My head hangs down as I lean forward, white-knuckling the edge of the bathroom sink. I feel my stomach twist and turn, and I grimace, struggling to hold my breakfast down.
I lift my head and open my eyes. I look rough. My eyes are dark pits in my skull, my mouth a crooked red slash across the bottom of my face. When I blink, my eyelids are like sandpaper, the grit scraping the surface of my eyeballs.
I close my eyes and drop my head.
When I open my eyes again I stagger, the sink somehow escaping my grip, and I stand on the rocky shore of an unknown lake in the middle of the night. The stars spill across the sky, and I know why it’s called the Milky Way.
The air is so still around me, but I see the trees on the other side of the lake wave their branches in a slight breeze. The breeze ripples the surface of the water and makes its way to me, riffling the hair that lies across my forehead. It’s cool and clean and crisp, and I breathe it in greedily.
I turn to my right, and the moon hangs full in the sky.
I blink, and I’m standing in front of the mirror again, away from the sink. The urge to sit in the bathtub and slit my wrists is gone, for now, and the smell of that nighttime breeze still fills my nostrils with hope.
I felt off when I clocked out at work last night. It didn’t wipe the end-of-my-shift-screw-you-guys grin off my face, but there was still this tiny collapsing place inside my chest where things should have been perfectly normal. It didn’t go away when I got home, either.
I sat on the couch until four o’clock in the morning eating ice cream straight from the carton and watching YouTube videos on how to groom llamas, which is normally a surefire crowd pleaser in this household, thankyouverymuch, but it didn’t work.
I say I only sat there until four because that’s my best estimate of when I passed out and dropped the ice cream to melt onto my favorite rug. That kind of pissed me off when I woke up with a crick in my neck and my ice cream spoon rattling against my molars. The spot of warmth snuggled up in the crook of my knees told me that my cat, Amelia, hadn’t given up on me just yet, though.
I sat up and swung my feet to the floor, and that’s when I found the ice cream. I made sure to thank Amelia for slacking in the dark of night. She meowed and walked away. I always knew she didn’t care about that rug. She pukes on it nearly every day. This morning the only thing on the rug was ice cream, so I guess I should have counted myself lucky. But I didn’t.
I stood up and felt that hollow space inside my chest again, aching for attention, but I didn’t know what kind of attention to give it. It didn’t feel like loneliness, or panic, or anxiety, or depression, or any one of the hundred bad things I had experience with.
So I did what I rend to do in these situations.
I ignored it.
I stumbled into the kitchen to grab a towel for the ice cream, but first I opened the fridge and took a good slug of OJ straight from the jug. I don’t have a lot to do with plates and bowls at home. I do know how to behave in public, though, so don’t worry about that. When I put the orange juice back on the top shelf of the fridge, I noticed that I still had an egg carton sitting there, which was weird.
I could have sworn that I’d eaten the last egg a couple days earlier, so I pulled the carton out and set it on the counter. I didn’t bother to open it. The weight already told me that it was empty, that I’d simply been too lazy or inattentive to throw it away instead of putting it back into the fridge to tease myself with the promise of eggs.
I’m such an asshole sometimes.
Amelia meowed at my feet and rubbed against my leg, and I leaned down to pet her and noticed that she waws only announcing that she had recently vomited on the very edge of the carpet, millimeters from the much more easily cleaned linoleum. That cat, I swear. She’s going to be the death of me one day. Probably in some highly unusual way.
I grabbed the dishtowel from the counter and took a step toward the living room to clean up the ice cream, and that’s when it hit me. It was my damn birthday. That’s what that feeling in my chest was all about. Now that I’d realized it was my birthday, I did recognize its unique emptiness and flutterings of nobody cares-ness.
I tried to shrug it off. Nobody knew or cared about my birthday anymore. I had no family and no friends, and i wouldn’t let any of my coworkers get close enough to me to know if I’d worn the same shirt the day before. For some reason, this year it didn’t work. I tried to push the whole thing to the back of my mind and continued to the living room.
I scrubbed the ice cream stain for a few moments, my knees reddening from the rough carpet fibers grinding into the tender skin. Finally , I dropped the towel and turned to plop myself on the couch, where I dropped my head into my hands and sobbed. As usual, Amelia failed to come and offer me any hint of comfort. She watched me from the opposite corner of the couch, expressionless as only a cat can be.
