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Home: The Toast

BE HONEST, Mel writes. (“No pussyfooting around,” her mother’s voice says in her head, but she knows the guys would razz her for writing “pussy.”) I WANT UR OBJECTIVE OPINION. 1 TO 10.

It’s dangerous to ask for a number. Other girls are master fishers, staving off cruelty with their own ruthlessness: i know im fat, i know my hair sucks, i just want to know how hopeless things are. Mostly the guys play along, pointing out good skin or glasses, avoiding the obvious: pretty hopeless. Numbers invite real assessment. The average, for girls brave enough to ask, is seven—Mel would be happy with five.

There are outliers. Girls with clear foreheads, Chiclet teeth, bodies needing no special angles. Some of them are attention whores, sure, but some look out from their photos with such blatant desperation that it’s obvious they really don’t know. It is hard not to find this encouraging.

Not that Mel’s expecting miracles! A glance and a shrug, that’s all she could ask for, a few good features confirmed: nice eyes, long-enough neck, a mouth that (in the right light; if she isn’t imagining things; she would never say it out loud) can bring to mind Anne Hathaway. She’s been catcalled on her way home from volleyball—probably the shorts—though so was Mark Chin when his hair was long, so you can’t put much stock in that. And, of course, there’s Mr. Penner.

Patrick. Sorry.

Here it is, her Hello Kitty avatar, her face loading stripe by freckled stripe. Is the file too big? Should she have said “your”? In through the nose, out through the mouth, thank God for those yoga videos. Just close the window already. She’s almost late for Henry.

 

It’s weird to think she ever found the Penners’ house imposing. “McMansion,” her mother sniffed the first time she dropped her off here (why does she have to be so judgemental?), but Mel had liked the stark blue shadows the pillars and arches could throw without trees to soften their lines. She’d run back twice to check the stone numbers at the foot of the driveway, convinced her eyes had fooled her, that the door would open to some looming stranger. On a sunny day, all that pavement was blinding. Which had been a good excuse for wet eyes.

“Nemo!” Henry commands as she lets herself in now, and she weaves her way through the Play-Dough and fruit leather, the glitter pens and Duplo men with their creepy hook hands.

“Nice to see you, too.” Once, she found a nugget of toddler-poo lodged in the sectional. The glamour didn’t last long.

“Sorry,” says Mr. Penner (Patrick), whom she finds in the kitchen filling up a baggie with Cheerios. “I rented him Dumbo but he couldn’t care less about the classics. No more than one serving of this, okay?”

I’m sorry,” says Mel. “I know you said six thirty.”

“Eight minutes late. You’re fired.” Wink. “There’s grapes and baby carrots in the fridge if he wants something else, but he’s had dinner already. You’re welcome to anything, of course.”

Mel smiles with what she hopes is competence and mirth. She’s been babysitting Henry since the pre-crawling days, since the bathroom overflowed with scented soaps and nipple cream, since Mrs. Penner (never Bethany) counted out Mel’s payment with long tanned fingers, always shorting her a half hour. The house back then was tidier, the air thick with Febreze over the faint sourness of Henry’s diapers. It was Mrs. Penner who started with the Ziploc bags of snacks, a habit Patrick has continued in her stead.

He scoots past her now, wrestling with his jacket sleeve but careful not to brush her side in the cluttered foyer. He’ll have to replace that Eternity soon.

“Where are you off to?”

“Dinner,” he says as Henry makes a break for the open door. Mel intercepts him, setting off another string of outraged demands for Nemo. Patrick shoves his second dress shoe on without unlacing it. “Followed by a twenty-dollar movie. IMAX prices are highway robbery, but apparently they’ve installed those moving seats. You ever been in one?”

He’s outside calling “Eleven-thirty!” over his shoulder before she can reply.

 

“Why?” sings Henry. “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?”

“Because he’s a fish,” says Mel, poking a finger through the fraying afghan as Nemo flails his misshapen fin against a fisherman’s net. “And people catch fish.”

“Why?”

“To eat.”

“Why?”

“Why yourself.”

It’s seven-thirty. She’s kicking herself for the mistimed movie—Henry goes to bed at eight, but she doesn’t dare turn the TV off before the final credits. By now Mel can recite Finding Nemo almost word-for-word; she dreams of languid turtles and sparkling CG water, of Henry’s gleeful kicking beneath the afghan as Dory speaks whale. Here is his elbow at her side, so plush she can hardly feel the bone; here are his Cabbage Patch Kid hands kneading at her thigh. When he was littler Henry would grab for her chest, whining for a drink, and she remembers the mix of shock and unease and bewildering pride this roused in her.

Mel sips guiltily from the opaque thermos disguising her Coke. A hundred and forty calories. Her calves on the ottoman, massive. She thinks back, with a heat in her throat that could be nerves or just the pop, to the stern commandments in her post—all caps! And that stupid squinty sad-smile that has marred every photo she’s been in since age twelve. Maybe her body is set to some base level of attractiveness; grow boobs, give up your smile. But what is her base level?

“Why that happening?”

