Survivor’s Diaries: Chapter 25
Jesse was exhausted after we’d finished. He told me he loved, kissed me, and passed out immediately.
I, too euphoric to sleep, splayed myself across the down of his soft, ivory skin, and listened to his heavy breathing in and out.
No other sound could compete with the peal of this precious rhyme. Clearer than the knell of church bells, sweeter to my ear than the clang of wind chimes.
I propped my chin up on his shoulder.
Jesse’s long black hair was wild and tangled, splayed across the pillow like seaweed. His jaw was unhinged, hanging open ever so slightly, exposing his gorgeous, sexy, vampire-esque set of bright white teeth — vampire-esque because of the two hyper sharp fang cuspids anchoring the outer ends of the top row. And the perfect, double fringes of his lashes were fluttering, dancing like an array of sprites.
He was asleep. Already.
My heart thumped a low, broken meter.
I was undone.
My eyelids flittered up and down, my sight alternating between blackness and brief flashes of intoxicating beauty. For a while, everything seemed right in the world.
I drifted off to sleep, calm and happy, my heart overflowing with love.
But even Jesse couldn’t keep the dreams away.
Three hours later I woke up asphyxiating and covered in sweat.
My throat felt like it was full of cement, and I couldn’t breathe.
All I could do was gag, like always.
It was difficult to accurately describe the sound coming out of my mouth. The best descriptor was something between a choke and a cry.
Whatever it was, it was too loud.
Well aware, even in semi-nightmare, that I was not alone, I grabbed a generous handful of linens, stuffed them into my mouth, and self-suffocated. Like always.
Don’t wake him up. . . Don’t wake him up. . .
I muffled the sound very effectively — after all, I was an expert by now — but couldn’t do anything about the tears.
They gushed down my cheeks and into my mouth with abandon.
Jesse, for his part, was deep asleep. His slow, labored breathing indicated as much.
Even in the gallows of nightmare, insomnia, and heartache where I lived, I was pleased. If anyone in the world deserved the gift of a lifetime of perfect slumber it was Jesse.
I gazed wistfully at his sleeping image.
Beautiful, languid, and angelic. Like a Renaissance muse.
Jesse’s long limbs, tangled in sheet, spilled over the edges of the bed, too lengthy even for a queen sized mattress. His chest rose and fell placidly. His eyelashes flitted up and down.
Yeah, there was zero chance I was going to risk waking him.
So when it became clear that my tears were about to intensify and this wouldn’t be one of those nights where I could just swallow it all and go back to sleep, I rose out of bed.
If I was going to break down, I needed a private place.
The floorboards did not creak where my feet pressed down on them. I did not expect them too.
So I didn’t have to worry about waking Jesse.
For a brief moment, I smiled wryly.
One of the (few) benefits of weighing only 93 pounds. No one could hear or otherwise notice when you came or went.
It was the reason why my friends with whom I lived back in college affectionately referred to me as “the ghost”.
I was always frightening people with my presence, drifting in and out of rooms and spaces without anyone noticing until, of course, I was seen.
“Gosh Fiona, you scared the shit out of me,” my friend, Katie, had often remarked, clutching her hands to her chest. “I didn’t know you were here.”
“Damn it, Fiona,” Jessica had jumped after she saw me unexpectedly. “I swear, you have a career breaking into banks or museums if this whole college thing doesn’t work out.”
I had laughed.
The memories made me smile a little.
My friends were funny.
I sauntered out of the master, not even bothering to tip toe, a little smug from old habit.
But the smugness quickly faded as the reality behind why I awake so late at night, why I didn’t have to worry about masking the sound of my footsteps, kicked in.
The crying only intensified as I traveled down the long, dark, lonely corridor of the unfamiliar albeit beautiful house in which we were staying.
I stopped when I reached the farthest guest room from the master.
The tears welled up and spilled over as I collapsed onto the bed.
The memories behind the nightmares were rearing in my head. I had no choice but to stomach them.
My heart, heavy as a stone, pulsed like a twenty pound weight in my chest, throbbing laboriously, frantically, in preparation for the onslaught.
