I gave myself a fake black eye a few years ago. It wasn’t meant to be a big deal. It happened the way you might, in some reverie, find yourself signing another person’s name over and over in loopy, liquid cursive. I was in boarding school. At that time, I hadn’t hung photographs of myself on my walls, but I had an impression of one: I was wearing a green sweater and carrying bread, and I had this fake black eye. The picture was not one I liked or didn’t like¾it just made sense. I was standing in one of my school’s beige, latex dormitory rooms, holding bread. I was in love in the picture. The bread was a small rye loaf.
My school’s campus was quiet, self-contained, with two lakes side by side, a thin woods at the edges. Steam rose out of vents in the ground. The vents were everywhere. I never understood where the steam came from, the plumbing maybe. No one ever explained it, no one mentioned it at all. The steam just happened. Mostly odorless, slightly metallic if it engulfed you long enough. People tended to avoid the steam. They walked around it, the soft billows, as if the air were solid, an obstacle.
There was often fog. Real fog and artificial fog, you could lose track. There was a muffled quality to the campus, an underwater feeling, very slight. At first, I couldn’t stop feeling it. Then, when I’d been there long enough, two weeks, maybe, I just didn’t feel it anymore, as if I’d lived my whole life at the edge of a fog-real or unreal, it didn’t matter.
The first time I saw Ada’s boyfriend, he was seeing me. His face was complicated with it. His look had nothing to do with me in a way-he could have been irked or embarrassed, or studying his own face in the mirror. We were standing at the scene of a car accident that was not real. Every year, we would later learn, they’d display the hopelessly wrecked car to gently remind us of the evils of drunk driving. The car’s hood was pushed up so far that passengers wouldn’t have a fighting chance. But there seemed to be a pattern to the destruction, what was destroyed, what was left intact. The day was cold, ice blue, with less fog than usual, and we stood on opposite ends of the wreck, snapping pictures for the school paper. Later, in the darkroom, we watched the accident come up slow-like a sky that was shifting, changing every minute.
Ada and her boyfriend were always breaking up, and the whole dorm watched with stoic awe. They fought about other girls, everyone assumed, which may or may not have been true. Their arguments were always extremely confused, with no clear winner or loser, the whole dorm huddling in a state of useless agitation. They fought every night, wildly and helplessly-Ada running up and down the steps, her boyfriend pretending not to be in his room, hiding in his bed underneath the soft blankets his mother sewed for him.
I didn’t have anyone to fight with. I worked at a bakery, a small one a few towns away. The back room was a tangle of racks and mystery machines, grey and dusted with flour and powdered sugar. The baker’s name was Mel. He had chestnut skin, tough hands, and a huge soft smile inside a wiry beard. When I announced my16th birthday, Mel kissed me wetly on my cheek and danced me around the long table singing “Happy Birthday Baby” in his gospel choir tenor. I got embarrassed. I was often embarrassed, but the room blurred grey and white and I was happy when he twirled me. Elaine, his partner, sat unmoving in her round soft body at the end of the table, saying, “Mel, come on.” Mel laughed, and started to sing a little song about almonds.
I brought Elaine coffee. She always needed coffee¾cup after cup, she said it helped her keep things in order. Once she told me she didn’t know her own birthday, talked about her childhood at an orphanage, how she wet her pants every day. Then she straightened up, smiled with her plump hands folded and said sweetly, “He’s such a smacker, honey, the biggest smacker I’ve ever met.” I’d agreed solemnly¾a true smacker indeed. “That’s right,” Elaine had crowed, victorious. “Aren’t you, Mel? Come on, agree with me. Say ‘I’m a smacked ass.'”
They adored each other, and I adored the way they adored each other, the way Mel hooted and Elaine looked at him and at me with her orphanage eyes going soft, then hard, then soft again.
Mostly Mel made bread. I watched the dough rolled out, swallowing itself, crushing into itself again and again. There was always too much, and I took bread back to my dorm, whether I could eat it or not. It sat there, uneaten. Still, I brought it home, I brought it to everyone. Bread girl they called me. The Pillsbury Doughgirl. I loved the completeness of a loaf, a manageable firm mound the color of sand, no sharp edges at all.
The first time I brought Ada’s boyfriend bread, I waited for him near the torn flower bushes until I saw him coming down the path where the steam from the vents erased his body. I could see him walking. I could feel him walking across the dirt and the blackness of wet leaves. He waved to me and we sat on the curb in the warmth of the steam with the cars coming close and the sun and the edges of the shadows appearing and disappearing. My eyes were on the dirt and the shapes of the stones in the road. The stones were small, the size of peas. By all appearances, it was a normal, co-ed scene, but vagueness filled my head, as if the inside of my skull had filled with fog and nothing else. I had the impression that what was happening was actually a reminiscence. But I felt alive, incredibly, terrifyingly. “What’s wrong?’ he asked.
