You are 10 years old. You are abandoned in a house with a woman who was caring for you who has gone crazy. No one else is there and she’s barricaded the door with furniture tied together by thick rope or is it string? She has told you that you are trying to kill her in your sleep. She believes you are evil and a murderer. She’s saying her rosaries and asking you to call people on the telephone to come over and play. It’s 4 am. You haven’t slept and you are cold.
Right, I’m cold! I forgot that part. I usually only remember being scared and trying to imagine how tired I would have been, but you’re right. I forgot. I was fucking freezing.
Like you always get when you cry.
Right, like I always get when I cry. Or relax. Cold. Ice cold.
You are sitting with your best friend, you are still 10 years old, it is March and you are in the woods at the back of her house. There is a late snow falling, very lightly – big round light flakes of snow in a graying sky. You can smell the freshness of the snow in the air and feel the chill but you are happy. Moments before your best friend had baptized you the way it says to do at the back of the pamphlet, you told her that you turned your life over to Jesus, you accepted Him as your personal savior. She told you that if you did that you would go to heaven and be forgiven even if you were a murderer.
I had asked her about that specifically. What if I murdered someone? This is what makes me think I believed the babysitter, even though it was she they found wielding the knife and attacking my favorite pillow yelling for the teenagers who had betrayed her to come out. Somewhere I believed, as she told me, that I was a murderer. My best friend assured me that I would be forgiven even for that. She said that Jesus loved me.
That was a start.
At least Someone did. Someone male and somehow vaguely hippie-seeming. It was the early 70s and Jesus was definitely a hippie.
You are 23 years old. You are sitting across from a man in San Francisco, while drinking cappuccino. He is drinking espresso.
No, he is drinking cappuccino, too, or at least coffee with milk. He was not a black coffee man – that much I do remember.
You are living on carrot cake and cappuccino. You haven’t had a drink in about five months, so you crave sugar constantly and were told to eat it, which you do with abandon (but lose weight anyway, which matters to you, even though you claim it doesn’t). He is talking to you about God, how he really believed that if you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could move mountains.
I am staring into his beautiful blue eyes, believing everything he says and wishing I believed in anything as strongly as he did. The café is suffused with late afternoon, orange light refracted from the incoming fog landing on the table –
No, you added that! You don’t really remember light on the table. That’s from photos you have of other cafes on Haight Street and you’ve added it in – just now.
How do you know?
I know. Also ‘suffused’??
I hate you.
You don’t remember light on the table. You know it was late afternoon, because it had to be because you always met him at that meeting that started around 4 or 5pm and you always spoke afterwards, because his girlfriend didn’t get back from her job at the futon place until around 8pm –
Yeah, but what matters is-
Here is what you do remember. You do remember that there were overhead fans, but not whether it was warm enough or not for them to be running. It was probably around April, maybe May. It was most likely sunny, as you lived there during a three-year drought. There was most likely in this café (whose name you have forgotten and which has probably by now been turned into yet another up-market pseudo-vintage over-priced boutique) as there was all up and down upper Haight Street a vague, yet noticeable smell of patchouli oil and pot. There were cakes, including the carrot cake, which had a white frosting with carrot-like decorations on top, in the glass case at the counter. There were better coffee shops along the road, but this one always had enough seats, and long rows of tables, which is why everyone went there after the meeting.
Were there, or are you guessing?
I could swear I remember flies, I think.
But remember what Harold Pinter said?
That any memory over 20 years old is fiction.
Oh my God. Is it that long?
Yes, it does scare you, because you think you should be over it by now. It’s been so long. You met him over 20 years ago –
Somewhere between lower and upper Haight Street, that I do remember, I remember it vividly –
Yes, because you saw him standing there, at that meeting, he was leaning on a pillar – you can see it like a photograph, and you might be pretending he had that cap on –
But he did – I remember it!
But it could be because later on – almost a year later – you took all those photos of him with that cap on, so you could be remembering those photos.
Oh, God, those photos. They make me cry, even the memory of them.
Yes. And you said to yourself –
Right. I thought, “Don’t go near him. You’ll fall in love with him and he’ll break your heart.”
That was your very first thought.
Your very first one?
Well, yeah, after finding him insanely attractive.
Well, feeling that attraction.
So you had a feeling before the thought?
Perhaps, or perhaps at the same time. I can’t remember. But I do remember that thought, it haunted me for years –
Until it came true.
Right, until it came true, and then the ghost became real.
And you were free.
In a way – yes. But perhaps I made it happen?
Do you really think so?
I’m not sure.
But like a moth to a flame –
I went over and talked to him.
Right, I went over and babbled at him, like a scared girl at a seventh grade dance, except that when I was in seventh grade I never would have had the guts to go over and talk to him in the first place, but I had only been sober for a few weeks.
