Monday, 26 September 2011

Reading Material: Then and Now

Due to recent struggles it's been hard to concentrate on new reading matter, so I've been letting my tired mind roam around the old playgrounds of books I've read and enjoyed many times before.

A never-fail cure for the blues is to pick up Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and read the "Happy Barmitzvah, Bernie!" episode. It is one of the most playful and irreverent passages in modern literature. While other sections of the novel can certainly make a person laugh (or cry), the barmitzvah scene is an absolute howler.

I feel ready to try some new material now as well, so I plan to dive into James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere. I picked it up last winter with the best intentions, on which I shall now follow through. I do love Ellroy.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Death Penalty?

I don't know what it says about my mentality, but I can always remember quotes from fictional characters better than any public figure in real life. Probably they seem more real to me; there have certainly been times in my life where I have spent more time with books than I have with people, and fiction constitutes a large percentage of my reading matter. Powerful fictional characters take on a presence that is both palpable and credible, and I take my hat off to the writers who have parented them. 

In the aftermath and aftershocks of the Troy Davis execution, the words that come to my mind are those of one of the greatest wizards who ever lived:

"Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement."
--Gandalf the Grey (Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings)

Imaginary or not, I'm sure there are worse role models out there than Gandalf the Grey, Albus Dumbledore, and Lassie.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Another instalment: Under

Another chapter (NOT sequential) for UNDER, the saga of young women in the dawning age of the X Files:


Kara at Work (Night)

Humidity lies over the city like a damp woolen blanket, driven down upon man and beast by a heat of over thirty degrees Celsius. There are weather warnings in effect: people with respiratory disorders, or the very young or the very old, should stay inside and avoid the heat. All others are advised to take it easy.

The restaurants in the City do not care. Almost all of them thrive in this weather, when people are too hot to cook for themselves. The irony, reflects Kara, is that after deciding to abandon their hot homes and hot stoves for cool and effortless dining, they invariably decide to eat on an outdoor patio underneath the crushing anvil of humid heat. The only reason she can come up with is, that people in the City spend so much of the year battling blizzards and snow that they feel they simply have to dine outdoors whenever it’s warm enough – despite the fact that the current weather is just as uncomfortable, in its way, as the weather they suffer through during the colder months.

Kara likes to be busy, and she wants to make money. But she hates working the patio with a passion. It is at least an extra twenty yards farther to run with dishes and drinks, with the added inconvenience of a flight of stairs to climb. She finds herself embittered towards her clients and her employer at times like these; times where the City itself has issued a warning to all citizens – not just those who don’t work in restaurants, but indeed to all citizens – to avoid any unnecessary exposure to the outdoor elements. Not only is Kara exposed to these elements, she is in fact racing and hauling and lifting and stacking and exerting in these insane temperatures. The restaurant has a perfectly functional air conditioned dining room which every patron seems determined to ignore. With utter complacency, they expose themselves to the dangerous heat and humidity outdoors, while placidly requesting Kara make return trips with more ice, more water, more napkins to sponge the perspiration from their well-to-do brows.

The demands do not end there. Kara remembers the early summer, just as the punishing heat became a daily occurrence. There is a beautiful tree growing in the middle of the terrace, providing shade by day and ornamentation by night, strung with white electric fairy lights. In early summer, a species of lime-green insect bred in the tree, resulting in intermittent cascades of tiny pale-green bugs onto diners, onto their food and into their wine. Customers kept summoning Kara to their tables, snottily insinuating they’d like a fresh carafe of wine “because there are bugs in this one”. In vain Kara tried to point out that the tree was generating the insects, not the restaurant itself. Finally, when she began bringing wine by the glass to the offended diners, protected by a napkin over the mouth of the glass, and came back later to find the guests fishing the bugs out with their teaspoons and drinking the remainder, she realized the customers knew the restaurant was not battling an infestation. But people kept bitching about the green bugs anyway. Kara would say: “We have plenty of seating indoors. There are no green bugs and it’s air conditioned.” Some took her up on it, but most remained outside, ensuring Kara had to keep running the extra yards to bring them extra napkins and teaspoons to deal with the green bugs, and to bring them extra ice water to deal with the heat. She sucks it up and counts her money, but the heat is a crippling addition to the physical demands of the work.

“I don’t fucking get it,” she once vented to one of the cooks. “I rarely get to eat out and to be honest I rarely want to... I spend too much time working in restaurants to really enjoy eating in one. But I can guarantee you, if I’m going to set out forty or fifty dollars for a meal, I’d like to eat inside in an air conditioned, insect-free dining room, thank you very much.”

