Charlottesville, Virginia, 1966
Lately, I have been trying to get myself to remember specific moments from my past. It’s a kind of memory exercise, prompted by two kinds of amnesia: 1) the fog of chemo brain that covers everything, far and recent, in fuzzy shadow, and 2) the strange self-erasure that comes, I think, from having been unhappy for large periods of my life.
One of my strongest memories from childhood is riding my bike up and down the hill, in Charlottesville, Virginia. We lived in a small neighborhood for junior faculty members and their families, on the first floor of a brick apartment complex, with an identical building beside it. I was probably around six, and my bike was a 20-inch blue Schwinn that I had learned to ride the usual way: my father holding onto, then letting go of the back, without my knowledge, his betrayal discovered at the moment of highest trust, as is often the way with betrayals.
It is always Sunday morning in my memory, and I am alone. It is warm—late spring, early summer. A mourning dove coos from a telephone wire. I pedal up the hill toward Stadium Road, and turn onto Mimosa Court, regaining my breath in the flats, then, picking up steam on the return, the breathless descent, payoff for the laborious climb. There is a certain quality of timelessness to these memories. I repeat the loop again and again, my feet pressed against the pedals, my legs tired, but full of effort, the coo of the mourning dove seeming to emanate from somewhere inside myself, some plaintive, hollow space I’m just beginning to become aware of.
My father is probably in his office, or preparing his classes at home, a yellow legal pad, covered in neat equations, balanced across a pale bare leg. My mother might be in bed reading, or preparing dinner in our tiny galley kitchen, the smells of kimchi and spaghetti leaking out the casement window. Two years earlier they had lost a son, and their grief has settled into habit—my mother staying in bed for large parts of each day, in her Lanz of Salzburg nightgown and velour robe; my father hiding out in his office, or at the nuclear reactor on campus, where he has a lab. I was four when my brother died, and my own grief, nebulous and unarticulated, was circumscribed by solitary games of my own devising, and, as I got older, by reading, writing stories, and these long mornings of circuitous biking.
On this particular Sunday morning, I am zooming down Mimosa Drive at perilous speed. The wind is smart against my face, my hair whipping and lashing; I am singing, but I can barely hear my voice. As I approach the bottom of the hill, a car turns into the road; I veer to the right, scrabbling for the brakes; my tires skid, sending out a fan-spray of gravel, and I just manage to jump over the bicycle, before landing on my hands and knees by the side of the road.
I sit down, brushing bits of gravel from my palms. My knees are dusty and bleeding. I can see tender pink patches where the skin has been scraped off, welling red at the borders. I start to cry, first from pain, later, with a kind of luxurious self-pity. There is something thrilling about injury—the suddenness, the danger, the visible signs of hurt. The plaintive space inside me that I’m just beginning to become aware of opens slightly, accommodating not just loneliness, but also, spectacle. I elevate a knee to lick the blood, (that sweet metallic taste), drawing out my tears, until it’s all just jagged breath and hiccups.
Campton, New Hampshire, January 1991
We are renting a small house, between a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, and a small logging company. My husband has recently started a job at a college ten minutes away. He commutes to work with our four-year-old, who goes to daycare on campus. Our second child stays home with me. He is three months old.
The Kingdom Hall, our house, and the logging company, are the only three buildings on the street, which forms a 45-degree angle between the old highway and the road to the town dump. In back of us, a steep embankment leads to the Pemigewasset river, which freezes in the winter, and is probably frozen on this day, though I cannot recall.
The thing is, I’m not sure I like it here—in this house, on this street, in this marriage. There is a feeling of claustrophobia to all three, though I used to call it cozy. A few months before, a woman was murdered in the small town where my husband worked, stabbed multiple times in her apartment on Main Street. She was an employee of the college, and the community has been on edge ever since. Rumors are flying around that it was someone she knew, (there was no sign of forced entry). There is talk of underground tunnels on campus, and a real-life game of Dungeons & Dragons, involving sex and dark magic. I am alone all day, with a baby and no car, and my imagination bends too easily toward mayhem. There are religious zealots to the right of me, taciturn men with chainsaws on my left, a murderer on the loose.
And now, a strange man in the house.
His name is Dave, and he is in the basement fixing the furnace. He seemed nice enough when he showed up at the front door, a light-skinned black man with short, graying hair, wearing a blue shirt with a nametag sewn on the left breast pocket. He’s been down there awhile. I hear the occasional clang of metal on metal, the intermittent hum of the furnace as it fires up, and goes quiet.
