Just because it feels like time, here is an excerpt from my second novel. The narrator is not quite sixteen years old.
May 26, 1972
I can’t remember how old I was when I first started thinking that I had been born into a family of aliens, but I know that I was pretty young. For some reason, this feeling was always most pronounced when we were sitting around the dining room table, eating our nightly dinners together. Mom at one end of the table, Dad at the other, and Lizzy and I sitting directly across from one another. Every so often Mom would rearrange the dining room and face the table in the opposite direction, exactly perpendicular to where it had been before. She did this regularly, at random intervals and without warning, so it’s hard to get a clear picture in my mind when I try to think of this scene.
I guess I feel like Emily in “Our Town,” you know, after she dies, and she’s up in heaven or whatever exactly it is, and she’s horrified, simply horrified at how everyone just seems to be going through the motions of life, unaware of everything, and she begs and begs to be allowed to go back, and everyone tells her this is a terrible awful idea, but still she begs, and so she’s allowed to return, for one day. But she finds out that everyone is right. She goes back, she runs around, she’s frantic, she wants to let everyone know how much they’re missing, how precious every single thing is, how fragile, and full, and fleeting is every second, but they just go on. Moving through their lives in blind slow motion. In the end it’s too much for her, too painful. She begs to go back, to take her chair among the dead.
So there we sit at the dinner table, night after night.
It just feels like there aren’t the same things going on inside of these people, like they exist on some kind of a different plane. I want to wave my hand in front of their faces half the time. Or snap my fingers in front of their eyes to see if they’d really blink. But really, I wish I was there with them. On their plane, I mean. I really do. Their world seems simple, and purposeful, like they fit right into the world like a hand in a soft fuzzy glove.
When I was little I would follow Mom around the house while she did all of her chores – changed the sheets, started the wash. I would sit and watch her, just watch her, as she fed the bed sheets through the giant, hot, steaming “mangle” we used to have that ironed them. She pressed the pedal with her knee, and moved her hands and arms back and forth, barely missing the burning metal plate, as she offered the sheets like a gift into the presser. A smile on her face the entire time. Pearls at her throat. A dreamy and resolute expression like she knew exactly who she was and what she was meant to do.
I thought if I followed her around, watched her movements, studied them, copied them, strained to commit them to memory, that I could be the same, that I, too, could fit right into my life like she could, like Lizzie can.
But the truth is, inside of me, I felt more like Captain Ahab. When he’s talking to the blacksmith, and he says to him, “Thou should’st go mad…Why dost thou not go mad?”
OK, I’m starting to sound like a total dork. I don’t want you to think that I’m one of those people who goes around quoting from books all the time, dear God save me, or that I don’t have any of my own ideas. That I’m one of those people who swallows everything whole and then regurgitates on cue. Maybe I am a little dorky, though. I mean, I was the only person in my entire class that actually liked Moby Dick. Even the teacher looked at me a little funny when I would get excited about a particular passage that we were supposedly discussing. But the truth is, I loved it, every word, every obsessive detail.
OK, I also just realized that I’ve been comparing myself to totally fictional characters. People that are invented, not real. Weird. But I guess that just proves my point that I feel like an alien. Like I know exactly what Ahab meant. Like sometimes when I do something so simple, so everyday, like brushing my teeth at night. Sometimes I go into the bathroom, and I take my toothbrush –a nice new one every six months when we go the dentist as per ADA standard recommendation — and I open the mirrored cabinet that hides the Crest – you know, the fresh, minty green paste that sports that wonderfully comforting and pretentious and official, medical sounding paragraph: “Crest can be an effective, cavity-preventing dentifrice when used in combination with a program of twice-daily brushing and regular professional care.” Wow. I hope they paid their ad agency millions and millions for that one – and I squeeze my line of preventive dentifrice on to my brush, I know just what Ahab meant I close that mirrored-cabinet door, and I see my face staring back at myself, and it’s like I suddenly get a picture, like a million mirror images, or how many times in my mere fifteen years I have stood right in this spot, and done this exact same thing, and then I get a picture of a million more times, way way into the future, doing this thing, this teeth bushing thing. And I freeze; I just simply freeze. I momentarily forget how to go on. How to do anything.
Dear lord, I can just imagine trying to explain this to Lizzie or Mom. Especially since this is the exact kind of thing that makes them feel all warm and toasty inside. Routine. Repetition. Detail.