And just like that, Therese’s consciousness returned to her body where it lay, curled up in her mid-town apartment. Most of her was heavy with longing to return from whence she came. The piece of her that had set the alarm the night before commanded her body to rise, and she was propelled into wakefulness.
The course of the morning is pre-determined by stage-setting and programming. Therese was programmed for productivity. Her stage was set by her mother’s best intentions.
She stumbled the ten feet between her bed and the bathroom, flicked on the light and shut the door behind her. Blinking her eyes furiously, she cranked on the hot water in the shower, pissed, brushed her teeth, then hopped into the steaming stream. She spent just enough time in the water to scrub every bit of her body, not so much that she was able to relax into it. In the same style as she had forced herself out of bed, she now turned off the faucet, stepped out of the shower and into a towel. Rubbed herself down, blew her hair dry, and threw on the clothes she had hung on the door. She styled her hair, applied makeup à la coffee shop face. Light concealer, mascara, red lipstick.
She didn’t bother with breakfast. She had packed her briefcase, which she snagged on her way out the door, with an apple, some dry breakfast biscuits and a pouch of almond butter.
Her morning walk was mindless. She was in the zone of walking quickly whilst dodging anyone in less of a hurry than she, which, coincidentally, was most people.
Once she entered the cafe, she stepped up to the counter – no line this morning – and ordered her drink: double-shot espresso, steamed milk, but no, no sugar please (it made her head foggy and her writing suffered for it).
From the moment she had left the cocoon of her apartment, she steeled herself with the blank-face that served as the psychic armor of the city. Behind that mask, Therese ran circles around the day ahead of her. Everything she needed to complete, everything she hoped to do, all the plans she had made for that evening. The point of the coffee was to help her straighten that shit out.
Drink in hand, she made her way to the back of the coffee house and chose a table in the corner. She set her drink down, popped open her briefcase and pulled out her laptop. As she waited for the computer to start up, she sipped her coffee and surreptitiously munched on one of her biscuits.
She chose this spot for her work week after week, not because the drinks were particularly well-made, or for her fondness of veggie clubs, but for its lighting. More specifically, it had some. The opium den ambiance of the other neighborhood cafes seemed to inspire too much socialization for her productive grind. She could have her nose fully engrossed in her laptop, typing away furiously on the latest job, and some old lady would ask her, specifically, where to find such and such theater. A restless looking young man would ask her, where did she find her top? He wants to know for his sister. *wink*
She logged into her freelancing software – essentially an application that kept track of the hours spent on a project – and started in on today’s assignments.
She was developing content for a couple of law firm websites. Not her passion, not her calling, but that was where she had experience, and experience was what got her work. She recalled the internship for a fashion magazine she had been offered during her days at university. Days like today, she couldn’t recall why she had turned it down.
At least it was Friday.
Therese sat at a circular table across from her friend, Brandi, at an underground comedy club. On stage was a bald, caramel-skinned man in a charcoal gray pinstriped suit.
Therese and Brandi had first watched him perform stand-up at a comedy festival during their college days, and had bonded over their enjoyment of his ability to offend several different cultures in a single joke. Now, they met in this club every third Friday of the month to see his latest act. Somewhere between now and then, their sense of novelty and hilarity was traded in for familiarity. They were devoted to him not because of interested engagement, but because it was comfortable. A sense of belonging for a $30 cover charge.
The comedian was second-generation Pakistani, and particularly good at accented impressions. When they discovered Aziz Ansari months later, his act only got better. His performance tonight was especially offensive; the tables around them were raucously screaming in laughter. Brandi had an absent-minded smile pasted sideways across her face. Therese stirred her drink.
In between breaks in the routine, Therese and Brandi engaged in small talk. They called it “catching up.”
“How goes the freelancing gig now that you’ve quit your day job?” Brandi asked, maybe because she was genuinely interested, but more likely because there was nothing else new between them.
“Oh, it’s…it’s dreadfully boring actually,” Therese confessed, deciding the occasion of the Friday called for frankness rather than the contented complacency of the workweek.
