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The Return

by Naben Ruthnum

edited by Kevin Chong

Congratulations to former Joyland contributor Naben Ruthnum, who won the Writers' Trust of Canada $10,000 Journey Prize this week. Here is his most recent story for Joyland, first published in November 2011. 

A week after visiting the hair salon, Michelle saw her blue dinosaur again. She’d had trouble falling asleep, because she was unused to the coolness of the pillow under her bare neck at night. For twenty-three years, she had slept on her back with her long, thick hair as an extra cushion. It was all gone now. Not quite all of it, but the crop-cut the hairdresser had created when Michelle allowed his scissors free reign still looked more like absence than style when she looked in the mirror. And it felt like absence when she lay down, waiting for the blood in her neck to warm the fabric beneath her before she could fall asleep.

There was no emotional change related to the haircut; Michelle wasn’t trying to distance herself from her recent breakup with Tony, nor did she want to mark her graduation from art school with a new visual identity. Neither event seemed very significant. Her daily tasks barely changed. Showering was simpler, which was nice, and her routine was hardly crushing: two hours of painting in the morning, four hours of telephone work in the afternoon, and alcohol-centred socializing in the evening.

The blue dinosaur was on the floor of her bedroom, lying there as though she had dropped it in the night. It was just as she remembered it, a rubber toy of a particular vivid blue that she had never seen since. She believed she had invented an afterimage of this colour after losing the toy as a child, amalgamating oceans, seas and ink to create an idyllic concentrate that she never managed to blend into existence on a palette or canvas. But the dinosaur, two inches tall, ready to be mounted and waggled on a fingertip, was just the blue that she remembered.

Michelle got out of bed, picked up the toy, and mashed it in her hand. The pliable neck collapsed into the body, the mass caressed her palm and fingers like a buttery fluid. “Dino,” she said, lamely. She’d never named the object, but its recovery demanded an announcement. The blue dinosaur was lost in a storm drain in 1996, a time when Michelle had been too afraid of clowns in the sewer to reach down after it. Its particular blue vanished from the Earth on that day.  After getting dressed, she mounted the dinosaur on the office chair that she used to pose models, and attempted to find the right combination of pigments to replicate his colour. She failed.

Michelle brought the toy to her lunch with Tony. When she had dumped him two weeks ago, he’d insisted on one condition: lunch every Wednesday for six weeks, in order to ensure that a progression into friendship would occur. “Seems a little forced,” Michelle said. “It needs to be forced,” Tony replied, screwing the lid onto a bottle of turpentine that had been knocked over in his earlier begging furies.

He usually paid. This time they met at a hot pot restaurant on Cambie Street, and Tony had already ordered the cauldron of broth when Michelle arrived. As the waiter seated her, she selected premium beef and bok choy to dunk into the boiling flavours, and put the blue dinosaur on the table in front of her. Tony had chosen an Ethiopian restaurant last week, where they’d scooped up fried lentils and meat with injera. Apparently, communal dishes were to be a theme of their lunches. Tony ladled plain broth into both of their small bowls. “Start up the digestion. I bet you skipped breakfast,” he said.

“I ran out of yogurt tubs last week, yeah,” Michelle answered. She’d eaten a peach, but it helped Tony to scold her, helped him to feel that there was something missing in her life without him, even if it was only yogurt.

“Why the toy?”

“I lost this when I was eleven. Just found it today.” Michelle didn’t mention that she had found it on her bedroom carpet, and Tony didn’t ask. He was much better looking than she was, with his newscaster’s jaw, his woodland eyes. He also seemed to be a decent writer, judging from the way his career was going. Not many other writers she knew could afford to take themselves to lunch, let alone finance weekly non-sexual dates with an ex.

The date was boring except for a moment when Tony jokingly threatened to dunk their “Jurassic third wheel” into the dregs of the steaming broth. Michelle stabbed his extended hand with the tongs she was holding, giving him a bad, if bloodless, poke.

“The hell?” he asked, rubbing his injury.

