Susan found her boss’s feelings drawer by accident. She drank too much and took a wrong turn in Sundrun’s apartment at the office holiday party, while looking for the bathroom. It had been all the rage five
years ago, getting your feelings surgically removed. After a sensectomies, some people had the feelings stuffed or encased in glass to use as paperweights so they could show them off during meetings with clients. That’s my fear, the size of an inchworm! Impressive, isn’t it?
by M. M. Pryor
Susan found her boss’s feelings drawer by accident. She drank too much and took a wrong turn in Sandrun’s apartment at the office holiday party, while looking for the bathroom. It had been all the rage five years ago, getting your feelings surgically removed. After a sensectomy, some people had the feelings encased in glass to use as paperweights so they could show them off during meetings with clients. That’s my fear, the size of an inchworm! Impressive, isn’t it? Others shoved them under dusty beds or kept them in lockboxes at banks, unwilling to let the nurses incinerate them with the rest of the medical waste, but unable to look at them every day either.
She wasn’t surprised that her boss, a tall man with a tight stomach and a neatly groomed beard, had had his feelings removed. No, the only thing that Susan thought was strange about it was that Sundrun, a man who kept his desk immaculate, would store his feelings between his socks and his underwear. She had never known anyone to keep their feelings in this manner. Wonderment curled up like a kitten next to his socks, while anxiety fluttered around the drawer like a butterfly, occasionally stopping to perch on the pile of folded underwear.
There were so many feelings in the drawer. More than Susan could recognize on sight. She reached out toward a dark blue feeling curled up next to Sandrun’s running socks. As Susan touched the feeling, the trace of inhibition she’d felt upon entering Sandrun’s bedroom disappear. It was fine, what she was doing. She was fine. Susan spread her hand wide, scooping the feeling up. It slid through the tunnel of her fingers like a block of Jell-O. She caught in before it fell, tightening her grip. As her fingers closed around the feeling, she felt utter calm roll through her like thunder.
Susan had never had a child, but she imagined this must be what it felt like: the newness, the warmth traveling outside in. Earlier, when she’d been hanging out in the corner of Sandrun’s loft, subconsciously tallying beers consumed and watching everyone orbit each other, their small talk keeping them aloft like hot air balloons, Susan had just wanted to go home. In fact, she’d been on her way, but she’d had to pee, which was why she’d gone looking for the bathroom in the first place.
As she cradled the feeling in the ark of her hands, Susan was intimately aware of her own heartbeat, steady and reassuring in her chest. Impulsively, she shook open her sleek black clutch and lowered the feeling into it.
Susan had had a version of the surgery too. She’d had just one feeling removed. She’d likened it at the time to having a hangnail cut off. A little painful, but worth it. Everyone had thought about having the surgery, of course, but Susan had actually seen a doctor and sat in a room in a crisp ironed gown.
After a few blood tests, she’d been x-rayed. The doctor had walked her through the x-ray after, deciphering the images. At the time, Susan had wondered how the pain of her first real boyfriend leaving—a pain that was so raw it felt like a solar flare—could be summed up into a thin plastic sheet, black and white and smoky grey. The pain she felt was multicolored and brilliant and burned so brightly that it threatened to incinerate anyone who looked at her directly.
“We have the best surgeon on our staff. She can handle this,” the doctor assured her.
The mask had pinched Susan’s face as they settled it onto her skin. The elastic pulled at her ponytail. She started to lift her hands to adjust the mask, but before she could move her hands, she was waking up again.
A nurse came into her room to check on her. Susan asked for a cup of water, imagining they would bring her one in a glass with ice, like in a restaurant. The water in the tiny paper Dixie cup was tepid. Susan didn’t feel right. She didn’t feel different.
“The doctor will be in shortly,” said the nurse.