“Preaching to the choir, doll,” the cook had replied. They were propped against the side of the restaurant, in the brick recess created between two buildings, so the cook could have a cigarette and catch some fresh air between rushes.

Kara had immediately been contrite. “Sorry, Tim,” she said. “I know it must get a lot hotter back in the kitchen than it does outside.” Tim puffed a cloud of smoke towards the lamp over the side door and said nothing.

Tonight, though, with sweat pouring beneath her blouse and her short hair almost completely soaked with perspiration, Kara wishes she were working in the back with Tim. At least she’d be in one place, only having to take a step here and a step there. She wouldn’t be hauling ass up and down stairs, breezing through the air conditioned dining room for mere seconds before plunging into the heavy humidity of the outdoor terrace. She sets her empty tray down on the stand beside the computer, and uses her forearm to sluice moisture from her forehead as she slips behind the bar to mix a margarita. One of the dining room servers throws her a perky smile.

“Hot out there, eh?” she offers.

“Mmmm,” replies Kara, loading ice into the blender. As the newbie, she has to take whatever sections the other servers don’t want to work, and she has been a good sport about it so far. The job is profitable and she doesn’t want to lose it, but she can’t help wishing the others would offer to let her work indoors occasionally.

In this weather, iced cocktails sell very well and the restaurant’s owner has had margaritas on sale ever since the heat wave struck. Kara can put one together in less than six seconds, without even thinking about it. She rapidly measures mix and tequila into the blender and hits the go-button, watching the ice chunks blend into a velvety blizzard of pale green. Quickly she runs a lime wedge around the wide circumference of an oversized cocktail goblet, then inverts the glass and dips it into a saucerful of salt; the lime juice causes the salt to form a thick, frosty-looking rim around the glass. Kara stops the blender and lifts off the glass jug. The lime-green slush pours into the goblet, which she garnishes with more lime wedges and a couple of straws.

She runs water from the small bar sink into the blender jug to rinse it out. While the jug is filling she snags two bottles of Moretti beer from the cooler beneath the bar and uncaps them just as the jug begins to overflow. She takes the necks of the bottles in one hand and sets them on her tray beside the margarita as her right foot kicks the cooler door closed. Her other hand is turning off the water in the sink and dumping the water from the blender jug. She gives the jug a quick wipe with a towel and places it back on the blender unit, and deftly picks two beer glasses from the overhead rack and arranges them on her tray as she’s already exiting the bar. It is important to do all this before the booze in the ’rita has a chance to melt the ice too much and thereby water down the flavour.

A customer at a table facing the bar has been watching this little production, and offers Kara a smile as she passes him with her tray.

“That was poetry in motion, honey,” he grins.

“Thank you, but if you saw it at the end of my shift it might seem more like a dirty limerick,” Kara replies, hoping she sounds more cheery than she feels. Thankfully the man laughs, and Kara heads out to the terrace.

Through the dining room and down the terrace steps trots Kara, carefully watching the ground so she doesn’t trip. (She’s heard this can be sudden death when carrying a tray of drinks; other servers tell her that the way to carry a full tray confidently is to keep your eyes forward and your steps sure. However, after watching a fellow-server go ass over tip down those stairs a couple of weeks ago, Kara keeps her hands on her tray and her eyes firmly on her feet.)

Outside, a light blessing of a breeze has thankfully begun to blow. The moon is out and almost full, and the white fairy lights in the tree in the middle of the terrace make it seem like the stars and sky are very close. Kara delivers the margarita and the two beers, and picks up some empty plates and some orders for more drinks. The terrace seems to be emptying out rather early for a weekend night; apparently there is a big outdoor music festival at a park two blocks away, which is drawing a sizable post-dinner crowd.

Many people begin asking Kara to prepare their checks so they can leave for the concert. With a sense of relief, she heads inside to the computer, glad to know she might finish up a little early. She prints the checks off and returns the top of the terrace stairs, flipping through the guest checks and looking at all her tables to make sure she will give the right check to each customer.

The moon is low in the sky, and the dozen or so margaritas dotted at various tables around the terrace catch its illumination and glow a ghostly, alien green.

About Writing

A quote which speaks to the "write what you know" concept, not as a philosophy but as a necessity to the craft:

“To ask an author who hopes to be a serious writer if his work is autobiographical is like asking a spider where he buys his thread. The spider gets his thread right out of his own guts, and that is where the author gets his writing.” 
--Robertson Davies

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Under: Chapter One

Here is the first slice of a large work in progress; Under is the working title at present.



