Keep your eye on the Doughnut

I rang the doorbell three times before a nurse let me in the building, only to meet me in the hallway and tell me I was the first to know, and that my grandfather just died. What immediately followed was something I experienced when I watched my mother – his daughter – die seven years ago: tunnel vision, loss of breath, silent and uncontrolled sobs. My aunt arrived not two minutes after. We said our goodbyes to Harold in his bed, finally at rest and home with Nan, with my mom, with my family dog who died only four months ago in September. He was reunited with his identical twin, Arthur, who died in 1943 on a PT while Harold sat in prison camp in Krems, Austria.

I feel like I’ve become a professional at death and grief; the state of being dead is not what scares me, though. I am not afraid to kiss a recently-departed loved one on the hand or forehead one last time. The process of dying – the suffering, the pain, the uncertainty of whether or not that person will be around for three more days, or two – is what eats at me. Since January 9th my soul has felt heavy while my life has felt emptier. I will miss Thursday morning physical therapy appointments, grocery shopping, holding hands in the car, and singing old songs. I will miss him there in my life. It is something that I know I will get through, but I am not quite sure how yet.

I don’t even really know how to explain my grandpa when people ask. After newspaper interviews and his eulogy I still conclude that that he was – simply put – a good guy, because if I spent the amount of time I wanted to talking about him a whole year would pass before I was done. He died just a week shy of his 99th birthday, born before sliced bread and lived long enough to build the World Trade Centers, watch them fall on television, and watch Tower One be rebuilt. Harold lived long, but he lived. He lived enough for three lifetimes, and I was lucky enough to hear his stories and to commit them to memory – those moments of invaluable tales of war and love and sayings that I will write down and give life to until the day I myself am dead.

He always told my brother, cousin, and me, “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.” As silly of a quote as it sounds, I finally understood what he meant. Harold wanted us to keep our eyes on the good, not the bad; on love and forgiveness, not hate and grudges; on the sweet stuff, not the void. He was infectiously positive and kind until the day he died, and I always found it difficult to understand especially when our visits were peppered with war stories that – when told – would take him far away, back to 1943 and prison camp. His liberation from camp seemed like his only victory, but even in his stories, there was something positive to shed light on.

One tale in particular – and the one I shared at his wake when delivering his eulogy – has become affectionately known as the “egg story.” In March of 1945, as the war was coming to a foreseeable end, and Russian troops were closing in on Stalag XVII-B in Austria, Harold, along with about a thousand other soldiers, were forced to march along the Danube River with Berlin as the goal, in one of the harshest winters on record in Europe. He spent two years with meals that included hot water, black coffee, boiled cabbage, and sometimes nothing at all. He watched bunk mates’ faces and bodies ravaged by malnutrition, bed bugs, sores, and disease. And still, he along with many others were seen “fit enough” to march, maybe to Berlin, most likely to their deaths. The end of the war was certainly near, but the end of their lives was also looming overhead.

Harold told me one day in June of 2018 that as the men marched through fields and farmland they would pull vegetables out of the ground and eat them without washing them, simply for nutrition. They operated mostly in groups of three – one man to collect firewood, one to guard the food, one to find the food. Harold was the food finder. He would pull carrots, potatoes – anything he could find – to share with his two companions. He told me of older German women who would hide bread in the bosoms of their aprons and break off small pieces to throw at the feet of the soldiers, who scrounged and ate quickly as to not anger the SS that flanked them with guns and vicious dogs. Even in that time of horror and uncertainty, he still encountered kindness and humanity of strangers; he had hope to continue on marching. He had the belief that he would hold his wife again, his childhood sweetheart who he married on June 1, 1943, only to be captured July 30th that same year.

In his search for food, Harold came across what he described to me as “a German-speaking, Polish slave-girl.” She was on a patch of farmland that had animals as well as vegetables. He approached her and put a hand in his pocket, producing a sewing needle that he held onto from a British Red Cross care package he received earlier during his imprisonment when he had scurvy. He extended to her the needle, and told her in broken German, “Ich habe eine nadel,” which translates to, “I have a needle.” The young girl accepted the needle and handed him an egg, the first egg he held in over two years. Harold joyously returned with the egg to his two companions and split it between the three of them, a meal he described to me as “the best meal I had in two years.”

Pain and suffering is relative to each person and situation, this is a given. But tears poured down my face to see how such a simple act, and such a simple meal could bring out hope and humanity in a man who otherwise was stripped of everything. He lost his bomber jacket, teeth, weight, and yet he was so grateful and rejoiced in the tiniest of victories – the egg. He could have easily kept it to himself, but chose to share it with two men he might never see again. He ate that egg as if he knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste one, and I can personally vouch that Harold had an egg almost everyday for the duration of my 28 years. The war and the suffering bore a giant hole in Harold’s future, yet he kept his eye on my grandmother, on freedom, on the doughnut.

