by Bassey Ikpi
It’s not so much the traveling; it’s the airplanes and the airports and the security screenings. The security guards and the bored way they ask, “Miss, please put your belongings in the bin”, and “Please step to the side and wait for assistance”. I hate waiting for flights that are delayed, and missing those that come in on time. I hate flight attendants and their tiny useless bags of pretzels. I hate preparing for takeoff and landing and the baby four rows back that will not stop crying. I hate the man next to me, who insists on both the seat by the window and a conversation. I hate myself for not telling him that I need a place to rest and have no room for company. But his voice is better than mine. So I listen.
I am flying home. In 3 hours, I will be in New York, but in fewer than 24 there will be another airplane, another airport, another city.
The plane lands exactly 10 minutes ahead of schedule but the doors remain locked. “Ladies and Gentleman, we apologize for the delay. We’re just waiting for clearance before we open the doors, please be patient.” The captain has assured that it will only be a “short while longer” at least 8 times. I stopped counting when I became overwhelmed with the fear that we will be asked to take our seat again, fasten our safety belts and flown somewhere further from home than Brooklyn feels.
There is something forming in my throat. It has become more and more familiar these last weeks. I am tired of it: it’s an always wanting to cry, it’s the almost crying and it’s the barely keeping it together because there is a small girl, white socks and first plane ride, across the aisle from me.
I’ve learned to stare at my shoes until they become blurry and liquid.
The doors have finally opened. I grab the bags stashed under the seat in front of me.
I want to run, push and bump my way past the people in the aisle. But I steady myself wait for others to pass. Smile, “No. Go ahead. It’s fine.” I’ve practised that as well. I grab my carry-on from over head and ease my way down the rows of empty seats—all upright and in their full and locked positions. Manage a “thank you” to the flight attendants who will forget me before I pass them.
There are no new messages on my cell phone.
I expect no anxious faces at baggage claim, but still search and scan the signs for my name.
I grip the handle of my bag tight and pull; half walking, half running to the nearest exit. The wind hits my face and I breathe for the first time in days. Perfect. I’m right in front of the Taxi Stand. Damn! I forgot to look for an ATM. The idea of going back into the airport causes my throat to swell again. I check my wallet and find $27 and a mountain of change. I can’t remember what it takes to get to Brooklyn. Taxi drivers hate to stop and I don’t have the strength to argue.
The queue at the taxi stand is shorter than I expect. It’s colder in New York than I remember. I am tired.
It’s my turn. The attendant hands me the folded yellow paper that is meant to protect tourists. Usually, I shrug them off, announce, “I live here.” Today, I’m not sure where I belong. The driver lifts himself from the front seat and offers to put my bags in the trunk.
“No. I’m fine. I’ll hold them.” I climb into the back and clutch everything to my chest.
”Where you go, miss?”
“I don’t know.” I whisper under my breath.
”Sorry. Brooklyn. Flatbush to Eastern Parkway. I’ll direct you from there.”
“What’s the exact address, Miss? I know the area.”
I tell him, off of Nostrand.
“I know the area, Miss. I live very close by.”
I nod. Thoughts flood. They tumble and race so quickly that only focusing on him will help slow their circling. I can’t stop nodding. I want to start a conversation; make him talk to me. I open my mouth slightly and I’m not sure where to start. I bite my bottom lip and say nothing. I think that maybe he will wonder about me and I wait. No. He’s done with me; concentrating only on navigating his cab out of the airport. I realize that I am tense and leaning forward so I push back and stare at my shoes.
The silence is as thick as the plastic that divides us.
The cab is too hot so I crack the window. Let November enter.
His voice cuts through the air.
“Which way you wanna go?”
“Um… I—I don’t know. Wherever, I mean, I don’t, I don’t—care. Whatever you think is best.”
I can’t seem to focus on his question or my answer. I open my mouth to clarify but he—
“Okay. Too much traffic here so I take you the fast way. BQE.”
I nod and fall back into the seat. As I stare outside, the view rises and falls in a blur of shapes and colors. The arc and speed makes me carsick so I face forward. The ID on the glass shows a small, brown man, smiling for an unknown photographer. His name is Hasaan. Hasaan. I’ve always liked the name Hasaan. I like how the A’s are the only vowels.
