Art by Emily McInnis
You wake up later than you wanted to. Pulling yourself out of the grogginess that comes with getting up when you have not yet slept enough, you put on your clothes (black pants, black shirt, black coat, black Doc Martens, probably), try for a solid minute and a half to stop your hair from sticking up in strange places, give up, and rush out the door. That minute and a half ensures that you are late.
You go to class: You talk about Elizabeth Gaskell and how North and South introduces a new type of female protagonist into the canon of Victorian literature, even though you haven’t read as far in her novel as you were supposed to, as you had hoped to. You debate the merits of varying types of sampling methodologies, discuss how integral not only what you research is, but how you research it. You immerse yourself in the craft of a plethora of fiction writers, enveloping yourself in phrases like This shift in point of view marks the internal change taking hold within the character and Speculative fiction allows us to make reality both less and more real.
While studying in the library in the evening, you order a chai latte with almond milk and a lemon poppyseed muffin. You talk to your friends and you say How is it week __ already? and you get invited to grab a meal or play pong or watch a movie and sometimes you go, but other times you pretend you are sick or have an impending deadline because the only thing you feel capable of doing at that moment is taking a purple pilule of melatonin and knocking out. You always regret it, but that less conscious, less social, less dreamy part of your mind is a powerful quarreler.
You dream about far-away places and nearby stories and wish upon a star when you chance to see one falling from its celestial throne. It is always the same wish.
This is the pattern you find yourself in, day after day. These are the ways that the weeks splinter into days and hours and minutes and seconds, until something shifts and you find new ways to sew yourself into the fabric of time; time chips away at old versions of you yet allows you, simultaneously, to grasp onto little bits and pieces of the whirling tangle of people, places, things that surround you until you and time have collaborated in creating the endeavor that is me.
These shifts are few and far between.
This is one of them.
That feeling hits: You cannot quite drift away into sleep, yet you don’t feel fully conscious either.
Maybe it was brought on by a phone call with your mother, tears silently streaming down your face as you focus all the energy you can control on breathing in and out, trying not to let her hear the heaving of your chest. Perhaps you just finished a novel that gutted you, that made you want to dash and bellow and sob because you have just learned the words that go with feelings you had not even yet acknowledged, let alone confronted. Possibly you gave into a burst of impulse and now you are reeling from the inevitable down that follows that thrilling adrenergic high: You called — one after another after another — friends you fell out of touch with and asked them how their lives turned out, you drove (twice) to the beach at 3 o’clock in the morning, you dallied in a graveyard at night, you dyed your hair, you cut your hair, you shaved your head, you walked into the woods alone in the darkness and counted your paces until you were too afraid to go on, measuring, pointlessly quantifying your cowardice, you baked pumpkin muffins that did not quite solidify in the middle, you wrote a list whose every bullet point coincided with a pang in the chest.
Does cause really matter if the effect has nonetheless melded itself to your body, attaching its shape to yours?
Sitting still is an exercise in patience that you do not possess. You borrow your friend’s car and you drive, letting pure intuition dictate the turns you make, the roads you travel. You drive for what could be anything between eight minutes and half as many hours; you don’t know how to distinguish the threads of time anymore.
Somewhere a clock says 3:22 a.m. The colon blinks. Blink, blink, blink. A magic act, of disappearance and reappearance — then, a transmutation: 3:23 a.m.
The trance has ended or maybe just shifted, moved around and adjusted itself, and your hands turn the steering wheel: Left, then straighten out. Something had caught your eye. A neon green sign, cursive script fashioning itself into words: Green Temporalities. You find yourself in its parking lot.
Green. That is the only word your mind finds itself able to formulate, and it is everywhere. Through the tall, curved windows, square myrtle tiles meet emerald walls. Verdant plants find homes for themselves in nooks and crannies, corners and vertices; photographs and paintings adorn the walls; books rest on nearly every horizontal surface in varying quantities. The furniture is mismatched, no table or chair alike: evergreen, mint, honeydew, even Kelly green. The dishware follows suit: china, porcelain, glass, even some stoneware — all green.
These are the shades of growth and decay, you think at last. You open your car door and walk toward the viridian light.
