Thirst by Chris Cooper

Featuring original art by Cerid Jones

CONTENT WARNING: eating disorders, sexual assault

The blinding light from the Frigidaire beams, a humming blaze fluorescing Lacey’s face as she stands, staring into the refrigerator glow with a vacant gaze. Clasping the cold chrome handle, she rubs her stomach, swaying in a trance; she forgets what she’s doing for a few moments, lost in illumination as her eyes droop.

She’s hungry, no, she’s thirsty; she remembers now as she cocks her head, scanning the shelves for something to catch her attention, something appealing to satisfy her appetite. It’s got to be tasty too; she’s not settling, she tells herself as she hangs, pulling on the door with an outstretched arm. Her mouth, an arid landscape, her tongue, skidding against a parched palate, grinding in pursuit of moisture; she’s high, stoned actually. She doesn’t do drugs anymore, no, not since she got over depression and her paralegal job randomly tests for amphetamines and opiates.

She can’t think of anything she really wants to drink, besides a fountain soda, a Sierra Mist from Taco Bell. But that’s going to require effort to attain, like finding her keys and putting on shoes, utilizing fine motor skills to travel. And it’s not driving while impaired that’s a turnoff, since it’s just down the road, no, it’s the fear of being judged by the drive-through worker; he’ll know for sure she’s high, handing her a soft drink with scolding eyes, and she’d rather die of thirst than be subjected to scrutiny. The last thing she needs is paranoia, an anxiety attack, especially while she’s baked. Besides, she knows she should just stay home and practice gratitude, appreciate what she does have instead of focusing on what she doesn’t, like her life coach advocates.

The drone of the appliance resounds as Lacey idles in her daze. Glimmers of a glistening Coca Cola can command her attention, like a polished fire truck pulling up to a dumpster fire, the only soda left in the organizer on the middle shelf. 

She imagines sipping the fizzy, tasty liquid, the cooling sensation of crisp carbonation slipping down her esophagus and cozying up in her stomach. And the instant energy of caffeine is probably just what she needs to stay up until 2 A.M. to finish binge watching season 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s the thought of artificial sweetness lingering in her cheeks that freaks her out, the saccharine syrup sticking to her teeth, decaying her enamel.

Itchy eyes sting, drier than her phone, so she flutters them for temporary relief, hoping a flicker might release a tear or two, if she has any left; a cleanse is what she needs, something to wash away the pain, the inconvenience, the reminders of words left unsaid to her estranged mother and failed aspirations of becoming an actress. Raising heavy hands to her face, she digs her knuckles into her eyelids, burning orbs with hopes of lubrication, thinking self-inflicted pressure might work this time. She’s really not much of a talker though, even when she’s not high, and she would have never made it in the heat out in Hollywood. 

She’s in dire need of a beverage, that’s obvious, but not the light beer on the bottom shelf; she doesn’t like booze as much, no, not since Josh shoved his penis into her mouth at college, a perpetual buzzkill. And she probably should have been less drunk and more vehement in her refusal while they were kissing as he kept pushing her head towards his crotch.

It was her fault anyway, her roommate told her who had been friends with Josh since high school. She had been drinking and flirting all night, practically asking him to ravage her with her promiscuous dance moves, Jillian suggested. It was just a small act of humiliation to be able to attend the biggest ragers at Kappa Alpha, only a few uncomfortable minutes of oral intercourse to reap social benefits, she told her. Irrumation is the medical term for the act, her therapist disclosed; but it doesn’t define her, not anymore. Now it’s just a repressed memory she’s reminded of every time someone touches the back of her neck and when she sees a Facebook post of Josh’s wife holding their child with a heartfelt smile.

There’s eye-level applesauce on the center shelf of the fridge, which makes her feel warm with its radiating yellow label, like embracing summer sunlight. But she’s not sold on its consistency, its globby texture, and she remembers one time she found spiders in her applesauce years ago while she was tripping on magic mushrooms. And she’s no arachnophobe, no, she’s against bigotry in all forms and even once shared a rainbow fist post with multiple social justice hashtags on Twitter to defeat discrimination.

