ariana sexton-hughes

november 11, 2008

i’m cold. not quite shaking. not quite. but, almost to the point of shaking. 

i feel these pre-goosebumps coming on. this weird tingling. they feel like they might erupt at any moment. 

my skin feels so taut this night. i finally feel paper thin. well, at least my skin feels paper thin. not as smooth as paper, but fragile. like paper. a vellum? 

funny. 

paper isn’t fragile. it’s fairly strong. well, at least laser paper is fairly strong. 

i love laser paper. it’s smooth. it’s strong. superstrong. and brutally bright white. so blank and powerful. so full of potential.

newsprint is thin and fragile.

that’s it. my skin feels like newsprint. 

no. no. not like newsprint.

no. no…..

my skin feels like…. construction paper. cheap construction paper. really cheap construction paper. and i say construction paper because construction paper isn’t as thin and smooth as tracing paper. and i want my skin to be thinner. 

i want it to be like tracing paper. or better yet, latex. British latex. tight. with nothing but bone underneath. bone sharp enough to cut latex. bone sharp enough to cut people. bone. 

but, my skin is not latex. and it’s not tracing paper. it’s just construction paper. the cheapest possible off-brand construction paper that my mom paid way too much for at the bodega across the street, because she was too stoned or drunk or spaced-out or weak to buy the real kind at Staples® or even CVS®. yes. i really feel like i am made of the same crummy paper i had to bring to school and get laughed at by the little bunhead girls that lived in the “real” buildings like the Apthorp or the Beresford or the f*cking Dakota for heckssake. 

i want to tear at it. i want to cut it. i want to cut at my crummy construction paper skin. 

and i can’t even breathe because i’ve got these chest pains. and i know, i know it’s not from asthma or bronchitis or reflux or anxiety or some other bullsh*t malady. it’s because i haven’t eaten solid food in five days. and i can’t bring myself to eat anything. and i don’t want to eat anything. and i have like six papers due. and i can’t get it. out of my head. and i want it to go away. far away. 

and i never want to see him––or his kind––again. never.

but, in the background, my roomie keeps chatting away. she’s sooooo excited about her newest iphone® and all of these stooooopid little things it can do, and the stoooooooopid new katy perry, which she plays over and over and over again on these silly looking new “iSpeakers” that her superbuff new lacrosse player boyfriend just bought her. 

but, all i want to do is rip at my off-brand construction paper skin and find a way to finish the six papers and the 1753 pages of reading that are due by monday.

so, to soothe myself, i think about hiding in the library. i start fantasizing about the library, in fact. well, not “the” library, but “a” library. 

maybe, i should disappear into the A.D. White Reading Room, with its intricate brass-painted wrought iron railings and thick, red carpeting than Cornell features so prominently in all its viewbooks, which makes the place look like what you think an Ivy League school ought to look like, with it’s its multilevel mid-nineteenth century charm (even though the place was built much, much later than that. 1889, i think). 

but, it all feels so fake to me. well, maybe not “fake,” as the requisite rows of math/science/engineering geeks, studying the kind of super advanced calculus or linear algebra or quantum mechanics that requires some supersophisticated Texas Instruments® graphing calculators, beneath the old-school, green-lamped carrels might imply. 

but, the A.D. White “library,” as quasi-ostentatious as it may be, is not, despite A.D. White’s best efforts, nearly as grand as Johns Hopkins’ George Peabody Library, shown so incessantly in Hopkins’ recruitment literature and built eleven years before Cornell’s. now, that is. a. library. 

My mind drifts far away from my fetid dorm… and the stench of girlsweat Coors Light, fake vodka, and two, maybe three, liters of puke to an earlier time and my fantasies of The Peabody, America’s first true “cathedral of books” built by the “father of Anglo-American philanthropy” at the dawn of America’s first Gilded Age. 

