Roberta Polonowski was just like any other twenty-six-year-old woman: too young to care about her pension but responsible enough to get her yearly Pap smear done.
Her alarm went off every morning at seven o’clock. She liked to keep the same routine on the weekends as well because she “didn’t want to waste her life in bed.” She always felt like she was running out of time. This Saturday started just like her every other Saturday for the past two thousand three hundred and four days – since the day she dropped out of college and decided to become a painter. She never had a feel for words, but with the paint brush, she felt she could convey her thoughts the “right way.” Her father never forgave her for this decision and hasn’t spoken to her ever since, but her mother, despite their differences, was always supportive. Even when Roberta needed to move back to her place for an entire year because she couldn’t afford rent. Her parents got divorced when she was thirteen, and her mother never again found anyone she would have trusted enough to share her house and life with.
Roberta was just like every other struggling artist: juggling multiple jobs to keep her head above water, waiting for the big break. She had her work showcased here and there (mainly in friends’ friends’ pop up bars, out of pity) and she even managed to get one of her paintings into a respectable gallery known as the “new hip place for up-and-coming young talents” because she once helped out the gallery owner in an important matter, and she wanted to return the favor. But even though a few collectors were excited about her work, the painting didn’t sell.
As she was wriggling out of her Alpaca blanket (a gift from a wealthy friend) on that morning, images of the fight from the night before were flashing before her eyes. She felt awful and the more she thought about it, the bigger the knot in her throat grew. They always had fights, but this was different. She said things no one ever should say to a mother and although she was right about the facts, she wished she could take her words back.
They never had an easy relationship. They were like cocoa powder and cold milk – never quite mixed smoothly, but if you worked on them hard and long enough, they slowly embraced their unity. It took years of effort, arguments, tears, and sweat that they got where they were. They finally learned to understand and respect each other and became friends. And now all that was in danger. Roberta was concerned that she might have caused irrevocable damage.
She walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on. She glanced at her phone, hoping that her mother had called, but all she saw on the display was the little icon of unread emails. She threw the phone on the counter and poured oatmeal in a bowl. She always wondered how she wasn’t bored of eating the same breakfast every single morning, but she didn’t like change, so she stuck to porridge. She never read emails before breakfast as she couldn’t take any news on an empty stomach. If it was bad news, she needed to throw up, and if it was good news, she became so lightheaded, she almost fell.
She found her fondness of oatmeal peculiar because she thought she’d never eaten anything more tasteless than that. For her, it was the definition of anti-flavor. She tried to boost it up with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon and frozen berries, but it was still like chewing on wooden splitter. Sure, the ones that came in a pack of eight and were industrially flavored, tasted much better (“Strawberries and Cream” was her favorite), but they were full of sugar, which she refused to eat. Sugar made her lazy in her body and overactive in her brain. She couldn’t handle that.
She usually read a book while munching on her insipid breakfast. She was in the middle of a story written by a guy who used to work in a hotel and recounted all the disturbing behind-the-scenes anecdotes you don’t want to learn about as a potential hotel guest. Not that she could have afforded to stay in a hotel or even travel, but just in case, she was trying to remember all the don’ts. She didn’t want her toothbrush soaked in toilet water by an angry housekeeper or butler one day.
Despite the disgusting details, the book was funny and it usually put her in a good mood. But that morning, even the funniest lines sounded mundane in her head and couldn’t divert her thoughts from her mother. She finished breakfast and washed the bowl. She had a brand new dishwasher but never used it. Not only did it smell like sewage water after finishing a cycle, but she also thought it would make more sense to just rinse that one single plate and mug she always used. She dried her hand and reached for her phone again. Still no message or call from her mom, but another email notification popped up on her screen. It was from the girl that worked part-time in the gallery; they knew each other from a wedding where they were both trying to make some extra cash by waitressing.
Her painting got sold. She thought she’d misunderstood something and read the email one more time. And again. And once more – just to make sure. But it said the same thing every time, and finally, she believed it. In the moment of exhilaration, she speed dialed her mom and only realized what she had done when the call went to voicemail. She hung up and the smile vanished from her face. Suddenly she felt the saddest she ever was. She wanted to share the big news with her mother.
She decided to visit her and make amends. She wasn’t sure how her mom would react, but she didn’t care. She threw on an old Led Zeppelin T-shirt (one of the remainders of one her exes) but didn’t like herself in the mirror and the day called for something different from black. She opted for a light blue mini-floral pattern shirt – the one she wore when she wanted to make a confident-but-gullible impression. Jeans, boots, and a navy blue trench coat, of which the belt was missing, so to hold it together, she wrapped a scarf around her waist. It looked awkward and undoubtedly unfashionable, but she never cared too much about what others thought of her outfits or looks.