The dry mouth is getting worse as she licks her chapped lips, scratching her tongue against a cracked canvas, a desperate search for residual saliva. 

She’s going to need a drink, she’s pretty sure, and she’s thinking one of the colorful Capri Suns would be great; yeah, that might wet her whistle. Her roommate downs them before Peloton workouts, the new environmentally conscious ones with paper straws taped to the front; the gleaming pouches stand on the top shelf, saluting like soldiers with miniature rifles. But she’s thinking sweet juice concentrate will probably make her want to puke, and she hasn’t done that since she was a teenager, no, not since Chrissy Telle called her fat in front of everyone in middle school, a permanent appetite suppressant. She’d drink a Capri Sun every day after that at the lunch table and devour a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, only to force fingers down her throat in the bathroom later that day; the projectile vomit coating the toilet bowl like an abstract painting of teenage angst; the tawny swirls swilling like a kaleidoscope of emotions after she flushed, wiping her mouth on her Hollister long sleeve. 

“Blee, bleep. Blee, bleep.”

The faint chimes of the refrigerator alert; the open-door alarm shakes her languorous daydream, inducing a slight panic, an urgency, like she really needs to decide. But she’s not ready, no, she can’t fathom making another bad choice. 

The towering gallon of strawberry milk on the middle shelf draws her eye, like maybe it’s the safest option, since she used to drink it as a baby. Pursing her lips, she debates twisting off the cap, taking a big wholesome swig, liquid leaking from the corners of her mouth. But she knows it will taste too much like childhood, conjuring up memories of an emotionally unavailable mother and an absentee father. Well, he was present, but only through presents and magic tricks, compensating with gifts and gimmicks for quality time until finally disappearing to elope with his mistress, his final act.

“Blee, bleep. Blee, bleep.”

Uncomfortable cottonmouth and the cries of a neglected appliance pressure her like time is running out, but she’s not going to let anything force her to do something she doesn’t want to anymore.

Her back pocket rumbles, rattling her contemplation; it’s probably one of her alarms, she assumes, since she always forgets to change PM to AM.

It’s a private number calling, she notices, listening as she holds the device up to her ear; the screen still warm from when she was scrolling minutes ago, pressed against her upper cartilage piercing.

“Hello, my name is Daniel. I’m calling to see if you’re ready to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?” a milky male voice asks.

“Whaaaaat?” Lacey drawls, trying to process the unexpected greeting, clearing the cobwebs from her mind.

“Hi, I’m Daniel, and I’m calling…” his voice echoes with eagerness.

“Say what?” Lacey interrupts the pitch, overwhelmed by his persistence.

She’s forgotten her lines, like she usually does, and she can’t tell if she’s breathing too loud or if she should hang up right away and call 911.

“Hi, how are you?” Daniel inquires, still chipper.

A nervousness swarms, an uncomfortable heating in her chest; she’s feeling accused, seen as a sinner.

“Hi, how are you?” Daniel repeats with a slower cadence.

“How high are you?!” Lacey blurts before hanging up, shoving her phone into the front pocket of her sweatshirt. 

She won’t notice the vibration if he calls back, but the damage is already done; palpitations proceed, rattling her chest like echoes from the soul, ripples of the subconscious; she’s too high.

“Blee, bleep. Blee, bleep.”

The refrigerator pleads, so she focuses back, squinting her eyes as she resumes deliberation, a much-needed distraction. 

She knows she should just fill up a glass of water to calm her nerves, since hydration is important; she knows she should try to be healthier, she tells herself. Maybe she should eat the banana that’s hanging on the door’s shelf since it’s going to go bad soon; she needs nourishment, but its phallic shape is the last thing she wants in her mouth. The fortune cookie from the leftover Chinese food catches her eye, its wrinkled plastic package glinting in the refrigerator light. She’s thinking she should open it for the fortune, even if she’s not interested in eating, since she’s always looking for meaning.

