Tag Archives: writing

A Few Truths About Love

22 Aug

The truth about love is that there is a part of you that honestly believes that giving away all of your love will – no, must – result in receiving some kind of equal love back. If you didn’t believe this, your love would be impossible. How else could you justify all of the heartsick tears, the sleepless nights, the work and play that you’ve neglected?

The truth about love is that it’s not a physics equation. There is no law of conservation of love. Love can be created; love can be destroyed. The love that you put out into the world will not last forever, ricocheting between atoms, shifting shape as needed. A thoughtless heart can stop your love cold.

The truth about love is that someone can love you very much and still be careless or hurtful. Love is not a charm that protects you. Love is not magic. Love is not inherently good.

The truth about love is that your faith in it is misplaced; love is not a god or a system of belief or an altar at which you should kneel down and sacrifice. Love is a wild, dangerous force – exhilarating, yes, but also destructive. Loving someone else is like standing at the edge of the water in the middle of a hurricane; the waves that smash against the shore are mesmerizingly beautiful, but the threat of drowning is very real.

The truth about love is that it is a slippery beast. A slippery beast with teeth like razor blades.

The truth about love is that it is so bound up with regret that it seems impossible to separate the two. You regret the words you said, which you didn’t realize would come out so badly. You regret how vulnerable you let yourself be, how you cracked open your chest to reveal your still-beating heart. You regret all the chances you gave, the forgiveness you bled so freely. You regret the time not spent together, the days you sat side by side on the couch both engrossed in your laptops. You regret the time wasted arguing or sulking or spent in a state of deliberate misunderstanding. You regret the beginning, because it could only ever lead to this. You regret the ending, because of everything you’ll never get back. You try so hard not to regret everything in between, but you do. You do.

The truth about love is that so many of us have a hard time differentiating between love and habit.

The truth about love is that it’s not a panacea or a cure-all. You can have all the love in the world and still be just as broken as ever. Being in love will not fix you; after the first flush of romance you will find that you are in exactly the same place, except that now you have to worry about dragging someone else down with you.

The truth about love is that we talk about it as if it’s something we’re somehow owed, but really, it’s not. People deserve to be treated with decency and respect. People deserve basic necessities like food, shelter and clean water. People deserve to feel safe. No one deserves love.

The truth about love is that you would do it all again.

Vintage Photos of Hurricanes and Their Aftermath (4)

Your Life As A Play

18 Aug

You think that if you get all the window dressing right then everything will be fine.

The floral-patterned dress, the beat up cowboy boots, the vintage leather jacket.

The carefully tousled hair, the oversized sunglasses, exactly the right shade of peachy-pink lipstick.

The golden tan, the throaty laugh, the full smile.

The way the sun hits you from behind, so that you’re sweetly backlit in the late summer afternoon haze.

The books on your shelf. The distressed furniture. The tacky knick knacks you wouldn’t have been caught dead with five years ago.

The antique china tea set your grandmother gave you.

The mint green bike you bought second hand.

The midcentury modern buffet you found on the street on garbage day.

The smart, funny, handsome husband.

The smart, funny, precocious child.

The off-beat, artsy career.

The morning yoga classes you teach, the playlists you create timed perfectly with the flow of poses, the warm, sympathetic tone to your voice.

The afternoons you spend in coffee shops drafting up your novel, your screenplay, your heartwrenching poem.

Everyone who looks at you is envious. You can feel it when they size you up. You can tell how much they covet your life, all of it, every tiny detail.

You’re so good with details.

You’re so good at so many things.

You lucky, lucky girl.

It’s like creating a set for a play, isn’t it? A play about a life you’d like to live. You think that if everything is placed just so then it must follow that you will be happy. If the print on the table cloth is exactly right, if the soft cotton quilt that your grandmother gave you is just tattered and faded enough, then you will break the spell. You will finally feel alive.

It doesn’t work that way. Your things are just things. Your hair, makeup and clothing are part of an elaborate, time-consuming disguise. Your husband and child are not as perfect as they seem, because no one is perfect, but the tantrums, the arguments, the dull drag of day-to-day life never make it on to your Instagram account. The print on the table cloth is just slightly wrong.

The window dressing is just window dressing. Your heart is the reality, and it cracks in a way that can never be repaired. You will always be you, no matter what your life looks like, no matter how many best-sellers you write, no matter how envious anyone else might be.

You will always be you, living in this particular skin, on this particular planet, at this particular time in history.

You will always be you.

Talk about a life sentence.

Talk about a life sentence.

Talk about a life sentence.

Alice Summers in Paris

What It’s Like To Be A Writer Who Is Also A Woman

12 Aug

You will always be a woman first and a writer second.

