Vignettes of four different characters -- Laura, Katie, Joseph and Emily. These pieces eventually became my first novel, Return If Possible.
The orange glow lets Laura Blakely know it’s 03:42. She wonders why the colon flashes repeatedly, over and over, before synchronizing its absence with her blinking. Now she won’t have to deal with the problem anymore. She believes there are two types of insomnia. The first, she posits, is often accompanied by the feeling of tiredness to the point of being unable to work on something constructive, thus forcing her to lie there, in bed, getting more and more annoyed at the increasing light outside, mockingly dribbling in. Every which way she lies is awkward. Prone becomes supine, supine becomes lateral. Refreshingly cool becomes frustratingly hot. A pillow gets flipped. She questions if there is anything more repulsive than sitting on a pre-warmed toilet seat. The duvet gets tangled in the thrashing of her legs, then thrown off in a rage. It’s the knowledge that the previous occupant has had to sit there, arse-hole-naked, for so long that their warmth has transferred into the rim, that distresses her. Her head now feels too high, so she throws off a pillow. Then immediately regrets the decision. She worries about how tired she will be at work tomorrow. She thrashes her legs further in aggravated misery; smashes her head on the mattress in ambivalence. She dreads to think of the how many pubic hairs she has had to sit on over the course of her lifetime, and of all the hygienic concerns the whole affair entails. She’ll try lying on the floor but always ends back up on the mattress eventually. This is where she is now.
The second type of insomnia relates, she feels, to obsession. The feeling of being on a roll; completely unable to stop the task at hand because of its all-encompassing absorption. The kind of night where the sun coming up is the only thing that makes her look at the clock. The kind of night where she actually wantsto stay up because it’s dark and cold and lonely and there’s no one to judge her rampant thoughts as she slowly turns insane.
Laura always strives for perfection. The amount of pressure she puts on herself in her quest for the unattainable is quite literally killing her. The only reason she has yet to kill herself is because she can never bring herself to write that suicide note. It would need to be completely perfect - her magnum opus; the crème de la crème of suicide notes. The irony of this fact slowly kills her too.
Drunk. Her vowels stumbling in front of antique shows, shows of rich couples finding their “ideal home” in the countryside, with all the dreams of profligacy we audience members are meant to share. The kind of shows where they try to cram as many puns as they can into those 30 minutes of hell. Then there are the game shows. The grating buzzers and unforgiving lights; a demeaning display of human ignorance. All day this continues. Loud enough to go through the walls, the ceiling and, eventually, Katie’s skull. Enough to drive anyone into either an insanity of numbness - of anesthesia - or an insanity of rage. It’s pretty much fifty-fifty as to which way you fall.
The house itself is despicable. It’s dangerous to tread with bare feet, lest you smoosh some peas or potato that have been on the floor for decades, or stand in a sticky pool of God only knows. Shoes, or even socks are the only way to go; the latter reduces the disgust of physical skin-contact with the unknown substance and can be changed speedily. You look in the cupboard for a clean anything, but there’s always a stain, always a gummy spot or a dead insect staring back at you.
The dining table has food on it. Twenty year’s worth of meals in the form of crumbs and bites and pieces, all spluttered and sprayed and now lying there, on the tablecloth and under the chairs. Dinner is always served in front of the television; the stodge of inedibility complementing adverts for diarrhoea suppressants almost poetically. There is no use in washing up post-comestible. The brown water oozing from the tap, the slimey sponge and funky tea towels all make the task an impossibility.
The bathroom has a bobbly, plastered ceiling. Each bump, each space between the bumps, lies a thick, dark mould. There’s an old, broken rocking horse in the bathroom. No one can answer the simple question “why is there a rocking horse in the bathroom?”. There are some very dubious brown stains all the way up - or perhaps all the way down? - the walls. Hair clogs every drain in there. A once translucent cup now encases toothbrushes in a thick limescale white. The shower curtain, the sealant around the bath - both now pink - lead Katie to believe even the mould spores are so stressed, so overwhelmed, that they themselves have turned from black to red. And she finds herself sympathising, even feeling sorry for those little microorganisms. There’s something desperately, horrifyingly toxic - and downright chemical - going on in there, if even those nasties can’t keep their colour.
