Relief. Short Fiction from Megan Carlson

It started with a sticky note on my bathroom mirror. A simple list. I kept forgetting to take off my makeup at the end of the night. Then, in the morning, I would notice a foundation smudge on my pillow or feel the crusty residue of eyeliner in the corner of my eyes. Before I’d even gotten out of bed, I’d mumble, “idiot,” at myself and swear I would remember that night. 

I didn’t want to start the day with that kind of negativity, so I scrawled in black sharpie: 

  • Brush teeth
  • Remove makeup
  • Mouthguard

I stuck the yellow note to the mirror and felt an immediate wave of relief. It was one thing I didn’t have to think about. I added a morning list to match (Brush Teeth, Wash Face, Vitamins, Face Cream, Makeup, Dry Hair) and exhaled a breath I’d been holding for years. Every night that week, I crawled under my covers with a sense of ease that I had taken care of myself and things were in order. 

The high was short-lived, however, and soon the dread— the tightening of my chest, the cloudiness in my mind— crept back. It started on my way to work Tuesday. I showered and completed the morning list in good time but lingered too long deciding an outfit to match an inconvenient forecast (humid morning; post-rain chill). By the time I found a blouse to match floral rain boots and a purse cavernous enough for extra shoes, I was already an hour late. No one at work mentioned my tardiness, but I suffered acute embarrassment passing the receptionist, who bellowed, “GOOD MORNING,” and the interns whose heads bobbed up like a malfunctioning Whack-a-Mole at the interruption. My heart raced as I hurried to my cube. 

After fighting tears of frustration all day, I returned home and planned outfits for the remainder of the week. Again, I experienced a flood of relief like the first minutes after an orgasm— blank and still and wonderful.

The next night, I combed through my closets and made an inventory of all my clothing in an unused black journal. I mentally paired items together into outfits, which I also recorded. Black, sleeveless eyelet blouse + white jeans + white flats with scalloped trim. Black, sleeveless eyelet blouse + tan pencil skirt + black gladiator sandals. I copied the outfit combinations onto stickies and placed them across my dining room wall so I could see all 107 spring-to-summer combinations laid out. That Sunday, I did laundry and pulled five stickies for the week’s outfits. I cross-referenced them against the forecast and planned high-temperature and low-temperature backup options in case of any surprise weather phenomena. 

A transcendent calm followed me all week. I smiled at coworkers on the elevator. I even made small talk at the restroom sink. At 5:05, I closed my game of solitaire and boarded the #20 home to microwave a 350-calorie TV dinner and open one of two Diet Cokes I allowed myself per day (the other at 11 a.m., after morning coffee). After dishes, I settled in front of my TV. 

This used to be the time I’d uncork a bottle of wine and sink into a deep oblivion punctuated only by the noise from some undemanding trash TV. I’d awaken the next morning in my unbuttoned jeans, next to an empty bottle, and promise myself it was the last time. Since I’d returned, however, I practiced moderation; I bought eight-ounce cans of wine marketed at girls on diets and limited myself to one per night. 

I wanted all aspects of my life to be this simple, so I created more sticky notes. I tried to capture all scenarios I might reasonably encounter in a given week: what to watch on Netflix, what to buy at the grocery store, when to bra shop, where to eat dinner, what parts of my body to work on at the gym, what bills needed paying, what tampons to use. 

When I finally ran out of wall space, I bought 30 small binders at an office supply store. (This turned out to be another crisis of decision-making, as I was forced to choose between having the binders shipped to the store at a discount, which entailed a slight delay, or 2-day shipping to my home; I hyperventilated in a bathroom stall while weighing the options.) At first, I organized the binders by people, since situations involving others seemed to cause the most distress. From those categories of people, I’d list out various scenarios and subsequent decision trees. Under “coworker,” for example, I listed, “special occasion,” “work decisions,” “meals.” From coworker-> special occasion→ baby shower, I could easily access the to-dos: Go to Target. If boy, then blue or gray onesie. If more than one option, select more affordable. If equal price, pick the first you saw. If girl, then pink or yellow onesie, etc. It wasn’t a very feminist system, but that wasn’t the point.

I had binders for service professionals, friends, and coworkers. I didn’t have a binder for family. There weren’t many left, and I’d cut ties with most since the funeral. That was a relief in itself. 

