The Dial, 1941-1804-1941

This is love, she thought, isn’t it? When you notice someone’s absence and hate that absence more than anything? More, even, than you love his presence? Each knew of how he had waited for the Kolker by the window every day, how she became acquainted with its surface, learned where it had melted slightly, where it was slightly discolored, where it was opaque. She felt its tiny wrinkles and bubbles. Like a blind woman learning language, she moved her fingers over the window, and like a blind woman learning language, she felt liberated. The frame of the window was the walls of the prison that set her free. She loved what it felt like to wait for the Kolker, to be entirely dependent on him for her happiness, to be, as ridiculous as she had always thought it sounded, someone’s wife. She loved her new vocabulary of simply loving something more than she loved her love for that thing, and the vulnerability that went along with living in the primary world. Finally, she thought, finally. I only wish Yankel could know how happy I am.

Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer, pp. 121-2

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The nervous “um”s started after Carla left and he was left all alone at that table with the uncomfortably pushy girl. She had dropped in on their study session halfway through his and Carla’s own homework run-through, and aggressively inserted herself into a space that no longer existed. She had squashed it out, along with all the extra atmosphere around that library desk and what little confidence he had had coming into this postbacc program. Not to mention Carla, who couldn’t breathe and left, her voice trailing off about her pet turtle she had to feed back at her apartment even though they were only three-fourths of the way finished with the assignment due tomorrow.

A pet turtle.

So for the past two hours he had been calling her Aggressive Anna, and had effectively forgotten her real name, though he was pretty sure it started with an M. Or an S. 

“Uh… you do… Hmm I can just give you the answer if you want.”

And so it went, for the rest of the suffocating afternoon, as she barreled her way through her review worksheet he had stopped working on the moment she arrived, going as fast as he could give her the answers. He had seen how she harassed the girl at the Help Desk about getting her student ID to work at the public computers, and wasn’t about to go there. The program had only begun last Tuesday and he wasn’t looking to make enemies. Especially not with this one.

As she laughed at her own jokes and peppered their conversation with frequent “shut up”s when he tried to participate. He sneezed at the nose-pricking clouds building up around them, and couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to be the rest of his life in this program. 

Maybe it was the lackluster ventilation system in this half-basement library, but the little fingers of his asthma started to tickle in his lungs and his head was starting to feel light and floaty before he noticed that he was holding his breath. 

“Um, yeah so you have to calculate the molar mass of the, um” 

“Um, so for that one you need volume and”

“Um,” he asked, the unwritten question mark pulling up at the corner of the word and broadcasting distress signals to the rest of the library, though only the Help Desk girl noticed, and looked down in empathetic embarrassment. He was a lone beacon of SOS blips on an unwatched radar, a fading lighthouse in a forgotten corner of the ocean, flicker, flickering ever fainter. But he kept asking. Not with any hope of rescue, but because it was a knee-jerk reaction to the asthma and the Anna, both closing in on his organs for breathing. Or maybe they were the same — her pepper breath firing into his lungs in swirly concert with those clutchy fingers, on just the day he had forgotten his inhaler.

Um? 

Um?

Um?

prickly tides

No one could be sure what kind of dreams she had had for herself before she ended up in this foreign country with her husband and two kids, living a life she seemed to want to throw out with the day’s trash bins. She labored endlessly, not uncomplainingly, and all her tools at the tailor’s desk hurt for it. The world of her work was mostly soft, usually plushy. Woolen hems and sleeves of silk, with even the needles tucked safely away into pincushions, each prickly point with his own sleepy hole in the forgiving folds of plump cotton lumps. If she would have allowed it, the walls surrounding her little tailor’s space could have been a soft one; warm, even inviting, maybe, with the right kind of tea brewing on the corner stove. 

But she was a tornado of clothespins and shears, relentlessly hemming and ferociously ironing. Laser-straight pleats, chemical-dye fumes, and blades of tiny scissors slashing through the stuffy atmosphere — these were the ingredients that made up her toxic universe, and she worked with an intensity that seemed to cry out in protest while begging for more. Every order was filled with a cold crispness, and every new customer walked out in a daze, impressed by her efficiency, but on some level, just glad to have escaped the place intact. But because she was the fastest in town, and no one ever had any complaints about her work, they always came back, except the ones – usually the old ones – that were looking to pick up conversation with their dry cleaning. Even if they weren’t asking for much, just a few fluffy words and a smile stacked atop the plastic bags, she made it clear from visit one that they’d have to look elsewhere. So her clientele remained young, busy, carefully chatterless. 

