Scabs

I picked a hole in my forehead last night: leaned into the mirror and pinched my skin between index fingernails until something came out, sebum at first, then the red blossom of blood. First one pore, then two, then three spilled its contents, leaving a triangle pattern just above my left eyebrow that I knew would scab. And I almost moved onto another spot before catching my own eyes in the mirror and saying firmly, “stop.”

It’s the only thing that works. And mostly, I listen.

I backed away from the mirror. Swabbed the blood away with a cotton ball. But my heart was still pounding, my head still felt like a balloon about to burst.

***

My therapist explained my anxiety like this:

Your brain is hardwired to perceive everything as a threat because it’s safer – because then, when something happens, it’s braced for it. But that causes overall anxiety because you’re always waiting for something bad to happen. That’s when things like your catastrophic thinking happen – your mind has to create terrible thoughts just in case something goes wrong.”

She’s walked me through this before, but last session I asked to record because I kept forgetting. At the end of the tape, you can hear me ask, “But why?”

It cuts off before she answers, but apparently my doomsday predictions happen thanks to a combination of two things: genetic predisposition and lived experience. The first part makes sense – my mother couldn’t sleep at night unless my sister and I were safely under her roof. The second is more difficult to explain because nothing truly bad has ever happened to me. All five of my grandparents are still alive. My parents are divorced, but doting. My sister is lively and successful. I’m lively and successful. We grew up in suburbia, for fuck’s sake. Anxiety belongs to others – mine is foolish, groundless, absurd. And yet.

***

I remember being very young, six or seven at most, and convincing myself that my mother would die in a plane crash. (I almost couldn’t type that sentence because, well, what if it’s still true – an aside I have to make because, if I don’t, I’m certain it will be.) She was on a trip somewhere. And I don’t know how a six-year-old child even knew about plane crashes, but there she was in my mind’s eye spiraling downward. I remember curling up in hysterics, half convinced the vision was real, terrified I’d never see her again.

Last weekend, driving back from the middle of nowhere Massachusetts, I became convinced that the person behind the wheel would steer us into a lake. She’d been driving without incident for years, but we passed a body of water on the left, and I could see the wheel slipping through her fingers, plunging us into it with only a few seconds to react. I’d recently watched an online video about how to survive in a sinking car – had come across it on the Facebook page of some innocuous Washington Post-like source – so I knew what I’d do: scream at her to roll down her window just before we hit the water, while jamming my finger onto my own control. We’d swim out as the car hit the lake, losing all our belongings but still – remarkably – alive.

Failing that, I’d grab one of our Swell water bottles and ram it with all my strength into the top corner of my passenger-side window. She’d do the same on the driver’s side, the windows would shatter, and, well, same story. I spun this narrative out in my head for minutes, tweaking it in places until it was a parallel reality. When I finally snapped out of it and told the driver where my mind had gone, we both laughed.

***

In a recent essay, Katie Heany interviewed Andrea Petersen, the author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety. “When [my anxiety] is really at its height, I call it an isolation chamber,” Petersen told her. “The worry and the visions of catastrophe and the unending monologue of doom can really block out the experience of being with another person.”

At times this rings true, but more often my anxiety is focused on the other person – on what they’re saying or doing that might subtly betray that they don’t really want to be here, don’t really want to be spending time with me. It’s an isolation chamber of a different sort, because voicing these thoughts would mean asking for constant reassurance that they’re not true. And who wants to have to reassure a crying child that her mother is not plunging toward the ocean along with thousands of pounds of fiery jet debris? Who wants to take seriously the possibility of driving into an icy lake, and to seriously convince the passenger it won’t happen? Who wants to tell a lover or a friend that they do like hanging out with her and Jesus fucking Christ will you please stop asking?

Heany’s anxiety, she says, manifests in the weird, frantic way she clutches her hands together. Mine comes out in the soothing, ritual reassurance of ridding my face of imagined dirt, and the tiny scabs on my forehead and cheeks that I dutifully hide with concealer.

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Scabs

Subway, pt. 471

It’s January, and everyone looks lumpy and strange in their winter coats. I fell in love on the train tonight for the fourth time this week. January looked perfect on her and she had the type of hands that I can’t stop staring at: the knuckly sinewy type that you can practically feel just by looking. I laughed at my book and looked up to see if she’d noticed, and she hadn’t, she was listening to music with her eyes closed. When you fall in train love no one opens their mouths, which is good because I talk kind of crooked and she might’ve said something dumb. Instead I watched her hands and fell more in love and we got off at the same stop but she was faster, up the stairs and out of sight. “I love you,” I screamed at the back of her beanie, in my head.

