Digging with Both Hands, 5

 

This is Part #5 of Diary of a Naive. Parts 1-4 may be found in Recent Posts at the sidebar.

 

  The train wreck always announced itself. Faint warning bells and urgent whistles would go off in my psyche every time I headed toward something I was enthusiastic about, but I always managed to brush them away, and I did so once again. I ran to my room, insanely happy that the Universe had not only blessed me with telling me what I was supposed to do with my life, it even handed me a story. It was all too wonderful to be true. But it was true. Passing the staircase, I threw a glance down to the foyer and wondered whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to quickly clean the kitchen and to put in a load of wash, which would just take a minute, and then my mind would be free to work on my future.

I turned to head downstairs and stopped myself. I was doing it again. I had done it a thousand times. Whenever there was something I wanted to do solely for myself, I headed first for the things that needed doing or that I thought needed doing or that seemed plausible to do now rather than later. I might as well call the plumber before sitting down to read. Invariably, this guy, who sometimes took weeks to come, had a free moment and came right away, which meant I didn’t read that day. Or I thought I might as well quickly clean the freezer, which would take but thirty minutes. Of course, it always took hours. Dragging everything out made a mess in the kitchen, which I had to clean as well, and it would’ve been stupid to clean the freezer and not the fridge at the same time. Or I might as well take a few minutes and go through the pile—no matter how neatly stacked—of magazines that I never seemed to get around to reading and throw some of them out. Or I might as well take the duster and quickly run through the house and get the spider webs out of the corners, because, for no reason whatever, I had looked up at the ceiling in the foyer the day before, and there it was, larger than life, a perfect web. If there was one, there would be others. Or I might as well quickly hammer the Trojan Horse together. It would only take a minute.

But this time, I caught myself just in time and headed straight for my sanctuary, where a sobering sight met me. The dark, dreary room looked like the detention room in a medieval schoolhouse. And why hadn’t I ever noticed this before? The only window in the room faced north and saw the sun for only a few minutes in the morning on a few slants of light, though it did look pretty with its lace curtains, which I had hung to give the house a uniform lacey look from the outside. The lone chair by the window held a box with clothes the children had outgrown and that I had meant to drop off at the Salvation Army.

The metal folding table we had once used in the yard for cookouts had become my projects table, where I cut out fabrics and framed pictures and fixed things that were broken. The table was covered with stuff I had meant to get to and hadn’t. When I wrote the night before, I had just shoved it all aside. But now it bothered me. Empty picture frames and matting lay in one pile. Fabric, left over from something I had sown, made up another. Thread and scissors and other assorted sewing items spilled out of the basket I kept them in. Advertisements with coupons, which I had meant to cut out, lay in yet a further pile.

Against the wall, the sewing machine stood open on top of an old cabinet, and a long-armed, brown office desk lamp finished that drab picture. The ironing board leaned against the wall. The Naugahide looked a little brighter now with the pretty quilt, but the corner where it stood was depressing. On one side, the black boom box Adam Jr. had bestowed on me when he bought a new one sat on the floor beside the black phone. On the other side, an old end table and a reading lamp, which, actually, since I’d permitted myself the splurge of a honey colored shade, had a lovely light. But the light wasn’t on that moment. And the fat yellow candle I lit sometimes when I mended looked positively lost on that table. I couldn’t help myself. I had to make some changes. And if only to match my bliss. And no, I didn’t recognize the danger signals. It seemed perfectly plausible to create something pretty and to bring some order into this place before I sat down to write.

I folded the ironing board and stuck it behind the door and took the Salvation Army box downstairs so I would make sure to take it with me when next I left the house. Whatever was on the table, I stuffed into the closet that I had fitted with shelves some years back. These shelves already held my fabrics and patterns and the rest of my life: framing supplies, yarns for weaving, water colors, a box with pottery supplies, drawing tablets, and leftovers from whatever other hobbies I had started enthusiastically, only to lose interest halfway through. On the top shelf, in a box, were all my folders and papers and books from my failed dream of getting a college degree.

Once the table was empty, I moved it to the window, wide side butting up perfectly beneath the sill. Studying that arrangement, I thought better of it. I would be sitting with my back to whoever came into the room, which would make me feel like Doc Holliday, who always sat with his back to the wall for fear someone would come up behind him and shoot him. And, if I remember correctly, someone did. So I moved the small end of the table to butt up with the sill, got the chair, and sat down to get the full effect of what it would be like once I actually sat down to write.

I glanced out the window and met our neighbor’s tall and proud pines. I loved these pines, because a little bit of sky was to be had above them. Sometimes, when I felt homesick for Colorado, I would stand by that window, remembering running among the pines when I was a child. I missed their scent so much, and I missed walking barefoot over the brown needles that got stuck in the soles of my feet sometimes. It was so wonderfully quiet among the pines. Even as a child, I craved solitude more than I craved people.

When I looked up, the bluest of skies serrated by the tops of the pines met me. I sighed. Why hadn’t I moved the table there before? Or even the sewing machine so I could look up from the drudgery of sewing and mending once in a while and see the sky? Kate Hamilton, I said, you are an idiot. But before I permitted myself to dwell on this verdict against me further, I headed to the linen closet in the hall where I found the yellow checkered table cloth I used on the patio table for summer cookouts and smoothed it onto my new desk. The first item I put on it was the notebook into which I once had jotted sewing instructions and now used as a kind of calendar/reminder to keep to-do-lists in. This notebook was essential to keep nearby, because if I didn’t immediately write down the definitely-not-to-forget-to-do things that came to me I would forget. The drab, brown, long-armed office lamp from the sewing cabinet gave me some trouble when I tried to fasten the bracket to the edge of the table, and it wobbled once I got it attached, but it would have to do until I could get myself a prettier one. I dug the old typewriter I had used to write my college papers on out of the closet, dusted it, and took off the cover.

Did this make me feel like a writer?

Absolutely.

I ran to the garden and came back with a bouquet of daffodils and two red tulips. On the way up the stairs, I grabbed a picture of the children when they were small—pudgy sweet Julie in the pink little frock I had made for her, and Adam Jr., smiling, age five, in his baseball uniform. I stole a pillow off the living room couch as an added colorful touch to the quilt on the Naugahide, put the fat yellow candle on my desk by the flowers, and then I stood in the door, surveying my work. The room was perfect, except for one more thing. I went to get a sheet and draped it over the sewing machine, and now there was nothing left of my previous dreary life.

But even as I worked—the whole of the change taking little more than an hour —I was aware that, rather than working slowly and deliberately, I rushed to get it all done. This rushing around was very familiar to me. Whenever I did something that I truly enjoyed or something that I did only for myself, I rushed through it all as if the devil were after me. Sometimes, I caught myself and demanded that I slow down, insisting that I had a perfect right to do what I was doing and everything else could wait. What I didn’t know yet was that negative emotions are very powerful. Until you search for them and actually find them and shoot them dead, they will play tug of war with the reasoning of your mind until they win. And they most always do. No amount of telling myself that I had a perfect right to do something I enjoyed doing, like reading, or, in this case, taking the time to create a pretty room for myself, got rid of the tension that invariably rose after I had worked on whatever ‘selfish’ project I decided to work on.

I headed to my messy kitchen for another cup of coffee, realizing that it was past noon. I had about three hours of free time, but then I’d have to see to the house. Or should I do it now, and then I’d be free?

“For God’s sake, Kate!” I screamed at myself. “What in the hell is wrong with you?”

