Joyland

Vancouver |

The Ideomotor Effect

by Catharine Chen

You lose your job and your favourite relative in the same month, that’s how it starts. Your publishing company shuts down the imprint where you’ve worked for years. Friends gently suggest that now you can get a real job, one with decent pay. Co-workers scatter, seeming content to move on. Realize what a crappy job it was, apparently. It doesn’t change the fact that you’d enjoyed it a lot. What was not to like? You were good at your work, intimate with your co-workers, you were charismatic, and always well dressed. Your great-aunt passes away. You’d visited her at the hospice every holiday except last Easter, when you went to the Okanagan with work friends. That turned out to be the last holiday before she died. Struggle with guilt. She and her husband were like surrogate parents to you. Your actual parents were largely absent from your life, busy working, accusing each other of adultery, going on vacations. They moved to Spain as soon as you turned nineteen, no big loss. You see them at the funeral, tanned and volatile, still maintaining their petty jealousies and slamming car doors. They’re always claiming to be in love, though. You take this as a sign the opposite is true. The alternative—that they really are in love and this is their married bliss—is unthinkable. Cry, a lot, for your job and your great-aunt. You’ve always been a big crier, but this is something else. You surprise yourself with how much saline and wailing is stored up in there. Don’t get out of bed for days, save to use the bathroom and swallow back-pain meds. Drink water, don’t eat. *** Get over it. Leave your bed and start looking for work. *** Instead of “Phoebe” your friends from high school called you “GB,” for “GayBoy,” because you so enjoyed homoerotic indie films and because the first two people you kissed were a gay boy and a gay girl, in drama class and at a rambunctious party—the first of many gays kissed in the name of drama. You accepted the nickname despite the nasty undertone; that was the technique of their friendship, respecting and not respecting you. Also, a sort of queer confusion was rife in your group, which included butch, rugby-playing girls and drowsy, humorous guys who played Desdemona and only came out after you’d lost touch with all of them. *** You have never been in love. There have been dalliances, some more memorable than others, but you have never undertaken the pursuit of love. It’s not something you want particularly, and your partners sense that. You’re uncomfortable when anything lasts longer than a few months, aware that you never really know any of these people deep down. The notion that you could be in love with someone you don’t even know is preposterous. There have been times when you grew attached, felt weak, pined even, but that wasn’t love, just compulsion, and boredom, having extra time on your hands. Your body needing to be traumatized by something. It seems all human interactions serve either to make one stupid, or to inspire. You’ve had your share of the inspiring. There’ve been people you instantly wanted to meet and befriend, suspecting both your lives would be enriched by it. Sometimes you’ve been right. You love your best friends, Nora and Lem, loved your great-aunt and great-uncle; and to a lesser extent, your parents. *** You wake up in the middle of the night. Fear is flooding over you, drowning you. Realize this has all been a dream, a distraction, a lie: you are going to die. Everything around you is a diversion, meaningless; it all ends the same. You cannot change it. Wheeze, gasp in the face of airless truth. Slap yourself in the face, or drag your fingernails across your forearm until pain edges the thought away, little by little. In the morning, you remember what happened, but not the feeling, not the freezing vice of fear. In the daytime, you never feel it, never believe it will revisit you again and again. You were seven the very first time it struck. The reality of death occurred to you inconveniently while watching the movie Beastmaster at a birthday party. You demanded of the people around you: What happens? What happens then? Got no answers, only pinched looks. Since then, you’ve kept the concept abstract, at arm’s length even, while joking about your time ticking away, how you’ll be long gone before the sun goes red giant and envelops the earth. *** Nora calls often. Tell her you’re fine. *** Get a new job, similar to the old one, at a magazine office. Your second day of work is the last for one of the part-time receptionists. The office throws her a leaving party in the break room. You feel like an interloper; you don’t even know her but you’re eating her cake. Wave your fork vaguely when she leaves. The new part-time receptionist is a freakishly beautiful man. People are afraid to talk to him; you suspect he’s actually lonely because of it, but feel no sympathy for his snub nose, enormous eyes, thick lashes. The woman who works across from you likes to watch him at his desk, point him out to you and make pained, longing faces. *** It nauseates you, the ideology of love. You have seen scant evidence of its ennobling qualities; more frequently it leads to moronic behaviour and, ultimately, anguish. You often say to Lem, “Why bother with love when I can hit myself with blunt objects at home?” You’ve heard too many proclamations of “the real thing” just weeks before messy splits. Friends call regularly to dissect email communiqués, pillow talk, things muttered in bars. Friends get cheated on with alarming regularity and little ceremony. Friends’ partners die of AIDS and cancer, suicide and brain tumours, lingering in pain or going with no warning at all. Despite what your superego says, that traitor your body still clamours for skin, other bodies, still aches a little when you watch the convicts kissing on that prison drama show, when you hear Nora talking to her husband on the phone. *** Go out with a guy from the office who chats you up over Sweet’N Low and Coffeemate. There’s nothing particularly handsome about him, but he has a broad, generic maleness that makes you amenable to sharing beers in bland diners. See a movie on your third date, have dinner. If five or more blue hatchbacks pass the window, have sex with him. If eight or more silver SUVs pass, go out with him again. *** Attend Nora’s monthly brunch party. One of her friends recounts her recent ‘nutrient testing’, an applied kinesiology which she describes as being blindfolded and holding a series of pill bottles in her outstretched hand, while trying to resist the nutritionist’s attempts to push her arm down. “For one of them I really couldn’t keep my arm up,” she says. All this for the revelation of cutting excess sodium out of her diet. Another friend says her mother is obsessed with the supposed mystical power of pyramids, storing drinking water in them and waving them over