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Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - JESS GOLDMAN

Vi­o­let has just come out.

The grand an­nounce­ment came in the form of a photo, posted on Face­book, of Vi­o­let and her part­ner. The photo popped up on my news­feed af­ter an old friend of mine had com­mented on it.

When I think of her, I am ashamed. My morn­ing mug of black cof­fee, sit­ting be­side my lap­top on the kitchen counter, has gone cold. But even now—at thir­ty­seven years old, a clos­eted queer my­self—part of me re­joices at the con­fir­ma­tion of my sus­pi­cions. Sus­pi­cion. That’s it, the over­rid­ing feel­ing I’d had the whole time I knew Vi­o­let. And, of course, fear, too. In­cred­i­ble, sub­tle fear.

Then com­plete pos­ses­sion.

She and I had a bat­tle. She wanted to give me gifts. I de­nied her those gifts, for I knew them to be lit­tle ad­mis­sions of her de­sire. But I, so young then and seem­ingly free, had the habit of hoard­ing at­ten­tion. So, in my own mer­ci­less way I ac­cepted them. Per­formed the role of “her friend.” Then twin­kled my hos­tile eyes.

We were four­teen at the time. I was a pubescent crea­ture, work­ing hard to re­main the same con­tained lit­tle girl I had been: a Glossy-Cheeked Won­der, praised and beloved by all. I was a fas­cist when it came to the trans­for­ma­tions oc­cur­ring within me, halt­ing anom­alies, defin­ing all ob­scu­ri­ties. Points of panic were the un­stop­pable swelling of breasts and hips, stretch marks streak­ing across oth­er­wise fault­less skin, the emer­gence of a lone ragged hair upon the left nip­ple, dis­charge that dried like chalk in the crotch of my un­der­wear, chest acne, armpit hair, and the un­nerv­ing out­pour­ing of pe­riod blood. All of which re­quired nec­es­sary ac­tions: the ob­ses­sive ap­pli­ca­tion of killer creams, sys­tem­atic pluck­ing and wax­ing, de­tailed en­cy­clo­pe­dic searches.

I was beau­ti­ful. Skin still tan from the re­cent sum­mer months spent in Bo­drum, Turkey. I had lithe, ca­pa­ble limbs, which I pa­raded around like a fool.

The bat­tle be­gan over a Twinkie.

It was the be­gin­ning of the school year at our pri­vate high school, Field­stone King’s Col­lege. Vi­o­let and I were fresh­men. We spoke for the first time in the change room, just af­ter our fourth or fifth gym class to­gether.

I had ar­rived at my locker just af­ter Vi­o­let, who had the locker be­side mine. I paid her no at­ten­tion while I spun the dial on my com­bi­na­tion lock. Sweat dripped from my fore­head onto the linoleum floor. At the time, my me­tab­o­lism—which has long since sput­tered and given out—was al­most can­ni­bal­is­tic. I lived in a state of con­stant hunger.

“God, I need to eat,” I said.

“Here, take this,” she said. There was a Twinkie tucked into the side pocket of her back­pack, which she pre­ciously pulled out and thrust to­ward me.

“But—don’t you want it?” I said.

“No, have it. I’m fine.”

The plas­tic wrap­per crin­kled be­tween her damp fin­gers. The sound seemed to im­i­tate the cheap flut­ter­ing of her sus­cep­ti­ble heart. I felt as if I was not so cheap. Not so eas­ily bought.

“Oh, okay. Well, thanks.”

“You’re wel­come,” she said, blush­ing. Then her stom­ach grum­bled.

“Wait a sec­ond, here, take it back. You’re hun­gry.”

“No. Please, eat!”

“But—”

“I’m fine.”

So, I ate the Twinkie in front of her, feel­ing ob­li­gated. Its pro­cessed sweet­ness cut right through my teeth.

“De­li­cious,” I said, nod­ding.

There was no hope that a Twinkie, packed with hol­low calo­ries and oth­er­wise in­dus­trial waste, could quell my hunger. I knew the dif­fer­ence be­tween true full­ness and gut rot. But Vi­o­let nod­ded back at me: sim­ple and pleased.

