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I'm Not Superstitious, But by Patricia Smith

I've never been a superstitious person. I live in an apartment on the 14th floor of a building that, like most buildings, has no 13th floor, like that’s supposed to fool the gods. I didn’t care. I didn’t believe in that kind of silliness. I even own a black cat, although I didn’t seek it out. It’s not like I look for ladders to walk under or make a practice of smashing mirrors. She was a bedraggled little kitten that showed up on the stairwell on a rainy day. What could I do?  She’s a good cat and a pleasant companion. I have no complaints. Like I said—not superstitious.

However—I’m having a few doubts lately. Maybe there is some inter-planetary alignment going on or something—not that I believe in any of that hokum either. But some days kind of make you wonder—and I had such a day. You won’t believe it.

I couldn’t sleep, so as 6:00 rolled around I noticed that my alarm didn’t go off. Of course, I was already awake so it didn’t matter, but I should have taken it as an omen. Silly me. I thought of it asgood luck because I was already awake. Then my electric toothbrush died in my mouth. It didn’t give up without a fight. It would surge and fail—put-put along really slow—then nothing. I finished up by hand, not seeing it as a sign.

I planned to go in a little late so I could stop by the bank to get a document notarized. So I fiddled around, killing time, read my horoscope—which I never do ordinarily, except now and then just for fun. Everybody does that, right?  It was bad. Basically advised me to hide under the bed until the moon moved away from Venus, or some such nonsense. I laughed and headed off to the bank, which is right by the subway stop. Wouldn’t you know it? The clerk who is the notary was off that whole week.

So now I have to find another place, and I certainly don’t have time to do that today because I have a class to teach in 45 minutes. No crisis. I can do it tomorrow. By this time I’m hitting the 9:00 crush on the subway but I manage to make it inside the door of the second train and feel lucky for that. I’ve got plenty of time. Well, no sooner do I squeeze inside the door than the alarm goes off and apparently some guy is having a seizure or stroke or something in the next car.

They herd everybody off the train, instructing us to take the local, since the guy can’t be moved until the rescue team gets there. So now it’s really crowded. I finally manage to get on the third train. By this time the rescue team is there in full emergency regalia like it was a terrorist attack. But I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about whether I can make it to class on time since I’m now on a local that is going to stop at every stinking stop all the way to 14th street. I amuse myself by watching the crowds of people surge on and off the car like schools of mackerel in a tide pool. Sardines would be a better description of those of us inside the car. Facing me is a man whose belt buckle is just below my chin and behind me a woman whose breasts are right beside my ears. I feel like a dwarf. They are both reading the New York Times by magically folding it into the size of a dime novel without impeding their ability to turn the pages. Obviously native New Yorkers. One stop before mine I edge toward the door with the other mackerel, stopping short of getting off. Next stop we surge to freedom and make our way up the subway stairs to the open air like salmon going upstream. Rush hour takes practice.

I do a four block sprint to my office just in time to get a memo reminding all faculty not to miss the presentation by our second candidate for the first new position the department has had since 1957. It also notifies us that the talk has been moved up by a half hour to 1:30. Critical to be there. Everyone expected. No excuses. Bad news for me but no time to think about it. I race to class five minutes late.

The students want to talk after class. Usually they couldn’t care less, but today since I have a doctor’s appointment, of course they want to talk. I tried to get it changed but this is a mammogram. It takes an act of congress to get an appointment in less than a year. I can still make it to the departmental functions, ducking out at lunch time. I will be cutting it very close. But I have a half hour leeway.

Of course, they are backed up at the clinic. This is one of those places with multiple chambers designed to trick patients into thinking they are not waiting an hour or so because they are only waiting fifteen minutes in each room. There is the outer waiting room where we all fill out a twelve page interrogation covering every molecule of our bodies and every event of our medical histories including all biological relatives. They do this to fill up our time by engaging us in a group activity designed to make all of us feel inadequate and vulnerable. In my case they succeed because I am bad at remembering dates, especially insignificant ones. Really, do most women actually remember what month we started menstruating? Or when we got our tonsils out or our ears drained as children? Or whether our grandmothers had shingles?

After this exercise you proceed to the second waiting room where they accelerate your vulnerability by taking your clothes. You will then all sit around in flimsy hospital gowns that you pretty much have to hold shut with your hands in rooms that are always frosty, reading a Ladies’ Home Journal from 1983.

Next you go to the room where the nurse goes over that questionnaire you filled out queryingdiscrepancies and omissions to make sure you know she knows you are a bad record keeper and obviously haphazard about your health. After that she leaves you alone to ponder your inadequacies or to wonder just how late you are at this point. Finally she comes back in to acknowledge that they are running late, but what can you do at this stage? They have your clothes. Besides, you don’t want to be rude to someone who is about to squeeze your breasts between two plates of glass until they resemble veal scaloppini’s. So you smile and say of course these things happen but you would really appreciate it if she could get you in as soon as possible since you are late for an appointment. She says of course she will. What would you expect her to say?

