16 Apr Systemic
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Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
I just killed myself for breakfast.
I sat in my 100+ degree car, reeking of maple syrup and incapable of many coherent thoughts save for that one. It swayed through my mind like a dead leaf, falling into my consciousness by random assignment. I had been up since 4:30 in the morning after a fitful night of intermittent sleep, slogged out of bed and into my uniform just in time to make it for opening the restaurant. I remember smoothing my apron over my skirt, my legs already sticky with sweat, dreading the impending stress I was about to expose my already exhausted body to.
It was Saturday morning at a breakfast place on the shore, so we were swamped by 5:30. First the fishermen, most already smelling a little bit like hard alcohol and craving eggs and bacon by the pound, quick to swat at my ass when I bent over to clear their tables. Then the commuters at 6, hating their lives as they pulled an extra day at their theoretically 9-5, nervously tapping their feet as they waited for extra large coffees and breakfast sandwiches they could inhale as they ran to catch the ferry. Last but not least, blossoming bright and early at 8, the bennys on their way to the beach – huge families, dozens of discontented children lacking in fine motor skills, parents numb to the piles of half-chewed pancakes and artistic crayon endeavors on tables.
With a good night’s sleep, I can take it all with a smile and a wink, pocketing the tips and accepting the daily grind for what it is. For the past week, though, I hadn’t been sleeping well. By the time I got out to my car at 3 I was nearly in tears, my hand shaking with emotion and exhaustion as I put the key in the ignition and pulled out of the lot.
The waitress gig was something I had picked up when I graduated from school to help tackle my impending mountains of debt in student loans, something to hold me by while I looked for something bigger and better that was actually in my field. I had worked at an animal clinic for years as an administrative assistant-cum-unofficial intern both before I started school and while I worked on my doctorate in veterinary medicine.
Fourteen years trudging through paperwork and feces, all things said and done. I had always counted on going back there for my residency. I had never questioned it.
But I fucked up. And now I wait tables in a bubblemint pink skirt and black polo shirt with a stripy stained apron to protect me from being rained on with breakfast food. And I had just hit the one year anniversary of accepting the prestigious position last Sunday, which threw me in a tailspin of self-immolation and depression.
Which left me sweaty, sticky, and covered in artificially flavored corn syrup advertised and sold as maple syrup, in my junker of a car, literally stewing in my own filth as I putted through traffic. My body ached as a reminder of the last nine hours on my feet, my car echoing the protests of my joints. It was 16 years old and held together with duct tape and dreams, at this point. I was doing most of the repairs myself, from YouTube videos and the occasional desperate plea to my girlfriend, who managed her uncle’s auto body shop. I hated having to call her up after a ten hour shift and have her come over to fix yet another car, but I was pretty much out of options, so far in debt that I had been living off toast I pocketed at the end of my shifts and the one discounted meal I got a day at work.
Small blessing, my car was definitely not happy but was holding up in the broiling heat. I wiped my face to clear away the oily feel of melting eyeliner and pulled my shirt away from my chest, trying to get a little relief from the overwhelming temperature. The AC had gone before I even bought the car. I shook my hair out of its ponytail and put it back up again in a tighter bun, then stuck my head out of the open window to try to catch a precious breath of the weak breeze. I burned my fingertips on the metal of the door; I must have made a face, the teen boys in the car next to me laughed. I flipped them off and rolled up the window, heat be damned. I was done with people for the day.
I was halfway home and half asleep, struggling to keep my eyes open despite the bright sun and the noise of the cars around me. I turned the music up louder, feeling the reverberations shake the car like a vibrating bed, oddly soothing despite the painfully loud decibel. The song was something from a local college station, it was old, foreign, jazzy, upbeat. I liked it, even though I couldn’t figure out what language it was in. I was stopped at a light so I closed my eyes for a second to focus on the lyrics.
Everything went silent. Like life was winding down.
