Amorphous Object &
Sundays in Hudson
Fox and Geese
Love in Winter
David Albert Solberg
I Have Made My Own Soul Suffer
A Notice to My Mailman
poem for god
The Woman in Silent Tears
everything beautiful bleeds
5 August 2014
Et in Arcadio Ego
David Albert Solberg
Sorry, We're Closed
Older than Our Bodies
n. – in•ter’po•la’tion: an alteration or corruption, as of a text, from the insertion of new or foreign matter. “Interpolation, i-n-t-e-r-p-o-l-a-t-i-o-n, interpolation.”
She was nervous for the spelling bee, and this nervousness was manifesting itself physically, both in aggravating and irritating ways; the former found in the red, hot splotches that covered her chest and thighs, the latter found in the rhythm that her left foot has tapped out for the last hour. The look on her face suggested determination, but the more omniscient observer would describe it as grim. For tomorrow was the sixth round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which just sounds like importance and academic accreditation with the pervasive feeling of dread attached as a rider. Her mother1 (sitting in the room over, reading a recently-published short story by Haruki Murakami in the original text), was unaware of the girl’s angst, and was instead focused on her coming in absolute first place tomorrow, some bastardized version of pride.
And so she practically had to win now, what with mother-dearest having already told all of the other mothers that her brilliant daughter was going to carry the day. The pressure was on, the thought of losing entering her headspace only in the form of abject fear. adj. – carbun’cu•lar: “Of, pertaining to, or resembling a carbuncle.”2 She followed the text up with her index finger. “A painful local inflammation of the subcutaneous tissue, larger and more serious than a boil.” “Well… okay then…” she thought. “Carbuncular, c-a-r-b-u-n-c-u-l-a-r, carbuncular.”
She was sitting at her hotel room’s desk, hunched over her dictionary: her spine unnaturally bent, as if it couldn’t bear the weight of all of the thoughts rattling around in her skull. She was starting to doze off, on account of the somewhat excessive amount of artificial light being emitted from the energy-efficient curly-fry-shaped light bulb in the desk lamp, her head bobbing up and down like it was keeping time. Pouring through the dictionary had taken its toll physiologically, and she felt the weight on her eyelids mirroring the weight on her back. The classical music playing in the background3 was not helping her to stay awake either: the melodies were pleasant but horrifically uninteresting after four hours of ceaseless practice; the vocals, of course, were non-existent, and this forced her to concentrate on etymologic roots instead of top-40 choruses. It is not true for every speller, but it is certainly true for her: spelling is dreadfully boring work.
She needed some sort of stimuli, but any potential distraction would be hostilely dismissed by her mother, so cellos, cellos and more cellos it was. Listening to classical music was just enough of a necessary distraction to rescue her from the overwhelming urge to wrap herself in a familiar-smelling blanket and nap forever, and she really shouldn’t nap. Well, both “shouldn’t,” because the near-homicidal level of intensity that her mother valued4 had mapped itself on her psyche, and “couldn’t,” because the girl sitting alone in the chair, the one being burnt in the face by the desk lamp, had insomnia.
And not just the regular “I sometimes struggle to sleep” insomnia. Rather it was the “soul-diminishing, dark circle-inducing, has tried everything from Zen meditation to Swiss memory-foam mattresses to developing a kind of chronic Nyquil addiction in the seventh grade to taking prescriptions of high-dosage Xanax and every Xanax-derived generic brand like they’re tic-tacs” insomnia. And this lack of ability to engage in what is perhaps the most basic and necessary human function had left the girl exhausted all the time. She felt this the most when she was either spelling or at school, when it would be, say, one in the afternoon on a Thursday. Because she would be all-too aware of the fact that there were millions of middle-aged people working nine to five who feel less debilitated than she did sitting in an eighth-grade classroom. And she would realize that she doesn’t have half of their grown-up worries or responsibilities or metabolism issues or the need to know what a 401K is, and so she would ask herself (again and again) why in the hell can’t she sleep when she wants to? She tried to wake herself with another word. n. – eu’phu•is’tic: “The affected style of conversation and writing fashionable in the Elizabethan age, and marked by antithesis, alliteration, farfetched similes, and other signs of an effort after elegance; – from Euphues, a prose work by John Lyly.” She half chuckled, half cried, thinking to herself, “Oh wow, that helped…” “Euphuistic, e-u-p-h-u-i-s-t-i-c, euphuistic.”