I didn’t walk back to my sanctuary, I stomped up those stairs, as if I could pound determination into my head by stomping. I put down my coffee cup, settled happily down in front of the typewriter, and took a deep breath.

That’s when the phone rang. The sound blasted the room so suddenly, I jumped. I sat motionless, as if, if I didn’t move, the phone would think I wasn’t home and would stop ringing. But it kept ringing. It’s Adam, I thought. Adam was calling to find out how I was, and why was I letting him wait when he was about to be so kind. But it wasn’t Adam. Of course not. It was Janice Reimer, my neighbor.

“Oh, Kate,” she said, “I’m so glad you’re home, and I’m so sorry to trouble you. I was supposed to pick up Tommy from his classes at NOVA, and my car broke down. I hate to ask, but would it at all be possible for you to come and get me?”

Damn! I thought. Why did I pick up the phone? Janice’s car broke down at least once a month, and why in the hell didn’t they just get a new car? Besides, Janice was the kind of person who never quit talking about the most trivial things in the greatest of detail:

And then she said, Huh?

And I said, It’s true.

And then she said, I don’t believe it.

And then I said, Believe me, it’s true.

And then she said, That’s terrible.

And then I said, of course, it’s terrible.

And then she said . . . .

By this time, I’d find myself so antsy and frustrated, I couldn’t wait to get back to my own house. As time went by, I had to come up with ever more outrageous lies to escape her.

The Reimer’s had bought the house next door about two years before, when Jean, the only friend I had made in this neighborhood, had moved with her husband to Texas. I missed them terribly. They had had no children, and Jean taught Spanish part-time at one of the community colleges. We often got together for coffee or went shopping or to the movies or to explore Washington, once the kids were in school, and I hated losing her. When we moved into the neighborhood, I had tried to make friends, introducing myself to the neighbors, or talking to them when I met them on my walks, offering help if they needed something from the store or the pharmacy. I even managed to invite some of them over for coffee and dessert. But they rarely invited me back, and I soon realized that the folks in Barclay Commons had all known one another forever, and they didn’t need a newcomer. So I was looking forward to Janice moving in, but once I got to know her a little better, I realized that, once encouraged, she would talk forever. Getting away from her was difficult, because she kept on talking, even when I said that I really had to go. For the longest time, I felt guilty trying to get away, no matter how frustrated I was. I thought that she might be lonely, even though she had two boys and a husband. But one day, I had enough, and said:

“Janice?”

She kept talking.

I raised my voice. “Janice?”

She finally quit talking.

“I have to go,” I said, and I turned and left. I didn’t feel any less guilt, but my frustration won. Thereafter, I tried to avoid her, trying not to be too obvious. Which was equally difficult. Her car breaking down all the time didn’t help in the least.

I didn’t know just what she did all day. I had never been to her house when it wasn’t in total disarray—the kitchen a mess, clothes lying everywhere together with newspapers, magazines, and I don’t know what else. She had made a career out of suffering, as she said, from migraines and spent a good deal of time in bed. Most of the time it was her husband, an accountant, who got dinner ready for her and the boys after he came home from work. Stacks of romance novels always covered the coffee table, and she freely admitted devouring them, and she obviously lived them, expecting her husband to live them too, whether he wanted to or not. She had no qualms sharing her sex life with me, even when he stood right there, and more than once I had to listen to how she had greeted him the evening before in the nude, with only a sheer tulle scarf around her neck, laughing a coy and self-congratulatory little laugh as she told the story, because it was so delicious.

She had caught me at the mailbox when her two boys visited their grandparents a couple of weeks back and told me that she had built a fire in the fireplace, put a soft quilt in front of it, and she and her husband had sex there. She made sure to let me know that it was wonderful, while her husband, who had innocently joined us at the mailbox, tried to coax her into the house with some urgency. But she couldn’t let go of her tale until it was done, putting her arm around his waist so he couldn’t leave unless he wanted to be rude.

And now her car quit on her once again, and I had no choice but to graciously say, “Of course. Where are you?”

“Right outside Lord & Taylor’s.”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said, utterly frustrated.

If I hadn’t taken the time to revamp my sanctuary, I probably would have five pages done by now. I should have sat down the moment the story came to me. And why didn’t I get an answering machine yet? Tomorrow, I would go and get an answering machine. At which butterflies invaded my stomach, because I had brought the subject up to Adam a few times, and he didn’t think it was a good idea.

I ran to rip off my sweats, pulled on a pair of jeans and a blouse, tied my hair back, looked in the mirror, found my eyes tired, stroked on some mascara, grabbed keys and bag, and ran out of the house.

She waited for me outside the store, which was just a couple of miles away.

“Hi, there,” she said, climbing into the car, “I’m so sorry I had to drag you out of the house.”

“No problem,” I said. “I wasn’t doing anything important. Do you need me to take you to NOVA?”

“Oh, would you?” I have never seen anyone so relieved. “He gets so cross with me when he has to wait. And I . . . . ” She stopped. “I wish I were as slender as you are,” she suddenly said. “How do you do it? I can’t lose weight to save my life.”

The compliment so surprised me, I didn’t know what to say. As I never knew what to say. Compliments hadn’t come my way often, aside from Adam in the beginning of our relationship. And so I said, “Oh, don’t you think I’m much too skinny?”

“Oh, not at all! You are perfect. And your house. And the garden. How do you do it?” She sighed.

How did I do it? I didn’t know either, because to me it was never perfect enough.

“You should come and see the house today,” I said. “You’d be horrified.” I hoped to be home in time to do at least a little cleaning, in spite of my resolve to take the day off.

“Is this your natural color? If you don’t mind my asking?” she said.

“Unfortunately, yes,” I said. I have the kind of hair that only a lion tamer could whip into shape. When Caruso curls came in, I was ecstatic. Holding them back off my temples with two combs was easy and permitted me to do something other than tying it back, which I usually did.

We stood by the car once we got to the college so Tommy wouldn’t miss us as he would be looking for his mother’s car. Classes had just let out, and as I watched the students stream out of the buildings, I felt suddenly sad. This is where I would be if I hadn’t caved in to the punishing demands of my family.

Two women, packs over their shoulders and carrying books, headed toward us. Both seemed to me to be a little older than myself, and I assumed them to be teachers. They stopped at the car next to mine, and I moved back a little to give the one that was the passenger room to get in.

“When he mentioned phenomenology today, he lost me,” she said to her friend, and I realized they were students. A nagging little feeling of envy made itself felt in my stomach.

“Me too. Now if I could figure out what it is, I’d be all right,” the other laughed, putting her books into the back seat.

“Phenomenology is the study of that which goes on in consciousness,” I said, and I haven’t a clue how this came out of my mouth. But it did.

The women turned to me. “How’d you know that? You teach philosophy?”

“Oh, God, no,” I laughed. “I don’t know why I remembered that, but somehow, it just stuck in my mind.”

They laughed. “Can we call you if we run into trouble with that?”

“Oh, sure!” I thought they were joking. They weren’t.

“What’s your number?” they said at the same time.

That’s when my bravado flushed me like a hot flash. I opened my mouth to say that I didn’t think I knew that much about it—that I wasn’t going to college anymore, but I didn’t want to get into a long explanation on how I had quit college in front of Janice.

“I’m Kate Hamilton, and I don’t know if I could help you,” I said, “but my number’s in the book. Under Adam Hamilton.”

“Thanks. Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hoped they wouldn’t call. That would be awful. Mercifully, I didn’t get a chance to dwell on this, because Tommy saw us and waved, coming toward us, long-legged like my Adam. He grinned and climbed into the back seat of my small car where he folded like a pocketknife, sitting sideways, stowing away his legs. His mother, her head turned backwards, made all sorts of excuses about her car having broken down.

