All posts by sofiacapel

Jennifer Boyce Has Viewed Your Profile, by James Wood

(Dedicated to David and Nicola Cernik Mitchell)

There was no doubt: the ping of my instant message service always made my heart beat faster.

After more than thirty years in investment management, I had grown tired of the chase: more money, more luxury, then emptiness. But every time I got an email, the whiff of a new deal got my blood up, even if I’d stepped back from my firm’s sharp end years ago.

I stared down from my 27th-floor office into mid-town Manhattan, looking at nothing in particular. I surveyed the Hudson River; the bridges, the wharves and the whole mess of humanity in between. I was fifty-seven years old, and held the titular role of Executive Vice-Chairman (no, I don’t know what that means either) in the firm I’d founded twenty years ago. I fished my mobile out of my inside pocket and looked at the screen:

“Jennifer Boyce has viewed your profile.”

A message from LinkedIn, like so many others. The consultants, PR flacks and charity bunnies who wanted my money or time or both. But this was different – it carried the name of a woman I’d desired dementedly, beyond reason, in a time and place now lost to me. Gone from the world, found only in the palace of memory. And this name, this woman: they’d gouged a place in that memory – I could see her now, even though I hadn’t been near her for forty years.

#

Scotland in the 1970s – or at least, my Scotland – was as far away from bagpipes and tartan as it could be. Other men might get sentimental about life back then, but not me. They might remember fish and chips in newspaper, the contents sharp with salt and vinegar, crisp batter cloaking the fish; walking home half-drunk on bad ale in the freezing night, barely able to see under dull orange streetlamps; or football matches in the rain that always ended in fights.

Others might remember all this with relish. But I remembered the cold. And the boredom; the factories closing, the stench of cheap tobacco, and the faces of the older men from my village. By ’75 the place was long since in decline, and men who’d served their country in World War II found themselves on the scrapheap, the only trade they’d ever known – fishing – stolen from them by vanishing stocks and an unsympathetic government.

#

Such were the conditions I escaped from, ending up in this glass-and-steel tower on the corner of Wall and William Street. New York, New York, USA. Mr. Graeme Henderson, Executive Vice-Chairman. I’d escaped from Scotland, from its narrow beauty and bowed-minded people to the heights of Manhattan. To success, wealth – and utter boredom.

I clicked on the email from LinkedIn out of curiosity. This particular Jennifer Boyce might be a PR person here in New York. Or maybe from some charity or other: she was probably going to hit me up with a message about alpacas suffering in the hobby farms of rich tech executives.

Before I could look at the email, my phone pinged. A text from Susan, my wife: I’d either forgotten some engagement, or I’d have to stop by the store and pick something up on the way home. Or something about one of our kids. Whatever it was could wait.

#

Jennifer Boyce was the most beautiful girl at my school. In case there was any doubt, my school was blessed with a lot of pretty girls – or at least, that’s how it seemed to an awkward fifteen-year-old from a fishing community. In contrast to Jennifer’s apparent confidence, I felt paralysed by a sense of inadequacy: bright and a loner, I was distant from Jennifer and her gang, who smoked and dated the boys on the football team or the hard men, the loud, brash bullies. Outside this magic circle, it was whispered that Jennifer and her friends Leigh and Pippa had already “done it” with their boyfriends. Evidence for this claim amounted to the occasional used condom in the school toilets – no evidence really, when I looked back on it, beyond the febrile imagination of frustrated teenagers.

I remembered standing next to Jennifer in a local shop at lunch-time once. Back then, children were less inclined (though not totally disinclined) to steal. Gaggles of them would wait at the counter in bunches to be served. No “two only in the shop at a time”: more like you’d get a kick up the arse from the shop owner if you tried anything. And the old girl who ran the shop must have been sixty at least.

That day in the sweet shop, Jennifer wore the school’s regulation deep blue sweater and a white shirt underneath, her tie carelessly knotted at least six inches below her neck, the top two buttons of her shirt undone, her thin tie knot just visible above the sweater’s V-neck. Standing next to her, I could see the uplift of her young breasts under her clothes, smell the coconut oil in her recently-shampooed blonde hair, a hint of cheap perfume. She had china-blue eyes and a full mouth with skin pinched pink by the cold Scottish spring.

The queue for the counter moved forward. One of us had to go first. I motioned silently to Jennifer to move forward and she smiled at me.

“Thanks, Dave.”

Dave. I blushed when she spoke: Jennifer Boyce obviously didn’t know who I was, even though she had my hormones – and thus, my mind and body – in a noose. I tried to counter their rush by remembering the rumour that Jennifer farted uncontrollably in a Chemistry lesson once, but it was useless. I wanted her, though I couldn’t get a word out. It was all just want. Useless want. Pointless desire wracked me, as rich in my imagination as it was barren in practice.

After that encounter in the local shop, we didn’t speak to each other for months. Despite being at the same school we were light-years apart. Jennifer hung out with sportsmen, smoked and wasn’t interested in class, focused on boys and having fun. I was the opposite – mired in delusions of grandeur, hopelessly ambitious and committed to my schoolwork.

The months rolled by and became first one year, then another. I thought constantly about Jennifer Boyce, felt like throwing up every time I saw her. My heart beat faster when she was around – just as it did when, as an adult, I thought there would be another deal, another sale.

As a boy, I had no understanding of desire, never having had it fulfilled beyond the odd clumsy kiss at parties with random girls who were a bit more drunk than I was – not that it was difficult to be more drunk than a teetotal teenager. At the end of year ten, I passed my exams and went into sixth form; Jennifer failed hers and had to repeat a year.

#

Leaning back in my leather office chair, which creaked gently as I tilted backwards, I glanced at the text message from my wife, Susan. She would make a Zen poet proud: “Toilet roll. Honey. Ground beef. Almonds. XXX.” I shot a quick text back to my wife with three kisses. A cursive means of saying, “Message received and understood. I will comply.”

#

As I neared the end of my time at school, I took up swimming to alleviate the stress of my final year exams. By arrangement with the school authorities, I’d been given permission to swim in the morning before starting revision at seven AM. At quarter to six, three mornings a week, I could be found ploughing up and down the tiny thirty-foot pool in the school’s sports complex. My parents let me carry on, supposing it better to swim and study than drink and smoke, habits to which many of my peers were already prone.

I heard that a group of girls also had swimming privileges. Apparently they turned up later, around 7AM, but I was usually long gone: I just left the key beside the door under a brick and headed for the library to work.

One day close to my exams, I heard a noise as I was towelling myself off in the men’s changing rooms. I glanced over at the key, which lay next to my pile of clothes. Then I heard a voice. A girl’s voice, calling.

“Hello?”

I wrapped my towel around my waist and stuck my head out of the changing room door. Jennifer Boyce stood in the corridor outside the men’s, dressed in a black swimsuit beneath an unbuttoned overcoat. She wore deck shoes, no socks and had a towel and a bag with her school uniform in it tucked under her arm. She shivered a little. Her body showed tan lines on her neck from the summer sun, her hair a little longer than I remembered it, gold against the white flesh below the neckline of her swimsuit that dipped towards her breasts, their outline jutting forward under the tight suit’s thin material.

She looked at me frankly and I felt that by-now-familiar sickness well up in my gut. The sickness of want. Of need.

“I was looking for the key. Sorry, I’m a bit early”, Jennifer smiled.

“Oh, no problem. I’ve just got it in here. Hold on a sec” – and I turned back towards my pile of clothes while holding the door open, not wanting to be rude. I reached for the key on top of my pile of clothes and grabbed it, then turned back to find Jennifer standing in the men’s changing room. I let go of the door, and we stood there looking at each other.

“Thanks.” Jennifer held out her hand. I proffered the key and she took my hand. Then she held it. Whether she stepped towards me or I towards her, I could no longer remember. We kissed, and I felt a burn from my groin through my guts and up through my pounding heart. I didn’t know, didn’t care, how to kiss. I was need, nature unbridled, emotion and chemicals, battering heart and open mouth, eyes wide shut.

By contrast, Jennifer knew what she was doing. She placed her hands gently behind my head and kissed me again. This time our kiss was long and deep, my arousal more and more evident under the damp towel that covered me from waist to knee. Forty years later, I still remember the stench of the cheap bleach they used to clean the changing rooms. The showers that wouldn’t turn on or off properly. The steam on the windows, condensation gathering in the early Summer morning; the faint tang of piss from the urinals in one corner of the changing room.

Jennifer took my hand and led me to a toilet cubicle next to the urinals. Inside, the cubicle was lit by a single, bare bulb, its weak light hardly enough to allow sight of what you were doing. She drew me in and closed the door, sloughing off her overcoat. Then she kissed me again. After that, she wrangled her arms out of her bathing suit, her breasts springing forward as she peeled the suit down to her waist. Our mouths enmeshed, she slid a hand inside the towel around my waist and it fell to the floor as our bodies grew closer, then touched.

#

It was my first time, but not hers, and it was over as quickly as you might expect. I could still taste our last kiss afterwards in that stinking cubicle, how it seemed it might go on for ever, as if my tongue and hers were melded in some other universe, jousting and playing endlessly around our mouths. I remembered the dirt in the corners of the cubicle where the cleaners had been careless; the thin antiseptic toilet paper half-in, half-out of its holder. NOW WASH YOUR HANDS PLEASE stamped on every sheet. Then the sound of a door opening – her friends arriving for swimming. And she was gone, exiting the men’s changing room with the excuse to her friends that she’d been in there as the girls’ toilets were out of commission.

Our encounter took place on a Friday – the sixth of June, 1980. The next Monday, I heard a rumour that Jennifer had been snogging a guy from the West of Scotland Schools Select Football XI at a weekend party. Ten days after that, I finished my exams and left the school to take up my first job as an assistant to a broker/dealer in Edinburgh. I never saw Jennifer Boyce again, or spoke to her.

#

I put my phone down, lifted up my tortoiseshell glasses and rubbed my eyes. Then I replaced the glasses and looked at the LinkedIn page displayed on my desk monitor. It was her all right: Jennifer Boyce. Business Psychology, Consultancy and Communications. Glasgow, Scotland. I peered at the profile photograph, trying to read some life history into what little I could see of her from the posed, yet curiously blurred, photograph. That she had aged went without saying – so had I; so had the world. Her hair was shorter, but still the same colour, tastefully dyed mid-Summer blonde, as if she had never wanted to let go of being young – but who does? Her eyes looked the same. But was she married? Divorced? Happy? Lost?

I scrolled down the page, looking for some clue in her employment history as to who the woman I’d wanted so badly, and loved so briefly, had become. Almost nothing to go on – the usual litany of companies, some of which I’d heard of. No mention of interests or a family, though it was hard to believe she had neither.

I looked down at the mobile phone on my desk with that message from my wife about groceries. I killed the message app and put the phone in my pocket. Then I moved the cursor over the button marked “Connect with Jennifer”, and clicked on it. The desk phone rang – my assistant, with a request for me to come down to the lobby to glad-hand some new clients.

