Prize

“Allen is my new boyfriend and he is pretty much the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

Jessica Westhead’s fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary...

 

This woman I know, who had a baby? She told me she has way more skin tags now. They’re all over her body. And she isn’t even going to get them removed. She said she can’t be bothered, which tells you something. She also said I can look forward to the fate of stubbing my toes daily on multi-coloured plastic shit that also plays music that makes me want to kill myself. That was her exact phrasing, which I thought was pretty funny, but she said it wasn’t funny at all.

The thing is, and Allen and I are in total agreement on this, it’s all about having a positive and loving attitude. If you truly want the child you’re bringing into the world, then your desire to be a parent is going to trump everything else. For example, if you trip and hurt yourself on a toy that was previously amusing your infant, you just say, “Oopsie!” You don’t blame a little baby for a simple accident. Similarly, if you get a skin tag, you go to the dermatologist and get it zapped with a laser. You don’t kick your kid in the face for making you less attractive. Which I’m not saying is something that this woman who had the baby did. Although I wouldn’t put it past her. She’s not a close friend or anything.

* * *

The way Allen and I are going to pay for our baby is, we’re building an Escape Room. Allen works in data administration and I’m currently a cashier but I have my diploma in Business Communications so we’re already in an advantageous position, combined-projected-earnings-wise. However, I do agree with Allen that we need to get in on the ground floor of this emerging trend in extreme recreation while the getting is good. We’re keeping our plan a secret for now because not a lot of people know what an Escape Room is, but once they do everybody will jump all over it and try to cash in on our cow, which is also supposed to be our nest egg.

I certainly know the feeling of being bored with life, and it turns out that this is a very normal feeling because more and more average citizens are attempting to make their lives more exciting by engaging in risk-taking behaviour in their leisure time. Specifically, people are paying good money to get locked in a room with no obvious way out.

Allen’s company sent him on a team-building exercise to one of our competitors. His team didn’t win but nonetheless the experience taught him that he can’t count on anybody and that was a valuable lesson to learn. Plus it gave us a rock-solid strategy for improving our shared future, which was the main takeaway.

The idea is, if you can’t read the clues properly and instead of escaping you end up crouched alone in the corner from helplessness and terror, then that means you’re bad at cooperating with your fellow employees and when you get back to your office everybody will know it. Which I’m not saying applies to Allen, but his manager, Devon, said that it did.

Fortunately none of that impacts Allen because Devon is so useless at her job that she makes him sit with his back to the entrance of his cubicle. That is pretty much the worst possible seating arrangement a so-called “higher-up” could ever enforce on a so-called “underling,” since it results in the person with his or her back to the open space being so twitchy they can’t ever properly concentrate on their work, which is why Allen often doesn’t produce to the level Devon says he should be producing to. Also she has a stupid stuck-up name like out of a soap opera, so who does she think she is?

It’s like the other day when it was hot but not hot enough for this woman who walked past me to be wearing a halter-top with short-shorts, but she was. She had a tiny dog with her and the dog was wearing a sweater, and I was thinking what an idiot to make her dog wear clothes when she was barely wearing anything at all. I personally was wearing capris and a T-shirt, which means I’m modest and that’s one of the things Allen loves about me. He loves that I’m modest and he loves that I have a normal name like Amber instead of a stupid stuck-up bitch name like Devon.

Allen is my new boyfriend and he is pretty much the best thing that has ever happened to me.

* * *

Last night I dreamed that aliens had invaded, and one of the questions the alien invaders asked their human captives (me and my mom) was, “Do you have recurring ear infections?” And the people who said no (my mom) were sent into one room and the people who said yes (me) were sent into another.

My mom was looking really good due to the exercise classes she was taking, and before the aliens took her away she was telling me about her latest interaction with Sandy from Zumba, who made passive-aggressive comments all the time. Such as Sandy saying to my mother, “We feel it’s a blessing that our grandson was born with a hole in his heart because having a grandchild with a birth defect is better than having no grandchild at all, right?”

My mom’s head sagged at that point in the anecdote as it surely must have sagged after Sandy’s barb during their original exchange, and then two preying-mantis-looking creatures grabbed her newly less-saggy arms and started dragging her off in the opposite direction from me.

