I am something of a mix between Anne Hathaway in the first half of The Devil Wears Prada and in all of Love and Other Drugs. Simply put, I’m a twenty-two year old millennial with only a smudged idea of what to do with life and no grand accomplishments to account for. On top of that, I carry around a medically diagnosed label of manic depression.
As of three years, I see a psychiatrist twice a week and ingest copious amounts of drugs that prevent me from falling into any type of deep end, literal or metaphorical. This also means that, as recommended by my doctor, I keep an interactive A3 paper pinned to the cork wall on my room, where I grade my days from 1 to 10. This helps him keep track of how dangerously, or not, my emotions are ‘enabling’ me.
I’ve come to grow fond of this paper-board entity. Mainly because it screams back at me how dull my life is. Different from most people, I am not awarded the swings of a rollercoaster life. Everything around me needs to be controlled. Or at least, I need to be fed the illusion that I am safe and in complete sway of people and situations. Otherwise, it’s an instant-made trip from sky-high to rock bottom. Where I would most likely nestle my head and set camp for eternity.
My days have maintained a daily average of four. They evolved from below zero since I moved out of my mother’s house and started building a ‘non-judgmental and safe space for myself’, as remarked by my psychiatrist. I have then settled into a cozy (read: tiny) studio rented by my father in the same street where he and his new wife live. Just in case I ‘needed some assistance’, they said with blank eyes and an awkward smile. Truth is, nobody really knows how to handle me. Although they insist they do. It’s as if I were some type of outlawed topic, something taboo like children’s sexuality.
I do love my street. It’s a bucolic haven in a chaotic city, which almost makes me long for the small-town dynamics I know only from movies or family vacations to the countryside. It’s a U-shaped street with a little square located on the curve of the letter. The landscape is painted by a combination of medium-height antique buildings and oversized houses, the people living here being predominantly home-owning families. Except from where I live, which is an old, torn yellow, tenement building where people hang clothes on their windows and overhear each other’s conversations.
To say I take great pleasure in implicating myself in the neighbourhood dynamic is an understatement. I dedicate hours of my days to sitting in the little green bench I can spot my bedroom window from. This is where I indulge in observing desperate mothers and their hyperactive children, climbing up and down the slide on endless loops; the group of four old men who are religiously gathered to play their round of chess even though they communicate through wails and gestures; the occasional teenage couple that displays hideous amounts of affection amongst elders and babies; and finally, the random non-resident foreigner that comes to explore and dig their nose into the oomph we have going on.
Yesterday, on my daily trip to the square, something curious happened. One of these foreigners came to pay a visit. He was tall, clumsy in his ways, and wore a shirt one size too small that revealed a strand of his wobbly belly. As I watched, he circled the square multiple times, jumping on alternate feet as if playing a solitary game of hopscotch. I tried guessing his age, perhaps in his late thirties. When he finally decided to stop the imaginary game, he walked through the child’s park, towards the bit where tables and benches are. He took a seat opposite me and next to Joaquin and his French bulldog, Zeus.
An oblivious witness might have thought they were acquainted, from the way the guy made himself loose around my neighbour. Joaquin, who lives in one of the oversized houses, comes to walk Zeus at least two times a day. He’s the spitting image of white privilege: dark polo shirt, caqui shorts and blue velvet moccasin. He is always on important calls and looks at you only after saying some fancy word in Italian to make sure you were impressed. I secretly hoped the man would attempt to make small talk with Joaquin, interrupting his endless call. Instead, with the rare confidence afforded solely to superheroes, the man attacked Zeus.
It happened too fast. He jumped from his seat, aiming at Zeus’ plastic toy, stole it from the dog with his mouth and fell to the ground, arms and legs moving as if he was a frantic insect. Joaquin catapulted out of his phone to scream at the man wrestling his dog. He pulled his fists up threatening to hit him. The man snarled at both Joaquin and Zeus signalling he was not backing down. He got up and ran around the square with the toy in his mouth and Zeus biting his leg. On his fourth lap, a police vehicle arrived. Joaquin must have called the cops. The sirens scared the man and he instantly threw himself on the floor, covering his ears with both elbows.
