I remember the day I became aware of Norman Fitzgerald. I say that because that's exactly how it happened. We had never met and I didn't know him, so I couldn't say his coming into my life was anything other than a sudden awareness. It reminded me of when construction on my building ended: it wasn't until the buzz of the heavy-duty machines abruptly stopped that I even noticed how comforting the white noise was. Norman buzzed around my office for two years, bringing a la carte breakfast items to the employees of our publishing house. Every morning, I arrived at work to find a pumpkin spice muffin and a large cup of coffee onto my desk, made jet black without any cream or sugar to dilute the acrid taste. It was exactly what I liked, and I couldn't eat breakfast any other way. Then, one unremarkable Thursday morning, the coffee and muffin were missing from the usual spot on my desk. I asked my co-workers about the absence, but they were as confused as I. As we all took a minute to head to the break room and get their own coffee, I had a thought. In all the time that my breakfast had been showing up on my desk, I never realized that a person was responsible for putting it there. Up until then, it might as well have been a machine designed to cater to the office for all I noticed or was thankful for. I had never even bothered to learn his name. It came to me that whoever it was that put coffee and a muffin on my desk had not just a name, but dreams and hopes and ambitions. He may have had a family, but I never cared to ask. When I began to think about it, all of the countless waitresses, bag boys, fast food employees, or customer service people I had spoken to in my life had been non-memorable shapes that punctuated my life. These supporting characters, people who were responsible for the comforts in life, were as anonymous to me as Norman was. And when I think about it now, I realize that it wasn't until Norman Fitzgerald decided to step in front of the 10:17 pm to Boston, ironically alerting me to his existence, that I understood that my life, my routines as I knew them, depended on other faceless people.
It's things like this that I think about at night when I can't fall asleep. I lay in bed, going over the times in my life when I feel I should have done something differently. I try to forget, reasoning that there isn't anything I can do about it now, but I never seem to be able to let myself off the hook. When I have a hard time sleeping, my thoughts spin out of control. Sometimes, I'll zone out and focus on a small square of gray paint on my ceiling that dried mid-drip. I look at that drip and I imagine it's frozen in a sort of limbo, suspended in time. It's comforting to think that I'm not the only one who's in that place. That little paint drip has stopped, stuck and immobile between two different outcomes, just like I have. I could either stay in the spinning cycle of negative thoughts or attempt to fall asleep again. Eventually, I get to the point where I can't decide if it would be worse to stay awake thinking or knowingly submerge myself in the terror of my memories, masquerading as nightmares.
I don't get much sleep.
My therapist suggested I should paint my ceiling gray. She thought that decorating in neutral colors would calm my spirit. Dr. Willow Bennett is one of those hippie types, with dream catchers dangling from her ears and an affinity for going barefoot. She believes in the healing powers of color, so everything in my apartment is a shade of dull gray or muted white, inoffensive tan and unremarkable navy. The uninspiring surroundings are so unappealing that I've started to retreat more and more into my head, creating paranoid and unrealistic fantasies that float back into consciousness before I ooze into black, fitful sleep. The paint drip is only the tip of the iceberg.
"Cynthia. Cynthia. Cynthia." I've always hated my name. It's too pointy and angular, unable to hold any warmth. It reminds me of my face, gaunt and lifeless, but then again I've always hated my face too. It belongs too much to my mother. She was sharp and shrill like a maddened bird, and just as dangerous. For a minute, the urgent call of my name made me think that she had somehow found me and was waking me up to steal me away again. I was gasping for air, struggling to breathe through the depth of the memory when I opened my eyes and found nothing there. I slowly turned my head to take in the haunting half light between night and dawn before I heard the rap of knuckles on my apartment door. I checked the clock; it read 4:38. I became suspicious, because I couldn't think of anyone who would need to get a hold of me at this hour... and anyone who did should have had the sense to call so I wouldn't have to come to the door in my pajamas. Clutching that thought, I slipped my legs out from the sheets and brought them to the hardwood floor. The blanket of November cold that covered the ground wrapped it's dense fabric of freeze up to my calves. My toes searched the surrounding area for the warmth of my slippers, until my brain caught up to my feet and remembered I had left them in the living room. It felt cruel to have to walk that length for warmth, so I decided to brave the journey to the door without their comfort. By the time I made it to the door, I reasoned, my feet would be warmer anyway.