Finally I get through the procedure, pay my co-pay without further mishap, and get out of the building. I take off like a race horse. It’s only a couple of blocks. I want to make that light at the corner. But suddenly I slip on a patch of ice and feel my legs shoot out behind me like I’m executing a dive in a freestyle race. I am flying through the air and the sidewalk is rushing up at me. This is going to be awkward. My skirt is flying up like a parade banner and my arms have taken on a life of their own as though they could save me by spinning really fast like pinwheels in a brisk wind. It doesn’t work. I crack my head on the concrete with a strange, hollow bonk and everything goes black. When I start coming to I hear voices:  Is she alright? That was a nasty fall. Hey, Lady! Are you okay? Oh my god! She’s not okay! She’s bleeding! Call an ambulance!

Well, that pulls me right out of it. I open my eyes and say to several pairs of shoes: No! No ambulance. No. I’m okay. Really.

I start getting up. I am surrounded by legs. Eight hands reach down to help me. And they say New Yorkers are cold and unfriendly. Some guy hands me a couple of paper towels. Are you sure you’re okay? That was a nasty fall.

I take the paper towels and stagger back to the college. I can’t go in the lecture with blood running down the side of my head. The Dean will be there. So I duck into the faculty women’s bathroom to wash it off. I try to clean myself up quickly. There is an ugly gash right at my temple. Good thing I didn’t hit an artery or I would have been in the hospital. Once again my lucky day, right? My overcoat looks like somebody cut my head off, so I take it off and fold it so the blood doesn’t show. Even my blouse is bloody but I can cover most of it by buttoning my jacket, which is at least a darker color. You’d think I just slaughtered a cow. The wound is oozing a little, but not bad, so I grab several more paper towels and head for the lecture. I now wonder why it never occurred to me that this accident might possibly have excused me from attending the talk. It’s not like I was an expert on the topic. I know zilch about Kierkegaard’s later work—or early for that matter.

I try to sneak into the talk without attracting attention, holding my paper towels to cover my wound. Unfortunately the door is in the front. It’s like trying to sneak into a theater by tiptoeing onto the stage. Just as I sidle in the door, the speaker makes some point that apparently entails gesturing right at me. So there I am with blood on my jacket, paper towels clutched to my head. Big smile. Tip toe to the nearest open seat.

After the talk colleagues and strangers immediately gather around me. Obviously, I completely diverted attention from the business at hand to concern for a wounded warrior. Oh, that’s terrible, they say. That looks bad. You need stitches in that. Each then feels compelled to display his or her own scar from some previous adventure and to explain pointedly that the scar wouldn’t be there if they had only been sensible enough to get stitches. I feel very sorry for the candidate who has been reduced to mingling in the sympathetic crowd discussing his previous wounds rather than his theory of the influence of Kant on Kierkegaard.

As instructed, I head to my doctor’s office to get stitched up. By this time I’m starving. Of course they can’t get to me for an hour—I don’t have an appointment and anyway (I discover when I finally get into an exam room) they’re having a birthday party. Cake, ice cream. I’m dying of starvation. They offer me nothing. I drink seven or eight—or maybe twelve of those little tiny cups of water from the cooler. My ears are ringing and I’m starting to feel dizzy.

The doctor stitches me up explaining that she really should send me to the hospital but just this once she will do me this big honking favor. So once again it’s my lucky day right? Things could be worse. I head out the door without so much as a cupcake or a coffee. By this time I really am not functioning at my best, or second best, even. I have low blood pressure and don’t do well without food, not to mention blood loss. I grab two candy bars from a machine next door and head for the bus stop. Lucky I had change. I just want to go home. My soft, comforting sofa is looming before my eyes.

After three busses pass without stopping I decide this must be the wrong damn place. Are all the busses express at this time of day? The locals should stop at all the stops, shouldn’t they? Am I misreading the sign? Nothing is making sense any more. I walk up to the next stop and sure enough it works. The bus pulls up. The doors open. I walk down the aisle, sink gratefully into the seat, and eat my second candy bar. I am so relieved to be heading home at last.

I survived my bad horoscope with no major catastrophe occurring—well, except splitting my head open and totally disrupting our lecture in front of the Dean—but I mean I didn’t get hit by a dump truck or contract an air born Ebola virus. I would soon be stuffing my face in the relaxing comfort of my own apartment or so I thought.

I stop in to the pharmacy to fill my prescription just as it closes. I mean as I walk up to the window the pharmacist rolls down the shade in my face. She does deign to inform me that there is another branch around the corner that stays open until 8.

I am exhausted. My apartment is right across the street. So I go home, up the elevator, and down the hall only to discover that I lost my keys. I search my bag frantically. I am so close. Just on the other side of that door is my apartment, my kitchen, my food, my sofa. How did I manage to lose my keys? If it was out on that sidewalk where I fell they are gone forever. What a pain. But wait, I must have had them to get in the women’s bathroom. That’s where they are. If I go in early they might still be there tomorrow. And even if they’re not, someone will turn them in. Well, that was lucky. I could have lost them on the street. I go downstairs, get the spare key from the doorman and crawl back to the elevator.

