The room keeps spinning, making my guts feel like they’re not my own. I roll my eyes and take a sip of water, hoping it stays down. My apartment echoes as I put down the glass and look up to see the little remains of glue in the gaps of wallpaper. I still faintly smell the cigarette scent. The smell has become part of the apartment after years of smoking inside by the previous tenants.
I look longingly at the Marlboro box on the balcony table. It’s gray and rainy outside. The weather is as dull, just as numb as my mind has been ever since I walked into the therapy center and started my intense psychotherapy with the bald know-it-all shrink. I wish it would thunder, that the sky would rip apart and pour down its entrails.
I wish the hurricane I saw in the news on the therapy center’s TV would travel up to our northern country. I wish it would toss my body down the balcony and around the gray playground and dirt roads surrounding the apartment complex I’m moldering in. I wish something would happen.
I roll myself off the couch and crawl toward my beloved cigarettes when the doorbell rings.
“Who the fuck,” I mumble and keep crawling. The doorbell won’t stop its annoying tinkle. I sigh and get up on my feet. I’m fiercely hoping I ordered a pizza and the pills simply made me forget. There isn’t a human being on this planet I would like to see right now.
“Yessss?” I hiss angrily as I swing the door open.
Two men, both as tall as the Empire State Building, wearing gray suits, hold bibles and stand dead still at the doorstep. One of them sticks a flyer so close to my face, I can smell the scent of newly printed paper.
One of the tall men starts his mantra, talking fast, without any notes or stuttering whatsoever. “Do you have a moment to discuss your afterlife in the heavenly paradise where only chosen…?” If I wasn’t so nauseated and annoyed I may have been impressed by his long, memorized blabbering.
“Listen, my father had cancer, which he was supposed to beat, and he should be home by now. But he isn’t home. He’s dead and buried and I’m here popping pills and trying to come up with a reason why I shouldn’t join him. Can you help me?”
If I wasn’t so desperately craving a cigarette, I’d feel bad for the two men as they quickly shove the flyer at me and run down the stairs.
“So much for my heavenly paradise, I guess.”
I shut the door and get back on all fours. Now my relief is waiting on the balcony table at least ten meters away. I start toward it. As I crawl past the old, stained futon couch, I see an old condom wrapper surrounded by an endless amount of dust bunnies.
“Well, that’s fucking classy.”
Familiar bouncing pain starts from the back of my head. It begins its relentless travel toward my left ear. The pain is a common visitor during my days at work, but I rarely ask for any time off. Why would I? The pain would follow me home, or anywhere I would try to go to escape it. I rub my neck and stare at the bread loaves. The suffocating feeling in my throat makes inhaling difficult so I end up holding my breath. Wonder how many people would feel bad if I simply didn’t exist anymore? The bread bags make a dull thump when I toss them onto the never-ending bakery shelf. How long was it since my last cigarette break?
Passing the “staff only” sign, I hope my supervisor went home early as he tends to do on Friday nights. My last break was only fifteen minutes ago. It doesn’t help my anxiety that the supermarket is having a Fun-for-Kids night, and the whole store is crawling with creepy mascots that lurk around the corners, making the kids scream out of joy, and me out of fear. I despise mascots. Nearly as much as I hate dolls, clowns, masks and clay figures, all of which seem to have taken over this shitty, tacky store. The cigarette pack gets stuck on my size-too-large baggy store pants with pockets that are clearly meant for miniature people. Not that I am huge. The liquid diet has made my round belly disappear, and I desperately need to buy smaller bras. Because shopping sounds as pleasant as dinner at Hannibal Lecter’s house, I have improvised and wear sports bras now.
The air feels crisp and chilly on my skin. Fall has arrived, killing off every leaf, one by one, making them brown and soggy, doomed to fall to the ground and be forgotten for good. I see customers running through the dark, foggy parking lot, probably happy knowing they would soon be home in their cozy living rooms, ready to eat their frozen meals and binge-watching another episode of whatever TV show they are into at the moment. The enormous store trash cans reek next to me, full of yesterday’s bakery and fish goods, waiting for the city garbage truck to empty them.
I speed dial a familiar number and instantly hear a slightly worried voice after the dial tone begins its beeping.
“What up, dude?” Harri’s deep voice is meant to sound light and carefree, but he fails miserably. He tends to call me “dude” when he tries to sound untroubled and cool.
