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  • On the Straight and Narrow

     

    My bedtime routine has been the same since I was twenty years old, which for those who don’t know, was four years ago. I take my vitamins, pop an allergy pill since I’ve always had runny passages, and then top it off with a cocktail of two little, blue Sertraline pills, or what everyone else calls Zoloft.

    The doctor told me several months back that he couldn’t see anything really wrong, no official diagnosis, but he gave me a prescription anyway. I don’t know how much it really does, but I must admit that it smoothed out the edges a little. And because of this, the smooth edges that I do so enjoy more than the hard, jagged ones, I’ve upped it to two a day. This was of my own volition and one more than the actual prescription calls for, but I took that merely as a suggestion. I do know that if I ever choose to go off of the pills, I’ll have to wean myself off in some kind of delicate, regimented manner that I’ll probably have to work out with the doctor. But since I never plan on going off of them, I don’t worry about it. It might perhaps be frowned upon to be a chronic user of antidepressants, but it gives me a kind of comfort to have this support system.  This is a different perspective than most people have—a diametrically opposing perspective—I know, but it’s comforting that I have this to rely on. Some people have friends or family or dogs or knitting or whatever. This is what I have. Thankfully, there’s good stuff on the market now. I don’t have to rely on the Trazadone, the Lithium salts or even Prozac like my mother did since that stuff really messed with her.

     

    As I lay in bed, the boiler kicks on and the heating pipes around the edge of the room creek and stretch and pop and eek out sounds. Sometimes it wakes me up in the middle of the night, but the place stays warm, so I generally don’t mind. My apartment is on the edge of the neighborhood that people call the Tenderloin and even though I’m only on the periphery, I still see enough. Unless you’re a buyer, the drug dealers don’t bother you, and the tranny prostitutes who hang on the north corner are actually pretty funny. One of them, who calls himself Janelle, even gave me some cheap makeup tips that involve crayons, which I really appreciated because with my issue, I’ve spent way too much on makeup over the years. But this apartment is the only place I could afford after the guy that I was fucking in New York most recently wanted to move to San Francisco and I moved with him because I thought that maybe he wasn’t just a guy that I was fucking, but might be something more. Although there were signs that this wasn’t the case all along.

    Not always, but sometimes after I take all of my pills before bed, I give myself a quick once over. This begins often with me smiling widely, turning my head back and forth looking at my teeth and considering whether I should get them professionally whitened—the fancy stuff that Hollywood starlets get making their teeth look like indestructible snow lilies. All of the days and nights of sipping coffee and Earl Gray has made me wonder if I’ll be one of those old people whose teeth are so discolored that they look like shoe leather. And I wonder if I’ll look back on it and regret it, but then think of how much I enjoy holding a warm mug in my hand and decide that I won’t.

    Mind you, I don’t care enough to brush my teeth every night to remedy this situation. I stopped doing that a couple of years ago after I moved to New York and started bartending. I had been fucking this one guy on and off for a while and decided that I didn’t need to do crap like that anymore—the crap being the nighttime brushing, not the fucking. Down with all these pretenses, I thought at the time. Occasionally I’ll floss my teeth because I like the way it feels, but I don’t brush them anymore except for in the mornings and even then sometimes I’ll forget.

    Then after checking out my smile, I tilt my head up and down and side to side looking for anything else out of place.  If I see something worth scrutinizing, which is almost always the case, I’ll go at whatever it is that’s bothering me. Most often it’s an errant hair, a pimple, or sometimes a mole or flake of skin. Or sometimes I confess, it’s not really anything. Tweezing my eyebrows is a favorite pastime, although I admittedly don’t know when to stop. After all of this effort, you’d think I’d have the most perfectly shaped eyebrows, but they’re jagged, little strips that make me look Hitler-esque. I sometimes have to fill them in with an eyebrow pencil because I’ve yanked out too much. But they never come out right, so I fear that my face looks somewhat like a Picasso. But not a Picasso from the serene Blue or Rose period, but the weird cubism stuff.

