Outside of vague poetry I’ve ignored the stroke. I want to pretend it never happened as if, maybe, that will undo the brain damage and emotional trauma that comes with going toe-to-toe with Death. I’ve spent a lot of years flirting with Her and I guess Death finally decided to flirt back.
“Now I saw in my dream that… they drew near to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain; and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was “Despond.” Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt… because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
The Slough of Despond is a nasty, miserable bog of guilt that sucks people in and is almost impossible to escape. In The Pilgrim’s Progress it’s an allegory for sin but I think it can be more accurately described as Depression. Yes, capital-D, clinically-diagnosable Depression.
Knowing someone stuck in the Slough of Despond can be difficult, draining, and generally lead to depression itself. I know this because I am scandalously intimate with the Slough. It’s my Unhappy Place. I’ve lived with it since I was 8 years old.
my wrists ache and my doctor says it’s from typing too much but i think it’s because of all the stories i’ve left untold. my carpals are swollen and burning with narrative that i’m too frightened to let loose from my central nervous system to my peripheral nervous system so i do repetitive, stressful things instead like reading others’ arguments on twitter and wondering why i can’t manage to start conversations with my best friends. a brace will treat the cause, sure, but not the symptom.
I’m making a pb&j at midnight because I live alone and can do this kind of thing without arousing suspicion. I haven’t eaten a full meal in a week. The world has made me sick.
As always when I’m sick and tired I think of you. How it’s been almost three months since we last spoke. Almost eighteen since we kissed. How when Death came for me my mother turned you away from our doorstep and how I am glad and resentful for it. How you went from being the woman I wanted to marry to a bullet grazing my cheek en route to elsewhere. Late nights like this the scar stings. I do my best to soothe it with hamfisted metaphor and flourishes but I always fall short.
I always fall short.
I never read the letter you left on my nightstand.
But then you went and gave my mother a card for me in the wake of my nearly-dying. A card full of hallmark sentiments about freedom. “You just crawled tooth and nail from your death bed but don’t you remember how I broke up with you? Aren’t you happy I let you go free?” I’m paraphrasing but that is the spirit of it and I wish I’d never read it.
Would you have said the same thing at my funeral? Eulogized not my corpse below you but our relationship? Waxed poetic about the crushing kindness you did me by breaking my heart?
As if I would allow you to speak at my funeral.
I think I understand what happened now. When your feelings fill your lungs like tar you don’t know what to do about the slow pain of drowning. You wheeze about your selflessness and sacrifice and the undying love you bear others and never manage to cough up what’s eating you.
Lucky for me I’m not dead and I only miss you like this when I’m tired and hungry. Maybe that’s what drove you away. I smother the things I love when there is no clear line at the start of no man’s land.
First come the smiles, then the lies- last is gunfire.
Here we are. Alive and full to bursting. Me with cheap metaphor and you with unspoken tar.
Tell me, how does your freedom taste?
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! 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: