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Miserable Company Art

Photograph by guest arts editor, Jamie Shombert.
Read about the art selection process for this piece here.

 

Emma dropped into her recliner, a glass, a bottle of Balvenie ten years old, and a bucket of ice at her elbow. Her office assistant had invited her out, but she’d declined. Jan had said, “Misery loves company, you know.” Jan was wrong. Emma had had a social psychology teacher who regularly applied science to folk wisdom—such as sorting out when absence makes the heart grow fonder and when it’s out of sight, out of mind. Regarding misery, science concluded that misery loves miserable company.

Emma turned fifty today. No presents, no cards from her husband and children. But they might call still. Emma tapped the Facebook icon on her smartphone. Boston Baked had posted, Sometimes I just need someone to tell me they love me. This will never happen because my dad’s the only one who did or would.

Emma wasn’t sure how this post ended up in her Facebook feed—friend of a friend?—but it caught her eye. Boston Baked must have, or have had, a close relationship with her father. Emma could remember her father saying, “I love you, daughter,” on only two occasions: as he was about to walk her down the aisle for her first wedding, and as he lay dying of lung cancer when she was thirty-two. He’d said, “I would die in peace if I could be sure you’d return to Jesus.” Emma continued reading posts.

 

Boston Baked: Three years ago today we got this horrible upsetting phone call. Dad, we miss you and love you so much. You’re always on my mind and in my heart and thoughts. I really wish you were here with us.

 

Emma typed, “So sorry for your grief.” Emma made a point of not remembering death dates. Instead, on the birthday of a dead loved one, Emma remembered the good times and made a point of eating foods she had cooked or he had loved. For her father, it was pancakes with peanut butter and maple syrup.

She checked the time: 8:00 p.m. She poured another drink and scrolled down recent public posts.

 

Papa Bear wrote, Feeling anxious with Mama at Doctors Hospital West. Broken fingers. And another post, Mama getting checked out at Doctors Hospital West. Hopefully it’s not pneumonia. Update: She is going home after doing a breathing treatment. Then a few meds. No pneumonia.

 

Emma did a search and read several of his posts. Apparently “Mama” was what he called his wife—which Emma found more than a little off-putting. One or the other seemed to be in the ER two or three times a month. In his pictures, they both looked obese. Did they have no family doctor? Insurance? Ultimately, she didn’t really care and went back to scanning, skipping over any posts that appeared political or religious.

 

Tea Rose wrote, My family and I personally have been beaten very hard and it has really changed the way we see life. I’m seeing who will have time to read this “post” until the end. This is a little test, just to see who likes and shares without reading! If you’ve read everything, select “like.” I know most of you will not, but my true friends will. Please, in honor of someone who died or is fighting cancer, copy and paste. Write “done” in the comments when you have finished. I’ll thank you when I see your name. I know that some will ignore it but my friends will not. #cancer stinks!!

 

Emma’s father had died of lung cancer, and she had had cancer. But she was leery of copying and pasting from others’ posts. In the end, she posted, “Four years cancer free! I read it all but I don’t copy and paste.”

Emma checked the time: 8:30. She freshened her drink and found another Boston Baked post:

 

Some people say they can’t sleep without you around or say they have a hard time sleeping with you gone, but they really don’t. They are messing with your feelings and they know it. By my side my ass!

 

Boston Baked was clearly miserable. Did the man in her life really not care? Was he psychologically abusive? Maybe neither of those. But in any case, in Emma’s opinion, she’d be better off out of that relationship.

But who was she to talk? Emma pondered her own commuter marriage. Her husband of twenty years said he was okay with her taking a job hundreds of miles away. But he never wrote, he never called. She called home often, but the calls mostly ended up being “business” exchanges: telling him that she’d made dental appointments for their daughters, how their finances were, that she’d be home to take them school shopping. He sometimes talked about his work. They’d been professors at the same university, so she knew the players and the issues, even though they’d been in different departments. Comments, complaints, concerns about her work as an association executive were met primarily with silence.

 

Boston Baked: I find it funny when people sit there saying I can’t sleep without you being here and there they are passed out sleeping without a problem. I’m posting anything and everything now, because I’m gone at 8:00 a.m. I don’t know how long, I was told to see if someone would let me stay at their house for the night until I know where I’m going.

 

Emma thought that certainly sounded like she was planning to escape what appeared to be an unbearable relationship. Was Emma’s own relationship unbearable? If she decided to end her marriage, she wouldn’t have to move out. She already had her own place. Her husband and children were getting along fine without her. But the children would blame her for a divorce. They’d say it was because she’d taken a job hundreds of miles away.

 

Boston Baked: I am taking control of my life and my relationship. Nobody else except for me and my husband are to have control of our lives and our relationship. My family will never control my life or try to control my life or relationship ever. I will be damned if any of them try, I am done with anybody except my husband and I controlling our relationship and lives. If you don’t like it you can get out of our lives! We are fed up with family thinking they can control our lives and relationship and thinking they can tell us what we can do and what we can’t. We are adults so back off! As far as I’m concerned all we need for family is each other and our animals. We don’t need anybody else.