     

    A few months back during the long drive out to California, the guy and I stopped in Kremmling, Colorado, a small ranching town at the base of the Rockies where we stayed at a dumpy motel with wood-paneled walls and animal heads mounted in every room. There were two single beds in our room, a bathtub—no shower—and a moose head.

    The guy walked in, dropped his duffel bag, and grimaced. “Great. A shithole. And disrespectful.”

    “How did the hotel room disrespect you already?” I asked following behind.

    “Right there.” He pointed at the wall above the bed. The guy from New York was vegan and he was offended by the moose head perched above one of the beds.

    I looked straight at him. “The place is called The Antler Motel. Literally. There’s animal parts in the fucking name. What exactly did you expect when you stopped here?”

    He looked like he was ready to fume, but I cut him off before he could begin. “Besides we have a budget to stick to. Unless there’s more money I don’t know about, then this is all we can afford.”

    He began to rant, and I just turned and rolled my eyes. “That’s just bullshit. You’re okay with this then? You condone the slaughter of these helpless animals by staying at a place that uses them for mere decoration? That’s alright with you?” He went on and on saying other stuff, but that’s all I remembered.

    Finally, exasperated, I looked up at him. “Of course I don’t condone using these kinds of…decorations. But we’re too broke to live on such moral high ground. We have to stay where we can afford or sleep in the car.”

    That set up another rant by the guy I was fucking. “That’s bullshit, too!” He threw his hands in the air. “Something like money shouldn’t divide people. Now you’re either part of the haves or the have nots  just based randomly on how much somebody deems your skills are worth.   As though your entire worth as a human being was just based on that. It’s so Regan era.” He ran his hand through his shaggy brown hair and began pacing the room. “If we wanted to stay at the nicest place in town, then we should be able to,” he declared at the end.

    I turned and looked at him offering a placating nod and a smile.

     

    I fully admit that these self inspections, I’ll call them, tend to appear when I’m feeling particularly stressed or frustrated or anxious. And for whatever reason, this little practice helps me out. The only thing I can figure is that I need to find some kind of order in something, somewhere, however small that may be. And it might be as small as a little bristle that I’ve felt on my eyelid, or my face, or even just imagined, but I go at it the same way. I run my finger over it, real or not, often over and over again trying to find it until sometimes I’ve already rubbed the skin raw. This is never the intention, but it happens none the less. It makes me want to go at it harder and I begin to dig and dig, trying to get at this little hair that may not have even made its way above my skin line. But still I try and excavate this miniscule thread that won’t let me rest until it’s plucked out and magically relieves me of this anxiety that’s built up. I don’t know why this feels so good, but it’s intensely gratifying.

    Almost always afterward though, I’m left with a patchy, red spot above my eye that looks like a star-shaped divot. It may or may not have blood around it when I’m done, but I don’t care. The next day, it’s scabbed over, and I might try to cover it with make-up, but this is a halfhearted effort because I don’t care to cover it up. If people ask me what happened, although they never do, but if people ask me, I’d tell them the truth. The truth being that I scratched myself, which is close enough to the truth to not be a lie.

    In my own mind, I’d equate what I do to cutting, as in when people cut themselves to cause pain or relieve themselves of pain or whatever it is. But cutting seems so much more damaging. It probably leaves scars, too. But whatever it is, I do something similar, so I get it. And there’s no shame for me in this since I’ve always been a good and boring girl and if this is the worst that I do, then I can live with that.

    Back in the motel, the guy continued his diatribe about income inequality and education, and immigration and somehow that morphed into a longer harangue on globalization and gender disparity. I smiled a little as he went on and on mostly because he looked so masculine while he complained and I found that attractive, but also because it was all somewhat amusing.

    “Oh, you think this is funny?” he asked. I turned to see the tautness of his jaw line and his eyes bulging from his skinny face.

    I stared at him for a moment giving my own stern look and resting my hands on my hips. “I thought you were kidding. Half of what you’re saying doesn’t even make any sense.”

