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Temporal Reflections

The Only Symptom

by Corrie Purcell

Notes on friendship and malaise during a unique spring and summer in Oberlin.

by Corrie Purcell | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2020

Image by Nell Beck

Notes on friendship and malaise during a unique spring and summer in Oberlin.


As the weeks go on, it becomes clearer that we won’t be going to the beach. This means campus shuts down and empties out in a matter of hours. This means the snow keeps falling. This means the flowers keep blooming and then curling back into themselves when the flakes cover the petals. We close the tabs on our computers where swimsuits have waited a month for us to purchase them. On the warmest days, we drag chairs into the yard and peer over tiny sunglasses at novels. It’s too easy to share a beer at 2:00 PM. It’s too easy to forget the sunscreen. With our eyes closed, the cars that pass by sound like waves.

We all become masters of the way several hours can pass like a shadow. We wave to the couple across the street who smoke and play cards from two to six every afternoon. We set up movies on the projector before lunch. I wake up most mornings feeling newly acquainted with the word ‘malaise.’ I call my mother and gain no comfort; she’s not feeling any sort of malaise. She is weirdly cheerful, resilient, hardworking. She likes her home office, feels as though she may even be more productive there. She’s finding time away from the workplace to be restorative. When I call her on my walks, she barely has time for me. She is taking two classes online and working on top of it. I have never felt more disconnected from her.

I struggle to get myself out of bed; I haven’t done homework in a week. I stopped taking notes the week after classes started back up. All I bring myself to do is find new paths in the Arb. All I can bring myself to do is pick up the guitar. And then, not even that.

***

Our friends who lived in a college-owned house across the street from us left in a hurry, not locking the doors behind them. Yesterday, we went in, just to do something new. The first floor smelled like rot. When we got to the kitchen, we found fruit on the counters with brown spots and fruit flies, expired dairy products in the fridge, takeout containers on the table. I wandered into the first-floor bedroom while everyone else went upstairs. A couple of years ago, I was seeing a girl who lived in this same house and I spent the night in that room. I marveled at the lines the sun cast on the bare mattress. 

One time, she and I went to the bar downtown and then walked back to her house, where I took my contacts out in the dark and fell asleep, earlier than either of us would have liked. Her room’s windows looked out onto the porch and each one was wide open when I awoke. I turned over and the bed was empty, but there were voices drifting in from outside. It was seven or so people, all of her closest friends, sitting there. I suddenly felt like an intruder, like I was taking away from her time with her friends; I had accidentally stumbled into something intimate and private. I dressed, then slipped out the back door. I texted her saying, “Hey, just slipped out,” and she responded, “Come eat ice cream on the porch,” which I pretended not to see until the morning.

Last night at dinner, I forgot about the rising body count. Lee and Sophie spent four days preparing for Passover: marinating, mincing, putting together. I came downstairs on Tuesday and Sophie was in the kitchen, crying while making homemade chrain. Laughing, I took her face in between my hands, wiping away her tears. 

Today, we opened up all the doors and windows, we wore freshly ironed clothes, we all put on shoes. We set the tables with bunches of flowers, moved chairs around, put wine glasses at every spot. When we held hands and prayed, there was nothing else. Sophie went to the post office and paid 10 dollars to print the Haggadah. It sat in a huge and heavy stack on the table. We kept passing it around, taking turns reading. We kept wondering if we would do this again, in a year. We kept thinking about where we were last year. Time stops and then picks up again, I guess. Maya and Grace got drunk off of four glasses of red wine. Everyone else joined them by glass six. Today, I’ve felt so gentle and smooth, I’m going to cut off all my hair and move without the weight of it. 

I wander downstairs sometime before noon. I watch one movie, and then another. I read A Little Life from cover to cover in a day. I stare up at the ceiling and forget why I came to the kitchen. 

I never knew I liked plans so much until I couldn’t make them. I’m obsessed with the spring break trip we didn’t take and I try to connect our daily life to things we could have done there. Grace comes in from a run, wet from sweat and snow, and I tell her she looks like she just stepped out of the ocean. Jae and I make plans for dinner and I suggest fish each time. When we bike past standing water that smells like trash, I always say it smells like the beach. I wonder if I’m doing this right. I wonder if I should be filling my days in other ways. I walk for two hours and then realize it will take two more to get home. Sometimes the clouds get so low that I stop making plans. 

I just got into a fight with Maya about a squirrel she saw killed by a car while on a run. She saw the car coming towards the squirrel, and then she saw the car leaving the squirrel, and when she went over, the squirrel was dead. She poked it with a stick to confirm. She finished the run and came home and wanted to go back to where the squirrel died, and because I hadn’t seen her all day I joined her. I biked back with her. She wanted to take a picture of the squirrel to put online. I thought that was a mockery of death. She told me if I wanted to leave it wouldn’t hurt her feelings. I left, convinced I was right. Now, I’m sitting alone upstairs. I know she’s back. I think she should apologize to me, to the squirrel. I know she’s feeling genuine grief. There’s so much curiosity about death. There’s so much grief we’re all holding. There’re all these headlines and all these burdens. I keep waking up in the middle of the night, dreaming that I’m sitting in front of my parents’ caskets. I forgot to mention that she kept poking the squirrel with a stick, reanimating its little limbs.

Of all the bedrooms I’ve ever lived in, I like this one the best. It’s got south- and west-facing windows, hardwood floors, light green-painted walls. I have my clothes very neatly organized in a closet that doesn’t have a door. I hung just a few pictures around the room, and the light is always perfect. There’s a queen-sized bed and a balcony. It’s very hard to leave, but when I do there’s always pizza in the oven downstairs or someone’s just finished a pie. Or Grace is studying for a test on the couch, and Maya and Jae are working on a puzzle. 

