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Clare lived in a charming one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of an old brownstone. Fresh-cut flowers stood in a vase on the coffee table; a monthly splurge, though, as these days they were in shorter supply. Framed photographs of friends, family and her life before hugged the walls. And books, oh there were lots of books – Nietzsche, Sartre, Freud, Kundera – some in cases, most stacked here and there atop the wood floor.
Wretched TV ads for pharmaceuticals and guns and insurance and politics were the norm now. She tried to drown them out, mute them like her grandmother used to do, but sometimes making the effort seemed nearly pointless. If they weren’t blasting from the TV screen, they were popping up on her laptop, screaming from billboards or buzzing on her phone.
The kettle screeched, masking the outside world for a millisecond. After pouring a cup, steam whispering up and out with each breath, Clare walked back into the room and sat down at her desk. One of these days she’d buy a bigger one. One of these days. The desk was placed next to a window. Although there wasn’t much to look at, it reminded her that she wasn’t always alone. She loved her solitude, but working from home could be isolating. She could at least fool herself with the illusion that a real life still existed out there, somewhere. Ah life, something she questioned a lot lately.
Before checking her emails, Clare paused to listen to a breaking story. Refugees were now bombing the wall as an attempt to get in. To get in, really? The newscaster rambled frantically about the invaders, the terrorists, the refugees, the bombs, as pieces of hair flitted up and down mirroring his paranoia. With hand on his side pistol, he grew more and more breathless, working himself up into a frenzy when all of a sudden, BAM!, he’d shot himself in the leg. Clare opened her laptop, and as she did knocked over her tea.
“Ah, dammit,” she whined.
She moved the computer onto the chair and grabbed a handful of Kleenex to sop up the tea. Sirens whizzed by, but she didn’t seem to notice. While cleaning up the mess, her cellphone rang.
“Hello? Hey. Oh, nothing. I just spilled my fucking tea. When, now? Yeah, ok. I’ll be there in about 10 minutes? Cool. See you in a bit.”
Clare pushed the tissues from the desk into the garbage can, drying her hands on her jeans. Into her bag, she slid her laptop and a book. After grabbing the keys, she fluffed up her rust-colored bob in the mirror by the door, without much reassurance.
Clare loved her building. That was the one thing she was sure of. Although the 70s-style carpet in the hallway reeked of cat piss, the building was still standing, a piece of history. These were becoming rarer in the city now that big corporations were taking over the older properties, turning them into mixed-use condos. Somehow replacing historic brick buildings with windowless micro-units and useless downstairs businesses were thought to add value to a city; it certainly put money in their pockets, whoever they were. Just another way to control the masses, Clare thought. But, yes, this one was a gem, despite the odors, right in the city. And she’d hold on to it for as long as she was standing, or it was.
Clare ran down the spiral staircase, past an elderly woman calling for her cat.
“Good morning, Mrs. Readle?” Clare questioned.
Nothing. The woman stared at her, puzzled, and ran back inside. Clare rolled her eyes. She tried. Outside, soldiers on nearly every corner stalked the streets, carrying machine guns. But everyone owned a gun these days, even the kids. This was the new normal. Because terrorists, you know. Flat-panel TVs in a shop window broadcast the presidential debate. And as the discourse ran on, the politicians, dressed as clowns, danced around like monkeys about this or that or nothing at all. Fear! Guns! Refugees!
At the end of the block stood the uber-hip neighborhood coffee shop. Clare walked up to the counter, but the cashier was oblivious. She stood there for about 30 seconds before the girl finished texting. Finally, she looked up.
Clare stared at her in wonder. Is this really happening? Is this the world we live in? But the cashier only returned her gaze as if to ask “well, what is it?”
“Would you like the Wild West or the Red Devil espresso?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Wild West is robust with more of a tobacco aftertaste. Red Devil is tart with berries.”
“For here or to go?”
“Here. And one of the asparagus and goat cheese scones.”
“Ok, that’ll be $15.62.”
The cashier looked at her again as if she was wasting her time. “Do you want it or not?”
Clare handed over her credit card, but didn’t leave a tip. Who in the hell leaves an inattentive cashier/barista with a bad attitude a tip on a $16 cup of coffee and scone?
Clare found a small table in a nondescript corner of the café. Outside she could see the wall. Menacing, it rose up and up, for miles it seemed. And they kept building. Every day they built, somewhere, here, there. It might take a lifetime, but at least it kept the construction workers in business, and the undesirables out.
Inside the café, a handful of single diners sat plugged into cell phones or laptops. A couple of young women walked in sporting furry vests, UGGs and fluorescent yoga pants, oblivious of the men drooling behind them. Near her, she could hear a couple talking.
“Who is David Letterman?” “Never heard of him. But Justin Bieber has a new album out.” “Oh, sweet.”
Another woman chimed in on her cell phone, “I have no idea. I don’t even question anything anymore. Whatever. Hahahaha.”
Yeah, so funny. Why question anything? Clare, annoyed, wasn’t sure she could take it anymore, the stupidity, the apathy, the inane small talk. Just then her friend Michelle walked in, and she signaled she was there. Michelle ordered a regular coffee and joined her.
“Heeeyyyy. How’s it going?” they hugged. “See, coffee and me are way better than that silly old tea, right?”
“Did you see another one bit the dust this morning?”
“What? Oh, the news? Yeah. They get so excited.” Michelle took off her coat and sat down. Touching Clare’s arm, “hey, you ok?”
