Read More: A brief interview with Kate Osana Simonian
No romance. That was Tracey’s first condition, but she’d given her parents a whole list before agreeing to join them on their holiday in France. No Paris. No chocolate shops, chocolate was romantic. No charming cobbled alleyways, where she could imagine—it had only been six months—Brandon kissing her against a wall in his nice rabbitish way. Her parents had booked the trip a year ago, but since Tracey had been diagnosed and dumped, they’d become her lifeline, prying her from her bedroom every sun-up. Because they were afraid to leave her alone, Tracey allowed them to buy her a ticket and upgrade their hotel rooms. In turn, they accepted her conditions. We the undersigned, agree to: no spritzes of accordion music, no dancing in town squares, no shopping for men’s shoes, no wildflower bouquets, no wine at lunch, no kissing, no poetry, no opera, no spontaneous singing, no riverside walks, no sudden gusts of warm wind, no good-looking wait-staff, and, most importantly, no complaints while Tracey chain-smoked herself to death because it was either that or—or what? they asked—just or, she’d said darkly.
The test had been a whim at the end of a routine check-up, and Tracey obsessively revisited that moment in which her doctor had asked, “How long’s it been since your last test?” and she’d naively hitched up her shirt sleeve. When Tracey had told Brandon the result, he’d sighed, opened his bamboo pencil box, and made a list of to-dos. He sat with her while she called her old partners, even though she knew who the vector was. Terrible that it had been some shmo she’d dated a couple of years ago, not because she was interested, but because her therapist had told her that she needed to get back in the dating pool. The shmo worked at the firm. He’d told her that he was clean, so she went on the pill.
When Tracey finally got a hold of the shmo and told him the news, he threatened to sue her for defamation and hung up.
“Lawyers,” said Brandon. And then, “But…can he do that?’
“Not if it’s true.”
“He’s certainly acting guilty. Not like allocating blame is going to help.”
“It’s easy for you to be rational.”
Brandon’s tests had come back negative, and though there was a chance that the virus would manifest in the next few months, it was unlikely. They’d always used condoms—not for protection, but because he liked to last.
“You’re right.” Brandon cinched her in a hug. “Let’s just concentrate on keeping you healthy.”
“Are we allowed to hold hands?” Tracey’s dad asked once the three of them had entered the gates of Chenonceau, and, as in a touristic Lothlorien, the trees on either side had enclosed them in a vault of perfect green.
“Knock yourselves out,” said Tracey.
Now that they were in France, she’d let her parents bend the rules. It turned out that looking at two people with fists redacted into sleeves to avoid temptation was even more romantic than watching them hold hands, go figure. Tracey’s mum giggled behind her. More than hands were being held.
The audio tour took them through the château. There was something thick about the Cher, like the river wouldn’t tug a body under, but tuck it snugly in. A wooden stretch joined up the bottom of the cheateau’s arches into a giant kitchen. This hung low over the water and had been known to flood when the river ran high. Hanging on a rack was a ladle so big it could scoop up a child. Without thinking, Tracey stowed the image away to share with Brandon. It took her a moment to realize that she had to stop doing that.
Brandon was good in crisis. He’d driven her to specialists and the diagnostic center where they drew vials of blood for resistance testing. He made her a little notebook titled “My Condition.” He learned the new words that Tracey refused to assimilate: optimal regimen, virologic efficacy, pill burden, dosing frequency, drug-drug interaction potential. When a specialist handed her a pamphlet on mental illness, as in, This is likely to occur, Tracey threw it back in the woman’s face. Brandon picked it up from where it had whisked to the floor and slotted it into his shirt pocket.
Each morning, Tracey put on a skirt-suit then walked the line of the day like a fine, inflamed slit. Her stomach was a bag of cogs turning. She lost thirty pounds, which left her thinner than she’d ever been. In moments of panic, she went to the firm’s bathroom and settled her fingers in the striations of her clavicle: she was holding it together. On the outside, her work life had changed little, except that the shmo entirely avoided her floor. She had to perform the old Tracey Davis, avid hiker and quirky eater of mid-morning persimmons. Meanwhile, her colleagues moved blithely around. She wouldn’t infect others, but what was she meant to do? Tell everyone? Make her own hellish life worse, just to preserve others in the ignorant comfort from which they would condemn her? That was the kind of simple morality that people only had if nothing bad had ever happened to them.