They keep surprising me, the people I thought I knew best. Mila takes walks and is gone for hours, comes back quiet and full of secrets. Maya scrubs the floor with such beautiful vigor. The dirt comes back within a few hours and then she’s at it again. Sophie watches RuPaul and is working on her fifth knit hat. Last week she made a full set of pottery bowls and mugs. Jae rises before us and is the most ready for adventure at the drop of a hat. Last week Jae cut my hair even though they had an essay due in an hour. Lee has to get into a body of water on a warm sunny day, no matter how cold the water may be, no matter how murky it may look. Grace dances in the Arb, in the front yard, by herself, with new people, with an old friend; she gets filled up on dancing and sometimes it’s enough for the day. 

***

And then there’re all the discoveries. For example, that the bike path doesn’t end in the middle of a field. Instead, if you turn left and enter Wakeman, you can bike alongside a highway for three more miles and then suddenly you’re at a square lake with geese. Or how two miles past Black River Metro Park, there’s a swampy bed for the trees and a white carpet of tiny wildflowers. There’s a trail that wanders through and the light is yellow-green. Everything is very quiet.

I keep thinking about split universes, and it seems all too plausible to me; I spend hours researching the whole Berenstain Bears thing, the Mandela effect. We sit on the couch in the seven-person home and suddenly notice that there are punched holes in Jae’s painting on the wall. We all pause, sure that these were new additions. When Jae comes in and we ask them, they laugh, Yeah, the holes have always been there.” But there’s something about the camaraderie of enough people remembering the past differently. There are so many of us who remember “Berenstein.” There are people who remember Nelson Mandela dying in the ’80s. We all remember the painting without the holes. There’re all those mathematical proofs. That’s what I’m saying about split universes. I can’t look at the spelling Berenstain.

Yesterday I cut off my hair to try to shear off all this dread. I’m practicing walking around the world without the weight of it. I keep turning over the word ‘butch’ in my mouth like it’s a piece of candy. I look in the mirror and wonder if it’s right. I trip my tongue over the words ‘boy’ and ‘dyke.’ I flip between thinking my hair is too long or too short. My best friend cut bangs into my hair in mid-March, right after we got the news, and I spent an absurd amount of time trying to decide if bangs made me look too femme. Then Jae cut into my hair more a week ago. I had them leave it long in the front, like I still have bangs, but it’s shorter on the sides and in the back. I look like a 10-year-old boy who needs a haircut. My curls fall into my eyes, so I have to push them back constantly. When I wake up, no hair falls on my forehead; instead, I walk to a mirror and I look like Cosmo Kramer, with 2.5 inches of hair standing straight up. 

I like it all the same; my showers barely happen. My body easily hides in baggy clothes. And I like getting all the way out to the middle of nowhere and not worrying about cars slowing down beside me. Last summer, my ponytail was so long and so high and so curly, it looked like an invitation. Every run, every bike ride, I practiced staring straight ahead. One time, a man in a Hyundai tried to run me off the road, came straight at me with a car until I jumped into a ditch. He yelled out, “Fuck you, bitch,” and kept driving. I put up my middle finger before I realized he had already turned the corner.

***

Still, I’m not convinced by the haircut. I like the way I look, but I’m not sure if I look like me. At least, I look nothing like what my high school self dreamed I would look like at 21. 

In high school, I wore skinny jeans and barely ate. I had this haircut that came just barely past my chin. I was really smart, and really motivated. I tried to fuck one of my closest male friends. At age 21 I wanted to look: sexy, confident, thin, with beautiful curls. I wanted: a fat ass, long hair that looked like an invitation in the sunlight, a perfect score on the LSAT. I wanted to be: desired, makeup free, relaxed, funny. In reality, I am: most of those things, but a lesbian. I use the term lesbian lightly.

I keep turning over the word ‘butch’ in my mouth like it’s a piece of candy. I look in the mirror and wonder if it’s right.

When I came down the stairs this morning, Maya ruffled my hair and I leaned into it. I think that there is a chance that this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. On days when the sun is out like this and I move inside whenever it goes behind a cloud, when we move around an empty campus in a pack, when we strip naked on North Fields as the sun is going down. I mean, to live with my best friends in a world where they are the only things, I mean, to be able to make dinner and rules together every night, I mean, to climb into a bed with sun-dried sheets. I like moving from room to room, I like walking to kill hour after hour. When it’s warm and sunny, it’s like a vacation. 

Still, I keep looking up the definition for malaise. As in “a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” as in “unhappiness,” “uneasiness,” “restlessness,” “melancholy.” I look up what causes malaise. I look up how to cure malaise. I look up what causes malaise again. I can’t decide who decides what makes it malaise and not boredom, unhappiness, homesickness. This is my only symptom.

But here’s what I’m trying to say. When I was 10, we lived in Japan. My mother had this plan for us to see the five main islands. In Hokkaido, we went to the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. It was completely deserted. There were lush mountains on either side. We had to hitchhike to get there. We had to hitchhike home. Once we were there, we barely spoke. It was like being in a trance. The water was clear. The waves were calm. We are from Arkansas; my brothers and I had only seen the ocean a couple of times before this. No one put on sunscreen. 

We all swam out too far. It was only once the shore was several strokes out that we realized: the jellyfish. Jacob screamed when he felt the tentacles wrap around his ankle. Carlin and I weren’t as far out as him, and swam closer to help, not realizing what was happening. My mother was floating serenely on her back. When the stinging began, I was surrounded only by the people I love most in the world, many long strokes from shore. Fear alongside comfort.