Eileen of Character
by Brian Polk
*An excerpt from the forthcoming book, Placement of Character, out this March on Suspect Press
For the last two years, four months and three days, Eileen had kept a thought buried in the back of her mind. It started as as a murmur, then graduated to a whisper. Now it spoke in nagging tones, and Eileen had to confront it or surrender to anger and depression. The notion was this: She must leave her boyfriend Paul—posthaste.
It wasn’t that Paul was an abusive or disloyal boyfriend. In fact, most of the time he didn’t seem to care if Eileen was present in his life or not—and therein lay the problem. The two shared no interests, had no mutual friends, and held very different worldviews. It was a relationship built on physical attraction, and even that began to wane, as Eileen increasingly preferred solo performances over a duet. The cultural dynamics were always difficult to navigate as well. Paul had no tattoos and always sported simple blue jeans and plain t-shirts. He had no political leanings, passions, or really anything he felt intensely about. Meanwhile, Eileen wore antique glasses, had two full sleeves of tattoos, a nose ring, dyed jet black hair, and always wore band T-shirts (her favorites: The Cure, RVIVR, Citizen Fish, and the Ramones). Once upon a time, she had a zine and fiercely supported the Riot Grrrl movement, but whenever she spoke to Paul about her political beliefs, he scoffed or smugly mentioned the fact that he never succumbed to teenage naivety.
Paul also doubted the health of their relationship, and was just as shy about broaching the subject. But just as seemingly normal people can be pushed to bouts of hysterical fury when cut off in traffic, Paul was capable of reaching his own fits of rage if the conditions were right.
And one night, after quitting her third job in a year, Paul’s blood pressure raced off the charts.
“What are you doing home so early?” Paul asked Eileen when she walked through the front door.
“It didn’t work out,” she said, throwing her jacket on the couch.
“What do you mean, ‘it didn’t work out?’”
“Well, I went into the building, rode the elevator up to the third floor, and when the doors opened I just kind of stood there,” she said as Paul glared at her. “Then I had a premonition.”
“A what? What’s that mean?” asked Paul. His eyebrow twitched, cold sweat ran down his back. Paul was beginning to lose control of himself.
“Like, a vision,” she said. “I had a vision of myself working as a Junior HR Coordinator for a pathetic paycheck and it scared the hell out of me. So I stayed put, waited for the elevator doors to close, and I rode it back down. Then I drove around for awhile, got some tea, and came back home.”
“It scared you?” Paul said incredulously.
“Yeah, I mean, look at you, and you’re always depressed and cranky from work, and I sure as hell don’t want to be like that.”
Since Paul brought home six figures as a pharmacist, Eileen didn’t really need to work. But somewhere between her boredom and feelings of inadequacy, and his increasing weariness at having a sexless, stay-at-home girlfriend, Paul came to an undeniable conclusion: Her lack of a job had become a problem. So when Eileen told him she found a job, Paul was ecstatic. He had convinced himself that her dwindling libido was a result of her lack of both responsibility and physical mobility. Once she got out of the house more and her self-worth was restored, he reasoned, her sexual prowess would return as well. So when she entered the door six and a half hours too early, Paul’s dreams of more frequent intimacy were dashed. And that, more than any of Eileen’s other actions, made him as furious and disappointed as a social conservative receiving an invitation to his only son’s gay wedding.
“But that’s how it works!” he yelled. “Everyone hates their job, but they do it anyway!”
“But that’s not how it should be,” she said, looking at him as if this were the obvious conclusion that any rational person would come to.
Paul didn’t know how to respond.
His agitation rendered him speechless; despite his best attempts to hide it, he was showing signs of extreme hostility. “Not how it should be?” he finally said, his voice shaking. “You know what your problem is?”
“Uh—” she managed to say before Paul cut her off.
“You’re a hopeless idealist,” he declared, a statement that surprised them both since he had never once spoken to her with such accusation in his voice. After a few seconds of stunned silence, Paul realized his venting granted him a sense of power, and he couldn’t stop himself. “You always think of things the way they should be and not as they actually are.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Everything! You can’t even keep a job for ten minutes.”
“Yeah, well . . .” she began, but trailed off before she could make a point. She couldn’t really think of anything to say in her defense, so she figured she’d desperately grasp at whatever came to mind. “Your problem is that you don’t care about the world. You just care about yourself.”
“How can you say that? I care enough about you to pay for your entire lifestyle.”
“Yeah,” was the only thing Eileen could think to say. She had conceded the argument, now she was just hoping to minimize the damage.
“And you don’t really care about the world either,” Paul said, standing up and pointing aggressively at her. “You pretend to care about the world with your compassion and feminism and rants against fracking and all that, but it’s all just so you can lord it over people. Your beliefs are just a way for you to make yourself feel superior to everyone else. ‘Oh, I’m so interesting because I won’t let my boyfriend get cable.’ ‘Oh, I’m so much better because I’m vegetarian and hate fur coats.’ ‘Oh, I’m so goddamn pure because I always tell everyone how much I hate living in the suburbs.’ If you hate it so much here, why don’t you leave?”
“You’re calling me a fraud?” asked Eileen. “And, wait a minute. Are you telling me I should leave the house? . . . Are you kicking me out?”
Paul didn’t know if he had meant to say that, and he was equally unsure if he should stay the course or quickly retract the statement. “Uh,” in a matter of seconds, his mind went into overdrive as he weighed the pros and cons of the relationship. When it occurred to him that even her positive aspects had been reclassified as negative ones (for example, her physical beauty had moved from a pro to a con after their sex life dwindled into oblivion), he decided to stay the course. “Yes,” he said, confidentially. “You are a fraud, and I don’t want you living here anymore.”
Eileen was totally aghast.
Paul felt his stomach clench like a wrung out sponge. Neither knew what to do or say in this situation. “I wasn’t expecting that,” Eileen finally uttered, fighting back tears. She knew the sudden termination of this relationship would be a good thing for her, but she also didn’t want it to happen like this. Of course, she couldn’t imagine a better circumstance for the relationship to end. She just didn’t know it could happen so abruptly, unceremoniously, and without warning.
“I wasn’t either,” Paul said.
Eileen turned and walked out the door. Paul wanted to stop her, but he knew he would never be able to take back the horrible things he just said. He let her go without so much as a whisper.
***Placement of Character will be available in bookstores this spring, with a release party on Saturday, March 11, at Syntax Physic Opera. For more information, go to brianpolk.org.