Indeed, it was the unmarried Peabody of humble Puritan origins, who inspired the unmarried Mr. Johns Hopkins of the Southern planter class, to donate his fortune to found a university and hospital in Baltimore during the Long Depression that followed the American Civil War. i digress. but one wonders if these two scions of trade were in fact closer than mere friends. 

perhaps it is this semi-plausible queer quotient that lends the Peabody even greater mystique, or at least an inspiration for further inquiry, to my angry, unraveling soul, or more likely, that it’s featured so prominently in Johns Hopkins’ literature and lore that one muses, even if only for a few moments: 

“wow. i totally want to go there. even though i know johns hopkins is unforgivingly brutal and everyone there is either a premed, a lacrosse player, or an engineer, but none of that matters, because i could live in that Peabody Library and no one, no one, will ever find me.” 

so, we go to Baltimore. and we go on the tour. and it’s drizzling. 

the campus is kinda pretty. seriously. it’s sort of like Harvard, but not nearly as old or worn around the edges. super clean. almost pristine. its neo-Georgian architecture shines like a planned community in a rich suburb far from the complexities of urban life.. yes.  unlike Harvard, Hopkins feels almost rural… or at least, exurban. the campus is bordered by woods, a museum, a fairly decent hotel, and major street, which acts as a barrier to the rougher neighborhood to the east, rather than smack dab in the middle of what was once a working class post-industrial community. 

as we cross past a building that could stand in for Harvard’s infamous Baker Library, the guide spouts: 

“Yes. i know…. Hopkins looks a lot like Harvard. they just finished shooting some movie about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook here last week.”

I can deal with the cleanliness of Hopkins over the “shabby gentility of Harvard and the Ivy League.” 

But then, they take us past this 1970s quasi-brutalist monstrosity, and guideboy chirps: 

“I’m not supposed to say this. But, forget the Mattin Center. This is the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, the authentic epicenter of Hopkins’ campus life…”

“WAIT. WHAT? THIS PLACE” my mind races hysterically.

thankfully, someone else stops my thoughts from becoming a really embarrassing question, booming from about nine people to my left: “Wait. WHAT?” this woman booms.

i look over and this really elegant Chinese American girl, who’s definitely vibing L.A., but not Hollywood L.A., more like Hancock Park-Marlborough School-Bel Air-Holmby Hills-L.A. lets it rip: 

“This place is WHAT? This is Hopkins’ library? Where’s the cool library? The ornate robber baron library?” 

i’m thinking, “grrrrrr. she’s too freaking perfect,” then, grinding away at what remains of my teeth…  

“You mean the Peabody Library?” i add.

i don’t hate her. well, not totally. but, she’s so put together in that way you really admire, maybe even aspire to, but rarely have either the time, patience, or the Centurion® Card to achieve. seriously. 

“Right. The pretty library….” she adds.

she’s wearing a beautiful black leather Birkin® bag, sublime retro black alligator BURBERRY® Prorsum® trench coat, 1990s vintage dark denim Helmut Lang® skinny jeans, waterproofed Hermes riding boots, all topped off by a “Hopkins Blue” Ralph Lauren® argyle sweater she probably bought at the Barnes & Noble® campus bookstore, which is across some dangerously wide street in a neighborhood where, supposedly students regularly get jacked. 

she looks at me, tugs her fuzzy black Kangol® hat, then asks the tour guide: 

“Right. The Peabody Library?” 

Clay, the backwards walking, pimply-faced engineering-geek-tour guide, who earlier introduced himself by describing his metaphysical journey from some super-super-small small town south, southeast of Erie, Pennsylvania to Johns Hopkins and his fantabulous job in the biomedical engineering lab of some Nobel Prize-winning professor answers kind snarkily: 

“Oh, the Peabody Library? the one in all the pictures? Oh, that’s a few miles away. It’s near downtown…” 

Clay pauses a moment. then, he looks directly at me to deliver his greasy invite:

“…seriously… nobody ever goes there,” he smirks.

