“The Rat Race” (Nifty Fiction)

“On the City” – Marc Chagall

[Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. I am not Delia, and TC is not Nathan. Nathan seems okay, but TC is much cooler. Here goes…]

The Rat Race

Maybe we should hire someone to clean the apartment.

This is an idea Delia has while she stands at the bus stop, the only one in the city where you can gaze out over the gray water to where the gray mountains meet the gray sky, shrouded in even grayer clouds. It’s a good idea, maybe. There are two of them working full time–they can certainly afford it. And the thought of the uncleaned bathroom waiting at home makes Delia feel as though she is failing at life. So maybe they can use their money to pay someone to clean (not everything, just pop over for an hour a week and clean the bathroom and maybe vacuum). It’s a good idea. Maybe.

By the time Delia boards the bus she is angry. There are two of them working full time. They both pitch in as far as household chores and errands are concerned. They shouldn’t have to spend their hard-earned money paying someone to clean. How is it that their dirty bathroom is allowed to make her feel like a failure? How is it that the world expects them not only to work full time to keep themselves alive, but to spend their leisure time cleaning and running piddly errands? Where’s the “leisure” in that?

As the bus launches along Cordova Street Delia leans her temple against the window, convinced that the world’s chief desire is to chew her up, suck the life out of her, and spit her out again.

By the time the bus turns onto her street, Delia has decided that she needs to quit her job. To hell with money–money has no use if she doesn’t feel alive. Besides, she isn’t making that much money anyways, at least not enough to buy a house or support a family. So what’s the point of sitting in an office shunting paper around all day long?

By the time Delia reaches her building she is feeling so reckless she takes the elevator even though she normally just takes the stairs. To hell with saving energy and the planet–the planet owes her for giving her this shitty gray day and a bathroom that despite her best intentions, still remains unclean.

Delia is careful not to slam the door when she enters the apartment but Nathan seems to sense the black dog on her shoulder and his conversation is light and inquisitive while they make dinner and Delia responds even though all she wants to do is lock herself in that goddamned dirty bathroom and have a cry. Once everything is on to simmer she leans forward and presses her forehead against the kitchen counter.

“Is there something I can do?” Nathan says.

“No, you’re perfect,” says Delia, “I just want to quit my job is all.”

“Oh.”

“Work is fine and everything. It’s just wearing me down. I’m supposed to be working so I can enjoy my life, except that I spend the rest of my life running errands or whatever, which is essentially work, except I don’t get paid for it. I work all day so that I can spend my time working. It’s stupid and I don’t want to do it anymore.” Delia says all this with her forehead still pressed to the counter, eyes searching the kitchen tile for her next moody thought.

“I think people work so that they can spend the rest of their time doing things that make them happy,” says Nathan (too optimistically, Delia thinks).

“Except they aren’t!” Delia cries and looks up at him, “We’re all running around doing stupid things just to take care of our homes and look like we’re having a good time but no one actually IS! I was supposed to clean the bathroom today except I spent all goddamn afternoon looking for a goddamn taupe sheet set and then the escalators at the Bay were broken so I got to tromp up and down three flights for no goddamn reason!”

“Did you find a taupe sheet set?”

“No I did not!” Delia sighs and puts her head back on the counter, squeezing her eyes shut. “Until this year I never quite understood the term ‘rat race’ and now I get it. Why do we do this? Is this all there is? I mean, it can’t be. If someone told you now that you would spend the rest of your life working all day so you could spend all of your spare time running around grocery shopping and scrubbing your toilet and taking your car to the mechanic only to retire and find out that the CPP had gone bust and inflation had eaten your savings and you were going to be busy and poor until you died, you’d kill yourself, wouldn’t you? I would. I mean, if that’s all there is.”

Nathan takes a breath.

“Do you want me to clean the bathroom for you?”

“No, it’s my turn. God, I just hate the city sometimes.” Delia looks up at Nathan again, into his bemused helpful face. “Do you think I would be a good farmer?”

“Um… I don’t know. Do you think you would be a good farmer?”

“I don’t know anything about farming.”

“Well then,” says Nathan, “probably not.”

“I just don’t want to live in the city forever.” says Delia.

“I know.” says Nathan, and then he washes the cutting board he’d been using.

In the middle of the night, Delia is woken by the terrifying realization that of course she will never be a farmer, that farming is not an easy life, and she will probably have to work at a desk FOREVER, especially if she has children, and they will bring her no end of errands and headaches.

An hour later, Delia wakes again and remembers that it could be much worse. She is also struck by a sudden comforting thought: the future children can clean the bathroom. Once they’re old enough. They can sweep floors once they can hold a broom, and probably do dishes too. It’s a good idea.

