Less Clearly Defined

She found herself tapping her fingers to the click-click-click of the blinker. She looked up, startled. The green light swung gently on its wire. The sky was a charcoal smudge, not ominous as much as declarative. As if affirming her assessment, a large rain drop met the windshield with a splash. A horn sounded behind her. She glanced in her rearview mirror. A line of cars wound down the road. A red and white pickup truck behind her inched closer, nudging her forward.

She made the left turn. But only because that was the direction her blinker guided her. Not until she saw her house, purple with green trim, in the distance did she begin to make sense of where she was. She pulled into her driveway. She got out and opened the hatchback. She pulled two grocery bags from the back, wrestling to maintain control of the bags and close the hatchback. Victorious, she headed to the front door.

“Charlie!”she grinned, as the small, white wire-haired dog bounded into her legs as soon as the door cracked open. She put the bags on the floor and knelt down to pet Charlie. Only when she scooped up the dog and held him while he licked her face did she remember.

I am Eustice Walker.

She fed Charlie and put away the groceries. She went to put the milk on the shelf and almost knocked over a glass of orange juice. Where had that come from? Eustice shook her head, hoping to cipher the glass of orange juice occupying her refrigerator. Since she was a kid, Eustice had avoided orange juice. The pulp rendered it viscous and repulsive. But now, there it blithely sat, mocking her with its presence.

Eustice had no idea how the orange juice had manifested itself in her refrigerator.

She sighed and moved to put the granola bars on the shelf in the pantry. Except there was no room. Another box of granola bars already occupied the space. She looked down at the box in her hand. Chocolate sea salt. Eustice detested chocolate sea salt. She was certain that snacks should be either salty or sweet, not a strange amalgamation of both. Yet here she stood, holding a box of chocolate sea salt granola bars.

She shivered. She put the box on the counter. She grabbed a piece of paper from the magnetic pad hanging on the refrigerator. Images of Magritte’s art appeared on each sheet, a gift from her a friend who understood Eustice’s love of the absurd. Quickly she frowned. She supposed that she loved the absurd in abstract. Because when the absurd was purchasing chocolate sea salt granola bars, she wasn’t sure she loved it at all. In fact, she was quite sure she did not.

On the piece of paper, over Magritte’s The Great War, Eustice carefully penned the following:

Kindly find a different spot for your granola bars. I was here first. In fact, this is my house. And please develop a more refined palate—at least when it comes to granola bars.

She signed her name and stuck the note on top of the box of granola bars. Then she slumped down onto the floor and let Charlie climb up in her lap. The strange food loitering about the kitchen didn’t bother her as much as the fact that she had no idea who was leaving it there.

Eustice gently set Charlie aside and stood up. She felt an intense urge to struggle against … something, something amorphous, ill-defined. She could pinpoint with certainty the vague sense of malaise settling over her. She traversed a path toward the bathroom, side-stepping a pile of clothes. She glanced at them. Aqua pants. Her favorite purple tunic. A white and pale pink checked scarf. Her high top sneakers had been haphazardly discarded by the wall, one tumbling over the other in a state of disarray that she could not abide for more than a few seconds. She went over and aligned the shoes with the baseboard, one next to the other, toes just touching the wood. She straightened them. But she did not put them away. Why should she? She hadn’t left them there.

Eustice stepped up to the sink. She stared at herself. She’d always been fascinated by the face in the mirror–so familiar and, simultaneously, so foreign. Almost as if her reflection didn’t match who she felt herself to be, deep down, at an elemental level. She looked interesting, if not a bit bookish. Her strawberry blonde hair, which she’d gone to herculean lengths to tame that morning, now made a rather half-hearted attempt to say back in a ponytail. Her tortoise shell glasses took up considerable real estate on her face, but she loved them in part because they provided a shield, a barrier between her and the world. She stared intently into her eyes. Hazel. Lightly lashed. She wondered if people could read her when they looked into her eyes. She always felt so transparent, exposed, out in the world. But now, when Eustice studied herself in the mirror, she looked guarded, perhaps even mysterious. On second thought, her freckles probably relegated her to something closer to quotidian. But, at the very least, today she looked…complicated.

