I had lived a fairly charmed life.
A go to the grocery store, pick up the kids, fuck the husband twice a week sort of life. Normal. Or what passed for it. A life where opportunities and possibility have been traded for stability. In other words, boring. Predictable to the point of extreme pain. A life where you woke up in the morning and had to peel your soul off the ceiling, where it got stuck overnight trying to get away from you. There is no pain like the daily attempt to reattach one’s soul. It is worse than childbirth or nails on a blackboard when they’re not your nails.
My life was like that, and then something happened. It started simply enough. Or innocently enough. Or perhaps neither of those, but it did start.
At first, I tried honestly to develop an acceptable outside interest. One that would fill the days while my husband banged out software for a living and the kids were in school. My two twin daughters once so labour intensive had changed and grown and moved on to a place I was no longer welcome. A pair of identical tweens with child lust for the latest boy band and adult mouth’s that gave voice to the anti-Christ. They had no use for me, having learned recently that everything I did was ultimately humiliating.
My husband might have provided some sort of pastime if I had been interested in discussing his work, or the people at work, or more specifically the people at work he thought stupid. I find that stupidity is such a relative thing. Morons are the ones that don’t appreciate our ideas and assholes are the ones that exceed them. My husband didn’t see it that way. For that matter, he didn’t see me. I had blended so thoroughly into the backdrop of his home life over the years, a domestic chameleon of sorts. He was having a hard time distinguishing me from the furniture. It was a shame. I really used to love him before I disappeared before his eyes.
Luckily, I had Justin. A nineteen-year-old I had befriended when he came to the door selling dryer exhaust tubing. He slept with boys and sometimes men for money, and possessed a caustic opinion on life that I found refreshing. He was faddishly thin, but didn’t care what I ate. We had bonded immediately. Over coffee, I discussed with him my dilemma.
“Have you thought of volunteering, Angela?” he said.
“I did, but if felt like devaluing myself, working for no money.”
“Isn’t that what you do as a housewife anyway?”
“I don’t like the word housewife.”
“At least I get paid when I suck off people I don’t like.”
So I volunteered at the New to You consignment shop, sorting through donated clothing that smelled of cat piss and the sloughed off skins cells of the elderly. Each Tuesday and Thursday, I’d unlock the bin in the parking lot where people dumped the things they didn’t want. Like orphans left on the doorstep but without the basket or the note, that said “take care of my baby.”
My job was to find anything a person could possibly force themselves to wear, perhaps in the event of an emergency or a post apocalyptic meltdown of societal norms. Then I’d colour code these gems for price. Come and get it everyone. Crap that nobody wants. Five dollars and under. All proceeds to the local hospital. Where you will die an unspeakable death if we are responsible for funding your care, as our daily take is less than twenty bucks.
It happened one day when I had come in early. Hoping to deke out before the afternoon rush so I could get a TMJ massage. My co-worker Mary wasn’t in yet. I lugged two damp cardboard boxes across the back room and felt the sides buckle outward into my arms like a weak pelvic floor. When I opened the first one a pair of dead grandma nylon half slips slithered out and fell around my ankles. I dislodged the clingy slips from my feet and kicked them into the corner for rejects. We weren’t allowed to accept undergarments. Too unsanitary.
It was at the bottom of the box. I wasn’t sure at first. I thought it was another stained cotton polyester bedsheet destined for the reject pile. It was dark blue. As soon as I pulled it out I knew there would be repercussions. Like when you pull on a loose thread and your personality starts to unravel. The shirt had cuffs, a collar, and an ornamental patch sewn onto each shoulder.
Beneath it, I found the dense navy vest to match, complete with a silver badge. It flashed at me in the artificial light. A beacon of possibility affixed to a pressed bullet-proof opportunity. When I opened the second box, I found the hat as well. Peaked and pinned with the metal crown insignia. Ontario Provincial Police.
There weren’t any pants. I looked. I threw all the clothes on the floor digging to the bottom of the second box trying to find them. Then I grabbed all the remaining boxes and bags from the donation bin outside and did the same thing. Gamin clothing carpeted the floor where it had been double discarded. I was a child looking for the prize at the bottom of a cereal box. Except they don’t put prizes at the bottom of cereal boxes anymore. It is unsanitary like second hand lingerie.
When the phone rang I assumed it was an alarm of some kind that I had tripped with my unbridled lust for the pants. Instead it was Justin wondering if I could give him a drive to the bus station. He was meeting a man in Toronto who promised to take him for sushi and introduce him to opera.
