Smiles and Serenity and Other Things
Plumbed from the Depths
by Paul-André Betito
“The Wet Secrets, February 2015”, Copyright © Devin McCawley, 2015
hrista stopped to examine the large framed photograph hanging in the lobby. The dozen people congregated in the picture, including Christa — front row, left of centre — looked like a real collective, together, as if they each shared some indistinct quality that gave them the appeal of cohesion, of a unit; siblings without the physical similarities, except perhaps some frumpy dresses and saggy tits. Christa tried to discern the quality. Burn-out nurses? Wrinkly retirees? Full-time knitters? She read the line of text inscribed beneath the photo, A big thanks to our volunteers!, and looked back at the faces. The picture reminded her of those grainy wartime pictures of African-American platoons: same faces full of strained smiles and a shared, implicit understanding that they were all together for the same sad reason, a reason that nobody ends up figuring out until it’s already too late. Christa was the only remaining member of the original squadron. It felt like survivor’s guilt.
She tied her greasy hair in a ponytail, flicked on a light switch, and waddled over to her cubicle as overhead lights flashed to life, one after the other, like clockwork synchronized to the droplets of sweat that pushed through the skin on her exposed upper chest, her labored breaths forcing out the sweat as if for a lack of bodily space, her heart thumping in tandem with the flickers of a dying light at the far end of the office space. She dropped her heavy tote beside her chair and made her way over to the floor’s kitchenette.
Vestiges of an earlier shift’s microwave lunches — pizza, pasta primavera, pad Thai — lingered in the air of the dingy space. Christa checked the contents of the kettle — half-full, free-floating calcium deposits — and flicked it on.
Everyone knew that Christa had herself affixed the note that hung over the tea rack nestled against the fridge. ASK before TAKING!! The smiley face rendered with the tittles of the exclamation marks gave her away, as incriminating as a personal signature. Christa contemplated the range of tea options until the kettle clicked, opting for a black oolong cherry and passion fruit green tea mix.
She pulled semi-consciously at the chain of the strainer that bobbed in the water, until the contents of the mug ran as dark as Coke, then she tossed the strainer into the sink, fished five packets of sweetener out of drawer, tore them all simultaneously with a meaty rip, dumped all the powder into her tea, and gave a quick stir with her middle finger. A boiling drink had become routine for Christa’s shifts. She took a breath, downed the steaming tea, dropped the mug beside the strainer, and rubbed her tongue against the roughness of her scalded palate. One big precautionary burn, one big preliminary wound, like a preventative measure against the others to come.
Christa finished cutting up a credit card over her cubicle trashcan and, by the time that 9:30PM rolled around, she had minimized the Amazon browser and put on her headset. She inspected her desk. Candies. Notepad. Vagisil. Two purple pens. She straightened out the pens, then double-clicked the call program on her desktop and logged in with her credentials. A scraping voice came to life before she even had the chance to greet it.
“I messed up. I looked up my therapist on Facebook.”
Christa hesitated. “What’s that, love?”
She heard a deep breath on the other line. “I — I tainted the relationship. I rendered my therapist too human.”
“I’m sorry, love, I’m not followin’ ya’,” Christa replied.
“See,” the male voice went on anxiously, “see, the Catholic confessional worked because the voice of the priest was all you had. Just a dissociated voice and the dignity of knowing that you weren’t actually known, in full, actual physical warts and all.”
“Hmm.” Christa scratched out a fleck of gunk from the corner of her eye.
“Yeah, see, a priest could absolve by virtue of this abstracted relationship.”
“Yeah. But, see, the priests and priestesses of modernity, they know too much about us, and we’re able to know too much about them. I crossed the line.”
“Um, okay, I see —”
“Now I know that,” the voice interrupted, “see, no matter how much my therapist affirms what I say, I know that she has an actual human opinion of me, about what I wear and how I smell, same as the opinion that she had about a recent date that she posted about.” The voice sighed. “I’m going to kill myself.”
Kill. Christa’s eyes shot through the post-it notes that lined the cubicle wall to the left of the monitor, all Pepto pink and handwriting in hues of purple, all aligned precisely. The conversational pause loomed in limbo.
