Issue > Fiction
Nick Bertelson

Nick Bertelson

Nick Bertelson's other work has appeared in The Coe Review, The Raleigh Review, Bull Magazine, The New Plains Review, and Hobart, as well as other literary journals both online and in print. He's currently busy harvesting soybeans and corn in Iowa but still has time to work on stories.

The Julia

We were in our favorite Chinese restaurant, me and Julia, when she spoke a name I'd never heard before. The restaurant wasn't much of a place, but I could afford it. Julia liked me to order for the both of us. She always got the same thing, even though she spent ten minutes looking the menu over just about every time we went.

"I'll have orange chicken," I said to the waitress. "And she'll have the broccoli beef."

"Wait!" Julia said. "I want moo shoo pork."

I looked at her.

"Cal said I might like it," she said.

"Cal?"

"Yeah, I've mentioned him before," she said. "He'll be there tonight. You finally get to meet him. I've mentioned him before to you. I know I have."

I looked at the waitress.

"Don't worry," I said to her. "She's mentioned him before. I finally get to meet him."

Julia had organized a night out for her Barnes & Noble coworkers, and though it wasn't "approved" by her higher-ups as a legitimate event, both her manager and regional director said they'd stop by for a drink. Usually, when Julia mentioned someone's name and I didn't recall it, she accused me of never listening to her. In the Chinese place, though, she said nothing. Instead, she reached for my face and I winced as she picked a speck of hardened drywall mud from my beard.

"Geesh, John, you could have taken a little more time in the shower."

She flicked the speck to the floor and smiled. It wasn't much of a smile. She always looked forced into happiness, as though every moment was a photograph she didn't want to be in. It was a smile that only her mother and her man could love. And I did. I loved it, because I loved her.


                                * * *


I started smoking that night. I bought a pack of American Spirits at the gas station where I filled up our only vehicle: my work truck. Just that month, Iowa state law had required people to smoke outside, and part of me worried that Julia felt ashamed and shunned whenever she left the bar for a smoke. Mostly, though, I knew worrisome things happened out on bar balconies where men and women strayed from their significant others, searching for a match.

The jet stream had snagged a front, making it cold for August. The air felt good, though. It made smoking seem logical, as though it was something people did for warmth. Julia's coworkers muttered complaints about the bar owners not firing up the umbrella-shaped heaters on the smokers' balcony. But I knew, given the time of year, that the bar hadn't invested in butane yet. I didn't say anything about it. Like the rest of them, I stared at Cal, this wiry eccentric with circular-framed glasses that made him look intimidatingly intellectual. He held up a glass full of hard booze and soft light to make a toast:

"To Julia," he said. "For suggesting that the corporatization of literature can be made a little more tolerable with alcohol."

I tried making sense of that, but I couldn't keep from shivering. Julia laid a hand on my forearm.

"Go inside if you're cold, babe," she whispered. "I'll be there in a minute."

"Hand me your cigarettes," I said. "I'm out."

She gave me a look, unconvinced of my newfound habit.

"Here," Cal said to me, throwing a pack on the table. "I saw you smoking Spirits. A man after my own heart, sir."

People laughed as though there was a joke sewn into the fabric of this harmless offering. Meanwhile, he started talking about sounds in the ocean that scientists had been recording for years, sounds that apparently had no explainable point of origin, sounds one could find on the internet if they knew where to look.

"So none of you have heard of these?" Cal asked. "I don't know who turned me onto them. There are only about seven or eight. Let's see, there's the 'Bloop', the 'Quacker', the 'Upsweep'..." He listed a few more. After each name, people chuckled.

"Can you imagine?" Cal said. "Sounds on this planet that have no explanation. It's pretty wonderful if you ask me, that there's still unexplainable stuff out there. I'm telling you. It's pretty wild. Google it if you don't believe me."

"Probably whale farts," someone suggested.

Everyone laughed except Cal. His eyes lit up, but he did not laugh. He looked at Julia.

"I'm surprised you've never heard of these," he said to her.

"Why's that?" she asked.

"There's one named after you," he said. "The 'Julia'."

"Does it sound like a whale fart?" she asked.

But no one laughed this time. They were looking at me. I was trying to light my cigarette, but I was drunk and shivering and having a time with Julia's lighter.

"Here," a man said. He lit a match in his cupped hands. I leaned into the light and inhaled. Then I felt Julia's hand slip between my knees, giving it a squeeze.

"John," she said. "You wonderful drunk, you."

This, people laughed at.

A band was about to take the stage in the bar. A line had formed at the door. People were paying the cover, and once I snuffed out my half-smoked cigarette, I stood up to pay the bouncer as well. But Cal cut ahead of us.

"They're with me," he said.

"No that's okay," I said. "It's only five bucks."

"Don't worry about it," Cal said. He touched my arm and looked at Julia, who looked at me. After buying the gas, the cigarettes, and the booze, she knew I was down to just enough money to pay the cover. Now that Cal was getting it, we had enough for a few more drinks.

"So, do you guys have any plans this winter?"

