Undoing the laces

This past month, I skipped a period. Thanks to the current state of my social life, this was fortunately no cause for alarm, and the only reason I noticed it is that, for the past couple of years, I’ve been using an app to track it (for the times when it would be more pertinant to know). When I was younger, it took years for my cycle to stabilize; as a late teen and even into my 20s, I’d sometimes go two or even three months without having one at all, though I have no idea why it took so long to even out. This is only noteworthy now because it jogged a memory in mind which I typically am able to successfully avoid thinking of. The last time I skipped a period, it was because I was pregnant.

This is not something I even have to actively shy away from thinking of often, both because a good amount of time has passed now, and also likely because of how strangely I processed it as it happened (namely at a strange remove from both myself and my body, in hindsight, likely as a means of self-preservation when I felt frighteningly out of control of both). But every now and then, some small thing or comment might bring it back to me, and I try to dodge it as quickly as possible. I don’t feel any pain or emotional distress about it, and I’m not sure that I ever really did; I simply don’t see the point in staying with that thought. It is past. It happened, and then it didn’t, and life goes on.

My sex life in general, and with the partner in question, is irregular enough that, once I figured out what had happened, I knew immediately when it had happened — two days before the end of 2014. It had been a relatively busy day. We worked, we had a business meeting, we drove back to my place, we talked and relaxed a little while. He discovered there was a health scare with a relative, after receiving a phone call from a family member. (Ironically, the relative in question passed away later that same day, though he didn’t find this out until a bit later, probably the following day. Insert whimsical musing from a more spritual person than I about the cycles of life and death: here.) I remember it still as some of the most intense and intimate sex we had ever had up to that point; I remember looking down at his face in the dusky light coming through my window, and the way he looked back up at me. (I even hit a fun personal record that day, actually, if I remember right; I have yet to top it.) We made it last a long time, and I remember plenty of what was said, still, and how it felt. All of it was quite memorable even before the date gained any extra significance. I still get a little warm, even now, thinking back on it.

Thinking back now, the most recent time we were together was New Year’s Day, the start of this year, and it was a lovely and surpring way to start it. But I also remember, later that same day, suddenly realizing, I think while sitting and reading in a cafe, that at that same time, two years prior, I would have been (unknowingly) pregnant.

The fact is, I didn’t find out that I was pregnant until it was already over. I found out because of that, in fact. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t aware that something was different; I was. (Describing it to a friend later, one who had also had a pregnancy scare earlier in her life, she agreed with me completely that the only way to describe it was just: “weird.”) I didn’t feel sick, or in pain; I just knew that something was fundamentally off about my body, whatever it was. I couldn’t explain it, but it was foreign, and it frightened me. I gaslighted myself about it a good bit for a while, because plenty of other factors in my life at that time were putting me through the ringer. I was being systematically abused and harrassed at work, to the point that the stress was affecting my health in numerous ways, both mentally and physically, though I couldn’t see just how badly so until it was over. I assumed, at first — or at least told myself, because it was less frightening — that I felt so weird simply because I was so stressed about money, constantly under attack at work, and never felt free from stress. And when I missed my period, I told myself that these were also the reasons why. Stress causes skipped periods all the time. It was nothing to worry about, and I certainly didn’t need any extra worry. I am fine. Stop thinking about it. I am fine.

My partner, and dear friend, of course picked up on this. There was even a moment where I could tell he suspected, consciously or unconsciously (I still don’t know which), exactly what I was afraid was happening, even as I denied it to myself. He gave me a particular look, at the end of a work day, while holding me by the hips; I said, “What?” and pretended I didn’t know what had just crossed his mind, and he said, “What? Nothing,” back, just as defensively as I had, and we were then united in pretending that neither of us was thinking about this at all. After this point, I’m sure he dismissed the thought entirely, because he told me later he hadn’t known what specifically I was worried about. And why wouldn’t he forget about it? This was my body that was beginning to feel foreign to me. He couldn’t feel any of it. Still, he asked me to come over later that night, after I was done with work, because he was still concerned about me, and I did. He knew that I was seriously worried about something, and did not pry. I was relieved, because I was completely incapable, at that moment, of confessing what I was thinking. I was terrified; both of myself, and what he would think of me, however irrational that was.

(My Google search history around this time, in retrospet, was hilarious. It had started as simply as searching for the strangely unquantifiable “symptoms” I was experiencing. Once “what are the signs of early pregnancy” became the first suggestion to pop up, I felt singled out by a fatal spotlight like an inmate attempting to escape from prison, and panicked. Once I let myself go down that rabbit hole, I moved fully into terror. My search history then shifted: First, “Does Medicaid in California cover abortion?” Then, “What does abortion cost through Planned Parenthood?”, and so on. I started reading about what going through one feels like, and felt sick, and more afraid than ever. I wondered if I would have to go alone, before I even knew if I’d have to go at all. The only way I could answer that question was if I confronted how cowardly I felt about telling anyone what was happening, or even what I suspected was wrong. I told no one. I was entirely paralyzed by fear.)

