the flaw of love

driving in carsLast year, I sent my father a text: I think, I just might, end my life. I sent another: I’m sad. All the time. I can’t go outside because the sun hurts my eyes. The winter sun was an assault, I longed for New York and its palette of stormy greys, because the act of moving, crawling, from one room to another had become something of a victory. The days repeated themselves with minor variations. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think. I watched torture films and considered them comedies. I wondered why everyone made such a fuss over Pasolini’s Salò because I’d seen worse play out online. My body was a house and it was in the throes of a four-alarm fire, yet I slept through the sirens and the flames. I played normal when a friend from New York visited, and when she left I spiraled downward. I wrote a story about ending my life, published it here and immediately deleted it, but I woke the next morning to a text message from my friend that if I didn’t call her right this second she would call the police. Another friend called me from work whispering through tears that she was scared. I was scaring her. Could I please…get help? I could hear the hurt in her throat and I said I was fine, just fine, because weren’t we built this way? Wear the happy mask until it smothers us, yet still we smile all the way to the grave? Our practice of fake glee is our own private torment. This was a time when I ordered razor blades off Amazon because I was nothing if not efficient.

My father never responded to my texts. That was February 2016. But this isn’t a story of getting better, it’s about the heartbreak that comes as a result of it.

My father is not my biological father. I learned last year, via a Facebook message from a relative, that my real father was black and kind and excised from my mother’s life. But this isn’t a story about biology, rather it’s one about the people for whom you were once grateful that they didn’t share your chemistry. The people you loved who did the unthinkable — break your fucking heart.

I met the man whom I’ve come to call my father when I was twelve and my first memories were of him hunched over a stove, making me braciole steaks and boxed macaroni and cheese. He worked at Belmont with the horses and met my mother, who waitressed in the diner across the street. Theirs was an affair of love letters, his giant script falling out of the lines as he professed his love to her. He called her “Brooke” after Brooke Shields, and sometimes I laugh because I will always be known to him as Lisa, a nickname given to me by my mother because her first husband found Felicia too difficult to pronounce. But this story isn’t about names given and taken back, erased, crossed out or written over. This is the story about a man who stuck around for longer than he should, and everyone thought he did it for me.

War binds you. Once more into the breach, and like that. Tim O’Brien wrote: They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

There was no platoon or armaments of battle. The war we endured was a private one, on a quiet block in Valley Stream, New York, and my father and I clung to one another, desperately, because the woman we loved had morphed into a terrifying, violent stranger. She was no longer Brooke or mom, she had become something…else. But this isn’t a story about my mother — I wrote about that, and was stalked and called a liar by my mother’s second child, as a result of it — for she is a dark country to which I never want to return. No, this is about me and my father, barnacles, unhealthy attachments, and to this day I’m not sure which one of us is the barnacle and the host. Is it possible for two clingers to affix themselves to one another? Is it conceivable to be tethered to that which you soon seek to escape? I think about that now. Often.

Our memories were built on minor escapes. I’d close my eyes while he drove a Jeep, a Cadillac, another Jeep. We left our home when things got too dark. We were children making a break for it! We were running away! We stayed late at Wendy’s and picked over the salad bar. I ordered two double cheeseburgers, plain, and a biggie fry at McDonald’s. We shared packs of chicken nuggets from Roy Rogers on Sunrise Highway. Isn’t it strange when one’s fondest memories are of fleeing? I think about that too. Sometimes. Not as much.

He grew older and I grew into a role I assumed for much of my adult life — a difficult woman who never fully recovered from her first and only true hurt. I drank hard in my 20s. Always with the wine lips, he said, shaking his head, worried I’d be a repeat of the woman who had come before because hadn’t I learned? No, not really. You repeat that which you love, even if that love makes you believe that love and loss are the flipside of the same coin.

There was a time we didn’t speak for five years. My father and I had cultivated a way of conflict avoidance. We knew bad things happened, we just didn’t talk about them. We never really talked about my mother, we talked around her, obsessed over her as if she was at a remove, like a painting you would occasionally visit in a museum but weren’t permitted to touch. We would abide by our way of coping for the greater part of three decades.

