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© MECC (1994)

When I was growing up, in the greater neighborhood surrounding the cul-de-sac I lived on, there was a house at the top of a hill I often rode up on my bike, bookending the upper avenue. In the front yard, there was an old well.

It took me several passes by to even notice it, under the shade of a large tree, half-hidden by several overgrown bushes. Thinking back on it now, I can’t begin to imagine how it had come to be there — the housing development was younger than me, had grown up around me; when my parents bought our house, there was nothing around us but dirt, my future high school, and a gas station — or who might have dug it out. So high up on a hill like that, could it even reach any sort of aquifer? It must be just for show.

But no; I looked around to make sure no one was watching, poked my head in, threw a sizeable rock down, and could barely hear it hit the bottom. It was real. Empty and purposeless, but real.

I maintained a sort of detached obsession with it for some time, in the sense that I never actively thought of it unless I was riding or walking by, but would often insert an 8-bit avatar of it into the background of a page or two when playing around on one of my favorite computer games in the grade school library during recess: Storybook Weaver.

In hindsight, it would make perfect sense that the a program held such a fierce appeal to me, that I would return to fiddle around with it so regularly. It offered the illusion of crafting any story your imagination could dream up, but in reality was hemmed in by any of the familiar limitations of software programs of the late ’80s and early ’90s. There were limits to the objects and people you could choose from, there was a fixed number of scenic backgrounds in which to place them. You could change some of the colors, or the time of day in which they were set, but ultimately, before long, every page took on a fairly familiar cast. The challenge lay in creating something original from within those parameters.

How often have I wanted to believe I could craft any narrative I wanted from preexisting people, places, conditions? How often have I tried, yet come up against walls so similar to those written into that old code I was once enchanted by?

Do you want to save the current story before closing?  [   ]

I always saved. Even when I’d added little, rarely finished, and had no floppy disc of my own to write to — we wouldn’t have a computer in my home until relatively late, around 1998 — and knew in a rather mortifying way in the back of my mind that anyone else who logged on had the opportunity to go back and read whatever I’d made. I always saved. I saved everything.

I still save everything — in boxes, written into Word and Notepad documents — though what for, I know no better now than I did then.  So much of it only staying with me, so much only saved by me.

Six years is a long time, and yet eventually becomes no time at all. It passes, circumstances change, things are broken that can’t be repaired, are papered over by mere shadows of their former selves. Looking back provides better perspective, though not always for the better. The lone saver of things can be a lonely position to turn back from.

So much thrown down an empty well, up on that hill, never to be reflected back.

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Lend me some fresh air

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During recent drives, I’ve had a couple of albums on rotation in my car’s CD player, and they’ve gotten me thinking about women and anger.

Specifically, I’ve been revisiting Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Fiona Apple’s Tidal, originally released in 1995 and ’96, respectively. I was nine and ten years old at those moments, though it’s my pre-teen years I most heavily associate those songs with, as they both received decent to heavy radio play at least through the late ’90s.

I remember first being struck by Apple’s explicit youth; she was only 19 when Tidal crashed onto air and television waves. The biggest hit from it, and the video that played on MTV and VH1 pretty regularly, featuring in top 10 countdown after countdown, was of course “Criminal,” which I had learned to not only sing but mimic fairly closely in vocal styling by the time I was 13. Rewatching it, there is no question as to how young Apple really is. I remember being struck most, secondly, how much she looked like me. I was reedy-thin, big-eyed (also blue), with long dirty blonde hair, too tomboyish to look feminine. I had a disarming stare, too; so much so I’d been advised not to look people directly in the eye, which I eventually trained myself out of doing. Fiona did not: she confronted the camera directly throughout the entire video, no matter who she was crawling over, who was hanging off of her stark body; almost the entirety of that now-classic album cover is taken up by those eyes, those big icy blue eyes, looking right at you. I looked like her; I could sound like her. I wasn’t as angry as her — not yet. Until those particular years, I didn’t feel it was really allowed.

It can be argued it was never really allowed for her — for any woman, truly — either. Despite struggling with the aftermath of her rape, an eating disorder, depression, self-harm, PTSD, and so on… she was never given remotely near the leeway we give our beloved, “eccentric” — typically code for “unapologetic asshole” — male artists. The unfairness of this, particularly taking into account all the additional labor expected of women all our lives — the emotional labor, the caretaker roles, the inoffensive and quiet smile assumed to naturally come with all of it — can’t be understated, either. There is so little room allowed for a woman’s anger, no matter how young and talented she may be. I didn’t care, and loved her anyway, and I loved her anger maybe most of all. I mimicked it when I sang it; I aspired to it, almost.

