No, my name is Frode Abelsen, for the 2 PM. Not Frodo, just Frode. My parents hoped life experiences would prove my name prophetic. Most parents can’t fathom the cruelty of future generations or the shortsightedness of their best intentions.
You don’t have to analyze that.
So, my mom told me once I should continue with my “coping mechanism” as long as it worked. You can probably figure out why I’m here now.
No, the coping mechanism didn’t fail; the mechanics of my mechanism did.
My mother’s advice resurfaced last month when I was in the city.
“Frogger the Sponge!” John Sherman shouted in the middle of Penn Station. Sherman—thicker in the face but thinner in the hair since high school—burst with recognition. He broke his hurried stride. Wherever he was heading could wait. The prick. He hopped in sidesteps, waved gloved hands, bent low to press his grin up into my downturned face.
“Frogger! Frogger! Come on—don’t you recognize me? Hey, Sponge!”
Sherman’s thick fingers lunged for my world-blocking headphones and that is when I vomited a torrent of curses that staggered Sherman as if he’d been scalded. Penn Station paused. Eyes set, not on Sherman who raised his hands as if to surrender, but on me. An officer at the information desk put her D&D coffee down to fully witness the commotion. A pair of soldiers in fatigues gripped tighter the rifles in their hands.
Nothing. I lowered my eyes and scurried down the stairs to platform 8, tucked myself at the back, and let the train’s rocking and my headphones’ songs soothe me.
The nickname? It spawned naturally enough. The first day of high school, nearly twenty years ago, I had my Sony discman jammed into my sweater pocket, Freddie Mercury crammed in my ears.
No, the Highlander soundtrack.
Highlander? A film about immortals challenging each other to sword fights and beheading each other because there can be only one? Anyway, it’s irrelevant. So, headphones on, I bolted into the road to cross six lanes of traffic with the light. Halfway across my batteries died. The crossing guard stayed with me. She took her job seriously, gloved fingers of condemnation directing cars as they rolled past the stop line beneath the traffic light. She lifted her stop sign higher, the only barrier between me and six rows of cars rumbling to move. Traffic lights cycled. The fresh pair of double-A’s felt greased in my fingers. One slipped. Then the other. The green light clicked yellow, then red. Horns blared. Commuters leaned out their windows and hurled commands like javelins to drive me out of the road. I took two steps toward the curb. Retreated three steps. Spun and rushed past the crossing guard. Leapt when a car honked in aggravated bursts.
Do you see the name forming? A cluster of juniors and seniors stood across the street from the school copying homework and blowing smoke rings. So cool, right? In that particular smoke circle, Hasboro’s reboot of America’s favorite video game amphibian had a loyal following. One observer aimed a Newport-stained finger toward the street as cultural phenomenon crashed with the opportunity to embarrass, and the nickname emerged from the wreckage.
“Fucking Frogger!” he astutely labeled the situation.
The leap from Frode to Frogger was a joke that’s lasted a lifetime.
Of course I resemble more of a toad than a frog in appearance and texture and personality. Stout arms and legs. Dry skin. Lips pulled into a grimace. Eyes severe and judgmental. None would be surprised if I were to lurch at the world and swallow it whole, drawing nourishment from the very thing I disdain.
Don’t analyze that.
The moniker Frogger the Sponge followed an adolescent train of thought that I acted like a fly on the wall; urinals in the building had those fly decals to prevent “accidental spillage”; the boys aimed their piss at those stick-on flies, just like the boys aimed their jibes at me; I absorbed all the insults and Frogger taunts emptied upon me; hence, Frogger the Sponge.
On this insult, the high school boys were again severely misinformed. I didn’t think myself a fly on the wall. I would’ve been much happier as the pink fiberglass insulation rolled between the studs and pressed on two sides by sheetrock. Forgotten. Left to disintegrate at my own pace.
Don’t analyze that.
Undisturbed, that’s my point.
That’s not what I felt mornings on the first Tuesday of every month as I waited for the off-peak train, waited on the safe side of the yellow line that herded passengers from the ledge, waited in dark clothes with a collared shirt that—no matter how much talcum I sprinkled—chafed my neck as I assessed my peripherals. Waited for the train that would carry me the length of Long Island and penetrate the Big Bruised Apple like an accidental finger breaking the purpled skin.
No, I don’t hate the city. I hate all the people in the city. All the people on the way to the city. That’s why I take off-peak one Tuesday a month.
