The sun has set and I am standing on the back porch, leaning over the railing.
I hear the screen door creak, his heavy boots sliding.
“Are your friends picking you up tonight?” The nicest question he’s asked in a while. He’s imploring about nonessentials. Something is coming. A faint alarm spins my gut.
He leans against the house under the yellow glow of the porch light and I turn so my side is toward him—I don’t want my ass in his view, and I can read his body language this way. His arms are crossed over his plaid belly, hands under his armpits. He’s nervous.
Hesitating, “Amy, I want to tell you something.”
“What? ‘Is Jeremy going to be there?’”
“No. I trust you.”
Silence. The crickets are loud this spring. I hear the frogs mating out back behind the pole barn. Beyond the tree line, a semi’s headlights float.
“That’s a shocker,” I smile at him. He smiles back and makes room for himself.
“Amy, what are you going to do with your life?”
My smile ends. I look down at Kurt Cobain on my black t-shirt, and hear
“…‘nothin’ on top but a bucket and a mop and an illustrated book about birds…”
I look into the railing’s grain. “I dunno. Why?”
I cannot fully absorb this question. What was I? Who am I but space? I cannot entertain this.
I feel his presence suddenly. The atmosphere has changed. “I want you to know something—something I think no one tells you—you have so much potential in you, Amy–so much more than your sisters. You’re talented, you’re smart, you’re brave. There are so many things about you that you will use in this life and you don’t even know it.”
I turn my back to him and watch the tear seep and spread into the wood. Come on Lori…
“I just wanted to tell you that, because you don’t know. Because you act like you don’t care. Because I…”
What is paternal love but the sick twisted measure of a man? I do not know. I think of Jeremy when he says this, and I feel a sickness colliding with compassion for my stepfather. For the quickest moment of my life he is not a monster. He is human. It’s almost love.
The moment passes and I imagine him looking at my body again—yet something in my heart tugs, something that has always been a mystery and desperate for me.
“Thanks,” I say coolly, as if in passing. I can’t look at him. Headlights, bass. “Lori’s here.”
“Ok. I just wanted to say it. Have a good night.”
“Thanks,” I say without looking at him and skim down the steps toward the car, heart pounding.
“Hi my Jo-Jo Bean!” Lori smiles, her bouncy self turning down Tupac and putting the Buick in reverse. Night slips around me, the only light from the dash. She hands me a cigarette.
“Hey turn that up,” I say and smile. As if nothing had happened. As if I would forget this.
* * * * * *
I save up for a stereo. It is three hundred dollars and two and a half feet wide. I clear off my dresser with the scarves draped over it, Kurt Cobain on the wall in back. I take my time with my prize; my favorite possession. Speakers hooked up, red to red, black to black. I inhale its plastic newness, the luxury. I open up the four-disc changer and gingerly place Lynrd Skynrd in “disc 1.” I skip to number seven and as the electric guitar starts I gauge the volume by the round knob. My stepfather knows I am angry, so the loudness is acceptable today.
...if I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me…
I turn it to the right more, until my chest can feel it. It’s the only thing I can feel these days–physical vibrations. The lyrics take me outside myself. I think of Forrest Gump–Jenny standing on the banister of the balcony before her shoe slips. I know that–the curiosity, almost psychotic. No feeling. No thinking.
Next comes “Rage”–Paul York’s take on Bach and the angry, almost cutting violin terrifies me, like a slice through a vein. I want to play it. I see my future in it. I want to be afraid. I want to feel, fear, cry. Anything. (FYI –THIS SONG, RAGE, STILL TERRIFIES ME)
I go to the full-length mirror by the door, a pile of purple and blue eye shadow on the cement floor. The dim light from the lamp shines in the mirror behind my head. I stare as I always do. Waiting for something. I take the shadow applicator and press into the purple powder, as purple as the crayon. I stroke it beneath my eyes and around one, so it looks bruised. Then I hollow out my cheeks, defining the high cheekbones in darkness. I am satisfied and go up the basement stairs to show my family. My stepfather Scott and older sister Nikki are in the kitchen. My mother cross-stitches in the dining room by the bay window. I walk around to face her and wait for her to look up.
“Mom? Can I go to Janelle’s?”
“Yeah,” she barely speaks through pursed lips–a thin white line. She doesn’t look up. I watch her dry, knobby knuckles bend and pull the needle to the dark thread, punched through and in the hooped fabric.
