Art School, Baby
I started art school in the Fall of 1986, in a small mid-western town. I lived in a beige, one-bedroom apartment down the street from the school, with a roommate who had been assigned to me based on first-year housing questionnaires.
She was a confident and independent girl with a quick smile and an easy, friendly manner. Extroverted and with a long list of things to accomplish, she would breeze into the apartment chattering at full speed. She would turn on the television (to keep her company, she said) rummage around picking things up and putting them down, and then leave the apartment — still talking as she shut the door with a big thunk and turned the key with a little thunk.
I would be standing in the same spot, frozen where I had been when she had first arrived. I would take another breath and then slowly walk over to her television and turn it off.
Sucking in the silence, I would try to reorient the room to the stillness it had held before my roommate arrived and churned it up.
She had a credit score she guarded with obvious pride, a high-school sweetheart, and family less than a day’s drive away. She had opinions about what kind of laundry detergent to use, how to match a scarf with boots and earrings, when it was okay to wear cheap jewelry, and how to balance it with the more expensive variety.
The idea there might be a conversation in the world where things like this mattered — things like credit scores, laundry detergent brand names, and accessories — well, it gave me hope, something to shoot for. It was like watching a commercial of that perfect family making dinner together at the end of a normal day.
My roommate seemed like an open book to me, while I was hidden, even from myself. I was halting, shadowed, and aware that there were things I did not know — things inside me that I was fighting. Scary things.
I felt perpetually in between, and alien from everything around me. Set aside. Waiting. Even after a short exposure to this breezy, lovely, straight-forward girl, I felt my alienation more acutely.
On the weekends, she went home to her family and it was just me in the apartment, bobbing in her wake. I was slowly becoming aware of the fact that I was in a kind of purgatory — one that fostered cutting myself to decrease the pressure that built up around me. I was smoking cigarettes again too, while watching out the windows for the tree branches to move, for the clouds to change shapes, for something — anything — to give way and reveal itself to me. I felt as if I were constantly right outside the door of where the real action was taking place.
I fought sleep because sleep brought inexplicable nightmares. I was locked in a battle with the devil inside. Two decades later I would have words for this battle that would implicate my childhood. Words like trauma and fragmentation. But at this moment in time, the best I could do was observe my affable roommate and admonish myself for my chronic strangeness.
This is how it might be if you were not tangled and twisting inside. If you could find your way.
I tried to befriend myself, and to coach myself toward normalcy.
The art school exercises were mundane. I had been seriously drawing and painting my whole life, and I was bored with my Freshman assignments to draw your dominant hand with your weak hand, or to take three paper cut-out shapes and attempt to create a specific mood with them. I felt like an adult taking children’s classes.
The experience was familiar to me because it smacked of pretend. My exterior went one way and my interior went another. I cast around for something else to bear the weight of my attention and suddenly, there it was. Right in front of me.
Every day when I walked to school, I passed a bar. The owner was a middle-aged man I will call Angel. He was Latino, short and stocky, with the slightly bent legs of a man who was accustomed to a motorcycle, and a discreet smoker’s cough that he pretended was just a temporary cold. He would be sweeping out the bar in the morning when I walked by, or helping unload cases of liquor from a truck. And he took a shine to me. Watching me walk toward him, he would stop sweeping and smile. Squinting into the sun at my calico-colored hair, he asked me if I had ever colored my hair blue before. Sure, I said. Lots of times. I had been hair modeling in high-school, and he asked to see my modeling portfolio and my art portfolio, and then commissioned me to paint his bar logo on the front door.
I was eighteen, and then nineteen-years old, and bored in all the usual ways. Angel was in his late forties, married, and apparently bored in all the usual ways also. I was working at a chain restaurant, spooning fruit cocktail into small bowls and wiping crackers crumbs off vinyl tables. He told me he had a real job for me — besides painting the door.
Sure, I said. That sounds good.
Until then, I had felt like I was hurtling toward doom — all of the missing things inside me that had never been sorted out in ways that made the slightest sense, felt like they were finally about to collide. I was chronically aware of my unknown and unplanned future. I thought I had done bad things as a child. I thought I probably deserved to be alone. And Angel granted me a reprieve from this doom.
