Ashley Beresch

Would You Rather

Jess was developing an irrational fear that she was going deaf. Maybe not irrational: an article had just appeared in her inbox claiming a possible link between COVID and tinnitus. Had the ringing started before or after she’d had the virus? She turned her head one way and the other, oscillating her ears toward the speakers of her laptop, her phone, the air conditioning unit, her daughter’s coos. She was certain the sound in her left ear was slightly more muted than in her right. 

“Would you rather lose your sense of taste or smell?” she asked her husband once. 

“Well,” he said. “Taste and smell are kind of the same. Can you lose one without the other?” 

“Just play the game,” she said, but she couldn’t answer it herself. 

Another: “What are you most afraid of for our daughter?” He said “Climate change,” and Jess said “That she won’t be able to carry a tune,” and he said “Ouch,” and she said “Well,” and he would never forgive her for that one.

Sometimes he started the game. 

“Would you rather be an Instagram-famous poet or a New Yorker poet?” 

“A New Yorker poet,” she lied. 

“Yeah, but if you were an Instagram-famous poet, so many people would be reading your writing.”

“Those poems are just memes,” she shrugged, thinking of the hundreds of comments she saw on a post by that one Instagram Poet whose account she didn’t follow, though it still showed up in her Suggested feed day after day. I love your work (Single Tear Emoji) I’m sending this to everyone I know.  

“You could use your art too,” he went on. “As, like, the background or something. Who reads the poetry in The New Yorker anyway?” 

I try to, she wanted to counter, but she was too busy keeping the whisk dripping with pancake batter out of her daughter’s reach to reply. Her daughter refused to be put down anymore. Their bodies were fusing together. 

“I don’t even want to be a poet,” she whined instead. 

Later, looking in the smudgy bathroom mirror, she pulled back the skin on her cheeks. She wondered if the Instagram Poet had hormonal acne, or if she had a cortisol-balanced diet, or if she Facetuned the wrinkles and bags from under her eyes to oblivion before posting a selfie captioned It is a serious thing / just to be alive / on this fresh morning #blessed #maryoliver. 

Jess noticed the careful omission. “On this fresh morning, in this broken world. IN THIS BROKEN WORLD!” she howled on the phone to her friend, who hate-followed the Instagram Poet. Jess worried maybe her friend didn’t hate-follow the Instagram Poet, but love-followed her and was just being obliging. 

“You can only be negative on Instagram if it’s related to your personal trauma,” the friend pointed out. “Or if there’s a cause going on. And the war is, like, eight months old now.”

Everything was thick in her mouth, an overcooked steak she couldn’t stop chewing. She wanted to make something rare and bloody, but most days she couldn’t even brush her teeth, let alone pick up a paintbrush. She couldn’t fix her hands to a keyboard except to Google “When will I be less tired?” And then there was the thought that truly terrified her, especially when she was looking at her daughter’s sweaty, sleeping body, finally detached from hers and curled up prone on the double bed. She didn’t want to be an Instagram Poet, or an Instagram Artist, because maybe she didn’t want to be Anything. Would you rather be something or nothing?

Jess couldn’t hold all of it and that’s why she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be a painter or a writer or a mother or an escape artist. That’s why she couldn’t finish anything, including art school, and that’s why her husband went back to college instead of her. 

“Would you rather be in a stupid windowless room with a bunch of 20-year-olds debating some theory, or would you rather be at home with this adorable little face?” he asked, tickling their daughter’s double chin. She didn’t like the way he spat the word “theory,” but she didn’t feel smart enough to counter. 

“I’m not having fun,” he insisted, but it seemed like he was having fun. 

She visited him once, pushing the baby in her stroller across the downtown campus. A man in a billowing blue t-shirt that read BIG DADDY in block letters accosted her from the stoop of a vape shop. “Mama, you’re a perfume! Lemme bottle you up!” he yelled, making a lewd gesture with his hands. 

Didn’t she deserve to be catcalled without her baby there to bear witness? Didn’t her husband want to be home with their daughter?

“Would you rather go deaf in your left ear or your right?” she asked him that night in bed. “I think I’m going deaf.” 

“Babe,” he groaned, rolling over. “Just call a doctor.” 

She pressed her hands against her ears and listened to her own heartbeat. She could hear it clearly pounding in her right ear and hardly at all in her left. Would you rather go deaf or never be heard? She has read this story before, she thought. She has seen this painting before, too. A woman, head tipped, tilting one ear toward the heavens.

Ashley Beresch is a writing student living in rural Georgia. Her work appears in The Fabulist and Maudlin House. She is a 2023 winner of the Porter Fleming Literary Competition. You can find her online on Instagram & Twitter at @ashleyberesch.