“Yeah, hi… Yeah, I know it’s only been fifteen minutes since I last called… No, I’m fine… Except that I’m thinking of crushing my hand between the metal doors so I can go home and have a beer or twelve.”
The taste is somewhere between numbing and stinging. I take big gulps of my drink and look around the bar where the annoying blinking disco lights are in harmony with the awkward dancing boys and girls. Half of them must be underage, I think, while I desperately try to get the bartender’s attention. I have decided not to flirt, although I know it would help him finally notice me. Flirting seems like too much work, just to be able to pay a ridiculous amount of Euros for a shitty, watery drink.
“Are you sure you won’t dance? You love this song!”
Harri’s face shines with sweat and he moves his wide but fit hips to a 90s pop song the two of us loved when we were teenagers. We had listened to it loud, on repeat, pissing the neighbors off beyond belief. Every now and then one of the neighbors would come to the front lawn and shout, “You little shits! Turn that fucking moaning down or I’ll call the cops again!”
Remembering our rebellious years usually made me roll on the floor laughing, begging Harri to stop talking so I could inhale some oxygen to save my life. His dark, manly face would stay serious and jokingly judgmental, while he would describe how much he despised the way the two of us had interrupted the suburban peace and quiet. The smile behind his fake serious face was one of the biggest reasons we had become friends, and I never stopped adoring the way Harri carried himself, whatever the situation. No matter why he had to stay cool, be it lying to the police after we had broken into a swimming pool for a midnight dip, or explaining ourselves after being caught mixing water with the half-empty vodka bottles we stole from his or my father’s liquor cabinet, he had never panicked or stuttered. It was one of the biggest wonders in this world why Harri wasn’t an actor living up on the green hills of Hollywood.
“Nah, you go ahead, this fucking bartender is killing me. I think I’m done for tonight,” I yell at my best friend’s sweaty and bouncy face, and jump off the bar stool, clearly drunk enough not to remember a thing tomorrow morning. I walk toward the patio and light up a cigarette.
The kiosk at the main market place looks busy. People are singing old songs about a country where fathers can’t support their family, so they choose to chase their wives and kids into a freezing winter night with an axe. What a weird country. Whoever came up with that song must be famous, but he is most definitely not wealthy. You need to go overseas to become wealthy. Or stay here, keep on trying, and freeze to death.
I pass a drunken singer on my way to the taxi stop.
“Heyyyyy, you! Yeah! Come here, you. I got a sausage for you.”
Seeing said sausage fall from the drunken man’s paper plate makes me wonder how many days it has been since I last ate. Two? Three? Harri keeps stuffing my freezer with cheap frozen pizzas but unless he comes over to prepare one of them, I usually end up going to bed with an empty stomach. I force my eyes to abandon the sausage on the ground, and continue my way to catch a taxi.
“You want to share a taxi, miss? Where are you headed?” A slightly less drunk man without sausages or native songs is looking at me, clearly waiting for an answer. I look at him and think of joining him for a shared ride. Why not? I could even go to his house with him. What harm would it be? After two seconds of consideration, I quickly walk past the slightly less drunk guy and hop into the taxi, asking the driver to leave. I don’t need to look back to know which finger I got from my fellow countryman.
The dim gray morning light escapes through the window shades, burning my achy eyes. Outside, the neighborhood kids scream and chase each other, making my head feel like it’s about to explode. Three days—it’s definitely been three days since Harri was over to prepare me a proper meal of Hawaiian pizza. Most days my late-night dinner after six or nine beers has been pickles straight out of a jar, and a couple spoonfuls of cottage cheese. Beer has oats in it; it must count for something.
Sleeping beside me, I see a familiar face, making funny wheezing sounds.
“Bitch, now you’ve done it,” I mumble to myself. Of course it had to be one of my closest friends, one Harri had called “dibs” on, no matter how straight the guy assured us he was. How the hell was he here? He hadn’t been with Harri and me at the shitty pop song rapping club, where people only went when they wanted half-priced watery alcohol.
He slowly wakes up. “Oh, hey… um… morning?”
The room spins with awkwardness.
“Hey, would it be okay if we didn’t tell anyone about this? I mean, shit might get awkward if the guys found out,” I say, trying to look at my friend’s sleepy hangover eyes, failing miserably.