Kara at Home

Kara has a rule about the phone. For the first full hour following her return to the apartment after work she refuses to lift the phone to make a call or to answer it if it rings. And if the red “New Messages” indicator light is flashing, she won’t check her voicemails. Not for the first hour she’s home, and sometimes even longer than that.

She isn’t unfriendly or antisocial, but when she’s at work she talks to people all the time. Kara has two jobs, one in a video store and one in a restaurant, so she spends eight to fifteen hours each day talking to people because she has to. She has little time to sit and listen to herself think, to daydream, or to rinse out her mind and just think about nothing. That first hour at home, when she talks to no one except her two cats, is a necessary cleansing process.

She used to come home to a ringing phone and feel obligated to race for it, to pick it up in mid-ring while her umbrella dripped on the floor and the cats pirouetted plaintively at her ankles. She’d answer the phone with a snap or a bark, startling and offending whoever was on the other end of the line, whoever had had the effrontery to call at such an inopportune moment. “But you’re never there,” her friends would protest. “When are we supposed to call?” Kara finally realized how unreasonable her behaviour was, so now she doesn’t answer the phone until she’s ready to.

Today has been a long day. Saturdays nearly always are. It began at the video store at nine in the morning, and the store is always busy on Saturdays. Ditto for the little Italian restaurant where she works at night. She unloaded new stock at the store and did a weekly inventory and order sheet for the “oldies” section, and after lunch there was a lineup of customers at the cash register right until four-thirty, when she had to hurriedly change clothes and race to be at the restaurant for five o’clock. Since the June night was warm and balmy, both the dining room and the outdoor terrace were full until well past eleven o’clock. After the stragglers had finally left and the restaurant was cleaned and the patio furniture chained up and locked, it was half-past midnight. The other servers were going to a nearby pub for a couple of beers and invited Kara along, but she was too tired to go.

Home now, slumped on a small loveseat with her feet propped up on a low wooden table, she tips her head back and feels her body sink relentlessly into the cushions. Aside from her thirty-minute lunch and fifteen minute break at the music store, she has been on her feet for sixteen hours. Her feet, released from their shoes, throb gently and there is a heavy dull ache in her kidneys from standing so long.

The light on the phone is blinking. She closes her eyes and sees the flashstain the light has made on her retinas, imprinted against her lids. Both cats are swarming her, one laying claim to her lap and the other perching along the back of the loveseat, butting his head against her shoulder. Kara knows she will need to get up to feed them, to get herself some ibuprofen for her aching back. She knows she should open her mail from yesterday, make a sandwich, check her phone messages.

With a groan, she lowers her feet to the floor and makes her way toward the kitchen, the cats in eager attendance. She fills their food bowls and pours them cold water. Since the night is so hot she adds some ice cubes to the water bowl; they melt quickly but the cats enjoy licking at the ice as it clinks against the edge of the ceramic dish.

While the cats absorb themselves at the trough, Kara walks to the bathroom to change out of the blouse and skirt she wears at work. Moonlight streams through the skylight, turning the shower curtain into a phantom’s cape, and making her jump at her own reflection in the mirror. She flips on the light switch and the spectres retreat. The oversized, ripped black T-shirt she wore to bed last night is hanging on the hook on the back of the door. Kara undresses quickly, dropping her bra and panties into the sink and hanging her skirt and blouse on hangers swinging from the shower curtain rod. She stands at the sink nude, and quickly washes her underthings with a dash of laundry soap and hot water. Just as quickly she rinses them, and hangs them over the towel rod to dry. With her busy schedule, she often washes her small items at home to reduce laundromat trips. The big old-fashioned radiators in Kara’s apartment, and any other viable surfaces, are usualy festooned with drying bras, tights and T-shirts.

In lieu of a time-consuming shower – which she will have to repeat in the morning anyway because the night is so hot – Kara runs a sink full of almost-cold water and soaks a washcloth in it. Wringing it out, she washes her face with an acne-control cleanser. It is a source of irritation to her that, at age twenty-six, she is experiencing the skin disorders of an adolescent. After rinsing her face, she dampens the cloth again and passes it over her shoulders and across her chest, down her stomach and along her arms and legs. It feels deliciously cool.