houseplants. Her mother’s trying to convince her to meditate daily with a pyramid on her head, just once a week and she’ll see the benefit. You ask: “What happens then? Do you start to age backwards? Do all your ex-lovers return?” Laugh gently, to show you don’t mean to be an asshole. *** You have been an atheist since your early twenties. As a child you believed in God by default. Everyone was a Christian of some kind, except your parents. You said prayers that were no more than wish-lists to be popular, fall in love, go to heaven. If you had evil thoughts, He’d know. Strangely, you never believed in Santa Claus. Later, the notion of sitting on clouds and no longer desiring drink, sex, or superiority was detestable. You moved on to a period of mindless spirituality. Meridians, craniosacral therapy, tarot cards. This was short-lived, and you put it down to being teenaged and growing up in Vancouver; there’s a lot of that kind of thing floating around the west coast. You feel a bit of a fraud sometimes, calling yourself an atheist. You don’t for a second believe in a higher power or an afterlife, and perhaps look down on those who do. But you find no bravery in being this way; it is not a shield. *** Lem notes that you used to go out all the time but don’t anymore. Well obviously, since all your work pals have moved back east. Ask him: “Does everyone out here really come from the east, or do people just say ‘back east’ without thinking?” He starts taking you with him wherever he goes, to lunch with friends, to shop for pet food, to poetry readings, to hear friends’ bands. Spend time with his boyfriend, whose way of throwing both arms around your neck charms you. Years ago, in a fit of madness, you resolved to become celibate, but all your gay male acquaintances seemed to conspire to look great around you and make you sexually frustrated. Lem’s boyfriend thinks you should throw yourself into affairs, thinks you’ll be fine if you fall in love once and for all, move to Morocco, never work in publishing again. Acknowledge that you tend to be pessimistic, but really, don’t even the smallest things, like finding and keeping a good hairstylist, a good brand of salsa, turn out to be lifetime endeavours? At a cocktail party thrown by Lem’s friend, you admire the boyish girls; their hair smoothed just so, crisp shirts and willowy bodies, their confident nobility. You wish that you could pull that off, too. Usually when you’re attracted to a woman it’s cerebral. You imagine her intelligence and intrigue, anticipate exploring the firmness of her convictions, the soft give of her empathy. However, at this party, you lust after a sirenish girl with curly hair and a Grecian nose; fall for her small, shadowed lips. She walks you out onto the balcony, almost pityingly. Though night air and the percolating spirits make you numb, you sigh when she strokes your bare arm and sweeps her lips over your jaw, your ear, and kisses the side of your mouth. You end up making out until a new round of cocktails calls you back inside. For the rest of the evening, you watch her flirt with the room. Her banter and laughter, the way she shifts when others place their hands on her perfect waist, are gestures beckoning you, Come over here. But decline to play games tonight. Don’t stop to speak to her when you leave. *** Your great uncle died when you were thirteen. He’d been sick for a long time, your great-aunt looking after him, and you visited nearly every day, but dreaded being left alone with him. You’d look at his desk and remember sitting in his lap, inspecting seed husks through a magnifying glass, drinking chrysanthemum tea, watching ducks in the ditch outside the window. You couldn’t look at him laid-up in bed, thin and white as onion skin, because you’d once found him with tears in his eyes, and didn’t know what to say to him. After he died, your parents took you funeral-wear shopping and got you a shirtdress in navy blue, not black. You cried through the whole thing, two hours straight, then everyone returned to the house for petit-fours and coffee. The next day, they scattered his ashes at the beach and didn’t tell you until you got home from school. Leftover petit-fours sat stacked on the kitchen counter until the cream went rancid. You wore the shirt to a school dance, leaving the front open and throwing a flashy tank underneath. And during your Ouija board phase, you asked if your great-uncle knew that you loved him. Later you learned about the ideomotor effect: your body’s unconscious motions, its reactions to mere ideas. No, there hadn’t been spirits, nor was it just your friends pushing the pointer, as you’d suspected deep down. It was you pushing the pointer too, you betrayed by your own weakness, your subconscious daring to edge forward and try to speak. Your ego pacifying you. *** Stop going out with Lem. Tell him you’re trying to get into the groove of your new job. *** Your new job is boring and unchallenging. You suspect you’re just a glorified temp. Be friendly to the guy you dated, but avoid being alone with him. The receptionist remains beautiful. Your desk-mate swoons and wonders if he’s straight, but still doesn’t talk to him. You don’t really want to fuck him or kiss him or put make-up on him, although undoubtedly any of those activities would be enjoyable. Whenever you see him, you think about slapping him hard enough to snap his head backwards. Oh, the crack across his cheek, the tingle of your palm following through, your fingertips lingering. And your hand-print on his face, how he’d sink to the floor in pain, groaning. You confess this to Lem. He snorts. “Of course you would, GB. That is so very you.” You wonder: which part of you? The part that has dreams (not nightmares) about genital torture and is too disturbed to mention them to anyone? The part that calls Lem up to weep over the phone after hearing the Buckley version of Lilac Wine? *** A friend from university visits with her baby. Everyone is having babies. Couples who swore to remain childless get pregnant by mistake and flood your email with photos of the precious ones. You see this baby every few months, and each time he’s completely different. A little turtle, a shrub, a pair of velvety cheeks. A toddling marionette, defying gravity. Then he was a chattering creature racing a cushion across floors, cooking invisible breakfasts just for you. Now he sits on your lap and asks you where ghosts come from while you pick twigs out of his hair. Your friend says you should have children. She suggests it pragmatically, like recommending St. John’s Wort or SSRIs. What a notion—irresponsible too, isn’t it?