Sometimes I write about her directly, sometimes less clearly, but I write about death as often as I pick up a pen it seems. Death is even a major player in the scifi-fantasy epic Moira and I are writing, turning up as two separate characters with two distinct, vital roles. So what gives? Why am I so obsessed by death?
Only my mother would consider the postictal phase of a seizure melodramatic. Only my mother would take herself out for ice cream on my birthday. Alone. Only my mother could consider consider an aversion to peanut skins overwhelmingly depressing. Only my mother.
There’s a concept in learning and conditioning called variable-ratio scheduling wherein the number of responses required to obtain a reward changes at random. It’s used most-recognizably in slot machines. Coin-greasy fingers slipping against buttons and touch screens under flashing lights and C-major chords beneath mirrored ceilings. Generic galaxies spinning beneath their feet. Blacked out windows. Not a clock in sight. With variable-ratio scheduling there the gambler will stay, suspended in their own perception of time and space, until they run out of money or some stronger stimulus comes along to distract them. Casinos do their damnedest to ensure that there is no stronger stimulus; cocktail waitresses are beautiful but unobtrusive providing everything from liquor to food to ashtrays and would you look at that? The ledge between the slots is the perfect size to hold all of it and a cup for more change (in the few places that still pay out cash rather than vouchers).
My mother is on a variable-ratio schedule. Most interactions are neutral or they are postictal disasters. But once in a blue moon I’ll win something large or small and that is enough to keep me coming back– one more hand, one more penny, one more roll of the dice.
The Introvert Girl Gang is the first place anyone ever told me that running away is easier if you’re already going somewhere. This was something experience taught me but I’d never heard it said before and I almost cried at how much it explained. This was why I shrank at the thought of vacations. This was why I hadn’t applied to more than one college — because that might mean not leaving but having to return home. Not that that’d made much difference. I went to college anyway. I ran away anyway.
A slow study in pressure. How much travel could I handle, how long could home escalate before I decided no more. It happened slow, bordering on silent, smothering magma-hot and black until I could see no horizon.
The summer I visited Mo is a blur.
Brian had been worse than ever and I had been living in a fog of flashbacks and ash. Nightmares about my teeth splitting apart in my mouth, falling flat against my rotting tongue followed me into the morning. I could always smell him and taste him and hear him breathing. Even at night the house wouldn’t quiet.
I visited Mo. I had nothing to lose.
Her mother was compassionate and rough and waited with me through panic and had no patience for my pretending at spinelessness. Her laugh was a balm for my nerves. She did not flinch at cutting away those dead things that no longer served a purpose. She was kind.
I simply could not leave again. The perfect excuse to carve out a place where I could breathe fresh air and madness and rain and remember that there is nothing quite like volcanic soil and rot for growing things.
It’s easier to run away when you’re already going somewhere. It’s easier to stay gone once you’ve planted something there.
My best friend Jenna became Queen of the Geese in college.
This was not a nickname either kind or cruel or arbitrarily granted. This was and is her title which she won in single-dance-combat with the King of the Geese one balmy night at Gazebo Isle on the shores of Radio Springs.
This sounds absurd but I assure you every word I’m about to say is the truth. I know because I was there.
It was the middle of spring. The best time to be in northern Missouri when the nights are just starting to get warm and muggy but not too buggy and magnolias blooming with flowers the size of your face and honeysuckle bushes full of bees from sunup to sunset when, if you were lucky, you might catch a lightning bug or three if the weather was warm enough.
Right at sunset, when the sun was low over the corn and highway, if you watched closely enough you could see spiders making their webs in the tops of the hedges. Spiders with bellies bigger than grapes floating through the air. They would never quite touch the founder of our college; a hundred-twenty years dead and she still did her rounds in the evenings making sure we weren’t out and about up to no good in the twilight. Half-corporeal she was fond of long skirts and stationary — more than once I woke up in short shorts with scratches down my legs from fingernails headed the wrong direction from my hands, had sticky notes come flying at my head from across the room if I put off homework too long.
Our founder minded us well. Taught us the important lessons. The spiders wouldn’t touch her.
Jenna and I didn’t go out right after sunset. Rather, we waited, wished for red wine where we had none, courted nervous breakdowns chasing the promise of final exams. That liminal week before commencement where the halls smelled of cardboard and lilacs, girl sweat and the bitter tang of packing ourselves into the basement for another summer at home. We were, succinctly, a hot mess.
We walked in flip flops and short cotton pajamas down to the lake in the close dark talking about our mothers. They were alike as Jenna and I were alike. Women who did not know how to love themselves and could not fathom why their daughters did not fill the void in their chests for them. Jenna and I grew a little crooked. Complementary. Strong. Strange. The crickets sang and in the dark up the hills bracketing the road leading ever downward toward the lake the deer hummed their quiet music to accompany our conversation. It was always a little like that late at night. None of the wildlife had the sense to sound atonal.
One o’clock in the morning saw us sitting on the low wall that marked the edge of Gazebo Island. Lit orange by a lonely street lamp, grass bridging toward cold with dew that shouldn’t have settled until dawn.
Jenna and I talked about lovers, and the geese began to gather. To listen. We talked about girls and boys. How they betrayed us, how we missed them anyway, how our hearts were eldritch things we did not quite understand but oh how there was so much we could give from them.
I don’t know when it got quiet. When the night insects ceased their music and the deer wandered off to sweeter grass. But I know when we decided it was too late to stay awake any longer, too late to justify the cost of the night spent out of bed at the expense of daylight hours in classes, socializing with those daywalking friends of ours– when we decided that, a goose sat between us and our only route of exit.
He was big. The size of my torso and worth slow roasting for Christmas dinner if you had to have a goose for Christmas dinner. We approached. He stood, feathers puffed in indignation, and gave a single warning flap.
I glanced to my left. Jenna had a look in her eye I couldn’t quite place– it wasn’t befuddlement, it wasn’t discomfort– it was intense and it worried me. She took half a step back.
“Do you want me to scare it off?” The goose was big but, I reasoned, running toward it shouting with my arms outstretched would be sufficient to frighten it off.
Jenna broke eye contact with the goose for just a moment. Shook her head. Declared in the most solemn tone: “Nah, I got this.”
Her posture shifted in a way that I can neither describe nor mimic bodily except to say that it was positively avian. The goose followed suit, bobbing his head in insult, summoning from the water hissing, feathered minions. We were outnumbered. Jenna had no patience for this– she doubled down, returning the insult with gusto, and advanced on the King of Geese.
With undulating, articulated steps in time to a wardrum only she could hear Jenna walked forth and with a mighty honk sent the King of Geese and all his court fleeing across the lake.
We stared after them in silence for no less than half a minute then burst into laughter.
“Does this mean you’re their queen now?”
We were troubled by geese no more on our nighttime adventures to the lake or anywhere else in town. In the act of crowning herself Jenna became known as the Queen of the Geese throughout the county. Geese on campus will nod and bow their respects when she passes to this very day.
I devoted years of my life to a boy and he does not think of me. I could die tomorrow and he would not mark my passing but my life is changed forever for having known him. Thanks to him I love the stars, the sea, the unknown. I fear it, yes, but I love it in equal measure. Because of him I am brave. Oh the irony– he’s spineless! I should know better than to expect so much of men.
When I think of how I lost him, how I walked away from him because I grew so weary of the hunt, it strikes me that no one– not my best friends, not my lovers, not my kin– has ever loved me for those passions and traits I hold dearest to me. No, because their eyes glaze over when I talk about those things but! They love me for the ways in which I absorb and magnify their wonderments. Is it any wonder that I am a hall of mirrors? That I’m utterly at a loss for how to make conversation when I’m not being talked to? That I do not know what to do without instruction? Maybe that is why only a precious few can stand my presence, it is only those few who can appreciate their own company. They certainly aren’t here for mine.
My mother tells me things:
The most brilliant woman to walk through the halls of my podunk women’s college was A– , a member of the Laguna Pueblo and Blackfeet tribes, if my memory serves. From the start she would proclaim this with the pride it deserved and from the start no fewer than half of us who heard it would look down on her as if she had taken from us something we should have had. The entitlement is strong among southern white girlchildren.
