Turn the corner, she thought to herself, as she was brushing her teeth. She’d woken up to emails asking her when work would be finished on a project for which she’d been given no formal deadline. This launched her past her usual morning routine and directly into a rapid-fire attempt to edit twelve short descriptors of artists and their work for an auction catalogue. Between each piece, for which she’d been allotted 30 minutes of working time, but mostly only required 20, she performed the short tasks on her derailed checklist of morning chores: make the bed, start coffee, feed the dog, tidy up the sink, take the handful of medications and vitamins that she understood to stand between her and slow but steady progression into despair.
Turn the corner, she thought again—she would have likely whispered it aloud to herself, to make it more real, but her mouth was dripping with toothpaste foam, and it didn’t really mean much of anything. Just a random firing of words, an empty inspirational slogan. She pictured an eagle flying over a river, like on a motivational poster—maybe a river with a bend in it, so the words made more sense. Turn the corner, she thought. And then, Haha, because the eagle made it funnier. She had four out of the twelve assigned pieces done at this point.
When she used the bathroom earlier, in the 10-minute break between editing the first two pieces of twelve, she’d noticed a use ring had formed in the toilet, and seized the moment to deploy the cleaning wand with disposable heads stored under the bathroom sink in a five-minute flurry of toilet cleaning. This made her feel strong and capable, both for solving a problem as soon as she’d noticed it, and for having the necessary tools to do so immediately at hand.
“I can,” she said—in this case aloud, because there was no toothpaste in her mouth. She’d gone on to edit six of the twleve pieces, with breaks for morning chores in between, when she suddenly took a hard turn from “I can” straight into the heart of the abyss, without so much as a single breath between these two states. She started to think maybe she couldn’t. The abyss is calling, she thought, and it wants all your molecules.
“It’s just an idea,” she whispered to herself, and resisted opening a social media window. “It’s just an idea. Suicide is just an idea.” Haha, she thought then, though nothing in this moment was particularly funny—more because it was socially conventional to disperse an awareness of despair by pretending it was just a joke, rather than a lurking reality, a deep longing in her chemically imbalanced carbon core.
“Sometimes it starts to feel like holding all your molecules together in the correct order requires great conscious effort, and I guess that’s what I have to say about depression as a lived experience,” she said, aloud, as though she was being interviewed by someone who wasn’t actually there. Now she opened a social media window and typed out the thing she said, because social media is the best place to put answers to questions no one has asked you. Haha. This dispelled the feeling of despair long enough for her to return to work on the seventh piece of twelve, but she was immediately distracted by the fact that this piece had, for some reason, been executed in Comic Sans font, rather than in Calibri like the rest. Given the recent acknowledgement of Comic Sans as the clown shoes of fonts, now occasionally deployed as a form of aesthetic irony by a particularly tiring type of irony connoisseur, this triggered the feeling that the editing assignment might be some kind of joke. Like a small, manageable subset of the greater existential joke of life, she told herself, and this enabled her to continue, rather than allow the suspected irony to draw her like an anchor down into the waiting abyss. But she changed the font to Calibri, just to be safe. Now eight of twelve pieces were done, but she was too hungry to concentrate or continue.
During her next break, she went downstairs to make food, but her options were scarce, from the intentional limitations she had recently placed on the types and quantities of food in her home. This was in an effort to lose weight, which is the unspoken but well-understood work of every female. No doubt, some of the existential dread she was experiencing was the result of her molecules lacking reinforcement, being pressured to give of themselves while trying to retain enough ballast to resist the abyss. She made cinnamon toast, but then failed to attend to it closely, so it came out a little burned. She contemplated burnt toast as a metaphor for failure—when you see someone burn toast in a movie, for example, that’s the scriptwriter letting you know that character is in for a tough day—but consoled herself with the observation that the burnt part of the toast was extra carbonated, thus providing more carbon to her carbon, in its fight against the gravitational pull of the abyss. So hard to keep one’s molecules together, she thought, and how long since she’d had anything in the way of real assistance with that. How much it helps when someone, sometimes, puts their arms around your molecules and holds them in place for you, so you can just rest a little. It had been a long time since someone had offered her that feeling, a long time since someone even gripped a handful of her molecules for a short while. She attributed this lack of interest in her body as a sign that there was too much of it—when men looked at her molecules, they must think she is too much to hold, she is more than a handful. She thought of herself as a basically average amount of molecules, but she objectively understood that no matter how many molecules a woman was composed of, it was always a bit too much.
While she ate toast absentmindedly over the sink, she had a conversation with her brain.
She: Oof, I’m having a hard day.
Her brain: I’ve got an idea!
HB: Just hear me out.
She: Okay, whatever. What you got?
HB: You know that person you’ve been secretly holding out hope about?
HB: You know, the one you have a super-secret crush on, because he’s nice to you, but not in a way where it’s clear if he’s just nice, or also super-secretly into you, too?
HB: Wouldn’t right now be a good time to pursue that in more definitive terms?
HB: Think how great it could be!
She: I’m just not sure there’s any way to approach that, that wouldn’t be SO awkward.
HB: Yeah, you should probably just blurt it over text without any real context!
She: I don’t think this is a good idea.
HB: C’mon, what’s the worst that could happen?
She: The final, tenuous threads that bind me to hope could snap and leave me unsupported as I plunge into the meaninglessness void.
She understood this to be a conversation with the part of her brain that did not much like her, the part that seemed endlessly tasked with a campaign of self-defeat. The person in question, the super-secret and kind person, was a professional acquaintance who lived in another city, far enough away to foreclose any chance of random encounter. And yet, they’d had a random encounter of sorts, when he’d appeared outside the professional setting in which they typically encountered each other, at the opening of an art show and symposium to which she was a visiting critic.
