Skip to main content

The Love Theme of Sybil and William


The Love Theme of Sybil and William

by Chuck Palahniuk

Modern Short StoriesPrinted in Modern Short Stories
October 1990

Joni Mitchell's music was the theme to the TV series of Sybil's life. When Sybil walked down the beach, she heard Joni in her head. When she made love, she played Joni's tapes. After sex, she sang the lyrics in the shower.

She played the "up" songs, like "Free Man In Paris," when she was happy.

She played Joni's "Blue" album when she was down. Or more accurately, her husband suspected, when Sybil wanted to be down and stay down.

When she was angry, she played the sad songs, but she played them at ear shock levels. Tonight, "People's Parties" was so loud it was shaking the dust down from the track lighting. It was loud enough for everyone in the building to know Sybil's mood. Her husband, William, stood in the hallway for a moment, listening to the din and wondering if he should run back to the office. He could call home to say he had to work late. "My doctor said I'm too healthy to come home today," he would say when Sybil demanded why he'd missed dinner. Instead, he opened his mouth to relieve the pressure that was about to hit his eardrums, and he walked into the apartment.

"I'm home," he shouted against the wall of sound. There was no answer. It was a surprise.

William walked into the living room and turned down the volume on the stereo. He found Sybil in the kitchen eating cookies.

"What's wrong," William deadpanned. He had to ask what was wrong. It was his role in this script. If he didn't, and just ignored Sybil's cues, the music would just go back up the Richter Scale until he did ask.

"I'm fat," Sybil said with the resignation of "I lost my job because I have terminal cancer."

"So you're eating cookies?"
"It's part of my newest diet. I flood my cravings until they're gone, until the sight of cookies makes me sick," Sybil explained, shaking more cookies out of their box and onto a plate.

"This makes you thin?" said William, taking a cookie himself.

"I also take laxatives," Sybil said off handedly, "I call it my Oreos and Ex-Lax Diet."

William snorted a laugh and some cookie crumbs out his nose. This was so like Sybil, stupid and funny, serious and innocent. Sometimes William didn't know if he had married her or adopted her.

"That doesn't sound very healthy. You know you can get addicted to laxatives," William said, returning to seriousness, reassuring his role as parent, and taking another cookie.

He could already imagine Sybil's constant migration between the kitchen and the bathroom. The bathroom would smell like pine incense and feces for months. Either that, or Sybil would chase the stink around with a can of rose-scented room freshener.

He would come home tomorrow and probably find her sitting in the bathroom alternately eating cookies and laxatives. In a weird way, he felt sorry for the cookies. It was going to be a quick trip guys. One minute, they'd be popular sandwich cookies, and a half hour later they'd be slumming at the bottom of the food chain.

"I'm only going to do this until I can get back into my yellow dress," Sybil insisted, "It's not like I'm trying to invent a new eating disorder."

William ate another cookie and imagined a Betty Ford clinic for laxative abusers. Clients would sit around all day. They'd eat binders like cheese. No fruit. No fiber. Everyone would be frisked for roughage before they were admitted. And for the extreme cases - sphincter tucks.

"You think I'm nuts don't you?" Sybil asked.
William was lost in thoughts about the logistics of sphincter stapling.
"I wish they made more flavors of Ex-Lax," Sybil said, this time a little louder.

William was still oblivious, nibbling the edge of a cookie and fantasizing about the day when Sybil would be so thin she could be stuffed into a mailing tube with a week's supply of Oreos and mailed to the Mayo Clinic.

Sybil strode into the living room, turned the Joni tape over and cranked up the volume. The tape was old. It had spent winters in the glove compartment of Sybil's car, and summers in her Walkman. Now, when Joni sang, the words sounded like they were coming up through water. The music was distant and quivering, like Joni and the piano were both on the verge of a crying jag.

"Would you turn that down," William called from the kitchen.
"What," Sybil called back.
"I said I was listening to you, now turn the music down."
Sybil turned the music down. She waited a beat and walked back into the kitchen.
"Do you think my diet is a dumb idea?" she asked.
"Only because I don't think you're fat, " William said, realizing that it was his turn to choose between being dutifully attentive to Sybil's neurosis or making a statement which would spark one of her two-day sulk-fests.

"I think you're beautiful, and I don't think I give you the attention you deserve," he continued, his martyrdom complete. "Do you really think I'm beautiful?" Sybil asked, her tongue black with chewed Oreos.
"Of course I do," William said softly, and although he didn't realize it, it was true.

Sybil was beautiful, and sometimes William could still unknowingly catch sigh of her across a room or a street and wonder who that beautiful woman was. However, the moment he realized that woman was Sybil, the wonder was gone. In William's mind, Sybil was no longer a fascinatingly mysterious object. To William, Sybil was just a 23-year-old girl who couldn't talk intelligently about the lake poets.

Two years earlier, Sybil had been Pia Zadora with Madam Curie's brain wrapped in a cut-off T-shirt and completely innocent to the fact that the undersides of her breasts showed when she threw her head back in laughter. Her breasts had shown, and she had tossed her dense red hair, and her eyes were so wide the whites were visible all around the edges of the green-brown irises.


Author Bio: Technical writer Chuck Palahniuk enjoys writing stories that revolve around humor and relationships, particularly situations that illustrate that ironic "contrast between what people do and think and say." Chuck says that he "takes (almost) nothing seriously--especially writing.