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Work has ended for the day. I release a smoky tendril of breath that dies just as quickly as it forms in the cold air. It doesn’t matter what work it is that I do, just that I’ve done it.
The sky is overcast tonight, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the evening. I watch from the small amount of cover provided by the entryway of the building as my co-workers dribble out, casting irritated, cautious gazes at the clouds before they start the hasty shuffle back to their homes. I linger, waiting to see if the sky will give me any more clues before I pull the collar of my coat up and set off.
It takes 20 minutes on the train to get back, not including the wait time perched on the platform, peering down barren track and squinting up at flickering notice boards against the bright greyness of the heavens. Nor including the jagged film-reel of the grey flagstones disappearing beneath my feet before and after.
I get on and I sit in one of those awful long seats that face the passengers on the other side: the kind that have gone into remission everywhere but American films. I sit near the door, as I often do, hoping to hop out as quickly as I hopped in, desperate to escape this transitory space.
At the next station a woman dashes across the platform to get on. I turn my head at the sound of her heels clipping the pavement, half dragged in the hurry. She’s dressed in a coordinated beige suit with a crisp white shirt beneath, presumably an office worker of some description. She smashes the button to open the door and leaps in with a huff. She catches my eye and smiles wearily as she walks past to sit on the opposite row of chairs. Her tidy bun has frayed from the exertion, a fact that she attempts to subtly ascertain from her reflection in the carriage window.
With no care for my presence she wrangles with her hair tie, tugging it in opposing directions to untangle it from the tidy twirl atop her head. She then leans down to remove her heels, lugging them onto the seat beside her as she goes to massage her bare feet.
It is an innocuous movement, no motive besides her own comfort and nobody around to see it but me. All the same, I see in it a quiet confidence I do not possess and feel flattered in some small way to have been deemed “safe” enough to bear witness to the personal ritual. Then again, maybe she did this in front of all her carriage partners. Worse still, perhaps she didn’t even view me worth worrying about, perhaps I had not even factored into her calculations.
Wounded, emboldened, I chastise myself for thinking. I avert my eyes from the woman and turn my head to look idly down the other end of the carriage, letting my thoughts spiral elsewhere as my eyes fasten themselves to the different surfaces: the sparkle speckled synthetic flooring; the grey patches of gum that had been squashed into an amalgam with it; the bright orange metal poles stationed for us to hang onto as we fought against the forceful sway of every stop; the glass and the buttons and the rough fabric of the seats all smeared with the sweat and yawns and weight of lives being carted from one trial to the next. Collected and deposited with all the sentimentality of the grinding screech of the wheels below.
My mind refocuses as the woman stands and steadies herself against the orange railing, shoes back on, hair left down, an umbrella at the ready in the hand she wasn’t using to hold herself up. She uses the rollicking shudder of the train to push her waiting umbrella into the glowing button, releasing her to the elements with a futuristic puff of the sliding doors.
A man gets in as she leaves and gruffly plants himself a few seats away on my row. I look around him to watch the woman walk away, motions sure and steady as she makes her way up the steps and out of my sight.
My new companion on the train has his own special brand of confidence. I scope him out in fleeting – hopefully nonchalant – glances into the reflection on the other side, making out his hunched figure and no-nonsense features. He has on a light brown trench coat and a matching hat which he has removed to allow his tired hands to rub his wisps of hair down self-consciously. He has his legs spread across the seats and leans forward on his knees, unfazed by my existence. Something about him feels assured, but there is also something tired about him. His clothes look worn, offering comfort but not the conviction of the woman’s attire. It is impossible to tell what his day has held, but I can only assume it hasn’t been pleasant.
I wonder if that woman would have taken off her shoes in front of him, if she would have left her bag and her possessions splayed so openly across the seats had he been the figure opposite her.
I doubt she would have feared him. I don’t. I am not sure anyone could with his shaking hands running forward and backwards over his head, his laboured breathing reverberating over to me. I feel a certain pity, but he doesn’t look like the sort of man that would enjoy being checked in on. He borders the line between frail and ferocious in his looks. Hard lines that hold for me a quality of roughness but cast so firmly in his features I can’t help but conjure the image of cliff torn asunder while I look at him.