I am not done

I have been turned down by – if I’m keeping a vague count – probably 50 or so literary agencies all over the country. I’ve been writing – or if I’m being honest – trying to write books for the past seven or so years. I’ve grown accustomed to rejection letters and passive “we’re so busy here or else we’d give you better feedback” emails that I feel like recently I submit my work just to pass time. I have filled out countless applications, wrote query after query, prayed, hoped, cried, and sometimes practically begged for a chance. I want an agent to take a chance on me and be pleasantly surprised in the same way I took a chance on myself in my early 20’s. I want someone to see me and say, “Hey, she probably works well under pressure, ” or, “Hey, she probably takes criticism well,” and I want to shake that person’s hand and look them in the face and say that I won’t let them down.

In the end, I’m doing what I’ve been doing for the sake of getting out my story. I take years and years of suppressed memories and thoughts and regrets and throw them down line after line for no one other than myself, and I think realizing that what I’m doing is for me is what encourages me to continue filling out query after query and expecting a hearty “No thank you.” The market is over-saturated and the world is over-populated and for some reason I hold onto a shred of hope that something I say will help someone else somewhere even if I’m never published because I’ve seen it happen on more than one occasion just by verbal interaction. I’ve been writing since I could write and I’ve been talking non stop since I could form a sentence. Some people are simply born to be certain things and I think I was born to be a writer.

I’m not sure if my mother’s addiction, my abusive household, her death, my father’s mental illness, or my own personal turmoil was destined to happen because I was somehow destined to share my stories, but I am sharing my stories and my life regardless of my platform. My soap box has not yet caved in. My heart is still beating. I am not finished. I have learned in this process and cycle of application and rejection that I own my past and my truth and I am no longer ashamed of where I come from because I see exactly who the fuck I am and honestly? If that’s as far as I’m meant to go, so be it. Just let me know if I helped someone. 

Get out of the box

There isn’t much to be said about this bullpen. It’s plain, encased in brick, and unassuming. The ceilings are illuminated by OSHA regulated fluorescent lighting, and the only windows I open are on one of my three computer screens. There are constant echoes of doors opening and closing all about the building, like industrial breathing. Our standardized morale boosters come in the form of a free popcorn maker and complimentary bulk-bought coffee. The walls are a uniform blue-grey that seem to gain inspiration from Orwell’s 1984 (the two minutes of hate scene in particular) and I sit here until 7AM, observing a symphony of airplanes as they cross the Atlantic airspace.

My commute to work is laughable for someone who lives on the island. Before moving to my current residence in 2016, my drive averaged a very, very long-feeling 25 minutes, which is still modest compared to the rest of the populous; my father drove an hour or more each way for my entire childhood. I remember seeing him leave before sunrise and return well after dark donning a sullen, angry look on his face that showed his unwavering need to be a workhorse and keep food on the table. He had strained, sunken eyes with dark encapsulating circles – sometimes a frown, sometimes not. Every night he would retire to a La-Z-Boy recliner with the television remote and eventually slip away into sleep, HBO playing dully in the background; my brother and I learned young that it was important to invest in a decent recliner. After a couple of hours, he’d make his way to bed where my mother already lay in a drunken slumber, harboring an unbearable snore that made the bedroom smell of stale cigarettes and wine. As a result, my father would resort to spending most of my childhood on the couch. He would wake to the sound of his 5AM alarm and the smell of preset coffee, prepare his belongings, and trek once again into the darkness of morning.

As of 2016, the average car commute time for Long island was 33 minutes. For train, an hour. But 33 minutes, each way, five days a week undoubtedly beats down the human spirit. That’s 33 minutes of creeping traffic, skipping music, spilled coffee, and maybe a little road rage. For me, 11 minutes on average (six if I don’t hit any lights) gets me to my gate at work. That’s 22 minutes of less stress, fewer distractions, and generally zero coffee spilled.

The drive home is equally zen. Where I live, most commuters head west. I, however, miss all of the congestion and essentially reverse commute – facing the sunrise. Driving towards the sun each day as it rises has given me an appreciation for the varying colors, intensity, and energy is expresses, especially in contrast to the box I crawl out of each day. It shows me that my job may be the same, but every morning begins differently. I go to bed around 7:30, eventually tackle my afternoon, and make it in again well after night falls over the east coast to check in on my orchestrated airplanes.

Each night, tiny green triangles crescendo and decrescendo along calculated global routes, and suddenly the earth looks so insignificant. I monitor different sectors to ensure everyone is going where they need to go, while passengers sit oblivious to my existence. Sometimes, I’m technical when asked to describe my current profession; other times I refer to it as glorified babysitting. Either way, I watch thousands of lives cross the water, like a modern Charon. They are hopelessly unaware of my job, and I am continuously reminded of how important and how equally miniscule I am in this world. Each person is visiting, returning, working, or escaping. They all carry their own personal agendas and reasons for travel – they all have their own mini missions of life.

