How to Move Up in This World
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.