She drops the large T-shirt over her head and worms her arms into the sleeves as she pads back to the kitchen. There she stands in a slight stupor, unable to recall what she’s come in there for. Then she remembers: food, some ibuprofen, something to drink. The ancient Imperial refrigerator (gently rounded corners, has to be defrosted every three months with pans of hot water and a hair dryer) holds half a tomato, a container of flavoured coffee whitener, a bottle of juice and a plastic bag with two slices of bread in it. Kara gnaws the side of her thumb, chastising herself for not having gone to the supermarket when she got off work early the day before. She could have the bread and tomato now, but she knows she will not have time to grab breakfast on the way to the music store tomorrow, and she finds it hard to work in the morning on an empty stomach.

Behind a weary looking jar of mayonnaise she can see two bottles of Heineken. Resignedly, she pushes the bread to the back of the fridge and pulls out a beer. As she uncaps it, she realizes she has left the bottle of ibuprofen in the bathroom. “Fuck it,” she says out loud, and takes a satisfying pull at the cold green bottle.

Kara returns to the living room, which is very small but looks larger than it is because of the twelve-foot-high ceilings and huge windows. She turns off the lights and turns on her TV, which is second-hand and very old. It only receives two channels, and those are fuzzy and static-ridden, but tonight the reception isn’t too bad and there’s an old Joan Crawford movie on. Kara sets her Heineken down on the little wooden table, making sure a coaster is underneath so the sweat from the bottle won’t make rings on the finish. She slumps sideways against the cushions stacked on the arm of the loveseat, tucking her legs up beside her. The oscillating fan on the shelf by the window swings gently back and forth, ruffling Kara’s hair every trip.

Through half-closed eyes Kara watches Joan Crawford march across the television screen, cutting the air with her shoulder pads and her sculpted hair. One cat curls against Kara’s stomach and the other keeps watch on the armrest by her head, and she falls asleep without finishing her beer, without brushing her teeth, without listening to her phone messages, without finding out who gets the worst of Joan Crawford in the film.


Monday, 19 September 2011

Shadow There: Part One

Here is a draft chapter of a work in progress -- intended to be a creepy Hallowe'en tale. ( I absolutely freakin' LOVE Hallowe'en...)

Shadow There

Chapter One

At one o’clock in the morning, just this side of Hallowe’en, in a dark and noisy nightclub, Lina’s husband stole a black umbrella.

A huge party was in progress and the music was loud. The club’s patrons were all dressed like freaks and pissed as rats, and Lina and Kevin were no exception. It was raining like hell outside and naturally the couple had brought their little collapsible umbrella with them. But somehow or other they had lost the umbrella at the club and they didn’t want to ruin their Hallowe’en costumes on the wet walk home. After a search of their seats and the surrounding floor failed to bear fruit, however, they were resigned to their soggy fate – until Kevin returned from a trip to the men’s room with the black umbrella.

“Someone just left it there, leaning in the corner of one of the stalls. It was … like … abandoned,” Kevin justified, trying to stand up straight. Lina, who was almost as drunk as he was, adopted an intoxicatedly self-righteous expression.

“That’s the same as stealing, what you just did,” she said unsteadily. “We should turn it in to the estabush... essablish… to one of the bouncers or something.”  Kevin began giggling at his wife’s slurred speech, causing her to shove him in the chest a little too hard. He staggered and clutched her for support, making them both laugh. Lina struggled for composure, and held Kevin’s shoulders as she spoke.

“It’s not abandoned, it’s lost… or forgotten. There must be a lost and found here, let’s turn it in. C’mon, I don’t care about my costume,” she urged, gesturing at her tulle and lace gown. The elaborate corseted creation had been deliberately torn and soiled with false blood which gushed from a “wound” in Lina’s neck. She did feel a pang of regret at the thought of spoiling her wig: a towering, white-powdered pompadour. (She had come to the party as Marie Antoinette, post-guillotine; Kevin was dressed as Wolverine from The X-Men.) The wig was expensive and the dress had taken her many hours to put together, and she had no desire to see either of them ruined by rain; but the idea of making off with this umbrella – a large, expensive-looking black silk affair with a long, curved leatherclad handle – did not sit well with her.

Kevin was young and cocky and drunk; he also loved his wife and didn’t want her to have to ruin the costume she had so painstakingly handmade; further, he was extremely unwilling to subject himself to a wet and drunken walk home with no protection from the elements. Glancing out the nightclub’s windows to the street below, he could see dozens of drenched people lining up for taxis and knew they wouldn’t have a chance of getting one for at least an hour; and oddly, all the friends from their habitual social circle had either left early or spent the evening elsewhere so there was no chance of snagging a ride from anyone they knew. He and Lina would have to walk, and they would get home soaked to the bone, their costumes destroyed. In his fuzzy-minded state he decided that since they had lost one umbrella at this nightclub, they were justified in taking home another, so he coaxed Lina downstairs to the street with the umbrella in his hand. Outside, he fumbled with the stylish accessory until he found the mechanism to open it. One touch of the discreet silver button allowed the shaft to pop upwards and permitted the metal ribs of the umbrella to snap open and spread themselves outwards to provide an a silent black silk shroud over their heads.

