Spores

Spores

Spores 1920 1920 Michelle Ross & Kim Magowan

Most of the women at the gym, I can tell by one, quick glance I wouldn’t like them. They wear sleek ponytails or precious braids. They look like store displays in their expensive, trendy workout clothes. Tops that crisscross their backs like shoelaces. Shoes that coordinate with those tops. They log hours on treadmills and ellipticals. If they do lift weights, they hover around the dainty dumbbells near the physio balls—the soft, colored dumbbells that evoke 80s Jazzercise leotards. The dumbbells that make me think for some reason of the little plastic dinosaurs the dentist puts in my kid’s dental-visit goodie bag. But not Sheila. Well, I don’t actually know her name; Sheila is just what I call her in my head. Sheila lifts the bulky, black dumbbells that the men lift. Sheila comes to the gym in T-shirts she probably got for free. One of them is a faded red that is almost pink. It reads, “Fred’s Dry Cleaning.” I have imagined long conversations between us, Sheila in that Dry Cleaning shirt—the two of us sipping protein shakes at the gym smoothie bar.

The only interaction I’ve ever had with Sheila is when some woman—one of the thin, pony-tailed, fancy-workout-clothes chicks—left the exercise bike without wiping it down. Hard to believe that such a small person would exude so much sweat; it’s a reminder that the human body is composed of more than 60 percent water. The banana seat of the bike was so wet that it reflected the halogen ceiling lights. In a different context it might have been pretty, like an Impressionist painting where the orange ball of a sun is mirrored in the ocean. I had forgotten, as usual, to bring my gym towel, so I looked at the seat and said, dejectedly, “Gross.” Sheila, standing on the other side of the bike, looked at it, agreed “Gross,” and handed me, without further comment, her towel. Like the dry cleaning shirt, the towel was worn to the nub. I wiped off the seat, said, “Thanks,” and handed it back to her. In that mutual exchange—“Gross,” “Gross,” “Thanks,” which Sheila responded to not vocally but with a commiserating nod—I felt a meeting of the minds, a mutual disdain for these lithe, sweaty bimbos with their dyed eyelashes. With their yoga pants that are weirdly expensive in the way fancy jeans are expensive because they flatter their asses. Fuck them all, was what our eyes communicated to each other, before Sheila slung her ratty towel over her shoulder and I mounted the now non-gleaming bike.

The first thing my husband says when I tell him about Sheila as we drive out of the gym parking lot is “Sheila? Why Sheila?” Then, “Why don’t you just ask if she’d like to get coffee or something?”

“She’d think I was a weirdo. Would you ask a guy you don’t know out for coffee?” I say.

“No,” Phillip says, “But one, I have friends, and two, going out for coffee is not a thing men do together.”

“I see plenty of men together in coffee shops,” I say.

Phillip yells, “Go! Go!” Then, “You could have made that light.”

“I didn’t want to make that light,” I say.

“Those men are probably gay,” Phillip says.

While we sit at the red light, I study my husband’s profile. He is, I estimate, about forty percent better looking than when I married him. The creases that line his face make him more beautiful somehow, like a drawing that an artist has come back to again and again, adding little details, obsessing over.

Phillip says, “I still don’t understand why you and Theresa don’t hang out anymore.”

“I’ve told you a million times: we don’t have anything in common. It was a superficial friendship. I feel like she doesn’t really like me or even know me, for that matter.”

“Well, you’re not exactly easy to get to know,” Phillip says. Then, “Green light.”

Phillip isn’t trying to hurt me. Despite his social skills, he tends to make observations, at least to me, baldly: “Needs salt.” “That skirt isn’t flattering.” And I know I worry him, and Allie worries him, or more precisely, Allie’s similarity to me worries him. “She’s introverted,” he’ll say, but like it’s a character defect, instead of a personality trait. Then he’ll look at me in this accusatory way, and I know he’s picturing Allie’s social awkwardness like it’s a genetic trait on one of those Punnett squares. The truth is, Allie is a blend of both of us, my shyness merged with Phillip’s flat-footed, Damn the Torpedoes conversational style. Once in the playground, when Allie was about four, another little girl introduced herself to Allie as “Cinderella.” Allie folded her arms and said, “That’s ridiculous.”

I’ve pointed out to Phillip that introversion is preferred over extroversion in plenty of cultures, like Finland and Sweden and China, for instance, that it’s not intrinsically a deficit. But then last week at the end-of-year teacher-parent conference, Allie’s teacher Lorraine pushed across a small table a long checklist tracking Allie’s developmental progress. Lorraine had checked “mastered” for every item on the list except one: participates in group discussions. In that row Lorraine had checked the “not yet developed” box. Lorraine elaborated: “Allie has yet to speak when we’re in circle. She’s so bright and so intuitive. I hope that in time she’ll gain the confidence to take on more of a leadership role in the classroom. ”

“Only in America,” I said to Phillip in the parking lot. “No way is wanting to perform for an audience a developmental skill teachers in Finland are checking off for their students.”