Curled up in his lap on his couch, I still did not tell him. I justified this by telling myself: We’re both anxiety-prone and mildly hypochondriacal. I don’t want to tell him anything until I know there IS a concrete thing to even worry about. This was a purely honest reasoning, but I’m not sure I’ve ever decided whether it was the fair or right thing to decide. But ultimately, I kept quiet. He held me close and tight, stroked my head under his chin, and said: “It will be okay. I’ll always take care of you.” Despite my crippling panic, I believed him. And I felt a bit better. Better enough, at least, to leave his place near midnight, drive immediately to Ralph’s — lying and saying I had already made it home — to buy my first ever pregnancy test. It was not cheap, because none of them are. I silently begged the young male cashier to not judge me for coming in, alone and pale, after midnight in the middle of the week, and buying nothing but that. Blessedly, he said nothing, and simply wished me a good night. I smiled, because I felt like throwing up, and didn’t feel capable of speaking to anyone.

I had read online — because, in America, shamefully, that’s likely your best source of sex ed, and it was never a question I’d needed answered until then; I was 28 — that the best time to take a pregnancy test is in the morning, just after waking up. This meant attempting to sleep first, which felt impossible, but I must have, because I do recall waking up the next day, feeling like a stone had replaced my entire stomach. By this time, though there had been some spotting and inexplicable pains very different from cramps — which was what had set me off on my bouts of paranoid Googling in the first place — my period was over two weeks late.

I got up and did what I had to, then sat and waited. I think I had to put my head between my knees to calm down, as I hadn’t eaten yet, and felt like I might pass out. Every joke about how long the two minutes is where you are waiting on one mark or another to appear in a little white window are true, and I can only recognize now what a cruel joke that is. I finally checked it, and my hand was shaking. What will I do? What am I going to do? What is going to happen to me? kept flashing across my brain like a visual siren. I still hadn’t even begun to answer any part of that question. I had never been so frightened, nor felt more alone, that I could recall, in my life. But then: it was negative.

I wouldn’t find out until the following month — when that period seemed to arrive early, heavy, bloody, and more painful than any other I had ever experienced — what had happened. By the time I took the test, I had already miscarried. That early on, it’s called simply a chemical miscarriage, which I found out — now searching online through a haze of stupid relief and mild confusion — actually occurs a large percentage of the time, but is rarely talked about, because it happens so often and so early (though is part of why there’s something of an unspoken rule about announcing a pregnancy until after a later benchmark has already been reached). It was extremely painful, and I knew what it meant, but I still did not tell him. I kept the blood and pain to myself. I still cannot say why I did this, because I do not know. I did not ever actively decide to keep silent. I don’t even recall thinking of doing anything differently.

I was racked with too many other worries, I suppose, to even consider doing more than laughing hollowly to myself, “Well, there’s an abortion I don’t have to get!” and moving on. But all the other stresses from before had not gone away; many had, in fact, only gotten worse. In just two weeks, I would be wrongfully terminated from my job. I had never been fired before, and had — at the most generous and optimistic estimate — no more than three weeks in which I could conceivably be without work before I’d have to start thinking about whether I could survive living out of my car. I had no time or space in my mind to think about it. It was over. Before I even realized what had happened, it was already over. So it didn’t really matter, right?

I didn’t even use the word “miscarriage” until several months later, in the midst of a conversation with a trusted friend; I think it was as late as November. We were discussing how crazy my former job had gotten toward the end, from the safe remove of hindsight, and I shocked even myself when the words “It caused me so much stress I literally miscarried” came out of my mouth. She looked as surprised as I felt to hear them. But, of course, Oh. That is what happened.

That night, I finally did tell him. I knew immediately that he was shocked and hurt that it had taken me nearly an entire year to confess this to him — though I had never actively kept it from him, as far as I knew — and felt horrible. But I had just… moved past it. I didn’t think of it. It happened, I barely examined it, concentrated instead on getting a new job, then adjusting to that job, and so on. Life moved on, and the more time passed, the less I thought of it, if at all. I tried as best I could to express this to him, but I’m not sure he ever understood. He was able to laugh a bit and shakily joke about it, just as I had done (“I guess that’s your free pass!” and “We would make really cute children, but uh, not right now.“), but not before he said, “I’m sorry you lost it.” I didn’t dare ask him what that meant, because I realized it likely didn’t mean much of anything, but maybe that I felt the same, and that I couldn’t fully understand what that meant to me.

