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Stories to enchant.

Sweet Young Thing

by Wendy Parker

Other people's mental illnesses have a way of getting under your skin. At least, that's the way Molly felt about Geoff's bipolar alcoholism. It got under her skin to the extent that she thought she was becoming ill herself. At first, that worried her. Then she stopped caring. At last, she began to enjoy the frisson of her schizophrenia.

It all started that afternoon in the kitchen, as she looked around at the copper-pan wallpaper installed by the former owner, the butcher-block table inherited from her mother-in-law's cottage, the fussy gingham curtains chosen by her mother and the stainless steel work counter chosen by her husband. What a dog's breakfast. And none of it hers.

Her coffee had cooled to tepid and David was squealing outside. Molly wanted to smash the cup against the wall and walk away, out the front door, down the steps, away from this house, Geoff's house. She drained the coffee and ran pertly to the back door, aware of both the role and the actress.

"What's the matter, honey?" she called sweetly.

The toddler sniffed bravely and launched into a story about a toy truck and a bucket. Someone or something wasn't doing what it was supposed to do. Molly sighed and pacified her only child with promises of milk and cookies. She pretended she was performing in a television commercial. Smile fixed, image of perfect mom clear in her mind, she dispensed the required cookies, glass of milk, hug and kiss. She was sick of herself.

David swaggered back to the sandbox and Molly sank into the kitchen chair.

"Damn," she said to no one.

"Damn," she said more loudly to the hideous wallpaper and the table and the curtains and the counter.

"I'm too old to have young children around," she said aloud to herself, in an echo of Geoff's oft-repeated cop-out.

"Who isn't?" the beast replied.

Molly tried to laugh at herself. Then she put her head down on the table and stifled some tears, while the beast sniggered from behind her right ear. She wished it would go away and let her be maudlin.

Maudlin. Now there was a sin that would never touch Leslie. Leslie, with her red-brown hair, her crinkling green eyes, her cynical grin. Leslie would be vivacious, mocking, passionate, even tragic, but she would never be maudlin. Certainly not in a North Toronto kitchen. And certainly not with a toddler lording it over her from the fenced backyard. Never.

Molly glanced at her watch. Afternoon in Toronto meant after-work drinks in Lisbon. What would Leslie be doing now? With whom would she be? What did she do in the evenings after dinner? Was she lonely by herself in a foreign city, missing her ex-husband, her mother, her brother and sister? Molly thought back to her own fleeting days as a single girl. Alone in the city, she had missed her family and boyfriend Tom. The nights had seemed endless, but she had been proud of her independence and regal in her bedsitter apartment. She had known how to enjoy life then.

"What the hell," Molly announced to the walls. "You make your life and you live it. Time to get dinner."

She went to the fridge feeling like a limp balloon. The beast was giggling at her and David was pounding on the back door. Molly reflected that this was the moment for the hired girl to produce a gracious, understated dinner - precisely on time - for massa boss man, sir. That struck her as funny. She wished she could stop picking at herself.

Dinner went poorly again. Tired, frustrated, angry with his boss and still smarting from some humiliation he had suffered over a spoiled videotape, Geoff unloaded a tale of woe on her. Try as she might, Molly found her thoughts drifting again to Leslie and her success in business. Geoff must have sensed her disinterest in his story, because he quickly turned his guns of frustration in her direction.

The dinner, he said, was a perfect example of how she was always making mistakes.

"You always try too hard," he said, refusing to eat. "Look at all the vegetables, for God's sake. There's enough here for a fucking army. You knock yourself out all afternoon trying to be little Miss Perfect Homemaker and then you've got no energy left for David or me. Dinner is always so late I lose my appetite. And what do I get when I sit down. Bitch and moan, bitch and moan. How would you feel if you worked hard all day...

On and on it went.

The upshot was that he had been forced to sit drinking beer for far too long because of her stupid obsession with vegetables. It was, she thought, a nice variation on last week's complaint - that she was a slovenly housekeeper obsessed with her stupid self-improvement courses.

"I don't ask for much," she heard, when she tuned back in to his rant. "But I've got to have my dinner at a decent hour. That's not a lot to ask, is it? But oh no, you've got to be Lady Gourmet Cook while I sit drinking beer and listening to my stomach rumble. By the time your production is ready, I don't want to eat anymore. And what about David? The poor little guy..."

She tuned him out again and watched his mouth move. Bleary and slack jawed, with his sad gray eyes narrowed to slits, he had flapped his gums at her while she chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed. Finally, he threw down his fork and stalked away, ready to sulk away the evening with a case of beer.