The organizing system— by people — only lasted about a week. It fell apart when I returned a skirt I’d purchased online that pulled weirdly to the right. I was devastated at the thought of returning in-store, but I consulted the binder on service professionals, which led me to the subsection on retail. From there, the path was clear. I would tell my supervisor I needed to take an early lunch, arrive at the store by 10 a.m. (the least crowded time based on previous experience), file into the customer service line, and return the item. This was the binder’s sage wisdom. 

The plan derailed almost instantly. First, despite the early hour, the store was crowded with working professionals and tourists taking advantage of a seasonal sale. Then, I realized that there was no distinct customer service line from the regular purchase line. It was one bulging, disorderly mass that snaked between clothing racks across the store. I reluctantly joined the chaos.

Once I reached the front, I showed the ill-fitting item to the pimpled sales clerk. He turned the skirt over in his oily, red hands. The act was oddly personal, as though he were inspecting me and not the cheap poly-blend. 

“We can’t accept this,” he said. 

“What?”

“It’s been worn.”
“N-no, it hasn’t,” I stammered. “It’s just wrinkled from the bag.”

“If the tag is off, there’s nothing I can do.”
“I want to speak to a manager.” It was possibly the last thing on earth I wanted to do. My neck felt unbearably hot, and I was aware of the line of people fuming behind me at the unnecessary wait. I heard a few exasperated sighs.

After an eternity, a short, fat woman with closely-cropped blonde curls waddled up to the register. She smiled. I could see flakes of her bubblegum pink lipstick caked into the corner of her mouth.

“Why, hello,” she said in the thin, saccharine voice reserved for small children. “How can we help you?”

“I’m just trying to return this, please. I swear I didn’t wear it,” I said, tears welling. “I wasn’t thinking when I took the tags off.”
“I see, well–” 

“PLEASE,” I said. “I took the tags off because I thought that meant I could magically make it fit. But it’s really ugly and it doesn’t look right and I just want to return it. Please take it back.”
The woman looked alarmed. “Oh, dear, well don’t cry. I’m sure we can work something out. How about store credit?”

I returned to the office but couldn’t concentrate. My hands shook. I emailed my boss and said that I had come down with food poisoning. Off the bus, I wandered into Stanley’s, a neighborhood dive that opened early to serve the drunks and nurses off the night shift. I ordered the beer and shot special, followed by a glass of wine or two. I stayed for the happy hour crowd and then through dinner, although I didn’t eat anything except cheese puff balls from the communal bowls atop the bar. By eight o’clock, the threat of karaoke loomed, so I stumbled home and opened a cabernet. 

I called in sick again the next day and spent the time in bed recovering and deleting the enraged and nonsensical texts I had sent to acquaintances the night before. While I was at it, I deleted those people from my phone.

When the brain fog finally lifted, I checked the receipt on the skirt again. To my horror, I realized I could have returned the item for full refund via mail. I felt nauseous, but I decided to consider the situation logically. I could have avoided the whole situation if my first thought hadn’t been to go to the service professional binder. The “people” binders assumed that you had to interact with a live human for every decision, which was not only untrue, but a thing to be avoided if one wanted a sense of peace. Learning from my mistake, I re-organized the binders by situations: Work and personal. Both categories could break down further into errands, meetings, relationships, entertainment, biological functions, etc. 

I kept the binders on two shaky IKEA bookshelves I had hastily built along my dining room wall. Once assembled, I created a searchable Excel catalogue on my laptop to easily locate the appropriate binder for any given dilemma. Each time I picked a binder off the shelf, I experienced a sensation that could only be described as nirvana.

The binder system, of course, had its limitations. You could never fully capture the complexity of human experience; There were too many variables. I met with a friend from college to discuss the theoretical possibilities of creating a computer algorithm to accomplish the task, but realized the amount of computing power would be economically infeasible. Given that I didn’t have the money or expertise to move the operation into the digital space, I just perfected the binders as best as I could. 

I realized soon the most efficient approach wasn’t to try to identify each variable that could affect a situation— the weather, the time of day, your attitude, the money in your account, the cultural zeitgeist, the systems of law and economics that invisibly governed every interaction. The easier approach was to reduce the number of variables in the first place. In other words, instead of capturing every possibility with the binders, you could squeeze your life into what was already in the binders. 

