GOOD LIGHT by Chris Ames

I started sitting in the shower when I realized that everyone needs a clean space in which they can give up. Cats and children know this inherently. If you try to take them somewhere they do not want to go, they’ll cement themselves to the floor. There’s no use in pulling them along. The more you tug at that string, the more you end up looking like the real monster. What a trick.

For the last few years, it’s felt as if life is walking me in a direction I do not want to go. Sometimes, I’ll look at my boyfriend, my job, and think, “You are not evil, no, but I would have never deliberately picked you, given the choice.” Perhaps I have taken a store-brand life, a white-labeled version of happiness that gets the job without too much fuss or fear of trademark violation. Or perhaps I am what the French call, mega fucking depressed. It’s okay. I only let myself have these thoughts in the shower. I can’t lie to myself when I’m naked.

~ ~ ~

In a video conference with my therapist, Zora, I think she’s saying something about “contentment beyond capital,” but I am distracted by the avatar of myself in the bottom corner. To kill time before our appointment, I trimmed my own bangs—a gesture toward productivity that turned into an act of self-hate within a few off-kilter snips—and I’m just now noticing little fibers of hair clinging to my foundation.

“What if I got a new apartment?” I suggest. “A change of scenery. Mix things up.”
“That’s interesting, Gemma,” she says, because I pay her $80 to not call my ideas flat-out stupid.

“But remember, you take yourself with you everywhere you go.”

“Yes, but what if I took myself somewhere with better light?”

The screen freezes here for a moment so I have an opportunity to fully take in Zora’s disappointment. There is no hair on her face, I notice. By the time her mouth catches up to her voice, our session is over and I exit out of my mental health with the same ease as clicking on celebrity gossip videos. You know what they say: when one window closes, another opens.

~ ~ ~

So, I’m going to stop circling the drain and start looking for good light. When I tell my boyfriend, Nick, I am moving, he assumes I mean in with him.

“No, I still want to live alone,” I say. “Just by myself, somewhere else.”

“Well, Gem, if you think that will help, I support your journey,” he says, really sticking the landing on journey.

That’s the problem with these new men. They know all the new words and how to use them. He will linguistically chew through his own leg before giving what I have an easy, ugly name. I am not hiking the Appalachian trail; I just can’t remember the point of waking up.

“Thank you for supporting my journey,” I say, and kiss the twin freckles on his neck, one on each side of the lump in his throat. He runs his fingers through my hair, careful not to tear through the knots near the ends. No, he is not evil.

~ ~ ~

I spend an hour crafting an email to my landlord explaining how I’m so sorry, this place was good—its location, the kindness of neighbors who, on multiple occasions, brought my keys inside when I mindlessly left them in the lock—but I have to move on, if I want things to change, I must make a change, and though of course, I understand you can never outrun yourself, sometimes depression is a physical thing that not only takes up space but takes root, so, with deep regret, I must lodge my intent to vacate the premises, thank you for understanding, warmly, Gemma.

He replies with an email without a body—just a .PDF titled “Final Inspection Guide.” All skirting boards, Venetians, sills, and tracks are to be clean and free of dust. Cobwebs and insects are to be removed, including those trapped in light fixtures. Shower area, screen, grout, and drain are to be disinfected and dredged of hair.

That night, while sitting in the shower, I fantasize about my new apartment. Maybe it will have a shared garden in the back where I can grow plump, colorful tomatoes. Well, probably not tomatoes but maybe something lovely and death-proof, like mint. Maybe it will have one of those mailboxes where you can slip your name through the title plate, I love those. If you have something for Gemma, it goes right here, thanks. For the first time in ages, I feel a strand of hope pulling me somewhere new. I look straight up into the faucet and let the spray blind me. The water feels nice until it starts to pool in murky waves along my ankles. There must be a clog.

~ ~ ~

All day at the office, I browse rental listings between tabs of actual work. I have one of those internet jobs that everyone pretends to understand the value of. Here’s how I explain multi-factor authentication to my parents: it’s like Cinderella’s slipper. The Prince may know Cinderella’s name or be able to confirm where she was before midnight, but it’s only when the slipper fits that he knows it’s actually her. That’s what we give companies: ways to verify people are really themselves.

