Emma was a woman. Which wasn’t to say this was a profound commentary, but in some ways it was all you might say. And perhaps that was profound in and of itself. She was rather plain. On the outside. And maybe on the inside, too. Maybe all her problems are all too average now, plain, “vanilla” they say. But that’s a social commentary for another story.
As for our Emma? She was not quite fat, but not too thin. She wasn’t that tall, but you couldn’t say short. Her hair was long, this is true, but the way she wore it made it look shorter. She wore clothes, of course, but they weren’t memorable. If asked to describe her after a day or too, you’d shrug. She’s a woman, is what you’d recall.
Now none of this was a bad thing. In and of itself. And Emma had made peace with it all, on the outside. On the inside there was a different story. On the inside was a cauldron of pressures, some of which were real, most of which were an amalgamation of all the things that had ever frustrated her. Unrequited frustrations made Passions, become obsessions. She kept them with her memories of all the extremes she had gone to lengthwise in avoiding being seen as plain. Plain being the death-knell of womanhood, her stilted guts told her.
But she was married now, plain and simple. And she had a baby. That meant she had a husband. Didn’t mean that for everyone, but it did her. She should have been happy. That niggling little fact that she wasn’t tore her up inside. And out. You could see that under her eyes, the skin was ever so purple. Now her doctor, she said it was an iron deficiency and lack of sleep. Emma, she knew better.
Which is precisely, she told herself often enough, why she wasn’t happy. She wasn’t like her sister who neatly fell into the wide open category of “fat dumb and happy.” She wasn’t like her mother, in the wider and slightly less acknowledged category of “incredibly quietly self-medicated.” And she certainly wasn’t like her father, him being dead. On the outside, not just the inside. Nope. She knew better. She didn’t drink. Except on special occasions, and only after the baby was in bed. Unless she was having a real bad day. She wasn’t quite fat, but she wasn’t as thin as she’d been. You’ve got to love yourself where you are. And she didn’t do lots of drugs. Just headache pills and antidepressants- but only when she needed them. Which was more often than you’d think, because life is hard.
She remembered being a girl, with her single mother critiquing her every choice. Her every movement, really. Even when she sat still, her posture somehow left a lot to be desired. It was all so awful. She looked forward to the day she got married to some wonderful man like in the Hallmark Movies. But her mother, she disabused her of the notion. Men are pigs, you understand. They only want one thing, and it’s everything. Which is disgusting. Emma might have dared to disagree, but by then her confidence was thoroughly shattered. Besides: everything she saw from the television said her mother was right. And that made her so angry.
Her sister wasn’t angry. Her sister never made sense. And Emma hated that. She got married straight away after high school and flew the coop. She was so boring. Safe. Emma, Emma was not, Emma did not. No marriage, not safe. She had started dating late, but used her dates as a vehicle for revenge. Against what, she wasn’t sure she knew. Everything? She knew she looked very nice hanging off an athletic man’s arm. So controversial. With her edgy urban hairstyles and expectation subverting clothes, corrupting straight laced, clean cut boys. She had also thought if she could break enough hearts, she might feel validated. She never did. Those same men, she began to notice later, ended up with very specific types of women. No worse for wear after losing her from their lives. They were all of them, to varying degrees of noticeability, quite plain.
One day in her 20s she broke down and went to her sister. She asked her why she thought all of this was. Why was she happy? She didn’t do anything right. She didn’t continue her education. She didn’t rebel, or fly her freak flag, fight the power or anything. No. She loved her husband and listened to him, and her kids listened to her. And she also let herself go. She was, literally, the worst at being a woman. She did none of the things Emma was always taught a woman should do.
“The secret is I stopped caring when we were kids,” her sister had told her, “because I knew I’d never win, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be winning anything that made me happy. Why do I wanna live my life for everyone else’s script?”
If that hadn’t been bad enough, her sister went on, “nobody else gives a shit neither. Nobody’s going to remember how rebellious you are when you need a walker. But when I’m old, I’ll still have my family who loves me. I eat what I want, I wear what I want. I try to be a good wife. That’s enough. When I have kids, I’ll be a good mom. It’s not always about me, in fact, it hardly never is. Be yourself, quit obsessing, everything else falls into place. Mostly.”
Those words felt more like ice injecting themselves into Emma’s veins. Her fingers grew cold and her heart moved slow. Forever onward, upon reflecting on those words, she might still feel a chill. So she took those words to heart. All she had needed, like so many others in failing lifeboats like hers, was a permission slip.
After that she let her hair grow out. She started painting her nails a soft pink instead of curious colours. She traded her menagerie of edgy, stilted clothing based in various musical subcultures for longsleeved shirts that would hide her various tattoos, so now she could be Trad until the clothes came off, leaving her forever with a Jekyll/Hyde divide. She bought skirts that didn’t show off every muscle in her power fighting legs and shoes that were sensible and wouldn’t give her back problems later in life, or the afternoon being a foreshadowing of a more permanent later.