—considering the state of your life, and how you’re barely motivated some days to pull on clothes and shoes and go to work. She says having children transforms you into a selfless nurturer, which sounds great, except one quick memory of your parents douses that notion. The baby is enchanting, but that doesn’t change the fact that children are aliens to you. They’re fascinating, enlightening even, but you’re not sure you should have anything to do with them firsthand. This baby reminds you that time marches so quickly that before long he’ll grow up and have no time for you. *** You think terrible thoughts, again and again. Wish that you could believe in the purification of parental love, of being content to pass on your DNA and wanting only, eternally, to protect your offspring. But still, you die, don’t you? And eventually so will they. Thus goes the cycle; why perpetuate it? Everything, everyone, is dead already in the scheme of things. Does it matter what went on before the light went out? View all objects in your home as relics to be divested; worry about their eventual fate. *** Collect mail from around the office to give the receptionist. Most of the others are scared to go near him. He’ll be old and bitter by the time his features change to a less intimidating configuration. You walk over to his desk, wait for him to look up from his computer. He stands up involuntarily, surprised to be approached, takes the envelopes and thanks you. But you don’t move away. You stay there, rooted; he waits for you to speak, says something himself about the water cooler or the copier. His eyes are glass buttons, his eyelashes nylon, unreal, everything he does is predictable and forewritten, you know what happens. Your hand twitches and tingles. His cheek is dewy, petal pink; you hear the crack already. Your hand lurches across the counter. Make it stop. Let it drop to the desk, onto a letter opener. Tell him you like it. He’s confused. He says you can have it. *** Decline to see a movie with the guy from work; there’s not much on now besides blockbusters starring yesterday’s heartthrobs who’ve gone neo-fundamentalist in their forties. Say: “The idols of our youth shall become increasingly crazy as we age.” They’re starting to consider their own mortality, foraging desperately for meaning, ending up with something fanatical or silly, like as not. Also, you decline because you’re worried the darkness of the theatre might let your terrible thoughts in, make you stand up and scream at the people around you to prove to yourself you’re not dead yet. *** You’re sitting through a content meeting on a slow afternoon. Seeing as you’re a glorified temp, there’s no need for you to be here, at any of these meetings about issues you’ve no hand in. You’re tired and bored, antsy, unable to stop thinking and fretting. Under the table, pinch your wrist as if to stay awake. The stinging helps, but isn’t effective enough. Fold your hands in your lap and scratch the back of your left wrist until it tingles. Draw your nails slowly down the length of the line, single file, and repeat until the meeting is over. Feel proud of yourself for getting through it, proud of the welts on your hand. Next morning, the welts are raised scabs. After you shower, they’re slight bloody streaks. You let them re-scab, and feel good, almost, every time you look at them: your concrete, immediate response to a problem. You pick at them when they start to heal. When they’ve almost gone, nothing left but dark lines, you sit down with the receptionist’s ridged letter-opener. Contemplate the back of your hand, the pointed teeth of the opener, your hand again, and so on for several minutes. *** Quit your job. *** Invite Nora over, but don’t talk about quitting. Instead, go out for dinner and drink whiskey and sodas, think of things to tell each other you haven’t already. Your first crush, a boy in the community centre’s under-ten badminton club, grew up to be a murderer. Yes, a murderer, you could scarcely believe it either, but there he was on television ten years later, arrested for killing his parents so he could marry his girlfriend. Why the hell didn’t they just elope? It’s so outlandish and awful she thinks you made it up, but it had horrified you then. Even though you’d never spoken to him, just saw from afar that he was nice to his sister and they had the same kind of racquet as you, you felt foolish. Deceived, at least. *** Browse your social networking sites. Drink wine while reading profiles. Your old classmates are inordinately happy about their careers in erotic film licensing, bluegrass band management, educational software testing. What will you say, that you also had a really meaningful job a year and a half ago, when a year and a half was a notable period of time? *** Order out for pizza, and notice the delivery place only employs polite Slavic drivers, recent immigrants working with malfunctioning credit card scanners and one-dollar tips without complaint, tirelessly working this job that has them driving far out but always driving back. Compare your malaise to their daily existence and feel disgusted with yourself. Let this be your lesson! Pull it together. Don’t order pizza again. Ever. Chew on slices of bread, boil eggs, listen to their rhythmic clatter on the bottom of the saucepan and stare out the window. You spend increasing periods of time motionless. *** Coming back from getting a coffee, you enter your apartment and sit down to remove your shoes. You’re struggling with a knot in your lace, when in a second—half-second—your energy drains away. You feel your face contort. You slump forward, cry. Wail high and beseeching, childlike. Pull at the roots of your hair; gouge your wool sleeves into your eyes. Gasp for breath. Whimper, “God, oh god.” You’re terrified. You shock yourself. *** Lie flat and stare at dead moths in your light fixture. You feel as though nothing, absolutely nothing, is touching you. Hover. *** Drink coffee until your heart races; try to slow it down with mellow music, though it just makes you panicky. Stop listening to music at all; instead, leave audiobooks playing until morning, in case you wake up in the middle of the night. You do always wake up in the night. Now that you’re so idle, you’re in danger all the time of plunging into the vacuum, the ice creeping up your neck and lodging in your skull. Of losing the ability to think at all. *** You cry often; tears are random rising tides. You notice your hand shakes when you stretch out your arm. You shiver as though it’s cold. Your apartment isn’t cold. Drink whiskey or wine. Walk around the block with a cigarette, let runners and parents with strollers pass by. Smoke each one down to the filter. Let it roll over your tongue, sizzle in the back of your throat. *** Level out and spend days in monotone. Think of nothing. Distract yourself; knit scarves. No one needs scarves. Smoke. Drink. Knit scarves. Paint your fingernails disgusting colours to prove that no one will see them, or you. Remove the polish in case someone sees them. *** You feel exhausted. You start eating whole grains, but they make you tired. Proteins make you tired. Caffeine makes you tired. Exercise makes you tired. Sleeping makes you