“I think it’s nice that schools are concerned with the whole development of the child,” Phillip said.

Now I say, “I’m plenty easy to get to know with the right kind of person.”

Phillip laughs. Then he gets serious. “No one is ever going to live up to Helene. But friendships are like pizza. Some are better than others, sure, but a frozen pizza is better than no pizza.”

This is the same metaphor Phillip has used for sex on several occasions, and yes, I recognize its lack of originality, though likening me to “frozen pizza” makes the metaphor more sinister.

“Don’t,” I say. For the rest of the five-minute drive we’re silent. One thing I appreciate about driving is it forces one to concentrate. I can’t think about Helene when I’m looking out for pedestrians or the Volkswagen in front of me signaling or that weird, too fast yellow light at Larkin and Clay. I see things—a stringy-haired woman in a blue cardigan standing at the crosswalk, holding her daughter’s hand, the girl about Allie’s age. The images wipe away, scribbles on a whiteboard.

When I drop Phillip off outside his office, he hesitates. Then he says, “Artichokes for dinner?”

“Sure.”

It’s like that exchange with Sheila at the gym—“Gross,” “Gross,” “Thanks.” Except this is my husband after all, not some stranger, not someone who I only imagine knows me.

***

When we sit down for dinner, Phillip asks Allie about her day at camp. What was her favorite part of the day? What was her least favorite part of the day? These are the questions Phillip asks Allie every evening. They’re as routine as making sure she brushes her teeth. The problem with “How was your day?” is that it begets paltry, one-word answers like “Fine.” It’s not a conversation starter. This Phillip read in a parenting article.

Allie says, “My least favorite part of the day was lunch. Hot dogs and carrot sticks. My favorite part: playing chess with Thunder.”

“Which one is Thunder?” Phillip says. “The viper?”

“Thunder is a kangaroo rat,” I say. “He’s always been a kangaroo rat.”

According to Allie, Silver has always been a viper, but I distinctly remember that in the beginning, when Silver was the only imaginary friend she talked about, he was a dog. Allie will argue me to the death that I’m wrong, though.

“Who won?” Phillip says.

“Thunder,” Allie says, “But that’s only because I let him win.”

“That reminds me,” Phillip says, “Has Mommy told you about her new friend, Sheila?” He tries to suppress his smile.

“You’re so amusing,” I say, in a haughty British accent, because Allie is there. But my eyes communicate to him, you’re an asshole, pal. He sighs.

Phillip thinks like an engineer: every problem has a solution. He’s a human version of those electric paddles EM technicians press to one’s chest to jumpstart the heart. He doesn’t know what to do with problems that can’t be fixed. Grief counseling was his idea, but I quit after three weeks, because everyone in that group was so competitive about their relative losses. They’d lost spouses, they’d lost children: how was losing a best friend supposed to compare? It was tragedy one-upmanship. Partly just to see their expressions, I was tempted to say, Hey, I’d trade my husband to have her back. The truth is there are moments when I think I would do exactly that.

Helene had had a theory about reincarnation, that the soul didn’t survive intact, that it didn’t get dropped neatly into some new body package, like scooping filling into a new pie shell. Helene figured what happened was, you fractured. At the moment of death, different fragments of you flew out like spores, and attached onto random people: this bystander walking down Ninth Avenue would get her terrible posture (Helene lamented that she looked like a pelican); this six-year-old feeding coins into the snack machine would get her acute sense of smell. She’d been kidding, but now I find myself looking for scraps of Helene wherever I go. On the bus I see a woman scrambling through her purse, or a teenager twisting her hair around her finger, or an old man crossing his ankles in a particular way. Sheila doesn’t resemble Helene at all—she’s stocky and muscular, not tall and stooped—but a certain disdainful way she has of looking not at, but through, those color-coordinated gym bunnies reminds me of Helene.

Allie leans back into her chair so that it’s balanced on only the back two legs and says, “Who’s Sheila?”

You can always tell from Allie’s physical posture whether she likes what’s for dinner. Spaghetti with meatballs, and she’s bent over her plate. Artichokes, Brussel sprouts, beets, and she’s falling out of her chair or hugging her knees against her chest or turning this way and that looking for the cat.

“Sit properly and eat your dinner,” I say.

She replants the chair, repeats the question.

“She’s a woman from the gym,” I say.

“So you like exercise together?” she says.

“Not exactly,” I say.

“What do you do together?” Allie says.

I look to Phillip, but he’s like Allie with spaghetti, his eyes focused on his plate.

