On the morning that Canada won the gold medal in men’s hockey, I found myself out with some friends to engage in my patriotic duty. V held her eight-month-old son, whose tiny Team Canada jersey and drooly grin enchanted me. I asked if he’d consent to being held without crying.
“Careful,” she said as she handed him over, “You smell him and you’ll be pregnant in no time.” I laughed and breathed in his milky, baby scent.
Three hours later, when I presented my husband with a positive pregnancy test, he sputtered for a moment before shaking his head.
“Jesus, that kid works fast.”
I am tentative and scared, knowing that anything could happen. Children are not protected from harm by being wanted and loved. There is no circle of salt strong enough to keep even something so small and I assume nothing about the fall or any of the weeks that come before it. Still, right now there is a life, something the size of a raspberry with an inexplicably beating heart, and I will celebrate that for as long as there is something to celebrate.
Like all good libraries, the one in our town smelled like dust. It mingled with the smell of mildew and burning where the dampness of the outside rain met the shimmer of heat sent up from the baseboards. For a curious and lonely child, there was a holiness and reverence in this place that I never felt in any church. Library smell is incense.
In my small town, I knew many people who saw no appeal in books. They could not understand how I spent so much time with my nose in whatever volume I was reading. Even my own mother, whose lilting recitations of poetry I heard in utero, worried I was spending too much time reading and not enough time outside. I compromised in the summer by taking books outside, poring over pages dappled by sunlight through the trees, so absorbed in the stories that I did not notice the breeze peppering my hair with dandelion seeds.
Books followed me everywhere. Anne Shirley sat with me at the dinner table, while Sara Crewe primly avoided being splashed in the bath. With a flashlight under the covers at night, I revelled not only in the tales of these texts, but of their physical being. Before I ever understood anything of sex, I knew the heady satisfaction that came with the coarseness of pages and the way they whispered together with the sheets, book smell surrounding me with acidic hints of vanilla and sweetgrass.
As I grew up and tentatively stepped out from behind the spine of a book and into the oft-confusing world of relationships with other human beings, the impact of my learnings remained. I am more easily charmed by a wordsmith than any other. You will hear not the slightest shame from me when I say that I am a vocabulary size queen. Language is my greatest weakness, which is why meeting people who do not read is baffling to me. The people who brag that they haven’t picked up a book since high school fill me with a mixture of ire and pity. A man once tried to pick me up with that line, saying he had better things to do. In his case, he meant the gym (he did have a certain marble-sculpted quality about him), but an attitude like that is the end of the line for me. So little curiosity speaks poorly of one’s imagination. In fifty years, when time has whittled his body down, he still will not know what is beyond the looking glass or why the caged bird sings. And he will not care.
When I was still an innocent naif, it was no surprise that books eventually led to a greater understanding and appreciation of sensual experiences. What shocked me, years later, was how much the inverse was true. Lustful moments were narrated in my head as they happened, my frantic frontal lobe struggling to find the words that matched the way it felt when I realized that sometimes lingual has nothing to do with speech. The right adjective can make me flush to the roots of my hair, my eyes glazing as I conjugate verbs, sound memory coming in onomatopoetic bursts. These images are not pictures, but description. They are glissando shudders of anticipation, the fleur de sel taste of skin in the dark.
In spite of the mental narration, words from other people are an addiction, and not just those from authors and poets. I save particularly well-constructed e-mails from friends. The few handwritten letters I have received are among my most treasured possessions, and I know them by heart. On days when I lament ever having fallen in love with a man who is incredibly reserved in professing the same, I open the bedside drawer and read the affirmations of fervor and fidelity. The elegant scrawl on yellow legal paper is soothing, for I remember that he lives in action, not words, but he has crossed over on occasion just because I needed it.
I know there is more to life than the words that describe it. There is beauty and grace beyond the horizon of what language can describe. I am no longer a lonely observer of the world around me. Still, I always see flickers of another world underneath the surface, like swimming fish. The dense weight of a book in my hand will pull me under without so much as a struggle.
