by Jen Burke Anderson
Stomach flu. Days of lying on your back at the mercy of mutant molecules coiling viciously up your brain tubes, of your neurons unlinking and firing randomly into the air like Cossacks at a village wedding. The unending suspicion that the floor keeps moving to some other place.
Days of training your liquefied consciousness towards the same clean, dry, nausea-busting images: snow-capped mountains, stacks of library books, perhaps some boy scouts reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while standing in an amber wave of grain. Anything to pull your mind back from the image of boiling vindaloo curry with nacho cheese sauce dumped on top.
An extended exile from personality, from humor, from the willing invitation of garden-variety risk and darkness into your life. Normally you know exactly which small amounts you can handle.
But now you view your old healthy self through that clear, gelatinous wall of stomach flu isolation and reel backwards in fear and wonder. How on earth do you do it? Is it really you that copes with phone bills and taxes and bosses and people expecting stuff of you? Why have you never realized how awful it all is? The minute you’re better you’re going to make some phone calls and cancel everything. Your job, your place, everything. It’s all completely unreasonable.
Then the slow ascent back up: Saltine crackers, herbal tea, perhaps some 8th grade-level reading (fashion magazines highly recommended) and classical piano music.
After that, the staggered, false recoveries: waking up at 8pm to feel that all is well, that it’s OK to scarf that entire package of Kraft Macaroni n’ Cheese directly from the pot you cooked it in, only to wake up three hours later, your entire body throbbing with the drumbeat of inevitability: no, you dumb motherfucker, you are not better yet and you should have realized that when you were having that dream with the horse in the sewage pipe.
Days grind past. More Gatorade. More Saltine crackers. More finding patterns in the ceiling paint. More daytime naps where you don’t sleep. What helps? What harms? Inch back into your life, trying to feel where it pushes back.
And then one hour it arrives: the malaise that hovered above you before the illness now thunks upon your landing pad, its propeller blades screaming and blurring: Life is passing you by. You’ve become a spectator. Others’ lives are unending pageants of adventure and novelty. Yours is a less traumatic version of this—of waiting inside warm, sweating white walls of fever without delirium. This epiphany surges forth into your mouth like a ball of molten lava, hotter and more hellish for its long gestation inside.
Each Saltine cracker mocks you. You have lost something. You are trapped inside a Pottery Barn catalogue: a place where no matter how hard you try to do something raw, primitive and foolish for which you could end up paying the rest of your life, you will still wake up in a place where the pillow shams match the ottoman and you are covered by ten different types of liability insurance.
At long last, the return to the workforce. The slapping cold and the pushing grey crowds. The vigor of honest toil.
Proofread long legal documents in a near-empty office as the sun goes down. Sleep on the berber carpet under the desk when the boss isn’t around. Still inside you the viral braindrug residue, your body holding your soul at arm’s length.
Stand at the 32nd floor window. Watch the pulsing electric veins of Friday night traffic racetracking through on-ramps and off-ramps and bridge-bound overpasses. Down on Folsom Street, crowds swarm around the red and green neon sign of a nightclub you danced at in the Nineties.
God, enchiladas! Who’s for enchiladas? Great oily platters of seething, noxious soul food, the taste that contains all love and horror, the things you want inside you that you don’t want to know about. You need it. You know you can’t handle it.
You think you’re better now. Are you better? Are you cured? Are you sure? You’d better be sure.
You’re not sure of anything. Only that everything is all right now, and somehow you want it not to be. You are tired of being a tourist. The acid, flesh-dissolving slime you have barely climbed up out of is the artery you need to spike. Mortality has made itself known to you lately, but where is its sex? Where is its danger? Why does it lurk nerdily like a bespectacled auditor waiting for a miscount? Why does it not kiss and undress and drink and play chess with you, as it does with people in the movies? Where is the Enchilada of Death?
Call your friends. Nobody answers. If you carry on alone towards your impulse—eat too much Turkish food, get a gullet full of illegally brewed fire water and drive your car into a telephone pole, repeatedly, while singing along with the radio in a language you don’t speak—will it even be real? Who will bear witness?
Look out through the canyons of office-building towers, the grids of square cubicles blinking out one by one for the weekend. One hundred feet away through the air, behind a glass wall like yours, someone is silhouetted against a glowing red Coke machine, trying to decide. Five down four across, a man barks into his cell phone and grips the edge of his desk.
Out by the docks, a world away, a lone smokestack spouts a nobly apocalyptic white column up to the sky.
