My story begins on the 25th of April, 1992; it is not an exact account nor does it have a specific purpose. My aim is simply to tell - not to teach, preach, or bore. I am not simply a messenger. I was actually there. This actually happened to me. But, so as to preserve my fading pride and attempt to learn more about my own experience and therefore myself, I will do my best to remain at the sideline. I will speak as a messenger, though I am, in actuality, the star of the story.
It is morning. I stand by the stairs sipping orange juice, dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and ratty blue jeans. My hair has not been combed. I am aware of the fact but do nothing to change it. I am not dressing to please. My sister, the beauty queen, is precisely the opposite. I watch her dance down the stairs wearing bouncy curls on her head and a trendy mask on her face and body. I do not envy her. If I were a girl in a society unlike our own I would be perfectly content - or, for that matter, far more comfortable - wearing cozy pajama pants and an oversized shirt. Whether I possess the strength to do that, here, given the exceedingly impossible chance, I have yet to find out.
"Karen," calls Mom, and we both turn, my view slightly blocked by my sister's big hair. She has, of course, forgotten to grab a bite to eat in all her rush to look glamorous. Someday she will realize how much more valuable an apple can be than a tub of lip gloss. After a sip here and a daub there, we are off. When I say "we" I am simply stating that both of us go, not that we go together. On the contrary, she skips ahead to meet and greet with friends and other than friends and I skulk along behind, alone, in my own space and my own thoughts and with an entirely different purpose.
3:00 PM arrives and we dash out of there. The end of the school day does not signify freedom, but it does allow us temporary escape from the drudges of routine. A few hours later, we will be forced to work once again, first in our rooms doing homework and later imprisoned inside that concrete trap for another terrible day.
I did not always view school this way. As a kid I loved it. The activities were fun, the people were nice, and there was always a snack waiting for me. Now the rewards are far and few between and the cons are all too evident. I am taught, but I hardly learn. I am constantly surrounded by others, but I feel more alone by the day. I am not emerging; I am sinking.
Karen basks in popularity and the joy of being a beautiful teenager. I wonder if she hates it too.
We're nearly home, my sister's friends having gone their separate ways and the two of us dragging our backpacks along the sidewalk. Naturally, we are silent. This time I am in front, taking long, pointless strides in my desire to return home - not to peace and quiet, of course, but to the dark that strangely comforts me. Karen walks along somewhere in the distance. She doesn't have perfect posture now. No one is watching. I hear the clink of her heels, but they tap ordinarily now. Not "tap-ta-tap-tap-tap-ta-tap" but "tap . . . tap . . . tap," the glow gone. I think she wishes she could be back there, in the steel box, bored. There she had people to listen to her complaints. Here she only has random cars and passersby, and me. The curls have lost their bounce.
When we get to the door, we find it slightly ajar. My sister looks a bit worried but tries not to show it. I slowly press the door open and enter the house. Everything is normal, nothing out of place or out of the ordinary. In fact, it is all perfectly aligned, incredibly organized - maybe a little too perfect. There is a note on the kitchen counter that reads, "At a meeting, back by 7:30. Fresh bagels are in the cupboard. Love, Mom." Karen sighs and goes upstairs. I settle into the couch and enjoy an egg bagel and a random talk show. Without a parent around to bug me, I can do whatever I like. Of course, there's nothing I particularly like, so I do what calms me: I veg.
7:30 rolls around and the people onscreen continue to scream and curse at each other. I lost track of the accusations long ago. I think the one in black stole the one with a blue barrette's boyfriend. Maybe she ate him or bought him a hot dog. I hardly see the difference. I hear a faint meow. The cat, Scruffy, must be hungry, but I haven't finished my Fritos yet and I still want to know whether John really slept with Ann Marie. Karen comes downstairs and asks why I haven't fed the cat. I shrug and turn up the volume on the television set. She grumbles and gives the fur ball milk and sushi or whatever it is cats eat.
Suddenly I realize that it's gotten dark out. "Where's Mom?" I ask. Karen obviously doesn't know and hardly cares, and she sticks left-over pizza in the toaster oven. This worries me. My mother is very neurotic, as evident by the neatness of our house. She is never late. The phone rings as a chill runs down my spine.
