Her long fingernails tapped against her computer keys. She couldn’t stop. Slouched over her laptop, Janice’s face bathing in the fluorescent light of her screen that so heavily contrasted the darkness around her. The light made her hands look more pale than they already were. The glasses slid down her nose, her hair up in a bun that was starting to lose small strands right and left.
She was a workaholic. Janice felt proud hearing those words in her head. She never let anything get away, since she was a young girl. She was always a straight-A student. She excelled in sports and arts, going on to University with a prestigious scholarship that allowed her to get her master’s by 25 years old. She moved to New York City for an internship at a small journalism agency. She worked as an assistant throughout her studies until she met her ex-boyfriend Steve – who happened to be a journalist. He was a few years older than her, which young Janice, who was still going through her masters, fell head over heels for. It didn’t take long before it ended. Right after Janice graduated, she found a pair of underwear that were not hers in Steve’s apartment. She didn’t even let him explain.
Janice was naive, just like most girls in their early 20’s. But she knew how to prioritize. She knew that to have stayed wouldn’t have been dignifying. Dignity. Janice could never compromise that. Anything but. In her mind it was not that Steve had cheated, it was that he was so lousy at hiding it. Janice and Steve spent a lot of time amongst Steve’s colleagues, and Janice was a smart cookie. Keeping in contact with most of the big names, Janice was able to pave her own path and become an upcoming Journalist in New York City even after the breakup.
She didn’t think of it much when she met Toby. Toby was like a breath of fresh air. He was simple and kind-hearted. He was the staple man who made a woman think of a picket fence house with children and a golden retriever. He was younger than her, and so much more optimistic. A feeling she had sometimes forgotten about. He was attractive; sharp blue eyes with dirty blonde locks that framed his heart-shaped face and wide jaw. He, like Janice, also played sports. He played Rugby on a national team, having started out in Georgia. Despite the small accent and the innocent demeanour, Toby was very smart. Coming to New York to model for small brands, Toby decided to start University in Mechanical Engineering. He loved cars. Specifically race cars. His dream was to work for F1 as a mechanic – but he was still in university.
Janice and Toby met at a party. One of Janice’s alumni friends was a model. Mercedes. She was a tall Brazilian with a great ass and big curly hair whom Janice loved hanging out with mostly for the connections. Mercedes always invited Janice to model-hosted parties so that people knew that she knew journalists. And Janice in return would get a scoop or two about the fashion industry. Most of the time a tip Janice would sell unless there was a political spin to apply – in that case, she happily wrote it alone. Toby was at this particular one; he was so quiet. His eyes were like puppy dog eyes that were ready to be domesticated. Janice loved that. He didn’t talk much, but he was smart and athletic. He was just what she needed – someone who could let her grow without impeding too much on her work. That was quiet, loving, and loyal.
They had been together for 9 months before deciding to move in. Toby would leave in the morning to the gym while Janice worked on her computer. He would then go to school and Janice would jump by the office if needed. They would eat dinner together and then Janice would head to the gym before returning to a Toby fast asleep in their bed. It was perfect.
But today Janice didn’t go to the office. She sat in the chair in front of her desk since the morning. She had to get this article finished, no matter what. Toby opens the door to the dark office.
“Are you coming for dinner?” he asked her.
“Huh?” she says without looking up, “oh yeah. Uh- Just leave me some food on a plate I’ll grab it later”.
Toby doesn’t move from the door frame. Janice looks up at him, “Thanks” she says with a fake smile across her face.
Toby still doesn’t move. “Can you come for dinner? I haven’t seen you for the past two days”
“uh huh. Ok I’m coming”. Janice continues typing frantically. Toby waits to see if Janice will come join him. He flicks the light on. Janice, suddenly feeling the sting of the room light as it radiates into her retina, covers her eyes with her arm. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” she says laughing.
The pair sit at the table. Toby has set it already. He usually cooks for them both, which Janice appreciates. Today he’s made Pasta Arrabiata. An Italian spicy tomato sauce dish. They both eat in silence. Janice thinks in her head why he couldn’t just let her finish her article and eat later. Especially considering that they weren’t saying anything to each other anyway. It had now been two years of living together. Nobody tells you how quickly you run out of the “spark” after living with someone. Most people couldn’t say because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the honeymoon phase is over. Just as Janice began to wonder when the spark had left them, Toby opened his mouth to speak.
“How’s work” he asks.
“Busy,” she replies “as always”.
