by Justina Elias
2023 Fiction Contest Winner
"Love Bite" is a moving, though sharp and unsentimental, story. I was impressed by both its economy of language and its refusal to artificially resolve its ambiguities.
--Guest Judge Camille Bordas
At first she didn’t trust him. He sat wide-legged in chinos, and from the stairwell the woman thought: manspreading, though of course it was his space to take. He leapt to his feet when he saw her, ushered her into the office, urged her to sit on the big plush chair while he poured her a glass of water. That cold enough? he said, and when she wavered, he went and replaced it. He sat down again, clapped his hands on his knees. So! he said. She hated him.
But the woman was paying one hundred twenty-five dollars to sit in this office. She put the water down and started talking.
Her boyfriend drank. He’d lost his license. She’d found his puke-smeared shirts in the trash. After her session, as she did every day, she would go to pick him up from work. The question then: would she smell it? If so, was it worth saying something?
The therapist crinkled his eyes in a way that looked both mirthful and pained. It was an expression that would come to hold a certain confusing eroticism for her, but for now, the woman felt only impatience.
I’m asking you something.
I’m here to listen.
I want your advice.
Before he could open his mouth to explain that advice-giving was not in the purview of therapists, the woman continued: Look, the problem isn’t the drinking, it’s the dishonesty. I’m sick of the lying. I know it comes with the territory, but it makes me feel so goddamn insulted.
You seem upset.
Can you blame me?
This time she let him explain that blame was not in his job description, either. She’d shocked herself: she rarely got visibly angry. It felt good. The water was cold—he had added ice—and the goosebumps that rose across her bare arms made her think of a standing ovation. When he asked, later, how she felt in her body, she would share this image with him.
A standing ovation! he’d laugh. Wow. Smiling in his silly pained way, his legs spread wide.
She came to like impressing him. Since childhood the woman had strained to impress everyone she met: she was always top student, flossed every night, had maintained a low-level eating disorder since twelve that kept her enviably lean. Her boyfriend, along with the bottles, often hid junk food around the apartment. She suspected her own neuroses were to blame, but she’d never brought it up with him.
The office was on the top floor of a house. Often it was too warm. Yet even as the woman shed layers, the therapist never touched his shirtsleeves, never stood to open the windows she had seen fanning out from the other rooms. He was pale but not pink, his thick, sandy hair dry around his ears. She was sure he’d have opened the windows if she asked, but she never did.
The woman had well-developed arms, her stomach was flat even sitting. She dressed to show these features. The armchair was vinyl, a little bit ripped, its torn spot rough beneath her. After her sessions, she sometimes looked in the bathroom mirror and saw the red blotch where it had rubbed under her shorts. She would feel the tenderness on the drive home and think, nonsensically: love bite.
Her boyfriend had lost his job. All day the woman scrolled through listings, sent resumés from the email address she had set up for this purpose. At night, if he wasn’t too far gone, she coaxed him inside her or sucked him off. He’d never been quick to finish to begin with; often it was a lot of work. Afterwards, her knees burning under cool sheets as booze wafted off his sleeping body, she stared into the darkness and thought: I am the loneliest person in the world.
In the ripped chair, the woman sobbed. The therapist crinkled his eyes. Once he had told her his primary job was to witness, and the woman thought this seemed right. How bizarre, to pay someone to watch you cry. She couldn’t deny it felt good.
They had switched to evening appointments. Often she was his final patient. He would lock up behind her, swing a leg over his bike—still those same chinos—and wish her good luck with the rueful cheer of a teammate in the final inning of a lost game. The question now: would her boyfriend be passed out when she got home? Sometimes, though she would never admit it, she hoped the answer was yes.
There had been other boyfriends, other sad sex. A professor, also a drinker. For years the woman’s only criterion in a partner had been that he seem obsessed with her. She walked around cauterized by desire, her own unhappiness blunted by the heat of another’s need.
