Other Than Myself
by AMANDA OLIVER
So far, there is a man who expects me to always be brief and too busy. There is a man who expects me to always be there and too much. There are several people who expect that I’ll fill in the silence during car rides. There is a girl who wants me to watch her cats. There is a girl who cancels every time we make plans. I hang their expectations like a hammock in my brain. I go to it when I want to feel good again. Whether they are really expectations or not, I seek comfort there.
I live in a friend’s apartment in an old motel the first week. An acquaintance comes to pick me up and says, “Oh, neat! A re-done motel.” There is nothing changed or improved or remodeled or re-done. The motel rooms are just individual apartments now and I am envious of how easy it is for them to change so completely with just a new name.
I live in a friend’s walk-in closet next. He provides me with a sleeping mat and a sleeping bag, company and meals that he pays for with a “just pay it forward” wave of his hand. He offers me the couch, but I can’t sleep next to the familiar noise of an unfamiliar city.
The sirens and shouts and garbage trucks are the same everywhere, but I am different now. I want dark and quiet. I want to listen to the other tenants climb the stairs through the walls at night. I want to hear the bones of this place, not the world outside of it. I want to be familiar with something, even if it’s just the way the dog next door hates the tenant two doors over.
When I go to battle with myself I bring a dictionary and my to-do list. Since I moved to Seattle, I have neither.
I drink coffee because I am not sure what else to do here without a car. Someone tells me about a French bakery in walking distance that has good croissants. There is one open table when I arrive. Next to me, a woman pecks at her children, “Are we mean to mommy? Are we mean to mommy?” and the father spins circles around them, a whirlwind of grabbing a fork, then the cream, then napkins, then a fallen pacifier, then napkins again. He bumps the back of his chair into the side of me each time he rises.
A middle-aged woman asks to join me and I can barely contain my excitement.
”Yes! Of course! I felt bad taking this whole table! Join!”
I’m all exclamation points. I just want to please someone other than myself. She is reading a book and I want to ask her what it is, if it’s any good, but I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed. When she gets up to grab her cheese danish and I see the title, I am.
I watch everything around me and hope nothing is watching me.
I purchase a card with an illustration of the typography of a bird on it. It flies out of my purse whenever I dig for a book or my wallet. I trace its body with my eyes in a way I cannot look at myself in a photograph or a mirror lately. The fragile auricular just below his tiny eye, the wing coverts, the scapulars. Flattened on paper he looks unbreakable and incapable of flight.
My father loves birds. One Christmas, a Christmas that we picked names to exchange gifts with a fifty-dollar limit, a Christmas that must have been a decade ago, my cousin’s husband bought him a cheap blue and white birdhouse. I was hurt on his behalf, especially when I saw the price tag for $9.99. No part of receiving it was hard or sad for him. It stills hangs in my parent’s backyard. I am always trying to feel things for others first so that they might not have to.
Here, I don’t know who to feel for other than myself and I am not blind, for once, to what it means to be selfish.
It takes exactly two hits of Obama Kush from a weed shop in Bellevue to make me think my hair looks very good. I stick my head inside of the built-in shelves in the walk-in closet and think about how beautiful it is in there. Leonardo DaVinci said, “Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones weaken it.” I want the smallest room.
A friend offers to help me create goals for my year and, five days after I first feel disappointed in not having thought of it myself, I realize we are not the same. I am incapable of shaping my year with a path laid down to larger themes. I achieve in bursts or not at all.
Driving, a new friend asks me what my favorite movie is and I say I don’t have one. He asks, “Well, what movies don’t you like?” And I have no answer for that, either. “Well, do you like music?” I tell him I do. I tell him I like to watch movies sometimes and I don’t rank them. I tell him there are certain bands I listen to when I write. He wants names. I give him three. He asks me if I have a favorite type of movie and I try to explain that I’ll give most everything a try. He finally tells me he doesn’t have a favorite movie and that he hates the question. I find myself barking back, “So why did you ask me?”
I can chew the fat until it’s lean meat. I am learning that I can spit it out, too.
I read several essays about travel and home and all of them make me cry. I am exhausted with constantly bathing myself in nostalgia and rinsing it off with other people’s well-crafted sentences. Cities are beginning to mean less to me. Nostalgia is, too. You can be miserable anywhere. You can be happy, too. I am tired of tallying up my sins and organizing them by zip code.
“I think you’ll feel better when you have a job here,” a friend advises.
The clock above Safeway has been stuck at 7:45 for weeks, perhaps longer. Twice a day, it is correct. Twice a day, it is correct. It becomes my mantra. One morning, it’s correct again all day. It feels like a betrayal.
For my part-time work, I send the wrong e-mail to the wrong person. I follow up with an apology and I write the word “form” instead of “from”. There were whole years I refused to apologize for anything. Now all I want to say is I got it wrong and I’m sorry.
Photographs by the author.