I didn’t hear what he answered. The women next to me were pulling out, and an outrageous thought had just come to me: Why didn’t I go back to school? The kids were older now, and aside from Adam’s grumpy face, there really was no reason for me not to go. If these two women could do it, so could I. The more I thought about it, the happier I felt. Yes. I could do this. There was no earthly reason not to.

I dropped off Janice and Tommy, for once staying firm when she implored me to have a cup of coffee with her. (“It’s the least I can do for you, after you have been so kind once again.”) But I couldn’t wait to get into the house, fiddling with the key, which always had an annoying little kink in it until it finally opened that door. I whirled into the foyer, carrying with me the scent of fresh cut grass and some other sweet spring scent that I could never identify, and caught my face in the mirror. I had never seen myself so happy. Some of my hair had come loose and flew wildly around my face, and I thought that I looked so young and glowing, I burst into tears.

“You, my dear,” I said to me, wiping away some tears, “have a plan. A wonderful plan. You will go back to school. You will have a profession. You will do something worthwhile. You may not know what it is, but you will. If these women can do it, you can too!”

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Digging with Both Hands, 4

 

This is Part #4 of Diary of a Naive. Parts #1 to #3 may be found in Recent Posts at the sidebar.

ENJOY!

 As soon as I opened my eyes the next morning, I remembered the dream. I wondered what it meant and rather than going down to the kitchen first thing, I was about to head to my sewing room to take a look at my dictionary of symbols to find out what the beautiful rooms might mean. Halfway there, I remembered the pages and came to a dead stop. What had I written? Suddenly, I couldn’t go there. All these words had come so spontaneously from so deep a place, they petrified me. What would they say about me? I had long suspected that I wasn’t of sound mind sometimes, and what if the proof of it lay in the drawer of my sewing machine?

I fled down to the kitchen. The familiar gestures of making coffee and setting the breakfast table finally calmed me enough to think about these pages more rationally. I had to get back up there to see what I had done and, if necessary, destroy the contraband. I poured myself a cup of coffee and headed upstairs. Halfway up, my feet turned to clay. What if I discovered that something was seriously wrong with me? But Julie’s alarm clock going off gave me the mental shove I needed. I told myself to stop being an idiot and bravely marched on up, the coffee shaking in my cup.

I could hear water running. Adam was already in the shower. I told myself to be calm. He could, just for once, pour himself his own cup of coffee. I put my hand on the drawer. Or should I wait until they were all out of the house?

I couldn’t do it. I felt much too anxious. I put the cup down, opened the drawer, and took out my ominous pages. The plumbing that suddenly shut off and made a droning noise through the walls gave me a jolt. I slammed the pages back into the drawer, shut it, and waited. The familiar noises of him getting dressed—the opening and shutting of drawers, the closet door groaning —told me that I was safe, for a little while anyway. My heart racing, I took the pages out again, but I couldn’t read them. I just held them, face down, in my lap while I sipped my coffee, staring at the wall.

Finally, I told myself to get a grip here, and resolutely turned them over. The more I read, the more puzzled I felt. I had written twelve pages worth of an incoherent mass on the word purpose. Fragments. Questions. Answers. Single words. Sometimes whole sentences. Sometimes even a paragraph. Today, I remember but a few of these outpourings. Having written them, I ripped them up one day, put the pieces into a manila envelope, and I hid that so well somewhere, I haven’t ever found it again. But some of the phrases still stick in my mind, maybe because they were so important to me. Fear of being useless. Wrong purposes. Fulfillment. People substitute tradition for purpose. Accomplishments. Priorities. A reason for living. Purpose is to give of oneself? Is a purpose a goal? Women’s liberation: a quest for individual purpose and fulfillment? One must look into oneself to find a purpose. Stop feeling guilty about your desires, your feelings.

I put the pages back. Just where inside was I to look for that purpose? Where was I to begin? I didn’t have a clue. And I had written that sentence. What made me write it when I didn’t know what I was talking about?

As for my feeling guilty about my desires and feeling—what a loaded sentence. I had no idea I felt guilty about my desires or my feelings. I didn’t know I wanted anything at all. Aside from Adam to stop throwing his things around for me to pick up. But then, he didn’t have much time in the morning. And if I didn’t pick up after him, who would? And just what did I want? And if I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life taking care of people and clean house, what else could I do?

The questions I asked in these pages I had never asked anyone, least of all myself, just as I had never consciously pondered the statements I had made there. Where did they all come from? What did they mean? What was the volcano that had erupted within me and spilled this senseless lava all over them? If there was a story in them, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to write it.

When Adam came out of the bedroom, I jumped up, pages in hand, and busied myself at the closet as if I were looking for something, just in case he glanced toward the sewing room on his way down to breakfast. He never had, and I often thought that, if I were to die in that sewing room, which was at one end of the hallway upstairs, no one would find me for hours. This time, of course, he would, no doubt, glance in this direction, just because I had something to hide. But he headed downstairs, preoccupied, giving the sewing room no thought, and why should he. He anticipated me to be in the kitchen, because that’s where I always was in the morning. All our married life, he wanted, for breakfast, toast, lightly buttered, one egg over-easy, orange juice, and coffee. I had grown so sick of the smell of that egg, more than once I ended up in the bathroom washing my face with ice-cold water so I wouldn’t throw up.

Instead of asking him to fry his own egg if that’s what he wanted, I told myself that I had, entirely, the wrong attitude. Adam, no matter how things were between us, still went out into this dog eat dog world, while I only had a part-time job three days a week. Without a doubt, none of the things I did were as important as what he did. The least I could do was to fry him an egg and to pour him a cup of coffee. And to make sure his underwear was folded neatly. And his socks. And to make sure that his shirts were ironed just the way he liked them. Without the least wrinkle, or he wouldn’t wear them. And that his suits were picked up from the cleaners, and that everything in his dresser was neat so he wouldn’t have to search for things in the morning and be late. His days, I was sure, were taxing enough, and the least I could do was to make sure his mornings were without frustration.

I could hear the children getting ready, but I still stood there, staring at my ominous pages. What did they mean? The sound of Julie’s hairdryer humming faintly through the walls told me that there wasn’t time now to figure out what they meant. I put them back into the sewing machine drawer and headed downstairs to that morning mood of eggs and sullen faces.

Halfway down, lightning struck, and when it did, everything changed. It’s almost too embarrassing to tell, because I’m sure no one was as dense and naive as the woman on those stairs, her red hair draped wildly around her shoulders, wearing her old, plaid flannel bathrobe, standing like a statue with the most astonished expression on her face. She had just comprehended why she had written twelve pages worth of an incoherent mass on the word purpose.

She had none.

These pages that she thought didn’t tell a story told a tale so distressing, the red-haired woman sat right down on the stairs and stared, with eyes wide open, at an abyss. Whatever had triggered the outpouring of these words had been in the making for a long time. And they had been triggered by a word so loaded, she shoved it away every time it came to her: the word futile. The work of her days, the senseless repetition, day after day, of cleaning the same tub, of washing the same floor, of doing the same laundry, going to the same places, standing by the same stove, living, in other words, a ferocious cycle that never went anywhere, had become, at some point in her life, wholly infected with the disease of futility. I felt like Homer’s Penelope and her weaving and unraveling, weaving and unraveling, and all the while, she’s waiting for something, for someone, to come and rescue her.

