By Sara Gray
The seminar was wrapping up.
“I want you to think about your poetry,” the poet said. “I want you to think about the themes running through your work, and how your style expresses those themes.”
The poet was a professor in her mid-30’s and would not have been giving a seminar via Zoom to a bunch of amateur poets if it wasn’t for the pandemic that had side-lined her own book tour and other, more prestigious teaching opportunities.
Marie wouldn’t have attended this seminar or any other if it wasn’t for Zoom and the pandemic as well. Instead, she would have been ferrying her children to hockey, soccer, and sleepovers.
For two hours, they had discussed poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver. They had analyzed the author’s word choice, the percentage of Latin, French, and Anglo-Saxon root words, the number of adjectives. It had been so long since Marie had spoken to anyone about poetry. Her husband wasn’t interested in it; her children weren’t interested in her; her writing group was forced to delay their meetings because they weren’t allowed to leave their homes, and Betty didn’t know how to set up an online meeting.
For two hours Marie had listened, taken notes, and thought about nothing except poetry. She felt exhilarated, like she had drunk one too many coffees. Unfortunately, they had arrived at the point where they were supposed to ask questions.
The one benefit of everything pivoting to online was that she could, if she wanted to, leave early, turn off her camera, get a mug of tea. It was a little power, sure, but it was still a thrill. She never liked listening to other student’s questions. It was, perhaps, a cruel thought, but she always found the questions to be dumb or repetitive or a clear attempt to grab attention from a well-regarded author who, it was clear, had no real interest in answer the same inane questions she undoubtedly got at every seminar, whether in person or online.
Yes, Marie decided, she would simply leave.
“I can take questions now if –”
She pressed the leave meeting button, cutting the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet off mid-sentence, which also made her feel giddy. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the poet. In fact, she regarded her work highly, which was why she had signed up for the seminar in the first place, and why she bought and read all of her books even though between her job, children, and her husband, she really only had time to read about twelve books a year.
Twelve books. The thought made her anxious. How was she supposed to pick twelve books out of the hundreds that were published in a year and the millions – billions –that had been published before that? She tried make lists, recording names of authors mentioned at literary events or on Twitter. She kept lists of new releases and other, longer lists of books she hadn’t read yet. A copy of War and Peace glared at her resentfully from her bookshelf, knowing she would never touch it. But still, how did one choose?
She pushed back from her chair and pushed the thought away. She was not supposed to be thinking of her book-related anxiety. She was supposed to be thinking of her own work and how her style worked to express her themes.
She stood up. The floor was cold against her feet. Before she had been confined to her house, she hadn’t noticed the seasons change. One day it was summer – hot, humid – the next day, she was pulling sweatpants over her pyjama bottoms because she was cold. Now, even though she rarely left the house, she found herself noticing the small changes in weather. First, the days were shorter; then, the air-conditioning clicked off for the final time; the leaves were bruised and brittle on the branches, ready to fall; now, she was required to wear socks.
Perhaps she was noticing things like this because there was nothing else to observe. She no longer saw interesting people on the street because no one walked the street. Her social interactions were limited to her husband, her two children, and her sister (though they had stopped seeing her sister because she had read something on Facebook and now refused to wear a mask).
Marie wasn’t out of her husband’s office and already her mind was wondering away from the central question. How did her style impact her themes? The truth was, she wasn’t sure what her style was. She assumed if she wasn’t sure about this, it wasn’t coming across to her audience (which consisted of her husband, her sister, and the people in the Writers in Belville Facebook group she had joined).
Just as she was about to sit back down, the dryer buzzed. She left room and walked down the hall to the laundry room.
She had an open style, she decided. She didn’t like poetry she couldn’t understand. When poems made her feel something just by their rhythm or tension or whatever, she didn’t trust that feeling. If she couldn’t understand, then she couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds with the author.
She opened the washer. The laundry room smelled vaguely of cat litter. Jack, her 10-year old, had promised that if they got a cat, he would scoop its poop every night. Her husband thought it would teach him responsibility. Not surprising Marie – or any mother anywhere – Jack had cleaned the litter box once and had never done it again.
Marie pulled handfuls of wet clothes out of the washing machine. Cold water slipped down her fingers and wrist. The washer was not spinning as efficiently as it should be. The machine was getting old. Marie meant to call someone in to take a look at it, but the machine wasn’t completely broken and laundry kept getting done, so she continually put it off.
Anyway, the washing machine didn’t matter, she reminded herself as she separated out the clothing that went in the dryer from the clothing that needed to be hung to dry, what mattered was style and theme, and how they connected to one another in a poem.
