2. Heads or tails

(and the quest for kale)

“Excuse me,” Jim leaned into the garden tomatoes to catch the eye of a young boy restocking onions across from him. “I’m looking for kale.”
The boy looked up from his pyramid of onions and brushed a black fringe of hair away from his eyes. “I, uh, I think he’s on break. Why, are you his dad?”
The answer was as good as any, since Jim had been sure he’d have felt like an idiot regardless, but it definitely wasn’t the one he was looking for. He yanked his grocery list from his back pocket and unfolded it. He traced his fingertip across the curvy lettering—Cassie had written their grocery list for him. “No, it’s a food. Kale. See?”
The boy inspected the list and shrugged. “Is that a fish or something? I’m sorry, I don’t think we have that. What does it look like?” He started walking towards the meat and seafood department.
“I don’t know” answered Jim, folding the list back along its creases. Half-way to the meat and seafood department, the boy brushed his hair out of his eyes again, and shoved his hands into his apron. He pulled out his cellphone and started typing. It was a gesture that Jim had become well acquainted with, living with his own teenager. When Cassie reached for her phone like that, it was her way of saying this conversation has terminated, Dad. Our well of meaningful and civil communication has run dry. It was easy enough for Jim to justify it as father-daughter difficulties when it came from Cassandra, but to get the same indifferent dismissal from a stranger, an employee, no less, seemed much worse. Jim rubbed the bridge of his nose. He'd been in his steeltoes since seven. He turned towards the broccoli and the boy looked up from his screen.

“Wait! Sir! Uh, hold on. Look.” The boy held his phone out for Jim to see. It was a website: Wikipedia. More specifically, it was an article on kale, and the boy had zoomed in on the picture. It looked just like lettuce to Jim.
“Oh...” Jim reached for the reading glasses that laid on his chest like his wire-frame medallion of middle age. “Would you look at that?! That’s so neat. What else does it say?” The boy scrolled through the article, nimbly dragging and sliding his fingers around the touch screen.
“Says it’s a vegetable... Related to broccoli and brussels sprouts.” He paused, continuing to read. “It’s, like, ultra-good for you. I don’t think it’s very common though. Maybe try a health food store? Maggie’s on 9th ave has all kinds of weird stuff.”
Jim nodded emphatically, sending his reading glasses tumbling off his nose. “Thanks a lot, kiddo.”
“You’re welcome.” The boy hid his phone back in his apron, with a paranoid check over his shoulder for the management. Finally indulging his curiosity, he added “you, uh, you don’t really strike me as the kale-eating type.”
Jim laughed a little. “Yeah. You got me. It’s for my daughter; she’s into this stuff.”
“Shoulda brought her with you.”
“Yeah...” Of course, Jim had wanted to ask her. He didn’t really know how though, and he was worried it would make her lose whatever confidence she still had in him as a father. His ancestors could bring down a wooly mammoth, domesticate cattle, and tend fields of maize with only the simplest tools, and Jim could hardly find food in a grocery store without help. In that moment, for just that moment, Jim felt like crying. He took a sharp breath and tried his best to pass off a wince as a smile. “Well, thanks again.”
“No probs. Good luck dude.”

The boy turned back to his boxes of onions and continued building his pyramid for the produce Pharaoh. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed to Jim that knowledge was becoming obsolete. Cassandra’s generation didn’t have to know anything because they knew how to know everything with the touch of a button. Christ, he thought, there isn’t even a button to touch anymore, they just have to touch a screen with the picture of a freakin’ button on it. Jim played with the idea of buying her a new phone—one that could look on the internet and do other computer stuff. The divorce had gutted him, but he could find the money. Plus, the old house could sell any day. Jim scanned the rest of his list. He was in over his head with this scavenger hunt, but at least he recognized the other items Cassie wanted. He examinined the cauliflower and broccoli, making his best guess at which were in the best condition. Then he picked up a bag of carrots and thought about that kid named Kale, who was probably sitting in the back room, totally okay with the fact that his parents had named him after a vegetable. You wouldn’t catch me calling my daughter Tomato like some hippie moron, thought Jim, that’s for damn sure.

He’d wanted to name his daughter Cassiopeia. He and Paula had been stargazing out on his parents’ farm the night they made Cassie. He was sure it was that night, because it had been a one-time thing—until she decided to keep the baby and they decided to give it a go. Sure, let’s give it a go! Such an obscenely casual term for the biggest decision of their lives. Paula liked his suggestion for the baby’s name, but once they did a little research on the constellation, they changed their minds. That speckling of stars was named after a beautiful queen in Greek mythology, but that poor lady didn’t fare so well with the gods.

They settled on Cassandra instead. It was similar in sound, but it had a better meaning behind it: Man’s defender. Jim had always liked that. The irony wasn’t lost on him when he thought about how many times Cassie stuck up for him as his marriage fell apart. She was a good kid. A kind one. Sweet. She deserved a fridge full of weird vegetables, if that’s what she wanted. She deserved one of those computer phones. Jim rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. They had a fight the other day after he overheard her on the phone with a friend, talking about some kind of piercing she wanted to get. Of course he hadn’t thought twice about it; he wouldn’t watch his daughter turn her body into a pin cushion. He and Paula allowed Cassie to get her ears pierced in the tenth grade and that was as far as they would let it go—it had been a rare moment of agreement in their marriage.

Maybe I’ve been too stubborn though. Jim assessed a bundle of celery, turning it over in his hands long enough to conclude that it was indeed celery and it wasn’t rotten or moldy. Then, he gave it a couple of additional spins as if to confirm that it wasn’t going to speak up and contribute any advice about Cassie. It didn’t offer any pleasant surprises, but he bagged it anyways. He resolved to talk to her about it that night, maybe the next day, depending on her mood. Some of those piercings look okay. Maybe the top of the ear, or maybe—maybe—a small one on the side of her nose. Those look good on girls. He picked up a jug of 2% while he searched for a carton of vanilla soy milk for Cassie.

It occurred to Jim that he didn’t even know what it was she wanted to get pierced. The pendulum, was it? No—frenlium? Something like that. He took one last look at his grocery list and mentally crossed off each of the items until all that remained was kale. It felt like he’d been in the store for two hours, but he’d made it through alright. Maybe Cassie would want to go to Maggie’s on 9th in the morning, or on Sunday. He could offer to drive her. As he carried his grocery bags to the car, Jim noticed that the boy who had helped him earlier was leaning against the outside of the store, with a sweater zipped up over his uniform—waiting for his parents to pick him up, most likely.
“You got a ride home?” It was getting way too late for the boy to be walking home safely, especially on a Friday night. Jim was the overprotective type and he knew it. Sooner that than the under protective type. It boiled his blood to think about some of the irresponsible parents out there. As the boy prepared to answer, they were interrupted by three young women—all dressed to the nines—stampeding in their high heels through the entrance of the grocery store. Inside, the employees were making no effort to hide the fact that the store would be closing in four minutes.

The women were laughing loudly between gasps for air, pulling at each other’s arms to keep balance. As they stormed through the entrance, one of them—as loud as her bright yellow shoes—punched her fist into the air and screamed “chocolate sundaes! Wooooo hooooh!! Fuck yeah!!”

The circus receded into the store, and the slurred chatter of the parade was guillotined by the automatic doors as they slid shut. Jim and the boy looked at each other, as if to confirm that they had both just witnessed the same ridiculous scene.
“Well, uh, that was random” said the boy, with a glimmer in his eye that made it abundantly clear that his own days of drunken hedonism couldn’t begin a moment too soon. It certainly wasn’t the chocolate sundaes that excited him.

Jim couldn’t help but feel a flicker of nostalgia, which he knew to hide from the boy, who certainly didn’t need any more encouragement. Interrupting the boy’s envious reverie, he hoisted the conversation back to the previous topic. “So, yeah, you got a ride?”
“Yep, my mom’s coming in a bit.”
“Good.” Jim refreshed his grip on his grocery bags, and was just about to step into the parking lot when he stopped and turned again towards the boy. “Hey, can I, uh, do you still have that gadget of yours? Could you look something else up for me?”
The boy looked up and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Look up frenlium for me. I’m not sure what the spelling is," he said. "It’s a piercing,” he added, in case there was a button for that. The boy tickled the screen of his phone for a few moments as Jim waited, setting his groceries down on the sidewalk. Clearly he wasn’t the piercing type any more than he was the kale type, so as an explanation he added “my daughter wants to get her frenlium pierced.”
The boy chewed on his lip ring and shrugged again. With his hair tucked safely under a cap, it seemed he had to resort to new compulsive behaviors. “I dunno man, I’ve never heard of that one.” He touched the screen a few more times and let out a very abrupt “ha!”
Jim leaned in to look at the screen. “What is it?”
“I’ll tell you what it is,” the boy answered, turning the phone towards Jim. “It’s a big fat cock.”