He props himself up and turns his eyes upwards, and I can’t make myself look away in time before we are staring at one another through the glass ad infinitum. It can’t last more than a couple of seconds, but we have been caught between these two panes moving infinitesimally slower than us, and I wonder when the last paired frames will shuffle into the present, if our impression has even had a chance to reach them yet.
Strange how reluctant we are to share even the briefest of physical connections with our fellow humans. It would be so easy for me to slide across and place a hand on the aging man’s back, just to offer that little bit of comfort. I don’t. It would be wrong, wouldn’t it? It would be out of place, unwarranted, even if I did note the glossy sheen of his tired eyes.
Only 10 minutes left. I start to compose different sentences in my head, dreaming up his response, dreaming up a version of myself that would approach him. I let the feeling, the aching need to say anything, simmer in my chest, reminding me with this taster just how much worse I’ll feel if I follow the conviction.
Are you alright there, sir?
The stations blur past, all vaguely populated, all the same shades of gloom, all slick with the lazy downpour, only differentiated by the bland boldness of their name plaques. People get on and people get off and I keep my head further and further down as they pile on – there are too many stories here to piece together.
Screech, puff, the sound and smell of rain.
My shoes slap against the pavement, revisiting those same flagstones somewhere new, trying to avoid the cracks in spite of myself. I splash forwards.
My mind starts to wander again as I get lost in my own footsteps and the sound of the rain bouncing off of the surfaces around me. I’ll need to be quick when I get in, I need to eat something small, get ready before my ride arrives. I speed up my steps as I think of how wet my hair must be getting, how long it will take to dry.
I reach the door with my keys already in my hand, enjoying the solid sound of the key sliding in against the lock and the satisfying click as the latch flies upwards. Open, shut, simple.
I linger for a moment in my hallway, trying to orient my soaked self in a way that will be conducive to the least amount of mess made to the floor and the least discomfort as fabric meets liquid meets the creases of my elbows and the backs of my knees. With a fair amount of awkwardness, I begin to peel off my clothes, handling them as little as possible before bundling them up and throwing them in my wash basket. My bag and coat are left to deflate on the floor in the hallway. In their place, I throw on a pair of baggy shorts and a t-shirt: a small luxury before a night of indeterminate enjoyment.
My movements are robotic in the kitchen. I move through it systematically, flicking switches, opening draws, cluttering as briefly and succinctly as possible. Kettle on, ready meal out, plastic pierced, microwave set. Action.
I get out my phone while I wait for the food to heat up. My fingers scroll carelessly, propelling the screen past selfies, group shots, verdant landscapes, compilations of shots from holidays captioned “take me back,” and info posts on social issues. It filters into my head in the same way the tea flavouring filters out of the bag under the pressure from the water above: quickly, densely, dying my mind a shade of social cohesion darker. A stray thought just like the milk dilutes the influx of information, infusing the flood of faces and features with an unhealthy curiosity.
Suddenly the spoon holding my crushed teabag is staining my counter with the residue, and I’m an analyst, comparing my social stats with others, meticulously peeling apart every post, looking at faces, tags, names, weighing up how relevant any of this is to me, trying not to feel anything as I compile my reports.
I am unable to stop. Navigating my heated meal and utensils with one hand, I transfer my station to the sofa.
Memories are surfacing, buoyed by every flick and tap of my thumb. I don’t like that I have this power, but I can’t stop now. I have to weed out the past and who matters. Whose face makes me smile and whose make me frown. I have to eliminate the toxicity. But even the nice faces bring up bad memories, and now I’m culling the pickings, making split second decisions as I associate usernames with real names and weigh up the pros and cons of no longer having them in my feed. So many accounts untouched in years, I hadn’t even realised I’d forgotten–
I am shocked out of my stupor when I come across the account of a dead friend. Odd for my age but painfully real. In morbid fascination, I swipe through the preserved remnants of his life, a pinhole view of the existence he led filled with friends and trips and fun and drinks. A fitting memorial in that it holds only the best bits. Terrible in its indefinite longevity.
Perhaps it will outlive him. Wait. It already has. I unfollow and turn off my phone.
I have 15 minutes until my ride arrives. A hand flies to my hair in panic, finding with irritation the last dregs of moisture still clinging to its roots. I leave the traces of my dinner on the kitchen counter and disappear into my room with a hasty pad across the floor. I pull open my wardrobe and pick out the clothes I had already selected, not allowing myself to look through the rest in case I want to change my mind. It looks the same as it did when I tried it on yesterday evening, except my hair is slightly curled at the ends from where it had been rained on. A sigh escapes me at my reflection, nonetheless. It is as though the day changed the feel of the fabric, and I am not happy with the change.
