“Love Drugs” by Nathan Elias

02 November 2018 on Fiction   Tags: ,

Gray would take the pill and stop loving his wife forever. Down the hatch, sleep it off, and wake up without the same fervent, relentless, crippling heartache. That was the brand promise. The legal formalities would follow—divorce, separating the belongings, moving out, moving on—all of which would feel effortless without the added pain of the affair. I'm the one who cheated, he thought. I'm the one who should make this as easy as possible for her. Anytime they had discussed it, one way or another he found a way to talk Autumn out of leaving him. It wasn't because she didn't want to; she'd tried countless times to pack a bag, get in the car, and leave for good. They could never go more than an hour without him apologizing in circles, begging her to forgive him and come back. And she always did. And he worried she would live with it like a wound for the rest of her life, unless he severed himself from her.

He took the pill out of the orange bottle and placed it on the coffee table. The little pink capsule sat there, the only item on the black surface, like a dead insect. Over the course of an hour and two beers, the sunlight crept in through the window, filling the dark room with a dim radiance. The pill's shadow grew and stretched into a shape much larger than the pill itself, rotating on the table's surface in sync with the sun. He put the beer bottle to his lips and sipped until there were just enough bubbles at the bottom to swallow the pill down with later.

When he'd seen the psychiatrist, she noted his weight loss—one fifty-five to one forty-three—in the span of a month since the visit to his primary physician. "You're a healthy man," she'd said, a woman with long, silvery hair and puffy, sleep-deprived eyes. "What have you got to be depressed about?"

He stepped down from the scale and turned to the mirror. The doctor was right; he looked good for almost thirty.

"I'm sure your wife is a very happy woman," the doctor went on, her tone matter-of-fact. "I'm willing to bet she loves you very much."

"But what will my life be like once I no longer love her?" he asked.

"It will be the same as before," she said, flipping through his paperwork. "Only, you'll be able to move on and think for yourself, without your emotions for her affecting your judgment. You could always try something less permanent, like a nasal oxytocin spray or patch. Something to help the truth come out won’t hurt."

He had tried the spray before, but knew that this time he needed something stronger. The doctor wrapped a blood pressure gauge around his bicep and squeezed the rubber bulb, inflating the device until it was airtight against his flesh.

"It all depends on the extent of your present attachment to her," she said. "Nobody can tell you what your life will be like. I'm a doctor, not a fortuneteller. I can tell you what the drug can and cannot do for you. I can see if your body can handle the drug. But only you can decide if it's right for you. When you leave I can give you a brochure of patient testimonials, if that'll make you feel better.”

"I'll take one," he said.

The doctor took his vitals and led him to the counter near the lobby door. She handed him a pamphlet and a list of marriage counselors. "I wrote you a prescription for a single dose," the doctor said. "One pill. That's all you’ll need. I say this to every patient who comes in here for this thing: before you take it, make sure that it is absolutely, positively, no-other-way-about-it the only thing you can do. We aren't meant to have power over some things in life."

*

When he got home, he opened a beer and started reading the brochure. The testimonials were paired with photographs of people alone, or looking out bright windows, or sitting down with a cup of coffee and laughing with a group of friends. They all suggested a life made possible by letting go.

The testimonial next to a photograph of a happy couple holding hands read: This pill saved my marriage. After five years of pure matrimony, things got shaky between my husband and me. He started having to travel for work, and I developed a close relationship with a man from my job. I was so close to committing adultery with this man, and that's when I heard about the pill. After taking it, I never thought about that man in a physical or emotional way ever again. And it goes without saying that I stopped seeing him while my husband was away. The pill made me realize how much I actually love my husband. Instead of extramarital activities, I've taken to healthy hobbies while he's away that only benefit our life together.

