Walter Wu has become stuck. Not stuck in a rut, or in a thought, or any metaphorical iteration of the word “stuck.” He has become literally stuck. In the air. Hundreds of feet above the ground. He fell off the roof of his building, and instead of falling his body stopped mid air, without moving up or down or left or right.
At least he says he fell. He never uses the word “jump.”
Just previously to being in the air, Walter was living in his apartment, comfortable and unemployed. It was something he enjoyed doing, sitting on the couch and staring out the window. No job meant he had no reason to get out of bed, where he would stay till ten in the morning. Then he realized he didn’t even have to get up at ten, he could get up at eleven and it still wouldn’t affect his day. Twelve was even better, snuggled warm and tight with the blanket tangled around his limbs like a haphazard hug. Sometimes even one in the afternoon. And then he realized his television shows were beginning, so he would get out of bed. He missed the blanket, but a nice, dark blue terrycloth robe with frayed yellow trim served as a good replacement. So he sat on the couch, occasionally walking to the refrigerator, when a combination of hunger and bursts of energy allowed, to get a snack.
It was too expensive to go out, with no job and all, so he made excuses to not see his friends, and rarely left his apartment. Leaving the apartment meant losing money he didn’t have. By extension, friends meant losing money. They never wanted to just talk. They had to have brunch or go to the theatre or a movie or buy drinks. Friends became expensive, so it was another luxury he had to give up to keep the lights on and the television running.
Of course, he hadn’t seen his friends in awhile. They kidded him with good nature and affection, because he spent most of his time with Scarlet. His now ex-girlfriend. He was content, happy and fulfilled to spend his time with her. She felt the same, and they decided that it made sense that if they were happy together, they should be happy all the time, and so she moved in with him. Times were good. Movies, making dinner tighter, eating out once in a while. It didn’t matter what they did, as long as they did it together. Even when he lost his job as a box office attendant at the theatre, after it closed down for lack of funds, they were still happy. Times were tough and the prospect of no money only strengthened their resolve as they learned to struggle on together.
Until the day she left him. She told him, she had simply fallen out of love with him. The feelings were gone. She explained that she didn’t want to marry him. She explained that that was why people lived together, to see if they could get along as a couple for a long period of time.
She went on about how he had stopped taking care of himself and paying attention to her needs, but he was too caught up in his head by the shock of her change of heart. All he could remember was that she was kind, and loving even, as she removed his heart.
There were two complications. One, that even though she wanted nothing to do with him, he was still in love with her. The second, they had signed a lease together and they still had to live together. Love and real estate were as incompatible as Walter and Scarlet.
On the fateful night when he became stuck in the air, just a few hours earlier, he was lying on his couch, finding new positions to stretch is body. Usually it was with his upper body leaning against the right arm rest with his legs stretched lengthwise. He decided to try sitting cross legged on the middle of the couch, and found the new position intriguing The cushioning was much softer and bouncier, and sitting up gave him a new perspective to the living room with its piles of books and dishes and clothes. The pile of books on the left side of the coffee table grew every day, as he found another book favorite book and took it off the shelf with the intention of reading it again. Every day another book was added to the pile, but they wee all left unread. Except for a copy of “Slaughterhouse 5” which always remained on top, the thin paperback wrinkled and water damaged. It was the only book he read, a favorite from college. Walter used it as his main inspiration when he had a passion for writing. He once wanted to use the pen name “Walter Vonnegut,” but the thought of his books siting next to the greater Vonnegut’s work on a library shelf was too daunting. Walter hadn’t written in years, but he still liked to call himself a writer. It made him feel like he had a purpose and identity, despite his lack of activity.
He did take notes constantly, in a red leather bound notebook which never left his side. A thick tome full of handwritten pages of notes that were intended for future short stories and plays and poems. A gift from Scarlet. It was an inch thick, unusual for a notebook, but the height and width were just so that they fit in a pocket. Still a few hours before he would fall off the roof, he picked up a blue ballpoint pen and scribbled the following into his notes.