“Now, now,” she implored, gripping her mouse, “love, don’t be doin’ that.”
A harsh cough, an expectoration.
“That’s it?” A clearing of the throat.
Christa looked down at her mousepad: a family of three wild horses, galloping along a cliff. Her eyes jumped back up to the notes. One of them read, in strained conscientious strokes: SAFETY OF SELF AND OTHERS – 911.
“Love, are ya’ safe? Where are ya’ right now?” The call-waiting queue flickered from zero to one on her screen. She picked at the skin on her blotchy upper arm.
“You sound sexy. Husky. Where are you?” the voice rasped casually in reply.
Christa dropped her wrists onto the edge of the desk and stared straight into the screen. Her hand groped tic-like toward the can of cream soda on her desk. “Love, I’m afraid I can’t be tellin’ ya’ that —”
The voice cut her off. “— how are you going to tell me to live if you can’t even tell me where you are, like I’m a fuckin’ safety hazard?” The sound of the voice ceded to the quiet, static hum of the empty office centre, the sound of Christa snapping open her can. She let out a heave of a sigh, quaffed down the soda, burped, then clicked at her screen.
“Smiles and Serenity, Christa speakin’.”
Someone could be heard sobbing softly — female, based on the pitch of the sharp inhales, and distant, like the phone had been put down some feet away.
“Hello? I can hear ya’ hon, would ya’ pick up th’phone?” A whimper. Another call entered the queue. Christa absentmindedly fished a small bag out of the open drawer to her right and tore it open with both hands, sending a hail of multi-coloured M&M’s around her cubicle and its vicinity. She quickly dumped the remaining chocolates from the bag into her mouth and bent to struggle for strays on the floor, careful to keep her head centered and the headset in place.
“Fuck. Fuck. Does it even matter?”
The volume of the voice caught Christa off-guard.”Honey, I need ya’ to calm down,” she strained out, “talk t’me.” She heard the phone get tossed against a hard surface, a distant disconsolate voice, sobs puncturing the air and approaching quiverings of I can’t—I can’t—no—I’m sorry—, a fumble with the phone. Dial tone.
Christa checked the caller ID: untraceable. She rubbed at her glazed eyes, extended her arms, and re-calibrated the focus of her eyes onto the nails of her splayed fingers. Each salmon-painted nail was as long as it was fake, and each was decorated at its centre with a neat purple heart and an infinitesimally small sequin. She took in a short breath through her nostrils, collecting whiffs of fresh stationary and marker ink and stale leather, plucked a couple M&M’s from the interstices of her gritty keyboard, flicked the candies into her mouth, and moved to click her mouse.
“Smiles and Serenity, Christa speakin’.”
The words came out in a rapid-fire tangle: “Seroquel when I’m trying to banish waking life, Prozac when I’m awake — does merely having my eyes open qualify as being awake? ‘Cause the brain waves are slow either way.” Christa couldn’t get a word in. “Plus, plus codeine for the somatic complaints that come from being awake, whatever that means, and Ritalin if I need to actually move, and Xanax when I’m trying to get laid — no, Xanax when I need to interact with someone, I wouldn’t even get hard with seventy-two heavenly virgins swarming over me. Lorazepam and Clonazepam when I need to interact with someone I don’t know — those three swallow me up like they constitute the three points of the Bermuda-motherfucking-Triangle. Does Big Pharma endorse people?”
“Bruce, ya’ know ya’ need t’talk to ya’ doctor ’bout that.”
“Well, Christa,” the voice snorted, “I’m asking you — my doc’ gets less sleep than I do, and I haven’t paid a hundred and fifty dollars an hour for anything since that underage Slovakian prostitute cost me seventy-five and stole the other half when I passed out.”
“I’m 67 and rusted at the joints, Christa, you goddamn know that.”
“Right, sorry love.” Christa swallowed. “How ’bout your Tuesday support group?”
