Fiction | Every other day, but specifically, a day in November, 2020

She climbs into the cardboard box, curls into a foetus shape, knees by her ears, right arm tucked below. She starts folding the lid closed, blocking the room, but the left flap keeps popping open. After her sixth try, she lets it be. Wouldn’t it be funny if someone walked in now? Wouldn’t it be a great surprise? Only she lives alone. And she has no visitors either currently in her home or scheduled to visit.

She can’t believe she’s been awake for three hours and already it has come to this. Distracting herself in the moment, folding into boxes, as she avoids her dead computer, tossed aside on the couch. Where has the day gone? Where was the day coming from?

Maybe she could use the cardboard as a canvas, do some painting, when she finds the energy to climb out. Maybe in another couple of minutes.

How do contortionists do it? She wonders, thinking of Oceans 11, and that kid’s ability to so easily slide into a suitcase. And those in circuses and magic shows, who find themselves twisted up in glass boxes that have nowhere near the give that cardboard has. It must be a skill, alongside the routine of stretching, and being extremely flexible. She remembers hearing somewhere that contortionists can have internal organ problems, as they actually displace their insides. Do contortionists choose the contortion life or does the contortion life choose them? And how is the job market for contortionists in 2020?

Either way, 27 is too old to be getting into the contortionist game. That career has to start young, surely — and she hadn’t even taken gymnastics as a child. But, they also say you’re never too old to learn something new. Surely there’s a course out there, a local weekly session, learn it in stages. To be fair, she’s already in the box—maybe she’d be a step up from beginner, even? An intermediate contortionist. She rests her forehead against her knees and flaps her right hand around, back of hand, palm, back of hand, palm, hitting the ground.

She wonders if climbing into a box is a sign of needing to seek out a psychologist. She puts it on the list underneath crying in the shower this morning and sending an email to the wrong person yesterday afternoon, which led her to lie on the ground in a ball for at least five minutes. Also, surely it falls below last week when she just sat on the couch and cried for ten hours straight. Yeah, contorting herself into a box is not primary material but could definitely act as supporting evidence, she thinks, as she tries to close the lid again.

She imagines how she would approach putting this on a dating profile. ‘Dating me is like…being a cat owner, I guess, sometimes affectionate, and sometimes just fucking off into boxes.’ At the moment her Tinder/Hinge/Bumble profiles are set up as the optimistic, joyful version of herself. The ‘Find me at festivals, dancing all night’ version, which is so 2019. How do you convey the duplicity of emotions? The duality of self, which is not a diagnosis, but just an in-flux personality? She tries to scoot in the box, but only manages a small jostle.

She imagines a knock at the door, and needing to unpack herself from the box, to greet someone — would she mention she’d just been chilling in a box? Or would she not even remove herself, and just shout out, ‘The key’s under the pot plant! Come on in!’ and have them find her to surprise them. She imagines it’s a postal delivery guy, who’s delivering…something that she’s ordered. Has she ordered something lately? A book of poetry from the local bookstore, or a new plant to green her space? Of course, she hasn’t, but imagine if she had. He would come in, confused, but wanting human connection (as we all do), and would be unsure why the living room is empty, and then he would think, ‘Maybe the bedroom…’ and feel intrigued, and a little bit excited, as he remembers the most basic of basic porn set ups—something sexy is about to go down, and then he would enter the room…and find her in a box. She wouldn’t be able to jump out of the box, not from this position, so he would have to…open it? Would she say ‘Surprise!? In or out of the box? Surely anyone would be perplexed. Yeah, no, not a sexy situation. She shuffles around a bit and tries to get her shoulder further into a corner.

What was the point of getting in the box? she asks herself, staring at a cobweb hanging from her ceiling. What am I avoiding? The ache of anxiety throbs in her chest again. She remembers a video she watched earlier, before even getting out of bed: ‘When I have anxiety, I acknowledge it, and speak to it, so that my brain can process it’s there, and start working through it.’ It was very similar to what the psychologist she chatted to a couple of months ago had advised over the phone. Hugging her knees tighter, she speaks aloud— ‘I have anxiety in my chest and running through my arms. It feels like a heavy weight, deep inside, and a gaping hole, concurrently. Why am I feeling it? Yeah, good question.’ She lets the words hang in the box air for a while. The weight in her chest is still there. Maybe she should get out of the box and write a list of things to do today. She shuffles further in on herself.

Before getting into the box, yet after stepping out of the shower in tears, she’d done a dance workout to a clip online, all to the tunes from Mamma Mia. She’d been sure that that would give her the serotonin to face the day, but here she was, nonetheless. Those 20 minutes of dance had been good while they lasted. She’d recognised long ago (at the start of the now-finished lockdown) that her body had copious energy and dance was a great way to channel it. But as the months of lockdown wore on, her daily dance had faded into an every-now-and-then dance. And the energy now came out in finger taps, and body shakes—when the emotion builds up in her throat and she feels like yelling, trapped in this skin, and this mind, and this place, and these walls. When she’s able to channel the energy, she’s truly productive. But when it’s there, tunnelling into her chest chasm, leaving her in gaping alone-ness, she needs to get it out of her, screaming, or bleeding, or crying, or through holes in walls, shattered glass.

