On Leslie Van Houten and Death in the Guise of the Skinny Girl by John Reed
I have an impossible memory of my aunt Martha. She is in a dance studio in dancewear—the 70s—tights and solid-color cotton. I don’t know if she’s walking or standing or sitting—maybe, through the course of the memory, all three. I am aware of her lithe body, the sweat on her skin beading in a late afternoon light. But my attention is on her face: smiling, post-exhaustion, so happy and tired like only a dancer, like only a mother, could be. The dance studio has a wooden floor—an old warehouse or factory floor—which has been sanded and finished in a honey sheen. And the whole space is awash in light. Sunlight through the rolled glass of the woodframe windows. Everything is sepia with the light, and her face hovers in the halo of her hair, iridescent with that rose sunlight of the American Southwest.
I say it’s an impossible memory because, even if something like that did happen, I couldn’t have been more than two at the time. How could I remember that? I do see from the vantage of a child: about knee high. My Aunt Martha is smiling—she is afire with the light—and I am standing close by, as if I am ready for her to take me and lift me onto her lap.
A memory I have of Martha that I know is genuine: I am in the room where she is. It seems like a hospital room, but I hadn’t known we were in a hospital until I entered the room. There is a signing book, and I am at it, and there is one of those toy bubbles that you buy from the coin machines at the supermarket, and it has a toy in it. And the toy and the bubble are attached by a string to the signing book, which I can’t read because I can’t read yet. And I’m semi-consciously noting how curious the toy bubble and the book are, and how I’m disinterested. And Martha, who is sitting up in her cranked up bed—she is pale as death, and will die, even a child knows—she says to me:
"Golden boy. Where is my golden boy?"
I don’t remember the funeral. I was about five. She was twenty-eight.
Did I mention that Martha was beautiful?
Calavera Azul by Sylvia Ji
I’ve been thinking about Martha as part of a longer piece about my grandparents. My grandmother, with Munchausen by Proxy, killed four or five people—mostly by accident, but still. (My experience with the police—I’ve talked to them—is not exactly CSI.) One victim was her husband (her second husband, who was terminally ill, and took a very sudden turn for the worse), one was her lover (he was younger than her, in his 70s, not 80s, but he kept breaking limbs, and after Grandma’s series of several frantic calls about the level of care he required, he dropped dead), and two were her children. Martha and Norman. Or, well, I shouldn’t blame Grandma entirely. Martha died of melanoma, which doesn’t usually kill people (though Grandma may have cared for her to death), and Norman died in a scuba diving accident.
To explain: Grandma didn’t want Norman to go diving that day, but he had already put money down for the boat (scuba diving is very expensive), and he insisted on going, so she poisoned him, probably with prescription pills (but it could have been vitamins, she had been a nutritionist), and then when he went anyway he made a fatal miscalculation (he waited, um, on the sea floor, for help).
Should I say that my brother, my mother, my wife and I all believe this, but hope to be mistaken? My parents were very young when they had me, and until I was old enough to care for myself, Grandma would take me in for weeks at a time, and at Grandma’s I’d be amazed by this unusual thing that happened, which I assumed happened to everyone. Sometimes I would sleep for 48 hours straight. Also, a few times in the middle of the night, maybe half a dozen, I had trouble breathing, and Grandma had to rush me to the hospital.
When I went into the screening room I couldn’t tell how big it was. How could anyone tell? Everything was black. There was a bench, so I sat down on it. Were there rows of benches behind me? It was dark; I couldn’t see. I just assumed there were. And that I was in someone’s way.
When the movie on the screen got lighter, and the room lit up, I saw that there was only one bench. And I was sitting on it by myself.
I leaned back, and I was leaning against a black wall. It wasn’t a room, it was a box. And I wasn’t in anyone’s way.
So what if I had been?
The movie didn’t mean anything. It literally meant nothing. On purpose. That’s the kind of movie it was.
I was all alone in there making people mad. So what if they were mad? They weren’t even real.
I hate questions like: what was the best moment of your life? Really, the peak moment when you felt like everything was exactly as it should be?
As soon as I answer, I am filled with remorse and an urge toward revision.
Wait, let me think. Not the night of my wedding, that wasn’t the best night of my life. It was a great night, but wait, there must have been a better night in there somewhere that I am forgetting. And remember that shitty thing that happened, at the wedding? I felt terrible about that. And then I was happy again five minutes later, happier than ever.
But I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t the VERY best night.
(I can think of a thousand worst nights ever but that wasn’t the question.)
When I got married I did not have bridesmaids. Why narrow it down? Friends all the time, all your life, everyday, everyone is different. For every occasion and in every setting. People. Friends. Why assign rankings?
Be yourself fearlessly. Ha ha ha! That is so funny.
I signed a marriage contract in a municipal hall in a city in northern Virginia. I did it willingly. My body was very much involved in the decision. Some shit got signed away on that day. Freedom, rights, possibilities. I was eager to make the trade. Something lost, something gained. That happens with every contract.
