I am staring at the sheet of paper pinned to the bulletin board, but I can’t make the numbers behave. The curves and lines do not translate to a figure with value, much less stay in my brain, no matter how long I stare and how tightly I focus. The second I look away to write down the time in my day planner, the numbers dissolve.

The break room is hot and the air feels thick with the smell of bread baking in the kitchens just beyond. My hair matted under the cap with “Torrance Bakery” printed on the front, I know for a fact I smell like yeast and sugar, what with the streak of icing running down my arm from an earlier birthday cake mishap. I always smell like sweaty bread after a shift at this, my first after school job, slinging donuts and coffee to Torrance’s retired population. The uniform is a horrid blue gingham skirt, under which I always wear shorts, and a white polo shirt that always looks grimy. But the job itself isn’t bad, and we each get to take home a sack full of donuts if we close. Plus, I’m saving money for a car.

But now. Now. It has been ten minutes, and I am still staring at the schedule, trying to write down my shifts for next week. Eventually, I hold the day planner up to the wall, right next to the numbers, so I can copy them without needing to understand.

Earlier that day, I had gotten a cake order wrong, too. All I am supposed to do is fill out a form denoting size, flavors, icing type, decorations, and deduce the pricing from a sheet attached to the wall by the phone. But every descriptor leaves my head before I can pin it down in writing, and I have to ask at least six times, “What flavor was that, again?” This would have been embarrassing anyway, but with my fascist boss in earshot, it was agonizing. This isn’t me! I wanted to scream at him. I am an honors student. I was in GATE. I can tell time, for crying out loud!

Only lately, in Algebra II, I am noticing similar problems with the numbers. Suddenly, the ability to add and subtract seems like a safari through a mental wilderness I can no longer tame.

I don’t connect this to the low-grade fevers I awaken with each morning. Or the colorlessness of my skin tone. Or the increasing need for a nap after class every day.

Instead, I stare at the schedule. I also develop a paranoia that I’ve written down the wrong day or time, that I will show up to work when I’m not scheduled, or worse, that I won’t show up at all. Every time the phone rings, I jump, saying a prayer of gratitude when it is not my boss or a coworker wondering where I am.

I am getting Ds and Fs on my algebra tests. They are the first Ds or Fs I’ve ever gotten. Hours spent on homework end in frustrated tears, in “I hate math!” proclamations and vows to never, ever use it in my adult life.

When the sores start developing on my neck, face, hands and throat, I don’t make the connection, either. Why would I? I am sixteen. I am young. I can do anything. My future is long, stretching out before me infinitely; so brightly I can’t see where it goes. Sixteen-year olds don’t get sick in ways that change the course of their lives.


Comments

A Look at the Numbers — 10 Comments

  1. it’s so true that we can rationalize anything – especially when we are young and never sick. Even now, I know i’ll push forward not knowing when to quit, even when my body is saying – enough!But jeez, seemed like that was going on for quite a while for you. Glad it’s behind you. But I worry about the person who got that cake. 😉

  2. Oh man. I want to hug the sixteen year old you. How scary and confusing that must have been. And you tell it so well here. Thank you.

  3. I can’t even imagine how terrifying that must have been at 16. Your telling of it is so immediate, that I felt I was right next to you through the whole process. So well done.

  4. Your description is vivid, Natalie — I can smell, taste, see this bakery and your struggle to maintain your cognitive abilities. Scary and frustrating and confusing. When did you finally tell someone? Or is that story to come?
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