My body has lost its ability to sleep in. A year ago, Saturdays were for lolling in bed, listening only to the whisper of rustling covers. Suddenly, out of nowhere, my body snaps to attention at 7:45 AM, just like clockwork. I’m usually up much earlier, of course, but the insistent medieval bell chimes of the phone alarm bears the responsibility for that. It’s the only thing that fuels enough hatred to haul me out of bed on a Monday morning just to make it stop, just fucking STOP already I’m UP Jesus CHRIST.
On Saturdays, I wake quietly and slip out of the room with the stealth of a cat burglar. My partner, bear-like in his inclination to hibernate, can still sleep in. So I let him.
I don’t know what this shift means. All my life I’ve had early mornings for school and work, but never this clear-headed alertness on a day where there are no expectations of me. Perhaps my body is preparing me for something.
I never intended to work with the elderly. My career training has all been for children and adolescents, for boundless energy and constant crisis. When the agency that hired me for my original line of work asked if I’d be willing to take on extra hours caring for seniors, I agreed with no little sense of discomfort.
My first day was spent learning to care for a man who was now bedridden. Cancer had whittled his strong form down to bones and delicate rice paper skin. In another life, another body, he had been a farmer. I spent Sundays there cleaning and feeding him. I talked to him sometimes, but he never replied. His bride, now bent and creased, was a cheerful lady who chatted with me about the weather and my home province. She never talked about him other than to ask how much he’d eaten or to mention he was on a new medication.
One day I arrived early and found her sitting by his side. She was holding his hand and talking to him. It was the only time I ever saw him lucid. I don’t think I ever told G why I came home that day and sobbed into his chest. He put his arms around me like he always does, unfailing and steady, while I wordlessly begged for the impossible. Stay like this. Just like this, always.
The days got harder. But I got better at them.
Over the year, I got assigned several more elderly clients. And somehow, I fell head over heels in love with my job. When a tiny French centenarian tells you her only remaining goal is to outlive Bob Barker, how can you not?
When you are young, you are in the greatest state of flux and yet somehow that is the state you think will last forever. I have never met a sixteen-year-old who has given any serious thought to what it will be like when she is eighty. When she is a world-famous poet who is married to Robert Pattinson, yes, but not the simple, quiet process that happens to every one of us without us really noticing. She will not see the beauty of white hair and fragile hands.
I see the beauty now, but I also see the fear. I am afraid of the idea of losing my ability to walk, of having someone to feed and bathe me, of burying the person I share my life with. I can no longer pretend these things won’t happen. But this is the natural order of things. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. And there is beauty in that too.
I am awake, wondering what my body is preparing for. Or perhaps it’s telling me to listen.
Early spring birdsong and the sound of my lover’s breathing. This is the sound of impermanence.
Cosmopolitan magazine is a mystery to me. At nearly 28 years old, I am allegedly still in the target demographic, but I don’t know a single soul my age who reads it. Of course, we read it in high school, back when we should have been reading Seventeen, which we read in elementary school, when we should have been reading Highlights, which we read in utero.
Still, as a twenty-something woman with disposible income, a G-spot, and crippling insecurity, Cosmo has so much to offer me. Every time I go to the grocery store, there it sits, waiting to take me under its well-toned wing and give me all the secrets to a better relationship and poutier lips. It wants to give me a million orgasms per second. It has my best interests at heart!
I can see it in G’s eyes when I bring the magazine to the checkout. It’s the look of a man who knows he’s about to have a more powerful and sexy girlfriend in mere days. It looks a lot like a cocktail of disdain and confusion with a soupçon of fear, but it’s okay. He’s a WASP-y lawyer. That’s just what excitement looks like for him.
When I get the magazine home, I open it with glee. Who knows what kind of wisdom I’m about to gain?
After fifteen pages of ads, I finally get to a table of contents. One of the first things I learn is that there is such a thing as a butt facial. I feel more empowered already, so I go to fix a sandwich. Then I find out there’s a Parking Wars marathon airing and promptly forget about the magazine. This is not a good start.
My job is in trouble. How have I been teaching independent living skills to adults without being privy to such useful knowledge?
I call my boss immediately to tell her I’m a fraud. She is unmoved by my wails and tells me she is not going to fire me. She then tells me that it is not strictly necessary for my job to know that Channing Tatum thinks it’s endearing when a woman doesn’t give up on something, but she seems thankful for the information. At least, I think so. She hangs up on me after that.
I have got to stop getting sidetracked from my self-improvement journey. Time to sit down and actually make it through this issue. Are there supposed to be all these ads? They’re making me tired. I’ve never spent so much time thinking about my pores. I need a nap.
NO! No. I can do this.
Well, this is interesting. I’m learning tips on how to make my perfectly serviceable jeans into sexy ones by cutting holes in them. There’s nothing saying what kind of shape the holes should be. What do I do? Hearts? Stars? Pokemon? Fashion director Michelle McCool (shut up, that is NOT your real name because that isn’t anybody’s fucking name) isn’t saying. Maybe I’d better skip this.
An interview with Selena Gomez? Who? Wizards of what? Bieber why now? I don’t think I got the English version of this article. Moving right along.
Okay, I’m seeing a lot of sultry eyes and pursed lips. I can do that.
This is EASY. I feel sexier already.
Now that I’m feeling more confident in my Fun Fearless Female status, it’s time to up the ante with “Ballsy Moves Guys Love.” G won’t know what hit him.
“It looks like it’s going to snow tomorrow,” he remarks over dinner.
Now is my time. I laugh. I laugh loud and long. It is the sound of a million baby seals crying out as one. They are silenced when I black out. How’s THAT for ballsy moves, G?
He doesn’t say anything when I come to. He hands me a cold glass of water and disappears into his office for the rest of the night. I guess he wasn’t ready for this jelly. WELL TOO BAD. YOU’RE GETTING ALL THE JELLY YOU CAN STAND. IT WILL BE COSMO-APPROVED LEVELS OF JELLY ALL UP IN THIS APARTMENT SO THERE.
I comfort myself by reading a story about some woman messing with her roommate’s mind. It’s funny, I guess, but nothing will ever top the Sour Times story so why even bother?
Okay, so the laughter experiment didn’t work. Maybe he needs more time. I guess I should continue focusing on me for a while. He’s been in that office a long time.
Ooh, 15 feel-good things to start planning right now! I love plans. Sometimes I even make them.
Hmm. Sex playlists. Redecorating. Shopping sprees. Birthday party themes. I don’t… hm. Well.
Is it possible that these things are all really shallow? Have I been steered wrong?
Oh, wait. “What you’ll say when you meet Ryan Gosling.” I guess I haven’t given you enough credit, Cosmo. That’s absolutely the kind of thing I’ve been planning for years. I have so many questions about Breaker High, you don’t even know.
I was going to try the sex tips today. After reading about lasering off pubic hair, I needed to lie down for several hours with an ice pack. I’ll let you guess where the ice pack was.
Having finally exorcised the mental image of a laser tilling my ladygarden, it’s time for the sex tips. I have learned my lesson on involving G in my Cosmofication without his consent, so I give him the list and a red pen with instructions to get back to me on which ones he is okay with.
An hour later, he comes back pale and shaken. He hands me the magazine and puts his head in his hands. I wait patiently for a response. Finally, he lifts his head.
“Please. Please, for the love of a God I’m not sure I believe in anymore, do not do these things. There is nothing wrong with sex the way we have it. We do not need… whatever these are.”
“Even the one with the–”
“ESPECIALLY the one with the… yeah. Please. No.”
Defeated, I close the magazine. Now how will I ever know if the orgasms I’m having are the right kind?
Day 8: Epilogue
Maybe I’m just not meant to be a Cosmo girl. I don’t have a whole wardrobe of designer clothes that go from day to night with the proper accessories. I don’t have a nondescript office job with the kind of income that could justify buying enough foundation to fill in a pothole. I definitely don’t have a boyfriend with the patience to follow all the mind games I’m supposed to play in order to keep his interest.