The Bad Project

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Chapter 9. The Red Book/Crystal

Since it was a beautiful day and she felt she needed exercise, Crystal took the Zoombah to the North Hollywood Library in the park, then walked along through the arts district to a small bookstore called Atomic Books that carried a lot of stationery supplies. The store had a window full of best sellers with screaming jackets, a bright red carpet, and a slight odor she associated with new books. There was an oak wall rack full of journals and related items. Crystal looked over the blank books bound in red. “Red for Bad, definitely,” she thought. One was velvet, another had gold stamping on the cover, a third was smaller and plain, with a ribbon to mark the place. She chose that one and bought it. She found it would fit in her backpack easily, so she could carry it along.

Crystal looked into the store windows she passed on the way back towards the Zoombah pickup at the other end of Magnolia, admiring ballet-dressed cows and Halloween candy, inhaling the intense chocolate smell from the Godiva store, without being tempted to buy anything. Cars whizzed by. A few hovered looking for a parking spot. She passed a group of outdoor tables, deserted in mid afternoon, and decided to sit down and write.

She sat with both legs stretched out in front of her and the open book on the table. There was a tall elm tree inserted in the patio paving, behind the table, and from time to time, one of its almond-shaped golden leaves spiraled to the ground. The concrete below the tables was painted green, and a tub contained a plant with lush green spikes of foliage had red-purple explosion-type blossoms. It smelled faintly of onions and garlic. A police car went by with full siren and flashing lights. As the sound faded, she pulled a black roller-ball pen from her purse.

“Friend red book, you and I are going to talk about the Bad Project,” she wrote in her tiny, sloping handwriting. “I’m worried about Marianne. She’ll get caught and sent to junior college, or she’ll get thrown out of school, and what I’ll get is a huge load of guilt. I could have tried to stop her. Maybe wouldn’t have been able to though, she’s pretty determined. I want to help her, so I haven’t even tried, in fact I’ve been enjoying watching over her shoulder as she begins to try out the Bad stuff.

“I don’t think the thrill of watching her is going to stop. There’s something so exciting about knowing what she’ll try. It’s partly that it’s dangerous and partly about not knowing the outcome. It’s the thrill of damnation, I’m sure that’s what Willys would say. The lure of the downward path. But I’m not going down there. She is, possibly, but I don’t think what she’s done is really awful. If she does something awful and I know about it, does that mean I’m Bad too? I think it does, because I’m my brother (sister)’s keeper, right? But she’s such a blank page, she’s tried nothing. I have to help her grow up. Her parents were inhibitory. Extremely so.

“When she tells me about the project, she sounds passionate. She feels strongly that she must have some experience in order to judge what’s right for her. She talks like a book, I think her parents kept her away from people as well as experiences. She needs to try things. Is that evil? Don’t all kids rebel against parental rules (usually in high school, but she was too protected for that?) I believe she’s right and she needs to grow up. For sure I believe that every time she talks to me about it.

“I don’t know why I’m unhappy then. Maybe part of the problem is that we’ve called it the Bad Project. By doing that, I’ve given it a zing of fear that hides in my bone marrow. It’s too late to change the name, but I can help her choose things that don’t hurt anyone else, as much as I can. But the things she wants to try may hurt her. I hate that, to be honest. As a future doctor, I know I shouldn’t be encouraging her to hurt herself. But evidently I don’t hate it enough to try to stop her or to stop advising her. The bad is addictive. She’ll be smoking soon, drinking, stealing, cheating, having sex. What if she gets AIDS or another STD? What if she hurts someone? Won’t it be my fault? How can I protect myself from that bundle of guilt that’s hanging over my head? And, here’s the selfish thought: what if it keeps me from getting that Forscher Award? I sure want to help Dad out by getting a better scholarship.”Crystal closed the red book and held it between both hands. She stared at the big elm tree in the patio, about halfway through losing its golden leaves. Students walked by going to and from the stores. Some waved at Crystal, and she waved back, but didn’t get up to join them.

