by Moriah Hampton
I live alone. Somewhere in this city is a basement studio I rent for $500 month-to-month. Inside these four walls, I pass time in all sorts of ways. I sit for long stretches in a chair placed at different spots around the room. I separate clothes into piles and not long after scatter them again across the floor. I eat every day out of the same chipped bowl and then put it in the sink, back where it belongs.
I have to leave my apartment most days for work, but right afterward, I come straight here to be alone. As soon as I walk through the door, I undress and get back into bed, the same bed I got out of in the morning. I lie on the mattress staring at the ceiling. As the sun moves further west, I measure the water stain against the outline left from other days. I compare the faint gray lines and slowly forget the person I am at the store. The clerk ringing up another wave of med students grows hazy. The floor assistant straightening white and pastel uniforms dims. The stock girl replenishing shelves with hospital and home-care supplies almost disappears. As the light inside my apartment fades to night, I become myself again.
The person I become is left wanting after needing only to be alone. Yet what I want feels like it’s already been taken away, and all that remains is empty space. I lie still as the emptiness expands from my chest outwards, up through my throat, down both legs, until I am nothing more than a human shell. I relax and wait, without expectation, emptied of all hope. In this state, I have felt my shell crack then reseal itself flawlessly. I have also sensed granules collecting between the sheets. All the while, I wait, until at last it overtakes me, the wish that precedes countless other wishes. The wish to find in the emptiness, something real, something worth saving. At once, I rise, clear-eyed, and stand by the bed.
It’s usually mid-evening when I do so. The time when husband and wife sit captivated by the highest-rated TV program, or when the eldest son, upon returning home, reheats his well-preserved dinner in the microwave, or when a child’s arm loosens around her favorite doll while sinking deeper into sleep. On this night, I stand a while longer, imagining people all over the city walking alone. Down sidewalks, around corners, across streets, they walk without passing one another; they walk nonstop, the entire night through.
Knowing I belong outside with them, I begin preparing to go out for the night. It’s important to prepare, I remind myself, to ensure the best results later, days and months from now. Before the bathroom sink, I wash my entire body with antiseptic soap—my limbs, torso, back, and face. I wash under my arms, between my fingers and toes, behind my ears, and between my legs. I rinse and wash every part once more. When finished, I stand exposed, as if having ripped through plastic sealed air-tight. I pull on the first pair of jeans and gray t-shirt that I find.
There is a corner of my apartment well hidden from view. In this spot, I spread a hospital-white sheet across the floor. I open a medicine box filled with supplies once labeled defective merchandise. Across a knee-high table, I set one stainless steel instrument at a time, adjusting as I go until all are neatly arranged. I check that the stack of plastic slips underneath the table is in place. I pause and survey the scene: everything will be ready the moment I enter the door.
Outside, I listen for that familiar voice to lead me someplace new. The moment it speaks, I step onto the course already laid out, one free of passersby and traffic. I walk many blocks, encountering no distractions, no delays, far beyond my usual surroundings. I have entered a part of the city that is undergoing construction. It’s uncertain how much is even occupied. Amid a steel-framed building and dirt piles, I glimpse a permanent sign: a neon yellow arrow pointing me up some stairs.
The door swings shut as I step into a room glowing with more neon lights. Pink, blue, and green streak the walls, the beams shattering across the wax table tops and chrome-finished chairs. Off in a corner sit a couple awash in a pink glow. They gaze at one another, fixed for all time.
Startled, I turn away from the couple and see the bartender drying a martini glass with a checkered black and white dish towel. Walking up to the bar, I search his face for some familiar mark and decide, while taking a seat, that he must have mistaken me for someone else.
“No, I’ve never been,” I say. “What I mean is I just walked in off the street. I could have been anyone. I could have walked into any place.”
Nodding yes, he says, “But you’re here. You came.”
He busies himself behind the bar while I shift in my seat. Soon I hear the dull thud of glass on a napkin and look up as he says, “The world’s best elixir, known to cure even future ills.”
Before me, a lavender volcano is erupting from a tall, skinny glass.
“On the house,” he calls on his way through the swinging-side door.
I stare at the drink, enchanted. Something like smoke overflows the rim, billowing above the glass, before spilling onto the counter top, gone. I peer into the drink, searching for its inner source. Do I want to prolong its life, or do I want to end it somehow?
Someone else enters the room. I hear the person walk with heavy footsteps towards the bar. All of the sudden, he is sitting on the barstool beside me. We watch as the last of the smoke rises from the glass, then vanishes.
At the exact moment it does, he says “I’ve sat here many times before.”
I wait, expectantly.
“Years ago when it was called Sal’s place. Sat here with the same bunch night after night. We talked, drank beer, even laughed.”
Before us the lavender drink has settled in the glass.
“Guess that’s why I came back,” he says. “Wanted to find them here again.”
He stiffens, a relic in his rumpled tweed jacket, and for a moment the neon green beam on the wall behind appears to shoot right through him.
I search his haggard face for lines of pain.
“But this place has changed,” he says. “All these bright lights, the fancy drink. Everyone I knew is gone.”
Hopelessness descends. I begin to flail inwardly; arms multiply into thousands thrashing beneath my skin. Desperate for it to end, I turn to him and say, “I have stopped believing in relationships.”
He reaches for me. I sense the outline of his palm and fingers against my skin. His hand begins closing around my forearm, circling it. Before his fingers touch, he has reached inside me and now sits holding my voice, my heart, or possibly both. I immediately want him to take more. I look for parts of myself in the palm of his hand. After the door slams shut, I realize that he has left. Across my forearm, I see particles scattered underneath florescent lights. They glow pink, blue, and green, brightening the more his touch begins to fade.
Cradling my arm, I hurry back to my apartment, careful not to touch the area where he laid his hand. I walk along the dimly lit streets, pressing my arm in more tightly at the mere hint of any threat. A man shuffling past looks as if he could veer right into me. A brick wall, leaning outwards, seems about to topple onto my side of the street. The further I walk, the more convinced I become that the particles on my arm are indeed endangered. I rush along ready to sacrifice a leg, an eye, a breast, any other body part in fact, for the sake of my forearm. I arrive to my apartment whole, knowing the particles to be even more valuable for what I was willing to lose.
I step onto the hospital-white sheet, filled with only one purpose. It is all that matters to me now and for the future. Particles—irreplaceable particles. I need nothing, only particles. I lift my forearm as someone does who lives by the clock. I focus on the effected area, three by two inches of mere skin, until at last I glimpse four bright particles burn out. With a flat metal instrument, I peel away the particles, careful not to tear their porous walls. Inside a plastic slip I collect the particles then tack it above a card that reads #137. I take a step back, then another, faced with row after row of evenly spaced slips, each distinct—no one more than all the rest.
Moriah Hampton teaches in the Writing and Critical Inquiry program at the University at Albany. She enjoys writing fiction in her spare time.