I wake up ready to devour.
When I am healthy, in normal life mode, I wake up anxious, the scrolling list in my head out of my control, not on fast forward, but speeding ahead and then zooming back on its own. I have found that being sick might make you healthier, if you are sick long enough.
I don’t mind being sick anymore. I’ve gotten used to this, it’s a comfortable routine, no expectations except to rest and read and eat. What more can happen to an unhealthy body besides death? I don’t know if any of my friends really exist anymore, even though we message each other from time to time. It’s just words. The city that moves beneath, that has become part of my windows, it’s just a film reel, playing over and over again, so you can watch it when you’re sleepless and feel a little better, find some kind of comfort. They even made the day change to night and back. If I stare long enough, I can find the person with the yellow shoes and the long, black hair crossing the street in the same direction, appearing without ever returning the other way. She is there in the sunlight only, her shoes and hair glowing, red orange autumn leaves scattered at her feet, cars stopping reverently for her. Every time, all the time. Inside this sick air, time is relative.
Today, I pretend to be healthy and order pizza for dinner. I’ve been eating all day and it’s not enough. Chicken soup is a damn nuisance to make or buy if isn’t the good chicken, and that’s the only thing people talk about, those terrible non-free-range chickens, until they see how expensive it is to get chicken whose well-treated head was chopped off a few hours before it landed in the butcher shop. Pretending is better, for anything.
I texted my order, and the delivery came much earlier than the message said it would, and when I next checked my phone, I had a missed call and another message, “Delivery is here.” A stupid fear overtook me, I imagined the car pulling away with my dinner, and I felt as if I was about to miss a flight. I’ve missed planes before, but missing dinner when you’re starving all day, when you’re sick as this world, is not an option.
I obediently rush downstairs to meet the strange lady when she calls. No one calls anymore, it feels nice to hear a voice in my ear. By rush, I mean I float myself down in the elevator to meet the pizza delivery lady. She stands with her car double parked in the one-lane road, asking me to come to her side to collect the wide, limp cardboard box. The door behind the driver’s seat is wide open, jutting out into early evening traffic; rush hour isn’t over just yet, but if I shut her door before paying she’ll probably withhold my pizza. I struggle to pick out the right change, the cars whirring by beside our weak little crushable bodies. It’s warmer than I expected, my phone is slipping out of my shallow pocket. When I manage to leave my apartment, it always seems to be warmer or colder than I expected. I should change my expectations.
I haven’t been outside in almost a week, sniffing the day from the window for a few seconds. I give her more change than I should have and she accepts, assuming my black foreign eyes means foreign money, more than she makes kind of money. Stupid, over-tipping foreigners. I balance the box atop my spread out little fingers, twist the key into the building door, taking a deep last breath of air to taste the ripening night sky but only inhaling humid pizza vapors.
In the shiny new elevator, which is lit up like a dressing room in a second-hand shop, my face is not the same one I see upstairs in my bathroom. It keeps changing, many times a day, all night long, from mirror to mirror. There is a constant, that it is framed by jaw-length dark hair that hasn’t yet been washed from night sweats and day sweats, from the oil and dust and dulled reaction of a sick for weeks kind of life. But this hair looks normal, mostly in place. It could just be a wig.
The elevator door opens onto my floor, the pizza box is atop my left palm, waitress style, forgetting that I was fired from my one waitress job. I push the key into the door of my apartment but cannot turn it all the way with my weaker, right hand. I feel shaky, nervous, rushed. Are those tears? Pathetic, let me blame it on the sickness, as usual. What if the neighbor is standing right behind his door, watching, laughing, wondering about my wig and grey skin? What if he opens the door to take the elevator and we have to greet each other? He wouldn’t though, he would avoid it, he would wait, if he saw me through his peephole. Just like I would. Just like everyone here does. So of course I know he is standing there at this very moment, tall, helmet for his baby blue vespa in hand (oh yes, we all know, we all see it parked delicately on the sidewalk just outside the building), black leather jacket on, growing impatient as he sweats in his heated, silent apartment, lights off, stomach growling, girlfriend texting.
The only choice I have now is to lean the thin box against the wall to the left of the door which allows me to use all my strength, whatever is left, to tilt the key in all the way and open the door. And then, with relief, the door starts to open just as the pizza box releases from the bottom, the wrong way, the way it wasn’t supposed to happen. It opens fast and wide like a jaw dropping in shock, and the pizza slips soundlessly onto the little piece of floor between the wall and the fibrous jute welcome mat that I didn’t remember existed.
I wail or moan, I cannot be quiet anymore. The door is ajar, I wail into the apartment where the lights were left on and look at the neighbor’s door, quickly checking the peephole, then glancing back at the innocent pizza. The old man who cleans the floors each week, he does a good job, the product smells effective, smells pink. My hunger is shaking my core, raging against any feeling of sickness.
I scoop the greasy-bottomed pizza back into the box, holding up this thin, weakly warm dough with the tips of my fingers that probably should’ve been washed after handling the money. Flecks of dark spinach stick to the shiny black tiles that line the bottom of the wall. The hallway light glints off the tiles, they must be clean. My low iron level, that’s why I thought to order the one with spinach; and now my particles of medicinal iron are splattered across the wall. I rush inside, unsure of what I am now holding in my hand, if the crust will taste like floor. Then I remember that I cannot taste anything since I’ve been sick.
With the box closed back up, the pizza hiding, a waiting menace, I rip off pieces of paper towel from a roll in the kitchen and rush back out, squatting atop the welcome mat that I guess belongs to my apartment. From this view, I see the clingy, harsh brown individual fibers and run a finger over it, although it is certainly full of outside world dirt. I thank god the pizza did not fall on the mat, but that’s only because I was standing on it. The spinach is still there, but now I notice tomato as well, dark rubbery red bits. Of course there should be tomato or it wouldn’t be a very good pizza. It’s still not as much as I like, the way they make it here, and now some of it has gone to the wall. I study the floor for dust, bug torsos, spider legs, fly wings. I squint but find nothing.
The tomato I had not seen before makes me panic, and I am desperately cleaning the wall, the little piece of floor. Dark spinach on black tiles is hard to catch, I wipe back and forth over the same area, knowing I’m not doing a great job. I should’ve wet the towel, squeezed some dish soap onto it. But I’m sick, I shouldn’t be doing any of this. I picture the old man with silver glasses over his intelligent eyes, wearing that faded blue jumpsuit and holding his mop, hearing him bump gently into my door. He’ll be here soon. If I can’t get all these bits, he’ll find them, it’s okay, I tell myself. Details aren’t important when you’re sick, I need to get back inside and feed myself. Before it gets cold and pointless. Before my stomach kills me once and for all. I finally shut the door and settle at the table, the box gaping open at me, red and green smudges along the interior. I grab for the largest pre-cut slice and shove it in my mouth, eyes closed. After at least two (or is it three?) more slices, I feel sleep coming back and head into my bedroom. I click off the bedside lamp and exhale loudly. I think I met the pizza lady in my socks.
On the wrong side of the door, my keys are left behind.
Originally from the midwest, Suchi Rudra is a nomadic fiction writer, journalist and singer/songwriter. Her novella Kitaab, published by Six Gallery Press, is based on a year spent in India. Her feature writing can be found in The New York Times, BBC Travel, October and other publications. She is currently seeking representation for a literary fiction novel.
© 2020, Suchi Rudra