The Game of Stupid Poly
by Alex Behr
The Mad One keeps locking the bathroom door from the outside, especially when I’m in a hurry. “Tenth paper clip this week,” I say to her, my daughter, “And it’s only Wednesday.” I say it, like, no big deal. Paper clips are free. I take them from work.
The Mad One folds her arms and leans against the hallway wall. She whistles.
I don’t want to antagonize her. “Don’t you need to use the bathroom?”
I’ve destroyed a lot of paper clips undoing that button lock. Sticking it in the hole, jiggling it around, so frustrated, fumbling like the paper clip is my blind personal assistant, the stupidest extension of my will. Once again, I’m late for work, sweating.
The Mad One laughs while watching me. “I can hold it in. I practice at school. Mark taught me. He holds it in so long he pees blood.” She burps.
“Do I know this Mark?”
“You’ll never meet him. I’m keeping him away from you.”
“Can I at least have a sip of your beer?”
“Germs.” She’s underage but carries a beer cozy with a drawing of Calvin, the blond cartoon brat, flipping off his poor imaginary tiger friend, Hobbes. She has it because of the divorce. I bought it for her because beer is a known relaxant.
The Mad One keeps getting piercings, but they don’t distract from her acne. These days young women have complicated faces. I buy her new types of acne medicine advertised on TV. Sometimes she squirts them all in the sink.
She watches me undo the lock. She picks at the hoop in her nose, the one that makes her look like a bull.
I step on the scale. There’s widow weight, my mom went through that, and there’s the divorce peel. I peeled off all the weight the Gone One once held through sleep.
It’s understandable that the Mad One locks her bedroom door, but she figures out how to lock me in my bedroom too. The outside of my door has a hook lock on account of Bitter Cat’s desire to pee on my leather boots. She says she locks me in because she’s mad at the world. And in this house, her world is me (Bitter Cat knows to stay away).
When she’s gone I remove the interior doorknobs. I set them in a Tupperware bowl, put the lid on, and stick the tub under bags of rice in the pantry.
The trigger levels are unpredictable. When we’ll flip. The Gone One’s office is open and still has thumbtacks in the wall. There was never a photo of me in his office, much less his wallet. He didn’t need a reminder.
The Mad One and I make big statements. My daughter’s might result in a hole in the wall (she has a softball bat) or scratching, biting, and screaming (not so much now, but in the early years), and mine is through iPhone documentation or destruction.
The Mad One doesn’t come home for a couple of weeks, but she agrees to meet at the pub by my house. I try to explain my point of view, using self-help tips. “I feel you’re going to leave me forever. But I feel you still want help with college.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You don’t feel like normal people.” A man walks up and joins us in the booth. I’m introduced to Mark, who I call Neck Tattoo. The inked letters spell “Dawg,” but he looks wholesome in his bomber jacket. Dimples for me. Sure. He puts his thing in my daughter. I smile with my tongue pressed behind my teeth, which is supposed to show openness. A song by Gang of Four is playing; it’s off of Entertainment! Our mother-daughter love is like their song “Anthrax.” Not romantic. Not at all.
“I’m looking into the sex therapist thing,” the Mad One says to Neck Tattoo. “I found one you might like.”
“I don’t know why you’re analyzing our thing so much,” he says.
She talks about sex therapy like I’m not here, though she’s saying it for me. I dragged her to Werner Erhard events and other human potential workshops for years, even making her pose in mother-daughter bathing suit videos to show, yes, we can accept our bodies, while the women next to us cried and we were berated by a man on a stool.
“I’ll bounce home,” I say. I put my debit card on the table by our empty glasses.
“Mom. I’m not mad at you. He cheats because of all the hot ass. Portland’s full of it.”
“It’s not cheating if we’re open about our needs,” he says. He must be at least ten or fifteen years older.
Neck Tattoo brushes his hair forward over his receding hairline. I’m attracted to him because of his self-deprecating humor and intense focus on my daughter.
“Do you love her?” I ask, when the Mad One is in the bathroom.
“I love people,” he says. He stares at the Blazers playoff game on TV, but he puts his arm around my daughter and rests his head on her shoulder, like he’s a child.
I quote from an Erhard session. “What is, is, and what isn’t, isn’t.” The Mad One rolls her eyes.