“Shit… yes… I mean, yeah.”
“Yeah no, cool, bygones.”
We would make a terrible story for a romantic comedy, or an episode of reality TV. Our dialogue would make me yawn with boredom, if I wasn’t too busy feeling nauseated and more awkward than I have felt in years.
My T-shirt and college pants are conveniently tossed next to my nightstand, and I have never been so grateful for not cleaning my house or not bothering to do laundry for months. I pull on the slightly stinky pants and the old T-shirt I have worn nearly every night since the day my dad brought it home from one of his never-ending business trips to Europe. The shirt is black with gold letters in front, something in French, but I have never looked up what it means.
“Tu sais que?” he snorts a bit and I stare at him like he has just suggested we call all our friends over to join this little party. “You… your shirt. I didn’t know you took French back in school.”
The awkward silence returns in full force and neither of us knows what to do with our hands. His eyes are hopelessly searching for something else to look at other than the front of my old black souvenir shirt.
“I got a shift starting soon. Can you… well… leave?” I laugh nervously, trying not to sound too rude. It’s nearly impossible to bear him sitting there, completely naked and confused, for one minute longer.
“Yeah no, I’ll go. Thanks. I mean… ugh… fuck.”
Did he just thank me for sex?
Feeling more than humiliated, I tiptoe my way to the white-and-blue tile bathroom and throw up. The front door makes a sharp clink when my friend leaves, probably still in the middle of dressing, pulling his pants on in the hallway. It is obvious he won’t say anything to anyone. There is no need for either of us to brag about our numerous one-night stands. If anything, we would have a competition to see who was winning. But this lay would never make our lists; it would be forgotten by tomorrow.
The tile floor feels cold under my knees and I pull myself up, holding onto an old Whirlpool next to the white toilet seat. Half way up I feel my gut twist and a full load of yesterday’s bad decisions travel up my throat. White Russians are definitely not the greatest drinks, if one is to see them again the next day. Maybe I should stick to whisky or cognac, like my dad always had. I wonder if he ever woke up next to his good friend, and if he ever had lain on the bathroom floor throwing up White Russians.
Doubt it, I think to myself. He had way more style than that.
The night after my White Russian incited mistake, I wake up screaming. I listen for footsteps or sounds that are not supposed to be in my echoing apartment. It’s dark and the radio is on, as it is every night, to make me feel safe. Safe from what? I don’t know for sure. There are no weird sounds or voices, but I’m still paralyzed by my dream. I reach for my cell phone and sweep through the recent calls.
“Um, hi. Are you still playing? Yes. Can I please sleep on the couch?”
I force myself up, my heart racing as I pull on a fluffy winter coat and grab my leather purse from the wooden table in the mudroom. While running down the stairs, I search the bag for my car keys. Before I get to the parking lot, I feel the bite of frigid air and my flannel pj’s not protecting me against the freezing cold. At least the winter coat is keeping my upper body warm.
All the apartment windows are dark. I hear drunken shouts from the local pub not too far from the apartment complex. My ex is addicted to an online game that keeps him awake every night until the hour when most people are waking to their alarms and getting ready for another work day. I know my ex hates my guts, but is way too good of a person to tell me I can’t come home after having one of my night terrors.
I drive the ten minutes toward downtown and park my old and loud Opel on a football field close to the front door. It took me a long time to understand why I’m terrified of random sounds and being alone in the dark, but I’m not afraid to go to the pitch-dark back yard and wait for him to throw a key off the balcony on the third floor. My monsters and demons are not in the woods or in the dark; they are all in my head. Those relentless monsters continue to tell me I’m insane, losing it, a worthless wreck.
I open the apartment building’s front door, enter the hallway, and wait for an old creaking elevator that always smells like dog piss and cigarettes. Oh, how I miss that smell every day now. While opening the apartment door—my name still on it—I see a familiar light from the living room where trolls, wizards, and orcs are wildly fighting for their lives on the computer screen. My ex doesn’t bother to turn around or greet me.
I look around and realize the living room is still half empty and echoing—just like it is in my lonely apartment only ten minutes away. We had split our belongings so both apartments would have some furniture and enough light to see in the dark winter nights. I stack the old couch pillows on top of one another and crawl under a too-small blanket that smells like him.