She was courage incarnate. Unafraid to attempt to expel nearly a dozen girls in one fell swoop for their racist parody script in Theater– they didn’t walk at graduation and their absence was marked by even the filthy rich donors, their sins made known through the almighty internet grapevine– while stubbornly double-majoring in English and Psychology and to top things off she had a baby her junior year, finished her degrees with a newborn on her hip.
“Grace” is too fragile a descriptor for this woman, let me tell you what.
Her family came together to bouey her. At least that’s how it appeared from the outside, from a distance, from my limited perspective hardly knowing her. They were on campus with hot food, with gifts, with affections. As guest speakers working to educate our sorry asses and as friends to those who were kind to their daughter. Even her boyfriend stayed at her side– I think in the end he married her. Oh how we lonely, unloved Others burned with envy, with jealousy, for what we thought we should have had. As if our wanting somehow warranted another’s deprivation. As if there should be a limit placed on the love in the world.
Last time I checked Facebook she was leaving Standing Rock– likely with her small human and family in tow. And to my classmates who sniffed in irritation every time we heard this woman proclaim her ancestry I have to ask, “What have we done since graduation?”
Scene: a receptionist– excuse me, an “administrative assistant”– trying to pretend she hasn’t spent the last 48 hours crying into her tea over papercuts and obsessing over spreadsheet cell dimensions to the last pixel.
Perspective is a funny thing.
In ten years the last two will comprise 5% of her life rather than 10% and she will think back on her with a fond nostalgia, soothed by the balm of time and closer hurts that relative to this new present make her seem small. Nearly insignificant. Maybe even a fond memory. A lovely aching novelly-shaped bruise that gets showed off on Twitter instead of… whatever this is. Whatever this is.
There. The cells are evenly proportioned according to the Fibonacci sequence. No one else will notice but the receptionist– administrative assistant– will be satisfied.
In the morning I take the meds that keep me from killing myself and at night I take the meds that keep my body from killing me. Or to put it more accurately but more confusingly: in the morning I take a handful of pills that keep my brain from killing me and at night I take another handful of different pills to keep my brain from killing me. There’s no real way to differentiate between the two phrases.
As I so often complain: our language lacks nuance. There’s no way to put additional vowels or apostrophes or dashes in the middle of the phrase to indicate the body or mind of the subject, to differentiate between intent or accident behind the verb.
I’ve been reminded: I don’t deserve the luxury of this. I haven’t suffered enough to earn it.
That’s what they always tell me whenever I tell them I feel like a handful of graveyard dirt only useful for curses, to bury your dead, for leaving behind, for grief. No one notices that I, too, am asking the same question: How do i stop being so fucking sad? I don’t want to be this any more than you want me to be but here we are.
The first time i wanted to kill myself i was 7 years old. I think I even tried, made myself sick on water because I heard a woman’s stomach exploded in a radio drinking contest. They tell me that when you start that young it becomes reflex, a bad habit, a drug you return to time and again because you’re weak. I can’t help but think this is the gene pool’s way of filtering itself. That the last 15 years of calculating how many ibuprofen could cause liver failure, whether I could exsanguinate before mom came home from work and her husband sobered up, guessing how much weight my bootlaces and closet bar could hold, steeling myself to fall head-first from the roof of the house because the screen popped out, staring longingly down into traffic from the bridge over I-80 whose gate someone forgot to lock. This perpetuated itself into college, self-sustaining, the ultimate in renewable energy.
I knew girls braver than I who tried to die and I envied their ability to take control of themselves– and feared the backlash, the hatred they received for doing so. That’s why I never tried. I didn’t want to get caught, punished, sent away. I valued peace more than I valued control.
I’m still here.
A quiet pollutant on the surface of the pool the sort you inch to the side to avoid casting speckled shadows on the tiled sloping pool floor, a bit slick to the touch. Something of me robs off anyway, transfers through osmosis. A texture you wish you could wash away but can’t lose no matter how much hot water you use.
I suppose I have one up on the gene pool, though, since I don’t plan to reproduce. Now the trick is to stay alive.
I suppose I should be, as you so kindly recommended, grateful that I’m capable of posting to my own blog about my own thoughts and experiences. The dead neurons in my left medial temporal lobe in the place called Wernicke’s Area didn’t take that from me.
Except for how they did.
(Let me count the ways.)