Subway, pt. 471

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 2

ICYMI: last month I joined my first-ever writer’s group, which we dubbed — somewhat unoriginally — the lonely writer’s club. We meet every other week, so every two weeks I’ll post my free-writes from the group on here.

This week’s snippet isn’t from a prompt; it’s the story of something that happened to me that I’d been itching to write about all week. 

***

When I walked into the bathroom last Monday morning, I half-saw something flutter past my right cheek and land, with all the delicacy of a falling leaf, on the counter next to the sink bowl. It wasn’t a falling leaf, though. It was black and crumpled. It looked like a clump of dirty cobweb wound together into the shape of a lima bean. I had no idea where it had come from, but it seemed out of place against the marble. As I bent in to look closer, it began to move.

The chrysalis or sac or cocoon or whatever it was twitched, and out of it fell dozens of tiny worms. As I watched they wriggled forth like so many intestines, directionless and blind. They were about the length and width of the white crescent on my pinky fingernail and translucent, with pinpricks of darker pigment where the head should’ve been. They spread out, filling one corner of the counter, looking for dirt but finding only hard resistance. The sac sat still. My stomach turned, as though the skin of a corpse had been peeled back before my eyes to reveal a swarm of maggots underneath. A deep sense of dread washed over me. I didn’t know what was happening, but I wanted it to stop.

I’m used to killing bugs in our apartment. I’ve smushed spiders, stepped on centipedes, flattened roaches with my shoe, and even killed a bed bug I found crawling on my comforter, squeezing its flat shape between my fingers until it burst in a bubble of blood. (There’s still a stain on my sheets). The cat takes care of the horse flies. But the worms were different. I stood watching them, transfixed, not sure what to do.

The whole thing seemed so much like a dream that it took me a few minutes to come to the logical conclusion: I couldn’t let the worms grow to reach their final form in my bathroom. They had to die.

So I killed them. By that time they’d spread out across the countertop, so it was tough to find them all. But I pulled a tissue from the box on the back of the toilet and went after each of them, smashing them into the marble until the twitching stopped.

I wiped up the stains and threw the tissue in the trash. The pod I flicked into the sink and washed down the drain. Maybe I should’ve saved it. As soon as it had disappeared, the scene slipped from reality into fuzzy dream sequence — I became less and less convinced that what I’d seen and done had been real.

As the week went on and I read the news coming out of Baton Rouge and then out of Minnesota, I became less and less convinced that what I was seeing and hearing was real. It was someone’s sick idea of a joke. CNN was running repeats. I’d inadvertently switched from the news to a dystopian film. Anything, except that it had happened again.

I thought back to the burst chrysalis in my bathroom and the deep sense of foreboding that had accompanied it. Maybe omens only exist because we connected unrelated events in our minds. But maybe we notice the connection for a reason.

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 2

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 1

This Sunday I joined my first-ever writer’s group. We met at a coffee shop in Williamsburg, dubbed ourselves the Lonely Writer’s Club (I know, I know — pause for a moment to allow your eyes to return to a forward-facing position), and opened with five minutes to free-write. These days I almost never free-write, so it was a lovely release to pull up a word doc and just type. We meet every other Sunday, so afterward — should I deem it presentable — I’ll post my free-write here.

This week’s prompt was: Imagine the people who will live in your apartment after you. My response was: poor souls.

***

At first, they’re happy. They see the high ceilings and kick the crown molding to make sure it holds and marvel at the counter space, the big kitchen, the morning light in their bedroom with a tree — a real tree — outside their window. That’s late August. By November they begin to notice things they hadn’t before: the way the far right kitchen corner crumbles in on itself, each time making a tinkling sound like breaking glass. They begin to feel the drafts around the shoddy windows, and the heat hisses through the pipes like a haunting.

The stove hasn’t been replaced in years, and when either front burner is ignited, it all but explodes. New fissures in the ceiling appear, snaking toward the center with almost imperceptible slowness. When spring comes in March, so do the centipedes, sneaking out from beneath the bathroom sink and skittering across the floor. They’re big — two inches long — with the exoskeletons of creatures extinct since the Pleistocene. They take ages to die when Jill squishes them, their legs twitching long after their tiny heads (or tails, she can never be certain) are smashed in.

