Slow March To Perfection: Three Pieces
By Mardith Loiusell
I remember exactly when it started. My boyfriend and I had been together for seven years and were visiting friends in Minneapolis. Their guest room was in the basement and very dark when the lights were out. We were in a nice bed and we were warm even though it was winter. I wasn’t asleep yet but he was.
Suddenly I felt him twitch. Then he twitched again. I couldn’t say exactly how many seconds apart the twitches were at that point, although in the coming months I was to count. Just when I’d doze off, he’d twitch again, a leap as if his body had been jump-started. In my dozing-off state, it was like an earthquake or a truck smashing into the house. He twitched sporadically for half an hour. I didn’t say anything. He has a hard time sleeping and doesn’t like it when I ask “Are you asleep yet?” I assumed the twitching would stop. Eventually, I too slept, whether because he stopped or because I was tired, I didn’t know.
“You were twitching,” I said the next day.
“Oh,” he said. I don’t think he thought anything more about it.
He didn’t twitch again during that trip, but soon after we came home it resumed. After the third night, I poked him. That worked and he stopped. But a month later, he started again.
“Stop,” I said, waking him up.
“You stopped before.”
He went back to sleep.
I tried to make peace with the twitching. Sometimes when his twitch attacks startled me out of a half-doze, I counted the seconds between the twitches, for no good reason except that I like counting and I had to find something to do as I waited out the twitching. Seven seemed to be the magic number in one night’s count, another night it was thirteen. Often just when I thought the twitching had stopped, he twitched again. It felt malevolent. Could he really not stop? I considered watching him before I lay down to see if it happened when he slept alone, but it seemed like too much work to get a flashlight, stand in the cold unheated air of our San Francisco apartment, and keep my eyes open when I was tired.
Several more times I told him to stop and he did, but other times he didn’t. I was beginning to understand why people had separate beds. Even separate rooms, as many people I knew did, though they didn’t broadcast the fact because it has become shameful to sleep separately, unlike during my parents’ time when single beds were considered preferable for many reasons, including some that are true today – twitching or snoring or a complaint often heard, breathing loud. Eventually, I’d fall asleep because I sleep easily. It was just a question of how long eventually took.
His twitching had been going on for four years and I had to make peace with it. Lying in bed one night I thought, Does it have to be an earthquake or a truck banging against the house? Remember no one is perfect. What does he have to put up with from me? Although I could think of nothing.
In reading about psychological issues, I learned that fantasies can be useful when you can’t satisfy a need—for example, imagining a large feast if you’re famished and hours from eating. My fantasies included sending him to the couch or strangling him. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in fantasy, I read, as long as you don’t indulge in the real thing.
I realized I could employ positive thinking to survive this annoying behavior and reap happiness, influence, wisdom, and success. According to the Mayo Clinic, with positive thinking, I would receive the health benefits of an increased life span, reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and greater resistance to the common cold. And, like religion, positive thinking offered a non-technical solution to life’s problems while demanding only faith. This sounded good and would be easier than sending him to the Mayo Clinic for sleep apnea.
Think of his twitching as his way of rocking me to sleep, I told myself. Pretend the bed is a cradle. Use it as an example of how much he cares for me. I dropped off to sleep, pleased with my theory and his helpfulness.
Suddenly, he twitched and I jumped. It was when my beating heart relaxed that I also remembered the researcher who’d said the positive thinker ends up less prepared and more acutely distressed.
Slow March toward Perfection
“Use a plate,” she said.
“I won’t drop any crumbs,” he said. “I don’t need a plate.”
He was eating a piece of ginger cake but you can’t eat ginger cake without leaving crumbs and certainly not a gluten-free ginger cake. Tasty it was but he left crumbs in the couch, on the couch, and on the floor. They had a new red microfiber couch about which the salesperson claimed, “Just wipe it off with a wet cloth. Anything!” but he didn’t mean you should grind ginger cake into its fabric. They also have a patterned red rug on which every speck shows, whereas previously crumbs had disappeared into the ratty, too-old-to-be cleaned beige carpet that lay underneath.
She bent down and picked up some crumbs from the couch, but most of them would wait for the vacuum in anywhere from a week to two months, depending on when visitors next arrived. Even when the crumbs fell to the floor, she didn’t say more because she didn’t want to nag, although, in fact, she’d found that saying even once “Why don’t you use a plate?” was considered nagging. She thought of all the times her mother had said those words and how she’d refused to use a plate. She wished she had obeyed her mother, just for moral consistency.
That night, she said it only once. But if he’d paid attention the first time, two months ago, she’d never have had to say it again. Because he didn’t pay attention two months ago, she was forced to nag. She looked like a nag and he looked like an innocent beleaguered husband, just like her father and every man she’d ever known.
The next night, he sat again on the cherry red sofa, again with the ginger cake. To her surprise, he had a plate underneath the cake. She was deeply touched. She smiled, stood up, walked across the room, bent down and kissed him.
“You are a good husband,” she said. “This makes me so happy.”
“My worry is,” he said, his tone ungrateful, his eyes on the television screen, “that making you this happy will reinforce your nagging.”
She was stunned. If he thought that she thought that he agreed with her, then he didn’t want to agree. The behavior modification gurus had been wrong, everything she’d ever read was wrong – you shouldn’t praise.
“It would have been better,” he said, “if you’d been happy but didn’t say anything.”