To do this, you had to make cuts. For example, Thursday night take-out options could be limited to just three options. Or, if you were disciplined, you could make it just one. I, personally, kept binder entries for six restaurants within walking distance of my apartment, but usually limited myself to ordering from three. All the different menu items made it chaotic enough.

Cutting people seemed the most efficient and perhaps most rewarding. I deleted all social media accounts, thereby erasing my already minimal online presence. I donated my cell phone (just receiving a text could send me into a tailspin) and reinstalled my apartment’s landline. I didn’t answer non-work-related emails or respond to wedding invitations. 

I fortunately had already laid much of the groundwork for this stage. When I had returned to Chicago from my year in Wisconsin, I simply had not picked up the phone. This turned out to be enough to significantly narrow my social circle. I found that most people were content to let you fade away. For them, it was one less birthday to remember. One less holiday card to send. Half a year later, I barely had to do anything at all for the remaining handful to disappear behind the curtain. 

But some people were persistent. This made me feel guilty, which increased the urgency for severing the connection. One of these was my best friend, Alexa, a natural empath whom I had known since childhood. Alexa was studying to be a social worker, which I found noble but irritating. 

She dropped by unannounced on the first day of fall. Her tiny body was overwhelmed by an expensive, oversized gray sweater, and delicate blonde wisps peaked out from a blush knit cap. She looked ready for apple picking with a broad-shouldered, outdoorsy gentleman. I instinctively crossed my arms to cover last night’s barbecue stains on my moth-eaten college sweatshirt. 

She noticed the binders immediately. In a decision I would regret, I answered her questions honestly. She pursed her lips and nodded along as I explained the system. She had the same kind-but-concerned look on her face as when I mentioned getting bangs. 

“Do you think this is about your mom?” she asked.

Her calm, measured tones grated on me. 

“No, I don’t.” 

I avoided her calls from then on. Since I didn’t have caller ID, this meant I stopped answering the phone altogether. I emailed her an occasional Onion article to avoid arousing suspicion that I was dead or kidnapped or, God help, depressed. 

I decided not to make the same mistake with Jason.

Jason came over Tuesday nights and Friday nights. Since we already had a routine, his visits initially fit well in the context of my new lifestyle. He would bring take-out from the fried chicken place on Madison or the taco joint on Halsted. We’d make small talk, usually about work or something on TV, avoiding any topic that required analysis beyond “That’s good” or “I don’t like that.”  I prepared a story in case he ever asked about the binders, but fortunately Jason wasn’t the curious type. 

After dinner and a glass wine, we’d move to the bedroom. Fucking was the only area of my life where I didn’t need lists. My body just knew what to do. Jason would lead me by the hand into my bedroom. We might kiss a little, or I might suck on his nipples, or climb on top of him right away. If he got turned on too fast, he would flip me onto my stomach and push inside me while I braced my hands against the headboard. I loved feeling helpless against his thrusts and almost always came first. Other times, he might tie me up. He wasn’t a sophisticated role player but he knew what I liked. A tight knot, a flick here, or shove there. We used to play a little scene where I was alone in an alley, but after a while he didn’t like the violence of it.  

In real life, with clothes and jobs, Jason was boring. He did financial consulting in the Loop and wore expensive suits that never matched his shoes. I imagined his weekends comprised a sports league and overpriced beers. 

Eventually, even Jason’s visits wore on my nerves. Six months after I started the binders, he arrived on a Monday night instead of a Tuesday. I couldn’t think of a lie on the spot, so I invited him in, even though I’d already eaten my TV dinner, and faced the uncomfortable choice of eating a second dinner or explaining my unusually-early dinner hour. 

 Later, as I opened the second bottle of wine, he said, “You don’t seem like you leave this place much anymore.” He paused like he’d ask a question. “I hope everything is ok.” 

I exploded. I told him he couldn’t just drop by unexpected like this. A string of abuse escaped my mouth until all my breath to scream was gone. My last words were something along the lines of “fuck off and don’t come back.” 

