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My eyelids feel cool with my palms pressed against them. It makes the inside of my head dark purple, with dots of blue when I press harder. My elbows resting on my knees, I just sit and breathe, allowing my puffy eyelids to cool for a few moments.
In my head there is silence. The darkness absorbs whatever outside sounds there are and lets me be. In here, the deepest part of myself, I don’t have to listen to noises or people or hear myself think. I can just be still.
Slowly, I lift my head up. The darkness in my eyes takes on a reddish hue as I turn my face towards the light. Then I open my eyes. The fluorescent lights are too bright after the darkness. Blink blink blink. My eyes adjust, because they have to. The harsh white and metal room comes in to focus. The rows of chairs, the television broadcasting the daily propaganda, the magazines from last year on the table, all in front of me. The unsettling feelings creep back in. My temporary peace ebbs away with the intrusion of light and noise. I stand, long legs unfolding and lengthening.
This room is a trap. It seems innocent enough, with open doorways and clearly marked red exit signs, but I know the truth. Upon entering this room, leaving is impossible.
The water cooler gurgles to my right. I walk over to it. The small Dixie cups next to it have flowers printed on their paper sides. I take one and hold it under the light blue tap.
Not the red hot tap. Wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt.
I press down the lever and watch the water flow, the force of gravity pulling it down. When I sip it, it spills on my lip. The coldness of it catches me off guard. My hands are shaking as I lower the cup. Not noticeably, but more like vibrating. The cup drops to the linoleum floor. I stare at my hands, bring them close to my face for a better look. I recall something my anatomy teacher said: there are more muscles in the hands than anywhere else in the human body. Or maybe it was the feet. Looking at my hands now, seeing each muscle quivering under my skin, I think it must be hands. I walk away from the cup on the ground and the gurgling water cooler, back to the uncomfortable plastic blue chair. My legs lower me gratefully back to the seat, sick and tired of the responsibility of holding me up. An old woman shuffles in the room. She leans heavily on a walker with ratty tennis balls on the feet. Every movement she makes seem to take all her effort. I watch the cycle with wide eyes. Her foot lifts into the air, hovers for a moment, and then slowly comes back down a few inches from where it was previously. She makes her way to a seat across from me and settles into it. Her lips move. They are deeply wrinkled and seem too dry to not have crumbled off her face long ago. They move again and my brain realizes she is talking to me, asking me a question, before my ears understand.
Blink blink blink.
The woman looks away, at the television, at the ground, anything other than me. My body is engaged in a civil war. The ears are mad at the brain, the lips are mad too. There might be revolution. I want to go back to silence but my ears are now overcompensating to make up for the prior slowness. Every sound echoes in my head. I can hear the woman’s raspy breathing, in and out, in and out, in and cough, in and out. A general drone, I think B flat, buzzes incessantly in my ear, worming its way through my ear canal and twisting into my brain. It is unbearable. My eyes are in revolt now too, refusing to blink, forcing my eyeballs to twitch around and take in everything. The noise the light the sounds the bright it is too much. I stand suddenly, surprising the revolutionaries with my unexpected tactic, and temporarily regain control. I take great strides away from the chair, away from the woman, towards freedom.
But it is a trap. There is no escaping. To attempt it is futile.
I stand before the open doorway, gazing at the bright red exit sign. I know I can’t leave yet, I have to keep waiting, but I can’t accept it. Standing and staring occupy me better than the sitting and staring.
At least for a while.
Soon the standing becomes pacing. Around and around the room, past the water cooler, through the rows of chairs, in front of the television and empty desk, lapping the room. The cyclic pattern is dizzying in a good way. Tyranny is harsh, and I know suppressing the revolt will only anger the revolutionaries further, but the pacing is soothing. I can feel my nervous energy exiting my body with each breath I take, pushing out through my lungs and dispersing into the atmosphere. I see the breakdown in the air, the bonds between molecules and atoms weakening as pressure is exerted.
I stop, aware my organs are preparing for battle, and sit. The hard uncomfortable plastic blue chairs do not seem very appealing so I settle for the ground. My legs, clad in denim, block the passage. The old woman is trapped. She does not seem alarmed, just continues to breathe and cough. I know I am a genius. She is even more ensnared than I am, and she doesn’t even know it! Miles of denim, firm unyielding dark blue denim, must be the dreaded enemy of worn down tennis balls. There is no escape for her. Now she can’t leave me alone here.
I am king of the corridor, protector of the passage. None shall pass here without slaying the denim dragon.
Suddenly things start moving quickly. My brain, trying to organize and strategize with some of the organ systems, does not respond to receptors effectively. The old woman is making a break for it and I cannot stop her! Her walker glides by, her feet fly, and she is gone. My legs did not respond fast enough to prevent her wily escape. I manage to make my head turn. It takes a lot of effort, but my neck muscles strain, and I follow her movement from where I am. I regain sight of her, standing in front of the desk. The woman in scrubs and ugly shoes is giving her papers on a clipboard.
