can’t afford the ticket

Let’s not go there. We can’t go. Jill is standing on the platform, wailing about how she was a good mother. She’s in no condition to make the trip. Never mind that the only way you can even begin to be a good mother is to admit that sometimes you’re not such a good mother (said the only non-mother in the group, under her breath).

I’ve got heaps of money, enough for all of us, but the ticket is more expensive than that.

Cindy suggests that I need to put on my Big Girl Panties. I gather all the monsters into my heart, holding them there with my open palm. All my sweet little monsters. I look at Cindy. “Darling,” I say, “I am wearing the most grown-up panties I own.”  Cindy frowns and continues chattering at me like a giant blue wind-up squirrel.

Can’t afford the ticket. It’ll cost you your chattering, your insistence that you were too a good mother, and probably some of your more precious monsters.

What if there were a vending machine that took monsters as currency? Not the axe-murdering child-raping monsters. Those are too big. The monsters that interrupt their friends, the ones that leave the shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot: what would those get you?  What would a vending machine like that sell?

I bet there’s one in this station somewhere. And anyway, we need to pick a new destination. Where can we go, since we clearly can’t afford the ticket to They-Don’t-Want-Me-Ville?  The Museum of Bad Art, maybe?  No.  Jill can’t go there either. She doesn’t even believe it exists.

“Can’t take that lady anywhere,” grumbles one of my monsters. She’s wearing a tiny top hat, and striped knee socks and Big Girl Panties, but not much else. Pot, meet Kettle.

Where is that vending machine?

Pigeons swoop down from the inside of the roof, followed by an announcement I can’t quite understand even though I think it’s in English. The voice is musical and soothing. With or without my attention, events are proceeding as scheduled. There is no need to panic. If this were an emergency, something would be making a much worse noise.

The pigeons swirl back up to the roof, having completed their investigation of someone’s breakfast crumbs.

Right. Where is that vending machine?

A young man brushes past me. He says something I don’t understand. It might be French. It sounds filthy. He’s gone before I can tell him, “And you too. And your mother, and the horse you rode in on. And your little dog.”

Then I turn around and discover that I’ve been standing in front of a row of vending machines all along. There are the usual snacks: chocolate, chips, soda, gum. And then there’s a series of machines selling ten pounds of Other People’s Opinions in five pound sacks. You wouldn’t think these would be popular, but they’re doing a brisk business. I have to admit, some of those packages look pretty appealing. But that’s not what I came here for. I want to spend one of my monsters.

It is a long walk to the end of the platform. There is a man chasing a departing train. He has an armful of hot dogs. He’s trying to toss them through the open windows of the very last car. Not my problem. Not my circus, not my monkeys.

I reach the end of the platform without finding the vending machine, but there’s a set of stairs. Instead of stopping at the ground between the tracks, the stairs lead down into a tunnel. It’s warm and humid and well-lit. It’s grungy and smells like oil. And there, finally, is the machine I’ve been looking for.

There’s no window showing what’s inside. The machine has only one button, and only one marking: a little monster icon next to a slot. The slot looks too small for my monster, who has been riding quietly on my shoulder. She lets me take her down. I study her for a moment, then look back at the slot. Could I fold her? Would she fit?  Yes, that’ll work. She falls into the machine and lands with a soft grunt. I press the button.

labyrinth

It doesn’t feel like a labyrinth. It doesn’t feel like I could find my way out just by trusting the path. Let’s call it a maze, then.

I feel like a Minotaur, a mythical half-human beast that nobody believes in.

“Oh, come on, you are not either a Minotaur. There’s no such thing.”

What’s a Minotaur anyway? Is that the one that’s half bull? Which half: the top or the bottom? Does it even matter?

Tell me again that there’s no such thing. I will tear your face off. I’ll take your house apart with my bare hands, assuming I can find it. That’s a pretty major assumption at this point: that I could find your house. Or that I even have hands.

The only thing I’m sure I have right now is a voice in my head that keeps saying “Jesus Fucking Christ” every time something happens. “Jesus Fucking Christ, there’s someone breathing over there. Make her stop.”

Apparently, I also have ears to hear this voice. Whose ears are they? What shape are they? How big? Are they furry?

Someone over there has feet. Jesus Fucking Christ. Make her stop. Who said she could have feet? Let’s chew them off at the ankles.

Who are all these people, and what are they doing in my fucking labyrinth or maze or paper bag or whatever this thing is that it feels like I will never find my way out of?

I am seven dwarves, strapped together to make a ridiculous monster: Grumpy, Stompy, Bitey, Screamy, Jumpy, Flinchy, and Smash. We live in a little plastic house under someone’s bed, in a forest of shoes and killer dust bunnies.  We are the monster under the bed, the monster at the center of the labyrinth, the monster at the end of the book.  Somebody made us in her image. Why did she do it? Why didn’t someone make her stop?

Why doesn’t someone make me stop? I’d like to see them try.

