Modern Comfort

Alexander Hackett

Everything broke her heart that winter.

The obese homeless man on the corner sprawled in the slush, bare elephant legs purple and swollen, half-deranged but still greeting passersby with shy smiles and childlike eyes; teenage girls as they passed her in the street, oblivious to the world of adulthood bearing down on them, to how fast time passes, to the innocence they’ll soon lose; the tragedy of every headline, something ominous always nearer; the heaps of trash all over her neighbourhood; the beautiful woman at the bar who didn’t return her gaze; the idea of pure love, which either eluded her or which, in her cluelessness and egotism, she had been blind to; her mother’s increasingly frail voice over the phone; the drunk natives in Cabot Square, their faces gutted and ruined by cheap alcohol; the trembling old lady picking her way over crusted mounds of ice in February — who takes care of her?

Out of nothing, nothing comes, but somehow the spirit came from nowhere: it had always been there. As a child, she recognized it — a blot lying dormant inside her even during phases of great happiness. By the time she was a young woman in punk miniskirts, it drove her to drink, to smash glasses, to fuck up her health, to push friends away. It drove her to self-sabotage whenever she was on the brink of some minor professional or personal success. At times it consoled her, like a poison she was used to consuming. And this was the tricky part, she knew. That she might be addicted to self-abasement, to blackness of outlook, to fear and self-loathing, constantly creating the conditions for their return. That on some level she might be guilty of romanticizing it — the melancholy of the artist and the sensitive — as proof of some kind of perverse superiority over the numb and the conventional. That strangely, these feelings of powerlessness comforted her, gave her an excuse for her lack of forward motion, her failures, her flaws. Ebb and flow, ebb and flow. Darkness, anxiety, and exhaustion. She learned to live with all of it over the years, to minimize it. But sometimes the hole inside her opened up like the mouth of a worm, leaving her breathless and reeling, scared at the intensity of its inner suction. Nothing but cold and decaying energy throughout the universe. And she, a being cut off from everything.

She knew less and less as she accumulated more and more, and life became dreamlike. The sun rose in the morning, and she was happy for the rays, the warmth, the vivid beauty of it. Yes, that’s progress. That’s all she needed to focus on. To be a poet of small moments. Leafs trembling under the hard, mineral suns of autumn. Shreds of mist over a suburban parking lot like a discarded cocktail dress. She had to push for that. Push to freeze time in place, and put an end to desire, an end to her dreams. If you kill your dreams, you also kill your nightmares.

Lying on her couch in February, a memory from childhood came to her: finding a fallen nest of birds at the foot of an apple tree behind the farmhouse. She remembered the little mouths of the chicks straining for nourishment. They seemed unreal, pink and plastic. Yet undeniably animated by a life force. Desperate to survive, like all creatures. She brought them to her mother in a panic, who calmed her, took them to the kitchen, fashioned a makeshift nest with hot water bottles and towels in a cardboard box. She was reassured. Her mother smiled down at her, told her not to worry. She went to bed happy, confident. In the morning she woke early to check on them, only to find their tiny corpses spread out in the box. She was devastated, inconsolable. Her mother, try as she might, couldn’t raise her spirits for days. And the autumn rains came down and the dark tops of the pine trees swayed in the slate-grey distance.

The image of a lone car coming down the quiet country road toward her farmhouse, its headlights sweeping across the kitchen walls as she ate dinner with her brother and sister and mother, punctuated her childhood. The house she grew up in was so still and isolated that the passing of a vehicle was an event for her and her siblings.

Everything broke her heart that winter, including memory.

Alexander Hackett is a writer and translator from Montreal. He has been a tree-planter, an English teacher, a touring musician, and a composer of documentary soundtracks, among other gigs. His pieces of journalism and fiction have been published in English and French in The Toronto Star, Montreal’s La Presse, Le Devoir, Cult Mtl, and Yolk Literary. He currently writes for Concordia University’s School of Graduate Studies and is at work on his first novel.