I must have been sitting on the edge of my bed thinking about slippers for a while, because the knocking got more and more persistent and loud until I couldn't ignore it anymore and had to answer the door in order to make the pounding stop. Luckily, my bathrobe was hanging off the back of my desk chair and was close enough to grab without thinking about distance or cold. When I finally managed to make it to my front door without freezing, I wondered about who could be on the other side of the door. I couldn't think of anyone that I wanted to talk to and couldn't understand why anyone would want to talk to me. The mysterious knocker couldn't have known their plea had woken me, and I couldn't find a reason to answer the door at all. I decided to turn around and head back to bed, but the person on the other side of the door heard my shuffling or something and started to call out to me again. "Cynthia. Cynthia. Open the door. Open the door." With a sigh, I heaved my body around and reached to open the only barrier between myself and whoever was on the other side. Standing in front of me like a prison matron was my landlady, Mrs. Grant, her hands on her hips, tapping her toes against the floor like a machine gun rapping out bullets. She seemed unnecessarily angry, and I thought of my mother waiting up to ensure I followed her strict 11:00 pm curfew. "Cynthia," Mrs. Grant began, "I've had three different people wake me up to complain about your headlights staring into their first floor apartments. I don't know what ungodly hour you got in, but if your lights have stayed until now, I suggest you turn them off." I thanked Mrs. Grant and retreated into my hallway to grab my keys. It figured that Mrs. Grant would wake me up for something as trivial as that. Most of the residents in the building were freshly graduated 20-somethings, and as a landlady, Mrs. Grant deeply mistrusted her tenants to take any responsibility for themselves. It made me wonder if Mrs. Grant had any children upon which to expend her mothering energy. It was true I had come home later than anyone else. I had been running errands when I knew I wasn't going to be able to sleep, thinking I might as well make use of the time I was awake. The 7-11 down the street was open 24 hours, and I needed milk.
I shuffled down to my car in my slippers, wrinkled sweater and jeans from the previous day. As I swung open the heavy door, the starkness of the bright lights blinded me, their harsh glow far too glaring in the shadowed limbo of early morning. Regaining my senses, I walked around to the driver's side door and slid the key into the lock. I opened the car door as noiselessly as I could, not wanting to alert anyone to my half-dressed appearance, and slid behind the wheel. Once inside the familiar cocoon of my car, I felt wide awake and alert. The way I fit into my car was very comforting to me. Since I bought the car, I was the only one who had driven it. The settings were adjusted perfectly to my height, making me feel like I had slipped into my favorite pair of well-worn jeans. Sometimes, I wondered if I would be willing to sacrifice that comfort to let a friend drive, but since I didn't have any friends, it didn't seem to matter. I stretched to turn off the lights, but stopped when an urge to just stay in the car and start driving suddenly surged into my thought. It wasn't like I was going to get any more sleep if I went back upstairs. The clock read 4:56 in the morning, about an hour before my alarm was going to go off.
Alarms make me uneasy. If I ever wake up before my alarm goes off, I never quite get back to sleep right, always keeping one eye open for the time. Since I can't stand to be surprised by the alarm, I stay awake, watching the time click from whatever time I woke up until 5:59. Then I turn off the alarm before it rings at six, because I'm already awake and don't need the extra noise.
Thinking about lying awake, waiting to turn off that noise, started to fill my head with the cycling thoughts. I slipped my key into the ignition and started my engine. As the car rose to life with ease beneath me, my anxieties melted into the hum of the machinery and I backed out of my usual parking space onto the street. I didn't have any errands to run or destinations planned. I didn't really have any idea where I ought to go at all. So I just started to drive.
