Last Friday Night
A lonely shower stall, an impending final, and the end of the first semester of my freshman year
It’s two hours until my international relations final and I’m showering. Studying isn’t working and my hair is greasy. The typically gregarious seventh-floor hallway is silent, because almost everyone has gone home. It’s Friday night of the last week of the fall semester, and some people have real homes to go to, places where they will hang out with beloved high school friends they haven’t seen since summertime, places that aren’t 817 miles from Real Home. Real Home is the Redmond address that rolls off my tongue with the ease of ten years of saying. Real Home is not an Apartment #2 in Marin County. I place Apt. #2 somewhere on the same train of thought that encapsulates every hotel or AirBNB room I’ve ever stayed in. I’m confused by the amount of defiance I invest into not treating the cramped ground-floor apartment like a home, but I do it anyway.
Thinking about Real Home makes me nostalgic as hell. Listening to the Alt-J song “Matilda,” which always makes me think of a certain boy who once sang it under his breath, makes a whole ‘nother pool of sturm und drang well up inside my chest, banging around like my ribcage is a pinball machine. The shower is a Berkeley Unit 3 shower, which means legendarily high water pressure, and I hold my nose and squeeze my eyes shut and shuffle forward in my slick pink flip-flops until the water is hitting my face with all the incoherent rage of a hailstorm.
Maybe this is Tuesday night all over again, rainy Tuesday night when I stuck a tentative foot into Strawberry Creek to learn in my shivering retreat that I was never cut out to be an Ophelia.
In the deluge of little angry water droplets, all hitting my skin like they’re trying to take it off, maybe I’m trying to remind myself in my tenacious refusal to inhale that I have no desire to drown. The weight on my chest feels different now, it’s gone from being the pinball ricocheting inside to static weight outside — on top.
So I think about Giles Corey and the Salem Witch Trials. Giles was the man who died when his interrogators placed heavy stone after heavy stone upon his chest, and even to the end he didn’t confess. I just want to get the cinderblocks off my chest, because maybe water can wash the sweat from my face and the music I’m blasting from my cell phone can take away the oppressive silence of the seventh floor but neither is helping with the feeling of weight, so much numb, dead, weight.
That’s when I start to cry.
There are lots of kinds of crying. Here are a few:
· Little-girl crying that makes your sister and your older friends tease you and call you “crybaby” while they outrun you to bigger and better things than the doughy three-year-old sitting on a curb with her face in her hands.
· Crying because you’re scared of math — nothing strikes more fear into you than the prospect of mental math exercises in front of classmates who don’t know how bad you are at subtraction just yet.
· Quiet sniffles into an un-judging pillow when it’s 3 AM, you’re the top-bunk girl, and you don’t want to wake up your roommates.
· Ashamed crying when the toughest English teacher you’ve ever had gives you a C+ because she says you didn’t have a thesis but it was right there and the football player who doesn’t give a flying fuck about schoolwork got an 80 and you run to the nearest women’s restroom to fling yourself into a stall and wipe your eyes. You’re like, You’re a senior in high school and you’re crying about one grade? Get a grip, and the trite disapproval of your own internal monologue is worse than your English teacher’s red pen.
There are those kinds of crying.
And then there’s sobbing when you’re standing in a lonely shower stall in your floor’s co-ed bathroom, sobbing that racks your body so much maybe it’ll shake off the cinderblocks. I am so unsteadied that I slump forward against the left-hand stall wall. It’s the black-flecked-with-white pattern of bathroom stalls in my hometown movie theater but my eyes are closed so all I feel is wall and all I see is black. The water hits my back and I almost can’t stand anymore, I want to sink to my knees but I know how filthy these showers are and that peculiar last hang-up, like another precious reminder that I actually give a shit about being alive, keeps me standing.
I have no idea what song my phone is playing anymore.
In a temporarily lucid moment of extreme self-awareness I think I can see who I am and what I am doing. My almost-unkind ability to discern my utter lowness reminds me of all the objective clarity of a Reuters photojournalist, getting photos of something sad or violent or unfortunate — from a distance.
Who are you?
I am a naked seventeen-year-old girl slumped against a shower wall.
What are you doing?
I am crying with ragged breath and jagged thoughts.
Why are you crying?
I am crying because — I don’t know, because it is the only answer to numbness, my heaving chest the only hope I have to displace this weight.
Some part of me wonders if this is rock-bottom.
Where’s the voice so good at telling me over and over again that I have no right to complain when I have a roof over my head and food in my stomach, ordering me to get my shit together in the daily-crying years of twelve to fourteen, in the everyday anxieties of senior year, in the perennial existential crises of this, my first semester in college?
Even the internal monologue that grew up with me falls silent.
The motion-activated bathroom lights go dark.
I am in an outside that finally looks a little closer to what I see when I close my eyes — dim shadows. From the light that filters through from the other part of the bathroom I can see that my skin is red from vigorous scrubbing and the rising steam of the hot, high-pressure water. I open my eyes and focus, briefly, on my hand. I can focus on something. I can focus on something. Small victories.
I stop crying.
The weight is a little lighter. The internal whispers, questioning my stability, are growing louder. Those whispers are a luxury. Their ability to swirl around, with all their lightness, is a testament to the amount of hollow space I have, now that some of the inescapable weight of numbness is gone. The survival of ethereal things inside this fallible body is a kind of proof. Surely if ideas, as insubstantial as faeries’ wings or thin crepe-de-chine I’ve never owned, can live here, I am not being crushed alive.
“And she needs you…this is for Matilda / And she needs you…this is for Matilda,” come the croons from Spotify on my phone, and I know that it will play on while the Titanic sinks.
And she needs you, I think to myself like a refrain. Some part in me instinctually strips away the context of the song, pretends that I have never read the Wikipedia article about the movie it references.
And she needs you.
I know that I am the “she” but I don’t know who would ever volunteer to be the “you.”
The distant Reuters photojournalist within me reminds me that I am a girl who explains crying in a shower stall by thinking of a man who died in the 1692 and deluding myself into thinking I have stones on my chest when the weight that rested there was no more tangible than the memory of water slipping past dry fingertips.
Internal monologue says, Turn off the water and check the time, you have a final tonight.
Retrospective me says, maybe the water hitting my shoulder blades like it wants to take off my skin is really just patting my back.
Giles Corey’s last words were “More weight!”
I turn off the water and check the time.