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hollow earth

The way out is a long tunnel towards the light, but it doesn’t help when you know the light is guiding you out there, into the chill and bluster and snow. I’d rather have stayed home. I’d rather stay in the tunnel, for that matter, waiting for a better plan to come to me. But we move towards the door, silently, sullenly, knowing what awaits us. A blast of wet, cold air, strongest right at the threshold, for maximum shock effect. Imogene has a thin jacket on, corduroy and imitation leather, green and brown, thrift store chic, barely covering her skinny little frame. It fascinates me, this little jacket, because I’m almost paralyzed, cloaked in my black wool leviathan. I’m expecting her to freeze and then shatter, pieces blown into the wind down the street, unrecognizable as human. I can picture it.

Trevor, himself wearing a thin coat that would be inadequate past October for most people, reaches out to put an arm around her, but she has her head down to keep the snow out of her eyes and seems not to notice the gesture. He looks at her and I think he’s wondering whether or not to try to reach out again, but he does nothing. I think about trying to reach out to Peter the same way, but it would be too humiliating to be brushed off. He’d scowl at me and ask what I was doing and I’d adopt that chirpy, good-humored tone I always do at such moments, to reassure everyone that he’s always cranky, to make them think that I know how to handle it and inside another syringe full of rot would shoot into my system. It’s killing me over time, I know. But if it’s going to kill me, I would at least like to pretend that I wasn’t also humiliated. They don’t believe that these things don’t hurt, I can see it when they look at me, but they let me pretend, which is what I’ve become willing to accept.

The wind swirls the snow around, pushing it right into us, into our faces. It sticks to our hair, it slashes at our foreheads. I can feel my face aching from exposure. The five of us- me, Peter, Trevor, Imogene, and Les- what a bereft company we must make. Les trails behind us a few steps, still a little weakened from a bad flu that lingered. I can hear him breathing even over the wind. He was laid up at home with fever so bad, he told us, that he was hallucinating, convinced all of his family and friends had been in the room with him, when he was actually in his apartment by himself.

There’s a look of anxiety that runs behind his eyes when he talks about waking up, suddenly lucid and alone in the middle of the night. The power had been knocked out by a storm and his heat was off. He could see clouds above him when he exhaled and then, as the congestion in his chest became worse, he watched the clouds grow wispy and insubstantial, becoming thinner no matter how hard he pushed to get air out. He realized that there was no air in him and lay there imagining that his lungs had frozen when the power went off, that he was gradually dying from the inside out, blood growing thick and heavy, icicles forming on the inside of his stomach cavity. He didn’t tell the story as a frightening one, he told it as a joke- how funny it was that he had been so out of it. But the fear was in there, peering out at us, begging for help through his muddy eyes.


CONTINUED AFTER THE BREAK



It seems like a very long walk in the bitter cold, but I know it isn’t. It takes us longer than it should because it’s difficult to see. The place we are going is on a street with a number of townhouses that cry out for care and the one we turn into is crying more plaintively than the others. These were elegant homes once, but now they lean on each other for support, a mix of rundown housing for peripatetic tenants and homemade storefronts to meet the tenants’ immediate needs. The entrance to the place we are heading has a plywood vestibule stuck on the front of it. When we go in, I realize that this is because the door is so decayed that without some sort of protection, the wind would tear right through the interior. The girl sitting at a makeshift desk at the front asks us for our coats, which I surrender against my better judgment. Inside is a sizeable flat, about a third of which has been converted to a sort of performance space. There is a recess in the front, a bay window that would look out on the street if it were not covered in blankets and towels. The recess is ringed by a few colored lights to denote that this is a stage. Facing the stage in what would otherwise be the rest of the living room is a gang of mismatched chairs. There is a sofa at the back of the room, that looks more comfortable, where I want to stretch out and be held, but I know better than to suggest to Peter that he and I sit there. We sit around the middle of the room, next to each other, on separate chairs. Imogene and Trevor sit behind us on the sofa. Les sits off to the side, where he has a better view of the room.

