On a holiday I don’t know what people do. What do people do to have fun? What do they do to relax? What does ‘relax’ mean?
I have engineered my whole life so that I am, at all times, in at least some degree of ‘relaxation.’ I will never go 100% out of my way for anyone, at least not in a conventional power relationship like work. I am always doing something I want to do, or the way I want to do it, even if (at the same time) I am forced to do something for some uncertain or rhetorical reason. I am selfish but empathetic at the same time, so at least I remain useful to a greater good, despite my self-absorption.
I have to remind myself that certain things are not my problem. I don’t have to clean the bathrooms of the hostel and guesthouse we have been are staying in. It’s not my job to look at the glass doorways and fuss over the smudges and make sure things stay stocked and tidy in the communal kitchens. Maids on holiday; it’s ridiculous.
Here is the list of things I have been doing, that I do not normally do, now that I am removed from my usual routine, aka “on holiday”: nap in the day time (it is raining so fucking much), eat comically fattening food (today I had vegan macaroni and cheese, and a “psstrami” sandwich loaded with faux creme, etc, cookies, booze, etc.); I do not do my usual physical or mental things I like to do and in fact thrive on; I am in a useless tit state of suspended touristy animation looking only for my next fix: a long walk in an unfamiliar area, a good meal. I miss writing, going to the gym, sulking, privacy.
The rain is discouraging.
I am also, despite it all, in love with Portland all over again. My demographic is so catered to here, at least in the downtown-y areas. Generous vegan food and working class glamour abounds. Flat bicycle lanes. Urban goats, bourbon distilleries, handcrafted bicycles. Wine is sold in grocery stores; also cheap persimmons, lemons. Boutique hot sauce. I am completely indulged by Portland,and made to feel the rule not the exception. The whole city feels, to me, not as corporate and privatized and threadbare and self-congratulatory as Vancouver, my true love city. I am not looking forward to going back. Four more years of the Liberal government. Poverty rampant, wealth ostentatious, and nobody getting their hands dirty to earn anything. But Vancouver is where I at least know what it is my duty to clean. Portland is America and America is a scary biker chick who is nice sometimes but mostly you just count on it wanting to kick your ass then borrow your lipstick.
The sun came out from behind rain clouds this afternoon. Ominous sunshine, or briefly-dispelled gloom: my favourite weather. I rode my bike to the drug store and mailed off all of our thank-you cards for wedding gifts. After I send that stack of mail, each one painstakingly handwritten with an assembly of photos inside, I am anxiously, perversely convinced (as I watch the clerk drop them into the outgoing slot) that at least one was wrong, and perhaps even had obscenities scrawled inside instead of friendly words. I buy some new lipstick because tomorrow R and I are leaving on our honeymoon. I have been buying Revlon’s ‘Toast of New York’ for 15 years even though they probably rip open rabbits and paint the lipstick on their duodenums. Change comes slowly. I haven’t had milk or eggs in over 2 months and no meat in 20 years. It might be time to reevaluate my choice of make-up, too. But I buy a lipstick to feel prepared for leaving the country, like a good luck charm, even when I have about 7 half-used tubes rolling around in misc drawers and old pockets.
Resentfully I sat in the window of a Subway restaurant, the last seat available, looking at my lap as I ate a fast sandwich before work. Outside the window there was a man in a ball cap, sitting up against a lamp post and asking people passing by for change. I don’t give out change. I am pretty sick of people’s shit. The plaintive neediness, and how it can flip like a fish so quickly to something nasty and mean. Sometimes I don’t think I can take another day working in the downtown eastside, with the wide open hungers that can close up like a fist and hit you if you look away. I don’t have a lot of money but at least I get to go on a holiday. I get to buy a Subway sandwich, which tastes kind of boring and $5 is a lot of money when you think about it. I feel bad about everything sometimes.
I comfort myself by thinking about the train out of town tomorrow, our bicycles stowed, reading books peaceably as we leave the city we love behind, just for a small excursion, that inexplicable human need for “change.” Because of my personal excitement I can pretend for an afternoon that other people don’t count, their needs don’t exist, it can be forgiven if I leave a fast food restaurant and don’t bother to meet their eyes when they ask if I have any extra change and when they call after me, Have a nice day anyway.