I know, in hindsight, that it complicates my feelings on children somewhat, which I have never wanted — a woman like me should never bear a child — and in particular, these days, with the current state of the world, it feels just cruel to me to even consider. My mother, though never the sort to expect me to procreate, nor push me to, used to gently say, now and then, “You might change your mind someday!” Because, yes, one can never truly say “never,” and also because that is what had happened to her. But I always quietly resented it. Once, just before I moved to Los Angeles, when I was riddled with those particular fears and stresses, I had the most vivid and horrifying nightmare I could recall having as an adult: though I wasn’t yet sexually active at the time, my worst stress dream manifested in a fiction where literally everything else about my life was normal and exactly the same, except for being roughly 7 months pregnant, and having no idea how it had happened. I felt deep, visceral horror at it, that I was hosting a parasite (not an inaccurate comparison). I woke up just on the very edge of what would have been the first fully-fledged panic attack of my life, nearly hyperventilating. It took me at least a half hour to calm down. My mother finally stopped dropping her little comment after that.

I’ve never asked what he meant by that Sorry; I imagine it was mostly more along the lines of, I’m sorry you had to go through this, or I’m sorry for my part in this, or I’m sorry that you didn’t tell me sooner, or simply I’m sorry that a bad and painful thing happened to you. It might have been all of those things at once. Maybe he even shared some of the inexplicable sorry that I also felt, and could not explain, but that would hover in the back of my mind when I would remember, at random moments, the fact that, somehow, despite protective measures, at that time, some of his cells began to combine with mine to make what might, theoretically, have eventually been a new person, but of course, for so many reasons, never could have. That this was likely, for better or worse, the closest I would ever come to having a child. The inexpressible sorry that says: It’s just… strange to realize that that’s something that happened to you (to me). I don’t know. But it did.

I do know how silenced I was by so many irrational and shamefully selfish fears, surely heightened by my anxiety disorder, back then: How could it not change everything between us? What if he never wanted to touch me again? How could I even justify to myself having both those worries in my mind at the same time? Some small part of me is probably just as irrationally (if not even more so) afraid of the same things now, simply in writing this. Whether this is because of the strange stigma and silence that surrounds women and miscarriage, or the constant change that exists both in relationships and in life, or simply because love — being as hideously complex as it is — involves both selfishness and selflessness, simultaneously, and pokes at our very deepest fears, I don’t know. I do know that I am a worrier, to a typically ridiculous degree, because that is the largest part of what having an anxiety disorder means, and I also know that most of the time, my worries end up being completely unjustified. But I also know that some form of this post has existed in my head, off and on, for many months, and apparently needs to be written down somewhere, because it has not gone away. It was keeping me from sleeping last night, even. I don’t know what that means, either.

I do know that, almost exclusively, my favorite songs — or at least ones that I can fixate on or end up sitting with on repeat for hours — by artists trend almost exclusively toward the melancholy or mournful: Michael Jackson’s “Stranger In Moscow,” Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street,” Pink Floyd’s “Take It Back,” Aimee Mann’s “Real Bad News,” Bloc Party’s “Signs,” David Usher’s “Devil by My Side,” Genesis’s “Carpet Crawlers,” Harry Nilsson’s “Remember (Christmas),” and so on, and on… And I know that, long before I knew what the lyrics were largely about, my favorite Fleetwood Mac song was “Sara.” It still is. But the way in which it speaks to me now, I realized when listening to it recently, is slightly different. And I don’t know how to feel about that. I don’t know that I’ll ever know.

Hold on
The night is coming, and the starling flew for days
I’d stay home at night, all the time
I’d go anywhere, anywhere, anywhere…
Ask me and I’m there
Ask me and I’m there, I care…

But I could not stem the tide of overwhelm, and thirst…

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Bernie Grundman Mastering Studios (Hollywood), and me (maybe).

His beard had grown in heavy, but he still looked as though he might be a little younger than me. He was dressed all in black, and so was I. I was walking up to the corner he was standing sentry on, where cars pull through, impatiently honking, California stop-rolling across the white line, just coming off the freeway. It was already dark out, and I was frowning down at my phone, trying to compose a message while walking. In the dark, the glare of the phone screen can wipe out much of my peripheral vision, like being encased in a dark bubble, nearly blind, if I am not careful. He had a coffee can in his hand, which he extended out toward the cars, shaking it slightly, but it was not an aggressive rattle; asking quietly for help, not wanting to be impolite. Without a home, but not wanting to make a fuss about it.

I am alarmingly broke by this time of the month; I already know my rent will be paid late. An unexpected expense, as they so often do, caught me off guard the week before, and I was able to just barely handle it at the time, but knew it would leave me in a bind almost immediately after, and now I am in it. This happens often enough that I can’t even pretend to be surprised by it; I am merely tired. I rarely carry cash as it is, because in my experience, those of us on the poor end of the scale don’t do well to have too much of it on hand; it seems to flow away even faster that way, and you’ve already started with so little. I grow too tired of attempting to recall all at once how much of both it, and digital sums in my account, I may or may not have. Having no safety net to speak of means constant vigilance, and it is exhausting. One balance to worry about at a time is more than enough.