I sit on the couch with my son Clay, on my lap. The television is on. It is late afternoon in New Hampshire, but already nighttime in Baghdad, where the skyline ignites in a flashbulb frenzy of anti-aircraft fire. The lights are off. Shadows lengthen across the floor.
Clay opens and closes his bow-shaped mouth in the universal baby sign for hunger, but I hesitate to feed him. I’m worried that the man in the basement might suddenly come back upstairs and catch me with my boob out, and who knows what feelings this might incite in him? The world feels inhospitable to me, suspect in its intentions, a place where soldiers push a button, and people die; where women get stabbed to death and then gossiped about; where mild-mannered furnace repairmen turn out to be rapists, and babies can’t save marriages. On TV, Peter Arnett’s voice cedes to the pop and crackle of gunfire, and a sickly sky is illuminated. There is no sign of human life in the city, (no sign of human death, either), only a dark landscape of concrete and palm trees, and the time-lapse bloom of tracer fire.
Thwarted, Clay starts to cry, his small face reddening in frustration. I pull up my shirt and help him settle. Whatever else I can’t do, or, in any case, that I am not doing, this small thing I can manage. I can feed my child. It is a small satisfaction, surrounded by calamity, this closed circuit of nurture and comfort.
Eventually, Dave, the furnace repairman, comes upstairs. He averts his eyes from where I am breastfeeding, focusing his gaze instead on the television. We watch the war. Dave shakes his head. He tells me he has a teenage son. I tell him I’m worried about the world my son will come to inhabit. He perches on the far arm of the couch, a red rag in his back pocket, his glasses reflecting blue light. We stare into the TV screen as though into a crystal ball. By the time my husband comes home with our daughter, we are sitting in the darkness together, like old friends.
Asheville, NC, 2009
I am crouched in a bathtub with a bottle of pills. Or, more precisely, that is how I discover myself, having woken with a start, and looked down at a dry tub, my half-clothed self, and the bottle in my hand. The back of my throat feels scalded; my eyes are swollen, and my legs are cramping. An accusatory light floods through the bathroom window. I listen for telltale sounds, but there is only the whoosh of nearby traffic.
Climbing out of the tub, I go into the bedroom, where a man is passed out in his underwear, snoring deeply. I watch him for a moment, struck by the troubled look on his face even as he sleeps; the way his body curls in a backward C, pillow clutched to his ear like a telephone. Gingerly, I start to stuff things—clothes, shoes, toiletries—into bags, dropping the bottle of Clonazepam on top. Two little Maltese watch me woefully, black eyes barely visible from beneath their moppy coats.
I remember watching “The Honeymooners,” when I was small. Ralph Kramden, the bulbous-jawed bus driver played by Jackie Gleason, would be arguing with his wife. He’d get more and more worked up, beady eyes bugging, greasy hair flopping, until finally he’d raise a beefy fist and issue his trademark line, “One of these days, Alice! POW! Right in the kisser!” Even as a child, I couldn’t understand what made this funny. Volatile anger, culminating in violence, was something I knew a little about, and that small knowledge hung back in my mind like a curtain, waiting to fall across any brightness. The quick jerk of the fist upward, elbow bent, like an umpire calling a runner out at the plate—the hesitation, and all the hesitation implied, (that if he wanted to, he could bring that fist down, could slam it in her face, more particularly, in her mouth), was violence enough.
He never hit me, but he made that gesture—the Ralph Kramden—many times. He twisted my wrist trying to take a cell phone away from me. He threw me up against walls. He called me fucking worthless, broke into my email account, and sent threatening messages to men I had had relationships with. That night, the one before I woke up in the tub, he had taken a knife from the kitchen and tried to force me to stab him with it. It was the lowest of melodrama, but I was strangely enthralled. So much raw emotion! Such intensity!
I want to say that the morning I woke up in the bathtub was the end, but it was not.B y the end of the day, I was back, crying in his arms, while he made promises we both knew he could not keep.
I don’t know why these three memories are the ones that first came to mind when I set myself the task of remembering. They aren’t the most dramatic moments, not pivotal or defining in any way, nor do they seem particularly linked, or of a piece. They aren’t the moments that I would have necessarily chosen to represent myself, though I suppose, in a sense, I have chosen them. (By which I mean that I have allowed them to stand.)
And they aren’t even that reliable.