Then, in April, Cass wakes up with a bite. It’s small at first, but as the day goes on it spreads, leaving a blotchy red rash across her left thigh. It itches. And Cass, the level-headed one, starts to crack. And the Bushwick apartment they were so proud of — where she and Jill had thrown parties and stacked books cooked elaborate dinners — begins to collapse inward.

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 1

Hatikvah

Everyone else is already in the water, but I’m still on shore. I stand on a stretch of cool beach watching dozens of other people—some whom I know, some whom I don’t—writhe and splash and shout and struggle to come to terms with the fact that they don’t need to paddle to keep their heads above water.

It’s our third full day in Israel. That morning we’d hiked a mountain, toured an ancient fortress, descended the mountain (much to the dismay of my trembling inner thighs), and gorged ourselves on a buffet lunch as only those who’ve gone without breakfast can. Then we’d driven here, changed, and shuffled into the water. Well, everyone else had. I’d hung back, nervous.

“Come on,” Alex shouts, floating by on his back like an otter. Tanya has already waded in. I’ve lost track of Julia. My sister is in up to her neck. “Get in, Claire!” she hollers.

Fine.

When we were younger, 12 and 9, she was the one who dove into the deep end of our backyard pool while I took the stairs on the opposite side. I enter the Dead Sea in a similar fashion, mincing step after mincing step, wincing when my foot scrapes a salt rock, shuddering at the cold.

“Come on, Claire!” The call comes from Isaac this time—he bobs in front of me, hands held out in encouragement as though I’m a toddler in floaties. Slowly, painfully, I creep along the sea floor until the water rises to my navel.

***

When my sister, Eleanor, first asked me to come to Israel with her, I thought she was joking. Then, I thought she was insane. But she wore me down with the usual little-sister pleas of, “I really want you to be there,” and in the end the thought of her spending Christmas in Israel by herself (well, with a bunch of strangers) was too much for my older sister’s conscience to bear. I paid the deposit and reserved my spot on the trip.

Then, I panicked. I cried. I called my mom. I cried some more. I didn’t want to jet off to a foreign country—a war-torn one at that—over the holidays. I didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of horrible college-age kids for ten days without respite. I didn’t want to risk getting lost or stolen or having an awful time or my parents disowning me because I wasn’t home for Christmas. (They both encouraged me to go on the trip, but I had my suspicions.) There’s a tenacity to my doubts. They seep in like water and take root like seeds, each one sprouting in the space of a few seconds: The ultimate chain reaction.

But by that time it was too late. I’d promised Eleanor, I’d paid the fee, and my relatives had preemptively forgiven me. I was going. I packed The Fellowship of the Ring to distract me from my misery.

***

Isaac is talking about a brick. He’s telling us all about the time freshman year he got so drunk that he smashed a full handle, pulled a brick out of a wall, and woke up cuddling said brick in his regulation twin bed. Julia almost falls off her own bed, she’s laughing so hard.

She, Tanya, Isaac, and I are sitting in our cottage-like room in a kibbutz in Gonen, just north of the Sea of Galilee. We’re about to attend Shabbat services—Isaac wears a button-down, and the rest of us are in dresses. It’s the first time I’ve looked marginally presentable all trip. We’re biding the time before dinner telling stories that should be way too personal to share with people we’ve known only five days. Somehow, though, they’re not.

By the time Isaac finishes I’m in hysterics, tears free-flowing down my face. I feel a dull, unfamiliar ache in my stomach: My abdominal muscles are on fire.

Then Tanya starts in with a similar story, and I convulse all over again. Soon it’s my turn, and I gasp my way through my own tale. I try to remember the last time I laughed this hard. I can’t.

***

“The Western Wall feels like cold soap,” I write in my journal on December 29. “Touching it is like touching time. The currents coursing through it also run through human fingers; we can jump right in without breaking the connection.”

I’m not sure if the jolt in my fingers when I touch the wall is real or imagined, but as soon as it happens everything else melts away. My surroundings blur out like fogged-up glasses until the wall and I stand there, alone, holding each other up. I trace a dozen of the thousands of tiny bits of paper shoved into its cracks, each one representing someone else’s blind hope. I press my cheek up against it. Without warning, I begin to cry.