Tonight, unusually, I had a few remaining dollar bills from another day with me, and a bit of change. I reached into my jacket pocket and handed what I had left to him. He didn’t seem to expect it, as I was on foot, approaching from behind his area of focus, so I folded it into his hand instead, while in his other the can remained extended away from us, still outstretched toward the freeway off-ramp. It’s hard for me, nearly impossible, to not give what little I have, on the rare occasion I do pass someone out on the street when I actually have something on hand to give. I’ve been far too close to homelessness myself on too many occasions — even now, I’m only really one or two more unexpected, more disastrous expenses away from it happening, and it’s always in the back of my mind. Growing up with no upward mobility in sight, reaching 30 and still having none, will do that to you. You don’t imagine success; you merely, by long, tiresome instinct, try to anticipate the impossible, to avoid disaster.

I also know, though, that little if nothing separates me from him. In all likelihood he can easily be a more talented, smarter individual than I, and that still could not keep a roof over his head. I know enough about bad luck and circumstance, about how expensive it is to be poor, to know this. He thanks me, and I tell him I hope he has enough layers to keep warm tonight. It’s been very, California desert-like, bone-chill cold this winter, in the night, and dampness from yesterday’s spots of rain still lingers in the air. He nods at me. He does not smile, but his eyes are kind, underneath the exhaustion and wariness.

He is looking right at me. I wish him a good night, but he calls after me: “You’re very beautiful!” I say thank you, because I am too flustered by what preceded that to know what else to say. He says again: “You are very beautiful. Have a wonderful evening!”

I am flustered by being looked at, by being seen. It happens so rarely, I never know quite how to react on the few occasions that it does. The understanding I saw in his face, I think, came from that. So many people let their eyes slide over those less fortunate than them, because it’s the simplest way to avoid guilt, or unpleasant thoughts. He looked at me the way one invisible person looks at another; like two ghost ships crossing the same stretch of sea in the night. He was surprised to be seen, and so was I.

I often wonder what it must feel like, to be truly visible to people, never having been much myself. I’m old enough now, and have tried enough approaches, to know that carrying myself differently, pretending different attitudes, projecting confidence I don’t have: none of it makes any difference. Nothing really hides the sort of person I am underneath artifice, which is more like a shadow than a person, or often feels that way. In groups that have to narrow out, I will always end up bringing up the rear, when people naturally arrange themselves. In groups in general, I can’t penetrate beyond the outside edge, whether I would like to or not. I know this is why a particular passage (among so many others) from one of my favorite books struck me so hard the first time I read it, and every time after, because it speaks to that complete lack of visibility — not as an object taking up space or blending into scenery, but as a perceptible person — in such an unflinching manner:

I saw myself for the first time as a thing, a thing in someone else’s mind. Of course I had always acknowledged my body, the fact of my visibility, but I had not been a thing, really, because I had been of no use. A pebble is a thing, a blade of grass is a thing, the broken thread in an old binding. But no one holds these things in mind, they exist in solitude. In privacy. I had known myself to be a perceptible object, a serviceable body, unlovely, unugly, unremarkable. Plain and capable, I moved through the perceptible world, and people nodded and asked questions and sometimes shook my hand, but no one, no one shrank me, remembered me, kept my image prisoner, arranged my body in poses, put words in my mouth, imagined me, used me, used me, like a spread-legged thing in a magazine, like a thing. I had not known until this moment, really, I had not believed that anyone had this power.

I think about it also, often, through the lens of the conundrum of being a woman in the world; a place where we are typically, naturally, unconsciously reduced to objects, despite not wanting to be, and yet still wanting to be seen, because that passage — that book — is very much about that, too. How often I’ve wondered how much of my desire for visibility comes from my own self, and how much has been forced upon me since a time before I was even conscious of it; whether reconciling those conflicting poles is even possible. There is a creative man I know, who claims to think of me often, but I wonder to what degree the fantasy he’s made of me in his mind can possibly have anything truly to do with me; he does not, at the end of the day, and after so long, know me all that well. I nearly had a run-in of some sort with another man just yesterday, which I was thankful to dodge; I have no idea what he might have wanted to say to me, but I know that I was never of any consequence to him, that merely by attempting to communicate with him at one time, I was already a burden, because I was so easily forgotten otherwise; even beyond that, he made sure to make it clear to me how little attention, time, or notice I was really worth to him. None of which surprised me, of course. He was simply following the narrative of my life that nearly all others before him had done. That’s not a plot twist; that’s merely one more day of being an indistinguishable piece of the scenery. All I really wondered, in the end, after so much wasted time, was why he had bothered with the charade in the first place; that he’d seen anything at all. Just a glitch, before the inevitable course correct.

