104.4. If Jeannie took her temperature with an accurate thermometer 104.4 is what it would have read, but Jeannie could not find it in her bathroom cupboard. While she searched, her mind stumbled on a memory: years ago, as a grad student, she worked for a professor of questionable brilliance and unquestionable bipolar disorder. Jeannie was the executive assistant to the editor, said professor, of Volume One, Issue One of the very first feminist speculative fiction literary journal ever anywhere. Batya Birnbaum (Professor Batshit, Jeannie called her in low moments) had multiple lifelong and career-long goals held in this journal. It would elevate the status of the university from which it was produced, therefore elevating her status in her immediate academic community. In regional, even national academia, it would help cement FEMINIST science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, surrealism, myth, and folklore into the dead white man’s canon. And personally, it would be therapeutic for her mental illnesses. Because of this self-generated pressure, Batshit placed such sadistic demands on Jeannie’s time and energy that Jeannie frequently spiked stress-induced fevers. Her then boyfriend, now husband, Dean, sheepishly admitted he enjoyed having sex with Jeannie in her febrile state.
Now, Dean bought woodworking tools he’s never used; he removed aluminum awnings from their house’s windows and left them in the driveway for months. That these disgruntled thoughts occurred to Jeannie disgusted her. These complaints made her want to vomit; they are cliché. She hated the mundane, no, the profanity of being married and malcontent.
Jeannie had pneumonia. She offered this suspicion to her doctor at an appointment seven days into her fever, but her doctor said, “Flu virus. Ride it out, Jeannie.” So Jeannie reduced the fever by alternating triple doses of ibuprofen and acetaminophen and caring fastidiously for her two sons, Seth and Eli. After their bedtimes, she crashed and let the fever do its work, burning up little viruses trying to noodle their way into replicating unchecked. Somewhere in the periphery of her fever haze, she enjoyed the reverent sexual manipulations of her husband.
When she learned how sick Jeannie was, her mother-in-law offered to watch the boys until Jeannie felt better. Jeannie dropped the boys off and returned home. She sighed as she inched her minivan slowly past the awnings lined up against the house on the side of their driveway. She got out of the car and lifted the garage door to assess the contents. Could one large and four small awnings fit in among the bikes, toys, tools, and the surfeit of random outdoor stuff? Nope. She walked over to the awnings and lifted the largest one that once spared their living room from the heat of the setting sun through their large oriel windows. That’s not heavy at all, she thought, just cumbersome.
Jeannie had not intended on sleeping during the respite from parenting her mother-in-law gave her. She had intended on reading. But by paragraph four of her novel, her chin found her chest; Jeannie gave in and went horizontal on the couch and sank down deep into sleep. The ibuprofen circulating in her bloodstream became more and more dilute, taxing her liver on its way out. Her body temperature rose and rose. Her white bra became yellow from sweat. Her red shirt darkened with moisture. She awoke and went to the bathroom to find the thermometer. It couldn’t be found.
When Jeannie was pregnant for the first time, she and her husband agreed on the names Dean for a boy and Rebecca for a girl. She miscarried at eleven weeks and those names were scraped out of her like the dead tissue from her uterus. Her doctor said to wait two menstrual cycles before having sex again, but Jeannie flouted that restriction in order to become pregnant again as soon as possible. She wanted to know if the signature organ that made her female could live up to its full potential. Six months later she tested positive on an over-the-counter pregnancy test but refrained from telling Dean, deciding to wait until the twelfth week, to wait until this mysterious situation felt a little firmer, more entrenched. Jeannie inevitably had to tell him much earlier than she had wanted because vaginal bleeding landed her in her doctor’s office, another miscarriage. She had two more miscarriages in the next year and a half. Then another two years went by without conception at all.
It was liberating. After listening somewhat inactively to the doctor’s list of potential causes of infertility, Jeannie declined testing to figure out more precisely who was infertile, why she or Dean were infertile, and what their options for achieving fertility could be. “Am I an otherwise healthy woman?” Jeannie asked the doctor, and received an emphatic “Yes!” Jeannie was despondent for a moment, but then it was nice to feel like she could stop thinking about it. She had sex whenever, wherever, and however she wanted, without a concern about conception. She took on another class at the university, made plans with a colleague to create a class about women’s issues in multicultural literature to be offered as credit in both the English and Women’s Studies departments. She spent more time writing, editing, and submitting her essays, reviews, and stories.