“Honestly,” I say, “I don’t know her. She leant me a towel once. I just think that I might like to be friends with her. But I’m not sure how to go about it. Making friends is hard for adults too.”

Allie puts her hand on mine, smiles tenderly at me. Then she says, “Can I have dessert?”

***

I’ve been complaining to Phillip for years that the T-shirts I sleep in have a woody smell—not gross exactly, but off-putting. If I burrow under the sheets at night like I like to do, the odor is overwhelming, like I’m sleeping in a twig-constructed nest bedded with sawdust. I theorized that the dresser drawers were responsible somehow, only if that were true, shouldn’t Phillip’s T-shirts smell like wood too? They didn’t. I sniffed him night after night. Never did he smell like wood.

Then I come across this blog about living a minimalist lifestyle, about how all these people decluttered their homes, getting rid of thousands of possessions, and what they learned about themselves in the process. One guy calculated that the things he got rid of, while all individually priced at fifty dollars or significantly less, added up to something like ten thousand dollars, and that if he’d not bought all these things, he would have been able to afford the nice vacation for which he’d been longing. A woman realized that all these years she’d been buying more and more clothes she didn’t need in an effort to feel better about her body. So she stopped buying clothes and took up running instead.

What I learn as I empty out my dresser drawers and discard the clothes I no longer wear is that one, I have a ridiculous number of T-shirts I’ve never worn, not even once, and two, the source of the woody smell I’ve been complaining about all this time is a pretty blue sachet filled with dried herbs and cedar. A gift from Helene. The sachet wasn’t even hidden beneath all those shirts. It was visible all that time, but I never noticed it. And now that I do see it, I feel both foolish and sad. I hold the sachet up in the air by its ribbon like dangling a mouse by its tail.

“How is it possible I never considered this sachet?” I say to Phillip, who is lying in bed reading a nonfiction book about robots.

“So throw it away,” he says.

“Helene gave it to me.”

Phillip looks at me, and I see the different emotions flicker across his face, competing for ascendancy: pity, concern, but also his familiar frustration when I’m being irrational. Phillip doesn’t get why I make things, in his words, “needlessly complicated.” When Allie’s teacher sent the class home with incoherent directions about how to write their research reports on an animal of their choosing, Phillip said, “Just email her.” When I continued raging about her nonsense prompt, he said, “Fine, I’ll email Lorraine!” He simply wanted Allie to get started on researching the black mamba (because of course, Allie had chosen a viper). He couldn’t understand the gratification (and I concede, it’s a peculiar gratification, hard to appreciate) of finding yet more evidence of inept authority in action. God as a halfwit sadist, human beings scrambling for a light switch in the pitch black.

“So keep it,” he says.

“But it smells like a sawmill.”

Phillip disappears—I imagine he’s finally gone to call the people in the white van, with the butterfly nets—but a minute later he’s back with a freezer bag, with a smaller Ziploc sandwich bag inside it. “Okay, so put it in this and seal them both. It’ll lock in the smell.”

Sure enough, when I sniff the freezer bag, there’s no woody smell. The sachet inside the bags reminds me of the Invisible Woman my parents got me at the Natural History Museum gift shop on a trip we once took to New York. Her plastic body was transparent, but you could see all her organs inside.

“So I have a proposal,” says my husband. “You ask this woman Sheila for coffee—heck, you ask her for her real name, and I’ll go down on you every day for a week.”

I must look horrified, because Phillip immediately backtracks. “Bad idea? Okay, how about I take you to that ballet you want to see? That swan one?”

“You loathe ballet.”

It was Phillip’s idea that I join the gym after I quit the grief counseling group. Something about how I needed the endorphins. I wonder now if he was also hoping I’d make a friend.

I look at my husband, who doesn’t respond to my comment other than to grimace, and I think about a night eleven years ago, when I was at The Spitball with Helene. She was trying to get me to approach a guy at the bar she claimed was checking me out. “He’s cute! Go talk to him. Go buy him a drink,” she said, and I kept shaking my head. Not just because the idea of approaching a stranger, even one who was eyeing me, made my limbs feel gummy, as though they were composed of gelatin, but also because at the time I couldn’t picture myself with any man other than my ex, Geoffrey. I didn’t expect or even want to get back together with him. The best way I can think to explain it is that Geoffrey, even in his absence, felt as natural and familiar as my own skull. I am a woman who doesn’t wear make-up other than lipstick. I’ve never even temporarily colored my hair. Helene knew all of this, so finally she said, “Okay, if you get that dude’s number, you can wear my puffer vest again.” (This was a glorious, slate-gray vest I had been banned from wearing, after once spilling dessert wine on the breast). “Fuck it, you can have the vest! Now go talk to him,” and Helene had actually shoved the small of my back, propelling me towards the guy at the bar who was indeed objectively cute, though forty percent less so than he is now.

Header photography © Katherine Adams.

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