“What’s wrong with you?” Justin cooed through the phone. “You sound strange.”
“I found something.”
“What kind of something?”
“A cop uniform.”
“But they’re illegal to have, you know. Unless you’re a cop.”
“I’m not a cop.”
“I think I know that, Angela.”
It was getting close to 9:30 and Mary would be in soon. I ran out to my car and stuffed the uniform into the trunk, underneath the rug where the spare tire was kept.
I cleaned up the sorting room and marked the donated clothing I had stacked into piles. The whole time I could hear the uniform calling me from the trunk. The vest flapped back and forth causing the silver badge to hit the tire iron with a pleading ping. The starched shirt caressed the sewn insignias on both its shoulders with a delicate hush. The hat developed a mouth where the stiff front brim met the cap and talked like a cartoon shoe I had once seen on a kid’s show.
When Mary got there, they all fell silent. Overwhelmed by her over puffed hairdo and total deafness to beating hearts held under floor boards. She made me put the clothes out on the floor like nothing had happened, which of course for her it hadn’t. I folded sweatshirts and hung loud print dresses on the rack. I processed meagre transactions (socks, fifty cents a bagful). I listened to Mary’s complaints about her new neighbours (immigrants!) and the startling diagnosis of her latest manufactured illness (gluten intolerance!)
All that time the uniform remained mute in the trunk. Until I took it home at the end of my shift, forgoing my massage. I stared at it laid out on the dining room table and shivered uncontrollably. When it tried to speak again I silenced it with a shopping bag. I choked it with the heavy white plastic until I couldn’t breathe anymore.
“Mom, where’s my headband?” My daughter, Sarah yelled at me from behind the bathroom door down the hall. I was making art out of loading the dishwasher.
“You mean from an existentialist perspective?” I was trying to be funny. I should have known better.
“Existentialism isn’t about where things are, Angela.” My husband snapped disapproval with a held up newspaper at the breakfast table.
“I beg to differ.”
“It is about the nature of human existence, Angela.”
“Where things are is the nature of human existence.” My alphabetized spice rack is therefore I am, I thought, but didn’t say. He wouldn’t have heard me anyway.
As I loaded the last cereal bowl, both girls emerged from their respective lairs to square off in the kitchen, one with a headband, one without.
“You bitch. I knew you took it.”
“An existentialist question is about identity, Angela”
“I don’t have it, loser.”
“Name calling, Sarah.”
“It’s about greater purpose.”
“I can see it sticking out of your fucking pocket!”
One twin lunged for the other. I watched as our Doppleganger spawn wrestled on the floor.
“That’s enough. The two of you are grounded.” I yelled.
“Are you listening to me Angela?”
“I am listening, John, it’s just I have a bit of a… “
“Jesus, is that the time? You’re going to be late getting the girls to school, Angela.” He dropped the newspaper separating us before he asked me. “Why are you still here?”
They wore me down in the car with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Even after I retracted the punishment they continued their concentrated attack, listing my failings in excruciating detail. I turned up the radio and tried to think of my college gap year trip to Paris as they molested me from the back seat. Like a Victorian woman lying back on the marital bed and conjuring up thoughts of England. I spent the rest of the day cleaning things that didn’t need me.
“I want more than this, John,” I said on the couch that night after dinner.
“How could there ever be more than this?” he said, changing the channel with the remote he cradled tenderly in his hands.
After he went up to bed, I sat there and wondered whether I should make pancakes for breakfast in the morning or kill myself. The uniform heard my silent cry of desperation, and found its voice again, hidden in the attic beneath stale maternity clothes. It whispered this time, so as not to wake my family from their peaceful slumber. It had been waiting for just this moment. Like it had waited in the box for me at New to You. Like it had waited all my life when I thought nothing could happen to save me from my own life, until something did.
The first time was a lark. The first time, I had Justin in the car. He was dressed in a pair of shiny red hot pants and a V-neck polyester shirt. Makeup à la Bowie. He was going for an 80’s glam rock look to walk around Walmart with me in search of toiletries. It invited stares and the kind of notoriety he enjoyed.
“What are you wearing?” He said this as he got into the car, but I felt like he knew what I had on before I got there. Justin has outfit ESP. It is not a gay thing. It is a fashion thing. He is the type of person that can sense a black bar over your eyes before the picture is even taken and put in the back of your favourite magazine.
“What do you think I’m wearing?”
“You know that’s illegal?”
“We’ve discussed this.”
