Valerie Pavilonis

My back presses down against hard curved letters that spell “disappointment” and tries to dent — or rather, deform — them. I’m about to sleep, not really. I wish. I can’t, because I’m sitting on disappointment. Staring upwards, simultaneously asleep and awake and alive and dead, I think I’m outside. A gentle night breeze lifts my blanket and sweeps it away, up into the sky.

I open my Headspace app and start counting. “Breathe in, out, in, out.” The soothing mechanical voice prods me to comply. Literally, I’m meditating on disappointment.

A list of my shortcomings scrolls past me on an LED screen embedded in the night sky, little stars that blink in and out of my consciousness.

A pingpong ball travels through the air. It hits my paddle and bounces off, first onto the ceiling then the wall finally the floor, missing the table by three feet. Again and again it comes smashing back. I’m losing the game. By a lot. And my opponent smirks as I sink deeper into my bed. I’m fighting the urge to retreat into long, deep sleep.

I feel the outline of the letters I’m lying on: disappointment. I should be asleep at this hour. I should also be working on my assignments that are due tomorrow and practicing the violin or going on a run, not to mention writing the Yale Daily News article I should have written by now but haven’t. I should be a better student, musician, daughter, sister, friend and person. I should have —

It’s still somewhere in the middle of the night. Someone behind me throws a pebble aimlessly into a dark pond. It lands with a feeble splash and begins its journey to the bottom. I am the pebble, and as I sink into disappointment all I can do is hope for a small ripple. Two seconds, maybe? The pond, overgrown with algae, does not respond.

The lights around me in the Trumbull College buttery laugh. They’re the little eyes of some large insect I inhabit — I can’t get out of it. The lights will never be happy. I can never do enough. I’m still losing the pingpong game. Like my imaginary opponent, the lights smirk at my inadequacy. Three overturned red Solo cups that once held cookie dough tilt in agreement as I sink deeper into my bed. The cups fall over and roll towards me along the floor.

Does the pebble wonder about how gravity works? Gravity ties me to the letters on which I lie. I can’t get away from unavoidable disappointment, thinking back to the scrolling image.

Every day, people make sacrifices for me, to what end? Surrounded by idealists, I am seldom reminded of my need to make returns on the sacrifices of my family, teachers and friends. My dilemma: torn between a desire to change the world on a large scale and find fulfillment through my work and one to live in a way that takes the resources offered to me and capitalize on it in a way that my family — both older and younger generations — will appreciate.

Choosing the latter would begin to atone for the sacrifices my family and friends have made for me. Either way, someone’s disappointed, and I’m still selfish. I look around again, and the moon asks me if she’s real.

“I’m not sure,” I answer. The moon opens her mouth to ask me if I’d feel bad if she drifted away, a fraction of an inch at a time, until we had no moon and no tides. She asks me if I cared.

Then hundreds upon hundreds of silhouettes of blades of grass sway back and forth, perfectly synchronized with the moon and the lights and the evil pingpong ball. “You don’t care,” they seemed to say. “You don’t care that our planet is burning or that our national debt is rising or that we need to reform the justice system and the education system and our political system and —”

The list continues to scroll as I slam my first down into the grass. I grab it by the root and tear it into pieces, but the voices do not stop speaking. Disappointment intertwines itself with worry because I’m never doing enough for anyone or any issue. I am inconsiderate.

And the pebble sinks until it hits the muddy pond bottom. There’s no ripple, and the pebble is disappointed.

My ripple would have carried a few crucial items: my half-finished problem set and my sub-par grades, the sadness I’ve inflicted on those I love most, the life I tried to live but didn’t and the expectations my environment and I have crafted together that I did not meet.

The pebble didn’t realize that it doesn’t matter whether or not it produces a ripple. It wouldn’t have helped anyway because the pebble, sitting at the pond bottom covered in breathing mud, sits alone forever, sad and disappointed.

I harden to conform to the hard curved letters underneath me. I become a part of them. Together, we inhabit a disappearing notion of disapp—

My roommate told me that people here don’t feel disappointment enough. I think it’s because of our hardening — I feel that I am a mere shadow of society’s expectations of my identity, and I have no clue where to find it.

The scrolling stops. Has the list of grievances I wrote for myself against myself finally come to an end? The stars blink. I blink.

I blink again and open my eyes to find myself lying on nothing but my usual navy-and-white patterned sheets after a too-short night of sleep.

I’d manufactured all of that. It’s not real. But tomorrow’s evening will turn into night, the letters will reemerge and the pingpong ball and lights and moon and grass — they are my friends and family — will come back and try to speak with me once more.

I’m afraid of what they’re going to say, because I’m never going to stop missing notes. And I would be shocked if I haven’t misspelled the word “disappointment” by now.

My body rests on something as solid as disappointment — a red leather couch in the Trumbull basement — it’s already 4:04 a.m., and I see no hard curved letters and no disappointment. I am hopeful.

Phoebe Liu | phoebe.liu@yale.edu