I’ve held, and still do, a shamefully deep envy for those not just more fortunate than I as far as things like financial stability and certainty of self are concerned, but also just of those who are seen. I’m often quite sensitive to being treated by others as nothing much more than a piece of furniture or window dressing, despite being used to it, but have no means of correcting it. What would it be like, to move through the world and be regularly taken notice of? To have demands made on my time by those who wanted it, truly wanted my attention, rather than constantly having to remind others, even those with the best of intentions, that I am, in fact, still here? (They generally do mean well, and I know this; they just can’t help it. I certainly don’t resent them — how can I? If so few others really see me, why should I expect more from them? I try not to. Expectations like those would be the death of me. I may not be a pessimist, but I am no optimist.) I try simply to not draw any attention to it; it’s why I don’t do things like sit down and send a message to an old best friend I am no longer close to, acknowledging that we really are no longer close at all. What good would speaking to that in the open do? I understand it; he is not the first to, almost seemingly by accident or forgetfulness, just leave me behind. I look at all the people I know who actually have to juggle plans with more than one person at a time, and can’t even begin to fathom what it must feel like, having that as a problem. (To exist in such a space that you would even consider that a problem? Unfathomable.) Do mirrors reflect them differently? Do they somehow appear more substantial? I only know they exist on an entirely different plane of existence from mine. Those things happen to characters in films and books, to the more charismatic and consequential people I know in my life, but never to me. I feel myself, inwardly, goggle at them like one might view a separate species through the glass of an impenetrable display case.

But, earlier: It felt nice to be seen. It felt a little strange; sometimes, in certain periods, when it has been a long time since the last instance, it feels almost alien. But it isn’t a bad strangeness; it seems to root me somehow more closely to the earth. I feel less as though I am simply floating from one place to another, leaving nothing tangible behind; I feel more like the world does exist even with me included in it, too, every now and then. He smiled a little at me when I turned back a final time, and I wondered whether he must have felt the same.

Invocation

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There are many things in my life I feel I can admit to no one, but one of those I tend to hide more deeply than most is my horrible tendency to wish. I wish for so many things, even as I wish for them knowing I will never have them. Maybe writing about it now will help me learn to squelch it beneath my heel and walk away from it, give up on it, leave it behind me. Sunday nights always seem to bring out the melancholy in me, so now is as good a time as any.

This is something that tends to start when you are young, and reading stories that unabashedly encourage it. I always harbored a deep skepticism of the fruition of wishes in such stories, even when I was young; I might have enjoyed reading them, but I did not believe in them. Wishes only came true when magic was involved, and magic wasn’t real. This only would really have been apparent to anyone who might have read the silly stories I wrote myself, as a young girl, because of the manner in which I was quietly visible through them. Like most children, I wrote obvious avatars of myself, though always vastly improved ones: I wrote about prettier, stronger, more feminine, braver, more happily-destined girls. They would often have my long blonde hair, they would wear my favorite colors, they would have pets with the same names as mine, but they would have lovely faces unlike mine, grace where I had none, resourcefulness and spontaneity in place of my stillness, my silence. They would run away from home to become someone I never would: someone you would want to read a story about.

I was the kind of little girl who wrote romantic endings to those other girls’ stories, for which you could, still, always, blame the wishing. I wrote them into adventures I would never have, love stories I knew I would never live. I wrote about brave, sweet boys falling in love with them, because I knew there would be no love story in the world outside pure fiction to ever include the real me. (In my first year of high school, a favorite art project was re-illustrating the original version of Snow White, which is, unsurprisingly, much more brutal than the Disney version. Three attempted murders, rather than just the one, and the Evil Queen wants rather bloody certainty that the prettier girl is dead.) In this world, boys and men would see other girls and women and hold their image in their mind as something to be remembered or admired; they would ask for their time and company, crave their attention, give them flowers, show them they were worth noticing. All my life I have stood separate from experiences like those, until I came to know how invisible I was. I knew even when I was young that I would grow up and grow old alone, with my naturally down-turned mouth and frightening eyes. I resented that I was brought up to hope for better or more, that I even wanted companionship or affection from others, that I couldn’t keep it in stories alone and safely away from me, that I couldn’t keep to my very separate self and not be left wanting, when I knew I would never get any of it. Some days I could slap myself across the face for all of it. So much fruitless, hopeless energy, all gone to waste.

Hope is a dangerous thing in a lot of ways. In its best form of power, it can break people through dark and unforgiving circumstances, giving them strength. In its worst, it can just hollow you out inside, with nothing to take its place. Wishing is a word that makes it sound more whimsical, and far less treacherous, than it is. Wishing can hurt you, wishing can destroy you; it can wrap its deceptive arms around you and turn you into the evil witch who hides in the dungeon, the cave. (Cut her heart out! Put it in a box! Maybe then she will finally be as empty as me.) She gets the best songs, but in the end she always dies. Wishing belongs in fairy tales, even the grim ones, when dropping a penny into a well and pouring a song into it can actually produce something in return. In real life, only shadows and echoes bounce back; everything else is just swallowed up in the dark.

