On the weekend, Helen picks me up to go and look at the new place she found. It’s an apartment with linoleum floors, small windows high up in the walls, like windows in basements. The apartment is on the 11th floor.
Helen pretends to be excited about it; she says she’s always wanted to live that high up. In the elevator, she rolls her eyes at me and pinches her nose, “Smells like schizophrenia in here.”
Baby Benjamin is in his carrier asleep, unbothered.
The apartment reminds me of an apartment I lived in with my mother after we left my father—or after my father left us, depending on how you look at it. He ended up living with the woman he was having an affair with after we left/he left.
My mother and I moved to a small town in Ontario where she found work in a dentist’s office. We rented an apartment with linoleum floors just like here. Windows so high, in the beginning, my nose would only reach the freshly painted windowsills.
I grew and grew and later on, I could look out the window straight on.
I moved out to drop out of university. My mother stayed in the apartment. She developed many complicated relationships with the Polish ladies there. There was competing over appliances. My mother became an enthusiastic adapter of suburban fuss. Her nemesis and best friend, Martyna, who immigrated from an unpaved-road hamlet, berated and praised my mother’s efforts to develop a colour palette that relied heavily on maroon and beige.
With her schooling, our old apartment became an abode that was devoid of any (potentially embarrassing) personality. The linoleum floors were covered by wall-to-wall grey carpet; there was protective plastic on the couches, a fruit bowl full of artificial pears and apples on the dining room table. Martyna would come over and look around and tolerate it.
After being diagnosed with and surviving breast cancer, my mother had had enough of plastic and enough of Martyna and the small town and its small people. She quit her job and moved to an island in British Columbia where she became a lesbian.
Helen says now, “What do you think?”
“The floors,” I say and she looks down at the floors.
“They are bad,” she sighs. “But fuck floors.”
The baby stirs in the seat and whimpers once.
I look at him but without seeing him, just look to make sure he’s okay.
“You know what he likes to do?” Helen says. She ignores the baby noises.
I say, “What? Who?”
“Rick. He likes to push himself inside me when I’m asleep.”
“I read about that. They say it’s a form of rape.”
“A form of rape. I know. I didn’t know. And now I know. What kind of disgusting pig?” she says and reaches into her purse. She rummages in it; the purse looks like there’s some kind of animal inside it, trying to get out. “I always forget I quit.”
“It’s not bad. This place. Reminds me of my childhood home a bit.”
“Didn’t you say it was a nightmare? Who does that? Rape their own wife? Rick the Dick. So. I can put up with these shitty floors,” she says.
“You just need carpets, that’s all. We have one in the basement. My mother mailed it to us. I think she might’ve made it with the women from her coven.”
Helen nods, “A witch carpet.”
We walk around the apartment. The caulking in the bathroom needs scrubbing, the inside cupboards above the stove are sticky and smell of something sweet like cake, but with ants in it.
In the car on the way back, the baby wakes up for good and wails. Over the wails, Helen talks fast about how excited she is. She doesn’t sound like she’s trying to convince herself. She sounds genuinely excited.
I feel genuinely jealous. I want to leave my husband, too. But I’m not doing anything about it.
I didn’t always hate my husband. For example, in the past, I could just sit somewhere and think of him and I would feel aroused, obsessed. His name alone would be enough. Just Eric. And there it would be, a little pussy heartbeat and a little panic.
In my library of memories, I have a particular day, a conference I attended for an old job.
There was a presentation—funky fonts and pie charts, a slideshow, a projector with a glitch, a man’s shiny forehead as he fiddled with the projector. At my table, women named Karen or Brenda took notes, hushed each other behind plump hands, fiddled with key chains with names of organizations.
And then in the middle of this, I thought of only his name: “ERIC”—not even him, just the name—and the pull between my legs was so strong that I had to lean forward against the table. A glass of water vibrated, threatened to tip over, while a Brenda looked at me with questioning eyes.
I smiled back at that Brenda and sat up straight.
During the break, I went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet and made myself come—I came hard, my fist in my mouth to block the sound.
Rick sits at our kitchen table in his parka. He won’t take it off.
My daughter brings him a colouring book. “Colour,” she says, resigned.
My husband makes eyes at me to follow him out of the kitchen.
I follow him. In the hallway, he pulls me close to him, “I feel like we’ve escaped, don’t you?” His hand sneaks up my breast.
“Whenever one of my friends goes through this,” he says and kisses me on the mouth.
I kiss him back, pull away, “Like because we’re still together? Is that what you mean?”
