Short story : A work in progress
Out of interest, I thought I would post the first draft of a short story I am currently working on. This has been read by 3 of my feedback partners and will be sent out to magazines for publication soon.
Please feel very free to give comments. This is my work. I’m interested in all feedback and can take punches, if you genuinely have something to say that is not reactionary. Oh – and I know the title is shit… any feedback re an alternate would be greatly appreciated.
I will be taking it down when I change it and send it out.
I don’t know what I do on the train.
I catch a train for one and a half hours to and from work each day and I don’t know what I do with my time when I am on that train. I know I don’t know, because my brother said to me at a dinner party at my house, “you are on the train for three hours every day. What do you do for those three hours?”
My entire life I have been obsessed with what people think of me. You might laugh at this or think I am exaggerating for effect, but it’s true. I spend hours, days, working on the impression that I am going to leave on other people’s minds. I don’t do this deliberately – oh, and sometimes I do. It happens in the chatter of my mind and in the reflections I make post interactions. At first I thought I did this out of fear of people not liking me, but there may be more to it than that. I seem to be addicted to wondering if someone likes me even more than the result whatever that may be. Although, if I were really honest, I would have to add that I do want people to like me.
I did very well at school, but it was mostly because I wanted to be seen to be the best and in that way, control what people thought of me. To have a medal, or an award to show people; fear of not having a reason to be the centre of attention, drove me toward winning. It didn’t take too long for me to realise winning only got you certain friends. You did well with teachers, parents and other adults, for example, but you had to use different strategies to control the students’ feelings about me. It took dating James McCann to find out the popular girls liked me, because he was the best boy around and I could get them dates with his friends. James was a nice enough boy, I think. He seemed under a lot of stress because he was playing football and had to do well in his studies. He confessed this to me one night and I stared at him blankly because I couldn’t tell what that had to do with me. I know, in retrospect there is this really nice guy (he was a warm hearted kind guy who was just sort of accidently good-looking and really good at sports) trying to pour his heart out to me. He was very mature, but I couldn’t handle it. I was sort of bored when we were alone together anyway, because I preferred it when we were in public so people could see us together.
But what has this got to do with the train? For that, I’ll take you back to when my brother asked the question.
When my brother asked, I was confronted by the moment, and because my brother had a new girlfriend with him, and for some ridiculous reason I wanted to show off to her, I said that I read. I am not sure why I wanted to show off in front of this girl, but, as ugly as it is, I should tell you, when they were gone later, I did go over a lot of the evening’s events and try to work out what she thought of me. I imagined various things I said to her and monitored her responses through my own filters, and came to the conclusion she not only liked me, but envied me, which was (I think) the response I was going for in the first place. I wanted this woman I had never met that my brother obviously didn’t care for, to admire me, envy me a little, and think my brother was wonderful primarily because he had a brilliant older sister. Once I had covered these events and came to this conclusion, I was left feeling spent and exhausted and, of course, very empty and dissatisfied with myself. However, it was only after I had gone through this ritual that I was able to let the evening go into my past and move forward.
It was a few days later, I realised I didn’t know what I did on the train.
This particular day, I left a cafe with my morning coffee, and I remembered out of the blue that I wasn’t sure what I did on the train. I was at the other end of the journey. I always got my coffee at my station then I had a coffee when I got off at the other end. There is a cute barrister at the second coffee shop and I find the motivation to show off in front of him takes up a part of the journey on the train, but not much of it. I am not exactly sure when that kicks in, but I know it starts while I am travelling. There is probably some trigger – a station sign post, or numbness in my ass – that starts me thinking about getting off, and that thought sets in motion the visualisation of the steps I will be taking as I approach the coffee, and subsequently go to work. Work being the next safe place. I say safe place, because the familiar is useful in order to relax. By relax I mean let down one’s guard. I can do this at home, or at work, or on the train. There are a couple of other places: My parents house for example, but for the most part, I have to be acutely aware of everyone’s eyes every other second I am walking around.