“I miss you,” I mumble, knowing his headphones would block any unwanted sounds from his surroundings. I am most definitely one of them—an unwanted sound, far from a hero or a wizard who would save the day and kill the evil orcs.
Morning is the time when I feel the crappiest. I wake up in a sunny room and stretch for a cigarette pack on the table. It’s not my brand; his smokes are way too strong for my taste, but I light one up. There’s no one in the apartment, just trash from a fast-food chain not too far from our… his apartment, and endless cigarette butts on ashtrays shaped like skulls.
I let the room spin and lay back down while the nicotine does a number on my empty stomach and tired brain. If only it was darker and raining. I hear the kids at the kinder garden play out back. Their cheerful screams and giggles are like a thousand stabbing knives to my ears. It feels unreal knowing that normal people are working their jobs, building their futures, and loving their loved ones. None of that matters to me anymore, and yet at the same time, having a normal life is what I miss more than anything else. Feeling numb is not much better than feeling awkward. These self-conscious moments feel like being naked in a room full of people, while everyone is doing their best to ignore my lack of clothes.
Sitting up gets me coughing. I cough until my lungs feel like they have small tears all over them. I notice all the paintings are gone. Most of the carpets as well. Maybe I took too much? The new apartment is way smaller than this one, which used to have two tenants living in it.
His empty apartment makes me feel anxious and I no longer want to stay here, knowing I will find things I don’t want to know about—like that cute red perfume-scented sweater on the kitchen table. The red is so bright it hurts my eyes. The violent shirt screams at me, saying, That’s right, you pathetic little being! I am here and I sure don’t have to sleep on the couch, freezing my toes and smelling like cigarettes. I smell divine! I’m strong!
If it was two or three months ago, I would stick my tongue out at the sweater or even put it on—borrow it to make a statement.
Oh yeah? Well, I live here, I cook here, and I’m even stronger, brighter! I would say, loaded with confidence. But it’s not two or three months ago. It is now. So I shy away from the eye-burning sweater and find the key to my Opel. The dog-piss elevator creaks on its way up. I look back and notice the janitor has finally removed my name off our front door. His front door.
“What the hell? I thought we had a verbal agreement?” I say weakly, knowing it really doesn’t matter. My employer, Jake, tries to look me in the eye, failing terribly. He nervously keeps picking up products that are placed on the wrong shelves in his crappy little supermarket. The Kids Day made a huge mess. I follow my boss around the store, listening to the recording play the same annoying songs from the early 80s. Jake knows he has done me wrong, letting me go, after asking me to make a commitment for another year. The request for me to continue the contract happened only a few months ago, before I had told Jake about dad passing away and that I needed a short sick leave. My paper-white face and weak body, spreading way too thin must have changed his mind about keeping me around. There was no way I’d have the fight in me to stand up for myself. And at the end of the day, I would much rather stay home and sleep during the day, when the nightmares are easier to handle. Money isn’t a problem right now. My share of Dad’s heritage has left me plenty to survive with.
“Keep your crappy bread stacking job,” I say. “I’ll go home and pour myself an early afternoon drink.”
Early winter is getting more brutal. The air feels crisp and stingy to my face. There is no sight of snow and the darkness sticks to everything it touches. The morning dawn and savory of sunbeams have both traveled south, the migratory birds faithfully following them. It is pitch dark. All the time. And I love it. It doesn’t really matter to me if it’s winter, fall, spring or summer. Everything remains gray and meaningless.
Wintertime makes me feel slightly more normal because the dreadful darkness eventually takes everyone over. It caresses people in its cold, hopeless arms until they never want to leave. The darkness leaves the gray, wet city streets empty. The only place one can find other human beings is the local pub. I hear the meaningless hollering and bottles breaking when I sit on the cold balcony floor, sucking on what must be my ninth cigarette.
The local drunkies are an interesting crowd. In a way, they are the saddest group of people ever known. On the other hand, they have a clear purpose in life. They get up late in the morning, walk or bike the hundred or so meters to the pub door, go in and have at it. They may be sad and angry, but between the angry shouts of “I used to be someone” and “Don’t you know who I am” they share a few laughs and keep tapping each other on the back. “Good man, good man,” they repeat until someone’s fist flies through the air, breaking off their fellow man’s yellow cigarette-stained tooth. Then they sober up in the nearby woods, or rarely, if they are lucky enough to get there, they spend the night in their own shitty government-paid apartments. Then yet another morning arrives, and they do it all over again.
