Short story tuesday! This one is a tad bit longer so I’ve put some breaks in it that will hopefully make it less of an eyesore. If you read it, thank you in advance!
“I feel like I’ll never be able to get along with anyone.”
Karen brightens, sits a little straighter. Phrases like that are crack to therapists. “Why do you think that?”
“I just… I notice everything.” I shrug.
“Right.” She scribbles on her pad, though I know she isn’t writing anything. We are both just playing a part here: I am the suffering nobody who acts like she is going to fix my life, she is the egocentric therapist who scribbles daisies on the sides of her paper instead of taking notes. “You mean the empathy.”
I sigh and looked away. It was a sort of experiment, me telling her about it. I’m sure she had seen a lot of patients, and I carefully read her reaction to see if she had ever encountered anyone else with my problem. A claim that one could feel the emotions of other people was not something she would likely forget. Her reaction then was the same as it was now. Indulge the crazy person.
“If you know what everyone is feeling, wouldn’t that present the opportunity to know them better? Don’t you understand people, sympathize with them?”
“You’re operating under the assumption that people are good.” I meet het eyes. She holds eye contact even though it makes her nervous. A skill probably drilled into her head during her university years. “People aren’t good. They lie. They hate. They brew and build like slow igniting fuses, all while keeping a blank expression. I do it, you do it, everyone does it.”
She stops scribbling and lays her pen down, then rubs at a spot of blue ink on her middle finger. She’s a mixture of annoyed, curious, and a few other things. There’s a sort of sly, analytical feeling, and I know the next words out of her mouth will be a test.
“Can you tell what I’m feeling right now?”
I smile and rest my forehead in my hands, shutting my eyes. “If you ate an elaborate meal, could you pinpoint every ingredient?
“Maybe a few.” She admits. “Not every one.”
“Emotions are like that. Words don’t really do them justice. It’s rare for someone to feel purely happy, sad or angry.”
“I don’t want you to think I don’t believe you, Aaron. But the better you can help me to understand it, the better I can try to help you build the skills to deal with it.”
“I know you don’t believe me. I know you’re a little bored and annoyed with me. I also know you’re craving something.” I tilt my head to the side. “A cigarette. I don’t mind if you want to take this outside, Karen. I could use one myself.”
She fiddles with her pen, watching my face. “Why a cigarette? Why not coffee, or Tylenol or something?”
“Coffee is a slow buildup to fatigue, irritability. Medication addictions are urgent, like a deep hunger. Nicotine is more incremental. It can build up, like a caffeine craving, but it pokes at you a little more. Makes you anxious.”
“You’re very perceptive, I’ll grant you that.” She stands, retrieves her coat, and gestures for the door.
She smokes a pricey menthol brand. My cigarette is cheap, and has a little tear near the filter. I squish my fingers against it as I take a drag to keep the smoke from seeping out.
“So, how fan you turn this ability into a positive rather than a negative?” Pale grey air leaks between her lips with each word. She feels calm, and so I feel calm.
“I don’t know. It’s irritating more than anything.”
“Your job probably doesn’t help with that, does it?” Her eyebrows lift. “Can you feel it over the phone?”
“I can, but it doesn’t really matter. No one likes a telemarketer, and most people aren’t afraid to express that. It’s one of the only times I feel honesty from people.”
“But you said you hate your job?”
“The commute kills me, an hour a day trapped in a sardine can with unhappy people.”
She sucks in minty chemicals, blows it out in a thin stream. “Is there really no one who’s happy?”
I shrug, unsure of how to answer. She’s really curious now… I think she’s entertaining the idea that I’m telling the truth. But her job is to make people happy, or at least less miserable. If I tell her no, she might feel overwhelmed. Happiness exists, but in traces, bits and pieces scattered among the mess of everything else. Occasionally someone will feel pure joy. A proposal, some good news, a couple discovering love. These sensations are like a strong hit, but they never last. I’m just an addict looking for the next high.
My train home is delayed. I shift from foot to foot, pace, clench my fingers. Annoyed, frantic, bored, sad, content. All of it flashes through me in a nauseating mix. Just down the platform from me, two men meet with aggression. Fight, I beg in my head. Just get it over with and be honest about your feelings. One of them, a shorter but stocky hispanic man, waves his arms toward the other as if to push him in the chest. The other man is tall, and wears a bored expression, though I can feel his hostility in heavy waves. After a few minutes of this bravado display, they are walking by me, and have stopped fighting. The hispanic man takes quick angry steps down the platform, mumbling to himself. Their anger combined with the frustration of everyone waiting for the delayed train makes me dizzy. Everything rocks momentarily and I step towards a pillar to right myself, shutting my eyes. Then the bells of the approaching train rings, and I stagger back toward the edge of the platform.
