Fiction: One Hundred Fifty Gallons
By Kaleb A. Brown
She had always been better at math, but since she was gone, he was stuck doing the calculations for his project. His finger trailed up the measuring tape, mouthing the numbers. The tub was eighteen inches tall. He pressed down on the tape's black button; it hissed as it slithered back into its shell. Then the reign of silence continued.
The nearest school was about five miles out, a car only rumbled down the street every few hours, and the birds never sang in the neighborhood. She wasn’t a chatterbox, but her presence was loud enough. She always said that this place was too quiet, she suggested they move out of the burbs and into the city. He’d always say the house was wonderful as long as she was there. Now, it was his prison.
As he knelt beside the porcelain, he could see, but not feel the memory — she held him in that tub, caressing and wrapping him her with her love. If felt like describing a film he knew he saw but didn’t recall watching.
Shouldn’t he be doing something?
Right, the calculations. From reading books to watching shows — he hadn't been able to focus on much, but he swore he'd do this.
He entered the measurements into his phone. His tub held thirty-four-thousand-five-hundred-sixty cubic inches. He tapped and typed on the phone, looking at the screen with a furrowed brow and hard frown.
To submerge himself, he’d need to spend three-hundred odd dollars to buy one-hundred-fifty gallons of milk.
He went to the bedroom to grab his wallet. He slowly opened the door, the light illuminating the red, queen-sized bed they shared for a year. It hurt. But what didn’t? The jangle of keys reminded him of their joyrides, the dining room table reminded him of them playing chess, the damn toilet reminded him of her singing in the shower. He told himself that he wouldn’t hurt if he slept on the couch, but no — on the couch, they watched movies and read side-by-side. No matter what he did or didn’t do, the echo of her remained.
He went to the kitchen and opened the fridge, empty save for a long expired, half-empty jug of two-percent milk that had long expired. If it wasn’t good enough for her tea, it wouldn’t be good enough for the bath.
He was the one who created the rose milk tea that she had loved so much. She was a refined woman; the only reason she courted a man ten years her junior was because she said he had his life together. Her refinement showed in what she drank: rose tea without sugar. While it was a bit bland, she said that adding things just made it taste bland-with-a-dash-of-sugar. He tried his hand at fixing the drink by adding a bit of milk and a hint of simple syrup. Voila, she loved it and he had prepared her rose milk tea ever since.
He felt it was the least he could do for a woman that he had fallen in love with at first sight. She said he always made her tea taste heavenly. Fitting: a heavenly drink for a goddess.
He cringed at the thought. She’d get upset when he called her that. He played it off as a joke. But he meant it and would think it often.
So often, in fact, that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back of their relationship.
She sobbed in their bed, her entire body heaving. It was beautiful in its ugliness. She was wracked with guilt when she told him she wasn’t happy anymore. She lost sight of the man she fell in love with, the man who had it together. In his place was a man who had no aspirations beyond her. So she began cheating.
He ignored the twist in his stomach, the flare of anger in his head, the kick to his heart. His only future was with her, so he couldn’t scare her off. He couldn’t be angry, couldn’t argue. Instead, he’d smile and tell her that if sleeping with others made her happy, so be it, so long as she didn’t leave.
The next morning, she left.
And with her, she took the piece of his mind that held his peace of mind. It was a wonderful thing, not having a mind. With her, he never had to think too much. He didn’t need to fret over anything as long as he had her. He relinquished control but now it was hoisted upon him and he didn’t want it. A year’s worth of thoughts came flooding into his mind, the kind that told him that it was a good idea to bathe in one-hundred-fifty gallons of milk.
The sun had just set when he parked in the lot of the local grocery store. Beyond momentarily seeing a faceless wraith of her in the passenger seat and despite all the sputtering and gasping his beige volvo gave, he had no issues getting to his destination. The volvo wasn’t the fanciest limousine and with his fleece jogging pants and hoodie, he wasn't the sharpest chauffeur for the lovely leche, but it would have to do.
He turned the key to kill the engine. He closed his eyes and sighed as his hands went slack from the wheel. It was his first time driving in what felt like ages. Maybe it was the air that he hadn’t tasted for so long that caused the second-guessing.
