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Little, Normal Things
Eli was standing with his back to the sign-in table in track pants and a red shirt that hung on him. He was clutching a plastic bag with a banana and clear water bottle in it, the white shirt they hand out to new students around his neck like a towel. He nervously scratched his chin, eyebrows turned down darkly. The same white shirt was in my hand as well, and I loitered a few steps away, bouncing on the balls of my feet and watching him. My mother had pointed him out as the only other person with a white shirt in the parking lot. Other older and younger students lingered there in small bunches, swinging backpacks excitedly, flipping through worn copies of the classics.
“Go talk to him,” She nudges me in the back. I wasn’t outwardly shy, but the idea of talking to this scowling boy made me drag my feet as I walked across the lot. She sat in the car, refusing to leave until I spoke to him, opening a magazine on her lap and cocking an eyebrow.
I exhaled hard, animatedly, so she would notice and sit down on the bench near him.
“Which class are you in?” My voice is uneven. I cross my legs, waiting for his response. His eyes are down, lips slightly parted as he looks into the distance. Acne spreads across his forehead, near his hair line, red and angry. He glances at me for a moment and then his eyes lock onto mine, widening. He opens his mouth, closes it and then finally clears his throat and tells me the name of his course.
“Oh, me too,” I say, flashing him my name tag.
He nods, crossing his arms and turning away from me, eyebrows lowering again. I pull out my cell phone, debating how to continue this conversation.
“Is this your first class here?” He asks, suddenly. It’s like someone Heimlich-ed the words out of him, the way he spits them out.
I nod, “Yeah. How about you?”
He nods, “Yeah.”
“Why did you choose it?”
He crosses and re-crosses his arms, wrapping them around himself, finally answering in a quiet tone, “Free art supplies, I guess? That stuff is expensive.”
He stares at me, eyes flitting over my features until I laugh, and then his face brightens.
“Yeah,” He continues with it, “And I have somewhere to make a mess, opposed to my place.”
“Have you been to courses like this before?”
“Um,” He swallows, turning his body away from me to stare down the parking lot. I follow his gaze, but there’s no one there.
“I went to Chess Camp?” He offers weakly, shrugging.
“Chess camp?” I laugh, “Do you like chess?”
“Well, I... I didn’t know ... well, I knew, but I didn’t think they meant it ... for real. I was just signed up, so I went,” He offers.
“What did you do?”
“Play chess,” He says, quietly, “We made jokes before class, though, like if you and an Australian play chess, who wins? Well, he does, by saying ‘Check, mate’ every time!”
I laughed again, even though the joke was royally cringe-worthy and he beamed, running with it and continuing to tell me the jokes. Some more of them fell flat and I would shake my head, telling him how weird his friends must be. We go into our class and sit down next to each other.
With each class I learned more about Eli. He didn’t have to tell me about his social anxiety, I found out bit by bit. I watched him working, smudging pastels, towering above his work to change his view point. He would mutter to himself, half to speak to me, half for his own benefit. He was relatively blunt when he critiqued what I had done, but never mean enough to put me off.
“It’ll look good,” Eli would say, “If you can pull it off.”
While I could pull off most anything, Eli struggled with his own demons. I learned more about these, knew the demons by name. They were called “humiliation”, “anxiety”, “judgement” and “strangers”. He would shy away from ordering things in restaurants, keeping to his usual. Eli would go to class early just to make sure he wouldn’t have to enter the room if everyone was already seated.
“I just don’t like their eyes on me,” He mutters, rubbing his arm when I asked him about it one day.
He struggled with criticism, reaching for a bottle of red after a hard day of criticism in classes or when galleries wouldn’t house his work. We became roommates after our third year and I saw the dirtiest, worst moments, where Eli would scream and rip the pillows and sheets from the bed, throwing them towards the open window, followed by the lamp beside his bed. He would exhale hard and sit down on the mattress, fingers digging into the springs. I would stand in the hallway until he would finish and then I would sit down beside him, gently rubbing his back in counter-clockwise circles, because I knew it comforted him. I was his armour, his tougher side and his protector. During presentations and business proposals I would have to grip his knee under the table to remind him to let me speak – otherwise he’ll agree with everything the gallery owner says, for fear of disagreeing and being thought of as stupid.
He never really told me what his triggers were, I had to figure out myself, mostly by sitting around late at night, with my laptop and a small spiral bound notebook, “symptoms of social anxiety” plugged into my search bar.
The worst times were when I didn’t see them coming. It’s the little things; obviously if we’re at a loud party or our professor is towering over him, challenging a single stroke or line I know the panic is rising. But those little things, the tiny deadly triggers scared me the most. It was when he was praised by the teacher, too, hailed for the shapes and colors he made when he would stutter out his thanks, gripping the pencil so hard it might snap.
“My, this is a long line,” A bushy-haired old lady said, holding a pack of toilet paper and a packet of dried fruit, “Why don’t they open another cashier?”
Eli had looked at her and then dropped his gaze, holding a sack of apples and a chocolate bar to his chest. She continued to speak and a blush spread over his handsome features. He swallows, glancing towards me. I look up from my phone, hearing his call for help loud and clear.
“Yeah, it is,” He mumbles, looking back down.
“It always happens here,” I interject, the lady looking at the trembling young man in front of her.
When Eli and I finally landed a gallery together, it was the best day of my life. We landed the deal, an owner like our art and Eli had the confidence to look him in the eye. He cried on my shoulder out of happiness as we walked away, all six feet of him in a fitted grey suit and black converse. I also felt scared for him, too. He and I would be the centre of attention, people would ask questions and critique his work, his soul would be bared for everyone to see.
“I don’t like to show my work to people,” He told me one time, swirling the last sip in his glass, “It’s like ripping open my chest and exposing it all. I’m sensitive to every word and touch.”
After our acceptance, we went home and ate a dinner of fettuccini alfredo and then Eli went to his room to work. I watched through the crack of his door as he collected his brushes, placing tins of paint at his feet. I looked at the canvas. There was a picture of him, light brown tousled hair, eyebrows pulled down like he’s angry, wearing a white shirt in the centre. All around him, there are faceless people, pointing at him with fingers shaped into guns: middle and pointer finger together, thumb up. He looks terrified and angered at the same time, arms wrapped around himself like he’s trying to tear his shirt off.
And then I get it. I only get it for a single second.
“It’s a nice painting,” I speak up.
Eli glances over his shoulder, foot tapping a can of paint by accident.
“Thanks,” He says, “The hands aren’t very good, though.”
“It doesn’t matter. It has a message.”
“It’s the little, normal things,” He shrugs, running a hand over the dry part of the canvas, running it over a gun-hand, “Those things make me nervous and scared. Nobody else notices them.”