No, I’m good at my job, that’s why I set the work conditions. That’s not arrogance. That’s truth. I made sure I landed a gig that allowed me to work from home.
Home? It’s quiet. That’s why I like it.
I never had an official diagnosis. My mom called it a sensitivity. It’s more than that. More like a cursed version of synesthesia. Luckily, I was born in the right generation. College was possible because I did the whole thing online. Technology has made the life I live possible. I’m aware and grateful for that. But when they fail, these technological conveniences, I feel they fail me personally.
Don’t analyze that.
Again, it wasn’t my headphones that failed. The inanimate world is puckish. Objects imbued with the malevolent spirits of their underpaid creators. Factory workers hardened and hateful inject spite with every staple and screw. Some will dismiss it to unfortunate circumstance when a thread catches on a chair and a new hole forms in a favorite sweater. Wrong. That’s the will of some pissed laborer who—without knowing you—hates you and wants to claw at you as you pass. In this case, the metal backing on a railroad seat projected a gnarled hook and yanked. I didn’t follow proper train etiquette, I admit that. I didn’t allow the exiting gentleman to step off before I charged forward. Perhaps I could’ve avoided the calamity completely. But on the quiet car, my goal is to reach the farthest seat on the empty train. That’s my seat.
No. It’s mine.
The old man stepped forward as I stepped forward and to avoid physical contact with him, I ducked to the side in a game of chicken neither of us was playing. That ducking brought me close enough to the gnarled hook. The headphone cord caught, tugged, then gave.
Silence is what I dread.
No, dread is accurate.
I never described to my mom what it felt like. What I saw. I couldn’t. She would’ve tried to medicate me or, worse, force me to see one of you. It begins with an itch at the elbow. No burn. A squirm, as if flies found a hole somewhere in the skin and repurposed a pocket of flesh and blood and muscle into a nursery where their hatchlings feasted and grew and writhed. As soon as the headphones went dead, I felt the squirm and considered laying my arm above the elbow on the track.
No, I don’t have suicidal ideations. I do have a sincere desire to sever myself from the things that bother me.
No, I couldn’t just step off at the next stop. Part of me felt paralyzed at the back of the quiet car, pressed backward by invisible g-forces working solely against me. That’s perception, not paranoia. When we arrived at the next stop, a woman boarded. Professional. Earbuds plugged beneath her silver bob. A battered copy of Pride and Prejudice protruding from her Strand Bookstore tote. A reader, a detacher. A perfect stranger to share the silence with.
Behind her slouched what I pegged as an immediate problem—an old man who cupped in his arthritic right hand a handkerchief, mostly white with a black print save for the visible wet spots where this red-nosed man deposited his sickness.
They each performed some quick geometry and determined how best to leave the most space between us. The silent reader took the center of the car; the sick man took the front. As the train lurched forward—backward for me—I felt like the kid who chose poorly the worst spot on the carnival ride and now must suffer the weight and force of his corndog-fattened friends.
I’m not paying to talk about friends.
The headphones, without sound, accomplished nothing. The pneumatic train brakes bored through the headset padding. Instinctually I plugged two pointer fingers into my ears, just the fingers’ pads. I crossed my middle fingers over them and pressed in to seal the holes. Five minutes in my fingers started cramping. I considered hiding out in the bathroom, but the out-of-order sign discouraged me.
No, I’m not easily discouraged. I just didn’t want to try if I thought I had no chance of succeeding. Don’t analyze that.
Not thirty seconds since our departure, old Mr. Sickness rumbled a few phlegmy tremors. Again and again. Haeyum. Haeyum. The sound of a forced breath tickling mucus and gargling hot spit. Look, this is where I invoke confidentiality. You can’t tell anyone about this, okay?
It was like each eeuhhm, eeuuhhm, eeeuhhhm was a call for attention, a way for this skeletal nothing of a person to occupy more space in the car, another malignant creation. Look at me, look at me, it demanded. I’ve survived countless recessions, a few remissions, I’ve buried or burned everyone I’ve known and loved, and now I’m the nearly extinct last of my bloodline.
Eeuuhmm. Eeeuuuhhm. Euuuuhhhm.
With each tremor, the old man placed his handkerchief to his mouth to catch the wetness gathered at his lips. I’ve seen old men pulling stringy spit threads from their lips before. Gross, sure, but not something so bad I would charge my debit card for your services. That saliva silk isn’t what caught my attention. Before he dabbed his lips, he dropped his jaw as his throat opened, and that’s when I saw something in his mouth reflecting the light pouring into the train. A passing glimmer covered by the handkerchief.
