Laura Palmer and Audrey Horne for starters!
The biopic starts when she’s smiling as a baby, her outdated eighties toddler clothing mixing daisies and plaid, her baby pictures an odd juxtaposition with the fact that we (in the dark room in the velvety seats in front of the screen) all know that she died of a coke overdose at twenty-nine. We’re waiting for the film to mention that. They interview her parents. Stoic mom with feathered hair, leather-skinned dad with a choked-up voice. Stories conflict a tiny bit. Divorce. Different colors of wallpaper fill two backgrounds.
They establish her prowess, her genius, by showing a few shots of her, rust-red Gibson in hands, plucking away at notes in her late teens. She looks so much younger. Her cheeks are rounder. Her navy athletic shorts fit horribly. From my perspective in my dark velvety seat, I like that.
They make a sudden cut to her fame, magazine covers spinning out of thin air with her picture on the cover. Video clips with her skin tinged purple from the spotlights on a massive stage. I want to step back, to see her sitting on that brown couch again, plucking out notes, to see the way a thread of thought becomes a note and a song. I want to watch her scratching on a notepad with a dull yellow pencil, and bringing her ideas to someone and recording a rough first take filled with voice cracks. I want to paw through her notebooks and listen to her slowly explain her process in her speaking tone. Instead I get a read-aloud part of a Rolling Stone interview. I don’t know who’s reading. They’re not shown onscreen.
I can’t look away from the way that the man who loved her looks at her. The narrator says they fought when they were drunk but I think to myself that I fight everyone when I’m dead sober. I wonder if he would stop in the doorway and listen as she practiced in their home, not announcing his presence, just leaning against the doorframe. Or if he was the type who didn’t like all that sound in his house. I wonder if he complimented her songs, or if he knew which ones were about him, if any.
Do drugs really facilitate art for some people? Does art facilitate drugs? Nagging thoughts facilitate art for me, the kind that won’t leave me alone until I put them to rest by writing them down. These are the thoughts that her songs had always echoed and answered for me, her honeyed chords that drifted through my bulky headphones.
The biopic focuses in on the drugs themselves, leaving their links to anything in her life, art or anxiety or interpersonal relationships, nebulous. I watch her become thinner and hate myself for considering it beautiful, then watch her become emaciated and feel a wave of grief. Her tattoos sag.
I leave the theater once the biopic has ended. It ended on a positive note, though I don’t remember how they did it. Shaking the hand of a celebrity I admire is often, in fact, seeing them bored, a tired artist waiting for going back to the van for some food or a nap or waiting for the opportunity to wash their hands after all the shakes.
Watching the biopic of a celebrity I admire is less of a process of finding answers than a finding of the holes in a story. I’ve read the interviews in the Rolling Stone, but I don’t get to study the full range of expressions possible in her face, the types of things she says during dinner from her seat at the kitchen counter, the actual joys and frustrations behind the watered-down snippets of dialogue we encounter on the glossy page of a magazine, one I’m sure she regarded with the same disdain as myself when hearing my own voice in a recording, or saying something hollow, a fast “I love you” or “It’s okay,” to avoid having to express things more complex that could easily be misunderstood. Instead, I want to walk astride her, sun setting beyond the concrete, hands in our pockets. In silence.
I chose to wake up happy, and it sort of works when I’m well-caffeinated, and away from things that make me anxious, and the kind of low-key busy where I’m pleasantly occupied without being overwhelmed. I chose to wake up ‘happy’ and exercise and start flossing my teeth again and read past the front page of the newspaper, and use a blue lamp when I need to.
I decided it was time to start complimenting things aloud like the quality of the day (nice, good, warm, bright) and the calm of the lake (smooth, endless, creamy blue) and the beauty of the way you lay out words in sentences (as strong as gold-dappled evening sunshine). It was time to start asking questions again, and time to call back, and time to speak to people without being afraid of what thoughts were running past unannounced inside their heads. It was time to compliment more often than I apologize and listen until eyes alight.
It was time to wake up to an alarm and to start things that I care about (a job a book a friendship) without continuing to coast in neutral, time to escape the habit of not starting things to avoid failure, interaction, or introspection. I chose to wake up happy (lots of days I painted the face on, really) because I didn’t know how much longer I could coast without collision and I knew that a hollow, inauthentic try would not only be shameful but unsustainable, what with sixty-odd years left to live. I told myself I was waking up happy even when I basically wasn’t, to start. To get going. Like using jumper cables on a car.
Small things warm me inside, like sparse well-chosen words and braided sunshine-bleached hair and the twinkling tips of lapping waves. Soft, loose fabrics and dogs that press their sides against your legs. I’m here to gain electricity, to keep going. I just need to find what can give me a jump.
