Jill Talbot

TO KEEP THE LIGHTS FLICKERING

JILL TALBOT

 
 

But our hatred is almost indistinguishable from our love.

—Virginia Woolf

     I’m watching her eyelids flutter. She’s got a bottle on the coffee table. Her eyes are normally her best feature, but not like this, never like this. The dreamcatcher sways, beads hanging. Q-tips fill the sink. She tries to Skype the ex who doesn’t answer so instead talks to the computer as if he’s there. 


     A postcard from Hawaii sits on the table and a pen with all different colours. It makes you smarter, she was told, to have them all in one. But she wasn’t sure she would ever have anything to say that needed more than one colour so it lay there unused, as if to inform her of her inabilities to get things done or to understand, really, why does anyone need green ink? Why red? 

     She is no longer in school and when she was she typed everything right away. She studied accounting. For a discipline so dull they used a lot of colours. Black ink is more intelligent, she heard in the arts. One could never really get it right, it seemed. That’s what she always thinks on nights such as these. Why try? 


     How cliché, I know, I know, but what can I say?

     The entire scene feels frozen; it always does, on days like this when she’s only pretending to be alive. The clock stops with her heart. Her heart feels like a bomb, she holds on to me tight. Methadone comes in liquid orange, neon bright, like something on a Christmas tree. I am only here to keep the lights flickering. Off, on, off, on. Ice in the baggie, down in the flap, a trap door—heaven or hell? Gate one or gate two?

     The audience cheers. 

     We’ll do it again. 

     I’ll skate with her this time. 

     Everything is smooth; everything is dark blue. It tastes like snowcones. 

     She closes her eyes. 

     Mouth open like a wound she watches television while the rest of the world sleeps or lives or does something in-between. 

     She developed a fear of the ice melting and the rink filling with water and drowning with people cheering at the sidelines. She still thinks of this but instead it has become a comfort. Over time any fantasy becomes a comfort, as long as it doesn’t come true. 

     She dreams of falling asleep at the Zamboni. Or a Zamboni that won’t stop going in circles, with me on the sidelines, unable to help. The others laughing. Not so far off from what did occur, but we don’t need to get into that. 

     She flashes back to the current environment. A balloon animal floats above her. Her skates are somewhere, she’s sure of it, sure of herself, sometimes too sure. 

     I have taken down all of the mirrors. This makeup doesn’t suit her; it exaggerates her vulnerability. I want to hold her, to take her away, to take her apart and back together. Her parents are in Mexico. She remembers the butterfly museum as kids. Games like, If you were an appliance, what would you be? (A toaster, obviously). The fridge is bare apart from the tang. She plays with her split ends. She wonders if she should dye it black like the ink. She wonders if there is a colour that would make her look less startled. They like her to look partly dead, it seems. She heard that on TV.

     He shows up wild eyed and desperate and that’s what she likes about him. Her power is in the not wanting, the not being. But I was here first. She was young when it started, at least, that’s her excuse. I know better. She’s made of taffy. She holds up her magazine like a gun between them—the weapon of silence and Vogue. Her toes are curled like a ballet dancer. I am the dreamcatcher.

     She has a toe poking out of her sock, her striped rainbow socks (I know, I’ve tried to tell her…) he licks it. She cringes and tries to hide it. I see it. 

     Her sock is like the pen, not really intelligent at all, just chaotic. Chaos is everywhere in this apartment. I’ve tried to clean it up…

     You want me to say that she sold herself for a place to belong, don’t you? Belonging is for the privileged. Some girls sell themselves just to be sold. 

     She envelops herself in the room. She wonders if this is what waterbeds are like, something that seems calming until it’s actually happening. She loves him, do you suppose? Does she love anything? She hates me. In thirty-three lines she tries to find something to bring her back home, a letter in verse. I try to open those fluttering eyelids. On the ice everything is softer, safer, more hidden. Perhaps she should have been young in the sixties, or at least have been British; she always wanted to be British. 

     She needs me, of course, that part’s true; true as anything, of course, of course that’s true. 

     She plays Mozart, knowing that he prefers baroque. Her nightgown slips accidentally on purpose and outside sirens start. Baroque might have been better. I let the music continue to play. Try to send him away. Egg yolk drips from the counter, a spoon in the peanut butter. I wish I could wrap her up like a present. I let in the wind, give this place some air, something cool and alive.


     She stubs her toe as she did as a child. She loved the laces on the skates. She loved the blood. She is having bad thoughts again—dark blue bad thoughts. She has a note highlighted, darkness is the colour dark blue. You want me to say we’ve all been there but that’s simply not true. Have you ever stared at dark blue paint for more than ten minutes? You don’t want to. Trust me, you don’t want to. 

