Tilda - Evergreen State College, 1999

By Martha Grover

Everything about Tilda was complicated – right down to her name. It read Kelly on her student ID but she was changing it to Tilda because that was her real name, her birth name from Sweden. I met her at the “Let’s Get to Know You” potluck for our two dorm floors.

Never having learned to cook anything other than Ramen Noodles and Mac and Cheese, I showed up with some anxiety and a package of cookies. Twenty of us sweaty, nervous freshmen crammed into the communal kitchen and played forgettable “Getting to Know You” name games.

After we ate, outside on the A-dorm balcony while we smoked, Tilda distinguished herself by pulling down her pants and showing the group a huge spider bite on her thigh. It was surrounded by a bruise, all gorgeous shades of purple and yellow, like some one had tie-died her flesh. As she looked down to examine the bite, her ass-length blonde hair whipped around in the wind. “I can’t believe I’m still alive,” she said, fingering the bruise. She spoke with a strange accent. Or was it a lisp? I couldn’t tell. Her face was square and completely symmetrical and she had a charming gap between her two front teeth. I was immediately drawn to her.

I met David that night too. A huge Native American kid from Spokane Washington, he was shy, sweet, and a computer geek before it was cool to be a computer geek, when surfing the web seemed a waste of time instead of a requisite survival skill. David stood against the wall of the balcony watching us, watching Tilda. He was eventually talked into relinquishing his thick glasses.

“I’m legally blind without them,” he said, handing them over to Tilda. She shrieked in delight as she placed the heavy glasses on her face and waved her arms around.

“I can’t see shit!” She yelled.

When it was my turn, I put the glasses on and walked slowly towards the grey concrete wall of the dorm building. Suddenly my face was inches from the wall. Through the lenses I saw the tiny imperfections in the stone, like a shallow-focus shot of lichen or petals. I gave the glasses back to David with a sense of unease. How could someone function in the world through such thick lenses?

It turned out, Tilda was in the same class as myself (you only take one class per term at Evergreen. Something about the “lie of apartheid” in regards to the separation of academic disciplines.) It was a satire and philosophy class positing the theory that by trying to make things better we actually “increase the scope of human suffering.” We read Foucault and a lot of other stuff that went way over my head. As is the style at Evergreen, three different professors taught the class. They were all in varying degrees of burnout, and repeatedly referred to Evergreen as a second-rate community college, urging us to “drop out and live our lives.”

I didn’t understand. Is this the reason I got all those good grades in high school? Neither of my parents went to college and here I was the first in my family to attend and my professors were now telling me to live my life? I thought that’s what I was doing.

After the first term I switched from one discussion group to another. My new discussion leader, the female professor, could talk of nothing but her divorce. She was writing a novel about it. During lecture she would read aloud excerpts on overheads so we could follow along. All I remember is one passage in which she was eaten alive by a shark and it was all very erotic.

According to this professor, her ex-husband was a narcissist. “You’ll read more about what that means when we read ‘The Culture of Narcissism.’” She said to me one day, sitting on the couch next to me at the “Let’s Get to Know You” potluck at her house for our discussion group. I wasn’t having a good time. There wasn’t a lot of getting to know you going on, at least for me. And I knew she was sitting next to me out of pity. It was raining on and off. I looked out the sliding glass doors, at the lake and the fir trees. All the houses on this street were falling into the water. There were some white, wooden stairs running down to the lake and they were as bent and knobby on the green grass as a broken spine. I guess the water was rising every year. I mentioned the crooked steps.

“Yeah, I don’t know how much longer we can hold on,” she mumbled. She was distracted – bunch of the kids were downstairs playing her son’s drum set. Just then a group of older students had run outside and were playing with a Frisbee. I stared out at them and eventually the professor got up and walked into the kitchen to eat some vegan cupcakes.

Tilda was never in any of my discussion groups. We hung out outside of class, her and me and David, who lived down the hallway from her. She eventually stopped going to class. She was getting sicker and sicker. Over the course of six months I witnessed the loss of at least thirty pounds – she went from being a round and busty blonde to a thin, stringy-haired version of her former self.

