In hell there are the obvious circles: unexplained war and needless death and slow torture. You spend a lot of time in hell crouching in the undergrowth, sweating pure fear, waiting for them to come and find you. They always find you and it always hurts and no one ever knows what becomes of you, and eventually your name is forgotten, over and over again. That is the part of hell that everyone already knows about; someone must have talked because we have approximated all that very well in this world, in this life.
Sometimes in hell though, you ease down through tighter, more personal spirals. Sometimes they look like respite: airport hell where at least you can have a six dollar lemonade and a dry chicken Caesar; awkward first date hell where, if nothing else, you get to see an overdone movie and it’s air conditioned. You spend a lot of time in work hell, of course, where there is a sort of comfortable chair and internet access, and where the bathroom mirrors are able to show you the actual youth draining from your body as you log in hour after fluorescent hour. You watch the clock; it is a peculiar feature of work hell that the clocks are always set to an hour and twenty minutes before quitting time. You are always hungry. The phone doesn’t always work correctly and the miniblinds rattle at the slightest gust of wind. Sometimes you can look out and see people playing Frisbee and having a picnic outside, right underneath your office window. You don’t think about joining them, though. You don’t secretly write a novel or paint your fingernails or email your best friend. You just sit there and think that this isn’t so bad, that it could be much worse, that you’ll get twelve days of vacation next year if you’re lucky. There are no messages in your inbox.
After work hell there’s shitty apartment hell, naturally, with the bad water pressure and the roaches and the tilted kitchen floor. The hand me down couch is greasy and covered in dog hair you never can vacuum off, and the kids from downstairs never seem to go to sleep, are always screaming and cursing and playing incomprehensible music. Family hell is never far behind and involves a groping uncle and a tight smile plastered on your face for hours; you explain over and over again that no, you’re not married, and no, you’re not a lesbian, college experimentation and that one time you shaved your head in college notwithstanding. You look at pictures of your cousin’s place in the Hamptons and nod your head and you try to explain what you do for a living in under three sentences, and no matter how many times you go back to the food table only crumbs of your favorite type of pie remain. You spill red wine on someone’s white carpet and have to scrub it with soda water and your new skirt while everyone else looks down at you disapprovingly. Later in family hell there will be drunken muttered fights out in the hallway and no matter how well you barricade your bedroom door with a chair and your dresser he’ll find a way in and he’ll always find you cowering under your desk or in your closet, huddled into a ball with your winter coat on.
Sometimes there is food hell and sometimes there is fame hell, which are both about wanting what you can never have and having to watch other people take what seems to be rightfully yours. Occasionally there is school hell, where you never truly understand polynomials and where there are mean notes in your locker every day and rumors about rapes in the girls’ bathrooms. Party hell is loud and boring, with terrible music and dancing so bad you can’t actually look at it. You are constantly yanking on your shirt that doesn’t fit quite right and your friend decides to go off with some guy she just met, leaving you awkwardly to ask if there’s someone who can give you a ride home, even though you live north and everyone else lives south and it’s a big hassle and no, I’ll just call a cab, um, can I borrow someone’s phone, my battery is dead.
When you’re done with the banal, when you think that there’s not a part of you left that’s unsuffused with dreams deferred and grinding everydayness, with dripping sinks and the same five songs on the radio every time you get into the car, you end up in a large square room with dark paneled walls. Through the door, clutching a Styrofoam cup of coffee, comes the last person who dumped you. Here comes your eighth-grade crush, and the one in college for whom you stayed up all night in his dorm room, watching him sleep and wondering if he really liked you. Here comes the person who divorced you, and in walks the person you wanted for so long and to whom never said a word. Their faces are drawn and gray, they look down at the large rectangular table around which they have arrayed themselves and clear their throats uncomfortably. They don’t see you. They don’t know you’re there.
The first person stands and says his name. “Hi,” says the group. This person begins, at first with a shaky, broken voice but with more determination as the minutes pass, to detail all the ways you failed him, betrayed him, bored him. He gestures wildly as he elucidates the vacations on which you were sick, the white lies you told, the phone calls where you sighed pointedly and said, “Fine, don’t come over then. It’s fine.” The rest of the people around the table nod their heads knowingly. Some laugh ruefully when he talks about the false sentimentalism of your anniversary presents to him, the shrillness of your voice when you demanded to have a relationship talk, the way you folded down pages in books instead of using a bookmark. They shake their heads and roll their eyes and mouth “What were we thinking?” at each other.
He exhausts himself, finally, of your inadequacies, and the group applauds his bravery, offer to refill his coffee. More people stand up and talk about how you were never really what they wanted, how you were just a place holder until The One came along, how you thought you were so great in bed but were, in fact, uninspired and uninspiring. The group hoots and hollers, stamps their feet at each admission of the ways you hurt and scarred them, recalling more and more fumbles and blunders and mistakes.
As they’ve been talking, the door of the room opens and more people come in. They have to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the crowd. There is your favorite teacher from high school. There is your best friend. There is the wife of your brother, whom you always liked, and there are your parents, right in the front row. Someone sets up a projector and a PowerPoint presentation, underlying key phrases like “Stupid Or Just Ignorant?” and “Three Types Of Stories She Told, In Order From Most Improbable to Most Pathetic” with a laser pointer. There is a whole subsection on your bodily flaws, with special attention to the way your thighs rubbed together and your body hair. People laugh and laugh while it is going on, interrupting frequently with more instances of your shortcomings. At the end of the presentation they break into small groups to go over in detail each secret flaw you thought no one noticed, every tiny confession, each mumbled apology.
They introduce themselves to people they don’t know and make plans to meet up later to continue their discussions as they make their way to the door, discarding their muffin wrappers and the remains of the fruit plate as they go. You are crouched in the corner near the recycle bin and you can see each beloved face distinctly as it whirls by you, unconcerned and preoccupied. They’ve known you were there all along, it turns out, and they just don’t care that you can hear all the terrible things they’re saying. That’s how you know it’s hell.