Reality Check- Lulu Chen ’17

Yesterday I waited at the bus stop for six whole minutes. Remembering what Mrs. O’Leary had said, I scratched an X on the back of my left hand with a thick and slightly dry red marker. It was raining and I didn’t have an umbrella.

Tonight I am running towards a humbled half-off bookstore. In the distance there are joyous screams of children. I forget to look both ways and avoid a close encounter with a cement truck that brakes for me. My eyes are fixed on this bookstore’s proud and sturdy Corinthian columns, which are wonderful for snaking through. My legs refuse the soreness of running, for an even-keeled urgency thrusts them in a mission so classified, even I know nothing of it. It is better this way. Before I collapse from exhaustion, I glance at the back of my hand, and the red X is gone.

This morning when I wake, the alarm has been ringing for a full nine minutes, and it has woken up the cat. The cat is pawing at my arm with a meow as soft as her caress. I fill up her bowl with milk, before my own. I change clothes and eat cereal sluggishly until I realize I have history homework left undone. I eat cereal considerably less sluggishly. As I wash the dishes, I notice the X has returned.

Overnight, my family has become rich as tycoons and cold as bathroom tiles. Mahjong guests and servants lurk in every corner and stare me down. My mother is fixing lipstick, squatting in front of the side mirrors of her brand new Lexus. All my clothes, including the pajamas I was wearing ten minutes ago have been put through the laundry and folded. Out of spite, I grab my shirt from the top of the pile and unfold it only to refold it the way I like. But then I see that my hands are soft and manicured as if I had gone to a spa. I have never been to a spa and I start to scream, until I notice how the pristine skin shows no trace of marker. Oh.

I didn’t notice that the water had been running for too long. I curse myself for carelessness. Mom doesn’t say anything about wasting water on the car ride to school. She doesn’t say anything at all because it is too dark, too early, and too cold for conversation, in our 2000 Toyota Corolla. I think about how Mondays taste like apprehension but I close my eyes and try to think of all the people who are winning lotteries, getting married, or being born on this Monday. I try to be happy for them, but then I realize that they already have plenty of people being happy for them, and who is being happy for me? No one…except the cat, maybe. The red X stares back at me.

On a piece of paper I write out the word t-o-g-g-l-e and the o transforms into a key, back to an o, and then a key again. The key has a home in its keyhole and when I peer inside the keyhole, I see a bolt being fastened into the drywall of a flooded basement. That was years ago, and the man who owned this basement is now the captain of a squadron in Vietnam, a squadron that now grips the ropes on a bridge with red hands. Their hands are red because the rope is chafing. My hands are flushed pink because they are cold, but they certainly show no red.

Maria giggles as she taps my shoulder. She says I need coffee. Aileen chimes in. She wants to talk about some gossip-y stuff that immediately makes me regret whatever I don’t remember I said at the sleepover last weekend. I tell her that I have only written half a sentence for my history homework and to let me finish it now before Period 1. She says I only have three minutes and six seconds so it’s a lost cause anyway. Shit. I laugh because the red mark on my hand is an X, foreshadowing the one my teacher will scribble on this sheet of paper.

My older cousin is camping nearby, some cursed yards down from the slope, which I claimed first. I hear him set off firecrackers in a lively gang but I see only him and his coy half-smile at the wood chips, his legs folded over small pebbles. I am too arrogant to approach him. Instead, I stumble deeper into the woods, which morphs into a rainforest, which drowns me in a flood. None of the branches are strong enough to hold me and I am Alice in Disasterland but still I’d rather this, than have him rescue me. The flood finally carries me away; seems it has also washed the X from my hand.

Class doesn’t make a lot of sense today. The teacher pretends he taught a lot of stuff that he didn’t. He starts deriving equations on the board, and it’s like I missed the part where he defined all the variables. I wonder what’s for lunch. I wonder what’s for dinner. I realize the parents are getting home late tonight and dinner is left up to me. Maybe I will microwave some macaroni and cheese. That sounds rather good, so good I just drooled a little bit over my math workbook. That’s too bad. I hope no one noticed. I am wiping my mouth with the back of my left hand, and my hand is marked in red.

From behind, I hear an irresistible melody that reminds me of strawberry frosting. I see the angel of music coming to me and I open my mouth, but I have no voice. No voicebox. No throat. My respiratory tract becomes the long neck of a mahogany cello. The tips of fingers are kissing the silver strings as my right arm holds a horsehair bow that sweeps across the body of the cello. Out of the body comes an ocean of sound and I drown myself in it. When the sonata is over, I very cautiously place my hands on my lap to glance at their backs. To my surprise: my hand betrays a red X. I stare at it a bit longer: good try, but now the X is on my right hand rather than my left. Impossible. And that is how I know.

My mind is learning too fast, rendering this X obsolete. I refuse to be tricked by this gray mass of neurons and circuits. While the teacher is handing out worksheets, I grab a marker from my desk, one of the scented ones that never smell the way they are supposed to, but that you smell anyway. Green is mint. I draw a circle at my ankle. It will be my safeguard.


When we meet in the afternoon, I tell Mrs. O’Leary that her method is working: this branding of the real me. She does not know that I am changing colors and shapes and body locations. I don’t tell her about how, to my mind, it is just a game, and every week it learns to mimic that branding faster and more accurately. I don’t tell her I am scared of running out of options. I am not scared. The other world perhaps has much more to offer me than this one, which is too slow and reasonable for my tastes anyway. But I don’t say this to Mrs. O’Leary as I sink into her couch. I sit and smile and note silently how the room smells like mold.

The visions, they are still happening, I say. Most of them are distractions, but one of them is real—more real than me or you or this couch I am sitting on right now. This is my only recurring vision: me playing the cello, and even when this vision came to me as a kid, I wasn’t scared. It is by far the most vivid and sweet; it smells like home. I think I must have been a famous cellist in my past life. It’s okay if you don’t believe me. Most people don’t. But I know if I were to go to Carnegie Hall I would have my déjà vu. And the red X would still be there. Or green circle. Whatever.

She tells me to recount a recent dream. I tell her I don’t remember. This is a lie. So many visions swim in my head, round and round they go in circles like dazzling silver-backed fish, their bodies rippling in the sunlight. I could so easily pluck one, tell her… but why? My most recent dream is right now. Right now I am dreaming that I am in a meeting with my psychologist and she doesn’t know what she’s doing, as usual. It is a very boring dream, so boring that it makes me feel not alive. Right now, I could wake up from this dream and enter a freer world, but the freer that world, the more constricting this one would be. Why should I come back? This world with Mrs. O’Leary in it wraps around me like a python; it points at parts of me, telling me what is real and what isn’t, but still refuses to define what real is. I am looking at her and she is peering at me through her thin-rimmed glasses. We are competing to see who is more silent and stubborn. I wonder if I could disappear if I tried hard enough, or else make this a dream if I tried hard enough. The phone rings and when she looks away, I lift my jean leg just a tad, to peek at the pale skin scrunched at my bony ankles.

There is no green circle.


Image: Womandelbrot by new 1lluminati