Fiction: Pink Rectangles
By Marilyn Parr
The first time I see a pink rectangle where there should be a white screen, I think I’m going blind. The internet says things like retinal detachment and so I take the tube to A&E, where frazzled consultants use eyedrops to dilate my pupils and tell me to press my face to smooth, grey machines. Bright lights flash leaving an impression of veins in my mind’s eye. Afterwards, a young ophthalmologist clenches his teeth. There is nothing wrong with my eyes. His pen scratches the words ‘artificial tears three times a day’ deep into a prescription pad. Outside, the streets are too busy to notice a woman standing rigid, blinking suspiciously at all white objects, wondering if these pink silhouettes are here to stay.
The whites of my eyes look like over-fried eggs. They feel gritty, and rubbing them, whilst momentarily orgasmic, results in swollen eyelids. Despite diligently applying the artificial tears, there is no improvement in my symptoms and so I decide to take matters into my own hands by crying naturally. The internet is a treasure trove of sad things when you know how to look. A popular online video player is quick to learn my tastes and starts feeding me video after video of missing children, teen suicides and people whose loved ones got swept away by natural disasters. I sob. My tears are genuine but my motives unclear. Each time I click on the little white triangle in the centre of the screen, I know I am doing more harm than good.
My acupuncturist presses her cold fingertips to my left wrist and tuts at my slow pulse. She tells me that eye conditions are related to the liver and that the liver is the seat of anger. I consider myself more melancholic than angry, I say, and continue to believe this is true, even after she explains that depression is just anger turned inward.
To begin clearing my stagnated liver qi, I try to rekindle some love in the organ mainly responsible for pumping blood around my body. At a tattoo parlour, I choose a picture of a chubby outlined heart from a plastic flip file and ask for it to be etched onto the inside of my wrist, where the skin is thinnest. Afterwards, I buy a love palm from a plant boutique and walk home hugging its cement pot to my chest. Leaves like fingers stroke my cheek, as if to say, ‘I’m sorry it stings’ and I’m glad for the attention though I pretend not to care.
It occurs to me that I am cultivating a persona based on disease. Healthy body, healthy mind, they say, and so I begin a regimen of clean eating. The slow cooker sweats away for twenty-six hours, leaching the goodness from animal bones. The resulting broth coats my mouth in a layer of fat so thick that I struggle to swallow my own saliva.
From the stationery cupboard at work, I borrow an A6 notebook with a hard black cover. Within the feint blue lines, I begin a list of three noteworthy experiences from each day. Most often I write about what I have seen; a child’s plush toy carefully balanced on a black railing, an octogenarian wearing black lipstick, roses the colour of canned peaches. Rarely do I write about sounds, tastes or sensations. What I take from this is that I must truly be a visual person, just like my psychometric profile said I was. I suppose it’s a consolation, considering my job is mostly searching for lifestyle images that encapsulate the brief.
Sometimes I wonder if the problems with my liver, heart and eyes are symptoms of a singular underlying illness. There is nothing wrong with each organ per se, other than its being contained within my body and nurtured by the same blood and poor life choices.
One day, when I am bored at work, I colour in the heart tattoo on my wrist using a blue fountain pen. The ink bleeds into the minute cracks of my skin. I try to wash away the ink under the cold tap in the bathroom but a faint stain remains. The Head of Knowledge and Insight stares at my wrist during our morning stand up and does not look surprised when I haven’t got any noteworthy updates to contribute.
Lying on the acupuncturist’s table, I get an unbearable yearning in the base of my right thumb, as if it is calling to the needle. The acupuncturist walks around my body, taking her time to pinpoint qi in my ankles, shins and stomach. When she finally inserts the needle in my aching thumb, my whole body jolts as if I had been shocked. That’s the self-care point, she says. Afterwards, she gives me a herbal tincture to take home. The potion comes in a brown glass bottle with a black rubber suction lid, like something you’d buy from an upmarket organic shop. At home, I squirt eleven drops into a mug of tepid water and swallow. It tastes how I imagine the love palm’s insides taste, green and musty. I write down the flavour in my black notebook and spend the rest of the afternoon sketching fronds growing out of a person’s chest in careful strokes of blue ink.
Upon reading an essay on loneliness, it occurs to me that I am utterly alone. What I can’t work out is whether my stagnated liver qi is the cause of or as the result of my alienation. Sometimes it’s as if all the things I have ever learned are present in my consciousness at the same time, like a great confluence of knowledge and it feels like I am close to divinity. Other times, I have to think very hard in order to put a name to a face, even if it is someone I see often.
The tips of my love palm’s leaves are turning brown. The internet says it could be overwatering or under watering. It’s definitely not the latter and so I decide it’s time to stop the mollycoddling. For a week, I pretend the love palm does not exist. It looks so forlorn in the corner that I feel the need to explain myself. Stroking its thin leaves, I tell it what my mother told me: I’m doing this because I love you.
