The Habit

Sometimes while she was at rehearsal he’d take walks along Queen as far as the textile district, returning home through the night-hum of the park. He thought about things as he walked. The odd changes Leigh had undergone since she began the play and the consequent shitty weirdness between them. Or, without much hunger, the gummed-up plot threads of his unfinished screenplay.

One night, very late, he detoured through the valley where the dog people let their dogs run off leash and reclined there on a sunken picnic table gazing up at overhanging leafless boughs that cut the sky. From the shadows beyond the nearest lamp rose a clipped, baritone greeting. A one-legged man on crutches limped into the half-light, manoeuvred onto the bench of the picnic table and set down a large wicker purse from which craned what looked like half a pink hula-hoop (maybe orange). For ages the man just sat. Then he lit a match to see and from an empty mayonnaise jar shook into his hand the nub of a joint. He got a puff from it and pinched it across to Adam. Adam looked at it long enough that the man took another drag before offering it again. “Make the night go by,” Adam said, and took it. The man coughed. “Night going by one way or th’other.”

Walking home, the city was the stomach of a robot torn open, its ribs sticking up and things growing in it, crawling through it.

*

The next day, beat on the streetcar home, he got to wondering whether there might be any pot left in her wooden box upstairs. Was it so impossible? He had flushed his own stash but had he been so dramatic, was it really such a calamity, that he’d rooted around for hers, and flushed it too? The chaff of a two-year-dead habit? Probably not. It hadn’t got that bad. Though he recognized this line of thinking, and caught himself. She was home and they got falafel from the Iranian place and watched Some Like it Hot.

But the day after this he was at the Poiles’ for almost sixteen hours. He and Rybeck were putting tiny little black and white tiles in the en suite bathroom. Floor, backsplash, and shower. His lower back throbbed and he reasoned that it could stand tending to medicinally. And when he got home and found her note—Late rehearse til about 10—he hurried upstairs and unearthed the wooden box from the office closet. He set it like an auction piece on the rocking chair for consideration. He sifted through it: Stray rolling papers and scrunched up sheets of saran. A miniature red lighter long since out of fuel. Her jammed Zippo. A Kodak film canister. He thumbed this open and sniffed the ancient stale hint of pungency, of almost pepperminty marijuana. Craving warmed his chest like a hot tea. He glanced up as if to be sure no one was watching. All around the office sticky notes were affixed to items to denote their Spanish translations—escritorio, mecedora, pomo—and this troubled him, seemed an obstacle.

Before he could resolve it she came home. She announced that she’d forgotten her script and had time only to change and get to the theatre. She’d come from class and tossed onto their mattress her sunglasses and Spanish textbook. He lay on the mattress and flipped through it. He pretended to read while she unbuttoned her blouse. He didn’t have a single thing to say to her.

“How was your day?” she asked, regretfully. He didn’t bother to answer. Lately, when she stooped to inquire how the reno was going her eyelids sunk in boredom before he got out five words. This was it: since rehearsals began she’d become an asshole.

“Shit,” she said, “I forgot to call Helga.” She found her phone in her purse and dialled. She continued undressing as it rang. Unhooked her bra, shimmied from her slacks with a little jig that made her breasts sway. The tableau is: phone cocked against her ear, hip jutted out, the hall light warming fine hairs on her thighs. “Try her later,” she whispered, and tossed the phone on the mattress. She sat beside it and peeled off her socks, one by one. The performance moved him. They hadn’t slept together in weeks. He recalled the last time, deep into the tabs of x Helga had sold her, jiving in the kitchen to Songs in the Key of Life, fucking like chimps on the counter, her head knocking against the spice rack. She glanced his way and evaluated his stare. “What?” she said.

After she’d gone, he paced the narrow hallway between kitchen and living room, stoned. A mild fear throbbed through him but he managed to almost ignore it. He poured himself a bowl of cereal, found The Time Machine in a stack of books beside the couch, and read two chapters. Then—because this was the point, wasn’t it?—he climbed to the attic office and faced the desk. The desk. He knelt and regarded the bottom drawer. He wrenched it to him and stared inside at the stack of ancient papers. His various masterpieces: the Rtablat space-epic from childhood; a notebook of adolescent poems; stray drafts and an adjunct file of research for his dissertation; and the screenplay.

He took this last out and, just sitting there on the floor, skimmed much of the first act. And here it was: among the general offal and indulgences was a coherent thread of story and occasional moments of moxie and even beauty. Soo-Hyun, the producer he’d met at the Seattle festival who’d condescended to read it, had said, One more draft. Which at the time was one too many. But seeing it laid out like this, a cadaver on a table, the medicine it needed, the snipping and patching, seemed not so abstruse, amorphous. One more draft would be easy, even fun. He made notes in the margins for an hour, sort of ecstatically.