She be­gan to un­dress. Still work­ing my way through the Twinkie, I fur­ther con­sid­ered the fact that I felt bul­lied into eat­ing it—as if her gen­eros­ity had been forced upon me. As she peeled off her sweaty un­der­wear, worn to the point of translu­cence, I re­mem­ber think­ing how ugly her thin, un­de­fined thighs and pal­lid skin were; how crude her wide-set erect nip­ples and her big yel­low­ish-hazel eyes, hov­er­ing atop dark, sunken cir­cles. She ap­peared sickly, hav­ing the in­va­sive look of some­one close to death.

I popped the last bite into my mouth. Then tongued at my teeth, dig­ging out the sticky cake paste.

A pat­tern soon emerged: af­ter ev­ery gym class, while in the change room, Vi­o­let pre­sented me with gifts. All kinds of gifts, of­ten hor­ri­fy­ing in their com­plete ir­rel­e­vance to my life. Th­ese items, be­ing the stark­est con­fes­sions of her af­fec­tion for me, were purely sym­bolic, their only func­tion be­ing that of ut­ter gift­li­ness: a re­fill con­tainer of lead for a Bic pen­cil, a bar of Dove soap, a bite-sized stuffed panda with a guile­less grin (taken from a McDon­ald’s Happy Meal), a plas­tic mood ring that didn’t work.

“Here,” she would say, so trust­ing. “I thought you might like this.”

Why? I would think.

Vi­o­let was one of the gifted kids who at­tended Field­stone on schol­ar­ship. This kind of thing was al­ways quickly found out among the stu­dents of a school like Field­stone. It wasn’t hard to tell.

Look­ing back, there is no doubt that the great hor­ror her gifts in­spired in me also had to do with how they re­vealed her class. The bar of soap, smelling of dis­in­fec­tant that would scrape the skin clean rather than soothe it; the grin­ning panda, who wore the oily per­fume of stale fries, look­ing so pa­thetic with the M- branded tag pok­ing out from its bum; and the con­tainer of lead that was halfempty. She’d prob­a­bly stolen it off some desk at school. I wished the mood ring had worked. In­stead it re­mained stuck be­tween moods, awash in a swirl of orange and black.

The gifts de­pressed and an­tag­o­nized me. I felt the im­po­si­tion of not only her af­fec­tion, but also her de­fi­ciency. A col­lage of lack was be­ing plas­tered onto the wall of my mind. It was the Franken­stein-ing of gift-giv­ing: th­ese were gift-like things, but not gifts. In­stead, th­ese items were lit­tle cor­ro­sive dis­tor­tions—mask­ing chewed-out nails of dis­sat­is­fac­tion, a mar­tyr-heart will­ing to be bled dry, and one hun­gry, thirsty mouth. Pi­ran­has of pity. Worst of all was that Vi­o­let was hope­ful. Truly hope­ful.

Th­ese gifts scratched at the bor­ders of my priv­i­leged world. But some cu­rios­ity be­yond my con­trol moved me to ac­cept them. And at night, vi­sions of Vi­o­let’s naked body tormented and cap­ti­vated me. I would get wet. Wet when I wanted to be dry.

One day, this same cu­rios­ity im­pelled me to in­vite her out for lunch. She had just gifted me a lol­lipop, flat and red in a see-through wrap­per. The kind one buys in

bulk. I told her to meet me the next day at twelve-thirty in the York­dale mall food court, a short walk from Field­stone.

“To get you back for all th­ese lovely gifts,” I said.

“Re­ally?” She said.

“Uh huh.”

“Well, okay, sure,” she said, blush­ing, un­able to look me in the eye.

And even as I made the in­vi­ta­tion, ham­mer­ing out the de­tails, de­scrib­ing pre­cisely which ta­ble I’d be sit­ting at—“the one in the section of ta­bles left of the square foun­tain, par­al­lel to Orange Julius, and right of the Whole Foods and the Calvin Klein store . . .”—I knew I would not be join­ing her. Yet I didn’t ad­mit this to my­self in any ar­tic­u­lated terms.