Justin was showing me a picture of a man on his phone in a dress with fox ears and a black whiskered animal nose. We were stopped at a red light. The man had a beard and looked remotely like Dom DeLuise. Although Dom DeLuise is possibly dead and didn’t look like that anymore. The man in the photo was available for sex and only fourteen miles away. Justin warned me not to swipe on the picture with my thumb. I didn’t ask him what would happen if I did.
That was when I saw him. A nondescript sort of man that always bears description. Except you forget the adjectives immediately after having seen him, he was that average. He was waiting in the intersection to turn left, where he planned to proceed on the road in the direction I had just come from. I had time to inspect him. To think about it. To wait. To watch. A steady stream of traffic coming toward him thwarted his efforts to turn. He looked left and right, a tense look on his face. He was getting worried. Or perhaps just angry. Men’s moods are both difficult and dangerous to assess. They are like e-cigarettes that explode in your face when you thought you were doing something safer than smoking.
He didn’t find a gap in the traffic until the amber light slowed things down. Even that was short-lived because some anorexic blonde in a Hummer gunned the light at the last minute.
He was left in the intersection with two choices. Turn on the last bit of yellow as it changed to red or find himself stranded in the intersection, like a delta caught at the mouth of an estuary, angry cars like mine trying to flow around him in a disturbed current.
He chose to make the turn, to pass through the intersection with the first graceful pulse of the forbidden red light.
The suddenness of my U-turn caused Justin’s rhinestone sunglasses to fly off his head and into the backseat. He shouted colourful words into the air that fell back down on us as confetti. I reached out the driver’s side window and attached the LED strobe light to the base I had mounted earlier on the roof. I’d gotten it off the internet for fifty bucks American. It didn’t make a siren sound but had fifteen user selectable flashing modes that ranged from mild visual annoyance to epileptic seizure. When my husband had seen the bracket for it on the car roof I told him it was for holding the girls’ batons for Bears cheerleading practice (Cheer On!).
It took a while for Mr. Average to get the idea. After all, he had things to do. He couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong. He probably golfed on Sundays and wore Old Spice like his dad did. Or maybe like his wife’s dad did. Women choose the smell of their men like they choose the couples they’ll hang out with. They have to line up both with their historical expectations.
The man finally pulled over near the old Catholic cemetery. I motioned him to turn in the driveway and followed him past the groundskeeper’s house and that little square block with the peaked roof where they set the corpses on fire.
“What the hell are you doing?” Justin asked, as he lit up a cigarette.
“I told you not to do that in the car.”
“Are we following rules now?” He cracked a window but I still knew the girls would smell the smoke in the upholstery when I picked them up from school. They’d sniff it out like they did all my insecurities.
I could see the man shifting nervously in his car. He didn’t look back. I’ve learned now that they never look back. I put on my hat with the badge and got out of the car. I was glad I had gotten it washed. The car, that is, not the hat. I saw Justin blow smoke out the window crack and hoped the guy in the car didn’t notice.
I’d like to say that my palms were sweating, or my heart was racing. Or some other kind of physical manifestation of my trepidation or guilt or knowledge that I was crossing over a significant line. But really all I could feel was the gravel under the black boots I bought at Marshalls. They were forty percent off and pinched my feet a little. Justin hadn’t commented on them, so I assumed they were shoddy.
The man rolled down his window when I rapped on it.
“I’m sorry officer, was I doing something wrong?”
I loved it. The address as officer. The attempt to deny culpability. It was like when my mother said she didn’t remember dumping that bowl of cereal on my head when I was seven, or my husband claiming he still loved me.
“License and registration please.”
I had watched cop shows. I knew the drill. The man fumbled in the glove compartment and his wallet. The contents spewed out onto his lap like a drunk woman he’d pushed too hard for a blow job.
“I really don’t think I was doing anything wrong, officer.” He handed me his drivers’ license. He was still going through the contents of his wallet. It was filled to overflowing with business cards and credit he didn’t deserve. I wore the uniform. I was the one with the badge. I got to decide what he deserved.
“Do you mind getting out the car, sir?’ I kept my voice monotone, all business. That’s how you imply the threat.
“I really don’t understand what I did wrong, officer, I…”
“I said, get out of the car.” I didn’t have to shout. I didn’t have to threaten. I didn’t have to grit my teeth until I had TMJ thinking up a punishment that would inspire wailing and a quick gutless retraction. I just had to say it what I wanted. That was the beauty of the uniform. The seduction of the badge. Making my needs his needs. The guy got out of the car.