And all these many years, I had denied it. Because if ever I thought that the work of my days was utterly futile, I would have had to ponder just what purpose my life served, and aside from that of a menial servant to my husband and to my children, I had no purpose whatsoever. I was a wife and a mother, and They, Whoever They Are, had told me all my life that this was an honorable and rewarding vocation. But if this was so, then why was I so unhappy? And just how, along all these years, had I lost myself in a life that had no heartbeat?

If you do not want to wait for Part #5, you may buy the novel at Amazon or Barnes&Noble
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Digging with Both Hands, 3

 The following is Part 3 of Diary of a Naive.  Check for #1 and #2 in Recent Posts at the sidebar.
 
ENJOY.
 
 

I got up slowly, gingerly. If I made one quick move, all these thoughts and all these words and all these feelings would vanish forever.

Adam never looked up as I backed away from the rocking chair and out of the room and raced like a fury to the spare bedroom where I kept the ironing board and the sewing machine, and where I did my thinking and worrying and reading and laughing and where no one bothered me. I was possessed like Van Gogh when I took up a pen, ripped some paper out of the closet, and began writing, the ink racing over the sheet as if it had an insane life of its own.

I wrote for two hours without stopping. Adam went to bed, and I didn’t notice. He didn’t say good night as had become his habit. After we’d been married for a couple of years, he no longer thought it necessary. It had been I who had kept alive all these years the illusion of ‘loving, caring couple.’ Just when it began that he would suddenly disappear without saying good night, and I’d find him sound asleep in bed, I can’t remember. But I do remember that his indifference deeply hurt me.

That night, however, when I wrote like a maniac, I didn’t even hear him come up and get ready for bed. I sat at the old table I use to cut out fabric and saw nothing and heard nothing. The words poured and tumbled out of me onto that paper with the urgency of a tidal wave. Words, fragments, definitions, thoughts, questions, answers—all wanted out, and I wrote them down so fast, my hand cramped up more than once. But I just shook out those cramps and kept going.

After twelve pages of this, something in my head said, Quit, and I quit. As if a gate had slammed shut, there wasn’t a single little word left. Whatever had wanted out was out. I felt as exhausted as if I had single-handedly hammered together the Trojan horse, and at the same time, I felt so wonderfully well as I hadn’t felt in years.

Not wanting to stop for anything, I had flung the pages all over the table where they lay in a kind of happy confusion, and I smiled at them stupidly as if they were a lover. What had happened just now was tremendous. Absolutely tremendous. And I didn’t even know why. Finally, and tenderly, I picked up page after page and stacked one of top of the other without reading even a single word. For an instant, I held them to my chest and closed my eyes. I loved these pages. I reached for the drawer of my sewing machine table, opened it, put the pages inside, lovingly smoothed over them, and closed the drawer softly.

Then I just sat, staring at the Singer logo as if it meant my salvation. I don’t know how long I sat in this happy stupor, with my hands folded in my lap. When Adam Jr. suddenly said, “Mom?” I jumped ten feet. He had come home from his job, and I had heard neither the door nor his coming up the stairs. How long had he been standing there watching me?

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I’m all right. I was sewing, and I’m tired.”

He didn’t believe me, but he didn’t care enough to ask.

“G’night,” he said.

“Good night.”

I smiled, but he had already turned away. My smile had come quite automatically—a sort of conditioned response, because They, Whoever They Are, had once decreed that it is essential to give one’s children encouraging smiles so that they know all is well in their world, and they can go to bed and sleep soundly.

I didn’t know that I wanted him to stay until I opened my mouth to call him back. I wanted him to sit here, suddenly, in the chair by the window, in that lackadaisical, negligent way he has, one arm flung over the back of the chair, the other hanging loose, his long legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankle. How often had I stumbled over these long legs, which he never even dreamed of moving out of the way when someone came by? I wanted him to talk to me. Wanted him to tell me what he was thinking and feeling. Wanted to connect to someone. Wanted to hear a human voice. Wanted to speak. Long intelligent sentences with actual thoughts in them, rather than the monosyllables that, for years, had made up the conversations between Adam, my children, and myself.

His door shut, and the house was instantly quiet. And just as instantly, a wave of loneliness washed over me wholly unprepared, and while, when I wrote like a fury, I burned as if with an inner fever, I now shivered. I hugged my arms as if this would make me feel less lonely.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and for once the Judge that had lived in my head forever saved me. He said, What is wrong with you? You have a good husband, two beautiful children, a house, a garden. You have no right to be lonely. There are people in this world who have no one. A song began playing in my head, Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London. But the words didn’t console me, though the loneliness smoothed out a little, enough anyway for me to feel more levelheaded. I had no right to be lonely. I was blessed. Truly. Or, as a woman recently wrote in some magazine, we should give thanks for the gifts we have received. In my mind’s eye, I saw the truly lonely people. In London.

Just why this image didn’t make me feel better, I don’t know. Maybe because it’s all relative—the loneliness of a homeless woman in the streets of London is just as devastating as the loneliness of a vibrant young woman in a house full of people. As if loneliness could be measured by degree or put on a scale to be weighed and compared.

I was about to turn off the lamp, when my glance fell on the sewing machine drawer. Knowing the pages there suddenly frightened me. As if I had done something dangerous and forbidden. Something no one should ever know about. The mere thought of someone reading them terrified me. What if Adam were to look for something in this drawer? Suddenly, I didn’t want to go to bed. Suddenly, I wanted to sit in this chair all night, close to these pages, as if to protect them.

Don’t be an ass, the Judge in my head said. What is your problem? He has never once entered this room. He couldn’t care less what you do there. Get a grip.

This calmed me a little. I tried to remind myself that thousands of people wrote. Surely, they didn’t feel as if they had just committed a crime. Or felt they would be locked up if anyone knew. What was wrong with me? So what I wrote something? Big deal. The small rebellious streak that had possessed me as a child finally won.

I sat a moment longer, wondering where else I could hide these pages and gave myself a push and turned off the light. That’s when a new and amazing feeling came: What I suddenly couldn’t do—although it would have been the most sensible—was to rip these pages to shreds and to flush them down the toilet or to burn them as I had always done before.

Adam, sound asleep, lay way at the edge of the bed, as was his habit. I still felt cold, but there was nothing remotely like warmth coming from him when I cuddled into his back. Finally, I got up, put on a pair of sweats and a pair of socks and crawled back into bed, talking to myself, trying to talk myself out of that vague sense of dread that had come knowing that these pages lay in that drawer. The Judge in my head kept reading me the riot act about being a wimp and what was the big deal anyway and what was wrong with me, and finally, I fell asleep.

That night, I dreamed, as I had so often, of standing in the kitchen of a very old farmhouse—not the kind of romantic antique that people buy and renovate in order to live in nostalgically thereafter. It was rather the kind of house and kitchen that simple folk live in, people who know hard work and worry, people who have callused hands made large and square from their labor. The kitchen was immaculate. Its cabinets were painted white, but the paint was chipped here and there and a dull, olive green showed through.

I wore an apron and a kerchief and was about to mop the floor, a metal bucket at my feet. I put my hands on the mop, when something stopped me. A memory of some kind, as if it had called me. I looked up and knew instantly. How could I have forgotten about the staircase that climbed the far wall of the kitchen?

How silly of me, I thought, and walked toward it, smiling, shaking my head. I climbed the stairs slowly, opened the attic door at the top, and walked into a suite of bright and sunny rooms, so tastefully and warmly furnished, they took my breath away.

