Joyland

Toronto |

Shrinkage

by Millie Ho

edited by Kathryn Mockler

 

Inez shaved her head the day after.

She didn’t make the connection between her impulse to go bald with what had happened. She simply walked out of the shower and disliked the way her black hair looped down her neck like an eel. Inez believed she shaved her head for a purely aesthetic reason. She wrapped the severed hair in a Dollarama bag and tucked it in the trash can under the sink. If her mother noticed anything different about Inez during dinner, Inez didn't hear about it. 

 

Inez had applied to be a sales associate at the start of the summer. The design firm had turned her down, as did a Starbucks near her building. Though Inez never worked in retail before, she was good at knowing what others wanted and shaping herself to meet those needs. She needed a new drawing tablet for OCAD in the fall, and a job at the store seemed like a good idea at the time.

Inez was interviewed by the store manager, a tiny woman called Raina. Inez didn’t know what to make of Raina, who bared her emotions without warning. When Raina approved of what Inez said, she would nod until her face blurred. When Raina didn’t approve, she would blink rapidly, as though trying to clear her sunken eyes of the dirt that was Inez’s answer. That was usually when Inez would have to fake a smile, fake a laugh, do things with her head and limbs to show Raina that she was, despite everything, still a friendly and approachable human being.

“Working in retail can be challenging,” Raina said, at the end of the interview. “You have to really put your foot down.”

"I will," Inez said. 

The next week, Raina called her in for another interview, this time with the assistant manager present. The assistant manager was called Eddie. He was also Raina’s husband. Eddie’s handshake was firm, his beady eyes bright. He was silent during the interview and didn’t speak until the very end, when Raina asked Inez why they should hire her.

Inez listed the things she’d prepared, and then—because she suddenly felt her reasons weren’t good enough—she started speaking off the cuff, started stuttering and tripping over her explanations.

Just when Inez felt her panic rise, Eddie said, “I can work with Inez.”

Eddie was squinting at her. It was not an assessing squint. It was curiously distant, like he wasn’t thinking about what he saw in her, but rather what he thought she could become.

When Inez received the call a week later that she’d gotten the job, she’d chalked it up to her performance during the final interview. And maybe she did give a good performance, just not one she’d been aware of giving.

 

The morning after she shaved her head, Inez replaced her miniskirt with a pair of jeans and buttoned a vest over her crop top. She would have to get a longer shirt at the store, something that hid her stomach and covered the zipper of her jeans, making removal tricky. 

When Inez went in for her shift, Eddie did a double take, as Inez hoped he would. His face seemed to fold up, the beady eyes squinting, with barely restrained anger, Inez decided, as though Inez was taking a sledgehammer to his favourite car in slow-mo. For some reason, Inez didn’t feel any flash of triumph at his reaction. 

“Inez!” Raina said. “What happened to your hair?”

“I decided to shave it,” Inez said, and felt like she was about to cry. But why? Maybe it was all coming to her now—the thing that had happened, how it could potentially be related to the shaving, and the fact that she’d forgotten there were two of them, that she wasn’t just facing Eddie, she’d have to face Raina as well.

Raina laughed and shook her head, like she couldn’t believe what Inez did to herself, what Inez was now doing to her.

What happened next might as well have happened to somebody else. Inez watched herself get fired from somewhere outside her body. Time slowed down. The obnoxious pop playlist was muffled under Inez’s heartbeat. The last thing she remembered was Eddie squinting at her as he followed Raina into the back room.

 

Inez's co-worker Galina once railed against Raina during their lunch break. Raina was a bitch. Raina was shameless. Raina was always bursting. 

“She blamed everyone else except herself for the stolen jeans,” Galina said. “Like, isn’t that the manager's job to make sure things don’t get stolen in the first place?”

“Raina is just Raina,” Inez said. 

“My theory is that she isn’t getting enough at home. Eddie should take one for the team and, I dunno, fuck her brains out.” 

“That’s so gross.” Inez pictured Eddie, who was over six feet tall and built like a water tank, absorbing atom-sized Raina into his body. It would’ve been fascinating from a scientific perspective, if Inez saw things from that perspective. 

Galina chewed her chicken nugget thoughtfully. “She picks on you a lot, though.”

“Maybe she’s jealous of me and Eddie.” Inez had meant it as a joke. Eddie was always smiling at her or asking her how her weekend went. He held doors open for her even when she had both hands free. Then again, he probably did that for everybody.

“I can’t imagine Eddie cheating on Raina,” Galina said. “That’s like the start of a Law and Order: SVU episode right there.”

Inez shrugged. She was only there for the paychecks, anyway. Once she had enough for a new tablet, Raina, the store, and everybody in it would be a distant memory. 

That was before Eddie started offering her rides home, before she’d started taking them.