The therapist’s office was in a large old house in the poorest part of town. One day the woman arrived to find it locked. BACK IN 5! said the note, which had been taped to the wrought-iron gate without further detail. After ten minutes watching a man with a shopping cart scream at passersby, the woman went to a café.
So sorry, the therapist texted. Family emerg. Still good for a half session?
She walked back. When, flushed under his bike helmet, he saw the bag she’d brought him, he cringed.
Oh, God. You are too sweet.
I know you said almond’s your favourite.
It is. That place is amazing. Split it with me?
Up in his office, she allowed him to break the croissant in two. He gave her the bigger portion. The woman started to tuck it into her purse, then changed her mind. Peeling back layers of pastry, chewing slowly in the big chair as the therapist bustled around his desk, she felt like a little girl: dazed by butter and sugar, unburdened by calories. When the therapist waggled his eyebrows—Good?—she nodded. He left his half untouched.
Her boyfriend wept. His hair was too long. It hung in his face, wet with snot. The woman scrubbed the scorched pan and cooked scrambled eggs for dinner.
You’re going to kill us both if you keep doing this, she said.
The first time, they had almost lost the apartment. They lived in a basement suite, the landlady just above them. She had used her key to enter when she smelled smoke, extinguished the flaming pan as the boyfriend nodded off on the couch. Since then the woman had made most of their meals, though the boyfriend, sober, was the better cook.
After dinner she baked oatmeal cookies. It was an end-of-summer ritual that had grown fraught in her teens, when she lavished treats upon family and friends while quietly starving herself. These days she would allow herself half a cookie and throw the other half in the compost before she could contemplate finishing it. She brought a tin for the therapist.
Oh my God, he said, eyes rolling back as he chewed. What did you do to these?
Buoyed, the woman shrugged, as though she hadn’t spent a sleepless night awaiting his reaction. The next week, for his birthday, she brought him a book.
You shouldn’t have, really.
But the following session it was clear he had read it: he talked about the author’s use of vernacular, structural choices, the strangely ungainly title. They debated the merit of quotation marks: he always preferred them, the woman was on the fence. Without, she said, a piece felt insular—private. Like burrowing into a character’s skull and peering out from the inside.
I see where you’re coming from, the therapist said. But a story should speak for itself.
They ate sweets. They talked about books. The boyfriend disappeared. He was found in the parking lot outside a bar; when the hospital called, the woman learned he had refused stitches. Every time the white gauze flashed beneath his hair, she would think of the open wound beneath, oozing and untended.
The therapist had her roll her feet. I know it sounds silly, he said, but humour me. Breathe deeply. Heel to toe, then back again. Good. Rocking in place, her knees slowly rising and falling before her, the woman had the sensation of being underwater. She blew her nose, shook her head, sobbed again, said sorry, sorry, sorry. When she calmed, hiccupping into the silence, the therapist said only: Yeah. His voice raspy and gentle as a cat’s tongue.
By winter, she had her own apartment. Lightness in the grey days. It was an attic suite, dark beams, pale green walls; the woman thought of a treehouse. She brought her poems to appointments, verses full of bottles and blowjobs, angry, mournful stuff she blushed to read out loud. The office was still too warm. But in winter a tank top felt naked, so she let sweat bloom around her armpits, worsened by the tea—the therapist’s favourite—she had taken to bringing for both of them.
After these sessions she walked home, feeling men’s eyes on her. These days she sensed a new forcefield—grief, maybe, or just tiredness. Arriving at her apartment, she stepped into a silence so empty, so lacking expectation, she felt like a student after final exams, giggling into the void. The feeling was often closer to nausea than pleasure.
The girls in the suite beneath her threw a party. The floor thumped; cigarette smoke drifted into her kitchen. Closing the window, the woman resented the apartment’s instant stuffiness. With the oven on, the attic got warm even in December.
