the end of the world
Every day is the end of the world. It doesn’t feel like falling; it’s flat, like a TV screen left on too long after the movie ends, and you stare and stare but it never comes back. Never rewinds itself to the good bits, the bits you pay fifteen dollars to see and then spend the night wishing that you were the one that beat the bad guy, you got the love interest and lived happily ever after in a chateau in the Swiss Alps. The TV stays dark, and the lights are off so you trip over three separate remotes on your way to bed. Well, you think about it, but don’t get up. That’s also what the end of the world feels like – willing your body to move but also expecting to stay fully seated in a comfortable bundle on a too-small couch. You don’t own either the TV or the couch. That’s not part of the metaphor, it’s a fact that lingers in your mind and gnaws at you when you see your paycheck. Still not enough. Never enough. Six days a week among people you hate and peanuts to pay for it, packing peanuts specifically – you work in a boxing and unboxing factory which makes about as much sense as owning a couch you don’t really own. The factory’s fine, newish, modern. There’s steel beams in the middle of it, holding up a glass ceiling that looks like it could fall down at any moment.
Your own ceiling is invisible in the blackness that spreads from the TV. It’s not even a new TV, so why is it so important to you? Your parents have a better one, probably. Everything they own is nice and neat, and didn’t seem to be used for anything other than glueing strangers together in a large-as-life dollhouse. You don’t own a TV or a couch, and you sit here on your couch and stare at the TV.
The phone rings and you look at it, not really comprehending the noise. Your mind is full of furniture and factories and packing peanuts. You pick up the phone. It continues to ring, and you realise that you only thought about picking it up, still stuck in the sleepy headspace that follows the lull after the movie. This time you reach out your arm and pick up the phone. It’s cold from sitting on the coffee table that is actually just a box from the factory you work at. You have a lot of boxes.
‘Hello?’ says the phone, and you feel your mouth make the shapes it needs to reply without really thinking about it.
‘Hello,’ you say to the phone.
‘I’m worried about you,’ the phone warbles, ‘I never see you any more.’
You don’t say that you are watching TV or that you are sitting on a couch. These are not phone conversations; the phone only wants to know why you have not been out to see it. Nothing else matters to the phone, but nothing the phone does matters to you either. The end of the world feels like isolation and the space left between two people when neither one cares enough to ask about the other.
‘Hello?’ the phone says again, and you hang up. You don’t want to see the phone today so you put it back on the coffee table box and stare at the ceiling, wondering if the stars you can’t see right now feel as lonely and as cold as you do.
The end of the world tastes like leftover pizza and that flat, watered down coke they sell at the corner store for half-off. You sit on the couch and think about the fact that if you had a table, you wouldn’t own that either. None of it matters. You don’t even have space for a table, where would you put it? Those commercials with the fold-out dolls houses had it right, you think, more space just like that. Everything folded down, or up, or sideways, and the house shut with all the finality of an easily distracted child. You remember being that child, somewhere in the back of your mind, the child who was constantly losing or forgetting things because your parents would tidy them up for you. They tidied everything so well that you lost things you never knew you had until three years later when you woke up in the middle of the night wondering about the fate of those styrofoam dinosaurs that grew in water and never stopped. You would think about putting them in the bath, leaving them there until they eclipsed the house, and you could travel to school on a stegosaurus instead of the bus. You remember that you always wanted to be a paleontologist when you were younger – or was it a police officer? It mattered so much at the time but as you sit here with your pizza and half-empty bottle of watery coke you realise that none of it matters at all, and the end of the world is knowing and accepting that you will never be all that you dreamed you could be.
No one plans to grow up, it just sort of happens while you’re busy living your life. Your parents grew older being parents, but you don’t know if they grew up. They gave you lists of chores to do, and lists of rules not to break. You wonder if they ever broke the rules. You did. That’s why you’re sitting on a couch you don’t own in an apartment you hate, surrounded by people you hate slightly more than the apartment you all live in because they live there too and are in some way responsible for how it all is. Your neighbours don’t have secrets when the walls are this thin, and you wonder if they know that you know. The old man in room 302 has an orange cat he isn’t allowed. The couple in room 304 have sex every Tuesday at 5am, and the woman’s voice is sometimes new. So far it’s been two weeks, but Tuesday happens again soon and you’re betting it won’t last. You wonder if their parents are disappointed in them. It could be the end of the world and their families wouldn’t know where they are. Would it matter to them, or would it be just another failure on a longer list of failures?
You have a list of failures on your fridge right now. It’s the same list as the one with chores on it. It’s in your face every morning as you eat to keep yourself alive. Some days you think about doing them. You lie in bed all morning as you picture yourself with soapsuds up to your elbows, fingers getting pruney in the sink. A stack of clean dishes ready to put away as though you just moved in all over again, with the thrill of finding little hidey-holes for all your items still fresh and exciting. You’ll consider it for an hour, maybe two. Get up, stock image of a spotless kitchen in your head. The dishes are still everywhere, filthy, two weeks old. There’s no dishwashing liquid left.
The end of the world is hoping every day will be the last because you can’t take any more, and then you wake up to do it all over again. It’s rolling over and throwing your arm over nothing but air. It’s the way you stare out the window at the city below and wonder if anyone knows what the point of life is. You’ve finished the coke, but the tiny drops of liquid left in the bottle no longer look appetising. Coloured sugar and water, with who knows what else mixed in. The world could end without you knowing what coke is made from. Is it important? When you were younger and definitely more healthy than you are right now – who has time for calorie counting when you can be busy doing nothing? – maybe you would have tried to find out. You would have gotten a book and read about chemicals and carbonation and corporations that ship the stuff world-wide. That’s not who you are now, at the end of the world, in your dead apartment filled with empty plastic bottles and noises of other peoples lives filtered through the walls.
You don’t know if you want to change. Don’t know if you can change. This is the person you made yourself, the one that you never wanted to be. The next you might be worse. Even worse, it might be better. Then you would lie awake at night hating all the times you lay awake wishing for something better instead of doing something about it. You’ve wasted too many years to make it better now, all that’s left is to give up and wait for the end of the world.
The TV’s still running, and you shut it off. It doesn’t make you feel like you’ve accomplished anything, but at least the feedback waves have stopped ringing in your ears. Putting the remote on the coffee table box overbalances the pizza box and it slides to the ground. You pick it back up and grease leaks through the cardboard bottom onto your fingers. You don’t care, pizza is greasy, it’s a fact of life. Maybe you would care, if you were a more successful you. You don’t feel like that person right now.
The box reminds you of work, which you hate. That is, you hate the fact that you can’t seem to escape your job, not that you hate the pizza box. It would be stupid to hate something that can’t hate you back when there are so many other things that you could productively spend time hating instead. Like your job. The one where you box and unbox and re-box and then re-re-box when that guy across from you screws his up. You spend a lot of time hating him. It’s a valid use of hate, because he hates you as well, and you both know it, and you both hate each other more than anyone else in the factory. The supervisor hates everyone, but he also hates the two of you more than anyone else in the entire factory. At least, that’s how it feels. You wonder what would happen if you didn’t hate him one day.
The phone beeps, and it takes you a while to realise what it is, and then even longer to find it. It has a habit of disappearing like that, and sometimes you wish it were that easy for you to just tuck yourself in between the couch cushions and hide until somebody noticed you were gone. There’s a text message or three waiting, and you flick through them simply to make the beeping stop.
I’m coming over, get dressed.
The knock on your door punctuates this last message, and you vaguely remember laughing about how the amount of stairs between your floor and the carpark gave the perfect amount of time to send a text. A smile pulls at your mouth, all twisty and knotty. It feels weird, but you don’t stop smiling.
It could be the end of the world, but you won’t be facing it alone. You get up and open the door.
Jenny Collins lives in Palmerston North where she is doing a BA in English Literature.