Wet Paper

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
It's a story about wet paper phobia.

Submitted: November 21, 2011

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Submitted: November 21, 2011



The boisterous laughter coming from the table to her right startled Neli out of a moment’s daydream. She turned to look at the source of the noise. Around the table sat a group of four men and one woman, all of them in their mid-twenties and also new recruits as she was. About their necks were ID cards suspended like cattle bells. The occasional shaking of their heads sent the cards into a swinging motion, which seemed to add a discordant sound to the already boisterous laughter. Realizing that watching the noise in production made it all the louder, she set her vision back where it had been before the disturbance. She sat with her hands spread out and her elbows pressing against the table, with the toes of her high-heeled shoes slightly touching the ground. This leveraged her puny frame to the same height as her table companion. Her lips were neatly pursed between her sallow cheeks and her eyebrows raised into imperfect arcs, gathering curly furrows on her forehead.

She had not imagined that she would so soon have to confront her illness before an audience. Because she had never considered it essential to have people around her, always finding sufficient company in her own thoughts, there had not been an occasion in the past fifteen years in which she had had to reveal her condition. The last time she had done so was in middle-school, and then only by mistake. Her mind had been too distracted then. A horrendous traffic accident had a month prior taken her mother's life. So maimed was the corpse that the sympathetic mortician disallowed its juvenile and only offspring from part-taking in the viewing procession. Following the funeral, and since her father's whereabouts were unknown, Neli moved in with her grandmother, a kindly old woman in whose countenance her late mother continued to live. Such were the circumstances when Neli made the fateful revelation. What ensued after the revelation left her resolved never again to divulge her secret.

“Are you afraid of knowing your fortune?” asked Ryan with a petulant sneer. But the benign glimmer in his eyes belied his apparent emotion. Still, his jutted chin and craned torso suggested a keen alertness. Neli sat across him at a narrow table. His left hand was outstretched towards her. In it was a small piece of paper wrenched from within a fortune cookie. The paper was wet from having accidentally fallen into a soup bowl, from which Ryan had immediately rescued it. Neli would much rather he had let it drown. She had wet paper phobia. From as early as she could remember, she could never look at or touch wet paper without gagging or throwing up. Whatever the size of the paper, and whatever the cause of its wetness, the effect was the same. And so as soon as she saw the paper fall she quickly averted her eyes. So quick did she turn her head that the fortune-bearer could not have noticed her revulsion. That is how skilled she had become at hiding her phobia.

Meanwhile, snickering uncontrollably from the time he had read the fortune -- as if conscious not to disturb an imagined peace in the bustle of the cafeteria -- Ryan had outstretched his hand to share the paper’s comic wisdom with Neli. Much to his puzzlement, she was decidedly not eager to receive the wisdom. Her gaze was fixed, not on her animated interlocutor, but on something in the distance. He couldn’t quite figure what thing so attracted her curious gaze. The brown orbs of her eyes bulged out against their white backdrops, restrained only by the periodic blinking of her long eyelashes. He had always thought her eyes coy and attractive, and had on occasion remarked that they spoke volumes. But on this occasion the orbs said not a word. “What are you looking at down there, anyway?” Ryan blurted.

The sphinx made no reply. Outside the window was a glassy building with a contorted shape, which heavily distorted the reflection of the upright building in which they sat. The buildings seemed about the same height. Neli briefly pondered whether the floors of the two buildings corresponded perfectly, whether the panes directly across her were also on the twentieth floor. But the glare of the sun soon made unbearable any further investigation of the sinuous tower. The black tarmac below, speckled as it was with the yellow of cabs, was more inviting to the eye. The road appeared very narrow, and the pedestrians on the sidewalks, as did the sculpture of the horseman by the roadside, appeared very small. All was in commotion, but nothing was distinguishable.

Noticing that Ryan’s hand was still outstretched, Neli pointed the spikes of her fork in his direction and said, “Go on and read it to me.” Then she paused. “My hands are still occupied,” she added sweetly, lifting her knife in evidence. She recalled the last time she had made her phobia known. Her classmates had ridiculed her, they had taunted her, mocked her, teased and plagued her. Some had taken to lacing her possessions with the dreaded paper. The later encounters invariably resulted in Neli falling into catatonic convulsions. But not her doleful cries nor her copious spewing and throat-hacking coughs nor the stream of tears from her swollen eyes softened her tormentors’ hearts. Before long the little imps began to follow her into her dreams, bringing wet paper there also. In four weeks she had been withdrawn from public school and committed to homeschooling. And it took four years to restore her to full health of body and mind. For college she attended a local school and lived at home. She had intended to stay with her grandmother through adulthood, but the old lady succumbed to a long illness around the time her granddaughter graduated. Neli moved to the city immediately after the funeral. Coming to New York was for her not only a physical separation but also a psychological severance from the land that swallowed her guardians. It was a way for her to start anew.

“Ryan, will you read it to me? Please.”

“But if I do, all the humor will be lost,” said Ryan, laughing mildly and lowering his hand. “You know it’s true, too. My accent makes me difficult to understand. I would have to read it very slowly and by the time I get to the end all the funny stuff would have evaporated,” he went on, now speaking with an exaggeratedly thick accent to drive home his point. Neli knew what Ryan said was true. But she did not outwardly acknowledge it out of fear of causing offense. It had been two weeks since Neli and Ryan’s first acquaintance at an event for new recruits. They had from that time had lunch together everyday, sometimes in a group, sometimes alone. The lunches were more often than not unplanned; the two would just run into each other at the cafeteria, as they had done on the present occasion. Each time they would talk at length and, indeed, at times Neli found it difficult to understand what Ryan said.

“I insist,” Neli muttered, her eyes still averted.

“Well, so did my professor’s in college. But I never budged. I am too self-conscious to read aloud,” Ryan replied as a matter-of-fact. Neli could tell from the firmness of his voice that, despite the levity of his disposition, he could not be convinced. One route for evasion was now shut.

Attempting to escape her present thoughts, Neli looked again at the table to her right. The boisterous party that had earlier sat there was now gone. She surveyed the rest of the cafeteria. Most of the tables were empty. Chairs were strewn about the room. There were a few men in blue and white shirts seated at tables around the center. On the grey wall at the back was a huge gilded clock. The hour hand was almost at two, and when that hour struck, her table companion began to gather the things about him. The figure before her eerily resembled her father, or rather what she knew of him from photographs. He was a tall, large-chested man. Atop his head were sprouts of wiry hair. His face had here and there a scabby mark, probably traces of vanquished acne. But against the depth of his dark skin these marks were as artful as hand crafted tattoos. Neli's inspection of Ryan's upper body abruptly ended when she was struck by the awareness that she too was being inspected.

Ryan's eyes were roving over her face. His right hand fingers, meanwhile, were vigorously scratching the spaces between his meager hair, as if digging for a buried thought. He stood up and apologized for having to leave while she was still eating. He explained that there was a meeting he had to attend. Then he added: "Here. I will put your fortune on the table. Read it when you are done. I think it's funny because it says something I have been wanting to say to you." He took a few steps towards the exit then, slightly bowing in adieux, said, "I'm sure we will run into each other again. Tell me then what you think of your fortune."

Neli smiled in acknowledgment. The clatter of chairs filled the room as Ryan cleared his path to the door. Her gaze followed the trail of the sound. Thin moisture now glazed the wrinkles of her squinting eyes. Her nose was flared and quivering as though in a quiet attempt to gasp for air. The tresses of her weave hung over her face. She had never looked more somber.

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