One More Day
In the first album I am beautiful. My eyes dance. Instead of hanging, my hair whooshes. T-shirts hug my torso.
I can’t face her, that woman with my name. Her clothes no longer fit. They cringe at my touch. The blouses rustle: only a whisper of femininity left. There’s a cobweb on the hairdryer. Bras, panties and skirts scatter across the floor. A midden of laundry. Stealing from room to room, I find exasperation in the walls. Trees lean at dangerous angles, scraping a finger on my window.
Examining more photos I sift the years of a once marriage, noting how smiles diminish to a mere strain of the mouth.
In my kitchen there’s a teapot steaming from its snout. Distorted in steel, a middle-aged woman slices and stripes with the shadows of her Venetian blind. Seated on a toilet ring, I gawk at a Leunig calendar on the wall. Ducks and curly people fail to stir feelings. Through dust-thick swirls the sun struggles to reach.
My fridge door hangs ajar. I dab at a spill of oil. The dishwasher smells of lemons. Somebody’s fist thumps a kitchen table again and again until marble-top, flesh or bone must give. No better than grit, lunch is a paste sandwich.
The rooms fracture: spidery lines, filigree cracks in plaster. Cornices speckle with damp, like a flood line after deluge. If I removed the curtains for cleaning, they would disintegrate. Mould keeps them intact. And I can’t be fucked doing anything about it.
The third album spans a year before Emily’s arrival. An attractive woman in her twenties applies a roller to bathroom walls: nose freckled by off-white flakes, hair tucked under a scarf. Dried paint scars down her arm. One of Garry’s shoulders protrudes in the mirror, cradling a camera. He and I used to embrace in mid-renovation, regardless of the sawdust and plaster, the spills and smears. We teased one another, and often made love there, playing truant. Later our kisses turned to peck, then a nod, a wave, and finally nothing.
Early photos of Emily: seemingly perfect. A picture of my first Mother’s Day: simpering, involuntary perhaps. Photographs of a family picnic, the beach, and Garry posing with his pregnant sisters at Christmas. There’s also a snapshot of him with a blonde ex-girlfriend and her new husband. Then another with this same couple in a skyscraper restaurant, toasting some occasion, his arm around the blonde again. At home we act out family gestures for a lens: playing at spouse touch, mugging for Emily’s shaky attempts. My girl smirks, blowing out candles on a cake. One evening she catches me unawares without makeup, as I work on my thesis. In another picture Garry sips beer in front of televised football. I must have taken that one: man pretending quality time with daughter, each draped in a Hawthorn scarf.
Looking at the image of Emily working her Play Station while Garry attends to e-mails on his laptop, I recall the girl’s whoops and curses. Silent and eleven now, with nobody to supervise her, she clicks her phone to capture trees in an empty yard. She acquires Facebook friends. I hear her log on: one decibel too loud, like a toddler in church. No more albums: all digital, virtual. She clicks a snap of my shadow as I lurk around corners. I don’t go outside, avoiding neighbours. I collect mail after dark. Sometimes I fold onto the kitchen floor, or crawl to a window and peer at clouds or a sunset.
There. I exist. One last frame: a print-out stuck at the back of the album, taken twelve months ago by Emily during my working from home phase. I’m crouched at a desk, clicking and browsing. At that time I’d have been ticking items of a To Do list on my desktop planner while playing with GANTT charts and schedule systems, opening more windows at a workstation with twin monitors. I could boost productivity in inverse proportion to physical presence: no commuting, traffic tedium, weather worries or time-wasting chats in corridors, and no drumming my fingers while suffering the jargon of meetings. In that one picture I’ve reduced non-attendance to a science: on-line, working in my pyjamas, swigging coffee, as another day drip-filters into night. A digital display in one corner of the photograph has mirrored my task-bar ticking away moments. Infused with home-brewed espressos, I swigged and surfed, cross-tabulating spreadsheets and databases. Waiting for one response, I answered others: uploading from Number 1 computer while downloading to Number 2. During waiting times, I browsed newsgroups; replying to all questions—just to prove I could, like a dying woman jamming her shelves with books she would never have time to read. Opening more windows, I took in no air, only flooded my panopticon with data: not a warder but a prisoner. When concentration flagged, I would glug another long black: buzzing and crackling, no primary objective. No originals anymore, just degraded copies. Each screen refresh interrupted another interruption as I fought the law of diminishing returns.
I have no picture of the ruined wall. Instead there’s a slide show in my head, with the throbbing of alarms. Hyper-caffeinated, I saved articles, URLs and photos; accumulating more rainy-day crap than I’d need in a lifetime. I sprinted on the information treadmill. Until Garry’s e-mail.
