Daisy had been such a child of those privileges. Daisy who was fair-skinned and light-boned and strong-willed. Daisy who had the fierce determination of a child even as she grew, somewhat unwillingly, into a brave new womanhood.
In this brave new womanhood, farm girls dared to dream big dreams. Those who had been considered too frail, too dreamy, too haughty for farm work would shear their hair almost as short as the men, would shear their hemlines as high as their knees, would paint their eyes dark with kohl, and would move to cities where the buildings seemed to scrape improbably against the sky, cities where the electric lights never seemed to stop their glorious buzz, cities where the air felt thick with smog and possibilities.
And in these cities, farm girls became women— women who rented single rooms by the week, women who smoked cigarettes and drank bathtub gin in speakeasies, women who sat in typing pools by day and went on dates with ad-men by night.
Daisy had also longed to dream big dreams.
In the pink hotel, the days ran into one another. It was hard to mark when one day ended and the next began, just as it was hard to tell whether the real world continued to exist. Whether it was winter or summer, whether there was snow on the ground or brilliant blue skies, whether the grass sparkled with dew or the trees shook with autumn wind was impossible to tell from deep within the hotel’s now faded halls.
Even though the the hotel’s once luxurious carpets, then woven in the geometric, blocked designs that were the height of fashion when the building was constructed, had since been ripped from the floors by scavengers and the wooden planks beneath had began to rot, quite badly in some places, and even though some of the walls in some of the wings were covered in mold (there had been an incident, long forgotten, when the sprinklers went off without reason and could not be shut off, and the solution, since a way to shut them off could not be found, was to simply close that particular wing to guests), the hotel still held an alluring beauty and glamour of days past.
Days when the ills of the world, whispers of divorce or nerve disorders, fear of murder and bombings, and nations on the brink of war, were not to be fretted, no. All one needed was a good long rest, see, and the pink hotel next to the inland sea had been designed for such long rests, for those with the means to fend off modernity through sheer force of will and an endless string of cocktail parties and dinner shows. For those, marking the passage of time was not a necessity, but a luxury one chose not to partake in.
Joanna was wild like wind. There was something infinite and magical and violent inside of her, something that made her feel like kicking in the shop windows and tearing down the curtains, something that made her feel like finding out just how far her legs could run, just how far was far to go. Sometimes, at night, Joanna would walk along the shore just to feel the wind come in from across the lake. She held out her arms and pushed her face into the headwinds and closed her eyes and felt the force of nature deep inside her body, like a prayer or maybe, like what some might call ecstasy.
Sometimes, the thing inside Joanna that was wild, like wind, made her feel beautiful. Walking through the city sidewalks, full of young people, old people, crazy people, boring people, dogs and babies in strollers and panhandlers and canvassers and businessmen and homeless men, the thing that was wild inside her reached out to touch some soft, unspoken thing inside every person she passed. She’d stop to pet dogs or smile at babies or she’d make eye contact with the harried woman carrying too many shopping bags, and see something in her eyes that maybe she was not supposed to be a see, a fragility like crystal.
But sometimes, the wild thing inside her made her feel like there was nothing good about her. It was a thing that told her to smash the dishes or break the mirrors or laugh at the boys who told her she was beautiful, her heart closed shut like a car door. Sometimes, it was the thing that told her throw everything away with a sneer and smirk, laughing in the face of all there was left to lose. Sometimes, it was the thing that told her to walk the finest of lines, to balance the precipice between shadow and light, between creation and destruction, between love and self-hatred.
It was then that the urge to run was hardest to fight, and Joanna had to do everything in her power to avoid taking off at record speed, running into the dusky-darkness of a sunset, laughing at all that is tearing and gnashing in the world. Sometimes, Joanna wondered if she had the strength to keep fighting it, day after day and year after year. Sometimes, when the wind blew just right, carrying in the sweet grass smell of the prairie, or a heavy dampness portending of rain, Joanna had a glimpse, a brief flash like the night sky illuminated by lightning, of just how close to the edge she stood. How it was inevitable that one day, she would lose that fine balance, and the light would slip away, like a boat pulled out to sea.
