Ish: A Tale of Neurosis
By Ashley, age 24, Massachusetts
Sweet Designs Staff Intern
Editor's Note: Parts 1 & 2 of this story can be found together in the August 2009 issue.
The door was open. Tonight was her night. Running, Alicia hopped onto the floor of the uncharacteristically empty subway car. Feeling an aberration of calmness, despite the chill of winter stabbing her veins intravenously, she sat in the first seat she saw, a single normally preoccupied by a fatigued businessman or a lonesome geriatric.
She crossed her legs triumphantly and turned the world off via her headphones. A variety of city dwellers entered the car, each one coming into focus vis-à-vis a sense of individuality, whether they preferred to admit to it or not. An Elvis Costello doppelganger, sans glasses, surrendered his seat to his portly Bohemian girlfriend. A college student chewed his gum smugly whilst he flaunted his low-cut tank top and impressive pectoral cleavage. A female college student wearing scant jeans that yielded to overflowing knobs of affection laughed vociferously amongst her equally inebriated companions. To the secret sounds of "Piano Man" emanating from Alicia's ears did these strangers intersect. They mingled like figures in a painting, bound intimately within the artist's psyche, yet never knowing quite the impression they will have drawn from their invisible spectator. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to momentarily fade from the world and its insecurities that had bothered her throughout the week. Peace was finding its place in the midst of bedlam. This once elusive feeling of unflustered joy had been provoked by the rush of the city just as she once had been.
"Next stop - Boston University West," interrupted an automated nuisance.
With a surrendering sigh, she rose and sauntered onto the asphalt. She walked calmly across the sidewalk, the three-inch heels on her leather boots tapping soundlessly as if by some miracle. The moonlight, a constant downstage fixture, shone a path to the front of her apartment building that was made strangely luminous and not at all isolated. Alicia glided up her stairwell and was standing in her tiny studio apartment on the third and highest floor of the brownstone. She removed her outfit languidly as she stopped every now and then to bite her newly long fingernail that had unpredictably grown wild in spite of her unfortunate habit. Clad in simply a matching bra and panty set and paradoxical boxer shorts, she lay on her bed in comfortable exhaustion.
Beep, beep, beeeeeep.
Alicia knew imminently the origin of the vulgar noise. Frank, a gentleman caller with a third-rate moniker, had passive aggressively sent her a text message on her cell phone. She did not know what she despised more, the fact that the nincompoop who was the causation of the most awkward evening of her life was sending her insignificant messages on the basis of efficiency or that courtship rituals have been reduced from suited gentlemen holding flowers to boys in sweatpants who typed "How R U?" into a telephone the size of a communion wafer. Alicia silently cursed Alexander Graham Bell. Perhaps she was the one who was corrupted by the novels and films she was so enamored of, the fictional stories that became truth in her mind, the precedents that no man or acquaintance could ever live up to. She was right about one thing, however. The glowing screen of her "archaic" cellular phone as big as a Post-It note displayed a singular message:
Going out tonight?
Stupid dwarf, she thought. Alicia had an interview for a teaching position early tomorrow morning, but even if she did not, she would rather spend a night alone with her favorite person as opposed to feigning interest in the nonsense that some blank-faced nitwit calls his life whilst staring at some concert posters of some band she has never heard of in some seamy bar surrounded by a bunch of plaid button-down shirt clad idiots from some fraternity. No, she was not cynical; she was stagnant. It was three and a half months since she had graduated from the nearby university. Wandering between social constructs and the categorical imperative, she had forgotten to find her own direction. Her interview the next day was at her former high school, a strictly Catholic institution. She could not decide whether returning to her alma mater was a sign that she was starting to regress, and if she should just hop on the next train to Walla Walla, Schenectady, or any other town with an unusual name. Then she remembered that she had a lease.
Enveloped in the cool sheets, Alicia awoke promptly at seven o'clock with sincerest gratitude to her alarm clock. Her interview was at eleven, but it was forty-five minutes by car, which meant that she had to leave a few minutes before ten (it is proper to be at least fifteen minutes early when meeting with a potential employer). Plus, she had to shower and she wanted no time constraints. Time constraints lead to anxiety, which lead to unfortunate errors in judgment. Thus, each destination she planned for herself would involve at least a three-hour journey of narcissism. Alicia referred to her preferred outlet of narcissism as "mirrortalk", which was essentially a therapy session she would have with her own reflection encased in the bathroom vanity. It is, no doubt, an action extremely crucial to her sanity, as the only criticism she is open to is invariably her own.
