This is an experimental piece and I've shared it here on my blog before. It's perhaps the creepiest thing I've ever written and definitely not my usual style.
You feel it begin as an itch beneath your skin. A sensation that tingle and tickles but lies too deep to scratch. You try to ignore it, think you will learn to ignore it, but there is no ignorance and no bliss. Just this.
In your advanced high school literature class they had you read The Yellow Wallpaper and you remember thinking you understood the woman crawling behind the wallpaper, the madness in the walls. But you knew your walls were different, stronger, impenetrable. Until the skin crawled and you knew too late too late your fate here lying just skin deep just deep enough to be hid but not rid of.
You shower to cleanse away the crawling, water sloughing away the dead skin cells. Naked you emerge and dry yourself with clean towels that you immediately toss into the washing machine, retrieving a new set from the endless stack you keep, a steady rotation of fresh white towels. Bleached white and when they begin to yellow they follow the fate of their fellow white towels and are tossed down the incinerator.
Naked you dust everything. Every morning after you shower you dust because you must rid yourself and your life of the messiness before anyone else can see. Vacuum to catch what the dusting leaves behind then shower again to rid flesh of anything clinging. You dry with clean towels and toss into the washing machine before you dress in the same black and black on black. In summer, you wear black pants or black shorts with a black t-shirt. In winter, you wear black pants with a black sweater. Sometimes you wear layers. Sometimes you wear nothing. Today you wear black pants and a black t-shirt.
You don’t need any mirrors where you don’t see anything anyway. There are no mirrors except for the one in the bathroom, the one they call a medicine cabinet. You cover that one with one white towel that you change once a week to keep it clean. And you turn off the light at night the night you change the towel so you won’t see your reflection.
You don’t want to see what you feel beneath your skin the crawling within thing that you might see if you looked.
The itch is changing you know. You feel it grow into a burning worming feeling crawling slithering beneath your skin and you look again to the walls for the madwoman in the yellow wallpaper.
But your walls are white, painted white, stainless white. Not even a painting or poster covering the bare space of white. And no mirrors anywhere hanging. You have little furniture, an Asian austerity that allows you to see the walls from floor to ceiling and no carpet for your hard wood floors. Just a bed and a dresser and a desk and a two person table where you eat your meals. Enough furniture for one person and space to move, to crawl, to dance. Alone. One person all alone dancing and whirling alone.
Unless the woman has found her way into your walls too, your walls like the one in the story. The woman worming, crawling, dancing in the walls. You look for her inside the walls. She is not there but where you feel her inside your skin, crawling madly about, mocking you with her presence, just beneath the surface of yourself. You feel her pushing you to let her out but not today.
Today there is work.
Walking carefully, the path delineated. This is the way you go to work. North two blocks, turn right. Walk four more blocks and turn left. Change is not acceptable. Change is dangerous. Change is changing, a changeling switched at birth or sometime thereafter. Once human. Now a beast. But not today. Today you walk to work.
Stores change. This one used to be an art supply store, then a clothing store, and now it is used to make keys, to sell locks. So many doors with so many locks and so many keys to keep things locked safe, safely behind closed doors. The stores change. Doors don’t change. Locks change. Keys change. And you won’t look to see if your reflection in the windows might have changed into the changeling woman dancing inside.
Stop. You stop. Stop at the light and fight to stop your mind from loosely following the path it wants to take. Making your thoughts stop with the light.
This is the way you walk to work. Carefully prescribed, the route you take from home to office. The weather changes. Today the sun has not yet burned through the morning clouds. Sometimes rain. Sometimes snow. Sometimes sleet. Sometimes sun which is too bright and you know you should buy sunglasses but you never do because you don’t want to blur what you need to see, the things on your way to work that have changed and those that have stayed the same.
And sunglasses have reflections you might see of yourself or the changes you don’t want to see, won’t see if you don’t look to see where there’s nothing to see. But see? You feel things just beneath. But you can’t see what you feel. Just the woman dancing to be seen.
You don’t, won’t dance. You walk with the stream of other people who walk to work, who climb like roaches from the tunnels of the subway, who skitter along the sidewalk, careful not to touch one another. You don’t like people, don’t like to be around people, don’t like to be seen by people and nothing is safer than living in a city to be left alone, surrounded by other people.
You can’t let anyone get too close, close enough to touch, or they might see the way things really are, the changes changing inside. At work you can hide in your cubicle, tasking your way through the day. Nobody calls you. Nobody needs to see you. Your work flow flows independent of anyone else. Only your manager and occasionally your manager’s manager hold you accountable but because you do what you ought to do they never talk to you except to review your annually.
