Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.
Dear Mr. Katz,
My name is Elizabeth Torrance, and I am a “freshperson” at Thorne College in Upton, New York. I plan to major in literature, and I think I want to be an English teacher, or, if I can, a professional writer like you. I have to tell you that you are my number-one inspiration, the reason I started really enjoying reading. Your talent for creating fascinating, believable characters AND complex, rich plotlines at once is not shared by any other writer I have ever read.
I know that you must receive letters like mine every day, and that you cannot possibly take a personal interest in every fan, but just in case you find your letter bag unusually light today, I have enclosed a draft of a novel I have been writing. It may not be exactly your genre, although your novel The Song of the Swan was my primary inspiration; isn’t it funny how our minds can take in a piece of stimuli- a song, a novel, a film- and churn out a creation that is based on it but still seems nothing like the original “muse” work to the outside observer? Anyway, I would appreciate your feedback on my work, even just a helpful line or two. I have enclosed my email address at the college and my return address is of course on the envelope that this letter came in.
The people I have shown my novel to so far seem to think it has a lot of potential…
Some people have things- I know you’re not supposed to use words like “things” when you write because of how unspecific they are. You know the words- the forbidden words, the ones your English teachers circle madly in red until the red ink bleeds through the paper, or until their red colored pencils snap at the tip. Words like “said,” “very,” “happy,” “sad,” and, yes, “things.”
But I am describing unspecific items now- T-shirts, for instance, and coffee mugs, bumperstickers, and pins. Some people have these things, which bear the message “I’d rather be…” and then some pleasurable activity. “I’d rather be golfing.” “I’d rather be hiking.” “I’d rather be shopping.”
If I could design my own T-shirt, pin, bumpersticker, or mug with this motif, mine would say, “I’d rather be sleeping.”
Because I would. When I wake up each morning at six to shower so that I am clean for the day, the alarm jolts me awake and I would rather be sleeping. When I am riding the bus up to River Valley Community College for my first class of the day, the world is still dark and cold, still quiet, as if it itself is still asleep, and I would rather be sleeping along with it. When I am in class, listening to my professors drone in front of a projection screen about sentence structure and the literary implications of some John Updike bullshit, thinking about Thorne College and the professors there, I would rather be sleeping…or, sometimes, I would rather be back there.
But I can’t go back there. So, generally, I would rather be sleeping.
And when I ride the bus to my part-time job as a receptionist at a place where thankfully no one knows I used to be Elizabeth Torrance, yes, that Elizabeth Torrance, I would rather be sleeping. And as I type out endless memos and smell the tuna fish of the person in the desk next to mine, I would rather be sleeping- in fact I’m sorely tempted to just crawl into a corner of the supply closet, on top of some stacks of computer paper or conveniently placed bubble wrap, and just conk out for an hour or two. Or eight.
And later, if I’m eating dinner at my mother’s house or even if I’ve been invited out by some of the community college people I’m friendly with, even if I’m happy and laughing and so goofy I feel like I’m stoned- and act like it, too- without even a single puff of weed, even if right now my life feels good…still, there’s a part of my mind, that I may not be aware of but that does exist, and always will, and in that part of my mind, I would rather be sleeping.
If you don’t feel this tired, this beat and worn out, every day, then I can’t explain it to you. It’s an ache, and you can forget it sometimes, but it never goes away, not with all the ibuprofen in the world. And the ache seeps into your bones, and you almost forget what it’s like not to have it. The tiredness is like that for me…it’s in there deep. It’s a chain I drag around, and it slows me down in a way I hate, so that sometimes I almost feel claustrophobic in my own life, in my own brain.
I’ve been to a doctor about this. Apparently, low energy is a completely normal side effect of many psychiatric medications, including the ones I’ve been on for almost a year. So there’s nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
Dear Mr. Katz,
I want to thank you for responding personally to my letter; I know many writers less busy than you would have sent some form letter with fill-in-the-blank names that was about as intimate as a block of wood. Of course I understand if you don’t have time to review my writing. Just keep it on your desk somewhere, and look at it sometime when you have a free moment. I’m not an English teacher yet, and it’s not an assignment!
Yes, I am finding college life really liberating. There is a lot more work and I do seem to be more scatterbrained than I was last year, although I’ve always been a procrastinator. And life with a roommate isn’t easy- I’ve never had to share my space before! But my classes are going well and I already have some ideas for my senior thesis- is that strange, to be thinking of that at this point? Still, if I don’t pick up the study pace, maybe starting it now- or soon- isn’t such a bad idea.