We drive from Queens to Brooklyn in silence. My mind, however, is never quiet: yesterday, tomorrow, last night, tomorrow night, the next city, the last city, the next show, the last show, when will this end, need sleep, don’t want food, don’t want sleep, need food, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep. I sigh and shake my head to clear all the chatter. There’s always one voice that’s louder than the rest. Hasaan looks at me through the rear view mirror. Smile. Invite him to talk. I need his voice as solid rock against the crumbling dust. But I can’t manage a smile and look away. All I have of him is his name. That’s all you need. I say it over and over, “Hasaan. Haasaaan. Hasaaan. Haaasaaaan.” His name is like a mantra reminding me to breathe. I can feel something start but I push it to the base of my throat I stare at this forgotten folded, yellow paper. I find Brooklyn on the small map. Home.
I can feel the fatigue eating through my bones.
“Miss, this is good, yes?”
“Miss, this is good, yes?”
I am staring at my shoes again.
“Not really but it’s the best I can do.”
I look up to find Hasaan facing me. It takes a moment to realize that the cab has stopped and pulled up to a curb.
I sit in the cab and stare out into the street. I’m not sure what I’m waiting for. Hasaan clears his throat from the front seat.
“Miss, if you please…”
I nod, for what seems like the millionth time. Then, pull out my wallet and hand him all the bills. I don’t wait for change or a receipt, or even to see if I’ve given him enough. I just throw my body against the door, praying that it will open. I drag my bags after me. I’m standing on the curb, wallet in hand, trying to suppress an urge to run.
Flatbush pulsates around me. There are several radios on full blast; all battling each other for control of the street noise. There’s a mess of Rasta men outside a repair shop and old women in front of the 99cent store trying to keep warm while waiting for the B44. Right then, I decide I want to be somewhere else—anywhere but here. I turn just in time for the street light to turn green and the last bit of yellow to disappear around the corner. He’s gone. I stare at my shoes and swallow.
I stand on the sidewalk and face my apartment building.
There is the faint smell of burning hair, and rapid Spanish spilling onto the street from the Dominican Beauty Salon at the end of the block. Next to it is a window covered with plastic flowers and many glowing statues of the Virgin Mother. Across the street is the bodega. It smells like wet dog and hot breath but I am in there everyday buying a gallon of water. The owner always greets me with, “Aye Mamita!” as I enter the door. He always seems glad to see me. I wonder, briefly, if I should take my bags and head to his store first. But I think better of it.
I turn away from the bodega with a sigh and face my building. To the right, underneath a dirty white something that barely remembers when it was an awning is a man the color of sand. He has thick arms and a belly that balloons over his belt buckle. I think he is the owner and has come out to guard his wares. I’m not sure what he’s protecting. He sells nothing but headboards shaped like swans and statues of naked women dancing and shining in black lacquer. He sits in a wicker rocking chair and moves lazily back and forth; cradling a ceramic mermaid shaped lamp. This lamp he holds, like it were his first born, is the ugliest thing I have ever seen. And at this moment, I have never wanted anything more. I want to cradle it like he does, trace my fingers along the ridges and then smash it. You need to own something ugly and destroy it. I am fixated on the lamp, staring at it like it will spring to life.
“You lost or something like that?” Mr. Furniture’s booming voice forces me to look up.
I shake my head no.
He struggles to stand. He and his mermaid lamp take a few steps toward me.
“You all right then,” he asks suspiciously clutching the lamp to his heaving chest. “You stand there a long time.
“I live here. I’m just looking for my keys.”
I open my purse and begin searching. I pull them out and jiggle them before heading towards the door. I make a big production of sliding the key into the lock. I turn the knob praying that this is not one of the times it sticks. I push the door open with as much dramatics as can be called for in this situation. I turn to face the man and his lamp and give him a smirk.
Satisfied, Mr. Furniture turns, and with a slight juggling of the lamp, shuffles back to his store. Like anyone would want to steal his tacky ass furniture.
The corridor is as dark and dank as ever. I’m not sure if these legs will remember 3 flights of stairs.
They do, but barely.
I leave my bags by the door; there is never a reason to unpack. The first thing I do is pick up a remote control I don’t care which one. I need the noise. I grab the smallest one and press the power button. The stereo starts with the familiar click and whirr of a turning CD. With another click the quiet is abruptly put to an end. The music fills in the empty spaces.
There is a brown package leaning against the coffee table. It’s probably something I ordered weeks ago and no longer care to own. I leave it where it is.
