One of dg’s discoveries during the marathon Danuta Gleed Literary Award reading process was a slender first collection of stories by the South African born writer Danila Botha (she lives in Halifax, soon to decamp to northern Ontario). The book is called Got No Secrets. Botha’s great subject is young wild women; her stories are confessions, full of dirty secrets, hangovers, indiscretions, drugs and alcohol, often scabrous or Rabelaisian epics of contemporary city life, clubs and hookups and the grim mornings after (when her heroines drag themselves to jobs that seem somehow beside the point). This is the female version of the Bukowski-Burroughs-Easton-Ellis macho drug romanticism, the romance of going over the cliff with bravado and style. “Jesus Was a Punk Rocker” is reprinted from the book with the author’s permission; it’s a wild ride.
I really have to take a piss.
I have to piss, but I can’t, because I’m lying on my back, legs spread, and I can’t get up.
My bed is collapsing. The planks of wood holding my mattress up have snapped in half one by one. It happened slowly over a few months. I felt the last one break this morning, just before I woke up. That’s what happens when you buy a bed from Ikea. Think like a student, get the back of a geriatric woman.
I reach onto my side table for a cigarette. It hurts to sit up, so I don’t. I look down to find that I’m still wearing my jeans from the night before. I’m glad. It means I have matches in my pocket. I smoke a cigarette staring at the ceiling.
I still have to piss, so I grab the vase next to my bed that once held eighteen long-stemmed red roses. It’s been empty for a while. I undo my fly and peel my jeans off. I manage to take care of business without getting a single drop on my sheets—a small miracle, since it’s a long thin vase, made of glass. I briefly consider sending it to him, with a note: This is what a sincere sentiment looks like, asshole.
I finally get up. It’s 8:35. I’m going to be late.
I step into the shower, turn the water on to the hottest it can get. I use my foot pumice to scrape the stamps off the backs of my hands, the ones that tell me what clubs or bars I went to last night. Apparently I went to the Horseshoe, and the Rivoli. My hair is greasy and stinks of smoke. I douse it in shampoo, wash it twice, then rinse like crazy.
I don’t eat because I can’t. I still have vomit lodged in the back of my throat, between my teeth, under my tongue. No amount of rinsing will get the taste out. I feel like I need to run through a car wash, clean the crevices, the part of me that can’t seem to get clean. I can’t remember anything, which worries me. I need an eternal cleansing of my spotless mind. I need to remember, and then erase.
I have fifteen minutes to get to a place that’s forty-five minutes away. I find my clothes, then my shoes, and race down the street to grab a taxi. My scrubs, as always, are wrinkled, and I’ve lost my name tag.
I get the joke about nurses in porn a lot, so I fucking hate it that the smart-ass taxi driver tells me I’m the kind of good-looking nurse that could be a star. I have no idea what cheesy movies with bleached blondes with fake tits and equally fake moans have to do with work that’s exhausting and not glamorous at all. My job means I’m constantly reassuring people, which makes me feel better about my own life, but only temporarily. A lot of people complain about the hectic pace of Toronto hospitals, but I like it. I like working ten- to eleven-hour days. The busier my hands are, the less likely I am to do something stupid, to over-think, or make a bad decision. I’ve spent ninety-nine percent of my life over-thinking everything. I once had a fight with a friend who said I mull over things until they don’t exist anymore. He was right, that used to be true. I used to consider and discuss everything until I drove everyone away. My mission in life is to not think as much as I do, and I take it very seriously.
I put my headphones on so the taxi driver will stop talking to me. It works for most of the trip. I blast punk, like the Ramones and Black Flag, bands that were my favourites in high school, and, for a minute, it makes me smile. I used to draw their logos in black ink on the insides of my arms until I was old enough to get tattoos. I stare out the window and notice some teenagers skateboarding. It makes me feel like I’m seven years old again, with my nose pressed to the window of a toy store the day before Christmas, knowing I won’t get any presents because my parents are Jews. I mean, how terrible is that? I always hated being Jewish. Chosen people, my ass. Cheap people is more like it. Other kids got dolls and books and bikes, and all I got was mouldy chocolate, wrapped up in gold foil to look like money. My parents never believed in Hanukkah presents either. They were Orthodox. They believed that presents took away from the spirit, turned something Jewish and wonderful into something Christian and terrible. It never made sense to me; it always bothered me, even then.