    He stepped forward. “Oh, really? Really? You’re so stupid. You don’t get any of this at all. You’re like the people who don’t even believe in global warming. Scientists are in Greenland measuring the polar ice caps as we speak. And they keep melting and melting and they’re measuring and measuring,” he said raising his voice. “And everything they have is that the world is getting warmer and warmer, but no,” he said slapping his forehead with his hands then throwing them above his head. “There’s real data. But nobody’s paying attention to all this data. And you’re a woman, so that makes it extra depressing.”

    I had walked into the bathroom during his rant, and then came out again giving a frustrated sigh. “I have no idea what any of that means. And I do believe in global warming. I don’t know where you’re getting any of this from.” I stood there waiting for him to respond hoping for something mildly sensical to come out of him.

    Instead, with one quick motion, he yanked his shoe off and threw it at the wall. His intention wasn’t to hit me, I don’t think, but it was close enough to me that the shoe ricocheted off of the wood paneled wall and bopped me hard in the chin.

    Rubbing my chin, I got serious. “If you want to stay at the nicest hotel in town even though we barely have enough to stay at this place, then you should go and make your argument to the management of whatever hotel it is you think we should be staying at. But this might very well be the nicest place in town since nothing about this town seems particularly nice,” I told him.

    He scoffed at this. And again, his unfounded anger was directed at me. “I don’t know why the hell you ended up coming with me out here. What were you thinking? What the hell are we both going to do in San Francisco?”  Then he stomped his foot, yelled a loud “fuck you” at me and with only one shoe on, ran out the door.

    At first, I wasn’t concerned because such things had happened before. At one point, I thought that maybe he went to sleep in the car after all or did, in fact, go to search out a nicer place to stay, which would have been a waste since we had already paid for the room we were in. Peeking out from the thick curtains, it appeared that our car was gone and I began to worry that he may have left for California without me. And then I got mad at myself for thinking that he would do such a thing, and mad that I might be with a person who I thought might do such a thing, but then conceded to myself that he probably would. He also had all of our money and I wondered where I would go and how would I get there and how would I even eat, if he never came back.  And then I wondered how I let all this happen.

    With these outstanding questions racing through my head, I paced the room for several minutes before turning on the television to find reception for only three channels, none of which I wanted to watch. I smacked the TV a couple of times inciting a mild plastic echo before rushing into the bathroom where I grabbed one of my pairs of tweezers. I first went at my eyebrows feeling for thick hairs, shallow hairs, feathery hairs—anything I could target. Then I went after what I thought was a pimple on my cheek creating a big welt where I had dug into my skin for half an hour. After I was satisfied and bloodied, I started on my eyelashes where every tug caused a most pleasurable sting before I took off my shirt and began pulling out the miniscule hairs in my armpit, a new area that I wasn’t used to, so the pain was especially amplified and exhilarating. An hour or two later, several parts of my body burned, but it was the most enjoyable sensation I had ever experienced. Doing this, I understand, makes me some kind of masochist.

    This, whatever it is, is supposedly some kind of disease or so I read in Reader’s Digest when I was waiting at the doctor’s office a few years ago. The compulsive urge to pull out hair apparently has a name—Trichotillomania—and is some form of obsessive compulsive disorder, which I believe, because when I start, it’s hard for me to stop. But this is the only thing I’m compulsive about unless you count making my bed right before I go to sleep at night, which takes me at least ten minutes because I have to get every single thing on the bed to line up perfectly. In fact, the guy that I was fucking on and off for a while when I first came to New York, this is why we broke up. He got tired of waiting for me to make the bed so that we could fuck, and I got sick of him complaining about it, so that was it.

     

    My little habit began in college, randomly really, right around the time that I had convinced myself that Reese’s Peanut Butter cups were the remedy to the terrible headaches I got junior year. I was sure that Reese’s must have had the perfect ratio of peanut butter to chocolate and this boost in protein and sugar must be the reason that my headaches would dissipate. In Ann Arbor, in the closet in my room where I’d store these bags of peanut butter cups, a full length mirror had been attached by the previous tenant. One pesky, little hair, noticeable only to me probably, had inched out from the mole next to my right ear, and I got great pleasure from plucking it out. That one act of pure gratification felt so good that I sought out these opportunities again and again. I’d spend several minutes, sometimes more than an hour, looking for anything I could yank out. If I had spent that much time studying, I might have actually finished my degree instead of taking off to New York.

