Illumination in Blue

A new year, a new decade. And I re-emerge, once again, from the void that swallowed me in the last months of 2019. A year that I could not wait to see the end of. The theme for my 2020 is “Illumination”. Enough of the darkness for a while.

The long period of creative dormancy was a perfect opportunity to reassess my writing. I’ve finally begun to submit my memoir, Wish I Were Here, to agents. I am grinding away, slowly, on a new blog post. I’ve unearthed my novel, Blue, from the vault. I’ve decided to re-edit it and re-submit it to agents and publishers. It’s not Pulitzer material, but I’m confident that it deserves a wider audience than it received. A few years ago, I posted an excerpt – “What I Was Doing in Guam” – on this blog. It was featured on Freshly Pressed. How many of you remember the pre-Wordpress Discover days?

Blue was published in 2006 by Murphy’s Law Press, a Canadian micropress which no longer exists. The story is about one young woman’s journey into the vibrant, but shadowy world of exotic dancing. How she uses it to take back her power after sexual assault and other trauma. Some of you may know that I worked as an exotic dancer (stripper) for a couple of years in the mid-1990s. The novel is not autobiographical, but some of the characters and scenes are based on my experiences in that world. For a few years, there were copies of Blue available on Amazon. But even those have disappeared, hopefully into appreciative hands. To begin this new year/new decade, I’m posting the prologue and chapter one. Some caution for more sensitive souls – the beginning of the novel is dark and somewhat explicit, so you may want to skip this one.

Prologue

In an industrial neighborhood of San Diego there is a lonely, forgotten lot guarded by nothing more than a chain-link fence. Little remains of the establishment that reigned here, or of the painted ladies who once graced its stage.

Stiletto heels protrude from the seared earth like tawdry tombstones. Sunlight glints off a garden of broken mirrors and scattered rhinestones. Sparkling apparitions flit about in the breeze. They are specters of the dancers who have been scattered like some lost tribe of Babylon.

Amid the rubble one thing remains intact: a blue sequined mask.

 

Chapter
1

When I was eleven years old, Christine told me the story of how I came to be. I walked into the living room to find her sitting on the floor, a faded pink boa around her neck, cabaret music blaring from the stereo. Clippings, faded costumes, and photos were spread out around her. The flotsam of a past life I never knew about.

I turned the music down and sat beside her. I wanted to reach out and pluck the false eyelash that hung precariously from her swollen eyelid, but I was afraid she’d slap my hand away.

“If irony were a color it would be blue,” she said as she gathered me to herself. Tequila fumes wafted at me, but I didn’t look away.

I stiffened, unused to her affection. Something was wrong.

“A color so profound can only lead to melancholy,” she said as she stroked my slumped shoulders. She took my face in her hands. “It’s time you knew where you came from. You got a right to know. But don’t ever ask me about it again, you hear?”She picked up a high school yearbook. Swaying a bit, she riffled through the pages. “Here he is,” she said. “Kip Caruthers, your father.”

I looked at the black and white photo of the man who I was told had died in Vietnam. He was not what I imagined. He looked like a poster boy for the Aryan Nation. A frat boy. He wore an ascot in the photograph, for crying out loud. Be a good boy, Kippy, and fetch mummy another martini. This man never stepped one foot in Vietnam.

“It was all a lie,” Christine said. “I met him at a spring dance at a country club in Scottsdale. He saw me dance and, supposedly, that’s what caused him to approach a girl he wouldn’t have otherwise spit on. People threw money at me when I danced. That’s how good I was. Are you surprised?”

“I don’t know.”

“I was going to be a Vegas showgirl after high school. My parents hated this idea. But they knew better than to hold me back.”She paused, and took a deep breath. “Kip got me drunk and ended up forcing himself on me. I fought with everything I had, but it wasn’t enough. I marched back to the dance all torn and dirty and caused a scene. I expected help, but all I got were looks of disgust. Only sluts dreamed of being showgirls. I got what I was asking for.”