When people refer to you, they will call you a “woman writer,” or “feminist writer,” or some other variation on that theme. There will always be some kind of qualifier added.

When your works are published, they will be included in women’s anthologies, or perhaps taught in women’s studies classes, or shelved in the “chick lit” sections of bookstores. This will feel simultaneously empowering and isolating. You know that this fact will guarantee that large segments of the population will choose never to read your work based solely on these classifications.

It will be thought that only other women can relate to your writing. When discussed by literary critics, your books will be described as works that all women should read; no one will ever call them works that everyone should read.

When a man says flattering things about your writing, you will always be left wondering whether it is your work that interests him, or the fact that you are young, conventionally attractive and female. Most frequently it will be the former, but still, you can never shake off the fear that you are not so much talented as you are naïve and pretty. You often feel as if you are only valuable in so much as men desire to fuck you.

Speaking of men desiring to fuck you, you must be very careful when interacting with male readers of your work, especially if those men are also writers. If you are married or in a committed relationship, mention this up front. Watch every word you say and make certain that none of them could ever be misconstrued as flirtatious. Do not ever behave in a way that might lead you to be accused of leading a man on – especially in situations where the man is in a position to promote your work. Remember that all of your motives will always be suspect.

Speaking of men, the first attributes used when describing you will be your relationships or lack thereof.

If you are married and/or have children, these things will become the focal point of any brief biographical sketch made of your life. Any other accomplishments must take a back seat to the fact that you have managed to find someone to put a ring on it and then convinced them to procreate with you. Your name will always be preceded by something like wife-and-mother-of-two, as if those titles are more important than any other that you might earn in this life.

If you are unmarried, you will be pitied. If you don’t have children, you will be pitied. People will wonder aloud what is wrong with you; it will be thought that your devotion to your career has left you lonely and barren. Your appearance will be dissected, your life choices examined as if under a microscope; perhaps the idea of medical infertility might be discussed. Anyone and everyone will have a theory about why and how you failed to produce children.

If you write about yourself, about your life and your feelings, your writing will be called confessional. The word will be said with a sneer; it is not meant as a compliment.

If you write about issues larger than yourself, your work will always be touted as a feminist perspective or a woman’s perspective on the subject; you can never have a thought or opinion without it being viewed by the rest of the world as being coloured by your gender.

If you write about the discrimination and inequality that women face, and don’t immediately follow up with a list of double standards imposed on men, you will be accused of misandry. If you discuss violence against women without adding in that yes, sometimes women can be violent towards men, you will be accused of misrepresenting the facts. If you don’t qualify every discussion about women’s issues with the fact that, yes, men have issues specific to them, then you don’t believe in equality.

You will find yourself inhabiting a scarcity mindset. If another woman achieves fame or success by writing on the same subjects as you, you will assume that all praise and recognition have been used up. Having grown up fed on a media diet of cartoons, books, video games and sitcoms featuring only one or two token female characters, you will truly believe that there is room for only one woman at the top of any given field. This will lead to intense feelings of jealousy any time another woman succeeds; this will lead to the desire to tear other women and their work down, in order to make room for yourself. Should you experience any kind of success, you will find yourself the target of the same type of fear and envy. You will become the subject of take downs by other women who see you as an obstacle standing in their way.

You will quickly learn that being seen as someone who embraces the middle ground, someone who constantly qualifies all of their beliefs with statements like, but I can understand the other side of the argument, will be greatly beneficial to your popularity as a writer. Seeing issues as black and white will earn you the label of “extremist,” and cause others to distance themselves from your work. As a woman, you will constantly need to tone it down, bite your tongue, and above all else present yourself as being sweet and unthreatening. Otherwise you will not be taken seriously.

You will quickly learn that constantly equivocating will lead others, especially women, to dismiss you as wishy washy. You will be accused of backtracking. Men will tell you that they do not enjoy your writing because it is lacking in bombast and ego. You have to come across as firm, uncompromising, certain in your beliefs. You have to approach writing with a take-no-prisoners mentality. Otherwise you will not be taken seriously.

You will quickly learn that when you challenge the glaring inequalities in the old boys’ club of the literary world, you will be branded as angry. People will insinuate, or outright say, that any obstacles that you might face are evidence of your lack of talent and commitment, rather than a systemic and deeply ingrained misogyny. You will be called paranoid and crazy, accused of engaging in victimology; no one will want to acknowledge how very sad and frustrated it makes you that you have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good.

