Mattie wakes up with a different feeling forming in her ribcage every morning. It usually develops throughout the night, depending on how many times she wakes up from unsettling dreams. Last week, the psychologist said that she was on the bi-polar spectrum, but wasn’t quite ready to make a diagnosis. Dr. Schwartz says that diagnoses should be a conversation, not just a label stamped on the patients’ forehead like some kind of bad face tattoo.
It’s hard differentiating which emotions feel good, and which feel bad, when they become so intermixed and unclear any chance they get. It is often as if some tiny little different colored men with tiny little hands and angry faces decide whether or not to sleep or jump up on and down on the pink matter in Mattie’s head. Sometimes she feels like it’s unfair that she has little men deciding her mood for the day, but it’d also be a great sci-fi novel and she’s been planning to write a book for the last five years.
Mattie’s one bedroom apartment becomes smaller every day, and she thinks that by rearranging the bookshelf or curating the wall with a new set of film prints and drawings of skulls every week, it’ll somehow feel more spacious. She isn’t wrong, but she isn’t right, either. It is just a genuinely small apartment. All of her friends live off the blue line, but Mattie thinks the lake helps her feel less trapped, like there’s always something moving or floating or sinking or being. Edgewater is a nice neighborhood anyway; she feels comfortable by the older, wealthier, white population that surrounds her darkened Jordanian skin.
Mattie is short for Matina, but everyone in the states just spells it like “Maddie” assuming her full name is Madison or Madeline. Her mom hasn’t called in four days, probably because the last time they were on the phone, Mattie started blaming her parents for all the ways in which they fucked her up, quoting her psychologist by using buzzwords like “trigger” and “abuse.” Her parents live in Jordan, but her mom is from Wisconsin. She met Mattie’s father when she went to Jordan to study abroad as an International Relations student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, also known as one of the whitest schools in the country. When Mattie’s mom left the states, without much warning, she shook the entire family up, practically scaring their blonde hairs off their heads. Their daughter and granddaughter left for the Middle East, a place that even white liberal democrats had trouble approving or making any sense of.
Most of the time, Mattie was confused why her mom even left her bubble in Wisconsin. Her and Mattie’s father were always fighting, and seemed to have very little in common. Most of her childhood was spent watching her parents try to fix their relationship instead of working on raising their children. Now, Mattie can’t seem to figure out why she keeps making radically impulsive decisions some days, and physically being unable to leave her apartment on others. It seems as if there is a giant wall right in the middle of her skull, and it is slowly cracking, and as soon as it breaks, all insanity will break loose like a dam. Her parents only expected positive results from her, but they never instilled the foundation to begin with, so how was she supposed to do anything productive if she had no idea how to be?
Today, Mattie was going to apply for jobs, find an internship, sign up for the summer class that she was supposed to take during winter quarter, and not fail it. She was going to go to school, speak with the professor that failed her in Islamic Studies, and apologize for not sending the essays and assignments she needed to without warning. She was going to figure things out for graduation, and she was going to pull herself up from the floor; she wasn’t going to melt into the hardwood anymore. But, she woke up and she felt like the dirty underwear that she forgot to pick up last night after she threw them, drunkenly plopping into bed, smelling of whiskey and ex-partner’s scent.
She stared at the ceiling as if she was looking to God,
“One more day, please,” she said almost like a frog, her voice itchy and almost gone, maybe from screaming about something at the bar last night, or maybe she’s getting sick. She threw the sheets off her naked body, tattoos loud and present, hidden from her father’s gaze, still. Scared to return to Jordan, and unsure whether it’d be a good idea to tell him now or later, but the nude women sitting on a large skull rests poised on her left arm, taunting Mattie, as if she is foreshadowing her father’s total disappointment. She does these things when she feels impractical, but they make her body feel less like a strangers’ and more like her own, as if no one is able to have these exact tattoos in these exact places. She slides off her bed, enters the bathroom where she runs her unwashed hands through her newly shaved head, and she chokes instead of cries. She hasn’t been able to cry in months.
Her phone starts buzzing, and it’s Dylan from last night. The boy she used to date because she was lonely; the boy she called last night because she was lonely; the boy she’ll ignore right now because she is lonely, but not longing. Not for any boy, at least. Sometimes she thinks that if someone just loved her and she loved someone back, that everything would be better, that the world wouldn’t feel like heavy weights beaming on her shoulders, dragging her through dirt each day. Her closest friend, Leila, says that she’ll never feel good until she starts fixing herself, from the beginning. Leila cares, but Leila is also fed up with Mattie’s shit, and Mattie knows it. It’s exhausting to be friends with someone who won’t make any progress. Leila works, goes to school, is in a band, and is a freelance photographer who also deals with mental instabilities, but her parents also hit her as a kid when she was bad, and told her to suck it up any time she complained about anxiety.
Leila always says, “Everyone has anxiety, it’s just a matter of learning how to cope with it,” as if she isn’t being crippled by panic every waking moment. Mattie sometimes wonders if brainwashing your kids into believing that they’re fine is the best way to parent.
Mattie sluggishly puts on overalls and converse shoes and makes herself a breakfast sandwich because that makes her feel like an adult. She decides that today she’ll go outside, and get on the Brown line towards Kimball. Hopefully this will take her somewhere, maybe to a diner with wise old people, or possibly church, maybe an empty field that will force her to be alone with her thoughts, maybe even aliens will abduct her and teach her a lesson.
She gets off at Kimball and comes across a giant map that will guide her on her pilgrimage. Instead, she finds a woman with three kids tugging on her skirt, asking her for something inaudible, or just in a different language. The woman looks exhausted, like she just fought three wars and came home to make dinner each night. She is holding bags of groceries, pushing a deteriorating stroller, and trying to shut her kids up.
Mattie walks up to her,
“Do you need any help?” she asks, quietly, nervous that the woman might respond with an eye roll or a “fuck off,” but instead the woman accepts the help, and asks if Mattie can bring some of the groceries to their home, which is only a few blocks south. As they walk to the woman’s house, Mattie learns that the woman’s name is Marcela, and that her children, Andrea, Izabela, and Francisco are 3, 8, and 10, in that order. They are Guatemalan, and Marcela moved here with her husband, Jose, about 8 years ago so her kids could experience life in America. It’s not much better here… Mattie thought, but quickly shook that off, not knowing Marcela’s previous situation. Her husband is a carpenter, and Marcela wants to go back to school so she can better her English and be an elementary school teacher. She talks about how much she loves kids, how they are a blessing and their innocence is therapeutic. Mattie agrees, even though she is scared of how much they don’t know, and how much they are going to learn the wrong way.
Mattie helps bring the groceries inside for Marcela, whom invites her over for dinner. Mattie accepts, and follows Izabela to the cabinets so they can begin setting up the table. Marcela instructs the kids in Spanish, and Mattie doesn’t understand, but follows the kids, doing whatever they do. Marcela begins placing food neatly on the table, as if she is curating an art piece. She explains that she made Guatemalan soup, Chilles Rellenos, and a pickled vegetable salad that Mattie doesn’t quite catch the name of. There is water and soda, and it smells like home. The kids sit around the table, Jose takes off his shoes and joins, and Marcela begins reciting a prayer in Spanish, Mattie puts her hands together and looks down. Mattie feels at peace, as she sits around strangers, two people that have been through and are going through more than she ever has or will, and children that will be raised with love, but disciplined nonetheless.
Mattie decides that tomorrow when she wakes up, she will get her shit together.