Tag: me

The Journey Of Dolore Pinkerton And Emma S

In class we’re given a minute and a half to think up a list of emotions. The guidance counselor tells us: “if it makes you feel, you can think of it as an emotion.” In ninety seconds I have eighteen emotions. After classifying them into columns labeled “positive” and “negative”, I realize that thirteen of my eighteen belong to the latter category. For some reason this isn’t shocking at all. When our guidance counselor asks us to read one of our emotions aloud, I am the last one to go. In a sprawling hand, he writes the words my classmates throw at him. “Surprise”, “hope”, “love”, rubbing elbows with sadder counterparts, “melancholy”, “sadness”, “anguish”. It occurs to me that I might choose any adjective I like, as long as it falls into the realm of human emotion. For a brief moment, I consider “joy”. But it’s not a word that belongs to me. In the end, when his eyes turn to me, I speak the truest of them all: “soledad“. Solitude.

The stepmother’s mirror speaks to me: no, no, that’s not exactly right is it, Emma! There’s something else, a better answer. Shut up. For once I am not a liar. In Spanish we do not differentiate between “solitude” and “loneliness”.

Our guidance counselor tells us it’s good to speak what we feel. But I do not.

A few months ago a classmate asked me if there was anyone I could confide in. “Is there anyone you tell everything to?” The question caught me completely by surprise. I suddenly understood that, whether he’d realized it or not, he’d seen through my ruse. Despite my chatter, urchin smiles and exaggerated gestures, all carefully calculated to inspire amiability and a certain degree of tenderness, he’d noticed the inescapable patterns of my behavior. He’d seen how little I shared however much I babbled, how I’d adopted the strategy of “a good attack is the best defense”. In my shock, I answered that I didn’t have anything to tell. I actually said that, in spite of dreams in which I wandered concentration camps bathed in the light of an orange moon, utterly alone, dreams in which I faced dragons and faceless assassins all on my lonesome. “No tengo nada que confiar.” I have nothing I to confide. My God, how is it possible that I was able to say that with a straight face?

In “Madame Butterfly”, Cio-Cio-san kills herself upon the discovery that her precious husband has betrayed her, spitting on the faith she’d kept alive despite years and an ocean’s worth of distance. She covers her baby boy’s eyes and gives him a little American flag to hold. Then, as she stabs herself, we hear the voice of her beloved Pinkerton coming up a hill, crying Butterfly! In these moments, it’s never for Cio-Cio-san, the butterfly, that I feel most sorry for. It’s for the boy blindly waving the flag of his father’s country, a boy she’d named “Dolore”. Dolore, in Italian, meaning “sorrow”.

Dolore and Soledad, we make a pretty pair, don’t we? Sorrow and Solitude, looking down on a sweeping bay on a golden spring morning. But when the opera finishes, I always wish desperately for Dolore’s happiness, regardless of the juxtaposition of emotion there. I press a fist to my mouth and pray he’ll someday be bold and bright. In Act 2, in fact, his mother says: the day Dolore’s father returns, his name will be “Gioia”. When “Madame Butterfly” ends, his mother is dead and his father is no great tiding. But still I hope he’ll be the Gioia he should be, on his own account, out of his own bravery and strength.

Then he’d be Gioia and I’d be Alegría, and we’d be on our own ship, leaving that bay, holding tight and looking forward, pointing at the horizon like children point at flocks of birds. Gioia and Alegría – different languages, but they both mean so much to me. They are both Joy.

NEVER BREAK THE CHAIN

In class we read “Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden. “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun” reads the boy directly across from me. Then he looks up and asks, almost angrily, as though haven bitten into a rotten apple: “how can you dismantle the sun?”

Some time ago I taped up a photograph of my brother on my bedroom wall. The photograph was one of the many copies he’d made for a class project and left all over the floor. I carefully added it to the drawings and print-outs of poems I’d added to my wall over the previous weeks. My mother had mentioned this collage only once, and that was to voice her disapproval. “Tengo ya demasiado para que conviertas tu habitación en un museo,” she’d said. “I have enough already, for you to go and turn your room into a museum.” But on this occasion the photograph of my brother, smiling in a garden rendered unidentifiable by our elderly printer’s manic bursts and stutters, made her pause.

“You really love him, don’t you?”

