The Attic


You could say I was an atticist


In college, I lived in an attic—in a house behind a house—part of an expansive cooperative of twenty-five undergrads, hippies, and drifters. The attic was like most attics: small with a slanted roof such that I had to bend when standing in certain places. The attic contained one small window that looked back upon the concrete yard and oak tree. From there, I could watch the neighbors play hacky and J smoke his cigarettes on the back porch. I had a futon bed set upon the floor, a small space heater, a cassette deck, a desktop IBM for writing papers, and books stacked and disorganized. Those who came to visit reclined on the carpet spotted with stains from decades of spills and other dirty explanations I chose to ignore.

In this attic, I had a love affair with David, a nineteen-year-old Israeli who wore his black hair in partial dreads with a ring pierced through his lip. His aunt and uncle, as guardians, lived across town on the cliffs of Santa Cruz, though he lived alone in the woods on land he shared with a Japanese Buddhist. When David came to my attic, we made love at night or in the early morning, all while Billie Holiday crooned on the tape deck, desire shifting the molecules of the upstairs air. I can’t remember it ever being very good, though I enjoyed the attention and feel of him, smooth and young. At twenty, I didn’t understand my body. Not really. It would be a few years yet before I could open that part of me. Desire was something I read about in the volumes of poetry I kept scattered over the carpet of my attic room: Sylvia Plath, Anaïs Nin, Charles Bukowski, all the experimental texts that challenged my suburban upbringing and made me think I was smart. I looked for orgasm in the line breaks.


I had grown up in southern California, where my bedroom had always been an escape from the family I thought I didn’t belong to, a break from the continual divorce and split of my parents, and though I sought independence in that room, there was still a level of control my mother exerted over that space: she chose the wallpaper and furniture, cleaned it and searched my private diaries when I was in middle school, always making her mark in some subtle way until I left for college. I wanted that room to contain my desire, yet it wouldn’t be able to. Even then, as a teenager, my desire for everything, especially for love, grew beyond that bedroom despite the clutch of my mother. It became so, imagined through music, books, film—The Doors, Neil Young, hair metal bands like Def Leppard, and Reality Bites, Can’t Buy Me Love, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club. Sweet Valley High encased my dreams. Walt Whitman sang to me from “The Song of Myself.” Sandra Cisneros said this is desire, this is what women want, though my bedroom was not sufficient for my fantasy and need. I wanted and needed more. When I went off to college, my desire found a home that was mine, an attic perched atop a backhouse with smoke-tinged walls and exposed wood beams. Was just enough to hold it, at least for a little while.

(Upon reflection now, I think the attic, to me, represented something of my feminine desire, perhaps contained it, let it incubate, simmer, and grow. Like Virginia Woolf’s room. Scholars have indicated that the space of the feminist’s room, in particular the Woolf room, is indistinguishable from the woman’s interior fantasy, thus becoming an embodiment of her desire. The physical space reflects the self’s lingering. A woman’s room, a place for her to think, and I would argue, to become, was an anomaly for so long, particularly when Woolf was writing. A woman’s space was of domestic concern, in the common rooms of a house, organized around children and other chores. But my attic was my attic. Was a reflection of my own interior need. Had nothing to do with domesticity. Had everything to do with want.)


for a brief time anyway, my Israeli lover and I would consider each other’s bodies in the attic with the blues piano soothing the awkwardness of our exploration, Holiday’s laments bouncing around the dim light and shadow. He wasn’t my first experience with sex, but he was the first in which curiosity and exploration became the force that guided us into each other. My previous lovers had been quick, rational, less passionate, but David fired with all sexual impulses directed toward my folds and curves.


David hopped freight trains over long distances, huddled in box cars streaming through cold and black nights with so many stars. He owned a rat he called Hermes, which he’d sometimes bring with him through the dark on his bike to my attic where we sat on the floor and discussed anarchy. He held the rat tightly in his hands, stroked its back. I’d read from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody and he’d stop me every so often to ask a word’s definition. Salubrious. Inexorable. Arbitrary. Sometimes he gave me the translation in Hebrew. America is a lonely crock of shit, I read. We laughed and sipped our tea. He curled my hair in his fingers. He carried with him a slingshot he made, looped on his belt. While I cooked vegetable stir-fries and brown rice, he shot cats with pebbles from the L-shaped porch sprawled about with couches, ashtrays, and bongs. He was such a boy at times I felt as if I was babysitting. It was a strange feeling. As if he were a child and I was his mother.

