The Dragging Man

The Dragging Man

By Alexandra Cline

When we met, you had this terrible neck ache. You held your head at a 45-degree angle, looking from side to side, unable to actually turn your face in any direction other than forward.

You said you had “some kind of accident,” and showed me all of these pill bottles with little red toppers, both natural and prescription, to aid in your ailment. You said you had tried all sorts of Chinese remedies and witchy herbs—anything “new age and hippie as all hell.”

As time went on and I learned your pains better, I realized your ailment wasn’t an accident in the least. And when you finally admitted that it was due to the “weight of it all,” I felt relief.

The day you showed me the bodies was the day I understood.

*

They made a very distinct sound, the bodies, as they dragged across the concrete.

You told me that one day you noticed a string, undetachable, as if it had spurt straight from one of the pores on your back of its own volition. You said it didn’t really hurt, not at first.

You had tried to pluck it, but the sucker was thick and sturdy, like fishing line. You took a pair of scissors to it, and that didn’t work either. After so many attempts, the scissors broke at the handle, and you moved on to hedge trimmers.

You woke the next morning in a daze, the trimmers still in your right hand. Upon examination in the bathroom mirror, you were startled and—what was the word you used?—even nauseated at the sight of three more strings popping out of your back. One in each shoulder blade, one in the center of the lower back, and one in the middle left region.

You thought about calling your doctor, but something kept you from doing it. You mumbled something about wanting to see what would come of it.

Looking back, I think you knew what it was all along, and figured the doctor would be no help at any rate.

You swear that when the first body appeared, you thought you were cursed.

*

The first one was Angie, your high school sweetheart. Her fire-engine-red hair dragged behind her in tendrils as you made your way to the sub shop. Her head bumped and thudded over cracks and stones on the sidewalk and, for a time, you would constantly ask her if she was hurt or bothered.

By the time I was introduced to Angie, you had stopped checking to see if she was alright. Her sighs and eyerolls were enough of a reminder of her discomfort.

It was early on in our courting stage, and I knew you were nervous and hoping to impress me. But goodness, I did not know just how nervous.

The clerk took one fleeting look at you as you entered the shop with the light twinkle of the bell hanging above the door and started plunking your usual order into the register without a word. I had been waiting in one of the cheap, plastic booths, and had jumped up at your arrival. You seemed unaffected by my greeting, and continued into the shop.

But as you neared the register, the bell above the door continued to wail, a shrill and repetitive sound.

You reddened at the sight of Angie’s upper half stuck in the doorway—our eyes met for the first time since you had reached the venue of our date.

The more you pulled, the more her torso tugged at the door, and the more the bell rang.

You turned back to the clerk who appraised your predicament with a raised eyebrow. Your eyes flickered back to mine once more before you sucked in air between your gritted teeth.

Hastily, you attempted to drag Angie the rest of the way through with one good tug, but it was no use. You returned to the doorway, awkwardly holding the door with one hand and trying to pull Angie into the shop with the other. Her cropped black band tee exposed her white stomach and dangling belly button ring. You remembered going with her to get the piercing, having promised to pierce your nose, but, as Angie had remarked, you had “backed out like a chicken” at the last minute.

You had begun to try to manipulate Angie’s flopping body with the toe of your boots. Kicking and squishing into her sides, knocking her head against the metal entryway.

Angie sighed and rolled her eyes, mumbling something about you being an “inconsiderate oaf,” and, in a moment of anxiety ridden panic, you reopened the door, shoving yourself and Angie out of the shop with one swift motion, leaving the cashier with the remaining jingles of the doorbell and his one raised brow.

I followed you out the door, trying to mask my concern with a grin, and suggested we go somewhere else for lunch. I cocked my head to one side and touched your shoulder. You shrugged me off and Angie giggled. I gave her a fierce glare and she “tsk’d” in response.

You grumbled about not liking that place much, anyway, and we carried on down the street, the sound of Angie’s skin scratching against the pavement the whole way.

*

You said by the third day you had convinced yourself to see a doctor. You had searched high and low for some kind of specialist that would be able to help you with your…growth.

But the deeper you delved into the world wide web, the more hopeless you became.

Hope aside, your resolve to see a professional arrived alongside the appearance of the second body.

*

The second wasn’t all that different from the first—and neither were the third and fourth. The only difference was that Roxanne was your crazy college girlfriend, and although her wild, curly blonde hair still turned you on and reminded you of the insane sex you had in her dorm room throughout your junior year, her high-pitched hyena laugh all but made you shove a fork in your forehead.

Mindy was alright, too, other than the wailing. She had always been a weepy woman, and you knew that something was up when you picked her up at that bar one night after work. You two had started talking by chance, and ended up sharing a couple rounds of some overpriced craft beer. She told you about her obsession with guinea pigs and bath bombs, and you nodded and smiled, all the while taking glances down her shirt at the view of her breasts that, in your opinion, were perfectly too large for her petite frame.

The following morning, you were surprised to find that Mindy wasn’t asleep beside you, but had locked herself in your bathroom.

You lightly rapped on the door, softly calling her name. Maybe she wasn’t feeling well.

After a beat, you heard quiet whimpering.

“Mindy, you alright?”

Another beat.

Wailing ensued, with some accusations of you “not really liking her” and that perhaps she was “just a quick lay” were hurled at you. You considered this, but, of course, reassured her that that was not the case at all. You thought of how her large breasts reminded you of your college girlfriend, Roxy, and shook your head to halt your grinning.