 

Emma sighed. Boston Baked seemed to have a target for her misery apart from her husband. True, Emma’s mother-in-law didn’t like her much—thought Emma took advantage of her son. And his sister was very judgmental, always criticizing and telling Emma what she ought to do—and what she should stop doing. But she was like that with everyone. As far as Emma knew, no one was actively trying to undermine her marriage. No, it was just her needing love, her undemonstrative husband, and children who didn’t seem to miss or need their mother. Was her marriage worth working for?

9:00. The girls should be in bed by now. No talking with them tonight. Emma added ice and more scotch to her glass. She still wasn’t religious, but she found herself offering a silent prayer. “Dear God, my heart can’t take any more damage. I’m tired of pretending I’m okay when I’m not. Please give me the strength to survive this abandonment. Amen.” What would her dad think of that? She downed half of her drink. She did a search for Boston Baked posts. Hers seemed the closest to Emma’s misery.

 

Boston Baked: So many things running through my head and nobody to talk to. This is sad. I don’t want to email and text because that becomes a pain in the butt. It’s easier just to talk on the phone. All I need is to get all the stuff off my head—all the things running in circles—and I don’t know which way is up or down anymore. My life is all screwed up. Ever since my dad left me, I haven’t had anybody to turn to that I can trust like I did him.

 

Boston Baked seemed to be on a downward spiral. Emma noticed that she always said her dad left her, not that he had died. Did she have abandonment issues? Emma considered her own undemonstrative father and alcoholic mother. One could be abandoned by parents still living in the same house.

 

Boston Baked: I’m asking for help from one of my friends and you know, obviously I have no friends because nobody’s answering me, nobody’s messaging me, nothing. I already know I have no family so I don’t give a flying fuck. When you treat your spouse/girlfriend like shit knowing she’s the only one that will be by your side and your family isn’t—what should she do? Continue getting that treatment? No! I’m done being nice to the ones who did this to me.

 

Emma downed the last of her drink and poured another. By now, it was unlikely her husband would call either. What exactly was Boston Baked’s husband/partner doing or not doing? Emma had always said that if a man—husband, lover, whoever—ever raised a hand to her, she’d be out of there. Only one ever had—and she was. Her husband was incredibly patient and gentle, never even raised his voice to her. For him and their children, today’s neglect was probably just out of sight, out of mind. Did that count as psychological abuse?

 

Boston Baked: The sad part is I’m always told I have all these friends and all these people who care, but where are they? I have only a vehicle but nobody’s helping. You know, I think it’s kind of sad I’m always told I have friends to turn to but that’s a lie. Does anybody have money they would not mind me borrowing that they can spare so I can get gas and keep warm until this is all situated?

 

Years before, Emma had been living with a verbally abusive alcoholic. One night he pushed her out of the house into the sleet and freezing rain and locked the door, leaving her on the deck in her nightgown and robe. She still believed she’d survived because the keys hidden under a flowerpot included one for the car, where she’d taken shelter. That was the night before she put on her walking boots and walked right out of there. Emma was contemplating a private message, asking for a way to send gas money, when the next post popped up.

 

Boston Baked: Okay, everyone, thanks to a certain young woman—she knows who she is —I am nice and warm in the car. The car is nice and warm so I’m going to pass out now. And please for those who are trying to say I got kicked out I never once said I got kicked out. I said I left because I could not handle the stress and bullshit anymore. So whoever is saying I said different is lying. I’ll be selling some of my stuff that’s in my car if anybody is interested, please message me.

 

Emma sipped her single malt. No matter what else, she couldn’t imagine selling things from the backseat of her car to survive. She was a professional, earning more than her husband, able to pay bills and mortgage. If she somehow lost everything, she could always earn a living—even if she had to go back to waiting tables, as she’d done throughout high school and college. She’d be a really classy waitress now.

 

Boston Baked: I really seriously need to talk to someone, like now! It’s important. This place is taking forever to place me. I cannot handle this! I’m being forced to go into this place that is scary and they’re taking forever. I need to talk to somebody on the phone now and I don’t know what to do. I think I’m going to have to contact the person that is forcing me to go into this place because—I don’t know. I’m confused! I was told that they can’t force me to do it but she told me I had to do it whether I liked it or not, they’re the ones signing me in!

 

Emma wondered who “she” and “they” were. She tried to unravel the threads of misery. Was Boston Baked being forcibly committed to a mental health facility? Who had the authority to do that? At first she’d thought the writer wanted such a placement. Emma’s thoughts drifted back to her mother, institutionalized for suicidal depression when Emma was sixteen. Her mother always said that her doctor and Emma’s father made her do it. She’d said she’d never forgive Emma’s father for letting Emma see her “in that place.” Over the years, Emma had been depressed—sometimes clinically. But no one had ever suggested she be institutionalized. She’d never considered suicide. If things were too awful, and she could see no other way, she’d just disappear—change her name and cut all ties if necessary.