Once upon a time, on a first date, I spilled my coffee. Later, when trying to decide why it had also been the last date, this was the only mistake I could remember making.
I’d made it to the table, my rain-wet hair sticking to my cheeks, the cafe humid with the bustle of people safely hiding from the weather. I’d then fumbled the hot mug, sending a cascade of Silk-dosed caffeine across the tabletop where he’d already seated himself. He had to stand up so his pants didn’t get wet.
The coffee spread like a silk tablecloth. We watched it go. It was like a magic trick I’d pulled out of my hand to delight him, only he’d not been delighted. My coffee had cost him $3. He did not know why I laughed. I was laughing because it was ridiculous, and also because here we were. The world was so big around us, yet here we were, and we had all the power to make of that what we would. We could choose to laugh at a spilled coffee, and count it as one of our lesser disasters.
He asked whether I would be OK drinking the 3 inches or so left in my cup? Was that enough? It seemed a waste to go back and line up.
Looking back I could only remember making one mistake.
A man fell down where I work and I went to visit him in the hospital a few days later. Who knows why? Since noticing (years ago) that I am a “people pleasing person” I am conscious of this bad trait and try to act honestly, and not as a kiss-ass. Yet I go to the hospital, out of curiosity and sympathy. This man is smart. Sure he is a hoarder, and eats rotten food that he hides in his dresser, and he looks like a scary skeleton, but he is a true intellect as well. He reads all the philosophers. He speaks many languages. He studied at prestigious universities, and he reacts to vulgarity the way Hannibal Lector would; he still ended up here, at Hill House. So I have a lot to learn from him, because the fact that life can slip and cut you is an ongoing fascination of mine.
I walk into — , Vancouver’s oldest & decaying, beautiful & unlovely hospital. It smells of pain and rats. I want to work here one day.
I see Mr. Resident. In fact, the nurse has to wake him up, when I naively assumed he would be his spritely self. Of course, when you’re 70 years old and you fall and break your ass, a lot of your smarts get deep-sixed. (I am still not sure he knew who I was.)
“What is your relationship?” the ward nurse asked me, vaguely suspicious, since I know from Mr. Patient’s one other friend that sweet dick-all people have been to see him.
“I know him through work,” I replied, reassuringly. I’m not a random hospital tourist, here to slip him poison in an orange Crush or something. I’m not the angel of death who we all fear, though surely if she existed she would be more thorough and reliable.
“Howdy,” Mr Patient said, waking up. Then right after saying hellos he launched into talk about vulnerability and age. He had the book on his bedside table that I threw into the ambulance before it drove away. Nietzsche. Jesus Christ! Also, someone has given him a paperback entitled “Frontier Librarian and her Cowboy,” I kid you the fuck not! I have already seen all sorts of these romances scattered throughout the hospital. When my mom was in – - for her foot surgery she read a book called the School Marm and her Lover, seriously. Who writes these? They are probably rich.
I had brought him a red flower because his eyesight is bad and i read somewhere red is one colour that blind people can see.
He talked about how hard he had studied all his life and what a low blow it was to be here now, 70 years old and nothing done, and all his study for what?
I told him not to think that way, although he had already turned my bones cold with his musings, which were perfectly scary yet did not sound bitter at all. It was just the cold reasoning of an intelligent man, and when you are intelligent you do not choke on your emotions the same way. You can have an existential laugh to offset any grievance.
My dad said the same thing on one of our last conversations (brief and via payphones as he was usually homeless): “You never know how your life will end up. You’d laugh, even when it gets so that it hurts to laugh!”
I don’t want to get that way but nobody wants to get that way and so many good people do. I don’t know what to do about this knowledge except to hold the people I love close, and whistle past the graveyard.
My psychology is crazy.
