Ready For Me
by VICTORIA HETHERINGTON
We’re lying and talking in bed, and the late afternoon sun stretches long into the room.
But you know, childhood is extending. Thirty is really young now, you know? he's saying. We have time.
You think you have time. We have the same amount of life as ever, and it isn’t much.
Oh, don’t be dour. You mean, what? Like we feel young just because we like automatically adjust and seek older and older elders?
Well, yes, actually. And also like, I don’t know. You’re a man; you can take fifteen more years to find yourself, you can wait til you’re forty and get married whenever you want. In that way I’ll age faster than you, I say, and he nods gravely, patiently, like a teenager during an unending wedding speech.
Don’t you wish you were a kid again? I ask, then realize I’m being cruel: if he agrees, he’s being a Millennial baby; if he disagrees, he’s lying — because don’t we all wish for this? Or at least, don’t we all wish to cycle between ten and twenty-five, then snap right back again?
He pauses, then: I wish I was a kid, with you.
I think about it. When I was a kid I was catching dragonflies (buzzing in my clenched hands like little machines) and frogs (until one, plopped triumphantly in a bucket filled with water, went fleshy and dead in the white noon sun.) And what else? I had a broken front tooth for years, I masturbated with pens. I was once so in love with Star Wars I thought I would die if I stopped.
I don’t think we’d have been friends, I say, but he as he rolls his big body over and up, throwing his legs over the bed and squeezing his armpits shut, I feel how wrong this is.
I sit up beside him. We’d have been friends, I say. I’d have made you marry me in my backyard playhouse. Then maybe we’d have hot dogs.
We’d have cared for each other, he says, because we like each other now, and people don’t really change. I run into people all the time when I visit home, and even if I haven’t seen them since we were seven, there’s still this little hidden grain of themselves that kind of...radiates outwards. I recognize them right away.
I mean, listen — I wish we’d been friends, I say. I was too shy to make friends, and then when I figured out how, I only picked rotten people. Like Tara — we ran into her like two weeks ago. Remember, I ran out of the store?
He looked down at me and I looked up at him, imagining us little. My red-headed husband, seven hands high.
Maybe childhood is always a little lonely and frightening; bursts of anxiety and surprise and delight peppering long, long stretches of nighttimes, parental dinners, and Sunday afternoons. I remember the first day I slept at Tara’s house as late fall, but it wasn’t. It was freshly May, the breathless time before the insects and the blankets of heat, and plump unsheathed maple leaves were shivering all along the street. We sat on the sidewalk curb and she dragged circles in the junky rain-soaked maple blossoms, and I watched her talk, amazed at the body glitter sparkling on her downy arms. "My dad only watches war movies," she was saying. "They have him in Latvia now, and he’s using like machine guns and stuff. But he’ll be back in six months, and you’ll see – he looks out for me. When we go out for Halloween, he’ll follow us a block behind."
I nodded — "My dad looks out for me too." She frowned, and I felt that lonely coldness again: we didn’t really like each other, I understood that then. But we had nobody else.
She stood up. "Let’s eat," she said.
The kitchen was cool and dark, and I knew that the rest of the house was dark too, and that Tara’s mother would sleep upstairs until probably the next morning. She wrenched open the fridge and put a plate on the table — engraved with knife marks, it looked like china but was actually plastic, like the plates at Swiss Chalet. "I’ll feed you, OK?" she said.
She opened the Styrofoam containers of leftover Thai food — slick crunchy mango slices peppered with ground nuts, and chicken globs set in thick cold peanut sauce, and chalky rice perfectly shaped to the inside of its container — splatting it out on the plate, saying Eat, now — and I did. She threw open the cupboard doors, pulling out dried apricots and sleeves of crackers, dipping them in cream cheese and margarine and getting it on her fingers after a while, passing them to me, and I kept eating, not stopping, unbuttoning my pants a little as the weak cloudy May afternoon trickled into the kitchen. And then ice cream, bending the spoon and freezing my teeth in my haste, and then apples when there was nothing left, breaking their skins over and over, spreading the white flesh under my meaty fingertips, crunching down to the seed-flaps, the wooden parts, and starting again, a new sick roundness in my palm, a gastronomic analogue to the hellish perpetuity of my childhood – inscrutable afternoons like this, lasting and lasting. The dead house air pressed in ocean-like on my ears as I listened to the rhythmic click of my own jaw. To this day I chase pleasure to lead myself into punishment, maybe to recapture the ill giving-up frisson of the sick stay-at-home days slung alongside days like this. She paused to throw away the ragged apple cores.