I had a clipboard once. I drew pictures against it, fastening my paper in and drawing with crayons, waxy masterpieces that were lost to the sands of time. I had aquamarine and tangerine and eggplant and sixty-one other colors in a box, with a sharpener on the back.
The woman in scrubs is watching me. I beg and plead for my body to take a temporary halt, and to my surprise, it obeys. Most likely in the interest of self-preservation. A high-pitched beeping sound emits from a strange device near the desk and the woman leaves. As a wearer of scrubs, she has the ability to leave. If my brain was listening to me, I would ask it to make a mental note to find scrubs. However, my brain is deeply involved in the task of finding my subconscious. Tension begins to build as the barriers of layers of my mind are broken down. I can’t take this but it’s happening.
My brain is making it happen, right now.
What I’ve been trying to hide from, run away from, is breaking to the surface.
I see her face.
Her beautiful, sweet trusting face, smiling at me. The sunlight hitting her golden hair through the car window and making it even brighter.
My brain keeps going, deeper and deeper. I know I can’t handle this right now. I force my lungs to give me a deep breath, and use my reserve strength. The revolt comes to a screeching halt. I have limited time but that is all I need for now.
Actually, what I need right now is what I’ve been in need of for the last several hours days weeks. I need a hit. Or at least a cigarette. I mentally imagine pulling a fresh one out of the box. Flicking my lighter, the blue flame popping to life. The deep inhale and instant chemical reaction. My tension decreasing, heart rate slowing, body calming down.
I remember my first smoke, when I was thirteen. In my friend’s driveway, coughing and choking but persisting anyway. I never would have thought what felt so disgusting and violating to my esophagus could one day feel like a relaxing balm.
Unfortunately I can’t have that satisfaction now, not here, not in the trap. No cigarettes, no phones, no escape. I’m out of options. As panic creeps in I lose control and the war wages on. My brain starts searching again, my subconscious putting up a pathetically weak fight. I feel a distant sense of pity for it. The subconscious is mysterious and elusive. This intense, head-on attack is shockingly direct and completely unstoppable.
She is smiling and laughing as I drive down the highway, one hand on the steering wheel, the other out the window with a cigarette. It was such a perfect day. So warm and sunny, just right for a spontaneous trip to the beach.
If I had known ahead of time, I wouldn’t have done it. I know I wouldn’t have. No way. I almost never drive while I’m high.
Especially not while I’m driving with my little sister.
It was so perfect and sunny, with a breeze coming in through the window and the radio playing, not too loud, just in an understated kind of way. Her small feet were resting against the dashboard, her toenails painted pink. There was a vein in her ankle that actually bulged every time her heart beat, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The road was way less interesting than seeing an actual heartbeat! So I watched it, amazed at how steady and dependable it was.
The road was less interesting.
Her heart was beating and I could see it, could see how it pumped fresh blood and oxygen around her body and kept her alive.
My organs were nowhere near that steady. My body had already begun betraying me at that point.
My veins tapped out and would keep me from using for days. My stomach shrank and my ribs protruded from my flesh. My hands would shake when I least expected it, making my handwriting illegible and playing guitar impossible.
But here was her heart, beating, keeping her alive and healthy. So I watched it, amazed and maybe even a little jealous.
It was way more interesting than the road,
And way more interesting than the double yellow line,
And way more interesting than the guardrail.
I gasp as my brain suddenly stopped probing. It knew it had won. The struggle is over. I cannot move, trapped within myself in this room. Over and over again I see her face. I see her pulsing vein, so strong and steady. A pair of ugly shoes comes into my line of vision. A woman in scrubs squats down next to me. Her lips move. They are softer and plumper than the old woman’s had been. Her hand rests on mine. I force my eyes and ears and brain to work together to decipher what strange message is being conveyed.
I’m so sorry.
There was nothing we could do.
How can that be true? Her ankle is still beating.
There’s no way, no way…
I get up stretch my legs out pushing the tendons and ligaments to their farthest reach. My feet pound against the linoleum tiles. I run to the doorway and through it, under the red exit sign and out.
I escaped. But it means nothing. My body still has me trapped.
My eyes show me her face everywhere I look.
My legs and arms won’t stop shaking.
My ears are filled with the sound of brakes and metal and impact.
My brain is screaming at me, broadcasting my subconscious memory on every level I have, reminding me of every single second of the most important moment of my life.
A moment I could have prevented so easily.
If I hadn’t noticed her heartbeat
Or if I hadn’t agreed to go to the beach
Or if I hadn’t used that morning.
But this one didn’t need to.