I go back to the kitchen. Scott looks at me, then my chest. He is pale. I watch his large sunken eyes, the dark circles beneath. He turns, his large torso tight in a red flannel. I wait for Nikki. She is dutiful as usual, washing dishes without being asked. Pretty sure it’s my turn.
“Nik, can I use your Walkman?” I lean on the counter. I worry the setting sun will white-out my colors. I almost enjoy this.
She glances at me without seeming to notice. “I don’t care, but put it back, last time you didn’t.”
Back downstairs and back in my spot in front of the mirror, I get out the handheld mirror and look at my face through it, reflected in the other. I like the angles. I think maybe I’m pretty. Even the nose Scott laughs at–I like it. I see clearly the makeup shadowing my face. I won’t do this in the bathroom that’s just off my bedroom. The two-way mirror he installed still opens up into his “den” where he can watch us through it, having putting a hole in the back of the mirror. I lose the fun of examining my changing face and body. It hits again. He saw me in there—all those times I stared at myself and sang to myself and watched my angles and shapes and made private faces, standing naked. All of it..
I play “Free Bird” again and sit in my little black leather chair I had found at Good Will for five dollars. I pick at the hole in the arm and look around my painted room. I have scarves over the lamps and I’ve written song lyrics on the wall by the wooden closet door. My friends are starting to notice, I am thinking. This is not me anymore. I look around and do not recognize myself in my things. ……
I would return to this room nine years later doing a project while in psychotherapy. Deb had assigned me to “re-raise” myself, and we decide some things are just too heavy alone, so we do Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) one day, and it continues for a few weeks.
Her voice is almost a whisper–I can hear an almost practiced meditation in it, like Clarissa Pinkola Estes and the power and depth and healing of women.
Electrodes or what are also called “buzzies” are buried in my fists,–left and right–and they pulse. My hands are sweating.
I feel it pulse left, then right. Left, then right. And then a bit faster and then I feel it adjusting something inside my brain. It’s an inhuman calmness wrapping around chaos. I can breathe here.
The idea behind this EMDR session is a mystery to me, but it has to do with my father and, I am dreading, stepfather. I wait for her instructions. I cannot remember anything after this, except that after she takes the electrodes out of my fists, she has me sit at the table in the corner with the big lamp on it. She gives me a large sheet of paper and a box of broken and dull crayons. Now that I think of it, I mostly used purple…
She tells me to draw what I saw and felt using my non-dominant hand. I have to choose what feels right with colors, and I have to go with it yet focus. I scribble away suddenly with my left hand. Faster and faster I draw and color, tears dripping off my cheeks and onto the art. I see Deb crying too. She remains silent. At some point I was pressing so hard with some repressed relief, sobbing and grinding midnight black onto the page, the same lines over and over. I am not myself—whoever the hell that is.. I am the porous meat left when skin is ripped off, the air singing me.
I know when I am done by instinct. I stop drawing and smashing the Crayola in my sharp lines, stopping the black obsessive box I went over and over on, and I stop crying. I look up as if from some heavy sleep, or some kind of relief. She has tears for sure I see now, slipping from behind her glasses.
“How do you feel?”
I look at her, stunned. “Better.”
“Yes. Now tell me–what did you draw. What do you see?”
My hands are shaking–then I notice my whole body is trembling.
I look at the strangest colors and pictures, as if a child has drawn them. There are two separate themes. One of my biological father, and one having something to do with my stepfather. We begin to unravel it. “This is the house…and this is the attic where he is–”
“Amy notice the soft lines and colors? Look at the sun coming in the attic window–it’s sweet. Look at the tricycle in the sun, the lilacs coming out of the chest. What is in the chest, Amy?”
“Daddy John. His body.” I say this as if I’m reporting molecular structures–the feel of the fact in my mouth. The truest thing I know. I feel tears but they don’t hurt. I sit erect and cautious.
Deb tears up again, “Amy you don’t even see…how sweet you are, how beautiful this is.”
I see gentleness. I don’t see death in the trunk. I cry when I see the tricycle. Its little wheels. The hard-pressed red. Aside from the bike, all the details are light.
“And what’s this?”
“It’s me, throwing a tiny box of him into the water off a bridge.” There is a sun and blue waves and my small hands tossing it away.
I feel a lightness. A weight is gone from my core, and it never returned since that afternoon after EMDR.
“Now look over there. What do you see?” I don’t feel like she’s waiting for me to say what she hopes will prove her psychoanalysis. She wants me to discover for myself, not for science or in the name of progress. I feel her compassion and it makes me brave.
