When I am nine (or maybe ten), a teacher in my school is reprimanded for showing Nazi camp films. If you ask me now, I can’t recall if she showed them to the entire class or only to me, but I can still see a pyre of bodies, skin barely draped over skeleton, the black and white of a television screen creating a filter, a sort of dissonance between me and the horrors flashed across the screen. At the time I didn’t understand what I was seeing — the unimaginable, conceived by a man who sought to extinguish an entire race of people. But in that moment I’m a child bearing witness to bodies that resemble the kind I’ve seen overdosed in parks and alongside dumpster bins in the backs of supermarkets. You compare that which you see to that which you know because in childhood there exists no context — the bodies in the film seem like the bodies on the street, only there are more of them. So much more. Years later I’ll come to understand that atrocity isn’t a game of rock-paper-scissors.
My teacher clasps a silver bracelet adorned with seashells around my wrist, and although I now consider her behavior unsettling, back then it felt good to be wanted. It felt good to be loved. I tell this story to one of my friends who has an infant daughter, and the way she arranges her face in response gives me pause. She can’t imagine her daughter being exposed to a body writhing and releasing under the elevated subway near the park. She can’t fathom having to explain the brutal and systematic annihilation of a people to a small child. My friend is less disturbed by my teacher’s behavior than my reaction to it. I shrug. When you witness death as often as I have, you become immune to its horror. Death’s like a house, you tell her, where all the lights flicker and flare out.
In high school, I learn that the teacher died of a heart attack, and she died alone.
My high school principal orders me to see a therapist, weekly — a deal we come to after I get into some minor (okay, not so minor) trouble — and I think, I must be crazy now. Nobody I know is in therapy and if they are they wouldn’t dare talk about it. At the intake session, my mother does most of the talking about how she’s ashamed of having to be here, how this session inconveniences her, and with what money is she supposed to pay this therapist? And by the way, she doesn’t believe in therapy because people who can’t solve their problems are weak. Gus sits mute, shielding his eyes, while I shuffle uncomfortably in my seat. I’ve grown used to these rants but rarely do they play out publicly, and here we are, my mother paying $50 for an hour where she talks about herself and me wondering when the session will end. My mother storms out and I know she’s sitting in the car, smoking a cigarette down to the filter and then she’ll smoke another until she’s gone through the pack. In a small voice, the therapist asks me how I feel. How do I feel? Angry, I say. I’m angry. She asks me why, and I think, not why, who. I’m so angry with her. I gesture to the door as if it’s the woman in the car.
A few months later, I graduate high school and my deal with the principal is over. My therapist is concerned and wants me to stay on for the summer, possibly through the fall. I laugh at the possibility of therapy being something I’m not forced into. Besides, I’m going to college in the Bronx, practically a whole other country away from my mother. Trains and subway lines lay between us. I’m practically cured, I say. More importantly, I’m free.
Part of me wonders what would have happened if I’d stayed on. Who imagines the years stretching ahead of them, a childhood blanket unfurling under their feet leading the way back to a dark country that’s familiar (this reminds me of…) yet unnavigable? Instead, you think about being infinite. All you see is possibility and your desire to be smothered by it.
You go to $5 drink-ups. You pound fifty-cent drafts. Zima is a big deal because it’s in a bottle and when you’re flush you ask for it infused with grenadine. Wine is a bottle of Boone’s Country you carry back from the bodega on Fordham Road — one that doesn’t card, one that doesn’t care to as long as you pay cash — and drink until the room goes black. You wiggle into too-tight jeans and leave the dorm during the winter wearing a thin long-sleeved shirt, but you’re warm from the pre-game, from the bottle of Absolut mixed with the Minute Maid you stole from the cafeteria. All your stories start with: that time when I was drunk…and even after you graduate you still tell those stories while your friends have moved away and tell new ones.
Every room in the dorm has a whiteboard the size of a notebook, a place where we’d leave notes for friends because there are no cell phones and we type our papers on Word processors. One night, my best friend at the time gets into a drunken argument with her boyfriend and leaves me stranded in Manhattan. I’m not sure how I get home but I remember my roommate shaking me awake in the morning, saying, holy shit, what did you write on her door? I cocoon myself with my comforter and see what I scrawled two doors down. A single line repeated in timid script: How could you leave me?
