It is cold now, and I have become a beast. Damp towels remain damp, and my bathroom mirror takes an age to defog after a hot shower. As a result, I cannot check my appearance before leaving the apartment. I suppose I could use the flat side of my wrist to wipe away a clear space on the mirror to better see my appearance, but that would leave streaks. Instead, I leave the mirror untouched and choose to simply guess that the set of my hair is acceptable, and that I have left no smudges of cream on my face. What’s more, in the pursuit of insulation against the cold, fashion is sacrificed. I pile on layers without regard to public perception. My internal comfort is all that matters.
The first real look I get of myself in the mornings is when I step into the elevator of my building. I encounter my reflection and I am often not pleased with what I see: Hair that has neither a side path nor a middle path, but something in between. Shaving cream adorns one ear while face cream outlines my nostrils. The cream can be wiped away, but the outfit cannot be saved. Clashing colours and unseemly sweaters are my cross to bear. I am no one’s dream date. All this to save my mirror from smudging.
It is in this fog of misery that I think of the summer, and in my mind’s eye everything is wonderful. I remember that the sky is blue. Actually blue. Memory reminds me, quite wrongly, that the weather was always fine. The walks about town were always refreshing. The people were beautiful. I always knew the right way to comb my hair and I knew exactly what to wear. It’s a thin, false veil cast over a sometimes ugly reality. Things aren’t always idyllic, and in an attempt to rend the veil I caste my mind back to the moment when a perfect summer’s day was broken into shards by an act of sudden violence.
I was uptown, in a better part of the city, putting miles under my shoes and setting my mind adrift. My central focus was on keeping to the shade, and when I heard the first scream it took me a moment to descend back to earth. Up ahead, about a block away, I spied what I at first thought was some sort of scuffle.
She was stout, swaddled in a grubby corduroy jacket over a floral dress that hung down to her knees. She had on long woolen socks that were far too warm for the weather. Distance and weather-worn skin rendered her age too difficult to gauge, but I could at least surmise that she was someplace north of middle age. She was a woman who was out of place. The clothes, I’m sure, where inherited or found. She lashed out with the vigour of a champion boxer, swinging a bulging blue plastic bag with full force. The bag whipped through empty space, a ballistically unsound move which nearly pulled her off her feet. Her attacker did not exist. She was swinging at ghosts.
Her fury brought me to a halt. I dared not intercept her space. Important-looking people were taking sidelong glances at her and crossing the street. I watched her for a few minutes more. She’d amble along for a several meters, a big bulging plastic bag hanging from each tightened fist, making her look like a tormented set of scales. Then she’d look at the empty space next to her and bellow at it with unbridled rage. Her anger was far bigger than she could contain, a strangled garble of unintelligible Spanish scrapping up through her vocal chords and flung viciously at nothing. Then she swung again, hefting a bag that contained approximately half of her worldly possessions, and brought it round with heart-stopping force at whatever monster seemed to be plaguing her. This was no pantomime. She wanted to do damage. She wanted to slay the demon.
I always used to think the incoherent ramblings of homeless people in movies was just a conceit used to evoke the dark, morally bereft dystopia that is often associated with cities. Santiago is the first city I’ve lived in that has made the stereotype manifest. I used to think that the crazy cat lady was merely a clown for us to laugh at. The old man in deep conversation with himself was simply a dramatic device. Growing up, I felt that it was okay to be entertained by these people capering about on the television screen, and even to laugh at them.
So it came as a sobering surprise to realise that coming unhinged is a real, visible affliction. These downtrodden souls whose own minds have turned against them are haunted by ghosts that are very real to them. They live in anguish. The terror in their screams is not theatrics. I’ve seen a man rage in the middle of a deserted plaza, and for a brief moment I thought I was the one confused; perhaps the monsters are real and I am blind. Without any evidence to back this up, my suspicion is that this untethering of the mind might be assisted in no small way by the introduction of foreign substances. It makes sense to me that drug abuse will cleave away at the architecture that supports an already fragile mind. But whatever the cause, the people still suffer.
There’s no conclusion here, really, merely an observation. For some people, reality is always foggy. For me, that only happens in the winter, and at least I get a shower out of it. In a world plagued by nightmare visions, I’m quite blessed to only suffer from bad hair days.