What do I do outside of class? I belong to a few clubs, including our literary magazine and the school paper. I’ve already reviewed your newest book and the review should come out soon; I’ll send a clipping if you want me to. Lately, I’ve been too busy to go to many events outside of class, but I hope that will change once I adjust to the pace here. I have gone to a couple mixers and singles activities, but I was never good at them, and anyway none of the boys here are very attractive. They are all either entitled rich boys or coffee-house douchebags who think they are the next Bakunin- do you know who he was?
By the way, there’s no need to call me “Ms. Torrance”- my friends call me Beth…
At college- community college, that is, not Thorne- I usually sit with a woman from my Fiction Comp. II class named Kellan Rosenthal. Her family is half Irish and half Ashkenazi Jewish. She goes to college part-time because she has a son, Sean, who is autistic and gets mainstreamed at a Jewish preschool for half the day. She works at a food co’op in Albany, which I have been to and which is very cool, although the food is expensive.
Kellan knows about my meds, although she doesn’t know that I used to be the Elizabeth Torrance from the tabloids a few years back. Maybe she suspects. She’s not stupid.
I feel good talking about things with Kellan, because she has Asperger’s Syndrome, compulsive eating disorder, and borderline chronic depression, which she doesn’t take medication. She maintains that if she had what I have, she would take drugs then, but barring that, she won’t. She won’t give Sean Adderall for the same reasons, even though the director of the preschool tried to make her, and even though I looked online and found out Temple Grandin takes it.
Today, she sits down next to me with her standard lunch: a ham, cheese, pickle, and ketchup sandwich on low-calorie oatmeal bread, with an organic fig bar. We both eat low-calorie whenever we can help it, her because of her slow metabolism, and me because my meds cause weight gain. “Have you called those people at the Department yet?”
“Not yet.” Kellan thinks I should interview for a job that just opened at the state Department of Mental Health. It’s true that it pays better than the one I have now, that it’s part-time, and that the ad didn’t specifically say a college degree was needed.
“You should think about it. Think of the insight you have into what people are going through.”
“Kellan, it’s not, like, social work or anything. I’d basically be doing what I do now.”
“Yeah, but for better pay and some actual benefits, unless the state unions get totally emasculated. Besides, you’d still be part of the process, and you could maybe get promoted. And you could use your insights to help other people’s experiences be better than yours were.”
“When did I say my experiences were bad?”
“You mention things sometimes. I’m not saying anyone mishandled your case exactly, I just mean…look, even besides that, you understand about how hard it is to be on the meds and how hard it is to deal with things like health insurance and going to school-“
“I don’t know how to deal with that,” I interrupt her. “If I knew how to deal with going to college with my…issues, no offense, but I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be back at Thorne.”
She nods slowly. “You loved that place.”
“I applied there early decision.” I realize how close my voice is to cracking. “I worked really hard to get good grades, so I’d qualify, and I took the SAT twice to improve my score, and every time I visited, I loved it more…when I got in, I thought everything was going to be great.”
I hate the way I sound. It’s pathetic. It’s pathetic that I always seem to find myself complaining about my life, as if it’s so bad- I could’ve been born a hundred years or so ago; I would’ve ended up in some asylum, getting electroshocked, lobotomized, or displayed like a freak show. It’s pathetic that I complain without ever doing anything about it. It’s pathetic that I didn’t fight to stay at Thorne, that I didn’t just get some meds, drink lots of coffee, and keep on trucking, at least enough to pass and graduate on time. Kellan once said that I could have sued them for discrimination, and I know that. But at the time, that idea was like the thought of cutting off my own foot. What they had done- their reaction up to that point, to my failing and the ‘Peter Katz issue’ and everything else- was just so shocking to me, like a punch to the gut. I had never thought that that place could do that to someone like me, someone who loved it so much.
I could do something. I know it. It’s just I’m so damn tired.
“Hey,” she says. “You still coming to the play on Friday?”
“I want to, Kellan, it’s just on Fridays I’m so wiped out from the week-“
She puts her hand over mine, silencing me. Kellan doesn’t mind touching, unlike other people on the autistic spectrum, but she’s never sure when to apply it in a social way, except with her family. Holding my hand probably involves a lot of nerve. People think Kellan isn’t anxious in social situations, but that’s only because she’s learned to hide it.