Jeannie’s first opportunity to have extramarital sex took place the afternoon a young male student about nineteen years old stayed after class to ask overly polite and unnecessary questions about an upcoming paper. He then nervously, worshipfully admitted to being truly in love with her. She declined his advances, muted his passions, refused him. But she started fantasizing about him when she had sex with Dean. Then she would fantasize about any male student that interested her. She smirked at her male students despite them getting younger and younger than her every year, imagined myriad coital scenarios and thought, “Fish in a barrel.” There were men at conferences, warm and suggestive at the meet and greets. There were guest speakers and visiting professors and interdisciplinary meetings with faculty from Anthropology, Biology, Political Science. But Jeannie never knew another body but Dean’s.
After Jeannie awoke on the couch and could not locate a thermometer, she struck out on a more fruitful endeavor. Returning to her minivan in the driveway, she handily reclined and stuffed the back row seats into the trunk. There were five awnings. The scallop-trimmed energy savers from a time before central air were once white, but were now grey from years in the elements. The largest awning was eight feet long and the four smaller ones were three feet. She took the longest first and slid it as far is it would go into the van, leaving a few feet protuberant. She harnessed the hatchback down as far as it would go with bungee cords. Her fever was sharp and driving, she moved and thought quickly to outpace it; she was going to get some shit done around here goddammit. She felt greasy with sweat from her fever and exertion. She took off her shirt, wiped her face with it, and chucked it vaguely toward the minivan.
Standing by the car in her bra, she heard tiny quiet bells. No, the jingling of a dog chain. She hustled to her neighbor’s driveway and caught the backside of Douglas Broadhead and his dog Winston heading to their back door. She noted the growing patch of dead grass from Winston’s pee and the dog shit right by the myrtle surrounding her dogwood tree that abutted Doug’s driveway. She could smell it; her nose seemed to feel the molecules of foulness emitted from the mutt’s excrement.
“Are you going to pick up your dog’s shit?” she asked of Douglas’ retreating figure.
It was not a question, it was a reckoning.
“Aw, hey Jeans!” Douglas said, smarmy. “I forgot a bag, just heading in to get one.”
Jeannie waited, feeling powerful standing there in her bra.
Douglas returned with a blue plastic grocery bag and stooped to pick up Winston’s shit.
“You didn’t forget a bag. You’ve let Winston shit all over our yard. For years. You only grabbed one just now because I caught you.” She felt like unbuttoning him like jacket, knocking him down a peg or seven.
“Sorry, Jeans! I’ll be better from now on.” Douglas said. “The boys inside?” The question nettled Jeannie, who replied tersely, “They’re with Dean’s mom.”
Douglas Broadhead had a very flexible schedule that allowed him to carpet bomb the neighborhood with Winston’s turds because he was an executive strategic consultant for some corporate benefits group. He also ran marathons and golfed obsessively. When they first moved in, Jeannie used to think him tall, dark, and handsome, until she got to know him better. After a run, he’d say things like “Did a quick ten. Just killed it.” He used his leaf blower incessantly.
“Wow!” He stepped back toward his own property line. “What are you going to do with yourself?”
“This.” She said, heading back to the van to resume her bungee fastening.
“Need a hand with that?”
“No, Doug, I got it.”
She stomped over to the van, snatching her shirt off the ground, and booked it to the $crap It $alvage Company south of the tracks in the gritty industrial Cleveland proper, swerving and speeding as she tried to maneuver her sweaty shirt back on her body.
Years passed since Dean and Jeannie stopped trying to get pregnant. One weekend in September, they attended a location wedding in Montreal of one of Dean’s oldest friends from high school. On this weekend, the vibrancy of the city, the stimulation of the new experiences, the romantic impetus for the trip tapped an openness in Jeannie that she felt encouraged to open more. She drank wine, became mildly drunk and held court about Russian literature. She smoked pot and felt delighted. After the wedding, Jeannie and Dean tried to see how many times they could orgasm that night; some were earthquakes and some were quivers. They fell asleep after she had ten.
After a few months passed, Jeannie told Dean that she hadn’t had her period in a while. She couldn’t recall exactly when her last one was, she no longer monitored that cycle the way she once had. Jeannie performed the anachronistic act of taking a pregnancy test. It was positive. They laughed and sighed and shook their heads in wonderment.
The pregnancy was the catalyst for accepting Dean’s parents offer to help buy a new house, a bigger house, in affluent northern Rocky River. Dean’s parents had money and were interminably eager to subsidize their son’s life. Jeannie never wanted to accept their money, but she acquiesced, not wanting to be accused of reverse snobbery and just plain distracted by the queer and inscrutable thing happening to her body. There was a grey/green fog in the periphery of her sight, an unsettling blur that Jeannie considered a warning sign: the money, the house, was a concession of her agency.
