Self-Preservation by Margaret Malone

Self Pres

Thomas Sutherland, The Temple of the Flora: American Bog Plants, 1725, color engraving, aquatint, stipple.

At my open front door is a white guy walking the line between middle age and old age and I cannot tell if I can trust him. He is decked out in fleece and a clipboard, which right there has me thinking, No. 

“You’ve got a great roof for panels,” he says. His smile is much too wide for someone I’ve never met before, who is not looking at me over a drink.

An uncomfortable moment passes where neither of us speaks, I take it that he understands I mean get the fuck off my porch, but he somehow takes it as a sign of my interest. So, he leans his fit old body against the door jamb like I’m nineteen and it’s my dorm room and I can decide how the night’s going to go.

This stranger on my porch, with his tanned skin and very white teeth, has eyes that tell a story different from the rest of him.

Near his elbow is the sign: No Solicitors. I made a special trip to the hardware store for that sign after countless jerks rang my doorbell, only ever, it seemed, moments after my nine-month old had fallen precariously asleep. After most of the door-to-door salespeople ignored the sign and kept coming around anyway, I added a sticky note at the bottom that read, “Seriously. This means you.” Solar panel guy was my first salesman since the addition.

Two good things came out of that trip to the hardware store. One was the sign itself. I was so excited to finally have a legitimate reason to scowl and whisper-scream indignantly at the assholes that rang my doorbell to swindle me with their faster internet speeds, and gutter screens, and bargain magazine bundles. The second thing good about that day was the clerk who checked me out, a sort of handsome fellow with a receding hairline and a red work vest who grinned and practically held my hand when he gave me my change. As I put the money in my wallet he continued to smile at me. He said, “What do you have planned for the rest of the day?”

I pointed to my nine-month old in the stroller. “Walk home. Eat lunch. Pray for a nap. What about you?”

His easy contentment took its time. He seemed to get taller. He said, “Day like this,” as his hand gestured to the window, out onto the sunny sidewalk. “Just waiting to get off work. One more hour.” Hand through his hair. Time slowed down, like right before a car accident. “Guess I’ll go home, crack open a beer, and take my shirt off.”

My face smiled without my approval. I worked to keep a serious look, like he’d just told me he was going to clip his nails and it was no big deal and I totally was not picturing him home alone with a beer and a bare-naked torso and time on his hands.

“Uh,” I said. “Sure.” Then, “Great day.” It was like I didn’t know how to talk since the baby.

“I’ll be home soon enough,” he said. “I live just right over there.” His chin pointed to the house on the other side of the store’s outdoor garden area. A craftsman just across the fence.

“That’s convenient,” I said. I was referring to the daily commute.

We were fucking each other two hours later on the dirt floor of his backyard Tuff Shed. The baby played on a blanket and ate blades of grass nearby. I’d never done that before, sex with someone I didn’t know. Motherhood had made me some other kind of person, and not in the way they tell you in books and movies, not in the maternal-side kicking in—kinder, gentler, “yes, I’ll make you a PB&J and then wash your socks”—kind of way. For me, it was more like get the fuck away from me, I can’t take one more minute of this, I think I’m honestly losing my mind so make your own god damn sandwich kind of way. Since motherhood, I frightened me.

Right after, as I pushed the stroller home in the sun, with a warm ache between my legs, I felt impossibly light, as if each step I took landed on cotton instead of concrete.

That night though, in the dark, I felt less light. I couldn’t understand what I’d done. My husband, dulled and inert, slept on the far side of the bed. Wasn’t he a good enough man? Employed, dependable, quiet as a cul de sac. My swollen boob in the baby’s sleepy mouth, I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t do anything I wasn’t supposed to again. Head down. Stay in formation. Hold the line.

Now, old solar panel guy on my porch, leaning on my doorjamb. His self-assured eye contact and bright white teeth. I bet he hikes on the weekends. Eats yogurt. Owns a kayak. That sort of old guy, leaning on my doorjamb.

He thinks he knows me, I bet. Thinks I’m easy prey. He thinks, I can see it, I got this broad’s sale in the bag.

I open the front door wide. “Thank you,” I say. I use a quiet voice. “I’ve waited years for someone to notice the slant of my roof.”

He sticks his salesman smile on me—a white, toothy hole in his face—walks past, and gives a nod, then sits himself down on my couch uninvited. A warm rush of joy passes through my groin as I remember all the times the cat has thrown up on the exact cushion he sits on now. And then, incredibly, even though it’s my house, he pats the cushion next to him, beckoning me.

It’s revolting. Still, I come. I do as I’m told.

“We’ll need to whisper,” I say. “The baby.”  I cannot seem to stop myself.

