Another one from the archives! This post is an essay I wrote for creative writing class in high school. It required some semblance of a story line and actual dialogue. I don’t recall what else the assignment entailed, but I can tell you that I was a bit shocked over the direction I went in. So last year when I rediscovered this I wrote a letter to the younger version of myself that wrote:
Victim of Circumstance
We sat across from each other in an extremely tiny room. Mr. Alex Ballinger, the prison psychiatrist, had an expression of concern and wonderment on his face. He was middle-aged, balding, and average looking overall. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a three piece suit, which gave him at least the outer appearance of a shrink.
I didn’t really know too much about his personality, for this was only my third session with him. So far he seemed like he really cared about my personal problems and wasn’t just counselling people for the money. It was easy to see that in the way his office was decorated. The walls were a gray-white color with only Ballinger’s college degrees and diploma hanging on them. The rest of the office was the same way. It was incredibly plain.
“Hi John,” Ballinger said. “Are you ready to begin?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
He looked at me and smiled. I started to hope that he would be able to help me sort out my life. All I needed was an understanding of how life works.
“I’m interested in what we discussed last week,” he stated. “Would you like to start from the beginning again, or rather where we left off?”
“I’d prefer to begin all over again,” I answered.
“Hmm,” he mumbled while gazing at the ceiling. He began the trek down the far wall with his eyes, and ended by staring at me. He was doing a fair job of surveying me. He then continued.
“Last week you said that you were living the same thing over and over. Will you tell me again what went wrong?”
“Yes,” I said. “It got to a point where I didn’t know which day it was. The routine was so mechanical, day after day after…”
“But did you realize what was happening?”
“I did somewhat. I’d get up and drive to work at 8:15 in the morning and arrive at precisely 8:58. I would then walk up 27 steps into the building, take the elevator to the 13th story, and go into my little office. It was a little office much like this one. In that office I became shut off from the world, 9 to 5.”
“Your job couldn’t have been that boring,” Ballinger said.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said. “I was an accountant, and I was trapped by…”
I thought for a short moment. Was it right to expose my whole life to a prison shrink? He seemed like a decent guy, but there was no insurance that he could handle my problems. But I didn’t have anything to lose, so I broke the silence by continuing from where I had left off.
“I was trapped by numbers,” I said quietly.
He fiddled nervously with his glasses. He appeared to be pondering what I had just said. Of course I was wondering about it too.
“Can you explain how you were trapped?” he asked.
“Everything in this world is a number,” I said. “We have Social Security numbers, license numbers, and time measured by numbers. You even have to take a number and wait in line at stores! I got a number when I was locked in here!”
Ballinger stood up and walked silently to a little window in the corner office. He stared outward in virtual amazement.
I had done the exact same thing many times in my own little office. I discovered many things outside my window. Mainly it was the rest of the world and the human race. It was outside every window, and at that moment that one fact seemed to link me with Ballinger.
He turned back around from the window without so much as even a glance in my direction. With slow and deliberate movements he moved toward the desk and sat down. His face held no expression at all, and I longed to know what he was thinking.
He said, “You have to realize we are all trapped in one way or another. Everyone has personal doubts and fears. It’s just that some people, like yourself, take action instead of allowing situations to dictate what to do in life.”
“Well at least I won’t get locked into a routine – “
“Don’t you see?” he interrupted. “It’ll happen in here just as easy as it did out there. This is still part of the world. You are in danger of a fixed life no matter where you o and what you do.”
Ballinger had me on the run now. I had very little to base my past mistakes on, and it hurt. I had always believed I was right in doing what I did. Now I was forced to admit I was wrong.
“I thought I could escape reality,” I said.
“By killing your wife?” he questioned.
“Why, yes. I knew very well that I would never get away with the murder. You could say that I’m here on purpose and not by accident.”
“So you had the murder of your wife all planned out?”
“Exactly. I had the first ideas about it almost a month before I actually carried it out. In that month I worked out the how, when, and where parts to the murder.”
