Fiction Laura Clarke Literature

Vestigial Traits

I can’t even begin to tell you how boring I am now. Boring in a good way, the kind you like, the kind that doesn’t exhaust you. It’s true every night I snort coke off a buzzard’s gold-encrusted talon at the Archbishop of York’s enthronement feast. It’s true my chocolate-covered knuckles are always bruised from punching 25 swan-shaped piñatas and I feel a violence so close to my skin I feel itchy all over and then I ask the archbishop to slap me in the face hard and he obliges. He always looks hungry for my blood. You know how aristocrats are. They’re all pretty much vampires. Vampires are the aristocracy and zombies are the proletariat of horror-related class metaphors—remember you said that? I wake in cold sweats when the archbishop starts to choke me. See, Ryan, it’s just a dream, like the ending of every crappy movie ever made, but I put it in the beginning of this email instead—to show you how straightforward I am now.

The archbishop does this in every dream—chokes me—but his hands are never the same. Sometimes they’re hairy-knuckled with huge sausage fingers, sometimes they’re shockingly small and soft. Small and soft is worse: the physical pain is less but the sense of betrayal is greater. Sorry, I was planning to avoid the word betrayal, but it was probably sitting there in the back of my mind and that’s why it came out. Those couple of months when I was rampantly (“rampantly” = your word) cheating on you seem like a dream—and not like the archbishop one, which is so vivid I’m certain there must be a chamber in my brain where that world exists 24/7. When I think of the times I cheated on you, they’re like those dreams where you’re doing something monotonous like scanning grocery items over and over, but in this case, it’s just a bunch of genitals and fingers and dildos going in and out of my pussy (see? The sex was boring, I told you).

Cold sweats are the wrong type of sweat because they’re unproductive. I haven’t been able to shake them, no matter how hard I concentrate on optimizing my body and my mind. Though I try to keep the boundaries between dream life and waking life clear, sometimes I lose control. But I do it way less often than I used to, I promise – lose control, I mean. Now when I wake, I clutch at the hard edges of my gym-body for evidence it’s still intact. It’s like the sleep paralysis you suffered from, the mythic old hag riding your chest and constricting your breath as you lay frozen in our king-size bed, unable to move or scream or even blink—sometimes you’d see demonic red eyes in the mirror, or the room would be filled with a bright, penetrating light. The light sounded nice to me, but you claimed it was the most terrifying of all.

I remove my mouth guard and run my tongue over my teeth. Still there. I cradle my bicep with my opposite hand and flex in fetal position. Still there. My body is becoming a machine, yes, and I like it that way. I reward repetition with more repetition and so on. I don’t reach for my neck when I wake up to see if it’s tender anymore. It’s not. The dreams aren’t real, Ryan, no matter how vivid, no matter what people on the internet say about astral projection or time travel.

I’m truly ashamed when I think of how easily I used to lose my temper. You didn’t grow up like I did, so when I threw rooibos tea in your face during that argument, it wasn’t normal to you. To me, that was normal. My mom always threw stuff in my direction when she was angry—whatever was at hand, liquids, solids, even something gelatinous once. Sometimes it would hit me, sometimes it wouldn’t. Nowadays I still get irritated by just about everyone, but I keep it to myself and use it as fuel for my workouts—it’s like my body is a baby and the gym circuit is a lullaby. Every Sunday I bench press my father’s weight the day he died, a memorial performed by my own muscle and bone. That feels good, like my day-to-day routine has some sort of meaning. Otherwise, sometimes it feels like I’m Sisyphus, lifting incredibly heavy items and putting them back in the same place for no reason. But it’s actually worse than being Sisyphus, because each time it’s a bit heavier. Because that’s how you get results.

Every day I swallow a pill that maximizes my workout potential and optimizes my inverted triangle body shape. These pills are a big craze here, but I’m not sure if people know about them out east, and everyone seems about two years behind there, no offense. The side effects are a tendency to register the auras of inanimate objects, ie. a subtle vulnerability to the conversational wavelengths occurring between machines and an accompanying desire to be a part of the conversation—which leads to sexual feelings in most cases—and, of course, hyper-realistic dreams.