The girl glanced at the clock beside her and realized that the competition was less than 10 hours away. Her irritating physical tics began to escalate into intestine-coiling terror, which only served to up the ante because she already was living in a state of fear. She was not merely the apprehensive girl who was afraid of her own shadow—it was more than that. This was a girl who was terrified of whose shadow it was and why the shadow was there and one hundred and five other things about the shadow, about everything. Instead of interfacing with others, she resided in her own mind, seldom sharing her thoughts or emotions. And whenever the rare occasion arose for her to communicate her feelings with another human being, she struggled to properly express them, and the window of opportunity slammed shut when she decided that the other person probably thought her to be some combination of strange/odd/peculiar/bizarre,5 and so she quickly ended her emotive expressions. She was so self-defeating, in fact, that she often found herself over-thinking about how much she over-thinks, and she would end up all cross-eyed with a pulsating migraine, mostly on the left side.
One such example of this debilitating over-thinking can be found in any of the times she has gone to a restaurant. Upon entering the establishment, her eyes would immediately lock-on to the nearest booth, and she would then think about booths and how booths are the most cozy and intimate of all possible seating arrangements, but that there was a high probability that she would get bopped in the face with an elbow or bumped in the arm by her booth mate as she’s trying to eat hot soup.6 She would then spill the soup all over herself, and would find herself both publicly embarrassed and burned to the second degree, so she sticks to tables and chairs. Another example: she recognizes that, if she were to hug her books to her chest as she walks around school, she may appear “girly,” which would be awful, especially considering the fact that her mother has lectured her since the age of five about the importance of being seen as a strong, industrious and independent lady. But, if she doesn’t hug her books, there is the likelihood that that she might drop them or that some jerk will come and knock them out of her careless and unprotected hip-level grasp, and that the subsequent cleaning up of said books and loose papers would lead to the first tardy the girl had ever received. This would subsequently result in a devastating bout of emotional trauma that would be only momentarily stymied by the eating of raw cookie dough later that evening, the kind that you scoop from a tub.
She consequently held her books close to her chest all throughout junior high, much like one would carefully cradle a newborn. She especially took care of her most prized book, a Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary7 (copyright, 1949), for she was constantly afraid that she would be stupid and/or klutzy enough to allow the dictionary to fall from her arms. It would then hit the ground and subsequently explode into an intellectually outdated cloud of dust particles and ancient shards of Samuel Johnson’s ghost (which she would gag on, then asphyxiate). v.t. – as•phyx’i•ate: “To induce asphyxia in; to suffocate.” “Asphyxiate, a-s-p-h-y-x-i-a-t-e, asphyxiate.” As she spelled out the word she could feel her larynx begin to tighten, and she adjusted the drawstrings on her hoodie to loosen the pressure she felt, though deep down she worried that the feeling was more psychosomatic than it was real.
The girl wore hoodies often, because she enjoyed the safety and security that came from putting her hood up, as if the thin layer of fabric was somehow shielding her brain from the onslaught of negative thoughts and feelings that pounded away at her cranium. These thoughts and feelings were almost never combated or rivaled by any sort of good or even neutral thoughts, which tended to agitate the pejorative ones. Because even with the protection of her hoodies, she still over-thought and she still worried, focusing on things that no eighth-grader should focus on, especially one who hadn’t even gotten braces yet (though she thought about that constantly as well).
“Do I wear a hoodie with a zipper or do I go with the one-piece zipperless one? The zip-perless one is a bit more comfortable and insulating, and it makes me feel safe, like a dog in a thunder-shirt all snug, but if I got too hot and wanted to take it off there’s a chance that it would take the shirt that I’m wearing underneath with it for the ride and people—possibly boy-people—would see my exposed ribcage and unimpressive belly, and it would be awkward and embarrassing and would probably lead to the coining of a nickname that would stick with me all the way through high school, and I’d only become okay with the nickname after hearing it so often that by senior year I’d be dead to its effects and I would end up embracing it, but then, shortly thereafter, move on to college,8 where nicknames and any other items that contribute to one’s sense of identity are stripped away by the fresh-start, clean-slate aspects of institutions of higher learning. With the zipper hoodie I would avoid that problem, but the zipper could always get caught, and then I would still look like an idiot fumbling with the little metal teeth attached to my clothes, and then I might as well be wearing my pants backwards or not be able to tie my own shoes, and everyone would stare at me, and I would probably end up receiving the same nickname that I would get with the zipperless one with the same problems that would inevitably come with pursuing higher-level education. So I really don’t know. Maybe I should just tell mom that I’m sick.”
With the girl, all things were taken into consideration and then considered again for good measure: the amount of times she should floss her teeth in a day based on the number and types of stringy and otherwise difficult-to-consume foods she had eaten, whether she should say “hello” versus “hi” to people based on the formality (or lack thereof) of a particular situation, how to walk, how to talk, how to breathe, how to be. There were so many different things and stuff, stuff and things, and never one at a time (because that would, at least, be somewhat bearable). These competing thoughts would always simultaneously introduce themselves to her to be mulled over, forcing her to curl herself into a ball and hide. All the while knowing that her compulsion to consider every scenario was the same compulsion driving her to spell, the same compulsion driving her to win. The compulsion that would drive her until she broke.
adj. – in•cho'ate: “Recently or just begun; being in the first stages; rudimentary.” “Inchoate, i-n-c-h-o-a-t-e, inchoate.” And it was upon completing this word that something happened to the girl. Something changed, she could feel it inside of her: something had clicked into place. And it was then that the girl did something that she had never done before. She gave up. She yanked off her headphones and forcefully pushed the dictionary away from herself, looking at the book with a mixture of disgust and finality, trying to imagine a time where she wasn’t spelling. Trying to remember what it was like to be a child, a little girl, wanting nothing more than to go outside and play like there was nothing wrong with her. Trying to remember a time when she didn't have to meet someone else’s expectations. When she could just be.
And it was during this imagining that her mind wandered to the spotless, dustless shelf in the back corner of her bedroom at home. She could picture it with a hyper-realistic clarity: the trophies, the ribbons, the pins, the certificates, the victory pictures in fancy little frames; the symbols of success that came with the adulation and adoration of her teachers, her family. Her mother. And in that moment, she could not deny that she craved the feeling that came with winning, that she needed that feeling as much as she needed anything else in her life, forget the physical manifestation of that success. She sighed, and everything felt heavy.
She opened her eyes and stared at the hotel bed. It was perfectly made, the kind you feel sorry for tearing apart, as if you’d be spoiling the art of its flawless preparation. But in this moment, the girl didn’t care. She wanted to rip the bed apart and crawl into it and hide under the covers, to never leave its warm and secure embrace. But the cruel irony was that, even if she could force herself to stop practicing and just call it an evening, her insomnia would stop her from ever falling asleep. And she would helplessly plead with The Powers That Be with a lump in her throat and her tensed-up neck muscles that They allow her a reprieve, wondering if any of this was normal, if any of this was the sort of thing that the other girls her age went through. Knowing that it never was.
The bed’s comforter was a boring gray, lacking any design or details of note, and she was afraid that it matched her personality. The only personal item she had brought with her was a throw pillow with the letters “ABC” etched onto it, and it was resting at the end of the bed, exactly parallel with the headboard. Her mother had knit the design for her after the girl’s first big win and had presented it to her with a flourish and a hug. The girl remembered this and smiled. But as soon as she did, she began to wonder why her mother had made the pillow in the first place, a question that was always in her thoughts, but one that she had yet to acknowledge in a substantive way, for fear of accepting it as a legitimate thought. And it began to eat at her, and she could feel her anxiety begin to creep into the nucleus of every cell constituting her person. Had her mother made the throw pillow as a gift to celebrate and congratulate her for her accomplishment? Or had her mother created it as a twisted reminder, as a kind of warning in disguise. The kind that you feel on the back of your neck when you sit alone in your room practicing. The kind that you see every night before you try to go to sleep. The kind that forces you to question if you’re doing enough, if you’re sacrificing enough to win.