Eustice made her way into her bedroom, Charlie close at her heels. She looked at the bed, carefully made, with the navy blue quilt folded down just so. She saw her favorite sheets peeking out from underneath—white with tiny red rosebuds scattered across the fabric. The orderliness of the room settled her. She removed her shoes and lined them up parallel to each other by foot of the bed. She lay down on top of the quilt, resting her head on a navy blue shammed pillow. Although she found it markedly less comfortable than the red rosebuded pillow laying beneath it, Eustice couldn’t bear to disturb the fragile sense of propriety that her room offered. To be frank, this room, with its predictability, grounded her. That was too precious a commodity to unravel with the peeling back of a sheet and the tossing of a pillow. Besides, she’d only be here for a few minutes.

Eustice opened her eyes. A cold dread spread slowly through her. How long had she been lying here? What day was it? Where was she meant to be right now? She drew in a deep breath, as her mind raced to right itself. It was obviously morning. The light was too weak and fragile to be evening. The sun was waking up with a yawn, not flaming out at day’s end. She sat up. She felt something pinch the skin just under her waistband. She reached and scratched the spot absently. Her hand froze, only for a moment, then grabbed at the tag her fingers rested on. She pulled it out, fighting a quick slide into complete panic. She examined the tag as best she could, her neck craning up and back in an effort to read the words and numbers that staggered in and out of her vision. She recognized the name of the store printed on the tag. It was an upscale boutique downtown. A boutique she’d never been in. She tugged the tag out a bit further and felt her mouth go dry. $150 might be the standard price for couture. But for Eustice, who prided herself on the collection of classic, vintage clothes she’d culled from thrift stores across the city, $150 bordered on the obscene.

She felt an urge—or was it more like a pull?—to pounce out of bed and leap over to the mirror. She wanted to move. She felt wild inside. Chaotic. In short, she felt entirely unlike herself. But years of self-control and measured responses quickly subjugated these queer impulses. She climbed out of bed with almost imperceptible motion, as not to wake Charlie who slept snuggled against her in a ball. The rhythmic sound of his breathing soothed her. She walked slowly to the mirror, head down. When she arrived directly in front of the mirror—she knew she had reached the spot because she could see the legs of the antique vanity that she’d painstakingly restored—she looked up slowly.

In the round mirror marred with the black flecks of age, she saw herself. More accurately, she saw a version of herself. The stoic, bookish librarian version of Eustice had given way to something entirely different. Her long hair framed her face in a wild tangle. The sun making its way into the room lit her wild hair aglow. Her eyes, sooty with mascara and eyeliner, looked to Eustice both exotic and repulsive. She eyed her reflection warily, as if it might suddenly speak unbidden. But they both remained silent. Eustice took note of the green metallic eyeshadow smudged across her eyelids. She approved of the color, which complemented her hazel eyes, if not the heavy-handed application. Eustice turned her head slowly, side to side, examining herself. Geometric golden earrings jingled softly as she swung her head. A new addition, she noted. As was the army green jacket. She crossed her fingers that it wasn’t a boutique purchase, as she ran her hands over the fabric searching for tags. But this jacket seemed to be vintage. Hopefully from a thrift store. She made a note to check her credit card for unauthorized purchases.

Eustice stood back and examined herself in the mirror again. She felt elated and terrified. Her reflection mocked her uncertainty with a smirk. She reached up reflexively and touched her necklace. It was still there. She breathed a sigh of relief. She’d worn this necklace–a tiny golden puzzle piece with her name written in script across it–every single day since she entered the world. A thought flittered across Eustice’s brain and made her heart pound. Her stomach clenched. Trembling, she made her way over to her desk. She regarded the small, lavender box sitting neatly on the corner of the desk. She hesitated. Then she inhaled sharply and slowly removed the lid. Once satisfied that the contents of the box were in order, Eustice put her hand to her chest and took a few deep breaths. Distracted, she rubbed the charm on her necklace, as she had innumerable times before, and resolved to move on with her day. She turned on the shower and let the room fill with steam. Then she shed last night’s costume, scrubbed away the makeup, and emerged from the shower wholly herself again.

