I’ve thought about posting this for some time now. 2014 – second year of university for me – was the time when my anxiety was at its worst. Not knowing how to properly cope with something I didn’t even really understand at the time, I turned to creative writing as a way of processing and expressing my experiences. Writing fiction is something I’ve always been interested in, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found I have less time/motivation/inspiration to do it. The exception to this is the creative writing (CREW) courses I’ve taken as part of my degree at uni.
The first course I took, in 2014, was CREW 254 “Short Fiction Workshop”. For 254 we had to produce a portfolio of short stories. A common theme across mine was mental illness. something I was quietly struggling with. I think storywriting (and all fiction, for that matter) can be a powerful medium for the exploration of mental illness. Stories about mental illness can be very humanising: they help bring it into the spotlight and show readers that this is something real people experience. People deserving of compassion and kindness, not a locked room in a mental asylum.
The story I’m sharing with you today is one of the stories I wrote for my 254 portfolio. It has since gone on to do well in competitions here and across the Tasman, winning the 2014 BNZ Literary Award for a Novice Writer and being shortlisted for the 2015 Monash Prize. The narrator struggles with depression rather than anxiety, and though this is a work of fiction, it draws on my own memories and experiences – both from my childhood and at the time I was writing it. Most of you have probably read it before, but I wanted to share it anyway, since this is supposed to be a blog about anxiety and mental illness. I thought it would be good to share a different way of talking about mental health.
I Hope You Have a Wonderful Day
I didn’t realise how much clothes would weigh me down. My shorts are pulling at my hips. My t-shirt’s ballooning out on the surface of the sea. I’d gone for a walk along the beach and now I’m in the water. It was cool at first but now it’s warm. All I can hear is sloshing of my limbs through the water as I swim towards where the sea blends into the sky. It’s so still, feels almost wrong to be in here. Like I’m disturbing something, poking sticks at a hive. It’s too deep to stand. I can feel my shoes like seaweed around my ankles, dragging me down. So I pull them off, and then my shorts too, imagine them hitting the sea floor, making clouds of sand puff up and out.
Something about the flatness of the sky makes me think about this boy I used to know. His name was James. James was black coffee, he was strands of hair caught in the corners of mouths. He was looking out windows at stark skies, at trees stripped and trembling, at the goosepimpled skin of the city. I liked struggling up hills in the cold with him, my breath hot in the scarf that was pulled up over my nose. I liked the brown knit sweater he would wear; the way he would twist his fingers into mine. I liked that we would still be up those hills when the light started draining from the day. When we had sex he’d press his thumbs into my hipbones, sometimes so hard I’d find little thumbprint bruises across my skin in the shower. I’d run my fingers over them, reading the night before like flattened braille.
James taught me how to roll cigarettes but not how to smoke them. I never saw him smoking but he was always rolling them and lining them up on the windowsill. Had a stack about five centimetres high. Sometimes we’d just sit on his bed in our underwear, rolling cigarettes. I liked watching him breathe in the fog of his room, his chest stretching out and collapsing back in as the air escaped between his lips. One evening he told me what they were about. The cigarettes. We both cried that night. I went and held him, putting my hands up into his hair because I didn’t know what else to do. He pushed me backwards onto the bed and pressed his face into my chest. He made noises that rattled through my ribcage.
After James there was Mathilde. We met in a club. I was drunk on bourbon and coke and I liked the way her skirt spun out around her when she danced, I liked how her mouth was dark red like merlot. We danced together. She had a half-drunk whiskey in one hand; her other was pressed against the back of my neck. I kept getting distracted watching the drink slosh around in the glass. I kept thinking it’d slosh right over the lip, but it never did. We made out in a toilet stall. ‘Call for a good time’ someone had scrawled above the cistern, and then a number underneath. She had thick dark eyebrows that crumpled together when I caught her lip between my teeth. When we stumbled out of the cubicle I saw in the mirror that my lips were dark red and she’d left mouthmarks all over my face. I’d never kissed a girl before, you’d think girls would be softer and gentler but she kissed me like we were in a fistfight.
