The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.
The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.
The hope of holding on
And avoiding the
Work in a vision of
Peek a boo
So I sit
Open to the conversation
As much to learn
As to sit and hear the
Music of your voice
No matter what song it plays
Chelsea peered out from the tent and struggled to remain chipper. It had been her idea, after all, to come along with Ben as part of the ongoing negotiation that had been the last couple of months, after two and a half years of things being okay, comfortable. He was cocooned in the sleeping bag, snoring away despite the flurries of hail that had woken her. She looked back and wrestled with the sudden, petty urge to wake him up. His snoring had gained a damp rasp since he had put on weight and despite moving in together, she could at least go into another room when it kept her awake.
She could have gone outside, she told herself but the hail rattled with the intensity and volume that suggested that it would have stung as much as soaked her through to the skin.
So far, camping fucking sucked.
‘Honey.’ she said.
He grunted and rolled onto his side then responded with a fart muffled by the material of the sleeping bag.
‘If it rains like this, won’t the equipment get wet?’
He made a smacking, irritated sound with his lips and sat up. His black hair, thinning enough that Chelsea had started wondering if he was going to just leave it like that, stuck up in stumpy tufts and his beard was matted from where he had drooled in his sleep. He rubbed his eyes with his hands and blinked at her.
‘They’re outdoors, babes, can’t see a little hail ruining them.’
His tone of voice had gone from sleepy to patronising in a second and Chelsea pressed her teeth together, swallowed her irritation down. She had been working in a mental health clinic and one of the patients, Ursula, suffered from trichotillomania.
Compulsive hair pulling, and in her case, swallowing. One of the other nurses, Judd had told Chelsea about some of the side effects from the condition. Bezoars. Indigestible lumps of material that sat in the digestive system. They could be formed from gum, soil even unripe persimmons, Judd had volunteered. Chelsea had nodded and decided not to ask what a persimmon was, unripe or otherwise. Ursula’s mania-offspring were trichobezoars, composed of hair.
Chelsea imagined hers were made from resentment and a burgeoning sense of regret. She added to it more and more, and on this trip thus far, she imagined it beginning to boil with the pressure, until it was fused and compressed into diamond.
‘I’ll make coffee.’ she said.
The cameras and microphones had been set in a circle around the tent, streaming to Ben’s laptop and portable hard drive. He had shown more enthusiasm for the possibility of finding something out here than he had for them driving up to Montreal for Chelsea’s brother’s wedding.
No, Chelsea corrected herself, as she spooned instant coffee into the pan, he wasn’t looking to find something.
It had been an obsession of his, the one affectation that he had not given up in the gradual, incomplete transition to adulthood that Chelsea had been dragging him through. He had left his dreams of rock stardom, cut back his weed consumption to Christmas and when his brother drove down up from Texas and even left the World of Warcraft league that had been his prevailing obsession for most of his teens and twenties.
The missing link. The slow upward climb from ape to homo sapiens took, according to Ben, some interesting detours and one of them was the proposed existence of Sasquatch. Chelsea used to allow him to go away with some of the guys that he spoke to online, but in a burst of misguided enthusiasm, had offered to go along with him.
It would bring them closer together, she had said. He had smiled and nodded, rubbing his hands on his thighs and trying to say that it wasn’t something he thought she would enjoy. His tone had the whine of a child trying to justify a soccer ball kicked through a window, but Chelsea was determined that she was a cool girlfriend and allowing him his interests was fine, but once in a while, she wanted to show that her interest was more than just anecdotal.
Eight hours into it, soaked and with her feet screaming at her to forget the whole thing, she had started to wonder if this might serve as one of those hobbies that would be ‘Ben’s Thing’. She had smoked pot with him, played in a raid with him on the player versus player server and politely rejected his brother’s advances without ever telling him, but this tested her more than she was prepared for. She had not whined, instead she swallowed it all down, adding to the tight ball of resentment which by the permanent ache in her stomach, had grown to the dimensions of a bowling ball.
She liked camping. The amount of time it took to do everything appealed to her, whilst Ben would have been happy to bring a few bags of chips and a six pack, Chelsea had insisted on cooking for them on the single camping stove. What had not been burned was raw, and she had slathered it in hot sauce to disguise the worst of it but Ben had said he was not hungry and kept checking the cameras and microphones. She had scraped it away and kicked dirt over it, grateful that it was dark enough to hide her tears.
Rain was a permanent feature out here, but hail offended her and it kept her confined to the tent. Ben was impatient to check the equipment and once he was fortified by coffee and burnt bacon, he threw on his waterproofs and went outside. He swore, loud enough to carry over the sound of the hail and she grimaced before struggling into her sodden waterproofs.
