I had so many cups of coffee today that I think I’ve developed an ulcer. There is some sort of bloated knot in my stomach and all I have to show for it is bad breath. If anything, the weight of the acid had dragged me down, and I feel even slower than I did this morning when I sat on the subway, staring at my own face in the window across the way, thinking “Hello, 1 train. Hello, you.”
I wonder if this is what pregnancy feels like, the heft and the bloat and the drag. I’m not pregnant. I would know if I was. I have always been extra sensitive, always a feeler in the worst sense of the word.
Everyone on the subway this morning looked drained except the tourists. You can always tell, because no one else could be bubbling over with such emotion, so much visible anticipation and zeal that it makes you feel sick to be awake so early to have an ordinary day. Their excitement probably cripples their ability to absorb anything real. “Hello 1 train!” their wide-eyes shout. “Hello, you!”
When we moved to New York we moved quickly, one after another, in what felt like years apart but was really week to week, our arrivals stacked together like holes in a belt. I don’t know where we came from. We were temp-to-perm assistants. We were broke. We were free — subsisting off of open bars and leftover lunches, crashing on one another’s couches, sleeping on mattresses hoisted above suitcases stuffed with clothes. We didn’t know much, but we knew our next apartment wouldn’t have mice. And we knew how to go and go and go, working and drinking and sleeping around through hangovers, through head colds, through deaths in the family, through all the strangers underground. We spent the beginnings of our paychecks on vodka and the last of it on a therapist, who gathered that we drank more than we would ever say, because she knew how to read our early on-set wrinkles and our breath, and she knew that everything we said was either too true or not really true at all.
There’s a scene in the movie Office Space where our hero shows up to work late, only to flop a giant fish on his desk and begin to gut it.
Believe me when I tell you that I replay that scene in my head frequently, relishing his calm, easy where-with-all to debone that fucker on his pile of reports.
I thought about that scene today twice, reminding myself that the futility of life should not be determined by the frustration of your work. Work angst is such a spoiled, fucked up problem of the well-abled. It is practically a commodity, nearly a good as silver, almost as semi-precious as a gutted fish when you’re hungry.
Some things never change. Those things don’t exist in New York.
I walk down Columbus Avenue with the dog pulling against the leash, racing past drunks and couples and the old man who lives downstairs. We blow through the intersection, the dog frantic now, practically sprinting forward and forward and forward through the city. We get to the pet store, and she tries to go in. It’s one in the morning, I tell her. It’s not open. She wags her tail, an act of naïveté or defiance.
(Three years ago I ran down Avenue A drunk and bewildered and reaching out for everything and anything and waiting for someone to watch me fall. By the time I hit 8th Street, he was there, of course. I was running to him in some sped-up tragicomedic scene playing out in the movie of my head.)
The wind picks up and the dog’s ears blow back slightly. She whines and paws at the pet store. I gently tug at her, and then use a bit more force to try and yank her away.
The kids at the bar smile. They are outside, waving around cigarettes and hunting down cabs. One of them approaches the dog, already on his knees. She ignores him, desperate to go inside the pet store. The guy could be my age, but from the crowd at the bar, I assume he’s younger. His jeans are tight and torn. He pets the dog’s head and scrambles away, his cigarette stuck against his bottom lip, his tail between his legs. The dog looks away.
We begin the slow walk home, across the avenue, to our apartment. She will eventually lie down on the corner of my bed, her head pressed up against my ankles, the same happy-sad expression on her soft, sleeping face.
Chest pain like this isn’t normal but neither is my career history. Six different positions in six different years. The shortest, a handful of months at a famous fashion magazine, may have been the best. The longest, two and a half years at a lesser-known weekly indie rag, may have been just as good, but I was too underpaid and resentful to know it at the time.
The resentment is usually what causes my chest pain. The overwhelming fury paired with raw, youthful frustration.
I also developed an ache in my jaw, and a stiffness in my neck.
My boss — my most current of the lot — told me the other day I come off like a know-it-all. He said I don’t have to prove myself in meeting. I already got the job, he told me. Sometimes it’s more important to listen.
He’s right. Of course he’s right. I’m bitter, but I’m no idiot. If I was an idiot I wouldn’t let the anger creep up my throat. I wouldn’t pick at my fingernail beds in meetings, trying to shut myself up, trying to remind myself it’s just a job.
It is, after all, just a job. And the economy is rumored to be miserable for the unemployed. Which makes me, what, overemployed? Overpaid? Overwhelmed? Overfed? It’s just a job, don’t forget. I tell myself that over, and over again, smiling and nodding, willing the heat in my cheeks to fade, waiting for that pain in my chest to give.
We can’t live in the city, it’s too expensive and we would slowly turn into those people, the kind who empty their wallets just to breathe in their own private air. Even if we could afford it, we wouldn’t.
Renting feels almost like permanence, anyway. A year is enough of a promise to make. I don’t know what we would do if we went any father.
We say the country like it’s unachievable because what would we do there? we ask, not thinking about the bars or subway but rather desk jobs and salaried positions that don’t mean anything outside of a five-block radius downtown. It’s not like we have any real skills. It’s not like someone upstate is going to pay me to tell them jokes and write succinct tweets.
Running away could work. We could be entirely different people. I’d die my hair and be someone’s something. But I don’t know what he’d do, what someone he could something, and I just don’t know where we’d live.
It was always cold in the house I grew up in. I didn’t realize it for years. I wore heavy hooded sweatshirts and socks, always socks, up until it warmed up in May. The water used take forever to get warm, and I’d do anything to avoid washing my hands with a plank of bar soap under the cold water.
The house was too big to heat well. A two-story wall of windows faced out into the backyard, and the winter seemed to creep in through the glass. The family room’s old, scratched leather couch felt like ice. The fireplace was rarely lit, except for special occasions or when my father came home early from work. The draft came down the chimney next to the couch, so I would curl up on one end with a too-small knit blanket and watch hours of tv until my mom sent me upstairs my for bath.
I remember watching an old Bugs Bunny short when he gets into a cauldron of hot water and dips one toe slowly in, and then gently eases the rest of himself into the boiling pot. I sat on the toilet waiting for the water to get so hot I’d burn my toes. Then I’d fold myself into the bath like Bugs Bunny and let the water creep up to my chin. After half an hour, my mom would climb up the stairs and pound on the door, saying I’d run the well dry. I didn’t care. I didn’t really understand what a well was, and even if I did I would have stayed there, my ankles turning pink under the faucet, the room steaming up so the wall paper curled at the edges. Then I dropped a bar of soap in and let the bath turn translucent. I dipped my head under and the water whooshed into my ears, drowning all the sounds but the churn of water flooding in and out of the tub.
After, I wrapped myself in three towels. Always three — one wrapped around my body and tucked under my arms, one spread over my shoulders, and the third swept up so my hair didn’t drip. And then the door would open, and the cold air rushed into the bathroom, and the steam poured out. I’d stay warm for just a few more moments longer until the cold house enveloped me again.