The apartment is empty and immaculate. My roommate likes to clean before she leaves town so there’s a shine and neat sheen to everything. It all looks so different. I wander around like I’m in a museum too afraid to touch anything. I don’t want to disturb the order.
The bathroom is small and easy. I spot the new shower curtain immediately. The bath mat is now blue—or was it always blue? My toothbrush still sits in a blue and white ceramic cup on the sink. The blue hand towels are folded neatly on the rack. I am much too casual and untidy to care about these things. But still, on days like this, it makes me feel like I don’t belong here. I leave the bathroom with a final scan. I manage to avoid the mirror.
The kitchen is exactly the same. The microwave still owns the counter across from the stove. The blender I broke before I left is still waiting to be rescued. The refrigerator still only holds a bottle of milk, a jar of strawberry jam, and menus to the neighborhood take-out places. In the cabinet—peanut butter and a can of Goya peas we are sure came with the apartment. This is good. Some things are still familiar.
My bedroom is exactly as I left it—a complete mess. Between books and half filled journals, there is an avalanche of clothes on the floor and over flowing from the dresser. My closet is overstuffed. The clothes still on the closet rod are hanging on for dear life. There are shirts and blouses frantic to reach the hanger; one arm towards the floor, the other as close to safe as it can be without sliding off. My pants and jeans, on the other hand are hanging precariously by one leg; a few hanging just by a belt loop. Below the clothes are my shoes all thrown into the closet, scuffed and mismatched and upside down. A few of the newer ones are safe, awkwardly stacked in their boxes. I really should treat my things better.
I reach to pick up a stray t-shirt when I see the laptop. Sleek and silver sitting abandoned and angry on my nightstand, a sock draped over it. This is my most prized possession. My first major purchase; well, sort of. At the last minute, I had to put it on my roommate’s credit card. With this job, I was able pay her back in a week.
The realization hits me that this job bought most of the new and expensive things scattered around the room. I don’t have to worry about bills or rent or my out of control E-bay habit because of this job. This job that I'm so lucky to have, this job that I am constantly reminded not to take for granted, this job that people would die for.
I’m waiting for it to kill me.
I am tired. I need sleep but it has become such a challenge. I wonder if I’ve forgotten how. I look at my bed, crumpled and untidy. It’s so strange to know hotel beds so well that I forget the look and feel of my own. Maybe if you make your bed. I nod. Yes. Maybe. I take a look at the mess and search the debris for anything promising.
I can’t remember the last time my bed was made. The sheets smell new and crisp. I remember reading somewhere that white is soothing. That it is the color of peace. I’m pretty sure this is bullshit but anything is worth a shot. I stand and stare at my bed. Its tidiness makes sleep even more unappealing.
I should shower; remove this layer of travel and hurry from my body.
My jeans slide off without me first unbuttoning or unzipping them. Alice was the first to notice.
“Have you lost weight?”
I didn’t want to worry her.
“I don’t know think so… maybe…”
I don’t tell her that I stopped eating weeks ago or that I only drink gallons of water and pick at room service fruit plates.
I don’t tell her that I’m waiting for this to kill me.
I sit on my bed, for a moment. I’ve forgotten what I undressed for.
In the blue and white bathroom, the water in the tub is running. All I need is a shower. After this everything will make more sense.
The hot water is taking its time. I sit at the edge of the tub, feeling the temperature struggling to change under my fingers. My stomach rumbles a little and I try to recall my last meal. Last night in the hotel. We were in Atlanta for three days and for every meal, breakfast and lunch and dinner, I ordered the fruit plate (No, melon. Yes, that includes cantaloupe but extra watermelon if you have it) and a pitcher of water (no ice) and a glass of ice (no, water, please). The same room service guy brought in the tray each time. He’d laugh and say, “Be careful or you’ll turn into a pineapple.” In every hotel, in every city, every room service worker tells the same joke. The only thing that changes is the fruit. I laugh like I’ve never heard it before; laugh like it’s not true. Oddly enough, no one has ever said, “I’ll turn into a grape.” That’s all I want from the fruit plate; sometimes, I eat the pineapple and the watermelon. The pitcher of water is always empty in an hour. Sometimes I call up for another.
I pull my hand away as the water changes suddenly from lukewarm to hot hot. I turn the knob and try to adjust the water pelting the plastic shower curtain.
