Authors: Heather McElhatton
for heather afton thornswood
his is a mistake. I'm not really here. I'm showering naked under a thundering Caribbean waterfall and when I step out my breath is fragrant papaya blooming in a pearl mist. A well-oiled, well-built island man offers me a rum fruity on a bamboo tray. No, wheat grass, no, who am I kidding, rum-fruity. We lock eyes, I drink the fruity like a shot, and I am in his arms, carried back to my thatched hut where his deep and profound love for me cannot be denied. Important island traditions run through his veins, and I am nailed to the bed making love in the island's most taboo sexual position, “The Inverted Wheelbarrow.”
. Car horns and shouting.
No point looking through the window because I already know what happened. It's a freezing Monday morning in January, the roads are slick, and another citizen has been T-boned on their way to work. Exhaust freezes on the street in thin layers, creating a black-ice layer cake. A slaughter cake. Cars hit the bad patches and they can't stop, they slide right into the intersection and crash into each other, crumpling like pop cans.
Sirens are coming. More shouting.
This is Minnesota.
I lean into the hot water and as steam rises off my body I imagine I do not have to go to work today. No marketing-monkey rodeo populated with animated corpses for me. Instead, I decide to let the well-oiled Tahitian man savage me. Then, after
we make gentle, yet rough, yet tender, yet slightly dirty love, we'll fall asleep beneath the mosquito netting as waves crash below us on the sugar-sand beach. When we wake, we'll descend the winding marble staircase, which leads not only to the ocean but also to a freshwater lagoon, which is much more pleasant to swim in because you're not salty afterward, where once again, he'll have to have me and we'll make love like angry, passionate dolphins.
I open my eyes and stare at the squidgy green bath mat underneath my grotesque feet, which no pedicure can cure because of my bulb-shaped toes. They look like they belong to an albino tree frog.
Squish squish squish
up the tree frog girl goes!
I hate them almost as much as my thighs. I don't know who's tacking up those miracle-thigh-cream signs near highways, but they're Goddamned liars. Nothing dissolves cellulite. Nothing.
Just breathe. Relax.
I can do this.
It's always hard to go back to work after the holiday break. It's hard for everyone. In fact, I don't know if people should even take vacations, because going back to your little cubicle after sitting on a beach or even sitting in your room is too depressing. It only reminds you there's a world out there and you're not in it.
Just think positive.
Don't think about the impending roundup meeting or my mother or my sister's wedding or any of the things I was going to do and then I didn't. Don't think about the last ten years, which have collapsed in a lightning split-second, and even though I'm not sure what I was doing for ten years, we can be sure I wasn't getting married or having kids or buying a house or working on getting out of Minnesota.
We can be sure of that.
All I have to do right now is breathe and be
in this shower.
Joy is all around me if I open my eyes to it. I open my eyes and stare at the grimy vanilla puddingâcolored tiles and zinc-crusted fixtures.
I focus on a row of plastic yellow duckies perched on the towel bar. They make me happy. So does the hot water. Absolutely. Some people don't have hot water or even drinking water and their sewer systems are backed up or nonexistent, forcing them to wallow in filth and muck. Although I will say it seems the filth-and-muck people often end up on
and get new Cadillacs. Plus the odds of filth-and-muck people dealing with these particular vanilla puddingâcolored tiles and zinc-crusted fixtures are actually slim. I may be the only one dealing with this.
I'm careful not to catch the image of my splotchy beef-carcass body in the mirror above the sink. Securing my pink chenille robe, I step onto my daisy scale only to discover I didn't lose a pound yesterday, despite not eating a thing. That seems about typical. I brush my teeth with my Casper the Friendly Ghost toothbrush and rinse with a Hello Kitty kid's cup. I spit. Despite all odds and increasing global infestation, Hello Kitty still cheers me up.
Mrs. Biggles slinks in between my legs, purring. She knows I was going to be a real writer, but there were a lot of things I was going to do and then didn't. I'm lucky to have my job, because I didn't go to school for anything marketable. I studied creative writing because I wanted to travel the world and write deep, poignant novels that illuminated small but significant parts of the human condition that had heretofore not been uncovered or expressed so eloquently or with such graceful power. Right now I'm writing an ad for men's black dress socks.
