Now the resident psychiatrist is asking me something, something about whether there were any incidents in my past that could have hinted at this. It makes sense; he wants to know how quickly it has come on, if it's a result of other, more recent factors, or if it's a deep-rooted personality fault--my own fault, in other words.
I'm a country girl, so coming to the town was a big change, and it may have pushed me over faster than I would have gone anyway. But I can't deny that some indicators of my obsessive personality were in place before I made the move--indeed, one of them precipitated the move. Since my early childhood I refused to help my mother and father in the garden. The dry dirt shifting on my fingers felt like screaming; I had to wash my hands at the end of every row, and by the end of a day of planting or picking I was a muddy, trembling, nervous thing, incapable of understanding how my parents could go home and sleep in their own filth.
How people like me coped when farming was the only option I'm not sure. They probably died, whether from lack of food or by their own hand. Or maybe I've been mollycoddled and I was allowed to be weak. In any case, to avoid farm work I came to the town, where the filth is more widespread but less obvious, and I found a job at a tailor's shop.
Like most people I've met in the town, I cannot afford to live near where I work, nor can I afford any transportation other than shoe leather or, god help me, the bus. And from the first day, even knowing the threat of being a small, vulnerable woman, new to the town, walking alone to and from work in the dark, it was the bus that I feared the most.
I waited for one on my first day in the town. As the queue got bigger and bigger, so did the bus, blood-red and growing on the horizon like a tumor, belching dirty air. When it pulled up to the stop I saw the passengers packed in intimately, groin to buttock, moving unfathomably closer to fit in the people who had been waiting behind me in the queue, who got fed up and went around me, shoving themselves into the bus in some kind of unholy reversal of birth.
And then--the doors shut and the truly awful part happened. The wheels, staring at me now alone at the bus stop, began to grind around and around, rolling like Satan's silver eyes, demonstrating their strength: all those people, those soft fleshy bodies, their sweating weight no match for the powerful wheels, which go round and round whether you're above them or underneath them. They go round and round. And as I looked, I saw buses everywhere, all through the town, with their strong laughing wheels.
That day was the day I bought a new pair of shoes and vowed to walk, always always to walk. And I kept that silent promise to myself until yesterday.
. . .
The tailor has always been kind to me, but his wife disapproves of working women, especially single women living alone in a town. To her we are untrustworthy, known to seduce married men, and more suited to working as maids for elderly women, or best of all to staying at home with our parents until we are safely married off ourselves. As such, she has been giving me more and more work to do with less and less time to do it, trying to make me leave of my own accord, or trying to make me fail.
One positive aspect of my tendency toward obsession is the ability to lose myself in my pursuits, and sewing--as it is quiet and methodical and clean--has always been enjoyable work for me. So as I put away the last of my day's assignments (how many dishtowels can one tailor's wife require?), I was amazed, but perhaps not surprised, to find that it was 1 a.m. My walk home takes an hour and a half, so of course I fell into my bed and slept like a stone. Overslept, in fact.
Upon my waking yesterday morning, I discovered that I was going to be an hour late for work--and worse, I remembered that my first appointment was a dress fitting for a bride, the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the town. Arriving late could cost the tailor future business, and it could cost me my job--my independence--if his wife whispered in his ear.
Have you ever tried to overcome a phobia? The small brown spider sits contentedly on the wall, and you resolve to catch it and release it outside, but as you approach with a glass and a piece of card your chest constricts, your breathing quickens, your hands shake. Nevertheless, you approach, you make your move. And when a leg slips out from beneath the rim of the glass, your resolve fails and glass, card, spider all go flying. And now you have broken glass in your hair and a spider somewhere in your bed, and each could both reasonably and unreasonably be described as your own fault.
The bus sidled up to the stop, its grille grimacing at me. No queue, and no crowd--I felt that I might be able to tolerate the half-hour or so I imagined the journey would take. I took a seat, heartbeat beginning to return to normal. And for the first five minutes, I felt fine.
Then the rain started.
. . .
The first thing I noticed was a small point indeed: the wipers, swishing about, creaking on the glass, pulsing with their own rhythm. Sounds are a funny thing; I remember cicadas from the farm, chirping shrilly in ways we country folk never noticed, until sometimes visitors came to breakfast the next day with purple-circled eyes, have been unable to sleep because of "the noise." That evening, the cicadas would be present in a way they weren't before.
The wipers on the bus, going swish-swish-swish, set my teeth on edge, but the journey wasn't yet intolerable. But as the rain started coming down harder, the traffic began behaving more erratically, and the bus driver responded in turn, blasting all offenders in his path with his grating horn. And, worse, more and more passengers came crowding on the bus to avoid walking in the rain, pushing on like those I saw that first day, dropping their clinking money into the driver's fare box.
The driver, already angry, began yelling at the passengers to move on back so that people waiting at the stop could continue their relentless march onto the bus--and suddenly a woman stood before me with a crying baby, glaring at me, demanding my seat with her tired, frustrated eyes.
I stood to let her sit, then found that I was part of the undulating mass of people, wet and muddy people, myself becoming wet and muddy and trembling and nervous just like on the farm, at the end of a row of runner beans, but worse, with a baby screaming wah-wah-wah next to me and its mother desperately trying to quiet it and the clinking of money and the yelling of the driver and the car horns blaring all around. Worst, yes, suddenly worst of all was the never-ending swish, the inhuman rhythm of those damned wipers.
Someone screamed and it was me and I pushed to the door and I pushed out of the door and I fell out of the bus like vomit and I fell under those wheels just as they began to go round and round and my soft fleshy legs were no match for them.
. . .
I tell the resident psychiatrist only that I feel concerned that they haven't yet let me wash. I do not want to sleep in my own filth.