persona non grata

Fiction, 3/21/11

On Tuesday, I roused to my 6 a.m. alarm and sprang upright, throwing the covers off. Yea verily, I was making a statement: Today would be my day! I saw the sky lightening through my blinds and heard, indistinctly, snippets of birdsong through the single-pane glass. The woods behind my house were still dark, but the birds were stirring and clearing out their pipes. I cracked the window—such was my enthusiasm at the moment!—and the calls grew louder: American robin, northern flicker, black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco. I imagined them to be heralding a glorious spring day, rife with possibility, bursting with potential, a boon simply there for the taking. They were singing to me, those feathered choristers, and it sounded pretty good.

I showered, dressed, and gave myself a stark appraisal in the hallway mirror: not bad. Not bad at all, and it was only twenty past six. I ate my customary peanut-buttered toast, drank my mug of tea, flossed, brushed, and was out the door to catch the 6:47 bus. As I walked up the hill to the bus stop, I started thinking about how many times I had traced these exact steps—far too many to count. A decade ago I walked to middle school this way, and later to high school along a very similar route. There were years and years of twice-daily traverses. I knew exactly how long it would take me to leisurely get to either school (twenty minutes for the former, thirty-five the latter), and how much time I could shave off by running (six minutes and eleven, respectively). I knew the terrain so well, I could probably sleepwalk the route. But who cares? I wasn’t going to school, I was going to the bus stop, which was only seven leisurely minutes (three running minutes) from my house. I was maybe halfway there, it was 6:44, and I began thinking about all the times I had missed this bus in the past, which is not really a pleasant thing to think about, especially while one is hurrying to catch the selfsame bus on a morning clearly destined for greatness, so I banished the thought. Instead, I remembered how, in the eleventh grade, I was stood up for the first time by my first girlfriend ever at this very bus stop. She was a senior at the time, and it was “senior skip day”—a nebulous distinction whereby all seniors were more or less excused from classes somehow. She wanted to hang out and drink coffee (so, so suave) and maybe see a movie, and though I was a junior with a full day of classes ahead of me, I had resolved to shirk my responsibilities and skip school with her. The problem was, she never showed up. I spent half the morning waiting at the stop, vacillating between sprinting to school and cutting my losses; enduring the sheer agony of waiting further; or walking back home and crying myself to sleep. I eventually walked to school in time for fourth period, received a career-smirching unexcused absence, and generally moped around the rest of the day. Later that night she called and tearfully apologized, then broke up with me. It was an edifying experience, to say the least. Play things close to the vest, I told myself, keep the heartache to a minimum, because it’s gonna hurt like this every time.

Anyway, as I was grimly recollecting that debacle and watching my feet propel me forward, I realized I was three steps away from the bus stop. Then the bus arrived, and I was on my way to work. I stared out the window, watching the familiar street corners and storefronts pass by in the gray post-dawn light, and my thoughts turned to Monday night’s phone conversation with my brother. He was feeling down again, not doing well in school, letting his loneliness get the better of him. He would scarcely talk to me, he was so low; I had to pry every word out, like pulling teeth. I told him I sympathized—I wasn’t faring much better, just scraping by, really, sort of waiting for something momentous to happen, which is of course the least effective way to turn things around. But dwelling on our shared predicament clearly wasn’t going to help. Neither was my hopeful prognosticating on life—I just sounded disingenuous and utterly unconvincing, sort of like the blind leading the blind. I never knew what to say when he was like that. “I love you,” I told him, “call me whenever you feel like talking.” Of course he would never call. I always called him, and rather infrequently at that, I might add. “Thank you, I will,” he said. “Talk to you soon.” I had gotten off the phone with that futile feeling again, and I had to sit up and read for a long time before sleep would overtake me.

At 7:35 I arrived at work and things got really hectic, really quick. I resolutely clung to that feel-good vibe for as long as I could, like a shipwrecked sailor holding on for dear life to a bit of flotsam. But everywhere I turned, something or someone seemed poised to wrest my happiness (or hopefulness?) away from me. Maria misplaced my list of afternoon appointments. The photocopier on our floor broke down. My administrator called at one to inform me that I had been passed over for the sales promotion, a promotion I had been all but guaranteed to receive the week before. I was sinking fast, and the joie de vivre of this morning became a distant memory, or perhaps an illusion altogether. It felt almost like a conspiracy, as if the powers that be caught wind of my elation and, deeming me unworthy, sought to smite me down in rebuke. I was baffled and not a little crestfallen by the end of my shift. Packing up my belongings, I called out, “Bye, you guys, see you tomorrow,” as I headed toward the elevator, thinking that seeing everyone there tomorrow was probably the last thing I wanted to do.

Riding the bus home, I tried to think of ways to redeem my trainwreck of a day. It was only four in the afternoon, and the sun was shining intermittently through the clouds. I picked up my phone, thinking I might call someone and arrange something, but my heart wasn’t in it. I wouldn’t want to impose, and that’s precisely how I would feel: like an interloper, an unwelcome burden to be dealt with. I became aware of a numbness spreading through my limbs. Sensation was muted, as if I were drifting off to sleep, losing consciousness. Even the sunlight reflecting off the familiar shops and storefronts seemed to have lost its luster all of a sudden. “Carpe diem,” I remember thinking, and then I fell asleep.


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