I squeezed my eyes shut and wrapped my arms around my torso as hard as I could, waiting for it to hit me.
And it did.
Ain’t so proud now, are you bitch?
They were just words.
Soundless, noiseless, like print on a page, replaying only from memory.
Just words, but they ripped the hole wide open.
I hugged myself tighter, harder, trying to keep myself together and waited, waited for the torture to be over.
You better watch that tongue, little c*nt, you might lose it someday.
Another tear. Another hole in my chest.
Scream and we’ll fucking kill you.
The hole was gaping now, and there was nothing I could do to force it closed or put myself back together again.
So I waited. Like always.
More images and audibles collided.
When the memories had replayed themselves over and over again, a thousand different times in a thousand different ways, I exhaled — more out of exhaustion than relief — and unclasped my arms from my torso.
Finally, it was over. The fire slowly exited my chest.
I tried to breathe deeply in and out, reflexively rubbing the places on my ribs where my anxious hands had been. The vice had left its mark, no doubt. Alongside the bloody claw marks from the night before.
I sighed, not knowing how I was going to hide those from Jesse any longer. It was a miracle I had been able to keep him in the dark for two days in a row. But, regardless, I’d have to come up with something. Make up some other excuse. . .that he probably wouldn’t believe.
The image of his signature, suspicious glare filled my mind.
Eyes narrowed. Head cocked. Lips pursed.
He was going to get pissed if he caught me in a lie again.
I shuddered at the thought.
What to do, what to do. . .
My eyes drifted to the alarm clock sitting on the nightstand.
I fell back onto the pillow.
Unable to fall back asleep, too wired, I laid awake, staring at the ceiling.
I wondered what Jesse was dreaming about.
Hopefully something pleasant.
As much as I wanted to return to the master bedroom and soar into his arrest, I didn’t trust myself not to break down again.
This latest nightmare had me feeling very low, lower than usual, and I needed some time to really suffer if I was going to put on the perfect, sunny facade for Jesse in the morning. It wasn’t fair for him to be with someone who was sad all the time, at least on the outside, so I made it a priority to suffer in private.
And yet, as melancholy as I felt now, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that the gloom wasn’t as bad as it was in the beginning, as I know it could be.
For nothing could compare to the pain of the first couple years, the gallows of intense sadness where I lived in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
I didn’t spend too much time thinking about my own personal dark ages.
It was hard for me to remember how sad I was, now that I was, in some ways, on the other side.
So for the most part, I kept them safely entombed under lock and key.
But they still escaped sometimes, despite my best efforts.
As I looked up at the ceiling, wide awake, in total darkness, my mind straying a little too far into the not so distant past, I realized.
Tonight was going to be one of those nights.
After the attack, I did not speak for over a year.
Literally. Not figuratively.
I didn’t use my voice.
Didn’t verbally communicate in any way, shape, or form.
No exaggeration or hyperbole there.
I didn’t respond when someone asked me a question. I didn’t react when someone called my name.
I didn’t sound in any way at all.
It wasn’t a choice I made. Nothing like that. It was just something that happened. I can’t explain it.
All I can say was that the shock I felt was very, very intense.
I suppose it wasn’t so surprising, all things considered.
So began my silence.
It all snowballed from there.
I stopped calling my friends back and after a while, they stopped calling.
I dropped to a frighteningly low weight.
I couldn’t sleep because, three month in, after the shock subsided, the nightmares broke through. The same ones I still have now, but worse, more vivid because of the their freshness.
The sleep deprivation got so bad I wasn’t forming short term memories. I also developed a severe body tremor that was almost constant.
Physically, I started to deteriorate.
My congenital heart condition worsened significantly, no doubt as a result of the extreme stress and acute insomnia. Chest pains that brought me to my knees became a regular part of daily life, even worse that they were being left untreated. I knew how bad that was, how irresponsible. But since death would have unquestionably been a relief, I saw no reason to change course.
So much of my hair started falling out that the white of my scalp was visible in the back and right side.
And that was just on the outside, the visible.
Inside, the invisible, was where the real death was happening. Words can’t properly articulate that kind of suffering so I’m not even going to try. Whatever I came up with simply wouldn’t do justice.