At the front of the store, the automatic doors opened to accommodate him and his basket. The cold air tickled his skin and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He gawked as shoppers scurried along. It had been his first non-food-delivery taste of live, human contact since the breakup.
His steps were so heavy and slow he might as well have been walking on the ocean floor instead of in the grocery store. may have been in slow-motion. Other customers darted to and fro and whipped their heads up to read aisle signs. They weren’t trapped in their minds; they were alive in a way that he wasn’t. They had purpose. It filled him with an aching envy.
He had bought milk from this store many times, he knew the dairy section was straight to the back. Yet, he didn’t go there. Instead, milled about the store. He stopped at the cereal section; maybe he’d settle for one carton and use it for a bowl of sugary cereal, as a normal person would. Maybe he’d buy groceries to start making his own meals again.
His mood darkened as he heard a group of children screaming playfully, followed by their father hushing them. His dreams of starting a family with her, so assured he treated it as a foregone conclusion, were dashed. A life without her wouldn’t be his own, it would be a stranger’s. He made his way to the back of the store.
As he approached the glass door to the milk, he froze. He didn’t recognize the disheveled man who reached for the handle and stared at him. He felt ashamed at the transformation; he used to be so particular about his appearance. The man looking at him wasn’t a man she’d love. Though he wondered if he ever was a man she loved.
He pushed the thoughts aside. He didn’t want to think. He yanked the door open, grabbed the milk then placed it in his basket. Jug after jug of the two percent milk was feverishly snatched from their cradles on the rack and placed into his plastic prison. He counted silently as he worked, ignoring how sore his arm got. He laid them on their sides, freeing up the basket to fit. People began looking at him once he had exhausted an entire shelf. He reached for the back and took some more, squeezing as much milk as he could into the basket. He didn't mind their stares; he was back into his own world. They hadn't been in love. If they did, surely they'd understand his grief.
Once he ran out of space in his basket, he got another from the front of the store. The second basket was halfway full once he had one-hundred-fifty jugs of milk. He pulled two baskets to the front of the store, awkwardly walking sideways to do so. A part of him told him he could stop, but he figured he might as well buy them since he went through all the trouble of getting them.
With one-hundred-fifty containers of milk, self-checkout would be more hassle than it was worth. He'd have to deal with the dreaded cashier. He positioned himself in line. Once it was his turn, the cashier paused before smiling. He ignored the cashier's attempt at small talk.
Yes, he would be paying in debit.
No, he would not like to sign up for their rewards program.
No, he wouldn't need help taking it to his car.
No, he would not like them bagged.
After the ten-minute ring-up, he paid for his dairy and maneuvered the baskets to his car. Even while making sure he didn't cover his rear window, he had more than enough space for the milk.
The hard part was done, now all he needed to do was start the car and-
The engine gave a sputter and wheeze once he turned the key.
He thought nothing of it. He tried again.
Another sputter, more wheezing, no starting.
Panic set in. Of all the times to break down, it had to do it now? He tried again and again, but each time, the car failed to start. She always told him that he should invest in a new car. She suggested a lot of things, but he was always in a state of carefree bliss. She said that was part of the problem: the mature man she once loved seemed to melt before her eyes once they started dating.
He a shout of frustration and held his head in his hands. The thoughts came rushing back. He wondered what the hell he was doing. Better yet, why the hell was he doing it? He couldn’t even keep his excuse straight. Sometimes, he told himself he was "invoking her essence” like he was some sort of lactate shaman." Other times he said it was as a lament to their. In that moment, he told himself he just wanted to feel something other than hurt.
Maybe his car breaking down was a sign. Yes, he spent all his money on milk. Yes, eviction was approaching. He hadn’t checked his work email nor work phone for weeks, but the writing was on the wall. Reality was catching up to him, but only because he was standing still. He could still run. He could get a new job. He could begin again.
But he didn’t want to.
The whispers of logic were drowned out by the scream of emotion. He missed her. Even if he couldn’t get her back, he still wanted to be with her. He had made his bed. Now all that was left to do was sleep.
He touched the phone in his pocket and sighed. He’d need help. He took it out and phoned a friend, saying that he needed a ride home, avoiding telling them he also needed them to transport one-hundred-fifty gallons of milk. They were happy to pick up and told him they’d be there in fifteen. He gazed out the windshield, unseeing as he waiting.
