This story copyright 1999 by Julie Bihn. Please do not modify or distribute without permission.


The Underground Woman

by Julie Bihn

Inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground"


Who really notices anyone or anything? I suspect that, even in caveman days, man was too busy with his own concerns--starting fires or running from wild animals or whatever--to ponder the sufferings of a fellow human. Honestly, who would you rather have a broken leg--yourself or your friend? If you truly say you would prefer to be in pain than to allow your friend or lover to feel poorly, is it not because you don't want to have to hear them whine and cry from their injury? Isn't it because you will be happier if you are hurt? In the short run, I would prefer to be injured myself, for then I would receive attention in the form of gifts and candy and even visits. But once the novelty had worn off, I would like to transfer the injury to another. After being ill for a few days, one's closest friends start to ignore and abandon the infirm party. Perhaps if I were a married man, I could be content to lie in traction for weeks with a bell to ring to summon my wife at will, so she would serve me. She may grow annoyed, perhaps even hateful, perhaps go crazy and file for divorce, but I would not let her forget about me. But of course, this is idle thought--a woman's duty is to be ignored, not to be waited on, and I, as a woman, am condemned to that fate.

There was a time--when I was ignorant and younger--when I tried to interact with people as well as simply observing them. It takes time to truly understand that no matter how interesting a person you think you are, no one really has an interest in you. Even a friend or lover spends time with you because it makes him happy, not out of a wish to make you happy. If he does make you laugh, it is to make himself proud of making you laugh, feeling as if he has accomplished something meaningful, and perhaps difficult. But even friends ignore your traits which do not please them--this is not idealizing you, seeing you through a beautiful crystallized vision, but instead, these people remake you for their own good, ignoring the bad so that they may be content with you, instead of accepting the bad. Occasionally fights spring up over undesirable traits, but generally people choose to ignore them; it makes things easier, especially since it is human nature to ignore one another. Of course, no real attention is paid to positive traits, either--though not totally ignored, they are not really thought of, either. All is taken for granted, isn't it?

So it took me years to realize it was best to seem to be ignoring everyone while really observing them with my imperfect skills. Granted, I don't care about these people I observe, but since I watch them, I know I am somehow a bit better than them; at least I notice. But by refusing to speak at any length to any woman and at all to any man, I make it clear that I am ignoring those who don't care about me--that is to say, everyone.

Before I stopped caring, the most insignificant slight would offend and disturb me. At work, when the other typists didn't ask me out to lunch with them, I would not eat at all that afternoon, out of spite. Instead I would work the whole lunch hour without pay. It took me a year to realize no one even noticed, and another three months of occasional lunchtime rejection to decide to do something about it, and six months after that to go through with it. But one Friday afternoon, when their clique forgot to ask me out to lunch (and of course I would not lower myself to ask to tag along) I announced I was feeling ill and would go home for the day. I was allowed to leave, this being the first sick day I had taken at that workplace. And I audibly laughed as I walked past my coworkers, none of whom so much as looked up. And I didn't care.

Instead of going home, I spent the rest of the afternoon, four sinful hours, at the ice cream parlor. I do not hesitate to note that I consumed no less than six hot fudge sundaes, all with whipped cream, and none with nuts. I eat peanuts regularly, and enjoy their taste, but for my first sundae the server had asked me--rhetorically--

"You don't want any nuts, right?"

I did want him to include peanuts, but I didn't tell him. Nor did I tell him to leave off the cherry (I despise cherries, and grapes and strawberries as well); and when I asked for my second, and third, and fourth sundaes, I did not correct the waiter and tell him to add nuts but leave the cherries off. When I had finished the fourth, he asked me if I wanted another, and I just nodded; for the sixth, he smiled and asked if I thought I had had enough, but brought another without so much as asking permission. I should have refused the sundae out of principle, but I accepted it as if I had requested it, for I really did want a sixth sundae, so desire beat out morality.

By the time the waiter delivered the sixth sundae, I had five cherries lined up on a napkin in front of me on the table; if the waiter had cared at all, or seen me as anything--even as just a customer who wields power over him for the short time she is inside the eating establishment--he would have surely noticed them, and left off the cherry of his own accord, and perhaps he might have dropped some nuts on the next sundae, in an attempt to annoy me, or perhaps break the monotony. But instead he brought me a sundae which looked just like the others. The erratic swirls of whipped cream and drips of hot fudge looked exactly the same on the last three sundaes he brought me. The six cherries in front of me all looked different, though; one had a shortened stem, another lacked its stem altogether, one was extraordinarily small, one had a gouge taken out of its side, and one was slit. Only the final cherry was not flawed. But then, who notices flawed cherries?

