Practical Skills

By Johanna Peacock

“I really like horror films,” he says.

 

He’d come by my house to get me and we were walking to the theatre together. I laugh a little at this comment, not because it’s such a hilariously generic thing to say about oneself on a second date (though certainly it is), but because I could have told you, the moment I met him, with absolute certainty, that he’d be the kind of person to say film instead of movie. I saw him first at a locally owned coffee shop, where I had gone to buy myself an iced tea, and he was drinking top notch espresso and reading Hemingway, walking that perfect line between pretentious assholery and nonchalance that always seems to get me. Film? We’re not British, for Christ’s sake.

 

His eyes narrow a bit, and I realize, too late, that he thinks I’ve laughed because I don’t believe him.

 

“No, seriously—I love being scared, you know? But only if it’s, like, well done—none of that slasher shit.” He pauses. A sidelong glance at me to see if I’ve understood.

 

“Hmm.”

 

“What, you don’t like them? Maybe that’s just because you’ve never seen any good ones, though. You know there’s this one, it’s German—”

 

“Oh no, I like them,” I say, quickly, wanting to head off his defensiveness. “I just don’t think you’d like watching them with me.”

 

“Oh…and why is that?”

 

“Because I cry a lot.”

 

His mouth quirks up at the corner. “Just in general, or…?”

 

“Um, no. Well, yes, but—I mean I cry during the movies. Like, I get so scared I cry.”

 

“I’ve never heard of that.”

 

“What?”

 

“Crying from fear. It’s not a very logical response, is it?” He laughs, loudly. “Running away would be a more useful reaction, no?”

 

I shrug.

 

“I’m just saying. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

 

“Well...” I say. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

 

Tonight, this boy and I see a film about a love story. These two guys get cancer and realize they’re in love but they’re so emotionally illiterate that they can’t ever tell each other how they feel and they end up apart. No one dies, but it’s sad anyway. The boy cries, and I don’t. I mean, I cried at the book, at home, alone, on the couch—actually, I wrecked a couple of the pages with tears—but somehow the movie just doesn’t get me. One of the two main actors reminds me of Kit, though: a boy I went to high school with, the first boy I ever really thought I loved. It’s kind of hilarious to think about how far from my current type Kit is—all open smiles and loud laughter and energy and texting back immediately. Regardless, I am too involved in noticing all the uncanny similarities between him and the man on screen to care much about the tears of the boy beside me, and whether they are fake or not. It doesn’t matter, though, in the end: he emphasizes his melancholia for me all the way home, in some kind of misguided attempt to force my belief in their authenticity.

 

“I’m sorry if I’m being quiet, I’m just…still so wrapped up in it,” he says, softly, after a while.

 

“Uh huh,” I say. He’s quiet for a bit, so I add a vigorous nod to avoid any suspicion of sarcasm.

 

“It was so beautiful, you know?” He tilts his head up to the sky, smiling slightly, taking my hand and bringing it to his heart as we walk, so I’m forced to sort of shuffle sideways with every step.

 

“So interesting, and so beautiful.”

 

When we get to my porch, which has somehow completely covered itself in ice during the two hours we’ve been out, all I’m thinking of is how warm it must be inside. Dim yellow light spills from the windows and makes strange shadows on his face. My roommates must have left a lamp on for me.

 

“Hey.” He says, looking at me, a simpering, ostensibly sexy smile on his lips. “Come here.” We’re already standing only a hand’s width apart as it is, but I shuffle toward him a little.

 

“Hi,” he says, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, and brushing my shoulder with the back of his hand. He tilts my chin up and moves his face painfully slowly toward my face.

 

He pulls me in for a hug, moving his face into my hair, sighing contentedly. “I like you a lot,” he whispers, holding me tightly to him, his breath moving the small hairs on the back of my neck.

 

I just sort of stand there for a while, straining under his weight, until, in an effort to force an ending, I smile without teeth and say gently, “Well…do you want to come in?”

 

We go upstairs. I can’t for the life of me remember telling him that I write poetry, but I must have said something because somehow he knows.

 

We’re sitting on my bed with our backs leaning up against the wall and a good couple inches of space between my left leg and his right. He’s got my book in his hands, absently flipping pages, grinning broadly.

 

“They’re, um, so great,” he says, smiling even bigger.

 

“Uh, thanks. I wrote most of them the day after I found out that my ex—”

 

“Yeah, yeah, terrific,” he says, closing the book and tucking it under his leg. “Terrific…you know, I write a little bit too.”

 

“No way.”

 

“Yeah, here,” he pulls out his cellphone and opens a bookmarked webpage. “Take a look,” he says, passing it to me.

 

It’s a blog called “Blank Page,” featuring six or seven poems of various lengths, with myriad abstract, general titles like “Sadness” and “Presence” and “Pain”. They’re all super modern and spaced out: the kind that just make a line of words down the left-hand side of the page. This type of poetics has always seemed quite random to me, as if the author was playing with cut up bits of newspaper. It feels a little careless, even reckless, and definitely outside my realm of understanding, to throw words together like that without thinking. It’s nothing like the elaborate, graphic, metaphorical text that fills the pages of the book now trapped underneath his leg.

 

“Cool,” I say, nodding sagely.

 

“Yeah,” he says, his eyes half closed. He moves his hand onto my thigh, squeezes it a little, and shifts his leg closer to mine.

 

“Read it to me?”

 

“What?”

