Fragile

By Holly White

For Sasha, who understood the idea of this book when I told her about it, and who liked it, and who also let me read a book she had called "Writing to Change the World", (which maybe I could do with this book, but then again probably not). If you read the whole book you'll probably understand what I mean. Hey, remember that time we met on Monday and you said that you thought you figured out the book, deciding that you thought that Page represented Kolya, Severin represented me and Alex represented you? Well, I've been thinking about it, and I decided that you were actually pretty much right.

For Caryn, who read this story when I e-mailed it to her in little pieces (and was surprised at the big themes I covered in the story; oh, they're going to get bigger someday) and listened to me on Tuesday nights as she drove me around and we listened to my Neutral Milk Hotel CD that I burned and I told her all about what happens in this story. Thank you for tolerating and even appreciating all that.

For Stephanie at my animation class (who I actually don't suppose I'll ever see again), who I showed my drawings of the characters, and who drew me two pictures of Page and Severin, one of which shows Severin (who she refers to as "the soup can man") saying "Do not mock the soup!" (which I've actually still got), and who told me not to give up on writing the story. Which I didn't, as you can see.

And especially, most of all, for Kolya, who was the first person I told about the story, and when I announced that I was going to write a love story and that the working title was "The Seatbelt Theory", she said something like, "Well, if that's what you want to write about, I'm sure it'll turn out well!" Kolya, if it wasn't for you – the experiences I had and still have with you, the things I think and feel about you, the relationship I have with you – I really don't think I'd have been able to have written this book at all.

Author's note: Music is an important motif of this story, especially popular rock music. There are plenty of references to classic rock, psychedelic music, alternative rock and indie rock. For those who are wondering but do not know, indie (short for independent) is a genre that originated during the late 1980's, was generally popularized (if you can even call it such as it is so obscure) during the 1990's and still continues into the 2000's. The bands and artists who are considered to be indie (some classic examples are Neutral Milk Hotel, Belle and Sebastian, Sonic Youth and the Moldy Peaches) are generally known for their relative obscurity, non-conformity and do-it-yourself approach to their art. If you are familiar with the genre of alternative rock, then a good way to describe indie might be "alternative alternative". The Missing Elements (a fictional band that appears in the story) would probably consider itself indie music and be considered indie by others.

Now would probably be a good place to say that the Missing Elements are not based on any particular band or bands. Although their story does have similarities to some real bands (such as Pink Floyd), they are ultimately not based on any real band.

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I remember him well. I don't think I'm ever going to be able to forget him, really. Even though he was only in my life for a comparatively short time (compared to the course of a lifetime, which he sadly was never able to fulfill), I don't think I'm ever going to be able to forget what he brought into my life. It's surprising…of all the people I knew during that time, I understood him the least. Of course I didn't understand him. Nobody understood him, really. He was always in a world of his own, where the phrase "intimate feline heart lover" made sense (it later would come to make sense to me). Nothing he did made sense to me, and he himself didn't make sense to me. Yet he came to be one of the most important (if not the most important) person from my life at that time, and he became one of the most influential people to my life.

Until my relationship with him, I had never quite understood love. I mean, I'd understood love insofar as love can mean the sort of innate love you feel for your family (although I always suspected that my love for my family was never as strong as their love for me; it was a weird thing I sensed). I guess that love could also mean your friendships, but I never really had many friendships. I have a hard time entering into relationships. And I don't just mean relationships as in the romantic kind. I mean any kind of relationships – romantic, friendships, acquaintances – I have a hard time entering into anything. I guess that's why it's so strange that I had that kind of relationship with him. It's a confusing thing, when I think about it. Relationships are still as hard as ever, and since I think my relationship with him probably resulted in me becoming very closely emotionally guarded, I'd be willing to bet they're even harder now. But he taught me about love, and I learned very much from him.