And indeed it was. With a barbell speared through the underside of its head—through the frenulum as it's called. For Jim, it was like gulping down sour milk, looking at that... That mutilation. He felt a sympathetic twinge of horror in his dick, lifting his hand into his line of sight to block the nauseating image on the phone.
“So that’s a no, huh?” The boy was grinning that kind of silly grin that only a penis, or a reference or drawing thereof can put on the face of an adolescent male.
“What?” Jim had turned his head towards the parking lot, trying to sanitize his eyes with the harsh glare of the streetlights.
“I’m guessing that look means you’re not gonna let your son get his dick pierced.”
“My daughter,” Jim corrected, and then he paused. It wasn’t an Olympic leap forward in clarity. “We’re obviously looking up the wrong piercing.” Jim paused again, feeling more like a punch-line with every second. Cassie would have been so proud of him.
“Yeah, obviously...” The boy’s voice trailed off as he consulted his phone again, methodically tonguing the piercing in his lip. His brow furrowed as he read. “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you. There’s a bunch of body parts called the frenulum. Wikipedia says it could be this,” he displayed a close-up image of a ring hanging in the fleshy tab underneath a person’s tongue, which returned the sea-sick feeling to Jim’s gut, “or... It could be this.”

Jim leaned in to see the phone again, eager to see the good news. He prayed that there was a frenulum in the ear, but this time, when the boy proffered the screen, there was a woman, bent over, with a metal bead gleaming at the base of her vagina. Good news was obviously a very relative term, and relative to the other news, a piercing under the tongue was looking much better than good. The boy closed the picture and resumed reading, narrating his enlightenment as it progressed. “I guess they’re both frenulum piercings. Looks like it’s a coin-toss for which one she’s getting," he mused with another shrug. "Heads or tails.”

Jim wasn’t sure if the boy had intended the double entendre of his last remark, but either way he couldn’t help feeling like the butt of the joke. Like he had a stomach full of putrid milk. Just then, the tires of a grey minivan crunched through the gravel alongside the curb. The boy opened the passenger door as its window slid downward. The driver—easily identifiable as the boy’s mother—put her hand on her boy’s shoulder and launched a question through the open window. The interrogation went off like a bean bag gun. Simple, of course—the obvious question: “who are you?”
Ah, the name’s Jim. I met your son in the store, and we’ve been hanging out in this deserted parking lot checking out some genitalia. Just a little quality time with the neighborhood youth. Role model type stuff.
While Jim scrambled for a wording to his answer that wouldn’t completely incense his interrogator, the boy answered for him, saying “I was just giving him some pointers. His daughter’s getting a new piercing.” Jim could tell that that last comment was directed at him. One last jab of provocation in Cassie’s favor. Then the boy continued, with a flippant lilt in his voice, expertly baiting his prey: “Hey mom, can I get my frenulum pierced?”
“No,” she answered, with the same reflexivity with which her son brushed his hair out of his eyes. As she shifted the van from park back into drive, she added “what the heck is a frenulum?”
“Here, let me show you.” The boy slipped his phone from out of his pocket. The van pulled away as the boy turned his smirk towards Jim, waving his index and middle fingers. With an incredulous shake of his head, Jim laughed and reciprocated the boy’s parting gesture. I guess the peace sign is cool again, he thought as he gathered his groceries and headed to his truck. He had only taken about five or six steps when the minivan screeched to a halt; apparently the boy’s mom wasn’t a fan of the frenulum piercing, most likely not in any of its forms.

That brat deserves a smack in the head, Jim thought, but he hoped the boy’s mother went easy on him. It was because of that brat that he wouldn’t be flying completely blind in his next conversation with Cassie. Five minutes on the internet had prepared him better than any of the parenting books Paula kept leaving around his condo. Imagine that—that kid probably hadn’t even had his first girlfriend yet, but he had the one thing more important than experience: a smartphone.
Jim chuckled to himself as he laid his bags on the passenger seat. He found a dime on his dashboard and flicked it into the air, but he didn’t check the result when he caught it. He didn’t see the appeal in the 50-50 odds of a bad omen.

Jim slid his key into the ignition of his truck. It was almost time to find out which of her frenula his daughter found to be so dissatisfactory in its natural form... and then shower her with kale and hand-held electronics until she changed her mind.

3.Yo, I’ll tell you what I want

(what I really, really want)

There are three kinds of mornings for Ellen, characterized by the work order she filled out for her liver the evening prior. In the zero to three drink range, which results in a Class 1 morning, she wakes up to the sound of her alarm clock. In the four to seven drink range, a Class 2, she typically wakes up one or two hours before her alarm clock, and manages to get a few sips of water and a handful of crackers into her by the time it goes off. Class 3 mornings, which follow evenings involving eight or more drinks, begin with Ellen waking up to the sound of her alarm clock, just like a Class 1, except in this case it’s because her alarm repeats indefinitely every fifteen minutes until it’s turned off. More often than not, Class 3 mornings are technically afternoons.

This particular morning, which started at around 2 pm, was a Class 4. Ellen woke to the sensation of a bobby pin making its most earnest effort to draw blood from her scalp. She lifted her head from the armrest of the couch and gingerly untangled the bobby pin from her hair. It had entwined itself very stubbornly with a couple of strands, so Ellen let it hang in their grasp near her cheek. Just by the feel of what she had touched, she could tell that her hair looked like a dozen different Spirographs superimposed on each other.

Ellen’s dress was no less distressing than her tresses, which is to say that her outfit had degraded similarly. Last night, she’d been wearing a pencil skirt the colour of pencil lead, a navy blouse (with a black lace pushup underneath), black tights (with orange boy-cut underwear underneath), and mustard yellow pumps; none of which were anywhere in the wreckage that surrounded her crash landing zone. Ellen’s new inventory was as follows:

  • Bobby pin (1)
  • Contact lens, left (1)
  • Thong, black lace (1)
  • Paper, 8 1⁄2” x 11”, folded (1)
  • Quilt, (1)

Immediately after tabulating her inventory—prior even to being puzzled by it—Ellen pushed the heavy quilt onto the floor next to the couch. She felt woozy from the heat. It felt like it was thirty degrees in her apartment, and Ellen was sweating.

There are three kinds of sweaty for Ellen, which can be distinguished by the interaction of her exposed skin with leather upholstery. When Ellen is Class 1 sweaty, which really isn’t sweaty at all, leather feels cool and dry on her skin. If
she reaches Class 2, the leather begins to feel warm and moist. It’s once she’s at Class 3 status that her skin actually sticks to the leather. This particular morning (well, this particular afternoon) Ellen reached Class 4. She felt her back slide against the cushions, leaving a streak of sweat glistening on the leather as she stretched and dangled the top half of her body over the couch. With her forearms steadied against the carpet, she pulled the rest of her body onto the floor.

For Ellen, there are three kinds of rug burn. On her way to the ground, she picked up Class 2’s on her right shoulder and the inside of her left knee. She also got a Class 1 on her forehead, which felt extraordinarily pathetic. Ellen rolled onto her back and reached for the quilt, which she bunched under her head as a pillow. It felt like every bit of moisture she had to her name was beading on her skin. Mindful of the growing tally of toxins she remembered consuming the previous night, it occurred to Ellen that the water would be well advised to escape her body. Rats from a sinking ship.

Sunshine lashed her through the drapes above the couch. Ellen rolled onto her side, turning her back on the day. After her half-hearted, quarter-circle barrel roll, which brought an acidic trail of vomit half-way up her esophagus, Ellen’s face was inches from an empty cardboard box. Her first thought was that, in the event of a second, more thorough expulsion of her stomach contents, the box would be the ideal receptacle until she had the strength and the will to reach a toilet or a trash can.

The second thought she had was that all Thompson grapes are seedless. In fact, they’re actually called Thompson Seedless grapes (or Sultana grapes, depending on your country of origin). In French, they’re called Thompson sans pepins. Ellen couldn’t speak French, but on the box, underneath where the words Thompson Seedless were printed, were the words Thompson sans pepins. Operating under the assumption that the French word for Thompson, at least if she had to select from among the three, was probably Thompson, that left sans pepins to pair up with seedless.

Ellen’s seventh thought—if you're counting—was that directly across from Thompson Seedless was another label: Luisco. The French translation for Luisco, which resided below as it did for the Thompson Seedless, was Luisco sans pepins. Thought number eight was that, although both the French and English saw fit to identify Thompson grapes as seedless (or sans pepins), only the French deemed it necessary to declare the seedlessness of the Luisco variety.

Ellen knew a couple of things about Thompson grapes; they are the most planted variety of all grapes in the USA, and all of them are seedless. So—and this was Ellen’s ninth thought in the series—if it was important to advertise the seedlessness of the most familiar variety of seedless grape, it would follow logically that anglophone consumers should be informed that Luisco grapes are seedless as well. Instead, there was nothing but blank space above the sans pepins.

“Well, fuck me with a hairdryer and switch it on,” Ellen mumbled into the folds of the quilt. There was something about the objectivity of it, the absolute indefensibility of the careless oversight that disgusted her, and in this moment of vulnerability, she was in no shape to stress over matters of principle.

