Dispatches

Carbon

Erin Soros

Age forty-six and I’ve moved in with my parents. I’m not proud of this turn of events, but I make an effort, shower and dress, sit in front of the computer for a few hours each day. At breakfast my father tells me his dreams. Last night I had one, he says, about some random country, like India. He scarfs down his porridge. He nods at me to finish mine. It’s hard to concentrate when I’m on these meds, and harder still to shrug off the feeling I’ve failed. Just tell people you are taking some time off, is what my father says in his booming, gruff voice. You are recharging the old batteries! Imagine you have cancer, my mother suggests, her voice enthusiastic, no one will judge you! The comparison to cancer makes me uneasy, how she uses one illness to legitimize another, without ever referring to what I actually have. It makes me suspect my family would be happier if I did have another kind of disease, one that would be easier to describe to the neighbours. When I was in the hospital, my parents brought me healthy foods—walnuts and grapes—and kept asking if I was eating all right, as if my body were in trouble and not my mind. They stuffed a folder with photocopies of my certificates and awards and presented it to the psychiatrist to prove that I wasn’t always this way. They gave food to the other patients and called them each by name. My father went to shake everyone’s hand. One guy had obsessive-compulsive disorder and wouldn’t let my father touch him. Instead he showed my father how you can shake someone’s hand just by holding your palm up in the air and pumping your arm, fingers outstretched and touching nothing. My mother brought me a basket of clean clothes. She told me she had handwashed everything in the sink. I was careful, she said. I asked her why she didn’t use the washing machine. I’m scared of your clothing, she said. All the details, the sparkly things—they could fall off. But I don’t think it’s my clothing that frightens her. My symptoms came on suddenly, that’s the thing, and then left just as suddenly, and now my parents have their daughter back but they’ve learned that my days can collapse. So they move around me eagerly, ask me my plans for the day, their voices chipper. My mother leaves stickers on my dresser—rainbows and butterflies. My father backs up my computer. If I had experienced depression, that might have been easier for them to understand, although they still wouldn’t call it what it is. Mike Wallace, my father says, I saw it on TV. We don’t mention what I screamed in the hospital. We don’t discuss what I dreamed when I was awake. I don’t have the slightest idea how to talk about psychosis, although now I’ve gone and mentioned the word. My mother is reorganizing the spice cabinet. Some of these things, she says, we haven’t used in years. Look at this, I can’t even tell what it is. Can you smell it? Can you identify it at all? Look now, she says, I’m just going to throw it out. They worry that what happened to me could all be their fault. That they raised me wrong or passed along some gene that only finds expression in me. When does psychosis begin? That’s the problem. I could describe the full moon emerging from a rippling ocean; or a man sitting next to a sign that asks for spare change; or the soundtrack to The Sweet Hereafter, Sarah Polley’s plaintive voice singing “courage, my word”; or the feel of a bone snapping when I slipped on ice. Instead I drive with my mother to buy a plate shaped like a fish. The plate is only available in one of the big box stores in Coquitlam, a neighbouring suburb of Vancouver, the kind of suburb that calls itself a city and even has signs that say “City Centre,” but you find there’s no centre at all, just long lines of highway and high-rises that hug the highway and ugly new buildings emerging in the kind of emptiness that invites signs that say things like “If you lived here, you’d be home by now.” Who would want to live here is what I ask my mother. We are lost, in any case, having missed some turnoff to the big box store that advertised a fish plate for twelve dollars. I was going to hang it on my wall and not use it ever or it would chip. We are stopped in traffic, the cars inching forward into the intersection and then just stopping so I have to wait while the light goes red then green then red again and nothing moves. We are going nowhere. People in fluorescent vests by the highway are waving signs telling us to stop and what else could we do? They are standing next to a giant hole. Think of all the carbon monoxide they are breathing, I say. I can feel my own brain cells begin to die. There are two seasons in Canada, I say: winter and construction. My mother laughs like the joke is my original invention. She says when my brother did construction work on the highway, people yelled at him and threw coffee at him from their cars. People can be like that, she