When I told my father I was moving to Los Angeles, he was displeased. I joked: I’ll probably see you more than I do now. But still, he was unnerved. He didn’t believe I would move until I did. Until we spent a winter morning in Cold Spring Harbor where we passed the hours watching men bait and catch fish. Did he think proximity protected us?

Five years ago, my best friend of nearly a decade excised me from her life. No emails, no phone calls — it was as if I had ceased to exist to her. We spent nearly every waking hour in each other’s company, so much so that our mutual friends talked about how unhealthy our relationship had become. Two broken women cleaving to one another in hopes of finding a whole. It occurred to me, years later, that she likely ended our friendship because we had run our course. Our friendship was based on what we didn’t have rather than a becoming. How do you tell someone that the foundation of your decade-long friendship was built on co-dependence, a fear of being alone with ourselves and our most disquieting thoughts? That we sustained on nostalgia because we were getting better and realized we didn’t have much in common and little to say? Ending a friendship because you realized you lacked one is infinitely more painful than breaking a love that was real and persistent.

I think about this because what if my relationship with my father — three decades in the making — was based on dressing our mutual wounds? What happens when the wounds finally heal? What then?

With my mother, I expected everything. There were no surprises. When she resurfaced in my life after a fourteen year absence, I was hopeful and cautious but not surprised to discover that she was a dressed-up version of the woman I used to know. But this silence from my father was shocking, deafening. I told my therapist: I didn’t see that coming. Acquaintances, strangers on the fucking internet, showed more compassion, I said. How do I forgive him this? Would I consider calling him, my therapist asked. Replaying our history even the question exhausted me. I can’t always be the adult in the relationship, I said. I did all this work and he’s never met me halfway, and I don’t want to talk around, above or below this. I need to say I wanted to die and you weren’t there for me when I needed you most without him changing the subject. Because that’s what we always did — changed the subject, drove around in cars, ate fast food — we had grown masterful in escaping, except this time I wanted us to stay put because I had endured the hurt and lived through it. He read that I wanted to die but he never read how I desperately want to live. Every moment of every day until my heart gives out.

What happens when the fortress we so assiduously built to protect us comes crashing down? What happens when the fortress is gone and there’s no pain to bind us, no lines to draw in the sand, no us against them? What happens if we learn that our relationship was built on fear, fear of being alone, fear of being vulnerable, fear of getting hurt, fear of being lesser than, instead of love? What becomes of us then?

my results from my ancestry.com DNA kit are in…and…whoa

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I realize I am the last of my kind. The last Sullivan to carry this name in this life, and over the years I’ve come to terms with this. I’ve no interest in having children–I prefer to fawn over my friend’s progeny–and I’m an only child, with the exception of a teenaged half-sister, and please don’t ask me to talk about it because I won’t, and I can’t imagine I ever will. But this girl doesn’t have my name or my history–we have only our mother in common, a mother whom, in some respects, is a better storyteller than me. Masterful, maybe.

The origins of my real father change depending upon her mood or appetite for melodrama; it was a scalpel she’d deliberately wield, and her words always felt like cuts inside my cheek. Incisions. When we spoke some years ago, the first time in 14 years, and she told me I could her ask her anything, nothing was off-limits, I said plainly, Tell me about my real father. And as I read these test results, I can’t help but laugh over her taste for fiction. I am indeed my mother’s daughter, except the stories I tell find their way into books, not used as ammunition to wound and maim.

So when my friend Amber told me about this DNA test, I was curious. I remember sitting in her kitchen and she talked about how the results confirmed what she already knew–she was a European Jew–but it told her things she didn’t. And all I had to do was spit in a cup, send it to a lab and wait for the email.

I woke today to the email and the results.

My last name is Sullivan, but I’m not even Irish. Not even close. I’m Italian, Greek, Spanish, Finnish (???) and African (specifically, Nigerian). I always knew I wasn’t completely white, I can’t explain it; it’s just something you feel. And while I have no issues with the results (they’re exciting in the sense that I’m this rich melange of beautiful continents), because it quietly confirmed what I already knew, however, part of me is just really angry that my lineage has been hidden from me for 38 years. All this time I’ve been part black, but do I even claim it? Can I? Do I have the right to step into these new shoes? Do I have the right to own blackness? Part me says, yes, of course, of course, this is who you are, but this isn’t what I’ve been for 38 years.

