- Remember that apathy is a coping mechanism.
- Eat all the chocolate.
- In the house. All the chocolate that exists in the house.
- Don’t go out to buy more chocolate if it is raining.
- If it is not raining, cuddle your cat, your dog, your fish (the fishbowl, don’t take the fish out), or your stuffed animal. Then go out and get more chocolate.
- Once you’ve eaten enough chocolate to make you throw up, let loose. Try to aim at the toilet bowl but if that doesn’t work, any surface is fine. Maybe even better. More memorable.
- Vomited chocolate looks remarkably like old blood. Brown and sticky and vaguely metallic in your mouth.
- Remember that chocolate is a coping mechanism.
- Look at the chocolate you threw up. Think of it as blood.
- Feel the pain in your stomach. In your throat. The pounding in your head. Imagine that after hours of dancing. Keel over. Pretend you’ve been shot.
- Realize that unless you go out and try it, you will never approximate what getting shot is like.
- Stop blaming other people.
- It’s all your fault.
- The apathy.
- The tiredness.
- The knowledge that you should be sad.
- The intellectual response that is being appalled yet functional.
- Remember that it is all.
- Not the shooting.
- Only the aftermath.
- Try to imagine a loved one.
- Your mom.
- Your dog.
- The fish.
- Picture them getting brutally murdered.
- If you feel something, let yourself cry. You’ve accessed it. The place you’ve been hiding all this time.
- If you feel nothing, find a box of pins. Or paperclips that you can bend and make pointy.
- Insert the pins, the pointy paperclips, anything sharp, into your eyeballs.
- See the truth.
- See why you’re unable to feel.
- Think of your history with violence.
- Think of how you’ve learned to be blase.
- Because you’ve had to.
- Or you’d always be scared.
- Remember you used to live this way.
- Remember you’re not useful this way.
- Remember you are giving into the oppressor when you are not useful.
- Never forget.
- That is the only way for you, apathetic slug that you are, to feel something.
- Until you die a little inside. It’ll happen eventually.
- When it does, forgive yourself.
- Not too much.
- Just enough to keep going.
Touching people wasn’t in the job description.
“Baltimore, Maryland! Baltimore, Maryland, next stop, next stop, Baltimore, Maryland, ten minutes, ten minutes to Baltimore, Maryland!” A stooped figure walks through the car, calling out the words that come so naturally that they slur together. “Baw-mor-mar-lan-nexzop-nexzop.”
Clarence’s belly protrudes over his uniform pants, but his shirt buttons don’t strain. They make the uniforms in his size, for which he is grateful. He doesn’t know how he obtained the gut; in the way of men of a certain age who have always been meaty and wide, it is only the stomach that really changed over the years, even as his arms remained strong and his legs carried him the distance of the train and back so many times a day. His wife likes to joke that he’s become pregnant with the weight of the world, and that he won’t give birth until he quits his job and gets off his feet.
He doesn’t think she’s wrong, but he also doesn’t think she’s right about this. He does know that touching people was never supposed to be his lot in life. And here he is, counting down the minutes to the next stop with dread, his palms beginning to dampen no matter how dry the train is kept. It is dry, he often hears complaints of it, and the daily commuters are savvy enough to bring moisturizer with them, even the men, he notices, always surprised at how his own quirks have become acceptable, such as keeping his nails trim and neat, his hands moisturized, his skin clear, using makeup when it isn’t, plucking his eyebrows out of growing into fuzzy caterpillars, these are all normal to other men now, and he remembers hiding his habits in shame when he was younger. But his own hands, so well-moisturized, now begin to sweat as he hollers the nearness of the station, and yet plenty of people are still sleeping, the ones whose tickets indicate that this is their stop.