— said Angel to my immaturity, confusion, boredom, and sorrow —
Here now. Just come this way. You will be fine. You will waitress in my bar. I will keep you plenty busy and we will have fun. You can work for me, and I will pay you, and you can pay me back by flirting with me. You are so beautiful. Don’t worry about my wife. If you are wondering, she does give me permission about things like this. We’ll still be discrete. Kiss me like this. Or this. Here’s a little trinket to go along with my affection for you. It’s a golden heart with a diamond in the center. Are you sufficiently distracted yet? Isn’t this fun? You’ll look great on the back of my motorcycle. We’ll have a blast. This is living!
I let everything in my rearview mirror disappear. Everything in front of me became crisp and urgent. Using the ways of my roommate, I adopted the role of the congenial and extraverted waitress with a quick smile. The jukebox sang, Bye bye Miss American Pie and the bar patrons laughed and clinked glasses and left me tips, to come back another night and do it again.
During the day, Angel and I would ride through the hills outside of town on his chrome motorcycle, laughing as we passed people stuck in cars, laughing as we stopped for fish and chips at a small run-down cafe, laughing as we chugged our beers and Angel paid the tab.
Back at work, he was just my boss. I was just the waitress. His wife was his wife. Amanda — let’s call her Amanda — was pretty, petite and blond, with a sophisticated look that made me think of independence. A look that took money for granted, that involved silk and cashmere and pearls and soft brown leather.
She acted friendly to me, sometimes giving me dollar bills to feed into the juke box and letting me choose the songs. She pitched in to clear a table every now and then. There was not the slightest hint of rivalry. She knew my name and greeted me the same way she greeted each of the waitresses — like employees of a small family business.
Angel never got shifty or weird around Amanda. He acted like he had nothing to hide.
The bar was gleaming and intimate — sparkling glasses hung upside down behind the bar, which was old and pock-marked but beautifully polished and wood. Angel tended bar sometimes himself and oversaw the five or six waitresses with a generous nature. He had his own demons, and I could see them staring at mine. It is easy for a pretender to recognize another pretender. Angel had been someone else in his previous life, also. We did not talk about our lives any more than we talked about his wife.
He sometimes looked at me with deep and compassionate eyes, soft and rimmed with long lashes. He petted my cheek in a slightly longing, seemingly personal way, and then tapped my butt lightly the same way he did with the other waitresses. Turning away from me as I carried a tray to the back room where three grown jocks were playing pinball, he would lean across the bar to give to his customer his full attention.
He called me Sweetheart, and gently tutored me. He showed me how to carry a tray with drinks high above my shoulder, approving of the slight swing in my hips necessitated for balance. He quizzed me on the special drink mixes and the long list of beers on tap, so that I could rattle them off even while clearing tables.
And then, the best part — after we closed up shop, Angel, the other waitresses, and I would gather around a table to count our money, tip our own glasses, and laugh and tell stories like we were family. Angel would pick songs from the jukebox — Sexual healing, Baby. Helps to relieve my mind. And then — Devil went down to Georgia and he was looking for a soul to steal. He was …willing to make a deal. All the songs seemed like they were just for me. And like they would go on forever.
We were a family of loners pretending to belong to each other — all a little crazy at 2:30 in the morning, sitting under the neon light of the bar, and counting rumpled dollar bills. I would remember other families in my past, and the ways in which I had both belonged in them and been so fiercely sad and lonely at the same time.
Afterward, somewhere past 3:00 a.m., sleep would call and we would break the chains between us, go home to our other lives.
If I went home to cut off chunks of my hair and then get the exact-o blade out of my art supply box, no one cared. If I took off all my clothes except my underwear and looked for the perfect places to cut long streams of pink into my skin, that was fine too. I was mine to do with, as I pleased. There was no one looking.
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and, using a second mirror, attempted to cut long streaks into the skin of my back, where no one would see them. The lines were crooked and looked both tentative and angry at the same time. Perfect. I cut short deep lines on my upper arms, and watched the way they seeped both a clear fluid and a red fluid. I felt mesmerized and comforted.
Without an anchor, someone who cared, and who knew me well enough to distract me from my own demons, I was having flashbacks from my earlier lives. I would wake up sweating and scared, and unable to make sense of anything I had seen in my dreams.
I dreamed dreams of being a soldier. I dreamt of the smell of a man’s body, the hint of his nervous breath. I was sometimes small in my dreams, and bleeding. Other times, I was wounded in a war, or being hunted. I knew that no one was hurting me except myself. I blamed myself and in the same breath, excused myself — understanding the pain as necessary and cathartic, although for completely inexplicable reasons.
