I couldn’t sleep the first night in the new apartment on Park Place. It wasn’t much quieter than the projects, but I could feel we were out of that bubble now, living in the open world. I didn’t know our rank here except to say we had to hide sometimes and pretend we didn’t live there if a fire marshal drove by. The light switch sparked when you flipped it and the drunk landlord with his greasy grey curls and ruddy neck said nothing was allowed to live upstairs, but the rats didn’t mind. The bathroom had a naked, florescent bulb with lime and orange ricky-ticky flowers sprouting off blue-white plastic wall paper. The brown linoleum laid out intricate patterns for my busy mind to trace. A shadowy kitchen full of boxes and questions. Half of the walls were covered in fake wood panels with gritty black dividers. The other half had some sort of papering littered with antique drawings of buckets, windmills and fruit.
My mother heard me get up. She joined me to sit on cardboard in the dark wearing her plaid bathrobe. Feathered bangs hung low and framed her face. She was unusually reassuring, smiling at me in dim light from a street lamp outside as she poured a bowl of Corn Pops. We weren’t allowed to have sugar cereal except on Saturdays. The cold, sweet corn fell into my fluttering stomach as I looked behind her into my baby brother’s new bedroom. We’d all slept in one room before. My mind raced with thoughts of money, furniture, school, clothes, who might be outside and what the inside of the stone house next door looked like. Some of the houses on this street were really nice while most looked just like our apartment building. It was cold and my nightgown only came to my knees.
Waking in the night was not different for me. Something was always haunting my mind like food, people, changes, getting sick or dying, having nothing to wear, fighting sounds, expectations the world had, places to hide, ways to make everything stop or actual ghosts. A grandmother had died in a fire in our project apartment. My mother claimed she saw a cup slide down our counter one night. She said it spun in midair then dropped to the floor. I sometimes saw a light surround by a dark outline circling the table. In my mind I called her the kitchen witch. I had to cross her space to get to the bathroom if I had to pee at night so I usually just stood in the doorway ignoring my body while looking for her before tucking back into bed. That’s when I started feeling for presences in each house we moved to. There would 9 or 12 or more. On the Vineyard we had to call a priest; that’s a real thing. My mother didn’t believe it till she was getting ready for work one morning and the bathroom shook or growled at her or something. That was enough. She worked for the garbage company and was up very early so there was no one awake to blame. Rose colored glasses can’t shield you from the glare of an uninvited ghost.
Ridiculous things would steal sleep like certain smells, understanding, a paper I had to write, something stupid I’d said the day before tumbling in my head like a sock in the dryer; the past was a proverbial cat which had stolen my tongue and ability to reason. Irregular heart beats tripping over missed meals and fears which refused to dissolve. On night shifts at one job, the sounds of old people creaking would interrupt peace. Buckets of cleaning products, the scent of other people’s urine crawling on me and the discomfort of laying in an unfamiliar bed; I hated this feeling of filth and diminishment, as if being reduced to a nameless utility intended only for servicing the needs of others who mattered more. Knowing I had to face the next day with a house full of people, some workers, some residents and have conversations with them, expected to exchange pleasantries, be looked at. Appalling. A fucking nightmare with no escape. Sunshine is an invitation to social interrogation. It was always an evaluation; the barre, the runway, plate glass windows, street shadows, mirrors and unsolicited often backhanded compliments, recommendations about how to style my hair or questions about why I insisted on dressing in “over-sized rags”. Wearing clothes that fit has been a rare experience as far back as I can remember. Equated with store bought waste, embarrassment, a fear of being called attention seeking and generally feeling like a sex object on fire. Fitted pants once got me kicked out of school. Apparently my sister’s leggings were too tight and my mother’s underwear too big. The combination caught the attention of a well intended though blind principle. Since there was no one to claim me I spent the remainder of the day in some unused room beside the nurses office waiting to hide in an empty rental.
Sometimes I’d wake in blackness from cavernous sleep and not know where I was. I’d open my eyes and cry. A descriptionless emptiness and separation from my own being, as if I were a collection of cells with no matter, name or personhood. I’d see an endless ocean of stars, galaxies and the universe expanding into a void. Life would evaporate as if there were nothing tangible around me or within me, like I had no skin, blood or anything or anyone to hold on to. Feeling my own warm tears probably helped. Then pain would usher my being back into my body, usually in the form of a migraine.
Later it was hunger preventing rest. An emptiness I had control over giving me a sense of absolute control. A compulsive need to count, measure and pulse muscles silently by candlelight. Other times it was like I was frozen in the bed, having a vicious fight with body-mind layers, sweating and cold at the same time. Screaming but invisible and clawing from inside to get out. Scraping thoughts I couldn’t be rid of with a hook inside my head, like brain plaque. I’d try breathing, praying or meditating. It was relentless. I get what ‘fix’ is. For me it was the right amount of rituals, cigarettes, number on the scale, the right prayer uttered the right thousand amount of times Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, world without end amen, the right alignment of thoughts or simply remembering my brother had a flannel that fit me. The ‘fix’ was either a practical or completely illogical solution which gave me some temporary peace until the sun brought another day full of tasks to perform in the light.
2 thoughts on “up”
The photos work really well with this story. It’s a bird in a bare tree in what looks like cold weather – so that conveys vulnerability and adversity – but it’s also something that can fly and buds that are going to burst into life in the future.
Was this a teenage or pre-teen recollection?
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Thanks Sophie. I wrote this piece in the middle of the night. It travels around starting in first grade through present day. I like the connection you make between the birds and reality…feathers, wings, hope and such. Yes. We’re not stuck. 😉