Not just the car, but the whole world. I couldn’t hear the cars outside. I couldn’t hear the music. I opened my eyes, my pulse racing but everything else seeming to move in slow motion. There was a build up that reminded me of the slow whine of a boiling teakettle, then a pop that shook the car like a minor earthquake. I instinctively slammed on the brakes, trying to figure out the source of the problem through the heady rush of adrenaline. Either the car just exploded a little bit or I had just had a full-blown stress-induced seizure. The driver of the car behind me leaned on their horn like they were trying to give it CPR, swerving quickly to drive around. I glanced over through gasping breath and swimming vision, greeted with a hairy, tattooed fist flipping me the bird and a pair of accusing brown eyes set back in a wizened face.
Click. A little jab my car threw at me; an insult to injury.
I pulled over to the curb, fingers trembling as I fumbled for my phone. Cars flew by, unconcerned with my spastic breakdown. I threw open the door and walked to the thin strip of grass lining the side of the highway. I sat down heavily, my tailbone sharply aching from the violence of it. No answer. I lay back, breathing in the warring scents of fresh grass and diesel fumes. Seconds or minutes later, my phone started vibrating.
I waited before answering, picturing her on the other end. I thought about her mouth, wide and fertile, blowing lazy nicotine-laced mint bubbles and snapping them…Her opaque lipstick over slightly chapped lips curving into a smudged smile; the way that smile felt against my skin. I thought about the way she must look right now, lips sinking into a frown, wondering why I called her at work, the beauty mark at the corner rising and dipping over her carefully chosen sentences like one of the dots in those old Disney sing-a-long videos. She would be leaning against the brick in the back of the building, her long hair sticking painfully in the divots, a detail that always slipped her mind unless I was there to buffer.
“What’s up, doc?” Her throaty greeting, the pet name that used to make me smile. I pulled some blades of grass and twined them together, instantly soothed by her voice. Like my own personal ‘50s movie actress, the unctuous femme fatale from a film noir. Sophie.
“The Lemon’s gone extra sour today, Soph.” She snaps her gum a couple of times and sighs. Click.
“What’s it this time?”
“Took a nap in traffic.” She chokes a little bit. I smile to myself, guiltily pleased at getting a rise out of her.
“Fucking you or the fucking car?” I considered that for a second.
“How mad would you be if I said I wasn’t sure?” I braided the grass together into my apron strings. The cars whizz by, soothing, like white noise. My car was still seething, a few plaintive clicks as the engine reluctantly winds down. I heard her sigh. No snapping, she must have spit out her gum.
“I’m not mad.” The implied ‘just disappointed’ hung in the air with an annoyingly maternal ring.
Anger started bubbling up in my stomach. Irrational and blind, unwarranted, stupid. I sat up, suddenly aware of being drenched in clammy sweat and the ache in my lower back. The silence on the other end stretched but I didn’t trust myself to speak. She cracked first.
“When did it start?” I described it, taking the now mutilated grass blades and rubbing them across my eyebrows, along my lips. I imagined I tasted pesticide. Or actually tasted pesticide.
“It sounds like it’s probably just the radio, maybe the speakers. But you should bring it in just to be sure.” Sophie was fairly good with diagnostics, borderline House-ian, after so many years at the shop. She would makes jokes about it over dinner; the helpless mundanity of it all, the housewives stumbling over themselves to mimic the noises spouting from their engines. She had this great impression of a casually overdressed Fortune 500 guy on his day off, waltzing in with a puffed-out chest and a false bravado, eventually succumbing to his lack of knowledge and monkeying a charade the same way the housewives did. I wondered if she pictured me like that right now.
“I’m not sure what I can do this week. Mike’s on a ride and won’t be back until next week and Butch is here till Saturday.” Mike was her brother- usually when the car really started acting up I would bring it into the shop for him to work on, he would just charge me for parts; occasionally he would just do the simple stuff outside of the apartment they shared. Butch was their uncle who owned the shop, fond of pinching pennies and willfully blind to his niece’s gayness. The few times I’d met him he’d alternated between ignoring me and being disgustingly flirty. Hearing his name made me think of stale cigar smoke and a hand too low on my back. Sophie was livid each time, trembling and fuming behind the receptionist’s desk. Once, after he left, she pulled me into the greasy garage bathroom and fingered me almost painfully hard. She hated it there almost as much as I hated waiting tables, but she was working on her degree in IT and spent the bulk of the day doing homework and taking apart and repairing the computer.
