009.

The sobs came out between ragged breaths and they weren’t in the least bit satisfying or relieving. She wanted to scream until her voice was gone. This thing inside her was bigger, so much bigger, than one could adequately express on a balcony in the middle of the city without summoning the attention of god knows how many people and possibly the police. Her body trembled with a sort of electricity that almost hurt, like something was straining to break through the surface. It was too much, all too much.

Her breath formed little clouds against the sky and she watched them dissipate into the night air. The rain had made the streets below glisten in the lights from the cars and the shops. The railing was slick with water and she gripped it with her hands, and on impulse, imagined hoisting her body over the side and just…

She didn’t finish that thought. Her stomach lurched and another angry sob escaped, and she turned round and kicked the wall. Back and forth from one end of the balcony to the other… she walked with an urgency, as if headed somewhere on an important mission, but with the futility of a caged animal who had nowhere to go. God, she wished she could still drink.

She’d spent the previous evening reading about the five stages of grief. Number two (anger) and number three (bargaining) seemed to resonate. Mental lists of everything she’d lost repeated themselves in her head, over and over, and every time she settled on one for a few seconds, she was engulfed by a wave of fresh bitterness and rage that would sweep her under and drag her down.

Oh my god it hurts. It hurts it hurts it hurts. Please make it stop. Please.

A shadow appeared behind the living room window and she realised her mother was standing there. Fucking Christ. The last thing she wanted to do was explain. She didn’t understand why people wanted to talk all the time. Talking accomplished nothing, particularly talking with people who reacted with frustration and were too stupid to understand anyway.

You can’t fix it, mother. You never could. That was always your problem; you tried too hard and you were afraid of anything that couldn’t have a happy ending. A socially-acceptable one. And you passed your fear on to me, albeit in a different form, when I’m the sort of person who so desperately needs to find a way to withstand the type of pain that you can’t even fathom. Did you think you were saving me?

She turned away from the window and walked to the end of the balcony, out of sight, and drew another shaky breath. The tears on her cheek were warm, and they mingled with the soft, cool raindrops that had been falling all evening.

Something that had long been dormant had slowly been surfacing lately. It felt different and she didn’t know why, but she knew it did.

Fight or flight. Flight hadn’t worked thus far… flight ruined everything. That left one option.

008.

She stood waiting for the kettle to boil, anger welling up inside and breaking the surface of her composure. Like the bubbles in the water, she thought. Building steadily.

Other teatimes flitted through her memory. Other teatimes in other kitchens in other homes. When teatime still had meaning, when life still had a bit of colour, when home was a real place and love had energy and the day had light and just maybe there were reasons to still be here.

But surely it could be worse. Stop being such a whiny fool.

“Look around you! Can it get any worse than this? We’re already in the bowels of hell!” The voice broke through her thoughts like it came from someone else. It reminded her of an overly-dramatic line from a cheesy film, but she wasn’t sure which one.

The kettle whistled and she poured the water over the bags and started the timer on her watch. 4:21 as always. At least she could control something, no matter how insignificant.

So scream you, out from behind the bitter ache
You’re hanging on the memory, you need most…

How dare anyone. How. Dare. They. They didn’t know, they couldn’t possibly know. Fuck their opinions. Fuck them! Fuck you!

The adrenaline felt good. It was satisfying. Primal. A reminder that she was still alive. She reached for the handle on the drawer in front of her. The dishes needed washing, but surely there was one clean knife in there.

Fuck you!

Blood welled up in the line she’d drawn across her leg.

Fuck you!

It began to trickle down her shin, and she gritted her teeth and drew the blade across again.

Fuck you!

One more time. She had to take the teabags out soon.

Fuck you!

Beep beep beep!

Bags out, sweetener in, a splash of milk. She could feel the warmth of the blood pooling in her sandal as she stood there. A few hot tears splashed onto the kitchen counter and she smiled an odd, victorious little smile.

007.

She spent much of her time in her head, recreating little vignettes of her own past. Sometimes it was unintentional and the thoughts just came, seemingly out of nowhere, like a cat darting across the road in front of a car. Other times, it was much more deliberate. Attempts at piecing together an identity that was either lost or perhaps had never been discovered in the first place. She wasn’t sure which.