She told me right away, on our second meeting, that she was HIV positive. I was sitting at her dorm room window, on the first of many nights, sharing a rolley with her, when I asked to use her toilet. She and her roommate, and her two neighbors in the adjoining room shared the bathroom. I flushed the toilet and was shutting the door when she said, “Everyone uses another bathroom when they find out I’m HIV positive. You’re the first person who’s used that toilet.”

“Really?” Hadn’t we gotten over all that hysteria in the eighties? Or maybe I was just naïve.

“Yeah,” Tilda said in her precise, clipped way, the same way she rolled her cigarettes and joints.“The truth is, you’re far more dangerous to me than I am to you. You get a cold and you’re sick for a couple days. I get the same cold – die.”

Tilda sat down on the cheap plastic chair near her stack of magic books. “When you hear on the news about a disease or something, and they go ‘this heat wave, or this flu or whatever, is especially dangerous for the elderly, small children and those with compromised immune systems.’ Well, they’re talking about me.”

I sat down with a thud on the corner of her roommate’s twin bed. I started asking the real “Getting to Know You” questions. She’d been born in Sweden. Her mother was an opera singer who died in a house-fire. Her father killed himself a week later.

“What happened to you after that?”

“Me and my older sister were put into an orphanage. In Holland.”

“An orphanage?” I didn’t know those still existed, except in third world countries. “What was that like?”

“Horrible. That’s where I got infected. The head of the orphanage would sell us to traveling businessmen.”

“Didn’t anyone know that she was doing that?” I imagined a Mrs. Hannigan type, only Dutch and not a charming drunk prone to bursting into song.

Tilda grunted at me. “No one cares about orphans. We were dirt. I would’ve been illiterate had my older sister not taught me how to read.”

Tilda told me when she was thirteen she was adopted by a man in Greenland who later raped and impregnated her. Somehow, a foster family in Renton, Washington adopted her.

She put an Ace of Base CD in her player and hit the play button. The beat-heavy music sounded small and tinny squeezed through her boom-box speakers. “I showed up at my foster parent’s house, dirty, bruised, eight months pregnant and speaking absolutely no English.”

“Do you like your foster parents?”

“They’re ok. They adopted me, I guess. Except I have to live with all these fucking psychos.” Her voice took a decided turn – from storytelling to merely talking. She sighed.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh,” Tilda looked suddenly exhausted, the process of explaining suddenly too laborious, “all the other kids have a bunch of problems. They’re ‘special needs.’ Everyone is fucking special needs.” She flipped one hand up in the air. “Some of them have to have their own rooms, because they try to get the other kids to suck their dicks, or they bite the other kids. Luckily, I’m way older than most of them so they can’t really hurt me. Except, I did get bit once. I still have the scar.”

Sure enough, there it was on her forearm.

Tilda’s daughter was miraculously born HIV negative. Tilda showed me a picture of her. She looked just liked Tilda. “What’s her name?” I asked.

“Anna. I named her after my sister.”

“Where’s your sister?”

“She’s dead.”

“Oh…What about your daughter?”

“She’s living with a lesbian couple in San Francisco.” Her s’s slid out of her mouth, all slippery and staccato.

Tilda had earned her tuition to Evergreen while in high school, by stripping, writing greeting card poems and writing gay porn for magazines.

“You were a stripper?” I asked, amazed that someone in high school had been allowed to do this.

Tilda took it as an insult. “Sure,” she said flipping her greasy hair. “I used to be quite the Lady Godiva in my day.”

She walked over to the corner and got out some matches. We weren’t allowed to have candles in our dorm rooms, but Tilda had an entire shrine set up on her dresser. Apparently she was Wiccan, the candles were for religious purposes. She also had a prescription for marijuana. And Andrew, her rabbit, was also strictly illegal, so she hid him under her bed.

She took a match out and struck it, lighting each of the candles expertly with one match. “Yeah, the gay men are real easy to write for. It’s the women – the lesbians! Gawd!” She rolled her eyes and clutched at the air with her long finger nails. “All they want is story, story, story! It’s so annoying. It’s too much work!”

We got stoned a lot. She’d turn her Christmas lights on.