tired. You think: Wonderful, another forty years of this. *** Lem worries. He wants you to know that in case you hadn’t realized it, he’d be devastated if anything ever happened to you. Think carefully about this for a while. You decide it doesn’t bother you as much as it should. *** Start seeing a therapist at the university. Tell your friends: “They’re grad students in training, so they’re going for cheap.” You attend once a week. Your therapist is from England, and he talks for the entirety of the first two sessions, which is fine by you. He rambles about the NHS and his family, the general amiability and rationality of people where he comes from. He’s relentlessly cheerful, and clearly homesick. Though you hate having to do it, list all the facts about yourself that may be pertinent: your job, your work, your friends, your family. Wonder if everyone sounds this self-obsessed and whiny in therapy. Take notes beforehand so you’re forced to read them aloud: you are developing a phobia of death, you have been so afraid to sleep that now you have trouble sleeping, you have never been in love. You’ve gone through phases when you thought you were, but they always passed, like hepatitis, chronic but manageable. Start taking antidepressants. You grow to like your therapist, despite the fact he repeatedly suggests online dating. He’s convinced all you need is change, and lots of it. His confidence is reassuring, right up to the moment he quits school and returns to England. He’s simply not there one day when you call in to reschedule your appointment. Gone without saying much to his colleagues, and nothing to you. They ask if you want to make an appointment with a different therapist. You loathe the idea of repeating yourself. Quit therapy. *** Talk to Nora on the phone and sound perfectly fine. Laugh at her jokes, then immediately feel guilty for betraying your shadow self. You feel stupid for coming up with terms like ‘shadow self.’ You just mean the part of you that stays tethered to the stillness. *** Traffic outside is loud and vulgar. Think about getting away from here. People here jog in yoga pants while it’s raining. People here drive up the mountains to hike and ski after work. They’re apple-cheeked and Gore-texed, heft enormous water bottles, sign petitions for falun dafa protestors even though they’re not entirely sure what it is. These people don’t sit around and dwell on things. *** This is what your shadow self reminds you, in case you didn’t realize it: if this brief moment is all we have, then how devastating is it to consider all the time wasted already? In useless jobs, useless schools, falling asleep in front of the television, during sex, festering in one corner of the world, the self-centred search for what you think you want. Should you stay at your friends’ sides, or go away from them? Before you even begin to think it over, it defeats you. You’ve always had a habit of missing a thing before it’s over. *** Venture out on a walk. You shuffle through the neighbourhood, invalid and blinking, past flumes of hot laundry, shoe stores, your favourite deli. It’s the smell of grilled onions that triggers it, how random, the cascade of thoughts, the saliva under your tongue as you recall flavours you like, as though you could still eat and taste the way you used to, the memory of such simple satisfaction strange and sad, what a useless animal you are. It’s daytime, but still it floods in, terror and the spectre of things lost and squandered. You want to run but it seizes you, anchors you here on the sweating asphalt. Your body moves; you don’t tell it to. You punch yourself in the left bicep, hard, with the points of your knuckles. And again, again, in the same place, again, until pain pipes up and flashes blue and large, and you finally grunt in agony. Your arm throbs, but there’s no mark, just heat when you touch the spot. By next morning, a contusion blooms red and maroon, purple at the edges, spectacular. A pinwheeled star made up of small bright spots, a pointillism of broken capillaries. It hurts when you move your arm. Fuss over it, admire it in the mirror, poke a finger right in the centre for another firework of pain. It changes over the next week to violet on taupe, then chartreuse and olive accents appear. It becomes red and yellow as a peach in evening light. You realize with a sinking stomach that it’s fading, will soon be nothing but an ugly mustard stain, no worse than walking into a door, no feeling when prodded. Mourn for it, your body tattoo. *** Go to London. Look for work. *** No one on this continent knows who you are. You settle into that soothing fact, that nobody here knows how you used to pride yourself on drive and efficiency. They don’t know you enough to nag or remind you of your own past optimism—delusion, that is. People here move fast as rapids, somehow avoiding collision through collective consciousness. Even at sun-up, even pooling momentarily behind such obstacles as drowsy Canadians, they pass by without emotion or recrimination; there is just the steady flow, the go. You get used to it. Move through crowds by looking where you’re going, never breaking the stream of your thoughts, or the empty rush of nothing. *** Listen to indie albums: cabaret, camp, retro-pop and experimental noise, men whose voices are tremolo strings and wavering birdsong. *** People here are smoking all the time. You enjoy it, the polish and roughness. There is fabrication in everything, a veil of civility. Rent is expensive. Sandwiches are plentiful. Queue in food halls, bus stops, banks; close your eyes for the wait. Spend days with no words spoken to you except “That’s all right,” when you slide coins across a counter or thank someone for holding a door. Nothing is said that does not joke. Pubs are dark and lush with mouldy carpets and lager rubbed into tabletops. There are many things, each one a good distraction. *** Over the telephone, across the sea, your friends congratulate you on not being where they are anymore, but also tell you to drop the holier-than-thou bit, and you know they’re talking again, always, about love. Nora says, “You’ve got to open yourself to the possibility of being understood.” Worry that she’s being brainwashed by new age friends. You say, “I have you two, don’t I?” And she retorts, “By people you’d actually sleep with, GB.” Lem says, “When are you going to drop your barriers and interact with the human race?” That’s a harsh remark. But here in London the people are similar and different enough from you to make everything funny, familiar, surreal. Like a lucid dream, things feel morally neutral; eminently possible. Humour your friends. Make no promises, but say you’ll “audition for the possibility of love.” You have nothing better to do here. And you do, deep down, wonder if this one thing could change you, re-route your neural pathways and make you scorn what you fear most, what you fear every