I am a spelling bee champion.
I did not wake up one day and declare “Now I’m going to get really serious about spelling.” It just sort of worked out that way.
I won the classroom spelling bee because I knew that everyone expected it. I couldn’t bear the look of disappointment on my teacher’s face if I was not the last one standing.
The district spelling bee was weeks later. My mom made me spend two hours every night copying the dictionary. My hands hurt from writing, but I pretended that I loved nothing more than increasing my vocabulary. “As an added bonus, I get to practice my handwriting, too!”
And of course I had to appear gleeful as I said “Fuselage. F-U-S-E-L-A-G-E, “ moments before being handed a the big gold bee-shaped trophy. I knew that my mother expected me to win and if I did not, she would question every sacrifice she had made since I was born.
At the state finals, I realized that I was tired of feigning enthusiasm. I did not like speaking in front of crowds. I hated sitting in the front row of chairs on the stage–because I was the smallest contestant I was not permitted to hide in the back–smiling while clutching my anxious stomach. My dress was itchy and babyish. My tights were falling down. Why was I doing this?
I made it through several rounds. Each time I stepped up to the microphone–of course it was way too tall for me–the audience giggled with delight as I stood on my tiptoes and flashed a sweet grin. Each time I stood silently, waiting to hear my word used in a sentence, I would think, “This is it. I’m going to intentionally mess this one up. “ But just I was about to add an extra S to “bioluminescence,” I would imagine the agonizing car ride home, my mom attempting to comfort herself by comforting me. Or I would see my english teacher’s attempt at reassurance “You’re going to do it next year! Seventh graders rarely make it to finals.” And so I would spell the word correctly, graciously bow at the applause, and return to my seat.
There were five of us left on stage. Two boys, two girls, and me. My word was dodecahedron. Of course I knew what this was (a 12-sided polygon) from hours of math team practice. If I correctly spelled this, I would have have at least four more turns.
I winked at my mother in the audience. I looked up at the ceiling, as if asking for god’s guidance. And then I started. “Dodecahedron. D-O-D-E-C-C-A-H-E-D-R-O-N.”
I mustered a convincing facade of disappointment as I exited the stage.
And now many years later, many miles away…I’m still donning a mask for the benefit of my coworkers and friends. This time I’m pretending that I’m healthy, happy-go-lucky Amanda.
I’m spending most nights at Ryan’s place, because I don’t want Nate to suspect I am using drugs. One look at my googly eyes and ghost white face would only lead to some sort of attempt at an intervention. I am his super-tough roommate, immune to all addictions and downfalls. I can’t let him down.
My job offers a lot of flex time and vacation days, perfect for the aspiring junkie. I usually work long days Monday-Wednesday. I am smiling and productive, impressing my boss and charming the receptionist. I meet up with friends for drinks, where I somehow manage to laugh while telling entertaining stories. Makeup and clean hair lend me an air of health and normalcy.
I spend the rest of the week underwater. Ryan and I stay up all night listening to records and consuming copious amounts of drugs. We rationalize that it is better than drinking a lot of alcohol. Some nights we speak in endless whispered monologues. And other times we sprawl on the rug in silence. I’m telling myself that we are a happy couple.
I stay in bed long after he has gone to work in the morning, feeling sick and sad. I spend the early part of the afternoon in his bathtub. I am trying to increase the length of time I can hold my breath underwater. Onemississippitwomississippithreemississippi. I can hear songs in the water, trying to lure me to sleep. It’s the only moment in the day that I’m not gasping for breath. The summer air is so heavy it is crushing my lungs.
I always head back to my apartment around 3pm, when I know Nate will be at work. I try to clean the house or read a book or cook food, but generally I just end up lying on the cheesy Ikea rug in my bedroom, daydreaming about events that will never happen.
Each day it becomes harder to become the Amanda that everyone wants to see. I’m trying to hold onto my mask as tightly as possible, but my grip is slipping more and more. Inspiration and ambition is sleeping through my fingers. I’m on the verge of empty hands.
Some nights I can’t remember where I have locked up my bike, so I have to walk home.
I nod off on the El and I can’t remember how I got there.
Arithmetic is confusing.
Wallets and keys disappear without explanation.
I don’t know if I’ve changed my clothes and suddenly I can’t remember the lyrics to songs I’ve heard 1000 times.
I know I can’t tell Ryan about this. Sure, he’s the only person in on my drug-addled secret, but I don’t want him to know how fucked up I really am. He will be unable to handle the sad reality of the situation. I am the happy fun girlfriend. This will always be my assigned role.
One night, I’m sprawled out on the rug, smoking a cigarette. Obviously Ryan is pretty fucked up, if he’s allowing me to smoke in his apartment. I sit up and look at him.
“I can’t breathe anymore.”
He laughs. “Maybe you should stop smoking.”
“No, I don’t think you get it. The world is suffocating me. Gravity is increasing.”
“Whoa. Um. Are you going crazy again?” He’s joking, I think.
I give him a dirty look, but I find myself shivering as I turn away.
He’s right. I’m going crazy again.