One morning, after a night of primitive neural activity that vaguely resembled dreams, an insect woke to discover that it had been transformed into a woman named Valerie.
She had been lying on her back and now she sat up suddenly, and this was new and surprising to her, being able to sit up. If she’d been lying like this as an insect, on her hard carapace, she’d have had a difficult time righting herself.
This is good, Valerie said to herself with her new vocal cords. I like being able to sit up.
The morning sun was trumpeting through the open blinds and the light stabbed at her sensitive new eyes. Her first impulse was to scuttle into a dark corner.
You don’t have to do that now, she told herself. That’s all over with.
She got up and walked carefully on her new legs into her kitchen. She was ravenous, but there was next to nothing in the fridge. She’d have to do some shopping.
As she stepped out the door of her apartment she froze. The hallway was so terribly bright. Strips of cold white light down the long ceiling, like accusations, with no place to hide.
I belong here, she reminded herself. I can go where I please.
At the front door of her building she was confronted with an even more daunting hurdle: the street.
People go outside, she told herself. They have every right to do so.
Before she could force herself through the doorway she saw someone coming up the walk: an old man carrying a bag of groceries. Valerie stepped back, trying to fit into the narrow space between the full-length window and the mailboxes. She discovered she didn’t fit there.
The old man came through the door and smiled at her as he hobbled past, a warm, kind smile she hadn’t been expecting. He started up the stairs, grunting and puffing as he went. Valerie watched him until he was out of sight around the first turn in the stairs.
Then she went outside.
She hurried along the sidewalk, keeping her head down most of the time, but glancing now and then at people who passed her, waiting for the look of disgust, the shriek, the swish of a newspaper. When she caught their eyes people stared back at her with something like wonder in their eyes. Most of them smiled, too, especially the men.
People smile at each other, Valerie reminded herself. So she started smiling back.
The bright, noisy supermarket got on her nerves but she smiled at everyone and everyone smiled at her and it turned out all right. On the way home, though, she was overcome once more by all this light with no place to hide. She looked around in a panic and then ducked into a coffee shop. It wasn’t well-lit inside and there were no other customers. Valerie relaxed, just a little, despite the jangly pop music.
She approached the middle-aged woman at the counter and ordered a coffee with cream and sugar, and a cinnamon bun.
I’ll bring em to you honey, the woman said.
Valerie found a table in the corner furthest from the window, set down her shopping bags, and tried to read the novel she’d brought in her purse. It was a big fat bestseller, poignant and compelling, as the back cover promised, but something about what she was reading bothered and distracted her from the story. She tried to think about what it was. Then she knew.
It’s nothing but people, Valerie whispered.
She shut the book and waited, tapping her fingernails on the glass tabletop.
There was a loud crash and Valerie jumped.
Sorry, the woman said from behind the counter. Butterfingers this morning.
Valerie forced a smile.
The woman brought over the coffee and bun.
You okay hon? the woman asked.
Oh yes, Valerie said, still smiling. But ... could you turn down that music, please?
Sure, the woman said. If my boss was here he’d make me keep it loud. But he’s not here today. Too bad for him because he’s missing a treat.
You, I mean, honey. You’re gorgeous, the woman said. Are you a model?
Valerie looked at the woman without understanding. The woman laughed.
Hasn’t anyone ever told you what a knock-out you are? the woman asked, wide-eyed. Oh my Lord, girl, if only I had your cheekbones. And lips. And pretty much everything else.
Thank you, Valerie said.
The woman sighed.
Life’s not flipping fair, she said, and went back to her counter.
Valerie sipped the coffee and nibbled at the bun. The sweetness soothed her. She could see her face in a mirror tile on the wall and she took quick glances at it from time to time. Lips, cheekbones. Eyebrows. Eyes. She thought that all of these parts in and of themselves might be nice to look at, but she couldn’t make them all come together into a face. At least not a face that said to her, This is you.
The door chimed. Three people came in, talking and laughing with each other.
Valerie took a last sip of the coffee and hurried to the door.
Bye gorgeous, the woman called.
It was the same everywhere. People stared and smiled at Valerie wherever she went. Many of them told her how pretty she was, and had she ever thought about modeling? A few women shot her looks of cold hostility and despair, which made her sad for them. Men started conversations with her on park benches, at bus stops, in grocery aisles. They held doors open for her. They took her picture with their phone cameras, usually without asking. They came right out and asked her to sleep with them.