* * *

I am very stoned. The pizza delivery driver walks down the long dorm hallway with two pizza boxes in one hand. His dreads are dirty. I can see how dirty they are from here. A lot of lice in them. Lice and Mice. Now I’m seeing yellow crud in the corners of his mouth. That’s weird cause I can’t really even see his face. In fact, he seems to be made out of the same material as the floor. Crud and Mud. The pizza tastes like cardboard. There’s not much pot-smoke in the air, but I’m having a hard time seeing him from my place slouched down on the couch. Everyone’s laughing and I realize they’re offering him a hit from the bong. He grins and accepts. The pizza smells like pot. The pot smelled like BO when the kid pulled it out from under his dormroom bed, already weighed out into eighths.

Now I can’t understand what anyone’s saying. My heart beats faster. Someone hands me the bong. The red headed girl from my class is saying something to me, but I can’t understand her. She hates me. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. I hate her too. I hate her, and her ratty hair and her overabundant jewelry. She looks like a mouse. They’re tons of germs under all those rings. All her piercings get infected all the time and puss comes out of the holes in her ears. I can’t follow what anyone is saying. I can barely see across the room. The art on the wall is actually pizza boxes covered with crayon. There are mattresses on the floor. Drum sets shoved up against the wall.

I can’t see anything. Everything is blurry. I don’t see why I have to talk to all these people anyway. Back home, in Corbett, the obligatory smoke-out wasn’t so bad cause the people were your friends, your sisters, someone’s older brother. Who are these people? Are they talking about me? I can’t understand what they are saying.

I have to get out of here. I have to go outside. I leave with my share of the forty sack in my pocket. My hands are shaking and the soaked bottom of my patchwork skirt sticks to my bare ankles. I’m out into the rain. It’s cold and dark. I walk along the cement trail through the woods towards my dorm building. That kid with the didgeridoo walks by with his didgeridoo. I’ve never seen him play it. He avoids eye contact. But I guess I’m avoiding eye contact. I wonder if he knows I was trying not to look at him. I wonder if anyone saw me and saw how I looked at the ground away from the weirdo kid with the didgeridoo and thinks I am a bitch cause I think he’s weird.

I go back to my dorm room and crawl into bed. It smells of dead skin and pine needles. My heart is beating so fast I feel as though it will push right through my chest. My limbs are icicles. Why is this happening to me? I only took one hit. This has never happened to me before.

I pull all the blankets around my chin and am still freezing and shaking. I call Nick, my boyfriend. He sounds worried. My voice comes out unnaturally high on the phone. I say I’m scared, of what I don’t know.

Hours go by. I put a Celtic album into my CD player and dance to the frantic flutes and fiddles in my pajamas for forty minutes. I laugh hysterically, my face frozen into a garish grimace. I am spinning round and round – unable to stop. I remember that woman in the movie the Red Shoes. Except that I’m not wearing any shoes. I dance and dance until I’m so exhausted I crawl into bed again and watch the snow come down outside my fifth story window. When Nick comes into bed with me four hours later, it’s still snowing, as though no time has passed. I tell him that all the kids in my discussion group hate me because they can hear me fart. I can’t hear it, but I’m sure they can. They can smell it too. He thinks it’s funny and cute. He thinks I’m sleep talking. He laughs and tells me everything is going to be ok.

I’m instantly annoyed. Everything is not “ok”. I want to say, but I pretend to be asleep. You can go fuck yourself. I want to say. You fucking stupid nineteen year old, running up here to rescue your stoned girlfriend. You’re an idiot. You have no idea what you’re saying or doing. You drove three hours through the snow in a Ford Econoline with bald tires so that you could spoon me in a bed barely big enough for one person. I wish you would just shut up. What is the point? What is the point? I want to push you off the bed. My skin is crawling. My body is tired. I can’t stop grinning. Someone is trying to poison Tilda. When I was a kid I was scared of toilets. I was scared they would suck me down into the underworld of rats and dirty water. Tilda told me she is a lesbian. I’ve never met a lesbian before. Oprah once did a show about repressed memories. Maybe I have repressed memories. Maybe someone sexually abused me. Tilda says she is a lesbian because she can’t trust men. Maybe that’s why I was afraid of toilets. Nick starts to snore in my ear. Oprah Winfrey is Satan. I stare out the window and see a lone student walking through the snow down below, a light dusting of snow on his alpaca wool hat. He wears no shoes. Now he’s stopping and looking up into the night sky, eating the snow, letting it drop and melt on his warm, steaming tongue. What time is it? If I opened the window and let myself roll out I would probably die when I hit the ground. There is a small sweaty layer of condensation starting to form along the moldy border of the glass. What time is it? All the kids in the discussion group are plotting against me to keep me from participating in the final projects, the ones about duct tape and poop and Disneyland. The girl with the camel toe and galoshes said it’s an “organic process.” They purposely don’t invite me to their protests at the gas stations. The professors are laughing behind my back because I always follow the instructions on the syllabus even though, I guess, it’s a joke.

My body shudders. I’m still freezing. I stare out the window. The snow falls wet and fast. Nick’s moist breath slicks the back of my neck. I pull his large hands over my chest and close my eyes.

* * *

We sat next to the window. Tilda with her back to the wall, me facing her next to the cracked window. We didn’t move from those spots all night and into the morning. Tilda was on morphine. I was stoned. I kept rolling her tobacco into cigarettes, stacking them into a neat pile on her messy desk as we passed the pipe back and forth.

To create atmosphere, Tilda had hung five or six strings of Christmas lights along the ceiling of her dorm room. They glissandoed purple and green, flashed staccato blue and yellow like the buzzing beer sign in a tavern window. Andrew would periodically run out from under the bed and shit as he galloped, over and under dirty clothes, his nose twitching and his large eyes rolling around. I found this disturbing – that he didn’t even pause for a moment to take a shit. Tilda’s dresser was open. Piles of clothes erupted from the sagging drawers.

“It looks like your dresser is vomiting.” I pointed.

“Oh my God! Don’t say things like that!” Tilda shrieked and covered her eyes.

We began talking about our class and quickly got philosophical. “The watcher in the tower in the Panopticon, that’s like God right?” I asked to no one. The wall.

“I haven’t read that far yet.” Tilda set the joint down in the ashtray. Somehow we got to the “But Who Created God?” bit. We got to the “What Was the First Cause?” bit. We decided we should start taking notes.

We were righteous. We were punctuated revelations. Decisive and strong, inevitable. It was obvious that Life Had No Point. We knew that. We came to the anti-climax, climax that “We’re All Fucked.” Tilda rubbed her eyes and said she wished she hadn’t taken so much morphine. I giggled. My head felt like a balloon, my neck a tether. I thought about scissors for a long time.

“When the Christians tried to convert the Celts,” Tilda said, her s’s slithering through the gap between her two front teeth, “the women were raped, but they threw their newborns into the river and drowned them rather than let them become Christians. And I’m not saying their actions were right or wrong. I’m just saying it happened.” And we both decided that we knew that. That fact was as solitary and disconnected as a word liberated from a sentence, repeated over and over again. It had lost all meaning.

Tilda wrote down on our paper in her neat, over-articulate, stoned handwriting: It Doesn’t Matter. And, There Doesn’t Have To Be Reasons for Things.

It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy.

We didn’t sleep. In the morning we had breakfast with David. Still high, we shared a table with him in the communal kitchen.

David was fond of Tilda. I’d noticed the way he looked at her with his huge brown eyes, the way he laughed at her jokes. He would tag along with us wherever we went, breathing heavy under his huge body. David always volunteered to drive. It wasn’t a control thing, I think that he really felt like his green Jeep was an extension of himself. All the while he would talk excitedly, telling us all about the war games on his computer.

David was also fond of predicting World War Three – who would bomb whom, who would ally with whom. These speeches involved foreign policy, up to the minute information and historical background. That morning eating our Coco-Roos, David began with North and South Korea. According to him, this is where it would all start. Everything would ripple out from there as countries took sides and ramped up for war. I was fascinated by his knowledge of foreign affairs and kept asking him questions to keep him going. He liked making broad gestures, eyes flashing behind his glasses. I tried to keep his increasingly complicated narrative unraveling. I’d never met anyone my age that had such an obsessive and expansive knowledge of this kind of narrow topic. David was pounding the air with his chubby fists and repeatedly pulling his grey t-shirt from his stomach roll as he rocked back in forth in his chair. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I slurped the now brown, chocolaty milk from the bottom of my cereal bowl. Tilda had seemed interested in the conversation at first, but had grown quieter and quieter.

“David! Shut up!” Tilda suddenly hissed from her side of the table. David and I jumped. We had almost forgotten she was there.

“What?” He looked stunned.

“Who cares? Do you think any of us care about this shit?”

“I think it’s interesting.” I shrugged.

“I think it’s interesting,” Tilda mocked me. “If we’re gonna die, we’re gonna die. What’s the point of talking about it?” Tilda had pushed her bowl into the center of the table and was leaning back in her chair with her arms crossed.

David wiped one thick hand down his chest as if to wipe away her touch. “Well, it’s good to have a plan. You know, just to be able to predict what’s gonna happen,” he said.

“That’s an illusion, having a plan.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s a load of crap. What did we just talk about all night?” I winced. I’d seen her venom before (she’d criticized my poetry once and another time made fun of my clothes) and I didn’t want her to turn it on me. But before I judged her too harshly, I remembered, I’d also seen her lean heavily into an old cane at a grade school while she fielded questions from children about her disease. She’d volunteered to talk to kids as part of an AIDS awareness week. She’d been very sick that particular day, but remained calm and tearless while the children asked her question after question. I could tell that she was miraculously opening up their world. Showing them not only the terrible unfairness of life, but also her beautiful presence, her Swedish stoicism.

Afterwards, we smoked a cigarette in the parking lot of the school and she told me how she had once sold a bunch of pot to help raise money for a friend’s abortion. The more I learned of Tilda’s life, the more I felt like one of those eight-year-olds sitting cross-legged on their classroom rug – amazed, suddenly awake to the hidden horrors of other’s lives.

“There’s no point in trying to make things better,” Tilda spat at David. “You’re just enlarging the scope of human suffering. Especially you. Mr. I-will-predict-the-third-world-war from my stinky dorm room.” She snorted.

“That’s not true.” David’s face began to twitch. “That’s like saying there’s no use wearing a life jacket when you’re out on a boat.”

“Yeah – that is what I’m saying.” Her voice grew harder and sharper with each syllable, as if she were running her tongue across a whetstone. “What are you doing? I mean really? What difference do you think you’re making?”

I didn’t like the way Tilda was taking our conversation from the night before and twisting it. I jumped in, “Well, he’s just talking about it. It’s just ideas.”

Tilda glared at me, looked back at David and licked her lips. In the morning light her skin was so pale she looked like an animate corpse. She had huge circles under her eyes. Tilda’s next words came out very slowly. “Don’t you get it? It doesn’t matter. None of this matters. Besides, you’re not doing shit. You sit in your room and play your stupid war games and surf for porn on the Internet. Give me a break, you’re not making a plan.”

David said nothing. His lower lip quivered.

Tilda leaned across the table and pointed her finger at David. “Don’t tell me about the future, David. You don’t know shit about death.”

“I’m not talking about death,” David stammered. “I’m talking about preparing for World War Three. I – ”

“What do you know about it? You just sit around and eat and get fatter and fatter.”

David blinked as if he’d been struck in the face. One tear ran down his face. It changed size, growing huge then small again as it passed under his glasses and slid down to his chin. We were all silent. I felt my face grow warm. David tried to pretend that he wasn’t crying.

Across the table, Tilda looked down and tried to hide a smile. She had won the argument. Tilda dug into her pocket for her tobacco and started rolling a cigarette. When she was done, she looked up and smiled at me as though nothing had happened, her teeth gleaming, the gap like a dark, bottomless cavern. Tilda looked angelic. She glowed.


Martha Grover is a grad student at California College of the Arts in creative writing. She has been publishing her zine, Somnambulist, for six years. Her work has appeared in Tom Tom Magazine, Broken Pencil Magazine, Switchback, Eye Rhyme and The Raven Chronicles.

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