For a few days after his departure, I cried full-throated sobs. My own passion surprised me given that I hadn’t liked him very much. I snotted through two full packages of toilet paper, and let the tissue pile up into fluffy mountains atop the trash can. I wished I were a different person, or a dead person, or an animal who wasn’t even aware of how big the universe was and how many things could go wrong in it. 

Sustaining that kind of intense emotion, however, is impossible. By the fourth day, the fire inside my head had smoldered to a dull ache. I drank four glasses of water from the sink without taking a breath, and resumed my project feeling clear, almost weightless. One more variable was gone. 

Some weeks later, as a dry cold settled over the City, I finished the last binder. I had catalogued almost every situation I could reasonably expect to encounter in a total of 87 binders. A glowing, expansive peace wrapped itself around me like an invisible blanket. My days were blissful. I followed my morning sticky notes. I dressed in that day’s outfit. I boarded the bus to work. I bought coffee from the shop in the building. I checked email. At noon, I walked out to the deli across the street and ordered either a Reuben or a turkey sandwich. At five o’clock, I packed up my things and I left my desk at 5:05 for home. 

One could consider the routine boring. One could see the structure as stifling the beautiful inconsistencies and surprises that make splendor out of the otherwise mundane biological functions of existence. But the opposite was true for me. The lists and routine opened up new spaces in my mind that had before been cluttered by endless thoughts and decisions. I never felt for a moment like I was missing out on the richness of life. I could order a Reuben or a turkey sandwich. Life was beautiful. 

 I hadn’t experienced happiness like this since before my mother’s illness almost two years ago. Before the endless days of appointments and doctors and lists and medications. Before I left work to care for her. Before the pillboxes organized by days of the week. Before we had to choose between aggressive treatments, which could add months to her life but entailed a host of ghastly symptoms and indignities, or the agony of “waiting and seeing.” Before my three-month leave (the doctor’s estimate for grade 4 brain cancer) turned into ten months of pain, treatments, expenses, and boredom. Before the countless hours on the phone haggling with the insurance company, the pharmacists, and the doctor to get her the correct amount of Zofran so she wouldn’t be up all night shaking and vomiting. Before my inability to properly acquire the right pills became a sign of my moral failing and disdain. Before my mother’s drug-addled and tumor-ridden brain convinced her that I was the cause of her suffering. Before she sobbed and screamed that I didn’t love her. 

The only peace in that time came during the hours of opiate-induced coma, which increased in frequency and duration as time crawled on. I watched her sleep, marveling at the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest— the only ostensible difference between life and death. I would gently brush her hair from her face, free from fear of admonishment, as I mentally catalogued fond memories of her to replace the ones forming during these tortured days of pain and anger.

She died on a Tuesday after three delirious days in the hospital. No binder guided the decision to remove her feeding tube. I stayed by her bedside and committed the whole of my attention to monitoring her rattled breaths and purpling skin. When she finally died, I was so sleep-deprived I didn’t realize what had happened. A nurse had to whisper that my mother had “passed” and that I could take my time for it to sink in. My mother wore the same peaceful look as when dreaming, only this time her chest stayed still.

For months, the binders had distracted me. Now, as I imagined her corpse on the hospital bed, I noticed the wine glass shaking in my hands. A panic rose in my chest. My instinct told me to consult a binder, but there was no decision to make.

I reasoned that I must be hungry, so I walked to the shelves and removed the appropriate binder, even though I had the decision tree for take-out memorized. I landed on the chicken salad from the sandwich shop down the street. My shoulders relaxed. I bundled into my parka and began the windy one-block trek to the shop. 

The place was empty save for two older patrons who liked to drink coffee and play cards during off-hours. They nodded to me before resuming their game. As I approached the register, a pony-tailed teenager with a toothy smile asked what she could get me. 

“A chicken salad sandwich and a Diet Coke,” I asserted.  

“Oh, I’m so sorry. We changed the menu last week. Chicken salad’s gone.”

My breath quickened. 

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, it wasn’t very popular,” the girl continued. “But we’ve replaced it with a tuna salad sandwich, if you want that. You like fish?”

The room seemed to close in. My throat tightened, and I looked at the menu board above the register. I blinked a few times, but the words were too blurry to read. 

“Really, it’s ok.” The voice sounded far away. “Please stop crying.” 

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