I own five wrist watches. One my parents gave to me ten years ago at Christmas. Four given to me every birthday by Scarlet. They all know I love wristwatches. All of them stopped when she broke up with me and moved out. Every single one. Hands just locked in position, like they’d given up.
Wristwatches. Remington typewriter. Bicycle. Anything made obsolete by time and technology. I want to go back to the time when people used them. Not anymore, but I still love them. And now someone else made me obsolete in her life.
Every morning at seven we would make breakfast together. She would nudge me awake, and I would make the coffee. Then she would make the pancakes. This morning I tired to make them on my own. I flipped the damn pancakes but it folded in half and parts of it were burned and the rest was raw. I’m never hungry anyway.
Since I don’t need to get up to make breakfast with her, I lie in bed longer. I always wanted to get more sleep. I can’t even remember the last time I got out of bed well rested. I lay till nine. amazing. Two extra hours of sleep. Then I lay in bed until ten because where else was there to go? Walk around from the couch to the kitchen again? Hating my . . . I could avoid the boredom and loneliness by sleeping. When I sleep I’m not living my life. I’m resting. I’m cozy. I’m okay. One day, I don’t remember when, I started getting out of bed at two in the afternoon.
I stopped shaving. Who do I need to impress anymore? Besides, it was always too much effort. Shave once and you just have to do it again. Day after day keeping the hairs off the face but they keep going back. Shaving, every day until you die. Why bother?
Without my lover around, I need something familiar. My favorite flannel shirt and sweat pants. They always make me happy. Taking care of me and keeping me warm and snug. I need that now. I need to feel taken care of. So I just wear them every day. Weekdays. Weekends. There’s no difference between the two. Date night was on Friday and laundry on Saturday and movie night on Monday, because all the theaters are dark.
Those days are gone. The only day that matters is Sunday. That’s when I claim my unemployment benefits. If I forget that day, I don’t eat. It’s Sunday today and I already claimed. That’s how I measure my life now. Government charity. Seven days till Sunday.
I don’t talk to people anymore. I thought I would feel isolated, but I like it. I’m tired of talking to friends and explaining for the twentieth time why Scarlett and I broke up. I’m tired of hearing advice. I’m tired of people telling me to go out and meet new people. “Hey, ask her out! Or ask her out! That waitress smile, you should ask her out!”
I’m tired of telling people I can’t hang out, and hiding the fact that a pint of beer could buy me dinner for two days.
I’m just tired of people.
Two weeks go by, and I still don’t miss people. I miss Scarlet, but she won’t return my calls. I stop calling her. Give her what she wants.
I do miss being outdoors though. And I’ve seen nothing but the inside of my apartment for two weeks. I stand in the kitchen to give myself a different view, but that gets boring. I rearrange the furniture so it feels different. I wonder if Buckingham Palace feels claustrophobic if you’re stuck there long enough. Everything gets boring if you stare at it long enough. Probably how Scarlett felt about me.
Into this idyllic situation walked Scarlet, in a tasteful but bright red spaghetti strap dress which went down to just above her knees, giving a hint to her shapely legs. The fabric hung smoothly against her skin, moving with every turn and step in perfect synchronicity with curves of her body. Walter’s eyes lingered on the top curve of her right hip, where he once would habitually rest his hand whenever she talked him out of some stressful situation. He would softly place his hand there, as a gesture of acknowledgment and gratitude. It hd become his signal for giving thanks. Then his eyes travelled up to her ears, where she was putting on the second of two earrings. She had not worn earrings since the days when they began dating.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Out,” she said, blunt on all levels and in all meanings, including the impact it had on him. Walter felt something he hadn’t experienced in quite some time. Emotion.
“In a dress?”
“Is it a date?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“So it’s a date.”
“I get to have a life. So do you, just in case you forgot.”
“When are you coming back?”
“Don’t wait up.” Then she slipped on a mask, covering any expression on her face, leaving just a pair of dark latte eyes. With a turn of her body and three brisk steps she was out the door.
And then she was gone. The woman who made him happy. The only woman who ever made him happy. Out the door. To see someone else.