Yes, and I was completely insane. I was terrified and fearless at the same time. I was two people at once and one of them had never existed before and she went over and talked to him. God knows what I said.
Or she said?
Whatever. The fact is I don’t know, OK?
But you do remember-
He smiled at me like I was a cherished but slightly naïve younger sister and mock-punched me on the arm and said, laughing gently: Keep coming back.
Was that after he learned how long you had been around?
Probably, but I can’t remember.
He said: Keep coming back?
So you did.
Yes. I did.
Because of him?
Maybe. But I was also scared shitless, and She was guiding me around. Like I had no will of my own. She does that sometimes, carries me through things.
When did She first show up?
I can’t remember, but She’s the one who brought me to the first meeting, the one I went to after that terrible morning.
Or night, it’s true, I can’t remember, the room seemed so dark, but it was always dark, it was the dark small room of the house, the kind of room I always found myself living in. Why? I don’t know. Afraid of the light, identifying with cockroaches, not sure. But I was alone in this small room sitting on a piece of foam on the floor pretending to be a mattress with some kind of tapestry pretending to be a bedspread, the whole tiny room reeking of cigarette smoke, though I wouldn’t have noticed because I smoked all the time. And I probably had a drink, but it might have been morning coffee, and it was late autumn, October, and I was sweating, a fear sweat.
You made up the sweat part.
Probably, but who cares? I was looking around and realized I didn’t care about anything anymore. There were my notebooks scattered around with increasingly distressed handwriting in them with exhortations to myself to change, bad poetry in my typewriter, a little bottle of glitter I used to make my typed letters seem sexy, dirty clothes on the floor, a record and cassette player and books scattered around. I can’t even remember what I was reading.
Women Who Love Too Much.
Oh, no, please don’t say that!
But it’s true.
OK, fine, but I hid that book behind other books because I could not believe I was reading it. One of those dreadful self-help books that riveted me in the same way other people’s gossip magazines did, except worse – this had been sent by my mother. My mother who was newly clean and sober and telling me to go to those meetings for people whose relatives have had drinking problems.
And you thought: fuck off.
Yeah, that’s it. I thought, Fuck Off. It’s bad enough I had to live with you and your stupid fucking drinking my whole life and now, now you’re going to tell me where to go.
Yeah, Fuck Off….But She was there, and She made me read that stupid book and made me see part of myself in it and it made me sick –
But you had just had another stupid affair that hadn’t worked and had slept again with yet another person you didn’t want to, and would have been date-raped if you didn’t have psychotic amounts of strength when threatened, and you had run out of all your cute little strategies for coping –
And worse, even worse, drinking didn’t do a goddamn thing to take away the pain anymore. I just felt lonely, beyond lonely. I didn’t have a clue I had a problem with drinking. I thought alcohol and cigarettes were my only friends. But this morning I felt dead inside, like a rusty metal shell housing nothing.
You thought that’s what you wanted.
Yes, I did. I saw others I thought were in this state, especially that college friend –
The one who had everything, the one who was gorgeous, pale white skin, jet black hair, wore a cape, was the son of a famous politician, had amazing talent as an artist and spoke in sexy monosyllables you thought were cryptically brilliant. You had such a crush on him.
Yes, I did, but even more than that, I wanted to be him. I hated being ‘the girl’. I always, always wanted to be that guy. Not that guy’s idiotic fucking girlfriend. No, no, that’s not it either, I wanted both to be him and be his idiotic fucking girlfriend. I wanted to be attractive like those idiotic fucking girlfriends all were, but I wanted his freedom.
But now he’s dead.
Yes, cirrhosis of the liver, age 42.
His Daddy couldn’t save him.
No, no one could. Or the beautiful girl from high school. The one who was just like him even though she was a girl.
Dead, age 36. Drug overdose. Her Daddy bailed her out to death. These were your heroes.
Yes, they were. I really wanted to be them.
And did you want to have their Daddies too?
Probably, yes. You’re just here to torture me, right?
And then the one moment you found anything like the level of cool you felt they had, you became terrified.
You felt dead?
Yes, dead to myself, without a soul, or even for that matter a body. I had not ‘lost’ my soul, it was dead. I hadn’t even realized I had had one until it died there in front of me.
Or a self.
Yes, that’s true. I was terrified because whatever had been me or my soul was dead and I could feel nothing.
And this was three weeks before you met him.
Right, only three weeks. – wow, I’ve never thought of it like that before. No wonder he swept me off my feet even though She was warning me all the time.
Was that Her warning you?
I don’t know, was it you?
What do you think?
Oh, please, stop sounding like a therapist, it’s so annoying.
