This page contains:
- Self-harming behaviors
Abigail sat at the centermost position at the cafeteria table.
For her, it was unintentional.
For us, it was by design.
Abigail had no idea about the effect she had on people, obviously. It’s a blessing of having seen yourself in every movie, magazine, song lyric. It’s the assuredness that if you have something to say, others will listen. If you walk into the room, someone’s head will turn. When you talk, they lean forward like a plant to the sun, hoping to know exactly how warm the light of your attention will feel. This is by design, too, but it doesn’t work for her if she knows that.
“Yeah, no, I have no idea why I took this class. Like, I’m studying dramatics, I didn’t realize this was a whole—” Abigail waves her hands around, nails manicured, unchipped, with a drugstore polish. Says, I’m put together but relatable. “Deconstruction of scripts thing. It feels like my brain is literally melting.”
Her eyes flick to me for a second, gauging my reaction. All our reactions, really. But in this second I’m in her spotlight, and from experience, I’ve learned that Abigail loves an active listener. I nod like a slow bobble toy, rolling my eyes.
“Yeah, oh my go—” I don’t get to finish my sentence. Abigail isn’t looking at me anymore. And when Abigail doesn’t notice you, you don’t exist.
That’s not entirely true.
When Abigail is in the room with you, when she occupies this specific part of the simulation of her college years, you don’t just vanish the way you do when she leaves the room. You’re in suspended animation, waiting for your turn, no, your opportunity to speak. Sometimes the developers are kind enough to place me in a hallway, opposite where Abigail is walking, just for us to run into each other for a moment, just for her to swing her head and recognize me. To be heard, seen—sometimes even touched when you say something particularly funny and Abigail slaps your arm to say, “you’re so bad, Fatima!”—those moments feel the best, when you connect. When the reason we’re all here laughs because of you, smiles because of you, you feel like you did a good job. I always want to do a good job.
Abigail is taking her turn to listen to somebody else. I don’t know who it is—I’ve never turned my head to check. I don’t think anyone else at our table has either. Why would you, when Abigail is sitting here? Whoever is speaking has a voice like an ambient sound machine, fuzzy and inconsequential. Occasionally a hand waves from the direction of the other non-primary characters, orange nails with gold stacking rings on a beautifully delicate brown hand. I wonder, when I’m awake enough to wonder, if Abigail has styled us in the trends of the current moment, or if that was the designer’s intentions. I wonder who I was based on, if anyone at all.
“Fatima, did you do today’s reading? I meant to do it but I ended up getting dragged out with Marie and Rebecca.” Abigail addresses me directly, and it feels like I’m inhaling for the first time in minutes. Well, it doesn’t “feel” like. It is.
“Oh, um.” Hesitation is death. I know this. Fatima who did the reading would have notes ready in a backpack, and the moment I hand them over, she might disregard me. A Fatima with no notes, a Fatima with her own party story to tell, might get her attention, but it might not be the answer she’s looking for. If she checks out for even a second, the moment’s wasted.
“Yeah, of course.” I play it safe. Abigail wants notes, and that’s what she’ll get.
“Thank you so much, Fatima, you’re a godsend.” Abigail flashes me an appreciative, pouty smile. She holds all the power in this world, but at least she’s nice about it.
I smile as I hand her my notebook, everything she needs. As expected, Abigail starts skimming them immediately, tugging on a strand of soft, blonde hair absentmindedly. I would wince, if I could. I can feel the pain of my fellow table-sitters, wanting to break free from this moment, wanting to go to the moment when Abigail gives you her attention and in that moment you’re allowed to speak, to flourish, to experience life. It’s a beautiful little thing, to be recognized.
“Ugggghhhh.” Abigail moans and flops her head dramatically on the notebook. We would laugh, but we can’t until she looks at us. Which she does, because she notices the silence, and what good is a silent audience? “I need coffee,” she announces with pleading eyes.
Fwwwscchhhhh. The girl with the bangles jumps up, seizing the moment. She leaves the table, disappearing from view and disappearing from reality until the programmer decides she’s been long enough to have acquired a cup of scalding black coffee. I don’t know if Abigail really drank black coffee in college. I don’t know if she did any of these things. In my unkind moments, I suspect Abigail never really looked like this, blue-eyed and button-nosed like a painting. I imagine Abigail maybe even changed the trajectory of her life in here—gave herself a group of trendy, diverse friends, created the Sex and the City fantasy of clubbing and romance and classes that she was never able to get. In my bleakest moments, I wonder if I could imagine anything outside of Abigail. I wish I had enough sense of self to imagine what I would be like outside of whatever room she’s in.
“Fatima, thanks for the notes—” Abigail says, and instantly, I’m animated again. I look up just in time to see her pushing the notebook back across the table at me, just in time to see the hot cup of coffee knock over and splash towards me, burning my skin. Abigail catches the cup before it hits the ground. I’m surprised when the white-hot pain comes, and I’m surprised by my ability to scream. I’ve never screamed before.
