The conspiracy started with the vending machines.
or Song for the Dumped
dedicated to all survivors of vending machine abuse
and to Dr. Prus (who thought we would
never have this conversation again)
I swear to God it's a conspiracy, and it started with the vending machines.
Okay, that might be a teensy oversimplification; I guess it really started months ago, too subtly for me to notice at first. But the vending machines this morning were the last straw.
No, actually, the squirrel was the last straw. The vending machines were the icing after the last straw, when the stupid camel still doesn't have the good sense to just fall down and die, or at least to play dead, so people will stop piling on more straws and icing.
What was I talking about? Oh, right, the vending machines.
All I wanted was a Snickers. Is that really so much to ask? It was ten till noon, I hadn't eaten since lunch the day before, I had class in a few minutes, and I wanted something to tide me over till two so at least my stomach wouldn't be gurgling Gershwyn for the next hour and a half, for everyone within a fifty-foot radius to hear. I had a crisp new dollar bill in my hand, change from a recent Wal-Mart transaction for dental floss and sixty-watt light bulbs, and I was jonesing for a candy bar and maybe a thirty-five cent pack of gum, if it wasn't too terribly much trouble. Apparently it was.
The damn things are possessed. The vending machines, I mean. The first one spat out my crisp new dollar bill like it was laced with arsenic, shuddered, blinked menacingly blood-red, and died. The second one had no slot for cash, but it did deign to accept my offering of two nickels and a quarter excavated from the abysmal depths of my backpack before catapulting a five-pack of Juicy Fruit into its cracked plexiglass cover. The gum stuck there, smashed to the glass, mocking me.
The third vending machine was halfway across campus; I spent the quarter-mile jog attempting to develop a more elegant excuse for my imminent tardiness than "I wanted candy." Maybe I could say I had a blood sugar issue. Or a wicked stepmother. When at last I reached it, out of breath and sweating, the third vending machine eagerly devoured my dollar, considered my selection, laughed, and gave me a six-pack of peanut butter crackers.
I sat down on the floor and cried.
The fifth person who walked by was a freshman with a backwards baseball cap and three cartilage piercings; I remembered him from zoology. He looked at me kind of funny, but didn't say anything. The seventh person asked if I was okay, but didn't wait for an answer.
The twelfth person (I was counting) was a friend who stopped and patted my shoulder while using her most concerned and supportive voice to ask what was wrong. She finally got me to stop sobbing and blow my nose, but the only intelligible sentence I managed to choke out between hiccups was, "Peanut butter crackers don't really satisfy." So she made me coffee, advised me to skip my last class, and then walked me to my car.
Now here I am, driving home with the air conditioner running full blast in the dead of winter, hoping to beat the rain. My hands and face are sticky with the paste of makeup and dried tears, and there's a Ben Harper song on the radio. I try to sing along, but I only know half the words.
The youth pastor at my church, back when I had room for church, was a thirtysomething software engineer with carrot-red hair and a reckless laugh. The other kids thought he was terrible at his job — pastoring, that is, not engineering. They thought that because they were religious and he was philosophical, though I didn't know that at the time, because I wasn't yet allowed to use words like "philosophical." At my high school graduation, before he and his wife and babies moved to Indiana without my consent, he said to me, "It looks like you're standing in nothing, and that's really cool, because now everything is available to you." He said that all the time, and I thought I knew what it meant. I know now that I didn't then, because now I do.
I come home to a pile of paperwork. I should have finished my mascot proposal by now. What's the point? I hear myself thinking. They like being Savages. My lit paper is due Friday, and I have yet to look at the topic. I'll do it tomorrow. Tomorrow... shit. I'm supposed to present something in creative writing tomorrow. My cell phone rings. I sigh and shove the stack of paper under my bed, silently praying my classmates won't throw rotten fruit when I regale them with the high drama of last week's grocery list.