Isn’t that how you saw him? Isn’t that how you see everybody?
OK, OK…but back to that café, where he was sitting across from me telling me who I am.
Right. Wrong. He was telling me who he is.
Right. And you were believing him.
Yes, I believed he could see into my soul.
It was his soul.
Right. But he didn’t know that.
Right. He didn’t know that, which is why it was so easy for him to lie, for you to believe him and for both of you to believe you were soul mates.
Soul mates. Right. That is what I called it. I knew he had a girlfriend, but I told myself that was OK, it didn’t matter because he and I were soul mates. We were so very, very young.
Yes, you were.
But we didn’t feel that way. We felt old, like old souls reunited.
Two souls become one.
Yes. It sounds stupid now, but at the time it didn’t at all. At the time I believed it. So easy to be cynical. Now.
Yes. That’s true. Too easy, even.
Yes. Because the main thing I believed in was his belief. I had no belief in God, or so I thought, but he did. And I found his belief incredibly sexy and it seemed to somehow, you know –
Yes, YES, redeem my older beliefs, my childlike beliefs in God, in Jesus, in the Bible, in the Whole Thing. He was sitting across from me, this gorgeous artist in a leather jacket, looking like James Dean and Jack Kerouac rolled into one telling me that he believes that if he had the faith of a mustard seed, he could move mountains. And his eyes are glittering and he’s smiling and those little dimples are showing, and I’m staring at him thinking, Oh My God.
Oh. My. God.
Right. RIGHT! Oh My God. It’s possible. It’s still possible to have a happy childhood.
Oh My God.
Even though he already had a girlfriend.
Especially because of that. That was the main thing of it. He was choosing me, even though he had a gorgeous girlfriend, he was choosing me. Even more, God had chosen it. It was God’s will that we were falling in love. We were only surrendering to God’s will. I really believed that at the time.
Until, of course he did the same thing with someone else years later, and you were the girlfriend, I mean, wife, at that point.
Yes. When I saw him sitting on our sofa with her and she was the age I had been and they were listening to Kind of Blue, just as we had done on his sofa that Saturday night his girlfriend was away. It was like being blown back by a force field. I walked into the other room and started crying but came out minutes later as if everything was OK. The young woman, who was a friend, stared at me for a moment, she knew something was wrong and got up to leave.
Of course you told her to stay.
Don’t be silly. Stay!
And when she got up off the couch to let me sit next to him.
Oh, no, it’s Fine. I’ll just make some coffee. You just stay right there.
And then a few months later I was being told they were in love and there was nothing that could be done, and of course they both loved me and of course no one wanted to hurt me, but it was just the way it was.
She was a mirror of you at 24, staring at you with doleful eyes asking for forgiveness, and you are thinking-
At least when I was in her position I didn’t know the girlfriend, I wasn’t her friend and certainly didn’t ask her for forgiveness. I hid from her on the street whenever I saw her. She terrified me!
But the first thing you thought when you saw the girlfriend he had dumped for you on the street in San Francisco (though of course he and you agreed he hadn’t left her for you because it was over between them, and that was already happening) and you were staying with him in a different neighborhood and he was telling you he loved you but wasn’t sure if you should be should be together as partners yet because he had just left her but still you were having sex whenever he felt like it –
I thought, “She’s free.”
Yes. And you knew you would indeed have to carry his weight a long time.
And I did.
Yes you did. And what about the young woman? When she then ran away from you on the street after she realized you weren’t going to forgive her? Was she thinking you looked free?
I don’t have a clue.
The art student who lived with my mother, my first stepfather and me in the 60s had looked like the Jesus paintings. I had liked him a lot, even though he kind of freaked me out when he wanted to draw me dancing in my underwear.
But you did it.
Yes, I did it because I had a big giant six-year old crush on him.
And you were living with your mother and first stepfather, the Methodist supply pastor.
Ex-supply pastor. By then he’d already alienated all the churches in Maine by yelling at the congregations for calling themselves Christians while supporting the Vietnam War. God somehow never made any sense to me then, except for the moment when the caterpillar in my plastic insect box burst out of its cocoon into a butterfly in my room at dusk and my heart exploded in my chest, opened wide by possibility.
But you didn’t think of that as God did you?
No, I suppose not. God didn’t really mean much of anything, least of all to my mother who explained to me one night it was like a bunch of gasses or a mathematical equation, which didn’t make much sense because when she had been a Sunday school teacher she showed us all the Bible characters on a sky-blue felt board and told those stories.
But that was about Jesus wasn’t it?
Not just, there was also Noah and all that, I think.
Do you remember the stories?
No, just the sky blue felt board and the paper characters in robes she stuck on them.
So there were two versions then?