Susan swallowed and waited. When the doctor arrived an hour later, he had a paper bag in his hands. “This is all we could remove. I’m sorry. We just didn’t realize the extent of the bitterness. But I’ll write you a prescription. There’s some experimental medication available. For some patients, it slows the growth to less than two percent a year.”
Still hungover from Sandrun’s party, Susan lay on her bed on her stomach and watched Sandrun’s feeling explore the soft downy landscape of her comforter. For being someone’s feeling, it didn’t do much. It was not unlike a small guinea pig. When she wasn’t touching it, it just sat there, vaguely shaking, as if it was nibbling on something.
But when she touched it, the feeling would quake and shiver and squirm. It would start to nuzzle its way into the bedspread and eventually Susan would scoop it up onto her chest and let it sit there, purring along, as she stroked it down its back.
Susan still remembered the doctor’s words. Less than two percent a year. She had chosen to have the surgery because she had felt like she was trapped in the deep end of a pool, treading water desperately to stay above the surface. The idea of the surgery taking the pain away was the only thing that kept her kicking.
Susan had spent months researching the surgery. She had been so sure it was the best option. Most people didn’t elect to have the surgery done, but most people also seemed capable of coasting through life just fine. Susan, meanwhile, felt like a ball stuck in a pinball machine. Her feelings rushed from one extreme to the next, leaving her exhausted in the effort to catch up.
As the feeling nuzzled against her, Susan closed her eyes and felt her anger fade away. The happy airless feeling filled her again. It was warm, and reminded her of when she was young and sick in bed and her mother had covered her with a blanket, shaking it out and letting it float down over her.
Susan sat in the exam room in the back of the walk-in clinic. She was fully clothed. Her knees wobbled beneath her skirt. She had woken up early that morning and called the clinic to see if she could get a last-minute appointment. She didn’t feel bad, exactly, just… different. It was unsettling, like looking in a mirror and seeing a stranger looking back at you.
The last time Susan had been to a doctor’s had been exactly a year after her operation. She had gone in to get a physical exam, to check on the bitterness’ progress. Along with a prescription for a mild steroid, the doctor had ordered Susan to come back every year, in case the bitterness grew worse and metastasized.
During her first and only follow-up visit, the nurse had sized Susan up and dismissed her with a single disapproving cluck.
“What’s wrong?” Susan had asked.
“Honestly? You shouldn’t have gotten the surgery,” her nurse told her matter-of-factly. “The scar tissue is extensive. Even if the bitterness remains stable, the damage you’ve done to your body… Did you even try an herbal remedy first? Thirty percent of patients have good luck with those.”
Susan had waited until the nurse left to get the doctor and then slipped out without a word. How dare the nurse judge her! She didn’t know how much pain Susan had been carrying around, how her bitterness had reached critical mass. She had been beyond herbs, beyond hypnosis, beyond any quack cure that promised a brighter day around the corner but failed to deliver.
Susan had decided to stay away from hospitals forever. Until now. The feeling in her chest frightened her and while Susan hated hospitals, she preferred the cold comfort of familiar anxiety over this strangeness filling her. When the doctor opened the door, Susan flinched. The doctor, a short woman carrying a file thick with x-rays, waved the file wildly.
“I can’t believe it! I wouldn’t believe it, if anyone had told me about it. You said you’re taking a steroid, right? I know it’s worked for people in the past, but never this well…”
“What are you talking about?”
“The experimental drug you’re taking for your bitterness has practically dried it up. It’s almost non-existent. It’s really quite miraculous. It should only have shrunk the growth rate. I’ve never seen it actually reverse the spread… If it continues like this, it might even go into remission.”
When Susan’s alarm went off on the first Monday back at work after the holidays, she had been in the middle of a dream. In the dream, she had been eleven again, and her family was vacationing on the Oregon coast. The four of them were together again: her parents, her, and her brother. Even though their vacations always ended in fights, Susan associated the Oregon coast with the happiest time in her life. At eleven, she knew her family had problems, but the full extent of them was still like an iceberg, floating silent and mountainous beneath the surface of her adolescence.
