by Julia Zygiel ’19
My head is buried in my folded arms as my heart hammers in my chest. My nose presses uncomfortably into the desk, but this is the only tried and true method for hiding the cloud of piss yellow panic that’s trying to suffocate me. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up, praying simultaneously that it’s able to contain the whole thing and that my professor will drone on past his allotted lecture time per usual so I can get myself under control. But the art of coming down from an attack is sometimes in moving on and forgetting about it, and right now all I can do is think about people wincing at the cloud that now surrounds my head, thinking I’m some freak because not everything I feel is picture perfect. Even worse, I imagine them full of pity and trying to help. Asking what’s wrong.
As the end of the class approaches I can feel the cloud condensed in the small space of my hoodie, pressing uncomfortably against the back of my neck and wrapping around, its misty tendrils wriggling into my ears, making everything sound muted. I raise my head ever so slightly, trying to focus on the professor’s lips and the faraway sound of his voice so that I can tell if he dismisses class. Instead the cloud comes to hang over my eyes, making everything appear jaundiced. It begins to expand into the air in front of my face, leaking out of the small crevice I have created for it, and panic propels my face back down against the desk with lightning speed.
By the time that the cloud must be staining my hoodie, hair, and skin bright yellow, everyone starts packing their bags and leaving the class while I’m stuck hunkered over my desk. I could try to listen to music, but the movement of getting my earphones out of my backpack could draw the attention of the class. Plus, if I move my arms the cloud will escape into the air, which will definitely draw the attention of the class. On top of this, I’m sure that the thought train of my worrying has only made the yellow even more saturated and noticeable. I can feel a hiccup of fear caught in my throat, threatening to choke me, when a cool palm on my shoulder interrupts the storm of my emotion.
“Hey.” Alexandra’s voice matches the sensation of her palm, cool and disembodied. Her voice washes over and blanks me out and wrests me from my emotions, a welcome change after the past half hour of class. The blankness struggles with my panic for a moment, and then I feel the grip on my heart loosen and dissolve. Gently, she pulls me up from my position on the desk.
“How was class?” Her tone is teasing. Neither of us can count the amount of times she’s had to save me from my own embarrassing emotion in public places, and she does not often let me forget it. But the familiar crease in her brow is there. She’s worried about me. This has happened too many times this week.
“It was fine.” I want to bristle at the teasing, but I can’t. Alexandra neutralizes me, she saves me from panic attacks, but she brings me down from euphoria as well. I don’t mind the light pink of joy or the warm red of excitement. It makes me feel like the people I envy on the streets, who live in their color of emotion without shame. Who feel normal and proudly display it. Alexandra, who creates beautiful color no matter her mood, cannot understand my envy.
“I’m sorry,” she sighs, sounding forlorn. Being that I don’t display much emotion when she’s around, she’s become surprisingly adept at reading my mind. Around her head and shoulders, a cloud of midnight blue forms, gaining a few sideways glances.
“It’s okay,” I tell her, and I mean it. Though I know I’ll be upset about it tonight and maybe tomorrow, she eliminates emotion from the equation for the time being. It isn’t logical to be upset; it will only result in stress and heart ache, so I’m not. Slowly we walk to our dorms and slowly the midnight blue grows lighter and lighter and disappears from her headspace. Briefly, I wonder if I could do something to neutralize some of her emotions in turn, but I’m not sure I should wish that upon her.
“I want to feel more.”
We are sitting outside of the library, on the marble ledge that looks out onto the gardens. When I say this, Alexandra pulls a face, her brow creasing once more in worry and confusion.
“Feel more?” she laughs. “I thought you felt too much.”
I swing my foot back and forth out of lack of preoccupation, considering my words.
“I don’t like feeling numb, being neutral.”
She scowls for a minute, then her expression clears. “I thought I was helping you.” Her tone is measured, the way it gets when she’s trying to stop a cloud from forming. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”
“Then listen. Please.”
Her lips work to protest, but she produces no sound. She shifts a hand, as if she wants to reach for the reassuring hand on the shoulder but is too afraid. Instead, she begins to sway, touching her shoulder to mine periodically.
“Okay. Tell me.”
For the first time in a long time I feel complete in a color of emotion, with her allowing me to slowly glean the hues of my feeling as she rhythmically sets me to swaying.
“I don’t want you to help me anymore,” I burst out, a bloom of dark purple clouding around me. It stains her shoulder when she bumps against me, but she doesn’t quell it. I don’t feel the blank washing over. She doesn’t say anything, and I can feel from the way she is gripping the marble ledge that this is as far as her active listening skills have stretched in a long time.
“I want to feel everything I feel, and I want to revel in it, and wallow in it, and I don’t want to forget what it feels like to feel good, but I don’t want to forget what it feels like to feel bad either. I want to feel like a human again, with all the highs and lows. I need help, but not a cure-all. You get better by going through, not around.”
“But you asked me to. I thought you wanted this to begin with.” Her grip on the ledge tightens, trying to resist her instincts in this situation, but I can feel the familiar tug of her hand at the backdoor of my mind anyhow.
“I did.” I say it quietly, tears pricking at my eyes. “But I didn’t mean it all the time.” My resistance is enough to banish her presence from my mind. The purple stain of my aura, created by the dirty blue of betrayal and the painful bright red of passionate fury, takes up all corners of my vision.
“I’m sorry,” she says finally, after a silence that feels like an eon. “I didn’t want to make you incomplete. Just better.”
Despite myself, I reach for her hand and squeeze, letting the purple that has run down my arms stain both of our hands like ink spilled over parchment. The crease has anchored itself once more on her forehead, her face registers only confusion. Apprehension lurks just beneath her tongue.
I smile for her. “It’s okay,” I say, knowing it might not be, but knowing that’s what I want. “Thank you for apologizing.”
She holds up our now purple-as-night arms, her lips part in a smile, the apprehension dispersing in the air.
“I love you,” she says to me, “and I want to make it right.”
Deep down in my stomach I believe her, and the deep purple cloud that surrounds us turns bright, then lilac, then is gone, and we are clean again.