Oh, she had tried to empower herself. She went on forums and interacted with fellow-sufferers. Most were steeped in medical debt, and craved human touch. They shared health and dating horror stories, and advised living one day at a time. It was too much. Tracey stopped reading the forums and started writing encouraging lists: My condition is no longer a death sentence. In six months, I can get my base load to an undetectable amount. I can afford treatment. The worst thing ever likely to happen to me is over, at thirty-three. When life deals you a lemon, make lemonAIDS. She read about famous people with diseases, how these had given them a sense of mortality that then spurred them onto greatness.
Meanwhile, the audio tour droned on and the group moved around the great hall. During WWI, French soldiers had convalesced there and fished out the ogive windows. In WWII, the castle had been on the side of Vichy France, while the opposite bank was part of the German-occupied North.
“Look at the Cher,” said Tracey’s mum, staring out a window.
Her dad: “Glad it’s Sonny out.”
Tracey snorted in disgust. “I want to see the donkeys.” She had started to seize on things. That was how to get by: make each moment hard with arbitrary want, then hop on them like rocks to get across the day.
By the time the three of them were outside the castle, the sun was badgered by clouds. It rained, and they got lost in the gardens. Mud unloosed itself like liquid shit from beneath their sandals. The map went to sog. Tracey lit and lost three cigarettes in the downpour before giving in. Eventually, they found five donkeys huddling in a field. The beasts were sad in a way that reminded Tracey of the first dick she’d ever seen, shrouded in scraggy hair she’d wanted to hack off in large clumps.
“The donkeys of Chenonceau,” her father read a placard, “have lived in this area for four thousand years.”
Back at the hotel, Tracey’s mum presented to her, delighted by her sleight-of-hand purchase, a gift shop baggie of chocolate donkeys.
Tracey woke to people speaking French outside her window. Her parents had driven to Veuves to give her some privacy after their terrible day at Chenonceau. They were reluctant to leave her, but couldn’t insist on her coming without treating her like an invalid. No doubt they were terrifying the locals with their senile canoodling—pinching buttocks, tweaking unmentionables. Growing up, Tracey had thought everyone’s parents enjoyed each other so much. Only in high school did she learn that this was not the case.
Tracey padded into the bathroom and opened her pill box. In each compartment were retro-virals and buttons of anti-depressant. She would eat these pills every day, for the rest of her supplemented life. She considered dumping them into the wicker bin, then pictured a crew of peg-legged viruses sailing a sloop through her bloodstream and slashing her dendrites with sabres. She took the pills.
In the kitchen was a plate with two chocolate croissants, pastry horns of flavored cream, a strawberry shortcake trembling with jam, and a baguette. Her parents had gone out each morning of the vacation to get her breakfast. As if this weren’t enough, they’d left her pocket money. They said it was masochistic of her to spend her honeymoon savings, though, as Tracey pointed out, they were just regular savings now.
There was a note: T-Bird. Will be home at two. Will bring you lunch, but go buy some if you get hungry. Go for a walk, it will make you feel good. Or check out the keep? Or don’t. Whatever you like. It’s your holiday. We left you food and money. Love, us.
Tracey remembered her errand. She separated a wheel of camembert along the length of the baguette, poked it inside, and set off.
She walked through the town. The Amboise keep cast its shadow from the quarried cliff over the town. Its ramparts were slung with crumble nets. These hammocky sashes didn’t catch everything; in the old quarter, Tracey passed a car with a top crumpled around a boulder the size of a human head. Wasn’t that the way? Take all the precautions you liked, but something could still drop out of the clear sky. How boring travel was. The honey-colored buildings, the endless ancience of it all. Much better were the weeds that sprang from between the cobblestones. Back in Sydney, everything was concrete, and it never felt like a big deal when a shoot worked through the pavement. But weeds that cracked through paleolithic stone? They were audacious. Minor, crushable miracles.