“I know you’re tired, Annie,” she says, once the shock of the success of what she’s done has ebbed. “Come anyway.”
Dear Mr. Katz (Peter),
Right now, I feel completely incompetent as an English major, because I can’t find the words to express my deep appreciation that you have continued to write to me. I’ve always been a quiet person and it takes me awhile to make friends, especially because I am so busy with school; it means so much to have someone to talk to. Thank you for finding the time for me, Peter...
I get home late from work because the sales staff decided to generate all these extra random memos this afternoon, starting literally around 4:30, on a Friday. Allegedly, these are the people who went to four years of college and possibly two or three years of business school. Who are smart enough to do things like figure out how to make money on the stock market and who love to talk about how if they had been all those Enron employees, they wouldn’t have let themselves get suckered out of their lives’ savings. They’re too smart for that.
I and a few of the other secretaries had to stay. Someone had to get the work done. I hate not finishing the work I start; when I started to fall behind at Thorne, pretty much the worst thing about it wasn’t the grades or the attitudes of the professors, which quickly turned from concern to annoyance, it was the knowledge that I wasn’t finishing my work. At college, my job was to study, and suddenly I couldn’t seem to get it done anymore, and no one, least of all me, could figure out why. Anxiety and frustration- aside from the paranoia and terror, which are dreamlike to me now- that’s what I remember about the last few months of the time- about 1 ½ semesters- that I spent at Thorne.
There was one bright spot in that time- or so I thought then. Later, it turned out that it was more of an onrushing train than a guiding light in the distance. And that it didn’t technically even exist at all.
I wonder what they did with all the letters I wrote him.
The main source of annoyance- and puzzlement- when I get home from the bus stop and walk up my driveway is that there’s some weird black car parked so it’s partly blocking it. I can reach my mailbox- my Entertainment Weekly didn’t come; ever since I moved and became Annemarie instead of Elizabeth, they’ve had bugs with my subscription information- but it’ll be a problem later because Kellan is picking me up tonight for the play. We’ll be getting there early because she has to get into costume and warm up, but I actually don’t mind. I’ll be watching Sean before Kellan’s mother gets there and sits with him, and I like hanging with Sean. We both love exploring backstage, and the staff even let him climb up onto the landing where they do the lights, as long as I go up behind him to keep him from falling. Anyway, this bugger had better move before then. Not that there’s anything I can do; I hate calling the police for things. Ever since my experience with them- and I know this isn’t rational because it’s not their fault- I just really don’t like involving cops in my business.
I have just enough time to walk a mile on the treadmill, change, and heat up something for dinner. Instead, I fall asleep on the couch for forty-five minutes, wake up suddenly, berate myself for not working out tonight, and run to my room to change. Out my bedroom window I can see that the car is still here. I try to remember what kind it is. I don’t think I ever knew.
When Kellan’s used station wagon turns onto my street, I see the car power to life, and then its lights turn on and it drives away into the dark.
I hate to stain our correspondence with profanity, but it has truly been a hell of a week. I can’t focus on any of my classes and only I know the reason. I’m too busy thinking about your letters. I keep them in a lacquer box my mother bought in China under my bed, behind my suitcase, and during a lecture, my mind will drift back to that box, and then I’ll have some professor chastising me for not paying attention, as if I were some kindergartner with ADD or something. I don’t blame it on you, Peter; it’s my fault I can’t hide this better.
I understand any concerns you might have about discretion on my part, but please believe me: I have no wish to hurt your career. I would hate to hurt you, Peter, and even beyond that, if your career ended, I and all your other readers would be deprived of your brilliant work. And I understand you are a married man with a family- you have obligations, and I respect that. So don’t worry. Even though I feel like it must be shining out of me, like a halo, for everyone to see, I’ll keep our secret.
I have revised my novel according to your advice, and I think it is really coming along; I will mail you a copy of the new draft when it is ready…
Sean used to have a hard time with darkness. He couldn’t deal with the transition, especially when it was unexpected. He’d usually crouch down and scream, or sometimes bark like a dog, which neither Kellan nor I nor his therapist is sure of the significance of. He’s better now, but he clings to me and his grandmother when the theater lights dim. We snuggle as close to him as we can. Like Kellan, he doesn’t mind touch, and he likes the feeling of confinement.
