I am sitting across from Kris’ sister at a restaurant called No Thanks Charlie. We’re both on our second virgin cocktail, and even with the dearth of booze a sort of drunk has fallen over me, the wobbly pseudo-intoxication of an old bear creeping out into the daylight after hibernation. I look around and that’s just what it’s like, everything buttery and fuzzy, half-real. Never mind that it’s 30 below in Calgary with the wind chill; I’m away from the (lovely) drudgery of my life with children, I’m about to eat some kind of fancy shit like cauliflower misted with local goat breath, and I’m sipping a drink made of grapefruit and fresh basil – spring has sprung!
I don’t belong in restaurants like this any more. It’s an elegant place with a mid-century modern hipster vibe, somewhere Kris and I would have gone before Eli was born. My pants are ill-fitting, and though I haven’t eaten yet I can feel the thick of my stomach pushing against the waistband. My bum, which has always been a relatively firm size XL, is now a wide, soft moon of rippled cheese, and at present it is drooping over both sides of my chair. I’m dressed like a slob, and not ironically. My hair is frizzy, half falling out of a butterfly clip. And, per my usual response to Calgary’s dry prairie air, my eyes are itchy and watering continuously, making my eyeliner bleed and form a crust of basically dirt along the deep grooves of my tear troughs. Do I appear to be mom-dancing on the edge of a nervous breakdown? Yes I do. But tonight, I don’t care.
A group of polished young women is at the table next to us. They’re drenched in various musky perfumes, their hair all piles of shining waves.
They start taking selfies. It’s thrilling.
“Oh God, erase that,” says one woman whose physical beauty is nearly painful to behold.
“Yeah, we look, like, all derpy. Here, let’s do another one.”
They duck-lip and squinch for the phone.
Now they’re talking about depositions and demand letters. Lawyers. I have a sudden urge to make friends with them. Maybe if I lean over and whisper something lawyerly.
Magna Carta, I could say, and then I could give one of them a wink. They would probably ask us to merge tables, and we could take selfies together and talk about penises and politics and fashion.
It’s been two years since Kris died. A lot of things have changed since then. One big, giant thing of change is that I live in a different city now. Nanaimo, a place my parents drove us through regularly on the way to visit grandma. The city my Dad called “the armpit of the island.”
The armpit is actually an important part of the human body.
My kids went to stay with relatives last July so I could concentrate on packing up my house before the big move to Nanaimo. I was reluctant to let them go, because even though they make it so I don’t get any sleep, and even though I don’t like most children, I love mothering mine. Also, I was afraid that if I was left alone without the immediate reminders of my duties here on earth, I might just choose to take the old evening train out of here.
Obviously that wasn’t in the cards, but I did spend seven days completely alone in the house Kris and I once shared, my first time by myself since the death. It was my house now, but still ours in the sense that all of our belongings were together in the same basic configuration as the day he died. Our things, in our weird little house between Gypsy and The Old Lady. Our house, with all the tiny doors to nowhere and the front hall that smelled of laundry soap and accidental ferments from the kids’ lunch kits.
On my first night alone, I took down all our pictures, leaving the walls freckled with pinholes, which made me cry.
On the second night, I deconstructed the kitchen. I rolled coffee cups in newspaper, bubble-wrapped wine glasses, matryoshka’d the pots and the pans. The boxes were piled nearly to the ceiling, and it was 3 a.m by the time I got finished.
Those two nights of packing were hard work, so on the third night I decided it would be best to take some time off. I ignored the mountain of work that needed doing and wandered from room to room, giving each its due in gratitude for the memories it contained. I looked out every window, especially in the kitchen, where I’d spent so much time washing dishes and giving names to the wondrous colours that showed up in sunsets through the tall fir and arbutus trees. Purplue. Orangink. Marmalade fire.
After midnight, I went outside and walked up to the top of the lawn, looked down at the house. We had sex on the lawn out there once. The Old Lady was blasting opera in the wee hours of the morning. Usually she played big band or the blues, but that night it was opera, robust and romantic and sweeping and sweet. Can you imagine fucking under the stars with opera floating through the air? Opera playing from the turntable of an actual old Italian? That’s what we did. You probably think it’s a made up story, but it isn’t. Afterwards, we lay partially-clothed on the prickles and moss. We marveled at the oldness of oak tree above us, how its branches looked like veins, or bronchioles, or hundreds of arthritic fingers reaching out for birds. Kris was probably drunk then, but I wasn’t.
The last room I spent time in that night was the room where he died. I made sure to do this at 1 o’clock a.m., because someone told me at summer camp once that 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. is called “the witching hour”, which basically means that the spirits can cross over and fuck around with the living.