And so he starts. The first is a lady, not a usual one, with the detachable hood of a coat resting on her head, maybe in place of a hat or because it helped shut out the noise of other passengers. Clarence doesn’t know and he doesn’t ask. He puts his hand on her shoulder and shoves roughly. He used to try to be gentle, but it meant he missed people, that people missed their stops, and the rage or despondence that result when people wake up to find themselves a state over from where they need to be is even more insufferable to him than the touching. So he’s perfected a harsh yet impersonal push that tends to wake people up for the most part. The woman is a starter – one of those who wakes up with a half-snort and an inhale of breath as if rising to the surface after too long submerged in water. “Baltimore, next stop,” Clarence tells her. She nods, and begins to get her things together slowly, sleep still weighing heavily on her.
The next is a man, an old man that Clarence sees often. He needs barely a nudge, he’s used to Clarence. He’s a smooth waker, one who opens his eyes as if he’s never been asleep, as if he was only pretending. He smiles at Clarence with his dentures and asks him how he is. Clarence says fine, fine, and “Baltimore, next stop, five minutes.” The man doesn’t need to gather anything. He always keeps his outerwear on, whether it’s a coat in the winter or a just his suit jacket in the summer, and even if it’s very hot in the train. His briefcase is always tucked between his arm and his body, and his legs are always crossed, one way or the other.
There’s a teenager at the end of the car. A pretty young woman. Clarence notices this precisely because he knows he shouldn’t notice, because she is his twin daughters’ age, and because he worries that men may look at his daughters and notice how they are pretty young women too. No one said he’d be touching anyone when he took the job all those years ago. No one. But here he is. He wishes he had a stick, something he could poke people with so his hand wouldn’t need to come into contact with this girl’s leg – which is the closest part to him and the only one visible. She’s is curled up on her seat with her upper body and head are covered in her coat, and he doesn’t want to reach up into the murky purpleness that is her coat and end up touching the wrong thing. Her knee seems the safest but most awkward place to put his hand, but he does, and he shakes roughly.
The leg jerks away from him and the girl rises and backs away, scooting herself back in the double seat towards the window, her curled hair matted with sleep on one side, her eyes bloodshot, a look of utter terror on her face. “Don’t touch me,” she says. “Baltimore, next stop,” he says, and touches his cap to her in a gesture of respect and detachment, he hopes, and goes on to the next car. Four minutes to go. Another carfull of people he is responsible for and whom he may need to wake up.
Touching was never in the job description.
I should be writing something else.
I should be doing something else.
I should be somewhere else.
I should be in the mouth of a volcano, falling in, in slow motion, waving to a camera far above me, a camera documenting that I am brave. I should be inventing the first hoverboard to act like the one in that movie we all watched when we were kids because I used to have a propensity for mathematics and could have gotten a math or physics degree and gone on to be a scientist. I should be evaluating soldiers in the military for their readiness for combat because I almost did that.
I should be getting married. I should be getting divorced. I should be admiring the people in the world who are loving and being loved. I should be in love. I should be in lust. I should hate. I should be hateful. I should be in denial. In grief. In ecstasy. In pain. I should be in a million places all at once because I should be dead and buried with my ashes or my soul far flung.
I should be a boy. I should be a girl. I should be a person who is neither here nor there. I should be religious. I should be agnostic. I should be selling candy on the subways to make up for my sins – that’s not why people sell candy on the subway – isn’t it? – it isn’t – isn’t it? – no, seriously, truly, it isn’t. I should be homeless then – that isn’t a punishment either, not the way I think it is. I should be burning in hell – yes, that’s more like it. But I don’t believe in hell. I should believe in hell. I should believe in heaven. I should believe in purgatory which is by far the strangest and most terrifying thing a body can imagine.
I should watch more TV. I should know more about pop culture. I should do yoga. I should meditate. I should read Les Mis. I should watch Les Mis. I should buy tickets to Hamilton. I shouldn’t date myself in my writing. I shouldn’t identify myself in my writing. I shouldn’t write from personal experience. I should write what I know.
