She sits across from me on the tram back from Wimbledon. It is 12:20 AM, it’s the last train of the night. She is clearly tired. She keeps yawning, in threes. She has probably had a long night. (Haven’t we all?) I wonder if she went to a film like I did. Maybe it was a horror film – she stares out the window with a look on her face like she’s afraid of what she might see, but at the same time she can’t look away. (You’re safer if you look – more aware – prepared.)
This is when I start to notice the strange way she is moving. (Or should I say ‘ways’?) She jerks her head up and down in rapid motion – like (I Dream of) Jeannie, blinking so hard her head nods – but no magic happens when this woman does it. She simply jerks her head (for no reason?). Come to think of it, she blinks too. It is a strange blink, her eyes scrunched together so tightly, lines appear in her forehead and her nose draws upward so her whole face is pulled into one terrible closed expression –
only to be released into a full expansion, the eyes at once growing larger –
and larger –
and larger –
until the liquid splashes over the pupils in a coating, as though the lids are closing even while they are open (how do I know this?) –
only for the whole process to repeat, over –
and over –
and over again –
until she seems to be weary from it, and she reaches into the brown bag she carries, fishing for Nurofen, to cure the migraine she has obviously been afflicting upon herself. (Why can’t she stop?)
This bag. There is something curious about it. She clutches it tightly, checking it time and time again – for what, I can’t tell.
She checks it again, and everything appears to be alright.
She checks it again –
and again –
and again –
and I realise she’s making sure her mobile phone has not fallen out of the bag. Now, in a panic, despite finding the phone there a few moments ago, she seems not to feel it, and she searches frantically –
searches so much, she does not even see it. She pulls out the entire contents of the bag. They consist of practical items. A book (in case she gets bored), with a book mark (that matches the book, in colour and theme), a hairbrush (in case it is a windy day), an umbrella (even though it was sunny all day), an extra jacket (she must have spent ages packing this bag, to make it all fit!), a nail file, a small bottle of cover-up make-up, a tiny mirror, keys, a small notepad and pen, an assortment of CDs (in case her mood changes midway through the day), and an extra set of batteries for a CD player that sits in one of her coat pockets. In short, she has come prepared – for nearly anything. At last she realises the phone was one of the first things she pulled out, actually. She gives it a look as if she never even saw it, and she is scared of it now – like she believes it just magically materialised from nowhere. But, all in all, she is relieved it’s not gone – and she shoves everything away again –
except the make-up and the file. She has decided she needs these. She touches her face –
all over –
every single millimetre. She runs her fingers unhappily over the skin with a look on her face that suggests it is not smooth enough. She looks fine, but she can’t see that –
or, even if she can, she can’t feel it. She quickly, secretly (she thinks), opens the make-up and applies it over various places on her face that she imagines are flawed. She avoids checking her mirror, though –
maybe she’s afraid of what she will see (like her fear of looking out the window). Maybe she is scared to look anyone in the eye (even herself). Now she takes the file to her hands. The nails are shaped so evenly, but she is unconvinced of their perfection. It appears one is slightly rough, at one place –
so she smoothes it –
and it upsets the symmetry –
so she files more –
until it’s shorter than all the other nails –
so she files those –
until all her beautiful long, shapely nails are short, depleting her of some of her grace and making her hands look almost childish – and the filing has chipped some of the bright varnish off one nail – so she quickly sets to work at peeling it entirely off of every single nail. Then she works on her cuticles. Sometimes cuticles will get in the way of varnish, and women will push them back a little. She obviously has done this – but she doesn’t like how she can see them now, like rows of dead, limp skin – so she picks at them – she presses them with her file, pressing deeply on the nail (it must hurt), and pulling, pushing – tearing off the cuticles – maybe even with her teeth – with a struggling expression on her face, like she doesn’t want to do this, but she almost can’t help it – until her fingers start to bleed. She looks at the blood casually, like she is used to it. She even pulls out some tissue from a coat pocket and presses it to her hands to stop the bleeding (as if she was prepared for this, too). Then, as though determined to inflict as much pain upon herself as possible, she picks at a scab on her arm – again, like she doesn’t want to, but she has to – like someone else is there forcing her to. And then she chews the inside of her mouth, pushing the cheeks around so her teeth can reach difficult places, making her face take very strange shapes –
and triggering her nose to work up and down, the nostrils flaring out, then in again, over –
and over –
and over again –
forcing her head to jerk more strongly (it has been jerking all this time), and the eyes do their weird blink, now with the eyes rolling in odd directions, or looking to the sides of her, straining so far they go into her head and almost all that is visible is the whites (she must make herself blind that way, sometimes) –
and all the while her jaw has begun to clench tightly, or snap open and shut –
and over again, as though the first snaps were not satisfactory, did not register in her brain as happening – like testing a microphone repeatedly until the sound finally starts to work and you know your audience can finally hear you – except her own brain is her audience –
and she winces with each snap (doesn’t she wear down the enamel on her teeth, that way?) –
and I notice her shoulder is twitching, like the result of a painful muscle spasm inside. The arm sometimes hangs limply at her side, as though dead, and each time it twitches (like it has a mind of its own) she puts her other hand on it, as if to steady it (but she knows it’s a pointless effort) –
and then I see her hands, the way they freeze up. The fingers clench into awkward positions, like arthritis (but not quite). She often bends the digits – relentlessly – ceaselessly – until she hears a quiet, soft crack –
and then proceeds to crack all the knuckles, many times. Once, it hurts, but mostly she seems used to it – like the blood –
and she suddenly appears to notice something wrong (again) with her nails –
and out comes the file, her head bent over, her eyes sheathed behind glasses pressed almost directly against the fingers, as though scrutinising the atoms in the nail – like trying to see the rough, broken fibres that make up the tips, the way they show you in infomercials in order to scare you into buying their nail hardeners. She scrapes the edges with the well-worn file until the nail becomes so short she actually drops the file in shock at the sudden pain that has come from beginning to file skin.