 

He smiles again, moves so that his body is perpendicular to mine, and rests his head in my lap. My hands, holding the phone, freeze in the air above his face. His eyes are closed.

 

“Read it to me.”

 

So I recite his own words to him until he says he has to leave.

 

The next day is Valentine’s Day. So that’s nice. My train home was really early this morning, so I got to walk through the city when it was still all sleepy and quiet and the snow was pure and untouched. The insides of the train cars feel the same, all lovely and muted. My footfalls seem to make almost no sound on the carpet, and the lady beside me is using her headphones to speak gently on the phone with her son. The softness of her one-sided conversation seems to compliment the beige interior of the train car, the slow rocking of its wheels on the tracks, and the ticking of an older gentleman’s watch, two or three rows behind us.

 

“Sure. I’m listening. Yes. Quite soon. I love you.”

 

These days I don’t go home so much, and when I do it’s like I fall in and out of love with my family in the span of forty-eight hours. “A fucking emotional roller coaster”, as one of my roommates likes to say. The way I see it is that nothing is as sweet as unconditional love, and visiting your parents is the perfect sugar high: oh look how you’ve grown, you’re so beautiful, we’re so proud of you and everything you’ve worked so hard to accomplish, etcetera. Like any high, though, it’s kind of a bitch to come down from. Suddenly its sibling rivalry and comparing yourself to old classmates and your dad telling you he really wishes you’d chosen a degree with more practicality than communications: something with transferable, recyclable, truly usable skills, something serviceable like Law or Medicine or Accounting or Carpentry, that’ll help you lead a stable life.

 

I’ve forgotten to turn my phone to vibrate, and the man across the aisle gives me a dirty look as three loud text notifications come blaring out of my closed purse. They’re from Laurel — a high school acquaintance whose reading week, I’m realizing now, must start on Valentine’s Day just like mine.

 

“Me and you and Kit,” says the first text, and my blood seems to turn watery in my veins.

 

“At the bar tonight,” reads the second message, quickly followed by, “Come drink with us, bitch!!!”

 

I’m about to type back “sure!” or something, but it’s my stop and I have to rush to gather my things from the overhead bin. Several passengers cover their ears, grimacing, as the train makes a horrible screeching sound and jolts, angrily, into the station.


 

I go to bed that night (or technically, I suppose, early the next morning) feeling horribly exhausted, but get up again just four hours later. The ringing in my ears sounds like the brakes of the train. I don’t really like sleeping when there are no dreams. You’d think the drunkenness and the tiredness from dancing would help keep me under anyway, but no dice, apparently.

 

It’s that early part of winter, the frost in the air but no snow on the ground part when everything seems crisp and fresh, but not all the way dead yet. I’m that kind of early morning drunk that makes the edges of things all soft. The house is utterly still and I can hear the furnace running gently. The warm air spreads over my toes as I slip out of bed and walk to the window. I can feel the draft seeping through the wood when I put my hands on the frame to push it up. I climb out, onto the roof, sitting down with my back against the bricks and my gaze in the trees, folding myself into the velvety stillness of the morning.

 

With my blanket over my shoulders and my pillow under me and my headphones over my ears playing the same song over and over again, I watch the sun rise over the tops of the other houses and make the frost sparkle on the roof shingles in front of me. I have ruined several songs for myself like this.


 

He calls me sometime after six. I don’t know exactly when but I know the sun is through with rising and I have almost fallen asleep several times and spilled tea down the front of my shirt.

 

I almost don’t say anything. I am so close to putting the phone down.

 

“Kit,” I say, quietly.

 

“Fuuuuuck you’re alive! Me and Laurel were taking bets.”

 

“I suppose you were against.” I cross my legs and shiver, pulling the blanket tighter across my back. The phone with his voice is warm between my cheek and my bare shoulder.

 

“Hell yeah. That was an obscene amount of tequila.”

 

“That seems dramatic.” I reach back through the window and take a cigarette and my lighter from the inside sill.

 

“Nope. Ob-scene.” He drags the word out like molasses and pauses for a moment.

 

I click the lighter three times until a flame finally flares up to catch the edge of the paper. I breathe in deeply, then watch my breath spiral away from me in a cloud of steam.

 

“Are you smoking?”

 

“No,” I say, coughing loudly.

 

“You’re an idiot.”

 

“Maybe.” I can almost see him shaking his head, and smile in spite of myself.

 

“Come meet me for breakfast.”

 

I exhale again, close my eyes. “Maybe.”

 

“Not maybe—yes. The MacDonald’s downtown.”

 

“Gross.”

 

“Most definitely. See you in 20.”

 

The line clicks dead but I leave the phone where it is, much too hot on the delicate skin of my neck. I’m shivering hard now in my undershirt and shorts, but I want to finish my cigarette. I want to be the kind of girl who smokes cigarettes on the roof at dawn but doesn’t cough. The kind of girl who doesn’t drink mint tea but high-grade espresso, or black coffee without any cream or sugar. As I stub it out, half finished, with the toe of my slipper, and the tobacco turns to ash the roof, I think about how much better it would be if, instead of filling up my head with all of this nonsense, I could bring myself to make room for practical skills.

About the Author

Johanna Peacock is a fourth-year English student at the University of Ottawa. The daughter of two writers, Johanna grew up with a love of literature and has won numerous community and school awards for her work. In her spare time she can be found running, trying out new vegetarian recipes, re-watching Wes Anderson movies, or drinking prodigious amounts of tea. Follow her on Twitter.

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Toronto, Ontario

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