Molly surveyed the remains of the pork chops, mashed potatoes, canned peas, canned corn -- a gourmet extravaganza that had taken her half an hour to whip up - and reflected that grizzly old men should not have to be bottom-of-the-totem-pole photographers at half-assed country TV stations.

"Jesus Christ," she muttered, as David broke into a howl of fear.

That night, she sat at the hated butcher-block table with yet another cup of coffee and listened numbly to the silence of the house. Her mind replayed Geoff's speech and made no sense of it. From some other fetid pool of memory came her mother's advice on the rest of her life.

"The baby needs a name," her mother had said. "The baby needs a real home with a mommy and a daddy. You have to grow up and do what's best for the child now."

So Molly had done the right thing and married Geoff, while her own gut had screamed at her to clear out the bank account and head for the coast.

It wasn't Geoff's fault, she reasoned. Part of her had always wanted to follow his lead - quit her job, for instance, and stay home with infant David. Sure, he had packaged it nicely and she had been too worn down to resist. But her instincts had known that he would pounce on the chance to be the money man. He had wanted that power over her, and she had given it to him.

"That's love for you," she told her spindly spider plant. Even the plant sneered. Somewhere in the silence and her own remorse, she decided more was demanded of the night. She poured the remains of her coffee down the sink and dug out her bottle of Italian red out from the potato bin. Halfway through, the bottle she began to discover eternal truths about Geoff and her. She hadn't given him much of a chance, she decided. He was reacting to the role she was playing for him. He didn't even know her. He didn't suspect what she was. Even so, even so.

"Oh, for Christ's sake," she said finally. Her voice echoed in the sleeping house.

She saw herself pushing the table away, its designer-crafted legs scrabbling on the vinyl flooring. Pushing it again and again. Slamming it into the drywall and gouging an ugly tear in the copper-pan wallpaper. Her mother's copper-pan wallpaper. Geoff's copper-pan wallpaper. Wallowing in rage. Throwing the kitchen chair across the room and yanking at the gingham curtains. Balling them up and heaving them at Geoff's washerless, no-drip faucet. She imagined the kitchen laid waste, Geoff dragged from his bed in a fuzzy half-sleep and kicked into the street, then his house ripped apart, brick by brick, and flung howling after him.

Coolly, her beast taunted her.

"You're out of control, Molly. You're making a fool of yourself. You really need therapy this time. Sit down and get a grip on yourself."

"I am sitting," she said. "I haven't moved."

"You thought it."

She had to agree, as usual. She had thought it. It was sick. She was sick. Pray God that Geoff would never know what went on in her sick mind. He would spend countless hours dissecting her imperfections and listing how she had failed him through her immaturity and conceit.

As if he had not failed her in every respect.

"There you go again," her beast chided.

"Why do I keep hiding my feelings," she wondered. "Why don't I just let everything boil over for once and have it out with Geoff?"

"Chicken," the beast replied. "Afraid to force events because you don't think you can make it on your own. Not with David in tow. Face it. You haven't been able to get a job for more than a year and you haven't got any money of your own. You're too proud to ask your mother for help. If she did help, you'd feel lousy about it. You'd do the thing by half measures, never really leaving here, and you know you wouldn't make it. You'd come crawling back again within six months."

"Right," she said. The beast was right. Just as Geoff was always right and wrong at the same time. Just as her mother was always wrong.

"So why don't I launch a counterattack?" she asked. "I could make his life a nightmare, couldn't I?"

The beast chuckled.

"You couldn't do it. That's my style, but you couldn't carry it off. Someone might disapprove."

"That's true," she admitted. "I was brought up to do the right and noble thing. I can't stand disapproval. I like to be regarded as a nice person with high moral standards and a lofty nature. A sweet young thing of principle, you might say."

"When actually, you are a vacuous non-entity with no principles of your own and the nature of a slug."

"Harsh."

"But true."

"Perhaps." Molly was a bit taken aback. She hadn't thought the beast capable of such viciousness toward her. Did this conversation indicate some schizophrenia in her make-up? Her thoughts probed gently at the hairball of suicide in her psyche. Was part of her nature trying to kill off the other?

"Hmmm," she said.

"Hmmm, indeed," the beast agreed.

The silence ripened.

"Well," the beast said finally. "You're welcome to any insights you want to extract from this, but the hour is late, your continuing crisis is coming to no resolution and I'm bored with you. I'll see you again tomorrow if you like."

"Yes," she said. "Goodnight."

She thought of Leslie as she tidied the kitchen and prepared for bed. Good old Leslie and her once-a-decade flying visits. Those two tense hours in a downtown coffee bar had stirred the silt in her river and brought the beast out of the depths. Molly wished the beast would go back into hibernation, to slumber forever in the mud where she had put it, but it refused. It loved Leslie, or the idea of Leslie, too much.

