My mother has a beard.
My sister deals drugs.
My brother performs exorcisms.
I never wear underwear.
I have masturbated in public places.
Once she had started the list she could not stop:
I’ve never really loved anyone (not really).
I have planned my own death.
And on and on and on. “Two Truths and a Lie”—that was the assignment her supervisor had written on the board at the last department meeting the week before. “A fun assignment!” Then she passed around an empty shoe box.
It was a team-building exercise, the supervisor said. Everyone made a list, put it in the box, then took turns pulling out slips of paper and reading them aloud and guessing who the author was. So, put on the spot, without the time to gather her wits and a strategy, she had listed what came to her first—she had put down all of those things. She could have said anything, anything at all. But she’d written that list. It didn’t matter in the end. The writing was always on the wall of whatever office she’d ever found a job in. Nothing was ever permanent for her.
Her supervisor later told her what she wrote was inappropriate for the workplace environment.
“Because I didn’t put down a lie?” she asked. Then, “Because I put down more than three?”
She ended up getting reprimanded and was told next time it would be probation. Probation! She didn’t last long after that. It was difficult for her to stay employed at any one place for too long—six months, maybe (a year, tops). This job had lasted five. There were certain things she had liked: the quiet atmosphere; the view from the sixth floor—the fiery blooms of Gold Medallion trees, the clouds mirrored in the high-rises; the limitless popcorn. But mostly the quiet. When it came to interacting with coworkers, she thought she had figured that out pretty well: Maintain a pleasant demeanor, nod, smile. She wore conservative clothes, in neutral colors, and very little jewelry: a watch, a simple silver chain with a silver pendant. She kept her eyes on her computer; she kept to herself. She tried to fit in and pretend she had a good work ethic. She knew it was impossible to expect that any job would offer the solace of a peaceful place to sit for a few hours during the day, where no one demanded too much of her or looked at her for too long or criticized or yelled at her, though that was what she secretly wanted. But then her fucking supervisor had to go and make up that fucking game and after that the jig was up, the artifice of belonging and toeing the line and fitting in crumpled at her feet, dissolving into ash while she stood there with all pretense abandoned.
She’d come in that morning as usual, been given a data entry assignment, and then evacuated the building with the rest of the employees for a fire drill. The alarm screeched throughout various departments, startling workers half asleep in a Monday-morning haze. The memo about the fire drill had circulated the week before.
Two fire trucks parked in front of their building while workers politely streamed out of the stairwell in single file. The clanging in the stairwell echoed after them as they walked toward the designated safe area two blocks away and then lined up on the curb while the firefighters conducted a mock drill. Safety Monitors with clipboards walked around calling names and checking them off a list. One of the Safety Monitors was an earnest recent college graduate who’d been hired the month before. He got to put on a fluorescent orange-and-yellow safety vest and do roll call, something he seemed to relish. “Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” were the words that popped into her head. She raised her hand and said, “Here!” when he called her name. She bumped shoulders with a woman she’d never seen before, who smiled at her apologetically, then told her that it was her last day. The woman was clearly excited, not at all depressed about it, even though she indicated she didn’t have another job lined up.
“I’m gonna do what I’m meant to do,” she said. “I’m gonna follow my bliss.”
How does anyone actually know what they are meant to do? How does that happen? How are you supposed to figure that out on your own?
“Truth is, I am so happy today that it hurts!” said the woman. She seemed genuine.
She wanted to ask the woman what that was like, being so happy that it hurt, but the woman moved on sideways through the crowd, all waiting patiently for the whistle to blow to return to their desks somewhere in that lifeless fifteen-story building on Eighth Street.
Now it was noon, she was back at her cubicle. She stared out the window, then at the stack of documents next to her keyboard, flipped through the pages a little, then stared out the window again. She’d brought lunch, some leftover chicken and carrots from the night before, but she wasn’t hungry. Mostly she didn’t want to sit in the break room with the other employees—and besides, there were no windows in the break room. The little placard that had been hung on the wall next to her computer upon her arrival was crooked, so she straightened it; it had been left blank. She should have followed that woman chasing her bliss. She could have gleaned something from her, maybe. Maybe she had some kind of key, some kind of truth.
What’s the idea of me? she wondered. What am I meant to mean?
