Scented Brains

I’m sitting at the kitchen counter with my mom when I feel my anxiety rising again. It’s after dinner. She made chicken curry because my sisters and I love the smell and she thinks that nurturing all my senses will help me feel calmer. She is also a big yogi, which explains a lot. The hum of the dishwasher grows louder and I say, “I wish I could take my brain out of my head, stick it in on the heavy cycle, clean all the grime out, then put it back in.”

My mom laughs.

Most weeknights, it’s just us girls because my dad got a job in Virginia. We all put on a good show and say things like, “First world problems” and “At least he is not in the military,” but when he leaves and the door clicks shut, I know that the quiet will eat at me. My dad’s a regular guy who loves sports and shouts at the TV and ever since my big diagnosis, I really like it when he hollers and tells me that Steph Curry’s shot’s off this season.

Anything hardwired is scarier. I picture my soft grey brain wrapped in barbwire, imprisoned in my disease.

I’m not sure how much you know about Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Steph Curry so let me fill you in. The former is a mental illness. Like Patrice, my therapist, says, “It’s hardwired, not environmental,” which makes me think of my AP Chem class, how much I hate it, and how I miss environmental bio from last year with Mrs. T because all we did were microscope labs, and studying beautiful cells of plants and flowers dissolving into planets lulled me somehow. Anything hardwired is scarier. I picture my soft grey brain wrapped in barbwire, imprisoned in my disease. But anyway, what all this really means is that my brain is missing serotonin. You’d think it’s an easy fix but it’s not. Patrice told me that the Zoloft I’m taking should titrate and slowly add the serotonin between my nerve transmitters but hell if it’s working. She says that it takes about three months to find the right dosage so I’ve been popping pills like I’m part of the PA opioid drug epidemic.

My mom stalks me in her delicate and annoying way. She is constantly suggesting stuff. “How about acupuncture, sweetie?” “Want a massage?”

What she doesn’t say is that she feels guilty, like she did something wrong; that her parenting is what created this problem in my head. This, of course, makes me feel guilty, so a lot of the time, I’m the one patting her back, telling her it’s not her fault, soothing her environmental anxiety.

But back to the important things, like Steph Curry. He is my beating heart and also the point guard for the Golden State Warriors. You should see his handle if you’re not a basketball fan. It’s nasty. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m captain this year of my HS team and on my way to playing D3 at a small liberal art school, so I know what I’m talking about when I say he’s got a mean handle. Plus, Steph and I look a lot a like. We’re both light-skinned and execute the sharpest Euro step on our way to the basket.

Sometimes when I lie in bed awake with the night sweats, I wonder what it would be like to be light-skinned because you have two black parents like Steph. Mine are black and white, which causes a lot of upheaval for me and my sisters. Probably a little more for me because I have an anxious and depressed brain. Maybe also because of Trump. Let’s be serious. His entry into the White House has increased hate crimes by a bazillion, which means that the chances of bigots spraying my house with a huge swastika though we have no history of being Jewish, or following me home and calling me an Obama-lover is pretty realistic. The thing is when you’re mixed, you can’t say, “F— all the white people,” or, “I’ll stay away from the black people,” because you always empathize with the other side. But enough about my skin and back to my sick brain: I can’t stop thinking thorny thoughts all day. A normal person, like my sister Claire, reads an essay about genocide, gets sad, then her brain moves on. Not mine. Mine sees the sad or weird thing then can’t let it go.

I’ll give you an example: In the locker rooms the night before last, one of my teammates told us that some guy at a party was dared to swallow a goldfish from his friend’s aquarium. She was lacing her shoes, then gestured how the idiot proceeded to plunge his hand into the tank and catch the biggest one, “As big as an egg,” she said. “He grabbed it and threw it into his mouth. With one swallow, he’d eaten the pretty fish.”

