Stress went to the coffee shop to discuss the future of their
waited in line behind a worn-out woman and her Stress, who
looked like a big thug. He wore decaying clothes, and he
smelled sweaty and unwashed. On the back of his wifebeater
T-shirt was one word, in black: Jobless. While Gina and Stress
waited, Jobless pressed down on his partner's shoulders three
times. She moaned each time but didn't try to evade him.
woman ordered two of the house blend, and paid in change that
don't have her problem, Gina thought. Her stress looked catchy
and cosmopolitan by comparison.
Stress was dressed in newspapers with scary headlines trailing
up and down her arms ("Terrorist Threats!"), outlining her
breasts ("Cancer!") circling her torso ("Murder! Rape! Fatal
Accident!") and wrapping around her legs ("Earthquake! Fire!
Flood!"). She wore a shawl of unpaid bills, estimates on home
and car repairs, and scary insurance company letters advising
upgrades. She had a rosy zit in the center of her forehead, and
a pot belly her clothes didn't quite cover. Her feet were large
first boyfriend had been brutal; he had a way of talking about
Gina's faults that burned them into her brain.)
she and Stress chose a table, Gina opened with, "You're too
clingy." She had ordered iced raspberry chai, and she took a
sip. Staring at Stress's belly, she realized she should have
ordered the artificially sweetened kind. She sighed. "I'd like
some alone time. It would make me appreciate you more when
said, "You love me so much, how can I let you go? And speaking
of, I want you to stop spending so much time with Sleep. You
know how jealous I get! The whole time you're with him, you
totally ignore me."
not true. Even when we're doing it, I think of you."
smiled over her mocha latte frapuccino with extra caffeine.
glanced at the other tables. Most hosted pairs of women,
leaning close over their coffees, murmuring. She recognized
Stress's many sisters and occasional brothers. Everyone was
married to Stress these days. "Do you guys talk to each other?"
she asked. She knew so little about where Stress came from,
what she did outside their relationship. Did Stresses meet for
kaffeeklatsches, exchange tips on how to get the most out of
surveyed the company. She shook her wrist, making the garbled
phone messages and unanswered e-mails on her charm bracelet
jingle. "We don't have much in common. But I'm the best of the
lot, don't you think?" She cocked her head.
other Stresses looked more normal than hers, Gina thought, or at
least more coordinated. Of course, she wasn't seeing the fine
detail from here; she'd forgotten her distance glasses. Stress
had driven them here.
slender woman with coffee-colored clothes was sharing pastries
with House Payment, and a frazzled-looking redhead with
cat's-eye glasses was arm-wrestling with Deadlines. A very fat
woman and her extra-large stress stared at a plate with one
cookie on it, both of them miserable and wanting. A pale woman
in dark clothes by the flavored syrups display was chatting with
someone who didn't look like a Stress, but Gina couldn't tell
who he was. The woman put her hand on his, stroked it, clasped
his fingers. He drew his hand away. "Not now," he said, in a
deep, chilly voice.
Stress might win a Stress Beauty Pageant, depending on the
criteria: most well-rounded? Diversified? Best accessorized?
brings me to my point," Gina said. She set her drink down and
clasped her hands, trying to hold onto her determination. "I
want to see other people."
stared at her, then laughed.
to go on dates without you chaperoning me!" Gina said.
never happen." Stress held Gina's hand. Her touch was so
familiar, an ache and a comfort. "You can't live without me."
like to try."
so mean!" Stress pouted.
and Liquor came in the door with an inrush of fresh air,
supporting a sleepy, grumbling woman between them. Several of
the Stresses blooped into bigger versions of themselves,
dwarfing tables, chairs, and their companions. The woman with
the man by the flavored syrups waved to Nicotine and Liquor, and
they waved back. The man turned and cocked an eyebrow at them.
They blew kisses.