Three months after Tracey’s diagnosis, Brandon’s final tests had come back negative. They had put the wedding on hiatus and hadn’t had sex since her original test. Tracey told him that she was still too shocked, but it was really because she didn’t want him to turn her down, or fail to get hard, or even worse, go through with it and be terrified the whole time and then equate fucking her with death. To have sex at all, she felt, would be to accept their now-diminished life. She had been waiting for these final tests, hoping Brandon would join her. Now she didn’t know what she’d do. Late at night, she siphoned through Brandon’s internet cache. There were transmission stats, preventative medication for partners. Sensible things, that hurt her to find.
That autumn, Brandon wanted to go on a trip with his friends. He needed some time alone; would she mind staying home? When he came back, he took her on a makeup holiday to Queensland. As soon as they entered the beachfront rental and Tracey saw the log-fireplace, she knew.
“You’re breaking up with me.”
At first Brandon tried to convince her that it had nothing to do with her condition, but she pushed until he clutched his hair and said, “A better man than me could deal with this.”
“A better man,” she said. There was no better man.
Brandon hugged her without flinching, and she savored the warmth of his skin through his button down. It was unlikely, she knew, that she would receive such gentleness again.
When he’d left, she called her mum and announced, “I have been Abrandoned.”
Tracey moved back in with her parents. They never mentioned her condition, except to offer her money and lifts to the doctor. Food too, which she started to eat in self-abusive amounts. What did it matter, now that she was beyond sex?
From her parent’s multi-story home Tracey could make it to the firm in under an hour. Nothing had changed in the neighborhood in twenty years. Of mornings, she envisioned herself as the schoolgirl had once been, walking down sidewalks buckled by roots and up grassy runs, past the azaleas and waving rhododendrons of a souped-up Monet; this was Europe, transplanted to Australian suburbia, then made hysterical with nitrogen and too much light. She sat at the station and picked paint off the benches. Ruined now, for actual, whereas before, she had only suspected possible, in her worst moments, before meeting Brandon and cobbling together a happiness. If he’d loved her, he would have stayed. But who did she think she was, to merit that kind of supernatural love?
One night, she walked to the service station and bought chocolate biscuits, peanut butter cups, and the first pack of cigarettes she’d smoked in two years. A teenager hung out of his car and teased a friend about hooking up with a certain sluttish Allison.
“Bet she gave you the clap,” said the boy in the car. He started to clap.
His friend made retching noise over the gas pump. “Dude, I’ll never look at her the same way. I can literally feel my dick retreating into my body.”
What Tracey would do to have the clap.
The Pharmacie was manned by an older gentleman, which meant that she had no hope in hell. Tracey started to read boxes. Ah, yeast infections. Or as the French liked to call them, Les Champignons Microscopiques.
The chemist looked at her. “Bonjour madame.”
“Bonjour. Tu parles le Anglais?”
Tracey wondered whether this wasn’t the wrong way forward. If she’d blundered on in mangled French, it might have masked her awkwardness. Nothing for it now.
“I am looking to get medicine for my sleeping. It is called,” she passed him a card: Typtanol.
“You will be needing a prescription for this.”
“Yes,” she said, sadly.
“Yes,” he said, frowning. He passed back the card.
A terrible first attempt, she thought. She ate her baguette standing on the street, and fed the rest to a septic-looking pigeon with a pad of mangled flesh where its foot had once been. The bottle of gin was no problem, although the man at the store was horrified by her asking for whatever bottle was the “least cher.”
Back in her hotel room, Tracey pulled a blister pack from a sock in her luggage. A couple of weeks earlier, she’d taken a leaf of her mum’s prescription pad to a chemist where they knew her and got one pack of Tryptanol. She’d wanted another pack just to be sure, but in combination with a bottle of gin, one might be enough.