I looked at her, perplexed. Love was not the reason I’d taped up the photograph. The two things, “love” and “photograph” felt unconnected to me. My mother’s comment, however, brought into my world a sudden and very tenuous link between them, twins separated at birth meeting for coffee. It made me look at the photographs of me, placed around the house in silver frames, in a new light. Flipping the laminated pages of albums became like a trip through a dream. If it unnerved me before, to see past versions of myself in lace dresses, absorbed in paintings, reclining on grassy fields – now I’m horrified by it.

Sometimes my mother holds a photograph of me close to her face, something I’d always interpreted to be more out of poor eyesight than affection. She traces the line of my cheek and says little words of endearment: cariño, amor, sol. Mi sol. My sun. The sun, eight minutes away at light speed, but still nearly 164 years away at 65 miles an hour, which is as fast as my mother is willing to drive. “How can you dismantle the sun?”

There I am, sitting on the night table, eight years old and playing the princess in “Emperor’s New Clothes”. There I am again, on top of the shoe closet, leaning against a wall in my elementary school uniform. And again, next to my mother’s red jewelry box. And again, glued to the computer monitor at her workplace. I need to be rid of these photographs. Sometimes my despair is so great I seriously consider taking the kitchen scissors to them, chopping my body into ribbons of glossy paper. “Love” and “photograph”, this makes as little sense to me as the dismantling of the sun did to my classmate. The sun and its termination shock, the point where solar winds slow down and stop, a point whose location is a mystery even to the most dedicated of scientists. God, all those photographs, framed and hung like letters salvaged from an ancient Countess’s boudoir. I want to grab my mother by the shoulders and scream: This is not how you love someone!

(title taken from “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac. It’s also what I was listening to throughout the writing of this sordid, miserable tale)

Childhood

Seven days after my seventeenth birthday, April 11th of this very year, my childhood came to an end.

At the time I would’ve have perhaps have said something as dramatic as “my childhood died”. But please don’t think too badly of me for it. It sure felt like death, then.

My greatest fear is that my feelings are not genuine. I doubt the sincerity of my thoughts and actions at every hour of the day. When I think, are these thoughts true or just what I wish I would think? When I move, are these movements real or do they just take me where I wish I had the guts to go? When I feel, are these feelings born in pulpy mass of my heart, or deep in my prefrontal cortex? I can’t put any sort of faith into the steps I take, nor the sounds of my throat. I don’t part with even small bits of myself wholeheartedly. “Wholeheartedly”? Emotions don’t possess me, and I miss this secret fervor, this fervor that I witness from far away with a wan smile: girls hugging in photographs, a boy crying at the movie theater, a woman begging a medium to let her speak to a deceased child. “Wholeheartedly”? Every single time I’ve said I was moved by something I have lied.

There have been a few moments in my life in which I have known with certainty: ah. Ahh. This is real. These moments occupy a definite place in me, and I could not bear to lose them. Even if I were stricken with amnesia after a freak automobile accident, like the beautiful heroine of a primetime soap, I couldn’t possibly forget: watching a videotape of my baby brother playing with the balloons floating over an air vent, and then looking up to see that same brother, eight years older, brushing away the tears from his eyes.

When classmates ask me what I want to be when I grow up, the answer is different each time. “A biologist in Antarctica”, “a Tibetan monk”, “a missing person” all half-truths! It’s hard to feel something real, or feel for something real.

I have a theory: a person’s childhood ends when they come to understand their parents. I think I gained that knowledge on April 11th. It was knowledge that made me weep like a madwoman for hours. I have a theory: part of a person dies when they spend an entire night crying without anyone noticing.

I’m not going to lie. A lot of this has come about due to my mother’s bipolar disorder. I’ll never forget the summer of ’09. My mother’s illness brought upon me an awakening of sorts. It was in 2009 that I first became terrified that my feelings are not real. But I’m ready now, to accept what has happened, and I’m ready to do what I can to help not only myself feel, but those who surround me. In a way, I’m grateful I have gone through this. I never would have put so much stock into the importance of feeling, otherwise. I never would have decided what my aim in life is, either. It’s not “a biologist in Antarctica” or “a Tibetan monk” anymore. It’s definitely not “a missing person”. I think I have been “a missing person” for many years now, and I’m ready to give that up.