The bed was gone, taken to the dump weeks ago, so I lay on the bare floor beneath where his body would have been. I closed my eyes, and tried to understand. What did he feel as his body gave out? Was he aware, or was it like falling asleep and slipping underwater in a warm bath?
Sad again, I sat up and leaned against the wall, hugged my knees.
I contemplated sleeping there. If I fell asleep in the same physical space where he died, I thought, maybe it would be easier for him to come back and retrieve me, or maybe it would be easier for me to maintain lucidity and find him in my dreams.
Ultimately, I went downstairs to my own bed.
Just as I was drifting off, a translucent golden orb floated into my room.
“Don’t be afraid,” said the orb in Kris’ voice.
“I’m not,” I said, “I’m annoyed with you. I’m sad about the house,”
The orb floated down and got into the bed beside me, nuzzling up against my back. I could feel its warm breath between my shoulder blades.
“I’m always trying to hold you,” it said, “always.”
“Fuck off,” I said, “I’m mad at you.”
The orb told me it knew I was mad, but that it didn’t matter. It said again that it was always trying to hold me.
“I don’t even know what that means,” I yanked the blankets to my side of the bed and shoved them between my legs, “but I’m not having sex with an orb tonight. My feet hurt. Packing up this house is a lot of work, you know. I’m physically and spiritually very tired, okay?”
The orb took the hint. It floated out of bed and towards the door.
“So you’re just leaving now?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Good. I don’t want a fucking orb with Kris’ voice. I want a full ghost. If you can’t do full ghost, then don’t come around again.”
“Look,” it sighed, “I’ve been trying my best, but you have to do some of the work too. I’ll tell you what, okay darling? I’ll write you a message on the inside of an apple. You’ll like that, I think.”
“The inside of an apple? What the fuck?”
“The inside. Look for it.”
The orb began fading.
The cat came into the room.
“Meow,” she said to the orb.
“Bye-bye kitty,” said the orb as it faded into the wall.
“Wait,” I said, “what apple?”
When I pictured myself leaving Victoria, I envisioned driving away into the sunset with my hair blowing in the salty island wind. I would be wearing sunglasses and a hat that I could throw out the window behind me. I would be so carefree! Goodbye, old life, I am triumphant! Goodbye fair city that gave me both my children and took both my parents. Goodbye, place where I learned to live without and without and without, I’m outta here! Bound for greener pastures, for cheaper living expenses, for a town where you don’t have to fight for a parking spot to go for a hike in the woods, a town closer to where I was born in the north island wilds.
It was going to be a fresh start, a brand new season, and as I drove over the Malahat with the sun rising and a hopeful indie tune with lots of hand claps and hey hey heys playing, the credits would roll behind me.
We all know this, but it is always worth noting that real life rarely unfolds as you imagine it will. On the morning of departure, while the movers filled their truck with furniture, I stuffed my car so full of laundry baskets containing awkwardly shaped items that by the time I was ready to leave, I realized I couldn’t fit the cat. I unpacked the front seat and left a pile of miscellaneous objects in a box at the front door as gifts for the new owners. I coaxed the cat into her kennel and pulled out of the driveway, finally feeling that some freedom was upon me.
One thing about moving on the Friday before a long weekend is that there are a lot of cars everywhere. I found myself stuck in an insane traffic jam, creeping along the highway at inches per minute with no opportunities to turn around in sight. So, it was not the best feeling when I realized I’d forgotten two things that were rather important.
I’m not proud of keeping my parents in the closet, let me just say that right off the bat. I’m not proud of it, but having the boxes of their earthly remains prominently displayed in my living quarters was not really enjoyable either, especially with a curious toddler who loves to pry open anything with a lid.
Don’t open Grandpa, son, he’ll stain the carpet.
The problem was that the new owners were taking possession at 2 o’clock, at it was already 1:45. I’d left the keys under the mat for the realtor, and the ashes were on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, an area that required a stepping stool to reach. The stepping stool, as it happens, was in my trunk underneath about a thousand pounds of shit.
I was so panicked by the time I pulled back onto my old street at 2:15 that I was afraid I might actually die from anxiety. Why did I do these things to myself? Why was I fucking incapable of planning anything appropriately?
“Praise fucking Jehovah,” I said as lurched into the empty driveway: no sign of the buyers or realtor. I began unloading my trunk to reach the stepping stool. A vase tumbled out of a laundry basket and shattered in the driveway.
“Fuck it. Fuck it, fuck you! You useless piece of shit!” I said to the many pieces of vase.
Stepping over the box of gifts for the new owners (Christmas decorations, a few Archie comics, a plastic potato masher, a deck of cards), I marched into the empty bedroom, climbed up and retrieved both ashboxes at once.
Back in the driveway, I went to work picking up the shards of glass. I managed to get it all, I think, but not without cutting my palm and dripping blood all over the driveway.
The only room I had for the urns was on top of the cat kennel. I wrapped a beach towel around both of them to show them the proper respect, then peeled out of the driveway just as Gypsy was coming out for a snoop, and just as the new owners were about to pull in in their realtor’s BMW.
The cat spent the entire drive panting and shrieking.
“Stop it,” I told her, “my parents are trying to sleep.”
The ‘Depression’ phase of grief has been more persistent than the others. Its onset was rapid, a bitterness that crept up out of the shadows, grabbed me and filled my being like a rapey creampie.
It was because of the bitterness that I decided on a self-imposed exile, the kind of hermitage fit for a fairytale villain, only instead of magic mirrors I had Snapchat as my looking glass. I spent hours, literally hours every evening making hateful faces transposed with bunny noses and Harry Potter glasses. Before this visit to Calgary for Christmas, I hadn’t left my house in several months aside from the daily ferrying of my children to and from school. Sure, there were occasional trips to the grocery store, where I couldn’t look a cashier in the eyeballs without feeling fearful and hostile, like a cornered rodent. But everything felt like sensory overload, so I had to limit exposure. Curiously, one place that didn’t feel horrible was the local kids jungle gym, which I liked because there were couches where I could curl up and be in a daze while my toddler terrorized the play structures.
There were lonely periods, but I also couldn’t abide the idea of spending any time with humans not borne of my own flesh. I was becoming more and more paranoid and frightened of people, and I knew from experience (post parent-death x2) that when this started happening, I was in real danger of losing my shit in public. My tendency for doling out public tongue-lashings is not something I’m proud of. It’s something I’ve worked hard to quell.
I knew it was coming, but when it arrived I just wasn’t prepared.
One night, a Thursday after swimming lessons, I took my children to eat and jump around at one of those fast-food places with the enclosed pig pens. My children were allowed to eat garbage once in awhile, I reasoned, because otherwise how would they ever appreciate the delicious, wholesome meals I would start cooking for them again, one day in the distant future, when I was well again, when I was balanced and fit and stable again?
Halfway through our dining experience, a young mother approached our table with her distressed-looking toddler.
“Excuse me,” she said to me sharply, “your son stole my daughter’s doll.”
She gestured to the mini Barbie doll on the table, the one I had just observed my son retrieve from cardboard meal box and unwrap.
“Oh, this? This came with the kid’s meal. He just opened it. Maybe your daughter has the same one?”
“No, my daughter brought that doll from home. That is not a kiddo meal toy. That toy came from our house.”
Her daughter was getting frantic. That’s myyyyy toooooyyyy, she was shreiking, myyyyy baaaarrrrrrrbieeeeeeeee.
“Okay,” I said, “… but actually, it is a kiddo meal toy. He just unwrapped it, see?” I held up the plastic wrapper as evidence.
Myyyyy baaaaaarrrrrrbbiiieeeeeeeeeeee mummmeeeeeeeeeeeeee miiiiiiiiine.
“Hey,” I said to the mom, “just take this one, no worries.”
She wouldn’t take it. She picked up her daughter and huffed over to the stroller parked by the exit, muttering loudly about how some people just steal things.
“It’s okay, Neveah, some people are just bad people and they steal other peoples’ things. Shhhh, don’t worry sweetheart, that little boy is just a rude little boy.”
As she was buckling her daughter up, another voice piped up. It was a mom with neat blonde hair, sitting across the room with her a linebacker-type husband and a trio of boys in buzz cuts and polo shirts.
“That’s not a kiddo meal toy,” she declared “kiddo meal toys are Nerf guns.”
She stood up from her chair brandishing one of the Nerf guns and showcased it to the room.
She was glowy and lithe, impeccably put together in a white pea coat. I was dressed in sweatpants and a giant scarf worn over a t-shirt that said “CIBC Run for the Cure: Bye Bye Boobies 2016!”, only it was apparent that I probably hadn’t run much since.
“All my boys got Nerf guns in their kiddo meals. See?”
Exhibit A, Nerf gun.
My table had become a witness box. I was the defendant.
“Nerf guns are the kiddo meal toys, not Barbies,” she proclaimed to the room. Then she narrowed her eyes and addressed me directly. “You are teaching your kids to steal and lie, lady. Nice parenting!”
“But mom,” whispered my 11 year-old daughter urgently across the table, her eyes filling with tears, “the Barbie is a kiddo meal toy. Eli just got it, I saw him unwrap it.”
“I know,” I whispered.
All the other patrons had suddenly roused from their sleepy cud-chewing. They were looking gleefully from her to me to her, amazed at their good fortune at having stumbled into a live courtroom drama.
I was paralysed.
