By Katie Foppiano
It’s a line learned from sitcom TV and old western movies, the ones with flickering black and white images, characters with slow southern drawls and eyes that are always slightly unfocused. From my mouth it’s foreign, wrong, more sounds than words, but I smile nonetheless: a horrid contraption of cracked lips, painted red, too-big teeth.
The customer in front of me pauses for a moment, but quickly recovers with a polite chuckle. I don’t think I’ve ever naturally chuckled in my life. I try to imagine it – being the type of person who can casually chuckle – but the image fails to materialize, in my mind, in my eyes, in front of me. Suddenly this man seems false, a contraption, a trick, a trap. My eyes are wary as I ring up his items: a dozen eggs, women’s shaving cream, a single overripe avocado. What could he possibly be making with this? An omelet from hell? Low-fat guacamole? Contemporary art? I avert my gaze so as to remain inconspicuous.
“Have a good one,” he says as I hand him the receipt. I chuckle (it’s more of a cough but he doesn’t seem to notice).
When he’s gone, I hack a few times to get the remaining chuckle out of my throat. A kid in a shopping cart looks up, pigtails bobbing with the tilt of her head. Her eyes are wide with concern, or whatever the toddler equivalent is. I smile and wave, friendly. This seems to concern her further. I try to look busy as she begins to cry.
7 pm. The clock ticks, ticks, ticks. The crowd of after-work shoppers has thinned, leaving only a few worn stragglers subject to my scrutiny. A man with a graying mustache and tophat makes an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Monopoly – save for the bottle of Pink Whitney he carries into the checkout. A teenager mulls for what seems like hours over peanut versus caramel m&ms (peanut, obviously). A young boy stretches out over the window, on the fourth floor. You can’t see much unless you lurch your head far out, neck straining to catch a glimpse of below, like a dog out the car window- or maybe more like a prisoner from a cell.
From my limited vantage point, the sky is completely white, a blank sheet of paper, full of possibility, void of execution. It’s like something I used to overhear when I was younger: “She’s so full of potential.” I never found the answer: potential for what?
After a few long moments of nothing, I walk over to the window myself. Down below, I can see the gentle shaking of the trees, limbs tangled in the wind, leaves falling one by one. They move slowly, grappling their way through the thick air, inevitable like destiny. The stretches of white pavement darken beyond the shadows of the trees, the distorted building overhangs.
It takes me a long moment to realize: it’s raining. I can’t hear the rain, beating against the rooftop like it does at home, each downpour violently waking me in the middle of the night.
I wonder if I would have even known it was raining if I hadn’t come over here. Maybe someone would have come in with a rain-splattered coat, hair damp, shoes muddy. Maybe I would have splashed in a puddle on the walk home, or have heard the croaking of toads in the distance. Maybe someone would be shaking an umbrella as they passed me, dirty droplets coating my hair, seeping into my skin. “I’m so, so sorry!” they would exclaim. Maybe I would have slipped in that puddle, fallen, hurt my ankle, then completely befuddled, hobbled over to a park bench on which I would have sat, then immediately stood up again realizing it was wet.
Then, would I have known it was raining?
I’m having trouble breathing.
In an (albeit self-induced) panic, I rush into the break room. It’s not my break. I see my coworker, Brian, sitting frozen in the corner, holding a half-eaten sandwich. He remarks, “It’s not your break.”
“Fuck off Brian.” Brian blinks, saying nothing, then goes back to eating his sandwich. I stumble my way to the lockers, chest heaving, feet heavy like conscience, my breath audibly quickening. Brian remains unfazed.
In my locker, I fist through my bag for my phone. I pull out keys, earbuds, a half eaten NutriGrain bar, a charger, cigarettes, nicotine gum, a lighter, crayons, a swiss army knife – phone. My therapist’s number is first on the speed dial. As it rings, I bounce my leg against the floor, in time with the tone: one and two and one and two and one and two and –
He picks up on the 4th ring. “‘Sup?”
That greeting feels slightly on-the-nose for a psychologist I found on Craigslist with the headline: ‘Laid-back and efficient therepist.’ (therapist was spelled wrong). I took that to mean he wouldn’t examine anything too closely. At the time I just needed someone to write doctor’s notes when I wanted to skip work – which he did, many times, successfully. Towards actual psychological needs, he’s been less successful.
“I just feel like there’s something wrong with me.”
“Well, judging by your current state, clearly there is.”
I’m silent for many seconds. With obvious annoyance that his comment alone wasn’t enough, he sighs and continues: “Some meditation might help. If you really need me you can come in on Monday at 4. But only for a half hour, I have jiu-jitsu right after.”
On my way out, I type furiously in my notes app: find a new therapist.
My breathing slow, I exit the break room with steps sure and steady.
The rain has stopped, and the clouds have cleared, unveiling a sky tinged with pink and purple paint strokes. Customers long gone, I stand by the window again, leaning over to see past the city, to the rolling green hills in the distance, the round trees lining roads which crest and disappear, their passengers lost to some faraway land – somewhere over the rainbow, my mother would say, but there’s no rainbow tonight. Somewhere over that great green hill, that man is making his strange omelet, Mr. Monopoly is getting trashed. Somewhere, that teenager is regretting choosing caramel.
It must be beautiful to be a part of the world, I think – no matter how pointless the endgame. Maybe my “potential” wasn’t meaningful, but it must’ve been something –instead, I stand here and observe.
The lights in the back flicker on, and off. I hear the slamming of the back door, the whispering snippets of outside conversations.
Closing time. Nighttime falls discreetly silently, without notice. The sky is black, or maybe it’s the lack of aptly-placed lighting. I can’t tell. Looking straight down, I can make out a single lit street lamp, illuminating wet streets and car windows sprinkled with droplets, the soft chiaroscuro where the light just barely reaches.
Brian has left, and I am entrusted with the single set of rusting keys, the broken handle of what once was a mop, the bright banana-boat-colored bucket and wringer (brand new, our Christmas gift).
Dragging the mop down the aisles, the cracks in the 1990-tiling gleam like gorges, opening wider and wider with each step forward. I crouch down, tracing the dark, aged lines, watching them expand and unfurl before me. I step in, abandoning the mop, the bucket and wringer, the list of ‘Closing tasks: weekdays’ sticky-tacked behind the break room door. I tip-toe along the edges of the gorge, my steps light, my hands gliding against the cool, smooth stone. I look over the edge to the swirling, never-ending mystery below, a mélange of rough edges and blue waters and shadows, mostly shadows. “Come, come, the abyss is right here!” someone calls to me from below.
But that would mean jumping in, I can’t do that.
I look up, but the way I came is lost to me now. “Ah!” My foot slips on the edge, just barely – I come to the sudden realization that I’m not supposed to stay here. I’m not supposed to be here. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. The shadows grow, looming above and below and around me. What happened to the mop? What happened to Brian and his sandwich? Why the fuck does my therapist prioritize his jiu-jitsu over my health?
The ground rumbles. I watch pebbles fly beneath my feet, falling through thin air. There’s no landing sound. There’s nothing left for me to do but jump.
I close my eyes. The ground beneath me falls away. In the distance, a door opens; a shopbell rings.