I ring the bell for Sofia’s apartment, trying to imagine what could possibly be in store for me. On the phone she had used a scramble of incoherent phrases such as “self-actualization crisis” and “my inner flower has been frosted over by the tundra of creative impotence.” Or something like that.
“Olive! Thank god you’re here!” Sofia shrieks as soon as she opens the door. “Okay, here’s the problem. Do you remember how I’ve been feeling really anxious and frazzled lately?”
“Sure,” I say, stepping into her apartment. Sofia starts pacing.
“Well, I’ve been reading this self-help book because I can’t afford a therapist, not to mention those guys assault you when you’re hypnotized—I read about it—and anyway this book has described my life to a T. It’s as if the writer has been following me around, watching me in order to write this book.”
“Does he prefer the tree outside your window or does he leave nanny-cams in your bedroom?”
“No making fun of me today! I’m serious!” Her hands flurry around as she threatens to poke me in one of my pressure points. A month ago she took some weird martial arts class, and while she’s far too delicate to actually bring someone to the ground, she’s a killer at the poking thing.
I twist away from the deadly pokers and cry, “Okay! Okay!” I drop my purse onto her couch and plop down. “Go on.”
She huffs for a moment, and then returns to pacing.
“So I’ve been reading this self-help book…” (She challenges me with a glare, to which I raise my hands in surrender.) “…Because I’ve been really anxious lately. I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve been unhappy with my job, and bored, and kind of sad… And this book says that the reason for all of that is because I’ve been stunting the growth of my inner flower—”
“—and not fully experiencing every aspect of my soul. I’ve been anxious because not every part of my being has been able to stretch its wings. The book says we’re only really happy when we are a whole being, with every part enriching every other part, and right now I’ve just been focusing on one part, the work part, and my work sucks, so even that part’s not enriched.”
“Please don’t poke me for this,” I say, “but what exactly does that mean?”
“It means that I’m stagnant. I’m just doing the same thing day after day and it’s not even fun.”
Sofia works in the marketing department of some company. Toilet paper, I think. And not even as a higher-up—just your run-of-the-mill cog in the machine. She didn’t intend to work there; circumstances (she says) and a knack for indecision (I say) dragged her into it, and those same things keep her from ever leaving.
“So the book is saying… take up a hobby?”
“Yes!” she exclaims, as if I had just landed on something truly profound that spiritual gurus take years to learn. “That’s exactly what the book says! And I think it’s right. I’ve always been happier when I was taking a class or doing something outside of work. Lately I’ve just had no time. Remember that martial arts class I was taking?”
“Vividly. So why don’t you just find another job?”
She smirks. “Let’s not get crazy.”
Sofia isn’t the type to grab the bull by the horns. She prefers to circumvent the aforementioned bull problem by wandering around outside the ring until the bull goes away. It’s not that Sofia isn’t capable of doing more. She’s scatter-brained but she’s not stupid, and I’m positive she could hone her skills in something she enjoys if she just tried, instead of taking weird classes like The Mystical Art of The Poke.
“I’ve been doing what the book says and trying out new hobbies,” she explains. “The book says that when we’re in this unstable, transitory place, we need positive encouragement. That’s why I called you over. We need water for our flower’s roots.” She pauses, and then: “Now that I think of it, I must really have been unstable to call you here.”
“Hey! I’ll be nice, I promise.”
“I called Charlotte first, but she wasn’t there.”
“Ouch. Second choice, thanks.”
“Then I called Toby but he was busy with his kids.”
“Then I tried Sarah, then Anne, and then Marcus… I even tried that homeless guy who hangs around the dumpsters, but he was yelling at pigeons, so then I finally called you.” She grins. “Just kidding. You’re one step above him.”
“Alright, so, I’m going to show you what I’ve been working on so we can water my roots.”
Sofia’s ability to say such things with complete seriousness is uncanny. She disappears from the room and hurries back with a cardboard shoe box. In thick black Sharpie are the words, Hobby Box.
“I call it my Hobby Box!”
“I see that.”
“Okay, the book suggested creative hobbies. I didn’t have any materials like Popsicle sticks or pipe cleaners or anything like that so I just used stuff from around the house. I made this one out of my recyclables.”
She pulls out a thicket of multi-colored scraps from cereal boxes, TV dinner cartons, and precarious-looking glass. It looks like a dumpsite just barfed into her hands. I struggle to not say what I really want to say.
Instead I tell her, “That’s… neat.”
“Thanks! It’s a picture frame. This part sticks out so it’ll stand up. It’s creative and good for the environment!”
“Very conscientious of you.”
“Do you want it?”
“Oh, um… Don’t you need it for your, um… flower?”
“You’re right, I should check the book. Good thinking. I wouldn’t want to sabotage the process before I’ve even begun.”
She puts the eco-friendly jumble of junk to the side and rummages around in the box. I silently pray for the sake of her flesh that she didn’t make anything else out of a broken mayonnaise jar.
