Picture: She’s seven. Seven, and her eyes are in high-gear dashing left right left right, interspersed with some ups and arounds, tracing the tip of all of Patrick’s arms, wishing she had that many arms—wishing she looked like a star. They’re breaking down the word FRIENDS today, beginning with the letter F. You break recollection and think of the word F-U-C-K. You return again. Aware it’s been said—though only with authority, a certain kind—maybe only that which is attainable by someone much taller, with much larger hands. The letter F, even on its own, has the power to command an entire subsequent sentence.
The sixth letter of the English alphabet. Till now, power of this kind felt vested only in what came First.
Fifteen—a year before the world ends (for the first time)—fifteen, she’s just read Jane Eyre; fifteen and one end of the thread is snipped, the other to be gathered later; knowing all that she’s sure she wants, gleaning over all that she wants to want. The end lets loose a string of forthcoming twists, she braces for the turns. She evaluates and awards herself points for character, for its effect, for its attraction; all that is to know, all judgment still rests solely with her. This power comes for the first time and if it keeps, it won’t be the last, believing this power will remain and that all forthcoming evaluations will be judged by herself too. The First Time. The Only Time, that on the Teeter-Totter, uncertainty from one’s inexperience, faces off with unfiltered excitement from one’s naivety. This first snip of the string is a sturdy bite; it comes with the realization that one might claim all faces—no side of the die is less than the other. All roles, though once leading, grow and sit as supports. Jane as the wife of Rochester. As Bertha in the attic. As young Jane, in love for the first time with her best friend Helen. In love for the last time with Currer and Charlotte and Jane. Sauntering down the stairs, daydreams disseminate and unfettered confidence meet it to make a whole once more. She asks her parents for double doors to be installed, so that both your right arm and your left might withhold equal responsibility—so that the doors that open might be wider, might let in more air, might allow you to see greater, further. You cite the reason as a possible decline in slammed doors, leading to a possible decline in angry faces, quarrels, the threshold for understanding may widen.
You try out lying for the first time; you shed guilt for the first time.
Twenty-one—horizontal now, no longer vertical—twenty-one and she is dealt a similar lesson, this time nostalgia lives close by, having taken the place of fascination. She attempts to think of letters again, the way they used to build words and command a sentence all on their own. This time with H. H for Harrowing, O for Over, and W for Wake. Lying dormant, the weight of their meaning, and all the more that are possible—their meanings—compounds her. Each letter warrants countless associations; weight she happily carried with both arms, balanced on both legs, now seems all too heavy with little to zero of their prior enchantment. Scowling at each word—Harrowing, Over, Wake—and the sentences that might follow, remember what has been taken away. She defaults to cowardice amid all that is now present, possible. Blinking twice in hopes that the second blink brings the disappearance of the associations she cannot yet face, might never be willing to. Past counting sheep, she starts with the most pubescent form of words: dirty, stained, unkempt, indecent.
Second blink, you wait for the necessity of a third. So on, and so on, until eyes closed.
4. Lie detector
Dealt her second lie. This time, it’s one-against-one. This time, the results rest far from her favor and she comes away with neither riches nor answers. She leaves puzzled, and, ironically, doors slam shut this time. Though now she’s hiding with the runner, the staircase, and all else exterior to the doors. No doors might have been smarter, thinking back to requests from an earlier time. With the opening, either single or double, comes a shutting. Forgiving herself at age fifteen; double doors meant that space for more light might open, realizing now that doors meant the same could be shut off.
Now that you’re on the outside, you meet eternal light, boundless space, but you stand paralyzed.
5. Film Projector
Each image passes fast now, torn by static. She extends her arms as her feet fall behind, hoping to stay. That Teeter-Totter, having shown what it needs, is futile now. It goes without saying that the max load a Teeter-Totter can handle comes in twos; the only consistent factors in her life are still those two arms and those two legs. Well-oiled still, though fumbling occasionally when used simultaneously. Loads seem to multiply at light speed now that all else has sped. She takes her time balancing, believing all things with patience prove fruitful and thus remain ceaseless. With that same right arm, a load is stacked and that other (but same) left arm carries the weight of the next, balanced on both legs. Each shift in position commences the same process: upper-set to place and carry, lower-set to stand and balance. She takes earlier words, unkempt for example, and begins to stack U, followed by N, followed by K, E, M, P, T. Stopping at each letter, the weight of each doubling over, tripling even. At times, taking days to balance out just the letter U: Unable to be there on one side. And Understanding my place there on the other. A lot of energy is needed for one to attain balance. Until that alignment clicks, you accept that rest is given to those who sleep.
Left Pinky finger on shift—Right Middle on i. Left Pinky on a; right Index on m. Left Index on t; left Pinky on a; right Ring on l; right Ring on l; left Middle on e; left Index on r. Left Index t; right Index on h; left Pinky on a; right Index on n. Right Middle on I. Left Ring on w; left Pinky on a; left Ring on s. Right Index on y; left Middle on e; left Ring on s; right Index on t; left Middle on e; right Index on r; left Middle on d; left Pinky on a; right Index on y.
Subject line of email from this week’s newsletter: “What is your literary flaw?” It’s comforting; a flaw seemed to be over-arching, all-encompassing until now. Flawed so nice try, flawed so come back, flawed so maybe not this time. Elated by the possibility of multiples now, she figures she can forget trying to balance. Too many to fit, wanting more, more so that all will fall.
You can’t wait to have your Flaw be divided by x and for x to be Venn-diagrammed into what you can live with, what you cannot, and what you might be able to.
Third lie. She’s trashed this quest for balance, sneering at wanting to have it happen all on the stage of a Teeter-Totter, on any stage. With those (still) same two arms and those respective two legs, she stacks everything in a frenzy and they stand tall and apart and she sits back and far, wondering how long this might stand.
You hope what stands tall now might rid itself in time, with agronomy. Left foot kicks the dirt. Before it falls, you stomp ahead. Clacking louder than the last step. Final lie, you hope. Fourth blink, eyes shut, you wait.
WEN ZHUANG RISD ‘19 wishes someone would narrate her life in first person.