This art opening came at the end of a long drive between their disparate cities, during which she’d listened to the majority of a podcast series centered around an odd small-town character named John B. Like most of the people in his rural environment, John B. appeared to exist in a kind of permanent existential drift, but unlike most of the people interviewed for the podcast, he seemed to be hyper-intelligent and acutely aware of the situation. His lacerating opinions applied evenly to everyone in his surroundings, himself included, and disdain for his friends, family, and neighbors seemed to co-exist with genuine regard and affection. There was something of a superhero in this man, a frustrated sense of justice, a generous desire to support people endlessly mired in cycle of poverty…and yet, a sense of total apartness, as well as a growing obsession with the futility of existence in the face of climate change. Just a few episodes into the series, this central figure kills himself, and in his ostensibly well-reasoned and carefully planned suicide, she recognized chilling seeds of resonance. Just as she had once watched the show Hoarders and become obsessed with the mental illness, thinking not of hoarders as “other” and “never me” but merely in a place she had not yet gone, by the grace of God, she saw shades of herself in John B.’s rationalized opt-out of existence. Understood, for the first time, the notion of suicide as contagion. The same abyss that had called to him, and he, in his fundamental loneliness, found himself finally unable to resist, fixed its unblinking eye on her as she drove between two Midwestern cities, propelled by fear and the momentum of an object already in motion.
When she arrived, in a place that was not home, she’d been immediately thrust into a gauntlet of museum visits, introductions to two kind art collectors who were hosting her in their guest room, and then the art opening, with almost no pause to collect herself or contemplate the existential disaster that had taken place. Luckily or unluckily, she found herself a guest of honor in the middle of a room of colorful, enthusiastic, and hopeful art scenesters in an unfamiliar city—a kind of darkly mirrored version of the same regional art scene that plays out everywhere, with its own chessboard of characters. The chasm opened beneath her, and she kept her smile fixed and reminded herself to blink at regular intervals, trying to forestall the panic of breakdown by simply ignoring it; this is when the super-secret and kind person in question entered the scene. He was, perhaps, the only person in this city who knew her enough to feel familiar. Their eyes met, and she knew he had come to see her—at least in part—and that realization sprang like a branch from the wall of the canyon, and the part of her brain that didn’t want her to die reached out for it on reflex and held on tightly. But that had been weeks ago, and she could feel that while her hold on the branch remained tight, the root itself was beginning to pull free. The conversation, suggested by the part of her brain that didn’t like her much, was an effort to adjust the position, and the outcome would either be to strengthen the roots, perhaps allowing her enough purchase to climb up and out of her existential slide, or to uproot the handhold altogether. She opened the social media platform through which she and this person occasionally messaged.
“I am having an existential crisis,” she wrote. “What do you know about that?”
“In my very personal experience with it the word crisis was a bit hyperbolic,” he replied gamely, “but it was serious for me and it’s all relative. What’s the impetus of your crisis?”
“Some combination of binge-listening to that podcast on the road, and then seeing you at the art opening, near as I can tell,” she said. She was lying on her bed, on top of the covers, with tears rolling one at a time down her face. Slow, controlled crying, the kind of crying she liked to imagine was vulnerable and winsome, rather than the grotesque, noisy crying of abject misery.
“What?” he said. “What did I do?”
“It’s not your fault,” she said. And then, because he asked, she tried to explain about the podcast. After outlining the plot in broad strokes she said, “I don’t think it connects to you directly. It’s more like…have you heard that theory about why a lot of fetishes are for things below the waist? Like stockings, high heels, feet?” Employing conversational curveballs like this was something she was aware of as a defense mechanism, and she issued herself a yellow flag for sociopathic behavior.
“LOLZ. No.” he replied.
“There’s some developmental theory that because fetishes are supposedly formed at the moment a boy child realizes his mother doesn’t have a penis – like she is fundamentally separate from him – and it creates a trauma. And the fetish forms for the next thing he sees,” she explained, or tried to. “In theory, this is discovered because he’s a little kid sitting on the floor and looks up, so: shoes, underpants, stockings, high heels.”
“I think that podcast was like psychically traumatic for me, some kind of way. I over-identified with the guy in it, and things don’t really go very well for that dude,” she said.
“I have trouble identifying with all that,” he said, in the kind and diplomatic way that unfortunately endeared him to her in the first place. “I’ve never really gotten fetishes.”
“In this scenario, you are the high heel,” she said. “I don’t mean to characterize you as a fetish object. That is not the kind of energy I’m trying to convey.” In the back of her head, she objectively understood that this was no kind of way to talk to people, she should just stay away from people as much as humanly possible. But thankfully, he was able to follow her logic this time.
“So I’m the first thing you saw when you realized you were fundamentally separate from…?”
“From humanity,” she said. “Yes.”
“It is not your fault,” she added.
The conversation continued kind of obliquely from there—which served to answer most of her questions about the situation without having to ask them—and as a sort of conclusion he suggested she watch the movie Wonder Boys.
“Thank you for the helpful suggestion,” she wrote to him, employing a phrase that had become a kind of mantra for her in dealing with situations that were not giving her what she needed to survive. “My space training is taking up a lot of my time, but I will make an effort to see it.”
She mused that her preoccupation with the recently-photographed black hole in the days since they’d seen each other had become more than a metaphor for the way she was feeling—she suspected the black hole might be the same abyss that had been recently detected inside her, in a way that she baldly recognized as magical realism, put nicely, or borderline delusion, if you wanted to be hyperbolic about it.