The Yellow Towel
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Secession"
Originally featured on 10-20-2008
As part of our series "The Bigger They Are, The Harder Empires Fall (The Ions Behind the Scenes of Every Regime Change)"

Lydia could not remember what caused her to laugh. The fact that her stomach was heaving with laughter for no conscious reason was, in itself, riotously funny. Lydia’s eyes fixed on the bread holder with the ceramic cartoon duck that had been her favorite table ornament since she was too young to know the difference between ridiculous and not ridiculous. Seeing the familiar figure might have been what had prompted the laughter, just as well as it could have been any other object in the dining room, just as well as it may have been any imagined object to spring to her mind out of the listless parade of junior high school thoughts. Lydia had just entered the sixth grade, and the change of environment kept her perpetually charged like a battery emitting purple sparks. The mental image of herself in a battery Halloween costume holding up two bottles of Silly String to represent sparks was even funnier than the self awareness of her own laughter sans identification of its provocation.

Being immersed in exciting and stressful new surroundings causes one to be emotionally overworked, and prone to fits of nervous laughter — Auntie Mella had told her that. Auntie Mella said it was okay to laugh, it was okay to cry, it was okay to get angry, it was okay to be human, until she turned fourteen, at which time she would have to start wearing deceptive social masks (or, as Auntie Mella put it, to start acting like a lady). Auntie Mella had promised that come that time, she would meet privately with Lydia and give her survival lessons. But for now — and for the next two years — it was okay to laugh, even if the laughter had no derivative justification.

At times like these, objects that had never before and may never again hold any humor or any reason to inspire such reaction, could spur relentless paroxysms of laughter. Although Auntie Mella understood — and had probably been heir to the same manner of laughing fits in her own youth — Mom did not take kindly to it.

Mom glared at Lydia sternly behind horn-rimmed glasses. Mom’s hands were clasped over her starched, folded napkin. She would wait to carve the chicken that presided at the center of the table until Lydia showed some manners.

The rims of Mom’s glasses were bulbous like roots of a flower, thickening in some places — just like Mom’s hips did in the wintertime — but always held firmly in place. Mom’s mouth made a square shape when she was indignant, like her chin was a garden tool that wanted to plant more flowers. Thinking of Mom’s face as something bigger than Mom’s face was too funny.

Tension was funny. Three hours later it was time for bed and Lydia was still laughing. Funny no longer felt like funny. It felt like she had been punched everywhere between her hips and her shoulders, and her torso was one solid throbbing bruise.

She kept laughing. Lying in bed hungry, she tried to sleep, but could only laugh. Each rise and clink of her diaphragm was a pleading of terror. Her dreams were a battered skin of half conscious, fraught with repetitions of a single weak dream. In her dream, Lydia was in the shower and the temperature kept dropping so she kept turning up the faucet cautiously — not wanting to scald her skin — but kept shivering. She wanted to turn the water off and bury herself in her yellow towel, but when she looked at the towel draped over the sink, its color changed. First it just happened at one corner — an encroaching patch of suffused, rotted blue — and then it started to breathe shapes into the center of the towel, abstract but obscene shades of turquoise, light browns and beet reds animating the yellow canvas like a slow motion thunderstorm. Watching the towel, she could not turn off the shower. She could only shiver as the bathroom grew colder and colder, as her bed grew colder and colder.

Aunt Mella took Lydia to the doctor because she had been laughing for two days straight, which was making it difficult to eat and sleep. At school, she had laughed her way through detention hall.

The doctor looked at Lydia sternly and then slapped her in the jaw. She kept laughing. The doctor admonished her that if she didn’t knock it off, they would send her to a Laughing Colony with others like her, where she would sleep on the grass under a canopy and be eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Lydia squeezed her eyes shut — she was crying now too — and tried to think about something serious. Aunt Mella stroked her hair and whispered, “It’s okay.”

Lydia knew what she would do when she turned fourteen. She would run away from home.

At fourteen, Lydia could not remember what had caused her to stop laughing.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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