    My college roommates must have thought I was a vain and egotistical girl with as much time as I spent staring at myself in mirrors. They were probably confused when I came out looking no different and sometimes worse or bloodied. They might have wondered what I was doing in there, but they never asked, and we’d all go on ignoring each other for the most part until the weekends when we’d get drunk together and pretend we were best friends.

    My brother laughs at me whenever he sees me with scabs on my eyelid, check, neck or wherever, knowing well enough what it’s from. The last time he ventured out from the Village to  visit me in Brooklyn–way before it was hip–he brought two sandwiches and sodas over knowing I wouldn’t have much to eat in the place.

    He was noshing on his sub roll and staring at me inquisitively. “You know, if you’re going to do that to yourself, why don’t you have a go at that little mustache above your lip? I mean, seriously. If you’re going to pluck at something incessantly, then you should pluck at that.” He threw a chip in his mouth, and with the crunching and cackling, continued silently scrutinizing me.

    My brother, Nathan, a serious writer for serious publications like The Village Voice and  Time Out NY had just published his first piece in New York Magazine, so I didn’t want to bust his balls too badly. And oddly enough, comments like that from him didn’t bother me.

    “Give it up. It’s a few little blonde hairs. It’s not a mustache,” I responded laughing and throwing a wet, balled up napkin at him. But the truth was that the soft, light fuzz above my lip was not nearly as enjoyable to yank out as the stiff hairs that I found myself feeling around for all the time.

    “Well, whatever crazy it is you have inside of you,” he said. “At least it’s not nearly as bad as mom’s crazy.” He stretched his long legs out in front of him, flexing his feet up and down before crossing them at the ankles.

    “She off her pills again?” I asked casually while biting down on a giant dill pickle.

    “The last I heard from Uncle Phil,” he said shrugging and looking glum for the first time that afternoon. He was always much closer to her than I was–the irony being, of course, that he turned out completely normal and successful, and I became the screw-up incarnate.

    “I guess it’s stop and go.” He said finishing up the last of his sandwich and brushing his hands off before picking up the wrappers and napkins and throwing them in the garbage. “You haven’t talked to her in a while I take it?”

    Not wanting to think about that hot mess, I just shrugged and changed the subject.

    It’s important to note that it might not be a brow hair, but instead an eyelash or other random hairs on my arms or spots on my face. Or maybe a hair inching out of the mole that sits under my chin. Wherever it is, I’ll go after it the same way only giving up if I’ve exhausted all the angles to get at it, if I’ve deemed useless all the various tools that I’ve collected over the years for such endeavors (nine pairs of tweezers), then only to try again in another day or two or maybe just a few hours later, if I can’t help myself.

    I laugh when I think of all the crazy ways that I’ve walked around in public. It’s easy enough to draw in an eyebrow, but not so easy when you’ve pulled out all but three eye lashes from one eyelid. And I have these thick, dark Eastern European lashes, so when one eye has them and one eye doesn’t, people can really tell. One time, I spent an entire night’s tips on high end fake eyelashes that I had glued on at an expensive Korean salon in Midtown. The following night, one fell off into a drink I was making for this snotty girl whose boobs were hanging out of her shirt. The girl freaked out, and I still can’t stop laughing when I think of it.

    The next day, I went back to the salon for a refund and they pretended not to speak English, which was infuriating since they had no problem talking to me when I was there before. So, now I try to stay away from my eyelashes, but I’m not always successful. Sometimes I can’t help but pull at the hair on my head, too, but that’s not quite as gratifying for whatever reason, and then I also have to walk around with bald patches like I’m a cancer patient or something. One time a customer asked me about one of the bald patches on my head and I actually told him that I had cancer, which is pretty pathetic, but I panicked since I didn’t think anybody noticed. After that, I ordered the spray that supposedly covers up baldness from the infomercial and it worked better than most people would think, too. But they had gone out of business when I tried to order more, which was a bummer.