“Fuck, no.” The voice laughed heartily. “That group is literally mortifying — a bunch of people that are essentially dead, electroshocked out of their gourds. Most of them can’t even remember how to start the coffee machine.”
“Aw, Brucey, don’t be so mean, love. You gotta try.”
The voice ignored her. “After listening to some of their stories, I’ve honestly resolved to screen the women that I meet for childhood abuse. Were you abused as a child? Yes? Okay, best of luck with your life. Poof. Fool-proof.”
“Bruce, are ya’ safe?”
“Maybe. Safe? What’s that mean? What the fuck does safe mean?”
“Okay, Bruce. I’m hangin’ up. Call again tomorrow.”
Christa disconnected the call, plucked off her headset, tossed it beside the keyboard, and unfurled her stooped shoulders. The rekindled blood flow gave her ears a roaring itch, and she massaged each one separately with one hand. With the other hand she fished stray M&M’s out of the bowl of ancient candy hearts beneath her monitor.
Satisfied with the uniformity of the colour in the bowl, she hazarded a look into the open drawer to her right:
Shredded Twinkie wrappers and unopened baked goods, browns of all hues, Easter cream eggs, rubble in lurid plastic packaging, a beaten-up paperback romance, overflow Halloween plunder that the trick-or-treaters hadn’t claimed last year.
She swiveled to look into the magnolia-shaped mirror hanging at the edge of the cubicle wall. She shifted the angle of her face around while she pinched at the folds of her chins. She found the right angle, pursed her lips, and applied some glittery lipstick before pulling herself back up to the keyboard, palming her mouse, and clicking on a minimized tab. A red bubble signified the arrival of a new message; she clicked the envelope icon and a smaller screen materialized.
I HV A FEEDING FETISH N A 9 INCHER. DOWN?
U HV GR8 JUGS
One of the bromides pinned behind the monitor — something sparkly about love — popped off the cubicle wall and slid down the back of the desk. Christa felt overwhelmingly aware of the thin maternity dress glued to her skin, her trembling hand, the blood rushing to her head. A new call entered the queue and snapped her out of her trance. She grabbed her headset with her left hand and clawed a handful from the open drawer with her right.
“Smiles and Serenity, Christa speakin’.”
“Mm. I’m walking around my pool, Christa.” The voice came through with a life of its own, seductive and intimate like juicy lips pressed up close to an ear, slender as a tall figure-eight in a tight black dress.
“I’m drunk, Christa. Talk to me.”
“What’s goin’ on, love?”
“Well, Christa, nothing you haven’t heard before. I tried fucking my way out of this episode, but one of my girlfriends, dumb bitch, she told me that the female orgasm is just like the male nipple, and there went that coping strategy.”
Christa thought for a moment. “How ’bout exercise? Fresh air?” She heard silence on the other line and pried open a package. “Are ya’ safe, hunny?”
“Safe?” the voice purred, with evident sarcasm. “Baby, I’m on fire — I’m inflammation incarnate, with a colostomy bag for a lower intestine. I drink to put myself out. Did you know that Nabokov wrote that the devil makes you thirsty?” The voice was middle-aged, hawk-nosed.”Frankly, Christa, I’m safest when I’m tempting myself, treading the edge of my pool, envisioning myself afloat on the surface, as light as all these hospital bills. Barely a burden to gravity.” The voice paused. “But to answer your question, maybe fresh air is exactly what I don’t need. Oxygen is fueling my fire. I want to put it out.”
Christa stuffed her mouth with a pastry, chewed twice, swallowed, burped, tasted acid.
“I need’ta know that you’re safe, hun.”
There was a snort on the other line.
“Christa, Christa. Is that Christa with a kay or a see?”
Christa felt her dyspepsia raging afire. “Christa, see-aytch-are —“
She was cut-off halfway. “Gotcha, babe. Well, Christa-with-a-see, there’s no need to be peremptory. I just want to know what you think about drowning. Talk to me, Christa,” the voice cloyed.