Henry’s prods have become more pointed. He glances suspiciously at Mel’s fizzing thermos before thrusting his finger at the TV.

“I don’t know, buddy.” She left her hair unstraightened—why hide anything, she’d reasoned—her bra strap visible. They’ll either like that or call her a slut. Or, more likely, both.

Why?” She hears the telltale whine in Henry’s voice and forces herself to look at the movie. The fish tank scene. Oh.

“‘Cause fish can’t breathe out of water, buddy.”

He snuggles in closer, satisfied.

 

Technically she’s not allowed to have her photo online. Never mind that her body is not one any guy would fight to see. Her mother’s always making fun of her for sneaking glances of herself (and they are just glances, it’s not like she stares) in the glass of the microwave, or passing windows, or car mirrors. She gave her the condom spiel on the first day of junior high—no babies having babies in my house! Like Mel would want a baby.

Though she has to admit: sometimes, hearing that impossibly assured voice she takes on with Henry, seeing herself wiping snot off his face with gentle but certain dabs—she does feel something. He looks like Patrick, a proto-Patrick, with that watercolour look of babies, and he looks, too, kind of like her. Back before he got so big she’d hold him for hours, watching herself in the mirrors as she wandered around the house. In those days Mrs. Penner peered down from the walls, too, and Mel took a guilty satisfaction in the crow’s feet and moles in her pictures, the tiny sharp features that looked so little like her son’s.

Henry’s sniffling for another bedtime story now, but Mel knows how to keep from snapping no. It’s easy to let her eyes drift to the doorway as she sways and singsongs through Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel; she’s had it memorized for years. In the fuzzy lamplight it’s easy, too, to picture Patrick’s silhouette. To imagine his voice joining hers: Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel, a beautiful red steam shovel…

A few months ago, Patrick came home with Timbits and twin coffees. Double-double, he’d assured her, and she’d refrained from adding more sugar, sipping hers with a wince she claimed was due to the heat. The two of them sat in the breakfast nook (Mel cross-legged on the plush booth; Patrick, disappointingly, a few feet away on a chair), going through the doughnuts with a sort of dazed devotion. It reminded her of camping, the glow of the kitchen with the world dark outside glass walls, the coffee’s earthy bitterness, her hands sticky around the warm cup. She remembers Patrick licking his fingers with a shy grin; she’d copied him, grinning back. Her mother is still nervous letting her babysit without a woman around, but Patrick is a gentleman, he’s never tried anything. She remembers his faint blush once the Timbits were finally finished.

Or did she imagine that? Was he kidding with the coffee? Had he meant it for someone else?

Ladder,” Henry mumbles, sinking in his mound of pillows as Mel fumbles for her place in the story.

“Ladder,” she agrees, and bends to kiss his downy head.

 

Patrick has left her Coke and Pringles, microwave popcorn, the expensive kind of ice cream her parents skip over for grainy four-litres. Mel stands at the pantry door in the welcome hush of after-bedtime, transfixed, as always, by the excess. Nothing opened. She reaches for the Pringles with the usual mix of glee and regret; in an hour she’ll be bloated, grease-smeared, her bounty sullied. For now she’s suspended by promise. The aluminum seal gives with a little tug, and she lifts the tube to her nose, breathing in with longing.

The evidence:

This pantry, stuffed with her favourites. The fact that he’s asked for her favourites.

The night he brought the doughnuts.

How he always gives her fresh bills, laying them one by one in her hand.

How cagey he is about his dates.

And, of course, there’s Henry. How Mel’s still here to watch him when someone else, embarrassed, might have replaced her after the divorce.

Armed with this reassuring catalogue, she does the rounds, Pringles in hand, starting with the main floor, neutral territory. Next the upstairs hall (tiptoeing past Henry’s door), the guestroom with its pristine daybed, the washroom with its hint of mould and untouched floral hand towels. She leaves the chips outside Patrick’s bedroom, steps in to survey his king-size bed, his dog-eared Canadian Paramedicine and Tom Clancy novels, the plastic Salvador Dali clock drooping off his bookshelf (her gift for him last Christmas, and it can’t be for her that he keeps it around if it’s on display in his bedroom!). He painted the walls a while ago, a matte navy that makes her think of cigars and shoe polish, though she has never seen either of these things in the house. But it’s this room that’s her favourite, the frigid en-suite, with its grey slate tiles and impassive pot lights like something out of a spaceship.

All that cold light should be hideous. She should look like a vampire with her practically see-through skin, yet here she is in the huge spackled mirror—transformed. Tank top sliding off pale shoulders, ribs an elegant ripple, shallow navel begging to be traced by rugged finger. There’s that empty Eternity bottle—would she dare replace it? Would she dare try on the still-damp robe dangling off its hook? Once, she took his toothbrush out of its stainless-steel holder and held it right up to her mouth—a flare of want doused almost immediately by shame. And here it comes again, inevitable as nightfall: the ring of red where her jeans have been pinching. The grease-sheen on her lips. Is it really her yanking her bra back on so fast it scrapes, stomping back to the living room and mushing her damp face into the nubby cushions? Or was it the woman in the mirror? The one that he would want?

