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Winners: Laura Laakso - The Life of a Kabuki Doll

The Life of a Kabuki Doll

Short Story 1500 - Shortlist

You lean against the door to shut it and kick off your shoes. The pain in your feet eases to a throb as you head for the kitchen. Keys land on the granite counter with a clatter; the only sound in the spacious loft. A glass and a bottle are waiting for you, and your hands move of their own accord. The seal breaks with a crack, and you pour. To you, the glug of the bottle speaks of pleasure, numbness, oblivion.

Glass in hand, you meander to the phone in the lounge, careful to take your time. You have nothing but time. Your stocking-clad feet are silent on the hardwood floor, and you wish you had left the shoes on. At least the pain felt real.

No messages.

The wine is bitter in your mouth before it disappears into the hollow within you. The cupboards in the kitchen are bare, but you recall reading an article about the hidden calories in wine. Your wardrobe is full of designer dresses and expensive business suits so you mustn’t get fat. On the rare occasion you have to look in a full-length mirror, you stare past your jutting pelvis and protruding collar bones, seeing only the thighs that are too wide, the buttocks that are never quite firm enough.

After a refill, you retrieve your phone from your Louis Vuitton purse. No messages. No emails. You stopped going on social media sites months ago.

Your work phone shows an unread email, but it is only an invitation to a wealth management conference in New York. As much as it interests you, it would be impossible to take that much time off work. Every year, your holiday allocation grows and every year, it remains unused. You even refused compassionate leave to attend your mother’s funeral in Kyoto, too busy preparing a pitch for a prospective client. You won the client, but your family stopped calling. It was a relief. Lying to them never sat well with you.

In the dim glow of the street lights, you pace the yawning spaces between designer furniture and bespoke rugs. Although it is late, you leave the lights off. That way, it is easier not to see the surfaces covered in dust. With each passing week, the veneer of civility fades a little more.

Your glass is empty and so is the bottle on the counter. Under the sink, the glass recycling box is full.

The white wine is warm and carries a residual taste of the red you drank earlier. You grimace, but changing glasses is too much effort. Although you are certain you put a bottle to chill in the fridge last night, you cannot find it now. It is not like you to misremember things.

A glance at your Cartier watch near the windows shows that midnight has just passed. Fatigue presses against your temples, but you will not go to bed, not yet. Lying in the middle of the king-sized bed you bought to try to fill the room is the worst part of every day. You end up staring at the distant ceiling, doubts and regrets swirling around your mind until you have to bite the corner of the duvet to keep from screaming. You used to bite your nails down to the quick to alleviate the anxiety, but now your hands are a part of the flawless mask you present to the world around you.

What little respite you get during the nights comes from thinking about work. You while away the hours of darkness rehearsing conversations and considering possibilities until you are three steps ahead of everyone else in the firm. The brightest star in the City is what the senior partner called you when he announced your latest promotion. You achieved it seemingly without effort. The promotion should fill you with pride, but instead, you are hollow inside. You know the sort of names people call you behind your back. Robot. Cheat. Ruthless. Ambitious. Cold. Lifeless.

None of that touches you, of course, for people are simply jealous of your success. And so you smiled as the senior partner toasted your achievements. You allowed the champagne to wet your lips, but refused the wine served with lunch. Best keep a clear head, the head of finance said to you with a wink, and you focused on pushing food around the plate, smiling until your jaws ached. No one saw you in the toilets later, throwing up smoked salmon and pheasant and panna cotta to the tune of a Mozart violin concerto.

It was the happiest day of your life.

At half past one, nausea arrives. Wine tastes equally bitter on the way up and your hands grasp for purchase along the cool surface of the toilet. The chill of the marble floor seeps into your bones while you retch and pant, and it forces you up. A memory of finding wine-stained vomit on the wall is reason enough to switch on the light. After you have cleaned away the signs of your shame, you risk a glance in the mirror. Your makeup is smudged, cracking the perfect porcelain mask. The reflection wavers, but the tears will not fall. In recent weeks, the sight of a mother hugging her baby, a homeless man begging for change and a goodbye kiss outside the train station have all sent you searching for a tissue. But here in the deafening silence of your home, a glimpse of your naked despair is not enough to make you cry.

Is this what it means to be broken beyond repair?

Heaving has triggered a headache, and pain lances from the back of your neck into your skull. After you rinse your mouth, you stagger into the bedroom. In the top drawer is a foil strip of painkillers. It rests on a book titled Understanding Dysthymia; Causes, Symptoms and Treatment, next to a letter discharging you from the NHS Mental Health Services for non-attendance. You slam the drawer shut.

You bought the book the day you got the diagnosis, but never opened it. Now both the book and the letter have become symbols of failure and shame. You never did try hard enough. As much as those items fuel the voice telling you that whatever you do is not good enough, you cannot bring yourself to throw them away. They are your punishment for crimes that have been left undefined.

The painkillers slip down your throat with the last of the white wine, and the empty bottle teeters against the coffee machine before landing on its side on the counter. With a shaking hand, you clear the bottle away and wonder when the paper recycling box got filled with bottles.

Your shoes are still by the door, and you carry them to the wardrobe, where row upon row of designer stilettos are waiting to hurt your feet. The dress you wear goes into an overflowing laundry bag. You meant to drop it off at the dry cleaner’s on Monday, but you seem to have forgotten. The washing machine in the utility room has been broken for months.

At the back of the wardrobe, in a small box, are items Jason left behind. He has not returned to collect them so they must all be inconsequential to him. You cannot bring yourself to call him for fear of the sound of his voice shattering what little strength you have left. Now, at the sight of the box, you push the wardrobe doors closed; an attempt at banishing him from your mind. Yet you have left the reminder of him where you will see it at least twice every day. It is a just punishment for your mistakes.

You defeated him. That is what he said when he packed his bags. He would have loved you for the rest of his life if only you would have let him. All you had to do was reach out and take his hand. But you never did. After waiting for as long as he could, he left to spare himself. You cannot blame him, even though you have been left living amidst the echoes of laughter, life and happiness that once filled the loft. Sometimes, you wonder if his departure did not kill you, leaving a mere echo to haunt the cavernous space.

After brushing your teeth to chase away the lingering tastes of wine and bile, you curl up on the bed. The room spins, perhaps from the alcohol, perhaps from the ache in your stomach. Soon it will be morning again. Your coffee machine is set to switch on at 5 a.m. Coffee is the second kind of drink you need to get through each day. A fleeting thought reminds you that when you do shatter, there will be no one to put the pieces together. But it matters not.

Your role is set and you are the perfect Kabuki doll.

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