He had made it through the night, the darkness and the storm. But now he was drifting in a new form of blackness – one more impenetrable than any night. Inside of this velvety, unfathomably-dense void, he was lost in more ways than one. There was no trace, no vestige of himself. His body was, of course, gone, but so too was his mind. “He” was no longer a concept, possessing neither agency, animation or awareness.
A door slammed and he was suddenly there, pulled back inside of himself. Light was shining through the office’s window, passing through jagged, comically-large icicles on the outside that were beginning to slowly melt. His head was resting on his numb arms, which were draped and crossed on the top of the office’s battered desk. He had only intended to close his eyes for a moment, but had almost immediately fallen asleep despite of his best efforts. Blinking stupidly, he winced in the morning light and began to raise his head, an act which alerted him to the puddle of syrupy drool that was pooled on his arm.
Horrified, he realized that the drool was also all over his face, smeared across his lips and streaked across his cheeks like deranged makeup. He began rubbing at his face with his damp shirtsleeve, which increased its soppy feel and made him look like even more of a bumbling cretin.
A car door again slammed outside of the building, causing him to leap to his feet. Looking out the window, his heart leapt even further. Sarah was outside pulling her comically large bag out of the backseat of her car. Giving it a final tug, she turned around to face the complex building that housed their office, causing him to lurch downward to avoid her line of sight. He scrambled about close to the floor, wiping at his face with even greater relish. There was much to do. He hadn’t wanted to still be packing up his things when Sarah arrived this morning to relive him. Their interactions the night before had been embarrassing, not quite on the level of “I want to off myself,” but unpleasant enough to make him grimace in mild horror when he thought about them.
There was only a minute or two until Sarah came through the doorway, so he earnestly began with the shutting down and closing up. He screwed on the top of his water bottle and tossed it in his bag. Then he scraped some stray crumbs off the desk’s top and into the trash before grabbing his phone and tucking it back into the denim depths of his front pocket. Vainly trying to straighten his hair, he was jolted into the present by the soft ding from the computer, which served as a notification that he had received a new email.
Spotting the subject line, he dropped everything that was in his hands, suddenly oblivious to Sarah’s impending arrival. The email was from Teach for America, for which he had spent weeks putting together an agonizing application. Since submitting it, he had done his best to avoid thinking about its status, consciously pushing the thought down whenever it surfaced in his mind. But like a persistent itch, it had proven almost impossible to simply will this preoccupation away, and, if he was honest with himself, he had been hedging his bets on being accepted into the program.
Thinking about the research that had been done, not to mention the interviews and the essays that had been completed, he felt his heart begin to beat faster and faster as he moved the mouse to click the email open. There was a lot invested at this point. He had become the application and the application had become him. He felt vulnerable and exposed, like a fair-skinned beach bum who had run out of sunscreen. He had written a sizable amount of drivel in his pursuit of this opportunity, platitudes that expressed his reverence for the teaching profession and banalities that espoused a love for the classroom. But, in truth, it was all about him.
He had never reckoned with how much his life in Chicago and become infused with his character, or how fragile his identity was outside of the city. Not that this was a legitimate way to feel. The association he had built between himself and Chicago was established, of course, on illusory foundations, balanced on nothing but a void. He hadn’t really accomplished anything of note during his time there, at least nothing that was overly specific to that place.
He also hadn’t ever taken advantage of everything the city offered; although, that wasn’t entirely his fault. He was poor now, but he had been destitute then – maybe never quite on the level of guttersnipe or vagrant, but certainly never comfortable. Every single purchase – from his rent to a bottle of pop – would trigger an internal calculation on how much money remained in the bank. Without fail, it was never enough.
More than anything else, Chicago had been his status symbol, an indicator of his willingness to leave the Twin Cities metro area for something bigger. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t given it any great deal of thought before committing to attend college there, treating the decision like the way he deliberated on what socks to wear each morning. It also didn’t matter that he had often been unhappy there, grousing and bitching ad nauseam about everything from the weather and traffic to the people and expense.
