Phlegm – The Girl Who Coughed Up Pearls
The push of the crowd in the subway car felt like a tide. Mana was pulled and pushed, but at the same time the press of bodies supported her. Her head was swimming and her legs ached. Her over warm breath fogged her glasses above the white mask she wore. This made everything look like a dream sequence from an old drama, blurred at the edges. It had been raining above ground so the train was crammed with wet people, wet umbrellas and a damp warm fug.
Just four more stops. She tilted her head slightly to try to see the electronic board showing the subway line, but it was blocked by a sea of heads. Mana was short. If she hadn’t been wearing her office uniform she could have easily been mistaken for a schoolgirl.
The train swayed to a stop in a station. The crowd flowed out of doors on the other side from her like an exhaled breath. She swayed as the pressure holding her released. Then the fresh intake of people bolstered her again. This time she was pressed up against a businessman in a traditional suit, but with very untraditional hair. He was flicking at a game on his phone.
Mana closed her eyes. The train pulled forward again. She could feel another cough rising from deep in her lungs. The last two hours at work she had felt the heat of fever flowing through her, but she had stayed, endured. You can’t go home early. You can’t, she had thought again and again. You can’t. You can’t.
The cough was rising like an underground spring. She clamped her teeth together and pressed her lips shut. Don’t, not now, not here. Just three more stops.
The coughs burst out of her. They were wet and full of bitter, salt phlegm. Her body rocked, knocking the arm of the businessman and earning her an angry glance. Her arms were pinned, one holding her umbrella, the other her bags, so she couldn’t raise them to cover her face. Disgusting. The mask caught the worst of it, but there was only so much the curve of cloth could do.
- She could tell the people around her thought she was disgusting. She thought it of herself too. Disgusting. Endure it.
She coughed all the way through the next two stops. Her eyes were running and her ribs felt like bands of fire. As the coughing subsided she heard the name of her station being called over the sound of her own gurgling breaths. “The doors on the left side will open,” said the automated voice.
People parted to let her through with the automatic shift of bodies performed by habitual rush hour riders. She was finally able raise a hand to her dripping mask. From her pocket she pulled a square handkerchief embroidered with a cute blue bunny. She pressed it to her mouth as she pushed forward towards the doors.
With a hydraulic sigh the doors opened spilling her and dozens of other passengers out onto the platform. One crowd rushed away towards the while another pressed forward into the train. She clutched her umbrella and tried not to fall.
Then, in a moment of peace she was out of the crowd. The yellow lines on the platform showing the way to the exit seemed to waver before her. Just a little further.
She tried to take a deep breath, but her lungs threatened to start coughing again, so she just wiped at her eyes with the clean edge of her handkerchief.
Mana didn’t want to touch the handrail as she climbed, but she found she had to. She had a brief vision of herself falling backwards down the stairs. It repeated over and over in her head, slower each time. Her head would crack open, her expression surprised and face pale like a drowned girl. She gripped her umbrella tighter and kept climbing, shaking herself free of the thought. Don’t think that. Think happy thoughts. Home. Bed. Medicine. Hot tea and familiar pillows.
She fumbled for her subway pass for a while at the gate. Behind her the next load of passengers was rushing up the stairs. She beeped her way though before they reached her. She didn’t want to offend anyone else with her disgustingness. Home, home, home.
She paused at the exit to open her umbrella. The rain was still coming down. It moved across the street in waves blown by the wind. A typhoon? She couldn’t tell if the heat she felt was her fever or the heat of the summer storm. She stepped out into the rain and the wind blew her umbrella inside out immediately. She struggled to close it, but the bent spines resisted. The rain soaked her. Her hot skin seemed to dissolve in the hot rain so she couldn’t tell where the wetness ended and she began.
A sluggish river of traffic wound through the streets. Their headlights and the lights of the shop signs made the rain shine. Oh well, another umbrella gone. Not the end of the world. She still held on to it though, despite the wind pulling at it.
Mana crossed the river of traffic. The sidewalk was becoming a stream too as the water poured over the pavement. She stepped in a puddle formed in the dip of a manhole cover. This water was cool and soaked right though her cream canvas shoe. Now every other step she took towards home squelched. The wetness was inside and out. She felt a familiar feeling come over her. She was floating though it all. It didn’t matter. It was just water. Let it run off her.
She had often felt like this. When things went wrong she just didn’t care. The worse they were, the less it mattered. She turned away from the more brightly lit streets into the darker residential areas. Here the lights of the convenience stores stood out, not competing with the sign lights and neon of the area around the station.