I got up from my desk and headed for the door, feeling the blood still pumping in my veins, my arousal only half-subsided. The sickness of memory. Why had I wanted to contact her? Desire had never diminished in me: it had just been cloaked by bitter experience and distance. That she had looked at my profile suggested she remembered me – but maybe my name had been served up to her like a sick joke by some warped algorithm on LinkedIn.

As I walked out the door, I heard another email ping. I checked my handheld: “Jennifer Boyce has accepted your connection request.” I put the phone back in my breast pocket and pressed the elevator button to take me down to reception, trying to remember this client’s sector of activity. Some kind of Life Sciences investment vehicle, or something. I’d run our Life Sciences book for a few years, so I knew a bit about the sector. And it was a decent mandate – about half a billion. That should buy a few portfolio managers on the floor below me their Lamborghinis– and then they’d find out how much that stuff really means.

The elevator doors opened and the receptionist showed me in to the meeting room to the left. As I walked in, my heart gave a twist when the three people around the table stood up to greet me. There, on the far side of the meeting room, was Jennifer Boyce. If anything, her profile photo had not done her justice: incredibly, she was more beautiful in her late fifties than when she was a teenager, her features ripened; her figure as lithe as I remembered.

Jennifer wore a deep red, thigh-length jacket trimmed with black, a filigree gold chain round her neck with a diamond-studded pendant. Her hair was cut into a bob, its golden tones now richer than I remembered them from our teenage years. Jim, one of our Portfolio Managers, introduced me to her colleagues, then:

“… this is Jennifer Boyce, representing the Association of Scottish Pension Funds…”

I took her hand, my heart cantering as if almost forty years counted for nothing and I was back in the men’s changing room at school. She looked at me and I saw the clarity of those china-blue eyes, her perfect teeth as she smiled.

“Graeme. How nice to see you again.”

“So you two know each other?” Jim was incredulous. “I mean, Scotland is a small country, but what are the chances…?”

“I know”, Jennifer smiled again. “Graeme and I were at school together.”

I listened as Jim began to outline our firm’s understanding of their fund’s objectives. They were looking for high-growth opportunities to offset the impact of low interest rates over a long period on returns. The investments had to be early-stage. High Alpha, with good longer-term potential. All I could think about was our tongues meeting in those filthy school toilets, her body as she peeled down that swimsuit. I felt that sickness again, that sense I hadn’t had in more than forty years.

As Jim went on talking, I felt my phone buzz in my breast pocket. We were at that point where people begin surreptitiously checking their phones and sending emails during meetings. I noticed Jennifer had been fiddling with hers, and asked Jim to excuse me, saying I’d be back in a minute.

I went to the men’s room and splashed some water on my face, drying off with a paper towel. I breathed deeply and was tempted to slap myself, telling myself to get over it. Then I fished my phone out and the e-mail I’d heard arrive. Another one from LinkedIn:

“Jennifer Boyce has sent you a personal message.”

I clicked on the link and LinkedIn’s Messenger opened. Inside the little box were five simple words: “I never forgot you, Graeme. X” Then I checked my look in the mirror, straightened my tie and walked back to the meeting room where Jennifer held the floor:

“… historically, Scottish Funds have been too conservative. We need a manager to open up new areas like personalised medicine and in-vitro cell reprogramming. I understand your firm has a good pedigree. And of course” – Jennifer looked at me, and I saw her pendant glinting in the V of her blouse – “Graeme knows the Scottish market.”

Jim nodded. “That’s true. Graeme is our greatest asset in Life Sciences. I have a presentation to show you – we’ve achieved a gross return of twenty percent” –

“—Maybe later, Jim.” I suggested.

“I think I’d like time alone with Graeme to talk to him about what these Scottish universities’ concerns. Then maybe we could review your general presentation with my colleagues from SeaBird Investments, our US partner?”

Jennifer had just dismissed Jim in the most gentle terms.

“Sounds good”, he said. Then the others got up to leave the room.

“Why don’t you guys stay here? Graeme and I can find a break-out room, or just chat in the hall.”

My heart battered in my veins while I tried hard to remember everything I’d ever read about sample stability maintenance and Scotland’s pension funds. Meanwhile my body burned and I could feel myself harden as Jennifer stood up.

Once we were out in the corridor, she took off her jacket. I asked our receptionist to find us a meeting room and she offered two I rejected before she came up with the smallest, darkest room on our lower floor. I led Jennifer towards the room, listening to her heels on the marble tiles behind me. When we arrived at the room, I opened the door and turned round to let Jennifer in first. She walked in, turning to me, and I noticed she’d undone a button on her cream blouse. She laid her coat on the table and I shut the door. For a split second we stood there looking at each other, and the scent of that bleach from that freezing-cold changing room came to me, the stink of piss from the urinals and a line of poetry from some English lesson when, no doubt, I would have been staring out the window dreaming about the woman who stood in front of me forty years later.

It was time to level with her about the experience my firm had claimed for me on our website. I wanted her so badly I could hardly breathe: I wanted to lean in and kiss her.

“The truth is I”—

But she shut my mouth with a kiss and pressed me up against the door. Then she put her arms around me as I snaked my arms up her back, kissing her lips, her face.

And after that? Life became that morning forty years ago, all over again. Only better.

 

A 2018 recipient of the British Columbia Writer’s Award in Canada, James W. Wood’s work has appeared in leading journals around the world, including The Times Literary Supplement (UK), The Boston Review (USA), The Fiddlehead (Canada), Poetry Review (UK), and others. Wood has authored six books of poetry, including Building a Kingdom: New and Selected Poems, 1989-2019 (High Window Press, UK, 2019) and a pseudonymous thriller selected for the Rome Film Festival in 2011. He has been nominated or shortlisted for nine literary awards, including the Bridport Prize and T.S.Eliot Prize. www.der-jimmelwriter.com

 

The Happiness Experiment, by Virginia Konchan

Faith Richards stepped out of her Uber on a drizzly Friday night at 3am, and was seized by a moment of gratitude that Uber had eliminated the need to finalize a human interaction, albeit one in the service industry, with a financial transaction.  She liked the illusion of saying goodbye and slipping into the night.  She liked slamming a door and watching her chariot, a maroon Ford Focus, careen down the road.

She was tired.  Bone tired.  Had been for years, but her ability to rally at appropriate moments (work, bar-hopping) gave others a contrary impression, one of a young woman of considerable pluck and verve, quick-witted and spry.  This front masked a great sadness.  It’s not that anyone close to her had died, or that she was struggling with chronic pain.  She was just tired of life, already at 33, as if glimpsing at all times the drudgery of karmic return and reincarnation, the never-ending cycles of debt and accumulation, sin and penance, consumption and disposal.  Just let me die, she wanted to say to the world.  But the world wouldn’t let her die:  it insisted upon her debacle of presence, her willingness—dutiful, at best—to step through her doorframe, place her keys on the kitchen table, wash her face, brush her teeth, don her nightgown, and sleep.

She did just that, after a night of drinking and drugs that left her dopey and confused.   When she woke up six hours later, the sun was pouring through her dusty, slatted blinds, the blinds that had come with this shitty studio apartment in the heart of the Plateau in Montreal.   The apartment came furnished:  she hadn’t done much decorating, instead choosing to live amid the shoddy remnants of someone else’s idea of style:  tall plastic vases with long-stemmed fake flowers and peacock feathers, a sunken, grimy, khaki-colored couch with two wilted throw pillows, and several florid nature prints, probably saved from a hotel liquidation sale, that seemed to have been painted by Thomas Kinkaid on crack.  She liked living in someone else’s dream, merely stuffing her clothes in the closet and her toiletries in the bathroom, and calling it home.  It took the pressure off of being original, of curating a capitalist lifestyle and home that bore her signature, whether that signature was garbage day cast-offs, or Ikea, or one of the many high-end furniture boutiques that populated Montreal from which she could possibly afford a distressed end table in six months but nothing more.

She lifted her arms above her head, yawned, then pressed snooze on her alarm.  Ten minutes later she was awoken by the rude blaring again, and this time, decided to actually get up.  She stumbled into the kitchen, turned on the pre-set coffee maker, then lurched into the bathroom to brush her teeth.  When the coffee was done brewing, she added cream then careened onto the back porch with a cigarette in hand to greet the day.  Hello, day.  Hello nicotine and caffeine; hello barely-clad neighbor watering the house plants; hello recalcitrant sun, peeking over a thicket of blue-grey clouds like a smear of day-old margarine in the sky.

Fuck, she thought.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.  She stubbed out her cigarette then went inside to pour more coffee and run the shower.  The effects of the previous night roiled through her body in waves; she wanted to either throw up or scrub her entire body with her homemade exfoliant of sea salt, and lavender oil.  She opted for the exfoliant, as being bulimic, she had plenty of opportunities to throw up otherwise.

Her phone rang just as she was getting out of the shower; it was her father, Joe, a retired lawyer who lived in Albuquerque with her mom and the rest of her extended family.

“Hi Dad!”

“Hi Faith.  I know it’s early, I won’t keep you.  How are you this morning?”  She quickly put on her robe and towel-dried her hair.  Her conversations with her father followed a predictable script; he wanted to be assured of her normalacy, and she was all-too-eager to comply.  She sat down at the kitchen table and cast around for a bottle of alcohol that would make the next ten minutes pass quicker.  She hadn’t been to the SAQ for a week, and there was no alcohol to drink in her apartment, other than a can of beer.  She wrapped her fingers around her coffee mug and chugged.

“Wonderful!  Works going great, I think I’m up for a promotion soon.”  Complete lie.  Faith’s soul-crushing job as a low-level administrative assistant hardly paid the bills, and she feared daily that she could lock herself into a supply closet and not emerge for weeks yet still remain on payroll.

“Honey, that’s great!”

“Thank you!”  Faith lit another cigarette, this time in her apartment rather than on her balcony.  Who cared?  There was no one around anymore to witness or intervene in her path of self-destruction.  She inhaled deeply and blew out the smoke in rings.  “I’m also seeing someone.”  This was true; Faith had been sleeping with Ben for going on a month, leaving his apartment at 4am on the nights she saw him with wobbly legs and mascara streaking her cheeks.

“Oh really?”  Faith could feel her father tense up.  Her father had been a strong proponent of her previous husband Rick, from whom she’d been divorced for six months.  Rick was an investment banker, as smarmy as he was rich.  They’d lived together in a condo in Outremont for the last four years, after Faith had moved from Chicago to Montreal, following their fairy-tale wedding.  Faith had worn a low-cut strapless gown she’d had custom made, beaded in rhinestones.  When she looked back at their wedding album, which she’d decided not to trash, she couldn’t bear the sight of herself, shimmering like the illusion of hope itself.  She hadn’t taken Rick’s name, nor bore his children, but the separation and divorce had been a nightmare that had driven her to poverty, drugs, drinking, cigarettes, and sleeplessness, in that order.

“Yes.  His name is Ben.”

“And what does Ben do?”

