I grew up in safe world, a secure world, a place where the word violence did not exist in my lexicon. It was the late 1970s, a time in which I fully embraced the teachings of Free to be You and Me, because the lessons learned reflected my experiences. After all, most mothers in my upper-middle class, academic neighbourhood worked in some capacity--why would they not? In my little-girl mind, mothers and fathers were by definition equals, given their bigger-than-life stature in comparison to me. I grew up in a safe world. In this world, Bad Things (if they existed at all) were almost mythical in nature, relegated as they were to ancient fairy tales and the occasional made-for-TV drama. In my mind, Bad Things included flying monkeys, the evil stepmothers of beautiful princesses, and the occasional monster under my bed. The closest that Bad Things ever came to the boundary of my safe world was when I saw a highly unsettling episode of Little House on the Prairie, where a young girl is raped by a man from the village. Of course, rape was not in my lexicon either, so I filed it away under the category of "Bad Things that Happened During Pioneer Times and Are Possibly Fictional Anyway". I grew up in a safe world, a world in which women and men were not only equals, they were friends, spouses, colleagues. My immediate world was populated by three loving, often teasing males: my father and my older twin brothers, each of whom could be counted on to protect me should the need arise (such as the time I was drowning in a lake and the brother I annoyed the most dove into the water to rescue me). As I grew from a little girl to a young girl to a young teen, my world also grew, but its bubble of safety never popped, choosing instead to expand in order to accommodate my perceptions of security. Again, the idea of violence in general, and violence against women in particular, never entered my mind, and why would it? Years of watching Free to be You and Me in grade school were followed by years of learning about teen pregnancy, STDs, and how to put a condom on a banana in high school. Never was even the possibility of being assaulted by a member of the opposite sex brought up and discussed. While there was one disconcerting episode from Facts of Life regarding possible sexual assault, that was an anomaly, and clearly associated with attending boarding school, so that was okay. As far as my memory goes, there were no similar episodes to be found on Love Boat, Silver Spoons, Growing Pains, or Who's The Boss (or, if there were, I missed that week). My world was filled with passing notes during classes with my friends, rushing home from ninth grade to do the 20-minute workout once the bell had rung, and spending hours on the family phone to discuss the latest gossip, while my beleaguered brothers complained in the background. I grew up in a safe world, until one day, I didn't. When I was sexually assaulted as a teenager in my family's garage, my initial reaction to what was happening was not fear, but shock. The assaulter was a seemingly "nice" boy; a stranger to me, yes, but one who had walked me home from the local grocery store, wanting to chat (the very fact I let a strange, large, somewhat ominous boy walk me home is proof of how safe I perceived my world to be). So he had six inches and seventy pounds on me, so he was saying somewhat inappropriate things about how he felt about me on our walk back to my house. So what? It was the middle of a Saturday afternoon, in the middle of an incredibly safe suburb, and he was just another fellow human being. During the initial moments when this large stranger lunged at me and pushed me against the wall inside my family's garage, my brain whirled with confusion. What was he doing? Didn't he realize we had been having a pleasant conversation? Why wouldn't he stop? Violence against women was not in my lexicon. After I was assaulted, I told no one, partly due to shame and guilt (I must have done something for a nice boy to hurt me that way!), and partly because I didn't have the framework or words to explain to others, let alone to myself, the violence that had happened to me. Thus, once I had my own children, forefront in my mind was the decision to make sure that they would not grow up in such a safe world. Consequently, despite an almost innate desire to completely protect my daughter and three sons from any knowledge that Bad Things (and Bad People) exist, I have made sure that they are more aware. Yes, Free to be You and Me remains my basic philosophy for child rearing, all four of my offspring well-educated in the importance of treating males and females as equals. Men are not better. Women are not better. The world is diverse and each person deserves our respect. Coupled with this important lesson, however, is knowledge, knowledge which I try to match with developmental level, an awareness that the world isn't completely safe, and that Bad Things do happen to Good People. From toddlerhood on, I've instilled the lesson that if lost, my child shouldn't seek out any random adult, but should approach a mother with children first, if possible. Is that sexist of me? Absolutely. Is this a lesson I feel is still important? Sadly, yes. Many other lessons have also been taught, with news stories often used to help hammer home whatever I'm trying to teach with my older two. Given that my littlest sons are barely past the preschool age, the lessons I've tried to bestow on them have been limited. With my eldest son, however, I made it a goal throughout his teenage years to emphasize the importance of not only never treating a woman with disrespect (physically or emotionally), but to not be a bystander if he observes others behaving in such a way. A few times I've overheard my now 18-year-old speaking about the need to respect women, which tells me that a lot of what I wanted to convey has gotten through. With my now fifteen-year-old daughter, the lessons have been more complicated, with the importance of not frightening her having to be balanced with the realities of our world (violence against women must be in her lexicon). We've talked about cyber-bullying, slut-shaming, date rape, of the fact that I will not judge her or blame her for anything if something Bad happens. Of the fact that I will believe her, unconditionally.You name it, it's been discussed, all the while also trying to convey that so many men are decent and kind (like my father and my elder brothers were to me, like her dad, stepfather, and brothers are to her). And so, as I reflect on International Women's Day, I'm reminded that the lovely sense of safety which I grew up with did not (and cannot) compensate for the terror experienced when being sexually assaulted as a teen. No, I cannot prevent a similar Bad Thing from happening to my daughter, or to anyone else's daughter, for that matter. All I can do is augment the good lessons learned within the Free to be You and Me philosophy, reminding my children time and again that no one can truly be free until we live in a world in which the violence that is committed against women is universally condemned. So no, my children do not grow up in safe world. I have made damn sure of that.