This is all raw and new and confusing, and I think I need to sit with this for a while. Privately. Offline. To see what I can do, what I do feel, what this new truth reveals, alters, creates.

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a year in passing: a novel update

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Last year I sat in a hotel in Biarritz, France and started a story about a woman who set another woman’s hair on fire. The opening scene reveals a woman who has a penchant for torching things, reporting the incident, talking about the smell of hair, the blaze of it. A few pages later, I took an image of a barnacle and devoted two pages to untangling its meaning to be one of a metaphor for this woman’s unhealthy attachment to her step-father and his adulterous affair, all the while her mother lay dying. At the time, I literally said out loud, What is this? What am I doing? but I pressed on for forty more pages, and when I came back to New York, I wrote forty more. After a four-year drought, the writing was a torrent and I was thrilled with the fact that I was writing something, even if I didn’t know what it was.

However, in the midst of all of this something had changed. When I think about when I wrote my first book, Sky, and now, everything is different. The words command and voice immediately come to mind, meaning I feel confident in what I lay down on paper. I know what works, what doesn’t work, and I’m focused on the rhythm and cadence of a line and how it connects to the flow of the story. My voice is strong, pronounced, and I’m finding that I’ve created a suite of characters that are bombastic, nuanced, and powerful as individuals, but they form some sort of chaotic, beautiful symphony when they interact on the page. To be candid, I was shocked by all of this at first because I always questioned an image, always endlessly deliberated over a piece of dialogue, but felt assuaged when a friend told me, just because you’re not actually writing doesn’t mean you haven’t been writing. It doesn’t mean you haven’t been working all this time.

That simple sentence served as a tremendous breakthrough for me, because it finally occurred to me that I had been writing all this time. I’d been reading. I’d been developing these characters in various forms for the past few years — in my head, but regardless — so when it came time to write that first scene, I already knew my character. I knew how she moved, the tone and sound of her voice, and it would be over the course of a year where I would finally get inside her head and lay there.

What started out as a novel about two families unraveling as a result of an affair has dovetailed into a meditation on mental illness, familial love, history and the repetition of it, and all the ways in which we can experience love and hurt. I’ve also learned this: a book is never what you intend it to be. Once you think you’ve defined it, it changes shape and form and becomes something else. For over a year my novel has been this elusive thing that has been hard to describe to people until now. I’ve got 170 great pages, and if you asked me a year ago I would have never predicted that I’ve gone to places I’d never thought I’d go. I broke all my rules — I wrote about sex and an attempt at parental love.

And I made myself try an outline.

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After I delivered 100 pages to my agent and two key readers, they all agreed something magical was here, but the story, in its structure, was entirely too complicated to render a verdict. All of them pressed pokers on my back and told me to keep going. My agent told me to draft an outline and timeline, much to my violent chagrin. I hate outlines. While the rest of my life is structured and defined, I like a certain itinerant quality to my work. I like being a nomad. I like creating people and seeing what they do and how they surprise me. Yet, that’s all well and good, but when you’ve got a book that doesn’t have a linear narrative, when you’ve got a story that moves through forty years of time, you need a damn timeline.

While in Fiji last year, I drafted something loose, and spent the bulk of the winter working on Part II, which takes place in the 1960s-1980s.

And that’s when magic started to happen. When you’re in the thick of a novel, in the meat of it, all sorts of strange and mythical things start happening. I created new characters out of nowhere. I started to create links between the parts of the book and I can finally see Part III on the horizon. I also changed the title of the book from Mammoth to Follow Me Into the Dark because the latter felt right for what I’m having my characters do.

What has surprised me most is that I’ve remained with these people all this time. I tend to get bored with characters relatively quickly — this is why I love the compact nature and completeness of a short story. I write my story and my characters do what they need to do and then we shake hands and part ways and I’m on to the next looney tune. Yet, I’m sticking with these characters, creating all of these layers I never saw a year ago, and I’ll actually be sad when I finish Part III, because I know my affair with them, the longest I’ve had, will be over.

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of giving you a novel update. But, if you have any questions about writing + publishing, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments. I’d be more than happy to help!