 *   

It wasn’t me, this me. How can I explain it? It was the sleep exhaustion. Hormones at low tide. Postpartum brain chemistry. Before the baby, how was I? It’s hard to remember. I’d always been the woman who preferred befriending men: music, beer, video games. Men made sense to me. More sense than women, with their talking and listening, their blow dryers and hand creams. After the baby, I felt myself slide, in danger of becoming one of the soft-skinned women. Where were the women who made things and hammered wood and splashed paint and climbed trees? Women like that, those were my women. I knew they must be out there, but I wasn’t sure how to meet them. Was there a dating site for straight women who didn’t want to have sex with other women but just wanted to hang out because they were sick of women who wanted to talk about their bodies and bras and babies? No, I didn’t think so.

 * 

Lately, when my mind was left on its own, it had bad thoughts. Like, how much better a flock of starlings looked in winter hopping from yard to yard, their mass of iridescent black wings, before spring came and colored them back to boring. Or, how I was compelled to take the baby outside in the fresh air, no matter if it rained or snowed or stormed. Or, how sometimes I wanted to walk and walk and keep walking because the baby would sleep and as long as she slept I’d never have to go back home and if I didn’t go home there’d be no cleaning to ignore or neighbors to be friendly with or garbage to take to the curb. When I walked, it was just me, strong legs, the baby safe, neither of us crying. Sometimes I imagined I’d walk all the way to the river, then up and onto the bridge. I remember hearing of another woman who went to the bridge and threw her kids over, one by one, into the water, like paper boats she was trying to launch. They sank. Women weren’t supposed to do this kind of thing, I understood that; and I also understood that sometimes the dream of a terrible thought was the only way to keep from doing it. I wonder if that lady, the one who did it, just got confused for a minute, and couldn’t remember when to stop dreaming, and accidentally sent them over before she woke up.

  * 

My watch says thirty minutes (if I’m lucky) until the baby wakes from her morning nap.

Thirty minutes to: clean dried egg off breakfast dishes; or, sweep dog hair tumbleweeds off the wood floor; or, take a quick shower and avoid the black mold growing in the grout between the tiles wondering, as I lather up, when I’ll find the time to kill the mold. One more thing I need to do. Or, no wait, why don’t I let the mold live? Yes, wasn’t my job these days, to keep everything alive? Why not the mold too?

I’m not sure how long I was thinking about things, but when I look up from my watch the solar panel salesman is still smiling. It could have been ten seconds, or maybe minutes, why not years? That’s what time did these days, bent and stretched. It didn’t follow the laws of physics like it was supposed to. Time equals distance divided by speed, so what time did that make it again?

He whispers, “Your neighbor just installed panels on her roof too.” He points down the road toward nobody I know. “She’s very happy with them.”

He whispers, “Your street-facing roof pitch faces southwest. It’s perfect. Just perfect. Imagine it.” He closes his eyes like he’s deep in reverie, or eating something particularly decadent.

I close my eyes. I imagine the west-facing roof. I picture it with and without solar panels. 

“Yes,” I say. “I am.”

I imagine the salesman with and without clothes. Who am I to judge a naked body? Lately mine was nothing more than a vessel for secreting milk and urine, occasionally feces. Lately, the body’s functions in general—and what went into the toilet in particular—had become an everyday topic of conversation. Go potty, we told the dog. Go potty, we said to the baby as she peed in her diaper. I’m going to the potty, we told each other now before taking a shit. Last week I had to call the plumber and when he asked what the problem was I told him we needed help with our potty. It never ends, the mental degradation. The erosion of who I used to be.

Crackle of glossy paper as the salesman unfolds a brochure.

“Shhh,” I tell him.

He waves his hands at me in apology. He whispers, “It’s a big decision. You’re going to want to talk to your husband about this.” He could have been talking about anything.

“What makes you think I’m married?” I say.

“The ring,” he says. He points at my hand.

“It could be a woman, you know,” I whisper. “That I’m married to.”

He doesn’t seem to take this comment seriously. He shrugs.

“It could be a lot of things,” I say. What I mean is, I could be all kinds of different people.

 *

How do I seem to you, I want to ask him.

It’s one of those things I’ve always wanted to know, how I am in the world. Am I hunched or confident? Kind or cruel? Approachable or shut down? Sometimes I think all our human interactions come down to that one question: how do I seem to you? Like, at each precise moment of our lives, when we’re on the bus, or in line at the store, or waiting to cross the street, what we’re really doing is playing a life or death game where we try to seem like a certain kind of person. I am Don’t Fuck With Me. I am Ask Me Anything. I am Please, Can’t You Help Me With This?

 *

Boredom is the root of all shitty ideas. Who said that? Mark Twain? My point is, a week after the first time, I’d gone back to the hardware store. I had, in fact, applied eyeshadow and liner beforehand, something I’m not skilled at in the first place and also hadn’t done in over a year. I was out of practice. The effect was one in which I looked a lot like a chimney sweep.