Another testimonial, a photograph of a man and his loyal golden Labrador, read: I wouldn't have been here if it wasn't for this pill. I mean, literally, I would have been dead. I was with a woman with a serious addiction problem; I got dragged right down with her. I knew if I didn't make a change that we would only hasten our inevitable deaths. She couldn't let go of me, no matter how many times I tried to end it. I'm not even sure if she loved me for me or because I enabled her to be so destructive. Now I'll never know. After I took the pill I was able to say goodbye. I gave her a wad of money, let her keep our car and apartment, and went on with my life.

Gray wondered what his own testimonial would say. There would be a photograph of him standing still in a crowd of moving people, his upturned face painted with melancholy. I cheated on my wife, it would read. I broke her heart. If I didn't take the pill, she would have gone on with the rest of her life in a numb depression because I couldn't let her go. This pill gave me the strength to finally set her free.

On the back of the brochure, at the very bottom in micro-sized text was the disclaimer: Warning—Effects cannot be reversed. Capsule is designed for individual patient needs (will not have same effect on different person). Proceed with caution.

He wondered what the disclaimer meant about the pill being designed for individual patient needs. What would happen if someone else took his pill? Would this person stop loving Autumn? What if they didn't even know her? Would they stop loving someone in their life who filled a similar role as Autumn did in Gray's? What if some poor guy in a perfect relationship stopped loving his own wife? Gray imagined the innumerable situations that could arise from someone taking the wrong pill.

But it wasn't like he was going to forget about Autumn. She wouldn't disappear off the face of the earth. He just wouldn't love her anymore. He considered consulting the list of marriage counselors provided by the doctor. Maybe after he took the pill, he and Autumn could attempt to rekindle some kind of friendship. He felt so stupid. He'd cheated on her because he felt a little bored. Now he couldn't even bear the thought of being without her. What kind of monster was he, the kind who would keep changing his mind, pulling Autumn along until there was nothing left of her? He picked up the pill and held it in front of him, pinching the pink capsule between his index finger and thumb. She deserves a good life, he thought. There was still time to cut their losses; even if she couldn't accept it, he could sever this one tie for her. He opened his mouth and placed the capsule on his tongue.

*

Autumn didn't want to go home these days. Instead, she tried to roam around Santa Monica Pier for as long as she could before returning to her husband. After leaving the restaurant, she'd changed out of her stained smock and uniform into a denim skirt and tank top. She had a two-hour window before Gray would call and wonder where she was. That was one perk of waiting tables; her shifts didn’t have an exact out time, so her husband never knew when to expect her. Lately he hadn't left the house because he didn't want to give her any more reason to suspect him of cheating. He'd be there, waiting with dinner and maybe flowers, hoping to make up for his fatal error and prove that he still loved her.

She couldn't forgive that easily. Every night she'd tried to forgive him, to accept his apologies and believe that she could trust him again. She had become good at hiding the ongoing pain with smiles and witty jokes. The hardest part of pretending she was fine was when Gray had tried to have sex. It had been the one thing she couldn't fake without bursting into tears. In the three months since she'd found out about his affair, he'd only tried once. "Not yet," she sobbed after pushing him away. He'd tried to apologize and save the moment, but before he could speak she'd gotten out of the bed, pillow and blanket in tow, and gone to sleep the couch.

The crisp ocean air blew against Autumn's face, its effect cleansing as it coursed through her lungs. Life felt more tranquil with the endless sea in front of her and the maddening city behind her. It reminded her of home, how she used to stare out at the vast flatlands of Ohio and maroon herself on some unnamed country road. She'd have given anything to transport there in a blink of her eye, just in time to watch the cherry sun setting at the edge of the road's vantage point.

But she couldn't go home, not even for a short visit. Her family wouldn't understand the unmoving depression that clouded her; she'd never told them about Gray’s affair. How could she? His actions weren't only an embarrassment to himself, but also to her and their relationship. If her family ever found out, they'd never look at him the same way again. They'd think her a fool for staying with him, say, "I told you so" and "That's the consequence of getting hitched to someone you barely know." Even if her depression eventually blew over (something she knew wasn't likely) and she, by some miracle, learned to forgive her husband, the public knowledge of their marital weakness would be too much to live down. She preferred to keep the affair between them and let the pain callous over until it consumed her entirely. Like Los Angeles, the affair would be something she couldn't escape.