You will quickly learn that you cannot ever, ever win.

woman_typing_vintage

Ten Lies Depression Tells You

7 Aug

1. You are a bad person who deserves bad things.

2. You are unhappy because you are lazy or lacking in willpower. Happiness is a choice, a choice that you have failed to make. Somehow, somewhere over the course of your lifetime, when faced with some metaphysical fork in the road, you chose the wrong path. You brought this curse down on yourself.

3. Your sadness is the baseline by which the rest of your life should be measured. This sadnesss is your norm, and any other emotions, especially positive ones, are exceptions to the rule. Yes of course there will be good times, of course there will be flashes of joy; you will certainly, on occasion, experience the pleasure of a good book or a ripe juicy peach,  However, those experiences will be few and far between. Your bad days will always outnumber the good.

4. Your family and friends do not love you. Your family are people who feel obligated to spend time with you because as luck would have it you share a similar genetic makeup. Your friends are people that you somehow tricked into thinking that you, as a person, have some kind of value, and now they don’t know how to extricate themselves from your pathetic, needy grasp. No one spends time with you because they enjoy it; they do it out of a sense of duty, a feeling of pity. Whenever you leave a room everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

5. Your family and friends do not want to hear about how sad you are. No matter how sympathetic they may seem, no matter how sincerely they might ask how you are feeling, remember that it’s all an act. The more that you open yourself up to them, the more you pour your heart out, the more resentful of you they become. Do not fall into the trap of sharing your feelings; do not give into the temptation to draw back the curtain and, like a tawdry magician, reveal your grotesque sadness. Your sadness is a choice, remember? This burden is yours to bear alone.

6. Your friends and family deserve better than you. Everyone deserves better than you

7. In order to make up for your unhappiness, it is your responsibility to make sure that everyone around you is happy. If you can manage to maintain a near-constant veneer of kindness, helpfulness and sincere interest in others, then that will make your presence more tolerable. Your amiability, though entirely inadequate, is the best apology that you can make for your existence.

8. Everything is your fault.

If you plan a picnic and it rains, it’s your fault. You should have been more thorough when you checked the weather. You should have learned to be an amateur meteorologist so that you could better read the clouds. You should have packed a canopy. If you go out for dinner, for your once-in-a-blue-moon, hire-a-babysitter-and-wear-a-nice-dress date and the food or service or conversation is anything less than exceptional, it’s your fault. You should have read more restaurant reviews, should have asked friends for more recommendations, should have prepared cue cards with talking points. If someone is unkind to you, it’s your fault. You should have smiled more, been more gracious, tried harder to be whatever it was that they needed in that moment.

Everything is your fault.

9. There is no cure for your sadness, no effective treatment, no way of managing your symptoms. There are, of course, doctors and pills and various therapies that help other people, but you’ve tried all these things and they don’t work for you. Nothing will ever work for you.

10. You will feel this way forever.

trona-fullmoon-1

21 Quotes from Sylvia Plath

31 Jul

1. “Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Young Sylvia Plath

Young Sylvia Plath

2. “God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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3. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”

The Bell Jar

With Ted Hughes

With Ted Hughes

4. “Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to become acutely aware of all I’ve taken for granted.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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5. “The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence. I knew perfectly well the cars were making a noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not have been there at all, for the good it did me.”

The Bell Jar

Syvia Plath

6. “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing.”

Draft of letter to Richard Sassoon

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7. “If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.”

The Bell Jar

plath 1

8. “With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can’t start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It’s like quicksand… hopeless from the start.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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9. “I like people too much or not at all. I’ve got to go down deep, to fall into people, to really know them.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

As a child, with her brother Warren

As a child, with her brother Warren

10. “I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.”

The Bell Jar

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11. “We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.”

Lesbos

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12. “Yes, my consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia with her mother, Aurelia, and her children, Frieda and Nicholas

Sylvia with her mother, Aurelia, and her children, Frieda and Nicholas

13. ” I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.”

Elm

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14. “I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

The Bell Jar

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15. “I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.”

Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950 – 1963

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16. “If they substituted the word ‘Lust’ for ‘Love’ in the popular songs it would come nearer the truth.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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17. “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”

The Bell Jar

With Frieda and Nicholas

With Frieda and Nicholas

18. “To annihilate the world by annihilation of oneself is the deluded height of desperate egoism. The simple way out of all the little brick dead ends we scratch our nails against.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Self- portrait

Self- portrait

19. “What horrifies me most is the idea of being useless: well-educated, brilliantly promising, and fading out into an indifferent middle age.”

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

plath4

20. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”

The Bell Jar

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21. “But everybody has exactly the same smiling frightened face, with the look that says: ‘I’m important. If you only get to know me you will see how important I am. Look into my eyes. Kiss me, and you will see how important I am.’”