Since the Spring of 2015, I have been an overnight shift worker. I don’t mind shift work – it’s actually the only real type of work I know, minus a year-long stint as a Monday through Friday secretary in an insurance agency. My uniform is street clothes, except for pants with holes in them or flip flops (for whatever reason). I report at 11 each night and make it to my front door a little after seven each morning. My days off rotate; my social life has kind of taken a toll in regards to making plans and going out. If anything, working overnights has given me an appreciation for naps and breakfast at three in the afternoon. Living my life like a vampire – while detrimental if I don’t take care of myself properly – frees me up to write in a more relaxed, almost library-esque setting during the twilight hours. I also have a greater appreciation of my personal health, knowing that if I don’t listen to my body, take my vitamins, and eat relatively healthy I will suffer more over than someone who works during the day. And while the job can be boring or monotonous, it gives me times to reflect.

Generally when the traffic dies down, and 3AM rounds the room to tell us that it’s time to kick the chairs back a little further, crack open a book, and unwind, I begin to reflect and record the events of my life. For years, I tried to run away from everything. I recall attempting an ass-backward approach of making it out of my own life – well – alive. This lasted about six years before I realized everything I had endured up until this point was a test of strength and mental stability, and I somehow managed to survive while maintaining a crippling fear of ending up like certain members of my immediate family.

My childhood revolved around a sense of urgency and busy-body activities that kept me either out of my often turbulent household, obligated to my computer in my bedroom, or absorbed in a book. I had goals, and academic mile markers to not only prove to myself that I was worthy of great things, but also to give my mother and father one less thing to fight about.

At the age of seven, my school deemed me developmentally disabled, because I had a tendency to play pranks and wrote with my notebook on an extreme angle. After taping my books down to my desk proved ineffective, I was pulled from class and placed in a remedial room with coloring books and children on the spectrum. My mother was not notified of this, however, and when she discovered that I was doing “just wonderful” in my new environment, she cursed and screamed and had me pulled back out and put into the “regular” class. I was explicitly warned to stop playing pranks, and I feared making my mother that angry in academia ever again.

The ultimate drive became college, and when I was accepted to several universities in 2008 I thought things would eventually calm and settle at home. Being one of the only people in my extended family to receive a bachelor’s degree gave me a great sense of pride and a pedestal with which I could be better seen by my parents. This only improved in the summer of 2011, when I prepared to go to the University of Oxford and leave New York for a little to study English Literature. I remember it being something I wanted since my junior year of high school after hearing a story by my English teacher, Mr. Stahl, regarding him being accidentally locked inside the walls of one of the colleges while visiting a friend. He went on to describe ancient stonework, the smells, the stars at night hanging over old chapels and perfectly manicured grass. I fantasized for years, and when I finally got in, I told my mother to the response of a sigh and, “That’s going to be a great bill to get in the mail. Don’t tell your father yet.” I was determined to make her proud that summer; she died two months after I returned home due to liver poisoning from extreme binge drinking.

2012 onward was an era of attempting to find myself by essentially giving up and losing who I was entirely. Like people who gain wisdom by admitting they know nothing, I learned who I was by reflecting on the idea that I spent the first 20 years or so of my life not really having any sense of identity. I don’t mean “identity” as in what I wanted to do with my future; I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I stuck with my major all throughout my college career, and knew in my heart of hearts that I was a storyteller. Rather, I had no identity in the sense that I lived my life in a mode of survival for so long that I never looked at anything (with the exception of writing) and reflected upon it from an internal standpoint.

I spent so many years in chaos and alertness that when I moved to my current residence in 2016 – realizing no one at the time knew my address – I broke down crying. For the first time in a long time, I was completely alone. Not lonely, just alone. I was given the chance to be selectively introverted, and to answer to only myself since the day I watched my mother die in 2011 and, quite frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I imagined it’s what retirees felt when they finally didn’t have to wake up to an alarm clock after 40 some-odd years of answering to another; it was equally freeing as it was crippling.

It can be quite baffling to spend so long living a life of chaos – of constant emotional turmoil – and then to come up from the bunker one July morning and see all is calm, not knowing if you’re in the eye of the storm or if the storm itself has finally passed on. I like to think of my childhood as being raised in a life of coins, where every situation and family member had two completely opposite sides. My family grew up in the suburbs, yet under the roof lay an active volcano. My father was a man I idolized and feared. My brother and I shared the same sense of humor but ultimately grew up to be fundamentally different people. And then there was my mother – the woman who became my first friend, and my first bully.  
I only recently came to the admittance that my mother put me down in a very memorable way. For me, there existed a line I didn’t want to cross for the fear of insulting or demonizing someone who was unavailable to defend herself. Saying something like, “My mother was responsible for my compulsive overeating,” places an air of blame but – ultimately – the truth, and when the truth is put out that way, the power is taken from the things once feared. I however, was afraid to take away power from someone I idolized so much when all I had to go on were memories. I had to know in my soul that admitting to my mother’s harshness on me was a projection of where she thought she failed. She only wanted me to be a better version of myself but never conveyed it properly due to her horrible self image. The projections were magnified, of course, by her decades-long battle with alcoholism. Her ups and downs of affection peppered with vocalized disappointment of how I looked moulded a self image that became the two sides of my own coin: Mentally excelling in almost any subject, while never mastering myself. To learn who I was – to chase me down and finally meet myself – I decided to record the happenings. I began to write my life down. Writing, for me, became cathartic in the way that I was able to see everything I’ve done, gone through, or felt, and grow from it. After sharing some of my writings, I learned I wasn’t alone, and chose to be a storyteller, rather than hold my words to my chest.