“Ben is a teacher.”  This was also true.  Ben was a teacher of biology at a local CEGEP.  He was a gifted lover, too, and while the relationship would likely not last the month, she felt vindicated by the suggestion of meaning’s reemergence in her life.

“Are you still talking to Rick?”

“Yes, because of Cookie.”  Cookie was the overweight corgi they’d adopted together and shared custody of.

“And your med situation, it’s stable?”  Faith had had upwards of ten shrinks in the last few years, all of whom had given her different diagnoses and medications, based on her current symptomatology:  schizo-affective disorder, borderline personality disorder, disordered eating, depression, suicidal ideation.  She took the pills faithfully, alongside her birth control pill, and prayed for miracles by way of a Christmas bonus that would allow her to pay off her credit card, or a new styling crème that would finally give her the long, lustrous locks she was convinced would make a man, any man, fall in love with her again.

“Whatever they prescribe me, I take.”

“Good girl.”

“Even though Abilify makes me narcoleptic.  And how are—“  Her father cut her off.

“Honey, I have to go, the contractors are here for the new addition to the house.  Talk soon?”

“Yes, sure, ok.”  Faith sat on the edge of her seat anxiously, wet coils of hair draping her shoulders.

“Have a good day!”

“You too!”  Faith placed her cell phone down, and began her morning routine, aggressively:   facial toner, facial essence, anti-wrinkle cream, serum, moisturizer, under eye cream, sunscreen.  Then began the makeup ablutions:  primer for her face and eyelids, foundation, cover up, setting powder, blush, bronzer, highlighter, eyebrow pencil, eyeshadow, eyeliner, lash curler, mascara primer, mascara, a dusting of finishing powder, then makeup setting spray.  Twenty minutes later she stood back from the mirror and surveyed the effects:  she looked like herself, only better.  Or so she thought.  But what is self-perception?  What is thought?  Glancing at the clock, she hurried to get dressed, in the only outfit she had that was both clean and ironed:  a blue pencil skirt and white blouse with a fluted collar.  She poured another cup of coffee in a to-go mug, grabbed her keys, turned off the lights, and walked outside, locking the door behind her.  The sun was bright and invasive; she felt it illuminating her flaws, and quickly put on her sunglasses to prolong her internalized fantasy of beauty and eternal youth.

Driving to work, she wondered what music other people in other cars were listening to.  What were other people hearing, feeling, eating, wondering, doing, while she was living in a cloud of monomaniacal self-pity?  She only had a few scratched CD’s that she kept behind her front seat cup holders in a dirty pile.  She would occasionally put one in, Sam Smith or Lana Del Ray, and the tracks would skip because of the damage to the disk.  That morning she put on a mix CD her friend Catherine had made her and lazily bopped her head along to songs that were too hip to have an identifiable melody or beat.

She found a spot in the parking garage close to the elevators, parked, and walked briskly to work, past a homeless man sleeping on a cardboard box, past the potted plants and other attempts at beautification, past other worker bees dressed to the nines in Ann Taylor and Brooks Brothers.

“Good morning, Faith!” exclaimed her co-worker Susan, another low-level administrative assistant who brought in stinky leftovers to work every day and wore what seemed to Faith a near-impossible number of bangle bracelets, rings, necklaces, and earrings.  Susan’s excessive accessories once recalled to mind a passage by Roland Barthes on the semiotics of fashion—what did all that jangling nonsense mean?—but it had been years since she read Barthes or any theorist, since grad school.  Now, four years later, all Susan’s jewelry meant to Faith was that she was forced to listen to the angry chiming of Susan’s accessories as she punched away at the word processor as well as the noxious wafts of perfume—Tommy Boy—that emanated from her body, renewed on the hour.  Not that Faith’s scent was any better—she smelled like stale cigarettes, Tim Hortons, and something vaguely antiseptic, like bleach.

“Good morning Susan.”  Faith stored her purse under her desk, wishing for the umpteenth time for a shred of privacy in their shared space, and tried to concentrate on the tasks before her.  Wishful thinking, magical thinking—this was at the crux of Faith’s life orientation.  She tried to will her will into being, but was at all turns thwarted, and Facebook didn’t help, with its daily nagging reminders that while she languished, others were vacationing in Tahiti, celebrating student loan payoffs with champagne, and introducing their third cherubic baby into the world.

“You look pretty tired,” said Susan, with no small degree of menace.  “Late night?”  The only thing Faith had on Susan was a social life—Susan’s idea of fun was rom coms on Netflix and Thai take-out.  Otherwise, they were two peas in an underpaid, demeaning pod.

“Yep.”  At least I’m getting laid, Faith thought meanly.  Susan hadn’t dated for years, which is almost impossible in hedonistic Montreal, yet she managed it, with spinster aplomb. So what if Montreal was rife with overgrown man-children, men with $50 haircuts who shied away from commitment, wore ironic vanity tees purchased from the deep web, and misquoted Baudelaire at house parties?  At least they were game for a good time, as long as it lasted.

“Rachel wants these faxed by 10am.”  Susan dumped a stack of papers on Faith’s desk and smirked.  “I would do it but I’m really busy with the year-end report.”

Look alive, Faith chanted to herself, as she bent over the fax machine, her thong underwear dislodging into increasingly uncomfortable places.  Just look alive.

She skipped lunch, instead leaving the building for 45 minutes to buy a glass of wine and smoke.  Liquid meals were Faith’s forte.  She would take in just enough calories to blunt her hunger and get through the day, avoiding with a steely determination she couldn’t manage to apply to actual accomplishments the malodorous food court, with its enticing offerings:  steamy, doughy pretzels; lo-mein; neatly wrapped falafel sandwiches, and XL smoothies.  Occasionally she would capitulate and accept a sample from one of the vendors, usually a chunk of orange chicken stabbed by a toothpick, but not today.  Today was going to be a good day; she had plans to go to the gym after work, shower, then meet up with Ben for drinks at Bar Darling.  She would be victorious by day’s end, which is to say desirable to another.

In skipping lunch, she could hear her therapist’s voice in her head, droning on about the importance of food to the brain.  Didn’t Faith want to attempt to cogitate?  No, thought Faith darkly.  Where has cognition, or emotion for that matter, ever got me?  She was determined to live in a cryogenic vacuum of needlessness; even her attempts at sociality were scripted.  With a few exceptions, when hanging out with “friends” she was constantly reminded of the limitations to intimacy, the sudden jolts of otherness and abortive gestures, the vacuous small talk that filled up the blank spaces that were Faith’s only true joy.  Fun?  Fun was oblivion, in Faith’s estimation.  Anything less was just stilted hogwash meant to stave off thoughts of death.

She returned to the building after her third smoke and pasted on a fake smile for Susan, a smile that said:  delegate work to me that is not yours to delegate one more time, bitch, and I’ll key your car.  Susan smiled back, a small piece of something green and weedy stuck to her right incisor.  Faith nearly retched.  It was moments like these that Faith felt she could not go on, could not survive in a foul, accidental, arbitrary world without beauty.  The rest of the day passed quickly enough; Faith cheered herself by posting a flattering photo of herself on Facebook with just a mere suggestion of cleavage finishing her taxes with the hashtag “adulting” and making an appointment to have a facial, a service she would pay for by asking her dad for money under the pretense of an emergency tooth extraction.

She hit the gym after work and, having forgotten her MP3 player (she couldn’t afford an Ipod), was forced to listen to the sound of men grunting for an hour while working on the elliptical, a machine she hated for its Sisyphean motions into nothingness.  It reminded her of the repetitive motions of masturbation, an activity she only engaged in when feeling vengeful.

In the locker room, she patted down her body the way an airport security guard would when suspecting she might be carrying drugs or weapons—thoroughly and impersonally.  Her ass felt a little tauter, her stomach, a little flatter.  Good, good.  When she got home she opened her fridge, surveyed the contents—desiccated condiments and a half-eaten container of jalapeno hummus—and shut the door again.  To eat was to have to throw up, and that was another Sisyphean cycle Faith did her best to avoid, though sometime inebriation or boredom got the best of her and she bought a bag of chips and inhaled them in seconds like a starved mental patient, which she was, then puked them up, careful to brush her teeth vigorously in the aftermath.  She showered again—one of the rare unadulterated pleasures in her life—careful not to get water on her face or she’d have to re-do her makeup all over again.

“Ben!” Faith said upon seeing him at the bar an hour later.  She gave him bisous and sank into her chair with what she hoped was studied effortlessness.

“You look pretty tonight,” said Ben.

“Aw no I don’t,” said Faith.  She leaned over to gently touch his cheek.  “I got a little lipstick on you.”

They chatted for a while about work, and Faith was sure to pepper the conversation with funny anecdotes that were mostly complete fabrications.  She had an interesting relationship to the truth, because she didn’t understand who or what the truth was supposed to serve.  Not her, clearly—she felt the same, which is to say nothing, regardless of whether she told the truth or lies.  Around 9pm Ben proposed going back to his place for another drink, which obviously meant he wanted to have sex with her, which she took as a validation of her human worth.

While not promiscuous, Faith liked sex, liked the apparitions of nudity and the happy-go-lucky feeling that mutual use-value generated in her.  She came easily with Ben, because unlike most straight men, Ben actually gave a shit about the female orgasm and had skills in that department.  He didn’t seem to think it was “fair” when the man achieved climax and the woman was left unsatisfied, and Faith respected that sense of egalitarianism, though she had no way of knowing how, or if it extended to other dimensions of Ben’s life—his ethics, for example.  Did Ben think it was “fair” that the one percent basically ran over the other 99% with sociopathic glee, or that some animals were rescued from shelters to be given a loving forever home with squirrely children while the majority of them were peremptorily euthanized?

She would never know, because they would never have that conversation.  Like most women, Faith didn’t know how to project herself as a three-dimensional person with desires, opinions, and needs.

“That was amazing,” said Faith, slipping on her underwear.  “Do you mind if I have a cigarette?”

“A cancer stick, you mean,” said Ben.  “Sure.”  He finds it disgusting, Faith fretted, then soon soothed herself with the thought that fucking her surely more than compensated for a little nasty habit of which she would soon rid herself, once she got her proverbial shit together.

For Faith, getting one’s shit together was a total mirage, a joke, though she was somewhat certain that others in her peripheral vision were in fact actually getting their shit together—making money, writing novels, raising families, and participating in civic life.  She knew all the ways, theoretically, in which a man could position himself as a man—homo erectus, the missing link—but had zero clue how to position herself as a woman in society other than as a sexual object whose self-esteem was contingent upon being desired.  In this configuration, her only defense was coping mechanisms, which she clung to desperately as they provided the illusion of a secret inner life.  To be a fuck up whom the world thinks is going places was her calling card, and she performed the act with masterful precision.  She hadn’t cried for years.