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose

30 Jun

It’s been a crazy week, eh, internet? I mean, between Wendy Davis’ filibuster  and the American supreme court repealing DOMA, it’s been pretty exciting all up in here!

And it’s Pride in Toronto right now!

And tomorrow is Canada Day!

Meanwhile, I’m working all weekend, and have spent the last several days alternating between being screamed at by my toddler and struggling to find the motivation to finish my book, since my deadline is July 15th. I mean, in case you were wondering why I haven’t been posting much and also have maybe noticed how incredibly shitty I’ve become at replying to comments. Sorry guys, I kind of suck right now.

Basically my life write now - trying to finish my book while doing my best not to drown

Basically my life write now – trying to finish my book while doing my best not to drown

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about the book on here or not. Probably not. I’m pretty terrible at self-promotion, which is a problem, I guess, when you’re a young, unknown whippersnapper of a writer. Like, when people ask me what my book’s about, I just sort of mumble incoherently and then change the subject. Mind you, I’ve never actually published a book, so I can’t say this with complete certainty, but I’m pretty sure that that’s not how you get people interested in what you’re writing.

Anyway. This book. It’s going to be an e-book, published through Thought Catalog, and will be sold both on their website and on Amazon. The first draft is mostly done, which is kind of bad news, because that means that editing comes next, and editing my own work mostly makes me want to gouge my eyes out. I’m pretty excited about it, though. It even has a title – My Heart is an Autumn Garage. That’s a Salinger reference, specifically a reference to a line from Franny & Zooey, so right away you know that it’s going to be an awesome book.

So what’s this mystery book about? Welllll, it’s about the time that I was hospitalized for depression back in 2003, and all the crazy hijinks and hilarious misadventures that ensued! That is, if by crazy hijinks and hilarious misadventures I mean “possibly the worst, most frightening thing that has ever happened to me.”

Writing this book has been both a weirdly nostalgic experience and super anxiety-inducing. The former because even though the summer and fall of 2003 were a really fucking terrible time in my life, it was neat cracking open my old journals and reading all the weird little details about my life back then. And yeah, a lot of what I wrote was heartbroken and angry, but there were a few things that made me smile –  for example, a pros and cons list that I wrote of reasons why I should or should not kill myself (spoiler alert: I didn’t, even though there was only one item on the “should not” list). That list, by the way, was made with complete earnestness, and there really shouldn’t be anything funny about it, but somehow it feels pretty damn good to read it ten years after the fact and be able to laugh.

Writing this has also brought up a bunch of anxiety because, to be honest, I actually thought that I’d changed a lot since 2003. Like, I’d somehow become  an entirely different person or something. But, of course, even though my circumstances have altered since then, my actual core self is pretty damn similar. Reading those old journals reminded me that I still have all the same old insecurities and fears as ever, and sure, maybe I’m better at coping with them now, but my coping abilities feel fragile and feeble at best, and it seems like it wouldn’t take much to bring me right back to where I was.

And speaking of being right back where I was, that’s sort of what I’ve been doing while writing this book, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve been working really hard to get into the headspace I was in ten years ago, those good old days when Halifax seemed like a mean, grey trap and suicide felt like the only way out. By and large I’ve been pretty successful at recapturing those feelings (thanks Past Self for all your extremely detail-oriented journal entries – way to look out for Future Self!), and while I do think slipping back into how I felt and thought in those days will make the book much stronger and more immediate, it hasn’t exactly felt great for my present-day self. It’s hard not to read pages and pages of hopelessness, regret, and suicidal ideation without starting to think, hmmmm, maybe she has a point.

So that’s basically where I am these days. There’s been a lot of writing and self-reflection over the past few weeks, and a healthy dose of change, too. These have, in the long run, all been good things, I think, but they’ve also been kind of wearing on me, and I haven’t exactly been the most fun person to be around. I also feel that I never have enough hours in the day, although somehow I always magically have enough time to refresh Facebook obsessively or check my email fifty times, so I dunno. I’d better get my shit together soon, though, because it’s summer and I fucking love summer. First of all, it’s my birthday in a little over a month. Second of all, summer. And if you’re one of those assholes who hates summer and will spend the next two months complaining about how hot it is, well, you know where the door is.

In other news, I will be in Chicago at the end of July speaking at the BlogHer conference on the topic of “Mental Health in the Online Space.” I’ve never been to Chicago, so I am pretty stoked! I know all about how their hospitals work, though, based on my obsessive teenage watching of both ER and Chicago Hope.

Hey, Dr. Carter?

Call me, okay?