“Yeah,” he says. “A guy at work just yesterday. It’s like some kind of a zombie plague.”
“But we hate each other.”
“Yeah. Shh, Babe,” he says and tries to pull me closer. I wriggle out, turn around.
He pinches my butt. I used to enjoy that. I would stick my butt out at him. Now I just feel guilty. About not enjoying it, about letting both of us down.
I feel guilty about wriggling out. I stick my butt out.
He pinches me again.
Rick looks up when I walk in to the living room. “Maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” I say.
He stares at me, “No. Sure. It’s a great thing.”
“Come on, colour,” Emily says. “It’s not gonna colour itself.”
Rick takes the purple crayon from her small fist and starts filling in an outline of an Easter egg.
“How was your night the other night?” he says without looking up.
The other night, to celebrate Helen leaving Rick, Helen and I went out. Helen’s mother watched Baby Benjamin while we got drunk in a pub in Helen’s new neighbourhood.
In the pub, there were lots of younger men with beards, partly shaved heads, tattoos, plaid shirts. Pretend lumberjacks except for the shoes. Many of them had nice shoes. Leather. No socks.
They didn’t look at us coming in.
There were women, too, but it didn’t matter. I scanned the room quickly to see if any of them were prettier than me and it appeared none of them were. The women were younger, which was advantageous to them, of course, but the few who were potentially prettier worked very hard at appearing unattractive. Most wore dresses that seemed to have been stolen from children.
There you have it. Zero competition. We should be able to pick up, said Helen.
I don’t know. They’re kids.
We don’t have to suck anyone’s dick, do we? she said. I just wanna talk.
An unpretty waitress asked us what we were having and pointed to the Specials. Selfie Sour, Hate, George, Tulip, George Peach. Names of drinks.
The waitress explained what was what. Hate was vodka with pepper flakes and lime-soda.
That’s the point. You’re not supposed to like it, she said, sounding like she was rolling her eyes.
Her right arm was covered in tattoos. Lesser superheroes. I didn’t recognize any of them. When Emily was two-and-a-half, she went through a brief superhero phase and we bought an encyclopedia that described them all. There were hundreds. She gave the encyclopedia to a boy in her class—maybe she had a crush on him, maybe it was a bully situation, she never said.
I guess Hate, I said to the waitress.
I’ll have a George, Helen said. Is George Peach just George but peach?
The waitress said in a flat voice, Exactly.
She walked away. A tall boy approached her and whispered something in her ear. He didn’t have any tattoos on his arms. His beard looked glued on. He looked to be twelve years old. He whispered and whispered and the waitress looked down, a small smile on her face.
He probably whispered that he wanted to fuck her in the storage room. He wanted to do it on top of iceberg lettuce boxes.
As a teenager I worked at a fast food joint and we kept the iceberg lettuce boxes in the back. I had a crush on the grill guy, fantasized about going in the back with him. I never did, but now I could picture the waitress and the boy fucking in a place like that. Her ass would cave in the box as he’d push inside her.
The flirting started to irritate me; I wanted my drink.
The music in the bar was something local, Canadian. Pasty kids with guitars and twangy voices, singing through their sinuses. Kids from suburbs dreaming of cows and golden dust.
Helen and I talked about that, the music, for a while, then we talked about Rick the Dick. Then age, how old we were getting, how fast.
Are we old? Can they tell we’re old? Helen said after the waitress brought our drinks and left.
I looked around. No one was looking at us.
I said to Helen, That’s just how it is now. Everyone ignores each other. I haven’t been to a bar in a long time. That’s how it must be.
Cheers to your new place, I said and we clinked our George and Hate.
Later, I got up to go to the bathroom. In the bathroom, I looked in the mirror. Skin a little loose under my eyes.
In my mind I am always in my early 20s. I get confused when I see my current face and I see that I am not in my early 20s any more. I can’t seem to get used to it. I read about that somewhere, how that was a sure sign of aging, being shocked by one’s own aging appearance. You don’t notice it until you do and then you notice it all the time.
On leaving the bathroom, I challenged myself to lock eyes with one of the young men. There was a small crowd of them around the pool table. The pool table seemed to serve as a place to sit; nobody was actually playing any pool.
The man I picked out was tall and skinny and reminded me of my husband.
He finally looked up, looked at me.
He smiled back.
I smiled again.
He walked towards me.
I saw Helen watching us.
Hey, he said.
Hey, I said.
Later, the three of us tumbled through the front door, Helen whispering loudly to be quiet, the neighbours.
