Self-portrait from a great height
a short story from a manuscript in progress
As the elevator doors close, she turns to face the full-length mirror.
Tucked behind sunglasses, Sabrina is sustained by newly-acquired faux-fluff pink overcoat thrift and mismatched shoes. She snaps a selfie and holds her stare. She feels it, safe in her overcoat.
Faux-fluff, given the antique fur and feather worn down to moss.
She is twenty-five years old. As she posts to Instagram: Today is my motherfucking birthday. She captions her elevator portrait and releases it, into that endless, meaningless, internet chasm.
Fifteen minutes late to her optometrist appointment, Sabrina is humming “Rocket man.” Once the doors open, she gives her finest sashay, her finest swagger down the hall and into the waiting room. No one notices her. She is wasted on these people.
As Violet Trefusis wrote to Vita Sackville-West: Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent.
Sabrina is at her kitchen table with laptop, sketching out a magazine article on low-income housing, exploring the self-indulgent arguments the city puts forward for refusing to fund further units.
Alone with a deadline, she suddenly needs to know why Pat Sajak Walked Off the Set of Wheel of Fortune. She clicks on the link, then another. A social media flicker that leads to an article and photographs of Agafia Lykova, an Old Believer, and the last of her family. Sabrina discovers they self-secluded for decades, burrowed deep in the Russian wilderness. Through this, an internet black hole develops, leading her into articles on the Slavic traditions around Epiphany—immersing yourself, polar bear-style, in icy water—to the Well to Hell, rumoured to be located deep in the Siberian wasteland.
She notes the style of bathing suits worn by these polar bear swimmers. She attempts to seek out similar swimwear she can order online, immediately, to salvage this February gristle.
Laptop, crumbles. Words, crumble. Hours, crumble.
She pulls at the ends of her chai latté. She begins to taste silt.
Before this, Sabrina lived with an endless supply of roommates, which made it hard to get anything done. They were underfoot, constantly. She was waist-deep in her thesis, researching extinction events. She had a roommate who smoked, but never within the bounds of their shared house. When not working his bartending job, he kept to his balcony, staring out through the mountains.
At one point, he began to request she buy his cigarettes from the corner store. He had been in a few days prior, pretending to be deaf, and didn’t feel like being deaf anymore. He’d signed and he’d pointed and counted out change. He had studied sign language, although she wasn’t clear why. She thought him ridiculous, but accepted the errand. This repeated for months, at least a couple of times a week, whenever he was home and needed a fresh pack. Whatever, she said. Weirdo.
He was an improvement over her previous roommate: a girl who tried to steal all her clothes. She did manage to make off with Sabrina’s prized leather jacket. It was worth it, just to be rid of her.
Now she lives alone, in the smallest of studio apartments. Small, but hers.
Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home.
Stand up straight. Be mindful, shake.
Sabrina has been partial to Queen Victoria ever since sitting preschool days on her mother’s bed, flipping through a commemorative volume, packed with illustrations of Victoria and her immediate family. The Mother of Confederation.
The framed print of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy on her mother’s bedroom wall. She didn’t know where the print originated, nor when she acquired it.
Now it’s too late to ask. Let them eat cake. Who said that?
The framed classic print of Victoria she keeps on her wall, above her own bed. Unamused, but steadfast.
Sabrina’s Twitter bio reads: Does not respond well to self-criticism.
She submits her article, along with an invoice. Edits will most likely follow.
That night, she catches a documentary about ghosts, and the recording of a sound too low a register for human ears. An echo, perhaps, of a young girl’s voice, repeating: Hello? Hello?
Too low for human speech, too low to hear, too low to be possible.
Spread out, in a gust of wind.
After her eye appointment, Sabrina finds Amanda on Commercial Drive, picking through grocery store produce. Amanda holds up a honeydew melon. What do you think of this? she asks.
That is the finest melon I have ever encountered, Sabrina responds.
What do you want to do for your birthday? Are we meeting up for drinks?
Of course! Sabrina demures, as cool as possible. She flicks back her hair.
Hey, Amanda says, finally. Did you do something different to your hair?
Yes, she says. I got glasses.
* * * * *
And a note, if anyone is so inclined, that I still have copies of both of my two novels available for purchase (the publisher has long gone defunct): white (The Mercury Press, 2007) and Missing Persons (The Mercury Press, 2009) [read a short review; read my essay on same]. If such appeals, they’d be $15 each, with $3 for Canadian orders ($5 if both) and $6 for American orders ($11 if both). Either e-transfer or paypal to rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com (or send an email if you wish to send cheque or some other means). And you recall that The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) is still available through Invisible Publishing? Or that you should (or could) be picking up a copy of my recent suite of pandemic essays, essays in the face of uncertainties (Mansfield Press, 2022) that came out a few weeks back? Huzzah!