I looked at Julia and shrugged. Julia, meanwhile, had this odd look about her. I about answered for the two of us, saying that we had no plans (which meant no money) to do anything in the near future. But the Julia said, "John's going to grad school in a few weeks."

This was news to me.

"Oh really!" Cal said, turning to me. "Julia mentioned you were a writer. So where are you going?"

We shuffled ahead in line as I recalled all the schools that sent me rejection letters throughout the summer.

"Iowa," I said. I went big. I was lying after all. So why not?

"The Writers' Workshop?" Cal said. "Isn't that, like, the best one?"

"That's what they say."

Julia grabbed my arm. "He's being modest. It's the best one. They only let in twelve students or so, and they get... I don't know how many applicants. A lot!"

The impressed look on Cal's face made me feel inept and petty. It had been a long time since I'd felt that pathetic because it had been a long time since I'd told a whopper like that.

"So will you be going with him?" Cal asked Julia.

Julia looked up at me. Shrugging and smiling at the same time, she said, "Well... we haven't hashed that out yet."

I wasn't going to let her sit this one out. She forced me to lie; now it was her turn.

"What about the aquarium?" I asked. "You haven't heard back from them."

"Right," she agreed. "The aquarium."

"You're going to work at an aquarium?" Cal asked.

Julia bobbed her head. "Well, it would only be for a little while. I haven't..."

"I thought you went to school for theater?" Cal said.

Yeah, well..." Julia stammered. "It's not like I have to be qualified to feed fish, you know, and..." She trailed off and looked at the line ahead of us. "Oh, we're going in."

The bouncer strapped bracelets on our wrists. Then we went inside, thankful now that the lying was through. The music was loud, and Cal found someone else to talk to, taking his mind off the conversation we'd been having, or, rather, the lies we'd been feeding him. I made my way up to the bar and ordered two beers.

"I don't need another," Julia said.

"Who said it's for you?" I asked.

"I'm sorry about all that," she said. "I wanted to make you laugh. I was just trying to be funny. I didn't know it would go that far. And an aquarium? What the fuck was that?"

"It was funny," I said. "We're funny, remember?"

"Look, if you don't want to stay, I can just call a cab, or catch a ride from someone."

"Really, I don't mind. I'm just drunk."

"Me too," she said. We both grabbed one of the beers I ordered. She took a drink and said, "Am I doing something wrong? You seem in a bad way."

"That's the thing about tonight," I said. "No one's doing anything wrong, but something's happening."

This tripped her up, but only briefly. She put her hand on my neck and looked at my eyes, her expression unplaceable. She didn't understand that comment. Perhaps I didn't either. But it made for an intense moment before she pecked me on the lips and joined her friends near the stage. I stared at the Barnes & Noble workers as she joined them. The bar musk felt hot on my face. I knew none of these people. Once the music started, they all would look my way and smile, as though I was an invalid. I watched Julia flail in a mess of light and limbs as the band played generic indie songs. She looked like she was taking a cold shower, trying to avoid the stream. She motioned for me to join her and I made the same motion at her and neither of us budged. The bartender put a beer down in front of me and I asked who bought it. She pointed at the end of the bar to where Cal was taking a breather; he'd been dancing with the rest of them. Really busting a proverbial move, from the looks of him. I held my beer up in thanks.

The night was hardening around me. I felt suffocated. I didn't want to drink Cal's consolation beer. That's what it felt like, a consolation prize. I drank it in three gulps and started a tab with no intention of paying it. I thought about going out on the dance floor. Julia would have liked it. It was the hip thing to do. But then once the people next to me left, Cal crept up and took the stool to my right.

"Mind if I take a seat?" he asked.

"All yours."

"So what are you working on now?" Cal asked. "A novel? I have a lot of writer friends. They're all working on novels."

"Yeah," I said. "Isn't that funny?" I didn't laugh.

"So what's yours about?"

"It's about this guy, the narrator, whose girlfriend introduces him to the other guy—a real piece of work, this guy—who she's probably going to fuck later at some point. And, see, the first guy, he's gotta be nice to this fucker because he doesn't want to cause a scene. He doesn't want his girlfriend to think he's, you know, one of those possessive assholes who doesn't let her do anything, doesn't let her have any fun, doesn't let her have any friends. You know what I mean?"

Cal reared back and smiled. "Really?" he said skeptically.

"Yeah," I said. "You'd like it a lot, I bet."

"How's it end?" Cal asked. "Does he kill the guy?"

I shrugged. "Haven't finished it yet, I guess."

I didn't know if any of this meant anything to him or not. He just nodded, said something about wanting to read it sometime, then left again for the dance floor.

And that's when I got the hiccups. I should have known better. I always got them when I drank too much beer. I had the hiccups a lot in those days. I tried everything I could think of to get rid of them: gulping my beer, swallowing my spit, holding my breath. Then Julia slid up next to me. I must have looked haggard and drunk.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

I hiccuped.

"How much have you had to drink?" She shook my empty beer bottle. She didn't sound mad, just curious and pleasant. She was out of breath from dancing and spoke like a child who'd been playing too hard.

