Saturday, July 16, 2016

Penelope: A confessional memoir

The following is a true story that I have to get off my chest.

It's up to you whether you think it's an actual experience from my life or the authentic transcript of a dream I just had, fuelled by reading some messed-up horror stories, listening to a radio discussion about dreams and an undigested bit of beef fajita.


I apologise for interrupting the lady's shopping trip, but if I were to ask if you had observed any parallels between Homer's The Odyssey and today's Norway-England match, what would you say?

I've already got two, I explain, but without a third to back them up, this editorial's going to look pretty grasping. I shouldn't have agreed to handle the sports coverage really. It's not like I didn't know I was going to run into problems on day one, what with not having any interest in sport or knowing how it's supposed to be written about, but I can't afford to turn down work based on mere fundamental incompatibility. So anything you could do to help me out would be greatly appreciated.

I'm too embarrassed to maintain eye contact during this sorry spectacle, and let my gaze wander intrusively into her trolley. I can't help but notice the packet of tortillas balancing on top of the other frozen goods, and it's another well-deserved reminder of the shameful past I should never be allowed to shrug off. I've always feared telling this story, not only because of the shame, but because writing it down, speaking it aloud, carries a risk of closure. But maybe it is the right time.

I was just a week into my clean slate of undergraduate life when I met her. I was dropping in at our college's local clinic to pick up medication for an affliction that isn't important, and that certainly had no opportunity for an amusing backstory at this stage in my virginal extended childhood. I hadn't checked the time, but I guess I arrived too late for business, since the lights were dimmed and there was no one behind the counter. I could hear talking though, and headed towards the voices with the contemptible lack of respect for the sanctity of office hours that can only come from never having done a day's work in your life.

I don't know exactly what stopped me in my tracks, but even as an undeveloped social embryo, there was a sense I'd stumbled across something sensitive. From my secluded spot, I could see a man in a lab coat – let's take a leap and assume he's a doctor – addressing a small object on his desk, wrapped in paper, that was surprisingly talking back.

She – for the voice revealed a feminine soul, in spite of the visual paradox – expressed her desire to return home, which didn't seem to be the right answer as far as the doctor was concerned. He unwrapped a portion of the A4 bandage and an algae-green tentacle slumped pathetically to the desk, the creature evidently not having the strength to do more than wiggle her fallen limb. You see, his paternal look seemed to imply, you can't even lift a tentacle, but you think you're ready to get back behind the controls of your crashed spaceship or whatever the hell this is. I scarpered.

I could have got on with my life, gone out with my "friends" from the block who I had nothing in common with beyond the proximity of our alcoves, made a drunken fool of myself in front of girls and rolled out of an empty bed into the lecture theatre the next morning, tried to forget all about the local doctor secretly harbouring a weird tentacle creature on campus. But my curiosity won out and I snuck back to the clinic later that night, which was handily still unlocked.

I nervously approached a familiar form, unmistakeable even with the wrapping off, sitting on a shelf at eye level. Her expressive eyes watched as I advanced and she greeted me with pure affection, unsullied with the suspicion and anxiety that an intruder in the dead of night should evoke. I was immediately at ease with the creature – who told me her name, which I could hardly pronounce, let alone attempt to transcribe – and we talked all through the night.

She confirmed that she was, indeed, an alien, temporarily stranded here while she recovered from her injuries, being looked after by the doctor and his wife who were kind, but kept her sheltered for her own good. She clearly relished the chance to talk to someone new, and for my part, whether it was a reflection of my own feeling of being an outsider or just because girls normally didn't give me the time of day, I felt this was the first person I'd really connected with in my life.

The next day, during office hours, I went back to the clinic under the pretense of finally getting my prescription, but the Asian lady at the counter revealed that she knew who I was, and that [unpronounceable] had told them all about the kind visitor/intruder, so I was welcome back any time. (I'm only mentioning that she was Asian for accuracy, by the way (not that I can be more accurate than that). She was in the same age bracket as the doctor, there's nothing suggestive here. This isn't fiction where characters' backgrounds are strategically sculpted, this is real life and sometimes people are just Asian).

I went over to the secluded shelves and we chatted again, in English of course. I tried and spectacularly failed to learn her native alien language and we laughed about it. We somehow found new things to talk about just a few pragmatic sleeping hours after our last run through, until mundane necessities parted us again. Presumably I had to eat or study some time. I hadn't asked what sort of food she ate.

Later that afternoon, I saw a kerfuffle of birds flying into the clinic, which had left its doors and windows wide open despite the heavy rain. In a panic I ran inside, intent on saving the little alien's life, and was relieved by the spectacle that met me: the doctor and his wife standing beside an open jar of worms,* baiting birds of all colours that fluttered over the tasty vicinity and were devoured, one by one, in [unpronounceable]'s insatiable maw (which was itself a beak, ironically). I had a little sympathy for the excessive number of bird deaths, sure, but this paled next to my happiness that my injured friend was getting her strength back.