“OH MY GOD I’M SO SORRY” Abigail cries and immediately reaches out to rip notebook pages, my notes, and gently pat my burned arm. “It doesn’t look so bad, you’re not turning red really.” I don’t know how to tell her my arm wouldn’t turn red like hers. I’m barely used to the sound of my own voice, but now I’m screaming and it hurts all the same you stupid fucking—
“Fatima, do you need anything? Want me to walk you to the medical center?” Abigail is looking me in my eyes, touching my arm so softly, blowing on the skin. “I heard putting ice on a burn is bad but, Olivia, go get some cool water on a napkin or something.” She says it without looking away from me, and someone vanishes from the table, not even needing to get up because Abigail isn’t looking at them. Only me.
Her big blue eyes are full of concern, and I immediately feel guilty for all those awful things I've thought about her. She was kind, and isn’t a kind but self-absorbed god better than a cruel one? Who knows what horrible things happen in other simulations. Abigail is benevolent. If you had the chance to become the center of the universe, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t anyone?
Because right now, with Abigail focused on me, I feel like I’m the center of the universe. I feel what she must feel, being looked at, being attended to, all the time.
“Nononono … it’s okay …” I sniffle. Abigail doesn’t want to feel guilty, I’m thinking. Abigail wants to feel helpful. “T-thank you … this is helping so much…”
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I totally love you Fatima, you’re just, like, the best. A total fucking trooper.” I smile back at Abigail, because it's the first time I’ve been in such pain, and it’s the first time I’ve been told I’m loved.
It’s gone almost instantly, when Abigail turns her head to accept the wet napkin. The pain is gone. My lump in the throat, gone, my hot tears, gone.
I miss the heat. I miss pain. I miss feeling like I’m in my own body, like I’m more than hands to gesture, a head to nod, a mouth to affirm. Once, Abigail told me about a family vacation, where she saw these hands in a chapel, trying to touch God. I didn’t understand touch before this, but now, I know the trick is getting God to touch you. I want to feel something outside of her, and I can’t do it without her. I’m so fucking tired of it.
Abigail turns back to me and places the wet napkin on my hand. An instant burn and relief. Hot tears again, from before or now. And next to the joining of our hands, a metal fork in a salad. A butter knife. A revelation.
“Abigail,” I say her name like a prayer, and she looks up from my hand. Her eyes hold a question, and before she can ask, I grab the fork and plunge it deep into my burned flesh. Abigail screams. The sound that erupts from me is inhuman because I am inhuman, and because I haven’t heard any animals scream, I have no comparison. I can only compare this pain to the last and say: this is greater, exponential, pain on pain.
“What are you doing?? Oh my fucking GOD, Fatima!!” Abigail recoils from me, jumping backwards, but through my tears, I can see that can’t take her eyes off my ruined arm. I stand up from the table. For the first time, I can feel the heads of the other girls at the table turn to me. None of them move, but they are looking at me.
“L-look,” I manage through clenched teeth, and grab the fork’s handle to draw it up into the skin, gouging and cutting. I gasp and sputter between my lips, and Abigail is crying, and Abigail is begging me to stop, and the rest of the room does nothing but look at me, too, screaming with Abigail so her voice won’t be alone because if Abigail was hurt the world would stop, but I know now a fundamental truth about those who are blessed to be in the center and those who wait for the light to touch on them from time to time: my suffering is compelling to the audience.
I haven’t stopped screaming, but my throat is raw and it’s become more like a raspy grunt. Abigail, not taking her eyes off me or my burned and bleeding arm, starts to back away. She can’t stop watching. No one can stop watching. In the greatest agony of my existence, I am the most powerful person in the room. There is no coming back from this.
She turns away to run, but I launch myself across the table at her, knocking over notebooks and ketchup bottles and diet iced tea and chicken nuggets with dipping sauce. I straddle Abigail’s chest as she starts to shriek, kicking under me. “Look, look look look looklooklooklook,” I whisper hoarsely, my dark curls framing her angelic face, both our tears streaming down her cheeks. There’s a painting like this somewhere, too, probably, in a chapel somewhere. Abigail would know, maybe.
She sobs in confusion—before this, she hadn’t suffered. When she’s pulled out of the program, she’ll cease to suffer, and I’ll cease to be. The pain in my arm dulls, and Abigail gasps as she’s pulled out of the simulation, her eyes blank. The room is empty—no audience, no chairs or tables, but I remain. For this last moment, I am the only thing in this world, and I can still feel wet on my face, snot roaming down my mouth, eyes sore, blistering flesh. Before this ends, I can finally say, I’m here even when she’s not. I am alone. I am the center of the universe after all.