I attempt therapy again during my junior year in college. I wear the floral babydoll dresses everyone wears, layered over a tight white shirt. Possibly paired with a choker, but this isn’t 90210, this is me sitting in an old man’s office where he tells me about my drinking problem. I’m furious. I just met you, I say, and storm out because if I time it just right…if I change my clothes and pick up a slice in the caf, I could make it to $1 well drinks. I could feel the warmth of the first four drinks swathing me like soft blankets.
I never stop to think that if you replace my drink with a cigarette, I would be my mother shaking her knee in the car, thinking, you don’t know me. You don’t know me at all.
My friend picks me up at a Metro North station Connecticut in her beat-up Saab. The road closes to clean and quiet as we make our way into a nearby town, and this is the kind of place where you don’t have cell reception. A genteel town cloaked in fireflies and deciduous trees, and I joke about getting murdered in the house in which I’m staying and the fact that it would take months before anyone would find me. My friend shakes her head and says, matter-of-factly, no, the maid would probably find you.
It’s summer and I’m spending the weekdays holed up in the guesthouse of what would be considered a compound. We drive over a wooden bridge and a maid materializes explaining that the sensors alerted her of our arrival. Before us is a mansion, and its presence frightens me more than any horror movie. We make our way to the guesthouse and my friend asks me about the woman who has generously lent me use of her summer home so I could finish my first book. You didn’t tell me she was old money rich, she says, to which I respond, how was I supposed to know? Everyone in New York carries a Prada bag.
The guesthouse is spare, outfitted in leather couches and chairs and the decor is nautical, masculine. The rooms smell of oak and the upstairs bathroom is the size of my first apartment. I run up and down the stairs a few times for the feel of it, because I’ve never lived in a home divided by two floors. The guesthouse is next to a pool, pool house and tennis court, and I spend most of my days reading by still water and nights watching Godard films. There’s no cable or internet, only an ocean of black night and quiet, and even though I’m in awe of a life that is moneyed, cultured and educated (I’ve never heard of Godard until that summer), the home feels cold, alienating and severe.
My friend, whose family owns the home, visits me for a weekend and she’s writing her own book about growing up wealthy and being shipped off to a conversion cult camp for the affluent — military school meets EST cult, but the way she describes it is like the Manson Family minus the murders. After dinner, she invites me into what I’ve called “The Big House”. I refuse. How do I explain that the guesthouse exceeds my limits, that the mansion would be too much? She shrugs and we turn in for the night.
Come morning, there is only what can be described as a typhoon. My friend’s mother has arrived along with her case of wine for the weekend. She drinks Sancerre, and I meet her in the kitchen of The Big House, watching her as she goes about her day holding an always-full glass. It’s not even eight in the morning, and my friend will tell me later that this is how she always remembers her mother — elegant, holding a glass. I feel strange in the house, as if at any moment I would be found out for some unspeakable crime I’d committed or electrocuted for touching the finery. I tell my friend I’m on a heater with this book and I’ll be in the guesthouse working through the weekend. My friend nods and I notice within a half hour her mother slurs her words.
When they leave on Sunday, I come out from my hiding place. I can finally breathe.
I don’t know why I’m talking about this, I tell my psychiatrist this week. I tell him about a sticker collection I kept when I was small. I’d fill books with scratch & sniff, Lisa Frank and Mrs. Grossman, and they were a bright, glaring mess. It was the book made by a child who doesn’t understand order but desires only that which is beautiful. Then I tell him about the trips my mother would take with and without me to create books of her own. The arrangement of her pages was painstakingly precise, filled with negative space while mine was a crowded house, beer spilling onto the floor. Hers was always bigger, more, and soon I stopped collecting altogether and moved on to lanyard and friendship bracelets, a hobby she took up too.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I repeat.
