And all I loved, I loved alone
I sign my life away for $25,000. More than I’m worth but it’s not like I’m going to tell them that. After all the needles and tubes and tests, I’m a bit wobbly as I make my way out the main entrance of the clinic. Is it the pill that makes my stomach knot and my palms sweat, or is it the knot of unease settled in my stomach?
The sun burns through the thin fabric of my sweater and I shiver, lifting a hand to sheild my eyes. I’m not invisible, yet no one pays me any attention. Can’t they see the wires snaking up my spine or the camera nestled in the golden rose strapped around my neck?
Maybe the pill kicked in sooner than expected. Afterall, I’m not a rat. Which is something they’ve told us too many times to count, though as a warning or a form of comfort, I’m not sure. Even in the latest batch of tests, a rat died, limbs jutting out at jagged angles, mouth open and blood crusted around its eyes.
They gave us one last out before taking us back, one by one, into the exam room. As our group shrunk from twenty to nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, I didn’t miss the way their eyes darted from one dusty picture frame to the next, fingers intertwining in their laps and feet tapping erratic rythms on the glossy tile. They’d taken our phones at the front desk but I’d brought a poetry book which I flipped through, trying to block out the annoying melody of nervousness. My eyes skimmed each page, every word burned deep in my brain from years of sleepless nights.
I tried to skip page 49. And yet, the ink pulled me in and I couldn’t get my fingers to move past it. The lines formed chains, tugging me down, down, down until I found it among the waterstains.
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
Two words had been sloppily scribbled above the dash. With you. I heard the words, echoing and repeating long after my head grew foggy from all the vials of blood they took.
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone with you.
It’s a little hazy now, a memory I left behind when I stepped out onto the sidewalk. The book is tucked away in my backpack, where it will probably stay until I can bring myself to dig it out again. I don’t even know why I brought it in the first place.
I glance in a store window. My hair is darker than I remembered. Longer, too. And my undereyes are so puffy it looks like I cried all night, which I haven’t, of course. I make a mental note to get an eyemask later.
I don’t. Get the eyemask, that is. The subway’s too crowded to even breathe and I’m so sick and tired of bodies being crushed into mine I can barely stand to look at another person within a hundred feet of me. Which is basically everyone.
Only when I’m in the stairwell of my apartment building do I finally get some space. Definetely no quiet though, with muffled shouts and thumps bleeding through the walls. My skin prickles with sweat and my steps slow. I hate this place, the way the air sticks in my throat, heavy with that attic smell—all dust and insulation and crumbling memories.
But it’s all I can do to not sit down on stair 169. The door is right there, looming over me, but if I sit with my back to it I can pretend it’s not there. But eventually my legs will carry me through this door to one marked 9E.
Two hours, they said. So if they’re right and my body responds like a rodent a mere fraction of my size, I should be invisible in twenty minutes. I wonder how the other half of the trial group are doing, trapped in isolation chambers and surrounded by cameras and one-way mirrors. The rest of us will be compared to them in what I was told was an effort to determine the effect of strong emotion on the duration.
Or maybe I got a sugar pill or something and they want to see if the placebo effect is strong enough that I turn myself invisible. A tiny laugh escapes my lips. It’s not much, but it gets me into the hallway.
By the time I get to the door my legs hurt and my fingers shake a little as I fumble for my key. I push my way inside, dropping my backpack on the floor with a dull thunk. The air is dry, empty and almost stale. Not a single light is on, the bright glow of a streetlamp fighting to get through drawn curtains. It has almost always been like this, and yet a small part of me hopes —well, nevermind.
“This is my lovely abode,” I say for the researchers monitoring me. I doubt they’re amused. “I can’t decided which crime I want to commit in fifteen minutes.”
I bet that’s what the others are planning on doing. And nobody’s going to stop them, not even the researchers. That rush of adrenaline, the spike of panic—it’s perfect.
For a moment, I entertain the idea. It’s a distraction, a chance to be someone else for a night without consequences. But that’s not really what I want. Not anymore.
I flick on the light over the kitchen sink as I slip off my sneakers and kick them in the general direction of the other shoes. There’s half a chicken sandwhich next to a plate of spaghetti I should have thrown away a week ago. Neither sounds appealing and I’m not hungry so I might as well go lie down on the couch.
The still room begs me to stay and I linger for a heartbeat under the faded yellow glow. The shivers are back, cold seeping from the fake marble countertop into my arms. I have what, ten minutes now? Time is dragging as it slips through my fingers and even my phone seems confused, the spaces between each minute growing uneven.