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shuffling the deck + visiting the places you thought you’d never go {new story}

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To be honest, I don’t even know what this is but I’m playing the hand. A few weeks ago, I started thinking about a family flashing no vacancy signs all over the place. I was fixated on how a single act of familial betrayal could undo so many. In my mind I was seeing a wildfire, a forest of trees smoked out, and a land scorched and barren. But then I started to pick at the scabs, think of the events that happened before the burning and after the remains, and found a whole layer of darkness underneath. For days I left the page cold, and started to think about this family (and by way of the story, a whole other family), my own impenetrability, and how I can show people skinned to bone without too much clutter.

It occurs to me that clutter is distracting, slowing me down.

So this half-formed thing has emerged. For now, it’s a series of stops and starts {a word stuttered?}, with a desperate need for some detail. A need for me to color in and around the lines.

For a time, I had the brother be a meat-packer, a drug-addict, and then something happened where it was interesting for me to make him dangerous, ill. Again, I don’t know where this is going, but I like something about this shape.

Status: Deck reshuffled.

Continue reading “shuffling the deck + visiting the places you thought you’d never go {new story}”

where the wild things are

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I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more…What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready. ― Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

I tell stories while my father drives. Even after all of these years, all this time, he navigates roads and we show off our scars and tell our war stories, binding ourselves to all the history — almost to a point where we’d sometimes smother ourselves with it. Open up old wounds and get lost in the wreckage. We’re runaways like that, one foot on the floor and one in the air, poised to run. All because of you, dear mother. All the years that we endured you. Call it a force of habit, because on the days when you’d thunder in and make a mess of the place — all plumes of smoke, ash and peach pie on the floor and beer cans under the bed — or the nights when you wouldn’t come home at all, my dad would collect the keys and we’d make a break for it.

From the strip of fast food joints on Merrick Road to the stalwart diners on Sunrise Highway that gleamed bright, we’d knit ourselves to fluorescent lights and the promise of a warm meal. For four years we lived in this magical world where we’d curtain ourselves off from the world and talk about my mother. Would she get better. Would she quit the coke. Would she be the magnificent woman we once remembered her to be. As I grew angrier at a woman who promised to change but never would, my father was eternally hopeful. He was a man who craved peace. He was a man looking for a great, sweeping love. And it broke my heart to leave him alone in that house with her, but he told me to shut it. Going to college was my way out. Come fall I left, and he chose to live among the remains of a woman he once thought he knew. Maybe he loved her or perhaps he was a martyr, I’m not sure he’ll ever tell.

The day I left for college, my father hugged me tight and said, run.

Years later he told me that I started to resemble my mother with the passing of each day. The black hair, pale skin and our affection for anesthetics. We’re a breed of difficult women and I could see how the possibility of my greatness was being ruined by the fact that I couldn’t escape the monstrous shadow that was her. Back then we told stories to fill the silences. We’d crank the gramophone that our mouths and kept going. At one point, I paused, tended to my hurt like a harvest, cultivating fields of damaged things that would never bloom. Meanwhile, my father kept on going.

Who could imagine that the tide would turn. That I’d come home all whitewashed, austere and gleaming clean, and he would be the walking wound? When you bottle the hurt of all the ones you love, it’s bound to puncture skin. He was bound to bleed. Me, my mother — we were the lesions, and he waited for her to leave and for me to get better, so it would be his time to hurt. And in my most selfish moment I abandoned him, and I was too damn proud to admit that I was a large part of the reason we spent four years not telling stories.

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In children’s stories, after the calm, the storm, there’s always the resolution: a world, a life, tied up neat with a bow. All the children clap, wide-eyed, thinking the world will always be like this, solved. But we have to allow them this fiction, even for a little while, because we can’t be responsible for taking away the magic. We don’t want to be the one who turns off all the lights and locks all the doors. I never thought that the story of my father and me would resemble such beautiful fiction, since much of my life is an unfinished, abandoned canvas. Yet, we found our way back to one another, all bandaged up, filled with forgiveness.

After four years, I visited my father in Long Island, and although we’re older and much has changed, we found ourselves in a car, driving, telling stories. At one point during the day I paused, pointed to a collection of boardwalk beams festooned with white, hard, and sometimes coral shells, and asked, Are those barnacles? To which my father replied, yes, and then he gestured to all the cockles that had scattered in the sand, and said, You don’t want any of of that. They live off of others. And I shook and I sputtered and got all manic and he didn’t understand because we’d lost all that time, and before he dismissed this as yet another dark thing that Felicia loves, I thanked him. I’d been writing about barnacles all this time but I’d never experienced them with him. I never got to tell him that I’ve been thinking about the concept of attachment — how we bind to grow stronger and how others cleave to weaken.