Seven months and eighteen days until your next review.
You arrive at the office and wipe down your desk area, your computer monitor, before turning it on. You don’t say hello to anyone else. They say nothing to you. This is how it has been and will be. You have worked here longer than most, not seeking a promotion or better job. You are happiest, safest, here where you can predict what you need to do without fear of anyone wanting more.
You don’t go to the break room for a cup of coffee or to warm up a bagel. You begin working and continue working through lunch and until it is time to leave. You see, briefly, a coworker pass wearing a yellow something and your skin crawls, burns, churns, dances. You hate the color yellow, hate wallpaper, hate the woman who waits. You wait for the coworker to leave for the day before you leave, not wanting to risk a ride together on the same elevator.
Details to keep from derailing the routine. You walk home from work, and the burning itching feeling returns each step closer to home. Safety in numbers behind closed doors you will be safe to be yourself and fight not to change. Another day of work behind you and a weekend alone ahead.
Dinner is simple. Brown rice, sorted carefully to remove anything suspicious or not quite the right shade of beige. Broccoli. Sometimes spinach. Never corn. Never yellow squash. Sometimes chicken but not often. Sometimes beans, sorted, rinsed, cooked slowly. Beans are for the weekend. Chicken for the middle of the week.
Tonight brown rice and spinach.
You take off your clothes, your skin on fire, burning, the insides crawling to escape. The clothes go in the hamper until there is enough for a full load. Water started to boil for rice, already sorted, and ready to be cooked. You shower while the water heats, comes to a boil, dancing in the pot ready for the rice. Towels tossed into the washing machine.
Tonight you will cook naked, your skin red from scrubbing, on fire from within. The worms are crawling faster now, electric shocks signaling something. They feel like they are dancing. “Can worms dance?” you ask no one, not even yourself, afraid of the answers to your rhetorical questions.
You cook the rice but nothing else. It takes all your concentration to do this much—pour the finished rice onto a plate and wait, watching waiting, the pile of brown rice to cool, looking like amputated, or stunted, worms themselves. You wait for them to get cool, to cool down, to stop dancing behind the steam.
The neighbors upstairs are fighting again. The walls are full of screams and dreams, of peoples voices screaming out, of dreams white washed away. You look again to see that she has not found her way through the plaster.
White wash. Don’t shoot until you see the white walls of their eyes. White sheets hanging in the too bright sun and mother’s madness dancing naked until daddy drags her, feet still dancing, into the house, dragging a white sheet around her naked body to keep the neighbors from talking, from seeing.
But the neighbors aren’t talking. They are screaming and the walls are thick with the sound of voices.
She is not there and you can’t find her out there so you return to the kitchen where the rice is cool. Too cool. You throw it into the garbage and now you must choose—leave the rice where it is or dress and take the garbage to the incinerator. You must choose to do what you must do. To choose what you choose not to chew. Ew.
The fighting upstairs has stopped and you walk to the window to look outside, careful to keep away from the light, to create no reflection. The lights are off in your studio. Nobody can see inside where things are crawling to get out burning to escape the things you keep down inside to hide what you are. You watch the boy crawl down the fire escape and into the open window where his lover waits, her parents already asleep and unaware of the way the lovers find to meet each other.
You had a lover once who looked inside your eyes and became scared. You talk in your sleep. You say things you didn’t know you knew and shooed your lover away. That was then, before you moved to where nobody knew you or your family. Before your mother was gone and your father was too tired to care, could only stare at the walls. Wallpapered walls. Not yellow. There is madness in yellow. You know. You read it. In a book. Somewhere. Back there. Before you were here, living here, alone. No father to care. No mother there.
She turned herself inside out. It was the only way to save herself. To get the madness out. You can’t dance naked when your skin is burning so best to slough it off, remove the wallpaper papering her inside. Let her out to dance and you will be left alone to dance alone. So you were left alone and her madness left you that way. Safer to be alone where nobody can see in a city where nobody sees you really.
The rumble in your stomach is her growling. She is angry tonight. She is ready to right the wrong of her imprisonment, meant to be dancing naked and free she is ready to be not inside.
You don’t have any knives. Nothing sharper than a fork. You are safe in the white sheets and towels of your life, in the black clothes that shadow you so you can hide more easily, seamlessly.
You don’t remember going to sleep or waking up to red sheets or how the broken mirror broke off in your hands and peeled your skin open to let the burning woman out but she’s still crawling inside so you keep peeling back the layers to find a way to be free.
Just like mommy.