I ease myself into my silver gym casing and immediately commence the Kegels I’ll perform on the downlow for the next hour as I Skype into meetings from my couch. You probably saw on social media that I got a new job. I don’t love it, but it’s better than working at the coffee shop. One of the positive side effects I’ve experienced not listed on the pill bottle is that I’ve stopped cutting myself and my suicidal thoughts have diminished considerably. “Cutting myself” is really a blanket term that includes cutting, burning and picking at my skin. I still formulate elaborate plans to kill myself sometimes, but I know I won’t follow through—the planning is more a comfort than anything else.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to start talking about suicide and cutting and all that depressing shit. I wanted to focus on self-optimization, how self-restraint and discipline glow inside my lungs and quads as I flow through my four-hour workout block at the gym. My shimmering bodysuit absorbs my sweat as I push and pull and lift. My ass is getting bigger and my waist is getting smaller and all around me it’s happening to everyone else. That is the shape of the person on the pill bottle, so it makes sense. [redacted] is expensive (cost-adjusted to be approximately 25 % of your salary), and the product reviews online are mixed:

I need to look hot so I’ll keep taking these pills but I feel like I’m losing my grip on reality. I swear I’m time-travelling not dreaming sometimes (3/5 stars).

Would you rather be brutally murdered every night by your children in a dream that seems completely real and lasts for hours or be fat? This is the choice I’m currently facing on [redacted] (2/5 stars).

Lol honestly if the only side effect of [redacted] is some building starting to look sort of sexy sign me up for a lifetime supply (5/5 stars).

I can afford this kind of stuff now, though it’s hard to train myself out of survival mode. When we lived together, I was always underemployed, and then you were fired from the vet clinic, and we both became so used to spending the bare minimum, so accustomed to the tense fights that occurred on the last day of every month as we tried to scrape rent together. Now sometimes I have extra money after I pay my rent and phone bill and utility bill and internet bill and student loans and pill payments. If my face was prettier, I would be content to have a slightly below average body. You always said my face was handsome, strong, cute—but you would never say pretty or beautiful. You wouldn’t lie. I don’t even have that raw sexual energy that some people who aren’t conventionally attractive radiate. I know I don’t possess this quality because everyone else in my immediate family does—even my three sisters whose faces bear the same unfortunate mashup of my father and mother’s traits that mine does—though of course nobody references it directly. It would be strange to talk about how sexy people were or were not within a family.

The product reviews didn’t deter me; in fact, like many, I saw the potential side effects as personal challenges to overcome. You’d hardly recognize me now—my body has changed so much over the past 6 months, though for some reason I don’t possess it in the dream world. It’s my pudgy pre-[redacted] body the archbishop serves thousands of birds and beasts to each night. 3000 peacocks. 2000 partridges. 400 hawks. 500 swans. 6000 pigeons. 45 bulls. One giant charred serpentine creature he claims is a dragon. The number of guests varies—sometimes there are thousands; sometimes it’s just me and him. You’re never there, Ryan, though I always look for you. I don’t eat meat in real life, but I regularly dip gizzards into silver saucers of blood and swallow them whole in my dreams. I ate a hawk’s eyeball once. I’d like to say I’m aware I’m dreaming, since I experience no guilt at the killing and eating that takes place, which stands in opposition to my empathy for the suffering of animals in the real world. You always found this aspect of me overly sentimental. But did you know the African Grey Parrot is prone to self-mutilation in domesticity and understands the concept of zero? Did you know Flannery O’Connor sewed clothes for her chickens and taught one to walk backwards?

At the gym I try to ignore the indigo auras of the Stairmasters, the snaky whispers of the baskets of skipping ropes, the sighs and grunts of the treadmills working overtime to accommodate our newfound energy and dedication, the choir of stationary bikes humming in unison, waiting to be mounted. But really, they’re the only thing distracting me from playing conversations with you over in my head, conversations that never happened, at least not yet.