In a writing class she attended once, a girl half her age had said that her poems were too direct. It was true that Marie rarely used rhetoric. Again, it was something she didn’t trust. People tended to gravitate towards similar turns of phrases, and they didn’t always work. In almost every one of her classmate’s pieces, someone ‘paled’ or ‘went pale’. Marie did not think the body worked that way. She had never gone white like that, and she was fairly sure colour did not drain out of one’s face when one was frightened. Maybe it did. But –
Footsteps in the hallway. Marie poked her head of the laundry room.
Rachel was walking by, a box of cookies in her hand. She was still wearing the pyjamas she slept in though it was almost dinner time. Marie hesitated. Rachel was twelve, meaning that everything Marie said or did was offensive, embarrassing, controlling, or otherwise unacceptable. Her daughter had been – still was? – a happy child with friends, good grades, and a wide range of extracurricular activities. It was harder to be all that when one wasn’t allowed to leave the house. Usually, half-way through a Saturday, she would be asking Marie if she could sleep over at a friend’s house, or if she could have friends over so they could gorge on pizza, soda and then fall asleep in front of horror movies while browsing the various social media accounts of the boys they liked and the girls they pretended hate but really admired.
Marie had worried about her daughter in those days as well, but if she was being honest with herself, she knew that Rachel was well-adjusted. Worrying simply felt part of her job as a mother, same as explaining the importance of deodorant and packing school lunches.
Now, though, the worry had transitioned to genuine concern which left Marie feeling like she was permanently free-falling off of a cliff. It was not a pleasant feeling. She didn’t know if she should take away the cookies and force Rachel to shower and put on a pair of jeans. Months ago, she would have said that would absolutely have been her response, but who was she kidding. There was no one reason to put on jeans, and cookies were one of the few joys left.
Rachel’s door closed.
Marie bent over and started to scoop the cat’s hard, sausage-like shits out of the litter box and into a crumpled up plastic bag. It was too late anyway. Rachel was in her room. She would spend the next few hours watching videos on Youtube or TikTok. In the before times, Marie didn’t have to monitor Rachel’s screen time, her kid had been far too busy working on her lines for the school play or doing her homework.
What if she didn’t get into college?
Marie tied the bag closed. Beans, the fluffy brown cat they had adopted from the animal shelter at the beginning of the year, trotted into the laundry room to check out his litter-box. Finding it clean, he ran his long body against Marie’s calves. She stroked his fur. It was the closest thing she got to a thank you these days.
Bag of shit in hand, she walked down the stairs to the foyer and slid on a pair of Jack’s flip-flops that were sitting by the door. Jack was only ten, but his shoes fit her feet perfect.
The last poem she had written was about Jack’s flip-flops. How his feet kept getting bigger. How he kept getting bigger, and she couldn’t stop it.
Themes. Style. The poetry world probably had an unkind word for middle-aged, suburban woman who wrote poetry about her children: saccharine, clichéd. They weren’t wrong. There was nothing about motherhood that she, Marie from Belleville, could possibly say that hadn’t been said before.
The excitement she had felt from the online seminar was starting to curdle. She felt like she often did in these moments: that she didn’t have a unique perspective on the world at all, that she was an interloper in the world of books and reading, and that she should, as quickly as possible, buy herself a t-shirt that said wine o’clock and curate her Pinterest boards while watching the Bachelorette. The thought made her feel small and translucent.
It was cold outside. The flip-flops did little against the cold. She was wearing thin sweatpants and a t-shirt. Her nipples, rebelling against the cold, pointed through the fabric. One arm across her chest, she jogged to the garbage can and dumped the garbage bag in the organics bin. In the bottom of the bin, she could see a few maggots wriggling around, clinging to life. Someone – her husband – had thrown old food directly into the bin without a bag. She would have to call waste management and have them sanitize the waste bins.
She wondered, as she returned to the house, if she really needed to do this. The maggots weren’t harming anyone. It was a waste bin. No one was expecting it to be sanitary. But she didn’t want anyone to notice. She didn’t want to become that lady with maggots in her garbage. To whom would it make a difference?
Was that the correct use of whom? She wasn’t sure. She slipped off her son’s flip-flops and walked across the cold hardwood floor to the kitchen. Someone had once said it was a pity that ‘whom’ was going out of fashion. That the ongoing whittling of the English language was restricting writers more-and-more to subject-verb-object sentences: I eat carrots. I is the subject. Eat is the verb. Object is the carrots. It had taken Marie a long time to figure that out. She wasn’t entirely convinced that it mattered, that the on-going whittling of the English language was, in fact, something she should concern herself with.
She turned on the tap and washed her hands for government-mandated 20-seconds. The soap she bought was purchased in bulk from Costco at the beginning of the pandemic. It was the last variety available. It smelled harshly of chemical green apple. She hated it, but wasting something like soap seemed cruel and ungrateful.
Her husband would get mad as well. Not that he would get mad mad. Bob was a mild-mannered man whose idea of rage was a disappointed shake of the head. Still, she doesn’t like to add to the stress. Like many other people, he lost his job. It was not a good time to be a city planner, not with construction slowed to a halt and projects deferred.
Marie turned off the tap. They were luckier than most. They had some savings and Marie had found part-time work answering calls from people and business confused about what kind of government assistance was available to them. Those calls put things in perspective. Mothers called looking for directions to the food bank so they could feed their children, apologizing as they did so, explaining it was their first time, that they were trying to get work.
Marie dried her hands on the clean towel. Thinking of food banks, of Bob and his ‘employment situation’ was like waking an angry barking dog inside of her. The dog was fear and it was barely restrained, ready to break free and ruin her carefully maintained garden of mental health.
Marie screwed up her eyes. This was she didn’t love metaphors. Fear wasn’t a barking dog. It was her hormones squirting chemicals into her bloodstream. This squirting was supposed to help her, but it was not.
Themes and style, she remembered, that’s what she had been thinking about. The poet had instructed them all to think about what they couldn’t say in their work, what ground their projects forbade them to tread simply by their nature. A Hallmark movie, for example, would not end in divorce. Marie thought there was a lot of ideas her work was incapable of exploring: mathematical axioms; the eight minutes and 48 seconds George Floyd spent on the ground, dying.
Marie stopped listing things. It didn’t seem right to put anything after George Floyd’s death. Her neighbourhood book club had decided to read How to Be an Anti-Racist at their last book club meeting. Jack and Rachel – seeing celebrities and kids their own age on social media taking to the streets – had insisting upon going to the marches, and Marie had insisted upon accompanying them. She carried her own Black Lives Matter sign, but she came more of out of a need to monitor her own children, than out of a desire to be part of the resistance. At first, she had been uncertain, both of her welcome and of the wisdom of protesting in a pandemic. Thoughts buzzed around like flies in her head: what if they all got each other sick? Am I too complicit to be here? What if things get violent?
But, she had neither been welcomed not rejected. She was drop in the sea of people who were walking through the streets. There was no violence. Everyone was masked. Children, too young to understand what was happening, sat atop their parent’s shoulders and occasionally clapped or squealed. She wondered, as she often did, what the protests looked like to the littlest children, what they understood the cacophony of shouts, cheers, signs, and people to be.
Despite the new reading list, her book club had not approved of Marie attending the march (dangerous, looting, etc.). Marie had learned something she thought be very important, which was that talking about property damage after someone was murdered was, at best, tone deaf, at worst, violence itself. It was one of those thoughts that seemed so obvious to her once she heard it, that she could hardly remember seeing the situation another way. Marie tried to share this with her book club, and it had not gone well.
They seemed to think that she was saying that she didn’t care at all about the looting and rioting. Marie tried to explain that it wasn’t that she didn’t care, it was just that she cared about people more than property, and they should keep the conversation centered on the harm done by police and white supremacy.
Her voice had shaken as she said this, partly because she was a nervous public speaker, but also because Bev’s husband was a police officer, and she could see the woman scowling, and because whenever anyone said ‘white supremacy’, Irene puffed up and threatened tears, acting like someone had accused her of trying to join the Third Reich.
Since she was in the kitchen, Marie pulled out the alfredo sauce and linguine from the cupboard. She opened the fridge. There was nothing in the fridge but containers of yogurt, cheese, and rows of condiments. Tomorrow, she would have to don a mask and brave the grocery story. She had always hated grocery shopping, and she despised it now. The freaks refusing to wear masks came too close to her in line, and the odd empty spaces on the shelves that made it feel like they were at the beginning of the end times.
Marie opened the freezer. The package of shrimp was sitting there, slightly freezer-burned. She had forgotten to transition it from freezer to fridge this morning. She swore to herself, took the package over to the sink and started to run it under cool water.
She thought about book club as the cold water ran over the shrimp and her hands. The conversation had devolved into an odd sort of pissing contest where each woman reiterated the horrible things their parents had said about Black people and how they felt scared to say the wrong thing now. Some of them cried. Marie looked around and came to the conclusion that there was not much to be gained from a bunch of white women whipping themselves up into a self-indulgent hysteria and suggested they read Transcendent Kingdom for their next book club pick. Perhaps, Marie thought, they would all do better with fiction.
She turned the water up. She knew she was supposed to defrost shrimp in cold water, but never understood why and she didn’t relish the thought of standing there for twenty minutes, her fingers in murky, cool water.
What we she supposed to be thinking about: Theme? Style? If Marie thought about it, she wouldn’t have been quite to remember the joy she had felt at the end of the seminar. Each emotional state restricts a person’s imagination. It is hard to remember joy when one is miserable and vise-versa. She wiped her damp hands on the cloth, then started to collect the ingredients: salt, chili peppers, pepper, olive oil.
It wasn’t that she was better than the women from book club. She was just less certain than they were about who she was and what was right even though she supposed that, at 56, she should have worked all of that out. Their certainty pounded against her like hail, stinging and confusing her. Irene, for example, was so certain she was a good person with a good heart. Marie was never certain whether she herself was right and good.
The shrimp were defrosted. She started to unpeel the them, pulling the crusty shell off of each one and dropping them into a glass bowl that held chili flakes, oil, and cilantro.
Sometimes, she thought of her children as old people, sixty, or, god-willing, eighty years in the future. Obviously, she would be dead. They would be nearing the end of their lives. It was weird that she would not be there with them for decades potentially. That they would have years of life and she simply wouldn’t know about them. That they would get sick and die and she wouldn’t be there to help them. Sometimes, she worried herself by wondering if, by the time they got to heaven, they would even recognize one another. The thought made her want to cry.
Her phone buzzed. The red CNN logo just visible. 200,000 thousand Americans had died from COVID-19. She stood in the kitchen, her hands cold and wet from the shrimp she had been peeling. Her screen went black. The update disappearing like it had never been there at all.
“Mom, is dinner ready?” Rachel yelled from her room.
Marie jumped like her daughter had just prodded her with a cattle prod. Marie cleared her throat and dried her hands on the crumpled tea towel.
“30 minutes, sweetie,” she called back.
Rachel’s door shut again. From the living room, Marie could hear the swoosh of lightsabers coming from the living room. Jack was watching Star Wars again. Bob was in his office, she knew, looking for jobs with more-and-more desperation. Last time she was cleaning in his office, he had left his computer on, and she had seen an application for a position as a Claims Adjuster at an Insurance Company. He had been Regional Manager of Consumer Marketing for a large national movie chain before the virus, and he had loved his job. He had always loved movies and television.
On their first date, he had taken her to a drive-in. She couldn’t remember the movie now, but she remembered that he had known everything: who the director was, who the writer was, the producer, and all their previous works. She never paid attention to that stuff and was impressed by his passion.
He did not, as far as she knew, love insurance.
She put the shrimp in the pan and pushed them around with a wooden spoon she had bought on a whim from Williams Sonoma back when they could afford to splurge on things like that.
The oil hissed and popped. She was probably cooking it at too-high a temperature, but she didn’t care. For a moment, she wanted to burn dinner, if only because she wanted to burn something.
She turned the heat down, measured out some rice, water and salt and set it to boil in a separate pot. Not in any mood to make salad, she poured some frozen peas into a microwave-safe bowl and filled it with water. That would have to do.
She dried her hands again and picked up her phone. The CNN news banner was still there, reminding her of the death toll. Her finger hovered about it. It felt like her duty, as a citizen, to read the article, but what more was there to say than was already written in the headline. People were dying because of selfish people led by a selfish man.
She had a friend on Facebook, a Trump supporter who, after posting multiple mask-related conspiracy theories, received a barrage of critical messages. She beseeched her Facebook friends to ‘look at her heart’ and treat her with respect and then moments later posted a meme claiming pro-choice Democrats wanted to kill babies.
They were no longer friends. Trying to be friends with someone like that was like trying to befriend a cartoon, there were too many layers of ridiculousness to work through. Still, it was one less friend. A friend Marie had known since high school. Those were hard, perhaps impossible, to replace.
Marie sighed. Theme and style, that was what she was supposed to be thinking of, wasn’t it?
Jack came in from the living room, the movie still playing, and took a swig of milk from the carton.
“Honey, use a glass,” Marie said automatically.
“We all share the same DNA,” he said in that petulant manner of teenage boys who think they know everything.
Marie didn’t protest further. If she had learned anything other the past few months, it was how to pick her battles.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” she said.
He passed her and gave her a kiss on the cheek, smiling sheepishly when she looked at him with surprise.
“I’ll get Rachel,” he said, disappearing out of the room as fast as he came.
She listened to his feet thump up the stairs and opened her phone. The Belleville Writer’s Collective was offering another writing workshop next weekend. The guest author had been short-listed for the National Book Award, so Marie assumed they were talented (Marie had their book on her shelf, but had not had time to actually read it).
She wouldn’t have time to read the book before the workshop, though she would try. She likely would not have time to work out what she thought about theme and style or whatever it was she was supposed to be thinking about (the words from the first workshop were already starting to fade from memory).
She clicked the enrol button. She put her phone down and stirred the shrimp.
Sara lives in Toronto with her fiancée and cat. She has previously been published in the York Literary Review and Tishman Review and others. When not writing, she enjoys reading, running, and planning vacations she can no longer take.
Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.