I can smell the heat as the temperature in the shower changes. I pull free the tucked ends of my towel and drop it on the floor. You should really treat your things better. When I bend over to pick it up, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I move quickly away but what I did see was skin pulled tight, from a struggling, poking collar bone. I resist the urge to look again and step gingerly into the shower.
The bathroom is clouded by steam. I watch as it fills the room and covers the mirror. I pull the curtain closed.
I want to own something ugly and destroy it.
I stay in as long as I can. Wash every part of my body more than once. The space between my toes and the curve behind my ears have never been so clean. When there is nothing left to scrub raw, I sit at the bottom of the tub and let the water beat me.
I wish I could sleep like this.
I need to get out before I drown. I stop for a few minutes and wonder if I could drown. It would be an accident.
I manage to drag myself out. I miss the constant pounding of the water already. I briefly consider taking another shower. I can feel the fatigue eating through my bones.
There is something familiar rising. I’ve learned its pattern. It starts at the back of my neck tightens and spreads to the space between my shoulders. In less than a second, it will hit me squarely in the chest. Take my breath; rush my heartbeat; turn my knees to water. I don’t have time for it now. I’ll just have to shake it off; try to steady myself. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m only tired. I only need to sleep or eat. I will not shiver and shake with it.
This thing disappears as quickly as it appears.
I sit on the edge of the bath tub and stare at my feet; waiting for it to come back.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
I feel a chill and remember the cooling bathroom and my towel.
In my bedroom, I search frantically for something to wear. I dig through layer after layer of pants and shorts and sweatshirts; none of them will prevent these attacks. The pink flannel will not help. The eighth grade gym shorts will not encourage you to eat. The grey fleece will not invite sleep. I shake my head to stop the words. I need my black Old Navy sweatpants. They will make this feel like home. I search t-shirts and bras and tank tops and towels. I need these sweatpants. They are oversized and soft and fading. I search and find shoes and socks and jeans and sweaters. I can not find them in this mess I’ve created.
I sit on the floor in the middle of all this. I can feel the thing again. This time I don’t stop it. The frustration is too much. How many times these last few weeks has your face been wet? How often do you taste the salt? When was the last night you weren’t huddled on a floor?
I hold my head and sob until my stomach hurts.
The floor feels like concrete through the thin terry cloth. I curl myself into a ball; feel my face cool against the hardwood. I cannot convince my body that it is worth rising for. This doesn’t happen to normal people. I close my eyes tighter and pull my knees closer to my chest. I try to think of Hasaan. I want to stay like this forever.
But I can’t stay here.
Sit up dizzy and try to regain control of my breathing. This doesn’t happen to normal people. .
My body is unforgiving. I have been moving slowly through these cotton and molasses days; getting by on just enough. Just enough sleep. Just enough air. Just enough food. Just enough rest, just nearly not enough. How much longer can you do this?
I’m waiting for it to kill me.
My heart jumps as the stereo clicks and the CD ends suddenly. The music was supposed to make me feel less alone. Instead, it’s faded into the background along with me.
I sit on the floor, legs folded. I scan the room searching for something. I need other voices. I remember my cell phone in the other room and mentally scan the names for someone I can call. There is no one. No one that will ignore that it’s been days, weeks, sometimes months since the last time. There is too much to explain. I’ve lost touch. You’re a terrible friend. No wonder you’re alone.
I’ve been trembling and convince myself that it’s the cold. I stand up too quickly and the walls rush towards me. It takes a moment to steady myself. My bedroom is so cluttered. The mess is overwhelming. All I can do is stand in the middle and wring my hands over and over and over. It is the only thing I can do.
Fall is sliding in from the windows. I need to get dressed.
I’ve picked from the pile of clothes near my dresser. I still can’t find my sweatpants. The pink plaid pajama bottoms he bought will have to do. So will my high school sweatshirt—Roosevelt Poms. The letters have started to crack, a few have faded. This will have to do. I sit on my bed and look around. You need to clean up. I nod to myself. I can’t sleep until I clean this up. I put my feet up, hug my knees to my chest and rest my forehead on my knees. I wish I could sleep like this.
The comforter does little to live up to its name. It’s too hot underneath; too cold on top. I’ve calmed down enough to lay still. I am a tight curl on my bed; I think it controls the shivering. I can’t move afraid that the sobbing and trembling will return. My mind is still turning but I’m trying my best to focus on one thing. I can’t. I need to tell someone about this. But who? What? What is this? I don’t even know what this is.
