When It Was Over and When It Wasn’t
"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, May 2008
Until you remember
After errands I'm trying to think of something to do that won't hurt my hands, now that I've missed all the movies I wanted to see and it's too early to go to Blow Buddies. Then I can't decide what to do, so I'm trying to stay here and do nothing, but before you know it I'm checking email or reading the newspaper or scanning through that essay again and then everything is burning, this is the worst it's been because I've been editing my novel, what a nightmare.
I can only spend so much time with the stuffed animals, and then my hand’s back on the computer mouse, the arrow keys, I better stop before I get to that point again where there's too much burning. Then I remember oh, I have a few movies here, I can watch Todd Haynes’s Safe and maybe that will be comforting, since it's about a woman who becomes allergic to the world, everything really, item by item, starting with her husband. It's brilliant on so many levels, but one of those levels is that the woman, played by Julianne Moore, is hardly a sympathetic character -- she's a super-rich housewife living in Southern California who freaks out when a sofa set of the wrong color is delivered for one small corner of her expansive living room. But as she slowly starts to fall apart, the camera lingering over all this space around her that gives nothing like comfort, even while critiquing everything that she stands for it's still impossible not to see the hopelessness of her situation.
I have a particular relationship to this movie because, the first time I saw it, I remember Chris or maybe it was Zee saying: that'll be you in a few years. And that's the problem with watching it, because I'm watching Julianne Moore and seeing things that could happen to me, like when she suddenly can't breathe at a baby shower with all her friends and their permed hair. And especially when she's writing a letter to someone who runs a support group for people with environmental illness, and her husband comes into the bedroom and says what are you doing, and she stares at him and at first you think she doesn't know whether to reveal what she's actually writing, but then she says: where am I? Because she suddenly doesn't know.
That's where I'm sobbing with Julianne, I realize I stopped at this exact point the last time I tried to watch this movie. But it's just a movie -- I should be able to get to the end, right? Now they're talking about how sometimes people can have seizures and then Julianne Moore is getting conventional allergy tests where they prick your arms all over the place and then you see a close-up of all the red welts arranged on her forearms and it's that exact sensation that keeps triggering me, the repetition of mold on the red cabbage or beans stuck in the drain, something that makes me cringe I press stop on the mouse but then the image is frozen on my computer screen I don't know what to do until I realize okay, I can press eject on the DVD drive. At first that doesn't work and I'm panicking, but then out comes the DVD, it's okay.
I head out for Blow Buddies, the Geary bus is coming so I jump on it but then I'm confused because it doesn't really take me that much closer, I'm not ready to be around all these people. At Market I catch a cab, but then I think wait, did I leave the beans boiling on the stove? Sometimes I think I've done that, and I'm just being neurotic, but this time I really think I'm right. I tell the cab to take me home, back to my apartment there's the pot of beans, boiling. What a mess. I mean it could have been a mess, I'm glad I came back, maybe it's time to get ready for bed but instead I run outside and catch another cab.
At first I think I should just leave, I mean after I get there, but then the music changes and I get wacky, running away from the poppers with exaggerated expressions, waving to people who looks dazed, and then I'm in an alcove with this cute short guy with facial hair that could be the leather look or it could be scenester fashion or I guess it could be both, anyway he's pushing me down on his dick, you already know it doesn't take much pushing. Then he's trying to slam this other guy's dick in my mouth with his and I'm thinking that doesn't really work, this isn't a porn video, but I'm attracted to his pushing anyway and eventually it kind of does work -- I get it, their dicks go it into my cheek more than straight back, but I hope this isn't hurting my jaw I mean I'm sure it is called the my hands feel fine, that's a good sign. Eventually I'm standing up into the second guy's arms kissing his neck and hugging him and I've got my hands on the back of the first guy's head he’s sucking my dick that's when I get the rush like I could be anywhere I could do anything, we alternate positions for a while we’re all super-present in something that's all of us.
Then when I come all over the first guy he gets all toppish and angry like he’s scared of come and immediately I’m so exhausted like why was I doing any of that? At home I'm angry at myself for staying up too late, it’s just so hard to tell when I'm really really exhausted and shouldn't go out because I'm always exhausted, except sometimes I feel better when I go out.
I'm telling Chris about trying to watch Safe again, I'm talking about the scene where Julianne Moore says where am I? And then those red marks on her arms and how they triggered some kind of flashback I mean something about repeated marks on skin or something caught in the drain or mold on cabbage and then I don't want to get dramatic, but actually I'm wondering: where am I? I mean I know I’m in my kitchen, but I'm trying to tell Chris what those marks remind me of, I can't say it I put my head in my hands I'm scared of looking right at him I mean looking out at anyone.
Then my body's shaking, I'm sobbing, Chris has his hand on my leg that feels sweet I'm reaching my hand over for his I still can't say anything. Then I'm sobbing more, I say can you come over here? Chris moves his chair over, I say I'll write it down -- I mean it's not a memory, it's just something I'm thinking, okay? Chris nods his head but I can't write anything, I close my eyes again, I really want to say it aloud just to say it I say it reminds me of something rotting, something dead. Then I'm staring straight ahead, can I say it do you think I can say it I can say it, maybe I can say it. Then I'm conscious that I mumbling and then I'm staring straight ahead again.