Ellen had settled naturally and successfully in her job as a copy editor, but had yet to find a way to keep from bringing her work home with her. It was never something she did deliberately; the work always seemed to be waiting for her when she got there—like a surgeon who lived in a hospital. The difference was that when Ellen came home to something in need, it was already beyond saving. The ink had already long since dried and been reproduced a million times over. In that way, it felt more like being a paramedic who lived in a morgue.

On her seventh birthday, Ellen wanted pink fingernails, and so her mother taught her how to use nail polish. On the day after her seventh birthday, Ellen decided that she wanted purple fingernails, and so her mother taught her how to use nail polish remover. The young girl listened, with wide eyes and rigid posture, to her mother’s warnings that nail polish remover was very, very dangerous. Breathing it in could make her sick and hurt her brain, she learned. So when she used it, she held her breath and kept her face as far from the chemical as she could while still being able to see her hands. When her lungs began to ache, she darted to the other side of her bedroom to draw in fresh air. Little Ellie wanted to be a brain surgeon, and she was committed to bringing every brain cell of hers to medical school intact.

One night, when she was in junior high, with her mother’s warnings still in her memory, Ellen slept beside a rag soaked in acetone. In a moment of prodigious meta-adolescence, she had concluded that it would bolster her happiness and popularity. As she discovered the following morning, all it yielded was an excruciating headache and a comparable, albeit figurative, experience in her sense of self.

Fifteen years later, the nights were different but the mornings were much the same. Ellen wet her lips. Her mouth tasted like styrofoam and chocolate-flavoured paint thinner. Her head felt like she was getting an MRI with a metal plate in her skull. She was sporting a lacy thong, her hair was matted halfway to dreadlocks, and her expression was frozen in a permanent wink so she could see out of the one eye with a contact lens still stuck in it.

Safe to say it wasn’t the kind of morning that a cup of coffee and a hug could fix. As soon as it hit her stomach, the coffee would probably bounce right back up—and right down the back of whoever was hugging her. Ellen reached a tremoring hand to the lip of the box and tilted its open end towards her face. She anchored her chin over the cardboard, and she threw up. When she was finished, her abdomen tightened in a joyless laugh of unfocused bitterness, and it pushed up another splash of vomit to follow. Utterly debilitated, with her last reserves of energy spent voiding her stomach, Ellen curled up and begged herself for sleep. With her body bent at this new angle, she could suddenly feel something rigid pressing into her side just slightly above her hip bone. The way her stomach felt, she was half expecting to find the hilt of a dagger. Ellen reached toward the source of the discomfort and found a sheet of printer paper, folded repeatedly into a thick little square.

It was from Ellen. Not the Ellen who was reading it, mind you, but the Ellen who was in the crow’s nest when the S.S. Ellen was run aground onto a leather couch in the early morning hours of the previous night. Ellen often felt like her body was an office that she shared with another woman; one who would come by in the night-time every once and a while. That woman had a way of reorganizing everything and occasionally trashing the place before Ellen returned in the morning. Kind of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. It was like coming into the office in the morning and finding a fish tank on the desk with a note saying sold computer for fish tank, traded chair for fish. fish died, sry. Do what you want with tank.

The two women had a very adversarial relationship, but since they were never both in the office at the same time, Ellen never had an opportunity to seek any explanation, apology, or compensation for the messes she was left to clean up. The only evidence she really had for the existence of the other woman was circumstantial—credit card charges, sinkfuls of dishes, idiocy in her outbox, tequila hangovers, and the occasional scribbled epiphany tucked in a pocket, purse, or this time, a waistband. That’s what happens when you drink yourself into a mindstate beyond the limits of what the sober mind can fathom. It has a dissociative affect, or at least it did for Ellen. With this in mind, for ease and clarity, Ellen nicknamed the other woman Hellen—as in Ellen with an H. Or, to a chemist, Ellen with two C’s, six H’s, and an O.

Hellen had been busy last night. Ellen had to figure out what that woman had done with her clothes and her right contact lens, why she had decided to sleep on the couch, and what else she had gotten up to once she took over the cockpit some time around ten the previous night. Ellen read the note, hoping that she would find at least a few clues.
It said: "even if we don’t have it this time, we have this time" with thick and emphatic underlining for clarity.

Hellen had a knack for seeing profound meaning in vague, pseudo-intellectual musings, and was relentlessly dedicated to sharing her discoveries. Ellen usually enjoyed trying to decipher the proverbs that Hellen left behind, but the carpet was starting to get itchy against her skin and, understandably, she felt like putting some distance between her and the box of vomit. So, she folded up the note and lobbed it at the couch. Getting onto her knees and then, after a breather, finally onto her feet, Ellen walked slowly towards the kitchen sink. Upon arrival, she turned on the faucet and held her hair back. She rinsed the vomit from her mouth (taking care to spit the water directly into the drain and not onto the dishes), and then drank as much water as she could. When she started to feel sick, she withdrew her lips from the stream and let the water fall onto the stack of bowls and spoons in the sink below.

Ellen had done the dishes after dinner, so it looked like Hellen had made a midnight snack. There were three bowls and three spoons, so Katie and Juliana must have still been with her by that point. A handful of disjointed single-frame memories came to mind, like a stack of unlabeled Polaroids she’d found in the morning, floating in her office’s new fish tank. They were blurry, warped, and lacking context, but they were still of some use: an image of the three of them debating something as Hellen filled three wine glasses almost to the brim. An image of Katie eating a pickle, seen from above as if Hellen had been on the floor. And, finally, a much-appreciated image of her two friends piling into the back seat of a cab outside her apartment building.

The evidence in the kitchen was starting to collude into a semi-cohesive account of the night before. There was a dish towel on the other end of the counter, crumpled up and caked in an obscene amount of what looked like dried chocolate sauce. There were streaks of it on the counter as well, and as she reached for the dish towel, Ellen noticed a smear of it on her forearm. She returned to the sink and lowered her head for another mouthful of water, this time making sure to drink more slowly, which seemed to help. When she couldn’t force any more down, she walked over to the fridge. Inside, she found a bottle of chocolate sauce, which fit neatly amidst the assembling records of the night before. When she picked it up, she was surprised by its weight, or lack thereof. It was nearly empty.

Ellen and Hellen had divergent definitions of a sensible junk food intake, but considering that whatever wasn’t in the bottle or on the counter or staining the dish towel was split between three people, her consumption didn’t seem all that excessive. Also in the fridge was a carton half full of melted ice cream. It definitely wasn’t the stupidest place she’d found ice cream on a morning after, so that didn’t seem too bad either. Ellen took the ice cream out of the fridge and put it into the sink. When she withdrew her hand, she realized the carton had chocolate sauce smeared on it too.

With the back of her hand covering her lens-less right eye, she took a closer look at the kitchen with her left. Suddenly she found herself wondering if she’d eaten any of the chocolate sauce at all. It was on the door handle of the fridge, the light switch, the keypad of the microwave, and in a few spots on the floor. The best thing about having a box full of vomit in the living room was that, in comparison, Ellen was looking forward to cleaning up the kitchen. She retrieved a slice of bread and bit into the corner with all the zeal of a vegan being force-fed tripe.

As she walked down the hallway towards the bedroom, Ellen noticed that the door was closed. It didn’t bode well for the scene on the other side. Since Hellen never actually had to face the consequences of her actions, any effort on her part to conceal what she had done was a signal of something abnormally catastrophic. When she gripped the bedroom door knob, Ellen rested her forehead against the door and whispered her morning- after mantra of hopes: nothing criminal, nothing expensive, nothing permanent. Fully aware that Hellen would be first in line for a black market, million dollar tattoo if such a thing existed, Ellen spent a few moments of peace leaning against her door before she twisted the handle and walked in.

Inside, she found her entire outfit from the previous night laid out neatly on the carpet. It looked as if she’d laid down on the floor and been teleported to the couch, leaving her clothes behind (although that theory couldn’t explain her waking up in a different pair of underwear). Beside the outfit was her purse, from which was coming the muffled sounds of a cellphone alarm. The tinny harmonies of a Spice Girls ringtone crescendoed as Ellen pulled the phone from her purse and disabled the alarm. She couldn’t decide if Hellen had chosen that song and that volume to wake Ellen because she genuinely thought it would be a welcome improvement, or if she just took pleasure in tormenting Ellen. If she had to guess, Ellen would have said it was the former. Hellen actually seemed to think the fish tank would be an upgrade from the office computer, so to speak, which was why Ellen had so much trouble assuming ownership of her actions. Thankfully, she’d failed to bring the phone with her to the couch last night, so the well-intentioned bomb of early morning Zig-a-zig-ah had gone off at a safe distance.

Ellen took another bite of her bread before setting it on the bedside table, and then emptied the rest of her purse. She had left her apartment with five twenty dollar bills in her bag, and as she spread out the contents on her bed, she found one remaining - plus what looked like about sixteen dollars in change. Amongst the coinage on the bedspread was a receipt from the grocery store for a bottle of chocolate sauce, two liters of ice cream, a pack of cigarettes, and something called Boris 12pc Van.

