by Sky Allen
I like it best when it rains. There’s a sort of kinship I feel when I look out the window at the slate sky and find the sidewalks to be empty. I can breathe better feeling like we’re all on the same playing field again.
On the other hand, when I can tell that it’s a beautiful day outside from the sun warming the carpet beneath my window or the cacophonous music of birds twittering in the trees above, I feel an insurmountable sense of loss. I have no porch, and in my mind, there are no doors.
When I receive a phone call this morning from my landlord, I answer the phone without apprehension. I pay my rent months in advance and keep the space spotless. The soft blue couch is worn but clean, no dirt ever escapes the pots holding my many plants, dishes never pile in the sink. Cleaning after just one person is stupidly easy. I often wish it took me longer.
It’s odd hearing the sound of my own voice when I speak into the receiver; it sounds like it belongs to a stranger.
He informs me there is likely a gas leak in the building. One of the other tenants reported a sulfuric smell, and he recommends everyone evacuate the building until the gas company arrives. “It could be nothing, but you can’t stay there until someone comes to inspect it. That could be hours from now, though.”
I glance at the clock. It’s 10:34 a.m.
I control my slow collapse on the floor of my kitchen, dizzy with panic. My lung capacity shrinks in half. I lay myself down and press my cheek to the cold hardwood, taking measured breaths. I hone in on the sensation of my warm breath exiting my panting mouth, coating my nose in wet condensation.
This is the exact feeling I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid. It’s the kind that only comes from the interference of other people.
It has been three and a half years since I have spoken to another person face-to-face. For over a year, the whole world was sick or scared of getting sick, and we learned that nearly everything we needed to go outside for could be accomplished within our own homes. My career can be forged from my couch with a laptop and a reliable wi-fi router. Groceries and packages can be delivered with an app. Even after people realized this, as soon as they could, they went back to their offices, to the packed grocery stores full of fluorescent lighting and jam-packed aisles, to bustling city streets and whatever places they take them to.
I, however, did not.
There is so much pain in co-existing. I lived with a boyfriend, once. This was way back when things like romance seemed not only pleasurable, but necessary. He told me he didn’t want to be completely alone, which I didn’t understand even then. I loved him though, so I allowed him in. It was because I loved him that speaking with him was so infuriating. The more you have to talk to someone, the more they become a part of your life, and you theirs. Your conversations are supposed to become more meaningful and intimate over time, and when they don’t, a chasm opens. Constantly bowdlerizing every significant detail of what you say so as not to slip up, or feeling offended by some offhand comment they say to you—all of it makes you want to give up speaking to anyone altogether.
I suffered this way so often. I felt that if I could only not speak to anyone ever again, and have no one ever speak to me, I could finally be content. I could finally feel at peace. Conversations are transactional creatures, and I seem to have so much less currency for it than everybody else.
He moved out, of course. I’m still here. If I picture myself not here, dread bleeds into my gut like from a slashed artery.
After however long it takes to stop the interminable squeezing of my heart in my chest, I manage to grip the edge of the counter and pull myself up to a seated position. I wheeze against the wooden cabinets, weighing my options. My landlord’s words run in a loop through my head. I grasp onto the only ones that give me any sense of relief: “could be nothing.”
From my place on the floor, I peer out of my kitchen window, fingers gripping the sill. There’s a fire truck on the street outside. It’s been an hour, and there are people—presumably my neighbors—milling about on the sidewalk, talking to firefighters in black T-shirts and overalls strapped over their broad chests. None of them seem particularly concerned. They’re not even wearing bunker gear, those bulky suits you see them wearing in movies when they’re climbing ladders and rescuing kittens from treetops.
The longer I sit here on the floor, the more resolute I become in my decision. I have some time; I don’t need to leave here, not just yet.
I stand, buoyed by a renewed sense of purpose, and begin opening the windows. The bright scent of rain on pavement fills the space, making everything crisp and new. My insides still feel scooped out by a watermelon baller, but a sense of order steadies me some.
Things are still within my locus of control. Everything in this apartment is, if nowhere else in this world could be.
I comfort myself with the stupidity of other people. Just because someone thought they smelled gas doesn’t mean there’s an actual leak anywhere in the building. Even if they did, it could be confined to just their apartment. I’m on the fifth floor of five floors; surely gas doesn’t rise, does it?
I intentionally do not seek out the answer.
I choose to skip breakfast—turning on the stovetop seems like taunting fate. Today is a Sunday, my favorite day of the week. My groceries arrive bimonthly on Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m., and I revel putting away the items I buy each week in their designated places: cage-free eggs in reusable plastic egg trays, orange juice in a glass tumbler, apples in their designated fruit drawer. Each time, I throw in a little treat for myself; today I ordered chocolate-covered pretzels.