Everyone around me laughed and laughed. But all I could do was re-watch the scene play-by-play and now that I just told you about it, it’s happening again. The hand, the water, the fish with its bright orange scales, the tongue flicking the fish in the throat, the bacteria on that fish, the way it might gnaw at the boy’s insides. The poor fish disintegrating inside the boy’s abdomen. I can’t stop seeing it.

My mom’s voice startles me back to the kitchen. “I know that it’s hard without Dad, but every time we bring up moving, it’s even worse—so I’m kind of at a loss, G.”

“No, no,” I say. “It’s not that.” But it is, except way worse inside me. I’m swimming in the murky tank like the goldfish, trying to come up for air, my fingers slipping against the algae stuck to the glass. If my family moves to VA they’ll be eight hours away from my college. From here, it’s only two. This will sound like an effin toddler thing to say but my mom can’t be eight hours away.

“Want some Half Baked?” she asks.

I look up and realize that I’ve been sitting at the counter still as a boulder, not even playing Sudoku from the calming app Patrice gave me.

“No thanks,” I say.

It’s not even about the tank. Not really. It’s more about the feeling of disintegration, how the boy’s stomach acid must have peeled off the fish’s bright orange scales and curled black its lacelike tail. Have you ever thought about being devoured alive? What that’s like. I lift my phone and the tremors in my fingers multiply. I shake so hard that the phone taps the granite.

“Do you want try and talk about it?” my mom offers, in her super understanding voice. “Remember what Patrice says, ‘Vent. Bring out your human side.’”

Right.

Let’s chat about boys swallowing goldfish and how it makes me feel like I’m drowning.

It’s 9:00 p.m. I know that with my mom I have another hour at most. Then she’ll collapse on the couch while watching The Big Bang Theory. A plane could come crashing in the foyer and she wouldn’t get up. She likes to say that the three of us were bad sleepers as babies and that she is still catching up on her sleep. I know it’s kind of cruel, but sometimes I wish I could give her my insomnia for a few months, even a few years, and take her sleep. Just to show her what it’s like to be up at midnight without newborns to rock, waiting for morning to rise, wondering what the hell you are doing here on earth or why you should even stay.

“I’m good,” I answer.

Trapped still in the tank, I can’t breathe. The water’s gone from murky to muddy, dark green with a sulfur-like stench. The urge to cut comes on so sharp that I have to hold onto the counter.

“I’ll shower,” I say, just to seem normal.

But it’s as if the black grime of my brain has descended and now seeps through all the pores of my body, squeezing the light out. Patrice calls it The Veil when that happens. I actually like the term, because I love Say Yes to The Dress and long lace veils are my faves. Yet, as I climb the stairs to my room and hear my little sister, Sophie, give a rendition of Chance The Rapper, I’m slushing around in the tank and only see and feel Darkness. I do it with paper clips. Patrice says that the physical pain of the cut releases the mental one. She graduated from University of Chicago with a PhD in brain function and wears the hippest tortoiseshell glasses in town so she knows what she’s talking about. Before, as in a few months ago, I used to cut at school when test-anxiety hit. Or my junior year, once, when I had to choose sides between the BSU (Black Student Union) girls and the smart international ones. You guessed right: I chose neither. I’m what they call a floater. Anyway. Different year, same result: I’d go to the bathroom, lean against the stall, and with the tip of the clip, scrape the inside of my forearm until blood bloomed like a small path to light. Now, I do it at night as the shower is running.

Sometimes my mom knocks and pokes her head in, as if she can sniff it out, but I’ve gotten really good at seeming all right. Sometimes just her sight in the doorframe helps a little. A few days ago, she came in while I still had my robe on, the paper clip deep in my pocket. She hugged me tight, the steam from the shower billowing and by the time we were done, The Veil had lifted.

Patrice tells me and my mom that I might have to go to STAR (Services for Teenagers at Risk) if I cut again. She says she’s on the fence about it. The idea of group therapy is worse than swallowing a goldfish the size of an egg, being devoured alive, or drowning in a tank.