Dressed in a black knee-length pencil skirt that was only discreetly sexy due to her pairing it with a tailored, bright white Oxford shirt, she slipped on a pair of worn-in black pumps and her giant dark glasses that made her nose slightly smaller by comparison. She rehearsed her entrance in her hallway mirror, the bottom of her most academic overcoat swinging against her nylons, rehearsing her steps until she reached the train station. She was due to meet her mother at half past nine so that she could be driven to the interview. Because of this, Alicia secretly hoped her former school would not offer her the position so that she would not be compelled to live at home.
She clicked her heels daintily against the sidewalk, knowing full well her feet would be in need of rehabilitation much later. She stepped quickly into the café across from the trolley, a locale that looked as though it could suddenly transform into a nightclub at midnight. Amidst wall hangings displaying portraits advertising the historic concerts of classic musicians and films from the 1950s, Alicia always felt as though she stepped into the musical Grease!, especially since the floor was invariably a bit sticky. She ordered a caffe latte from the server, only glancing into his eyes momentarily, and then continued to stare downwards at the change in her hand. She recognized him, and thus she was sure that he recognized her simultaneously since she was a frequent customer. She could never realize whether it was nervousness or guilt that prevented her from conversing with those whose job it was to serve her. She did not feel worthy enough to pay someone to fetch her morning coffee. She felt a twinge of tension above her eye, but she smiled and said, "Thank you" cheerily, and promptly left.
Running through the crosswalk, she leaped into the streetcar that awaited her. All the seats within the car were filled, so she grasped the handle within the closest proximity, and the car jerked into motion as her whole body moved in the same direction and she nearly fell. Her expression altered dramatically into an apologetic smile, almost with a bow to flourish it. In the audience, or a few seats away, Alicia's gaze was pulled from her periphery to the center. A girl with a creamy pallor, slightly flushed cheeks, and hair the color of dark chocolate came into focus. The stark plainness of her physical attributes provided the mise-en-scene for a pair of bright emerald eyes with long eyelashes.
Her coat pocket began to vibrate. She glanced down at her phone within it.
I haven't talked to you in awhile. How are you?
Alicia ignored the message. It was Frank, the gentleman caller in whom she had no interest. She had four lengthy discussions with him on the phone, discussions which were mainly used as a ruse to distract him from the fact that she was not attracted to him. She would simply blather for an hour and a half about philosophical abstractions and theories - Marxist critiques, gender constructs, why New England winters were the worst, ad nauseum. The problem was, however, that he actually seemed to understand her, or was at least attentive, but she could not sustain an attraction to him, and every conversation she had with him simply prolonged a sense of guilt she harbored because of this fact, so she just stopped communicating. Illogical yes, but she rationalized that it was nothing that men had not been doing to women for centuries ... not that it made it morally proper, just easier than a discussion or argument with him. Negative feelings would result no matter which course of action she chose.
She stepped out of the streetcar and left Park Street Station. Distracted, she walked past her mother's parked car, and heard a horn beep like the greeting of a foreigner. She regressed and then sat in the passenger's seat.
While she waited in her parked car, Annie heard a tap on her window glass. She turned abruptly, staring straight into the eyes of a woman with skin so muted in color that she practically blended into the trees behind her. The woman's hair was left unkempt and untouched, as clearly there was little need in her life for such superficiality, but only a desperate craving for more basic items. She donned a sweatshirt, jeans, and white sneakers that were a complete contrast to her otherwise disheveled appearance. She in fact looked like a hurried, hapless housewife, not a drifter.
The woman's voice cracked, "Excuse me, ma'am ... do you have a potato in there?"
Annie responded with startled eyes, attempting to not convey her shock or bewilderment. She did not pity the woman, for she did not feel superior to her. Rather, a sense of guilt pervaded her, almost as if she owed this woman something for the comparative ease of her life. However, all that she could muster was a curt "No, I'm sorry," which made everyone involved in the interaction feel worse. Annie rolled up her window in silence as she watched the woman walk away.
She turned on the radio as a means of distraction. Someone was discussing contemporary political theory, which apparently consisted of shouting and referring to the President as an "idiot." Bored, Annie shifted her gaze upward and at last observed Alicia meander towards the car. Alicia was noticeable not by any distinguishing facial characteristics or physical attributes, but by the fact that she was completely disengaged from surrounding life. Her attempts to blend into the landscape had the ironic and unfortunate consequence of making her the center of attention. Her face was stark white to the point of iridescence while her thick, horn-rimmed spectacles and long, pointy chin convoluted any aesthetic quality her pallor might allow. She was abstract, like a Picasso, and not deceiving, like a Monet. Annie continued to watch as her daughter, in typical fashion, proceeded to walk by the car. She rolled her eyes and tapped the horn in a movement that almost felt overly rehearsed.
