The day was a long one, but was not all that long. Spent focused in front of the screen all day, the code lining up in little colored words with breaks to the fluorescent bathrooms down halls all hushed and all identical in color, it is over somehow. Staring out the window, the momentary thought of the great system’s inefficiency was clear: all these great stone and glass buildings, heated and lit and cared for, occupied only ten or so hours a day. How much better for everyone if we all slept here.
I woke so late I drove, keeping me at work later both to make up time and to wait for traffic to work itself out. I answer email with the other lone late worker, our soft typing lost in the room’s hum. It becomes thunderous when the air handlers cut out at six, the great corporate hulk as dead silent as a ship becalmed. At seven I trust the traffic map and go into the kind of autumn night that blows with wet wind, but the darkness is summerlike and clammy.
I stop at the store because I have the car, dreaming, unseeing, the bright buy-me colors sharp but invisible. Among the brilliant fruits he speaks:
Is this your life now? Again?
Monkey has been gone so long I don’t recognize him. His presence is as solid as a wet and dirty coat–the only coat you have. He is out of practice but I feel him winding up.
Get up, rush awake, rush out to sit at a desk in front of a computer. It betrayed you, you know: back in high school so fascinating and absorbing and intimidating you’d never tire of it, now a stupid thing you need to train to dance. Locked in a system of insecure men who must shout each other down and defeat one another to prove their value only makes it more pointless, yes? So here you are, in a corporate store full of shiny things to hand over the money you’ve earned, too tired to do anything but go home and stare at the wall. The same truth you knew at your very first job where you had to wear a tie.
I feel both heavy and light with static. It’s in my stomach and lifts me with its empty electricity. Haven’t seen you in a while….
That’s because you’re doing it wrong. Your new neighborhood, the bus to work, the friends that don’t call, the money you aren’t paid, the writing you aren’t doing–there isn’t anything that isn’t wrong. You are deep in the simulacra of all the things you aren’t supposed to be doing. You have fallen for the ultimate distraction. So what if you’re free? You’ll just enslave yourself again.
As a manifestation of lifelong inner anxiety, Monkey knows how to be articulate.
I wander the moderate-sized Safeway, crammed with immigrants in hijabs or the new and fashionable but poorly-fitting clothes the refugee agencies hand out. Kids wear these mostly: big jackets, Moon-boot shoes. They speak languages I don’t understand and don’t register my presence, not sensing to unblock the dairy case, the bread. A woman four feet tall pushes a cart full of screaming preschoolers and she yells at them in a continuous unified syllable.
I’m not them, I tell Monkey, more pridefully than I should.
You are as lost as them. You are adrift, just like always. Nothing right, nothing safe. You have no home, only a brand new box where you can hide with your cat.
The store echoes with gaggles of Asian teenagers and a white woman with fire-red nails yakking at her phone. Harsh light bleeds into shadow and the four-foot woman rolls on her vowel yell at the screaming kids. I can feel Monkey jumping, scratching the backs of my eyes, pulling my hair from the inside. I sweat. A metal taste fills my mouth.
A little of the fear is there, but only a sliver. Mostly there is anger: sharp-edged and sleep-deprived, brittle, somehow fetid, run through with bilious plumbing. Things slip from my sweaty hands. I want the people to shut up. I want Monkey to stop knowing everything.
Don’t resent me. What would you do if not for me? How would you plan, anticipate, respect the fearsome, fragile world full of broken glass and fists? All those good grades and pieces of paper with extra plus plus plus, all those hours in the library, in front of the screens–you were never alone because of me. I am the one that keeps your lamp fueled. I am the one that makes you run fast enough to stay safe. You would be the child you are, if not for me.
The store becomes very close as a burning ring singes the very top of my head, then recedes, distant and full of angles. Everyone around me becomes a puppet with no hand inside, metal carts full of empty air.
What can be said to this? He’s right, in the end. He is always right, always has been: the hot wind pushing me, keeping me away from others and any danger, out of complexity that confuses and disappoints. But it doesn’t quite fit now, not in the Safeway. Things are different, released, the past in that place where the past goes, harmless as faded pictures. He seems a little tired, hair falling in his face, leaving words out as he repeats himself. That thinnest of lines–the edge between grave drama and pointed comedy–is crossed with such abrupt finesse that it demands a silent moment, in the raucous store and inside my raucous head, to appreciate.
There is nothing to say to him. There never was. In the end, this moment is always coming. What is new is realizing it was already here and always was.
You’ve jumped the shark, I say.
I see ice cream. A kindergartner in a red coat clops by in bright red boots, and the power-saving lights in the glass freezer doors snap on. Double chocolate, cookie dough, Moose Track Mudslide. I feel the river of tumbled screeching no one else hears, but it is behind me. I am remembering the feeling of really good ice cream as the kid runs back and forth, neither speaking nor yelling, just clomp clomp clomp.
I am at the front of the store. The man scans and bags, pronounces my name correctly off the receipt. I am in the parking lot. The car door is open. It is the pink urban dark of cars and buses hissing by, close neon from the stores, people laughing and calling to one another. The incessant tin bell of the Salvation Army guy rings. Everything is very light, drawn with clear lines, and here. It is all right. It is okay. It is the best Safeway parking lot in the world.