It’s Tuesday, late, though I guess it’s not really that late. It’s 11:21 pm. Even though it’s not that late, I’m frustrated by the fact that I’m awake. I’m in bed, transcribing an interview, but I wish I were asleep. I’m tired.
I interviewed one of the captains of the Staten Island Ferry—a woman, the only female captain. I’m doing a piece on women who are the only women in their position for a women’s magazine. I kept calling the woman a driver, and she kept correcting me. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal at the time, because she uses what I consider to be a steering wheel, but hearing how annoyed she was on the tape over and over makes me feel kinda bad. People are into their titles.
I took on the title of “orphan” recently. My father died in car accident seventy-two days ago. My mother died just under fifteen years ago, when I was a teenager, of ovarian cancer. She was young, and it was a surprise. I know the title seems silly because I am a grown up, but it’s hard not to just say “I’m an orphan” when people ask my name, what I do, why I’m at an event or how I know someone. It seems like the right answer to everything.
Getting this interview down hasn’t been easy. My voice is garbled, as if I’d recorded the interview over another. But I didn’t. It’s a new tape. I’ve put on headphones in the hopes that shoving our voices in my ear will make them clearer.
I have to keep rewinding because I can’t make out the questions I’m asking, and I lost the notebook where I’d written them all down. Our voices squeal as they back up, and it seems like no matter where I stop, the woman I interviewed is saying “What? What?” or correcting her status. The interview is transcript style, so my questions matter, and even though I can pretty much tell what I asked from her answers, I’m afraid to get the wording wrong. I’m afraid the captain or someone who knows the captain and to whom the captain will have complained, will call my editor and make a fuss.
But people have been very gentle with me at the office, even via email. At the production meeting last Tuesday, I made suggestions for the anniversary issue and everyone nodded kindly. It was like everyone in the room was my therapist. The editor-in-chief said we could talk more about it and moved on to someone else. When I came to talk to her more about it, she told me finish up this project first, and she asked how I was feeling. She asked how I was sleeping. “Fine” was my answer to both questions, which is pretty much true, and certainly as honest as I am comfortable being at work because I do not wish to present myself as requiring sympathy, or a break. She told me to work from home for the rest of the week because she knows I have dealt with a lot. That is what I have been doing.
My father would not have respected this. He did not respect people who were into their titles, and he did not respect people who presented themselves as requiring sympathy, or a break. He probably would have wanted me to never mention his death, to say that I was going on vacation for a while instead so people would resent me when I returned instead of pitying me for being an orphan, or worse, him for being dead. He would not have believed me had I told him I’d done nothing to warrant this treatment. He would have looked at me suspiciously, as if I’d in fact acted in a way that ensured special treatment and would not have believed me if I explained that I’ve been forcing myself to act just the opposite. I haven’t made a peep about his death.
I remove my earphones and place the tape recorder at the end of the bed. My ear canals are sore, and so are my ear drums.
My room is a mess. My hamper is full of clean and dirty clothes. I haven’t bothered to pair up the big pile of socks that made up the bulk of last week’s run, and I’ve just been tossing my dirty clothes on top of them.
Things float around like the room is a tide pool. I’m never sure what’s going to be where and what’s going to appear. The things that never move are my rows of books, my plastic underwear and sock drawer, and the mirror I have propped near the bed.
My boyfriend, Jeremiah, watches us have sex in that mirror. I learned this only recently. I don’t keep my eyes open with him, but I peeked the other day and thought “what is he looking at?” and I followed his gaze to the mirror and saw us. We made eye contact and watched each other watching. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “I had no idea,” I said. “Isn’t that what it’s there for?” he asked. It’s not. I put it there so I could do my make-up.
It would be nice if he were here. He makes me want to get my work over with already. He is good at deciphering enigmatic words on my tapes. I call him, even though I’d told him yesterday that I would probably be working all night.
“Aha. There you are.” He’s excited.
“I’m stuck with this interview. Come over.”
“I want you to come over.”
“What? You want me to what?”
I shake the phone. “Come over to my apartment.”
“What’s wrong with your apartment?”
“Nothing is wrong with my apartment! Come over, please!”
I place the phone next to the tape recorder. With the absence of my shouting, the room feels particularly quiet. The air is heavy with the quiet. Not even the pipes are banging.
I live in a basement apartment that’s inches from the sidewalk. It’s a sidewalk frequented by screaming children and men in dilapidated wheelchairs who roll about and sell drugs. My father, he needed quiet. When I visited him for the last time, months before his death, he told me that he did not appreciate me bringing my noise to his home. “I need to explain something,” I told him. He shook his head, and the tight skin on his neck appeared to choke him. He whispered, “I am sorry to the world for allowing so much noise to inhabit it.” I left then.
