Spectrum, by Catherine Jones

Art: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

I have become the sort of woman who can pack in a trice. Everything is to hand. If you were to, say, invite me to go to New York with you, I could call a taxi five minutes from now and descend the stairs with my suitcase packed and my holiday shoes on. My wardrobe consists of one black t-shirt, one white t-shirt, two pairs of jeans, one dress and one jumper. Everything goes with everything.

You call me to tell me where we’re going for dinner, what time you will pick me up and what kind of food they serve. Relief oozes out of my pores and I slick back my hair in gratitude. Some say you’re controlling but I know the circles in which my indecision can run aground. Left to my own straggling devices, I’d have lost myself in the pendular movement of the cuckoo clock only to be shaken out of it, much too late, by the bird’s violent exit.

My phone displays the afterglow of our everything’s fine chat and then abruptly switches off; I toss it to the unmade bed. This is where anxiety can set in. What’s to happen if you go, or die? I can’t clone you; I wouldn’t be able to pull off that delicate interplay between flaws and features. I can’t make a 3D printout of your best bits or the way they make me feel when I’ve had too much snakebite and black. I breathe a prayer to the god of straight lines and reach for the dress.

We’re in your car, the details aren’t important, and I’m excited. Your dark hair fluffs up at the front, shinier than mine, which puts us on an awkward footing down the zigzag path of what is proper and what is not. I wriggle my knickers off to even the score. You compliment my dress and I know you think you have genuinely never seen it before. Maybe you haven’t; not like this, not with my cheeks flushed.

I’ve not been this kind of woman before. You wouldn’t know that – you didn’t know my old ways. You say, chomping on your bolognaise, that you love the way I can tune into you so easily. I think I see some splatter on your shirt and I realise my wine goes down too quick when I don’t talk. I don’t think these things to be whimsical, by the way; I think these things to locate my own body in the room. I’m together, you say. With what? With whom? With myself, it would seem. Your violent dragon tattoos stretch provocatively an inch beyond your cuffs and collar and the waiters feign indifference.

You love my strength, my courage, my balance. You’ve never liked weak women, you say. I would never put women in tight slots, I think. But then again how else could you tell us apart? Categorising the exes is the ritual that clears the mind and helps plan for the future. You seem to get tired of women when they lean on you. Why oh why do they start off strong and then all of a sudden wilt? You’re sick of it. I’m so scared I’ll sag a little that I hardly dare to breathe.

I love you, you goofball. I love the way you look at me approvingly when I say something clever. I love the way you answer the phone with your right hand and then switch to your left to doodle or make notes. Always, you do this. Years from now, when we’re divorced, I’m going to think it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. But for now, I purr and you reward me with laptops, phones and gadgets. I can’t hang them around my neck so I line them up on my windowsill instead.

I have learnt to duck for cover when mouths open. If cornered, my tongue has to find expression in taut, spat out single words, clumsily strung together. I hesitate; it’s just for a microsecond but I see you see me do it. And that noticing adds on another second and beyond that, well, I keep up the pretence but it’s not the same anymore. I follow the rehearsed formula of words plus smiles plus relaxed gestures equals I’m normal but the cat’s out the bag.

If I fancied it, could I become, genuinely, an exuberant person – the type who enunciates loudly and raucously with a wide-open mouth? Or could I just cultivate this insular brooding into something profound and important? Does the desire to become invalidate anything you do indeed become? Or do you just be what you were, since you were born, so to speak? And if so, why aren’t we all more like babies? You shush me and my questions. They’ll drive you mad.

You perch awkwardly on the turquoise Moroccan stool that sits under the window. My mum thought it would look nice. It doesn’t go with anything and it’s not even comfortable but I don’t dare admit it.

You accept me as I am, you say. You shower me with compliments about my grace and beauty. I get annoyed when you leave your pants by the door and that makes you grimace. You bristle at the friction, the fall out, the graceful girl being pedantic and churlish. Why can’t you let it go / Why can’t you fucking pick them up? I abandon all grace because grace, as charm, is a sliver of a second skin. It’s a chameleonic guise that dupes you into falling in love with me. Dupes the world into thinking I’m credible. I have reserves of grace to get me, just about, through the day. Don’t ask me to run my tank dry on your pants when I get home.

I see the flash in your face that tells me you tolerate me. You note the fault, the exception, in your little mental jotter: to be forgotten in the absence of other misdemeanours or to be retrieved and added to a longer list if a pattern emerges. I can never erase my history. But the real headbanger: I can’t stop my future. I will fuck up. I will tell you in the middle of the supermarket, I don’t fucking want a non-organic turkey and I don’t care what we’re going to eat for dinner because I’m not eating that dirty carcass in your hands; you can forget it. And you’ll look at me, the lunatic, with new eyes, or old eyes, because I’m sure they looked at your ex-wife too. And we’ll long for the dancing and the duping of those restaurant meals we seemed to enjoy.