I slump onto my bed and check my phone. I don’t have time to change. I do anyway.
My ride is here. They’ve sent a text and I respond with a simple okay. I take my time gathering my things. Keys, wallet, phone, no coat, no bag, a quick check in the mirror again, settling myself, contenting myself with how it feels to be me. A tight smile. I open the front door and scrabble to lock it behind me before racing to the car.
My friend leans over the seat to push open the door for me and I duck in, making my excuses and apologies for my tardiness.
Alone together I’m animate, desperately churning out the words I wasn’t able to say to myself in the empty house, stray thoughts, things I’ve seen, opinions, theories, the works. Then, one by one, the others we’re picking up pile in and I get quieter with each new presence, having less space to verbalise, less desire to be heard, and yet finding it harder and harder to combat the desperate urge to speak.
I stare out of the window, tuning out the greater bulk of the conversation, aware that I am not needed to add any fuel to the flow, making myself blurry in their vision by making their words fuzzy in my ears. I let my inner monologue fill my head – it doesn’t matter what with as long as every nook and cranny is inundated with white noise.
I watch the houses pass us by and the road sweep out from under us like a cloth ripped from the table, only we won’t know if we’ll stay intact as planned until it’s over and the world has stopped moving. We can only hope that it has not been too hastily or inexpertly tugged and that the flicking tails of its ends do not leave us in fragments on the concrete.
Wrong to think of death while driving. I should stop that.
I focus instead on the rain, still falling and cutting out shapes on the glass. They distort the reality outside with their curves and spines, recklessly changing as more drops throw themselves into the fray. It’s a refreshing rain. Even though the outside hums a slowly darkening blue, there is a beautiful cleanness to the chilled air as it oozes into the car through the slit of space I have allowed between the window and the exoskeleton of the car. I am just taking in a settling breath of it when I hear my name called through the blur of words being spoken behind me.
It’s cold. They think my window might be open. I close it.
My final hit of air doesn’t last me long. Soon I am stuffy and uncomfortable once more, unable to calm my thoughts or take myself out of the situation as I had been able to only moments before.
Now we’re there. I get out soberly, trying to hide the discomfort I felt in the vehicle, and stand, smiling idly at my friends as they pile out too. Without talking we form ourselves into an unofficial order, separating and coming together again around the car like birds in flight.
It’s a gathering. There are people here that I know from work but also friends made in the thick of real life. There are drinks and lights and laughter erupting from all over, an overwhelming audio map both polite and rowdy from the random combinations of people trying to either show off their best selves or simply have a good time. I filter in with my friends, but the cohort doesn’t last long.
Before I have had the chance to properly orient myself, I’m talking to people. All the people, those I know who greet me with handshakes and hugs and kisses on the cheek before pulling my unsuspecting body into their own frays and introducing me to those I am not yet acquainted with. My name, my job, my relations fall from my lips so frequently that they begin to taste odd on my tongue. I’m tempted to switch my story, tell a lie, capture the imagination of the speakers rather than bore them with the mundanity of my average existence. I don’t though. And I can’t settle either. I flit from group to group regardless of the pain of reiterating my existence. I float in and out of group photos that I will flick through later and compulsively like, a different glass in every frame but the same smile, the same eyes scrunched with an exhausting and performative mirth.
I’m not having a bad time.
It’s just a time.
I find my thoughts drifting in and out of clarity among the cacophony of voices. One moment my thoughts are dedicated to tracking and responding to the voices all around me, looking for an opening to express my thoughts, my appreciation, my confusion, my curiosity, or my excuses; the next, they find a break in the defences and I’m overcome by the lucidity of my subconscious mind among the chatter.
Somehow, I feel both present and detached at once. Perhaps it’s the wine. Perhaps it’s the darkness of my thoughts today trying to rob me of the chance to continue this nihilistic charade of happiness.
I’m probably thinking about it all too much again.