Yes, there were two versions – at least two – but none of them made sense to me. I was just scared all the time of my stepfather and happier when he was gone and it was just my mother and me and we could play Sorry and eat popcorn and drink cranberry juice. It seemed nicer then, better than when my stepfather was around and he was yelling at her and I was bringing her tissues because she was crying. I think I actually hated him at those times especially, even more than when he was yelling at me or spanking me. When he made my mother cry, I felt completely lost.
And all you could do was get her tissues.
And it really pisses you off when other people don’t do that for you when you’re crying.
Yes. A lot.
You are 37 and sobbing on the kitchen floor of your apartment-
– of cracked New York City linoleum.
Oh, Jesus, you’re right. Wood. Memory is such a liar. So, I’m sobbing on the wooden kitchen floor, probably not, truth be told, paying a lot of attention to that detail. There is snot coming out of my nose and I don’t have a tissue but at some point I will walk into the bathroom and get some toilet paper. Before that moment, I am hugging him tightly begging him to stay, asking him if there is any way it can be different. He is hugging me back and stroking my hair and saying no, no it can’t be any different and he’s crying too, which I find more disturbing than comforting, because I know by now that means it’s definitely over. He never cries, except when something is over. I cry all the time. It means very little. The last time I heard him cry that hard was when he sent a cat he had adopted as a favor to a friend to the pound to be put down because it was blind, deaf and shitting all over his carpet. I remember the wide blind eyes of the cat, staring back at us accusingly, helplessly, knowing he was done for.
And then it was your turn.
Right. The crippled one taken in but no longer of use. Left behind, put down, abandoned. No appeal.
He told you a lot after he left about how much he cried.
Yes, he did. It was a badge of honor, his tears. As utterly useless as the tears I was told my absent father cried when he looked at my school pictures.
Yes, except worse, because he kept telling me about it as if that should make me feel better, but had the effect, probably intended, of making me feel guilty. Because I cried with people generally – not alone, heroically, on my yoga mat.
A yoga mat.
Yes, if you can believe it. It put me off yoga for years.
Yes, God had a lot to do with this too, of course. God was telling him he had to do these things.
I know it sounds so fucking stupid now, but then, even then, I believed him. I believed I was somehow interfering with his connection with God.
How could you do that? How could you possibly interfere with someone else’s connection with a presumably all-powerful God?
Yes, but what did you think? Then?
I believed him.
So, you believed you had that kind of power?
When was it exactly you started to believe in Jesus as your personal savior?
You know this – it’s after the thing with the babysitter, you know, where she tried to kill me because she thought I was evil. That bit.
You believed her?
Yes, almost. I didn’t know what to believe, but I knew I wasn’t hiding the drugs and knives around the house, even though she said I was doing that in my sleep. But some part of me believed her, the part that thought I had all that power. Maybe because she convinced other people, too, the lost teenagers that she collected like so many deaf, blind cats.
Is She related to her?
Yes and no. She is her and then She is not her. She brings me to hell and She brings me the escape key. She is multiple. She cannot be pinned down.
And you like it that way?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it suits me just fine.
And other times?
Other times I want to cut Her out of my heart and leave the wound bleeding for everyone to see and for someone to come and rescue me from all of it.
Give you a happy childhood?
Yes, a happy childhood.
Until it’s over.
Right, until it’s over.
And you’re sobbing on the floor, alone.
Right. And begging God or someone to make it better.
Oh My God.
Right. Make it all go away. Please make it all go away. Please, please, dear God, bring him back. I need him.
You are 24 and he is 26, you are in the car with him.
We have just watched Cool Hand Luke.
Yes, that’s right…or was it My Dinner with Andre?
Not sure, but when we watched My Dinner with Andre another friend was there who fell asleep, so probably Cool Hand Luke…
And you had prayed a lot that day, hadn’t you?
Yes, I had – the St. Francis Prayer – and so I am feeling particularly connected.
And you realized watching Cool Hand Luke how much he looked like Paul Newman and wore his jeans the same way.
Yes, it’s true, they both wore their jeans on purpose somehow and I remember thinking even then – hmm, that’s strange.
Because you knew that he was imitating something?
Yes, I think that was it. But the way I remember feeling was: wow, he’s just like a movie star.
And he was still with his girlfriend.
Yes, and I am getting ready to go away to a graduate program, I’d gotten a big scholarship. I had prayed to my Higher Power or God or Whatever that perhaps it would be OK, maybe, if perhaps we had a fling and then I could go away…
You really believed that?
Yes, I did. I thought if I could just once sleep with him then that would be that. I know that sounds ridiculous but I thought it was true.
And St. Francis?
