I was haunted last night and this morning by a very particular image from my past, by a very specific moment from twenty years ago. I am seventeen and my boyfriend (although, technically, in that moment he was no longer my boyfriend) is standing on the porch of my parents’ home. He is standing on the brick patio and I have just opened the large white door, after looking through the window beside the door to see that it was him. He is holding a bouquet of mixed flowers – red and purple and orange at the end of his arm – his head is cocked slightly, just so slightly to the side and his eyes are on mine. I can see his short blond hair and his wide jaw. I can see the park-like backyard of my teenage years – the very old eucalyptus trees that are no longer there, having fallen victim to too many winter storms, too much water and too much wind for their awe-inspiring height, the last remnants of the orchard our house replaced. I can see the bougainvillea just beyond the lawn that seems almost endless – a thick, green wall to shield the house from the busy street on the other side. I can see his red car parked in our drive – the same car I had been in endless times, the same car I was pulled over in while on Highway 41 and managed to convince the officer I was just really tired (mostly, that’s what I was). The same car I would refuse to watch him drive away in.
He pushes his arm out, putting the flowers closer to where I am standing and so I step more fully out from behind the door, take them in my hand. I don’t even remember what he said. I know that I said you shouldn’t have done this and I held the bouquet in my left hand and let the flowers point down to the wood floor of the entry, still letting the threshold draw a line between us. I know more was said – not a lot more – but I don’t recall except that I know I repeated you shouldn’t have before I closed the door and walked into the house, away from the door and its windows, far enough that I wouldn’t be able see or hear if he looked in the same window I had looked through only minutes before to find him there, waiting for me to answer the knocks, waiting for me to turn things around and keep us going. I walked into the kitchen and put the flowers in the sink and then I don’t know what. I don’t even know what I said when my mother must have come home and asked where those flowers were from. What I did later that day or the next. I can only see his eyes and the flowers moving toward me and feel the line drawn inside of me. You shouldn’t have because I won’t take it back. You shouldn’t have because I won’t give you another chance. You shouldn’t have because I won’t.
We had broken up the day before, on the phone, when he, amidst a whirlwind of emotions opened up by the movie Ghost (of all things), told me he didn’t know if he loved me. So it was over. In my mind. Complete. Severed. Bye. That’s what I remember about my side of this equation – the part that came before the flowers, before those eyes, before I closed the door and flipped the latch to the right, locking him out and me inside. It’s clear in hindsight that I didn’t truly love him, not as I have come to know love, or I would not have been able to do that, to end it so efficiently, to be so distant, able to hold the flowers face down and not feel bad even for those flowers, failed as they were in their mission. What I thought I knew then was that I was tough. Real tough. Man tough. I fancied myself a boy – swift and efficient and like a one way trapdoor, fall through and you are gone. His image, on the porch with the flowers, may be the visual that is haunting me – but it is the way I could shut off and draw a line and just be done that I miss, that is the true ghost of this memory. The days when I felt like a love rockstar, able to pack up the bus and roll, able to sing the song, over and over, and then stop, take it off the play list and just write another.
I’ve been working very hard at working through as much of my own shit as I can before I move and start the reality of a new life. Between the break-up and limbo, I’ve really had no good excuse to not try to figure out as much as I can. I still try to avoid it, but I find I can’t seem to get away from the figuring. Most of the work of it has been by way of thinking and thinking and thinking. Looking back, making connections, doing the so-called deep digging to figure out how I really feel about all kinds of things that are changing and shifting day to day, trying to see where there are patterns and what they tell me. Some of it, as you have seen here, has been through writing. All of it helps, all of it is useful. And I’ve done a lot of writing that hasn’t been seen by anyone but me and a lot of it that will never be seen by another set of eyes (at least until my childhood home becomes a literary museum). All of this thinking and writing, though, has been very focused – centered in time and on those directly related to my now.
The dust storm that started what would inevitably become the end of my relationship has stayed very vague in my public writings and, to not lead anyone on, will still remain that way for now. There are a few friends who know the most personal of details and many friends and family members who know some of the details and countless others who get the brief, but honest, version of it: It was time – it just wasn’t where I should be anymore, it just became very clear. As with all things in life, though, the devil is truly in the details and there is a lot of devil in this for me.
I am a detail person. If you tell me a story, I want to know all of the details because the particular word or particular gesture or particular setting all matter, all mean something slightly different from all of the other myriad options and choices. It is also why brevity – in the truly meaningful things – is almost impossible for me. So what this – my life, my circumstances, my current jumping point – all means, how I deal with it, where I go from here – it’s all in the details. It is only now, though, in the last week or so, that I feel like I can do what needs to be done (only because my own arm is being twisted) – to stare at those details and dig even deeper, the only way I know how, the only way that really works for me: writing.
I can talk a blue streak. I can talk and talk until my voice gets scratchy. I am almost never at a true loss for words. When I am, you can be assured that the weight of whatever it is I’m trying to say is as close to terminal or suffocating as it can get. It has happened. Rarely. If I can still talk about it, you can be comforted that I am not actually about to snap under the weight of it, even if I think I am, even if it feels like that. When talk fails, or stops making progress, or just feels like I’m running the same track endlessly – then I have to write.
I believe in writing. I used to say this to students on the first day of classes when I taught composition. That writing is not just a way to convey something, not just a way to tell someone something. It is that, certainly, and whatever else it is, it’s almost always doing double duty as a communication tool. More than communicating, though, more crucial to my own life and survival, writing is a way of thinking, of solving, of making meaning, of creating meaning. Writing doesn’t just say or explain or tell – that’s what is does once the verb becomes a noun – once it is a thing and no longer an act. As an act – writing finds meaning, makes meaning, makes sense. And it doesn’t matter if you do it well or not, if you think you can write or not. It serves a function – it makes sense. That, to me, whether in a classroom or in your own darkened house, is its primary function, its primary value, the reason it sings to me late at night and calls to me midday.
I’ve known for months now that the story behind the story, the small things and big things that are always behind all of life’s biggest decisions, would need to be written. I was hoping to write them out, piecemeal, into many, many pieces of fiction. To do what I’ve always done, which is file the facts (concrete and emotional) away for use later, to use for material, to house them with all of the numerous facts gathered from my own life, from the lives of friends and family and even from virtual strangers – to allow those details to surface when they are needed, when they will serve the story, to parcel them out here and there to further whatever story is at hand. To cannibalize real life in the service of art.
These devilish details have demanded more of me this time – they won’t wait their turn. I’ve journaled, something I am not good at doing, something I don’t particularly like to do, more in the last six months than I have in the last ten years. I have written in pubs, in airports, frantically scribbled on numerous airplanes – my notebook tilted toward the window (for ergonomics, but also for privacy) and my hand cramping with the speed of my body trying to keep up with my brain. I had looked back at these entries only a handful of times, very soon after writing them, and then not again until this week. They are too raw. They are too emotional to read (yes, even for me) without the risk of falling right back into that place, even if only for a moment, an hour, a night.
A couple of weeks ago, I started a short story. I use that term loosely here. I wrote a long paragraph. One of my long paragraphs, so I am definitely not using the word long loosely. It was a glimpse – an opening scene, if you will – of a particular character. The emotion was right out of what had been circling in my mind and my heart that day, grown from my own delicate situation. I had to stop what I was doing at work and open my personal email and create a draft email to contain this paragraph (so I could access it at home, so I could write it and get back to work). A-ha. There it is. Release. I can let my own spinning mind churn out this character who will, definitely, spiral far away from my own situation to be her own person in her own world – like a daughter born of my own discord. I love the way a seed of truth, the tiniest of details, can start something completely severed and separate from the original thing – that is the magic of writing fiction. Writing this meant moving on. Moving on.