I offer you your choice of seating, tell you your tea will be right out. I am tall, you think, perhaps more in demeanor than in stature. My long, curly brown hair is pulled back from my face, my piercings exposed. Lines in my face map the strengths and frequencies of my feelings. I, too, am clad monochromatically in green, as if I am of this place—or it is of me. It is only after I leave that you realize you never ordered.
Letting your gaze envelop the establishment more leisurely now, you spot an armchair you feel inclined to claim. There are no other patrons at this hour, save a girl in a corner, dressed in worn black sweatpants and a faded, oversized tee, bent over a book, whom you must pass to cross the vestibule of the teahouse, to enter the penetralia of the space.
As you move behind her, you realize she is writing, ink bending itself into letters on the page. Words catch your attention; you recognize them. Pause, turn, stare.
Why do you feel so far away when you are supposed to be the one I am closest to? Why do I feel sad and stressed and anxious when all I want is to rest in your comfort?
Where are you? Where is your peace?
Is it me? Am I the problem, the reason I seem to be held back by the weight of this life while others seem to have no qualms about their purpose in this world? What am I doing wrong?
I don’t want… I don’t want all the choices and all the pain and all the heartbreak and all the monotony and all the fatigue. I want you. Yet I cannot seem to find you.
“These are my words.”
You speak as the realization breaches your mind, the two actions indistinguishable. And of course, prone to anger at what you do not understand, you argue.
“How the hell did you get your hands on my journal? The fact that you would not only steal my intellectual property, but deface it with what I am sure are haphazard half-baked morphemes that you have the audacity to call ideas?”
The girl turns, shoulder-length light brown hair finally moving out of her face. She cannot be more than sixteen, the bones in her face still shifting from child to adult. Brown eyes meet brown eyes: A flash of recognition sparks behind the fire that fuels this verbal spat.
She retorts: “Listen, I have no idea who you are, or what you think you know, but this is and always has been my journal, and I would appreciate it if you would go find someone else to display your delusions to.”
You’re gentler now, though still vexed, indignant, but adjusting for your opponent’s youth. “I know my words; I am those words. And looking into someone’s thoughts, really? This is an invasion of privacy, an infringement of creativity, an instance of depravity —”
“Tea.” That is the only word I offer, the only one I need to deflate the already fading argument. I pass a china cup of mint to her, set down a large stone mug of lemon and ginger in front of you, and arrange a steel tumbler of Earl Grey in front of myself.
These mingling aromas of herbs and leaves are the scent of the realization. I know what you now know, what she will know soon.
A peace offering: “I used to list the things that were wrong with me on sticky notes, to write out where God had made His mistakes. Looking back, I think I wanted to divine some explanation for the fact that when everyone else in church spoke with marvelous wonder of the great love that was God — the joy of having a personal relationship with Him — I could never feel Him. As if, maybe if I could outline what was wrong with me, I could rectify my faults, and then I could be saved the way everybody else seemed to so easily have been.”
As the syllables emitting from some lightless place within you deepen and trail off, the girl looks up, and she knows then too what we already do.
I am you; you are her; she is us.
You reach your hand across the table inquisitively, waiting for approval from a shyer, younger you before sliding the beryl book across the table. You are hungry now for more words, fragments, scraps; I know the feeling.
And soon all this will be lost in the throng of my emotions — how they pound inside my skull without a sound. I wince as I am confronted again and I realize it’s myself causing my pain… So here I don’t know what to say.
“I always did have a flair for the melodramatic, at least in putting pen to paper, huh?” Four eyes narrow in mirth, four corners of the mouth stretch outward, four nostrils exhale in accord. This is how I have always laughed, I suppose.
“That day felt so dismal, and looking back, it really did not need to be,” you grin.
“Intensity is relative, is it not?” A quiet retort, but a fair one. She looks at each of us as she makes her point.
Your fingers are still idly flipping through the book, stopping finally on another page.
Why do I wake up every day and choose to go on? I used to think I knew the answer. At first, it was other people, the ones I knew and the ones I did not, I lived for them, to make the world happier for its inhabitants. Then I thought that perhaps I lived for myself, to make decisions that sparked joy in that inexplicable place inside of me, inviting in a warmth that so often my soul trudged on without. For a while, I thought perhaps I lived because it was the default… Now, I suppose, I do not really know why I keep on for turns upon turns of the earth, for circles around the sun. All I know is that I do.
