WHAT IS GOOD
SUSAN SANFORD BLADES
First thing Gwen noticed about Celeste was the funnel cloud of blonde hair tied atop her head with a ragged fuchsia ribbon—binding ripped from her daughter’s dress or the collar of a runaway show dog. No, that’s a lie. First thing Gwen noticed was the smell of booze that preceded her. Booze on her breath, booze that swarmed her, seeped from her pores.
It was the spring after Gwen’s daughter Meg left her husband and moved into that four-plex for single-parent families with her son. It overlooked a park full of plum trees whose trunks propped up young rakish bodies with haggard faces. The Heartbreak Hotel, Meg called it. When Gwen came over to babysit Sebastian, the children of the building would roam the park in thick-soled shoes with strict orders to avoid needles and desiccated sofas. Their mothers sat at a picnic table out front and bitched about child support, restraining orders and the selection of available men—all either mid-twenties who thought an episiotomy was a body shot and single motherhood was “badass” or mid-forties and encumbered with guilt, erectile dysfunction and bat-shit crazy ex-wives.
Celeste seemed ageless. Crow’s feet of a fifty-year-old, smooth throat of a twenty-year-old, giggle of a ten-year-old. She plunked a paper bag in front of Gwen and Sebastian, unaware of the game of checkers she’d ruffled, and handed her young daughter—her halfling pale shadow, a rag doll crowned by hair the blinding shade of blonde only children can have, following silently at arm’s length like a stray dog—the key to her place.
Heya Simon, Celeste said to Gwen’s grandson. Celeste’s eyes were near-clear, like tap water, like there was not enough iris to render them blue. And her pupils—the blurry seeping lethargy brought by a scotch, neat. A vodka screwdriver. A pitcher of sangria.
He’s Sebastian. Gwen extended a hand. I’m Gwen.
I love you already.
Just moved in. Celeste, she said. And little Louisa. She gestured to the girl, now two-stepping down the porch stairs, hands braided around a dark glass of iced tea, cubes clinking like rocks in rum.
I’m Meg’s mother. I watch Sebastian a couple nights a week.
He looks about Louisa’s age. You two should play. Celeste urged her daughter by the shoulder toward Sebastian. Louisa sat at Sebastian’s feet and dipped her head into her glass.
Your turn, Grandma. Grandma, your turn. Sebastian tugged at Gwen’s sleeve.
Gwen retracted her arm. She said, Sorry buddy. She focussed on her grandson, the game. She twisted her lips up. But there was that click in her throat, the squeeze, the emptiness, like it had never left her. She hopped a black plastic circle over two of his reds and pressed them into her palm. Sebastian’s lips quivered.
Was I supposed to let you win?
He shook his head. He edged a red forward, impulsive, created a gap. Gwen breathed, one, two. In, out. She knew the right thing to do. Let the boy win, smile at him with her eyes, go inside and make cookies. Let him spill flour, crush eggshells into the batter, dip fingers from nostril to dough. But there was the wanting, the relentless wanting she’d tamed every second of every day for the few months she’d been sober. And the boy, the reason for the sobriety, the wanting, the reason the wanting was wanting and not having, and she suddenly resented him.
So when Celeste ran up the steps to her place and returned with two glasses of iced tea, and when she reached into her paper bag and pulled out a bottle of vodka, and when she winked at Gwen and said, Happy Mom, happy kids, and when she dumped vodka into the glasses, Gwen said yes. Just like that. As though the only thing keeping her sober was that nobody had bothered to ask. And because of the way the strap of Celeste’s dress strolled off her shoulder, the way she never once tried to right it, and the way Louisa circled her mother, groped at her as if Celeste’s body was her own, even the way the excessive flesh hung from Celeste’s bones—it seemed the entire world hinged from Celeste and she couldn’t care less.
