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11

Today I Noticed

Day 1: April 7, 2016

Today I noticed that lentil soup looks disgusting. I mean, I make a great lentil soup. It's flavourful, and with the tumeric and onions it turns into a kind of curried stew that helps me psychologically cope with the grey purgatory of Canadian spring. But my God, it looks like I'm eating some kind of gruel they would serve at an orphanage in a Dicken's novel. 

A lot of my eating habits are disgusting to others. When I was a smoker it really dulled my sense of taste, so I would cook for myself by throwing together ingredients with the most pungent flavours I could find. I once made a dish out of fried sausage, blue cheese, garlic, and a whole lot of hot sauce. I tried to serve it to my drunk friend. He took a bite, looked at me despairingly, and told me that it was "a little bit rich." He promptly threw up and went home. After he left, I ate my portion with drunken glee.

I spent that summer largely living off of the carbohydrates in beer, the calcium in blue cheese, and the nicotine in cigarettes. I was 19. It's amazing what you can put your body through when you're 19. 

Now that I'm older, and no longer a smoker, I've had to change my ways. Some of the time I miss the devil-may-care approach I took to "taking care of myself like a normal human being" back then, but most of the time I don't. If I still lived that way, I would probably be dead by now.

As it is, I've always held a lot of my anxiety in my stomach and a few months ago I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like someone was stabbing me between the ribs repeatedly. The doctor called it gastritis, and now calls it GERD, which basically means I have a lot of stomach pain most of the time, and no one really has any idea why. I've been forced to become one of those people who orders salads with the dressing on the side, when I'm out. I spend hours in the grocery store exhaustively reading ingredient lists before making purchases. In other words, I find myself constantly facing the cognitive dissonance of hating myself for what I feel like I now represent (juice cleanses and fitbits), but also loving myself enough to not want to spend my days and nights in pain.  

Day 2: April 8, 2016

Today I noticed that when people say "excuse me" on the streetcar, what they're really saying is "fuck you." I live in Toronto, a Canadian city of 5 million plus, with an under-resourced, underwhelming, and completely antiquated transit system. Torontonians love to complain about it. We can't help ourselves. It's a city-wide compulsion. 

I moved to Toronto from California nearly eight years ago. Sometimes when I'm talking ad naseum about municipal politics or passionately about the perils of wind-chill, I'll have a disembodied moment in which I'm looking down on myself and wondering who the hell are you. But it's a compulsion. I can't stop myself. I recognize that the topics are well-tread, and that all of us in Toronto have spent days, weeks, years of our lives talking about Rob Ford and the unreliability of street car routes, and yet, sometimes when I open my mouth that's all that will come out.

When I was a kid growing up in San Mateo, I never thought about the weather. It was usually sunny, and sometimes rainy. Later, when I moved down the coast to Monterey, I became obsessed with the fog as a metaphor for my depression, but even then, I don't think I ever once thought to check a weather report. 

Growing up, I would spend a lot of time each summer in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan is a Canadian province bordering North Dakota. It's know as "the bread bowl" of Canada, because most of it is endless wheat fields. (And now oil rigs.) My mother's family has a farm there. My mom was born the second of five kids to two farmers who had managed to survive the Dust Bowl in Saskatchewan. 

They're farmers, and so, of course, they're obsessed with the weather. When you're a farmer you have to be obsessed with the weather--your livelihood depends on it. My grandfather passed away last summer. He was a quiet man, rather different from the rest of his family, but similar to my mom, with their quiet but determined demeanors and bright blue eyes. Every time I visited, the weather channel was constantly on in the background, blaring louder and louder as they aged, and my grandfather's hearing grew worse and worse. The weather is tied up in all aspects of life there, and boy is there a lot of it--weather, I mean.

Saskatchewan has some of the most amazing lightning storms I've ever seen. It calls itself the "Land of the Living Skies" because when everything is so flat, sky is all you can see. Standing up in the middle of a field, it feels like you're in the middle of a dome, surrounded on all sides by horizon.  

Day 3: April 9, 2016 (written yesterday, posted today!)