Teach for America, then, was a way to recapture that same feeling, allowing him to once again shore up his identity in an easily articulated and externalized fashion. It would provide his life with an appealing narrative, one that would deny scrutiny and command respect. Who could argue with someone willing to commit two years of their life to America’s toughest schools? It was a uniquely powerful and powerfully unique role to occupy, and he wanted it desperately.
His hand quivered a bit as he clicked the email, which sprang open in a flash of white. Scanning the text, he looked for positive words, quotes like “happy to announce,” or “excited for you to join.” Scanning through the different words and phrases, he felt both far away and remarkably close, a strangely dichotomous state where he was simultaneously self-aware and utterly vacant.
Then everything stopped. His eyes, which had been perpetually in motion, skidded to a stop on a phrase that he had been dreading but not truly expecting to see.
“I am very sorry to inform you that, after careful consideration of your candidacy, we did not select you to advance to the next stage of our admissions process.”
Rereading the words, his breath became shallow and his throat pained. The bottom dropped out and he was falling. He felt unwanted and cast away, like a flea that had been shaken off a dog, or a piece of refuge thrown from a car on a lonely stretch of highway. His windpipe was sealed and his eyes were aflame. Gasping, he logged out and moved away from the desk.
Sarah walked through the door of the office, saddled, as always, by her massive backpack. She had been dreading this moment, her stomach flipping and flopping during the drive. Last night had been so painfully awkward with the ungainly proposition that he had sent her way. She hadn’t wanted to see him, but with the circumstances of their job being what they were, she didn’t have any choice.
“Good morning,” she whispered, avoiding his eyes and setting her bag down. “Any issues last night?”
She was greeted with silence so quiet it was almost thundering. Startled, she raised her head and saw that he was standing mutely near the desk and seemed to barely acknowledge her presence.
“Are you ok?” she asked, her initial reluctance to engage falling away despite of herself.
“I asked are you ok?”
“Yeah. Um. Yeah. There were no issues. Here’s the phone.”
He slid the company cell phone across the desk toward her and put on his coat, buttoning it tightly around his average-sized form. She looked at him silently but with quizzical gaze.
“Ok, if you’re sure.”
They started forward and passed each other. He moved towards the way out and she gathered up the phone before sitting down behind the desk. Nearing the door, he turned to look back at Sarah, who was already opening up her bag and sorting through a twisted collection of texts, notebooks and paper.
She was wearing bulky, woolly and weather-appropriate clothing, but the faint outline of her form could still be gleaned from across the room. He could still remember their kiss and how good it had felt to touch someone again. He had felt, at least briefly, the affirmation, grace and safety that he had felt during his time with the girl in Chicago, where he had known his place and she had known hers.
But then he looked at Sarah’s face again and was struck by what he saw: a thousand yard stare that made his blood run cold. Sarah was looking in his general direction, but she might as well have been wearing x-ray glasses. Her stare went into him, through him, penetrating the wall beyond and arching through the hallway on the other side. It crossed the frigid, dead landscape of Minnesota towards the horizon, towards Wisconsin, towards forever.
While he stared at her, he shifted to his side and caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the gritty, fogged out window behind Sarah’s head. It was faint and ghostly, but what he saw was startling enough. What he could see of his face wasn’t notable, in fact it was anonymous and indistinct, the carbon copy of so many that he had gone to school with and competed against for jobs. What was unique was the current state of his eyes, which glared outward with the same hollowed, haunted, agonized aura that currently occupied Sarah’s.
Then it felt as if all the air had been simultaneously sucked out of the room, and he was invaded with a sense of crippling loneliness. The oceanic expanse of emotion, experience, memory, anxieties and neuroses that existed inside of him were also suddenly apparent in Sarah. The infinite wonder of an internal life was there, but it was also heartrendingly not. She was alive and present to him, maybe for the first time, but she was also a total mystery, as accessible as a concrete slab or brick-laden wall. He would never know her; he couldn’t know her. He was totally and utterly alone.
“Oh, for the love of god!” Eric’s frenzied exclamation from last night ripped through his consciousness, filling him with a nameless emotion that most closely resembled dread.