I rummage through the drawers without so much as a word as though I don’t already know exactly what I’m looking for. Maybe all of my observers have become bored to tears and left, though I doubt it.
Finally, among the matches, two pocket knives, a pair of scissors and a stack of multi-colored notecards, I find it. Ripping off a piece of duct tape, I wrap it around and around the charm containing the camera. In my mind’s eye, I see the researchers freaking out in their lab over loss of visuals on Patient String of Random Numbers like in the movies.
“I’m just going to take a shower and I don’t think you need to see that. I mean, I’m not invisible yet.” They won’t come bust down my apartment door because they can’t watch me for fifteen minutes, will they? “Oh, and the mic too...that’s just weird, man. And I’d like to note I’m not breaking any terms of the contract I signed. I’m not removing any of the equipment from my body nor causing any damage to them.”
At least, I don’t think so. I hope not.
I cover the mic before I change my mind.
Jumbled syllables fall from my mouth as I scramble back. Splotches of my hands float in the air, my knuckles disconnected from one another. I rip at my sweater, struggling to pull it over my head.
I can’t breathe. Panic explodes through my body at the sight of my dissolving arms. Even the skin tight body suit they gave me is phasing in and out. My vision wavers and blurs. I think...I think I’m going to pass out. I can’t...
My stomach flips and turns, bile burning the back of my throat. An acidic, bitter taste burns my tongue and I’m shaking so bad my legs refuse to hold me. Or maybe they aren’t even there anymore.
I’m not sure how long I stay there, huddled in the corner between cupboards and the stove as I hyperventilate. But gradually, my breathing evens out and I can actually stand up. Though walking is another matter altogether.
I can’t stop searching for my arms, even though I can’t see them anymore. I’m nothing more than a floating pair of pants and my insides don’t like it one bit. The croissant from this morning—the only thing I’ve eaten all day—threatens to come back up and I have to keep swallowing it down. It didn’t even taste good the first time.
“Okay, focus, Lena.” I scratch at my arms, but the once comforting gesture only makes things worse. “It’s okay, Lena, it’s okay.”
The words blend together as I shuffle through the tiny living room area into a narrow corridor. In the darkness, the walls press in on me, blank faces angry and accussing. The shadows settle in my aching bones and I can’t chase them away. Not anymore.
Another closed door awaits me, another opportunity to change my mind. Just like those two girls did this afternoon when they left the waiting room.
But despite how much I’ve tried to bury it, I can’t. It keeps coming back, stronger and stronger and some day, I know it will carry me away.
When I open the door, what was and what is collide with a dizzying rush. The air is stolen from my lungs and I am frozen in time, stuck between two worlds bathed in washed-out blue—what we were and what is left.
The blankets swallow you up and I tug them back. You’re drowning again and I can’t save you, can’t do anything but wipe away the tear trickling down your already soaked face.
You whisper my name through cracked lips and my heart breaks all over again. My fingernails dig into my chest but I can’t make it stop. Slowly, your eyes open but they don’t see me. You look right through me, feverishly scanning for my face. Just so you can tell me to leave with a voice that isn’t yours.
Even your eyes are different, darkened with the unfathomable depths of demons I can’t fight. What have they done to you? They stole the man I loved, dragged him to a hell even pills can’t bring him back from.
I want to hold you tightly, want to stay beside you all through the night. I want to tell you something but the words stick in my throat.
I am a coward. A coward for not being able to face you anymore, a coward for creating an excuse for why your eyes stare right through me, all recognition gone from your face. I am not the woman you love anymore. I am a coward for wanting something from you that you can’t even give yourself.
I am sorry and angry and sad and so, so tired.
The carpet muffles my footsteps and when I slip under the covers you barely stir. I stare at the ceiling, the once familiar pattern of criss-crossing cracks nothing more than broken plaster.
The pieces I’ve tried so hard to keep together are shattering into a million shards, burning as they pierce my skin. Perhaps this is what dying feels like.
Like every time before, I roll on my side, my arms searching for you but all I find is the body of a fragile paper boy. You try to twist away, lost in your restless sleep. But I won’t let you, not this time.
I kiss your neck. Your skin is so cold.
I shouldn’t stay. I can’t stay. But if I leave, I know where I will go. I’ve visited the roof many times, stared over the edge to the ground far below. There’s too many people, even at night. But nobody will stop me now.
Then I hear my name again, so faint it might be my imagination. I close my eyes, scalding tears dripping on the pillow. I cling to you with every bit of strength I have left and, for a moment, I can pretend I’m not in love with a stranger.