The whiteness depresses me. My eyes stare into the piece of paper I have torn out from my notebook, and I sit under the tense hum of incandescent bedroom lighting, fingers frozen around a pencil. My mind reflects the paper, buzzing only white noise in response to the articulate pleas of my consciousness: “it’s not that hard. Pull yourself together, Leslie. You know who you are. Goddamn, just write something.” The strangely steady rhythm of my heart begins to falter as I realize that I am failing, absolutely and irreparably. I am paralyzed until my timer goes off, splitting the still air with its jarring trills, tearing my body away from its static prison.
It has been two years since I began measuring my work and break hours with a kitchen timer- down to the last second. I click the small, egg-shaped contraption off, sit back in my chair, and let my lungs fill again. It has been twenty minutes, and I have not written a single word. The prompt is not the problem- it’s simple: describe yourself in 150 words. It is the first question of a long application for what I hope is my future university, but nothing is happening. I try to grab at an excuse or justification for my lack of words, but soon wrap my head in my hands in failure. No time for panic. I decide to give myself a break, and set my timer to ten minutes. It begins its silent tick.
“Leslie?” My mom enters with a plate of sliced apples, the way she has always done for me whenever I am writing. She walks in careful, calculated steps, examining my diligence with an affectionate but probing gaze. A white plate rimmed with green slides into my field of vision, a plate that has traversed the distance between my desk and the kitchen sink a thousand times throughout my high school life.
“What are you working on?” Shouldn’t you be working?
“I’m taking a break,” I reply, not meeting her eyes.
“You have your timer on?” Don’t rest too long.
“Okay. Good luck, sweetie, and go to bed early. Finish the apples. They’re sweet,” she says, and places a soft hand on my shoulder. I soon hear her exit, but I still feel the weight of her hand. My eyes return to the blank paper, but the ghost of perfection shadows the tip of my pencil until I drop it like a hot piece of toast. 150 words. It seems absurd.
Years of student journalism dance before my eyes in a deliberate taunt.
Leslie Crandall, columnist.
Leslie Crandall, copy editor.
Leslie Crandall, editor in chief.
I was asked to describe myself in three adjectives, then through ten extracurriculars, and now a hundred and fifty words. My existence continues to refuse to translate itself into a language. I can already see it in my head:
Leslie Crandall, cashier.
Leslie Crandall, waitress.
Leslie Crandall, amalgamation of the world’s various failed dreams.
All while my friends go to college, all because I can’t produce an application. I tap my fingernails against my desk, hearing the seconds tick by, watching the apples brown, waiting for the sun to set and rise again. Waiting for spring to come.
My timer stays silent.
I frown and pick it up. I look at the indicator- ten minutes have already passed. I hit it against my desk to see if the alarm would somehow release itself, but it remains stuck. I throw it across the room, and it hits the floor with a dull, dysfunctional noise. I need a timer to be able to work.
I could take the living room clock and put it on my desk; mom wouldn’t mind. Sighing, I walk out my door to make my way to the black clock, hanging high above the television set and the family photos. I stand on a chair and carefully lift it off the wall, weak arms shaking. Then, a shifted ankle- slipping chair- and I find myself on the floor, chest heaving, with the clock beside me.
“Leslie? What was that?” My mom shouts from her room.
“I’m alright, just… stumbled,” I reply.
“Okay,” I mutter under my breath, getting up. I pick up the clock, and my heart sinks at the sight of a minute hand detached from the center, reduced to a useless piece of plastic, swimming in the enclosed air. I shake the clock, and the hand dances off the edges, making a rattling noise. A part of my soul escapes with that sound, and my motivation leaves with it. It doesn’t look back.
I take a deep breath and return to my desk. I sit and look around my room, the space that has been mine for a mundane seventeen years. Home to my laughter and clandestine phone conversations, home to the honors certificates. Home to frustration. To tears. And what am I supposed to leave out of the painfully tight frame of a hundred and fifty words? Do I sacrifice my family, friends, grades, or my undivided devotion to the varsity lacrosse team? What about my political views? What about the time I had a crush on the same guy for three years? Or the time I went to hide in the bathroom after a disastrous prom night, silver cocktail dress dragging on dirty tiles? What about my brownies? But really, everyone loves my brownies. Even Mom.