Alicia turned abruptly, opened the car door, and slumped into the passenger seat.
"Hi!" she said, effectively shouting.
Annie, in this instant, decided to increase the volume of the radio, but continued to address her daughter. "So, have you figured out what you are going to say to Mrs. O'Reilly when you meet with her?"
Alicia replied tersely, "Well, this isn't exactly my dream job."
"That doesn't sound like a winning job application. Your aunt went to great lengths to get you this interview."
"Great lengths? She's the school secretary and it's my alma mater."
"I don't know why you're acting like you're above teaching at this school. You've never even had a real job. Your dad and I aren't going to support you reading all day."
"Your dad and I?" Alicia grimaced. "You haven't worked in years!"
Alicia resigned and remarked in a concession, "No, I suppose it's the right move at this time. If they accept me."
"Of course they will, darling!"
Annie double-parked in front of the school. Alicia blushed and stumbled out of the car, purse slung over her shoulder.
"Good luck!" her mother said, driving away.
Alicia stared at the beige building that still stood starkly like a prison. The skyline of the working class city sat in the shadows, a silhouette of smokestacks and tenement houses. The cross that was engraved on the sign in front made her feel uncomfortable as always; her soul remained undernourished still. Religion and doctrine were about as satisfying as a convenience store lunch. This is much the same reason why her days as a political organizer and antiwar protester were short-lived. She found displeasure in conformity, unity, and homogeneity.
She swallowed the rock in her throat and sauntered inside. Greeted by a crucifix in the center of the lobby, she hurried to the auditorium where she had stood in the background so many years before.
Alicia heard someone call her full name, and was almost prompted to reply, "Present." However, the voice was friendlier than she had remembered, as if an old friend spied her. She glanced upward. There was Mrs. O'Reilly, wearing a form fitting olive green dress that hugged her small waist like a corset and revealed a hint of her bosom, as much as a Catholic school would allow. She appeared to have hardly aged, though her face was flushed by rouge and wine colored matte lipstick, and her brown hair was cropped into a vintage bob.
"Shall we step into my office?" she asked. Alicia nodded. Mrs. O'Reilly sat behind her large mahogany desk, and motioned to Alicia to take a seat in front of her.
"So, how have you been?" Mrs. O'Reilly asked, without giving her time to answer. "I understand you've been busy since high school!"
Alicia wasn't sure of the implications of her ex-principal's declaration, so she replied with a sense of reservation. "Yes ... pretty busy. Locked in academia, really."
Mrs. O'Reilly smiled artificially, and placed a pair of half-glasses on the bridge of her nose while simultaneously reading the sheet of paper on her desk. "You were a philosophy major in college?"
"Yes. It was actually my theology classes at St. Benedict's that piqued my interest in the subject."
Alicia had no idea where or how this sudden professionalism emerged. She tucked her hair behind her ears and twirled the end. Mrs. O'Reilly leaned forward in approval.
"You know, it was the opposite for me. I studied philosophy in college and that encouraged me to go into religious education."
"Oh, really?" Alicia inquired, mainly because she did not know what the appropriate response was to the sentiment expressed.
"And I loved your thesis. I think we share the same view of organized religion's responsibility to push forward social justice. I also think it should be the primary role of the Catholic Church. None of this promoting archaic social roles and gender norms and false notions of morality."
"Yeah, that was my exact conclusion. I'm glad you liked it."
Silence ensued. Alicia looked at the carpet momentarily.
"So, you think you might like to work here?"
"Yes. I would love to try and teach the senior Christian Ethics course, or maybe create my own syllabus relating to religious themes in literature ..."
Mrs. O'Reilly interrupted and said plainly, without enthusiasm, "Well, I should let you know that we are planning to hire you. We'll start you off with the required courses and see where we are in the spring semester."
Alicia was grateful for the acceptance, and she replied ecstatically, sprinting from the office and flying through the air to her mother's car. She did not quite understand her glee, for she knew this meant she would be compelled to move back to her parents' house and inhabit her former bedroom once again, which remained the setting of many lonely nights.
When Alicia and Annie arrived home, Mitchell was waiting, lying on the couch in front of the television as though it were a coffin. Mrs. Andrews nudged her daughter.
"Tell Dad the good news!"
Alicia hesitated, and then she spat out, "I got the job at St. Ben's!"
"That's great," replied her father, awakening from his slumber, "So you'll be moving back home then?"