But she picks it up again and continues to file anyway (carefully, though) – she has to make it even.
Frustrated, she puts her fingers to her mouth and nibbles at the edges, pulling at the skin. From what I can see, you can’t tell how mangled they must really be – she’s lucky that way. She tears at them like a lion ripping into an antelope. They should be ugly, like that torn animal. Yet, from a distance, they take the appearance of normal hands.
Now she puts these hands to her hair and rubs her fingers against it for some unknown reason, smoothing out the loose strands perhaps, or maybe feeling for moments of dry scalp, or maybe she has wounded even her head and (unwillingly) scratches at hidden (possibly self-inflicted) scars there –
until her arm is over her head, making her look very strange.
The way the tram moves now, I can see the other windows reflected in the one beside me, so that I am watching a reflection of a reflection, and eventually it looks as though the tram I am in is actually driving toward me at the same time as containing me – and I see the other passengers are noticing the woman across from me.
She stares hard at an insignificant place on the seat next to her, as if trying to burn the corners into her eyes – and then touches the edge of that seat – then touches it again, pressing her fingers hard into it, as though she wants to push her body through the seat. She taps her foot on the floor, almost as if she is impatient (although her face contradicts this). She taps it like she cannot stop – like, if she sits still for even one second, something will go horribly wrong. (Maybe the world will end.) She fidgets, her hands running along each other until the feeling makes her uncomfortable – her feet tapping harder now, like her snapping teeth, like the tapping is not satisfactory unless she pounds her feet harder and deeper into the ground – like she needs to feel the floor pushing into her limbs, through her limbs, in order to feel grounded, composed – in order to be able to stop tapping her feet. But it never seems to be enough – she never seems to be able to stop – and her hands now press against her head more heavily – harder – and harder – until she is pushing the skin all around, at the temples mainly, like a madman coming upon his ingeniously diabolical plan for world domination – and she has no idea how ridiculous all of it makes her face look (or does she?) – if she could just sit still, relax, let her face fall into its natural look, I think she would be pretty – but it’s hard to see that through the mess of motions she has become.
Suddenly her phone rings, and she races for it, as though embarrassed at the ring tone. And, when she answers, her onlookers have the chance to realise what is wrong. In short bursts, she speaks, interrupted severely by the jerking of her head –
the clenching of her jaw –
the clicking noises she makes in her throat, now that her voice has been activated –
and she says:
‘Hi ------ I’m on ------- the tram, now -------I’m alright ------- my tics are going ---- crazy, though --- not enough sleep ----yeah’ (swallow, throaty click, head jerk) ‘Kkkkk ------ Rrrrr --- rrrr --- rrrr ----- sss-s-sss --- ttttt – sorry ------ I can’t talk (tttt) now really ----- okay, yeah – bye.’
These strange, random consonants come like echoes of all other sounds she hears around her on the tram – and I realise, I had not taken notice of it before, but she has been doing this through the whole journey – mimicking the other voices, how words have been said –
and now I see she even mimics my expressions, for she has caught me watching her. I quickly turn away, and she does the same, as though we were never staring at each other.
I often watch people on the tram or the train. We all do. And we make judgments. It’s almost unavoidable. But this poor woman – young woman, in fact – has endured all the tram stares, and probably has endured them (how many?) times before – stares, as though she’s crazy –
mildly retarded –
who knows –
abnormal, certainly. Yet I saw the book she pulled from her obsessively (compulsively) packed bag – The Idiot by Dostoyevsky – so she must be mentally capable –
and that phone call – ‘tics’ she said. This woman is not crazy – she has Tourette Syndrome – and obviously so many other symptoms (or conditions) that go with it.
And these are just the tics I see on the tram –
controlling her –
forcing her to do things that actually hurt her. How difficult it must be to be her – to have a brain like hers – who knows how else it affects her, when she is leading her life away from this tram – who knows what childhood memories she holds in that brain of hers – if children used to point it out to her, ask her why she blinked so much, or rolled her eyes – if they gave her names, like ‘bunny’, because of her twitching nose – if she ever knew how to answer back, because she was too young to understand what was going on in her body, and realise her behaviour was not her fault – if her parents ever understood what was happening to their daughter, that she didn't mean to be obnoxious but she simply could not help it – who knows the strength she has found to ignore the stares and the pain all these years, and just carry on as though everything is normal –
or the private tears she has shed when everything has gotten to be too much for her, and she starts to believe those stares, believe nothing about her is normal –
and how many times has she suddenly become so self-conscious that she starts to imagine those stares, even if they aren’t real?
As I think this, I notice we are approaching my stop, and I press the button. ‘Tram Stopping’ lights up in a neon sign above my head, and I stand – and she stands too. We both move for the doors but, when I move away from the windows, she disappears.
It’s funny how often I forget it’s my own reflection.