Reading under the Christmas tree, in the warm glow of the lights that made gentle patterns of colour on the ceiling.

Blinking hospital machines, red and green, screaming out at 2.00 in the morning.

Bus rides to perhaps inadvisable destinations, book in hand, headphones protecting her from unwanted exchanges with fellow passengers.

Gerberas for gran, bright with an innocence that made them look like storybook flowers.

Cold sweats, pinpricks of light flitting across her vision, stomach twisting like someone running it through an old-fashioned laundry wringer.

The peach-hued glow of the evening sun, setting over the hill, as she sat and inhaled the woodsmoke.

That bitter, metallic taste that came with sudden fear, and the subsequent shame of being marched through a crowd of shoppers by an officer, handcuffed to her own transgressions.

All those familiar voices on the radio, people she considered closer friends than anyone she actually knew in person, punctuating her day, giving it structure and meaning.

Bleach. Goddamned bleach.

Clementines, red licorice, Twinings Irish Breakfast tea, tuna, bran flakes, Mini Eggs, green apples.

Journal pages filled with words that no person should ever have to read, let alone write.

Trips to the basement in the middle of the night, to purge her sins.

Cups of tea and a train ride to the CNE with an old best friend; fireworks in an empty field and drives to nowhere with a slightly-awkward crush; emails and movies and sobering talks about Big Life Issues™ with a favourite cousin; disposable camera snaps and beer and pizza crusts and an uncomfortable evening at a nightclub with an overseas friend who was far above her own rung on the social ladder.

4.00 am, Mum checking to make sure she was still breathing.

Christmas parties that she eschewed in favour of her own solitary party, replete with records on the turntable, mugs of tea, and usually a mini snowman in the back garden.

Excursions to the public library to use the computers, to remind herself that she wasn’t the only one like this.

She had all these fragments, and countless more, seared into her memory. Hopefully forever, as she was terrified to lose them. But she didn’t know what to do with them beyond turn them over in her mind like a piece of beach glass you find on the sand. Examining the different angles, the weather-worn edges, the way the light would glint off a corner in the sunlight. Like pieces of broken glass, they were part of something larger. She just wasn’t sure what, couldn’t picture the whole. Sometimes she wondered if they were best tossed back out to sea.

006.

It would come in waves, the homesickness. It settled in her chest, building like a swelling tide, till it became a bird beating its wings against the bars of its cage. Then came the sickening drop, like a leaden ball thudding into her stomach. Usually it was too late to stop it by that point, so she’d give in and let herself cry. It was one of the only things that could make her cry any more, so it was honestly a bit of a relief to feel something so strongly. It was a reminder that she was still alive.

The modern miracle known as Google Street View was the worst. It allowed her to pick out the familiar rocks and the peeling paint around the windows, the tree branches, the stones in the front path, the wrought iron mailbox on the porch. It wasn’t just the house, either; it was the whole city, filled with little fragments of her life that had been left behind.

She worried that she would never move on. No matter what came along, how good life could potentially be elsewhere, she was afraid it would never be home. She already had a home; she just didn’t live there. It seemed childish at times, ridiculous and immature. Move on. Normal people move on. The only parallels she could draw in her mind were embarrassing to admit to others. Like the death of someone dear. Like the proverbial first love, “the one that got away”. Was there something wrong with her for clinging to a place as strongly as others clung to people? But oh, it wasn’t just a place. No, it would never be “just a place”. It was the home she chose for herself, where despite the bad times – and there were many of them – she learnt how to live a little as well, out of the shadow of her family and her own past.

She’d planted seeds there, and it pained her to know she wasn’t able to tend to them and watch them grow.

005.

It wasn’t that she thought she was special – definitely not. She’d always felt quite plain and boring, and had made peace with that long ago. But she noticed an undeniable difference between herself and many of the others with the same illnesses who she met through various online communities. Not that there weren’t some who were similar, because there were, and she was glad of it. It’s just that she didn’t relate to the majority of them. The desires they had, especially. And the reasons.

Dating. Friends. Societal acceptance. To look better. To look good. To look perfect. Beauty. Sexuality. “Fitness” (oh, the irony).

She was indifferent to most of those things, even disgusted by a few.

Acceptance. For others, it usually seemed to boiled down to some type of external acceptance. Self-acceptance as well, yes, but self-acceptance based upon being handed a seal of approval.