Joseph Santos has invented his own instructions, which he calls How to Watch a Man Fall Apart. Enclose him in a small space; pack him in with the other animals. An aeroplane is ideal for this. Give him just enough to distract him from his own boredom and the reality, the hopelessness, of being stuck in a confined space with hundreds of other sweaty, flatulent, disgusting humans for the best part of a day. A small, personal TV screen (PTV) placed in the headrest of the seat in front, something vaguely edible. These will do nicely. Then make sure his headphones are not quite working. Not completely broken, so it’s obvious what the problem is, but just broken enough so the sound is out of synch with the video, or too quiet. He can’t quite figure out right away that the headphones are the issue. It could be a number of other things. Tease him. Food - terrible food - becomes the most exciting part of his meagre existence. Tiny, plastic containers of miserable joy. The stewardess feeds her herd, as they all look up expectantly at the trolley - the hand of the giver - hearing for the two-hundredth time what is on the “menu”, but asking her to repeat it anyway. Give our guy his plastic cutlery, in his little plastic bag. But make sure the unopened bag has two knives, instead of a knife and a fork. He could be a reasonable man back on the ground; would find these problems only mildly annoying in everyday life. But stick him in up in a cramped, metal box at 30,000 feet, lean a chair back so the half-broken PTV is mere inches from his eyeballs, make his temperature options binary - Tuscon or Yakutsk - give him no real way to eat his dog-grade food - tease him enough so that he can see the respite from his perpetual boredom right in front of him, but can’t actually gain it - and just watch as his mind comes apart.
Emily Donloe woke up, entirely unable to open her mouth without pain. She was always told she would grow out of it but, at 25, she hasn’t yet. Clenching and grinding her teeth in the night, they tell her is the cause. It must have happened around a dozen times in her life - one time in particular she remembers with discontented ease. Her jaw would crack and - she felt - almost dislocate each time she opened it. A few days had passed but somehow she ended up giving a blowjob. By that time she thought her jaw was fine to open and close, but while she sat there with a thick, and particularly slow-to-satisfy, piece of man down her throat, she started to feel quite uncomfortable. Her jaw cracked quietly with each movement of her lips. “Are you OK?” the guy asked after a while. As she tried to open her mouth a little more, there was a crack loud enough for him to hear, and a penis-stifled cry of pain as the jaw very almost did dislocate. She remembers it being awful and awkward and embarrassing. Eventually she had to finish him off in shower, using her hands. Emily felt that, given the circumstances, he could have done it himself. She should have refused to comply after the pain she had gone through, but apparently it hurt him to get excited and then let down. Physically hurt him. A searing pain, apparently. Emily had never heard of that before, but she didn’t like the idea of someone getting hurt because of her.
This current jaw pain is one of the worst. She started out on liquid food for the first day, massaging her cheek and temporomandibular joint as much as possible. She was on slightly chewier things by day three. Soft meat was reintroduced. Packets of ham, in particular, are very welcome and there’s no preparation needed - the last thing Emily wants to think about is food when she is unable to chew. Her throat is very sore and constantly dry. At first she thinks it must be because she slept with her mouth wide open (to try to relax her jaw) but now she realises she is in the beginnings of a cold.
It’s a Sunday, though she needs to go to campus to work on her PhD. She shoves an already open pack of ham in her rucksack and heads off. She would usually take a trip to the urination station (her own term for the lavatory, which she hopes will come into popular usage, despite her friends repeatedly telling her it never, ever will) before leaving the house, but for some reason she doesn’t this morning. This is highly unusual - it is so habitual and routine that the mere thought of “I am about to leave” always evokes the feeling “I need a waz”, therefore, before she even steps out of the door, she always needs to urinate, even if she has already gone within an hour before. Equally, when she arrives somewhere, she will also need to urinate. Habit, or weak bladder, she cannot decide, but she regrets the decision not to go almost immediately and walks quickly, and somewhat awkwardly, for the thirty minutes it takes her to reach her building. When she gets there, her need is excruciating. It takes her a little moment before she realises she left her ID card at home and can’t get into the building. Standing there, desperately, heroically, trying not to urinate all over herself, she calls the two office mates who are potentially sad enough to be in there on a Sunday, too. No response. After contemplating the bushes, she heads over to the library building to relieve herself. By this point she reckons she must be around 40 degrees celsius from the panicked walking and holding-in-of-liquid. Sweating, she takes off her raincoat then looks at herself in the warped toilet mirror, noting how strange she looks in the concavity of the thing. Breathes. She goes into the library, sits down next to some other schmuck - who she notices is reading up on how to become an entrepreneur. As she silently wishes him good luck with that, she opens her bag and notices the guy keeps looking at her. At this point her sense of smell has dwindled (it is almost certainly a cold she’s getting) and it takes her a little while to realise why he keeps looking at her with, what she now realises is, disgust. The ham in her bag is giving off that smell that only the bloody juice of a once-alive pig can produce. She realises the plasmatic fluid has leaked all over her bag, seeping red and yellow into her books. She can feel her throat tighten, realises she is still very warm, and very thirsty. She gets up to use the water fountain, desperate for a drink to soften the ache in her throat. This Problem Has Been Reported, the sign attached to the fountain reads. Breathes. She sits back down in the library on this, a Sunday morning, rolls up her trousers to try to get some air-flow around the calves at least, embraces the stench of her own sweat and the pig bile secreting from her bag, stinking out the whole library, while ignoring the stares from the guy next to her. She wishes she was reeking out her office, on her own, instead, before immediately deciding she needs to take a good, long, hard look at her life. A vibration in her pocket begins to disrupt her thoughts, as she feels her phone ring: Mother.