Reflections on Grief

It’s all utterly hopeless. All I could hear was breathing and if I listened harder I thought I could hear other people’s thoughts. My mind was looking for an escape route, because the images and scenes playing over inside of me left no room for thoughts. It was like my eyelids were stapled open and I was being forced to watch a terrible movie over and over again. I wanted to scream but I cried instead. But really, how many people can you cry to until you get sick of listening to yourself?
Eventually I realized that tears wouldn’t save someone who didn’t want saving, and obviously didn’t, and frankly I was sick of getting headaches. I felt like by this point I was digging around in my tear ducts for whatever they would give up, like I was addicted to the salted droplets streaming down my face. I exhausted my abilities and natural rights, even, to continue sitting in the dark and crying over someone who would never come back to me in physical form. I tried to see my friends and be social, but there were still so many days when I would sit in my cotton cave of blankets, perched in the corner where my bedpost met the wall, watching Netflix and hiding in the dark. I would lay under my down comforter and hold it like a baby’s safety blanket, thriving off of the warmth that it provided to the cold hollow self I had become over the course of those few months.

After the first month mark of my mom dying I called my social worker, Lisa. She told me to reach out to her immediately following everything but I couldn’t bring myself to extend my hands to anyone, considering I missed a week of school and had to get my academic life back on track before anything else. I was so incredibly distracted in what was going on that I forgot who Lisa was, I forgot that I spent the past few weekends moving out of the house I grew up in, and I forgot that my mother was gone. Then one random day, I picked up my cell phone, and I called Lisa.

How are you feeling?

Surprisingly, I’m feeling OK.

That’s impressive, but you know, it’s just beginning.

Yeah, I’ll be fine.

We spent almost an hour talking to each other and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized, moments after I hung up with Lisa, that I wasn’t fine. I became very reclusive over the next few days, and I began to sink into this dark pit within the pit of my apartment. Nothing sunk in, and the emotional gunshot wound I received was becoming tangible at last. I was assessing the damage of what happened to me over the past month and I realized that I wasn’t going to die, but it sure hurt like hell, and that made me wish I were just out of my misery.
You get a purple heart for injuries protecting others and sacrificing your body. But when the person you’re trying to protect doesn’t want help, and they hurt you emotionally, that just gives you a stone heart, weighing your chest down and pushing you back into bed when it’s time to get up. The stone heart makes you teeter and totter on the edge of your emotional stability. You shakily walk a tightrope, hoping you don’t slip and hit rock bottom. I kept my chin up and kept looking forward, disregarding the danger and blatant signs of depression around me. But, like walking a tight rope, there’s no telling what would put me over that edge… until it happens.

I was sitting in the back of my sociology class, minding my own business and clearly not taking notes like the professor advised. I wasn’t in the right mind that day, and I knew it. My rope was feeling a bit on the unstable side but I went to class anyway. My teacher put up the same drab PowerPoint slides except, today, it was about death and taking care of the last wishes of your family.

How many of you have lost a parent?

I was the only person who raised my hand. Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. Her eyes darted straight in my direction and with that a cue was given to every other of the twenty-eight or so students to look behind at me.

Anybody else? No? Alright, then.

The first thing I thought was how could this woman do that to me? Just earlier that week I was sitting in her office, telling her about the pains I was going through and discussing the work I was going to make up, and she takes such a bold poll question like that. I blamed her for making me raise my hand like that, and then I thought again to myself. A probing, horrible digging inside of me like the dirty fingernail of guilt forced me to begin blaming myself for all of the horrors that happened to my mother. There was no preparation for the death of her, like the professor said, however the death that she faced was so seemingly preventable. I began to cry silent tears down an unquivering face that went unnoticed by the room of people who were staring at me shortly before. I buried my face into my scarf while the slides clicked one after another, methodically reminding us of how to prepare for death when I was already beyond that point. She emphasized on comfort and insurance and not blaming ourselves. I couldn’t stand the thought of preparing for anything other than the unknown yet ever-impending torment and fears that would return to me regardless of how prepared I was for it.
I glared down at the chicken scratch notes on the poor-smelling paper and began to question everything. What was I even doing here at school? All of my friends were right, saying what they did when they saw me. Maybe I wasn’t as strong as I thought.

Oh my god it’s so good to see you back. I can’t believe you came back; I would’ve never come back.

