2. Sideways smileys
January (part two)
Last time: January began, forty approached, and organs were misplaced.
You smoked your first cigarette at thirty-seven. You walked to the store at the end of the road and asked for a pack of smokes and a lighter. This was when you had your own place, the one with the big stoop out front, and you sat on those steps and peeled the cellophane from the carton and lit cigarette after cigarette until you’d smoked six and the itch felt suitably scratched. You never coughed or choked, just raised each one to your lips and took slow, sweet drags that made the spongy bit at the top of your lungs sing and somersault in your chest, tossing the butt then lighting the next in an almost chain. It was June, shorts weather. Your ex had just let slip that she’d moved in with her new partner south of the river, and your first thought wasn’t why did she lie, or why did it bother you. Your first thought was cigarettes. Perhaps you hoped to find her somewhere in that act, to conjure her taste the first time you kissed her. Perhaps you wanted to destroy something, and the itch you chose scratch was oblivion. Just a hint of it. A taste. Slow and sweet, like blue-grey smoke dissolving on a warm summer wind. At school they told you each cigarette knocked five minutes off your life. Thirty minutes felt about right. A sitcom’s worth.
At the lido the girl asks what you’re doing. Trying to swim to the sun, you say. You point up with your cigarette. But you haven’t moved yet, she says. It’s a sound argument. Just working up the nerve, you say. You ask her what’s up and she shrugs and says I don’t know, then swims off laughing. When she was six, you taught her the correct response to What’s up? is I don’t know. That she still does it might be your proudest moment.
Your brother is shouting. It’s either at you or at someone nearby, someone you can’t see but are sure is there, a being who exists on some other spectrum of light. One of you is in trouble. Why the fuck were you in the kitchen naked? It sounds like he’s been working himself up to this. Does this house have ghosts, you say. Spectres? Phantoms, perhaps? His voice trips up an octave. What the fuck are you talking about?! Take this seriously. Heather wants you gone. Do you get it? He has his head in his hands now. Someone has really pissed him off. You need help, he says. I need help. I don’t know what to do. You’re nodding, but not really following. Do you mean me, you say. Or him? You point between particles at the entity. At this your brother begins wailing. He was already crying, and now there are sort of guttural noises going with it. And stop smoking in front of Lily, he adds. She looks up to you for fuck’s sake! Being that your brother has yet to acknowledge a ghost of any kind, this barb must be directed at you. By Lily, you say, do you mean the girl? At this, he marches into the master bedroom and screams for several hours.
You’re depressed. You’re fed up with using it as an excuse but it’s a good one, even if your family won’t admit it, despite you explaining how it affects you, writing about it in several essays, dedicating a whole novel to it, and the many years of therapy. Knowing what it is doesn’t make you fun to be around, or easy to like, and it doesn’t mean you get a pass. It just means you know how to ask for space, what you need when you’re low, and what to apologise for. You’re reminded of the House formula: Everyone called you a miserable prick, but they didn’t know about the depression, so it’s miserable, depressed prick, thank you very much.
The note on the fridge is back. Perhaps it was always there, and you’re the one who left then returned. In which case the note on the fridge is still there: Pull yourself together. It’s written in sharpie on a sticky note, in a hand you don’t recognise. You peel it off the fridge. The back of the note unlocks no clues, just some spots where the marker bled through. Interesting, you say, even though it’s not. The fridge holds some leftover pizza, which is interesting, and you scurry back to the attic.
You wake up at two a.m. sick to your missing stomach but instead of trying to find a suitable receptacle to throw up in, you’re scrambling for a pen because the film Vanilla Sky finally makes sense and you need to jot this down while you remember, so you can get it printed in some sort of folio or memo bound with plastic comb. You can’t find a pen and instead you sprint downstairs to find your laptop and you’re heaving now, the tainted pizza and the blackcurrant squash you washed it down with making their way up your throat and into your mouth, a sort of creamy mush of sodden crust and melted cheese and cured pork products that somehow tastes pretty good. You’re choking, your left hand in front of your mouth, beads of chunder running between your fingers and down the back of your knuckles and you flip open the screen and start trying to type but with nothing left to hold it back the vomit sprays out in convulsive thrusts all over the keyboard and the table and you’re sweating and retching and cursing and in the middle of all this puke and spit and cold sweat you realise you can’t remember your point. If you didn’t already get shot of your stomach, you’d pull it out about now. Throw it through the nearest window. You notice the word document is still open on your laptop, the caret blinking at you, requesting input. You begin to type, one sticky sick-soaked key at a time. What you type is a taxonomy of yourself. All the parts you know about, everything that’s missing and where it might be. A list of things you need to re-acquire in order to feel whole. It’s not a lot, but it’s a start. You print a copy out and stick it on the fridge next to the note.
Can you not smoke here, a scowl says. You agree that you can not, and continue smoking. This is met with a tut as the scowl turns heel and huffs off. A little later a lifeguard walks in your direction and you hop out before he arrives. Time to go, you tell the girl by holding up your watchless wrist as you scarper.
You suspect your heart has been in the care of a lover you have little desire to see, lest you have to spend any actual time together. It’s not like you don’t get along, it’s just that you hate each other. Still, the sex is agreeable, bordering on pleasant. Her reply to your text is curt bordering on hateful. Why the fuck would I have it? Ask your fucking ex. If you had a brain, a lightbulb would have just lit up like a low watt lamp in a dark basement. It makes so much sense, hearing it said. Of course she has your heart. You wouldn’t stop giving it to her. Even when she sent it back, you wouldn’t stop. You couldn’t help yourself. Even when she bruised it. Even when she broke it.
At the lido the girl is crying. This is an unexpected change of tone. You hadn’t even seen her sneak up, and suddenly she’s sobbing. Are you going to die? she asks, and the subsequent cracks of thunder in the sky are the sound of a thousand hearts breaking. Your face and voice both melt. Oh, sweetheart, you say. No, why would you think that? You’re standing in the shallow end. Her shoulders are up round her ears, staccato breaths between shivers. She won’t look at you. Dad says you’re falling apart, and if the cigarettes don’t kill you then the depression will. She’s inconsolable now. Deep, full body sobs. You put your hand on her shoulder then pull her close. No, no, you say. No baby, come here. You take her hand and guide her over towards the steps, and once you’re both out of the water you kneel down to talk to her. You know how you get sad sometimes, you say. Well, it’s just like that, only I’m bigger than you, so it lasts a bit longer. You’re not sure she believes you. You’re not sure you believe you. But you promise her you’re not going anywhere and try to make it sound good. Your dad was probably just worried, you say. It’s okay to feel sad sometimes, right? She nods. You tell her you’re okay because you’ve got a fancy new job (you get paid to take her swimming). This isn’t a job, she says. Her bottom lip is sticking all the way out. No, but it’s a living, you say. And living is the opposite of dying. She seems suspicious at this, but relents. It’s okay to feel sad sometimes, she says, taking a breath mid-sentence. She sniffs and wipes her nose, cartoon eyes staring at you. But it’s not okay to die. She holds out her little finger. Promise? she says. You lock your little finger around hers. Promise.
Dying used to be easy. Then a child cried on you in public and now you’ve committed to pulling yourself together. You’ve already got a lead on your heart. You email your ex to ask for it back. It’s two years since you broke up, and a year since you last slept together. She doesn’t tend to reply to texts. Not yours at least. Perhaps it’s because she’s pregnant and the baby isn’t yours, so there’s really no reason to talk to you. Had a change of heart, you say. You add a sideways smiley1. As you hit send you wonder if that was why she left you. Sideways smileys. It must be.