It hurts, even now, to hear these words — to remember sitting on a floor in the dark typing with my eyes closed, as if to see the letters would be to give them more power than they ought to possess.
You change a lot, but never enough to get entirely away from the feelings that weave through your worst memories. You know this; you hate it; it’s still true.
“I live—” you start, pause, start again. “I live because I believe that what I do not know is more, I don’t know, dynamic than what I do. Or, maybe that does not make sense. I suppose I am trying to say that the experiences I have yet to live through outnumber those I already have, and I have hope that enough of them will turn into memories that I want.” You look at me.
“I believe in something. I am still figuring out what that something is.” My younger selves stare at me; you sip your tea and she tucks her hair behind her ear, covering in disparate ways for the fact that you are both perplexed, but will not call me on it.
I move us along; time may be malleable, but it is not infinite. Reaching over, I part the pages of the journal at random, letting them fall apart.
Boxes. People love them. And they make so many of them — there are boxes for every conceivable trait — hell, even your personality.
I hate boxes.
I know they serve a purpose, at least to some extent. But, I cannot help thinking that I do not even know who I am… so why should other people label me while I am still figuring myself out. Why should —
If it was not bitterly tragic, the fear that you and I both notice in her would almost be comic. I take a gulp of my tea, letting the hot liquid’s flavor and heat bloom across my tongue.
“I am tired.” I could not say who spoke; I doubt it matters. What could I, what could any of us say to each other, that time will not one day tell better than we ever could? We have not said everything, we have not said enough — how could we?
These are the patterns of your mind, the trails you trudge along over and over again. You have walked some steps that she has not, will walk some that I already have. This fact cannot negate that every step gets walked.
It is cruel to seek resolution where there can only be protracted action.
It is her time to go, first, not so much due to the placement of the hands of a clock as to the thoughtful consideration of the poet’s eye. Just because your past, present, and future selves have come together, defying the order of the Universe, does not mean that order has ceased to exist.
When she is gone, back to her section of the elongated string that is time, you look at me, at who you will become.
“You still believe it. Not in the sense of truth, I mean. All the soliloquizing that the world has time for cannot make you stop believing that you are these words, that the steps that separate them and you do not matter. And you are. But they do. There are more steps to take, and there are more words to write. That is the crux of it.”
I do not know that you hear me, but you hand me a slip of paper. It has the kind of etching on it of a desperate grip, a straining to excise thoughts before time banishes them into oblivion. The ink could be verdigris.
Don’t you hate it? This feeling: not quite boredom, but not interest or passion either, like you are moving through the world and things are happening yet somehow you are not quite… connected.
This is the state of being that I am perpetually inhabiting. I want to feel joy when I wake up; yet instead, excitement, thrill, and great emotion all elude me. I am left hollowed out, filled only with the potential of the person that I could be, some other place, some other time, some other people.
There is so much happening in the world, so much to see and hear and touch and taste and smell. Yet here, in my mind, it feels like all that could happen never will, that I will never be the person that I wish I was, or reach that highness in spirits that would carry me over the cavernous, gaping pit of the mundane, the lonely, the disconnect.
I just want to feel something. And maybe by feeling nothing, I am. But it isn’t enough! Will anything ever be enough?
Maybe all I really need is a distraction, but what I would like is a purpose.
Perhaps we don’t all get what we want.
Perhaps life is only this, and the spirit inhabiting my mortal flesh fights the existence it knows is all it has.
So it is the same questions, just as it is always the same unsaid wish; she and you and I never quite escape them. We just learn to live with them under our skin, to conceal them a little better, to care a little less about the answers, even. I see the contours of her, your, our sadness, how they have shifted and reformed. You will go back to your time inspired to return in some senses, to stay gone in others, as will she, as will I. We are the green, the growing, the going.
We lock russet eyes, and I know I do not need to say anything. You have inquiries, curious queries, but you let them disintegrate, dissipating into the realm of the forgotten.
Is that not our fate as well?