That skyscraper over there, they’ve been working on it forever. You can still look straight through its bare bones, through the halogen worklights posted on its naked steel joints, to the green hills on the edge of the city and the clouds beyond. Always one or two figures standing out there on those platforms, standing right on the edge of that terrifying drop with no safety rail, nothing to catch them below. You can’t see their faces, can’t know anything about them. They could be old school friends of yours. Don’t they get Friday nights off? Christ, what must the wind be like?
The giant fishing-pole tower crane on top swings its bait, a greenish glass panel the size of your bedroom wall, slowly over in front of the structure. It fits … right there, above and next to all the dozens of other outsized glass panels that have already been affixed to the front of the building. Pop, lock, and it’s in. The crane slowly pivots to pick up the next panel.
That’s it? That’s all they do? That’s all that separates every office worker in the developed world from complete oblivion? They make it look like a fucking game of Tetris.
So what happens if … one panel must weigh at least 150 pounds. The drop would be five hundred feet. Would there even be debris after it hit the ground? Or would the sheer force of the blow vaporize the whole thing into a mushroom cloud of breathable glass fibers? Would it billow out into the street, out into the waiting lines of nightclub hipsters, out to the Lexus drivers fumbling for their keys and getting ready to spend an hour on the bridge? Would it ruin lungs? Disfigure faces? Isn’t there some sort of safety…latch or cord or something? How to find out?
Fuck it. Have a Coke and a smile. The vending machine in the dark, empty lounge room mechanically sucks in your dollar. You’ve read all the articles, you know how bad this shit is for you. The sugar, the additives, the cornstarch, the greenwashing, the Orwellian ad psychology, the murdered union organizers at the Latin American bottling plants, to hell with ’em. You need the taste of reckless childhood.
The marketers even have a psychographic category for you: Occasional Indulger. They know what you’re looking for better than you do. Their sales strategy one-sheets probably describe Nirvana more accurately than anything the Dalai Lama ever wrote.
But oh, that plastic buzz is real enough in its fake-ass way. The cold and the fizz and the simple glucose snap-crackle-pop in your veins. You feel almost normal, looking down at the twilight city through inch-thick glass drinking a Coke from a machine. It’s not the real thing. It never will be. But for now, it will have to do. You’ve got some shit to figure out.
Focus. Keep your eyes fixed on one thing for five minutes, it’ll help you concentrate. The yelling cell phone guy in the building across the way, how about him, he’s pretty entertaining.
Okay. Make a plan. Operation Bland Night of the Soul. A change of scenery—yes, definitely called for. Spend the night in the woods or something. Your cousin with the cabin…of course, you haven’t spoken to him in years…still, the sound of that river running…a shed full of firewood and that musty, piney vacation smell when you open the door of the place. Birds. Spiders. Chipmunks, that kind of thing. Some time to be intentionally alone, get all spooked out. Take your old English lit books, make some coffee and eggs, kick the pinecones around. Let your defenses down. No cars, no people, no bullshit, get a serious plan together. Start kicking some existential ass. Yes. It all becomes clear.
Before the Coke you were sleepy and spacey. Now you’re buzzed and spacey.
ARE YOU GONNA GIVE THAT COUSIN A CALL, SOLDIER? yells the man into his cell phone.
Yes, Sir! Salute him across the glass canyon.
ARE YOU GONNA HAVE A HIPPIE-ASS MENDO WEEKEND?
Yes, Sir! (Giggle inanely.)
ARE YOU GONNA GO THROUGH YOUR BOXES OF COLLEGE CRAP AND PULL OUT WALDEN AND SIDDHARTA?
Sir, yes, sir!
REPEAT AFTER ME! TWO ROADS DIVERGED IN A YELLOW WOOD—
–the cell drops out of his hand, his back smashes up against the file cabinet.
All in the same instant:
Before his palm can travel to his open mouth the corner of your eye catches the square edge of something greenish dropping down and disappearing behind a shorter building.
The figures on the unwalled 36th floor of the skyscraper construction site make no reaction, aren’t looking at the crane’s empty, swinging hook. They don’t know yet.
A fraction of a second pulls out and out in front of your face like a stretch of chewing gum anchored between your teeth.
Your hands floating from your sides. A little catch in your throat getting ready to be a sound.
There’s this tiny flicker of wanting to do something. Anything. But there’s nothing you can do.
Apart, that is, from wanting to be there. More than anyone’s safety, more than the punishment of the men who let it happen, you just want to be as close as possible when the whole thing hits and shatters.
Jen Burke Anderson is a writer in San Francisco.