I Dream of Anxiety

There is an indescribable feeling I encounter from time to time, where I feel engulfed in emotion and it comes in the idea of a drowning of colors that I cannot see beyond. I am unable to put into words the feeling – the over-stimulation of senses that are only agitated further by excess company or outside stresses. Sometimes I wish to curl in a ball and cocoon myself in hopes of coming out from under it refreshed. I know, however, this method doesn’t work for me, and as an alternative I force myself into the world in order to fight a wave with another wave of social activity. When I’m like this, I feel alone, regardless of the company around me. I feel vulnerable and although I am completely aware I’m not the only one who experiences this type of anxiety, I still feel as if someone who peered inside of me would run from the chaos. I try to use my words and find no solace in vocalizing something that I can’t even put an idea to. Rather, I try to identify what made me feel this way and tackle it, and regain control over what is mine.

Lately, this force has been running through my being in a way that I can’t describe. A darkness where I am sometimes afraid to reflect inward, unsure of what I will see. Anxiety comes in many forms. And this is mine.

This evening I dreamed. I was wandering amongst winding brick buildings, windows shattered, leaning from side to side, courtyards that I could only imagine were once beautiful and full of life now barren save piles of rust and junk and death. This maze was intimidating and at the same time, I walked as if being led by natural instinct; as if I already knew where I was. I knew that once the sun went down I had to leave, because the dangers in this dark place were ones I was certain I did not want to encounter. I made my way through this lonely space, gazing up at the building that gave up and were given up on. The sun began to disappear.

My heart rate increased as I turned on my heels and attempted to make my way past the weaving piles of discarded, unwanted items that once served purpose in lives of those who were no longer around. The silence was only interrupted by the sound of my own heart in my ears and the occasional tipping of trash as I stumbled and stumbled and then became completely engulfed in the darkness.

Seeming to give up on myself in the current predicament, I stopped running. I now carefully treaded as I made my way to the exit that I seemed to already know, when a dark figure stepped in my path. Tall, thin, and imposing, it reached out and wrapped its arms around me and pulled me with it up against a brick wall. I felt my face press into this black shadowed figure and thought of all the other times I was haunted by beings similar to this. I tried to reason with it, to convince it to let me go. I said I both knew what we were capable of, and that if it let go of my body we would both run, and no one would be hurt. It released me. I didn’t stop to look back, and didn’t have to, because I could hear this thing running at me with a gait twice the size of mine, so I pushed twice as fast to escape it and get out of this maze of darkness and death before it caught up to me.

I ran into a lit hallway and took shelter in an alcove and waited. The being, now exposed to the light, made me embarrassed and sad. It was yellow. It was completely yellow, non-threatening, and I now thought that it was embracing me not for malicious intent. Rather than face it, I blended into a crowd and continued on.

****

I woke up and concluded that the maze and the darkness was my anxiety, and I maneuvered it so well, because it is something I have stood up against over and over throughout the years of my life where all of these colors and emotions would swallow me into a black nothingness, and I’d have to find my way out. The yellow figure was hope. It was positivity. It was a shred of myself that came into the darkness to embrace me and protect me and I ran to escape it, because I couldn’t see it head-on for what it was. In life, I can’t always see head-on the things that will protect me in my darkness. In life, if I embraced that darkness, rather than try to escape it, and calmly step through what is seemingly ruins, I might be encountered by the things that will save me.

I am Grateful

Recently, I encountered a piece of writing – about 70 pages – that I scribbled out in 2012, eleven months after the loss of my mother. It encompassed the dark, secluded, depressed state that I was in for so long after she died, and I read it for the first time since I wrote it. When I wrote this particular novella (I guess), I did so out of anger. I took my insomnia, my fleeting thoughts, my questions, my hate and confusion, and poured them out of me like hot lava over the course of about two weeks. I remember, when I finished this piece, not feeling angry any longer, which is exactly why it stayed a mere 70 pages or so. It hurt me to read it. It rubbed back over all of the emotional scars that I spent the past five years allowing to heal while I tried to figure out how to trudge through the hell that was the death of my mom. The writings were so raw and painful to recognize – to see it as myself, as I was. I cried throughout the Intro (released onto my blog before this post itself). I cried for the girl who I was and for the amount of hurt and loneliness she experienced. The entries lashed out at the world around her; at neighbors, at family. They were paranoid, twisted, irrational ideas, but they were natural and real for someone who feels like they have everything ripped from them at once.

It’s certainly difficult for anyone to lose a parent, no matter what way, or at what age. Loss as I have observed simply within my own family is perceived, absorbed, and handled, dealt with or otherwise, differently by each person. It is a relative experience, felt on a varying scale. I do not share my stories – my loss, struggles, and personal insight – with the idea that how I coped is the right way, or how I survived is the only way to do so. However, I share the stories I write with the hope and intention that someday, somewhere, someone will read what I went through and actually feel like they aren’t alone. In the end we are all looking to feel like we belong, and I know for myself, the hardest time to feel like you’re part of something is when you’re torn apart.

I am grateful. I am grateful to have a passion for writing. I am grateful for the small community of individuals I know who tell me that the things I write about helped them get through something. I love when someone tells me I made them laugh, and I have a mildly sadistic joy inside when someone tells me I made them cry. I love telling stories, and other people’s stories, and I am grateful I can tell them. I lost fear of judgment for writing and being read because, in the end, my writing is my feelings and no one can feel those feelings except for me. The goal now is to have others respect those feelings, or relate to them in some way. If someone feels less alone, then I feel I’m doing something right.

