“It’s getting harder to talk. My throat is always sore, my lips raw. When I wake up in the morning, my jaws are clenched so tight I have a headache. Sometimes my mouth relaxes around Heather, if we’re alone. Every time I try to talk to my parents or a teacher, I sputter or freeze. What is wrong with me? It’s like I have some kind of spastic laryngitis.
I know my head isn’t screwed on straight. I want to leave, transfer, warp myself to another galaxy. I want to confess something, hand over the guilt and mistake and anger to someone else. There is a beast in my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the inside of my ribs. Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me, straining me. My closet is a good thing, a quiet place that helps me hold these thoughts inside my head where no one can hear them.”
I picked up this book off the shelf because of its name. Because of the font that the title was in, Old Typewriter. This is the reason I pick up most books ~ I’m not ashamed to say that I have a bit of a font obsession, and I love the look of Old Typewriter. It’s shaky and simple and textured, like the letters were stamped on ~ just like a typewriter would do it.
The cover of this book matches the font. It’s a whitewashed face shot of a girl, the eyes the only thing untouched by the whiteness. Half of the face is shadowed and that eye has a sweep of dark brick red over the iris. In the foreground is an abstract-looking brick red and pale green image of a young tree, hardly more than a sprout, and in the bottom left-hand corner is a big, round, silver sticker that reads, “Michael L. Printz Award For Excellence in Young Adult Literature” and “American Liberty Association,” with a big “P” in the middle.
It shouldn’t be any surprise why I picked up this book. Or perhaps it is to you people. I may not have mentioned my social issues to you yet. I read the summary on the inside flap and the last paragraph read, “In this powerful novel, an utterly believable, bitterly ironic heroine speaks for many a disenfranchised teenager while learning that, although it’s hard to speak up for yourself, keeping your mouth shut is worse.”
Finally, I thought. Finally I’ve found a book that will tell me how to speak!
I took it home (along with eleven other books, but we needn’t talk too much on that) and started reading. It was interesting. The writing style was interesting and captured my usually wandering attention span, then reeled it in. I felt like a fish, being pulled in by a tiny, thin, but strong line, hooked and unable to escape until set free. I paid very close attention to the main character, Melinda, and how she behaved and interacted, digging into her life like an archaeologist, hoping to uncover the steps she takes in learning how to speak.
It was a long time before I found something that I really understood, something that connected me to Melinda instantly. This was the paragraphs I typed above, and when I read it, I was excited: finally she would turn around and start confronting these issues that I share with her. While I don’t wake up with a headache and my throat is not raw, I still freeze when approached, especially, I’ve learned, with people my own age, and I can’t walk up to someone and start a conversation for the life of me. Recently there has been a sort of lump in the right side of my throat that hurts sometimes, occasionally makes it a little tougher to breathe, and it probably has nothing at all to do with speaking, but I should probably get it looked at. Nearly every night I lay awake for hours, thinking, imagining, dreaming about confessing the problems I have, to the very people I freeze up most to. I speak to so many of them so much in those fluttering fantasies that flicker like a dying light in the utter stillness of the night. But no matter how much I imagine myself bold and free, it changes nothing in real life. So I retreat into myself, lie alone in the dark, my own thoughts and imaginations festering inside my head like a mental illness, slowly eating away at my sanity.
“I think it’s some kind of psychiatric disorder when you have more than one personality in your head.”
This part of the book was quite some time after the first part I mentioned, but it roped me back in and bound my straying mind to Melinda’s. My own twin personalities are not alike in any way, both of them constantly at war with each other over control of my mind. So far the emperor is the one that is quiet, unresponsive, stricken with habit and laced with fear that I don’t want to admit. This one has had control for a very long time, in fact for my entire life, up to my eighteenth birthday, which came in May last year. The night before my eighteenth birthday was the best night of 2013, and the best I’ve had in a very long time. That night I was at youth group, and I hung out with four people, two of which I am fully comfortable with, one of which I’m somewhat comfortable with, and the other which I freeze up to. We were outside. It was dark. We were throwing the football around. The fact that we could hardly see it made it all the better.
I think it was the dark that did it for me. The fact that I couldn’t see them very well. It was exactly like when I dream of things in my head. I can never fully see the people when I imagine situations, and so in the dark it is easy for me to simply live my imagination out loud. That night I was completely myself, completely free, and it planted in me a seed of light, embedding the memory of that feeling in my mind and heart forever.
Now I feel what I don’t have ever stronger, and that second personality has risen, growing from the seed that was planted that night. It’s full of determination, dreams, longing, and hope that one day I will feel that again, and it will never die. One day that plant will bloom.
When I finished the book “Speak,” I was disappointed. I wanted to throw the book across the room. I felt cheated and lost. It had told me nothing about what I should do to get rid of the plague of my silence. All Melinda had done was get extremely pressed, and in that moment she had been able to speak.
What good does that do me? I thought in frustration, fuming, but at what or whom I am unsure. I have never come through in situations like that. Nothing has helped.
Nothing but the dark. Darkness may not be what I need, but it was there the one night I felt free, the only new presence, the only different thing about that encounter a year ago that has not repeated itself in any encounter since. It must be the key.
Though I didn’t learn what I read the book to learn, “Speak” did teach me about words, as you may have noticed. It showed me how to spin them, give them life, bend them to my will, and weave them together to paint pictures pleasant to the mind. That, at least, is a good skill.
“I saw a movie once where a woman was burned over eighty percent of her body and they had to wash all the dead skin off. They wrapped her in bandages, kept her drugged, and waited for skin grafts. They actually sewed her into a new skin.
I push my ragged mouth against the mirror. A thousand bleeding, crusted lips push back. What does it feel like to walk in a new skin? Was she completely sensitive like a baby, or numb, without any nerve endings, just walking in a skin bag? I exhale and my mouth disappears in a fog. I feel like my skin has been burned off. I stumble from thornbush to thornbush ~ my mother and father who hate each other, Rachel who hates me, a school that gags on me like a hairball. And Heather.
I just need to hang on long enough for my new skin to graft. Mr. Freeman thinks I need to find my feelings. How can I not find them? They are chewing me alive like an infestation of thoughts, shame, mistakes. I squeeze my eyes shut. Jeans that fit, that’s a good start. I have to stay away from the closet, go to all my classes. I will make myself normal. Forget the rest of it.”