Multiple Choice

Janet Tashjian

Square Fish

Multiple Choice
(I'm on top of the world!)
I wish my brain were a toaster.
That way I could use it when I wanted to, and when I was done, I could pull the plug and shut it off.
The reason I'm thinking about this is that I've just finished conducting a very important experiment. And after weeks of compiling and analyzing data, I have come to a scientific conclusion.
98.762 percent of my time is spent obsessing.
About what?
Saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, wearing the wrong clothes ... I've been professionally obsessing for as long as I can remember.
I'm sure everyone obsesses; it's just a matter of degree. But is it normal to constantly think about the word you got wrong in a spelling bee back in fifth grade? (The word was mediocre--I still can't say it out loud.) Is it normal to stare at the broken globe in your geography class as if it magically got fixed since the last time you stared at it three minutes ago? To obsess that the girl sitting next to you in English is thinking about how your socks don't matchyour pants? My scientific experiment proved that I am spending 98.762 percent of my life analyzing my life.
I daydream about how carefree my life would be if I could shut my brain off like a toaster. No wearing special socks on days I have tests (black for history, blue for math); no fighting with the cafeteria ladies about slopping the food on my plate according to color (green does not go next to orange; I'm sorry). A world where I breeze from one activity to another, not worried about committing some critical error that sends the entire planet screeching to a halt. I can't help but smile at the thought.
My utopian toaster world is interrupted when Mr. Bergeron asks us to write an essay off the top of our heads about three items we would put in a time capsule for the next millennium. I come up with an answer--television, a stone from the Berlin Wall, penicillin--but most of my time is spent trying to figure out what he expects (and how he's going to grade us, of course). I approach his desk to ask him specifically what he's looking for, but he just smiles and tells me to do my best and not worry. (Excuse me, Mr. Bergeron. Perhaps I should share the results of my recent experiment with you. Ah, never mind.)
After that sad excuse for a pop quiz, my best friend, Lynn Kelly, and I walk to my locker. She blows the tips of her index fingers as if they're smoking guns. "Was that the easiest test or what?"
How can I tell her that my stomach is churning, that I can barely breathe, all because I'm petrified that Mr. Bergeronwill think my answers are stupid? I try to explain as best I can without sounding like a weirdo.
Lynn waits patiently for me to finish. "I wrote about the Simpsons, candy corn, and strawberry lipstick," she says. "I defy anyone to tell me those aren't three good items for a time capsule." Then she looks at me and takes pity. "You have got to stop torturing yourself, Monica."
Tell me something I don't know.
I spin the lock clockwise three times before dialing the combination. I check the jacket of my book. Purple/history /third period. I feel myself yawning already
I used to worry that Ms. Emerson would catch me not paying attention and bark out a "MONICA!" in front of the whole class. But I realized last week after Joey DeSalvo took off his shoes and clipped his toenails while she lectured about the Emancipation Proclamation that the chances of her singling me out are thin.
While most of the class catches up on sleep, I continue to obsess over Mr. Bergeron's quiz. Should I have chosen the computer instead of the television? Will he think I'm not serious enough? And how about something from World War II, the Holocaust, even? And I didn't mention anything about architecture or music ... . I take out my notebook and try to take my mind off my mind.
My notebook is filled with word games, puzzles, and other personal musings. I turn to the page labeled GOOD QUALITIES/FLAWS. Three of my good qualities are listed: reliable, intelligent, and dependable (which may bethe same as reliable, now that I think about it). But the list of flaws overflows from one page to the next. The four remaining flaws on the last page bother me; I erase them and copy the whole page over so all the flaws fit on one sheet. I count the lines--twenty-six of them. Worry too much, perfectionist, not creative, obsessive ... the list goes on. It makes me wonder if my mother doesn't have a point--that I'm too hard on myself. Although I suppose that's just another flaw to add to the list.
I doodle the phrase WHAT IS MY PROBLEM? across the top of the page. I move the letters around--juggle them like balls, scramble them up until their meaning has changed. Eventually I come up with SWAMPY BIRTH MOLE, WISPY MARBLE MOTH, and PHIL MYER'S WOMBAT.
I've been playing these word games for years, but in Mr. Bergeron's class this week I learned these jumbled-up words are called anagrams. I must admit, it's something I'm quite good at. At first, I used to just move letters around, like REILRESBEUB or SLUBBREREEI for BLUEBERRIES. Then I began finding words inside BLUEBERRIES, like BEE and RISE and LIE. Gradually I found words that were true anagrams for BLUEBERRIES--RUBBER ELSIE and REBEL BRUISE. Soon the words hidden inside other words began to jump out at me--the letters moved around in my mind, waiting to be transformed. OCEAN became CANOE, LADIES becameIDEALS, HALITOSIS became LOIS HAS IT. But my grandpa is truly amazing; he can do even the long phrases in his head. I haven't gotten that good yet, but I am pretty fast. It's just habit from doing them with him for so long. It's a semi-meaningless skill, similar to how Lynn can rewind or fast-forward a cassette tape and stop it at the exact song she's looking for. Cool, but not too practical.
It's like I'm afraid I'm missing something if I leave the words alone. If I just write CANOE by itself and don't try to wring it out and go deeper, I might be missing some meaning, some hidden message, some ... I don't know ... revelation meant just for me. I scramble up the letters of the word OBSESSIVE to see if I can find a way to escape from it. All I come up with is EVE IS BOSS. Not much of a cure there.
Now Ms. Emerson is babbling about the weather conditions during the War of 1812. I write down I AM TRAPPED in my notebook and spend the next twenty-five minutes rearranging the letters. I come up with TAMPA PRIDE, MAD ART PIPE, and ADMIT PAPER until I finally settle on DAMP PIRATE. I draw a picture of a girl with an eye-patch and a wooden leg, wearing a striped shirt. She is standing on the deck of a ship, drying off from a wave that has soaked her through. Instead of a telescope, she's using a kaleidoscope to scan the horizon. But of course, she can't see the place she's looking for because she's too busy gazing at the small world in herhand--empty colors changing, changing, changing, going nowhere. I shiver in my seat at how much that sounds like my mind.
So right then and there I make a vow. I, Monica Devon, fourteen-year-old worrywart, do hereby solemnly swear to stop obsessing, to stop trying to be perfect, to stop trying to be ... me.
MULTIPLE CHOICE. Copyright © 1999 by Janet Tashjian. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Square Fish, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.