By Michael Sutton
The alarm screams but I’m already awake. I lie quiet in the tangled sheets, the aftermath of another sleepless night. My feet trace their routine course to the bathroom. I piss, shower, shave, and dress in steady rhythm. I complete the ritual by slipping on my navy jacket with the white stripe running diagonally across the front, like always. It won’t come off until I get home even though it’s the middle of July.
I’m broken and I don’t know how to fix it.
Before long, I’m staring at the same glass screen in the same cubicle at eight on the dot. It’s always the same, day after day after day. Work is soul sucking, there’s no other way to describe it. I’m one body lurking among a hundred, waiting for the clock to hit five. I go through the motions, gazing at the glass, generating reports I don’t understand and sitting in a sea of cubicles. It’s strange, but I find comfort here. This is normal, part of the routine. It’s safe. Nobody bothers me.
Ms. Martha walks by, peeking in each cubicle as she goes, like a hall monitor. I’m never sure whether she’s checking to see if people are working, jacking off, or committing some other unspeakable crime like watching YouTube on their phone. She never says a word to me. Nobody does. I mind my P’s and Q’s and slip out for occasional bathroom breaks and an early lunch, never making a noise. It’s easier this way.
The clock ticks to ten and I shuffle through my backpack to find the orange bottle. It shakes like a maraca as I pop off the white lid and swallow my salvation down with a gulp of Coke. Another two hours melt away.
I stir the food idly on my plate, sitting in the small and brightly lit cafeteria. I always sneak out for lunch early. Some days, I sit out in my car and stare at my phone instead. Either way, it’s quieter. Fewer people. Less stressful. I check my watch and realize it’s almost noon. That’s when the crowd comes and I can’t have it. I shovel down what I can stomach as quickly as I can and ready myself to leave.
Amanda sits across from me, her plate filled with vegetables, vegetables, and more vegetables. She’s a thin mousey creature, pale and anxious. Her hair is spindly and tangles like cobwebs, her eyes an unremarkable brown. I’m stuck. Even though I don’t say a word, I know I can’t leave, not just yet. Amanda is like me. She’s different. She’s alone, an outcast, lingering somewhere in the periphery. Unlike me, she doesn’t want to be alone.
We hardly say a word, we rarely do. There’s something about sitting with someone that makes it a little easier. It’s almost like it shows the world I’m not weird, I’m not different. See, someone accepts me. We’re only a small sample of all the lonely people in the world, drifting aimlessly through life. I straighten my navy jacket, making sure the faded draw strings are untangled and tight.
The crowd starts to pour in after the clock strikes noon. I can feel the jacket loosen around me, betraying me, exposing me to their eyes. Almost none of them look at us, but I can feel their eyes crawling. I can feel them, picking me apart, probing, pulling, and yanking to see the ugly truth hiding somewhere beneath my jacket.
“I need to go.”
She doesn’t protest, she knows better. She knows why. I slip out, watching the ground with each and every step as if my life depends on it.
The day melts away and at five, I slip out of my cubicle and down the stairs. I never take the elevator, sparing myself the calamity of a conversation. I’m home again, shoveling fiber crackers and lettuce like Famine itself is coming on his black horse. If only I could lose this weight, if only I could look different. Maybe then. Maybe. I drown it all down with a Coke, the burn tracing my throat.
“You’re broken. You can’t.”
I can hear the voices. They’re more feelings really, but I can hear them like they’re sitting on my shoulder, eating stale fiber crackers.
“Fat boy . . .”
“Shut up!” I say, slapping myself hard. I can feel a numb tingling sensation, a rush of cold creeps down my neck like someone smashed an egg on my head. This isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.
“You can’t hide. You can’t.”
Mom calls at nine, like always. It’s a nightcap to my every evening, the one blip in my solitude reminding me I’m human.
“How was your day?” she asks, her voice dripping with exhaustion. I picture her taking a shot of rye whiskey before picking up the phone to call, the liquid fire shoring up her courage and giving her the strength to suffer through another dismal exchange. I can’t blame her.
“Today was okay,” I’ll spare her the exhilarating specifics. The casserole I microwaved for lunch had chunks of chicken in it. What a highlight. It burned when I peed this morning, but that’s because I drink too much Coke. What a fuck up. I want to tell her I’m sorry, I’m broken, and I don’t know how to fix it. I wish I could be normal for her, but I don’t know how.
“Did you talk to the girl again?” She’s talking about Amanda, always hopeful. Mom still hasn’t accepted the truth I know all too well: I’ll die cold and alone. Nobody could love this. Nobody could love me.
I know she’s not just worn out from work. She’s worn out from me. I drive the life right out of a room, like Eeyore in his gloomy place. Somewhere in that mother’s heart, she’s giving up on me. I can feel it, dying a little every day. I wonder how she made it this long. The phone clicks and the dial tone hums.
The alarm screams again but I’m already awake. My feet start their routine. Piss. Shower. Shave. The navy jacket slips on like a glove, hugging me like Mom used to do. Before I even look up from the ground, I’m walking into my cubicle, the screensaver displaying a fountain spewing all the hues of a rainbow. This is as exciting as my day gets.
