I have never before seen such bright milk. This is the sort of insight that comes to me, in flashes, amid the stupefying haze of midterm exams. At breakfast, when I raise a cup to my lips, the sunbeams catch—and everything takes on a patina of lucid morning light. I inspect the still life in my hands. Bubbles. Tumbler, clear and brittle. Milk, splattered against the rim like waves against a bluff. Milk. Bubbles. Milk. Gradually my gaze slackens, and exhaustion clouds over that moment of sudden clarity.
Sleep proves elusive. Close your eyes. Tell me, then, how to blot out the things I see when the lights go out: code that will not compile, equations that never stick, Biblical verses that do not console. Get a white noise machine. Tell me, then, how to mute the racket inside my head, the polysyndetic lists and directives and what-ifs looping endlessly like strip-mall muzak, or an interminable Ciceronian clause. I allow myself no repose by day and this—this nocturnal restlessness— is my price to pay.
The hair dryer cord is wound around Mara’s wrist again and again like a solenoid. There is another word somewhere less abstruse. But the more I fish for it, the more obstinately my mind fixes on that initial likeness: coil twisted around the length of a cylindrical core, generating a uniform magnetic field in the presence of an electric current. To compute that magnetic field, you have to—have to—oh. ‘Helix’ is the word for which I am looking. ‘Helix’ is the most obvious description for the configuration of the hair dryer cord, yet it was a solenoid that I recalled first. The International Obfuscated C Contest showcases code that is syntactically valid but so pompous, contrived, and complex as to be semantically meaningless. In the end, that which is meant to clarify becomes itself the source of confusion. Sometimes I think my textbooks are not dissimilar.
Mara is still mouthing words for her set. She unravels the cord from her wrist, letting it dangle. I cannot help but resent how earnest she is, eyes wide open and unblinking, nearly rapt: mouth slightly parted, hair curling irrepressibly across her forehead. How much of it is theater? “When I was younger,” she says. “When I was younger.” Her voice lapses into staccato. “My mama would dry my hair.” Pause. “So I’d have time.” Another pause. “To practice.”
My eyes grow hot. Maternal devotion. This I understand. How many times had my own mother lofted the purple Revlon over my hair, uncomplaining, even as I tried to swat her off? You’ll get migraines if you leave it wet, she said, her voice hardly raised above a murmur. How many times had I complained about her getting in the way of my reading? How many texts had I studied? How many beads of water dripped from my hair onto the white hamper where I perched? My mother hasn’t dried my hair in years, but I remember her hands conditioning and raking my hair into submission, her tight-lipped appraisal of the result, her quiet words.
Kevin sounds like he is caricaturing a Buddhist monk. As he hums into an electric toothbrush, the class looks on in polite silence. “Make a lullaby,” Theo instructs. Everyone turns to the teacher. “Something beautiful.” Though bewildered, Kevin obliges. What he comes up with is Hallmark-movie-pretty, pleasing but standard. “May I?” Theo asks. The nine of us part to let him through. Theo bends over the toothbrush, which is vibrating and tracing out circular trajectories on the white tabletop. For a few moments he does nothing. And then he begins to croon. Theo bends over the toothbrush like a mother over her newborn, or a child inspecting a flickering flame, curious and unafraid. The unlikely duet is so seamless that its cessation comes as a shock. “We brush our teeth before sleeping every night. Why not sing the toothbrush to sleep?” he says. There is a simple logic underlying the absurdism, a childish naïveté. And yet a child would not be so self-aware. I allow myself to be transfixed, nevertheless, to be drawn into the fantasy.
Heidi marshals us into two lines. We are to advance toward the person across from us, step by step, without breaking eye contact. This is surprisingly hard to do. I have noticed a tendency in others, and in myself, to gaze off into the distance even while speaking. This sustained eye contact feels invasive, akin to asking a fellow train passenger about his most private memory. I try on a variety of different faces: generic cheer, wry amusement. When my clownish grin begins to quiver from the strain, I default to blank indifference, but this too is unsustainable. In forcing us to look at each other, Heidi forces us to see ourselves.
Next, we are given the option of distancing ourselves, staying in place, or turning our backs. I fight my impulse to back away. Just this once, stasis is victory. Lastly, we reform the two lines, close our eyes, take small steps forward and open our eyes, taking note of our final position. Heidi singles out a boy who is noticeably removed from the cluster. “Why are you so far away?” she demands. The boy responds, very practically, “I took smaller steps.” Heidi pulls no punches. “I asked why, not how.” He says it makes him uncomfortable to be too close to others. Is there any reason? “Not particularly,” the boy responds. “It’s mainly the body heat.” I believe him. Sometimes, a spade is just a spade.