Today I noticed the subway wasn't running. I noticed swarms of people jostling on the sidewalk, waiting to be packed on shuttle busses by volunteers clad in bright red. I got in line and noticed that I was hungover, with the sticky taste of rose lingering in the back of my throat. 

Boarding the bus, I noticed that a middle aged woman, a head shorter than me, was wearing an orangey blonde wig. She stuck her head in the concave between my head and my chest, because on a bus that full, there wasn't anywhere else for her to put it. The wig felt like plastic and prickled on my skin. I wondered how she could bear to have it on her head.

I noticed that a preteen boy was yelling at his sister. 

"Get off of me!" He screamed. 

She started to poke him, and he retreated back into the man next to him. The man looked down at him with an admonishing look. 

I noticed that I had nothing to hang on to, and the bus rocked back and forth like a boat through Toronto traffic. I noticed that I needed to engage my core strength to stay standing, just like they told me to in barre class. I wondered idly if this was what surfing felt like. I've never been surfing. I don't think I would like it. 

Day 4: April 10, 2016

Today I noticed that looking at pictures of my ex-boyfriend still gives me a panic attack. I noticed that he objectively looks like a douche-bag, with squinted eyes behind thick-framed glasses and always a cigarette in his hand. I noticed that speaking about exes with a group of women feels like comparing battle scars. I noticed that our stories of assholes and abuse are all eerily similar, as if there's a kind of handbook on gaslighting that our exes all read when they turned 21. 

I noticed that it started to snow around 4pm. I noticed that we all saw the snow at the same time and groaned. From Kristen's condo on the 12th floor we watched the snow swirling around condos and cranes until it finally got dark, and the view from her window turned into a smudged city-scape of artificial lights.

I noticed that it was hard to walk outside, and that I slipped on the fresh layer of snow. I noticed that when I looked up at the sky the wet snow melted on my face, dripped down my neck and pooled above my collarbones. I noticed that I should have worn a scarf. I noticed that the only way to walk without slipping was by keeping my head down and staring intently at the ground. 

I noticed the woman coughing violently behind me on the streetcar home. I noticed the man yelling behind her, saying nothing intelligible, just wanting to be heard. I noticed the man at the front of the streetcar, too large to fit in the seat, telling another man that the government had failed at keeping the borders closed. The man nodded politely. I was relieved the man wasn't speaking to me. I would have been mortified. 

I noticed that I was jumpy walking from the streetcar to my door. I turned off my music, but kept my headphones in, and peered behind me before turning on to my dark street. I noticed that an old man in a leather jacket almost walked into me. I noticed that he was drunk, too drunk for a cold Sunday night.

Day 5: April 11, 2016 (Written in my notebook on the subway home last night) 

Today I noticed that Sephora was packed. I noticed that the employees, usually almost omnipresent, were, for once, noticeably absent. I looked around and noticed employees huddled in corners discussing the merits of different products with customers one-on-one. I noticed that customers were lining up patiently to ask the employees for help. I thought about how tiring it would be to answer so many questions. I thought about how when I worked in retail, after a shift my face would sometimes hurt from smiling. I thought about my theory that instead of compulsory military service, it should be compulsory for every person to work a service job at some point in their lives.

I thought about my first job was at an upscale clothing boutique in my hometown. I was young, and I was a terrible employee. I wasn't very good at keeping things clean. I wasn't very good at doing inventory. I wasn't very good at folding clothes. I had too much anxiety to ask customers if they needed help, so I would spend a lot of my time refolding clothes (poorly), or standing by the cash and scribbling poetry on receipts. I spent a lot of time making painful small talk with my manager, and I spent a lot of time trying to avoid the eccentric elderly owner who used to ask me to try on the clothes as they came in, and then gasped in delight as I walked around the store in a ridiculously overpriced skirt.  

The store wasn't well-trafficked. I was shocked to find it still in business on my last visit home. Some of the sweaters there cost $3,000. I would have had to have worked full time for three months, without spending any of my money on anything else at all, to pay for one of these sweaters (even with my 25% employee discount). 