Gwen said yes to one glass, it was spring and spring was made for hard iced tea. Nothing wrong with one glass. Nothing wrong with vodka in the springtime. Vodka and a picnic table. Who wouldn’t partake? And yes to two glasses. Celeste was French and in France no one judges you for drinking. In France where they’re progressive, France where they’re chic. And yes to three glasses, when Gwen loved everyone and everyone loved her. She belonged everywhere. How could she have anything but love for the boy? Sebastian watching TV or whatever the hell he was doing at Celeste’s place with Louisa, such a good boy. And wasn’t Gwen laughing now and wasn’t that good? And wasn’t Sebastian making a new friend and weren’t childhood memories made of the times spent away from adult supervision? Wouldn’t he have so many stories to tell? Wouldn’t he become such an interesting person?
Gwen awoke on the floor, out of breath, beside a thin smear of puke, like hardened beeswax on the carpet. She recognized the carpet as hers. Jeans and blouse from the day before. She remembered agonizing the previous morning over the ruffle of pink, the low neckline. Was she one of those thin old ladies in miniskirts with turkey necks who thought they were fooling somebody? Would Meg disapprove?
Gwen checked her phone. A text from Meg: That was highly inappropriate.
Gwen remembered nothing highly inappropriate. Nothing past the picnic table. Highly inappropriate was good. Highly inappropriate meant she had stayed until Meg returned home. It meant she hadn’t caused Sebastian’s death—mutilation by whipper snapper, third degree burns from the frozen pizza he’d had to heat in the oven himself, kidnapping by a responsible-looking passerby. She would leave it at highly inappropriate. She would not do this again. Never again. She would not drink. She hadn’t, really. She was meeting a neighbour. She was fine. She was still sober. Still different. Not the same old Gwen.
Same old Gwen would say fuck everyone and drink herself right back to sleep. Same old Gwen would end up without Meg. Alone-alone, the way she’d been before Meg and Tom split, before Meg went to school Wednesday and Friday evenings, before Meg was so desperate for help she forgave the incident and called her. Mom, I need you. Are you sober? Gwen said yes, and it was not a lie. She held intentions of sobriety. She became sober. Soon as she hung up the phone. Mostly sober. Boring, monstrous, sober. Gwen had to remind herself of this reason for doing what is good rather than what feels good. What feels good leads to alone-alone.
That Friday after school, Gwen held Sebastian’s sticky fingers between hers. His wide eyes on her, the unknowing love she used to receive from men. But the worst thing about a man was the best thing about a child. She wanted to be that thing Sebastian loved. That warm, gooey mother figure, buoyed by the downward tug of dependence. The physics of it made no sense to her. Perhaps to no one. Perhaps all the other women were better at fooling.
Sebastian let go of her hand and walked in a swizzling zig-zag, at times in front of her, at times behind, stepping on her toes, in front of her toes, stopping at every parking metre to push every button. Had her girls been so swirly and entitled? Did one walk home require so much deep breathing?
At Dad’s house, on Saturdays, we play Mario Kart.
Dad’s special friend Sunny won the Banana cup last time.
She has yellow hair.
If Celeste is at the picnic table, Gwen will smile and walk inside. No chit chat.
She comes over to play video games.
But Gwen shouldn’t be rude. Celeste shared all that vodka with her.
Sometimes she has a sleepover.
Gwen should repay her.
And we have bacon in the morning.
There was a liquor store a couple blocks up.
I’m supposed to knock on Dad’s bedroom door when Sunny’s over.
Your mom wouldn’t want you eating bacon.
This isn’t the way home, Grandma.
We’re going a little farther. I need to get something for Celeste.
Sometimes I play with Louisa.
Is she nice?
She has an elephant stuffy.
Let’s get a gift for Celeste and one for another friend of mine.
Who’s your friend?
Someone in my building. He’s having a party.
Celeste has lots of parties.
She has lots of those. Sebastian poked the mickey of vodka Gwen stuffed into her purse.
I’m sure she has lots of friends.