The young couple arrived home bone-dry and collapsed the black umbrella –  which retracted as smoothly and efficiently as it had expanded – giving it two careless shakes before leaning it against the wall of the little entry-way to the apartment they lived in on the top floor of an early 1900s townhouse. Lina and Kevin stripped off their boots and coats, and their wigs and costumes, and scrambled into the old-fashioned, claw-footed bathtub to wash their stage makeup off.

This clinical scrubbing in the bathroom turned into rabid, intoxicated lovemaking in the bedroom and much, much later the pair fell asleep in one another’s arms as the black umbrella dripped silently by the front door.


The two rose around eleven the following morning, much the worse for wear; but despite the crusty, achy inconvenience of their hangovers Lina and Kevin were very busy and productive that day.  After a cautious breakfast, queasily consumed, they recharged their batteries with lots of coffee and Advil.  Lina sat down at her drafting table and Kevin fired up the computer, and neither of them said a word to one another for the next six hours.

Lina was a fashion designer whose work was just beginning to get picked up by decent clients; Kevin and two of his friends were graphic designers and tech wizards who were using a business grant to develop and market what they were sure would be a very hot video game – “The next Diablo,” was Kevin’s optimistic prediction. Lina and Kevin were recently married, had little money and they had to live thriftily, but they were young, and savvy, and handsome, and knew the right type of people and spent their time being seen at the right places – they were sure their stars were about to rise.

This particular Sunday ticked by in silent toil, until the indignant miaowing of their two hungry cats stirred Lina and Kevin from their work. Lina pushed herself off the slant of her drawing-board and stood and stretched, listening to the cracks from her spine as she did so. Yawning, she turned towards the kitchen, the eager cats trotting a few paces ahead of her. She pulled a bag of cat food from the cupboard beneath the sink, and rattled kitty kibble into the empty bowls on the floor beside the wine rack.  Kevin had the refrigerator door open, resting an elbow on the top of the door as he leaned his lanky torso in to investigate the contents. He pulled out two bottles of Dutch beer and uncapped them quickly, handing one to his wife. She accepted it and gave him a kiss, and they lounged against the counter together, watching the cats wolf their food.

“How can they purr and eat at the same time?” Lina wondered.

“Dunno, but watching them eat is making me hungry. Do we have anything for dinner?”

“Mmmm,” she replied, taking a thoughtful pull at the bottle. “Not much actually. I don’t feel like making anything complicated. How about eggs and toast?”

“We had that for breakfast.”

“Fine then. I’ll trick ‘em out with veggies and cheese and make omelettes.”

“That’s just a fancy way of saying you’re feeding me eggs and toast.”

She raised a fine, elegant dark eyebrow at him over her Heineken. Making a point. Silently he grinned at her, and she shot him an amused glance as she turned to pull the egg carton and some other odds and ends out of the refrigerator. Watching her, her slim body and attenuated limbs making the most prosaic movements unconsciously elegant, Kevin felt a sudden yet familiar jolt hit his chest – that jolt that always drove home how lucky he was to have her, how lucky and perfect they were together. Quickly, lightly he hooked an arm around her long waist and pulled her against him, nuzzling his nose against the slender column of her neck where the short hair clung damp and wavy.

She started, then relaxed against him, laughing softly. “What gives?” she asked, gently disengaging his arms and turning around to face him. She tipped her forehead against his.

“I was just contemplating your loveliness. You’re the first woman I’ve met who makes a hangover look good.”

“I’m the last woman you’ll meet who makes a hangover look good. At least you better not be waking up with any other hungover women in the near future. Now get out of here, I have to concentrate. With eggs, the timing is everything, and I always screw it up if I talk while I’m cooking them.”

Kevin acquiesced, letting her go. “Okay. I’ll be watching TV in the other room if you need help.” He ambled off to collapse on the futon, his eyelids drowsing downwards even as he reached for the remote control.

