A decision that could uproot my life from the concrete and slam it into the palm of my hands pierced in my head like a bad tension headache.
Unclench your jaw, I told myself as I pulled on the straps of my backpack. I locked my molars together and opened my mouth, tossing my jaw from side to side.
The sun slid itself through the leaves of ugly trees and onto the dust and dirt they were bedded in. Thoughts swirled in my mind so loudly I began to have a mental battle.
Not now, I told myself.
Just give me a break.
This could change everything, another part of my subconscious said.
I stepped inside the train and sat down on a seat in the corner of an empty section, not bothering to remove my backpack as I folded into myself. I pressed my elbows onto my thighs and my knuckles dug into my forehead. The only other person was tucked away in the corner scrolling through his phone.
I glanced up at the row of empty ashy chairs in front of me. My glance turned into a stare as my gaze fell onto an abandoned silver spoon that was on top of the seat across from me. I turned up the volume on my AirPods, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t care if the music was too loud.
I wondered if someone had forgotten the utensil after eating a snack on their way to work. Or maybe they didn’t want to go through the hassle of putting a used spoon back in their bag to take home and wash later. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now and I never will and I don’t really care.
As the train moved forward, I focused on the fleeting blotches of light that swiped into the car from the window behind me. Everything felt all too much like a movie, and the combination of the music and the sunlight and the movement of the train and everything else in between made me want to breakdown and cry.
I listened to a slow song that usually makes me happy. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of forgetfulness, so I checked the pockets on my dress as a reflex. Rose quartz, pomegranate chapstick, AirPods case. I stared at the leather front of my scuffed-up black boots. I tried to forget about dressing up for a night out with the girls that was supposed to happen but was called off due to excuses that didn’t feel like real excuses.
The stream of fleeting lights slowed down and so did the train. I pulled myself up and out past sliding doors. I was overwhelmed with the stench of cigarette smoke and seemingly all the sunlight in the world gleamed into my eyes. I squinted and a tear fell down my cheek. I smudged it off with the side of my finger, hoping the lady with the torn red suitcase on the bench didn’t see me.
Crosswalk, crosswalk, apartment, door — I tapped my key fob onto the scanner and stepped into the overly cool, air-conditioned lobby. No one was in sight, and the leasing office was locked with the lights off. It felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, like I walked in through the wrong door of the wrong building.
The room smelled like the strong, almost chemical scent of your hands after you didn’t wash all the foamy soap off. I tapped my thumbs against my index fingers, imagining the feeling of soapy residue between my thumb and index finger.
As I stood in front of the elevator door, tapping the button every five seconds since it tends to forget you’re there until the sixth time the button is punched, I decided to ditch my plan to escape to my studio and walked right back out the apartment building door. The air felt warm as it hit my face and hummed on my cheeks. The breeze cooled the tips of my reddened ears. It felt like late autumn.
Dinner that night was supposed to be Trader Joe’s vegan chicken tikka masala and frozen garlic naan. I deserve a dinner that isn’t from my freezer, I told myself.
I began my journey toward the nearest Indian food joint because I was in the mood to burn a hole through my tongue with the spiciest food I could find. The frustrations of deadlines and decisions I had to make rattled in my tapping fingertips against the pale goose-bumped skin on my thighs.
I passed a couple holding hands — the guy wore cutoff blue denim shorts and held a cigarette between his teeth. The girl wore two different colored Converse, and a variety pack of White Claws balanced against her arm and her chest.
As I passed them they avoided me, acting as if I wasn't even there. I stared into the man’s lit cigarette, and the smell reminded me of New York City and concerts and outside the train station where people without bags or with bags or alone or not alone walked and waited and stood there stressed or content or bored.
For someone who hates cigarettes, I only have pleasant memories associated with the things.
I passed by a fallen tree that looked as if it had just been planted. Construction on every corner which illuminated the dimly lit streets with fluorescent orange. Tossed aside e-scooters that were neglected on the chalky sidewalk.
I walked. And thought about opportunities I then had and opportunities I didn’t have and opportunities I wanted to have and opportunities I’ll never have.
You could just leave this city and never come back, I thought to myself. What and who do you have to lose?
The people at the leasing office wouldn’t be too happy with me.
I walked passed the propped-open door of the Indian food restaurant and was gestured by a young man, who always seems to be working there, to sit wherever, so I did. I chose a booth in the back corner with worn, red plushy seats.
“Just one?” He said.
“Yeah, just me,” I said.
As if it isn’t always just me eating alone there nowadays.
He nodded and turned away.
I sat there. I sat there pretending to look at the menu that was placed on the table in front of me. A deep breath drowned in my chest. I was really alone, and glancing up at the only other people in the restaurant, an old couple silently eating butter and tandoori chicken with sides of kaali daal and basmati rice, I felt alone in the way that sinks into your stomach.
Like being the only kid at the playground when the sun is tucked behind clouds. Having no one to talk to at a crowded party, and they’re out of the good stuff so you’re just drinking tap water in a dirty plastic cup.
