Overnight

11:45 pm.

On a night in late November, I arrive home dead tired. It was a long evening in the lab, staring at a 27-inch screen until my brain turned to mush. I drop my bag to the floor. Brush my teeth. Change my clothes. And fall into bed – to no avail. I turn on my bedside lamp, read a little.

Finally, it’s time for sleep. It needs to be or I’ll hate myself in the morning. I turn out the light.

12:45 am.

I’d mistakenly thought that that Moroccan Mint tea would be fine. My mind is wired though, flitting between the problems in my code, the fires I’ll have to put out in class tomorrow, and all that needs to be done by Friday, the day after. I try to quiet my mind. I listen. My apartment is asleep, but there are still noises in the night. Cracks outside. Like gunshots, I think. I put it down to whatever trauma I still carry from Baltimore and my obsession with true crime.

1:00 am.

The alarm starts. I lay in bed listening for a few seconds, initially unsure. They must have replaced the fire alarms while I’d been gone over the summer. I’ve never heard these before. I open my door to the dark hall, staring at what must be the alarm in confusion. It could only be that.

It doesn’t stop. Footsteps start upstairs. My roommate steps out from her room, the same expression of confusion mixed with questioning alarm. The footsteps become increasingly frantic. Smells of burnt toast. Perhaps that all it is. We don’t say anything as we go together to open the front door, which opens to the entrance of the complex. It’s unsettling to say the least.

A few seconds of waiting and listening and people are running down the stairs.

“Get out! The whole building is burning!”

I look back down our hallway. It stretches the length of the building. An unmistakable orange glow is now dancing across the white of the refrigerator, the pots and pans gleaming. The air now reflects light, increasingly paled by smoke.

My third roommate finally pokes his head from his room. Despite his dazed look, I think he gets the point. The fourth has yet to emerge from his room. As the kitchen grows brighter and brighter, I yell down the hall as I get myself together. He finally emerges.

In these seconds, you don’t think, you simply do. I grab my bag, shoes, coat, phone.

1:03 am.

With these things overflowing from my hands, I stumble out the door. I pull my boots on in the carpeted foyer. Getting out to the sidewalk, I pull my coat on. It’s still a cozy 34°F outside. The last few people flow from of the building. Some are already in tears. I realize that I’m shaking uncontrollably. Thoughts of what to do now are only faintly beginning to filter in. Sirens.

1:05 am.

Policemen are on top of us, yelling, pushing us to get off the block, anywhere, just away from here. Sledge hammers are already pounding away at the electronically locked glass doors to the foyer. Only just installed last week.

They’re already in our unit. We can hear the shouting, making sure everyone is out. We slowly heed their words, backing away slowly, but not sure where to go.

We can’t help but watch. We can see the flames rise above the building. You can’t help but think that everything is lost. All that wood.

I take a minute to feel the air. It’s dry, but there’s only a little wind. Thank goodness, I think to myself. The four of us continue walking to nowhere in particular. I concentrate on stopping the shaking.

1:15 am.

We find a late night café and sit. We sit in silence. Some minutes pass. Logic begins to come back to us. During these moments, your mind inevitably files through all that you have in there, now presumably in flames. Yes, there are childhood mementos, my passport, the products of some hard work. You realize what you truly value for those few moments, and it’s little. More sirens.

The logic comes flooding back. Priority #1: a place to stay for the night.

7 am.

It’s Thursday. I respond to text messages, explaining 2 am phone calls. I check my email. I find presentable clothing. I go to my meetings. I go to class. Carry on as usual. There’s not much else to be done. I carry on as usual.

Sure, I’m sure that I do.

People.

A not insignificant part of my time is spent avoiding people. Avoiding people in conversation, I mean. It’s active avoidance. I’m sure the rift in language at the moment only encourages this tendency of mine. For some people, the offhand remark, few words, or even enough words for a full conversation comes flowing without thought for making the words themselves. For others, it’s another extreme. It’s safe to say that I’m on the latter end of the spectrum. The far end. It’s been a lifetime endeavor to minimize its impact, which is mostly detrimental from where I’m sitting.

I actively avoid engaging with people.

Waiting at the Apple Store, sitting at those large tables with nothing to do but wait because they’ve taken your phone / laptop / whatever electronic device you have otherwise semi-attached to your person, it seems natural to exchange a few words with the person sitting not ten centimeters from you. But no. I will kindly respond to your leading question and then kindly ignore you in a sufficiently frustrating way as to make it truly an awkward effort to continue speaking.

Walking out from the metro, you hold the door from afar, waiting politely. I see your craving for words. I slow my pace. I allow the man formerly behind me to be subject to it. As I see the conversation continue to the ground above, I breathe a sigh of relief. A narrow escape.

My days continue. Was I born this way? I suppose so.

As a child, I would rehearse the words over and over in my head before they came out, whether to order something at a restaurant or ask for the restrooms. It couldn’t be the wrong thing – grammatically or socially. It couldn’t make you or me uncomfortable. It couldn’t reveal any of myself, but perhaps none of you either. And so my boxed life could continue, wildly uninteresting, peppered only by the stories that I built within it.

When you listen more than you speak, it’s easier to learn things. You realize that people like talking about themselves. A lot. You learn from this. You feed it. You also learn what degree of yourself you’re required to share to meet people, actually make friends. Meeting people, after all, is one of the things that makes life interesting. People do amazing and frightening things. At least, some do. But talking to people is how you learn about them. Not simply what they say, but how they exist. Some of time’s most influential ideas have come from people talking to each other. Not to mention, it fights some part of our mortality. Don’t you want some part of that?

In recent years, I thought I’d conquered a lot of these people-avoidance anxieties. They seem to have returned with a vengeance. A new language. Before, I was young enough to have excuses. Now, it’s a weird paralysis. I continue practicing over and over in my head so much that I annoy and tire myself. It still doesn’t really ever come out the right way. I can’t plan for everything. People are still unpredictable. But the best way to learn a new language is – surprise – to talk to people. Any person. It seems impossible.

It has me a bit nervous now. They say that by about my age, as women, our personalities and habits become more set and stable. (That’s why it’s best to marry after this age, so I’ve heard. Though debated.) Whichever is true, am I to suffer this crippling anxiety forever? Forever?? Likely.

Still, I like to think that I manage to float comfortably atop the well of self-pity. If the last 27 years is any evidence, I’m perfectly capable of overcoming it, in this language or the next.