I paid for most of our supplies: bread and bananas. We rarely slept at his trailer in the woods. Always the attic, where we wouldn’t do much of anything: read poems, cut up magazines, make postcards. We were trying to be artists or something else we couldn’t define. Something we knew only existed between us. We were trying to be important, though we didn’t know what that meant. We had our love, but that too, was enigmatic—he’d often disappear and I wondered when he’d return, when I’d see him again, until weeks later, after traveling to the north, he came back. Upon coming home from classes at campus, I’d see his bike parked under the large oak tree out back and upstairs, he’d be waiting for me in the attic where he touched my face, my neck, said, “You’re a poet, M. You’re everything as a poet,” wooing me even through my resentment. We made love quickly, and after, passed a joint back and forth on the backhouse porch, my attic room with the small window above heaving through the walls, the semen dried on the blankets. The rain cracked the pavement back then, came so hard it would blur the world around me, create a distortion of precipitation.

If anything, my garret, my sky parlor, my small attic with pitched roof was secure against the winter storms—private, riddled, and lonely—mold surely eating away at its lumber, though for a while at least, I had a lover that justified the phenomena of that small space: the hard futon on the carpet, the red electric blanket, birth control pills on the sill next to the candles we lit at dark, and Holiday on the radio singing strange fruit and distant moons like she had lived every word.


The first time David and I had sex we had just finished watching Pink Flamingos, John Waters’s 1972 film starring Divine as Babs Johnson, the main character who sets out on a campaign to defend her title of “The Filthiest Person Alive” from Connie and Raymond Marble, who in addition to running a black-market baby ring, were jealous of Babs’s label and attempted to steal the “filthy” designation. Pink Flamingos has been named as one of the most disturbing films of all time. It’s been called offensive, repulsive, disgusting, perverse. A cult classic. All of which it is, you could argue. It turns my stomach, even now, when I think of its imagery. But that night in 1997, several of us gathered to watch—how we came to the film is not something I remember—astonished by the sensations: the scenes of sex with chickens, the blood and feathers everywhere, Babs eating dog feces, a steak pulled out from under her dress at the park after simmering in her underwear, through urination even, the fetishization and exploitation of sex, the cannibalization of a few police officers. Why did we love it so much? We ate popcorn with nutritional yeast, smoked weed and drank beer, laughed when we shouldn’t and looked at each other in the dark. Perhaps the attraction came from the speculation of events, of sexual acts we could never imagine, of actions and experience so far removed from our privileged college lives. Could we be that dirty? Could we even conjure these fantasies, if that’s what they were? Perhaps it was a kind of exhibitionism. It felt good to be transgressive. Babs extolled, “Kill everyone now! Advocate cannibalism! Eat Shit! Filth is my politics.” Why would this hold influence over us? Because the grotesque is fascinating? Why would David and I go on to make love that first night? I like to think that Pink Flamingos woke something up in us that had been stilled or forbidden, that John Waters and Babs and the whole cast gave us a quiet permission to experiment with our desire, something that had been dormant, now aroused.

I remember there was a certain disquiet to the back house after the television went off and everyone disbanded, an indecent air settling onto the floor and into the walls. David followed me up the narrow stairs to my attic. I didn’t take his hand. Something about the structure of the stairs and the contracted space held a type of indiscretion and rebellion.