Nathan is warm and comforting beside her as Delia drifts back to sleep, content in her certainty that ten years old is plenty old enough to wield a toilet brush and some Comet. The universe provides.

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“My Imp” (a little bit of fiction, lost and found)

My head hurts today and my body is tired. The idea of casting around in the present for something that grabs my attention and stirs my blood enough that I want to write about it is exhausting right now. I am tired of examining my present, I am tired of organizing, I am tired of planning for my future endeavors (near and far). And so I am rebelling. I am reaching back. I’ve been opening cupboards and uncovering boxes. I am taking the lids off and exploring the contents. I am re-breaking the heart of a younger me and realizing that though I may think that I was very foolish once and am much wiser now, I am likely not as wise as I think I am, and likely was not actually so foolish then. A hurt is a hurt whether it is your first or second or your hundredth. A loss is a loss even if you eventually gain.

And so to honour the younger woman who does not know me now but whose struggles became part of my story, I am posting a short story I wrote on some loose leaf in 2007, sitting on the soft black couches in the lobby of the old SFU theatre. (For those of you who think I am just being lazy, I thought I was too, until it took me longer to type up this story and do some light editing than it sometimes takes me to write a whole new post.)

Grey Lovers - Marc Chagall

My Imp

Curious really, how it happened, and how when it happened it somehow seemed natural and no cause for alarm at all. The cause, of course, was that when it happened I was falling in love.

It began at a bus stop. Or rather, it first awoke at a bus stop. It had been a very warm April day, and we’d spent a good part of it swinging in your landlord’s hammock drinking beer and listening to world music. So warm, in fact, that you’d chosen to wear shorts and I was wearing a t-shirt though I suspect we were both regretting that decision now that the evening was getting late and the wind blowing from the quay was as cold as the sea.

At that particular time, though, we didn’t care about the dark or the chilly ocean breezes, and the idea that this might not be forever had not crossed my mind. We were wrapped together in your coat, my hair, our sinews and bones and our air-tight good feelings. New lovers are always invincible.

We were talking and teasing each other and laughing, most likely about something silly and more than likely a little bit dirty. We heard a soft giggle. A third voice, giggling. You looked to the right and I looked to the left but there was no one to be seen. We heard the giggle again and discovered its source: it was coming from my body, more specifically, from just below my left breast.

“What is that?” you asked, and your eyes grew big and round with surprise and wonder. I had never heard it before, but suddenly in that moment I knew with certainty exactly what it was.

“It’s my imp,” I told you, and your surprise became delight. “I have a little imp that lives inside me. It’s been sleeping and you woke it up. I think it’s a little mischievous.”

“I understand what it is,” you said, and you kissed my forehead, “and I love that you have one.”

Bliss reigned. The soft coos, gurgles, and giggles of my infant imp continued as we travelled to the quay. They continued as we took the Sea Bus downtown. I heard a thrilling hiccup when you talked about what we might do in a couple of years. The imp liked you very much and so did I.

In the happy days and weeks that followed, my imp became more and more of a presence in our lives. You took to saying hello to it as well as me whenever you saw me and always had one ear eagerly listening for any new sounds it might make. Eventually, the laughter and gurgles became jabberings we assumed must be a language of its own. I imagined I was able to understand what my imp was saying, or at the very least grasp a general gist. When you and I were alone together I would sometimes translate the gibberish for you. My imp had a strange and (so you thought) wonderful sense of humour.

One lazy morning, just as I was about to borrow your shower, I made a beautiful and exciting discovery. I shouted at you to come see, and you were in the cramped bathroom with me as quick as a thought.

“Look, look!” I said and pointed at my naked torso. Beneath my left breast, between my ribs, a small white shape was appearing and disappearing. It was the imprint of the tiniest clawed hand, pressing against the inside of my skin. I looked into your face and you sweetly kissed my cheek and hugged me so hard I thought I would burst.

You were so good. You were the most wonderful creature I had ever touched. You were fluid silky muscle moving through and around my limbs. A collection of smooth lines and imperfections and skin and eyes and blood. You were indescribable. We spent the afternoon lying on the floor, you with your head resting on my chest, listening to my imp. My fingers idly traced paths through your hair.

The soft contented hums of my imp began to grow in volume and pitch and suddenly exploded in one simple and joyful declaration. You were just dozing off and you woke, turned your head to lift your sleepy eyes to mine, and asked what the imp had said.

“I don’t know,” I said, but that was the first lie I ever told you. Because I knew, beyond even imagining, what it meant. My imp loved you and so did I.