There are tricks I use to pretend I am not acutely aware of everyone looking at me (even if they are not, I know they really are, because I am pretending I am not looking at them and I secretly am, so therefore to stay one step ahead of the game, you should always be ready with your image if someone is looking. It’s too good an opportunity to inspire envy or desire and therefore feel good about myself for another brief few seconds.) Like walking fast, not averting my eyes from my target.
When I was younger, I felt bad about wanting everyone to look at me all the time. As a teen, I woke up to the fact that the only thing that mattered was how you are perceived and it created a self-consciousness in me that completely controlled my life. By my twenties I worked out that everyone thinks everyone is looking at them all the time, and everyone is too busy with what they are doing to be looking at you. I’m in my thirties now, and I what I know is a little from column A and a little from column B. Everyone is looking at you, but only for part of the time. Occasionally there are bursts in our life when we are busy with our projects. These are enviable states when, for brief pockets of time, you actually forget that everyone is looking at you, and you forget to look at everyone, and you get lost in busy-ness.
In my thirties I try to authentically create this all the time. I have an upper management job that is hard. I work very hard. The problem with this is, as I was working hard (and enjoying myself because there was some relief that I didn’t have to inspire envy from all the people who were trying to inspire envy from me) and that got me even more noticed. Those around me were jealous that I had found the secret to working hard and that I had started to get good results. Those above me noticed my good results, were impressed, and promoted me. The reward I received for work was better even than the power I feel when the barrister looks at my legs, so I started to work hard for reward. I soon noticed I was surrounded by those who had worked as hard as I had to get to where we were and so I had to lift the game. Why? Well, to be envied and noticed of course.
Now I am in my mid thirties and I have decided there are moments of bliss when you forget that you are being measured and then there is life when you are obsessed with what everyone thinks of you. At least that is how it is for me.
Of course, I didn’t and don’t think this is healthy. I am not a fool. I hate being obsessed with what everyone thinks of me and I am sure it must show in my behaviours just as I can see the same neurosis in everyone around me. I have tried many different things to rid myself of this problem. I tried evangelical religion, fashionable gourmet cooking, international development and fundraising, fashion (both the indulging in and the shunning of) pets, marathon training, boxing, mountain climbing, yoga, The Landmark Forum, counselling, meditation, psychotherapy, post-traumatic stress therapy, marajuahana, cocaine, amyl nitrate, smoking, alcohol, hypnosis, celibacy, prostitution, BDSM, polyamoury, Goran style living, children, homemaking, swinging, travel, alternate cultural immersion, ashram living, socialism, feminism, Buddhism, communism, environmentalism, existentialism, philosophy, mathematics, astrology, tarot, atheism, lay zoology, wealth accumulation, small business, big business, stock speculation, property development, painting, poetry, sculpture, singing, guitar, piano, filmmaking, writing and photography.
The problem remains the same with each developing project. In the early stages I am fascinated. I feel that I see hidden trinkets or vignettes of hope guised as theories, or sentences in key texts, or simple ideas that strike a chord within me. Soon obsession and addiction take over. I exist in a state of bliss when I am genuinely more interested in the book than the writer, and I feel a lightness swelling inside of me that engages every part of me at exactly the same time. For these very brief moments my body, soul, heart and mind want to do the same thing. A cohesion exists, although at that time I would have to say there is also a strong sense that I don’t’ exist, as if the ideas and words have power only when I ‘get you of the way’ as it were. However, inevitably, at some point I will flick the source text to its back and look at the writer of the book and the first thing that will occur to me, is what would they think of me if they knew the thoughts I was having while I was reading this book they wrote. That is always the signal at the start of the end. The crucial moment when I know, no matter how many days, months or years of interest I have in this project, it has become about the way I occur to others rather than that divine moment when I felt myself not exist.
