a middle

It was like this every time—the hesitation, the dread, the avoidance that seeped onto her fingers, coated them with relentless expectation. Unable to come to rest, they flitted about anxiously, darting in and out of their rings, pinching eyelashes to feel the mascara crumble underneath. Grasping a pen seemed impossible. And somehow ink couldn’t be trusted, didn’t sink far enough into a page to belong there. She didn’t know why this belonging mattered, exactly, only that she needed to know certain words fell deeply enough to take root, to matter. Running beneath her need was the fear that, subjected to this sieve of appraisal, her words might all slip through.

In an attempt to circumvent such verdicts, she used a keyboard instead, programmed every word into its page, so that paper ceased to be a backdrop and became instead a negative space around the edges of things. It was like this every time—trying to dig a pipe deep enough so that words could be a faucet, let flow the things she couldn’t admit to herself, the cobwebbed corners of a subconscious that had thus far remained inaccessible. She was scared of reaching it. She was scared of discovering that it had somehow dried up and escaped without her feeling it go. She was scared of what it might mean that she hadn’t noticed. Her fingers left the keys, traveled to her thumbnail, began to pick at its polish.

When the effort became unbearable, she found herself migrating, lighting upon crowded cafés in the hopes that one of them might dislodge the unnamable impediment. It was the liminal periods that bothered her. The stagnancy that wrapped itself around growth. The waiting. They carried with them a shade of panic that hummed around the edges of her quiet. Perhaps this was why cafés served as respite—the chaos engulfed her own throbbing, allowed her to discard it as background noise. Clattering dishes, shouted orders, banal conversations wrapping themselves around cups of coffee had disintegrated so far that her own insertion felt like the start of a reordering. Like her perception knit together the disparate parts. Arrogant, she knew, but the effort was involuntary. Exhausting. Disillusioning—assembling things left her too tired to emerge from her dormancy. She wanted productive misery, the genesis hidden in suffering. But her pain was only a dull pulse, buried deep. Muted by the waiting, it was never sharp enough to cut open, to let bleed.

She did not know how to bleed, so writing was difficult. When the words came, they were dry and brittle. They appeared as the carcasses of refugees who did not survive her inner battles. The best ones stayed locked inside, raging against her, against themselves, fighting for some queer, intangible thing.

She spent most of her time pressing against ceilings. Sometimes it was easy to be patient, run her mind over cool plaster, easy to believe that she was on the brink of finding a way through. Mostly it was not easy to be patient. She would feel along blindly, frantically, hoping to discover a crack through which shone a promise of light. Trying to slip the smallest fragment of thought inside, a wedge by which she might try to pry the edges apart, she found herself unable to recall a single idea. Running down her own corridors, pounding desperately against a mind that had deemed its patron unworthy of access, she was paralyzed, left to watch the gap begin to close. The ceilings were so thin. She felt something on the other side pulsating, perhaps the idea. But it was impossible to burst through. She was weak. Enraged.

There was the problem, too, of technology. Incorporating it into her plots meant breaking a third wall, soiling the purity of ideas, of emotions. The 21st century felt vapid. She craved a past she didn’t know in ways that she couldn’t explain—as if writers were once able to explore some watery aspect of humanity without being forced to account for (OR “explain its”) cold, unmoving steel pillars. The waters no longer felt primal and life giving, instead seemed distracted and sterile, infused somehow by the impersonality of progress. She started to reach for her pen, then lost her nerve and began typing again. The words came out tainted with melodrama, but everything seemed so big, and she was tired. Muted nuances felt impossible. In her vocabulary there was distance, distancing from—holding herself at a distance. Denied access to her own mind. Sometimes the ceiling felt dangerously close to collapsing over everything.

“It’s really hard to be a person.” A sigh. “I don’t think you should be so worried about this.” Two tables over, conversation seemed to mirror her internal dialogue. “I’m scared of it though. All I want is—god this is arrogant—greatness. What if my limits are already in sight? What if I reach them at twenty? Where do you go from there you know? Like that’s basically a giant flashing sign above the wall that stands between me and any sort of meaningful legacy.”

“I don’t know...It could be exciting for you to find your limits—then maybe you’d start focusing on what’s inside them.”

They paused.

“Maybe. I guess what I’m really scared of is that my limits can’t contain anything of worth. Like what if you never generate anything really meaningful? But I guess you die anyway, so I don’t know. Maybe my limits are totally irrelevant. God.”

Caked with nasal vowels, their voices rubbed against her. But they were delivered from pomposity by interjections of “like,” “totally,” “god”—the overall effect was almost charming, as if youth remained unaware of its own bravado. They reminded her of herself, before.

The before was a problem. Mostly because she didn’t know what separated it from the after. But there was something there—this vague, amorphous impulse seemed evidence of a turning point. It wasn’t enough, but still it justified something. It gave reason to this brokenness, the stagnancy. She was not whole enough to have an unblemished history; she was not damaged enough to remember. She was too damaged to remember. There was nothing to remember. She never could lie to herself. She was on the brink of believing her own lies.

“What are you scared of?” Conversation hovers, waiting. The question feels too direct, too simple. “Of causing people pain. Of hurting them.”

A pause. “Why?” The question falls flat, feels ridiculous. “ I don’t like to see people suffer.” The answer, too, seems empty. “I’m scared that I’m not bound tightly enough to people to make them suffer. Not that I’d want to. It’s just that you have to really matter to someone to be able to cause them pain. I’m scared no one feels enough for me...that I will never be in a position where I might hurt someone.”

A crowd entered, muting their conversation.

She glanced down and mindlessly opened an old poem. Next to the title she had entered the date. She always entered the date. It was an excuse of sorts, a way to justify cardboard words by pointing to inexperience, age as reason for weakness. It was easier than admitting she was empty. She never could lie to herself. A writer, she was on the brink of believing her own lies. The before was a problem.