I hardly know how to contemplate what I've just been told. I cannot let it sink in; I cannot let it change me. I am, after all, on my own. This is nothing new. I am always alone. I am always in my own space, my own thoughts. No one else controls me, at least not without permission. I am not a puppet. I am a conductor.
I am always the conductor. I must be in control. So how do I react when I don't know how to maneuver my way through the situation? For the moment, I eat Jell-O.
The talk-show is ending and the extreme ordeals of those on the show are once again a blur. After the curses are over, I can no longer drown in the sorrows of others. Their world was once a painful, pathetic, indulgent escape, and now it is simply someone else's life. I am not in that sphere anymore and I must gather enough courage to fight my way through my own. As I am walking blindly now, I hardly think to look. What is the point of looking when I have not determined what I'm looking for?
The lights are out. Whether they are truly dimmed I have no idea, and it doesn't matter. For me it is all dark. There is no light at the end of my tunnel for I'm not sure there's even an end. Normally I would find refuge in my thoughts or in the arms of someone loved. If I ever find my mother's arms again, I will find them bruised, burned, scattered or broken, likely decomposed.
You may find my frankness unsettling, but know that it has not come easily. Once the shock passed, I was consumed by an overwhelming feeling of sickness - utter disgust. After a week I passed out and awoke two days later in a hospital bed, nurses tending to my wounds. My arms were tied to the bed. I don't expect to remember anytime soon, even if I become physically able, how I got my scars.
I stare at my hands and then at the clock. Then I study the leather beneath me and take in a whiff of the artifacts. There are eight buttons on my sweater and nine threads on one belt loop. So far I have counted forty-nine cracks on my bottom lip. By the end of the month there will be one hundred and forty-three. This will all be calculated in due time, of course, and possibly sooner. The fact that it will be done is completely solid. It will be done.
Finally I hear footsteps and a door creaking and softly being pressed closed. I shut my eyes and wish the door to my childhood home had been closed the day my mother died. I will it so, but I have no passion for the wish. I cannot change the past and I know that I might not be here if what happened hadn't happened. I might have tripped on a roller skate the following day and caused my mother grief. Pain is inevitable and unchangeable. I don't live my days in regret, no matter how hard it is to have nowhere to return for Thanksgiving each year. The past has made me who I am; the past has brought me here. I may run from my past but in the end I am the one running and not being chased. I will be the one to choose where to go and I will be the one to put one foot down, then the other. I am the only one responsible and the only one capable. Still, those marks on my arms and forehead are to stay with me.
"Jeannie was the broker. She handled numbers too well." I scratch my neck uneasily.
Glancing at the floor, I see two brown legs crossed, adorned by two proud feet that tick and tock in fancy-shmancies. I wonder if this is worth my time. Time is precious, after all . . . or is it all good for nothing? Change occurs, of course, but time doesn't make change - that's the job of people. We make ideas and turn them into action and, if the barriers of time allow and if we invest enough, change happens, for better or worse. Yet when it comes to our instincts and our drive, people remain the same. We cannot move in leaps and bounds. Ten years have passed, but frighteningly tidy rooms continue to alarm me. I am still weak and I still grieve. To pretend that the loss has done nothing to me would be to lie. To deny my feelings would be to deny the chance to heal or nourish them. And isn't that the point? To fix me? To heal and change me?
I know that I am forever affected. What I don't know is how I can make everyday life easier to endure. When the next door opens, I want to swallow not gulp. But this woman does not know me. She cannot define me if I cannot define myself. That is impossible. I doubt she understands herself.
I came here for a reason, though. I might as well finish out the hour. If this is a crock, I will leave. If this is the answer, I will listen.
"What are you thinking about?"
I look up and finally face her. The eyes are genuinely concerned and the mind intrigued. As she sips her coffee, I struggle to find the words to explain my skepticism. I do not want to insult her, for I have nothing against her. But she has a notepad and a pencil ready to scribble furiously the moment I give her a lead. I must be careful. She might draw me incorrectly and forever leave a scratch on paper; and I know from experience that scratches cannot be erased.
How can I smudge the lines? . . . . "How can you change me?"
I do not expect an answer. But the tick and tock have ended and her eyes, facing mine, are moist. She understands, and that is all I need for now.