A few days later, after trying to get myself to go back to that paragraph – to nurse it, build it, follow it – without success, I had an even stronger urge to start to write my own story, the story of this sharp turn in my life. I’m not a fan of that urge. I am uncomfortable with writing about myself. But not for the reason most people might assume. My only other real attempt to craft something directly out of my own life was abandoned and morphed (during my last year in grad school) – I turned it into a short story, where I was no longer bound by the facts, no longer responsible to what really happened. I could open it up to the truth, not the reality. I have friends who write memoir or nonfiction and I am always in awe of the way they can hover in that middle ground (because all writers know that memoir is to fact what your public persona is to your private – not altogether the same). I admire the ability to craft something with what often feels like restriction, what feels too much like a writing straitjacket to me. I am not squeamish about showing my own flaws, my own ridiculous ways. I am not terrified of being judged. I can handle being open with my life and all of its missteps. I just don’t like to be trapped in my own story. My story, though, is not listening.
I was standing in the basement at work, staring out the back door at the lush, overgrown back yard, at the circle of plants – overgrown in that early fall way, drooping under the weight of the wet, wet air, past their bloom-prime and bearing down for winter. I was looking at the way they arced into the center, infringing upon the stones of the patio, and words starting multiplying in my brain. I’ve been through this enough to know that there is a level I can sense, there is a speed I can feel, that means these words will have to be written down. I can not just wait for them to fade. When I say I write because I can’t not write – this is what I mean. I don’t have to have you read the words, I don’t have to randomly choose to sit down and write. I mean that there are times when the words will not let me go until I put them somewhere outside of my body.
In this moment, I wanted to ignore them. I was standing near that door, wasting time looking at the plants, looking at the gray sky, because I had fouled up a patient appointment. I had changed the time on the wrong person’s appointment and so a woman had shown up, on time, and her massage therapist was covered in needles, utilizing what she thought was a gap in her schedule to receive an acupuncture treatment. So in addition to buying time with the patient and apologizing for screwing up, I was hovering outside the treatment room to catch my coworker, the acupuncturist, to tell her that she needed to give Lisa a head’s up, that her appointment should start the second she stands up from the table. I was not excited about any of this. There’s a euphoric and slightly disorienting feeling immediately post acupuncture and I was irritated with myself that this incredibly sweet, friendly massage therapist was going to have to run into action, unexpectedly, because I was distracted the day before when I altered the appointment. I did not like sending her day into sudden overdrive – hurry, hurry, hurry, help this patient relax.
When the words started in on me, I wanted to open the back door and throw those suckers out the window. Leave me be. Leave me. Leave. They kept circling, adding words at the end with every rotation, the number of them creeping up to a hundred or so at least. I nearly walked away from the back door and walked upstairs and out the door. Really. Fuck it all. I wanted to leave my brain there at the back door playing its stupid little word games and walk out, mindless, into the air and walk up the street until I hit the Columbia River and then decide, brainless, whether to jump in and try for Washington. These were words, were images, were feelings I didn’t feel like dealing with then – my mind was circling on a moment from many months ago that I didn’t particularly care to relive right then. My brain was taking that moment and reaching backward and forward to connect it to all the other moments situated around it – making connections, making metaphors, breaking my heart and making it race, making my brain feel like trapped helium.
Instead, I stood there and let the words run around, hoping they might wear themselves out and disappear. Not only was I in the middle of something else, I didn’t want to write these words. I don’t want to write them. I don’t want to read them. I don’t want to see them in front of me. I don’t want to deal with them. By the time I spoke to all the people I needed to, apologized as many times as I could, and walked back to my office, they were still there – still in my head, still growing and forming sentences and creating images and getting louder. So I wrote. I took an early lunch (those little bastards stealing my own little pocket of personal time, too) and wrote. I wrote about four pages before the hum quieted down enough. As soon as they were out, on the proverbial page, I said a silent prayer for the vignette – that lovely little almost-story. Please let this be it, please let me file this away as a word picture, a prose poem, private and finished. The End.