I picked up my foundation, and started to absently look at primers promising to keep my skin "matte." I will never get used to the humidity of the climate over here. On summer days my face is perpetually drenched with sweat and my makeup melts off of my face the moment I step outdoors. I noticed that one of the primers was green, like the skin of the Wicked Witch, and promised to "reduce redness." I thought about how in my first year of university I had really terrible acne, and how I used to put blue eyeshadow on nasty zits before covering them up with concealer and then foundation. I thought that my method was probably cheaper. I thought about how I'd done this before my first date with my first boyfriend, which had been a little bit over seven years ago in a coffee shop around the corner. I thought about how he'd worn a Great Gatsby t-shirt which I would have hated now, but that I had thought was charming, at the time. 

Day 6: April 12, 2016 

Today I noticed the weather. I was having lunch with my aunt from Saskatchewan at the Rivoli, a pool-hall by night, restaurant by day near my office. We sat next to the window front and looked outside as we ate. It was grey out. We talked about my grandmother's health and at some point it started to hail. I noticed the little balls of ice bouncing off of the patio furniture that had been optimistically set up outside for brave outdoor diners. I noticed people walking by picking up their pace, hunching into the hoods of their parkas.

My aunt and I talked about my job, and my plan to visit Saskatchewan in the early summer after a conference in Winnipeg. The hail stopped, and the sun shone. When we left the restaurant the sun was still shining, but it was cold, too cold for mid-April. We hugged goodbye, and I made sure that she knew her way to the streetcar stop. I went back to my office and made a cup of green tea, suddenly very tired. Clouds came back in, and the rest of the day was dark. I hate grey skies. 

I came home and walked up to Roncesvalles village, a traditionally Polish neighborhood, that, over the last five years or so, has been infested with young families, independent boutiques selling "artisanal" merchandise, and bakeries. I noticed three young boys, maybe eight or nine, running towards me. They stopped, panting, just across the street from me, at the end of the block. I crossed the street towards them. The first boy was bragging to his friends:

"I was first!"

"First is the worst," jeered his friend.

"Yeah, well third is the one with the hairy chest."

"I think you mean the hairy treasure-chest," the other boy countered with pride.

The first boy was silenced. 

I laughed and kept on walking, somewhat reassured that kids were still torturing each other with that shitty phrase. Maybe I'm not all that old, after all.

Day 7: April 13, 2016 

Today I noticed my ballet instructor telling me to "sing with my toes." I thought it was a wonderful turn of phrase, and loved her convinction in delivery. She never, for a moment, thought that it was a strange thing to say--rather, it was a clear instruction for me to apply to the exercise. I did my best. 

I started taking ballet classes again in August after a ten year hiatus. It's amazing how the body remembers, even if there is quite a bit more of it than there once was. It's kind of wonderful to come back to dance now that there's no longer any question of me turning dance into a career. When I was younger, at a certain point aspects of ballet became an obsession: am I good enough, why am I not good enough, will I ever be good enough? To the point where anxiety eclipsed any of the joy I'd once found in the activity. 

In a way my questions have been answered--no, I was definitely not good enough to become a professional dancer. But that thought isn't a crushing blow; it's a relief. I am never going to be a professional dancer, and because of that I don't have to be good enough for anyone but myself. It's frustrating that, so often, I've felt that if I wasn't going to be great at something, it wasn't worth doing at all. I wish I' d known that there were more options than to completely devote my life to the pursuit of dance or to quit completely. I wish I hadn't been taught that I had to choose between all or nothing. I think we put too much pressure on kids who are much too young to know exactly what they want. I still don't know what I want out of life at 25, how should I have known when I was 15? 

I do love to dance. After my first class in 10 years, I walked out bright red and covered in sweat, but also beaming ear to ear. It's wonderful to connect to my body in this way, after years of an antagonistic relationship with my glorified meat suit. I love just getting the hell out of my own head. 

Today in class I noticed how much stronger I've gotten since that first class. I can see it in my pirouettes. I can see that during adagio my muscles are quaking so much less. I love seeing the work I've put into my body reflected in the cool things I can do with it now. And I like doing something just for the sake of doing it. I don't need to get better, I'm not dancing for any material benefit; rather, I'm just dancing because it's fun, and because it makes me feel happy. It's important for me to remember that sometimes, that's enough.   