Rogers Park Beach, 1957
(via Uptown Chicago History)
Vintage postcard of the Belle Shore Apartment Hotel
In the dream, I am standing on the deck, gathering my things. A bright red motorboat zooms through the waters, the reckless driver shouting to all us boat dwellers dotting the harbor that he can take our laundry to shore to be washed on the cheap. I think, “Nah, I’ll go to shore myself. Time to get supplies.” I stare out at the mainland. A smog hangs over the city. There are helicopters and ambulances and police cars and underneath it all, I can hear the people drowning in misery and poverty, complaining about having no jobs, no schools, no access to healthcare, no food, no love. I look back around the deck of my boat. It is a nice boat. It is a comfortable boat. It is my boat, filled with everything I could ever need. I continue to pack. I pause. I am unsure of how much to bring. I am unsure of how long I’ll be gone. “I’m just getting supplies,” I tell myself.
I try to look out to the mainland again, but I am distracted. I spot another harbor dweller, a man, walking out on the deck of his yacht. He is wearing a robe, untied, buck naked underneath, walking out in full view of all without shame. I’m attracted to his unkempt hair, his unshaven face, his raw masculinity. He grabs a beer and and grabs his dick and takes a leak off the side of the boat. He starts shouting and hollering, chugging down his beer and unabashedly pissing into the wind, a mad man drunk not only on alcohol but on his own freedom, his own sense of self. I watch him, enthralled and intrigued and envious at his ability to laugh in the face of it all. His ability to be so goddamned sure. I wonder what it’s like to be a man who never once thought to look back.
I convince myself I’m dying. It’s this weird thing I do from time to time. I wake up with a mysterious rash on my legs and a deep pain in my hip and knee, an ache right down to the bone. I convince myself I have septic arthritis. I convince myself I have HIV. I convince myself I have leukemia. See, I am about to have insurance for the first time in 15 years. So, my worst fear is contracting an illness three weeks before my policy kicks in, when I have been mostly healthy all 25 years of my life. In reality, I know I am being irrational, a practiced anxiety picked up from my mother. However, just in case, because I always need a plan, I ask myself what I would do if I did find out I had a life-threatening disease.
I bawl like a child. I cry until there is nothing left in me to cry. Because I realize that I have never once done anything I wanted to in this life. I have spent the last 25 years of my life doing safe things, doing the things people thought I should do. I graduated high school, even though I wanted to drop out. I went to a very good college instead of writing school, instead of tramping around out west to sleep on beaches or in deserts. (I later dropped out of that very good school, because, well, my heart wasn’t in it.) And recently, I took the good job with the office and the salary and health insurance benefits. Now I’m in the place so many people wish themselves to be… bright lights, big city, on the fast-track to climbing the corporate ladder and eventually being able to buy the big house or the fast car or whatever it is that people think will make them happy.
Yet, I remain a small girl in a studio apartment, crying alone because she is already afraid that somehow, her life has passed her by.
One of my co-workers is maybe in his mid-50’s to early 60’s. He is one of those people who does his work not because he enjoys it, but because it is expected of him, because that’s just where he happened to end up. Which is not to say that he is not content, but that maybe his contentment in life does not stem from his working life.
The other day, he excitedly showed me some rocks he had found in an abandoned lot near work. He explained to me that they were terracotta bricks, left over from when the neighborhood had been the terracotta capital of the Midwest. I knew exactly the lot he had found them in and was very interested to hear of his find, as once upon a time, I had wanted to be a geologist to learn all the stories the land could tell.
He reminded me then of a small boy, and I imagined him exploring those abandoned lots with the zeal of a child, for whom the world’s unlimited possibilities can be revealed in a moment of discovery and exploration.
And immediately, it hit me, the sadness of the fact that to some of life’s adventurers those moments of discovery are relegated to the brief chunks of time on lunch breaks and evening commutes, stolen and hidden away from the demands of the dailiness of life.
She told me I would have to make a choice.
There is no right or wrong in this life. Only choices we can live with and choices we can’t.
I re-read The White Album for maybe the eighth time. A plane ticket stub left as a bookmark tells me that the last time I read it was on February 4th, 2007, on a flight from New York LaGuardia to Chicago Midway.
I tell myself this is significant because the person who read that book so many times before is a person different from the one reading it now.