As long as my status was Casual On-Call I was great at this job! I always had a grin. I did a great job at hiding any dismay or irritability. The residents liked me. I had energy for the shenanigans that go on here. I could talk up a storm with people. The office door was never closed. But I just got hired on permanently at Hill House as a front desk worker, which means buzzing people in and out of the front door, keeping away riff-raff, and making sure everything runs smoothly – no floods, fights, or medical emergencies. (Usually one of each happens at least every shift.) Now I’m crabby all the time. Suddenly, things seem a lot less ‘quirky’ and a lot more frustrating. Before, I was free! I could behave awesomely because I had no real tie to this place. Now my toes curl impatiently in my shoes when people tell me long, tedious drunken or crazy stories. Suddenly I notice smells a lot more. The general piss and beer smell of the hallways, the diaper breath, the unwashed bodies. I do shitty things that I hate in other workers, like snapping at people when they’re being dumbasses, instead of being understanding that they have mental problems or addiction issues or whatnot. I know when people are lonley…they lurk in the lobby by the office, they wander around, they stare out the window for hours, or incessantly come into the office to ask a million questions, like what’s for breakfast tomorrow or what time is it, and is that morning or night? And often I do not rise to this bait. I sit crabbily and wish they would go away. This is a 180 turn from how I was when I was here scattershot. The Monopoly games! The long movie discussions! The Pictionary! The jokes!
Nothing has changed except now I know when I will be at work. And for some reason this is enough to make me act like a typical low-tier bureaucrat. I am bad with responsibility, probably.
Ah, veganism. When one craves a Cadbury Creme Egg, but makes do with a piece of zucchini dipped in molasses.
“Didn’t you get married this weekend?” my co-worker asks me, pausing with her mop as she walks past me. I am pouring thickened juice into plastic mugs on the ‘feeder’ floor, where she is cleaning. I am wearing a hairnet and scrubs and I’m sweating, hurrying to complete my pre-meal rounds: three floors, 25 tables each with a full setting: cloth napkin, china mugs turned upside down, lined-up juice glasses, the array of cutlery arranged just so. (Though not on the feeder floor. Just plastic spoons here; everyone here gets fed their lunch by a care-aide.)
I do not look or feel like a new bride.
“Yup!” I tell her.
“I guess I should say congratulations,” she says, doubtfully. “No honeymoon?”
I am in a fucking hairnet with thickened juice all over my thumb.
“Nope,” I tell her. I am actually really focused on getting my table settings done. I have 40 minutes left before wheelchairs start clogging the hallways. “We’re just divin’ right back into the ol’ routine.”
It must seem depressing to outsiders, probably. I don’t feel depressed about it. I am a “wife”. R is my “husband.” I feel great.
But, as faraway and impossible that pouring thickened juice and portioning out Fruitlax seemed just a few days ago, this is my scheduled workday. Sure it’s unmagical. My co-workers’ congratulations have seemed bemused. Maybe people don’t like the notion of a bride being here in a nursing home, surrounded by the sweet odour of juice and a fainter smell of diapers and medicine, when she could be climbing the pyramids or waving a handkerchief off the edge of a cruise ship or whatever it is people do after they get married.
She looks at my fingers hopefully.
“I don’t wear my ring to work,” I explain.
I’m worried about pulling it off with my latex gloves or having it go down the garbage disposal. On any given kitchen shift I have to wash about a million dishes.
A lot of my co-workers, who are mostly older Indian or Filipino ladies, wear their jewelry to work. Also full make-up. Their fingers glitter fearlessly with a lifetime’s accrual of shining bands and clusters of gems. With our work routine, I don’t know how they manage to keep their collections intact.
“How can I believe you got married?” she teases me, perhaps fed up with my lack of bridey anecdotes. “I think you just took some days off.”
From the moment I got married I could feel it happening.
From the front of the room, standing in front of the officiant, I caught a glimpse of a guest and registered that they were almost entirely bored.
And outside on Granville Island, taking photos, I saw a few passersby muttering remarks to each other, and detouring impatiently upon having their trajectory minutely blocked by this inconvenient cluster of wedding assholes.
Only the people getting married get to experience uncomplicated happiness. I had to decide to enjoy it. I could feel the minutes passing by faster and faster, taking R and I from the magic of the day, the indulgences, and onward to daily, married life.
Sometimes I look at the portraits the residents have in their bedrooms. Their wedding days. I hope they did enough between then and now. I wonder where their spouses are, and whether they had enough happiness; I wonder, the way I always do, how people can manage living while also accepting mortality, which is basically the fact of our unremarkableness. (And do people try and create big, momentous weddings out of a fear of facing their essential ordinariness? And intimidation about being happy within that framework?)
I had a good wedding, in my opinion. Our party was small, but wonderful – a composition not too far out of keeping from how we both want to live the rest of our life. Though I couldn’t help but register the little reminders that we’re each just another somebody to everybody else.