The hail had grown more forceful, and its military rhythm beat into her skull with enough impetus to make her hunch over as she crept out of the tent. Ben stood with his back to her, holding the ragged remains of a camera, wires trailing from it like tendrils as he uttered a litany of expletives.
He did not speak, instead he shouldered past her, his face tight with concern and irritation as he slipped back inside the tent.
‘Ben, you’ll get the inside all wet.’ she said.
He huffed to acknowledge her and then came out, eyebrows raised as he pointed inside the tent.
‘We missed something last night, Chelsea.’
She folded her arms, sodden and miserable.
‘Well, that’s not my fault. I thought you set it up, so that there was an alert.’
He grimaced and gestured inside.
‘Which would have gone off but someone couldn’t sleep with the laptop screen on, could they?’
He had raised his voice, and she recoiled.
‘You said it was okay.’ she said.
He guffawed and waved her off.
‘Yeah because otherwise you would have been whining about how you couldn’t sleep. Honestly, you’ve been nothing but a bitch this whole trip.’
Her eyes welled up with tears and her upper lip wavered. The ball of frustration started to make its way up and she held her stomach.
‘Oh fuck you, Ben. I’ve been trying to get you to behave like a fucking adult, and when I try to show that I am cool with you being into stuff, you make me feel like shit about it.’
‘This is not about that.’ he said.
Chelsea had not heard him shout like this before. She turned away from him and wept as much from the headache that the beating hail was giving as much as the sheer futility of the overgrown boy she had wasted the last three years on.
‘Oh great, now you’re crying. I’ve wasted time and equipment but you’re the one who’s crying.’
She turned around, ready to vomit up the bezoar when a sound shook the surrounding air.
Chelsea brought her hands to her mouth and Ben stood there, his face white with shock. They heard the heavy percussive thump of something coming through the trees. Chelsea’s anger had gone, traded for a perfect, paralysing fear as she turned towards the direction of the sound.
He stood there and then as the grass moved, indicating the passage of something moving towards them at great and terrible velocity, he pushed her in front of him. She felt his hands shove into the small of her back and a small, ugly observation came to her that it had been the first time he had touched her with any degree of passion in a long time.
She looked up, saw something tall and covered with brown fur, large white teeth, flaring nostrils and golden eyes that regarded her with a compassion that made her look away before it rushed past her towards Ben. She pressed her face to the earth and heard the wet, wrenching sounds and choked sounds that reminded her of Ursula when they caught her shoving hanks of her own hair into her mouth. A coppery scent filled the air, wet pennies and salt, before she felt a hand at her shoulder.
It made a careful, hooting sound and pulled the hood from her head with a gentle tugging motion. She squeezed her eyes shut, and it brushed a finger against her auburn hair. The hand smelt musty and organic, damp moss and bark and she turned her head. She got onto her knees and found that the bezoar had gone.
It rested a palm the size of a dinner plate against her face and with an absurd gratitude, she pressed her cheek against it.
She leaves by degrees.
I potter around
Offering up trinkets
That she used to celebrate
But now smiles
Politely says thanks
We use the words ‘I love you’
When really we mean
‘I’m scared, not that you’re leaving’
‘But you’ve already left’
I read through a million books
Write a million poems
And they all say the same thing
That I gave everything
And that you can still do everything right
And lose something irreplaceable
Some feelings too ugly for speech
And the bed is so cold
Too large a wasteland to wander alone
Showing me affection
But no passion
We made a ghost
That haunts us both
You never quite leave
But you never quite stay
You can make
The most pastoral setting
Into a third world interrogation room
And say that love made you culpable
Every whispered intimacy
Set on a stainless steel tray
Shown to me
And you smile at it
Your tears have no place here
And I keep turning cheeks
Because sooner or later,
I had faith that you would
Stop cutting into me
And when I found myself alone
I slipped my bonds
Limping back to a world
That was unfamiliar to me
Hiding the scars
Until I could wash away the blood
And yet I understand
How I hurt you
And I forgive
But I do not forget
Sometimes I carry
The seething memories
Until my blood is carbonated
In my veins
But I keep rising up
Until the air feels sweet again
And I learn that healing
Is a journey
Not a destination.
Donna pulled into the parking lot just as the song finished on the radio. Getting the kids to daycare fed, clothed, lunches packed and on time seldom left her time enough to see to herself. When Sam had been around, it wasn’t much different, but he did, on occasion, help dress them or at least feed Rebecca, the youngest. He would demand excessive praise for doing something that she managed without acknowledgement. The little grievances, like vines against concrete that sucked the moisture from their marriage. Then, the hurricane of Amy Dennis had come and blown it away.