Jennifer wheeled around at a sudden noise, but it was only her cat, Scandal, rubbing his body against the vase of flowers that she’d brought home from work yesterday. The odd texture of the vase made a new and interesting sound against the softness of Scandal’s winter-white coat. She let the sponge fall from her hand into the basin of the kitchen sink and turned to pet her best friend.
He purred and arched his back into her hand, enjoying the caress. Jennifer thought to herself how she needed to spend more time at home and with this magnificent creature, but even thinking that brought a frown to her face and caused her hand to droop mid-stroke. Scandal spun round and ducked his head beneath her hand, but it was too late. Her mood had darkened, and now she only glumly slid her hand down his back from nose to tail a couple of times before sinking to the floor.
Jennifer’s depression was not news to Scandal, so he hopped down from the counter and curled up beside her leg, purring softly and steadily. The sound comforted Jennifer, and it wasn’t long before she found the energy to rise and pick Scandal up from the floor to replace him on the counter top next to her cleaning chores. He continued to purr, leaning over every now and then to bump her elbow with his furry side. She smiled at the comfort he was able to provide her.
Phil was an emotional wreck.
He peered out the window for a brief instant before twitching the blinds back into place. No one was going to show. He knew it in his heart. He put out a hand to catch himself on the arm of his favorite easy chair, but missed, and collapsed all the way to the floor. He curled up, hugged his knees to his chest, and began bawling his eyes out.
A knock on the door startled him, and he rose quickly, dashing the tears from his face with the heel of his right hand. When he opened the door, His lips moved, but no sound escaped to welcome his sister and her new husband to his home.
“Hey Phil!” cried his sister Lynette. she took a step into his domain and dropped her purse on the table next to the door before squeezing his ribs ever so tightly. “This is Robert, I’m sure you remember that.” She gestured Robert to come inside as she sidled Phil gently out of the way and softly closed the door.
Robert stuck out a hand. “Nice to finally meet you, buddy.” He smiled broadly, a smile that began to wilt when Phil failed to grasp his hand or even speak at an audible volume.
“Don’t worry, hon,” Lynette patted her husband on his upper arm. “Phil gets a little freaked out when he has company. Why don’t we all go sit down in the living room?” She led the two men into the adjacent room and settled Phil on his easy chair before ushering Robert to one end of the couch. She took the other end.
Phil teased a stray bit of string from the upholstery with his forefinger and thumb, refusing to look up at the invaders on his couch. He suddenly regretted ever buying that couch. If he hadn’t gotten a couch, there would be nowhere for them to sit, and then perhaps they wouldn’t have come at all. They wouldn’t be invading his sanctuary.
When he finally looked up, the couch was gone, and the floor was dusty in the spot where it never was. A single tear followed in the tracks already left on Phil’s face as he realized that he’d done it again.
He’d forgotten that he was an only child.
Claude pressed the door closed behind him, gently, so gently. The silence in his apartment was a heavy blanket that he came home to every night, once warm and comforting, now growing threadbare and itchy. He laid his keys softly in the wooden bowl on the table by the door.
Six steps to the end of the couch and a right turn. two steps and a left into the cubbyhole of a kitchen. A single glass from the cabinet above the dishwasher, a single paper plate from the neighboring cabinet. Claude stared at the paper plate a moment before returning it to the cabinet, his lack of hunger making the decision easy.
Ice from the freezer clattered into the glass, the sound shattering the silence with its knife-sharp assault on Claude’s eardrums. He cringed and weighed the bottle of whisky in his hand before twisting the cap off and filling the glass halfway. The grating of the metal cap on the glass bottle felt like fingernails on a chalkboard, but it was the price he paid to get to sleep at night. He tugged on the refrigerator door at the proper angle to keep the handle from coming off and topped off his glass with Coke.
The first sip was cold and bitter; Claude made the same face he’s made a thousand times before, wincing away from the taste, but compelled to return for more. He placed the glass back on the counter and leaned forward, eyes closed, his hands to either side of the glass, until his forehead touched the coolness of the cabinet door. The posture brought him no comfort, and he stood upright again. He took the glass with him to sit in his recliner.
A right out of the kitchen, three steps to the end table, and one more to his chair, soft and inviting. He sank down into its welcoming embrace and began to drink away the loneliness that threatened to engulf him completely in its darkness. Left foot, then right foot, he hooked his toes into the backs of his shoes and kicked them off, letting them fall to the floor, tumbling to rest against the base of the low coffee table that had never seen a cup of coffee.
And he wept, gently, so gently, fearing more than anything to disturb the blanket of silence under which he had lived for so long.