A thick body bumps heavily into my shoulder.
“Whadda fuck man?” The hispanic shoves my shoulders, finding an outlet for his aggression. I rocket backwards and collide with the tall man with whom he was fighting. Their emotions meet inside of me and I claw to get out from under the heavy blanket of rage.
I dive for the train, and manage to slip my arm in through the door before it closes just above my elbow. I grit my teeth as it presses into my skin but it opens again before there is real pain. Breath coming in huffs, I look out the window to see the two men wrapped around each other. Hispanic is feeding the tall man his fist. The tall man is trying to wrap his hands around the other man’s throat. It is vicious and horrible… but it is honest, and I feel relieved.
My arm is squished against a heavyset man who smells like he has a pile of wet cigarette butts in his pocket. In front of me is a slightly older woman, eyeing me warily. We are pressed a little too closely for comfort, but there isn’t anything I can do to remedy the situation. Feelings try to stuff themselves down my throat and cut off my air supply. The movement of the train rocks everyone into motion at once, and the hand of the woman brushes against mine as she looks for a better grip on the pole. Something shifts in her eyes. I frown. She has changed from suspicion and annoyance to anger. I try to push myself away from her, but it’s like pushing my body through tar.
I manage to only get a few inches away. I am now squished against another woman who is clutched to a swinging handhold. She tries to wiggle out from behind me and I do my best to make room for her. Before I can figure out what has happened, the two women are slapping each other, ripping at each other’s clothing. Others try to pull them apart, a businessman brushes by me to grab the younger woman, pushing me back into the heavy man again. Then he turns and reaches toward me.
“It’s not my fault!” I say, ducking. But he reaches over me for the large man and grabs his head, smashing it against the glass of the door.
I worm my way out from between them. I have to get off the train — that’s the only thought my muddled brain can form. I snake past a construction worker, then a young man with metal music playing too loud in his earbuds. The construction worker cuffs him in the side of the head. Past a teenage girl, who wraps herself around the metal-head and pulls his hair. A woman who grabs at the teenager. A man who yanks the woman back, tripping her over the feet of others.
The emergency button is barely visible through the surging mass of bodies. I crawl, willing myself to reach it. A high heel steps on my forearm. I land a kick in the ribs. I manage to press the button, but it is too loud in the train to hear the soft ring as it contacts the driver of the train. I wait a few seconds and then hit the talk button. I don’t have to say anything. Screams of pain, profanity, and threats are broadcast across the line. The train coasts into the station and stops. I am trampled, booted, punched as I drag myself to the door. It opens and I tumble out. I wave my arm at the driver who has stepped out of the first car of the train, and point toward the open door I just exited. Frantic people are making their way toward the doors that aren’t blocked, trying to get away from the chaos in the aisle. My head rests against the cold concrete, and I see a sky that is too bright, too calm in contrast.
A light shines into my eyes, one and then the other, flicking back and forth. I shut them but the afterimage is burned there. Fingers probe at my face, my arms, my sides. When they touch my skin I feel calm. When they inspect my battered side I feel consideration, care, tenderness. I need it like a man in the desert needs water, so I reach out and grab the arm of the person, open my eyes.
“How are you feeling?” She asks. Her voice is soft with a slight bit of rasp to it.
“Like I just got out of a mosh pit.” I say.
“Yeah.” She frowns, looks off to the side. “Do you know what happened?”
I nod, and feel a sharp pain in my neck. “It’s contagious.”
“You must still be a little delirious. You might have a cracked rib, definitely a twisted ankle, and some bruising. We’ll have to take you to the hospital. Try not to move around.” She gets up and walks away from me.
I turn my head, wincing. About a dozen people are being treated along the platform, some hoisted onto stretchers, and they are still trying to reach for each other through the police restraints. Squad cars and an ambulance block off the tracks. I hear more sirens in the distance.
Holding my arm tightly to my side, I limp down the platform. The fighters reach for me even as the police hold them back and gesture me away, but I pretend to stumble and let their fingertips brush my arm. Once they do, a confusion passes over their faces, and then calm. I stumble through the crowd, touching anyone I can, eradicating any shred of anger I detect. By the time I make it to the end of the platform, I am gasping at the stabs of pain in my ribs.
“Hey, you. I thought I told you not to move?” The paramedic girl comes to my side and guides me to a bench. I say nothing. As melodramatic as it sounds, I wish I could sit by this girl for the rest of my life, drinking in her positivity.
“Sorry about the delay, we’ll have more ambulances here soon.” She says. “Is your head feeling a little less fuzzy?”
“Good.” Her smile sends tingles through my fingertips. “It looks like things are calming down now.”
I smile back.