Still, three kids hadn’t left her with time to mourn, she was too pragmatic for that.
She liked the noodles here. In the microwave at work, two minutes and then mouthfuls grabbed between calls. If she had time to absorb the metaphor, she would have agreed.
She kicked something with her left foot, solid and soft at the same time. Looking down at her feet, she saw a fat leather wallet. She picked it up.
Sam had a nylon black billfold with a chain through it. She’d had to persuade him to put photos of the kids and,in hindsight, his reluctance to have any of her should have been a red flag. She opened it up. A thick stack of bills greeted her and there were multiple credit cards. A black Amex. Diners Club. She was torn between curiosity, temptation and the steely, kind voice of her father reminding her that stealing is wrong. She counted the cash, six hundred in fifty dollar bills. Crisp and new, like they’d been drawn out from the bank.
She found the business card, six in total.
A cell and land line number
She dialled the cell.
‘Who’s this? ‘
The voice was soft, playful and it made the corners of her mouth twitch upwards in a smile.
‘Hi, I found your wallet in the lot at the Circle K. The one just off Foster Street. ‘
‘No you didn’t.’
She sighed, her temples beginning to throb with the tension. Oh, all she needed was another asshole today.
‘Yes I did, because how else would I dialling this number?’
‘Maybe I get a lot of women call me that I don’t remember? You have a nice voice, what’s your name?’
She rolled her eyes and closed the wallet.
‘There’s six hundred dollars cash in here.’
A pause. He whistled under his breath.
‘Still? You ain’t one of those religious types are ya?’
She shook her head and began to impatiently stride to the entrance.
‘Mister, I’m going to leave this at the cashier for you. I wouldn’t take your money if you said I could. It’s not how I’m raised. Now I’d love to jaw with you all day, but I’m late for work and you cannot even muster a goddamn thank you.’
He clicked off. She was tempted to throw it to the ground but she’d given her word. It still mattered to her, after everything. She would read to her children at night, sometimes falling asleep on the bed with them but she told them stories about heroes who did the right thing. She didn’t think of herself as one, just trying to get through the day but she tried, in her own small way.
She didn’t leave her number with the cashier. She ended up being fifteen minutes late, which was a record for her, and the noodles tasted pretty good. Life put it’s dukes up, sounded the bell for round two and she forgot all about the wallet and the owner.
The envelope was in the mailbox when she got home. Crisp and white, and inside the entire stack of bills. A single piece of paper folded in two and she looked around, waiting for the prank to be revealed to her. No one jumped out at her, and she read the note.
Money is something that you can always make but kindness is in short supply. I shouldn’t have questioned you like that. I deal in futures, Donna, and it’s a harsh business at times. Here is a possible one for you.
He will wear a wedding ring but he’s widowed. He pees sitting down and his favourite book is Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. He saw you at your son’s ball game but because he was coaching the opposing team that season. His name is Jason. The money, spend it how you like, but don’t waste the opportunity. He eats at Applebees on Wednesdays around eight. Take the kids, say hi. See what happens.
She looked at the clock on the wall.
There was still time.
Vanessa looked up from the notebook that she wrote in. The HB pencil she used bore the indentation where she thoughtfully chewed between each line, sometimes each word. Her handwriting reflected her enthusiasm. Shopping lists and thank you notes were geometrical perfection. Her poems and short stories were sprawling and drunken in contrast. By that logic, she surmised, her love letters would be children’s drawings. Pinned with maternal pride to the fridge of her life.
She had not sent nor received a love letter in such a long time that it was an atavistic impulse to her.
She had offers. They ranged from the blunt infant impulse, unsolicited pictures of lonely genitals and poorly worded come ons written in dense upper case, through to tepid indirect enquiries designed to avoid disappointment and to allow for evasions that would impress the most slick politician. In person, hungry looks and whispers, or boorish and crude come ons without any real balance.
She had been on the front lines of the battle of the sexes and had been quietly cheering for the other side to develop anything close to a worthy offense. This one, though had possibilities beyond her wildest dreams.
Abigail sat down with a grand flourish as Vanessa put away her notebook. She was visiting family a few towns over and had suggested a coffee. Complexion of a vegan toddler, a body that had cowed the very idea of the freshman fifteen into retreat, and a life plan that would have made a Japanese corporation look like a stoner wedding.
‘You look awful.’
Vanessa brought up her right hand to shield her hair. It was the longest she’d had it since Gregory left. The flash of scissors was defiant with brown clouds billowing to the hardwood floor as tears fell in relief and regret. It took friends and lovers to show you where you hurt the most.
