The first thing you noticed about Mandy was her hair. A mad sprawl of tightly coiled dark ringlets exploded out of her head. The curls fell down around her shoulders and roiled like foam at the bottom of a waterfall. Her hair was beautiful and chaotic.
The second thing you noticed about Mandy was that you couldn’t hear anything she said. Her voice was absurdly quiet. She whispered at the ground. She was painfully shy, never making eye contact, holding her head so low her frenzied hair spilled over her face. If you said “what?” she repeated herself just as quietly as before you’d said “what?” You learned that you had to lean in and listen carefully. But she was too shy to say much anyway.
She was a slight girl from a small town in Arkansas, a year behind me in college. We both lived in Couch Hall, which was a coed dorm. The bottom floor was girls, the top floor was boys and the middle floor was half and half. Boys down the hallway to the right, girls down the hallway to the left. It was the only coed dorm on campus. The other dorms had that distinct atmosphere of a place where only boys lived or a place where only girls lived. But Couch Hall had a confused libertine quality. It was almost a buzz in the air. Boys and girls sprawled around the TV in the lobby, running back and forth to each other’s rooms, giggling as they dashed down the hall wearing towels on their way to the showers. Especially the middle floor. Imagine you just graduated from high school and now you live here. Imagine you’re Mandy and now you live here.
Somehow she fell in with stoners like me. Late at night, we would all sit in the radio station in the attic of the admin building and get high during each other’s radio shows. All the stoners had radio shows. One wall was lined with records, but they were old and terrible. We brought in our own cool records, carrying them in milk crates swiped from grocery stores. One night after my radio show, Mandy and I walked back to Couch Hall. At the top of the stairs, where she goes left and I go right, I stood there holding my milk crate of cool records. She stood there, too. I asked if she wanted to come over to my room. My roommate was gone for the weekend. She nodded and said something I couldn’t hear.
I sat on the bed and she sat in my desk chair. We talked. Mostly I talked. When you were with Mandy, you had to do most of the talking. At some point, I leaned over to kiss her. She didn’t move. She didn’t kiss me back. It was a unilateral kiss. I muttered something about sorry, I shouldn’t have done that, I didn’t know if that was why she came back to the room and we didn’t have to do anything. She said something I could barely hear about how she’d never had a boyfriend.
“That’s okay. I didn’t have a girlfriend until my senior year. Her name was Amber. We broke up last year though. She went to Fayetteville. She was my first girlfriend. Except for second grade, but that doesn’t really count.”
Like I said, when you were with Mandy, you had to do most of the talking. I packed a bowl in my little wooden pipe and took a hit. When I offered it to her, she shook her head like I knew she would. Although Mandy hung out with us, she didn’t get stoned. But stoners didn’t care if you didn’t get stoned. If you just wanted to hang out while we alternately giggled at stupid stuff and held forth about how deep and thoughtful we were, that was fine.
“Hey, do you have a favorite Pink Floyd album? Mine is The Wall. You know that’s not someone’s name? Pink Floyd? It’s the name of the band, not a person. The Doors are probably my favorite band. Some people think I look like Jim Morrison. Do you like Journey? The first time I had sex, Journey was playing, so I always think about Amber. I mean, I’m over her, but I still think about her, you know?”
As I took another hit, she said something I couldn’t hear about when she was 14. I just smiled and nodded and held the smoke in my lungs. After I blew it out, I started saying something I don’t remember because of how awkward and helpless I was about to feel in a few seconds.
“Did you hear what I said?” she asked quietly.
“What did you say?” I asked, not as if I hadn’t heard it, but as if I needed to be reminded.
“I was raped when I was 14.”
I couldn’t see her eyes. You could almost never see Mandy’s eyes.
“That’s terrible. I didn’t know. That’s terrible. I hope he’s in jail.”
She shook her head. She didn’t seem to want to say anything else. She sat quietly in my desk chair, her head down, her face behind all those mad curls, not saying anything, not looking at me. My little wooden pipe smoldered.
Later in the year, Keith had come back from Searcy with some acid he got from a cousin who was down from Chicago. We gathered where he was doing his radio show, which was just him playing a bunch of Grateful Dead albums. He handed out the little squares of paper. We put the paper on our tongues. It dissolved and we waited. Then the lights smear like swathes of paint. The air resolves into a thick warm joyous liquid. Anything that moves leaves behind glowing trails of impossible beauty. Music is color. Time stops and waits and rushes secretly past you. Everything normal turns beautiful and alien and I’m not even annoyed at the Grateful Dead’s boring music. Here and now, bathed in all this warm color, it all makes sense to me. Of course. Of course.
I go outside with my friend Joy, who isn’t tripping. She’s a stocky blond, one of the smartest people I know, and kind of a den mother to us all. “You’re one of the smartest people I know,” I tell her. She walks with me and smiles patiently as I marvel at the light of streetlamps through the trees, at the shadows, at the glow of windows. We sit on a low brick wall. I lay my head in her lap and babble profound things. She listens to my chemical glossolalia. She strokes my hair. The universe is tranquil and amazing and I am wrapped in its warm grace and glowing splendor, with Joy stroking my hair and the light coming down through the leaves like drops of secret liquid sun in the night.
Someone comes running at us with the enthusiasm of a happy dog. I can tell by her hair that it’s Mandy. She erupts from the shadows, yelling something incoherent, like “raaar”. The sort of thing you yell to surprise your friends when you’re glad to see them. Her eyes are opened wide and she’s grinning, grinning, grinning madly, gleeful and wide-eyed, her arms flailing with unfocused energy, her head upturned, pushing her face out from behind her hair, her thin body turning and sprawling and ecstatic. Her eyes, which I’ve almost never seen, are wide and her mouth is split into a broad grin. All that hair blown back from her face. She pushes it back, holding it flat on her head, letting her face lead. Molten energy pours out of her, out of her wide eyes, out of her grinning mouth. She makes mock claws with her fingers and looks into my face. She looks straight at me, into me. Her eyes are insistent pleading holes. “Raar,” she says with something that isn’t a laugh. She has been turned inside out. It is terrifying to see.
She was that way for most of the night. Come morning, as we were all coming down, she retreated back into herself. Her head fell, her hair covered her face, and her voice went low again. But I’ll never forget the night that acid turned Mandy inside out.
Anyway, there’s a sort of anime dating sim JRPG kind of horror thing on Steam with the unlikely name Doki Doki Literature Club. It’s probably about three hours long. The first hour or so are intentionally insufferable. Some of the best horror takes its time establishing what’s normal, because it has to show you what it’s going to break. Without normal, you wouldn’t know what’s weird. Without real, you wouldn’t know what’s surreal. Without victims, you wouldn’t know what’s monstrous. Without the anime dating sim, you wouldn’t know Doki Doki Literature Club.
By the time I graduated, Mandy’s voice had gotten stronger and she had started pulling her hair back into a ponytail. You could hear her. You could see her face. I like to think she’s gotten a great job, maybe has a family, her grown children now in college. I like to think she’s living a strong confident life, but the truth is I have no idea. I almost didn’t have any idea what had happened to her. It was nearly an accident that we talked that night in my dorm room. It makes me wonder how many people I’ve known without knowing they were broken. You could probably make a poignant horror game about that.
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