I go to the fridge for a beer, then remember that I’m out of them. I put on my cowboy boots over my gray track pants with the yellow buttons up the side and grab my keys from the pair of jeans I wore earlier because I really do need a drink.
The deli’s door is locked, and I stumble when I try to open it. The tiny bells at the top jingle and bang against the glass. I peer into the store between the advertisements for phone cards. Manuel, the fat tabby cat, is spread across the counter. Manuel doesn’t cock his ears when I knock. There’s a deli up a few blocks, right by the entrance to the subway, but I don’t like it. The men who work there hide pornographic magazines under their newspapers.
When I look in the deli again, Manuel is no longer on there. Fistfuls of purple and green candy are being deposited in the space he’d occupied. I bang on the door, but the hand doesn’t notice. I place my face as close to the window as I can, letting my nose touch it, but only once, and wait. I bang again. When an old man floats up next to the cash register I gather all my energy and stare at him as he sorts through the candy before him.
He glances around, and I wave really fast and wide. He comes to the door and shouts to find out what I want. “I’m not sure,” I say, not letting my lips get too close to the glass. “Will you let me in?”
He crosses his arms and looks at me like I am a child, and I smile up at him like I am a child. He opens the door.
He bags the beer and the two small bags of Cheez Doodles. As he gives me change he shakes his head. “The cat is gone.”
“I just saw him.” I point at the counter with my chin because I am already holding my bags. “He was right here.”
He shakes his head some more. “I am very sad without him.”
“He’s not gone.” I say. “He’s here.”
“Manuel,” I call. I walk through the aisles and look under shelves and behind boxes. I am about to offer to keep searching when I remember that it is late and that I want Jeremiah to come over. “He’ll come back, I promise.” I pick up my bags. “Have a good night,” I say. “And thank you.”
He walks me out, and gives me a strange look when I say goodbye.
I put the beers down and fish my phone from the comforter. I call Jeremiah. “Hey,” I say when he picks up.
“Who is this?”
I toss the phone, and it breaks into three pieces. I say “Motherfucker,” as I pick them up. “Motherfucker,” I say again, because it sounds strange. I hear myself say it in my head, or know that I am saying it, but what I hear is my voice underwater. I plug my nose and pop my ears. “Motherfucker.” It’s not much better. I stand in front of the big mirror in my living room and say it again, loudly, holding my head steady. My lips and tongue move the ways they are supposed to. But what I’m saying isn’t “Motherfucker.” It’s a sound that has no sense to it.
Everything in my apartment looks strange. While I was out, it seems someone switched my stuff with stuff that looks like my stuff. It’s other stuff, foreign stuff, masquerading as mine.
My doorbell rings. I press the buzzer and ask who it is. I hear the static of the machine, and the noise on the street. There’s no reply. I ask again, and hear a car honk loudly both through the intercom, and my windows. I hear the person on the other side trying to buzz again.
“Hello?” the person says. It’s Jeremiah.
“Jeremiah! Come in, I’m buzzing!’
“Hello?” He says back.
I walk down the hallway in my bare feet. The floor is dirtier than I thought it would be.
He is standing on my short stoop. He’s flushed, and his hair’s puffy. “I had a bad feeling.” He squeezes me to his chest.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” I say into a fold of his sweatshirt. “I feel really weird.”
He clasps my shoulders and pushes me back. “You’re not making any sense.”
“What does that mean?”
He looks at me like I’m speaking another language.
“What do you hear me saying?” I ask. I point to my mouth and feel stupid. “What do I sound like?”
He pushes me toward my apartment. We sit next to each other on the couch. “Speak slowly,” he says. We’re holding hands.
“Why can’t you understand what I’m saying?”
“Did you take a sleeping pill?”
“Fuck you!” I take my hands back. He is confused, desperate.
I get up, then sit down. I put my head in his lap.I am terrified.
I grab a pen and write on the back of a piece of mail. I say the words to myself, but they confuse me, and the letters I write are just scratches.
“What are you trying to say, Junie?”
What I want to say is, “I love you. I need your help.” I’m shouting it in my head. I put my head next to his so maybe my words will jump over to his brain. But when I open my mouth to say it, nothing comes out that he’ll hear.
ANYA YURCHYSHYN is working toward her MFA in fiction at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Esquire, Budget Travel, Modart, Ploughshares, and Sherbert. She teaches freshman writing at Columbia and runs the Esquire books blog.