“There she is,” bellows my coworker, Dallas. He works in sales, and as such, has mastered the art of speaking in short, affirmative phrases that mean nothing but are technically true. He’s not wrong. I am here. Also, he sells me phenomenal weed at a discount.

“They’ll let anyone in here,” I say, and he laughs way too hard. When we all move to working from home next week, I will genuinely miss these moments of punting garbage language back and forth. I wish talking with Nick was this easy. But he’s got all those new words and it’s not as clear how you’re supposed to hit them back. I can’t just say “here comes trouble” when he walks into the room. That doesn’t make him feel seen, I’ve been told.

~ ~ ~

After putting it off for a few days, I resolve to deep-clean the apartment. I hate cleaning, but if I get high first, I can elevate above my body, and the errand transforms from “scrubbing the floor” to “operating a puppet that’s scrubbing the floor.” I roll a spliff, let the algorithm choose some music, and pull up the Final Inspection Guide on my phone. I watch myself float through the apartment, sweeping, vacuuming, removing the hollowed-out husks of flies from behind the pane of plexiglass in the kitchen skylight. How do they get in there? I think. And also, how do they even get in there? Wait, I think I thought that. I can’t be bothered doing the dishes, so I take a few more hits and then move on to the bathroom. I watch myself clean the mirror in satisfying, concentric circles while the algorithm tunes in tighter and tighter into the genre it knows I like. Maybe it has already played this song; there’s no real way of knowing. Even without the water running, it feels nice to sit in the shower. Next, the drain. I watch myself slip on a rubber glove, remove the grate, slide three fingers into the pipe, and try to locate the source of the blockage. It is awful, too warm and slick a sensation to be coming from something mechanical. I immediately lose my high and am brought back down to my body with a sobering thud. Now, it’s just me cleaning, which I hate. I pinch my fingers together and grip something hard floating in an oily netting, a kind of bulbous knot, like a knuckle. In the other room, the algorithm has shuffled onto something unrecognizable and drony. I pull up hard and dredge out a congealed braid of hair the length of an arm. Horrified, I keep pulling and it just keeps coming. There are two arms of hair now, attached to a wadded bunch, like a head. More and more still, until it feels like I am no longer pulling it, but rather the mass is holding my hand and pulling itself up. Finally, with a hideous pop! of suction, the drain is cleared and a hairy creature, with arms and legs and a head just like mine, is sitting in the shower beside me.

“This isn’t happening,” I say.

“There she is,” it says, with its little round mouth like a drain.

I jolt back in horror, grab my keys, and run straight out the front door.

As I’m sprinting, I huff under my breath, that didn’t happen, that didn’t happen. Get to Nick. I’m just high. He’ll know what to do. What the hell was that? I’m probably just high. Too freaked out to ride the underground, I take surface streets, cut through the park, the empty lot, the parking lot, the lobby, the stairs, and soon I’m there. It’s only as I’m knocking on his door that I realize I’m still wearing the rubber glove, stained with grease and grime. I peel it off and hide it under a pot plant in the hall before he lets me in.

“You’re flushed,” he says, brushing aside my bangs, matted with sweat.

“I’ve been cleaning.”

Straight away, he can tell I’m high and switches to the voice he uses when he thinks he’s better than me, the same voice he uses for cats and children.

“Are you thirsty? Let me get you some water, huh?”

Nick’s cat, a black Burmese named Plastic, trots in to nibble the ends of my shoelaces. When I try to pat her back, she slinks out under my hand, like she would rather rearrange her spine than feel my touch. I take off my shoes, place them in a row next to Nick’s, and see she has eaten the plastic tips off every pair. She is a little evil.

I flip on the TV so I don’t have to listen to myself think. It’s a reality show about billionaire women who do almost nothing but prowl through their enormous white houses, pausing briefly to graze over salads. Nick comes back with sparkling water and toast with banana and peanut butter, my favorite. I tell myself I will talk to him about what happened, or what I think happened, after the next commercial break. But the more I think about it, the less realistic it seems. He’ll think I’m crazy. He’ll think this is a weird metaphor about me. Or worse, us.