Also, my friend Audra started a blog called Enthusiasm Makes the Difference. I asked her if it was going to be a blog about blow jobs, because I feel like that is a scenario where enthusiasm really can mean the difference between a great blow job and just a so-so blow job, but she said that it was only going to be about oral sex sometimes. Anyway, she is a great writer and you should probably check her out!

Oh, and if you want to read some advice that I gave Sheila Heti about change and decision-making, you can check that out here.

In conclusion, I will leave you with my favourite scene from The Royal Tenenbaums, which I have been watching this week in the name of RESEARCH. Because the fact is that only ten days before I was planning on killing myself, Elliott Smith committed suicide by stabbing himself in the chest. And I can’t think of Elliott Smith without remembering the part in the Royal Tenenbaums when Luke Wilson’s character slashes his wrists while Smith’s Needle In The Hay plays on the soundtrack. And oh frig, you guys, this scene gets me every time. There’s just so much feeling, but it’s so quiet and lovely and happy-sad. Oh man.

Fiction: Georgiana

17 Jun

*TRIGGER WARNING FOR SUGGESTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT*

It’s important to find the perfect words.

Not everyone believes this, of course. People will often say that they don’t have the right words to explain or describe something, but in Georgiana’s experience, there is a perfect word for anything if only you’re willing to look hard enough for it.

Most people aren’t willing to make enough of an effort to find the perfect word. They’re happy to stick to the nouns, verbs and adjectives that they know, doing their best to to pinch and pull them into new shapes for new situations. This is, in Georgiana’s opinion, like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole – you might be able to do it, and you might even be able to convince yourself that it fits, but everyone else will still feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Right now, sitting at the kitchen table, she is testing out a new word. She does this by writing it out, letting her hand feel the truth of it as it guides the pen across the paper. First she prints COURTESAN in neat block letters across the top, then, after a moment’s consideration, she writes MY MOTHER IS A COURTESAN in elegant script half-way down the page. Georgiana’s handwriting is the best in her eighth-grade class. In fact, she won an award in a penmanship competition held at her school last year. Georgiana’s mother had snorted at this and said that it was ridiculous to give a prize for something no one cared about anymore, but Georgiana disagrees, and keeps the certificate they gave her in her second-best desk drawer. Penmanship, like baking bread or crocheting lace, is a skill that she has no immediate use for, but could very likely come in handy sometime in the unforeseeable future.

Georgiana slouches in her seat and stares at the paper, narrowing her eyes until her brow begins to furrow. My mother is a courtesan. Does it fit? Is it right? She tilts her head first to one side, then the other, then slowly lets her eyes drift out of focus. She’s feeling as though she’s getting quite close to something when the sound of her mother’s keys in the door interrupts her meditation. She quickly sits up and folds the paper neatly in half, then in half again before sliding it into the pocket of her skirt. A moment later, her mother, Peggy, appears in the kitchen and drops a quick kiss on the top of Georgiana’s head before heading over to refrigerator.

“Jesus Christ have I ever had a long day,” Peggy says to the carton of eggs on the second shelf. “I need about three drinks and then another drink on top of that. Honey, what do I want to drink? Do I want beer or wine?”

“I don’t know,” Georgiana answers, peevishly. “How should I know what you want? I’m not a mind-reader. You’re being stupid. You’re being stupid and you’re wasting energy by leaving the fridge open.”

“My thirteen-year-old daughter thinks I’m stupid. Quelle surprise. Next you’ll be insulting my taste in music.”

Georgiana twists a stray lock of hair around her finger as she watches her mother pour herself a glass of riesling.

“Mom,” she begins, keeping her voice carefully bored and distant. “Mom, what’s a courtesan?”

“Look it up. You know how to work a dictionary, and God knows that there are enough of them around here.”

“I tried, but I can’t find mine, and the door to your office is locked.”

This is patently untrue. Or rather, the lost dictionary is untrue, although Peggy’s office really is locked – it’s always best to add a little bit of truth into your lies, Georgiana has learned. It makes them that much more believable. With the right amount of fact and fiction, Georgiana knows that she can manipulate her mother into giving her some approximation of what the word means.

Not that she really wants a definition. What she wants is to see her mother’s reaction to the word.

Peggy sighs and rolls her eyes heavenward, as if deep in thought.

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess a courtesan is a woman who’s involved with a married man, and lives off the money and gifts he gives her. A sort of sex-worker, but not really in the way that we currently understand that term. She’s not exactly a prostitute, more like a professional mistress. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though – it’s an old-fashioned word that no one really uses anymore.”

Like penmanship, Georgiana thinks, coolly maintaining her blank gaze as she watches her mother’s face. Is that a ripple of anxiety? Or embarrassment? It’s gone too soon for Georgiana to tell.

