So I took the first dose of larkspur, and packed up the bed linens for a trip to the laundromat.
It was hot summer by then. My little room was all west windows, catching direct sun in the afternoon and second-hand sun all morning reflected in the upper-story floors across the little concrete courtyard. Right opposite my windows was a new hearty long-lived neighbor who listened to very loud radio from 6:00 a.m. until midnight. It made listening to or practicing my own music nearly impossible. The stern announcers would vanish into silence for minutes at a time and then bark out again, like the loudspeakers in a war movie stalag. At such a high volume, the courtyard acoustics yawned with distortion and echoed off the walls so that every word pulsed five times. And the broadcasts happened to be in Russian, making them a little harder to ignore since I could understand every word word word word word. One day an hour-long feature about colon polyp removal was repeated three times. After that I wrote a sweet letter in ornate Russian calligraphy, sending greetings and the hope that we might meet for tea some day, and proposing that the radio be turned down a tad. I slipped it under the neighbor’s door. Within minutes he turned off the radio and slammed all of his windows closed, pulling down the blinds. But within a couple of days he gradually cranked the broadcasts back to full volume.
At midnight the network signed off, and there was blessed quiet but for my ticking windup clock. But starting at 2:00 a.m., the bars shut down and the intercom came to life. Any tenant who forgot their keys, or had them at the bottom of their shopping bag, or couldn’t figure out the lock after a few beers, would try all the buzzers until someone let them in. The late-comers most likely to be flatly refused entry by the other tenants were Ahmad the cab driver from Egypt, Renny the laconic tattooed teen (with or without his Burmese python friend), and Les & Sibele, an African-American couple from Detroit. Soon they all learned which tenant was most likely to be home by midnight, most likely to wake up, most likely to know their names, and least likely to pour old dishwater out the window.
All this hubbub made the laundromat a pretty appealing refuge. On the morning in question, the place was empty. Soon the linens were tumbling away, and I settled down to read in a half-size bolted-down wiggly cracked plastic chair.
My reading at the time came from friends who saw me shying away from church. They donated copies of 12 Step literature, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, the I Ching, handbooks of womyn’s herbs & positive magick, A Course in Miracles, a guide to Rune stones with the stones included, and more. I especially liked Bo Lozoff’s We’re All Doing Time, and took it to the laundry to read about focus and concentration.
But my focus exercise was interrupted by the headline of a well-respected news magazine on the rack. It promised an in-depth look at the psychological motivations and social behavior patterns present in persons who commit specific types of violence. It would have been nice if the laundromat had saved their magazine pennies and bought The Gift of Fear instead, but Gavin de Becker was still years away from writing it. Instead there was this article with its parade of people who committed sensational crimes, with the supposed inside story: statements by families, friends, and co-workers that there were no warning signs, and that events of this nature do not happen in this town.
The article didn’t make me feel safe, wise, alert, or at ease. It did make me feel zoned out and dazed, watching the linens tumble round and round in the little dryer porthole. It also led to a first awareness of a lifelong question creeping along under my skin about people who didn’t relate to anybody, who lived their lives under the radar. Of course the overwhelming majority of them wanted only to avoid being hurt themselves. But now I recalled incidents when the intentions had not been good, and when it was grace and circumstance that intervened, not my own intuition.
Still feeling dazed and vulnerable I folded hot laundry, carried it home, and made up the bed. Then all day and night I scrubbed my studio from top to bottom. That meant unplugging the refrigerator to take out and clean the bottom grate and then lie on the floor with moistened cotton swabs dabbing at the coils. It meant weaving strips of wet muslin into the radiator arches to buff out the dust. It meant reaching an arm out the window to clean half the outside panes with white vinegar and scraping all the lines in the sink with a nail file and cleaning under the faucet fixtures with dental floss. At the time it seemed like good housekeeping, but it was really the nesting instinct that precedes getting sick. (In retrospect, it’s no wonder that something went askew. This was a person determined to summon up and work on old memories while avoiding the advice of a therapist and a homeopathic counselor, living without her familiar job or lovable roommates, in an anonymous neighborhood and a remarkably unfriendly building, and without the faith tradition that made the most sense to her.)
When I finished cleaning everything it was 4:00 on a Saturday afternoon, just when I should have been out for confession and Mass. The radio had stopped for a long static-ridden pause. In the hallway, Ahmad, Les, Sibele, Renny, and the Burmese python were heading out for the evening and no doubt leaving their keys in their doors. I sat down on my bed and thought “At last! Now I’m finally finished and ready.”
Then the question came to mind: Ready? For what?
Some quiet little cog of mental wellbeing snapped like a fingerling icicle. It left the simple awareness that there was no one real reason for being anywhere or for being at all. At that moment it seemed that in 35 years of hard work, I’d created a life that looked like the lives in the police report on the magazine people, a life under the radar that didn’t seem to relate to anybody.
I sat and wondered. Where were they now, all the under-radar people from the past? More important, did they wonder where I was? “If they do,” I thought, looking down at my wrists, “this body is the first place they’ll look. Maybe I can just cut my way out?” On a little bed, in a sun-filled clean white boxful of a home, that idea felt sensible and peaceful. It calmed me down to float up like a glowing lotus blossom up through the top of my head.
Except for one nagging thread pulling me back down.
It was that windup clock, pulsing along tick by tock like a little heart that wasn’t giving up.
I picked up the phone and called my sister, and described the clock situation. The conversation went something like this.
“Well come over here,” she suggested cheerfully.
“Well I don’t know,” I told her. “Do you have clocks?”
“No, mine are in the closet, wrapped in a bath towel,” she assured me.
“That’s a good idea. I have a bath towel here.”
“Nah, come on over,” she said. “Right now.”
“Should I bring salad? I’ve got tomatoes and olives and –”
“I have salad. Walk out your door now, and come here. I will watch out the window and expect you in half an hour.”
“Only if it’s no trouble.”
“Half an hour. You will be here.”
In half an hour I was there. She had salad on the table with two plates and no clocks.
“Thanks,” I said. “This is nice.” Then I lay down behind her sofa and started keening. That’s what Gaelic calls it. It was somewhere between a moan and a howl, just sound flowing along through me like a mournful sea wind.
Why, one might ask, didn’t you report this unusual larkspur reaction to your homeopathic counselor?
Because as far as I could tell, it seemed perfectly reasonable, after reading about the magazine people, to then go find some furniture to lie behind and start keening.
And that meant I’d arrived. This was success, this was the prize of long striving. Finally, I’d gotten a memory. What I didn’t know was that memories may not arrive as a pat clear image like a movie. Memories might arrive as only the emotion of a scene, without the context of the scene itself. In this case, the piece was a sense that everything is over, that there is no way out.
My sister brought the phone in and invited me to call my therapist right now. He was just leaving for the airport, but gave me an appointment on his return in ten days. Fine.
Now all I had to do was work out the next ten days. Fortunately, my sister makes good salad. The fuel was going to come in useful.