Times I have gone running this week: Six.
Six times that the cleanest, coldest air has swished through my brain like nature’s mouthwash, picking up my excess thoughts and carrying them away. I run through the city college, the one I pictured myself going to when I was a little kid. The technicality that differentiates running from walking, the split seconds in which both my feet are off the ground and I am momentarily flying, tell me that I am resilient and can make myself weightless. Only sort of true. But I am in constant motion. Actually, now I am stopped at a stoplight, watching my breath spiral into vapor.
Times I have called my dad this week: Five.
I am staying with my mom until I find a job but I am also calling my dad. We are closer because of cell phones, if only because his calls are no longer charged as long-distance. Over the phone, every pause he takes is both staccato and extended, made poignant by the way I have to fill the space myself—imagining him furrowing his brow in thought rather than seeing it right in front of me.
Times I have bought something online this week: Four.
A book, thick socks, an Mp3 album, and a necklace. Though I didn’t really ‘need’ the necklace or my own copy of the book, I think it’s a good thing I bought them because I want to be able to treat money like what it is (a bunch of germ-covered slips of paper filled with thread that I can trade for things) instead of hoarding it in fear that something horrid will happen to me and I won’t have enough. I became unemployed and my mom caught me gracefully, like a silky trampoline, and is currently trying to help me bounce back up. I still download hard copies of music because I want to know that, even without the Internet or 3G, it will be there if I need to listen to it. I feel like this may be gentle hoarding. I have all my Aretha Franklin albums as physical discs. Sometimes I even travel with them. Also, there is no greater physical comfort than thick socks.
Times I have eaten a wild rice burger this week: Three.
Buying a veggie burger anywhere in the United States except the North is always a bad idea. Please quote me on that.
Times I have driven to the beach alone to look at the ice: Two.
There are two ways to look at nature, sort of. You either look at it and think about what it is, or you think about yourself. Sometimes I look out at the vast expanse of the lake, unable to see land on the other side, and think back on things I’ve done. I don’t wish I’d changed my job performance or my classes. Tiny things, conversations I had as an undergrad, various people I’d spent time with, circle around the drain at the base of my mind but are never quite able to fall through the holes and be gone. There are places I could have had more energy, been more positive or outgoing. Places I could have spoke out, but mostly places I should have stepped back. Other times, though, I look out at the lake and see it for itself. Smooth as sky-colored glass, or gray and choppy with inhuman rage. Goes farther than I could ever see at once and deeper than I could ever dive or touch. If I’m really lucky, I’ll come down to the water and find the lake and the sky existing seamless, as if someone folded the most light and creamy of blues in half, not quite creasing, which makes it possible to float in the lower layer while looking up and letting my eyes get lost in the top. I like that best, savor it, store the feeling in my mind for when I need it.
Times I have asked for help: One.
And one is good. One is a good start.
I realize now that I haven’t been able to find a way to apologize to you because I should be thanking you.
Thank you for persistently encouraging me to be my best self, no matter what is going on in my own mind. Even when I stand in front of a full bowl, warm bed, or proof of an accomplishment and stare longingly at what’s in front of someone else. Thank you for cheering me through every hill I climb when I’m tired and being the voice in my ear during each pull-up when everything in me wants to drop down. Thank you for telling me that my words are beautiful, and encouraging me to pursue telling my own stories, to share them with others and to not settle for telling someone else’s story or using anything less than the full span of my personal gifts.
Thank you for teaching me that love is the ultimate value, and that love does not need to be explained. That sometimes the most important thing you can be doing is lying on the carpet with somebody. Thank you for homemade pizza crust and for being the most visible face in the pool bleachers. Thank you for all you’ve sacrificed to give me life and a family.
Thank you for the kindness in your eyes. It’s a tangible warmth and I can see it well up in there when our eyes meet. Thanks for letting that be the first and last thing I see each day for nineteen years. Thank you for never telling me that I’m better than everyone else, but for teaching me that I have inherent value. And thank you for always telling me out loud that you love me.
It’s a small yellow house, probably just one floor, with rust-red shingles and hedged by the fuzz of a slightly overgrown, lush dark green lawn. There’s stained glass in the window and a small quilt depicting an orange chicken hung over the oven, small stacks of books on every end table and thick rugs beneath my feet, between my toes. Some days, the house is by the lake, other days on the edge of the forest. Sometimes in between the two, a comfortable medium. Inside the house, the heat from the tea seeps through the clay mug between my hands, warming my fingers without scalding them. The dog is asleep on my feet.