Ellen remembered standing at the till. Her and Katie had yelled at the cashier, commanding her not to let Juliana buy the cigarettes because she had just recently quit. Of course, Juliana was demanding the opposite with equal vigor, and in the end the beleaguered employee relented. Her name was Tina; Ellen remembered seeing her name tag. While Tina picked out the cigarette pack and scanned it, Ellen and Katie were chanting No, Tina, No! No Tina! No Tina! No Tina! No! Ellen definitely recalled drumming her hands on the countertop to the rhythm of their chant, which accelerated to Notinanotinanotinano and then collapsed shortly after into a rubble of syllables and shrill laughter. She could remember that much, for sure, but Ellen hadn’t the slightest clue what a Boris 12pc Van could be. It was $6.99, so she reasoned that it probably wasn’t a van, but that was as far as she could get with the available evidence.

She had a number of friends who had, on at least one occasion, employed memory loss as a sort of get out of jail free card after a less-than-admirable sexual indiscretion. In her vicarious experience, the verb forget was basically interchangeable with the verb deny, so it was difficult for Ellen to come to terms with the notion that she could actually, seriously, truly not remember parts of the previous night. It struck her as particularly irrational for a person to engage in a behavior and then falsely deny any memory of it the following day. Ellen always told her friends that if they wanted to do something (or someone) badly enough to do it (or him), and they were ashamed of it (or him) badly enough to want to forget it, then either their definition of desirable or their concept of shame was out of order. Then again, she thought, whenever I do something I wouldn’t normally do, I just blame it on Hellen. Maybe that wasn’t much different.

Regardless, Ellen never came across an opportunity for carnal indiscretion. Whether she was sending them or not, men seemed to pick up on a signal of all-pervading, everlasting, irreversible, and immutable rejection from her. Very infrequently could they make it past an opening line. All my friends must have super powerful pheromones, she’d say, and all I’ve got is fear-omones. For the time being, that suited her and her boyfriend just fine.

Her alarm sounded again, this time much more quietly, with a tasteful and subtle chirp. It was 2:30. She disabled the reminder and picked up her birth control from the purse-sized mound of miscellanea on her bed. She sat down on the side of the bed, jingling her substantial new coin collection as she dropped onto the mattress. She slid the packet of pills out of their sleeve, and popped out the one in the Saturday column. She threw it in the trash can beside the bed; it was the first one of her sugar week, and after two bites of bread and a few mouthfuls of water, it was looking like as big an undertaking as a whole Christmas ham. Ellen felt bad for her stomach - just one of the many innocent victims of the war she waged with the other tenant of her body. She laid back onto the bed and pushed her underwear along her legs until they were within reach of her toes, which she used to fling the unwanted garment towards her laundry hamper. The thong collided with the side of the hamper and laid crumpled on the floor. It was like watching a baby blackbird crash into a window. Both the deflating near-miss and the grim brutality of the symbolism seemed to Ellen like they were well suited to the occasion.

The thong was half a size too small; it had been since the day she bought it. She walked to the laundry hamper, rubbing the pink marks on her hips where the waistband had bitten into her skin. Ellen could imagine the absolutely enraging dialogue she would have had with Hellen last night: "aren’t you going to be horribly uncomfortable in those panties tomorrow morning?"
"I feel pretty in these!"
Not even an answer to the question. Total disregard. That was how Hellen handled matters relating to the future. Of course, you couldn’t blame her; she wasn’t the one who had to wake up to the garment garroting her hips.

Ellen peered into the hamper as she dropped her lingerie inside. At the top of the pile, she saw her favorite shirt; three sizes too big, extra soft, and guaranteed to ease even the worst hangover. She pulled it over her head and guided her arms through the sleeves. As she straightened it over her torso, she looked down and released a heavy sigh. The front of her shirt was splattered with an unconscionable amount of chocolate sauce.

By this point, Ellen’s breathing was comprised of little more than a cycle of alternating yawns and sighs. She opened the bedroom window and then left the room. Next, she wandered over to the bathroom. She washed her hands, and dried them on the one hand towel that wasn’t stained with chocolate sauce. Leaning into the mirror, she carefully peeled the sticky contact lens from her eye and dropped it in the garbage can. Then, she sat down to pee, which took long enough for her to get bored and reach over to turn the shower on while she waited. She laid her shirt on the countertop and stepped eagerly into the spray, mindful that hot showers reliably produced the same healing effects as her favourite shirt.

Strangely though, the heat and the steam started to make her feel dizzy. The excess warmth from the heavy quilt hadn’t yet dissipated, and the hot water was only bringing her further in the wrong direction. Ellen declined the option of suffering a fatal heat stroke in her tub and twisted the H knob until the suffocating steam disappeared. She couldn’t figure out why she was overheating; that was never a stipulation in the hangover contract, no matter how blurry it was when she signed.

Once the water reached an acceptably tepid temperature, she lowered herself into the tub and rested limply against the unyielding ceramic. It occurred to her that laying face down in a bathtub with the shower running was a quintessentially pitiful situation to be in, which meant that it was perfectly suited to her mood. Ellen was wondering if there was a difference between the words pitiful and piteous when water started to pool inside her cheek. Of course, the tub wasn’t draining fast enough and was gradually filling up. Ellen estimated that the water level had risen three or four millimeters in about five minutes, and at that rate she had only a couple of hours before her head was submerged. In other words, Ellen was in mortal danger of drowning.

Blowing gently on the fading embers of her will to live, she beached her head onto her forearm. Ellen imagined that instead of a shower head, she had one of those dark black rain clouds that follow sulking people in cartoons about clinical depression. With the cool water pelting her thigh, she finished rescuing her stubborn Tarzan of a bobby pin from the last few vines of her hair. When she finally freed it, with only a few hairs claimed as casualties, she reached up and around the shower curtain to drop the bobby pin on the floor. Next, she grabbed hold of her shampoo bottle. Actually, it was Katie’s shampoo; she’d loaned it to Ellen with the promise that it would prolong the vibrancy of her new dye job. It was called Beauty Essential’s Colour Hold.

One hand clasped the shampoo bottle while the other hovered below it to catch the product as she feebly squeezed it out. The first thought that Ellen had about the shampoo was that the company could conceivably be called Beauty Essential. If it were, then their use of an apostrophe would be correct and she could feel good about using their product. If the company’s name were Beauty Essentials and it happened to come with a bonus apostrophe, then it meant there was one more golf course with one more CEO on it from one more company that didn’t care enough about its product to spellcheck its label. That or its CEO had the business sense to know that spellchecking the label wasn’t worth the twenty cents it would cost to power the computer Ellen would have emailed the corrections from. She worked the shampoo into her hair and heaved out a bitter sigh, blowing water up along the wall of the tub. “Good enough,” she said under her breath as she shifted her head towards the falling stream to rinse out the lather. Throughout her career, and since her frustrated adolescence, Ellen had been reminded that informing a person or company of a spelling or grammatical error often got a similar response as if she’d run into the room screaming because she saw a mosquito outside.

Cognizant of the water she was wasting while she mourned the continued defilement of the English language, Ellen turned off the shower. She laid in the tub, imagining how many liters of water it took to keep the grass green on all of those golf courses. Eventually, the water drained and she got up to wrap towels around her torso and head. She poured a capful of mouthwash for herself, but when she brought it to her lips, her body recoiled from the smell of the alcohol. More than likely, her stomach didn’t trust her not to swallow it.

She continued through her morning routine, orbiting between the kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. She passed the thermostat in the hallway a number of times, but it was only once she’d put on a fresh pair of contacts that it caught her attention. Sliding the switch from 32º back to room temperature, she came across another Polaroid in the office: a picture of Hellen cranking the heat up and thinking how awesome it would be to fall asleep all cozy and warm.

Once the vents were no longer breathing fire into her apartment, Ellen was ready to get dressed for the day. She hung her wet towels in the bathroom and headed for the bedroom closet. Just as she was stepping into her sweat pants, Ellen heard the thudding bass of a vehicle flouting noise bylaws in the parking lot outside. The music stopped and the abrupt silence was followed by the sound of a car door closing. By the time she heard the chirp of the car alarm being armed, she knew she would be having company. Ellen pulled on a tank top and picked up her phone from the bed to check for a missed call or text from her incoming visitor. Unable to rouse the exhausted phone from its black screen, she plugged it into the charger with a silent apology for the five hours of unheeded Spice Girls that had drained it ahead of schedule.