Faith glanced through the balcony’s glass door at Ben, who was striding purposefully through the living room naked, picking up their beer glasses and straightening the couch’s slipcover, which they’d disarrayed in their spirited fucking.  His cock was no longer hard, but his body was—he had the triangular shoulders of a provider type, and the kind of chiseled abs that Faith couldn’t achieve no matter how many crunches she did.  I don’t have penis envy, thought Faith, as she stubbed out her cigarette—I have ab envy.  I want a hard, concave stomach, the very inverse of a childbearing mound.  Goddamnit, why is life so cruel?

“Hungry?” Ben asked when she returned inside.

“Oh, I can always eat,” she said winsomely, knowing that men liked women with a healthy appetite.  She’d find a way to only eat the raw vegetables he served with crudité, or—her signature move—nibble noisily and gustily on a few potato chips then distract him from realizing she wasn’t eating more.

He returned from the kitchen with a box of leftover pizza.  Um, no, Faith thought.  “I’m so sorry,” she said.  “I’m lactose intolerant.”

“Oh really?”  He moved the pizza box closer to him, protectively.  “I didn’t know that.”  You don’t know a single fucking thing about me, Faith responded pleasantly, in her mind.  Also, that was a lie.  “Can I offer you anything else?”

“Do you have any hard liquor?”  He laughed and returned again with a small glass of vodka, which Faith tried to sip discreetly.  Another bane of her existence:  trying to pretend small servings of alcohol would satiate the gaping maw inside her that wanted only to chug the bottle until it was gone.

She studied the floor while sucking in her stomach, aware of Ben’s gaze upon her.  “You have such nice features,” said Ben.  “You look like an actress from the 1940’s.”

Faith glanced up, slowly, for effect.  Thoughts tumbled into her head—she could tell Ben she loved him, for example, really lay down the gauntlet and make him super uncomfortable.  She could tell him she battled leukemia as a child, or that her PhD was actually in the social behavior of spider monkeys, not English literature as she’d previously stated.  Something.  Anything.  “No,” she said.  “My nose is too big.”

“Stop,” he said.  “You’re beautiful.  You’re sure you don’t want some pizza?  I could take off the cheese for you.”

She searched his face for any sign of tenderness.  She wanted him to beseech her, to make a declaration of some kind, something irreversible and poetic, but his expression was flat and inquisitive.  He only wanted to know if he could render her this small act of chivalry, of stripping cheese from a flabby piece of two-day-old pizza.

“No, thank you,” she said.  Then she glanced at her phone.  “God, it’s getting late.  I’ll see you soon?”  He walked her to the door and went in for a kiss, which she obliged.  His lips were rubbery and slightly salty from the pizza.

He got what he wanted, she thought on her walk home, and I got . . . she couldn’t even finish the sentence.  She checked her text messages upon opening her door and saw a text from Rick.  “Hey, how are you?  It’s been weeks . . . hope you’re well!”  Her hands grew clammy.  Rick hadn’t been a total zero; he had money, could carry on a conversation, and knew a lot about the stock market and jazz.  Despite the occasional horrors, she missed the conventions of marriage, missed being introduced as a wife, as if proof she had accomplished something besides mere subsistence, which is all her current life demonstrated.  She had been married to Rick for seven years, and in that seven years she had come to think of marriage as an elastic band, a substance that lengthened and contracted but was hard to break.  Even after the first time he hit her, she didn’t think her marriage was over, or would ever be.  It was merely changing form, morphing into something less recognizable.  Fights and conflicts that could and should have toppled a couple merely dating did not destroy a married couple—they merely got stored away, like a useless cookbook, for reference or blackmail or just as detritus in the wind.  Rick often made what Faith had referred to as his “husband face”:  a long-suffering grimace, born of their mutual understanding that marriage is, if not a sacrament, then a bond between criminals or gang members, that to break might result in murder or at least a loss of all dignity and social standing.

Even toward the end, she greeted him at the door when he returned from work, served him elaborate meals, and performed her wifely duties in the bedroom with enthusiasm that was feigned but convincing.  The fifth time he attacked her physically, for accidentally misplacing a piece of mail, she called the police, not because she was worried for her safety—what is a fear of harm to someone dispossessed of consciousness?—but because she wanted Rick to understand that actions have consequences.  She wasn’t ready to leave the marriage, and didn’t even really mind the battery, but she felt an action step was required in response.  The cops came and told Faith she could press charges, but that it would be a misdemeanor because he hadn’t broken a bone or bloodied her face.  She elected not to, and carried on as if nothing had happened, like nothing was happening, for the next year until one day she woke up hungover to the sound of Rick playing video games in the living room, chortling against an invisible opponent, and she realized she was finally done.

The following day was a work holiday; Faith tried to think of a productive way to begin her day and decided to make a payment on her student loan, which was currently in Income Driven Repayment because her salary was pathetic, meaning she only had to pay the (steadily accumulating) interest.  She chose “other amount” from the drop-down menu, ignoring with so small degree of hopelessness the option for “pay off account”—she didn’t have $57,473 cash and never would—and selected $100.00, then pressed confirm.  While debating a third cup of coffee, she was reminded of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—dare she drink that third cup?  She tried to think of something smart to think in relation to the poem, how, for example, proto-modernist indecision related to a postmodern culture of consumer choice, but she failed, and in failing, realized she was no longer smart, that her brain no longer functioned the way it had in grad school, when she had theoretical underpinnings at her fingertips—the Platonic appearance/form dialectic, the male gaze, gender as performance—and the world was navigable by the mind, not the body.  Not that there was anything wrong with the body, she mused, while listening to construction workers jackhammer the pavement outside, to the protest of squawking birds—it wasn’t the body’s fault that the mind had been lopped.  Her stomach growled.  And here we go, she thought—here begins my daily war against food.  She drank two glasses of water in quick succession, eyed her stash of rice cakes, and headed to the bathroom to wash and paint her face while blasting one of her Intermediate French Conversation CD’s.

Emerging, she lit a cigarette, glancing neutrally at the pictures depicted on the cigarette box, of a diseased heart.  Oh well, we all have to go out somehow, she thought.  And yet what about her looks?  She often confused vanity with self-preservation, and this was no exception.  Out of nowhere, a phrase from Aristotle’s Poetics filtered through her head:  “The greatest thing of all is to be a master of metaphor.”  Damn right, she thought, and sat down at her shitty ten-year old Dell laptop to write a poem.  Maybe art will cure me, she thought excitedly.  Six lines in, she despaired.  I’m not a poet, she thought.  I’m a hack.  Yet she kept writing, and an hour later she had two poem drafts about the machinations of the death drive.

Ben texted around noon, while she was in the bathroom puking up her lunch of salad.  “Hey sexy.  What are you up to?”

She texted back:  “Laundry.  You?”

“Just finished getting my car detailed.  It looks great!”

“Nice!”  Faith gnawed at her nails.  She had stopped getting manicures recently because they eroded so quickly, and she’d decided to spend the money on weed instead.  Had she been flush, or had the courage to rob a bank, she would have spent all her money not just on weed, but cocaine, shrooms, and MDMA.

“Want to go out later?”  Faith paused.  She had previously envisioned a day of artistic production, body conditioning, reading, and napping.  A day where she applied the bare minimum of makeup and wore only her gym clothes and a hoodie.  A day where she could try to fashion a self.  But she couldn’t resist the feeling of being wanted.

“Sure!  What did you have in mind?”

“How about dinner?  Maybe Korean barbeque?”

“Um, I have so much food in my fridge, but let’s do that another time!”

“Ok, drinks then?”

“Sounds good!”  Anything to keep my head out of the toilet, she thought.

After they made plans, Faith glanced at her to-do list and tried to formulate a plan, but all the items blurred together.  Her body was exhausted from the constant cycle of filling and emptying, and energy and the ability to concentrate seemed like a holy grail she’d never reach.  I could call someone, she thought lamely.  I could look up the name of a psychologist online and make an appointment.  But how to pay for it, being uninsured?  Her feeling of incapacity stretched before her, an infinite abyss.  It wasn’t an epistemological feeling of never reaching absolute knowledge, or any knowledge for that matter:  it was a feeling of being completely unable to see a way forward, to troubleshoot tech issues, and to engage in self-care.  When left to her own devices, she was all nerves, like a high-strung animal with no means of coming down except illicit substances and booze.

She changed into skimpy lingerie and sent Ben a selfie of her posed provocatively.  Then she opened and shut the fridge door repeatedly before taking out her French grammar book, shutting it after five minutes.  Finally, because all else had failed, she took out her yoga mat and spread it out on her studio floor.  She lay down on it, and was acutely aware that she was not being looked at; no eyes were on her body, as they usually were:  assessing, critiquing, admiring.  She did her routine, then rolled up her mat and propped it against the wall.  This is where that goes, she thought.  She ate two ice cubes to blunt her hunger, then re-organized her closet, buoyed on by the thought of seeing Ben, a nice-enough human who cared enough to text, who cared enough to fuck her corporeal form and buy her drinks.  As the evening approached, she felt something resembling happiness:  elation, almost.  It didn’t take much.

 

Author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do (Carnegie Mellon, 2020) and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and three chapbooks, including The New Alphabets (Anstruther Press, 2019), Virginia Konchan’s poetry has appeared in The New YorkerThe New RepublicBoston Review, and elsewhere.

 

 

How to Hurt Another, by Karen Petersen

My small plane landed in the Ivory Coast in the middle of a foggy night. The air was so humid you could cut it with a knife. My friend Sharon and her French husband Pascal, with whom she had a mercurial relationship, met me at the mostly dark and empty airport, and we drove to a hotel situated in one of Abidjan’s many suburbs to rest before our long hot drive into the dusty interior.

Early the following morning I awoke to the sound of rain and looked out the window at the mottled dark water. I had slept well, our large circular-walled, earth and straw dwelling–floating on a platform in part of a giant lagoon–had been clean and cool. I looked out the window again, and noticed that the white hot African sun was already up and shining in a dull blue-grey sky. How odd.  I thought. How could the sun be shining if it was raining?

Confused, I looked at the glistening lagoon water more closely and saw thousands of tiny, delicate silver fish in a feeding frenzy, jumping and flashing their way across the surface. The vast lagoon fluttered and pulsed for several minutes and then, just as quickly, returned to its earlier state of serenity.

“It’s like magic,” Sharon said, coming into my room, clapping her hands with delight.

Pascal, her roughly handsome French husband of only one year, was still in bed in the other room, half asleep. He stirred at the sound of her voice.

“Whaat?” he muttered.

“Get up,” she said to him abruptly, now aware that he had woken up. “It’s time to go.”

Bien sûr, with you, it’s always time to go!” He sat up slowly, hair tousled, badly hungover and eyes red. He looked like a caged beast.

She regarded him with disgust.  She’d discovered a few months into the marriage that he was a functional alcoholic, able to hide it during the day but most of the time in the evening so drunk that he became abusive.  She had been about to leave him when she became pregnant, after which her emotional life see-sawed between thinking he would change as soon as the baby arrived, and feeling utterly trapped and hopeless.

“Come on, Pascal, we don’t want to be on those crummy roads in mid-day. You’re the one always complaining about the dust that gets into everything, so let’s leave early for once.” She turned and went into the bathroom.

