I look out the window of my second-floor apartment. I am ready to jump. Yes, that is the solution. I can see Myself now: a body double. Opening those double doors, heaving my legs over the sill, and lifting myself off. One with gravity. It started weeks ago. I teach science in an all-girls school, they make fun of me. I have a long nose – too long. Unpopularity from my school years accompanies me like a ghost. When I see them, face them from the front of the room, all I see are ghosts of girls past. But teaching is the only option for me: when I start a lesson I dip into the flow. Feel excitement when I talk of the phenomena of chemistry and physics. When a student acts out, giggling in hushed whispers, I try to admonish her. The truth is any power my voice might convey through pure biological mechanisms does not transcend the core reality of my being, difficult to define but universally understood: I am not an authoritative woman. Not because of my petite frame and height (these are purely physical) but because I carry an air suggesting no elementary resistance to being overruled or unheard or forgotten. I am too nice. All that the mean girls do is correctly identify my core reality and act upon it.
I am nice, but intelligence is my key. Skirting the discipline of my Mum, her superstitions like a knife jabbing between my fingers: my weapons from infancy are truth and facts. Facts to mutter back at her, always safely under breath. Biological truths to consider when she pulled woollen sweaters over my head in summer and made me sweat violently.
Among the hooligans I teach, there is the classic teacher’s pet. I understand the affinity to be more. The pet shares my passion for science, for the mechanics of the universe; taking atoms, compounds, molecules, and mashing them together and taking them apart to create, twist, and reinvent material reality. Balancing equations and the periodic table. Gases, liquids, solidifying into something concrete. The sense, the logical flow, the beautiful coolness at the back of the head in sudden comprehension. What is it made of? How did that come about? Answers are available, the universe can be explained, in all its wondrous functionality and form. It is no longer a raging madhouse, like it once used to be in another age. The pet understands this, just like me.
It’s Tuesday–my memory. I’m walking to the teachers’ lounge. My shirt is untucked and my clothes are unfashionable. I have a pixie cut–but I am not part of that blessed minority suited to pixie cuts. My glasses are large enough to imply the burden of weight on my nose. Do you know, though: they say my eyes are like marvellous spoons of indulgent brown, their backs curved to unimaginable depths? I carry something, so my Mum says. Something golden and fragile, visible only to those perceptive enough.
I see Liz Clarkson in the lounge. How are you, Liz? I’m always trying to be friends with Liz, she is an idol. She mixes intelligence and charm in mysterious ways that bewilder and enthral me in equal turn. I’m fine, thanks. Oh, didn’t I tell you, this is my last week. I was promoted to vice principal at a school in your area. Just got the news. I went to pains to congratulate her. Clarkson looks at me with an impersonal warmth. She has smiling eyes that betray, with an almost imperceptible touch, the absence of some element. It’s hard to know what. Perhaps we can say, while her gaze is fixed on me, her thoughts do not shuffle to accommodate my presence. No I cannot accept that, it’s not a material thing. It is an impression of the mind that cannot be trusted. Liz stands up, her engagement ring sparkling off her delicate finger.
I lean my head out the window and look at the ground. If I were to fall, plummet more like, it would be a body that would collide with the concrete. So why do I feel as if it were a big painful sack of emotions and ideas and thoughts, these invisible things crashing and burning? I ‘see’ the ideas and they are enough to drive me mad. Liz in my area, imagine that! My apartment–a ten-minute walk from her new school. We will have afternoon coffees. Sit on a bench somewhere and chat. She will introduce me to her fiancé’s good friend and we’ll be a pair of couples out on the town. Who am I kidding? That date, it was ten years ago, forget it already! He told me I looked better in the pictures. His face fell and his eyes screwed up. He paid for dinner. I waited three days then hit send on a draft text. No reply. I blush.
Friday. It always clicks into place! If you plug the right things into the formula, it works. Always. I enjoy maths for the same reason. I toss over leaving science for maths, for a change but not so much to give up the comforts, you know? Maths also brings meaning from facts and clean logic. I have a friend who’s all about reading between the lines, abstract philosophising, and all that. A method, I am quietly confident, no doubt entertaining and enlightening in some way but not apt to lead to firm conclusions! It has none of that pure objectivity of science and mathematics, a purity like a fine white powder.
At the end of the day, Liz already left. I never said bye. I open my laptop and there’s her staff farewell email. She will miss us. She’s jotted down her contact details. I click on her new email address and a draft message box pops open. I hesitate. Well, we were friends, we had some good chats. I write: Hey Liz. Sorry to see you go. My number is so and so. Please message me soon and we can grab coffee in my hood. Next week? I hesitate on the word ‘hood’. It’s hip but coming from me, might backfire? I feel adrenaline and hit send anyway before I can think another thought. I’m happy to end with a question though, a classic trick to make the other person answer. Puts them on the spot.
The next week goes by and no response. She’s busy–it’s her first week in an important new role. I can’t imagine her stress! Another week and silence. I slow my car down now when I go past her school. It adds five minutes to my drive home but I go that way and I slow down. I don’t see her coming out. It reminds me of my school days, feeling unknown in my oversized dress, bad hair, and chronic shyness. Why did I choose to stay in a prison? At least I cut my hair. Thrashed it off with a pair of scissors with less finesse than hedge clipping.
I’m angry. I’m really mad now. The injustice, the unfairness. The world picks winners and losers and the winners continue to win and the losers are just there to watch and feel bad in comparison. The losers are important. If they weren’t there to witness the winners win, then it wouldn’t be so satisfying for the winners, would it? They wouldn’t be able to look around to see the loser mustering a smile, their eyes weary and depressed, then self-congratulate and beam brightly for the cameras. I have two sisters and a brother. One older, the other two younger. All married with six children between them. Mum knew I was different. She knew I was in need of comfort so she told me lies about my indulgent eyes and golden soul and warped opinions about my childhood. I looked for all my answers in science. There’s the what and the how but where’s the why? Maybe fiction and abstract whimsy are good for that. I need to warn the pet. Liz looks just like that girl from school who didn’t invite me to her birthday, I was the only one in class. I was ten but the pain burns fresh. How does that work scientifically? It was a lifetime ago! My thoughts are wild. They feed and grow and the tumour feels real but no kind of medical imaging could declare it so. I laugh hysterically. My back runs down the wall and I grab my head, willing it to stop. Just stop. My mind will kill me, plunge me into pure white noise. I was at the bakery just two hours ago. I bought a cake and was happy. How did I end up here?
I’m eating cake an hour later and I’m back. I’m back.