Monday, June 30, 2014

Fiction #52: Erin Pienaar

Take as Directed

The first thing I take is a long black dress. It’s one of the few items that fits; Lucy’s hips are wider than mine. I borrow her silver bangle bracelet, her sunglasses. I show up for work in Lucy’s clothes and my boss smiles at me.

“You look nice today. Special occasion?”

I shrug and smooth the dress over my figure. My first taste of what it’s like being Lucy.

We’re friendly enough, Lucy and I. We share an old house near the university – I rent the front apartment and she lives in the back. We exchange “good mornings” in the driveway, brush snow off each other’s cars in winter. Last year, she invited me to her Christmas party, a disastrous, uncomfortable experiment.  We’re friendly but not friends. I was surprised when she called last week.

“Ange, thank goodness you’re home!” Ange, not Angela. All casual, like we chatted on the phone all the time. “You got my note?”

“You’re in Paris.”

When I moved in, Lucy developed a system where if either of us went on vacation we’d leave a message in the mailbox. “If I don’t see you around, I won’t worry you’ve slipped in the tub and cracked your head open!” she’d joked. She was the only one leaving notes.

“The airline lost one of my bags. They couldn’t find it for days. Turns out it got rerouted. Guess where?”

“England?”

“Texas. Can you believe it? They’re sending it home since we’re moving around. I gave them your apartment number. Is that cool?”

 “Of course. How’s the trip?”

A male voice laughed in my ear and I missed her reply. I wondered which boyfriend she’d brought along. The blonde with the muscular arms or the guy with the large blue eyes and high cheekbones. The first time blue eyes came to the house, I stood close to the wall between Lucy’s bedroom and mine. My ear pressed to the drywall, I was disappointed when I heard little more than a thick thump.

“Gotta go Ange. Be back in two weeks. Thanks again!”


*

The suitcase is very Lucy – zebra print with purple zippers. I decide to make sure her stuff is undamaged. Really, I want to look at her clothes.

Everything’s shoved in haphazardly. I unpack dresses and sweaters, sunglasses with white frames, bracelets, scarves, a well-worn Danielle Steel paperback, a notebook and a bag of toiletries. She buys high-end shampoo and conditioner. She’s packed two small bottles of perfume.

My first trespass is small. I hang one of her scarves over my beige curtains, adding a pop of colour to the room. Next, I skim the paperback. I spray her perfume on my wrist, just a tiny spritz. After a few days of resisting, I use her expensive shampoo. I take the black dress.

By the weekend, I’m rooting through the pockets of the bag to see if there’s anything else of interest. A zippered compartment on the inside is a dumping ground for Lucy’s junk. Receipts, granola bar wrappers, a crumpled reservation for a hotel in Costa Rica. At the bottom I find a bottle of pills.
They’re prescription but the label’s faded. Whatever they are, Lucy doesn’t take them anymore. They weren’t in her carry-on and she never mentioned them on the phone. I sit at my desk and shake a few out. They’re round and chalky white.

Sometimes I do things without thinking about it, like my body’s waiting for a period of inattention to assert its independence.  In elementary school, I set off the fire alarm. I was looking at the little white lever with PULL DOWN in boxy capitals and the next minute I was obeying the direction. At fifteen, while visiting the local museum, I pressed one finger into a painting. I’m still not allowed to go in there. A guard snapped a Polaroid of me and stuck it in the main office, between a shot of a glaring teenager and a bearded old man.

I balance a pill between my thumb and forefinger, rolling it back and forth. I’m thinking about opening Lucy’s notebook. I’ve held off because it’s a violation of privacy worse than what I’ve already done. It’s tempting though. The notebook could contain evidence of the blue-eyed boy. It might be a diary, or a sketchbook. As I push my chair back from my desk I pop the pill in my mouth and swallow.

It takes me a second to realize what has occurred. I cough and rush to the bathroom. I put two fingers in my mouth, jabbing the back of my throat like you’re supposed to. My eyes water but the pill stays down.

I leave the bathroom, pace my bedroom, hands shaking. I don’t know what concerns me more – what the pills are or how old they are. I could call Lucy’s cell phone and ask, but the thought’s humiliating.
Sitting on the floor, I hug my knees. Teens take other people’s medications to get high. I saw a report about it on TV. I’m not allergic to anything. I might be fine.

I stretch out on the floor, right hand on left wrist keeping tabs of my pulse. I’m breathing through my mouth. I feel strange and I don’t know if it’s the pills or fear. I’m dizzy. My Gran taught me a prayer when I was little and I whisper it, making up lines to fill in what I’ve forgotten.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. If I shall die before I wake, please keep my idiocy out of the newspapers. Amen.”