You talk and talk and talk about death. You talk about it in the abstract, you talk about it in the specific. You talk about how no one else has the balls to talk about it (goddammit!), how no one else is willing to even consider the inevitability of their eventual demise. You talk about how materialistic and clueless the masses have become, how they actually believe that they will be the first ones in the history of the universe to live forever. You sit on your threadbare throne in the middle of the university campus centre, a sophomore masquerading as an ivory-towered professor, and you talk. You pontificate about the irrationality of those around you, all the while deluding yourself that by cognitively manning up to death you will somehow keep its nerve-gas vapours from seeping into your own alveoli.
And I listen.
I listen and I watch you, with your apple cheeks, your yellowed fingertips, and your Levis-button-fly-faded-blue legs. I listen and I watch as you and your underlings suck at your Benson & Hedges, all the while debating the merits of Kierkegaard versus Nietzsche, Sartre versus Tillich, each point sounding as original as the views of any Philosophy 101 student who might be milling about. But I keep such critical thoughts at bay. Your mind is brilliant, after all. It deserves to run free. So I listen and watch all of you baby Kafkas, as you ponder and pick apart such weighty issues as futility, authenticity, and existence.
But mostly I just watch.
I watch as you casually flick ash in my direction. I sit mute and adoring as your words and your smoke blow against my face, reminding me of the relentless burn of a March wind. I watch as you stomp your Doc Martens across the campus centre floor, your pubescent swagger a childlike parody of each university student who surrounds us. And I wait. I wait until you return from the vending machines with a paper cup of coffee (always one cup, never two; why never two?). Once back on the sofa, you resume your deep conversation with your fellow deep thinkers, ignoring me as I silently obsess about the ways that I might court death, that I might convince death to come just a little bit closer (yes, right there), in order to snuff out the despair that's begun grabbing at my ankles each morning from underneath my bed. Eventually I scamper off to the washroom, my Keds squeaking as I go, each shoe too white, too freakishly new, each a glaring symbol of just how much I do not belong here.
Once inside a stall, I push down my jeans and etch your name into my thigh. For here's what you don't know. Here's what you can never know. I own you. Not with words, but with this razor and this rivulet of red dripping onto the toilet seat. Your name fills its trench, then overflows. With a paper towel, I blot the borders until they are clear once more. I crumple the towel in my fist, then scamper back to the sofa, my Keds announcing my arrival before I even reach you. Later, as you head outside without me to pass around a pilfered bottle of Peppermint Schnapps, I stuff the bloody towel into your now empty paper cup, daring you to find the hidden treasure. Once back next to me, our legs barely touching, you chase your Schnapps with yet another cigarette, using my cup, using my need, as your ashtray.
I start to bring my own posse to the campus centre, to allow my own swagger to cross the floor to the vending machines. No longer will I wait for a proffered cup of coffee that never comes. I will buy my own goddamn cup myself! Not to mention a bag of Cheetos, the snack that your pretentious self so objected to, clicking your tongue whenever I licked my orange-tinged fingers. Now, as I walk by your sofa, I wave my stained hands in the air, hoping that the mere scent of manufactured cheese will waft towards your face, as your goddamn smoke always did towards mine.
Because, guess what?
I will not be another of your little underlings anymore. I will not be your disciple, your minion, your flat-chested flunky. No longer will I listen to you go on and on ad nauseam about death and dying, as if you have any clue what the hell you're even talking about. I am sixteen, for fuck's sake! I want to drink, I want to get high, I want to drink and get high while lying spread-eagle across the asphalt of the university's main road, all the while knowing that I am somehow immortal, that I will somehow dodge the proverbial bullet.
Take that! And that! And that again!
But don't be fooled. As I swagger across the campus centre floor with my fuzzy orange fingertips, I still see you. I still watch you. I still listen. I still need you and crave you and wish you and dream you. I still want to float away on a river that's red, curled up against you like a baby shrimp. So don't be fooled.
It's not working. This swagger and this bravado isn't goddamned working! Why don't you notice me? Why don't you care? How can my absence from the right side of the sofa go so undetected by you? I used to be your sidekick, your buddy, your confidante (even if most of your ideas were bullshit). How can you keep pontificating when I've left so much space behind?