One thing I won't forget is how I met him. It all began at the grocery store. I was there, getting some groceries…it was the same as any other trip to the grocery store. That was, until I saw someone walking very quickly down the aisle, coming closer and closer to me. I remember that my initial impression of him was that he was very weird. I didn't know him, yet he seemed very weird to me. The way he walked – kind of a cross between a walk and a run, and his unusual gate, in which he seemed to continuously place one foot in front of the other and propel himself forward, vaguely reminiscent of something I saw from a hyena at a zoo once – seemed a bit off to me. I heard him talking to himself as well. At first I thought he was reciting something or something like that; maybe he had a grocery list but had forgotten to write it so he was saying it over and over again to himself. But as he grew closer and his speech became much more coherent, I realized he was talking to himself. And not only was he talking to himself, he was holding a conversation with himself.

"I guess so," he said to himself, looking up at the ceiling. "But really – what good would it be if I tried doing that? I mean, that'd defy the whole purpose of what I set out t' do, now wouldn't it?" He laughed, which I found very disconcerting for some reason. He stopped right near me, looking at the aisle behind me.

"Now take these soup cans, for example," he said.

"Excuse me?" I said. But that was the wrong answer, because he was not talking to me, but to himself.

"Now the soup cans, look at 'em." He continued his monologue. "See this one. The one of chicken noodle soup." He took it and examined it. "Look. Get a good long look at it. Now compare it t' this one." He took a can of tomato soup. "Now see this one. See, the only difference between the two soup cans is that one of them is chicken noodle soup and one of 'em is tomato! Now that seems hardly fair! The two cans should be given the right to be individuals! They should have totally different lettering, different colors – just something to identify the difference between them, instead of just the fact that one of 'em's tomato soup and one of 'em's chicken noodle! Bloomin' 'eck, the two soup cans are individuals! But does anyone treat 'em like individuals? 'Eck no!" He lowered his voice. "And that's what I'm for…I'm here to treat them like individuals." He turned, as though to someone he was talking to. "I'm here to treat 'em like individuals. 'Cos I know what that's like. 'Cos I know what it's like to be treated like the chicken noodle soup can." He almost whispered, "I'm the mushroom soup can. I'm the one with the creamed mushrooms. How do I know this? Because I've checked. I've checked to see if I'm the mushroom one. And I am." He laughed again. Was the whole mushroom soup thing a joke I didn't get? I hoped so…

He turned his head slightly and saw me. "Oh!" He whirled around to face me. "Oh…I – I'm sorry…I didn't realize you were there…" He looked left, then right. Then he looked back at me and said, "You weren't listening, right?"

"Well –" How am I going to deal with this guy? "Well, I'm sorry to say it, but – yes, I could hear you…"

"Oh….I'm sorry, I'm sorry. You didn't understand a word of that, did you?" he asked apologetically.

"Well, no, I didn't really," I told him. "Who – who were you talking to, out of curiosity?" I had never met a lunatic in real life before, although I had heard of them. I guess this is my first time, then…

"Myself," he admitted. "You know – I talk to myself." He drew near me as though he were confiding with me about a deep secret. "Because. There's little voices inside my head, and I hold conversations with them. I'm not crazy or anything, though." He drew away from me and smiled a bit. "I suspect everyone has those voices, really. It's just that mine are louder than most people's and they don't go away as easily. And they're really helpful, too. There's this one voice that helps me remember things. And there's this one that holds objective conversations with me. I was talking with that one voice about soup cans, and why I shouldn't design a label for a soup can where every different kind of soup looks totally different from each other." Here he paused in his narrative and smiled at me. "D' you think that's a good idea, isn't it?"

"You…" I didn't say anything. I was caught off-guard by his smile. Most people don't look very spectacular when they smile (and in fact, there are some people who you almost wish would stop smiling because they look like they are not living in reality at all). But this person looked different. His smile made him look happy, like he really wasn't living in reality, but he knew it and he was happy about that fact. He looked like he was living in a somehow darkly happy world that existed only in his mind. It also made him look strange somehow…the rest of his face didn't really match up with his smile. It was something about his eyes that caused this. I saw dark shadows somehow cast around his eyes, and I noticed his skin was slightly darker under his eyes, a small bit like someone who doesn't get enough sleep at night. I don't know how that disconcerted me so, but coupled with the strange look in his eyes it did, and maybe justifiably so. The look in his eyes was very hard for me to describe. The whites of his eyes were so totally white, and his pupil so very dark that they looked like two dark globes floating around in two seas of white milk. (I know that's a very weird description of someone's eyes, and it probably sounds like I'm some kind of aspiring poet or something, but I'm not trying to be poetic or anything. If my way of describing things like that turns out sounding a bit flowery, it's only because I find metaphors to be a very good way of communicating information.)