So in fairness to what I went through, I’ll just say it was really bad and leave it at that.
By the time my freshmen year of college rolled around, in the Fall, I was still in agony, but at that point, a protective shell had calcified around me in a way that kept the pain hidden from the outside eye.
I was still completely mute, of course. That wouldn’t change for a long time.
But, after months of intense, heart wrenching suffering, I found a way to function in public.
Function without breaking down and crying, without falling to my knees and gasping for air, without asphyxiating or shaking. All that I saved for when I was in private.
My arms still remained firmly wrapped around my torso in an airtight vice at all times, but that was to be expected. It was my way of holding myself together.
I was sure people still stared at me and thought me unusual or infirm. I wasn’t going to deny that. After all, I had lost so much weight by the time I matriculated that I looked more like a sick kid than anything else.
But I was doing as best I could, given the circumstances.
Unexpectedly, academics came to be a welcome distraction from my suffering. Afraid of free time and determined to avoid spare blocks of it at all costs, I enrolled in the hardest classes possible offered by my university, skipping the soft sciences and fluff courses and instead opting for the ones I knew would keep me occupied.
Lots of math, lots of physics. Even some (ugh) chemistry.
Multi variable calculus and advanced trigonometry, undecidability and combinatorics, relativity and quantum theory, aerodynamics and thermal physics.
You name it.
If it sounded impossible, I took it.
Conveniently, I had taken so many advanced placement courses in high school I was able to waive most of the necessary prerequisites.
It was a good thing I was naturally mathematically inclined. Because these classes were hard.
I had to admit, I was a little arrogant going in, having graduated high school with a 4.3 GPA.
But this was university level mathematics and physics taught by Hawking level brainiacs. It was a whole new kind of hard.
And I took more than a full time load of classes.
So I studied day and night (not so much of a burden for a nightmare stricken insomniac), spending hours into AM pouring over the intricate nuances of quantum field theory and particle nano science, reading and rereading page after mind bending page until I finally understood their contents.
Time passed easier that way, quicker, when I was busy, focused.
It didn’t plug the hole in my chest — not temporarily and not even close. But my short term goal was achieved. I was distracted enough not to be miserable.
I was just very, very sad.
Most of my time was still spent alone completely breaking down, crying and crying for hours on end.
That never changed.
Luckily enough, I had my own private dormitory to myself, the one single room at the end of the hall. I needed it. I didn’t know what I would do if I had to pretend to be semi-okay one hundred percent of the time.
So began a typical routine. Study, cry, study, cry.
But my hard work paid off, at least in the classroom. I aced all of my midterms, all of my exams, all of my classes. Even the really, really fucking hard ones that made my head spin. Crushing quantum mechanics and nuclear physics on practically zero sleep had to count for some kind of accomplishment.
By the end of my first two quarters, I had a glistening 4.0 GPA. I even got an A in electromagnetic field theory, by far the hardest class I had ever taken in my life.
I knew my professors all thought my success was due to their superior teaching methods, and if that was the case, I wasn’t going to burst anyone’s bubble.
Though I was sure my overachievement had to confound them a little, at least the ones that were paying attention.
Didn’t they think it strange that the 85 pound mute who sat in the back and never asked a question turned out to be the highest performing student in the class?
But regardless, I was used to being perceived as strange. And it started with the kind of clothes I wore.
Upon entering college, one of the first things I noticed was the way that men stared at me; how their eyes drifted down my frame from top to bottom and back again. They looked me over like I was a horse they were buying.
And I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Especially given what had just happened to me. I didn’t want men to think about me sexually at all.
I just wanted to disappear.
While all the girls around me seemed thrilled to be receiving this kind of attention, I couldn’t have felt more anxious or uncomfortable, afraid even.
So I dramatically changed my style of dress. I tossed into the trash all my leggings and tight jeans and traded them for baggy university t-shirts and loose fitting cargo pants. I started shopping in Macy’s men’s instead of women’s. I wore glasses instead of contacts.
I just wanted to be invisible.
Although, looking back, I probably should have realized that wearing clothes four sizes too big for me most likely ensured the opposite result.