The corollary of wanting to be noticed and envied is not just hating people who notice and envy you. It is also having disdain for all other humans thought processes. Because I know others around me feel the same way, I assume I have figured this out and they haven’t. There is something special about introspection that gives you permission to think no one else can do it. I assume that everyone else on the train has thoughts busily occupied with work, home life, my beauty, their schedule and their secret deep longings, like being a rock star or cheating on their spouse. It never occurs to me we are all sitting there, on the train, in our small bubbles, linked only by train lines, seats air and patterns, thinking the same things, wondering who around us envies us the most. (Or of course, who thinks I am a dick and therefore I have to convince that I am worthy – same thing). There are brief moments where I realise this, and I can almost see it. We are all sitting on the train, our thoughts moving in rapid circles, vacillating between extreme self love and extreme self hatred, smiles plastered to our mouths, pausing only momentarily to produce the ticket for the conductor, or nudge ourselves into awareness long enough to get off the train.
One antidote to this I have tried is watching TV programmes or films on my i pod. This was very helpful initially. I bought the entire series of Lost and downloaded it into my player and watched that on the train. When I got off, I experienced a strange sense of displacement that disoriented me. The same feeling if I immersed in a book on the train. It felt almost as though I had been asleep. I understand this works for some people, but for me I found the transition too difficult to make to ‘awake’ mode. I found my circular thoughts returning throughout the day to the people trapped on that island with their many enemies, both without and within, and I was too distracted during the day, looking forward too much to the trip home. Watching lost on the train only gets be brief shots of envious glances from those who don’t have i pods, and most people who really want one have one today. However, doing poorly at work has serious image consequences. I had this deep disquiet as though somehow people would know I watched a TV show on the train in stead of…. in stead of… I wasn’t sure what it was I should have been doing. All I knew was watching a television show on the train was a waste of time.
This revelation caused me to begin carrying books with me that led to the answer I was able to give my brothers then girlfriend. I took books related to whatever the latest project was, or that related to however I wanted to be seen. Usually I would hold the book in front of me, as I slumped against the window and pretended to read, allowing my gaze to travel out to the already familiar landscape. So many people’s homes ran alongside the tracks of the train. Were they so used to the train passing that they forgot they were filled with strangers staring into their backyards? And the train become a block of noisy steal they knew would rattle nic knacks on shelves and remind them they live in a poorer home? Their home was disembodied just as my train was disembodied. I saw them as part of my convenience and they saw me as part of theirs.
I decided to try psychotherapy eventually. I thought that the way my mind rambled and made everything about me was either an extreme form of narcissism, a desperate horror of insecurity or (preferably) some slight sign of genius. What I couldn’t bare the thought of was that this was just life and that everyone was going through the same thing. That was abhorrent to me. I’m not sure if this is a desire to see myself as unique or really just a terrible fear that there is nothing better than this endless mind wheel I am trapped on. In a way I think the death of the enquiry would be the death of me.
The psychotherapist I saw was a woman in her mid fifties, who was usually dealing with drug dependant homeless people and psych ward patients, so I was either a breath of fresh air or a hopeless reminder of why she wants nothing to do with psychosomatically healthy people. I chose the former, thinking I was going to wow her with my knowledge straight up. I was reading psychoanalysis and I wanted to impress her. I fought this urge within me of course. It appalled me that I wanted to impress her. I was here to stop the endless chatter in my head, not to show the therapist that I was smarter than her with all her years of study and education that can’t compete with my six months of vague train reading. So I tried to focus on the sessions as honestly as I could while I was in them and usually spent the hour after them analysing her words, movements and gestures to work out what she thought of me.
