What I Know

by Kaitlin Flynn

            Trains are rushing through the station on both sides, speeding up and away. Imagine that the platform is much narrower. The yellow do-not-cross zone is closing in, no matter how small I make myself. This is how I feel most of the time. It’s not rush hour but it might as well be, because I hardly fit inside the car, pressed against the door that keeps trying to close. Sensor reading, too close. Stand clear. Something is in the way. There are half a dozen different languages being spoken but voices turn to static as I become fixated on the open mouths, full of teeth. Morning breath. This is what it feels like to be afraid of nothing, and everything.

 

            I don’t know exactly what logic I follow when I insist on saving tea tags with fortune cookie words of advice. Every morning I run back to my apartment from the lobby to make sure the lights are off and the toaster is unplugged. Sometimes I do this twice, or four times, not knowing how to force myself away from fear of things that I am certain are not real. As I climb the stairs again, just to be sure. One time in a thousand, you forget to throw salt over your shoulder and evil spirits awaken out of sheer probability. Living with and with regards to the slim possibility of destruction is part of me. Even as I watch myself burn.

 

            And I don’t know where I come from, least of all how all my aches and pains amount to the sum of my parts. I’ve been told I am nothing if not consistent, and nothing if not the human embodiment of a sick paradox. I see this in others to varying degrees. Personality inventories fascinate me into believing all seven billion of us are one of nine to sixteen varieties. But then I watch my coworkers talk about their families and plans and coffee orders, and I question the ability to quantify who we are and certainly how we’ve come to be one way or another.

 

Against the world of things I fail to make sense of, I do know my ride home smells like a freshly vacuumed carpet, through the mask, under my own breath. I know it’s raining down spring in January, the windows are open, and it’s four minutes to three. Headlights pass in a steady stream, three cars each block. With them comes the scent of past life memory. Something mossy and far away from the city, trapped beneath cigarette smoke, first date cologne, clean hair blown back into a tangle. It smells like people. Just strong enough that I remember, with the reassurance of a familiar hand, that Brooklyn has a buried kindness I am just now beginning to take in.

 

            What I’ve forgotten, months passed since the last time my hand was stamped with the blacklight proof of a night out, is the intensity of sound in a crowded bar. Emblematic static, all the noise of a world I have so much difficulty translating condensed into a dimly lit, beer soaked room with rainbow writing on every wall. It’s right in the middle of my comfort space, but through so many voices, I can never hear the music. I understand that this is not a universal limitation. I am overwhelmed by layered conversations and clinking glasses. Another Jack and ginger please. They’re difficult to tune out. It’s a game my friends play, asking me to guess what song is playing in a dive at high noon on a Friday night. Sometimes my favorite songs. Songs I know as well as my own name, which lose all resonance when the background noise gets turned up. I cannot say why this happens, except that I find this world too loud and always, always have.

 

            To some extent, pure sensory inundation is easy to comprehend. There’s no need for explanation. Suffice to say there’s a power to the scent and sound of the things we see every day, or once in a lifetime; but the mystery sits forever unmoving where the senses meet what we feel but cannot see, hear, smell––what we fail to even think into words. I go back to Brighton Beach every summer, and touch fingertips with myself; twenty-one years old, walking past melted ice cream on the pavement, overtanned old men on the boardwalk, meat markets and the laughter of children growing up between two worlds. In Little Odessa, I can still hear the Q train from the edge of the water. And I convince myself every time that I can still feel what it’s like to be nearly a child. Once again oblivious to the fact that living in Russia by the sea, just miles from Manhattan, is not a bad place to be at all.

 

            So the burden of lost things is something we carry with us. Easy enough to grasp. I can live with that, and sometimes I can understand it. It’s human nature to collect, then cling to places and feelings long after we outgrow them. What makes less sense is inborn heaviness. I’ve read in multiple places that stage costumes sometimes weigh over a hundred pounds, and it’s an art in itself to act while carrying such a weight. It is possible, however, and perhaps it even comes more naturally, to give a stellar performance while wearing such a costume. To complicate things further, sometimes these costumes come with masks. Sometimes we know how to live with the heaviness, but not how to take the mask off.

