(Winner, Musepaper Short Fiction Contest, March 2023)
You’ve Got Mail
We are born preconditioned to embrace the catastrophic. To eagerly crane our heads towards highway wrecks. Pavlovian frothing at the breathless coverage of every plane crash and capsized ferry. Voyeuristic egos encourage guileless eyes to devour the horrific splendor.
As a masochist to the marrow, I have imprinted upon myself a bloodlust so all-encompassing that I actively seek out and engage the carnage in every aspect of my daily life. A gnawing hunger desperate for a visceral reaction. I am consumed by an endless yearning for that instantaneous, nervous inhalation followed by an urgent mumble, “There but the grace of God go I.”
This is what stimulates my soul. My only sense of being alive.
I thrive on choking lungs filled with acrid powder from exploded airbags. Bathe in the tiny rivulets of blood trickling down sandpaper-scrubbed skin from seatbelt-chafed necks. Other people’s pain becomes my pain and my pleasure. Schadenfreude and Sado-Masochism entwined like mesh and lace.
The sallow flash of my phone’s voicemail is the lighthouse’s warning of rocky shoals that lie ahead. Only two types of people leave voicemails- people who want something from you, or people who want the last word.
I relish these messages with the same gusto reserved for picking a fresh scab.
I’ve pressed the number “9” to replay exhortations to “Drop dead,” from failed relationships. Saving them for an additional thirty days with the same care reserved for foreplay.
Email was no different. Disembodied rejection letters. Angry missives from colleagues I emailed when liquid courage imbibed at 2 AM lowered my inhibitions. Passive-aggressive notes from family members bemoaning the sins of my youth and my inability to make amends.
All were opened with a glee reserved for Christmas presents.
The constant refrain of my shortcomings, failures, and broken promises read like love notes to the sickened, battered spouse within me. The promise of attention awoke a lustful, broken-down Norma Desmond pining for her close-up.
This is the demon that inhabits me.
It stemmed from the desperation of needing to be recognized by my father. I failed in countless attempts to confront or resolve the issues with him over the years. It’s always been best to worship the devil you know. My father’s messages were the most treasured and anticipated.
He was a technological Luddite. The United States Postal Service was complicit in the delivery of his cheerfully handwritten bits of poison detailing some perceived injustice from companies whose bills “accidentally” had gone unpaid. The mail lacked the immediacy he demanded. Voicemails were a means to poke and prod and prevented the ability to counter in the moment.
His last voicemail was the perfect literary composition car crash. The mail notification crackled with nervous energy. My father always delivered. A violent splattering of gut-churning words pregnant with hours of self-loathing.
“I love you, but you have been a disappointment.”
A head-on collision sums up the entirety of our relationship. My Homerian search for validation and approval would never be satisfied. Nor would the stratospheric standards that he laid out for me ever be achieved.
I listen to voicemails daily, as part of my morning routine. The healthy dose of self-loathing was a multivitamin that fueled me throughout the day. Some addicts keep a rubber band around their wrist to snap every time a craving torments them. My father provided a tautly wound elastic band around my heart. All I needed to do was inhale and listen to his one-sentence missive. The resounding snap against my aorta provided the bloodlust I craved.
I knew my father would never reconsider his messages. There was no genuflection and absolution. A tossed-off sentence, an aborted afterthought about it being too late, too far gone, and the abyss already embraced? Being my father’s son, I was a creature of habit possessed by my own addictions. I would listen to the voicemail every morning awaiting a gossamer apology that never materialized.
What superpower prevents the sins of the father from being borne upon the son? How does one combat the wanton DNA that some wayward sperm spread in blind ambition?
My father’s words echoed through me like a wind-whipped strand of birches, rendering flesh from my body. I swore they would never fall upon the delicate ears of my child. Self-flagellation would live and die with me.
My father has been dead for three years but remains more present in my life now than he ever was. His messages are forever the gifts that keep on giving.
This would make him smile.