“Right. Well I was thinking, maybe we can go somewhere next weekend”.
“I can’t, I work” Janice replies quickly with a cold smile.
“It’s a long weekend” Toby pleads, “I have a few days off too that week… Don’t say no Janice”.
Janice looks at him. Small sparks of light flickered in the corners of his eyes. He looked like a cartoon animal begging for a favour. But Janice doesn’t often do favours, not even for Toby.
“Listen,” suddenly Toby’s demeanour changed. “I think we should go to Muskoka and rent out a cottage, we can chill out, hike… just relax a bit. Together”.
“Muskoka, like in Canada?” Janice asks amazed.
Toby starts pulling up his phone. “I actually booked this one”. He turns the phone over to Janice. The cottage is nice, typical red panels and a dark blue terrace overlooking a lake. Trees all around. Probably little wifi connection, she thinks.
“Wait, you already got it?”
“Yes. From Thursday night to –” Toby gets cut off by Janice, “Without even asking me!?”
“Well we can move it if it doesn’t work, but Janice we need to go on this trip”. The pair get quiet. Janice looks deep into Toby’s eyes. She could tell that he was biting down his teeth since the muscles in his jaw were erect. There was something he wasn’t saying. “Are you ok?” she asks him.
“Honestly Janet, do you even want to be with me?” He questions her. Janice is taken by surprise. Why is he even asking her this all of a sudden? “Because the further into the relationship we go the less we are together. You know, I want a family.”
“Me too!” pleads Janice.
“Yeah but a family needs time, and I don’t know that you have any. You’re always working.”
“Because I need to”. She tries to stand up for herself, but this is her dream, and she has to make it work.
“I love you Janice, but if you won’t make an effort for this relationship, I don’t know that I can stay. I don’t get to spend time with you literally ever. I clean, cook, and obey by your schedule, and I don’t even require that much sexual attention, but the least I can ask for is a weekend getaway with my sexy girlfriend once in a while.” Toby approaches Janice placing his hand around her neck and pulling her closer to him. They rest their foreheads on each other.
“Okay” Janice caves in, “ok you’re right, I get it”.
“I don’t think you do” Toby whispers in her face. “I do” she says.
“Ok. Because this is my last straw”. Toby gives her a kiss and stands up from the table. He grabs their two dishes and begins to wash up. Janice walks straight back into the office to finish her article.
Why did she fucking agree to this? Back at the cottage, Toby asked her if she wanted to go hiking. He said he knew It wasn’t really her thing but it would make him super happy if they could share this together. Coming from Georgia where there were large areas of tree land, Toby was used to climbing for hours in the middle of the woods. His father was Canadian, and every winter his whole family would rent a cottage in Muskoka. Coming here always reminded him of the little sports activities and scavenger hunts his parents organized with him and his three siblings. Probably kept the boys busy. But Janice came from Seattle which was a big city. The closest thing she did to outdoor activities was walking the family dog in the cold winter evenings. She was more a person of the sun… or indoors. She didn’t stay active for fun, she stayed active for power and for vanity.
“It’s not my thing, but I’ll do it because I love you” she said giving him a peck on the lips. She knew it would make him happy to hear it, so she braved a smile and walked out with him.
It was now at least 30 minutes in and she was starting to regret her decision. “What the fuck am I doing”, she thought to herself. She was watching her handsome boyfriend walk up the stones that lay embedded in the ground on the hill they were hiking. Trees. All but trees surrounded them. Janice couldn’t see the point. If she were to get lost, she wouldn’t find her way back home. There was nothing specifically memorable about this place. The bird sounds that were so nice at first became distant background noises to her growing breaths in the forefront. If she wanted to hear the sound of birds, she would have sat at home and meditated with the comfort of her headphones. For Janice, anything without a purpose was not meant to be done. Sure, if she had to climb a hill to get to the grocery store, she would do it. But to walk a trail that was signalled via two blue lines on a rock or a sign every few hundred meters was not what she called “practical”. Janice was not like Toby. Toby was full of life – that’s what made him so easy to tame. He wanted everyone to like him, including Janice. He would go above and beyond for those he loves. Janice just liked to work. Toby would often ask her what she would do when they had kids. She wanted to be a mother. She imagined reading them a bed-time story and kissing them goodnight. She could see herself getting into arguments with their teachers as she protected her kids at all costs. But she also loved to work. It was her life. When she was young, her father worked as a journalist and photographer for National Geographic, often away on business adventures. Whenever he would be home, the two of them would read the articles he and his colleagues wrote. Janice was particularly interested in the articles that spoke about war-stricken countries and their refugees. It interested her to know how the government was dealing with the issue. She saw herself as a politician or a lawyer, in the end settling with journalism which was a close second. Although her relationship with her father was close, he was strict, implementing intense rules in the house that made Janice very obedient. Her mother was a university professor. Once Janice got to high school, she was pushed academically and groomed to get a scholarship so she could have a bright future just like them. She made them proud today. Every Christmas she would make sure to spend just a little extra for her parents, as a thank-you for everything they’ve done for her.