Well, it was in the AA literature and I thought if I said that prayer, which has to do with comforting rather than being comforted and loving rather than being loved, etc. that I would not do anything wrong, even by accident.
Like it was some kind of talisman?
But when you went to say goodbye to him that night, you went into the car.
Why? Why was I in the car? I can’t figure that out at all now! I was staying with Anna at her house. Why would I have been in the car?
But you were.
Yes, I was and I don’t know why.
And you were saying goodbye and you ‘accidentally’ kissed each other.
Yes. That’s what I told myself anyway. That’s what it felt like.
Just like he told you how it happened with her years later.
And then he drove away.
Yes, and just a few days before that when he had picked me up with his two hometown friends and we all went to Santa Cruz and I road on a roller coaster for the first time because he was sitting next to me.
Because he would protect you?
Yes, I felt that. I did. I knew it. I was scared but then it was fun because I survived. I was thrilled too because it was spontaneous. He had shown up at Anna’s early in the morning and woke me up and told me to come with them. And I popped off the floor or sofa or wherever I was sleeping and went off on the road with him and his two friends who I’d never met before.
And you liked them?
Very much, it felt so exotic and like On The Road except I got to be the girlfriend for once, not just the geeky girl reading the book in high school wishing I could be Jack Kerouac or even better Neal Cassady and angry that I couldn’t because I might get raped-
And you liked being the girl?
In this case, yes, which was weird, but I did, very much.
Like the first time you made love?
Yes, but that was after. After he had technically left his girlfriend-
Yes, but you did.
And up until then you had always taken the lead…
Yes, I had and I hadn’t necessarily liked doing that but I figured that was what I was supposed to do –
So you leapt on top of him –
Well not sure I leapt, but yes I got on top and he said – woah, wait a minute –
And he laid you back down on the bed –
Yes and he somehow took control, and my main feeling and I am so ashamed of this now but my main feeling was one of profound relief.
Someone else would take control.
Did I tell you the one about the girl who grew up amongst monsters and became one herself?
Yes, no, maybe – tell me again.
Well she grew up amongst monsters and in order to survive, she became one. She learned to pretend to have a big thick skin and breathe fire.
Did it work?
Well, she survived, but when she grew up she still had the thick skin and was breathing fire, which kind of repelled other people from her.
Oh, no, did she just want to have a boyfriend?
Yes, it is that sad.
And the thick skin and fire breathing wasn’t going over so well.
Right. Though she did find some other female friends who had kind of gone through a similar monster-make-over as children and they became allies of a sort.
However, she was always afraid of the other monster girls and boys, because she didn’t see herself as a monster. She just saw herself as this scared little girl.
So when others roared and breathed fire she would run away?
Yes, or just kind of stand there.
Just kind of stand there?
Yes. Just kind of hoping it would go away.
So it would stand to reason then that when she found the monster boy who was nice to her, she would fall for him scaly head over tail?
Yes, I suppose so, yes.
The only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you stop rolling the film.
True enough, because when he called me a few days later after the ‘accidental kiss’ – a few days in which I agonized and freaked out and could not get in touch with him anywhere, I was afraid I would never see him again and was completely panicked – but when he finally did call me from his friends’ house –
Your heart leapt for joy and all that?
And of course you told him he could stay with you?
How did you guess?
Even though you were staying at Anna’s house.
Right, and he said, in that voice I just now realized he always used when he got exactly what he wanted but would sound so little boy grateful about it that you’d never guess until it was too late you’d just walked into a viper pit ‘Oh really? That’s wonderful. Are you sure?’
Remember that bus ride up to the yoga place many years later?
Oh, God, yes! Oh God, it’s exactly the same! Horrible. Horrible!
How the boyfriend got on the bus with the girlfriend who was pissed off at him and didn’t want to talk with him but he got on anyway and somehow the bus driver didn’t kick him off, and how through the course of the four hour bus ride, he persisted and apologized, until she finally relented-
But as soon as she said he could stay with her, he started pulling back, saying maybe he would or wouldn’t come to her house and making his presence seem like a huge favor. Oh God, it was like looking at a condensed home horror movie.
And she fell for it!
Yep, by the end she was begging him to stay with her.
And you were going up to a yoga place to heal.
Yes and that excruciating bus ride was a reminder of precisely why I was going there.
Did you heal?
Well I cried a lot and felt my heart in my chest for the first time I remember. It began a thawing process of the deep frozen, nuclear-bunker-defended parts of me.
From before Matthew?
Yes way before Matthew, though of course he reminded me of every single person from my past all rolled up into one. Though I didn’t know that then. Wait, no, that’s not true. I did know that, began to suspect it anyway. I was in touch with my father then, he lived in Berkeley and when he called me at Anna’s, I got mixed up between his voice and Matthew’s. It was so strange. And I thought…hmmm…what’s that all about.