From nowhere I’m reunited with my driver friend, who passes over me a scrutinising gaze before both of our sets of eyes are drawn to the great crash behind me: another of our original group, intoxicated and clambering upwards in the wake of devastation. With a nod to the sober friend, we make to save them any further embarrassment. I grab an arm and hoist it over my shoulder, supporting my endeavour with a further arm around the waist. My friend reflects me on the other side.
I’m in the car, my opposite shoulder now playing house to the gentle groans of my inebriated friend as the other checks to see if anyone else will be joining us for the ride home at this time. I sit and watch the dusky orange of the streetlamps latch onto the rain. It reflects in patchy streaks off of the damp stone and fills the car with a dull glow. Everything is made of shadows in this space now, and I want to become a part of them, fade into the leather of the car and disappear.
From beside me a hard wretch blooms heat across my chest. I convulse at the sensation, tempted to release my own innards as the stench hits my nose.
With a tight smile and a wave to the car from my doorway I retreat inwards. I brace myself against the closed door with a shuddering breath and let myself sink down to the floor. It has been a long day. I stay there for a moment, taking stock of my hallway, taking stock of myself and my things. Phone, wallet, keys. All accounted for.
It takes a moment, sitting there, staring at the gaps between the floorboards, focussing in on the dust and dirt trapped between them, the crumbled granules of my day to day. Just how much of me is tucked away in the crevices of this world? How many fibres of my being are caught on its splintering edges, trailing behind me as a spectre spread thin? I see myself in so many iterations pasted into the fabric of this space; moving the furniture with stubborn determination; running, sliding, grouching up and down the stairs; fingers tapping on the doorframe as I scroll through my phone; padding across the floor barefoot. All my selves overlap and coexist in the way things are now: the past manifest in the present.
My heart feels heavy. I shouldn’t let it sink too low.
I heave myself up, nose scrunching as the scent of the sick is unsettled once more. I kick off my shoes and trudge to the shower, joining my other selves in their phantom dance with the familiar pad of my feet. I take my clothes off carefully, once again trying to avoid the foul sensation of cold moisture pressed up against my skin, doubly repulsive for its origin.
The shower’s on, and I recoil in the primary wake of its icy embrace like a flower shrivelling up in the snow. It doesn’t take long for the boiler to engage and burn away the goose bumps but then it’s too hot and I’m tentatively turning in and out of the flow. I eagerly submerge myself beneath the water once it’s acceptable and I just forget…
Everything disappears with the water. I don’t allow anything else in. Just the sound of the spray flagellating my back and shoulders, beating out the stress of the day in a purification of the body and the mind. I almost wish I could see all the dirt flowing off of me, collected in each rivulet of liquid and disappearing down the drain, spreading my presence in this world further, but my eyes are closed beneath the downpour.
I want to stay forever, but I can’t.
My lungs are full of steam and the pores of my skin are overwhelmed by their emptiness, to breath in is to feel suffocated by the closeness of it all. The density is overbearing; pressure compressing my form beyond the limits, pushing against my insides until they feel like they’ll burst. I am full and I am sated but it is too much. It feels like my heart is growing, expanding, brimming with a yearning for something I don’t know what is.
I snap the tap back to stop the flow.
I brace myself against the cold, white tiles and breathe deep, deeper, deepest. I breathe in the cold air until it hurts once again, an icy hurt this time, like blooming spheres splaying and stabbing in all directions, piercing my throat and my lungs and my flesh until I feel as though my organs are slashed to ribbons. At the same time the cold welcomes me, drawing me sharply back to the reality I had escaped moments before, the coolness of the tiles and the air as refreshing as they are punishing. My fingernails graze against the ragged cement between the tiles, granules tugging at the nail with a sickening jaggedness that makes my brain shudder. I stay there, pressed against the edges of my shower, letting the goose bumps rise until they combine to create a second, thicker skin. Then I walk out, reluctant and cold.
I face the friction of my towel, the harsh brunt of the turquoise fibres rubbing my skin raw. I’ve spent so long standing in the shower that I’m practically dry already. This is just performative. I drop the towel and walk out, my feet padding heated prints on the floor. The moisture still clings to me. Perhaps I’ve ingested so much that my system can do nothing but spew it back out. With every step I ooze more of it, feeling the heated residue trail down my legs and seep out in between the cracks. Just more of my substance being lost to the environment.
I wonder how much of me will be left by the time I make it to the bedroom…
I’m not sure it matters.