Love Letter to a Shiny Thing

This is my third month taking the Diobutrin, and it's going great. The only downside is that sometimes when I'm asleep, reportedly, I curl up and shake all over for about thirty seconds, which is in all likelihood a grand mal seizure (French for big bad), and I'm not planning to tell the doctor. Doctors are only interested in your health, and a person (a crazygirl) is so much more than just health.

My first week on the Diobutrin, I almost bought a parrot. What stopped me was that my checking account was overdrawn and then I got distracted and forgot I just got my first credit card. The important thing is, I'm much calmer now.

Actually the really important thing is, I no longer see the world through this heavy gray mist, which is how things were going before the Diobutrin. I don't go around trying to have a conversation and getting this lag where I only hear what the other person is saying after I finish answering, like

UNSUSPECTING PERSON: Good morning.

ME: It's fine. It's okay. (pause) Hello.

Nothing is gray now. That's good.

Writing & Composition 102 would be easier if the professor didn't expect me to show up all the time. I do the assignments and I do them better than anyone else, so listening to lectures and participating in class discussions seems like overkill. Also, Sarah isn't in this class. She's a junior and all her courses are 300- or 400-level. So I go to her class instead.

Comparative Literature 334 is in one of those big auditoriums and probably no one will even notice I'm not supposed to be here. Class won't start for a couple of minutes. People are still coming in. I spot Sarah's magenta jacket right away, a few rows from the front. My eyes always snag on that shade of magenta now. One time without warning some random person's purse was that color and it made my head swim. Sarah's face doesn't have the same effect on me as the magenta. It always takes me a second to even recognize her face, as though the parts that make it up have shifted around since the last time I saw it. She has smallish hazelish eyes, a crooked nose, a sharp chin, and I could stare at her for hours trying to figure out how she works. Her glasses seem to hold everything together. They're plastic and a shade of purple that goes well with the magenta.

She's paging through her notebook, and I stop to watch her hands delicately pulling apart two pages that were stuck together. Her nails are purple too today. The matching colors make me happy. I edge into the row behind hers, sitting slightly to the right where I can look over her shoulder. Her blond pixie cut is showing mousy roots. A fragment of a dry leaf is stuck to her magenta jacket's collar. I lean close and discover that her shampoo smells like coconut. Her notes are more legible than mine, though they have less energy (q.v. the Diobutrin). I can't get over how girly her handwriting is. Every letter is bubble-round and bouncy. I want to read everything she's ever written.

I grab the notebook and take it gently from her hands. “Hi.”

“Oh. Um.” She laughs. “What are you doing here?”

I flip through the notebook. On one page she's drawn a crude schoolkid's version of a rose, a spiral cupped in an inverted bell. “Taking Comparative Literature 334,” I say. “If they don't kick me out. Is it any good? You like the professor, right?”

She's turned partway around in her seat now and laughing again, uneasily. “How did you know I was in this class?”

“I read your schedule,” I say. “It's on your binder.” Telling the truth makes me feel generous and a little bit clever.

“Okay then,” Sarah says and does a thing with her eyebrows that looks like a shrug. She takes the notebook back, gently, and I let her. Her hand is cool where it brushes mine. “The professor is amazing, yeah,” she says. “I love her. She knows things about Walt Whitman that Whitman didn't know about himself. Plus I'm almost positive she was the one that set the acronym for this class to be CLIT, and none of the older faculty have caught on.”

She adjusts a barrette in her hair and frowns and pulls the barrette out. “Broken,” she says, twisting her mouth, and shows it to me. I solemnly take both pieces of plastic from her and place them in my breast pocket and button it closed. She watches me with raised eyebrows.

“I totally won't add this to my closet shrine tonight,” I say. She laughs weakly, which is her reaction to a lot of the things I say. “I don't even have a closet shrine, is how normal I am.”

Sometimes at night I spend an hour or more rereading my text conversations with Sarah. I especially can't stop rereading the things I've said, amusing and pithy and clever things that I would never have said except to Sarah and because of Sarah.

“Was that bear guy that came by my dorm last night, was that you?” she asks.

“Ah,” I say. “Did he sing for you?”

“He did.” She raises her eyebrows again. “Pretty loudly, actually.”

“That was me. You did say you wanted a dancing bear. Like Byron.”

She did, in fact, say that. What she said was, When Lord Byron was at Trinity College, there was a rule against keeping dogs in your dorm. So he brought his pet bear. I love that, that there was no rule against bears. I wish I had something as transgressive to bring to college as a dancing bear on a chain.

I say, “I suppose a singing telegram in a teddy bear suit isn't quite the same thing.”

“No.” She clears her throat. “It's not.”

I wait.

“On another note,” she says, “the origami parrots, back at the start of the semester, that was you too, right?”

That was my second week on the Diobutrin. I looked up a book on origami and folded a flock of one hundred parrots in all different colors and sizes and left them crammed into her school cubbyhole. “You're welcome.”