“Most of these aren’t very good. That picture frame was my best work. I mean, obviously, you can see that. Here’s something I tried to sculpt. I didn’t have any clay, or a kiln, so this is just some toothpaste that I let sit in the sun for awhile.”
What am I supposed to say to that? I settle on: “Kilns, right? They’re so hard to come by.”
She hands me a paper plate, atop of which sits a clump of white crust. I try to think of something, anything positive I can say, but nothing comes. I’m relieved when she rushes onto the next thing from the box.
“This one’s just a simple drawing,” she says, opening up a three-holed notebook. Amidst the faint blue, wide-ruled lining is what appears to be a gorilla standing upright with a sheep on its face.
“He’s a superhero,” Sofia explains. “I didn’t know what to draw at first but I had just watched Iron Man so I thought I would make up my own character.”
“Ah. So he turns into a gorilla to rescue sheep from untimely demises?”
In my defense, I was asking an honest question. But what I think pissed her off was that it was an honest question.
“That’s a man, Olive. And where do you see a sheep?? That’s his beard.”
“A great beard!” she insists. “It’s his best attribute. Actually his only attribute… I couldn’t come up with any cool powers so I figured I would just give him a great beard. You know, like Zeus. He was pretty powerful, and everyone knows him by his beard, right? It’s iconic!”
“You know who else has a beard like that?”
Her brow wrinkles with fury. “My superhero is not Santa!”
“Are you sure? You could give him time-defying powers, a hyper-fast sleigh…”
“I’m not drawing pictures of Santa!”
“I think you already did. Okay, okay! Please don’t poke me!”
Sofia retracts her lethal finger and starts to pace. “What if the beard was more than just an icon? What if it was the source of all his power?”
“Sure. Maybe it grows whenever he channels his energy and explodes into shape-shifting tendrils of beard hair.”
“Hmm, yeah, I like that, I like that…” She strokes her chin, completely oblivious to my mockery. Then she exclaims, “Oh! What if his beard was like Hermione’s bag?”
“Harry Potter.” She looks at me incredulously. “Hermione gets that bag with the infinite space inside, but on the outside it just looks like a tiny bag.”
“I haven’t read Harry Potter.”
“Oh right, I forgot you’re Hitler. Okay, take Homeless Dumpster Guy: remember when he pulled that box of cigarettes out of his beard, like right out of his beard, and I joked about how it was a portal to another dimension? My guy’s beard could be like that. It could hold innumerable items and weapons and things.”
“Like a giant beard-comb?”
“Yes! Wait, was that a joke?”
“Well I don’t appreciate it. I’m very serious about this.”
“Yes, beards are very serious.”
“Okay! Put the finger down! Alright, fine. What’s your beard man’s name?”
“…… Beard Man.”
I snort. “Just Beard Man?”
“There is elegance in simplicity, you know.”
I don’t reply because I’m laughing too hard.
“You are such a jerk,” she says.
I laugh harder.
“Remind me never to ask you to water my plants if I go out of town,” she says with arms crossed. “You can’t even handle watering a metaphorical plant.”
I lose it, but I’m able to muster up enough vocal strength to tell her, “Real plants are fine—” (Laugh, wipe tears.) “—It’s these pesky soul-plants that give me trouble. Tell me—” (Snort, snicker.) “—Do you require direct sunlight or shade?”
As I clutch my sides, Sofia balls up her fists and glowers like a cartoon character. She moves to the door and opens it, keeps one hand on the handle as she stares at me. “I’d like you to leave.”
I keep grinning. “Oh come on. Don’t be so sensitive.”
“I can be whatever I want. Now please leave.”
“It’s just a drawing.”
Her tone is measured but decided. I stand speechless, unaccustomed to this degree of assertiveness from her. A word starts in my mouth but doesn’t finish. My feet fidget as I gauge how much she means it.
She means it.
I lift my hands. “Fine. I’m sorry, okay?” They clap down onto my thighs.
“You aren’t, though. Not really.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“You don’t care that I’m hurt. You’re annoyed that I’m hurt, and you want it to stop. That’s not the same thing.”
“I don’t think you should get so upset about a joke.”
“That’s not your decision to make, now is it?”
Again, I don’t know what to say. She’s still holding the door knob, waiting. The rectangle of vacant space releases a draft like an impatient sigh.
“Look,” I tell her. “You’re right. I’m not good at this, okay? I don’t know how to do this sort of thing. This supportive thing. I haven’t had a lot of…You know… Practice.”
She watches me for a long moment. Studies me. I can see the motions of contemplation, like a Rube Goldberg machine behind her eyes. I watch the thoughts go down this ramp and through that tunnel until finally a conclusion gets launched out of a catapult and her expression softens.
“We need a villain for Beard Man,” she says, closing the door.
“You’re not mad?”
“If you need practice, I’ll give you practice. We all have things we’re not good at yet. If there’s anything my book taught me, it’s that.” She picks up the drawing. “How about Dr. Razor Burn?”
I smile. “That’s pretty good, actually.”