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Introducing: MORE WEIGHT - Graeme Bayliss


Illustration by Martin Stubbington // https://www.nightmonkeyart.com/

Moira thought about it twice before she’d poured the milk onto her cornflakes. They say if it starts to interfere with your everyday routine, you should see someone about it. But she did, in fact, still manage to pour the milk onto her cornflakes, notwithstanding the warm, copper-smelling blood that she imagined running down her wrists in tiny rivulets, carrying the whole universe away. So she walked over to the kitchen counter and picked up a stone from the pot with the little cactus in it. Succulents are an inexpensive, low-maintenance way of getting some greenery into your life.

It was around 5:30 on a Tuesday morning. She’d woken up crying again, and this seemed to her to be a kind of progress. It was important to express your innermost feelings, and her subconscious was doing so with such efficiency that she didn’t even really have to try at it. She imagined it like those subliminal-messaging tapes they used to sell in the eighties — you know: play the cassette at bedtime and wake up the next morning with a smattering of German. She took another stone from the pot and pocketed it.

After breakfast, Moira took her pills. There were seven of them in the little shot glass that she set out every night before bed, up from the usual six because it was mid-August and therefore Benadryl season. When she was younger, she refused to take them even semi-regularly, convinced they would hamper her creativity; now she had grown up, she knew that wasn’t how things worked. She hadn’t done anything creative in years. She sometimes wondered whether the pills did much good, or much at all — they didn’t mention pills during the seminars — but she was proud of herself for remembering to take them every day. Another stone.

It was at the final Zoom session that Diane, or possibly the insurance company via Diane, had given Moira the idea about the stones. Put a stone in your pocket every time you achieve something, every time you feel grateful for something, no matter how trivial it may seem (consulting your 2019 edition of Wellfulness: A Manager’s Journey, use the SMILE technique to determine what counts as an achievement and/or cause for gratitude). At the end of the day, feel the heft of your own wellness — then compare today’s pile to yesterday’s, and so on. Diane calls it the “Leave No Stone Unearned” method; she says it helped her get through the lockdown blues. She collected so many each day that she had to start putting them in her purse. Next, she says, she’ll need a bottomless carpetbag, like Mary Poppins.

Feeling the weight of the four undimpled, lunar-white stones in her pocket so early in the morning, Moira took Blur for a walk. Blur was an oldish greyhound, brindle, twenty-eight inches tall at the withers, one of those racetrack rescues who seemed as if he were perpetually coming down from whatever dopaminergic-dog-biscuit binge he’d been on for the first few unhappy years of his life. Now in retirement, he slept for sixteen hours a day, but he enjoyed his morning constitutional, and it was good for Moira to get outside and get moving. They mentioned that during the seminars, too. There had been three of them over the course of a week (mandatory), plus a quiz at the end (also mandatory, minimum passing grade 80 percent), which Moira aced.

Blur led Moira to the usual bench at the top of the toboggan-hill. From there you could see the downtown skyline, its million-odd panes of blue-tinted glass fulgurating in the sunlight, which she could feel now against the back of her neck; and beneath it, the Don Valley: verdant, viridescent, very green indeed. It was a sight to behold, and Moira beheld it conscientiously, as she’d done every day since the seminars began last week: she slipped the sandals off her feet and felt the dewy grass between her toes; she breathed in thoughtfully and, the Benadryl having kicked in, exhaled unsneezingly; she listened to the birds and to the distant traffic that sounded like slow waves on a wide shore; she tried as best she could to taste the morning air. She lived completely in the moment, activating all five senses, untroubled by thoughts of the Bloor Viaduct, bolt cutters, and terminal velocity. That deserves a stone, she thought, and she selected one, about the same size as the others, from the ground near Blur’s forepaws.

Now she checked the time on her new watch (she’d decided, on Diane’s advice, to treat herself to something special, which itself had merited a stone) and determined she had another few minutes before she would have to get moving again. Moira had been learning about the power of optimism: if she’d slept longer, she wouldn’t have been able to see the beautiful sunrise or linger on the bench, and she should feel grateful for that.

This “should” didn’t sit right, however. She made a couple of furtive glances, first at the bench to her right, then at the one to her left; neither was occupied. She grabbed her phone and placed a call. In the case of Yasmin, it was only four rings until you were sent to voicemail, and for someone like Moira, being sent to voicemail felt a little bit like disappearing completely.

“Hello?” Yasmin said. Moira had always thought it decent of Yasmin to pretend she didn’t know who might be calling her at 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday.

