Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
By Erika Jahneke
I’m calm until I hear the warm Midwestern voice on the line, the accent somewhere between my dad’s and Joan Cusack’s.
“Cherrypoppers, how may we help you today?” “Joan’s” voice says, and suddenly I feel like a middle-school kid about to hold hands for the first time.
Who’d that been with?
Somehow, it was a relief that I didn’t know.
My palms are sweaty so I switch the phone to the other hand and swab, trying to capture the “hell-with-it” spirit that made me investigate the website in the first place. But I’m too flushed to feel playful, so I settle for acting as though I’m ordering a printer ink cartridge. It isn’t like me to buy something from an ad, especially one on the back page of the New Times, sitting cheek-by-jowl with the surrogate-mother ads and Narcotics Anonymous. This one has captivated me since I spotted it and the seemingly small question it asks ,Got a life?
As always, I think that the answer would be, “No,” and worry the torn-out ad with my hands till it wrinkles and I smooth it out. No guts, no glory, I think, as the hold music stops.
“I’m calling about…your special services,” I say, relieved that I don’t giggle or have a quiver in my voice.
Business or personal?
Well, I think your motivational services are just on the site…I wouldn’t need to call in for that
Uh huh. Gotcha. Personal.
I laugh with relief and almost ask, “Joan,” to come hang out. She could just be a friendly computer voice, but then she coughs and I know she’s human. Maybe the end result of wearing my heart on my sleeve is to end up here, buying life experience, so I say nothing, although I’m over thirty and it’s too late to play it cool. I pretend anyway.
“So,” I ask. “What’s the weather like there?”
If she’s shocked, or rolling her eyes, it doesn’t show.
Oh, well, you know…it’s Chicago. If I don’t like it…wait five minutes and it’ll change, right?
We chuckle and then I hear the click of her fingers on the keyboard, and then, an expectant silence, long enough that I consider severing the connection and casting my lot with safety, leftovers, and House repeats. I am the Einstein of laundry on Wednesday and lasagna on Thursday. For once, though, I decide I’m going to make something happen.
I’m back… Joan tells me.
I think, based on what you’ve told me, I’m going with the Bohemian Starter Pak.
“Whatever you say,” I tell her, only briefly wondering why I start my new life by being so compliant.
But it’s only the real gear-heads, the kinds of people who view a crashed computer as an opportunity rather than a calamity, that want to design their new lives moment by moment. A new outline, designed to get me front-and-center is more than enough for me. If I knew how to make any but cautious and reactive decisions, I wouldn’t be here, mourning the lost stupidity of my teens. I had been a criminally cautious child, well into high school before I was sure we wouldn’t get blown up by the Russians. Even now, spending this kind of money, carefully accumulated from years of self-denial, goes against my grain. For myself, I’m the queen of the discount rack, the remainder shelf, and the CD that was hot maybe a few summers ago. Now, it’s a tidy sum I spirit away, with a few little clicks and a momentary regret that I didn’t touch the dirty green paper. Spending is easier this way, airy as wishing on stars on a summer’s night. If I ever felt the weight of bills in my hand, I would stop. There was a power in doing without, and it was the only power I had ever had. In that instant, nothing changed, except I counted everything that I could have got with the money I spent and felt comically bereft.
Fine, I say, as though I spend money on myself every day, and there’s more where that came from.
Let’s place the order, then.
You’ll get two packets of pills in the mail. The shiny ones are BSP pills and the plain white ones are Vitamin D.
Does it help the process work?
It feels like I can hear Joan shrug.
Not really, but it fights breast cancer. Two birds, one stone…you know?
I go against my first impulse again, and pay for Priority shipping (I can be very cheap in ways that don’t show.) The pills show up in two days, and though BSP is quartz-like and strange, I swallow it eagerly. I feel...exactly nothing, if you don’t count an urge to call my mother as I swallow the Vitamin D. Every mention of breast cancer makes me think of my mother and the close call she had a few years ago. Maybe I don’t have forever to make my dreams come true anymore…in its own way, breast cancer brought me to this. Even though I’m only a witness, it introduced a drumbeat of “now or never,” in my head that has never been stronger.
Then, suddenly, right in the middle of my eighteenth viewing of Say Anything, two days later, it’s like the walls have dissolved and I’m outside, no longer wearing my ratty around-the-house togs, but a sleek black outfit that fits my body to an advantage I never knew it possessed. I’m still in the chair so I know it’s not a miracle, but it’s only in that moment that I know I ever believed in miracles.
