By Matt Galletta
Kate was on top of me, pressing down on my chest, and it felt like my lungs were going to collapse. It made me think of deep sea divers swimming around under tons of ocean. If they come up too fast, their lungs can pop from the change in water pressure.
Her hands were touching my hair. We were on her couch, which was made of some kind of scratchy material that chafed the back of my neck. The couch faced the TV, which was showing a newscaster in a rain-slicker. He was babbling about the hurricane. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but there was a news update scrolling along the bottom of the screen.
“While the city remains relatively unharmed,” it read, “the areas surrounding it are experiencing major flooding.”
It was Kate’s idea to come back to her house. Fourth period, Science, Mr. Hall told us about the hurricane, explained how much damage it was causing. We were supposed to take a quiz, but instead he wheeled in a TV on a cart so we could watch the news. They showed footage of the highway leading out of the city; the newscaster said traffic was backed up for hours because so many people were trying to get away. People who didn’t have cars were stranded there, because the city didn’t have any evacuation plans.
They showed footage of people up on the roofs of their houses, because the insides were all flooded. The people were waving for help.
They showed footage of people floating in the water. People who had tried to swim away but didn’t make it. They were floating face down, and the newscaster didn’t have to say anything for you to know what was going on.
Mr. Hall couldn’t keep the class under control with the TV on. Everybody was talking. One girl started crying. Then the bell rang, meaning fourth period was over, and Mr. Hall hadn’t even taken attendance. Everybody started pouring out of the classroom, and that’s when Kate took my hand. I flinched.
“Come with me,” she said.
We went to the nurse’s office. There was a line to get in; it was backed up like the traffic on TV. I was usually in there at least once a week, trying to go home early, and I’d never waited so long to see the nurse.
“Just follow my lead,” Kate whispered to me, when it was finally our turn. She got really close when she said that, and her breath was warm on my ear.
Kate went up to the nurse and started telling her she needed to go home. “My dad is down there,” she said. Water started to pool up around her eyes. She told the nurse how her dad was there for some business trip, and she didn’t know if he’d gotten out before the hurricane hit.
The nurse’s eyes looked watery, too. “You go home, sweetheart.” She told Kate she’d pray for her dad. Kate thanked the nurse. She didn’t look at me as she left the office. Then it was my turn.
I went up to the desk and started to tell the nurse about how Mr. Hall brought in the TV, how we saw the bodies floating in the water, but she put her hand up.
“Just go, Mr. Swanson,” she said to me. She always called me Mr. Swanson. Never Dave.
I caught up with Kate outside the office. I told her, “I’m sorry about your dad.”
“Because of, y’know, the hurricane, and your dad down there, and y’know….”
Kate rolled her eyes. “He’s not down there—he’s at work.”
“But you said he was….”
“What janitors go on business trips?” She was laughing. “C’mon, let’s go.”
I still didn’t understand, but Kate was walking away, so I shut up and followed. Students were bursting out of the building, and I let myself get swept up in the flow. We walked the five blocks to Kate’s house. She walked pretty fast, and it was hard for me to keep up. I felt like I was dragging a few paces behind her like an anchor.
We had been friends for a while by then, ever since Mr. Hall paired us up for a frog dissection project—Kate did the cutting, I sterilized the equipment—but I’d never been to her house. Her house smelled different from mine, I thought when we first walked in. There was this slight scent of mildew. She led me into the living room. There were pictures of her family on the wall, all these people I’d never met before but who looked a lot like Kate. In the eyes, mainly.
She slumped down on the couch. “So, what do you want to do?”
“Wash my hands,” I said.
Without looking, she pointed me toward the bathroom. I flicked on the light and closed the door. There was bar soap and liquid soap next to the sink. I used both. Liquid first. Her family’s toothbrushes were sitting there, packed into a little metal stand, and they were all touching one another. I tried to straighten them out, so they were separated, but they kept sliding back together and I gave up. I washed my hands again and left the bathroom.
Kate had turned on the TV. She had the news on, not the channel Mr. Hall had on, but it was showing the same stuff. All these people wading around in water up to their hips. You could see how the water was soaking through their clothes, and I kept thinking about the bodies we saw earlier, floating in the water. That water was the same water as what these people were wading through, and I wanted to yell at them through the TV, tell them to get out of that corpse-water, but I didn’t.
“Can we watch something else?” I groaned.
“Yeah,” Kate said. She didn’t change the channel, but she lowered the sound. Then she turned to me. “Can I ask you a question?”
I said, “Yeah,” but she was still looking at me real seriously, so I said, “Yeah” again, more firmly this time.
She said, “Don’t get offended, but why are you so, you know, weird?”
I hesitated, then laughed to show it was okay. It must have been too loud, though, because she pulled away slightly, so I quit it.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged, then focused on the cover of the TV Guide on the coffee table. It was better than looking at the TV.
She said, “I mean, like, the hand-washing thing. There’s other stuff too. You ever think about going to somebody about it?”
I told her I’d seen a bunch of people.
“And they didn’t help?”
I shook my head. I told her about the last doctor I’d seen, the one who tried to flood me. We were in the middle of a session, and I knew something was up. Normally he sat across from me, pretending to be interested, but this day he was talking to me from behind his desk. He was trying to get me distracted, trying to get me to describe that afternoon’s gym class in detail, but I wasn’t falling for it. I saw his hand shoot below his desk and then come back up holding his wastebasket. He rushed at me with it, but I was too quick and was out the door before he could dump it on me.
“That was the last time I went there,” I told Kate.
She looked confused.
“It’s a therapy technique,” I explained. “They call it flooding. It forces the patient to confront his fears. I read once about a kid who was totally afraid of dogs. One day, his therapist just opened up the office door and let a pack of dogs come rushing in and jump on the kid.”
“Jesus Christ,” Kate said.
“Yeah, I know. But after the initial scariness, the kid was fine. Got over his fear of dogs. It worked.”
Outside Kate’s living room window, the sky was grey. It was just starting to rain.
“If you knew it was supposed to work, why didn’t you let him do it?”
“I’m not letting somebody dump a bunch of garbage on me,” I told her.
She nodded. With the remote, she flipped through the channels. She lingered on the news stations, each showing hurricane footage. People in rafts. Houses halfway underwater. They showed a cop escorting a man into a flooded grocery store. The store had closed because of the hurricane, and the man broke in and stole food. The cop was making him put it back.
“Do you think it would’ve worked? What your shrink tried to do?” Kate asked.
I shrugged. “No, but sometimes I think I should’ve just let him do it. Just so I’d know.”
The rain was coming down harder, beating on the windows. The TV volume was still on low, and it was hard to hear because of the rain. I tried to read the newscaster’s lips, tried to figure out what he was saying. He was looking right into the camera, right at me. It’s going to be okay, Dave. You’re going to be fine. This is just a phase. He sounded like my mother.
Then Kate put down the remote control. She turned to me and looked really serious again.
“I want to try something,” she said. But before I could ask what she was talking about, she started lifting up the bottom of her shirt. She pulled it up and over her head and let it fall to the floor. Her bra was almost the same color beige as the couch. Her breasts seemed smaller, paler, than I’d thought they would be.
The rain outside got even louder.
“I hope this is alright,” she said, and then her mouth was on mine, her tongue in my mouth. She pressed into me, and we sank down onto the couch. I was on my back, Kate was on top of me, covering me, and the rain was pounding down outside, and it felt like I was underwater.
Matt Galletta lives in upstate NY. He brews his own beer so he never has to leave the house. Say hello at mattgalletta.com.