“I don’t know; I’m just really tired. Tired of everything. Don’t you get tired of the bullshit? The absurd politics, the lack of common sense, the shit service industry with their terrible attitudes and overpriced crap? The guns, the news. THE FUCKING WALL?! Don’t you ever get tired of this?” She sighed. “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.” “Do you think there’s something else out there? Outside the wall? Is it possible to leave? Is it even possible to exit a world that is unexitable?”
Michelle looked at her with pity. “Oh Clare, sweetie. That’s just the way life is. You just have to accept it'” patting her on the hand. “This is how we’re born; this is how we’ll die. I think someone’s been spending too much time in her apartment lately. I’m kinda sensing some anti-social behavior. What you need is to go out and get loaded. That’ll make you feel better. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get a gal back on track. Besides, Greg just got a raise. Let me tell you, if you want a change and ever get tired of the freelance life, the insurance industry is going through the roof. You know what’s big now is Armageddon Insurance. People are eating that stuff up. They just want to be prepared, you know.”
“They do know that if the end of the world comes, insurance won’t matter, right?”
“Shhhhh, they don’t need to know that. Besides, the raise means we can finally get a bigger TV AND have some fun. The new gastro-pub? Brewer’s Yeast, tonight, 7pm. You in? It’s on Greg. I hear they have to-die-for tapas. Mac’nCheese pork belly fluffs. Deconstructed, deviled quail eggs. Let’s see, Oh, and Yuzu lemon shots.”
“Ehhhh …. Clare was not keen on the latest anything, especially not another mediocre, overpriced, too-cool-for-school restaurant.
“Come oooon,” Michelle whined in a little girl voice, “it’ll be fun. And I hear the chef is super hot. Please, please, pretty please, for me. And for you.”
“Bllaaahh, ok, but only for you. You do know this requires me to leave my apartment twice in one day, right?”
That night, after dinner, Clare walked into her apartment, burping up her meal. It was just as she thought. Nothing spectacular, too much hype. But at least she hadn’t had to pay for it. “Way to go, greedy insurance business. Way to go Mr. narcissistic tattooed chef.” Clare climbed into bed. And as soon as her head hit the pillow, the thoughts poured in.
These restaurants just get shittier and shittier. Zero quality. How do these places even stay in business? Nobody cares about decent food anymore. Just shovel it in their faces, money money everywhere. The guns, what the fuck is up with the guns? Armageddon insurance, have human beings lost their minds? …
Soon the thoughts turned into images: dancing clown politicians, shitty cashiers on their cellphones, women in yoga pants, crappy music playing overhead, selfies, gnarly traffic, so-called terrorists climbing the walls. Her eyes grew heavy, heavy, heavy …
Running through the dark streets, Clare made her way to the wall that night. She looked up. Tall, really tall. “There has to be a way.” She felt around on the stones, looking for a button or a loose brick or something. Just then, a voice beside her prodded, “So what are you going to do?” She jumped.
“If you were really tall, you could go over it. You could go around it, if it didn’t wrap around the country. You could go under it, but who knows how deep it goes. Or you could go through it if you were Superman. Clare, are you Superman? Do you have what it takes to get through this wall? You know you’re not the first to try to break through to the other side. Molière once wrote, ‘The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.’ Bette Davis once said, ‘The key to life is accepting challenges. Once someone stops doing this, he’s dead.’ You don’t want to die do you, Clare?”
“No, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to live in this world anymore full of greed and fear and anger and mediocrity. But I do want to live, not just in existence but to really exist, to really live.”
“Then live, breathe, think, question, write, debate and then love, dance, sing, soak up the sunshine, and you’ll find the key to getting through this giant wall. As far as we know, we only get one chance. It’s time to wake up, Clare. Really wake up. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”
Just then Clare awoke in her bed in a sweat. The radio alarm had gone off, playing the Doors’ Break on Through. Clare lay there for several seconds, almost unable to move, thinking. She looked over at the clock, 8am, turned off the radio and sat up on the side of her bed. She reached up, stood up, and stretched down, searching for flexibility.
“Ok, it’s a new day. This is it, the day the wall comes down. Let’s do this Universe. Let’s do this, Bobcat Goldthwait.”
Clare jumped in the shower. After drying her hair, she put on her jeans, white t-shirt, ankle boots and costume necklace and spritzed some Chanel. She picked up the remote and nearly clicked on the TV, but decided against it. This was a day for soaking up the sun. Hopping down the stairs, Clare once again passed her elderly neighbor.
“Good morning, Mrs. Readle.”
“Good morning, sweet girl. Have you met my kitty cat, Descartes?”
“Oh, what a precious little thing. So nice to meet you. Have a beautiful day, Mrs. Readle.”
“Every day is a beautiful day, my dear, so long as we choose it to be.”
Outside the sky was blue, and in the streets people were riding their bikes, walking, skateboarding and having conversations. No guns were anywhere to be seen. The TVs in the shop window broadcast the debates, but the candidates looked normal and spoke of implementing better public transportation, healthcare and world peace.
Clare headed down the street and back into the coffee shop, the cashier/barista greeted her cheerfully, “Dolce Vita Americano for here? This morning, on the house.” she smiled.
Clare smiled back, sat by the window, and pulled out a pen and a notebook. Two girls walked in, not in yoga pants. At a table to the side, four older men were playing dominoes and drinking coffee. “Do you think God drinks coffee?” “Is there a God?” “Do we exist?” “What is existence?” The men glanced over and checked out the girls, yoga pants or not. Clare shook her head and smiled. Looking out of the window, she breathed a deep sigh of relief. Past the quaint brick buildings, streetcar and parks, she could see the wall and watched it as it disappear, brick by brick by brick.