The sounds of the six o’clock news drifted into the kitchen as Lina set out her heavy, white ceramic mixing bowl, found a whisk, and thumbed open the egg carton. She took out an egg, cracked it briskly on the rim of the bowl, and was about to drop the shells in the sink when the stench overwhelmed her. Gagging into her cupped palm, she turned abruptly away from the bowl and desperately swallowed back her nausea. Taking a deep breath, and holding it, she glanced into the mixing bowl. A glistening pool of clouded, greyish slime was puddled at the bottom of the bowl. Floating uneasily at its centre was a lump of dun-yellow yolk, shot through with bloody streaks. Desperate for air, Lina risked another breath and immediately wished she hadn’t: the reek was unbelievable.

Quickly she glanced at the date on the egg carton, noting that the sell-by date was good for another two weeks. She had purchased these only yesterday afternoon, and the ones she and Kevin had consumed that morning had been absolutely fine. Quickly, she carried the bowl into the bathroom and dumped the mess into the toilet, and flushed twice. Once back in the kitchen she thoroughly scrubbed the ceramic bowl with dish soap and her scouring pad, and set some incense burning in the censer on the windowsill to banish the smell. Mac, the surviving finch from a pair given to Lina and Kevin as a wedding gift, began fluttering and chirping loudly as the incense made its way up to where his ornate black wire cage hung from a hook and chain in the ceiling. Lina moved the censer so the smoke wouldn’t stupefy him.

She selected another egg, confident the bad one was an anomaly – after all, the four eggs they’d used that morning had been fine, hangover queasiness notwithstanding. Lina brought the egg sharply down on the edge of the bowl to crack it, and pulled apart the halves of the broken shell to dump the insides. The smell was a little better this time – barely so – but the egg’s contents (its guts, she couldn’t help thinking) were even more revolting, with purplish bruises clotting the yolk so that almost none of the yellow could be seen. This egg also rapidly met its destiny with the toilet bowl.

Stirred from his lethargy by all the running back and forth and toilet flushing, Kevin emerged from the living room to find out what the commotion was. Lina explained about the eggs, and Kevin told her he reckoned some of the remaining eggs must be okay since they had been fine that morning. He confidently picked up a new egg and cracked it open, and was soon swearing and gagging, blindly poking the goo down the sink with a spoon as he forced it on its way with jets of hot water from the tap. Lina resignedly threw the rest of the carton of eggs into the trash (but gently, so as not to break any more potential stinkbombs) and shook most of a box of baking soda down the drain to kill the odour.

A phone call was soon placed to the nearest pizzeria, and within half an hour Lina and Kevin were dining on a medium thin crust Mediterranean pizza with extra black olives and feta cheese. They watched back-to-back reruns of The Simpsons and were in bed, fast asleep, by half past ten. The couple’s two cats carefully selected spots near the foot of the bed and independently began kneading and purring their way to sleep.

A fresh rain, which had left off around four a.m. the day before, began marking time against the windows...a ticking unheard and unheeded by any living creature at on the top floor of the old townhouse.


To be continued...

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Straight from the Chest: Is Your Lover Bad Medicine?

Last winter, a friend of ours used our place as a crash pad for a few weeks while he attempted to iron out difficulties with his girlfriend. It was an unusual experience – for him as well as for us, I should imagine; there is something rather Gen-X about getting jilted the week before Christmas and being tossed out on your ass with nothing but some clothes and your computer, and at our age (early 40s) our Gen-X years are well behind us. In any case, our friend – let’s call him Brett – didn’t stay with us long; negotiations with the girlfriend failed abysmally and Brett decided to surf from our spare room to his mother’s sofa while contemplating his next move. For the record, we were sorry to see him go; unlike most Gen-Xers we had known in our earlier years, Brett was the ideal roommate, often cooking dinner for us or taking the initiative to shovel the driveway if he arrived home before we did. Furthermore, he was very likeable and we enjoyed having him around. Clearly that girlfriend had no idea what a gem she was throwing away, and I felt very badly for him. During his stay with us, Brett tried to be as unobtrusive as possible: he slept on an air mattress in our spare room, set up a makeshift computer station at one end of our couch, and stored most of his personal effects and toiletries in our little-used basement shower nook.

