Scavenger Hunt

When I was a child there was a meeting. It was an important meeting and everyone who attended got a map. Only I didn’t realize how important the meeting was and I showed up late and by then all the maps were gone.

The map told you almost everything you needed to know. If you didn’t get a copy you were doomed to spend your life on a scavenger hunt trying to find all the sign-posts and clearly-marked roads that everyone else took for granted. You fumbled about like the lights were permanently off in a room where the furniture was moved on a daily basis.

You tried to take a peek at other people’s maps, but this was much later, and too late to make any tangible difference.

As you were growing up you were constantly getting into trouble, for things that seemed to only make sense to other people.

You never smiled and this was a problem, though you could not understand the utility in smiling. Eventually you practiced, the muscles around your mouth aching. Sometimes, you were only a series of other people’s impressions of you.

You kept forgetting that the future would happen to you, though people were always reminding and reminding you about it. When your mother gave you plants to look after, they died in your room. When your mother gave you pets to look after, they died….. elsewhere.

Love seemed conditional and it came and went for mysterious reasons. You were clumsy with other people’s feelings and had no sense of urgency.

Many of these things are told to you later in life, while seated in a doctor’s office, the doctor unravelling these mysteries for you one by one, making your life come into focus, finally- you nodding, only partly understanding what is being said, and do you need a moment to take all this in? It confirms for you what you have been seeing for some time, everyone you know somehow moving forward while you languish in the same place, all of them having access to a place from which you are permanently barred.

 

 

En Vacance

It is late summer, and we are on holiday in a beach town along the Golden Coast, a place that is a mix of locals and British expats. It’s easy to tell who the expats are, their skin always looks burned from the strong Spanish sun; they try to blend in with the locals but their patina of uneasy sweat gives them away,

Dinner here is eaten very late- we walk along the beach trying to choose between seafood, or skipping dinner in favour of dessert. When are you going to have seafood this fresh?- My husband cajoles me as we clumsily translate the menus posted outside each restaurant. The boardwalk and the sea press right up to the main drag, and we stroll alternately along the narrow sidewalk and the sandy boards that abut the beach. The sea looks black at night, spilled ink, indistinguishable from the sky, no horizon line.

There aren’t many people on the beach at this time of night; the few that are here are strewn about haphazardly, camped on folding lawn chairs in twos or threes. There is a couple seated a few feet from us, the woman with her back to her partner, her face visible to me in the glow of the street lamps. She looks distant, annoyed, her paramour’s hand is resting on her shoulder, his voice floating up from behind her, soft and coaxing. To see them is to know instantly the nature of their relationship: her, much younger, him, trying to enjoy an early retirement. He probably spent 35 years in middle management; 35 years in middle management affords you a mid-tier retirement in a mid-tier city with a mid-tier girl, a girl who is pretty, but not too pretty, young, but not too young. I wonder if either of these strangers is happy with the deal they have struck- her posture is resentful, her tone lackluster, his hand rubs her back, his attitude says please turn around. He looks up at me, briefly, and I haven’t read him quite right- his mouth is lifted at the corners and I think part of him is enjoying her resentment.

***

Afternoons are so quiet you could hear a pin drop, everything closed, siesta still practiced and taken literally. We spend them with friends, the only people we know here, on a wrap-around balcony under an awning wide enough to keep the sun at bay. Charcuterie, sliced fruit, prawns dipped in olive oil, chilled wine. The wine is for everyone but the hostess; they are pregnant, their fourth, another boy, her DNA so weak-willed that her womb cannot produce a single girl-child.

Every woman wants a daughter. Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime.

On the weekend they take us to a market, small and grubby, a place where mostly locals go to buy their fruit and eggs and olives; cramped stalls and the sellers looking like they spend all day out in the sun. The poverty here grips the south like a plague; the people our age look 15 years older than us.

There isn’t much beauty to be found here among the locals, and the tourists are mostly older. There are pretty girls everywhere, the one maxim you should be able to count on in life, but no, not here.

There is just the one girl, walking in front of me, in front of us, but only I’ve taken notice of her. Black hair down her back, curls, tanned skin, hips swaying like a hypnotic pendulum. She evokes that feeling in you, the one that feels like a visceral gut-punch, makes you feel close to god, love or almost-love, the one you feel when you hold something soft and vulnerable in your palm: I want to save it, I want to crush it. She is stopping, off to the right, not quite in my line of sight and my husband is in my ear: Do you want the black olives or the green with almonds, should we just get both? I’m nodding, well, which is it Claire? and can’t he see that I’m busy, just pick whatever fucking olives you want, christ, and she has moved on and the moment is over and it’s just us left here to walk back to the car with containers that we hold upright so nothing will spill.