Another cough and this time I saw an eye darting side to side in his maw before it turned its gaze on me.
No. You think I’d be talking to you if it were a gumball or a piece of hard candy he chiseled off a mound he keeps in a saucer at home? This was a human eye, still in the socket!
Just because it’s impossible doesn’t mean it was impossible for me to see.
That’s how all this works. Or doesn’t work.
Finally, the old guy broke up something in his chest, churned up substance from the back of his throat, turned his head to the right and spat into his handkerchief. I’m sure some particle landed in that filthy white rag, but next to him landed something bigger and nastier. It was covered in slime green and yellow, but I could still make out the red nose.
There were two. Two old men now. The sick guy who kept clearing his throat and another version of the sick guy he spewed out his mouth. It landed with a slap in the open chair like puking a human slug half the size of the original, but identical in likeness and manner. The guy brought his handkerchief to his red honker and the slimy dwarf version of him brought his up too. They turned opposite each other and sneezed in unison.
Ever see Gallagher? The comedian. Sledgehammer guy? He’d place various pieces of fruit on a table and smash them with a sledgehammer. Chunks of watermelon would fly five rows deep. Picture that, but with a bag of overripe avocados.
Neither one of the guys caught their explosive globs so in each droplet that pooled on a seat or oozed down the window, a little tadpole version of the old man swam. And now all of them—ALL. OF. THEM.—were hacking at a new cough, each gagging on a smaller version to regurgitate onto an empty seat.
The train car was completely compromised and spreading.
No, I wasn’t afraid of getting sick. I’m not a hypochondriac. Each human emission merely filled the car a little more.
No, the woman didn’t see it. I wouldn’t have seen it either if my headset worked.
No, I don’t like those cordless headsets. Don’t trust them. Forget to charge them one night, and where does that leave me? And forget those ridiculous noise canceling monstrosities. There’s no discretion. Everyone knows I’m trying to silence them.
No, I just don’t want the attention.
At the next stop a guy got on and nearly slipped on all that mucus. He may have just lost his balance. He was older. You’d guess not a speck of tech on him, but poking out of his shirt pocket was a small screen, some early model iPhone he probably used to look at pictures of his grandkids and play Bubblewrap. He was another reader, but the worst kind. Not one, not two, but three—THREE!—physical newspapers tucked under his arm. This was the man keeping the print industry alive and I wanted to kill him.
He kept a tight grip on the paper despite his arthritis-swollen knuckles. As if he had lost so much already and feared one rogue breeze could steal his morning routine, his final connection to the world of the living.
He folded the Times proper, just enough to read the top story above the fold, but each time he shifted a cheek to ease the pressure on his flagrant hemorrhoids, the paper crinkled in his grip.
That’s when I saw them, falling like termites from the printed page. They marched across his lap, a miniature army of retirees wandering, lost, bumping into and pardoning each other. He was crawling with these pests. They spilled out of his lap, scuttled along and down the leg of his chair, moved with the chaos of a nest disturbed by some misplaced foot.
He looked about, unaware of his personal infestation, noted the freedom of riding the quiet train off-peak and decided to set himself up as if he were seated at his kitchen table. He rested his deli coffee next to him, leaned back against the chair, and with the gesture of a magician revealing the full breadth of his cape, snapped his wrists to unfurl the Times’ full area. The little maggot creatures flung from the pages. Some struck the windows and splattered, then dripped down. Others landed in clumps on surrounding seats and wriggled over each other.
Again and again, SNAP SNAP SNAP, like wind against the sail of a ship destined for destruction, sucked down into a watery pit, the crew marked as crab grub and future sand particles.
How does he not hear it? The crinkle and shimmy of his eyes bobbing down the page like a Plinko disc.
Plinko. Remember? I’m not sure if they still have that game on the show. The contestant stood atop this huge plastic and pressboard game and dropped a disc down, hitting wood nubs that sent the disc in different directions. They could aim as much as they wanted over the prized center slot, but one bounce could “rob” them of thousands of dollars and drop them in a cold zero-dollar outcome. It didn’t rob them; the prize was never theirs to begin with. Only humans lose things they never had. I quit watching that pre-afternoon guilty pleasure when Bob Barker retired.
I don’t know, do I have difficulty adjusting to change?
On the train it was a slow change. The walls and floor were pulsing with convulsive creatures, asexual beings pregnant with sound.