I keep thinking it's not too late; I can still turn everything
around. I could meet a guy any day now who would sweep me off my feet, and he would happen to be a millionaire just like Jane Austen planned for all us cheeky, uppity modern girls. Then I could become a philanthropist's wife. I could busy myself with giving away large chunks of money to charitable organizations like the Children's Cancer Fund or Animal Rescue. I think I'd be good at that. I think I'd be very good at being gracious and giving away large chunks of money. Noble even. People would say I was noble.
After I moved into my husband's mansion (or castleâI've always loved England), I would donate my collection to charity. My collection of course is everything in my cramped, packrat apartment. I've been perfecting it for years. Retro furniture, Chinese paper lanterns, Fiesta Ware plates, collectible Kewpie dolls, broken Lava Lamps, Vargas girl posters, dangerous metal fans, lipstick salt shakers, nude geisha prints. My walls and shelves are cluttered with anything I've ever found funny or stupid or free. The chaise lounges and low lighting insinuate a low-rent bordello, but my love of metal toys and vintage communist militia posters speaks to my admiration of the slightly insane.
Someone asked me once what look I was going for and after some thought I decided to call it “World War II Brothel.”
When I frump into my cheerful kitchen, I pull back the handmade cowboy curtains so I can see the thermometer outside.
Two below zero. Lovely.
I let the curtains fall back, careful not to knock over my absolute favorite belonging on earth. It's a hand-painted porcelain figurine, circa 1950, of a young working girl. She's wearing an olive-green suit with a white scarf and matching shoes and defiantly tosses her blond curls back as she carries her briefcase. She's the fifties' epitome of the liberated woman.
Unmarried, unapologetic, and off to work to be sexually harassed by her boss.
I love her.
I make toast in my Hello Kitty toaster, which stamps a Hello Kitty face on every piece of toast, but I think bread must be a different size in Tokyo, because I've never managed to get the whole Hello Kitty face on my toast, just parts, like the bow and part of an eye. I pour coffee into my bright-yellow smiley-face coffee cup, which my sister gave me.
I think she was being ironic.
Maybe she had good intentions, it's hard to say, but I like giving people the benefit of the doubt. Even my sister. I'm reading a book called
Don't Try Harder
Just Give Up
by Dr. Abhijat Gupta. It's this modern Buddhist philosophy that says when you bang your head against a door all you'll get is a headache. It's sort of a now take on Zen and has all these great exercises to help you let go of what you thought you wanted. In the first chapter you draw your ten most coveted goals in physical form. You're supposed to use “signifier icons,” like a heart for love, a dollar sign for your career, or a palm tree for a vacation, and so onâ¦and then you burn each piece of paper and let the ash blow away in the wind. Well, you're supposed to let it blow away, but unfortunately my ash got caught in sort of a back-draft whirlwind thing out on the deck and mostly got caught in my mouth and hair.
My cell phone rings. It's Hailey.
“What?” I say.
“Nice,” she says. “Real freaking charming.”
“What do you want? I'm late.”
“Did you forget the bridesmaid dress fitting tomorrow night?” she asks. “You know there's a bridesmaid dress fitting tomorrow night.”
I don't say anything and she sighs dramatically, as though this is a weight put upon her that she just cannot bear. “So you forgot,” she says.
“Maybe you're manifesting that into happening,” I say.
“You forgot my kitchen shower,” she says, “and I reminded you three times for that.”
“I didn't forget, Hailey, I just didn't go. I don't believe in throwing showers for all the individual rooms in your house. Are you having a front hall closet shower? A boiler room shower? An unfinished garage shower? Are you hoping to get a sterling-silver lint trap at your laundry room shower?”
“Well, aren't you Betty Bitter,” she says.
“Yeah, okay. I have to go. Some of us have to work.”
“Look,” she says in her you're-an-idiot-but-I-need-something-from-you voice, “I know the wedding has been hard on you.”