When the ocean's wind became too cold she found it difficult to pull away from the vastness. Since she'd been gazing, the number of people on the pier had nearly doubled. She thought about taking out her phone and scrolling through the contact list of people with whom she'd long since fallen out of touch. Sometimes she preferred the fleeting company of hundreds of strangers to the brief, awkward meetings with old friends. The city had a way of changing people, herself included. Nobody stayed the same long enough for her to grow real attachments to them. Maybe that's why she'd said yes when Gray proposed after their first fight as a two-week-old couple. She'd thought marrying him would be a way to finally hold onto to something she loved forever, but he too had changed into someone unrecognizable.

As a crowd of fishermen and tourists gathered along the dock's edge, she unhooked her arms from the guardrail and merged into the clamoring sea of faces. Among them she could be someone other than Autumn, a sad girl from Ohio. She could forget she was recently married, and even more recently cheated on.

Along the pier, she walked by a mixed-bag arrangement of buskers—a singer-songwriter strumming his guitar and wailing into a microphone, a break-dancer contorting and shuffling on a pallet of cardboard, a ventriloquist catcalling her in a cartoonish voice—and tourists from all over the world, snippets of their conversations in Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, or a language she couldn't identify making their way to her ears. The addicting anonymity of being lost in this bustling world made her pain and problems feel less significant. She continued farther down the pier, observing groups of families and friends seated for late lunch. The air smelled of salt, the stench of fresh fish, and grease from all the seafood frying in the surrounding restaurants. She caught herself smiling at the sound of one group's laughter, and instantly felt pathetic for feeling jealous of the joy of strangers. How long had she gone without feeling real joy? Before Gray, she remembered the same stretch of numbing depression, her dull life rambling on like a constant AM radio talk show. When Gray had entered the picture, all of that changed, at least until his fling. After that, it was back to relentless monotony, like a permanent anesthetic running through her veins.

She deserved to feel joy again, but these days if it didn't come from Gray she no longer knew where to look. She had become so removed from her own life. Gray’s presence, his love, and his energy—every part of him had intoxicated her beyond hope.

Toward the middle of the pier, she stopped in front of Playland, a glowing arcade that screamed a spectrum of sounds: whistles, clinks, beeps, high-pitched tunes. It drew her in, reminding her of the hours she'd spent in arcades as a child while her mother shopped and drank vodka from a Styrofoam cup. On the night she met Gray, she'd told him all about her alcoholic mother, the father she'd only met once. He'd told her about his sister's death.

Autumn walked inside the arcade, past a group of teenagers and a line of children running around the tall videogame machines. She put a five into the token dispenser. It shot out a mound of golden coins, each one clashing against the metal dish. She scooped them out, the weight in her palm bringing back a familiar feeling of temporary limitlessness. As she turned to scope out which of the hundreds of games she would play first, her phone buzzed in her pocket.

It was Gray. She purposefully clicked the ignore button instead of letting it go to voicemail. Keep him in suspense, she thought. It felt good to let him worry for once, with no idea where she was or when she'd be back.

Within a minute the phone buzzed again, a text this time. Hey, just wondering when you’ll be done with work. I’ll have dinner ready, your favorite [tomato emoji]. Love you [purple heart emoji]. 

She turned the screen black and went to the nearest video game, one with pixelated zombies and two mounted shotguns. She slipped two tokens into the slot, picked up the plastic gun, and cocked the fore-end. Just as the game was about to start, someone stood next to her and lifted the second gun from its mount.

"Mind if I help you kill the undead?"

It was a guy, taller than her by a few inches, with auburn stubble on his jaw and a white, beaming smile. She felt her heart bump, blood rushing to her face.

