Photo by Patty Michels
I started screaming before I’d even turned, before I understood the man’s words--garbled, insistent, closer by the half second--were directed at me. Not the pure soprano shrieks of a horror movie ingenue, rather the messy blare of a dreamer screaming herself awake.
Fourteen and a half hours earlier, I lay on the couch, eavesdropping on the bird’s gossipy chatter. At six a.m., they seemed as shocked as the rest of Chicago by summer’s early arrival. March, yet eighty degrees, pollen counts deadly, neighborhood kids exultant. I’m a poor sleeper, insomnia mostly, nightmares when slumber finds me. Somehow the couch helps.
What woke me that morning was this: I can’t go to the bus stop, a full thought, and clear. My brain was misty though, and sleep’s tide tugged.
Hours later, slicing an apple, the knowledge returned. I can’t go to the bus stop. I pictured the lamplit corner, well-traveled by commuters and bar patrons, dog-walkers and nighttime runners. The warning slipped around in my mid-day/warm breeze/distant car sounds brain, transforming into something intellectual and distant: a debate between Free Will and Determinism. Would I wind up at the bus stop no matter my preceding choices? I remembered the polemic later, home, again sleepless, but for reasons altogether new.
That night’s novel writing class concluded early. I left my students to fill out teacher evaluations at eight twenty eight. For me, the end of anything, a sleepless night, an eight week class provokes a sense of movement colored by relief and loss. As I walked toward the stairs (I can’t go to the bus stop) I thought of another ending, more brutal, no relief.
A few months back a Chicago woman was murdered and set ablaze in her garage. Newspapers reported that on the previous day her sister had a premonition as she passed through the building’s gangway. She warned her sister to be careful, though of what she couldn’t say. At the stairs’ peak, Am I having a premonition, I wondered? Usually thoughts hang murky, more picture and feeling than words, but that day all the warnings came clear and articulate, cogent as headlines in the New York Times.
I grew up knowing whose voice I’d hear when the phone rang, caller ID a remote, future invention. Routinely, I thought of someone only to run into her that day. My more life-altering achievements landed solid, fully formed in my mind; the play I hadn’t thought of writing yet somehow knew exactly how to transition from rehearsal to production, an unfinished novel the future publisher of which I felt unjustifiably certain. In a room full of strangers I can single out subsequent friends simply because their edges appear sharper, their faces more familiar, well-defined. I can smell sickness. I know small details about acquaintances, the location of their future apartments, though they don’t plan to move. My problem is the disquiet born of anxiety. Do I dread boarding a plane by virtue of intuition or I’m a subject to panic’s inconsequential whim? All the certainties I harbor are counterbalanced by fear.
In class that night a student asked “How do I know when I should give up on my novel?” I told him, “consider surrendering out of disinterest, but don’t quit based on fear. Fear,” I said “takes up the creative space required for certitude. Once you’ve written more and you know you can do it, trust will supplant fear.”
The moment before I pressed my hand to the heavy glass door, night poised just beyond, I thought I can’t go to the bus stop. I felt certain and calm and a strange excitement bloomed, small and hard in my chest. Should I listen? I thought the words. Then, After this I’ll know for sure.
This was at eight twenty nine. By eight thirty four I’d flagged down a bearded guy wearing giant headphones. “He had a gun,” I think I said.
Before that though, I screamed. If six a.m. was premonition’s prelude, my scream was its coda; I never decided to make a sound. I’d made it maybe two doors from the warehouse-y loft in which I’ve taught on a near weekly basis for the last five years when he came from behind me.
“Shut up shut up shut up.” Loose white T shirt, khaki cargo pants, slick black hair below his ears and a large jack o’lantern nose.
“Give me everything,” he said.
“Take it.” I thrust my phone toward him.
The silver gun in his right hand caught my attention belatedly. Held at that TV gangster angle, it looked tinny and pretend. I don’t know what he said then, something that made me pull my wallet from my bag.
“But I don’t have any money,” I said, stupidly.
“Give me your purse, come on.”
I handed him my wallet, my slouchy leather messenger bag and oddly, my jean jacket. How did he hold it all while still brandishing the gun?
“Get out of here!” Latino, I noted, about my height, slight of build.
I think I said okay. Stumbling north like a sleepwalker, I veered suddenly into the street thinking I should return to my classroom, its warm yellow light. A car swerved to avoid me and then I spotted the bearded man.
I can’t go to the bus stop, I thumbed the phrase later, feeling around inside my psyche, checking for damaged bits. I’d focused on the destination, misunderstood the phrasing. The thing to avoid wasn’t the “bus stop,” but the “go.”
Less than forty-eight hours later I’m no longer angry at myself for disregarding my warning. It won’t happen again. I understand something new now, something about anxiety and intuition and sleep and six a.m. I finally appreciate certainty’s shape and dimensions. I think now trust will supplant fear.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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