When I see these carefree kids skating now, it gets to me in the same way, the injustice of it. Three years ago, I could get drunk in parks, make out with strangers in the middle of the day, buy cheap wine that tasted like sunshine in a bottle. Now I have to be responsible. Now I have to think ahead. I hate the financial responsibility that comes with being able to move out of my parents’ house and party as much as I want. I could eat ice cream for breakfast, but I can’t quit the job I hate so much because I’d be out on the street. My parents would rather eat used condoms they found on the sidewalk than help me. I’m the biggest disgrace my family has ever seen. They pray for the day I get married and change my last name, or just get it legally changed, so nobody knows I’m theirs. Sometimes I can understand how they feel. I’m unconventional and strange, and they’re deeply conservative. I’ve embraced my freakishness, while they cower and hide from it.
When I was in high school I was angry all the time. I talked back to teachers, skipped class, and got kicked out when I did go. I was a rebel. When I graduated and went to college, I decided I wanted to try to challenge the system from the inside. I realized that was pointless after I got fired three times. Now I’m just a regular clock-punching employee with sensible black shoes. Most days, when I look at myself I feel sick. I feel like a hypocrite and a jackass. My job is supposed to be fulfilling, but it’s exhausting. I don’t feel like I’m in any position to help people, but I have to act like I am, act like a professional. If they only knew me, if they knew what my life was really like, they’d never trust me to do anything.
People open up to me because I don’t look like a typical nurse. I have six earrings and eight tattoos you can sometimes see, depending on what I’m wearing. My nail polish is always black and chipping. I have nose and labret piercings, but I take them out for work. My boss hates the way I look, I can tell, but patients relate to me better than they do to other nurses. I tell them to call me Mack, instead of Mackenzie, or Ms Moore. I go out of my way to make them feel at home, so that they open up to me, so that they tell me the truth. I can’t help them if I don’t know what’s really going on. I hear a lot of crazy stories. I never tell them anything about me, even when they ask. They wouldn’t want to know, anyway.
When I finally get to the hospital I jump out of the cab and speed up the stairs as fast as I can. Despite the fact that I’m thin, which is another of my serious obsessions, I’m winded by the time I get to the fourth floor. I am totally unfit. The head nurse, my boss, Mary, yells at me for being late. I have patients to see in fifteen minutes and I have no time to review their files. She grabs me by the arm so hard I wince.
I only have five minutes to go to the bathroom. I duck into the stall and role up my sleeves. I take the Swiss Army knife out of the back of my left shoe, where it’s covered by my pants. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I cut myself. I was in my parents’ kitchen, and I was having a really bad day. I wanted to eat ice cream, but we didn’t have any. Plus, it would have made me really sick anyway—I’m allergic to dairy. I decided to be good and started slicing one of those awful, healthy vegetables—I think it was a red pepper. I took a bite and it tasted like shit, so I figured it had to be good for me. I was concentrating on the taste, wondering if I should’ve just taken a multi-vitamin instead, when I accidentally sliced my fucking palm open. It was so gross. I spread my fingers open in front of me. I bled all over and didn’t even feel it. The blood spilled onto the white counter and I stared at it for at least a minute. I ran into the bathroom, grabbed a towel and held it there. I applied pressure to the wound, cleaned it with iodine, and put a couple of Band-Aids over it.
I felt so good—I’d made a mess that I’d managed to clean up. I had taken care of myself and the situation. I didn’t even feel the pain—so I just kept doing it. I have scars up and down my arms now—puffy red lines that poke out of the flesh, scabs that have no desire to heal. I’m young—I bet they’d heal eventually if I just gave them a chance. Maybe one day. My legs look fucked up, too, because I went through a burning phase. I threw hot oil from a frying pan onto my thighs for a couple of months. It hurt like hell so I didn’t do it for long. People used to say my legs were my best feature. I never saw it. But now there’s something beautiful about them—like I decided how they’d look, like I’m in control.
I cut myself every day, sometimes twice or even three times a day if I have a lot of stress. It gives me a release like nothing else. It helps me feel real, brings my anxieties and fears down to earth—it makes me feel like I’m taking all the shit I feel on the inside and putting it in a place I can see it, so I never forget it. If someone hurts me, I never forget it now. If a guy betrays me, even if I try to forget, my body will always have the scar.