     We’ve all been bad but we haven’t all been dark blue bad. She wishes she were a bird. I do too. 

     He babbles on about the Korean War. He likes to sound old and wise, why are men like that? She pretends to be impressed, why are women like that? I sigh. She plays with the sheet. White, just for the irony. What are we trying to prove, really? His white beard looks like an unloved kitten left out to die. She tells him it is sexy, either way. Men like that. How old are you? he asked, when they first met. How old do you want me to be? she said. He thought this was cute. I thought it was typical. I don’t remember when this was but she was old enough to know better. 

     You could call it an arrangement of sorts. I try to rearrange the pillows when she’s not looking. There may be no I in team but there’s a me in meat. That’s why I am here, to make it as civilized as possible. The iPhone always wants her attention. I just want Mozart back and a way to tell which way is up or down. A way to tell which way is out. I am pointing that way now but she is half sleeping. The way we all are in-between breathing. But I won’t let her cry, it isn’t natural, it doesn’t suit her. She is trapped, a movie set. I sip detox tea, rose petals falling. 

     He says there was no PTSD in his day, only shock. She wonders which is better. He tells her. He talks this way as if she’s never been to a cemetery. She goes along because she wants that to be true. For a moment it is true. Even the sirens pretend to know the tune. It is Thursday, after all. Even the weatherman was wrong. But who do you trust, your phone or your fingers? And if your fingers are wrong, what’s left to matter? She likes to check the current temperature, either way. Sprinkles. 

     I am always on the sidelines, even without the rink, never without ice. There is always ice. Cracked, white, slivered ice. He talks to me sometimes as if I am her, though I am not her. I do not do accidentally on purpose. I do not pose for portraits. I have the truth that doesn’t fit in a frame and if it did, who would want it? Would you? 

     Doing the nod is a state like driving on cruise control without control. She needs a break, the music is too loud, the candles might fall over; her horoscope calls for danger, though it does every Thursday and every Friday calls for a new beginning. She likes to cut these up and put them on the wall, circling each that comes true, which ends up being quite a few. He says that this is selection bias. She nods, as if she’s too dumb to come up with such a statement. 

     He decides they ought to go out on the town, the apartment is depressing, he says. He says that her freckles are like sprinkles. The car speeds and he lights his pipe. It all started with Mike. Back during the beginning. She remembers the lip balm—Smackers—they had as kids, meant to taste like candy. Her heart is an offbeat drummer. She feels like an arbutus tree unraveling. Fingers taking apart the bark. A wilderness of regrets. Shhh, Shhh, I say. Shhh. We’re on a carousel. Round and round and round. Hush. I am the keychain. 

     He leaves her in fragments as if he breaks her to find the parts that he wants. He tries to take every last bit but I do not let him. He isn’t the only one who knows what it is to come back from a war. He isn’t the only one who has seen her taken apart. He isn’t the only one who knows that horoscopes are bullshit. 

     When it’s over the sidewalk holds her like a kiss. She can’t feel the rain, like being in a microwave, everything is plain and radioactive and vacant. She has an umbrella though she doesn’t use it, umbrellas always seem pretentious to her, over the top, useless. Is there anything more human than crying in the rain? And is there anything less human than not being able to feel the drops tip-tap like they’re doing a musical by themselves? She is neither so I am both. I am the conductor but sometimes even I can’t help her. 
I tell her the most intelligent ink is that which can be erased. I tell her all of this but they come for her, all the same. 
You can’t say I didn’t warn her.

     She has taken too much medication again. She must know this because I know this. The nurse is the bitchy one who seldom pays attention. I try to bring her back to life but she is drifting, all she can hear is the beating. They have taken her phone and all her belongings. They have taken her cigarettes. She needs me, but all I can do is watch her eyelids flutter and her heart jump out of her chest. How did she manage to get both Clonidine and Methadone? As if the nurses' station were a vending machine. Ordering death, straight up. His convertible was the ice, a mid life crisis, of course. They call the ex who still isn’t there. The music still plays, this time of mechanics. Nurses search under her mattress. Was that me, there? We’re skating figure eights around her heart, on the ice. We’re doing the finale. No way they will take this from me. The nurse is back. Smile. 
 


Jill Talbot attended Simon Fraser University for psychology before pursing her passion for writing. Jill has appeared in Geist, Rattle, Poetry Is Dead, The Puritan, Matrix, subTerrain and The Tishman Reviw. She was shortlisted for the Matrix Lit POP Award for fiction and the Malahat Far Horizons Award for poetry. She had a staged reading of her play God In Psych Ward Pajamas, her play If That Looking Glass Gets Broke was commended by the BBC and she recently had a staged reading of her play You Are NOT the Saddest Thing At GIRO, which she wrote for mental health week. Jill lives on Gabriola Island, BC.