I should start with a disclaimer. No, this isn’t a dark story. It’s not going where you think it’s going. I’ve changed all the names purely for my own peace of mind, and in fact, the whole incest element was entirely assumed by the warped mind of yours truly.
I mean, everyone else in the class was thinking it.
There is a moment in every grad student’s life when you’re sitting in class and this feeling hits you, and its name is “I have made a terrible mistake,” or “What am I doing here?” or “Who are these people?”
And then there’s the class that hits you will all three, every class, for the entire semester.
This class, for me, was a class called “Inspired by the Visual,” that I thought would be all about the fine art side of writing, where we’d talk about great illustrators and graphic novelists or really get into the grit of how to visually describe a scene and make characters appear fully-formed in the mind’s eye of the reader. For someone who got into writing only because they realized that Disney Animation doesn’t hire people who can’t draw a proper circle, it sounded perfect. My friend Eleanor was taking it with me, so I was feeling great about it.
Until the first class, when it quickly became apparent that this was more of an art therapy type of deal, where we would be making dioramas out of Popsicle sticks and Starburst wrappers and then tell the class how it represented our parents getting divorced. I’m all for using arts and crafts to improve one’s emotional well-being, but grad school is expensive, and spending thousands of dollars to do something that I could do for ten bucks at a craft store made me a little crazy.
And spending three hours a week listening to twenty other adults talk in depth about their Popsicle stick projects? No thank you. Most people half-assed it like I did—putting the minimum amount of effort into their projects, focusing more on their writing and what they were actually in school to do.
And then there was Incest Karen.
Our first assignment for the class was to bring in an object and talk about it as it was passed around the room, as a way of introducing ourselves. I brought a tiny porcelain figure of a sumo wrestler that I had just bought for a dollar, as a symbol of the feeling that I had to fight my way through grad school and the world at large in spite of my own fragilities and lack of self-esteem (I didn’t say any of this, of course. I said “I have a tiny sumo wrestler in my heart,” and everyone chuckled politely).
And then this girl next to me, Karen, passed around a tiny wooden box with two razor blades inside. Blackened, crusty razor blades covered in grubby fragments of fingerprints. I didn’t touch them, but other people were inspecting them, holding them up to the light, you know, trying to be engaged as Karen described them in a monotone.
Eleanor was sitting on my other side, and I warned her not to touch them either.
“Why not?” she asked.
Without thinking, I whispered, “Those are cutting blades. I know it.”
Eleanor scoffed, “Don’t worry, they’re not cutting blades,” just as Karen droned, “I cut myself with these blades every day of ninth grade.”
Eleanor abruptly slammed the box shut.
“Told you,” I whispered.
Karen quickly established herself as that person in class who waits until just the right moment when the conversation is gelling and everyone’s in a good headspace with lots of energy to grab the wheel and just swerve the whole thing right over a cliff. If someone bravely shared a story about a traumatic incident or difficult time in their past, Karen had to top it. She couldn’t even let the woman whose son had just passed away have the floor for longer than a few seconds. Even the professor, who radiated good hippie vibes and praised my Spartan helmet made of chocolate wrappers glued to a cardboard box as “really inspired!” could not stand Karen and her personification of the sad trumpet noise, but there was no reining her in. And, as we learned on the last day of class, she was just getting warmed up.
For our final project, we had to submit and read out loud a fifteen-page document of our choice. It could be a story, an essay, a selection of poems, something we’d been working on for another class, rules and restrictions need not apply. I read a condensed conversation with my sister where she defended her views on fine art (I began with, “Remind me what you said when you first saw Monet’s waterlilies?” “‘Those don’t look like flowers,'” she said. “I mean, they really don’t”).
I got some solid laughs and a polite smattering of applause and suddenly I felt good about my decisions in life for the first time in a little while. Maybe taking this class hadn’t been a terrible mistake after all, I thought. Isn’t art wonderful?
And then, Karen cleared her throat and began to read. She had submitted a portion of her non-fiction thesis, which she described as “One hundred and forty pages about my relationship with my older brother and how it changed forever when he married my friend, who is also named Karen.”
I looked at Eleanor with giant eyes and mouthed, “Is she in love with her brother?”
