Joyland

Toronto |

Difficult People

by Catriona Wright

edited by Kathryn Mockler

These talks are mandatory, aimed at increasing our productivity. The week prior I’d received an email from the organizer, Owen Peck. He promised “tactics to deal with Downers, Moochers, Whiners, Passive Aggressives and all other Energy Vampires in your lives!!” Sounds like Devon, I thought.

As I step into the boardroom, I take a moment to remind myself to smile, to participate but not in an overbearing way, to be cheerful not cloying, assertive not strident, to be a team player, and under no circumstances to mention Devon. Never ever bring up Devon. It’s only after this bit of self-talk that I notice the mantra projected against the wall: “Happiness is the Powercord of Success!”

 

*

Three months ago, on my weekly trip to my parents’ house, I went downstairs to summon Devon. He lived in the basement, which he referred to as his Idea Incubator. Thirty, unemployed, addicted to energy drinks, aggressively curious, my brother spent most of his time writing and editing Wikipedia entries. He called my parents his patrons; it made the arrangement seem more reciprocal and dignified than it really was.

My feet, encased in nude pantyhose, swished against the cream-carpeted steps.

“Time for another enfoodment!” I said, using our childhood slang for dinner. Well, his slang, really. Part of a faux-naturalist idiom Devon invented after years of watching nature documentaries (they were the only movies our parents deemed suitably educational). Devon could do a mean David Attenborough impression. When he was a teenager, his good days still outnumbering his bad, he used to give breathless, British play-by-plays of our family dinners:

“What we have here is a typical Caucasian enfoodment. Notice how the younger female human does not bother to chew at all! The older male switches his fork from left to right and back again. Remarkable.”

That evening I was feeling silly and sentimental. I’d just received a promotion at work and was determined to maintain my sense of triumph, even in the face of my brother’s inevitable disdain. He didn’t believe you could be both employed and human.

No reply.

I’d force him to laugh. “En-food-ment!” I repeated in a low, cookie-monster grumble. Pausing before his open door, I rubbed my feet vigorously against the carpet, hoping to charge myself with static electricity … I thought I’d be the one giving the shock.

The room was shadowy, lit only by the monitor’s bluish glow. Also emanating from the laptop was a faint pinging sound. As I got closer, I could see why: Devon’s forehead was squashed against the keyboard, page after page filling with random letters.

If only I’d acted sooner. I couldn’t speak or move. I just watched. Although later the doctors and therapists told me there was nothing I could’ve done. If only I’d acted sooner. That it wasn’t my fault, that he was already too far gone. If only I’d acted sooner. I couldn’t help but blame myself.

If only I had acted at all.

After a while I could tell it strained my parents and doctors to hear me relive the scene. They winced when they heard the word “if” drift out of my mouth. The worst part is that my brother would have listened to me, he would have been proud of how I let grief put my life together in a new way. But none of the living understood. Everyone considered it masochistic.

I wanted so badly for people to think I was a healthy, adjusted person—I have never been able to live far from others’ approval. And so a month after a painkiller overdose scoured all life from my brother’s body, I charged my Blackberry, responded to the hundred and thirty-eight emails clogging my inbox, and returned to my job at the bank.

 

*

Owen Peck looks like an ESPN broadcaster. Bald and thick-necked with a neat little salt-and-pepper goatee, he wears a blue suit, the blazer unbuttoned; his skinny red tie lolls down his white shirt like an anteater’s tongue … Devon would have liked that analogy.

“Welcome,” Owen says. “Welcome. Please take a seat.”

Everyone is sitting in a circle on the ground. The men are mostly cross-legged. The woman—all in skirts—have their legs tucked under or slightly off to one side. I resist the urge to skip around them, patting their heads: duck, duck, goose! No one moves to make room for me.

Owen points between Marian and Roman. “Could you two scooch a bit?” Reluctantly they separate. Do not take it personally, I tell myself.

“Thanks,” I say to Marian.

I plop down and cross my legs male-fashion. I’m wearing pants. Ugly pants. Before Devon’s death I would never have been caught in pants so ugly; I only bought them because they’re made from a synthetic fabric that doesn’t wrinkle.

“Decided to grace us with your presence,” Marian says. 

