It’s dark when I pull into my ex’s driveway, his multi-coloured christmas lights blinding my eyes even though it’s May. He’s the last man to have touched my breasts and I’m concerned about a lump-type-thing I felt in my armpit when I was showering after my second job, so I drove here on a whim but now that I’m here, I’m sort of regretting it.
What used to be my dog, but is now 50% his dog, just like our fifty-percent-kids, barks like I’m trying to break in, so I turn off the ignition and walk up the front steps, scowling at the gaudy lights. I push the door open after a cursory knock and find my ex standing on the landing with a bottle of wine in his hands, looking surprised I’ve gained entry on my own but I’ve never gotten used to this house not being half mine and if he doesn’t like it, he should move.
“Hey,” I say, unzipping my hoodie and pulling up my t-shirt. I don’t want to be here any more than he wants me here by the look on his face, but he knows my breasts better than anyone and right now that is the super-power I need somebody to embody.
“What are you doing?” he hisses, slapping at my hands.
“I felt a lump…,” I start but stop when a mess of blonde hair attached to a pretty-pretty woman’s head appears over the bannister.
“Hey,” I say toward the head. “I’m…”
“Lisa,” my ex says. “Lisa, this is Jane, Jane this is Lisa.”
The hand attached to the pretty-pretty waves like a stutter.
“I felt a lump…” I start, holding onto my ex’s shoulder for support while toeing off my boots.
“I’m busy,” my ex says at the same time Jane says, “where did you feel the lump?” and pretty soon they’re sitting squished side-by-side on the loveseat with my dog and I’m perched on the coffee table in my grubbiest sweat pants and most hideous tan bra I never thought anyone would see again, facing their awkward faces. Part of me wants my ex to remove my bra like he used to with one hand and a twist and part of me never wants him to touch me again.
“The lump?” he prompts but I’m a little frozen by pretty-pretty’s half smile and the sound of the playlist I made my ex at least five years ago blowing out from his speaker.
“Are you sure it’s not that fat tissue thing from when you were nursing?” he asks, which snaps me back to the present moment, so I ask, “where are the boys?” and he and pretty-pretty stare at me, him with the bottle of wine in his hand, her with the half-smile, until the silence is really too much and I unclasp my bra and display my tiny tits for both to see.
“Here,” I say, pointing at the spot which is still rubbed red from my preliminary investigation.
His cheeks flush a similar shade. “Why don’t you just go to the doctor?” he asks.
Me and pretty-pretty stare at him.
“May I,” she asks, offering out her of-course-perfectly-manicured hands, and my ex and I both stare at them like they’re secret weapons and I can only imagine all of the things he wants them to do to him.
I shrug and he bites his lip.
“Do that thing we’re meant to do where you bend your arm over your head,” she says and I comply.
My ex actually gasps like a loser when she touches me, her fingers surprisingly cold on my skin, and I’m reminded how my ex’s mum used to clasp my always-cold hands in hers and say cold hands warm heart whenever I saw her and I’m stoked for a second that at least this pretty-pretty may stop my ex-mother-in-law from dying of a broken heart.
“Could you pour us some wine?” pretty-pretty asks my ex and he stares like he wishes he could throw darts at me like we used to throw darts together on league night down at the local.
Pretty-pretty massages my breast in a circular motion, starting in my armpit and moving clockwise which is inline with what my doctor told me when I was thirteen and finally being told it wasn’t that bad to touch yourself. I try and distract myself and end up wondering if pretty-pretty would make a good mum to my kids if breast cancer does indeed take me down and decide I don’t have enough information yet. Willingness-to-touch-breasts isn’t really kid-raising criteria.
My ex reappears with three glasses of wine, his glass obviously already drunk from, and pushes the other two toward us.
“Well?” he asks and I raise my brows, say, “she doesn’t really know the baseline,” to which he rolls his eyes.
“They feel different than mine,” pretty-pretty says, and I look at her perky-much-larger spread, wonder if anyone has ever sucked on her nipples before and decide probably not.
“Could you just…” I say, widening my eyes at my ex like I used to when I wanted to communicate needing something without words.
“He knows them better than anyone,” I say toward pretty-pretty who nods like she gets it, and it occurs to me how sad it is that I don’t have someone anymore. Someone to check my breasts when I’m worried about random changes, someone to notice if my shoes aren’t at the door when I’m meant to be home, someone to set the coffee up for the next morning when I’ve forgotten.
“Last time, I promise,” I say, jutting my chest in his direction.
Pretty-pretty nods at my ex, and he hesitantly reaches out like he did during those last few weeks of our marriage when I was like yes-no-yes-no-maybe-so about our shit, because sometimes it’s hard to end something that was, at one point, all right.
He sighs, extending his hands forward and I don’t know what I’m expecting when his skin touches my skin, definitely not spontaneous combustion or butterfly metamorphosis or a tidal wave, but something, and when he says, “I don’t feel anything,” I say, “me neither,” and really mean it.