The shrink reminds me of Dr. Freud. He doesn’t look like Sigmund Freud as much as he just looks like a “Sigmund.” It amuses me how he has a precise expression on his face when he comes up with a theory, but desperately wants to make it my idea.
“Have you ever thought that maybe your relationship with your father had something to do with… I don’t know… hmm… maybe… with… your…?”
Well, abso-fucking-lutely. I have thought of basically any and every possible scenario, from a childhood trauma to a brain tumor. It isn’t my parents’ fault; none of it. Mom and Dad did a pretty damn good job, if one were to ask me. And Sigmund always asks.
“How about, hmm… Have you ever wondered if—”
His hum is almost deafening.
“Fucking yes, I have wondered. I live with this head! If I knew why I’m acting this way, ruining everything I touch, you would be one patient down, wouldn’t you?” I want to scream instead of listen to his endless guessing and humming. But I never yell at Sigmund. He is just another tiny little human, just like the drunkies at the local pub, or my video game addict ex-fiancé. Just like me. None the more, none the less.
The walkway is full of slush, a sad combination of wannabe snow and freezing cold rain. I kick the mushy stuff as I walk back to my Opel, wondering if I got a parking ticket. Because I am not into gambling—cards make me feel stupid and I once lost my rent money in roulette—I have created a personal gambling game of never paying for parking. Just for shits and giggles. Anything that would make me giggle.
So far the only thing that made me nearly feel like laughing was Dr. Sigmund’s gummy wonder face. But I never laugh or cry in that office room, full of IKEA furniture and the “must have” tissue box placed between the brain picker and the brainee. I know he is dying for me to cry. For something to open, to make the waterfalls wild and free. Not to make me feel better but to succeed as the overpaid psychotherapist he is. He will ask me if he could write about it in his newest book, I care – Therefore I Heal, written by Sigmund the Second. That will be my fifteen minutes of fame, my story, published in a book. A classic case. Sex addict. Daddy issues. Pill popper. Alcoholic. All the symptoms are there. But wait! There’s more! The best-selling story, a revolution, how Mr. Sigmund made it all my idea. This miracle doctor knows how to make the patient heal themselves. “With a special price of eighty-five Euros an hour, you can heal yourself as well!” He is so desperate for his brainwashing to work, I almost feel sorry enough to play along. Maybe next week I will.
The slush starts to melt into puddles. I feel the ice-cold rain drizzle turn into a pour. No parking ticket. No shits and no giggles.
The never-ending winter eases off a bit, and the slightly warmer day makes the barnyard muddy and slippery. It’s still early and the barn is nearly empty. Every day I try to avoid the other riders and workers. Tacking up the old gelding, I make some level of a saddling world record. There is one guy, with expensive brand clothing, who is constantly around. He works at the barn, running the business and keeping an eye on the staff. He approaches me from the distance, so I speed walk to the mounting block and get on the saddle. The gelding turns on his back end and we trot off before the barn manager has time to reach us. Small talk is the last thing I need right now.
The quiet woods and fields make me feel calm. The trot quickly turns into walk and the two of us, the gelding and I, aimlessly wander around.
“Something has to change. Everything has to change,” I mumble to the gelding as it walks in a calm, slow pace. I can almost see him nodding his huge horse head as in agreement.
Yes it does, you pathetic wobbly human being, yes it does, he seems to think.
I pick the longer way around the gardens and enter the never-ending fields. Although I could stay here, in the middle of nowhere, for hours, my older companion gets achy joints if I push him too much, or ride too long on the trails. We make a U-turn and take a shortcut through the playground to get back home. The gelding picks up the pace when he realizes we’re heading toward his lunch grain and hay.
The barn smells like mold and fresh hay. It’s the perfect combination, comforting me almost as strongly as the cigarettes and the day’s first bottle of beer. The old wooden floor creaks as the gelding takes steady steps on it. His shoes echo on the cement part of the barn floor, and the sound takes me back to my childhood.
My dad had always insisted I have at least one hobby, that I exercise at least once a week.
