We met Virginia Hagbard in a Linguistics class. The English Department at our school is claustrophobically small, so you encounter the same people over and over again. I had never seen her before, but Milton said that she had been in his Continental European Fiction class and that she had been odd. This was a significant statement, as music, art and English majors are traditionally unusual at our University, so that even if you yourself are not considered unusual, you are at least conditioned to them and don't feel compelled to comment upon them. To specifically comment on the perceived
oddness of another student implied that they weren't just odd, but perhaps mentally defective or emotionally disturbed. Or so I believed at the time.
Our class was an evening class. I sat behind Milton with Virginia to his left. On the first night of the class, Virginia, wide-eyed and nervous, had scanned the room and found Milton, a familiar face and attached herself to him. She accompanied us on breaks (the class met once a week and was three hours long‹our professor took mercy on us and gave us two, ten minute breaks) and often clutched Milton's arm. Milton would look at me to see if I was jealous in any way, but I wasn't. It was obvious that Milton couldn't shake her without being rude, and it was obvious that being rude to Virginia might shatter what little self-control she had left.
She was of average height and weight, with bloody fingertips caused from biting her nails down below the quick. She had shaggy hair and many rings, several in each ear, one in her nose and lip and one above her left eyebrow. Her clothes were shaggy as well, drab colored and mismatched; long skirts with uneven hems, bulky shoes and extra-large sweaters with sleeves that came down over her hands. Her skin was spotty and dry at the same time. Her eyes were ringed with circles so dark that it seemed as if she might have smeared black eyeliner deliberately to achieve that effect. But the rings were genuine and frightening, making her otherwise pathetic face seem deranged. I felt too much pity and disgust for her to perceive her as a threat.
It was no mystery why someone with problems would choose to bond with Milton. Milton was marvelously normal‹pleasant looking, but not too gorgeous to be human. He was smart, but he wasn't a genius and he possessed an almost universal quality about him. There are millions of Miltons. They are people you see every day and in them you see nothing uncommon. In fact, you may not notice them at all at first, but when you finally look at them, you are startled by how broad their shoulders are or how blue their eyes appear. Milton was overwhelmingly kind. He was the sort of person who attracted freaks and he never seemed able to help them or later, shake them once it seemed clear that they were taking advantage of his friendship.
I was continually surprised that Milton chose to be with me. I wasn't ugly, or anything like that, but I too was common, and I wasn't even common in the way that Milton was. I was the type of common that you never even notice at all. Milton said that he developed a crush on me because he heard me talking on a pay phone and he thought that my voice was interesting. We later had a class together and he asked me out. I shuddered to think how close I had come to not being with him. I could easily have made that call in my dorm and Milton would never have fallen in love with my voice. People looking at Milton and me then probably saw us as Aryan peas in a pod. We were equally attractive young people who dressed tastefully but with no panache. We had the smell of opera lovers about us. We looked quite safe.
I found linguistics very boring and would watch Virginia when I couldn't concentrate on the professor's lectures. I was appalled by her at times, but could not look away, no matter how ill her behavior made me. I would watch her tear the skin away from her cuticles and fingerpads with her teeth, and then thoughtfully chew the skin and swallow it, later licking the blood away or wiping it onto her notebook and clothes.
She had a fascinating array of facial tics and spasms, and constantly tugged at the ring above her eyebrow, causing skin that at twenty should have been taut and unlined to tent and sag. She had a ring that was a skull with a huge, jagged hole missing from it. I assumed it was a bullet hole, but later, in one of her tireless, monotone monologues, she revealed that she had paid an artisan to construct it, following a picture of an ancient skull of a person who had endured primitive brain surgery. When she was especially nervous or tired, she would draw her hand to her face and mumble so quietly that it seemed as if she was simply exhaling rhythmically. She was talking to the ring, that much was clear. I had no idea what she was saying. I often looked around the class to see if anyone else was watching her, but no one ever was. No one else was mean enough to be overly interested in someone as sad as Virginia.
I probably stared at her so much because she made me feel relatively pretty by comparison. However, one evening while the class had a break, I went into the bathroom to check my makeup. I was feeling smug because I had witnessed a stellar performance by Virginia and was observing how much better I looked in comparison, when I noticed strange dents in my forehead. Horrified, I tried to smooth them down, but the more I tried, the deeper the dimpled ridges became. When I study or think, I unconsciously knit my eyebrows. The skin there wasn't wrinkled, but it looked bumpy and I resolved to try and relax