Imogene's friend Veronica is there, which I try not to mind, even when Peter makes a big show of going to greet her. They try to hug, but miss each other in an awkward series of pivots, unable to decide what they want that hug to reveal. She is looking at me, around his back. I face forward, having no one to speak to, and turn the corners of my eyes towards them. I cannot stop myself from looking, from feeling how brightly he shines for her, from observing how theatrically happy he acts, but I try not to incline my head too much towards them. I see him glancing over at me from time to time, making sure I’m watching. If he thinks I’m not looking, his voice gets louder. I feel the pressure of my own discomfort pulling the life out of me, leaving me hollow and shivering and acutely aware of the wind leaking around the doorframe and past the blankets in the windows. I would do anything to be out of this place, except go back out into the cold again.

Behind me, I can hear Imogene talking to some others. These are her friends, after all, and we are here following her lead. A collection of artistically inclined outcasts, some of them performing, others gathered to watch. Imogene is performing, but not on stage. Her voice carries throughout the room, illuminating the modern history of her sex life, the ridiculously complicated things that she has done with Trevor, and with another. The mention of another is expected in this room, because we all know that Trevor is one of two in her exciting life at the moment. The other is away for the weekend. Sometimes, the three of them go out together for effect.

I could turn around and be part of her audience, but it makes me uncomfortable, her vomiting forth of details, parts, accessories, smells. Perhaps it’s because I’m prudish and conservative and too uptight to even listen to these sorts of lurid tales, because, in this crowd, that is exactly how I feel. Really, I’m always afraid that somehow Imogene will point the spotlight on others, that she will want them to share their details, if only so that her stories seem that much more risqué by comparison. What would I say if I were to describe my own misadventures? Peter and I hardly touch each other. He likes nothing except the obvious and he doesn’t clean his bed sheets as often as I would like. I respond to nothing from him because I know whatever happens, I get nothing. Imogene's stories seem to cross lines of what is physically possible, but she sounds like she’s talking about an intense bowel movement rather than an emotional high. I would sound like I was talking about sleep.

A ragged-looking master of ceremonies hops into the designated stage area, announcing that performances are about to begin. Peter dutifully takes his seat next to me. Veronica curls up in a smaller, cushion-laden chair on the other side of him. I try not to react to the way his hand dangles tantalizingly over her leg. I want to try to start a conversation with him, but all day when I’ve opened my mouth, he’s been dying to pick a fight. It started last night, when he got home late. He made a point of telling me that he didn’t want me prying into where he’d been, which meant that he wanted me to know I wouldn’t be happy about it, twisting the knife in my gut a little more. He’d had an aura of disappointment, like a sour gas, around him. I could see that some plan that had fallen through, perhaps with Veronica, or perhaps with someone new. Whatever it was, I was somehow implicated in it, if only by being there, wondering if he was going to come home or not.

The first act is someone reading poetry, bad, bad poetry, stringing words together, trying childishly to follow a rhythm. I see Les, who has distanced himself from all of us, leaning and whispering to a girl with a pink face next to him. She is cute, cute like a doll, with a perfect little smile. He leans way too close to her to seem casual, probably too close to see her smile turning stiff while he talks. She can smell that hint of desperation on him. Perhaps he’s telling her the same story about when he was sick. She finally gets up to join a friend of hers on stage, since they are the next act up. He reaches to pat her arm and just misses her as she steps aside.

The pink-faced girl and her friend strum guitars and sing self-consciously naive folk songs. Children’s songs, really. The twenty or so people in the room catch on and sing along with the choruses, Les more enthusiastically than the others.