 

            More trouble, much more confusion––while wearing a mask, we attempt to address the need for company. Finding comfort in others turns disquieting fast. Missed connections become forced.  This is where my mind goes as the wind comes between me and my favorite sweater, in between my favorite sweater and my coat; as I pass rusted iron fences cast in different variations of curls and spikes, with brand new padlocks around the gates. Men my father’s age are watching me from behind these gates. Many of them say hello, and they are all either nice or too nice. I am trying to figure out why, beneath the obvious answer, what’s beneath my sweater. But maybe some of them also want whatever lies beneath that.

 

            Admittedly, even though I know for sure I do not like being invaded, I am frequently unable to tolerate distance in close proximity. We put up walls. In certain instances we begin to feel how they close us in, darkening the room. We do not, however, tear them down. This morning on my way to work, the train came to a stop in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. Stopped running for a minute, resulting in a palpable discomfort as the train fell silent. Without subway sounds we’re just a bunch of people sitting silently shoulder to shoulder waiting for the same thing.

 

            So I’ve gathered, and am beginning to accept, that the heart of what we want life to be is a graceful settling in the space between overestimating and underestimating closeness. To feel human, but not uncomfortably so. Sometimes that means overcoming loneliness, but more often successfully pretending that we have. I start to wonder what this looks like as I walk through the drugstore thinking how strange it is the way holidays are celebrated. To fixate on a day, observe traditions, then promptly start waiting for what comes next. There are always Easter baskets and egg shaped candy on the shelves in mid-February. Valentine’s Day for sale on New Year’s Eve. I can’t decide if I find this sweet or sad; the tendency towards commonality in celebration, anticipation. Along with it comes the equal tendency to want more too soon and love things too late.

 

            And from that follows the most confusing thing in the world, something I’ve craved and lost many times over. I want to perfectly and concisely define what it means to have faith, and why we insist upon it. Sometimes I have faith; sometimes I envy those who do. Sometimes I can’t stand the arrogance of certainty. Beneath Times Square, there are old women in floral skirts and white blouses against brown skin. Very modest, very gently peddling salvation and brochures to go with it. In the time it takes to get from B to R, I pass two Buddhist monks. One of them hands me a little card and asks for a donation, and I tell him I don’t have any money even though I do. Assuage the guilt over lying to a holy man by giving a few dollars to a homeless man instead. He’s sitting still like a statue. Pointedly, perfectly; this is an attempt to earn his money. He cannot sing or play guitar. He has no religion to preach on the train. His talent is the ability to breathe without moving a muscle. I’ll be back here so many times, to be reminded of 8.3 million parallel lives, and hope against all logic faith isn’t blind.

 

            Things are different now. People are the same, but we can’t be together to talk about it. What I would like to say, among other things—returning to the city during a plague gives a certain eerie sentimentality to a nearly empty Grand Central Terminal. I want to tell the people, who are mostly not there, that the clock in the center of the concourse, the most famous meeting spot in the world, is worth $20 million dollars. It is made of brass and opal, and is accurate to a billionth of a second. But there are so few people here. I am traveling alone. So I sit down on the bottom step of the grand staircase, and look up at the sky painted on the ceiling, deep cerulean with a few stars set in golden drawings of different constellations. I recognize Orion, Aries, and Pisces. There are several unfamiliar patterns, and I fixate on one that I’ll later learn is no longer recognized in the real night sky. Some things only exist here and now, where people have been coming and going for over a century, where nobody wants to be today. And then I get to thinking of all the people who have looked up at the painted stars, and wonder if there’s any use to opening the window when a person dies. Wonder about the names carved into the walls, like Orion on the ceiling, once killed by Apollo, lived countless times. I don’t understand exactly why we pray over the dead, or bury them with things they love. But these kinds of things comfort me. One thing I do understand, that makes perfect sense, is permanence of being. And I hope I’ll learn when I become something or somebody else that there’s really no reason to fear falling onto the tracks.

About the Author

Kaitlin is a fiction writer and very proud New Yorker. She has been obsessively writing since childhood, but only decided to pursue her passion further after minoring in creative writing at NYU. She has had work published in Into the Void, and is currently working as a freelance writer while editing her first novel. Kaitlin is particularly interested in writing about trauma and the psychology of illness.