You did everything right!
You made some friends you could count on. You got a job. You found a mate, a really nice one, and you bought a house and had kids. You didn’t even think about it that much, you just did it. You worked really hard, all the time. You were a faithful wife and, it’s okay to say it out loud, an above--average mom, and you dressed cute but not too cute. You were a little afraid. You were a lot afraid. You could feel your chaotic past behind you. You could hear the girl you were, a disastrous pirate slut of a girl, breathing down your neck. You wanted nothing to do with her. But sometimes late at night, while the babies and the husband were asleep, you drank Maker’s Mark in your living room, even though you were still breastfeeding, and you listened to music alone in the dark, and that girl came closer and closer until you turned off the music and went to your marital bed and slept your dreamless, drunken sleep. You woke up and your teeth felt like nervy stubs from all the grinding. You had a headache that lived inside your teeth.
You accumulated this life over a decade, maybe two. Like a midden, or the nest of a bowerbird, or a creepy shut--in’s collection of nail clippings. Anyway, it all piled up, accreted, because that was the way you wanted it. You are the kind of person who gets what she wants. You wanted to accumulate this beautiful life, a life that—-for all its beauty—-ignored the person you’d been. You worked your ass off getting here.
You moved to the country, or that’s what you called it. Just because you take a ferry to get there and you have farmers for neighbors, that doesn’t make it the country. It’s just very, very picturesque suburbs. In the fake country, there was all the nature you craved. You had woods in your new backyard and a badminton lawn and a poorly kept garden that you described to yourself as romantically overgrown. Also, the schools were terrific. The house you bought was a bit bigger so your daughter and son didn’t have to share a bedroom, even though it’s great for kids to share a bedroom, but maybe a little uncomfortable as they get older. You bought a nice new couch, because toddlers left the old one as stained with shit and vomit and blood as the backseat of Travis Bickle’s taxi. You had orthodontia for the children, who got really large, really fast. In your safe, pretty house in the alleged country, across the water from the city where you grew up, you mostly forgot about the girl you were, the lost soul. She was such a clueless bitch, you didn’t really want to think about her anyway. Maybe you conjured her at parties with new friends, parents from your kids’ school who laughed, politely, at your crazy stories. You woke up embarrassed the next morning.
And then one day it’s as if a switch is flipped. This day comes in April 2011, the spring you are forty--four years old. You don’t know it yet, but on this day, your season in hell has begun. You stumble out of bed. Your husband, a journalist, is headed somewhere far away on assignment, but before he leaves he brings you coffee in bed and then yells up the stairs at your children. You rise and go into the kitchen, lean dizzily against the counter, and watch them come in their multitudes. Well, there are only two of them, but they seem like more in the morning.
Your daughter, solemn and big--eyed and possessed of a slyly wicked sense of humor, is twelve; just around the age you were when you started going off the rails. Does her twelve--ness fill you with anxiety? If so, you’re not quite admitting it to yourself. She grows more beautiful every day, even as you grow homelier, no matter how many chaturangas you perform. A friend discovered, at the health food store on your island, something called emu oil. As far as you can tell from the gnomic description on the tiny bottle, it appears to be secreted from the glands of emus. Which glands? Unknown. Whatever, it makes you and all the other ladies in your neighborhood look great. Glowy. Everyone goes for it in a big way for a month or so, but after a while it just seems too gross. Meanwhile your daughter appears to be coolly lit from within by some tiny inner moon. Does her comparative glowiness make you feel that your own mortality, your own youth, is drawing inexorably to a close? Again, not in any way you care to admit.
Your son, for now, is a simpler matter: nine years old, cherubic, and uncomplicatedly loving and gleefully loud. And here they come, every morning, with their crazed hair and vacant eyes. They are like sleep--hot monsters who need to have the wildness of dreaming smoothed and fed and nagged out of them.