I knew, even as I prayed, that it was not the end of this story. I was not going to be able to ignore these pages, let them pass like the character who held my attention momentarily the week before. Immediately I saw that vignette as a prologue (and really, who believes four single spaced pages is a vignette? Not even I believe that.) – it is an opening section, the arc over the rest of the story, the reader’s tease – and so I knew. If I have crafted a shape, if I can see a form, this is bigger than I want for it to be. This is my story, my last year, all that I have been swimming in for months and months. This means I am going to have to deal with it. For real. For meaning. For truth. No matter what ghosts it pulls back from the past, no matter who shows up at my door to startle me. Now. Not later.
Knowing, then, that this was a losing battle for me, I hunkered down – and wrote. I revisited it at home that night and for several nights after. I have been spending time with it, really giving it my attention. I have about forty pages so far and feel as though I am nowhere near the heart of the matter yet. So there it is. A not book. An intentionally unpublished memoir. Many more hours with my laptop in the service of something that may never be read by anyone else.
It is all the other people – the way that memoir implicates all those around you, where I am least comfortable with the genre. And why this will most likely not be published. Everyone who figures into this story would be affected. Some only marginally, but some in bigger ways. Most people are not comfortable with people knowing the intimate details of their lives (no matter how mundane or innocuous the detail might seem to the reader) and so I can’t ask that of everyone. To write this, I have to be honest – sometimes brutally honest. I have already written a scene from fourteen years ago – found a place that I had forgotten existed in my memory, had forgotten how painful that moment was – that would make me cringe, at first, to think of people reading it. But it is true. It did happen. And by writing to there, I have seen a small bit of connection, of the kind of sense I need to make of this moment in time. I could get over the cringing to publish if I think the story is worth reading, worth sharing. But the other parties – the one who hurt me or the one I was running from when I landed in that scene or the woman whose house I was at – they would have no say. And that’s only one page out of however many I will end up with – that’s only people I don’t even know anymore, so could disguise adequately.
This unpublished, unread thing is an interesting prospect for me. If you are a writer – the kind that gets a degree and sends work out for publication (who thinks people want to read your ramblings in a blog) – then it hurts when you write something you find moving or striking and you think that you may be the only one to read it, ever. For now, that will have to do. Luckily, I am not a fan of letting anyone read my work until I have a completed draft – it feels too fragile, too makeshift at that point to bear another set of eyes. So maybe I will change my mind, maybe the circumstances of all the people around me will change. If not, maybe this is an ego lesson, a writer’s test, my own version of a one woman marathon.
And I know that I can’t worry all of that anyway – all those other people and their feelings and their consequences – and still write the story I need to write. My brain can’t do both of those things at once. For now, this is a solo act. That is painful being the type of writer I am – one with enough ego to think that what I have to say is worth hearing – but it is also freeing. I am free to find the truth, to write the truth, to be contained by what really happened, but not by how it will affect anyone but me.
I still don’t want to, though. I still am a little afraid every time I sit down at the computer. And here I am writing about writing this story instead of actually writing it . . . I feel like an obnoxious meta-fictionist pointing at the ink on the paper and telling you to look at it, really look at it, I say. But the process, too, is useful and so is thinking about the process. I used to also tell my students to keep a writing journal – to be mindful of what is happening as you write, to the writing, to the writer. Pay attention to the words, to your story as it unfolds.
I will write it. It’s too late not to keep stringing words. My brain won’t let me stop even if I want to – that much I have learned about myself. I will write despite the danger as I fill all of the white space on the monitor, the risk of another haunting image. And another. A room full of ghosts from the past I didn’t know I had invited to this party. Hello, you – haven’t seen you in a while. Now go away.
I have seen the way that writing can free you, so I will trust in it, trust in the process. When I used to facilitate workshops in the women’s prison or the YWCA as a volunteer for Write Around Portland, I saw women who didn’t believe they could write at all bring themselves and their peers to tears with what had been scribbled down in five or ten minutes. I could occasionally convince myself that I saw the small glint of an idea jump the synapse, connect, and then make sense. A change in not only their expression, but in the way they saw themselves, in what they knew to be true. I was moved more times that I can count during the five or six workshops that I led. Just from writing. Just from seeing where it would take someone. Whatever the end result. Whoever read it after that moment.