“Which I guess is because I said I had a dream about parrots that one time? Is that why?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Look,” Sarah says, and stops. Her eyes follow a train of thought going on somewhere over my shoulder. “Look, I've only known you for two semesters, so I don't know how normal all this is. For you, I mean.”

I nod. I consider telling her I'm extremely normal, but she wouldn't think that was funny or interesting to hear right now. Besides, I'm much better than normal: I'm happy. Watching her eyes makes me happy.

“And you know you've only known me for two semesters too, right? You barely know anything about me?” She studies my face.

“I know your Social Security number,” I say. “I know you almost got a homemade tattoo saying ‘wanderlüst,’ but you chickened out. I know you went through a phase when you were sixteen of making everyone call you Cat, because Sarah seemed like too ordinary a name. I know your stepdad broke your nose twice and you would do anything for your little brother.”

I know all these things and more. See, Sarah is a crazygirl like me. One of the things she does is, when she meets someone, she right away starts disclosing odd or embarrassing facts about herself, as though to guard against being considered normal, as though to preempt judgment. I'm a collector of Sarah facts.

“How do you know my Social Security number?” she wants to know, as if that's the important thing here.

“I went through your wallet. Anyway, I feel like I've known you for longer than that.”

“Right, but, okay,” she says, and laughs. “What I'm trying to say here is that you don't have a whole lot of chill. As it were.”

“I don't have much chill,” I admit. “Did you know I followed you to the QuickStop last week? You got a ZERO bar and a cup of what I thought was tea. You drink coffee sometimes, with a lot of creamer and a little sugar, but at night I think you would probably rather drink tea. Was it tea?”

“Uh.” Sarah doesn't laugh at this. She just looks at me.

“You don't have to tell me.” I have the ZERO bar wrapper on my dresser in my dorm, but I don't say that because it would be kind of weird.

“So...” she says. “I don't remember you being like this last semester. You were so quiet. You helped me study when I asked you to. You helped me understand differential equations, which otherwise I would never have passed that test. You quoted Borges to the math professor and he didn't know what you were talking about and I thought that was hilarious. I mean, you were funny. But quiet.”

I was quiet back then. I was navigating through a haze of gray mist, and even in the incredibly easy math class Sarah and I were taking (Sarah sucks at math), it took all my brainpower to have a conversation with somebody who asked me for help studying. Somebody who smiled at me and thought I was funny. Somebody who told me during that first study session about her stepfather breaking her nose. I didn't stare at Sarah as much back then, but I remember a patch of magenta in the seat in front of me, and a laugh that even then sounded beautiful to me, like something brittle breaking and spilling bright coins.

By the time I went to the school health center and told them I was losing my shit, or rather my mind, that patch of magenta had burned its way into my brain.

“That wasn't me.” I grip the back of the seat in front of me. “That was a ghost version of me. What I really am is a crazygirl like you. I'm crazy. I want a pet bear. I want to feed it that math professor you hated so much. I want to get a tattoo in a Tastee Diner bathroom. I want to drink tequila and cough syrup cocktails. I want to have a seizure.”

“Right. Right. Okay.” She blinks a few times.

“Back then, everything was gray,” I tell her. “Now nothing is gray anymore.” I touch the cuff of her jacket with one finger.

“I guess ... I just ...” She sighs. “I respect that. I get it. But I need you to stop all this.”

I watch her eyes, which are lowered now. She's examining her purple fingernails, picking at a cuticle.

“I need you to stop.” She looks me in the eye. I study the hazelish color of her eyes and identify a fleck of green here, a dot of gold there—more Sarah facts to collect and preserve. “Can you please stop?”

“You mean, stop with the bears and parrots,” I say, my heart quivering. “And the following you around and picking up things you threw in the trash, and all that.” I almost say, and stop obsessing over you, because odd/embarrassing/brutally honest facts are our common coin, but it feels like too loud a thing to say in the middle of an auditorium that's currently filling with students.

“Right, yes,” she says.

“Okay.” I can feel a hollow space opening up inside me, the absence of that magenta jacket in my life. But I nod. There are very few things I could ever refuse Sarah. “If that's what you want.”

She laughs again, a tired laugh this time. “Okay. Thank you.” She looks me briefly in the eye again when she says thank you. Then she turns around and faces the front of the room, and I realize it's over. It's all over. A short woman with brown hair in a bun steps up to the lectern with a stack of papers and books. Everybody around us quiets down to hear what the professor says.

I get up.

Professor Knows-Everything-about-Whitman is saying something about collecting papers when I reach the door. I stop and fish the two pieces of broken plastic barrette out of my breast pocket. I turn them over carefully in my hands, memorizing their shape as best I can, because I'm pretty sure memory doesn't count. I'm pretty sure the promise I made doesn't mean I have to forget all the Sarah facts I've collected these past six months, because there's no way I could do that. When you've been living in a gray mist and you finally catch a flash of color, that's not something you can ever forget.

I put the pieces of plastic in the trashcan and leave.

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