It’s January, but I’m thinking of summer because it feels like full-blown late July in my body, particularly my head, a pulsing inferno, again. Day two of my own personal heat wave. Like the one when we were camping in August two years ago outside of Pick-athon, at Mike’s friend Greg’s mom’s property, right across from where the music festival is held.
A late summer afternoon. Lunchtime. Eating something grilled, plus guacamole and chips with the hodge-podge of people gathered.
Greg running around and playing with our other friends’ little boys, rambunctious ones who have now sprinted off the property onto the pavement of the church parking lot next door. Then we hear the scream crying of an accident.
Someone fell and got hurt. Some little being, wailing as only little beings know how to do when they get hurt. Mom runs over, Dad too. And R, one of the boys, maybe seven, has fallen and skinned his knee—no major damage.
Later, Greg tells us that when he squatted next to R right after he fell, he looked earnestly up at Greg, with tears in his eyes, and like a film ingénue on her deathbed, said, “I don’t want to die!”
This morning, Mike reminded me of that moment. “Hey, do you remember what R said after he fell?”
I did. I think of it every so often. It makes me laugh and it also makes me feel other things, like the immediacy of life and death, the overwhelming emotion—joy and grief—of it all. Like this heat in my body. I want to throw open a window, cool off my head, and gulp in some fresh air and start over. Snow would be no match for me today.
I want to lay down or lie down. For the life and death of me, I still can never remember which it is. Don’t tell anyone, okay? I still, always, have to look it up. Maybe that’s why I’ll more often say I want to get prostrate or stretch out on my back on the earth.
I know how to find a good work around. Especially when I need to get to the ground.
Today I wish I could put blankets out on a lawn, like we—a different we—did that day in New Orleans. A best day, I would call it, in the backyard of our apartment in the house on Solomon Place. My two beautiful roommates and my then-beloved and I on blankets on the grass. Drinking Abita Purple Haze and Sam Addams Cherry Wheat, light crisp beers soothing a hot day.
Using my sparkly blue eyeliner, we decorated each other with words and pictures, like Marlee Matlin in that What the Bleep movie. Which makes me sound like some sort of rainbow hippie and maybe I am, or I was. Having words like “beautiful” and “loved” written on my upper arm, or sparkly blue hearts drawn on my right cheek. Two dear friends and my sweetheart, plus Mirabella the beagle, running all around.
I didn’t know then that less than five years later, I’d be back in New Orleans, visiting at Thanksgiving without my sweetheart, who had become my ex-husband, because he’d given up on us. I was back in the same neighborhood, Mid-City, different apartment, staying with my once-roommate and still dear friend, and trying not to be too heartbroken to function.
On this visit, familiar places felt less kind. That first night we went to the Parkview Tavern, a bar that had been like home for three years of my life, my own personal Cheers. It felt odd, off. Or maybe it was me. The picnic tables out front were full of writers doing the same MFA program I had done. I saw a few familiar faces, but mostly no one seemed excited to see me, and definitely, not everybody knew my name. Where was I? Where did I fit?
This morning, the heat of so much history keeps rising to my skin. I think of how my mom doesn’t really have pictures of me, or of me and my current beloved, Mike, up in her living room, in what I’m going to start calling The Hall of Brides. Where there are framed solo pictures, eight and a half by eleven, of each of my sisters, radiant in their wedding gowns, standing up proudly on the end tables, flanking the couch. And on the walls, even more elegant framed pictures of them and their husbands on their wedding days.
Then, pictures of the grandchildren, all four of them that came from my sisters’ bodies, in frames of various shapes and sizes, covering the entertainment center.
And where am I? In my bathing suit, in a three by five frame with my sisters from a long-ago summer day, before I moved across the country, away from the family hub. Two inches of me are all I can find in that living room.
No portrait of me in a gown, in all my glory. I don’t want to want it, but I do.
Whenever I’m there, it makes me feel both smaller than I am and larger than I’m comfortable with—the mouse in the corner and the invisible elephant who might crush her with one step. I wonder if it means that I matter less, count less, have less value to the woman who birthed me, and the question clusters in a tiny hot star below my ribcage.
