Too Much Salt
Stephen Abram (University of Adelaide, Australia)
It was week two of the lockdown when Katie started to go weird. We’d been housemates for a year and I’d never noticed any signs of mania; no turning light switches on and off a certain number of times or licking random objects with a compulsive need to see what they tasted like. Nothing like that. She seemed like a regular person, not the sharpest tool in the shed, but someone who managed to hold down a nine to five in retail. I guess it was a bit strange that she sold weed in little test tubes on the side, but she was trying to save for an overseas trip, she kept telling me, and would stop when she had enough money. Maybe that was part of it, the dreams of travel slowly diminishing as we updated the news feeds in our phones and watched the state of the world get worse by the day.
It’s not like I didn’t have problems myself, my job at the bookstore vanishing like Katie’s with the lockdown, but I had savings and decided I needed a break anyway. I was content to take things as they came, catch up on the books I didn’t have time to read and watch things as they unfolded, because in reality there was nothing I could do about them. We didn’t have it as bad as some places in the world, both of us single women in our late twenties and not as susceptible to the virus, a sought-after demographic at least for this situation. The Australian government was even willing to give us money to survive during our unemployment phase.
I think it was a Tuesday when she first told me about her… let’s say affliction. We were watching a film in the lounge to pass the time, some recent Hollywood guff that didn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test. A chisel-jawed guy hired to rescue the daughter of the US president when she was abducted by Russians, you know the type of film. When he finally does rescue her, they magically fall in love without knowing a damn thing about each other. It was around this time I felt the shudder of Katie’s shoulders moving, twitching as the tears came, making two watery lines run down her cheeks. Not that that’s weird, people get pent up emotionally in times of duress and it comes out in strange ways, I understand that. It’s what she did after.
I asked if she was okay to which she nodded, then quickly got up and went to her room. Watching the credits roll I contemplated whether I should go and talk to her or let her be. I was still deciding when the last of the credits disappeared up the black screen and I thought it probably would be best to check.
After knocking on her door she offered me to come in, her voice sounding like the event had run its course. She was sitting at her desk with a line of test tubes she’d use to sell weed in, some of them with numbered labels. I parked myself on her bed and asked if she was okay while she continued to scribble something down on a notepad.
‘I’m okay, just making a record.’
‘A record of what?’
‘Of how I was feeling when I started to cry.’
Okay, I thought, maybe this isn’t that strange, some kind of coping mechanism she’d read about on one of the many how to deal with the epidemic sites we’d both been guilty of looking at.
‘What’s with the test tubes?’ I asked.
‘I’m using them to collect the salt.’
Not the response I was expecting.
‘What do you mean “collect the salt”?’
‘I was reading this article recently about how we get rid of the salt in our bodies when we cry or sweat, and I started thinking about it a lot, how we’re losing a bit of something inside us when this happens. I found myself crying the other day, maybe for everything that’s going on, but I didn’t really know why and thought I should try to keep a record of it happening.’
‘Like a journal?’
‘Yeah, but I had this idea I could collect the salt in these spare test tubes and write what I was feeling at the time. You know, to remember this lockdown and what I’ve lost.’
‘Okay, so you’re feeling alright though?’ I asked, not sure how to take in this new information.
‘Yeah, it’s kind of cathartsic.’
‘Yeah, that’s it.’
That was the first day I found out about it. So what, I thought. She’s just trying to cope with a strange situation and this is probably helping her. I hadn’t really heard of anything like this before and she’d never shown any signs of inclination towards artistic expression in the past if that’s what this was.
There was this art teacher I had when I started taking some painting courses a couple of years ago that was kind of a kook. I liked that though. She wasn’t that good an artist but she told us about these weird things she did in her spare time, which kept things interesting. In her freezer she would keep frozen samples of her menstrual blood, taking these samples and visiting gun stores in the middle of the night, where she would pour the thawed blood into the door locks. I understood this meant she was against guns but didn’t know what this ritual was meant to signify, and she never elaborated. Witchcraft related? There was something witchy about her appearance; wild hair, flowing garments and lots of beads around her neck, which wasn’t that strange for a middle-aged community centre art teacher. Another time she told us she would stop to collect roadkill whenever she saw some so she could clean it and collect the bones. She didn’t elaborate on what this was for either, but it did pose more questions about the possibility of witchcraft related interests.
Katie was far from what one could call witchy with her peroxide blonde hair and skin cleaning routines. Her makeup application alone would require her to wake an hour early to fit in the process before she started work. There were no signs of chanting or strange symbols appearing around the house over the next few days, so I assumed Katie hadn’t been swayed by some online coven forum if such things existed. But things did start to get worse with the salt collecting. It was around this time I decided it would be wise to not let her know there is also salt in her urine.