Tonight, my mom doesn’t knock and by the time steam is engulfing the bathroom, I’ve already cut. I do it mostly on my left arm because I’m right-handed. When people ask me about the bandages or the tape during games, I tell them that basketball is a contact sport. They believe me because if they didn’t, they’d have to ask more uncomfortable questions, and high-schoolers tend to skate 99% of the time on the surface of things anyway.

In the shower, I let the hot water rinse out the blood, the tremors in my fingers quieting. I have a nice stack of scars and I wonder if they’ll still be there when I’m old, if I make it to old, and what I’ll tell my children or grandchildren when they ask me what they are. Maybe I’ll tell them that I was a knife juggler. They’ll like that. The thing is children might not happen for me because I’ve never kissed a boy. I’m seventeen. The closest I’ve ever come was at my mom’s friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah back when I was a freshman, when I was anxious but not anxious. His name was Beau. He and I sat at the same table. That night I’d worn a black pantsuit with a low back and my hair was ironed straight. Even the bartender offered me wine because I must have looked older. Beau and I talked all night and when we went outside to get some air and he leaned in to kiss me, I took a step back.

“What?” he said. “We’re having such a good time.”

I nodded. I liked his hair, how curls framed his face, and how freckled his nose was. I liked his choice of music. He was an Alicia Keys fan, but at that moment none of him mattered. Panic set in: this concrete wall began to grow around me, making its way from the soles of my feet up past my shoulders, above my head. I stood in a made-up coffin.

“Talk to me, Gigi,” he said.

He sat on the ground and tapped his hand for me to join him but I shook my head, then spun around and made my way back to the party.

“Having fun?” my mom said, eyebrow arched.

Again, I nodded then sat down next to her. The invisible coffin began to crack. Claire and Sophie were playing games with other middle schoolers in their party dresses and white ankle socks. The disco ball hanging from the ceiling shone fractured light everywhere. My dad dragged me to the photo booth and we took silly pics. Beau never looked at me again.

I wish at once down to my bones that I could wake up a little more like her tomorrow, unafraid to throw an elbow and wanting to Snapchat someone.

After my shower, I show up in my robe in the living room. I’m about to bare the cut and I anticipate her words. In those moments, my mom likes to keep things muted. Sweetie, will you put some Neosporin on it? It’s concerning. As if the softness in her voice and some cream can heal more than the jagged edges of my skin. But she is fast asleep, our dog curled up on her lap. Sheldon, on The Big Bang, says something about nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The audience laughs. I sit next to her for a while. When she doesn’t move, I make my way back to my purple room. On a less anxious evening, I’d play my vinyls but tonight I lie down on my bed instead and listen to Claire Snapchatting Bethany about Roman—Yo, can you believe it, a brother with that name? My sister’s voice is bell clear. She plays forward as a freshman on our team and she’d elbow anyone. A waxing moon peers into my window. I wish at once down to my bones that I could wake up a little more like her tomorrow, unafraid to throw an elbow and wanting to Snapchat someone.

*     *     *

In the morning, I come downstairs and my mom is on her mat in a warrior II. The anxiety has subsided. She wears these baggy black pants and a sports bra. For a middle-aged gal, she looks pretty good. Near washboard and defined triceps. She doesn’t look at me because she is breathing her Ujjayi breaths with her eyes closed.

“How was last night?” she says, sensing my presence.

Her back is as straight as an arrow and her mat is the same purple as my room.

“Did you sleep better?”

“Pretty good,” I lie.

The hope in her voice is devastating. Showing her the cut in broad daylight feels cruel, even violent somehow. My mom spends most of her life trying to breathe easier. The last thing she needs today is this new gash.

“Want me to make you eggs or want a quick massage before you go?”

I chuckle. “Nah. Thanks though.”

I go into the kitchen, eat a bite of Greek yogurt, then put on my shoes. Outside the sun shines and my dog is barking at birds behind our fenced backyard.