“Yes, it's been ever so hard,” I say in a high-pitched British accent. “Why, I don't know why I haven't done myself in yet. Slit my wrists with one of your wedding invitations or choked myself with bridesmaid taffeta.”
“I know you want a wedding,” she says, “and you'll have oneâ¦” Then she takes a long dramatic pause, like a soap opera heroine, and adds, “â¦one day.”
“Really?” I say, all hopeful, “do you really think so? Gosh, I don't even know what I'd do if a boy asked me out!”
“Oh please,” she snarls. “You used to throw fake weddings in the backyard all the time when we were little. You married everybody. You married all the neighbor kids. You married the dog.”
“I did not marry
the neighbor kids.”
“You married that one kid all the time. Who was it?”
“That was David.”
“Oh. Sorry. Look, just remember to be at Mom's tomorrow night, okay? And bring the salsa.”
“Super! Can't wait to try on a kimono. I mean, why wouldn't there be kimonos at a Scandinavian wedding?”
“They're oriental dresses,” she sniffs, “not kimonos.”
“âOriental' is what you call a rug. Pretty sure you're supposed to say Asian.”
dresses,” she says. “Pretty silk ones.”
“Like the ones prostitutes wore on
“Shut up. Asian themes are elegant.”
“Asia is not a theme,” I say sweetly. “It's a continent.”
“So?” she says in her defensive/about-to-attack voice.
“So,” I explain, “you're a big Swedish girl from Wisconsin and if I was Asian and I saw some sort of a larger-type person stuffed like an oversized Swedish meatball into a dress from my culture, I might be a little offended.”
“Just be there tomorrow night,” she snaps, “and don't be a super-freak with my friends. They already think you're a transvestite or something.”
“You bet, and I won't tell them Mom and Dad bought you with a coupon.”
“It wasn't a coupon. It was a church-sponsored adoption fee assistance program!”
“It was a discount printed on paper. That's a coupon.”
“If you forget the salsa I will
“I won't forget your precious baby Jesus salsa!” I hang up.
Hailey's five years younger than me and everyone's always acted like it was such a big deal she was adopted, like she was an orphan from some destitute place like Somalia or Spain or something, when in fact she was born in Wisconsin. That doesn't stop her from acting like an imported miracle, though, a fragile flower that needs extra love and attention. Fragile flower my ass. That girl could tear a phone book in half. She's Swedish.
My family is Danish, which, as I like to tell Hailey, is a small but incredibly important difference. Denmark has Vikings and warships. Sweden has meatballs.
I love Hailey. I love her enthusiasm for anything that sparkles, shines, or costs a lot of money. I'm happy she never had to have a real job in her life and now it looks like she never will, because she's somehow bamboozled Lenny, the Ham Man, into marrying her. He's a head foreman at Hormel and he dotes on her, won't let her lift a finger, and why should she? She's precious! He proposed to her last summer on his fishing boat and they decided to get married on Valentine's Day, not that that bothers me, because it doesn't. I mean, someone getting married on Valentine's Day bothers me a lot, because that's breathtakingly stupid.
No. I'm very happy for my sister, even though there's no way that marriage is going to last. She gets bored with any form of schedule or repetition or anything resembling a responsibility. The good news is she'll never be addicted to anything. Not cigarettes or drugs or even a single soap opera, because she doesn't have the stamina or dedication it takes to form a habit in the first place. I can't see her doing all the little things that make a marriage work. I can't, for instance, see her remembering to feed her children. I bet a few months after the novelty of a new baby wears off, she'd probably forget it at Sam's Club.
Her fiancÃ©, Lenny, however, has a lot of habits. When not working with ham, he loves ice fishing and even has his nickname, “The Fishin' Magician!,” painted in swirly script on the back of his truck. He avidly attends heavy-metal reunion concerts, spends every Friday night with his minor-league bowling team, and has two flagpoles in his front yard with huge American flags on them, which he lowers anytime a prominent personality or a heavy-metal star dies. Every December
he strings hundreds of red, white, and blue Christmas tree lights between the poles and re-creates a glowing American flag. It's the size of a small hockey rink. You can see it from the highway.