Moments later, Kent opened the door to Ellen’s apartment with his key and called out to her as he slipped off his sneakers.
“Hey babe, where you at?”
“In here,” she replied from the bathroom, through a mouthful of toothpaste. She dipped her head into the sink to spit out the excess before she grafted a question onto her response. That question was going to be about Kent’s reason for dropping by unannounced so early in the morning (since 3:30 pm on a Class 4 equates to roughly 6:00 am on a Class 1), but he spoke up first.
“No rush,” he said, making his way to the kitchen. “I’m a little early.”
Ellen paused for a moment, foamy toothpaste dripping from her open mouth. Early for what? The sounds of rustling packages and creaking cabinet doors came from the kitchen to fill the void in the conversation left by a puzzled Ellen. The noises faded and were replaced by Kent’s voice.
“Hey, can I have a Creamdingle?” Ellen rinsed the toothpaste from her mouth and walked towards the kitchen with the troubling suspicion that she was careening headfirst towards the end of her convalescence. She lifted her tank top to dry her mouth, and rubbed her aching temples, shotgunning prayers to every imaginable deity that a Creamdingle wasn’t some kind of sexual act.

Ellen rounded the corner into the kitchen and leaned against the wall. “What’s a Creamdingle?” She asked in a way that made it clear that whatever a Creamdingle may be, unless it was a dismissive sigh, it wasn’t available from her at this time.
“I don’t know,” said Kent, as he held up a box of Baker Boris’s Vanilla Creamdingles, “but they look fantastic.”
“They look like the foulest confection ever pulled from an oven,” answered Ellen with a laugh of relief “and you can have every last one of them.”
Kent unsheathed one of the pastries and split it in half, offering one of the pieces to Ellen, which she accepted in a lapse of common sense.
“Box says it’s a source of energy,” he noted, biting eagerly into the dessert.
Ellen chewed the grainy mush and swallowed, instantly quintupling her nausea. “I can’t believe they let them get away with that.”
“What do you mean?” Kent was already rummaging for a second serving.
“Well, obviously it’s a source of energy. Everything high in sugar is technically a source of energy, but that’s like calling donkey piss a source of water. It’s so unethical to market that product as anything other than a total detriment to the consumer’s health. It should say if you choose to consume this, you are consuming it in spite of what it contains. That’s your right, so go ahead, but just so you know, it’s a stupid idea.”
Kent raised his eyebrows and nodded in agreement. “Okay.”
“What do you mean, okay?” She took the box from his hands and appraised the nutritional information chart. “This is a goddamn atrocity. Thirty grams of sugar, a quarter of your sodium, three quarters of your saturated fat... And look!” She turned the chart towards Kent with a grimace of total revulsion. “The serving size is for half a Creamdingle, so double those fucking numbers. Who opens one of these up and only eats half of it?” Kent swallowed his second helping and offered the comment that she had just eaten half of a Creamdingle, which Ellen completely disregarded. “This bullshit packaging is just taking advantage of the stupid, uneducated, trailer trash masses who look at it and think it’s going to be good for them because it’s a source of energy. It’s predatory. Boris is a bastard. A total fucking criminal. You know what this is?” Ellen held the box up to Kent’s face, as impressed as if it had been another woman’s underwear that she’d found in his bed. “This is a source of diabetes. That’s what it should say.”
Kent couldn’t help but laugh. He held his hands up in surrender. “Okay, I mean, you’re right. You’re totally right. I just figured, you know, you’re the one who bought them...”
No, Hellen, Katie, and Juliana bought them, and that’s why I’m never drinking again. The retort sprouted instantly in her mind, but Ellen elected to abandon it there. Instead, she encircled her arms around her ever-patient man and squeezed. “You can have them.” She looked at him with a smile - the first of her day - and changed the subject. “Hi, baby.”
He squeezed her back. “Hi. So, can I interest you in a ride, little lady?”

Ellen was especially grateful for Kent on days like this one, when she didn’t have the energy for the pomp and circumstance of the typical partnership. Maybe she needed more sources of energy from Boris’s bakery in her diet. If she wanted to keep the Creamdingles out, it was nice to have the option to be her unguarded, unfiltered, and occasionally belligerent self to Kent.

His simplicity and his patience were ultimately the primary reasons they were still together. If by offering her a ride, Kent was suggesting a sexual act, then Ellen was rapidly growing amenable to it. She’d tell him do away with that box by the couch and you’ve got a deal. She was confident that she could get away with that.
“What is the destination of this ride, exactly?” Ellen turned and started walking towards the bedroom.
“To the wine tasting. Did you forget? We’re meeting Rob and Steph at six, and then we were gonna go for pints at O’Shaughnessey’s.”

“Of course I remember.” Ellen leaned against the bedroom door frame. She looked at the previous evening’s apparel, still splayed out on the floor. “I’ve already got my outfit picked out.” Ellen picked up the package of bobby pins on her bedside table but, after a reflective pause, set them back down.

4. Old Soul

(sup bitch??)

I was born by the river, in a little tent.
Oh, and just like the river, I’ve been runnin’ ever since.

Cassandra filled her red plastic party cup from the bottle on the bathroom counter. Her laptop sat on the edge of the bathtub, with the voice of Sam Cooke sashaying through the room like a summer breeze blowing through the open YouTube window. The six-year-old computer’s fan hummed clumsily along to the song, and the casing buzzed against the ceramic of the tub with every bass note. Cassandra’s ailing anachronism often dragged her to the upper limits of frustration, but in this moment, its charm was undeniable. The aging speakers sung the ethereal wail of the strings and the haunting perfection of Sam’s voice in a way that made them sound more like echoes of the original performance than any form of electronic reproduction. As far as Cassandra was concerned, Sam, like all the classic soul and R&B artists, was meant to be heard on scuffed vinyl, atop crackling speakers, along walls infused with generations of cigarette smoke. Hearing his music on state-of-the-art surround sound would be like hearing Daft Punk on a vintage 1920’s crank radio. She hated her antique laptop, but right now, she thought, this is perfect.

It’s been a long, a long time comin’ but I know a change gon’ come. Oh yes it will.

Cassandra looked at her party cup; half full, and therefore half empty; both very viable points of view. So, which one will it be today? She simplified her choice by filling it nearer to three quarters. Let’s simplify things a little. Digging amidst a multi-layered mosaic of hair ties, receipts, pens, movie ticket stubs, and chewing gum packets at the bottom of her purse, her hand grasped a plastic vial; burgundy with a black cap. She unscrewed the cap and tapped a little mound of white crystals into her palm. Twice a day. Every morning, every night. No more, no less.

I go to the movie, and I go downtown. Somebody keep tellin’ me, don’t hang around.

Cassandra pinched the sea salt between her fingers and sprinkled it into her cup. Once she had resealed the vial and buried it back in her purse, she twisted the cap back onto the distilled water and replaced it in the cupboard beneath the sink. She took hold of her cup and cheersed herself in the mirror. “Bottoms up,” she said, taking a mouthful of the saline solution. She swished it over her tongue, bumping it slowly from cheek to cheek like a game of Pong. Her phone buzzed in her pocket. She leaned over the sink and opened her mouth slightly, letting the salt water flow gently into the drain as the sounds of a timpani roll escorted Sam from her bathroom. The laptop sat silently on the edge of the tub, awaiting further instruction or, as Cassandra saw it, the next invitation to freeze up and crash. Before she cued up another song, she retrieved her phone from her pajama pants. When she opened it, she saw a text message from Megan. The text message was unmistakably Megan’s; eloquent in its simplicity and composed in her unapologetic corruption of the King’s English:
sup bitch??
nm, u? Cassandra plugged in her hair straightener and set it on the counter to heat up.
still in bed lol. hungover. hows ur frennnnnulum?
kinda hurts but its ok. it looks soooo good! too excited! She set her phone beside the straightener and finished the remainder of her cup, feeling the sting of the rinse as it flowed under her wounded tongue. When she was satisfied, she spat the salty water into the sink and wiped her lips on her towel, which was still damp from her morning shower. She snatched up her phone just as it buzzed to announce Megan’s reply: u sexy bitch!! i told u!!
Cassandra cocked an eyebrow at her reflection and gave the mirror her most seductive pose. She lifted her tongue to the roof of her mouth in an attempt to show off her new jewelry, for which she was immediately scolded by a lancing pain. Feeling stupid, she averted her eyes from the mirror. When her gaze returned, she pinched her abdomen, grabbing hold of the fat that Megan was so insistent didn’t exist. She sunk her palm into her breast, reaching the underlying ribs far too easily for her liking. She posed for the mirror with her arms crossed; the flattering effect on her boobs temporarily nullifying the Dennis the Menace / Pro wrestler / Ol’ Skool B-Boy connotations of her stance. For the few moments before the stupid feeling resurfaced, she enjoyed the look of her simulated curves.
Flipping open her phone, Cassandra composed another text: when do boobs usually come in?
Megan’s answer was almost instantaneous. It arrived a second after Cassandra’s phone had finished its Sending Text Message animation. She mashed the OK button until it displayed her friend’s message: 01/02 I dunno.. usually on the 1st date if he’s cute?? why? did football boy
Shortly after, it vibrated again as the rest of the message crossed the finish line.
02/02 ask u out?
Cassandra shook her head at the miscommunication and straightened a strip of her hair while she planned her next message. Her cellphone was the only possession of hers more antiquated than her computer. It was an artifact from an era before the ascent of text messaging, and it handled the new technology with relentless incompetency. The worst of its shortcomings was the phone’s 70 character limit on messages, which ranked it as only slightly more convenient than Morse code.

