PEOPLE SCARE ME: A FAILED RESEARCH PROJECT BY AN ANTISOCIAL SLACKER
I wake up in my bed, feeling alienated. Someone is sleeping next to me. She’s not my girlfriend anymore. Or maybe she still is. I don’t know. My emotions are dull and so is my libido. So we haven’t made love in 6 months. We haven’t done much of anything in 6 months. It’s my fault. I’m an anxiety-powered corpse unworthy of love.
I go downstairs to make coffee. I feed my cats. One of my cats karate-chops my other cat in the face for no reason. I say, “Don’t do that, Henry. Be nice to Robert.” I stare at the coffee while it brews. Caffeine is my zodiac sign. Actually, I’m a Pisces. A sad, aging emo boy in a sad, aging emo world. If my kind-of girlfriend wasn’t asleep in my bed, I’d go back to my bedroom and listen to a Dashboard Confessional album at full volume.
But silence is fine. So I end up sitting at the foot of my bed with my laptop and coffee. I light a cigarette because I’m an idiot. “It’s time to be a writer,” I tell myself, which of course means, “It’s time to fuck around on Facebook for about an hour before I even consider doing anything that matters.” Things I scroll past: something about Adele, something about misogyny and predatory behavior on the Vans Warped Tour (SHOCKER), a political rant with zero likes, a picture of a dog with lots of likes.
I message Charles Joseph: “Nonfiction is hard.” He messages back and agrees, but says it’s easier than fiction –– well, for him at least. I want to be as good of a writer as Charles Joseph. I want to write something that makes people want to punch themselves in the face –– and not because they hate it. I want to “break the Internet” without having to eat a used tampon or yell something stupid at a news reporter. I want to be an inspiration.
With a sip of coffee, I wash down the last antidepressant of my prescription, then call the pharmacy for a refill. “Welcome to Stop ‘n Shop’s easy-fill…located in…Phillipsburg,” says a creepy automated voice. Then the voice says something in Spanish, followed by, “To refill a prescription…press 1.” What’s worse –– awkward interactions with humans or awkward interactions with robots? I don’t even know.
Today, I’m going to conduct some research. My mission is to observe human behavior. I will go to a few –– let’s say 3 –– somewhat-heavily populated areas, do some people-watching, and see how many people I can find that seem as detached as I do. It is my hope to discover that the average person has more in common with me than I think. It is my hope to feel more human.
LOCATION #1: STOP ‘N SHOP (PHILLIPSBURG, NJ)
After a quick shower, I drive to Stop ‘n Shop and walk to the pharmacy inside. The woman in white behind the counter says, “Can I help you, sir?” She doesn’t make eye contact. I don’t make eye contact, either. The fact that she called me “sir” is making me feel the same way I did when I listened to the automated voice on the phone. Is there any real difference between a robot and a person on autopilot at their mind-numbing day job?
“I’m here to…pick up a prescription,” I say. “My name is…Brandon…Diehl.” Sometimes, when I talk to strangers, my brain glitches –– the way a shitty computer does. Sentences that should flow from my mouth with ease are drawn out in fragments.
“Okay,” she says. She finds the little white bag containing my prescription. She examines it for a moment, then says, “When’s your birthday?”
For the first time, she looks directly at me. I look back at her for about a millisecond, then look at the counter. I feel anxious. I feel like she thinks I’m not who I claim to be. Maybe she thinks I’m a random junkie for antidepressants –– is that a thing? –– who just happens to know Brandon Diehl’s birthday. Maybe she thinks, “Hm, well, he got the birthday right, but it took him a while. Something is fishy here.” I imagine about 30 Stop ‘n Shop employees surrounding me, all talking at once, interrogating me, asking to see identification, asking me if I would “mind stepping into the manager’s office.”
Of course, none of this happens. The woman has me sign something, hands me my prescription in a plastic bag, and I power-walk away from the counter, feeling –– likely imagining –– her eyes burning through the back of my skull.
My research at Stop ‘n Shop seems far from complete, so I take a walk towards the back of the store. Near the deli, an elderly woman is sitting at a little table with plastic cups filled with some kind of food. She has a huge smile spread across her face. It almost looks genuine. Almost. As I’m walking by her, she says, “WANNA TRY SOME SALAD?!” in an unexpectedly loud, aggressive tone that makes the hairs on my arms go spiky.
I say, “Oh…uh…no. Thank you, though.”
She says, “OKAY! HAVE A GOOD DAY!” I don’t know if she means it.
Near the exit of the store, I see a little refrigerator with energy drinks in it. I grab a Red Bull and walk to the self-checkout lane. I press some buttons and set my bag of pills down on the edge of the self-checkout machine. The machine says, “PLEASE REMOVE UNSCANNED ITEM!” I quickly snatch the bag away from the machine and start feeling paranoid again. I notice an employee watching me. She probably heard that I have an unscanned item. Now she probably thinks I’m stealing something. She doesn’t say anything, but continues watching me as I walk past her and through the exit door.
Outside, I look into my plastic bag, which contains a paper bag, which contains my prescription. The paper bag is inscribed with the first three letters of my last name: “DIE.” Seems depressing that my bag of antidepressants is telling me to die.
There’s a crazy guy collecting shopping carts. He yells, “OH, COME ON! GET SOME BRAIN CELLS!” –– seemingly, to a shopping a cart. Then he yells, to a random person walking next to him, “OH, MAN, I GOT THIS MASSIVE PAIN RIGHT HERE! YIKES!” He points to his lower back.
The person says, “Oh,” and continues walking.
Then the crazy guy is suddenly running full-speed, pushing about 20 carts towards the building. As his line of carts jumps the curb, he yells, “HIIIII-YAHHH!” He breezes past me, heading for the door while grumbling to himself. For some reason, after our eyes meet for a split second, I put my phone to my ear like I’m getting a call and say, “Hello?”
I need to leave.
When I’m almost to my car, I notice the crazy guy ends up next to me again. He’s collecting more carts. “COME HERE!” he yells at one of them. I don’t think I believe in God, but I’m mentally praying to God that this guy does not talk to me. Sliding into my seat and slamming the door, I decide against rolling down a window –– even though it’s almost 100 degrees. Rolling down a window would give Shopping Cart Man an opportunity to make conversation.
I start the engine and put on the new Goldfinger song, “Put the Knife Away.” John Feldmann sings, “You say nothin’ matters to me / You say we’ve got broken history / Hold the knife / Away from me / You say I don’t get how you think / You say you’re closer to the brink / Hold the knife / Away from me / Not closer to my neck.” I feel you, John. Everybody has a knife. People are fucking horrifying.
LOCATION #2: PHILLIPSBURG MALL (PHILLIPSBURG, NJ)
I decide not to go.
LOCATION #3: WAL-MART (PHILLIPSBURG, NJ)
I decide not to go.
At home, I pull into my parking spot, knowing I failed my research project –– knowing I learned absolutely nothing. I look up at my bedroom window where my kind-of girlfriend is probably still asleep. I take out my phone and open my Facebook app. I have 218 reactions on one of my latest posts, and I’ve never felt more alone.
B. Diehl is the author of the poetry collection Zeller’s Alley (White Gorilla Press, 2016). His work has been published by Hobart, BOAAT Press, FLAPPERHOUSE, Words Dance, and other venues. When he is not writing, you can usually find him at home, hanging out with his cats and/or feeding his social media addiction.
You can find him on the web at http://www.mynameisb.net.
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