Girls at the liquor store checkout bragged about their All Included’s in Varadero. To Jane this sounded like, “Ha-ha Jane, you never made it there, did you? Where was it you spent your honeymoon? Nowhere, Nova Scotia? Nice there this time of year.” How could she compete? It was enough to pin Stan to the marriage, let alone getting a trip off him.
Jane couldn’t expect any better for her daughters. Her oldest, Lee, was just as careful as her youngest, Kay, in her own way. The first gave it away and the other was too scared. So they’d never get anywhere. Case closed. Case in point, the way Lee’s sweaters slid off her shoulder: all calculated and choreographed. That was Jane’s fault too; of course, she had gone and raised a suggestive dresser. Should she have raised her a nun? The mother always got the blame. And Stan couldn’t be blamed for anything since the accident. Worse than a widow, Jane considered herself. If she put her mind to it, Lee could’ve been the Apple Valley Princess with the eye for detail she had on her. She could’ve taken up brain surgery and cured her father if the spirit moved her. But, no, she couldn’t be bothered.
Jane’s eyebrows came together and she swatted smoke away. Anything worthless was what Lee was after. And how did it reflect on her mothering? How was she put together? She was only human. But could she get the benefit of the doubt? Doubt she’d get any benefit from them, more like. Who listened to her? Who really listened? Stan listened about as well as her hat, even before he got to playing dead in his body. God forgive her, she still loved him, but she had to admit it was only out of duty. There was no more payoff in loving him.
Jane had given birth to the bride of Christ and the bride of the other. Never had two apples fallen in two such different directions from their trees. Her youngest, Kay, she couldn’t take a joke to save her immortal soul. Relax, take it easy, let a man get near her . . .a prick’d pop her like a balloon—POW. That’s how tight she was wound. About to snap like an elastic. And after a scare like that the guy’d hafta be off his rocker to get near her again. More like a cherry bomb than a cherry between her legs. Bang. Virginal shrapnel all over the place.
Jane shook her head. Her tires screeched on the final turn on the path to the food bank. Her car probably didn’t need her guidance to find its way there. Yes, she went to the food bank. Was it a crime? Well that’s what it was there for, was her impression. But didn’t they have to act the perfect prigs about the whole production? Surprised a factory worker’s wife would show her face, were they? There wasn’t any work left in Stan so what was he now, a factory veteran? A factory doorstop?
It was more like a food museum than a food bank. Look, but don’t touch. As they reached for the worst cans of mush, their hands grazed the racks, displayed the precious diamonds, fussed with the arrangements, selected what was much worse than dog food for smells. So they handled it, like diamonds and pearls and, “Oh, you brought your own bags,” they whispered, all suspicious, their eyes bulging, as if you’d no right to be there if you’d ever in your life had the honour of paying for food. She wanted to scream, “I got these grocery bags from clothing donations! Happy?” Instead she muttered, “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” in self-defense, grinning and burying her chipped nails in her pockets. The roughness of her elbows would’ve proven her life’s utter lack of luxury. If varicose veins could be traded in for potted meat she’d be laughing. She got so worked up, and god forbid she take a drink. It said right inside the door that you couldn’t set foot in there smelling of drink. A married woman and she couldn’t even have the comfort of a drink. Vodka and breath-mints, she considered. Or a nip of crème de menthe.
Then the Salvation Army wouldn’t do her the courtesy of picking up her donations because they knew her at the food bank, no doubt. Her hand wasn’t fit to donate to those in waiting to be sainted. How could she have guessed on the day they drove up to the house and parked it half on the lawn that she was taking part in a rehearsal for judgment day. The door was half beat off its hinges with their barbarous knocking technique. She didn’t have time to take a breath before they were through the door, as if her opening it were as good as an invitation. No finesse. They stomped in, grinding mud into her floors and surveyed the room as if it were so many nails.
“Your couch’s got a tear in it,” the short one, Mr. Observant, said. The two men fit the same physical profile other than for height: brown, bulky, and fair, like a peeled potato with the top left on for hair.
“Nothing a little stitch won’t repair,” Jane said, keeping it light.
“We don’t pick up nothing with tears,” said the taller of the two.
“But it’s still perfectly good for sitting on,” she insisted.
“So is the floor,” Tall scoffed.
“Those are the rules,” Observant reiterated.
Jane fused her feet to the ground for strength. She forced herself to ask, “Do you think I could clap eyes on a copy of those rules?”
“We don’t carry them with us,” Tall said. “We know them,” Observant finished the thought.
“What? Now you have to read me my rights or something to pick up a chair!” You’d think they’d never seen a woman speak in her own defense before. “Why’d you even come?” honest questions required no response whatsoever, according to their invisible rulebook.
But should you set foot in the hallowed halls of the Salvation Army itself and you’d find a couch with no legs to speak of being sold for eighty dollars, as if they were doing you a favour. The price written in magic marker on a piece of masking tape, as though it were fifty cents they were asking. No legs whatsoever. Were you supposed to take it home and put it up on bricks? Hope you never had to move too briskly and knock it off and deafen the neighbours? Had eighty dollars stopped being a lot of money and she’d missed the announcement? More than a day’s wages from where she sat. On a ripped sofa, of course, defying the laws of science apparently, such a chair being impossible to sit on. Away Tall and Observant drove, tearing up her lawn. Then Kay has the nerve to start in on her about embarrassing the family with her carrying on. Another day in Paradise. That’s Jane’s April in Varadero for you. Couch not fit to pick up, food not fit to eat and children not fit to be mothered. All included.