I frame that mental photo: how it might have looked when a bedroom broke. Poring over my sequence of images I select a freeze-frame, in the moment before exploding. Then an arm blurs, in one sweep destroying our wall clock. Gadget rage? Or just retaliation at numbers. So many damn numbers.
For weeks, for months, the digital devils had refused to stop winking from my phones, oven, car, TV, even my pen. They leeched life. Appliances consumed the consumer. They offered a hundred programmable features I’d never asked for; telling me to work smarter, not harder, promising me seven effective habits. I swallowed the e-nostrums. I ate the lotus of efficiency. Bypassing small talk, I sent SMS birthday cards and season’s e-greetings. Having resisted the blandishments of social media I merely Cc’d some friends and Bcc’d my Outlook contacts—until the night of Garry’s e-mail.
Though I deleted it, his words burned a file in my head.
<< lips I wish I could taste even when I’m supposed to
<< be with Her. Can I ever be your
The sender: my husband’s virtual address. A mistake, certainly. I wasn’t meant to see it. Probably a shard of data detonated by a viral attack. I clamped my cheeks to prevent this head from splitting. If such words had leaked from Garry’s computer, what else could I infer except that ‘Her’ meant me: the one he was supposed to be with? It could explain his absences, or his vacant presence when home, obsessing in his corner of the house. Another wife—one who paid more attention—might have worried about her man downloading porn. How trivial and conventional, like objecting to Garry’s flirtations. No, this signified something else.
Hence my smashed coffee mug. Hence a stain dribbling down our walls.
The brain can record with greater resolution than an infinite number of pixels. I need no photos of that evening. Garry was supposed to be attending a function at work. I had shown no curiosity about him for months. When truth hit, I boiled. Under bulges of my skull, the pain hammered as I demanded culprits, holding an industry responsible; a professional class, a capitalist system. I assembled suspects: the Lavazza corporation for my coffee habit, Pfizer for my pills. I blamed long-distance colleagues, my BlackBerry and Microsoft: every perpetrator of digital-age impatience. I indicted e-mail, chief among the accused. Written in haste, the stuff sticks; not departing, in hibernation somewhere on the planet. It skulks, waiting for a chance to wreak mischief. Why couldn’t this have happened to some other woman? Look at that first album. I’m beautiful there.
The sight of my computer freaked me. I couldn’t go near it. Calling in sick, I failed to log on from home. Withdrawal turned to torment. After two days I gave in. What if I missed something important? New mail chimed, from my husband: recipient list undisclosed.
Just found out a virus has hit our server. Everyone in my address book
has been spammed. Document scraps from colleagues scattered
across our network. Please disregard. Sorry.
What kind of fools did he take us for? He knew we knew. Did I reply?
Mistake # 1: Never e-mail when angry. Take a cold drink. Take a walk. Get drunk.
Mistake # 2: Never send without editing. Stop and scan for inadvertent mention of separate sleeping quarters. Check before slamming the Enter key. Can’t get it back once sent.
Mistake # 3: Never hit ‘Reply to All’.
What followed? Radio silence. Dead air. I had burned everyone on Garry’s list: friends, associates, and members of our families. People would refuse to catch my eye. Could I pray for sudden network failure? Once despatched, e-words keep burning, recoverable years after deletion; portions can be retrieved, tags sewn up from subject lines and date listings. Nothing in response, a deafening nothing.
For my husband, the lies had begun much earlier. No photos exist of a forked tongue or Pinocchio nose but I’ve seen his boyhood albums: the leer, the show-off, the smart-arse. In Third Grade he won a story prize for his tale of a boy trapped in invisible prison, the bars made out of lies. Every fib told in his fiction family, every stolen sweet denied, only added bars to the boy’s cell. One day he couldn’t get out. Too many lies and the boy suffocated on his own falsity: a nine-year-old’s cautionary tale.
Garry says his teacher raved about the story, but his parents did not. They took it personally, as the son meant them to. Why do that? And why tell his wife about it years later? That story about a story could be another of Garry’s masks. He would talk to me about his youth as a place he might visit just to see the changes since. Either he intended to illustrate his sensitive side or he wanted to furnish more evidence against unimaginative parents he still resents even now. The games messed with what remained of my head.
He and I met at university where I majored in economics while he read Nietzsche and Hobbes. Garry claimed immunity from the rules of ordinary people, perhaps to excuse his surfeit of girlfriends or else really fancying himself as an ubermensch. But why take revenge on his parents and lambast them for a bourgeois trade? Former real estate agents, both my in-laws might have told a few whoppers in their business but who doesn’t? Lawyers and actors bend reality. Poets and playwrights are professional fibbers. Even teachers have to distort truth, from kindness or oversimplification. Exaggerating becomes a problem only if the liar believes his falsehoods. Garry works in PR, calling it ‘diplomacy for the commercial sector’. He polishes words. He helps to clarify statements made by indiscreet politicians or incident-prone footballers, massaging meaning. He needs to look the part, he says. Dressing like a younger man, Garry tints his hair. He pumps iron and sucks in his gut. The smile might crinkle but that’s just a mask stretching: there’s nobody behind it.