“If that’s okay,” I say, aiming for a meek tone.

Before my brother’s death Marian had been my best friend. In the weeks after the overdose, she’d tried to help as best she could. She attended the funeral in a black Chanel suit, obviously new, and kept reaching for my limp hand or offering me one of the bergamot-scented tissues crammed in her purse. She left encouraging messages on my machine and dropped off turkey casseroles with my doorman. Yet I couldn’t will myself to accept or appreciate her kindness, goaded as I was by Devon’s voice: She probably read an about.com how-to guide for dealing with grieving friends. None of it comes from an honest inner compulsion, unmediated by society. It’s all just repetitions of repetitions. Naturally she began to resent my failure to return her calls, my coldness, and our friendship has suffered. If I tried harder, bought her a green tea latte and chatted with her about her pug, Buster, or invited her out for after-work martinis, I could probably still repair the damage. But right now I’m just not up to it.

“Now, now, ladies,” Roman lisps in the campy voice he uses for teasing. “Don’t be difficile.”

 

*

Over the years my brother contributed to thousands of Wikipedia entries, but those dearest to him dealt with famous recluses, hermits, eccentrics, and naturalists. He distilled the lives and works of Thoreau, Julian of Norwhich, Hanshan, Dickinson, Shopenhauer, Audobon. Right before he died he was working on a biography of Elmer Kleb, a Texas man who refused to leave his 119-acres of wilderness just outside Houston, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid taxes. Oh, my brother loved these entries! He tended to them like a mourner at a graveside, excising additions (the factually inaccurate, the clumsily worded, the malicious), and laying down offerings freshly plucked from his research.

He subscribed to a Deletionist philosophy. The Deletionists are a group of Wikipedia editors who vow to uphold the most rigorous encyclopedic standards. Through message boards they debate the merits of articles, insist on the deletion of entries about people or ideas they deem to be poorly referenced, overtly biased, or lacking in notability. This final category is especially contentious. Some of these online scuffles would sadden my brother for weeks. He never could convince his fellow Deletionists that Elmer Kleb merited an entry.

“It’ll be easier once he’s dead,” my brother said morosely.

My brother would have been at home in a thirteenth-century monastery, bent over a manuscript in a blister of candlelight, ennobling the words with his attention. His melancholy promoted from illness to calling.  

 

*

Owen Peck gets us to introduce ourselves, then, pacing, he launches into a speech: “When I say Energy Vampire, I’m not talking the sexy times kind of vampire. Don’t get me wrong! I like a lady vampire in a corset as much as the next guy. No, when I say energy vampire, I’m talking a fat tick burying its fat face into your flesh. You know? I’m talking a slimy leech pumping blood like its leechy life depends on it, which I guess it does. But in this metaphor your blood isn’t your blood. What is it?”

“Power?” Glen from accounting says.

“Close,” Owen nods.

“Energy,” Roman says.

“Exactly! It’s your energy.” Owen leaps into the air and does a little spin on the spot. He starts circling us, faster now. He is exhausting me. Everyone is whipping their heads to keep up, but I’m staring straight ahead, imagining the dense, grey cocoon of my duvet.

“Your zest. Your flow. Your primal spirit. And Energy Vampires are people who want to squeeze all that joy juice out of you. People who take, take, take. People who are just one long.” Here, he stops and lets out an extended sigh.

The circle snickers. I try and fail to get Marian’s attention. Is she buying into this?

“People who whine, complain, mooch, nag. Debbie Downers and Peter Passive Aggressives. You hear me?”

Everyone nods, so I do, too, even though this spiel is grating.

“People who never, ever seem to get the job done.”

Owen stops in front of the projector. His shadow looms on the white wall, obscuring the mantra. “These are the people we need to exorcize from our lives.”

 

*

My brother never managed to keep any job for long, not a job that paid anyway. My parents supported him. They were not people who could rid themselves of Downers. They did try once or twice, through threats or ultimatums, but one or the other would inevitably back down. After a while they accepted that he would never work.