Cassandra needed a way to explain what she meant as well as reprimand Megan for her one-track mind, confess that Football Boy still hadn’t asked her out, suggest a theory to explain said failure, and express a general indifference towards the outcome. To accomplish that within a 70 character straitjacket would be like doing a cartwheel in an elevator. She knelt down in front of her computer and searched for Stevie Wonder. She clicked a link to Superstition and Stevie stepped in to help her finish straightening her hair. “I’m sorry I called you PC-nile.” Cassandra apologized in her most sympathetic baby-talk voice, gently petting her keyboard. “I’m sorry I called you dilaptopidated.”

There are some who believe that a curse will befall those who disturb the burial tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Most accounts of the curse agree that any unscrupulous party crashers who show up a few millennia late for a pharaoh’s burial will bring great suffering and misfortune into their lives. For those with the wherewithal to leave with a souvenir, well, double locusts, double plague, extra boils, and a curse upon their first and second born sons. Or something to that effect. Cassandra suspected that a similarly aggressive curse had begun to exact its punishment on her love life, no doubt caused by her continued use of a cellphone so ancient that it probably came from Tutankhamun’s personal stash. The instruction manual was likely written in hieroglyphics and, although she didn’t take note at the time, Cassandra could imagine picking scarabs out of the box when she first got the phone second hand from her cousin. If it wasn’t a curse, she assumed that Football Boy was probably just in over his head dealing with a woman who didn’t have a file extension after her name - precisely why he wasn’t Football Man.

no, havent talked to football boy since tues. hes scared to call me. A tiny wisp of steam escaped from the flat iron as Cassandra straightened the last chunk of her hair. Mission complete, she unplugged the iron and set it on the part of the countertop that least consistently led to the inadvertent melting of a fingertip. Next question: floral or spicy? Her perfume bottles clinked along to Stevie’s chorus. Floral. She noticed the blinking red light on her phone that signified a missed event. Next question: did her phone just forget to vibrate this time? Inside the relic, she found Megan’s response, knowingly pruned to less than 70 characters.
wat a pussy! u need a boy with balls, girl. wat r u gonna do?
probably just wait it out. whatever. Cassandra entombed her phone back in her pocket, and appraised her hair in the mirror. Her roots were starting to show, like a muddy streak in the middle of the frazzled blonde hay strewn on the barn floor of her scalp. One more bleaching and her hair would be horse food, and she knew it. “What to do, what to do?” she murmured to herself, stepping through a mist of rose and jasmine. Megan was right; Football Boy’s juvenile charisma was ample, but limited in value. The only man less attractive than the one who tries to control your life is one who can’t manage to control his own.

Cassandra pulled her make up bag out from the medicine cabinet and set up its contents in formation like toy soldiers on the counter. Her elite infantry consisted of only the most essential staples: one eyeliner, one foundation, two shades of eyeshadow (pink and blue), a quiver of Q-tips, a pair of tweezers, and eleven lip glosses, which were only in such short supply because three were AWOL at Megan’s house. With the front line deployed, there was still plenty of room on the battlefield. In the four months since moving into the condo with her dad, Cassandra had come to appreciate the unusually spacious bathroom. She hadn’t anticipated leaving the house she grew up in until she moved out on her own, so it felt a bit like a hiccup in the timeline, but it was nice to be away from the cramped bathroom and all the insomnia-inducing calamity of the old house. Cassandra didn’t miss the creaking of the old floors, or the roar of the furnace beside her room in the basement, or the hiss of the water pipes in the ceiling. Or the screams of the self-destructing marriage - she didn’t miss that very much either.

Granted, the owners of the condo next door had loud parties most weekends, which made it hard to fall asleep and even harder to feel alright about trying to fall asleep at ten thirty on a friday night. And yes, granted, every night for the first couple of weeks after they moved in, Cassandra could hear what she eventually identified as Tom Waits’ “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” on repeat in the bedroom one floor below hers. That was odd, and quick to become tiresome. But in spite of all the noise that bled through into her new place, there was a definite kind of silence in the building. The kind of quiet that belonged after Peace and in a grandmother’s cross-stitch.

Cassandra smoothed foundation over her freckles, and applied a subtle stripe of eyeliner across each of her lids. When her modifications passed inspection in the mirror, the troops were scooped back into the make up bag for evac. Cassandra’s laptop had, in the manner of a proportionately ancient human, lapsed into a nap, displaying the current time in a box that ambled sluggishly around the screen. It was almost noon; as good of a time as any to get started on the day. She picked up her laptop, unlocked the door, and opened it. On the other side was Jim, in fine form with sweatpants pulled over the bottom half of a frayed and faded baseball jersey that would have been a throwback if it weren’t so old. He was standing there, awkwardly, as if he’d been planning to knock for quite some time until he eventually just fossilized in place.

“Dad! What the hell?” Cassandra brushed by him, with an aggravated shake of her head.
“Good morning, honey, I was just coming to see if you wanted some breakfast.” Jim rotated in place, adjusting the trajectory of his sentence like a yard sprinkler of parenting as Cassandra walked around him on her way to her bedroom.
“No thanks. I already ate.” She entered her bedroom, and closed the door behind her, barricading it with another song from her computer. Jim followed her path; he knew that she hadn’t eaten breakfast. She had been asleep when he woke up and padded to the living room, and when she finally left her bedroom, she’d made a beeline to the bathroom. That’s the hardest part of having a daughter, thought Jim. If she walks out on dinner or skips breakfast, you hope to God it’s just because she hates you and not that she has some kind of frickin’ eating disorder.
“Do you want to go to Maggie’s today? I can drive you to the store.” Jim pitched his offer through the wooden barrier, having learned not to try opening Cassie’s bedroom door once she closed it. In response, he got silence from his daughter, and a muffled performance from Nina Simone care of Cassie’s computer. Racking his brain for more bargaining chips, Jim continued. “There’s that cafe nearby that I know you like. We can go there after. Or before, if you...” Suddenly, Nina halted her chorus and hushed the band. Cassandra cinched a belt around the waistline of her dress and stared suspiciously at her door. What does he want? she asked herself. The Bramblewood Cafe had killer grilled sandwiches and the boy who worked there on weekends always drew patterns in the foam of her latte. He smiled like a total doofus every time he looked at her. He was cute. Cassandra waited for her father to show more of his cards before she answered. She didn’t want to get roped into some kind of big long talk about her mother just for a sandwich and a four-dollar coffee.

Jim, Cassandra, and Ms. Simone were silent for half a minute, and then Cassandra heard a single footstep in the hallway as Jim pivoted away from the door, preparing to retreat. A few more seconds passed, and then came the rest of the steps as Jim walked away to the kitchen. Cassandra was becoming wearier every day of the father-daughter poker game and all its hidden motives. She made up her mind to ignore the request, and if he pushed any further, she would call him out. She would ask him straight up: what the hell did he want from her? Cassandra flattened a crease in her leggings and picked out a cardigan from her dresser. The weather was looking up; last week she’d been taking layers off of her winter outfits, but today she was adding one to a summer ensemble. The effect was quite the same, but in principle, it made a world of difference. Summer was only five final exams away. This summer, she promised herself, I’m going to get a proper tan. Last year, she’d hardly gotten any sun and Megan had spent about a million hours in the tanning salon. Together they were Candy Corn—white and orange. That’s all I want from this summer. All I’m asking for: a nice tan.

Cassandra went to resume the video of Nina Simone’s performance when she heard an unfamiliar sound coming from the other side of the room. It was a shhh-shhh-shhh sound, like the one Jim made when he walked around in his tattered nylon track pants. When she turned her head toward the noise, she realized that her dad was sliding something underneath the door. Cassandra crossed the room and crouched in front of the door to pick up the sheaf of newsprint she found. It was the food, fashion, entertainment, and science sections, plus the Sunday comics—the only parts of the newspaper that were about people doing better than normal, rather than the failures and suffering that qualified the rest of the newsworthy.

There was something about Jim’s gesture of kindness that was simultaneously so sweet and so pathetic that made it infinitely more endearing than anything else he could have possibly done. Cassandra smiled and exhaled her incredulity in a spurt of breath. She gathered the newspapers and opened the door, calling out down the hallway to her father. “You can come in.” Jim did his best to hide the note of surprise in his voice when he replied, “oh, okay...” He practically threw his fork and knife into his eggs. “I’ll be right there.” Cassandra’s perpetual tension and frustration with her father was one of the few things she didn’t discuss with her best friend. Megan’s dad was in the military, and it made Cassandra feel like an ignorant brat to complain about her father when she knew that Megan didn’t have a choice but to be without hers for most of the year. It wasn’t like Megan spent every waking minute worrying that she might lose her father to an IED or an RPG or any other lethal acronym, but Cassandra felt like even one morning’s worth of that fear was worse than the hundred worst days she’d had with her dad, so she kept her frustrations to herself. Having brushed off and repressed most of her thoughts on the matter, it only occurred to Cassandra how much she hated that bitterness once she felt it subside - as fleeting as the relief might turn out to be.