In any case, my newfound style change served two purposes: it sufficiently obscured the femaleness of my body from the male gaze; and it (somewhat) hid how much weight I lost and was still losing. This wasn’t a perfect solution though. One could still tell I was a skeleton underneath, and the slightest flash of my forearm was enough to frighten. Regardless, I was still much more comfortable than I would be dressing like all the other women my age, what with their see-through spandex tights and chest revealing crop tops.
Like I said. I was much more content with being invisible.
Soon enough, life fell into a predictable pattern. Time tripped along reasonably enough, thanks to all the extra schoolwork I had thrusted upon myself. During midterm and final exam periods, I practically lived inside the library, burning the wick deep into the night.
Basically, I found a way to survive.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say the pain became bearable, because it didn’t. It wasn’t.
Make no mistake.
So long as the concept of time existed, I would be in pain.
As surely as the sun rose in the East and set in the West, every tick of the second hand on time’s clock ached like the pulse of blood beneath a gunshot wound, that I knew.
That I knew.
Certain things never changed.
I still woke up screaming into my pillow every night.
My RA didn’t even bother to come in and check on me anymore, to see what was wrong, to make sure there wasn’t some intruder strangling me in my sleep or something like that. She was used to it by then.
Every time I visited the university health clinic, the resident nurse would tuck the same pamphlet on eating disorders into my patient bag, never meeting my gaze.
Even the eyes of my peers slid past me as if I wasn’t there.
The insomnia even escalated to a point where I couldn’t form proper memories, at which point I had no choice but to go on prescription sleep medication. I would literally go to bed and not remember anything that happened that day, would come out of a class and not even remember going in or the lecture that occurred thereto. The tremors (from not sleeping) got so bad I couldn’t hold a pencil straight to bubble the correct answers on a scantron.
It was getting scary.
Basically, I was still struggling to hold it together.
On the surface, however, I understood the importance of keeping up appearances. There was no reason for anyone else to have to suffer along with me. No one needed to have my nightmares.
I texted and emailed my grandfather regularly, diligently updating him on my studies and collegiate life.
I told him what I thought every grandparent would want to hear, some of it true, most of it untrue.
That I was making a lot of new friends (false), that I was excelling in all of my classes (true), that I was doing really well and I was happy (obviously not true).
It was good that my mom taught him how to communicate online. Because, of course, I didn’t speak anymore. Phone conversations were out.
From what he could see, all was well with his little lassie, his little one.
My mother, who never went to college, couldn’t stop gushing about my perfect GPA and all the insane courses I was taking, which helped nicely with the ruse.
She even had me send him paper copies of the actual report cards, which apparently brought him to tears.
He sent me greeting card after greeting card filled with money, present after present, always searching for an excuse to shower me with gifts I didn’t deserve.
But it gave me solace to know that he was happy and he thought I was happy.
I couldn’t stomach the possibility that he would ever find out what happened to me.
And as much as I wanted to see him in person and throw my arms around him just like I did when I was a kid, I knew, deep down in the core of my being, that I could never be that selfish — that I could never let him see what had become of me. How much weight I had lost, how my voice had fled my body, how sick I looked.
It would kill him.
“You say you love her,” he once told one of my ex boyfriends, tearing up (much to my chagrin, at the time) “and you may love her. But you will never love her more than I do.”
The seasons came and went.
Autumn shed its leaves. Winter threw its cold spell.
By the time January rolled around I was doing a little better, physically. I had gotten up to 90 pounds, able to keep food down without getting too sick. I was sleeping better, thanks to the medication.
Academically, I was soaring.
“Well done, Miss. Callahan, well done!” my physics Professor scrawled in red ink at the top of my exam packet.
I smiled weakly.
As time passed, I started paying more attention to the outside world, despite my best efforts to tune everything out. Before I had been so used to ignoring everything and retreating into my protective cocoon of numbness, where I thought I belonged, but slowly, as the seasons changed, my antennas started outstretching in spite of me.
And I began listening again.
The whole process was a strange sensation, like taking cotton out of my ears.
Or breaking the surface after being underwater for too long.