Click. My car chimed in. I jumped a little, shaken away from my daydream.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” I sat up a little straighter, starting to prepare myself to get back in the shit-mobile. “A Michael Bay-esque explosion that jettisons me out of the driver’s seat and into battle with a group of ninjas?” I mime karate chops that she can’t see. “I’m up on my krav maga.”
She laughs. I continued ninja shadow-boxing, my mood lifting. I untied the apron strings and curled it into a ball, happy to have the extra layer off of me. Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier?
“Rex was so stupid this morning, with his doofy cone and his lion cut. He got his ball wedged in between his face and the plastic. You would have peed your pants.” Rex was her 3-year-old St. Bernard mix. He had just been in for grooming and booster shots at my old clinic. I giggled.
“I miss that giant bucket of fuzz. I’ll come over and check him out soon, see if the cone can come off-”
“It’s okay, I’ve got it.” She interrupted. Abruptly. Maybe a little nervously. Fearfully. I felt tears welling up in my eyes; quickly squashed the feeling and stood upright too quickly. My vision darkened around the edges as all the blood rushed to my head. I shook my head, trying to clear my vision and my mind’s eye.
“Well, obviously you would know better than me, with my nine years of veterinary medicine and whatnot.” I half-run towards the car.
“That’s not what I meant!” I jam the keys in the ignition, slam the door behind me.
“No. You know fucking better than I do. You’ve got this.” Annoying little flashes of emotions and memories ran through my head. I tried to fry it all with anger.
“Click.” My car chastised.
“I DIDN’T MEAN IT LIKE THAT!” That was even worse, if she didn’t mean it passive-aggressively. That it just happened naturally, as a defensive response to protect poor dear Rex. I flipped on my turn signal and dove back into traffic, ignoring the beeps of the righteously indignant cars behind me. Click. Tick tick tick.
“WELL I DON’T MEAN THIS LIKE THAT EITHER, THEN.” I hung up, throwing my phone so hard on the passenger seat it bounced off onto the floor. I was so lost in thought I didn’t realize I drove all the way home, white-knuckled on the steering wheel, heart and head pounding. Click.
I put the car in park and sat for a second, trying to calm myself down. My phone buzzed on the floor, spinning itself in tiny pirouettes. Sophie would have to wait. I had never been so done with humanity before.
My car shuddered a little as it cooled down. I left my phone dancing by itself, slammed my door and headed inside with the sole purpose of alcohol. Immediately. I looked back as I was heading inside, considering bringing my phone for entertainment’s sake. I saw a ghost town of tired-looking cottages, an overturned brick perpetually falling out of the stairs, peeling paint like a waterfall frozen in time, cascading down the front of the house in rivulets and then faded blue confetti on the browning grass. What a party, I thought bitingly to myself. I turned away from the chaos, unable to think about tackling the mess in front of me, towards the cool silence of my shanty.
I stripped my uniform at the door, walking to the kitchen in bra, panties and sneakers. I flicked on the light switch and fan, stared at the air conditioner for a mournful moment. There was no way I would be able to justify turning it on, not with my student loan due in a few days and the rest of my bills at the end of the week. I stood in front of my fridge, eyeing the spread. A styrofoam box with syrup-saturated pancakes from my shift yesterday. Mustard with a congealed shell on the cap. Half a gallon of Sunny-D. A cheap screw-top bottle of white wine. And the coup de grace in the freezer- an ice cube tray and 2 frozen packages of vegetables that technically belonged to Sophie.
I grabbed out the ice cube tray, white wine and bastard orange juice and set about making myself a giant modified brass monkey. I chugged back the first, started on my second, topped it off and decided I was buzzed enough to deal with the next task ahead of me. I went to the bathroom and started running myself a bath. I started to turn the hot water on, thought the better of it and switched it to a lukewarm-borderline-cold. A fun fact from a psychology class a million years ago floated in the back of my mind- cold showers were good for depression.
