Bottlenecks

by Nicole Chin

Nicole Chin is the author of the House of Anansi Press Digital Short, Shooting the Bitch, which received the McIllquham Foundation Prize for best original short story. Her work has appeared in Joyland Magazine, Found Press, and others. She has been long-listed for the House of Anansi Broken Social Scene Short Story Contest and was the recipient of the Helen Richards Campbell Memorial Award. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph and is currently working on a novel.

 

My father could never braid my hair.

He tried when I was younger. He sat at his computer, crouched in front of the screen with a bottle of beer after work one day, watching a video on the internet. Then he turned in his seat and beckoned me to sit in front of him. He used rubber bands, not hair elastics. I don’t think he realized the difference. He apologized as the rubber bands coiled and snapped strands from my scalp as he twisted them around sections of my hair.

I don’t know what I did wrong, he said one night, looking at my hair after one of his attempts. It had bunched up at the back. Sections poked straight out of the braids.

I shrugged and clawed the rubber bands out.

Next time use hair elastics? I offered.

My father watched as I took my hair out of the braids and then just we sat there and stared at each other.

People always say, Oh, Julie, you look so much like your father. But when I look at him, I can’t see it. I can’t see it one bit. Not even in my mother, no matter how hard I try and look for it in her pictures. No matter how much I want to see it. Not that people ever say I look like her, they never do.

Maybe it’s something you notice as an outsider, like how identical twins don’t think they look the same, but everyone else knows better.


Last year, my father started collecting glass bottles.

He would bring it up nonchalantly at family get-togethers or school things. He would say stuff like, Oh, do you happen to have any empty bottles lying around? Like wine or whiskey bottles? Maple syrup containers, juice bottles? That kind of thing …

People would either be intrigued, or be taken aback and say, No … with those ellipses at the end that seem to hang on forever, like bullets shooting out in slow motion. Pow, pow, pow. My father would stand there and try to figure out what to say next.

What are you planning to do with them? I asked my father one day after a neighbour explained he wanted to save his bottles for returns at the liquor store.

Oh, something exciting, he said.

I remember his glee when he came back from my grandparents with four boxes of empty bottles. I helped him carry them to the car, my father’s ugly pea-green pick-up truck that still smelled faintly of the days he used to chain smoke in it, hiding his nasty habits from my mother.

Why do you want them? I asked my father.

I can’t tell you now, my father said, his mouth twisting into a wry smile. Not yet, not yet.

We drove home, taking the country roads, the cozy darkness flanking us on either side. The bottles clanked against each other, tinkling. I hated them. I would hate them more later, for the hours my father would invest in them for the rest of his life.

He stored them under the table of his desk and I would come into his room and see his slippered feet propped up on top of them. When he moved, they would clank together like little bells.

Later, he’d poke his head into my room and stuff his hands into his pockets and look around, his eyes scanning the surfaces of my bookshelves and perusing the drawers of my desk. He’d fish out an old pack of cards, a small bear, a Rubix cube and ask me, Do you need these? Can I have these?

I’d look up from my homework and shrug, Yeah, sure, and then watch him disappear down the hall.

One day I came home and I saw him sitting on the floor of the living room, with my old Tupperware box full of Barbie dolls and an open tube of tennis balls. He was holding a broken doll that was dismembered at the waist.

What are you doing? I asked.

Oh! My dad jumped back slightly and then laughed. It’s for my project. Can I have this?

He raised the broken doll by its arm, her blank smile and glittering eyes peering back at me.

Um … I said.

Nevermind, he said. He laughed softly, shaking his head, chucking the doll back into the box.

I went upstairs and closed my door, and listened to my father’s footsteps as he padded up the stairs. I waited for him to knock on my door. To ask me how school was, if my day was okay.

All I heard was the clatter of bottles.


I came home from school one day with a cut-up knee, after racing my bike down the hill to our house and bashing it against the gravel on our driveway. I had just wanted to get home.

When I got inside my father was already back from work, his back turned to me as he scraped at something in a pan with a spatula. The air smelled like grease. I closed the door behind me and ran upstairs to the bathroom.

Julie? he said. Is that you?

Uh huh, I said.

I climbed onto the counter of the bathroom and pried open the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet. I could see the dust that had collected at its top, centuries of dust bunnies nobody had bothered to clean.

Dinner will be ready soon, my father said. Meat sauce and pasta.

I dug my hands into the back of the cabinet, behind old canisters of my mother’s pills that my father still hadn’t thrown away in the last six years. Some of them toppled and landed in the sink, and I felt a pang of sadness as I stared at them rolling back and forth near the drain. I collected the canisters one by one and put them back inside the cabinet, lining them up against the back.