Across the room, her purse buzzes.


Before the divorce, before the Timbits and the Pringles and Mel’s first trip through the master suite, Mrs. Penner used to drive her home. She’d stay in her date clothes: dresses that skimmed her braless chest so Mel had to work not to stare; heels that left her foot angled sharply over the gas, the car jerking along with her pained accelerations. They were always quiet drives, Mel longing for the radio or her mother’s chatter, aware of her nose whistling or stomach growling as though to broadcast her body’s wrongness.

In those days the Penners’ house was purged of snacks, but often Mel would find a Snickers bar or a pack of Skittles in the front hall on her way out, a Post-It reading “THANKS!” She’d savour these offerings for weeks, a willpower she lacked with other treats. Only once, desperate for something to fill the car’s cold silence, did she unwrap a Kit-Kat on the drive back. The wrapper had been unbearably loud, the smell of the chocolate almost obscene against Mrs. Penner’s muted perfume and the dangling pineapple air freshener. Mel’s appetite fled, but she broke off a piece anyway, moving dutifully through the motions of a normal person with a chocolate bar. Mrs. Penner’s eyes had flitted to the passenger’s seat before settling back on the road. Her cheeks, already shadowed by two perfect lines of blush, seemed to go even hollower. Mel squirmed beneath her seatbelt.

“Do you want some?” What else was there to say?

Mrs. Penner smiled thinly. Her grip on the steering wheel tightened, her bare arms taut and veiny.

“I remember being twelve,” she said.

Later, Mel’s mother found the Kit-Kat in the garbage.

“It’s lucky she had a son,” she’d said (these being the days when she could still occasionally read Mel’s mind), and Mel had asked why, and all she got for a response was: “Women like that shouldn’t have daughters.” Her mother squelching hamburger into meatballs as she said this.

“You’re just jealous,” Mel said. She remembers she refused to speak for the rest of the evening. She didn’t even like Mrs. Penner, and yet every ride home after that one, she had fantasized deliriously about being her daughter. To share her narrow ankles, her vanilla-scented skin, her clothes, her makeup. Patrick.

Though it’s not as though she could keep him in the end, is it?


Her thread has four hundred eighteen views and thirteen comments. Does a three percent response rate mean she’s ninety-seven percent average? If you can’t say anything nice… Her phone started pinging in her purse at around eight-thirty, and since then she’s been scrolling through other threads with a thumb so sweaty she’s had to clean her display every couple of minutes. The moisture makes the motion sensor glitch otherwise; the few times she’s found the nerve to return to her post, it’s lagged or opened the wrong page. She can’t help but find this ominous.

Mel looks at a girl with hair so thin her scalp shines through like an old lady’s. Skinny, though. So six. No. Seven. Better build up good karma. She looks at a girl whose nipples are so bumpy beneath her tankini that half the guys are calling her jailbait (the other half think she’s fake). Five? That one with the lip ring’s an eight at least. Six. Seven. Six.

Her title is boring, maybe that’s why it’s been mostly overlooked—she has to squint for her screen name to find her thread among all the others like it. Deep breaths:

ya not bad. 6 maybe? 7 if u ditched the glasses.

You said “objective” so heres objective. Your a cute girl but you could lose a few, like 10-15 lbs easy. Maybe join a sports team at school? 5. J

4, hate to say it. Noooot my type sorry. What’s with all the bathroom selfies? Makes chicks look like zombies.

6! Ur brave!

The movie will be starting now. Patrick never said which one. She goes to the theatre website, ruling out the obvious—kiddie shows, stoner comedies, a documentary about coffee.

Ping.

Weird makeup. Makes you look Asian or something. 5.

Maybe she IS Asian! 6!!

Probably his date would crash the server on this site. She’d probably rack up a hundred nines or tens within an hour.

Listen, if you’re going to show your bra at least make sure it’s a nice one.

6, sorry, forgot the number thing. 7 with some work!

Are they holding hands?

look hun, you are beautiful in your OWN WAY, that’s the most beautiful thing of all. I’d give you a 5 tho.

Are they sharing a bag of popcorn?

6. Worst thing I could say is you’re kind of boring. Could be a lot worse, right?

Mel ate more than half those stupid Timbits, maybe that’s why he smiled at her.

My advice: Get off this site, get some sun (seriously, so pale!) and stop worrying so much about what a bunch of strangers think. Are you anemic? 5.

Grow up, she thinks, and you fucking bitch, and how are you so surprised.

And she’s not surprised, not really. None of it’s so bad. Still, sitting there in the huge silent house with her phone warm in her hand, she feels suddenly desperate. She wants to huck the phone right through the big clean window. She wants to crawl into Henry’s bed, be little again, be no one. To float through sleep like a fish in the ocean: slick, weightless, invisible. Invisible! Just imagine it. Mel can’t fathom such freedom.

Justina Elias is pursuing an MFA in fiction through the University of Guelph. She recently completed a short story collection exploring the collapsing divide between physical and virtual identities.

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