Smell, Touch, Taste
She called out upon entering the apartment, standing with one hand on the door, poised to hear the answer. There was no response, but she waited to close the door until the undisturbed sounds of the room came to her ears; the normal sounds of blinds slapping in the early spring breeze, the microwave timer beeping because someone had forgotten to push the 'reset' button, and the bathroom sink gurgling as the toilet was flushed in the apartment upstairs.
Satisfied (though it was impossible to be really satisfied until the letter lying still and cold like a bar of lead in her clammy hand was open and she knew the truth), she continued into the living room, throwing her backpack down onto the sofa, toeing off her shoes and flipping them towards the rocker, and letting her keys fall with a satisfying thud on the coffee table.
So much she was able to do from the habit of repetition. Repetition demanded that she throw herself down on the sofa next to her bag and flip on the TV to browse mindlessly through channels until she found something passable to beguile her for a quiet half-hour. But her mind was active, buzzing with questions that nudged the inside of her skull like insistent children's fingers prodding a dead insect, and would not let her rest.
Oh, how she hated getting mail! It was never anything decent, like a card or a friend's letter, or an invitation to a party. All good news came by email, she reflected sourly, glancing down once more at the hateful letter. And that was only when anybody had anything good to celebrate. When was the last time she'd been at a party? Wouldn't that be fun, she mused, trying not to glance down again, to have some good news to celebrate?
There wouldn't be any coming from her, she thought again, coming down with all the strength of her steel-reinforced mind on the balloon of hope that tried to bubble up through her heart. It would be too lucky if she were picked…out of all those who had tried to get the grant, it would be too lucky…
But she knew she had a chance, and a good one. It was the only reason she dreaded opening the letter.
Plopping down on the sofa, she held the letter flat on her palm and weighed it, eyeing it with the judicious gaze of a postmistress. One sheet, maybe two…that could only mean a rejection letter. Then again, all her college acceptance letters had been only one sheet.
Then the packet of enrollment information, the lovely large brochures with the glossy photos of campus had come, each campus tempting her with their spacious libraries, their well-stocked student centers, and the choice had been such fun torture, the chance to pick and choose her future…
Bouncing to her feet, she almost launched herself into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Better to know right away and get it over with than to spend the evening creating an abstract of all the good and bad news that had ever come in the form of one slip of paper, neatly folded into thirds, stuffed in a crisp envelope with her name and address inked across the front, and…
She squeezed her eyes closed until her eyeballs pressed against the back of their sockets, took both hands and ripped a messy, jagged line across the flap of the envelope.
Opening her eyes only when the letter was unfolded and right before her eyes, she almost hated herself for her lack of pity; there was no time for her to avoid seeing the words, "We regret to inform you that…"
Though she would not sob, she felt the sob building up in a wet, lumpy gurgle in her chest, threatening to climb out her throat and drown her in a slimy bubble of self-pity. One hand firmly on her lips (as if she could contain the sorrow, keep it down) she blinked once, firmly, to clear her vision and read on.
"Due to the high number of submissions…only able to take the best candidates…please apply next summer, thank you, Sincerely…"
There would be no next summer. This was her final year. No more chances.
Though she would not cry, she needed to do something, show some feeling, or the bitterness churning in her heart would solidify into a hard, wrinkled peach pit and she would need to cut herself open to get it out.
She took her time, lingering lovingly over her work as she delicately ripped the letter into shreds, smaller and smaller and smaller until her hands burned from the chafing and she clutched a handful of fluffy confetti.
The idea of having those words anywhere near her room, her sanctuary, where she had filled out the application yet again in a spirit of such high-flying hope…she went to the bathroom and dropped them into the toilet, flushed it, and watched them drown in the water that would soon be in the fetid sewer with all the other refuse.
Her expression in the mirror was a twisted grimace, half malicious vindication and half choked disappointment. It was so far from her normal looks that she found herself snarling into the mirror, teeth bared like a slavering rabid dog and eyes softened by a blurring lens of tears.