Ada Spencer. She was shorter than I was, and two years older. Her eyes were larger, and she knew how to line them¾blacks, greens, weird metallic colors that ran together, that lit her face with a strange, tense light when she sat on the lounge floor, playing Risk, or Go, or Monopoly with her boyfriend and her friends, telling slightly disordered stories of things she had done, and people she had known. An actress. Actress eyes, dark, arched actress brows. They voted Ada loudest in our building, funniest. She was affectionate, she hugged and clasped hands easily. I didn’t know if she was beautiful or not, nothing stuck, she was always moving. Ada knew how to laugh, drink, smoke. She said she couldn’t dance, but I’d seen her. We’d all seen her, the way she threw herself to the beat, graceless, she had no grace, ever-she didn’t need grace, didn’t have room for it. She was so small; moved like she meant it. Once I saw her running away from her boyfriend, maybe, or one of his friends-running across the grass toward the lake, not wanting to get to the lake, it seemed, just wanting to get into the fog, into the dripping dark. He was trying to stop her, I thought, or he was kidding, maybe, but he wanted to catch her, they all wanted to. Wanted the way she fell to the ground, laughing¾it just baffled them, her ease, the way she could fall like that, get up, run again, spinning, violent. I saw her kick in her boyfriend’s door one night, crying with hair in her face, her eyes a blur of ruined colors and I couldn’t pity her, I didn’t know how to. Rising in the glamour of melodrama, she was more spectacular than sad.
Ada’s brown hair was straight, cut like mine. People commented on this. Once, I was mistaken for her, from behind, walking into the bathroom in the morning to take a shower. Someone called her name, and I stopped, guilt stricken almost, half flattered, half-offended. Once, Ada showed me how to put on eyeliner in the bathroom. I asked her to. I believed, maybe, that she wanted me to ask. I was nervous, trying to make conversation. Ada drew the line herself, dark violet, explained that it widened towards the outside edges, showed me how to smudge the color, said she liked my eyes. Our closeness was unsettling, the way she was nervous too, touching all around the edge of my eye, changing it, me not moving, not breathing. We talked fast, uneasy fast¾ about shared teachers, movies. Nothing. Without make up, Ada’s features were slightly flawed in the fluorescent light. There was room for darkness there, around her eyes.
We never tried to talk again.
In the months I’d worked at the bakery, I’d barely even touched the dough-that was the one thing Mel wouldn’t allow, the one thing that could pump anger into the big veins in his face. But once, closing up late at night, I lifted a perfect white mound. The weight surprised me.
Small things like smoking a cigarette. At first I wouldn’t do it, I was a good girl and I didn’t have to, no one expected it of me. Then I’d do it just to see myself, in my peripheral vision¾a reflection in a window perhaps¾I was all motion, motion, motion at times like that, I could feel my own reckless gestures and then I’d get still. Normally I felt quiet-ghostlike. But that year I happened on an internal switch, found I could reach in and throw it. The mood often left me as quickly as it came on. It felt dangerous. I’m not really like this, I’d think, but I told myself I could change out of it, switch out of it, switch, switch, switch.
I had an English teacher who said to me We are what we think we are. Expression is the problem, even with the raw materials. Grief. A breaking voice. Temper. It is all rather difficult to execute. Flesh. The bruise. There were words in between those words, but I lost them, didn’t have time to write them down. They were disappearing into the air and I was having trouble finding a pen, I was on the edge of my seat. He sounded as if he knew what he was talking about. Then I started to skip my classes.
I went walking alone by the lake a lot. The ground, slick and frozen from the ice storms sloped towards it, and once I laid down in the middle until I heard the creaking, the alien groan of something malfunctioning deep in its frozen belly, and ran back to the edge, which was hard to distinguish because of the unbroken whiteness of it all, because of the echo of bells somewhere, and the way the coldness was moving downwards in my throat. I ran carrying my small book with angels on the cover that my mother had given me, and I felt myself being careless, I knew pages were falling out, but I couldn’t stop. When I did, the pages were everywhere. They skittered this way, then that. I used my foot to catch one that read I don’t have anger I have anguish I’d rather have purpose than peace. I didn’t remember writing it. I’d written down so many half-baked lines like that in classes-fast writing, barely legible. I wrote them down because I liked the words they said; they were exotic to me and it comforted me to have them, to explain them to myself. Even when they sounded wrong.
I didn’t worry about the missed classes at first. But when suddenly I was hit by a panicked wave of habitual academic obligation, I wrote a series of frantic letters to my teachers about car accidents, mysterious problems, insomnia. A black eye, I thought, real or not, was a kind of proof. And it was easy to make¾eyeshadow, blush, a little powder to set the color.
Ada’s boyfriend was my first confidant, and he had a secret. The secret had to do with his car. The car was an inheritance from someone who had hurt him. At first, he wouldn’t say how. This was a conversation we were always at the edge of. Then he did say how. But the car itself was innocent looking¾pale green with a pink wavy stripe on the side. Small and rounded at the edges, soft, a green Geo Metro. A gift-and an apology.
I liked to sit in his car. There was a feeling of not being anywhere, yet. I couldn’t hate the car. I couldn’t hate his uncle because he couldn’t hate his uncle, the one who hurt him, the one who had touched him in those small, disastrous ways, who died a year ago, and apologized, perhaps, with the green car¾small, feminine. Stick shift.