I can be on the water without thinking about what’s to be done in the house, and I can read without wondering what’s to cook or what’s to be cleaned when I’m done. I open the door for people and let them in, and open it again to let them out. The clearest part of this vision, though, is that I don’t feel empty when the people leave, or nervous when they’re there. I feed the scraps of my scrambled eggs to my dog, alone in my small yellow house, and I don’t, for a second, need the validation of anyone else’s approval to lift my head and see the sun.
There are lots of skeletons in my closet, but they’re tiny, mouse-sized, scattered across the hardwood. I notice them, lift and examine each, then try vainly to bury them, rearrange them in order of time, importance, supposed “topical relevance” to my day.
I go to the kitchen, spread honey on a slice of bread, and eat anxiously, standing barefoot at the counter, and ponder how to avoid my skeletons—I go to the grocery store, shut my laptop, flip my phone face-down, go back to my closet, open it, shut it, open it again, ignore the knock on the front door (can’t say who, nervous to find out), feel my heart rate rise, feel a sagging weight behind my eyes, a heaviness in my shoulders, lean against the door, sit down in a slump, and eventually degrade into a restless sleep.
It is my mother who shakes me awake. I feel achey, as if I hadn’t slept. She helps me stand, but I make her pull all my weight. The closet door opens a crack. My sick heart revs, a tiny car on a steep hill. I fear the white bones, the skeletons on my closet floor, but as I look through my hollowed-out, sleepless eyes, I see they’re tiny. Mouse-sized skeletons scattered across the hardwood.
Your scabs are elegant because they are outward signs of you mending and regenerating, creating soft new skin without even thinking about it. While you’re busy being angry about your inability to finish a task for work or dreading calling someone back, while you’re regretting the choice you made last month, without even knowing it, you’re subconsciously reconstructing yourself, and your ‘big’ worries are trivialities compared to your body’s own constant maintenance of what is vital, what keeps you alive.
I’m not going to tell you to find someone to hold your hand even when it’s callused or scabbed. You’ve already been told that, and that doesn’t mean it always goes well, or will provide what you need.
Instead, I’m going to tell you to learn to respect your own scabs, to find elegance and utility in the way your calluses grip a pull-up bar or coffee mug. To not think twice before wearing shorts when there are chain grease stripes, scabs and bruises on your legs. It’s far too easy to fear someone else’s split-second judgment about your scars or calluses or the shape of your muscles. But, while someone else may shake your hand for five seconds, you wear and carry it always. You are the one who watches your fingers nimbly hop the keys of your keyboard as you type, lift the spoon in your breakfast each morning, and gently comb out your hair each night. As you work to modify yourself with your mind, recall that your body is doing the same, and respect your scabs.
I live and it falls out everywhere and spills out over the sides and leaks forth from the speakers on my desk and my own lips and it seeps into the words I say and the manner in which I dress, the way I stand and how I make eye contact. It shapes the expression on my face and the thoughts tucked away below my crazy hair and the way my hands slide from the table to my pockets and back again.
I would like you to live also. I would like you to stop feeling obliged to grumble “good-morning-how-are-you” to me as we trade shifts in the bathroom in the morning, and replace this with you telling me what’s on your mind or something about your family or your dog or the abandoned city park a block away from where you grew up. I would like to have lunch with you, with conversation as the main dish.
But you’re right when you think that I live too much, with too much accidental and messy flourish. I would like a jar for my emotions that I can open up and fish around in at will, in which I can trade stress or aggravation or sadness for calm at a moment’s notice, each feeling just a tiny paper slip. I would like to not feel solitude as a sort of persistent dark itch. I want to put on composure with good posture and grace, thin and sheer as silk.
I’m trying to, but I don’t think I can. Most of me just wants to reach out my hand to (somewhat uncomfortably) pull you along with me, downwards, and to hear you laugh, a real warm laugh that rings, along the way. I’d rather take you with me, for this strange thing called living. But I don’t think I can. Instead, I open the bathroom door. Good morning, I’m doing pretty well, and I hope you are too.
“Just look natural,” I say, picking up my camera phone from the diner table, wanting to capture the radiant warmth that glows off her soft face.
Her face falls, her skin pales. She presses up the corners of her mouth like each is capped with a lead weight, a Herculean effort, and she tucks her chin down as if she’s ashamed.
I study words late into the night, poring over stacks of maroon- and evergreen-bound library books under my yellowing desk light, but I am yet to find a way to tell someone that “Just Look Natural,” spilling uncontrollably from my lips in admiration, isn’t something I feel I have to say conforming to society’s slapped-on apology for telling us that we aren’t beautiful as we are, but something that overflows from me, overcomes me, when I see her push her glossy hair back and laugh at a typo or a silly name on a sign on the subway.
She asks me not to post the photos, and I agree. They plaster my mind, though, filling the dark corners with the light and warmth of her dark brown eyes, and her laugh, a mere note different from my own.