SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 20, 2018

A Bad Thing to Notice

 

One late autumn afternoon in Minneapolis, I sat on the couch and bent over to tie my shoes, preparing to go out and pick up a few groceries. Before looping the left lace over the right on my left shoe, I froze.

            In an instant I saw it all with devastating clarity. I knew exactly how I’d tie my shoes, because that’s how I always did it. I could hear the jangle of the keys as I locked my apartment door, and see the short carpeted hallway leading to the building’s entryway. I could see every crack in the sidewalk I’d be walking along, and every squat house and gnarled tree flanking that sidewalk. I’d be going to the same fucking grocery store three blocks away, with the same fucking layout, where I’d pick up the same fucking things in the same order off the shelves before carrying them to the checkout line to hand over the same amount of money to the same middle-aged, unsmiling woman at the register. Then I would carry them back along that same sidewalk, past those same squat houses and gnarled trees, before letting myself back into the apartment with the same jangle of keys. I would set the bag on the same counter to the left of the sink, then place the groceries I’d bought in the same empty spots in the cupboard and the fridge.

            Sitting there frozen, still bent over my untied shoes, I saw all of this, and I could see all of this because I did it in exactly the same way every single goddamn day. The only thing that changed was the weather. It wasn’t just trips to the grocery store, it was everything I did at that time. Every move I made was predetermined, as I made the same moves in the same way every day—from bathing to eating to going to class to doing the laundry. I was trapped in a Beckett play, the one that says “Repeat Play” at the end, and I couldn’t take it anymore.

            Three days later I woke up in the ICU, my wrists bound to the guard rails of my bed and three IV tubes stuck in my arms. I spent a week and a half there as doctors attempted to kick start my kidneys, then they sent me to the locked ward in the hospital basement, where I stayed for the next six months, attempting to explain to the head shrink I’d taken all those pills because I was bored.

            That hadn’t been the first time I’d experienced a similar Beckettian revelation. I had a lifelong habit of allowing myself to fall into slavish, obsessive, repetitive behavioral patterns, moving through life by rote, and every time I noticed it had happened again I ended up inflicting some kind of major damage to my person. The only way to break the repetitive cycle was to do something drastic, something that would knock me out of the endless loop, and the best way to do that seemed to be a half-assed suicide attempt. It certainly gave me something else to think about for a spell. The minute I recognized I had once again allowed myself, through simple boredom, to fall into that robotic behavioral pattern, I resorted to the razor blades or flights of stairs, I walked into traffic or gobbled fistfuls of other people’s pills. It did the trick, releasing the pressure and snapping me awake again. But it rarely lasted more than a few months before I began slipping back into it. I kept telling myself I was simply trying to do the stupid boring errands as efficiently as possible in order to leave myself the time to do the crap I wanted, but before I knew it the days were filled with stupid boring errands (though executed quite efficiently) and nothing else.

            I suspect most people live their entire lives this way (especially those with jobs), but either they don’t pause to notice, they don’t care, or they spend an awful lot of time fighting off the urge to swing the car into the oncoming lane. I’d like to think the latter is the case, but I have my doubts.

            After that time in the Minneapolis Bin, though, I vowed I’d never fall into those patterns again—that I would live a life without boredom and repetition. Those Germanic patterns that seemed so ingrained in my head would never take hold again. I wouldn’t allow it. And for a good long stretch there, some thirty years or so, I did a damn fine job of it. Get drunk in public and have to somehow get back home on the subway that many nights a week for so long, and things are going to remain action-packed and unpredictable, believe you me.

            Then yesterday morning a little before six, I bent down to unscrew a small round click light used to mark a doorway. A couple of years ago Morgan had picked up a few of what we call click lights, small battery operated lights you can stick to the wall. They’re unobtrusive, not terribly bright, and run on three rechargeable batteries. She’d placed a few at various junctures around the apartment to help me navigate without splitting my head open quite so often. I couldn’t see much, but in the darkness I could spot those small smears of light, and so ran into far fewer doors. Changing out the batteries had become one of my regular morning chores.

            But then yesterday morning I squatted down to unscrew one of these lights from a mount near the floor, and froze. In an instant I could see everything with a devastating clarity: changing the batteries, moving my mug of cold coffee from the kitchen counter to the table in the other room, turning on the floor lamp, going downstairs to have a couple of smokes. Returning upstairs, drinking some of the coffee, checking the email, eating some cereal, washing the dishes, brushing my teeth, taking my pills,  showering. All in the same way, all in the same order. Later I would put on my fucking shoes in the same fucking way, gather up the two bags of recycling, take them down to the trash, then head across the sane fucking street to the same fucking bodega, where I’d have the same fucking conversation, word for word, with the old Egyptian behind the counter. I could see far more than just a trip to the fucking grocery store (though that was in there too)—I could see the whole fucking day, minute by minute. I even knew exactly what minute all these things would take place. And I could see all that because I’d been doing it all in exactly the same fucking way, the same fucking order, for the last few years.

            It was a very bad and dangerous thing to notice, especially since I was no longer of the overtly self-destructive variety. So now what the hell do I do?

 

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