But then, so quickly, my space gets filled up by another girl. By another goddamned girl! A girl with big tits and big, wide eyes, and not much else. A girl who doesn't have brains enough to know what the hell you're talking about most of the time, let alone disagree with your words (even if only in her head). A girl who seems to stare at you like Bambi to Thumper, as if you're god's greatest gift! A girl who makes your apple cheeks redden, a girl whom you have the audacity to bring outside to drink your Peppermint Schnapps, your hand tucked into the back pocket of her acid-washed jeans, claiming her. Did it somehow escape your mind that I am the one who's already claimed you?
And so I begin to disappear. In theory, at least, if I begin to shrink, then my need will shrink, too. The smaller I get, the smaller you'll become. I cannot need you. I do not need you. At first my stomach starts to growl. Next, my stomach cramps against itself. Finally, my stomach raises its white flag and begins to forget about what hunger even is. You may still be talking about dying, you may still be intellectualizing death, but I'm the one with arms like popsicle sticks and legs like willow branches. I'm the one who is willing to move closer and closer to the cliff's edge (closer than you and your philosophic prattle will ever dare to go), hoping to get a peek of what lies on the other side.
I stop going to the campus centre. I start staying at home, reading Dostoyevsky. My parents start to worry.
I decide to get rid of my bed's box spring and shove the head of the mattress into my closet, the overhanging clothes forming a cave around me. I hold my knees against myself and rock, attempting to push myself back into the womb, back into before. Unlike you, so unlike you, I become the one who is straddling the line.
I am taken to the family doctor. I'm advised to start eating more green vegetables, bread, and meat.
Time passes, but my need for you, you with your goddamn yellowed fingertips and your button fly, won't shrink. If anything, my need grows, until it becomes a fat, globular mass that burrows deep within my concave chest. True, I'm no longer banging my fists against the floor, howling with grief. I'm no longer keening theatrically, begging all and sundry to Look at me! Look at me! But still, if you place an ear against my bony chest, you will hearing something, a barely audible something, underneath the soft thud, thud of my heart. If you really listen, you will hear a soft moan, a fragile thread of sound that comes from somewhere deep and will not stop. Like the cry of an abandoned child, the whimper of the broken. A requiem for the dying.
My parents' worry kicks into overdrive. I'm taken back to the doctor. I'm sternly lectured about my mood. I'm told if things don't change, I'll be put into the hospital.
Instead, I do the only thing I can do. I grab my knapsack, a fistful of twenties, and make like the wind. The train I take to Niagara Falls may not lead me to paradise, but it's still to somewhere, somewhere far away from you.
The story of Niagara Falls doesn't matter here. All you need to know is that standing by the Falls reminds me that this is where lives have ended, either by accident or on purpose. Mostly on purpose. One leap and it's game over. There are no second chances once you're falling through the air, just a rush of pure freedom or horrific regret.
Somehow knowing the Falls is so close at hand is oddly comforting. If I ever need it, it's just a twenty minute walk away from my motel. More than once I bring something to throw over the railing, opening my fingers to watch it descend into the white roar. I want to pinpoint the moment when something becomes nothing. I want to know. The Falls sound like nothing else I've ever heard. They sound like what would happen if you stuffed all the possible noises in the world into one container and shook it up. They sound like I feel. Angry. Alive.
Months pass. They always do. My mood finally lifts and I decide to stop being a runaway/high school dropout and rejoin the populace you once scorned with the flick of your cigarette. School becomes my drug of choice and I focus all of my energy and passion into proving that I'm as smart as you. No, fuck you, I'm smarter.
And so, months become years. School turns into a steeplechase, with me trying to leap over one hurdle and then another. Eventually I become a psychologist (I'll bet you didn't see that coming, did you?). For years I'm a therapist to hundreds of wounded souls, people who likely once filled spaces next to posers like you.
I marry a nice man early (much too early), then divorce. Later, with two children in tow, I marry another nice man, but this time the matrimonial glue manages to stick. I become the mother to two more children. I work, I parent, I love. I finally let go enough to let my branches begin to bud and flower. Not that things are perfect (when are things ever perfect?). I'm still too stubborn, still too mute. I still seek out the safety of closets, I still have waves of feelings that can crash through walls, a tsunami of hurt. I still have scars, scars that I sometimes rub when things become too much, but they remain my personal hieroglyphs, ancient messages from another time, a time before medication, before meditation, before I was taught the words I needed to ask for help. For you see, my erudite little friend, I am no longer waiting to pinpoint the moment when something becomes nothing. I am no longer straddling the line.