     

    Around 3 o’clock in the morning back in Kremmling, Colorado, I finally got into bed as an old episode of “I Love Lucy” came on. Sitting in the bed, in the dark, I held my knees to my chest caressing the hairs above my ear until one set itself apart and rested perfectly between my fingers. Defiantly I yanked until the hair was extracted and then, gratified, I’d hold it up in front of the T.V. so that I could analyze the length, thickness, and root ball, if I was lucky enough to get it out. All in all, I was up for most of the night until my fingers were blistered and numb and my head pulsated. My body hummed with these sensations, and I finally fell asleep as the morning light peaked in from the windows.

    An hour after checkout the next morning, the manager knocked on the door and I told him I was sick and would need another day, which he seemed to be satisfied by. What he couldn’t see behind the door was the five or so silver dollar-sized bald spots scattered on my scalp that I had been working on throughout the night. My hair was short already because the guy whom I was fucking in New York and was now waiting for in Colorado loved Joan Jett, so I had cut my hair like hers at one point even though I didn’t have the face for short hair. It shouldn’t take too long to grow back, I thought when I first saw the patchy bald spots in the mirror. Although I know now that I was just trying to convince myself because I really did look like a sick person or somebody who had gotten in a fight or maybe both. But I didn’t care because it felt so good and I know it’s what got me through that night.

    Sometime around seven that evening—a full twenty-four hours after he left—the guy came back, although now he was missing both shoes and had some kind of nasty scratch over his right eye. When he came in, he stared at me for a few seconds, seeing what I had done to myself. I couldn’t tell if the look was etched with more sympathy or disgust.

    “You’re a fucking freak for doing that to yourself, you know.” He said this without the least bit of irony. He gathered up a few of the things that he had left there the night before–including the shoe he threw at the wall. “We’re checked out. Let’s get on the road. I’ve got some snacks in the car for us to munch on.” He seemed in a hurry, but I didn’t ask why.

    My body tingled, although I felt oddly at ease now that he was back. The fact that I felt calm around him though sensing what a freak he was made me feel anxious all over again and I wanted to run into the bathroom and lock the door and never come out. Instead, I sat on the bed and calmly began talking to him.

    “Where did you stay last night?”

    “At another motel,” he said casually. “One without animals on the walls.”

    “But we didn’t budget for two motel rooms. How did you even pay for the room?”

    “I used the credit card my mom gave me.” He turned around not the least bit embarrassed.

    I wanted to yell at him, call him a hypocrite and a fraud and pathetic since he, a grown man, apparently still lived off of his parents. A thirty year old man, yammering on and on about the world’s travesties, all the while running his parents’ plastic in secret. Or not so secret since he didn’t seem  the least bit ashamed telling me. But I didn’t say any of that. Not wanting to be left again, I didn’t ask what I really wanted to ask about the card and his still missing shoe or the scratch over his eye. So, I grabbed my suitcase and walked out and he grabbed his stuff and walked barefoot behind me.

     

    Once we got to San Francisco, things were decent for a while. Both of us got bartending jobs. Not good jobs, but jobs and things were steady enough. At a certain point, he started disappearing for a day here and there, then it was a few days at a time, then he was gone for over a week. I never said anything when he came back, but these periods of time got the better of me, and I couldn’t help but relieve myself, although this time I tried to do it where it wouldn’t be so obvious. But inevitably the next time he came back and when inevitably we ended up in bed, he noticed what I had done down there when my underwear was off and then saw the marks on my thighs. He’d be kissing me and then stop suddenly and I felt his fingers softly run over the marks I had made on myself. 

    One afternoon he came home and stood in the middle of the floor staring at me. His hands were on his hips and his legs were spread wider than usual. Aside from the old leather jacket, he looked like a dueling old timey cowboy.