She ordered me a glass of water, but it didn't help. We headed to the truck. I parked at the far end of the lot so none of her friends would see it. It was an embarrassing sight. All her friends showed up in tiny, shiny foreign cars and we came in a primer-gray beater. I drove even though I shouldn't have. I always drove because Julia couldn't drive a stick, and, at that point, she was catching up on her crying. Always with the crying. It was something she did, especially when she was drinking. She cried and I got the hiccups. It was the way things were. I think it was the sight of the truck this time. The toolbox in back, the construction trash, the rust-eaten toolboxes: this was her ride. This was her life.

Maybe she was sad about having her to leave her coworkers. I couldn't recall if she said goodbye or if we left in haste on account of me. Or maybe it was all the untrue things we'd said about ourselves. Who knows? Regardless, I closed one eye and drove home, and in between hiccups, I managed to ask Julia what would make her feel better.

She sniffled and looked out the window. She said, "When we get home, I'll run inside and get my laptop."

This meant another half-hour of driving around, looking for a parking lot with a wifi signal so she could surf the web. Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Instagram: somehow these things made her feel better.

While she was inside our rental house, I took one huge painful breath and held it, beating on the steering wheel, thrashing on the seat, moaning and groaning, until I nearly passed out, and when I finally exhaled, a hiccup followed. I could have bawled. But before Julia opened the door I was sitting upright, smiling at her, composed.

The Oak Barrel Inn was the hotel where the Union Pacific put up railroaders who passed through town for a night or two. It was the closest place to our house, still about six miles away, and it was a miracle I didn't get pulled over. We didn't have the money to bail me out of jail, let alone pay for a DUI. This all crossed my mind, driving around at two in the morning, hiccuping.

We found a spot with a signal. I killed the truck and opened my door.

"Where are you going?" Julia asked.

I pointed to my chest and hiccuped.

In the hotel's lobby, a girl sat at the front desk wearing a pink sweat-suit that she either had slept in or planned on sleeping in once she got off work.

"Do you have a wa-hic-ter fountain here?" I asked.

She shook her head, wide-eyed.

"Look," I said. "I'm not a freak or anything ...Hic... I just have the hiccups. I need to get rid of them."

"There's a bathroom around the corner," she said.

"Do you have a cup? Some-hic-thing I could drink from?" I asked.

She shook her head.

In the bathroom, I craned my head beneath the faucet, lapping up the water, trying to get as much down my throat as I could. Finally I left the bathroom, walked through the lobby, the parking lot, and then I got back in the truck.

"Well?" Julia asked.

I hiccuped.

"Listen to this," she said. She pressed 'play' on her keyboard. I closed the door and the only light in the cab came from her computer. I scooted close to her and hiccuped again.

"Shhh," she said.

An eerie, echoey hiss filled the cab. Then, through the hiss, came a low intonation:

"Jew-lee-aah," the muffled voice seemed to say. Though it wasn't a voice, more the result of something large, deep down in the ocean, moving or shifting. All sound, I knew, was the byproduct of motion, but even knowing that fact didn't ease the urge to know exactly what caused her name to resonate through the ocean like that. It was as Cal had described it: truly unexplainable. She played it three or four more times.

"Doesn't sound like a whale fart at all," I said.

She smiled without showing her teeth and said, "Maybe it's a hiccup. A whale hiccup."

I chuckled, hiccuped, and groaned all at once: "Don't make me laugh," I said. "It makes them worse."

"Why do you always drink so much?" she said.

I looked out the windshield.

* * *

I was still hiccuping long after we went to bed. Except now each one was laced with the taste of cigarettes and orange chicken. Julia was getting sick of it. I heard it in her breathing. She laid blanketless on her back, and I saw the whites of her eyes through the darkness occasionally. Then she rolled over.

"John," she said. "I have to tell you something."

Those were never good words to hear. For some reason, terror seized my spine, made my whole body jump, as though I'd just awoken from a dream in which I was falling. I pictured her and Cal and the plethora of positions they could find themselves in. It felt like I'd swallowed a cinder block. I shot up from bed, threw off the blanket, flipped on every light in the room, then pulled Julia up from off the mattress, holding tightly, pathetically.

"Tell me," I said. I put my forehead to her chest. "Just get it over with."

She sat there for a long time, stern with exhaustion. I felt her heartbeat against my ear and smelled the cigarette smoke on her tank-top. I had goosebumps.

Finally, she spoke: "John?"

"Yeah."

"Are your hiccups gone?"

This confused me. What did my indigestion matter in the face of our time together coming to an end? I sat up and stared at her. Then she cracked that unfortunate smile of hers. I assessed my hiccups, which were, in fact, gone.

Julia giggled, then flopped to the bed in a fit of devious laughter. It was a ploy, a bluff, an attempt to scare me, and it had worked. Just like that. Gone. I flopped over in relief and we both laid there for some time in that weird position. Eventually one of us turned off the lights. I listened to her breathing change. Then I watched headlights sweep over the ceiling. A train passed. They roared through town at all hours of the night, shaking our house so often that the drywall joints cracked no matter how many times I coated them. I said Julia's name to her, but she was asleep. I chuckled a little to myself. It was just a gag, a joke, one big trick to scare me. But it had worked.

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