Squinting Up at the Light

Beth turned on the car radio and turned her attention to the headache she had been ignoring all day. It was sitting behind her eyes, pressing on them maliciously and at the same time hammering at her temples. It was the kind of headache that must afflict the people on TV commercials for pain medicine, who are always grabbing at their heads and wincing to show the nature and severity of their pain. She knew there were many different kinds of headaches, and she was familiar with a great number of them. She also knew this one had her boss?s name, Ed, all over it.

First he had asked her for the report three days after she?d turned it in. Monday morning, she had walked into his office and handed it to him with a smile, then she had gone back to her desk to wait, with shaking hands, for his feedback. She had waited for three days, trying to look cool and detached, mechanically working on other projects. And when finally he had appeared in her doorway, he had asked her where the report was. While she had been waiting for his feedback, he had actually forgotten she had even given it to him.

She had helped him find the missing report in his office, then had settled in for another anxious wait, which hadn?t lasted long.

That afternoon, he had sent the report back to her in an inter-office envelope, marked up with comments and deletions. Cut this, it said. We don?t need this. Entire sections were crossed out?sections he had asked for. All her ideas. All her commentary and the quotations from coworkers she had interviewed. I just need the facts, he had written. And he had drawn big blue X?s right through hours of her life.

In requesting the report, Ed had been specific. She had met with him and taken copious notes. She wanted to make sure she got it right. He had asked for her ideas, and she had them ready. She had stayed up late and sacrificed sleep and time with her family. She had worked on it while she watched her daughter?s basketball game and after putting her kids to bed. She had reviewed her notes repeatedly, making sure she included everything he asked for. Now all she had to show for her work was evidence of her neglect: a pile of unopened mail on the corner of the kitchen counter and a wilted mound of clean laundry she had washed but no one had time to fold.

Her anger and humiliation had driven her to complete the revisions that afternoon. She couldn?t believe something she had poured herself into had been so easily dismissed. In return, she decided, she would dismiss it as well. So she had mechanically made the cuts, added a clarifying word here or there as requested, and returned the report in an inter-office envelope. Then she had responded to some emails, watched the clock, and daydreamed about winning the lottery until it was time to go home.

?The more you buy, the more you save!? The radio interrupted her thoughts and she shut it off. The last thing she needed was another opportunity to spend money. Her husband, Mike, worked as many hours as he could, and they were both grateful to have jobs. But neither of them had received a raise for three years and they couldn?t keep up with the cost of living. Each month, they were drawing their own big blue X?s through the family budget.

There?s that noise again, she thought. The mysterious whining sound happened intermittently and only when she was the one driving the car. She had taken it to the mechanic twice, and both times he had insisted he didn?t hear anything. He had spoken to her condescendingly, of course, in the voice nearly all mechanics use with their female customers. He had asked her if her husband had heard the sound (he hadn?t) and told her all cars made noises from time to time.

Now she envisioned herself sitting on the side of the road, her car disabled. She would have the situation well in hand, of course, when the mechanic in question would notice the car, pull up behind her, and climb out of his truck to apologize profusely. She imagined him crying and falling to his knees on the side of the road as the tow truck pulled away to convey her car to a different mechanic?a female mechanic. Somehow the thought cheered her a little, and she mustered a half-smile.

She came to a stoplight and pulled up next to an open convertible. The driver was listening to a news broadcast, and the announcer was talking about tension in the Middle East. This is one of time?s threads, she thought. She remembered bouncing around in the backseat of her parents? car, back when no one wore seatbelts, listening to the news about tension in the Middle East. She understood it differently now, but the story sounded the same. I have been listening to the same news broadcast for thirty years.

She thought of the people who had devoted their lives to pursuing peace in that part of the world, and elsewhere, in places where ancient conflicts reigned and refused to heal. How must they feel, she wondered, to see their progress thwarted generation after generation? Do they ever feel like giving up?

She pulled into her driveway, parked, rolled up the windows, and shut off the engine. The immediate hush surprised her. It was an incomplete silence, but a deeper one than she had heard for a long time?the kind that felt like a sound she couldn?t hear, pressing on her ears and vibrating with her own breath. Without wondering why, she sat there for a few moments, just feeling herself surrounded by silence and metal, a barrier between her and the world that threatened to overwhelm her.

She stared out the front window at the bushes and small plants that lined the front of the house. One small leaf was waving wildly, like a flag (perhaps of surrender) hoisted by an enthusiastic but stumbling bearer. A small, furry someone must be scurrying around under there, she thought.

She imagined the hosts of creatures living under those leaves, within the plants? shade and underneath the soil itself. They hurried about the same business they and their ancestors had always conducted, the most important work they could find to do. They lived so close to her, on her property and in her very own shrubbery, yet they were oblivious to the concerns of her world. They had their own society to run, their own pleasures and crises. It didn?t matter to them who owned the bushes. Somehow the thought comforted her.

A truck roared by. A gust of wind lifted the leaves, and she imagined the creatures below them briefly pausing in their work, feeling the sun on their backs and squinting up at the light in gratitude before returning to their labors.

She looked at her watch. Her son would be leaping from the steps of the school bus in fifteen minutes, eager to tell her about his day. She took a deep breath and opened the car door. A neighbor called out to her as she shut the door, and she waved and smiled. Back to work, she thought. She turned and entered the house.

© 2012 Amy Simpson.