Over in my pre-judgement pod I wanted to call out, “Sandy is an asshole, Mom, don’t let her get to you. Plus guess what? I’m pregnant!” But my voice was suddenly muted by an unseen force, and a sentry prepared to insert a probe into my ear and I knew I was in trouble because I’m an excreter—my doctor has told me on numerous occasions—meaning I produce too much wax and have to get it flushed out every few months. Of course I compound the problem because my ears get itchy so I scratch them and then they get crusty so I pick them. And I know you’re not supposed to use Q-tips but it is so deeply satisfying to dig around in there, my God. My ex called it an ear-gasm and he laughed when I said I’d never heard that before, because apparently everybody in the world knows that super-common expression except for me, Dummy Dumb-Dumb over here.

So I just waved at my mom, who I could tell was getting all worked up again over the Sandy stuff. Then the door for the people with recurrent ear infections slid open and foreboding music played from somewhere, something with oboes, and I thought, That’s a little melodramatic. But these aliens were like that, so what could you do?

* * *

Basically what happened with me and my ex was, we were going along quite comfortably in our lives together until one day he yanked the rug out from under us, and the rug was covered in dirt that I had not even been aware of. But he—Ricky—said he knew the dirt had been there all along. So I was like, “Why didn’t you clean it up, then?” And Ricky was like, “Well, it didn’t bother me so I just left it there.” And I was like, “So now it bothers you all of a sudden? I guess the vacuum cleaner weighs a million pounds and that’s why you never pick it up.” To which he said, “Babe, we are way too late for vacuum cleaners. Also I don’t want to have kids with you, ever.” To which I had no reply. I mean, what can you say to that? Except after he left I was thinking I could’ve said something like, “How about you just use the Swiffer? It’s lighter and you don’t have to rely on being near a power source.” But I’m not sure he would’ve understood the sarcasm anyway.

When Allen moved into my apartment he saw the possibilities immediately. I have one regular-sized closet that I use for my clothes, and one giant closet that I was using for basically nothing. Bits and pieces of my life with Ricky that I definitely should not have been holding onto. But I was, until Allen came along.

In a single afternoon he cleared out every piece of useless junk I’d been keeping in there, including Ricky’s old tennis shoes and the vacuum cleaner with all of its negative connotations. Afterwards, I stood looking at the empty closet that was full of potential and I was like, “Oh my God, thank you Allen, I can breathe now.”

He said, “Attagirl,” and gave me a gentle push as if to say, “The rest is up to you!” and he closed the door on me so I could fully appreciate the joy of being Ricky-free. It was pitch-black in there and I started getting a bit freaked out, but after several minutes he yanked the door back open and comforted me with sex because he knew exactly what I needed right then, which was closeness (and a baby).

* * *

I read in a magazine the other day that if you sign up online and pledge to perform one act from a list of pre-selected acts of kindness, you could win a prize. And I thought, What a fantastic way to get people to be nice to each other.

The magazine was at my doctor’s office where I was waiting for my first prenatal check-up and probably my bazillionth earwax flushing, and if Allen had been there with me (like he wanted to because that’s the kind of boyfriend he is, but like he couldn’t be because his manager is a control-freak whore), I would’ve grabbed his hand and squeezed it after becoming excited about the prospect of offering incentives to participants in our own venture. As in, along with the satisfaction of finding your way out, you also get a badge or certificate or Diploma of Escape, or something along those lines. Maybe a pen? It would have to be engraved, though. Allen has put me in charge of marketing because it’s what I went to school for so clearly I’m the right choice.

Allen is in charge of the heavy lifting, ha ha, but for real that’s what he’s doing because he’s constructing the Escape Room’s interior and exterior. He says he’s making it foolproof and airtight and I said, “That’s great, Honey, but we don’t want our clients to suffocate!”

Anyway, I haven’t felt stimulated by my cashier job for a while so I’m loving the challenge of this new responsibility. For example, I’ve been studying other companies’ advertisements for inspiration, and there’s one campaign I’ve seen everywhere lately that has made a big impression on me. It’s for a bank, to show how easy banking can be and how fulfilling it is to take control of your finances by handing over that control to a financial planner. And the people in the ads are skeletons.