She slept with some of them and enjoyed it. Nothing in what she could remember of her insect life had ever come close to this.
Every morning she got up and looked in the mirror.
I am Valerie, she said. I am a person. This is my face.
She got a job as a model, since it seemed to be what everyone thought she should do. All day long she wore make-up and ridiculous outfits that no one who wasn’t a model would ever wear. Photographers took countless pictures and videos of her.
She did photo shoots in New York, London, Paris, Madrid, Cairo, Bombay, Tokyo, Tahiti.
In no time she’d risen to the top of the modeling world. Everyone had fallen in love with her. She was offered parts in movies and she accepted them, and she won awards and critical acclaim for her acting in these films. She was approached by music gurus who wanted to do albums and huge charity concerts with her that would be broadcast by satellite all over the world. She met and went to parties and galas and openings with world leaders, revered religious figures, impossibly rich philanthropists.
She did a charity event in the Brazilian rainforest with a famous actor who lectured her about climate change.
If we let this go on, the actor said, Earth will be home to nothing but jellyfish and cockroaches.
We have to do something, Valerie agreed. This is a world for people.
The actor wanted to sleep with her, but Valerie declined. She had been fired up. She was on a crusade.
She traveled the world, speaking wherever she could, lending her fame to the cause. She was invited to the United Nations and gave an impassioned speech about the threat of climate change to everything humanity holds dear. When she’d finished the assembled delegates rose to their feet and applauded.
The media had to invent a new category just for her. She wasn’t a supermodel anymore. She was a hypermodel.
On a film set in Morocco Valerie met an actual prince and they fell in love and got married. She moved into his palace of marble and gold leaf. She ate her breakfasts at a long polished mahogany table, and her dinners at an even longer table, served by her own staff of chefs and waiters and accompanied by a string quartet playing Bach and Mozart.
When the prince and Valerie rode in their open-topped limousine through the streets of his city people waved and cheered and called out, Valerie! Our Valerie, the beauty!
Valerie and the prince had a child, a lovely golden-haired girl they named Athena. That was when Valerie gave up all of her public engagements, and devoted herself to motherhood.
One morning at breakfast Valerie’s husband watched over his newspaper while she fed their daughter.
He said to Valerie, You are so beautiful.
I haven’t even washed my hair yet, she said.
No, the prince said. I mean you are beautiful. You are a beautiful human being.
Valerie was bringing another spoonful of mushed banana to her daughter’s mouth but she stopped.
What is it? her husband asked.
Mnh, grunted their daughter, wanting her next spoonful.
Valerie burst into tears. Her husband came over and put his arm around her.
What is it, darling? he asked. What’s wrong?
Nothing’s wrong, Valerie sobbed. I love our life.
Into her dreams that night came the vast falling shadow, the dark planet hurtling toward her.
She cried out and woke in terror, her hair matted with sweat. The prince reached over to hold her and comfort her, but she shook him off and buried herself in the sheets.
I’m a bug, she whispered over and over. Step on me. Step on me.
Thomas Wharton was born in Grande Prairie, Alberta. His first novel, Icefields (1995), won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, Canada/Caribbean division. His second novel, Salamander (2001), was short-listed for the Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. A collection of short fiction, The Logogryph, published in 2004 by Gaspereau Press, won the Howard O’Hagan Prize at the Alberta Book Awards, and was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize.
Wharton has written a YA fantasy trilogy, The Perilous Realm (2008-2013). His most recent book is the eco-fiction Every Blade of Grass, self-published in 2014. His work has been published in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and other countries.
Thomas Wharton is an associate professor in the department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, where he teaches creative writing. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and three children.
Every fortnight Shazia Begum (1) would devise a long list of groceries for her husband to buy on the way home from work. This would be an incredibly thought out and economically planned out list. To make it easy for him the amount that each item should be bought in would be mentioned and all things would lie in their specific categories. You would never find meat under toiletries or vegetable under dairy products. This list Hamid Sahab (2) would find in his tiffin box neatly folded into a square. This was done deliberately so that Hamid Sahab would not be able to ignore it or lose it while stuffing it in his pocket.