“Riding lessons!” I had screamed without hesitation. The lessons were brutal. Usually I climbed on a nasty white pony called Bon-Bon. My riding teacher was a chain-smoker who had one expression and one expression only: bored to death. Her dull, tired face looked exactly the same in the beginning of the lesson, as it did after the first round when Bon-Bon dumped me on the ground. The teacher was still staring at us, her eyes half shut, the third time I gathered my bones off the mud, swallowing my stupid stubborn tears.
“You getting back on or what?” she would say, not moving a muscle. A giggling row of older girls were hanging on the fence nearby, eagerly waiting for me to run home and abandon the wild and furious pony, so they could ride instead. Never in a million years would I show them I was scared and hurt! I got up on the pony and stayed on… for at least a few minutes, until I was eating dirt again. The tears didn’t come until in the car on our way home.
“Are you going back next week?” Dad would ask, pretending not to notice my scruffy face. Of course I would go back. Because every time I said I would, I could see my dad smile proudly through the rear-view mirror.
The Opel moans in the barnyard parking lot, sounding like a teenager asking their mother for five more minutes of sleep. The jumper cables lie conveniently on the passenger seat.
“Motherfucker,” I hiss. At least my cell phone still has some life left in it. I speed dial Harri’s number.
“Yo, man, whatup?”
It didn’t really matter how many times I told Harri he wasn’t, or would ever be, a badass rap singer from America, he would keep on talking like one.
“Oh, and first of all… You dirty slut! How was it?”
At least he wasn’t angry about my latest blackout, and our mutual friend staying over.
“Can I get back to you on that? I need to jumpstart my car… Yes, again. Can you come to the barn?”
Harri had a few drinks in him already, but he was driving around with Anna, our mutual friend who wasn’t really into drinking or partying. Recently, the new medication, blackouts and lack of interest toward other people’s feelings had cut my friend group to two or three friends. Harri would probably never leave my side—he was as loyal as an old rescue dog, although we all knew he was way too good of a friend to me.
Anna has always been careful not to judge people, and made no exception when hearing about all the fucked up things I had done during my blackouts. Anna would play with her long, slightly curled chocolate-brown hair, listening carefully but never really saying a word. “It is what it is” was the only feedback she would ever come up with, and even then her small, round face would have a peaceful and understanding expression on it. The freckles on her cheeks and her slightly pointy nose made her even more beautiful, if possible. But the most striking thing about her were her bright blue eyes, filled with warmth and light. Anna is one of those people who had no idea how stunning they were. She is humble and kind, which makes everyone adore her even more. Lately, Anna has been busy, not picking up her phone or coming over for frozen pizza. Maybe I’ve finally cracked her never-ending sympathy with the latest nightly adventure including our mutual friend.
I light up a cigarette and stare at the barn manager, wearing a well-fitted jacket and a pair of men’s black riding breeches, lunging his horse on the field to the left of the parking lot. His gelding is running circles around his tall, slender body. He barely ever speaks to me when I’m around, and that’s perfectly okay with me. I’m not interested in finding another one-night stand, especially from the barn, which is my sacred place. It is also a commonly known fact that all dressage riders are gay. I’m sure the fashionable slender guy is no exception, but Harri has never agreed with me.
“My gay radar can’t be misled!” he always says with confidence every time the good-looking dressage miracle is the burning topic of our conversations.
I put out the cigarette when I see Anna’s silver BMW approach behind the pine trees, moving slowly and carefully on the dirt road covered with pot holes. I get up, grab the jumper cables, and open the Opel’s hood, which is covered with mud and dust.
“Whatup, dawg?” my whitest wannabe gangsta friend hollers from somewhere behind the car. I’m busy trying to keep the hood open with a stick I found lying on the ground. Maybe I should stop being such a cheapskate and buy that new battery for this damned car. Finally, the stick supports the hood well enough for me to take a step back and see why my friends have not come over to take the other end of the jumper cables hanging from my hands. They have both lit up their cigarettes, facing away from me, staring at the slender, supposedly not gay man and his gelding still working on the field. A suffocating feeling twirls up my gut, and my heart jumps, continuing to bounce offbeat. My attention isn’t focused on Harri’s black skull-themed hoodie that must be a tour shirt from yet another heavy rock band he has absolutely never heard of. My eyes are locked on Anna, wearing a red sweater so bright it burns my eyes.