Some nights, after hours, instead of going home, I would find myself at a bar downtown, with Angel. He would have his arm around me, and would be gazing at me under hooded eyes. He would lean in to kiss me and I would kiss him back. Some part of me must have found this familiar event comforting. But the rest of me was deeply confused by it all. How did I get to the bar with Angel? Why had I gone there with him? I would not remember and would extricate myself and make my long way home, alone. Walking through the city, I was only a little afraid of the darkness.
At home, I would get in the shower and try to orient myself again. I wanted desperately to find that quiet room inside where I was safe. Where there was no man trying to manipulate me or touch me. Where I would not go flying off, and come back to find myself somewhere strange.
Taking Good Care
I tried consciously to remember the monk in my childhood, aware in the back of my mind, of the possibility that I might somehow master the ways in which he still seemed to control my life. I could identify the monk in my dreams.
There was one dream where I was me — the me in my childhood. Little Emmy. I was standing by a pot-bellied stove, that was roaring with fire inside. The heat was pushing into the room, and the monk was coming toward me. He walked deliberately and slowly, keeping his eyes locked on mine. I bent inexplicably toward the hot stove and placed the side of my face against it. Melting skin and burning hair — I kept it there as half of me turned to liquid.
I knew enough to interpret the dream. I understood I had been harmed by the monk. But I did not understand why half of me was liquid. And I blamed myself even in the dream. Why would I burn myself instead of kick the monk in the shins and run?
Sometimes in my dreams, I would be a child I did not recognize — hiding in a watery ditch by the side of the road, hunkered down low, watching the sun set orange and aglow on a distant wooded horizon. Fear spreading all around me, my hands and feet were cold and muddy. A car would come creeping along the road, someone shining a flashlight slowly into the weeds where I was hiding, from the passenger window, looking for me. I would crouch down lower still — low enough that I immersed myself all the way in the marsh. It had surprising depths. Then I would wake up suddenly and try to breath. I would feel remnants of muddy ditch water in the back of my nose and throat. Smell myself and my fear covering my sheets. Eventually, I could slow my breathing.
The best I could do was edge up against a feeling of being held against my will, or of hiding and of desperation. This was accompanied by a sense of being complicit and horribly, grotesquely evil — evil like someone who deserves to live eternity in flames. Evil like rot. Like a walking corpse. I didn’t want to be evil. So, I would look away, and float sideways again, to a place where remembering was not important.
I tried to forgive myself and doubled down on my desire to protect myself as best as possible. I decided to allow myself the safety of amnesia. To admit defeat in terms of memory and to simply make a promise to myself that I would never, ever let another man touch me in the ways the monk had touched me.
I would keep myself safe. I would not go on dates with men from the bar where I worked. I would stop messing around with Angel. I would go to work, I would do my homework, I would go home.
I made myself a solemn promise symbolized by a home-made tattoo low on my abdomen, to the left of my hip-bone — a simple swirl cut with an exact-o blade into the sensitive skin. I poured a stream of black, India ink from a small bottle, slowly onto the wound, rubbing the ink in with small, comforting circles. It was a star that shone out of my body, reminding me that I had survived. Even if I could not remember all the details of whatever I had survived, even if it was true to me mostly in my dreams, I knew the fear was real. I decided to trust the fear, and to solve the fear.
I let the ink and the blood dry, rubbed antibiotic ointment on the cut, and then bandaged it. I felt secure knowing that it was there — reminding me, protecting me, asserting that my body was my own. I could choose not to be a victim. I could march forward in my life, make a new path, and leave the muddy ditches behind.
It was my job, I decided, to be gentle with myself, and to slowly try to find my way as safely as I possibly could, into a future where nothing bad happened again.
A Girl Walked Out of a Bar
A week later, I sat at the bar. I had worked an earlier shift and was having a single rum and coke before walking home. I knew the bartender, but it was not Angel. He was a large, gregarious fellow who seemed to have his eyes on everything that happened as quickly as it happened. He followed the descent of an argument at Table Three, waiting for it to erupt into yelling or flying fists. And out of the corner of his eye, he assessed the new arrivals as they opened the door wide and let the cold air into the crowded room.
