JEN­NIFER AMOS

How to Move Up in This World

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - JEN­NIFER AMOS

When the dead­line ar­rives, send your high school tran­scripts to three uni­ver­si­ties in your prov­ince. Make your pro­gram se­lec­tion the day ap­pli­ca­tions are due because you for­got which day was the dead­line. Well, to be fair you didn’t for­get the dead­line, rather you for­got what the date was, as the days pile up, one on top of each other: a blur of home­work, house­work, and work-work. Don’t smack your class­mate as she watches you scramble, and says, “You’d think your mom might have re­minded you,” as she flips her hair over her shoul­der. Choose three schools because that is how many you pay for through the base ap­pli­ca­tion fee. The ap­pli­ca­tion cen­tre can’t fathom that you might need just one. Your hair-flip­ping class­mate is ap­ply­ing to eight. You don’t need a backup because this is a long-term play. It re­quires four more years of liv­ing with the afore­men­tioned mother. Wait. Throw the re­quest for an in­ter­view at the big school, the best one, in the trash, because you don’t have train fare to get there, and not because you’re afraid. Re­mind your­self that es­cape isn’t al­ways about re­lo­ca­tion. Open an ac­cep­tance let­ter from your lo­cal U and feel a sense of pride. Show the let­ter­head to your mother, who glances up from her Sudoku and squints her eyes at you in a way that sug­gests she wasn’t aware you were in the room. Make her put down her puz­zles so she can call your aunt who, when you ap­plied, made a point of telling you that if you don’t get in, you could al­ways ap­ply when you’re older because stan­dards re­lax for ma­ture stu­dents. Af­ter your mother hangs up the phone, grill her for the re­ac­tion. “She said to say con­grat­u­la­tions.” “Yes, but did she sound like she meant it?” You want to know what your aunt’s voice sounds like with her mouth full of crow. Watch your mother shrug and light up a cig­a­rette.

in­fec­tions, and what your mother calls “men­tal health days.” Spend the sum­mer work­ing as a cashier at a drug­store in the mall. Force your­self not to hide when peo­ple from your high school come in. Smile at them as you ring through their con­doms and eight-dol­lar pome­gran­ate juice, and try not to think about the way the year­book de­clared you “most likely to force you to get an Op­ti­mum Card.” When you had fully ex­pected “take over the whole damn world” or at the very least, “write a book of po­etry be­fore stick­ing her head in the oven.” Don’t ask them for their loy­alty card as a matter of pride. Call the man­ager away from her break so she can man­u­ally fix your mis­take when they pull the card out immediately af­ter the trans­ac­tion has been com­pleted. Meet a lo­cal guy at your counter who de­scribes him­self as “a to­tal cheese­head.” Google “what’s a cheese­head” and learn this means he is ei­ther a fan of the Green Bay Pack­ers or us­ing a deroga­tory term to let you know he is Dutch. Later, when he tells you he meant that he was a hope­less ro­man­tic, start go­ing out with him, even though your mother sug­gests you might be wise to make your­self avail­able as you pur­sue your M.R.S. Count your­self lucky to have him. He’s tall and has nice eyes. He’s also will­ing to share the dis­count he gets in ex­change for stock­ing the shelves at Zellers. Blow most of your sum­mer sav­ings on some new clothes and your re­quired text­books, and when you check your bank bal­ance, breathe deep and re­mind your­self that stu­dent loans are com­ing. Slap your bright­est, most win­ning smile on your face and go to frosh week. Skip the sad one they or­ga­nize for the town­ies in favour of the proper one for your fac­ulty so you can learn how the kind of peo­ple who be­long here act. Drink Pur­ple Je­sus punch out of a kid­die swim­ming pool even though you have heard ru­mours that it is made with rub­bing al­co­hol and sends an an­nual batch of frosh to emerg. Smile and laugh at the things all these pur­ple-lipped kids say and do. They love an au­di­ence so much they won’t even no­tice that you are tak­ing notes. Af­ter a week of solid par­ty­ing, go to class brit­tle, de­hy­drated, and ready to soak it all in. This is your shot, so choose what you love, the hu­man­i­ties, and be as well­rounded as you can. So­ci­ol­ogy, English, phi­los­o­phy, psy­chol­ogy, and Latin, ex­actly the way you imag­ined post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion as a kid. Surely where there is pas­sion, gain­ful em­ploy­ment will fol­low. Study your pro­fes­sors’ faces and won­der

which one of them will in­spire you to read the books that will send you down the path to an ex­tra­or­di­nary and in­spired life. In Latin class, sit be­side that girl you knew from high school. Un­der­stand next to noth­ing and won­der if you have missed the crit­i­cal win­dow for lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion. Copy this girl’s home­work when you for­get you had an as­sign­ment. No­tice that you some­how re­ceived a bet­ter grade than she did when you get the ex­er­cises back. When she asks you how you did, de­clare that you need to prac­tice your Latin de­clen­sions: us, ī, ō, um, ō, ī ōrum, īs, ōs, īs. Go to English class and lis­ten to the prof read from books you have never heard of and feel ev­ery­thing else fall away. When peo­ple ask you what res you live in, tell them you live off-cam­pus “because you al­ready know the city.” Do not men­tion that the drunk you live with hap­pens to be your mother. Let them do most of the talk­ing. Watch your So­ci­ol­ogy 101 pro­fes­sor write the words “up­ward so­cial mo­bil­ity” on the board. Keep your eyes down and take co­pi­ous notes about how im­pos­si­ble it is to achieve, as though you don’t al­ready know. Go to your psych lab where you teach rats to run through mazes. Try not to think about what hap­pens to the rats af­ter you are done with them. When your beat­nik-styled male TA re­sponds to your group’s ques­tions on clas­si­cal con­di­tion­ing with, “What do you care? It’s not like we’re talk­ing about a sale at the Gap,” pre­tend you are as of­fended as the rest of the long-haired girls. Be se­cretly thrilled that he lumped you in with them, no matter what the ac­cu­sa­tion. Af­ter some dis­ap­point­ing midterm re­sults, go see your phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor when he of­fers ex­tra read­ings ex­plor­ing ex­is­ten­tial­ism. Return No Exit the fol­low­ing week and try to look like you un­der­stand when he starts toss­ing around phrases like “con­demned to be free.” Be flat­tered that some­one in this place seems to think you’re com­pe­tent. Let him talk for three hours even though your boyfriend is out­side in his car wait­ing to drive you home. Leave the build­ing sort­ing out how you are go­ing to bridge the twenty-five kilo­me­tres be­tween you and where you live. Feel shock when you spot your boyfriend bop­ping his head to the ra­dio, still wait­ing for you in his beige Honda Civic. Hop in the car and throw your arms around him and re­al­ize that you are an ass­hole. Make it up to him on the couch to­gether later.

On the week­ends, hang out with your boyfriend and his townie friends because it is a re­lief to ex­ist with­out strate­giz­ing. Spend the day driv­ing too fast and smok­ing cig­a­rettes af­ter get­ting Tim Hor­tons from the drive-through. Ig­nore when they call you “Col­lege Girl” and laugh along with them when the main source of en­ter­tain­ment is brak­ing hard ev­ery time one of you tries to take a sip of cof­fee. Go to class on Mon­day morn­ing and plop down next to some­one who you rec­og­nize from sev­eral of your classes. Lie when she del­i­cately sniffs the air around you and asks, “Do you smoke?” Then open your note­book and pre­tend not to no­tice as a lit­tle sil­ver piece of cig­a­rette foil flut­ters to the ground. Change the sub­ject. Ur­gently record in your note­book the de­clen­sions you learned in Whee­lock: a, ae, ae, am, ā, ae, ārum, īs, ās, īs. Break up with the boyfriend because he won’t stop rub­bing your neck when you are at his house, and you need to study for your ex­ams or risk los­ing your bur­sary. Try not to no­tice that he is the kind of guy who drives you home, even af­ter a breakup. Get home to your mother’s house and tell her what hap­pened. Lis­ten to her say, “Well that’s too bad. He was a smokin’ hot­tie.” Go home with a guy from your English class to study. Crawl into his nar­row bed and watch him pass out in­stead of rav­ish­ing you as you had counted on. Open your book and study. It’s a bet­ter use of your time any­way. Return the fol­low­ing week and be­come frus­trated when he dozes off again. Won­der why your pres­ence puts him to sleep and start pok­ing at him and watch as he opens one eye and says, “You know I was im­pressed with you last time. It was so nice to meet some­one who would just let me sleep.” Stay just long enough to save face. Fall asleep in Latin class because when you close your eyes at night, all you can see is page af­ter page of your own tiny hand­writ­ing, high­lighted in yel­low. Try tak­ing some Ri­talin because you heard it helps you stay awake to cram, but stop because you start smelling baked bread ev­ery­where you go. Float home when one of your class­mates grabs your el­bow af­ter class and smiles and says, “I so get it. This class puts me to sleep too.” Run into the guy from English at a bar while you and the town­ies are sloppy drunk. Ig­nore him, and tell all his friends about this book you read called He’s Just Not That Into You. In­form them that you are liv­ing the se­quel, Ev­ery­one Eff­ing Hates You. Now wink and moonwalk back to the bar for another drink. Avoid his eye in class the fol­low­ing week.

Re­ceive an email from the phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor telling you he has another book that he thinks you would like. Go to his of­fice hours and panic when he closes the door because you al­ready know he is go­ing to tell you that ev­ery­one knows you are a fraud and you might con­sider drop­ping out. No­tice how his voice cracks when he says, “I can tell you are dif­fer­ent.” Stare at the floor and mum­ble to him that you are work­ing on it. Feel your breath catch in your ch­est when he reaches over and puts a hand on your knee, say­ing, “Are you aware that af­ter all this time we’ve never even touched?” Star­tle and watch your shoe leap from your foot like a fish mo­men­tar­ily es­cap­ing the river. Don’t say any­thing when the stained and worn-out clog you have been wear­ing since grade ten falls onto his of­fice floor. Re­main per­fectly still. Be grate­ful there are no holes in your sock. No­tice how sad your footwear looks, out of place, all by it­self. Try not to let your heart break over this shoe that has done its job for you for years that you have aban­doned here on this stark linoleum. Don’t think about the shoe. Scratch that. Maybe you should. Zero in on the shoe. Mur­mur your Latin mantra: um, ī, ō, um, ō, a, ōrum, īs, a, īs. Af­ter he has re­leased you, pick up your shoe non­cha­lantly, and stum­ble your way into the bright­ness of the hall. Squint against the light and move so quickly that you ric­o­chet into walls like some sort of poorly bal­anced pin­ball. Burst out­side and re­mem­ber that there is no one here to pick you up. Reach into pock­ets for bus fare that isn’t there. Drive your toes into the front of your shoe and swal­low hard. You will find your way home. Because this is what you do.

Back to four and I am throw­ing knives at my feet. Call this game Rus­sian Roulette. This mis­in­for­ma­tion is planted here un­til I am four plus twenty years old and am cor­rected by ex­pe­ri­ence gone side­ways. Brother can’t stop what he started, the game he makes of chance. Rooms shrink and grow around me as I hear this. For years I have been very very small, I tell my­self. The world shrinks with me. Se­cret eleven, twelve. There is scream­ing com­ing from down­stairs. The kind that makes you cross your legs, makes you wet deep in­side. Child shame at this damp­ness, con­cern out­weigh­ing thought, I open the door. Woman forced to call Mother is hump hump hump­ing a pair of legs. The base­ment smells like the Chi­nese Heal­ing Arts cen­tre she has be­gun to spend all her time at. Smells like the man who has been stay­ing with us for weeks, Swedish bit­ters and licorice root. If you’re re­ally cheap, you can just take the fil­ter off the faucet and shake it re­ally hard. First layer of filth falls back be­hind car­bon, in­te­grat­ing. What has be­come true changes. Mol­e­cule min­eral dirt. I don’t know by now what is a se­cret and what is mine. She hands a folded square of paper to brother. Asks him to proof­read. Says it is her cre­ative pro­cess­ing, that it tells the story of los­ing her vir­gin­ity to rape. Brother has never been to school, is only nine years old. Beg­ging the ques­tion of what proof she is look­ing for. As she humps the medicine man down­stairs, Sis­ter and I duct tape Bar­bies to­gether. Small plas­tic pelvic squares against each other, face to crotch to butt to mouth. A wall of Bar­bies, full of de­sire. Sis­ter asks me what would hap­pen if a pe­nis could stay in a vagina for­ever and swoons. First night in the new house he sits on blood red chair like it’s a throne. Hip bones gone numb, I can­not walk. He rubs my feet and car­ries me to bed. Sift­ing, dream from rot. I can­not tell you what hap­pens here. Black rushes past. We wres­tle with him as Mother en­cour­ages me to grab his dick. Contours my too-small hand, I can feel its stiff­ness there still lin­ger­ing. Fi­nally my turn, her screams from the base­ment have turned to at­tic gone mute.

Re­duc­tion in free en­ergy. Se­lec­tive mem­ory drips through my pores look­ing for equi­lib­rium. Pres­sure so high as to for­get where you came from. My brack­ish wa­ters, my salty tears can’t fall. Calls me a smart-ass as he pinches my child’s bump breasts and threat­ens my voice throat life if I speak up. Se­crets go silent, but I am telling you, child’s mind twisted torn. Live life as dream. He prom­ises to tape my mouth shut and woman called Mother be­gins to crocodile tear up. Slaps him, tells us all of her first hus­band’s bondage of love. Sis­ter and I stand­ing on the lit­tle bridge at the park, shove the dog and in she goes, whim­per­ing. We can’t help but be cruel. Pull her tail and pinch her ears, chase her all the way home. Thun­der­ing of feet up the stairs as it gets too quiet. He holds her up against the wall like a vase, feet dan­gling. Wilted. Pull me in all di­rec­tions, spin­ning. Down­ward. In my hand, a list of dates of ev­ery day I thought I had died. To re­mind me I have lived in the time be­tween now and then. Dark­ness in­fil­trates the mind; I need mem­ory to know I am part of my own life. Proof in the mem­ory of hold­ing a pen on this page last time I lost my­self. What I have done and did not do. I have lost count. Head held deep un­der wa­ter, I breathe in salt and sand. Grasped by an­kle then crown, pulled deep un­der. Pres­sure, fil­ter, me. Her hall­way like an un­lit grave­yard, dar­ing me to come closer. Run hand along the wall to keep my place, breath shal­low. I find the knob and turn it qui­etly, open her door just a crack. She gasps and sits up in her bed like a body shocked back to life as I come to ask her for help. She closes her door and hands me off to man af­ter man af­ter man. And I have lost count.

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