***

At night we leave all the windows open, hoping for a cooling breeze, but it’s only relentless humidity here. We lay in the dark holding hands and I wait until I feel his fingers loosen and his breathing slow and deepen before I turn over and look outside. I can see a thin sliver of moon and the black sky, bathed in a gentle glow from the street lamps. The things I cannot see but I know are there: a tree, just the one, that grows lemons and is randomly placed by the fence, the cracked sidewalks, the colourful stucco of our building turning pastel with age. My husband moves beside me, slightly restless, the way he becomes when he starts to dream. I feel a stab of envy at his easy departure from wakefulness. But I don’t really want to sleep. I want to get up, go out, but I can’t, I can’t, because I’m not familiar with this city, not even that familiar with this building, and he would know. No doubt I would bump into furniture coming back in or step on the one floorboard that creaks and he would wake up. He would know what he already knows and pretends not to. And then one of us might have to say something and it would break the peace that we have, the contract that is our life together, the scaffolding that keeps our marriage upright, the many small and big trade-offs that we have made to stay together. Love, but don’t ask, look, but don’t see.

My husband thinks that people are either clocks or bombs; he worries that I am a bomb, but he has no respect for clocks. He does not know himself as well as he thinks he does, and I know the one essential truth of him that breathes life into his feelings for me: He would rather be scared than bored.

I close my eyes and ignore the voice that I hear- it sounds like a heartbeat, relentless, persistent. Hungry.

You promised me, it says.

You promised to show me things, give me things, to feed me.

Does your word mean nothing?

 

 

 

 

 

Choke Point

Every other Thursday I have a standing appointment with my therapist. It was supposed to be every Thursday rather than every second one, but I bargained it down to twice a month.

I’ll call the therapist Dr. X.

Dr. X and I have a routine. Routines are nice. You always know where you stand in a routine. Ours is that I come in, drop my bag on the centre console, plop down in a chair.  Dr. X asks: What would you like to talk about today? I turn my head and stare out the window for 45 minutes and say nothing. I am required to be here, physically, but nowhere does it state that I have to talk.

I think most people would find it daunting to ignore someone for this long, and especially on such a regular basis. I find it helps to have something to think about, and most days, for me, that thing is music. Not just a song either, I’ve done entire concertos, one movement at a time-I have a lot of time to kill. Today I spent the morning listening to Carmina Burana because the bombastic O Fortuna section can sufficiently distract me while I’m here waiting for the clock to signal my release.

After ten or so weeks of this Dr. X decides to change tact. She begins to vary her question, the only thing she will have a chance to ask me during an entire session before my face has gone blank and I’ve made it clear that the only thing of interest to me is the dumpster that stands 20 feet from her office window.

Are you angry about being here?

Do you think you would benefit from seeing another therapist?

Do you want to talk about what happened?

This becomes a variation on a theme. It’s almost tempting to give her something. Almost. But each time I come here is one time less I’ll have to come here. One less time I’ll have to feel Dr. X trying to sniff me out, find the password that will unlock me.

She misses every time but one. The one after the one where my husband picks me up. I don’t know where she sees us exactly, maybe it’s us in the car already, maybe it’s him moving me towards the elevators, palm on my lower back.

But she’s found the key and she isn’t shy about using it.

Life is a gamble, she tells me. Marriage is a gamble too.

I stare at her for a long time, the window and the dumpster forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The White Rabbit

I’m too old to be hanging around the mall so often. But it’s conveniently located on my way home from work, and everything I need is easily found in this one place.

By everything, I mean the girls. So many of them, herded into one building like sleek cattle. It can be quite dizzying to try and take them all in. I live in a city full of beautiful women and the sight of so much of it can overstimulate the senses, crowding out everything else, pushing the rest of the world to the peripheries. Sometimes I just stand in the centre of the mall in quiet awe, dazzled and sated but overeager.