Truth be told Hamid Sahab wouldn't dare losing it, or ignoring it. Regardless of his wife's opinion he was very careful as to not get Shazia Begum upset. He would go to great lengths to ensure that everything she asked for was done and done immediately. Just to buy this list, he would leave work early, reach the shops, get the desired items and carry on home before sunset. He had poor eyesight and was clumsy, but he would not and could not let it come in between his errand of buying groceries.
It so happened that every time and merely on coincidence he would forget an item. He would go to the shops, read each item aloud with the quantity for the butcher, doodh wala (3) or fruit vendor. etc. Ask the respective shop keeper to pack them in bags. Carry that heavy load, place it in the boot of his car and drive off home. Huffing and puffing he would carry the bag upstairs to his apartment, ring the bell and with further huffing and puffing set the bags inside on the dining table. He would look at his wife and smile a big smile, like a kid just proud at his efforts. His wife would whiff through the bags and know in an instant that something was not bought.
'Hamid Sahab aaj bhi. (4) As usual you forgot one item, I don't know how or what I should do to ensure you bring everything home. I write the list in clear writing, I give all details for it, I plan it every fortnight only, I neatly fold the list and give it to you. What should I do Hamid Sahab? Just tell me? Why don't you understand it's not about one item it's about forgetting what I asked you to do? Hamid Sahab why don't you...'
Her anger would not abate. The entire evening every mistake that Hamid Sahab ever made would be counted and recounted. He would receive sarcastic remarks and criticisms at dinner, for tea and before dozing off. The timid and rather scared Hamid Sahab would wish he had died on the way home rather than reaching alive to be butchered by his wife.
While his wife would vent her frustration and forget about it the next morning, Hamid Sahab would pass an inward resolution with determination. 'No matter what! I have to, just have to get everything that's on that list. Otherwise, I won't come home.'
The next fortnight Hamid Sahab opened the list with a feverish anticipation. He scanned the list and mentally planned out his shopping trip. As the day progressed his eagerness did not deteriorate but in fact grew. He waited impatiently for the time to come when he would leave work.
At the shops, he very patiently called out all the items and then checked the bags himself. He loaded the bags in the car, looked around at the ground if by mistake he had dropped anything. After satisfying himself he drove home, beaming.Huffing and puffing he carried the bag upstairs, rang the bell. With further huffing and puffing he set the bags inside on the dining table. He stood back, both his thumbs going the circumference of his pant, patting his round belly, like Santa Claus on a job well done. His big smile, did not deter Shazia Begum from her investigation. She went over the bags, looked at the packages, the labels and the receipt. To her utter horror, Hamid Sahab, had bought everything, the exact amount and quantity. She went over the bags, twice and thrice convinced that her mind was playing tricks on her. How could an old man break a habit of so many years?
Behind her, Hamid Sahab sat on the couch with his legs up on the coffee table, a posture his wife despised, switching channels, until he found a wrestling match. He turned the volume high, hopeful Shazia Begum would interject saying 'How can you watch this garbage? What is this anyway, men in underwear fighting fake fights and hurling fake abuses. Can't you find anything decent to watch? Toba! Toba!' Shake her head and touch the tip of ears with her fingers to ward of evil. However, when he looked around, Shazia Begum was still standing over the bags of groceries immersed in the debate of whether all listed items were present or not.
'Begum, Begum!' Hamid Sahab tried to get his wife's attention, he thought he should wave his hands about.
'Huh?' She looked up lost, as if a spell had been broken and she suffered from amnesia.
'I am hungry?!'
Hamid Sahab knew this wasn't his wife, Shazia Begum would have screamed at him, 'Can't you see I am putting away groceries and cooking at the same time. Oh God! It's like this man doesn't get that I am one person. One!' Wagging her forefinger at him.
Dinner, was quiet, like in a dormitory where the students would be afraid that the supervisor could scold them for using their spoons too loudly. Periodically, Hamid Sahab would look up and find his wife playing with her food. He had not once seen her take a bite and the amount on the plate didn't seem to diminish.
Hamid Sahab was losing his patience, he wanted to wake his wife from her trance by shaking her. He didn't have the guts to do that, though.
