Malaise and Other Questionable Language

L. Noelle McLaughlin

I can tell she's taken one of her pills, the ones that slow down her mind. She hates them but hangs onto them in case she needs to adjust her pace, in an attempt to relate. It's interesting to me that the therapist thinks the only way to cure her condition is to slow it down. Tranquilize, like fine cars and french fries. Limit your vision, lids lower for a bit. Her pupils are small, their usual sparkle muted and fading. 

"Like chewing it up and swallowing and then vomiting it back into their mouths!" 

When I first met her, she never would have talked at a computer. She was all action, making things happen by raging and rioting. I met her back in my anarchist days, started squatting in the same circles after the protests. We were boyfriend and girlfriend early on, though she never really said it that way. We did the job on the Dutchess County deputy that they glossed over in the papers. She was the one who actually planted the bugs. I sat safely behind my monitor, a hacker since high school. Hell, she never even had a computer until I let her use mine. Still weirdly prejudiced against them. I explain to her this is a portal, our hallway into the offices to expose, but she insists the cold blue hum of them hurts her eyes after a while.

"And our general...malaise? Is that a word a happy homemaker would use?"

When Darrian says "happy homemaker," she's not talking about women in a derogatory manner; she's referring to any swallower of convention and our shit-eating government and calling them pussies. Except she wouldn't call them pussies, because she's a feminist, and that makes a bad word out of a very powerful thing. It's a habit she's breaking me of slowly, but I still think it, like any old habit not yet buried underneath shiny new neural pathways. The building of novel roads goes slow.

"Malaise sounds like it tastes so sexy. Hot pepper sesame malaise on tempeh and ancient grains."

The corner of her lip lifts. "Cook me up some uh dat malaise, babe."

"You got it." I get to my feet and finish making us dinner. Just because I defend her reckless nature, that doesn't keep me from wanting to take care of her. We get our produce from a farm share, so we know what we're getting into, what's getting into us, and what we're giving back out to what's around us. You can't tell what to fix if you can't even trace the source of a problem.

The article she's writing is about the revolts in Ukraine. She's writing it for this new job, though, so she can't say it the way she wants to say it, which is, "The people of Ukraine actually have balls." When I asked her if saying so would be sexist, she said, "I have bigger balls than you and you know it." So that was the end of that. Now she's trying to say it nicer, in a way that doesn't shake up the mainstream's reality too much, doesn't make them uncomfortable in their predictable little lives steeped in illusion. It's giving her a headache.

I bring her a plate to patch up her mental state. It's got a good mix of colors—dark greens and deep yellows and rich browns. Before she moved in, I doubt her dinners had very complex color schemes. She'd grab one thing off a shelf and feed until she was full, not even sitting to savor it. She eats ravenously as always, like a wolf with one eye out for the rest of the pack.

Darrian grew up in a large family. Twelve of them and not enough food to go around. She learned to fight for what she needed, though sometimes now she fights out of habit, not paying attention to what's right in front of her. I'm always having to remind her that I am on her side.

When she's done eating, she seems more herself again. She gulps some water from my glass, and a light behind her black eye glimmers, like a speck in a sleeping piece of coal. I picture the time she dropped the smoke can into the patrol car when they were arresting the protesters. The spice from the food leaves her face touched with red, like that first day she ran into me, literally, head-on and hard as a high-pressure water jet, and I fell for her like the ammo she'd been clinging to, clanging like bells at our feet.

"I need you," she says and leads me to the bed.

Inside of her, my ego melts and we activate all channels. If we could hack the world that way, it might be a place to want to stay.

L. Noelle McLaughlin is a ghostwriter, script doctor, and general word-tinkerer. She lives in New Paltz, New York. She speaks at