Rachel King

We don’t know where it came from. We visit a doctor, if we can afford it, and they tell us we don’t have problems. Or rather, we have problems — a strained shoulder, a pulled hamstring, too much drinking, too much smoking — but we don’t have problems where we hurt. Right here, doctor, we say, holding a stomach or pointing to the left side of our chest, right here, right here, right here. If we can’t afford a doctor, we tell our coworkers, who diagnose without charge. I don’t know, say the doctors. I don’t know, say the coworkers. There’s nothing wrong with you there. It’s a dull ache, always there, we say. Or, it comes and goes, we say. The doctors test, then shrug. The receptionist tells us we’ll receive a bill. Our coworkers nod while chopping meat. That’s life, they say. Sometimes pain comes from who knows where, and no one knows how to stop it. Sometimes you just keep hurting.

We learn to live with it. We learn not to discuss it. When friends ask how we’re doing, we say OK, we complain about our jobs, brag about our kids. This pain is nothing, less than nothing, we tell ourselves. The doctor says it doesn’t exist so it doesn’t exist. Sometimes in summer we wake up at first light and lie there listening to our bodies, the pain in the middle of our stomach, the pain that shifts to either side of our chest or builds up in our forehead, and tell ourselves if we stop imagining it, it will vanish. For a few of us, it fades or disappears when we switch jobs, when we find a partner. But for many of us, it continues, fitting into our daily routine like that cup of coffee in the morning, that beer, or multiple beers, after work. Alcohol dulls it because it dulls everything. Some of us take pills because it does the same, but feels more soothing. We don’t become angry on pills, we just fade away. We become nothing. The pain becomes nothing. It is nothing, the doctors said. It is nothing, the coworkers said. It’s now nothing, and we are nothing, sitting high in our bedrooms in the late afternoon light of winter while our kids watch TV in the next room, scrubbing the shop counters but feeling gloriously outside of it.

Some of us drown in that kind of life. We lose our job, our marriage, our kids. But many of us only dabble in it. We like the feeling but resist it. We are better than that, we tell ourselves. There are people who love us and are relying on us. We quit drinking every day. We set up a GoFundMe to cover the healthcare costs of our son or daughter, who broke his arm playing basketball or tore her ACL playing soccer. The pain increases when we reach out to strangers online, and sometimes we drink or get high sitting at the computer setting up an account just to deal with the indignity and embarrassment of it. But other times, holding our spouse’s hand under the bed covers, watching the news with our parents, or shooting the shit with our siblings or friends over a dinner, the pain fades, so we try to do more and more of that. But we can’t, we won’t, mention the pain to any of them because we’re not crazy, and we don’t want to be told again that we’re imagining it.

The pain continues for years. Sometimes we bring it up, but only to each other; we wonder when it began, how we could stop it. Some of us trace it back to starting to work at the factory, then after a few weeks or a few months, it began, but some of us had it before or after, so we know quitting is not necessarily a cure for it. We whisper because there are always those around the shop or the bar who don’t have it, who will make fun of us for it. Hell, we often make fun of it among ourselves, point out where it’s moved, from the legs to the back of the neck, try to laugh off panic by admitting the irrationality of it.

Occasionally the pain fills our whole bodies, and we collectively hold up the middle finger to it. We get into a fistfight with one another at a bar, at someone’s house over poker, at a rodeo we go to together then all get kicked out of. But most of the time, when the pain fills us all over, we’re alone, or with family, and if we’re able to resist drugs, we maybe go on a drive, up or down I-25, or into the mountains, scared of the pain that has expanded all over us. One or two of us cry in the driver’s seat, alone in the car, but most of us are stoic or even optimistic, telling ourselves that tomorrow it might be different, tomorrow it might not be gone, but we’ll feel it only in one area, we’ll feel less of it. We’re driving leased trucks, old sedans, one or two minivans, we’re driving to maybe, hopefully minimize the pain, but at the end of the day or the night — or in two days, if we have the courage or recklessness to drive that long, to spend that much on gas and take that much of a break from our lives — we drive home, we drive right back into the middle of whatever it is that we’ll never know that makes us have this pain, yes, real pain. Can you hear us? Please listen. We are not imagining any of it.

Rachel King was educated at the University of Oregon and West Virginia University. Her short stories have appeared in One Story, North American Review, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere, and her novel People Along the Sand is forthcoming in Fall 2021. She lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.