I do feel stronger, though, as well as hotter. As I approach the bar, I see a strange look in one man’s eyes, along with flickers in others. It’s not pity, confusion or even the faintest trace of revulsion disguised well, by good manners. It’s hunger, or at least appetite. I tell myself I should be disgusted; they don’t know me enough to know anything special about me or the hard choices that have led to this moment. They are beasts, really. I should be repulsed.
It’s hard to be repulsed if you can’t stop beaming. Hard to be outraged if the sweet cocktail of endorphins is slowly making you stoned. But, still, I feel no urge to move toward the guys and start things up. Being wanted, by itself, is totally exciting and new. Until I realize it’s a piano bar and get a look at the gorgeous red-haired piano player. She captivates me instantly and I put what feels like an endless supply of ones in the brandy snifter as she plays familiar songs. She’s good, but that isn’t the draw. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the table and am shocked to realize there’s a glint in my own eye like the ones from my suitors at the bar. It gets later, I get drunker, and suddenly kissing her feels like waiting for a much-desired flower to bloom.
At first, it shocks me how soft everything is. I wait for a foolishly long time to feel her razor stubble, and it isn’t until I feel her lipstick on my cheek that I remember why I don’t. It’s unexpected, but beautiful. Even more so when I take her back to my sleeping house and…release years worth of tension without having to be careful of my roommate.
Or, worse, and more likely in my roommate-having career, get caught between disgust and my own curiosity as the heavy panting starts. We’re in the middle of…stuff, when a male voice, rough with drink, rings out across the deserted street.
Valerie, you slut! You said you’d love me forever. And now you’re in there with some bitch. Sod it, Valerie, I’m just, like, out of suggestions here.
I’m unaccountably thrilled by being called a bitch in such a jealous way, and I can’t ignore that the guy having such a thick accent and being so beaten down by life has given me more than a few suggestions, almost none of which would be approved by a therapist besides Dan Savage.
“Go home, Angus,” Valerie begs.
I will not! You owe me something, damn it.
God, he’s hot too…what are the odds?
Don’t worry, Valerie.
I soothe her.
I’ll handle it.
I’m tousled, my lips feel swollen, and Angus, for a moment, doesn’t know if he’ll kiss me or deck me. He comes close enough for either, and in the faint, orange-blossom scented stillness I feel a thrill that could be desire or fear, or both mixed together, that gives me an urgent feeling in my groin. He cries on my shoulder, forgetting that he just cursed me, and his kiss tastes salty. They are both being with me to make the other crazy, which I suppose would bother me if I were in my settled, romantic mind. I don’t want forever. I just want more. I try not to think I’ve been used when Valerie and Angus leave arm-in-arm after getting to know every inch of my body.
At first, being hot is more fun than I’ve ever had in my life. Weeks go by, and my BSP stash gets depleted daily. I’m never home anymore, and I have the best of everything, Food, wine, kisses, herbal stimulants: Even my nondescript Southwestern city looks beautiful under streetlamps. But, eventually, I learn the hard lessons every rake must learn, namely how confusing it is waking up in so many strange beds with furry-feeling teeth and smelling of stale perfume, takeout, and resin.(I suppose this is the reason my more outrageous friends told me they wished they could be like me before this happened.)I don’t sleep well, and I’m beginning to chafe in some…provocative places. My friends and I are no longer allowed in the neighborhood Dairy Queen due to some suggestive antics with a Buster Bar. This cannot go on. Thankfully, I notice I’m down to my last few pills, and my last scheduled date with a brooding musician who’s one patch of ink-free skin from a cliché. His band sucks. Probably they all sucked, but now the magic has worn off enough that I notice. I have a headache that pulses along with every misplayed note and I no longer feel adventurous wedging myself into tiny, dank, inaccessible toilets, which, thanks to all the guided tours of my pelvic region I’ve been offering lately, I have to do all the time. I’m an American consumer; I will be satisfied. I get on chat with Joan, and just to show her I’m not fooling around, bust out CAPS LOCK too.
“I told you to buy the extended warranty,” she reminds me, as I swallow yet another cranberry pill.
I’m hurt that she can remain so calm in the face of my poorly-punctuated SHOUTS OF ANGUISH.
Yeah, I know…it’s just such a scam.