There’s not much that makes being young and sad bearable. If that thing is chocolate-covered pretzels on this particular Sunday, then so be it.
That feeling, heavy and unmistakable, still lingers in my stomach. I know sitting still will only make it worse. I wipe down my unusable stovetop; stick my full torso in the oven and scrub it of its blackened debris; polish the two sinks; spray down the windows with glass cleaner; dust every surface; vacuum my couch cushions and rugs; and mop all the hardwood floors.
I can admit this aspect of my lifestyle: it’s banal. I think humans only ever interact with one another to escape the tedium of everyday living. I can overcome the empty hours if it means doing no harm and having no harm done to me.
Pain is other people, after all.
Where I live is quite lovely. I can’t really speak for the neighborhood, considering I haven’t explored anywhere my eyes can’t reach beyond the dormer windows, but after hibernating for thousands of days, I’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere better suited to me.
My studio is fairly spacious, especially for just one person, but it feels much smaller from the sheer amount of stuff I’ve packed in here. Frames of different shapes and sizes containing watercolor Impressionist paintings, Basquiat portraits, and glossy posters of places I’ll never go splatter the walls like a physical manifestation of my imagination. Brobdingnagian piles of precariously stacked volumes of Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Dickinson act as side tables to bear thrift store knickknacks and Bialetti Moka pots. The softest, ugliest maroon shag rug you’ve ever seen in your life covers the cold hardwood floors in my living room, and wine bottles sticky with wax act as candlestick holders to light the room at night. Dead flowers shrivel into preservation in dusty, bone-dry vases.
All I’ve ever wanted was a space to call my own, a place to subsist and experiment without ramifications. One time, I smoked a joint I found tucked away in my rarely-used underwear drawer and painted my bathroom a vibrant magenta with paint leftover from the previous tenants. When I woke up the next morning to pee, I just stood in the doorway and shrieked with laughter until I lay on the floor, coughing and choking on my own whimsy. I didn’t have anyone to apologize to for it, no one to fear any consequences from.
I am the only person who pees in my purple bathroom, and I like it that way.
You know, I was always kind of this way. I am acutely aware that the way I live my life is not especially healthy, or even sustainable. When I was a kid, I used to create tiny forts for myself in the closet and pretend that it was my own house. I’d bring in pillows, blankets, a box of saltine crackers and a flashlight to read books by. That closet became my home, and mine alone. The yelling coming from downstairs was not my responsibility, because I didn’t live wherever those voices did.
I’m not typically one to blame my adult deficiencies on a problematic childhood. I’m just telling it how it is, really.
The outside embodies a gas leak. I can always blame the exterior world for the problems in my interior world. It’s one of those days when I feel like I’m living in a wet mothball. The window is streaked gray with rainwater. I swear, in the city it comes out of the sky already dirty. The water runs in thin rivulets like streaked mascara down a woman’s cheeks. The sky is, unsettlingly, one color: not quite white, not quite gray. Some ambiguous love child of the two, I suppose. I wish it would have the decency to be one or the other.
This particular corner of my apartment is my favorite. It’s like a little homage to the closet I used to tuck myself away in. Funny, how I still need a space to hide in the space I already hide in. I constructed a makeshift window seat with an obscene stack of floor pillows near the bay window in my living room, obscuring the little nook with a privacy screen. Tiny espresso cups and gargantuan tea mugs rest atop haphazard stacks of books. Small votive candles and a garland of fairy lights surrounding the window light the space. It’s a fire hazard, but then again, I seem to not have a particular motivation towards avoiding risks coming from inside my home.
I sit in this corner now, forehead pressed to the cold window, watching my breath fog against the glass. The fire truck is still outside, and is joined by a nondescript white van. I can’t decide if this is a good or bad sign, but the sheer number of people I see crowded outside on the pavement makes me duck my head back down out of sight.
My head throbs with indecision. I haven’t had any reason to step foot outside my apartment building in three straight years. This fact, coupled with the glaring realization that it’s beyond simply not wanting to leave, makes me sick. I always assumed that, if the need arose, I could leave; I simply just hadn’t desired to for a long, long time. I was unorthodox, unique. Not ill.
I don’t have any safety net outside of these 534 square feet. There is no one to call, and there is nowhere to go.
If I were a better, more balanced person, I would have someone to call. It’s because I am the way that I am that I’ve put myself out of the way of it all.
Each time I attempt to concentrate on finding a solution, my brain hiccups. I can’t seem to follow the thread of any one thought for more than a few moments today. This is odd for me; usually, I have nothing else to do but dissect my own musings. The unceasing roiling in my stomach consumes all my attention.