Now, when classmates ask what I want to be when I grow up, the real answer is always “a good person”. I have spent my entire childhood being the Cowardly Lion, letting others step up and put their own brave (impossibly brave!) hearts on the line. I don’t just want my feelings to be real, I want to be proud of them.

My childhood ended because I finally understood my parents. My father became a man, and my mother a woman, both of them flawed, both of them humans who have spent many years of their lives teaching me. Today, I feel like a historian that looks at a set of hieroglyphs for the hundredth time and finally understands what they mean.

I am not a child anymore. As an adult, I won’t ask for anything I can’t give myself. So while I am still here, crossing over, let me make one last plea to the universe: if I have lost something now, please let me gain something else. If my childhood is over, if time has switched eras and changed this place, this way I live, allow me to win for myself something different, something new, something that will make me think ah, this is real! If all goes well, maybe something that will help propel me to my goal, my hope of being “a good person”. It doesn’t have to be now, just sometime, someday, if you’d be willing to oblige me. For once, I can say, genuinely, sincerely, wholeheartedly: this is something I would really love.

Samsara

I am home alone, adding dollops of butter to a pot of Basmati rice. Some housewife chord has been struck in me during the fits of sleep, along with a bout of sickness.

(here, “sickness” is defined as a state of mind caused by one-quarter stomach upset and three-quarters loneliness.)

Rice pudding calls for one cup of cooked rice, milk and sugar. I turn the knobs of our gas stove in one of my mother’s cross-stitch sweaters. It’s older than I am, a relic belonging to the age of my mother’s young adulthood. The last time it was worn, she was an unmarried Londoner, bopping around in pastel work pants and dark shades. Now, I am the daughter who has taken it from the wardrobe, but I have neither spunk nor savvy, not today.

Samsara, “continuous flow”, the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. Then, can be it assumed I am a body travelling a circular path at a constant speed? This is a principle of uniform circular motion, something I was taught last year in sophomore physics. I can still remember my polyester uniform skirt sticking to the backs of my knees, sweat like cake batter, and my breath a tangible print in the air. Question four: calculate the velocity of an object travelling in a circle.

(here and in the realm of physics, “speed” refers to how fast an object is moving, whereas “velocity” is the rate at which it changes position.)

Samsara, a cycle in which I am the body stapled, marked and labelled, drawn as a dot in religious textbooks. But though speed is constant in a circular environment, I can change the velocity. I can accelerate or de-accelerate if that is my wish, though I am bound by egoism and futile desire.

A six square meter kitchen with a small balcony where clothes dry and detergent is kept. The oyster-colored tiles and cabinets of poor-quality wood, the porcelain bowls of green apples slowly ripening, and I, sitting at a dirty table eating salted crackers because my rice pudding has the taste and texture of charcoal.

I am reading “Madame Bovary.” Doleful and desperate Emma makes me smile, but I only ever want to be her twin in name. And on the days when I feel myself leaning towards her awful habits, I pretend my name is not “Emma” but “Ema”, and this small change seems significant because –

(here and everywhere, “Ema” are the small wooden plaques on which Shinto worshipers write their wishes, prayers, vows or expressions of thanks. Ema is hung up in shrines, where it reaches the gods.)

On The Psychology Of Sit-Ups

Today I discovered that one can tell an awful lot about a person by the way they do their sit-ups.

Consider, for example, the bestial child who hammers his hips up and down in the most convincing rendition of childbirth (as performed by a male – bravo!) ever seen in a school room. Or the deeply caustic boy, who pushes himself up and down like a baby being rocked, calves tightening like hard-boiled eggs. Or the fellow who flaps like a bird, neck straight and stiff. Or the super-sprint of the sleek schoolgirl. Or the damsel who begins to swell and purple at the midway mark, huffing and puffing all the way to the finish, mermaid hair spread out on the iceberg blue mat.

I myself appear to be the kind of person who flags three sit-ups from the goal, flopping flat on the ground like a dead cetacean, grunting and gagging on the last available breath before elbowing and easing up again. One. Two. And. Aaaaaaaand. Three.