This old phrase brings back calm, quiet, memories of the time my father and I picked out my television and he warned me off of the extended maintenance contract. It had seemed like he was going to protect me like that forever, but he hadn’t. Still, it had taken ten years to drown my sorrows about it, so much as I’d love to blame it on someone else, I created this mess for myself. My condo is a disaster, my plants are on life support, and my cat looks at me sideways when I try to pet him.
“How do you feel about your renewal, at least?” she asks me, and I’m reminded that she’s not my friend, that it’s fundamentally a transaction that brought us together, despite all my wacky single-gal fantasies.
Maybe the woman on the other end doesn’t even look like Joan Cusack.
Well, I don’t know… I was kind of thinking I wouldn’t.
Why is it here, in business, that I learned to let them down gently? This is the one time nobody would blame me for being clipped and rude and banging the phone down like a cartoon movie magnate. Or hitting her with some vintage J.R. and saying, “Well, we’ll just see about that.”
Joan, predictably, sees my hesitation as a tactic and offers me two more pills to make up for my “slow start” on BSP. I agree, because even Bohemian Me can be a pleaser, and because even that minor embarrassment reminds me of the thousands of tiny social nightmares I floundered through, before.
My friends at the local Democratic Party don’t talk to me much anymore because the chairwoman’s pissed at me because she caught her husband checking me out. He’s nothing to look at, and I have decided to keep adultery and sneaking around off my list. Such restraint is not only a good sign of my character, but it translates into a cash savings.
“The Covert Actions Pak is thrilling, possibly addictive, and our most expensive seller,” Joan reminds me.
We make a much greater effort to protect you from yourself…because with that package we have to. Corporate’s really pushing this one, so just consider this your mandatory upsell, okay? But I have to tell you, woman to woman, you don’t seem like the type.
I swear it’s the old resistance to being judged for looking fragile that makes me think I could be the type. Really.
But I looked up the pills online before allowing Joan to make the selection, and they are big. And the kind of black that looks green in certain lights, like the love-child of kryptonite and the lump of coal that Santa brings the bad little girls.
I couldn’t swallow that every day.
“Good,” she tells me.”
Nobody should…how many campaigns are they going to ruin before they get smart? That is not why I got in this business, so I could sit in some old fart’s medicine chest next to the Viagra. I wanted to provide a level playing field to experience-challenged young women like yourself…
“Um, that’s all lovely,” I tell her.
But I’m thirty-seven.
“See,” she says, and I can picture her as her movie alter-ego, warming to her topic, cheeks pink with exertion, comical cinematic glasses askew, “chronological age isn’t relevant!”
Yeah, well, it was nice of you to let me think that for a while, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not old, either. But I am too old to always live my life on BSP…I guess the name “Starter Pak” should have been my first clue. I’m not in New Orleans and this is not Mardi Gras.
Surely, that’s more of a state of mind than anything.
Tell that to Maricopa County Court. And I didn’t even get any beads, just a honking ticket for indecent exposure.
“Well, that’s just insulting,” Joan offers.
And a rip-off: Do you want me to talk to them for you?”
Well, I mean, you don’t have to put yourself out. But if I have any hope of paying off this ticket, I have to stop the supplements…you understand.
Yeah, but you’ve been a good customer…
There is a long pause, and I think she’s hung up without saying anything, but I sort of sense a presence on the line.
Just remember we’re here if you need us, okay?
And I don’t believe it, but she sounds kind of teary.
“Cheese and crackers,” she continues “
Maybe I should work in another division if I’m gonna start getting all empty-nest every other week. Motivational Signs needs people. All that cheeriness kind of gets to people, though.
“Woman to woman,” I tell her.
You don’t seem like the type.
Erika Jahneke is a fiction writer, occasional reporter, and blogger. She is proud of her first anthologized story, Didn't You Used To Be Somebody,? which appeared in November 2011on the heels of her first national exposure in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Erika is finally confident she did the right thing by sticking with creative writing rather than writing ad copy about toothpaste. She is grateful that it is much easier to be a soul-music fan today than when she was in middle school during Simon Le Bon's heyday.
"Cherrypoppers" Inc., came about on a boring Saturday night when she found herself wishing she could buy a pound of fun on Amazon.com. The story takes that thought to its most insane level. She lives, writes, and fights the power in Phoenix, Arizona, where she is hard at work turning the adventures of fictional paralyzed soul legend Darnell Watkins into a novel.