She was making biscotti. No no, she thought, arranging the tidy, orange-scented slabs between sheets of wax paper, you’re not too loud. I just thought I’d bring you some dessert. She imagined herself drawn through the French doors and onto the chilly balcony. Oh my God, the girls—both plump—would moan as they crunched and swallowed. She had seen the box for the prefab gingerbread house in their recycling, pictured the gumdrops drooping off white frosting, the candy cane gate. It’s really not hard to make your own. I can show you sometime, if you like.
Something popped. Over the sink! a female voice cried. Quick quick, it’s getting everywhere! Laughter, another flurry of thumps, then “Santa Baby” started to a chorus of cheerful groans. The woman cleaned up the cookie she’d broken, put in earplugs and went to bed.
The therapist’s wife was depressed. The short days got to her. For years now she had not worked, or—he corrected himself—she did, but her art didn’t really make money. Not that we’re hurting on that front, he added. They had two children, a boy and a girl, a house they owned, bikes, a hammock. The woman laughed when she heard about the hammock. Like Homer Simpson, she said.
They laughed a lot together. They exchanged Christmas presents—books. Dipping the gingersnaps she had made into his favourite tea, they talked about their writing lives, a phrase the woman had learned from him. The therapist wrote fiction.
I guess you have loads of material, the woman said, but he shook his head.
Actually, I don’t write much about what goes on in here. I’ve been focusing on my childhood. My father, that sort of stuff.
Something about the way he said father gave her pause.
Mine drank, too, she said softly, and he nodded, hands clasped between his knees.
One day there was snow, and the woman stomped to her appointment anyway, and when she arrived to find the house locked she kicked herself for not checking first. Then she saw him: shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets, scaling a drift with the ruddy-faced cheer of a father in a children’s book. He had cancelled on everyone else that day, but for her he had braved the journey.
Upstairs, in the office, both of them half-soaked (for once she was grateful for the heat), the woman said: I wish I could just be your friend.
The therapist shook his damp head like a dog. There are rules about these things, you know, he said. They were both smiling.
It was fine. It was not the cliché. In bed, yes, she thought of him sometimes, but over the years the woman had thought of most of her male friends this way: a rotating audience, vacant and adoring, fished from the toy box of memory.
Yet taking her seat at the bar, she could not help but wish she hadn’t been the first to arrive. It was her suggestion they go for a drink, her choice of time and venue; he’d allowed her these decisions with a passivity she found chivalrous. She ordered a G&T. How many times had she sniffed her boyfriend’s “water glass” only to find it reeking of booze? But tonight, the clarity of the liquid soothed her. She gulped it greedily.
For a while the evening was fun for its novelty. They sat next to each other, not across, the therapist’s knee knocking hers more with each pint though he was barely looking at her. Fancy a football match, do you, she teased, but still his eyes stayed fixed on the TV. Without her glasses, halfway into a third drink, the woman could only make out the garish blur of the jerseys: the screen was tinted too warm. When the bar erupted in cheers, the therapist smacked his glass down, then glanced over with a bashful smile.
Sorry, he said. Don’t get to do this much anymore.
She walked home jubilant, warmed by his hug: again she had been a respite, again he had made time to see her. Somehow outside the bar he’d seemed shorter than she remembered; at first she marvelled at the power of context (he was taller than her in his office, his domain), then laughed at her own stupidity: she’d forgotten she’d worn heels. Twin red blotches on her sheets in the morning where her shredded feet had lain.
Fun last night! ☺ she texted. He did not respond.
One of the girls beneath her must have had a birthday—she heard the warbling “and many mores”—or else it was some sort of drunken New Year’s Eve joke, an undergrad’s attempt at irony. The recycling filled up. Beer bottles, wine bottles, bottles for salad dressings they could easily have made themselves. She pictured the coats strewn across their beds, shoulders pinched by sparkly dress straps, remnants of grocery store cake on blue-ringed paper plates.
