Therapy Journal June 13, 2009 | Saturday night
Life was so much easier when I was a line drawing. Now I spend my days cooped up in my apartment practicing what should be simple movements (like sitting in a chair or stepping over my cat) and trying on different combinations of layering my clothes to pass the time. Tonight, I left my spatially comfortable home with an ounce of confidence and bottle of delicately aged anxiety to ride the El for the first time. Dressed in an off-white seersucker sports coat over a plunging v-neck t-shirt in the same light, airy orange as the sun-setting sky above, I stepped out onto the sidewalk for the first time in several months. Slowly walking down the boulevard along the open, spacious park I’ve practiced walking along once or twice before, I saw a group of kids running fast at full speed with uncontrollable laughter from the monkey bars on one end of the park to the slide on the other. I’m still mastering lifting one sandbag of a leg and moving it in front of the other at a pace that doesn’t make me look like a robot at the very end of its battery life. Imagining myself trying to run the same path with the same vigor as those kids, I wished this three-dimensional body didn’t feel like lugging around appendage-shaped bags of coal tied to my legs and arms while walking along the ocean floor.
For the few blocks from the park to the El station near my house, I had my full concentration on controlling each movement of what felt like a delicate 10-foot bubble around my actual self. I’ve been practicing walking without thinking so intensely about it for years and I was finally out of my house, finally among other three-dimensional people and I still felt isolated and cooped up in apartment. Those long few block felt like miles with no eye contact with others, no exchanged smiles and no awkward glances. My stomach thick with perpetual loneliness, I entered the station. I found myself before a maze of metal and steel and rods and columns, and couldn’t quite understand how to navigate my body through the turnstiles. Catching my sheer confusion by the look on my face, a sloppily dressed elder Latino man in a navy polyester uniform (that was a few sizes too small, if I may say so) luckily helped me navigate through with a bit of clumsy ease. “It’s alright guy, everyone has trouble the first time,” he told me with a reassuring wink, his head tilted to the side with a curious compassion.
The stairs had me feeling like I wanted to cram my body back into the closest sheet of paper I could find. I have enough trouble navigating my body forwards, backwards and side-to-side, with stairs I had to figure out how to do that and move up and down! It was like standing, hopping, walking and standing again while trying to find your balance on one foot at a time—all things I have trouble doing alone without feeling like a motorized children’s toy. After stubbing my toe on the first step a number of times, I finally managed to lift my leg (what I thought was) high enough off the ground only to go tumbling onto the stairs. Desperately trying to get my balance I reached for ankles wearing no socks under canvas shoes and knees under high-waisted pencil skirts only to bring others tumbling down with me. Sprawled over several steps, my sports coat now covered in greenish brown streaks of muck and grime, I heard a few sardonic mumbles of “fumbling asshole” and “hijo de mierda.” Luckily, the sloppily dressed man in the navy polyester uniform, with both hands firmly on my shoulders guided me towards the elevator. With no comforting reassuring wink, he had a new expression of confusion and worry on his face, while others looked down at me from halfway up the stairs with similar expressions of wonder, concern and aggravation.
The contents of my chest rose to the bottom of my thick, slimy throat along with my feelings of self-deprecating despair. Why did I think I could have a safe, normal venture outside of my house? Why did I think riding the El would be simple, when I could barely maneuver my keys into the holes to lock up my apartment when I left? I already felt like this story needed to end as quickly as possible, and I had only barely entered the station. I felt like I wanted to erase the frames that were drawing themselves each moment after the next. The looks everyone gave me were those same looks I get whenever I venture out of my house—those looks that ask why I, as a full-grown three-dimensional person, don’t already have a mastery of space and my body. I was so humiliated and angered I felt like tearing away all my skin and flesh, I wanted to hear the stretching, popping and scraping of my body being torn away to reveal my true two-dimensional, light and airy self inside of all this mess.
Pushing my feelings down to somewhere below the solid iron ball that was my stomach, I eventually managed to actually step onto a train. I was shocked to realize that people had trained their bodies to sit down without the assistance of a sturdy end table. The temperature of my face rose and my pores opened up like blooming flowers to release the sweet fragrance of my sweat. I stood in front of an empty seat and tried to let my body fall into it, like I saw everyone else do with such grace. The train started moving at the same moment I let my stiff body fall straight backwards. The back of my head banged against the wall above my seat with a loud, hollow thud and my body was thrown sideways into a black woman in a colorful, well-fitted summer dress with complimentary colored pumps and clutch. She had unfortunately just started sipping a cup of coffee that turned all the yellows and reds in her dress into depressing shades of brown. As I stayed lying face down on the floor of the train all the air left my lungs leaving them thin and small in my chest. I wanted everything to disappear and all the space around me flattened into the last frame of a story after which I could just be no more. I only took in a few of the remarks she and the other passengers gave me, but “an utter waste of space” echoes in my head like a million of the same record being played on different record players with different needles all at the same time. She got off a few stops later, seeming unsure whether to be angry or to console me. I laid on the floor of the train car until the end of the line before I decided to try to move again.
Being home has become so comforting to me. I know exactly how many steps I need to take to get from my bed to the toilet. I know exactly how high I need to raise my arm, how firmly I need to grip my fingers, and how hard I need to pull from my shoulder to open the door of my refrigerator. It’s taken me years to feel like I have a mastery of the 1,000 square foot space that is my home. How long will it take for me to master navigating the few blocks around my house? I want to connect with people like I see them interact from my lonely apartment window. When will I be able to buy a coffee every morning from the same barista who knows my order and knows me by name? When will I create relationships with folks who know my cat’s name? The only lesson I can think to gain from this experience tonight is that I’m not comfortable enough in my own body to live the life I’d like to live in this world. That having skin and muscles and bones, this skin and these muscles and bones, doesn’t allow me to really be on the outside what I feel on the inside. These thoughts have been circling in my head since I got home, and has me feeling terribly depressed. I’m going to make myself a manhattan and go to bed, I just I hope I can manage to do all that sometime before the sun comes up.