He watched his waitress and carried on a steady banter with those sitting at the bar, all the while answering the phone and pouring drinks. I liked him. I felt safe perching there when he was bar-tending.
The twenty-something man sitting beside me had a slender build and a friendly manner. He was Asian and he spoke with an accent I found hard to understand over the boisterous bar and the music. But I was polite. I nodded and smiled, because that’s what I’d been taught.
I pretended to catch what he was saying, soaking up the congenial atmosphere. My roommate was out of town for the weekend, and I knew that the quiet of my own apartment didn’t always mix well with my mind these days.
It was chilly and a little icy but I had enough rum in me to keep me warm and unworried, when it was time for me to go home. I paid my bill, waved to the bar-tender, slid down off my stool, and made my way through the crowd.
Before I’d gotten to the door, the stranger who’d sat beside me and wanted to talk was opening the door for me. He took my loose scarf, swung it around my neck for me and smiled. I smiled back instinctively, and thanked him and said maybe I’d see him next time. You know — maybe next time I’m on the moon, you’ll be there too. Or maybe we’ll run into each other off the coast of Zanzibar. You know. Just — thanks and goodnight.
But he wouldn’t let go. He pointed to his car parked nearby, and told me it was warm. I protested. I really did. I knew that I would rather walk four cold blocks than further my acquaintance with this insistently friendly man. I did not characterize myself, at that point in my life, as friendly. I believed I was aloof and a little hostile. But I was also well-trained in the art of civility toward men, especially. So this man and his offer to drive me home in the cold — I didn’t want to offend him. That is all I can say in my own defense.
Getting in his car, I knew instantly that I had made a mistake. He ignored directions to my home, and drove in the opposite direction. It was the middle of the night. There was no one on the street. I protested and tried to say that he was going in the wrong direction.
With a gentle and sincere look in his eye, he turned and said happily that he really wanted to show me his apartment!
I kind of believed him. I said to myself, Huh!? Maybe that’s all he really wants. My self-protective mechanisms seemed to be turned off for the night.
I watched the quiet city streets through the car window as we drove. No street lights. No sidewalks. Foliage and trees, and silent apartment buildings.
He pulled into the basement garage level of an apartment building, and slid the door electronically behind him, with the push of a button. We were in a concrete, enclosed garage under a large apartment complex. There were other cars, but I did not see people.
My car door would not open. I tried the handle but the lock stayed down.
I had a brief feeling of being somehow a child still, like I needed a grown-up to open the door for me. It was all very heavy.
I felt small — in need of guidance.
The man got out of the car, and came around to my side, opening the door and reaching for my upper arm to guide me out of the car and toward an elevator.
The entire time in the elevator, he held my arm.
Life seemed to be going as slow as the elevator.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
We rode up in silence.
I would like to say that my brain was hurriedly strategizing how to shoot myself out of this situation — like with a cannon or maybe with the cape of the superhero. But what really happened was my thoughts became a gluey mess — a slow, accidentally agreeable mess.
There was nothing special, to my eyes, about this man’s apartment. It was beige. Light brown carpet. Tan walls. Bland. No art. No plants.
I registered that he was showing me his apartment as if he were somehow proud of it. I played a guessing game inside about his motives, while presuming he was well-intentioned, and perhaps insecure. I imagined he was lonely and lacked true intimate connections. I thought, perhaps he simply wanted a little ego candy from a girl. I ran through a scenario in my head that had him telling his co-workers on Monday that he had met a girl at a bar, and she had come home with him.
I imagined his actions as chivalrous in his own mind. He had opened and closed doors for me, after all. He had worried about me walking alone, or being too cold on my walk home. He was showing me some strangely coded male pride about living alone, without roommates. He was young, from another country. His beige apartment was — some sort of point of pride for him? I could not think straight. None of it made sense. My brain bounced around agreeably while I stood in the middle of the room in a strange stupor.
He went to the fridge and came back with a glass of white wine.
Why couldn’t I have been one of those women who started screaming and brought the neighbors to her aid? Instead, I slugged my wine and resigned myself.
Might as well get on with it.
It was all so familiar. Me. Some jerk. And then me floating up into a corner of the room, watching — waiting for it to be over. I knew my part so well.
When he pushed me down onto the couch, though, finally my instinct to self-protect kicked in and I began to fight. I kept my legs locked together and my head turned away.
