By Ashanthi Francis
The world ends before I can break up with my ugly boyfriend. He isn’t ugly in a striking way—no snaggle tooth or villainous nose crook or satellite dish ears. He is an Uggo, as my friends used to call him behind my back, meaning his physical appearance is both unpleasant and uninteresting. Perhaps it is his eyes, beady and too far apart, so far that you can never stare into one without making it obvious you are struggling to meet the other. The area between them is so vast I sometimes find myself peering into his forehead like it is a pasty crystal ball, hoping to find the expiry date of our relationship. I would have ditched him sooner if I saw it coming.
“It’s happening,” Uggo says one morning, as I scale the distance between his pupils using my breakfast selection as reference. Dill pickle? Too big. Cornichon? Way too small.
“Hmm?” I ask, annoyed because I have nearly superimposed an imaginary ruler on his forehead. It is definitely three inches. Or is it four? My stomach lurches in tune with the muscles of his face, contracting and settling into an obscure emotion. Nausea is the newest presenting symptom in my Uggo intolerance. It starts in the morning, four bites into a pickled breakfast, lending my days the foggy quality of living on a British transport ship.
Uggo pulls his phone down from his ear and stands up, moving exactly three steps into the living room of our apartment. As he walks, the stretched hem of his flannel bottoms dips slightly, revealing the white of his ass. He slumps onto the couch. I instinctively follow and sit cross-legged beside him, placing my chin on the shoulder seam of his scratchy knit sweater.
“What’s the matter?” I say, struggling to sound concerned. I have recently constructed a loving girlfriend character to try on around him—a tactful attempt to soften the blow of our impending separation. She is never disgusted, only understanding and effortlessly deep. The remnants of a poppyseed bagel lodged in the corner of his mouth crevice make this difficult.
Uggo seems unphased by my attempt at affection. On any average day, I spend seventy percent of my conscious effort dodging his open-mouthed kisses. Instead, he stares blankly at the gloss of the television screen, his bottom lip tucked under his teeth. I follow his gaze and watch our reflections in the glass. Our fuzzy bodies are beautiful in the distorted blackness; two faceless blobs pulled together like cells dividing under a microscope. I lift myself off his shoulder and push my glasses down to the tip of my nose, trying to soften him in real life. His complexion blurs into the beige of the walls.
“It’s happening,” he says again, a swirling mass of wallpaper and streaked window light. I am soothed by the vagueness of his lines, a softness I know is only possible through the act of squinting. “The plant.”
I push my glasses back on and sit up straight. Uggo works at the nuclear plant a couple towns over. He’s been complaining for weeks about the new management. Something about protocol—I usually stop listening after any mention of terminology.
“Did you finally get transferred? Is it far away? Seriously, don’t think about me, you should accept it,” I say. The painful disappointment of his face in corrective-lens detail makes me bold. I can’t pretend I am not a little turned on by an Uggo-free reality. My nether-regions throb at the aesthetic of it all: dishes perfectly erect on the drying rack, blanket folded in precise quarters on the edge of a crumb-free couch, eyes proportionally distanced.
“No, babe. I think this might be it. They’re saying level 6,” he says. I watch his mouth move around the words and I understand. No dishes. No blanket. Nothing.
“Are you sure?” I ask. My eyes plead with the generous space between his own.
“I wish I wasn’t.”
Not all nuclear engineers are men with fetishes for radioactive disaster porn, but Uggo is. In terms of problematic male obsessions, nuclear fanatics are right up there with World War II junkies and slightly more acceptable than Japan-obsessed freaks. And still I, like so many misguided women, fell prey to the charm of an ill-faced man spitting out facts about blast radius and sipping Long Island iced tea through a curly straw. His voice had the wry, booming inflection of my high school English teacher. This was enough to brainwash me into wanting to make out with him across the sticky metal table. I’d sat for hours in the dark of his old apartment watching documentaries—Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island—and watched his face as mushroom clouds appeared on the screen. His small eyes enlarged like a young boy googling naked pictures for the first time. I’d try to distract him out of boredom, usually by rubbing his leg or snapping the straps of my bra, but was never quite as sexy as a big fat explosion.