The Mad One and Neck Tattoo break up. I stalk him using a pseudonym on Twitter, and I don’t tell her. He creates fake graffiti fonts for Nike and teaches experimental film on the side. He follows a lot of young bodybuilders or sites dedicated to Massive Attack or chinook salmon or awakening the instinctual genitals. I create a sexualized version of my best self to see if he follows back. He does. He likes the mylar balloons spelling out my fake age in shiny blue.
She moves back in, but doesn’t like the lack of doorknobs. The Mad One pushes her IKEA desk and dresser in front of the bedroom door.
She has to move the furniture to get to her job at Dairy Queen. I’m patient. When she leaves I take a Sawzall to all that particle board and throw the pieces out the window. We live above a ravine, so the debris clatters down rocks and gravel.
I leave her piles of clothes folded on the floor. And I write labels on the floor for the layers: inner, middle, outer.
The next day I drink too much and saw apart her bedframe. The futon can stay.
Missing doorknobs and furniture aren’t enough to replicate that calm I see is possible on self-help videos. We still have slamming doors. With no doorknobs, and no furniture besides the futon in the bedroom, the slams echo. We have hardwood floors. I’d ripped up the carpet on account of Bitter Cat.
I say, “What the fuck?” too often, and even cry a bit (a lot), and take too many photos of myself crying, which I upload to Instagram with self-debasing hashtags. I record her raging voice, audio only. I’m up to two hundred and sixty-seven.
While she is at Dairy Queen, the one across from the fields of geese she once loved so much, I plug in the batteries for the drill. Neither charges because they are so old. I use my screwdriver from my first marriage, even though most of the bits are missing from the plastic rim. (Did he take all those bits? Or did they evaporate like all the Dreamworld Lego instructions I’d saved? Or the Barbie heads? If we still talked I’d tell him the naked Barbies and Kens intertwined as best they could, propped along the shower edge. They were the first poly couples I’d observed, but not the last.)
The one bit left is enough, and I’m happy it chips off the paint on the hinge.
I take off the bedroom and bathroom doors and carry them to the basement, nicking my shin the last time up. I have remorse about all that IKEA furniture.
I staple sheets over the doors.
When the Gone One was an adolescent he looked at family photos, baseball team photos, TV commercials, teachers, men on escalators, elevators—anything—looking for erections, because if the men couldn’t control them, then it would be hopeless for him.
Does he say that to the New One, too?
I sit on the Mad One’s mattress, though the lump of her, my daughter, never moves under the covers. I say, “When they find the new ones, they have to retell the old stories, all the names of pets from their youth—Peanut Butter, Doctor, Squirrel, and Black Toe—and the stories of chipped teeth and blood on Daddy’s shirt, Daddy carrying them back to Mama, or bones sticking out from their ankles after skateboarding mishaps, or Step-Dad wrapping their shoes in plastic bags while they dig up clams in oily sand. They tell of throwing snowballs at the nuns and squirming around with camp kids under scratchy blankets. I bet your dad tells the new ones of standing still against a barn wall so a friend’s older cousin can shoot a BB at his butt. He’s still called a pussy.”
The Mad One refuses to acknowledge I’m here. Her anger is torn fingernails. Her anger is tiny handwriting on the walls. But she snorts. Pussy gets her every time.
New IKEA boxes are lined against the wall downstairs. All the deconstruction mess has been swept up. The Mad One has taken down the light fixture from the ceiling, exposing the bulbs. I crave to touch her. I bite my tongue. She sits up and holds my hand. “He promised I’d be in his movie,” she says. “He took the shower footage from his fucking vintage camera and let his students scratch up and paint on the film. He screened it while Margo recited shit poetry. They’re sleeping together and she’s bringing in a third, from Imelda’s shoe store.”
“This kid I knew when I was eleven circled her nipples in green magic marker,” I say. “I don’t think she was interested in me sexually. She was trying to tell me something. Some strange need. Or maybe she thought it was funny. Or maybe she wondered what I’d do with a green marker on my skin. I had to spend the night over because my parents went out of town, and I slept at the foot of her bed. I didn’t want to touch her by mistake. She pointed to the hairbrush her mom hit her with. I never hit you. Remember that.” I wish I still smoked.
“We consume so many people,” I say. “It’s like we need Google slides to get through our past stories—those mini rockets landing nowhere special, just dirt by where dogs shit—to what we want: to be seen.” The Mad One snuffles and holds her knees. She rocks her body under the blanket, and I rock with her.
Alex Behr is a writer, editor, and teacher in Portland, OR. She’s the author of Planet Grim: Stories (7.13 Books). She used to play bass in loud bands.
Image source: Christin Hume/Unsplash
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