As the officer approached him, he turned the guy over with one foot, examined his face and threw his hands in the air saying no, not you again! The man remained silent and still. Maybe he playing dead. As the policemen put him in the vehicle, he offered no resistance. In fact, I think I even saw a grim.
As the police ended our afternoon excitement, I realised I was late for therapy. I went racing up the third floor, almost tripping as I texted Dr.Paolo to wait a few more minutes. We had switched to Skype calls, since he decided to go live his mountain life dream. As we were halfway through my treatment, I thought it best to change the medium in lieu of the therapist.
Our sessions are almost always the same: I talk about my inability to meet new people; my frustration in being an isolated, miscomprehended individual; the disaster of a love life that consists of one unfaithful ex-boyfriend and a few Tinder dates. He shows disproportionate interest in my app dates. I figure it’s the generational gap.
Unfortunately, as per something called professional distance, I know nothing about him. As far as messed up people go, he could be one of them. The difference between us being that his mess has a diploma and institutional permission to diagnose and treat my mess. When I tell him of these speculations, he seems amused and talks to me about projection. Could this be your way of invalidating our treatment and closing yourself off to me? he asks. Even if he is a mess, he’s a pretty clever one.
By then, nothing mattered apart from the attack in the square. I told Dr.Paolo about the scene in details, making sure to describe every bizarre aspect of it. He laughed when I said the guy had a considerable amount of body hair. The audacity, I said, of attacking a creature called Zeus. We spent the session speculating. Dr.Paolo spoke about desire, what drives us humans to do the things we do. But also how we develop filters to block some of them in the name of society or ‘whatever you want to call it’, he said. He told me that this is basically what separates said sane people from the insane ones. I added that sanity is an overrated concept, that no one is truly sane these days. By the end, I warned him of an imminent flame that was growing inside of me. A feeling that took over me every once in a while, ‘to do something’, I said, ‘something impulsive’.
This worried him. He knew that when I started obsessing over anything, it took a toll on me. Once, to get over a failed tinder affair, I was consumed by Miley Cyrus’ love life. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that she broke up with Liam. I saw all the videos, memorised all the theories made up by neurotic fans, built a timeline of where things could have gone wrong. It didn’t make sense. I loved how happy she was after that wrecking ball minute. Dr. Paolo said I needed to let it go. I insisted, said I couldn’t, and that I even suspected she might be my soul mate. He laughed and reminded me of the rabbit hole conversation we had once had on metaphysics and the existence or not of such thing called a soul.
And yet, there I was again. Back to the helplessness of needing an answer. I couldn’t help it. These obsessions of mine elevated my days up to sixes and sometimes sevens. They gave me something to live for. A purpose. Which is maybe my generation’s excuse for all of the euphoric globetrotting we practice. As I never was much one for the road, I limited my neurosis to things I could unravel by staying put. So, I was bound to discover who this guy was and why he had done what he did.
As soon as I woke up this morning, I Googled the telephone contact for all of the nearest police stations. They mustn’t have taken him too far. I phone one by one, repeating the excuse that I am a reporter. I describe his face, explain his arrest, and even remember the name of the officer who had done it.
He was not far from my house.
They don’t give me substantial information, just his name and an invitation to go pay a visit.
I hang up and change out of my pyjamas into some cute jeans and a white blouse. My hair hasn’t been washed in a couple of days so I pull it back in a bun; splash foundation all over my tired face; and put on my Red Chanel lipstick. Let’s say this is a special occasion. I hop into the back of a chatty Uber to get to the station and he asks me whom I was visiting. My ex husband, I offer with a serious face and he quickly changes the subject.
The station is nothing like I expected. I think of how I’m either watching too many crime shows or it’s just a symptom of my neighbourhood. It’s small, muffled and filled with white guys waiting their turn to file complaints. This immediately makes me think of how I hate it when acquaintances say this city is dangerous. I object and say that it’s not exactly true. For these rich folks sitting here, dangerous means they just can’t walk around wavering their iPhones on other people’s faces, while ‘in Europe you can even open your laptop on a bus’. Well, that’s because we were colonised, is my answer in any similar trope of interaction.
I give up on the imaginary confrontation happening in my mind and walk up to the lady officer sitting behind a glassed window.
Excuse me, I called earlier today. I’m Emma and I came to see Zé.