“Nick,” I start, completely unsure where I’ll end. “What scares you the most?”

“Spiders, definitely.”

“What would you do if you came home one day and there was a big, horrible spider sitting on your couch, just like, drinking a beer?”

“Get him to split the rent.”

I turn my attention back to the show. The storyline is so boring and the women’s bodies are so shiny and amoebic, it’s almost like watching a lava lamp. I bet their bathrooms are crystal clean. I bet you could eat off the floor. All my stress dissolves into exhaustion. As I’m falling asleep, I feel Nick tuck a strand of hair behind my ear and whisper, “You don’t have to live with me if you’re not ready, little spider.”

~ ~ ~

By the time I wake up, Nick is already at work. From bed, I drop a message into my company channel that I’m so sorry, I really wish it weren’t the case—what with my performance review this afternoon and the onboarding meeting with the new developer—but I have come down with a terrible cold, I’ve been up all night, runny nose, wet cough, shooting pains, and though it kills me to miss Dallas’ birthday, I must call out sick, thank you for understanding, warmly, Gemma.

My coworkers respond with the face_with_thermometer emoji and that’s it.

I get a coffee from the corner and slowly make my way back to my apartment, clutching my keys in my offhand. As I walk, I run through an exercise from Zora. If I’m feeling unmoored, I can situate myself by acknowledging five things I can see, four things I can touch, three things I can hear, two things I can smell, and one thing I can taste. So, there are the signs of late morning: birds, dogs, strollers, litter, wet grass. I feel the teeth of my front door key on my thumb, the strap of my handbag, the invisible weight of my sunglasses, and the cresting urge to pee. A crosswalk tells me to WAIT, a fruit seller tells me to BUY, and a blown-out speaker system from a passing car tells me to dance, dance, dance. The air in the park smells sweet and crisp. With coffee on my tongue, I’m grounded, I’m verified, I really am who I say I am.

~ ~ ~

When I walk into my apartment, the hairy creature is standing upright in the kitchen—doing the dishes. Its hands are limp with soapy water, scrubbing off stains with the bristles of its fingers. Upon hearing my footsteps, it shuts off the tap and turns to face me.

“Hi,” it says, drying its hands on the matted hair of its breasts.

“Hi.”

“Look, I didn’t mean to—”

“No, I shouldn’t have—”

“—cause the last thing I want would be to make you feel—”

“Of course, sure, completely.”

We stare at each other for what feels like ages. The creature is my exact height and weight. Were it not for the hair, and the globular strings of fat and oil that hold it all together, you might mistake us for sisters.

“I need to lie down for a bit,” I say. “But you know, make yourself at home.”

“Okay, I might finish up here,” it says.

In a daze, I walk to my room, lock the door behind me, and crawl directly into bed. From the kitchen, I can hear the soft sloshing of dishes in the sink. It’s calming, like boats in a dock. I feel insane, so I try another exercise from Zora: focusing on the last time I was truly happy. A few months ago, Nick and I had tickets to see the symphony. At the last minute, he had a family emergency and had to cancel. I decided to go anyway. I remember sitting in the theatre, wearing a really nice dress, thinking, I’ve always wanted to be the type of person who could go to things alone—and here I am. The orchestra started up, with the oboist coming in first, and then the gentle wave of everyone else joining in to match, and I felt completely at peace. If I were in charge, that’s all symphonies would be: two hours of the orchestra tuning into the same shared note. I close my eyes and pull the blankets over my head to drown out any noise from the kitchen. I don’t feel particularly tired, but my body, perhaps out of mercy, shuts down anyway.

~ ~ ~

When I wake up, the creature is gone. Everyone is always leaving when I’m asleep. As I walk around the apartment, the first thing I notice is that it’s immaculately clean. The Final Inspection Guide is printed out on the counter with red checkmarks next to every bullet point, including sections I already did. How long have I been asleep?