I drove through towns and down highways, through quaint villages and along craggy cliff side. By the time 7:29 rolled around, I knew that I wasn't going to make it into the office by 8:00. I was surprised to find that it didn't seem to bother me that much, even though I had never missed a day of work before, let alone not called if I thought I would be even minutes late. I hate to be late. I feel as if I'm wasting everyone's time if I show up at any other time than when they ask me to be there. I even dislike being early, as it seems I'm still making demands on everyone's time (and mine) by pushing my presence onto anyone else for longer than is expected. I always get the feeling that I'm unwanted and everyone else would be happier if I dried up and blew away. I can't blame them. I've never really said much around other people. I don't really know how to talk to anyone in my office because I've never understood the types of things they talked about.
Small talk baffles me in the worst way. When people started mentioning the weather or their family vacation, I just stop listening and start thinking about other things. It just seems so fake to me, because no one really knows anyone enough to care what they think of the weather or how they spent the Christmas holiday. Any information given will be promptly forgotten and the same conversations go on day after day. Mondays are the worst, because there's an entire weekend full of trivial information to share. All day, everyone in the office squawks, "What did you do this weekend? Did you have a nice weekend? Great weather this weekend, wasn't it?" This makes me sick, because the silence was filled with these meaningless conversations. I like silence, and hate that all the other people in my office feel compelled to fill it with chatter.
I couldn't stand the thought of going in to work, because today was Monday. All the wonderful silence that I loved would be squashed by the prattling people in business suits and sensible shoes.
I decided to keep driving for a while longer. I didn't know where I was going, but I kept going forward. It felt good to be moving, even when I didn't know where I would end up. I truly love driving around Massachusetts in November. I like living in Boston, but what I really love is leaving Boston. Every time I drive outside the city limits, I feel freer, especially in fall. The chilly air and the warm colors contrast in the greatest way.
My body began to protest against consciousness. I started feeling very sleepy, almost like I was drunk. The ease and heft of this drowsiness caught me off guard, since I usually have to try and make myself sleep; an act not unlike forcing my head into water, only to bob up into consciousness again at the exact moment I neared oblivion. Sleep was crashing down upon me quickly, and I needed to find a place to rest. I figured if I pulled off onto the nearest side street and looked around for a while, I could find some sort of motel that was nice enough to take credit cards but not nice enough to charge a whole lot. I thanked myself for keeping my credit card in my pocket after running out for milk the night before.
The Crimson Inn seemed like a touristy-type place, decorated in colonial style to lure people in by giving them a sense of living history while so near to Boston. These types of places always irked me, but it had a vacant sign out front and barely any cars, so I figured I would be able to get a room. I was barely able to make it out of my car and to the front desk, check into the first room they offered and stumble through up the stairs to my fourth floor room before I fell into ubiquitous dark. I felt exhausted with every fiber of my being, and slept for as long as I could manage before it started to bother me that I was sleeping well into the afternoon. I first woke up around noon, and then only to slip out of the jeans that were making fleshy creases in my skin. I next woke up around two, actually getting up and walking to the bathroom across from the bed to try and keep myself alert. I didn't think splashing cold water would do anything, and I wasn't thirsty and didn't need to use the toilet, so I ended up standing there dumbly, half-naked in a strange bathroom before decided to go back to the bed again.
It seemed so unbelievably backward to me that what finally woke me up was nightfall. I usually prefer to sleep in the absolute dark and do so as much as I can. But the change of light and the weight of the dark as I woke up felt comforting and universal, even though I knew half of the world was just being bathed in sunlight. I thought of the people in China and India, seeing the first light of a new day. I felt strangely connected somehow, thinking that I was more on their schedule than my own. I wanted to go somewhere and do something outside of the bed, so I automatically pushed the sheets from my body and stood to head to the bathroom when I realized I still didn't have a clue as to what I would do in there. Since I hadn't eaten or drank anything in a while, I didn't need the toilet. I didn't have any makeup or a change of clothes to check either. I decided a hot shower would be nice, since I only brought my sweater and had spent the morning in a slight chill. I stepped onto the cool, black and white checker tiles and closed the bathroom door behind me, a habit I employed even when I started living alone and never had anyone to hide from.