I sat silent, stunned. I was the offspring of rape. A vile joke. I didn’t deserve to live.
Christine took another swig of tequila, “When I started to show, I stalked Kip. I went to his football practices. I strutted right by those snotty cheerleaders and took a seat in the bleachers. I’d pat my fat belly and call out, ‘Little Kippy says hi too’. After a couple of times Daddy Kip got involved. He paid me to shut my mouth and go away. I had no choice but to take the money. There was no longer any hope for me to be a dancer. Abortion was illegal back then and damned if I was going to ruin my body and give the child away. I know it’s not a pretty story, but you need to learn how to take honesty if you’re going to survive in this world,” she said. “Sugar-coated words aren’t worth shit, baby Blue. Look where they got me.”

They got her saggy tits, stretch marks, and me. And I got Kip’s blonde blandness. Every time she looked at me she saw him.

She stumbled down the hall to her room.

I sat amid the tattered remnants of her dream. I fished out a pair of white gloves and a rhinestone choker. I modeled them in the mirror, but couldn’t bring myself to meet my own gaze. Why didn’t I somehow abort myself and make it easier on everyone? Clenched within that claustrophobic scarlet cocoon, I was toxic. That’s what she should have named me: Scarlet. The color of blood-boiling rage.

But some part of me knew that I was destined for great things. I knew that someday someone would see the spark hidden inside me and nurture it to flame. It made me want to live as revenge on her revenge, but I was never able to muster up as much rage as she did. I was born seeing scarlet, yet my tendencies deepened into blue.

I made it a point to disappear from Christine’s radar. We wandered ghostly through each other’s lives like two phantoms trapped in adjacent realities. Most of the memories from my youth are as faded as the desert in the noonday sun. I know that I was an honor student. I won gold stars for perfect attendance. I was unseen, not even interesting enough to be picked on. I was a nice, quiet girl who didn’t make waves. The girl nobody remembered.

I awoke one morning when I was seventeen to find a strange man sitting at our kitchen table drinking coffee while Christine made scrambled eggs and bacon. I stood in the doorway, unsure if I should enter.

“Oh, hi, honey,” Christine said. “I made you some breakfast, too. George, this is my baby Blue.”

I slid into the seat opposite George. His eyes lit up when he saw me. He had short black hair with a long, skinny braid that curled up under his collar like a rat’s tail. I shuddered. “I’m what you’d call an optimistic fatalist,” he said and flashed a crooked smile.

“George has a degree in Psychology,” Christine said as she set his plate before him. She sat beside him, beaming at each mouthful he ate.

“I’m planning on going into Psychology,” I said, trying to make conversation. “Right now we’re studying the philosophies of Freud. You know, the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. It’s fascinating.”

His face was seized by panic, and then he brushed my words aside with a sneer. “As if any of these theories make a difference in the grand scheme of things.” He had no idea what I was talking about.

He wasn’t blatantly insulting, but I would have preferred that to his self-righteous arrogance. It took all my will to be polite. If he stopped coming around because of me, there’d be hell to pay.

I was in the final weeks of high school. Close to freedom from both school and Christine.“Once you’re eighteen you’re out the door,” she had said so many times, as if she’d have to force me to leave. I had a job as a waitress at a coffee shop. It was a dismal little place on Main Street. The customers were year-round desert rats who had nothing better to do than to blame me for their withering lives. I saved every cent toward my escape. I was fed up with living in a place where people came to die. All the trailer parks and wheezing geriatrics.

When Belinda Black walked into my life, I knew that my life was about to dramatically change. One day, she was there at the counter, a dazzling jewel amid the dusty fossils. Her green gaze was as direct and piercing as a cobra’s. Her dark skin and those shimmering eyes paralyzed me.

“My mother is Haitian,” she said, as if reading my thoughts. “You get some strange genetic combinations down there.”

I stared at her, coffeepot poised in mid pour. She had spoken to me! With a quick glance around at the other customers, I refilled her cup and set the pot down. The dinner rush was over and I deserved a break.