When Gwen and Sebastian arrived, Celeste sat atop the picnic table outside Meg’s building, legs spread wide, framing an array of tarot cards. A deep purple sarong covered her body, wrapped around her neck and draped from right above her nipples to right below her hips, an affront, a tease to the very idea of private parts. Her bare legs like Jell-O salad with kneecap islands, her breasts drooped over her ribs. She was raw and feral, dug from the bowels of the earth, a fleshy essence.
Gwen, she yelled in greeting. Crazy night Wednesday, eh?
You have an amazing singing voice. Real husky.
Thanks. Gwen maintained eye contact with the picnic table. She had a vague memory of a Lady Gaga air guitar performance. Most likely on top of the picnic table. Possibly with costumes and a stage dive, which would explain the greenish purple bruise creeping up her thigh.
Louisa was hunched on all fours under the picnic table, scraping her fingers through the soil. Sebastian dropped his backpack and crouched.
Making ant paths.
Gwen, let’s do your tarot. Celeste gathered the cards in her hands.
I should get dinner started.
Dinner? God, we’re living off Chinese take-out and apples.
Gotta keep up Meg’s standards.
She’s always stirring some pot full of green.
I’m more of a Kraft dinner girl, Gwen said.
We’ll break her eventually.
Here. Gwen plunged an arm into her bag until it hit cold plastic. For the other day. Thanks. She handed the mickey of vodka to Celeste.
You one hundred percent didn’t have to.
I know, but. Gwen dropped the bottle between Celeste’s legs and ran up the steps to Meg’s door. Sebastian followed her in, slinked to his room and emerged with the checkerboard dragging behind him like a security blanket. He said nothing but looked up at Gwen with tentative expectation.
Not today, Bud.
But we always––
Why don’t you play with Louisa?
Sebastian nodded, left the board on the floor and walked back outside.
Hey, Gwen shouted. And then muttered, Could you put away—
Sebastian didn’t hear. He was under the picnic table, knuckles-deep in soil.
Inside, Gwen sliced eggplant. Meg had left a list: Dinner at 5:00 – Eggplant Parmesan p. 403 Joy of Cooking / Please bathe Sebastian (make him wash armpits and bum, hair wash not necessary) / Make sure he brushes teeth for two minutes / Bed at 7:30 – read from school book for at least 15 mins. No comics / p.s. he can play with Louisa but you should stay away from Celeste.
Gwen sliced. Thin slices, the cookbook said. Her slices were paper thin. Look how well she followed instructions. Her slices fainted over one another like dominoes. Look at this poor eggplant. Look at what Meg made her do to it. And look at how well she stayed away from Celeste. One hundred eggplant slices away, at least. And how well she was not drinking. She had spent two days not drinking. She had bought vodka and not drunk it. She had vodka in her purse and she was not drinking it. Not drinking, not drinking, not drinking. Not being alone-alone. So she could have Meg. Bossy, unappreciative Meg who made her slice eggplants and cut her finger so it bled all over her eggplants. Gwen sucked the blood from her finger. Reached for her purse. Swore there was a Band-Aid in there somewhere. Sebastian hated eggplant anyway. Everyone did.
Gwen brought the mickey of vodka from her purse out to the picnic table and said, Got any iced tea?
Celeste, legs open around a pitcher of cranberry juice, took the vodka from Gwen. No dinner, she asked.
I abandoned it.
What would Meg say?
She told me to stay away from you.
