Photo by the author’s lovely girlfriend

I See You

The last time we’d had dinner at the dining table — a second-hand IKEA pick-up for a couple hundred bucks — was when I’d made pasta from scratch. A touch of nutmeg turned into too much and the sauce ended up being a bit too dry for my liking. My Nonna would have been rolling in her grave, but you went back for seconds, regardless.

Now, it has being transformed into your work desk. Your office-insistent bosses had had their arms twisted by the reintroduction of COVID lockdown measures. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been necessary if we’d had a better vaccine rollout, or didn’t muck around as much in the days of the single-digit cases, but those realities were now lost to the insatiable hunger of hindsight.

Compared to last time, this lockdown was the first time we’d spent one together, working from home, since taking the plunge on moving in almost exactly a year ago.

It was quickly evident the chairs had no back support, the room was too cold, and my humming of random tunes that had played sometime in my dreams the night before would not be tolerated. Long Zoom calls were to be made from the bedroom, music played only through headphones, and it was deemed the only good office chair be split fifty-fifty so neither one of us emerged from this stint halfway to hunchback.

A hundred or so square metres of public versus private sector. Eight (sometimes more, sometimes less) hours a day immersed in each other’s professional victories and defeats, setbacks and achievements. Shared lunches from leftover dinners, walks to the ocean, to coffee, bitching about or praising people, processes or procedures that ruled our work lives and governed the vast majority of our waking hours.

You unfurled yourself to me as we entered each other’s orbit like never before. In our constant proximity, unburdened from distractions, the permanence of your presence made me see.

Across the ocean of the living room, the dining room table, the bedsheets, my eyes were ultimately drawn to the shifting territories that made up the landscape of your mind. I watched how the fluid borders continuously reshaped and reformed from the moment you awoke in the morning until you slipped into unconsciousness in our darkened bedroom at night.

When you woke was perhaps the only time in the day that there existed a vacuum in the space beneath your skull. And like a true vacuum, it yearned and rushed to be filled. Those hazy seconds of delirium in the gathering light of the room, before the onslaught of thoughts of the upcoming day’s work, of appraisals and meetings, delegations and coordination. Sometimes the worries bloomed larger than the actual tasks themselves, distorting and growing in size until all you could think of were a thousand thoughts of ways the day could derail. Any reason that attempted a beachhead was routed into oblivion. I knew this when I tried to stroke your hair; if you flinched, your anxiety was crowding, corralling, crushing. If this was the case, you would turn into me, skin sometimes clammy with sweat, and attempt to use the warmth of my flesh to calm yourself, to reign in some perspective.

My beating heart as a metronome; gong strikes that slowed and calmed.

Little by little, you would enter the first eye of many daily storms and begin to consider practicalities. Shower (scalding), hair (shampooed), hair (conditioned), face (washed), face (oiled), face (moisturised), face (glow serum applied), hair (blowdried) and body (clothed). By the time you burst into the living room, your first meeting was nearly upon you. The ordered cleanliness routine was jettisoned as the computer was powered on. Again, work took the podium, though this time, it wasn’t in a frenzy of overthinking. Compared to the pillow horrors, reality asserted itself with each opened email or chat message, and ninety-percent of what you were frightened of failed to come to pass. It’s helped in no small part by the growing desire that had soon obliterated all other thoughts in its blinding light: coffee.

We compared calendars and carve out a half-hour gap in-between meetings to walk down to the closest cafe. At this point, the prospect of caffeine had dwarfed all other concerns in your mind. You would slip on two more jumpers and a coat, like we were about to make our final ascent on Everest, and we’d depart.

Perhaps the uniqueness of your coffee is why they remember our order. Soy dirty chai (for you) and double espresso (for me). Give me the espresso any day, but sugar rules your palette. You would clutch the warm cup and close your eyes to take that first sip. The sweetness, sometimes scalding, filled your mouth, and your shoulders would sink in gratification. As it washed over your taste buds, it wiped the slate of your synapses clean, too. A moment to revel as the caffeine starts sparking; on the way back home, walking in the chilly air, the jacket would suddenly comes off. It’s back on by the time we’d enter the shade of our street.

I find it strange that the caffeine, rather than exacerbate your anxiety and rebounding thoughts, is the thing you most crave of a morning. Or perhaps it does: like a double-edged sword, it gives you the energy to focus and stave off waves of anxiousness.