He jolted to attention as his friend knocked on the window with a smile. Cheerfulness was something he hadn’t experienced in a while. He gave his own, phony smile, praying they didn’t see how strained it was. He told them he’d need help with his groceries if they didn’t mind. While they agreed, their smile faltered as he opened his car and started transferring the milk cartons from his car to theirs. After, he climbed in the passenger seat before they drove out of the lot.
He sat with his hands in his lap as the car drove through the streets at night, lit by the orange glow of the streetlights. They made a comment about the smell. He played it off by saying he had worked up a sweat. They said they missed him, that they used to hang out all the time but he didn’t talk to them as much when he started seeing her. He nodded and said he was sorry. He said he’d promise to hang out again; a promise he didn’t care about keeping. She was the only friend he needed; everyone else felt supplementary. With her gone, they all felt like strangers.
He responded to the small talk, throwing a smile here, a laugh there. He pantomimed being okay. He never knew he could be this good of an actor.
They asked what the milk was for.
He tried thinking up an excuse. He told them he was going to bathe in it. He wasn’t that good an actor.
They asked why.
He told them because he felt like it. And that was that.
Once they pulled up to his curb, they helped him unload the milk. They told him that they knew the breakup was hard for him and that they’d always be there if he needed to talk.
He didn’t doubt their words, but he figured talking wouldn’t help.
He hauled the jugs of milk into his house as the crickets chirped. He filled his hallway with the cartons. He flipped the switch above the drain, closing it. He poured each container into the tub, each jug making a glugging sound as it was drained of its contents. A crooked smile spread across his lips as he watched his dream become realized, jug by jug.
It felt like an eternity before he was done, before all the containers were empty. He drew a ragged breath and rose with wobbling knees. He was sore from carrying the cartons; his muscles were tight and craved rest. Fatigue would only make the bath that much more satisfying. Once more, he'd be in her embrace. He stripped off his clothes, bare in front of his pool. He gave a shudder at the sight of his bath, at the feeling of his nakedness. It felt intimate; he could see her leg breaching the milk. Yes, he was a weirdo. But he didn’t care anymore. He was in love.
He placed one leg in, then another. He lowered himself into the bath, his body being swallowed by the milk. A tsunami of milk sloshed out the tub, crashing into jetsam onto the tile below. He didn’t account for displacement. Oh well. He clamped his teeth tightly against each other to stop them from clattering. The felt frigid against his skin.
Then it felt warm.
He sighed and drew his head back. It was silent, outside, but he could hear her. He could hear her laughing, talking, singing. He could feel her, all around him. His heart raced; they were together again. Yes, this was what he needed. He felt whole again. For the first time since she left him, he felt happy.
The bath didn't have the murky, nondescript scent of milk. His nose was filled with the sharp, alluring aroma of roses as he sank further down into the bath. He smiled as he let the milk cover his mouth and nose. He tasted the intoxicating sweetness of the sugar.
He finally felt it. Felt her arms, felt the warmth of the water, the beat of his heart. He had been sick and she cared for him. He always took showers, but she coaxed him into taking a bath, saying he’d feel more relaxed. She brought him rose milk tea. He was moved to tears drinking the tea in the bath, being caressed and wrapped by her love. All he wanted was for her to take care of him, to not have to worry about thinking. He told her she was perfect. She told him to be careful; one day he might believe it.
He couldn’t he could leave the tub. He'd be naked, vulnerable, listless if he did. Here, he was alive, here he had purpose.
No, now that he was with her, he had no intention of parting.
A whiteness came over him as he sank deeper into the bath. It was too late for him. Too late to fight it. He had believed it with every fiber of his being and now that belief was his anchor; the flavorless world beyond the milk surface. To him, though, he wasn’t sinking, he was rising. He rose higher and higher into the abyss where her love caressed and suffocated him.
Kaleb A. Brown is a lifelong Michigander and graduate of the university of the same name (the University of Michigan, not "Michigander"). He aspires to be the type of writer that commands attention through his poetry, his fiction, or his day job as a product reviewer. When he's not writing, he enjoys reading, playing video games, and building Gundam model kits. His poetry and fiction appear in the anthology by Fifth Avenue Press, Bring Your Words.