She asks for my ID and tells me to wait a few minutes. As I sit down, possibly becoming one of the people I had just come to judge, I feel a heat of panic take over me. I had not thought this trough. What am I going to say to this guy? What is my agenda with this visit? As my legs start stretching to make it to the exit, the officer that arrested Zé comes out and calls my name.
I stay silent for a while, seriously considering to leave. He calls for me again. I decide I’m brave, stumble up, head towards him, face down, trying to remember that breathing exercise that’s supposed to lower my heartbeat. As he guides me down a long and badly illuminated hall, I mumble a question.
Is he crazy?
He doesn’t understand me as he asks if I said something. I manage to repeat my question in a normal tone and the officer stops. He turns around, frowns his eyebrows while running his eyes through my entire figure. I feel out of place, like I do when subject to most male gazes, and suddenly conscious of the red lipstick I was wearing. I try to guess what he must be thinking. A white rich girl all dressed up to visit a detainee. I rearrange my face into something that communicates security or anything that shows that I know what I am doing. Well you’re about to see that for yourself, he finally answers as he turns away from me and resumes his walk.
We arrive at a door that leads to a room that has nothing in it but a round table and two chairs. It smells like expired sweat. Zé is sitting in one of the chairs, with his head down in a way I can see bald patterns already forming. He is wearing a grey jumpsuit and is concentrating on the sound of his handcuffs hitting the table. The heat I felt earlier is now taking over my face, probably leaving stains of red all over my cheeks.
The officer calls Zé’s attention and says he has a visitor. He raises his eyes without moving his head and nods signalling he is aware. The officer closes the door behind me and leaves us alone. I check my sweaty palms, hide one of my hands into the back pocket of my jeans and take a swift look around. I decide it’s ridiculous to just stand here so I approach the table, carefully, making sure the clacking of my boots don’t startle any unwanted behaviour. I sit down, testing to find a position where I portrait chillness. My jeans are tight and strangling my stomach.
Zé gives up playing with his cuffs and stares at me. He has a piercing gaze, the kind tarot readers have when they’re trying to guess your fate. I get the feeling that he’s scavenging for something inside of me and look away, afraid he’s going to succeed. He breaks the silence by humming notes to a song I couldn’t identify. He squints his eyes, still peering into my eyes, and starts moving his index finger on the table as if he is painting a picture. After a while, I mimic his gesture and pretend to draw him as well. He offers a smile that builds into a blasting laugh. He seems happy. I feel relieved. I consider asking him about the square, but quickly reconsider it fearing it might ruin our moment. I let him take the lead.
He pulls his chair from across the table and sits beside me. He leans his torso over his legs, left hand gripping the side of my chair. With the back of his other hand, he touches my face. I feel intrigued, closing my eyes and processing the warmth conveyed by his touch. My focus splits. It wants to think of Dr.Paolo. It wants me to fear he’ll finally declare me mad. It wants to make my stomach turn. But now Zé is holding my arm, caressing it with his fingertips. He is kissing my palm and nestling his head in it like a cradled baby. I open my eyes. Run my free hand trough his hair. My face trembles. I think of the square. I think of him attacking Zeus. The connection between then and now is so frail it is insignificant.
I take his head in my hands and look him deep in the eyes. I hadn’t noticed but they had a greenish quality to them. It crosses my mind that we’re not that different. That perhaps we are both misjudged, disturbing to those that deny the matter-of-factness of our existence. I think of that beat up banality people always say, that you take what you give. I get the feeling we both know what it feels like not to be awarded a chance at giving.
I get up.
I pull Zé.
I tell him we’re leaving.
He understands me, getting up and helping me burst the door open as we make a run for it. I feel happy to be breaking him free, but somehow it feels like it’s the other way around. I tell Zé not to look back. I plead him to trust me.
We fly past the empty waiting room, the police seemingly unaware of our mischief. This is our chance, I say to him. And we jump straight into the street, mid-afternoon, out of breath and shivering with excitement.
With the station behind us, we recompose and plot our fates. We say our goodbyes, each one heading their own direction. But before he leaves, I ask him for a number between 1 and 10. As fast as it all happened, he folds his pinky and makes a nine with his fingers.
Good enough, I say to myself.