Mostly she spent her time at her desk searching the internet for various items of interest, suited to her moods and whims. A list of charming words for nasty people, for instance. She put the words and their definitions on 8x5 index cards and carried them in her purse to study while riding the city buses or waiting at the dentist: rapscallion, cad, knave, scallywag, ruffian, reprobate. Or words she didn’t recognize at all, like padawan. She kept a smaller notebook in her purse for arbitrary lists that would occur to her, like her list of common assumptions: People with white beards are wise; people with white beards are wizards. Or, if a phrase came to mind—“Well, the writing’s on the wall”—then she would want to look up the etymology of that phrase. Where did it come from and why did it portend some kind of doom? Was it because cavemen wrote on cave walls to communicate danger—pictures of dangerous beasts? Was it because of political slogans and propaganda? Was it simply the idea that if the writing was on the wall you could see it better than writing on a slip of paper? Little tasks she engaged in like this brought her some fleeting happiness—not a put-on-your-party-hat-and-shimmy kind of happiness (not that she ever shimmied anymore; had she ever shimmied at all?), but the same kind of happiness she felt when the sun shone on her face or when she’d climb into her freshly laundered sheets on Sunday night, sinking deeply into them, squeezing into herself tightly, holding her breath, letting go: a deep satisfaction. She knew she was alive in those moments—aware of her muscles, aware of her own pulse, both sound and sensation. That was both comforting and frightening, mysterious and factual. Wasn’t that being alive? Was knowing you were alive the same as being happy? Could she ever say, “I am so happy it hurts” like that woman she’d met outside during the fire drill? She didn’t think so.
The bus had been crowded that morning, as it always was at 8 a.m. A science magazine had been left behind on the bus seat and she picked it up in order to scoot next to the window. Inside were images from the new and improved Hubble Telescope…
The Pillars of Creation stretch about five light-years and are some seven thousand light-years from Earth. The original Pillars of Creation photograph, taken in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope, is one of the most magnificent and evocative images ever seen. A new image recently released by NASA is even more stunning. It is both a sharper and larger image that gives scientists an opportunity to have a more comprehensive understanding of both the creative and destructive powers within the Pillars.
How do you put yourself in perspective next to a Pillar of Creation? It was almost too overwhelming to comprehend. And those images were breathtaking, were unreal and too real all at once. She thought about the depth of silence in space. No sound. No vibrations. If only she could feel that quiet inside. She longed for an embracing darkness, a comfortable emptiness. She stared at the photographs, willing them to uncork her, somehow, to dislodge her from her stasis, to shake her loose, but to no avail. She could not cross that abyss this morning. Maybe never. The bus stopped in front of her office building and she stepped onto the sidewalk and into the day ahead.
Riding in the elevator down to the lobby, she saw Roger, the very tall man she’d met on her first day there. He had never looked her in the eye, but today he did, and she told him, “I admire you, Roger.” He looked surprised at the mention of his name. “You told me your name the first day I came here, my first day on the job. I’ve only ever seen you in this elevator, and I like how you keep to yourself. I’m that way, too. Well, I got fired today, Roger, so it’s funny because I see you coming in and I see you going out. Can’t say it was nice to know you since I don’t know you. But you seem like a nice man. You seem to like your job.” The elevator doors opened.
“What are you, six-four?” she asked.
“And a half,” he replied.
She walked onto the shiny lobby floors for the last time, her flats landing gingerly on the pinkish slabs flecked with black and gray. “Keep your eyes on what’s in front of you, Girlie, and lift your feet,” she told herself, walking out into the street. When she spoke to herself, which was often, she called herself that—Girlie. “Girlie,” she’d say, “don’t be so silly!” “You can do it, Girlie!” “C’mon, Girlie, buck up!” “You go, Girlie!”
She remembered how, the weekend before, everything had backed up all at once in her apartment: the kitchen sink, the toilet, the shower. There was no flow, the plumber had said, like it was a metaphor. So maybe getting fired was a blessing in disguise. “You’re not flaky, Girlie,” she said. “You’re just restless.”