“You go to my high school,” she continued. “I’ve seen you around. I don’t talk to anyone there. They’re a bunch of flatliners, but you’ve got a real spark in you. We should go out sometime.”

I nodded, dumbfounded. And so our friendship began.

 

“I haven’t lived at home in three years—since I was fifteen,” Belinda said as she put the finishing touches on my makeup. We were going to a high school party, something she would normally never do, but she wanted me to try out the man catching skills that she had painstakingly taught me. “Too many rules and not enough rewards. I’m out of here after graduation. Off to LA. Why don’t you come along? We’ll make our fortune in Hollywood.”

“Ok, I guess,” I said, trying to hide how thrilled I was. It wasn’t like I had any other plans besides to get away from Mesa. I was sick to death of looking at five hundred shades of brown. I wanted to be somewhere green, where things blossomed. California sounded so full of possibilities.

“Voilà, you’re finished, my dear,” she said as she turned me toward the mirror. “See how good you look with just a light touch of makeup? You don’t need a lot, but you do need a little help. You’re too plain without it.” I nodded, grateful for her attention.

“I’m going to be a movie producer,” she said as we pulled up to the party. “Push It” by Salt ’N’ Pepa blared out of the house. A boy barfed in the front hedge as we approached the front door. “I know I’m beautiful enough to be a star, but I want to work behind the scenes. I’m going to be the one that recognizes the talent hidden inside an unknown. I’m going to nurture it and make it shine. And grow filthy rich.”

Belinda was the only female I knew who smoked cigars and drank Armagnac. She conversed on topics such as stock options and world dictatorships.

“An educated woman who can also fuck like a whore is a gem,” she said as we made a circuit through the house. “She can name her price.”

I watched her work the room, scoping out the most promising conquests. The jocks pretended not to notice her; they rough housed and made fun of each other to hide their nervousness. What would it be like being worshipped like that? Women like her always get what they want, I thought. They’re all so sure of themselves too: Oh, I’m every guy’s type. When I tried it, it came across as desperate.

“Over there,” Belinda said with a tilt of her chin. It was Brett Banks. He was one of those boys who fit into every group and none at all. And for that every girl wanted him.

“Can’t we try someone less intimidating?” I begged.

“He’s looking over here. At you, not me,” Belinda insisted. “Go on. Remember, just stare deep into his eyes and pretend that anything he says is the most fascinating thing you’ve ever heard.” She gave me a little push.

I did what she said and it was working. We had just begun to make out when Belinda turned around and snatched him right from under my nose.

“Almost, but not quite,” she said with a patronizing smile as she led Brett away from me, toward a vacant back bedroom.

My heart wilted. I settled for the dorky friend, a boy with a face and name I didn’t know. I willingly laid down for him as I had for so many others. There was really no reason not to, and the boys all seemed to want it so badly. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. The contorted faces and strangled moans. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. At least someone got some satisfaction out of it. All I got out of it was soreness and disappointment.

Boys were nothing more than amusement for Belinda. Diversions. She always had at least two flings going at once, usually with rich old men from the various country clubs in Scottsdale.

“You always gotta have at least two,” she said. “That way they sense that something’s up. It keeps them interested.”

She knew about my father and thought it would be a hoot to nab him. She never got a chance to penetrate Kip’s inner circle of cronies, however. My home life shattered for good, and Belinda was there to gather me up and whisk me away.

 

I should have paid heed to the unease that I felt whenever I was alone with George.
I came home from work one night to find him on our couch, whisky in hand, his flabby arm outstretched, inviting me to dance.

What the hell? I thought. Maybe I’d been too hard on the guy.

“Have a drink to celebrate your graduation,” he said. “Soon we won’t get to see your pretty face around here anymore.” He fixed me a drink. I downed it in one swallow.