I’ve been a wreck ever since the guy I fell in love with decided he didn’t want to be with me anymore. He had these liquid brown eyes that just seemed to melt even more every time he talked to me about something serious. He was so intense and so passionate. He was kind—gave change to the homeless, made small talk with everyone, even strangers. He made me want to be a lot nicer, be a lot more conscious of how I treated people. He challenged me intellectually. He was everything I ever wanted, and even though I hadn’t had a steady boyfriend since I was in grade eleven, I just wanted to be his. I wanted to belong to him more than anything in the world. He thought I was nice, too, just not anything special. I didn’t make his knees weak like he did mine. I didn’t make him want to pen bad poetry, or think about nothing else for hours while he lay in the bath, getting wrinkled fingers. I was just a passing fancy for him.
His last words to me were, “I think you’re a nice girl, but . . .”
I never even heard the rest of the sentence.
I had never tried so hard to be what I thought someone else wanted me to be. For the first time in my life, I really wanted to be good, I wanted to be loved. It’s physical: I want him to love me so much, I can feel it in every part of my body. But there’s nothing I can do about it.
I’ve been trying to sleep with other guys to get over it, but it doesn’t help. It sometimes feels empowering, like I’m starting to get over it, but it usually just makes me hate myself more. I have no idea how many guys I’ve slept with in total now, I lost track after ninety-nine. By which I mean the year, not the number. What scares me is if I counted, I’d find I’ve slept with way more than a hundred guys by now. So I ignore it. I lie to men. I told him the truth, and look where it got me. Most of the time, being myself hurts me more than anything. It’s easier to be what I think, or even know, people want.
Once I get out of the bathroom, the day passes by in a blur. I’m in the ER and then the psych ward. I see addicts and teenagers. I skip lunch and see more mental cases. I scribble notes in pencil and promise myself I’ll rewrite them tomorrow. I even make a list of their files so I can do it the next day. I see a guy who tried to kill himself by swallowing lots of Tylenol 3. His mother looks genuinely distressed and worried. I wish my parents cared that much.
I stop at Wendy’s on my way home. I just want to stuff my face. There’s something about grease, about knowing that I’m doing something bad for me that feels so good sometimes. I mean, I know how bad it is. I paid to see that documentary about that guy who eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month then nearly dies. But, on the other hand, it tastes so good. I can eat and be full for less than five bucks. I had a friend who worked at Taco Bell who said all fast food restaurants use Grade F meat. It makes me wonder if I’m eating a Chihuahua right now. Oh well. At least if I die tomorrow, I successfully beat lung cancer and liver failure, partied a lot, and don’t have to go back to work or pay rent. At least, for once, I actually managed to save money.
I have plans with a friend tonight. It’s a guy I met who’s a little younger, but really into me. Even though I don’t like him like that, it’s good for my ego. It feels really good sometimes to be wanted. Plus, if I remember right, the sex was good. At least I hope so. I go home and put on some tough-looking jewellery and my studded belt. I line my eyes with black and wear a see-through studded mesh top with a black bra underneath. I feel slut-tastic.
We meet at the Reverb at Queen and Bathurst at eleven. An all-ages punk show was his idea, and I thought it might make me feel good. Reconnect me with my past.
The walls are plastered with homemade flyers for bands I’ve never heard of. I feel so old and out of touch. We catch the second-last band and the headliner. They’re ska punk, which I’ve never liked. It’s loud and thrashing. It just sounds like noise to me. I never thought that would happen this soon. I gulp down a Scotch on the rocks and stare at the kids around me. They’re wearing Ramones T-shirts they probably bought at Bluenotes. It’s funny ’cause I see Dead Kennedys T-shirts, skulls, and studded belts, but I feel no connection to these kids.
A fourteen-year-old stops me at the bar and asks me if I can buy her and her friends some drinks. I’m drunk myself so I say sure, why not? I get them some beer—a pint for four little girls—and keep walking. They stop me and ask if I want to share some, and even though it’s crappy draft, I say yes.
I wonder if I was like them at their age. I wonder if I seem like a mom or a dinosaur to them. We sit in their booth and talk. They ask me how old I am, and when I tell them, the blonde says I give them hope. When they’re twenty-seven, she says, they want to be like me. I don’t want to tell them how I’m faking my way through every second of my life, including this conversation. I keep ordering more drinks until none of us know what we’re saying.
“To be punk all you have to do is be a rebel,” one of them says. “Everyone you’ve ever liked is punk,” she continues. “I mean, if you think about it, even Jesus was a punk rocker.”
She is giddy with excitement. I shake my head.
“He was such a blue-collar, working-class hero. He was a badass: drinking a lot, like us, hanging with whores. He took the ultimate hit for standing by his ideals. Everyone must have thought he was insane.”