On February 4th, 2007 I made a choice to leave and I cried in the airport waiting room for all the things I left behind. Over four years later, I still do not know if if has been a choice I could live with. If it was worth it.
What strikes me most about reading The White Album this time around is how much Didion is the outsider and the observer, something I have related to many times in life. I wonder, not for the first time, about the role of the observer, and if one need be an outsider in order to observe. If one must study the mainland from the harbor, if one must always be gazing at the farther shore.
Didion’s psychiatrist writes of her: "It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure…."
Yes, that may well be what Didion’s problem is. It may well be what my problem is. But, hell if it isn’t the problem of every single goddamned writer to put pen to paper. People wonder why writers tend to be a miserable lot, and while I have indeed met some deeply satisfied writers, for every one of them, I can count 10 miserable ones. It is because the job of writing, the task of being the observer, is all about understanding the motivation, telling the story “in order to live,” in Didion’s words.
I wonder how many people realize that the great majority of human beings really are moved by strange, conflicted, and poorly comprehended motivations which commit them to conflict and perhaps even failure. Didion got it, and it’s what makes her such a terrifyingly good writer.
I call my brother and his phone has been disconnected. I text my mother but receive no response. I send her an email, tell her I want to name her beneficiary on my life insurance policy, I want her new phone number, I want to know how my brother is doing. A week later and no response.
A couple of years ago, I was hit by a car. The driver fled the scene of the crime, leaving me unconscious in the middle of a busy intersection at night. I ended up with a broken collarbone and $2,000 in medical bills.
I was on my way to see a boy I thought I loved that night. I received a text from him in the emergency room. “Where are you?” it read. Through the pain and the morphine and the concussion I somehow managed to text him back and told him what happened. I have not seen nor heard from him since. I’m left only with the memory of a dim room, of summer and sweat, of him holding me close to tell me he loved me, his hands smelling of smoke.
I have stopped trying to understand the motivation.
I do not yet understand my own motivation to look back. Why I feel torn between two worlds, two needs… the need to somehow go back to dry land, to rejoin the miserable masses in some kind of common communion, and the need to be the madman out at sea, unabashedly pissing into the wind and never regretting the decision to turn away in order to embrace freedom, sweet and bitter. To be observer or observed.
I stopped writing. When asked why, I said that it felt like slitting open my wrists and bleeding onto the page. I stopped writing because I couldn’t see the motivation, the meaning, the reason, the rationale. The script misplaced. The script never written. I couldn’t see the point.
I stopped dreaming. When asked why, it was because it was too hard. Dreaming was unrealistic, and like, Icarus, my hubris drew me too close to the sun and I got burned, bad. Once bitten, twice shy.
I stopped loving. When asked why, I said it was because love made you vulnerable, and I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be steel and an unfaltering voice. The kind of woman who could walk away with a snide laugh. The kind of woman who could walk away and not look back. The kind of woman who broke hearts and was not broken.
I do not know why I am such a person who thinks that everything about me is so totally and completely and unabashedly wrong. How we get so far away from the people we want to be…
there was the fighting and there was the stopping. there were fists and there were flowers. there was fleeing and there was feeling. since feeling is first….
it was my hands reaching out for concrete, the smashing of bones and the crunching of steel on steel. it was his hands reaching out to hold me, as though somehow in the night, i would slip away, like smoke. i was always more of water than of girl, lapping at the silent shores of lost dreams, touching and retreating, falling under the waves with a yawn, a sigh, a “whatever.” now that these legs have fallen down and gotten back up again, and again, and again, what am i. a lava of a woman, one slow to action. an unchangeable course.
what i wanted to say: i could feel my heart close shut like a car door. my heart a thing to be shattered, like bone, like glass. my heart was a glass, cold and silent.
what i wanted to say: i could break things too. my fists could be strong as long as mine were the first to do the hitting. how many dreams in which i’ve shouted “you broke my heart and now i’ll break your face,” with a laugh bitter as blood oranges.
what i wanted to say: i could walk away. leaving was easy just like laughing was easy just like fucking was easy just like hitting was easy just like not eating not paying the bills not giving a fuck who to fuck what the fuck was so fucking easy.
how i could let go of him, as though he were a smoke, a boy with wet paint eyes and nicotine hands and a mouthful of dust…