Creative Nonfiction Prize
Brendan McLeod, "Psychosomatic"
All this week, we''ve been publishing the five stories selected as finalists for the 2011-2012 Creative Nonfiction Prize.
In this entry by Brendan McLeod, a relationship is tested under the weight of an uncertain outcome.
My girlfriend complains of a burst pipe in the building, hot air pouring into the apartment through some mysterious vent. Typically, she has no circulation. I always joke that if it were the olden days she would die of consumption.
I put a hand to her forehead that springs back.
“Do you have a stomach ache?”
“Yes. I have a stomach ache.”
“Are you lying?”
We go for a walk. It’s December in Vancouver; we’ve been referring to the sun as “the giant unseen orb in the sky”. Still, she takes her jacket off.
“Are you sore?”
“You’re tired because you didn’t sleep last night."
“I slept fine.”
“Then why are you tired?”
While I cook dinner she sits on the couch and looks out the window. When she goes to the bathroom I tail her, hammering her with questions about her physical state.
“Okay, Perry Mason. Leave me alone.”
“What? I’m spending time with you.”
“I’m probably just being psychosomatic. It’s the worry that’s making me sick."
“I don’t think it works that well.”
“Oh yeah? What about that filmmaker you like? The one who walked from Germany to France to see his friend in the hospital because he knew she wouldn’t die without saying goodbye to him. And his friend survived. What do you make of that?”
“When are you due? Like, in your cycle?”
“Well, that’s probably it then.”
We have a party to attend that night. She changes shirts, puts on her cutest jeans. I catch her humming a tune at the mirror. A good a time as any to try my hand.
“Maybe we should discuss.”
“Yeah. Let us discuss. Let us be a panel. I will be a speaker, and you will be a speaker, and we can, like rational people, like good citizens, coolly and calmly discuss.”
She puts a hand to her forehead.
“You know, that’s only going to make you hotter.”
“I couldn’t be any hotter.”
“Unless you keep rubbing your hand over your face.” I have not yet learned when not to joke. “I’ll leave you be.”
“Wait. Aren’t you supposed to waffle for a few months and then leave? After I ask you to sign papers or something.”
“This isn’t Detroit.”
Which I regret saying. It strikes me as discriminatory, or at least unfair. I don’t know anything about Detroit. I’ve driven through it only once. A hardened place where none of the buildings look functional. People were actually lighting fires in garbage cans. I didn’t think this happened outside of music videos.
I only meant to say I’m not going anywhere.
“Are you going to drink?”
We are on our way to the party. The street is only four blocks from ours, yet their lawns are maintained. The apartment block across from us has a domestic dispute every second week. Vancouver is overt like that in its stratification. One wrong turn and residents of the Downtown Eastside can find themselves in a board meeting.
“Well. Are you?”
“Well. I won’t smoke weed.”
An empty sacrifice, she knows. I rarely smoke pot. It makes me socially awkward. I don’t want to talk because I worry about what I say being stupid, but don’t want to stay silent because I worry people will notice. So I force myself into talking, then worry what I said was stupid and go quiet again. Ad infinitum.
She shakes her head at me. “Whatever.”
I think about the night we watched a horror movie in bed. How she stayed up, struck by the possibility I could simply turn over and suffocate her. How she could literally die at my hand. Something you’ll never have to worry about, she said. What does that tell you about power? I suggested a romantic comedy the next time.
The party is in full swing by the time we arrive. Through the front windows we watch people’s mouths open and close, their inebriated arms gesturing with the elasticity of marionettes.
At the door I kiss the lobe of her ear. “Everything is fine.”
The party is characteristic of our social circle. People talk about arts funding, social problems, Facebook. Joints are passed. So are banjos. People start to tell louder and better jokes. At the end, two of the more sober partygoers wrestle the keys from a drunk girl insistent on handling the road.
“I’m from Saskatchewan! I hauled trailers before I could read. You can’t even parallel park.”
I too get drunk. A shaming fact, under the circumstances. On the walk home I stumble over tree roots, taking it as further evidence the world is out to confound me.
“How could this happen? How? How? How?”
It is her turn to keep a level head. “We don’t know anything yet.”
I turn inward. The drunkenness has forced me to admit to wonder. People everywhere are taking out second mortgages on their homes in the hopes of accomplishing what Mother Nature has not, and here, biology at work! How extraordinary! To stand around wishing we’d stuffed lemons inside her? It’s an ugly thing to turn your back on a miracle.
Yet brushing our teeth, side by side, I watch her in the mirror. I catch the jump of her clavicle beneath the wide collar of her shirt. When we shower together water catches there in a small pond I dip my lips to. I bend my head and watch the water skim the length of her legs. She has the body of a ballerina. I cannot stand for it to change shape. To waver on the stairs. For her face to sag, the fatigue to circle her eyes. I want a life filled with beauty.
“Do you think it was blasphemous, going to that party tonight?”
She actually laughs. “I think you have to be religious for that word to apply.”
I shake her awake the next morning. “Hey. I love you.”
“I bought you a test.”
The wonders of our world; data collected at earlier and earlier stages.
“C’mon. I’ll pay you ten dollars.”
“That was a joke.”
We aren’t much for cleanliness. Our only attempt to induce a maintenance regimen—a duty chart erected one optimistic day on the fridge—was promptly covered in mustard and forgotten. Our bathroom wears the worst of it: toothpaste stuccoed to the sink, the toilet unthinkable, the cabinet a refuge for fugitive toiletries. I watch her squat amidst it all. We are not cut out to be providers.
“You’re ruining my concentration. It’s hard to do this with you standing over me.”
I look at the bathtub. The laughter in my chest ceases and tightens. I worry about the inability to breathe.
“You’re still looking. I can see you doing it out of the corner of your eye.”
“I’m not. I have no periphery vision. Remember my car accident? I never would have pulled out if I’d seen that guy coming.”
“It was a natural blind spot.”
“Can you just do it?”
“Have you heard of the watched pot analogy? Say it with me...”
“A pot boils faster if you stare at it and ask it to?”
“C’mon. I’ll be two seconds.”
I close the door. If our thoughts affect outcomes, I shouldn’t think. Or I should think about things unrelated to the outcome, like how my girlfriend looks like a gargoyle perched over the toilet. Or how every window in the house is open. How the breeze is insane.