I started to cry and I yelled —
— as loudly as I could.
But it was as if I my will were a tiny stink-bug which he could flick away.
All the muscles in my arms and legs were those of a small child. Utterly ineffective.
I pushed my hands against his chest. He didn’t even seem to notice. I squirmed side to side trying to get out from under him. He had a technique. He knew what he was doing. He pulled my pants down quickly, and pushed his knees in between my legs and then unzipped his own jeans and with one arm across my chest, he pushed himself into me.
I fought him as hard as I knew how until it was clear to me that there was no point, until it was easier to be still, and hope that he didn’t get mad and hurt me further, or worse yet — kill me.
I just waited it out in the hopes that I could go home soon.
I knew that not very far away, in the same town even, was another room — a still, quiet room where I would be safe again. I waited.
I felt a kind of crackling ice come over me. I turned my face to the woven beige of the couch cushion, and felt the heat of my own breath coming and going in little puffs. I closed my eyes, and then opened them again when closing them made it all worse. It was better to focus on something visual.
I saw a woman on television one day, being interviewed about rape. She got this far-away look in her eye and said, As soon as I knew that his intention was to rape me, I basically got up and left my body. I wish I could have left my body with this one. I had before. Maybe I was punishing myself for walking into his apartment with him. Maybe I believed this was my purpose. I abandoned my self, but I did not abandon my body. I stayed right there with him and listened to him grunt and felt him move, and heard him snap the condom off afterward, with his singular satisfaction.
I tasted bile in my throat. I felt an unrestrained rage start to course through me, starting in my chest and in my loins. And as soon as I could, I rolled off the couch, and pulled my pants up, standing shakily on my feet and avoiding his eyes. I turned the one leg of my pants that had come off, right side in, and concentrated to get myself situated again. Concentrated on my breath and on patterns in the carpet, minutia everywhere I looked that kept me present. The tiny woven and hooked pieces of the carpet. The vague pattern in the tiles near the door. A paperclip that had been left on the floor.
He acted as if we’d just enjoyed a lark together. He was cheerful and casual, bouncing keys in his palm.
My hands shook as I worked to button the top button of my jeans. I felt as if I were moving inside a dark vortex and like the rest of the world was separate, outside of the vortex, and only visible in quick glimpses of color that swirled around me. I could keep my balance if I simply kept my eyes focused downward.
He drove me home and the next day, rang my doorbell holding flowers. I looked at him dumbly and tried to understand what he was thinking. My first thought was, he must not understand. My second thought was, finally, a delayed — FUCK YOU.
I looked him in the eye and said out-loud —
You raped me last night. You’re lucky I’m not calling the cops. The only reason I’m not is that I don’t want to be subject to more of the same. I never want to see your face again. If I see your face again, I’m calling the cops.
I closed the door on him and watched through the peephole as he turned and walked away, the flowers in his hand loose at his side.
Get Away Inside
During the days, and around others when I was at work, I would mimic my ideas of what a happy-go-lucky nineteen-year-old girl might be like. And then, back in my safe cocoon of solitude when I got home, I would make meticulous cuts on my legs and my arms, freeing complicated and confusing emotions, trying to free myself from ice.
I drank at work and away from work. I drank for any occasion and with any excuse. I drank to toast the bartender’s divorce, or the birth of a friend’s baby, or the downstair’s neighbor’s new car. I drank because it made being me — all the shame and regret and confusion and deep self-loathing — ever so slightly tolerable. When I was drunk, there were moments that allowed me to forget my dissonance with the world.
And I walked the city. I would spend my day off browsing sections of the public library that were foreign to me, looking for something I did not know to get it’s hooks into me. I discovered Hermann Hess and Ranier Marie Rilke. I checked out record sets of operas and folk music. I brought it all back to my apartment and poured it into my wounds, hoping to find solace in art and music and words.
I played Mahler as loud as I could. I located the arias in the operas and played them over and over. I became deeply attached to classic country music with all of its yearning for solace. I listened to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams and Emmylou Harris with abandon. All the wishing and wanting and hoping and longing in the world, poured directly into my heart. And if I would not receive the complete succor I was looking for, at least I would receive distraction for an hour or two.
Precisely at this moment, when I was at my most vulnerable, I met a strange and elegant man and, within months, I married him.