Eustice put Charlie in the passenger seat of her silver, economy sedan. She had been only 13 when, on a bright Spring morning, her father presented this car to her mother. He’d led her outside by the hand, counted to three, and stripped away the blindfold with a flourish. She remembered precisely how her mother looked, receiving such a tremendous gift—a gift her father purchased by toiling at odd jobs in secret for two years: she squealed, then covered Eustice’s father in kisses, tears streaking her cheeks. Her excitement felt electric.

She was dead one week later.

Her mother’s sudden death changed Eustice. She immediately took up the mantle of responsibility, cooking, cleaning, ensuring the house ran impeccably, efficiently. Eustice focused on her studies with laser precision, earning top honors every semester from the time of her mother’s passing to the day she finished graduate school. Eustice could not—would not–tolerate messiness, not even in grief. She demanded perfection from herself and from others in her orbit, personal or professional. While, admittedly, this practice netted Eustice relatively few friends, she judged them to be of a superior caliber. In Eustice’s estimation, she had achieved the markers of success and stability: a slow and steady rise in position at work and the purchase of her own home. Yet… she battled a persistent, nagging belief that she needed to pay penance for her mother’s early demise.

Eustice shook herself free from these thoughts. She found them oppressive, dark, and superstitious. She rolled the window down slightly for Charlie and tuned in to talk radio. She wound through the streets toward her childhood home. The neighborhood, once a solidly working-class neighborhood, had shifted in recent years. Rusted-out cars and broken toys littered the once painstakingly manicured lawns. The street where Eustice rode her bike until the streetlights beckoned her home was now a haunting row of derelict and decrepit houses. Eustice fought back tears. What did it matter now anyway?

Her car rolled to a stop on the same driveway where she’d learned to roller skate–in a rainbow tank top, hot pink shorts, and cumulous cloud knee socks–at seven years old. She cut the engine, scooped Charlie out of the seat, and walked determinedly toward the front door. She pushed her key into the lock and turned it halfway to the right, the way she’d done thousands—maybe even tens of thousands—of times before. She stepped into the cool foyer. Eustice called out for her father. Then she stopped. She inhaled sharply, then let out a jagged sob. Of course he didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer her calls anymore. She, Eustice Walker, was an orphan now. That word, orphan, broke her and sent sobs ricocheting off the empty walls. The house looked orphaned, too, ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

Eustice stifled her sobs and took a deep, shaky breath. This wouldn’t do. Losing control couldn’t alter her reality. They were both gone, her parents. All there was to do was move forward. She’d only come to do one final walk through before handing the keys to the real estate agent. Methodically, Eustice combed through every inch of the house. She walked through each room, checking behind doors and in closets for scraps of her parents’ lives left behind. It would be nothing short of a tragedy to Eustice for these artifacts to find their way into someone else’s hands. No, Eustice was their family’s historian; she was, herself, a living artifact. She intended to be a good steward of every piece of their legacy, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

She pulled down the attic ladder. Almost imperceptibly, Eustice shivered. She hadn’t been in the attic since the day she’d found her mother there, unresponsive. For a moment, she didn’t know if she could force her legs to do the work required to climb the ladder. Even on her rather limited budget, Eustice had hired movers to clean out the attic for her. They stacked the attic’s contents in the kitchen, where she’d sorted the crush of mementos, memories, and prosaic junk. But now she was pressed up against the final moments in her childhood home, the house where she’d last seen her mother alive. Eustice knew it was her responsibility–her sacred duty if she was being gut-wrenchingly honest—to venture into the attic and ensure no scrap of her parents’ life was left forsaken. Warily, she placed her right foot on the ladder and pulled herself up a rung. Her heart thudded; her breaths sounded short and shallow. She willed herself into a (slightly) calmer state and continued up the ladder, rung by rung.