Of everything

I think I’ve always needed the hobos and anarchists to want me, my desire fed by their revolution: David first, then S, a love which was never realized, only imagined for the most part, though my fantasy of our love affair took shape in the ways he taunted me with companionship I naively mistook for flirtation. The details of our friendship stretched on for months, my pining to friends something of a bore finally. “M, just tell him you love him,” they’d say. “Or, he knows how he tempts you. He knows how you feel.” Once, he took me to a Jewish film festival on campus where we watched a short film about gefilte fish and he laughed when I scrunched my nose at it, promising me he’d feed me the delicacy at some later point. He described to me in detail his rich youth of Jewish tradition. Again, how he took me to his small illegal cabin hidden in the redwoods, and we drank tea and talked trains and activism, slept together in the small bed, his arms wrapped around me through the night. I didn’t sleep, but only imagined him taking off my shirt, of touching me. He eventually fell in love with a girl who lived on the beach north of town.


what of my brief affair with a pirate radio anarchist, T? He was everything my husband wasn’t: off the grid, underground, clever, a miscreant. What is it that attracts me to the defiant man? Blurriness, edge. It’s the man who will sit up on a roof with me in grunge and bitterness fucking away the afternoon, maybe walking to the natural food coop for pears and beer, watch the ocean swell and rage against the insignificance of our small day. Recite something like Tolstoy or play the ukulele with authority and verge. All the love I wanted. All the sex I wanted. All the things I thought I could be. Like Sid and Nancy or Mickey and Mallory: hard and romantic and destined for greatness in some peculiar or acidic narrative. I could make a list: gefilte fish and documentaries with S; freight trains and art with David; pirate radio and punk with T; freedom and communism with S; full moons and bourbon with T; wine and collage with David. I retrieve these lists here for proof that I loved. Or that I wanted to love. As testimony. A map of both real and imagined affections, of my inclination toward risk.


As a girl, I was obsessed with the movie Flowers in the Attic, and the gothic series of novels by V.C. Andrews associated with the adaptation. Flowers in the Attic is the first in the series that follows the Dollanganger family, in which a terribly mean grandmother locks her four grandchildren in an attic at the top of a very large estate. The children are given very little food and no access to the outside world. Instead, they create imaginary gardens, memorize the Bible and read Peter Rabbit. For a time at least, the mother comes to visit, but over months, she abandons the children while the grandmother whips and abuses them. Eventually, the mother poisons the children with rat powder on donuts to kill the “mice” in the attic. The brother and sister fall in love, despite their shame, and the younger boy dies. The saga continues as the three remaining children finally escape, but in recollection, I was intrigued by the cruelty, by this small world contained in a room, by the way we keep secrets and the reasons why we create veils or shroud our indignities. And though it’s fiction, we can cite any such examples of attics as places of secrets, of silence, of hiding, of containment—Jane Eyre for one. But in Flowers in the Attic, who could blame the siblings for falling in love? Instinct and isolation must merge. Perhaps it was my own life as a girl in the suburbs that attracted me to this story, to the strange, but I think most of all, what it represents is the absence, is the confidential, the discreet, which gives way to an intimacy not allowed in the more public of spaces: the kitchen or the dining room, the grand hall. So attic. Also as anagram, tacit, which means to be held in silence, the unstated but implied suggestion of a space that contains a collection of intimacies, or artifacts, both objects and memoirs, as in the ways David and I loved, quietly. All of this suggests a privately held story I’ve never said. As in the attic. As in the way we protect our desire.

Eventually, my love affair with David ended. He went off to Paris to detangle the back streets of the city, going underneath to the catacombs, another type of secret space, of tunnels with the remains of the dead. Ghosts. I received postcards in the mail for a while—from Paris, Barcelona, Jerusalem, detailing the scents of all those foreign locations, the women, the bridges, the ocean—but there came a time when the postcards stopped coming and I stopped checking the mail hoping to find them. There came a time when David didn’t matter anymore and the front room with the windows overlooking the garden opened up for rent.


Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.

Melissa Matthewson is the author of a memoir-in-essays, Tracing the Desire Line (Split/Lip Press, 2019), a finalist for the 2021 Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Guernica, Longreads, Oregon Humanities, Literary Hub, The Common, DIAGRAM, and American Literary Review, among other publications. She teaches in the MFA Creative Writing program at Eastern Oregon University and in the Communication program at Southern Oregon University. Find her on Twitter at @melmatthewson and Instagram at @mazzymaple. More from this author →