Ten o’clock. Orange bottle. Pills. Salvation.
A group of people stand and laugh at the end of the aisle. They’re not laughing at me, so I don’t mind. They could be though. I never wander close enough to find out. Part of me wants to go to them though, wants to belong, to be a part of something. Hell, being noticed would be nice. The prospect horrifies me at the same time. I want to slide under the radar, to be forgotten, the fat and disgusting creature I am misplaced, like the dinosaurs, like Jesus. Somewhere, beneath the stretch marks and the rolls, there’s part of me screaming out for help, suffocating. I lose myself in the glass and the hours tick away.
Another surge of laughs washes over the room, but now I’m eating fiber crackers in the cafeteria. The cardboard nearly chokes me as I take a swallow and wash it down with a Coke. Amanda looks even more uncomfortable than me, picking at her food and never taking a bite. The beautiful people command a table near the center of the room, a position of power, a place to see and be seen. The blonds are tall, thin, and glowing. The men puff out their chests with the confidence rooted in square jaws, tennis practice after work, and a tan. They run the show. They lead and never follow, with their pristine white teeth blazing a path.
“Can you imagine?” She looks at the grass on her plate, picking at it stiffly.
“What?” I say with my shoulders lurching inwards, clawing desperately to conceal me.
“Being like them,” she nods upwards. “Being,” she pauses “beautiful.”
I can’t. I’ve never even been normal, let alone beautiful. Perfect. Polished. Pristine. We’re lepers, skulking somewhere out of sight, right where we belong.
“What are we living for?” she asks. She’s looking for answers, for something to latch onto. She won’t find it here. I can’t help her. I’m broken.
“I need to go.” I’m desperate to escape the conversation Amanda needs.
The pale blue glow of the monitor shimmers off my eyes, nuzzling me into numb semi-comfort. I’m never completely at ease, but the walls of the cubicle, the orange maraca, and the warm embrace of my navy jacket are as close as I get outside of my shabby apartment. The clock strikes five, I sneak down the stairs, and vanish into the sea of parked cars.
Mom calls, dies a little more on the inside, and the dial tone hums. I lie in bed staring at the white stucco ceiling.
The alarm screams. I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and stare. My eyes trace every inch of my flabby body, the soft whiteness the sun hasn’t seen in a decade, the bulges. I always avoid looking into the mirror, making a conscious effort to avoid seeing the horror of my body. It seems less real, seems like less of a problem if I don’t see it. It’s bearable this way. Today, I look. I’m not supposed to, but I do. I look at the rolls, the stretch marks tearing their way along my love handles and my plump little breasts. I look into those eyes nobody ever bothers to see, that I won’t let them see. I notice the dark rings beneath them, hanging there like anchors dragging me to the ground. I see so much tucked between the wrinkles and creases. I realize there’s no crow’s feet, no smile wrinkles, only the sad kind. The one’s hanging low and frowning, a reflection of something buried just under the surface.
Mom sent me a picture last night. It was from the third grade, a pool party marking the school year’s end. I see my class, all of us young and innocent. I see myself, standing behind the other kids, my arms folded over my chest trying desperately to conceal my budding obesity. Just like now, I was hoping and praying nobody would notice. I look at the picture and I see the same agony I feel right now. I know most people only see a pack of smiling faces. They’d never notice anything wrong or the fat kid hiding at the back. They’d never recognize the torment in those ten-year-old eyes. I can still feel it though. You never let go of some things.
Amanda and I sit in the cafeteria. I haven’t finished up as fast as I would like, and the beautiful people are raising a fuss, laughing hysterically, probably talking about some trust-fund-sponsored vacation.
“Any plans for the weekend?” Amanda asks. I shake my head, glancing up only briefly.
“Did you get the text I sent you? There’s a book reading at the Berryville Public Library this weekend. There’s a guy driving all the way down from Northpoint to read a chapter. It sounds like fun.”
I don’t say a word, but fidget with my jacket making sure it’s pulled up around my flabby chest.
“Will you, go with me?”
I tug my jacket a little tighter and flick the strings. I’m ready to bolt, to escape. It’s already past noon. I need to go.
“Jared . . . Please. I can’t go alone. I think it would help.” I can feel her eyes desperately washing over me, pleading, searching for something, for hope, for help.
Help? There’s no helping this. I’m broken and I don’t know how to fix it. I stare at the table, pretending to think it through but I’ve already made up my mind. I can’t.
I stare at the glass in my cubicle as Ms. Martha walks behind, keeping tabs. The clock strikes five and I’m gone.
“Broken,” the voice whispers as I change into stretchy pants with elastic bands inside my pitch-black apartment. I’ve started listening to music with words. It helps make noise, helps keep the voices quiet. I run from them. I hide. I don’t know what else to do.
“How was your day?” Mom asks, a little fainter than yesterday. “How’s that girl? Amanda, right?” Here it is again. Give up, Mom.
“She’s fine,” I pause, weighing whether to continue. “We had lunch together today.” I say it, even though I know she’ll read too much into it, even though I know she’ll get too much hope. Part of me wants to give her hope, whether it’s true or not.
