COLORS MADE MANIFEST
For the friend I couldn’t see
THERE was a fog that morning. Wisps of wild whispers—rolling, light, barely visible—lapped against our neon-pink house. It had become apparent at dinner the night before. Something seemed “off.” Her thoughts had fluttered with a ruffled syntax, like an injured bird rising then crashing then rising again.
Liz and I fled into town with Nick to drink in and gush over the novelty of what we thought was happening. It was easier than giving her what she needed: an ear, a shoulder, a heart. After all, the School of Education and Human Development hadn’t trained us to handle a psychotic break or any other real mental health crisis.
The other three student-teachers from our program shut themselves in their rooms, explaining that they needed to lesson plan even though it was a Friday night and Monday was a holiday. I assumed they would sit in the dark, faces aglow as they messaged their friends back home about this “crazy” experience living and teaching in Central America—about the girl who was losing it.
When Liz, Nick, and I stumbled home, we saw the clouds had thickened, so we also girded ourselves behind locked doors and hoped the storm would break on its own. Maybe, we told ourselves, she was just being aggressively quirky, inappropriately impassioned, anything but what we knew to be true—something latent had become active, it was symptomatic of something serious, and we had a responsibility to do more than gossip.
If we dove deeper into our selves, we’d discover that a part of us relished what was happening—our housemate’s slow collapse alleviated our own insecurities. Her breakdown held us and rocked us, cooing, “It’s okay. No matter how bad this first month of teaching has been, you aren’t like her.”
For the rest of the night, she churned alone through the vacant halls, knocking against our rooms. She had become unfettered, unfiltered, unpredictable. Her voice alternated from raspy and dark to sing-songy and bright.
I woke up sometime in the early morning to the sound of her singing “London Bridge is Falling Down” while she thumped the wall outside our room. Will, my roommate on the bottom bunk, was pissing in a bottle and cursing under his breath.
“Of course this would happen to us. Do they even have mental hospitals?” he said as he piddled into the plastic.
I rolled away in response. My mattress groaned. I couldn’t tell if the bed agreed with Will or if it was disappointed that I didn’t stick up for the girl I had considered a friend before this whole ordeal. I fell asleep to the distant creaking and thudding of the cabinets being yanked open and slammed shut.
WHEN there was a long enough stretch of silence, we peeked our heads out from our rooms and found that the troubled darkness brought us gifts—vestiges of the storms that had racked her over the first month of our stay—wreckage from a glass bubble that had been cracking since we first arrived.
She left me a note in hieroglyphs and two books: a 9th grade literature textbook and Jim Hanson’s It Isn’t Easy Being Green. Kermit the frog stared at me accusingly as if he was asking me what I would give in return.
For Nick, she left a roll of toilet paper, disinfectant, a pack of cards, her underwear—all reminders of the mess he’d made, the games he’d played, the things he took. We thought she knew Nick’s reputation for sleeping around and making quick breaks, but she took their one-week fling to heart. I don’t think any of us knew the ways sex could snake its way up the body to burrow deep inside the brain. But we were foolish to assume all of this had occurred just because of Nick.
Down the hall, she started calling each of us by name while rattling a metal pot with the handle of a spatula. Like doomed inmates shuffling to the firing squad, we trudged to the kitchen. For breakfast, she made us name cards and gave us assigned seats at the table. She had substituted the ‘N’ in Nick’s name with ‘D’.
We had been drafted for a demo lesson about figurative language. After all, she needed a lot of practice if she ever wanted to have her own classroom. That’s what her supervising teacher and the university’s student-teacher coordinator had both written in her recent evaluation.
For our participation, she also made us individual cups of ramen noodles garnished with the deep green leaves of some tropical plant growing outside our house. I thought it was nice, but everyone else said we shouldn’t humor her.
While I twisted the noodles around my fork, she wrapped us in circles, tied us in non-linear tangents, leading, following, stopping at points where the brain angles 90 degrees away from itself. “Don’t you see?” she asked as her hands sculpted imperceivable shapes that spun through her mind. The lesson had derailed from the start.