day, every night. *** You meet a man with moist brown eyes and hair like a mop at a PJ Harvey concert. His name is Eoin. His face is vaguely asymmetrical, with hooded eyes and a sullen mouth contributing to an air of mental imbalance, of sullied innocence. But when you look at him, you believe you might do anything for him. His clothes are ridiculously camp: vests over gauzy shirts or nothing at all, stovepipe shorts, enormous rings. Sometimes he throws a coat over nothing but boxers to go out into the street. His body is a bundle of sticks. He is the perfect distraction. When you go out together he’s always slutting around, draping himself over tall men or petite girls, spending entire nights out of earshot, on laps; his eyes burning a hole into you, in perfect empathy with what makes you jealous, because that is his favourite thing. To strut home in silence, wait for you to fling your bag against the door, livid, and shove him hard, madness charging you up. His eyes are always challenging you, like an arrogant bird, a marvellous bird, you’re ashamed to go out with him, embarrassed by everything he does. This is new to you. Is this the precursor to love? You’re always staring at his freckles, the unexplained scratches on his translucent arms, the sunken flesh around his clavicle. One day he puts on a sweater and you’re smitten. He’s always plucking on ukuleles in his closet which he’s converted to a matchbox studio crammed with synthesizers for his electronic music. It surprises you to discover a moth-eaten Paddington Bear on a shelf in there. He says it’s old junk and tosses it aside, but you’re sure that, snuggled-with or not, it is cherished, has accompanied him through wars. He’s always wrestling you around rooms, the insane foreplay of provocation and attack. He trips on one occasion and accidentally slams you back into the wall, knocking your head hard. “Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry,” he says, but while your head’s still shooting stars he goes on with his mouth on your neck, not waiting to hear if you’re okay or not. You wonder if you’re concussed. Dazed, ponder if this would be a good way to live all the time. His body is so hot, fiercely turning in the night, that you find it hard to sleep, but he always drifts off with his arm across your hips, warming your belly. One night when he’s asleep, the slackness of his face alarms you. You think of sleep apnea, comas, heart failure, Paddington burning in the coffin with him or passing on through family to family until he disintegrates, and hysterical, you call his name, shake him, shake him harder until he wakes up, growling, “Jesus, what the fuck is it?” Never look at him when he’s asleep again. When he goes out without you, try not to think of him disappearing into the dark, slipping sideways through cracks. Or dashing in front of cabs, wandering into knife fights, not coming back. When he stumps in at four in the morning, say nothing, but throw things at him until there’s nothing else at hand. All he wants is to be shattered against walls and gathered back up again. Leave, before his habits rope you in for good. Accept his recriminations and then run, before you find yourself believing this might be love. *** Realize you’ve been in a black hole, insane and lost to the world. Look for work. *** Get a job at a small publishing press, similar to your old one, but this time you’re on par with the paid interns. Work is tight these days, especially in this industry. You adjust to the flow of things. Mia, the woman who works beside you, is funny and smart, but also practices reiki. Try to be indulgent. You sympathize with the desire to imbue everything with significance, even the random turning of cards, or hands waving over empty space. You have a headache one morning and Lea offers to help. She stands behind you for ten minutes, moving her hands all around your head. You try not to mind being stared at like a road accident by the others. You’ve seen on Mia’s desk the small case of vials, each containing water and the idea of an ingredient. You’d forgotten about homeopathy when you thought of coming to England, a rationalist’s supposed paradise. *** The indecisive weather reminds you of home. Tell Nora and Lem about your job. You suspect Nora is trying to get pregnant. Suspect Lem is having problems with his boyfriend he won’t tell you about. *** Your great-aunt died alone, this keeps coming back to you. She died staring at walls, and if there were any last moments of lucidity no one was there to hear them. Even so, what could you have done? She stopped knowing you long before; you’d already begun to miss the memory of her, feel it being carved sharply and slowly out of yourself. At the funeral people told you, “Don’t worry, they’re together now,” and you frowned, staggered back to a pew, strangely affected by this, depressed by this, your inability to believe in great-aunt and great-uncle in heaven, not even for their sakes, you traitor. Did it matter if there was fear, anger, relief, or calm? She died, and in the end, attended or not, we all die alone, don’t we? *** Go out with Mia and a couple of her friends. She introduces you favourably as “an atheist, but open-minded,” and even that causes a stab of guilt. You see a mentalist’s show in the West End: he stages a fake séance, which you approve of since he doesn’t claim to have powers or believe in spiritualism. But after the show, discussing it over drinks, Mia is unconvinced by the perfectly straightforward and compelling explanations of self-hypnosis, the ideomotor effect, imagination. She already knows what she knows; her beliefs have suffered no losses despite what she’s seen. It’s the same for all the true-believers at the show tonight. Mia thinks scepticism is as indefensible as any faith, but she is wrong. She waits for you to say something open-minded, and you do try to be indulgent, but there are things you won’t do. You cannot force people to look beyond their unquestioning confidence and take responsibility for themselves, and at the moment, it makes you hate them. Didn’t you come here for the lack of spiritual fervour? But don’t argue. Remain silent. *** Tell Lem and Nora: “We truly are just a colony.” They interrogate you about the state of your personal life. “We don’t live forever, GB,” Nora says, “there is only this.” Don’t tell them that the other day, on television you accidentally caught the end of a fantasy film full of platitudes about heaven, and that it depressed you and then made you break out in a cold sweat. You worry, irrationally, that they are sick, diseased, dying, and not telling you. *** You meet a man called Moss at an M&S when he asks you if the crayfish and rocket sandwich is any good. Drink your sparkling water and eat your sandwiches together while taking a walk. He has a long face and low-set eyebrows. When you first see him lift one of them, you think: He has the eyebrows of