I come home the summer before my sophomore year in college and I go through my things to see what can be kept and discarded. My friend comes by because we have plans for wine coolers at Jones Beach, and she sees the sticker books — mother’s and mine — spread out on the floor. While paging through the books, confusion washes her face.
Later, in the car, my friend starts to speak and reconsiders. That was weird, she says. Really weird.
We don’t talk about it again.
I don’t know why I told you all of this, I say to my psychiatrist before our time is up.
My first image of a writer is Jack Nicholson in The Shining. A drunk burdened by history. I see the film in a theater when I am five and my first impression is: there’s so much red.
Are you worried about being vulnerable, about how hard it will be to let someone in, my psychiatrist asks. Is this a hypothetical or real life? Are we talking about friendships or lovers? He says, real life. Both, either or. I oscillate between I think about it all the time and I try not to think about it at all.
In 2013, I travel to Biarritz in the off-season and it rains most days and is cold on others. I spend most of my time staring at the barnacles that blanket all the rocks on the beach. A lone surfer comes in with the tide and come nightfall I run back to the small inn on the beach and I write a story that, in two year’s time would turn into a novel, about a woman who moves to California after her mother dies of cancer. True, the main character is Ted Bundy with a whisk, and sure, there’s a serial killer that may or not may the main character (or it could her 3o-year-old step-brother who talks to his imaginary friend, Lionel, as in Lionel Barrymore, the actor and also the name of a lighter their mother carried with her until her death), but it’s about a journey out west. The book is about familial loss.
Last year your mother dies of cancer and it’s complicated. Her daughter makes it her mission to remind you of your duty because you are rotten, mythically evil. You’re quiet through all of this because this girl, this stranger, is your mother’s daughter, and she is still, for all intents and purposes, a child. She only knows the world her mother created for her, as you once knew the one she fictioned for you. All you wanted to do is say goodbye on your own terms, but no one allows you your grief — they only remind you of your duty, of everything you always and continuously have to give. Remember, your role in your mother’s death is not about grieving. It’s not about closure or quiet or last words exchanged between two complicated women, your role in all of this is to take care of a stranger, the do-over child, who’s the same age as you were when you left home. And you look at the list of people who harass you on her behalf, and you think she has multitudes. She has a version of your mother you would never know.
Why is it always your job to care for broken people? Can no one dress their own wounds? Must you always hold the bandages? Always you were reaching. Always you woke in the night and learned how to change the bandages in the places that were hard to reach. When, you think, will there be peace from all those who want you to tender, to save? When, you wonder, will someone grip your shoulder and say, don’t worry. I got this for you.
A month after she dies, you decide to move to California.
I’ve spent my entire life fearing all the things that could possibly kill me. I panic on planes. I don’t drink, smoke or take drugs because that’s like flashing a Vacancy sign to the afterlife. Sometimes I bolt up from where I’m sitting and think: I’m going to die. I will no longer be here. Over the years, I’ve created a set of breathing exercises in preparation for the kind of terror that blows in like a hurricane, devastating everything in its wake. I’ve spent my life being aware of time, and here I am, a warm day in February, wanting nothing more than permanent sleep. My college best friend calls me from work, terrified over something I posted online and subsequently deleted. I bite my lip so hard it bleeds when I tell her I’m fine, just fine, and she sees right through me and begs me to get help. At first I don’t do it for me, I do it because the pain I would cause the people I love is entirely too much to bear.
I see my psychiatrist that week and tell him about wants. A room filled withso much red.
Five months later, you watch a movie where the main character says, I want to be the girl playing the tambourine.
I read a study that reveals that sociopaths have the capacity to feel empathy, they just choose not to. The author writes: “We believe that empathy is achoice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.”
I show this to my psychiatrist. I shake my phone at him. She had a fucking choice, I say.
Are you afraid of letting someone all the way in?
I think about the teacher, the films, the shells, The Shining, the barnacles on the rocks, all that black, white and red, and I say that I don’t want to die, or die alone, or bear the weight of my history of darkness. No, I say. I want someone to come join me here. To crawl all the way in.
I am a country of wants. I want new stories.