“And that, babe, is a Level 6,” he’d say, crunching on a handful of pretzel sticks. He described every moment of destruction to me using a tone most men reserved for explaining the stock market or baseball games. But this time there is no play-by-play, no eyes glazed over, no salt crystals on my tongue as I kiss the corner of his mouth. Only our breaths disrupt the stillness found in knowing the end is rolling near.
I turn to Uggo finally, searching for answers in his reptile eyes.
“What do we do? I mean, can we do anything?” I ask. The dull pang of my abdomen hunches me forward.
Uggo sighs, rubbing the space between his eyebrows. His forehead scrunches, turning the pale stretching space into lumps of yeasty dough.
“They haven’t announced anything yet. It’ll be all over the news in hours. Boss said our best bet is to try and get out of here before everyone else does,” he says.
“Um, okay. How?” I itch a patch of dry skin on the side of my calf, thinking of the radiation which will soon coat our apartment. Every crack in the floorboard unknowingly awaits the penetration of toxic matter. Textiles innocent to the fact they will soon carry tar-black necrosis in their threads—skin sliding off the bone like soft pink brisket, pus-filled boils, festering wounds. My mouth fills up with warm saliva. I sputter out a small cough and stand up.
“I don’t know,” Uggo says, following me a few steps into the kitchen. “Drive east, I think. Away from the plant.” His hot breath in my face, the way it looms over me like a disfigured shadow, makes my skin itch. Poor air circulation on an indefinite car ride will only make said breath hotter, thicken it, recycle it, and spit it back in my pores. I pull a ceramic mug from the cupboard and fill it with filtered water from the fridge. I stomach a few sips and dump the remainder in the sink, moving to wash the cup. The hot water scalds my fingers as I scrub the mug’s interior. I lather my hands with antibacterial soap, pausing for a second to catch my reflection in the spotless metal of the drain. In my eyes I recognize a bleak unhappiness—one which fails to slink away with the foamy bubbles pooling down into the pipes of compost and shit. I turn to face Uggo. Moving closer to him so our bodies are barely touching, the tip of my nose inches away from his sternum, I lift a hand to his chest.
“Okay, babe,” I say, my voice muffled into fabric. “I can take my car, but you should go to your family. I’ll be okay.” I hiccup and wipe invisible mucus from my nose. My parents, a miserable, Midwestern duo prone to disapproving sighs and body shaming, are lucky to receive a monthly message from me and know better than to expect my second coming in the face of a regional rapture. I am certain they will forgive my lies if they see what I am trying to escape from.
I feel the crush of Uggo’s massive palm on my skull. His fingernails scratch the top of my scalp. I try not to think of when he’d washed his hands last. Instead, I focus on matching my shallow inhales to his deep incongruous breaths.
“Are you kidding?” he says. “You’re family, babe. I’m not leaving you ever, especially not now. We’re sticking together. One of my work buddies has a place on the coast. They’ll take us in.” My lungs seize.
“For how long?”
He stays quiet.
I begin to cry for real—big, throaty sobs that shake my entire body. This wet display of emotion is a foreign intruder in my body. It hijacks control through awkward and violent gesture. I pound my head against Uggo’s chest, uttering a few garbled syllables before falling limp into his arms. My eyes stay fixed on his feet, hairy at the knuckle and ungroomed, hypnotized by the dust clump which clings to his pinky toe. The world is ending, and I have an ugly boyfriend. The nuclear blast will soon obliterate us into wet globs of shrapnel and my last, gripping memories will be of a hideous man. Killing myself is enticing, but ultimately pointless. When the mutant cockroaches inevitably discover our corpses, entangled in a mass grave or abandoned warehouse, my face, pressed flush against his sweet, oniony pit, his oafish hands gripping my back, my expression, stern disillusion, arrested by death, reading as lovesickness rather than disappointment, they will take photographs and brand our bodies with some horrific title, like “two lovers in rubble” or “ugly husband and human wife, 2020” and they will plaster us on greeting cards or make a limited series about us or distastefully use our image to sell libido pills. Even in death my last tangible connection, the face of my tragedy, will be Uggo.
