L’Appel du Vide

Photo by Gabe Ramos on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Sheila found herself living alone in Toronto, without a job or close friends, in a  bachelor apartment with a futon, a book case, an electric frying pan, and a small kitchen table with two chairs. This wasn’t what she had planned. She had thought all along (albeit vaguely, she realized) that her life would be larger somehow. More friends, parties, a demanding but satisfying job. Weekends at the cottage. Maybe a pet.

Very occasionally Sheila tip-toed to the edge of wondering what had gone wrong. A recent series of disappointments—another unsuccessful job interview; a disastrous second date with a man who said she was not good looking enough; and a failed grad school application caused her to wonder about a pattern. At the same time, she was exploring the city, on foot and by transit, and on long walks and excursions felt the pulse of discovery, of something wondrous around the corner.

At school, Sheila had been called a daydreamer. “Sheila is not paying attention.” “Sheila doesn’t seem to care about her work.” But this wasn’t true. She could pay attention without watching; she cared about some of her work. She was not really daydreaming. At first, she simply wished she were somewhere else.

Later, she became actively engaged in a conjured space, the present, but with a companion, sometimes a friend, and sometimes someone more like a teacher. She did not imagine herself in the future. Later, she would conclude she couldn’t—that this space she visited wasn’t a product of her making, like a fantasy or a dream, but a glimpse into a parallel life, one in which she roamed freely. It was like being in and watching a movie at the same time.

As she got older, this world receded. In her real present was conflict and drama and a predictable level of angst. High school loomed, and then university. She was called on by her parents, her teachers, and her friends to project herself into the future. Where will you go to school? What are you going to do with your life? Effortlessly, she lobbed back convincing answers. “I’m going to take history.” “I’m going to go to law school.” “I’m planning to travel.” In this way, she painted a believable picture of her future self, but at the same time recognized, with increasing unease, that she could not really imagine herself beyond the age of 25. She wondered if this was a vision, a premonition. Yes, it could be that, she thought, but it might also be a simple failure of imagination.

She wasn’t thinking about this on the subway platform when she first thought that she could jump. Her habit, as she explored the city, was to choose a destination for an errand, either to go to the library or to apply for a job, and afterward spend a few hours wandering around. Then she rode the subway back to her apartment. On this day she arrived on the platform just as a train was leaving. She had noticed she liked the smell of diesel and the hot rush of wind as the trains pulled away, creating a vacuum that drew her closer to the edge.

Over the days and weeks, she stood closer to the yellow caution zone, and now boldly stepped onto it, leaning into the tunnel to watch for the next train. When it came whooshing in, she pulled back only slightly, determined to test her tolerance for risk. And to her surprise, what she felt was a small, sensual thrill—a fluttering of her heart and quickening breath, a feeling of being alive for the first time.

It wasn’t long before she sought out these moments, inched to the edge at every opportunity, gauging any movement behind her, aware she might be shunted onto the track. Sometimes she would wait, as two or three trains came and went, basking in the hot fumes.

In her mind, she saw herself leaping forward. But in this mental rehearsal she didn’t hit the tracks or the train. Instead—like in a dream or a nightmare—she woke from the reverie just before the fatal moment.

At home she relived these moments, complete with racing heart. It became a habit, in fact, to visit the platform in her head, and to think about what it meant. If she was suicidal she was not aware of it. Yet the platform beckoned, inviting her somewhere new. To slip beneath the surface, to disappear.

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