Slipping by Margaret Finnegan

Faye had been taking the meditation class at Yoga House for six months when she realized that she could slip undetected into the thought streams of her fellow class members. All she had to do was close her eyes, sit very tall and focus her energy on the tunnel of darkness that inevitably opened before her. Almost at once, she would glide into the rivers of consciousness that swirled throughout the room, traveling from one person to another as each wrestled with the difficult task of quieting the mind.

Although she never did more than smile at anyone in the small studio where the class met, her psychic wanderings gave Faye the sense of knowing her classmates. She knew that Patty liked television and replayed snippets of “30 Rock” in her head. Doug worried about his son. That one guy—the slim guy with glasses—seemed fixated on the breasts of teenage girls, but he realized that was creepy and that gave Faye hope. Then there were the others, none of whose minds were patently predictable, but who came to class every week and whose inner dialogs showed such despairing attachment to difficult relationships, financial worries, health woes, and pent-up desires that Faye couldn’t help but feel compassion.

There was only one stream of consciousness that Faye could never enter, and that was Roy’s. Roy was as nondescript a person as Faye could imagine. He was average height. Average weight. He had receding, sandy blonde hair that matched his khaki shorts. He never spoke. The only reason Faye knew his name was because she saw him write it on the sign-in sheet. All Faye knew about Roy was that his mind was locked tight. It was a black wall. Solid. Thick. Impenetrable, but for two words that hissed whenever her mind slipped towards his. “Go away. Go away.” It was like he knew she was there, lurking. It was like he had constructed an entire security system to evade her. But why?

Roy was a puzzle. And that bothered Faye. Puzzles bothered Faye. She couldn’t stop thinking about them. She couldn’t rest until she knew their secrets. It had always been that way. When she was a girl she became addicted to crossword puzzles. She wouldn’t stop playing even for meals; her mother thought she had an eating disorder. In her twenties, she moved on to tournament Scrabble. Then she changed to Jeopardy. She spent four years studying trivia to prepare for a tryout. She spent every spare moment cramming esoteric information into her head. She gave up dating and outings with friends. She made Jeopardy her life. And when she finally stood behind that podium and answered questions asked by Alex Trebek himself, she lost to a lawyer from Delaware who knew that migas was a Mexican dish with tortillas and eggs. It was the losing that sent Faye on a downward spiral that ended in an emergency room panic attack and a doctor’s recommendation that she take up meditation.

The meditation worked. It calmed her. It ended the panic attacks and neutralized her compulsion for puzzles, which her now wiser self realized represented an unhealthy attachment to an unknowable future. At least, meditation did all that until Roy decided to willfully keep her out of his head. Faye couldn’t help herself. Each week she slipped towards him and tested the barricades that kept his mind private. She looked for chinks in the black wall of nothingness that surrounded him, and one day she found an opening at the bottom of his exhale. She slipped in and when he inhaled she trailed behind him until she was in his mind and she could hear and see his every thought.

“Go away. Go away.” It was the voice, but it had changed. Where once it sounded condemnatory, now it seemed pitiful, like some fly-ridden beast in a third-world zoo. The voice belonged to a man. He sat in a dark room and held a half-filled bottle of scotch in one hand and a bottle of aspirin in the other. His face was puffy and red with small eyes and short, yellow lashes that matched his wide, disco-era tie.

A boy spoke. “Mom says it’s time for dinner.”

“Can’t you listen?” said the man. “Go away.”

The scene ended, and Faye felt herself sinking into a well of darkness unlike anything she had ever known. The darkness became a dense mass of incalculable weight. It bore down upon her. It crushed her and turned her steady, relaxed breaths into slow, choking gasps that seemed unworthy of existence. Everything about her seemed unworthy of existence, everything about her seemed inferior and insufficient and wrong and unpardonable. And—she knew now—she was. She was nothing. And she was sad. So sad. How could she bear this sadness? How could she go on knowing the truth: that sadness was a never-ending bolt of cloth that unfolded and unfolded and got wider and bigger until it covered the sky? That heartache was a virus spread by smiles and seeking fingertips? That life was a death sentence, nothing more, nothing less? And that, worst of all, it was her fault. She had ruined everything. She had listened to the voice. She had gone away.

Then, just as quickly, she was released. She slipped away from Roy’s mind. She was back in her body. She was breathing again. The weight was gone. The choking was gone. All of it—all of Roy—was gone. And she was Faye, only Faye. She opened her eyes. She blinked. Around her, men and women sat stone still, their eyes closed, their bodies relaxed, visions of tranquility, and there was Roy, a picture of calm. She got up. She left the room and made for her car, where she cranked the radio and headed home. She understood. Puzzles weren’t games. Puzzles were a serious, dangerous business. She decided to take up knitting instead.

© Copyright 2009 Margaret Finnegan. All rights reserved.

Margaret Finnegan does meditate, but she has enough problems of her own to want to go looking for more of them in other peoples’ heads. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The L.A. Times, FamilyFun, the literary journal WordRiver and the book Life As We Know It (Washington Square Press). She is also the author of Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (Columbia University Press). She blogs about wise women, demanding goddesses, and whatever she darn well feels like at Finnegan Begin Again.

9 thoughts on “Slipping by Margaret Finnegan”

  1. Thank you everyone. It was really a fun experience to try and meet Paula’s guidelines. The links were especially fun. I wanted things immediate enough that they would not distract from the reading experience, but that would add a visual/aural layer to the story. Thank you, Paula, for letting me tell my story in this space.

  2. I love Margaret’s links. The one for Doug’s son is hilarious. I think that kid sat next to me in seventh grade homeroom.

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