Grumpy, Stompy, Bitey, Screamy, Jumpy, Flinchy, and Smash can’t figure out how to unstrap themselves, so they all sleep in one gigantic bed. It takes up a whole room. In the morning, they eat leftovers for breakfast. What were they, before they were leftovers? They were leftovers-to-be, kid. Shut up and eat your breakfast.

After breakfast, they go to work. Sometimes they work in the trash mines, and sometimes they go to the factory where things are made from trash they mined the day before. The rusty tools, the moldy cardboard boxes, the moth-eaten rugs.

What do they make? That’s a secret. They don’t know. They couldn’t tell you even if they wanted to. Their mother would like to know. They can only shrug and go back to work. Or to lunch, which is (you guessed it) more leftovers. And then home again to wash off the dirt and fall into bed and dream.

They dream about being lost, or being in a high place and not knowing how they got there or how to get down, or looking for someone they can’t find because they don’t remember who it is. “Jesus Fucking Christ,” says Grumpy.  It is exhausting even when they’re asleep.

Stompy is always kicking Bitey in the spleen. Smash throws the blankets off, and Flinchy stretches out of the bed to retrieve them. Screamy bites the pillow, which turns out to be Jumpy’s leg. Oops. And then they all wake up in the plastic house in the maze in the forest of shoes, and they eat leftovers for breakfast again.

What were they before they were leftovers? When does repetition become change? Are we there yet? Is there even a there to get to?

Jesus Fucking Christ.

good grief

(Snoopy smoking a blunt and Charlie Brown with a cup of purple drank on a train in White River Junction this morning) IMG_0648

I used up most of my courage at a Reiki training over the weekend. Now I have just enough to show up for Notebook Club, but not enough to write the way I want to. Everyone else dives into the sea of words. I pretend to swim. They think the rest of me is in the water with them, but really it’s just my head floating on the surface.

Most of the essential bits are back in the relative safety of the boat.

In my dreams I drive the way I used to, merging onto the interstate at 65 miles per hour like it’s no big thing. Like visiting my family wouldn’t be the end of the world.

It all reminds me of when I sprained my knee and dreamed nightly of running up and down the stairs.


“I’m not even sure why I’m here,” I said to the instructor in a moment of panic.

“Because you want to heal,” she answered.

Don’t we all?

And don’t we all wish sometimes that healing was more linear and straightforward?

I climbed onto the table. She put her hot hands over my eyes, my ears, my heart.

On the next table, another student began to snore softly. Tears spilled down the sides of my face and into my hair.

I never did manage to unclench both fists at the same time while she was working on me.

steam

Steam the wallpaper off. Scrape up all the paste. Let’s not have new wallpaper unless it can have elephants on it. No elephants at the wallpaper store? Okay, then. Paint. What color? That’s too many questions. Let’s just paint it white and leave a bunch of crayons in the room and see what happens.

I once had a party in a building that was about to be gutted. There was spray paint, but nobody used it. It was a little disappointing. We did have fun pushing sofas out the windows into the parking lot, though.

How disgusting would those sofas be if I could smell them now? There was a whole section of the building that smelled like cat pee and unwashed hair. Even years later, after the renovations, you could still smell it sometimes on warm sunny days. The sofas were probably exactly as disgusting as I remember. They needed to go, along with their memories of fighting and fucking (both human and feline) and hangovers and hot dogs and Chinese take-out and Coca Cola.

Goodbye to all of that.

Later, a Chinese restaurant would turn out to be one of my best tenants. The owners kept their space clean, and they always paid their rent on time. If they had spoken more English, maybe they would have complained more. But maybe not: the building behaved well for them while they were there.

The other restaurants in that space had been plagued with constant plumbing and HVAC problems. It would start in the restaurant, and the restaurant’s owners would complain loudly. But even if they hadn’t, I would have heard about it: the trouble inevitably trickled down to the basement. One day Elisabeth came in and her studio was full of steam. Eventually we stopped replacing the ceiling tiles.

Now when I am stuck in a waiting room with a suspended ceiling, I can entertain myself by thinking about what’s on the other side of the tiles. I listen to the rattles, the hums, the whooshes of air. Is that a filter overdue for changing? A failing condensate pump?

Better bring an umbrella next time.

It is vegetable roasting season, and steam pours out of the the vent in the oven, condensing on the small overhang and making a pool on the back burner of the stove. I learned to love vegetables late. I was not quite forty, and my doctor wrung her hands at me over my blood pressure. I found that I was actually not so keen on dying before I turned fifty. So I investigated vegetables. My mother didn’t like beets. We never ate them. She liked eggplant. I still have not developed a taste for that. I love beets, though. And squash, now that I know you don’t have to serve orange vegetables with brown sugar on top.

It turns out I am more of a garlic and olive oil kind of person, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I am twenty-five percent filthy lazy peasant from the most wretched part of Italy. Two of my great-grandparents came from Naples a hundred years ago, fleeing poverty and political corruption and organized crime and probably cholera.

Did they arrive at Ellis Island on a steam ship? I bet they did.

italian woman

(This lady is not my great-grandmother, but she came to New York from Italy around the same time.)