Wasn’t Anna the one that asked you about his anger?
Matthew’s anger yes. And I looked at her with complete non-recognition. What anger?
And she looked at you with horror and pity.
Right, denial, blah blah blah…But I would hazard a guess that denial was as much about my own anger as about Matthew’s.
And even years later-
Yes and even years later when his own mother would say to me “he’s so controlling!” I would think, what is she talking about?
Very scary. It makes me doubt myself on the deepest level. Every perception I’ve ever had. I see how delusional I can be, how lost on the most basic level. And I wish this made me compassionate. I wish this realization made me completely non-judgmental, but it does not.
It just scares you.
So back to the phone call.
Right. The phone call. So he’s agreed to come and stay with me at Anna’s place. Which was actually her boyfriend’s place. It was very complicated. And Anna agreed, which was of course after I’d already invited him –
In other words how could she refuse.
Right, and so, I’m sitting on the sofa and I’m thinking –
You are thinking: I could die now. I am so happy, I could die now and that would be OK.
There are two great tragedies in life – one is not attaining your heart’s desire and the other is attaining it.
In any case –
I had attained my heart’s desire and I was about to spend the next 13 years of my life paying for it.
Yes, with interest, taxes and no get out of jail free card.
In some ways yes.
Like a caterpillar’s cocoon perhaps?
Something like that, yes. If the caterpillar kind of fucked up and made it out of the wrong material but it did the job anyway, even if the transition to a butterfly was kind of wonky and probably took like way too long and when the butterfly breaks out of the cocoon her first response is not – hooray I’m a butterfly I can fly! But instead, oh shit, where am I, who took away my shell and what the fuck are these? (in reference to the wings). And then she spends a lot of time frantically trying to reconstruct the cocoon and jam herself back inside which of course doesn’t work at which point someone comes along and points out she has wings, which are for flying, which she eventually does and is happy doing so, though does – even so and even today – sometimes have nostalgia for the cocoon, the safety of it, the darkness, the sense of potential in being fluid rather than re-formed and the sense of protection.
Even when it hurt?
Even when it hurt. Because at least then she knew where she was, what the parameters of her world were and what she could and could not do.
Now she has the freedom, the ability to fly, and sometimes she enjoys it and other times she looks down and thinks, yikes, I can’t do this! Like Wiley E Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoon having run off a cliff and noticing the ground below, she starts dropping and dropping until a stiff breeze lifts her up in spite of herself and she goes on – butterflying.
Even though it’s scary?
Even though it’s fucking scary, yes.
The funny thing of course is that when you were a young woman you kept waiting and waiting for a teacher and someone who could –
Break me out of my shell! Yes. Someone who could see the real me trapped behind the thick skin and the fire breathing.
The real you.
Right, the ‘real me’! What a joke.
Well, kind of. I think the so called ‘real me’ was/is a scared child.
And he certainly saw that.
Yes indeed he did. And used it against me for 13 years –
Until you found another part of the ‘real you.’
Right, the inner adult. The one who could also create and was strong –
And was not so malleable?
So, time to find a replacement model?
Yes, I think so.
Remember that conversation a month or so after he left you, when he was staying down the road and you would visit him and kept having sex with him because you didn’t know what the fuck else to do and you said something like –
The bus thing –
Right, how did it go?
It was something along the lines of me saying that I felt he needed to be driving the bus and didn’t want an equal, but instead someone who would ride with him, and he agreed with me. God, that was depressing, because I realized I had been right to be so afraid when I started painting again and allowed myself to be seen. Because when the gallery that showed his stuff decided to give me my first show –
That was the day he decided to leave.
Right. The exact same day.
A one-artist household.
No room for two artists in this apartment. Not two professional artists anyway.
From when you went into the shower after you got the news that you had your first show-
No it was later that night I think. Yes, because he made a date with Heather when you were in the shower. And it’s when he came back from that wasn’t it?
It’s a blur.
Her name was even the same as yours?
Yes, weird, sad, true. And she looked like me – people thought we were sisters. She was the same age I had been when Matthew and I had met. Her father had just shot himself in the head the year before. And she had found him lying in the kitchen blood everywhere.
She found him?
I can’t remember to tell the truth, but somehow I think so, the image is so vivid. It could have been longer than a year before, but it was gruesome and fresh in her mind. And so Heather the Younger, is staring at me with those injured, needy eyes, the month before he actually walked out of the house – because I had begged him to stay until my show opened –
So you could make it through that?
And did you?
Yes I did and received good reviews and sold most of the show. I had painted all day and night in a kind of frenzy. Frightening really.
