You love music boxes, but only when they come with on/off switches. You do okay at first, when they’re freshly wound, but as the melody slows and the gears grind to a halt, a lump rises in your throat.
Every song must end.
And every Christmas tree comes down; yours has been bare of ornaments for a week. Your mother, overworked as usual, hasn’t had a moment to spare in order to put everything away. That’s today’s project. While you drift through a sunny afternoon, she bustles about, wrapping treasures in paper and packing them into boxes.
You have time to drive out to the bookstore and back. You have time to read the book your dad bought you because he felt bad about your cramps. (So he claims.) You have time to get on Facebook and recommend it to 119 of your nearest and dearest.
While your mother understands that it’s only goodbye until next December, for you, the process is always so final. Every tree goes out to the curb, wrapped in a cheap dropcloth. You used to clip branches as mementos, but what’s the point? The tree is already dead; it’s been on life support in its stand, infused from the trunk up with water.
— You forgot the sugar this year. Poor tree.
If you clip yourself a branch, it’ll only dry up and fall to pieces. Living things go back to the earth, where their decomposition will do the soil some good. Trees go. Pets go. People go. You wouldn’t keep a loved one’s desiccated finger. It’s just a morbid reminder of your own someday-fate.
You’d still miss the rest of the hand anyway.
You have always functioned well around sunrise. You even liked that time of day, when it held promises of things to come. You woke to watch the Bloomberg Business Report before you switched over to cartoons (when you were small) and the morning news (on snowy mornings). Even when waking represented pain, you woke in order to have some time to yourself.
That, and do your homework, but your grades didn’t suffer for it.
Splashdown feels like five-thirty in the morning, the sound of victory over the scholastic equivalent of chasing your tail. What, the war doesn’t count as a current event? Fine. Have a piece on Japanese popstars instead, and salarymen who drop dead from overwork. Yours was, in many ways, a subconscious rebellion.
You would never have guessed you’d turn into one of those salarymen, if only for four months, or that you’d come so close to ruin over a stupid job. Ten dollars an hour! That’s a pittance! You didn’t need the money. No, your Office Lady persona always answered, you needed the health insurance, and when you really did need it, you were glad you’d done what you could to acquire it.
The money sat in the bank while you slept through a year of sunrises. You gave thanks for it when debts came due; you saved what you could. Sometimes, you spent a little recklessly, but never quite regretted your purchases. You weren’t, for example, buying computer parts to stave off the inevitable realisation that you were due for a change.
Wow, you can be catty when you like.
The chasm in your stomach is hunger, left over from last night, when you should have made yourself toast before bed. — Did you say night? More like morning already. Your head didn’t hit the pillow until four-thirty, and you tossed and turned past five. Now it is nine, and you’ve been awake for forty minutes. Something in your body misses sunrises. Granted, you can’t see the sun behind these rainclouds, but the longest night has passed, and this is the January thaw. The sun will come back before you know it.
Funny how, even in the age of global warming, you can set your metaphorical clock by the January thaw. You’ve tracked it since you were ten and discovering natural patterns. You and Brendan sat together in the living room, making jokes about flood days instead of snow days, and you got what you wanted. (It’s one of your better memories of him, when he was less his mother’s son and more a confused boy. Sometimes he resisted the conditioning to bully. These times were few and far between.)
Early, early this morning, not even five hours ago, you stuck your face into the dark and felt the wind: warm. Warm for New York, at least.
The excitement in your spine felt like a sunrise.
You don’t mean to burst into tears. Waring Road’s foyer is crowded at nine in the morning, and this woman, this Rene, she isn’t a therapist. She’s just the job center’s disability expert.
She’s also the first person to really get what you’re going through.
“I don’t need to know when I’m allowed to disclose my limitations,” you explain as she walks you back to her desk. “I can’t even prove those limitations exist. That’s the help I need.”
Your brain is muddled; it’s the lemon-yellow lights, it’s the early hour, it’s your lack of coping skills, all snowballing. Somehow, you convey to her that you have tried VESID, but they told you straight away that they wouldn’t help you get documentation, and documentation is most of the issue. You’re too used to being uninsured; you no longer know where to begin.
In some pretty critical ways, you are still not covered, but you’ll cross those bridges once your unemployment money runs out. For now, the real impediments have more to do with your body than your mind.
“I can’t stand for longer than ten minutes,” you tell her. “I can sit up for about three hours before I go… whump.” You sweep your hand forward ninety degrees. “I need someone to tell me it’s not in my head.”
Which your last two doctors did, and look how true that turned out to be.
Mostly you feel all right, mentally speaking. Yeah, you could use better sleeping patterns, but your depression is manageable without a therapist. You know when to tweak your medication and how; your psychiatrist understands this and trusts you enough to keep prescribing for you. The panic disorder is not going away without help, but you can’t afford that help, so nuts to you.
What gets you down these days is the physical toll of all this stress. Nobody wants to sleep life away. Nobody asks for knees that twinge whenever the weather changes. If there’s a living soul who thinks a complete lack of stamina is just dandy, you haven’t met her.
Of course the physical and the mental go hand-in-hand. You won’t dispute that. Lord knows if you had a few less anxieties, you’d feel better, but they stem from the situation, the nastiest catch-22 going. Functional body leads to a job; a job leads to health care that keeps the body going. If something breaks in that system, the whole system goes down.
You remember what that’s like.
Rene seems to think you deserve to be fixed. “Are you closer to Goodman?” she asks as she clicks through her schedule, and you shrug; forty minutes, forty-five, it’s all the same. “I can do ten — no, that’ll take longer; how’s three-thirty? Three?”
“Three-thirty is fine.”
You thank her for her time; she probably doesn’t have enough of that to go around, so a little means a lot.
Tomorrow, then. Ask about support groups, in case anyone else is having problems like yours. Part of the trouble is sheer loneliness. Ask whether it’s worthwhile to try for actual disability insurance, or if documentation is enough to secure your rights under the law. Ask if the Department of Labor will take away your money if you have to turn something down for health reasons.
Someone who can help you cares whether you make it or don’t. Rene’s a buoy in a sea of bored bureaucrats. You see the light; you can turn your dinghy to shore.