She sits in the back corner of the coffee shop, the one tucked in the remote corner of the city away from the hustle and bustle of Corporate America. She likes it that way, hidden in a booth away from the front counter.
She always orders the same thing: a small tea with one packet of sugar added–no more–and she nurses it until the tea’s been cold for hours. She doesn’t move, just opens up a worn leather notebook and begins to write.
Every once in a while, she glances up to make sure she hasn’t missed anything important–a tornado or an earthquake–before settling back down into the solitude.
Nobody knows what’s in the notebook, but everyone imagines something. Stories of pretty girls seduced by boys on motorcycles. Boys their fathers don’t approve of. Stories of kids running through fields and turning different shades of brown in the summer heat, stretching moments into memories, tomorrows into yesterdays, until their mothers call them inside for the evening. Stories of a life she never lived, but one she might’ve imagined.
They wonder what happens when she goes home at night, her fingers cramped from a long day of scribbling, her eyes burning from squinting to read her own words beneath dim lighting. They wonder if she plugs in to the rest of the world then to contribute what she knows, what she feels, what she sees. She doesn’t.
They would never imagine what she does. Their minds stop short of reality.
First she gets down on hands and knees and yanks hard at a handle beneath her bed. She smooths the dust off the top of the leather suitcase in front of her and unclasps the metal bracket holding it shut tight. She runs over to the light switch and flicks it off, leaving herself alone in the dark.
Then, and only then, does she open it.
The inside’s lined with rows and rows of glass jars, each of them lighting up the room as fireflies swarm around inside. The jars are different shapes and sizes, some full of bugs and others barely housing a few scrawny ones. And they’re all labeled: Depression & Anxiety, Child Abuse, Alzheimer’s, Eating Disorders, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and so on.
She sifts through the pages in the dark, holding a jar up to the notebook like a flashlight, and finds what she’s looking for. And then she begins the stories, the names of the people in the coffee shop.
She finishes one page and unscrews a jar, clasping air in her hand and holding it like a secret over the open glass container. And then, as if by magic, the words and names turn into the fireflies.
She runs down another list, and another, and another, until she’s categorized all the pain she’s witnessed that day. Until it pools out of her and turns into something she can hoard in a suitcase beneath her bed. A light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
And then, once every single name is read and every story told, she pushes the leather suitcase back beneath her bed and rocks back on her heels. She bends down, hugs the cold wood floor, and begins to cry.
She cries for the ones she can’t help and the ones she doesn’t know. The ones who are too young and the ones who are too old. She cries because she doesn’t have the courage to speak to all the names under her bed, to address all the problems ailing these strangers. Because she’s letting cobwebs grow over the suitcase until one day–maybe–she’ll forget it’s there.
She cries to forget problems like mysterious creatures under her bed. And tomorrow, she’ll get up and do it again. Because that is all she knows anymore. All she can do to survive.
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