Try a Married Life
I have no real excuses for this impetuous and foolish move. It was simply a way to immediately eradicate those dark, empty stretches in the night. They went on forever. I was in a labyrinth with no candle. I hated myself. I hated the world. And Phillip (I will call him that) made me laugh.
I met him in the bar, of course, and he spent the hour tormenting me with droll insults and with an accounting of his own miserable life. It was the evening of Friday, February 13th, the day before Valentine’s Day. A friend of his was having a party that began at midnight when the 13th turned into the 14th. From bad luck to romance.
Several people I knew were already friends with Phillip and we all piled into a car and drove merrily to the party. The rooms were filled with women who looked like Cyndi Lauper and Annie Lennox. All very stylish and old enough to let the ashes burn an inch or more on their lipsticked cigarette without looking foolish. They wore thrift store dresses with flowered patterns and unusual necklines. The furniture was plastic and perfectly tacky, with multicolored Christmas lights strung around the living room and in the bathroom.
The men all seemed to have a mixture of feminine and masculine traits — I couldn’t tell who was gay and who wasn’t. I don’t remember the music but I’m sure it was cool and witty. Everything about these people and this party was cool and witty.
It felt as if I was breathing a sudden blast of fresh air — I felt bolstered, held up into a warm, misty cloud of perfume. I didn’t need to make such a determined effort to move my arms anymore. This is fun! We are having fun! I was drinking red Kool-aid mixed with vodka over ice. I sat on the stairs, and let Phillip lean into me and kiss me.
He was long and lean, with fingers that matched. He wore hats at a rakish angle and a long, grey coat that flapped open when he strode across a parking lot or down the street. He had large, droopy blue eyes and a careless, sideways smile. He seemed to come from another time or from a detective movie. He felt like a gift to me, from the universe.
He spoke about poets as if they mattered, and he always had a hardbound book at the side of the bed. He constructed elegant and fragile mobiles out of yarn and white paper and sticks he found outside. The mobiles played with the light and shifted shapes in the wind. He gave them away.
He had a vicious sardonic streak which could burst forth at any time, leaving anyone in its path feeling foolish and trivial. Phillip seemed to regard the whole world as banal and worthy of attention mostly for its ticklish and entertaining qualities. Nothing was serious.
We held the wedding in the bar. I bought a long, white off-the-shoulder cotton dress from The Gap and had my waitress friends arrange vases of flowers on the tables and across the bar. Phillip’s mother made a layered carrot cake and we played the juke box and danced afterward. My art-school friends took black and white photographs. I had family come from Texas and my grandmother presented me with one of her lovingly stitched quilts.
I did not take this wedding or this marriage lightly. I felt freed by it — from the confines of living a singularly introverted and wretched life. I believed that I was familiar to Phillip in ways that were unspoken. I believed that he saw the trauma inside me, agreed silently to put it to rest, and to love me, in sickness and in health, until death did us part.
I believed that Phillip was familiar to me in a way that was significant. There was something fundamentally recognizable about him. I thought perhaps I knew him from another life. Now I think I just liked his hands. Or maybe his biting wit allowed room for my own sorrow and confusion to morph into something less hollow and more actively cantankerous. He taught me how to take something bad and make it funny. I hadn’t done that before. It didn’t lose it’s shame, but it became less sour and bloody.
I dropped out of school. I was bored with it anyway and now I had an excuse — I was a married woman. We had debts to pay. I needed to work. We moved into a rundown apartment above another bar. Our landlord knew the owner of a fancy downtown restaurant and recommended Phillip. He became their cook.
I loved my new apartment. The windows looked out over a huge, blooming tree that was rooted in the courtyard of the bar downstairs. The trees branches were wrapped in tiny little while lights and in the evening, the lights would be twinkling at us. A guitarist would be serenading bar patrons in the courtyard, and the gently audible patter of the guests would waft up to our home, giving it the feeling that it was forever visited by banter and pleasantry.
I was awash in debt from school loans, and I took a day job at the municipal law library. This was also through the connections of our landlord. I liked having a day job and I liked dressing for work — wearing little fitted jackets and high heels I found in thrift stores. Although all I did was open mail and replace pages in the law books, I felt at least minimally important in the world, spending so much time around obviously truly relevant people.
These people were active. They had places to go and things to do. They were overloaded and looked strangled, in a way. But I found their obvious dedication to their to-do lists entrancing.