Oh, dear, I thought. How could I have forgotten about these rooms? I knew of them. I had been there before. Only I kept forgetting about them.

I walked through the rooms, touching this couch or that stuffed chair, or a credenza, smiling over a table decorated with flowers and candles. As I walked and smiled, I felt insanely happy, and the thought of how I could possibly have forgotten these rooms would not leave me.

Why, I thought, don’t I live here? Why do I live down there when I could live here? But I didn’t answer my own question, because the dream always ended there.

If you cannot wait for Installment 4, you may buy Diary of a Naive at Amazon or at Barnes&Noble
You may also want to check out my other blog, Vignettes.
Posted in Creative Writing, Emotional Abuse, Searching for Self, Self-discovery, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Digging with Both Hands, 2

 

 This is the continuation of Digging with Both Hands, published on January 11, 2012:

(and check out my other blog, Vignettes)

  Now this, I thought, was really irresponsible. Taking off like this. Now when was I going to get the ironing done? I raced into the house. It was noon. I had about half an hour to think about what we would have for dinner. Sickeningly conscientious as I was way back then, I actually planned the meal for each day on a calendar to make sure I had everything in the house and wouldn’t waste time having to run to the store. Of course, I took whatever meat I was going to cook that evening out of the freezer before I left for work in the morning so it would be defrosted when I got home. The plan for that day was roasted chicken. Too late for that now. I’d forgotten to take out the chicken.

Frantically, I searched for something else and remembered that some days before, I had found a recipe in the paper for a casserole that could bake either at 250 degrees for five hours or at 350 for two hours and could be done with frozen meat and frozen vegetables. I raced to put some cubed beef into a deep dish, peeled eight potatoes, cut up six carrots, added two cups of frozen green beans and a small, chopped onion. I peppered and salted everything a little, poured a can of cream of mushroom soup and one of consommé all over it, mixed it all up, and stuck the concoction into the oven, at 250 degrees for five hours. I threw a salad together, put that into the refrigerator, and raced to the food bank.

When I signed up for this job, I had envisioned a kind of hands-on position—receiving food, sorting food, stacking food, and distributing food. Instead, they put me in the office, where stacks of donations that had come in the mail waited to be entered into ledgers. The work was boring, but I told myself that it was important. Which didn’t mean that my mind didn’t wander now and then—to England, say, or to Italy, where, one of these days, way in the future, I would finally get to go. Imagining myself at Warwick Castle or in Venice, I invariably screwed up a ledger entry and had to head for the whiteout and start all over. Thank heaven, I didn’t have to add up all these figures, or this food bank would have ended up bankrupt.

Opening envelope after envelope, I remembered the little violinist and felt profoundly guilty for having lost it. There were so many hungry people in the world, and what I was doing here was worthwhile. What I was doing here had a purpose. What I was doing here helped other people. What I was doing here was meaningful. But my telling myself so—as if I hadn’t done it a hundred times—didn’t fill that empty hole inside of me.

When I came home, I could smell the casserole when I walked in the door, and it smelled delicious. Adam was discussing something loudly with Adam Jr. in his office, and, in the living room, Julie, reclining comfortably on the couch, read a book.

“Hi there,” I said on my way to the kitchen. She didn’t answer, which I filed away with that she probably didn’t hear me.

Bent over the open oven door, my hands deep in the potholders and wrapped around the hot casserole dish, Adam’s voice boomed suddenly and startled me.

“Did you take my tuxedo to the tailors?”

I didn’t answer right away. The steaming dish suspended in midair, I was most concerned that moment of not dropping it on myself. Nearly dropping it onto the trivet, I said,

“No.”

“What do you mean . . . no?”

“No,” I said again, moving the dish back a little so it wouldn’t be close to the edge, as if the kids weren’t near eighteen and sixteen, but toddlers who could reach up and pull it off and maim themselves for life. We had discussed the tuxedo the day before—he thought the coat should be a little tighter around the waist—and I had totally forgotten.

“Why not?”

I took off my potholder gloves, slammed them into the drawer, and slammed the drawer shut. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Adam Jr. leaning in the door, eyebrows raised, waiting for what would happen next. Surely, it would be one of those interesting moments between his parents.

“Because I didn’t feel like it,” I said.

Adam grinned at our son. His face said: Whoa, whoa, whoa, isn’t the little lady a firecracker tonight?

Adam Jr. grinned back.

This so obvious disrespect so unsettled me, I turned to the sink and accidentally ran hot water over my hand, which shocked me instantly into normalcy.

“Julie,” I called to the living room, “would you set the table, please?”

“Why can’t you do it?” she hollered back and turned a page in her book.

Adam’s voice came like a blast. “Get up off that damn couch and set the table like your mother told you!”

I probably should have been grateful that he took my side that moment, which he rarely did. But why he had to do it, as most always when he spoke to the children, in that thunderous voice, I don’t know.

Julie got up off the couch like an invalid with a broken back and two broken legs and dragged herself into the dining room. She set a table so slovenly—the silverware askew, the napkins, rather than being folded, simply dropped onto the plate, the glasses every which way—a small, painful sigh escaped me when I carried the casserole into the dining room. It hurts me almost physically to have something that could have been so lovely so deliberately ruined.

“What?” she asked belligerently.

My small sigh had not escaped her. I know that child psychologists are very wise people. But so are mothers. This child, for a reason I would never know, was out to punish me for a crime I had committed in her eyes alone. As she had once said, “You embarrass me. Why don’t you get yourself a decent haircut and get yourself some decent clothes? You always look as if you had come straight from the thrift shop.”

“Hot dish,” I said, putting the casserole heavily onto the table. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like correcting her, or educating her, or admonishing her, or doing what parents are supposed to do if they want to rear decent citizens. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like being a parent at all. Suddenly, I had enough of trying, and arguing, and insisting on what some Judge in my head demanded of me. Suddenly, I just wanted to be a human being, and eat my dinner, and get it done and over with so I could finish the ironing.

I put a tape with Baroque music into the tape player on low as I usually did—which had garnered, more than once, Julie’s “Do we have to listen to this stuff?” and my answering firmly, “Yes!”—sat down and picked up my fork.

“What is this?” Julie said, looking at the food on her plate as if it were vomit.

Her voice startled me. My mind had galloped off to the little violinist the moment I picked up my fork. How come she knew, when she was three years old, what exactly she wanted to do with her life? I looked up, and I’m sure, right through Julie. I shrugged, raised my eyebrows, and continued eating.

I didn’t, thereafter, notice whether or not they ate. As if someone had put an invisible wall around me, I felt wholly calm and ate my dinner slowly and deliberately as if I were alone. It’s not as if I hadn’t poured over self-help books that told me that I was unique and that everyone had unique gifts and everyone could discover them. But every time I closed one of these books, I was right back to where I was before—nowhere. Besides, doing something just for me struck me as utterly selfish. And how could I get around the guilt of that? Though there should be something I could do, something that made me happy, in my spare time.

These books also talked about being worthwhile, just because one existed. Which didn’t help me in the least. I didn’t feel worthwhile, and what I was doing didn’t seem worthwhile either, because no one ever said a word and took everything I did wholly for granted. And sentences such as: You are here for a reason, meant nothing to me. Or rather, I thought there was a reason when Adam and I married. I believed with all my heart that he was the reason I was alive, and I was the reason he was alive. But as the years went by, it became harder and harder reminding myself of that reason.

