On Looking and Being Seen: “For Young Girls,” by Eileen Mary Holowka

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Content Warning: Depression and creepy insect stories

Maggie used to write stories in the attic. That was back when she was a child, when she wasn’t allowed to leave the house and instead spent family gatherings curled up in strangers’ jackets on her parents’ bed. She would rub her face into them and try to find a home in each of the different scents: winter smokers, damp lavender, a flooded basement. She would rifle through the pockets, stroking keys to guess where they belonged and reading crumpled receipts.

These days she had trouble writing. There were too many parties to attend and they always took days to get over. She still rubbed up against strangers’ jackets but it never gave her the same joy. These days, the smells were too familiar and all new possibilities seemed to end with every touch.

Sometimes Maggie went home with the jackets. She liked the homes and the jackets more than the people inside them, but they were her only excuse in. Most of the time they would have sex and some of the time she would bleed after. It was a symptom of some condition she hadn’t been able to diagnose. It became a kind of performance art piece, bleeding onto other people’s beds. They were never appreciative of her art.

Maggie built sets. Mock kitchens with only three walls and trees with trapdoors. It was a dream job on the way to what she hoped could one day be economically sustainable. She moved around theatres invisibly, in all-black outfits that doubled as formal wear, and spent rehearsal breaks hiding in the wings watching the actors bicker like they were in a play.

The best part about casual sex was locking herself in the strangers’ bathrooms, before she had let them down with her leaking uterus, to go through their cupboards. She loved the belongings and rituals of others, finding out where they kept their extra toilet paper or whether they Q-tipped their ears. She never took anything or moved it out of place, just looked. She figured it would make her a better artist, or make her like that particular stranger better. She tried to imagine what a future in their home would look like, but it was always better the less she knew.

The doctors kept telling her there was nothing wrong, but they scheduled her an ultrasound anyways. The technician pressed down on Maggie’s full bladder while they both watched the screen. Maggie eagerly looked for something, a cyst or a tumour, as if it were a fetus. But there was nothing there, not even a child, to explain her problems. She walked out of the hospital past husbands and their swelling wives and felt more infertile than she’d ever felt in her life.

Her journey home was slow and heavy, despite or because of her emptiness. Even the trees were barren, she noticed. Autumn made her want to call her ex. She touched her phone, but it turned off as soon as she tapped his name. She had no idea where the bus stop was without Google and it took her an hour to walk home. It was dark and damp, and she looked into the lit-up windows of other people’s houses with longing. She called him later that week, several times until she got past his voicemail. When he heard her voice, he paused, and hung up.

The printed ultrasound results came the same day. Everything was fine, but sounded deadly. She read the paper aloud to Anne over Skype. Apparently there is fluid in my cul-de-sac. Did you know you had a cul-de-sac in your uterus?

That explains your pain, Anne replied. Cars keep getting stuck.

Imagine the tiny little houses.

Little moms and dads.

God, even my diseases are domestic.

Maggie liked her parents and visited them often. They would cook her more food than she could eat and fill her full of enough tea to make her bus ride home unbearable. They tried to get her to clean her toys out of the attic, but instead she just hid in the back and watched spiders build webs around her Barbies. She didn’t have the heart to throw them out, nor the desire to clean them, so she just watched instead.

The attic was full of garbage treasures: VHS tapes of dance recitals and episodes of I Love Lucy; Mom’s broken mint green typewriter; her grandmother’s wedding photos. Maggie’s dollhouse sat in the corner near the window, covered in mud from where the roofers had gone wild. She used to imagine herself as the prettiest doll and would dress and undress her mock self for hours. Doll Maggie had always been intelligent and composed. She went to parties, her face always painted into a smile.

Maggie was scared to touch her doll self, even to save her from the wreckage of shingle bits. She had never intended to stop playing, but eventually everyone else did and the lonely, imaginative Saturdays became guilty pleasures, with an emphasis on the guilt. She knew that when she grew up she would call herself Margaret. She just didn’t know when that growing up would come.

As a child, she was good at being seen and not heard. She could never keep up with her family’s political conversations and figured she must not have any opinions. She told her father her theory and he laughed her down. She decided to drop that opinion as well.

Maggie brought a man home to her parents once. He was tall and professional and liked to put her down. She could see the confusion in her mother’s eyes, as she placed the plate in front of the man like some kind of offering. She could tell her mother would rather throw it in his face, but was trying to treat her daughter like a woman. Maggie would have preferred to be chastised like a child and she felt like one as she made eye contact with her mother and shrugged.

His name was Douglas. He always told her she was a good listener, but mostly he was just a good talker. He was a writer and told Maggie she should be a writer too and that he could edit her work if she liked, because it could use some editing. He called her Margaret, said it was a good writer’s name. It sounded so good in his mouth that she felt obligated to keep kissing him. She adored him and he adored her, except when he didn’t.

So I just googled it, Maggie texted Anne, and it says the cul-de-sac is also called “Pouch of Douglas” cuz of some guy named Douglas who “discovered” it I guess.

OF COURSE.

Even my insides belong to dudes.

Dudes named Douglas. Had to be a Douglas.

It’s always a Douglas.

The last time Maggie and Anne Skyped, the internet began cutting out in the middle of their chat about depression. Anne’s comforting words fractured into alien xylophone fragments and Maggie broke down laughing.

She hadn’t always been so sad. She read that birth control could be making her this way, but the doctor said that was just part of the deal. So she stayed on the meds and took selfies instead. Except they never looked beautiful or poetic enough, like Anne’s. Instead they were unnerving, lacking the adequate amount of performance for the camera.

Early in her career, Maggie had tried acting. She was excellent when she had to play a quiet school girl, but unconvincing when she tried the role of a confident lesbian. She realized she was only good at performing herself, her own intimacy, and went back to facilitating the public intimacy of others instead.

During her long distance relationships, Maggie always watched herself on the screen, instead of her lover. Her own tiny image was too distracting. Her long-distance self was cold and hard and contained behind glass. These days, she was somewhat softer. At least, she leaked.

She rarely brought men home but, after watching an episode of Sex and the City, the idea of having sex next to the open window appealed to her. It wasn’t the lovemaking that made it so enticing, but the idea that the neighbours might be watching, thinking of her as some sort of Samantha sex-goddess and wishing for her life.

As a teenager, Maggie had worked in her father’s office building where she’d spend the morning filing papers and the afternoons staring into the windows of the apartment building across the street. She’d map out the tenants’ rituals: the old lady’s lunchtime smoke, the child’s after-school milk and cookies, the perfectly trimmed bachelor’s quick change into evening clothes. She always hoped she might catch them looking back her way, but the window was likely reflective.

On one of her dates, she took a guy to an art gallery, but ended up coming down with diarrhea. He gave up on her after she spent too long in the washroom, and sent her some sort of inflammatory text about her thighs, or ass or something. It was her gut saving her, she realized, because after she recovered she stumbled into a Nan Goldin exhibit she knew he would have ruined. She spent two hours in the room, gazing at other people’s wounds, and crying. She went home knowing she should write down her thoughts, but ended up in bed instead, with an old recording of Judy Garland covering Singing in the Rain playing in the background on her parents’ passed-down wedding gift television set.

The next date was even more hopeless. She spent hours preparing, trimming her pubic hair into the toilet with safety scissors and wondering if other girls had better methods. However, as soon as she met him, she knew it was over. His profile picture beard was gone and he kept calling her Meg. She smiled and pushed through it, walking 16 km across the city with him until she finally came up with an excuse to leave. She went home and watched Rear Window on loop until she fell asleep.

Most nights before bed, she would scroll through Facebook, Twitter, /r/Relationships, and YouTube to watch the lives of others. Sometimes she would comment, but normally she just acted as a witness, eager to see a glimmer of emotion, something beyond herself. In the mornings she scrolled through Instagram, pretending that what she saw were just static portraits, but inevitably identifying with and reading into every one.

One night, an ant crawled into her ear while she was sleeping. At first she thought the crunchy popping sound was some kind of air bubble, but she was unable to pop it. She fished around for awhile before deciding to look in the mirror. Its tiny black legs were just visible as they reached around for a way out. She stared in icy panic, suddenly wishing for her mother or a roommate who could pull it out of her. The responsibility of the task ran over her like spilled milk, mundane but devastating, as she forced her trembling fingers towards his tiny body, burning her eyes open so she wouldn’t lose him.

Afterward, he crawled around her fingers and she watched with a kind of respect, understanding now that he had wanted to be there even less than she’d wanted him to. She put the ant on the windowsill and crawled back into her bed. Her room was yellows, blues, and beige and smelled of her home. On the walls hung postcards and letters from her friends. It was kind of lovely, she realized, this place entirely her own.

The next day, the subway was stalled due to a suicide. She took out a notebook and began sketching the man sitting across from her. She sketched his pale face and sunken features, shaping them into a story. He looked on the verge of breakdown, as though he had just suffered some great loss. She ripped out the page and passed it to him, a gesture of friendship, empathy, or just mutual boredom.

He took the picture from her and squinted at it, shaking his head.

What’s this? he asked.

A drawing I did of you, just now, Maggie answered, smiling.

This isn’t me, he said, and the subway started again.

 

these words by Eileen Mary Holowka were inspired by the art of Marcin Wolski

Author: Word and Colour

words inspired by colour wordandcolour.com

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