That is when the plainness settled itself upon her. On the outside. Precisely when she felt the gnawing lack of excoriating attention received otherwise validating her decision to rebel. On the inside, there was still a void she couldn’t fill. Still. She liked the courteous attention that being courteous got her. Her patience, in time, was rewarded. She met a man. A nice man, as it went, she was ashamed to say a good man. In the beginning she tried to dominate him, subtly, but she failed. She thought. It made her angry. However as time and failure went on, she came to respect him. Trust, even. In her way, she thought. And she changed proportionally. She couldn’t outperform him physically, and after a year or so she excused herself from her gym routine and her largely unnecessary crash diets. She could feel her edges soften. She tried to impress him intellectually, but oftentimes he was a step ahead. He knew her better than she knew herself. She she stopped thinking as much.
He knew other things too. Such as why society had deteriorated as it had. She hated that he had figured all these things out. Not for mere spite, but that there were people who had known these things all along and women like Emma were left with a gnawing pain and equidistant emptiness that never goes away. Where were they when she had needed him?
It ate at her. So she fought him, quietly. Even as she wore the dress, the symbol of her new life as a plain old woman, part of her hated it. She hated it because she couldn’t get over her emotional blockages to love it. She was in limbo, she had understood why her old life had been poison, but all of existence threatened that her new life was too good to be true. A husband who cares, who has those wicked patriarchal values like loyalty and caring. She wanted him to be wrong. But he almost never was. Maybe wrong about small little things, but rarely about the big picture.
So she focused on the little things to validate her frustrations. She obsessed over the fact that he didn’t validate her on every conceivable ground which, she reasoned, meant he didn’t love her as much as she could. It was hard for him to discuss his feelings, which meant he was cold. She continued in that vein until she was able to imprison herself in an emotional kaleidoscope of narrowing paranoiac intensity.
Ah, but sometimes these sorts of life stories lead up to pivotal moments. After a lifetime of feeling inarticulately wrong, of feeling she didn’t add up to society’s expectations only to realize it was herself she was sabotaging- and choosing to continue doing it anyway – a new brand of flu came to town.
This flu, which was more of a glorified cold, led to the massive shutdown of the world. For a year, many families were trapped in their homes. Her husband of course, her stupid, technically often right husband – said it was all fake news. Of course he did. But trapped they were all the same. To her mortification he refused to wear the mask after a few weeks.
During this year of lockdown many marriages ended. Not theirs. He absorbed her increasing emotional passive aggression. It made him distant. It fuelled her suspicions. But he never really faltered, only disappeared into a growing silence. What he didn’t do, was give her the validation she craved. It never occurred to her to treat validation democratically, and to ask what things she might do to get what she wanted. Rather she always did things her way and expected to be congratulated in precisely the words she wished to hear- nothing else would do.
As year one of the 2 week period the government had allotted for the virus to work itself out in elapsed, it became harder to believe the narrative. After 2 years the majority of people paid it lip service. It was just another bad religion. Emma herself had become embroiled in the truth movement as a cope. It did, after all, allow her to exercise her twisted and unrequited childhood holdover need to be in a position of storm and stress.
She internalized all the pressures of hearing all day “where’s your mask,” being called a bad parent for refusing the vaccines, and so forth. Which brings us to our moment.
It was evening. The sun was chasing skirt along the treeline, causing a heavy orange glow to blanket the tarmac and dance with waxing shadows. There was a stiff breeze tossing leaves, occasionally sending those leaves to torment the faces of leaf peepers. She should have laughed, but a lifetime of depression and almost making it had rendered Emma dead inside. And where was her husband? Inside the gas station, fetching her the carton of boxed wine she wanted. He should have known better, should have laid down the law. Which was true. But they were both broken people, living in a broken world.
She sat there in the passenger seat listening to the most appallingly cheerful of modern Gospel. Tunes sung by what one hazarded to guess was a man whose profound misfortune was having a voice so effeminate you’d wonder if his testes had been kicked by satanic midgets with masterful baritones. She didn’t smile. Behind her headrest was the peak of the car seat which contained her crying, nay, wailing daughter. Emma’s hands were on her knees, and she sat demurely. Passively. That was the right thing, right? She asked. Submission to pain, it’s dignity.
As with many messages she had made among the worst possible conclusions from her attempt to embrace Traditional Christianity. A thing which was neither Christian nor Traditional. Nevermind that her husband was not Christian, nor even particularly well disposed toward the abomination that lurked in every modern Synagogue of Satan who interposed the US Flag with that of Israel. She knew that He was the Way, and all that. Not because of any profound theological knowledge or insight, it was really just a feeling. But hey, woman’s intuition, amirite?
Maybe. But as with many things it was her twisted perception she would not let go of that she followed as Truth. She had not read the Bible, rather than listened to pastors who claimed that they had. How would she know, that they knew what they know? They could have been uncircumcised Philistines for all she knew. But, she knew better. She could feel it. When she felt at all.
She was, after all, doing well with herself. She sat so quiet, so straight and prim and proper. So dignified. Surely somebody would notice and give her the compliments she deserved. She glanced over at the empty driver’s seat and gave a sigh of impatience before reaching into the glove compartment for another lorazepam to add to the fistful already in her belly mixing perhaps uncomfortably with some cheap wine. Just the act of popping the pill was somehow relaxing. Her shoulders melted back and she sank into her seat. She almost tuned out the baby’s crying.