She turned the gin’s crackling cap, then stopped. She’d heard stories of people overdosing only to wake up in hospital brain-damaged. Tracey envisioned herself in a wheelchair, and her dad sitting next to her, shirtless, whisking some banana mush.
Not like that. She shucked one pill and dumped the rest in her drawer.
Tracey woke to the plunger-like noise of the front door opening.
“We’re back!” Her mum tugged back her sheets. “No day sleeps, T-Bird! You have to normalize your circadian rhythm.”
“I hate when you call me that.”
Tracey’s dad had followed, toting bags. He planted his ass near her head. They had news. They had met a nice couple, from Sydney. “And wouldn’t you believe it,” he said, “but travelling with them was their young son.”
“Their young, single son. And they invited us on a walk.”
“No way,” said Tracey. She was not hanging out with her parents and some Australian randoms. And anyway, she was a dead one. You did not make the dead walk. “I’m not even ready to leave the apartment. Don’t you remember the rules?”
“Relax, T-Bird,” her dad said. “We thought it might be fun.” He started eating a box of strawberries.
“And don’t you dare smile like that,” Tracey hissed. “What the hell do you think is going to happen?”
“He’s an interesting guy. A consultant. We just thought, it might be nice to meet some new people.”
Tracey hitched her sheet over her head, sending bags slithering onto the floor. “I’m not going.”
An hour later, Tracey and her parents arrived outside the wall of the Chateau du Clos Lucé. At least Tracey looked nice. Though her body had been inflating of late, she’d been so emaciated to begin with that she was still trim. She wore jeans, a nice sweater. Eyeliner and lip gloss, but galoshes too, fashion be damned.
Three people were coming up the hill. The son was tall and not great-looking, which was a relief. He was wearing a button-down, which signified precisely nothing. The mother carted a be-scarfed bag which looked to weigh more than she did. The father’s potato belly was sectioned by jeans.
Mark introduced himself. Up close, his skin was so white that it was almost green. Or maybe that was just the amphibian feel of his low-grade sheen and flared nostrils. The parents folded together and Tracey passed Mark the map. She lit up while he looked for the trail mouth. He was wearing brown shoes. Only Christians wore brown shoes.
Mark turned out to be a nice guy, which annoyed her, because her parents would use their dumb luck in this instance to prove that they were right in every other thing. He asked cheery questions about her trip so far, and remarked on the greenness of everything.
“But I guess everything looks green to us, after Oz, right?”
Tracey hated the term Oz. Mark told her about the soil types they encountered on the walk, which was fitting, because he was good in the way of the tilled earth and the sane. “We’ve got the same sandy loam in the Hunter Valley,” he told her. He’d learned about soil when he’d worked with an Australian wine conglomerate.
Compared to Brandon, Mark only nibbled around the edges of a personality, but maybe that’s what she needed. His company was soothing. She didn’t even get annoyed by how their parents kept a definite distance behind, giving their freak-children plenty of room. As they walked, Mark palmed each yellow-capped trail pole they passed, as if to prove they were on track.
“Do you travel with your parents a lot?” she asked him.
“My mum’s sick. So I asked for a transfer from Melbourne to Sydney. I had a girlfriend, but she didn’t want to make the move.”
“I’m sorry. What’s her condition?”
“It’s in her lymph nodes.”
Now that he’d said something, his mum did seem bundled up. But was that a cancer thing, being cold?
“This is her last trip before she gets back on the chemo.”
“But not her last trip.”
“She’s one tough customer,” said Mark, smiling hard. His eyes shone wet. “But tell me about you. Are you enjoying your leave of absence?”
They planned to meet again that night at a bistro that Mark’s parents recommended.
“A date, a date, a triple date!” said Tracey’s mum, clapping her hands.