Ever the optimist, Eleanor rolled her eyes at me as if to say, “Don’t be silly, I read a thesis like that every day.”
The professor’s voice had a tremor of trepidation as she invited Karen to continue. But Karen needed no invitation. She launched into page one of fifteen: “I love my brother Henry very much. He is the only soulmate I will ever have.”
The tiny sumo wrestler in my heart said, “Uh-oh.”
In short: Henry and Karen did everything together, told each other everything, and had all the same friends. They were only a year or two apart in school, so everyone—teachers, friends, and family—treated them like a unit. They were good friends with another girl in Henry’s year, also named Karen, and heretofore known as “Other Karen,” which everyone called her, even Henry, even after he and Other Karen started dating.
Other Karen and Henry went off to college together. Unbeknownst to Karen, they started getting more serious. One day, Karen was at her high school locker when she got a text from Henry. The text said, “I’m going to ask Karen to marry me.”
This is not a joke or an exaggeration. Karen described—in detail, her voice catching with tears—how her first thought upon reading the text was that Henry was going to propose to her, Sister Karen, and how her heart leapt with joy, and then shattered when a second text clarified that Henry was actually proposing to Other Karen, and finally crumbled into dust at the third text:
“She said yes!”
This all happened in the days before smartphones, so Henry must have been jamming a button three times for each letter, all in front of his newly crowned fiancée, but hey, his sister was his soulmate.
We were now about a third of the way though the fifteen pages. In deference to her importance to Henry, Other Karen asked Karen to be her maid of honor. Karen only accepted to make Henry happy. She described at great length just how agonizing the wedding preparations were for her, how she had to pretend to be happy even though watching Other Karen twirl in potential wedding dresses made her stomach clench.
Finally, the day of the wedding arrived. Karen paused for a moment to whip out her visual aide. It was a photo album—one of those cute little white ones with bows and plastic covers, that remind you of something in your grandmother’s house so they’re inherently comforting even when the plastic breaks and digs into your fingers?
Karen passed the album to Eleanor first. I was sitting on Eleanor’s other side.
“There’s going to be pictures of Other Karen with her eyes scratched out,” I whispered.
Eleanor scoffed, “You always assume the worst,” but she hesitated a bit before opening the album.
Fortunately, there were no pictures of Other Karen with her eyes scratched out, because there were no pictures of Other Karen at all. Karen had only included pictures of herself with Henry, smiling in the back of the limo, arms around each other in front of the church, laughing at the reception, all framed in such a way that it was clear that someone had been cut out to make a Karen and Henry two-shot. Was that someone a frowning great-aunt, a cousin nobody liked, a friend invited out of pity? Or the bride?
As the album made its way around the table, Karen hurtled into the finale. She walked down the aisle ahead of Other Karen, and everyone oohed and ahhed and took pictures of her, and she was so happy to have all the eyes of everyone she knew in the world on her, as “Here Comes the Bride” started up on the organ. Yes, Other Karen was now behind her, but Karen didn’t notice. She had the floor. She took her place at the altar as Henry appeared in the doorway of the church.
Karen’s falling tears were blurring the words on the page, but she was speaking from the heart now. I remember this verbatim:
“All of time stood still as I watched the man I loved walk towards me, with all the love in the world in his eyes, eager and excited to begin our lives together, and our eyes were locked in love all the way down the aisle . . . and then he turned slightly to the left, and it was over. He and Other Karen said their vows, and he wasn’t my Henry anymore.”
I mean, that’s one hell of a final paragraph. I hope that’s how the entire thesis ended.
The professor was blinking with one eye at a time, like a malfunctioning doll. Everyone else in the class just stared and cleared their throats as Karen tucked her pages away. I caught Eleanor’s eye and mouthed, “I told you.”
That night, I told our other friend Maggie all about our last day of class. She immediately accused me of embellishing, or flat-out making stuff up, both of which I do all the time, but not in this case. To my surprise, Eleanor, who had been silently drinking tea with a look of remembered horrors in her eyes, spoke up in my defense.
“It’s 100% true,” she said. “Elizabeth told me she was in love with her brother, and I didn’t believe her, and she was right. This girl is going to get the same degree as the three of us with a non-fiction thesis about being in love with her brother.”
And that was the day the three of us began to seriously discuss whether or not we should transfer schools.