 

Boston Baked: I got help with gas and a blanket to keep me warm. Thanks so much. She knows who she is and I’m very thankful for her help. I think I’m gonna beg them to just take me tonight instead of tomorrow because I don’t want to be in this car another night. It’s hard.

 

Emma felt puzzled. Did she want to go to this place—whatever the place might be—or not?

 

Boston Baked: When I open my Facebook, and it gives me the list of people I have memories with I just ignore it and say I have memories with none of them. Very confused, lost, cold and I just don’t know what to do anymore. I honestly don’t.

 

Emma hesitated, then poured another drink. She didn’t know what to do either. She and her husband had agreed that if either of them felt that their marriage was in danger, they would get counseling. This had been Emma’s stipulation. Her first marriage ended when she said, “I think we should get a divorce,” and her then-husband said, “Okay.” They just hadn’t been that committed. This felt similar. Was her husband committed? Did he really care? Emma could find other partners, more or less long term. But what about her three daughters?

A new post popped up.

 

Boston Baked: When you take vows where does your wife come into the picture—last, first, or never? Husband, I’m the one and only that would ever have your back at all times, and you know that. I know you don’t feel you should have mine also. All you did was prove that I am right. You’ve proved I will always be nothing but a piece of shit, a little life deadbeat douchebag. I hope you’re proud of yourself now.

 

A tear slid down Emma’s cheek. How could a husband or partner so undermine a loved one’s self-esteem? Emma’s husband had never actively done such a thing. But he was from an educated family and she wasn’t, and his PhD in American Civilization meant he knew all sorts of things about art, history, sociology, and government as well as his specialty in American Literature. He’d lived abroad and spoke foreign languages. Emma had gone from high school graduation to PhD in seven years, dashing headlong for the finish line, taking course overloads to get that diploma/union card/ticket to a better socioeconomic class. But even with a PhD in hand, Emma felt uneducated by comparison.

Emma sipped her scotch, savoring the slow burn on the way down. She realized she was on the verge of a crying jag and cringed at the thought. There was no hope of a call from her husband now—not in the middle of the night—and she sure as hell wouldn’t call him on her birthday. She continued trolling Facebook.

 

Wild Woman posted: Apparently I’m banned from the Walmart in Plaistow, NH. I’m okay with that though! They’ve kept good records on me I guess. I just received this letter from Walmart’s corporate office. “Over the past several months you have repeatedly caused disruption and upset in our store. We cannot tolerate this type of behavior and are forced to ban you from the premises. Complaints against you are listed below and are documented by surveillance cameras.

  1. June 15: You took 24 boxes of condoms and randomly put them in other people’s carts when they weren’t looking.
  2. July 2: You set all the alarm clocks in Housewares to go off at 10-minute intervals.
  3. July 7: You made a trail of tomato juice on the floor leading to the women’s restroom.
  4. July 19: You walked up to an employee and told her, ‘Code 3 in Housewares. Get on it right away.’ This caused the employee to leave her assigned station, which led to a reprimand from her supervisor that in turn resulted in a union grievance, causing management to lose time and the company to lose money.
  5. August 4: You went to the Service Desk and tried to put a bag of M&Ms on layaway.

 

Emma was beginning to suspect a joke. But all of it was funny to imagine, so she read on, charges 6 through 13, each more outrageous than the last, down to the last two.

 

14. Sept 6: When an announcement came over the loudspeaker, you assumed the fetal position and screamed, ‘OH NO! IT’S THOSE VOICES AGAIN!’

15. Sept 7: You went into a fitting room, shut the door, and a few minutes later yelled, ‘Hey! There’s no toilet paper in here.’ One of the clerks passed out.”

COPY AND PASTE AND THEN CHANGE THE NAME, LIKE I JUST DID.

 

Emma, pleased that she’d been right about it being a joke, hit the “like” icon. No one would possibly do so many outrageous things. Still . . . What a howl! This is what she needed, not Boston Baked or any other miserable company. She had enough shit in her life already. What she needed was to get out of her pity party and really party. Doing just one outrageous thing would be a first step.

Emma downed the remains of her drink and reached for her car keys. She looked at the level of scotch remaining, muttered, “Emma Louise, you’re about two ounces from being knee-walking drunk.” She dropped the keys and called Uber, her head filled with possibilities of what she would do when she got to the twenty-four/seven Walmart across town. Maybe hide in a clothing rack and when someone browsed through, hiss, “Pick me! Pick me!” Maybe go to the auto department and practice her “Madonna look” using different size funnels. By damn, she would celebrate turning fifty on her own.

 

 

About the Author
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Vivian’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than fifty literary journals and anthologies, from Adanna Literary Journal to Xavier Review. For a full list of her publications, visit her website, vivianlawry.com. In addition to her short pieces, she has three books: Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart—installments in the Chesapeake Bay Mystery Series—and Different Drummer: a collection of off-beat fiction.