Screams. Piss. Shower. Shave. The navy jacket slips on.
“Have you thought about the reading?” Amanda flicks a carrot off of her kale salad. I’m sure it tastes as dull and lifeless as it looks.
I know she’s disappointed, but she should have known better. She knows me well enough now to realize she’s asking too much. She’s asking more than I can ever give. She flicks at the carrot. The beautiful people are laughing in the middle of the cafeteria, not a care in the world. How grand it must be.
“I need to go.” I stand and carry the wadded-up brown paper sack over to the trash, staring at the ground as I cut around the cafeteria, careful to stick close to the wall. Amanda doesn’t say a word, just sits there playing with her pitiful lunch. I’m letting her down too. I take a step, another, another, another, and then I feel my left foot slide. I feel my pitiful hamstrings tighten and strain as I lurch forward, my weight yanking me off balance. I tumble, shift, and fall flat on my face. The impact ripples over me, sending shock waves rumbling through the rolls. I lie there, paralyzed. I can feel the ache in my knee, can feel the strain in my left ankle, but nothing is worse than the silence. I know a hundred eyes are all staring at the fat ass on the floor.
I look up, hoping to escape, hoping beyond hope no one has noticed, but I find one of the beautiful people staring down at me, tall, tan, and pristine in her black heels and knee-length skirt.
“Are you okay?” she asks reaching down to offer a hand, her pink lips swelling with each word. She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. An angel, reaching down from above, my deliverance. But she’s looking right at me. She’s not supposed to do that. She’s not supposed to notice me. No one is.
The bright light fades and I remember exactly where I am, what I am. There are no words for how mortified I feel in this moment. All eyes are on me. I can feel them, burning holes in every inch.
I struggle to stand and realize my jacket is torn, my favorite jacket, the navy one with the white stripe across the front. It’s split right down the back, my muffin top forces itself out for God and country to see. Fuck. I panic, and shuffle out of the room, limping, not even bothering to pick up the brown bag I’d left on the floor. No one stops me. No one even tries. I rush down the stairs, sore and limping, and drive away.
I sit in my living room and stare at the remnants of my jacket. I’m alone, like always, sitting on the red futon Mom’s friend gave me a few years back. My jacket is lying on the floor, split down the middle. It’s pitiful. The poor thing was worn out to begin with. Hell, I’d worn it almost every waking moment for the past few years. I’d gotten my money’s worth out of it, but that wasn’t what bothered me now. I don’t care about the money. Why can’t I trash this fucking jacket, this goddamn security blanket. I’m a grown man. I don’t need it.
“Broken,” the voices say. “You’re broken and you can’t fix it.”
I ignore them. I’m not in the mood today, but I knew they’d come. They always do. I pick up my phone to start some music, the kind with words, anything to drown out the voices. The phone rings. It’s Mom, same as always, but today it’s a mercy.
“How was your day?” she asks.
I can’t help it, the floodgates burst. I tell her. I tell her everything, sparing no detail. I describe the strain, the fall, the ripples, the angel. The words pour out of me like rotten pus from a long-festered wound.
“Baby,” she says, I can feel her agony. She hurts for me. She cares for me. She wants to help me, to save me, but she can’t. No one can. I’m broken and I don’t know how to fix it.
“What happened after? Did they laugh? Did someone help you?”
“No. Nobody said a word, except for that lady.”
“Well,” she pauses. “It doesn’t sound so bad. Everybody slips up every now and then.”
Doesn’t she get it? They saw me. They watched me fall flat on my fucking face, too fat to even walk straight. I could die.
I can feel it though. She’s right. She’s onto something. They saw me. Each and every eyeball in the room saw my fat ass wallowing on the linoleum. The world didn’t stop spinning. I’ve told myself all of this before. I’ve beat myself senseless telling myself it didn’t matter, none of it mattered, they’d forget with a little sleep. Something about it felt different this time. I can’t place it, but I feel it. The horror I’d been running from happened and what difference did it make? What did I lose?
The phone clicks and the dial tone hums. I’m alone, like always, sitting on the red hand-me-down futon. I open the front door to my apartment and stand idle for a moment in the doorway, my figure filling the vacuum. The voices tell me to shut the door, to retreat, but I hush them, or try to at least. I walk down the stairs and into the dark parking lot. Slowly, I approach the huge dumpster filled nearly to the brim. Tomorrow’s pickup day and it’s needed desperately. I stand there, cradling the jacket, the jacket that guarded me, saved me, and suffocated me. I cradle it like a baby, like my hopes and dreams, standing there in that darkness.
The jacket cuts through the thick air and arches gently onto the trash heap. It settles on a pile of black trash bags with blue plastic bands fastening them tight. It lays there. The voices are quiet, for once. They don’t say a word.
Mike Sutton calls the rolling hills of Northwest Arkansas home, where he practices law and writes in his free time. Prior to entering the legal profession, Mike served in the U.S. Air Force as a military police officer and attended Ouachita Baptist University, where he studied History and English Literature. You can find Mike writing in one of Fayetteville’s local coffee shops or on the water, fishing pole in hand.