She punched in the door code of her apartment block. Two staircases twisted away in different directions. This block had been build around a pre-existing building so it was made of strange angles. She headed up the stairs. Her umbrella caught awkwardly at one of the turns. Anger flared up inside her. No. So close. Not here. She pushed the anger down and smoothed it over, smothering its flames with her normal softness, like laying a blanket over a fire. It wasn’t the umbrella’s fault. It was just a thing. She twisted it free and climbed the last two flights of stairs.
Her apartment was small, but it fitted her like a shell. She kicked off her drenched shoes in the entryway. One stockinged foot left wet footprints on the brown wooden floor. There were only two rooms, a bathroom and a room that served as everything else. It was all she could afford if she wanted to live by herself. Her mother always sucked her teeth when she came here. ‘In such a bad area of town. Why don’t you move back home?’ Although her mother always said how much she disliked the apartment she still came by almost every week, even if Mana wished she wouldn’t. But she was her mother, of course she couldn’r say anything. It had been almost too much of a struggle to move out at all. Though today, she wished for a moment that she were back in the warm embrace of the family home.
Mana peeled off her wet clothes and let them drop straight into the laundry hamper. She stood completely naked for a moment. Her hair dripped cold water down her back and she shivered. A bath, oh how wonderful that would be, but it was too expensive to heat the water just for her.
Back home, and she still thought of it that way as much as she didn’t want to, there was a wonderful bathroom. She used to soak there for twenty minutes after she got back from cram school. It was the most peaceful part of the day. Even her mother left her alone in the bathroom.
She just had a quick shower instead, standing next to the bathtub. She was too tired to do much more than wipe at herself limply with a washcloth. Out of the bathroom she towelled herself dry and wrapped up her hair in a panda towel that had two little ears on top. She pulled her futon out of the low cupboard where she kept it to make more space during the day. Her pyjamas were folded up inside the blankets. She struggled into them. Her fingers seemed to have forgotten how to fasten buttons. Mana lay down. She closed her eyes. Everything drifted away.
“Hey! Hey Mana! I’m coming in!” The voice woke her. She turned over and looked up to see her friend looking down at her. Yuuki was all dressed up, but she had been crying. Her lashes were coming adrift. In Mana’s confusion she thought she saw two bleeding spiders floating in a pool of milk. How strange, she thought, unable to form any thought more precise.
“Mana, he’s seeing someone else.”
Oh go away. No, that’s a bad thought. Push it down. She needs my help. Be a good friend. Be a good girl. Mana sat up. She wiped at her eyes. Inside her lungs seemed to be burning. She imagined smoke would pour from her mouth when she opened it.
“What,” she coughed. It felt like there was something hard rattling around inside her. She pushed though, pushed it down. “What happened?”
Yuuki dropped down on the bed beside her and buried her face in Mana’s recently vacated pillow. Oh, you shouldn’t do that. You’ll get sick too. Mana just looked down at her friend. Yuuki was sobbing, her narrow back moving up and down. Great, now my pillow will be wet. No. Don’t think that. Poor Yuuki. Poor Yuuki. She stroked her friend’s back gently. Mana felt like she was moving though water. Everything was heavy. How is it that bad things all seem to come at once? It’s like they are a pack of wild dogs picking on the weak. Mana thought she could hear them growling, but it was just her own breathing.
Through the sobs, over the next forty minutes Yuuki poured out her tale. Her boyfriend, who Mana had never thought much of, but never said anything for fear of upsetting her friend, had been seen with another woman. Yuuki worked part time at a snack bar and another of the girls had told her she’d seen her boyfriend coming out of a love hotel with another woman.
“She said she was fat. He’s running around with some fat bitch.”
She remembered how many times Yuuki had cried over other girls teasing her for her weight at school. The spring after they graduated Yuuki had dragged Mana along on her diet. Calling this other woman fat seems a little unfair after all that. Mana thought remembering how Yuuki had persuaded her to pay for half of the teas and tablets they took to try to lose weight. No. Don’t think that. I’m on Yuuki’s side.
Mana felt another cough bubbling up. She made a strange noise as she tried to push it down.
“Oh, Mana, I knew you’d understand.”
Oh, she thinks that was a noise meant to agree with her. Good.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Mana said. She felt as if she had to push her words through a blanket of phlegm.
“Yes please.” Mana sniffed.
Mana stood up. She slipped her feet into her puppy shaped slippers and shuffled over to the side of the room that formed the kitchen. The electric pot had hot water ready so all she had to do was get the mugs, put the tea in and press the button to pour. It’s not hard. You can do it. You can do it for Mana. I wish she was making me a cup of tea, not the other way around. No. That’s hardly fair because… because… She couldn’t concentrate on that thought and the tea at the same time. She coughed again, the hard thing rattling inside felt heavier.