“Go change in to something nice,” says Peggy, ignoring her daughter’s stare. “We’re going to Eric’s for dinner,”

“But I’m already wearing a skirt,” Georgiana protests, conscious of the childish whine creeping into her voice.

“Well, I guess you’re going to have to put on a nicer skirt, then, aren’t you?”

And with that, her mother takes her drink into the living room and turns on the news, neatly ending the conversation before Georgiana can voice any other complaints. She sighs and begins to mount the stairs to her bedroom, dragging her feet as loudly and obnoxiously as possible.

Eric is her mother’s boss, and Georgiana is certain that the two of them are an item, as her grandmother would say. Although Eric has been a part of Georgiana’s life for nearly as long as she can remember, she has only recently become aware of his true feelings for her mother. After reviewing all of the evidence, though, Georgiana can’t believe she’s been so blind for so long.

First of all, there’s the fact that Georgiana and her mother should not be able to afford to live the way that they do. Take this house, for example – their neighbours all have high-powered, lucrative careers, and the street is dotted with doctors, lawyers and hedge fund managers. Peggy, meanwhile, is the arts editor for the small, left-wing magazine that Eric owns. Georgiana has heard Eric say more than once that the magazine will never be profitable. How, then, are they able to own this house? How is Peggy able to keep Georgiana adequately clothed and fed? How does the liquor cabinet manage to stay so well stocked?

Next, there are all the evenings that Peggy spends at Eric’s house, supposedly “working”. But why do they need to meet at night? They see each other at the office all day long.

Georgiana’s mother used to leave her with a babysitter on the evenings when she had to “work late”, but lately she’s been bringing her daughter along, forcing her to dress nicely and pick her way through so-called gourmet meals cooked by Eric himself. But where is Eric’s wife? She is always noticeably absent during Georgiana’s visits to his house. The official story is that Eric’s wife is frequently out of town, “on business”, a reply that is both vague and entirely unsatisfying.

And then there are the swanky vacations her mother takes, alone, if you believe what she says. At least once a year Georgiana is dumped at her grandmother’s apartment, left to navigate her way through a sea of porcelain figurines and doilies, while her mother flies off to Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Milan. Last year it was Paris. Paris! Who goes to the most romantic city in the world by themselves? It’s clear that, when thoughtfully examined, Georgiana’s mother’s stories are totally lacking in credibility.

There are other, smaller things, as well. There’s the way that her mother behaves during Eric’s late night phone calls, like a giddy schoolgirl who suddenly has the attention of the cutest boy in the class. There’s the mysterious jumble of soft, velvety jewellery boxes in her mother’s underwear drawer, a stash that has grown alarmingly over the past several years. Worst of all, there’s the way that Georgiana’s mother treats Eric’s thoughts and ideas as though they come from God himself. If Georgiana has to hear “Eric thinks…” or “Eric feels…” one more time, she might slit her wrists.

Up until today, Georgiana hadn’t exactly been entirely certain that something was going on between her mother and Eric. The problem was that she’d been missing the right word to describe their relationship. She’d tried out fuck-friend, but that was crass and uncouth and not befitting of two adults involved in an adult situation. She’d also given the term mistress a whirl, but it was too dowdy, too boring. The word courtesan, on the other hand, has a lovely sing-song rhythm that Georgiana can’t get out of her head. It sounds vaguely foreign, and yet is a perfectly respectable English word. It’s elegant, rich, sensual, and bordering on obsolete.

Exactly the term she’s been waiting for.

After pulling on a suitably nice dress, Georgiana stands in front of her mirror and braids her coarse, wavy brown hair. She stares at herself critically, then suddenly leans in towards her reflection and viciously whispers, your mother’s a whore and you’re a stupid, ugly bitch.

She stays suspended in this position, her mouth so close to the glass that her breath appears as a fog. The edge of the bureau digs uncomfortably into her stomach, but she doesn’t mind. It actually feels sort of good, in a strange way. She waits until the funny ache bisecting her abdomen becomes more than she can stand, then pushes herself back and turns to rummage around in her closet, pulling out a pair of well-worn ballet flats.

She steps into her shoes and then sits on the edge of her bed, her face as blank and impassive as a mask.

The drive to Eric’s house is short and silent. Georgiana slides as far down in her seat as possible, fiddling with her braid, clenching the end of it between her mouth and her nose to make a mustache. Her mother, who hates driving, stares grimly at the road, her hands clenched in a death grip around the wheel from the moment they leave the house until they pull into Eric’s driveway. Eric, as always, is waiting for them, ready to open the door before they can even ring the bell.

“Peggy, you look lovely,” Eric says, kissing Georgiana’s mother on the cheek as he takes her coat. “I can’t believe you’re the same person who was having a minor meltdown three hours ago.”