I should take more time to myself. I should know where I’m going in life. I shouldn’t plan to commit suicide at thirty. I should value every day I have. I should remember that I am not myself but only the collection of thoughts of those who have come before and influenced me. I should read more. I should delegate more. I should be more careful with my money. I should be less stringent with my money. I should be more social. I should have more alone time. I should drink more. I should do more drugs. I should have more sex. I should go out more. I should stay in more. I should watch less TV. I should do yoga. I should do pilates. I should stop seeing my chiropractor. I should stop taking my medication. I should check myself in. I should check myself into a hotel. I should run away. I should stay.
I should hurry more. I should do more. I should pitch more. I should write more. I should always, always, always write more. I should never write again. I should remember that I am talentless. I should admit that I am part of the masses. I should give back my feminist card because I’m not good enough. I should be more of an activist. I should be an activist in the first place. I should put my money where my mouth is. I should make more money. I should change professions. I should change careers. I should be a mother. I should never breed.
I should shout at the top of my lungs from the rooftops and fling myself over and fly. I should paint words mile high in the sky. I should start dancing again. I should invent a time machine. I shouldn’t break up with her. I shouldn’t kiss him. I shouldn’t look at them and want to know what it was like to be with them.
I should breathe.
I should scream.
I should breathe.
I should stop. I should start. I should rev up. I should slow down. I should write a manifesto and burn it in one go. I should stop. I should start.
I should breathe.
Out of the rubble emerged two figures, Hashem and Adonai. Both wore long beards, white for the most part, though there emerged the brown of twigs tangled in the hair and patches were covered with gray and brown from the dust of the fallen rock around them.
“That didn’t go as planned,” Hashem said, arms akimbo, staring up at the rock face.
“Not one bit,” said Adonai, brushing dirt off his long white robe. It was a lost cause and he abandoned it soon to the fruitless attempt that was dusting his hands off. After a few minutes of silently flapping his palms in the air like a sham shaman in a B-movie, he gave up on this latest attempt as well.
Hashem walked around the pile of rocks that had fallen onto both of them and his face brightened with a realization, which he repeated aloud for the benefit of Adonai. “We did witness a miracle, though.”
“Yes. A pile of rocks fell on us and we should have died, but we didn’t.”
Adonai pondered this for a moment, pulling his beard gently in a soft tugging motion that was more a fondle than a caress and was, to be quite honest, very uncomfortable to watch as it looked like the action of a man being intimate with himself. “I suppose that means we mustn’t lose faith then,” he finally said. Hashem beamed at him.
“Of course not! We’re alive!” He ran around the bit of cliff-face that had decided to become crumbs-brushed-off-cliff-face and jumped up and down a time or two. “We’re alive, don’t you see? We’re just what we always thought!”
Soon both men were running around, Adonai occasionally pausing at the cliff face to kiss it and then waving his arms up at the sky before resuming his laps. Finally, when both were winded, they sat under a nearby tree and discussed what to do next.
“We could try finding a dying boy.”
“A dead one. Wasn’t he dead already?”
“He was dying. Then he was dead. Then he was brought back. Right?”
“Maybe. I can’t recall. Or we can find some water.”
“Water would be wonderful. My throat’s parched.”
“No, stupid, to walk on.”
“Or to turn into wine.”
“Why would we want to do that?”
“To give as a wedding present!”
“Why do you always like the newer ones, anyway? What about some fire and brimstone stuff?”
“I’ve had enough of stone for one day, thank you very much.” Hashem cast a wary look at the pebbles lying innocently close to his feet, the smallest bits of the broken off rocks.
“Well, if you were parched, you should’ve made sure this one worked. This was an old one, a good old classic, really. Water from a rock.”
“But it didn’t work, did it?”
“Ye of little faith.”
“I don’t need to have faith, that’s the whole point.”
“Yes, yes it is!”
The two began to laugh uproariously, until they stopped, exhausted and hungry and thirsty. They curled up to take a nap under the big tree, saying good night to one another cordially and spreading themselves out on different patches of softish grass. It took Hashem longer to fall asleep – he could hear Adonai’s snores start easily – but he finally drifted off just as the sun began to beam more orange than yellow.