As we changed our clothes after breakfast, she dressed us in colors: bright language recited from a 20-page manifesto she had written overnight about herself, about us, about the shady lies we use to escape the glaring responsibilities around us. “Don’t you see?” she repeated. Her finger never stopped stabbing at the bubbles she saw us enveloped in.
“Don’t you see? Don’t you see!”
She had changed her clothes, too, exchanging sandals for mismatched neon yellow knee-high socks, and shorts for the blue and green plaid skirt she had taken from her school. The other housemates frantically called the student-teaching coordinator from the university. One housemate broke away from the huddle. We are lucky, she whispered, the coordinator happens to be in town.
While I waited for the coordinator to arrive, the rest of the house swarmed around her and told her to just lie down, maybe get some sleep, as if she was a petulant two-year-old that just needed to nap. As if they had any authority over her condition. As if a psychotic break could be cured by shut-eye.
In response, she bound from the circle enclosing around her. She pounded the walls. She shattered glass. She talked of Shakespeare and Freire and Lady Gaga and Bronte and our professors back home. She bemoaned patriarchy with guttural screams out the open windows. She railed against the short-sightedness of our program’s administrators—how they placed a Jewish girl in a Christian school for her student-teaching. She mumbled about the “dark-skinned boy” in her class, how he just needed to be free. She cursed her supervising teacher, the man who propositioned her from day one, and she started growling at Nick. Everything begged a question not to be answered.
“Don’t you see?”
She crumbled into herself, deflating while we watched and exhaled in hope that it was finally over. But then she ballooned suddenly. She lifted from the ground and landed on the table. She pointed at Nick and fired a barrage of epithets, some borrowed from Shakespeare, others entirely original. She shared the explicit details of their brief relationship, which started and ended two weeks prior. She recited the lines he used to move her faster than she wanted. She nailed his promises to the wall so we could see them. When Nick moved toward her, she sprayed him with bright blue window cleaner.
She ran out the back door when the university coordinator arrived with two doctors from the town. Her supervising teacher also showed up, unexpectedly, and took Nick in his pick-up truck to track her down. Liz and I went out together on a hunch and found her trying to scale the chain-linked gate outside her school. The two of us coaxed her down with promises that we would listen to her, and maybe, on Monday, we would help her find the “dark-skinned boy.”
We walked her back with our arms draped on her shoulders. I could feel her lungs quiver—or maybe it was her heart flapping against its cage. Whatever shook inside her, it finally touched me, and I felt ashamed—ashamed that I had lied about wanting to listen—ashamed that I had ignored her for so long—ashamed that I probably contributed to this, whatever this was.
The rest of the search party awaited in the living room with the two doctors. She screamed when she saw Nick standing next to her supervising teacher.
“Don’t you see?!”
She tried to break out from the building once more, but the doctors gave her two doses of tranquilizers while Nick helped hold her down. After the final syringe plunged its drugs into her veins, she sprang from the couch and charged for the doors, but her supervising teacher and one of the doctor’s wives stood in the frame. The other housemates spread out to cover the back door and the stairwell. The windows, though open, had thick metal bars on the outside.
Seething but wordless, she paced the halls like a caged lioness. It took an hour for the sedatives to wrap themselves around her, tying her limbs with their chemical ropes.
As her power seeped into the air and her eyelids fluttered in a vain attempt to hold it all in, she whispered a request that Liz and I watch her while she slept. So, we guided her upstairs, past the girls’ rooms, to the porch, where we could lay her down, away from Nick and the rest of them.
THERE was a fog that morning. It billowed broken bits of brilliance—loud, convicting, dark. It still swirled inside her as she mumbled and sighed in her sleep.
Watching her, I finally felt the thick humidity and scorching sun that had been around us all along. I’d never noticed their lingering influence until I watched the shape of her sunken body rocking in fatigue as the translucent heat waves rose from the aluminum roof outside the second story porch.
I wanted to cover her with my apologies. I wanted to trace the shadows that had played inside our house against its yellow walls. I wanted to capture the colors and bind them with the strings she had wrapped around us. I wanted to run with her through the hallways and streets and bedrooms and classrooms of her past. I wanted to tell her I could finally see.
But I chose to leave her alone. She swayed peacefully in the lime-green hammock, floating above the grey linoleum tiles, under the oppressively blue skies that would take her home in the morning.