No one said a word throughout dinner, and I had suddenly not the least interest in what the children had done that day, or what Adam had done that day. No one had ever asked what I had done that day or any other day, for that matter. I sensed more than I knew or could even voice: that what was going on in my house and at the dinner table that moment was greater than anything I could fix. It was something archetypal, I was convinced of it, and to uproot it, Carl Jung would have to be resurrected. It was, that moment at the dinner table, perfectly clear to me that it had been I who, prompted by some ardent desire to forge us into a warm and loving family that deeply cared for one another and had interesting dinner conversations, had kept up, all these years, a dinner ritual that was absolutely punishing. For me.

When we were first married, it was usually I who initiated a conversation at dinner, having visions of sharing and discussing fascinating subjects with Adam (yes, I did live in La-La-Land way back then), might that be politics, or science, or art, or literature, or just something that happened in the world. Adam would listen politely to my chatter, would nod now and then and grunt an approving grunt, or a disapproving one, which made me feel after a while as if I were an insatiable chatterbox and why didn’t I just shut up. Sometimes, just to get him to say something, I asked some dumb question about his new job at the up and coming computer company, and sometimes this worked. He would actually answer me and would talk at length about software and hardware and “these idiot engineers” he had to work with. I didn’t understand a thing, but at least it was something resembling a dinner conversation. Once he had exhausted his favorite subject, however, he rarely talked about anything else. When our dinners finally deteriorated into total silence, I felt awful. I’d wreck my brain trying to come up with something we could talk about, because it was, of course, my responsibility to keep us talking, but he had already taught me that, no matter what I said, it seemed to be too stupid to warrant a response.

Once the children came along, I always encouraged them to talk about what interested them, or what they had done during the day, or what fascinated them, or frightened them, or I brought up something interesting myself that I had read or seen or heard or thought. But even then, I felt self-conscious about my continuous chattering, even if it was born out of my ardent desire to mold us into a loving, caring family. Some fear seemed to have a hold of me, some desperate fear even that, if I didn’t at least try, we would all go up in smoke.

Adam never did say much to the children, although sometimes, when he was in a good mood, he would begin talking all on his own, and, as if intoxicated by his voice, would talk on and on about something that, say, had been invented in the company. But these talk feasts didn’t happen often. Most of the time, he was content to gulp down his food, push back his chair as soon as we all were done, and to go to the living room to read his mail or his trade magazines, all of which I cheerfully ignored as his right (after all, he had worked hard all day).

But that evening, it occurred to me that we all would have been much happier, if we had merely grabbed a plate and gone to eat wherever, or if we all had been reading at the dinner table. At least, we would have gotten something out of it. Instead, it had been I who, in spite of sullen answers or no answers at all, or answers full of contempt because I was, obviously, the dumbest human being on earth and why of all people was I their mother, had kept up the questions about school, or friends, or about anything else that was going on in my children’s lives, or in my husband’s, and the more I had done it, the more punishing it became. And something in me, that evening, didn’t feel like being punished.

    I ate slowly, feeling wonderfully drained of all emotion. Just where that came from, I don’t know. But something had begun to unravel, and I wasn’t about to jeopardize it by opening my mouth and inviting negative comments. Or face no response at all as if I were not even there.

    The children scattered as soon as we were done eating, and Adam, as always after dinner, and without a further word to me, took a glass of iced tea and went to the living room, where he plopped down on the couch. For the next hour or so, he would be wholly inaccessible, insisting on his right to relax after working his butt off, as he loved to say.

In the kitchen, my arms deep in dishwater, I steeled myself against the sound of his exaggeratedly exhausted drop, from a straight up standing position, onto the ancient fixture. For years, I had endured this same ritual every night without ever admitting to myself—and certainly never to him—how deeply it upset me. With my eyes closed and my body rigid as a plaster cast, I waited for the groan of the springs and for the bright ring of wood that, this time, surely, would splinter into a thousand pieces.

Whenever I remember the woman I was before Adam gave me permission to write, it never fails to amaze me how much emotional punishment I absorbed and denied. That’s why I didn’t run straight into the living room and hit him over the head with whatever pan I was currently washing. But such were the quirks of a warm, compassionate, decent, and not wholly unattractive woman who, at some point in her life, had turned herself into a doormat.

Adam Jr. scrambled down the stairs and hollered, “See ya later,” slamming the front door on his way out to his job in the bowling alley.

I rinsed the casserole dish, drained the water, dried my hands, started the dishwasher, and walked into the living room with a fresh cup of coffee. Way back then, I lived in a movie of my own making. In this movie is a scene where a husband and a wife, not having seen each other all day, have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine after dinner and talk lovingly, or bitch horribly, about the events of the day. In my movie, it was called togetherness and sharing, and I had lived my movie so persistently, I didn’t seem to be able to give it up, even when, after some years, Adam hardly said a word to me.

All I could see from him were his lap and his legs when I came in and sat down in the rocking chair. The rest was blocked by the newspaper, which he held up high as if to hide himself. But no. He was merely reading something at the bottom of the page. Presently, he dropped the paper to its normal reading level and turned the page.

I waited politely, rocking back and forth gently. I can’t with certainty say whether I was taught or whether I made it up that it was outrageously rude to interrupt people when they were reading, but I never interrupted him when he was focused on something. Maybe my sitting there, patiently waiting, was a sort of tug of war for him. Maybe he wondered who could hold out the longest, me in my chair, or he ignoring me. And I don’t remember just why I went to sit in the living room instead of getting the ironing done.

Finally, I got up and turned on the stereo. Instantly, the room was blasted by a million empty oil drums being crushed by meteors. I fumbled for the volume button, my fingers fidgeting madly, unable to remember that moment just which of the buttons it was, as if I hadn’t done this a thousand times.     

Throughout the ruckus, Adam stared, with a long-suffering look, at the opposite wall of the room as if he expected some kind of salvation to creep out of the wallpaper that would make me accomplish the task faster.

Half of an eternity later, I found the proper button, turned down the volume, and looked at him.

“Sorry,” I said, smiling abjectly. “Adam Jr. must’ve had some buddies in.”

He turned away from the wallpaper, raised his eyebrows, and continued reading. I was used to these contemptuous expressions, which I received not only from him but also from the children. Obviously, I had done something so stupid that no one else in the world would ever do. Everybody else was smart enough to check the volume before they turned on the stereo. But not I. And even though such expressions of contempt hurt deeply in some corner of my being, I couldn’t find within myself the resources to defend myself against them.

Quite by accident, I had turned into a station which, just that moment, began playing the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. I smiled at the stereo. Such lovely, happy music. I sat back down, patiently waiting for him to put down the paper. Surely, there must be something we could talk about. The children. His day. My day. The weather. Spring. The recent downturn in the economy. Anything.

He turned a page and read it slowly. He turned the next page. And the next. Just why I didn’t tear that damn paper out of his hands and didn’t rip it into iddy-biddy pieces, I don’t know. Just why do so many bright, warm, intelligent, and even accomplished women, who are not exactly helpless and can do a thousand things admirably—including bearing children—permit their husbands to treat them so shabbily? It’s a good question to which I also didn’t find an answer until some time after he gave me permission to write.

I studied the books in the shelves that covered the wall behind Adam. I cocked my head sideways and read the backs of them as I had done a thousand times. These were the books I had read before Adam came along, and the children. Camus. Sartre. Nietzsche. Plato. The Odyssey. Greek Mythology. Chinese poetry. Dante. Frost. I played with the thought that Frost’s fork in the road had come to me early in life, and that I had promptly walked the road most traveled. In my mind’s eye, I saw this most traveled road so clearly—a dirt path actually that went through a deep wood and meandered, and where a bunch of people, myself among them, trotted sullenly along. We were all dressed in gray and black and brown. None of us Sullen Walkers would have dreamed of taking a dash into the darkness of the underbrush and running like maniacs to the path that was less traveled and where there wasn’t anybody. Except Mr. Frost, of course, whistling.

