Diluted by Jaime Balboa

Large kitchen with 2 large windows
Kitchen–Petworth House by KotomiCreations (flickr.com). CC license.

I hate the scent of imitation lemon in dish soap. It’s too concentrated to be authentic. But the scent will lose potency once I dilute it in water. That’s always the trick. Dilute what’s unpleasant. Dilute what hurts you, what keeps you up at night and, even though it’s still there, you can bear it, even accept it. The pyramid of dishes starts with a foundation from yesterday and leads, like an archeological excavation of dried food bits, through memories of breakfast and lunch to the dinner we just ate. Dirty mugs and glasses clutter the counter. Meals that should have been for three are instead for two: just Aileen and me. Laurel is away on her eleventh trip this year.

Through the window, I see the neighbor kids, Elliot and the one whose name I never remember, race their bikes up and down the sidewalk as the suds gather in the sink. They’ll probably ring the doorbell in a few minutes to ask if Aileen can play.

“Sweetheart, is your homework done?”

“Almost, Daddy.”

“You can play with Elliot and his friend when you finish.”

A musty scent hits me when I pick up yesterday’s tea mug. The mug is a souvenir from our trip to Ireland.

Saint John’s Wort treats depression, Dr. Shaminsky says. The pills and tea do the same thing, but I prefer the tea. Saint John’s Wort is to Paxil what aspirin is to Codeine, Dr. Shaminsky says. That rings true to me, mostly. Actually, Saint John’s Wort treats the symptoms of depression. It dilutes them. Sadness and melancholy. Irritability. Feeling stuck, hopeless. I usually like to sip my tea after Aileen is tucked in bed. That way, I can sleep off any cobwebs that sometimes come with it. I dump the used teabag into the compost bin and plunk the mug under the sudsy water. It’s from our trip to Dublin all those summers ago, before Aileen, before running.

Elliot and his friend ditch their bikes on the lawn and run up the driveway toward our house. They run at a sprint, laughing. Laurel is a runner, too. She flew to Colorado to run a 50k ultra race. Her running group friends are racing, too: Charles, Esteban, Sarah, and Cici. This much she’ll tell me and social media will confirm. She won’t tell me that Derek is also on the trip. She never tells me that, but I still know. I can always tell. I like Esteban but can’t figure out if he knows about Laurel and Derek.

I feel powerless to say anything, though. I just can’t. And St. John’s Wort won’t fix that.

“Elliot’s here,” I yell. Aileen stomps her way to the front door. Their young voices exchange critical information. Challenge: a bike race. Aileen says she’ll be out soon.

Mug from Dublin clean and dried, I plop in a bag of Saint John’s Wort tea, drizzle it with honey, and fill the mug with hot tap water. Thirty seconds in the microwave and it’ll just need to steep a bit. Be proactive, Dr. Shaminksy says. Don’t wait until things get too far. Don’t wait until the sadness in your chest expands to engulf your whole body, claiming all of you, pulling you into the thick, foggy darkness. Drink the tea. There are no adverse side effects.

“I’m finished, Daddy,” Aileen says, handing me her homework.

“Fourth sentence,” I say. “What should the punctuation be at the end of that sentence?” My finger traces the sentence as Aileen’s eyes follow.

“Oh, yeah,” she says, placing a question mark where it should be. “Can I go outside now?”

“Stay off the street,” I say, stooping down to kiss her forehead. “I love you, kiddo.”

“I love you too, Daddy.”

Through the kitchen window I watch Aileen don her helmet and mount up. She’s speedy on her bike. Quick legs will make quick work of the race course.

My phone chirps. “New PR! Exhausted. Heading out to dinner with crew. Will call before bed. XO. Love you.” A text from Laurel. Not surprisingly, she’s set another personal record. Also, not surprisingly, she won’t call before bed.

“Congrats. Love you too,” I reply. “Let’s work on us,” I type, but delete.

I walk out on the front porch, letting the water drain, taking the fake, lemon-scented detergent with it. Dublin mug in hand, the stoop is the perfect perch for watching Aileen race her bike. I sip my tea and inhale its musty fragrance. My fingers clench the mug like a lifeline, like a tether guiding me out of a swampy pool in the dead of winter. I drink my tea. It needs more honey like that goddamn fake lemon-scented detergent needs more water, but I drink it anyway.

Lemons in white sink
Lemons by Alexi Kostibas. CC license.

Jaime Balboa
Jaime Balboa holds a BA in English and Writing from Adrian College. His fiction has appeared in The Timberline Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Chaleur Magazine, and Lunch Ticket. An open water swimmer, many of his stories come to him in the waters of the Pacific. He lives in Los Angeles with his partner and their son. Follow him on twitter: @jaimerb.

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