An hour passes and my breathing slows. I close my eyes, just for a minute.

I wake to light streaming through the window, filtered by Lucy’s coloured scarves. I stand and a head rush blots my vision. I’m all right. I actually feel fantastic, well-rested, despite a twinge in my neck from napping on the floor. Before sleep, my mind usually runs over lists – things I have to do, things I’ve done wrong. Now my thoughts are fuzzy, quiet. I glance at my watch, grab a few Lucy items – a black pashmina scarf and a green sweater I pair with one of my own skirts. I pause at the door and step back inside. I take another pill with a swallow of orange juice.

I got drunk once in university and didn’t like it. I was too self-conscious about what I was saying; I hated the slur in my voice. The pills aren’t like that. They produce a steady detachment, similar to the indifference that comes with fatigue. As I drive into work, I notice my hands aren’t white-knuckling the steering wheel. I walk into the office and forgo my usual fidgeting; I don’t tug at my skirt or slide my tongue over my teeth. The phone at my desk rings and my stomach doesn’t clench. My boss asks for his faxes and I’m able to look him in the eyes and comment on the weather. I didn’t know such calm was possible.

I take the pills twice a day, once in the morning and once before bed. I feel guilty, crazy, but it’s amazing too. I’m taking a vacation from myself.

Three days into my new routine, I’m sitting on the deck at home. The backyard is Lucy’s territory but she’s not around to mind. She doesn’t tend the garden, other than a patch of wild thistles she waters occasionally. I told her thistles are a Celtic symbol of nobility of character and she shrugged and said she liked purple.

Eyes closed, face tilted to the sun, I’m dizzier than usual and a little nauseous. I hear footsteps and open one eye.

He’s standing there, all cheekbones and blue eyes. This would normally prompt frantic grooming but I’m too out of it. I lift one hand in a lazy wave.

He sinks into one of the lawn chairs and smiles at me like he’s used to seeing unfamiliar girls in Lucy’s yard. Maybe he is.

“Lucy around?”

“She’s in Paris.”

He sighs. “She didn’t tell me. Do you know who she went with? A tall guy? With blonde hair?”

“Dunno.”

“You live in the front apartment, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Lucy loves having you as a house mate. She says she never hears you.”

“I hear you guys. Music, once and a while.”

I take a moment to study his face up close. There’s stubble along his jaw. A few freckles sprinkled across his nose.

He catches me staring. My foot’s propped on the table between us and he rests his hand on my ankle. I’ve never thought much about that part of my body. When I indulge in romantic daydreams, I think about my mouth, my neck. But now his hand is on my ankle and he’s digging his thumb in ever so slightly.

“You know, Lucy and I have an understanding.”

I should feel something at this. I should be panting in the afternoon heat. The fearful lack of fear is what snaps me upright.

The movement’s too fast. I put my hand to my mouth.

“I think you better go,” I say through my fingers.

As he walks down the driveway, I vomit in a bush.

*

I grow more nauseous and I’ve got a constant nagging headache. Sometimes my vision blurs. The whole problem is ridiculously simple to solve. The pills are making me sick. I should stop talking the pills. There’s only fourteen left in the bottle and Lucy will eventually want her stuff.
The night before Lucy returns, I put things back the way they were. I wash her clothes and buy new shampoo to replace what I’ve used. I’ve stashed the pills under my bed, hoping she won’t miss them. I’ll save them for special occasions, a secret identity I can slip into as easily as her clothes. Something to parcel out very carefully.

I leave her suitcase by my front door. The apartment seems empty without her possessions scattered around. I sit on my bed and the silence isn’t quite silence. There’s a buzz to it that rings in my ears. I think about Lucy’s Christmas party last year. Hovering by the food, I’d concentrated on stacking a cracker with cheese, as though being absorbed in something might indicate belonging. I spoke with one of Lucy’s friends about books and my voice kept getting louder, my hands fiddling with a loose thread on my sleeve. She smiled politely before excusing herself to get more punch. I only stayed for an hour. I retreated back to my apartment and lay awake, replaying my conversations over and over. Legs twisted up in sheets, pillow hot against my face. Long into the night, I heard the sounds of other lives, better lives, drumming through the wall.

*

Erin Pienaar lives in London, Ontario, where she completed her M.A. in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Black Heart Magazine. When she’s not fulfilling her quest to watch every single episode of Beverly Hills, 90210, she writes stuff.

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