"Yes?" he said.

I then suddenly remembered that I was going to say something to him. I racked my brain for something to say, as I had totally forgotten what I was going to tell him. "Uh – never mind," I told him. "I just forgot what I was going to say…"

"Oh, don't worry about that," he told me. "That happens to me all the time. It always seems I keep forgetting stuff. I guess it's just a result of my crazy hypomanic brain!" He punctuated this last sentence with a particularly goofy smile. It was not the kind of expression people use when they've just used a word that ends in manic.

"Uh – hypomanic?" I repeated.

"Oh, yes, hypomania," he said. "Well, to try to explain it shortly, which I'm really bad at, hypomania's basically a mental disorder that often comes along with bipolar disorder but can exist separately and it causes people to talk really fast sometimes, or sometimes talk to themselves, and they come up with these weird creative things like poems and stories or stuff, but they rarely finish the stuff they start, and they sometimes exhibit poor judgment but so far I haven't done any of the poor judgment stuff. Oh yes, and their brains are often so full of stuff that they can't really keep anything straight. Well, I'm not so certain if that's a part of it, but it sure seems like it would be." He stopped. "Does that make sense to you?"

"Uh – yes. I think so." He had said it so fast I had a hard time comprehending it that well. All I knew was that it had something to do with hypomania and people talking a lot and coming up with things and never finishing them. There was also something in there about poor judgment and how he wasn't certain if hypomanic people always had a hard time remembering things but he thought they did.

"Good," was all he said.

I looked away. So did he, only in a different direction. I looked back. His head was still turned.

I had no clue what to do at this point. This is an incredibly surreal experience, I said in my mind. It then occurred to me that saying things in my head was rather like what he was doing, only he said them out loud. Egad! Maybe he's right and we all talk to ourselves and have little voices inside our heads! I hope we're not all that much like him!

"Hi," he said.

"High" is what you seem right now, I thought.

"Uh – hello," I said to him, trying to be friendly.

We were silent. I seriously entertained the notion of running out of the store as fast as I could and going back home to my safe little world, free of self-proclaimed maniacs like him. But that didn't seem right. This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, you see. You didn't meet people like this every day.

"Hey – do you like chutney?" he asked out of the blue.

"Chutney?" I repeated. "Well – yes, I suppose so. Do you like chutney?"

"Oh yes." He bobbed his head up and down frantically, almost reminiscent of the lead singer from AC/DC. When he finally held his head in a steady position, his dark hair had fallen over his face and obscured his eyes. He pushed it away, able to see me again. "Chutney's fantastic. Chutney's great. It's a great art subject, you know. I find it to be a rather good metaphor for life, really…" His voice trailed off as his dark globe eyes wandered about, then fixed on one location. He looked very much like he was just staring off into space.

I looked at my watch. "Uh – look," I said, trying to get his attention.

He looked back up. "Oh, yes?" he said.

"Well – uh, I have to go, okay?" I said. "I have to get home…I have to get my groceries and get back to where I live."

"Oh." He seemed sad now. "Why do you have to go in such a hurry?"

"Uh…" There was no real reason, actually. I just needed an excuse to get away from him. "I have a lot of things I need to do. There's stuff that needs to get done…things I have to go…I've got to be someplace half an hour from now…" That part was somewhat true. I had originally fully intended to go visit one of my friends shortly after my trip to the grocery store. Now I wasn't certain I wanted to anymore.

"Oh. Okay," he said, shrugging. "I guess – I guess I might be seeing you again, then…"

"Seeing me again? No, I doubt it," I said.

"Oh, I bet you'd be surprised." He smiled, and then began to walk quickly away, in that strange gait he had arrived in.

"What exactly do you mean by that?" I asked slowly. But he apparently didn't hear me. The only thing I could detect was him muttering something to himself which sounded remotely like "chance encounter with a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table".

Assuming it was not directed to me and that it meant nothing anyway, I bought my groceries and went home.

That was my first encounter with the person who was responsible for changing my perceptions, and in the long run, my life.