“Alright, final revisions due Monday, no excuses!” my Professor bellowed in his booming voice at the end of class. The sound of bustling and commotion followed, as the students rushed out of class as fast as they could.
I listened deeper.
A female voice, close by.
“. . .I don’t know why he’s not texting me back, how is he so busy all of the sudden. . .”
Ah. Typical dating world strife.
It seemed like a lifetime ago, or rather a million deaths ago, that I had spent time mulling over such things.
More buzz words filled my ears. Makeup. Hair products. Celebrity heartthrobs.
In other words, the typical banal, mindless chatter of a bunch of simple, superficial coeds. Nothing deep, nothing even remotely below surface level.
I almost contemplated going back into the cocoon.
But as new conversations replaced the old, surprise hit me.
I was stunned to hear my name.
“Damn, that lab was hard,” a tired male voice carried as the students all filtered out. “You’re lucky you had Fiona as a lab partner.”
I froze, shocked.
Was he talking about me?
Did someone just say my name?
Did someone. . . actually know my name?
How was that even possible?
I was invisible.
. . .Right?
At least I tried to be.
Still floored, I tried to process the content of the statement.
The lab. . .
I didn’t remember much about it, frankly.
To be honest, I didn’t even remember having a lab partner, let alone who it was.
I started to get frustrated with myself. I might as well have been packed in bubble wrap for the last half year.
The labs I typically just did by myself and let whoever was next to me copy the answers, if that’s what he meant. . .
Regardless, I didn’t realize I had earned a reputation in the physics department for being a whiz.
So much for trying to be invisible.
But I couldn’t help myself. I was good at physics. And only getting better.
At one point, I started scoring so high one of my Professors began using me as an excuse not to curve the tests — even calling me out by name, much to my chagrin — earning me the ire of the entire class, at which point I immediately made sure to miss at least one question on each exam going forward.
As I started slowly emerging from my chrysalis, day by day, week by week, strange sensations began to flower inside me once again.
I started to feel emotions again. Emotions other than sadness.
Not happiness, or joy, or contentment.
Nothing like that. To be clear.
But other things. . .
Unfamiliar things, old things. They felt weird inside me, disembodied, out of place. Not bad or wrong, necessarily, just strange. . .
The seasons changed predictably enough. Winter absconded with the solstice, and soon after, Spring was throwing its tulips all over campus.
The song birds sang their sweet symphonies and dawn broke earlier.
But Springtime in the Bay Area was cold.
And that Friday, I was running late to class without my jacket.
By the time I made it to my seat, I was covered in goosebumps.
Being severely underweight, internal body temperature moderation was already a challenge for me, and this wasn’t helping. Even worse, I was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, so my arms were completely exposed.
Soon, I was freezing.
Halfway through the lecture, I debated just getting up and leaving. Going back to my dorm. By that point I had already studied the topic we were covering in advance, as always, and didn’t need a refresher.
But that would give me a whole two hours with nothing to do, I quickly resolved, and like I said, I avoided free time like the plague. Class was something I depended on as a reliable and healthy distraction from the doldrums of gallows life.
What to do.
At some point, the Professor temporarily left and the class started bustling with chatter. People got out of their seats to go talk to their friends. The volume in the room skyrocketed.
It would be the perfect time to leave.
I contemplated making a run for it.
Then suddenly, an inviting, accessible male voice sounded very close to me, to my left.
“Hey, do you want my jacket?”
Was someone talking to me?
I turned around.
Kneeling beside me was a tall, bronze-haired boy with brown eyes and tan skin. He was slender, but muscular too, definitely an athlete. Someone who clearly spent a lot of time in the sun. Lots of gold in the hair and complexion.
My stomach swirled. The heat almost, but not quite, rose to my face.
It had been a while since I blushed with any real emotion.
He raised his eyebrows, clearly waiting for a response.
But I was still recovering. That was the first spark of feeling I’d had in too long to contemplate.
After I pulled myself together, I smiled shyly and shook my head, flapping my paper thin hair back and forth, trying to communicate without words.
Golden boy ignored me, and started taking off his jacket.
Without a voice to speak with, I couldn’t protest. And then, when he wrapped his jacket around me, I didn’t want to.