“Hey, sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Moira said, adding, as she always did, “I can call back later.”

“No, no — it’s totally fine,” said Yasmin, and she meant it. “What’s up?”

“I’m just having a rough morning,” Moira said, a little surprised at herself: she’d already picked up five stones before she managed to winkle the last of the cornflakes out of her molars, and she was scanning her surroundings now for another two: because she felt grateful for having a support system and because she’d managed to make use of it proactively — i.e., before, rather than after, she’d thought about jumping onto the subway tracks. “It’s hard to explain. Nothing’s wrong, really. I’ve been following all the steps. But nothing’s right either. It’s like being in one of those dreams where everything looks normal at first, but then you notice that the shadows don’t make sense and the furniture is impossible and — you know? And then you look down at your hands, but you can tell they’re someone else’s?”

“I know what you mean,” said Yasmin, who worried about Moira, who wanted her to be okay, and who had been dreaming about eating a bran muffin when Moira had called.

“I just want everything to freeze for a little while, you know? Like, imagine you could press pause on the whole world, get your shit together, and then press play again.”

“But that wouldn’t work, right?” Yasmin said. “If any part of you getting your shit together involves other people, how would you be able to do that if they’re all frozen in time? The best you could do is maybe clean your apartment and catch up on your emails.”

Moira considered this. “Then to go back in time. Stop my shit from falling apart in the first place.”

“That wouldn’t work, either. Who knows what you’d fuck up in some alternate timeline. Besides, your shit hasn’t fallen apart. How has it fallen apart?”

“I don’t know,” Moira said. It just very obviously had; anyone could see that.

“Where are you?”

“I’m at the park.”

“Which park?” asked Yasmin, who had a vague sense that asking for specifics about actions and environment would give Moira’s depressive-cockatiel brain less of an opportunity to pluck out its own feathers.

“Riverdale. I’m on a bench at the top of the toboggan-hill, but I’m going to head to work soon.” She looked at Blur. “Sorry, bud — we’ve got to get you back home.”

“He’s a good boy. I can stay on the phone with you till you get to the subway, if you want,” said Yasmin, who knew it would be eight minutes home and another eleven minutes to the station after Moira put on her work shoes.

“That would be nice,” said Moira, picking up a stone.

Eventually, Moira found herself in her cubicle. Not, like, Found Herself found herself; she merely realized at some point that she was sitting there and, based on the half-finished report on the screen in front of her, had been sitting there for quite a while.

“Hey, Moira. How’s it going today?” This was Moira’s boss, Sonia, who even in heels was shorter than a cubicle wall and had a tendency to sneak up on you inadvertently.

Moira said, “It’s going,” but worried that might betray her, so added, “I’m just finishing up that report for Steve,” but worried that might make it seem as if she were too busy to talk, so added, “Nice long weekend?”

“Oh, great. We had a little gathering for Jakub’s third birthday on Friday night, and then we went down to Prince Edward County the next day with a few friends and tried some of the local vino. Turns out Ontario wine’s not so bad after the second bottle or so. How about you?”

Moira hated lying, but she didn’t mind inflecting the truth in favour of her public image: “You know what? I did absolutely nothing. Just nothing at all.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“It does, right?”

“I meant to ask: Are you planning to take vacation anytime soon? You’ve got a bunch of days saved up.”

Moira wasn’t good at taking vacation. Vacation meant boredom, which meant liberal alcohol consumption, which meant the risk of wandering down to the lakefront. “Oh, yeah, I will, for sure. Soon.”

Sonia had attended the seminars, too. “Good. Everyone needs to recharge once in a while. Just come by my office when you’ve figured it out.” Pause. “Or even if you just want to have a chat.”

“Will do. Thanks.”

Moira excused herself to go to the bathroom, stopping at the potted plant in the kitchen along the way to dig around for a stone, which she washed off along with her hand in the bathroom sink.

Around four o’clock, she left work feeling heavy (her pockets by now were almost full) and walked to the subway station two stops south of the one closest to her office. She weaved through crowds of fellow office-leavers and made for the edges of crosswalks where possible, stepping outside the lines here and there to get ahead, never bumping into or brushing up against or casting a shadow onto anyone. Here was efficiency: Moira was getting in a brisk walk (the most mentally restorative walks being brisk ones, according to science, according to Diane) while also more or less guaranteeing that she wouldn’t end up on a train with any co-workers who also happened to be leaving early that day.