I shook my head to shake that vision away, glancing at Adam, wondering whether he had noticed. I had had such odd visions before, and they made me feel very uncomfortable. As if I were losing it.

Mozart’s happy overture sounded out, and just why I felt suddenly so sad, I didn’t know. I studied Adam for a moment and then studied my hands. For no reason whatsoever, there were tears in my eyes.

“I so would like to write,” I sighed out loud.

The sigh was so deep and heartrending, the moment I uttered it, I covered my mouth as if I had said something abominably rude.

Adam never even glanced in my direction.

“Why don’t you then?” he said and turned the page.

 Chapter 2

 I stared at him as if he had gone mad or had descended straight from Mars with slinky eyes and wearing antennae. But he kept right on reading as if nothing at all had happened, while I felt as if the handle of my garden rake had hit me square between the eyes. His simple, commonsensical, uncomplicated utterance had flicked on a light in my dark house, and I swear every cell in my body glowed like a neon sign. Sometimes, when I read something that absolutely enchanted me, I’d think that it must be heaven being a writer. Not my being a writer, just being a writer, any writer. Writing was something so far above me, so hallowed by my reverence for all the great writers I had read, the thought that I might be a writer had never, ever occurred to me. It’s not that I had never written anything. Sometimes, the desire to write things down had been too strong—a thought, the light on a lovely landscape, a conversation with a friend that had upset me, or an interesting character I had observed. But I never hung on to what I wrote. Knowing these pages in the house made me feel very antsy, and I always destroyed them. Writing things down was dangerous. If someone read these ramblings, they might think I was nuts.

That night, staring at Adam in utter disbelief, so many feelings and thoughts and words suddenly flooded me, I can only describe them as a river breaking through a dam. I kept staring at him, waiting, everything inside of me in uproar. Any moment now, he would take back what he had just said. But he kept right on reading. . . .

 To be continued on January 23, 2012

 Or you may purchase the book, Diary of a Naïve, at Amazon or Barnes&Noble

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Digging with Both Hands

Dear Adam,

By the time you read this, I will be in Venice.

There is no casserole in the oven. Smart as you are, I’m sure you can figure out how to cook dinner.

The ironing is not done—all your shirts are in a heap on the bed. Smart as you are and having two hands, I’m sure you can figure out how to iron your shirts.

The laundry isn’t done either, although I did mine before I packed my bags. I did the laundry for the kids to give them a head start. Considering that I did everything for them to perfection for the last near eighteen and sixteen years, respectively, I wanted to give them a bit of a break into what it means to do their own laundry. Since they also have two hands, I know it will not kill them to do their own wash and the mending and the ironing and the folding and the putting away neatly into drawers.

Nothing in the house has been dusted, wiped, washed down, straightened, or messed with in any way for a week now, because I was busy packing. I know you didn’t notice.

Prior to a week ago, the house always looked so lovely, which you never noticed either.

I’ll be gone three months, and when I come back, I’ll move into a small apartment somewhere. Just in case you wondered where I got the money, given that you always held me on so tight a leash: today, I took half of our savings out of our account—and no, I have no intention of paying you back—why should I?—and, for a good many months now, I have saved all the money I made from my job at the insurance company.

The house may seem a little emptier when you walk through, but maybe not. You never noticed me anyway or any of the things I did to make a lovely home. And the children will still be with you. I know you will take good care of them, since you seem to know everything better regarding them anyway, and since I never do anything right regarding them. Besides, they have not needed me in a long time, and so I don’t think they will miss me.

I’m sad, truly sad, that it’s come to this, because more than anything, I wanted someone to love me, wanted a home, wanted a loving husband, loving children. But you don’t want to know this right now. You would be appalled if I or anyone were to call you indifferent or callous or cruel. Such strong words that you, with all the superiority you feel, would not accept about yourself.

But you’ve made my life a living hell for so many years without ever laying a hand on me, and nothing would have ever changed had you not, one evening in April and inadvertently—oh, so inadvertently—given me the permission to write. I sat in the rocking chair, while you read the paper—remember?—never saying a word to me, just turning those pages, and turning those pages, and turning those pages. Who knows where it came from, but I sighed, “I so would like to write.”

If it is true that we have a reason for being in this world, your sole reason for being in this world was to fling this single, careless utterance into the room,

“Why don’t you then?”

….turning another page in your newspaper. Do you remember? Of course you don’t. But your indifferent, rhetorical question changed everything—the way I saw myself, the way I saw you, the children, my life. What a blessing this was. My life turned on the dime of this so carelessly flung utterance.

Thank you,

                                                                                  Kate

 

I carried this letter around with me for weeks, and every time I imagined putting it on his desk for him to find when he got home, I smiled. I saw my bags packed in the lobby, and I saw myself, casting a last victorious glance into the mirror that a spider had chosen as the starting point to create a perfect web from there to the corner of the dark foyer. But until the moment of my leaving, I would have to bide my time, save money, make delicious, secret plans that made me insanely happy.

Only a few months before, I would not have dreamed of writing such a letter, would have been too much of a wimp to even consider it. But on an ordinary day in April, everything changed, and it began with my having a rare but major meltdown.

Cleaning the kitchen after breakfast, I had looked out the window  at  my messy yard and wondered if I had enough time to rake it before heading off to the food bank where I volunteered once a week. The rambling Cape Cod outside Washington, D. C., where we lived at the time, stood in a densely forested neighborhood, and winter always managed to scatter broken timber all over the place. The small vegetable and flower garden I had dug up under a bit of open sky and had nurtured along all these many years was a mess as well, and if I had enough time, I might as well attack the dead cornstalks and the tomato vines and other assorted vegetable wrecks that had been there since the end of the summer before. I had left the sunflowers with their enormous heads standing throughout the winter for the birds to dig out every last morsel, but now that bounty hung empty and black, and it was time to cut the unsightly monstrosities down. Mulling it over, I realized that it would take me hours to do it all, and I had to be at the food bank at one.

Not to waste any of the precious time I did have, I figured that I could, at least, carry down the mountain of laundry I had washed these last two days, and fold and iron and mend whatever needed folding, ironing, and mending. Wasting time always made me feel guilty, and my guilts already came in immense shapes and sizes, and they used to rule me like a whip. I used to be a great believer in taking responsibility not only for my own life, but for everyone else’s as well. When a mudslide buried a village in Columbia a couple of weeks before, I was convinced that, if only I had joined the Peace Corps and gone down there and persuaded the people to move their village before the calamity struck, everyone would have been saved. After dwelling on this or on any of the other guilts that possessed me, sometimes for days, my guilts would mercifully shrink and crawl into that place in my anatomy marked Guilt, where they sat as quietly as an atomic bomb in some bunker hundreds of feet beneath the ground.

Dutifully, I therefore dragged the ironing board from my sewing room into the bedroom, heaved the two laundry baskets that were filled to overflowing onto the bed, and turned on the TV. The channel was tuned to a talk show featuring a young violinist who looked about seventeen, a year or so older than my Julie. I turned up the volume a little and began ironing. Just as I smoothed out the collar of one of Adam’s shirts and lowered the hot iron onto it, the little violinist said,

“I know exactly how I want to play a piece of music. I know exactly what I want it to sound like. I know exactly what I love to play. I know exactly what I want. My parents enrolled me in the Vivaldi School of Music when I was three. They could tell I loved music. My teachers were excellent and supported me in everything I wanted to do. I knew exactly which music I liked. I knew exactly where I wanted to go with my music. This is all I want to do with my life.”