Almost as if on cue, I rush to the restroom and heave up last night’s dinner. The spasms are painful and violent from the lack of breakfast, twisting and draining my insides like a wet, dirty rag.
As a teenager, I experienced violent outbursts of nausea. I once projectile vomited all over a freshman boy in a tsunami of anxiety on the school bus. He was wearing a suit and tie, for some reason. If fate is going to make you puke on public transportation, best believe it will be all over the one smartly dressed fourteen-year-old boy in the vicinity.
I chalk this current episode up to unease. I really need to stop answering the phone.
I go back over to an open window and breathe in the pure air, soaking it into my congested lungs with fervor. It takes a couple minutes to rid my mouth of its acrid taste.
It’s cold outside, the ether frosted wet with mid-afternoon mizzle. It’s one of those rare days I crave the outdoors, to allow myself to walk along the sidewalk to a coffee shop. I know that if I did regularly go outside, this would be the type of day to aggravate me.
I waitressed at a five-star restaurant when I first moved to the city. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I sat in the walk-in cooler on a keg of beer until my lips turned a bruised blue. Everything in that restaurant was too loud, so filthy, composed and civil in the dining room but rancid and raucous in the kitchen.
Sticking my head out the window, I am reminded of sitting on a cold keg and freezing my nerves numb. Unexpected grief strikes me dumb.
I withdraw back into the hothouse of my living room. Something nags me, something I am forgetting to do or resolve. I crave chocolate all of a sudden, and lament having none.
I am exhausted. My apartment is clean, I am brutally nauseous, and I desperately wish for someone to hold me. I wonder if that instinct ever truly goes away.
I rest my body on the couch, curling my knees into my oversized T-shirt and tucking them against my chest. My mind evokes recurring images of saltine crackers, yellow school buses, and frigid stainless steel casks.
When the carbon monoxide detector finally starts chirping its shrill alarm, four consecutive breedles squalling in my ears, I am too weighed down to stand. It’s too late to decide whether I ever wanted to, or if this was always going to be an inevitable choice.
You know, I bet if the boyfriend still lived here, we would’ve left the building right away. Maybe we would’ve gone to the motel a couple miles down the road and stayed in bed, watching cable television and eating greasy fast food. Maybe we would have made a day of it, walked around in the sunshine at the park, breathing fresh air and feeling light on my face that hasn’t been filtered through annealed glass.
Or maybe it really would’ve ended up being nothing, after all.
For the second time today, my cheek is pressed flush to the ground. The left leg of my sweatpants is rolled up past my knee. My shin is cold and wet. The quality of the air in my nostrils is jarring, crisp and earthy. I force my eyelids to quiver open enough to survey my surroundings.
My body knows before my mind does: I am outside.
“Are you gonna puke again?” My muscles automatically seize, hyperarousal making my limbs painfully inert.
I am lying on my side on a grassy patch next to a street. Even in my stupor, I recognize it as the one outside my apartment building. A woman sits on the curb beside me. Her short legs are spread wide, the bare ankles that poke out of blue house slippers kissing the black asphalt of the street. A cigarette with about an inch of ash dangling precariously off the end rests nonchalantly between her index and middle fingers. “It’s okay if you do, but I have to make you do it in the street this time. These are my favorite nighties.” She’s wearing blue plaid pajama pants. A dark, damp splotch of fabric sticks to her right thigh.
The woman brings the stubby cigarette up to her mouth, inhaling deeply before releasing a cloud of smoke out into the coarse black night. The smell mingles with the dusky air, plastered to my sticky skin like wet silk. “It’s okay, darlin’. The ambulance should be here in a few minutes.” She makes a scoffing sound, running a hand through thin, straight blonde hair. It hangs around her face and down to her shoulder blades, straight as straw. Some subconscious part of my mind finds her quite beautiful. “I would never call an ambulance if I could help it, but you really gave me a scare. The firefighters went away an hour ago, and didn’t really seem to mind that we were missing one during the building headcount. Typical.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “I went upstairs to check for myself if anyone still lived on the fourth floor. I found you on your couch, curled up like a sick roly-poly, and I dragged you down the stairs. You woke up a bit about two flights down, just enough to empty your stomach on my leg. By the way,” she went on, “did you know your door was unlocked?”
I did not.
“This is Philadelphia. Take better care.” Her voice isn’t unkind. She looks like she’s about to say something else when blue and red lights pierce my peripheral vision, sending a fresh wave of dizzy nausea roiling through my gut.