Kellan insists Sean’s autism is genetic, the ‘autism gene’ inherited from her and concentrated somehow. I guess for him it may be, since Kellan has never been one for substance abuse- she drinks socially, and she used to smoke pot recreationally, but she never did any of that while she was pregnant; it’s not in her nature. She doesn’t even let Sean have gluten.
I often wonder what would happen if I got pregnant now- this is unlikely; it’s not exactly the sexiest phase of my life right now, especially considering the weight I’ve gained from the meds, but hypothetically. I was never sure whether I wanted kids or not. Now that I’ve met Sean, I think I do, but I’m not sure if it’s possible. What would my meds do to a fetus? It’s not like I can just go off them for nine months. I remember a few months ago I forgot to take them one morning- I didn’t mean to, I just forgot, the way you might with a birth control pill or cholesterol medication or something.
I couldn’t even get to class. Everything was different in a way I can’t explain, and I got off the bus at the wrong stop. I don’t remember if I had ever been in that part of town before that day, but none of it was familiar. The only thing I could think to do was call my mother like a scared six-year-old and blubber into the phone about how lost I was. I couldn’t give her directions to where I was; I couldn’t even process what the streetsigns said. She called the police, who used the GPS in my cell phone to find me (it must have been a slow day at the precinct; they acted like it was the rescue mission of the century, I remember now. Considering their treatment of me, I’m probably too reluctant to involve them in my business now).
I don’t forget my meds anymore. Obviously. But sometimes I dream about them not working, or about being off them. Usually I don’t know when I’m dreaming, but in those dreams I can always tell.
Not being on your meds is like dreaming. That sounds nice, until you remember some of the dreams you’ve had.
The play is Rent, which is probably the best musical ever written. The message and issues it deals with are great, but really, you have to see it to understand why. Everything about it is so non-staged. It’s something about the lack of all the usual polished choreography, the costumes that are streetclothes instead of glittery gowns or leotards. The set with its Christmas tree looking constructed out of various odds and ends. The way the same seven or so ensemble people play homeless people, junkies, parents calling the apartment, and even prospective employers, again over the answering machine.
The thing I really like about Rent, if I am being honest with myself, is the same thing I have grown to like after my experience at Thorne and then at the psych ward. It’s the reason I like being with Kellan and Sean so much, the reason I even accompany them sometimes to the Occupy Albany protests they go to every Sunday afternoon. It’s the reason I find myself seeking out, not consistently but every so often when the pressure just gets too bad, the kind of people who buy from the food co’op where Kellan works or who hang around on the River Valley campus, passing out literature and literally forming drum circles.
I was never conservative- my family are Democrats- but after everything that happened last year, I found myself getting more liberal, even progressive. I can’t really articulate why, except that last year was the year I stopped being normal. Stopped being healthy. Last year was the year that I became a kind of minority, I guess, not in a racial way but in terms of my neurology, the way Kellan talks about her and Sean’s neurology making them a minority. Not that what I have is at all like autism- for me, medication is not optional, whereas Sean and Kellan don’t really need it.
I think it’s like that old expression my father said sometimes: “A conservative is a liberal who just got robbed; a liberal is a conservative who just got arrested.” I was never a conservative and it wasn’t getting arrested that changed me, although that was a horrible experience. But a person never realizes how important things like diversity and tolerance- no, not tolerance, acceptance- are until she finds herself needing them.
During the intermission, I take Sean to the bathroom early on so that we can avoid the line. Kellan’s mother says he can go into the men’s room by himself now, so I wait outside on a bench, for once not dozing, rejuvenated by the rush of fresh, cool air into my lungs (inside the theater, the air is naturally warm and stale from the crowd of people who’ve been exhaling into it).
Abruptly I start to get the feeling that I am being watched, and this jolts me into a silent panic. Not because I believe someone really is, but because I used to have this feeling almost all the time before the meds. And the scary part is that you can never convince yourself that the feeling is wrong, even when logically you know it must be.
I peer around at the corridor outside the theater doors, where people are milling- buying homemade baked goods from the concession table, waiting for the bathrooms, filling paper cups from the water fountain, chatting in clusters- and for a second time my heart skips a beat. In the corner, looking right at me, is a man who looks just like Peter Katz.
(Note: because of the size of this item, I've had to split it into two parts so far; it could end up being more than two. I will try to label them clearly and place them in the same categories with the same keywords, and they will both be accessible through my portfolio.)