It was too warm.
Relief washed over me as heat filled my body.
I looked up and smiled gratefully at him, whoever he was, and as effusively as I could muster, unable to thank him properly, verbally, like a normal person, and he smiled back and returned to his seat.
When class was over, I tried to give the jacket back. But the pretty boy just shook his head.
“Keep it, give it back to me later.”
Today was Friday. I wouldn’t see him until we had class next Wednesday.
I hoped I hadn’t completely lost my mind.
He read my expression and laughed. “Tell you what, take my jacket for the day, you give me your number and tomorrow we can meet up so you can give it back to me then.”
But before I could try to make sense of what was happening, he handed me his phone.
“Here, put your number in.”
Reflexively, and unable to verbally object, I acquiesced.
When I went to type in my name in the contact line I was surprised to see it was already there.
He already knew my name?
“I’m Max, by the way.”
I handed the phone back to him, smiled tentatively, and walked away.
As if he probably didn’t think I was weird enough already.
I made a beeline to the library, trying not to think about what just happened.
I slammed my backpack onto the desk and got to work.
The rest of my day was spent buried in the textbook, pouring over the next chapter’s subject matter. I was working ahead, as always.
I sighed, flipping through the pages. The material looked pretty dense. Even more so than usual. Granted, none of this was expected to be done for at least a month, the date of our next scheduled exam, but the thought of going back to my dorm and wallowing unfathomable.
So I got to work.
I lumbered over to the printing station and printed out all the problem sets, then started with the ones I knew how to do. The rest I set aside until I completed the assigned reading.
I studied the chapter carefully, taking notes on the most difficult sections, then when I was done came back to the practice questions at the end to test whether I really grasped the material. I rotated each problem in my head like a spatial object, examining every angle, then resolved the anomalies on paper, step by step until I arrived at the final answer. The cognitive acrobatics required to understand this shit were acute to say the least, but I was getting better at it.
A few hours in, in a moment of intense mental fatigue, I sighed and looked around.
Being Friday, the building was practically empty. Even the librarian was outside talking on his phone.
Then, despite my better judgement, the window soon began drawing my wistful gaze, and the image of the outside world filled my head.
Crowds of students, buzzing with excitement for the coming weekend. Flocks of pretty girls converging on each other. Fraternities playing rugby in the grass. The SCU dance team, with their perfect bodies, blissfully rehearsing their new routine on the quad.
Simple people. Simple lives.
I didn’t mean that disparagingly.
A strong ache pulsed inside of me.
How I wished I could be like that.
But realizing the utter impossibility of that lust, I sighed and returned to my textbook. By now I knew it was unhealthy to dwell on such things. Blasphemous, even.
I didn’t allow it.
Similarly, I didn’t spend too much time worrying about what the view looked like from the other side of the same window. What any onlookers might have thought about the image of me sitting here, alone, studying, on a Friday night. Whether they judged me or not in their heads. It didn’t bother me.
I was used to being an outcast.
As the hours passed, I mainly just tried not to think about what had happened earlier that day with. . . Max. And for the most part, my efforts were successful.
Chapter fourteen on wave particle duality and the photoelectric effect proved mind numbingly distracting enough. I definitely had an ironclad grasp on what we would be learning next week.
But when night fell and the librarian finally kicked me out, I couldn’t push the pestering thoughts off anymore. All the data points slowly began resolving themselves as I made the dark, lonely walk back to my dorm.
Somehow, this guy already knew my name.
That wasn’t a good sign.
If that was true than he obviously must have been observing me long enough to know that I couldn’t or wouldn’t speak, that I dressed androgynously in the extreme, that I was gaunt enough to be diagnosed with an eating disorder or some kind of disease.
Basically, that I was a freak.
The question was why he was even talking to me.
I didn’t know.
But I started to get frustrated. Nothing about this made any sense.
I wore men’s clothes.
I never wore makeup.
I slouched, sulked, and looked downright sick half the time. I couldn’t imagine what any man would want with me what with the massive swarm of beautiful girls on this campus. Half the girls here looked like Instagram models. Heck, they probably were Instagram models.