The smell of perfume drifted into the room, rousing him from the bed. He walked into the bathroom and grabbed her breasts from behind.

“Pascal! Hurry up and get dressed!” Sharon, half-smiling, pushed him away impatiently as he tried to embrace her.

Oui, ma petite salope,” he said, leaving and beginning to assemble his clothes. It was clear the battle of their wills was already beginning.

“Where do you think the boy is with our breakfast? These Africans are so stupid! You have to tell them the same thing ten times.” He shook his head in disbelief. “You know Trisha,” he said, turning to me, “if we French weren’t here the whole place would be lost, I swear.”

There was a knock on the door and Pascal watched as a young boy, about thirteen, carefully and slowly walked in with a very heavy breakfast tray.

“Well, it’s about time! I’m starving,” Pascal yelled. “Put the tray over there.”

He pointed to a small table near the bed and went back into the bathroom to shave. Sharon and I watched as the frightened boy put the tray onto a larger, wider table.

“The other is too small, madame,” he said shyly in his tribally accented sing-song French.  Normally at home he spoke the language of his people, the Baule, one of the many tribes there..

“That’s fine, and thank you for bringing us this lovely breakfast. Bonjour.” Sharon smiled at him as the boy bowed solemnly and walked out.

Sharon had written to me that breakfast in Africa was always a simple one: fresh fruit, a roll, some juice and a pot of tea or coffee, with cream. The latter was the French influence, another example of one of the absurd legacies colonization had left behind. There weren’t a lot of dairy cows in this part of the world, not to mention dairies, but the country, having attempted to take on the appearance of the Western world under the not so benevolent guise of French culture, served in its hotels and restaurants a rather peculiar tasting cream. The French, having instituted this and other much larger ills, never could find the good spirit to accept the Africans’ attempts to graciously please, but rather were always heard to remark patronizingly that, “things were so much better in France.”

Sharon had told me that she and Pascal had fought over this attitude a lot while in Africa. For her, this was Africa and she wanted to see it so; it was most definitely not France…or America, for that matter. But Pascal felt it should be molded in France’s image, no matter what the cost. He came out of the bathroom and pointed at the tray. “See, I told you the little buggers are idiots. He didn’t even put it where I told him to.”

Sharon smiled a small, tight smile and shrugged. I stared woodenly at the wall trying to compose myself. When Sharon had asked me to visit, this wasn’t what I was expecting.  As Pascal went back into the bathroom to finish shaving, Sharon whispered to me to interact with Pascal as little as possible during moments like these. It would help to reduce the level of stress since she knew by now that contradicting him would provoke an angry tirade. What had she gotten herself into? I wondered.

After breakfast we began the long drive back to their home in the hot and dusty interior. The interior, as recently as forty years ago, had still been covered in a vast and intricate rain forest, but post WWII greed had devastated the land in half that time. The extensive French logging had left behind no wild animals in the countryside, no flora of distinction either, only the sparse growth of new spindly trees and plants that could survive in what was now a depressing wasteland.

As Pascal was driving, Sharon told me she hated these long trips from their home into the city for supplies. The sight of the bleak, decimated countryside speeding by always left her feeling empty and sad.

They’d had a whirlwind courtship. Willing to do anything to get away from New York and her dysfunctional family, Sharon had immediately said yes when Pascal proposed to her. Their differences were obvious, but that had been part of the attraction. And at the time, an exotic life in Francophone Africa had seemed so glamorous. But now Sharon was three months pregnant and the glamour was fading.

We had been on the road for about an hour when I noticed hundreds of tiny dark shapes grouped like bunches of grapes in the limbs of the tallest trees. They made odd, squeaking noises. Nearby was a small local market.

“Pascal, do you know what those birds are?” I asked.

“Sure,” he laughed, pulling over to the side of the road. “Get out and come with me. I’ll show you.”

We walked over to a tree and looked up. I let out a gasp. “My God, they’re bats!” I could see them hanging, upside down, thousands of shiny black eyes glittering in the sun.

Pascal laughed again. “Relax, they’re harmless enough.  Did you know they are mammals? I think they are rather sweet. They like to eat fruit. There are hundreds of them all over this country. People from the bush like to eat them but they carry disease—really, really nasty disease. Come on, let’s go back to the car.”

“Would you mind if we visited that nearby market just for a little bit?”  I asked.

He shrugged. “Okay. Why not?”

The market was in an abandoned concrete lot. Grass poked through all the cracks. Some of the women had set up small tables for their wares, while others had put down on the ground brightly colored pieces of African cloth upon which were large triangular heaps of ground spices and herbs, none of which I recognized. As I looked around, Pascal wandered off towards the section which was the meat market.

Even from a distance I could see that all sorts of live animals were bound or in cages and I couldn’t bear it. I turned away to stare at a table with many small bolts of African cloth and began to aimlessly sort through them, suddenly wishing we could be on our way again.

“Have you seen enough? Pascal had come up behind me. I turned around to see he was holding a cage with some kind of parrot in it.

“Oh!” I said, startled.

“I’m going to let him out once we are back at the house.” he said. “I can’t stand to see them caged.”

I looked at him in astonishment.

“Look, because I’m French I’m used to eating many things. I have no problem eating domestic animals, but I can’t stand it when they trap the wild ones and put them in cages. I can’t stand to see them lose their freedom. Their beautiful wildness…” his words trailed off as he stared down at the ground uncomfortably.

The awkward silence was broken by Sharon honking the horn, so we  headed back toward the car.

“Not another bird Pascal! Oh Christ.” Sharon said impatiently as we got in. I sat stiffly in the back seat wishing I could teleport myself to another part of the country.

“Is it another fight you want?” Pascal said, his mood changing as he slammed the door shut.

“Pascal, stop it,” Sharon looked out the window in frustration, tears in her eyes, as the old Citroen lurched forward in a series of spasmodic jerks and then slowly began to gather speed.

Soon enough, with exquisite timing designed for maximum effect, Pascal started to shift the gears at the wrong moments on purpose just to annoy her. He grinned sadistically. The parrot squawked next to me in protest over the bumpy ride, and I couldn’t help but think what a strange, immature man-child Pascal was.

We passed some local women walking slowly down the road, babies balanced on their wide jelly hips, large tins of cooking oil on their heads. Those tins were heavy, and I marveled at the women’s sense of graceful balance. It was a tedious drive, and Pascal drove faster and faster to make up for the boredom. At one point, a herd of oxen exploded from the brush as the car rounded a curve on the road, and Pascal nearly crashed.

Sharon screamed and Pascal reflexively hit her across the chest, telling her to shut up.  I felt like I was going to throw up.  Part of me wanted to hurt Pascal in some terrible way, and part of me just wanted to suddenly get away from them.

We drove on in grim silence for another hour until the heat of the day forced us to stop for lunch at a little maquis on the edge of a scraggly forest. It was a small reed structure, with a woven grass roof.

As soon as we sat down, Pascal shouted for the waiter to bring several beers to go with the fiery hot chicken tagine the cook had made as the day’s “special,” that is, the only item on the menu. Tagines were big in Northern and Western Africa, and they ranged from being pleasantly spicy to hot as the devil’s own oven. Pascal said he loved these tagines but they gave Sharon the runs.

Sharon ate very little; beer and tagines weren’t good for her or the baby, but Pascal had insisted on stopping regardless.

Just before dusk, we had gotten to the outskirts of the town when Sharon badly needed to use the toilet.  So we stopped, tired and dusty, at a souvenir shop about twenty minutes from their home. The proprietor, an old man dressed in robes and skullcap, was about to close up, but on seeing us arrive politely opened the door.

“Thank you so much,” Sharon said, as he let us in with a benign wave of his hand while Pascal waited in the car, radio blasting.

Three young boys nodded to us as we walked by, and one of them pointed to the little space where the toilet was. I stayed and looked around the shop.

When Sharon came back into the room, she and I looked at the shop more carefully. On the walls were hung all sorts of woven cloth, and the tables were filled with carved pieces of wood and ivory.

“May we touch them?” I asked the old man with interest. “There are some very unusual pieces here.” He nodded, pleased at the potential for a lucky sale at the end of the day.

I hadn’t bought anything as a memento since my arrival in Africa. My apartment was so European that I suddenly felt it was time to take something African—something very African—home with me.

In the far corner of the dim room there was a single wooden statue that caught my eye.

“Oh, that’s so beautiful. Is it for sale?” I turned to the old man, who was watching us. “That, madame, is a statue of a griot, playing an instrument called a kora. It was made by one of our best carvers, who was from the eastern part of here. It is the most powerful statue in the shop. And you know,” he said winking at me, “we do not choose them, they choose us.”

“What is a griot?” I asked.

Solemnly gathering his robes about him, the old man sat down and collected his thoughts. The young boys hung about the doorway. “Well, a griot is a difficult concept to explain to someone who is not African. A griot is many things: he is the village musician, a traveler, the local doctor, the wise man, the keeper of history and stories, in short, he is the bridge and conduit between us and the spirit world. He is very powerful, a leader and an advisor, indeed, the most powerful presence in the community.”

“That’s absolutely wonderful!” Sharon was excited. “Are they still around?”

The old man smiled. “Oh yes. My brother is one. That is his son.” He pointed to the young boy who had shown her where the toilet was.

She looked at the old man earnestly. “I would like to buy this statue for my friend here, if you will sell it to me. I assure you it will have an honored place in her home.”

He nodded. “You must understand that the money is secondary. It is the choice that is important. However, if you have 250 CFA, it is yours.”

Sharon figured this out to be roughly 40 US dollars and was astounded. A statue such as this one was priceless in her estimation. She smiled. “That’s a deal. Let me go out to the car. I don’t have any money on me.”

She turned to leave as the door banged open. Pascal came striding in angrily and grabbed her arm. “What the hell have you both been doing? I’ve been waiting in that damn car for half an hour!”

Sharon jerked her arm away, embarrassed. “I’m buying a very special statue for Trisha, Pascal. I want her to have a wonderful memory of her visit here.”

“What are you talking about? This place is filled with junk. Don’t buy anything from these people—they’ll cheat you first chance they get!” He grabbed her arm again and began pulling her outside.

One of the boys stepped forward and said politely, “Mister, there is no need to be angry with her.”

Pascal turned and gave him a shove. “Listen you black bastard, mind your own business. You people work for me in this town and I won’t have you telling me what to do with my wife!”

The other boys gathered around and the shouting began.

“Who do you think you are, you French shit, go back to France!”

“Your mother’s a whore, you dumb ape!”

“How dare you? You French are all the same—stupid big noses!”

“Stop it, stop it, Pascal! What are you doing?” Sharon shouted. “These people are decent people—leave them alone!”

Pascal turned sharply and slapped her. “How dare you contradict me in front of them! Don’t you know it will be all over town tomorrow? I’ll lose the respect of my workers. Go get in the car.” He made a move towards one of the boys. Sharon began to cry. “No! STOP IT, I said!”