Now she was chasing the next high. The next achievements. Children were like that in her mind. First came work, then came kids, and then came the husband – which was a commodity for Janice. Toby knew that, but he didn’t dare say anything. How could she spend almost 12 hours a day working? He felt like he wished he could grab Janice by the head and shake it, yelling at her that she was wasting her life! He knows she wouldn’t have it…
Finally, the two arrived to a clearing at the top of the hill. A strong rush of water could be heard from below them. A huge waterfall maybe 20m wide was rushing with water. Neither of them would have been able to hear each other over the noise of the water, so instead the pair decided to sit on the rock and listen to the sound of nature. They decided to sit in a patch of sun. Janice removed her shirt straps off her shoulder to ensure she wouldn’t get tan lines. Toby looked at her. Her eyes were closed as she soaked up the beams of light that were radiating against her pale skin. Her light blue veins were even more hard to miss under the spotlight, but she was still gorgeous. It was peaceful, she thought. “A great place to write my piece on the gas line in Istanbul” she could hear herself thinking. Maybe Toby isn’t so wrong about this nature thing.
Janice looks at Toby, trying to imagine what their kids would look like. If they would have blue eyes like him or brown like hers. She wondered if he would be a good dad; if he would take the kids on hiking trips as she stayed at home cooking. Maybe she would enjoy it more than she thinks… Awoken from that thought due to a great desire to sit next to Toby, Janice jolts up. Immediately as she jolts up, she hears a gut-wrenching scream coming from god knows where. The pair look at each other worried.
“What the hell was that?” she asks Toby. “Was that a woman screaming?”
“I think it came from there.” Toby says pointing behind the bushes to the left of where they were sitting. The two bravely approach the bush, Janice staying close behind Toby. With one hand Toby pushes the bush to the side to find… you guessed it! Cue, me.
Yup. There I was, my brown hair matted together to form differently shaped hedges on the top of my head. It looked like I had neglected my garden with all the strands flying all over the place. My face was dirty. I had small brown stains on my cheeks from dirt that were abandoned over the course of several days. I was naked from head to toe, the hair on my arms, legs and armpits overgrown, my skin stained with dirt made me look tanner than I was. I was in the middle of cooking myself a coffee overtop of a small hand-made fire pit, sitting on the ground, on my bare ass, legs crossed, tending the fire using a stick I was holding in my right hand. My smile was wide, being the only white and clean part of my face; my eyes gleaming.
“Coffee?” I asked them.
My childhood memories are no different than the average person. My parents raised me well – there is no complaint there. I was very independent growing up, my parents were not particularly sheltering when it came to exposing real-life situations. We knew when they were fighting and when they were having makeup sex. We were often left alone with nannies as my parents travelled. We grew up in a small town with very little culture but in a house that was full of it. My parents never owned a car, never owned a house, and never really spent their money on anything that was overly permanent. We spent most of our time travelling to different countries as my friend’s parents bought pools in their backyards. We learnt languages, ate different foods and mingled with different demographics around the world while our friends went to summer camps. But still, even with all the change and opportunities that were constantly available to us, I still experienced loneliness as a child; a feeling I think most of us feel.
I was always an average student. I never over excelled but I was always studying. I had passions on the side that I pursued with vigour. I was someone who wanted to achieve and who took the steps to do so. I too, like Janice, had an A-list personality … maybe even with a side of bossy. For my birthday I remember being 10 years old and organizing a whole scavenger hunt for my fellow invitees. The day before I went out with pink and red chalk, covering the sidewalk around my neighborhood with clever questions and easy tricks. Upon the arrival of my guests, there was not one that wanted to play. They wanted to hang out, stay calm, and enjoy the party. They were either not as adventurous as I hoped, or their attention spans didn’t even allow for these sorts of activities. Either way, I was pissed.