Even if I wanted to invite a friend to sit with me for dinner, I didn’t know who would want to join or who even likes Indian food.
I shakily slid the menu closer and scanned. My thoughts swirled into one long thought about the only other person in my life, who at the time wasn’t in my life anymore, who once ate with me at the same restaurant.
I stared at the pictures on the menu and thought about him. He loved coffee shops and nonfiction novels. He had dark brown hair and wire-framed glasses. We once ate at this same restaurant, a little over a year ago, and sat by the window. It was cold out but sunny. I wore a sweater that I thought he might like (and I know he did because he later said so). He wore a black hat (I hated that hat, but I didn’t say so).
He ordered malai kofta, and I ordered some sort of chickpea curry. We shared cheesy naan. He called me a nickname I think about from time to time and have to hold back tears. He told me he could see himself loving me. Joking, I told him I couldn’t.
Now we don’t talk.
The last time I saw him we sat on a curb downtown and drank strawberry and banana smoothies, discussing how unnecessarily complicated things had gotten for no good reason.
My ankles hugged the sides of my backpack on the floor under me. The older couple was slouched in their chairs across from one another. Their bodies were reflected on the glass window next to them. I tapped my nails against the table, thinking about all the people I had met in college who meant something to me, but I no longer know.
My crisis had transformed from — Should I take control of my life and make a decision or two that can help me escape, at least for a little while? To, oh God, all the people I used to spend time with, who used to know me, no longer do, but they still know all my secrets.
The waiter came over and gestured toward the menu. I ordered chicken tikka, garlic naan and rice; when life is peak confusing and stressful and sad and hard, break your vegetarianism, I told myself.
“Spicy, please,” I said.
I thought of a lot of things in that restaurant. My lost relationships that haunted me when I walked through campus avoiding eye contact with people who have similar hairstyles as people who used to be in my life. I thought about my loneliness that picked at my stomach. I thought about anxiety that pinched my brain causing terrible headaches. I thought of opportunities like moving away for a little while or applying for internships in fields I had no experience in.
I soaked in the disjointed atmosphere of the Indian food restaurant. The crimson metallic wallpaper that was ripping in the corners on the walls. The smell of spices and heat. The TV across from me on the wall that played a video of people making authentic Indian cuisine. The leftover grains of rice on the table. The stickiness on the surface. The baby boomer couple in silence, ignoring one another. The quietness of the place. The only sounds were whispers from the turned-down television and dishes clattering behind closed kitchen doors. The only person working there nowhere in sight.
My chipped nail polish. The smudge at the bottom of my right glasses lens. The redness of my knuckles. My growling stomach. The twisted silver ring on my middle finger, the ring one of my friends gave me for my birthday but now has a boyfriend and forgets to talk to me for weeks at a time.
My head pounded. The dryness of my throat felt like an open wound.
The waiter stepped out from behind the kitchen doors. He set the plate of chicken tikka down, followed by the heavy plate of naan and then rice.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Always,” he said.
I pulled the hot plate closer to me, letting the blaring warmth that soaked the ceramic scream into my fingertips. I pushed my fingers down with more force before pulling away. I could feel my face grow a deep red, and I ignored the screaming pain ringing from my fingertips.
Time to dig in.
My first real meal in two days.
Up until that moment, I had been surviving off of iced lattes, Chex Mix and blueberries. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to eat. I felt sick, physically and mentally, so I dug in, leaving no sauce or chicken or crumbs left on the oval plates.
As I ate my meal in silence, I could feel the food filling me with energy. My eyes grew wider, my shoulders stronger, my stomach and mind happier. I left cash on the table for the food and a tip.
On my walk home tiny dots of rain began to fall from a seemingly cloudless charcoal sky. The air was thick and stuffy and wet. As I stepped on dampened cement, I thought about splashing in puddles that didn’t exist; my friends who were consistently too busy; the connections I had lost because of reasons that seem so small now.
The idea of dropping my life in this city and moving to another for a semester or two weighed heavy on me.
How could I leave everyone behind?
They’ve already left you behind and you haven’t even left yet, my subconscious answered.
The rain fell heavier and I began to slow my pace, feeling every single step I took.
I thought about the time I was four and trapped between red and blue foam cubes in a foam pit at my older sister’s friend’s birthday party at the local gymnasium. As I drowned in tears and pillowy pieces, my socked feet kicked at everything beneath me. My arms above my head struggled to grip onto anything, but nothing was concrete enough in order to pull myself up and out. I was found by a teenager leading the next pack of toddlers to the pit and was rescued up onto solid ground. I found my sister and tried to communicate with her through choking sobs. My forehead pounded and was warm like a fever. I couldn’t put into words what I had just endured. She shoved me off and hopped back onto the balance beam with her friends.
I stood there at the crosswalk staring at the orange hand that was telling me to wait. I drew a jagged breath of sticky air into my lungs, and I came to terms with the idea that no one was there to save me if I drowned on the corner of Roosevelt and Broadway.