Halfway through her speech, I stopped ironing and stared at the screen, dumbfounded at the words that marched so confidently and uppity out of this young woman’s mouth. I, Kate Hamilton, thirty-nine years old, a spirited, warm, compassionate, innovative woman, a wife and a mother of two, a woman who could do a hundred things admirably, had absolutely no idea just what exactly I wanted, much less what I wanted to do with my life. What I thought I wanted, because everyone had told me what I should want—get married and have children—had been so punishing a vocation, I had felt all these many years more and more miserable and desperate and unhappy and had been visited, for years, by such a fathomless sadness at times, it took all my willpower not to do something irrevocable.

I didn’t hear what else the little violinist said, because I, who didn’t even know her, suddenly and passionately hated her. I wanted to take that damn violin of hers and smash it to pieces. And when she put the instrument to her neck to give us all a sample of her excellence, I ripped the TV cord out of the socket. I adore classical music—violins especially always make me weep. But she was about to cram her bliss down my throat, and I wouldn’t have it. The smell of something burning infuriated me even more. I lifted the iron and stared at the flawless, triangular, deep brown burn mark on Adam’s shirt, and suddenly I hated that shirt, and I hated the damn iron, and I hated the damn TV, and I hated myself even more. I ripped the shirt off the ironing board, threw it into a corner, ripped the cord of the iron out of the socket, plopped down on the bed, and permitted myself to do what I hadn’t ever permitted myself to do—to royally lose it by having a major sobbing session with myself.

No matter how often I had told myself that I had a good life, albeit busy, and a good husband, albeit indifferent and irritable a good deal of the time, and two good children, albeit disrespectful and contemptuous most of the time—other women would give their right arm for what I had—some years ago, and ever so gradually, this terrible unhappiness came and stayed, and no matter how often I brushed it aside and denied it and ignored it, it always came back. And with every irritable word Adam said and with all of his silences, and with every snide remark of the children, it dug itself deeper. But the little violinist I didn’t even know had topped it all—she reminded me that I had no life of my own. I should have something inside of me that was mine—something that made me feel passionate about being alive, something that only I could do, something that I couldn’t wait to get up for in the morning. But I had no such thing. Why, I sobbed, don’t I know what I want to do with my life? How come she knows, and I don’t? How come everybody else knows, and I don’t? What does it take?

I had done it all—the watercolor class, the scrapbook class, the pottery class, the photography class—but none had been able to fill the terribly empty hole inside of me that had been there, like, forever. There had to be something that I wanted to do more than anything, something that made me go to bed at night insanely happy, because I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to do whatever this thing was again.

A car door slammed close to the house and sobered me up instantly. I reminded myself that feeling sorry for oneself was against the law. Besides, what if this somebody, who just slammed the car door, rang the doorbell and here I sat, looking like hell? I wiped my eyes and snuck a peek out the window. Janice Reimer, my neighbor, was taking groceries out of the trunk. No visitors for me, and I was profoundly grateful. My look fell on the daffodils and tulips that framed my driveway. They had begun to bloom a few days before, which always made me feel ecstatic. I could have kissed them all. I looked up, and my eyes met the blue sky. The dense trees that made this house so dark and depressing in the summer had just begun to sprout billions of minute, pale green leaves that shimmered in the sunlight, and, coming back from the store a couple of days before, I had discovered pink and white dogwood in bloom in that jungle of wild foliage that made up this neighborhood. If it weren’t for the damn laundry, I’d be out there.

I turned to look at the mountains of shirts and sheets and assorted other items that spilled out of the baskets. I loathed these baskets. They were like an extension of me. As if, if I didn’t carry a basket down the stairs, filled to bursting with dirty clothes, or up the stairs, filled with clean ones, I had no right to use the stairs. But I was nothing if not conscientious, and shirking my duties wasn’t even in my vocabulary. All these many years, I had lived and breathed a self-imposed schedule so brutal at times, a company executive had a cushy life in comparison. But if you have a husband, kids in school, run a household, work in an insurance company three days a week, and do volunteer work to boot, you better keep a schedule, or you don’t get it all done. And I prided myself in getting it all done, because I should be able to do it all and get it all done as all these other people did. I had never met anyone who did get it all done. Something always seemed to give with these folks—either the house, or the kids, or the husband, or the health, or the sanity. But all these phenomenally successful women I saw on television had convinced me that someone like this was out there. Not only did they have a job, they also did something similar to what I had done these last nineteen years:

In the morning, I’d see Adam off to work and the children off to school. Thereafter, I did what I had done for some six thousand or so days of my life. I washed the breakfast dishes, cleaned the kitchen, made the beds, scrubbed the bathrooms, put in a load of wash. On other days, I may have vacuumed the house, washed the floors, sewed on lost buttons, called the plumber, ran to the store, paid the bills, argued with the electric company over some error, planned that night’s dinner, ran to deliver something to school that the children forgot, or ran there to participate in some school function that we all were encouraged to volunteer for, ran back home to get dinner started, did the ironing, helped the kids with homework, answered the phone, argued with Adam because something had set him off, or argued with Julie that, no, at age ten, she was not permitted to use make-up, cleaned up the kitchen after dinner, folded laundry thereafter, and, finally, got my clothes ready for my job the next day.

Just how I was plunged, the moment I married, into the vocation of menial labor, I don’t know. In the beginning, I didn’t in the least perceive it as such. I felt, actually, wonderful, having my own little castle, even if it belonged to Adam’s parents. I worked my hands to the bone to keep everything as perfect as I possibly could. In the unconscious bargain I seem to have made the day I married, I was determined to keep my end of it. That such a bargain was wholly out of balance and wholly unfair didn’t occur to me until long after Adam gave me permission to write.

Staring at those baskets, I became more and more depressed. Was this my life? These baskets, this ironing board, the kitchen, the bathrooms, the floors, the windows? Somewhere outside a bird trilled a love song so yearning, it woke me from my gloom. I walked into the bathroom, washed my face, went back to the bedroom, picked up the shirt, plugged in the TV, and headed downstairs. I threw the shirt into the trash, got the keys out of my purse, put on my jacket, and walked out of the house.

The air was fresh and sweet and cool. I took a deep breath and set out walking fast, as always, determined to get to wherever I was going on the double. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t going anywhere and finally slowed down to a snail’s pace. It was hard. I wasn’t used to doing anything slow.

The sun beat down on me, and all those billions of tiny leaves glittered all around me. The longer I walked, the freer and happier I felt. The Judge in my head said, This isn’t a good idea. I know, I said, and kept walking, my body taking an even deeper breath all its own. I ended up at the pond that once had been the beginning of a park but had ended up with just a bit of grass around it and a couple of picnic tables. I sat down at one of them and let the sun fry me. The sky had fallen into the water, and a couple of cotton clouds swam in it to keep it company. The heat of the sun and the clouds sailing in the blue pond mesmerized me, and I surrendered to it all. I melted right into the sunlight and seeped into the water, and after awhile, there was no me left. If it hadn’t been for the sudden thunder boom of a sound barrier being broken in the ether somewhere high above me, I would have been altogether gone to the world.

But that brutal wake-up call reminded me that I was to be at the Food Bank at one. What time was it? I’d forgotten my watch and jumped up and raced back to the house.

To be continued January 18, 2012

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