I’m not sure what this esthetic decision is supposed to communicate—maybe that even the dead need to be vigilant about their economic wellbeing? Halloween is a few months away, so it’s not seasonal. The skeletons are quite frightening, as well. Some of them have bits of rotting flesh hanging off their bones. But in a decorative way, like the pieces of skin might be a necklace or a bracelet on the ladies or a tie or cufflinks on the guys. And they do seem happy enough, as skeletons go, laughing and joking with each other. On one poster I saw on the subway, the skeleton financial advisor is sitting across his desk from a skeleton couple and their skeleton baby. They are clearly excited to be planning their child’s future. She has a long life ahead of her and they want to make that life as comfortable and stress-free as possible, at least monetarily.

I don’t think Allen and I are going to use skeletons in our Escape Room ads, and I already bank somewhere else so we probably won’t go to this institution to start an RESP for our baby as a result of this particular campaign. Nonetheless, it’s an attention-getter.

* * *

Here is something I could picture my mother doing if she was a grandmother: She would babysit for us constantly. And when Allen and I came home after reaffirming our coupledom by watching a movie or playing mini-golf or shopping for candles at HomeSense together, she would be eagerly waiting to report something new that our (now peacefully sleeping) baby had learned or accomplished.

For instance, I could picture her saying, with her grandmotherly eyes full of pride, “She noticed the breeze tonight! She felt it on her face. She closed her eyes, is how I could tell. And she lifted her chin just a tiny bit as the wind ruffled her hair. It wasn’t much wind at all, but she definitely noticed it.”

“That’s wonderful, Mom,” we would say.

Then Allen would kiss both of us and go to bed while my mom and I’d stay up and have Kahlúa Mudslides. We’d look through old photo albums from when I was a baby, and I’d tell her how grateful we were for her help, especially since so many new parents didn’t have that kind of support and as a direct consequence they ended up in very unhappy family situations.

* * *

Sometimes I put lotion on my hands when they get dry, so I use the lotion to moisturize them but it also makes them slippery. Usually I’m in the bathroom when I do this because that’s where I keep the lotion, and when I go to open the bathroom door, the knob won’t turn in my hand and for a few seconds I’m totally helpless and trapped due to my skin being all greasy. Of course I’m not really trapped, but still. The possibility is there, you know?

I told Allen this is something we should consider exploring in our promotional material—like, “You can push and pull and knock and bang all you want, but you’re never getting out of here! Mwa ha ha!” And he said, “Amber, you can be really funny sometimes.” Which is a huge compliment coming from him. Even though I was mostly being serious. Allen is hilarious because when he answers his phone and sees it’s me he says, “Pizza Pizza, how can I help you?” Or maybe he does that with everybody, I don’t really know.

What I do know is, sex with Allen is tons better than it was with Ricky. With Ricky I had to fake it all the time, and with Allen I only have to fake it sometimes.

I guess the main problem with faking it is you don’t let the other person see the true you, since you’re robbing them of witnessing you when you’re at your most vulnerable. I know Allen never has an issue with me seeing him when his face goes all weird and rubbery and he’s so caught up in the intensity of his own sensations it’s like I’m not even there. Whereas I’m just all curled up inside sometimes, and it’s not fair to him that I do that, I guess.

* * *

The thing about Allen is that when I was a little girl I was chubby, okay, and I only ever wore one-piece bathing suits. But when I was about twelve I bought a pink-and-white leopard-print bikini at Giant Tiger and I’d put it on sometimes when I took a bath.

I had a fantasy where I would pretend I was swimming in a pond, and then I would gracefully emerge from the tub and gaze at my body in the mirror as if gazing at my reflection in the pond’s still surface. Then a handsome teenage boy would swim over because he’d seen me from far away and thought I was so pretty he couldn’t believe it. When he saw me up close I was even prettier, and he was intimidated to talk to me at first but then he asked me out on a date and I said, “I don’t know if I should.” He said he wanted to kiss me and I said, “I don’t even know your name.” But I kissed him anyway.

When I met Allen at the bar after I broke up with my ex, he was drinking a beer and I was drinking a cooler, and he came over and said I looked nice and did I want another cooler because he was going to get himself another beer. It was just easy, and natural, and I realized he was like a grown-up version of the teenage boy in my fantasy, but in a real-life, non-pond type of way.

