Fiction from Jennifer Fergesen

Photo: Daniele Levis Pelusi

The Lipomatous Lover

The first time Pat stripped Jack she gagged, but she was too far gone to go back.

The second time Pat stripped Jack she did not shut her eyes against the lumps that clustered on his body like the eggs of a large, fecund amphibian. There were dozens of them, blurring the edges of his silhouette everywhere but hands and face. She touched them tentatively: they were softer than they looked, and more mobile. She could push them half a centimeter from their hidden tethers under his skin.

The third and last time she asked what they looked like inside.

“I can show you,” Jack said. He took down a jar from the shelf above the bed and passed it to her: inside, an ovoid mass dissolving into amber fluid. In the light of Icelandic night the mass glowed the colour of sunbeams through eyelids.

“This is the first one I ever got,” he said fondly. “As soon as they cut it out all the rest started to grow. They were going to go after the rest, but I stopped them. Lipomas are benign, after all. They don’t want to hurt me.”

The tumour in its jar resembled nothing more than a raw egg she once soaked in vinegar, a school project to demonstrate a biology concept she couldn’t remember. The shell dissolved, but the egg stayed intact, held together by some transparent membrane. It looked so ethereal, so irresistibly fragile, that she could not help prodding the membrane with a pencil until an orange cloud of yolk spilled into the glass.

“I have to go,” she said, still holding the jar.

“Oh,” he said, “I thought you were sleeping over.”

“Have to catch my flight,” she said.

He sighed and laid his perfect, tumourless head on her lap. “Almost forgot you were leaving today. Will you remember me?”

“Yes,” she said. She never wanted to forget anyone, not least this considerate lover who could converse equally articulately about Faulkner and the royal family. However, she was occasionally approached on the street by strangers who knew her name; she recognised nothing in their faces except their own insistent recognition.

“Good,” he said. “But let me make you a sandwich before you leave. Can’t trust aeroplane food.”

He ensconced to the shoebox-sized kitchen. “Do you like mustard?” he called.

She nodded, giving the jar one cautious jostle. The tumour bounced gently, delightfully, almost but not quite floating in the fluid. She felt a small synchronous bounce somewhere near her solar plexus.

“So, mustard?” said Jack.

“I hate it,” yelled Pat, quickly dressing in the clothing she had strewn across his floor earlier that evening. Everything but her pantyhose. She slid the jar into one leg of the hose and wrapped the other around, then shoved the padded package in her purse. Before Jack could finish the sandwich, she slinked unnoticed out of the flat.

Pat spent most of the time before her flight in the airport cafeteria, drinking mineral water and stealing glances in her purse. The pantyhose seemed a proper garment for the tumour; the White Sands shade was too light for her but nearly matched his fairer skin. It smelled slightly of him, too, since it had rubbed against him in the half-dressed fumbling before sex. \

She ran into her first problem when she tried to take the tumour through security. “Can’t have liquids over one hundred milliliters,” the agent said. “Rubbish is over there.”

The rubbish bin was cluttered with juice bottles, toothpaste tubes, and unopened cans of cod roe. Adding the tumour to the pile was unthinkable, not least because the jar should be recycled. Pat unscrewed the lid and poured out the fluid in a smooth yellow stream.

The tumour had marinated so long that the gas that escaped from its jar smelled more of flesh than formaldehyde—the specific smell of the body it came from. The bacterial strains that lived in his crevices had found room to multiply in the fluid despite its antiseptic qualities. Earth and onion, truffle and cream diffused into the security hall, recalling the sweat-thick air of their first lovemaking. Pat noticed another, more acidic note that she associated with her own body, something like white wine or fermenting bread. She was not sure if this came from the jar or if the chemical fingerprint of her former lover had set off a Pavlovian response in her own glands. The sensory effect was so frankly erotic that the more perceptive people in line shifted from foot to foot in uncomfortable arousal.

She was allowed to board her flight with the drained tumour. When they reached a certain altitude, she sensed a slight lightening in the jar. She pulled away the pantyhose; in the dry pressurised air, the tumour was shrivelling like a scrotum in the cold. Heart quickening in protective panic, she flagged down the flight attendant.

“Ginger ale, please,” she said, because it was closest in colour to the jar’s original contents. “No ice.”

The contents of the standard-issue cup, even without ice, barely reached halfway up the side of the tumour. She asked for another cup from another flight attendant, and a third from the third. By then the tumour was submerged, but she asked for one more cup from the first flight attendant to be safe. Visibly irritated, the attendant gave her an unopened, room-temperature can, which filled the jar nearly to the brim. The tumour’s wrinkles smoothed away as it returned to its bouncing healthy heft.

She thought she was in the clear after the plane landed and she passed through passport control without incident. Perhaps she looked too eager, however; she was chosen for a random luggage search at the customs desk.

The customs officer removed her pantyhose from the jar with methodological nonchalance. “Do you have a proof of origin for this potted meat product?” he said, when the tumour revealed itself.

Pat considered how she would explain the tumour’s origin to the officer. Should she start with the moment she took the jar from her lover’s flat, or their first flash of contact three nights before? Would it be more accurate to begin by describing the origins of the body where the tumour formed, the reasons why his body began to erupt like the underside of a fertilised she-crab? She never knew him well enough to say,

“The documents should be right here,” she said, taking the jar from the officer’s desk. Before he had time to react, she unscrewed the lid and drank the contents in three swift swallows. The tumour slid down her throat like an oyster, ginger-flavoured and faintly mineral.

Pat was never very good at biology, but she thought there might be something contagious about lipomas. Maybe Jack’s tumour would dissociate in her digestive tract and spread through her bloodstream until its offspring burst from her skin all over, like wasps from a parasitised caterpillar. Every time she looked at her own lipomas she could remember his. Every day she would rub her smooth skin and wait.
.

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Jennifer Fergesen is a writer and food journalist based in Sacramento, California. She has a BA in English and Geology from Mount Holyoke College and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis.

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