Once in a while I'd think of you. I won't lie about that. What would be the point? So yes, once in a while I'd think of you, but in a fond, almost distant kind of way. Like you were a weekend trip I once took somewhere (Where was that place again, honey?). A nowhere kind of place, pleasant, but forgettable. Occasionally I'd wonder if you'd contact me, if only to catch up. A temporary thought, a little blip in my mind. Perhaps you'd ask to "friend" me on Facebook. Likely I'd take a day or two (or even three) to consider, but then I'd probably (maybe) accept. It wouldn't make much difference, really.
Maybe through a handful of emails we'd reminisce about that crazy, messed-up time from before (We were so dramatic then, weren't we? Ha, ha!). It's possible that we'd even venture onto ice that's slightly more precarious, tiptoe towards that frozen-in-time night when our lives intersected. Remember that night? Don't tell me you've forgotten. Don't tell me you don't remember how a depression-addled me happened to stumble into the campus centre and do a Kramer-like pratfall across your sofa. And don't say you have no memory of me pulling you (a stranger!) into a corner, throwing all my woes at you and daring you to catch them. I'm sad! I'm alone! I need you to chase after me if I make a run for it and find me! I need you to listen!
And don't tell me you forget how you in turn pulled me out of that corner, plunked me down on the sofa next to you, and let me stay in that hallowed place for months and months, allowing me to glom onto you, like a leech stuck between your toes. And don't pretend you that you forget how you once suddenly reached out, grasped my cold fingers, and squeezed some hope back into me, if only for a moment. Please, please, please don't ever forget that (By the way, did I happen to mention that I am now a generally stable, well-medicated adult, who worked for years as a psychologist?).
It wasn't as if I was planning to look you up or anything. I've had too much going on, after all, with four children, manuscripts to edit, and a kitchen that isn't about to clean itself. I've had barely enough time for my husband or my current friends, goddammit, so who would expect me to take even two minutes out of my incredibly hectic day to try and contact someone who didn't have the decency to buy me a lousy cup of fifty cent coffee (who the hell can't spare a measly fifty cents?). Besides, if you've been willing to wait almost twenty-five years to talk with me again, when I can be found so easily on bloody Facebook, then you can wait a few weeks (or months) more!
Now I guess it's your turn to make me wait (and wait and wait). For you see, I've learned that you, that Levi clad, sixteen-year-old, close-to-forgotten you, have died suddenly. And by died suddenly, I mean that for whatever asinine reason, you chose to end your life by your own hands (were your fingertips still yellow?). This is all I know, and it is more than enough. To be honest, right now it seems like almost too much.
Now I find it ironic that in the years that followed my adoration of you, my anger at you. my anger at me, I became a clinical psychologist, and you--you became someone who decided to make the political personal. Instead of me, the obvious choice, you became the one who chose to leave the party earlier than planned and to not reach out to the one person who was still desperately waiting for her turn to offer up that goddamn cup of coffee.
In the years that followed me at fifteen, as the depression slowly dribbled away and I began to see you for you, I always assumed that someday I would tell you what your brief knowing of me had meant, how being allowed to sit next to you (legs touching and fingers once squeezed) had temporarily stilled my frenzied grief.
I always meant to pay you back. Once the depression was doused and my fucked-up-ness gradually faded from fiery red to a still there, but more manageable pink, I had the best of intentions to pay you back. Now the best I can do is pay it forward, and that just isn't good enough for me. Not yet.
When I learned that Robin Williams had committed suicide, a wave of rage rushed through my brain, flooding away any possibility of rational thought or discourse. I was angry--the kind of angry that leaves you shaking inarticulately, wiping away the useless tears that are clearly rivers of rage themselves, serving no purpose other than to make you a snotty, incensed mess.
Now, a day later, the anger remains. I do not feel true sadness at his loss--for me, I didn't know Robin Williams personally, so I haven't earned that right. I do not feel actual grief, either, although it could be argued that the rage is a close cousin to that emotion. No. What I feel, and what I imagine I'll continue to feel, is a tsunami of anger that has finally found its target and is keeping it in its crosshairs.
I'm talking about depression--that goddamn, pointless, terrifying condition/disease/disorder that those who've experienced before want to avoid ever meeting again at all costs.
Depression, severe, seemingly unremitting depression is akin to horror. Think of Edvard Munch's The Scream. Better yet, don't just think about it, go look at it (pictures abound, thanks to google). Look at that image for two minutes, three. Turn off any background noise and just stare. Breathe in what you see, imprint it in your mind. How does that image make you feel? Is there even a tinge of despair connected to what you see? If so, multiply that momentary feeling by hours, then days, then weeks and months. Now you have a taste of depression.
When in the midst of it, seconds tick by like water dripping from a leaky faucet, each miniscule moment in time suddenly lengthened and highlighted, as if to taunt you. This will never be over. You are stuck in this horror. No one else can touch you the way this new horror touches you. Regardless of medication/psychotherapy/exercise/the kindness of others, you will be locked in this endless, mundane hell forever. This will never be done.