A nagging ache begins to tug at the back of my head, demanding undeserved attention. I refuse to rely on pills for the sake of some stubborn pride, instead giving myself an excuse to let the weight of my head rest on my desk. The blank paper spreads in front of my vision like a field. A strange, masochistic urge fills me and I close my eyes, rolling in the dull pain, letting myself exist in this sphere of experience. It’s all-consuming, peacefully singular. I see nothing but static. I hear nothing but black. Somehow, the cracks of reality feel distant, silenced between the muffling folds of dark.
But when I open my eyes again, the world floods back, and all I see is white. I sit upright and stare at the blank space of my paper in sudden panic, and it seems to grow, consuming my desk with its vastness. It continues to absorb with a gluttony that borders on violence, invading the rest of my room, until I choke on its banality and jump out of my seat. I grab my notebook and stumble out of my room with an urgency I haven’t felt in years.
As soon as I close the door behind me, I feel a sweet relief wash over my body. I am overcome with an urge to escape the house. I need to confirm that the sky still exists, that outside, a normal world is still revolving around this house. That a sane world created my blank sheet of paper. I remind myself that I should be quiet, and take covert, measured steps, making my way to the front door. I put on my sandals and slip out. The door closes behind me with a satisfying click, the mechanism fitting together in an embrace that it has practiced to perfection.
A porcelain vase.
I tilt my vision up, and sure enough, the afternoon sky remains with her arms spread open. She is all-accommodating. I breathe. I let my eyes drift indecisively.
Then my consciousness snaps at me: where am I going? What am I doing? Its demanding voice is difficult to ignore. I pick a direction and begin to walk with unsure steps, and they soon turn into a rhythmic stride under the forgiving sunlight.
The pavement is segmented into rectangles under my feet. The distances between the gray lines are impeccably measured. Price tags beckon at me from supermarkets and retail stores, each number louder than the previous. The streets are lined with posters displaying candidates for the upcoming Senate elections. I do not recognize a single face, but instead of drowning in a sort of ignorant guilt, I feel free.
My 150 words.
I fell in love with language for the new world it opened me to.
How can something so liberating be so restrictive?
The sky hangs over our world of fireworks and glass with an omnipresence that does not intimidate me. It is a master of evaded borders, escaped constructs.
I notice a pang of hunger and my feeble physique automatically searches for food. I am surrounded by restaurants, and my brain begins to sift through the options before I realize I have left the house with only the clothing on my back.
I can’t eat if I can’t pay for it, right?
The simple question takes me minutes to process. No, I cannot eat. I am an unusually vulnerable creature when stripped of my labels. I am unusually out of place, isolated among the eternal ebb and flow between the raw and the constructed.
I eventually turn to begin walking home, already picturing the plate of sliced apples in my head, waiting for me on my desk- next to the blank sheet of paper. I feel fine. The sky looms above me and the blue color presses against the top of my head and shoulders, reminding me of its presence.
I walk through our lawn and push open the front door.
“Leslie, where were you?” My mom is waiting for me.
“I just… took a walk,” I reply. She stares at me, head tilted and eyebrows furrowed in what seems to be a mix of perplexity and reprimand.
“Why didn’t you tell me beforehand? I was worried,” she says as she moves to sit back down on the living room couch.
“Sorry,” I tell her, casual but genuine. I cross the living room to my bedroom door and enter the space I escaped earlier today.
I sit at my chair and pick up my pencil. The timer that used to split my life is still broken. I try to describe myself. I know who I am. For a fleeting moment, I feel who I am. My identity feels organically rooted in my body. But my brain is lost, searching for the right word. And it’s okay. I will soon write a hundred and fifty words to describe myself, and it will only be a bad translation of the heat of my blood, the physicality of my life. This is the world I live in. And it’s okay.
I finally reach for a piece of apple, and take a bite.