Under the Influence of Heroines

Going back through tons (boxes and binders and teetering piles) of old artwork over the past few weeks, it’s been much more illuminating than I anticipated to see the works of my younger self. I had almost completely forgotten just how many “epic” stories I attempted to start, but of course never finished; I have been a terrific non-completer of “books” for as long as I can remember — the incredible prevalence of plastic spiral-bound (and even more rudimentary staple-bound) reams of lined paper containing the first few to, at most, dozen or so pages of my Next Great Story, among all this old work, is unintentionally hilarious to recognize as a larger pattern now. Once I got older, there were a few I even gamely stuck with across a few years; in grade school I would start and stop them within single volumes and quickly move on to the next concept, but once I hit junior high, I began to obsessively plot out and outline, often in astounding levels of detail (considering how little actual “book” ever followed all this preparatory work), to sketch out in fuller detail characters and concepts. I would enter periods where I would draw nothing else, in which these worlds became as fictionally real as I imagine any writer’s do. I would sketch scene upon scene from some great work that would never be anything more than disjointed pieces, with no serious concern for how I might stitch it all together later. All of that was already somewhere in my head, even if I would never draw most of it.

This “style,” if it can be called that, even spilled over into my writing. I started playing around with fanfic at around the same age, and on into high school; when writing it, I always gravitated toward scenic stories, rather than anything deeply plotted. (To this day, there’s still a huge Word document sitting somewhere on one of my backup hard drives, containing the thousands of words of all the X-Files fanfic snippets I ever wrote, which I added to randomly whenever inspiration struck. It’s essentially just one huge collection of post-episode vignettes, which was far and away my favorite thing to write. At some point, I had a vague but grand vision of connecting it all together via some large, interactive art piece and some creative coding.) My preference for this style was so great, I even once created a new formatting style on LiveJournal, incorporating small graphics — via plenty of extra CSS code — into a story, purely as a means to add a visual element to give the disjointed nature of this type of storytelling better flow for the reader. It won a community award, and was even mimicked by a few other writers for a time afterward, though I don’t imagine anyone knew what my real reason was for doing it: I’m just a heavily visual thinker. (But mostly, I’m just a huge nerd.)

In revisiting all this old art and all these old stories I started, the theme that connects them all is as obvious a sign of my influences as anything anyone that young creates: badass (often magical, though not always) ladies. Why was this? Sailor Moon. Obviously.

I was introduced to the series by a friend just around when I was turning 13. I can’t imagine a better time to be indoctrinated into the magical girls club. At the time, the only way you could read the original source material — Naoko Takeuchi’s beautiful (highly stylized) manga series — was Mixx (which would later become TokyoPop)’s English translations. They were poorly bound, and even more poorly translated. It took my nerdy ass roughly three months to figure this out. What did I do then? I bought the manga in its (much more finely bound, as tankouban have always been in comparison to American comics) original Japanese format from the Kinokuniya bookstore at the local Japanese market, then sat in my room and stared at the panels, attempting to figure out what the symbols in them meant. Considering I had never attempted to learn a foreign language before, looking back at the notes I made as an adult — and as someone who eventually did study the language formally for three years in high school, can still read and write it well enough, and was for a time conversationally fluent — I’m rather amazed at how much I was able to figure out entirely visually, just from trying to read a comic book. A note, in one margin: my poorly written (not having studied Japanese calligraphy yet) kanji for “senshi,” followed by its hiragana counterparts. Next to it, I wrote, “must mean ‘soldier’ or ‘scout’.” This is essentially correct (senshi indeed means “soldier”); the Mixx translation of Sailor Moon (and dubbed Toei anime series) opted to refer to the girls as “Sailor scouts” rather than soldiers, but I was apparently astute enough to recognize where and when this character would appear, and what its context must mean. I had several sheets covered with such inferred word usage investigations I undertook on my own.

This was an understandably slow process, and entirely based on making educated guesses, with no one to correct any mistakes I might make. So, I next rode my bike to my neighborhood Barnes & Noble, sat on the floor for an hour in the language section, and picked out a Japanese language guidebook. (The selection was overwhelming, and ultimately I picked the one co-written by a woman who shared my first name, because that’s as good a reason as any to choose one book over another when you’re 13 and wholly ignorant to the nuances of translation. Fortunately, it turned out to be a very good edition. I still have it, with all my old handwritten Post-Its stuck in.) By the time I started to study Japanese formally in school, at age 15, though much of my self-taught calligraphy stroke order was a bit backwards, I had a fairly strong basic understanding to work from. (Along with trying to read through comics, the first full anime series I watched, which will always be my favorite, Tenkuu no Escaflowne, is a series heavily concerned with the concept of fate or destiny. The word is discussed so often during its run, I realized at around the same age what unmei must mean. This applied to iinazuke — “fiance” — with Ranma 1/2, and its plot’s comedic obsession with rotating engagements, as well. As I picked up more, I also gained an appreciation for Japanese humor, which — being heavily pun-based — does not translate easily, and on which you can blame the ridiculous title of this very post.) All of this work, almost entirely thanks to the power of magical girls.

