By Jaclyn Reed
The best days were the first 14, the next 30, maybe even the 60 or so after that; the interim novelty of new ways to work, to commune, to survive. Reminiscent of childhood summers, days without beginning or end—I think we called it freedom then. Too soon, days turned to years like they always do, before we could appreciate them, and new ways became the same ways we’d always been, if not a little worse.
I spruce up my office in the spare room and use it once or twice, then the walls start closing in, the shadows whisper too loudly; I can’t think with unread books breathing down my neck. So, I redesign the room and move to the couch, the table, the bed. In 80% of meetings, I’m distracted by my own reflection and the unwelcome voyeurs in my private space that is all at once too small to be comfortable and too spread out to keep clean.
Once lines blur, what’s the point in acknowledging them at all?
So, the phone rings on Saturdays and my coworker is moved to another department without forewarning. Another’s contract gets canceled while she’s on maternity leave; then I find out the company doesn’t have maternity leave, just allotted unpaid time off. My husband and I decide we can’t afford kids in this economy and buy a new couch to make our home-office-gym-bar-restaurant-prison more comfortable. We rearranged the furniture and pretended to be somewhere else, but it’s hard to ignore Life Lion on their way to the hospital and the symphony of lawnmowers from dawn until dusk. In COVID times, everyone is somehow somewhere they’d rather not be, climbing up the walls, clawing at the unlocked doors.
I know a lot about being trapped in open cages; it’s important to establish the rules early, examine the space, plot the perimeter. How far can I go before the air gets too thin? Which way does the door open? How much space between the bars? At what point is a mask required—at the front door, on the porch, in the parking lot while I do laps so my car’s battery doesn’t petrify? How do I occupy this space and my mind? How do I balance work and private life when they happen at the same time, in the same room?
The cat has no interest in television dramas, but she watches them with me anyway. Since her sister passed, she spends most of her time hovering, as though she’s waiting for the plates to stop spinning, for me to crash and shatter on the floor with them. She curls up at my feet or on my husband’s lounge by the sliding glass door in case the squirrels venture up onto the balcony for nuts and provide ample stalking opportunities. If I don’t move for long periods of time, she lays over whatever I’m working on, stretches to cover my journal, planner, sticky notes, phone. She butts her head against the laptop’s screen and purrs, rolls on her back, bites my hands; her way of telling me it’s time to spar. She teaches me her hunter’s chirp and how to play in confined spaces.
I’ve tried teaching the bird about musical theory, identified for him the types of instruments he bobs his head to and the ones that make him scream. He’s much more interested in composing his own songs, accompanied by the bells dangling in his cage. People ask if he talks, and I tell them he does sometimes, but mostly he just mocks our frustration and tries to join conversations by raising his squeaks above the television or weekly retailer meeting or argument about people we don’t even like. If we go too long without speaking to him, he slams his bells against the bars and screeches, as though he has been alone forever, as though he’s calling out, I am here! Has everyone forgotten me? I am here! Please, can’t you hear me?
Perhaps I’m projecting.
Pandemics were easier before the instant mass spread of misinformation, before deaths had to be announced on social media, before all the people we know we can’t talk to were a button-push away. I lay on the new couch and think about calling someone. I rarely do, and when I do, I rarely say what I’m thinking because the world is on fire, and billionaires are escaping into space, and every time I try to verbalize these musings, they all sound ridiculous.
Rumination will be the death of me, but I can’t let the words come spilling out before I’ve checked, checked, rechecked. At times, I eliminate whole pages, put a red X over confessions of suicidal ideation and the hackneyed monologue in which I admit how much I resent those around me, their love, their encouragement, in which I accuse them of not knowing me and diatribe into the epiphany that I do not know myself.
Cannabis helps with the sadness and the pain, so I use it to subdue my anxiety. The right strain can work wonders. At the very least, it gets me outside and out of my head, away from the rabbit holes I’m likely to spiral down. I crawl around the outer walls of my cage like a gecko—yamori, as they’re called in Japanese. An Okinawan woman introduced me to the word and the creatures slinking on the ceiling of her husband’s dojo in the summer of 2012—nearly 10 years ago. Six of us crowded in a room. She and I ate lumps of brown sugar and drank hot herbal tea in the corner, discussed many things despite not speaking each other’s language.
The worst days are when there’s too much time to spend on my laptop and in my head. When my body aches and my heart skips every time I consider doing a chore or walking out the door. When the pages and the walls stare blankly back at me, free of flies who know there’s no compelling conversation to be had here.
I pace around the apartment, from the foyer through the tunnel kitchen, around the dining room, past the liquor bottles collecting dust and baby potted plants. At the altar, I kneel and mutter some intentions; ask the gods for whatever they’re willing to give me, offer garlic, wine, shriveled grapes. Move through the living room, touch the sectional and coffee table. Around the bird’s cage and past our wedding photo, continue down the hall to the spare room with spare couches and clothes and things we don’t need but have too much space to get rid of. Lap the bedroom, tug on the comforter’s corners, rearrange the pillows whose covers came loose like a bored 5th Avenue housewife, or the depleted maid she employs.
I wish I could say I get my steps in, but I stopped wearing my Fitbit when I got an office job.
About the author:
Jaclyn J. Reed received her MFA in Writing from Carlow University and her BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Adelaide, Northern Appalachia Review, The Sunlight Press, and Prime Number Magazine, among others. She works in e-commerce merchandising and lives across the way from a Hershey’s Reese’s factory.