"Now you’ll have diabetes," she said.
Did she what? I ask.
Have diabetes? Wait — no. That’s a dumb question, whatever. Continue.
We watched Halloween as I controlled my nausea and Tara made comments in a different-sounding voice, perhaps repeating things her dad had said as they’d watched the tattered VHS tape together ("It’s dumb because all her blood is drained out but she’s still flesh-colored," etc.), and right before bed we pressed our faces to her mother’s fish tank. "Look at the gourami," she said, pointing at the biggest, fattest, pearl-bodied fish, and I yelped. All the other fish were attacking it, darting and churning the water, eating its gauzy fins nearly away. We rescued it in a shallow bowl of water to die alone, leaving bright fin-flakes scudding at clay castle-level (she gave clipped directions, and I whimpered the whole time.) We peered into the bowl for a moment, watching its disc-like body spin gently as if with the momentum of its thwarted will to live, its little puff of life energy seeping in the dark. I thought about it dying as we lay chatting in our sleeping bags, its mouth still opening and closing with nobody downstairs to watch it, with no lights on. I started thinking about my parents, and began to cry.
"You're very sentimental," she said to me, her cold eyes assessing, and I took it first as a compliment, then later as an insult — but really it was neither. She was simply gauging the difference between her and I; the oozy sadness between my ears, clouding in front of me. Even then I understood that she’d shut off when nobody was there, that she could flick through people like books and create herself for them.
That's pretty precocious, he says, then thinks about it. You are very sentimental.
Better that than blank. I say.
There’s only two choices?
For me, maybe. I pause. Probably people can change a lot, if they want to.
I laugh. Not a bit.
About two years ago I visited her house, for the last time — she shared a run-down home in Chinatown with four other people, girls whose personalities she’d merged and then dominated.
"You caught me in the shower," she sang through the half-open bathroom door, oozing steam and fragrance — "just make yourself at home." Reluctantly I walked past the bathroom into the kitchen — she was rubbing oil over her legs, her hair twined up in an elaborate towel. She grinned at me in the mirror, and I blushed: I didn’t mean to look, but I knew she wanted me to, to witness her perform her gleaming health, her luxurious youth. The sun whitened the whole kitchen, blazing through the grubby curtains, gleaming off a shifting mass of fruit flies hovering over the garbage. I filled a mug with lukewarm water. Christopher’s in the living room, she called through the door — go say hi, OK? My heart sank. OK, I said.
The old warped-up wood floor had creaked enormously as I walked, but Christopher, sitting with his knobby knees together, looked up from his laptop as if he was surprised. His twiglike, brittle-yet-potbellied body was sealed in a tight, tight blazer studded with pins (Get Bent, one of them said) and a silly hat, the kind with a brim in the front. The whole ensemble had a musty, mismatched Value Village feel (his most recent employment before he left Vancouver, whose clothing selection, he had claimed, was — as all things were — better than that of any Toronto locations). We said hello, and he patted the dingy cushion beside him. I sat, glancing furtively at his laptop screen. A dozen Microsoft Word documents were arranged across the desktop, a constellation of Millennial self-entitlement, all named things like ‘i tossed my smoke to the ground.doc’ and ‘she said, honey let’s go.doc’ and ‘belfast second ending, no victim.doc.’ "How’s the play going?" I asked.
He ignored the question. "She’s going to break up with me," he said. "Today, when you leave."