Walter’s grandfather died when Walter was eight. His family flew to Taipei to be with him during his final days. That meant Walter spent hours in waiting rooms while his mother sat by her father’s side. She became distant, uncommuicative. Affection was missing, as was any of the joy she used show whenever she saw him. He asked her what was wrong, tried to hug her, but she still seemed distant.
“Even good parents get depression, Walter. She did nothing wrong.”
The speaker was Mr. Buggles. Walter met Mr. Buggles at around the age of five, when he thought monsters were in his closet, waiting to eat him when he fell asleep. He told his parents that Mr. Buggles was there, and like any reasonable parents they told him the closet was empty and he was safe. But still, Walter was sure there was something in the closet. He called the monster the “Bug Eyed Monster with Fangs.” But that name seemed too long. He was going to call him “Mr. Fang” for short, but the name smacked of stereotypical Ortiental villains, so he named the monster “Mr. Bug Eyes.” Then he rewrote the name as “Mr. Buggles.” Once Walter gave the monster in the closet a name, the monster seemed less dangerous.
Over the.years Mr Buggles evolved. He stopped being a furry monster with fangs, Just as Walter stopped being a young boy. Walter and his monster grew in lockstep, till Mr. Buggle grew into a dapper gentleman in a sharply tailored black suit. When Mr. Buggles told Walter about his mother’s depression, they were speaking a few hours before Walter became stuck in the air. The two of them often talked about regrets in the past. Or worries about the future. Like the hero of “Slaughterhouse 5,” Walter often became unstuck in time, but only in his mind. And although Walter adored the novel, he still failed to master the lessons contained in the pages.
Left alone in his apartment, he remembered sitting alone in the hospital waiting room, until he became completely absorbed by the images of his past. He called out for his mother in his mind, as he had cried out for her as a child.
“You’re still calling out to her,” said Mr. Buggles, speaking in the present. “You’re still calling, but she can’t hear you now.
Walter lit a cigarette.
“You know, those are what killed your grandfather,” said Mr. Buggles.
“It makes me feel better,” said David.
“I think that is what’s referred to as a loaded statement,” replied Mr. Buggles, watching with wary incredulity as Walter inhaled toxic smoke.
“Find me something else,” Walter said, exhaling with no satisfaction.
Mr. Buggles thought and thought. He always tried to help Walter, although he rarely had helpful answers. But he tried. Or rather, he never held back what was on his mind and always spoke openly to Walter.
“Whatever happened to that BDSM girl you used to go out with? The one with the tattoos and shaved head who owned a nail bed?”
Walter’s face changed from bored to wistful. “She got married and got a house in Long Island.”
“Well, good for her.”
“People move on,” Walter said.
“Yes,” agreed Mr. Bungle. “That would be the healthy thing to do.”
“The difference is, they want to move on.”
“You’d be happier if you did.”
“I don’t want to let go.” Walter put out the cigarette in an ashtray overflowing with discarded butts. “I want to be in love.”
Walter never told people about Mr. Buggles. Not that he was ashamed. He’d simply gotten so used to Mr. Buggles’ presence that it never occurred to him to mention his companion. Mentioning him would be like telling people he was breathing, or thinking. Walter just assumed that everyone had their own voice in their head who spoke to him constantly. He did tend to reply outloud to Mr. Buggles, especially when he was in distress, which was becoming more and more frequent. Especially that day.
He needed space. He was tired of being in his same living room for months. This thought had never occurred to him until Scarlet walked out on what was clearly a date. The thought of her leaving him was impossible to bear. The thought of her with someone else was beyond impossible. Suddenly he wanted to get out. Every wall, table, window taunted him, reminding him of his solitude. He needed to step out.
Walter didn’t bother to change clothes. He still wore his black and grey striped sweat pants, and an old white t-shirt where the neck was torn and stretched (but that made it comfortable and therefore his favorite. He still had on his bathrobe. The only change he made was to put on a pair of dirty black slip on sneakers. And then he saw his notebook. For reasons sentimental or hopeful or poignant, he cold not keep a thought in his long enough for examination, he slipped the notebook in the left outer pocket of his bathrobe.