15 Comments

  1. Rogan

    Jen! The story is riveting, funny, smart. It all distracts effectively so that the ending really pops. I love the narrative voice. I would consider cutting “and really mean it.” I know you’re hearkening back to the no-yes-maybe dance but I think it also seconds as an over-tell. You’re working with a gem here.

  2. Lisa Alletson

    Jennifer,

    I’m newish to flash but wanted to tell you how much I love this story. It held me all the way through.

    Lisa

  3. Francine Witte

    Oh i just love this. It’s a good story in that we care about this woman, feel her vulnerability. Love how it unfolds that there’s another woman there. Love that she’s called pretty-pretty (great title) I love how pretty-pretty’s sense of sisterhood overrides the possible new girlfriend horror that is so possible. And it’s such an amazing moment when she wonders if pretty pretty will be a good mother for hre kids. And the last line is perfect. This is great.

  4. Kristin Bonilla

    Jen, I love this character. This moment. Everything about it. I think I cheered out loud when Jane asks where Lisa felt the lump. No suggestions, just pure appreciation!

  5. Jonathan Cardew

    Jen,

    I was so happy to see you were included in this workshop. Love your writing. Love this. I started reading your piece an hour ago but then the “50%” part reminded me of the poem “Half-caste” by John Agard and I started to pen a new story and now I’m back (Here’s the poem by the way: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/files/2019-01/Half-caste%20by%20John%20Agard.pdf).

    I was happy I came back to it! This is funny and smart, seriously funny and smart, very very very funny and smart. This bit: “Part of me wants my ex to remove my bra like he used to with one hand and a twist and part of me never wants him to touch me again.” And the set-up is perfect–an incredibly awkward moment but also the most perfect moment, the perfect meeting of past, present, and future on a loveseat and coffee table.

    Your sentences are incredible! This one, in particular, stood out to me:

    “Are you sure it’s not that fat tissue thing from when you were nursing?” he asks, which snaps me back to the present moment, so I ask, “where are the boys?” and he and pretty-pretty stare at me, him with the bottle of wine in his hand, her with the half-smile, until the silence is really too much and I unclasp my bra and display my tiny tits for both to see.

    Dialogue and transitions and embedded clauses and almost a story in length! You create an amazing amount of momentum with your prose.

    I can’t see much to change here: the pacing is just right, the dialogue is tight, and the story ends with a timely metaphor. That being said, I’m always a sucker for mixing it up so here are my

    HOW ABOUTS:

    1. Love the title “pretty pretty” but what about “pretty pretty and the lump”? Sound a bit funny?

    2. I actually have a prompt for you: write a piece on the theme of 50% (see John Agard’s piece above). You don’t have to.

    3. I agree with Rogan: you can slice off “and really mean it.”

    VENUES:

    Aim high with this one! Electric Lit, by goodness. Lots more.

    Thanks for joining the fun, Jen! Shoot me any questions!

    Cheers,
    Jonathan

  6. Al Kratz

    This is so good, Jennifer. First of all, it’s a flat-out entertaining read. But from a craft side it amazing too. Such a good example of escalation, the power of subtle backstory, the balance of inner dialogue and show vs tell, and characters wanting different things, characters changing. All in this one quick story.

    So many great lines: “I’m sort of regretting it.” ,
    the fify-percent kids- that one little unique phrase instantly building a backstory.
    That quick line of dialog, “Where did you feel the lump?” immediately shows us how the main will interact with Jill who seamlessly transitions into the perfect “pretty-pretty”
    The forced intimacy of the situation, cringy but so true, cringy but also endearing, not only her being exposed but her looking at the physical traits of his new partner and taking that to wondering about her kid raising potential too.

    I think this one is perfect. The way it ramps up and has to go to him feeling for the lump, and then the perfect ending with the dual meaning of not feeling a thing.

  7. Todd Clay Stuart

    Jennifer, it’s great to see you again. It’s a been a minute. It’s always a joy to read your words!