Not long after his departure, I went downstairs to clean the shower stall and found that Brett had left behind several toiletry items that he had either forgotten to take with him or had decided were easier to replace than pack up. Among these items were soap, toothpaste, and several hair and body care products. Looking them over, I was struck with even stronger feelings of sympathy for Brett than I’d had previously; the abandoned articles somehow made me feel extremely sorry for him, and it wasn’t too hard to see why. Brett’s toothpaste was designed for sensitive teeth (he had painful dental problems he couldn’t afford to fix); his hair products were all branded as ‘gentle,’ which no doubt reflected his often-mentioned desire to keep his receding hairline at bay; the blurb on his bottle of body wash promised to promote and maintain elasticity of the skin and his moisturizer had firming and anti-aging properties. I certainly see nothing wrong with men buying and using these products, of course, but in this particular situation it all seemed especially depressing to me. Each item screamed vulnerability, insecurity, or flat-out fear: the fear of a 40-something man who, in addition to the already-intimidating prospects of middle age, is also dealing with emotional and financial loss.

Behind these depressing feelings, however, was a nagging sensation of déjà vu that I couldn’t shake off. What was resonating with me so vividly about pawing through Brett’s cosmetic products? It was while I was storing those leftover toiletries in the bathroom upstairs that I finally resolved it: back in my own Gen-X/post Gen-X days, I was a relentless and unrepentant bathroom snooper.

In those days – we’ll call them my dating days, which covered the ages of about 28 to 34 as I was a really late bloomer – I had a tendency to avoid getting too “friendly,” shall we say, with anyone who actually lived in my city. I never quite shook off the small-town horror of having everyone who knew you know everything about you; this is never more uncomfortable than in situations where relationships go bad and the entire community gets to discuss it. In addition to this factor, I spent most of my adult life alone – I liked living in my own space and was reluctant to share it with roommates, pets, relatives or even short-term visitors – so having distance relationships was a nice way to balance out a love life with my hunger to maintain my own space. The difficulty with that type of situation, however, was that I generally had very little background information on my romantic partners other than what they told me themselves: the usual conduits of mutual friends or business associates were limited or non-existent. The Internet, too, was not the invasive beast that it is today where you can Google boyfriends present, past and future and learn all kinds of fun or disturbing facts about someone before you even agree to meet up at Starbucks for an overpriced hot beverage; and, in any case, I had no computer back then (now I have three…what the hell???) so that avenue was also a dead end for me.

There is a female character in one of Ira Levin’s novels who has a small, well-appointed apartment to which no male visitor has ever been invited; however, she dreams of the day she will meet Mr. Right and allow him to come into her abode. Once a week she cleans her apartment meticulously, spending most of her time dusting and arranging the books on her shelves because she feels that books are the most accurate index of ones personality, and that when someday Mr. Right walks in and looks at her bookshelf, all her best qualities will be on display. I fully agree with this character’s assessment, and would like to add that if you want an accurate index of someone’s insecurities, you can bypass their diary, their shrink, or their mother and head straight for their bathroom cabinets.

 I don’t recall when I formulated this theory, although it may have started when I witnessed a friend of mine surreptitiously flipping through the wallet of a new male acquaintance when he left the room for a few moments. “Oooh, a gold AMEX card,” she said approvingly. I personally felt that was a little out of line – admittedly it was a good way for her to get some kind of a bead on what this guy’s financial situation was like: gold AMEX equals good credit equals reliability, dependability, and so on; however, any guy will likely grossly misunderstand your motives if he happens to catch you at it. I did, however, wonder if she was on to something, and at some point in my considerations I came to realize that it would be more valuable to know what someone’s weak points were than what their strong points were. After all, it’s natural to have a good reaction to someone with gold AMEX status, but what if he also has prescriptions for anti-psychotic medication and scrotal itch ointment? You see my reasoning.

Thus began my forays into the shower caddies, vanity cupboards, and yes, even the medicine chests of my potential romantic partners. As I noted earlier, these were usually people who were in town either for the short term or sporadically, so sometimes I had to raid travel cases or shaving kits in search of valuable clues to their inner selves. I regarded this as nothing less than self-preservation. Not only could I avoid serious potential hazards (such as psychotic episodes or contagious rashes), I could also arm myself with useful tools with which to navigate the relationship. For example: gentle hair treatment products equal anxiety about thinning hair, whether or not any hair loss is actually evident. Strategy: compliment partner’s hair regardless of what it looks like, and try to work in subtle references to hairless celebrities you find attractive. Another example: acne treatment products equal anxiety about complexion, whether or not any skin problems are actually evident. Strategy: ignore any breakouts if and when they erupt; or, if he is actually comfortable enough around you to moan about a stray zit on his chin, bolster his confidence by saying how lucky he is that his skin is so youthful at his age. Results: partner feels at ease around you and better about himself; eventually, he will come to equate these feelings directly with your presence and will want to spend more such enjoyable moments in your zone. Of course, if you are so shallow that a receding hairline or some zits would put you off a potential partner, you can abandon ship at this point and leave the poor fellow free to seek less particular company.

