‘That was back then, you remember, you were with us at the office for the summer because you didn’t have any camps or anything for the next few weeks. I remember at the office I used to do a line of coke in the morning, and after lunch cause I had no energy so I would sneak away to the bathroom, only the bathroom was through Roger’s office and it became a running joke that I had to use the bathroom right after eating,’ she laughed and sipped her coffee through thick lip injections, silently judging—always judging—the waitress who kept her distance. I’m sure she thought our server was rude, but I imagined CERB probably paid better than this hole-in-the-wall diner off Main Street, with its feeble, and probably vain, attempts at following anti-pandemic measures.
I sipped my coffee somewhat fitfully, trying my hardest through body language to express my discomfort: not meeting her gaze, sipping my coffee often (I was starting to feel it), shifting in my seat, checking my phone. ‘I was under a lot of pressure from everyone then. People were talking a lot. Saying things about your behavior. You were in video games and stuff, and Nicole and grandma were saying all these things. But I didn’t make you transcribe a dictionary.’
‘I remember specifically doing it. Like writing all the words out, and like how I felt.’
‘Then where are the papers? I keep everything. Like everything, I have it all,’ she said.
I threw out the stack of pages, on which I had painstakingly transcribed, by hand, every entry in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary beginning with the letter ‘A’ to the letter ‘W.’ It was impossible for me to imagine her having forgotten my seditious fit; the shouting and tearing of so much paper. I didn’t even recycle it; I just threw everything in the garbage.
Before I could speak, however, she barreled on: ‘Listen, when you were little, if you didn’t understand a word, I would tell you to get the dictionary out, and you’d piss and moan cause you didn’t want to copy them down and I’d always make you write them out cause when I was a kid you think Grandma and Grandpa gave a shit about how I did in school? I mean, they didn’t even know I needed glasses until like grade three and they had me in the special needs class like I was a ******.’
The waitress poured us more coffee, standing far away, her arms outstretched, holding the carafe with the tips of her fingers at an impossible angle.
‘Oh right, I can’t say that word.’ We both ordered a dish called “The Yearning Breakfast.”
‘You know what the doctor said to me, like when I came back from St. Martin, you remember the really fucked up one I think I told you. He had me like, reading these cards with words on them, like twenty of them, and he asked me what the words meant and I didn’t know any of them. And he was like
“well that’s a bad sign” and said I wouldn’t make it to thirty-five. Like I was reading these cards with these random words on them at the hospital and he was like “there’s no way you’re gonna make it.” But I took IQ tests and my IQ was always one-sixteen or one-eighteen or something like that— good, you know?’
I checked my phone a lot, and the coffee had me jittery. I scrolled through the same posts I’d already seen on Instagram. The world was on fire, somewhere out there, somewhere that mattered. At some point the waitress arrived with our food. It was quite a bit drier than I would have liked. About the diner were many framed paintings of horses.
‘You just hated writing out the definitions. You were just like that. You never did any of your math homework. I used to do it for you cause you never wanted to do it.’
‘No, I did not make you write out the dictionary. I have no idea what you’re talking about. It was important, when you were a kid, to do that, to write out the words you didn’t know but you never wanted to do it. I’d say “Okay, vas y, vas-y l’écrire— écris-le— but you never did.’
‘No, like when we were at the office you told me I had to write out the whole dictionary, and I remember writing out every word. My hand was cramped. You said you were trying to give me tasks. Stuff like “go get the third book from the right on the second row from the bottom and place it cover up on the table in the living room.” I just thought that was weird. Of course I could do that but why make me do that? I really resented that you said that. And that you made me copy the dictionary. I remember thinking it was fucked up while I was doing it.’
I started eating furiously, stuffing my face as quickly as I could even though my stomach felt like someone was taking a pair of vice grips to it. ‘Listen, everyone was saying things about your behaviour, they were saying lots of things— I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know how to raise a kid, everyone was saying all these things, telling me what I was supposed to do. I don’t know. I don’t remember doing that, if I did I’m sorry—' ‘That’s all you had to say. Why would you just say “no” if I’m telling you something? I remember it all even if you don’t. I wasn’t the one doing coke every day.’
‘You can’t hold that over me forever, dear. If I made you write out the whole dictionary by hand, I’m sorry, I don’t remember doing that.’ I finished my breakfast long before she did, since she was so busy talking.
"Merriam-Webster" by Alexandre Michaël. A word was censored by PACE Magazine, denoted by ******.
Alexandre Michaël is a French-Canadian writer and filmmaker from Ottawa. His work has been published in Matrix Magazine, and his films have screened at various festivals worldwide.