“Have a good day then,” he stuttered, turning around and stumbling through the office door. She didn’t respond, and he walked quickly albeit unsteadily down the carpet-covered hallway, passing Rachel’s partially open doorway. As he walked past, he saw that Rachel was up and about, pacing back and forth in her typical outfit of a brightly colored t-shirt and baggy, black sweatpants.
“THEY did this to me. NOW what am I supposed to do? Hmm?” she snarled, clearly escalated, while stiffly throwing her arms up in a strange, semi-violent shrugging gesture. He didn’t respond, couldn’t respond; he just had to get out of there.
Sarah had heard him leave, but she hadn’t been listening. Lost in her thoughts, she had been going through the motions all morning, flying on a muscle-memory autopilot. She was relived, however, when it finally dawned on her that he had left the complex. Again, it wasn’t as if she despised the man, she just couldn’t deal with the weirdness, the stilted awkwardness that they both seemed incapable of moving past.
She couldn’t focus on such things, not when there was so much else to think about. Her mother had spent the entirety of the morning tearfully haranguing her about what she had said last night, when Sarah had asserted that it was time to return to school and likely move out on her own. She had only been able to escape by promising that they would discuss the issue later, before leaping out the front door and painfully rolling her ankle on a hidden patch of ice.
Now she was here once more in the complex. The day stretched out in front of Sarah, its various facets unknown but also known. Before long, Rachel would rush into the office, demanding action for some new injustice. Adelia’s call for her medications was likely moments away as well, and Sarah would do what she always did when it came. She would dutifully listen, and when Adelia couldn’t remember the cocktail of pain medications that she was prescribed, Sarah would name them off and promise to bring them. Then she would need to attend to Steven, who was supposed to be applying for menial jobs online with her but would likely spend their session acting haughty and looking at her like she was crazy.
But it wasn’t all bad. In the later part of the afternoon, she would probably make her way over to Reba’s, who smoked like a maniac but was always incredibly gracious. Reba was an older woman who barely left her apartment aside from her weekly trip to the Cub Foods up on Robert Street. She was hardly inert, however, and loved to talk and laugh. She was also a movie buff, possessing a surprisingly large collection of films from a diverse array of periods and locations. Sarah herself had spent many hours watching films together with Reba in her dated yet comfortable apartment. There had even been a few times where she inadvertently dozed off, waking up in the dark apartment with a wool blanket thrown on top of her, the air hazy from Reba puffing away on the balcony like a Victorian smokestack.
To some extent, Sarah knew that she could exist here, working at the complex for perhaps even several more years. It was familiar, and even the unpleasant aspects felt safe in their predictability. She knew how to cope with the worst and find some small measure of happiness in the best. The worlds here were also, on some level, small and self-contained, devoid of much of the self-obsessed philosophizing that so often tore her down. That wasn’t to say that the residents she worked with were simplistic or devoid of an inner-life. She had seen her fair share of multifaceted behavior, of deep-seeded emotion. But she had also seen ample amounts of the polar opposite: a purely experiential, living-in-the-moment mentality of which she felt herself largely incapable.
“I love the wind. I love the breeze. I love the way I LOOK!” Karen, another client, had said a couple of weeks ago when they had been driving to the store for her weekly trip. Sarah hadn’t thought much about it at the moment, but now in reflection she felt herself becoming fixated on the statement, not to mention inured in a noxious pool of envy.
She would never get there, aside from the briefest of flashes, like a solar flare ripping across the star-lit vacuum. The experiential was fine, but it had limits. Remaining immersed the present and ignoring introspection might spare one a certain measure of psychic pain, but there were never guarantees, especially when it came to negotiating the various roles thrust upon each and every individual. It sure hadn’t saved her relationship with James, who had become unglued by his inability to quickly find employment reflective of his investment in higher education, despite the fact that he had both come of age in the midst of seismic change and the worst economy since the days of Herbert Hoover. Nor had it saved her mother, whose unwillingness to examine her role as mother had almost assuredly contributed to her current state of unpredictability and dysfunction.