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Sailor Mnemosyne (left) with her sister, Sailor Lethe (right).
© Naoko Takeuchi

My years-long obsession with Greek mythology was deepened by this as well, as the original manga series of Sailor Moon features a rich, heavily Greek-inspired mythology, and almost all major character names are tied to it directly or indirectly (apart from the majority of the villains, whose names are largely tied to gemology). I’d spend hours on library and school computers — for at least half of high school my only means of accessing the adolescent Internet — poring over all those quirky old Geocities fan sites, soaking all of the character dossiers up, learning how everything tied together. (The one character I briefly considered cosplaying as a teenager only appears in a single chapter of the manga, and her name is Sailor Lethe; she appears alongside her sister, Mnemosyne, and they are named after the rivers in Hades. Their names’ connection to forgetfulness and memory in mythology tie in directly to their powers and actions within the story.)

I’m old enough now to look back on old works and see their obvious — and even some of their less glaring — influences. It’s easy for me to laugh at how heavily I matched so many of the same notes from that series (c’mon now, younger self, did you really think no one would notice?), but it’s hard for me to find fault in it. I can only view Sailor Moon‘s affect on my younger self as positive. But what was it that made it so special to me, exactly? To answer that, I looked more closely at my longest enduring creation; the character I worked hardest at, to develop the most fully, and drew for the longest period of time.

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Kaea’s early character design concept, from my high school notes, circa 2000-01. Heavily manga-inspired in style.
© Eleanore Studer

Her name was Kaea (an obvious crib from “gaea,” alternately “gaia,” and all the Greek mythological and Escaflowne-inspired — the fictional planet just near the moon, where most of that series takes place, being called Gaea — carryover that implies). She far outlasted any other character I ever conceived. She first began to appear somewhere midway through high school, likely in my sophomore year, but she can still be found as far on as in the margins of my latest notes in college, up to eight years later, and possibly even a bit later than that. As my style evolved with time and more extensive art study, so did she.

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Kaea’s design evolution, from one of my college notebooks, circa 2006-07. A much more hybridized style between Japanese and American influences.
© Eleanore Studer

Originally she was far more obviously Japanese in style, but as I grew older and studied graphic novels more broadly, she took on a more hybrid look somewhere between Japanese and American styles: still large, though not as large, eyes; more prominently defined nose and lips; a less pointed and angular, smoother face; less spectacular hair, in both color and length. She also aged with me; in early drawings she is clearly intended to be a teenager, but once I was in college, her face had elongated slightly; she seemed to have become older, too.

Looking back now, though I didn’t realize it as I conceived her, she was everything I wanted to be. In many ways, her creation and sustained presence through my creative development and life stands as the most protracted and intricate example of escapism for me. She was, like me, a tall girl (my same height, in fact, because if things aren’t completely on the nose when you’re young, what are they?). I attended a high school with over 4,000 students, and was probably only the same height or taller than a dozen of them at most, and thus stuck out everywhere I went like a sore thumb. In her story, she had a male love interest (something I would never have) who was — unconventional in any shoujo series, and against the typical Hollywood romantic comedy archetype — shorter than her, as all the boys I knew then were. (He was originally named Seki, though I suspect I may have changed it to something else at some point. I wish I could recall my thought process in choosing that particular kanji, considering its meaning is, oddly, “blame” or “to condemn.”) Kaea had long hair, like mine, but it started off wildly, ridiculously colorful, unlike mine (and a few years before I would finally dye mine, as I had wanted to do for ages). She dressed somewhat similarly to me; a bizarre hybrid of tomboyish baggy pants and more girlish, fitted shirts, or skirts at times. I’m sure I even drew her a few times in a long, black trench coat, which was my own lone signature clothing item throughout high school. She was more beautiful than I could ever imagine I would be. She was also braver and stronger than me — the tough one; the rescuer and aggressor — but simultaneously a loner with few close friends, just as I was. She had a strange, tragic backstory to explain her unusual personality and various neuroses, which I had (and still have) no such convenient excuse for, yet almost longed for, in that shameless self-mythologizing manner of children (which is why, among other reasons, I’ve always suspected so many children’s stories are focused around orphans — from Dickens to Mary in her Secret Garden, through Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and the Boxcar Children, and the hundreds of others in between). Like me, she was bitingly sarcastic, and fond of raising one eyebrow to intimidate or communicate bemusement. She had secrets of the sort we all wish we had, rather than the secrets we live with. She may have been a strange outsider, but — unlike her perpetual misfit creator, who fit in nowhere — she had a destiny, and when you are a young dreamer with an overactive imagination, that is everything. Some incarnations of her, at various points in her ever-growing mythos, had wings (another aspect that can be equally blamed on Escaflowne). She had weapons: originally a gun, until I grew a bit older and more uncomfortable with them, which was later replaced by a sword, but then replaced yet again by, ultimately, inevitably, some form of staff, tied to… magical powers. Why? Because: Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon is still extraordinary to me, whether viewed as a product (or an outlier) of its time of conception, or on its own. Created by a woman, it describes a universe almost entirely composed of women. Powerful women. Soldiers. Badass ladies guarding, fighting for, saving the goddamn universe. The main male love interest is the one who keeps needing to be rescued (constantly getting brainwashed and/or kidnapped), because his own powers are both what might be considered traditionally feminine (healing, psychometry) and significantly weaker than his girlfriend’s. When I drew one of my longest standing favorite images of Kaea and her own fellow, she is the primary focus; he is standing behind her:

