Newcrest’s sweetheart rose to ring in a new day. The master bathroom’s air was misty with orange blossom, so thick and so sweet that one whiff felt like being kicked in the face with springtime. Claudia couldn’t get over strong smells. Her olfactory footprint was orange blossom and chili powder, which smell like a red bell pepper when combined. The blossom-to-powder ratio got smaller as the day went on. At night, she always stumbled into this bathroom and scrubbed the spice buildup under her fingernails with orange-blossom-scented hand soap.
Claudia saw herself projected against the master bathroom’s varying shades of brown, the idea being it would be harder for neutral shades to clash. Neither homeowner had anything resembling intuition when it came to interior design; Kendra had the only artist’s eye in the family, but no one else warmed to the idea of a Ten-Plagues bathroom with red tap water. When she got sidetracked, Claudia picked at the grout connecting the sink and walls, so some areas retained a freshly-constructed glow with with almost no surfactant-and-floral-odorous-molecule-induced film, if any. She got sidetracked in the bathroom often.
She chose not to focus on the grout. Instead she was practicing drawing her focus inward, to the chest, where it needed to be right now, breathing in until she could take no more and out until she had nothing left. Claudia rolled her massive shoulders back and reached her sternum forward to create like a puff for the air to go in, and when she was ready to breathe out rolled them forward dramatically and contracted her abdomen, especially the part right below the belly button, curling around her ribcage like a pillbug. Aileen had taught her to do that. Aileen pointed out that your first breath upon exiting the womb is an inhale. Your last breath is always an exhale. If you were having issues with your emotions or general life state on the previous breath, or know there’s some deep shit coming on some subsequent breath, a strategy Aileen recommends is pretend you’re filling your world with one inhale and emptying it with one exhale, the purpose being to trick your consciousness into occupying some isolated microcosm between baby and corpse, the other purpose being to remind yourself you’re not wading through shit at this particular moment and to enjoy the sickly-sweet candy-floral scents before the situation outside the bathroom gets stercoraceous.
Claudia’s not stupid; she knows her own personal microcosm isn’t going to help her avoid what’s coming. The more cynical among us might see it as an avoidance tactic. She’s doing it to support Aileen, whether she finds out or not. Probably not. Breathing into a mirror doesn’t make for thrilling conversation.
Claudia appreciated people who lived moment-to-moment without dreading where they’d be on the next breath: mountain climbers, sims who get an erotic thrill from the prospect of losing their savings in Vegas, Shu, many of Shu’s friends and clients, anyone otherwise lifestyle-adjacent to Shu. She knew the issue with choosing between certain doom and probable success was losing that certainty, and knowledge of the situation with it, even if taking responsibility meant she was now in control, even if she did know from the rising feeling in her chest that things would get better. She could control one thing outside her contained microcosm, the thing that was fogging up the mirror with its breath. She vowed today, like every day, to be the best Claudia she could be. The best Claudia went about with dignity and a smile and generally tried to be a human light source.
Best Claudia—not perfect Claudia and that’s ok—ran a bath with the same scent that made her nostrils feel like they were being attacked with an idea, careful to not drag her index finger through the blown-sugar bubbles before massaging the sore skin under her eyes. Sleep was like a gambler’s luck, leaving when she needed it most. She closed her eyes and sunk neck-deep to gently steam her eyelids instead. Kendra would’ve settled for black tap water instead if anyone asked her.
Her eyes opened to the sound of nails scratching on tile. Perry’s head and tail bobbed at the tub’s edge as the door closed itself behind him. Doors in her universe are silent and pathogen-free, but Perry’s begging eyes threatened a whimper, and Claudia weighed that against the risk of shushing him. She could picture that man’s position on the other side of the door, his head on the pillow with its clockwise cowlick facing toward her, his unconscious body lining the bedsheets with sweat. She winced. Outside the bathroom was a world she wasn’t prepared to face, and she’d stopped enjoying her bathtime the way you do when there’s a pair of unwanted eyes trained on your naked body. But, although dogs understood body language related to food consumption and preparation, Claudia’s uniquely human you-wanna-give-me-some-space-there-buddy expression fell on deaf floppy ears. He’d won. She lifted herself from the tub, backed with clicks as Perry pranced in anticipatory circles.
The dalmatian escorted his clean but totally out-of-it owner through the door, looking back every second to ensure she hadn’t forgotten how to walk to the pet bowl. Her body language suggested she was the one being chased. Perry was unfamiliar with the feedback loop created by anxiety-induced insomnia and insomnia-induced anxiety battling it out until the combination of the two becomes unmanageable, nor did he understand the effect a large animal cartoonishly bounding right next to where the source of the anxiety is sleeping, after the sleepless person spent sevenish hours not sleeping next to said source, has on that sort of thing.
She left the bedroom at a few minutes past six. Hector was already into a second sausage-and-egg empanada with the TV on at a reasonable volume, which volume was like a gunshot to Claudia’s fried brain. Perry broke into a canter toward the kitchen.