I roll onto my back and feel my hair float out around my head. With my eyes half-open the whole world seems milky, like the taste of English Breakfast in the living room of a relative you don’t know well enough to say anything other than so I saw your flowers out front, they’re looking nice. That taste going down your throat, sticking, too thick at the back of your tongue. The shore has become very far away. I didn’t tell anyone I was going for a walk, didn’t know it would become a swim. I don’t know if I can swim all that way back to the beach.
When I was younger I would sometimes walk to my grandmother’s house after school, she only lived two blocks away. She would make me lime cordial and we’d eat chocolate chip biscuits. I was only ever allowed two at home but she always let me have three. We’d go into her garden and she’d show me how to pick lavender without upsetting the bees. She had mint growing just outside her back door and she’d always let me pick a leaf or two to chew. We’d pick cherry tomatoes (only the ones that are the most red she’d say), find grapefruit under the tree, among the dead leaves and mush. She had this picture of her and my grandfather on top of the cabinet in her sitting room. He was standing behind her, there was white sky behind them, they were both squinting into the light. I was eighteen she’d tell me. Still at home. My parents never liked him, she’d say. When I found out your mum was on the way, my mother grabbed my hair and screamed at me to get out. So I went to your grandfather and he said let’s get married, so we did.
Whenever I think about that story, I imagine him picking her up from outside her place. Her with her eyes red, her face raw, her scalp still stinging from where her mother pulled so hard some of her hair came out. They go for a drive, way out of the city, all the way out to the sea. He gets out a pack of cigarettes, lights one for both of them. I can’t she says. And she tells him why. And she tells him about her mother’s spit spraying across her face. And he looks across at her. He’s got one hand still resting on the steering wheel, the other out the window, holding the cigarette. Let’s get married he says. And she says, okay.
I put my head under the water. I like the feeling of my hair floating out around me. I open my eyes but I can’t see much. The light above, wishwashing over the surface, making patterns like veins. And down below me, nothing. Blackness. I breathe out my nose and mouth at the same time. A rush of bubbles. A hush. I could let myself sink down. I don’t have to come back up. My lungs are starting to hurt. The salt water is starting to sting my eyes.
One day there was a fight. My mother standing by the window in the lounge, yelling into the receiver. They’re not your kids are they, she said. I could hear my grandmother’s voice coming out of the phone, hard and fast. After that my mother stopped talking to her so we all had to as well. I wasn’t allowed to walk over to see her anymore.
My mother in the garden digging leeks, potatoes. My mother saying don’t play with the hose, please. My mother in the kitchen saying shit, shit, these potatoes still aren’t cooked. I would go around the house saying shit, shit, shit until one day she overheard me and slapped me on the wrist. I remember a lot of big wide afternoons, thick air, clouds of mosquitoes that rose up when I ran around the backyard. I’d be an airplane, slicing through the sky. Slicing open the sky. I had pink jelly sandals, I loved their plastic smell.
Then later. One morning at breakfast, my mother was spreading jam on her toast. It was always blueberry, and she would always spread it right out to the corners. I was late for school, I was trying to make a coffee but I couldn’t, I spilt sugar on the bench, sloshed milk all down the sleeve of my jersey. The jug was boiling. I don’t feel very well Mum, I said.
What’s wrong she said, how do you feel.
That’s the problem I wanted to say, I don’t feel anything. I didn’t realise I was crying until I felt warm drips hitting my feet.
My mother looked up at me. Oh for god’s sake she said.
The jug clicked off and I went to pour the water in my cup but my eyes were swimming, I was shaking too much, I couldn’t see. The water sloshed over the side of the cup and down onto my feet and I screamed and Mum was screaming too. For fuck’s sake she screamed at me. Fuck’s sake.
I don’t stay under. I let myself break back through the skin of the sea. I breathe in, in, in: my lungs fill up and it feels good. I can hear seagulls. I roll onto my back and float, and see them all overhead. They’re flapping at the air like they don’t quite know how to fly.
