The Taste of Mediocrity
He feels the pain in his head even before he realizes he's awake. Awareness comes soon enough though, tearing him from slumber and slamming a thrum of agony into his temples. He grinds his teeth as he sits up, his hand reaching for the wall. Being upright doesn't diminish the ache, only serves to make him aware of many more, but at least breathing is easier.
His eyes flick to the alarm clock, the stark red numbers indicating ten past six. He's slept more than twelve hours. Evening light is sifting through his tattered drapes. He could get nicer ones, but these are the yellow duckling drapes that have adorned his bedroom window for as long as he can remember. It doesn't matter that he no longer lives in the house where they hung originally. He tries to smile at the thought of his drapes, but even the slightest twitching of his lips makes his head swim. A yawn, however, forces its way out, ravaging his throat as it leaves. He's hoarse, and dizzy, and the only thing he can see on his nightstand is a half-empty bottle of beer.
Propped up against the headboard, he can make out a handful of other bottles lying around the room. He knows there's more though. He has this habit of kicking them under the bed when he's drinking in his room. Alone. It takes away some of the guilt. At least, until he has to clean underneath the bed. Then he vows he'll never do it again, and the promise lasts a week, maybe two, until something sets him off again. Right now, he doesn't want to think about guilt though, and that's okay, because the pain is more immediate. The headache is distracting, but familiar. Not that the guilt isn't familiar by now also.
He runs a hand over his face, wincing as his fingers scrape over stubble. He looks down at himself and groans, seeing the bright blue uniform of the local supermarket. The pants are hopelessly wrinkled, and his shirt is sporting what looks surprisingly like a drool stain. He'll either have to do the laundry or call in sick tomorrow. With a sigh, he struggles out of bed and stumbles to the bathroom, grabbing his unfinished beer on the way.
A glance in the mirror shows he feels worse than he looks, but then again, he's had a lot of practice pretending nothing's wrong. Brown hair, brown eyes, not short, not tall, the lightest collection of muscles, and he's a little underweight because he never eats half enough. He's always thought of himself as depressingly average, an overstressed drunk going nowhere in life, just waiting to become another statistic.
He reaches for the medicine cabinet, only to find a bottle still gripped in his hand. For a long moment, he stands there, staring at the bottle, trying to ignore the pounding in his head, but he does the smart thing and pours the beer down the sink. A quick splash of water to the face, and he's reaching for the aspirin, counting out two tablets and popping them back with a swig from the tap. The irony is not lost on him. He drinks twelve -- no, eleven and a half -- beers in one night, but then he reads the label on his little bottle of pills the next day.
His clothes land in a pile on the floor. He'll do the laundry, after taking a shower and getting the hangover to settle. His toothbrush accompanies him into the shower, the medicine having left a bitter taste in his mouth. There's also the stale roughness of alcohol that permeates, but he knows the real problem is something brushing his teeth won't help. Hiding beneath the aspirin and beer is another, subtler flavour. He spits out the abrasive mint toothpaste, but his mouth doesn't feel clean. He knows this taste; it's been on his lips his entire life: the taste of mediocrity.
He doesn't remember exactly what kicked off the latest drinking episode, but it couldn't have been different from usual. There's the fact that he has no real friends and that he pisses away his life alone. There's the fact that he lives in this run-down apartment because he has no money to live anywhere else, and all of last week's salary is already wasted. Or there's the fact that his mother called again yesterday and asked him why he hasn't settled down and started a family yet. Of course he didn't tell her he works at the supermarket. She would think it's undignified. And of course he told her that he just started seeing this new girl, which is what he tells her every time, even though it's never true. Lying has become so easy he can't even remember why it was he used to care.
After the phone call, he had run out to escape it all. He remembers standing by the waterfront, looking out onto the river while the sun set the world aflame. He remembers sitting on the shore, a six-pack by his side, the gentle wash of waves rhythmic but not soothing. He remembers screaming, again and again, until he was nearly deaf, and all he could hear was the sound of his own voice screaming back in his head.
And then, on the way back, he had bought another case of beer before taking it home to wake up to a roaring headache. It used to be that the pain wasn't worth it, but these days, it's so easy to find that comforting oblivion again.
Setting down the toothbrush, he regards the hygiene products on the shelf with slight amusement. They present an interesting dichotomy, his peach-scented body wash and patently generic shampoo. The body wash was bought just two days ago, in a moment of weakness as he strolled down the wrong aisle in the pharmacy. He bought a pack of condoms at the same time, laughing to himself as the clerk rang it all up. She'd given him a look, peach-scented body wash and a box of condoms. He'll never use them, he knows, but he'd wanted to find out what it felt like to buy them in a real store. He has one in his wallet, and that's probably more than he'll ever need, but that one came from a machine in a public restroom. That condom, the one in his wallet, that's the hopeful one, the one he's had in his wallet since high school. The new box, those are just for kicks. So he figures he'll get half his money's worth at least. Besides, the body wash doesn't smell all that bad.
When he emerges from the shower, the headache isn't as demanding, and he is cleaner, even if he doesn't feel that way. Dinner doesn't seem appealing, but laundry seems even less so. He wanders to the kitchen, clad only in his shorts. Two yogurt cups find their way into his hands, along with a spoon and half a box of crackers. It's not the most nutritious meal, but he figures he should have something sit next to the pills in his stomach.
The kitchen is drab, clinical white tile and yellowed walls. He thinks briefly of taking a seat, but he ends up back on his bed with the television remote next to him. The screen stays dark though. He's lost interest in television. All he ever sees is sex and shows that make him think, make him dream. He's tired of thinking, dreaming, and he's sick of getting sex shoved in his face. He wants love, but only in the most abstract sense of the word. He wants that perfect unattainable devotion he reads about but never feels. He wants the connection he sometimes finds on the screen, but even then he knows it's tainted, because once the camera stops filming, the actors just go back to their heartthrob of the month.