We’d grind until lunch. The morning would be punctuated by soft back-of-neck kisses, tea breaks and small chores, like hanging out washing or sweeping small sections of the floor. You’d assert yourself in meeting after meeting, grinding down the stumps of imposter syndrome that seemed to flair up from time to time, especially when your bosses were distracted and not giving you their full attention. Almost instantly, you’d fill this space with worries and doubts, and discuss their demeanour and intentions in candid chats with friendly colleagues afterwards. Overthinking ruled; at its echoing heart, the anxiety continued to beat and would reach a dirty hand down into your guts, wrenching them into unfathomable knots.

Some days, when you’d have too much work or the day was overcast, you’d laugh at my short running shorts as I’d stretch and prepare for my run. A good distraction for your work-laden thoughts, sometimes so overrun that you’d forget about lunch, or eat it so late it was almost dinner.

On other days, the sunny days, we’d eject ourselves from the apartment and wander down to the beach. In the winter water I’d dive in and exit immediately, while you’d be content to take photos of the foamy water licking the sand near where you stood with each crashing wave. The sand beneath your toes and the distant blue horizon were a far cry from the echo chamber of our apartment. Like excitable atoms with room to move, your anxious thoughts would jettison off into the sky, skip across the sea, or bury themselves in the sand.

For a little while you’d be able to take stock and step into the flow of life around you. Me, walking beside you, overdue a haircut, my hand in yours. A small child riding a bike being called to stop before crossing the road by a worried parent jogging to catch up. The socially-distant, mask-wearing line to the coffee shop. The drivel of distant traffic. The hand holding your intestines would loosen its grip, though it would not let go entirely.

Upon reentry, the landscape of your thoughts would shift again. Though the anxiety rebounded, it was tempered with calm acknowledgement. For you had been reminded of, or rediscovered, a sense of perspective in that hour over lunch. The meetings and the work that would follow, though sometimes gruelling and unexpected, are met with the same understanding. And even when, on rare days, the perspective was so thin and weary that it could be stripped from you with even the slightest breeze, there was always the rapid onset of the end of the work day, and what beckoned after.

A long exhale, a slamming of the laptop lid and you were done. A couple of celebratory biscuits, and it was straight on the couch with another screen, and Love Island. God, I hated that show, and didn’t you know it. You told me once why you liked watching these sort of shows — that it was good to watch something mind-numbing.

Having observed you over the last few weeks, I think I can begin to see where you’re coming from. An ice-bath for your overheated, overworked mind — a mind that had thought more in the last few hours than a hundred people put together. Why wouldn’t you want to numb that space? A scarred battleground for a day not yet over. A battered landscape of trenches and deep tank-tracks, churned mud and blood. Day after day, week after week, year after year.

I wonder if you remember the time before you had to take anti-depressants, or battle that blight of your eating disorder. A phantom that is still there, and needs to be constantly fought with, ignored or pleaded with, on good days and bad. I wonder what that might have been like. Maybe you do too. Perhaps watching these trashy television shows get you close to that. If they do, well, I will stand corrected about their quality. Stand proudly I will.

I see you, and your anxious mind constantly questing for respite, even just a little, even just scraps tossed in the gutter.

After dinner, you’d have another scalding shower, and brush your teeth. Phone in hand now, you’d catch up on the day’s Instagram take. The electric blanket would call to you, and to it you’d go.

You’re on the other side of that wall now, as I write this, and though I can’t see you, I know how you’re lying down, propped up with pillows. You’re scrolling through Depop; fashion is your art form, your passion.

I’ll join you in a little while, and some expanse of your mind, numbed or not, will open to receive me, as will your warm arms. And even though I’ll stroke your hair and lull you to the cusp of sleep, your second wind will strike just as I’m simmering down. After I plug the bookmark into my book and curl into you, your anxiety will make a final play to keep you awake and conscious. That civil war where there are no winners; in its effort to survive, the host suffers. There are thoughts to be churned through, it will say. To be considered, pondered, stewed over. There are nothing but thoughts; it is a monsoonal flood in a perpetual wet season.

But all you crave is the emptiness of the vacuum.

Hear me when I say: take comfort, my love, for sleep is coming.

For nothing, not even the maelstrom of anxiety and depression, can exist in a vacuum.

Matt Querzoli wrote this for The Medium Writers Challenge in the Space category.

And on the third router restart, He rose again.