I come to this mall in particular- there is a girl here, one that I always look in on when I make my rounds. She works in a jewellery store, the kind where you buy charms for a chain or bracelet. By her blonde hair and the angles of her face I judge her to be eastern European. She is a girl who wears her feelings on her face- her moods, her inner life, her circumstances, all dictate the way her face looks. Today she is looking haggard, her hair dyed a strangely unflattering colour. I always try to work out these moods of hers. A fight with her boyfriend? No, more likely to be a break-up. Women change their hair when they go through break-ups.

She can be truly stunning, which was why I took notice of her in the first place. I must have caught her on a good day, because when I saw her the first time, that face of hers stopped me dead. She radiated. It was Real Beauty, the kind you can’t buy from a surgeon, the kind that is bone-deep. The thing about girls-and beautiful ones in particular- is that you can’t truly understand their beauty until you see it up close. These are the days of filters and makeup tutorials and winged liner and girls wearing lashes like spider’s legs and it’s all so distracting. You need to get real close, to make sure, you need to know that you aren’t being sold a false bill of goods. You walk by the girl that first time, and the first pass tells you that she might be the real thing. You need a pretext to circle back around, come close enough to make sure, it’s very important to be sure. I have been disappointed more times than I care to count.

Some girls get suspicious. They notice you watching. Their mothers and fathers and teachers and principles have been telling them forever to be wary, that strangers are not friends, that a girl cannot trust what she does not know, and perhaps not even what she does know. There is some leeway here for me, you’d never think it to look at me, aren’t we all in some kind of unspoken sisterhood, all of us girls?

I look at their legs too. I like to imagine how hard they could kick.

There are girls that are easily watched, at least for me. Their attention is only for men, and to them I am completely invisible. My girl in the jewellery shop is one of these girls. She is distracted easily by shiny things, like a crow. Would she be as easy to woo into a cage?

It takes longer than you think to find beauty, even in a city of beautiful women, even in a sea of girls with the infallibility of youth on their side. And when you find it, you aren’t so much an observer of it, but its slavish devotee. An invisible chain ties you to the object of your desire, and that chain pulls you forward to some place where you are locked together for better or worse. The only difference between her and I is that I know it, and she doesn’t. She is my white rabbit.

Tag, you’re it.

 

 

 

The Cabin That Jack Built

It is a cold snap when we drive up to Jack’s cabin. I am in the passenger seat trying to keep the temperature in the car from fogging up the windows. Jack keeps up a constant chatter as he steers along the roads he is familiar with, the blur of trees and snow so soft-looking that it melts into one long reel of green-white.

I was thinking of Jack recently. I was on a trip, wandering around a museum, and his tooth was in my pocket. I rubbed it absentmindedly like a talisman. It isn’t easy to remove a tooth, it requires a lot of persistence. The ligaments hold out longer than you think.

In the car I turn to Jack, tell him to pull over. From the trunk I fish out the duct tape and make four circles around his head with it. We continue the trip in silence. I’ll let him talk when we get there. Or maybe I won’t.

The cabin is Jack’s year-round home. It serves its purpose as more than just a home; it gives Jack a ready-made excuse to bring girls to the middle of nowhere. I can picture them here, shivering from the cold, their pink nipples hard. I know how he sees them, because how he sees them is how I see them, and I like to think as I walk up to his cabin that I can see the prints of their bare feet still etched into the hard ground.

From the cabin we make our way on foot, our tracks covered by the falling snow, nature abetting our crimes. It’ll be like falling into a pillow, a soft, welcoming cloud of a bed, a pristine almost-grave. I tell Jack to stand still and I count 20 paces like we are duelling. I really don’t know if this is enough, but I pretend to Jack like I do, and really, every experiment has its premier iteration, how else are you supposed to learn these things?

Afterwards Jack sits up, leaning forward, left hand feeling the right side of his chest tentatively. I think you broke my ribs, he tells me. He spits blood onto the white carpet of forest floor. He looks pale by the time we return to the cabin, he wants to leave. Don’t worry, I say, you’ll be fine. I’ll even drive. Just wait a little longer.

What I really want are my trophies. I make him wait long enough for the bruises to appear, purple blooming into black, and the photos of them come out so well. I still have those pictures, the secret spot in an empty moisturizer container, a tiny flash drive on which Jack is posed, naked, grimacing, mine forever.

 

 

 

 

 

The Strip Club

On a Wednesday we go to a place called The Nine-O-Five. It’s occurred to me recently that I have never been to a strip club, and the strip club is an American  right of passage. And so I ask my friend, the friend I see while my husband is away, to take me to a strip club.