She told me the same thing. Celeste handed the pitcher to Gwen, who cradled it with her bottom lip, let its contents flow down her throat until she gagged. She sat between Celeste’s thighs and drank pitchers and pitchers of cranberry juice. Celeste piled Gwen’s hair, thin and straw-scratchy from years of dye—layers of red so mutated it shined bright purple in the sun—atop her head and stuck it with a sweat-dripped bobby pin retrieved from her cleavage. Gwen drank so her head felt heavy with hair, thick and shiny and naturally coloured. And her legs felt smooth and invisibly veined, her feet bunion-free, toenails Passionfruit Pink, and her stomach and cunt were tight, unstretched by any human life forms other than all the cocks of all the guys. She laughed and laughed and told Celeste about when she was twenty-one, when she met Meg’s father, Damian, the lead singer of a punk band. About how good it felt to be attached to him, to punk rock, a movement that revered the unlikeable. To want Damian, who wanted nothing but solitude with a dash of reverence—an unachievable goal, consequence-free striving. A frenetic beat. A moment. No future.
Cheers to that, said Celeste. But why waste our breath on men? Forget men. Forget anyone who wants anything from you. And Sebastian and Louisa buzzed around the picnic table where Gwen and Celeste sat and ran in and out of Celeste’s place with bags of chips and chocolate cookies while Meg’s dissected eggplant slouched on her counter. And Gwen slid into the jelly under Celeste’s ribs, farther and farther until she wasn’t sure Celeste was human at all and not made of vodka.
What happened to my eggplant?
Gwen opened her eyes. Meg’s cheeks hung over her.
What did you feed Sebastian?
Celeste fed the kids.
You were with Celeste?
You just said.
I meant I fed him. Me.
What happened with the eggplant?
I sliced it very thin.
What happened to you?
Gwen rubbed her eyes. Assessed her surroundings. Breathing lump, stuffies, Pokémon cards. Sebastian’s bed. We fell asleep, Gwen said.
Did you read stories?
Meg. All these questions first thing in the morning.
It’s ten o’clock at night.
It’s still Friday?
Mom, are you?
I’m not. I haven’t. A few drinks. I’m not drinking.
You had drinks?
No. I meant. She did. I didn’t.
Please stay away from her.
You can’t control me.
You can’t control yourself.
I’m not like you, Meg.
I know. I know you’re not.
Gwen closed her eyes. She held Meg’s hand, and Meg squeezed her fingers. Meg would stop squeezing when pity turned to frustration, annoyance. When I’m not like you meant I reside on the other side of the line you’ve drawn in order to make sense of your world. And to understand my side would require untying all the knots in the rope you’ve groped to arrive here.
Mom, I need you.
On Saturday, Gwen remained sober. She woke up and drank tea. She watched TV until one of the characters had a glass of wine. She turned off the TV. She stared at the wall. She stared out the window. She listened to her neighbour cough. She made some more tea. She would go to the beach. She would exfoliate her thighs in sand and allow the waves to crash over her and visualize her future. Her future, in which she would meet a rich, older American gentleman who had anchored his yacht in the bay. He had lost his wife to cancer and was looking for an exotic Canadian who had all her original teeth and whose ass had only dropped an inch or so. They would sail around the world and drink margaritas moderately and she would teach him the nicknames for her currency and about ketchup chips and the Trudeaus until she slid into death among a commune of mermaids. His name would be John. He would be simple in name and nature and in need of the excitement only a slightly unhinged woman could offer. These things could still happen. Gwen was in her late fifties. That was practically a teenager to a seventy-year-old man not rich enough to attract a twenty-year-old, but enough to afford a steady supply of Viagra.
Gwen made it one block before her body tugged her in the direction of a liquor store. The beach is this way, she told her legs. There’s a liquor store two blocks to the right. It won’t take long. Everyone brings coolers to the beach. Teenagers do it. Teenagers aren’t alcoholics. And wouldn’t drinking like a teenager make her feel like a teenager? Of course it would. And she had John to consider. How could she make interesting conversation with him if her head was saying don’t drink don’t drink don’t drink the whole time? Coolers at the beach were imperative to her future. And a mickey of vodka for when she returned home and might need help sleeping after all the good times. Doctors’ wives drank a glass of wine to help them sleep, she’d seen it on her soaps. How different was this?