Now beneath the surface of the city, Moira stood at the near end of the platform, just to the right of the tunnel from which the train was due to emerge. She closed her eyes and, misremembering something Diane had said — “Do one thing a day that scares you” (she’d actually read it on a yoga bag) — shuffled toward the tracks as if her legs were fettered at the heels. The bumpy yellow warning stripe at the edge of the platform was like Braille commanding her feet to turn back, but she could hear the train coming now. Its metal wheels clacked at short intervals like a malfunctioning mechanical heart as they carried the train through the tunnel and across a fishplate at seventy kilometres per hour. Moira, her eyes still closed, maintained her composure as the train’s approaching headlights turned the insides of her eyelids from black to red. Out of fear or readiness, she bent a little at the knees. She would be home soon.

There was a rush of air, unpleasantly warm and unmistakably subterranean. Yet Moira imagined that she was a fledgling on a bough far off the forest floor, waiting for a gentle breeze to lift her, for the first time, above the earth, above that which could make her feel sad or bored or anything at all. The train would slam into her body and shatter her bones and cause her stomach to bleed into every cavity, but she wouldn’t be anywhere near it.

A horn sounded as the train barged into the station, and the dirty air blew Moira’s hair across her face and into her mouth. She opened her eyes and spat and stepped back from the yellow line. Her legs quaked, in a way that was perceptible to her but no one else, as the doors chimed and she sat down to catch her breath. She’d earned another stone.

Moira wanted to call Yasmin the second she got out of the subway, but she knew it was too early: Yasmin had made it politely but firmly clear that she couldn’t talk before 5 p.m. on weekdays. So Moira rode the subway back and forth, which, owing to the lack of cell reception underground, made it impossible for her to call anyone. (She’d told Diane about this tactic when the latter had asked the management team what coping strategies they used when times got tough. Diane, after a pause that could perhaps have been explained by a network latency, said that she’d never heard that one before and suggested that Moira take the opportunity to walk up and down the length of the train: light exercise would help to focus her mind on setting actionable goals that would help her overcome her life-challenges.) At 5:22 p.m., Moira, feeling a little nauseated and her plantar fasciae aching, called Yasmin to check in. She even remembered to ask Yasmin how she was doing this time. Yasmin was doing okay.

The evening was fairly routine, and routines are an important part of maintaining emotional stability. Around seven o’clock, she had dinner (home-cooked, stone-worthy) and fought the urge to call Yasmin a third time. Instead, she took Blur for a walk down to the river, which she again determined was too shallow to drown in (and anyway, she couldn’t do that to Blur: he was what they called a “limiting factor,” something that made you feel guilty and/or grateful enough to stop you from stopping everything, and he was still only ten years old). On returning home, she managed not to become discouraged by the nearly all-time record she’d set with her step-counter that day: exercise was exercise, and a healthy body meant a healthy mind.

She turned off her notifications at 8 p.m. — what Diane called “me o’clock” — and sat down at the kitchen table to journal. She’d learned during the second seminar that journal and journey come from the same Latin root, meaning “daily,” and that just as it was important to walk daily, so it was important to take stock daily. But she soon became distracted by her phone, which she checked and rechecked every few minutes to see whether anyone had emailed or called or texted. There were two emails (work); one call (robot); and one text (Yasmin: “Hey, I hope ur hanging in there. Lmk if u need anything”). She didn’t respond to the text, but she did pick up a stone from the cactus-pot and put it in her bulging pocket before closing the leatherette cover of her blank notebook.

Moira couldn’t tell you exactly how she spent the rest of the evening (this was part of the routine), but when she went to brush her teeth in front of the bathroom mirror, she deduced that (a) she had been crying, and (b) she had been drinking wine, based on the redness in her eyes and in the toothpaste she spat into the sink. Although she was grateful that her day was ending, she wouldn’t grab a stone till morning: it was past midnight again.

There were still one or two more things for Moira to do before bed. She slid her right hand into her right pocket and her left hand into her left pocket and extracted the stones in one go. She cupped her hands together and examined the contents. There were the cactus-stones from the kitchen; there were the smooth, skippable specimens she’d picked up by the river; there was the jagged rock she’d excavated from under the umbrella tree at work. She felt the weight in her hands and tried hard to understand what it meant, then she knelt down to place her lithic harvest on the pile with the rest.

Moira drank twelve ounces of cold water (Diane again) and put on her pyjamas and got into bed. In the darkness, she could just see the outline of the cairn.


 

Graeme Bayliss is a journalist and editor who lives in Toronto. "More Weight" is his first work of fiction.


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