Mary Blanchard put down the cup of green tea she was drinking. She stood up, walked to the front door to make sure that it was locked, then went back into the bedroom. She sat at the edge of the bed, turned on the alarm clock, then picked up a large, heavy book from the nightstand and, just as she did every night before going to sleep, she chose a page at random and began to read.
"Be glad, for we have learned a lot today. And if we did not learn a lot, at least we did not die today."
Yes, she thought. At least I am still alive. I did not die today. She put the book down, turned off the lamp, then sat and thought about what she had just read. After about five minutes had passed, she laid down, got under the covers and began to sleep. She woke up the next day at 7am, went into the kitchen and made coffee, then began her morning routine. She walked out the door a few minutes after 8 and had just enough time to make it to the bus stop and catch the 8:15 bus.
When she got to her stop, she placed her hand over her eyes, blocking out the early morning sun, and looked down Johnston Street. She wished there was a bench to sit on at the bus stop, as there was only a sign posted with the number and scheduled stops. She didn't mind standing, but she felt uneasy, as though she were on display to each passing car. The worst was when she caught men looking at her as they passed by. If there was a bench to sit on, she would feel less conspicuous.
She stood and leaned against the signpost, trying to look calm. She felt that everyone who passed could read her thoughts, could tell just how uncomfortable she was. She tried to read, but she couldn't concentrate on the words so she put the book back in her purse. When she looked up, she saw the bus a few blocks away. She began to relax. Soon, she would be away from the glances of people in cars, and could sit back and enjoy the slow ride to Acadiana Mall, where she worked at a cosmetics counter in Dillards. Perhaps she would read. Usually she would sit and let her thoughts drift, that was what she enjoyed most of all.
The bus pulled up, released its air brakes with a loud hissing noise, and Mary climbed onboard and showed her pass to the driver. He smiled and waved her on. As she began walking to the back of the bus, she saw Mrs. Pratchett. Great, she thought. Now I'm going to have to listen to her the whole way.
"Good Morning, Mary," she said, her voice light and airy, as though she would start singing. She was wearing a purple blazer with an enormous brooch, and her curled hair had passed decidedly from gray to white.
"Good Morning," Mary said. Mrs. Pratchett also worked at the mall, in the business office. She didn't take the bus in to work very often, but when she did she would not let Mary alone.
"It's Friday,” she said, her voice rising at the end.
"Yes, thank God."
"Do you have any plans for the weekend, dear?"
"No," Mary said, thinking that she saw just the slightest hint of suspicion in Mrs. Pratchett's eyes. As though a young woman without plans for the weekend was something to be feared, or pitied. Mrs. Pratchett began talking about a baby shower that she was going to attend on Saturday, but Mary was unable to pay attention. She kept wondering if there really was something wrong with her. Why did she enjoy being alone so much? Now that Ursula was gone, she hardly had any friends left in town. She almost never did anything on the weekend, or even spoke to anyone. What worried her the most was that she didn't care, she preferred it this way.
* * * *
Mary counted out the register after checking the previous nights balance. She was the shift leader and responsible for all the afternoon bank deposits. Once that was done, she checked to make sure that the makeup brushes had been cleaned from the previous day, then she put on her black Estee Lauder smock. She walked to the back of the counter and, looking at her reflection in a lighted mirror, began applying her makeup for the day. For Mary, this was the most enjoyable part of the job. It gave her a chance to be creative, and to be feminine without the risk of actually interacting with men.
Mary was not an unattractive girl. She was pretty, many would say beautiful. A tall girl with red hair and gorgeous green eyes. She was graceful and had an otherworldly air about her. She didn't know why she had so much fear, but she knew that being attractive made it worse, because there was no excuse for her not to date. It had been years since she had a boyfriend, and in that time she had not gone on a date, had rarely even talked to a boy. When she tried to, her heart began to race and she would break out in a cold sweat; she would get dizzy spells and come close to passing out. She also had the same symptoms during job interviews or when she had to speak in front of a group of people. Which was the main reason she had worked at the mall for so long, another secret that she kept.
An hour went by with only one customer. Mary was rearranging rows of samples on the counter when Jill arrived.
"Hey, has it been busy?" Jill asked, putting her purse under the counter. She was already wearing her smock.
"Oh, hey Jill. I didn't see you come in. No, it's been real slow today." Now that Jill was here, Mary could take an early lunch.
"Oh my God, we drank so much last night!" Jill said. Mary forced a smile.
"Remember that guy I was telling you about, the one who goes to LSU?" she asked. Jill was a very perky blonde of medium height with pale blue eyes. She seemed to honestly love makeup. Mary often thought that she was exactly the kind of girl you would expect to see working behind a cosmetics counter.
"The engineering major?" Mary asked.
"Yea, that's him...oh were you going to lunch?" Mary had grabbed her book and wallet from under the counter.
"Yea, I was going to but I can stay a little longer."