Mindy eventually opened the door after some choice words and the sound of all your toiletries being knocked out of your mirrored cabinet and into your pedestal sink. She flung the door open, and, as you recall it, leapt onto you, wrapping her legs around your waist and kissing your cheeks and forehead, calling you “baby love” over and over again.

When Mindy showed up attached to a string, you figured you wouldn’t be able to get out much anymore.

*

You said you decided to take “a break from crazy women—a good, long, break.”

“You know,” you said, “to focus on myself.” I smiled and nodded and placed my hands atop yours and spoke praise of your very motivated and inspiring decision. I winced a little at your choice of words, but figured that PC culture shouldn’t invade our connection. That one ex did, in fact, sound crazy after all.

We took more forkfuls of spaghetti and laughed about how mature and decisive we were.

You had this real way about you, crooked neck and all, and we did all kinds of things together…for a time.

We went to the park and the club and the theater and spent all kinds of time at each other’s apartments. You said I was the best lay you ever had and, for some reason, that really flattered me.

We got to the point where you said you wanted me to meet your mom. Without much hesitation, I agreed. The day came for our lunch date at the local hipster green-eats spot.

But when it was time to get into the car to leave, you complained of a back ache. You said you weren’t sure we would be able to go. I told you to take some pain relievers and you said it wouldn’t be enough. Maybe you needed to go back and get acupuncture.

Your breathing shallowed and you kept clenching and unclenching your fists.

I asked you what was wrong. I rubbed your shoulders. Kissed your neck. Did the caring-girlfriend-thing.

You shrugged me off and mumbled something about having a hard time introducing new girlfriends to your mom.

And that’s when I noticed the dragging start to affect us.

*

Angie came with us on the lunch date.

She laid there on the patio of the veggie-grill-green-eats-vegan-slop place where we met your mom. The string that connected her to you was coiled up next to her.

She rolled her eyes and scoffed and grumbled at every word exchanged at the table.

Your mother asked me what I did for work. She told me about when you were eleven and accidentally landed yourself in a pile of poison oak—she told me how you had a rash all the way down your bum and even worse places.

Angie broke into a cackle, and then Roxanne rolled over beside her—her hyena laugh resonating across the dining patio.

Your cheeks flushed and your brows came together.

“That’s not a funny story, Mom.” You shoved more kale in your mouth and chewed hard, your mandible stressed and pulsing.

You didn’t talk to me the whole drive home, and you didn’t answer my calls that night after you dropped me off. Later, you texted me to say that you didn’t like how I laughed at your mother’s embarrassing stories. I tried to reassure you that I didn’t mean anything by it—that I didn’t even really remember laughing.

You responded that we should “just drop it.”

*

More than a year went by and, more often than not, I found myself thinking that maybe you were it. Maybe you were the one.

Even when the dragging got really bad.

Mindy decided to make herself a permanent resident in our seemingly polyamorous affair shortly after a conversation we had about moving in together.

Even though you had suggested it initially, you said you weren’t sure you were “ready to share that kind of space.”

Some days, I didn’t notice the bodies at all, and you would stand a little taller, a little more erect.

Other days you’d have to call your chiropractor and make an emergency appointment.

We even got WD40 for the strings. They got a little stiff—maybe even a little rusty—after some time, and I wanted you to know that I cared enough to help you with the aches and pulling.

But some nights you’d shove me away, saying you didn’t feel like being touched, saying that you could take care of it on your own, and I would leave you to your own devices.

More time passed and the talk of moving in together was tabled.

We started to fight more frequently—often about stupid things—or things that I “didn’t understand.”

But no matter how hard I tried to understand, you told me it was no use.

You said your back started to ache too much. You took time off work. You stopped calling. Stopped responding.

I finally broke.

*

We decided to meet somewhere we actually liked.

You said you hadn’t been back to the sub spot since your awkward incident with the clerk, but agreed to meet me there, anyway.

You showed up looking well enough. Your stride was long and tall, your arms swinging at your sides; no strings in sight.

We hugged on the sidewalk, spoke in niceties. Did the whole I’m-sorry-and-I-miss-you without words.

But when we entered the little shop, your skin greyed a bit. You said you felt a little nauseous. That maybe you couldn’t eat.

We ordered and sat down anyway. I picked at my food and you didn’t bother to unwrap your sandwich.

You asked me about work. You fidgeted in your seat. You looked down at your hands in your lap. I could only wait so long.

“Are we over?”

A long, quiet pause ensued. The sound of the fridge that kept all the condiments cool vibrated in my ears. The cashier coughed and I imagined him watching us, one eyebrow raised.

Eventually, you raised your head, your eyes glossy.

“I met someone else.”

*

It’s been a few months since we broke up, and I’ve been feeling okay about how things turned out. We left the shop amicably, and I told you that I understood. You shook your head and laughed, remarking, “That’s always the deal with you, Hope. You’re always too understanding.” We left the shop together, my body dragging besides the others, my hair tangling with theirs, my little quirks and habits forever on your heels.

Sometimes late at night after seeing your new girlfriend, you tell me you feel especially bad about how things happened with us. That the kind of ache that comes from us is the worst kind, and that sometimes you wish you could peel your skin from the fingertips down, exposing the bone and unwrapping yourself, peeling away the epidermis from your ribcage—just like how you’d slide off a jacket—and remove your back, strings and all, leaving all the bodies (mine, especially) behind.

I tell you that I wish the same.

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