I tugged my sweater and camisole over my head and slipped out of my bra and underwear. I turned around to adjust the temperature knobs in the shower and caught sight of myself in the full length mirror. Generally, I avoid mirrors because I never see anything I want to see and always find something that reminds me of my mother. But when I looked at myself head on, I could barely recognize myself, let alone see any of my mother. It had been a while since I had looked in a mirror, and I knew I hadn't had much of an appetite lately, but the way my sallow skin hung across my limp frame saddened me. I looked malnourished and sickly, my eyes hollow and drawn as if my head was already a skull and all you could see was socket. My hair was wispy and discouraging; the dull brown sticks hung between my shoulder blades like the bristles of an old broom. My broad shoulders caved in, creating a hunch in my back I didn't know I had. It made me look shorter than the 5'7 I had been since high school. My breasts sagged and fell from where they were attached to my chest, looking so much older than 27 years. My stomach was soft and fleshy, with little to no muscle tone, and my legs were strung together with loose tendons and brittle bones. My hamstrings wiggled like cooked spaghetti, and my knobby knees protruded farther than my hips did. Looking at my body in the mirror was like looking at the hanging skeleton that had frightened me in my freshman year of biology in college. I had not always been this distorted and disfigured, and I wondered whether it happened all of a sudden or had progressed so gradually that no one else noticed it either.
I stepped behind the shower curtain into the thick steam of the shower. Steam is so cleansing to me, as if I could curl up in the warm water vapor like I would curl up to my pillow in the growing chill of night. As the ache in my muscles increased, I slid to the bottom of the tub and let the water drip over my body. I had taken showers that way, huddled on the tub floor, since I was a little girl. I didn't learn it was odd until I lived with my college roommate. She accidentally walked in upon me sitting on the cool, green tile of the shared bathroom, the spray of water turned to the hottest I could stand it. The stark difference between the temperature of the tile and the moist heat that came from the shower head appealed to me. Cathleen apologized for intruding, then asked about it later. I couldn't understand her confusion, until she explained to me that most people stood in the shower, cleaned themselves and were done with it. I never suspected I was different. Since then, I wondered what else I had been doing since I was a child that was so strange and foreign to everyone else. I became paranoid about being normal. I didn't want to stand out or be noticed for being unique in any way, so I started dressing in all black so no one could notice the color of my blouse and tell me that no one really wore that color. I ate my meals with others, instead of at my own table, and even tried to have a social life. Eventually, it became so obvious to me that suddenly changing my habits, going to parties, dressing in black, and conforming made me stand out more to my classmates. It was at that point I decided that I didn't care anymore what anyone thought, and wouldn't be bothered by sitting in the shower.
After sufficiently warming myself in the shower, I sat at the foot of the hotel bed, wrapped in a suspiciously dingy, off-white towel that I grabbed from the towel rack, and began to flip through the channels on the television set. Nothing seemed particularly interesting to me, even the cooking channel. I adored cooking shows, as I had once considered being a chef in my teens, but I didn't have the money to pay for culinary school myself and my mother refused to pay for anything other than a business degree at a private academy. I liked to watch the TV chefs in their immaculate set kitchens chop tomatoes and make balsamic vinaigrette reductions, crust filet mignon and dice onions. I spent the entire program wishing that I had the skills to make such a perfect meal. The chefs always seemed so happy to be cooking, even if what they were cooking sounded awful, like cold asparagus-leek soup. These shows were far better than the reality shows and self-help shows I had flippantly watched while killing time. The reality shows seemed so forced, like there was a layer of plastic over the whole operation and nothing could ever permeate the plastic force field of scripted unreality. But the one thing that bothered me most about television were the professionals that made TV shows about their field. For example, if the topic of the show was interior decorating, one host might say to the other, "Well, look at the mess that Sally is making with her paint choices! A pop of color on one wall makes a focal point when grouped with neutral colors for the remaining walls. And the fabric for the drapes is simply a mess of synthetic fiber and tacky patterns." That kind of talk seemed unnecessary, because the other host would surely know these things already. I imagined it would get boring, repeating the mundane details of your own profession for the sake of educating an audience. I would never want to be on a publishing television show, because I wasn't sure just how many times I would be able to go through the steps of turning a manuscript into a book before I got sick of my own voice and quit the whole thing.