“I worry about you sometimes, you know. Living alone, working alone…”
“But that’s what I like about it!” Therese blurted. “It’s so freeing to not have to conform to other people’s expectations and schedules…” And that’s exactly why Therese chose to freelance: freedom. But now that she was in it, she realized she still conformed to others’ expectations and schedules, only on a shorter contractual lifetime. And this way, anything that went wrong fell entirely on her own head.
“But aren’t you lonely?” Brandi asked, her tanned face twisted in incredulity.
“Well, yes. But not any more than I was when I was working at the firm…”
“Girl, you should get on tinder.”
The last time Brandi made this suggestion, Therese told her that despite being interested from the standpoint of a social scientist, she couldn’t escape the feeling that it commodified sex somehow, which wasn’t something she was personally interested in. It felt so impersonal to her. It made her feel hopeless about romance, which was far from feeling hopelessly romantic.
This time, rather than respond, Therese stirred her drink.
Therese walked quickly through the dark city streets, her head down and her shoulders hunched. The cold wind ripped through her, drawing her attention to the fact that she wasn’t wearing anything more than a dark blue blanket, which she clutched tightly to her naked body.
Paranoia crept over her, and a gruff male voice called out, “Give it up, girlie!” Therese pulled the blanket tighter around her and picked up her pace.
Someone coughed, and Therese looked sharply to her right. A tangle of faces, with shadows for eyes, leered up at her from the darkness. She broke into a dead sprint, then tripped and smashed straight into the ground below.
Therese found herself alone in the waiting room of some kind of medical establishment. The walls were white, the floors and chair cushions a flat, clinical blue. Reception was empty; the phone was ringing.
A nurse in black scrubs walked into the room. She held a clipboard in front of her chest.
Therese stood up and followed the nurse through the swinging door into a whitewashed corridor. On either side of the long hallway was examination room upon examination room, each one with a small square window. She glanced into one of the rooms. A large, undressed woman sat on the examination table, her hands on her knees. Her face was grotesquely lumpy and her small eyes, set deeply into her face, stared blankly out at her.
Therese stirred sickly at the root, and her face flushed red. The nurse turned a corner, but Therese kept walking. The fluorescent bulbs overhead darkened into a thick forest canopy.
All was quiet. The light of a full moon burned coldly through the branches above her. Beneath her feet, the earth was dry and cool. The dirt sifted between her toes as she walked.
Just then, her momentum ran out. Everything that propelled her from home to city streets, to comedy clubs, to cafes, to cradled consciousness. It all shriveled up.
She fell hard to her knees and folded forward at the waist. A moment passed and she scooped a handful of dirt. She looked into it, took a breath, then poured it over her face. It’s coolness washed over her skin, down the front of her chest, over her belly and spilled back to the earth. She folded forward again, this time pressing her cheek to the ground before her, her arms stretched over and around her head. The earth curled up around her body and swallowed her whole.
Saturday morning, Therese awoke at daybreak. She slipped out of bed and into a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and a large cardigan. Slipped into her shoes and out the door.
She didn’t know where she was walking, only that walking was what was called for. She needed to feel ground beneath her feet, air moving over her skin, blood pulsing through her veins.
The light of the sun was just beginning to creep over the standing giants of the city. As she walked, the trance of the early morning was deep over her.
She stopped in front of an old used bookstore. On either side of the shop’s door was a box of flowers. Above a cluster of golden geraniums floated a tiny purple butterfly. Therese’s breath caught in her chest. How miraculous, she thought, that this paper-thin creature, alive with color, could be found fluttering amongst these walls of cement, steel and glass?
When she arrived home, she carried out her usual Saturday routine. Laundry, clean house, late breakfast, tend loose ends on her current writing assignments. Then, she shook it up. Rather than veg on the couch, watching Netflix into the late evening, she took a nap. And when she awoke from that deep, cleansing slumber, she sat before her desk with a pad of paper and a favorite pen, and she began to write a story. It went something like this.