“I got a new pair of Air Lux’s. Tell me I deserve them.”
Lou was on the phone and I was in the bath reading Plath. I had found myself in the bath reading Plath three times this week. I would read a page or two, inhale deeply from my vape pen, clutching tightly to avoid the inevitable - ploop - into the murky bath water, then get distracted by the gentle glow of my phone hiding beneath towels on the bathroom floor.
This time, instead of spending the time it takes for a bath to chill from hot spring to bog water fastidiously lurking my boyfriend’s exes, then my own — first on Instagram then on Twitter — I had called Lou.
“I don’t know what those are, Lourdes.”
Lou and I had gone to school together down here, but she was a year below me. When I graduated, she transferred to a different school, back home. Neither of us had much interest in maintaining outside friendships, which resulted in our spending most days on the phone for several hours.
“You know the big white Nikes that I always wear? They got dirty, and they’re like, a staple, so I don’t feel that bad about buying another pair,” Lou worked at a bar in a trendy part of Boston, and she was very pretty, so money was no object. I got calls about new sneaker purchases every couple days. All of them were always totally necessary because they were staples. Lou looked good in sneakers, like a model off-duty, her straight blonde hair always falling at just the right angle to frame her sharp facial features. I looked like a child committing a truancy offence during gym class, and generally opted for sandals.
“Hm, how’s saving for France going?” Lou was moving to France.
“Honestly not great, but also pretty okay because I made $500 in tips last night. It’s just Europe is so expensive. I don’t know how you managed budgeting there when you were like twelve,” she adds with a little laugh at the end.
“I wasn’t like twelve,” I laugh back. The water is now the temperature of coffee you might consider microwaving but are too lazy to remove from the paper cup (and microwaving to-go cups causes cancer, and you gave up cigarettes last year) and instead decide is just tepid enough to continue drinking as normal. So, acceptable, but rapidly approaching unacceptable. “But I might as well have been. Eighteen was way too young to live in Paris alone.”
“I mean yeah, if you don’t speak French.”
“You don’t speak French.”
“I’m not eighteen.”
There is an extended silence during which Lourdes enters her car and gets settled. I am in the bath, and she is on the phone, but she is still going about her daily business like a responsible quasi-adult. This inspires me to begin the process of leaving the tub. I glance over at the floor length mirror facing the tub for the first time since entering the bath. The bathroom and its design were about ninety-five percent of the reason I agreed to move down here, into a single family home on the outskirts of the city with Ben. It’s not that I didn’t want to live with Ben, it’s just that, I wanted to live with Ben in LA or the French Caribbean, or in a bus converted into a house nowhere in particular. You know?
But Ben has a job here and I honestly never have a job anywhere, just a vaguely defined source of income, and it didn’t make sense to have him move to the most expensive city in the United States to struggle with me, when I could transfer my M.A. credits to finish my program here and struggle next to his relative comfort, except for months when we were both poor at budgeting and struggled together, subsisting off of Ben’s endless ramen supply.
“Sorry about that, I’m back, traffic’s wicked,” Lourdes’s Boston accent has been gently resurfacing since her return to the city, “how is the thesis coming? You’re in the tub, you better be reading.”
The bubbles that had at once covered me are now congregating in one corner of the tub, crinkling as they dissipate, obviously judging me. In the mirror I look soggy and pale, my dark hair slicked down the sides of my head, my nose the only thing I really notice. A couple days ago, some middle-schooler told me my nose was too big in a Twitter argument, and it’s all I’ve noticed since then. I by no means have a large nose, but fuck I can’t get that rude little shit’s comment out of my head.
“I’m reading Plath.”
“Vic. Again? Seriously? When’s your deadline?”
“I have Gatsby memorised, Lou. I don’t need to read it again.”
“What you do not need to be doing is staring at the ceiling of your bathtub rereading Sylvia Plath’s depressive ramblings about the ceiling of her bathtub another fuckin’ day in a row. What the fuck.”
I glance down at The Bell Jar, open on the corner of the tub, to the exact page Lou was describing, Plath’s self insert protagonist, Esther Greenwood detailing her love for hot baths. Fine. I am a cliche. Just another female writer, languishing in a bathtub, instead of writing. Guilty as charged, arrest me, and lock me up in a dark room with just a notebook, pen and a small desk light. I will still manage to overthink in the dark corner rather than putting pen to paper.
“You caught me,” I tell her. Yeah you caught me, reading Plath re-realising my work will always be a cheap imitation of hers because despite the passage of time women have always suffered the same, crippled by the same demons. There is a silence for a long time now, because I should be reading Fitzgerald for the fortieth time because it’s my masters dissertations objective to contextualise Gatsby for a modern world moving steadily away from hyper-wealth and closer to hyper-availability of commodity (and therefore the degradation of the concept of luxury). My deadline is three weeks away and I’ve written three paragraphs. But I’m reading Plath instead, because there is only one thing on my mind. Or maybe there’s fifty, but really there’s only one. “Give me a second, I’m getting out of the tub.”