She reached the apex and extended a shaking hand toward the attic door. It creaked open. Eustice squinted into the glare of sunlight and dust. She drew a breath in and shuddered. It smelled exactly like she remembered. Seventeen years compressed into one second. Grief rendered time meaningless. Eustice simultaneously existed in the moment of loss and somewhere on the eternal grief continuum. She glanced around the attic quickly, scanning for missed boxes and, seeing none, was about to make her way back down the ladder. But she saw something. Or, at least, she thought she saw something. She couldn’t be sure. But her uncertainty fixed her tightly to the attic ladder.

Eustice dreaded the emotional work of turning around to investigate the—what was it? A piece of paper? But she knew herself. She’d be mired in a torrent of regret if she left anything behind. So much of them had already been lost. Everything mattered. Even a discarded receipt told a story. So did the a long-forgotten grocery list. These were fragments of their story, a testament to what she’d lost. She collected these artifacts with fervor. Eustice forced herself to climb back into the attic. She walked breathlessly over to the place where she’d found her mother, crumpled on the floor. It was in that exact spot that the paper had settled.

Eustice picked it up gingerly. She moved as if she was afraid to disturb her mother’s spirit. Which felt absurd. Eustice prided herself on her realistic views regarding religion. Namely, she was an atheist. She did not believe in an afterlife. Or spirits. But she did believe in knowledge and history, and that’s why she was here. She picked up the piece of paper and turned it over. It was black and white, with two prominent white blurs. It took Eustice a moment to realize she was looking at a sonogram. Her mother’s name was at the top. Eustice looked at the date printed in the margin. She frowned, folded the paper, and placed it carefully in her back pocket for safekeeping.

Eustice heard a low whooshing noise. In and out. In and out. She felt soothed, lulled by the noise. She felt herself receding, fading. Eustice heard the whoosh-whooshing again. But this time she was able to fight her way through, back toward consciousness. It wasn’t daylight. But the lucent moon reflected against the ocean. Eustice sat up with a start and flung her hands out to the side. She heard a snuffle, just as her hand brushed Charlie’s soft fur. Eustice sighed and stretched back out on the sand. The unseasonably warm ocean breeze settled her, as Eustice tried her best to fill the gap between her parents’ attic and waking on the beach. She looked down at her watch, but instead found only her naked wrist. She laughed. None of this was funny, of course. Losing large chunks of time hardly qualified as laughable. But it was excruciatingly absurd. Eustice–who valued routine, order, and precision above all else–now found herself on a beach, in the middle of the night, miles and miles away from home, with no watch. She laughed again. Charlie stirred next to her. She gathered him in her arms and stood up to begin the odyssey back home from wherever she was.

Osipidy Beach. 280 miles from home. That’s where she’d woken up. Uncovering her exact location didn’t require much sleuthing. She’d just followed the shoreline north until she ran into a sign that declared Osipidy Beach to be “The Place Families Find Themselves.” Eustice thought that sentiment odd. She assumed the sign-makers intended for families to discover their most essential selves in the throes of this striking coastal tableau. Eustice, on the other hand, wondered how many families ended up here just the way she did—with no forethought, no planning, no real desire to be here at all. Regardless, the families at Osipidy Beach probably at least knew howthey had arrived here, if not why. Even that was a mystery to Eustice.

She turned to look back at the ocean. The waves pounded rhythmically. The lights from the sleepy beach town did nothing to disturb the brilliance of the stars or the moon’s luminescence. Eustice felt infinitesimal, insignificant. She also felt universal, infinite. She felt both exquisitely, without conflict. She sat back down on the sand and took in the landscape.

Stay.  