The prox­im­ity of Orange Julius to our meet­ing place ex­cited her.

“I go there all the time,” she said. “They even know my name.”

“You go to York­dale of­ten?”

“Of course! Well—to win­dow shop. There are so many pretty things there . . .” “Hm. Well, per­fect! You’ll know just where to meet me,” I said. Then I told her that I too loved Orange Julius, which was a lie—I had never been.

The lunch bell rang. A navy-blue wind­breaker con­cealed my uni­form, and I tucked my hair into my favourite La­coste base­ball cap. I left Field­stone and made my way to the mall, even­tu­ally cross­ing the street into the mall park­ing lot. I was calm.

The heat wave that hit Toronto in Au­gust had con­tin­ued into Septem­ber. With the glare of sun against so many sparkling cars, the park­ing lot ap­peared to be a field of di­a­monds. As I ran my hand along the black hood of an Austin Mini, it burnt me. But even that didn’t dis­rupt my fo­cus.

I en­tered the mall. Goose­bumps arose along my bare legs at the pushy touch of ar­ti­fi­cial cold. I headed for the foun­tain, pass­ing by the fa­mil­iar bath­room stalls. For a sec­ond, the smell of freshly pressed waf­fle cones em­a­nat­ing from the Laura Secord wooed me. But I was on a mis­sion.

Then I saw her, slouched over the pre­des­tined ta­ble. I set­tled my­self on the foun­tain’s ledge, the far­thest side from the food court. And, through the thin jets of cas­cad­ing wa­ter, I watched her.

I had never seen her in makeup. A deep scar­let spilled over the nat­u­ral out­line of her lips. Across her pale cheek­bones was smudged a rusty red blush. Her thin brown

hair, de­flated by the heat out­side, clung to the sides of her face. On first glance, it looked as if she’d been beaten up.

Her eyes flit­ted around the food court. A furtive smile flick­ered across her clown­ish face. Five min­utes passed. She be­gan to bite at her nails, then abruptly stopped, mut­ter­ing some­thing to her­self. She dug her hands be­neath her, trap­ping them be­tween her bum and the chair.

Breath­ing deeply, she closed her eyes, and then, she smiled. For a few sec­onds, she beamed. And as her lips stretched wide, I saw that some lip­stick had smeared onto her front teeth.

Ten min­utes passed. Her hands kept pok­ing out from un­der her bum, mak­ing their way back to her mouth. The more she bit down on her nails, the more her lip­stick sprawled out be­yond her lips. She slouched fur­ther down into her seat while I edged for­ward, fas­ci­nated.

Then one o’clock hit and quiet tears com­menced. Rivulets streamed down her wilted face, tak­ing her blush with them un­til it con­verged with her ever-stray­ing lip­stick.

She stood and took one quick glance around the food court. But there was noth­ing: not a sin­gle me was seen. Then, with both hands she slowly rubbed off her makeup, wip­ing all ev­i­dence of her hope onto her shiv­er­ing thighs.

I was wild with de­sire.

It was that image of ru­ined an­tic­i­pa­tion that drove me mad: her raw face a jumble of left­overs, that mess of makeup soil­ing her cold thighs, the whole of her a car­i­ca­ture of red em­bar­rass­ment. I fled to the pub­lic bath­rooms.

I was the kind of girl who did it un­der the sheets, aloof and dis­be­liev­ing, in the most cal­cu­lated of con­di­tions: past mid­night, silent and dark, amidst the faint roars of my fa­ther’s vi­o­lent snor­ing in the next room, a full glass of sparkling wa­ter on the bed­side ta­ble and the ra­dio set to low, very low, on the jazz sta­tion; jazz al­lowed me dis­or­der, a black hole in which I dis­carded my lust. My heavy down com­forter was the item most vi­tal to this rit­ual. Laid upon me, I felt I was hid­den be­neath an is­land, not quite buried, but in­su­lated, packed right in. The com­forter ob­scured that ea­ger, dis­em­bod­ied hand, so when I peered down, over the land­scape, over the hills and ravines of plush cot­ton, even I couldn’t quite tell what was go­ing on down there.

The de­sire that took me to the bath­rooms was un­like the guarded lust I was used to. I was un­tamed, set afire. Hurt­ing Vi­o­let not only aroused me—it sum­moned me.

I en­tered the first stall I found open. I reached un­der­neath my skirt and yanked my un­der­wear down. There was no time to sit. I stood, panties around an­kles, and bore into my­self.

I came.

Stum­bling out of the bath­rooms, I avoided the mir­rors, for I feared I looked worse off than Vi­o­let. I too was a clown, but a de­cep­tive one. My body had be­trayed me.

I never saw Vi­o­let again.

One week later, her locker hung wide open, com­pletely hol­lowed out. She must have switched schools. I was glad. I knew if I saw her, if I looked her in the eye, I would have to con­front my treach­ery.

With her gone, I was en­tirely happy to for­get all about it.

In the Face­book photo, she is kiss­ing her part­ner: how she al­lows the mus­cles in her lips to show their plain ea­ger­ness to devour her lover, cheeks ra­di­ant with un­abashed lust, her thumb slightly lift­ing the bot­tom of her girl­friend’s thin T-shirt as she clutches her waist, crow’s feet splay­ing out from the cor­ners of their eyes. I am as­ton­ished. Jeal­ous. As light and in­con­se­quen­tial as a sheet of float­ing blank pa­per.

I look away from my lap­top and into the for­est that lies be­yond the win­dow above the sink. There on the pa­tio sits my hus­band. His erect back pushed up against the wooden pa­tio chair, he reads his pa­per. He sticks his small, pointed tongue out into the air and licks his thumb, mak­ing sure not to wrin­kle the news­pa­per as he presses it onto the top right cor­ner and flips the page. I think of his cold hands and our stain­less, dried-up bed.

Here I am, amidst this pol­ished life, and what for?

It’s been all right. It’s been bear­able. Clean. But some­how, this very mo­ment, it has be­come not enough: the Andy Warhol prints that line our liv­ing room walls, our ten­nis court and salt­wa­ter pool, the wine cel­lar and the del­i­cate china, our as­ton­ished din­ner guests, the use­less per­sonal train­ers—all of it mean­ing­less in the face of this photo.

I am a fail­ure. I failed. I am hid­ing out in this house. Cow­er­ing un­der its stature. The cap­tion above the photo reads: “To all the ones who thought they could si­lence us.” I can’t get this out of my head. I had tried to si­lence her—to stop up her

mouth with hu­mil­i­a­tion. I re­al­ize now the ut­ter bold­ness of her de­sire, the im­mense courage of her lit­tle gifts.

Vi­o­let.

Damn you, Vi­o­let. All I want is to peel off my clothes, burst through the pa­tio doors and frolic around nude. Let all my ag­ing parts sway about with aban­don. I want to snatch my hus­band’s pa­per out of his care­ful hands and rub it all over my danc­ing limbs. I want bare, goose­bumped skin to ca­vort with the au­tumn wind. And then, Vi­o­let, I would sprint.

I would sprint through the for­est un­til I came to the main road and, still nude, thumb pointed up in the air, I would hitch a ride to that mall. And this time, run­ning through the park­ing lot and into our past, I would not be calm at all. I would be wor­ried and hope­ful—the run to the en­trance would seem an eter­nity as I made sure my un­clothed body did not touch an inch of those fiercely glit­ter­ing cars.

I would re­turn to you and fi­nally sit at that ta­ble. Yes, I might still be late. But then at least it would be you who was mis­taken—think­ing for a mo­ment I had stood you up—and not me, now. So, I would sit at that ta­ble. And then, I would take my two thumbs and gen­tly re­move all that ru­ined makeup from your damp face.

I slam the lap­top shut and rush off to the bath­room. I make sure to lock the door be­hind me, and un­zip my jeans, thumb ready. And my dear hus­band car­ries on, obliv­i­ous, dab­bing at the crisp edges of his morn­ing pa­per.

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