“That’s a girl,” he laughed. He scratched his hairy belly and lurched toward me.
I backed away, already feeling woozy. “Thanks for the drink. I’m going to my room.”
The last thing I remember is walking down the hall, George on my heels, his clammy hand upon my arm. I tried to shrug it away as everything faded.

I don’t know how long I was under. Sometimes I wish I had stayed under forever. But consciousness gradually returned. When the shadows came into focus George was on top of me, slick with sweat, pumping away.

“Oh no!” I wailed. “Get off of me!”

“What, baby? You were digging it a minute ago. Let’s have some good sex. Your mommy doesn’t need to find out.”

“Oh, oh God,” I sobbed. I got up and ran into the hall. Streaks and sparks whizzed in front of my eyes. The Grateful Dead music that had once sounded sensual now seemed sinister. I nearly passed out again. I huddled on the floor of the bathroom sick with shame. How could I have allowed this to happen to me? Especially after I knew what had happened to Christine. I should have seen the signs.

Then Christine came home. Her harsh voice bounced up the stairs and down the hall, edgy as shattered glass.

I took off my window screen and climbed into the garden. She would never believe me. It was best to just leave. I threw on my work clothes that smelled of grease and sweat. Whatever drug he had given me wore off and I felt like filth. I didn’t have time to grab my shoes.

I went to Belinda. There was no place else to go.

“God, nasty old George,” she said. “He must have slipped you that date rape drug. Well, at least he didn’t finish off in you. Did he?”

“No, I’m pretty sure he didn’t. But you know what the worst thing is? When I didn’t know it was him, it felt good.” I shuddered.

“You give him too much power. All he did was stick his dick in you. Breaking your nose is worse. Think about it.”

I could have sworn she looked secretly pleased that I had nowhere else to go.

She continued, “Well, I guess we have no excuse to stick around these parts anymore. First thing we gotta do is go get your stuff.”

My work shoes were on the front porch when we arrived. They were lined up neatly, the toes pointed away from the door. Next to them a suitcase, my clothes folded neatly inside. Christine had even put my favorite stuffed animal, a pink bunny, next to the suitcase. That touch of finality, most of all, made my heart wrench. I sat on the steps and sobbed. It hadn’t been much of a home, but I could never again go back to it.

 

One evening, soon after, Belinda set me up with one of her country club connections. “You have to be practical. You have no money. You have to use what God gave you to survive. Anyway, it’s just a couple of times and then we can split for LA.”

The man, Alan, was seventy and made his fortune with high-quality hair products. When I met him he was wearing spandex bike shorts and a tank top. “I was just making a protein smoothie. Want one?”

I nodded and settled back onto the couch. “Pump up the Jams” by Technotronic blared from the speakers. He danced toward me, smoothies in hand. His flabby, gray-haired breasts swayed. I sighed with resignation and leaned my head against the back of the couch.

He launched into small talk. “How about this wacky weather? Monsoon season is so early this year!” He paused to get into the groove of the song. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?  You can never go wrong with a degree in Business Administration! That’s what I did and I’ve never regretted it!”

I took a deep breath and shut him up with a kiss. His mouth was wet and soggy. As appetizing as a fallen soufflé. I got up and walked into his bedroom. It was decorated like a lair. Animal prints, foliage, and in one corner there were giant plumes in a floor vase.

He rubbed his stiff weenie against me and bleated, “Oh, Blue, please hold me.”

I undressed and stretched out on the leopard-print sheets. He pumped away on me, watching us in the wall mirrors, while I clenched my teeth against the pain. Just a few more times, I thought. Just this one man. I tried to remember what Belinda had told me: I gave the physical act too much power. Nothing could defile me without my permission, and so on. I ended up crying silently, wishing he’d just finish.

He mistook my sobs for shudders of ecstasy, “Oh yeah, you like that don’t you, baby? No young man can hold out as long as I can.”

As if that were something I should cherish: a whiny old man banging me until the end of time.

 

“Adios, all you losers,” Belinda sang as we drove away from Mesa for the last time. The wad of cash from my visits with Alan was stuffed into the bottom of my backpack. As we left the desert behind I vowed to forget my past. All of it. My life begins now.