The sun bleaches out all things and nothing matters. I am running carelessly, into the light, into the sky, into everything good and pure and innocent, everything easy and familiar. Suddenly warmth surrounds me, my mother's arms clutching me tightly as if only I matter. I am grinning and I know it, twirling around and into the breeze with hair wherever it pleases. Squinting, I can't help but giggle and sink into all that is special and good. I am too young to take the beauty for granted and every bit is wonderfully juicy and filled with love.
Now I am flying, up and away, in tune with earth and clouds. Freefalling, then rising, I'm leaping - but safe. I soar up to the leaves and the beginning of a new somewhere and suddenly down, down I go, out of the new world and tumbling to my own. But I'm stopped. Caught once more in a web of utter comfort, I know that I am safe. And then I'm ready, given a nudge, and I am off again to that wonderful, scary, free place in between the grass and the stars, and it is wonderful.
There is no fear, no paranoia, no anxiety, no boredom, no sadness, no emptiness, for every moment is momentous, every experience new and unique. Life is an adventure and Mom is my map, my blanket, my tent. Kicked to the sand, she pulls me up again and I am complete, brand new and ready to wander, to discover, to conquer, to live.
"The weather looks bright and clear for tomorrow. Temperatures should reach the mid-seventies. Dress appropriately, and bring an umbrella along for some possible afternoon showers."
Meteorologists are notorious liars. They also tend to wear hair pieces.
Below me, the pavement must be sweltering. I sense the steam rising and thank boots my feet are covered. Looking down, I see my shadow and wonder if there can't be more than this simple silhouette, this outline that seems to confine me in its attempts to define me. Or maybe it's real. Maybe I really am a mere imitation, a fossil of my former self. No, I wasn't grand and hulking once, but neither was I as meek as now.
In this dark imprint of my lowly figure, I appear as flimsy and perishable as a paper doll. But I can move on my own, and I call my own shots. I will not allow myself to drop at any instant. My humanity will not allow for that.
The sidewalk is bustling and it reeks of grease. Overwhelming puffs of heat and debris rise out through the vents of each manhole, and birds are almost plastered to telephone lines. Everything is overbearing, so loud and chaotic that it reaches me only in filthy, motionless silence.
A cell phone rings and breaks through the fog. Moments and rings later, I realize that the culprit is inside my own tote.
"Hey! Would five o'clock work for you?"
"If I can get through the crowds, I'll be there." If I can get past my fears and escape my hesitation and resentment, I will go. Something about my shadow's weak demeanor has called on me to exceed it - to defeat it.
I'm hiding under the table, covered by a blanket, examining the wood. At any second she might pop out and chase me and I will be forced to run, not knowing where I'm going, not remembering why I am running. I will not remember what to touch or how to shout, if I even remember where I'm supposed to reach. "Catch me, catch me, as fast as you can . . . you can't catch me-" "Yes I can." And then I will scream and I will run and she will become a monster.
I'm under the bed, where the ghosts and goblins lie, next to the dust and lint. I'm shivering, condensing, afraid of what's to come. Soon the long, dark, twirling strands of hair will fall beneath the dustcover and touch the floor, inching closer. I will see the boogey man cackling, reflected on her shiny mane. She was blessed with beauty and an air of serenity, and she uses her gifts unkindly. Some young fear what's in the closet or inside a trundle; I see those places as safe havens. I am luckily small enough to fit.
Finally, I rally my nerves and peek out. Bad idea - there are two of them now! She has assembled the troops. I let out a shrill, inhuman shriek and they counter with laughter. I am all alone. She has weapons and comrades, and I have none. So I cower once more and cling to my blanket, fastened now to the rug. Who are these soldiers and why are they out to get me? I break into tears, unable to recognize these people or this place. This is not a game.
Suddenly I'm in the air and there is warmth around me. I have a savior all my own and she's waiting with sliced fruit and animal crackers. My cheeks are quick to dry. Now my opponents are enjoying the feast as well, and they are welcome. The princess smiles as she takes a bite, exchanging glances and whispers with her friend. I have been spared and I no longer exist to the enemy. I am hidden to all but the one who cares, and she gives just me a wink.
I push open the door and look around. The café is packed with people and chairs strewn about, with the ever familiar aroma of freshly baked coffee beans - that, and the less appealing sweat. I clench my teeth as the door slams shut behind me. My watch agrees with the public clock. Five o'clock it is. I thought I was the one running.