Not everybody experiences the side effects of [redacted], but among those that do, whether they view the connection to machines positively, negatively or neutrally varies, as does the content of the hyper-realistic dreams—some have horrifying nightmares while others achieve a state of bliss that was never possible in their everyday life. Some people even swing wildly between the two extremes. I guess I have the body of my dreams now but literally all I think about is fucking the shit out of buttons (2/5 stars) wrote one reviewer. Some have hyper-realistic dreams that are simultaneously hyper-mundane—some can live with this, while others find this hardest to endure. The company says experiencing both major side effects is extremely rare and only 20 per cent of users report even one, but it seems like they may be minimizing, or using limited data, or attempting to measure something that is in fact immeasurable. When I step on the scale it says I’ve lost five pounds, and it also feels inviting beneath my feet, radiating a playful and friendly energy. I stand there basking in our mutual appreciation for one another, until a woman wearing a silver body casing barks are you done. It’s only later that I wonder if the scale was flattering me in the only way it knows how. I know what you would say, Ryan: not everybody—not everything—is constantly looking for ways to manipulate others. I tried explaining to you that it wasn’t so much I changed my personality to achieve my desired outcomes according to each particular circumstance; my behaviour was actually a result of not really possessing a core personality. I always felt so malleable internally, and to be fair, you appreciated that I was up for whatever until you began to see it as emblematic of some gaping void within me.

Each chicken’s genetic code contains the unrecognized capacity for teeth—just because you never see them doesn’t mean their potential never existed. So maybe my core personality is inside me somewhere, waiting for the perfect circumstances to bloom. Flannery O’Connor described every other moment in her life as anticlimax compared to the experience of teaching that one little peafowl, dressed in its hand-sewn outfit—which I alternately imagine to be a tuxedo, nightgown or simple trousers and button-up shirt depending on my mood—to walk backwards. I guess it’s no surprise that someone so racist would be sentimental about her peafowl. Animals are simply objects of our ever-extending knowledge, as John Berger said, and I suppose machines are too—or do I have it backwards? Even you, Ryan, once possessed a tiny tail as a fetus that eventually merged with your coccyx to form your spine.

The archbishop has only seen teeth on a chicken once—a vampire rooster crowed at the moon the night his father died, he once explained to me while sipping whisky from a hollow spiralled unicorn horn. In my waking life, two out-of-order treadmills at the gym seem more receptive to hearing my theories about genetic codes, plus the scale says I’ve lost 10 more pounds. I’ve taken to leaving small offerings for the machines at the gym, shiny stones and small crystals and other things I think they would like. It’s difficult to explain their gratitude to someone not on the level. But I feel it. I try to do the same thing for the archbishop, but he never notices my gifts; the small amethysts and smooth white stones sit neglected on the dusty velvet-upholstered chairs that surround the banquet table. I’m never certain what will interest him. I offer him wishbones from 200 slaughtered turkeys, pondering what I should wish for—to live inside a different dream each night, maybe one where I’m Prometheus instead of Sisyphus? I’d prefer to have my liver consumed each day and then watch it regenerate for eternity to the whole boulder thing. It’s not because I’m a drama queen like you would assume, but simply because it’s more interactive. Or a dream where I’m an old hag riding you and even when you look away into the mirror it’s my eyes staring back, and somehow even the brilliant white light filling your room reminds you of me. Maybe it’s against the rules to request a different dream within a dream, like asking a genie for 1000 wishes. Either way, the archbishop doesn’t want to play; even the sado-masochistic act of snapping the wishbone doesn’t interest him. He just rolls his eyes at my upturned hands, which unlike his, are always the same, and says: What would I wish for but a room full of feathers?

Laura Clarke is the author of Decline of the Animal Kingdom (ECW), which was included on the Globe and Mail and the National Post’s Top Books of 2015. You can find her writing in the National Post, Hazlitt, PRISM international, The Antigonish Review, Grain, and Prairie Fire. In 2013, she was honoured with the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada.