“I think your financial guy is the same financial guy as my financial guy.”
Oh my god, thought Shig, did I really just hear that sentence? She took another twenty from another customer for a double Americano, and—making change—placed the plastic purple and blue bills in an outstretched hand. Her septum ached from the new piercing. Was it getting infected? She kept touching it throughout the morning, moving the ball closure ring back and forth through the tender hole. It was akin to the tongue going to the sore tooth. Is it all right? Am I leaking snot?
Shig, tall and willowy with short-cropped dark hair, drove her life in lists of four. Her manner since childhood had been to hold back and plan her movements, which imbued her with a tentative grace. She approached people with a protean, mobile face—she was ready to smile if you smiled, ready to turn away if you ignored her. There was a guarded, wait-and-see look in her brown hooded eyes. She often took her cues from others in the life outside her skin, yet her interior life felt mostly like a cathedral, orderly and spacious, filled with light, demarcated by quartets of pews.
The cathedral image had formed when she was fifteen and they had read Raymond Carver’s story in English 10. Two pictures stayed with her: One, of the full-bearded blind man enclosing the narrator’s hand in his own as together they drew a cathedral. A cathedral is a place built, the narrator said, because men want to be closer to God. And the other picture was what she imagined the interior of the cathedral was like—her interior, really. Instead of blood and bones, a heart, a liver, a pancreas, she had ribs of stone, an airy dome, stained glass windows, warm coloured light, cherry wood pews with velvet cushions.
Right now everybody wanted Americanos. The head barista Blondie is working quickly, expertly tamping down coffee into three brew baskets, plugging portafilters snugly into La Marzocco (they called the big espresso machine Zocco for short). When Blondie interviewed her for the job on Skype, Shig wanted to ask were you named for Blondie in the comic? Or were you named for the other Blondie, the singer? Shig’s mom had an old Parallel Lines L.P. in a milk crate in the basement, and she liked to look at it sometimes. She liked it that Blondie didn’t feel the need to smile in that photo whereas most of the goofy looking men surrounding her had grins on. Or maybe Blondie was called Blondie simply because she was blonde, dyed blonde. Blondie did look a little like the fifties comic with her glossy wheat-coloured wave curving over her brow and her shapely figure and tight clothes. But comic Blondie didn’t have tattoos, thought Shig. Or at least visible ones.
As she took orders and made change, Shig started thinking about her own name. It started when she was four and had hair long enough to put up. She was mesmerized by the women with chignons that she saw in magazines and on billboards. “I want one!” she told her mother, and from then on, for perhaps two years, Chelsea would ask for a chignon every day, and her mother complied. The only girl in kindergarten with her hair up in a fashionable do. Her brother, two years older, insisted on calling her Shig, short for chignon (yes, the g is silent, but he was six at the time and just starting to read). The name stuck. And now Chelsea was a thing of history, and Shig was her identity, even though her hair was super short now, and she hadn’t worn a chignon since high school. Sometimes she was even Shiggy when a friend was being affectionate. Back on task, Shig, she told herself. Change, cups, two Americanos, one machiatto with legs.
Shig rhymes with dig, and her first boyfriend, Aaron, had written a ditty for her on the back of a McDonald’s napkin: My sweet Shig, You I dig. But Shig also rhymed with prig. Aaron had called her that when she didn’t want to remove her clothes in public. A group of her friends took Ecstasy after graduation and had ended up dancing around a bonfire in the woods, semi-nude. Sure enough, she had taken the Ecstasy, greedy for the experience, but then she was the only one who refused to take her shirt off. Oh Shig, You’re such a prig. The boys and the other girls tore off their tops and flung them into the bushes, laughing. She remembered the blur of coloured bras in the firelight. And the boys’ chests, bronzed and luminous.
Still, there were times when the cathedral flung open its doors to outer life, and she let that interior glow guide her. That was happening more often.
Just after her nineteenth birthday, Shig started to think about leaving her hometown of Kamloops. She and Aaron had broken up, and she had no interest in going to Thompson Rivers University like her brother. She was ready for a change from the job at Starbucks and the home routines that had played out since childhood.
Shig imagined how it might go if she announced her intention. There would be an argument about why she should stay, followed by grudging acceptance, the U-Haul rental, arranged by her Dad, the choosing and packing items, supervised by her mother, and maybe a family party to say good-bye, to which her friends would be invited via her mother’s Facebook page. To Shig’s dismay, all of her friends were Facebook friends with her mother. Basically her parents would take over.
She wanted to do it alone, to start over, to strike out. Her parents’ love felt like a hoodie that was warm and protective, but starting to feel too warm. The hood blinded her from seeing peripherally, and she was aching to throw it off. Shig started by searching Victoria Craigslist every morning before work. That way, she thought, I will catch the right job and nab the room in the best shared house before someone else does. Around that time, Shig’s cathedral started to bloom with light.
Always disciplined and methodical, at age six Shig had lined up her beanie babies in categories (cats, dogs, reptiles) at nine, kept her pencils and felties organized by colour in Bonne Maman jam jars on her bookshelf. She had decided at age eight to get better at gymnastics and forced herself to practice every day for 30 minutes. Soon she was winning medals.
Now she applied the discipline to a secret plan—to find a home and a job in Victoria without assistance, and to make it all happen with minimal parental involvement. Loco parentis, she thought. In the place of my parents: me. I can be responsible for me. And I can do it all in lists of four.
She had made it happen—saved her money, found a place to rent in a shared house—all arranged without her parents’ knowledge. Nailed a job online after a Skype interview (she had Starbucks experience and that counted for a lot). Decided not to bring anything but herself and a few books and clothes, thus no need for a U-Haul and her father’s interference. She took the train two months ago and here she is.
Shig makes lists in her mind, four things at a time as she moves throughout her day. It might be, for example, teeth, boots, cat, earrings. That meant first she would clean her teeth, then put on her boots, then feed the cat, then choose earrings. (She missed the family cat Ollie the most, followed by her brother, then parents.) This listing kept her focused on the tasks at hand. One of her father’s favourite sayings was “be where your hands are.” That was good. She couldn’t get too far ahead of herself. It kept her on task and in the cathedral when she needed to be.
Sometimes she wrote down her lists of four. She had her little coiled notebook, but when it wasn’t near, she used scraps of paper. Listing was private. Once her brother found a list of four on the floor in the dining room—it must have fallen out of her pocket. “What’s this? Dishwasher, library books, toast, make-up. Shig, this is your writing. What’s it about?” She was embarrassed. “Just a list of things to do.” “What? You need to make a list to remind you to eat toast? To put on your make-up?” He laughed and put the list in her palm. “You’re a sweet strange one Shig.”
Another thing Shig does is wonder about sayings—where did they come from? What’s the meaning? Her grandmother had given her a book for her seventh birthday: Mad as a Wet Hen and other funny idioms. She loved that book. She still had it—stained and dog-eared, it was one of the few books she had brought with her on the train. And since then Shig had kept a running list of idioms and their meanings. First in notebooks in her neat cursive, then transferred into a Word file when she got a laptop.
And so here she is at Caffe Fantastico, taking orders. She used lists, determination, the cathedral, her borderline OCD-ness to get here, get this job, get that room, save enough for the septum piercing for her twentieth birthday last week (a gift to myself, she thought). On task: order doppio, take money, make change, clean cups up on Zocco.
The latest idiom on the list troubled her. After she got her nose pierced, she posted a picture on her Facebook page. Her mother commented, “You look like a bull, Shig. Watch you don’t get led by the nose.” Whoa! She wasn’t prepared for that. Yes, she knew that her mother, though appearing supportive, loving and cool to all of Shig’s friends, could also be sharp and mean in private. But this was public—right on her timeline. Was this to get back at Shig for taking responsibility for her own move to Victoria? Was this a subtle revenge tactic?
Her parents had been shocked when at dinner one night she made the fait accompli announcement she was leaving. It was as if she had betrayed them. All she was doing was what they had told her to do all of her life. Be responsible for yourself. They were surprised because they were used to her taking her cue from them. Both parents had been hinting about TRU—what would you like to take? Why don’t you do a “fun” year taking classes you are interested in, a try-it-on year? That’s what we both did, then we found our majors. We’ll pay for it, honey. Just figure out what you want to study. But what if she didn’t want to go to University at all? What then? Would the world end?
Domestic cattle, usually bulls, often had their septums pierced and rings inserted, the easier to lead them and control them. To be led by the nose meant to be easily controlled by others. So was her mother, then, suggesting she was weak, gullible, liable to be controlled? Why the fuck did Shig care so much? The irony, she thought, was that yes—she had been controlled by others, and those others were her parents. She had taken their cues all of her childhood and teenage years. She had been led by the nose. And she had taken steps to change that by executing her plan to move away. And now here she was.
Why did she even friend her mom on Facebook? Because it seemed unkind to ignore the friend request, and she was a kind person, she reminded herself. She touched the nose ring yet again and noticed the next customer in line looking at her with—what was that—disgust? It looks unsanitary, me touching my nose all day, Shig thought. She asked Rose to take over the cash. “I just need five minutes,” she said, taking off her apron and shimmying around the back of the horseshoe shaped counter. She went out into the bright light of day. People were scattered over the patio, sitting at the spindly tables, sipping coffee, talking and laughing, some jiggling babies on their knees.
Okay, I need to list, thought Shig walking purposefully down the road away from the cafe. I have five minutes. This is the Shig way—listing makes things better. There is no try, said Yoda, only do. Her father had a t-shirt with some Yoda saying that had shaped her childhood. Don’t try, just do. Just do it. No, that was Nike, not Yoda, but both ideas prevailed in her house. And now she had to undo this discomfort, this feeling she had somehow capitulated to the “system” by getting a nose ring. She was pissed off at her mother, she was embarrassed, and she was resentful. Tell Siri set alarm, five minutes, then breathe, then stride, four: turn back at the corner. Shit shit shit shit, it’s time to go back in. She slipped behind the counter, pulled the apron back on, tied it absentmindedly, and started in again at the cash. I don’t need a list of four things to do. I need to just tell my mother to fuck off. Take the bill, make change, clean cups, put the order slip on Zocco. One, two, three, four.
