By Maddy Hillis
Part 1: Mothballs (January)
The therapist’s office smelled like mothballs and cheap lavender candles. I sat on the worn leather sofa picking at a brown thread that zigzagged out from the armrest. The room was irritatingly “warm” with all the earthy tones that psychologists have concluded radiate a welcoming feel for a patient. That’s me by the way — the patient. I know; a ridiculous thing to call a girl who kept her composure so elegantly upon hearing the news, considering its delivery. My existence in this room is as useless as pre-peeled bananas in plastic wrappers. My mother, on the other hand, seemed to think that a small upset I had where I smashed a set of China against the wall of my apartment was some dire cause for concern. Can’t a girl smash some floral ceramic now and again without being considered “unhinged”?
Aria, the shrink, floats in and sits across from me. She says “hello” with a voice that lulls like the silence of a first snowfall. Again, irritatingly “warm.” The next part is trivial and, from my memory, similar to the agony of getting a straight answer from a car salesman (that salesman being me). At the end of the session she handed me a worksheet to rate my family life, personal life, work life and overall sense of self, on a scale from 1-10. In green magic marker:
She looked at me with eyes that had seen this before — cases like mine, patients like me — as if the transparency of my denial was her routine morning cappuccino.
“Why are you here if everything is so perfect?” she crooned.
I stayed fixed on my brown armrest thread.
“Dunno. Seems pretty useless to me. Why don’t you ask my mother?”
After 6 months of “treatment”, I would’ve told her the truth if asked again.
I would’ve told her about the first Christmas.
Part 2: Lydia’s Facebook Message (November)
It seems sickly millennial to find out your father died through a Facebook message. A Facebook message that contained an exclamation point nonetheless, as if saying, “Happy Birthday!” or “I ran into your mother today and she told me you got a job, congratulations!” It was November, quite cold and quite grey. What I can remember of that day is its humdrum mediocrity. The painful ordinariness of lives that continue even when yours has paused:
the Chinese takeaway spot with fogged windows dripping from condensation.
The boy in the tight pants who walks at unusually high speeds.
The street lamps that glow orange on Puget Street.
I picked up chicken chow mein on my way home from school because, seriously, what can an oily bowl of noodles not solve? I opened my fortune cookie, expecting something profound. Instead, I got this:
Now would be a good time to take up a new sport. In. Bold. Red. Font.
I grabbed a set of China (I’m still unsure as to why I had China in the first place), and threw the parts, one by one, against the stucco wall of my living room. At this same moment my computer came to life, shining the ill-conceived Facebook message about my father’s sudden departure in my face like a cop with a flashlight in the eyes of a west-side woman about to get a DUI.
I screamed something along the lines of “I’m going to murder that fucking landlady, what’s her name?” I then checked Facebook. “Fucking LYDIA and then email her daughter about it with a fucking exclamation point!!!” whilst holding a makeshift shiv from a broken teacup.
My roommate got in from her restaurant job at about this time.
She then called my mother.
Who then called the shrink.
Part 3: Oranges (November)
I had a dream that night. It was half-time at my Silver A, U-12 Girl’s soccer match. It was sunny and I was shoveling down oranges in that entirely wasteful way I used to do — sucking out all the juice and tossing the remaining dehydrated endocarp. My dad was the coach. He pulled out his clipboard with its various x’s and o’s, and went on about the defense staying strong and watching out for number 12. I always liked that he took us so seriously. At a very young age I cared an awful amount about being taken seriously. His game plan speech cut short and I looked up from my orange-eating frenzy to see him on his knees, grabbing at his chest. His face was drenched in panic, an image a daughter should never have to see of her father. I dropped to the turf, grabbing the Blackberry out of his jean pocket. The tingle and heat that plays footsie with fear itched at my palms as I dialed 911. Before I could press the green call button, the acid of the oranges began to sear the skin off my hands. It bubbled up and along my arms, releasing a charcoal-like smell that filled my lungs. I screamed for help but when I looked around, the field was empty. The game was over. It was quite cold and quite grey.
I woke up, all sticky-sweaty and stressed.
I woke up suffocated in what ifs and if onlys.
Part 4: The first Christmas (December)
Here’s what I think; when you lose someone you love, the world sucks out a bit of its colour. It is Christmas day and the green of the pine is not as deep. The red in the velvet stockings not as rich. The juice of the turkey is non-existent because I thought it was wise to make it myself. Turkey-making was his area of expertise for the past 21 years and as his eldest daughter I decided to take on the responsibility, despite every family member encouraging me otherwise. The recipe was called “easy turkey crown”—which, let me tell you, in retrospect was entirely misleading.
-50 g butter, softened
-2 kg turkey crown on the bone
-Pinch of ground cloves
-4 tbsp honey
-1 tbsp Dijon mustard
-1 tbsp red wine vinegar
I smothered the pimpled pink flesh in butter and sprinkled it with spices. I slid the meat into the oven and sat in front of it, continuously checking its progress with that turkey temperature gadget he always used (I still don’t know what those numbers mean). As I burned my wrist painting on the honey-mustard glaze I could see his broad, certain strokes. As I hacked at the turkey with a boning knife I could see his easy, generous slices. As I passed around the casserole dish of moistureless meat I felt the striking blow of the presence of absence around the dining table of sympathetic eyes. My family mmm’d and aah’d at the chewy meat that they doused in thick gravy to swallow. It was polite of them to pretend.
I stood alone in the kitchen after dinner, accompanied by Mariah Carey’s dreadful rendition of All I Want for Christmas. Tears fell from my eyes and into the dry, butchered turkey carcass. I couldn’t feel them though — the tears. I guess it is true that you can’t feel rain when you’re underwater.
Addendum (May): Six months in. I keep finding slivers of China on my floor from my Lydia outburst. They seem to suggest that it is okay to be someone who is slow to move on.
Part 5: Highway 99 (August)
Dusk is inherently nostalgic. I get to thinking of my father on the porch in August. We were lying on reclining chairs that I periodically had to jump out of when a wasp would fly too close. We drank cold, overly sweet lemonade (hence the wasps) and he told me about the cabins in Muskoka. He would drive up on the May long weekend with “a couple buddies” and “many beers”. They did young, dumb boy things that all young dumb boys should do and all old wise men should regret. He told me about one of his favorite bands giving an open-air concert one night — fireflies and all — then played me a song of theirs he thought I’d like. It was Bobcaygeon by The Tragically Hip. We must’ve laid on that porch for an hour with the song on loop. It is one of my favourite memories.
This gets me thinking about the psychology of associations. How cold, sliced oranges will always be my 11-year old soccer games. Trampolines are water hoses and choreographed routines to (this pains me to admit) Katy Perry. The name Lydia is Voldemort and now Voldemort will subsequently be broken China. Sports day is bee stings and the color blue. Humidity and curt/heart-wrenching goodbyes are my grandpa’s house in Toronto. Dublin is food poisoning. And The Tragically Hip is, and will always be, Dad.
It is in this promise of always that I am trying to learn how to survive.
Part 6: Pending