Whippet-thin Caffeine came out of the kitchen. The three
addictions and the woman in their grip settled at a large
table. "Who's got the cards?" asked Caffeine.
woman fumbled in her large sequined handbag and pulled out a
poker chip dispenser and two decks of plastic-wrapped Bicycle
cards. A noisy game ensued.
watched. "How come we never do anything fun like that?"
you've lost track of all my fun-loving qualities," Stress said.
"We've forgotten how we began. Didn't I get you through all
those nervewracking first days of school, those danceless high
school dances, those college classes and exams, those painful
did. You were always there for me," said Gina.
you even think about asking me to leave?"
just so tired."
rubbed Gina's shoulders, stroked her back. "I know, honey.
Nobody knows that better than I do."
tired of spending all my time with you," Gina said, and a sob
bubbled out of her, unexpectedly. "I need a little variety."
what?" Stress sounded more interested than concerned.
friend Emily set me up on a blind date with Meditation."
boy. That'll never work. Can you say capital D - U- double L
Dull? Ten minutes with him, and you'll be bored out of your
"Aromatherapy and a hot bath," Gina said, though these were only
"Please. Enjoy," said Stress. She gave Gina's back one last
stroke, slightly too hard, and sat in her seat again. "I'll be
waiting when you're done."
glanced toward the poker table. She wished she loved Liquor
more, but the few dates she'd had with him had made her sick.
to go out with Shopping," she said at last.
guest. I love a nice fluffy debt dress; it's so shiny!"
checked out the woman by the flavored syrups. Her date looked
bored. He also looked tall, dark, handsome, and intriguing.
Ready for a change; maybe Gina could be that difference. "I
want to go out with him," she said.
laughed, a guffaw this time, so loud that everybody in the cafe
turned to look. "You're not ready for him, yet, darling. I
keep you too well-balanced for that. Even that fool isn't
ready; she's just playing with fire."
tightened her grip on her drink. She felt trapped. "But I
wantóĒ She wished her voice didn't sound so high and childish.
"I want a divorce."
hair changed into Medusa snakes, and all the snakes turned their
gleaming eyes at her. Only one of them hissed, though. "If you
didn't have me, how would you ever get anything done?"
wouldn't," Gina said, her voice wobbly. "So what?"
lips tightened. She straightened. "Fine. Just try it and see
what happens." She rose, grabbed her purse, and stalked off.
Stress headed toward the coffee bar to consult with the barista,
Gina grew lighter. She felt as though she could float up to the
ceiling, and maybe, insubstantial, slip right through and rise
through the sky. "Oh. Oh, my god." She laughed. "Wow. I
justówow." At the other tables, women stared at her, and so did
their stresses. Only the woman by the flavored syrups paid no
attention. She was playing with a flower from the narrow vase
on the table, a single daisy; she tapped her date's cheek with
it so that she left yellow pollen smears.
stood. "I feel great!" she cried, and spread her arms wide.
The other women cowered. One hid behind her hands. None of the
stresses looked worried.
Gina said again. She lowered her arms.
arm dropped to the floor with a meaty thud.
Gina lifted her shoulder, looked down at a smooth place where
her arm used to be attached. "What?" She stooped to pick up
the arm, and her right arm wriggled, then pulled free. It
didn't fall directly to the floor; the hand clung to the back of
her chair, fingers convulsing as they tried to support the arm's
weight. Eventually the hand lost the battle.
straightened, stared down at her arms. They were finger-waving
at each other. The left dragged itself toward the right, using
its fingers to crab-walk. The right hand gestured as it waited,
a complex series of signs Gina couldn't read. How had her hands
learned a language she didn't know?
glanced toward her chai, realized she couldn't pick it up to
drink now. She headed for her chair anyway, thinking if she sat
down, bit the edge of the cup, and tilted it, she might be able
to sip. Before she reached the chair, her left leg flexed and
hopped out from under her. She teetered on her right leg,
wondered whether to try for the chair or collapse where she
was. The leg decided for her, folding down so that she sprawled
on the tile before it unhooked itself and rolled away. Bracing
itself on the upright left leg (those strappy sandals didn't
look as good as she had thought), the right leg managed to push
itself to its foot. The legs leaned against each other.
calves, Gina thought, but the thighs are definitely too doughy.
