Nighttime Routine (II)

Her nighttime routine consisted of forty different steps involving fifteen products and five parts of her body. First, she lit a white wax candle. Sweet, pink-petalled freesia swept into the room. Her head swam. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she meditated for ten minutes using a loving kindness app. “I forgive you,” she intoned, under the Benedictine guidance of a honeyed British voice. It was said with a genuine attempt at feeling, with the overwhelming desire to summon a revelation like the ones promised to her in the ads for therapy, and she waited expectantly, shivering in the center of her room in synthetic fleece pajamas. But when the tundra of her mind refused to react, she gave up easily, unsurprised—but bitter, nonetheless, at the notion that meditation wouldn’t work on her dog of a brain.

With a shiver of fear for what new pimple or freshly mottled patch she might encounter on its rolling hills and pockmarked fields, she moved onto her body. She twisted around in the dirty mirror to examine every hairy, blue-veined scrap of skin. She ran a roller of imitation green jade over pads of fat, lips pressed together tightly, eyes averted. She scrubbed at her elbows with an intricately woven towel imported from Korea. She applied a mud mask, then a sheet mask, and then a UV light mask. She cleansed, exfoliated, and moisturized her face. Balms, liquids, creams, gels. Baby blue, Pepto pink, grass green. She flossed and brushed her teeth with something battery-powered. In the warm yellow light, her bubblegum-flavored gingiva shone in her mouth like the gilded edges of an illuminated manuscript. (A decorative glint of blood along her lip line from overexuberant flossing.) She meticulously conditioned every strand of her dyed hair with animal fat before braiding it into a loop that she pinned into place. The clips she used cost fourteen dollars and were shaped and colored like monarch butterflies.

The first few nights after her encounter at the bus stop, she set a timer as she did her routine, checking it excitedly for time slippage, but detected no major changes. She thought about buying a notebook to track any deviations—preferably something with a velvet cover, in a red color with a copyrighted name, something like Wine of the Hesperides—and started searching Amazon for a suitable option. But that search was soon lost in the swamp of other potential purchases (a new freesia candle, with base notes of white lily and immortelle, a set of hydrocolloid patches shaped like candy hearts, a hair iron with a three-digit price tag, a black chihuahua with anguished eyes, a six-pack of cherry-flavored prebiotic drinks, a cherry-scented lip gloss, a cherry-colored knit sweater, a pair of plastic cherry-shaped earrings) and she soon forgot the devil and his bargain.

A week passed and a thousand other things took up residence in the endlessly generated rooms of her mind. Waves of anxiety worried at the wallpaper. No amount of lo-fi videos, with their pastel sunsets, their blinking stars, could calm her fears. A routine scan revealed a mass in her mother’s pancreas. An ex-boyfriend got married and posted artful, if a shade oversaturated, shots of his bottle-blonde, size-two bride. She dreamed of a body carved up on a warped plastic cutting board. A high school friend with whom she had maintained a painfully one-sided rivalry got a promotion at a rival marketing firm. She got into the satin sheets, scrolling through her feed with animal speed, and then reached up to feel the wings clipped to her hair, an idle habit—before realizing that she had no recollection of putting them in.

Within two weeks, everything else evaporated. The leave-in conditioner with the vaguely gamey scent, the pink toothpaste, the torturous floss, the layers of silicone and glycerin in different formulations. Each step disappeared down the drain, into the bog of her memory in her dog of a brain. Her perfect evening took place when she blinked and was completely ready for bed, with no memory whatsoever of performing any step of the nighttime routine. Her phone lay on the floor, half-concealed under a pile of laundry. For the first time in her adult life, something like contentment took her hand and promised to buoy her out of despair. Pyramids of moisturizer seeped into the skin of her face that night, and she rested deeply.

Another week passed before she realized that time was disappearing beyond the nighttime routine.

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