“They’re at it again,” Dr. Roskov said, stopping at the nurses’ station for her usual afternoon chat.
Nurse Adrian smiled at the two old men napping on the grassy knoll near the wall that surrounded the grounds. “They are, the dears.”
“I find it insulting, if you ask me,” Nurse George said. He was perpetually disgruntled and bird-boned, both a cross and a Star of David hanging around his neck.
“We didn’t ask you,” Adrian snapped. Dr. Roskov hid her smile behind her paper coffee cup. She didn’t like George but she wasn’t allowed to show it. She could see his point of view, though, especially as he observed both Christian and Jewish holidays – he’d argued his case in court, claiming to belong to both religions and thus received more paid vacation or time and a half than anyone else. But then again she also saw his entire existence as far more offensive than anything the two elderly patients who’d been at the facility for years could do.
It was rare that friendships of such a lasting kind developed, Dr. Roskov knew, and she let them take root and cultivate naturally when they did occur. “Well, you tell me if they start causing any trouble, Adrian.”
“Will do, Doc, but those two – the most harmless gods I can think of, really.”
“Hmpf,” George hmpfed. “They’re not gods.” But a small voice inside of him, the one that knew he ate pork and didn’t fast for Lent, couldn’t help but think, What do you know, really?
Having missed Story-A-Day-May yesterday, I give you a double story today:
1. Crawling through the underbelly of a city was not something I envisioned doing in my lifetime, which amounted to all of thirty-seven years and eleven months. Yet here I was, hands and knees, sparse clothing covering what needed covering, a helmet made of a cut-in-half soccer ball resting on my shaggy once-shaved head. Palms dirty, knees beyond, nose unable to smell anything anymore. It was a new low. Literally.
2. They say that cities have character. That Rome feels different than London feels different than Istanbul different from Tokyo from Paris from Cairo New Delhi Amman Tel Aviv Moscow Bridgetown Cape Town… It’s true. Each of us is different, created from the underbellies of human filth and the topsoil of human kindness, the biblical animals of the sea and sky and beasts of the earth covering us and the scientific spellbinding microscopic germs and plain-to-see beetles spreading themselves widely across us. Years and months and hands and knees don’t mean a thing to us. We’re larger than that and smaller too. We are multitude and each singular.
1. I wish I could say I was looking for an engagement ring, one hidden in a roll or at the bottom of a glass of champagne, but I hadn’t tasted either bread or bubbly for some years. I subsisted mostly on leftover chips at McDonald’s and the soup made of too many things without proper names served in kitchens when I was lucky. I wish I could say I was looking for anything at all down there, in the sewer pipe between two larger tunnels but the truth was I wasn’t looking. I hadn’t gotten to that point yet. When you’re running away from something, you tend to only start looking for a hiding or resting place when you’re sure you’re not being pursued anymore, or at least that you have a decent advantage on the other person. Persons. Beings. Whatever it is that’s chasing you. Or, in this case, me.
2. We spawn. Cities do. We create things imagined by too many people to ignore, things that we listen to intently in nightmares and daydreams, things described and things hidden behind walls of consciousness. We give birth not only to the biologically sound but to the criminally insane visions of murderers and CEOs alike. Sometimes we allow our creations to escape the place where only we can see them – what do you think we create them for if not for our own amusement? We know human patterns, and they become dull after a generation or two. Watching your reactions to visions and impossibilities, to things that go bump in the night or Tinkerbell in the day is almost as amusing as natural disasters on our outskirts. As a general rule, we don’t love those disasters happening inside us. It tends to be painful in all sorts of ways that we couldn’t explain to beings like you with sensory underload. Five senses and you think maybe a sixth and that’s a lot? If only you know how limited you are.
