Occasionally, very occasionally, she would lend herself to moments of reflection. Nights in, with a cup of hot chocolate, the window cracked open, letting in the chaos of the outside world with the cool breezes that breathed life into her little studio apartment. She would cradle the cup in her hands, not minding the slight pain the heat would bring. Nights like this would be preceded by what she called “binge-cleaning,” an attempt to purge herself of the workweek by meticulously – lovingly – bringing her apartment back to order. Books stacked neatly, papers put away, pens and pencils retrieved from nooks and crannies of the studio (and how on earth did they end up in her silverware drawer?) and replaced in one of the many jars and pen holders that took up residence on her desktop – she would sweep away her exhaustive work schedule, bring her life to order and – in doing so – make room for herself.
(She wondered, too, if she could make time for herself by removing the clocks on her walls but laughed it off as moot, though not without a hearty sampling of bitterness.)
Her little kitchenette, though, was always clean. It helped maybe that she wouldn’t often get to eat at home, but she still took pride in how neat and tidy everything was. “It’s…quaint,” her mother had said, tentatively, setting down the box labeled “kitchen shit.” That was her way of saying, “I don’t know, honey, it doesn’t seem like much at all, are you sure you don’t still want to stay at home where the bedroom is a bedroom, and the kitchen is bigger and where I can cook you food the way I have been for 22 years?” She, in turn, replied with a patient, “You’re right. It is quaint. Can you help me put the plates in that cabinet, please?”
She would make herself a cup of hot chocolate, ignoring the rapid blackening of her mind’s eye – this always happened when she was tired – in favor of carefully measuring out the amount of hot chocolate needed to make the evening right. Eventually, when she was satisfied with the amount of chocolate granules dotting the surface of the milk, she would make her way to the couch.
She didn’t need to turn on the single ceiling light, or even the smaller floor lamp that she had managed to bring from her old bedroom at her parents’ home; the biggest perk of living in the city was the lighting that came with it. She curled up in the corner of the couch – her corner, with the pillows just right, and the coffee table at the perfect angle to constitute a footrest – and watched the lights play against taupe walls. Her own personal light show. It would dance for her, celebrating life in a way she herself never did. Never could.
“I don’t know, hon’, you’re a little numb to everything at this point,” her mother said to her once. It was a few months ago, and to this day, she wasn’t sure if that was meant as a joke or not.
But maybe she was numb. She couldn’t bring herself to go out with friends, or find a nice girl to date, or care about anything that wasn’t work, that wasn’t the sheer amount of paperwork she had to do on a daily basis, or that her dress shirt wasn’t ironed quite right.
She watched the light show some more. A smile played at the corner of her mouth and quickly faded. She was getting tired but the lights were playing at such lovely games on her boring brown wall that she couldn’t bring herself to close her eyes and fall asleep. She watched as her wall turned yellow, then red, then orange – flickered blue for a moment – then yellow again; laser lights threw themselves against the wall and then ricocheted back in a split second.
Work wasn’t what she had thought it would be. It was a lot of paperwork and though she was skilled in clerical bullshit, it wasn’t quite her thing. Occasionally her friends would ask her to read something they wrote for grad school or some dissertation on an obscure topic first put forth by some obscure, long dead, bearded guy.
And she never said no. And she always had her pen. And she would always set the papers on her thighs, holding them taut with her right hand while she marked furiously, passionately, with her left. Manipulated little words, added symbols that held so much meaning, seemingly arbitrary but that packed such a difference that it made her almost breathless with exhilaration, the way words could lend themselves to such tender treatment and be made so different and how that would just lift the tone, the temper of the whole piece – from the driest of essays to the dreamiest poem, there was nothing she and her pen couldn’t make the slightest bit better.
She felt like a light show herself. Yellow, red, orange, flickers of bluegreenpurple neon, bright gold flecks against boring taupe walls, breathless, momentary, beautiful.
She had a bit of free time this weekend. It was almost the end of a semester. Maybe she could tell her friends to tell their friends that she was more than willing to edit their essays and as if an invisible hand had slowly cupped her chin and whispered an instruction to her, she found herself turning her head and looking out her window
into the city
down at the cars and the street lights, across to the windows – some lit, some unlit – above at the neon signs blinking on/off/on/off.
Where all the lights came from: the city, the mother of her beloved light show, the facilitator of her retreats into reflection, the quiet voice that told her to take a break, that held the hand which stirred her hot chocolate. And what was the voice telling her now? Where was the hand taking her? What was it showing her now that she had ignored for so long?
Oh, the city, in all its possibilities, all the opportunities that it offered – and she was too busy watching a wall. With a renewed excitement, she put the cup of hot chocolate to her lips and downed it all. It burnt a little – and she laughed. Laughed as if she hadn’t laughed in years, with a kind of mirth that split her sides and felt like a cool breeze on chapped lips. Casting her mug aside, she turned on her knees and pushed the window open wider, beaming down at the city she had just rediscovered. The lights, all the lights, beckoning her like an old friend, and she knew what she had to do: somewhere out there was a publishing company – maybe more than one – hiring; somewhere out there was a small coffee shop frequented by faithful patrons; somewhere out there was a cute girl with a penchant for collecting musky old books.
It was time to quit her job and become the very light show she loved. But first, she would make herself another mug of hot chocolate.