Baby in stroller. Walk quick. Get exercise. Breathe air. Feel sun. Keep moving. The baby won’t cry, if we keep moving. Up the street, through the neighborhood, nobody much around except for the cranky retired man executing his military-precision yard work, and that college student sitting on the front steps of a rental house with his ceramic mug and bare feet, and, of course, the older hipster who looked a lot like the college student but with crows’ feet, a beard, and a mean passing glare. Also, the chickens.

It was warm, not hot, but by the time I got there I was covered in a sheen of perspiration, another enchanting side-effect of biology. I used a forearm to wipe sweat from my face and a smear of dark eyeshadow came with it. I peeked around the front of the stroller to see if the baby had by some miracle fallen asleep. Of course not.

Cars idled at the stoplight up ahead. A guy sailed by on a skateboard. In front of the hardware store, a bus engine roared to life as it pulled away from the curb.

I held open the right side of the glass double doors with one hand, rang the bell, and tried to push the stroller across the metal-lip threshold. The stroller wheels caught. Motherfucker. I used a leg and my hip to hold open the other glass door and force the stroller through but the angle was off and I pushed too hard and the wheels jammed into a display of plastic Adirondack chairs. A customer browsing lightbulbs looked up toward the ruckus, scowled, and returned to his choices. A man at the counter buying snail bait shook his head at me, like I took a shit on his church floor.

The baby began to whimper.

“I got it,” I said to everyone.

I felt confused. Should I apologize about the Adirondack chairs? Even though it was an accident? I didn’t know the right thing to do.

“Sorry,” I said to snail bait and lightbulb.

I felt bad about the mess, but I’d heard women aren’t supposed to say sorry anymore. I was still unclear if that meant I shouldn’t feel sorry ever again, or if it was okay to feel it but just not to say it out loud.

The baby whimpered a second time. It meant I had a good three minutes before she dropped into a solid cry. Five, if I swing-pushed the stroller back and forth to distract her.

I walked past the bins of nuts and bolts. Past the toilet plungers. Finally, I found him at the key-making machine, talking to a woman rocking from foot to foot with a baby in a sling.

“What makes you think I’m married?” she said.

“I’ve seen you in here with him,” he said. “You bought an air filter together.”

The grind of metal on metal as the key took its shape.

I tried to back up down the aisle without drawing any more attention, but crashed the stroller into some barbeques while negotiating a three-point turn. The baby did not like that.

“Goodness! Are you okay?” the other woman said. “Did you fall down?”

 “Yes,” I said. “No. I mean, sort of.”

My hardware store friend waved at me from behind his key machine, friendly and unashamed. I understood he was helping us all out, all the mothers.

“Your face,” the woman said. “It’s black and blue.”

“Oh!” I said. “This?” I pushed my bangs away from my eyes. “No, just trying out a new look. Smoky eyes kind of thing.”

I tried to come up with a plan. Something I needed. Why I am here. Good question. I wasn’t sure why I went back.

I mean, sure, I was sure, but, also, I had no idea.

*   

My postpartum libido and I were still getting acquainted. One day I’m masturbating repeatedly, like my clitoris can’t rub up against enough of anything. And then for weeks, my sensory self goes dormant. On those days, the idea of sex elicits no sensation of pleasure in me. I’m done thinking about it before the thought has fully formed, and then my brain stoically returns to whatever thought it had been polishing beforehand.

Solar panel salesman had me ping-ponging back and forth between both. I’d think I’ll fuck him to fuck him, but then a minute later, I’d see him hunched over his glossy brochure and think, why bother?

“As you can see here,” he says.

“Shh,” I remind him.

“Right,” he whispers. “As you can see here,” his finger points to a confusing graphic of brightly-colored bars in a race to the top of the page, “the SL-5220 is our best-selling model. It’s such a beauty, and reliable as can be, and fits nicely on most roofs. It gets the job done.”

I lean over the coffee table where he’s spread his brochure out.

“But…?” I say.

But if you want to really draw as much energy from the sun into the panels, and thereby into the electrical output bank, and thereby into your pocket, money-wise, then what you want to think about is the XL-9520. Woo! This girl will get to sucking so hard on the sun, you won’t believe the kilowatt hours you’ll see on your quarterly report.” His teeth again, surrounded by lips, right up in my face. What is a smile anyway, except a cavern where things come and go?

Staring at his teeth, I try to remember if I want solar panels or not. I couldn’t always tell anymore what I wanted. Which cereal, which tennis shoes, which underpants to wear. Sometimes I’d find myself standing in the bedroom with a drawer open, miles deep in a dark well of the choice between this or that with no idea how long I’d stood there. Time, like I said, did some trickster shit these days.

“I’m so thirsty,” I whisper.

“Yes, great,” he says. “I’d love some water. It’s the dickens out there.”

I have no idea what dickens means. Maybe he’s even older than I thought.

In the kitchen, sunlight refracts through the faucet stream. It’s mesmerizing, isn’t it? The way one thing can pass through another, and be then both different and the same on the other side of it.

I carry two waters back into the living room. One glass for me, one for the dickens. His hand on the unfolded brochure like it has a heartbeat he can feel through the gloss.

On the monitor, the baby makes her waking up sounds. Impossible. I should have a good twenty minutes left, bare minimum. Grunts and kicks and half-hearted cries.

He must sense it too, there isn’t much time left.

“Do we still need to whisper? Because I’d love to talk to you about our payment plan options. We’ve got a great deal right now with APRs as low as 0%. That’s right. Zero.” He closes his mouth, but now his eyes are wide with some delirious kind of sales glee.

“It’s even more important now,” I whisper. “We have to be as quiet as possible.”

 * 

To make a quick escape, I grabbed the first plant I saw. I held it like a football, fronds in my face, which made it hard to push the stroller, so I put the plant in the baby’s lap. She did not like it either and started to cry.

I headed for checkout.

A lanky teenage boy worked the register. He said the right words but with the expression of someone who just received terrible news. “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

“No, not really,” I said. I didn’t mean to say that.

He pointed at the baby holding the plant. “Is that all for you today?”

“That is all.”

“Your total comes to $27.99, ma’am.”

“No, just the plant,” I said.

“Yes, ma’am. It’s $27.99.”

“That’s a lot of money for a plant,” I said. “Isn’t it? Or is it? Actually, I’m not sure. I don’t buy a lot of plants.”

“I don’t really know,” he said. “Do you want me to ask someone?”

The baby laughed and threw the plant to the floor. The pot broke and the dirt scattered everywhere.

“I’ll just take it. It’s fine.”

I grabbed my debit card from my sweaty back pocket, swiped it, then used my hands to sweep up some of the dirt on the floor.

“Ma’am, you’ll need to do that again. It didn’t work.”

“Well, if you have a dust pan I could borrow, I’d do a better job of it.”             

“No, ma’am. The card. You can leave the dirt.”

“God, this fucking—sorry—debit card. I have to swipe it just right to make it go.”

I swiped. I could feel someone in line behind me, saw the tips of their work boots on the floor. I stared at the machine. It made a beep.

“No, ma’am,” he said. “It’s still declined.”

The baby had stopped crying and instead chewed on a leafy frond she held in her hand. I was half-sure I had the number for poison control in my phone.

“There’s definitely money in there,” I said. “The problem must be your machine.”

“Do you want to talk to the manager, see what she can do?” he asked. Before I could answer, he grabbed a walkie-talkie. “Manager to the front counter, please. Declined card.”

I turned around to apologize for the delay to Mr. Work Boots behind me, then remembered I’m not supposed to, and decided against it.

Instead, I asked him, “Have you ever wondered why it’s not womanager? It’s kind of a mouthful, but maybe we’d all get used to it.”

He nodded, busy with his phone. I kept at him.

“It’s funny,” I said. “Don’t you think? All these words we agree to use?” He didn’t answer. “But nobody ever asked me. I’m not sure I ever agreed to use them.”

I put the dirt I swept up from the floor on the counter.

“You know what,” I said to the boy at the register, “I don’t want the plant. I don’t know what I was thinking. I kill things.”

*   

She must be here, the me that was a me before. She wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye. Would she?

*

The salesman is excited. He knows he’s close. I lean my body toward his body on the couch. We are almost a triangle. I’m near enough to see his salt and pepper stubble, the way his skin sags off his jaw. He smells like expired aftershave that went bad ten years ago. I breathe it in.

The baby talks gibberish through the monitor crackle. I almost don’t hear her.

“You haven’t mentioned cost,” I say. My voice is soft.  “What this will cost me.”

We lean over his brochure. My hair hangs down and the tips tickle his arm, and, pow, there it is, I feel my circuitry turn on. I remember that I am electric, a little bit. We all are.

The gibberish through the monitor hiccups, then somersaults into a short cry. No, baby. Not yet.

“I think we should do it,” I whisper in his ear.

“The whole thing?” he whispers back.

“All of it,” I whisper. “I want my whole roof covered in panels. Every lick of it.”

I want him to have this moment. His accomplishment.

“Let me get my checkbook.”

I want him to feel the win, really let the hit of serotonin surge through his neurons, flood his veins with faster-moving blood, beat his heart at a clip.

“It feels so good,” I say. “Doesn’t it? God, it feels good.”

Margaret Malone is the author of the story collection People Like You, Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award and Winner of the Balcones Fiction Prize. An associate fiction editor at West Trade Review and a co-host of the artist and literary gathering SHARE, Margaret lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband filmmaker Brian Padian and their two children.

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