I mean, here’s the thing: I knew how it must have looked. The defendant, a disheveled-looking middle-aged mother, no wedding ring, sweatpants.
Fast food pig pen.
Fast food pig pen.
I looked at my children. Eli’s clothes were dirty on account of spending the day playing in the mud at preschool, and though I hadn’t noticed before, my daughter’s hair seamed like it could have been a bit greasy.
We were those people.
“Who allows their kid to steal another kid’s toy?” the blonde woman was clucking theatrically to people next to her.
Beside me was a set of grandparents who seemed to be hand-feeding cheeseburgers to their identical twin grandsons. I looked at the grandma beseechingly for support. She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows, shook her head.
It was then that I heard Kris’ voice in my head, kind and calm. Get the kids together and go home, sweetheart. Just get the fuck out of here, you don’t need this. This means nothing. Go.
I’m not listening to you, I thought back at him, you don’t know anything about my life now. I would never have come here if it weren’t for you. There would be no kiddo meal toy accusation if it weren’t for you, so I don’t need your guidance, okay? You don’t get to tell me what to do. I’ll deal with this, watch me.
I went to the front counter and asked the teenaged boy if I could please purchase a new Barbie kiddo meal toy.
“Just on its own?”
He reached under the register and handed me a new Barbie, still in the package.
“That blonde lady over there is saying my son stole another kid’s toy and he didn’t,” I told the kid, feeling like he was on my side on account of him selling me the new Barbie, “They were saying there were no kiddo meal Barbies and there are!”
“It’s that lady over there, that one” I said, pointing out the blonde, assuming he would be very troubled by the scourge of injustice unfolding in the pig pen.
He smiled piteously and sort of winced.
“Good luck, ma’am,” he said.
I realized then that my breathing was ragged. I looked fucking crazy. I was fucking crazy.
I considered correcting him, just to let him know that I am not in fact a ma’am, but a pretty ingenue trapped in the body of a dowdy ma’am, but I decided that conversation would have to wait, because I had justice to tend to.
I made my way back to the pig pen enclosure clutching the packaged Barbie in both hands, and as I opened the door, the blonde lady was standing right in front of me. I held up the Barbie
“See?” I said, “This is for a kiddo meal!”
I was hoping for an apology, or at the very least a truce.
“Doesn’t prove anything,” she sniffed.
Then she did the thing that some people do when they want to belittle another person.
She looked me up then down then up again.
She smirked. It felt like a smirk about my entire being. About my mothering. About my children, the integrity of their little beings.
Both of my kids were still sitting at the table. My son was oblivious to everything, happily crunching his chemical apple slices, but my daughter was staring across the room at me with an expression of pubescent, please-don’t-humiliate-us terror.
I took a deep breath, wishing I had a mouth full of ketchup so I could facesquirt it on her white wool coat. Unfortunately all I had was that beautiful packaged Barbie and the truth.
I ducked behind her making like I was going to slink back to my chair.
But as I was doing so, and with the quiet of a sighing baby mouse, I whispered, “You are a fucking cunt.”
Then I slunk back to my chair and sat down with my children.
She went bananas.
“Ex-cuse me? What did you just say to me?”
My daughter’s eyes were so wide they looked like they might pop out of her face.
“Pardon?” I asked, smiling politely.
“What did you just say to me?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You just – she just – you just. How dare you use that kind of language in a child’s play area! What kind of a person are you?”
“I’m Chelsea Jane,” I said.
She put her hands on her hips.
“I didn’t ask your name, Chelsea James. I asked what kind of a person says the C-word in the kiddo play area!”
“I’m just a person enjoying a nice sandwich in the pig pen,” I said.
“Oh, now you’re calling me a pig? Oh wow, now I’ve heard it all. Wow, just wow. Nice example you’re setting for your kids, bitch!”
My daughter was now crying and shaking.
“Why is the lady yelling at you, mom? My mom didn’t do anything,” she sobbed.
Everyone in the pig pen was now gawking at the elegant blonde lady who was losing her shit at me, the sweatpants lady. I could feel the zeitgeist turning in my favour. The grandma of the twins was shaking her head.
“You should sit down, dear,” she said to the lady, who zipped up her coat aggressively at me and spat, “You think you’re a big woman? I could beat the shit out of you.”
I put my coat on, gathered up my children, and left.
After the pig pen incident, I decided it would be fair to pay a visit to the doctor. Now, thanks to a new antidepressant and a kick of thyroid medication, I’m a much calmer and more centred human being. The bitterness is still there, and I’m still depressed, mildly ungrateful, and lovesick. But generally I think things are really starting to look up.
After all, I’m sitting in a restaurant drinking mocktails and eavesdropping on the beautiful people.
How do you like them apples.