All of Us
by Christine Gosnay
There is something constant about my life, and I might never know what it is. These days, my constants come and go in three to five year intervals. I can hear you over there, muttering “that’s not a constant.” I can hear you, all right; get your own constant.
These days, I worry in ways that are new and completely different, but that isn’t it, isn’t the constant. My anxiety is sporadic and I am aware of it: it has broken both of the Rules of Constant. It comes in refreshing bursts, exciting episodes that are at once cliché and nuanced. For instance, the other night I woke in a sweat worrying about finances, even though in comparison to any period in my past I’m incredibly wealthy. Then, days later, I woke up to a small attack of anxiety as I recalled, from a dream, my having woken in a sweat – which is often a symptom of truly terrible things. I performed a differential diagnosis on myself using the Internet in what is called an “incognito” window. It turns out that I most likely don’t have the kind of disease people raise money for, and if you ever use my computer, you will have to start your own diagnosis from scratch.
It’s part of growing old, this jumbled mixture of understanding and misunderstanding about yourself. I understand things because they are signs of other things. Yet more things get confused because they seem to come from the other side of nowhere. That’s when I do things for a reason without ever knowing what the reason is; I get a vague feeling that tells me when I should do something because of something that will, presumably, in the future, present itself. I know that when I take a scalding hot shower I am going to be depressed, or have been. I know that when something stressful or dangerous is happening I change the subject to the weather in places that are far away. Naturally, when I step out of a shower branded with pink heat maps on my torso and back and legs, I question my emotional state. Naturally, I question the company and the surroundings if I hear myself discussing high-pressure systems off the Ivory Coast.
But if I worried at all as a child, it was either about eventualities or extremely pressing concerns. You can imagine that it is a strange thing to find myself worrying now about the past. You can imagine, because maybe you’ve experienced this monumental shift too; if you have, I am very sorry.
If I worried then it was chiefly because of the thing that was the constant about my childhood and that was poverty. Not very many people know about the way I grew up and that doesn’t bother me at all. (That’s because I was an only child, and because of all the other things hardly anyone knows.) In fact, I myself know very little about it because by now it was long ago. But I remember when I worried back then it was about my own future, which manifested itself in my imagination as one big day behind a door that would open, a door that was black, monolithic, and heavy. Sometimes I worried about my own performance on a test or in an academic event that was at most a month away, or I worried about how I appeared to others, even though I was all alone, always.
When people say they were awkward as youngsters I chuckle. Because they do always, after all, end up telling you about that one true friend who stood by them through some difficult times, or else they had a brother or a dog or an aunt in whom they confided. Forgive me; I am very protective of the word alone. For almost two decades I was alone in the houses where I grew up, because even my small family was scarcely home, or there. And I had plenty of time to think about opening and closing the big door that was coming up, and plenty of time to think about all the things poor children think about, like food, grown ups, the other side of town, and the mansion I would own when I was a grown up on the other side of town, and of all the food I would keep in it.
The imagination of an impoverished child is richer and more honest than any saint’s fervent prayer, any animals emergent consciousness. It is full of nothing but color and savory and the lonely warmth of a doubled blanket on the first cold night of fall.
Now that I worry about my past, I’m sure to be changing events from the way they happened to the way I wonder if they happened. I worry about the lies I told or thought about telling and of the ones I was accused. I worry that all the things that seemed dramatic and mysterious were shabby. I worry about why my parents let me walk to school alone when I was in kindergarten. I worry about whether I smelled bad. I think about a lot of that in the boiling hot showers, between reading the Dr. Bronner’s bottle and wondering if my husband has turned the water heater down to protect me. That’s the one neurotic suspicion I allow myself. That’s the one drink I allow myself before 6 p.m.
I think most of all about the things my mother and father said to one another or, worse, to their friends over the telephone when one of them was away. For years, I’ve been trying to remember that mansion, too, and what I wanted to eat. There were entire rooms that so vividly emerged in thought, like a headlight out of the fog, and so many of them are gone. There would be a room of paint; that much I remember. I would stack it with cans in every color, latex molded against their sides cartoonishly, three stalactite drips. Tarps lined the floor; the paint cans sat on a low table. And in that room I jimmied open the cans and hurled the paint at the walls. Nothing had yet introduced me to Jackson Pollock, or any artist like that, and when I eventually saw his paintings, I felt an overwhelming sense of disgust; the walls in my imagined room were judicious, splashed just here and there, and mostly white, and very clean.
The difference between worrying about the eventual and worrying about the past comes down to size. The future loomed like a limitless universe all my own on the other side of that door. The past cinches down to the size of a tiny model car that I must rebuild beyond recognition until it crumbles and snaps under the pressure of my sweaty hands.
If I fantasize now, it is about the same thing again and again. I escape repeatedly with a specific man to a suspiciously familiar hotel room. When I fantasized then, Vikings carried me off, surfers frisked over waves to whisk me to hidden atolls; a lumberjack pulled me out of the snow and into an A-frame chalet full of soft furniture and low light. A Tarzan figure sped me to the canopy in his arms. Crowds of women undressed in small theaters while I watched from the back row. I rode trains with exotic agents, Bonds who wafted self-assurance – at least, that is, until they feasted their eyes on me.