Darting eyes dance from one food item to the next, from perishables to condiments, climbing from section to section until she finds the whipped cream dispenser on the top shelf of the door. Locking eyes on the canister like she’s been looking for it all along, she snatches it, biting the plastic top off and spitting the rep cap out. Holding the can with both hands, splatter froths the tips of her hair as she squirts creamy dots and a curved line onto the front of the crisper drawer, grocery graffiti; it’s a frosted happy face, since she’s been told to smile her entire life, especially by unprovoked strangers.

Kicking off her faux fur slipper, she sticks her left foot out, holding up exposed, vulnerable feet, her pedicure already peeling. Dousing them in whipped cream, she retrieves her smartphone once again. Raising her device, she focuses on wiggling her gooey toes and takes a pic, creating content for her OnlyFans, guaranteed to satisfy her fervent subscribers with feet fetishes. She goes by Torri, with an I; it’s not her real name, obviously, because Torri figured out a way to capitalize on the hedonistic urges of men, turning carnal desires into monthly compensation, enough to cover her utilities.

Dropping the can, she spots the lone stick of butter stuck inside the clear plastic box, a life sentence in confinement, and Lacey knows what it feels like to be put inside a box, people have been doing it to her for her entire life. She swipes the butter out from the compartment and pulls back its wax paper. Feeling pretty, she applies the dairy product like lipstick, maneuvering with her right hand, massaging into every aching crevice. She spreads the churn, circling the edges, just like her mom used to do when she made toast for her, a core memory she keeps closest to her heart, watching Turner Classic Movies as she munched.

She’s made a mess, but that’s all right, she decides, since she’s been cleaning up for as long as she can remember. Returning the blob with its paper still peeled, she retrieves her smartphone again, letting the refrigerator door close, consummated with a whooshing vacuum seal. 

Holding the device up and away, positioning herself in an optimal pose, she puckers her oozing lips, a beautiful disaster. Tilting her head downward, she shifts her weight to her opposite leg to accentuate the glutes, her most appealing asset, an ex-boyfriend once told her. And one day her and Chrissy Telle might even wish each other a “Happy Birthday” on Facebook, and she’ll hash things out with her parents, yeah, maybe even nail an audition instead of getting ghosted. 

But for now, she gestures a peace sign and snaps a pic, emitting a blazing light, like the first ray of dappled sunshine after a storm. It’s a moment where she feels seen, alive in the flash; free from memories, she’s happy in this instance, ephemeral bliss. Capturing a perfect selfie, one that’s destined to get over 500 likes with fire and heart face emoji comments, she posts it to her Instagram for recognition. It’s a substitute for connection, a burst of dopamine and oxytocin; sustenance in the form of social validation, the only remedy that can quench her thirst.

Chris Cooper is a fiction author from New Jersey; his short story “Bleed” was listed among the “Best Summer Reads” for 2021 at Hash Journal; his 2020 short story “Finn Almost Buys a Goldfish” won the ‘Emerging Writer’s Award’ at Spank the Carp Magazine; and his short story “The Swim” was recognized as the Best in Fiction for 2019 at Across the Margin. Chris’ work has also been featured in Expat Press, Bookends Review, and elsewhere.

Image Credit: original art by Cerid Jones
Cerid’s artistic career is a cabinet of curiosities. A Learning Connexion graduate (Hons. Dip) she has been a practicing artist for over 15 years. Her art often deals with esoteric themes and is firmly rooted in visual storytelling. Constantly exploring styles and materials, her aim is to discover what feels right for the tale the art wants to tell. Her more recent gallery works are large scale mixed-media paintings or glimpses into nature inspired folk-tale worlds captured in felt/textiles. She also enjoys working with authors in illustration design, combining traditional techniques with digital mediums. @ceridscuriositiescabinet (instagram)

4 thoughts on “Thirst by Chris Cooper

  1. What an incredibly powerful story! I know the food items were metaphors, and there’s a lot to unpack here. Feel like I have to read this a few times to really understand the depth of the symbolism. Really well written!

  2. I laughed the first half of the story and then cried the rest of it. What a completely emotional rollercoaster. I want more LOL

  3. I got to see Chris Cooper read this LIVE and it was absolutely incredible! The refrigerator is a symbol of her subconscious, a self-reflection – my head was SPINNING the whole time.

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