* * *

So all of a sudden Devon was in our Escape Room, and I wasn’t really sure how I felt about that. Not very good, was the first feeling that sprang to mind.

One minute I was preparing my signature twist on macaroni salad, which has cut-up bits of bologna in it and is known in German parlance as fleischsalat, and the next minute Allen and I were having dinner with his boss who I never in a million years expected to be having dinner with, but before she came over Allen said, “Just trust me on this.” So I did.

He told me he’d devised this scheme to invite Devon over and we’d be all nice to her and then boom, he’d reveal our amazing Escape Room, and that would basically be him saying, “Amber and I are entrepreneurs now and we’re going to be rich so I don’t need a paycheque from you anymore thank you very much, plus you’re a shitty manager. So fuck you, I quit!”

That sounded awesome to me, so I made the fleischsalat and put out some chips and dip (Lipton Onion Soup Mix, you’ve saved me again, I thought) and microwaved some frozen peas because it wasn’t like I had time to plan a meal and shop for it. I mean what do you expect when you give me, like, zero notice that we’re going to be entertaining a guest?

And then the three of us were sitting around the table, and I was on the alert for Devon’s trademark bitchiness but she must’ve been on her best behaviour because we actually had quite a pleasant conversation. Although Allen mostly just sat there and ate his food because he’s a man and men generally don’t have much to say when they’re surrounded by women. At one point he disappeared and then came back with drinks for us, though, which was sweet.

We (Devon and I) talked about what having kids was like even though I don’t really know what it’s like yet. She had a bunch of goofy stories, mainly about how giving birth had ruined her body forever. For instance all the skin tags everywhere. I wanted to tell her something negative about my body too so I explained my disgusting earwax situation. Then I paused to reflect on how my boyfriend truly did love me for who I was, despite my imperfections.

Devon put a hand on my arm and said, “You know, Amber, it’s so refreshing to meet you because you’re a real person. All day I’m in meetings and it’s ‘mission critical this’ and ‘core competency that.’ But here you are with your meat salad and your Bacardi Breezers and goddammit you are fucking real.”

I couldn’t help thinking, Surely she must know there’s a purpose to the language of business, but she was being so nice that I kept that to myself.

She went on. “I have to tell you, when Allen said he wanted to meet outside of office hours to discuss a personal issue, I thought to myself, No way am I going to this psycho’s house! I mean, the guy’s always so quiet, right? You know what he’s like. But then he said, ‘I’d like you to meet my pregnant girlfriend Amber,’ and I said, ‘You have a girlfriend?’ And here you are, and you’re so normal.” She took a deep breath and blinked a few times. “Woo, I’m feeling a little drunk! What percent are they making these coolers nowadays?”

The next thing I knew, Allen said he had something to show her, and maybe I could get dessert ready while they were gone. And I thought, What dessert? Okay, it’s possible there was half a Deep ’n Delicious hiding somewhere at the back of the freezer, but give me a break.

* * *

One time I found a boy who was lost. It was back when I was with Ricky, and I was out for a walk because he’d done something stupid as per usual. I can’t remember what exactly, but it was something along the lines of him flirting with my friend Tiffany right in front of me, and I was like, “Rent a hotel, asshole.” And Ricky was like, “That’s not even how it goes, Amber.” And I was like, “Oh, you always think you’re so smart.” And he was like, “Babe, I touched her boob by accident when I was reaching for my drink. You know how big Tiffany’s boobs are!” So I did the shot of Jager he’d bought me because fuck you, I’m having the Jager, and I took off.

The boy was maybe six or seven years old, and he was sitting on a curb a few blocks from the bar wearing just a pair of jogging pants, which I thought was weird because it was cold outside. I remember that detail because when I called 911 to report a lost kid, the lady asked me to describe what he looked like and I said, “He’s only wearing jogging pants.” I wanted to be specific.

But it started off with me seeing him there all alone, and I said, “Where’s your Mommy?” He didn’t answer so I thought maybe he didn’t speak English, which you’d think would be a problem but I know French from grade school and I’d learned some German phrases when Ricky and I went to Oktoberfest. I said, “Parlez-vous français?” and “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” Then he stood up and ran.