She grabbed her bag and poured its contents on the table. To her, starting with a clean slate meant a spotless bag as well. She couldn’t believe there were also bonbon wrappers in the pile, she hadn’t eaten chocolate since college. This made her wonder about two things. Number one: how lucky she was not to have discovered a half-eaten hot dog or banana instead and number two: it was probably time to get a new bag. Or at least wash that one. So she took a mental note of that and added it to the thousand other things she was planning to do to get ahead in life.
As Roberta was running down the stairs, she stumbled upon a garbage bag somebody left in the way and almost fell over. She managed to keep her balance but hurt her ankle a little. She wasn’t even surprised; clumsiness and unexpected small accidents were part of her everyday life. When she opened the heavy metal door and stepped out on the street, the sunrays were so bright, they hurt her eyes and she had to squint.
She loved spring. The blue sky, the perfect level of warmth, the occasional cool breeze, and the fragrance of flowers in the air, which she never understood where it was coming from and how it lasted so long in a city full of gray concrete buildings and people that sometimes threw their trash on the ground and didn’t shower for days.
It was a perfect Saturday.
She was striding the streets; she wanted to pass by the gallery to say thank you to the girl before visiting her mother. As she turned at the corner, she caught sight of a flower shop on the opposite side. She thought it’d be nice to get some flowers for her mom. Nothing fancy, something sweet. She ran across the road and picked a bouquet of orange tulips. Not mediocre but not too prominent either. There weren’t many things they had the same taste in, but flowers were one of them. Her mother loved tulips ever since she visited Agassiz, a tiny Canadian village with a not so tiny tulip festival.
She grabbed the doorknob and was about to leave the store when the florist rushed to her and handed over her wallet. She left it on the counter. She always did such silly things. She wondered why she was so forgetful and scattered at times. She thanked the florist, smiled, and stepped out of the store.
She felt a giant hit on her head, just above her temple, and everything went black. She heard some noise but couldn’t figure out whether it was people speaking, cars passing by, or the sound of garbage trucks emptying bins. She was lying on the ground facing the sky, feeling numbness and something warm on her cheek that was slowly making its way down to her chin. She tried to open her eyes but her eyelids felt too heavy and she didn’t have the strength to lift them. The noise became sharper; it was people screaming. Somebody grabbed her wrist, “She’s got a pulse,” a panicking female voice shrieked.
Roberta tried to shape words with her mouth and in her head, it sounded like she was speaking but nobody seemed to hear it or they were just too busy picking up the tulips and rearranging them into a bouquet. Until that moment, she didn’t have any pain but all of a sudden, it felt like her head would explode. She was used to migraines and knew how bad they could hurt, but this was different. It felt like somebody had put her head in a vise and kept tightening it until her eyes popped out.
She felt something on her hip. It was a familiar sensation but it took her a moment to realize it was her phone vibrating in her pocket. Nobody ever called her on weekends; she knew it was her mom. She never wanted anything more than to answer that call. Deep down, she knew she wouldn’t be able to do that but attempted it anyway. She managed to move her hand closer to her body, but digging into a pocket felt like lifting a ninety-four-pound bag of cement above the head and no matter how hard she tried, all she could do was slide the tip of her thumb in.
The sound of sirens and the voices around her became quieter until they died off completely. There was only silence and blackness, and the vibrating sensation on her hip. An image floated before her eyes: she was spinning around in a fairy costume her mom made for her for Halloween when she was eight because she was scared of witches and skeletons and didn’t want to be any of them.
It was an eggshell dress with tulle skirt and little flowers on it. They were made out of colored crepe paper and her mother spent an entire night sewing them on one by one. It was beautiful and she remembered that she’d felt like a real fairy when she’d put it on. One that makes dreams come true.
Her mother smiled and that was the picture in her head when her phone stopped vibrating. And the last picture she saw.
She made it to the New York Times. Not quite as she’d ever imagined. “Sudden Death of Young Talents,” the title read. Normally, no one would give a fig about her existence or the lack of it, but oddly enough, on that same day, a famous soccer player passed away from the same condition and so they mentioned her as a comparison. The autopsy showed that Roberta was a ticking time bomb in all her live. More precisely, her head was. She had half a dozen of aneurysms in her brain (bulges in the wall of blood vessels) and she could have died at any given moment if one of them had ruptured and nobody could have done a damn thing about it.
It didn’t have to be a brick that fell from a roof on a Saturday morning, but it certainly didn’t help.
Fancy a poem about love and desire instead?