Yes, typical, if you can call it that. Or perhaps a psychotic level of detachment.
So, yes Heather the Younger of the Doleful Eyes telling me sincerely that she really hopes Matthew will get his ‘head out of his ass’ and stay with me.
A direct quote?
Yes, I do remember that much. She also commented that my ass had disappeared and that I had less gray hairs than her. That was on a separate occasion.
You are good with the details.
They’re all I have. They are all I have.
Then later, when she stayed over the night of the opening when he left you. You had asked her of course because you knew that was the only way he wouldn’t be staying with her. You knew this was twisted but you also knew it was the best you could do.
And it was.
Indeed. You even traveled all over Manhattan at 2am looking for an open Duane Reade to find her contact solution.
Contact solution! Oh my God. Contact solution. Perfect. Right.
And the God thing?
Right, yes, the God thing. Heather the Younger had given Matthew a book of some New Age spiritual person or other and they were off onto the God thing. She told me that night that after they talked about these books ‘if I hadn’t known you and thought you were so cool I would have gone for it.’ Her restraint was intended to prove her affection for me. Of course the implication was that Matthew was after her, though she would have denied it. I knew what was happening. I had been her years ago.
This is when you learned the hardest lesson ever.
Don’t think a person who treats someone else one way will treat you any different.
Speaking of which…
Ok, right, if you insist. There was the time a few years before all this when I thought I was in love with someone else.
Well at the time it felt real but very quickly after I almost acted on it, I realized it had nothing to do with the poor guy.
Almost acted on it?
Well, we were in a jazz club with a couple other friends. They finally left at 4am. This was a very rare event, it was late at night and I was out with someone other than Matthew. Our friends had stayed so late because they had a sixth sense that something could go terribly wrong. They knew I was slightly unhinged.
Were you drunk at the time?
If only. No, neither of us was. Stone cold sober, no excuse there. Just jagged on orange juice, coffee and way too many hand-rolled cigarettes. When our friends left, there was a tired jazz set playing, a visible blue grey haze of smoke and a big photo of Duke Ellington smiling over the whole scene.
And was She involved in this?
Yes absolutely, in Her trickster best, Kali this time, destroyer and creator – take no prisoners, blow up the building, come what may, etc…
Isn’t that a little melodramatic?
Maybe, but that was the effect. So anyway, I was trying to find the courage to tell this guy that I was in love with him…
You were looking across the way at a young woman who was sitting between two men – they could have even been father and son, perhaps, but were definitely socially challenged. They each had a hand on the thigh of the woman and were smiling skeevy, way too self-satisfied smiles. They were geeky looking guys in medium priced suits with thick glasses who had clearly purchased this woman – so cut-rate they only bought one. I don’t remember now whether I’d already said something to Evin about being attracted to him or not, whether we were tentatively kissing each other or not – when I noticed this woman and the pained smile on her face.
You were thinking to yourself: I’ve thrown the dice, I’ve crossed the line. Am I any better than her?
And why is she there with them? What brought her there? And why am I here now? And why does kissing Evin not feel right at all and why do I feel so nauseous and ashamed? And what the fuck do I do now?
And you are thinking: how did I get here?
Did She bring me here?
Is She your Friend or your Enemy?
And now what the fuck do I do?
And you are sitting there with Evin, both smiling, both nervous, listening to more jazz -talking about what the future can hold and you are thinking –
I’m thinking this is wrong, this is exciting, this is horrible, this is great, I’m not in love with him but maybe I am and how did I get here?
And that woman is sitting in front of you, the two men rubbing her thighs – like a warning.
When you left the jazz club to the red sun rising onto a chilly Spring dawn and walked to Union Square, you can’t remember what he said, what you said. Except when you got into the taxi and he said: what’s important is the work and the work is bigger than you and Matthew. That thrilled you.
I felt alive in a new way, like a big door had been opened, shedding light into a tiny dark room, which Matthew and I had inhabited alone, not only with each other but our work together. I knew then that that moment was the point of the whole scene, not the intimations of sex or a clandestine relationship. I felt a new freedom and exhilaration –
Until you opened the door to your apartment.
And Matthew, who had a cold, was sitting on the sofa, full of rage, which emanated through his eyes. A picture of Evin on the table from our last group show at the gallery, with his wedding ring placed on it.
I was shocked. I had expected him to be in bed and oblivious. This wasn’t mean to affect him and weirdly enough coming up in the taxi I realized it probably would not.
And the fighting and the protestations of love and saying you needed to talk with Evin first – a big mistake – and the coffee table going over when you tried to sleep before talking and the fear and the sex – the way he was groping you, trying to own you, searching almost brutally for signs of intrusion, and the mixture of revulsion and relief you felt at this.