Her parents had been insufferable in their gloating, their jubilant circling around Mark’s qualities—strong handshake, nice voice, upright stance—so Tracey shut herself in her room. She was too nervous to nap. An unexpected attraction, this, so it irritated more than it excited. She might do it. She might tell a prospective lover that she was hideously, unforgivably diseased. Mark would listen, pat her on the shoulder, and gently extricate himself. A perfect first humiliation. But then—her heart beat hard—Mark might be okay with it. She’d only known him for a couple of hours, but she could tell that he was like a pond: tepid and naturally level. Good for skipping hard ideas across, but ultimately, yielding. She slipped the gin into her handbag. It’s not like anything would happen tonight anyway. A double parental chaperone was a total prophylactic. This decided, Tracey took a scalding hot shower. She should at least look clean.
The bistro they met at was named, in a stab at irony, Le Bar. Or was it not ironic? It did have a bar, but the bottles seemed decorative and only one man in a windcheater sat there the whole night. Afraid of despair overtaking her, Tracey hadn’t got drunk since the diagnosis; her mum raised an eyebrow when she told the waiter, yes, she’d take a glass.
Tracey’s parents had not only told the others that she spoke fluent French, but they believed it themselves, and when they insisted that she relay their questions about the menu to the waiter, they were as surprised as their guests were at her stammering. After this debacle, Tracey shut up and drank. She watched Mark’s mum. The care with which her husband had grated parmesan over her meal said that she was dying fast. Tracey imagined her losing a tooth in the salad. When her vichysoisse showed up, it reminded her of a bowl of warm ejaculate.
She was smoking outside when Mark came out. “Having fun?”
He swiped at her coat lapel. “Whatcha doing now?”
“Something,” she said. “Care to join?”
They went back inside. After the cheese arrived, and the waiter suggested coffee, Tracey announced: “The young ones are going to hit a real bar.” Smack it across the face. Force it to its knees, she didn’t say.
Mark’s parents smiled. Tracey’s dad creased his eyebrows into a sharp V. Her mum ungripped her wine glass, leaving a fat thumbprint on the rim. By instinct, her parents leant together. She guessed their thoughts. They could barely trust her to be alone. And she was drunk. But then, she would be with Mark—a nice boy. But then—
“You’ve got a key,” her dad said at last, his eyes fluttering down. He cut himself a tab of Gruyère.
Mark pulled up his pants. “I knew you’d be wild.”
“Less talk, more wade.”
Tracey stood knee-deep in the river, her shoes hanging by a strap around her neck. Mark folded his jeans tightly over his calves, till the cuffs were too tight around his knee to go another round.
He looked at the swirling water. “Are there leeches?”
They’d left the bistro for a nearby bar, where they’d drunk Muscadet with intent. Tracey spent all her pocket money. When they were ushered out two hours later, they’d ambled along the river bank until a shallow tributary broke from it.
“This is Europe,” said Tracey. She took the gin out of her bag and drank. Her whole face was burning. In her bra were two condoms she’d bought from the bartender. “Everything here is certified benign.”
“I dunno about this, Trace. Maybe I should take my pants off.”
“You don’t need to convince me,” she said, and waded to the other bank. She leaned back on the grass. It occurred to her that she was not going to tell Mark anything. She pulled out the condoms and waved them.
“Ol Mark, ol boy. You’ll never guess what I have.”
Mark pulled up his pants. “I knew you’d be wild.”
“As Aristotle once said, ‘If she smokes, she pokes.’”
“You know, I’ve never done it outside before.”
Of course he hadn’t. […]
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Kate Osana Simonian is an Armenian-Australian writer hailing from Sydney. She is on a Presidential Fellowship at Texas Tech (2015-2020), where she is completing a Creative Writing PhD. Her work has been published by Kenyon Review Online,Colorado Review, Ninth Letter, Chicago Tribune, and Best Australian Stories. Some of her honors include the Nelson Algren Award, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and a position as the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Writer-in-Residence, and she is an associate editor for Iron Horse and fiction editor for Opossum: A Literary Marsupial. Check her out at katesimonian.com.
“Le Problem Being” originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune and was runner-up in the 2018 Editor’s Reprint Award.
Read More: A brief interview with Kate Osana Simonian