It turns out that the murder in New Hampshire took place in September 1991, when Clay would have been more than a year old; the First Gulf War had begun nine months earlier. So, I couldn’t have been watching CNN and nursing a newborn, not with the murder on my mind. And yet, this is how I remember it. So clearly. The gathering dusk, and the man in the basement, the green flicker of the TV above my baby’s forehead, the sense of dangers, close and far, lodged in my chest like a cinderblock.
On reflection, it makes perfect sense to me that I would remember it this way, conflating the unease of the war with the anxiety following the murder, but the fact that my memory is faulty makes me feel even further alienated from my past. The truth is that I have trouble connecting with my former selves, unable to access the person I was, at six, at thirty, at fifty. Unable, or unwilling. I tell myself it’s because I’m not a looking-back sort, that I’m not sentimental, and, anyway, that there isn’t a lot to be sentimental about. But that’s an evasion. Really—and it’s hard to admit this—I think it’s just that I disliked myself, or disliked the circumstances surrounding myself, for so much of my life, that looking back is simply too painful.
A friend of mine from high school recently gave me a basket filled with letters that I’d written to her from 1976, when we were freshmen in college, to 1986, when I was pregnant with my first child. In that span of ten years, I went to England to study abroad; went to graduate school in New York; got my first job working for the Boston Phoenix; got married; spent a year working at an English language newspaper in Seoul; and lived in a remote cabin in New Hampshire.
I was excited to receive these letters, as I hoped they would give me more insight into my past selves, coming, as they did, from the “horse’s mouth.” So, I was shocked and disturbed to discover that the self I encountered on the page was more of a “horse’s ass,” superficial and silly, full of banal observations, giddy with vanity, and preoccupied with boys. It was a performative self I encountered, a babbling, booby self, with none of the subtleties of mind, keen wit, or powers of discernment that would suggest a future writer of any promise.
I felt such antipathy toward this younger self, such a skin-crawling irritation at her cheery posturing, that it flabbergasted me. But then I realized I felt an equal antipathy for the selves I had conjured from memory: the small child nursing her skinned knee by the side of the road, the anxious mother watching a war a world away, the abused woman grabbing up her things… facet images of a certain kind of weakness, self-conscious and self-dramatizing, the coo of the mourning dove, and the plaintive, hollow space, blooming from the heart.
They cancel one another out, the vulnerable selves I remember, and the silly, breezy one who performed herself in correspondence. To dislike them all is a contortion in self-loathing that even I find indefensible. I have often joked that I’m okay with being human, except for the whole vulnerability thing, and part of the reason I find it so hard to look back at my life is that I don’t want to face evidence of my helplessness, the hurt, isolation, sadness, and longing that began with my brother’s death, and my parent’s silent grief.
How could I not feel some tenderness, then, for the eager, slightly desperate young woman, whose jaunty, exclamation-laden sentences skated across a decade of life changes? She, who fell in love with a different boy in every letter from college to graduate school, who feigned a literary seriousness she had not truly earned, who traveled from England, to France, to Italy, to South Korea, with generic enthusiasm, and an astonishing lack of curiosity? I was that girl, and it was an act, but there was courage in it, and a hopefulness that, reading the letters over, kind of broke my heart.
There is a passage from one of the early letters. I had only days earlier arrived in Lancaster, England, for my junior year abroad, and was describing an afternoon spent exploring with a fellow student. At some point, we were walking across a field, which, in my memory, presents as grey and clod-filled, smelling of manure, but it might have been the Brontes’ moors, the way I rhapsodized over it. “There is something about the English countryside,” I gushed. “I just go wild!”
G. and I laughed and laughed at the dopiness of it, the girlish hysteria. I was mortified, at first, but eventually grew forgiving. Between my memories of a life of loneliness and vulnerability, and the breathless fervor of my dispatches from that life, lies the life itself, the up and down of it, the silliness and the seriousness, the weakness and the brave face of it.
Now that I have Stage 4 cancer, vulnerability is practically my middle name. There is the baldness, and the scarring, and the strange lump of the port-a-cath at my left chest; there is the swelling in my upper arm from the lymphedema, the bruises from low platelet counts, the runny nose and watering eyes from the chemo. And there are the pitying looks from people who know, the gentle condescension of the healthy toward the sick. The thing I hate the most about the disease is the way it reduces me to victim status, whether I like it or not, the way it seems to eclipse my primary identity—my Katherine Min-ness—in the murkish moon shadow of cancer. And the only way I know to rebuke the victimhood, the bleak prognosis, the slew of cytotoxins, and attending side effects, is to keep on reporting from within—silly, smart, scared, brave—I just go wild!