Katie started collecting samples openly, like I was in on it, an accomplice to the farming of her own salt. The problem became apparent when she began to actively try to make herself cry or sweat so she could collect more records of her “feelings”. I seriously started to suspect she had some form of undocumented mental condition that would have psychologists baffled for years to come.
I’d wake up to the muffled sound of Katie’s feet pounding the ground in her room, accompanied by what sounded like an exercise video on YouTube, a woman’s panting voice counting and throwing in the occasional request for the viewer to keep their knees up. Katie had never shown any interest in keeping fit before and I knew she was only trying to work up a sweat to collect the results. What feelings she was writing about this, I will never know. And that wasn’t the weirdest thing. She started going into the bathroom and using tweezers to pull out her nose hairs. I gathered this was happening because I saw the tweezers near the sink, tiny hairs near the plughole, and heard little intermittent squeaks coming from the bathroom. I think she only stopped because she had none left, that and I couldn’t dust the house while she was in the room because it ended in her having a sneezing fit with nothing to deter the dust from her sinuses.
When she suggested watching a movie together, I started to make up excuses not to, knowing she had vetted the movie beforehand to make sure it was something tragic or featuring a glib romance story. I walked into the lounge room one day to see she was watching a documentary, thinking maybe she’d given all this salt business up, only to find it was about the various species of animals that were now extinct due to human intervention.
We’d often cook each other dinner before the lockdown but I had to start declining when everything she made was more onion than anything else, making up some excuse that I was starting a new diet that didn’t include whatever she was cooking at the time. It was during one of these meal preparations, cutting the third onion of which the recipe asked for a half, when she cut her hand on the knife. She’d had her face close to the chopping board to get the most out of the onion’s fumes and speed up the waterworks, not paying attention to the hand holding the onion. It wasn’t a deep cut, but it took a while for the bleeding to stop. This was when the idea came to me.
‘Why don’t we go for a drive to the beach? I think we can still do that during the lockdown as it could be classed as exercise. The salt water will help the cut on your hand,’ I told her, knowing the premise would grab her interest.
As we drove, I refined what I was going to tell her in my head, only pausing to quickly change the radio station when a sad country ballad started, from fear it might promote another lacrimal response she had yet to find. I’d hear nothing but country music played for the rest of the lockdown.
When we got to the beach, we walked down to the water, took our shoes off, and let the tide wash over our feet, watching as it receded back into its unfathomable mass.
‘Put your hand in the water,’ I told her.
She did, making a face as it stung the cut on her hand. This was the time, I thought, where I might be able to get through to her.
‘I read that saltwater helps to clean wounds. It gets rid of bacteria, and helps you heal quicker,’ I started.
‘I heard that, too,’ she said, studying the cut in her hand.
‘The thing about salt healing the wound is that it’s about closure, of purifying something that could get infected,’ I continued, not quite knowing how she was going to take my gentle intervention.
‘You see, I’ve been thinking about your project. About you collecting your own salt. The salt your body gets rid of is for a reason. It comes out because there is an excess of what you need inside you. Otherwise it wouldn’t be salty, right? So maybe it’s not good to record all of the things you feel when this happens, because it’s a process of getting rid of something. Kind of like living in the moment.’
‘But I want to remember these feelings because I read it’s important to be aware of them while the world is so awful now.’
‘I see what you’re saying and it’s good to be aware of these feelings, but I don’t think it’s good to hold on to them. It could start to cause more problems, like if your body stopped getting rid of that excess salt it would cause problems. It gets rid of it so it can keep functioning properly.’
‘I never really thought of it like that.’
‘Yeah, well I’m no philosopher, but I think there is something to experiencing these emotions but not letting them weigh you down.’ Yeah, definitely not a philosopher. I felt more like I was a parent trying to explain to a child why they shouldn’t eat things they’ve found on the ground.
We hardly talked on the drive home. Katie stared out of the passenger window and commented occasionally on restaurants she’d like to eat at again when they reopened. I switched back to the country channel and played a few songs as a test and Katie didn’t react, didn’t pre-emptively reach for a test tube from her handbag, which I saw she’d taken a supply of when we left.
The next morning, it was announced that the lockdown was lifting. It meant things were getting better, but it also meant I could get away from the madness of Katie’s forced salt expelling if it were to continue. I passed her door while it was still early and there were no sounds of aerobics induced grunts for the first time since I could remember.
When we talked later, she seemed happier, her work having contacted her to see if she wanted to come back when they reopened. I didn’t bring up what we had discussed at the beach and there seemed to be no sign of the previous week’s obsession. She even made a meal without onions for dinner, and I accepted the invitation to try some. It was good, but I thought there was too much salt.
Stephen Abram is a currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. He is currently writing a novel for the thesis with the theme of tattoos, differentiating character perspectives through ekphrasis and using hand drawn images to explore the relationship between text and image.