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.


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