After dinner, before Hamid Sahab had even sat down in the living room, evening tea with biscuits were neatly placed on the table. Are eager elves present in his house, how is this happening? Shazia Begum sat demurely across from him, bringing the cup close to her mouth and then bringing it down ever so slowly. Hamid Sahab wondered if she was actually drinking her tea.
Hamid Sahab missed the bickering, the complaints, the bold statements 'Oho! I wonder what my parents were thinking when they married me off to you'. He wanted to plead for the cup of tea, sneak the biscuits of the jar. Now, he couldn't do that, he felt like a stranger, like a guest in his own house. This wouldn't do.
The entire following fortnight, silence made their life stand still. Everything, everybody seemed drugged, the stray dogs wouldn't bark as loudly, people wouldn't shove in long queues to the bus, even the daily news reported passive events.Hamid Sahab knew he had to make things right.
This time Shazia Begum handed him the list, to place it in his pocket. Hamid Sahab was surprised to see it in his hands, his wife had always kept it in his tiffin box. Hamid Sahab stared down at the neat writing, and the crisp white paper, without a single fold mark.
The whole day at work, Hamid Sahab spent more time going through the list than doing his work. He had brought it in his folder so it would form no creases on the paper. By the end of the day, he was certain what he would do.
He went over to all the shops, one by one, read out the items and required quantities aloud. He asked the shopkeepers to pack groceries in the bags and paid for the items. He had very smartly not bought one item from the list, matches. He put the load in the back of his car, and drove home.
After setting the bags down on the dining table, he watched his wife closely without a peep. Shazia Begum, didn't seem that interested in the bags, and trudged towards them aimlessly. One by one and ever so slowly she went through the bags, defeated. Hamid Sahab was sinking low with her.
Suddenly, Shazia Begum looked up.
'Hamid Sahab where are the matches?'
Hamid Sahab pretended to be confused and muttered frantically
'Kya? They are not here. But I...didn't I...I thought I bought them...'
'Uff!' Slapping her forehead lightly, 'As usual, you forgot, I knew that this would happen. Last week you bought everything, but what to do? You are just not organized enough, that was a fluke. Oh my luck! I wrote that list with such precision...'
Shazia Begum's taunts were like music to Hamid Sahab's ears. He smiled wide inspite of himself.
Shazia Begum continued complaining but the twinkle in her eye was back.
(1) title to give respect to a woman.
(2) title to give respect to a man.
(4) ‘again, today’
I have studied literature from London University and am currently doing a creative writing certificate from The University of Toronto. I am a mother of two very active toddlers. A new immigrant to Canada, I come from Pakistan, have lived in the Middle-East and traveled in Europe. Photo Credit: Areeba Faraz
Her first boyfriend was a Jehovah's Witness. His parents didn't want him dating her, or dating at all, and he told them that she was a friend from school, and that they had been assigned to work together on a project that term. She waited in the entryway of his apartment, and felt: The silence. The shining parquet. The atmosphere of piety, certainty and disapproval. They climbed the stairs of his building to a locked door that opened onto the roof and made out on the top step pressing against the steel of the door. The echo in the stairwell magnified and restrained their movements. She was wearing a skirt. He pushed inside her, and she felt nothing. No pain. Nothing. It was only for a few seconds, and then he stopped. The next day he told her he had wanted to see if she would let him do it. He was already distant when he said this, not expressionless, but withdrawing into disdain, and they broke up.
Cara makes an issue of the strange and hurtful behavior of her exes. She asks you, Why? Her voice dramatic, irate, almost panicked, uncomprehending. In these moments, her face is open, caught between surprise and bewilderment. Why would he do that? To me? But she never says anything about her first boyfriend, the first man to be inside her. It is as if she accepts him, as if his behavior is explicable, not excessive or aberrant, a common, understandable cruelty.
In high school, Cara dated a boy from a home like hers—breaking, but not yet broken. He was erratic, and she now wonders if he is a manic depressive, maybe a sex addict. He liked her to bite down hard on his penis. Hard! He cheated on her and they broke up. She went to university and he became a photographer and a bon vivant, an offbeat dandy. Right now he has a mullet and a potbelly, wears a novelty belt buckle that he bought in Calgary, and is considering moving to Kingston for its history. He travels on assignment or on a whim. Next month he is going to watch a rocket launch in Kazakhstan. Why? you ask. Because he can, says Cara, because he wants to. You are fascinated and a little bit horrified by the people Cara knows: they are self-absorbed, recklessly unapologetic, and utterly unlike you.