my eyes tell me Clay’s looking lasciviously at my lips, or tits, or eyes or hair… or some other part of me that i feel completely disconnected from, because i’ve been dissociating for the past 90 minutes and my brain is orbiting Phobos… 

but, some tiny part of me is still there… and it instinctively knows that Clay, the small town nerd who probably got teased every moment of his life until he ended up at college, probably became a tour guide for more than the work study wages, is trying to  insinuate to me and every other college-bound girl on our tour, that  the Johns Hopkins kids have a much better place for hook-ups than the gorgeous Gilded Age grandeur of the freaking iconic George Peabody Library. 

thus, with his best ‘pick-up artist’ nonchalance, Clay mumbles past my eyes: “yeah, most of us like to hang in this library… d-level… it’s kind of a thing here…” 

depressingly, Clay is simply too pimply, and way, way, way too much of a gorp to wink or lock eyes with yours like a pop star… or, at the very least some mid-level YouTube® plonker.

No. Clay is not like that. he’s just another socially awkward goof who will probably build some microsurgery robot that saves a million kids for UNICEF in like 2050. 

i give him half a smirk, glance once more at this drab excuse for a library, and desperately want to say under my breath: “you guys actually hook up in the fourth sub-basement of this neo pseudo Georgian monstrosity?”  

decorum, mum, and L.A. fabugirl make me think the better of asking aloud.

then, as if on cue, L.A. fab-u-girl beats me to the punch, whispering quietly, but close enough to hear, “whomp this. Hopkins isn’t even a freaking Ivy. it’s a f*cking safety school.”

surprisingly, mother agrees, “Brown….” 

relieved, i can barely contain what must be my first actual, physical laugh in like five days… 

as we fall back from the larger tour group, the drizzle seriously starts thinking about turning into actual freaking rain.

popping her Barbour® umbrella with her left hand, the L.A girl hands me an engraved calling card, as if it’s like 1928 or something…

“yeah, fuck this. they’re ranked like 16th or something…” she smirkles. 

then, leaning into my left ear, so close that i can feel not only the warmth, but the air pressure of each word she whispers: “here’s my bby pin. let’s chat… i’m Claudia Chiang.”

i’m shocked she even notices me. but i take the card from her slender Hermés-encased right hand, the vibrations of her words still lingering in my ear, as her tall, modelesque mother, clad, literally, head-to-toe in gloriously black Lanvin,® and four very long strands of 16mm antique pearls, lasers a devastating “do-not f*cking-swear-in-public” look to Claudia. 

my “oh, cool. i’ll pin you…” trails off as Mrs. Chiang sets a pace off the Hopkins campus much, much faster than ours. 

Claudia glances back from about eight paces ahead. 

i’m not sure if the glance is for me, or if she wants a last look at my mum for her mum, who has likely already clocked which collection my mum was in back in 1987 or something.

mum breaks the moment with one of her “onward!” exclamations, as i try to let go of darling Ms. Chiang’s eyes… her warm, vodka-tinged breath tickling the left side of my face.

the smell lingers. 

here i am. a year later, reflecting on that laugh… that moment. 

the smell. 

the stench of now, almost in parallel to the campus hotel, a nauseatingly curious, asthma-inducing combination of wet puppies, mildew, stale cigarettes, curry, dust mite feces, and dried “ugh…” and the drizzle… baltimore and its ghosts…  and that hideous excuse for a tour guide. 

it makes one feel just a little nauseous as you realize you are here. in ithaca. and, it’s cold. bitter, f*cking ithaca-cold, “itha-cold.” 

and one thinks: “we have an even more brutalist library at cornell. the only difference is that the hook-ups aren’t in the basement, they’re somewhere in the stacks on like the fourth floor, near some grad student’s study cage. 

f*ck it….

it’s soooooooo bloody cold in here. and i’m not laughing anymore. and the roommate is starting to screech into her iPhone®. it seems like she’s talking to one of her field hockey buddies. 

suddenly, she tells heather, or krystyn, or whatever this girl’s name is, “to hang on. It’s Brandon…” and her voice slithers from a screechy upstate dialect to some super slippery, superhero, semi-sultry patois, like the kind you’d hear on one of those late-night cable tv phonesex informercials. 