Intro

 

Wake up. I glared bright-eyed into a thick dark nothing while the oscillating fan breathed life back into me with each methodical pass. The outlines of my room became more apparent as the urge to get up increased. I fought my way through the queen-sized down comforter. It’s August. My feet touched the carpet; dirt and small objects imprinted themselves gently into my heels. Although rough and calloused from many summers trudging through sand and gouging on broken shells, my feet were still so sensitive. More sensitive now even after the profession I had taken up in this small, shallow town. I searched helplessly for the light and as it illuminated my room, my eyes momentarily flashed back to darkness with the shock. My graduation tassels hung delicately on my wall, shadows dancing with the fan, ebbing and flooding like a tide that relentlessly touches upon shore.

My door creaked open as I switched up to the balls of my feet on the grainy wooden floor. With each step the panels moaned as the seemingly forever trip to my bathroom became more hurried. I slipped passed my grandfather’s open door, unaware of the conversation he was having with Death, as the invisible cold black figure took his unconscious hand into the moonlight, preparing him for his own end. Then I heard my grandpa snore and roll over and Death shook his fist to the sky in defeat.

The only thing awake besides Death and myself were the crickets – insomniacs that lulled me to sleep with their chirping and chiming ever since I was a little girl. The toilet seat was cold for an August night. I pulled the blinds shut and stared down at a helpless spider I thought I killed hours earlier when I was brushing my teeth. It crawled and crawled up the yellowed siding of the bathtub while its weak threads clung to nothing but soap scum and history. This bungalow had seen better days and so did the people living in it. If walls could talk they would shout through the paper at guests and residents alike, warning them of the death that happened, of the unrest, and of the religious excuses for the actions of others. The fresh coat of paint and new half bath were mere distractions, like a woman reapplying her make-up so people wouldn’t notice that new pimple or her wrinkle she got from fighting with her husband the day before. As each horrible thing happened in my house, we kept fixing it and adjusting the tapestry.

I am stuck in my own personal House of Usher as Poe laughs at me from a higher bookshelf next to my empty diploma case. I feel like my grandpa is nesting; like a woman does for a newborn, except he’s doing it for Death. He tells me almost every night that he isn’t ready to go yet – “The window people are coming tomorrow.” I suddenly became lost in my own thoughts.  I flushed the toilet that would be cleaned tomorrow and washed my hands lazily. The mirror gleamed back at me with pale lights as I stared into my tired eyes, purple bags slouching below them. My hair stood up on many frozen ends like they were trying to escape my thoughts, too. I looked so tired. I always looked tired nowadays. Sleep is for the weak and the dead and I was told I couldn’t be either of those things. I could only think about those in my own mind. My mother, for instance, was always on my mind, and now that she was separated in jars between two dressers and a mantle piece, was more apparent these days. Only she knew how much I thought about just never waking up in this world only to wake up to see her again in the afterlife. This kind of talk warranted my therapist on several occasions to question my mental stability and she always approached with, “So…are you suicidal then?” I always replied with, “No, I’m Catholic.” I had to applaud her boldness in asking me, though. No one really ever asked me how I was doing, especially these days. I returned to a town and a house that boasted wealth but those dwelling inside it were poor in spirits. The stench of the decaying elderly mixed with plug-in air fresheners gave the appearance of a funeral home in this once enjoyable abode. The floral carpeting, spotless hardwood and prescription pill bottles would suggest an older crowd, and I was thrown into the mix as a twenty-one year-old college graduate, waiting on her diploma and her big break.

I, instead, live with my grandfather who is well into his 90’s but still insists on driving and cooking and giving himself the false identity of someone much younger than he is. I have been living here since last November, originally in a room sizeable to a closet with a closet inside of it. I only recently upgraded to the room my mother used to sleep in; the one my Aunt Eleanor died in, and the one next to the room my grandmother took her final heaving breaths in. My mother almost died in this room as well. It was bad enough that I slept in the bed she slept in for almost a month, but that isn’t what bothered me. She actually attempted to die in this bed. I was away at school, and she refused to tell me that she was sick, or dying, or killing herself slowly, and she just expected to expire, engulfed in old floral cotton sheets, head resting on stale pillows that were never replaced, without a care for dignity or admiration or acceptance. She wanted to end it and didn’t care who witnessed it. She wanted to beat her father in the race to Death’s door and rang his doorbell multiple times before he finally answered. And because she didn’t want to die like a dignified person, she unfortunately did not get to choose the manner in which she’d go. This manner, however, was chosen by doctors, and by family, and this was the only decision she was not allowed to have the responsibility over. And because of her, I am now battling a combination of depression and the automated Weight Watchers online guide in a room next to a man who talks to Jesus in his sleep more than I have in my entire life.