I have a pretty good day, considering. I think depressed thoughts only a handful of times. Once, it’s at my locker as I’m taking out my chem homework. One of the Julias is chatting up Ryder, the basketball captain of the boys’ team. This Julia sports the figure of a girl who smokes and drinks only, and who’s got Giselle Bundchen’s arrogance and bad attitude. 3,500 people follow her on Instagram. She just got back from Turks and Caicos where she hooked up with a famous YouTuber. She also has the highest forehead in the world, which freaks me out. I guess I must be looking at them for a while because she turns around and says,

“What the f—, Gigi? Never seen two people talk before?”

She rolls her eyes, throws her hands in her long hair and whispers something to Ryder, who kind of smirks but not really.

“Leave her alone,” he says. “Gigi’s cool.” Yet his voice is weak as he says it.

“As if,” Julia answers.

Ryder’s words should make me feel better but they don’t. I syphon back to elementary school in CT when I used to hide in Mrs. Devaneau’s art closet during recess. It was dark and smelled like Play-Doh but still I could rest my head against the wall and not hear someone say something like “Gigi’s an Oreo,” or, “Gigi’s a zebra.” Here there is no closet to go to. Instead, Julia’s forehead begins to extend like one long slab of skin until it has taken over her entire face and neck and is well on its way to covering up her bony chest. I hear Patrice say, “Let the image ride its way through you.” But all I can do is clasp my own forehead so hard that Mr. Armanpour steps out of his photography classroom and says, “You all right, Gigi? Need an Aleve?” I’m afraid to look at him too for fear that one of his eyes or an ear or something will take over his body.

At lunch, I sit with Claire and Sophie, eating my wrap. But when I get home a little early because of my senior privileges, I don’t see my mom’s car so I text her, feeling the grime squeeze in on me.

Running errands, she writes back.

Inside the empty house, I roll up the sleeve of my sweatshirt and see the newest cut, how red it is in comparison to the others. I know that I will have to go to STAR. The thought dunks me in the murky tank again but this time it’s not just me in there but a bunch of other teens too. There is no space. Our fingers are wrinkled from the water and someone’s knuckles rap against the glass, the sound of bones splintering.

“Breathe, Gigi,” I say out loud.

I go to the medicine cabinet, rub Neosporin on my cut. Then I pull out the Half Baked from the freezer and tell myself that tasting something sweet might help. That’s when I hear my mom’s key in the door. At the click, I snap out of it, so grateful for her arrival. When she walks into the kitchen with her grocery bags, I don’t wait for her to put them down. I hug her, bags and all.

My mom smiles. “I think there should be a brain store,” she says. “Where multiple brains are on shelves and we could just pick one.”

“Different colors,” I say.

“Like lavender,” she says.

“With scents. Mine would be anything but blue, eucalyptus-flavored.”

We laugh but we know how much we wish this were true.

*     *     *

I want to tell her about the night sweats, about the fish tank, people’s foreheads taking over their bodies. She knows about the insomnia, calls it an anxiety staple, and recommends melatonin, more meds and more meds.

It’s on Wednesday, in Patrice’s office, that my anxiety takes on a new twist. She’s just told me that she thinks the 75mg of Zoloft is finally working but very slowly when the tremors in my fingers start up again. I want to tell her about the night sweats, about the fish tank, people’s foreheads taking over their bodies. She knows about the insomnia, calls it an anxiety staple, and recommends melatonin, more meds and more meds. She is talking about being mean to the depression.

“Talk back to the distorted thoughts,” she says. “To The Sadness.”

But I can’t. “I’d have to understand the meaning of life for that.”

Patrice narrows her eyes behind her cool glasses.

I say, “The Sadness thinks it’s not worth sticking around. Isn’t the antidote the opposite?”

“Well, kind of.”

She says something about catastrophizing and how I have to be able to squash the thoughts like I’m stomping on tomato plants.

After a long silence, she says, “When was the last time you cut?”

I look out the window, see my mom passed out on the sofa. Here is where most teens would lie but you see I’m a rule follower and a team player so I roll up my sleeve and show her the one from two nights ago.