I switch the phone to speaker so I can unplug the tub while still hearing Lou’s silence on the other end. The judgemental foam slips easily down the drain, away to where I’d rather be, somewhere wet and dark and away, just away from everything. Ben makes sure to snake the drains every couple of weeks; I have a lot of hair. I’m noticing I’m starting to sound to myself like a depressed teenager, and I have a small panic attack about what that implies about how others are experiencing me. Stepping one soggy, unpolished foot onto the bath mat that, I shit you not, brought me true happiness when I bought it for our new home from Walmart last month, then the next, I gather my clothing and various smoking paraphernalia from the floor around the tub. Then I gingerly place the phone atop the pile and travel the length of the kitchen to make it to our shot-gun’s bedroom.
“Okay, out of the tub. Just flashed all my neighbours—”
“—and Damien unfollowed me on Instagram.”
“Wait, like just now?”
“No, not just now. Like, maybe a couple days ago but I noticed this morning.”
I wrap myself in my towel and open the back door that leads to our small backyard. Ben planted a vegetable garden for me for Valentine's Day. I was so excited about the empty garden plot when we picked the house, but I haven’t been the one to care for the garden once since he set it up. He waters the plants and prunes them. Ben really enjoys the routine of life. It’s something I’ve always envied about him. Through the glass door, the backyard is visible, and so is the fence, but the fog hanging over the dusky evening obscures the edges where the fences give way to our neighbours yard. The light from one of the large hospitals was casting an unnerving blue tint onto the fog, like some cliche club’s smoke strobe machine had gotten stuck on its blue setting instead of pulsing its normal seizure inducing rainbow. There was something so disconcertingly safe about this place, this place to raise your children, this suburbia. Living this close to your neighbour, no privacy fences, they can hear you scream. That’s weird but it’s something I think about a lot, especially when I’m alone and it’s dark because Ben is working late and I don’t have a real job so I’m home, someone could just ram our front door and kill me, naked me, in the towel in the bedroom. Except someone couldn’t. Because when we first moved here, neighbourhood watch interrogated Ben walking the dog, because they didn’t recognise him. Ben says that’s good, because now they’ll look out for us. Three steps up to our porch before two good old boys in their lifted pick-ups turned up asking what business my would-be murderers had in their neighbourhood. Ideally. Worst case scenario, I guess, at least Tabbi next door would hear my final scream.
“So? Your posts probably made him sad dude. I bet you could talk to him,” she’s still talking about Damien.
“You don’t understand my relationship with my ex.”
“I understand that you’re wearing his necklace right now,” she responds, shouting over the frenzy of blaring car-horns that had filled her side of the line.
My hand not holding the phone brushes the thread of leather fastened around my neck. Lourdes drives with one foot on the gas and one on the brakes, having taught herself to drive by stealing her mothers car in high-school, but she really did fucking have me there.
Ignoring my silence she continues, “maybe you should just break up with Ben and go back home, get back with Damien, shock everyone,” her words are cut up by laughter and the sound of traffic.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s not like that.”
But what was it like? The truth was it wasn’t like anything. Not anymore. I hadn’t spoken to Damien in almost ten years, and I know that because I just subtracted the age I was when we met from twenty-four, the age I turned last month and got nine. I was fifteen when we met. That's not when it ended but it’s when it started. If fifteen was on the colour spectrum, it would have been red and dark purple, all rage and short hair. My combat boots on his parents marble floors, we were two rich kids playing at punk rock. I kicked and bit my way tooth and nail through his four-thousand thread count Egyptian sheets and signed my name on his skin. His father saw my masterpiece and chuckled. We were toxic. He left because he was too arrogant, too vain. We loved each other too much and that scared him. It would have never worked. That’s how I codified it anyway.
“What’s it like then?” Lourdes is still on the line, “enlighten me.”
Now I’m digging under the bed for a book. The book. The soft cover Moleskine, scented by cigarettes and old rum, from inside a small shoebox box. It sits at the bottom, below photos and letters and other items that prove that I once was the person I once was, but am no longer. I’ve carried it around with me from country to country like some sort of religious text.
“I found it!”
“Oh! You mean the bible according to Damien,” she replies.
“Clever, but at best it would be the bible of Damien according to Victoria.”
Lou knows about Damien, about the mess he made inside poor little Vic, all those years ago, which means she knows about this book and the box it lives inside. When we first met, before I met Ben, it was all I could talk about. That was five years ago.