“It’s okay,” he says, hugging me tightly. “We’ll get through this. Together. I love you.”
He pats my back like I am a baby in need of a good burping. I dig my nose into his sweater, wiping off the strings of thick snot which hang down over my lips. I even manage to laugh, a weak and deranged outburst from deep in my chest.
“I love you too,” I say.
After swallowing the vomit pooling between my cheeks, I lean into my practical nature. If we are going to leave before everyone else realizes what is going on, we need to move quickly. The lethargic and unsatisfactory way Uggo completes housework will lead us into a multi-car pile-up on the freeway ramp. I am gifted with a certain lack of sentimentality—a secular approach to walking away which makes me perfect for the job of packing up our life. Organization is also my distraction of choice. Menial tasks have the disabling effect of any decent medical-grade sedative.
Uggo has enough clothes to fill one singular drawer. Cotton t-shirts, three pairs of jeans, and the one knit sweater which is not currently on his body—a shameful Christmas jumper embellished with curly white letters spelling: “WHEN I THINK OF YOU, I TOUCH MY ELF”. I place each garment in the hard-shell suitcase I have spread open on the ground. The sweater is lumpy, and resists being folded into a neat rectangle.
Yellowing leaves flit across the window. Two months until Christmas. I think of the miniature pine tree I usually place there—fake of course, I can’t stand the needles—and wonder when it will next be removed from the closet. How long do I have before dust starts to settle? Cobwebs? Can I protect it from the damp air which will poison its branches with mildew? The nausea returns, sucks air like a vacuum seal from around me. It clings like a film over my eyes. Wets the backs of my knees. This kind of affliction is only mitigated by a factory reset, or a miniscule infliction of bodily harm. I pinch the skin around my wrists, watching the pigment fade slowly. Then, I slap myself hard until I stop thinking about the tree.
Uggo’s hair-covered bar of soap, now perma-stuck to the bathroom counter, glares at me as I pack the last of my toiletries. This is a process I savour, like smelling a loaf of bread before returning it to the shelf. I squeeze the big tubes into small bottles, tuck ointments and gels into plastic bags, and stop every so often to rub excess product into my neck. I take extra care to vigilantly smooth out the fine lines which have not yet formed. Adequately oiled and heavily scented, I sweep a gloved hand under the sink. My fingers catch on a small tube. Tampon. Recognizing its lack of company, I search through the cupboard for more. Nothing. This is an unusual circumstance. My sanitation efforts are exhaustive—a paper towel is laid down before a sticky mess can even consider being made. I make a mental note to buy more, adding tampons to the growing list of items that require replenishment. For sanity purposes, I choose to focus on the most immediate of tasks: packing, tidying, moving my body from tile to tile, allowing the future to sit like a dusty broom in a closet. I brush off the tampon issue, attributing the lack of supplies to Uggo somehow through a series of intricate causal connections, and zip up my bags.
I do not take the time to carefully recall the last time I went to the pharmacy, scanned meticulously through the female hygiene section, picking up topicals and pads and razors and wipes. I do not think of the cashier, a girl, generously around my age, her chest tinged an uneasy pink from time spent in the sun. I do not think of the sun, that specific, categorical sun, still seeping through the windows at half past six, toasting the crumbled gravel, guiding me around potholes and patches of matted gum. I do not think of the air, the stench of hot leather and sweat, the seatbelt metal scorching my thigh. I do not think of my body, the sensation of filth in trousers, familiar and hereditary. Filth biologically inflicted to prevent a worse filth. The definitive mess. I only think mindlessly of Uggo, his large melon head, and my desire to squeeze.
