By Mark Thomas
Alex climbed into the passenger seat of my Silverado and instead of saying “hello” said “shower-curtain.”
The basis of the game was that we each took turns saying common nouns that became viscerally repulsive when you imagined licking the object itself; an intentionally bad Popsicle flavor. It was a weird car-ride game, but Alex was the one who started it. When we played, there were no formal rules, but generally, words like “diarrhea” and “pus” were considered too juvenile, and words like “poverty” weren’t sufficiently tactile. The loser was the one who mentioned a word that had positive associations for the other person.
I liked showers, but in the context of the Popsicle game I could instantly taste a warm, slick plastic sheet coated with hard-water scale and soap residue. My throat constricted.
I pulled into traffic and said “leg-hair.” Hyphenated constructions were a bit of a stretch in the Popsicle game. I think Alex realized that my response was a subtle warning to fight fair.
She waited while I checked my blind spot and changed lanes, then said, “tampon.”
I snorted. References to feminine hygiene products were childish, but I had to admit that was a good selection. The idea of tasting ribbed cotton, fresh out of the package, sucked the moisture from my tongue. I wanted to respond with the word “corduroy,” but now it would sound derivative. I could hold it in reserve for next week.
“Would ‘prison’ be too abstract?” I asked.
We tended to disagree about that particular convention. I thought words like “regret” or “sloth” would be fantastic flavors in the context of our game, but Alex disagreed, saying it was too far removed from its philosophical anchor. After all, real Popsicle flavors were “banana” and “cherry” not “happiness” or “contentment.”
I used to feel guilty about playing the Popsicle game while I was driving Alex to her out-patient therapy sessions. Her suicide attempt was mysterious, even to her, and I worried that one of our flavors-from-hell would somehow turn into a trigger.
But Alex always initiated the game. Maybe it was a form of “deflection.” That was a word Alex claimed her therapist overused, and it made her wonder if the doctor was hiding from some problems of her own. Incidentally, I thought “deflection” would be a great dystopian Popsicle flavor, but I knew it would be disallowed.
I passed a delivery van and said, “Bismuth.”
Alex nodded appreciatively. “That’s very clever.” She pursed her lips, and I could tell the sour metal taste was crawling all over her tongue. Given a long enough interval, I would be able to use similar words like thorium and phosphorous.
We stopped at a red light and Alex said, “Chlamydia.” Previously, I had lost a round using the word “gonorrhea” because Alex said it was not only too conjectural, but the sound of the word itself was also beautiful. I could have used that judgment as a precedent to red-flag “chlamydia,” but we were on the honor system, and I had to admit that the unpleasant sensation of licking a bumpy skin rash legitimized her selection. Incidentally, “crotch” had also been a loser for me because it called up the image of tree branches intersecting and that positive visual was more potent than the sweat and fungal rashes I was trying to conjure.
Alex and I were two tree branches that didn’t intersect. I wasn’t family, I wasn’t a boyfriend, I was an acquaintance who drove her to suicide therapy. It was a strange relationship.
“Humus,” I said, thinking of the greasy viscous heat generated by rotting leaves.
“That word means spring to me.” I glanced sideways and saw that Alex’s head was tilted up, and her eyes were closed. “It’s all part of that package where your senses crawl out of hibernation and you suddenly notice your feet pressing on the ground and everything smells good, even last year’s yard waste.” I remembered a previous session where “worm” was rejected on similar grounds. Dew worms, stretched across sidewalk slabs after a rain, made Alex think of renewal.
I touched the tip of an imaginary Hank Williams cowboy-hat. “You win again,” I crooned, pulling into the hospital drop-off zone. Hank Williams hadn’t technically committed suicide; he just drank himself into a stupor and stopped breathing in the back seat of a Cadillac. It was New Year’s Eve when he died at thirty years old. The person driving him to a gig was focused on the road and didn’t even notice that his passenger was dead. If you were determined to be finicky about word use, I guess the death was an accident.
Hank might have survived if they had played the Popsicle game. Maybe they could have come up with their own variation, like the “inappropriate-country-song game,” and listed titles that were overly cheerful.
Alex punched me in the shoulder. “We’ve discussed this, there are no winners.” Then she sighed and climbed out of the car.
That was another thing we disagreed about. I believed winners and losers were the building blocks underpinning the world. “I’ll see you in seventy-five minutes,” I called after her but, as usual, she didn’t look back.
Then, as usual, I was in the drive-thru lane at Dunkin’ Donuts. “I’d like a cup of despair,” I informed the dented speaker, “extra-dark, no sugar.”