Archive for the ‘Borrowed Headlines’ Category


After the Rain.

April 6, 2010

My husband made coffee last night at 9 pm. I usually only drink one cup a day, never after noon. But last night, I went for it. Which meant that not even by 2:30 in the morning could I fall asleep. So I decided to write. Unsure where else to start, I borrowed the title of my friend Kate’s latest blog post, After the Rain, and let the words flow from there. I hand-wrote this last night in the dimmest of light so as not to wake my slumbering husband (so unfair!), but I typed it up today. Before anyone asks, it’s completely fictional. Though I did make sure that the addition of this paragraph brought the total word count to 1369, or 372.

After the rain stopped, I counted to 100, which is 102. Just to be sure that it was really over, I counted to 9, which is 32, which is why I count to 9 instead of 10. Then I realized that I had in effect counted to 109, which is not a perfect square, so I quickly counted 12 more to bring the total up to 121 (112). But this presented a new problem because 12 is not a perfect square. As I started calculating the quickest way to remedy the situation, I heard my mother’s voice calling from the bottom of the stairs, asking if I wanted to go out and play now that the rain had stopped.

I counted to 28, which is the smallest perfect number greater than my age, and because perfect numbers are better than perfect squares, I could allow myself to move from my bed. I headed down the stairs – and let’s just get this out of the way right now. I do not count my steps. Yes, I know that it is four steps from my bed to my door, then three more to the top of the stairs, and then 14 actual steps down (which is the bane of my existence – if ever there were a number with zero redeeming qualities, 14 is it. And it is permanently engraved in my brain because of those steps). But I do not COUNT my steps. I simply know at all times, like there is a flashing neon sign, exactly what number step I am on since the last point at which the sign reset. Something else powers that sign, not any act of counting on my part.

So you can imagine my frustration every time my mother explains to someone new – a counselor, say, or my newest homeroom teacher or the neighbor who just moved in three houses down and does not need to know any information about me, let alone misinformation about me, but my mother will casually explain that I have many quirks, most relating to numbers like the “fact” that I count my steps. And many times, the other person will exclaim, “Me, too!” and eagerly turn to me, face lit up as if we now share a bond, as if we are partners in crime.

And that very eagerness, the willingness to admit to their crime, is how I know it is a different crime from my own. Numbers are my prison, and if I could simply repent and rehabilitate and be reborn as someone else, somewhere else, or maybe not be born at all, I’d take that deal in a heartbeat.

Most people, including my mother, get it wrong in another way. They think my obsession with numbers makes me good at math. And in a way it does. But not in any useful way. My mom might say to me, “How much should I tip for lunch? What’s 18% of $24.62?” And immediately, my brain starts to whir. But it has no interest in calculating a tip. Instead, a typical thought process might occur as follows:

Twenty-four is the age my mother was when she gave birth to me. Sixty-two is the age my grandmother was when my grandfather moved into a nursing home. He was 70. An anagram of 2462 is 2264, which is the street address of the pottery painting store we visited for my cousin Rebecca’s birthday. The prime factors of 24 are 2, 2, 2, 3. The prime factors of 62 are 2, 31. The smallest number divisible by both 24 and 62 is 744. The prime factors of 2462 are 2, 1231.

At some point during the process, my mom will sigh and say, “Fine, I’ll just tip 20%. Even I can calculate that.”

But she doesn’t realize what she has done. Because I will now spend the entire car ride home listing every person I know whose birthdays fall on February 4 or June 2. I will also be mentally checking off every other time I’ve encountered any one of this collection of numbers.

That last activity is usually when I start to unravel. I start to worry that I might have made a mistake while listing the prime factors. I could’ve left one out or included an extra 2. Then I remember the time my mother was pulled over for speeding, doing 62 in a 55, and I can’t remember if I’ve checked it off already.

My mind didn’t always unravel. Before the age of seven, I could go through a list of everything I knew about a number, and when I reached the end, I could move on. But then in third grade, the school started requiring that we say prayers every morning. We’d stand by our desks and rattle off the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, and Glory Be to the Father. Usually by the time we got to the Glory Be, I’d be fretting that we forgot to say part of our prayers. I couldn’t remember saying the first verse of the Hail Mary, or any of the Lord’s Prayer. I’d stand there through the end of the final prayer, paralyzed with fear that we might have angered God. I’d wonder if I should raise my hand and alert the teacher of our transgression.

But I knew it was only a possible transgression, an unlikely one at that, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by pointing out that we had forgotten to say something that the other 24 kids knew we had not. I could only solve this dilemma in one way: wait until we were seated again, then repeat the prayers to myself. I could make sure I said all of my prayers and stayed on God’s good side, without clueing anyone else in to my uncertainty. Of course, even saying the prayers in my own head, I quickly realized that I couldn’t be sure if I had again forgotten part of one. So I came up with a way to keep track.

I pulled up an image in my brain. Actually, the image was my brain. Complete with bulges and folds and layers I couldn’t see. And I pictured myself speaking every word, sending it deep inside the darkness of my brain. I watched the words disappear into the folds, and when they did, they made an indelible mark on my brain. I could keep track of the words that had been said, and I could finish all three prayers, knowing that I had remembered every word.

I use that trick to this day. I don’t pray anymore, of course – I stopped that two years ago at age ten, but I fall back on my brain imagery any time I start to worry that I’ve forgotten to cover every fact about numbers I encounter. I don’t need it every time, but once thoughts start to flood my brain, worrying that I’ve made a mistake in my mental checklist, I know I need to start over and make sure I announce each item to the deep recesses of my brain, and this way, I won’t forget.

How nice it would be to forget it all. Instead, I am acutely aware of how many words are on this page. I never said what I wanted to say, and I already have to stop. The story about how I spent my afternoon after the rain didn’t get told, and I suppose now it never will be. I can’t write anymore because 1296 is 362 and 36 is 62, as well as 9 (32) times 4 (22), and it’s the last worthy number all the way until 2401, which is (72)2, and I don’t want to write 2401 words. They’d probably all be about numbers anyhow.