How could I possibly explain this to anyone? They’ll only tell me to try and sleep and try and eat. As though it were that simple; as though that were the only problem.
Is this what crazy feels like?
The question makes my heart quicken. My body is once again a mess of trembling and panic. I think of a new way to stop it. All I can think is that I’m wearing the pink pajama bottoms. I need my black sweatpants. They are the only thing that feels good.
I drag my luggage from the front door to into the bedroom. I search more determined than I’ve been in weeks. I’ve never learned to pack properly. There is so much to sift through. I’m adding to the clutter by dumping piles of clothes next to me. I will need to do laundry in the next city. I need to do laundry in this city. I suddenly remember the bag of laundry I didn’t have time to send out. It’s in the corner partially hidden by the closet door.
They are near the bottom.
For the first time, there is hope.
I can sleep now.
No sleep, but there is a bit of quiet. This thing comes in waves. I’m both grateful for these brief pockets of relief and terrified, anticipating the next implosion.
It’s too hot in here. I lift myself off the bed to open the window a bit. I lean against the ledge and stare out at the late night Flatbush traffic. Nostrand Avenue is quieter than it’s been. There are a few people, even fewer cars and a slight breeze. I stand there for awhile just looking out.
A small tangle of people rise from the 2 train. I wonder why they are up. Why they aren’t already at home asleep. I’m sure they can. It’s probably easy for them. It is easy for normal people.
I notice a woman trudging slowly underneath my window. She walks like there is something heavy pressing her into the pavement. She looks much older than I’m sure she is. She looks beaten and worn. I’ve seen her before. She is one of the many women on the train at all hours of the day and night. They sit on the train, arms folded on their laps, they are sometimes surrounded by bags, sometimes an unopened book; but always, always, a frown. If I look close enough, I can sometimes see the hint of the beauty and laughter they once held. This thing could take you. “No,” I say to whoever controls these things, “I don’t want to be like her.” This woman is ambling down the block, her walk a careful struggle. I can almost see her shedding layers and layers of happiness with each step. I want to call out to her, to run down those three flights and stop her. Beg her to tell me what happened. I want to know when she gave up; when all of this became too much to bear. I want to know if it started with a sleepless night, maybe two. Did it start with a tremble?
I bite my lip and try to fight the thing wet and waiting behind my eyelids. But I don’t move from the window. I just watch this woman until she turns the corner and disappears.
I stare at the corner. The space she filled becomes occupied by a man, slowly stumbling down the block. His voice rises from the street into the window. He is deep in conversation but there is no one but him on that side of the street. “Fuck off, man. I’m tired a hearin yo’ shit. You been talkin’ that same mess fa damn near twenty years. I ain’t tryin’ a hear it no mo'.”
His voice bounces off the buildings and lands at my feet.
I close the window and back away from it; afraid that the shaking will return. I need something, sleep or food.
I need the television. Something that will help me forget.
I sit in front of the television with the jar of peanut butter and a spoon. I grab the remote control from the coffee table and power the television on. The room floods with sound, I allow myself a smile and small sigh of relief. I scan past channel after channel, as voices lift and fall with each click. Real World. click. Rocket Chef. Click. Conan.clickSouth Parkclick.ComicView.click. I stop on a rerun of Three’s Company. All I want is something familiar.
My heartbeat is normal again.
This is good. The laugh track is welcome distraction. I’m still holding the peanut butter; trying to convince myself to eat. Okay, whenever Jack falls, I’ll take a spoonful. A few moments later, John Ritter tumbles backwards off a couch. I unscrew the lid and dip my spoon in. The peanut butter is a chunky brown blob. I’ve never wanted anything less. I close my eyes and force the spoon into my mouth. It is thick and heavy on my tongue. The bits of peanuts are like tiny pebbles. I almost can’t bring myself to swallow. But I have to eat, even if it’s just this. On the screen there is another fall; more canned laughter. I force another spoonful. Then, screw the lid back on the jar. I can do no more than that.
Thankfully, Jack Tripper manages to stay on his feet for the rest of the episode. I get up and head for the kitchen. I’m getting used to the dizzy that lack of food brings. If I stop eating long enough, the hunger stays away. I put the peanut butter back in the cupboard. Leave the spoon in the sink.
I make it to the bathroom just in time. My stomach was already empty. The acid makes my throat burn. I sit against the bathtub, holding my head in my hands. I didn’t want it to happen this time. But I’m waiting for the next wave to hit.