‘I’ve rejected patriarchal notions of beauty, I’ll have you know.’
Abigail laughed as she gestured for the attention of the waitress.
‘Ugly people and victims say that, darling. You’re just playing around.’
Vanessa shook her head but blushed like a teenager.
‘You can’t say that, Abi.’
She waved her off as the waitress came over to their table. They ordered. The food here was wilfully frugal portions presented in intimidating displays of OCD. Vanessa liked cooking at home, but doing so alone was like singing in a mausoleum. So she ate in places like this because she could afford it and never because she was actually hungry.
As they drank, Vanessa used the cheerful brutality of Abigail’s observations to test herself. The flesh and blood version of those tests you pretended to sneer at in the magazines.
Abigail had a doting husband who worked sixty hours a week for a house he barely saw and a wife he hadn’t touched in months. Vanessa cringed at the idea. She recalled her increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve Greg’s libido with some amusement. Tottering on lucite heels against the doorway with a look that she hoped communicated lust but, as she caught her reflection, merely resembled agony.
Abigail had snorted as she’d fished an olive from the martini glass.
‘God. It wasn’t like you didn’t know.’
Vanessa had been too shocked to find a suitable retort at the time, but in hindsight she had mulled over it. When Gregory and his sensitivities had stopped being a refreshing alternative, they’d started being a joke about her politics overwhelming her needs.
Abigail spoke about men with a thousand yard stare that Vanessa held a morbid fascination about.
She raised an eyebrow, a fig wrapped in prosciutto held inches from her beestung lips.
‘Do you actually like men?’
Abigail’s forehead was as smooth as an egg. She smiled but it didn’t meet her eyes as she popped the fig into her mouth and chewed slowly.
‘Of course. I think every woman should have one.’
She chased the food with a sip of her martini.
‘You are still in love with an idea of men that we’ve evolved past any need for.’
Vanessa gasped as she reached for her glass.
‘You can’t mean that. Tom’s a rock.’
Abigail’s titter made Vanessa swallow a burst of discomfort.
‘Tom is a pet with a masters in finance and he lives to play fetch.’
She leaned forward and Vanessa had to lower her chin to avoid inhaling the fetid warm blast of her breath.
‘You aren’t prepared to make hard choices, Vanessa. You think that it’s all possible but it’s not.’
Vanessa shook her head, appalled by the notion, but Abigail kept speaking.
‘Tom doesn’t love me. He loves the idea of me. I’m his purpose and it keeps me in a lifestyle that allows me to indulge my every whim.’
Vanessa’s hand went to the notebook on an impulse, seeking reassurance and she gave a small conciliatory smile.
‘Perhaps I do ask too much, you’re right.’
Abigail smirked, satisfied with Vanessa’s deference, and the conversation meandered onto less passionate subjects.
Vanessa left the restaurant and retrieved her phone. A polite but firm order to make sure she wore the heels he’d bought her. That he liked her hair long so he could pull it when he entered her from behind. Knowing that there was contempt for his efforts assuaged Vanessa’s guilt somewhat. With Tom’s hands tearing off her panties as the heels caught the afternoon light like a prism, the guilt was completely gone. How beautiful he looked as his face grew smooth with his pleasure and hers.
Vanessa remembered reading something that H L Mencken said about misogyny. That it was defined as a man hating women as much as women hated one another. She was certain that Tom was not one.
She couldn’t speak for Abigail.
Or, it occurred to her, herself.
Mark stood in the doorway, eyes hot and dry from the computer screen and ears ringing from the phone as he loosened his tie.
‘Don’t suppose that there’s dinner in your immediate plans?’
Jenny turned, ran a shaking hand through the greasy fringe of hair on her forehead. Nodded and got up. She was in his college sweater, the sleeves hung past her wrists but it carried the scent of her now. Like something left too long in storage but too dry to rot. A stale,greasy perspiration that made him breathe through his mouth when she drew too close.
His nose wrinkled with disdain, the smallest sign of his disappointment and she took in a deep breath, vacuuming the pain back down into the warm,fetid pit where the creature within her lived. Winston Churchill called it the black dog, to her it was a panther, subtle and beautiful in its destructive domination of her. It would swipe her apart with a single blow of it’s paw. She came in to embrace him, the unspoken admission of her failure and the cure at the same time.
He turned away, resigned to cooking for himself again. He had the decency to wait until he was out of earshot before he sighed with frustration. The sink was infected with unwashed dishes and cutlery. He heard her unpause the television and blinked away his tears before gingerly reached and pulled a crusted plate free.