Gwen found a smooth log in the intermediate area of the beach—past the shallows where smug young families dug moats and before the curve of the bay, where the tide went far out leaving stretches of sand on which teenagers mastered volleyballs and skimboards. To her left, a nude leathery man asleep in the crotch of a driftwood shack, and to her right, a white-haired woman dressed in a pilling red sweat suit, hand-feeding bread crumbs to the seagulls. Gwen cracked a cooler and guzzled. She hadn’t brought a container to conceal her alcohol. No one would notice her anyway.
Fuck you, young families splishing and splashing and Daddy this and Mommy that-ing. How did you become so boring? You probably had pancakes for breakfast—from scratch with organic maple syrup. You probably bought a bag of cherries at the Moss Street Market on your way to the beach. You probably ate them all in one go and felt really sinful. You probably work for the government writing reports about report writing. You probably own a hanger for your ties. You probably wear a Garfield tie on casual Friday and think you’re pretty fucking whimsical. And fuck you, teenagers shrieking and frolicking and—Oops! Hahaha! Stop it!—nippling out of your skimpy bikinis. Enjoy it while it lasts, suckers. Your tits’ll hang past your cunt soon enough. Get those boys’ attention now—in thirty years they’ll make you invisible. Gwen raised a cooler to the teenagers’ side of the bay and shouted, I’ll keep this seat warm for you, bitches.
By Wednesday, Gwen had drank herself to sleep four nights in a row and every cashier at every liquor store within a five-block radius of her apartment eyed her in the way one would address a recurring cold sore. A slideshow of the last few days’ activities sporadically interrupted her thoughts—rubbing sunscreen on a pair of acne’d shoulders, caped with tufts of dark hair; gasping for air from inside an empty chip bag; swearing to her neighbour she lived in 4B, she’d always lived in 4B, there was no way her neighbour lived in 4B because it was hers, then realizing 4A felt more like home—and if it weren’t for Meg’s text message that morning reminding her to pick Sebastian up from school, she would have no idea where to place herself along the rest of the world’s timeline.
At school, the parents ignored her. Gwen sat on a bench beside Sad Single Dad, who wore a Kelly green golf shirt and a lazy moustache. He moved a foot away from her. Gwen scanned herself. Shirt, yes. Buttons in their proper holes. Fly high, shoes tied. She discreetly nosed an armpit. It had the cozy funk of morning after. An odour that could only evoke fond memories. Unless you were hard up. She turned to Sad Single Dad.
Is that it, she asked.
Are you hard up?
You moved away from me.
Sad Single Dad looked down at the bench and said, I thought you’d need more room for your bag.
Gwen noticed the back-up mickey of vodka poking out from her bag. Oh, my baaaag, she said.
Sad Single Dad looked at the classroom door, then at the clock.
Do you have a problem with my bag?
Sad Single Dad stared at the clock.
Do you have a problem with this? Gwen pulled out her mickey of vodka and held it in front of Sad Single Dad’s face. Do you have a problem with someone having a party later? Should a grandmother not have friends?
It’s fine, Sad Single Dad said.
The school bell rang. Kids stormed the halls. I’m having a party later, Gwen mumbled. When she spotted Sebastian, she yelled, Hey buddy.
Sebastian looked up, raised a hand to Gwen, and retreated to the cloak room.
On the walk home, Gwen reached for Sebastian’s hand but he slid it away to push the crosswalk button and then clung to the straps of his backpack. Gwen had been snubbed by a man before. She was not desperate. She put her hands in her pockets and gave Sebastian one-word answers the rest of the way.