"What?" Before you ask, no, I don't customarily answer the phone by barking "what?" in a clipped and irritated voice. I'm generally downright pleasant, when I've had anything like a decent day, or a candy bar. In this case, I have had neither.
Being my best friend in the whole world and all, he easily blows off my rudeness. Anyway, he wants something. "I need advice."
I give him my stock reply: "If it involves sex, plastic surgery, organized sports, Canada, or aromatherapy, don't do it for at least a week, and then you won't want to."
"It's not aromatherapy; it's her," he says in a little puppy whimper.
I hate her. I tried to like her; I honestly came close before she called him a "hassle" because he'll "never change." What exactly he should change I haven't figured out yet; as far as I can tell, he's amazing as ever and she's a bipolar narcissist whose attitude would probably be improved by nothing so much as a good sound ass-kicking.
I roll my eyes as my friend recounts his romantic woes, silently chiding him for his misguided belief that loving someone enough can make them deserve it, and his hopeless devotion to a loving relationship that exists nowhere beyond the scope of his own imagination.
You're certainly in no position to judge, rebukes the accusative voice in my head, and it's true. I have no right to condemn him for reminding me how I acted for a week shy of a year, how I would still be acting if someone else hadn't pulled the plug.
"The powers that be are conspiring to systematically dismantle my realities and make me crazy," I tell him.
"Yeah, like you're so special."
He's right, the universe doesn't really revolve around me, and the powers that be probably have more important things to do with their time than push one lonely English student to the brink of insanity. Still, I hate when he's right and doesn't have the common decency to lie about it.
"I broke down today," I admit.
"I've been expecting that for three weeks. What finally did it?"
I bite my lip, not wanting to answer, not wanting it to be true. But his expectant silence pushes me over the edge, and I mutter self-consciously, "Um, the uh... vending machine."
"The vending machine."
"Not just the vending machine. I mean, the vending machine on top of everything. And the innocent, defenseless little squirrel who had to die just because he didn't have the good sense to stay in his nice warm tree during the blizzard on Valentine's Day, and I didn't have the good sense to stay in my nice warm house during the blizzard on Valentine's Day, because I stupidly thought it would make a difference to drive half an hour through the blizzard on Valentine's Day just to be humiliated in person instead of on the phone, and then bam. Poor little guy never even saw it coming. I named him Clarence."
Ever the pragmatist, my friend muses, "How do you know it was a boy squirrel?"
I choke down a little sob. "I wanted a candy bar, okay? Not the moon, not a million dollars, just a damn Snickers candy bar. It satisfies, you know."
He laughs. At first I resent him for it, but soon I'm laughing too. It's a different laugh, a lighter laugh, than I've laughed in a long, long time. It's the kind of laugh that comes when you've lost everything you had to lose, looked around, and realized you're still inexplicably alive and kicking, however feebly. It's a laugh that comes only when there's nothing left to hold onto, no sacred porcelain piece of life to cherish and comfort, no reason in the world not to laugh as violently as possible because there's nothing fragile left to break.
I tell him this, and he deadpans back, "You let yourself think that for five minutes at a stretch, and the universe will see to it that all your hair falls out and your entire family is killed in a freak elephant stampede."
I smile. "Yeah. Like I'm so special."
You're standing in nothing, kid. So maybe I lost, so what? I lived, and there's a host of things I'm no longer afraid to lose.
In spite of myself, I laugh again, louder, right in the face of the universe, of whatever powers govern the comings and goings of our lives, proving they haven't beaten me yet, defying them to come on and do their worst.
I'm petrified, of course. But really, what else can they throw at me? If I'm still standing after all the last straws, if I can live — and even laugh — without the roses and the romance and everything I thought I knew about the world, then the universe is going to have to come up with something a lot more drastic than Snickers deprivation to get the better of me.
I'm beginning to think that satisfaction is overrated, anyway.
when you have everything, you have everything to lose
she made herself a bed of nails, and she's planning on putting it to use
—"Diamonds on the Inside"