Day 8: April 14, 2016

Today I noticed that the fluorescent lights of the endoscopy clinic made me nauseous. I noticed that the forms I filled out in the waiting room asked me about all kinds of horrible symptoms that I’m grateful I don’t have. I didn’t know that anal swelling was a thing that could happen to my body. What feeble, ignoble things we are.

I noticed that when the nurse called my name, she pronounced it Eeemily, turning the first syllable into a small shriek. I noticed that the office where I waited was in disarray, with paper sheets thrown carelessly across various surfaces. I noticed that the doctor left as soon as I entered the room.

“I need coffee,” he said to the nurse, brusquely, not acknowledging me, “Do you need coffee?”

She shrugged, and showed me into the room. I sat on a chair and looked around the room. Everything was bathed in yellow light, making everything look grimy. I read a book on my phone while I waited. I noticed that 20 minutes had passed.

The doctor finally came back with coffee in a take-out cup and opened a file folder bearing my name.

“So, you’re 25,” he said, and looked at me for the first time. 

“I am,” I replied, not knowing what else to say.

“You’re having some stomach problems.”

“I am,” I replied, and before he could talk over me, I gave him an overview of my medical history from the last six months.

He waited until I was finished and then reached towards my stomach. I shrunk back, and he said, “Let me test to see if there’s any pain.”

He touched my stomach in a few places and I flinched and told him when it started to hurt.

He nodded, and said, “Well, dyspepsia, it’s common for your generation.”

“…okay,” I replied.

“So it says here you’ve had some weight loss?”

“Well yes. It hurts to eat, so…”

He looked at me with appraising eye, “You’re not too thin, don’t worry.”

“Uh--”

“I don’t have a problem doing an endoscopy on you, but, you know, like I said, dyspepsia is pretty common in women your age. Sometimes it’s tied up in your mood, and you also shouldn’t be smoking or eating spicy foods.

“I’m not. What would an endoscopy test for?”

“Cancer, celiac disease, that kind of thing. There’s no real risk, I mean there is a possibility of bleeding, but that’s never happened to me. So, what do you think, do you want to get it done? Like I said, I don’t have a problem with it.”

“Yeah, okay. Let’s just get it done.”

“Okay, the nurse can help you with that. You can go.”

I left. I gave the office the finger from across the street, because in my heart I’m still a sixteen-year-old punk. I noticed that it made me feel a little bit better, but the nausea was still there and stayed with me all day.

Day 9: April 15, 2016 (I'm late on posting this one, it was a busy weekend of running around in the sunshine.) 

Today I noticed that I was approximately 10 years younger than anyone else in the room. I was attending the AGM of an organization that deals with copyright litigation. (Or, as I like to call it, the aspect of my day job that my friends ask about to be polite, and then really, really regret it.) I had taken time picking out my outfit the night before, but today I noticed that everything I was wearing was second-hand, with the exception of my tights and underwear.

I noticed that the blazer I wore, a hand-me-down from my mother, fit me surprisingly well. I noticed that the black dress I’d picked up for $4 at the now defunct Vintage Depot in Santa Cruz, California, looked good, and, under the blazer you couldn’t see that the seams next to the zipper were coming loose. I noticed that I’d managed to find a pair of black tights without runs. I noticed that the sensible black heels I wore were reasonably un-scuffed. I noticed that the dress was * a little bit * short, but I’m tall, and pretty much everything is a little bit too short for me.

A lot of the time in these scenarios I feel like a little girl playing dress up in her mom’s heels, and today I was quite literally wearing my mother’s blazer. I looked around the room and thought about how the meeting rooms of hotels all look the same, and about how my adult life so far seems to involve drinking a lot of mediocre coffee in them. I wondered why all hotels seem to have carpeting with some kind of hideous design in primary colours.