He began to loosen the wedding ring on his finger. It was silver-tinted and sparkled in the bright lights of the office. I looked at my own wedding ring. Now it seemed gray and dingy, possibly reflecting my own life.
“Did you ever stop to think about what you were throwing away?” he asked.
“You think I threw away a lot, don’t you?”
“Well, you told me in the last session that you were very secure financially. You also had two cars and a summer home. Both your son and daughter were in college and doing quite well. I’d say you had a lot going for you.”
We both sat there, quietly thinking over what he had just said. He was beginning to show me that I had made a major mistake. It’s true that I hadn’t escaped from my problems, but instead ran away. Maybe I should have stayed and fought the battles.
“There is one last thing I should ask you,” he said. “Do you know what finally drove you to murder your wife? You’ve already said the pressure was building up inside, but what caused you to explode?”
“There is no logical explanation,” I sighed. “Maybe that’s why I’ve been coming to see you for counselling.”
“Yes, maybe. I see our time is almost up. So I guess I’ll see you again next week.”
We both rose from our chairs and shook hands. He had a firm grip, and his eyes seemed to be controlling that grip.
“Thanks for listening to my gripes,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it. I’d just like you to do some thinking about what we’ve discussed and we’ll talk about it all again next week.”
I turned and walked out the door. A guard was there to take me back to my cell. While we walked down the long and empty hallway, I began to think about what Ballinger had said. I realized that I was a victim of circumstances. It was my lot in life to be caught by what was going on around me, not inside me.
I also had another idea when the guard finally locked me in my cell. I wasn’t ever free. Not in the present or past at least. I seriously doubted that I would have freedom in the future.
So this is my new cell, I thought. It’s the new residence of John Doe. Here is where I’ll be locked into a routine like I was before. Possibly this time I’ll be able to cope with the help of Alex Ballinger. He was living proof also of a cliché-ridden life. Because of that fact alone, his life was similar to mine. But I guess everyone is remotely the same. We all live in a cliché in one way or another.
Teacher’s remarks: Chris, I do really love the idea behind this story – so many people really are trapped within their own routines. Perhaps the idea of killing his wife was a bit extreme – he seemed too quickly to realize he had been wrong to have committed a crime so awful. I do like the idea that the prison cell, in a way, seems to represent the way his life has always been. Score 92/100
Dear Past Me,
I’m having a good time reading everything you’ve written, but I have to admit this essay made my skin crawl a bit. While I can see the points you are trying to make, I do agree with your teacher – the murder is way over the top with little motivation, plus John comes to some realizations far too soon. I’m sure you were under a word count for the essay and I know you occasionally like to write with shocking twists and metaphors, but this story crossed too many lines for my liking. I also noticed a few plot holes I’d like to point out:
It’s doubtful John was wearing a wedding ring in prison. You used it to make a point but should’ve come up with something more plausible.
I also highly doubt they would’ve met in the shrink’s office unless John was shackled with a guard nearby. Again, I understand needing to use the image of the office to draw a parallel.
You probably didn’t feel like you have a choice but to do something drastic to wind up in prison, like murdering his wife. Word count constraints are the bane of my (your future) existence! I just want you to slow down and think out plot details a little more in detail. You get so excited to tell the story that sometimes the story itself gets in the way. It has been this way since you were a little kid.
One thing I enjoy throughout was the example of life routines becoming boring and possibly a cliché. You explore this concept a lot in your writing and have been influenced by songwriters like Ray Davies (The Kinks) and Pete Townshend (The Who). I’m glad you are evolving and writing from your own viewpoint based on their concepts and not just copping something as your own.
I think you worry a bit too much about becoming trapped into a routine as an adult. I want you to understand you won’t let it happen because you are pretty self-aware. You are going to gravitate toward variety and will embrace the comforts of some routines as an adult. In short, you will achieve a balance.
Finally, don’t worry – in most cases what you’ve written doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy later on!