Why the Zebra?
My friend calls to tell me that tigers are real. When she says it, it sounds impossible. How are they real?
“They are,” she says.
Pangolins, star-billed moles, opossums, glass frogs, goblin sharks. These are all real.
I stare at the IV in my arm and the skin that has turned purple around it and think about pangolins. My purple skin is real. I am full of cells. I failed Human Biology in college because I thought cells were scary.
Yeti crabs. Okapis. Seahorses.
“Death birds,” she says.
“Real,” I say.
My hospital gown is sweaty and the pattern is too optimistic.
“How are your hemo goblins?” she asks.
“I have too many goblins,” I say.
“Dude, can I have some?” she asks. “I need more goblins. I don’t have enough.”
My plate-less count is flagged. My basil Phils are off the charts, maybe having a kegger. My immature granules percent is low, like on those standardized tests you would get back in primary school where you were a red dot way below the line that said: You should at least be here. Grow up, granules, I think, but I say, “African painted dogs.”
“Actually real,” she says. She knows I don’t want to talk about the goblins anymore.
The soundtrack to my dreams is beeping. When they wake me up to check on my goblins, I ask them how to bridge my onion gap, how to make it higher, but low onion gaps cause confusion and there are so many drugs dripping into my purple skin that the nurse says, Ask the doctor. When I ask the doctor, he says, Ask the other doctor. The other doctor says, Ask the specialist.
The problem is, the specialist is not real.
My friend doesn’t ask me if I’m okay. She doesn’t ask me questions about what’s wrong with me, why my values are below or above the standard range. My values are mostly low. In one of my cells, the nucleus targets the normal proteins. The other cells follow. They go into the wrong battle. They are like that one colleague I have who’s always angry at the other for using the wrong terminology even though she has good intentions. They attack her on Twitter. It gets retweeted seventeen thousand times. She has to quit and move away, even though her impact was far more positive than negative.
Had I studied science instead of language, I may have more concrete stories, but instead mine are as nonsensical as our understanding of Mercury: Neutral Phils and Mono Sites are Absolute. As in, if you make out with enough other kids at a middle school church dance, you will without question get mono. As in, people named Phil don’t have strong opinions. They sell life insurance and watch too much television. All of the Phils, unanimously.
But maybe not, in terms of concrete stories. After all, stories are stories so they are not concrete. The surface of Venus has pressure so intense that it can crush a submarine. And yet, those who study space keep flinging things at it. My carbon dioxide is above standard range. Flagged. The doctors fling submarines at it. I am like Venus. We are like Venus. They think they understand Venus more than Mercury, but I don’t believe anything they say anymore.
“White rhinos,” my friend says. “They’re real.”
This, I mostly believe, even though it’s a struggle because how can they be shaped like that and still run thirty-one miles per hour?
“They can,” she says.
“I know,” I say, and the fight inside my brain against my cells starts to come back. This time, I’ll eventually go home, I think. Like my arm, my house is purple. But, is my house real? I can’t remember.
My friend hears the beeping and knows where I am because she’s been inside the beeping, too. Because she is also a zebra, and somehow, miraculously, zebras are also real.
Author’s Context Note: The Ehlers-Danlos Society gave us the zebra as our mascot, because “sometimes when you hear hoofbeats, it really is a zebra.” Click here for more information.
Lindsay Sproul is a queer writer and zebra (meaning she has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome). Her first book, We Were Promised Spotlights, was published by Putnam/Penguin in 2020 and her short stories and essays have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Witness, Glimmer Train, Epoch and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Columbia University, VCCA, Gullkistan Iceland and MacDowell, and she currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the New Orleans Review.