Woman with an overactive mind, slow shutter photograph

Tales of the Terminally Distracted

It’s 6:15 on a Saturday morning. The alarm is a cruel reminder of my agreeing to go to a football game. He offers to make breakfast and leaves me to sleep another 15 minutes. But I’m awake now, alone with my thoughts, dream recollections and mental to-do lists of things I should be doing instead of laying here. I shift to where he was sleeping for extra warmth–small wins–and rummage through the mess: 4 articles to write, 2 emails, 3 assignments, 16 pages to proofread, message Eli, buy milk, book dinner, panic–did I take out the bins this week?

I close my eyes to escape the awake and re-visit last night’s dreams instead. To my dismay, I remember bleak skies, strolling the eastern freeway, a multi-car accident, windows smashing, chewing on broken glass, gums bleeding, pulling debris from my tongue… The familiar smell of scrambled eggs and coffee takes me out of my head and toward the kitchen. He plays soft music as he cooks which, thankfully, keeps me here.

At the game, I am merely a spectator–the kind of painfully idle role I hadn’t assumed in a long time. As the first quarter begins, I catch myself tracing the word ‘spectator’ on my quivering knee over and over, and then I force a fist to stop my fingers from writing, typing, twiddling–things they’d usually be doing by now, things I’m craving.

Here, I have no duties, no responsibilities, no obligations other than to keep an eye on my player, so not to miss any vital marks, kicks, injuries… how often do people get injured in football games? He’s not wearing a mouthguard, could his teeth cave in? I think of teeth crumbling, glass breaking, gums bleeding–stop, focus. Where’s my player?

The second quarter begins. A man tackles and another falls, I think of war. A driver beeps, I turn to look. A child laughs loudly on the sidelines, I think of innocence. Her mother shushes her, I think:

Innocence died screaming

I’ve lost my player again. I’m still tracing ‘spectator’ on my knee, followed by ‘incompetent’.

At half-time, I walk to the playground, where I relish in aloneness instead of restlessness. I hear mum’s voice telling me to stay in the moment, so I make a half-hearted effort to, as she’d say, take in my surroundings: spectators jabbering about last night’s game, shivering mothers in their activewear sipping hot coffee, the cool breeze on my ankles, dogs sitting patiently, adults speaking loudly, children yawning, the smell of cigarette smoke, cigarettes and coffee… I close my eyes, sway slightly on the swing, rest my head on the chain, and conjure up the soulful voice:

It’s early in the morning

About a quarter till three

I’m sittin’ here talkin’ with my baby

Over cigarettes and coffee, now

But, like a gliding bird that slams into a window, my Otis-eased mind is interrupted by a chirpy young voice as the siren sounds for quarter three.

‘Hi, I’m Isla!’

Her perk is unfathomable to me. But still, I smile.

‘My name’s Isla!’ she repeats aggressively, demanding a response.

‘That’s a beautiful name,’ I appease her.

‘Thanks! What’s yours?’

‘Vanessa.’

Apparently, I’ve invited her to tell me her life story. I’m amazed by her confidence, and so my focus shifts between her and the game and suddenly I’m here again.

She spews words at me so quickly and for so long that I eventually make a game of trying to remember as much as I can. But I become so concerned with this challenge that I forget to pay attention to much of what she says. At the end of our conversation, here’s what I remember:

Isla is 9 years old.

She has two brothers: Jack, who is 12, and Gavin, 17.

Her dad is playing in the game today.

She brought a doll but can’t remember where she left it.

Her family has three dogs.

One dog is blind, one is a Boston Terrier and one’s name is Douglass. 

She barracks for Richmond.

‘Just because we barrack for different teams, doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.’

Her favourite subjects at school are Maths, Science, Art and Music. (This was the only question I actually asked her.)

Isla has a nasty habit of biting her nails. She doesn’t tell me this, but I catch her doing it between sentences, reminding me of my sister’s vexing old habits. Again, I spiral. I think of nails against blackboards, babies crying on aeroplanes, dentist drills, glass smashing, couples fighting in moving cars, neglected children. I even think of my first-and-last trip to the nail salon, where I sat cringing as the technician ground sandpaper rapidly and uncontrollably against my fingernail. The thought makes me squirm in the swing seat, and I’m hearing mum’s voice again, so I tune back in to Isla.

When I re-join our conversation, I learn:

Isla prefers the big swing to the baby swing, so we switch.

My 22-year-old body doesn’t fit so well in a baby swing.

But I don’t care.

Because I make her laugh so loud that I recognise the sound from earlier.

And her mother isn’t here to silence her.

The fourth quarter begins and as kids often do, Isla gets bored and eventually leaves to find her doll. I sit somewhat still, at the mercy of my distractions, and watch the rest of the game in comfortable silence. I try not to think, though now that I do think, I’m craving a hot shower. Lately, I’ve been using the fogged-up shower door to plan my day, which is ridiculous, when I think about it now.

When the game is over, I ask to drive us home. Driving has become my new escape, having recently replaced sleep. Since my dreams are no longer sweet, and my time is no longer mine, the drives in between home and school and work have now become my peaceful place; my hands have no choice but to stay on the wheel and my eyes are forced to focus. 

And so, I drive us home in the warmth of his post-game glow and to the soothing sounds of Otis Redding. Every green light takes me out of my head, where tasks and duties are now stacked neatly for me to deal with later.

To-do: be here, now.


Photo by Kira Hartley. Used with permission.


Vanessa De Lutiis is a student, copywriter and serial over-thinker. She is grateful for solitary runs, home-cooked meals and the musical power of instruments combined. She is slowly working on how to translate her overactive imagination into words.

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