The True Mei

  
This is my favorite hour of the day.  I woke up at dawn. I dressed for work in the half-light so I wouldn’t wake my mother.  I went out onto the street, stepping out briskly, matching my speed to that of those around me so as not to be crushed by the crowds.  I taught the children all day, correcting their errors and reminding them of the rules they had memorized. I ate lunch with my fellow teachers, listening to their chatter. At the final bell, I put on my sweater and stepped into the crowds again.  Four blocks to home, my mother’s voice, the smell of dinner cooking.  We watched her favorite program after eating.  It always makes her fall asleep, but she will not go to bed until it is over.  At last the credits roll, the theme song plays, my mother’s snores stop and she bids me good-night.  I am alone with these pages and the brown lamp in the corner.  I can feel the quiet as I gently open the covers and slip into the magic.

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I don’t dare move.  As long as I look like just one more girl in the library, studying hard for exams, I ought to be safe.  I can’t understand a word of this book, though.  The words seem to dance around on the page.  It’s hard to breath. I can hear the boots of the men walking up and down.  Their steps sound angry.  The stolen documents press against my back, itching at the corners.  I must ignore the irritation, as I ignore the sweat that trickles down the back of my neck.  Keep my hands steady on the book.  Keep my face impassive. The heavy tread approaches. Two voices confer in angry mutters.  The men are right behind me now. Can the outline of the papers be seen through my dress? Am I breathing too quickly, too slowly, at all? Does my fear give off a scent that they can detect? Now they pass the table.  Now they continue down the rows of shelves.  Now they are gone.  I grip my book tightly and breath.  The first stage is done.

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It’s hard not to laugh. When the artist posed me on the stage, she didn’t say how long she would need me to stay.   She is the great Madame Clairot.  It seemed presumptious of me to ask, as if I didn’t value the honor of being her model, but now, four hours later, I wish I hadn’t been so delicate. At first there was plenty to think about.  Several visitors stopped by.  There were indecipherable mutters and clearly heard comments on the tidiness of my hair, the size of my nose and ears.  I wanted to lift my head and remind them that I am a living person and not actually a painting yet, but I didn’t.  I kept my eyes on my book, read the same three lines over and over again, tried to ignore the voices.  Then Madame kicked the all out.  I was glad at first, but after a while the silence was even worse.  I can’t even hear Madame painting or breathing or existing at all.  I’m pretty sure she’s fallen asleep.  She is very old now.  Was that…?  Did she just fart?  She did.  She farted.  Twice. It’s so quiet in here I can hear her farts. She must be sleeping then, but at least I know she’s alive.  I must not laugh.  If I start, I’ll never stop, and this job pays too well to lose it.  I think my ribs might crack from holding it in, though.  If she farts again, I’ll lose it for sure.  How much longer should I wait?

Aquiver

aquiverDid you know that no matter where you go in this city, someone within fifty feet of you is filled with anticipation?  Maybe in the house next door or walking by on the sidewalk.  Maybe eating lunch three tables down or riding the elevator past your office.  Never far off.  There’s always someone.  Usually more than one.

Sometimes it’s pure happiness. Tomorrow he comes home! Just two more days until vacation! Sometimes it’s full of hope. Will she say yes? I think they’re going to like my pitch. Sometimes it’s wavering uncertainty. I need this job interview to go well. We’ll be okay if the check comes through in time. Sometimes it’s nothing but dread. What will I do when she finds out? How am I going to tell him? 

All looking forward.  All poised on the edge of something yet to come, and even in the dread a little note of possible escape.  The worst may be out there, but not yet. Not yet.

I used to love this feeling.  The jittery, amped-up, fully-alive feeling.  Your gut is twisting, and you can feel every cell in your body at once.  All poised and ready.  Fight or flight.  Your whole body aquiver with anticipation.

That was before the accident.  When my nerves were my own and lasted only as long as I needed to perform under pressure.  When the hopes and fears of every passerby didn’t press themselves into my psyche.