She sat there, leached of warmth and comfort as she watched the movie without actually seeing anything.
He brought through grilled cheese sandwiches and a bowl of Campbells. Mushroom. Sick people food. They ate on greasy trays without speaking. Neither of them were sure if it was that they had too much to say or nothing.
The Chinese character for relationship translates roughly as ‘flowery combat’. Jenny and Mark had long since moved past that point. An incompetent physician and a stubborn, mute patient. Neither of them could have said which was which.
They sat there. Jenny with the television and Mark playing a freemium game that he had started chipping into their savings account for additional weapons and levels.
Jenny used to read. Now more than a paragraph makes her head hurt. Mark had a workshop full of tools. A place whose only product was dust, pillows of it rolling in the faint breezes whenever the door was opened.
They watched and played until midnight. Holding onto one another like frightened children whilst something blank and monstrous seethed under the bed or rattled the hangers in the closet. She woke him at around three, her breath coming in chirping gasps, his fingers found the warm trail of tears.
He murmured and exhaled heavily through his nostrils, hoping that he could be asleep before the dull guillotine of the alarm cut his colourful, sensually rich dreams off at the neck.
‘Am I starting to look like my mom?’
He thought about Ellen. The delicacy of her manners that looked fragile on Jenny. The indifferent observations and the offhand remarks. A protective instinct arose in him, uncensored by his conscious resentments. He pulled her tight to him.
‘Oh god no, baby, not at all’
Jenny petted the sparse hair on his chest, whispered that she loved him, from a distance she thought, but loved him all the same.
Kevin winced as he got behind the wheel. His lower back screamed at him, but he gained a small amount of relief from seeing Jennifer turning her head from side to side as she waited for him to start the car. She turned her head and narrowed her eyes as he started the car.
‘You need to practice the lift more.’
He sighed as he took their Prius out of the studio’s parking lot. Despite the chill, he rolled down the window on his side.
‘Don’t, it’s freezing.’
He frowned and rolled it up as he focused on the sluggish clot of traffic that was at the intersection.
‘We’ve been sweating for hours, maybe I don’t want to stink the car up.’
Checking his rear view mirror, he looked at her. Her auburn hair was scraped back into a severe topknot and her skin glowed from the effort. Her lips were pursed into a knot that was tighter than her hair and Kevin saw the lines around her mouth, was greeted with a vision of what she would look like in ten years.
‘Oh so I stink, do I?’
His stomach lurched as he clutched the steering wheel.
‘No, Jen, it’s just that we’ve been rehearsing your fucking dance for three hours.’
‘So it’s my dance now? My wedding dance, that we’ve paid sixty dollars an hour to rehearse, is that mine?’
Her voice made his molars ring and he shut his eyes as he focused on his breath. Kevin wanted a cigarette but he knew that it would be a clear act of aggression and he knew that he was not capable of handling another lecture from her today.
He looked at her, a smile of warm reassurance, his weapon of choice to end a conflict but her eyes were like pebbles, leached of life as she looked at him.
‘And if you actually practiced the steps, we wouldn’t need the extra lessons, would we?’
His smile died on his face and he turned the car into traffic.
The videos online. Elaborate choreography, adoring friends and family, a hit count that teemed and seethed with attention. She had shrieked with delight at the idea when she got the link in her email, and had made Kevin watch, first that one then delving down until he was punch drunk and vowed never to listen to ‘I’ve Had The Time of My Life’ unless it was at gunpoint.
The enthusiastic things she’d done when he’d agreed had quieted the small voice of concern but not shut it up completely. It was loud in the car, without saying anything.
‘Don’t forget we’ve got the caterer on Wednesday. I need you there, and did you do the list of who’s vegetarian?’
He bit back the assertion that none of his friends were but decided against it. Instead, he nodded and murmured a vowel sound that she took as affirmation.
It came to him as he took them home, that he had watched the videos but never looked into the faces of the participants. People assumed that there was joy in pledging your life to someone else, even if they had Facebook inboxes that were as clean as a hotel room or had ‘friends’ who wouldn’t speak when they called the house. He wondered, if he could bear to watch them again, what their faces would actually look like.
He tried not to imagine what his own face would look like.
He knows the tones
Your mother did
The same thing
But telling you that
Makes it worse
You look at your father’s dull eyes
Later, over whiskey in the lounge
They weep over their mutual futures
He raises a glass
Allies in a war
They’re doomed to lose
And you eavesdrop
As you curse the inheritance
You hoped would miss a generation
Because you could sit with your daughter
And show her how disappointment
Has broken teeth and
Enough shame to go round