Becoming Wild

Meadow12

May 28, 1986

We drive through the night to the Cleveland Clinic. My uncle, my mother, and me. Something about Grandpa, but I know he will be okay. God wouldn’t take him from us. Not after everything else that has happened. I will have to make up final exams, but I don’t care. Next week, I will be out of that hellhole for good. My chest tightens. Mom still hasn’t recovered from her breakdown. Who will watch over the kids when I leave? But I will die if I stay in that town.

We arrive too early for visiting hours. I curl up on the couch in the waiting room. Behind my closed eyes, a dream materializes. I’m in the meadow, sitting under a tree that doesn’t exist in reality. My boyfriend is next to me. Rich green summertime shade. Grandpa runs towards us. He’s wearing a red flannel shirt and blue jeans that are rolled up to his calves. He is barefoot. He smiles down at me. The heaviness of life is gone from his eyes. “Grandpa! What are you doing here? You’re dead.” His eyes twinkle. The sweet smile I know so well. The one he uses when he’s teasing. “I’m not dead. I’m only sleeping.”

My mother’s long fingers grip my shoulders and shake. A voice contorted with sobs. Wake up. It’s time. Down a long gray corridor and into a white room. The click of machines shutting down. Say goodbye to Grandpa. Tell him you love him. A chest under a sheet rises, falls, and is still.

meadow05

I run my hands over the thick, rough bark. It’s called a willow oak, I think. Thirty-two years have passed and here you are. In the same exact place as in the dream. The only tree that has grown in the meadow after all this time. I lean my back against the trunk, its chest. The pulse of a heartbeat. The warmth of life flowing through veins. Awareness. Strong hands on my shoulders. I’ve got you. I sigh and smile. Wow. This feels good. I’ve got you. Three words I’ve never heard. I’ve never had a protector. Dad was submerged in psychosis, and Mom was blinded by despair. Even Grandpa was vague with his support. Be strong was the mantra I inherited. You’re the oldest. Your family needs you.

It was always me: taking care of the family, then myself, then the people in my life. I no longer feel any self-pity or the need to blame. I adapted, as everything thing does to its environment. What began as necessity became the perfect hiding place. It was so easy to take advantage of the fact that most others are too superficial or too focused on their own pain to make the effort to see behind exteriors.

There’s a difference between vulnerability and neediness. Let it all go. I’ve got you.

meadow02

We each have a place on this Earth where our personal story unfolds in symbols. A place that holds our souls. The harmony that would reign, if only everyone knew theirs. Mine is a humble meadow tucked into a forest. It claimed me during early childhood explorations. I found it while wandering down the railroad tracks near the cottage that Grandpa built. Tracks that have long since been torn up and replaced by a bike path. I used to lie here, amid the wildflowers, and let myself fall through the sky. I carried this sacred space with me everywhere I roamed. My mother says she’s always felt my presence so strongly here, even when I was on the other side of the planet. One day, my ashes will sink into this dirt with the rain.

meadow03

May. The borderland between spring and summer. That beautiful time of fresh, green warmth before the mosquitoes have awakened. The divine bleed of the aurora borealis through the night sky. Shooting stars streak through the undulating curtain of green and violet. Celestial fireflies. Heart in my throat. The glow ascends, vanishing into the darkness. Delivering my wish to Heaven.

Meadow14

Let go of who you believed you were. I circumambulate the meadow, scattering the ashes of my former life. The labels. Those devastating weapons of mass division. I pass by patches of daisies and the depressions in the tall grass where the deer bed down for the night. These are my signposts. Now that I’m just a human named Julie. Liminal space is the most unsettling of territories. But it is here, in this emptiness, where I thrive.

meadow07

A solstice sunrise. I lift my face to the gentle rays. Shine your light through me. Show me what you want me to do now. I’m yours.