an evil villain. He wears thin scarves and messenger bags, has a tattoo on the back of his shoulder, and drawn, bright skin. You don’t hold hands in the street, but he has a habit of grabbing your wrist and leading you places that way. He pins you at night with his elbows and knees, weighing you down like a whale’s corpse. *** You reckoned once that a yogi would be a perfect partner, so full of life force and calm oneness with the universe that you would grasp enlightenment too, and your fears would be erased. Maybe a cult leader would do. A madman, a murderer? You wish for conviction, wish for reassurance. *** An elderly man lives on the ground floor of your ancient apartment building: Geo, he says to call him. He’s quite old and walks with a stick, but he’s very sweet. He invites you to see his “garden” out his back door: it’s a tiny rectangle, a miniature plot. The wood of the flower boxes is decrepit, sun-bleached and splitting along the grain. Some of the planks have fallen away already and been propped against the back fence. In the beds, the mulch is loose and greyish. When you bend down you can make out the green clusters, tiny pebbles, fragments of leaf skeletons that constitute it. You cry over Geo, who reminds you of your great-uncle. Wonder if, in his silent pauses, he’s thinking of death; wonder if he feels dread—another terrible thought, viewing elderly people as walking dead. Moss says, “Death? What are you afraid of anyway? You won’t feel a thing.” You allow yourself to laugh. Fall asleep with him tucked around you. His presence, is that what love is? Will his being beside you stifle your panic if you wake in the night? *** Visit the dentist to get the caffeine stains on your teeth cleaned. He tells you one of your molars is cracked. It’s the second time this tooth has needed filling. You ask him if this one will last you forever. Don’t let yourself think about what you mean by that. Smoke. Eat sandwiches. Drink wine with Moss. He works at an arts festival. He’s on the phone constantly, programming events, arranging fees, meetings and plane tickets. He’s from Lambeth; he doesn’t ask questions. The downward slant of his eyes blinking away smoke as you walk to his apartment, his hand around your wrist, “Come on, darling”—this is one of many things you enjoy. The width of his neck, the distance between his bottom lip and the tip of his chin, how he slides onto his back at night, solid and snoring, the parted rills in his hair in the morning, the way he pronounces the word “whorls.” *** Visit Geo, drink tea and sit on lawn chairs by his sodden garden box. He’s had real gardens in his life, large enough to plan and prune and manicure, yet now being relegated to this little pocket doesn’t seem to discourage him. He asks about your “friend” and what plans he has for you this week, as though there’d be tickets to the opera, horse-riding excursions in the country. You’ve been trying to put things out of your mind recently. Terms on your work visa that you don’t understand. Mangling the prongs of your hairdryer plug so they don’t fit into the power adaptor, which is big and unsightly as an adult diaper. You dismiss them until the end of the day, let Moss deal with them. He knows about things, or else he figures them out, scratching his hair under a woollen beanie, finally announcing, “It’s fine now.” Wining and dining is unnecessary. You let him be, rushing handsomely out the door to do business or spend time with his friends; expect his eventual return. You have no complaints; just the intention of falling asleep in his company every night. The sun disappears from view but still soaks through a mass of low clouds; the sky in the west is a dark, dirty copper. Wind stirs Geo’s chimes, blowing steadily in one direction, and the clapper isolates just two notes, a perfect fifth apart. It’s a freezing wind that drives you and Geo inside, but fresh too, amazingly fresh. *** Work hard at the office; spell things correctly and proofread obsessively, follow up on e-mails, type quickly, ask if there’s anything else that needs doing. Keep busy. After work, visit art galleries until you’re worn out. Then return to Moss and drift into sleep. Propel yourself out the door in the morning, walk briskly to work with chilly air nipping your cheeks and ears like a lover. Walk in gentle arcs so your whole routine is a moving circle. Let time slide by without examining it. *** Lem is unimpressed. “How long have you been together now?” He knows how long; he doesn’t think this is love. “Tell me, are you proud of his very existence?” Lem’s boyfriend has gone to Germany for a month. You tell him that you fret less and sleep peacefully around Moss. Lem says, cruelly: “Are you auditioning for love or a tranquilizer? Or are you just looking for someone to die with?” *** You sleep alone for the first time in months when Moss goes on a weeklong business trip to Wales. You take sleeping tablets the first two nights and wake up groggy and late for work. On the third night, you wake at four in the morning, your heart pounding in panic, a blank blade piercing you, all of this again. Don’t let thoughts form or solidify. Whisper a mantra, turn on all the lights and it’ll be gone. Mutter to yourself until you fall asleep again. It’s been such a long time. You feel cheated. Mia asks how you’re coping in your first week without Moss. She’s never met him. She looks at you and then whistles low. It’s that obvious: the dark circles under your eyes, possibly the new white hairs. She offers to help. “I’m sensing a lot of suppressed rage,” she says, and suggests you take a few drops of essence of larkspur. Say nothing. “Oh, that’s right. You don’t believe in stuff like that either, do you?” she asks. Tell her: “I wish I could.” She is startled by what sounds like sincerity, what sounds like resentment. *** As usual, you can’t remember the exact sensation of the fear last night, but you do remember the words you muttered to yourself trying to fend it off. It hits you when you take a sip of tea, a bite of toast with the tuneless hum that pushes you through all dull moments. It’ll be okay, you whispered. It’ll be fine. Moss will figure it out. *** You spot Eoin in the park, hung with accessories as usual, a tall windchime, and hand-in-hand with a boy. You wave, and he comes over smiling, so keen to introduce you to his new friend, excited to show the world. Even now your adrenaline spikes a little when you see him: old reflex. You still feel a bit of care, of irritation; it’s just leftover affection, but it shows you the stark difference. *** Don’t see Moss anymore. There’s no loss, just a slow spiral into the rest of the days. You’ve never been in love, and that has been by design. Standing off balance with your eyes closed, that’s what it must be. And you’re selfish; you’ve only so much energy to worry about what already bothers you. There are drugs, and stuffed toys, beach sounds CDs