Everyday Apotheosis (or Apotheosis Every Day)
by Hawa Allan
Like a conductor leading a sonata, she spreads the knife back and forth, presides over the union of organic peanut butter and multi-grain bread. This solemn spackling forms part of her daily practice of self-love, of doing unto herself as she wishes others would do unto her in order to open her heart to the universe or something like that. She reads O Magazine.
She peels the slack blackening rind of a banana, slices veined pulp and watches soft pieces plop onto plastered bread. She smears each side of the knife against the crust, mindfully, as if she were being watched through a peephole by the universe. She tries not to think that if she wakes up every morning to make peanut butter and banana toast drizzled with honey, then the universe will deliver a man who will wake up in the morning to make peanut butter and banana toast drizzled with honey for her. If you toast it, he will come, she tries not to think. And then she tries not to think about not thinking about what the universe is supposed to manifest because she doesn’t want to fuck it up. The universe, she suspects, is like a watched pot that never boils.
So she focuses on the here. The Now. On the fabric-softened kitchen towel swaddling her palm and the cold dimpled linoleum under her bare feet as she slides the bread-bearing aluminum pan into the pre-heated oven. Three hundred and sixty degrees.
As she waits for the bread to toast, she breathes into her abdomen. Then into her chest. Then into her abdomen and chest. She regards her breath, envisioning that—if she concentrates hard enough—her exhalations will puff out steam on a frosty morning. She used to find it funny when a feather-haired Jane Fonda side-stretched behind the roving white lines of her mother’s bootlegged workout video. When, in her pink-leotard-and-tights-and-leg-warmers-to-match, Fonda chirped, Don’t forget to breathe! Because, she used to think, like, how could you forget to breathe? Because, she’d thought, breathing was, like, so obvious—as natural as sleeping at night and waking up in the morning and eating when you’re hungry. Yet, Now, she has to remind or force or cajole herself to do any of these things.
She unearths the pan of toast from the oven and sets it on a decorative metal potholder in the middle of the kitchen table. She dips a teaspoon into all-natural clover honey, watches its spittle-slow descent onto the toast. She pauses to appreciate the toast, to thank the universe for the toast—which, during its time in the oven, had succumbed to the weight of peanut butter that seeped through to the pan’s bottom. She chews on her toast, with awareness, consoles herself that the organic peanut butter, though less tangy than Jif or Peter Pan, is unprocessed. That she’ll thank herself when she’s pushing sixty. Fully present and aware in her state of eating peanut butter and banana toast with honey drizzled on it, she feels muted. Not silenced, but less pronounced, as if she could stand in for the kitchen chair she is sitting on.
She stands at the back end of the subway platform, suppresses the urge to crane her neck over its edge and peer down the long black nostril of tunnel to check for a glint of light. She thinks about a story an acquaintance once told her, about a woman witnessed engaging her curiosity in exactly this manner when an oncoming train rumbled into the station and tore off her head. She remembers not believing the story, even despite the haunted dilation of its teller’s pupils. She congratulates herself for catching a negative thought that floated to the top of her brain like a bubble. The incandescent skin had encased her judgment of this acquaintance’s fondness for peek-a-boo tops, which, with the complicity of low-rise jeans, would always reveal a potbelly in winks.
A train roars into the opposite side of the station. She notices the syncopated rhythm of the wheels moving over track and congratulates herself for her heightened powers of observation. It’s like that time when, contrary to habit, she’d waited at the other end of the platform and the stroboscopic flashing of overhead flourescents matched the beat of the song that was playing on her personal listening device. But that was back when she still wore personal listening devices; before she relegated music to the home in order to appreciate its total experience and, thus, open herself more fully to the universe.