The newspaper arrived and she pretended to look at the articles before getting to the main event, the classified ads. All those wanted things, there was something she could relate to. Her delight in imaginary shopping at estate sales was only partially marred by Stan’s mechanized inhalations, and the exhalations taking care of themselves, but he couldn’t hear her. He could get up and earn them some money, say, before he said anything against what she was up to? She wondered what she could get for the iron lung. Would the Salvation Army see fit to pick that up?
The Help Wanted section was a litany of typing, faxing, ho-humming. The Adult Help Wanted, where the most demand was, anyways, there she could make in an hour what the typing took over a day to make. She’d thought of it so many times. When had she needed extra bread more than now? And the blossom was far from off her rose. After months of sitting fallow, her fields would sure welcome a good plow. Mind, she might get an ugly one. It’s the ugly ones that have to pay. But she was prepared.
The mirror propped up by the kitchen table assured her she could take seven years minimum off her age. She gave her stats to the lady over the phone, knowing instinctually to give the weight she looked, rather than the off-putting facts. “A MILF? Oh certainly,” she was even seducing the receptionist!
The girls were at school so she didn’t have to worry about them answering the phone. She told them she was only available afternoons, which really wasn’t the sexiest time of day for most men. But she’d have her regulars. They’d work around her schedule, once they got hooked on her charms.
By lunch her Navy perfume was working its magic on a man with a British accent. She certainly didn’t expect lunch to be included. Having lunch, keeping the body going and counting the pennies and in a few hours they’d be hungry again and it would all be forgotten. The stomach is the great forgetter. Maybe he was waiting for his Viagra to kick in.
Jane hoped Bill was thinking of her but couldn’t come up with anything memorable about the green beans or the weather lecture he had delivered. How the meal was at all altered by her presence was debatable. She was just another overpriced menu option, like the Irish Coffee or the Crème Brulée. He was just saying aloud what he would have been thinking if she were not there. And paying top dollar for it. She chewed sensually, pouting her lips every time her teeth joined to suggest the potential of their grinding touch. In the past, suitors had said they could watch her eat all day. Even her nails failed to attract his gaze to her bosom.
Bill did a disappearing act with potatoes and his face while she worried about being forced to go Dutch. Over thirty dollars for lettuce leaves and a watered-down martini. The shiny cutlery enthralled her. She forced herself to pay him attention. Tried to be aware of the end of his sentences as an indicator of when to smile, when to appear thoughtful—without, of course, wrinkling her brow too much.
She couldn’t compete with the lunch parade any more than with his fascinating digestion. The churning was his: more intimate than she could hope to be. More owned. She tried to coax a smile across her face with a happy memory. The one she selected was not her own but something plagiarized from a fabric softener commercial. He didn’t even bother joking about having her for dessert when he refused the dessert menu.
It wasn’t his fault he had to pay for it. It wasn’t her fault she had to charge for it. Kay and Lee weren’t about to stop eating. Women were sworn to secrecy about the travesty of motherhood, especially to deny it to children. Can’t be making them feel bad for making mommy a prisoner. She tapped her nails on her empty glass. It was bad manners but she was about to snap. By his accounting, she had not yet earned another drink. She wondered why you had to beg to differ, how begging became the thing to do when differences arose. Time to smile again.
The heads of the diners she passed on her way to the hotel elevator recalled the bumps in the machine that monitored Stan’s heart rate, each taller head a heart beat, each space between the heart’s intake before it forced out more blood. Just a reflex, no free will. A series of linked machines too stupid to quit was the body. Their quitting was considered a failure, as in his kidney failure. Even then his other organs wouldn’t take a hint and throw in the towel. She cursed the body for being so little like a light switch. The hours spent in the semi-consciousness between sleep and waking at both ends of the day. Her attention refused to take the bit in Bill’s direction.
Now Stan had to interrupt this too. In sickness and in health: as long as he can interrupt. She reapplied her lipstick at the table, comforting herself with what was in her control, inviting Bill into her private rituals, hoping to entice him. Upstairs felt like downstairs with the curtains drawn and the air conditioner blasting to keep Bill’s sweat down to a dull roar. She submitted to the altar of his generous belly, she dared to touch it and he did not recoil from his flaws being caressed. She longed to be him. She almost forgot herself enough to climax. She was a goddam natural, she realized.
He stood up. It was not a standing ovation. She didn’t merit his modesty. Teleportation couldn’t get her home fast enough. Escorting was the only job in the newspaper you could call and get work the same day.