Had Eustice heard that? Or had she just felt it so strongly that it seemed audible? An undeniable pull to stay overwhelmed her. She needed this place right now. She knew it deep in her bones. Eustice, who believed in facts, science, and concrete knowledge, intuited that she needed to stay. Right where she was. On this beach. She shifted slightly to make herself—and Charlie—more comfortable. As she burrowed a little deeper into the sand, something crinkled. Slid her hand into her back pocket and pulled out the paper she’d retrieved from her parents’ attic. She ran her fingers over the image, brushed the paper against her lips, and stuck it back in her pocket. She laid back in the sand, pulled Charlie close to her, and let the ocean coax her back to sleep.

Eustice woke up to the smell of bacon. She opened her eyes, expecting the weak light that crept into her bedroom each morning. Instead, she saw a sky aflame with oranges, yellows and pinks. The sun marched a slow, steady path higher into the sky. Eustice watched the sun rise until it hung contentedly in the sky. She felt a sharp pang of hunger and turned her attention to breakfast. Following the smell of bacon and something sweet, like maple syrup, she stumbled onto a little hut on the beach. She walked up to the service window and leaned her head partway inside. “Got a menu?” she called to no one in particular. Typically reserved and ever-mindful of decorum, Eustice couldn’t seem to control her volume or her hunger.

“On the chalkboard,” a cheerful, disembodied voice called back.

Eustice stepped back, then laughed. The entire front of the building was a chalkboard. The menu wove its way around the facade. She saw, to her surprise, that in addition to the typical breakfast fare, this little beach hut served two different kind of veggie omelets. When she got up to the window, Eustice, a vegetarian for the last 15 years, ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich with a side of sausage. She sat down at the picnic table and devoured her breakfast, stopping only long enough to give Charlie one of the sausage links. She went back to the counter and ordered pancakes and coffee.

She paused briefly in front of the table that held the different varieties of sweeteners and creams for the coffee. She eschewed the powdered creamer, and instead chose whole milk. She contemplated the Stevia for a moment before grabbing two packs of raw sugar. After she’d assembled her coffee, she took a tentative sip. Then another. Eustice, avid tea drinker, sat down with her inaugural cup of coffee and stared at the ocean. She felt the picture in her back pocket crinkle as she shifted.

Stay.  

Eustice stayed at the beach for 3 days. Some locals proffered a tent and taught her to cook over a campfire. She expanded her palate, sampling local seafood, as well as a preponderance of local fruits and vegetables. She wandered the beach all day in a violet two-piece bathing suit (she’d never worn one) and cut off shorts. The ocean air made her hair curly and windswept. Her cheeks were sunburned. She was dirty. She hadn’t had a real shower in days. But there were no more blackouts. No more missing time.

On the fourth day, she bought a bus ticket back home. Not because she wanted to. But there were loose ends, affairs that needed to be reconciled. One couldn’t just hide out on the beach forever. Time to go home. To be responsible. Time to be Eustice again.

As she boarded the bus, Eustice felt an immediate longing for the ocean. She disregarded it. She was, in fact, beginning to examine her behavior over the past few days with a certain disdain. She’d been forced to board Charlie at a local veterinarian’s office. Eustice felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment as she lied to the vet: her friends unexpectedly abandoned her and she needed to return home via bus to collect her car. The vet graciously accepted her lie. Now Eustice had a modest goal: travel home, take a shower, and get a good night’s sleep. As she boarded, Eustice became keenly aware that she smelled …. earthy. The lingering smell of campfire mingled with the ocean salt. Eustice felt the contempt of her fellow riders. She attempted to run her fingers through her hair but found her fingers mired in tangles generated by days of salt and wind. Eustice felt the sting of shame as she sunk down into her seat. Mercifully, the steady movement of the bus lulled her to sleep.