Whatever shit-talk she had bottled up about her dad, she had to admit that he was at least as loving as he was irritating, and his loving side was much easier to abide in her thoughts. Cassandra sat contentedly on the edge of her bed, thinking about grilled sandwiches and pretty lattes and cute baristas and organic produce. Suddenly though, as Jim lumbered down the hallway towards Cassandra’s room, the lights in her head turned red like a Departures screen in an airport after a freak blizzard. Grilled Sandwiches: CANCELLED. Pretty Lattes: CANCELLED. Cute Baristas: DELAYED. Organic Produce: LATE. All that food and all that flirting would absolutely decimate her new frenulum piercing. And as for the secret piercing she’d expected to be so easy to keep from a man she mostly avoided, it might not be so easy to hide on a Sunday afternoon romp through the town for some quality family time. Relationship With Father: BURNING WRECKAGE ON RUNWAY.

“Shit, shit, damn, fuck, shit, OW!!” Cassandra brought her hand to her mouth, trying to taste if she’d drawn blood with her cursing. Her dad would be coming into her room in a matter of milliseconds. “Hey, dad” she rehearsed, mouthing the words and noticing how the tip of her tongue spent almost the whole sentence near the roof of her mouth, exposing her piercing. “Hey, Jim.” No, that was the same. “Hey, father.” No, the th sound hurt like a mo’erfucker.

Jim rounded the corner and stood in the doorframe with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, just like he had earlier in front of the bathroom door, except a few inches closer and without a door in his face - which was a spectacular improvement as far as Jim was concerned. He didn’t find much gratification in his growing association of his daughter’s voice with the smell of stale varnish. Cassandra opened the newspaper and held it up in front of her face, peering overtop like a neighbor from the other side of the fence. “Hey... papa.”
“Hi, angel.”
“So, you wanted to go to Maggie’s?” Cassandra was still a little surprised that Jim even knew such a place existed. The fashion articles in front of her mouth must have warped her tone of surprise into a tone of reluctance, because Jim replied
“I can just drop you off, if you want.” In turn, the door frame must have altered the sound waves of his offer because his attempt to respect her independence sounded to Cassandra more like a lack of interest. Or maybe he’s offering to drop me off on his way to other errands, she thought.
“Well, do you have stuff to do downtown?”
“No, I mean, I could go to the hardware store or stop at the...” Jim searched for an alternate justification for a trip to 9th avenue, but Cassandra interrupted.
“You’re being weird.”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t want you to think that you have to go with me.”
“It’s fine.” Cassandra wished Jim could make up his mind about whether he wanted to be friend and family to her or just wallet and wheels. Either way was better than watching him squirm on the borderline. No wonder I’m always complaining to Meg about all these spineless boys we know when I spend all day coddling my father, trying to coax him into parenting me. “Let me know when you’re ready to go.”
“Okay.” Both parent and child were silent for a few seconds. Jim’s okay was his cue for Cassandra to get up and go, but Cassandra’s okay was her cue for Jim to get up and go change. It was a long-established part of the yin and yang of their relationship. On saturday nights, it was no way you’re leaving the house in that, young lady. On sunday mornings, it was no way you’re leaving the house in that, old man.

The silence was showing no signs of giving way, so Cassandra closed her laptop and stood up. She set the newspaper down on her bed, laying the fashion pages face down like a mother covering her children’s eyes in front of a gruesome highway accident. You guys don’t need to see this. Jim grabbed his wallet and his keys from the kitchen table and laced up his battered tennis shoes while Cassandra transferred her belongings from yesterday’s purse to one better suited to the day’s apparel and itinerary. Moments later, they were on the way to Maggie’s, nursing an awkward silence in Jim’s truck. Cassandra squinted at her phone, trying to make sense of the liquid crystals in the screen in the glaring sunlight of the outside world. my dad wants to hang out all of a sudden. its weird. On the other end, Megan squinted at her BlackBerry, trying to make sense of Cassie’s concerns in the glaring obviousness of her outside perspective.
wat does he want to do?
i dunno. he says he wants to take me to maggies to get kale
and he wants to go for lunch at bramblewood.
so free lunch and u get yummy veggies?
well.. yeah but..
wat? is he bein a dick to u?
no, hes bein nice. thats whats weird!!
There was a half-minute lull in the conversation as Megan pared down her paragraph into two 70 character chunks.
01/02 well maybe he just wants to be friends. u should have ur lunch, and go
While she waited for the rest of Megan’s reply, Cassandra looked over at Jim, who was fiddling anxiously with the radio tuner.
02/02 for groceries and be nice to him. see wat happens. text me updates k??

Jim steadied his hand on the stereo as the roadies for the Creedence Clearwater Revival plugged the band into the truck’s speakers. They were playing Heard It Through The Grapevine. It had always been a favourite of Jim’s - that whole album kicked all kinds of ass. He used to bust up his weed and roll doobies on his CCR LPs back in his college days. It’s funny, thought Jim as he flicked his signal light and drifted into the turning lane, I haven’t thought about that in forever. I wonder what Andy Ames ever got up to. Jim shook his head. Probably still smoking doobies in his parents’ back yard, playing the same vinyl. Jim downshifted his truck as he pulled up to the stop light. He looked over at his daughter, just as she closed her cellphone and lifted her head. “Is, uh, is this okay? The music?” Jim gestured to the dashboard. “I can turn it down... You know, or off.”
“No, it’s fine” offered Cassandra, in the let’s-be-friendly-est tone she could put on. “It’s a good song.”
“I didn’t know you liked CCR!” Jim turned the volume knob gently, but enthusiastically. “I remember when this album came out. Your uncle Eddie brought it home and let me listen to it with him. I was just little, but I remember being in awe of these guys even back then. I have all their records. If you ever want to borrow them, you just-”

Cassandra opened her phone and punched in an answer to Megan’s last text. of course! just worried about hiding my tongue. ttyl <3 By the time she closed her phone again, Jim’s excited chatter had withered to a mumble and then to silence. Casssandra prompted him to continue, motioning a loop with her open hand. “And... I just...?”
“Oh. I was just saying you could borrow my records, if you ever wanted to listen to them.”
“Okay, so why didn’t you just say that?”
“Well, I was saying it, but then you started talking on your phone, so I figured you wanted me to shut up.”
“I can do more than one thing at once, Dad, it’s a gift.”
“Oh, okay...”
“You should check out the original some time.”
“That’s what I’m saying! I have the original recording. Uncle Eddie gave it to me years ago. I turned into a bigger Creedence fan than him.”
“No, no, no. This is a cover of a Marvin Gaye song.”
“I don’t know, angel. I’m pretty sure these guys wrote this one.”
Cassandra sang along to the radio, as proof of her familiarity with the song. “...through the grapevine... Not much longer would you be mine. See? I know this one.”
“Maybe Marvin Gaye covered CCR.”
Cassandra stiffened in moral outrage. “No fucking way!”
Distracted by the perilous left turn into the parking lot outside Maggie’s, Jim let slip a little unwarranted parenting. “Language please.”
Cassandra slouched into her seat and looked out the passenger window. Jim corrected himself: “I mean, yes fucking way!” Cassandra’s smile came back, this time sharing the stage with a look of mild shock and curious approval.
“Well, when did the CCR version come out?”
“Jeez, I don’t know... Late sixties? Early seventies? Somewhere in there.”
“That’s pretty much when the Motown version came out.”
“Maybe they both came up with it on their own,” offered Jim, with a shrug.
Cassandra looked at her father, so terrified that he might be that stupid that she couldn’t help but lean in to see if he was serious. It was like being scared of monsters under the bed; no matter how unlikely it might be, it’s easy to get yourself scared enough to check. Fortunately, Cassandra’s glance was met with a goofy look from Jim; his eyes crossed and his cheeks puffed out. They both laughed, more so in earnest than to reassure each other. It was nice; not in the insipid way that it was nice outside or a cashier in Maggie’s would probably soon wish her and Jim a nice day, but in the tranquil, relieving way. It was nice to get along with Jim, and it wasn’t so tough to be nice to him when he was making an effort with her. Jim parked the truck in a spot outside the movie store beside Maggie’s and unlocked the doors. He rounded the front bumper and caught up with Cassandra on the sidewalk.