    Great premise here. Woman thinks she finds what could be a lump, could be a cyst, could be nothing, but has nobody around to give her a meaningful second opinion, so she goes to the only person whose opinion she trusts outside of a doctor, her ex. The premise does a lot of work here for you and is a great vehicle for the story that unfolds.

    A few things you might want to look at:

    With over 1,000 words, there’a lot to unpack here. In real time, I’m guessing the story itself would unfold in what, 15 or 20 minutes? The story has decent movement, but there are a few things that slow the pace a bit that you could cut. The section where the man gets wine for them, the ex-mother-in-laws broken heart, the part about removing her bra I thought could be cut too. She’s in a big hurry to have her ex examine her breasts, so she throws on a t-shirt and hoodie. Would she even put on her bra, especially being small? Dunno. And some of the judgments, like my ex actually gasps like a user, and the part about whether PP’s nipples had ever been sucked (of course they have) etc. I’d maybe take a closer look at some of these judgments to see if a slightly more objective view here would better serve the story.

    Surprisingly, to me Pretty-Pretty seems kinda like the star of the show, but I don’t know if that was intentional. The narrator projects her bitterness and judgement on Pretty-Pretty, who to me doesn’t seem to deserve it. PP handles the situation with class and takes care of business, showing genuine concern. I think absolutely PP would make a pretty awesome Mum, putting others before herself. By the end, the narrator was all about her own wants and needs, which I found difficult to sympathize with. And maybe that was by design. If she had mentioned something in that final paragraph about having someone she could do something nice for, I would maybe feel differently. You have several dials you can turn to achieve whatever resonance you’re hoping to achieve by story’s end.

    This is a good draft and I can’t wait to see the final product!

  8. Benjamin Niespodziany

    YES to this ending and to this story as a whole. I was hooked from the jump. It’s such an odd and absurd snapshot while also being deeply serious and vulnerable and tender. Depending on the storyteller, this could be a stand-up bit, a quick punchline, or a heartbreaking and intimate memoir. It all works here.

  9. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Jen, always a fan of your complex, subtle writing. The pacing of this is pitch perfect. The extended metaphor is powerful, and the driving conflict (lump? no lump?) helps to unpack such a wallop here. Do we ever get over our exes? Even when we are forced to confront that pretty-pretty has taken our place. What I admire and love more than anything is the pathos, the vulnerability of Lisa and her decision to seek out her ex, while wondering if her body has a cancerous lump. I also admire the subtle poetry, and that unresolved ending. This is magnificent!

  10. Len Kuntz

    Hi Jennifer,

    Holy crap. This is fantastic. I love the immediacy of it. The bitterness, the humor, the sarcasm, the slang, pretty-pretty, of course. It’s a real rush of a story, everything happening with such urgency and pathos, while also feeling off-kilter and Fargo-esque. It’s a marvel of a piece, littered with so many wonderful details and literary flourishes, Plus that ending…wow. Brava.

  11. David O'Connor

    Jennifer, this is excellent stuff, I loved every moment, the set up and play out is perfect. My only thought that might help is that old film editing trope–get in late and get out earlier–but what do I know, it works brilliantly as is… what a scene, what a payoff. Well done!

  12. Wilson Koewing

    Jen,

    This was a highly enjoyable read. Wonderful tension and escalation. It was interesting how much I enjoyed it because I sort of loathed all of these characters. lol. Weirdly, Pretty Pretty is the one I felt the most sympathy for. Because she is judged harshly by the narrator even though it doesn’t seem the narrator has ever met her. And I also feel bad for her that’s she with the ex, but that is perhaps because the narrator paints him as an utter tool.

    I’m not really sure if anything should be done differently unless you have some issue with the narrator coming off, IMO, as judgmental and unlikable. I can’t say I really ever understood why she decided to do this, but the strangeness of it is entirely the point. Also, where ARE the kids? Did I miss that? Oh and the line about Pretty Pretty having her nipples sucked, while wonderful and provocative, is slightly confusing if it is supposed to be saying what I think it is which is sucked on by children. then again, maybe it’s perfect.

    Best,
    Wilson

  13. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Jennifer–– Fabulous. So many ways I relate to this. That breast self-exam that somehow never feels definitive, and the conceit of the ex and the girl friend, and where, after all, ARE those kids! Love it. Congratulations.

  14. Georgiana Nelsen

    Jen,
    Read this and didn’t comment right after posting, because ….it’s perfect and I have nothing to add. I love the relationship. I love that she goes immediately to her ex, because he knows….and i love that pretty pretty is a woman first.

    Might agree to drop “and really mean it.” Reader can tell she does,
    G

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