I was sure I would have continued eating sundaes until the store closed and the waiters taunted me and threw me out--but no, that would have implied that they noticed me. Only one waiter noticed that I was there, and brought me sundaes accordingly; but he saw a fat lady in a cheap business suit, maybe a customer, good for a tip, but nothing significant. I would not tip him, I decided; he would notice that, even if he had forgotten me.

I had seen a dozen patrons enter and leave the shop by that point; seven of them had given me a passing glance, two had not even looked at me--they were a couple--and three had stared at me; one with pity, one with awe--that was before the waiter cleared the first three dishes from the table--and one with disgust and repulsion. I did not dare to meet their glances, of course, especially not the gaze of the one who pitied me. Not that they were looking at me; they saw a fat woman with ice cream on her chin. Instead I simply continued eating, carelessly, taking extremely small bites, each with the slightest flecks of whipped cream and small spots of fudge atop a sliver of vanilla ice cream. Had there been nuts, I could have had some spontaneity in the sundae; the configuration of nuts would vary by sundae, and it would be impossible to have a uniform number of nuts on each bite of ice cream. I trust you can understand? At times I fancy others share my thoughts, or, at the least, can understand them in some measure, but this is only when I feel my most contemplative; when I am busy, or now, when I am at work, or even, heaven forbid, watching and critiquing the cursed television, I acutely feel that I must somehow be the only one who is ignored, the only one who cannot ignore her surroundings, or her own depraved motivations. Is that true? Am I that unique, that ignoble, that flawed?

A thirteenth customer entered and was seated at a booth across the aisle from mine. I suspected he was the type to stare, but instead, he took repeated, quick glances in my direction, smiling each time. I ignored him, so he stared at me, still smiling unbearably. I waited for five minutes, staring at my sundae as I finished it, and idly moving the napkin with the six cherries to the side of the table, where he could clearly see it, so he would be appalled by my voracious appetite. I cleaned out the bottom of the dish with my spoon, but he still stared, and still smiled. Finally I licked the dish clean. This just made him grin, and I believe I heard him laugh. So I glared back at him again, staring and staring in hopes that he would turn away. He had blue eyes and short cropped black hair, and was considerably thinner than me; he was not very handsome. I knew I would not be able to stare at him for long, though, so I gave up and, hoping to completely frighten him away, picked up a cherry, intent on tossing it in his direction. I raised my arm slightly but the cherry dropped out of my hand and rolled humbly to the stranger's feet. He glanced down, laughed inanely, then picked up the fruit and brought it to me.

"You seem to have dropped this," he said, a bit timidly, with a faint smile.

I turned away. He held it in front of my face for at least five minutes, not saying a word, as if I wasn't there. Finally I gave up and searched for an appropriate reply.

"Keep it," I managed to reply.

"Don't you like cherries?" he asked, and sat down across from me, touching his foot to mine for a moment, accidentally. I longed to stand, to walk off, without even paying my bill, but of course lacked the power to perform such a rash act, although I'm certain the waiters would not have stopped me, or even noticed that I had left, until they were closing up the shop, and found a leftover receipt, which they would probably shred or discard upon realizing whoever the check belonged to--they would not even remember my face--had vanished. So I stared at the table and tuned out this stranger's monologue. How I wished the waiter would return, so I could order another sundae--no, three more, and thus show my true, gluttonous nature!

The man baited me to talk, but I refused to participate, so he was stuck telling me about himself--not that he seemed to mind. He told me of his job--he was a secretary--and how he worked sixty hours a week, how he had a spacious apartment downtown and a cat, how he loved apples. I didn't listen. Finally the waiter came, but before I could ask for another dessert--I should have asked for pie, but I did not have the opportunity--the man ordered six sundaes, with extra peanuts. I should have slapped him then and there, but instead, I felt tears welling up in my eyes, not having learned indifference then. I felt nothing but self-pity and disgust with myself--this man dared to laugh at me, to mock me. Being mocked--a bit worse than being ignored, and ten times worse than being hated. Why couldn't he hate me?