It was the way I could switch, the way I could suddenly feel like something brittle around other people, my movements would harden or halt completely, and for a few seconds I was ice or dry leaves, expressionless and still, almost. It was not that I couldn’t conduct myself, but more that I always seemed to be conducting myself, watching myself, my movements, my eyes, the blood moving in my body. Someone hurt you, people would say, as if they had identified it in me, and I’d say no, but I was lying. Or I thought I was lying but wasn’t sure. When I thought of someone hurting me I thought of sudden violence, a singular event. But there was never a singular fact I could put together, just this recollection of hurt, frayed as thread, too ordinary for words. Sometimes this moved behind my eyes. I couldn’t help it. It was there. He saw it there and he wanted to hear it. I owed him. But I couldn’t tell him any one thing without suspecting myself of telling lies. And in this way, we never understood each other.
My eye was black, and he was looking at it. He wanted to touch it. I could feel this before it happened, and could feel that it wasn’t real. Having sported my eye to class, I meant to wash it off before I came to his room, but I forgot. I didn’t know if I’d forgotten, really, but I knew it was a mistake. There was nothing I could say. “There are things that I have done,” I said, very profoundly, “that I regret.” Ada’s boyfriend nodded, accepting this. He lay on his bed under his blankets and closed his eyes. I put two loaves of bread on his stomach, which I thought was amusing. I touched his blankets. He said his mother sewed them, and when I touched them, their softness seemed unreal. I asked him about his mother, who I’d heard spoke a mix of broken English and Polish, and was insane, real insane, in the bones, sent him dry cat food and pennies in the mail. He said that yesterday she sent a stick of gum. I wanted to know if he chewed it, and he said no, he put it in a small basket on his desk.
He looked at me with his lake grey eyes, his face smeared with a kind of fear. I thought it had to do with my eye. He said instead that he was afraid of an earthquake that would happen when he was in the middle of a big field, and that he’d only be hurt a little, but all the people and houses would be gone. I thought about him getting bounced all over and hurt, but without the cool neatness of being dead. I didn’t answer. He asked me to lie on the bed with him and I did, on the top of the covers, very still. He held the bread like a doll and asked me questions about my eye. I told him I was hit by a car door and saying the words made my head spin, sent an unnatural electric rush of heat to my face. He was thinking someone hurt you; the knowledge made me dizzy, and I went on lying. Lying, a whirring sensation. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know why I was lying, I couldn’t even look at him, it was impossible for me to look at him. There was something serious and sad and shameful about what was happening, and it was late, and we fell, or started to fall asleep, not touching, because he was Ada’s boyfriend, because I was keeping my black eye turned at an angle directly opposite to where he was lying, already drifting into the night. Then there was a sound, a horn, or something like one. I wasn’t sure when it came into my sleep, the interruption so strange, so rich but wrong, I couldn’t tell if it was music, or the low vibration of a machine malfunctioning deep in the basement of the dorm.
“Do you hear it?” I said.
He said he didn’t hear it and got up. He wanted to know if my eye hurt. I said no, but in the lid a nerve was jumping, like the needle skipping in my head. I stared at the night out the window and the cracks in the wall, trying to guess which crack a person could disappear through. I was waiting for the sound again. We sat on his bed, my eye throbbing in the dark. When nothing happened, I almost admired him.
The next morning, there was a black smudge on the pillow, a smudge from my eye. He looked over at me, and then turned away without a word, turned and faced the room. There was a slight noise in my head, like the click before you faint. I knew he’d seen it. I felt him seeing it.
Maybe it was the smudge on the pillow, or maybe it was something else entirely, but as the minutes wore on, I could see new knowledge spread itself over his features in waves, changing them only slightly. But the effect was devastating. He sat up on his bed, not talking, putting film in his camera. I tried to help-I reached for the camera, told him to put it this way, then that. He said, “no.” Then his eyes said No it is not worth saying. You think you can make something out of words you think you can make something that stays where you put it that does what you want it to. I looked at him and then closed my eyes, but they felt like secret girl eyes, like a childhood diary that came with a key to lock up all the silly nothing inside. He didn’t say another thing, but inside of me a delicately wired system ground to a sudden halt and the outside world became very still. Then it was as if everything was happening slow at the wrong end of a very long hallway and I ran away, towards the lake, fast at first, then slowing down when I came outside, unprepared for the jarring wideness of the outdoors, the brightness, the rare absence of fog.
After that, Ada’s boyfriend no longer developed pictures. It was nothing personal, he said, he simply didn’t want to anymore. I kept doing it, though, caught up in that slow process. But my insides were disturbed, and I floated, lost. All that winter, darkroom work happened like sleep. I forgot colors, forgot my body. Once I felt it slip whole into the pan like a person. I watched it go down like a person I loved, then hated, then forgot about. I was disappointed, vaguely, walking across the campus with the audible seep and trickle of melting all around me, or back into my room at night, seeing my pictures hanging there, noticing for the first time that some had acquired a slight, precarious tilt. Feeling something, I couldn’t say what. It was nothing, really¾the way I held my life so far from my skin, how I would not be forced up, I would not be forced down, the whole thing crouching like an animal I couldn’t touch.