He turned on her in a fury. “GO GET IN THE CAR, NOW! NOW!”

She shook her head and ran back into the shop. Pascal’s face turned bright red.

The boys who had gone inside while he was shouting at her now came charging out with blocks of wood and spears. The old man stood in the doorway calling for them to come back. Pascal took one look at their angry faces and weapons and headed for the car.

“Walk home, you bitch,” he screamed out the window as the car left in a hail of stones. Sharon sat in the shop sobbing. “I’m so sorry, so sorry. Please forgive me. He has a kind of sickness.” The old man put his hand gently on her back. “You may stay with us if you like.”

She sobbed further at this offer of kindness. “Oh, you’re so kind, but we must go home before it gets too dark. If the boys could help show us the way through the forest…”

“Of course.”

She looked up at him. “I have a favor to ask of you. If you don’t mind, I have a little money of my own at home and would very much like to have the griot statue for my friend. It is very special to me…could we take it with us and I’ll pay your nephew the money when we arrive?”

I listened in amazement to the trusting arrangements Sharon was making with the shopkeeper. They still did things the old way here, it seemed.

“Yes, madame.” He smiled. “You are a good woman in an unfortunate circumstance…” He carefully handed her the statue and began to lock up.”Here, take these candles in case you get home and find your electricity is sleeping too.”  He laughed good-naturedly. “Good bye.”

The three boys guided us onto a narrow path that wound through the underbrush. In this hemisphere the sun just faded away at sunset, the sky going from blue-grey to grey to black, leaving an upside down moon to burn its faint light through the starry night sky. As we walked, the moon rose, making it easy for us to see the way.

The local boy, whose name was Kore, introduced his two friends to us. One was from Mali and the other, Burkina Faso. The boy from Mali spoke some English. Sharon began to speak to him but stopped when the others looked uncomfortable, not understanding.

“May we rest a little?” she asked in French. “I’m not feeling very well.” We had only been walking for about 15 minutes.

Kore, trying to be cheerful, said, “Don’t worry, madame, we have another few minutes and then you are home.”

Two of the boys carefully helped her walk, while Kore carried the beloved statue. In a few minutes we were there; Kore had been right after all. The house was in total darkness but Pascal’s car was there. He’d set the parrot free; its cage was empty.

I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by except that the moon had moved a great distance across the sky and a new group of insects and birds had joined the night’s chorus. Sharon lit two large candles the old man had given her.

Their light gave everyone’s face a warm glow as Sharon quickly ran inside for the money and came out again. We said goodbye and went inside. The floor felt damp. As we tried to quietly navigate our way inside the dark house with the candlelight, Pascal came lurching out of the bedroom towards Sharon. It was clear he’d been drinking.

“Don’t you ever speak up to me like that again in public, you hear?” he shouted, punching her in the eye.

“Hey, Pascal! Knock it off—what are you doing? Are you crazy?” I shouted at him.

He turned and came over to me, ready to hit me. I quickly pushed him against the wall and put my face up to his. “You lay a hand on me, you bastard, and I’ll have the police here and you in jail so fast you won’t know what’s happened! I’m not married to you!”

He backed off but not before saying in a slur, “Yeah? Well, you’re out of here now. Right now. I don’t care if the fuckin’ jackals eat you.”

Sharon shouted, “She can go tomorrow. There is no place for her to go to now.”

They fought until he backed down and stormed away into the bedroom. “I’m very sorry,” Sharon said, embarrassed. She began to compulsively straighten the room as if ordering it would somehow settle her emotions.

“What do you do now?” I asked.

“Not to worry, I’ll get through this. You can use the guest room” she said pointing towards a door adjacent to the one Pascal had disappeared into.

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine here” she said, preparing the couch for herself. She turned to me. “I know you’ve seen his bad side but he works very hard to make a home for us.  He is a very insecure man, but he does love me.”

Deeply upset, all I could do was shrug and go into the guest bedroom and lock the door, putting the statue on the dresser. How can she stay with him? I wondered. It must be the sex. Probably volcanic! What else could it be? Her parents were drunks, and now she’s married one…

When morning came Pascal had gone to work. I had planned on staying a week but under the circumstances it was obviously impossible.

“Please come with me now,” I begged Sharon, who was standing over the kitchen sink washing her hands again and again until they were red and raw. I felt badly for that new baby. “Stop punishing yourself. I could get you back to New York, and your family could get a restraining order against him. I’d be willing to testify to what I saw. Please.”

She just stared at me.

“Sharon, I understand your fear, but we could head towards the Mali border and fly out from there. He would assume we went to the big airport at Abidjan and by the time he realizes we’re not there it will be too late.” I grabbed her arm. “I know we can do this. I know we can!”

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “You don’t understand.  I just can’t.  It would kill him. Don’t you see?  He rescues birds, but I rescued him.”

“Maybe,” I said slowly. “But who will rescue you?”

She shook her head. “This is my life now. This is what I have chosen.”

We looked at one another for a minute, both caught in an awareness of the futility, and then hugged.  I said goodbye, anxiously wondering if her poor baby would even make it out of the womb.

She stood in the doorway, sadly waving as the taxi drove me to the local airport with the statue strapped to my back. Little did I know then but on the road to the airport, we would accidentally stumble across a secretive griot from a northern village who controlled all further access to the road my taxi was on. But upon seeing the statue on my back, he allowed me to pass further onto a road where very few foreigners could go and which got me to my flight on time.

I never saw her again. I continued to travel, and in the ensuing years, all attempts by me and others to reach Sharon went unanswered. Eventually I heard from her brother that she’d called to say she’d finally left Pascal at last and vanished into one of the many swirling cities of West Africa with her teenage daughter. So that baby had made it out alive after all, I thought. As for the griot statue, to this very day it sits on the top of my desk, commanding it really, looking down in smug admonishment, because it took so long for me to tell this tale.

 

Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications.    Last year, she was the first person in the history of the Pushcart Prize to receive five nominations in the categories of short story, poetry, and flash.

Snow Days, poetry by Kevin Casey

Several times each winter, snow would close

our businesses and schools, and highway signs

would urge caution: Speed Reduced to 45.

 

Heading to work on those vacant streets,

the swirling flakes would hide the way ahead,

and you could only hope the interstate

was still tied to your destination.

 

Now the robins have returned, ducks have found

their flooded ditches, and the sun rises

sooner, warmer. But the roads are still bare,

amber signs now flicker: Stay home; save lives.

 

The world seems coated in this contagion–

spiked, minute, symmetric, and so like

a snowflake, though each is identical,

rolling and drifting in a driving wind.

 

Fingers locked around the steering wheel,

we drive, essential and non-essential alike,

blind and anxious toward the horizon.

 

Kevin Casey is the author of Ways to Make a Halo (Aldrich Press, 2018) and American Lotus, winner of the 2017 Kithara Prize (Glass Lyre Press, 2018). And Waking… was published by Bottom Dog Press in 2016. His poems have appeared in Rust+Moth, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Connotation Press, Pretty Owl Poetry, Poet Lore and Ted Kooser’s syndicated column ‘American Life in Poetry.’ For more, visit andwaking.com.

No-Beak Chickens (and other forgotten delicacies), poetry by Kelli Allen

We are no longer safe in the museum. The boyfriend

stands humiliated, hands across his stomach, trying

to puzzle desire against despair. It is a perfect morning

 

to carry sandbags back from the river. The soggy yard

has become a cemetery for statues needing protection

from so much rain. Dear Foolishness, Have you broken-

 

up with your waterwheel just because the koi clogged

the pond? You cannot breed a salamander with a pigeon,

no matter how much you want to hold a feathered tail

 

between your fingers. Remember the sarcophagus packed

with severed beaks? Can we still daydream about flesh

roasting, heads with no tongues, legs trussed and primly

 

crossed just like the first time we agreed to take trains

everywhere oceans crept too close? It’s enough to forget

freckles embroidered over the hermit’s dirty shroud.

 

Someday, these public stairs will stop disintegrating

and we won’t bother carrying the candles at night. Potters

take rooms to hide their clay feet from curators late

 

for dinner and here we are, thin as bamboo, shuttered

as refugees learning the day’s skit in exchange for milk,

in exchange for a chance to mouth anything at all.

 

 

Kelli Allen’s work has appeared in numerous journals/anthologies in the US and internationally. She is currently a visiting professor of English Literature at Rutgers University/RUNIN, Northeast Normal University in Changchun, China. She is the recipient of the 2018 Magpie Award for Poetry. Her chapbook, Some Animals, won the 2016 Etchings Press Prize. Her chapbook, How We Disappear, won the 2016 Damfino Press award. Her full-length poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, arrived from John Gosslee Books (2012) and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her collection, Imagine Not Drowning, was released by C&R Press in January 2017. Allen’s new collection, Banjo’s Inside Coyote,  arrived from C&R Press March, 2019.

 

Getting On: Ageing, shame, and death, essay by Elisabeth Hanscombe

When I was a teenager in the mid-1960s surrounded by teachers who, to my mind, were well and truly getting on, I decided sixty would be a good age at which to die. Better to get out while I was ahead, still mobile and lucid. My parents were both a long way off sixty and in those days, time moved slowly. In those days, a year seemed like a decade.

In his book, Why time speeds up as you grow older, Douwe Draisma offers the analogy of time as a river. One person’s life can be measured by the pace of the river as it flows. In childhood and early years, the person manages to sprint alongside, and the river’s pace is slower by comparison. In middle years, the person slows down such that the river and person are evenly spaced in terms of pace. In later years and into old age, the person slows down more to the point the river now runs faster. Eventually the person stops, curls up on the riverbank and falls asleep, before dying. Meanwhile the river continues on its steady journey.

The cruelty of ageing, the way it saps you of the energy you once experienced as a child and young person, the way it brittles your bones, clogs your arteries, wrinkles your skin, is nothing compared to the way people who have reached beyond the age of sixty are relegated to a different category, even when so many of us who have reached well beyond our sixties, still work and hold significant places in the world.

That said, ageing has been helpful to me. It has given me a sense of how it must be for people who are different from the ‘mainstream’ by way of body shape or the colour of their skin or some obvious infirmity. As I age, I notice a look in young people’s eyes – and by young people, I mean those who like me in adolescence ruled out the people three decades ahead of them, as getting on, past it, and therefore not worthy of attention.

Attention is essential for survival and a lack of attention can be shaming. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips argues, ‘a shameful relation to anything is by definition, a determined narrowing of attention.’ A loss of curiosity. If in your old age you begin to feel ashamed about things over which you can do very little, including the condition of your body and mind, then you’re in trouble. And yet we shame those who are old, simply by reference to that fact, as if it is something for which they should apologise, in much the same way we sometimes shame small children for being small.

xxxxxPhillips again,

xxxxxThere is nothing less abstract, more visceral than feeling xxxxxashamed; and so, your powers of observation desert you. In an xxxxxuncanny narrowing of the mind, shame forecloses one’s attention.

