Helen Phillips

(the 2011 Innovative Fiction Contest winner, selected by Lydia Millet)


I had this joke with someone I used to love. We'd say to each other: Saying I love you, that's our thing, our special thing, just for the two of us. Whatever becomes of us, you can't ever say that to anyone else. Or: Having sex, that's our thing, our special thing, you better never do that with anyone else, not even if we split up. You can do other things with them, of course, you can do anything you want with anyone you want at any time under the sun, but never that, because that's our thing.
      Later, I tried to reinvigorate this joke with someone I loved far more: Going to the bar, drinking gin & tonics, getting drunk and having lots to talk about, that's our thing. Marriage, that's our thing, wherever you go and whatever you do and whoever you meet, remember that. But, dismayingly, the joke was no longer hilarious; now when I said it I sounded like I meant it.


Removed, the wedding ring and the engagement ring lie obediently together upon the ledge. That's the thing about objects, they're so obedient, and it's a god damn relief if you ask me. You put them there upon the ledge and there they shall stay until someone or something comes along.


We shouldn't keep drinking $3 gin & tonics, but it takes more imagination than we've got to stop doing so, plus the sunsetting light is the color of booze and outside in the yard behind the bar the wall of ivy wavers in the exceptional light like something from a lovelier place.


Recently I've developed an addiction to the word FEROCIOUS—I've had other addictions at other times, such as LULLABY, JUBILANT, HOWEVER—and have started using it too much, mainly in my head but also out loud, using it to say things like "I had to be ferocious to figure out how to put that Ikea bookshelf together; I had to be especially ferocious with the top part."


Our friends compliment the plants we have in our apartment. They say, "Wow, you have a lot of nice little plants."
      And I say, "Thank you, yes, we went to the plant nursery and that's where we got those plants. The plant nursery on Euclid Avenue, if you were wondering."
      But their eyes have already glazed over.
      And you—you yawned the whole time we were selecting our plants!


The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.
      Naked, bestial, I squatted.
      I have this idea that lines recalled from poems we read in English class might help. Although that second line was purely your idea—inspired by the way I was crouching on our darkly gleaming wooden floor at three in the morning. Your delivery of such an apt line, your flawless read of the situation—that's the sort of thing that gives me hope. It also gives me hope when we put on the music and dance around our apartment.
      I won't deny it: I'm a sucker for hope these days.


I could get pregnant, you know, from all this make-up sex we're always having.
      I could get pregnant from all this messing around.
      Maybe you should come up here from down there.
      Maybe we could talk. Maybe you could hear me better.
      You won't get pregnant.


I have this idea that I'm not going to write any untrue things anymore. I'm only going write things that are true, true, true.
      The Guy Who Yawned at the Plant Nursery says: "You've never written a word of fiction in your life. You're not capable of it."


Say I am pregnant. How do you think it feels about all this poison?
      $3 gin & tonic, lime on lips, meditating on the word tonic.
      Surely to my great-grandmother that meant something with herbs that would fix all sorts of problems.


The Guy Who Calls Me Baby doesn't come out very often, but when he does I feel shy around him, like a new bride.
      He seems like the kind of guy with whom the metaphor of a boxing ring would resonate. So to please him I say: "We're like boxers in a boxing ring."
      And he says (maybe to please me, who knows): "Yeah, baby, that's just it."


In second grade we made leprechaun traps for St. Patrick's Day. We placed those little golden balls they use to decorate cakes inside our traps and left the traps on our desks. The next morning all the golden balls were gone but no one had caught a leprechaun. I can't remember what the purpose of this lesson was, Ms. Kroll, but I remember the witchy sound of your long fingernail scratching your scalp. It was exciting to make the traps and disappointing to find them empty, but overall it was a time of belief.
      "Look!" I choose to say now, to the Guy Who Just Bought Another Round, "there's a leprechaun scaling the wall of ivy!"
      "Oh bummer," I say, "sorry, you missed it."


He says, "I desire you." He means, "Every night I dream of other women."
       She says, "I desire you." She means, "I want to get accidentally pregnant."


Maybe thirteen should be left blank, like those buildings with no thirteenth floor. That's another thing, I get more superstitious by the year. In a few decades you'll find me wearing garlic around my neck.


My husband is having trouble sleeping. I think he's thinking about sex.
      He tells me that when he finally does manage to sleep, he dreams that everyone in his family hates him except for his one weird cousin.


I crouch on the bed, massaging The Guy Who Thinks I Don't Know How to Use the Word Renovate Properly. Doing this reminds me of working with clay, slowly squeezing until something grows from nothing. Not that I've ever worked with clay. Not that I've ever made a bowl that could hold anything.


You may say: "We really ought to renovate the bathroom." You may not say: "We need to renovate our thinking about this problem."


In a hotel in Cincinnati, someone's 90-year-old grandmother is falling in the bathtub and snapping three small ribs.
      In Pakistan the waters that have already risen are rising more. I'm sorry, but it's pretty much just the babies I think of. I'm only interested in statistics about how many infants have drowned. As soon as I know that, then I'll be able to properly mourn.


