March 14, 2019
When I got up my wife made porridge and I washed the dishes, my first chore in several days. It was my third day of confinement; two days earlier I’d had two wisdom teeth removed, a procedure that turned out to be much simpler than the long weeks of anxiety leading up to it. Since then I had been watching my face swell, faintly enjoying the feeling like I’d just been punched and generally acting like a princess. Usually I think we divide household chores between us pretty well, with swings and dips depending upon who is working more at any one time, but the last few days I had been like a spoiled, pampered baby. Every now and then she brought me a freshly made soup or carton of ice cream. In return she was allowed to laugh at my moonface.
The porridge was soft and I could eat it with the side of my mouth that wasn’t banged up and raw. But halfway through, one spoonful flooded to the wrong side of my mouth and I abruptly lost it: completely gone, hidden in the new thick folds of my cheek, like a squirrel storing food up for the winter. It really surprised me.
My dad called and we talked for an hour or so, mostly about books that we were reading and the idea of reading itself. He told me about a study that said being read to changes your brain patterns in some fundamental way, and the way your synapses connect. He said we’ve known for a long time that it was good for kids but now we know that it’s also good for adults, there are programs around reading to adults who have been through trauma, or reading to adults in prison.
My dad works in rehabilitative justice. I thought about when my dad used to read to us, when we were kids. He read us The Witches by Roald Dahl which terrified me for years and years. In particular, the way he read the voice of the Grand High Witch was the most frightening thing I could imagine, some voice of unholy evil. In hindsight, I realise that he put on a faint German accent, so now I spend my days surrounded by my childhood nightmare.
After I hung up I worked on the story I was writing, a difficult scene that started to come together despite everything, and then I went and had a long bath with The Custom of the Country, which I became infatuated with. I kept topping up the hot water and thinking, one more chapter and I’ll get out. The only problem with it was all the sandwich references. I had been living off soup and yoghurt and ice cream for three days. I yelled, I want a hamburger, which made my wife laugh.
The thing about Edith Wharton novels that always gets me is that sense of inevitability, like everyone in the book is going down a dark tunnel that is narrowing further in and in, and you always want to call out to the characters and warn them, even the ones you don’t like, but obviously you can’t. Edith Wharton doesn’t really like anyone and you can’t even tell her off for being a snob because she sees right into the secret heart of everyone and just doesn’t like them anyway.
I didn’t wash my hair but I scrubbed myself down with one of those rough gloves and shaved my armpits and got out and felt pleasantly clean, faint and wrinkled. I thought my face had gone down a little. I dressed in soft grey and green clothes and then I went and sat by the window in our kitchen with the cat in my lap. It was grey and rainy.
Across the street there were people pulling an endless stream of junk down onto the pavement in front of the building: plastic chairs, several punctured mattresses, a broken couch with the covering all pulled off, tables, bookshelves, a step ladder, plastic bags of clothes, all of it wrecked and splintered.
My wife said that they must be calling someone to pick it up; they couldn’t just be leaving it there. I thought maybe they were just abandoning it all. She said that surely if they were just dumping it they would at least drag it over to the corner so it didn’t look so damningly obvious, so clearly their fault. I don’t know, I said. Later she made broccoli and mint soup and I went over to put my nose back against her shoulder. The next morning we woke up and the rubbish was gone.
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