I used to narrate my actions in order to grant myself a sense of protagonistic importance.
And then she walked across the blacktop, I’d think as I crossed the primary-colored basketball court of my elementary school. And then she opened the door to the bathroom, and somebody was in there but they were just leaving anyway. And then she checked the stalls for bugs, but there were none so she—and so on, until I was back in class and my journey came to a close.
My friend from high school once told me that he viewed his own life as a sitcom. He’d stare at invisible cameras in a Jim Halpert, are-guys-you-seeing-this sort of way, and on slow uneventful stretches he’d concede that it just wasn’t his episode—that the camera had instead selected another candidate to follow that day. It would usually be his friend who made claymation movies and wore the same browning jacket every day, but sometimes, for whatever reason, it was me.
You’re the token girl, he explained.
Despite growing up a short drive away from Hollywood Boulevard and an encyclopedic knowledge of coming-of-age media, I never saw myself as a candidate for epic adventure. At times I felt as though there were measures in place to make sure I remained unaltered—I’d drive a few miles out of the way on the way home from school and my stomach would shudder like I’d messed with my own programming.
Everybody changes, I told my best friend since kindergarten some years ago, after she’d told me that she didn’t know who she was anymore.
Not everybody, she said, lifting grateful eyes to mine. You never do.
I was undeserving of the hypothetical camera’s gaze; the best characters are dynamic, and, in myself, I saw stagnance. It was my understanding at the time that fate and I were in agreement; stagnance now and growth later. Growth in college, where I would transform cinematically. My brother and I cackled about the prevailing attitude of our high school—quitting the ghost town of Los Angeles County and moving to New Somewhere, East Coast, to chase dreams that could only thrive under the particular conditions of a true winter. I cackled, then proceeded to do exactly that.
More than a few miles from home, I conclude this first sliver of college convinced of the notion that I’m more fiction than fact. Now more than ever, I feel like a character, and not a good one.
In a sense, I’ve been de-personed, stripped of the humanistic virtues of realism and balance that place us above animals and insects and cartoon characters, and, to an extent, I’ve done it to myself. I used to possess a therapeutic reflex that reminded there was story and material in hardship, and in an idiotic miserable-artist sense, it helped me. These past months, I’ve noticed a mutation occur. At some point I began to chase hardship in order to optimize story. That seed of narrative instinct I’ve harbored since childhood has grown into something carnivorous.
Maybe it was this instinct that compelled me to uproot myself of my own volition for a swampland fantasy school in the northeast. For the same reason that rom-com writers invent trivial conflicts that could have been prevented by five minutes of productive conversation, I decided that everything in my life had to change. I sought to optimize the entertainment value of my very existence.
It’s like if, in the middle of Little Women, everybody just picked up a gun and started shooting. It would be implausible, would make strangers out of beloved primary characters. At home, where I’ve always been, I make sense. Here, I’m unsure. I’m Amy March (I still know enough about myself not to claim Jo), the gun is in my hand, and all I want to do is call a ceasefire, pick up my paints, and return to the known.
In part because of the pandemic, I’m sure, I’ve noticed a distinct fragmentation in the way I view myself now. There is no more objective narration—and then she went to class, but she was on her phone the entire time so obviously she didn’t learn anything—only a cacophony of unreliable speakers that see me in diverse, incomplete ways. With each interaction so brief and far between, I picture myself existing in shards to others, if I am known to them at all—the winter-paled slice of face above my mask or a text message or a heart-vomit diary entry in the Nassau Weekly. I exist in shards in my own mind as well, and I grapple with all the jigsaw puzzle scraps of myself, every one a wily corner piece.
Constantly I am campaigning for an expansion of the definition of grief. Let me grieve the passing of a year, the weakening of relationships, even the loss of myself. Some mornings I hardly know the brash and manic head case that inhabited my body the day before. It’s the type of television program I have no patience for now that I’m older, the plotless kind. Just when it seems like I’m feeling better, a rerun of depression drives me straight into the ground. Let me grieve the wholeness I used to feel. As far as I’m concerned, I am that disheveled face on Zoom, that meek hello by the elevator, that pinkandpurple blur shuffling as quickly as possible into her dorm room. There is no more I, only the her that exists to others.
As I run mentally ahead of this semester, I feel the fiction waning. Already I’m more complete than I was in the thick of everything, much wholer than I was even last week. I am cured now, at least, of the cinematic complexes and coming-of-age ambitions I came with. It was an inopportune time to try for any of it, between my natural aversion to change and the very aggressive, very real impact of college and COVID circumstances in one. I have hopes of reassembly upon returning home, hopes of kneading my knees with anticipation as the fall semester draws near and overcoming this shitty pilot of a college experience with a more measured second year.