After Mathilde there was Sophie. Sophie had blonde hair patched with pink that she wore chopped to a bob. The ends would float around her chin as she walked. Sophie’s lips were red like firetrucks. She grabbed me by the hand one day and said come on and we ran through the streets and she didn’t let go even though my palm was sweaty. We climbed over fences and I ripped my pants. She jumped in a stranger’s pool with all her clothes on. With Sophie there was never any start or end. There was only the middle, the jumping into the stranger’s pool (shh, what are we doing, we’re so fucking dumb, we’re going to get caught), falling off the sofa with her mouth at my hips (your nails are digging into my back/sorry/don’t let go), her writing in Sharpie on the back of my neck (you are not one of those girls that buses splash with rain).
It was almost winter and Sophie made my throat hot when she’d smile at me as we were walking along, our noses bitten a little by cold, her hair outlined orange in the going-down sun. Then it was winter and we drank twenty four beers between us sitting on the back steps of her flat. Her tights were ripped and she spilt her beer on her skirt as she fell back and laughed into the grass. My ass got so cold sitting on those steps but after a while I didn’t feel it anymore. I held her hair back as she bent over with her face in the bushes. Afterwards she wiped her mouth and said it’s better than the ground, doesn’t splash back. Later I was sitting in the shower and trying to reach up and turn the tap on because, as I kept trying to say past my heavy heavy tongue, I wanted to wash away down the drain. Sophie was leaning against the shower door with her head down, she kept swaying and saying shhhh shhh shh. I fell asleep there and she went to bed by herself.
I tread water. My skin is beginning to feel shrivelled like it does when you’ve been in the bath too long. Only it isn’t doing that thing where it’s all pink and feels like you’ve just peeled a whole layer off. It’s cold and has goosepimples. The sea is coming in my ears and kissing at the corners of my mouth.
My first birthday after I moved away from home my grandmother sent me a card. It had a picture of a bellbird on it, it was one of those ones done by artists who paint using their feet or mouths because they don’t have hands. Hope you have a wonderful day, it said. Thinking of you. The card went on my desk. I never replied.
I think about Sophie and me on the waterfront after dinner. Her hair whipping around her head. Her scarf pulled up over her chin. Her hugging her jacket around her. How cold my fingers were, how I kept having to wipe my nose with the back of my hand. And her leaning her forehead against mine. The mascara smudged under her eyebrow as she said look,
The shoreline isn’t as far away as it was before. I’ve been half swimming back to the beach. Dragging myself through the water. My body is wrinkled and sleepy. It almost doesn’t feel like I’m doing any work. I don’t know if I’m in a current or a rip or something but I feel like I’m being pushed back into the world. Like a shove in the small of my back. I can see dots moving on the beach that I couldn’t see before and then the dots are people and then the waves are breaking white foam and water noise over my head and then I’m on my back in the shallows with the water going in and out around me and sand everywhere, in my hair, and my head to the sky, and the sky is a blanket over me.
There’s more about Mathilde. I wrote my number on the back of her hand as I said goodbye to her that night. Then months later she called me up saying hey, are you doing anything this afternoon? It was a Sunday. We went walking all through the city. Gave money to buskers and tried on clothes in the same changing room and drank coffee on the waterfront. We held hands and drifted along. I felt like one of those things, you know those fluffy seeds that come off dandelions, I felt like one of those. But it was the wrong time of year for dandelion seeds. Mathilde had on this little round black hat and her hair was exploding out from underneath. I took her home as the shops were starting to close. We drank pinot noir on my balcony watching the cars and people go uncertainly by, and she said it tasted like the sea. We had sex later, behind the sofa, but it was tired, our limbs moving like through treacle, and she fell asleep on top of me halfway through. When I woke up the next morning she was gone, but she’d left her hat behind.
I go home and I make a phone call. I am standing in the kitchen and my hair is still damp and so is my t-shirt and I’m not wearing any pants. It’s getting dark. There are insects singing in the still-hot grass. Beetles and sandflies at the window.
The phone picks up. Hello, she says.
Hi gran, I say. I just wanted to see how you are.
“I Hope You Have a Wonderful Day” © Beth Rust 2014. Image by R. Parker/Fairfax NZ.
This story was published on the BNZ website after being awarded the Novice Writer Award in the 2014 BNZ Literary Awards. An abbreviated version was also published in the Dominion Post as part of their 2014/2015 summer fiction series; that version can also be found here on Stuff.co.nz.