And she would’ve kept sitting there, were it not for the sudden rapping on her window. She jumped, naturally, feeling a swift and sudden rage with being startled. She slowly looked out the window to see a gaunt middle-aged woman dangerously close to crossing the threshold and finding herself over the hill. Her short cropped hair reeked of self-importance. So too, for that matter, did her fiercely crow’s-footed eyes peeing out from behind problem glasses set over a black embroidered masque with the word “superhero” written in honest-to-God rhinestones.
“Excuse me,” the hag crowed, unable to subvert Emma’s expectations. “Did you forget your mask?”
GO FUCK YOURSELF!!! Screamed the voice inside her head.
Outside of her head, the words “no,” are all that came out. “I-“
“Think of your child,” the old broad cawed. “Please: take this,” the crone added with faux-benevolence. If Emma had to guess the biddy probably stood in front of a mirror and pouted like a Saint Statue. She then, to Emma’s benighted shock, began to shove a folded mask through the thin margin left between window and gasket. Emma’s jaw played at words, but nothing that resembled the caustic hate in her mind tumbled forth. Just a segmented grunt of an aborted “thanks.”
The beastly old shrew then waited. Waited! For Emma to put it on, which, with trembling hands, she began to do. It wasn’t until her husband emerged from the store that Emma found herself saved, proverbially speaking, by the bell. Which tolled for the harpie.
“Hey!!” Emma’s husband roared, “who are you? Get away from my car!”
“I don’t appreciate your tone, young man,” the virtue signalling Gorgon breathed, “and where is your mask?”
“I ain’t got one, now get!”
And the ageing social justice warrior was off. Both Emma and her husband could hear the nasty witch muttering about the plague of the unvaccinated, eliciting a stream of vulgarities from Emma’s husband, George. When the shadow of the virtue signal had faded George leaned into her window and made faces at the baby. “They don’t have your wine,” he reported. “What else you want?”
Emma pursed her lips and thought, “Dr. Pepper, please. And maybe a doughnut.”
“Those two things don’t go together at all,” he said chuckling, and disappeared back into the store.
“Says you,” Emma sighed and sank back into her chair. Suddenly aware of a flux of unwanted feelings in her head. She couldn’t remember if she had taken her lorazepam, and so moaning the words “better safe than sorry,” she took another two from the pile.
And again, she could feel her muscles turn to jelly. Sad about the wine, but at least she would get a Twix out of it. Was that what she had asked for? She shrugged, ever so slightly. She could feel something, a voice of doubt in the back of her mind sounding very much like criticism her husband had levelled at her. Addiction is 90% psychological and 10% physiological. She grimaced. Withdrawal. That’s what he had meant. And this was when she was getting off weed and cigarettes to get with him and his little clean air rule. Rules. Rules, rules, rules!
She was broken of the indulgence of her revery with another rap against the glass. I swear to God, she thought. Upon looking out her window she saw not the sea hag she had expected, but a surly man in a trucker hat and a towtruck company vest.
“Ma’am you’re parked illegally,” the gruff man said with an absolute mastery of deadpan that would have shocked even Emma, if she weren’t so dead inside.
Slowly she looked out the windshield and saw the handicap sign. Shit. “Oh no…” she said aloud, in a placatory tone.
“I’m gonna need you to move,” the man said.
“Well I can’t do that,” Emma smiled.
“Because I am very tipsy right now.”
There came a bloated silence. Here were two people at their absolute wit’s end. A competition, unspoken and unneeded, arose.
“Fantastic,” the man grunted, clinging for dear life to his sarcasm as if it were the very buoy of American Life.
“Yeah,” Emma answered, beginning to play with her hands by twiddling her thumbs and tapping her fingers along her knees.
“You know you’re being towed, right?” The surly man asked.
“I know,” she said.
There was no competition. They had both snapped. Action was meeting reaction in a void of causal meaninglessness produced by a senseless social construct dangled over all their heads.
“Whatever,” the man hissed and stormed away.
Emma began to grin as she heard the truck door slam shut, sending echos of disgust roaring between the pumps and reverberating into the convenience store.
“We’re going on an adventure, Tyra,” Emma told her young daughter. Predictably, the infant wailed her response. “Sh, sh, shhh,” Emma intoned, “it’s okay.”
The car shook as the tow cable wrapped around her bumper. The initial shock gave way to a rumble, and then a tremble. Emma grinned as she looked out the windshield to see the convenience store slide out of view as her car angled up over the towtruck ramp.
By now, she was no longer thinking. All that was left of the metacognitive process was pure desire for escape. Flashes of grandiose imagery passed through her mind, fluttering soliloquies of the life she thought she deserved. Soon, the car levelled off, and she saw George emerge, raging, from the store. Maybe he threatened to rip out the driver’s eyes, maybe he didn’t. He had a little more rope before he was at the end, she did not. And that’s all she knew. And she knew she could go somewhere else, if she followed the angry man in the tow-truck.