The next morning she walked into the living room expecting a quiet half hour to herself before David woke. Instead she found Geoff in his Lazy-boy, bony hand curled around a bottle of beer and wide eyes glaring holes in the carpet. He turned his baleful, red-rimmed glare on her and she could read the message clearly. She was fresh meat for his fevered brain.

She knew the drill by heart. He would pick at her, starting the fight. She would try to deflect him with innocuous monosyllables, ersatz sympathy. She would fail. He would lash at her with hurtful words until he hit a soft spot and she responded in kind. They would yell at each other. He would feel better and go back to bed to sleep it off. The play would run for four or five days and then they would go back to their normal state of guarded truce. Upsetting. But in its own twisted way, it had a comfortable predictability about it. Sometimes she would experiment with different answers to see what would happen. Nothing changed. She could drag the game out, but she couldn't change its outcome. The episodes were stimulating, but she was tiring of them. Today, with the beast stirring in the muck, she had other things to do.

"You're a picture," she told him, in what she hoped would be a graceful departure from her role. "Too moody for work today?"

Ah. He liked that. It was a challenge. She had strayed from the role before and he had always drawn her back in. He had patience and strength. A cunning opponent. She was tempted to go right to the endgame and smash him in the face. She knew she could win that way. It was always an option. But it was high risk. If she pulled back from the edge, he would have her frozen in the game again, perhaps forever. So she tried a parry instead and turned her back on him.

"What would your father think of you?" he said, going to a frontal attack. Too bad she wasn't vulnerable on that ground any more. He had overworked that sore and built up scar tissue. He was too sure of himself in his assessments of her. He had forgotten to allow for change and time and fading of grief. He was losing a step.

Geoff sensed her confidence and moved to lower ground. He probed her feelings of failure and her nameless guilts. He was like a dentist scratching for a soft spot in her enamel. He worked selfishness, emotional instability, motherhood's duties undone, her lack of financial contribution to the household, her inability to find a job, her failure to get her business idea off the ground, her mother's jealousy of him.

Nothing touched her. She parried effortlessly.

In truth, she was as surprised as he was at his unexpected impotence. She stared at him as his words fell in sad disarray around her.

With admirable endurance, he dug in. He worked her pity and tugged at her sympathy for the horror of his last marriage, the ungrateful children, the dead son, the promotions denied, the career stymied, the unbalanced boss, the grinding job.

Molly smiled at him benignly.

Lo, how the mighty are fallen, she thought.

"Perhaps," she said, "things will look better after a little nap. For the moment, though, you look like bloody hell. You're going to upset David with all that ranting, and if you haven't called in to work with some lame excuse for your absence, you're probably out of that hateful job of yours."

The worse he looked, the better she felt. The more he snarled, the more she wanted to laugh with joy. The game was hers. He had nothing left. He was melting, evaporating, being slowly consumed by his own venom.

She went and picked up David, who was sitting on the floor in the doorway, arguing with his favourite action figure.

"Goodbye, Geoff," she said. "David and I are off to the coast today. There's nothing here for us now."

"What?"

"Didn't you hear me last night? I told you I was going to Vancouver. David and I are leaving."

"You can't do that," he growled, a fighter to the end. "What about David? What about me? You've got to learn that you can't be Joe College all your life, not when you've got a child and a husband and responsibilities. You've got to grow up."

"Really, Geoff? Maybe you're right." The beast filled her head. "Well, good luck then."

"That's the trouble with you," he whined at her back. "You see things in black and white. You can't see any grays. As soon as we have the slightest disagreement, you want to run away. What's the matter with you anyway? If you loved me, you'd stay and help me instead of kicking me when I'm down. You must be proud of yourself..."

She tuned him out. With David on her hip, she went to collect the bags she had packed in the night.

The beast was loose and running free, but she wasn't fool enough to think it would stay in control for long. Geoff would follow them. She knew he'd turn up at her door again, wherever she went. This was just the first skirmish.

As she clambered into the cab in front of the house, she looked into her son's wise face. "I'm going to be all right now," she told him. "I think we're going to be all right now."

The baby held her gaze with his sad, gray eyes. He was unconvinced.
Rupert's Comments:

Serfdom? The Atlantic has a interesting - if long and rambling - discussion of the role of serfdom in the liberation of the North American middle class woman. In How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement, Caitlin Flanagan examines what the women's movement has done, or not done, for poor immigrant nannies.

3165 words

Submitted on 2007-05-06 21:05:38

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