And then, if you're lucky, this horror spits you back out to normal life once more. Perhaps you return to "normal" more resilient than before and eager to embrace the world, but more than likely you have developed a somewhat cautious, not quite so trusting, do-I-need-to-look-over-my-shoulder? mentality. More than likely, you have attempted to shore up your renewed mental health by continuing to utilize the resources that helped you return to normal (or almost normal) in the first place--therapy check-ins, a maintenance dose of psychotropic medication, regular exercise, sleep, a proper diet, and above all, life balance.
If you're like many of us, the do-I-need-to-look-over-my-shoulder? mentality may eventually ebb, at least a bit. Like a new mother, you may eventually forget the extreme pain of labour, and begin to put your focus where it should be--on living your life.
Unfortunately, when it comes to depression, what seems to have receded into your past like an almost forgotten nightmare often comes roaring back. For at least 50% of us, following a first depressive episode, it comes roaring back.
Goddamn it to hell. Fuck. No, please, please, please, please, I'm begging. Please, no.
But there it is, and there you are, stuck once again in The Scream, locked in those thoughts that keep spiraling, telling you that This will never be over. You are stuck in this horror. No one else can touch you the way this new horror touches you. This will never be done.
Once again, you attempt to pool whatever personal strength you still possess to fight this invisible, all pervasive foe. Once again, you pull out the big guns, and if you're lucky, they work, at least well enough to make the monster under your bed slip away once more.
After this second episode, the do-I-need-to-look-over-my-shoulder? mentality may never go away. You are not stupid or naive. You were tricked once, but it'll take a lot more to be tricked again. And, if you're like the majority of those who've experienced at least two depressive episodes, you'll someday get sucked into another, and perhaps yet another.
Goddamn it to hell. Fuck. No, please, please, please, please, I'm begging. Please, no.
Some are lucky and achieve lifetime remission. Some are not so lucky, and yet somehow shore up enough resilience to keep fighting, when their foe appears once more, knowing (even if it's just a wisp of knowledge), that The Scream will eventually leave again, and knowing that it's often a matter of waiting to see who blinks first.
But then there are those whose cup of resilience has become bone dry, those who have been forced on this merry-go-round too many times, and just cannot take one more ride when they're pushed to the front of the line. They just cannot. Whether the horror they've witnessed is worse than mine has ever been, I do not know. Whether they truly believe that this time the merry-go-round will never stop unless they make it stop, I do not know.
What I do know is that I'm still here and a beloved, genius performer of our generation is not. What I do know is that those who have never experienced the horror of depression cannot truly understand what it means to be locked within that Munch painting. What I do know is that, likely so many others who experience mood disorders, I'm left sitting here with the rivers of rage flowing uselessly down my face, knowing all too well that my anger serves no other purpose than continuing to make me a snotty, incensed mess. Depression be damned.
It isn't exactly a conscious thing, this trying to pass. If truth be told, it's probably something you've always done, a something that parents/teachers/camp counselors drummed into your head, their words playing a staccato rhythm against your brain. Not that they were alone in their drumming. After all, an argument can be made that we all start out as squawking, uncivilized little beasts who require modeling and shaping in order to fit in with the teeming, well-mannered majority. Looked at in this way, could it be true that we all learn to "pass", at least at first? And so, like your fellow little wild things, you learned by rote that please and thank you were the magic words and that brushing your teeth, washing your hands, saying your prayers, finishing your chores, and doing your homework were activities that needed to be done because that's just what people do. Were such pedagogic lessons such a far cry from the less common admonishments you also received on a regular basis, such as the necessity of lowering your voice, calming down, and at least trying to be less impulsive/dramatic/hysterical/theatrical/maudlin? All of this instruction was important, all of this was necessary, to help beat the wildness out of you (as if you were a dusty rug hung up on the line). For many of your once uncivilized peers, such didactics worked wonders. But alas, for you (yes, you), some wildness remained, albeit hidden beneath a carefully stitched veneer of appropriate social behaviour. Put simply, you eventually learned to pass. So now. So now, without even needing time to blink, you understand the importance of slowing down your speech in front of others so that your words don't come tumbling out, one on top of the other, as if your thoughts were permanently locked in a washing machine's spin cycle. So now, if ever asked, you can explain without hesitation why sobbing in the corners of lavatory stalls is not considered de rigueur ("Back in a minute! I just need to go freshen up!"), and why the proper response to "How are you?" is not a blank-eyed, slack-jawed stare, but rather some chirpy version of Hail Fellow, Well Met. Further, thanks to all the molding and the drumming and the shaping, your wild-beast-self now knows why staying up until 4 am each night for a week at a time is considered abnormal (bad word, bad word), why food is meant to be eaten, and why oxygen is meant to be breathed. All of this (and so much more) you understand. Let it be said that memorization comes easily for you. Let it be said that mimicry comes even easier. But. But there's also an insistent, less socially acceptable truth you've learned across the decades, a truth that crawls up into your ear just before sleep steals you away, to whisper what you've always known: Passing is not the same as living. For you, living is too messy to be written within the lines of an etiquette book, too mucky to place on your grandparents' spotless living room couch, where you were expected to sit (ankles crossed), for what seemed like an eternity. No. For you, living is akin to flying one day, dive-bombing the next. Living is like leaping into a mud pit and either tossing the muck around with glee, or hoping it will pull you down for a time, into its viscous darkness. Living, for you, may be hour after hour of twirling with abandon across a wet grass, the moon your spotlight, or rocking beneath the covers, head on bony knees. Living, for you, is a process filled with emotions that have their volume turned up, with colours that can hurt the eyes, and with thoughts that can hurt the soul. Living is an exhausting, fulfilling, leaden, feather-light, terrifying, joyful, and transcendent mess that is diametrically opposed to passing. And yet. And yet, such living does not fit into your loved ones' definitions of living, which tend toward a more acceptable, balanced, civilized, gentle experience of life. And so. And so you take them. You take those nine pills (spread out in appropriate intervals across the day, of course). You take those nine damn pills that bring you down from the clouds or up from the mud pit and you pass. You pass not only because that is what was drummed into you since babyhood, but because you know that at its core, your type of living, no matter how mystical or alluring, no matter how real or authentic, is a life that can only include one. And that, for you, is ultimately not living at all. And so you pass. Each day, with sticky pill residue still stuck in your throat, you pass.