They had been headed to the beach to look at the sandcastle competition entries when the alarm had ripped her out of her dream. Sandrun’s feeling, pressed up against her collarbone, tried to flatten itself down even further. Susan shook it off reluctantly.
Getting to work was one disaster after another; shampoo seeped into her eyes as she tried to fix her tangled hair, her toaster short-circuited leaving her bread frozen, and as she walked to the subway, a car sprayed Susan’s coat with a slushy pile of melted snow.
At work, no one seemed to be in a good mood. Susan spent the day worrying about Sandrun’s feeling. Was it bored? Was it lonely? She didn’t know anything about the aftercare of feelings. The part of the bitterness that the surgeon had removed from her were withered and dry, like unwatered flowers. But Sandrun’s feelings were all alive and healthy, tiny living things, full of pulsating movement. She had never seen someone with their feeling still alive. Did Sandrun feed them? If so, how? They didn’t appear to have mouths.
Susan was so eager to get home that she splurged for a cab. She raced up the five flights to her apartment and burst inside. The feeling was still in the dry bathtub, where she had left it, just in case it got into anything. When Susan picked it up, she felt that everything-is-fine feeling trickle back in. But it wasn’t the same. She felt it, as she held the squirming feeling, but she didn’t believe it.
Susan dropped the feeling into the sink and grabbed her curling iron. Her fingers shook as she cranked the temperature up. She pressed the warm metal against the feeling’s fur. At first, it didn’t do anything, but as the iron grew hotter, the fur began to singe. The smell made Susan’s stomach roll. The burning-fur smell mixed with Susan’s memory of the last trip to the Oregon coast that her family went on: when her fifteen-year-old brother had come back to the motel room drunk and her father had moved to strike him. Susan had intervened, slipping her slight eleven-year-old self in-between the thrust of her father’s fist and the trembling bulk of her brother.
Susan watched the feeling squirm. The initial wave of nausea passed and coldness settled over her. She felt powerful. Capable. It was how she had always hoped having the surgery would make her feel.
Susan dropped the curler. It swung on its cord, whacking into the cabinet. She scooped the feeling out of the sink and rushed to the kitchen. She pressed an ice cube to its burn. She felt the heat of her tears running down her cheeks and coalescing on her chin.
That night, Susan did not let her feeling sleep in her bed. Instead, she put it in an empty fishbowl she had inherited from an old roommate. The feeling curled up in the bottom of the bowl. Susan couldn’t tell if it was looking at her or if it had settled with its back to her. Susan curled up in bed, layering herself with five blankets, but she still felt cold.
Sandrun wasn’t at work the next day. Had he noticed the missing feeling? He must have noticed. She still didn’t know why Sandrun had had the surgery if he’d chosen to keep all his feelings so close afterward, but if he went to those lengths, he must check in on them. Why keep them in a drawer that you opened every morning, unless you wanted to be reminded of them on a daily basis?
A darker thought trickled down to Susan, like water from a rusted pipe. It was too dark for her to face head-on. So she edged around in, looking for a softer spot, an angle from which she could consider it.
The whole point of a sensectomy was to sever people from their feelings. An autonomous feeling could broadcast a paler version of itself, but there was no actual connection between Sandrun and his feelings anymore. There couldn’t be. If there was, what happened to people who opted to have their feelings incinerated with the rest of the medical waste or stuffed and mounted on their walls?
When Sandrun hadn’t returned to work by Friday, Susan made up her mind. She would return the feeling. She told herself she was doing it for Sandrun, in case there really was some type of connection between him and the feeling. The truth was that the feeling made Susan uncomfortable. She had started finding other tasks to do at work after-hours or errands to run to avoid going home. But the moment the clock struck five on Friday, Susan caught the subway home, collected the feeling from where she’d left it in the fishbowl in her apartment, and headed straight out again.