When she and Sebastian approached Meg’s building, he ran straight to Celeste’s door without bothering to ask Gwen for a game of checkers. Celeste sat at the picnic table holding a glass of wine up to Gwen. Gwen’s stomach turned. They were like tired lovers in a seedy motel room. Past seduction into the slump of assumption. Gwen noticed now the aggressive jag of Celeste’s canines, as though they were plummeting toward the tip of her tongue. Her fingers, yellow and slender, too slender to fit with her robust frame, made her seem not dainty but arachnid. And her smell, the sterile tang of vodka, yes, but now laced with the sweet funk of unwashed feet and sun-soaked dog shit. These qualities were once attractive to Gwen in their deviation from the sober reality she consistently tried, and failed, to subscribe to. Meg’s reality. Had Gwen’s disciplinary techniques ever achieved the perfect balance between doormat and dictator? Had she ever followed a recipe to completion? Had she ever read Alligator Pie as intended, allowing for improvisation while maintaining rhythm and tone? She never had and never would and neither would Meg. But it was ok for Meg to fail because she made the rules and it was ok for Celeste to fail because she didn’t even try. Gwen rested somewhere in between. Gwen floated in a rubber dinghy inside a half-empty bottle of vodka, watching others succeed at failing and failing to succeed. And all she could do was dip in her straw and not think too much.
Come on, Gwen. My arm hurts. Celeste raised Gwen’s glass of wine.
Gwen didn’t take it. Don’t you get tired of this, she asked.
You sound like Meg.
Meg’s got it together.
She can toss a salad.
Meg depends on nobody.
You think she knows I’m drinking?
Celeste shrugged. Any friend of mine.
I’ve stopped promising myself I’ll quit.
Nothing wrong with a drink or two.
I lost Sebastian once. I passed out and lost him.
But you found him.
Meg found him.
Kids are resilient. Meg’s too uptight.
Something good could still happen. I should be sober for it.
This is something good.
I want to meet a rich man, live on a yacht.
Gwen stared at the glass of wine.
Sebastian poked his head from Celeste’s doorway, his little fingers tucked into the crack of the door, resting atop a hinge. Grandma, he said. Can I have a Mr. Freeze? Just this once?
Gwen ran to him. Sebastian, she yelled, and grabbed his hand. Your fingers could get slammed in the door, she said. They could fall off. She wrapped her arms around the boy, pulled his body close to hers.
Grandma, Sebastian puffed. It’s squishy.
A Mr. Freeze is a toxic rainbow, Gwen said. It’s dangerous in there.
Can I go back? Sebastian looked back at Louisa, now in the doorway. Louisa staring wide and unfocused at the world outside.
Gwen squeezed Sebastian’s hand. Let’s go home, she said. Let’s play checkers.
I want to play with Louisa.
Don’t you love your Grandma?
We were watching TV. I want a Mr. Freeze. Mom doesn’t let me do that stuff.
Gwen tugged Sebastian’s arm toward Meg’s door. Remember when we used to play checkers?
Meg returned to Gwen and Sebastian on the living room floor, fists full of popcorn and playing cards. Gwen drank a glass of orange juice, spiked with a splash of emergency vodka to take the edge off. To ease into sobriety. Because she would become sober.
Let’s go, Meg said to Sebastian. Bedtime was an hour ago.
We had fun, didn’t we Sebbie, Gwen said.
Sebastian nodded, stood and hugged his mother’s leg.
Did you have any dinner, Meg asked.
Popcorn, Sebastian said.
Homemade, Gwen said. And grapes. Green ones.
Meg nodded. Thanks, Mom.
I guess I should’ve made a salad.
Meg pressed her lips together, poked the corners of her mouth into her cheeks. Perhaps the way she smiled at Tom before they split, when he’d apologize for staying late at running group. When he’d joke with her about the young female runners—the garish colour of their sneakers, their immodest sports bras—feigning disapproval for the chance to speak of them, for the thrill of feeling their features grace his tongue.
Meg dipped her head in a slow nod and said, You do your best.
When Gwen left, Celeste sat at the picnic table with Gwen’s glass beside her, full and untouched. She drank from her glass steadily, rhythmically. Same beat, same three chords. Red wine, gin, vodka. The mundane frenetic. The future of no future. Inside Celeste’s open apartment door, the glow of the TV broken by Louisa’s little head, inanimate and impossibly light blonde.