Minerva and Holly
Holly patiently weathered out her tragic misnomer for 15 years before announcing one afternoon, as she and her parents were painting her bedroom black, that she would henceforth be known as Minerva. By that point her parents were willing to admit that they had probably made a mistake. Their daughter wasn’t much of a Holly. Her mother, Julie, tried persuading her to go for something a little more conventional. Something like Melissa. “Or how about Jennifer?” suggested her father, Nick. “Jennifer’s a nice name. I always liked that name.”
“Jennifer is just Holly spelled with different letters,” said Minerva.
“Oh, yeah. Right.” Nick looked crestfallen. He didn’t want his daughter to be named Minerva, but he could see that the truth was that she was already Minerva. She had been going by that name for well over a year in her diary (which both Nick and Julie had secretly been reading, unbeknownst to Minerva or each other) and apparently there was no turning back.
When she publicly came out as Minerva, however, a strange thing happened which Minerva hadn’t foreseen. Holly did not die but continued to live on inside of her as an intrusive and sometimes argumentative voice which, alarmingly, she could not shut off. By the time she was in her 20s and studying to become a chemical engineer at the University of Inner Inner Darkipelago, Minerva had accepted that some stubborn and deviant part of her was always going to remain Holly.
Minerva was well aware that most people didn’t have a hidden persona living inside them, one who had her own opinions and impulses, and that such an arrangement would have struck them as odd and frightening. When she tried broaching the subject with her boyfriend, Arturo, it sounded as though she was talking about an imaginary friend from her childhood. But Holly was much more than that. She was someone else. Someone Minerva didn’t fully understand, though she herself had once been Holly for 15 years. When she had become Minerva, however, Holly continued developing on her own path and they were now very divergent women.
Holly didn’t have many nice things to say about Arturo. For starters, he was too young and far too stupid. Holly liked older men with jobs. She was always trying to get Minerva to pay more attention to their professors. Who had time to mess around with children like Arturo when there were grown men strolling about who already knew a thing or two? Men with beards and money. Minerva, of course, didn’t mention any of this to Arturo. She didn’t want to freak him out. He already thought that Minerva had her imaginary friend living inside of her, which was bad enough. Besides, Holly was right. Arturo was kind of stupid, but he was handsome and he had a really cool accent. He came from a tiny island in some far-flung territory called Langers. She had never even heard of Langers before. When she asked him what it was like growing up there, he just told her that the weather was nice and everybody got along and had a lot of fun and also a lot of children—but he said it in that accent of his which made everything sound fascinating. Holly unkindly pointed out that this was the only thing preventing Arturo from sounding like a moron. Eventually the charm would wear off. Minerva had to admit that Holly was probably right.
Not long after this, Minerva broke up with Arturo, and she wasn’t sure whose decision it had been. Arturo was shocked and devastated, and then he was angry. He called Minerva names which no one had ever called her before and told her she was crazy. Breaking up clearly wasn’t his idea, but she wasn’t sure if it was hers either.
* * *
Her parents, Nick and Julie, wrote Minerva long letters, filling her in on everything she was missing out on back home. They missed their only daughter so much it terrified them. How was it possible to feel so bereft for someone who wasn’t dead but was studying to become a chemical engineer on another island? Every parent knew that their child would abandon them one day and go out into the world and begin wreaking havoc, but it was still shocking and bewildering and painful. Was that what life was all about? Hard work which then paid off with shock, bewilderment, and pain?
They warned her never to have children, but also told her they couldn’t wait to have grandchildren. When was she going to meet some nice man and get married and have kids? They apologized for being so needy, demanding, and contradictory. Nick and Julie also missed reading Minerva’s diary, and urged her to write to them more often and with more personal detail. They wanted to know everything about her new life, especially the things she didn’t want them to know. Secret things. Her letters were like installments of the long-running saga that had been taking place for so many years in the tiny black bedroom at the rear of their house.
Sometimes Nick asked Minerva how Holly was getting along. Minerva had told her parents about the unusual phenomenon happening in her mind and soul, and of course they both found it concerning. But Nick decided that it was not his place to interfere in such a private matter. He accepted that Minerva knew her own mind. She was clearly a very capable and intelligent young woman. If Holly was still in there somewhere, well, so be it.
Julie didn’t like it, though. She said it sounded like Holly was trapped. Buried alive. Sealed away in a psychic sarcophagus. She even suggested that they hire a witch or perhaps a sorcerer to locate Holly and speak with her directly. She had never had an easy time with her daughter’s decision to change her name. She confided in Nick that she sometimes worried that Minerva was a usurper personality who had hijacked their daughter’s mind and forced her to become someone else. Nick downplayed this. He said that Minerva was their true daughter, the same little girl who had learned to walk and talk in their house and played with spiders and performed ritual human sacrifice with her dolls. If she had a hidden persona, well, that was just more of her to love.
“You are ridiculously optimistic,” chided Julie. “I wonder what you would say if a man arrived on our doorstep in a moment and informed us that the world was ending.”
“I would ask him inside for a cup of tea and some gingersnaps.”
“We never should have allowed her to paint her bedroom black, Nicolas. That was when it all started, if you ask me.”
Nick pointed out that he hadn’t asked her and that their daughter had been calling herself Minerva in her private diary—which they had both been secretly reading, they now knew—long before they had helped her paint her bedroom black.
“Well, it didn’t forestall matters! Maybe if we had just put down our foot and said, ‘No black bedrooms in this house!’ we wouldn’t have this crisis on our hands.”
“My god, you’re all hands and feet and tyranny all of a sudden,” said Nick.
“I’m worried about our only daughter!”
“Oh, don’t be such a tyrannical old fool, Julie.”
“I can’t help it. I’m such a complete and utter fool!” Julie laughed, reveling in her theatrical tyranny.
In his letters to Minerva, Nick often transcribed his conversations with Julie, word for word, and inevitably this began to affect the way he spoke to Julie since he knew that later he would write everything down exactly as he had said it. He didn’t want to have to write things that made him look dull or useless, so he ramped it up a bit, and once Julie found out that Nick was writing down everything she said and sending it off to Minerva, she tried to make herself sound entertaining. Both of them had studied acting when they were younger (they had met in a theater troupe that was touring Far Outer Darkipelago) and so they began to speak as though they were on a large stage, reciting lines from a script written by a brilliant and celebrated—though troubled—playwright.
When Minerva received these letters, she wondered what was going on back home. Her parents sounded nuts all of a sudden. But then she started reading their lines out loud and realized that they were just self-dramatizing, as usual. They were actors and therefore prone to this sort of theatrical, unscientific behavior. Sometimes she read passages from her letters to her chemistry friends, and they were near-universal in their praise and were also jealous that Nick and Julie had allowed her to paint her bedroom black and change her name to something cool like Minerva. They were all still named things like Jennifer, Todd, Kevin, and Melissa.
“Well, they’re theater people,” she explained. “They’re totally irrational. You have no idea what it’s like growing up with people like that teaching you right from wrong.”
“Are they anarchists?” asked one young man who took advantage of any situation to make Minerva look at him and answer a question.
“They aren’t organized enough to be anarchists, Zach. They’re too self-absorbed.”
Zach couldn’t believe that Minerva had remembered his name. He almost fainted.
“Sounds to me like they’re totally into you,” said Zach, who was desperately in love with the idea of his hopeless love for Minerva. “I think they love you so much it hurts.” Minerva frowned at Zach, and Zach blushed and looked at the floor.
Nick and Julie rapidly garnered a devoted following among the chemical engineering department of the University of Inner Inner Darkipelago, and when Minerva told them about this, they immediately jettisoned their real lives and began making everything up. It was now pure drama, which was their element. They wrote in collaboration. Holly sighed at the childishness of her former parents, but Minerva thought that it was sweet that they went to such trouble to keep her friends and colleagues in thrall. They were so cute, her aging, unsuccessful parents. Some of her classmates began to write to them directly, which was strange but probably harmless—as long as Zach wasn’t writing to them. She didn’t want Zach wheedling info out of her parents. Nick suggested that they could gather all of their letters into a book one day and publish it, but Julie was hesitant. She didn’t want to exploit their only daughter for personal gain. Nick pointed out that children were always exploiting their parents for personal gain and then abandoning them, so why not turn the tables for once?
* * *
One of her classmates did not care for Nick and Julie’s letters. His name was Titus. The first time Minerva saw Titus, Holly woke up and gasped inside of her (usually she fell asleep during chemistry class) and said, “He’s hiding someone.”
Minerva didn’t confront Titus with this. If he was hiding another persona inside of himself, that was his affair. Of all people in Darkipelago, Minerva had no right to judge him for having a hidden persona. But she couldn’t help but observe him. And of course Holly was right. If anyone in the room was equipped to suss out a hidden persona, it had to be Holly.
After class one day, Titus approached Minerva and said, “Well, I suppose there’s no point in pretending you don’t already know that I’m exactly like you.”
“Oh, um … hey, Titus!”
Titus was almost as excruciatingly handsome as Arturo, but he was also freakishly intelligent. He didn’t have a cool accent, though, which made him sound kind of boring. Minerva blushed and Holly sighed.
“When I was 15 my parents helped me paint my bedroom black and I changed my name to Titus. Blah, blah, blah. You know the rest of the story.”
“What was your original name? I mean, what’s your true name?”
Minerva was astonished. Holly had taken control for a moment and voiced these questions aloud in the voice Minerva only ever heard inside her head.
“Bobby. My name is Bobby.” Titus frowned. Minerva knew that the same thing had just happened to him. Bobby and Holly were talking to each other.
Titus cleared his throat. “Um … yeah. When I changed my name to Titus everybody suddenly assumed that I was rich and arrogant when I had always been poor and shy. But then I did become arrogant. And someday I’ll be rich, I suppose.”
“I always thought you were mean and arrogant,” admitted Minerva.
“And I always thought that you would someday exterminate men from Darkipelago.”
“I get that a lot from men. Women just think I’m a sex fiend or something.”
“Names really do influence how people see you, don’t they?” Titus laughed. “But I really don’t like these letters from your parents. They sound too much like the letters I get from my parents.”
“Are your parents unsuccessful actors?”
“They’re unsuccessful playwrights, and my mother has recently taken up pottery and my father is weaving carpets in his garage.”
Minerva winced. Holly sighed. Bobby grinned. Titus burped and excused himself with a grimace. Talking about his parents gave him acid reflux.
After this short exchange, Minerva found it impossible not to acknowledge Titus. If she didn’t talk to him, it was as though she were ignoring him on purpose. He obviously felt the same way, which made things even more awkward. The thing that they shared which differentiated them from everyone else obligated them to communicate. On top of this, Holly was in love with Bobby and was continually goading Minerva into approaching Titus who was having the same pressure put on him.
“He’s so shy and cute,” remarked Holly.
“Titus isn’t shy or cute at all. He’s arrogant and dashingly handsome.”
“I’m not talking about Titus, Minerva. I’m talking about Bobby.”
“What’s Bobby like?”
“He’s adorable in a goofy sort of way. And he has freckles.”
“Freckles? You’re into freckles? Are we really so different?”
“You’re nothing like me,” scoffed Holly.
* * *
As a concession to their hidden personas, Titus and Minerva became lab partners. That was as far as they were willing to take things for the moment. They were both attractive and intelligent, and it would take a monumental effort to pretend that this wasn’t the case, but they simply didn’t like each other all that much. For the sake of their hidden personas, however, they agreed to spend at least some time together and have conversations about random topics and do things like lying down next to each other on the beach at night and gazing up at the stars while holding hands.
Darkipelagans were generally quite truthful. It was just part of their culture. They could be deceptive, but it was rare for them to tell outright lies. Something about living in an archipelago surrounded by never-ending ocean promoted fairness of mind. Life was hard enough without everyone going around trying to get one over on their fellow Darkipelagans. So when their classmates asked them if they were together, Titus and Minerva didn’t know how to respond. Their situation was irregular. It was clear that something was going on between them, but their claim that they were just lab partners rang false. All the other lab partners glanced at each other and frowned. Did lab partners lie on the beach at night holding hands? Did they whisper into each other’s ears? Why were they lying? What were they covering up? Everyone in the department knew about Holly, but no one knew about Bobby. Bobby was shy and enjoyed the anonymity of being a hidden persona. The thought of suddenly being in the floodlights in front of all these people terrified him.
Word got back to Nick and Julie about what was going on. By now they were in regular correspondence with several of the chemistry students. Titus was furious and looked frighteningly arrogant when Minerva was reading along from one of her letters one afternoon and Nick suddenly asked about him. Was Titus her new boyfriend?
Minerva hadn’t had time to skim through the letter beforehand and sometimes she grew bored and didn’t pay much attention to the meaning of the actual words she was saying (she had been trained as an actor as a child) but Titus’s name snapped her back to herself. She could see that everyone was rapt, waiting for the next line of dialogue. But Titus was glaring at her. She didn’t know what to do.
“Read the next line,” demanded Holly. “Or I will.”
Minerva looked at the next line, which was written in her mother’s hand. She saw what it said. “Is Titus like you? Does he also have a hidden persona?”
How in the world had it ever occurred to Julie to make such a reckless and yet accurate leap, wondered Minerva. Mother’s intuition? And didn’t these irresponsible people realize that everything they wrote would be read out loud in front of the entire class? How could two people who were so unsuccessful and irresponsible fall in love and get married and have a child? It was just breathtaking.
Titus stood up and cleared his throat. Everyone was already looking at him. He said, “When I was a boy my name was Bobby.” Before anyone could ask, he said, “And yes, my parents were also unsuccessful artist types who let me paint my bedroom black and change my name to something cool like Titus.”
Surprising herself, Minerva began to cry. She never cried. It just didn’t go with her name. Holly cried all the time, but no one could see her. Everyone could see Minerva crying and it made them feel very uneasy. It was like watching a celebrated actress lose her nerve and rush off the stage in terror.
From that day onward, however, Minerva and Titus were often seen holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes and sometimes even touching each other’s faces and kissing with a tenderness so pronounced it made their onlookers sigh. Everyone in the chemistry department was very moved at these displays of affection, and of course they made jokes about the perfect chemistry between them. Minerva and Titus remained lab partners and spoke to their colleagues as they always had, but when they spoke to each other, everyone noted, they used voices which sounded nothing at all like their normal voices and which they never used with anyone else.
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