 

*

Inez’s mother didn’t ask her why she was at home these days. When the TV turned on and the wine bottle unscrewed, her mother’s brain turned off. The closest her mother came to asking Inez whether something was wrong was when she complained about how Inez looked like a boy now.   

“It’s an artist thing,” Inez said. 

“Your father wouldn’t have stood for it,” Inez’s mother said, or slurred. “Girls should look like girls, okay.”

Inez’s mother never said “Okay” with a question mark. “Okay” was always followed by a period. It denoted statements that weren’t open to negotiation.

Eventually, Inez stopped watching TV with her mother. 

She locked herself in her bedroom and tried to draw. She didn’t have a model so she ended up sketching her left hand. There was a green bruise on her wrist that was turning yellow at the edges. Inez would press her thumb into the bruise until the bruise turned red, until she felt something like pain. 

 

Sometimes her phone rang.

Sometimes it would be Galina, telling her how boring work was without Inez. They never talked about Inez being fired, or even about Raina. It was a subject to be avoided, an unspoken agreement between them.

Sometimes her phone rang and it would be Eddie. Inez didn’t pick up those calls. She let the voice messages collect and deleted them one by one, under her covers, usually late at night. In a way, seeing his number show up on the screen made Inez feel helpless. She’d realized in the weeks after going bald that she’d liked the eel that looped down her neck after all, and had given it up for nothing.

 

When school started, Inez continued wearing jeans and vests, and her head was covered by a dark fuzz.

On the bus she would stand out, but in school, in the crowd of faux leather jackets and Doc Martens boots, she became alternative, a grunge rocker wannabe, an aspiring artist.

She didn’t make new friends, didn’t reconnect with old ones. She didn’t get a new tablet, but she made do with her old one. She focused on schoolwork and handed in her assignments days ahead of time. She kept her head bowed and didn’t speak unless she was spoken to.

 

And then like Inez promised herself, she started to put the summer behind her. Her grades were the best they’d ever been, and with any luck, she might get a good recommendation letter and apply for an internship at the design firm again.

Then she got the phone call, the one where it was hard to hear anything because Galina was sobbing so hard. 

“I’ll be right over,” Inez said, and got on the next bus headed downtown.

It was strange to come back to the mall at night. Inez remembered the neon lights, the tall glass condos, the taxi cabs that shot out of nowhere, always headed for her. She entered the mall and more scenes hit her, like locking up the store with Eddie when Raina wasn’t around, the blue glow of a dashboard that looked like alien technology in the darkness, how a seatbelt pulled tight against bare skin could burn. 

Galina was sitting on the curb outside the mall parking lot. Galina’s eyes were red, and her ponytail was loose and tangled in places that didn’t look cute.

Galina started to talk. Inez felt like she was watching everything from outside her body again, except this time she actually was outside her body, watching Galina beat the cement sidewalk and scream at times and repeatedly claw at her hair.   

What they should’ve done was go to the police. What stopped them was Raina.

It was the fear of Raina instead of Raina herself. But Raina and fear were often one and the same. Inez and Galina went silent for a few moments, heavy with thoughts of Raina and fear, and then Galina pulled out the bundle from her purse. 

It was a new pair of jeans, still folded in its original plastic wrapping with the price tag neatly tucked into the back pocket. 

“He stuck this in my bag,” Galina said. "He said he'd blame me for the stolen jeans if I told anybody."

A strange, slick sickness twisted inside Inez like an eel. It made her want to throw up.

Inez suggested they speak with Raina first. They would make sure Raina understood the situation. Maybe that would keep her from bursting. 

 

Raina was calm, too calm. Inez and Galina exchanged a glance. Raina was supposed to shriek and laugh. She was supposed to leap over the desk and wring their necks.  

“So,” Galina said, when she was done, “we’re going to the police, and you can’t stop us.” 

Raina blinked rapidly. Then she sighed. It was a low and quiet sigh, the kind of sound Inez's mother made after taking long sips of wine. It was a sound of resignation, of knowing you liked something bad but were unable to help yourself. 

“You did this,” Raina told Inez. It was not a question. She was simply stating something she’d figured out. “You set Galina up to say these horrible things because you’re angry at me for firing you.”

“That’s a lie and you know it,” Inez said. "Stop protecting him."

Raina sighed again. She was close enough for Inez to see her reflection shrinking in Raina’s sunken eyes. 

“At least I know what’s been happening with the shrinkage problem,” Raina said, turning to Galina. “You’re fired, too.”

 

Inez couldn’t look at Galina after that, even though Galina had told her repeatedly that it wasn’t her fault.

A day bled into a week, and a week became a month.

They never went to the police.

Inez regretted deleting Eddie’s voicemail messages. She regretted wanting to save a few TTC tokens. She regretted wanting to buy a new tablet. And finally, she regretted wanting to become an artist.

The only thing she didn’t regret was getting drunk on her mother’s cheap wine. She threw up all over the toilet afterwards, but it got rid of the sickness for one, for now.