The Bad Project

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Chapter 3. Decision Time /Crystal

Crystal awakened feeling uneasy. She knew, even before she remembered what her problem was, that sleep hadn’t settled it. She pulled her blue plaid bedspread up to her chin, stretched her arms and legs, and got up, noticing that Marianne was already gone. Her roommate had thrown aside the purple silk bedspread and dumped her pillow on the floor in a rush; she had an early class.

The problem reappeared in front of her as soon as she was up: Marianne—her Bad Project.

Crystal made up her bed automatically. She could hear Mom’s voice in her mind, “Neat bed, neat life.” Crystal’s stomach growled as she collected her clothes and went into the bathroom to shower. She turned the water all the way up to “hot” to relax her back muscles, then down to “cold” to shock her brain into alertness. Why had she told Marianne she’d tell her the answer today? The dark grey tile and bursts of steam in the shower reminded her of storm clouds.

Crystal thought some yoga would help, and got out her big black floor mat to do some intense stretches of her back and legs. As she bent herself to form yoga postures, the tension reduced but didn’t go away completely. “Lizard Pose - Utthan Pristhasana” she said to herself. Then “Downward Facing Dog, Adho Mukha Svanasana” and on into “Pyramid Pose-Parsovottonasana.” She stretched up into the Half Moon Pose and then relaxed into the Tree Pose. Although the stretching had made her feel more limber, she still felt a little tense. I’ll feel better once I make up my mind.

She decided to make lists of pros and cons, a strategy that she had adopted after her crisis in high school, when every decision presented an impossibly high barrier. “Pro” she wrote on the left. Under that, she wrote “support for Marianne,” “helping someone out,” and “friendship.” She wrote “Con” on the right and under that, “if get caught, suspension?” She looked at that a long time. Under it, she wrote, “if don’t get caught, guilt?” After a few more minutes, she wrote, “Interesting” on the left and “sex?” on the right. She noticed that everything on the right side had a question mark. How much did it mean to her to help other people? Three of the things on the left were about that. She felt a strong pull to do it. It went way beyond just being curious about what would happen. She wanted to protect Marianne from whatever complications came out of her choices.

She folded up the list and put it in her pocket. It was getting close to time to leave for calculus class. Math should distract her; Professor Danzler expected all the students to think and solve problems during the class sessions. Usually Crystal could do that with no difficulties. Today, her mind was not focusing well.

“Coffee, I need coffee,” she said aloud. She filled her cup with water, placed a heating coil in it, and turned it on. When it was done, she stirred in two teaspoons of instant Folgers’ coffee. “No sugar, more jolt,” she told herself. She poured the coffee down her throat, grabbed a shiny red Jonathan apple out of the bowl on her dresser, and hoisted her backpack to her shoulder.

As she walked along, a visual image of her list of Pros and Cons came into her mind. She knew what the benefits of helping her roommate would be. The risks were all uncertain, might not happen. Didn’t that mean she should go ahead? Crystal took a big bite of her apple. The flesh released a burst of tart-sweet juice in her mouth. She thought of Eve, lured in by the serpent, ready to bite. How could she resist? The Bad Project had to fall under choosing evil. A subtle sex theme was always there in Adam and Eve stories, too. But didn’t everyone have to grow up? Of course the Bible wasn’t really true word-for-word, although she could never say that to Grandma. But it had its emotional truth, probably moral truth too.

Maybe she could help Marianne stay out of trouble? Crystal had worn a black tee shirt with cap sleeves and a little breeze hit her as she emerged from behind a bottle-brush hedge, covered with fuzzy red blooms. She shivered and rubbed the goosebumps on her arms. Finishing the apple, she threw the core at a wire trash bin as she passed. “Two points,” she recorded automatically. She and her brother Jason had always kept a running basketball score on their trash-tossing. Often, hers was higher, to Jason’s chagrin.

Was she that risk-averse? Did she have any ability to try new things? Had her high school disaster shut off her ability to respond to human needs? She knew she’d come a long way since her bad experience. Most people probably thought she was very confident and relaxed; she worked at being that way. But when she was a doctor, she would have to respond to new and difficult situations. Doctors needed to be able to evaluate risks and accept ones that made sense for their patients. She had read about hair-raising surgeries without anesthetic described in books about Doctors Without Borders. She told herself not to get too addicted to safety. But will I even get to BE a doctor if I do this and get caught? She imagined herself swearing the Hippocratic Oath, the twined snakes of the caduceus glowing on the wall behind the silver hair of the white male doctor administering the oath. Nothing could stop her—at least not if she could help it.

She thought about the lawsuit her dad had lost in the aftermath of what had happened to her during high school, how her dad had been forced to suffer blame, and how the monetary award forced him to work so hard, pushed him down in life. And now, with her expenses, he was up to three jobs. She didn’t want to cause her family any more trouble, whatever she did. If she was kicked out of school, after all they’d done to send her here, they would be devastated. She had to have confidence in her ability to stay out of trouble. I need to get that Forscher Scholarship so Dad can stop working that third job. And I have to find ways to help her that don’t mess up my life.

That thought surprised Crystal. Without warning, she stopped short in front of the steps of the ultra-modern glass-paneled Argenta Mathematics Complex. Another student, who had been walking along with his head down, ran into her back. She jolted forward and stubbed her toe on the cement steps. He mumbled, “Sorry,” as he pushed past her and went inside.

Crystal sat down on the blue tiled wall next to the steps for a minute to process her thoughts and be sure she understood them. Blowing leaves the size of dinner plates swirled across the lawn, dropped by a tall sycamore tree on the west side of the quad. Chilly winds swept down from the hills above Burbank, preparing for cold ahead—season of preparation. She was thinking about finding ways not to be caught and punished. That meant she had somehow decided. I’m preparing for the Bad Project, but how did I decide to do it?

Her gaze swept over the leaves piled against the steps by the wind. She was as powerless as the dead leaves. What was going on inside her head? She felt like her brain was a separate entity. It had made the decision without checking to see if she was really comfortable with it.

She remembered Marianne’s comments about her philosophy class and how the professor tried to topple the students’ grasp on reality. She saw reality receding into the distance in her own brain. Who was deciding here? It was confusing to feel like an entity distinct from her mind. It seemed to her that only a part of her brain made the choice. Perhaps Freud’s Ego, the decider, the boss. She wondered if the part that felt like “me” to her was the Superego, evaluating the morality of it all, or the Id, trying to be comforted like a little kid, kicking and shouting and tearing off her clothes, running around nude screaming. She was sure there weren’t any structures in the brain corresponding to these concepts, but felt they had some kind of psychological credibility.

Although she knew her brain could think contradictory thoughts at the same time, still it was unsettling to find it could make decisions without her being aware of it. As she sat there, an image of Marianne’s pleading eyes seemed to float before her. Yes, she had decided, she would go ahead. And she’d do her best to protect her own dreams. In the Bad Project, she’d work with Marianne to get her the Bad experiences she needed to become an insightful writer. The cold tiled wall under her hand brought her back to reality.

She got out her cell phone and texted a message to Marianne. “I’ll do it. Hugs, Crystal.” Then she got up and went into her class feeling resolute.

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