But she isn’t that deep today, she tells herself. No, she just feels like hiding in a box is all.

In her kitchen, she knows dishes are piling up. She made bread the other day—her first try, even though it had been all the rage six months ago, during lockdown 1.0. She’d also made another batch of hummus to go with it, made out of tinned chickpeas, after she had burnt the ones she’d soaked overnight. Left boiling and forgotten until the smoke detector had gone off—that crispy pot sat on the bench, soaking for the past three days. She’d been able to do the dishes last week, but now they needed to be put on a list for her to get the detergent out. Even if she gets out of the box now, there is no way they’re going to be her first task.

Sighing, she wonders when she had started sorting her day according to ‘tasks’. They all seem so overwhelming: messages to respond to on her phone, emails to read and reply to, a marketing campaign to design and an advertising team to brief, dishes and clothes to wash, strangers to interact with. All of it feels like water slipping through her hands—none of it is of substance, none of it means anything.

And she knows she isn’t the only one who feels this way. She is part of the anxious generation, locked in an economic system which has them on the edge of burn out, making money while trying to substantiate their uniqueness, turning every hobby into a side hustle, never able to purchase property—or even if you could save enough, not wanting to be trapped in the one place with a mortgage for the next twenty odd years. Twenty years. She takes a sharp inhale, the hole in her chest deepening. How is she meant to know what the next two decades look like? She can’t even imagine the next two days.

Add to that the fact that the world is going through a collective trauma—the pandemic, shaped around an economic narrative, exposing society’s dismissal of the arts industry and casual workers, the continued colonial mentality that saw sacred Aboriginal sites being torn down to cut two minutes off a journey, the education system needing to reshape how her country’s history is taught, global warming sparking mass bushfires, and an ever-looming deadline of all-too-late. It’s all connected, she knows, but the gigantic 180 society would need to pull feels too daunting sometimes, and she doesn’t know where to start.

She imagines Gen Z shaking their heads at her through Tik Tok. Just another millennial lady, bemoaning how hard life is, just wanting to fuck off back overseas, to forget about making a legitimate difference in her own part of the world. Or they would say, ‘Stop hating on yourself! Do you not know how glorious, and fantastic, and brilliant you are? You’re doing the best you can!’ She knows that’s what she would tell anyone going through what she’s going through—that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and this is just a moment in time. But somehow it doesn’t work, telling it to herself. She tries to close the lid on the box again but it pops back open.

Last night, she had stood at the kitchen bench eating olives out of the jar, watching the orange sun set over the tin roofs from her window. She had popped them in, one by one, until half the jar was gone. She can’t remember the taste of them. She presumes they were salty, but that’s just logic. She had leant against the doorframe, staring at the grey-blue tinged clouds, wondering if they were going to break with rain. They hadn’t. She had imagined she had felt awash with the orange glow from the sun, and that it filled her soul until it was brimming with happiness. She’d imagined it had given her powers, lighting every corner of the chasm, so that she floated high, and could swim through the air. She’d imagined floating up the west coast of Australia, gliding through small towns, salt air refreshing her mind. She’d imagined travelling with a boy she loved, who could not fly, but drove by her side, as they wove past bakeries, and surf shops, over pathways with people greeting each other, the daily community check ins. She’d imagined gliding through sunsets of oranges, pinks, purples, each day filled anew—the peace that would surely bring.

She knows it’s almost time to unfurl herself and stand again, click the restart button on her day. Once she emerges from the box, she promises herself she’ll also emerge from the four walls of her house. She’ll put on a top, her shoes, and head out to get a coffee. She’s not ready to sit down at the café yet but she’ll support the local businesses who are doing keep cups once more, and take the drink down to the creek. She’ll sit and listen to the wind make soft chimes out of eucalyptus leaves, and be hypnotised by the foam shapes in the water. She’ll sit and breathe in the fresh air, stretch her limbs out, and take up space, toes tapping against dried mud on the banks. She’ll still be in her own company, but will feel like she’s part of something bigger, outside these walls.

Drumming her fingers against the bottom of the box one final time, she plants her feet against the side of the box and tears it open.


Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. 

Lucinda Walravens

Lucinda Walravens is a poet and writer living in Melbourne. She believes in exploring the complexities of emotions, and centring lived experiences. She believes in the power of empathy, and humour, to create an understanding, connected, community.

More by Lucinda Walravens ›

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  1. What a wonderful and insightful commentary on life – not just living through a pandemic, but coping with mental health concerns, capitalism and being a complicated human being with needs. I loved “How do you convey the duplicity of emotions? The duality of self, which is not a diagnosis, but just an in-flux personality?” – just beautiful.

  2. A genuinely beautiful piece of writing. I challenge anyone to read it and not relate it to the struggles and suffering we have all faced over the past couple of years. As with all great art, a perfect portrayal of the duality of life.

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