She was a good listener, and she was interested and sympathetic in a way I thought overly engaged for a therapist. I assumed her role was to create as safe a space as possible for me to talk and talk my way into some sort of honest confession of some terrible thing that had happened to me that i had yet to remember. I tried to facilitate this process, wanting to get to the meat of what we were there to do as fast as possible, by telling her how things made me feel. The more I kept out of my mind, and focussed on my feelings, surely the sooner we would arrive at whatever the terrible thing causing this behaviour that helped prevent me feeling something I can’t handle, would be. So I saturated the conversation with my feelings. She was quick to suggest bi-polar and I pretended to be shocked (although was also secretly excited because I assumed this meant she suspected genius and I could tell my friends over dinner, as serious a look of embarrassment as I could muster) and refused any sort of medication. She said I was most certainly, at the very least depressed, and had I thought of seeing an adhd counsellor. ADHD was a little too “first-grader” for me so I suggested we try a bit more therapy and she agreed. I refused any medication.
This all made me feel a little disconcerted and worried, as if I were the one dictating and leading the sessions. I went back to talking as much about my feelings as possible, in the hope I could get through the sessions faster. I was starting to suspect she thought I was clever, and that disappointed me. I wanted to fight a little harder for her approval, for her respect. The more she respected me, the less I respected her, until I felt almost childlike in my responses to her. The sessions were reduced to this banter were she sprouted clichés at me and I was forced to face the horrible possibility that I may know more than her after six months of reading psychoanalytical literature which is not something you want to find out. As soon as I realised that, I got the distinct feeling this had nothing to do with me at all and was in fact all about her and her inability to really understand what she’d been taught. Finally, one day, she told me the purpose of the therapy was to create the safe place so that I would feel comfortable to talk about my feelings and I knew it was time to give it up. I felt it was obvious to a deaf, dumb and blind man I had been doing that because I was aware of the purpose of the therapy. If she can’t read that, how can she read the subtler nuances that plagued me so?
I told her that day I wasn’t coming back. I faked a reason. I told her work had gotten too busy and I felt conflicted and needed to take a break from therapy for a while. None of this was the truth and in fact I felt irritated and annoyed that after eight months of weekly sessions she had just revealed a great truth I knew on the first visit, so I didn’t care that I lied. She had a look on her face that implied she knew I was lying, and suggested a meditation class, “just in the interim – till you start to get a handle on this issue.” I stood for a brief moment torn between a stay and an exit. I doubted my decision, and in a flash caught a glimpse of my own arrogance, which, let’s face it, I was well aware of an painfully fearful of every waking moment. I thanked her, turned and left the office.
After that visit, I didn’t want to know what she thought of me. It made me feel sort of sick to think about it. I analysed this of course, immersing myself in both the possibility that she admired and respected me and the possibility that she was irritated and annoyed with me. Neither held any water and I couldn’t work out what the residual problem was. Was she indifferent to me? Possibly. I hoped so. But even that idea didn’t give rise to intense anger, fear, peace, or any reaction I could pin a hope to. Just the same vague sense of unease and unrest we can’t even discuss in polite company anymore because we’re all so bored by the concept.
I understand all of this is tedious and no doubt dull, but it does give you an insight into what it is like in my head and why I can’t really be sure what it is I do on the train for three hours every day. If you glean nothing from this confession but the fact that I am exhausting and solipsistic you will have seen enough. I have been this way my whole life, at least from about the age of four or so onwards, and it manifest itself in different ways, but ultimately it has always been the same circular confrontation with those around me. Of course I can see this is a very stupid and egotistical way to be. I can see that and I am doubly sure you can see that. I also feel strongly those I try to impress can see it, but unfortunately (or fortunately) they have their own neurosis and are aware of my observations of theirs, and out of generosity to each other we just don’t out the other. There is also the doubt. If I know that I am these things, and don’t like it about myself and stay very busy trying to cure myself of it, then am I really that in the first place? Is a solipsist aware they are a solipsist? Does awareness negate definition and is my endless anxiety actually my own cure?