It was just a normal accident.  It was no one’s fault.  There was no phenomenon of nature or evil chemical involved.  There is no scientific explanation for everything that followed.

I was crossing the street on the crosswalk with the light green.  The man on the bike was crossing the opposite way.  The woman in the car was turning left.  A bee flew in her open window.  She was understandably distracted.  She hit him first and then me.  The two of us were thrown.  I broke both arms and my collar bone.  He broke one leg.  She was distraught and apologetic.  Her insurance paid for everything. I was in the hospital for one night, in an upper body cast for six weeks, and in physical therapy for three months.  No one’s idea of fun but not particularly life-changing, either.

And yet.

The quivering began immediately.  Naturally, I thought at first the response was just my own.  I had been in an accident. I was scared and I was injured. Of course my heart raced.  Of course I felt sick.

But it didn’t pass.  The more people who arrived on the scene, the more amped I felt.  I should have been reassured by the ambulance, by the presence of paramedics calmly telling me everything would be okay.  Instead, I felt thrills passing through me.  In the hospital, I was sedated while they set my broken bones.  When I came out of it, my stomach was twisting with nerves, even while the doctors told me the worst was past and that I would make a full recovery of all functions, as would everyone else involved.  I felt no relief.  I was too worried that my kid was going to be kicked out of school.

I don’t have any kids.

For a person with my condition, a hospital is a nightmare. I’ve said before that there’s nowhere in the city to go to escape anticipation, but in a hospital, hope and fear permeate every person in every room.  Everyone is waiting for news.  Everyone is wondering how long they have to live.  Everyone is worried about how they will pay. Even the doctors and nurses are filled with adrenalin.  This feeling compounds itself.  That inner quiver became uncontrollable trembling.  After one night there, my apartment seemed like a paradise, even with my anxious neighbors on every side.

Do you have any idea what it’s like to be filled with adrenalin all the time?  That rush you get, heady and strong, making you feel invincible?  When it’s always there, you don’t feel powerful.  You don’t feel ready for action.  You don’t feel like you.  You feel desperate.  You feel paranoid.  You feel like you’re going crazy.

My skin itches all the time.

The doctors have no explanation for any of this.  I’ve seen all kinds: neurologists, endocrinologists, psychologists.  They all tell me different versions of the same story.  This is in my head.  This is a temporary result of trauma.  This will pass.  And while they tell me this, I can feel them worrying about the lawsuit that is pending and looking forward to a weekend in Vegas.

I’ve stopped seeing doctors.

I have a couple theories of my own, though there’s no way to tell which one may be true.  One is that this ability was always inside of me.  That getting thrown over the hood of a car and smacking into concrete-covered ground jarred it loose.  My mother always said I was a sensitive child.

The other involves the man and the woman who were with me.  I made a point of talking to them after.  I said I wanted to make sure they were okay, to let them know that I didn’t blame them.  That wasn’t untrue.

Over tea, they told me things.  The woman was on her way to lunch with her sister, who had news to share.  She was pretty sure that her sister was going to tell her she had cancer.  She wasn’t wrong.

The man  on the bike was training for a triathlon. He was planning to fly to Seattle the next day for the race, where he would be meeting an old friend.  This old friend was a woman he had never thought he would see again, and he had dreamed of her for years.

So now I can’t help but wonder: was it this that changed me? Am I the result of this unexpected collision of hope and dread?

Eventually I left the city.  Found a small place in the woods where no one else was near.  It’s peaceful there. No hopes but my own that I will catch a fish that afternoon.  No fears but the passing thought that someone may decide to go hiking nearby.  I can rest.

I never knew how important rest could be.

Still, I go back.  When my mind is clear and my body has lost its tension, I make a trip to the city.  Because I need supplies?  Not really.  Anything I need can be delivered in this magical age.  Because I’m lonely? Maybe, though that word has taken on new meaning to me.

Mostly I go back hunting.  Hunting for those who need someone to share their joy.  Hunting for those who have no one to help bear their fears.  Hunting for the meaning of it all.

There must be a reason for what has happened to me.  Someday I will find it.

Someday.