By Chloe Coventry
Elena arrived home from dropping her children off at school and stood motionless in the foyer of the empty house. It was a Wednesday morning in mid-September and outside the dreary scrim of clouds diffused but didn’t diminish the oppressive heat of southern California fire season. She was lightly sweating, and her teeth were unbrushed. She tossed her bag to the edge of the nearby bouclé couch and watched it tumble, open-mouthed, down to the floor. Dropping to her knees she rooted around in the pile of detritus and found the two Oxys she’d dropped into the bag earlier that morning. She rolled them around on her palm for a moment before dry swallowing them. “Oh well,” she whispered aloud and nudged off her shoes before walking up the stairs.
It was stale in her bedroom. The angle of the sun through the blinds striped the dusty bookshelf, the pile of clothes, the tangle of greasy finger-printed action figures – dolls, Elena insisted on calling them, so that her two male children wouldn’t get the idea that they were above dolls – and on the bed a pile of unfolded linens, like a large bird’s nest. For a moment she considered folding them but instead pushed them to the floor, confirming to herself the idea that had been bubbling under the surface of her thoughts for the past week, since her husband had come clean to her about everything: perhaps she wouldn’t be putting things away anymore, nor doing laundry nor folding. She maybe wouldn’t be washing dishes or cooking. The mental load, the parties and dentists and teacher conferences, the therapists and shoe shopping and Christmas cards—she was putting it down, for now and maybe longer. The laundry was staying on the floor.
Elena looked out the window. The house and the street were quiet. It was only her and a few elderly neighbors home in the mornings, sequestered behind hedges and gates. All the useful people were busily at work, out in the world. The garbage trucks, the Amazon trucks, would faintly come and go; the neighbor’s hybrid car she recognized by its complacent vibrations as it rolled down the driveway next door. The hours, measured in the lift, lull, and drop of the painkiller’s high, would soon softly drain away, and another day would be gone. Elena began to feel as though her head was a hundred pounds, cradled by gentle, loving hands. She wouldn’t be making any moves, not today, not yet. She wouldn’t be thinking of her husband and the lies he’d told for months, the fake late meetings, the large transactions camouflaged from her indifferent accounting. It didn’t have to be dealt with now. She yanked her velvet curtains closed.
Lying down on the bed, not bothering to adjust the tangled duvet, Elena located the remote control wedged between the bed frame and mattress and flicked on the TV. The drugs continued their warm roll down her body, and she shivered with a feeling like joy. She was mid binge-watch of the TV show Dallas. It was a recent discovery – the thumbnail of cowboy hats and the glint of retro lip gloss had arrested her endless scroll, her interest piqued by the fact that it was a show from the time of her birth, the late 1970s. The drugs and the show complimented each other, she had found, the opiates easing her into an appreciative sedation and refracting the TV melodrama into more than the sum of its parts. She felt a tenderness for the actors of forty years ago. They had ill-disguised under-eye bags, crooked teeth. Their physical flaws were weirdly appealing, even touching, as was the show’s ugly and ornate décor. The Dallas ranch house was modestly white with prim yellow trim on the windows; the inside was hideous draperies and baroque mahogany furniture.
The television version of wealth back then, Elena observed, meant dressing for formal dinners served by maids in white caps. It meant tennis playing and business deals over three martini lunches. This was why she liked it. Dallas might as well have been taking place in a foreign land. There was no aspirational advertising lurking under the surface, prompting her to Pavlovian Amazon purchases. Dallas described a quainter, homier kind of capitalism, in which the capital – oil, cattle – was ineluctably tied to the ebbs and flows of geology and biology. The show’s villain JR, venality undisguised, chased women with a simple, atavistic drive. There was something gently titillating for Elena in the show’s unexamined patriarchy, the women suffering and the men fist-fighting and laying down the law.
As Elena watched, JR’s pregnant and long-suffering wife Sue-Ellen took to the bottle: humiliating herself at a party, falling down the stairs, and finally drunkenly crashing her car. After her baby was born, Sue Ellen sequestered herself in her low-ceilinged bedroom with its ruffled bedspreads and matching wallpaper, the layers of her night-clothes hiding bottles of vodka. She was a ruined woman, refusing to tend to or even look at her newborn as punishment to JR – a revenge that seemed classical in its venomous precision. Sue Ellen, a Medea in polyester. Elena drifted, bodyless, mind receptive and loose, wholly engaged. Another episode began and ended, and then another.
Five episodes later Sue Ellen was drying out and the afternoon sun was thrusting itself again through a gap in Elena’s bedroom curtains. The painkiller’s effects had abated in time for school pick-up. From being in bed all day she was lethargic and exhausted. While fitfully dozing the drugs had given her strange half-dreams; in an intensely sexual one she’d been french-kissing the former president; his lurid orange face had meltingly collapsed like rotten fruit, sliding down her throat, through her fingers. In another, her house and the Dallas house became imbricated, maroon carpets and crystal chandeliers frosting what seemed in shape and size to be Elena’s living room. She turned off the TV. Dallas had twelve more seasons and she planned to watch them all. She picked up a sheet off the floor and started folding.
* * *
Chloe Coventry is writer and musician living in the hills above Los Angeles. She studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College before getting a PhD in ethnomusicology from UCLA. Her essays and poems have appeared in various places, including the Journal for Creative Communications, Words and Whispers, and The Whiskey Blot.