I walk backward away from the wall (no turning your back on God in his country) still crying, and that’s when Eleanor finds me. I lean into her shoulder and she envelops me in arms and long red hair, some of which lands in my mouth. When I stop crying, we walk backward the rest of the way holding hands.

***

Elad and I race each other up the stairs of our hotel in Jerusalem. We don’t know it at the time, but there are only seven floors—we stop at the sixth, winded. We climb slowly the rest of the way and laugh when it’s only one flight. It’s freezing out on the roof; I cinch the hood of my thin sweatshirt tight around my ears. In front of us stretches New Jerusalem, modern and boxy. Old Jerusalem lies behind. I turn and look at it. “That’s what I thought it would look like,” I say Elad laughs.

He’s always laughing. He laughs at my horrible Hebrew accent and at my funny way of describing things. He also laughs when he tells me about the time his father visited Jerusalem. Orthodox men there hand out strings of red thread in exchange for a few Shekel. If you pay them, they tie a string around your wrist—a blessing of sorts. Elad tells me that when he was drafted in the army (a commander in charge of his own unit), his father came to Jerusalem to pray. “He got one,” Elad says, gesturing to the men handing out strings. “He still wears it. When your son goes to the army, you do everything.”

He tells me that his friend died in front of him. He tells me that he doesn’t care what happens between Israel and Palestine, who controls which pieces of the country, as long as the fighting stops. He tells me about the time an explosion in the field lodged a piece of shrapnel in his right thigh. He tells me about calling his mom, who was frantic, from the hospital. He tells me he’s killed someone, and then asks me if he’s still a good person.

“Of course,” I say, and I believe it.

He says that a shadow hangs over Israel—there’s a feeling among the people who live there that something big is about to happen. He thinks it will happen soon.

***

The water is up to my chest and I’m still creeping along the seafloor, afraid to trust it with my weight. My friends churn around me, beckoning, backstroking farther out, then swimming back to where I still stand in the relative shallows. “Lift up your feet,” Isaac says. “Just lean back.”

I can’t lean back. All around me is proof I’ll be fine if I do, but I doubt my own eyes.

“I’m scared!”

“You’ll be fine,” Isaac says. “Trust me.”

I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

“Okay.” I inhale sharply and lift my eyes to the surrounding mountains. I remove my feet from the seafloor a single toe at a time. My legs feel weightless; they rise up to meet the water’s surface like helium balloons.

They were right—I’m floating.

Hatikvah

Eve Tells All

Today is Friday the 13th, and it’s also Eve’s first birthday. When I adopted her in November the vet estimated her age at seven months, meaning she was born mid February. I chose the 13th as her birthday, partly as a distraction from the following day, and partly on the off chance it was ever a Friday. And no, I hadn’t checked this year’s calendar.

Because Eve’s birthday, Friday the 13th, and #FreeWriteFriday coincide this year, I thought I’d give you a day in the life of my cat. Yeah I’m obsessed, but she also dictates my daily operations in a way I didn’t anticipate.

7:15 a.m. – I leap onto human’s stomach. When this fails to illicit a reaction, I meow loudly into her left ear, then her right. I rub my face against hers. Purrr.

7:17 a.m. – I leap away to avoid a right-handed swat.

7:20 a.m. – I redouble my efforts. I lick her nose, bat her chin, and continue to yowl in a manner that suggests the apocalypse. If I don’t get food soon, someone will die.

7:30 a.m. – Human moves. I mew appreciatively and nip at her heels as she plods into the kitchen, mechanically scoops breakfast into my bowl, and starts the coffee maker. I know it is a coffee maker because it makes coffee.

8:00 a.m. – Human turns on warm steam especially for me. I perch on the edge of the smooth white basin and watch her work white foam through her sad tiny hair patch. I stare at her in judgement. Why not use her tongue?

8:15 a.m. – Human steps out of the basin, and I leap in. I lick as many water droplets from the floor of the basin as possible. Delicious.

8:17 a.m. – Human opens the sweater drawer, so I jump in. I nest there until she pulls me out. So rude.

8:30 a.m. – A sizzling sounds comes from too high up for me to see. I leap onto the counter to look. Human looks dumb when she screams and flails her arms like that. It is very warm up here. I poke my nose toward the heat, curious…

8:31 a.m. – On the bed where human has dumped me unceremoniously. I have found a patch of warm yellow light. I close my eyes and soak it in.