It was too much. She was going to cry after all, broken by a tiny little sheet of paper that weighed on her back like a steel girder, cracking her in two with its feather-weight when she had already borne so much…the novel rejection, the Peace Corps rejection, her future falling down around her ears when she was so good, worked so hard…
Her toe slammed against the door frame as she barreled back into her room, and she tripped and fell heavily on her knees, elbows catching hard on her mattress, jamming her upper arms into her shoulders. She clamped her teeth hard, achingly hard onto her pillow and shivered, moaning like an animal in pain, crouched in a hole waiting to die.
Then, there was nothing but stillness. With her teeth in the pillow she breathed noisily, breath rasping against the fibers of the cotton, her tongue drying like an autumn leaf, curling against the cloth. The sensation was familiar, somehow, and instead of thinking of her present pain, she found her mind cataloguing the past.
Eleven years old, kneeling on the cold linoleum of the bathroom floor, the hand towel in her mouth as she fought the first pains of cramps…
Sixteen years old, floating sick and weary through the land of fever dreams, sucking on the damp washcloth to drain it of the water that would soothe her raw, inflamed throat…
Nineteen years old, lying on her hard bed in China, quilt edge between her teeth (to stop them from chattering) as she worked herself up to getting up, going outside, facing the stares, fighting her ignorance…
Twenty-one years old, feeling as though one twitch would ruin her, poised half on her bed and held in place by the force of her trembling toes, pillow so far down her throat that she thought she would gag, the wary tension of her muscles the only guard against the weight of disappointments that clustered one upon the other and threatened to shove her down the endless chasm of despair…
But when she closed her eyes, and breathed in the smell of clean cotton (the sheets still smelled of detergent and were they ever so faintly warmed by the sun filtering through the blinds in dancing zigzags?) the gibbering goblins of fear drifted away like fog.
Six years old, discovering a basket full of dryer-fresh towels, making a sweet soft nest of them on the cold tile floor, playing at princess in her tower until she fell asleep, to be wakened by her mother who scolded her, laughing, for getting her clean laundry all dirty again…
Nine years old, shaded by the threadbare Baroque rose pattern of her childhood sheets, which floated above her head, suspended by ropes she tied around her furniture to make a fort; reading and dreaming and watching the sun as it glimmered, ray by ray, between the threads of the sheets…
Seventeen years old, making up her first bed in that desolate waste of her first dorm room, the sheets and quilts and pillowcases brand new, sewn by her mother who tucked a sprig of dried lilac in between their folds to comfort her in that room so far from home…
In her warm, fragrant darkness there was no longer any pain, or joy, or sorrow. There was just her body twined inextricably with her memories, good or ill and momentarily all alike, wrapped up in smell and sensation, guiding her through the past and onwards into the shadowy future.
Her toes relaxed, letting her knees slump to the carpet, and her arms unclenched the pillow, which triggered a release in her jaw, until she was kneeling beside the bed, nose pressed to the mattress, fear and anger and self-pity gone.
She raised her head, watching her vision sharpen and trace each dust mote as it glistened like a speck of gold in the light. Then her vision expanded, to take in the trees outside the window, the freeway beyond the trees, the mountains beyond the freeway, up into the wide, wide sky beyond and above them all.
A smile tugged at her lips, and she might have even laughed at the shocking lightness of her heart. But there was a sound in the room behind her, a letter being torn open, and she knew that her roommate was home and opening the mail she had left him in their shared box.
Standing, she flexed her toes in the pile of the carpet and winced.
His smile was shy, incredulous. "They're sending me back to Japan! Full scholarship to study for three months!"
The jealously roiled in her gut, but got no higher. She smiled and came forward to read the letter he offered.
"We are pleased to inform you that…excellently qualified candidate…despite the large number of applications…hope to see you soon, Sincerely…"
They shared a glance, and a moment of gladness too strong for words.
"We should do something tonight. When was the last time we had something like this to celebrate?"