Yes, I know. It’s the polite thing to say whenever anyone comes to your house and finds it in a state any less immaculate than a surgical theatre as furnished by Pottery Barn. For lo, look at the abomination that is dust on the mantle. Lay your eyes on the smudges on the table legs. Are those dishes in the sink? Actual dishes that have touched food? Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Let me just go commit ritual suicide in the backyard as soon as I can find a tarp. It’s the done thing. I get it. But I am over it.
I mean, okay. We make the effort to see that the place is relatively tidy and that nine times out of ten there are no surfaces that are sticky. We don’t live in squalor, but we have two adults who work full-time and an eighteen-month-old whose understanding of what constitutes a finger food is tenuous at best. (We also have a dog, but he might actually be the tidiest member of the household. Which is kind of worrying now that I see it written down.) It does not look like a catalogue. It looks like people live here because people live here. Why am I apologizing for toys on the floor just because you dropped in unannounced, and by the way who does that in the year of our Lord two thousand and sixteen because cell phones are a thing you know and some people get very anxious when they hear the doorbell unexpectedly because some people don’t always wear a bra at home and they can’t always pretend they aren’t home because they’ve already been spotted through the window and anyway you can step over the Duplo because I’m trying to think of a way to offer you coffee that doesn’t sound like “GET OUT OF MY HOUSE” but maybe does, a little bit?
What really galls me is that even though we share pretty equal responsibility in our housekeeping efforts, my husband would never feel any pressure to tell someone he’s sorry about the dust on the baseboards. Even if he had realized it was there, it would literally never occur to him to feel bad about it. What’s worse is that no one would ever blame him if they saw it. Somehow it’s become my responsibility as a woman to feel bad if the house is anything less than a showpiece, and all the Lysol in the world would not cover the smell of that amount of festering bullshit.
I’m done with the guilt. Why on earth should I feel guilty for taking ten minutes that could be spent on vacuuming and instead using them to throw my daughter onto the couch again and again until she’s laughing so hard she can’t breathe? Why should I feel at all bad for tangling up the sheets with my husband instead of washing and folding them? I’m not an ornament in a showroom. I am living this beautiful, delicious, messy life and this is where I live it.
Today I came home from work and the house was a complete disaster. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of. We went outside and played in the dirt.
On the evenings I work late, I come home to find the routine of the day is winding down. Sippy cups and ducky bath towels are drying while my husband wipes the counters and listens for the sound of any movement from the nursery. I get no acknowledgement from Zee (though it’s almost certain she’ll wake later with a plaintive “MAAAAAMA!”) and a quick kiss from my husband, but the most enthusiastic welcome comes from the dog.
Walking Morgan is my last task of the day and it’s one of my favourites. All I have to do is look at him and his tail starts to tentatively wag. Just the first syllable of his name and he jumps up looking for his leash. He knows what’s about to happen. He is the one who is allowed to hear all the gory details of my day when confidentiality clauses prevent me from venting to anyone else. We’ve covered miles, the two of us, trails and hills and sidewalks and bridges in rain and shine and blowing snow.
When I got him as a curly, squirming puppy, I imagined a lot of things. I imagined backyards and laughing children and endless evening walks. It seemed like the first logical step on the path I was on. We had the house and the future all planned out. A dog fit perfectly in the space before the wedding and babies. Then all of a sudden life took a hard left and we became I, and I had no room in my life for anything but a small pile of boxes and a bruise where my heart used to be. I said a lot of goodbyes in that time, but listening to him whine as I put him in the truck with my parents was the one that made me feel most like a failure.
He thrived with my parents, of course. He got his evening walks while I got my life back together. Whenever I visited him, he thrashed around on my lap in a fit of glee. I missed him, but he was happy where he was. I couldn’t take him back. Then, four months after my wedding and just days into my pregnancy, my parents told me that they were moving to another province, and Morgan needed to be rehomed. Of course, he fit right into the place in my life he was supposed to be, his head pillowed on my growing belly as small feet kicked him from the inside. Watching him sniff my newborn daughter’s downy head on the day I brought her home from the hospital, I knew he was home.