I fit myself into a kind of video in my mind. Here is Emilie hurrying to work. Here is Emilie stopping off for a bagel on the way. The bagel woman knows her. See? She’s important. And here she is removing her coat as she rides up in the elevator. Watch her make her way to the back of the room, hear her heels clip clip clip as she goes. And now she is working! And then fast-forward because all of that was horribly boring. Now watch her ride the bus home and return to her loving husband who’s helpless to resist her charms and who has just made dinner.
Only Phillip had not made dinner. Nor was he home. He was off working at a fancy restaurant that turned into a bar at night and didn’t close until the wee hours of the night like other bars. And when he did get home, I was asleep and would wake to the putrid smells of the kitchen where he had been working — a mixture of salty sweat and fish guts.
We had nothing to talk about in the morning. All the glitter and party had evaporated. Poof! And I was a slight, hungry, baleful puppy wanting attention. Phillip was an impatient, angry, shark circling around me. While I waited for help, no help arrived. Without ever attempting to dissect what went wrong, we found ourselves at the bank, dividing up cash. On the ride back, I said —
At least we didn’t have children.
Phillip took a long, slow pull on his cigarette.
Maybe we should’ve. Maybe it would’ve saved us.
And that was it.
Well, except I didn’t tell the whole story.
There was a woman. Phillip’s boss’ daughter. And Phillip became attached to her instead of me. She became his best, best-friend. I guess she could keep up with his scorn and his satire. I never could. I didn’t know, after the first few months, if he was making fun of me or trying to entertain me.
I guess she always could tell. I appealed to Phillip —
Why do you spend so much time with her when you see her at work all the time, anyway?
Leave me alone. Get off my back She’s just a friend.
After we’d decided to divorce, before we’d started the paperwork, he had already moved in with her. I didn’t know. I asked him to meet me for lunch at our favorite restaurant. I thought I could perhaps change the course of things for us.
We met downtown at a restaurant where we had sat before, holding hands and laughing. But this time, I said —
Phillip, please, let’s not get divorced. Let’s find a counselor and get help and try harder.
He moved his silverware a fraction away from his plate and blinked.
I can’t. I’ve already made a commitment to her. She’s my soulmate.
I should have gotten up and left the restaurant. That’s what I would do now. But I sat through the entire meal, feeling my insides slowly fester and become ulcerous. And then I took the bus home and trudged up the hill to my apartment, hunched over, enjoying the blisters from the new shoes I’d worn to impress Patrick.
A passing car drove by me slowly, serenading me with Bruce Springsteen’s new song about the breakup of a marriage, When I look at myself I don’t see, the man I wanted to be. Somewhere along the line I slipped off track, grieved Bruce.
Starting Over, a Beginner Again
Where was that person I wanted to be? I had a mournful temptation to imagine that I’d once had a vision for myself — a picture of Emilie moving around in the world, free from trauma, free from fear, knowing and understanding herself.
But the truth was, I had never even really had the imagination to have a track or a path in the first place.
I was more than lost. Lost requires being oriented in the first place.
I wasn’t off-track. I was wandering in the woods, hearing a train in the distance, thinking, there’s a track out there somewhere. I know there is.
I didn’t have a view of myself as a person with a purpose other than survival. Sometimes, the survival you get is just waiting. That’s all it is, when you start out. And that was the best I could do, right then.
But it worked! I’m still here. Decades later, and I’m still here.
Breath. I counseled myself, back then. Breath. You are so young.
In the solitude of living alone again, I turned to my books. I poured over the pages of Ranier Marie Rilke’s writing. It was like he was talking to me — telling my story.
If there was not another person who would save me, I would save myself.
I would quiet my mind, I resolved. I knew I was gestating. I believed there would come a day, when everything would fall into place. When things would make sense.
You are so young. So before all beginning. Rilke’s words created a place inside me that felt like home. Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart.
I assigned myself the job of waiting. I knew I was in purgatory, and I knew a few things about this place already, from my earlier childhood.
This is what happens in purgatory — you wait.
And hopefully, if you are lucky, you will look up one day and find yourself living.
Back then, I told myself this—
I can do this.
And now I tell myself, like a reward —
I did this!
And I tell other women —
You can do do this, too.
Breathe. Just breathe.
You are not alone.
All of the photographs and art in this story are by Emilie Mitcham, except where attributed.