The day was bright, the air dry. It was late February but it may as well have been spring, the weather was so mild that afternoon. She headed down Ninth Street, past the flower shop toward the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Usually there were children there, nearby, at a playground. Something she could watch, something she could focus on, that’s what she needed right now. She sat on a bench. She knew that she should be grateful to have had a job—and she was grateful, in her way. She even kept a Gratitude List—another of her lists—with all the things that she was grateful for written there…but somehow that never helped her keep the jobs she did get. Gratitude is a muscle, she told herself. It has to be exercised. The list was her way of doing that very thing: I am grateful for the smell of night-blooming jasmine, she wrote, for the color green. I am grateful for the warmth of the bus in the morning. But how was she to reconcile her small gestures in the grand scheme of things? Why did she lack the internal navigation device that others seemed to possess? She felt slightly nauseated. The back of her neck began to sweat. She felt she was, somehow, herself and the homeless man she’d been observing—discreetly, of course. She felt heavy and earthbound and needed to close her eyes. She could smell the sunbaked grass like the man on the ground sleeping must have been able to smell it, since his face rested there. His limbs looked heavy, she could almost feel it, as if they were her limbs. She felt the ground cracking beneath her, opening up silently. Her synapses weren’t snapping right.
Two truths and a lie, two lies and a truth. The truth was, she didn’t know the difference anymore. A pigeon swooped down and began pecking the ground alarmingly close to her feet. Eventually she fell asleep on the park bench.
When she awoke she was back standing on the curb where she had stood earlier in the day, during the fire drill, except that she was the only one there. It was as bright as it had been that morning, as if the day had paused. The sun hadn’t passed over to the west side of the building, as it should have done by now, casting the happy-hour shadow she’d come to expect; no shadow this time, and so she stood in the full light. She looked down at her person: Everything seemed to be in order. Her purse hung across her body by its long strap, her shoes were on her feet, she was wearing her sweater. What was she doing there? This was where she had lined up earlier in the day with coworkers, the designated area, only now it felt not so safe. She headed back to the office, entered the elevator and rode to the sixth floor. No one was in the lobby, no one in the elevator. In fact, she hadn’t passed a single person on the street or seen a bus or a car. She exited the elevator, walked down the hallway, then entered the office where she previously—currently?—worked. Her cubicle was where it had been before, as were all the other cubicles of her coworkers. Only, here again, not a single person was in sight. She crossed to her desk chair and sat down. How peculiar to be here when no one else was. She had thought that this was a quiet place to work, but now she realized, in the absence of any and all office noises, it had never been devoid of sound. There was the whir of the refrigerator from the break room, the low hum of the air conditioner, the tap-tap-tapping of computer keys, the ringing of phones, the din of conversation in the background, the wump-brrr-wump-brrr-wump of the copy machine. Occasional coughs and sneezes. Occasional laughter. The clicking open and slamming shut of the hallway door, the clomping of certain people’s footsteps, the jangling of others’ bracelets and keys. Only in the absence of all these workaday noises did she realize their prevalence. Strange. Maybe this is what it sounds like in space, she thought. Could it possibly be too quiet? Experiencing what she thought she always yearned for—actual solitude, utter quiet—left her feeling strangely disoriented.
She sat very still in her desk chair. The weight of the bones in her face, in her neck, in her shoulders and arms, fixed her to that chair. What did she believe in? What did she have faith in? Well, she had faith in her desk chair. She had faith when she had crossed the space of the office to her chair and sat on it that it would hold her up—was that a kind of faith? She gazed at the computer’s dark screen, searching for her reflection there. The screen was black; there was no sign of her at all—not an outline or form, nothing. Maybe she wasn’t even there. Was she even there? Not knowing is a very hard thing for the mind to handle, she thought.
Then the idea occurred to her: Maybe she was meant to sit in that chair at that cubicle for the rest of her life. Her hair would gradually turn white and she’d sprout whiskers on her chin and upper lip. Her eyesight would grow blurry, her voice would become thin and chirpy, like a paper cricket, and then her lips would crack. She would become more and more immobile, first from her waist down, then from her neck down, like she was gradually being buried in years of office routines and platitudes. Then again, maybe if she sat still long enough, the earth would yield her, would let her go—maybe she would simply drift up into the blue sky. Or maybe this was some kind of deep, extended sleep; maybe she would wake up here in her desk chair at her cubicle thirty years from now, like Rip van Winkle, and think, Well, it comes slowly, but we become what we are meant to be, just like a tree or a river or a mountain. Just like a life. She was just living her little life. Wasn’t that enough?