The man got up and sat next to me, and I turned away, sobbing, and knowing that I suddenly had the attention of the whole ice cream parlor, except they all pitied or mocked me. I hated them all. The man wrapped his thin arms around me, and I could do nothing to stop him, being paralyzed with self-loathing. The proper thing to do would have been to bury my head in the man's shoulder, to weep in his arms appropriately, but instead I used the soiled chocolate-covered napkins from the table to wipe my eyes, and tried to shrug away from this stranger.

The waiter dared to ignore the fiasco and deposited six sundaes on the table, right in front of me, though I hadn't ordered them. The impudence! I cried harder, and the man let go of me, handed me a fistful of clean napkins the waiter had brought, and started to swallow the ice cream in oversized bites not suited for such a skinny man. He finished one sundae in about two minutes (pausing at one point to complain about a headache), then nudged a sundae towards me and asked if I would like it. My fit of hysterics had finally subsided, but I knew the man was mocking me again, asking the fat lady to eat more. I longed to hurl the ice cream in his face, but instead refused the offer by silently turning away. (At least I did refuse, grant me that!) The man shrugged and continued to eat. I stared at the table for the next thirty minutes, unable to leave, as he was sitting on the outside of the booth, trapping me inside. I seethed in silence, as usual, helpless against everything, unable to exact revenge against this man for watching me cry when he could have--should have--just left me alone. And the whole ice cream parlor, for watching as well. Tomorrow, I decided, I would come back, and eat and eat, until I was sick, then vomit in the middle of the ladies restroom and run out of the restaurant without paying the bill.

"You've got a nice figure," the man suddenly said.

I looked up in shock and glared at him for a moment, then turned away. I was 160, and he knew it. "Why do you think that?"

Darrel ignored me. "You came in here to drown out your sorrows--I hardly want to imagine what awful stuff might have happened to you." If he had known my tragedy--the fact that my coworkers hadn't invited me to lunch--he would have laughed and walked away. "But you should keep eating, if it makes you happy. Isn't that more important than appearances or even friends? Happiness? Your happiness?"

At the time I could listen to such simple-minded babblings, and even accept them, not knowing any better, but I still pretended to ignore him.

"My name is Darrel," the man said.

"I won't tell you my name," I said impulsively.

Darrel smiled. "You never know what kind of weridos are around, huh?" He drew a bit nearer and smiled, then straightened again and ate the sixth cherry on my napkin, the perfect one.

I said nothing, hoping to somehow triumph in silence, not to let him know that I wasn't happy, that nothing could create my happiness. But Darrel kept speaking, telling himself about me, on and on, forcing ice cream into his face all the while (he ate nine sundaes in less than two hours) until I felt sick just watching him eat. I hadn't asked to hear about my own life! If he had truly cared, he would have known I just wanted him to leave me. To his credit, he did at least ask me questions periodically, and volunteered information about himself; I invariably refused to respond, even though his words of romance and redemption were so foreign and awkward, I had no choice but to listen--in a way, they were almost fascinating, and appealing. After a while I stopped looking at him, even, and I didn't listen until he repeated a question three times.

"Why must you torment me?"

I looked up, meeting his blue eyes with my brown ones. "I'm tormenting you?" And I smiled.

Darrel looked down. "Are you really just cruel? Why are beautiful women always mean?"

This was the first man ever to call me beautiful, (and the first man to call me cruel in that sense) but I did not acknowledge his words. Even then, I knew he did not like me, and treated him thus. This saddened him, I knew.

"Tell me what's wrong. I'm right, aren't I? That something awful happened, for you to--"

"Be downing sundaes like a starving man in the desert," I finished.

Darrel cringed. "No...I mean..." He looked down. "What would make you happy?" I turned away. Darrel glanced at his watch, trying to get away from me, probably for some important appointment. "Hey, you wanna go see a movie tomorrow?"

The fool still didn't know my name.

I was already starting to feel ill from consuming so much ice cream. I wished to leave, to go home and sleep for the next four months, like a bear, curled up under my blankets.

I replied, "Yes."

This single word made Darrel smile so widely I feared his teeth might fall out of his mouth. I suddenly understood the world.

I let him pay for my ice cream, only because he insisted on it--he forcefully held my hand to keep me from pulling out my wallet. I allowed him to do this; I would allow him to control me for the moment. I forgot to tell Darrel to withhold the waiter's tip, though.

"I'll meet you tomorrow, at the theater," Darrel said, correctly anticipating that I would not give him my address, although, had he asked, I would have given him a false one, and that would have been the end of it.

"All right," I said, faking enthusiasm, and he grinned again.