I love to write short-stories, the darker the better. The aspects of ourselves that we try so desperately to hide from others are what interest me the most, with the frailties and the secrets that are just under the surface of our "Hail fellow, well met" world pulling me in. Here is a short-story I wrote a few years ago. It was long-listed for the 2011 Vanderbilt-Exile Short Fiction Award. ________________________________________________________________
are few worlds smaller for two people to be stuffed into than the one shared by
twins. From conception on you are given the keys to a tiny space, a cosy place,
scarcely bigger than two fists. Ruefully you remember how often you balked at
that space, attempting time and again to shrug off Jillie’s suffocating hold
and find some footing on your own (and no one can deny that she did hold on too tight). In recent years
the space had felt even smaller, true, it had become tighter, more cramped,
with feet accidentally stepped on and elbows shoved in awkward places. But
still cosy at least some of the time, still fine, still with enough oxygen for
two as long as each person paced their breath. What you did not anticipate,
what you never could have expected, is that it would be Jillie (Jillie!) who would finally refuse to
since you can remember, Jillie was the weaker one, the twin who would give up
on games or contests whenever the going got tough. Whether it was Snakes and
Ladders, hopscotch, or later on, grabbing the attention of a coveted boy,
Jillie would often walk away in the middle of the competition, not willing to
stick it out until the end. Despite knowing that your twin typically forfeited
any game, despite expecting it, each
time she simply gave up you felt furious. Why did she have to act this way? Why
couldn’t she actually let there be a true winner for once? After all, who wants
to keep winning by default only?
you got older, you began to suspect that Jillie’s tendency to give up early was
less about caring which twin won or lost and more about trying to protect your sameness
at all costs. While you kept coming up with contest after contest to try and
showcase your differences to the world, Jillie would make sure to bow out
before a true winner or loser could be declared, as what points to being
different more than having one person end up on top, with the other underneath?
that Jillie could always be counted on to say uncle before things got out of
control meant something else, too. It meant that you could let your reckless,
wild side run unchecked, with nothing off-limits. Convince Jillie that you both
compete in a strip-poker game with the boys’ floor on a Saturday night in the
dorm? Check. Agree to go against each other for round after round of tequila
shots? Check. Anything and everything was a possibility, as long as there was
Jillie to step on the brakes.
in that context, who could blame you for the whole dieting thing? After all, it
was just meant to be one more attempt of yours to show the world that you and
Jillie actually weren’t the same
person residing in two identical bodies. Having gained at least two thirds of
the dreaded Freshman Fifteen during your first semester at university, you made
it your New Year’s resolution to start January right by losing weight, a
decision you announced during a floor meeting over giant bottles of Mountain
Dew and boxes of double cheese pizza. A
new year, a new you! A few of the other girls nodded their heads at the
idea, but it was only your roommate who actually put her piece of pizza down
and tossed her own hat into the ring. Unfortunately for you, your roommate was
Jillie, the mirror image you were so desperately trying to distinguish yourself
from, if only by losing the donut that had started to grow around your middle.