It was a wonder how efficient she was, with all the storming around she did. Every pair of scissors, each clothespin, felt the weight of her wrath as it flew through the air to slam into the nearest hard surface after she was done with it, taking out her endless reserves of anger at the universe on the poor tools of her trade. She threw things away in the most literal sense of the word, propelling used instruments through the air wherever her force happened to direct itself. A bad hair day, a chatty new customer, pleasant weather that reminded her of all that she was missing out on while her life wasted away behind the sewing machine. Everything was an excuse to slam, crash, pound the surfaces of her prison of efficiency, and each delivery only added to the growing layers of prickly things ever separating her from the sunny world outside.

With every pin, every needle flung to its oblivion onto the carpeted floor, her lair grew in its prickliness. She lost hope like she lost her pins, dropping them in gratuitous rejection and anger. At what, she could no longer remember. After the first few bitter years of her labor, the original object of her violence had dissolved into a dark, formless pool, itself powerless against the acidity of that anger she carried. Everything was sour, and her brow was permanently furrowed in the rare agreement: Yes, the world is harsh and Yes today is another, yet another, day. 

She hadn’t chosen this for herself. But in the drudgery of her mundane efficiency, she’d lost her vision and couldn’t see herself doing anything else with her mind and hands. She’d forgotten so completely how to dream, the ability simply excised from her soul like a lost limb, or a broken bone, damaged and never quite the same. Indeed, if notable neuroscientists had gotten a hold of her they would have had a heyday with the anatomy of her mind, this human who had permanently lost her ability for receiving nourishment of spring rains and the unfiltered goodness of summer sunshine. Happiness triggers that normal people gravitated toward, yearned for, had no effect on her except to produce more bile and bitterness. Hers was an instinctive joylessness.  

So she would keep slamming. Crashing. Pounding. Begging, with each slam of her body and her instruments – her living, dying breaths – against the thickening walls of her needles-and-pins lair, to be let out. It was a tragedy, really, because her rally to live was never recognized by anyone from the outside as she continued to build up the walls thicker and higher.

Stay away, she cried. Save me, she pleaded. 

slice

there was no telling when these moments would creep up on her, overwhelming the imagination and overtaking all the senses, so vivid that she could feel the lurch and the whiplash as the car crashed from behind. didn’t matter what car. didn’t matter what time of day. there was no telling when these magnificent works of the imagination would surprise even her, from whose brain these pseudo-experiences were being projected. the bumper would crush into itself in slow motion, and the shock would reverberate through the metal frame into her bones, shaking and creaking the structure as if the two were melded together. moving together, destroyed together, the white paint flaking into a million microscopic fragments, a fountain of automobile youth and failed invincibility.

she couldn’t remember when this compulsive habit of imagining terrible accidents, calamities, disasters, started. probably around the same time she learned the nomenclature of automobiles — a science of combining the model + the make — and as one mystery was solved, the universe balanced itself out by adding to her life the conundrum of these momentary devices of self-torture-in-hypothesis.

but it wasn’t just car crashes and hydroplaning in unlucky puddles of summer storms that would explode themselves in those experiential images of her mind. it was slicing clean through a thumb while preparing the tomatoes; smash-dropping the laptop on its heavy corner into the hardwood floor, to the demise of both surfaces; miscalculating the dark staircase and stepping one too few times and falling down down down to the doom of her front teeth, crack-crakking against the hardwood humiliation. always the scene ending with the irreversible and/or very expensive destruction of something valuable.

in the collection of these moments, she lived, breathed in relief; boy what a good thing that this didn’t really happen just now. through these stomach-dropping ordeals of her dangerous alternate realities, she trained herself for the inevitable Terrible Thing. feeling the crash, surviving the slice, teeth-clenching in genuine suffering of the uh-oh moment. she was bracing herself for that day on which her imagined world would collide into the daylight of some normal Monday; practicing so that she could calmly carry that severed thumb to the emergency room herself if there ever would be a need.

years passed and still no Terrible Thing happened. all that had really changed was the curve of her shoulders, forever clenched in continuum with her fists, and her brow, too, which was furrowed in default worry. like a boxer in the ring, always ready to spring, with no opponent to actually crash her white knuckles into. youth passed on by, but she never looked up to shake her fists at its sneakiness; eyes squeezed shut and teeth clenched against the vivid slices of her imaginary life, there was simply no time for the mundane worries of the ordinary collective.

and thus she lived, or didn’t. and thus she stopped living. or didn’t. because for her, the end of active existence was a double negative. “death” simply relaxed the hunched spine and uncurled the clenched fists so that when they laid her out to be fitted to her modest plot of ground at the weedy cemetery on 14th Street, everyone was surprised by how much room her body actually took up in the coffin, freely unfurled as she never had been, in life. it was as if she had finally been freed from the anticipation of pain, quietly triumphant in death that had brought her peace. she had out-run all the treacherous non-adventures of her life, and rested in the silent folds of death, finally safe from all living possibilities. frozen exuberance, motionless joy. they would note, later on, the few who would remember her, how beautiful she had been in the casket. and how it could have been that they had never noticed, before.