I had every intention of standing him up the next night--I tried to take a nap at five PM and didn't set the alarm--but I could not sleep, and, failing sleep, the next best thing seemed (at the time) to actually face this down and go to the theater. So I left late and arrived fifteen minutes later than Darrel. His frown disappeared when I feigned regret for making him wait so long, and when I told him I had gotten lost on the way, he asked if I was all right, his face filling with concern. Inside the theater, it was the same--he rejoiced when I laughed at the film, and sighed when I looked--or even felt--the least bit sad or ill. Only a fool would observe another so closely, but I admit, it was still rather flattering. So flattering that I allowed him to take me to dinner that night, to see me again and again, every weekend, to buy me all he wished.

After a month he knew my address, I'm sorry to say, and he drove me out on dates. After one particularly romantic movie, as we walked to the car, Darrel caught me by the wrists and tried to kiss me. I turned my head and he got a mouth full of hair. My action crushed him for a moment, but then he stood up straighter, as if to tell me he could suffer any injustice at my hands. And I knew he could, yet he was so spineless--too spineless to force a kiss from me!

"I can wait," he proclaimed.

"I don't love you," I answered bluntly.

Darrel looked shocked and saddened for just a moment before he put on a false smile. "You will someday."

"I can prove you wrong, if you'd like."

"Look at how much closer we've grown in a month! If a woman is loved...she will..."

"You do not--will not--cannot love me!" I insisted. "I hate you! I wish you had never met me!" And I was on the verge of hysterics again, although I had calculated this move--to crush this man--very carefully, and was rather pleased for exacting it so quickly, instead of waiting for years and years, as one with less courage might have done.

I knew my words would anger Darrel. But he wasn't angry. He looked concerned. He pitied me. "I'll help you."

"Don't you know a thing about me?" I hissed. "You said you knew me--you tell me about myself, more than I know of myself--but what do you know? What do you care?" I did not elaborate; I would not really tell him about my upbringing, my attitudes, my greed, my social ineptitude, my hatred for humanity, save those who hated or loved me, who I simply longed to control... To tell him of myself--more than he had already guessed--would give him the satisfaction of knowing something about me, the real me--this way, all he could be sure of was my gluttony, and what he had told me himself. Besides, what if he pitied me?

"Let me help you," Darrel insisted, almost begging, and gripping my arm desperately.

"I'll scream if you don't let me go," I whispered.

He did not let go, and I did not scream.

"I love you," he said. "Even if you hate me, even if you send me away--my love will remain with you--"

"You'll never know me or have me. You only want me because it would make you happy!"

Darrel shook his head. "No! I...I don't know what you want--I can't read your mind, but whatever it takes, I just want you to be happy..."

Passivity clawed its way into my body for a moment, and I let him kiss me briefly. He still held my arm when we stopped.

"If you love me, let me go," I said quietly. Even my independence was spoken in cliched terms.

Darrel dropped my arm and took his keys out of his pocket. "Just let me help you. Maybe we can get married."

"Didn't you hear what I said? Let me go! I don't need help!" I snatched the keys from Darrel's hand and rushed to his car. For once, the world cooperated with me; the car started (I had feared it would stall). Darrel tried to open the locked door, and looked at me desperately, but I hated him at the moment, for his false, self-centered 'care' was worse than any hatred, and almost as bad as being mocked. I backed out of the parking space and, as he stood there, hit him with the car--not too hard, but enough to knock him down. For the first and last time, I had real control of the world. I drove myself home, running three red lights, and nearly causing an accident. I left Darrel's keys in the car when I locked myself inside the apartment. When I went out the next morning the car was gone. Darrel never pressed charges, and I never saw him again.

I've always felt ashamed of myself since then--to manipulate a man is one thing, expected from women, even, but to use them is always despicable, and to injure them--well, a man who lets a woman hit him is pathetic, but it is partially the woman's fault for doing so.... I would do it again, if given the chance, only experience would embolden me, until no one... Except, of course, no man has approached me like that since. But this is still why I have yet to speak to a man--any man--since then, why I only allow myself to be served by waitresses, why I must work from home, on the computer, with no human contact. Amazing that one can feel shame of one's actions, shame of one's own power, is it not? Even though no one else even cares about the actions of anyone else. Everyone feels herself to be powerful, yet no one believes others can hold power over them (unless, of course, they need a scapegoat to blame for their own failings). But I revel in my own power, even if it is mostly the power of invisibility, of being hidden from the world, of refusing to speak to men....

Isn't that normal?


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