I was not an Instagram model, by any stretch of the imagination. Especially now.
Because at this point, I just looked sick.
My skin was pale, sallow, and waxy, taught against the bone and sunken deep into the hollows of my face. My body as a whole had regressed to a childlike smallness, because of all the fat and muscle mass I had lost. I was sure that men didn’t find me physically attractive, for this reason at least.
All of the gold had fled my tresses and complexion, because of all the time spent indoors. My hair, formerly a dark blonde, was now a mousy brown, and thinning in the extreme, while my skin had lost its olive tone in favor of a more flaxen, chalky pallor.
There was once a time where I thought I was pretty — maybe even beautiful. But that was a long, long time ago.
By this point, I had even already went through and archived all of my fifty some Instagram posts, because I couldn’t bear to stand the sight of the images of my old self against this new one.
All these thoughts were in my head as I contemplated this latest quandary.
Why was this guy talking to me?
I couldn’t understand it.
Some possible explanations raced through my mind.
Maybe he hit his head really, really hard that day, I reasoned.
Maybe he slammed his forehead into the doorframe because he was too tall and forgot to duck.
Maybe he got a concussed by a wayward baseball on his way to class.
That stuff happens sometimes right?
A long pause
Then I sighed. These scenarios were absurd.
Instead I settled for an aphorism.
Men are strange, I reasoned, shaking my head. The more you tried to understand them, the less sense any of them made.
Maybe there was something in me he found appealing, I allowed. Maybe it was my body, my brain, my face who knew.
But when he caught up with me tomorrow, when he looked me in the eye and started talking to me and saw me looking back, speechless, unresponsive, confounded, at a loss for words, unable to speak or sound or say anything at all, because the ability of speech was ripped from my vocal chords, because the voice had been gang raped right out of me, then he would realize what a freak I was and he would walk away.
And I would have to witness it. Watch his face fall. See the realization sink in.
My heart thumped a low, broken meter.
That wasn’t fair.
I didn’t sign up for that.
I just wanted to be invisible.
Literally if possible. But I’d settle for figuratively.
When I got inside my room, I collapsed onto the bed. I didn’t know what to do. So I did the only thing I knew how to do, the only thing I was good at — I cried.
But before I could wallow too long, my phone lit up beside me.
I squinted through the tears in my eyes.
A green text bubble floated to the top of my lock screen.
Hey, Fiona. It’s Max:)
My heart lurched.
Oh my god. . .
The tears dried on my face.
What just happened?
Was this guy actually. . .interested in me?
The question seemed almost blasphemous.
I was at a loss for understanding.
And I didn’t know what to say.
It had been a year since I had interacted with the opposite sex in any meaningful way. But it felt like a lifetime.
Like I said. Those instincts were buried deep. I didn’t know if they’d ever surface again.
So I waited a while. A half hour passed. Then another.
Finally, I picked up the phone.
After pressing send, I immediately cursed myself. What a lame response.
But he answered quickly.
How was your day? he asked.
My fingers started typing.
It was okay. Thanks for the jacket.
Okay, not as lame, I allowed.
Lol no problem. So if you’re free tomorrow can I buy you lunch or something?
He wanted to take me out?
At first, a swirl of warmth touched my stomach.
Then reality set in and I sighed.
There was no way to get through lunch with someone without talking. Or eating. Or them seeing you shaking.
Save yourself the humiliation, Fiona. Just turn him down.
I don’t know, Max.
His text typing bubbles surfaced immediately.
It doesn’t have to be a date or anything if that’s too much for you, we can just eat and then after how about you can help me understand these problem sets we got assigned for homework because for the life of me I won’t be able to figure them out.
I sighed again and tried to craft another deflection.
You should go to the tutoring center. It’s free and everyone there is a lot smarter than me.
He replied right away.
I don’t want to go to the tutoring center. It’s full of graduate students who hate their lives.
I laughed then exhaled. He really seemed determined to make this work.
Another text lit up my screen.
And I doubt they’re smarter than you.
I smiled meekly.
Oh, that’s kind of you.
No, seriously though, like how do you know all this stuff?