The place is neither seedy nor luxurious, perfect middle-of-the-road, as-seen-on-tv, strip club. Wednesday is amateur night, so you can watch girls in the process of becoming strippers, a dying breed, really. They take their clothes off slowly; their tops come off readily, their bottoms, for some reason, they won’t part with so easily. They came prepared to show you their tits, but not their pussies. It is comical, really, because what did they think they were here for.

The girls are varying levels of uncomfortable, with the odd one being very confident. It is worth coming here to see them crawl around on their knees to pick up the small bills the audience throws onto the stage for them.

During the lulls I wander around the club. This is a strip club that reminds you of another strip club, its style is that it has none and the occasional girl is worth seeing. There is a corridor off one of the hallways that leads to a change room for the girls. There are posters here that read “Do you have a problem with cocaine?”

On my third trip around the club, a man clutches at the hem of my dress. His eyes are glassy and he isn’t quite sure that I am real, and if I am, why I have all my clothes on. I tell him my name, which he keeps mispronouncing, and I sit for awhile at his table, both of us idly watching the confident girl who has her back to the audience and spreads her legs, her ass, everything pink and shaved smooth.

Off to the side are strippers who are not stripping. They are go-go dancers for the evening, light entertainment that doesn’t take the spotlight from the amateurs. One of them is dancing on a podium, black panties and tank top, long dark hair, perfect body, everything you want in a girl. This evening is coming to a close and I need an image to take home with me, something burned onto my retinas when my eyes are closed, and this girl is going to be that image. My friend and I will go home and we will have sex and I will close my eyes and watch her dance across my eyelids. I’d really like a photo of her, so I sidle up close, trying to nonchalantly focus my camera, trying to look completely innocent while doing so, but the security guard isn’t buying my babe-in-the-woods bit, and I move on.

On the main stage the winner has been crowned. The losers are offered a Faustian bargain; they can still take some money home, if they are willing to play a game. A table is wheeled out, on it large plastic containers with goldfish. The losers can earn money for every fish they catch with their mouths, for each one they swallow. They are given 5 minutes, and I could watch this game forever. The philistines here have no idea how a game like this should be played. They have come close, but it’s still wrong. When we are in the car, I let my friend talk so I can sit quietly and think about the fish; shitting in the plastic tubs, getting stuck in the girls’ throats, swimming around in their stomachs, still alive.

After he falls asleep, I put on my shoes and coat and wander out into the night to walk. Some evenings I am gripped by a strong energy, a force in place of an emotion, a desire to see how the night plays out while we sleep, to watch it and be unknown and unobserved. I walk for a long time, out of the suburbs and into the city, past a darkly open garage, grass partly mown, some of it dead or dying, in the darkness looking like a crime scene, a particularly suburban crime.

At the lip of the city I swerve out of the light, walking where instinct tells me to go. The suburbs aren’t the right place and neither is downtown, too brightly lit, empty despite all the condo dwellers. You have to find the few places that are still left here, and not for long, untouched by gentrification. But poverty is something that never sleeps, and it has deeply unmet needs, and they are here to stay because inequality is natural and gentrification is just tile over a linoleum floor, pushing things deep underground where they will still flourish without the light. Things like the girls I pass, hovering by a disused gas station, young and out too late, not the sort of girls who have parents that care about them getting up to go to school on time. They look up at me and I wish my footsteps made no sound, I wish I was a ghost, invisible, real, hovering, wanting.

I must look young in the dark because a man stops me, steps in front of me to get my attention, get my price. I look at the dark sky above us and I think of my friend, asleep in his bed, the door left unlocked because I have no key. Not tonight, I say to this man, I forgot my mask and I am wearing the wrong face. He will ask one of the girls by the gas station, of course, and they will sink further into their lives as they are laid out by nature. The strippers at the club don’t have the same quality that these girls do, some of them never will. That angry vulnerability, strength that is nothing but spackle. I want to see what these men do to them. I want to see the inside of their homes, their dirty sheets and clothes that they wash once a month without separating the colours, their sad, third-and-forth-hand Ikea furniture.

I want to see who they become in five years, if they are still alive.

It isn’t abuse, it’s nature.

It isn’t abuse, it’s nature.

It isn’t abuse, it’s nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My grandmother was born into wealth. Her father owned a coal mine in Germany.

She was an only child and her mother did not love her. She came from a long line of women who did not love their daughters.