Just let go of everything negative right now and shine from your authentic self. Just do it. Never give up trying. And don’t get frustrated when you fail.
made of classes at the academy, country club summers, saddle shoes, shaved legs, nicks that bleed made of elite institutions, air-conditioned museums, art books, getting off (i’m sorry officer, i didn’t know i was speeding thank you, i won’t do it again) made of straight air, no freshener straight hair, or straightened, and cotton sheets made of fly there, drive’s too far thank you notes, magazines, fashion, diets, accessories made of never the checkout girl never the waitress, never the maid made of fine china, registry, engraved invitations botox, waxes, twins in the bugaboo made of cashmere, caffeine drinks, james taylor, l.l.bean made of gated villas, all inclusive pan asian takeout, never chinese
we need someone to be honest with us we need to learn how to be honest with ourselves we need to know that life has a purpose, that it’s well worth living we need to know we have value (love and support, love and support) we need to recognize beauty and to crave it to cry to feel sexy to laugh to have sex to touch to hold to be held to feel smart and think big thoughts to receive a lightning bolt to the heart and to really turn the lights on in there or ask someone else to flip the switch for us or at least show us where the hell it is …
“When I expect myself to be superhuman, I become anxious and depressed; when I expect you to be, I become hostile; when I expect the world to be superperfect, I become self-pitying and rebelliously inert. If I am truly human, and expect nothing but humanness from others, I shall practically never upset myself about anything.”
What is the worst kind of divorce? I used to think they were all bad. But now I know a few divorced people (as opposed to children of divorced people) and I see that divorce is not bad. People wouldn’t get divorced if it were a bad choice. It looks like a very good choice, even a fantastic thing, for the married people who choose it. It’s really an act of deep acceptance. This marriage isn’t working. Let’s get divorced.
“Madonna once would come in dreams to cheer My slumbers with angelical delight; But now she brings foreboding in the night, Nor can I drive away my grief and fear. And in her phantom-face I see appear Her own hurt mixed with pity for my plight, And I hear words that cry above my fright That the final term of joy and hope is near. “Does our last evening not return to you?” She says, “Your eyes were wet and shining when For the lateness of the hour I had to flee. I could not, nor I would not, tell you then, But now I tell you, it is proved and true; Never again on Earth you’ll look on me.”
It’s more than just the Japanese version of suicide, because it’s got the redemption of honor wrapped up in it. In Western culture, suicide is a kind of surrender, or giving up. To some it’s even a crime, bars you entrance to heaven. My impression of hara-kiri is that you are redeeming yourself by removing yourself from other people’s lives, getting rid of the “problem” (you). Also, in the West, suicide is certainly a ritual but not nearly as codified as hara-kiri, which is a kind of sword dance.
I was introduced to the concept of hara-kiri when I watched a biopic of Yukio Mishima (late eighties—would never get made here now). Mishima was a Japanese novelist who made a significant impression on American intellectual life. Again, hard to imagine today.
Mishima committed hara-kiri, or performed it. What is the verb for that action? An action verb I guess.
Madonna never came to me in a dream. But Joni Mitchell did, and in the dream, Joni encouraged me to stay on my path. That dream was about a hundred years ago and I suppose I am still on my path. I mean, whose path could I possibly be on but my own? That seems obvious, but when Joni said “stay on your path” I thought that meant get onto her path, and follow it straight to genius, greatness, fame. Follow the path that takes you to Madonna, that makes you Madonna. That path.
Years later, after dragging my guitar around the East Village for a while, I picked up a book about the best “female singer/songwriters” (this was circa 2000) and I was surprised to see Madonna featured alongside artists like Joni Mitchell and Carole King. I‘m a proud Madonna fan when it’s appropriate, but I never thought of her as a singer/songwriter. It just didn’t seem to be the right label for her. The book immediately convinced me that I was wrong, mostly because I have a hard time holding onto my opinions. Madonna’s songs may depend on synth sounds, samples, and mechanical drum beats, but they are still songs, so she is technically a songwriter, and she is also very much a singer. So she qualifies for the book, which is no doubt out of print, because who really wants to read a book about Sarah Mclachlan, etc? We still hear the songs on the radio, occasionally, so enough already.
"Tart rose hips and citrusy lemongrass woo the voluptuous blooms of hibiscus flowers. An infusion that’s bursting with life and tinged with the color of true love to make sure you never have to live a day without passion."
Say your repeat the same thing over and over again to yourself like a character in a play by Samuel Beckett. Then you wake up one day and you are in that play. Everything lumpen and gray. Over-coated. Circular.
No one in the cast has ever heard of a rainbow or a unicorn. In fact, the audience looks down on rainbows and unicorns.
Do you play your part? Cry backstage? Go on strike? Say your lines even though they don’t make sense?
Not everyone likes you. You can try to be as charming and gracious as possible, some folks still won’t like you. You can try to be funny, they won’t laugh, because they don’t think you are funny. You try to helpful, they think you are being condescending. You can avoid them, but when you see them, as you inevitably will, you will be reminded. Not everyone likes you.