There’s nothing left, so nothing comes.
I’m so tired that I can’t sit still. I don’t understand this. If I sit, I shake so much that I need to stand and when I stand I need to move until I’m tired. I’m walking quickly from one side of the apartment to the other. I’m begging for my skin to slide quickly off my bones. I have to keep moving. And my hands. I can only shake them; can only wring them. But never fast enough. Nothing is fast enough. Not the pacing. Nothing. Only the words dancing circles inside my head. The thoughts running and racing faster and faster. I spin around a few times; searching for something that will make this stop. Maybe I’ll tire myself out. I’ll have no choice but to collapse from exhaustion. Maybe my heart will explode from beating so fast. Maybe this time you won’t wake up.
Faith is a matter of interpretation. My belief in God has always been accidental. Disbelief requires too much proof.
So for the next few minutes, I’ll put everything I know into believing.
And God accepts no bargains.
I am on the floor again this time holding my head and rocking. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. This is not helping. The rocking only keeps me moving; it does nothing to control the shaking. It does nothing to stop the crying or prevent that thing that urges me to bang my head hard against the wall.
I’m waiting for this to kill me.
I have to stand up—move. More pacing. More wringing of hands. More holding. No more attempts to talk myself down. The trembling will not stop.
And God accepts no bargains.
Bedroom. Living room. Kitchen. Living room. Bathroom. Bedroom. Living room. Kitchen. Living Room. Bathroom. Kitchen. Bedroom. Kitchen. Bathroom. Living room. Bathroom. Kitchen. Bedroom. Kitchen. Bedroom. Living room. Living room. Living room.
I stand still and close my eyes. For some reason, I start counting backwards from 2000… 953. 952. 951. It’s working. Keep pacing. Keep counting. 493. 492. 491. 490. 489. Keep counting. It’s working.
The shaking has lessened.
I get to one but keep my eyes tightly shut. I’m afraid if I open them that it will all return.
On the floor again, my body crumpled forward
I wish I could sleep like this.
You can’t sleep now. You have a plane to catch in a few hours.
I should straighten my room a little.
I need water. Water always stays and I can use the walk. I need the air. My body is both heavy and empty but at least everything is quiet.
I find two socks and slip them on; one stretches to my knee and the other barely covers my ankle. My Adidas sports slippers are under the bed. They will have to do. I grab a coat from the closet. It is ankle length raspberry and wool. It is beautiful but does little to keep me warm.
I grab my wallet and the keys.
I’m never sure about these stairs.
It’s colder than I expect. I wish I had gloves but I left them in a hotel two days and three cities ago. This coat doesn’t even have pockets. I tuck my hands inside the sleeves and walk quickly. It’s too late to be out alone.
The security guard looks up lazily as I enter; then returns to his magazine. The store is empty. There is only one cashier. She is sitting on the counter smoking a cigarette. She doesn’t acknowledge me. I find the ATM and swipe my card.
Password. Withdrawal. Checking. $20. Remember the car to the airport. Cancel. $60. Enter. No further transactions. No receipt. Have a Nice Day. Thanks.
I head to the back where the refrigerators are. There are no gallons only sports bottles. I grab two. In a few hours I will be out again. I’ll get more water then.
Standing there the tubes and bottles start to melt into each other.
I need to get home.
The cashier has finished her cigarette and is leaning on the counter. I can still smell the bitter and burn of tobacco and paper. When she sees me approach, she rolls her eyes and moves behind the register. I feel like I should apologize. My eyes burn. I stare at my feet for a few seconds. Just to steady myself. When I look up, she is staring at me. She opens her mouth and words drift past me slowly.
I squint trying to read her lips. I try to stay focused on her face.
“Will. That. Be. All.” She says again. I want to tell her that I’m tired, not retarded.
You need to sleep.
“Yes. I mean, no…”The question tumbles out of my mouth before I can catch it. “Can you tell me where the sleeping pills are?” I can hear the words echoing in my head.
You need them.
“I need to sleep.” I don’t realize that I’ve said this out loud.
The cashier gives me a look before she answers, “Aisle 4. Are you okay?”
I nod, afraid of what will come if I open my mouth again. I leave the bottles on the counter and turn around.
Aisle 7. Aisle 6. Aisle 5. Aisle 4.