The woman stubs out her cigarette and leans down to my ear. Her whisper is thick and foggy. “When they get here, I’m gonna tell ‘em you didn’t consent to an ambulance, but the firefighters told me to call anyway. Insurance won’t fuck you as hard that way.” I find it quite indulgent that she assumes I have insurance to begin with. I nod anyway, the damp grass tickling my cheek.
Two EMTs hop out of the back of the ambulance and suddenly, there’s hands on me. I’m so stunned that I don’t move when they hold their warm, soft fingers to my wrist to check my pulse, or when the biggest of the two lifts me up tenderly and places me on a stretcher. It’s the most physical touch I’ve experienced in… My chest aches at the thought.
Inside the ambulance, stark white light brings the interior into harsh focus: bright orange restraint belts dangling from the walls, a radio spurting crackled voices in the passenger bay, neat stacks of sanitizers and splints and gloves within easy reach. I want to cry out, insist that I am fine and really just need to lay down in my own bed, but my voice catches in my throat. I can’t tell if I am too overwhelmed to speak, or if my last semblance of a survival instinct is finally kicking in.
I hear her speaking to the paramedics outside. Their soft murmurs, mingled with the intermittent beeping of pulse oximeters and blood pressure monitors, is oddly comforting, like listening to the hum of a television just before falling asleep. I only catch a few words, like “consent” and “unconscious” and “hose fairies.”
Suddenly, I wonder what time it is. I try once again to open my mouth and ask, but only choked burbles escape my lips. The three figures materialize at the entrance to the ambulance. “We’re about to take you overnight for observation,” an EMT tells me. He’s short and stocky, with arms covered completely in tattoos. His voice is hushed, like he’s trying to tell me a secret. “Before we go, do you have an emergency contact we can call to meet you there?”
I wonder, even before going all Emily Dickinson on the world, if I ever had one. I actually try to think of an answer, as futile an exercise as I already know it to be. Before the boyfriend, I had a family, in the sense that two people gave birth to me and tried to teach me how to be a human being with their own limited knowledge on the subject.
I imagine giving the paramedics my mother’s phone number, in the impossible scenario that I could recall it. I imagine her picking up the phone in her three-level suburban home in Salt Lake City, with her new realtor husband and middle school–age twin boys who play soccer in the summer and hockey in the winter. Depending on the time, she could be making dinner for her family. When I was a child, the three of us—my mom, dad, and I—ate together occasionally too. They were fraught, tense occasions, cacophonous with silence and the clank of silverware against plates. No talking meant no fighting. Whoever was the first to speak always lost; it was always perceived as more of a battle cry than an attempt at civil, friendly conversation at that table.
If my father were still alive, he would be too intoxicated by this time of night (it’s dark outside—he’d certainly already be drunk) to drive to the hospital. He wouldn’t bother to find a ride, either. I can envision him picking up the phone, snorting malevolently at my being admitted to the hospital, then hanging up to continue whatever episode of Dateline he was watching. The man loved Dateline more than anything in his life, which ended a full week before anyone noticed his absence. He was found laying down on the couch in the fetal position, the light of the television screen playing across his still face.
And, for the first time, sorrow and shame washes over me at the thought of the boyfriend. He might’ve come. I would have wanted to cry with grief and guilt that he’d have to go all the way to the hospital for me, and this alone would have hurt more than any symptom of gas poisoning I may be suffering. I know, with almost painful certainty, that he would’ve been there, though.
He was kind like that. I hated that about him.
By the look on the EMT’s face, I have already taken far too long to respond.
“Here, take my name down.” The woman’s voice startles me out of my stupor. She stomps out another cigarette on the ground—I never saw her light it and wonder if she did it in front of the paramedics—and takes the pen they hand to her, writing her phone number down. “I’ll be right behind you. Just gotta change pants first.” She peers around the paramedics’ shoulders and winks at me.
The doors clang shut, and I feel the engine sputter to life beneath us. My head lolls back on the stretcher, spent.
As the vehicle starts to move, I glance over at the sheet on the clipboard in the paramedic’s hand.
Gloria Russell. I’ve seen this name, plastered in black marker on an index card taped to the mailbox outside, ever since I moved in. Relief that Gloria will be at the hospital when I arrive gives me the courage to close my eyes and slow my breathing.
For the first time in my life, I have an emergency contact.
About the Author
Sky Allen is an MFA in Creative Writing graduate student on the Fiction track. She is originally from Denver, CO, and received a BA in English with Creative Writing Specialization from SMU in Dallas, TX. Her main literary interests lie mainly in Gothic lit, as well as speculative, literary and popular fiction. She has recently been published in the literary magazine Nowhere Girl Collective. When she isn’t reading stories or trying to write one of her own, she’s watching an A24 movie or wandering around an art museum somewhere.