“If you had one of those iPhones, you could check Wikipedia for us.” Inside her head, Cassandra felt a torrent of suspicion and mistrust over Jim’s sudden and eerie adoption of cool-dad-ness, and it was crashing head-on into a stream of oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god that was blasting from the hydrant of her love for chic electronics that Jim had opened with his comment.
“Well, yeah. And I could play both versions of the song for us. And I could check my email. And I could tell you the baseball scores. And I could get the phone number for the other organic food store. And I could have gotten us driving directions to Maggie’s. And I could take pictures. And video. And send them. Dad, I’ll run out of breath before I run out of things to say.”
“They’re so neat, I know. I was looking at one on Friday night.” Jim held the door for Cassandra as they entered Maggie’s Health Foods & Juice Bar. “I think you should have one.”
“Dad. That would be amazing.” Cassandra was beaming, the spray from the Apple hydrant having completely drowned out her anxieties.
“Alright, well, no promises, but we’ll look into it, how’s that?”
“That’s perfect! I already know the one I want.”
Jim squeezed Cassandra’s arm. She hasn’t changed a bit since she was three and charming her way into an extra scoop of ice cream. “Okay, deal. Now where’s this kale?” Cassandra spun around on her toes, scanning the produce section.
“Not sure. I don’t see it, but I’m sure it’s in season. Let’s ask this guy.” She pointed to an employee restocking all- natural, vegan-friendly salad dressings.
“Excuse me, um, could you help me find kale?” The employee looked up from the box of bottles and scratched his beard. “Sorry, I don’t think he works here anymore. Why, are you his girlfriend?”
Cassandra deployed a withering look of disbelief, but judging by the man’s unchanging blank look, it must have ricocheted harmlessly off a jar of old style whole-grain mustard behind him. “Yeah, sorta. If you see him, tell him I’m pregnant.”
Cassandra grabbed Jim’s arm and tugged him back towards the vegetables. “He’s useless. I’ll find it. Let’s look over here.” She toured the produce section with Jim trailing behind, his brow furrowed at all the odd-looking plants that were apparently edible, although his personal jury was still in deliberation.

“Ah-ha! Right here.” Cassandra examined the bunches of kale one by one, like a drill sergeant appraising her new recruits. Sliding the bundle of her choice into a plastic bag, she asked “is there anything else we need? You got carrots, right?”
“Yeah, I got those. So, what are you going to do with this thing?” Jim pointed cautiously at the bag of kale like it was alien weaponry, pried fresh from the claw of a space invader.
“I dunno. Meg’s mom puts it in salads, and you can cook it too. I just wanted to try it.” Cassandra laid the bag in her basket and they set off towards the cashiers.
“Cool.” Jim tentatively snuck in a phrase he remembered from the other night; “I hear it’s ultra good for you. So, do you want to get lunch after this?” Cassandra’s tongue was still aching from her frenetic listing of the iPhone’s features and capabilities as they were walking into the store. The Bramblewood Cafe was out of the question. Instead, she offered “how about we get smoothies?” The end of which, with her tongue held as still as possible, came out more like smoovies, to which Jim replied “Next door? What do you want to rent?” “No, not some movies, smoovies.” Cassandra pointed to the Juice Bar on the other side of the checkout lines.
“Oh, smoothies.” Jim looked warily at the array of blenders.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you one that you’ll like. You buy our kale, and I’ll get us smoovies.” Jim stood in line at the checkout, and Cassandra skipped over to the Juice Bar. When she returned, Jim was pocketing his change. Once he had a free hand, Cassandra offered him a nondescript styrofoam cup, with a straw sticking out. Nervously, he sucked on the straw until he felt the cold liquid touch the tip of his tongue. It seemed agreeable enough, so he took a bigger pull on the straw. “Not bad. Not bad at all. What is this?” “It’s strawberry, banana, kiwi, and some other stuff. I told you you’d like it.”
“It’s... green.”
“Yeah, and it’s good for you. Cheers.” Cassandra and Jim knocked their cups together and exited the store.
“Maybe this healthy stuff isn’t so bad.” Jim unlocked his truck and they got in. He started the engine and the growl of the motor was soon accompanied by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. “All Along the Watchtowers. Now this is a tune!” Jim drummed along to Jimi’s guitar solo as Cassandra luxuriated in the numbing effect of her smoothie. On the way home, they spoke sparingly, bantering placidly about classic rock in between sips of smoothie.

As they were turning into their neighborhood, Jim set his drink down in the cup holder and spoke. “You know, when I was dating your mother...” Cassandra dragged the end of her straw along the bottom of her cup, sucking up the last vestiges of her smoothie. Of course, she said to herself. Here it fucking comes. She felt like a fool for allowing herself to be led blindly into a trap, like a puppy blithely following bits of simulated bacon right into its kennel. She could almost hear the clang of a gate slamming, trapping her in the coming conversation. Jim noticed a telling shift in his daughter’s posture and hastily started over. “When I was dating your mother, she was really into politics and history and stuff. She told me about how she got her degree in Political Science.”
“Dad, I...” Cassandra interjected with no effort to disguise her exasperated tone, but Jim continued.
“Wait, wait. Just wait. She was really into the politics of World War II and all that stuff, right?” Jim looked over, and stopped up his story until it became clear that he wasn’t getting a response to his rhetorical question. “So, when I asked her out on our first date, I offered to take her to the movies. It was the opening weekend for this big new historical drama about the war. I wanted to show her that I, you know, that I cared about that stuff. That we had common interests.” Cassandra was curious - she’d never heard either of her parents talk about their first date before, and this anecdote wasn’t proceeding like the standard your mother is selfish and she’s trying to tear our family apart but I want you to know that it’s not your fault and I’ll always love you type bullshit.
“Okay, so?”
“Well, uh,” Jim laughed and ran his hand through his thinning hair. “I took her to that movie. It was Schindler’s List. I took her to see Schindler’s List for our first date.”
“Oh my god.” Cassandra cringed at the thought. “That’s, like...”
“I know. She cried twice during the movie. By the time we got outta there, we were dead quiet. I felt like the biggest bonehead on the planet.”
“Oh my god. So awkward. I don’t think the holocaust is really first date material, Dad.”
“Believe me, I figured that out real quick. I didn’t realize what the movie was about. I was just trying to pick something she would like.”
“So, what happened? Obviously that wasn’t the end of you guys.”
“Well, I drove her home and, uh, you’ve seen that movie, right?” “Yeah.” “You remember that scene with the girl in the red dress? The whole movie’s black and white, except for this one girl, right?”
“Well, I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I told her something about how she was like that girl to me. Everything else was just plain old black and white, and she was this bright, scarlet red in my eyes.”
“Whoah. Dad. That’s kinda sweet... That’s, like, really sweet. You really said that?”
Jim blushed and muttered bashfully under his breath. “Well, I, uh, I think it was, you know, something like that.” He parked the truck in front of the condo and reached for his smoothie. He turned off the engine, but left the key in the ignition. They both still had their seat belts on. “My, uh, my point is that, uh...” Jim took another drink from his smoothie as he tried to assemble his unprocessed thoughts into a proper sentence. “My point is that sometimes, you know, I fuck up. It’s not because I don’t care. It’s never because I don’t care. It’s just that sometimes I don’t know what I’m doin’. I always care, though. I always cared about your mother, and I always care about you.” In that moment, for some reason, all Cassandra wanted to do was reach for her phone and text Megan. Instead, she sat still and ran the ridge of her thumbnail along the threading of the seatbelt across her lap.
I didn’t know that, she thought. “I know, Dad” she said.

They hugged awkwardly over the gear shift, still buckled in, and then Cassandra grabbed the grocery bag and released her seatbelt. She walked briskly to the front door, and waited for Jim to unlock it with his keys, rather than dig for her own set in the jungle of her purse. Once they’d made it back home, Jim set his keys on the table and carried his smoothie to the recliner in front of the TV. Cassandra rearranged the vegetable crisper to make room for the kale, and rummaged for a popsicle in the freezer once it was safely tucked away. She closed the freezer door and walked past Jim on her way to her bedroom. “So, thanks for taking me shopping today. It was good.” The th in thanks was unpleasant, even after the anesthetic effect of her smoothie, but the rest felt really good.
“You’re welcome, angel. I had a good time too.” Jim gestured with the remote towards the television screen. “Baseball’s on, if you want to watch with me.”
Cassandra approached the TV. “Score?”
“Just started. I knew you still liked baseball! Somewhere in there! I raised you right.”
“I’ve always liked baseball, Dad.”
“Remember when you were young and I used to bounce you on my lap while we watched the games? I’d give you the big bounce every time there was a hit and you’d just scream.”
“I’m a little old for that now, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, but you could...” Jim looked around the living room, noticing that his recliner was really the only furniture in sight.
Cassandra finished his sentence for him. “...sit on the floor?” She leaned against the arm of the recliner. “That’s kinda why I hang out in my room so much. There’s not really anywhere else to go.”
“You’re right.” Jim sat up from his chair. “You’re absolutely right.” He picked up his keys from the kitchen table. “Let’s get a couch. I need another one of those smoovies, too. I’m hooked.”

Cassandra opened her phone and composed an update for Megan.
shopping was a success. we bonded lol. he wants to get a couch
After 45 seconds of eternity, Cassandra’s confidant answered the message:
ur dads the man now. u guys have sweet hangouts.
haha i guess...
wat do you mean?
well yeah this time its cool but what about next time?
is ‘next time’ a kind of couch?
no? then y r u talking about it? get a couch girl! damn!

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The Ups and Downs of Almost Dying

The autobiography of Kieran Block as told to Michael Belzil

Now available online and in select stores.

The Ups and Downs of Almost Dying