the transmogrification is complete. she’s now oozily cooing into the phone, telling “him” how super fabulous her new iSpeakers are… then whispering to “come by in an hour,” so she can demonstrate how “awesomely hot” they are by giving him a superspecial “private dance.” 

then, turning her body away from me, as if to dare me to listen in, or to make believe that i’m not around, she whispers even more softly, “of course i’m alone….” 

she curls onto her bed, pulling the covers around herself, hugging even more tightly to her iPhone®, she pretends i can’t hear. 

or… or, pretends that he thinks i can’t hear her, gently covering her mouth as she speaks, “not that ariana would mind… i’m pretty sure she’s a dyke… or… something.” 

and, of course, i hear all of this. and it makes me nauseous. very, very, very nauseous.

i am, very seriously, about to hurl. i need some benadryl® or ondansetron® or something, because the sense of violation is violently beginning to boil beneath my construction paper skin. 

and, her cooing and slithering and hiding… and deflecting… and, her obeisance, almost slavishly giving of herself to this male, some oh-so-pretty, oh-so-strong, hunk of muscle and flesh and man-meat is soooooo supertriggering that i really can’t breathe. 

my chest tightens further. not, from the starvation, but from the fear and the asthma and fear of the asthma produced by the post-traumatic stress of that moment… that moment not so long ago… that moment when i coooooed and squirmed and allowed him to reach inside and steal so much from me. so much more than pride.

the panic tightens its ugly, relentless grip.

every sense is on fire.

i can’t be around her anymore. i can’t hear one more whisper. i can’t look at her adjust her hair, or stare at her nails, or ponder her lips, or tear apart her side of the room looking for her very bestest Victoria’s Secret® underwire bra.

curled under my covers, i pretend to sleep. 

i hope, i hope, i hope it will all go away. but, the chirping and cooing and oozing continue. 

it’s as if i feel each sound as though he were touching me and not her imagining that he is touching her.

i try covering my ears and burying them under one of my best Ralph Lauren® goose down pillows. 

but. 

regardless of how well i can mute her chirping and cooing, i can’t mute the images enveloping my mind: those ever uglier pictures of “him.” not her “him,” but my forever former “him,” my “him” from am all-too-distant life. so unfortunately crisp. so unforgivingly clear. sadly,so brutally beguiling. 

so beautiful. 

so strong. 

“how could pure evil be wrapped with such complex, exquisite packaging? with each flash of memory… that face, that hair, that jaw, those abs… his superstrong hardbody, honed, oh-so-carefully, by nearly two decades of ab-so-lutely resolutely athletic preparation, and high-protein, low-carb, dietary determination)… my esophagus constricts further. my tears grow louder. my desire to slice at my skin increases to the point of total, unbearable terror.

as my roommate coos, i am reliving events best left forgotten. but, i cannot forget. i cannot forget the unforgivable. i cannot let go. i can only implode. 

i drift to sleep in anger.

five hours later. it’s 4:00 am EST. still in panic, i am confiding to a semi-anonymous facebook® friend, in all too grave detail, the litany of my sorrows: the abuse; the unmentionable words that begin with date and end with r*pe; the unyielding desires to cut myself into itty bitty slices; the anger; the pain; the shame––every horrifying thought rattling my ana-addled brain. 

roommate stumbles in drunk, so drunk, in fact, that she’s oblivious to my shudders, my tears… my inner screams…as i unveil almost i have hidden from our little community… through all this, i feel something warm stir within… 

my semi-anonymous ana friend is so totally there for me that i feel alive for the first time in months. i feel a sense of hope. light. something warm… even though the biting cold is seeping through the glass of my dank and drafty dorm. 

as ana friend talks me down from the anxiety attack, the asthma attack, the overwhelming urges to purge, to cut, to overdose on anything. 

from 3,485 miles away, she holds me. she strokes me. she makes me feel something pure. something clean. something beautiful. peace…. 

suddenly, the moment is broken, as roommate starts to wretch. 