“Wait here a minute.” I walked back to my car with his license and the registration he finally managed to locate. I opened up the door and got behind the wheel. It smelled like smoke. I was going to kill Justin.
“So what are you going to do now,” he asked, as he flicked his cigarette butt out of the small open slit in the window. He had put the large rimmed rhinestone glasses back on. They made him look like a bug or Zsa Zsa Gabor.
“I’m letting him stew a bit.” I kept looking down like I was tapping information into an imaginary computer on my dashboard. “Right now he’s wondering what’s going to happen. I like that.”
“Quite frankly, I am wondering what is going to happen as well.” Justin pulled down the visor and checked his sculpted white blonde hair out in the mirror. I didn’t know how he could see through the dark tint of the glasses. “How far are you going to go with this?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
When I got out of the car, the guy had his phone out, looking at texts or emails or anything in order to distract himself from the situation at hand. That upset me. I didn’t want distractions. I wanted to be the focus of this passion play.
“You mind putting the phone away, Sir.”
“Oh, sure,” he said. He reached through the open window and put the phone on the front seat, then turned around to face me, smiling. He wanted me to like him.
“Your license is suspended,” I said. “I am going to have to confiscate it.” I handed him back his registration, and slipped the license into my shirt pocket. The laminate lay hard and smooth against my right breast. “You’ll have to leave your car here.”
“What?” His face contorted into variety of awkward positions. Like a double jointed circus performer at a freak show. His lower jaw pulled away from his face. Then snapped shut as his eyebrows tried to reach down to chin. Nervous laughter erupted from his face last, rippling his cheeks like a stiff breeze across water.
“Listen, officer, there has got to be some mistake.”
“There is no mistake.” I didn’t make mistakes; didn’t he get it?
“Turn around,” I said. His attitude was pissing me off.
“Because I said so.” I had fallen back on what I knew. The logic of generations of parents. My word was my authority. Except it was bullshit. Unless you were a bully or God. In my uniform I felt like both. He turned around.
I pushed him over the hood of the car and got him to spread his legs and arms. He looked like a starfish stuck there on the metal hull of his automobile. When he looked as if he might struggle I pulled an arm behind his back and pushed it up near his shoulder blades. The strain in his ligaments buzzed and hummed through his elbow and into the palm of my hand. I found the car keys in his pants’ pocket and threw them on the grass behind me. When I patted him down, I squeezed a little too hard on his left testicle and he gasped.
“I saw you run that light.” I leaned into his body, hovering my mouth right over his upturned ear. I still held his arm behind his back. “You could have killed someone.”
“I’m sorry.” He said it through snot. I could hear the phlegm. He may have even gotten it on the hood of his car. Later, he’d go home and his wife would ask him what that glop of sticky hardened crap was and he would yell at her. She’d go to sleep wondering what she done wrong.
“Don’t move. Stay right where you are.” I released the arm, backed away from him. My hat felt a bit loose so I grabbed the brim and pulled it tighter. It was a shade too big for me. I wondered where I might get it adjusted.
I walked away from him knowing he wouldn’t move, knowing he would stay where I’d left him. Unlike the other parts of my life or the people in it. That kept moving and changing and becoming something else while I just sat there like the ineffectual fleck of dust on the shelf I had become.
When I got in the car, Justin had lit up another cigarette. I asked him for one and reversed out of the driveway with the three point turn I learned in Young Drivers training when I was seventeen. I could see the guy in my rear view still glued to the car hood as we drove away.
“Are we still going to Walmart.” Justin lit my cigarette for me and passed it over. He had to hold two cigarettes in his mouth to do it, one burnt down, one fresh and untried. I took the cigarette and pulled in a thorough drag. It filled my lungs with poison and the essence of bad ass.
“Sure,” I told him, rolling down the window on my side. I no longer cared about the upholstery or the smell. I just wanted to feel the wind on my face. I took the cop hat off so it could rush through my hair and tangle it.
The girls wouldn’t get picked up from school. My husband wouldn’t find dinner on the table when he got home. Crumpled clothes smelling of dry rot would not be collected the next day from the bin outside New to You. Instead they would lie there, abandoned by their owners, waiting for someone to give a damn, or a dollar fifty, whichever came first.
Me, I’d still be on the road with Justin. Looking for possibilities. Running down the opportunities with a strobe light flashing. Wearing respect on my body like an blazing army of rhinestone sunglasses. My soul receding in the rear view mirror, like so many cast-off reflections.