And it is of course his chaos which disrupts my meditative packing. He is supposed to be gathering spare cans and non-perishables we have stashed in our cabinets. I listen and wince at the sound of containers and boxes tossed off shelves. Cabinet doors slam and massive feet thud against the linoleum back and forth. I put down the bottle of disinfectant I am considering drinking and move into the doorway. Uggo sits in a pile of mess—plastic bags, cardboard boxes, sheets of paper—rummaging through and searching for something. His sweater lies in a heap beside him, now replaced by a shrunken t-shirt which teases the bottom of his bellybutton. I take three yoga breaths before stepping into the room. He looks up to acknowledge my presence then continues to open boxes and dump their contents on the floor. I close my eyes and dig my fingers into my temples, hoping to knock myself out. Uggo lets out a successful yelp and his footsteps plonk towards me.
“Here, take this,” he says. I open my eyes to a small capsule held in front of my face. Uggo places it in my hand, some of the yellow coating rubbing off onto his moist fingers.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Iodine pill. For the radiation. Don’t want you dying on me.”
I cock my head up to meet his gaze and study his face, trying to read him for any signs of doubt. He smiles dumbly and kisses my forehead. He has that look in his eyes—brainless and soft-edged. Uggo cares about me. I often find myself wishing he was significantly worse—the kind of person to send my explicit photographs to his friends or join a radical conspiracy forum. Uggo is just boring and only sometimes accidentally rude. He’d probably get off on tucking me into bed or looking after me when I get sickly with radiation.
“I’m kidding,” he says, slipping the pill between his lips. I watch him sip the water glass on the counter, his laryngeal bone bobbing up and down. “But not really. Radiation acts fast. Better to take it now.” I swallow obediently, noting the feeling of friction in my throat as the capsule slides down. I bring a hand towards the side of my neck and poke around for the swelling of a gland or the tender hump of a boil forming on my earlobe. The skin is smooth. No signs yet. I move towards the window and look out onto the street. Cars drive past the window leisurely, dogs trot past with their freakishly muscular owners, the door chime of the convenience store below shrieks every so often. Still no signs.
My tongue is a dry sock in my mouth. I try to work the window crank to let in some fresh air. It is stuck in a half rotation which grunting and the strength of both my biceps cannot fix. Uggo’s presence settles behind me and his scratchy chin lands on my head. His large hand replaces mine on the crank and maneuvers it around slowly. The window creaks open an inch.
“Freaky isn’t it,” he says, running his finger along the cracked wooden paneling. “None of them even know what’s coming.” His fingers scratch at the white paint which is slowly peeling at the edges. Small flecks of white fall across the floor. I swat his hand away from the paint and take it in my own, hoping to form some sort of skin-borne intimacy. I rub my finger over his fat knuckles. He sighs into my hair, hot breath infiltrating my follicles.
“Do you feel like you’re in one of your documentaries?” I say jokingly, the only comfortable pace between us in quiet moments. “Here we have a local man in his tiny apartment. Watch as he stares into the street, ignorant to the fact he will soon be macerated into toxic sludge.” I wait for the vibrations from his rumbling laugh behind me. Instead, a weak snort and the gentle squeeze of his sweaty hand.
“Honestly, yeah,” he says.
“Really?” I ask. A man rushes off the bus carrying a bouquet of wilting lilies. “It’s not gonna be that bad though, right?” He clears his throat and sniffs at my hair.
“No. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t think so. Based on what they told me we should be okay.” A car horn pierces through the silence. Tires whine against the asphalt.
“How do you know they’re telling the truth?” He pauses. I can’t see his face, but I know he is chewing on his lip, his forehead twisting into knotted rope.
“I don’t,” he says.
“Okay,” I say. “Is that okay?”
He exhales into the side of my neck. “I guess so, that's all we have.” We stand in silence, watching the faces in the cars which pass. “But I don’t know,” he continues, tonguing every word as if he is just learning to speak. “You watch these movies, and you see those people and you wonder how they coped. How they dealt with all the sickness, leaving their homes, all that terrible shit. You can’t imagine ever getting over it, because you have your life, and that life in all its meaningless stupidity is so important to you. But then it happens, and you don’t even feel it. You just understand, and you go. I don’t know, I never believed in that survival crap but, I kind of get it. That feeling. Like I have this duty to just… be okay with it. I don’t know, maybe I’m half sludge already.”
