When your night shift is over, count your money. It’s not much again but you believe things will pick up soon. There are bill reminders in your email inbox. Technology is moving too fast, as is culture. You still don’t have the phone, haven’t seen the movies, aren’t doing the diet. Things are moving inside you like a fish moves in wide sweeps of the body upstream. Inside you, the fish pumps its whole body left, then right, slow against the fast current but still gaining distance. You tell yourself this again. Once you have carved out your route, you swim upstream until you find the still and beautiful waters of a life you have made entirely yourself. You are gaining distance in a moving world, and the animals around you are mostly drifting passed, having fun in the rapid water. It’s crowded at this end of the river. Lizards dive in soundlessly, spiders weave their homes, frogs hump the low hanging branches, and you can’t be stopped or lost in the shoals of fish hurrying passed you. Your tips were low today. Your customers were fussy. Your boyfriend hasn’t called you since the fight. You twist against the waters and remain facing forward, partially afraid to let yourself turn around, and partially upset that you won’t let yourself enjoy the way it carries you down. Well, which is it? What are you afraid of? Or, what are you swimming towards?
And you go home. You pour the rest of the wine and put on something. Puccini, or Maria Callas, to help the sadness inside you, always building slowly. Always there anyway. Days flow through your life like water through your gills. It’s hard to measure progress when you are fighting your hardest and the banks at your sides are moving too slow. Joy will pass on the faces of people swimming with the current. Joy does not translate well onto the faces of fish, but where the boats are docked at the end of the stream does translate into something you are trying hard to avoid. As Maria calls out in her elastic voice the sadness in a language you cannot interpret, you start to think about something new and permanent. Just as the mouths of fish have always been translucent, the waters always darker in the cities, you realize you are just a product of something larger. Maria’s voice cuts off. She holds her arms down with her fanned out fingers and looks out toward the cheering crowd. She looks cold in her shawl and moves slow as if conserving energy. Her smile is thin, watered down, a reflection of the dark pools inside her heart where she draws out the opera. She finds the strength to hold herself by the shoulders and breathe. Breathe.
Ok for now. Ok for now, but you have work to do. No more mornings laying on your side, refusing to speak to him before he leaves for work. Nothing to do with the old mattress or the dusty fan or the tepid air coming through the window. Today is about progress. Regression is the debris that rushes downstream, loosened by your choices and your indefatigable refusal to yield. Yield in the morning. Sleep passed the afternoon. Close your curtains. Shut the books. Turn off your phone. Sleep until you dream about waking up in front of stationed trains in mercurial places. Are you allowed to be afraid? You are. But get to work. Not the work that provides the rent or the rest of your expenses (if you could avoid living by yourself, you would. If you could avoid utilities, you might). Cling to the inner banks of mud and rock underwater and rest until you are ready to swim forward again. Resting feels very nice but the momentum is going the other way and you are not part of anything at the moment. Wait a while before you continue up the river, but if you wait too long your strong tail will atrophy, your gills will weaken. You have a lot of distance to cover, and nobody is going to pull you forward on a line unless they have their own intentions, and then you will be trapped. Don’t bite, don’t crowd around. Don’t settle for any pool less wonderful than the one you have in mind for yourself.
(The soft cry from a train is traveling far away, across town. A cozy dark through the window indicates it will rain soon. I fall asleep thinking about towers that have only been built half way. I fall asleep holding my breast in one hand, holding the thing I fear most. I fall asleep thinking, “not one inch. Never give in one single inch”.)
As you go on, the stream widens and the swimming becomes easier. You’re used to the motions now and you have a rhythm to follow. It isn’t as crowded here and the banks on your sides are smooth. You enjoy the peace of being alone and swimming toward something you’ve never seen. Like a fool, you believe the waters you dream of are deep and still, inside the big heart of the earth where all creativity will come from. And there you will be: churning and diving and creating energy for the world to draw out and deliver. It is how you imagine a life of loving your job works. It is how you envision your future, free of lines and nets and people trying to use you for themselves. You think about this at work again, standing over a table of people your age as they order expensive dinners and talk about good health insurance. Hey, they say to you and you prepare to defend your choices Yeah I work here but I never take it home and I have a nice apartment to myself and I have three days all to myself a week and I do a lot a lot of other things that will get me out of this place soon, I hope, soon, but they just say Hey, would you mind bringing us another round of Manhattans? We’re celebrating a new account. Sure, you say, relieved a little…a little. You walk across the dining room and stand up a little straighter. A woman tries to flag you down to complain about the room temperature for the third time, but you ignore her. Not one inch. Not one single inch. The look on her face is magnificent.
At home again, you cook and make a cup of coffee for a late night work session. Nobody can beat you down, no matter how hard they try, and someday you expect to be fired for this. No matter. They can fire you for sticking to your guns, or telling your boss he’s a misogynist dick. Sure they can fire you for that comment you made to the bitch with the grilled cheese, but she should never have called you that. Lucky for you, you haven’t been fired, but there will come a day when you are so fucking tired of it you just quit, and you better have something to fall back on. So you keep working on your art. You take the financial blow and live off of savings for a while. You enter contests and pay the reading fees. You make some money writing essays for college seniors. You are swimming forward at breakneck pace now because you want to do everything you can not to turn around and swim into a net that will provide the essentials for you. This includes security, health, a bank account, respect, a title, a bigger place. This also includes being slowly dissected until you are too weak to swim strong anymore toward your original goal. You are taking work home, going to doctors appointments, relating to people with families and new cars. You are still convinced you are being lied to but who would listen over the sound of all those nice things. So you stay in the stream and swim away from the nets and stay at your job and swim toward a freedom you’re not really sure exists.
When you are asked about your life, many people really want to hear about your job. You tell them your job isn’t all that interesting, but what you really do is write? Oh, they say and smile, I write too. I write for my blog and the occasional restaurant review. No, you say, I write. I create worlds and people and animals out of nothing. I read aloud to small and polite audiences. I can effectively channel myself into my words and into other people. Whoever you’re talking to takes a sip of whatever they’re drinking and asks how much you get paid. You stare in silence and consider lying. Nothing yet…but…and you are cut off when that person says ‘I got paid for a newspaper column this year’ and you open your mouth to continue your argument but you drop it. Money talks, status is a thing you are starting to notice people go after, and unless you have their attention with your words you still have nothing to prove.
You try not to get bitter sometimes. You offer your pages to your friends and eventually they get around to the first half. You go to book stores and look at the top sellers. You are beginning to get dismayed. Sometimes, it feels like you have to give up the outer world to create a new one from within yourself entirely. You will swim on and on and never find that pool of perfect water, so you leap from the stream onto a dry patch of land and somehow you have to turn that into a pool where you can live. Flop around and be afraid. This is a huge risk you’re taking and if it doesn’t work, you’re screwed. You imagine this happening but you don’t know how it’s going to end because you haven’t done it yet. You are not really a fish, you are a human. You are trying to build a pond by yourself and when you do that, you can think next about the ocean. Make sacrifices. Stop going to book stores and stop talking to people you don’t need to talk to. Try not to suffocate when exposed to the air of mediocre ideas others have about your future. Stick close to your friends who support you emotionally. Be able to say to some, ‘I can’t figure out why nobody feels the way I do about it,’ and look up at her face to see if she’s offended. Apologize, because she wants to feel that way for you, but neither of you know how.