"Not at all," she said, withdrawing two more tokens from her pocket and slipping them into the machine.

*

Gray spat the pill onto the carpet. He ran to the bathroom sink to scrub out any of its chemical remains before even a microscopic amount could take effect. The pill had had a bitter cherry flavor, its taste evoking the guilt of cheating on Autumn all over again. How could he swallow it down and lose the most important part of his life forever? Yes, he had wronged her, but there was such a thing as redemption, right? Maybe Autumn would find a new strength and move on from the depression. He'd already broken her heart once, but wasn't it her decision to leave or stay? If she wasn't hopeful of their love reigniting, wouldn't she just leave? Maybe he would talk to her when she got home from work, be straight with her. He'd tell her that he would rather her live happily without him instead of miserable with him. Maybe that would prove how much he actually cared.

He gargled five mouthfuls of mint rinsing solution, allowing it to burn his gums and tongue. Once he was certain there was no trace of pill residue, he opened another beer and took a long, fizzy gulp. He'd almost lost her again as a result of his inability to make logical adult decisions. On all fours, he crawled around the carpet until he found the pill under the armchair, corroded with dirt and hair. It amazed him that something so small was capable of making such a large change in his life.

After dropping the pill back into the bottle and fastening the lid, he picked up his phone to check the time. Five-thirty, far past Autumn’s usual out time. He tapped her name on his screen and put the phone to his ear—only two rings before going to voicemail. Did she just ignore my call? he thought.

He took another swig of beer and reasoned that she was probably caught up at work. It was a mistake to call her anyway; the last thing he wanted was for her to think he was desperate or insecure. She needed to see him with a constant air of confidence, even if he did worry about her exacting revenge while he tried to prove his steadfastness. Sometimes the thought kept him awake, especially the nights she'd slept on the couch. He'd lie with his eyes pried open to the darkness, imagining her face illuminated by the dim glow of her phone as she texted every attractive male contact about her current state of loneliness and despair.

The thought of her with another man was enough to slowly kill him, even though she had never been the promiscuous type. Still, he'd rather seem too desperate than not desperate enough and lose her to someone else. He figured a text couldn't hurt, just a quick "love you" and, to bribe her, he offered to whip together shells and cheese with her grandmother's homemade sauce recipe.

While boiling water, Gray thought about their one year of reckless romance and passion, the kind that only comes around once. Staring into the little flame on the stove, he thought about Darla. He'd slept with her once, at a wrap-party for his first feature film, and waited two weeks until confessing to Autumn. He'd purchased over-the-counter oxytocin spray to help him get the truth out, and almost wished that the anti-love biotechnologies had never become such common pharmaceuticals. First a truth serum you injected into your nasal passage, and then a pill that could make you stop loving someone forever. What would they think of next? Before people knew it, Gray thought, love would be a universally synthetic experience. Everyone would forget about passion or cosmic connections in favor of emotional convenience.

He couldn't help but wonder if this would be the last meal he'd prepare for Autumn. He carefully diced tomatoes and blended them into a sauce with garlic, onion, and mushroom—every ingredient measured exactly to her grandmother's handwritten recipe. He dipped his finger into the sauce and licked it clean, the fresh, herby taste reminding him of when he met Autumn's family in Ohio.

With flavors of garlic and onion still on his tongue, he left the stove burning, walked to the pill bottle, opened it, and put the pink capsule into his mouth. He couldn't go through with it before because it felt too final. But now, thinking about how he let Autumn's family down, it was enough to make him finally swallow the pill. It was in his bloodstream by the time he returned to the stove. He plated their dinner, and cleaned the dishes. He left the kitchen light on for Autumn and went into their bedroom, where he fell asleep praying he'd wake up without an ounce of love for her.