And so it began.
diet started innocently enough. After spending an entire afternoon reading up
on nutrition, vitamins, and the food pyramid, you decided to draw up a meal
plan for you and Jillie to follow. The plan was well-rounded and included the
right portions of grains, fruits, proteins, and vegetables, with even a daily
allowance made for a small treat. Less fried foods, more salads. Less take-out and
more stir-fries from the wok lady in the cafeteria. You were so proud of the
plan that you had it laminated and then stuck it to the bulletin board above
the first two weeks Jillie dutifully followed you each morning into the
cafeteria and poured a bowl of dry, high fibre cereal identical to yours from
the cereal station, before also grabbing a piece of fruit and a small carton of
milk. As always, you waited until Jillie had sat down before grabbing a chair
yourself, making sure to sit at the same table but always with a few friends in
between you. You weren’t clones, after all!
the third week, something changed, but not in the way you expected. While it was
true that Jillie stopped following your carefully laminated diet, it was not in
order to go back to scarfing down pancakes or Pop-Tarts each morning. No.
Instead, she beat you at your own game, filling her tray with one small orange
and one black coffee, but nothing else. No Shreddies, no Raisin Bran, no small
carton of milk, nothing with any heft to it at all. And for lunch it was more
of the same. Rather than order a well-balanced veggies and cheese sandwich on
multigrain bread from the sandwich lady, she ordered one piece of rye toast,
unbuttered, and another small black coffee. Where were the fruits and
vegetables? Where were the sources of protein? And why was Jillie so hell-bent
on losing weight when it was your damn idea in the first place? You tried to
ignore your sister as she picked apart her measly slice of toast and scattered
the crumbs around her plate, concentrating instead on the fact that you knew
what you were doing, that extreme diets didn’t work, and that it was gradual change in the long term that made
the difference. As Jillie held her mug of black coffee but didn’t so much as
sip it, you took a giant bite of your sandwich in defiance. The food pyramid! The food pyramid, dammit!
back, you don’t remember when exactly Jillie stopped following you down to the
cafeteria for meals, you just know that she did. One day she was there, a few
steps behind (always a few steps behind), and the next day she was not. When a
few of your friends commented on her absence, you felt that familiar wave of
irritation lap at you. Why did people always ask you about Jillie’s
whereabouts? Why were you expected to be your sister’s keeper? After a few days
of being a no-show, however, everyone stopped asking. Mid-terms were coming, so
it became assumed that Jillie was just doing what many other over-conscientious
students did, eating whatever she could on the sly, for fear that she would
fall behind in her studying if she took actual breaks for meals.
that as far as you knew, she wasn’t. She wasn’t eating on the sly, unless
drinking paper cup after paper cup of lukewarm black coffee from the dorm
machine or nibbling on handfuls of Arrowroot Cookies like some overgrown baby
counted. As January became February, you were pleased with the six pounds you
had managed to lose by sensible eating and decided to splurge on frozen yoghurt
sundaes with friends to celebrate. You didn’t bother inviting Jillie to come
with you. By this point she refused to go anywhere with anyone, unless it was
to attend her classes, and even those your teacher’s pet sister had begun
skipping. When Reading Week veered its welcomed head, she refused to join you
on a road-trip with some floor-mates to spend a few days in Montreal, insisting
instead on remaining at the dorm in order to catch up on a few essays.
returned from your trip actually eager to get back to your dorm room to share
all of your experiences with Jillie. You hadn’t felt like this for a while, you
hadn’t had a chance too. In the past, Jillie had held so closely onto your
shadow that she never gave you time to miss her. Except this time you did. You
missed her and it was a good feeling. It didn’t take long for your happy bubble
to burst, however. Probably within thirty seconds of opening your door and
stepping into the room. There your sister sat at her desk, a textbook lying
open in front of her. While this was all typical, what was not typical was what
she was doing. As you stood by the door, you watched as your sister silently ran
her fingers through her hair and pulled out handful after handful of the stuff.
Golden-brown threads, so much like your own but a bit longer, coming out of her
scalp with no more effort than blades of grass pulled from the dirt. Jillie shook
the strands free from her fingers and dumped them in the middle of her desk,
before resuming the task once more. In front of her was a not-insignificant
nest of hair, enough for a robin to lay her eggs in.
What the hell?” you finally asked, taking a few steps forward. It was only then
that you realized how much hair your sister actually had lost, her shiny-pink
scalp now visible all over her head. You put a hand to your own thick hair, and
the difference made you panic.
the sound of your voice, Jillie stopped the self-grooming. She moved her
fingers away from her head and swept the collected hair into her palm, before
dumping its contents into a waste basket. Clean-up done, she turned her
attention to her textbook.
Have you lost it or something? What’s going on?”
turned her head to look at you with your very own blue eyes. “Lost it? What do
it, gone crazy, wacko, totally insane.” You noticed that your own fingers were
now tugging at your head of hair and you pulled them away.
blinked at you, that familiar blink. “You mean the hair?” She shrugged. “I
guess I’ve been stressed by exams and assignments, especially that one for
Biology. Stress can cause hair loss.”
looked at your twin, now ever-so-slightly not identical to you, with her
shedding hair and what you noticed with growing alarm was her much skinnier
frame, and you decided to shove down the doubt and to take her explanation at
face value. And so you did, you took it, so shiny and polished, and offered it
up to anyone who stopped you in the hall in the days to come.
