“You know how you hear people say; so-and-so was an exponential success? Well, I’m going to be a cubic success. I had a dip in the middle, but from now on my life will only get better.” Charlotte was leaning back against the round boulder onto which we’d climbed. The boulder had been baking in the sun all morning and its slow heat was working its way into our bodies. Charlotte’s wet hair was stuck to her shoulders in uneven, winding knots. She’d first lunged then dived after the bottle when it had rolled off the top of our island of rocks, and had come up from the water laughing, surprised at how strongly, impulsively, she’d reacted. She’d propped herself up on her elbows to look out over the lake. I couldn’t see her face, but I imagined she was smiling.
Charlotte often spoke like this. When she was struggling with a big question she thought in math. The discipline gave shape and structure to her life in a way nothing else ever had. She and I had met as grads, the only girls on our school’s math program, and she liked that I understood her analogies: exponential graphs go straight up, gaining speed, while cubic graphs start off doing about the same then take a quick nose-dive before righting themselves.
Everyone knows, of course they know. We have no secrets. We know who loves who. Who regrets what. Our choice of words, no matter how neutral, gives us away. We talk without meaning to. We can’t help it. So, don’t be a coward; they already know.
A year after Charlotte and I first met, her nose-dive started.
When I went all the way, five hours, on the train to Toronto, and missed the last train home, without even having checked to know when I should leave so as not to miss the last train home, and when last minute I stayed overnight in a hotel, which I couldn’t afford, I didn’t do it out of a sense of duty. I wasn’t, in a modern way, visiting a friend institutionalized in a mental hospital like I would visit a friend sick with cancer. I was visiting you.
On her good days in the hospital she’d worked on her projects. She’d spend hour silently typing away on her laptop, often wrapped up in blankets, never leaving her bed. The first project had been inspired by a coding script she’d written at university. Charlotte had been working as graduate research assistant and she’d written something so a tutor could perform ‘mass file operations’. The script would go into his personal drive, open all the documents down a specific filepath, tally up the relevant numbers, create a spreadsheet showing the results, and save the spreadsheet neatly onto his desktop. The tutor knew no code at all, and so this impressed him. Charlotte was recommended to other tutors and she earnt a fair amount of money.
Charlotte had liked the script, liked the simplicity of it, but more so the absurdity of basic, practical-level coding coming across as expertise among a faculty of math doctorates who happened not to know much coding. She liked the absurdity of knowing more, in some ways, than the people who corrected her assignments. She even liked the absurd way the tutors pretended to understand what she was saying when she explained her code to them, the way they nodded and corrected her.
The first project had been a duplicate of this script, but instead of writing it to open specific files Charlotte had created a random function in the code. The function would pull details from any file saved anywhere on her clunky, old laptop and tally those up. The result was a table of glitchy nonsense, which she’d printed out, framed and hung on her wall.
When Charlotte discovered the Dadaists in a book borrowed from the hospital library she’d translated the method from ‘How to Make a Dadaist Poem’ into code. This script would pull a random article from the Montreal Gazette, jumble it up, and present the scrambled words as a kind of collage-poem.
Charlotte created dozens of these projects. Soon enough, she had been featured in a few small galleries. She’d still been in hospital when the scouter from the National Contemporary had bought one of her pieces.
You can’t have failed to notice that what I did was odd, extraordinary. There’s nothing casual about travelling halfway across the country to visit someone you’ve not spoken to for months. Who just disappeared for months. Whose family told you not to come. That’s scary. That’s the action of someone who cares, in a real way.
That morning, we’d swum out to the rock island to wash our hair because the shower still hadn’t been hooked up. We’d put on our swimming costumes and had walked into the lake holding shampoo, conditioner, soap and body wash as best we could in one arm, while getting ready to scull with the other. We’d trodden water vigorously, trying to keep our hair above-water long enough to soap it, before ducking under to rinse it off.
We’d searched for this lakeside house for months, trying to find just the right place – close enough to my work in the city but rural enough that we could still swim and bike and ski, and so that Charlotte could create her artworks in peace and quiet. Finding this place, with its wavy knee-high grass and fusty smell, had been a dream.
“We could go to the store, buy thousands of bottles, pour them all in and turn it into a bubble bath!” said Charlotte. I laughed because I pictured the lake as like a giant bubble bath, surrounded by sandy banks and evergreens. Real instead of rubber ducks.
“I think that’s chemical dumping.”
I swam froggy-style for a few strokes and looked at the brightly-colored bottles bobbing past me in the black lake water, surrounded by piles of pinky-white froth.
It was absurd what they did to you. I mean both before and after. You were better than all of them. You deserved another chance, an extension, some permission to retake. But when they didn’t give it to you and you just shrugged and went back to typing I wanted to take that laptop and snap it in two, right over my knee.
But I’m so proud of what you’re doing, even if I don’t get it. Lots of other people seem to. The Contemporary loves you. The curator wouldn’t stop raving to me about your work when I went to see your show. Did you know I went to see your show? If you ever want to leave, I’ll take you.
Look, Charlotte – you’re the one who invited me. I can put two and two together as well as you. I don’t need to explain all this. Because, and it’s obvious, you already, you always, knew.
Grace Roberts has performed her poetry at open mics around Nottingham and London and is new to writing for publication. She studies Economics in London and grew up in Canada. She is working on a novel.
If you enjoyed “Cubic Success” leave a comment and let Grace know.
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