“I know your outcome,” she said to the tree, “all the gold will be gone, but what about hers?” Crystal realized she’d said that out loud. She thought that she sounded a little nuts, talking to a tree, and she shook herself and started back for the campus. She smelled someone’s fireplace with a wood fire burning in it, somewhere nearby. She admired the bright colored NoHo Arts District flags printed on black backgrounds, mounted on the lampposts, flapping gently in the breeze. Her steps came faster and faster. She wasn’t calmer from writing in the red book. Instead, she seemed to be more agitated. She couldn’t relax and enjoy looking at nature, she was going too fast.

She told herself under her breath, “I have gospel choir tonight, and that’ll squeeze the pain out of me. It’s a good release and I’ll be able to finish my math homework and read my Bio lab, and then go to sleep.” Her steps slowed a little with that thought, and she felt less upset. She got to the bus stop for the Zoombah at the East end of Magnolia and waited only a minute before the bus picked her up.

At gospel choir rehearsal, each person in turn “signed on” by saying something about his or her week. Crystal just said she had done well on her last Chemistry test, and a couple of others asked her to study with them for the next one.

“I’d be glad to help you, just email me or call me on my cell phone,” she said. She put her contact information on the whiteboard. Others said they’d had bad or good news from home, had a new boyfriend or girlfriend, or had done well or poorly on tests. Then Willys gave out a new sheet of words to the song “Shake the Devil Off.”

“You’ll enjoy this one, because it has some dance moves in it,” he told them. Each section had to hear and learn its part, and then he had them all sing through the whole song together. Crystal was an alto, so her part was a little hard, rhythmically and in one place, melodically too. She got it after a couple of practice tries, though. The other altos seemed to have it too. Willys made the whole choir practice the transition to the bridge section two more times, because it had been uncertain and shaky.

Then began to teach them the dance moves. He told them that when the words “I’m gonna..” came, they were to step forward, then turn to the left and slide back. At the words “Shake the devil off,” they were to shake their right hand and arm violently towards the floor, “so the devil will let go and slip on down to hell.” They began to practice that part.

Crystal shivered. Did she need to let go of the devilish part of the Bad Project? Shake it off? She pushed the thought down into a tiny corner at the back of her mind and concentrated on singing. After they fixed the dance moves in their minds and practiced the whole song using them, Willys had them sing the other songs, including her favorite, “He has the power.” But that idea about shaking off the Bad Project stayed at the bottom of her mind kept her from really relaxing into the singing, and when she came out of rehearsal, she wasn’t as exhilarated as usual. It was a physical release, but not a mental release, she decided. She was still upset about what she had written in the red book and whether it was evil to be part of the project.

“I’ll write more tomorrow, maybe that’ll clear up my mind about what I should do,” she promised herself. But the next day, she had classes, then lab in Bio, and had to meet with the weak Chemistry students she’d promised to help, and finish her Music History. She didn’t have a single moment to write anything all day.

“I’m so tired that I can probably sleep well anyway,” she said to herself, lying down that night. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll have time to write again.” But the next day came and went, and so did the next, without any opportunity for Crystal to think about what to do and write about her confused thoughts.

On the weekend, Marianne went for the day for a show of Ancient Icons at the Getty Museum across town, put on by the “Bread and Circuses” student group. The name puzzled her, but the seniors explained that the group went to off-campus events; they took the name from entertainments put on in classical Rome. Marianne told Crystal she thought the name was affected.

On the other hand, she said she liked some of the students in the group, especially Jen-Wei Ou, a sophomore from New York with a wry sense of humor. He had told Marianne he was an English major and he was going to submit an article to the literary magazine. Crystal saw Marianne off on the same bus Marianne had used when she got her tattoo.

Crystal sat at her desk and got out her red book when Marianne had gone. She reread the last paragraph she had written. Then she sat with her head in her hands for a long time. Finally, she had to admit to herself that writing in a journal was cold comfort. She wished so much that she could talk with her mother. Instead, she conjured up a strong, comforting mental image of her mother as she had looked before the cancer, and daydreamed for a while about those days. After she sat another half hour without being able to write anything, then sadly drifted over to the library.

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