For a very long time, I knew the first and the last lines of the book Less Than Zero by heart. I think that if I sat down to think about it for more than twelve seconds – my maximum attention span of late – I bet I could still recite those words that once felt branded on my soul and in my mind in the ways a suburban girl from the east coast who has never gone through a real drug phase shouldn't actually be able to remember. There was something about being afraid to merge on freeways in the beginning and the last line of the book included the words "after I left." I might not remember the cheekbones of a guy I kissed three months ago, but words? Those tend to stay with me.
When you're a writer, words matter. And when you're as consistently (and annoyingly) as introspective as I can't seem to cease from being, emotions get converted to words probably more quickly than they should. Sometimes I think that I should just let myself feel – to allow all of those emotions to really wash over me like a lavender-scented bubble bath where my hair can splay out behind me in the water like a doll's – but I think maybe I'm in a rush to compute the feeling into something articulately digestible, empirical almost, and so I make it like the bubble bath has turned cold and I get out of the water when I should probably just relax and watch my fingers shrivel into prunes.
I write down words that inspire me all the time now. I've pulled onto side streets because a line from a song on the radio hit me like a cannonball – POW! – directly in the stomach. I did it just yesterday:
What if what you do to survive kills the things you love? Fear is a powerful thing; it'll turn your heart black, you can trust.
There's nothing I fear more than fear. I guess it's taken the place of my old greatest fear – things that fly that aren't supposed to – but I conquered that issue a couple of weeks ago when a guy whose name I do remember sat me down and made me watch Pete's Dragon, the very movie I was certain had warped me when I was three years old. Turns out that the dragon in that movie is green and hot pink and his name is Elliot and he behaves like a fire-breathing version of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. After watching the movie, that fear I once had all but patented began to seem rather silly. Still, don't even try to show me a picture of a Pegasus. That terror is visceral and I can say with certainty that it's never going to leave me and I don't understand why but then again, I don't understand a lot of things, including why that particular fear has never been one I’m able to adequately communicate with the words that I often think can save me.
But oh, how I try to figure shit out. I listen hard when people speak. I watch and I catalogue details. Opinions form in me rather slowly, but when they take hold, it's like they've hardened into fact. I don't always share what I've come to believe that I understand, but there are some people I think that maybe I can share anything with – and that itself is an opinion formed by experience. That itself is something I feel able to communicate with enough words to write an epic poem that I can recite from memory on a sunny mountainside.
There are people in my life who wish I'd share more. There are also those who probably wish I shared less. This is a conflict that is and might always churn inside of me. I say too much sometimes, and maybe to the wrong audiences, but I can say that I rarely wish I'd kept quiet. I guess I just sometimes wish the reactions were different.
What feels strange is that the part of the song that I wrote down yesterday that moved me the most wasn’t the part about fear. It probably should have been that part that took hold of me the hardest – the way it would have a year ago – but it was the part about how doing what you need to do can kill the parts of you that you love dearly. All of it is odd because it’s not like I’ve never heard that song before yesterday; I actually own the cd on which it appears. I mean, I have no idea where that cd is and I’d bet it’s scratched almost beyond comprehension, but back when it used to play straight through, I liked the line I heard yesterday. I just didn’t react to it in any significant way, and I have to say that I’ve really grown to see how certain lines can change in meaning and consequence to me as I change. And, difficulties that my rampant introspection has brought to my life aside, a piece of me feels almost blessed that I am aware of how a collection of words assembled by someone I don’t know can impact me differently through the passage of time.
As far as killing the things that I love, well, that’s a real fear. A bigger fear is that what I love and value has altered and I haven’t always noticed it until the change is complete. A lot of the changes are good, I suppose. I have more forgiveness in me now and more of an ability to let go of past pain and resentment. I live with a certain unshakable knowledge that sometimes the conversation you wish you could have to really get to the heart of what was the matter will never actually transpire. There will be different interactions in their place and they will indicate that someone is sorry for the ways in which you were treated and you will be the one who is required to sift through the words the person is capable of saying to locate something you can pretend is tangible and then decide if that non-apology is enough. More often than not, it is now enough for me. There are no sweeping generalizations that can be made here, however. The sifting is only possible when there’s enough experience and affection between two people that has been buried over time and this I know for a fact: sometimes the sifting is actually not worth it at all.