"I guess!" Alicia replied, though she was confounded as usual as to why there was constant pleading for her return.
Annie rescinded to business as usual. "I think you guys can just have the leftovers from last night's party for dinner tonight. There's eggplant Parmesan and ziti in the fridge."
It always perplexed Alicia why her mother never participated in eating supper, but she scooped a heaping plate of Italian food from the aluminum catering containers while her mother poured herself a glass of dry red wine. Alicia ate quickly and hungrily, before she noticed that her phone displayed an unread text message from her best friend requesting her presence at a cocktail bar. She began to feel gluttonous, as the remnants of her parents' dinner party were strewn about the living room area. She excused herself to visit the bathroom, and crouched facing the toilet with her hands placed on the outside of the bowl. She heard her mother talking on the phone, and she was certain her father was consumed by the game on television.
A Kander and Ebb song rose and fell inside Alicia's mind. What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a Cabaret, old chum. Come to the Cabaret. She walked into the living room.
"What are you up to?" Annie asked.
Alicia paused and explained, "I think I'm going to go to the city tonight. Can I borrow the car?"
"What for? It's kind of late ..."
Annie knew her mother did not care if she went to visit friends for the evening, but confusion filled her once again as she wondered why Annie felt the need constantly judge her actions.
"Well, Helen just invited me. I can stay over there."
Annie completed the oral contract. "Oh, okay. That's fine."
After Alicia had cleaned herself, she placed her wool pea coat over her revealing tank top in order to disguise it. She was just about to close the door behind her when she heard her mother's voice.
"Let me see you," Annie called out. Alicia sighed and reversed direction. "What are you wearing for a top?"
"Oh just ... the black tank top that was hanging in my closet."
"It's kind of bare for a winter's night."
"No, it's fine. It'll be hot where we go." Alicia replied tersely and unapologetically.
"All right. Have fun. Call me when you get there. Don't forget like last time, or I'll have to call Helen again."
"Right. I will. Thanks."
As the door locked behind her, the cold stung Alicia's unsupported chest. She quickened her pace and hastened towards the car. She relaxed on the drive towards Boston, conversing with herself as blinding headlights shined around her creating a stage where the audience was completely engrossed in her monologue because the audience was only herself. As she drove her vehicle into a parking space, an air of confidence pushed her to the doorstep of her friend.
Helen greeted her with a hug and a goblet of wine, and Alicia expressed her gratitude with a similar embrace.
"Where are we going tonight?" asked Alicia.
The club they entered was dank, the ruins of decades of cigarette smoke and barroom brawls. Per usual, Helen and Alicia approached the bar after contemplating which poison they would imbibe. Alicia leaned over and coquettishly yelled her order into the bartender's ear. They sat at a wooden table that wobbled as soon as they planted themselves on the stools. The cacophonous atmosphere invariably repelled Alicia, but she forced herself to become absorbed in the visions before her. A plain man who looked as though he should be busking at the subway played folk songs on his acoustic guitar. Dozens of people crowded the dance floor in pairs, but were not quite moving in motions that could be considered dancing. There was gazing, kissing, and mostly actions of sensuality, the opening act to a private midnight showing.
Alicia told Helen about her new job, and how she would have to surrender her apartment. Helen listened, but did not focus, and Alicia returned the favor. Banter and chatter ensued. The crowd grew larger as the sky darkened, and the room began to feel confined as sweat drops formed on Alicia's forehead. She excused herself, and stepped outside briefly; casual cigarette breaks provided great excuses to justify her hatred of crowds.
Tobacco smoke permeated the fresh air outside. Alicia could feel the cigarette smoke glide and sting simultaneously along her tongue and down her esophagus, a sensation that caused her to emit a slight cough. She knew this cough was a detriment to her pose, so she languidly flicked her ash off to the side in an effort to regain some composure. She was now standing on the outskirts of the chatty group of work colleagues she traveled with on various weekends, though the outskirts were an all too comfortable place for Alicia. Disconnected from the conversation of her peers, she glanced around in observation, the oddly humid night air (or the two cocktails she had just imbibed) loosening her natural inhibitions. Her eyes locked with those of a fairly young, fairly skinned wistful brother of Zion, and she turned away rapidly, still feeling a penetrating stare. She turned to him again, and he startled her by saying, "You're beautiful."
She had never been called that before, other than via demeaning catcalls, but this utterance felt different.
"Do you want to dance?"
She paused and shouted loudly, but nervously, "Maybe!"
"Maybe? Your loss." He shook his head and walked away, leaving Alicia's mouth agape.