1. I’d always thought of the seventh sense as something that few people had. I’d discovered it when I lost everything. Them’s big words: “lost everything.” An exaggeration, maybe, but when my hands and knees were dirty and disgusting and yet only a little worse than they’d been for the last few years, being dramatic didn’t seem like altogether blowing things out of proportion. Especially when something was pursuing me. It skittled and scuttled and my helmet-soccer-ball made the noise reverberate in my ears even more so I wasn’t sure if I was getting any farther away or what. I was certain, though, that I wouldn’t be able to run forever. When I realized that, I stopped. I was in another tunnel between two hallway-sized areas, on my hands and knees again, but I maneuvered so I was leaning my minimally clad back against the clammy wall. The reason I had so few clothes on was because I’d left most of them in my hiding spot and let myself walk around in the July heat with the sun on my skin, which felt nice, and rare. Until I started being chased. Now, when I turned my head to see the thing with the tick-tick-tick feet that was chasing me, I saw that it had stopped too. It looked at me, cocking its body or head or whatever the glowing bit with the eyes was, and then turned and scampered off in the other direction. My heart pounded and I thought I’d have a heart attack, but I’d survived worse, and I probably would again.
2. When we get tired of entertainment we let them go, our prey, our bait, our playing-with-our-food-toys. We’re all different, cities, but we all agree that if there’s something we share, something vital, it’s a nasty streak a stratosphere wide and a galaxy high. Think we’re bad? Try living in the suburbs.
An Homage to a Book Recently Read
In a small town in Israel, the kind with endangered flowers and signs picketed carefully near them warning children not to pluck the stems from the ground, there lived a mother and a daughter. The mother was a midwife, and she expected her daughter to follow in her footsteps and help bring children into the world just as she had been doing for years. “I gave birth to you myself,” the mother told the daughter. The daughter usually rolled her eyes at this, but out of the mother’s direct line of sight. She respected her mother’s work, but didn’t want to engage with it herself. There was too much blood involved, she tried to explain to her friends, who expressed concerns that her mother would be very upset when she found out that the daughter had taken to studying plants, which she had been fascinated with ever since learning why she couldn’t pick certain flowers that grew around her town. “It is our duty to God to bring children into the world,” the mother told her daughter. “And with our own two hands.” The daughter refrained from pointing out to her mother that between them they had four hands rather than two, especially as, in a way, her mother was right: there would continue to be only two hands involved in the pulling of babies out of wombs, and those hands would belong to her mother, who gave birth to her, and so in a sense her mother’s hands were her own as well.
When the daughter finally confessed to her mother that she was going to be a floriculturist and that she was moving to a dry city in the Israeli desert where there was a university that was willing to help fund the experiments she was planning involving plants that needed less water than others, the mother was surprisingly understanding. It was only once the daughter had moved out of her small town with the endangered flowers, only after she had begun her studies, only after she had fallen in love and begun to plan a wedding with her new lover that the daughter heard about what her mother had been up to. The two had fallen out of touch, both claiming busyness and different schedules, but the mother had in fact been avoiding the daughter and the daughter had in fact been avoiding the mother. So it was that when the daughter wanted to tell her mother about her upcoming wedding that she found out that her mother was locked up in a prison for the mentally ill due to the activities she started to perpetuate once her daughter had left.
It started slowly, a neighbor told her when the daughter visited her hometown with the endangered flowers. At first, the mother would just talk about her daughter’s decision non-stop at every birth she attended to. Next, though, she began to hold every baby girl that was born and call the girl by her daughter’s name, asking the baby if she would grow up to become a midwife or a floriculturist. If the baby motioned a certain way with her fists, the mother would coo and if the baby motioned another way, the mother would throw the baby at the new mother she had been attending with such force that there was, it was reported, often a squelching sound made between moist skins. Finally, the mother began to steal all the girl babies and put them under heat lamps in a room in her house – her daughter’s old room – where she talked to them as if they were flowers that would grow up to become midwives. When the women whose babies had been stolen found out where the babies had gone, they called the authorities. The mother refused to see a lawyer or to call her daughter, claiming throughout the whole procedure that she didn’t have a daughter, she had a blooming endangered flower that had come out of her womb instead and that no one must bother or snip it.
