THE WHALES WILL THANK HER by Julie Chen

She seeks to save water when using the toilet. If it’s yellow, let it mellow, though she knows that can lead to malodor, so she makes sure to flush before she goes out or to bed, or if she hasn’t hydrated well and her pee is a deep autumnal mustard, like her favorite sweater.

When she goes grocery shopping, she uses tote bags, of which she has many. The real challenge is to also bring those plastic bags in which one weighs produce. One can avoid them with fruits like bananas, whose peels are thick enough to shield from germs, but grapes are a different matter.

But sometimes she forgets even a tote. Or when she does bring a tote, she forgets to ask the cashier to refrain from giving her a plastic bag, so she just extricates her things in front of them, avoiding their gaze, surely offended as she rejects their gift. 

And sometimes she doesn’t have the courage to do this so she just takes the wasteful plastic bag, feeling like the scum of the earth. When she gets home, she stashes it in the cupboard in which she hides her other shameful plastic bags, and swears this is the last of her cowardice.

She supposes she has a reason for all this scrupulousness and self-loathing: to be good. The whales will thank her. In heaven, she’ll swim through the air and nuzzle them. Also sea lions, serpentine mammals with warm blood and smooth skin, no sharp creases or ashy elbows like on her own craggy body.  

Her lover is petite and hairless, with legs barer than her own. When he is on top, she grabs him by his narrow shoulders and pulls him close, so she feels his ribs, small, smooth nubs, bury in her large, useless breasts. He feels so delicate she wants to smother him.

Postcoital, he falls right asleep while she pulls out her phone. She plays Tetris and Candy Crush, games where the goal is to disappear things. She keeps the volume on, the bleep bloops flitting above his heavy snores.

One night, she plays games into the morning light. At breakfast, she drinks three cups of coffee. Her body feels flipped inside out, each heartbeat rippling the surface of her skin like a stone skipping across a pond. She looks at her lover’s face across the table and imagines his right eyebrow rotating clockwise 90 degrees and sliding down to meet the top of his right nostril—no, it would actually be neater if it were rotated counterclockwise, the focus of the parabola tangent to the nostril flare. Take the other eyebrow too, and make it symmetric, a hyperbola. Shift the lips up, omitting the philtrum, its insipid indentation; now more than ever, either commit or disappear! Everything clicks into place and flashes white and— 

She blinks and his face returns to normal. 

They break up. They have different values. He works at a tech company that supplies him unlimited individually packaged foods: drinks, yogurts, granola bars, pickles. He is addicted to sparkling water. When they went on walks, he’d stop at bodegas to buy it even when she offered him her reusable bottle, which she refilled in bathroom sinks.

They hadn’t lived together, which was how she’d gotten away with the yellow-mellow trick. Still, the space in her home feels extraneous now. So she goes to the library during the day and works there, remote copy-editing, adding and deleting commas to the rhythms of students whispering and old men coughing into their borrowed newspapers.

Unlike at the coffee shop, at the library she can bring her travel mug and Tupperwared snacks and can use the bathroom whenever she wants, not once or twice per purchase—baked goods only, to avoid single-use cups—or whatever the etiquette is. Today, the last person to use toilet hadn’t flushed. They were moderately hydrated, not clear, but not unhealthily dark either. She wonders if she should flush before she pees but judges that the walls of the toilet bowl are sufficiently deep such that it is unlikely that her pee stream would splash drops of the old pee onto her genitals. She had looked it up, pee isn’t actually sterile, plus it’s gross to touch someone else’s and she isn’t crazy. She’ll only save water by peeing into someone else’s pee under special circumstances.


Julie Chen is from San Jose, CA, and lives in Brooklyn. Her poetry and prose is forthcoming/published in Hobart, CHEAP POP, IDK Magazine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. She also makes pop music as Slime Queen. Her website is juliechen.neocities.org.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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