The shelves are filled with rows and rows of boxes. My eyes can’t take them all in. I’ve always been afraid of sleeping pills. I’m not sure why. I’ve tried all the herbal ones but they don’t work anymore. I have to take more than the recommend dosage and that just makes me groggy not sleepy. I reach out and pick up Tylenol PM. If you take one you won’t get up in time. I pick up another bottle. Nytol. If you take one you won’t get up at all. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. All I know is that I want to sleep. You’re waiting for something to kill you. I start to remember the hotel room in Dallas. The bottle, something my mother gave me for pain. I remember my head pounding. Remember waking up on the bathroom floor; disappointment slapping me in the face. I told myself it was because the headache followed me into the morning. I remember the eight pills, I swallowed one after another. I remember last month and the 4 train and the traffic on 14th and Broadway; the urge to jump, great; the desire to be pushed, greater. But sleeping is okay. If you take one, you will take them all. I’m just tired. And alone. And alone. And lonely. And lonely. I’m waiting for something to kill me. I’m waiting for sleep, maybe this time I won’t wake up. All the things I haven’t given myself permission to admit were pushing themselves past my filter. I’m hoping that this is a dream, that I did fall asleep all those hours ago on my bed. I can feel the tears making their way past my eyelids. This is all too real. I cover my mouth, stifle the cry. I don’t know what to do so I sit in the middle of the aisle, holding the bottles to my chest. You’re supposed to know what to do.
“I don’t know; tell me what am I supposed to do...”
“Ma’am, are you all right?” I look up to see the security guard. My head is still spinning.
“Yes. I’m fine. Thank you.” The tears are still streaming down my face but my voice has taken on an eerie, stilted calm. I focus on my mismatched socks and wonder if this is what it means to go crazy. For the first time in weeks my mind feels hollow. I’m aware of the security guard’s eyes on me as I struggle to my feet. I’m not sure what to do with the bottles so I set them on the shelf behind me.
I turn to the security guard and say, “I have a plane to catch in a few hours.” He nods slowly and backs away from me. I wipe my face with my coat sleeve. I don’t care if he doesn’t believe me.
I am floating somewhere between bone and flesh.
As I pass, the register, the annoyed cashier reminds me of the water. I turn back and watch as she puts the bottles in a white plastic bag. She scans my CVS card and rings me up. I go through my wallet and find a five dollar bill. She gives me 23 cents. She hands me my receipt and asks again if I’m okay. I don’t answer, just turn to leave.
I’m not but this is the best I can do. I have a plane to catch.
Outside, the sun has found time to rise. It’s officially morning.
These legs. Those stairs.
I shed my coat at the door and make it to the bedroom. I sit and wait for this to kill me. I’m not ready for the weight of this.
I lie back on the bed and stare at the ceiling.
You need help. I need to clean up.
Maybe just lay here.
Tell someone. I should pack.
Maybe just lay here.
I shut my eyes. If I take one, I’ll take them all.
“STOP IT!” I scream, in this apartment that doesn’t feel like my own. In the last few months I have become familiar with the contours and smells of hotels across the country. This place was supposed to help me sleep. It was supposed to be better here. It’s not. I sit up quickly and look around. Find something ugly; destroy it. I think of Mr. Furniture and his ugly, ugly, beautiful mermaid lamp. I want to own something ugly and destroy it.
Something has begun to hurt.
I want to call someone. Tell them something. But it’s too early everywhere.
I have a plane to catch. I need to pack
It will be another two weeks before I’m back.
I’ve managed to stuff more clothes than I need back into my suitcase. I’ve cleared my bedroom the best I can in the little time I have. Everything is shoved in the closet or under the bed. I threw a few things behind the wood and white Chinese screen that hides the radiator. If you can’t see it, it’s not there.
I drag my bags back to the door. This time I remember my laptop. I check my purse for today’s itinerary, scanning the crumpled and creased paper for the information I need. LaGuardia. American Airlines. Detroit. 9AM.
“Apple Radio Cars, Good Morning.”
“Good morning, I need a car….”
I’m sorry. I can’t hear you…”
“I need a car to LaGuardia.”
“Where are you?”
”Nostrand between Clarkson and Lennox.”
“Nostrandclarksonlennoxnostrandclarksonlennoxclarksonclarkson #89. Five minutes.”
What— I’m sorry.”
“Five minutes. Your car will be there in five minutes.”