 

It’s on nights like these where the August humidity seeps into the blossoming September evenings and attempts to choke you in your sleep that I sit up and contemplate just what in the world is going on. I sit in the dark on top of my sheets and stare at a ceiling poorly lit by the blind moon as he throws around his light carelessly through trees, peering into my window. He imposes on me like a nosy neighbor, like the many we have in this town. My night vision kicks in after a long and tumultuous battle with blackness and I examine my room in its dark form, as if that’s any different from what it looks like during the day. Nothing looks that appealing in the dark except for bodies, and the expansiveness of the twilight hours seems to push my room in on me. My bed is too large. My room is too small. My closet is too close. This mirror is too close to my bed. All of these things impede on my personal space and crowd my body like my thoughts that push against the barriers of my skull. I stare and stare until night takes me away and pushes me into the throes of my dreams where I must be alert in order to see the morning again, no less allow them to take me over.

 

My dreams have been abstract and unpleasant for the past eleven months, where torturous situations place me in the kitchen I grew up in with my mother standing at the stove. We talk about current events as she drags on her cigarette and fries eggplant. She throws each fried circle, crisp and bubbling, onto a paper plate lined with paper towels and I eat them as fast as they touch. Her smoke is comforting and sticks to my body along with the heat and grease of the summer cooking. She tells me she should have never left and that she’s sorry I’m stuck with everything and that I should have the house left to me. She tells me that she never really wanted to kill herself and it spiraled out of control towards the end. I get several apologies, thanks for not judging her, and remorse for not being able to remember what her hug will feel like in the morning. I tell her it’s fine because she’ll stop in on my dream in a couple of weeks again. Things turn fuzzy and incoherent after that hug, and every time someone crashes a car, or I wind up being chased, or I step out onto some weird endeavor that really has no end until I wake up to a buzzing alarm clock. I fight to remember her hug, and her cigarettes, and eventually give in to the morning sun and my full time job. The monotony kicks in and it’s not the pleasant monotony I was hoping for after my mom died. I was hoping for a full house of family; for bonding; for summer days simmering on the beach under the hot July sun like the eggplant in the pan. I prayed for silence and peace and a belonging where everything suddenly and perfectly made sense. But then I wake up again and realize I work seven days a week. I crush my own spirits down to prevent the environment in which I enter everyday from doing so. If I’m anything like my mother, it’s that I would never let anyone but myself bring me down. I lowered my expectations of this summer and the future so much that indifference is the deciding factor in everything that happens. This leads to everything playing out like a radio song on repeat and I can’t change the channel. I just go with it. I’ve become sucked into a routine of work work work and then going home to clean clean clean and then sitting in the black black black dark until I pass out.

I know that every Thursday is cleaning day, where I clean the toilets, mop the floors, vacuum, and dust everything within reason only for it to be disheveled and dirty by Thursday evening. It’s like I can’t make the dust disappear; it just runs away from my Swiffer and hides in the corners and under the couches until I leave. But, I do it relentlessly, and I do it without complaint, because I have a free room to sleep in and a roof over my head. It’s because I’m guilted into feeling like I have done something wrong to deserve the life I’m currently living. Like I’ve done nothing even remotely commendable, I am the Help. I am the live-in maid, psychologist, referee, and janitor. I mop up the sorrows, sweep away the pains, break up the fights, and diagnose the troubles. And just like the dust that is not mine on the floors that I don’t own in the house that I don’t pay for, the problems that do not belong to me resurface and I sweep them away again. And they cannot be ignored. Oh no. Because the second I turn on a fan to relieve myself from the blistering heat the dust swirls up in my face, causing discomfort and I can’t just not get rid of the dust to try and make myself more comfortable. When I get to the point of inconceivable intolerance, I put on my sneakers and walk. I walk for miles and hours in the humid and I push through it as it grabs my arms and pulls me back like everything else. I tell it to go screw and turn the corner, up the hill, make a right, pass some horses, and another right turn. Eventually my left knee gives out but I keep going because the physical reminders that I’m still alive push harder than my numb brain and next thing you know I’m up the hill and going home. I don’t mind the soreness, or the shin splints, or the sweat, because that can just go away. Things like that disappear, and it only happens when I make it happen. It’s control, and it’s all I have.

In this world of confusing monotonous chaos that I exist in the only things I have control over are my bodily pain and how much I eat. If the monotony were a pleasant array of excitement and surprises and happiness this would be different. However, I am stuck being Atlas except I eat more and exercise less. The ratios are currently off in the favor of intake, but at least I can still control it. It is something unpredictable; my feet go until they cannot, and I never know when that will be until I get a shooting pain up to my hip telling me to stop and I shrug it off and drown it out in the soupy summer heat as I pass a field that has more vastness than the confines of my own mind, where everything has become a beehive overloaded with unnecessary troubles and information. I’d rather be sick in the body than sick in the head and the lack of flare and individual input put a damper on my usual taste for excitement. I predict the conversations I have with my grandpa before they happen, I know exactly what my dad will talk about when I get out of work, and I still can’t seem to figure out my own processes. I go back to the thick, dark, soupy night in my bed that’s too big and wonder about the most unknown thing: myself.