Her new place was empty except for the mattress. It seemed like this, us, was meant to be because of that mattress being the only furniture. The boy slid on the linoleum floors in his intentionally mismatched socks, blue and yellow. I felt tired just looking at the socks.
I’d never had a threesome before. But I’d read enough about them. I saw some movies. It looked good in movies, all these extra hands caressing.
I wasn’t sure if a threesome meant I’d have to guide him, his penis, inside Helen; I was hoping not.
He kissed me first. He tasted of beer.
He kissed Helen.
Helen and I giggled after we kissed each other.
Then we both kissed him, a three-way kiss.
His name was George.
Like my drink, Helen said earlier, at the bar. Who names people George any more anyway? She laughed.
He was not offended. He said, I know.
On the mattress, he helped her take her clothes off.
I took my own clothes off.
Now we were both naked but he wasn’t.
We started undressing him. We were no-nonsense about it. We both had mother hands now, taking clothes off of our children. Sensuality was no longer natural because it was, perhaps, impractical.
You’re both so beautiful, George said.
I was hoping I was more beautiful than Helen and I hoped he wasn’t just saying it to be polite.
Helen had a body that was waist-less and big, unhappy breasts with inverted nipples. But she carried herself as if she had a good body.
It wasn’t fair. I was often worried about my body even though I knew it was an elegant body, long and strong: a girl body. But sometimes I would catch myself in a window, outside, and I would see someone who was hiding herself inside, walking as if I didn’t want to offend.
They started kissing me and I kissed them; our hands explored each other’s bodies. It was exactly as I predicted it would be. Acrobatic and farcical. Despite trying to relax about it, I kept thinking we had to look good as if someone was shooting this, as if this was a porno shoot.
I watched George bury his head between Helen’s legs and I hoped he wouldn’t want to kiss me afterwards, but he did want to kiss me and I kissed him. Helen’s smell was strong.
He put on a condom.
He penetrated Helen first. She made a lot of noise. Her noise, like her smell, was too much for me. I wanted to tell her to shut up. Instead, I ran my hands over George’s back. Then I kissed Helen to make her stop squealing. She shuddered in my mouth.
Then it was my turn.
I liked having him inside me. It was different than my husband. There was spryness to it; it was a body that was naturally happy to be moving, not a single muscle had been pulled and stayed that way, no creaking, no stroller-carrying injuries of lower back.
I was discreet about my orgasm, almost silent except I groaned once and Helen laughed quietly as if she had won.
George took off his condom and rubbed against Helen’s soft stomach as I gently twisted his nipples.
Helen told me to get a baby wipe from her purse.
I wiped him off of her stomach.
We all lay in silence, resting, Helen’s head on his shoulder, mine on a pillow, my arm against his.
You a mom? He said after that short pause. He pointed to the baby wipe. It had a pattern of blue ducklings on it.
Yeah, Helen said. We both are.
I wished she had said only she was a mom.
I’ve never been with anyone who’s a mom, George said.
I wanted to tell him to get lost after he said this, but as soon as I opened my mouth to say it, Helen asked him to stay and I had to go home anyway.
“So. What did you and Helen do?” says Rick now.
“Nothing. Just talked,” I say.
“Uh-huh,” he says.
I want him to take off his parka. The way he sits in it, all huddled. It makes me sad and it repulses me at the same time.
It’s Emily’s bath time now.
She runs upstairs to her room to undress.
My husband comes back from the basement with a bottle of Scotch. He keeps it in the basement. All the good Scotches he got for his 40th birthday, that’s where he keeps them.
He spends a lot of time in the basement. He has a television set there and a chair and some books about nature, war, and books on the psychology of advertising. There’s a worktable with no work on it, just boxes of screws and hammers.
I fantasize about improving the house once my husband is gone. I haven’t figured out how he’ll go but that is the underlying theme: him gone.
One of my home improvement dreams is to clean up the basement, throw out the stupid table and the old chair and the old television set … throw all of that out, gut the place and paint it and leave it mostly empty. A huge white pillow in the middle of the room, fuzzy and soft, for me to lie on. That’s all. Later, maybe, set up mirrors along the walls, install a barre for Emily for when she discovers ballet.
After he’s gone.
In the bathroom now, I tell Emily about the little dance studio in the basement that I’d envisioned.
“Tell daddy,” she says.
She dives under water like a seal and comes up with cheeks puffed out and eyes shut tight to prevent water from falling in.
She lets the air out of her cheeks and smiles at me unsurely.