I’m afraid to engage with any surface for fear of messing it up, so I sit at my desk and check my email. There’s a message from my boss congratulating me on my performance review and thanking me for coming in to onboard the new developer, even though I was sick. “You take the work out of work,” it reads. “Thank you for being you.” I message Zora to see if she might be available for a session tomorrow, but she responds with confusion, claiming that I said I felt as though I had made enough progress to cancel all future appointments for the time being. Attached to Zora’s message is an invoice billing me for answering that email. Finally, there’s a message from my landlord. A new tenant has been selected, so I will need to move out as soon as possible. “Funnily enough,” it reads, “she looks exactly like you.”

~ ~ ~

When the creature comes home, it’s carrying shopping bags from the nice market across town, the one I keep meaning to try. It places everything on the counter and we separate the dry goods from the refrigerated ones. I give the produce a quick rinse to wash off any stray strings of slimy hair, and the creature stacks cans of beans and coconut milk in neat towers at the back of the pantry, labels facing out.

“Nick tells me you guys have stopped sleeping together,” it says.

I realize now that the creature is wearing his hoodie.

“He doesn’t seem evil,” it says, flicking on the electric kettle.

“He’s not. Sometimes, I really, really want it. But when we take our clothes off and start messing around, I go somewhere else. I don’t know. I can’t lie to myself when I’m naked.”

As the creature pours the tea, the steam from the spout wilts its face into an exaggerated expression, like a theatrical tragedy mask.

“You can stay here as long as you like,” it says. “I’ve already told the landlord you left.”

~ ~ ~

Our days look like this now: my office has made the shift to remote work, so the creature works for me, from home. In the beginning, we split assignments straight down the middle, thinking we could do it twice as fast—but the creature ended up having to re-do so many of my tasks, we decided it was better to play to our respective strengths. Since the switch, I’ve been promoted twice. While the creature works, I might make a little breakfast or watch TV in bed. Then, I’ll spend the afternoon looking for inspiration online. Last month, we got approval from the landlord to put in a new window, and we’ve been working together on fixing up the apartment. To be clear, the creature has done the demolition, the scaffolding, the ordering, and the installation—but I have found several reference photos that guided the heart of the project. Who did what is not important. It feels great to have good light.

Things with Nick have never been better. Sometimes, he’ll come over and we’ll all have dinner together. Now, this is an assignment we can split down the middle. While the creature cooks, Nick and I might watch a movie, or play a video game, or just chat.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” I say.

“Here I am,” he says.

While he has long, vigorous sex with the creature, I might walk around the apartment, pausing briefly to graze over some leftovers. Sometimes, the creature will spend two, three, four nights in a row at Nick’s apartment, which is great. I’ve always wanted to be the type of person who could live alone—and I almost am.

~ ~ ~

We continue on like this for weeks, until one night, the creature asks for a little privacy. Nick’s parents are coming over and it wants to make a good impression.

“You know how they are,” it says, doing its makeup in the bathroom mirror.

“I don’t, actually,” I say, twisting its hair into an elegant rope braid.

The creature slips on a rubber glove and removes the drain grate.

“You sure you don’t mind?”

I take its hand and slowly lower myself down into the pipe.

“I should be thanking you,” I say, as the grease and organic waste coats my body. “I have no idea where I’d be without you.”

From the front room, I hear the faint tones of the doorbell.

“Wish me luck,” the creature says, locking the grate back in place. I don’t remember there being a lock.

“Good luck.”

Above me, the light from the bathroom is a pale sun coming through the blinds, a striped halo of pure white. I hear the goofy chuckle of Nick’s laugh, followed by a deeper rumble in the same key, presumably his father’s. I wonder what his mother looks like. Would she like me? A warm groan reverberates from beneath, hot water worming its way through the ancient piping. I stick out my tongue and taste the citrusy residue of every shower product I’ve ever used, a bit like mango, a lot like rust. I no longer feel depressed. How could I? Nothing is pulling me in any direction at all.


Chris Ames is a writer who also draws. Most recently, his work has appeared in The Believer, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, 3:AM Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Melbourne and online @_chrisames.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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