*

Three days later, while she was at afternoon rehearsal, he smoked in a series of tightly packed bowls the last remaining nugget of her pot. It was an unproductive few hours, but also a relief. He was done with that shit now.

The next few days, however, he felt gloomy and lethargic. His head was a waterlogged boot. On Thursday, he opted not even to go to the Poiles’—not even to call Rybeck and tell him so—and slept late, lay numb in bed until long past ten. He had to will himself up. He made coffee. Then dumped the wooden box on the office floor and scoured its contents for curds, for wisps of green, licked his fingertips and fished a collage of dust and dirt and hair and lint and shake from the box’s corners, and smoked the debased ensemble to little effect.

He tracked down the number for Henry Feaster, his university roommate, but got voicemail and hung up. He cooked himself an omelette, and ate it, deliberating. The foolish idea presented itself to patronize one of the marijuana cafés in the market, score that way. Certain cafés down there, granted Amsterdam-style amnesty by police, had become default gathering places for gregarious stoners, cloudy sitting-rooms devoted to the habit. No product was to be bought or sold, it was stipulated, but surely he could get past that. There must be some code word one said at the counter or something. He pulled his toque incognito low and turned up the collar of his jacket and walked to College, hailed a cab. He hopped out among Chinatown fruit vendors just north of the vast neon screens and bubble tea shops, and lurked into the market.

A November-emptiness held sway. Smoke churned from vents in cinderblock walls, from an idling delivery truck t-boning the sidewalk by the old synagogue. The windows of the cheese and chocolate and butcher shops were steamed to the lettering. He saw but sort of didn’t see. He took up position out front of the Jamaican patty place, next door to one of the head shops, unsure how to proceed. From a bar down the block, an abortive piano solo rose once, twice. Tenants, opposite, were moving out of an apartment and their things had piled at the curb, floured with snow. Behind this, in a graffitied doorway, squatted a teenage girl, eying him.

After a listless few minutes the girl approached, quickly yet as if nonchalantly, and asked his shoe tops did he need anything? Just like that. He reflected a moment on what he must look like that she should so cavalierly accost him. He asked how this ‘worked’ and she regarded him with pity. How old could she possibly be? She was the sort with a homely face and bad haircut but a pert, chesty figure, a misfit in a patched-over denim jacket and tiny skirt and torn black leggings on her thighs and forearms both; dour in the way of the abused or unlucky in love; a raincloud tattooed (or, he prayed, mascara’d) beneath one dark eye. Another tattoo on her neck read, in curlicue script, From blood to decay. He wanted to apologize to her, to explain. But she gave a price and he paid it, and she was walking in the other direction with his money in her fist.

He trudged home, fast. The snow made fine spotty-white patterns on car hoods and fire hydrants and the blackened sidewalk slurry underfoot. But now he saw just about nothing. He zigzagged pedestrians, rushed across at red lights, nearly barrelled into a sidewalk bookstand as he fingered the purchase in his pocket, squeezed it, alarmed at how much he’d bought. But he’d do just as he’d done before: and ration. He got inside and took the saran-wrapped product from his pocket and set it gently on the kitchen table as if it were a wounded baby bird. He procured her pipe from the office and packed it, with noteworthy restraint. Had the tiniest of puffs, that was all. Then hid her pipe and the pot, all wrapped together in the saran, in a drawer. He mulled and took stock: he couldn’t have felt much better.

Though he wasn’t yet quite ready to sit at the desk and type. Instead, a silly and perfect notion presented itself. He ran down the fire escape stairs to fetch two cans of red paint from the Datsun’s trunk, then shifted furniture, taped, began to paint the dirty white walls of the attic office. She’d been after him to do it for months. He’d surprise her.

He had a coat done in half an hour. But it turned out he didn’t have enough paint in the two cans for both coats. Scrounging under the attic stairs he came up with a can of Paddington Blue (leftover from the living room) and the notion arrived that he’d do the fourth wall with this. It would be, he felt sure, an inspired design. He paused between coats to make a sandwich. He smoked another tiny bowl for encouragement, and got back to it, flagging only the last hour. He’d not quite finished when she returned from the theatre, had yet to de-tape and move the furniture back in place.

“I love it,” she said. She kissed his neck. He was frayed and giddy and suggested they go out for dinner, to celebrate (celebrate what?). “Shit,” she said, “I want to, but I said I’d meet Blair for a drink.” Blair, from the play.