These efforts steered me well during the dating years, and on more than one occasion I thought morosely how my rare experiences prior to employing the bathroom search method – which were unilaterally disastrous – could have been avoided if I had been using this strategy all along. (One memorable example from my past was the hopeless specimen who had a long twig hidden behind the toilet cistern, which I eventually learned was used to get rid of unexpected clogs; his bathroom cupboards, which I unfortunately didn’t examine until after I moved in, contained absolutely nothing – a portent more dire than the most disturbing medications could ever have been.) I confided my snooping strategy to a friend at one point, and she was completely horrified. “People put that stuff behind a door for a reason!” she exclaimed. “Yes, exactly!” I agreed, pleased that she had caught on so well. Call it product research, if you will: occasionally I would taste-test a new brand of mouthwash or sniff an unfamiliar aftershave to determine whether I should encourage someone to use it around me more often.

I even let a couple of my dates know that I had been scoping their Scope and poking through their pills. On one occasion, I had met an intern who was in town for a few months, and we were about to execute the third movement of the dating minuet (the preceding movements being First Date, followed at some point by First Meal at My Place). The third movement is known as First Visit to the Guy’s Place, and it was during this phase that I would typically find weak spots and potential hazards. My experiences with this fellow up to this point had been satisfactory to an almost unbelievable extreme: he was articulate, amusing, cultured, handsome, fun-loving and courteous; he phoned at least twice a day, and brought soup and juice to my place when I came down with a cold a few days after we’d met. In my experience this was literally too good to be true and I was waiting for the demon to emerge and declare itself. No doubt he would have dismal decorating sense, or a closet full of sexual torture devices, or an incontinent pet ferret. As soon as I walked through his apartment door, however, I was impressed. Either he had cleaned like a fanatic prior to my arrival or he was fanatically clean all the time, and I was determined to find out which. As he led me through the apartment, which was simply yet elegantly maintained, I said many honest and complimentary things; inside, however, I was becoming almost irritated at how precise and perfect everything was and I became determined to undo this flawless façade as soon as I had the chance to dive into the cupboard under his bathroom sink.

We had been sipping an excellent wine and talking on his designer sofa for just a few minutes when I excused myself to use the facilities. Under cover of flushing and running water, I carefully tossed the small premises: the cabinet under the sink contained only cleaning products and rolls of bathroom tissue; a black leather shaving kit on the shelf contained only razors, hairbrush, toothbrush and clippers (all immaculate and matching); and finally, the mirrored medicine chest opened up to reveal a small bottle of mouthwash (wintergreen, my favourite), a tube of toothpaste (also wintergreen – no problems there), another hairbrush (possibly indicative of a vain preoccupation with hair but, as his hair was stunning, justified in his case), and a bottle of men’s cologne (Hemisphere – a scent that, to this day, I identify with elegance, stolen moments, and a delight underpinned with the tension that accompanies something fragile and temporary). To the last detail, the room was spotless, well organized, and – as befits someone who has a permanent residence elsewhere – ready to pack up and go at a moment’s notice. More importantly, it was devoid of secrets: as a pedigree, this bathroom was blue ribbon but as a reconnaissance mission it was a total failure. I marched out to the living room to confront him.

He looked up as I entered. “You know where every single thing is in this place, don’t you!” I said accusingly. He was quick to defend himself. “I’m not gay! I’m just really well-organized,” he said. He hesitated a little before adding, “I think I forgot to flush. Does that help?” I kicked myself silently for not noticing. “Yes, and yes,” I lied, before loftily walking into the kitchen to stick my head in the freezer for a few calming minutes.

Today I share a home with someone who actually lives in the same town as I do (although he moved 1000 miles to do so). We have two bathrooms and all the cabinets are full, partly with my stuff but a lot of it’s his… guys can be even girlier than girls, much of the time, as I discovered when I traveled 1000 miles to visit his house for a forensic analysis of his bathroom’s contents. And what happens when I apply the bathroom psychoanalysis method to myself? If our bathroom cabinets at home are any indication, my id is a Pandora’s Box of 40-something insecurities and failing vitality: ointments and sprays to treat unmentionable conditions vie for space with firming masques, eye-bag bleach, Robaxacet and heating pads. In brief, if I were in the dating scene today, I know I’d still be sniffing through medicine chests and raiding shaving kits…but not before purchasing a lock and key for my own.