The therapist still had not texted back. There had been no more drinks or cookies. They had stopped their sessions, but twice a week the woman allowed herself to walk by his office. She came armed with excuses—oh, I had a dentist’s appointment, I was just meeting a friend—but only once did she even see him from afar. The girl was younger than her but bigger, laughing with unconvincing verve as she mounted her bike. He stood at a prudent distance, smiling back. Watching them, the woman remembered all the times she had sat in the hall waiting for the professor to finish his office hours. Often there had been female laughter, which she’d endured with fierce forbearance. They had not seen his bedroom, those girls. They had not, once, as he slept off the whiskey, cleaned his heartbreaking kitchen.
It was only friendship she had with the therapist. Unlike lovers or paid professionals, friends could be relied upon only to be unreliable. Friends might ghost you for a few months, then throw themselves at your mercy for their flakiness. Who knew? She walked home quickly, daydreaming of dinner: baked tofu, carrot and broccoli soup. When her phone finally pinged in her pocket, she thought, jubilantly: let him wait. A moment later she opened the text. It was from the boyfriend.
She stopped writing. She did not cry. She baked, filling her freezer. Fresh from a run, her toes stinging in hot shoes, the waft of cold was delicious as she surveyed the stacks of tins. At night the girls beneath her no longer kept her up. She slept not like the dead but like an animal: vacantly, wholly.
Blossoms piled up on her skylight. Sunlight blotted, freezer stuffed, the woman had the unseasonal sense of burrowing, hunkering down. No matter how far she ran, how much skin she peeled off her burnt shoulders, she couldn’t shake the feeling of the world closing in.
I want you to know I forgive you, the boyfriend had written.
With the therapist, she’d have laughed. She’d have raved in his office, flung the little pillow he once told her he kept for that purpose. Always the boyfriend had done this: tugged her into the pit with him, then insisted she’d pushed. He was taking a break from substances, he continued. On his own he could see it was the right choice. If she ever wanted to reconnect, talk things over…
Alcoholics always craved sugar in sobriety. And he’d had a sweet tooth to begin with.
One evening, drained from a long run, the woman stepped out of the shower to the smell of meat. From her kitchen window she saw the girls stringing white lights across their shared yard. It was a big yard, thoughtfully furnished: wicker couches, wrought-iron tables. She was surprised the girls weren’t vegetarian—they had the earnest full figures of carb-reliant students—but there was the charcoal barbecue swirling up charred flesh, the bags of chips and buns to offset the slimming protein.
Guests had begun to arrive. She recognized the girl with the dreadlocks, the boy with the ukulele. Bottles clinked. Food, laughter, the twinkle from what they called fairy lights in this part of the country but to the woman would only ever be Christmas lights, no matter the time of year. She was still in a towel, shivering, when the man stepped through the gate.
Was it a good sign she thought man and not boy? They had both always looked young for their age. But even with his hair cut, the boyfriend seemed awkward, an adjunct professor stopping by for a drink with his students. Not that anyone in the yard seemed to know him. The girls, sing-songing hellos to their friends, had formed a barrier of braid, flesh, and sundress to block his way on the path. His shadow was long across them. He looked softer than she remembered—he would go for the Snickerdoodles first—and it was only when the girls looked up over their shoulders that the woman considered yelling hi, inviting him up, allowing the party to resume while she finished what she had started. He was late, but he had always been late. The smell of the meat made her knees weak.
She stepped back. There were no raised voices, no ping of her phone in her purse. After a long silence, the ukelele started up again. Across the street, she could see the boyfriend swaying around the corner. At least he had not driven.
Then the sundress, the sweaty tin stuck to her fingers, the wooden stairs smooth beneath her feet as she tromped out the door and onto the grass: “Anyone want dessert?”
Justina Elias has published in Room Magazine, Prairie Fire, Salamander, and elsewhere. She was nominated for a 2022 Canadian National Magazine Award, won The Malahat Review's 2021 Creative Nonfiction Prize, and has been twice long listed for the CBC Short Story Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and works as a bookseller on Canada's west coast.