Although he rarely expressed it, I knew my brother disapproved of my career. While I always made a point to ask about his Wikipedia entries and to feign interest in his responses, he never asked about my job. It was the elephant in the Incubator. Staggering now to think of it that way. My brother was dependent on my parents for survival, he had few friends and no girlfriend, as far as I know he was a virgin, and yet, AND YET, by some strange logic I was made to feel like the pathetic one. When I was around him I often sensed the whole shining narrative of my life—business school, promotions, Liberty Village condo—snarl into a tarnished knot, worthy of nothing but scorn.

“Don’t you think you should actually be contributing in some way?” he asked when I first told him about my decision to go to business school. “Instead of just scavenging?”

“Why can’t you just be happy for me?” I said, on the verge of tears.

He shook his head. “I just think you could do better.”

His disapproval was hard to take. But as much as I desired his admiration, I needed the world’s admiration more, and my young affluence was, I felt, the surest way to secure it.

 

*

As the session continues I realize that Owen Peck is a kind of Deletionist himself, though my brother, and his Wikipedia brethren, would surely abhor his criteria of notability.  According to him, we should surround ourselves exclusively with Energy Injectors, which he defines as people who have an infectious peppiness. “Basically people with caffeinated personalities.” Beside me Marian nods vigorously. So there must be something to this, I think, if Marian agrees with him. I need to concentrate. Be attentive not mocking. Maybe Owen Peck can actually teach me something. “People who think, How can I help this company? Who think, how can I improve myself and the people around me? How can I make someone’s day? The office cheerleaders!”

Owen Peck is describing the old me. The me who volunteered to take minutes at the meeting, to go on coffee runs, to come in early and stay late, to give up holidays, to cover people’s work when they were sick or even just hungover; the me before Devon died and made everything pointless. There you go again, I admonish myself. Be positive, be proactive. Try harder.

As the afternoon wears on, he has us play a game of Broken Telephone. The original sentence, “I am not going to let anyone steal my life force,” morphs into “I’m not gonna staple lettuce.” I try to make eye contact with Marian as the group giggles, but she won’t look at me.

 

*

The only way to coax my brother from his Idea Incubator was to suggest a nature walk. My mother, worried that Devon and I were drifting apart, sometimes called and suggested I ask him: “I know you’re busy honey, but a little vitamin D, some exercise, would do him good.” If he wasn’t incubating some new entry, he always agreed. Without talking much we would stroll through the Don Valley Ravine or High Park. Last summer we drove down to Turkey Point Provincial Park, just the two of us, his—not my mother’s—idea.

Ten minutes into our walk, a family stopped us and asked if we could take their picture. I agreed and twenty “say cheeses” later—they had wanted every possible configuration: father and son; mother, son and daughter; mother, father, daughter and chipmunk etc.—they thanked me and ambled away.      

I was expecting Devon to make fun of them, but instead he said, “You’re so good with people. You have social grace. I’ve always admired that about you. I was never good at that kind of thing”

This compliment startled me. Couldn’t he tell that it wasn’t grace that compelled me, it was a need to be liked? I mumbled, “Thanks.”

“Too bad you don’t get to use those skills much,” he said. “Not in your line of work.”

Of course, there was a loophole in the compliment.

“Get a load of that robin!” He pointed at a blue bird perched nearby; it jerked and cocked its head inquisitively before bursting into flight. An apt image now. My brother, a bird soaring. Me, a velvet-crested cattail left wobbling after the hard take-off.

 

*

“Okay, everyone,” Owen said. “It’s time to boogie. Everybody on your feet.”

I stand and reach my hand out to Marian, but she pushes herself up. My legs tingle, and I slap them vigorously to get the feeling back.

“Role play!” Owen steps into the middle of the circle. “We need to work on some tactics to expel Energy Vampires from our lives. The best way to learn is to do. Volunteers?”

Marian grabs Roman’s hand and she raises them both.

“Great,” Owen says as Roman glares at Marian. “A real power couple! Get in here.”

When Marian advances into the ring, I notice how skinny she looks, almost haggard. Her silky peach blouse hangs slack, and her cheekbones, exaggerated with blush, sharpen her already angular face. It reminds me, yet again, of Devon. Despite never exercising, he was always lanky. The draw cord on his favorite pair of sweatpants was always pulled as tight as possible, but it still couldn’t keep them from falling down, and he was perpetually yanking them back in place.