8:55 a.m. – What? Huh? Of course I’m awake.

9:05 a.m. – Human is paying attention to something that is not me. I meow very loud until loud she turns her head. That’s better.

9:07 a.m. – The thing that isn’t me is a silver hinge with lots of small squares and a large screen. The screen flashes different colors. I leap at it. Human does the dumb arm-flapping thing again.

9:30 a.m. – Human is in the tile-floor room. I hear water running. Second breakfast. I race into the room and leap up onto the sink just in time to butt human’s head out of the way. I lap up the water stream with my tongue. She spits onto her sweater instead.

9:31 a.m. – Back on the bed. She seems displeased.

9:45 a.m. – Human dons puffy black layer and heads for the door. Nooooooooooo don’t leeeeeeaaavvvvveeeeeeeeeee…

10:00 a.m. – She left. Back to the warm patch of light.

***

3:00 p.m. – The light is gone, and I am cold. I stretch, then spring onto the windowsill. I observe my kingdom with the calm demeanor of a true ruler.

3:15 p.m. – I leap down and run across to the kitchen window. Two friends wait in the window across the way. We twitch tails at each other and meow through the glass. Our daily discussion on the world economy, politics, and global domination has commenced.

4:00 p.m. – Friends retreat from the window, so I follow suit. Time for lunch. Ug, leftovers.

4:05 p.m. – Eating makes me tired.

***

6:10 p.m. – Human is back; woke me up with loud stomping and shuffling. So rude. But maybe she will feed me dinner. I meow at her ankles until she notices, then fills my bowl.

6:15 p.m. – Human is playing with the glowing screen again. I jump onto her lap and shove my head into her armpit. Purrr

6:17 p.m. – Back on the bed.

6:18 p.m. – She will not pay attention to me, so I claw the couch until she does.

6:19 p.m. – I dodge a fountain of water from that awful spray bottle. I take a flying leap and peer down at the human from atop her bookshelf. Her arms are flapping again.

7:00 p.m. – Bored. I discover a small black furry object that escapes my paw as soon as I lunge for it.

7:02 p.m. – Black furry object seems to be attached to my body.

7:03 p.m. – Tail. It is my tail.

***

9:15 p.m. – Human sits on the couch with a book. I climb into her lap. I’m feeling tired again, so I curl onto her thighs and rest my chin on her knee. She scratches me behind the ear.

10:15 p.m. – Human shifts an inch to the left, so I leap down in protest. I run into the tile-floor room then all the way back to the couch as fast as I can. I jump up two shelves, then down to the floor, then up four shelves, then back down, then onto the bed, under the bed, wrestle with suitcase straps, rush out again, scratch my scratching post, then the couch, dodge the water, claw the rug, dodge the water, run to the kitchen, leap into the sink, lick at the faucet, dodge the water, back to the bathroom, tackle the bath mat, sprint through the shower curtains, race back under the bed and wait, holding still.

10:20 p.m. – Human’s foot approaches. Wait for it…

10:21 p.m. – Wait for it…

10:24 p.m. – Wait for it…

10:25 p.m.POUNCE!

10:26 p.m. – Human wails. I run and hide behind the sink.

***

11:10 p.m. – Human is a lump under blankets. It is dark. I jump lightly onto the bed and curl up in the crook of her left knee.

Eve Tells All

Playground Games

When the shout came from behind, it was deafening: “GET HER!”

It was an order, and it was not to be questioned. Spurred on by the taller boy’s screamed encouragement, the shorter came pelting after me. I turned and ran onto the playground.

My kindergarten class got an hour of recess every day which, when it comes to kindergarteners, is pretty inspired. Tire them out so they can’t misbehave in the classroom. Make a mess of the playground instead of the teacher’s desk. Throw soft, spongy dodge balls at each other instead of wooden blocks or dollhouse furniture.

I hated recess. I hated the sweat and the running around and how there was always a line for the swings. I’d race the others to the swing set (just because I hated to run didn’t mean I was slow) and, if someone got there before me, would find a quiet patch in the shade and build fairy houses in the dirt instead.

That day, Preston Sherer and Ben Jones sent me running for a different reason. Preston was the leader; he was tall, popular, and charismatic. The other boys thought he was cool because he made loud, rude farting noises in class and brought in the best toys from home. Ben was shorter, slighter, and needed a belt to cinch his hand-me-down shorts around his waist. He was quieter than Preston, but unquestionably his minion. Both boys had bowl haircuts. After all, this was the 90’s.