I can feel the outside getting in, the cold cutting right through my clothing and getting under my skin. The wind has picked up and, in the portion of window visible above the blankets, I can see snow, a lot more snow, coming down. There is a sudden moment of panic. I could be stuck here. We could be snowed in and be left to entertain each other, forced to endure each other until the storm passes. The storm could trap us in here for hours, and all that is keeping me sane at this moment is the belief that I could stand up and withdraw to my home if only I could convince myself to go out into the cold. Needing camaraderie, I take a look around the room to see if anyone else is watching the storm, getting scared at the idea that they may not be able to leave. People are either looking at the performers or at each other. Imogene leans close to Trevor, pressing her torso against him, the globes of her breasts shifting noticeably, unhindered, beneath her worn cotton shirt. He starts, because she almost presses into his lit cigarette, and pushes her aside to protect her. She simply turns to the other side and starts talking to one of her friends, in a stage whisper that everyone around her can hear. Trevor’s so concerned that she might get hurt, but he leaves bruises.

I try to imagine how long it would take me to walk home from here, struggling through the wind and mounting snow by myself. A long haul back home. If I could find a taxi, I could take one. But the issue is not really how I could get home if I left. The issue is what would happen afterwards. Peter sits there next to me, ignoring me, avoiding me, like he does every time we go out. But I’ve tried leaving without him before, tried walking away entirely. That’s when he loves me, with such intensity that I regain my fool’s faith.

The next act is another folk singer, a sort of one-man band, with instruments sticking out of him everywhere, half troubadour, half android. The pink-faced girl stands next to the entrance, talking to the girl at the door and pulling on her coat. Les approaches her. She looks a little puzzled, withdraws just a step from him while he talks to her. And then, without waiting for a more welcoming signal, he’s writing down his phone number for her, which she accepts with a noncommittal smile. He moves closer, as if to hold or touch her to seal their contract, but she is gone, as quickly as that. He folds his arms over his chest, smiling a little so that everyone understands that he has accomplished something.

The bitterness of the air cuts through me when she opens the door. Outside has become desperate, worse even than when we arrived, which already felt like it was going to do me in. Between acts, I want to talk to someone. I want to talk to Peter for lack of another option, but somehow, this would be breaking a rule. Besides, he is talking with Veronica, leaning low over the side of his chair, so that his face is almost touching hers.

I want to be away from here, away from this squalid den, from the bodies around me. I imagine myself simply standing up, demanding my coat from the pile in the closet and walking out and away, out into the storm, because if I was cold, if my fingers were freezing and sore, if the skin on my legs was burning from the bite of the wind, at least it would mean that I was something, that I had a body to feel. In here, I am nothing. Mindless, disembodied, unknown and unremarkable. I am appalled at my own hesitation, wondering what else could possibly be needed, what would actually motivate me to rise from this seat where I can get neither comfortable nor warm. I wonder what would quell the sense of dread I feel at the thought of walking out of here.

I have a vision of my life, unchanged, twenty years from now, with Peter and children, children borne from boredom and lack of options, running around us in this room, watching us sit, ignoring each other in our better moments, wishing each other dead behind our dulled eyes. It’s not going to happen, of course, neither of us wants married life and children anyway. Half the time now, when we’re still young, we can’t stand the sight of each other. There is no future between us, and yet there always seems to be a present. I am still here and he is still sitting beside me. We are both death-still.

He is no longer talking to Veronica, or talking at all. He is staring ahead, waiting for the next act to begin. I remember when we first started seeing each other, how intertwined we suddenly became, how we went from strangers to filling up every moment of time for the other, filling it with candied sentiment. I try to imagine describing that time to Imogene and having her mistake what I was talking about for a sex act. She would marvel at its intricacy, its serpentine grace. And how would I describe that involvement now? Constricting both of us and petrified over time? His hazel eyes flick towards me at a regular beat, but I know better than to show him that I notice.    

I wonder if he remembers our beginning the way I do, a sliver of idyllic time. I wonder if that memory is what makes him howl when I start to leave.

The stage remains empty, although the MC calls out from his seat at the back of the room that more is coming. People are talking, little groups of friends forming, their voices rattling all around me, separate from me.

And not knowing what else to do, I reach out and start to curl my fingers around Peter’s.

He snaps his hand away, as if I’ve burnt him and gives me a brutal scowl. He keeps his eyes on me a long time. 

this story originally appeared in paraphilia magazine, issue 11.

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