“Okay people,” Owen says. “Here’s how it’s going to go down. These two folks are going to role play. She …” Owen places his hand on Marian’s shoulders. “… is playing the role of Energy Vampire, and he is the Vampire Slayer! We’ll just let them freestyle for a couple minutes, then I’ll cut them off and we can pow-wow about what happened. Capisce?”

“Yes,” everyone says in unison, with my “yes” trailing behind like a younger sibling trying to catch up.

Roman stands for a moment, dazed. “What should I say?”

Owen nods. “Maybe ask her something to get the scene rolling.”

“Okay,” Roman bites his lip, thinking. “Can you finish your section of the report by tomorrow? I want to get started on mine.”

Marian slumps her shoulders and stares blankly at him. The circle twitters.

“Did you hear me?” Roman sounds genuinely confused.

Cocking her head, Marian blinks at him. “Yeah.”

“And?” Roman, now enjoying the attention, has shed his initial nervousness.

Marian sighs. “What’s the point? No one will really read it. It’s all just shuffling jargon around. Might as well save some trees.”

“Oh boy,” Owen shouts. “Classic Pessimistic Patty.”

“Marian,” Roman puts his hand on his heart, really starting to enjoy himself. “Your contribution is always valuable, but if you’re saying you don’t want to do your part then you should just be honest.”

“I can do it,” she says. “If it’s that important to you. Personally I don’t place much importance on outward symbols of productivity, but if you do …”

For the first time that afternoon, I smile. Devon and Marian only met once, and yet here she is doing a bang on rendition of him. Although I feel a twinge of sisterly indignation, I try my best to suppress it. I had forgotten how funny Marian could be.

“Nope,” Roman says. “Stop right there. I won’t let you drag me down into your negativity. I enjoy my job and I’m proud of myself, and I can’t listen to one second more of your negativity.”

“Great,” Owen claps his hands. “Just awesome. Way to commit to your characters, guys!”

The actors return to their spots, and for the first time that day, Marian looks directly at me. A blush spreads blotchily across her collarbone, and she quickly averts my stare. I might be imagining it, but she looks embarrassed. I’m filled with a surprisingly strong need to reassure her. While the others parse the Slayer’s reactions to the Energy Vampire, I lean close. “You were hilarious,” I whisper. “How’s Buster these days?”

“Thanks.” She forces a tight smile. “He had to be put down.”

I place my hand on her shoulder. She glares at the ceiling, blinking back tears, and fidgets with her silver bracelet, tugging at a miniature martini charm embellished with a tiny emerald olive.

“Listen,” she sighs. “I’m sorry if I got a little carried away.”

I swallow and clench my fists, digesting the realization. Here I was starting to feel sorry for her, starting to think about renewing our friendship, and what was she doing? She was impersonating me. But I don’t act like that, do I? Be gracious, I tell myself. You deserve it after the way you treated her. Be understanding. Is everyone at the office laughing at me, in on the joke? Be … oh, screw it! What would Devon do?

I raise my hand. “I think Marian’s character might be going through a tough time. She could feel misunderstood, and she might have some interesting new perspectives to offer. I think empathy would be a more appropriate solution than just cutting off all contact.” Not quite as ballsy as Devon would be, but a start. 

“Maybe,” Marian says. “Marian’s character could’ve explained that to Roman’s character, and—“

Owen shakes his head as though we’re grade two students who just guessed that one plus one equals three. “No, no, not Roman’s problem. Marian’s character shouldn’t be burdening other people with her issues. There’s no negotiating with an Energy Vampire. They’ll never change.”

“That’s insane,” I snap. “How reductive! Surely human experience is more than that!”

“Looks like we have an Argumentative Andrea on our hands, people.” Owen looks at everyone but me. They all laugh.

Enough. Breaking away from the circle, I head for the door. Maybe Marian will come after me and maybe she won’t. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m exhausted. 

Before I leave, I yank the power cord out of the wall. The room dims, but the eyes quickly adjust.

That night I settle down to my penance. The Deletionists probably won’t let it last until sunrise, but at least it will be part of Wikipedia for a few hours. The keys clack reassuringly beneath my fingertips: “A typical Devon enfoodment consisted of a Red Bull and…”