Michelle left with an excuse about using the afternoon to paint. She was disheartened by that morning’s failure in blue, and had no intention of returning to the canvas, but a few hours with her television struck her as an extremely pleasant alternative to an extra minute with Tony. She pulled up her hood, glad to have the soup sloshing in her stomach as an extra bulwark against the cold, and made her way home by a route that wouldn’t overlap Tony’s in the slightest. Storm drains bestowed rusty, uniform grins on her as she passed. As they looked her in the ankle, she looked them in the eye, anthropomorphizing the dull repeating grate into a rotating set of ears, eyes, and teeth, concentrating until she could project the features simultaneously onto the drains just outside of her apartment buildings, which were perhaps the very ones that had brought the toy back to her. She pressed her pocket. It was still there.

And in her room, more was waiting for her. Three loaded keyrings that she recognized as her own, threaded with keys to places that she had occupied as long as twelve years ago. The lost key to her locker at the 2001 Regional Gymnastics Championships was lying in her twisted bedclothes. After the competition, Michelle hadn’t been able to pry the padlock off, and had tearfully had to abandon her diary and graphics calculator in order to catch the bus back home. Neither the diary nor the calculator was here (she tossed the sheets like a prison guard conducting a search) but she wondered if they would appear soon. She hung the keyrings from thick carpenter’s nails above her bed, where they swayed for a few moments, then hung still as stockings.

In the morning there were more objects clustered around the bed, and even a few in the living room. An owl pendant that she lost at the waterslides on Tony’s last birthday. He had told her that she was stupid to wear it instead of leaving it in the car, but he didn’t understand that she invested certain objects with a talismanic force, if only for a brief time. The bone-carved arctic fox that was resting on her bedside table was one of these talismans; she has stolen it from her grandmother’s house and lost it from a pocket in her cargo pants in high school. The cargo-pant years, she thought, fingering her reacquired goods with a complete sense of ownership. In the kitchen, she found a crushed Pepsi can bearing the mid-eighties iteration of the company logo. It was a harbinger of garbage to come.

When she came back from morning coffee, she rifled through new quantities of returned possessions. Half a playhouse’s worth of Barbies that her mother had donated to charity as a punishment to Michelle. A lumpen attempt at pottery from junior high art class. And garbage. Not rafts of it, just a few discarded paint tubes and paper pizza plates. Throughout the week, a mass of artifacts began to appear, whether she was in or out of the apartment. Even the trash was recognizable, the half-empty water bottles fitting her grasp as only a familiar thing would. The tampons that occasionally shored up around the bathroom sink were less repulsive than they were a nuisance. Michelle understood that throwing them out would be futile.

She had lunch with Tony again the following Wednesday. She’d spent the day organizing and stacking in her apartment, and had developed enough of an appetite to eat three-quarters of their dish of paella.

“You look odd,” Tony said.

“Do I stink?” asked Michelle. This was a real concern. Her bathtub was full of banana peels and crumby plastic wrap.

“Not really. I mean, you smell more like ‘you’ than usual, but that’s okay.” He hid his compliment in a forkful of rice and shrimp.

A sandcastle of buff-coloured fragments occupied the centre of the room when Michelle returned. It took her a moment to realize that she was looking at a lifetime’s worth of her fingernails and toenails. She laughed, left the pile where it was, and resumed her bedroom arrangements. There wasn’t an infinitude of space in her apartment, of course, and it should have already been full, but she discovered that when the objects were piled onto each other, they were cooperative. Childhood sweaters would compress into near-nothingness under Nintendo game cartridges, and barrettes allowed themselves to be subsumed into many winters of scarves. Though the objects blended invisibly and seemed to pass through each other, Michelle was confident that each thing remained physically present. A dig through the oyster shells and lipstick tubes on her dresser would eventually uncover the blue dinosaur.

In the morning, her long hair was back. She wasn’t sentimental about this return, merely picking up a seventh-grade scrunchie from her desk to tie it back before going out to the fruit stand for a quick breakfast. She left the apple core on the pavement in front of her building and entered her home.

What was waiting for her was completely expected. The smell was a surprise, though; there was nothing of the outhouse in the dense fluid that she waded through, only familiarity and wholeness. After a moment, Michelle stopped trying to reach her bedroom. She lay down instead, her fresh, long hair cushioning her neck as she sank through the first layer and prepared to be engulfed.