Yes, because I’m thinking it’s about time, it’s about time he noticed me and stopped taking me for granted.
You had been feeling neglected and alone, like a functionary in his life and artistic vision. You had been empty and were trying to fill yourself with Something.
But I said nothing about this.
No, because Matthew held all the cards in a normal argument and right now, he held the cards, called the game, made the rules and questioned your every move.
I felt so ashamed, like I had no rights. That I was clearly in the wrong so was not allowed to say anything.
And a few days later you began to realize that this was the end of the marriage.
Yes, I did know it even then, years before it happened. Even though I did not have the guts to walk out. I may have, if Evin had asked, but he was more upset about Matthew being angry with him, which meant he would be left out of our next show.
Did you want to leave?
Yes, I did, but I was afraid. So I clung harder until I convinced myself I did not want to leave, though I did finally start doing my own painting after we closed the gallery – the one we had started primarily to show Matthew’s work, but that I ran and realized I couldn’t run anymore because it was killing me. I was so naïve I thought Matthew would be happy I was finding my own voice as an artist. Painting again felt hard and scary, but I knew I had to do it, so I wouldn’t hurt him again. But that is what led to my first show, which led to Matthew leaving a few years later.
And he blamed you.
Yes, of course, but, you know, I was the one who pointed out Heather to him. I saw her at an opening at the new fancy gallery where Matthew was about to show his work. She was a young intern, and something about the way her skirt swayed and her competence and my guilt at having closed our gallery all conspired to make me say – why don’t you ask her to be your new assistant? She’d be good.
Did She having anything to do with this?
Her fingerprints are all over it.
And wasn’t it Heather who asked to see your most recent painting – the one that had been sitting ignored in the corner because you were afraid to show it to anyone because it didn’t look like anything else you’d ever made or seen – and showed it to that same fancy gallery owner – who then asked if you wanted your own show?
Yes, which pushed Matthew out the door toward her.
Does She always work this way?
Julia Lee Barclay-Morton is an award-winning director and writer of experimental theatre. Previous published work includes stage texts ‘Word To Your Mama’ anthologized in Plays and Playwrights 2001, ‘Besides, you lose your soul or the History of Western Civilization’ in Regional Best 2011 and ‘We live in financial times, Part 1: Blackberry Curve’ in Regional Best 2012. Most of her plays are published online at www.indietheaternow.com. Most recently, Barclay-Morton was a finalist for the McKnight National Playwright’s Residency in 2013 in the US.
She is currently writing The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani while teaching writing at Fordham University.
13 thoughts on “The God Thing, by Julia Lee Barclay-Morton”
I love the ping-pong between voices and the way the woman in the story bleeds into the second person. A beautiful and disturbing story.
Technically sophisticated, emotionally rich, conceptually acute. Well done!
Beautiful, haunting, raw, brave, and insistent on articulating things that I thought couldn’t be said out loud. I’m impressed. Thanks for giving this forth.
I guess She is the subject of the title? And why is it that all questions She asks are for more honesty? And why is it that they all seem cruel?
Sometimes I wish…most times I turn the page.
Can understand the confusion but She is intended to stand in for a larger force than the one asking the questions, who is not even necessarily gendered as a ‘she’ – though it could be. Thanks for giving me this feedback, though. It’s good to know the many ways it can be read.
Thank you all for such lovely responses. It means so much to me to know this story resonates. It has been an exciting and frankly scary prospect to see this story published, so I’m delighted to hear this positive feedback for that reason, too.
Wow. Beautifully written- haunting, vulnerable, terrifying at times… the child stuff. Oh, how I wince for her. Julia you so vivid paint the interior of a heart and mind trying to find a way through the damage to the light. So many images (that bus ride, the blind cat..), moments I laughed out loud in recognition of that other voice (‘You’re just here to torture me, right?’) and the other one, that won’t let go, that so persistently keeps at it, again and again… This is a beautiful multi-layered tale I won’t soon forget. Thank you for writing this and for posting it here!!!!
Thank you so much, Melinda, for lovely comments.
Just to clarify though, Stockholm Review of Literature published the story here, not me. So, hooray for the Editors!
Julia, I loved this piece – it’s incredibly powerful. The structure is fascinating. Alone, the material has amazing depth, but the added question and answer form gives it even more vulnerability and humor – such a smart technique. Congratulations!
Wonderful piece. I so much enjoyed the duality of the single voice (or the two voices that came together as one?) and the intense introspection. I found it incredibly readable and yet so very painful to read.
Thank you, again, everyone for your lovely comments. It means the world to me that this story is resonating with others. I imagine some of you are writers, too, so you know it’s a lonely business. Knowing the work has communicate something meaningful to you all makes it worthwhile.