A very sharp-angled black box is smashed onto the paper, over and over the crayon had to have gone over it. It’s huge, taking up a quarter of the bottom of the paper. Alongside it are two people, what appears to be a girl and a boy, lifting it, but they can’t. They are in front of the basement closet, the wooden one, and there is a shelf above it’s supposed to go to. I know this and I don’t know how. I had no intention of drawing it or know why I did.
“What is this Amy? What do you see? Take your time.” She knows something because she nears me in an almost maternal way.
“It’s ….IT. It’s Scott. I don’t know. It’s everything he did. I don’t know, I can’t lift it. It’s in my room in the basement–where he watched me.”
“Who else is in the picture? And which one are you?”
“Nikki. She’s wearing the dress. I’m in the pants, like a man. We’re stuck.”
“Think of how in your family you two took the roles over–Nikki the mother, and you the father. Maybe that’s a part of it. Like the other picture, you are lifting another box–see? See how light your pain and loss is from your real dad? From John? See the light. Now look at your bedroom in the basement, the picture of Scott. It’s so heavy. I want you to envision again that box, this feeling. Close your eyes and try to move it.”
I do as she says because an intense fragility is creeping up my spine. I can feel the weight of John is gone. Or something is. I am lighter, but heavily my eyes turn to the black box I cannot lift.
“See if you can do it yourself first,” she practically whispers.
I feel a strain. I have no way of showing you, reader, that it cannot be lifted. I have no way of telling you how my will and my brain became physical arms, pushing against the most immovable force. Black and chalky. Scratching the impenetrable surface of that fucking box. It was like physically existing in your psyche (consciousness?), using your determination as you never have before on something you cannot name.
“Now ask Nikki to help.”
I looked to my sister, into the voice of her eyes, and cry because she is willing to help me. Someone will help me. Tears were coming as we lift and push but it isn’t budging.
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t it’s so heavy.” I stop crying and TRY.
“Ok, rest. We can return to this again, next time. It is too much for now.”
That was my last experience with EMDR. I failed to return to many appointments, afraid she couldn’t help me because something huge was coming and she couldn’t see it—something bigger than that box, oh so much bigger. I was Afraid Deb didn’t want to help me because of my lack of ambition. Or my shame. Yet she had also started feeling like this mother-figure molding me, and some deeper part of me knew that was the last thing I wanted or needed. I began to not trust her, and yet I loved her, which set alarms off in my head. We were dealing with who I could become as a woman—how to build up who I wanted to be, when inside my brain there was this crowding, this molecular pain. I could feel myself closing off to figurative limbs. The Bipolar was yet untreated. I was a guinea pig to anti-depressants. I was not depressed. I was in a million pieces, I was nobody. I felt nothing except for the doom that whatever happened in the past alongside whatever mental disorder or illness I had—it was coming to a head, any time, and I waited. I waited like an animal stalking fresh meat, only I would be the one to die because I wanted to. Give it all away. Take it. I never told Deb these things. Because I didn’t think she’d believe me. Because I was afraid she’d look at me as this foolish girl who wanted attention. Because nothing was wrong with me. Nothing was wrong with me.
(noticing the dissociation/derealization—coming to in the middle of a task and not being there, Plath and The Bell Jar and that feeling when I read it, my heart made me literally sick, and I threw it away. I was sixteen, and it was like looking into a mirror and I was disgusted and yet more so terrified. Of my future. ——and college too, the way the words began pouring out, the way in the end I was sick, my brain a splitting continent, the Bipolar and Psychotic episodes and anxiety creeping up. Everything was creeping. Crying in the professor’s office that I had nothing but all these parts, and she said these parts were so amazing to just keep going with them because we could, together, piece it into a book. My dream had come true in that little office, and I knew I was too sick to do it)
(And I hear my Advisor, bumbling around her office that was stacked to the hilt with shelves of books and plants and aboriginal art and photographs of exotic places she had lived—
“Amy, there is a lot of goot talk about choo among the professors, you are on many lips.” I felt dizzy. Then I confessed to her (because my Dean’s List standing might fail) that I was in trouble. that I was diagnosed with bipolar and I was all scattered and all I wanted was to write. And pose the real questions I did in class, and implore and learn and pick apart. “I vill tell you von thing, some of the greatest artists and writers in this world…were bipolar. It is two opposites inside of you, and that is what feeds you. Be positive dawling.”
I wanted her to adopt me. I wanted to sip her tea and ride around in her dirty Passat and be told I had something in me, some kind of talent. That it was born in me stronger than my sickness. She looked at me the way I craved—as a young ambitious woman with talent, sick or not.)