The cars slow down and the street fills with the red glow of brake lights. My mouth softens with spit. I bring Uggo’s greasy hand to my chest, as if what he said was even vaguely profound. The heat of his touch on my sternum is a dull comfort. I have confidently diagnosed myself as averse to his pheromones. Still, the pressure of my nose in his furry elbow brings something adjacent to comfort. This is the lure of Uggo. His nothingness provides the distance necessary to be held. He will cuddle you, pet you, fuck you, love you, but you will always emerge spotless. You cannot be lost in Uggo. He is a glass of lukewarm water.
“Are you scared?” I ask.
“Terrified,” he answers.
“You don’t seem it,” I say flatly.
He shrugs his shoulders against my neck and presses his thin lips to the top of my head. “You make me brave.”
I wince into his affection, choosing to focus on the resumed busyness of the street, the people, and their rattling normalcy. Children run ahead of their parents. The local evangelical group harasses pedestrians at the all-way crossing. Elderly men sit on benches, waiting for nothing. A beautiful woman catches my eye. Her back is turned towards me, but I can tell she is beautiful, in the same way she can likely tell the avocado she is massaging will rot in a few days. She picks up apples and sniffs them, her coily hair rearranging into abstract wind patterns. I follow her movement down the display as Uggo narrates his own viewing experience at no one’s request. The woman shops with a strange fascination. Her movements are uncertain. She picks up produce and suddenly puts it back, as if she is controlled by random, electric impulses. She approaches a jar of gherkins. I watch as she fingers the glass, inspecting the cloudy brine with determined focus. My mouth salivates in response.
I reach backwards to silence Uggo with a menacing poke, but am halted by the slow, sauntering turn of the woman towards the street. I encounter her figure without warning—dainty shoulders, elven nose, grotesque swell of belly. She smiles to herself and rubs wide, curving shapes into the alien bulge. Then, balancing two jars between her chin and stomach, waddles inside the store.
The acidic churn of my stomach, once more, lashing against my innards. A panicked heat from behind my ears. Realization settling slowly, weighing into my clothes like sewer water. It gurgles up from my center. Sludges into my throat. Performs osmosis through the thickness of my skull. The people out the window are far away now, not meters but kilometers. A thousand decrepit football fields. My vision shrinks, siloes, lasers into the flaky windowsill, how it lifts like sunburnt skin. Uggo leans down and whispers something sweet in my ear. I retch in response.
Porcelain is chilly under the bones of my behind. The hairy bar of soap sits across from me at eye level, an Uggo proxy, similarly disgusting and passive. I let my eyes fixate, ignoring the disturbing potential origin of said hairs, and think instead of a happy place: a hotel bedroom, in which I supervise the washing of sheets and changing of linens, and possibly participate in the scrubbing of bathtub. I huff my shampoos and read the ingredients, trying to figure out if any of them are powerful enough to do the unimaginable.
After seven minutes of crybaby indulgence, in which I sob into the plush of the toilet paper roll, my shoulders convulsing like a cat, I flush and meet myself in the mirror. It is only appropriate to examine my side profile. My abdomen is slightly curved, no bigger than the result of a leafy salad, but there is a sinister softness to my lines. I will not close my eyes. I am stricken by the irrational fear of opening to a parasitic creature pressing its toes into my navel. I foolishly place my hands on my stomach, posing, hoping to find solace in my status as a sexy, curvaceous, pregnant woman. This effort is briefly appealing, but altogether unsuccessful.
Uggo’s knuckles clunk against the door in arhythmic sequence. His sudden encroachment on this private moment triggers an allergy ear itch. I think of his body, its weight on top of me, his face twisted into orgasmic horror. I loathe him and I loathe him more with every knock. Loathing calcifies on my teeth, sours my breath. Breathing goes heavy. I firmly apply palms to eyes until I see streaks of coloured light. These streaks lend themselves to heated visions—a body mutilated and stitched, branded by stretch marks and shit, sagging chest, skeletal face. Then, from the stillness of nightmare, a lucid thought.
I don’t want ugly children. An ugly boyfriend, even an ugly husband, is an act of bravery. People meet you on the street and smile with knowing eyes, grateful people like you exist—people who can see beyond looks. Having ugly children is different. Willfully bringing something ugly into the world is morally inexcusable. How can I explain to my Uggo-faced child the meaning of her unattractiveness? I picture looking at her tiny head, spaced-apart black eyes, stuck with the shameful knowledge I am the reason she is subject to a lifetime of social rejection. She will condemn me for what I make her. The sour regurgitation of bile travels up my esophagus. I spit up nothing into the sink. Wait, uselessly, for the feeling to pass.
It is an hour before I do anything about it. There is a test in my bedside drawer, because I am the kind of anal woman who gets off on preparing for disaster, although perhaps I could have been more comprehensive in my approach. Uggo either gives up or becomes brainy enough to leave me alone. I listen for the noise of him dragging suitcases across hardwood. Wait for the thud of wheels catching against the doorframe. The clunk of plastic wheel against metal staircase becomes inaudible.
I get the test. I drink water until my stomach gurgles. I pee on the stick. It is expeditious and businesslike. I rest the stick on the counter and wait on my knees, hoping to inspire a conversion-worthy miracle. A precise amount of time passes. The result comes. I wash my hands with burning water, then turn the faucet cold.
Uggo waits in the car. I observe him from the window fiddling with the radio stations. He flips nervously between static, trying to find the optimal sonic vibe for our apocalyptic journey. He settles on whiny soft rock. Outside swells with the noise of cars creeping out of the city, but their engines lurch forwards with the aggressive lethargy only found in homeward commutes. There is still time. I throw the stick in the garbage. I put my shoes on and straighten the doormat. I close the blinds and turn the heater off. I fold the blanket and refold it, paying particular attention to the sharpness of its edges. I switch the lights off and shut the door. I lock it and check it twice.
The early evening stinks of gasoline and some neighbour’s charred grill. It is a deceptive day. The sun hangs high and snobbish over the complex. The wind is sharp and miserable. The trees participate in this misleading, violently shedding their leaves, coating car hoods in shriveled blankets of shrubbery. I approach the car like a teenager, dragging my feet through piles of sticks and rotting leaves and dog poop bags. My coat is held taut across my body, arms crossed. I throw my purse in the back and slink into the passenger seat.
A palpable aura coats the car interior. There should be fear—buckets of it, dark, slimy, soaking our socks and compromising our leg room. Instead, a bleakness beyond bodily response. We sit with it for a moment, swallowing our spit and shifting indefinitely. Uggo’s expression, squinty and still, is opaque. I catch the underwhelming softness of his jaw, clenching, unclenching. He is looking out into the distance.
I turn to face him, meeting his pupils in the best way I can. There in the blackness of his eyes, I see myself. Contorted by the curved reflection, my face stretches into something bizarre, bug-eyed, and new. I am suspended in the frame of his eyeball; a blemish trapped in his lens.
“You feeling better?” Uggo asks, reaching over to palm my knee.
“I’m fine,” I say. I let his touch linger for a moment, three clammy circles, before shrinking towards the window. I imagine mold spores infecting a strawberry, growing into its skin. Uggo subtly picks at his nose and grips the wheel.
“Okay,” he says. There is a spoon-shaped patch of skin behind his ear. It is perfect and white. “We better get going. Traffic’s going to be ugly.”
Ashanthi Francis is a writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Lake Effect, MUSE Magazine, Quilt, and The Queen’s Journal, and was recently shortlisted for the The Fiddlehead’s creative non-fiction prize. She is currently studying creative writing at the University of Toronto, where she will complete her first manuscript.