And those knees!
sighed, rolled her head to stare up at the ceiling. It was dark
blue, with a scatter of tinfoil stars with Christmas lights in
a face intruded into her view. Snaky hair, narrow eyes with
that glowing zit centered above them. "Had enough?" asked
considered this question as though it were not rhetorical.
"No," she said, though out of the corner of her eye she noticed
her legs were wobbling toward the cafe's door. Her arms had
pulled themselves over to the poker table, and Liquor had dealt
them into the game.
humphed and strode away again.
Spwop! Everything below Gina's ribcage detached itself and
rolled away, stomach, pudenda, hips, buttocks, the small of her
back. Her underwear, unanchored by the legs, fell off as the
odd-shaped ball toddled toward the door to the rest rooms. The
rose she'd had tattooed on her left butt cheek during a drunken
night in college winked pink at her as it surfaced, sank,
rotated away and returned.
sighed, tilted her head so she could see her breasts. Would
they detach separately or go together?
rang as someone else came in. "Hey, sorry I'm late, I got to
chatting with someone on the bus," said the woman who had
entered. She wore tan Chinese silk and flat black tai chi
shoes, and her hair was straight and clean. She was talking to
Liquor and Nicotine. "What's this?" She knelt, looked at
Gina's legs, which had lurched almost to the door before the
newcomer came in. The legs crossed at the ankles in an attack
of shyness. "Where are you going?"
angled to one side, then the other, as though undecided.
"Interesting." She patted them on their upper surfaces and
breezed on past. "Did you save me a seat? Hey, those hands are
cheating!" She laughed.
her left hand trade three cards with her right hand.
guys," Caffeine said. "We only let you play because you
promised you'd behave!"
hands let their cards flutter to the table top, and
with the body parts, anyway?"
"Personal integration failure," said Nicotine, waving a
yellow-stained hand toward what was left of Gina on the floor.
newcomer glanced toward Gina, raised her eyebrows. "Whoa!
Pretty advanced! Give me a minute, okay, guys?"
said Liquor with a shrug.
woman knelt to look into Gina's face. "Hi there. I'm Prozac.
goodbye to Stress," Gina said, jerked her head toward the coffee
bar, where her stress was comparing headlines with another
stress, whose newspaper clothes were written in Arabic and
Hebrew. The headlines shifted, updating constantly.
"Interesting," said Prozac. "How are you doing?"
pull yourself together?"
gave this the same consideration she'd given Stress's earlier
question. She had many fewer worries without her body parts,
but she had the niggling thought that sometime the cafe would
close, and then, perhaps, cleaning machinery would be deployed.
She didn't want a face-to-string encounter with a mop or a
face-to-straw encounter with a broom. Not to mention the dust
and/or cleaning fluid, which always made her sneeze and her eyes
wouldn't mind," she said.
a kiss, then," said Prozac. She leaned forward and pressed lips
to Gina's. She tasted like fresh mowed grass and work already
Prozac lifted her mouth away from Gina's, Gina had all her body
parts again, though her lower torso was on backward, which meant
her feet faced backward too. She couldn't figure out how to
said Prozac, and pulled her to her feet. "Don't worry. You'll
get used to it. Come on, new best friend, let's play some
stuck her tongue out at her stress, and stumbled, in Prozac's
embrace, to the card table.
About the Author:
Over the past
twenty-five years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold novels, juvenile
and media tie-in books, short story collections, and more than
200 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the
Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and
Endeavour awards. Her first novel, The Thread That Binds the
Bones, won a Stoker Award.
Nina's young adult novel Spirits That Walk in Shadow was
published by Viking in 2006. Her short science fiction novel
Catalyst was published by Tachyon in 2006.
Nina works at a bookstore, does production work for the
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and teaches short
story writing through her local community college. She also
works with teen writers. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with
several cats, a mannequin, and many strange toys.
Story © 2008 Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Photo by
Tom Varco, 2006.