Whenever you’re ready, you know where I am.
Come find me.
Whenever you’re ready, you know where I am.
Come find me.
But we know it’s there. Even if they take, talk, steal, walk like they don’t give a fuck, we know there’s something beyond what we see, a depth of soul that speaks to a need for perfectibility.
I’d like to crack you open. Let me see what’s inside.
I lie silent, heavy.
I’m feared, revered.
Mothers hate me. Farmers love me.
I’m harmless and a killer.
I’m a star in laundry detergent commercials, so I’ve heard.
I’m even referenced in holy books.
I’m a big part of what goes on here.
I only know this much about myself from what I’ve gathered based on how people talk about me. Everywhere, the world over, it’s always the same chatter.
But that’s when they talk about me. Most of the time, they don’t.
Unless someone is forced to come into direct contact with me, through a mishap, or play, or their profession, I’m mostly ignored. No one thinks of me.
I’m just here. Silent. Heavy. I support your weight on top of me for now. And one day, I’ll swallow you up.
Shit was fucked. That much he knew. Yet he couldn’t leave. But it wasn’t some kind of mystery. There was no self-flagellation involved, no “what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-me” internal monologue. He knew exactly what was wrong. He couldn’t give up, even when he knew he was playing a losing game.
He knew why, too. Growing up, he had seen too much giving up. His beaten, sad-sack father gave up on his dreams of starting his own business and building a self-sufficient life for his family. His mother, in turn, had given up on his father as the perennial loser, the dupe. They both had ended up looking too carefully at each other, scrutinizing every flaw, magnifying every shortcoming until there was nothing left to love. Eventually, they became so self-involved and so focused on their own navel-gazing that they gave up on the kids too. It even seemed like the town he grew up in had been given up on by the state.
So he overcompensated. He never gave up. He clung stubbornly to things until they ended naturally, or came apart due to circumstances outside his control: college, relationships, his going-nowhere music “career.”
The only time he had ever given up was when he left that one-horse town where he grew up. He got into college, packed his bags, and never looked back. He said goodbye, sure. But he never called his parents, never wrote, never visited. Sometimes, he suffered intense pangs of guilt. They came out of nowhere, at the strangest times. Occasionally, it would happen when he was completely focused on writing a song. Other times, it would be when he was absently doing some mindless task, like popping coins into a parking meter.
In those private moments, he would be stricken with self-reproach, and would vow to get in touch, to confront his folks and make good. He would withdraw and spend whole days prone on the couch, eyes closed, repeating to himself: “I’ll go back. I’ll go back. I have to go back.”
But eventually, the fit would pass. A phone call would rouse him, he’d get on with his life and forget about these crises of conscience, forget about that far-away world inhabited by memory and a vague sense of shame.
He couldn’t face another one of these–another reason to spiral into such a state of self-pity. So he couldn’t leave her. Even though they hadn’t been in love for at least a year. Even though they hadn’t had sex for longer. Even though they had nothing in common anymore. Even though he knew she was cheating.
He wasn’t going to give up on her. No. He was going to stick it out to the bitter fucking end.
As I get older, I feel more and more like maybe I became who I am before I even met myself. As in, my grade school teachers knew exactly who I was going to be when they met me at the age of 5, 8, 10, whatever, whereas I lived my life believing I was growing into myself, learning about myself as I went, developing tastes and tics and traits along the way.
But now, as I sit here and take stock of who I am just the other side of 30 years old, I look back and see that even though there are mini-epochs of my life that seem incredibly distant and foreign, like they were torn from the pages of someone else’s life, I’m mostly pretty recognizable as that same little, stubborn kid who thought she was smarter than everyone else. And every time I stand and talk with my mother I become more and more aware that I’m basically her. It’s almost freakish how similarly we gesticulate, articulate, masticate, and – god forbid it ever comes to it – I’m sure I’d present a 21st-century redux of the way she chose to gestate as well.
So even though I’ve moved around a lot, done some idiotic things, had relationships, ended them, started and finished or started but didn’t finish a couple advanced degrees, seen some of the world and met lots of people, I’m starting to think I was already this me, somehow, but I just didn’t know it yet, and had to struggle through the challenge of chiseling away at the stone to present the statue beneath. Like I’m revealing myself to myself in stages, because if I did it all at once the shock and disgust I would feel would overwhelm me and send me reeling into a shrieking, psychotic rage. Because although I was never one for ambition, and I never set goals or sought meaning, and I never imagined a solidified future for myself, I guess I always kind of thought I’d end up doing something great.
But now, I’m starting to realize that those grade school teachers really did see me, and they already knew my story. They wrote it on every report card: Doesn’t live up to potential.
It was so white, it practically glowed. She felt like she had never seen paper so pristine. It was incredible that it hadn’t yellowed in all the intervening years.
She had come across it unexpectedly, by accident. She was emptying out a drawer in an old desk, preparing to sell it or give it away, and had noticed the scrap of paper, caught in a crack in the wood, like a trapped moth with its wing stuck in a windowpane.
She was hesitant to open it. She did. A few words were scrawled on it in a familiar hand.
“Not just yet.”
What? She whispered aloud to herself. No.
A pale memory glimmered in her mind like a reel from an old movie. She couldn’t quite make it out.
She knew she had written it. Was it a note to herself? A lover? A friend?
She had no idea.