Lately, though, he hesitates when he jumps up on the couch. He doesn’t react to car doors. The flat out run that used to bring him to my knees when I got home is more of a brisk trot, and even that sometimes looks stiff. He is not a puppy anymore. For the first time since he came home, it’s sinking in that he cannot stay forever.
Everyone tells you that getting a dog is a huge time commitment. What they don’t tell you is that it’s really no time at all. When I watch him play with my little girl, so achingly gentle in the way he takes the ball from her hands and makes her giggle like no one else can, I see how he’s come with me on the journey I imagined. He has chased so many sticks and tennis balls, burrowed under so many blankets and snoozed on more lazy afternoons than I can count. He has been family. Now more and more I realize that the day is coming that our journeys diverge. I will have to walk alone and watch him cross a bridge where I can’t follow.
There are a lot of things about my body that can be attributed to pregnancy. I’m pretty forgiving of just about all of it, because it produced my favourite person in the whole world. If that makes the space below my bellybutton stripey and looking like a prune underneath the now oh-so-necessary high-cut undies, so be it. I have to be real with myself, though. The extra pounds? Not baby weight. If you look very closely, you can probably still see the the outline of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange that I all but swallowed whole.
Now, this is not a Cathy-esque post bemoaning how I look in a bathing suit. Truth be told, I like my body a lot. I had a lot more complaints about it when I was 22 and looked like Jessica Rabbit. I look in the mirror and I see the back fat, the belly, the cellulite, and I think you know what, fuck yeah. I’m in my thirties, kicking ass at my job, having the best sex of my life, and oh yeah, I made a person and shot it out of my body like a t-shirt cannon. Go me.
When my knees started to protest stairs, though, I had to look at the bad bitch in the mirror and tell her maybe it’s time for a little talk.
I love food. I love that I’m able to afford good food, which I’m keenly aware is a privilege. I love that I love myself enough to feed my body more than vodka and Nutrigrain bars (hi 22, you really were pretty goddamn stupid). Now I’m trying to learn how to have a healthy relationship with eating, because not only would I like to prevent a knee replacement before I hit middle age, I’d like to model good habits for my daughter.
First things first: I am not here for this Cake Is a Moral Failing bullshit. Nutritional value has nothing to do with who you are as a person and guilt is a wasted emotion. Food is just fuel. Some of it is fuel for the body, some of it is fuel for the soul. If I feel deprived or miserable, eventually I’m going to crack and eat every sour Skittle on this godforsaken island like a demented Ms. Pac-Man.
I started out by making no changes except drinking a lot of water. You would think this is easy. I would note that I work a job where I’m on my feet a lot and bathroom breaks can be scarce, and then come home to a toddler who cannot, will not, see me enjoy a drink in peace without shrieking “Cup! CUP!” at increasing levels of volume. You know what’s helped? The Plant Nanny app. I’ve been telling so many people about this that I’m sure everyone thinks I’m a paid shill (I wish) but it really does work. It’s like a Tamagotchi they won’t confiscate in Grade 5 Social Studies and then give back when it’s all smelly and starving, THANKS A BUNCH MR. WELSHMAN. Anyway. Hydration is going pretty well, though I’m seriously considering a leg bag.
Next, I drastically cut back on added sugar. Giving up chocolate kind of hurt, but I’m finding some decent substitutes. Adding unsweetened cocoa powder to smoothies is basically Cadbury methadone. I discovered that there are people on the internet who consider a simple smoothie with peanut butter, banana, cocoa and milk to be the devil’s milkshake and will substitute literally everything with flaxseed milk, Irish sea moss, and carob root powder. I don’t know if you know this, but people on the internet are out of their goddamn minds.
It’s little changes, but so far they feel sustainable, unlike that week I decided I could just jump into doing those Neela Ray workouts where I pretend to be Wonder Woman and every muscle in my body decided to stage an intervention. Some smarter choices with food here, some walking there, and I think I might manage this.
Four pounds so far. But honestly, just getting this all out makes me feel a lot lighter.
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.