"No, no, no!" Jill said breathlessly. "I'll tell you when you get back. Is there anything you need me to do?"
Mary gave Jill instructions on setting up the new line of samples and began walking toward the food court in the mall. Normally, she brought her own lunch, but she enjoyed eating in the food court sometimes because it gave her a chance to get away from work. She ordered lo mein from the Chinese place and sat at one of the side tables, reading as she ate her meal. The air was thick with the smell of frying ginger and heated soy sauce, which mingled with the aromas coming from the other stalls in the food court. She was reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, something she would have never read in the break room at work. She was grateful for the chance to read and escape for half an hour without jokes or comments about such an intellectual book.
She saw one of the guys who worked in menswear at Dillards walking towards her. He was shy, but always flirted with her. She knew he was single and he was cute, she had to admit. Jill and the rest of the girls at work had been trying to set them up. She began to feel light-headed and thought she might have a panic attack, there in front of everyone.
"Hi Mary," he said. She loved the way he said her name, pronouncing it Merrry, the consonants rolling off his tongue.
"Hey." She smiled and waved. When she would go to lunch with her coworkers, they would tease her and say that she should give him her number, since he was so shy, but there was no way she could do that. Maybe someday he would ask her out and then, perhaps she would say yes.
"What are you reading?" he asked.
Immediately, she felt embarrassed and began to blush. He didn't notice and walked up to her table.
"No," she said, showing him the cover of the book. What would he say about her? Would he tell everyone at work? Then, she realized that if she saw him reading the same book she wouldn't think negatively about him, wouldn't tell the others at work because there was really nothing to it. She immediately began to feel better.
He looked at the picture of the Buddha on the cover of the book. "Oh," he said, smiling broadly, "Very nice." He walked away whistling a tune and Mary knew that he had not given the book a second thought. More importantly, she had talked herself out of one of her attacks, just like her counselor wanted her to do. She felt ecstatic and hopeful. Maybe she was getting better. Maybe she could learn to control her symptoms.
She read for a few more minutes, then walked back to work, even managing to say hello to a couple of people she knew from the mall. Normally, she avoided everyone if possible. As she walked behind the counter she smiled at Jill in a playful way.
"Okay, now tell me about this guy!"
She even meant it. That's what surprised her the most, she actually wanted to hear the story. Maybe I will soon have a story of my own to tell, she thought.
* * * *
Mary sat at the edge of her bed, and picked up the book lying on her nightstand. Already, the feeling of elation was gone and she was back to feeling depressed. She had stopped at the grocery store after work and had a very bad experience with the male cashier. Why was it always guys? When he tried to talk to her in a joking way, flirting just a little, she had turned pale and actually began stuttering. She remembered the look in his eyes, he was shocked and concerned. He had no idea that he would make her uncomfortable. She was very embarrassed, and knew that she could not go out with the guy from work, or any other guy. Not without having a panic attack. She opened to a random page and read.
"The damage done by oneself, born of oneself, arising from oneself, grinds the unthinking person like a diamond grinds a jewel made of stone."
She put the book down, got up, and walked to the bathroom. She opened a pill container and removed a Seroquel tablet. She also took two Tylenol PM tablets from a bottle and swallowed all three with a glass of water. She would be able to sleep late the next day. She was supposed to take the Seroquel every night, but it made her too sedated the next day. It helped with the anxiety, but she couldn't perform her job if she had taken Seroquel the night before. She would also take it again when she woke up on Saturday. She loved to sleep, and would sometimes sleep almost the entire weekend. She never felt that it was a waste of time. On Monday, her only regret was that she couldn't sleep all day once again. Mary put a moisturizing cream on her face, looked at her reflection in the mirror, then turned off the bathroom light and walked back to her bedroom.
She placed her nightgown on a chair and stepped out of her slippers. She sat down on the bed and picked up the book again. She started to open it but instead placed it back down and turned off the lamp. She sat and thought about what she had read the night before. At least I am still alive, she thought. I did not die today.
She laid down in bed and got under the covers. She sighed as the darkness and warmth overtook her. In a few minutes, the Seroquel and Tylenol PM would start working, and she would drift off into deep, dreamless sleep. It was better then sex, better then anything. Complete oblivion, like she no longer existed. Maybe that was the problem, she thought. She felt her existence too much. She was very much alive, too aware of everything. If only she could die somewhat. To her life, to the world.
Right now, it didn't matter. She felt the pleasant, heavy feeling from the Seroquel start to work its way down her neck and spread to her arms and legs. The Tylenol PM would start to work and would slow down her breathing and her heart rate. For an instant, she would be perched on the threshold of sleep. That was the best part. Still being awake, but only for a moment. Everything was all right then, it was the only time she really felt comfortable. She would wake up tomorrow with the same problems, but she would be able to go back to sleep for a while. And once she was up, she might learn something during the day that would help her. Just like today. She would be able to say that she had learned a lot. She had learned a lot and had not died today.