“Oh okay. Thank—“
They say five they always mean ten. I need to change. The sweatpants stay on; that way I won’t misplace them. I find two pairs of socks that look like they may match; and my sneakers underneath a towel. I change into my extra large, Oklahoma State hoodie. The hoodie envelops me in black fleece and covers my face. I feel hidden in it. Safe. Protected.
I hear a honk outside. It’s the car. I open the window and call out. “I’ll be right there.”
I rush to the bathroom to wash my face. This time I don’t avoid the mirror. I’m sure I look like I feel.
The bags are dragged down the stairs. I don’t know where I found the energy. I open the door and squint into the morning. I pull my bags behind me and the driver rushes out of his seat. He is not Hasaan. I watch, dazed, as he lifts the bags into the trunk. The sidewalk is dotted with people. Children in their school uniforms still wiping the sleep from their eyes, the old women and their plastic bags shuffling to the train station; women my age, dressed in crisp suits, their hair shiny and perfect; they look healthy and well rested. I look after them with longing and then down at my faded sweatpants and stained, oversized sweatshirt.
I wonder what I’m doing wrong.
The driver has finished loading the bags. “You ready?” He asks.
“Just one second,” I say, “I need to run to the bodega.”
“Okay, Miss.” He opens the driver’s side and eases into the front seat.
“Mamita!” The bodega owner greets me as I enter the store. “Where you been?”
“Hi.” I manage a smile. “I had to go away for—for work.”
“They work you too hard?” He laughs.
I laugh with him; pretend it’s not true. Notice instead how his English is improving.
“Your English is so good.”
“Yeah, my son,” He smiles proudly. “He say I’m fast learner. What you need, mami?”
He points to the back and says, “You know.”
I walk to the cooler: stand there trying to figure out how many of the energy drinks will propel me towards the day. I try to remember how many it took yesterday. Four. I open the door and pull out six and a bottle of Focus Vitamin Water. I juggle the cans and bottle until I dump them on the counter.
“Anything else, Mami?” I shake my head.
“Okay. For you? $6.50. You want bagel?”
“Are you sure?” I wonder how he makes money with all the breaks he gives me. I hand him a ten dollar bill and tell him to keep the change. “I have a car outside waiting.”
“Take the bagel.” He looks concerned, so I accept it.
He laughs at my awkward pronunciation.
“At least you try. Have a good day, mami. Eat the bagel.”
I thank him again, this time in English.
Outside, the driver has his black Lincoln already running. I open the door and settle into the vinyl backseat.
“LaGuardia. American Airlines.”
He tunes the radio and settles on a station. Creole flows from the speakers. He’s Haitian. You should ask his name.
“I don’t care.” I say to myself.
“You say something?” The driver asks, turning slightly.
“Do you want a bagel?”
“No, thank you.”
The car pulls away from the curb and I take one last look at my neighborhood. I look away and pull the first Red Bull out of the bag. I crack it open and hear the familiar hiss and bubble of the liquid inside. I press the can to my lips and drink.
“So where are you off to?” The driver wants to talk.
“Detroit.” I don’t want to talk.
I finish the first can and reach for the second. In just a few minutes the caffeine will flood my veins
“Ahh… Detroit. I’ve never been.”
“Sir. I’m very tired. I’m going to try and rest a little. Just tell me when we get to the airport.” My voice has more bite than I intended but I don’t apologize.
He nods and says nothing else. I hesitate before I reach for a third can and decide against it. I’ll need something for the plane. I sigh loudly and lean back. But I can’t close my eyes. Only stare up at the cracked and peeling ceiling of the car. I reach up and pull a loose, hanging thread. It unravels the stitching and bits of it flake and fall onto the seat. I know the driver is watching me in the rearview mirror. I put my hand back in my lap, feeling guilty.
“So how long have you been driving?”
The driver’s grin is wide and friendly. He sits up in his seat. “This is my second week.” I ask him how he likes it as the car speeds along the Jackie Robinson Parkway. I ask him another question and stare out of the window as the driver’s chatter rises and falls around me. I pull out another Red Bull and pepper his rapid, gilded speech with well-placed, “um hmmms” and “reallys”.
My heart and stomach drop and swirl as the airport draws near. I immediately reach for fourth can of Red Bull.
David leaps from the car to help me with my luggage. I hand him more money than I should. He gives me another wide grin and wishes me a safe trip. I nod, grab my things in both hands and head towards the doors.
It’s not so much the traveling …