When it comes to the uncanny, it’s worth revisiting Sigmund Freud’s paper on the subject. The uncanny, that which feels comfortable and appalling at the same time, like the yellow skim that forms on heated milk as it cools. Much as Freud experienced in his later years, when one day he found himself wandering the length of a train carriage at night. At one point, Freud looked towards the window and there he saw an old man in a smoking jacket and spectacles and was taken aback when he realised it was his own reflection. A shock of recognition at how he had aged, while inside he still felt as young as he had ever been. Most of those over thirty know this sensation, and it continues throughout life. The shame and the fear of ageing as a precursor to death.

In part it’s the generational tug. The fact that as people we are represented in layers, based not only on class and status but also on other aspects, like our age. Babies and young children tend to experience great pleasure in the company of older people, it seems because they have not yet learned to form the harsh judgements so easily incorporated into our mindsets as we age. Namely, that people belong in groups, according to age and skin colour, nationality and gender, sexual preference, and all manner of subtle dividers that cause us to treat one another in prejudiced ways. Some people will fare better or worse, depending on their category. Such judgements induce fear and shame, which according to the psychologist Phil Mollon, arises out of a ‘breach in the bond of empathy.’ Prejudicial judgements cause us to squander our capacity for compassion and take the road of moral superiority. As if those over sixty are somehow inferior to those who are younger. As if those over a certain age are past it.

In getting on, we become invisible well before we’re dead.  The reverse can also apply. The wisdom of old age can trump the freshness of youth as though anyone below a certain age should not be taken seriously. Witness the back lash against the teenage climate change activist, Greta Thunberg.

 

When I was a child and listened to the ailments of those who were getting on, I was appalled by the tiring and solipsistic nature of their conversation. Getting on myself now, three years off seventy, I find most such conversations fascinating, but only to the degree that, like a conversation about the weather – the great social lubricant – such conversations do not take up all the space.

For instance, the man I married over 42 years ago developed septicaemia in 2018 and nearly died. He spent seven weeks in hospital, flushed with a slew of antibiotics. He proved allergic to most of them, and the doctors were forever recalibrating his medications depending on whatever rash appeared on his skin; whatever problems affected his vision, whatever fevers erupted. Every symptom a side effect of the antibiotics. In time, the doctors managed to control the infection. They kept it held tight in its biosphere, a small ball covering the site of the infection that sat on the leads to a pacemaker some other doctors inserted ten years earlier, after my husband had suffered a heart attack.

Recovering from both conditions was not easy, but in his sixty ninth year following hospitalisation and partial recovery, my husband became depressed. There was a question as to whether his state of mind was a function of the illness itself, the seven long weeks in hospital, the wastage of muscles, or a melancholic personality.

My husband visited a gerontologist, a doctor in her thirties, who prescribed no changes to his medication. He needed it all, she said. The heart stuff to keep his heart going – no point in risking another heart attack – as well as a lifelong antibiotic to keep the infection around his heart in check. This antibiotic turns his urine a fluorescent pink, a colour that leaves you thinking he must be bleeding from some sort of internal radiated blood. It’s normal, the doctors say. In fact, if his urine goes back to the bright yellow it once was, then he’s in trouble.

Another aspect of getting on: this preoccupation with the state of one’s health and body. The sharing of bodily information, in which we imagine others are interested, when they’re not. It can be boring to those not travelling a similar path. Just as in younger stages of life we find ourselves preoccupied with the experience of pregnancy or buying a house – if we can afford it – or holding down a job, or struggling with babies, toddlers, and then adolescents.

Life has its stages. Get a group of people who are ‘getting on’ together and it’s nothing for each in turn to spend ages on the minute details of their various ailments. Just as I did now in relation to my husband. Our bodies matter in different ways as we get on. In youth we tend to focus more on the appearance of things; in older age we tend to focus more on our insides, on how our bodies function. We can obsess about it, whether or not our friends want to hear.

Ageing draws on our reserves as partners. Ideally, a couple grows old together but often one partner is older or more disabled than the other and this can lead to imbalances that put strains on relationships that have otherwise stood the test of time. My husband’s seven weeks in hospital not only took a toll on his energy and good will it also drained mine to a point of almost not being able to go on. I found myself torn between the demands of my everyday work life. I felt I needed to visit him at least twice daily to help stave off his despair. Then, when I visited, he was either too tired to endure anything but the lightest conversation, or else he stared at the foot of his bed, feeling hopeless at his plight. Over time he became depersonalised and lost his capacity to speak his mind. He became compliant. He did not want to trouble the medical staff. I had to fight for him. I had to try to get him home as often as possible in between treatments for respite. I had to try to stay as young as my body would allow to help offset his descent into disability and frail age.

It’s harder on people who are single. That said, Helen Garner writes of the relief she experienced when advanced age took her out of the marketplace of bodily beauty wherein men and women eye one another as potential partners; a marketplace that is not exclusively the domain of the very young but there comes a cut-off point, even in establishments for the elderly. And here Garner alludes to the shame and fear of feeling non-desirable. But a deeper fear on which shame can hinge is that of death, buried deep inside. No matter what our age, we’re on the clock. Our time is limited, and the older we get the less time we have.

My mother lived to her ninety fifth year. A good run most would say, but not my mother. She wanted to live to one hundred. Age was her achievement. Age and the number of her children and grandchildren.

I have noticed this tendency in older people and if I use my mother as a yard stick, a familiar pattern emerges. This toting up of life’s achievements towards the end of our days as if to remind ourselves we mean something. I see it, too, in the letters the Australian writer Gerald Murnane sends to me. He’s now 80 years old and we have corresponded for nearly fifteen years. During the early part of our correspondence Murnane’s ideas ranged widely but lately his letters have slipped into a long-winded boast, of his achievements against his earlier life when he saw himself as an unrecognised but significant writer. Like my mother, Murnane boasts of his good health. ‘My health astonishes even me,’ he writes and repeats again the fact that he, like my mother in the past, only needs one tablet a day for his blood pressure and otherwise no medication. Unlike my mother, he consumes two bottles of his strong home brew beer daily. And gets away with it. For my mother, her food pleasures were among the sweet foods, and an occasional glass of wine. But she was not one to overindulge. Nor is Gerald Murnane whose diet is strict and unusual by comparison to most people. ‘Lots of grains, nuts, seeds, pasta, olives and a bit of fruit each day but hardly any meat and no vegetables whatever except an occasional spring onion.’ This gives Murnane longevity he writes, along with his genes. Like my mother he swears by the power of his DNA. This tendency to want to live on for as long as possible. This reluctance to enter the realm of decrepitude, a prelude to death. Death the great equaliser we all face.

Before she died, I thought my mother might enter whatever lies beyond life effortlessly, but it was not so. People with strong Catholic convictions and a record of good behaviour can have trouble dying. You’d think they might be keen to shuffle off to Heaven, given their exemplary lives. But in the innermost recesses of their minds it seems, the closer they approach death the more they worry about the extent of their good deeds. Will they be sufficient to get them there? God Almighty knows about all the things the rest of us don’t know. The tiny sins we commit daily; our micro aggressions, which in the tally book of good and bad add up. My mother’s soul might not have been as clean as she would have liked. So even with the promise of Heaven ahead, my mother had her doubts about her goodness. She fought against her dying.

I am not religiously inclined, but like the broadcaster Phillip Adams, I hope I’m awake when I die. I’m curious to know what it might be like. Who wants to be crippled by the one great terrifying inevitability of all our lives, the thing to which our ageing points us, the thing that shames us most of all, our death?

My father died at 65, and although everyone agreed he died young, they put it down to extenuating circumstances – three packets of Craven A filter tipped cigarettes a day, and a regular bottle of St Agnes brandy. He did not suffer the same scruples as my mother it seems. He almost welcomed death as a relief from his pain but did not spend long enough in old age to feel its deepest effects.

Is our view on ageing gendered as evidenced in the entertainment industry where female actors beyond a certain age are soon passed over while more men can attract jobs well into their old age? I noticed this from my earliest days. Older men are distinguished. Older women are haggard. It begins early.

 

When my Opa arrived for a six-week holiday from Holland during my tenth year, I stood back in awe at the smoothness of his bald head. Flecks of silver in his narrowing blue eyes glinted behind thin wire spectacles that had a habit of slipping down his nose. They gave him a stern look that frightened me.

We sat in church one Sunday, my family in a long line at Our Lady of Good Counsel. Two small boys in the row ahead of my grandfather were jibbing one another, fingers in ribs, a stint of pushing and pulling. Low tittering. Their parents ignored them, but my grandfather, a devout Catholic who took all matters of church attendance seriously, picked up his black missal and tapped it on the head of each boy, one after the other.

The boys looked around, aghast at the assault. They were silent thereafter, cowed by the old man who sat behind them glowering. Old age could be powerful, I thought then, especially when it wore a suit and a harsh expression. But it was different when I visited my friend Patricia who lived with her family in a rooming house in St Kilda, which her mother owned and managed.

I stayed on weekends with Patricia sometimes in this house whose multiple rooms and personalities stay with me. Most striking of all, was Patricia’s grandmother whom the family called Bunty and lived in an upstairs room alone.

From time to time Patricia and I talked to Bunty. Her skin was wrinkled like the shell of a pink sea creature and her body almost folded over in the wheelchair in which she spent her days. Her eyes beamed whenever we visited.

Other times, Bunty was considered a nuisance. I could tell by the manner in which Patricia’s mother talked about her. Her elderly mother was treated like an unwanted pet which had to be sent elsewhere when the family planned to make one of their many trips to Noumea. I had never heard the term ‘elder abuse’ then, but it comes to me now.  Or ‘benign’ neglect.

I may be guilty of this with my own mother, by the time she reached into her nineties and could no longer comfortably leave the retirement village in which she lived. I baulk at the memory of how she could not come to the wedding of one of my sister’s children as she would have required too much attention from my sister on the day and my sister had no time.

We treat old people in a way that’s reminiscent of how we treat babies and small children, nuisances who must be kept away from the action. Who must be sequestered into places where other folk are paid to care for them, so they will not interfere with the smooth running of the busy world in which most of us live. And even within the institution, inmates can become institutionalised depending on the rigidity or otherwise of the programs employed to keep them occupied. We treat old age as a disability and like all disabilities we want it hidden from view. We ghettoise those who are really ‘getting on’. Clustered together so they can compare ailments or lose their memories even faster in the absence of stimulation.

Though there are other more hopeful signs of improvement in the you tube clips you can watch of nursing homes where they set up regular play groups for small children so the elderly and young can mix. The older people’s eyes light up at the sight of those youngsters who are not fearful of old age.