$crap It $alvage offered cash for any metal hauled in. The tiny parking lot was full of garbage pickers’ trucks, so Jeannie parked illegally in front of a bus stop and carried the largest of the awnings toward the painted brick warehouse. Its facade presented two garage doors, both open, one blocked with scrap metal, one revealing the pathway to a large scale that was built into the floor of the facility. She paused at the sidewalk to observe the actions of the man in front of her so she could deduce the steps of the transaction.
Jeannie’s face was red from her fever, but in a way that made her look prettier. She was sweaty, but her determination made her appear hard-working, not ill. She gathered that she placed her item on the scale, the attendant recorded the weight, and payed a sum of money. She stood the aluminum awning upright on the scale and glanced around for her payout.
The attendant was young, probably 20, Jeannie surmised. He wore a postal blue jumpsuit similar to a convict’s. The top half was unzipped and pulled down around his waist, the sleeves tied loosely there. Jeannie wondered how the lower half remained vertical, the fastening seemed too low, a depantsing seemed imminent. He was shorter than her. He had high cheekbones, stunning green eyes; his thinning white t-shirt showed male musculature without an apparent flaw, quite in opposition to his other features. He had obviously and recently been in a violent brawl. His left eye was swollen and grey with bruises. On the same side of his face, he had a gash that formed an acute angle with his eyebrow. It still had bristly black stitches poking out from his skin, moving as his expression changed. His top left incisor was chipped, his chin had a large, thick, vermilion scab. His hair was long because of negligence, not design. His facial hair resembled his stitches. On the right side of this stubble a J-shaped scar from an older altercation left a path where hair wouldn’t grow. He had a broken cigarette behind his ear. He was also sweaty.
Jeannie was staring.
He handed her $17.00. His fingers were thick and rough. She thought it might hurt if he touched her in a sensitive place. It was a pleasurable thought.
“I have four more smaller ones. Smaller awnings.”
“Sure, bring them in,” he said.
“I’ll be right back.”
The smaller awnings were able to stack somewhat so they fit even better into the minivan. She drove back to the scrap yard letting the sexual anticipation grow and grow until she felt her clitoris was so swollen, it made the tiniest bulge through her leggings.
When the young man saw she had returned, he helped her unload the awnings, weighed them, and gave her $27.00 more.
“Do you want to see what happens to the metal?” he asked.
He led her back through the warehouse-like building with a strut designed to invite nearby men to disprove his masculinity. He pointed out an area where forklifts were stacking cubes of scrap metal into neat towers.
“Pretty cool?” he asked, grinning.
The urgency Jeannie felt reached a pitch that could not go unanswered.
“Please show me your restroom.”
Again he strutted through the warehouse, leading her.
“Come in with me.” Jeannie said quietly.
He looked surprised, though not opposed to her imperative. He entered the bathroom. She kissed the young man and slid her hands behind his head. She tasted the tanginess of his empty stomach pining for a meal, she tasted his cigarettes smoked ultra-fast and frequently, it was so different from Dean’s taste, she just wanted to keep kissing him to imprint a memory of it into her cooking brain. She handily pulled his pants down because there really was nothing holding them up but the little divot between his obliques and his ass, tight as a sailor knot. He wasn’t longer than Dean but thicker by a large measure. She sat him on the toilet; he was stunned but not enough to refuse to cooperate. She pulled her leggings and underwear off, straddled him, and started bobbing vertically, lubricating his penis more to slide deeper and deeper into her. Her knees kept hitting the wall behind the toilet, so she turned around and resumed. When he placed his hands under her armpits, she grabbed one and indelicately planted it between her legs. The roughness of his fingers caused her to orgasm. She was not sure if he orgasmed or not but she stayed still for a few deep breaths to feel herself throb around his girth still inside of her.
Jeannie stood up and, while fumbling to pull up her underwear and leggings, he left the bathroom. She felt giddy and shaky. When she walked back to her car, she saw her conquest shouting expletives and thrusting his chest into the personal space of a much taller co-worker. When the first blow landed, Jeannie looked away, got into her car, then drove away.
She started to cry on the way home and the tears scalded her eyes and her face. She couldn’t stop them, though, so she wept and burned. Jeannie loved Dean so much. She loved all of her boys immensely.
Anne Cudnik was born in Cleveland, but now resides in Lakewood. She completed her Masters in English from Cleveland State University and is working toward her teaching degree in Language Arts. She is the coordinator of an elementary school service club with over 100 young members. Anne also runs 5ks, loves yoga, dances to live music, and drinks locally brewed beer. Her first attempt at beekeeping yielded nearly one hundred pounds of honey. Follow her on Twitter at @anne_cudnik.