“Why do they put pockets in bathrobes?” Mr. Buggles asked.
“Probably for toothbrushes and soap.”
The hallway outside the apartment was at once familiar and strange. The carpeting was clean but faded, and had that worn in look of never being quite clean despite the fact that the supervisor vacuumed once a week. The walls were painted a neutral yellowish beige that was designed to be comforting yet sterile. He saw the hallway every day, yet months spent inside made the familiar hallway look unfamiliar. He never noticed the stern hum of the fluorescent lights before. Or the dents in the wall right above his doorway.
Walking through the halls was oddly stimulating. He was outside, by his definition. Outside his apartment at least. There was a stairwell, and he decided to do something he’d never done before. He went up. Why not, he could do what he wanted. It was with elation that Walter began to explore parts of his building he had never seen before.
At the top of the stairs was a door, and through that door he found himself on the roof.
And suddenly, up above, the stars. The immense, black sky.
Down below and out of view was the sound of traffic.
Unaccustomed to stimuli, Walter reveled in the nature of the open air. Breathing fresh air. Walking more than ten steps in one direction. Simple things he had not done. He enjoyed his freedom so much that he made it all the way to the edge of the roof. A short wall lined the edge, certainly to keep people from falling over. Only four feet tall, made of clumsily organized brick and too much cement. Walter looked down. It was twenty stories down. Everything looked so far away, yet he could still make out the details of sidewalk cracks and the colors of people’s clothes and every car. It was frightening. But surely he was kept safe by the wall. It kept him from falling.
But he was enjoying his new found freedom. He was enjoying going places he had never been. The wall was wide. No balancing tricks needed to remain on top. And what was the worse that could happen? He would fall. There would be a moment of shock as flew downwards through the air, seeing each window passing by, wondering at his stupidity. But was it stupidity?
Surely, if he could survive standing on top of the wall, he would prove that he was brave. He would prove that he could face a twenty story height, which meant he could withstand a broken heart.
Bracing his hands on top of the rough concrete (for the wall was not designed for comfort) he lifted one leg, then the other, on top of the wall. Then he stood up, which was surprisingly frightening. Walter was six feet tall, but standing where he was meant he was now six feet and twenty stories high in the air.
Many people, mostly bartenders and friends, asked him why he was so in love with Scarlet. He could tell them about his history with her, or how she made him feel. He tried to find the words. He read love poems, and essays. He read Letters to a Young Poet, and the works of e e cummings. He read Pablo Neruda and watched romantic black and white films. And he noticed they all showed the inability to describe what love was like. They could only describe the effects before and after. Love was beyond words, as was the pain he felt. All he knew was that he was suddenly standing on the edge of a roof, twenty stories above pavement, and he saw nothing wrong with that.
There was an unfamiliar feeling. A tingle of excitement that started at his feet and shot up to his waist. The adrenaline rush, knowing that one false step would send him hurtling down to his death. It was a mature of fear and anticipation and excitement. It was not heart ache, and for that reason he stayed on the roof a bit longer.
He’d always been terrified of heights. Simply thinking of being high up, on a cliff or on a plane, would make his palms sweat in reality. In days past, Walter and Scarlett went to the movies often. Their favorite theater had a tall escalator which went two stories, and was inexplicably placed in the middle of the lobby. Scarlett knew of his phobia. Each time they went up, she told him to take her hand and close his eyes. She instructed him gently and playfully to just trust that she would make sure he didn’t fall, and would pull him to safety at the top of the escalator.
Eyes shut in the present, still on the roof, Walter reached his hand out to Scarlet in his mind, reaching towards empty air in reality. He missed her. And he reached his arm out even further. Then he leaned too far and lost his balance. He fell over the edge.
He screamed in terror. In regret. Not just a scream, it was a prayer that he be spared an inevitable death. It was a confession of his stupidity. And regret.
And he stopped.
Suspended in gravity.
Walter became stuck in the air.