The pants are sexy in that specific old-denim sense; the crotch faded, the hems raw, worn down in a way that stresses living. But they stay in your closet. They have collected a slight layer of dust. They are irreparably creased from disuse. When you dress, you are careful not to make contact with them. You are careful to let them be.
You are usually careful about everything, but the second time you wore the pants you received a text from an old friend who wanted to let you know that you were no longer important to her. You had fallen out of communication. You are particularly bad at caring for things that are not in front of you and she is right—this loss is your fault. You want to explain to her that you have been having trouble touching your phone; you cannot get it out of your head that the phone is crawling with Outside Germs, germs that are threatening to you and the people you love, to her, and no matter how many times you bleach the phone, again and again and again until something in your brain stills, the phone is always unclean. Unsafe. Instead, you gingerly type I understand. You undress that night with your fingertips. You throw away the t-shirt you were wearing, but you fold the pants carefully. The steady threats inside your head demand this. When they are folded, a process of undoing and redoing and endless until it is right, you hang them where their bad can’t get you.
Your therapist has a name for this—Magical Thinking. This is so funny to you, you who is deeply afraid of anything she can’t see. You equate magic with religion, which is a whole other session subject, the thing that got you young and ruined you. She explains that with your specific kind of sick, your intrusive thoughts like to entangle themselves with everyday occurrences. They are irrational and relentless. The only way you can fight them is through your daily safeguards.
This makes some sense to you. You, who must run her knees into sharp table edges, close your fingers in drawers, pinch yourself until you bruise, whenever you catch yourself doing anything that totals up to six. You count your steps, your daily movements, your breaths to ensure they are not six, that they are not fifteen (five plus one equals six, and so on) because if you land on six your worst thoughts will come true. The pants are now a part of a collection of precarious things that will ruin your life if you are not careful.
Try the pants on urges your therapist, who has a love of leading you to everything you can’t do, and next time, we’ll discuss what happened.
You think about it the next day, the pants beckoning you to the back of your closet like a bruise, but your sister cancels your evening plans last minute to stay in and watch a movie. She wants you to join her, but as you are pulling on your sweatpants your brain wonders what if you have COVID and even though you have seen no one felt no illness you take all eight tests from the bottom shelf of your bathroom cabinet and even though they are negative you don’t believe them your sister could get sick because your nose is bleeding from the way you ground that swab against your skin and you are worried that she could die if the blood has ruined the results.
And again, you do not wear the pants when you go to play games with your friends in their living room because you accidentally lost their travel mug that they let you use to sneak vodka into a movie you saw together because the medicine you’re on can’t quiet you like booze can and you are worried they will be upset. The pants might worsen things. As it turns out, the mug is very special to your friend and even though they tell you it’s totally fine you are convinced you have ruined everything you have lost them and you play games like you’re fine break or lose them until your friend calls the theater and learns that the mug is there, the mug is safe, you left the mug behind and you cry. The sudden adrenaline of the voice that is you but not you going soft makes you weep. Holding together the fragments of you until you collapse into yourself—your special skill.
You get drunk the night before your next therapy session and stand at the mouth of your closet. The lights are off, but you can feel the pants looming against the back wall. You pace. You try a breathing exercise. You drink. Your brain suddenly brings you to think about where you got the pants and your mother is in your mind. Your mother bought you the pants when she saw you fingering the gentleness of the denim and checking the price tag and recoiling. Your mother who, if you miss her first call, calls you again and again and again until you pick up, because once she caught you eating cleaning wipes as a compulsion because you were lost to the fear that you were full of filthy things that could hurt her unless you scrubbed them out of yourself and you let it slip when she was trying to get you to get sick that the only thoughts that can ever really soothe a thought-cycle are I will die, and I will fucking kill myself. Your mother, who bought you the pants because she wants you to live in them, who understands so little about your life, was so hurt by those words. More hurt in her than any intrusion could ever convince you of.
You lie to your therapist. You tell her you wore the pants out for drinks and that all is well. She claps for you, and you chatter about other things for the rest of the session. You are so engaged. She doesn’t know that you are a thrumming wound, that you are fielding off a cluster of jagged thoughts scraping at the smoothness of your forehead. She is always so hopeful for you. She tells you that the right combination of therapy and medication will let you live easily. You want this more than anything because you can’t always see ahead of yourself. You are so exhausted. You are so embarrassed that you can’t live well without everyone’s worry. You are so worried about everyone. You want to interrupt your therapist who is telling you about her upcoming trip with her friends what if you are sick and you get her sick and she gets her friends sick and they die and it is your fault and tell her every rotten, repulsive, love-ending thought you have eating you away from yourself but you can’t.
You have to keep it all inside. You have to be careful. You have to. You have to keep everything within you so forget the pants fuck the pants the pants are easy even now you want so badly to type the worst things you’ve ever thought you, who are never lonely because the thoughts are always there reminding you of what you might be what you might have done but to tell someone is to make the thoughts true you, who needs to know if someone else has done the same thought the same hurts the same but you cannot you cannot you will not you will let yourself get lost in conversations when the fucking screaming in your head is such a swallow you will break you will keep still you will save your mother and your sisters and your friends and any passing person because you know. You can save everyone but yourself.
Abby Feden (she/her) is a fiction writer living in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She is the winner of The 2020 SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction. Her work has been nominated for The Best of the Net, a Pushcart Prize, and appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, X-R-A-Y, Third Coast, and Best Small Fictions 2021. Feden received her MFA from Western Washington University and is in her third year of Oklahoma State University’s PhD in Creative Writing.