Random Acts of Optimism

– Alison Wells

My name is Hope and that’s where it ends. My father was a nasty man. But you’ve heard that story before and I’m tired of telling it. They wrung it out of me during therapy, religion cleansed my soul, my brother Stevie drowned in misery, my mother washed away in a torrent of abuse. But hey, things can only get better, right?

Just lately, I started to see that life is made up of all these random acts of optimism. You wouldn’t have expected me to notice that, would you? I know you think that I’m too shallow to tie a sense to its meaning. I know you think I’m mean all the time and it makes no sense. But I do feel things, and boy, do I sense things! I’m the queen of peripheral vision – sudden swipes to the side of the head, Stevie in the corner hiding from a hiding. I am the master of sound: the click of the door, frantic whispers. I can feel the air moving in front of an angry hand and smell the menace in beery breath. I can taste the good in you, and I know what that means.

Now that I’ve started to think about it, we commit these acts of optimism all the time. When we apply for a job, for instance, or tell a joke. When we try and compete with the Funny Man in the pub, holding court with his spaced faced groupies.

But maybe I should go back to the beginning, to where I’m lying in bed, thinking about all this stuff.

Watching your back while you sleep, loving the dip near your hip, toffee skin, buttocks like wholemeal baps, eyelashes like Venus flytraps. It makes me liquid looking at you and that’s not just what it sounds like, I’m like a cat sitting in the midday sun, having its belly rubbed, honey pouring onto toast. I’m slipping into all the corners of the room and then through the small gaps out into the world and nothing matters anymore, none of the crap that happened. And I think, yeah I can do this, everything’s sweet. But you don’t sleep forever, you twitch and budge and you blink and then you turn over and look at me really hazy and say ‘How about some breakfast?’

So random acts of optimism…getting up in the morning, the first idiotic leap of faith. Not counting the sperm race of course. What are the chances? About one in two hundred million? Now that’s bloody optimism for you.

What else? How about starting a story and not knowing how it’s going to end?

Imagining a different life when the life you have is different from all the people you know and knowing that isn’t going to make one speck of difference. Hoping your Mum will stop scrubbing, stop wiping down, stop polishing, stop cleaning, stop jumping every time you walk in the door from school. Hoping, for her sake, that one day when you come home she won’t be there anymore. Hoping you will have the time to also leg it.

Falling in love with the coolest guy in the class and thinking no-one will laugh at you, asking him to dance while wearing a pink t-shirt with flowers round the neck. I must have been about thirteen. Things weren’t quite so bad at home then, I still had time to be moon faced and starry eyed. Still had my collections of fancy paper, still watched the letter box on Valentine’s Day.
You have to be optimistic to fall in love right? With a man, any man. Because almost every man can be charming and every one of them is capable of doing bad things. And the bad guys show you yourself in the mirror. And the nice ones know that you’re messed up and let you down so gently it kills you.

Getting Married. Thinking you will ever want to.

Mum getting married in 1988 to a man who is so charming that it hurts his face and makes his fingers twitch. Hitched up until death do us part, more a threat than a promise. Getting married to a man they all told her had flint in the eyes, a sway in his step. Thinking that you are right and everybody else is wrong. Thinking that it’s all going to be okay because you love each other.
Thinking you want to have a baby. Looking at the nine o’clock news and thinking that you still want to have a baby.

Trying to get pregnant, (not me!) But it’s all over the media – 50 year old IVF junkies, career women with busted body clocks getting someone to stick pins in them. That’s not optimism, that’s obsession.

Having sex and not wanting to get pregnant. Rolling the dice, thinking your number’s going to come up. Or not. Please God not. That’s not optimism, that’s prayer. Hey, maybe that is optimism.

Having a child like Mum did, having two, Stevie and Hope, when you already know that the most evil men never stop smiling but it’s only with the mouth, not the eyes. And when he traces the inside of your arm with his finger, you’re not sure what he’s thinking of doing. And when he comes up close to her, my Mum, smelling of sweat and old sex and whispers something in her ear, he makes her shake like a dog when thunder is coming.

Here more examples I came up with – you might like these: thinking that people are listening to everything you say; thinking that people are taking in every word of your story without skipping bits; thinking that people care about what you’re telling them or what happened to you or what the seductive, screwed up voice in your head is telling you to do next. Thinking that the bad stuff doesn’t keep showing up again, thinking that you’re anything more than a little white mouse on a running wheel. Here it comes, round again. Not so much hoping as expecting it.

It’s like Stevie. Stevie he gets down, you know. But then he’s up again and I mean it, buzzing, spinning, grinning, maxing out his card on Grafton Street, shoplifting in the Ilaac Centre, jay walking on the motorway, joy riding in the suburbs. He has his little posse, his friends from the ‘Joy’ who don’t mind that he came from the right side of the tracks. He gets on the wheel and the trouble keeps coming. Theft, possession, speeding, assault and back to the slammer and ever time the door slams harder. But it’s what he knows now and he’s comfortable with it and when he goes down, there’s always gonna be someone in there glad to see him.