The time has come to reveal yourself. No more hiding.

meadow11

And now, your eclipse. The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow. No more hiding, anything.

meadow04

When I’m in the realm of schedules and conformity, I fulfill duties with a smile. I’m a good-natured imposter. After work, I slip away, evading invitations. Home, down the trail, and into my sanctuary. In this loving shade, I let my imagination out to play. A tiny white spider crawls up my arm. I smile down at her and lean back against my tree. Notebook on my knees. Namibia, the lions. This is what happened: a safari, a childhood backyard expedition. Bring them together. Words buzz around my head. I catch them in my web. Messy, incoherent scrawls in the notebook. I look down at it and shake my head. Somehow I will decipher and arrange it all. Just like I always do. The sun slips behind the forest. I raise my arm, but Spider has moseyed along. Prismatic strands encircle my arm, casting tiny rainbows in the fading light.

The other world of disharmony and hopelessness fades. The world in which we are systematically led to believe that we are losing. Agitated chatter fizzles into static which dissipates into silence. Then the symphony begins.

Nature speaks in symbol and metaphor. An atavistic communication that transcends words and seeps directly into the subconscious. The sigh of a warm summer breeze through the treetops. The ripple of heat in the distance. The slow drift of clouds across the blue expanse. In this world, we are winning.

That other world can only be healed by rediscovering this one. And it is calling out to us.

It’s the same little haven, but every day is different. The sun’s trajectory, the dance of insects, the wildflowers in various stages of growth and decline. Petals unfurl, bask, and slowly shrivel up. A butterfly pirouettes in the space before me. A purple shimmer in his brown wings. So many iridescent wings this year: butterflies and dragonflies. Symbols of total transformation. I put down my pen and hold out my hand. He comes to rest and lingers while I take a video. Could it be he’s showing off?

Meadow13

I trail behind the morning mist as it billows into the forest. The sun peers over the treetops. Hundreds of tiny spiderwebs glitter in the dawn light. They are only visible when illuminated from this sharp angle. Spellbound, I lower myself into the grass. Dew soaks into my jeans. Yet another dreamscape I’ve traversed. This one came during my years in Bratislava, I think. A beige fog rolled away, revealing innumerable spiderwebs in various stages of completion. The Presence by my side. These are all of your stories: written, in the process of being written, and those yet to be conceived.

meadow08

An annoyed snort jolts me back to the present. A herd of deer have lined up on the periphery. I am in the way. They scamper back and forth for several minutes. The snorts intensify. Then they bound into the forest.

Two mornings later. Same place. A rustle to my left. A fawn. So close that I can see her eyelashes. Our eyes are mirrors of innocent curiosity.

meadow09

I am becoming wild, again. Feathers, flowers, stones, bones. Life, death. Resurrection. I tuck the feathers I find along my path into a pocket of bark. Thank you for being here. For existing. Hang my crown of thistles on a branch. When I wander back to the cottage, humming to myself, forget-me-nots woven into my hair, my mother doesn’t greet me with a frown or raised eyebrows or a look of alarm. Instead, a soft smile lights up her gentle face. “You look so pretty.”

Meadow10a

Awe is love on the precipice of fear. With the bones and stones, I construct a wheel in the soil. A dreamcatcher, a spiderweb. The Native Americans call it a medicine wheel. With each piece buried, I reassemble my existence. I begin to understand how the facets of life work together. The very one that seems unimportant and irrelevant often must be fulfilled before others can be aligned. What we don’t think we want is exactly what we need.

From the other world, a bony finger beckons. Grim Reaper of the soul. A job in an East Coast city. An admirable career. Return to the safety of anonymity and isolation. There will be no energy left for spinning words, but I will be too distracted and exhausted to miss it.

