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 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.”
“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 Yorker, The New Republic, Boston Review, and elsewhere.