This ex calls her sometimes and talks about how much he misses her. Cara tries to explain to you the silence she hears collecting around his need, the emptiness reverberating on the other end of the call. She imagines him hunched, taught with confession, an arch terminating in the phone: He has never stopped caring about her. It was always her. It will always be her. Becoming more hysterical, more sincere: His next girlfriend would deep throat him on the living room couch. Deep throat him. And all he could think about was her. He offers this as a demonstration, a grand gesture, to make a point about the depth and intensity of his obsession. He doesn't mean to be hurtful.
Cara did it with two boys in the yearbook office. She isn't normally elliptical, but when she talks about this, and she only has twice and briefly, she uses words that stop short of the possibilities they suggest. Her eyes, which you expected to be locked on yours, to demand your attention, drift away. You wonder if this is a pleasurable reverie, a memory of pain, or the aftereffect of having given over control, a lasting diffuse blankness. Is that what sex is for her? A surrender? You think about this often and at length, but what you imagine is as vague as Cara's words: You arrange the three bodies, but the arms and legs and mouths won't fall easily into place; the tableaux you invent are tentative at first, blurred by generality, and then too precise. The teenagers take on the sharp unreality of porn actors, and you shy away from what comes into focus. You can never make it happen the way it must have. You are disoriented by the excessive, predictable intersections of flesh, and repelled by the same force that attracts you.
During her undergrad, Cara dated another creative writing student. In an author photo she shows you, he is round. Round glasses in a round face smoothed by fat. Rounded shoulders and his chest rounding into the gentle promise of a gut cut off by the border of the image. He has never been attractive. Cara tells you that when they were dating he looked like a half stuffed sock. You say he looks over stuffed now, and she tells you not to be mean. Cara's exes belong to her like a family, and you can criticize them in solidarity with her, but that is the limit.
Cara, her ex, and a woman she doesn't like to talk about competed for the best marks in their class; in the end, Cara came second, and he came third. Last summer, he published his first book. She went to the launch, and saw him with his new girlfriend, and thought about how it could have been her, how it should have been her, drunk, elated, thanking everyone loudly for coming.
Cara went back to his room with the captain of the York cross country ski team. (Does York have a cross country ski team?) He looked Norwegian, maybe Swedish, tall, blonde, lean but muscular, blankly, impassively beautiful. The athletic type. They had nothing in common. She didn't even like talking to him. Cara wants to know: Why do men expect women to go down on them during one night stands? Why do they take it as a given when sex is still uncertain? And why do they never reciprocate? Your answers leave you both unsatisfied.
Cara was raped in first year. Another student roofied her and walked her back to his room. She woke up half-naked on his bed. He was watching her from the chair next to his desk. While she was still semi-comatose, stunned by what had happened and the residue of the drug, he told her what he had done to her, how he had fucked her, in detail. She couldn't report him. It was her word against his. What you feel when she tells you this: rage at first, but not unironically. You are aware that it is what you should feel. And you feel it uncertainly—does Cara want your anger or your sympathy? After it, replacing it, a cold sickness close to despair. And then a revulsion at what men can do, at what they are capable of. You draw back from Cara, but not visibly. You conceal your discomfort, and maintain the distance between you; instead of pulling away, you sense her isolation and do nothing, consciously do not reach out with either tenderness or desire: Some victims can repel us with what they make us feel. You think about this regularly, probing the incident and your response, as if the hurt belongs in a way to you, but never when Cara is present.
During her MA, Cara had an on again, off again, mostly off again, never quite a relationship with another graduate student. He was an eighteenth centuryist with delicate bones and a darting quickness who approached everything he did, from scholarship to relationships, with the same adamant drive, as if the key to life was deliberate persistence. He worked as a research assistant writing entries for an online encyclopedia of 18th century culture. She tells you this with pride. He is a doctoral candidate now, and he has a small penis. The first time they slept together was in a closet down the hall from the graduate student offices. When he put it in, she couldn't feel it. You wonder if this is an exaggeration. It reminds you of a line from Sex in the City. Cara isn't quoting, but she often speaks in formulas. He is still pursuing her, she says, and she still answers his calls, sees him regularly, although not for sex.