says. She says this was the direction she used to drive to visit my aunt Nunny in the old-age home. My relatives have odd names, nicknames—Aunt Nunny, Aunt Middy, Cousin Nippers, Uncle Ticktie. My great-uncle Densil didn’t have a nickname. My mother starts to tell me something he said before he died but she can’t tell the story because she is laughing too hard. Of all my aunts and uncles, he was the funniest. Every morning he used to eat an egg fried with twelve cloves of garlic and when my mother took him out in the car she had to roll down the windows. It came through the pores of his skin, she said. I imagine the rank odour of garlic mingling with his old-man smell. He said the F word so frequently that the hospital had to put a sign on the door warning the nurses. They used the word “profanity.” She told me they didn’t use the F word in the sign. My mother still hasn’t managed to get out the joke. The traffic has started moving past the hole in the road. There is always a hole in the road in stories when a narrator is avoiding something. My mother says what she regrets most is that she wasn’t at Densil’s side when he died. She’d gone home to make a phone call about the arrangements for the funeral, to make sure his sister Middy would be there. He knew you loved him, I tell her. That’s what’s important. He didn’t want to die, she says. Was he afraid? No, she says, he just liked life. I love how simply she says it, like life is there waiting for you to like it or not. My mother likes a nice mall. Oh, she says, this is a nice mall. Her face lights up and she walks with more energy as we pass the stores. They look the same to me as all other stores. We stop in the A&W for a root beer. She talks to me and leaves pauses for me to say something but I don’t say anything and she just keeps talking as if I have. I feel I’ve earned this fish plate, having ventured into this no man’s land of a suburb and into this directionless mall. I notice there are no clocks, no windows. The plate is waiting for me at guest services. We call our customers “guests,” the woman had said helpfully on the phone. I had put the plate on hold, worried someone else would nab what was mine. I know there are other plates, carbon copies of this particular plate, sitting on a shelf in other versions of this store, but I like to imagine that I’ve caught the only one. It’s pale blue. It’s twelve dollars. It’s a symbol of Christ, I’ve read on the internet, but also a symbol of determination and intuition, and I thought it would make a good decoration for my writing room because when you are floundering in a sentence it feels like you are swimming against the current and when you are in the depth of a story it feels like you are underwater. I never feel like Christ, even when I’m psychotic. On the way home from the nice mall I ask my mother if she believes in an afterlife. I don’t know, she says. I’d like to see Nana again. But I don’t believe in heaven with the angels and everything all white. Or hell, a great big fire! Who could believe that? I think people just made up hell to make other people feel bad. She’s not a very reliable Catholic. Years ago on a ferry between Vancouver and Nanaimo I asked her if she thought Christ was the son of God and she said, rubbing her fries thoughtfully in the vinegar, well, I believe he was a nice man. Now in the car on the highway we are moving faster toward home because there is no construction on this side of the road. We are whizzing along. This is how life feels in its second half. I ask her if she feels hopeful about my life. I do, she says. I mean I feel sad about your episodes. (That’s the word we use, “episodes,” like they are a series on TV.) But I do feel hopeful. I think something good is going to happen. When she says this, I remember that feeling I had when I was a child, the sense of expectation, a giddy rush, a fish flipping in your stomach when you run barefoot down a grass hill. The fish plate is wrapped in paper and is sitting on the floor in the back seat of the car and when we get home I unwrap it carefully and put it up on my shelf above my computer in the bedroom where I used to live as a teenager when I hated my parents and didn’t want to look or sound anything like them. Look at that. My mother and I stand and appreciate it. I’ll call it “Coquitlam.” I’ll always think of you when I see that fish. I’ll always think of our road trip to the nice mall. We have salmon for dinner and I ask my father what he thinks of my fish and he says it’s all right but I’d like a sauce on it to make it a bit less dry. I ask him if he believes in the afterlife and he says it’s all superstition and malarkey and we are made of carbon. We’re all stardust, he says. We’re all going to return to being a star. But what is going to come out of that star, my mother says, people? Are people going to come out?

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