Next to the television, he has stacks of his sister's women's magazines alongside stacks of his brother's men's magazines. He reads them when he's feeling ugly, beautiful, lost, hopeful, alone, depressed. He reads them when he's drunk and the world seems to make sense. He reads them when he's sober, and all he wants to do is curl up and cry.
The screen comes to life with an angry vengeance, the sound momentarily drowning out his thoughts. He doesn't want to think anymore because thinking always leads him down the same path. This is safer, eating his yogurt and crackers while the sound washes over him and mingles with the pain. His eyes are fixed on his knees, and his ears are unhearing. Ten minutes later, empty yogurt cups land in the trashcan, and only then does he realise he's tuned into an evangelical program on this fine Sunday evening.
With a grunt, he dresses himself and gathers up his dirty clothes.
The laundry room is a windowless affair in the basement of the apartment building. There's one other tenant in the back, her legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He recognises her from the floor below his. He's run into her several times on the stairs, although they've never exchanged more than nods and the occasional greeting. She's dressed in worn shorts and a ratty old t-shirt, probably the last clean clothes she has, judging by the three machines she has running nearby. Not that it's never happened to him before.
She's pretty anyway, not in the supermodel way of the magazines, but in a quiet subdued fashion. She looks up when he enters, sparing him a nod and a brief smile. Her nose is buried in a book, a finger twirling her ponytail in unconscious habit, and it makes him try to remember when it was he last read a real book. College, back when he still had dreams. He remembers college, which had been more and less than everything he thought it could be. He even has a degree rotting in his desk upstairs, a degree he's never used, but that doesn't bother him. They don't hire college graduates to stock shelves in the supermarket. "Work" is not something he wants to do, not in the real sense that he's always understood the word. What he wants to do, is something so mind-numbingly boring that he can shut down his brain and let it cruise until he can go home again. And when he gets there, there's always the beer to take the edge off of things.
He loads the machine without thinking about it, stopping only to check that he didn't forget the uniform. The headache's died down a little bit, the screaming wail replaced by a gentle throbbing. Still, he sets the lid down carefully instead of slamming it as usual.
It's the first time he's had to share the laundry room with anyone else. Not that it matters of course, because normally he just sits and stares at the wall until it's time to move his stuff to the dryer. He takes a seat by the door, in the chair furthest from the woman. She doesn't so much as glance at him. His eyes close, and he tries to lose himself in the rhythmic rumble of the machines.
The faint ding of a spin cycle ending jolts him awake, and though he still feels thoroughly trashed, the headache seems to have lifted. His blonde companion is over by one of her machines, standing on tiptoe to reach something at the bottom. Her legs are taut, exquisitely stretched; her shirt is riding up her back and... And he wants her all of sudden, more than he's ever wanted anyone before. It's base, it's primal, and he hates himself for it.
He flees from the room. The stairwell is well lit and quiet. He's sitting on the first step, taking deep breaths and keeping count in the hopes of calming himself. He's at forty-one when the door opens.
"Yes." He doesn't look up at her, even though part of him wants to know what colour her eyes are. Instead, he lets her shins take up his view.
"No." It's true.
"Your… um… stuff is done."
"Thanks." Her gaze makes him nervous. He brushes past her and through the door, aware of her watching him, and he remembers he hasn't shaved since yesterday morning. Blue. Her eyes are blue.
She follows him back to the laundry room although she doesn't say another word. While he busies himself with the dryer, she takes her pile of neatly folded clothes and disappears.
It's an hour later before he gets everything squared away, his uniform hanging off the hook on his closet door. Eight o'clock, his watch tells him. It's too early to go to bed, even though that's all he wants to do, close his eyes and fall into the tragic sweet embrace of sleep. In the darkness, nothing can reach him. In the darkness, he's alone and the world beyond his imagination is meaningless.
Mostly, he just wants to forget about this life he's only half living. He wants to stop feeling alone, empty, inadequate. He wants to stop feeling. Either that, or he wants to feel something so intense it will wash him away, something so overwhelming it will drown him. It's too bad he doesn't know where to find anything like that. Or rather he does know, but it scares him to think about it. He knows he has to take that first step, put it out there, risk it all. But maybe he can do it, just this once. He doesn't really know her, but he has her apartment number, and he's seen the last name she has on her mailbox. It's a start.
He shaves, and changes, and brushes his teeth again. For the first time in a month, the comb graces his hair while he looks himself over in the mirror. The door slams behind him as he trips out of his apartment. He runs, because he knows if he doesn't, the courage will fade. He stumbles down the stairs and stops at her floor. He's empty-handed and he has three of his new condoms in his back pocket. It's a just a little presumptuous.
He runs down to the street and into the corner store. He buys a six-pack of beer and a big bag of pretzels. At least he has an excuse this way. Something changes on the way back up though. The giddiness is gone, and now the nervousness is back in full force. He stops on the stairs once more, on the landing leading to her floor, and he looks down at the snacks shaking in his hands. He can't do this.
For one agonizing moment, he thinks he's going to fall, but then he's running again, up the stairs and into the comforting confines of his own apartment. His hands are clammy and his clothes stick to him. He twists the cap off a beer to soothe his suddenly dry mouth.
It doesn't matter who she is, or who he thinks she is; she can't give him what he wants. He doesn't even know what it is he wants. Besides, he doubts very much she would want him if she knew him at all. And maybe he could do something about that, but it's easier not to change. It's easier not to care.