Surely, Yuuki would notice she was sick. Surely she would say something. Mana put one ginger tea bag in a mug with a cute sheep on it. In a mug decorated with a lion she put a green tea bag. She put one under the kettle spout and pressed the top. Hot water poured in. The tea bag swelled and darkened.
As she walked back to the bed, careful, careful, don’t drop it that’d really ruin your day, she saw Yuuki bent over her phone. She put the lion mug down by her friend. Yuuki didn’t look up. Mana put her own mug down then sat, moving each part of herself with care so as to prevent whatever was rattling around inside her from shaking free again. Yuuki still didn’t look up.
Mana lifted her mug up and breathed in the steam. The smell of ginger warmed her. She sat holding the mug until it was cool enough to drink. All the while Yuuki, hair falling over her face, typed on her phone.
I wonder if that’s him. The thought floated though, no more substantial than a curl of steam. Mana didn’t really find she cared one way or the other about Yuuki’s boyfriend. All she wanted was to go back to sleep. That makes me a terrible person, doesn’t it? I guess I always was. I’m just pretending to be good. I’m probably all rotten inside. I wonder if that’s what’s rattling. All my rottenness is coming loose. Am I running a fever? I feel hot. Or cold. I can’t tell anymore. I feel hotcold, coldhot.
Yuuki suddenly looked up. “Mana, I have to go. He says it’s all a mistake. He’s going to explain.” She smiled so wildly, Mana shrank back. “Oh, I must look a mess. Can I borrow your make-up?” She got up and headed to the bathroom before Mana could say anything.
Mana lay back and looked at the ceiling. There was a patch of mould in the corner where the bathtub in apartment above leaked. She should really tell them about it, but she didn’t want to trouble them.
After a few minutes Yuuki emerged. She looked fresh and sparkling as if she had never been crying. “How do I look?”
“Hey, Mana. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, don’t worry about me. Just a little cold.”
“Sure you are alright?”
“I’m fine. Or… I will be fine.”
“Bye Mana, thanks.”
Mana let her head drop back onto the pillow. The little plastic tubes that filled it crunched and settled against each other. The quiet seemed to rush back into the apartment with Yuuki’s departure. Softly Mana stood up and headed to the sink unit by the bathroom door. A lipstick and mascara were out of place on the side of the sink. She picked them up and dropped them in the bin. She’d just have to buy new ones after next Friday, when she was paid. Deep inside she felt a ticklish thought that she should be irritated with Yuuki, but couldn’t muster the care to bring it up to the surface.
Before she got back to her bed another coughing fit caught her. This time her lungs seemed to be trying to escape. Tears rolled down her face. They were big snotty tears that mixed with the phlegm coming from her nose. Mana clasped her hands over her face as she doubled over. It was like her own personal earthquake. She didn’t know how long it would last. Like in an earthquake she crouched down as she had been taught as a child. The tremors subsided, and then came the aftershocks. Her shoulders shook and she clasped her fingers tighter across her mouth. The slime was oozing at the edges, no matter how she tried to hold it in. Mana felt something hard against her palms.
The coughing left her and she felt empty. She blinked the tears out of her eyes. The front of her pyjamas was a mess. Her hands were too. She turned back to the sink to clean herself up. As she started to wash her hands she noticed something shining in her palm. As the water washed the slime away it revealed some small round things. They looked like pearls. Carefully, so as not to lose them down the sinkhole, Mana cleaned them off. They were beautiful. At first they seemed white, but as she tilted them in the light she saw gentle colours wash over them. Mana put them down carefully on the edge of the sink while she changed her pyjama top for an old T-shirt with a teddy bear skull on it. She collected her pearls again, brushing them carefully into her palm. She thought of them as hers and found, with a detached curiosity, that she wasn’t worried at all that she had coughed them up. How could she be worried about something so beautiful?
In bed she examined them more carefully, laying them out in a row on her pillow. Each was about the size of a green pea. They were white, but with those strange colours running across them. The colours didn’t flash, but rolled over the pearls in waves as she rolled the pearls back and fourth. Mana held one up close. In the colours she thought she saw something, but they shifted again before she could be sure. She thought she had seen herself on the train. In another she saw herself at her old middle school desk. In a third she saw herself talking to her mother. She must be dreaming, or fever mad though, because she had never talked to her mother the way that Mana did. She had never stood like that, hands on hips. She had never looked her mother straight in the eye like that. The image seemed to move as she rolled the pearl back and forth.
Mana felt another cough rising up. It seemed it was not done with her. She rolled over onto her side and drew her knees up. This time as she held her hands to her mouth she was not holding back phlegm, but a stream of pearls.