And in that same vein, other things that were good for depression- sedatives. Like the 3 tiny pills hanging out in my medicine cabinet, waiting for a rainy day, or in this case, blistering hot, hopeless day. I opened the cabinet up, catching my sweaty face in the mirror, surprised at how young I looked. And how haggard. I wrestled with myself on that on a daily basis. How could I only be 29 when I ran around town with a chip of failure off both shoulders and the wilted, slumping facade of a washed out 50-something diner waitress?
I shook the bottle in my hand like a lonely mariachi singer. Sophie’s brother’s name was written across the label in accusing capital letters. The last time I had slipped him cash it wasn’t just for car repairs. I started pulling at the corner, ripping off the label in tiny peels. I popped out one of the pills, split it in 2, leaving me with garbage in one hand, a crescent moon pill and booze concoction in the other. I stood over the garbage can, debating for a second on whether I should trash both, listening to the soothing sounds of the bath filling up. Almost without realizing it I made my decision, popping the pill with a gulp of brass-ish monkey, letting the little sticker pieces fall in a mess in and out of the can.
I stripped and slipped into the water; drugs and thermodynamics mellowed my nerve endings into delicious lukewarm bliss. I let my thoughts unwind and dissolve, letting go of the pain one amorphous word at a time. Depression, late fees, regret, pancakes, exhaustion- dripping down my arms and legs in little rivulets. I grew annoyed with the tepid water; cranked up the heat and felt curls of delicious warmth rising up from the tap. A few phrases idled as I let my head sink and blew bubbles…I need to do laundry…call my aged parents to borrow money for rent, for groceries, for…
* * * * * *
Then I was in the kitchen at work. It was the usual hustle and bustle, the sounds of grease sizzling and pans clashing together like they were in battle with the stovetop. It was cramped and sweaty as usual; a fire-hazardous amount of people. I felt the weight of the pen behind my ear; my notepad in my apron, the clammy dampness of sweat dripping down the back of my neck and soaking my shirt. There were plates lined up in the window under the heat lamp, looking like stock photos from a food magazine; almost pornographic, glossy globs of scrambled eggs and plasticized dripping bacon. Faceless, hungry patrons loomed in the background like carrion eaters standing over the corpses of a thousand unborn chickens and sacrificed pigs.
Sophie sat on the edge of the industrial dishwasher, the calm point in the storm, vibrating slightly and smiling that come-hither smile she gets when she wants to fool around. She was wearing old jeans and a white t-shirt, no shoes, no bra. Part of me realized this was a dream, another part of me didn’t care because the last thing I wanted to do was cater to the pissy, annoying, gentrified masses when I could have raunchy public sex with my hot, horny girlfriend. I walked up to her and put my hands behind her head and on the small of her back, feeling the warmth of her skin, the small hairs that made her feel like holding a gigantic ripe peach.
We kissed, she tasted like mint and cigarettes.
“You’ve been smoking again?” She smiled serenely and leaned to whisper in my ear.
“It doesn’t matter. You forgot to take out the trash. You’re ruining my life and you’re killing me.” She lightly bit on the back of my neck, took my hand and moved it down the front of her jeans. I was getting foggy-headed with arousal, it took me a second to process what she said.
“What?” Even my dream-self was confused. She arched against my hand, let her head fall so that I was supporting her weight with the other. She sighed.
“Why did you do that?” Her voice was an angry soft sob, thick with tears. I held her to me while she moved against me. There was a warm wetness against my neck, syrupy tears gluing her blonde hair to my neck. I pulled back, looked at her red-rimmed, sad eyes. They rolled back a little, she moaned in the back of her throat, almost a growl, followed by a clipped, clicking hiccupy noise as she cried. She leaned backwards onto the stainless steel, I moved with her to support her so she couldn’t fall.
“Why did you do that?!” This time, it was barked like a shocked order. I looked down at Sophie in surprise, her face in profile, covered in hair. But she hadn’t spoken, she looked almost asleep. I looked around me to see what NPC dream character had decided to chime in.
We weren’t in the kitchen anymore. We were in the clinic. My nostrils flooded with the smell of wet dog, piss, the heady pheromonal smell of animal fear. The acting veterinarian, Dr. Morris, face crumpled in confusion, striding quickly across the room to me. I lifted my arms back from Sophie in defense, something falling to the floor in tiny clicks- a scalpel. Something dripped down my wrist; I looked up, wildly embarrassed to have gotten caught having sex, even in a fantasy. It wasn’t the fun sort of glaze I was expecting.