No, I don’t want to talk about my sex life. That would be more of an epitaph than a conversation. Have you ever tallied all the sounds made during sex? If people could see sounds the way I do, they’d yank out their tongues and slipper their feet and never again disturb the air with their noise. Do I remind you of the Grinch, up there on Mount Crumpit hating the Whos with all their noise, noise, noise, noise? A more realistic scenario, less Suessian, would involve the Grinch loading up his sled with explosives and aiming it down the mountain at that Who circle surrounding the tree so the last things he heard were their screams and calls to whatever deities Whos worshipped until all was snuffed out with flame and silence.
No, I don’t seriously entertain these thoughts. I’ve also never considered blinding myself to avoid seeing the world this way. I do, however, blast songs in my headphones, hoping the caution on the phone comes true—listening to music at high volumes may cause permanent hearing damage. But other than that, I’ve never considered plunging a Q-tip down my ear canal either.
Patior ergo sum, right? Don’t analyze that.
I was halfway to the city and I hoped—maybe—with these visions filling the car at their geriatric pace, I could arrive, hold tight, and return home unscathed. Fire off an email on the ride back and reschedule the meeting for the next day. Diarrhea, I’d tell them. No one questions that. But then I heard a flutter of demon wings. The lady with the silver bob laid her book open in her lap and lifted from her tote the buzzing source to terrorize me. Her eyes flashed with recognition and a devilish grin curled her lips.
“Hellllll O?” she whispered but didn’t. “I was hoping we could have a con-ver-sa-tion.” She broke the last word into bits like a witch dismembering a gingerbread man.
She released a laugh that required nothing of her lips or teeth or tongue, a high-pitched hum smothered at the back of her throat. From her mouth popped a spit bubble, and from that bubble erupted a winged thing. It perched above her on the luggage rack. Its hair silver, eyes black with impish impulse. It snaked leathery arms through the metal bars of the rack, hooked long fingers behind her front teeth, slapped a reptilian hand on her chin, then winked at me. It pried her head nearly in half and cracked its own face to match. Together they cackled, a discordant whirr that summoned a swarm. Google “Asian giant hornet” and let your nightmares commence. Thousands of them, wrinkled pixies colliding and swirling into a funnel directed toward me.
What could I do? I closed every orifice my muscles could constrict. Every voluntary sphincter pinched. I pressurized my nose to restrict access to my lungs. She corrupted the air with malignant laughter. Each punchline launched the hornet-demons like darts. Even with my eyes closed I felt them penetrating my skin. She attempted to bite her laughs to decrease her disruption, and those clicking teeth became the clack of her spawns’ abdomens pumping deeper and deeper their venom.
I curled my legs and buried my face in my knees. I bit my lower lip and rolled my ear lobes to plug my ear canals. Rode all the way to Penn that way, like a human pill bug.
You’ve seen them. Some folks call them roly-polies. Their main defense is to curl into a ball when threatened. Of course that defense does absolutely nothing to spare them from becoming a gray smear under my Converse.
No, I don’t find pleasure in killing bugs, though technically pill bugs are crustaceans. Feast on that next time you slurp up shrimp Alfredo at the Olive Garden. The point is this: I feel a connection to those little doodlebugs tucked into themselves to avoid the world.
I rode home that way too. Flashed my monthly pass at the assistant conductor, didn’t even pull my head from between my knees. Ordered four sets of headphones on Amazon as soon as I got home. But that’s not enough.
Every sound births a sound births a sound. The offspring of careless coughs and free-wielded laughter overpopulate the space around me until it feels a bit like drowning (I’d imagine). That physical weight, that pressure. To breathe is to die. To suffocate is to die too. What would you prefer? To be deprived of air or overcome with fluids?
The weight of sound? I don’t know, but when I was a kid my favorite part of swimming was sinking and letting that chlorinated water fill and pressurize my ears. I don’t float. No buoyancy. I’d pull a dead man’s float for about ten seconds before my legs would swing down. I’d bob then sink. Everything that troubled me would vanish—the lifeguard’s sharp whistles, the dumb throb of children testing the diving board’s limits, the slaps of sunscreen from mothers anxious to protect their uncooperative brats. Do you have any meds like that? I want to sink into silence without dying.
You mean life or death? No, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an emergency. You can just send a script to the CVS near my house. I’ll give you the address. They deliver.
Is that a law or your own personal preference?
Where’s your office?
Are you fucking kidding me?