She settles her gaze on a defaced subway poster. Every other tooth of the airbrushed smile of a sweet-as-pie morning news host is blackened out, and the word, Cunt, dashed in thick black marker on the host’s forehead. She doesn’t like television, much less morning television, much less sweet-as-pie, flip-haired, morning television hosts who violently disarm their audiences with alacrity. But she acknowledges that such vicious graffiti is an act against sisterhood and peace and, as such, an act against the expression of love in the universe, with which she so urgently wants to be in Flow. She congratulates herself for catching the thought that faded into existence from the bottom of her mind like the inverse development of a photo transparency swathed in darkroom fluid. The thought that she agreed this morning talk show host was, in fact, a cunt.
She spies her fellow commuters, lined up and down the platform like figurines. She reminds herself that she must be fully present, everywhere, even in that humid, gum-stained concrete tomb. She tries to look upon her fellow travelers with a long appreciative eye—even the public-radio-insigna-bearing-totebag-wearing girl, who, at least twice in the history of her morning commute, had shoved past her in the quest for an empty seat. Even the guy with a totem of baseball team spread across his broad back, who will surely enter the train car and position himself right in the doorway like an obstructive chess piece. She tries to tap into her mind’s eye, to envision a haze of white glowing around them. All of them. The tunnel grumbles, the tracks glimmer with light.
She arrives at the office. Calm, focused, centered, alert. Prepared to greet the workday ahead. She sets her purse under the desk, drapes her pea coat on the back of her swivel chair. The light-blue carpeted tarp of her cubicle is darker in three 8 ½-by-11-inch rectangles left from when she’d unpinned two inspirational quotes and one positive affirmation that she’d outgrown. She did leave up her daily calendar, which she uses to chart her personal growth.
She’s there about twenty minutes early to seal in the peace she instilled that morning, create a safe internal space in which to be cocooned from Jackie’s toxicity. She is ready to bring her True Self to her job. And, she reminds herself, it is a job, not a calling, hardly her passion. She acknowledges the disconnect between her vocation and her avocation. But she accepts this fact as a natural fact, as natural as the sun and the moon and the stars and the benign cyst in her left femur. She accepts her job. For Now. She will soon discover her passion or purpose or calling or something through journaling and daily recitations of affirmations. Until then, it will not be what she does that matters, but rather how she does it.
So, she turns on the computer, takes in its familiar tonal awakening as the screen lights up in blue and transitions to a desktop that is a resplendent field of sunflowers, (which had been the most alluring of the operating system’s choices). She takes a few deep breaths, picks up the stack of purchase orders from the wire mesh inbox and places them before her. She lifts up a form off the top of the stack and lightly draws the top of her thumb against its tri-colored sheets. White, yellow and pink—the company original, employee receipt and accounting copy. But instead of just quickly reviewing the purchase amount and signing and stamping the acceptance block as usual, she tries to appreciate each line. She lets her eyes snake up, down, around the cursive of someone whose penmanship is messy but alarmingly consistent, like a computer font that mimics human handwriting. Eventually, she signs and stamps the form, tears the three sheets off at the perforation, separates them into three piles.
– Good morning! It is Jackie, who rings her good mornings like a suburban doorbell—‘good’ pitched at a high C, ‘morning’ at a lower G.
Jackie, she quickly reminds herself, is her teacher, a mirror she must hold up to herself in order to recognize and accept her own flaws. She resolves to rise to the spiritual lesson. Jackie will not win, she tells herself. But then she pops that bubble and substitutes the thought with an intention to not allow Jackie to penetrate her force field of self-love and acceptance.
– Good morning, Jackie. She musters love in her heart, tries to project it from her eyes.
Jackie lifts her head and peers above the cubicle, looking like a child almost tall enough to see over a sales counter. – Well you’re, here early, aren’t you?
She imagines the vibrations of Jackie’s voice bouncing off the shroud of protective light that swathes her like gauze. She catches, one after the other, behind the tight spread of her lips, the non-loving/non-kindness responses that wanted to tumble out of her mouth. She congratulates herself in any case for letting those bitter would-be words disintegrate in the saliva behind the upturned corners of her mouth.