I took out the box of Band-Aids, and looked inside.

It was empty, except for one small square of crisp plastic.

I stared at it, my heart pulling at my chest. I could see the outline of a ring in the foil and when I touched it, it felt like a worm moving around the air bubble of the packaging. I could feel my stomach clenched with horror.

I turned over the condom and checked the expiry date. It expired in two years.

I threw it back into the box and closed the medicine cabinet door. I could hear its contents rattling. I stared at my own reflection in the mirror and then I slid down slowly from the counter. I nearly crashed into my father as I left the bathroom.

Julie! My father looked ridiculous in an apron over his dress shirt and slacks.

I stared at him.

What happened to your knee?

Nothing.

What?

Nothing.

He pursed his lips together and bent down to look at my knee. He started tutting his tongue against his teeth like a hamster or a squirrel. Something with small beady eyes and small hands to match. He went into the bathroom, wet a hand towel and grabbed some anti-septic.

Where are our Band-Aids? I asked.

He sat me down on the toilet seat lid and lowered himself onto the bathroom floor. He glanced up at me as he wiped blood off my knee. I was too old for him to be doing that, but for some reason I let him do it anyway.

In the box?

No, I say.

He cocked his head to the side and then got up and opened the medicine cabinet. I watched as he grabbed the box, just where I left it, and looked inside. I waited. I watched as he scanned the bottom and then tossed it back into the medicine cabinet.

Nothing. He said nothing.

Nope, no Band-Aids there, he said. He raised his hands up, palms facing the ceiling. Sorry sweet pea.

He went back to wiping my knee. I scanned his face for some sign, but he just kept wiping until my cut was clean.

We might have some Band-Aids in the first-aid kit in the car, he said. I can check if you keep an eye on the pasta.

I didn’t answer, and he gave me a thumbs up. He went downstairs, then he came back up, poking his head into the bathroom.

You coming, Julie?

Yeah, I said. In a second.

He left and I opened the medicine cabinet. I grabbed the empty box of Band-Aids and threw it into the garbage.


I lay on my back in my room, watching the red light project onto my wall from the crosswalk on the corner. At night, even when I closed my eyes, I could still see the beat of the crosswalk light flashing as it blinked down that countdown of numbers, the one that tells you how many seconds you have before you can’t cross anymore.

He turned to the mirror in the hallway, adjusting his tie again, speaking to my reflection.

My father was out. He was at a work event. Before he left, I was lying on my back with my head hanging off the edge of my bed, watching as he walked back and forth down the hallway, grabbing his jacket, ironing his shirt, grabbing his tie, checking his hair, checking the time, checking his tie, etc., etc.

When he was finally ready, my head was pulsing and vibrating from the blood collecting around my brain.

I’m going, he had said.

I turned onto my stomach, upright. Sight spotted black.

Okay.

He turned to the mirror in the hallway, adjusting his tie again, speaking to my reflection.

There are leftovers in the fridge. I’ll be back later tonight. Make sure you get to bed at a decent time. It’s a school night.

Sure.

He looked my reflection in the eye, gave it a smile and turned away to go. I was left alone, staring at myself in the mirror. He was zooming off to the gala in his ugly green truck.

Someone’s car alarm was going off. The alarm managed to synchronize itself to the blinking light on my wall. I watched as the light from the countdown beat for thirty seconds and then turned into a steady beam of red. The car alarm kept going off.

I kicked off my sheets and sat up in my bed. I looked over at the clock at my bedside. I went to the kitchen and made myself some instant mac and cheese. There wasn’t enough milk, so I sat at the kitchen table spooning rubbery, cheese powder-encrusted noodles into my mouth. The sauce was only slightly moist. I licked it off my lips and drained my glass of juice. It was past midnight.

I placed my finger on the base of the spoon handle and wiggled it back and forth on the kitchen table, listening to the curve of the spoon knock against the wood. Then I got on my bike and went around the corner to the drug store.

The woman working was leaning against the makeup counter. She looked up at me as I came in, startled, then went back to painting her nails. I could smell the chemicals from her nail polish. I wondered if she was the kind of girl who held her breath when she painted her nails or if she was the kind who just breathed it all in, letting herself get heady with the stench.

He should have been looking at the shelves of painkillers. Or at least he should’ve been in front of the toothbrushes. But he wasn’t. He was standing where he shouldn’t have been.

I wandered the aisles, listening to something on the store radio that sounded like The Bee Gees, some falsetto man singing about something. I checked out bottles of shampoo and conditioner, Halloween candy marked on discount next to a singing Santa. Mid-November is a strange month for retail.