Christa attempted a response but managed only some muffled chews, imprisoned her words with mechanical hand-to-mouth, heard only the sound of bile in motion, like an oil leak in an engine or a the slow silent sink of a boat. The voice continued, unfazed by the absence of words:
“The will to drown, to me, is the will to haggle with death. Most other ways, you make a choice at a fork, of sorts, and get carried along and can’t look back. Choose to trace vertical lines with a chef’s knife from your Jamie Oliver set, say. Choose the toaster for bath partner. Choose to kick out the foothold. Choose to pull the trigger. Choose to jump. Choose to fly.”
The voice wedged itself inside Christa like the food that suddenly stopped midway down her throat. She sputtered.
“But drowning, you have to fight to drown. Not like carbon monoxide, that’ll get you if you just meditate it out, nor like pills, since those can be purged. Self-poisoning is a notoriously haphazard and ineffective method, if you’re an amateur,” the voice laughed. “No, to willingly drown yourself dead is to really prove to everyone that you really, really wanted it. Needed it. Apparently you panic when you drown — some say that you can’t even drown yourself at all, if you can help it. I think I’d enjoy feeling that urgency to live, for once. I would drown for that feeling. I’d enjoy fighting that feeling, too.”
Christa coughed, sending a hail of spittle and chocolate flecks onto her monitor.
“Plus, drowning has some flair, a level of refinement to it. You stay intact, you don’t tear up your poor skin, you don’t froth at the mouth like some kind of rabid dog.” The voice paused. “No wounds to suture. No body juices. No forensic clean-up bills to throw in the pool. You won’t necessarily wear a pained expression on your face. You even look peaceful, for a while, you don’t automatically turn purple. And at the very least, an animal might see you before you bloat.” There was a curt laugh. “Even what you wear when you drown still matters, too. Nobody needs to see you naked, for what you are.”
The space around Christa was moving in a slow, nauseating swirl. Her face had begun its transition in colour, and, like a chameleon, her complexion was coming closer to matching the aesthetic of her cubicle decor.
“Ophelia wouldn’t have looked so dignified if she had been found in her underwear. I mean, imagine drowning in your wedding dress, getting carried along a slow current. Grace. Poignance. Virginia Woolf and her pockets full of stones, walking steadfast and heroic towards the final frontier. A moving performance.”
“— Ungh — ” Christa’s hands shot from throat to headset to mouse.
“It’s a fundamentally metaphorical experience too, I think, drowning is. You die in the single most important precursor to life itself. The body is mostly water, you know.”
Christa was slipping out of her chair like a riptide was dragging down her mass.
“Funny, too, everything around me is like black coral — shrinks away when I try to grasp it.”
There was silence on both ends.
“My experience has been a drowning, of sorts. No, wait, no,” she corrected herself, “it’s more like I’ve been free-diving for pearls: I go longer and longer each bout, acclimating myself to the depths, and sometimes I come up with something small and shiny — but perfectly useless, just like a pearl. Useless. And you come up starved for breath. And when you’re down there, you feel your oxygen-starved cells dying, one by one. And the cells never come back. You come up a little deader, each time, each time even more tempted to jam that big fat motherfucking pearl down your own throat.”
“Someone that elects to drown him or herself was, well, already drowning. Already suffocating. Already alone, in coldness, stillness. And, when you drown, when you finally float to the top, you finally reach ascendance.”
“Christa, we don’t fall out of this world. We float out.”
Christa tasted the noose she had fashioned for herself, the one rammed down her throat; and as she lay puddled on the carpet, her flesh like a trawler net, candies stabbing at her like jagged rocks on the ocean floor, in the moment before she sank past where the rays of light stopped reaching, she grasped out for a bubble of air and felt like she was sinking, caught in that subcutaneous level of life — or floating.
Paul-André Betito, 22, is an aspiring writer, mental health clinician, and researcher from Oakville, Ontario, Canada. He graduated cum laude with an H.BA in Psychology from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2014, where he completed a senior thesis on addiction and psychosocial integration. His poetry has been anthologized by The Ontario Poetry Society and he was recently awarded second place in FreeFall Magazine’s annual short prose contest. He was also selected by Arc Magazine for their poet-in-residence mentorship program.