The Cycle of Getting Better

by The Cowl Editor on February 8, 2019


A person listening to and looking at his Walkman
Photo courtesy of

by Julia Zygiel ’19

This time it had been a cassette, its original label covered up with a piece of scotch tape that read “Self help” in purple Sharpie. Eloise would rather send her beat up Volkswagen over the guardrail and into the valley below than listen to it. The tape sat next to a Walkman that had been brand new about 30 years ago, but was still holed up in a crushed, dusty box. It had taken more than 300 miles of driving between Iowa and Nebraska to happen upon it. A lot of asking around at unnerving gas stations too, because Google Maps refused to give her reliable information. Eloise was a traveler, a nomad, but never had she felt farther from home, or more alone. Maybe the cassette wouldn’t even work. Maybe all of the years of disuse had scrubbed the filmy tape free of any words, sighs, notes, or noises it could hold. She could only hope.

At midday she finally saw another gas station and took the opportunity to fill up. Things weren’t as plentiful here as they were on the coasts, and running out of gas in the middle of nowhere wasn’t ideal. Her palm ached to release the handle of the fuel nozzle, and she stared blankly into the passenger seat of her car, at the cassette tape and Walkman balanced on top of a precarious pile of bags. She wasn’t sure why she had bought the Walkman, wasn’t sure why she had brought the tape, only that she felt some obligation to do so. The fuel nozzle’s handle clicked and slapped back into its original position when her tank had been filled up, and she drew her hand back, wincing as if she had been hit. It was at least another two days until reaching Yellowstone. Back in the driver’s seat, she eyed the Walkman again.

The cassette tape felt surprisingly heavy, and predictably fragile, in her hand. The Scotch tape was curling at the edges, the shine of the Sharpie had faded, and a delicate half-moon of bite marks decorated its right side. It was surprising that whatever animal had gotten hold of it hadn’t destroyed it, since it was made out of cheap, brittle plastic. Eloise turned the tape over in her hand, discovering a star in the same purple Sharpie on the back. Pinning the tape underneath her thigh she slid on her foam covered headphones and opened the Walkman. The tape clicked into place. She took a deep breath. Another. She pressed play.

At first, only static washed in and out, like a tide come and gone too quickly. Then—

“You must find your most authentic self.”

Panic tore the headphones from her head, catching a few strands of hair in the process. She held pause until her thumb felt numb and when that wasn’t enough to keep the tears at bay, she threw the Walkman into the passenger seat. Hope stopped her from mustering the energy to destroy it. She hadn’t heard that voice in years. Why was she so angry? She hunched over in her seat, the hot plastic of the steering wheel burning her forehead, the smoky quartz that dangled from her neck pressed into her palm. “I must’ve forgotten.”

After 200 miles across Nebraska, Eloise could not shut off her mind. Her racing thoughts refused to exit through mouth, nose, or ear canal. The voice from the cassette wouldn’t leave either. You must find your most authentic self. She felt authentic already, in her car, the shakes and tears of the last gas station still with her. For the past three hours, she had ruminated in just her thoughts and a country radio station without a steady signal. She was her authentic self, baked in the boiling broth of authentic thoughts. If that wasn’t her true form, she wouldn’t know any other way to reach it.

“I’m authentic,” she whispered to herself, squeezing the hard plastic of the steering wheel.

After another 200 miles, it seemed that the voice of the tape had drowned out the not-so-steady country radio. All she could hear was the same seven words repeating. Maybe she had been mistaken, maybe this voice wasn’t actually familiar to her, and she had simply been on edge. Her itching hope told her it wasn’t that.

As the next opportunity presented itself, she pulled her car over to the side of the road and pressed “play” on the Walkman. She hoped that she hadn’t broken it by throwing it, held her breath, and then realized her mistake in doing so when she choked on air at the return of the voice. She had not been mistaken.

“What are those things that hold the essence of your soul? Your hobbies? Your occupation?”

The voice paused for a breath at the same moment that Eloise found hers. Gingerly, she placed the Walkman between her thighs to keep it from sliding from her jeans onto the floor and shifted the car into gear. She needed to make sure she was making good time, and she could pause the tape any moment she liked, easy peasy.

“These, and the other things of importance in your life, will inform you of your truth.”

The voice was lilting, and soft, calm, and metered, just like Eloise was used to. Despite herself, she felt a faint smile lift the corners of her lips.

“Your personal truth is rooted in your personal past, and its discovery will unlock success and unimaginable possibilities. With it, you will find yourself capable of so much more.” After a brief pause, the voice continued, cooler now, “Is that what you want?”

The voice on the cassette tape stopped altogether, waiting for confirmation from its listener. Feeling stupid and ecstatic and scared, she whispered an electric “Yes,”a secret only for her and the Walkman.

“Good,” the tape responded. Briefly Eloise considered that it wasn’t a recording. “Imagine your mother, an object that reminds you of her.”

Eloise thought of the ribbons her mother used to braid into her hair when she was young. She thought of their bright, floral patterns, and the glitter that fell from them and was impossible to wash out.

“Feel it in your hands, squeeze it, remember how pretty it looked against your auburn hair.”

Eloise’s hands trembled on the steering wheel, but she did not pause the cassette. Instead she imagined the texture of the ribbons, and the face of her mother.

“Remember how happy it made you feel when your mother would braid your hair, remember the soft smile she would give you as you tugged on the strands to make sure they were wound tight enough.”

Her headphones felt like they had sewn themselves over her ears. Everything else, the whine of the engine, the rush of the wind whipping around her car, was muffled, faraway.

“You mustn’t forget, Eloise.” Now she could see that face, her face, clear as day. She was so beautiful. “You cannot let them erase me.”

Eloise had been warned about this, she remembered now. When you suppress certain memories, they try to come back. She felt an immense pressure in her skull as all the worst memories of the voice—of her mother—the insecurities, the trauma, came rushing back. She managed to pull over and get her door opened before she puked. They had promised it would be permanent this time. She thought she had done everything right.

Bleary-eyed and sniffling, she chucked the Walkman and its headphones into the road where it was pulverized by the wheel of a Jeep. She took a half hour to calm down and pulled back onto the road, rerouting to the nearest hospital. She just had to try again, until the memories were too mangled to return. That, or she would start the whole thing from scratch and be done with it.