Your husband is picking up his suitcase and heading out the door and the kids are looking for their shoes. Because from the time they’re born until they’re eighteen, there will be one constant: lost shoes.
Your life is relentlessly communal. You are necessary, in every conceivable way. This is how you wanted it to be. Blessedly alone at last, you sit down at your computer to work on an overdue article. Your focus is shitty. Through the open window you hear the call of a spotted towhee, which sounds exactly like the Austin Powers theme song. The spring air is the very gas of nostalgia. It reminds you of schoolrooms, of wanting to flee your desk, of the escape artist you used to be. As you sit there, you find that all of a sudden you can’t stop thinking about her, the girl you were.
The thing is, you don’t really remember her that well, because you’ve spent so long trying to block her out. You suddenly want evidence of her existence. You go down into the basement, as one in a trance, and start rummaging through boxes. You kneel penitent--like on the cold cement floor, looking for her.
Letters are easy to come by. There are boxes full of them. They overflow plastic bags, they fall out of books like flat fledging birds. Letters were the way you and your friends found one another when you were young; you stuffed your little all into an envelope and dropped it in the box and waited. Friendships were kept alive for years in this manner. Letters weren’t rare and precious; they were the papery stuff of life, or emotional life anyway, and that’s really the only life you cared about when you were young.
You stack the letters neatly in a pile and you keep looking, rooting around like a truffle pig. Photos are a little scarcer; people didn’t use to take photos for everyday entertainment. When you were young, seeing a photo of yourself was an event. Oh my god, you’d think, I’m backward! Because of course you only ever saw your mirror image, which was a lying bastard.
Your diaries, which are a multivolume situation, prove strangely elusive. They aren’t all stored together. Each move from house to house has scattered them into different boxes. It’s as though you’ve hidden yourself from yourself. You begin to tear through boxes. You find a diary crammed into a carton of old concert T--shirts, T--shirts that themselves could be read as a diary: the Rolling Stones’s Tattoo You tour, Beat Happening, Died Pretty, the Melvins, the Presidents of the United States of America. You find another diary wedged between layers of your children’s baby clothes, which you are saving because you are a sap; you find three mixed up with books from college by people like Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault. Whenever your hand falls on one of these diaries, you feel a whoosh of luck. It is the book you most want to read.
You haul all this stuff out to your backyard studio, a tiny building a few necessary yards from your house. This is where you come to while away the hours by yourself, avoiding your family, like one of those emotionally withholding British husbands who spend their days in the shed at the bottom of the garden, pursuing who knows what obsession: Porn? Philately? You, on the other hand, come out here to write and cry. It’s luxurious to have a little house where you can go to weep, though your actual surroundings are pretty humble: salvaged windows, plywood floor, spare furnishings. You give an experimental little sniff and smell what is unmistakably an animal tang. There’s a nest of raccoons living under the shed.
You spend too much time out here; it’s one of your escape hatches. Without admitting it, you’ve been building a little collection of these over the last few months—-ever since around the time you turned forty--four. Maybe they’re starting to get out of hand. You’ve always been close with your best friend, Victoria, but suddenly you’re on the phone every day, like lovers: “I had tuna fish for lunch.” “I cried instead of eating lunch.” You’re both married to men who are smart and loving and tall and funny. Even so, you and she travel together like a couple. Why do you leave these excellent men at home? You’re not sure exactly. It has something to do with valves; with escaping pressure. Anyway, she joins you on book tour and you accompany her to openings (she’s an artist); in all instances you drink too much. Speaking of lovahs, you have a slew of inappropriate e--mail friendships with men. They’re not quite romantic but you shouldn’t have to say that. Even sex with your husband, which has always been a point of connection, a relief, a release, has become an escape hatch, infused with the outsiders who are starting to cluster in your imagination. You don’t quite imagine them when you’re fucking your husband; except you do, actually. Sex is changing and becoming dirty again, just now when you are getting truly old and bits of you are lumpy that ought to be smooth. You find yourself over his knee, or with parts of him in your mouth, and you want to sort of rub your eyes and say: How’d we end up here? You know it’s not this way for all women. For every person like you, with this crazed gleam in your eye, there’re three other women who say they’d be happy doing it once a month, or less; they’d be happy with just a cuddle. You get it. You know how they feel. You’ve felt that way yourself. But not now. Now you feel like this: Jesus Christ, we’re all going to die! Get it while you can, you morons!