Coagulated blood, thick, black and old. I looked back down again. A dog with golden brown fur stared vacantly to the side, pupils dilated from blood loss. It had a huge, uneven gash in its neck. Dr. Morris shoved her aged hands over the wound, knocking the IV as she elbowed me away, trying to keep it closed. I backed away, slowly, my legs heavy in the way they only can be in nightmares. Her gloved fingers slipped, unable to hold it together.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” I took another impossibly heavy step back.
“I…My hand slipped…I was just trying to pull this off.” I put my hand in front of me, palm open, displaying my handiwork like a child. A tick, fat and round with blood. It hobbled to its legs comically, waddled up my arm. Dr. Morris looked at me in disbelief.
“I don’t see anything…A-are you high?” She was utterly incredulous. It left a little blood footprint trail as it made its way up to my neck. I thought about it. Was I? I had been taking so many pills to make it through exams. Uppers, downers, in-betweeners. The tick defied gravity with its corpulent little body, crawling into my ear. I put my hands to my face without thinking, spreading the warmth and rot across my cheeks, trying to dig it out before it made its way into my brain. I gagged at the smell.
And I gagged in real life. I had fallen asleep with the water running. It had just made its way to my nose and ears. I shot upright, sloshing water out of the tub. I quickly shut off the water, my nervous system wracked with adrenaline, my heart was pumping so hard it was skipping beats, pounding in my ears, making me feel like I was still choking. I grabbed a towel and sat on the edge of the tub, trying to get my bearings on reality again.
A minute later I realized the pounding wasn’t entirely composed of heartbeats. Someone was at the door. I looked at the window- it was still pitch black outside; it must have been the small hours of the morning. A brief, addled thought that it might be Dr. Morris to continue her tirade, even though that was dead and buried. I hoped against hope it was Sophie for a late night apology fuck, even though I knew she was probably at home, cuddled up with her dog, dreaming of far more pleasant things than me. Circuit boards and cotton candy and white picket fences.
I stand up, quickly realizing that I have both low blood pressure from my cramped position in the tub and a mild hangover from shooting wine and Sunny-D spritzers. I pulled the towel tighter, and debated going to the bedroom to put on something more substantial. The pounding intensified, almost as if the entity at the door could hear my thoughts. I resigned myself for immodesty, reasoning to myself: why the fuck not?
I padded wetly to the door like a confused swamp creature.
And then there was…no one. Just the Lemon, who greeted me with a boisterous:
Click ticktick click.
I stared into my empty yard, suddenly, instantly furious with a white-hot anger that crackled like my stupid fucking car. I slammed the door, hands shaking, trying to figure out how to wait out the homicidal rage that was spewing through my veins like poison.
I had done everything right. My whole life, I had tried to do everything right.
I pounded towards the bedroom, reaching into drawers for a tank top and shorts, not bothering with any frivolities like underwear or shoes. I glanced towards the cat clock, a graduation present from my parents. hanging playfully in the hallway. 4 am. In another reality, I could sleep another 3 hours before I needed to be in for the Sunday brunch shift. I felt tears well up in my eyes despite myself.
I had decided I wanted to help animals when I was 5 years old. I had worked hard, gotten good grades, spent hours and hours devoted to careful financial planning. I had parents that loved and accepted me when I came out of the closet. I was the motherfucking valedictorian of my graduating class.
A shattering bellow from my car interrupted my angry self-loathing tirade. I could hear Barry, faintly, coming up with a colorful array of swears from his bedroom, a few feet away from mine, separated by paper thin drywall. I felt something snap inside of me. Something tenuous, something that had been wearing away for a long time- ticking away in me like a bomb with fuses winding around my veins and arteries. My face flushed with heat and my hands went numb and started shaking. Dimly I thought- this is fight or flight at its finest. If I were an animal I would have pissed myself and ran off into the sunset. Or ripped the face off of something.