The familiar squeeze on my shoulder. How you support yourself is no longer important. It is time to live your passion. I wrap my arms around the trunk. Yes. Only that which sets me aflame can lure me away from this wonderland. Or maybe I’ll just disappear here. No one will notice. A slight pulling away. For my own good. You can’t hide away from that other world forever. It needs you. And I will always be here for you.

meadow06

What seems like magic is the most natural thing of all. We have forgotten that we are part of Nature. I’ve simply allowed myself to remember. How to listen and observe, how to ask for answers, how to integrate what I learn. Through this communion, I shed layers of conditioning, unravel patterns, grasp subtle differences in meaning. Sensations seep into my dreams. A raven becomes a wizened old Chippewa guide. The aurora becomes angels heralding a beautiful apocalypse. Celebrating my victory. You’ve had the guts to jump into the void. You deserve nothing less than the miraculous.

The dragonflies disappear, then the butterflies. Even the bumblebees eventually die. Spiderwebs are abandoned. At the very end of summer, after all hope has vanished: rain. Sky blanketed in gray. I lie in the center of the wheel. Deep breath. I think I’m just about ready. Drizzle tickles my face. Excited motion just above. A second batch of dragonflies has hatched. Dozens hover overhead, never touching the Earth.

Meadow15

“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again” -Joseph Campbell

Shine

**Another fiction piece unearthed from the deepest vault. I don’t wish to be a downer during the holiday season, so those who are uncomfortable with dark themes (addiction) might want to skip this post.**

Shine.

Sometimes I like to leave the needle in my arm longer than necessary. The reflected light a beacon of hope. My salvation. There was a time when the mere thought of such an action would have caused me unbearable anxiety. Now it’s a curiosity, like my passive face looking back at me from this toothpaste-splattered mirror. My glow dissipating. I have not sunk so low. I lead a productive, though unconventional, life. I’ve always made it to my gigs. I love my family. And so on.

I’m not sure what time it is. It’s light outside and I hear people moving about. Cursing myself for losing my watch again, I pick up the phone and dial the front desk. A kind voice tells me that it’s five PM. I don’t have to be anywhere for a while. Good. It’s true that all hotel rooms look the same, but each town has its own charms. And neuroses. I peek through the curtains at the incessant gloom that is winter in the Midwest. Buildings breathing steam. Lights peering dimly from behind frosted, incandescent glass. Signs of life.

Passage of truth
Lead me far from this farce
Coherence is lost
In the forest of my heart

My arms hurt. At least I can pull off long sleeves gracefully in this weather. I remember a dream I had before I started doing this to myself. “Little girl afraid of the big, bad needle,” a seedy, reedy black man said to me as he tied and squirted and smacked and plunged. Yellow dog eyes rolling back in his head. Some of the golden liquid had landed on my hand. “Go ahead. Have a little taste.” Timidly, then enthusiastically, I did so. The glow like a hissing serpent gliding through the lonely corridors of my being. And warmth. Such incredible warmth. And when I woke up I was scared.

Fear is a strange thing sometimes. The great motivator. The great deceiver. You fear that which intrigues you the most. I remember my virgin veins, aroused and eager as they were lovingly tied off and caressed. So many to choose from then. “Relax, baby.” Ryne with his soft eyes and confident touch. I hardly felt a thing. Then: pounding heart and panicked whimper as all control was surrendered: help me. Every pore dilated and weeping. Tender hands stroking my hair. Safe. Safe from them all.

Ryne. It rhymes with shine. Where did he go, my sublime? Oh, he left me for a socially acceptable anesthetic: the Church. Now I’m nothing but fodder for his flock; a radiant example of depravity strewn to the self-righteous masses. They gobble up every last morsel and shake their woolly sheep heads in disapproval.
Choke on me. That’s it. Gag me down. Soon there’ll be no more. Soon there’ll be—

Tears no more
Those glass slippers dangling in scorn

A bath will help. I don’t want to go out there yet. Don’t want to see their frigid concern. The running water soothes me as I notice myself, a faded pastel portrait, gazing back from the depths of this wretched mirror. I am alive. Around my neck, the antique locket’s inscription: For Meredith, who shines so bright. A gift from my supportive and bewildered family. The irony. If only they knew. It’s not their fault, yet they would shoulder the blame. The family closets harbor no boogeymen. This despair is my own doing; the result of a foolish experiment in—

Love not my soul
For it is dubious
Search not my heart
For it is shadowed
Just sing with me

The crowd will be intense tonight. Furiously enthusiastic as if in defiance of the harsh, bitter weather. A welcome change from the beige and preoccupied audiences of the Southwest. It’s different in the North. Surly and aggressive. They go through a lot to get to the show. And they’ve been counting the days.