Fire With Fire

A strange thing has been happening with my lips lately. They are swollen and split, segmented into thin cellular clumps like slices of bruised apples. I am dedicating myself, still, to my miserable novel, as well as other elements of quotidian life. Not everything I have been doing has been going beautifully. But when I ask my mother to print a photograph for me at her workplace, she brings home various sizes and angles of the same picture, black and white, vivid hues, subdued tones, in a spring green folder left on my desk: this is the sort of thing that motivates me to move on, to keep grabbing and ripping and yanking at the serpentine vines of my own personal jungle. Oh, please forgive my childish metaphors: these are the only sorts of things that make sense to me, now, nowadays.

This summer, when I wrote my short story, I was extremely enamored of a certain phrase: “to seek, to strive, to find and not to yield.” A line from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and inscribed on the cairn of snow that marks RF Scott’s place of death. I think of Platyhelminthes, simple, dumb, uncomplicated flat worms composed of a one-two-three body structure and no heart nor lungs. Platyhelminthes, who, when cut in thirds, will regrow the parts they are missing, effectively becoming three organisms from one. Regenerating their heads, those stupid beasts, doing everything I cannot!

The other day on the radio I heard the song “Fire With Fire” by Scissor Sisters. I’d never heard it before, but it melded in with my state of mind and the landscape wonderfully. The twists and gurgles of far-away mountains, slate blue, shady but always new to my infant eyes. Fight fire with fire, fire with fire, fire with fire. Yes. Though not everything I have been doing has been going beautifully, I have weapons at my disposal, sheer gut and gumption, fiendish blaze curdling in my own metalworker’s stomach. I have reasons and mechanisms to ignite. Fire with fire.

Day Five Of Operation: Befriend Ants.

During our morning snack break, the girls and boys of the eleventh and twelfth grades gather in the cafeteria. It’s not the one we eat lunch in, but a classier area meant for teachers, outfitted with a bar and coffee machine. For half an hour, after third period, the tiled linoleum, the tables and chairs, the glass doors: these are lent to the pandemonium of the older students.

It’s difficult for me to consider myself an “older student”. I’m shy of even first graders, tracing wide arcs around they and their playthings. School feels like a spherical environment, and I take a path lit by an infinite series of great circles. One of few stopping points: the cafeteria.

The tables are always occupied. The galaxy by the windows, threaded by cosmic rays and globular star clusters, all gravitationally bound, wound up tight. The string of outer space accompanying the bar, populated by the old glowing inapproachable. The mess in between, solar wind and magnetic fields, perilous and easy to trip over. I find a chair and carry it with me to the solar system farthest away.

It’s a quaint place where I am comfortable, if plenty superfluous. If they care they say nothing, fixed as they are on breaking past their orbits and poking fun at dwarf planets. There’s a pair of blazar boys, luminous and disruptive, a shiny hypercompact stellar system, a trio of components of the Orion constellation (three vertices of a triangle, Sirius, Procyon and Betelgeuse) and me, the closest thing to a perfect vacuum.

Nature abhors a vacuum, but you are not nature, you are expansive, wild and intergalactic, spanning light years and eons, you are teenage stars, so, can I ask you, please: don’t hate me.

Day Four Of Operation: Befriend Ants.

When I get to class in the mornings I don’t stray farther than the two foot radius around my desk, and that only to deposit my book bag and take a solid, perfunctory glance around the room. Chalkboard, windows, door; this is my own little private universe, but the sun can be anywhere at all. I don’t know around what I revolve, but I do so willingly.

I am only ever truly tired the five minutes after I wake, but it is not until eleven thirty that I stop telling people I’m exhausted. It’s one of the few conversation openers I know, initiating the inevitable concurrent response, the cycle of shared sleep and lack thereof. “I’m tired.” “I’m tired too.” “How are you?” “Fine.” “Hello!” “Hi.” I am an automaton, I run through lists like names for hurricanes.

For the first time in a while, I hate living in Spain. It’s a feeling that lasts a maximum half hour, but I feel it poignantly, and I feel it absolutely. I can’t do intelligent or passionate discourse in Spanish, despite the fact that I’ve lived here for most of my life. All those who cannot express adoration nor ideals in their mother tongue are failures. On a discrete level in my private universe I am blind to the interpretation of the thoughts of other sentient beings. On a smaller level than even that, lying on the fringe of some dead supernova, I fear that I am blind to their love as well.

There is a sun, but it cannot be pinpointed. There are blue stars too, but they are visible only to those with proper equipment. The only element ever to be mapped here is ground zero, and I already know exactly where that is.