You growl that I paint you as a monster. If the shirt fits, I throw back in your grizzly face. But really, I can’t help but turn you all into monsters, even the good ones. I am neither sick nor unique, I tell you. I am impaired.

I urge the tin soldiers on the mantelpiece to jump onto the wooden floor and flounce out of the room. Shall we talk about projection, you ask with one eyebrow raised. I wonder how many times a woman can say no in those little pockets of baited breath where no is not an option, where no is not welcome, where no-one expects the nice lady who is so gentle, so sweet, to say no.

And men think they want us to be ourselves! I sprawl, semi-clad on the futon. I’m an ad for something, something very desirable. Sometimes I even write the ads but I can’t rewrite my programming and I can’t rewrite society. Don’t even want to; don’t give a fuck, I try out – just for size. I’d love to be the girl who chain-smokes and shimmies down the drainpipe to meet her latest lover. No. That’s not it at all. I’d love to be the woman who meets a group of girlfriends down the alleyway and staggers forward, arms interlaced as they perform that finely-tuned but effortless back-and-forth, giggle-giggle, hair-swish repartee. And if you don’t know the pain of watching these girls walk past then I don’t think we can be friends and, no, I don’t think we can be lovers either.

I know, when you drop me off at the clinic, that I’ll support you and I love you unconditionally mean I need to run away and I need you to make things easy for me. Weeds fight their way up through the black and white diamond tiles of the entranceway. The white paint on the clinic walls peels off paint flake by flake, exposing an older colour. I would call it hospital blue if it wasn’t so obvious.

The doctor smiles, pushing his glasses further up onto the bridge of his nose where I wait for them to start their descent down again. There is that silence, that pocket of crisp silence that exists in places like this, that silence that allows you to notice small innocuous sounds; today it’s the creak of his office chair every time his buttocks shift. Smile, shift, creak; smile, shift, creak. He leans forward, creak, and asks if I can remember what I was like as a child. I see in his eyes he is confident this will offer up some kind of clue. My mind cushions the defeat as my body straightens into the role we all want me to play today. I am helpful, cooperative and pleasant; I can’t help it. I pause before hearing convincingly reflective answers tumble out of my mouth as I watch his HB pencil scurry over the page.

He lays out a choice. I can keep playing the game. Walk around with the sack full of I’m-not-who-I’m-not-and-who-I-am-is-not-oks heavy on my back. Dreading the strained smile of someone, or everyone, who’s spotted that my reply just does not work in a way they can’t even describe. Or I can peel off that scratchy layer of skin and reveal the scales, pus and sloppy posture inside. Of course, these are my words not his. His had the soft cadence and poetry of medicine.

I sit at home with the electric razor in my hand and consider actively choosing the alternative route, the Britney route. See? I choose this myself! I have no shame! But really I do and I sob. I sob into the spreading wetness of your old t-shirt, the only thing that doesn’t belong here.

The problem, I surmise, is none of us can ever enter into another’s head. Sure, we can glimpse other worlds in film and literature. But it’s an act; it’s entertainment, even the true stories. We can never truly know how another feels, loves and acts as though they’re not acting. And with that thought I soothe myself. If others are unknowable, then maybe my despair and lostness is as unknowable to them. Maybe I can be as real as I am fractured.

But I’m pretending, again. The lure of the epiphany is hard to resist. The fate of the golden-haired protagonist who overcomes her demons and ascends into glory is something I have waited for my entire life. It hasn’t come. It will never come. Instead, quick as a heartbeat, I make the pact with the devil. If I close my eyes I can pretend it didn’t happen: the handing over of my insignificant life, truly one of billions, to be fake, to be people pleasing and to reach my mortal end, unsatisfied and unenlightened but having fitted in, in a manner of speaking.

I reach for the black outfit and call you when I know you’ll be at the game. You’re not. You answer and my mind spins. You want to know if we’re still visiting your parents this weekend. I want to know how shit like that can still exist when the foundations of my universe have given way. I need to remember to water the plants at number 18. The non-sequiturs can keep us cosy, for now, and they’re a good buffer. They keep at bay the real question: are you a deadweight or an anchor? Either way, I try not to show I’m holding on for dear life.

Catherine is a freelance writer and author of instructional non-fiction book Brilliant ITQ. She lives in Devon, UK with her toddler and can be found online @catherinejones


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