When the war came, her family fled Germany. They became poor, and poor people have goats. They unlearn their love of cow’s milk and become accustomed to goat’s milk. Every day the smell of that milk permeated their cramped home like an intolerable reminder.

The goat sickened suddenly, died the next day.

In her new school my grandmother became one of the poor children. They sat away from the children from well-to-do families.

The most well-to-do was a girl named Maya. Maya was plump and well dressed, my grandmother was gaunt and shabby. My grandmother would watch Maya unwrap her school lunch every day and stuff delicacies into her pretty, plump face.

The day before school let out for the summer the nurse’s thermometer was stolen; it was found broken, the pieces stuffed into the trash. Maya became very ill, and when she returned for the next school year her cheeks had lost their plumpness and her appetite had vanished.

My grandmother almost became a doctor. In the end she didn’t; she married unhappily and birthed a daughter. Her whole life people wondered why she had squandered her talents.

My whole life people have been telling me that I am bright, that I could have done more with my life. Maybe. But this is what I did with it.

 

On the nights when I am alone, I go looking for her. It is harder to find her these days.

I’ve heard things over the years from people, about girls crying, real things you could sink your teeth into. Those days are gone, people tell me, long gone. No secrets anymore, everything gone underground.

Sometimes I search for hours. You can still find her, but when you do, It’s mostly unexpected, a wonderful surprise, happy early birthday.

When you find her, she is a self-made mess. It was her lucky day to make such a stunning amount of money in such a short period of time. I wonder what she needed the money for.

The magic moment generally comes early: The dawning realization that she is in over her head, discomfort, panic, terror even, if you are really lucky. Coupled with it, another realization- that she did it to herself, orchestrated her own doom. Some stranger waved candy in your face and you followed him down the rabbit hole, silly girl. It was only what you do with boys anyway, with the eye of a camera trained on you, such a small difference. But the man with the candy isn’t like the boys at your school.

Sometimes there are two magic moments; the shock, and then the split, the girl’s eyes glazing over, the thousand-yard stare, I’m not here anymore, wake me up when it’s over. It’s hard to decide which of these moments are better.
Only exceptional videos have this quality, a kind of rightness that cannot be staged. When the rightness isn’t there, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. I can hear that it’s not right within seconds of the video starting, but on occasion I am fooled, the girl such a consummate actress that it’s only right at the end you realize you’ve been had, the girl’s mews of distress turning into pleasure, shutting the page like you’ve been scorched, your arousal wilting. Sometimes I’m too tired and disappointed to try again, searching from scratch, the upward climb from disappointment to orgasm impossible to attempt.

If you find the right one you can sometimes extend your pleasure by finding her elsewhere. Often these girls are never seen again, but occasionally they dig in their heels and become stalwarts of the industry. You can track their decline by seeing the evolution of their public persona, the films they star in, the ink on their bodies. Staring defiantly at the camera, at us, hardened, each year hollowing out their eyes.

Magic.

I have seen you watching me, as I quietly go about my chores. You may think you are unnoticed, but I have been noticing everything about you, filing the facts away in my head for later, writing them down in my journal, a catalogue of your traits, a profile of you that no one knows exists.

At night, when I am alone, I parse out our interactions, examining them piece by piece, from every angle. I have seen your eyes sliding over my body, and know that you long to get away from the drudgery of the everyday: your job, your boring colleagues, your life that you keep wishing would finally begin instead of slipping away unmarked by anything but time.

I smiled sweetly at you the last time I was in your home. Did you notice? I’m fairly certain you did. I was just finishing up for the day, gathering up my belongings, and I caught you staring. I practice my smile every day, so I know it is sweetly beguiling; it used to belong to a girl I dated, but I stole it from her, so now it is mine. I have practiced it many times in front of a mirror, till it was just right, till it said everything about me that you needed to know.

People have a way of trusting you when you have a nice smile, a pretty face; they shouldn’t, but they do.

Perhaps soon you will find a way to catch me alone, off-guard. You will imply that I owe you something, that my performance has been lacking and there are only so many ways of redressing the situation.

And I wonder: when we finally meet in the dark, which girl will I be? The one who gives you what you want, or the one who takes everything away?

I was sitting having a coffee. Looking back, I can’t think why he came up to me. I don’t think I looked any different from the other women there.

How much, he said. I must have looked confused; this seemed to afford him some sort of satisfaction. He smiled, though not kindly. Spoke again: I know a whore when I see one.