People come to hear my music and, if I may be so delusional, my words. I used to think I had something to say. Now it seems I could be up on stage extolling the virtues of stale corn flakes and they would still think that I was remarkably profound. Perhaps even more so.

Entombed in this pearly grave
I am precious. I am not yours to interpret
Not yours to categorize, analyze, institutionalize
And –

I am not profound. They don’t listen. I am just the latest novelty. For some, a topic of conversation over café mochas and biscottis. For others, background accompaniment to getting stoned. I’ll never forget the moment when I looked out over a wasteland of rapt faces and realized that they didn’t get anything I sang, and yet they truly thought that they did. Faces that, when it mattered, shot me down and then laughed about it. And now it’s my turn to gloat. But instead of gratification, it was a sickening reality that hit me. It’s too late. I don’t want their love now. And then, the guilt. It’s not their fault. They want so much to understand. They want to be inside my head. To be me. And I began to wonder if I even understood what I’m singing.

Kill me kill me kill me
Set me free
From your endless scrutiny

Morbid, self-indulgent thoughts cascade across my mind as I lie here submerged and cozy. Reality obscured by ripples in this: my coffin of make-believe. The water has grown tepid, but I put off my return to the air. Izzy, my manager, and the others will be here soon. We still go through the motions. They have given up trying to rouse me from my isolation. None of them will look at me directly. They’re planning their escape, biding their time. They say nothing, because, in spite of my sullen seclusion, I still kick ass.

I paint rosebud lips on my listless mouth, butterfly lashes on my bleary eyes. Long lost little lady. Angel hair and ragged nails. It’s hard to imagine a powerful performance from such an image. I still can’t believe I have a following.

Once, I was out there among the lonely and misguided masses. Wanting to be relieved of the responsibility of giving the hurt a voice: tell us what we feel, because we don’t have the guts to dig for it ourselves. My only difference was that the pain was always on the surface, demanding to be acknowledged. There was simply no other choice but to express it. I am such a coward. Yet I’ve been called courageous, passionate. “Elegantly brutal in her relentless search for meaning in an inconsistent universe,” wrote one critic. Cheesy and pretentious, but it’s the only review I’ve ever saved.

I’ve caught the bouquet
That I never sought
I only ever wanted
To not be bought

It was there all along. The purpose of it all. Sadness in everything. Illuminated in a tiny, hollow piece of metal. I will not be getting help. It wouldn’t be the same if I cleaned up and became lukewarm. That’s a death I’m not willing to endure. I will let everything run its course until the inevitable accident. No shotguns, razor blades, or goodbye notes from me. Just negligence and destiny.

I hear them knocking. Time to go out there. I’m not ready to face them, but I will because soon it will all be over. I can already hear what people will say. Some will call me a loser, others a tragedy. They will both be right. For now, I hold my head up. I have seen my end and it’s exquisitely mine.

Shine.

**”Shine” was originally written in the mid-1990s. It was a time when “heroin chic” was aggressively marketed to the troubled Gen X youth. All the cool rock stars were addicts. Very few are still alive today. My own abyss of depression never led me down the path of substance addiction. My addiction was travel. But I could relate to the alienation and hopelessness. The feeling that no one could possibly understand. It’s not easy to have empathy, if you’ve never experienced it for yourself. This was my attempt to understand.

This was my very first published story, way back in 2003. It appeared in Word Riot, which, for more than a decade, was one of the most reputable online literary journals. It has recently vanished, like so many other webzines from the early years of the internet.**