The opening lyrics to Tidal — nothing arriving first to cushion them in any way, just a sparse, dry snare drum beat — are still probably some of my favorites that Apple ever penned — and given her talents as a lyricist, that is no small praise — and they too are directly, purely, deeply angry:

I tell you how I feel, but you don’t care
I say tell me the truth, but you don’t dare
You say love is a hell you cannot bear
And I say “Give me mine back and then go there
For all I care”

(Emphasis mine, but there is no denying that is how she sings it.) It was the most powerful, immediate, introductory “fuck you” I’d ever heard from a woman, let alone one still under 20, like me. I looked like her, I could sound like her; I could be angry like her, too.

The only woman I remember listening to during those formative years who sounded as angry, in as visceral and unapologetic a manner, was Alanis, and Jagged had only come out the year before. It is the quintessential “angry girl” album of the ’90s, but because of that assessment, it still feels underrated to me. Or maybe the proper word is really “underestimated.” You can crack as many (arguably fair) jokes about the misapplication of the entire concept of “Ironic”‘s lyrics, or make as many laughing asides about Joey from Full House as you like, but the indisputable fact remains: there was no other album as commercially successful, nor as familiar to so many mainstream music listeners of a particular decade, that was as angry as Jagged Little Pill.

My favorite Alanis song off Jagged was always “Not the Doctor.” It’s undoubtedly an album crammed full of one great song after another, which is why current teenage girls still buy it on any format in the record shop I work in to this day, but that track in particular was the one I loved most then, and still do now. I only wish that, when I was singing along to it then, I’d had even the barest inkling of what it truly meant, even if such a thing wasn’t possible; I hadn’t (yet) been used, abused, or discarded by men in the way that allows for a deeper identification with that song. But the entire thing is a screed of different metaphorical ways to say “I will not carry your extremely tiresome fucking baggage.” It’s a deeply important song for any young girl to hear for that reason alone, even if we’re not able to fully absorb it, no matter how much I wish I could have. It makes it a bittersweet listen now. Just look at all those isolated “I don’t want”s:

I don’t want to be the filler if the void is solely yours
I don’t want to be a bandage if the wound is not mine
I don’t want to be adored for what I merely represent to you
I don’t want to be your babysitter
I don’t want to be your mother
I don’t want to be the sweeper of the egg shells that you walk upon
I don’t want to be your other half
I don’t want to be the glue that holds your pieces together
I don’t want to be your idol
I don’t want to be lived through
I don’t want to be responsible for your fractured heart
(And its wounded beat)

(There are a few more, but those were the ones most identifiable to me now as things that became far too familiar to me as more than just concepts, later in life.) It’s such an adamant refusal of being the dependable dumping ground so many men casually expect women to always be.

The killer one-two punch between the two of them: Fuck you. I don’t want this. (Do better, be better. God, but the bar for men is so pathetically low.)

It’s been comforting, too, listening to these again, despite the bittersweetness. Those angry girls were everything to me then. I was still small, still shy, but when a pack of boys descended on me one late afternoon when I was 13, I finally recognized I had the freedom to be angry. I broke one of their noses even with his fingers crushing down on my trachea and his knee in my chest. He said he would kill me and I thought, I’ll claw your fucking eyes out while you do it. I screamed so loud at him it felt like my throat would tear — I sounded like a wild animal; the sound carried so far belated help finally came running from the other end of the campus — and it was not because I was afraid: I had never been more consumed by fury in my life. I was so angry there wasn’t any room left for fear. Before those girls and their songs, no one had ever really told me what hardly anyone ever tells little girls:

Own your anger. Unleash it even as they slam you into concrete and make you bleed. It will save your life.

Proxy

Somewhat of a theme with the post preceding this one…

Let’s talk about placeholder women for a minute, shall we?

Let’s talk about substitute women.

Let’s talk about stopgap women.

Let’s talk about the myriad ways men simply use and discard women once we become difficult, complex.

Let’s talk about how hard it is to trust men, how deftly men weave webs of false intimacy, how quickly all that disappears once someone they actually respect enough to make a real effort with comes along.