I know very little about that side of my family. My father ran away. People who run away usually have a reason. So what made him run away? I don’t have to work too hard to imagine why that might have happened. People who don’t understand their history tend to repeat it.

We are all so full of complicated and not-so-complicated molecules, combining with the oxygen we breathe in. We are rusting. We are on fire. We are boiling like unwatched pots. How is it that we don’t have steam coming out of our ears?

Steam rises from the hot water miraculously pouring down from the shower head. What would my great-grandparents think of that? Are these great-grandma’s breasts I’ve got? They certainly are not my mother’s. Standing in the shower, I wash the loneliness and shame of generations from my heart and my cleavage.

Today, like every other day, Sam wakes up stiff as a board

Across the river, I wake up (like every other day this week) with my right arm in an invisible gom jabbarIt may be that other parts of me are stiff. I wouldn’t know. I am reduced to one flaming arm.

As I wake up more, I remember that the gom jabbar is not the Box of Pain. The gom jabbar is the poisoned needle held at your neck while your hand is inside the Box of Pain. It is supposed to be a test of your humanity. Will you pull your hand out of the box, or will you remember the needle and endure the pain?

Last night, having watched Judith Blackstone talk briefly about inhabiting the internal space of our bodies, I decided to spend some time inhabiting the arm. Why not investigate? In the arm, heaviness became vast space punctuated by nebulous blue and purple clouds of pain. It was actually quite beautiful. I remembered all the people who love me and have been brave enough to stay in the room with me and the crummy story that I’m not quite ready to leave behind. If the arm was full of space, there was room in it for their love. For a few minutes, my arm became a sponge and a Love Magnet. Afterwards it felt better for a while.

This morning the arm is a heavy burning log again. I can’t find much space in it. I wonder if it will be like this forever. Just as I am starting to feel the edge of despair, I hear the voice that sometimes comes to me from the place where there is no Inside or Outside. “You are a bridge,” it says.

A bridge, I think, is a useful thing. I am grateful for this piece of information, and for the sleep that miraculously follows it.

When I wake up again, it occurs to me that I can make an appointment with a physical therapist. I have not wanted to see a doctor. I have been thinking of the two possible outcomes of such an encounter:

  1. They could refuse to take me seriously, which would make the visit a waste of time and money.
  2. They could take me seriously, and there might be a series of expensive and time-consuming tests. The tests might or might not reveal anything useful.

Either way, they might start using words like fibromyalgia. Which sounds to me like another way of saying: “We don’t know what’s wrong with you. Please shut up and take these pills.”

No thanks.

But, as so often happens, it turns out that I have been catastrophizing just the teensiest bit. There is a third possibility: they could suggest physical therapy. I don’t actually need a doctor to tell me that sometimes physical therapy works; there is ample evidence of that in my back and my knees.

Meanwhile, the pain is fascinating. It is different every day. One day my hand gets involved, the palm feeling scraped and bruised as if from a violent encounter with a sidewalk. The next day my hand feels fine, but there’s a stabbing sensation at the rubbery junction of breast and armpit.

It feels somehow inevitable that something like this would happen. It is my bad shoulder. I sprained it, and it has never been the same. I was sexually assaulted, and that was the first place he touched me, and it has never been the same. The whole right side of my body is always stiffer than the left.

And yet: in the middle of all this stiffness and pain, there has been a kind of loosening too. My brain feels soupy and unformed. There’s the pain, yes, but there’s also that vast space lit with purple and blue. My brain is Bridge Soup, made of blue lights stretched across an impossible distance. What’s it connecting? Who knows?

another kind of soup

My arm is a Love Magnet. This is just as true as: my arm is trapped in an Invisible Box of Pain.

The sexual assault was not so much a punctuation mark between two crummy sentences as a comma in the middle of one longer crummy sentence. A comma, connecting the twin horrors of Before and After. That sentence seems to have ended. While I try to make sense of it, a new one is beginning. Once upon a time, it starts.

Once upon a time. And then what?  There was a cranky sleep-deprived middle-aged woman?  There was a bridge?

Sometimes I imagine that I can hear the river below me. Maybe that accounts for the ringing in my ears.

I am here in this excessively bright and hot room, writing with Julie and Sam, being stabbed under the shoulder blade. Or am I? Let’s say I am. My hand aches. I think I can hear my brain quivering inside my skull. I have been feeling feverish. I have been bleeding, on and off, for four weeks.

I should be in a red tent somewhere. With a dirt floor. Bare feet. Stirring a soup that smells like blood and potatoes. Maybe I am. Maybe I am simultaneously here in this bright hot library and in the cool red tent mixing up bridge soup.

My hand has stopped hurting for now. At least there’s that: a small loosening.

How many times this year have I been stuck on a bridge between Vermont and New Hampshire, feeling it shudder beneath my car’s tires or the balls of my feet?  A bridge is not a static thing. If it were, it would shatter. It expands and contracts so as not to dump all the dusty travelers into the river.

It stretches and shrinks and creaks and groans. And so do I.