Her descent into otherness was slow, any quicker and she might have resisted what started as a mood swing, then lingered as self-doubt, crouching in the corner of herself, a squatter in a mirror that had until then shown a contented woman, vaguely successful, if not fulfilled to fizziness. Her skills were general and generally generic, serving her in the least masterful manner. Considering them over time, she secretly yearned for antithesis.
The open fridge door spotlit this duality, highlighted her bare feet and unshaven legs and weren't they symbols of definitive unhappiness? "I'm not unhappy. I'm just busy," rang the consistent excuse noiselessly through her teeth and, unaware, she lifted the milk carton to her lips to feel it drink her. At once, she vomited, parts of her emptying into the milk, and the carton and fridge door were closed.
She touched her wrist to check for beating--still there, tick-tocking her metronomed life. "I need more sleep," she thought, but decided against warm milk. "I'll just read," she said, distractedly helping herself to a book of self-help and the pages flipped through her, looking for a table of contents or a worthwhile place to start. Her childhood was too obvious, too usual, with not nearly enough hardship. College was better, but drunk due to blurring. "I always do that," she thought. "Mix up one word for the other. Maybe I'm dyslexic." She'd been printed without an index, but dyslexia wouldn't have been there, all her shortcomings omitted, all the shameful facts left out, like the time she kissed her cousin, then pushed him down the stairs. But these were chapters missing. Other passages alluded to them, making known that something happened at some point with someone-- The exact description, however, had been torn away.
All of a sudden, she was shut and in a bag and blinded blue, until her former book slid her across a counter. "Abridged," it said. "Or maybe a printing error. I can't tell. Do you have a different edition? Maybe a different font?" The clerk said he would check and shelved her without even cracking her spine. She knew the smell of the space, recognized her own smell: the library, where books went to meet each other. She slid her eyes right, then left, to take in her neighbors' names. Trebuchet, Palatino, Bodoni, Courier. Her new status as one of the collected heightened her awareness--the fonts were the authors, the protagonists were the titles, and all were each other. She knew that the story on her pages was like all the others, but told in her idiom, with her specific dialect. Also, she knew that her story was hers but not her, because these fonts were fueling fiction or, if nothing else, revisionist history. They trafficked in letters, in alphabets' reinvention, with each interpretation as correct as the last. The stories were happy just being retold, but fonts weren't like shirts or neckties where the words could slip in and out of them. They were more like choices, lifestyles, defining moments and features in the age and youth and lives of each sentence because they wouldn't have, couldn't have been written the same way by a different typeface.
She contained a new, fizzy, unshorn rendering of the same story, told a hundred times in a hundred other serifs and sans, in hybrids and hieroglyph, only hers was fresher and more original. She brimmed with newness, waiting to be discovered, but her first borrower barely skimmed her, then used her as a coaster and returned her overdue. The second read her twice, forward, then backward, and wrote in her margins, folding back her covers so her face met her ass and she remembered distantly a thing called yoga and even more distantly, a thing called sex. As he read her, she wondered, "Is he looking at me or just the text, and what's the difference anyway?" There, their separation ceased, then reversed, her pages taken from her, lifted out of reach until they were no longer hers--until she was theirs. The reader shut the book around her, enforcing makeshift night. She tried to close her eyes, but found them lidless and immense. In the dark of covers closed, she read her own body, committed her limbs to memory, counted the spaces between body text and headings.
The night went on forever, long enough to brown the pages, longer still to fade her text, and the next hand to lift her didn't open her for air before tucking her into hiding, to sweat within his sleeve. Out of the library, he undressed the volume's outsides and rearranged its innards, wrote his name across its fore edge, changed said to sad on every page, scribbled out her eyes and teeth, branded her bloodied preface, then taped her back together and sold her for a song. A pencilled price announced her story's value, low, lower than usual because she was worn. "I've been tattooed," she thought. "Names, notes. Scars, memory, and cost." At this stage, she became her dollar sign, became her number, once again, became herself.
She sat ignored on a stack of new arrivals until she'd forgotten her arrival and forgotten being new. Dust accrued across the book's cover, eventually encouraging a college student to use his finger to write in the dust, read me. She followed this advice, assessed her dingy mortality and read herself as the preface to a graying, antiquated text. Occasionally, she remembered being a young woman, knowing a little, working a lot. Often, she thought about being a young book, knowing it all, all at once, that empowering, enlivening rush of knowledge. But there she was: handwriting. Not the affectionate love notes that newlyweds once penned or even anything as compelling as a death threat, she seemed destined to live a mundane truth. She couldn't even read her own story anymore.
Two readers talked their way from one side of the store to the other and she eavesdropped as they lifted and misplaced books, caring little for the voluminous lives they upset. "I've only got three thousand books left in my lifetime," one reader said. "I don't want to waste any of them." Was she one of those wasteful books? No, but perhaps she had been when she had been a title. "One man's book is another man's waste," she thought. "But books aren't a waste," she echoed in tandem with the other reader's response. "No one's forcing you to read anything," the second reader said. "We all make our own choices." She knew that, believed in it. As that belief took shape, she took up the shape of its message, of its form and its essence: an idea newly born.
Quickly, quicker than thought, she was whisked from the bookstore and on a different set of lips. "We all make our own choices." Similar iterations flowed from her, through her, "Be responsible for your actions." "There will always be consequences for what we do." She was everywhere these thoughts existed, aloud and in print, recorded and erased. The erasures hurt, took bits of her away, bits of letters, punctuation, pronunciation, and belief.
Still she moved, less an idea, more its contagion. She was no longer the message, but traveled as its momentum. Gaining and losing speed, igniting minds only to be dismissed or forgotten later, yet the age of knowledge only grows older and she was beyond the precious throes of age and death. She didn't stay with any single thinker or mouthpiece, but brushed the articulated blur of billions, even babies, whose language--mentalese--would one day supercede writing, transcending speech to find her there, still, riding brainwaves into space.
Under the Table:
by James Claffey
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