Awake. Panic. Short of breath. Panting. A dream. No, nightmare. A white sheet being placed over her head. No. No. I’m not dead. Struggle.
And then that feeling of being strangled. Wake.
Awake, but not yet here in this place. She looks around the room—dresser with make-up case and hair brush with white hairs springing out of it, bookshelf with uneven spines of books, desk with its clutter of papers—until, at last, she sees it is her room. Everything just as usual. But inside, where the heart is still pounding, it is not. Something is wrong. Something has shifted ever so subtly.
Ernestine doesn’t know which side of the bed to get out on. At last, she gives her head a shake and gets up. Silly me.
At breakfast, she reads the newspaper. In the Life section she notices that there is an open-mic poetry reading at a downtown coffee shop. She should go and listen, she thinks. Ah, but poetry-types are so odd. She remembers her old poetry professor at university—his wild hair and earrings—loud and boisterous as an Irish bar fighter. I’m not like that.
Ernestine goes to the computer to check her e-mails. There is only spam – a newsletter from Writers Market, a fundraiser looking for money for hurricane victims. Still no response from her old friend, nor one from her niece. How difficult is it to click “Reply” and say “hello”?
Then she takes out her “business” book to see which short stories are out seeking a market and which are still in their folders waiting to meet the world. They are all out, the first one sent six months ago and still no word. Oh well, it beats another rejection. Maybe they’re being considered seriously. She snickers, sits down and tries to write another story, but instead of verbal diarrhea, she is constipated today. She hates this kind of story. Even the metaphors feel awkward and trite.
Finally lunchtime arrives and Ernestine escapes from her bedroom-office. Outside, the sun is shining. She decides to go out after lunch and get groceries.
In the hallway she stops to check the mailbox. It is filled with brightly coloured flyers. She shuffles through them looking for an envelope without a window, something with her name on it written by hand. She can’t remember the last time she received real mail. She dumps all the flyers in the blue box under the mail slots. Then she goes to the bus stop.
The bus arrives shortly and Ernestine gets on, slips her ticket in the slot and grabs a pole as the bus lurches off. She looks around to find a seat, but the bus is full. No one looks back at her. When she was young she would have stood up and offered her seat to someone like her, someone with white hair. But she doesn’t feel old yet. She’s only recently retired from teaching. Today to be considered old you should be 75 at least.
They don’t have to give me a seat, but still they could look at me. What am I, invisible? She looks down at her wrinkled spotty hands protruding from her beige sweater. She can see herself at least. But perhaps no one else can. But that’s silly. The bus driver stopped for me, didn’t he?
In the grocery store she makes a few purchases. The checkout cashier smiles and says, “Good afternoon,” but his eyes seem to focus somewhere behind her, like he’s looking right through her. Not invisible exactly, but sort of transparent, like I’m fading away.
“Have a nice day, Mrs. Gray,” the guy says after she’s paid with her debit card. That’s what they all say, as if they know me, but if they knew me, they’d know I am not a “Mrs.”, have never been a “Mrs.” Once upon a time she fought hard for the right to be called “Ms,” but no one ever calls her that. It was all a waste of time, but she can’t seem to get upset about it anymore.
Ernestine walks with her little sack to the bus stop. This time she misses the bus. As she comes to the bench, she sees it just pulling away. She could wave, but she doubts it would make a difference, not the way she is fading.
She sits at the stop waiting for the next bus, trying to remember the last time she spoke to a fellow human being. Even the last few telephone calls she’s made she reached an answering machine and left a message. No one has returned her calls.
Where has the world gone? Why can’t I touch it? I still have something to say. Why won’t anyone listen?
She should go to that poetry reading—not to listen, but to read. Somewhere she has some poetry stashed away. At odd times, between short stories she occasionally dabbles in verse. Why not read some out loud where people can hear me?
Ernestine giggles at the thought. Imagine me up there reading. Well, what’s so strange? I used to get up nearly everyday in front of a room full of young people and some of the time some of them listened. What’s the difference now?
She goes home, puts away the groceries and then looks through the closet for something bright to wear, something in a jewel tone, something smart. She puts a dress on the bed and smiles.
After supper she makes herself up, putting on eye shadow the same aquamarine shade as her dress. Then she slips into it and examines herself in the mirror. Frankly, it’s disappointing. She’s damned dumpy. Perhaps I should go on a diet, stop eating all those desserts. But after all, they are her only comfort some days.
“Now Ernestine. You promised yourself you wouldn’t be bitter. You would get out there and speak your truth. That’s all you can do,” she tells her reflection.
She goes to the desk and sorts through the mess of papers on it, looking for one sheet of blue-scrawled words that would do it, something she has written in the last while that will say to the world what she wants to say. “Here it is.” She sits down at the computer and types it out, editing as she does so.
When she is finally satisfied, she prints it out, folds the paper and puts it in her purse. She will memorize it on the bus. She hates the way some people read, mumbling their words into the paper in front of them. Speak up. Speak as if what you have to say is important, because it is, and who will listen if you mumble? She knows that much from teaching. That’s what she taught her students for all those years.
Ernestine finds the coffee shop, opens the door and walks in. Right inside the doorway, there is a table and an open book with a page already full of names. But there are still two empty spaces at the bottom. She is glad that she came early. She signs her name quickly before she loses her nerve.
Then she looks around the room. It is filled with young people, mostly Goth types in dark colours with piercings and tattoos. She feels suddenly and overwhelmingly out of place.
“Oh my God.” She wants to turn and run out the door.
No Ernestine. This is one of those times you want to stand out and be different. If you run now, you will fade away completely and tomorrow you will be totally invisible. Besides, what can they do to you?
She buys a pot of tea and finds a little chair and table that feel like they’re made for a child, but it’s the last seat in the place. She sits down and pours the tea, trying not to spill from the silly pot. They always drip no matter how carefully she tries to pour them. Then she sips, hoping the mint will soothe the wild butterflies, and listens to the poets among these young people, feeling sometimes uplifted, sometimes brought down. She can hear the fear in their voices, especially the ones who talk too fast. She reminds herself that she must slow down and speak every word distinctly.
It is a long evening. Sometimes she feels like running away, but she doesn’t. Sometimes she wants to embrace the sweet children who murmur their poems and sometimes she has to smile at their naïve attempts to shock. As if anything about sex is shocking anymore. Today the only way you could really shock a crowd like this would be to say that you are a capitalist and believe in a free market, utterly free. That would really shock them. She smiles at the thought, but that isn’t what she came to do. She figures the sight of her up there in her turquoise dress will be shocking enough, so she’ll keep her political views to herself.
Finally her turn comes and the announcer calls her name. She gets up and speaks into the mic, loudly, clearly, concisely.
“All of my butterflies will be set free
when I open my mouth …”
She speaks her poem and the room listens in silence, and when she is done, she waits. A second of silence that seems like eternity, and then a sound she scarcely recognizes. Beautiful thunderous clapping.
She sits in the chair as the last poet reads, but she can’t hear him. The butterflies in her stomach have become a roaring herd and that is all she can hear.
Afterwards a young girl with a turquoise streak in her black hair and a nose ring approaches her and tells her what a beautiful poem it was. “It made me cry,” she says and then she hugs her and kisses her on the cheek.
Nerves that have been long dead begin to tingle. She can feel her edges becoming defined.
As quickly as she appeared, the girl disappears with her friends, and Ernestine is left alone again.
At the bus stop, she waits in the cool evening air. The sound of her heartbeat is an echo of clapping still, and she smiles. She will sleep well tonight and perhaps she won’t dream that dream again. And tomorrow she will go back to her desk and wrestle with the white sheet once more.