I tell them it’s time to go. They try to high five me, but I move away so fast I nearly elbow a girl in the face. This religion stuff is starting to freak me out. I need to get the fuck out of here.
My date and I stumble down the street. He puts his arm and around me as I puke all over the sidewalk—booze and water and my burger come up in chunks. I look up and see neon signs and store windows spinning. I see Young Thailand with its purple and yellow lettering and rotting yellow steps. I see the crack house beside it. He walks me to my door, and I puke on his shoes, so he doesn’t ask to come upstairs and I don’t offer. I fall up the first five flights of stairs, then take the elevator up another seven flights. At least for once I’m here alone. My head is pounding like a jackhammer. I lie down and squeeze my temples. I’m going to be hungover tomorrow—again.
When I wake up it’s late and I can’t even walk straight. I take another cab to work. At this rate I’ll be broke by the end of the week—six days before I get my next paycheck. I hate my life.
I have a bunch of patients I forget immediately, until I meet a kid called Jared. He’s nine, and three months ago he lost his sister in a freak accident. His mom took them to an amusement park and they all went on a rollercoaster. Kelly had been sitting in the back, behind them both. Suddenly they heard a crash. His mother starting yelling, begging someone to stop the ride. He assumed she’d dropped her purse. When he and his mom got out they realized Kelly had fallen. They saw the height she’d fallen from. He had to see his sister in a bloody, tangled mess, her glasses smashed, her face smeared and bleeding. He had to live with the fact that if she’d been sitting where he was, she would have been fine. This beautiful nine-year-old boy was blaming himself for his sister’s death.
I can’t stop myself from crying right there, in front of him. I feel so out of my depth. I recommend an art therapist who might be able to help him express his feelings. I feel so helpless, so useless, I just want to make myself hurt. I can’t wait to get home and get into my kitchen. I duck into the staff bathroom with my knife. Just another few quick stabs around the ankle. I pull my pant leg farther down and pull my sock up higher when I’m done. I feel a little more relaxed, and I walk out smiling a little.
When I get home it’s so quiet, that it hits me—I miss him more than anything. I check my messages and—nothing. No email, no calls. A while ago I stopped bothering to keep in touch with friends. I don’t even know who to call. I could call the dude from last night, but I’m embarrassed. I never keep their numbers anyway; what’s the point?
I stare into the mirror behind my bed and decide I want to make a change. I start cutting my hair. I use the scissors on my knife that I use for opening the mail. After a while I’m not even looking. I hate having long hair. I’ve had it this long, past my shoulders, spilling onto my chest, for almost two years. It’s stringy and falls into my eyes. I don’t want to be pretty. It doesn’t help. No matter how good they say I look, guys only want to sleep with me. No one ever wants to be with me; they can sense that I’m trouble and they stay away. I want my outside to reflect my inside. I want to be ugly, messy, undeserving of a second look, never mind love.
I light a cigarette, inhale, and stare at the ceiling. A lot of people say that when they cut themselves they feel more alive. Like their pain makes them feel more real. For me it’s about being honest, showing people how hideous I am.
I’m wildly cutting now, and my hair is building up in piles on the floor. I’m shocked at how disconnected I feel from my body. What’s nice is that when I cut myself I don’t think about anything. I don’t feel sad at all. The scissors come dangerously close to cutting my cheek. I look in the mirror. My cheek is bleeding, but I don’t feel it. It takes the sight of the blood running down my face for me to know it’s happening.
I tell myself that I’m a person of ideas. That I could start a revolution, change the world. I keep telling myself that it’s not too late. But when I feel like being honest with myself, I point out that my disciples have lost interest and the only person who’s ever understood me, the only equal I’ve ever known doesn’t want me around. I wanted to be a renegade and here I am, as misunderstood as I was when I was fifteen. Only now, there’s no excuse for the angst. Now, not only does no one understand, no one really cares.
I crawl under the blankets and close my eyes to keep from crying. Half an hour later I hear my phone ring.
Danila Botha was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and move to Toronto in her teens. She studied Creative Writing at York University and at Humber College School for writers. Her first book, Got No Secrets, was published by Tightrope Books in Canada, and by Modjaji Books in South Africa in May 2010. Her next book, a novel called Too Much on the Inside, will be published in September 2012. She is currently working on a book of short stories called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known.
This is a courageous and deeply compassionate story.
Thank you for sharing this with NC, Danila. I really admire the story’s subtle turns toward subplot as well as its frankness.
Modern life. The really sad thing is there are a lot of ‘Mack’s’ in this world.
Very good writing.