Slice of Life
by Wendy ParkerMy mother laughs at my life and says I should write it up as a soap opera, like one of those 20-pound paperbacks they make into three-part mini-series for television. My mother says it would brighten the dark winter nights of thousands of shut-ins. Ha. Ha.
Well, I'm not going to take her advice. Her advice is invariably disastrous to me. Instead, I'll do one of my famous vignettes, a slice of life that speaks to the universal and eternal without recourse to the shabby mechanisms of plot and action. I love my vignettes. My mother and countless magazine editors find them uninteresting.
At first, I was going to write nothing. Why should I? Why should I flaunt myself in front of a chorus of gigglers and yawners who feel a righteous joy in their dissections of my life? Why should you, dear reader, have the right to poke and pry into my sordid secrets, to pass judgment on my thoughts, to feel oh-so superior because you would have handled everything so much more effectively? Screw you, I said in my blush of innocence. Screw you all. I owe you nothing.
Then, of course, the circumstances of my life deteriorated again and I changed my tune. The bottom line of life is money, and my husband decided that I was not contributing enough of it to our little household. My husband says we need money. We must have more of it or all will be lost. His mother has money. She would give us some of it if we let her live with us for the winter. Perhaps she would even find a niche for us in her last testament. If I can't give my husband the money he needs, he will turn to his mother, and all that remains of my sanity will be lost.
But what shall I do for this money? I am not winsome enough for respectable pursuits. Nor do I want to walk the streets with beery, smelly, twisted men. Are these the only options now for a mid-life woman with a grab bag of talents no one wants to buy? I can read books, wash dishes, talk convincingly on metaphysical subjects and write dull magazine pieces that no one will buy. During the past two years of joblessness and shame, I have learned these are unrewarding skills.
I will do, then, what my dear husband commands. I will take up my begging bowl and accost you with my pleading. I will sell little slices of my soul as American crackheads sell pints of their blood. I will display a slice of my comic-opera life on paper and I will demand money for it.
Let me warn you, though, that I'll give you the smallest piece, a smidgen, and I'll make you pay dearly for it if I can. Cut off a slice off your own soul if you want more. The scene opens with Susan, our heroine, trudging through the mid-winter darkness in one of northern Ontario's bleaker mining towns. She is dressed in fashionable but unlined boots, gray Lycra pants, mid-calf beige coat, hand-knit wool mittens, blue wool scarf and white mohair tam. It is her going-out garb.
Temperatures are hovering around 30 below in the 7 p.m. gloom and snow crunches beneath her wooden heels. The four-lane street beside her is quiet on this Tuesday evening. The sidewalk is almost deserted. Susan has been walking for half an hour now and she is numb with cold. She wonders if she will freeze to death in the middle of this city, in the centre of all these lights and houses. She keeps going because it is too far to turn back. Why is she doing this?
She is going to her favourite restaurant because she refuses to sit alone in her apartment night after night. She has always liked this restaurant and tonight she wants one of their rare steaks and one of their small carafes of dry red wine. Tonight she has decided she will no longer be intimidated by her singleness. So she sets out in the freezing darkness of this hostile city because she wants to be in control of her own life again.
Each step is getting more difficult now. Her thighs, separated from the cutting wind by a thin layer of man-made cloth, have gone numb and her feet move like lumbering blocks of ice. Her mind shies from the idea that could die here like this. It would be too ironic; she would look too foolish. Part of her welcomes the thought, however. Death would put an end to the terrifying emptiness she has felt for the past month. Death would make David realize what he has done to them, how he has betrayed her.
The incurable optimist in her wins and she plods on.
She turns a corner and toils through the deserted shopping mall parking lot. Time is no longer keeping pace with her. Perhaps she is already dead, frozen in the limbo of this endless parking lot. She walks and walks and yet seems to get no closer to her goal. Unhappy with the image, she closes her eyes and sees herself instead as the victim of a small aircraft crash in the high Arctic, pushing relentlessly through the never-ending night in a land of ice.
A concrete curb catches her toe and she stumbles. When she opens her eyes, she sees she has made it to the sidewalk and its safety again. Down this new street, she can already see the restaurant sign, hanging bright and cheery between a home decorating centre and an animal hospital. Susan allows herself to think she might make it after all. Then she begins to fear the next step in her journey. How will she make her entrance? Will she be able to handle it? Will the other diners, all grouped in couples around the rustic room, stare at her and question her right to be there as a mere solo woman? Will she be overwhelmed by memories of other dinners with David? Will she make herself a spectacle for them by sobbing uncontrollably over her wine?
Then she is at the heavy wooden door, her hand reaching for the brass ring that will give her access to shelter. Her fears are choking her, but she is cold. She needs warmth and wine. Susan pushes her terrors aside, tugs open the door and steps into the cocoon of the restaurant. It is like sliding into a warm bath. The chatter of diners envelops her and the soft lights draw her forward. How, she wonders, could she ever have been afraid of this?
Susan gazes around the dining room and is reassured to see that nothing has changed since her last visit. This is the first time in five years, since they first came to this city, that she has been here without David. She feels his shadow at her side but pays it no mind. That is in the past. He will not pull out her chair. He will not sit at her table, give their order to the waiter, sample the wine, laugh and joke with her about a thousand little things in their lives.
Her heart jumps when the hostess approaches, but the woman is smiling a welcome.
"Table for one?" she asks smoothly, as if it is the most normal think in the world for Susan to be alone.
Susan smiles back and nods. She follows the hostess through the room to a nice table by the window. When she dares to raise her head, no one is staring at her. They are all too engrossed in their own conversations and their own worlds. And the waiter is politely respectful as he takes her order.
She draws a paperback from her purse, settles into the padded leather chair and relaxes.
Halfway through her rare steak and dry red wine, she feels her life seeping back into her. The frozen bits deep inside her are beginning to thaw. For the first time since David walked out of the apartment to join his new love, she can see some sort of life ahead. Susan puts aside her book and toys with a plan for her next step, her next evening. She determines that she must spend more of her adequate income on herself from now on and she will start by taking a cab home, an extravagance that would have thrown David into a brooding rage. She doesn't have to worry about David's reactions anymore, does she? The restaurant is warm and comfortable. The food is reassuring. The glow of the wine feels good to her.
She tells herself that this whole mess with David is going to work out for the best after all.
I wish I could tell you that Susan went on to a happy, independent life after her separation and divorce from David. I wish I could report that she recovered from the shock of her young husband's flight with one of her friends. I wish I could say that she found her self in the triumph of the restaurant and established herself at last at last as a truly adult human being.
But I can't do that. There should be at least one outpost of hard truth in these distorted times. I will be that outpost.
After less than a month of heady independence, Susan fell into the sweaty clutches of another lover. She became pregnant, miscarried, became pregnant again. When the baby girl arrived, she made a bad marriage with a man who had also been much abused by life. They gave each other little but hurt and horror. She then relinquished her beloved job to take up domestic bliss and she knew an emptiness more profound than anything she had ever experienced before.
Today, Susan believes she has failed in every significant aspect of her life. She believes she has nothing but her beautiful daughter and that one brief moment of hope in the restaurant. She no longer even wonders what went wrong. She feels nothing and expects nothing.
She is so lacking in pride that she will sell slices of her soul at her new husband's command. Imagine how she will feel when she discovers that no one is interested. But that's another act in the opera, and it awaits another time.
Suffered a betrayal of epic proportion in your own life? Well, check out an academic discussion of Betrayal Trauma at this University of Oregan site and let a general sense of boredom wash that trauma away.
Submitted on 2007-05-06 21:05:06
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