I debated this with a philosophy student friend of mine which basically constituted the idea that I must not be a total solipsist because I was aware the world didn’t revolve around me even though my habits and behaviours implied that I did. He suggested there was a disconnect between desire / motivation / behaviour. Thinking this to be so obvious he must have been building to something I suggested the possibility behaviour came more from external systems and what I was really doing on the train every day was following pre-prescribed societal neural pathways that forced this solipsism on me – not in a banal political sense – but in a very physical way and the motivation behaviour disconnect I felt was a very battle between myself and society for my own autonomy and desire to be seen as individual and different. The only people who are seen as that in our systems are the famous special people, and therefore I long to be admired as an antidote to being ignored. Sort of a pathetic desire to use the system against itself. The philosophy student insisted this was political and that freedom only came from joining some anti social group and I claimed that socially sanctioned groups were never anti-social even if they operated outside the law and we went around like that for the remainder of the argument as I got more and more disgusted with myself for even bothering with this nonsense. The philosophy friend fast fell into the same box as every other person I had approached for illedfined help and I decided fairly quickly he was an idiot. I spent the rest of the argument playing along, faking interest out of some insane politesse and wondering if he was coming to the same conclusions about me.
There is also, of course the double edged sword of the way this inner chatter, this constant self analysis, doubting reflects in the world around me as a kind of success. It did get me so many things that although lost their value as soon as I possessed them, were of great value in the claiming and working toward. Things like my promotion to senior executive, which –ok- did cost me my marriage but it was to the wrong man and it did start my exploration of the world through exciting sexual and drug taking experiences that were (it must be confessed) less debilitating on my daily work habits because I was able to ‘reluctantly’ confess them over the regular end of the week drinks. Taking a colleague I found to be a challenge out the back for a couple of lines, made them instantly wary of my power, and I was able to conquer people in this empty dull way that left me feeling, again, short term powerful like I did with the barrister, but anxious that I was gaining power from someone so stupid they were actually impressed by a drug taker.
My marriage was early in my life to a man I thought was right for me, who I had met on my spiritual quest through the evangelical church when I was freshly out of my teens. He was a very successful merchant banker that I noticed on my first night, because he was surrounded by girls in calf length skirts with button to the neck tops. I was genuinely interested in finding my answers in the church and for the first couple of years it did seem to be my answer. The genius of it all lay in the promise that this internal restlessness, this questioning, assessing, revealing of ugliness, and self aggrandising will stop if you only get closer to god. Of course I didn’t confess to anyone there that I wanted to be closer to god than anyone else in the room, but it was helpful that the person I most wanted to impress was not there and not responding. The only method I had of understanding how to impress god was by reading his bible and prayer. The bible had lots of good information but I always suspected prayer might have been just me giving myself some good ideas. Still, with characteristic gusto I read the bible and started to engage with other followers of God just the bible suggested.
This was one of my longer stints at a kind of bliss and partly this is because there is an answer to the solipsism and endless mind repetition. Every time I indulged in it, I was moving away from god. Therefore I had to stay close to god.
However, when my husband, as a single, highly desirable man, first approached me and I sensed the envy of every single woman in that congregation of eight hundred people, I felt a euphoria that shocked and embarrassed me. Not enough to refuse to solicit it, but enough to be highly embarrassed that I loved it so much, and to begin another cycle of internal embarrassment that I am so foolish as to want stupid women to be jealous of me because a man I am not very interested in is singling me out. I was a little too young to realise he wanted be because I didn’t want him. I was genuinely not attracted to him. He was brunette, I preferred sandy blondes, he was very wealthy and gym-toned to perfection when I had no interest in these things and I was not impressed by money. All of my own desires fell to the wayside, however, when I experienced that envy pointed my way. Getting his attention in that room was the most flattered I have ever been and the absolute only reason I found myself married to him nine months later.
So, you see it was a blessing that after a stint as mother and homemaker, I found myself wanting to focus on my career. He became disgusted with this, of course, mostly because it was his lifestyle choice and I was not to co opt it, and I worked out that if I was going to have any sort of crack at the life I wanted I would have to be very brave and face divorce, mixed custody of our child and a whole new life. This was one of the brief periods in my life when my project engulfed me enough that I was completely focussed on it. I was more worried than every about how I was perceived. That will come as no surprise. I told story after story to as many people who would listen about the difficulties in my marriage and how horrible it all was to be married, always slightly emphasising the courage and bravery slant on my part along with enough of the “I can’t believe I am doing this to my child” to solicit the happy opinion that I am doing the right thing and that the pain must be borne but really remember this is the best thing for your child.
I wasn’t sure if it was the best thing for my child, or if it was the best thing for me. I just knew I couldn’t bare my husband’s face any longer and that I had lied long enough. I needed new and different lies now. I was tired of the project of marriage and it made no sense to me anymore. I knew I was inauthentic, but the church died for me a few years earlier (I woke up one day to realise I didn’t think god was actually noticing my goodness and that the people around me were idiots who loved me because they all admired my husband) and without that I had no real reason to stay. Well besides my child, but it never felt quite right to me to burden my child with my own unhappiness anyway. Not when I was so successfully burdening myself.
I guess, the only freedom from my condition is death, and while I know how melodramatic that sounds and selfish, because of what it will do to those I leave behind, it does make me feel a little relieved to know that there is always an out. There is a place I can go where the insane eternal chatter is not pinning me into my own stupid self of whom I am heartily sick. I rather like the idea of being able to end it all, and sometimes the drama of these fantasies fills me with a kind of delight. I do get a kick and then hate myself for getting a kick out of wondering how people would feel. Would the therapist wish she’d forced those meds on me after all and would the people at church rally around my husband and son making them both feel even more special than they currently do? I know that it would hurt my son, and he would never recover and that is the primary reason I can’t take refuge in it as a genuine option. Although many others in my life could take advantage of that situation and somehow use it for their greater scheme, my son won’t be able to do that. Our parents are one of the very few people who break through the layers of artifice to get to the real person, mostly so we can fuck them up with our own in authenticities of which we are heartily ashamed. My son doesn’t need to face these moments, and my ultimate gift to him is I won’t make him.
This all comes back to the undeniable fact that I do not know what I do on the train. That is, I know I read, but I can’t really tell you, except for pages and pages of rambling above what it is that I am actually doing when you see me sitting on the train, crisp white shirt under my flawless cream suit, cappuccino in my manicured hand, reading the latest Froer novel. You will notice me sigh, and glance out the window and feel the energy of a brief exchange as a woman so beautiful, such immaculate straight blonde hair, made-up like a fashion model deems to toss a reflected glance your way in the mirror. The big picture is, in this endless back and forth between us, come and gone again in the very instant my brother tells that girl he doesn’t want to see her anymore and she has a fleeting feeling of relief that he said it first before she goes into her depression, the philosophy student gets another A on his paper ignoring the sinking feeling that he sold out on his idea in order to do so, the therapist uses a clever little vac to sweep up the grit a homeless person left on her seat, and Alison takes a deep breath thinking for the first time she may horribly know why that horrible woman left this man that every woman wants and you cast your eye over the train and see the woman in the perfect suit with the perfect crossed legs looking for all the world as tough she is on another plane altogether and that she couldn’t give a flying fig what you think about her or care that you even exist. These are the moments as we look through the tiny keyholes of ourselves at each other, imposing our own neurosis on interpretation, assuming ourselves to be the only ones with the problems that all and one of the rest of us have. You will wish for one brief moment that you looked like that, you had that life, and you had those accomplishments. You may wonder how someone can have it so right in every area, and you may be grateful you can stare from the back of the train without being seen, in case she spots you and think you’re mad or something because you are people watching again and you hate yourself for it and you wonder what it would be like to get everything so right you never hate yourself and never worry about a word that pops out of your mouth. You might think these things even though you are fully aware that you probably have no idea what it is really like in another person’s moccasins and you have no honest business wondering you will find yourself fantasising about what it would be like to have the things she has and then you find yourself dreaming about lottery tickets and that you will buy one with your coffee as soon as you get off the train.