A first draft of a new story…the subject matter will seem familiar. I swear I will be returning to “Peeling an Onion” this week…but the seeds of this story have been germinating in my mind for the last few days.
Some illnesses creep on slowly, with symptoms so minor, so un-alarming, that one suspects nothing. A runny nose. A stiff neck. A twitchy eye. Time passes, until a raging fever or grand mal seizure forces one to accept that something is terribly wrong.
Other maladies strike without warning. Hindsight reveals no clues.
I can remember the first time I realized something was terribly wrong with me. I was at the bagel shop down the street from work, ordering lunch. The not-so-unattractive boy behind the counter asked me, “How do you feel about banana peppers?”
Ugh. I despise them. I would have preferred to eat a glue stick for lunch. I felt myself starting to scowl. “Oh, wow…I think they are great. The more the merrier, you know?”
I was startled. It sounded like my voice, but why would I say something so untrue? I looked around for a particularly skilled ventriloquist. The rest of the shop was empty.
I spent the rest of my lunch break picking a seemingly endless supply of rancid pickled peppers out of my sandwich. How could I be so spacey?
I told myself that I need to get some more sleep. No more late nights drinking whiskey with my co-workers before tipsily pedaling across the Burnside Bridge.
The next day my boss asked me to give one of the sales associates a stern talking-to. I pulled him into the office toward the end of my shift.
“Hey, what’s going on,” he asked nervously.
“Well, listen…you’ve been coming in late a lot lately.” So far so good. I had issued so many of these verbal warnings in the last few years, that I practically had this speech memorized. Next I would touch on the ways in which tardiness negatively impacted the rest of the team.
He solemnly nodded his head.
The taste of stale coffee was distracting me. I jammed a piece of cinnamon gum in my mouth.
Someone else–with a very familiar voice–joined the conversation. “But you know what? That’s okay. I understand you have a life outside of work, so how can I expect you to arrive exactly at the moment your shift begins? In fact, are you making enough money here to finance your outside endeavors? Because maybe I can get you a small raise.”
Who was saying something so ridiculous? I looked around, expecting to see someone hiding behind the safe. Maybe one of the other managers.
We were the only two people in the room. And apparently those words had come from my mouth.
The sales associate looked at me skeptically. “Um, I’m confused. Are you being sarcastic?”
“Well, yes, of course that was sarcasm,” I sputtered. “Now stop being late.”
I stormed out of the office, making a beeline for the bathroom. What the fuck was wrong with me? I splashed cold water on my face. I felt fine…well, except for the embarrassment burning up my cheeks. Maybe I needed a vacation or maybe I should just get laid. I had been working pretty hard recently. I deserved a break.
Biking home that night, I decided that this might be the manifestation of a serious ailment. If I were a character on a prime time medical drama, my inability to control the words coming from my mouth would surely indicate a rare variety of brain cancer.
Feeling upset, I decided to look for some distraction. So I stopped by the house of a male friend. Well, I guess we were more than friends, since we had been sleeping together for months. And honestly, I considered him the most amazing person in the world. I secretly wished that he would be my boyfriend. I was considering telling him this. I would probably need him by my side during my struggle with this almost–but not absolutely–deadly neurological illness. No doubt great advances in medical technology would save me. I would emerge on the other side of it all as a better person. An inspiration to everyone. And we would be closer than ever. At our wedding, he would tearfully exclaim, “I’m so glad you decided to declare your feelings to me on that particular night.”
Yes, I should definitely do it. This had been going on for too long.
He was drinking a beer on his porch when I rolled up. “Hey, what’s going on? You just get off work?”
I nodded my head as dragged my bike up the steps. I sat down next to him.
I took a deep breath. “Listen, I have been wanting to tell you something for a while. I mean, I have been thinking about it every day.”
This was it. Now was the time I would say all of the words that swirled around the inside of my head as I drifted off to sleep each night.