I have been in this spot before – this place of decision and finalities. I have been in almost this exact place. So much is different so many years later, but so much is almost the same. And so many of the emotions are the same, but so very different as well. If the story, though, is in the details – then the whole story is changed, then it is a totally different story. When I was in this place before – this leaping place – I didn’t write it out, I only thought about it until I thought I would implode, talked about it until my friends probably hoped I would implode. And after that? I tried to run so fast that I could erase it, I tried to change course and kick dirt over the tracks behind me, I tried to drown it all in beer and good times, I tried to create new versions of the story to write over it. This time, I am older, the whole terrain is different – me, the city of my heart, the supporting cast, the place I need to get to. So I need to write through it. I need to find a way across this canyon I don’t want to cross, this spot in the dirt I don’t want to move from. It seems I no longer want to be that boy I used to be even if I should be, just this once, for old time’s sake. As though I could if I wanted to. As though that trick would work now.
This is the other image that is haunting me, as I write, as I work on this project:
I am at the edge of water, at a bank of some sort. I have ridden a bicycle here – one that appeared one day on my porch and until then, I hadn’t noticed how much I had been thinking about going somewhere, anywhere. Without this happenstance/circumstance/fated bicycle, I would have stayed in that house, on that porch, for a while longer – maybe days, maybe years. Without those two wheels, the pedals and the chain, I would not have landed here, in this place, exactly where I am standing and where I need to be to get wherever it is I am going. It helped me know where to go, how to go, that I had to go at all. But I can’t tell if this is a creek or a river or something even larger. My eyes are playing tricks on me. I know enough to know that my judgment is poor, that my eyes are tired and are not to be trusted. If it is a creek, I can walk my bike across with me. If it is a river, I will need to swim across and can not do that while carrying this bicycle. I really want that bicycle when I get to the other side, though. Not the promise of a different bicycle. Not even a better bicycle. This one. This exact, worn, now sentimental bicycle.
Whether this is a creek or a river, we are getting closer to winter, so while I know I can stand here a very long time to make my decision, the water will only rise – spring will come and I will not be able to make it across with or without the bicycle. I can stand here and refuse to focus my eyes enough to see that I probably just need to swim, to go, to leave that bike behind, no matter how important it was right then, no matter how much I want it. I can stand here a really long time and still survive, still think about it, weigh all the outcomes and pitfalls. For now, all I am doing is inching closer to the water, small measured steps to get me closer to the edge, but not too close. I really don’t want to fall in and lose the choice. Am terrified of waking up on the other side, with just my feet to move me, of not having made a decision. I am trying to find any way to justify taking the bicycle. I might need to move fast on the other side. It might be the best bike ever, for me. I might be missing the exact perfect moment to make it over together, in tact – if I only looked closer, focused more. I can hear the words being whispered in my head – jump, swim, go. But I don’t feel them. They are just air moving through my hair. I think I know what I should do, but I don’t want to, I don’t know how I will bear walking away on the other side. I’m looking for a way to not have to.
As that dream version of me stands there at the water’s edge, I will write. I will do what I would tell anyone else to do, what I know works best for me. I will take my own advice. Doctor: heal thyself. I will write and write and write until I have found the true story, the real story, the one that resonates. Even though it may get uglier. Even though I may drive to work with a hundred jarring ghosts in the car with me. Even if I find the answers I don’t want – remember things I’d rather forget, relive in detail some of the worst things about myself, about people I know, people I love. I will build a bridge word by word and I still may have to swim, but I will know which way to go and how to climb up the other side, stand on the bank and know how I got there, why I had to leave my shoes and my bike and maybe even the smallest piece of my heart – a bleeding bit of muscle by the water, what I will most likely discover is expendable (like love’s appendix) even though I don’t yet believe it. I will write it all down so that I will be sure that walking is the right thing, that my feet will go and go and go if I just let them. But only the words can tell me that. Only then will I believe.