I made it to the kitchen. Everything in my peripheral seemed to shimmer like water. I had no clear memory of my feet touching the floor- just the subconscious feeling of movement, almost like I was floating. Then, the sudden clarity and weight of my kitchen shears in my hand.
I had clarity of purpose. I had a car problem. A simple bum radio. And I had a way of fixing it.
I walked out to the car, enjoying the feeling of cool grass under my feet, the sharp tingling of gravel. I opened the driver’s side door, sat down and shoved the scissors into the edging of the radio. I heaved my weight down onto it, heard it separate with a satisfying shattering rrrrrrrrrrrip. I pulled the panel towards me, straining, adjusting my grip so I didn’t sever my fingers off.
I held the bulk of it in my lap, cradling it like a baby, then wound the wires in the back into a bundle between my fingers. Each one came clean with a tiny satisfying click, finally releasing the demon box heavily into my arms and then promptly dropped onto the driveway. I felt a smile cross my lips, let it grow and set. I walked back into the house, serene, already thinking about the 2 solid sleep cycles that I would have, warm and cozy in my bed. As opposed to passed out in a bathtub.
Now, you’ll have to bear with me for this last bit. I’m not sure which parts are actual memories, versus what was relayed to me by the emergency responders and witnesses.
I know I woke up feeling more refreshed than I had in awhile. I slathered on makeup with fingers still wrinkly from the bathwater, I put on a mostly clean uniform, finished off the Sunny-D in the fridge, felt the pleasant rush of too-much sugar. I went out to my car, and went to put in a My Morning Jacket CD- I laughed to myself when I realized I no longer had a radio, rescued my phone from the floor and used YouTube to put it on instead.
I had a bunch of missed calls and texts from Sophie, I started to type out an apology while I was stopped at a light. The next thing I remember is being dragged out of the Lemon, the car in pieces and leaking fluids like the tiny fragments chipped off in lemonade.
Then, people screaming at me; at each other, at the world in general. At God.
One of the witnesses said I wasn’t paying attention and I rolled through a red light. She was in the car behind me, she noticed I was texting, she said something to that effect to her daughter in the front seat. That same daughter lost a hand- maybe more- in the ensuing crash; I watched her splayed form, her tear-soaked face as she was brought into the ambulance.
Another swears up and down that my car lifted off the ground of its own volition. That was an older man in opposing traffic. He slammed on his brakes when he saw, scared that I might have run over someone, or that there was an earthquake. His dog was in the back, obviously sans seatbelt. He had gone careening through the windshield, into another car, and now lay in the middle of the road in a mound of furry pulp.
A pedestrian walking by said my car was already smoking, flames dancing along the hood, when the accident happened. He claims that it was shrapnel, not me, that hit the family of four on the crosswalk. He says I couldn’t have seen the baby carriage.
The father of that family of four says I looked him right in the eye and hit the gas.
There was so much traffic on the road, so many people itching to get to the beach.
I’m not far away from where I was sitting yesterday. This time, I’m covered in blood instead of syrup. I’m surrounded by smoke and carnage. I’m fairly certain I need to get to the hospital, but I’m fairly certain I’m last on the list of priorities.
I have pieces of windshield in my hair, clinking around in my apron pocket. The paramedic who was just standing over me has just power-walked away to another victim in need of more immediate attention, a writhing mess half-covered by a sheet peppered with blood and hair. It’s an inconceivable amount of bloodshed. Part of me wonders if I’m still dreaming. Part of me hopes that I am. Prays to whatever higher power there is that turned it’s back on me.
A police officer asked me a few questions, I caught a few words here and there despite my shock. “Fault”…”drug test”…”emergency contact”… A small flashlight in my eyes, dilating my pupils to check for brain damage. “No signs of severe trauma.” The glint of the handcuffs on his belt.
Sophie’s just gotten here, she immediately pulled me into an embrace, tucking my head in her neck. Her smell cut through the chaos, minty and feminine, soothing, like the old school concept of smelling salts. She’s been whispering in my ear, cooing calming things to me.
I can’t think of anything to say. I can’t really hear her. I haven’t really been able to hear much of anything, to be honest.
All I hear is:
tick tick tick
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