I looked around the room and thought about how the clothes we wear reflect the way that we posture ourselves. I wear a lot of tweed. I wear blazers most of the time. I wear a lot of black. I’m not sure if my aversion to pastel or colour comes from an internalized misogyny, or a desire to look “literary,” or if I’m overthinking it completely, and am just drawn to a certain aesthetic. I always did like film noir and British murder mystery shows. Even when I was a teen growing up in California in the age of the O.C. I still hated everyone else’s flip flops and pastel polo shirts, and rebelled by wearing trench coats and boots. (I was insufferable in high school.)

I noticed that the most casually dressed people in the room were mainly heads-of-firms, relaxed in jeans and button-ups. The lawyers in the room wore suits. The head of the writer’s union wore a bowtie that was covered in type-written print. I thought about how I’d accidentally worn bright purple socks with a witch on a broomstick to a meeting earlier that week and caught a colleague staring at my feet.

I noticed that a women was wearing a unicorn sweater and bright blue eyeshadow. I admired her confidence. She was, of course, a visual artist.

Day 10...  two weeks later 

I ended up revising day 8, and it actually inspired a longer short story. I'm still not done revising the short story, or even this bit of it, but I thought I'd share! This has been such a great exercise--thanks, Emily!  

***

The receptionist at the endoscopy clinic hands me a clipboard, and I sit down to fill out some paperwork, circling my stomach on the illustration asking me where it hurts. I return the paperwork. I can’t smoke, so I chew on the inside of my cheeks instead. The waiting room is busy, filled with patients made ghostly by fluorescent lights. The only colour in the room comes from three red poppies painted on the far wall.

A nurse with a pinched face in pink floral scrubs calls my name in a shrill voice. She leads me to a cramped office and gestures to an examination table covered haphazardly with a paper sheet. A middle aged man with deep-set cragged eyes, a mop of curly grey hair, and a lab coat glances up from a computer and abruptly stands.

“I need coffee,” he says to the nurse, not looking at me, “Do you need coffee?”

She sucks in her cheeks and nods no. He leaves and she gestures again for me to sit down. The paper crackles beneath me. I pick at my cuticles while I wait. My phone is in my pocket, but the thought of looking at it makes me ill. The nurse hovers in the room, straightening things and breathing loudly through her mouth. Under the yellow lights, she looks sick, jaundiced. The room looks dirty. I stop picking at my cuticles when my left hand starts to bleed.

The doctor returns with a take-out cup of coffee and opens a file folder bearing my name.

“So, you’re twenty-five,” he says, looking at me for the first time. I look at the gaping pores of his broad nose and the grey hairs spilling out of his nostrils. I nod.

“And you’ve been having stomach pains for about a year now?”

I nod again. He picks up his coffee and loudly slurps. I flinch.  

He reaches towards my stomach with his free hand, and I recoil abruptly. He swears under his breath, hot coffee dripping off of his left hand.

He looks at me sternly. “I just need to do my job. I need you to let me test to see if there’s any pain.”

I nod again. He wipes his hand on his lab coat and begins to prod my stomach. I tell him quietly that his touch hurts and ask him to stop. He continues prodding, watching my face for signs of pain. I imagine my stomach opening up and swallowing him whole.

He finally retracts his hand, and looks at me in the eye, “Well, it’s probably nothing serious. Dyspepsia is common with your generation.”

“...okay,” I reply.

He glances down at my file. “So it says here you’ve experienced some weight loss?”

I nod.

“It also says here that you have a history with anorexia. You don’t think you’re fat do you? I have to check.”

I stare past him at a poster of human anatomy curling up at the edges, and look at D. He’s smirking as he traces a finger down my naked abdomen, counting my ribs.

“Because you’re not too fat.”

I nod. D pinches at the softness of my hips.

“You’re not too thin either, so don’t worry.” He sneezes and his nose hairs glisten with snot. “Listen, I don’t have a problem doing an endoscopy on you, but you know, like I said, dyspepsia is pretty common in women your age. A lot of the time it’s tied up in your mood, so don’t let yourself get stressed. And don’t smoke or eat spicy foods.”

I nod.

“So what do you think, do you want to get it done?”

I nod again.

“Okay, the nurse will do some preliminary tests and then you can go.”

***

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