Let’s talk about how all these are varying degrees of gaslighting women.

Let’s talk about how men drive women crazy with all this, then laugh at us for getting emotional about any of it.

Let’s talk about how sneaky emotional fakery can be.

Deviousness is such a feminized word, but let’s talk about the natural skill men have for it.

Let’s talk about how socializing us to be “good” women means priming us for all of this, not for anything real.

Let’s talk about being the most convenient woman around, then about what becomes of you once you’ve been humanized, and are no longer so convenient.

Let’s talk about the humiliation in discovering what you’ve been treated as this late in life.

Let’s talk about that very particular, yet so common, degradation of a woman.

Let’s talk about how she forgives herself for allowing herself to be used in such a way.

I don’t know how. Do you?

Pastedown

Being reminded how much of me has been papered over or just plain forgotten in the minds of others of late really drove home how much I need to finish writing the massive thing I’ve been trying to write for at least two months now. More than, really; going on three, now.

Maybe two or three people, if any, will ever actually read it, but I’m realizing more than ever now that most of the things I remember — both the ones I chose to, and the ones I wish I didn’t; I seem to remember everything, and can’t help this even when trying to avoid it — are only ever going to be of any real note, importance, significance or otherwise to me, and me alone. Apparently if I don’t create some sort of record for myself, no one else will bother to remember them. Maybe that’s the conundrum of life, but who doesn’t wish, even just secretly, to be important enough to someone to actually stay in their mind?

It’s a nebulous way to feel. I’ve always been easily forgotten, but when it’s among those who supposedly care, that will always sting more.

Equinoxes

It was the end of April, and I was blooming in the riotous peak of spring.

The curls that had framed my frazzled head from pre-puberty through my depressed and searching 20s and the very beginning of my 30s were leaving me, replaced with relaxed, natural waves — the kind I’d always dreamed of having when I was younger, but could never achieve. My skin was slowly healing, evening out in tone. My body no longer felt like such a betrayal, such an ugly stranger.

I had brought a new little familiar into my life; the first time I’d be caring for an animal entirely on my own. I was becoming more myself than I’d ever been.

I was falling in love again, not quite as much in denial about it as the one before, and while simultaneously losing that first ever love — the one who’d both helped me to grow, while also putting me through more than I knew how to take; who’d both said some of the most wonderful things I’d ever heard, and yet so many of by far the worst things — and I needed to finally be honest and open to both. The one I was falling into in its place might very well have been as hopeless as the one preceding it, but it was beyond too late to stop it; I could only accept it.

I was beginning to write my memoirs. I needed to both let go, and embrace whatever my future held. I had to let go. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I needed to create, to move on, to move forward. I needed to finally see myself.

Llorando

Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorite films, but it can also plunge me into the depths of truly unique melancholy. I remember once standing in line outside a different theater than the one I watched it in tonight, unable to avoid overhearing some young guy haughtily attempting to “explain” what the movie means to the poor, trapped girl with him. In the moment, I just had to laugh to myself about the likelihood that such a conversation would piss off no one more than David Lynch himself. Still, the older I get, the more I work through and survive, the more deeply the film seems to affect me. Maybe it’s a film which has threads that are only navigable if you recognize the feelings explored through them.

If you’ve come to a city, full of dreams, the place itself often described the same way, and watched them all shrivel away. If you’ve had something creative that you felt was yours wrenched out of your control, twisted beyond recognition. If you’ve attempted, feeling buried and trapped by the best and worst of your memories, to re-write your own history in a far better, softer light. (Naomi Watts’ incredible duality cannot be under-praised in this respect. The smiling, big-eyed idealism and breezy confidence of her fictionalized Betty persona, compared with her brokenhearted, bitter and raw, gaping wound of a real Diane is something to behold.) If you’ve ever wanted to imagine yourself as an arrival on a film set who commands the attention and drops the jaw of the director himself, as opposed to the one more invisible nobody that you are. If you’ve ever, hopelessly naively, given your heart to a charming, flighty, selfish Camilla. It’s all there, all at once. It’s beautiful, and dark, and hopeless, and overwhelming.