and nightlights that will do just fine, probably. But even if they don’t, what can you do? It’s a ceaseless march and a fall that comes no matter how good or stupid, selfless or unprepared you are. Your shadow self pipes up from nowhere, reminding you the more you value, the more there is to mourn when it ends. *** Guillotine your sleeping tablets with a plastic pill-cutter. Swallow half of one every evening. *** Take in the culture. Join a book group. Visit museums, the usual and the obscure. You meet Geo for tea at least once a week, tell him about plays you see, your small advancements at work. When they notice your skills and heavily increase your workload, that’s an improvement, isn’t it? In his garden, out of the soil, the waxy red points of peony stalks poke up like coral polyps; wayward and ugly, emerging nonetheless. From your window, you watch him watering them; see water stream out the bottom of the ruined flower boxes. *** Take Mia to the science museum, but don’t lecture her. In a gallery of telescopic photographs, gaze at galaxies, nebulae, and stellar nurseries; the luminous vapours, explosions of colour, the impossible beauty. The infinity of space has always scared you, but you linger in front of these pictures. Stars formed of dead remnants. Stars long aged or long gone before their images even reached us. The Milky Way, shimmering, uncountable. That you are in there somewhere, alive and beating, is inconceivable. *** Hang out with Eoin. Your relationship is much less deranged as a friendship. When he isn’t busy being smitten with his boyfriend, he takes you out to walk his dog, to shop for belts, to concerts, and especially to Village in Soho, for go-go dancers or karaoke, a tableau of the attractive queer community. You appreciate this. One night he has a run-in with an ex who broke his heart. You know this not because he says it, but because he goes silent and still afterwards. You can’t help but view him with fascination: the anger that seeps all through him and tightens his jaw, that springs out as he bangs his chair down hard; and the hurt of course, hovering around his head and chest, waiting to visit later when he’s alone. It makes you want to hold him and kiss his cheek; it makes you want to leave him there and never see him again. *** Ever-present clouds and always the promise of rain remind you of Vancouver. You don’t hear from Nora or Lem for a while. When you finally do, ask Nora if she’s pregnant, ask Lem if he’s despondent, suicidal, over his boyfriend. You startle them both. *** Attend the performance of a post-butoh dance troupe at the Chocolate Factory. Eoin takes you because his sister is one of the principal dancers. Tonight is the premiere of a work set to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres and Cantus; the choreographer is well-known, and the piece is captivating. It’s an all-female troupe, their faces and arms painted paper-white, and they are unmistakeably erotic: their small, unfettered breasts showing clearly through their tunics, their hair shaken loose to feathery manes. They move in patterns of stillness and chaos, bursting free and dragging themselves back. One of the dancers lifts the others on her shoulders, supports their arching spines. Her legs are trunk-steady, and thick tendons in her neck contrast the fine bones around her eyes. She moves gravely, then erupts in frenzied paroxysms, her arms flailing and head shaking like an insane woman’s, audibly gasping, a supernova of fear and anger. And always back to stillness, to centre. Eoin introduces you to his sister at the after-party. She is waifish, pixie-faced, clearly Eoin’s kin. She danced the motif as mania on the verge of desperation, throwing herself outward with momentum, yet drawing herself back again, just within balance. You get drunk with them. There’s an open bar, crudités everywhere, musicians, and dancers glowing from exertion, patches of white paint still ghostly on their hairlines and under their chins. Before long you’re loose and unrestrained. The three of you put your arms around each other. Eoin’s sister presses your forehead and Eoin’s gently together, whispers into your adjacent ears that the woman by the cheese and fruit is her ex-lover. Both their armpits are hot against your arms. You look across the room and it’s the woman you noticed before, the one you’ve eyed all night standing straight as a statue. Eoin’s sister introduces her: Amelia. Four flutes of prosecco later, you’re alone with her. You’ve told her you admire her dancing, and she’s told you about touring and going to university in Ottawa: the frozen lake, the famed beauty of the leaves. You’ve even told her how you love the sandwiches here, that it’s a metaphor no one celebrates back home: the splendour that can exist in the simple, the pretension that can be packed into the banal. For this alone, you may never return. This makes her laugh and squeeze your upper arm, her fingers meeting between your arm and body. She sips her drink and blinks slowly. By the time Eoin signals to leave, you know you’ll definitely be friends, or friendly acquaintances. After tonight, you might meet for films and meals, enjoy each other’s conversation. You wave to Eoin and then turn back to Amelia to say it’s been nice chatting. You lurch in her direction, involuntarily. She inhales deeply, kisses you, takes you home. *** Fall for her shampoo, her scalp. Bury your nose in it. Her armpit, her inner thigh, everything that comes off her is sharp and ferocious. Fall for her flushed skin, her wetness, yes, especially the long sighs when you trace her slick folds. Kiss her breasts and the tops of her legs, from her softest places to the unyielding muscles she dances on. Get to like the broadness of her jaw, how it sets when she reads the newspaper, washes her hands, or stretches in the corner of her bedroom, the one space in her cluttered flat kept clear for dancing. And notice how it relaxes, her throat fluid and loose when she laughs, when she eats, when she slides her arms underneath you and lowers her face to yours. Her courtly care of you at first, how she greets you smiling and knotting her hands around the back of your head, sometimes pinching your earlobe; this melts away eventually. It gives way to motions that are wordless, familiar; burying her face in your neck, waiting for your arms around her back. Like the familiar sensation of her sinking under the sheets behind you, her legs and yours staggered, her thigh between yours. You discover she has angry fits. On bad days, desperate to get home, she might lash out at drunken yobs blocking the sidewalk or just some unfortunate trying to hand her a free newspaper. She might swear under her breath and walk faster than you can keep pace with. Even her tantrums aren’t always enough release; sometimes it builds up like a boiling kettle until she almost vibrates with it. You put your hands on her shoulders and