Sam scrawls unintelligible words onto Post-Its and slaps them onto the tiled floor. “Don’t forget to call your mom/Don’t forget to call your mom. Every time you do not call is one less time/to call your mom.” The Post-Its come down with increasing urgency. Sam pushes up his sleeves, pulls down a fraying thread on his cuff. Once again I wonder where performance ends, if it ever does. I can see it now, 2 Kings 22: Josiah, having just heard the Book of the Law, tears his robes in anger or in grief. What are they mourning? The theft of ignorance, of innocence? Past childhood, there are no time-outs for misbehavior. Past childhood, the clock never stops. The Post-Its are piling up. Sam calls his mom. The phone rings, and rings, and rings. It is an ordinary Wednesday, one afternoon cradled in an endless span of days, yet the stakes have never felt higher.
In my freshman year at Princeton, I had a policy of only answering calls from my parents when I was happy. This allowed me to cultivate a vision of charmed college life. Early in the semester, it was easy. I would babble about the charming architecture, my short-lived foray into mixed martial arts, Gayle Rubin’s coining of the term ‘erotic DMZ’ in her seminal essay “Thinking Sex.” As the weeks went by, though, I sent more and more calls to voicemail. Everything is perfect, I texted. It’s gorgeous outside, I texted. It was indeed gorgeous outside, but all I could see was my dorm room wall. I had just botched a midterm and found myself petrified, as in terrified, and petrified, as in unable to move.
“Sam! Everything okay?” Bǎobèi. My treasure. What’s wrong?
Sam’s call turns out to be disappointingly perfunctory, but Heidi loves it. “It’s like your entire piece is building toward a train wreck,” she says, “but the wreck never comes. And the train, it just keeps going.” That was very human, she says, which is a pleonasm if I have ever heard one— after all, we are all of us human— but high praise from a woman like her.
My reading is lackluster, feelingless, exactly as planned. To create our piece, my partner and I had fed the lyrics of several pop songs into a text scrambler—one of those gimmicky ideas that seem clever in the moment. Now, it just seems foolish.
“In just a smokey room/their shadows searching/living in a lonely world.” A roomful of eyes peer out, inscrutable, and one or two mouths twitch; someone giggles. It strikes me that to perform is nothing more, or less, than this: coming to terms with being so transparent, so utterly seen; being pelted by laughter and recognizing them not as bullets but as blanks. “Their shadows searching/in the dice, just to roll/the midnight/streetlight.” My words are becoming fainter; I am disavowing them even as I speak. During middle school, I had concluded that showing a deficiency in emotion was less mortifying than the alternative. Better to be labeled detached than overwrought. And perhaps, by affecting detachment, I could mask just how much I cared.
The performance stretches on for an excruciating five minutes. When it ends, I am met with a smattering of tepid applause. Heidi is apoplectic. “Show that you care,” she yells. “Flimsiness is the death of everything.”
On my tenth birthday, I received a money tree. The money tree was the closest I would ever come to evincing a maternal impulse. I had never taken to dolls; their yarn hair, grotesque grins and waxy peach-pink skin repulsed me. Playing house bored me to tears. And real flesh-and-blood toddlers frightened me even when I myself was not much older. I was put off by their red-faced screams and neediness, by the way they latched to pant legs and followed their mothers into bathrooms, by the ferocity of their love. But oh, how I loved that money tree. I snapped at my parents when they brushed against it, watered it religiously, and took great pride in its well-formed leaves. I loved the plant precisely because it could not love me back; this stemmed not from masochism but from clarity. My tree did nothing for me but still I cared; it proved that I was capable of unselfish love.
My parents and I went to Taiwan every summer to visit family. Before we left, I would drop off the money tree at my aunt’s house. The first time I did so, I returned to find its leaves browning and its soil parched. This nearly broke my heart; over the next few weeks I worked assiduously to rehabilitate it. The plant eventually rallied, but I doubt that I ever did. The following year, when we left for Taiwan, I again entrusted the plant to my aunt’s care—and there it stayed. Caring, I decided, was an exhausting affair.
Emily Yin is a sophomore studying computer science at Princeton University. Her writing has been recognized by the UK Poetry Society and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. Read her work in Indiana Review Online, Five 2 One Magazine, Connotation Press, Track Four Journal, Vagabond City Lit, and Rust + Moth, among others.