She asked for a rain check and, nattering, led him to the bathroom, perched him on the closed toilet seat while she showered. She yelled at him over the chugging spray: “…so disturbed some of them walked out before the third act. I’m actually surprised it hasn’t happened before. I mean, it’s not supposed to make you feel all warm and fuzzy. People think there has to be some happy ending, some fucking catharsis. But the truth is…”

He was sort of listening. The shower coughed dead; the curtain opened the other way. The shadow of spine rising up her white back to a sodden twist of hair, the ripe apple profile of her breast as she brought a towel around. Ruining it, she dried her hair violently with another towel. “…and our—you know, Donald’s—interpretation, it’s not just some basic reading of the script, it’s more like a reimagining of the…”

When she left, he shepherded his purchase up to the office, lingered a while in the rocking chair gazing at the fresh walls, pleased with himself, almost dreamy. He recalled his screenplay and absorbed anew a rich wave of tiredness. He sought out the saran-wrapped package of drug. For a confused moment he forgot where he’d put her pipe and then remembered and laughed at himself, queerly: as if someone was in there with him, in the room. He tore a pinch of weed from a fat furry bud, and dropped it into the pipe’s bowl. From the letter drawer of the desk he took a pack of matches and, still on his knees, struck it, lit the bud, inhaled. He coughed: and a bilious white cloud exploded at the light fixture above him. Her framed poster of Brando, steely-eyed in a white t-shirt, leaning against the rocker, shimmered. Something felt off. A high swoon ran under his skin like syrup. The three red walls leaned in on the fourth, the lonely blue, disapprovingly. His thoughts shifted, like an egg flopping over lengthwise, and he considered the desk. The desk. He knelt, regarded the bottom drawer. This time, he removed a package of bound-together pages: the dissertation drafts. He skimmed; he locked a moment on a paragraph on page three which had been dear to him, the ink of the first sentence just slightly streaked where he’d slobbered or spat or wept:

This sequence of The Basket establishes Mathieson’s central paradox, which is that, if a conscious mind is necessary to experience, or “bear witness” to, reality, then in no sense can material (not simply ‘objective’) reality be proven to be real. There may exist a multitude of flawed dreams, or incoherent nightmares, but no solid, lasting, material thing…

It terrified him. It came to him that he’d wanted it published and read in academic circles. He’d wanted this. And money. And vigorous health and unending happiness and the freedom to do as he pleased. And her. He wanted her. But now a spasm of shame as he recognized the immense final truth: he wanted too much. Because of course it didn’t work that way. He understood this now: it simply didn’t work that you got just, just exactly, just precisely what you wanted. You never ever did.

The revelation made his breathing brittle and he listened to it. A phantom voice from the other room hissed at him to open the office window. Terror rose in his mouth; he huddled next to the rocking chair, closed his eyes. He opened them: Brando stared at him coolly, grinning, t-shirt sleeves rolled. The red walls blurred around him like noise. The net of smoke spun above him with no place to go—so he heaved the window open and released it. And it passed, the trouble passed. Outside the window night happened: breeze and bits of sound hit his face and he dropped the pages and kicked the drawer closed.

He descended and drew himself a bath. While it ran, he put on the TV and stared for an indeterminate amount of time at Sunset Boulevard. At the interjection of a commercial, he found himself perched on the promontory of the left hand couch cushion, squeezing its bulge in both fists. The armchair, couch, television, front window, and ashtray had all been labelled with sticky notes indicating their Spanish names. He may have sat thus for several minutes.

It came to him finally that he needed cookies and a glass of milk and he retreated to the kitchen. But passing the bathroom, called by the light, he looked in at his drawn bath; and in this glimpse, for an awful half-second, he perceived someone lying in it. Pale lacquered skin like a drowned person’s. He looked twice, entered, stuck his arm to the elbow in the lukewarm water and swirled, just to be sure. Then shifted to the towel rack to dry himself.

There in the sink he saw her script. The white duotang had curled into a cylinder and plain block print read: THE HOMECOMING. The symmetry of her having left it again bothered him only vaguely. He was far too intrigued. He moved his face close, touched it. The pages had a well-worn limpness, wilted petals. Instructions in tight cursive were photocopied into the margins and atop these wormed scribbles in her own hand. He flipped on a few pages, read one of her lines: I was a model for the body. A photographic model for the body. Then: What’s this glass? I can’t drink out of this. Put it in a tumbler.

He dropped the script in the sink, hurried on to the kitchen. There were no cookies, but he found an acceptable brown mug and poured milk into it. He gulped it down, stood in the middle of the kitchen with the filmy mug. The trouble passed. The fridge bore a sticky note which read: frigorifico.

About Mark Jacquemain

Mark Jacquemain's work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, featured in Oberon's Coming Attractions, and nominated for the Prism International Fiction Award, the David Nathan Meyerson Award, and a Pushcart Prize.

Comments

comments



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *