The Shape of an 8

I have, since the dawn of my handwriting career, drawn the number eight as a continuous line. I begin at around 2 o’clock on the the eight’s upper curve, wrap counter clockwise around its head and down into the southern hemisphere, reverse direction to cradle its bum and sweep back up to swing just past the starting point in a bit of unintentional sloppiness.

Recently, while logging a stack of handwritten checks at work, I came across one of those unconventional eights I see every now and then: the circle on circle eight. This eight is like the wheat penny of eight-making; I typically see one and think, huh, neat, and move along. But this time I was struck by its playfulness. The writer had even left a little gap between the two circles, inviting in a kind of animation, like its two halves we’re saying, “Yeah, we’re not touching. What of it? You still get the point.” That eight was a fuck-you to number-making. And I wanted to follow it to whatever party it was headed to after this one.

Until now, I’ve had no cause to part with my eight—a surprise considering the carefully coordinated stylistic changes I’ve made to other characters in my personal font. I’ve had two separate stints with the closed-top 4; a brief period with the straight-tailed y; an even briefer one with typewriter a. I never did the saccharine hearts over i’s, but I did commit to a hollow circle dot from about ages 10-12. The most recent change I’ve made is adding a horizontal lines to my 7s, in order to distinguish them from carelessly executed 1s.

It’s worth pointing out that most of this formal experimentation happened before I exited the halls of adolescence. Middle and high school—at least, in the pre-digitized 1990s—was a time when one’s penmanship was regularly put to use: workbooks, dittos, group projects, handwritten notes, in-class essays. (Who knows if this stuff still goes on? I assume high school students do everything on iPads, smart phones, or, at the least, sticky desktops. My high school had approximately one computer for every 100 students.) It was also a time when defining yourself was a task of great social import, and every shred of your puny existence mattered. I wanted a messy ponytail, but only if the lumps along my scalp were uniformly haphazard; I preferred my Chuck Taylors dirty because it meant I wasn’t prissy; I wouldn’t wear jean cut-offs until the first wash and dry, when their fray was in fuller bloom, as though its volume said more about me than my obsessive exactness.

Handwriting signified something more intimate than physical appearance, something that couldn’t be as easily manipulated. Like our awkward locker room nudity, our handwriting hinted at the truth we were trying so desperately to conceal. Many girls settled on a safe, bubbly font, some wrote on a slant like their mothers, some—like my sister—wrote like nine-year-old boys (still does). My handwriting was large and erratic with a hint of femininity that had gone awry, like a doll left out in the yard all winter. My hand struggled to keep up with my thoughts. Letters rushed past each other like people lining up in at an airline terminal. This is still an issue. Sometimes I try to write neater but by the time I reach the end of a document I realize my writing has ended up back at a jagged mess of cross-outs and inconsistencies.

The least I could do was manipulate the styles of individual letters and numbers. I don’t remember why I chose those particular modifications listed above; I must have been thinking: I want to be the type of girl that uses a closed-top four. I have no recollection of what type of girl I thought that was. Sophisticated? Artful? Quirky? I know only that it seemed imperative that I alter my 4 if I wanted my true self to be represented.

And now I am faced with the stacked circle 8, whose radicalness is blinding. I experiment with a few on a post-it; the act feels dangerous and fresh and exhilarating, like the way marital affairs are portrayed on television. I sense the approach of that familiar awakening: that this was my eight all along, and will bring me closer to my arrival as a complete person.

Am I foolish for chasing after the empty, temporary empowerment of self-reinvention? Will I look back and see this as the nascent stages of a midlife crisis? What’s the difference between a new 8 and a new car/spouse/job/city/set of boobs? (That’s rhetorical.)

Perhaps this quest is not adolescent or midlife, but humiliatingly ongoing. I have filled the years since my number-revisions with the continual pursuit of self-translation: the rectangularity of my glasses, the way I sit before yoga class begins,  the introduction of the word “likewise” into my conversational lexicon. I’m forever curating an imagined version of myself that remains one unrealized detail away, neglecting to recognize that a self is both fixed and fluid, malleable and inescapable.

For someone to even notice my new eight, they’d have to know I had a previous eight, and I cannot think of a single person (including intimate family) who is familiar with the nuances of my handwriting. Even if someone did notice, I’m (mostly) aware that the shape of an 8 cannot communicate anything valuable about my life. A half-hearted google search teaches me that engineers and architects often use the stacked circle eight to adhere to technical lettering styles. One message board calls people who use this eight “the scum of the earth” and equates them with serials killers. A woman named Alice confesses on Quora: “I saw Robin Williams do it in Mrs. Doubtfire and I loved it. Been writing this way ever since.”

Like Alice, my circle eight infatuation is harmlessly self-serving. Trading eights is like putting on a sexy pair of underwear that no one will ever see, but that just makes you feel sexier. The new 8 is a catalyst whose greater purpose is to tap into my finite, dormant reserve of recklessness. For a minute it will make me feel wild and fun (or perhaps like an engineer serial killer) and will just as soon lose its luster. I expect to return to the old eight out of familiarity or novelty or sensory memory, and it will take me back with benevolence, wise to the ways of my transient appetites.