It’s funny how you can forget about people from your past, not even think of them for years, and then someone says something, and BAM. There they are, resurrected, returned like a neurosis you thought you had shaken. And they stand there, gazing back at your mind’s eye, utterly nonchalant, completely unimpressed. Acting as if they’d been there, alive in your daily memory, all along. For them, it’s no big deal. They haven’t aged or changed at all, and their reappearance, to themselves, must seem part of a fluid, living narrative. But for you, it’s hugely transgressive. They intrude on your thought-life, ghostly impostors, anachronistic and out of place.
Jonathan Schmitt came back to me today. I don’t know what happened to him. I think I heard, a while back, that he had gotten some girl from high school pregnant. Not during high school, but shortly thereafter. And then, maybe a stint in jail? Or Texas. I can’t remember. We lost touch during high school, even though we were in the same home room, since our last names were both toward the end of the alphabet. We ended up in different circles. I hung out with the music nerds and the language nerds, and he ended up with the shop kids and the bad influence crowd. So strange.
We had been so close in grade school. Of course, we weren’t fully formed personalities then. But we were practically inseparable. It wasn’t a first crush thing, but Jonathan fascinated me, which worried my mother. And our favorite thing to do, which sounds so innocuous now, but was so thrilling then, was to meet after school and go jumping. Jumping was swinging on the swing set in the schoolyard, pumping our legs so furiously and sending ourselves soaring so high that we thought we’d swing ourselves right over. And as soon as we got to that point, we would jump off. In the fourth grade, jumping was so dangerous, so fun. That Jonathan Schmitt, he was a daredevil.
I gulped air, still not convinced either way as to whether this had been a terrible idea. On the one hand, it was dirt cheap. On the other, I was in hour 15 of a 28-hour train ride from Chicago to New York, and I was ready to commit homicide. My legs felt like they were atrophying from sitting in the same position for so long, and the thought of inhaling every other passenger’s stale exhalations in that compartment where no windows opened made me want to vomit. At varying intervals, for the briefest of interludes, we were allowed to step off the train and breathe some fresh air, stretch our limbs a little, have a cigarette. We got about five minutes and then it was back to the uncomfortable seats and the circulated air. It seemed inhumane. But I had chosen it as a cheap and far less terrifying alternative to flying.
In the end, I felt like in any other circumstance, I could have easily dealt with all the unsavory aspects of long-range train travel, as long as I had my music, a couple of good books, and my cigarettes. I would have been fine, if it hadn’t been for my seating arrangement, which spawned my unhealthy obsession.
I ended up in one of those seating areas where you actually face the two people across from you. All you can do is try not to stare at these assholes, but where else are you going to look. And as it turns out, the guy right across from me had the most unfortunate, outrageous comb over I had ever seen. Oily strands of ridiculously long hair were coiled like Medusa’s snakes, precariously perched atop a sallow, sunken dome. I couldn’t look away. I was mesmerized.
“Thirteen more hours,” I whispered.
I caught the bartender’s eye and nodded slightly as I walked past and slid into my usual two-person mini-booth just around the corner from the long, oak bar. It was Jake tonight. Good. He always poured me the Laphroiag 18 year and only charged me for the ten year. What a guy. In return, I tipped him triple. Sure, I’m that kind of girl. Why not? This is how you build a relationship, right? It still saved me five bucks a drink in the long run. And I knew I’d be taken care of every time I walked in the door. It was a perfect partnership.
Jake brought me my first drink and we chatted briefly, warming up. He’d take a seat with me on the third or fourth round, when my tips would cover his drink. Then we’d really talk, our boozy, warm breath relating tales of work woes, love lost, crazy people we’d talked to on the street, hilarious names for bands, ideas for the future. We got each other. Always had.
Another round or two after that, I’d get ready to go, and we’d end our conversation the same way we have for the past couple of years. I can’t even remember how it started, but now it’s practically a script. Or maybe it’s more like the sign-off of an old timey radio personality. He’d see me gathering up my things and give me my cue: “Leaving already? I hate when you leave. When are you just going to admit you’re in love with me and propose?”
“Any day now, Jake.”
I didn’t always look this way. I used to be beautiful. Everyone always said I was stunningly, transcendently beautiful, more beautiful than anything or anyone else they had ever laid eyes on, which was saying something where I come from. But it didn’t last.
I know that saying about how beauty fades, but something or other, whatever that is, lasts forever. My beauty didn’t fade, though. It became its opposite in a very deliberate and immediate way. And I can remember the moment it happened.
Looking back, I think that it was all those compliments, all that adoration — not just the words, but the looks in everyone’s eyes, the way they gazed at me — that was how it began. It all entered my consciousness so insidiously that I didn’t know it was cracking my soul open along the fault lines of my fatal flaw. For I was not humble.
I can’t help but wonder: had they all been able to just treat me like anyone else, would I have stayed there, content with my lot? Would I have remained beautiful?
But no, I can’t blame anybody but myself for my decision, and in all honesty, even in spite of the fact that I am now hideously ugly beyond any human’s most horrific nightmares, I have no regrets. Especially since I still have my other gifts, which can be nearly as potent as heavenly beauty. Who could deny that my musical talents have been instrumental (pardon the pun) in drawing innumerable souls to my dominion?
I may be malformed, but I am powerful. Far more powerful than my rival. I credit my ability to change for much of my success. I know what people like. Sex? Drugs? Music that doesn’t glorify His name?
See you in hell, my lovelies.