 

My first encounter with old age at close quarters came in the form of the nuns who taught me at school. Concealed beneath habits, and slow to move, the nuns seemed ageless. Like sex, ageing then was a given and not open for discussion. Joan Didion alludes to this in her memoir, Blue Nights:

xxxxxAging and its evidence remain life’s most predictable events, xxxxxyet they also remain matters we prefer to leave unmentioned, xxxxxunexplored: I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown xxxxxwomen, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, xxxxxfor no reason other than that a small child in the room, more xxxxxoften than not an adored niece or nephew, has just described xxxxxthem as ‘wrinkly’, or asked how old they are.

xxxxxWhen we are asked this question, we are always undone by its xxxxxinnocence, somehow shamed by the clear bell-like tones in xxxxxwhich it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is xxxxxnever innocent. The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even xxxxxguilty … there must be a mistake: only yesterday I was in my xxxxxfifties, my forties, only yesterday I was thirty-one.

 

You can always tell the age of a woman by the state of her elbows and of her neck, or so my mother told me. Old necks turn to turkey flesh and pucker. Elbows take on the look of sphincters, those muscle-bound orifices that are best left concealed.

I do not make a habit of studying women’s necks and elbows but the thought remains embedded in my brain as if it is yet another aspect of being alive that I must overcome: cover my neck and my elbows so no one else will notice, the fact of my ageing.

More and more we read about it, not just the stuff on the surface, the stuff underneath, the dried out vagina that no longer offers those delicious hormonal secretions to make sexual desire drip with pleasure; the creaks in muscles especially those that form part of your back and hips, the ones that help you to stand upright, to walk and to run.  The cracking of your bowels and the occasional reflux from your gut that tells you even down there, where the food is received and expelled, things no longer work so well.

My mother told me once, you can always tell which women have spent too long in the sun. Their skin turns to gravel, pocked and pitted like the stones on a riverbed but not so smooth.

My mother told me about her aunt who wrote a letter from Holland about a prolapse. As a child I imagined my great-aunt’s insides running out through the wee-hole below. I could see her on the dance floor, her insides trailing from under her ball gown, like so many red jewels.

It happens when you get older, my mother told me. And when you have children, too many children like she did, your stomach muscles lose their elasticity and you need to wear girdles or supports to keep them in place, otherwise you flop all over the place like so much custard.

My mother told me, the worst part of growing old was the invisibility of it all.  People do not look up when you shuffle into a room. People do not offer a smile of admiration when you wear a new dress or perfume, when you spread lipstick across your lips the way she did when young and able to command attention.

You slip back into the place of childhood, into that place where you might stand longest in the cue because the person serving has not noticed you there huddled over in your thick coat to keep warm. The greyness of your hair merges with the colour of the sky on a winter’s day, which becomes a type of Ground Hog Day when it slows itself into a predictable routine.

Nothing new happens from one minute to the next just the tedium of getting dressed each morning, of showering with assistance and of getting yourself to meals in the retirement village where you can no longer have conversations because you and all the people around you repeat things again and again as if you had not already said them. Those in the dining room together with you are too hard of hearing, and too lacking in short term memory to be able to chat.

My mother told me you slip out of the spotlight once you’re old and even your children begin to forget you, other than as an obligation that they must honour once a year on Mother’s Day and if you’re lucky on your birthday, but hardly ever at Christmas anymore because they’re too busy tending to their own.

Look at you in the mirror there. No longer smooth skinned and full of life. And when you meet someone for the first time in ages, the thought goes through your mind as fast as it goes through theirs: You’ve aged.

As if it were a crime. A crime of indecency, an insult to others, but most of all to yourself. To get on, to grow old.

There’s also an upside. As in Jenny Joseph’s fabulous poem, ‘When I am old, I shall wear purple,’ and do all those things I could not do when I was young for fear of my shame.

That is, if my body will let me and I can afford it.

My mind as well. Not that body and mind are separate though it can feel that way.

My writing informed over the years through my reading not only of the classics but more recently by contemporaries begins to have an old-fashioned ring in my ear. Not quite Dickensian in its style but bordering on something that shows my age. They used to suggest you could tell whether a woman had written a piece of prose as against a man, and many a woman disguised her identity behind a man’s name in order to pass herself off as the real thing, a good writer. This because women for a long time and continuing are deemed second rate in the literary world, which still holds its patriarchal edge.

Lately I have wondered whether age is a feature, too. Can you tell the age of a person in the writing? It’s easier to do so with memoir. We date ourselves the moment we set words on the page. We date ourselves as soon as we begin to describe our childhood homes. Lately I’ve read pieces where the person was a ten-year-old in the mid-seventies.  It’s easy to guess their age now. They’re are on the edge of extinction.

 

Those of us born in the fifties and sixties and earlier are already flipping over the edge. It’s the same with fashion. There is an optimal time when yesterday’s fashions, clothes that were at the height of popularity only five years ago, are now passé, so embarrassingly out of date you might only wear them to a fancy-dress party.

Something from the 1930s or earlier becomes fashionable again in a retro sort of way. You wear it with pride. But for those of us in between we begin to give off an aura of too-old-to-be-fashionable, but not old enough to be hip. And that’s before any of the publishing industry or people who promote writing have laid eyes on us.

Things tend to go downhill fast, though not always. There are a few writers over the age of sixty who come to the fore as they are emerging. Others, like Helen Garner, now in her seventies, we’ve grown old with. She exists as a writer over many decades young and hip in her formative years and now sage and persuasive. But it’s not so easy when you take to writing later in life and by the time you have reached a publishable standard find you’re too old to count.

I asked a few friends about their lives as emerging writers, those over fifty, but given that fifty is the new forty I preferred to concentrate on those like me who have entered into their sixties and beyond. We are the ones who halfway through a century are truly on the scary side of life.

Now that I have reached beyond sixty and I’m not as frail and tired as I had anticipated, I find I’m far from ready to die. Even as I write this, I fear I’m whingeing in an unfashionable way about my lot. What if I become invisible as do so many women, and these days even men, beyond a certain age, where we are thought to be doddering?

 

When I was a young woman and starting out in my chosen career as a social worker, I longed to be older. Only then I thought would I be taken seriously. Now I am older and can command a degree of authority in my work as a therapist I find myself cowering in my writing life, almost fearful to go out to literary events because I’m too old. Yet, let’s face it, the Melbourne Writers Festival, for instance, is filled to the rafters with women, and fewer men of my demographic.

So why the shame? Why the feeling I must hide my face and its wrinkles inside the pages of a book? Why hesitate to talk about myself as an emerging writer, when the word ‘emerging’ comes as Alexis Harley writes like a butterfly. For others like Maris Morton, a writer who won the Cal Scribe Prize for an unpublished manuscript on the cusp of seventies, her age was an advantage in so far as journalists could include that detail in the pitch.

An old woman who writes well and wins prizes. Not many prizes for the young other than those few literary awards offered to people, mostly men who have accumulated a wealth of writing success over the decades and can now be deemed distinguished. We old and emerging writers can only continue to emerge, halfway out of our cocoons into the sunshine. And as everyone knows butterflies only live for a short while before their beautiful lives are snuffed out.

 

The idea of ageing first hit me as an adolescent when my skin erupted and my body lost its shape.  In those days I wanted it to happen fast.  I wanted to get beyond the awkwardness of pimples to the dignity of the women on the television screen who smoked cigarettes, their fingers poised in the air, the last one perched like an alluring question mark.

Such a gesture, while I sat curled up in a ball and watched television, checking underneath my finger nails for dirt I could never be rid of and then digging my fingers into the flesh of my thighs that seemed to have magnified in the space of a single school term.

It triggers such washes of jealousy, this business of being an ageing and emerging writer.  Whenever the next young person wins an award of significance, I think back to when I was her age and paid scant attention to writing.

Why did I leave it so late?  Too late to ponder now, but still the thought rankles.

I could not write then what I write now and yet, there are these young people who stun me with their capacity and wisdom, despite their years.

I live and work in a world of women, everyone of us dogged by an internal discussion that runs along the lines, am I good enough? Am I too young, too old?  Accustomed to being looked at and measured on where we fit in the beauty scales of another’s desire, it’s hard to allow for a conversation about those inner voices.

But, I hear them all the time, in a conversation with my writing group the other evening for instance, when one woman reflected on her memories of growing up and her longing that one day someone would come along and hand her a pile of money with which she might buy herself a flash wardrobe. An adolescent fantasy she wanted to explore in her writing.

 

I, too, dreamed of someone coming along, but not so much to give me money for clothes as to recognise my talent for singing. He’d come around to the back garden where I pegged clothes to the line.

This person, a movie-making man would recognise my singing from the front street as he walked by and he would ring on the door bell and ask my mother for an introduction or he would walk down the side drive way to approach me directly, my arms filled with washing.

‘You have the voice of an angel,’ he would say. ‘Come with me and I will make you famous. Such a voice should not be kept hidden.’

I glowed under the weight of his praise and the daydream went on and on until every last sock was pegged on the line. When the basket was empty I lifted it to my hip looked longingly up the drive way for the man who would arrive only in fantasy and took myself back to the television set where I curled up in my chair and wished once again to get inside the television with all the glamorous people. I comforted myself with five slices of bread, three with golden syrup, and the rest with cocoa sugar.

Those were the days in which my desire to die at sixty seemed a reasonable compromise. I did not bargain then on my desire to live on despite the ravages of age. Ending this essay is tough. However much my age might shame me, however fearful I am of death, I still have things to say.

 

Elisabeth Hanscombe, who blogs at http://www.sixthinline.com, is a psychologist and writer in Melbourne Australia. In 2012 She completed her doctorate on the topic, Life writing and the desire for revenge, and has published several short stories, essays and book chapters in the areas of trauma, shame, psychoanalysis and memory, including a childhood memoir, The Art of Disappearing (2017).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking at Dusk, foreword by Kelvin Kellman

It goes without saying that at this point, it is safe to say that alas! 2020 is not that year—as it appears it is still retching bucket after bucket of (morbid, economic, and political mostly) bile at all of us.  Perhaps except for the 1%-ers though, the Wall Street oligarchs, and the “true stimulus package recipients”. One might be tempted to say that at this point, the supposed democracy practiced by the super powers is largely a cover for the true plutarchy that it is.  So much so, that it is a shame to say listening to intelligent statements from the mouths of statesmen is almost a thing of the past. And the one time they do come across as intelligent, we extol them out of proportion in praise.

Permit my crassness, but in other news, we are grateful that the women in power are kicking arse! Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark. The manner with which their leaders (all women by the way) have managed this plague is nothing short of genius. But the others… the muscled, testosteronic ego-heads have continued to send their citizens into Elysium.

For fear of this coming across as “another sponsored political piece” I will stop here, as any rational mind should know their right from their left.

This brings us to our purpose if you’re reading this: Art. Our succor, our homeland, our pulse of being.

In this issue, again we have for you stories, poems, and more. Elisabeth Hanscombe alters our philosophy and psychology about ageing, Virginia Konchan and Karen Petersen takes us on a splendid fictional journey in The Happiness Experiment and How to Hurt Another respectively. James Wood shows us how, reminiscent of William Faulkner, the past is not past; as our future often is tied to our past.

In this dismal season straddled between day and night fostered by the virus—and that we must all sadly endure—as we walk in this very dusk of times, we implore you read, revel, and cry as we did with issue 32.