This was likely. "We’ll probably never see each other again," he added.
"You and I?" I asked, and he nodded, toying with his clumsily large lip ring, pouting his wet lips, making a sort of frozen expression I could tell he practised in the mirror.
"Well relationships, you know," I said, and then elaborated: "They don’t just end, sometimes they wear out and end like a couple times. You guys probably still have some time together, and maybe some of it will be really nice."
"I don’t think so," he said. "The thing is, she’s discovered she’s bisexual. She has to explore that."
Despite her enormous appetite for people — she wanted to claim and consume everyone, men and women, it didn’t matter — I knew this wasn’t true. Still, when she swept into the room, I felt my chest throb with sick excitement.
Shit like that cheapens real queerness, he says.
Exactly! I say, and he brightens.
Tara came in, her hair still twisted in the towel, and we chatted performatively about school, drinking, quitting drinking, smoking, quitting smoking, people we’d lost touch with, and people we were looking to shed. Christopher watched, sullen, rubbing her palm with both hands. Finally he said, "You know, it’s interesting about gossip. You need it for bonding, don’t you? Like, you and I have these things in common, we’re not like these other people, who are undesirable for reasons A, B, and C."
"Yeah," I said, and Tara rolled her eyes and went to the bathroom, and Christopher turned to me, radiating need. I got up — "I’m just going to grab more water" — and brought my empty mug to the kitchen, aching with pity. On my way back to the living room, I passed the bathroom again and caught Tara’s reflection in the mirror — she wasn’t ready for me this time. She was staring at her own face, the towel coming loose, her hair dripping out, her mouth hanging slack. Her arms hung limp and folded in the sink, like they weighed a hundred pounds, like she’d suddenly sprouted five extra feet of arm and was baffled by it. She looked overwhelmed, as if she knew she’d get lost on the way to adulthood, sensing she would, as my mother would say, grow up funny, lingering and fucking up and receiving parental rescue over and over, a child-monster in the body of a beautiful young woman. Her eyes snapped over to mine and she straightened up and smiled, but not before a spasm passed over her features. It could have been surprise — she was startled, she wasn’t expecting me. It could also have been hate.
"It’s awful when you just agree with people like that," she said. "He was being disparaging about women. You didn’t really mean it."
Christopher came tearing up the hall, his ears burning — "No I wasn’t!"
I thought about it, holding her gaze in the mirror. "At least that’s the worst thing about me," I said.
"Leave her alone," Christopher demanded.
"Oh, of course you’re defending her — you’re in love with her, aren’t you?" she said. "When you just agree and listen and smile and make things OK all the time — who wouldn’t love that? She’s blank. She’s nothing."
"You’re wrong," he said. (I hope he was.)
"Your hat is stupid," she said. (It was.)
"You’re getting fat," he returned. (She was.)
"You’re a loser," she spat. (He was.)
"You’re a bitch," he yelped, and she threw her hairdryer against the wall.
"You’re old as shit," she screamed. (He was — to be dating her, at least.)
"You’re living off your parents," he yelled. (She was, and would for years.)
"You’re wearing eyeliner!"
"No I’m not!" (He was.)
"I’m smarter than you!"
"No you’re not!" (She wasn’t.)
"Your writing is terrible," she said triumphantly, and there was silence. I wanted to say, no Tara, that’s too much, he needs this — working terrible jobs for years, forever, always feeling the discrepancy between his middle-class childhood and his hand-to-mouth, minimum-wage adult life, nursing its unfairness like a deep wound in soft flesh. Writing about it was his only release, producing linearity and a fervent but as yet imaginary bond with countless others, writing their own plays about grocery-store-working playwrights tragically stricken with writer’s block, toiling away at their own greasy-screened laptops, swollen with promise and yet to be found.
Images by Ghada Amer.
"Flutes" - Hot Chip (mp3)
"Now There Is Nothing" - Hot Chip (mp3)
The new album from Hot Chip is entitled In Our Heads, and it was released on June 6th.