I was in constant opposition of staring myself down, especially during those late night stints attempting to solve the crises of the world from the toilet seat. In those nights where I would stare at the ceiling asking where the fuck did I go wrong? I would pray that the answer would fall from the darkness and smack me square in the face. My eyes stay wide but tired as I heave my thoughts around in my head like heavy boulders until I exhaust myself into oblivion yet again. I would wake up several hours later and make that ever-so-familiar trip into the darkness where fear is my only friend and I stare deeply into a bathroom mirror from 1974 and see the same thing over and over again. I would never see change, and Thursday would still be cleaning day.

This horrendous and unacceptable amount of unadventurous life was starting to get the best of me, and I knew that I had to press on with my ambitions. And at the same time, I knew I couldn’t. My life had begun to play out like a sappy and stupid indie film where everything is ironic and the awkward kid gets through school and finds love. I did one of those things, and as a disclaimer my heart is as hard as a rock. I spent days just staring at old pictures and acknowledging that I allowed myself to become sedentary and fat over the past few months (years) up to and following college. Subconsciously my body gave up and decided that years upon years of learning and unbearable, unavoidable trauma needed to take a back seat while I focused on myself. I missed the memo, however, and just sank into oblivion with food and unnecessary spending. My mind would swim for hours with thoughts and ideas of what I could have done, how it could have been, and how much I was pissed off now seeing how everything decided to pan out. Seeing how people chose to take their separate paths and how they indirectly, yet so effectively, dampened my own strenuous existence. I sat undeserving in my Oxford University sweatshirt thinking of better times and the what-haves until I either got hungry or cried or just went to bed.

This unconnected and indifferent chain of events that all somehow swept in and smacked my life square in the testicles equally confused and devastated me. I spent years and months and minutes screaming why out to the ceiling until I realized no one would hear me. When I stopped screaming at the vertical nothingness I was struck with the deafening tones of rejection from the universe. No one wanted to help me, because everyone was busy helping himself or herself. Then when I actually swallowed my pride and asked for help, it was thrown back at me, and I learned quite painfully that I’m the only person I can rely on 100 percent of the time. That idea was comforting and terrifying, because I realized quickly how little faith I have in my own strengths – boasting it in public and unable to find it when alone. I needed to get back on good terms with the universe, and that is a chapter that hasn’t ended yet.

A Terrifying Encounter with Sleep Paralysis

I have dabbled in the world of lucid dreaming, and generally speaking, remember the vast majority of my dreams, coherent or otherwise. I write down the ones that have meaning to me, or have symbols or omens in them that interest me, and the others just fizzle off. This evening, however, a dream was burned into my head, and it has jacked up my entire night (maybe even my tomorrow), and I want to log it in order to confront this horrible nightmare I had.

It started out incoherent and sporadic like most dreams. I was walking down a dark street, not an ominous-feeling street, just a street nonetheless. There was a projector screen at the end of the road, running through a slide show of photos of my friends and I – photos that were never taken in the conscious world, but they seemed pleasant and when questioned, my friend Amanda said, “I just want the world to know how great of friends we are.”

Well that was sweet.

“I had to give the puppies back. He won’t take care of them. I know he won’t. He’s going to do a terrible job, but I had to give them back.”

“What about he baby goat?”

“That too.”

Damn, I thought. I came over to see three puppies and a baby goat and none of them were there. I hung out with Amanda and our new friend she lived with. She was a pretty girl, tall, and for some reason I just knew she played basketball. There was a euphoric-feeling throughout the encounter of us friends, and I quickly forgot about the puppies.

The dream shifted to Amanda’s roommate and myself going to play basketball at a local park, but we forgot the basketball, so we just threw around a shoe. I remember the hoop being ludicrously high, even for me, and I missed every shot. However, the sun was out and we were all having fun.

In the conscious world, my dog got up off the floor and I heard his collar jingle as he put his paws up on my bed. I began to shift from my dream to waking up, when my happy, nonsensical time immediately turned into the most hellish experience I can recall to date. A force much stronger than me held me down at my wrists and ankles, as if there were two. I could only hear one voice. It sounded like I was in a wind tunnel, the lights a flashing blue. My blankets covered my face as I could only turn my head to try and assess my danger. I could hear my dog on the outside, much more frantic. I tried to pull my hands up, but the grip became tighter. The voice became coherent as I opened my eyes and saw the imprint of this thing in the blankets staring down at me screaming in a low, growling tone.

WHY HAVE YOU DONE SO MUCH DAMAGE

WHY HAVE YOU DONE SO MUCH DAMAGE

WHY HAVE YOU DONE SO MUCH DAMAGE

I tried to scream back at it, but my voice was cracked and I was unable to convey. The background noise became louder and louder like a train was running through my room. I was trying to scream and kick and writhe my wrists around until suddenly I wrenched my shoulder and the pain threw me over to my side where I woke up screaming.

“Mom protect me! Mom protect me!”

I was heaving and sweating and I couldn’t figure out where I was until the cold air from my open window hit me. I looked over and saw my dog in an absolute panic on the floor, staring up at me in the dark.