“Oh God,” Peggy laughs, “wasn’t that a nightmare? I need a drink. I mean, another drink.”

“And the young Georgiana, beautiful as always,” Eric continues as Georgiana shrugs her jacket into his waiting hands.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye, saying nothing, listening for the crackle of her secret paper, stealthily transferred from one pocket to another, as he hangs her jacket in the closet. The noise is wonderfully satisfying.

Dinner is paella, and Georgiana spends the first half of the meal picking out the vegetables and moving them to the edge of the plate. Once that’s done, she concentrates on the edible parts of the dish. She has her first forkful of beans, rice and meat halfway to her mouth when Eric says,

“So, Georgiana, what are you studying these days?”

Georgiana is hovering between answering his question and stuffing her mouth full of food when Peggy replies for her.

“Don’t bother asking her, she’ll just tell you she doesn’t remember. Gigi never remembers what she’s learned at school, it’s one of her charming trademarks.”

Georgiana drops her fork with a clatter and turns on her mother.

“Don’t call me that,” she spits out.

“What, Gigi? Don’t be silly, I’ve always called you that.”

Peggy rolls her eyes at Eric, a gesture so entirely dismissive that Georgiana feels her face and chest flush with rage. Part of her knows that she will later feel embarrassed by what she’s about to say, but right now all she can feel is the rush of it, the exhilarating sense of being swept up in her anger.

“It’s a stupid name. It’s the name for a dog. It’s so humiliating. No one calls me that but you.”

“What do your friends call you?” asks Eric.

It’s such an unexpected question that Georgiana is immediately disarmed. She looks between Eric and her mother, their faces both calm and inquiring, and feels herself deflate.

“George,” she says, neglecting to mention the fact that she doesn’t have any friends. “It’s nice and short and gets right to the point.”

“Ah, yes, but what is the point?” Eric wonders aloud.

Georgiana, unable to tell if he’s laughing at her, ducks her head and takes refuge in her dinner. After a few minutes the centre of her dish is clear, leaving only a ring of vegetables.

“May I take my dessert in the library?” she asks, pushing her plate away.

Eric looks at Peggy, who shrugs her assent.

“It’s the chocolate cake on the counter in the kitchen,” he calls out as she beats a hasty retreat.

Or rather, she beats what only appears to be a hasty retreat. After she’s taken several loud steps towards the kitchen, Georgiana does a quick pirouette on the hardwood floor of the hall and then creeps back towards the dining room. She lingers at the edge of the pool of light spilling from the doorway, her mouth hanging half open as she strains to listen.

God, I’m so sorry about that,” she hears her mother say. “She’s been so terrible lately. I’m trying so hard to just ignore her, because I know that at that age any attention is good attention, but Jesus Christ is it ever hard not to smack her sometimes.”

Eric murmurs something in response, but Georgiana can’t hear what it is.

She know that she should be upset over what her mother said, but instead she feels meanly glad. Good, she thinks, I’m glad she wants to smack me. I hope she does someday. I hope she does tomorrow.

Eavesdropping makes her hungry, and Georgiana feels entirely justified in cutting herself two enormous slices of cake. She carries her plate and a glass of milk down the dim hallway, towards the back of the house. The library, as Eric calls it, is really just a small-ish sitting room lined with bookshelves and furnished with two comfortably ancient armchairs, a couple of mismatched lamps and a sturdy but beat up old table. Most of the shelves are tall, reaching almost to the ceiling, but one of them is a squat, handsome case fronted by two neat little glass doors. This houses Eric’s collection of rare, first edition and out-of-print books, and Georgiana makes a beeline for it.

She spends an hour and a half with a 19th century medical encyclopedia, poring over woodcut drawings of syphilis infected genitalia and deformed fetuses. The pictures are fascinating and nauseating at the same time; looking at them makes Georgiana’s skin crawl, but she feels compelled to keep turning the pages. When she finally can’t take any more she closes the book and reverently places it back on the shelf. She feels strange, shivery and sweat-slicked, as though she’s just awoken from a bad dream. A thin, piercing headache is blooming right between her eyes.

She decides to go find her mother. Peggy and Eric will be upstairs, she knows, in the office, which is shinier and newer than the library. The office is probably where they do it. The thought makes Georgiana’s stomach turn over and causes her headache to spread until she can feel it pulsing through every vein, her scalp alive with tiny filaments of pain. The door to the office is closed, and Georgiana can hear her mother and Eric talking and laughing softly behind it. She is about to knock, about to tell her mother that she’s feeling sick and wants to go home, when suddenly she hears something. It’s her mother’s voice, contorted almost beyond recognition, groaning, sighing. Georgiana turns on her heel and runs to the bathroom.