So many bombs shattering across the globe, yet it was private grief that kept them up at night.


He said: "Please don't put things in third person past tense. Just because it's third person past tense doesn't mean it's a story. It's not as though third person past tense will protect you."
      She said: "He said, Please don't put things in third person past tense, and then she said, He said please don't put things in third person past tense."


I've thrown up three times since I've known him:
      (1) The night before he proposed, in Guatemala, black bean soup/Montezuma's revenge.
      (2) The night before the miscarriage and the apartment closing, which happened, impossibly, to fall on the same day. The baby fell into a toilet designed by a designer to conserve water. He said: "If by 'baby' you mean 'minuscule bundle of cells,' then I'll let the above sentence slide."
      (3) Last week, for no reason at all, after eating Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream, which is quite an orange color if I do say so myself. Of course I was thinking about the invisible baby the whole time, and the way it would be three months old by now, and the way my grief exceeded his by so much, and the way I don't want to be filled with vitriol, a word thank God I learned when I was studying for a standardized test. God it was so hot the night of the Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream Sickness, and my beloved was so good to me that night, so exceedingly patient.


Our friends admire our marriage and ask us for advice.
      When I think about the phrase "hitch our wagons" it almost makes me cry because it is so beautiful, so accurate, so beautiful.


Once something I wrote made the judge of a contest indignant. He wrote, "This is something that this woman should share with her husband alone, if with anyone, and probably not even with him."


He's always called me his "Little Try-er." He says: "You are always try, try, trying to make things good." This is both a compliment and an insult.


Lightbulbs make me feel peaceful these days, as do water glasses.
      Wikipedia makes me feel safe and newspapers make me feel guilty.
      Facebook makes me want to change my life and Twitter makes me want to stay the way I am.


The person with whom I used to have the joke about never saying I love you to anyone else recently told me: "You would have been happy no matter who you married. You always loved everyone. I mean that as a compliment."
      We had not seen each other for many years. We were walking the hills of San Francisco that day and truly everything seemed possible.


The Guy Who Has Urges Impossible to Satisfy comes up to the bar and grabs my ass. He's very predictable but that doesn't mean he doesn't scare me.
      At night, together, in bed, sleepless, we're more in the same boat than we've been in a long time.
      Boat, that's good too, a helpful image. But when I try to picture it what I see is fog, a wooden boat with old oars, the desperate expressions on our faces.


"I'm a monster, I'm a monster, I'm a monster, I'm a monster," he says four times in a row, just like that, and I can't tell if he's joking or serious.


He says, "You are like, you are like, you are like a glass of cold water that I drink from every morning."
      He's always coming up with these extremely useful metaphors. He's the best decision I ever made.
      He says, "Why are you always saying that language falls short?"


On nights when I can't sleep I dream that our apartment is way larger than I ever realized. It has nooks and crannies and lofts I never knew about. In fact there is a section of our apartment where an entire forest could be planted!


I had this plan that I would be happier this year than ever before. That day by day, twig by twig, I would construct my inner nest, and meanwhile my skin would be better than ever and my patience would be infinite and I'd be able to talk easily with strangers, and maybe even would finally learn how to whistle, and wouldn't be scared of driving.
      If only that famous person hadn't written me to say: Happiness in marriage is an illusion. Jesus Christ, who puts that kind of thing in an email?


When he pointed at me and shouted, "You!" I couldn't tell if I was being singled out for love or scorn.


"All I want is X," he says. "That's all. Just X."
      "X," I say. "Jesus Christ."
      "Please," he says, "stop calling me that."
      I wonder if it's a technical thing, hitching your wagons, something involving rope and a metal loop, or if it's merely a turn of phrase.
      You've just got to disconnect your happiness from my happiness, okay? Okay?


What's with this feeling of dread? Two weeks ago I wrote an email to an old friend proclaiming my transcendent happiness, or at least the promise of it.
      Seven fireflies, a pink evening, whatever, there was cause for confidence, and there still is, hello, it's not as though we're doomed.


We turn the air conditioner off.
      We turn the air conditioner on.
      We close the door.
      We open the door.
      We think of our parents and their deaths.
      We think of our children and their births.
      It is hot yet I need hot milk. I understand that it's disgusting to drink milk intended for the young of a different species, yet I can never get enough of it.


"You're being so nice to me right now," The Girl With the Hot Milk says. "Thank you."
      "No, thank YOU," The Guy Standing by the Air Conditioner says.
      "Oh," she says, "oh, I hope we're always this nice to each other."


In the grocery store I see a woman with an infant. She reminds me of me. She's even got a zit where I've got a zit. When I approach her, she smiles warmly.
      "Hey there," she says.
      Why am I not surprised to see milk, limes, a jar of golden balls in her cart?
      "What's your baby's name?" I say, realizing as I say it that my voice sounds ferocious, as though it's been ages since I used it in polite company.
      But the young woman just winks at me. "You know what," she says, "I haven't even given her a name yet."






I'm interested in building narrative through fragments. James Joyce's claim, "I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man," has been on my mind a lot lately, along with David Shields' Reality Hunger: a Manifesto