There she is, hardly recognizable to me now. Nothing glitters; she is anything but the girl I once knew. She sits at a table in the far corner, wearing a green sweatshirt and a ponytail, sipping from a mug and reading the newspaper. There is an honesty to her gaze that makes me stand in awe before I walk forward to face my past.
"Karen," I say unnecessarily, and she looks up at me, half surprised, half relieved. I wonder if she has dreaded this too.
She smiles a bit. "Thank you for coming. I know I haven't kept in touch as much as I could have." I look down, quietly ashamed. Had she not contacted me, I would still think of her only on occasion, and I doubt that I would have taken the initiative to find her. It has been far too long.
When Mom died, Karen stopped going out. I cannot say much more than that because I wasn't taken long after. Things might have gone differently if I had known my sister, but that was not the case. This is the first I have seen of her since adolescence. I cannot say that she is family, and I cannot say that I am a friend. When I was locked up, she did not visit me, not once. When I graduated, I celebrated alone over a pint of ice cream. A decade later, this is the extent of my cheering brigade, and I haven't a clue whether she even plans on cheering. How can you cheer for someone you do not know - someone who hasn't tried to know you?
I sit down carefully as we make small talk and attempt to rebuild the hundreds of ties we lost with time. Some we simply pretend to remember, for we were never close. The task is not viable and the goal we have yet to determine. But this is my relative, made of my blood and carrying with her memories of a past I have tried so hard to overcome. She may remember more than I do. She may have chosen to. Though she does not, I imagine, know it now - even as she senses some purpose of her own - and though I'm not sure even I do, she may very well play a vital part in my recovery.
"Recovery." Is that the word? Is that the issue? I am not so certain. Yes, I was hurt, and yes, much of it was my own doing. I inflicted pain on myself as a way of dealing with the pain I already felt. Did I succeed? No. Will I someday? If I can. I continue to search for some grand answer, if one indeed exists. Yet I am not sure that what I endured was all wrong. I needed to know that I had caused pain that I could heal. Now I live with the scars. I need to know that I can heal.
"I know that it had a big impact on you," she tells me. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there for you."
Fighting back emotion, I try to respond. "I didn't even call you. I didn't even . . . contact you."
"It wasn't the time," she says. "But we are both here now." Through wet eyes I'm smiling and I think she can see. I need my sister and she needs me. I took my time, and now I must move forward. There is a hand to hold and the comfort of a decaf. There are people who will listen, once I will speak.
The ceiling is low and laden with cracks and strips of peeling paint. Handprints have soiled the walls that surround me, daubs of maroon and black and despair seeping into the corner of my eye. I will be just another mark, another case, another victim, assailant, a life. I do not know where I've been taken or who it was that took me. I cannot say if I resisted - if I kicked or screamed or ripped. I don't know what I broke or when I broke it. I know only that I am alive; that I feel.
Is this a sting or a burn, a paper cut or razorblade, my life or what I may be reduced to? Is this all that is left?
Thud. And another. At least something inside me is working right. If a pulse is all I have and all I hear, then I have, if nothing else, a pulse. Though my blood may move in circles, at least, even if my legs can never again, it moves. There is something of substance - something with the capacity to boil and clot, to provide and infect, make real, make imperfect.
My bare necessity will always be my venom.
And I look left and it's oozing, out of my thumb and into the sea, or the tomb, or, if there is nothing, the wall. Concrete masking what may only be a list. I am etching something, leaving something, even if to me it seems nothing.
I yawn, open jaws I cannot feel, and take in wind. I am lacking. I bite the apple and swallow stale nothingness, for it is all I am able to taste. With no compass and a dry canteen, the path exists only where I step on it, so I tread mercilessly and walk on frozen ground. My wounds have closed, the paint run dry, and all I have is what I ask for, all I need is what I am able to take in. All that is left is what has the potential to become more than simply lost treasures.
I have not healed. My body and mind are marked forever, from loss, from pain, from grief, confusion, loneliness, from a search for reason and necessity. I still deal with the effects of emotion . . . of humanity and mortality. I do not know where exactly I am headed, but I know, if little else, that I am heading somewhere. My tunnel ends in light.
(Written in 2002)