“It’s time for STAR, Gigi,” she says.

I think of the goldfish, all of us in the tank tangled up in algae. I shake my head.

“It will help you. I promise.”

When my mom enters the room, I know she knows something is up because the concrete coffin has risen around me thicker than before and I can’t even look outside of it. She sits and touches my arm, but it doesn’t shatter the way it usually does at her warmth. I wonder if I will have to carry this box around forever.

*     *     *

On Friday night we play Oakland and lose for the first time in nineteen games. Makes sense, I’m in a box and can’t make a layup. The whole time I’m running I have blinders on. I can’t see. I try to think of Steph Curry, my beacon. How he would break from the coffin, karate chop it with his mind. Usually basketball is the one place where The Sadness butts out, where my laser focus takes over, where I breathe sweat and only feel the bottom of my high tops pounding the floor. Zania passes me the ball a minute from the final buzzer. All I gotta do is catch it and shoot. But the box is keeping me trapped. The ball goes through my hands and my coach yells something at me but I can’t hear her beneath the layers of concrete. I can’t even feel her later when she shakes my shoulders and says, “Do you even care that we lost?”

I pretend that all is fine. Claire and Sophie go to a sleepover. My mom and dad—he’s just returned from VA—ask me if they can go for a quick walk around the block to catch up as grownups, that it’s okay not to always have a great game. I nod. Even smile.

Mom takes my hand. “You sure, G?” she says.

I can’t feel her warmth. Smile again, all teeth, something loony.

The concrete coffin won’t go away, neither will the grime, and since I cannot stick my black brain in the dishwasher on the heavy cycle or go to the store to get a tea-tree scented one, I know that the only way to break free is to cut but deeper this time.

The front door hasn’t shut when I slip the steak knife from the stand. I wish I could say that I’m thinking the whole thing out, that I follow these conscious steps but it would be a straight up lie. The truth? The concrete coffin won’t go away, neither will the grime, and since I cannot stick my black brain in the dishwasher on the heavy cycle or go to the store to get a tea-tree scented one, I know that the only way to break free is to cut but deeper this time.

It’s easy.

Unlike the clip, the knife is sharp. In one quick motion, I’ve opened my wrist. I watch the blood bloom into a perfect ellipse, then begin to rivulet its way down my forearm. I stand by the stove. Then the pain hits. The concrete walls around me crumble and I see myself alone with an open wound. Aside from the fridge making its usual gargling sound and birds chirping outside, there is silence. The taste of metal fills my mouth. I wonder if maybe I should kneel, if my dog will soon feel that something is not quite right. But then the door opens and my mom is upon me. She brandishes in her ever-graceful way a clean dishrag that she knots tightly around my wrist as my dad encircles me with his entire body.

“Oh, Gigi,” he says.

“Just breathe,” she orders.

In that second, I know it’s so strange to say but The Veil lifts, The Sadness goes away. I nearly see what life’s meaning is. I nearly see the full moon shining in our windows, how next year I will study law, and maybe even take another science class like astronomy. Meet another boy named Beau. Happiness hovers, sunshine just beyond my heart and my fingertips.

“I’m good,” I say, believing it.

But it’s my parents’ turn to be head bent, silent, and anxious. We wait for the sirens to blare, the ambulance to come. I wish I could put on a vinyl, listen to Scars to Your Beautiful by Alessia Cara, one of my idols. It’s as if I’ve momentarily passed on my disease, handed them my grimy brain, clarity finally taking hold behind my scalp, and it’s as if, together, my mom and dad are holding it, my brain, the weight of it, with all its pain, a precious creature in the palms of their hands.

 

Scarlet Jones received an MFA in fiction. She lives in the Northeast, and loves dogs, tulips, the beach, and yoga. She has attended a variety of writing conferences and is hard at work on her first YA novel. Her favorite writer is Rainbow Rowell, and her favorite drink is coffee.