The daughter was so traumatized by the entire affair that she began to pick all the endangered flowers in the town, and then went to neighboring towns where she did the same, until finally she eradicated the entire population of Coral Peonies. She was finally caught and put on trial as well, but she wasn’t deemed insane, only malicious, and so she was locked up in a regular prison.
The mother and daughter now maintain a regular and cordial correspondence.
Your truth is my fiction, my grandmother, who raised me, whispered to me after she sang me a lullaby before bed and tucked me in. I was always on the edge of my consciousness when she said it, and I wonder now whether she timed it perfectly or whether I imagined it, a recurring nightmare of a dream. Maybe my truth was fiction, period, at least when it came to her.
It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I found out what she meant, or maybe that’s when I fabricated the notion of her whispering things to me at all. By then I was living with a different, more distant relative, a second or third degree cousin who only took me in because my grandmother stipulated in the will that he would only get the big chunk of change she left him if he became my legal guardian until I graduated high school. She’d died when I was twelve, right after my first period. It was as if she’d seen the blood on my underwear and realized that she could die safely now, knowing – assuming – that I’d be able to carry on her lineage.
The other thing that was discovered in her will, but that neither the cousin I lived with nor I discovered until after my sixteenth birthday, when we were at each other’s throats, was that my grandmother had written a long series of children’s books that had been accepted for publication long before her death but that she’d mandated wouldn’t come out until she passed away. How she got anyone to agree with this, I don’t know, but maybe the nature of the posthumous novelty, as it were, made some editor or publicist perk up enough to dole out large advances with the agreement of zero royalties. This would seem like a somewhat fair exchange, I thought. The first book, the news report said, was slated to be published in the spring, with a famous British actress doing the audiobook version and a famous American actress traveling around the country doing readings, with the proceeds of her speaking engagement going to children’s charities.
My guardian and I paused in our bickering over changing the channel when the news report naming a woman who was unmistakably the relative we had in common – her photograph also came up – and we grinned at each other in disbelief, then glee. We were related to the dead woman who was becoming famous! This was good news! We would surely be able to capitalize somehow! This was before we found out about the advance in exchange for royalties bit, of course.
Our smiles dropped – or mine did, anyway – when it became clear what the books were about. They were a series of eight chapter books, coming out twice a year for the next four years, and chronicled a girl who looked suspiciously like an illustrated version of me. She had my first and middle names, flipped, and she was – I began to either remember or fabricate the memory of my grandmother’s whispers – living with her grandmother in an apartment in the inner city that was painted a cheerful yellow. The girl would go through first to fourth grade over the course of the books, growing up with the children she was to entertain, the books becoming more complex per grade level.
When the first book came out, the publishers didn’t even send my cousin or me a complimentary copy, though we did try to contact them. We were labeled as crazy and put on a no-transfer list of some sort, since whenever we tried to call after a certain point, the various people in charge were invariably in meetings, out to lunch, or home sick. Us not being involved must have been part of the contract too. So when the blasted thing came out, I went to the bookstore and bought it, waiting for the clerk to see the similarity between me and the illustrated girl on the cover, but I was apparently the only one who saw it so clearly.
At home, I read the simply, first-grade-oriented chapter book. She described the cut I got when I was six, in first grade, trying to peel glue off my finger long after it had come off and accidentally tearing some of skin, fainting from the blood, and being very brave at the nurse. She described the little red bike I had that got stolen. She had the happy ending staged the day I got my first report card and was excited to see all the stars on it. My little girlhood friends were in the book too.
I wondered if they would sue or if they, like the rest of the world, would find the whole thing adorable.
As for me, I’m now signed to write a memoir on the traumatizing experience of having your grandmother steal the life right out of your little body.My