Things continued in this lovely way until I began a new job and became very busy. You and I couldn’t see each other as often anymore and that made me very unhappy. It is not surprising then, that very busy and very unhappy, my imp and I became very sick.

You did your best to nurse us back to health. You cooked us supper and held us and whispered soothing and beautiful things to us as our fever raged through the night. You made us sick tea of garlic and ginger and watched cartoons with us. It wasn’t long before you, brave and kindhearted creature that you were, managed to make my body all better. But my imp did not recover.

Its ceaseless coughing began to fray our spirits when were were together, both of us busy and tired and trying to ignore this sickness in our relationship that was beyond our control. You never said anything, but I knew the constant whimpers and coughs of my once delightful imp were wearing you out. And I was becoming sorry and ashamed. But we continued to smile at each other in the hopes that even with a very sick imp between us you and I would be immune and be fine.

One weekend can change everything. When I was out with you we ran into one of your friends, a friend I liked but who enjoyed getting under my skin. There was friendly chitchat and dirty joking but I was feeling a little off balance and not at home. We heard the sound of vicious crying coming from beneath my ribs.

“What the hell is that?” asked your friend.

“It’s–it’s my imp,” I said. “It’s crying. It doesn’t understand the joke and it’s tired.”

Your friend looked confused and you looked away, embarrassed of me. I felt in that moment that my imp had caused me to fail a test, that you would worry that my imp and I were too frail to accept you as you really were, vices and off-colour humour and all.

Confusion and doubt crept in. My imp continued to cry. We continued to try to ignore it and we tried the next morning in your bed, as you attempted to relax your body next to mine, tired from a grey night. I held you so close. I wanted to tell you that I loved you but I knew I shouldn’t. My imp grew frustrated with me and with you and the things we were not saying. You shrieked in pain and lept away from my body like a cat, arching and twisting your back in the air. You bled from a scratch in your side.

Your eyes were staring fixedly at a point on my left ribcage. Beneath my breast, between my ribs, in the same place we’d first seen the hand print on that dreamlike morning forever ago, there was a small hole, bleeding in a slow trickle down my left side. My guilty imp had now retreated far into my body, and I thought I could feel it shaking. My imp was afraid, and so was I.

“Now at least we’ll have matching scars,” I said and I smiled feebly. You did not smile back. We got Band-Aids and put them on our wounds and neither of us talked about them anymore.

From that morning on my imp remained silent, simply trembling inside me. It was silent as you and I suffered through watching films that weren’t very good. It was silent as I felt you leaving my bed to have a cigarette in the middle of the night. It was silent as we made awkward conversation during my birthday dinner, a dinner we both resented for different reasons.

My imp and I knew that things were not well between you and I but we hoped. We hoped and hoped until the night you came to my apartment and told me that this wasn’t it, this wouldn’t work.

My imp sank its nails into the inside of me and we both began to wail that we loved you. I wanted to be rational, I didn’t want to make things harder for you, but my imp was clawing savagely at my insides; it hurt so much that I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t think. I cried and begged and tried to keep you, even though I knew I couldn’t. As you made your last apology and turned to go my hands were held tight to my chest and side, trying to keep my imp from bursting through me and sinking its teeth into you, hurting us both even more in its attempt to prevent your going.

When the door to my apartment closed with a loud and final click, I sank to the floor in my porch and screamed, blood all over my hands and my side. My imp had ceased its struggles and was crying with me. We cried, the pair of us, the loverless and the friendless, until we could quiet down and try to go to get some sleep.

My imp tossed and turned inside me all night as I tossed and turned inside my bed. In the few moments I slept, I dreamed I was in a hospital for sad girls, resting on a pile of blue felt and being called “baby lamb” by matronly nurses. But for most of the night my imp and I lay awake, eyes wide open in shock, feeling very alone in the world.

The next evening you and I met to have a talk. My imp, utterly worn out, was thankfully sleeping and I was able to keep my wits about me. You looked small and sad as we spoke and I knew that you had never wanted to cause me or my imp any pain. But you felt that you could not be what you felt I wanted. And it was obvious that you and I had misunderstood each other terribly, but now it was too late. You knew now how strongly my imp and I felt, and you could not match that. For you to be a lover to me and a guardian to my imp was far too much to ask of you. Both of us were in danger of tears (you and I) but both of us bit our lips and looked away– still so alike in the unimportant ways that could not suffice to keep us together.

We waited at the bus stop for your ride home, this time no longer invincible, only able to use our own arms to wrap ourselves in. As your bus pulled up to the stop, I felt the nudge of my imp once more. I looked into your face and you sweetly kissed my cheek and hugged me so hard I thought I would burst.

And then you were gone.