Walking out of the theater tonight, though it was already after 10:30, I knew I couldn’t go straight home. My life in general has felt almost completely unmoored of late — my family, my work, my measly personal life — and all I felt able or driven to do was continue walking. Which I did, for well over two hours. I reached a point where my legs, particularly the injured one, were protesting enough that I wondered if I would make it home, though I kept on. I think I was looking for something, anything, out in the night to help me feel less alone, or at least as if I still belonged here.

I only encountered things that came across as the opposite of encouraging, naturally. Even the little feral cats I used to visit in their yard, who I had particularly been hoping to see, were nowhere to be found; perhaps I’ve been away too long, and am just another stranger to them now, though I didn’t even see any slinking silhouettes in the dark. What I did see: a dead rat; broken bottles galore. Winding my way back west, I passed a man clinging to a pay phone, one of the few remaining that still functions, pleading and sobbing over the phone line, with someone who was not here with him. I knew how he felt, too.

Perhaps the time when there may have been anything or anyone out there for me to find comfort or encouragement from is over. Maybe the time before now, even, was — as the band leader reminds us in Club Silencio — “all an illusion.”

There is a stretch of Fountain Avenue that crosses briefly over the 101 freeway. It is so dark, late at night, along this particular piece of road, no one — if there even is anyone around, which there rarely is — can see you; it’s a struggle to even see the sidewalk ahead of you. It is a safe place for someone like me to cry when she never wants anyone to see. It’s a place where, though I’ve personally never quite reached suicidal feelings, even at my most depressed, I can briefly understand the impulse that drives people to jump off highway overpasses. It is loud, and bright, and nothing beneath you will stop, even when everything stops for you. It would be over quickly, if one were to do it. It would be forgotten maybe an hour or two later, afterward. The cars will keep on driving.

Naturally, I eventually made it back, only to discover I’d worn a hole through a favorite pair of socks. A fitting end to a meaningless journey in the dark.

The scene when Camilla leads Diane up the hill in the night, through a “secret path” in the brush, and Diane looks down and smiles to see her hand holding hers, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score sweeps through you… I’m not sure any other scene in a movie can make my heart ache more. It is the last moment she still believes in the illusion of her life, and her love, as if any of it was real.

It doesn’t last, of course. Not long after, she goes mad with grief and guilt; she kills herself. But at least, for that one final moment, the fantasy of what she’d thought she once had still feels like it might have been real.

There is a house.

There is a house.

There is a house, and it is out in the woods, or up in the hills, or beside a lake, or alone in a sprawling valley. It is late morning, it is early afternoon, it’s late at night and the stars are out.

There is a house, and I know this is a dream because I know that it is somehow mine. Nothing when I am awake ever belongs to me, but this house is mine, and this is a dream. This should make it a good dream, but it is all a trick, it is an illusion.

I am running up the stairs, in the house, and they change direction, or orientation, or the light falls on them differently, when it is there, and when it is not, the dark swallows them up behind me. I run up the stairs as they disappear behind me, falling away like dominoes. I don’t see them, I don’t turn around, they make no sound, but I feel them pulling away, almost still beneath the backs of my heels. I run up the stairs; there are so many stairs. I am dreaming, and so I do not count the stairs, like I always do when I am awake, and so I know it is a dream.

He is there with me, or he was, until he wasn’t any longer. The house is mine, and it is in my dream, but still, nothing can stay; the stairs, the walls keep moving around. We are in bed together at first, every time, tangled in warm sheets, without a care in the world. He is smiling down at me, stroking my hair, he is happy to see me, and so I know this is a dream. The more I realize none of it is real, the more it unravels, the way that dreams do.

He says something he seems to find funny, but it is harsh or cruel; there is a tapping at the window; there is a knocking at the door. I know who it is, I don’t know their name, but I know who it is. It is the same person it always is, face changing like a shape-shifter; I know it is someone better, someone more beautiful, more compelling, more talented and vibrant, stronger and worthy than me; it is someone lovable. When you have never been good enough, there are an infinite number of better someones out there. That will never be me, because I am none of these things, so of course he is gone, if he was ever there with me at all. He is walking up the stairs, he is walking down the stairs, all those stairs, wherever they go, I can hear his voice, but where did he go? No, he is gone; he doesn’t speak to me, not anymore. The rooms keep moving, the walls fall away; I do not know where he went, I will never know, I only know I’ve been left behind.

There are no stairs, there are no walls, there is no bed. There was never a house. There was only ever me, the same in waking as I was as the nightmare always closes: only ever me, alone in the dark.