And it was because of this that the girl’s smile disappeared and was quickly replaced by a somber grimace. She placed her thumb and index finger on the radix of her nose, dried blood present at the rims of her fingernails from all of the ripping and gnawing off of her fingernails and around her cuticles from incessant picking. She began to question if she even enjoyed spelling bees, if she enjoyed feeling like she was nothing more than a vehicle through which others could succeed. If she genuinely wanted to continue to spell, or if she only continued because her mother wanted her to. But if she were to quit, what would happen? What would she have left? Would she ever be successful again? Yes? No? It was at this last thought that she screamed and grabbed her dictionary with both hands, whipping it as hard as she could at the bed, knocking the throw pillow to the ground and destroying the bed’s pristine (almost immaculate) folds. The dictionary made an unceremonious thud on the carpeted floor and landed on the page that listed words beginning with the letters “FA.” Tears began to well up in the girl’s eyes, and she shut them hard in an attempt to fight off crying.
Her mother heard the noise and opened the door. “Sophie?” The girl opened her eyes, and looked around in a daze, not entirely sure where she was or what was happening. All she knew was that her mother was standing in front of her, head cocked, right arm folded over the other, clearly concerned and/or upset over the fact that the girl was not currently practicing. And so, with her mind focused for the first time in what felt like forever, the girl was able to quickly wipe away her tears and answer, “Yes, mother?”
“What’s going on in here? Did I just hear you scream? Did something fall?” The girl resisted the urge to explode and lied instead. “There was a spider crawling on my dictionary, and I panicked and threw it over there. I’m really sorry, I’ll go pick it up. I’m fine now.” Her mother wasn’t impressed by this apology and didn’t even really seem concerned per se; she kept looking over at the girl’s dictionary to make sure that it was fine. “Okay. Just pick up after yourself and keep spelling. It’s a big day for you tomorrow.” Her mother turned to leave the room, and the girl’s mind caught fire again. She wanted to ask her mother about the throw pillow, but all that came out was “… mom?” Her mother turned around to look back at the girl. “Yes, Sophie?” The girl was quiet, almost whispering, and hesitating, unsure of how to ask the question and not sure of where to start; she couldn’t do it. “… Can we get something special for dinner after the Bee tomorrow, please?” Her mother’s smile was affectionate, but it warped around the edges. And it left as briefly as it came when she said, “We’ll see. Keep practicing, yes? Goodnight.” The door closed, and the girl sat motionless for 2 minutes and 36 seconds. She knew. She counted every second.
She put her hood up, and then looked back at the sad, aged dictionary still resting open on the floor. The book’s binding was broken. The dictionary had been thrown—pushed beyond its limits—and was now in disrepair. But, despite its deformities, the injured dictionary would continue to serve its function; the girl would not sleep this night. She would continue to practice until the sun rose in the morning, until her mother would awaken and come in to check on her, until they left for the Bee. The entire time, the girl would think about the moment right after her mother had left, when she stared at the broken dictionary, binding splintered as it rested on one page. One word. She would have that image in her mind when she and her mother drove to the competition site, when they checked in and when she took her seat. And she would remember that image when she went up to the microphone for the first time, remember how, only hours before, she had sat alone in a desk chair with her hood up, her insomnia constricting her thoughts. She would remember, as she began to spell, sitting in that hotel, staring blankly as her mother began to read again in the other room, watching the dictionary lay motionless. Watching the clock move with every minute. Wondering what it was inside of something that pushed it to shatter.
- 1 Who was irritated by the girl’s tapping, but accepted it as a byproduct of the milieu of the Bee.
- 2 Carbuncle being one of many reference words contained in a definition that she did not know the definition to (and why would she? She was an orthographist, not a lexicologist.)
- 3 J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G
- Exhibited most often in professional athletes and real estate moguls.
- Her knowledge of words being extremely psychologically damaging in this way.
- For some reason, the soup she imagines is almost always cream of broccoli, which (in lieu of her favorite snack of plain old broccoli in the raw) can really hit the spot as a Wednesday special.
- This dictionary had been given to her at a young age by her grandparents who owned the thing, knowing that she had a knack for spelling and wanting to see her succeed. Because of its age, not every Bee-related word is included, but she off-sets this with a series of note cards that make up for the ones that are lost.
It goes without saying that her mother hopes/expects the girl's attendance of an Ivy League school.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eric Kubacki is a junior at the University of St. Francis majoring in biology and minoring in both chemistry and writing. Though he is used to writing lab reports, he loves to pen “cheesy romantic poetry” and prose works in his free time. He is currently considering a career in cardiovascular medicine.