Just a few days ago, during a phone conversation, my mom asked me one of her regular questions, “How’s your business?”
I told her about editing a novel manuscript and facilitating a winter solstice retreat, about the writer in Germany I met with for a mentoring session over Skype.
As she often does, my mom said, “Wow, I’m so proud of you.” I know she means it.
In the shower this morning, I think of those words juxtaposed with what I guess should technically be called The Hall of Brides and Babies, and I have an insight: my mom is proud of me; she just doesn’t know where to put me.
This almost stops the water in the spout, in my spout, because a hot shooting star from just below my ribcage, flares to the surface of my skin. As it meets the spray from the showerhead, steam hisses out with an insight.
Which is this: that’s exactly how I feel about myself, how I have felt. Or at least how I’ve treated myself.
I’m proud of what I do and what I’ve done, who I am and how I live, but I don’t know where to put myself.
The daughter who moved away. The one without a traditional job or relationship or trajectory. Making it all up as she goes along. I defy category, and category defies me.
For me, the consequence of this has been that the pride gets lost, the honoring and celebrating of self. Because if there’s nowhere to put me, there’s nowhere to see me. So I might as well just put my head down and keep going.
This all feels more than a little depressing, not knowing where to put myself. Am I a writer? Yes. But not like that writer, or those writers. I don’t feel literary enough for some or revolutionary enough for others. I don’t fit on this bookshelf or that one. So whatever. As much as this might make me feel like a little being who’s fallen down and gotten hurt, I stifle the wail. I just put my head down and keep going.
Am I a forty-five year old cisgender straight woman in a romantic relationship with a cisgender straight man? Yes. But not married, still renting, and not financially solvent—I think that’s the right word, and when it comes to finances, I feel like I’m in lay/lie territory, and really, I’d have to look it up.
Will I get married again? I don’t know. I’d like to, but my last marriage wasn’t even technically a “real” marriage—no church, no documentation, so even that one didn’t get me into The Hall of Brides. Mike and I have been together for over seven years now, and sometimes it’s amazing and sometimes I’m so flooded with gratitude and love for his sweetness and our comfort together. But sometimes it’s hard, as relationships are, and I feel intensely his struggle as a person with a brain injury and all the things that get in the way of him being easily put somewhere. No Hall of Grooms for him, either. So maybe, we’re perfect together.
Which sometimes I love and sometimes makes me feel like I’m still a freshman in college, a little bit excited about everything, and a little unsure if I’m going to ever figure out anything at all—like god or money or love, or if it’s lay or lie or what the fuck it means to be financially solvent. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m nervous that maybe solvent is a bad and not a good thing, so maybe I don’t want to be that either.
I don’t know. Do I have to put myself somewhere to be proud of me, to feel that swelling of light and worth in my chest? Does somewhere have to be up on a wall and in a frame?
Maybe it’s more fluid that that; maybe it’s up on a stage every once in a while, singing and dancing and acting my heart out, like the ingénue I feel like when I belt out songs in the shower.
It’s possible that the desire to be in a frame on a wall is just my way of being prostrate, stretched out on the ground with bloody knees, laying or lying there, and wailing, “I don’t want to die!” I was here. I mattered.
But maybe that’s not what I long for at all. Do I really want to be preserved, in a Hall of Brides or a Hall of Writers or a Hall of Financially Solvent People?
Do I really want to spend all my time wailing that I don’t want to die and miss actually living this hot flash of a life while I’m at it?
Perhaps I don’t have to put myself anywhere, and I can be proud of me, regardless of location or preservation. Proud of me living, emotion in motion, body pulsing with heat, not lying or laying, but living. Not solving or solvent, but engaging, being, shining, making my way in the world today, like the opening of the Cheers theme song. Excited to see myself. I can appreciate that when I walked into the door of a gathering this week, that the people present did know my name and used it. “Good morning, Jen Violi!”
What a beautiful thing to hear. What a beautiful thing I could say to myself, too, stepping out of the shower, cooling off from my personal heat wave, and seeing my face through the steam. Smiling and saying, “Good morning, Jen Violi!”