Both boys were also fast. Preston was faster, but he wasn’t running. Instead, he watched Ben’s progress and sauntered lazily some yards behind, still shouting. Ben tore after me as I ran like a hunted animal across the woodchips, through the swings, around the tires, up the stairs, and onto the bridge of the jungle gym. I thought I was safe there because if he came up one side, I’d go down the other.

He watched me up there for a minute, catching his breath. I smiled and waved, my courage restored from my vantage point. Then Preston caught up and manned the second set of stairs. I was trapped.

I made a snap decision. Quick as a lynx I bounded down from the bridge and leapt to the ground only inches in front of Ben’s surprised face. The chase was on again. I ran around a soccer field, over a small creek, through a wooded area that was technically off-limits, and across the basketball court before he caught me.

In the dirt yard just in front of the silver double doors that spit us screaming and squealing outside each day, Ben made a grab for my red skirt. I refused to wear pants in those days—only skirts and dresses—and this was my undoing. He caught the hem and brought me tumbling down into the dust. He fell across my extended legs. We were both panting. I’d scraped a knee and could feel the tears behind my eyes welling up, about to spill over.

Preston came ambling up behind us completely at ease. He looked down at our pile of tangled, dusty, bloodied limbs and laughed. At his approach Ben sat up. I struggled away from him but ended up on my back, pinned down by Ben’s knees on my skirt and his hands on my wrists. I looked up, terrified. They’d caught their prey. What would they do with it?

Preston looked at us there in the dirt. Maybe our pose recalled some illicit movie scene he’d watched with his older brother Trevor (another sandbox bully), or maybe he just wanted, childishly, to test forbidden waters for the thrill. Whatever the reason, he gave Ben a simple instruction.

“Kiss her.”

My fate was sealed. My eyes widened. I struggled, but it was no use. For a moment Ben looked uncertain. Kiss me? Here on my back in the dust in broad daylight? Maybe it seemed an odd climax to the chase. But he was six years old, so he did what he was told.

His lips came toward me and I struggled harder, like a washed-up fish flopping on land. I turned my head a fraction of a second too late—his lips found mine. They were hard, puckered, and chapped. He smelled like goldfish and tasted like dust.

In half a second it was over. Ben got up, blushing, and wiped the playground dirt off his too-big shorts. I scampered to my feet, too upset to cry, and fled for the safety of trees. There I crouched, back to a fence, waving a stick in case they should come after me again.

They didn’t. They left me alone, a scared animal in hiding.

The kiss part didn’t seem as threatening to me then as it does now. Sure, it was gross—every six-year-old girl knows about cooties. And anything is unpleasant when it’s done against your will. But Ben was nice enough, and I liked his blonde hair and watery blue eyes. Preston was a pig, but Ben was all right.

But at age six I didn’t understand their motivation. Why had the chase ended in a coerced kiss? Why had Preston chosen that as his ultimate punishment? Even at that age, the two boys felt a surge of confidence from overpowering me. I had no choice, and it thrilled them. They didn’t know why it thrilled them any more than I did—maybe it was imitation, or maybe it was instinct.

Maybe these two little boys were mimicking scenes from their own lives—Dad dominating Mom, older brothers pressuring girlfriends, images from TV, movies, or video games. It’s no secret that women are hyper sexualized in mass media, and that youth culture absorbs the concept almost without realizing it.

Whatever motivated those two boys on that playground on that particularly hot and dusty day, they couldn’t have known the consequences of their actions. They couldn’t have known that, years later, I’d still be that animal with her back against the wall, walking home with my finger on the trigger of my pepper spray, carrying a torch for them all this time.

Playground Games

#FreeWriteFriday – Intruder

4:58 a.m.

I wake to the sound of something falling.

In my apartment, this is not unusual. I have a cat–a kitten, really. She knocks things over all the time. She isn’t at the foot of my bed, so I grope for my glasses, get up, and go into the bathroom to see what it is this time.

I flip on the light and look around, confused. There’s nothing on the floor. Then comes another noise like the first. It’s coming from behind me in the kitchen. It’s coming from my front door. It’s coming from a key inserted in the lock and turned.

I live alone, and the key is not mine.

