The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” – Margaret Atwood
JM + MF
So John and Mary walk into a bar. John’s neck is hunched like a headrest. With each step, Mary’s tights unravel into a huge pale hole behind her knee.
Actually, this is not a joke. No priests or rabbis here—Mary, for example, is a dental hygienist, and John walks in twenty minutes after her. When he first sees her, she is sitting with her exposed places turned away. She stabs a straw in her daiquiri like an ice-pick, and he thinks, Hello.
JM1 + MF1 = ?
In fact Johannes is pretty damn ugly and Marie is tired of stepping all over him every time she wants to get off. It is too unfair, she thinks, marching down into the subway and later out of the subway, click clack click clack, how she has ended up with an unemployed foot fetishist who is ugly to boot.
When she gets home, kicking off her heels, calling Hallo, Johannes is shaving over the kitchen sink. The straight razor glints at his neck. In fact Marie is ugly, too, but the child they conceive that night grows into a swimwear model whose photos are downloaded by other ugly Johns all over the world.
JM2 + MF2
Jonas is loyal. Jonas has a car and a dishwasher and all his teeth. So when Maria wheels him to the homeowner’s association meeting and the neighbors think she is his nurse, she tries not to mind.
I’m a geriatric bastard, he tells her. You’re a fool to be with me.
She draws his bath and reads him Chekhov, watching his proud and creaky body fall asleep. Not such a fool, she whispers, over his slumbering breaths.
(JM+ MF) + JF+ MM
John, who is a gentleman, waits two weeks before he stays the night. Mary, who is lots of fun, waits two years before she demands a ring. They have a favorite Chinese takeout and a Smiths song that is all theirs.
Jenny teaches at John’s school. Mike, the dentist, has already fingered Mary’s minty mouth. So Mary plucks her eyebrows out hair by hair and John, watching, invents places he needs to be.
(JM3 + ?) + (MF3 + MM3)
Johnny is Marilyn’s first love. She is his second—after his mother. They meet in the marsh where the cat-tails stand straight up and the heat sticks her braids to her back. She has friends in New York, even a job, she says. He could write. For him Marilyn will wear leprechaun ears and bus tables; she will live in a room without a door.
Johnny waits for her to finish, his shoes sinking in the mud. He says, Look--
So—what else?—she goes alone.
Years later, standing before the altar, Michael surprises her with a bowl of M&Ms: red, green, blue, orange, yellow, brown. There are so many choices, he says, reading from the slip of vows, but you are my only favorite color.
She smiles back, all in white.
(0.5JM + JF) + (0.5JM + MF)
In the midst of a back massage, Jenny says, Look, I don’t need any promises, but--
But what? John’s coconut-oiled fingers tighten on her shoulder blades.
I think I deserve a guy who will kill roaches and split the rent, that’s all.
You want me to pay— He is suddenly cold without his shirt.
—because I could--
With Jenny lying down like that on her stomach, shoulder rounded over her breasts, her laughter vibrates up his arms. What, keep me?
John jerks back his hands.
You couldn’t afford me, she says, and in the dim lamplight every bit of her glows.
JM4 / MF4 + JF4
Jonathan is no fool. A wall of anti-ballistic plastic surrounds his seat. His cupholder holsters a handgun. But Jeanette does not even thank him for the pepper spray, holding it out like a stumpy baton. Do I really need this?
Take it anyway. He shows her how: index finger up, as if scolding a child.
She kisses him and goes back to painting her toes.
For eleven years he has kept Mariam’s photo taped to the cab’s rearview mirror. Jeanette can forgive this but she’s sick of seeing it—his great blind spot—three thousand miles away and mirrored in the unassailable past. Each night as Jonathan’s shift begins, he brushes his lips with his thumb and places it on her sepia mouth.
(JM5 + MM5) + MF5
I have something to tell you. Juan frowns. Mara. I’ve met someone. It isn’t--
Mick reaches for his hand. You sure you want to tell her?
Juan kisses their knitted knuckles. Let me practice once again.
Okay, Mick says.
JM + MF + ? + ?
Mary snores. John buys ten Powerball tickets each Tuesday and collects his nail-clippings in a jar. He thins and she fattens. At their favorite karaoke bar, Mary’s voice crackles like a car radio John wants to turn off.
On the day Jenny weds Mike, John smokes his last Cuban cigar. Mary turns up the waist of her pencil skirt and glories in the stares.
[(JM1 + MF1) +MM0]23 = JF1 + MM1
Would you believe Jennifer loves a billionaire, a man even uglier than her father? It’s true. She lies on his bed, ropes of diamond strung all over her languid limbs. And Mikhail touches the rubies at her nape, the opals between her legs, whispering, Jennie, Jennie, and she moans without words, one name and one body enough for them both.
MF3 + (MM3 + ?) + JM3
It takes Marilyn eight years after the divorce to realize the candy was a reference--M&M, Michael & Marilyn: their soulmated names.
JM + MF+ JF + MM – MF – JM – JF – MM
In the end Mary is a hospitalized sweet potato, sprouting tubes from every mouth. In the end John shrivels up and falls like a moth finding light.
Okay, so this is a joke after all: in every life, John and Mary were in love. They were! But even Mike forgets them when he forgets himself. On his trembling lips: Lover? Rival? Friend?
The punchline, you’ve known all along—John and Mary die.
The punchline is: Jenny sits with Mike every day, reminding him what to believe, until she dies, too.
(JM4 + MF4)
Welcome home, Mariam says at last, her improbable fingers touching his cheek, and Jonathan is no longer afraid.
This piece was originally published in TheEEEL in August of 2014
Elise Liu is a Chinese-American global nomad based in Dubai. She doesn’t like borders. Her recent work appears in Rattle, The Newer York, Ember, and the Found Poetry Review.
Issue Six is our second in print, and features work by Cristina de Middel, Afabwaje Kurian, Chitra Ganesh, Jayson Musson, and more! Issue Six also comes with limited edition supplements:All of Them Witches, a 32-page risograph-printed comic re-interpreting 1950s Harvey Horror comics, plus volume four of our comics section, Early Edition!