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Kaea and Seki, still in the early (heavily Japanese-styled) design stages, right down to the friggin’ cherry blossom petals. (Boy, did I have way too much fun with that hair.)
© Eleanore Studer

Thanks, Sailor Moon.

All women. Strong, diverse women. (Jupiter was my favorite, because I saw myself most in her: tall, tomboy, perceived as intimidating but secretly big-hearted and romantic, loved to cook and bake, fiercely protective of her loved ones.) But really, you and your friends could find at least one girl in that series you saw yourself in, if not several, because there were so many to choose from. We made a game of it, my five core female friends in eighth grade and me. (Which Sailor Scout are you!?) And the series itself, despite being considered primarily shoujo, had everything: action, drama, comedy, romance, intrigue. Gender swapping, lesbianism, implied pre-age of consent sex, asexuality, destiny. There are even arguments to be made that Sailor Moon was — particularly during its later, nightmare-centric SuperS and galaxy-wide hit squad-focused Stars arcs — a horror series.

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Sailor Chi, acting as an agent for the dictatorial Sailor Galaxia, murders Princess Kakyuu by impaling her through the back with her staff. Sailor Moon never shied away from blood, violence, or horrific imagery, but this panel always stuck with me personally as one of the most brutal and shocking of the entire series.
© Naoko Takeuchi

It did not shy away from lending immense power to its female characters, either. Sailor Moon is the ultimate power source in the universe, but her protectors are total badasses in their own right.

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The Sailor soldiers, outer and inner planetary squads (left to right): Pluto, Uranus, Moon, Saturn, Neptune; Venus, Mars, Chibi-Moon, Mercury, Jupiter.
© Naoko Takeuchi

They were gorgeous — one of my all-time favorite things Takeuchi ever said was that she just loved to draw “beautiful women” (who doesn’t?) — but they could, and would, beat the shit out of you. (Kaea’s story featured, of course, three support soldiers, complete with obvious element-inspired names. HMM. Apparently young me genuinely believed that if I assigned her three of them, as opposed to four (or nine), no one could possibly know where this idea came from.) The anime may not have liked to overtly depict much death, but in the manga, the soldiers behaved as soldiers typically do, and did often kill their enemies, whenever they were found to be beyond redemption. Sailor Pluto’s lonely duty guarding the gates of time alone meant she could stop time. Sailor Saturn? Her single power was to come in when everyone else had irrevocably fucked everything up, lower her scythe, and end the entire goddamn world.

Of course, in my drawing, growing up with these women, the woman I drew would stand in front.

The ultimate lesson of the series is arguably that pain and struggle, suffering and loss are inescapable, but love and friendship are worth living and fighting for. Sailor Moon chooses to live, despite the chaos of the universe — and the temptation to end any future conflict by throwing herself into the Galaxy Cauldron to be destroyed — because of her friends and those she loves. She will not sacrifice their existence simply to save herself the burden of forever fighting. Her greatest power throughout the entire series, but particularly by the end, is the strength of her heart, her ability to accept and love anyone, even her enemy.

For all these reasons, and probably plenty more, Sailor Moon permeated everything I wrote and drew for many years. As all young, developing artists do, I began by copying favorite panels, before eventually developing my own style and characters. (Coming across many samples of this through my recent trip down memory lane has been pretty entertaining, too.) The themes of her story bled into any I wanted or attempted to create, helped feed my creative drive. And while I can initially laugh at that transparency… the more I consider it, the more grateful I am that — of all the series I could have fixated on during my most feverishly productive artistic years — I found her and her friends.