“You alright?” asked Blondie, nudging closer to her. “You look upset.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s a stupid thing. Just mad at my mother.” Then a funny thing popped into her mind. “Gird your loins,” her father used to say, jokingly, as he drove their Jetta around town dropping them off at school or gymnastics. She even remembered him saying it to her as he escorted her into preschool when she was three and still in diapers some of the time. “Gird your diapered loins, Chels.” My father is so weird, Shig mused with a smile.
That saying, that particular idiom, popped into my head right now because it’s a sign, she thought. I need to gird my loins, I need to protect myself from my mom. She can be mean, and now I need to protect myself. Maybe not my loins, exactly, but she does get me where I am most vulnerable, my sense of autonomy.
During her lunch break, Shig got her iPhone and looked up “gird your loins” in her running list (alphabetical). She had been thinking it meant to protect oneself as one went into battle. Well not exactly. It means to prepare yourself mentally to do something difficult, and it came from the Bible, where girding up your loins meant to tie up long loose clothes to get them out of the way when you were working or going to war. In effect, you made a kind of diaper out of those robes men used to wear. So it was still relevant to her situation, she thought. Yes, that’s it. I need to mentally prepare myself to confront my mother and tell her something. . . . But I’m not sure what yet. But yes. Gird my loins. Tie up my loose apron and focus. Except the idea of the diaper kept interfering with her image of being fierce.
At 3:30 p.m. Shig was standing on her front porch, digging around in her deep leather purse for the keys to the house she shared with three others. After letting herself in, she took off her helmet, dropped her stuff and sat on a stool at the kitchen island with her notebook. Lists had been formulating all the way home. When she got anxious, as she was now, the lists got granular. When she really needed to calm down she would lay out the four things to do on the cathedral pews, like they were little bits of paper, one on each pew. So, one on the first pew, get laptop from room. Two on the second pew, go to Facebook and sign in. Three, on the third pew, take three deep breaths (a way to gird my loins). Four, on the fourth pew, re-read the post. Then I’ll need another list to figure out what to do next. But that’s okay. One thing at a time. Be where your hands are. Cathedral.
Wait, I didn’t eat at lunch. New list. One, bread out of fridge, two, two slices into the toaster, three, cut cheese, four, mayonnaise. As she sat at the stool chewing her sandwich and swallowing, she started wondering about Raymond Carver and what he had meant. She had loved the story, but a tug in her solar plexus told her she was missing something important. She wasn’t satisfied with the explanation Mrs. Romney had given, that the narrator had finally realized true sight at the end, a kind of spiritual vision that the blind man already had. Somehow there was more to it than that. She liked to think about the blind man’s big paw wrapped around the smaller hand of the narrator, the two of them sitting close together on the couch with Robert’s full beard grazing the narrator’s neck. They had just smoked a big joint. And the wife in the doorway yammering, “what’s happening? What’s going on?” Shig chuckled aloud just thinking about it.
She started working through the list she had made prior to the sandwich, running up to her room, grabbing her laptop, and bringing it back to the kitchen island. She liked sitting here in the afternoon because the sun splashed into the room like a big stream of honeywater. She logged into Facebook and paused, taking her three deep breaths. As she completed each of her numbered tasks, she picked up the paper from the pew and crumpled it, putting it into her pocket. Not really, of course. There was no actual paper, no cathedral, but she went through the actions in her recessed interior, where light played over the mosaic floor, the rood cross.
Okay, my loins are girded. She went back to the post she had made to accompany the photo. Lulu, the woman who had done the piercing, had offered to take a picture of her. Though her nose hurt like hell, Shig was radiant in the photo, proudly showing off her jewelry, eyes sparkling, huge grin, her gamin hair pushed back on her sweaty brow. She checked the comments underneath and breathing slowly, read through them all to find her mother’s. “Shig – way to go you wild woman!” “Shiggy you are so brave.” “You look wonderful” “Shig come home we miss you!” “You look hot” “Hey I want one of those” “Can I come visit, Shig?” all peppered with brightly coloured emojis. She exhaled, smiling. Her friends were so lovely.
But where was her mother’s post about being led by the nose? Nowhere to be seen. She read through the comments again, more slowly. Not there! She closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the feeling of the sunbath. My cathedral, Shig thought. She opened her eyes, closed her laptop, and started a list of four. Laundry, pee, shopping list, email. No, that should be pee, laundry, email, shopping list. She felt so good, so satisfied, so content, that she risked a second list of four before she went up to the bathroom. Part one of the shopping list: eggs, almond milk, avocado, kale.
Story and photo by Madeline Walker
Great story! Loved the complexity of Shig and how you captured the complexity of someone that age struggling to individuate! Arnie
Thank you so much, Arnie.
I love the story and a photo! ……………1) open my email 2) read Madeline’s post 3) leave her a reply 4) tell her how beautiful she is!!!
Olga, thank you so much! It was a delight to see you and your family last night. Hug.