I went to visit him, once or twice. Mountjoy’s a pretty place on the outside, all warm red brick, Victorian. Inside you have to keep stepping into the spaces between metal gates. In the visiting room, Stevie was really chilled out, as if his prison scrubs were loungewear and he was kicking back on a long lazy weekend. He said they teach Art and History in the education block. He said Art was good but he wasn’t into History. He said it didn’t bother him, being locked up, he was already pretty used to that, what he liked about it was the sense of order. He always knows what’s expected of him, like at home but without the surprises.

What’s that honey? You want to know what happened with my Dad and all that at Christmas? I was hoping you wouldn’t ask.

Hey let’s talk about the weather instead. In Ireland, you’ve got to be optimistic right? Irish summers: sunny spells and occasional showers. Cup half full and covering all bases. And swimming in the sea, – a leap of faith! You see the old ladies on Killiney beach, with the water bobbing round their middles, their arms, elbows bent, lifted right up out of the sea as if it’s contaminated or something. ‘It’s a bit warmer than yesterday,’ someone says. Well yeah. If you say so, you looper.

But here’s another random optimism: enjoying fine weather for what it is. Sometimes, the weather gets good, a bit too good – you know what I mean – like record breaking hot and you look up at the sky and instead of following those frothy latte clouds with your eyes so that it spaces you out and you got this feeling of bliss, instead you wonder how the ozone layer is doing or global warming, whatever it is they call it now.

Enjoying tropical downpours for what they are. That’s more of it. Reading books about polar bears with your children. If you have children. If you read to them.
Here’s some for my Mum. Letting your child walk home from school or go to a niteclub for the first time when you know all the stupid things they will do and all the awful things that someone else might do to them.

Letting them leave home. Letting her daughter (me) leave home so she can save herself, when I’m the only thing that keeps her going. Hoping he won’t kill her when he finds out.

But you know, I think it’s going to be okay now. I’m gonna tell you what happened. Yeah, at Christmas. Hey, just thought – believing in Santa – gotta be one for my list!

Well anyway, as you know, I hadn’t been home in a few years but Mum thought he was going through a good phase and she begged me to come round for dinner. It was gonna be turkey but when I walked in, it was like she already was. Yellowed with old bruises, scrawny necked, stuffed and roasted.

There was no sign of Stevie, he wasn’t even mentioned. But the old man, he was there of course, presiding with his treacherous what they call bonhomie. You should have seen him, pulling a cracker with my mum, tugging it gently to begin with, all jokey, and then at the last moment he gives it a vicious yank and the cracker snaps like a shot going off and my mums leaps back and nearly knocks over her glass.

‘Lucky me,’ says my Dad and reads off the slip of paper that fell out.

‘What happens when you tell an egg a joke?’ he says. ‘It cracks up. Geddit?’ Then he makes her wear the paper hat, forces it down on her head.

By three o’ clock he was sozzled. Mum was washing up. She said it was alright, she didn’t want me to help. I think she was hoping I would keep him at bay for a while. Leave her alone with her thoughts, whatever they can come to now. The father thing (Dad sounds wrong) sat down beside me on the sofa and kept trying to nuzzle under my chin like a loopy dog. ‘Hope, my lovely Hope,’ he was saying, ‘no hard feelings,’ and then he started to rub my arm, the way he does with my mum and that was the end, just then. It was like one little stone that works lose and then a trickle of water comes through and then the sand and more stones and then there’s a flood. But it wasn’t water, it was more like treacle, thick, sickening.

Staring at the Christmas tree, I morphed the baubles into grenades, wondered about strangulation by tinsel. Mary Poppins was on the telly. You know that bit where Burt (Dick van Dyke) and his chimney sweeps do that dance all around the chimneys, leaping over big gaps and tottering on the edges of tall buildings. ‘Get your knees, up, step in time’, that one. What a laugh, sweetness and light. And the rest of the room, going black.

He gets up, all of a sudden, to go to the bathroom, I guess. Squeezes my hand as if to say I haven’t finished with you yet. He’s very unsteady. I look straight ahead. ‘Get your knee’s up, step in time. Never need a reason, never need a rhyme.’

I can’t tell you exactly what happened next. But he tripped. Poor devil. The fireplace was all festive. It had one of those garlands with the holly and the big red bows. The blood on the granite hearth wasn’t so much red than burgundy. My mother just stood leaning against the frame of the door, holding the tea towel in her hand. The ambulance came and a little while later the gardai. Everyone was so nice, all those people with their own families waiting on them to get home for Christmas. They offered to get my Mum a cup of tea. A woman guard put her arm around me, while the other one took notes. They get a lot of deaths at this time of year. Unfortunate accidents. That was my story anyway and I’m hoping it will stick.

Once there was a time when I was afraid to open my eyes in the morning. It must have been in my early teens when all those apocalyptic movies came out. We used to talk about them in school, our hearts hammering, one eye looking at the suspicious sky. As if talking about it would make it happen. So that’s got to be in the top ten random acts of optimism: opening your eyes when the world might already be gone. Or just opening your eyes. Full stop.

The sun’s just up. So I shift and twitch and budge and there’s a weight in the air above me, something coming at me, no just hovering, waiting for me to mess up so he can swipe. No, that’s not it, I realise, can’t be, not any more. My eyes are closed but I get the sense of toffee. It’s only a hair’s breadth from treacle but a hair’s breadth is the difference between life and death. So I open my eyes.

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