i snap into action. grabbing a cornell red waste basket, i race to the roomie, guiding her pink, bloated face into her overflowing basket of wasted history, english, and physics first drafts. 

i race into the hall with one of her fluffy, cornell red towels. i wet it in the shared bathroom, which smells of field hockey, tommy girl perfume, and… that which is better left unsaid. 

the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming, but i scramble back to the room before she’s completely covered in puke. 

my radiant glow is gone. though i prevent her vomit from enveloping our room in slime and stench, the incessant flashbacks of my druggy, drunken, mother obliterate every strand of warm and fuzzy i felt just moments before chatting with someone five time zones in the future.

finally, as roomie stabilizes into a deep and docile slumber, i am simultaneously proud, relieved, and overwhelmed with animus, antipathy, and just plain hate.

indeed, i hate my roommate. eight weeks of her drunken revelry have induced more moments of post-traumatic stress than i can count. i hate her for reminding me of my mother. i hate her for having fun. i hate her for having sex. i hate her for befriending the male species. most of all, i hate her for reminding me of my own horrible war with bulimia, ana’s evil twin. 

“i simply hate everything about her,” i type, returning to my ana-facebook® friend, recounting in detail all of the above. 

once again, she comforts me. once again, she holds me from across an ocean of cyberspace. 

once again, she soothes. she calms me. she gentles me back to earth. for this, i am eternally grateful in a why that cannot ever be repaid.

in that moment, i am inspired. i am strong. i am willing to be alive. 

but, this is november, that weird time between winter and fall, between colorful and cold. 

and, my ana-facebook® friend wants more. she wants me to drop the veil of cyberspace, the veil of anonymity. she wants to know the me that i don’t even know myself. 

worse, she wants to send me something. she wants an address to go with the words that appear as blocks of poetry and prose in the tiny blue and white window at the bottom of her web browser. 

i have opened my soul to her, but she wants so much more. 

my chest tightens once again. i need my inhaler. but, i’ve misplaced it in the confusion of the barf-o-rama drama just moments before. 

she tells me to breathe. she consoles me. but, i still can’t breathe. 

i don’t fear that she is some middle-aged male internet stalker. 

i don’t fear that she knows so-and-so from Dalton or Trinity or Nightingale-Bamford. nor am i afraid of the possible intersects Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, Brown or even Cornell. 

  1. i don’t fear that she lives around the block or in the next dorm. 
  2. i only fear one thing: the loss of speaking freely, the loss of my only truly safe place in the entire world. 

i fear losing my ability to share openly my fear, my anger, my pain…without fear of retribution.

i can stand it anymore. 

i can’t handle the pressure. 

i can’t breathe. 

she is soooo sweet. but, in this moment, i simply can’t handle another nanosecond of human interaction, let alone the kind of interaction that demands something concrete, something as private as my Blackberry® pin, my actual address, a photo…anything…anything…anything off-limits…anything…real. 

i type “gtg” into the chatbox and sign off as another anxiety attack rears its frantic, frenetic self. 

“breathe,” i repeat to myself. “breathe.”

curling tightly beneath my covers, my mind returns to darkness. 

but, i feel itchy. allergic. it feels like hives are about to erupt on my arms, my back, my thighs. within minutes, my scratching draws blood. i dig my nails deeper, and deeper, and deeper into my off-brand construction paper skin. 

“i won’t need to fast.” 

“i won’t need to purge.” 

“i will cut away my flesh.” 

“i will cry away the water weight.” 

“i will scream as loud as i can with each bite my nails chew into my skin.” 

forty minutes later, my alarm clock buzzes. i look worse than my obliterated roommate. it’s november. i need to get back to work. i have 1753 pages to read and like six papers to write. i can’t afford to shred my mind, my spirit, my flesh. 

i must breathe. and read. and breathe. and write. and breathe. 

on the second buzzer, my room ignites with sunlight. “breathe.”

the salt of my tears burns my tattered flesh. “november,” i breathe.

i must find the strength to be so much more than me.                   

©2009-2022 by ariana sexton-hughes, all rights reserved              

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