Most surprising of all—-for a woman like you, a woman who’s been keeping her shit at least somewhat together lo these many years—-is your diminishing sanity, your diminishing energy, your diminishing competence. A new inertia has overcome you. Once upon a time, you used to come out to your office and work hard, beavering away at your current article. Since you published your first book, though, you find work more difficult than ever. You’re not sure why this is. Many people said nice things, in print and elsewhere, when your book came out, but like a real writer you care only about the mean stuff, the indignities. You received a savage e--mail from a mentor and former editor of yours, who told you the book was so unreadable she had to stop midway through. She sent what she called “a note, maybe a goodbye.” That left a mark, bigger than you care to admit. You are shaken and insecure, and simultaneously enervated.
So you sit there in your office, staring out the window at the fuchsia that for some reason no longer blooms. You are too enervated to prune it back to fecundity. You’re like a windup toy that can’t get wound. You find yourself able to achieve gape--mouthed catatonia, a state you haven’t known in decades. Working mothers of very young children are not allowed catatonia; it’s a country they can’t get a visa to. Proud Catatonia, flying the flag of idleness and melancholy. You find yourself suddenly not just wanting to do nothing but somehow needing to do nothing.
Maybe a woman’s version of a midlife crisis involves stopping doing stuff?
It’s not like stopping doing stuff is new to you. You were basically non--utile for many years, from about age thirteen to age twenty--three, and were beloved in spite of this undeniable fact, or maybe even because of it. You did nothing, and it was more than enough. Then you decided you wanted to be valued for what you could do—-writing, mothering, housekeeping, editing, teaching, gardening, cooking—-and you worked hard at acquiring those skills. And now you’ve gotten your wish: You are loved for your usefulness. Is it an achievement or a curse? You and your husband’s love for each other is based on profound reciprocity: What can you do for me? What can I do for you? This is considered a healthy marriage; you think about each other’s needs. You cover the bases. He does money; you do food. Like that.
The two of you pass the big tests: You still talk; you still fuck. But sometimes you ruefully recall Ethan Hawke’s character in Before Sunset, when he describes his marriage: “I feel like I’m running a small nursery with someone I used to date.” You resent the fact that you’ve been forced to relate to Ethan Hawke. Of all people. And anyway of course it’s worth it. Your family isn’t some kind of chore, or even some kind of mere consolation, though it’s both those things as well. It’s the whole deal, the great love, the thing in this life that was supposed to happen to you. Even so, your family members certainly require a lot of work. From you. And so sometimes you wish you could be loved just for being. You find yourself yearning to stop. Everything. Doing nothing is suddenly on the agenda in a big way. You like nothing so much that you occasionally lie in bed all day and think about nothing. (This is not optimal, financially speaking, and your waning earnings are not doing a lot to make you popular with your husband.) You have a lot of nothing to think about, for the first time in a long time. You are interested in nothing.
Just now you are interested in this, though. This basement evidentiary material. There in your studio, you lay out the photos, the letters, the diaries, and read them, and look at them. They look totally fabulous, exercises in superfluous beauty. The letters are covered with tiny drawings and declarations of love and unnecessary curlicues. The photos are silly and gorgeous and everyone looks skinnier (their bodies) but at the same time chubbier (their faces) than they do now. The diaries are intricate woolgatherings, collections of meandering self--thought, involuted as a vulva, spiraling as a conch shell, thought and self making a net or a trap. And there she is. That horrible girl.