We just accept more from the people we have a history with, don’t we?
But allowing someone to not fully engage in a discussion you think you should have – one you might need to have –is tricky. A lot of times it’s due to a genuine belief that there is just goodness there – an ingrained and powerful goodness – and so you want that goodness back and sometimes there are other people who are somehow involved and it all feels complicated in the very worst of ways and it just feels easier to move forward and to try to forget. Personally, I’ve never been able to pull off the “I forgive but I don’t forget” mantra some people I know tend to live by and I don’t really want to have that skill. I make myself forget the old stuff because the old stuff stings like a motherfucker and the shards of it still bite and that nipping feels like it is made of something that has really sharp teeth (like, I’m sure, a Pegasus) and, for me anyway, the bite snaps at me when I least expect it and it hurts every single time. I prefer to bury the complicated stuff and I think that behavior is probably seriously unhealthy in some respects but I also believe that a part of me has already dealt with it. I felt it and I processed the feelings into words and I swallowed those words like they were the bitterest kind of chocolate and I let them settle deep inside of me in a place I forget to look until something really feels lost. Maybe the thing that’s lost is the truest form of forgiveness and just maybe it’s that very quality – my ability to legitimately forgive – the quality I’ve been complimented on so many times, that I think might be dying or already dead because to fully forgive involves acknowledging how badly you were once hurt and I kind of have no interest in going there anymore. Perhaps there’s something substantial to the fact that the words “after I left” from Less Than Zero are some of the words that have stayed with me for the longest. Maybe I’m just a person who leaves and doesn’t want to come back, at least not to the very start.
I forgive in order to survive but it’s killed a part of me along the way. Still, other things grow in its place now and I water those things daily with everything but tears. I water myself with words, and the latest quote that has sunk right, roots-first, is by Mark Twain and I don’t even know where it was that he wrote it or said it, but then again, logistics have always mattered far less to me than everything else.
You surprised everybody, and astonished the rest.
I read that quotation somewhere very recently and then I read it six more times and I typed it into my phone and I felt the words and the punctuation bound around inside of my head like a ping-pong ball hitting the sides of the machine, making the whole thing light up while the sounds of the bells rang furious and loud. The thing is, the words as they were are what moved me, but I immediately modified them into my own meaning. See, I’m not all that interested in the reactions of other people – which, I’ll fully admit, is an odd disconnect when you write and then allow the world at large to peruse what you’ve put out there. But my interest has never been to get a reaction from anybody but myself and the people closest to me. I actually don’t care about the reaction of strangers in the slightest – I don’t think that I ever will – and so I’m not interested in surprising or astonishing anybody but myself. There have been a few times in my life when I did truly surprise myself and that surprise slid on over to astonishment and those have been some of the very best of moments. They were unexpected and I can see now that the one thing they all had in common is that they all somehow involved fear and the merging of feelings with understanding and I guess it shouldn’t be all that much of a mystery to me anymore why those lines from that Bret Easton Ellis book will always hold a place in the back of my mind that includes what my best friend’s home phone number was when we were ten and what the bark of the tree looked like that my father carved his initials into and the way that sharp gulp of air tasted when I realized I’d just fully astonished myself.
Fear? It is a powerful thing, but so is any form of forgiveness and so is the awareness that you can accomplish something extraordinary. Leaving some place or some person is powerful. Coming back and being willing to creak open a locked door can be powerful too. Recognizing what you have left behind due to survival or simply due to desire is terrifying in its power, but maybe making the choice to continue to astonish yourself can help you to resuscitate anything you want, including the things you only really thought about hard after you had already left.