Once in my apartment I gulp a half a carton of orange juice and wolf down a can of tuna—literally from the can. It was an awful combination. Lucky I have a stomach of iron. I grab a box of crackers, flop on the couch and fall asleep. Maybe an hour later I wake with a start realizing I haven’t filled my prescriptions. My head is throbbing and the doctor said it was important to take the antibiotics right away. So I run out to the pharmacy only to discover a long line. I finally make it to the counter and thrust my prescriptions through the window. They want my insurance card. The other pharmacy has it on file, never asks for it. I rifle through my purse. I don’t seem to have it. Can’t you look it up? We need a copy on file here. It is ten minutes till eight. Okay, please fill the prescriptions and I’ll be right back with the card.

I dash home, being careful to watch for ice. It really isn’t icy. That’s the weird thing. There’s just the occasional freak patch where a mailbox or a fire hydrant blocks the sun. I make it to my apartment, grab my card from my desk drawer (luckily I find it quickly), and run back to the pharmacy reaching the counter by 8:01. They are just closing down. I am running down the aisle waving my insurance card in the air and crying out: Please! Please! I’m here.

The pharmacist raises the shade and smiles. She takes my card, makes a copy and hands me my prescriptions. She was waiting for me. I am vastly relieved. I walk back home at a leisurely pace, pretty darn pleased with myself. Against all odds I accomplished my mission. I filled my prescriptions, by God. Then I start wondering why it was so imperative that I fill the prescriptions that very night. Would I have died of lockjaw if I had waited until morning? But my head was hurting and I did have to go to work so I couldn’t pick it up until the afternoon—so yes. I guess it was important to get it filled. It wasn’t totally stupid to push myself so hard.

As I walk up to my building I realize that there is a pharmacy there. A new one. It just opened up a week before and I had totally forgotten about it. I probably walked right past it six times in the past two hours. They need a better sign. They’re going to go out of business if they’re no more noticeable than that.

Anyway that is not my worry.  I have my antibiotics and my pain medication. I’m going to relax and have a proper meal. I push the button for the elevator and it shocks me. Now this happens to me all the time. I think it is static electricity from the carpet. Ordinarily it’s a minor annoyance. But today it makes me consider walking up the stairs. The last thing I need is to end my day stuck in an elevator. My luck the alarm won’t work and no one will find me until someone complains next week sometime. But fourteen floors is a pretty serious trek—well, thirteen. I decide to risk the elevator. It goes down to the basement, jerking a bit when it stops.

A man gets on with a little dog that immediately starts growling at me. (The basement is where people go out to the back garden to walk their dogs if they don’t want to go out on the street.) She doesn’t bite, says the man.

Hold the elevator, someone yells from the laundry room. The little dog is snarling and baring its teeth. Don’t pay attention to that, says the man. She’s just smiling.

A frazzled young woman edges on to the elevator with a whimpering baby in a stroller and a large basket of folded laundry. Five, she says. The baby takes one look at the dog and starts howling full blast.

I push five. The dog is now sniffing at my foot like she is getting ready to pee on it. I resist the strong urge to give it a swift kick, but I do move my foot. The dog starts snarling again. I’m watching the elevator buttons light up floor by floor. All I need is to get stuck on this elevator all night with a screaming baby and a nasty little dog.

The elevator bounces to a stop on five without lining up with the floor. There’s about a six inch drop. But the doors open. That’s enough for me. I help the frazzled woman get her stroller and her baby and her laundry basket off the elevator and say goodbye to the dog. It’s only eight more floors. I can walk. My head is throbbing and I am exhausted as I finally stick my key in the door and it doesn’t work. I know this key works. I just used it twice. I check to make sure it’s the right key. I approach the matter scientifically. I jiggle the key. I kick the door. I rattle the doorknob. I jiggle it again. It works. Thank God for science.

I drop my belongings on the table and fix a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup. I take my antibiotics and pain medication and get ready for a well deserved shower. When I take off my clothes I realize that I still have the electrodes (or whatever those little metal things are) stuck to my nipples. I guess I was in such a hurry at the doctor’s office I forgot to remove them. Wow, I’m lucky I didn’t get electrocuted from the elevator button. And what if they had taken me to the emergency room? Wouldn’t that have been embarrassing!

I fall into bed laughing, and cuddle up with my black cat. What a lucky, lucky day! But even so, I might get my horoscope done professionally, you know, just for fun.

Patricia Smith is a recently retired philosophy professor, with loads of (irrelevant) scholarly credits, a personal essay in the anthology The Love of Wisdom, and a fiction piece in Rougarou Literary Journal. She lives in NYC and Topsail Island, NC.