I decided I was mentally ill when I was seven years old. I had just seen Sally Field in Sybil, and I agreed:
It was all green. And the people!
[Later, when I performed this scene for my acting class at the performing arts high school I attended, much to the chagrin of the real actors there, my teacher, Heloise Jones, insisted I reached octaves only discernable by dogs.]
Everyone always said my dad was crazy, so I assumed that I was, too. Figured it was like inheriting his brown eyes and Cherokee skin.
With a loco padre lurking around the hacienda, I learned pretty early to hide as much as possible, so I used to spend a lot of time watching television in my dad’s room. Dad had converted the garage into a dance studio, so he spent most of his time out there teaching lonely old women how to foxtrot.
His bedroom was a ghost town during the day, so I’d hide on the floor in between the bed and the wall and watch cable all day, sometimes with the sound off, just to be sure no one would find me.
[It’s no surprise to anyone in my family that I turned out to be a filmmaker.]
Dad got cable before anyone else in our neighborhood. He loved technology and always had to have the biggest and best of everything, whether he could afford it or not.
Sybil was on cable all the time, and it was one of my favorite movies. It was the most honest thing I had ever seen on television. Kermit and Miss Piggy had nothing on Sybil, and Sesame Street was for babies. I was seven, and I was already grown up.
I didn’t feel especially crazy. I didn’t hallucinate or hear voices or scratch myself all over. I didn’t drool or stutter or even fart all that much. But I knew I was crazy nevertheless. Like how people know when they’re poor (which we were, too.)
Problem was, I didn’t know how I was crazy.
Crazy people have designated crazy skills. Sort of like superheroes. Batman has all the cool gadgets. Wonder Woman has the Invisible Plane and Lasso of Truth. Aquaman has badass underwater chops. These skills are specific to the superhero.
It’s like that for crazy people, too. Berkowitz had voices; Frances Farmer had psychotic rage, Woody Allen has…well, he has a lot of things.
My sister’s crazy was a little red diablo named Rage. She used to chase my brother around the kitchen table with a butcher knife when he wouldn’t get up from the piano fast enough so she could practice The Theme from E.T. before her next piano class. My brother tended to hog the piano, and he didn’t take either of us girls very seriously, which further infuriated Sister.
The first night she broke out the butcher knife, I let her off the hook and didn’t tell Mom. After all, no blood was shed. By the third time, I told Mom I thought Sister should be put in an insane asylum. I knew it was only a matter of time before someone lost a limb. Probably my brother. Mom thought I was being funny.
In elementary school, the principal could always discern the fighting climate by the placement of my sister’s shirtsleeves. Rolled up: there was big trouble brewing. Rolled down: smooth waters.
My brother’s crazy was pretty easy to identify, too. He played the piano for monster stretches at a time. On the weekends, he practiced up to eight or ten hours at a time; hence my sister’s predilection for butcher knives.
My brother had the piano, and my sister had her knives.
What about me?
Sometimes, I’d feel like that little bird from that kid’s book, “Are You My Mother?”
“Are you my crazy? What about you? How bout you?” I’d wonder as I ate my meals one section at a time, hopped over sidewalk cracks, or reorganized the kitchen cupboards at midnight.
Soon however, the anxiety over finding my brand of crazy was usurped by the fear of getting my ass kicked by one of the neighborhood girls, usually Cora Rodriguez.
Cora and the rest of the girls hated me because one night, I made out with Cora’s older brother Max behind the skating rink. Apparently, he had a girlfriend he forgot to disclose.
When all the other guys at school were wearing skintight Jordache jeans or those ridiculous parachute pants, Max wore baggy Levi’s with holes in the knees. He drove a 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, and he smelled like bacon, maple syrup and marijuana, an intoxicating combination, I assure you.
If we had been making out in his car, I’m sure I would have given him my virginity. To this day, I spread for Mopar. But on that particular evening, his car was in the shop getting new brake pads, so he had to settle for third base.
(I did eventually lose my virginity in a 67 Camaro to Max’s good friend Diego.)
But on that pivotal evening, behind that broken down skating rink, underneath a sycamore tree that flanked a field of fertile corn, I made out with the most popular, most beautiful, most badass guy at the high school. It was all too Sixteen Candles.