For a minute, I doubt my instincts. Surely, I think, the noise is from across the hall. it’s the neighbor getting in. But the neighbors moved out a week ago. A construction crew descended upon their apartment, blasted out every tile in the kitchen floor, and kept me awake for a night and a half. Now I have no neighbors.

I flip the bathroom switch again and ease my way to the front door. I do not turn on the light. Shaking, I stand on the other side–so close to a person I do not know–and, with my index finger, open the catch to the peep hole. I look through.

There is a man on the other side of the door. I can hear his coughs and grunts, animal noises, so close that the door feels porous. He’s pale, an inch or so taller than the peep hole, with greying hair cropped short on the sides. Maybe it’s the fish-eye effect, but his nose is beakish and his eyes squinted. His key doesn’t turn, so he removes it from the lock. His forehead wrinkles in concentration as he peers down at an entire ring of keys–many more than average. He chooses a new one. He will try again.

The next key enters the lock. My breath catches. My hands sweat. Because it’s the only thing I can think to do, I grab the bolt with my left hand to keep it from turning if the key fits.

It doesn’t. Through the peep hole, his frown deepens. Back to the ring. Next key.

My hand starts to sweat. If the key fits, will I be able to keep the bolt from turning? Will my fingers slip? Will my small, desperate force win out against cold, mechanical steel? No.

The door, which has always seemed solid, turns to cheesecloth–an inch of wood between me and the stranger. I can see him–can almost touch him–from the other side. Surely he can hear me breathe. Surely he can hear my heart pound like a caged animal’s. Surely he knows that I am trapped, frozen, inches away.

My ferocity is gone. The fury I feel when I confront cat-callers on the street, the savagery that bubbles to the surface when I’m faced with an assailant, has deserted me. I am not fierce. I am small. I am terrified. I am vulnerable. I am in tears.

He tries another key.

Adrenaline courses through me. I unstick my thumb and forefinger from the bolt. I close the peep hole. I retreat into my bedroom, close the door, and call the police.

It’s the first time I’ve ever dialed 9-1-1.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

I do not have an emergency. If the key fits, it will be an emergency. But he’s still outside trying key after key. He’s been there for 15 minutes.

“A man I don’t know is trying to get into my apartment.”

“Can you describe him? Where are you located? What phone number are you calling from?”

I give her the information. She assures me that officers are on their way. I thank her and hang up.

From the kitchen, the scratching continues. Next key. Immobilized, I crouch by the fire escape (a quick exit if he gets inside) and call my dad. I’m a five-year-old child afraid of the monster under the bed. This is more than I can handle. Every minute that passes is torture. The man is patient. He has a ring of keys and all the time he needs.

By the time the police arrive, the man is gone. I buzz them into the building and they do a search but cannot find him.

“He was definitely drunk,” one of the officers says. I’m standing in the doorway talking to them. In one hand I clutch my phone, and with the other clutch an enormous cardigan around me. It’s long enough to disguise the fact that I have forgotten to put on pants.

Maybe he was drunk. Maybe, as the officers leave, they chuckle at the petty fears of a terrified girl. I don’t mind. I would rather have them present and laughing than absent.

Because, if the key fits, the lock means nothing.

9:08 a.m.

#FreeWriteFriday – Intruder

It’s a wonderful town

You stupid fuck, what are you doing?
My neighbor’s screen flies open. His whole head leans out, cell phone angled away from right ear, face screwed up, livid.

I’m sitting on the fire escape reading a book.

You scared the shit out of me! Fuck, I had no idea you were out there…
He’s still going. He’s talking to the person on the phone, right?

They’ll give you a huge fine if they fucking catch you out there. Fuck.
No, he’s talking to me.

Little Girl Claire is deader than ever
as I stare into the face of my new neighbor.

My first celeb sighting, my first rat,
my first New Yorker.

It’s a wonderful town

#FreeWriteFriday – Ghosts of Toyota past

Most of the tears sunk into your matted fabric seats with one too many
cigarette burns (I don’t smoke, really)
are mine.

Dual service: vehicle and incubator of
anguish.
Tint the windows, lock the doors. 
Muffle sobs and animal sounds in heavy metal.

I can’t count the number of times you listened to me play shit music and ran me away.

But once, you chased a sunset to see if you could catch it.
Sure, your acceleration sounded like the contents of a hardware shop dumped into a magic bullet but god, you tried so hard. 

When it faded you’d taken us to the river
which was just as good.

#FreeWriteFriday – Ghosts of Toyota past