It was a fair question. No one in their right mind should know as much as I did about this shit, or spend as much time on it. But that was exactly it. I wasn’t in my right mind.
I started typing.
I really don’t, honestly, I just study more than most people. It doesn’t come easy to me either, I assure you.
But I’ve seen you in class, you don’t even take notes, it’s like you already know it all, and you ace every exam.
I exhaled and started typing.
I study the material in advance, learn it before I get there. It makes it easier to follow along with the lecture, I don’t like having to constantly write stuff down. It’s hard for me too, trust me, there’s a lot I still don’t understand and probably won’t ever. I would never claim it comes easy to me because it doesn’t.
So you just teach yourself, basically.
I guess, yeah.
I typed quickly.
But if you spent as much time as I did you would be getting A’s too, trust me, I basically breathe this stuff day and night.
Fiona, I could spend every hour of the day on this class and I still wouldn’t be able to figure it out.
I typed back,
Can I ask why you’re taking it?
Typing bubbles surfaced.
Great question. I’m good at math, really good, but wanted to do something more interesting than just a math major, thought I’d be good at this but it’s like way harder, so much more intuitive, the equations aren’t laid out for you to solve, you have to create them, and that’s what’s really hard.
I responded, agreeing with him, and we commiserated about the doldrums of the subject.
But he brought up a good point, something anyone who studies the physical sciences will understand.
Just because you are good at math, does not mean you will be good at physics. It’s a big jump. Most people can’t make the leap.
Ironically, I was never a whiz at math, per say, just slightly above average there, but physics requires, as Max pointed out, the abstract side of the brain over the linear.
He sent another text.
I bet your parents are proud.
Yeah, my grandpa is.
This is your major right?
No, I’m still undeclared actually, I’m a freshmen.
You’re only a freshmen?
You know you’re taking like, upper division level classes.
Yeah I know, I already have enough pre-requisites for the major, but it’s not really my passion to be honest.
What is your passion?
I didn’t know how to answer this one. The truth was I didn’t really have passions anymore.
I guess I’m still trying to figure that out.
From there, we texted almost all night. The butterflies almost, but not quite, rose to the surface. If they were to truly resurrect, it would surely take more than just this. Even so, their presence felt good, if also strange and disembodied, inside my stomach. It was a welcome change from the dark emptiness that usually dominated my existence.
As the conversation progressed, I felt saddened and a little guilty to realize how completely vacant I had been the past year. According to Max, we’d shared two classes together last quarter, although I had no memory of him whatsoever until today. As disengaged as I knew I was, cocooned in my protective shell of darkness, it still hurt to see how much I had missed. Shame washed over me, followed by sheepishness.
How was it possible that I had this person in three of my classes and didn’t even notice him once?
Especially considering how attractive he was?
How much else had gone by without my noticing?
Thankfully, he didn’t take any of my obliviousness personally. Some people do not easily offend, I suppose.
From our conversation, I learned he was a student athlete (like I originally suspected), recruited for a sports scholarship, and older than me, a junior.
In other words, way out of my league.
I still couldn’t fathom why he had any interest in me.
After a couple hours, I finally ended our conversation and told him goodnight.
I went to sleep anxious and confused, with no idea what to expect the next day.
Three hours later, I woke up asphyxiating and covered in sweat. It felt like there was a fifty pound anvil weighing down on my chest. And it was hot. Scalding. Like a branding iron. It felt like my chest was on fire.
But I was still drowning in the depths of my subconscious. I couldn’t get it off.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t get it off.
I squirmed and thrashed but it clamped down on me like a vice, and I wasn’t strong enough to lift it, so all I could do was choke and burn while it crushed me.
Wake up, Fiona, wake up. . .
I tried. I did try.
But after so many nights without sleep, it was way too difficult, impossible. My body was too tired.
It didn’t want to wake up, it wanted to sleep, it wasn’t listening to me.
A few minutes went by but it felt like hours. Soon, saliva gathered in the back of my throat and I was choking for real.
At that point, I finally roused.
It took a few minutes to calm down.
I took deep breaths as I waited for the anxiety to leave my system.
My heart rate slowed to a normal, albeit uneven, pace.