It’s most beneficial to think of healthfulness as a moving target. The key is not to get complacent. Attaining one goal should lead to the formation of the next goal. By journeying from goal to goal, you will naturally move away from self-harming activities. So says an article on a wellness e-zine bedecked with the stylised, pastel illustrations widely accepted to be the aesthetic of choice for my generation. I write a strongly worded e-mail to the editor asking for the article to be taken down as it denies the life experiences of those of us who are stagnating. The editor writes back and says the very fact that I took the time to defend my position suggests I am not as stagnant as I’d like to believe. I conclude that a lot of what I say is dishonest and meant largely for effect. Realising this about myself does not lead to any perceptible difference in my behaviour.
After a few weeks of spartan watering and restrained conversation, the love palm’s older leaves acquire a sprightliness which tells me they are yearning to be noticed. I continue with my strategy of withholding affection. A couple days later, the plant sends up a new frond, tightly rolled and ever so tender in its greenness. I reward the palm with a good soaking and a long chat about the joys of motherhood. Immediately afterwards I worry that I’ve gone too far and snip off the baby frond with a pair of kitchen scissors.
My acupuncturist says I won’t make any real progress unless I take my anger more seriously. You mean like anger management classes? I say, to which she replies, No, find a healthy outlet for your inner self. On the way home, I shout, Hey buster! at a man who speeds through a traffic intersection even though the green person clearly signals it’s my right of way. He just laughs at me. In the supermarket, I block a grey-haired woman with a slow-motion karate chop when she reaches across me to get a box of crackers off the shelf. She isn’t shocked. In fact, she looks impressed. I didn’t see you there, she says.
In bed, I think about what it means to be seen by someone. What if all my problems stem from an unconscious desire to be invisible? I go onto the internet and buy a pair of red leather cowboy boots embroidered with a pattern like flames. Red is the colour for passion but also for danger which means there’s a fifty-fifty chance my wardrobe addition could net me a new lover or get me arrested.
I use a page of my black notebook to write down some of the things I could be angry about. The state of the world should provide ample content but all I can muster are some half-hearted memories of personal slights I suffered at the hands of those closest to me. Like the day my ex-boyfriend got on a train without me because he wanted to head on to a festival and I hadn’t made it to the station on time. I tear out the page and put it in the blender with two scoops of bone broth, which I feed to the love palm once it has cooled.
I realise I haven’t seen the pink rectangles for a while. Maybe something is working, though it’s hard to know if it’s the diet, the crying, the acupuncture, the tattoo, the love palm, standing up for myself or my new red boots. The only way to know for sure is through a process of elimination. I list the love palm on a preeminent online marketplace and throw my red boots into a plastic bag, which I take to the charity shop on my way to binge on cheap fast food. While stuffing my face with an oily sausage roll, I ask the internet about laser tattoo removal. Upon learning the price-tag, I resolve instead to cover my heart up with a band-aid.
When the successful purchaser, a young man whose tight clothes are meant to deflect from his receding hairline, comes to collect the love palm, I hand it over along with a note describing the plant’s likes and dislikes; existentialism, rainwater, mid-90s soft rock. It looked bigger in the pictures, says the man. So did you, I reply. The plant waves its leaves like a child being wrenched from its mother’s arms. Much later, whilst wondering around the kitchen snapping a pair of scissors in time to the Nevermind album, I realise the feeling inside me is regret but for some reason it doesn’t connect with my ability to form audible words.
At work, I perfect my ability to micro nap by resting my forehead on the palm of my hand, as if I am in deep thought. I wake up feeling certain someone has said, at least she’s stopped wearing those hideous red boots, but all my colleagues have their headphones in and their eyes trained on their computer screens.
Browsing the usual social media sites allows me to track the progress of my ex-love palm under the care of its new owner, who is a small-time personal fitness influencer. He has positioned the plant in his living room, where the filming of his workout videos takes place in an area cleared by pushing a velour lounge suite against the far wall. The love palm looks on cheerfully as @ldn_fitness_guy claps his way through a hundred burpees. It’s as if we never knew each other at all.
My acupuncturist sends an email asking where I have been lately. I reply saying that I’m on holiday in Marrakesh and attach a photo of myself in a wide brimmed hat and large sunglasses, which was taken some years ago in Brighton. I wait just long enough to see her response come in, Enjoy!!!!!!!, before deleting her contact details.
No tears leave my face for three whole weeks. I sense that I am boring, even to myself. As soon as I think it, the pink rectangles reappear and I welcome them like long lost friends.
On the way home from work, I spot my old red cowboy boots displayed in the charity shop’s window. Someone with an aptitude for reselling footwear has buffed the leather so that it gleams. Someone less skilled in art of visual merchandising has positioned the boots between a chipped Delftware jug and a quilted scatter cushion reading, Home Sweet Home. I thought you were making a beeline for the boots, says the volunteer, as I pay for the cushion and jug. A laugh cracks free from my chest. I wonder briefly if the love palm would like or dislike the sound of my laughter, as the jug slips from my grasp and falls towards the floor.
Marilyn Parr began her writing career as a political journalist in South Africa, where she spent her formative years. Now settled in Bath, UK her writing explores unlikeable female characters, insider / outsider narratives, and how we relate to the world — especially at this time of ecological uncertainty. She holds a first class degree in English Literature and obtained her MA in Creative Writing with distinction. Her work has been published by various online journals and, in 2021, achieved second place in the Cambridge Short Story Prize.