She crouches over the toilet, sweat beading along her hairline. Her arms are shaking and her heart is pounding, sickness welling inside of her as she stares at the water. She wishes that her mother was there to hold her hair. She wishes that she’d never left the library, that she hadn’t been so rude at dinner, that she’d never started this whole stupid thing. Her breath comes in gasps, her stomach clenches hard and she gags, but nothing comes up. Her body, completely beyond her control, relaxes and then stiffens as she gags again and again. Tears begin to drip down her face, splashing into the toilet bowl beneath her.

Then, slowly, the nausea begins to recede, leaving her trembling and empty. When she feels steady enough, she pushes herself to her feet and runs cold water in the sink, splashing it on her face. Her head still aches, so she eases the elastic off the end of her braid and shakes her hair out until it frames her face like a mane. Between the cloud of her hair and her thin, pale face, the effect is distinctly pre-raphaelite, a wan Rosetti goddess, perhaps, or a despairing angel. She takes a step back and turns first one way, then the other. Her dress is made out of soft, stretchy fabric and she pulls it down over her shoulders, exposing both breasts. She lightly runs her hand across her nipples until they stand up like pencil erasers. Something begins to uncoil inside of her, like a vine, like a snake.

In her earlier haste to get into the bathroom she left the door ajar and now it begins to swing inward. Georgiana turns towards it, sort of almost accidentally forgetting to pull her dress back up. Eric is outlined in the doorway, bright against the dimness of the hall behind him. Georgiana gives him a look that she hopes is defiant, daring, her lashes lowered over what she thinks of as smouldering eyes. She expects him to be embarrassed, or even shocked at the sight of her breasts, but the expression on his face is frank, appraising. She shrinks back as he takes a step towards her, pulling her dress up over her chest. She is trembling again.

“I think I had too much cake,” she hears herself say, her voice childish and faltering. To her relief, he turns away.

She watches Eric leave the room, hears him call her mother. Peggy comes, lays a hand on her daughter’s forehead, then guides her out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Georgiana feels dreamily detached, like a spectator seated very far away from the action. She stands calmly as her mother rushes around, gathering her notebooks and folders together. She allows Peggy to help her into her coat and shoes while Eric hovers solicitously in the background.

At home, Peggy leads her daughter up to her bedroom and peels the dress off her feverish body.

“I’m sorry,” Georgiana says she burrows under her sheets, although she’s not sure what she’s apologizing for.

“My poor Gigi,” Peggy says, kissing the tip of her nose, “I forgive you, even if Eric and I were in the middle of something very important.”

Georgiana, her cheeks flushing pink and her mouth suddenly twisting into a snarl, uses the last of her strength to push herself up close to her mother’s face.

“I know what you do,” she spits, “I know what you and Eric do together. I know exactly what you are, and I think you’re revolting. You make me sick.”

A look of deep, frightened hurt spread’s across Peggy’s face, but is quickly replaced by a wintry smile.

“Go to sleep,” Peggy says calmly, “it’s late. Call me if you need anything.”

Georgiana sinks back, exhausted, feeling strangely empty now that’s she’s divulged her secret. Her mind is very still and quiet, the restless anger drained from it like pus from an abcess.

The next day, Peggy lets her daughter stay home from school, although she herself goes to work. Georgiana, for her part, enjoys her fever, the lightness and giddiness of it, and also the weakness. She spends the day in bed, eating grapes and reading comic books. The light outside is grey, soothing. She is safe, cocooned in her illness.

The day darkens into twilight, and her mother comes home. She brings a little tissue paper-wrapped package into her daughter’s room and lays it on her lap. Georgiana peels back the soft, thin layers slowly, revealing a small, lacquered wooden box. On the lid there is a young deer looking nervously over its shoulder, its eyes somehow both frightened and curious.

“It’s from Eric,” her mother says, perhaps a bit too casually, “he says that it reminded him of you. Don’t ask me why.”

Georgiana feels a small surge of triumph as she turns the box over in her hands. Triumph over what? She will have to untangle this later. For now, she contents herself with watching her mother’s face. Is that anxiety, creasing the edges around her mouth? Is that anger flashing somewhere deep in her eyes? Georgiana isn’t sure.

She settles back against her pillow and looks at the box, stroking her fingers along the deer’s back.

“Tell him thank you,” she says, finally. “Tell him that I know exactly what it means.”

Peggy gets up and leaves the room. Georgiana falls asleep, her flushed cheek pressed up against the cool painted wood. Outside her window, the streetlights come on and the world, for once, is very, very quiet.

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