I get that feeling like okay, now the world will end but also that feeling like okay, now the world will end but that's not a problem. Really I'm thinking babies, faces smashed and decomposing, but somehow people is easier to say. Then I say: don't tell anyone, okay?
Which is funny, because immediately I think: who would Chris tell? And: my father is dead. And: I'm going to write about it later on.
I hate the way that everything can suddenly get scarier, that I want to feel safe but it never works, that my mother could at least make me feel financially safe but she hasn't, that my father’s dead but I'm still a little kid saying don't tell anyone, they put that in your head so well that you can’t even remember what they didn't want you to tell. Until you remember, but it's all warped images bent around feelings twisted tangled knotted rotting memory isn't the word for memory.
The pain splitting me
I'm saying something to my sister about when she used to wake up every night screaming help! Help! And my mother would suit her back to sleep, our mother. Lauren says she doesn't remember that, which kind of surprises me -- there are the parts of childhood that I never forgot, so they don't seem as traumatic. Then there are the parts that I had to forget, in order to go on living.
Lauren's screaming went on for years, maybe it started when we moved to the new house, Lauren was four and I was six, maybe it went on until she was about 10 and I was 12. I'm not sure -- it felt like it was always that way, but now I'm thinking about how it was never acknowledged and how, when you're living somewhere where you're afraid for your life and that's your home you're a child that's the only thing you know of protection: it will never work. The way memory is so bound to emotion that the boundaries between the two are blown open, remain open until you can't figure out what is what, maybe never will.
I was scared too but I didn't believe screaming would help me. There were always so many monsters, even though I didn't believe. I didn't want to believe she was screaming again, sometimes my mother would come right away and sometimes it would take so long. Everything was always so tense, I learned how to masturbate by picturing myself dropped into vats of boiling shit, I was about to die, pressing deeper into the mattress until that wet spot I prayed to God even though I didn't believe. This was arousal and that was death or sleep, the beginning.
I was the good kid, my sister was the bad one -- that's the way it all played out, I mean the way each of us survived. Lauren would scream at my parents in the supermarket, masturbate on top of a plastic ball in the family room, tell my parents she was going to chop them up and put them in the frying pan. Why is it so hard to say our parents? I don't know, I can't even tell which way makes sense.
I wanted to be perfect because I knew that if anyone ever saw underneath my façade they'd know I deserved to die. I had to do a really good job, or everyone would know I was evil. I didn't understand kids, they were so mean, so mean to me except for some of the girls. I thought I understood teachers better, I was four or six or eight and I believed I had the mind of an adult just no power. I mean, now I look at four or six or eight or even 15-year-olds and they look like kids, but that wasn't something I knew then. I just knew that I didn't understand them, and they wanted me dead.
Everyone wanted me dead except teachers, and some of the girls, and sometimes my sister but not usually and that's when everything got scarier I mean everything was already scarier I mean everything. I wanted someone to trust, Lauren was there I wanted to trust her. We told each other secrets, secrets like siblings, I knew how to keep secrets. Our parents were jealous, jealous of our closeness they felt threatened. They’d bait us to tell, tell, tell. Lauren would always try to stab me with anything I gave her, which meant I needed to learn to give her nothing. I couldn't learn this, because I wanted to give her everything. I knew we had nothing, and I wanted us to know this together, then we would have something.
I wanted to save everyone, everyone who needed something, something they would never get. This meant kids, the kids that other kids hated, kids like me. Lauren was one of the kids that other kids didn't hate, hovering just beneath the top tier of popularity that I could never get near -- I was the faggot the sissy the nerd the brain, these were things that set me apart, in the way that kids divide each other because they've learned that means safety, eventually it will get them somewhere.
I say that I wanted to be perfect, but this was no secret: everyone knew, and I was given two choices -- doctor or lawyer. Florence said stockbroker and my parents tried to keep us away from her, she was too materialistic. Rose said artist, but that was impractical. Two choices: doctor or lawyer. What do you want to be?
I wanted to be my sister. I wanted to play with dolls and wear soft sweaters and paint my room pink, I wanted to wear tights with cutoff shorts, I wanted short skirts and makeup and moisturizer, I wanted to giggle and gossip and talk about boys and boobs and ask my friends if I looked fat, I wanted to eat nothing but carrot sticks and rice cakes and salads with no-cal dressing and have adults smile at me and think my diet was cute, I wanted to have a sexuality that I could express.
Sometimes I’d sit on my sister's bed and try to imagine what it would be like if I were underneath the covers, would things be easier? She would scream and yell and tell my secrets and I would hope for the calm moments when I was reading to her, or we were playing with dolls, or telling stories. She would scream and yell and tell my secrets and eventually I hated her, but hated myself more because I couldn't be perfect. Somewhere deep inside I still believe I deserve to die because I hated my sister.
Once, when my sister was screaming, I had a dream that I woke up and went into her room and raped her, a dream I still remember, like I just woke up in her room and everything is over. Because everything is violence and she’s finally quiet. This is when I think about how memory overlaps with feeling and it's so hard to tell the difference, especially when the difference means I don't know if I can go on living. I'm wondering now if my sister screamed when my father took me away, I mean around that time at night even though we were in different rooms, maybe when it happened or when it didn't, maybe when it happened to her or when it didn't. I don't know when it was over and when it wasn’t, just my father's hands around my neck into my mouth his eyes his eyes his eyes everything dark except blood everywhere the pain splitting me open the pain splitting me.