And what an improvement! To untrained eyes, she may have looked like the same slimy, green, tentacled blob sitting on a shelf in a doctor's office, but there was a new radiance about her. But as delighted as I was by her improving health, I also knew it meant our time together was drawing to a close. There was sadness in her voice when she explained that she was required to return home, even if she might have desired otherwise, because she was fast approaching the age when her people are compelled to marry. Someone had already been picked out for her – a decision she wasn't permitted to weigh in on – but now that she'd been exposed to the freedoms and superior values of white Western Earth, she felt pretty sad about it all.

This brought out the best of my self-sacrificing generosity and the worst of my cultural insensitivity and immature social justice values as I determinedly announced that she didn't have to do what anyone told her, she should stay here with me... okay, I should have worded that better. On this planet. Where I live, obviously, that's what I meant by that. You know, I'll be around sometimes, as a friend. But I didn't have a chance to mumble my way through any of those clarifications, she was too delighted by what she took as all but a proposal there and then. And like the pathetic weakling I was (am?), I let her stay thinking it. She looked so happy, why would I want to take that away from her? Better to let her down slowly and spread the magnified devastation over an extended period.

Because, come on. We may have had a meaningful connection, but she was still a slimy, green, tentacled blob that gobbled down flocks of live birds for lunch, and for all my progressive talk, I wasn't that open-minded. So what if I hadn't had a girlfriend yet, all it would take was lowering my expectations to a fair compromise or using the good doctor as a role model and heading to Asia to cash in on low benchmark financial superiority and unfair colonial holdover eugenics implications. I just wasn't into her in that way. You'd think that would be the case for her too, but I wasn't going to be let off the hook that easily.

I rehearsed and revised how I was going to break it to her, getting it down to a single page on Word while still including all the selfish excuses and convenient lies I needed, and I headed to the clinic for the final time. I didn't see [unpronounceable] at first, someone had left an ugly, bloated shop dummy's head on her shelf. Then I looked into its eyes and realised – it was her! She explained that the doctor had been hesitant, but had performed the cosmetic surgery at her insistence. She wasn't stupid. She knew that she could never satisfy me as a slimy, green, tentacled blob, I deserved a real woman – and she could be that woman.

Look down, she instructed, and my eyes panned down to a lower shelf where an open box of flour tortillas lay on its side, two breads poking suggestively out. That's my vagina, she said. I turned the box upright, just to be helpful, not meaning to accept my role in this monstrous Frankenstein future, but the box fell on its side again. I prefer it that way anyway, she admitted, I hope that's okay for you. Sure, I probably said, I don't mind, whatever. Oh, I just remembered, I have to go and do a thing, see you later, etc.

The clinic wasn't on any of the regular routes from my halls of residence to my lectures, seminars, Spar or the bus stop, so it was no problem avoiding it like a black hole for the rest of that year, before I got a shared house in town with some of my new, proper friends and could finally escape the nightmare my weakness had inadvertently created. Not that I ever allowed myself to truly escape, as any time I got a bit too merry I'd invariably wake up with notes saved on my phone or just scrawled onto a nearby bit of paper, messages from my alcohol-loosened id to my sober superego informing me how despicable I was.

Today, more than a decade later, I kid myself that I couldn't possibly do a Facebook or Google search for a name I never knew how to spell, so it's not my fault I didn't stay in touch. Or maybe it was all a big scam – I had no proof this "fiancĂ©" existed, maybe she was just trying to get her Earth visa by playing on my sympathy for as long as she needed. I got out in the nick of time!

The truth is, as much as the past is eating me alive like a tentacled blob picking off sparrows, I'll never have the strength and courage to face up to what I did. I nobly rescued a damsel from a forced marriage with someone she didn't love (tragedy!) who was willing to secure her a stable future among her own kind (the misogynistic monster!), then left her, mutilated and dysmorphic, just because it would have been embarrassing to be seen in public together, and because sticking it into flesh feels soooo different from sticking it between two warm beef fajita curtains. I imagine.

Sorry, I was really rambling there. I don't know what's got into me, I don't normally tell my life story to strangers like this. Can we get back to the matter at hand? Norway v. England and The Odyssey, any tenuous connections for my article?

"Penelope was patient," the shopper offered.

Alright... I don't fully see the connection, but I'll take anything at this stage! Maybe there's something in it. So what are you doing after this? Sorry if that's a bit forward, I just feel this connection with you, I can't explain it. Something about your eyes.

* This is the only bit I changed. They used a swarm of flies as bait when this actually happened, but it's hard to explain why the flies willingly stayed put rather than escaping, and why birds would be tempted by flies in the first place, so I changed it so that we can focus on what's important.

1 comment:

  1. You know you're spending too much time in books when your dreams employ a framing narrative that literally begs for classical allusions.