengineering journals. Then there was the matter of understanding the material. Could advanced biomimetic polymers escape detection by camera? Or was she having a brief psychotic episode?
Not that she expected much to come of it, but Clara called her mother anyway. Had she had any major health issues when she was young?
“Oh no, dear, you were positively sprightly,” her mother replied. “You know you were born with the cord wrapped around your neck. But you weren’t affected by it at all; you weren’t blue like all of the other babies in the NICU. You’ve always been special. Full of potential.”
That damn word again. The way her mother talked about her, one would think Clara was a contained nuclear reaction, or some volatile chemicals waiting for ignition. She lied her way out of the call before her mother could ask about holiday plans.
She spent her days in the bathroom, first staring down at her chest, then whipping her face up to the mirror, as if to surprise the glass into revealing the truth. She did this in full afternoon sun and in the green-gray fluorescence of late night, ignoring Stan’s admonishments to her to not stay up too late. She dreamed of rats tearing little cross-shaped chunks from her body with their misshapen teeth and awoke to the ticking, which in the quiet sounded particularly sharp, like a pair of scissors enthusiastically clipping away at suture thread.
There were, indeed, four screws. During a moment of courage, she’d peeled back all the flaps. Four silver points, two of them so deeply embedded that she’d at first mistaken them for holes trepanned into the heart, a thought she’d found oddly elucidating. No wonder she never amounted to much. All this time, she’d had this lack.
Stan noticed the changes. The laundry piled up. The dishes molded in the sink. He didn’t comment on it, though she suspected he wanted to—calling her out on her laxity in household chores would have gone against his view of himself as a modern man. Instead he shoehorned in lectures about the country’s rising depression rates and the importance of timely treatment. She just needed some space, she told him, and could he please give her that.
Again and again, she considered telling him, but again and again, she lost her nerve. Because if he couldn’t see the screws either, then she’d most certainly gone mad. She wasn’t sure she was ready for that confirmation.
And if he could see them—what then? What if he wanted to take them out? He’d majored in engineering, after all.
One evening, Stan came home early. Before even taking off his coat, he strode into the kitchen and grabbed a beer out of the fridge. He eyed the range, which was off. She had eaten a granola bar for dinner.
He popped the bottle open on the countertop and took a long pull from it. “Maybe you should go back to work,” he said, trying very hard, it seemed, to keep his tone casual. “There’s a rumor those layoffs are happening soon.”
“Is your position safe?” she asked.
“Probably. I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Well, if it comes to that.”
“It doesn’t hurt to start looking,” he said. “These things take time.”
“Do you want me to find a job?”
“Do you want to find something better to do with your time?”
She glared at him. And then she was walking away.
“Wait, wait,” he said, catching her elbow, “you’re misunderstanding me.”
She snatched her arm back. “Quit while you’re behind,” she said.
“I’m just saying.” He looked embarrassed, or maybe remorseful. “Maybe it’s not a great idea to just hang around the house all day. Sometimes it helps to keep busy. Doesn’t matter how.”
“Work has been really stressful.”
She took a deep breath. “I know.”
He gestured for a hug, which she accepted out of guilt. “We’ll get pizza delivered,” he said, his hands cupping and kneading her butt. She let him walk her backwards into the bedroom. He had her out of her bathrobe in seconds but stalled on his suit. To try to communicate his readiness for the new managerial position (which, as far as they knew, was safe from layoffs), he’d started dressing better for work, but suits weren’t his thing. Ease was his thing: cargo pants and digital assistants with improbable female names and pizza delivery from the same pizza place. She sat down at the edge of the bed.
Finally the tie slumped to the floor as if tired from being manhandled. Stan nudged her flat on the bed and deadlifted her legs from where they dangled over the side, pushing her knees to her chest and then spreading them apart so he could slot himself in between. His fingers were very cold from the beer.
“No, wait, stop, stop,” she said when his hands moved to her chest, once again becoming deeply aware of the ticking.
He rolled off and threw a pillow at the wall. “Damn it, Clara. What…”
They lay there in the half-dark. Bits of plaster were flaking off the ceiling. She had the sense that, if she could wedge her fingernail under one of the pieces, she would be able to peel off the entire veneer in one go. Skin the house to its raw, red core.
“Is there someone else?” he asked.
“Then what is it? If you don’t tell me the problem, I can’t fix it.”
“There’s no problem,” she said. “You’re being paranoid. And what makes you think you have the power fix it?”
“Jesus, is there a problem or not?”
“I just don’t like the assumption that you can fix this problem that doesn’t exist.”
He let out a long sigh. Then he got up and left the room, slamming the door behind him.
She supposed she should apologize. Once upon a time, she’d found his pluckiness admirable. Something about Stan’s upbringing or neurochemistry had instilled in him a confidence in the essential decipherability of reality, but more than that, the pliancy of reality to human will. He fully believed that science would one day solve problems like disease and aging. But over time, that confidence had begun to prickle her. Because if every problem was solvable, then, by extension, every unsolved problem was only going unsolved because of lack of will.
And when he asked her what the problem was, what he really meant was this: Tell me what is broken about you. Tell me so I can solve you, so everything can be easy again.
Years ago, she’d watched an animated comedy show with Stan in which a human disguised himself as a robot to infiltrate a robot city. To enter the city, the human first had to choose between a puppy and a large, well-formatted data file. Unsure, the human asked the robot guard if the puppy in question was robotic in some way, and the guard shouted, “No! It is the bad kind of puppy!”
Stan laughed and laughed. She did, too—of course she understood the joke. What she decided not to mention was that, given the same choice, she would have gone with the data file. Now part of that was because she’d once worked as the research coordinator at a psychology research lab, and she recognized the miraculousness of a large, well-formatted data file. She’d spent her days cleaning spreadsheets messed by hungover undergrad research assistants who’d entered the numbers completely wrong; by two persnickety principal investigators, neither of whom agreed with the other’s data management method; and by the lab’s wheezy twenty-year-old desktop computer, which slurped down information from a dozen other computers of different ages and operating systems and then retched up a puddle of mysterious symbols and error messages. Once she’d opened a spreadsheet to find that all the values had been replaced with question marks.
The other part of it was more complicated. Puppies were lovable, yes. At the same time, they shed and drooled, chewed and pooped. They jumped when you told them to sit and required superhuman patience. And even if one were willing to put in all of that work, puppies always, always, died.
Well, while on the topic of jokes, here was one that Stan had told about a year into their relationship:
An engineer is working at his desk when his cigarette falls into his wastebasket and the contents catch fire. The engineer grabs a bottle of water nearby, douses the fire, and goes back to work.
A physicist is working at his desk when the same thing happens. He quickly calculates the exact amount of water needed to douse the fire, proceeds to douse the fire using that amount, and goes back to work.
A mathematician is working at his desk when the same thing happens. He quickly calculates the exact amount of water needed to douse the fire, and, having reduced the problem to a previously solved state, goes back to work.
Stan had laughed and laughed at his own joke. The engineer in him liked making fun of physicists and mathematicians (especially mathematicians). They’re too impractical, he’d said. Too bogged down by abstract details. “As long as it works” was his guiding principle—everything in excess of minimum requirements was merely a fun bonus, or, in the case of mathematicians/physicists, a sign of neuroticism. Just put out the fire! And if everything got soggy, well, there was time to worry about that later.
She’d felt irritated by the joke, or, more accurately, by how hard he’d laughed telling it. There was danger in that line of thinking, which gave the world such era-defining achievements as cars with their bumpers duct-taped on. It was certainly why they’d stopped fixing up the house: in the end, everything worked fine. The pipes spewed water. The vinyl floor tiles, despite curling up at the edges, didn’t prevent the floor from supporting furniture. But when was good enough not good enough? Perhaps that was the moment she began to worry about their relationship.
Or perhaps that was the moment she realized she didn’t find his jokes all that funny.
Stan left for his conference. The two of them had gone back to talking—it was hard not to when logistics were involved. He rattled off the name of the hotel where he would be staying while she pretended to commit it to memory. They were all the same anyway. Some rambling, over-marbled affair attached to a convention center with an indoor pool crawling with Crypto and a hotel bar crawling with prostitutes.
Clara had planned for his weekend away with a calmness that surprised even her. She found the proper screwdriver in their toolbox and disinfected it with some rubbing alcohol, just in case. She drew the blinds tightly, just in case. And then she punched 911 into her phone without hitting dial.
Of course she could have done all this earlier, but she’d thought it essential to wait until Stan was out of town. Why exactly, she couldn’t say. There was the issue of physical privacy, of the psych ward visits that most definitely would have been in her future had he walked in on her aiming a screwdriver at her own chest. But there was also the issue of emotional privacy: she was trying to understand something about herself, something buried and insensible and possibly very ugly, and she didn’t want Stan anywhere near when she finally confronted it.
On the first evening, she removed screw number one. Blood thrummed in her ears and behind her eyes, giving her the sensation of being overfull. When the screw finally came out, she held it in the palm of her hand. It weighed no more than teardrop. Realizing what she’d done, she felt her stomach turn. Her head spun the way it had the first and only time she’d donated blood, when she’d made the mistake of fixing her gaze on the bag, unable to reconcile the sheer amount of life leaving her body with her continued existence. She hurled the screwdriver against the wall. As plaster flaked off around the point of impact, a delirious fascination seized her. She retrieved the screwdriver and, wielding it like an ineffective lancet, scraped away at the canker. The surface behind the plaster was arterial red. She curled up and sobbed for a long time.
The following morning, she removed screws two and three. Her hands still shook, though not as much as before. She told herself she had until Sunday night, when Stan was due home, to finish her undertaking (a part of her mused that this might turn out to be one of the few undertakings in her life that she would have successfully followed through on). Whatever happened would have happened before then.
That evening, as the screwdriver toothed into screw number four, the phone rang. She put the call on speaker so she could continue with her task.
“Happy anniversary!” Stan said.
“Oh, right. Happy anniversary,” she said.
“I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“It’s unexpectedly chilly here,” he said, “but we’re indoors the whole time anyway. Joe insists on going out for drinks, though.”
This final one had been screwed in tighter than the others. The screwdriver kept unlatching every time she tried to twist it. She grunted.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Did you just say something?”
“Is there someone there?”
Finally she felt it give. Slowly, she pulled it from her body—with it came a tiny fringe of skin. She scratched at the newly exposed part with her nail, and the flesh came away painlessly, not the flaps that had covered the screws but the entire area that had been bounded by them, a patch maybe three inches in diameter. Underneath lay a copper-colored disk that looked to be a kind of cover.
“I need to go,” she said, and hung up.
Unlike the screws, the disk felt warm. Her fingers streaked grease on the polished surface. Rapping on it produced a dull thud that suggested the presence of contents, but still she felt nothing physically. Even now, this instrument inside her felt like something outside of herself, something alien and fundamentally incomprehensible.
This changed when she moved to lift the cover. Pain fisted all of her nerve endings like plugged-in electrical cords and yanked. The ticking, which she had all but learned to ignore, became louder, and, it seemed, faster. Suddenly she realized the danger in which she’d placed herself.
Why had she felt so convinced she needed to do this? It was just ticking, after all. People lived with diabetes and bum knees. They lived with all sorts of dissatisfactions.
“That’s life, Clara,” her mother used to say to her while driving her to dance class, or volleyball practice, or theater camp. “Nobody gets exactly what they want. We stick with things because, well, what alternative is there?”
The lab where she’d worked had been researching romantic relationships, and the hypothesis was, in essence, this: love was a shared chemical delusion that eventually ended. One of the principal investigators had already been divorced twice, the other once. She could never decide whether their histories made them particularly well- or ill-equipped to be doing this work. But even as she poked fun at them behind their backs, she wondered if maybe there was truth to their theory. Her own parents were still married, technically, sharing their home the way feral cats shared a junkyard. When Clara was in college, her father had converted the basement into an apartment and moved in, ceding custody of the ground floor to her mother. They cooked, entertained friends, and vacationed separately. They rarely even fought because fighting required effort and involved the fundamental assumption that change—be it in the form of fewer infidelities or a properly loaded dishwasher—potentially awaited, however unlikely said change might be.
Clara had gone out with Stan as an experiment, a change of pace from the broody, artsy types she’d favored in young adulthood. Stan had just emerged from a string of relationships with women he described as “crazy.” There was the one who pitched a fit if he didn’t text back within five minutes, and then there was the one who cheated on him repeatedly. On their fifth or sixth date, he’d said to Clara, “I love how normal you are. You’re just so normal.” The statement had put her off for reasons she didn’t fully understand. Only much later did she realize what he’d really been saying: Congratulations! You meet my minimum requirement for girlfriends, normality!
Stan was solidity in elemental form, the salt to her mercurial tendencies. He showed up when he said he was going to show up, remembered anniversaries and birthdays, and listened to her when she’d had a bad day. There were moments when she felt so pained by love for him that she suffered a near-primitive need to consume him, heart and innards all, as if doing so might permanently bond him to her or finally free her from him.
As time went on, little problems popped up, but they pretended not to notice. Stan, especially, did this. As far as he was concerned, the relationship was in good enough shape. No one was cheating, no one was throwing things. She often wondered if this was how marriage was supposed to be or fantasized about living a different life with a different person (not that she had anyone particular in mind), a life of feeling too much, of meaningful projects that kept her working feverishly into the night, of pounding hearts and shivering skin and throats burning from alcohol and conversation. As for pain, sure, that would be there too because one could not have life without it, but pain in a life fully lived was detail, a single brushstroke in a wide mural, whereas pain in a life half-lived took up both foreground and background. Could Stan give any of this to her? Could she give any of this to herself?
She knew he wasn’t the bad guy here. But then, she liked to think she wasn’t, either.
She awoke from a jolt of pain. Stan was leaning over her, eyes wide, holding in his hand the copper disk. For a moment, a feeling of relief eclipsed the pain. She wasn’t crazy after all. Or, if she was, then at least she’d had a partner in her madness all this time.
How beautiful it was, this mess of shining gears all whirling and clicking, this thing that had been counting down inside her without her knowledge. Before them, with terrifying speed, the little copper disk began to rust.
“Why?” she whispered to his horrified face.
“I thought you were cheating so I came home early to catch you,” he cried. “But then I saw this …”
Yet even as her vision faded away, she thought she could finally trace the path the two of them had walked together up to this point. Perhaps she’d trusted him to be the only other person who could see what she was seeing. Perhaps she’d hoped he would take this heart out for her.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.