I have photos of us pre-Emily, in our first apartment. Garry wears thin ties. I have a waist. Then I begin to lose definition, slipping out of frame, while my husband continues to defy forty. He grins with that same predatory air, thrusting hips as he walks.
The night after his e-mail I demanded that we talk. Thus confronted, he pleaded mitigating circumstances. The affair had been touch-free, he explained, so it deserved a lesser penalty. No real harm done. Why was I giving him that look?
I kept to bed, neglecting housework. My weight ballooned. Then I receded the other way. Demons came for me. They hacked into my brain. They told me that computers were to blame, that I had become the ghost in my machine. Co-morbid, I sought more Zoloft relief, while combing through support group websites. I posted for the kindness of strangers. How easy to trip over spaghettified knots of rationalising. Flattered by their sympathy, I moved my mouse across a planchette. In cyber-talk I found the same tropes of quarrel. Men’s replies read as considerate murmuring. Their ex-wives misunderstood them. Would I be interested in meeting for a drink?
The dining table shimmers, a corona underneath my albums. Forget digital. Across solid pages, I stalk faces and names from memory: people I drank with and some I slept with, in the days when we used to share. Now we’ve turned phantom, wafting in a suburb fog of maybe and why not. My hands shake. Ligaments fail, ceding to entropy. Soon I’ll find only a me-shaped gap in the pages where a person once posed.
Turning album leaves, I rouse a sleeping beauty from early married life; with her wine-tasting and cocktail parties, her recipe-swapping with other couples and staving off the onset of children. One album further back I stumble on an adolescent beach gathering. I recall couples fondling in sand dunes and singles retching on the shoreline. I push away pages of an album yet to come: the chill in my blood as I glimpse flowers wilting with skeleton-pale weeds.
Can’t move. No air to breathe. In my bathroom, someone else’s fingers struggle with a childproof lock, pressing a bottle cap and twisting, the hard plastic branding her palm. That woman in the mirror resembles my late mother, only distorted; as if vacuumed through a flesh nozzle that has left flaps dangling from the family bone structure.
As I flick on my radio an announcer purrs: ‘Remember where you were when you first heard this song…?’
For those rhythms my feet would once have taken to the dance floor with girlfriends. Now I run to hug a toilet bowl. I fetch up images of my school reunion: those unwise menu selections, especially the nauseating pie. In a mess of rich crust and memory sauce I hallucinate again, watching some ageing gent of my imagination; keen to be loved but extending a too-friendly hand to a young colleague who reports him for misconduct and then crows over his demise. Evil spirits attack from photos never taken. Synaesthesia perhaps. Or a preview of Hell. I see colours in vomit aroma. I taste shadows in a retching noise. It’s become worse since I went back on the capsules.
Though forgetting lyrics of a radio song, I can’t erase Garry’s billet-doux. Copies paper the darkroom of my brain. Again I’m hurling coffee against a wall. Again I’m witnessing its long dribble. In unforgiving mirrors my doppelganger aims the Zoloft bottle at one eye.
Photos rip and reassemble, leaping from their bin. On my kitchen floor, surrounded by ranks of capsules, I watch little white soldiers marching on our enemy. I can’t stop. Swallowing half my regiment, I’ll suck down the other half. But I never arrive. Rampaging instead, I scream around my house to grab knives from drawers. From shelves I hurl books; tearing paper, cotton and skin. Unable to murder Garry, I will kill our daughter. She can’t live with this shame. Then I wake in a lagoon of sick. Walls stare down at me.
Eyes open. Too bright. Fingers sting from chewed cuticles. Around piles of clothing I step with care, in case they move. On my fridge door hangs a medical certificate. One more day. At work my in-box will overload. Even if I face going in, they can’t make me log on. I haven’t felt this scared since girlhood, when I kept my breath in a pocket inhaler, in case hard coughs attacked. Crouching at a school desk I would clutch the tube close with my SOS locket.
Must collect Emily from school. Though she’s old enough to walk home on her own I fear something happening to her. I’ll force my legs outside. In my hall mirror a woman’s mouth widens. Less a smile, more a drain for pouring liquids, to ease the path of one more capsule. Her lines frame features of my mother, and the ranks of women preceding us. Faces die in reverse, until they melt into my pretty daughter. Emily grins. The walls approve, smiling back.