He sat down his beer, giving me his full attention.
My heart was pounding. I could hear the woosh-woosh of blood through my body.
“Well, I just wanted to tell you that you are not my boyfriend. And I hope you aren’t thinking that you are.”
I watched him pick up his beer and take a long sip. What had just happened? I covered my mouth with my hand, lest any other untrue syllables and sentences wanted to slip out.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, while I replayed my words no less than fifty times.
I jumped up and grabbed my bike, tripping as I ran down the steps.
I ran back to my house. I didn’t pause to cross streets. I didn’t even take the time to hop on my bike. All I could think about was getting back to my place and hiding my head under a pillow.
Instead, I grabbed a half-full bottle of gin from my freezer. I spent the rest of the night lying in the empty bathtub, alternating gulps of liquor with drags of cigarettes.
Something was very wrong with me. And now it was ruining my life. Most likely I would die alone and unloved.
With some determination and telephone melodrama, I was able to get a doctor’s appointment the next morning.
As I sat on the examining table, crumpling the paper liner with my sweaty hands, I realized that this day could change everything else in the future. I might be too sick to work. Would I lose my health insurance? Would I have to move in with my parents? Oh, god, just telling my mom was going to be really–
“What brings you here today?”
The doctor was examining my chart.
“Oh, actually, I’m fine. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
He laughed. “Are you sure about that?”
I clutched my forehead. “Oh, god no. There is something very, very wrong with me. I can’t stop saying the opposite of what I’m thinking. That’s what happened just now. Well, not the stuff I said in the last few seconds, but what I said before. You know, when you asked me why I was here? It’s like something else is controlling my tongue. I don’t even realize that the words are coming from my mouth until it’s too late. ”
“A lot of people have that problem. Do you have any other symptoms? Headaches, dizziness, that kind of thing?”
I shook my head. “No, just this. Something is definitely wrong with me. Do you think it might be brain tumor?”
He laughed. “I’m going to check you for some neurological issues, but I have a feeling this might be more mental than physical.”
This was not what I wanted to hear. Was he implying that I was crazy?
I obediently followed the penlight with my eyes. I was silent and still while he checked my blood pressure. I didn’t flinch when he looked in my ears.
“Well,” he said as he returned the stethoscope to his pocket, “I think you’re fine physically. You do seem to have an ear infection, but that is unrelated to your problem. I’m going to give you a referral to a good therapist. I’m pretty sure your insurance will cover it. And I think she can help you work this out.”
I scowled. “Listen, I don’t think you know how serious this is. It’s going to ruin my life. In fact, it already is.”
“Then I suggest that you call that therapist as soon as possible.”
I stomped past the receptionist’s desk with a prescription for an antibiotic (for my ears) and a card for some stupid psychiatrist. I was definitely not going to fork over the co-pay for this visit. I mean, he didn’t even help me! What a waste of time.
I was going to have to solve this problem myself. I bought a notebook at the drugstore while I waited for my prescription. I would need this to collect data.
For the next week, whenever someone asked me something, I wrote down both the exact wording of the question, along with my response.
I began to notice trends.
If I was asked something that could only be answered with a yes/no response, I always responded correctly.
Do you work on Tuesday? Did you bring your lunch today? Is that a new dress?
If it was not a yes/no question, but it was something I had been asked many times in the past, I could also answer truthfully.
What time does this store open on Sundays? What did you do last night? What do you think of this band?
It was the open-ended, surprise questions that triggered my foreign tongue. And even when I was asked nothing, untrue sentences just slipped out of my mouth unprovoked.
Out of the blue, I told my best friend that I thought her boyfriend was great and she should just learn to live with constant cheating.
“What the fuck? You’ve always told me the opposite. So you’re saying that I can’t do any better and I should just accept it?”
I apologized. “Lately I have had no control over half the stuff I say.”
She hugged me. “Have you been drinking too much? Do you need to talk about something?”