I hear Rick talking loudly downstairs. I leave the bathroom with Emily in the tub and crawl closer to the stairs to eavesdrop.
Everything Rick says about Helen is predictable. He calls her degrading names and says she’s gained too much weight and he wasn’t even attracted to her any more. Fat bitchface.
I listen for Emily’s splashing in the bath. She talks to herself in an excited voice—many different voices arguing, a deep voice scolding someone.
I think I hear her say, fat bitchface, but when I confront her about it she says, “I didn’t say nothing.”
“Anything,” she says and she dives in and turns around so that she’s on her back.
She opens her eyes under water, and she looks dead for a moment, a child corpse.
I wake up from a dream about my husband, or about how it was, about something that’s missing now.
The sadness is in me like a secret voice, deep and humming. I worry it will come out when I open my mouth—as a sob, a growl—but it doesn’t.
My real-life husband rolls over to kiss me the way he does every morning as if I’m still new.
In my dream, we were kissing just like here but there was more of something, some kind of nervousness—he was not mine; there was an ex-girlfriend who threatened me. In the dream, we pulled apart from the kiss and the ex-girlfriend yelled at me and he stood behind her looking sheepish. I shouted at him that I was losing all respect for him, that he should fight for me, fight her for me. I didn’t mean to shout, I just wanted him to kiss me again, forget her.
Later, in the same dream, I went to their wedding and I was given a camera. I filmed him telling her he loved her, and I filmed her looking at me triumphantly. My despair over losing him was as intense as my recent desire to lose him.
Now I think about how the dream meant that despite myself I still can’t quite conceive of my life without him.
“You were an asshole in my dream,” I tell him now.
“What did I do? Did I leave you for another woman?” he touches my breast, his fingers pinching the nipple gently.
“Emily is up,” I say even though I can’t hear Emily being up or not.
“I’m sorry I was bad,” he says into my neck as he pushes against me.
“I can hear her,” I say.
He moves away, “We need a weekend off.”
“Let’s ask Helen. She’s stuck with the baby anyway. What’s one more kid. I’d do it for her.”
“They’re splitting custody. We had a coffee last Monday. I forgot to tell you. I ran into her at the grocery store. She seemed fine.”
“You had a coffee?” I say.
“She suggested it.”
“I’m glad we’re not taking sides. She needs to know that.”
He says, “She knows. She seemed fine. I said to call anytime.”
“Yeah. Of course. She’s fine though. She’s sleeping with a new guy. A young guy,” I say.
“A young guy. Good for her. Do you want that? A young guy?”
“Seriously.” I pull the covers over my head like a depressed teenager. My hair unwashed and too long gets in my mouth but I don’t move it. I kind of enjoy the irritation. All of the irritations, in my mouth, on my skin. My skin is clammy and sandy at the same time. I sweat at night, sweat too much. I should probably see a doctor about this. It’s probably cancer.
I can hear him leave the room and then there are Emily’s muffled shouts, and then she crawls into the hot, dark cave inside where I lie with too much hair and my sour, damp smell.
The nostalgia of my dream doesn’t let go even when Emily pushes against me and smiles her squeezed little smile in my face.
I tell Helen about my dream and she says nothing; she is not listening.
The reason why she’s incapable of listening is because she’s been sleeping with George and she is happy. At least temporarily happy. I’ve found this to be the case—people who are happy are unable to empathize properly. If you tell them about something miserable, they pretend to listen but in reality they want you to stop. They want to run home to their new toy, boyfriend, promotion, baby, whatever. They want to brag about their new thing, the thing that you don’t have.
Proof: “I’m having great fantastic amazing sex,” Helen says.
“What’s with you?”
“It really throws me off, stuff like that. It’s so stupid.”
“It’s just a dream. Maybe you need to do something crazy. Get a boyfriend,” she says. “George said he wants to kill everyone else and impregnate me. Can you believe that?”
“Do you want another baby?”
“No, you idiot. It’s just a hot thing to say, right?”
“Can I borrow George?”
“Sure,” she says curtly. “You said your sex life has always been good.”
“It is. It was. I don’t know.”
“Rick the Dick used to jerk off all the time. And watch porn. You’d think he’d be good at it. Remember when he worked from home for a while? I swear that was just so he could accommodate his jerking-off schedule,” she says. I notice a single black hair sprouting out of her cheek. I consider telling her—before young George notices it—but I decide not to.
“Every day. It was like living with some kind of animal. Everyone does it, sure. But to make such pursuit of it?” She rummages in her bag for a moment, then stops.