As I grew up, I found pride in everything I did. I volunteered whenever I could, continued to study, fulfilled my hobbies and even read books way above my grade. I began hearing myself speaking to adults about the list of activities I was putting myself through, gushing with delight at their responses: “Oh wow, you do so much!” or “You’re going to be so successful”, and even “I wish I could get my son to be like you…”. These words would ring in my head for days, words I used as motivators on bad days reminding myself how amazing I was when I felt lesser than.
I went on to create plans in my head for my young adulthood. I imagined myself achieving my PhD by 30 years of age. Children, fame, recognition, fairy-tale husband. I was greedy and willing to test how far it would get me – how much I could possess. It’s an obsession. I began to work when I was sick, tired, and hungry. Every hour became a dollar sign. When I was 19 years old I remember finishing high school, studying on the weekends and working two jobs. I would wake up early in the morning, study, and go to my second job, over and over again like a broken time machine. I barely knew what day it was since they had become so repetitive. I would dream of interacting with the regulars at work, only to wake up and have to live it. After my master’s at my dream university, I got a job before graduating. A good job. One that had finally made me financially independent. A job some people dream of having straight out of uni.
Well… there I was. In an office. I was proud, even excited to have the opportunity to experience something new. All of a sudden, the excitement had left. I wasn’t stressed because the job was difficult, but because everyone was stressed about deadlines but no one ever fulfilled them, causing perpetual stress through faux politeness between clenched jaws and frozen grins. Anytime we talked it was about work. I couldn’t stand having meetings with each other in the same room but all speaking to each other through computer screens. I couldn’t stand writing everything into emails and never on hand-written notes. I felt disconnected. We were disconnected. There lacked a certain aspect of artistic vulnerability between us. I felt I was screaming inside of my head behind jolly eyes as I walked every morning into the office, thinking, “How!? How are you doing THIS!?”. This job, this life, where the weekends morph into a few hours split into chores, and the ends of days get spent sitting on the couch. I would watch those above me working from before I came into the office to well after I left. Colleagues with kids that I just couldn’t understand when? When would they spend time with the other choices they had made?
A flash of a wedding band gets my gears turning. I think of the life outside of the office. My colleague sitting in front of me at a meeting. I don’t even know his name. His hairline receding but he’s not that old. Married? I wouldn’t have guessed but evidently, he is. He goes home to his wife once the sun goes down. “Hello. How was your day?” He asks her as he enters the apartment while hanging up his coat. His wife all nice says “It was well thanks”. She stands in the kitchen already cooking a meal. She maybe got home only a few minutes earlier and immediately started to boil some water. He comes over behind her and kisses her head, then turns around to wash his hands in the sink. It’s already almost eight o’clock, by the time dinner is ready it’s already nine. They have a light conversation, maybe someone they know is getting married or pregnant, maybe that weekend some groceries need to be bought. Maybe they have kids who need help with their homework – who knows? But before they know it it’s 10:30 pm and they must move on. A shower, a blow dryer running, maybe some laundry if they’re lucky enough to have the time. Then 11:30 or maybe midnight comes along, they kiss each other goodnight and wait for their alarm to ring, bright and early, at exactly six am…
I couldn’t do it. I don’t know how out of 85% of the population, I couldn’t do this, but I just couldn’t. I started fantasizing myself grabbing a car and a few pairs of clothes, driving out to the middle of nowhere, and waking up every morning screaming out all the frustration I had held inside, for maybe, ever, into the complete emptiness of nature. A true animal. I wanted to live dirty. I was sick of caring. I wanted to learn what I smelled like. In the evenings I wanted to lie with my bare skin pressed against the soil. I wanted to look up a small stock of grass with a beetle crawling up it, watching the eyes of the insect and the way the legs were. They have an incredible sense of balance given their size and shape. I wanted to hear the animals that crawled below the surface, making thumping noises that could only be heard if one held their ear down to the earth and listened with immense closeness. I wanted to breathe air, piss down my leg standing up, rinsing myself with collected rainwater, and meditate on life. I wanted it so badly I could almost taste the freedom in my already drooling mouth. I imagined it with such great intensity before every sleep, that one day I couldn’t take It anymore and never showed up to work. I bought a car and –
“I got here eventually to Muskoka after going out east for a while”.
“Are you happier?” asked Janice. Her brown eyes had become so big they were almost popping out of her skull. She and Toby were sitting on the rock on the other side of me, small coffee mugs in their hands.
“I don’t know,” I said to her, “I’m only at the beginning”.
*This story is not based on real events but rather on real feelings…