We’re cousins. Six decades of weddings, graduations, and hospital bedsides are tucked under our belts. With enough time, a language develops. A sort of Morse code. A drumbeat of inference and innuendo punctuated by sighs.
“So what’s new?” I say.
Then holding the phone away from my ear, I prepare myself. My cousin talks in a shout. No matter where I find her– whether it’s a plane or a doctor’s office or an elevator– her voice booms.
“You shouldn’t know. Five trips to the bathroom just this morning. Today I’m like a sieve.”
No one does torment better.
“How’s by you?” she throws out.
When she asks how I’m doing, I’m already sucked into the cadence of calamity.
“Not so good,” I reply. “My knee…it could be better.”
We’re getting into a rhythm now. She doesn’t miss a beat.
“You’ve got a bad knee,” she answers. “I’ve got a bad back and a neck that’s killing me.”
It’s like a bizarre poker game where whoever’s sickest has the winning hand. An Olympics of suffering. My heartache trumps yours.
The reverse occurs when we speak about our children. No lie is too small. Like an archeological dig, the essence stays underneath. No matter how far we probe, there’s another layer buried.
“How’s Howie?” I ask.
Her son is thirty-five years old and still on the dole. He ping-pongs from one financial pipe dream to another.
“A great opportunity fell in his lap. The kind that makes millions.”
“You know from Kickstarter?” she says. ” Everybody wants in.”
“And Susie? Is Susie still with the boyfriend?”
Our children Facebook. This boyfriend will never commit in a million years.
“So devoted. Such a hard worker. He’s saving for a really big ring.”
She changes the subject quickly and tosses the glove to me. “Your son?”
“A star, ” I say. The rotten kid hasn’t called me in a week. “One promotion after another.”
I’m not exaggerating here. My son went to Ivy League schools and works at a bank. Her kids work at the family plumbing supply. The news is like a dagger in her heart.
“So you’ve got a bad knee,” she says. In the background, I hear a faucet running. She’s taking her sweet time with this one. She’s probably zipping her pants.
“You know what you do for a bad knee?” she asks.
I’m fumbling for an answer when I hear the toilet flush. “For a bad knee,” she shouts over the flush, “you need to lose some weight.”
It’s my turn. Wherever she is, my cousin’s patient. The water must be circling now. She watches and she waits.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, PANK, Catapult, and The Baltimore Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee twice for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.