Yet the dwelling and ruminating, the brooding and the pondering also seemed to leave people coming up empty. Sarah could understand how life often resembled performance art, grapple with the weight of history and glean the underlying complexity of her motivations. But her innate ability for reflection had not radically improved her mood or acted as a vanguard against the creeping horde of her own negativity.
But then what was the answer? To Sarah, it seemed as if she was left with two options. She could blot it all out in various ways, descend into the type of chemically induced madness she saw all around her. Unlike her mother, who, when using, seemed to be bizarrely drawn into a more dramatic confrontation with the self, Sarah gained a blissful yet temporal reprieve from it all. For instance, she rarely drank, but when she did it was usually transcendent, an experience that dislodged her from the narrow frame of her own mind into a higher plane of emotion and connectivity. The last time she had used, in fact, had been the night of Nicola’s party, where, despite a certain ill-advised kiss, she had felt her consciousness seep into the larger world. There, she had found and forged connections to her reading, to her surroundings, to everything. And when she had finally left the party she had left with tears in her eyes, transfixed by the blazing sky that rested over the cool blues and blacks of the Mississippi shoreline.
Sustainability, however, was not part of this equation, and therefore, she was back to square one. Her quest for self-actualization was never going to be over. She could never simply be, she always had to be something. But at the very least she could exercise a measure of control, cultivate a self that was worthwhile to her, even if it wasn’t to others.
“…talk to me like a real fucking person.”
The failure of her relationship with James was still with her, perhaps now more than ever. But some of his statements were slowly taking on a different perspective, like an optical illusion that changes the longer it’s stared at. James’ statement, she realized, was marked by misnomer. There was no real fucking person. There were simply people, adorned by the various roles that the world projects onto them. James hadn’t wanted her; he had wanted his idea of her, or, more broadly, his idea of what a girlfriend could or should be. Similarly, her mother had this very morning been attempting to impose her own idea of Sarah on Sarah, cooing through tears about how she was a “good daughter” when Sarah finally agreed to postpone her decision on college until they discussed it further.
It was incredible how much people relied on the easy, binary classification of good or bad when it came to describing people. And it wasn’t only her mother who engaged in this. Without fail, whenever she had to describe what she did for work she always received a response that was shocking in its uniformity.
“You must have such patience. That’s so good of you.”
The problem was that Sarah didn’t feel like a particularly good person. She didn’t feel like a bad one either, just that she existed somewhere in the ambiguous middle. Instead, the larger, more pressing issue was that she didn’t know who she was. This was a trying thing undoubtedly, but it couldn’t be an uncommon one. Maybe it was even the new normal, the manner in which human life proceeded in Minnesota, in America and maybe anywhere at the beginning of the 21st century. And she could be overwhelmed by that, remain at the mercy of competing interests, exhaust herself in trying to be something for someone, but what was the point? This wouldn’t bring her closer to anything true. And although she would never get away from self-projection, never truly cease trying to play a part, she could do it largely for herself, maybe for the first time ever.
To Sarah, this felt like the only answer, the sole way to find something approaching peace with who and what she was in a culture beyond the state, beyond the church, beyond everything. She would act for herself – not banishing others, but not allowing their ideas of “Sarah” to usurp what she wanted to create.
And with that, Sarah fired up the computer, which blinked to life like a boozehound emerging from the depths of a bottomless hangover. Clicking the Firefox icon, she navigated back to a well-worn spot. The University of Minnesota website sat in front of her, and with only a brief moment of hesitation, she clicked the button that simply said “Admissions and Aid.”
Her mother would be unhappy, particularly in the moment when she learned that there was nothing more to talk about. But that was beyond Sarah’s control, as most things were. She couldn’t save anyone from themselves. All she could do is create a life that felt good and real and worthwhile in a world-changing so rapidly it almost defied description.
And this is what she would aspire to do. She would read deeply. She would write passionately. She would be open to experience, understanding that whatever she thought she was, was simply that: a thought. She would also let herself love. She would let herself be loved, but never again in a way that was total or sublimating. That was over now, but that was ok. She would find a way to live.