Sandrun lived in an apartment building with a doorman. He waved Susan through when she explained that Sandrun was her boss and that she had some important papers for him. It wasn’t a completely unfeasible story. After all, Sandrun had missed almost a week of work.
The door to Sandrun’s was unlocked. Susan slipped inside the apartment. Given the disastrous state of the kitchen, which looked like it had been ransacked by monkeys capable of no more than using a can opener on a few cans of soup, Susan thought the odds of finding Sandrun in a fetal position in bed were high. She considered just leaving the feeling in the kitchen and making a quick exit, but it was too late. If Sandrun pulled himself together enough to ask the doorman if he saw anyone suspicious, it wouldn’t take much for him to connect the dots.
Susan pushed the door open. Sandrun was in bed, his blanket pulled up all the way over him. This was her chance. She stepped very carefully into the room, crossing her fingers, as she made her way to the dresser. She pulled the drawer open. She had hoped to sneak the feeling back in among its littermates without Sandrun even noticing, but there was a problem.
The feelings were gone.
All of them.
Susan shoved the socks and underwear aside, scrabbling to find any trace of the feelings in the drawer, but there were none. Her breath caught in her throat, issuing a soft gasp.
Sandrun stirred in bed. He fought through the covers and twisted his head to look at the intruder in his room.
“I’m sorry, I don’t, I wanted to—”
“What are you doing here?”
Susan shook her head. Words failed her. She moved closer to Sandrun’s bed, compelled like an insect turning to the light. “I… I came to check on you. What… happened?”
Sandrun’s eyes slid to the drawer. He swallowed. Susan could see the bob of his Adam’s apple as it slinked into his throat. His gaze bounced around the room, looking anywhere except the bathroom. Susan nudged open the door with her shoulder, her fingers gripping the strap of her handbag. The feeling inside the bag started to shiver.
The tub was filled to the brim. Inside the tub, submerged at the bottom, were the feelings. Under the water, they looked distorted. Their edges wavered. Their coloring was wrong beneath the bright bathroom light. None of them moved.
“Why…?” The sound escaped Susan’s lips, halfway between an actual word and a horrified gasp.
“I was scared,” said Sandrun. “They needed me. I wasn’t sure what to do. I wasn’t strong enough.”
Susan unclenched her fingers and dipped her hand into her bag. She scooped up the feeling—Sandrun’s last remaining one. The feeling’s fuzzy sides tickled her fingers, filling her with that warmth and contentedness that she knew didn’t really belong to her.
She took one of Sandrun’s hands. As she handed him the feeling, Sandrun begin to shake. He brought the feeling to his chest, almost crushing it in the strength of his embrace, and started to cry. Color seeped back into his pale and drawn face and he kissed the feeling. His tears spotted the bed sheets like rain. Swaddled in bed, his face splotchy, his hair glued to his skin with sweat, Sandrun looked like a mother welcoming a baby after a difficult labor as he cradled the returned feeling,
Susan stopped at the hardware store on her way home. She bought a sack of dirt. It was almost too heavy to carry, but by pausing periodically, Susan managed to lug it up the stairs to her apartment. Susan dumped the bag on the kitchen table. It took her a few minutes to find the paper bag the doctor had given her with the cuttings of her bitterness. She had kept it, lugging it from apartment to apartment, never able to just throw it in the trash.
She brought the bag into the kitchen. Scooping handfuls of dirt into the fishbowl, she created holes with her fingers. Careful not to crush the bitterness, she shook it out of the bag. It felt so small and lightweight in her hands. She pushed the roots of her bitterness into the holes and covered them with dirt. She carried the fishbowl to her sink, filling it with enough water to dampen the dirt. She patted it down again, then carried the bowl out onto her balcony. As she stood back, admiring the fishbowl in its new home, a light breeze lifted the ends of Susan’s hair and caused them to resettle around her face.