*

When Autumn got home, the apartment was dark, except for the kitchen. The smell of fresh garlic filled the air as she turned to find the table set for two, flies buzzing around the wine in the decanter and stale shells left on their plates. She waited a moment, watching a fly dive into a shell's opening, out of which spilled soft, white ricotta. Silence, except for the faint buzzing from the insect. Autumn kept still a moment to see if Gray would come greet her, or if he was already asleep in the bedroom. Surely he wanted her to see the wasted meal he'd prepared for her—another small guilt trip to prove how hard he'd been trying to make things work.

She turned off the kitchen light and tiptoed into the bedroom, where she saw Gray's body under their blankets. She was naturally inclined to move around noiselessly to prevent waking him. Instead of putting on her pajamas and slipping into bed with him, she went into the bathroom and sat down in the dark. Had she truly succumbed to such temptations of the flesh? Or was it a lust for revenge to which she could not yield? The gravity of her actions pressed her down into the cracks of grout on the floor. She wondered if Gray's decision to cheat had also been spontaneous—a flight of unwieldy passion—or if it was premeditated. What if the stranger had never entered the arcade? Would she still have found a way to sabotage what thin tendril of love remained between her and Gray?

When the thoughts of kissing the arcade stranger became too much to handle, she distracted herself by withdrawing her phone and pulling up Darla's social media profile—anything to take her mind off the guy's menthol breath and scratchy facial hair. Autumn liked to look at Darla's profile and scan through her pictures, seeing all the updates of her life. It was addicting, the envy that came with constantly comparing herself to the woman with whom her husband had slept. Before Autumn knew it, an hour had passed staring at Darla's photos—her amazing job and apartment, her perfect body—all the things that Autumn could never give Gray.

She'd thought that kissing the arcade stranger would have finally rid her of the jealousy she felt for Darla. However, sitting there in the bathroom, the tub's constant drip ticking like a clock, she realized that cheating on him didn't relieve her at all. What was she supposed to do with this revenge now that she cradled it like water in her hands? Would she drink it down and keep the truth buried forever?

She replayed the entire event over in her head—every improvised gesture and touch—and decided that she would tell Gray. But she couldn't go it alone. Given her penchant for passivity, she'd most likely make something up at the last minute in order to avoid any conflict. To ensure that she would go through with it, she'd need some medicinal reinforcement to settle the matter for good.

She self-administered the synthetic oxytocin spray with every intention of saving her marriage. With Gray still asleep in bed, she snuck the prescription bottle from the back of the junk cabinet and squirted the chemical up her nostrils. The sun would soon hang over their beachside apartment. Gray would wake and the bond-enhancing substance would circulate in her brain. She told herself that she would be able to forgive him, that the oxytocin would help her move on. Mothers use it to get their children to bond with them, she reasoned. Why shouldn’t it work for spouses just the same? She looked at her tired, droopy face in the toothpaste-splattered mirror and turned off the bathroom light.

The sun had just begun to shine through their crimson curtains. Gray lay facing the wall, still at peace in a deep slumber. Autumn sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed her hand up his leg. She felt a sensation like water running through her head. It was the oxytocin taking effect. "Honey," she said, her fingers now patting his brown, matted hair. "My love. Good morning. You're my world. There is something I'd like to talk to you about."

Gray slowly turned from the wall and gleamed at Autumn through squinted eyes. "Tell me," he said. He remembered the pill, and that he once loved her. "Tell me everything, but it won’t change a thing."

---

Nathan Elias is the author of the novelette A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here, and the chapbook Glass City Blues: Poems. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and has served as fiction, art, and flash fiction editor on the literary journal Lunch Ticket. He has taught a variety of creative writing classes, including fiction, poetry, and screenwriting. He is currently working on a novel. You can find Nathan on Twitter at @_NathanElias, or visit him at his website, www.nathan-elias.com.

"Wave in red" by James Reese. He is a U.S. based visual artist. His work primarily focuses on the process of immersion in experiences, places, and the senses. This process extends across several mediums including poetry and painting. Originally born and raised in Tennessee, James has spent time so far working in North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. You can find more of his work on his website, https://jamesreese.space/

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