If she hadn’t said anything he wouldn’t have had to acknowledge that he agreed. For him, that was the conflict – how to be a good husband and still remain the instrument of his fate. She understood then why spouses and children refuse to acquiesce to one’s excellent suggestions and instead make family life an interminable grind of petty bickering.
“I wanted to think of it as a small thing,” he added, “but discussing it meant it wasn’t.”
“It isn’t a small thing,” she said.
The All-Purpose Tool
It was midnight.
“Never congratulate yourself,” she told herself.
She was saying this because earlier in the day, she’d walked around the house, moving items from one room to the other so they would be in their place – a task that had become her full-time job though she didn’t remember choosing it. She had congratulated herself as follows:
“In this situation where organizing things is time-consuming and difficult, even though you wouldn’t think it would be, I can be proud that I have kept my decision to place the black rhinestone-encrusted reading glasses on the white shelf next to the television. In that way, I always know where they are. I should congratulate myself.”
“Congratulations,” she said out loud.
Then she mentally calculated the long, unproductive minutes she saved by not looking for her glasses as she went about moving items – ten minutes every hour she was home? She had glasses in the bedroom, the bathroom and the den, but these didn’t migrate like the ones in the front of the apartment. Prior to the decision to be rigid with placement of glasses, countless minutes had been spent searching, then finding the pair in places she wouldn’t have thought they could go. It was like laundry – you’d taken the tissues from the pockets of your jeans, or in some cases, you’d never put them in the pocket at all, and yet, when you unloaded the washer, blobs of wet tissue marred the clean jeans. The tissues had a mind of their own. This was something her sister had pointed out and one of the truest things she’d ever said.
It had taken a while to get the hang of strict glasses placement. Habits are formed when you perform an action sixty-six times. Maybe she’d put the glasses in the right place sixty-six times. The habit took. If she accomplished nothing else each day, she at least saved herself time spent searching for glasses.
That night, as she organized the kitchen counter and tackled the catch-all drawer, things were going well. Miraculously, she’d nearly finished the tasks she’d put off for two weeks, allowing three new silverware containers to take up space on the counter, preventing cooking or storage.
She saw a piece of paper in the catch-all drawer. To know how to deal with it, she had to read it so turned to the white shelf next to the television. No glasses. Not in the front of the flat, back, bedroom, bathroom or office. Back to the kitchen. That’s when she said, “Never congratulate yourself.” It would have been better, neuro-linguistically speaking, had she said, “Never congratulate myself,” but she hadn’t got the hang of neuro-linguistics demands. Maybe when she said “you,” rather than “I” or “me,” it wasn’t clear to her brain whom she meant and that caused problems when she told herself to remember something.
How much time had she had wasted so far? Her watch said 12:30 a.m. – thirteen minutes. “Give up,” she cried. “In a day or two, they’ll show up.” She might have used a different pair of glasses scattered around, but she wanted things to remain in the right place so she could find them when she needed them. She wanted those rhinestone glasses and not any others.
Earlier, she’d placed a pair of bicycle brakes on the street for whoever wanted them. She might have, inadvertently, what other way was there? left glasses there. Or in the basement with the doorknobs found in the catchall drawer, even though no doorknobs were missing from any doors. She went to the dark street and looked – no glasses. She’d have to look again in the morning. She walked back up the two flights of stairs.
Why is it that one can be thorough, determined to search every possible room and place for a mislaid item, and do so, even the refrigerator, and still not search the place where the item is? Or perhaps one searches the place but doesn’t see the item? No matter how many times this happens, it remains mysterious. Items have a life of their own and an ability to camouflage themselves that eludes our understanding and for which we don’t give them credit. How else can this be explained?
It was 1:30 a.m. In desperation, she scanned the bedroom again, the dresser, nightstand, bed and bookshelves. She looked at the desk and saw, where she had never put them, the black rhinestone-encrusted, beautifully trashy glasses.
Into the kitchen to read the piece of paper she’d refused to read with the glasses in other rooms because she needed to keep order in her life – instructions for an All-Purpose Emergency Tool. The tool wasn’t in the catch-all drawer and was probably nowhere else in the apartment. She wasn’t about to search for it.
She should have – in an emergency, she’d need to know how to use it. But if she took time to find it, examine it, read the instructions, and replace it, by the time she needed it, she’d have forgotten what she’d read and where she’d put the tool.
She relished order but there was a limit to what even she could do. You couldn’t keep everything in its place. It was hard enough to keep the black rhinestone-encrusted reading glasses in the front of the apartment.
It had been an accident that she’d started clearing the catch-all drawer at midnight but it turned out to be a blessing. If you started such tasks when tired, your resistance was low, which allowed you to start. And when something went wrong, such as finding a tool was missing, you were too tired to continue searching, another blessing.
When she finished reading the first paragraph of instructions for the missing All Purpose Emergency Tool, she placed the page in the recycling bag. She remembered to put her glasses back on the white shelf next to the television – or thinks she did, which was just as good.
Mardith Louisell grew up on Lake Superior and worked for years as a social worker. When not writing, teaching, or singing in San Francisco, she takes pictures of people’s ears. Beside Myself, a book of flash fiction is her current project. Some of her stories can be found in “Solstice Literary Magazine,” “Persimmon Tree,” and “Smokelong Quarterly.”