I picked up a package of individually wrapped chocolate peanut butter cups, and then turned down the aisle towards the cash.

I saw him in the wrong aisle.

He should have been looking at the shelves of painkillers. Or at least he should’ve been in front of the toothbrushes. But he wasn’t. He was standing where he shouldn’t have been.

He looked boyish with his tie loosened, his face flushed. He was talking to someone on the phone, holding a box of Trojans.

Do you want me to get you anything? he was saying.

I rounded the aisle and dropped the peanut butter cups on the shelf closest to me and got on my bike and went home and even though I knew he didn’t see me and he didn’t know, I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t think of anything else except wanting him to come home right then and prove me wrong.

He came home at 6:25 a.m. Fifteen minutes before he usually woke, and half an hour before I usually got up. He didn’t shower. He opened the fridge, turned on the stove, that click-click-click of the gas, and cooked breakfast for himself.


When my mother was still around, she used to take me for night bike rides.

She came back from the Canadian Tire with one of those flashing lights you’re supposed to stick to your bicycle helmet. She had gone there with the intention of buying me a wicker basket, but came back with the light instead.

I remembered sitting on the floor, watching her take it out of the bag and feeling disappointed.

Oh no, she said, smiling as she put a hand on her hip. We can’t have that frown. You’ll regret making that frown once we use this.

Then she took the light out of its hard plastic packaging and spun it between her fingers, making it move back and forth lazily. I remembered feeling that twinge in my stomach, the kind of feeling you get when one of your parents makes a bad joke in front of your friends.

She let me stay up later than usual, because it was the summer and it took longer for the town to become completely dark. Then she attached the light to my helmet and set it on my head, buckling it under my chin. She opened the screen door to the sound of chirping crickets.

Let’s go, she said.

The sun was dipping down in the west, leaving long streaks against the sky.

The night was on my fingertips and I pedaled towards it, leaving the sun behind me. The world in front of me was already covered in the rich blue of evenings. This is the trick with skies.

For a moment, I was alone. The wind tangled my hair and bristled my skin. I could hear crickets, hoping to convince each other with their song. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see her. I knew she was there, just in my blind spot.

If you’ve never been on a bike ride in the evening, go.


Last year in February, I came back from school just ahead of the blizzard. Pellets of snow-ice beat down on the window, flinging themselves against glass. I took off my boots and my coat and went upstairs.

I found my father in his bedroom. He was sitting at his desk, wearing his ratty old black sweater with a hole in the armpit, and his grey sweatpants.

What are you doing home? I asked.

He lifted his head, bewildered.

What? Oh, I … we were told to go home early. Because of the storm.

Okay, I said.

He was looking at something on his computer, and then he closed it and turned toward me. He slapped his hands onto his thighs.

I have something to show you, Julie.

He moved past me, and I noticed an empty box that had once held bottles on the floor behind him. I followed him downstairs, into the kitchen, where he pulled out another box from under the kitchen table. He set it down and took bottles out. He lined seven of them up, so they were snaking diagonally across the table.

What do you think? he asked.

I looked at them.

Oh, I said.

I know now how much my father loves these things, his “impossible bottles.” All those objects, rammed into the glass chambers. He presents them to our guests and my friends like they’re his children.

Look at our newest one, a whole deck of cards still in its case, in a wine bottle. Oh, and across from it, there’s this one … this one’s secretly my favourite. But don’t tell the others that!

He would say things, describing the way my mother parted her hair, the way her fingers always looked after a bath, the crooked lean to her smile, the way she tied her shoes.

He fills our living room with the bottles and admires them. People marvel, they ask him how he does it and he just puts a finger over his lips and laughs. Or he’ll sit in front of his computer and look up new things to try. Tennis balls, cigarettes, a baby shoe.

And before the blizzard in February, before he lined them all up in front of me for the first time, saying, What do you think, he used to spend his evenings sitting with me in the living room watching me do my homework. When I was finished, and when I could feel my body getting sleepy, he would start talking about her.

He would say things, describing the way my mother parted her hair, the way her fingers always looked after a bath, the crooked lean to her smile, the way she tied her shoes. He described those things. Things I never thought you’d notice or remember about a person. And I’d drift away, listening.

 


Nicole Chin is the author of the House of Anansi Press Digital Short, Shooting the Bitch, which received the McIllquham Foundation Prize for best original short story. Her work has appeared in Joyland Magazine, Found Press, and others. She has been long-listed for the House of Anansi Broken Social Scene Short Story Contest and was the recipient of the Helen Richards Campbell Memorial Award. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph and is currently working on a novel.

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