stopgaps: in public
stopgap 1: in a restroom
I stride toward the restroom—inhaling deeply while I am a few feet away—then hold my breath as I barge through the door. I will vomit if I smell the slightest foul odor. It has happened before when my mind overwhelmed my body and I gave into the flooding thoughts to throw up throw up throw up throw up. My body fought the urge until pain bubbled up from my stomach and up with it came my lunch.
I try to focus on the task at hand or find a distraction, but that’s difficult. I cannot examine the walls or ceilings. I avoid eyeing the base molding along the floors. If I bend down, I do not look under the counters. If I bend over, I do not stare too closely at the sink. If I look too hard, I discover mold and water spots on the ceiling. Bloodstains pockmark the back of restroom stall doors. Grime huddles in corners with bits of lint and hair.
A wretched compulsion wriggles free from within my lower intestine and yearns to taste these things. To sup on sounds and smells. Its claws scratch at my throat and pierce my tongue. Please dissolve into me, it begs. I don’t want to eat these things, but my mind tells me I do. I have to stop looking, pull a veil over my eyes, or I’ll succumb to my imaginations.
stopgap 2: at work
I am assigned a legislative draft to proofread. It’s twenty pages long with inserts and additions handwritten in brown scrawl along the margins. It’s a priority document and I am one of the fastest and most efficient readers. The office coordinator says I have an hour but it’s really due now.
“You’ve got this,” he says.
I don’t. My mind is taxed. Stress has bloated my mind and body. I carry my own, my officemate’s, and everyone else’s. It’s almost the end of my shift and I must finish this now. I open the document and begin. I stop. What am I supposed to do? I’ve forgotten. I can’t remember what happens first, how to log the document, how to hold the paper. Now I’ve forgotten how to read.
“Just making sure you’re okay.” I look up and see the coordinator standing in my office doorway giving me a thumbs up. Another coworker stops by to see if I have a handle on the mess in my hands. I grin and say, I got it and bear down. They leave me.
I still can’t remember how to read. I stare at a blank spot on the top page to focus my mind. I repeat the alphabet in my mind. Twice. The last time was too fast because I am stressed and so I repeat it twice more to get it right. I remember now and begin.
Ten minutes pass and I have read the same page over and over and over and over because it’s not right. The page is not right. I did not read it right. I did not say the words right in my head. And I probably missed a mistake if there is one. I have to proofread it again until it clicks.
How do I stop this madness! Any other day I could go to the locker room and steady my breathing or walk around the block and settle my nerves. But I have precious few minutes. I grit my teeth and push past the invisible barrier. My mind has not given me permission to move on and so it screams wrong! wrong! wrong! wrong! wrong! as I flip to the next page. It’s not right! wrong! wrong! wrong! wrong!
An emotional breakdown tears at the sides of my face. I am going to cry. I grit my teeth to stop from sobbing. Now my teeth hurt and I’m positive they are going to crack and explode under the pressure. I worry about getting blood on these important documents. I read the page then the next and the ones after. My hand shakes when I finally put my pencil down. I check the clock. I want to read all twenty pages again, but I can’t. I have to be okay with being wrong.
stopgap 3: behind a cop in Chipotle
I ball my fists and squeeze my eyes shut. Take the gun the gun the gungungun— My fingers twitch at the thought of unlatching the holster, holding the weight of the cold steel. My thoughts are intense. Attempting to suppress them sicken me. So does the thought of how quick my death would be. Cop shoots Black woman in Chipotle. The worst kind of headline for my community.
I try to overload my mind with noise and gibberish, but I hear it over the den. Take the gun. Take the gun. Take the gun— I clench my jaw until the muscles ache and force my body into submission. If I am still, then I will not follow through on my actions. But my body is shaking and my nails dig into my palms.
The cop turns around and our eyes meet for a second. I know he can read what is clanging in my mind. I look up and away from him. But I close my eyes again. There’s another trigger in the ceiling.
About the Author - DW McKinney
DW McKinney is the creative nonfiction editor for The Tishman Review. She was awarded the 2018 Hellebore Scholarship in Creative Nonfiction for her essay “Bitter Grief.” Her essays have appeared in Stoneboat, TAYO Literary Magazine, Cagibi, The Hellebore, honey & lime, and elsewhere.