All that erotic adventure makes me so nervous now; if I want it, I have to put on imaginary mascara, brush my imaginary tongue, horking like a zombie, scraping every part of my mouth. I have to wonder whether Tarzan will notice the lines of my shapewear. By then, too exhausted from worrying, I am asleep in my bed, and the cold sweats are only a few hours away.
The fantasy line was a tidal mental shift. It happened about 20 minutes after my first child was born. As soon as I was in the recovery room and she was somewhere else I started having new thoughts, different thoughts. Safety thoughts. The instant I had a baby, I loved the baby; twenty minutes later, I loved every baby on earth. I started to worry but not only about my own baby. I worried for my daughter while I was triaged for blood loss; was she warm? Was she afraid? Was she yet hungry for the milk I would soon have? And swiftly, I possessed a magical ability to worry about all of the babies. Were all the babies everywhere warm, safe, and full? Right off I knew they weren’t: the kind of thought that blinks open like the eye of a galaxy – and we all know what’s at the center of a galaxy. A black hole.
I wasn’t prepared for that kind of responsibility. I was now responsible for who knows how many babies. The nurses pressed on my abdomen and gestured with towels and reassured me that I would soon feel normal again. Tears fell down my cheeks and onto the paper pillowcase. But soon my own daughter came back from somewhere and someone lowered her skin to my cheek and the press of strange babies subsided for a while. I think it came back that night and has come back every night since, at least in dreams, at least ethereally, as part of a tenuous string of concern that always lowers around me in a threatening circular way, as if it has been prepared just so to fit around me and then be tightened, and I know it will be tightened one day. I know that, just like I know disastrous things will keep happening to other people’s children and I will sit and relive the disaster again and again as if the reliving could prevent another child from starving or being killed or shivering.
My husband jokes that he can make me cry with just one sentence, but until recently it was no joke. And now, I’m worrying that I have lost my capacity to experience universal pathos; until I awake in a sweat over it I won’t let myself lose any sleep. He used to say to me, and sometimes while he spoke he would put his hand on my arm, “A thousand years ago there was an animal.” It would invariably make me weep because he used it strategically when he knew my state was either already fragile or, worse, very assured, and thus ripe to be cut down. His technique was well-aimed at my particular brand of fragility, pomp, and weakness. Any animal that lived a thousand years ago, and that includes babies, is now dead. Any prairie dog, any tiger. Any thing at all, except maybe a tree.
The dead we never knew, who never knew themselves, are the most evocative things of all; because they are anonymous, they are truly possible to invoke. Try this to discover whether you are sensitive. You may be sensitive if you think of not only the animal’s form but also of its entire formless life. Its birth, its triumphs, its orgasms, its illnesses, its loves, its rivalries, its fierce defense of its young, its abandonments. Its death. If you imagine the animal dying alone then you understand. I used to think of him dying alone with one eye open, panting, on his left side, under a massive tree in a big savannah, with pink lightning in the unfriendly sky. He was an animal not quite rodent, not quite lagomorph, but close. There was no species involved. He could have been anyone. His fur was brown and rough. I think his eye was open because the scavengers were already circling, but I never saw the scavengers. In my mind’s eye, though, he is worried about something, right up to the end.
Next, my husband would take his hand off my arm and remind me that if the animals didn’t die there would be animals piled up to outer space. And that would make me laugh and he would think I wasn’t worried anymore but of course I was, and so was he.
Of course, the thing I have not said because I am afraid to say it is that I do know what the constant is, which means that I’ve got another generation of bad nights coming down the pike. What if the constant is mothering, and I’ve done it poorly? Yes, one daughter is still young enough to hyperventilate when she describes a pigeon or a bright flower or a spilled drink or a plastic toy, but my other daughter is not. Her age is a number I remember thinking about, when I reached that age, as a very big number. Maybe this is one constant I should really have known more about, and maybe I haven’t been what you would call a good mommy. But now they’re getting to be old enough for it, I could be a good Mom, with a capital M. A cool one, one that is very understanding and asks good questions and laughs with them in the dark.
Of course, the thing I am afraid to say is that the constant is addiction, creeping like a flattened shadow around a red brick wall. Of course, my parents were poor because of addiction and not because of anything else at all. Who knows how many others there are just like me, who think and think about the past and the future in this same way. We are legion, and if you see us it’s likely that we’re worrying about you just as much as we’re worrying about ourselves. I worry about everyone I see. I have my children to thank for that. It’s a gift; I am never alone because I am thinking about you. I have lived a thousand lives with you, gentle stranger with the old eyes lined just so, stranger with lines like braided rivers around your mouth from all the feelings, sadness and fury and laughter too. I’m going through the door, and I’m taking you with me.
Christine Gosnay lives in California. Her writing appears in Linebreak, DIAGRAM, The Morning News, Squaw Valley Review, Beecher’s, THRUSH Poetry Journal, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere. She comes from Maryland and is the founding editor of The Cossack Review.