And just as all movies come to an end, so did my affair with Max. By the next morning, it was all over my junior high school as well as the high school. I was officially branded a slut, and therefore guaranteed an ass whipping.
As I played pick-up sticks by the flagpole, trying to pretend I didn’t hear the whispers, Cora and her minions jumped me. They jumped me again at morning recess, stole my lunch, followed me home, whipped me in my own yard, and then scattered like chickens when my little sister came to the door.
This was my routine for the next three months.
Then one night, I sat down at the piano to practice Bach. I had a concert coming up, and I was working on Invention #13. It wasn’t coming along. In fact, had Heloise Jones heard my rendition, it would have hurt her ears, too. My fingers stumbled for the notes. Tripped on the tones. I’m sure our dogs were barking.
Brother dashed into the room. Sister gave chase, waving a butcher knife over her head.
“Don’t think I won’t do it,” Sister yelled.
“I know you will!” Brother replied as he darted through the swinging door then dodged into the den.
“Just stop it,” I screamed. “Just stop it!” Neither of them gave pause to notice me. Around and around they went like Tom and Jerry.
And that’s when it hit me like a golf bag full of lightning bolts. Sitting there at the piano, screaming as loudly as possible for the madness to stop and banging on the keys like a lunatic toddler, I realized they couldn’t see me, hear me or even smell me. I was invisible. And I thought that was way cooler than being crazy.
I figured it must somehow be related to Evolution, like I had learned about on cable. According to this program, over time, the more an animal needs a certain trait to survive, the more likely it is that Evolution will grant the request. Like a fairy godmother, Evolution had bestowed upon me a special power, not unlike that of the cuttlefish. To protect against predators, cuttlefish can alter their skin color at will. Because of this evolutionary gift, it has survived for eons.
Maybe I could be like that. Like the cuttlefish – an ever-changing ebb and flow of translucent colors. Maybe if I practiced being invisible and got really good at it, I could survive junior high school and Cora Rodriguez.
Maybe I could survive Dad, too.
It would mean hours of dedicated practice. I’d hide in my room or by the side of my dad’s bed and work on it for hours, usually while Sybil was playing. I’d get super quiet, and I’d close my eyes and imagine the cuttlefish, its shifting colors, its three hearts pumping turquoise blood to its nether corners, willing a disappearance.
I knew there were Buddhist monks who could change their body temperature through meditation, so I’d practice all the time. I just knew if I trained hard enough, I could harness my power and use it to protect myself.
My training ended one spring morning when Cora Rodriguez and her cohorts ambushed me in an alley of blooming dogwood trees on my way to school. Cora pushed me to the ground. I fell into a pool of pink petals. For a few suspended moments, I watched her laughing, until I remembered my special power.
I’d show her.
I closed my eyes, centered my breathing, and summoned the cuttlefish.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp bite, like a cold snake snapping his fangs into me. It was working! The transformation was painful, but it was working!
When I opened my eyes, Cora stood with a knife in her hand, blood dripping onto the spent dogwood blooms. It took me a few moments to realize that the blood was mine. I reached down to the side of my belly where I felt the wind cooling my insides. My shirt was ripped. I lifted it and saw the wound, milky blood and bones.
“Hey!” I said, then burst into tears, probably because I couldn’t think of anything clever to say.
Cora and her friends howled then scampered off when a burgundy Crown Victoria turned into the alley. I stumbled to my feet, and I noticed it was Mr. Ruper, the retired mechanic who lived on the corner with five Chihuahuas. Sometimes I took him extra blackberries when we came back from the country. I inched a step towards him, my bloody palm held up.
But Mr. Ruper didn’t stop. He didn’t even wave.
Mr. Ruper hadn’t even seen me.
“Fine time for my special power to work,” I thought, then stumbled home, cleaned my wound with mercurochrome, and taped my stomach back together with a box of Scooby Doo band aides.
That night, Brother and Sister played Scrabble while I watched “Love Boat.”
The following weekend, I moved in with my grandparents on the other side of the lake, though that was not the last time I would tangle with Cora Rodriguez or turn invisible.
But it was the last time I ever saw Max.