Jackie disappears behind the cubicle and she swivels back to the purchase orders, which had lost their imported sheen, the tri-colored sheets less vivid, the pigment having bled out in she moments she’d looked away. Soon enough, Jackie is at it. The thud of the supply catalogue on the desk. The slide then crash of the desk drawer—open (voom), shut (Boom!). The ruffle and quadruple thud of purchase orders collected and tapped on edges, whapped on her desk. Jackie is hard at work.
She takes a deep breath and picks up another purchase order. She stamps DENIED in the do-not-write-in-this-box-for-administrative-use-only section.
It is after work. She steps out of the dank howl of the subway stairs, eventually approaches a beauty supply store not too far from her apartment. The sidewalk is busy, full of people who have that look, narrowed in on some destination only they can see. She walks into the store. Shampoos, conditioners, detanglers, relaxers, repairers, volumizers, defrizzers for aisles and aisles. She turns left, sees a high shelf stacked with wigged mannequin heads. She looks right, sees bags and bags stuffed with hair extensions hanging from hooks. She is overwhelmed. She is looking for bobby pins.
Three teenagers walk in. Girls. All of them. But teenagers never just walk into a place. They break in. They crash through the Stillness with marauding jubilance. In any case, she thinks, they are just kids. But the cashier isn’t having it.
– I told you don’t come here. Get out of here. The cashier swipes a backhand into the air as if at a frenzied housefly.
– Ching chong, bitch, one of the teenagers chimes. Another seizes the corners of her eyes and pulls them back. The last of the trio hangs back, laughing. Laughing like she hasn’t seen anything so funny since right before they’d stumbled inside the store.
– You mother bitch. The cashier snapped back.
– Ching chong, bitch.
– You mother bitch.
– Ching chong, bitch.
She is witnessing, right there, a lesson. She is grateful for this lesson, for the opportunity to feel the breeze of the spinning hamster wheel against her face. The cycle of violence, the battle of ego that keeps humans, too many of them, replaying the same traumas over and over and over. She gives thanks in her head to her spirit guide for leading her to this illustration of ignorance begetting suffering and suffering begetting ignorance. She is overwhelmed. She breathes in and out until a fissure seems to have cracked open in her chest, out from which an ounce of compassion oozes.
– We must stop this. She hears herself speaking. – Aren’t we all better than this?
The one who had been laughing so hard slowly comes down from her fitful high, her laughter subsiding into titters. The one who had been stretching her eyes out is flicking her irises up and down, sizing her up. The one who had been saying Ching Chong Bitch is looking at her dead in the face, says: – I don’t need lessons from no high so ditty black panther.
With that, the teenagers walk and weave around her, each of them sliding her the eye. But it isn’t over. As they sashay out of the door with the proud heavy steps of market women, the loudest of the pack calls out – With your slave hair!
She stands there for a moment, numb, struck. She looks at the cashier for something. Not bobby pins. The cashier is busy grumbling, anxiously minding some lighters, nail clippers and other small temptation items by the counter.
She glides past the cashier and steps toward the exit. The weight of the door’s glass pane presses against her hip as she cranes her head out over the gum-crusted sidewalk.
She is walking home. She is trying not to admonish herself for forgetting to tell the checkout boy at Duane Reade she ended up going to that she didn’t need a bag. She’d allowed herself to get all flustered and rushed when he’d called up the next customer while she was still standing at the counter trying to put away her change into the respective compartments of her wallet. She’d allowed herself to get all out of alignment.
The plastic bag she doesn’t need dwarfs the sole packet of bobby pins and swings back and forth and rustles against her thigh as she walks down the sidewalk. She passes a nail salon, where a half-lidded woman with feet tucked into one of those UV dryers gazes at a magazine in her lap. She thinks of her own toes, the Rorschach blots on each nail.
She looks up toward the low, groaning yawn of an airplane that is passing overhead. Her eyes slide back down and, straight ahead, who does she see but John. He is walking towards her, right in her path, and perhaps might have been for some time but it is like he shot up suddenly from the cracks in the concrete like a weed.
She feels that he must have noticed her right about when she noticed him, because she caught a trace of alarm in his eyes. The same alarm that she could feel crystallize and form a lattice all throughout her body, which was rigid, for a millisecond, before an abrupt flood of civility drowned out her flight response.
– Hi. Hello. So, how’s it going? Pretty well. And you? Oh, you know, the same old.
And so she banters. Feet shuffle and weight shifts. Hands dip in pockets. Arms cross over chests. Glances shoot sideways. Elsewhere. Anywhere. She feels the smooth film of the plastic handle against her fingers, the subtle pull of the packet of bobby pins inside. She catches herself sliding her foot, the one wearing a scuffed shoe, behind her other foot and then cradling it against the back of her ankle. They are still exchanging pleasantries. She breathes in, fully, whenever it is his turn. He smiles as he gesticulates. She squints every so often as glints of light from his wedding ring slice into her cornea. She sometimes laughs in response. Her laugh is shallow, she notes. Not enough air.
As they talk, she looks at him in pieces. His nostril. His cheek. One eye. The other eye. His left ear. The receding hairline lapping over his right temple. She doesn’t look at his lips. She reminds herself (as they are almost done jabbering) that he was, is, a gift. A teacher. A lesson. The catalyst for her self-improvement. She has just asked about the kid and is listening to his reply. She is trying to stay in the moment and appreciate every word. But she hears every third or fourth word.
– Application . . . process . . . nanny . . . crazy.
She wants to listen. She is trying hard. This moment, she knows, is an opportunity. But she is too busy, as she nods and fingers her shirt, mentally preparing herself for what she knows must come next. She is breathing her way through the tautness that is trying to take over her body. Trying to protect her.
– And how is your wife?
She trains her eyes on his, attempting projectile warmth. Then she sees his face as a whole, for once. She discerns the brief recoil of his upbeat expression, which relaxes into something more placid but somehow more alive.
– She’s fine. He says, seeming somehow drained, though, at the same time, seemingly relieved.
She feels that crack again. The fissure. And the ooze.
Ok. She says after a two-part staccato breath met by his two-part staccato nod. They say their goodbyes and waltz around each other into opposite directions.
She is back at home, fresh out of a dead sea salt bath, sitting at one of her kitchen chairs. But she focuses on the flatness of her bare feet on the linoleum. She feels the flat edge of the chair set against the crooks of her knees. She notices the curve of her lower spine away from the hard back of the kitchen chair. She breathes in through her nose. When she breathes out through her mouth, she sticks out her tongue and makes that noise that cats make when they are warning you away. She’d read somewhere that it would be relaxing. That the tension would be released from her body and be launched out her mouth like the fire-breath of a dragon. She is still waiting for that moment. She’s trying not to think about waiting for this moment.
She feels her ass spread out on the chair. She imagines her wounds, the ones that no one can see, melting like butter in a warm pan.
The kettle starts in with its low-pitched whistle. She stands up, mindfully. She approaches the box of tea on the kitchen counter. It’s the kind she likes—each tab has a little message, like you are beautiful, blissful and bountiful or infinity is you. The first time she had bought that tea and noticed the little message hanging off the end of the white string like a kite without wind, she tore open the packages one by one, read each adage. The last one she’d read said patience is virtue.
Pouring the hot water from the kettle into her company-logo-bearing mug, she wonders about the moment between the water sitting still and the first bubble of heat rising up from the kettle’s bottom to escape at the top. And then she wonders about the moment between the water rumbling like light taps on a bass drum and the low whistling crescendo.
Hawa Allan writes cultural criticism, fiction, and poetry. She is essays editor at the Offing and her work has appeared in The Baffler, Lapham’s Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Transition, among other places.