feel you’re dragging in the wake of a locomotive. *** Spend days not thinking, just moving and feeling: her tongue and teeth on your nipples, her palms pushing the insides of your knees, her fingers inside you. Your pulse so hectic some sort of failure is surely imminent. Lean back on your knees and feel the stretch down your arms, burning, the bedclothes too hot under your shins. The burn rises to your chest; swallow it, collapse over her. Or resent her, the vacancy in her face when she returns from the second-to-last rehearsal before opening, all her energy and interest drained already—for them, not you. You try to embrace her and recoil at the stark shock of her hair extensions, coarse and lifeless. When she complains about the cigarette in your hand, your smoking, the smoke that’ll sink into her extensions and stay there all through the show, pick up your ashtray and shake the butts into her hair. *** Spend days thinking without pause, a ceaseless litany, wheels turning and turning. Glower at your computer screen at work, dwell on whether the things she says without pausing for thought mean more than the things she lingers on. What she screams at you, what she moans to you, you rake over it all. You long to know what she’s doing during the day, envy all of the dance troupe, think of Eoin’s sister and grit your teeth. Their bodies sliding together, her light cries and whether she ever told her I love you, I love you. Stumble home thinking of the end of this, your shadow self ranting non-stop. What you haven’t got, you will not lose. You break into tears, thinking she will tire of you, or you of her, because this won’t really work out, will it?—you’re not even happy with each other, are you? Or what if you stay together? Think of being hit by a car and dying, away from her; or think of her wasting away as all your loved ones will one day—as you will waste away yourself. Break into a run. *** Accuse her of pursuing other people, of lying, patronizing you, and when she accuses you of passive-aggression and coldness and a guilty conscience, you shout at each other until your ears ring, until you can’t breathe. Leave when she insults you, walk home in a fury, wind whipping your hair unattractively. Listen at your window for footsteps; hear nothing but the insensitive crinkle of a plastic bag caught on Geo’s fence. Downstairs, back in the garden, you sink one bare foot into the icy mud of the flowerbed to retrieve the bag, stain the stairs on the way back up. You wake when she brushes the hair off your forehead, her head on your pillow, the exquisite tangle of her limbs on yours. You lie in all day, brew tea and slice sandwiches. You massage her feet, her high arches, calluses, and horned, bony toes. Run yourself a bath and resolve to trust, be gracious, self-improve. Forget all of these resolutions as soon as she surrounds you with a towel and rubs you dry, kneels over you on the bed, the ends of her hair tickling your navel. As soon as she puts her head in your lap, and says she doesn’t want to lose you. *** Attend the opening reception, glow at her side. Go out for dinner with Eoin and his sister and his boyfriend. Under the table, press each other’s hands, sweaty, not letting go. *** Between three and four one night, the point in time that you’ve drifted apart with the sheets kicked off and twisted, you wake, choked with terror. Fight for breath, lower your head over the edge of the bed. Try to beat away the dawning comprehension that nothing changes, though she’s beside you, though you fall asleep with your arms around each other. There isn’t anything she can do, even if she wanted nothing more in the world. You hear her, groggy, asking you what’s the matter. She rubs her eyes, asks again, What is it? Or you think she does; you’re dizzy now, still half-asleep and unsure if the words you’re hearing have really been spoken out loud. You say her name over and over, Amelia, Amelia, Amelia Amelia, until she gets scared. What is it? Hit me. What? Hit me, hit me in the face. You’re desperate, defeated already. You can’t explain now; you’ll have to get up, pace, race around the block, scrape a kitchen knife over your arm. But she does it: she slaps you. Not very hard. Do it again, harder. She does. Again. Again. Again. Then both of you are exhausted, and you drop back against your pillow, your face thudding. In the morning, still lying in bed, she asks you about it. She listens while you talk about death for half an hour, an hour. Feel guilty for passing your phobia like a viral contraction, but don’t stop. Every time the fear ambushes, you remember all over again, as if you’d completely forgotten, as if you’ve woken from a trance, that there is only one pass, one rotation of this little sphere, and you’re losing it rapidly, in each moment, each blink, each swallow. Every time you remember, it exhausts you a bit more, and you lose the meaning of things, if there is meaning, what meaning can there be there in this second, half-second? She looks at you, slow and measured, with such concern and infinite sadness that for a moment you’re afraid you’ve awakened in her everything that swims sickly in you. She says, “What meaning?” and sighs, “I don’t know.” She rises from her bed to her corner, her small pocket, and with dignity and infinite fury, thrusts out her arms, jabs her elbows down, kicks up towards the ceiling, dances. She gasps for breath, stomps her feet so hard the floorboards shake. *** There’s bad news at the office. What with the credit crunch, the recession, the press will have to make changes, and your department will definitely be scaled down. Mia is worried; she smiles nervously, not her chatty self. But she’ll be fine. No doubt the first cull will be those last in, like you. Go home on the tube, beneath the city’s feet and cars, how clean and fast and unseen, unlike anything you have in Vancouver. Remind yourself on the way to call Lem and Nora; you haven’t heard from them lately. They’re so far away that without their nagging voices on telephones or crackly internet connections they may as well not exist. Automatically, your mind flashes, it always flashes, the nightmare of loved ones gone, either from life, or just from you. When you round the corner Geo’s just coming out for his evening stroll. He’s bent a little lower, moving slower, has progressed to Zimmer Frame—has something happened since you last saw him? It’s been shamefully long. Wonder what’s become of the peony shoots. You dash up to hold the door open for him, and he pats your hand with his papery one. He asks after your “dancer friend” and your job. You smile, tell him you’re probably going to have to look for work again soon. Watch him go down the block slowly, so slowly, you’re amazed he bothers at all. Worry, fret, fear. But what can you do? Sit on the front steps while the sun is setting. Roll down your sleeves, light a cigarette, and wait for your girl to come home.