I say nothing. Personally, it never bothered me with my husband. At the same time, he’s always been discreet about it. Shower and soap, he told me once.
She shows me around her apartment; I follow her around, her pitiful ass. My husband says she’s got the flattest butt he’s ever seen. This is true. She talks. I don’t know about what. About George. About sleeping with George. How George bites her face. How she likes it. I keep thinking about my dream.
“You okay?” Helen says.
“Sure.” I think of kissing her that night few weeks ago, how soft her lips were. Her fingertips are gentle, motherly.
“You should see someone,” she says.
She stands in the living-room-to-be with her hands on her hips, “I’ll give you the number of my old therapist.”
My other interior decorating fantasy, other than the basement, involves me repainting our entire house. Everything white, even carpets.
On walls, no heavy frames, just silver outlines and photographs of fog and frost. Arctic foxes and polar bears. The whole place like snow, but warm and comforting, a duvet of snow.
Many nights, while falling asleep, that’s how I calm myself down, by picturing the house getting a makeover. That basement, all the colours gone, washed out. Emily’s room, my room, the marital bed chopped to pieces, the wood in the garden, a whole stack of bed wood to feed the outdoor hearth that I don’t own now, but that I own in my fantasies. I don’t burn anything loudly, hysterically like a woman wronged; I just feed the wood pieces into the hearth, slowly, patiently. Soon, I am asleep. I almost always dream of nothing.
Right now, I pick up a catalogue of paint chips by Tommy Hilfiger sitting inside a ribcage of one of the empty bookshelves. I flip through it, see various nautical greys and blues. A piece of paper with our phone number falls out.
Helen says, “You know, Eric said he worries about you too.”
The way she says it. I imagine them having their coffee, my husband saying how he worries, Helen saying how he shouldn’t worry, or maybe Helen saying she understands, of course, because she herself worries, about me—or maybe she worries about Rick, maybe they bond over her complaining about Rick—so they both sit there and bond and bond but he just can’t stop worrying so she gives him a conciliatory hand job in the car and later she says, but please just stop worrying, before she drops him off.
“I think you need to mind your own business,” I say. My own voice surprises me.
“What? Where is this coming from?”
Fuck her. “Fuck you,” I say. I’m fed up with this. Her idiotic decorating, the bearded child she’s sleeping with, the bragging. The false concern. The apartment. The apartment is depressing. She’s depressing.
She’s saying things: where is this coming from, again, what is wrong with me, do I want to sit down, can we talk about this.
“Leave my husband alone. Leave us alone,” I say and her face is an open mouth, a frown, and I leave her there in her sad linoleum-floor apartment as I slam the door too hard but the hallway, the mentally-ill-smelling hallway, beige and carpeted, muffles my rage.
In the taxi, I think how I’ve never confronted anyone, never broken up with anybody ever before. Every single boyfriend before my husband eased out of my life eventually as I became more and more catatonic. They all thought it was their idea. I went out for many coffees “as friends” for years, always gently refused to “try again.” Eventually, they’d give up for good.
Helen is my first breakup, ever. I am scared but also excited, like I bungee-jumped: it worked; I didn’t die.
I get out of the taxi. I stand in front of the door and I think of them inside. I could just walk away. I could just keep on walking, go wait for another taxi and ask to be driven to the airport like they do it in the movies.
I could purchase a ticket to France or to Mexico.
I picture myself on a beach, twisting my body into a pretzel, yoga, or something like that, something spiritual, maybe collecting shells, maybe listening to a deranged wise old man or a woman from the village.
I knock and he opens the door.
My daughter runs toward me. I squat and open my arms wide. I say softly, as if to a kitten, “Come here, baby, come here.”
My husband, the stranger, stands behind her, waiting. His arms are folded and he smiles, satisfied as if I was a runaway that decided to come home.
I hold onto my daughter tightly, not wanting to let her go, not wanting to be in the open water with the stranger, vulnerable to his claim of me.
She wriggles out, finally, and I stand up.
He pulls me toward him and kisses me on my forehead.
I’m stiff, irritated, but as he holds me, I start to relax and I go soft in his arms and I lift my head and we kiss on the lips.
I can’t wait to tell him about Helen, how we’re no longer friends.
Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, Poland. She is the author of the bestselling memoir Drunk Mom (Doubleday Canada, HarperCollins Australia, Penguin US). Her novel Guy (Buckrider Press) came out in the fall of 2016. Jowita lives in Toronto.
“Helen is Not My Friend Anymore” originally appeared in The Puritan.