No, no. Everything was going to be just fine.
I began to write down the appropriate responses for various common situations. When I pulled an employee into the office to lecture him about his tendency toward secretly eating chicken while working the fitting rooms, I consulted page 49 of my notebook.
“Various policies exist for a reason: so we can serve the customer effectively. For that reason, certain actions are not permitted on the sales floor…”
I mastered the art of “reading aloud while not appearing to be reading aloud.”
One glaring problem remained: the boy. No, not “a boy.” Or “just any boy.” THE BOY. I had been forced to change my regular bike route, lest we encountered one another while coasting down Ankeny. I had not spoken to him for weeks. But I was thinking about him all night, every night. He was in the background of every dream, leaning against the wall or sitting across from me on the bus.
I had a plan. I wrote down everything I had been wanting to say to him. Every fleeting thought, every dreamscape declaration. I practiced writing as small–but legibly–as possible.
When I finally had put together all of the right words, I printed them as tiny as possible on the back of my left hand. I had so much to say, that the sentences snaked up my wrist, almost reaching my elbow.
I practiced in front of the mirror. Reading from my hand was a new method. I didn’t want to seem as if I was staring at my feet. Eye contact would be essential.
I strolled over to his house on a Tuesday at dusk.
Fortunately he was sitting on the porch. I hadn’t prepared myself for the possibility that I would have to knock on the door and then work my way into his house.
I smiled as I approached him. “Hey, what are you doing?”
“I’m just watching all of the crows in that tree. It’s like every crow in the city is hanging out here. They’ve been coming every day around this time.”
“Do you mind if I sit down?”
He moved to the right, making some room on the step. “Go ahead. I haven’t seen you for a while. What’s that all over your hand?”
I looked down at the microscopic paragraphs. “Oh, that’s just one of those stupid hippie henna tattoos. Someone talked me into it.”
He nodded his head as if he believed me.
“So listen, I said some stupid stuff to you the last time I was here. And I just want to set it straight.”
He nodded his head. “Yeah, it was definitely a little weird. But I figured, ‘Hey, she’s always saying something wacky.’”
My left eye consulted my hand–covertly, I hoped–while I looked at his face. Big swallow. And then,
“Remember that weird old-person diner place near work that closed last year? We used to go to lunch there all the time when I first met you. And there was this buffet in the middle of the restaurant that held only condiments and plastic cups of water? You came up with the idea that every time we had to get some ketchup or a napkin, we had to stand up and do a full lap around that buffet thing. I thought it was the funniest thing. I would laugh so hard, that tears would slip out of the corners of my eyes. I couldn’t do the lap with a straight face. But you would just stand up and do it, as cool as a cucumber. And that just made it funnier to me. All of the elderly customers thought we were crazy or on drugs or something.”
My left eye moved to my wrist bone.
“That’s when I started to realize that you are the most amazing person I have ever met. Ever since that first night together in your bed, I have forgotten that other boys exist in this world. And when one of them is brave enough to talk to me, I am just reminded that no one can compare to you in my heart.”
And then the words running along my ulna.
“I don’t know why I said that I didn’t want you to be my boyfriend. Because that’s the exact opposite of my feelings. I want to spend more time with you than anyone else. I want to hear all of your stories and know all of your opinions and listen to all of your dreams. In other words, I love you.”
He was silent. I figured he probably needed a moment to digest what I had just said. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, waiting. I began counting the seconds.
At 148, he spoke.
“I know this is going to sound strange, but sometimes I just can’t hear. And just now, I didn’t here anything you said. I could see your lips moving, but there was no sound. I think I have hearing damage or something. Old age, maybe. It happens at the most random times. I’ve been sitting here trying to guess what you were saying.”
My heart sank, but I smiled. “Oh yeah, I was just asking if you wanted some gum.”
I rummaged a pack out of my bag.
We sat in silence, watching the crows caw and carry on, our mouths filling with the taste of cinnamon.