It was late and who knows how many creeps were out on the street so I started running after him, and I called my mom because I have never been good in crisis situations, and she told me to call 911.

So then I’m on the phone with this lady who truth be told was acting kind of snobby towards me because I was all hysterical and out of breath and she had like zero emotion in her voice. She asked for my location and I said, “I can’t read the street signs because I’m going too fast!” To which Robot Bitchface replied, “I need you to tell me where you are.” I said, “All right, fine,” and I slowed down, and then the boy was gone.

So we all know whose fault it is if anything happened to him.

* * *

Okay, so Devon goes upstairs with Allen to see our Escape Room and there’s me cleaning up the dirty dishes. Then it hit me like a hammer: She didn’t even know I existed until today. Allen doesn’t talk about me with his co-workers. I talk about him at work all the time. The girls are probably sick to death of hearing his name! And now he was showing this woman he supposedly hated this special thing that meant so much to both of us, without me. I started to feel like maybe Allen didn’t deserve to hear about this great idea I had, which is to rent a party boat for our repeat clientele.

Of course we’d have to wait a few years until we turned a decent profit, but then it would be a business expense! The sunlight would be sparkling on the water like majestic jewels and crazy-good music would be playing super loud, and people on shore would see us cruising by and they’d be really jealous and would wish they were on a party boat too, because everybody feels that way when they see a party boat.

Picture it: It’s a gorgeous day and you’re wearing sunglasses and feeling the breeze on your face and you’ve got a cocktail going, and you don’t have anything else to do and you don’t have anything to worry about. And you’re having these killer conversations with everybody because you’re all wasted and you’re all on the same team. We’re talking customer loyalty for life.

Imagining the sun and the waves and what shoes I’d be wearing calmed me down a bit, and it occurred to me that keeping this great idea to myself was just me being petty and that wasn’t going to help anyone, so I’d probably still tell Allen about it anyway.

Then he came downstairs alone, and I was like, “Where’s Devon?”

“She got all excited,” he said. “She wanted to give it a whirl.”

I said, “What? I thought you were just going to show her! It’s not ready for a test run. We haven’t written the clues yet, or decided on the prize or anything.”

Then he shrugged—he shrugged!—so I put my hands on my hips and stood up straight and said, “Do you even want to go into business with me, Allen?”

To which he replied—get this—“How’s that dessert coming along?”

I just shook my head and told him, “I found some cake.” I handed him his piece and I didn’t bother warning him that it might be stale.

* * *

The last time I visited her in the hospital, my mom said the main regret she had about raising me was that she wasn’t fully present for enough of my milestones because she was too busy trying to capture them on film. Of course now we have digital cameras, but my point is (and if my mom was still around she would totally not take offense to this because I’m pretty sure she knew how much I appreciated all the stuff she did for me), I am not going to make the same mistake with my own kid.

When you take a picture, you’re so focused on how you want it to turn out that you miss what’s right in front of you. I’ve got photos of me and Allen smiling with this or that scenery behind us, but do I remember how it felt to be with him on those supposedly special occasions? Nope. I was too busy posing and trying to get the right angle with my phone so my arm wouldn’t be in the shot. It was the same with the selfie of me and my mom from that day—I was so fixated on keeping all the tubes and the I.V. and whatnot out of the frame that I didn’t even properly enjoy her company.

So when my daughter, or son, is about to blow out the single candle on the first slice of birthday cake for their very first birthday, I will sit still and watch that candle get blown out. I’ll clap and cheer and make a big fuss and maybe lick some icing off of those tiny fingers, because that’s how much I’m going to love this baby—I won’t even worry about germs or anything.

And, bottom line, Allen is either going to step up to the plate or he isn’t. I’m hopeful, because he already has that reassuring, fatherly way about him. When all the banging and the yelling quieted down about an hour ago, I said, “Do you think we should check on her?” And he said, “Relax, she’s fine.” So I relaxed.

At the end of the day, regardless of what the future holds, I will be right there with this child for every important moment and every unimportant moment too. I’m going to look them in their innocent, twinkly eyes every morning and say, “Mama’s not going anywhere.” Which means my kid will never be alone, and I will never have to wish for the rest of my life that I had paid attention.

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