Let her arms open, her blood gush out onto the street, oceans of it. There wasn’t enough powder in the world to cover her blushing. Might as well make a real spectacle of herself. She hung a Louis Vuitton knockoff from her left elbow crook, made it vibrantly authentic with a tiny Ogilvy’s bag and a mint condition Birks’ bag she’d salvaged from the garbage and preserved on top of the fridge under a stack of flyers, somehow foreseeing an occasion where she would need to appear wealthy. Each bag was weighted with a pair of folded underwear; if they blew too much in a breeze their emptiness would be obvious. She scowled at the sidewalk, demanding it heel in deference to her finery. The women with the real designer bags were the fools, wasting their money on overpriced junk. There was no re-sale value to their scarves or wallets. Even their diamonds dropped half their value as soon as they left the store. If only Weight Watcher’s could boast such results. She’d get the last laugh, she told her reflection in the bank’s mirrored exterior.
The shyness of fluorescent lights was foreign to Bill. His peacockery chafed her. The disjunction between his pride and his silhouette replayed itself. She wanted to get it out of her system before she got home. Thinking about it in her husband’s presence felt wrong. Having taught the girls to take the good in everyone and leave the bad, she chose the way Bill made her forget herself for a few seconds. Thanked him for that gift. Struggled to leave it at that.
With her dignity so attacked, a blood transfusion seemed the only way to erase every filthy Bill. Silky new blood. There’s the cure. That would be “the rub.” Bill had actually used that expression. There’s. The. Rub. It drew attention to the lie of his smile, which she figured was a bridge, not caps, considering the way they greyed at the top. The injuries that had led to the bridge, she decided, were embarrassing, rather than painful, stripping him of an honourable scrape in the discharge of duty. She had no access past the surface of his body. If she had been able to follow his lunchtime diatribe, maybe she would’ve been rewarded with a series of clues to patch together into some knowledge of his character. He paid her for sex. That was the only personality trait she could lay claim to and it didn’t seem to count. They had spoken to each other like strangers. She hadn’t counted on having a new experience that day. Sex with a stranger: she didn’t know where to begin to classify it. Putting it with the one-night-stands wasn’t adequate. The one-night-stands had always involved flirtation, wit, seduction. This matter-of-fact undressing was foreign, but at that rate, she couldn’t really keep it that way. If Bill were to order her again, request her services in specific, that expectation put her at ease.
Jane reminded herself that she was the fragile ingénue staring out the window knowing Prince Charming may be delayed by a storm in Seattle but would make it by Friday’s cliffhanger, regardless of everybody’s inability to appreciate her. She was not the sturdy asexual frau eagerly putting the elbow grease to the new Mr. Clean, her hips silenced in unisex pants, her bosom strapped down to make way for her manual labour.
Getting nothing done looks a lot like getting something done. The doctors stood in a circle, round as a bicycle wheel. Jane thought they were solving the mystery of Stan’s injuries, but they dispersed to reveal the plate of sliced veg and dip that had shortened their spokes for a few minutes.
She rested her head on her husband’s lap and watched the stories. Their bed was only her bed now. She wouldn’t admit it. The kind of closeness a man should share with his wife when her head is in his lap was totally out of the question; it disorients her. Cosmo had assured her years ago that she was his Kittenish Seductress in a questionnaire she kept in her bedside table drawer like a badge of honour. Clearly they had not predicted her current predicament. She’d kept that nightstand in such good condition, she imagined bringing it to the pearly gates with her as evidence of her ability to love, honour, and cherish—it’s not easy to bear in mind: slippery, cold glass in hand—oh no—never place a glass on that table, put a magazine under it; Stan bought her that table and she respected it, the time and money it took to get it and what was a man but his time made manifest?
She thought to tell Kay that marriage was like canning a tomato. She had been so terrifically red and ripe it was like she came from the hottest hothouse on Mars. But, you get antsy to be picked, it’s only natural, and you notice your own bruises more and more and there you have it, you go and get yourself canned before you’re unworthy of the plucking. You think it’s hard to get a man when you’re smiling from your sunny vine, well, now he needs a can-opener and a good arm and some determination, and inside you’re all smushed and skinless. Better hope you can put a pretty label on it. But the prettiest, all swirly writing and promises of juicy, mouth-watering freshness glued to the can that admits the opposite!
Explain lying next to a man, tingling and ripe and hearing, “No.” Warn her of the feeling of him rolling away and loving him for being a man and saying no, for withholding, pulling in the reins. But it was only natural for a woman to find someone who said, “Yes.” Someone who sensed all the vibrant sun that coursed under her skin and needed to touch it. Their hands made up their own minds and reached for her before they even knew it. It was nothing to do with marriage, per se. It was really just youth that cannot be owned and the sun, which everyone owns, and everything that was ripe and Jane wasn’t in the position to deny access to it.
She jabbed the steering wheel with the heel of her hand and her cigarette ashed onto her polyester pants. She brushed them off with a skinny hand. The veins were beginning to resemble ropes. The pants were perma-press and the crease stood erect from a few inches above the knee all the way to her ankle. Equally stiff were her eyelashes and hair. She reddened without tearing up. Once home she put her fingers on the plug in the wall that held Stan to life. She pressed and released it four times, feeling the pads of her fingertips on the hard plastic. Dared herself to touch it a fifth time, went to bed without looking at him. »
From issue #57