Jillie okay?’ they asked, eyes wide with concern. “Is she like…sick or
smiled politely to each and every one of them and shared the explanation.
“She’s fine. It’s just stress.”
stress, you told your mother over the phone when she asked for the tenth time
why your sister refused to return her calls or even send her an email. Just
stress, you told Jillie’s boyfriend of three years when he drove all the way
from your hometown one night and started banging on your dorm room door,
demanding to see your twin in person. Just stress, you told yourself as you sat
in each of her exams for her, attempting your best Jillie impersonation, all
the while aware that in so doing you had just broken the one promise you had
made to yourself years ago. You were not Jillie, you would never be Jillie. But
it was all just stress, and stress would pass.
was the last week of term and you found yourself sitting in front of your now
skeletal sister, a box of donuts balanced on your lap. You grabbed a Walnut Crunch,
Jillie’s favourite, and took a huge bite.
this is delicious! Do you want one?” You held out the box to her, you held out
all of you for her to grab onto, but she stuffed her hands into her oversized
hoodie and shook her head.
one?” you pleaded, pushing the box even closer. “Even just a bite?”
you won, okay? You won. Enough already!”
twin looked up, her cheekbones smiling sharply at you but her eyes vacant.
“Won? Won what?”
know, the weight loss thing. The diet. You were better at it than I was, okay?
So you won. So fine. You can start eating, okay?”
stared at you, then grabbed a donut. You felt something in you loosen as she
took a bite, then another. You felt something in you tighten once more as she
stuffed almost an entire donut in her mouth at once, then reached for one more.
Within a matter of minutes she had eaten half the box.
again reached out to her, but she was already gone, running down the hallway to
the bathroom as fast as her skinny legs could take her.
summer was spent staying as far away from home as possible, as home had become
a battleground. On one side was your sister, seemingly so fragile with her
bird-bones, yet suddenly such a fierce competitor. On the other side stood your
parents, bewildered and frightened by the child they no longer knew, thrown
into a war that they would have never chosen. While you found yourself allying
with your parents in their desire for Jillie to eat already, dammit, just eat, feeling your sister’s accusing gaze baring
down on you at mealtime was just too much to take. So you spent more and more
time with your high school friends, the ones who knew you from before, when you
were part of Jillie-and-Jacqueline. While it was true that just a few months
ago having people identify you as one half of a whole would have made you
cringe, now you craved it. And, as June became July and July gave way to
August, you found yourself time and again looking through the photo album from
your early childhood, the one filled with pictures in which you couldn’t tell
who was who, you and your sister being so indistinguishable.
was September and you were both back at university, Jillie insisting on
enrolling in her second year despite her increasingly emaciated appearance. You
were roommates again, but this time you were living in a new residence. To your
disbelief, everyone on your floor could instantly tell the two of you apart. Perhaps
even more disorienting, it seemed that many of your new dorm-mates could not
believe that you were sisters, let alone identical twins.
you found yourself repeating ad nauseam. “We are twins.”
the early weeks of classes you found yourself willingly donning the role of
your sister’s caretaker. You brought her Styrofoam bowls filled with clear
broth from the cafeteria, a few packets of butter snuck into the liquid before Jillie
drunk it. You sat next to her as she nibbled her Arrowroot Cookies, feeling a
sense of relief at each half-biscuit consumed. You nagged at her to shower, you
gently pinned up what was left of her hair into a somewhat stylish bun. And
when she let you, you took her hand in your own, to try and still the
you had your way, this was how it would be for the rest of the term, perhaps
this was how it would be forever. Jillie straddling the line between existence
and not, but at least never toppling over, with your ever-vigilant self by her
side. But this wasn’t how life worked, this wasn’t how it was meant to be. And,
as you lay in your bunk at night just listening (always just listening) for
your sister’s next breath, you knew that neither of you could stay in this
no-man’s land for much longer. It was a place meant for brief respite, not for
then that day came, that day when Jillie went to a second year Biology class
and fainted out of her chair and ended up in hospital. The first of many
hospitalizations, it would turn out, as the years passed and you finished your
Bachelor’s degree on your own and eventually found solace in your marriage (a
new twin-ship, except with more room to breathe). And while you would continue
to visit your sister, to stay in touch with your sister, you would remain aware
that the world you once shared as two could no longer exist, as she has become
locked in a competition in which a winner and a loser could never be declared.
Still me with sepia.
Four-corner this grief
and make it stick.
(with finger licked)
turn each page until
long ago and
once upon a time
render it mute.
Spike me with fever.
Burn it away,
from the outside in.
Minister me with
sips and spoons,
with wrapped necks
and garlic cloves.
Blind me with a cool cloth
until I no longer see
what I can no longer see.
Like a nursery curtain
let this day close.
Let bedtime spill us all
into the Land of Nod.
and fairy dust,
chase it out from
underneath the bed.
Rock it away,
lullaby it down,