    “You know,” he said finally. “All I wanted to be was a guy that you fucked instead of a guy who worried about whether or not the girl I was fucking was crazy. Which I’m pretty sure you are, by the way.”

    He kept standing there in that macho stance, and all I could muster as I sat on the chair across from him was a mild nod.

    “I’ve been up front with you all along, so you can hardly fault me for any of this,” he said. “This all just got out of control, you know.” He softened his stance a little bit, but added an annoyingly condescending head nod. “It’s really been you who hasn’t been entirely truthful about a lot of things.” And here he offered me a pitiful look, and I decided this was it.

    I grabbed under the chair trying to hold myself down as best as I could. My leg shook, my foot tapped against the unkempt, wooden floors and my jaw tightened so hard that it caused a headache for several hours later that evening. But all I wanted to do was take a palm to the side of his head and a knee to the groin, and take him down. This socialist-ranting, mommy credit card-swiping asshole deserved to be on the ground feeling the worn sole of my leather boot to his side. And then I could look down at him with sympathy and condescension. And then, of course, offer him a nice smile and an accompanying nod.

    He walked up to me, standing over me, taking my hand in his. He offered me a gentle smile and appeared to wait for me to do something, say something, anything, as though it were a challenge of some kind. We were like that for several seconds, maybe even minutes just staring at each other waiting for something to happen, anticipating how the other might seize the moment in some kind of stunning, spectacular way worthy of our bizarre, cross country trajectory.

    And I had a plan of attack, so to speak. I felt the pain it would cause him, the pleasure it would bring me, and the anxiety it would alleviate. But without understanding, even now, my strategy changed at the last second. All I could figure was that I didn’t want to fall for his trick and prove his point, which was what he really wanted. So, all I could do was nod at him, and concede that everything he said was true. I offered my own placid smile back and he walked out of the apartment for good.

     

    I haven’t seen the guy for a while. It’s probably been a few months now. He had a particular sort of walk—kind of a condescending shuffle—and anytime I saw a man who walked that way on Polk Street, I’d look to see if it was him, but now I hardly notice anymore. I’ve let my hair grow out since I never liked the Joan Jett look and it was stupid to cut my hair off in the first place. I don’t scab myself up quite as much as I used to. Some of this is a conscious effort, although I’m not always successful. Sometimes I consider moving back to New York and then wonder if the guy I used to love in New York then San Francisco moved back there. I think about him a lot and even consider calling him sometimes, but am not sure how that would go especially since he wasn’t entirely wrong about me. While I wouldn’t call myself crazy per se—I’m not exactly sure what it is I’d call myself—whatever it is still exists a little bit.

    Thinking about all of these things even now causes waves of anxiety to wash over me. So, I lay on my hands and take a deep breath, then another, and lay perfectly still for as long as I can. This lasts for a while, but eventually I run into the bathroom. I don’t look in the mirror or grab for the tweezers, but instead pop a third little, blue pill, and a few Vicodin prescribed to me after a root canal last year. Lying back on the bed, I don’t reach for my hair or my eyes or my cheeks. I don’t rub my arms or feel around in my underwear. As the pills begin to take effect and I fade away, I think of those for whom this is all so effortless and bask in the illusion that for one night I’m one of them.

     

    About The Author

    Dana Tompkins

    Dana is a Michigan native with a BA in English Literature from The University of Michigan and a MA in International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University. She is a first time contributor to aaduna, with the inclusion of her story, “On the Straight and Narrow,” an account of a young woman in the throes of obsessive compulsive disorder in this issue.  {A version of this story was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s February 2014 Short Story Award for New Writers.} Ms. Tompkins has taken writing classes at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, Gotham Writers Workshop, and The University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival where she began a novel that is currently in progress. Currently, Ms. Tompkins works part-time for the federal government while also  focusing on  writing short stories and a novel. She hides out in a socialist suburb outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, son, and rescue dogs. She has previously been published in East Jasmine Review.