Cara's first boyfriend in graduate school, her partner really, was a philosophy PhD. from Edmonton who was writing a thesis on Heidegger's materialism. He once presented at a conference attended by Derrida. Cara never tells you how they met, or when then moved in together. All she talks about is what came after. He was an alcoholic who went on day long benders, bar hopping across the city, and stumbling home, incoherent, always belligerent, at odd hours, in the middle of the afternoon or in the blind darkness of the morning. He once found himself at a New Year's Eve party thrown by Russell Smith, but didn't know who he was. Cara told him where he had been after the fact, when he described the host to her. He won a SSHRC and started doing cocaine. He came home, still high, his euphoria declining into a lucid sedation, and asked her if she knew that you could smoke cocaine. Oh my God, she said, you smoked crack, and he didn't seem bothered.
They had a two bedroom apartment, and the second bedroom was his office. He wouldn't let her into it, not even to clean. Dust coated the desk. Dust softened the lines of the monitor. Spiders strung webs between library books, and he wouldn't let her get rid of them. He said he needed them to think, and slammed the door.
He hated that she could only come with a vibrator. She hid it in her underwear drawer, or at the back of her closet, but he would find it, and break it.
There were the good times, like the period when they went to restaurants. They went to ethnic restaurants, Thai, Cambodian, Ethiopian, an Eritrean restaurant that they made the mistake of calling Ethiopian, or searched out undiscovered gems, trying to find the next big thing before it got big and they couldn't afford it. They went on long streetcar rides to these restaurants. On the way back, they sat together in the almost empty cars, touching comfortably, feeling sated, a little superior. They saved up, and went to North 44 for an anniversary. They agreed that it was better on TV.
And then there were the fights, wild, hysterical screaming matches, and worse. He smashed a plate against the wall, and she called a cab. He followed her out to the street, and they fought on the sidewalk, yelling, crying, coming undone and not caring who saw them. When the driver pulled up, he asked her if she wanted him to call the cops. The cops, says Cara. The word is an offering. You ask, did he hit her? She is cautious, evasive. What she means, and what you understand, is yes, but not in the way men hit women, in rage, in frustration, to hurt; he was lashing out at the impossibility of the situation, not at her. She may have hit him back. You are shaken by the violence, and by the intensity of the emotion: Cara has been caught up in an attraction that didn't stop at destruction. You think of her on the sidewalk, painfully revealed, but in silhouette, a picture of herself coming undone, not caring. She is set apart in your mind, and in hers. She never tells you how it ended. It isn't how it began, or how she got away that matters, what counts is the dense fact of the trauma, that it happened.
When she met him he wore Nine Inch Nails t-shirts. Those were the ones she recognized. The rest were shirts for industrial and metal bands she didn't know. Some of their names were German. All of the shirts were black with hard edged lettering in reds, greys and metallics. They were faded, frayed at the hems, beginning to disintegrate, and he wore them over jeans that were old enough his mother could have bought them for him. She took him to The Gap for basics and to Club Monaco for professional attire. She convinced him that his shirt size was medium not large, and persuaded him to buy a pair of khakis. She told him what to wear to conferences, lectures, and department functions. The next time he applied for teaching, he got a section of Intro to Philosophy. I got him that course, says Cara. She is bitter, and proprietary.
Cara met her most recent boyfriend at a party. She didn't like him at first, but then she decided that she liked him. She wasn't sure if he liked her. He is casual, inattentive. It is a relief not to be cared about too much. She took him bathing suit shopping, and he encouraged her to buy a knit two piece. It wasn't until she was walking out of the water at Wasaga Beach that she realized it was see-through. He didn't seem worth getting mad at. He took her to Niagara Falls for the weekend, and got a hotel room with a heart shaped hot tub. She asked him if he was being ironic. He looked surprised. After sex, he turned on the basketball game, and Cara didn't mind. She tells you it was peaceful, almost reassuring: She could exist, she could breathe, in the space of being his girlfriend.
Aaron Schneider is the co-editor of The Rusty Toque. He lives and works in London, Ontario.