Eustice slept so soundly that the bus driver had to shake her awake after all the other passengers had disembarked. She peered out the window as she gathered the few things she’d brought with her—the bikini that now seemed immodest and juvenile, the shell necklace that she’d strung on the beach. She felt ridiculous. What was it that people said? You can’t run from yourself? Wasn’t that precisely the foolishness that had consumed the last four days?  Eustice gathered herself with fresh resolve. As reached into her back pocket to look for her wallet, her fingers brushed the picture that she’d kept on her person the entire trip. She wasn’t quite sure why, other than in was part of the history she felt so ardent about preserving. She shrugged her way out of these troublesome thoughts and stepped off the bus.

No.

This time, Eustice ignored the voice or feeling or whatever force seemed to be pulling her back to the bus and away from her home. She pressed forward. Her motions slowed. She felt like she was pushing through viscous air. She pressed on toward home. Clearly, she was exhausted. She walked the few blocks from the bus stop fighting a growing dread. Finally, she stood in front of the purple house with the green trim. She’d painted the house purple the same day her father was diagnosed with cancer. It was the first irrational decision she’d made. She’d stood in the hardware store, looking at paint samples. She had a neutral yellow in her hand. But she felt drawn to the purple. She saw her hand reach toward it. And then it was done. She bought the purple paint, chose the green trim against her better judgement, and then she had a purple house. At first she was ashamed of her house. Every time she pulled up in her silver, economy sedan, she felt her cheeks burn. Who was she, Eustice Walker, to choose a color so bold? But now, seeing the unapologetic purple gleam in the sunshine, the purple felt right.

She unlocked the door and went in the house. The spaces she loved—her reading nook, her bookshelves teeming with classic novels, her rigid orderliness—felt confining. Eustice climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She pushed open the door. Clothes littered the floor, as if someone had tried them on, found them wanting, and dropped them right there, moving on. The shoe rack sat empty, discarded by its inhabitants in favor of helter-skelter accumulation on the closet floor. Eustice experienced, like a distant memory, the urge to tidy the room. But this chaos somehow made her feel more balanced, more sure. So she stepped over piles of clothes and made her way to the small, lavender box.

She pulled the picture out of her back pocket. Folding it and unfolding it for days on end left it a bit worse for the wear. But now she could see the images more clearly. There were two. Feet touching. Her hand went to the puzzle piece around her neck. With her free hand, she reached out to the box. She opened it carefully. Inside lay a tiny, perfect puzzle piece with a name written in script across it. She closed the box, lay the picture next to it. She made her way to her bed, fell down face first, and drifted off to sleep.

She awoke with a start, sure it had happened again. She blinked heavily, last night’s mascara sticking slightly. She looked down at her feet. Purple suede boots. She felt the initial trill of terror. Or was it excitement? She bounded out of bed and ran over to the mirror. She looked at herself. Her curls bounced wildly. Her hazel eyes stared back. She broke her own gaze and  scurried around the room, gathering the odd assortment of clothes, make-up and earrings that had made their way into her house during the last few months. She threw them all into a bag and tossed it by the door. She began the laborious task of straightening her room, hanging all the clothes on hangers, lining the shoes up meticulously on the shoe rack. She organized the vanity and made the bed. She arranged the pillows. Satisfied that all was in order once again, she stepped back and admired the sparse decor, the orderliness that bespoke a life completely under control. A measured, responsible life.

She made her way to the vanity and picked up the picture that lay next to the lavender box. She pressed it to her forehead for a moment before folding it and putting it in her back pocket. She opened the lavender box and took out the puzzle piece. It felt almost weightless in her hand. Made for an infant, it was delicate. The perfect match to the one she wore. She took off her necklace and removed her puzzle piece. She fit them together. Eustice and Amelia. She took the sonogram back out of her pocket. Eustice and Amelia. Tears stung her eyes. She picked up the puzzle piece and strung it back on her necklace.

She turned and walked out of the room, shutting the door behind her, leaving an orderly room, a clearly defined life, and a tiny golden puzzle piece with Eustice written in script.

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