For her, it was to escape. Not to be noticed, to be perfect, to be sexy or fit or beautiful. Rather, she desired the opposite: to be plain. Unnoticeable. Small enough that her mere existence could be called into question. A shadow, whisper, eidolon. Almost nothing. It was then – and only then – that the sickening sense of shame would ease, and she could fill her lungs with clean, cold air and inhabit her own being without fear.

004.

It was perhaps an odd — yet understandable — friendship. He was 30 years her senior, old enough to be her dad. Yet she was glad he wasn’t, as her track record with father-daughter relationships was abysmal, fraught with conflict and misunderstanding.

She knew he understood from the moment she really started to pay attention to his lyrics. Even the ones that weren’t profoundly personal still carried a quality that allowed the listener, if they read between the lines and paid attention to the nuances of language and tone and breath, to construct an idea of who he was. The tip of the iceberg, so to speak, but it was there for those who were willing to listen closely.

She wrote to him when she was 18 or 19, a long letter crafted carefully one night at her desk in the dark (save for a lamp) as she listened to an old cassette tape that her dad used to keep in the truck. It took several hours, a time period over the course of which the lined paper acquired many scratched-out words and splotches of blurred ink from the warm, salty tears that inevitably came with composing something so charged. She recalled there being a container of fruit-on-the-bottom fat-free sugar-free blueberry yoghurt on the desk next to her, frozen rock-hard in the freezer for several hours and eaten carefully with a plastic knife so as to make it last as long as possible. She felt both ridiculous and giddy about the letter, spilling thoughts and feelings onto the paper that she’d never shared with anyone before, confident that he’d somehow understand them.

She never sent it. Partly because she didn’t have an address, but also because who on earth sent something like that to someone they’d never met in person?

It was about six or seven years later, a day after her 25th birthday, when the friendship became real. Eventually she told him about her letter, albeit not in detail because it still seemed a little odd. She’d been right, though; he understood. It was the sort of understanding shared by those who’d lost pieces of themselves somewhere along the way, and had tried in vain to fill the holes with slow, well-intentioned self-destruction. Often too many words didn’t seem necessary, and she didn’t like to burden him with them anyway. The hugs and the “Hey, kiddo,” kept her going. And the music, of course. Always the music. She liked to imagine that someday she’d plant ‘A Row of Small Trees’ of her own.

003.

There were Reasons she didn’t often visit people she knew. Reasons that mostly had to do with a persistent and relatively inexplicable sense of shame. It wasn’t the sort of shame one might expect from a person in her situation. No, the predictable shame of illness and dysfunction was felt only amongst strangers, people with stereotypical, general expectations of others’ lives, and by this point she’d become so used to it that it no longer registered on her scale of Emotions To Be Avoided. The shame with family, with friends, with long-ago acquaintances was different. The self that she had semi-consciously crafted in her formative years was the self they knew; the one where the outside matched the inside. Where the outside said, “I don’t need you; I don’t need anything,” in the tidy, clean, definitive way that she believed only sharp angles and stoic denial could do.

She didn’t want them to believe it was any different now, and therein lay the problem, the source of the shame. The outside often belied the ego. The outside had become messy, fragmented, complicated. Lost, even. She’d “let herself go”. Her body and her life conveyed very little truth anymore, and it horrified her to think that perhaps others assumed they symbolised anything whatsoever about her reality, as they once did. It would be a fair assumption — she knew that — and that’s why it frightened her. For all the inner physical deterioration, the parts one couldn’t see, her outward manifestation generally looked… okay. Just okay, mind you (‘okay’ being a very bland and non-descriptive word), but okay nonetheless.

It was an illusion, of course. There was nothing “okay” about her. A person might think an individual who looked “okay” had finally made peace with all the aspects of human existence that horrified her. With responsibility, with mistakes, with uncertainty and vulnerability, with love and sex and growth and loss and all the messy intricacies of being human. They’d be wrong, very wrong indeed. And that was the source of the shame she felt with those who knew her. Shame at the possibility that they thought she was Normal now, that she’d grown to accept all those things she hated so passionately.

It was also why she couldn’t let go. The yearning for the cohesion of her own past was a constant companion that reminded her how much of a fraud she’d become.