“You still have the box, even though you’re living with Ben now.” It is a statement, not a question.
“Because it’s not like that, Lou.”
“Then what is it like!,” she all but screams into the receiver.
“Well, for starters, he’s not the only one in the box.”
“It’s true, you do have a lot of people in that box.”
Because the box isn’t about them. It’s about me. About the person I left behind when I left the tiny little third world country that birthed me to traipse across the globe in search of.. well, Ben. Not Ben exactly, but meaning. I guess I just tend to look for that in other people. That’s something to think about.
“I’m not in love with Damien, and I know you know that. That’s honestly fucking stupid.”
“I just like to keep souvenirs. It’s who I am. It’s how I remember who I was.”
“Souvenirs, huh? A certain subgroup of humanity comes to mind,” she singsongs in retort.
“I did put a love spell on the necklace when I was younger though. It still has the blood on it,” I add, laughing at the memory.
“Serial killers,Vic. Serial killers keep bloody souvenirs. Serial killers come to mind.”
Still, it is of slight concern that he’s been on my mind so much lately, now that I live with Ben, no matter what deep seated self-realising truth triggered it. In another time, another place, I could have been executed for these sorts of thoughts. Maybe I should be. If I had to be executed, I would prefer to be guillotined.
“It’s just, I knew who I was back then. At least, I think I did. All my journals, my sense of self, it’s so sure. In a way I haven’t been in I don’t know how long,” I say. And it’s the truth. My little bedroom in my parents house on the water, chain smoking cigarettes on the roof of the laundry, languishing about Damien leaving me, I felt purpose.
“It’s not that simple though. You keep going backwards, backwards, further backwards, because why? Because the truth is somewhere you’ve already been? That’s a joke Vic.”
But you’re wrong. The truth is somewhere I’ve already been, even if it’s not him. Because I was never surer of something than I was sure of him and who he made me want to be. Never. Unquestioningly sure. Now there are so many questions.
“Maybe,” I say, but she can tell I don’t agree.
“I guess we all need a religion,” she replies.
Then conversation dwindles after that and soon I hear the rumble of a dog skittering excitedly near the door, the sound that always announces Ben’s return home. When he comes home in his overalls, covered in oil and soot from building things with his hands all day, he likes to have a beer outside, watch the animals play. Ben was a visual arts major, a sculptor, when we met, and now he builds structures for the museum, the pedantic interactive sort of structures uninspired “artists” con curators into erecting under the false promise that they’ll be hosting the next Yayoi Kusama. Ben calls them Instagram bear-traps but doesn’t mind building them. He believes in the value of hard work. His hands are like sandpaper on my soft skin, and he towers over me as he pulls me close on the porch.
There was a time when I could pick his smell out of a crowded room or a pile of clothing, his particular mix of sweat and soap and musk, I would bury my nose in the dirty shirts I’d steal to sleep in and inhale as though meditating. My face pressed into his chest now, it smells like the detergent I wash our clothes with, it smells like him, but it smells like me, too. He smells like our home, and oil and dust and paint, but he smells like our home. I guess I must too.
After the cats agree to move inside, I make dinner, and we eat it in front of the TV. Today we’re watching a documentary about aliens in Australia and we’re eating oil braised chicken breast with pasta. When we’re done, I collect the plates and move them from the living room to the kitchen sink. I glance through the bedroom, through the back door, to the back yard, and now the blue light is even more distinct, all else falling behind its obstruction. Gatsby believed in the green light, that orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. But it was never really the future he was after. Daisy was a spectre. A ghost. A memory of someone he knew once upon a time, someone who made him want to be more than he was. But more than anything, she was of his own creation. Because he was like me.
I must have walked to the door without noticing myself, lost in thought, because now my face is all but pressed against the glass. The fog had flown in even thicker, obscuring all but the steps leading down from the back door.
“Are you okay babe?” Ben calls from the living room. My Ben. Maybe that’s cheap to think so loudly after a day spent ruminating over the past, but that’s what it always comes back to.
“In the light spectrum, blue comes after green, right?” I call back.
Ben is still in the living room. “Colour theory babe! You got it.”
I open the door, and step out into the fog. The blue light is overwhelming.
Samantha Singh is a Belizean American writer currently based in Placencia, Belize, where she shares her home with her long-term partner and menagerie of house pets. She is co-founder of the Bent Pin Press, a small literary journal and publishing house. She has upcoming work appearing in Sublunary Review, Dish Rag Mag, and Hecate Magazine where she is a staff writer.
Social media links:
@poetgyal on Twitter
@samfrombelize on Instagram
Social media links:
@poetgyal on Twitter
@samfrombelize on Instagram