“Good morning, Ma!” The combination of sounds made her jump and gasp. Again, reasonable volume, unreasonable mind state. She lifted her hands to disguise it as excitement, like a mom doing what moms usually do when their kid does something positive but trivial, like macaroni drawings etc., and not a mom whose brain thought she was a dispensable character in the second-to-last episode of an HBO drama.
“Hector, cariño, what are you doing watching TV so early?” She moved toward the couch as she said this, trying to maintain some stealth.
“I finished all my homework last night—“
“—Good for you!”
“—and just thought I’d, y’know, chill out here a bit before school starts. I think I focus better when I’m in a good mood.”
“That’s great! Hector, that’s a wonderful idea.” Claudia’s brain, whether boiled, fried, or marinated, represented the finest in organic-intelligence conversational autopilot. Hector in particular was easy to converse with; she could expect him to start narrating an imaginary comedic cooking show any minute now, and she was guaranteed to have to only pick from a preset list of positive responses, not negative or neutral responses or even leading questions, in either of the languages she was fluent in. Listening to one of those rambling culinary descriptions would be freeing in the way anything normal and expected would be freeing when one’s worried about the future. Her son, besides, didn’t need to totter off to school in a ruminatory-worrying state. As long as she kept her cool, he’d be shielded from dread until he got home at 3 P.M. to find that his mother’s things are gone. Hopefully. Convincing him to come with her was a task she could leave on the back burner.
“I think lunch today is the kind of sandwich they serve on field trips. The ones with plasticy cheese that you need one of those mayo packets to cough down.”
She’d had no time last night to come up with a plan. Her plan to come up with one required a four-way remote conversation with her friends in the loop, picking up where they’d left off yesterday. Her brain revved in the mud as she reminded herself to start a group text when Hector wasn’t looking, but he was, so the reminder became a chant that got more panicked with each repetition. While she wasn’t making an uplifting hand gesture, her right pinky finger twitched on her thigh.
“Seriously, Ma, I don’t know anything about cheesemaking, but that stuff’s like the genetic experiment of cheese. Not even the hotdog of cheese. Failed genetic experiment.”
The clicking Claudia heard from her right was made by Perry’s toenails as he skipped back from the kitchen, tail wagging. She didn’t go so far as to process the sound because the bedroom door opened on over a hundred pounds of intergalactic-heroic mass. He had risen. The endgame was on. Here was Perry’s last chance to convince one of those delightful but incompetent apes that there was a problem if all three of them were up and he wasn’t nose-deep in kibble, and if he could still see the bottom of his bowl at eight he’d take on the persona of a petty-tyrant boss in an office with furniture the same color as his cigar, spittle jumping down the landline’s speaker as he informed his underling that You’re Late and there’d be no getting him out of their hair.
“Like I know cheese doesn’t have DNA, but that stuff’s mutated.” There’s DNA in the shedded cow epithelial cells in milk. These cells are quiescent and altering their genome wouldn’t plasticize the milk even if they weren’t. “It’s the kind of cheese you only eat because it knows it’s a freak of nature and if it could talk, it would say ‘kill me.'”
It was natural for Claudia to listen, even on autopilot. She didn’t need to for this particular bit. Hector was in the plastic-cheese-rant stage of adolescent humor that compelled him to workshop plastic-cheese material at any warm body not keeping their social distance, often his mother, whose feedback was nonspecific but who accepted this as a process many sims go through before they can have a real improvisational exchange. This was one of the few times she truly wasn’t listening. The compulsion she had to monitor her husband on a micro- scale, this was new as of last night, and it wasn’t something she could handle yet.
“It’s obviously more of a Simerican cheddar but they should just replace it with mozzarella and make a regular torta. Or queso fresco, and it’d be there to balance something out that had actual flavor, like if they stacked the plastic ham—you know the ham? It’s edible but more like a prop you’d give to toddlers to play Grocery Store with—stacked it high like War and Peace, with fried tortilla for crunch and red guajillo sauce, or maybe an even mix of ancho, guajillo, and California chilis.”
The list of well-balanced chilis thawed Hector’s target audience from her terror, not that he’d noticed she’d zoned out during the sandwich brainstorm. “Sounds great, Hector.”
“I don’t get it. Chilis are cheap, tomatoes are cheap, so why are they giving us all this beige stuff?”
He walked into the kitchen so Claudia couldn’t see his reaction. Most Wednesday mornings she’d yell a slurred greeting and pet name from behind the bar as she mixed her second drink. But her eyes, lucid, wide with fear and guilt, like a deer’s in the split second before it became roadkill, meant he had something to worry about.
NOTE: These chapters are getting long, huh? I’ve decided that, for the sanity of myself and my readers, it’s better to break these chapters into smaller parts. I’ll aim for a rate of one part per week. Frequent readers, I hope this helps; binge readers, sorry about the extra clicks.
This chapter makes “Guide Me, North Star” look like a cookie fortune, but I refuse to skimp on it. No compromises. Stay safe and sane!