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You made this real for me, I said. And he smiled, laughed and walked to the car. I watched him in those moments, how he walked with a limp because his joints have started to stiffen, but he walked with such pride and dignity. All these years I was the wild, angry one, running off and creating and smashing worlds to bits, and he always the quiet one. And all this time I couldn’t see that he was noble. Noble to forgive me without saying a world. Noble to lean over a boardwalk and talk about barnacles. Noble to fold me into his heart all over again.

Whenever I was wild or lost, my father’s love was the thing that always brought me back.

And [he] sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day
and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot

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the gathering kind (part one)

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Remind me why you call me Lisa. There was that summer on the boardwalk when we walked arm in arm, our skin paled down to bone, thin legs poking out of jean shorts, and you told me that Felicia was a girl you used to know. And every time you looked at me you were reminded of your great, beautiful friend and how, when you became pregnant with me, you lost her. That was the year when you met a man who liked to play cards and paint houses. Although he emigrated from Tel Aviv, he knew English, knew it well, so it was confusing that my name was the one word he couldn’t pronounce. So instead he called me Lisa, and you acquiesced, whispered that there was something magical about playing two people.

I lived much of my life like that. Behind a mask. Straddling two names. Confused, divided.

Years passed, and we lived with a new man, an Irish one, in a basement apartment that flooded on the weekends. It was you who brought home those kittens and it was you who forced him to put them in a sack and drive them away. All because they were too hard. Back then you needed things easy. So when he dropped me off at school and heard a few friends say, Felicia, he squinted his eyes, murmured Lisa, and drove home. When he asked you about it, it was as if three syllables were more than you could bear. We lived Lisa for you, to make it easy.

A decade later it was just me and the Irishman because you’d found a new life of your own, leaving us stuck in the betweens. By then I called this man my father because he felt like the closest thing I’d imagine a father to be, and we celebrated the holidays with too much food and wine lips. One year I met my father in the city, at a restaurant that now no longer exists, and I treated him to a steak dinner. The waiters in pressed jackets practiced their seasonal puppetry, while I was determined to ruin. When two refugees find each other, they tell war stories. Compare battle scars and reminisce over the carnage. So both of us laughed when I regaled stories of holidays past, where it was common for you to disappear for hours in search of a pack of cigarettes. Come nightfall you’d return, saying you smoked through the pack. Who knew that everyone was practicing their division? All that time you were squirreling away a life of your own. At the end of the night, my dad and I surveyed our wreckage with bitterness. All that was left was a meal that had gone cold.

He had a limp then, couldn’t feel the soles of his feet. After I took him back to the train station and saw him off, I huddled in a corner, shaking. Because even though I shouldered all this hurt, I refused to cry.

That was how we used to gather*. When meals were a way to color the silences. When it was common to be alone, after.

And then one year my dearest college friend invited me to spend the holidays in Connecticut. Normally I hated places without easy escape routes, but I considered my options. Part of me was too proud to take her offer because that would mean admitting to the fact that I had no family of my own. But another part gnawed, tugged. The first story I had ever written was about food; I felt most comfortable with a whisk and a book, so the thought of equating meals with sorrow was unimaginable. I didn’t want to celebrate the holidays alone, and I wanted to be surrounded by a patchwork of people whom I love, and my friend gave me this great gift even if she didn’t know it. Even if didn’t know it at the time.

I had to turn this around. So I accepted my friend’s very kind offer, and I’ve spent the years with her family since. Never do I feel like a guest, but rather they’ve embraced me as one of their kind. A kind who loves delicious food, a warm home, and love beyond measure. So it is with great love that I travel to Connecticut tomorrow to see my dearest friend, Elizabeth. It’s you who I have to thank for making me fall in love with family and food all those years ago, all over again. It’s our friendship that will not alter.

Merry, Merry Christmas. xx

*Inspired by my friend, Elizabeth and this very lovely publication.

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