Anecdotal and Harsh

By

On Space and Time

The thing about trauma is that it can split a person right down the middle. And J. was, indeed, bifurcated in this way. That is, she occupied multiple timelines simultaneously.

J. had been pretty for a time but after so many years of waltzing with both sorrow and self-medication, there was a toll to pay. And so she moved through space and time with a kind of anger, with her left eye drooping as the elasticity of her skin lessened. When she had been young and pretty, she played one of three Dead Women in a play about a young girl drowning. It never occurred to J., then, that all the women in the play either died or suffered. Nevertheless, the truth was there, in an indie theatre off a cobblestone road in Nebraska, where J. met her husband, The Playwright.

It was there, on a stage old and unvarnished, where she fell in love with The Playwright’s kindness, the way he moved gently from one space to another and, especially, the way he had held her hand in public after they shared a kiss. She’d never met anyone who wanted to hold hands in public before. She had been a secret in the lives of most of her lovers, even when they weren’t paying her for sex. And while that had thrilled her for a time, J. was enamored with The Playwright, the man who wrote lines for her, the man who molded her into characters. Years later, J. and The Playwright were married on the stage where they’d first met, and despite J.’s swollen belly at six months pregnant, The Playwright remembered fondly, then, that he had so much sex with so many women inside that very theatre.

J., although pregnant, had taken a swig of wine, then. To temper it all.

Their daughter was barely crawling the first time J. was accused of borderline personality disorder—and yes, it was objectively an accusation, given the available evidence. The statement was made in a text message. And to be fair, the message wasn’t meant for her, but rather it had been exchanged privately between J.’s husband and the mother of her childhood friend, with whom The Playwright later lived, after he and J. divorced.   

She is particular about time, he had texted the mother of J.’s childhood friend.  

Yep, sounds like BPD, she texted back.

It was ironic, in a way, because J. felt that the bifurcation of motherhood made her more human, while the consensus of outside opinion made it all a pathology.

 

It’s all kind of a funny thing. After enduring the worst of humanity as a child, J. found that her trauma made her rather, well, mean. Particularly in moments of insecurity and vulnerability, J. attacked with slithering words and unfounded jealousies. If The Playwright so much as spoke to another woman, for example, often failing to introduce his new wife and child, J. would be moved to any manner of insults, including her favorite: I hate you. She knew the words were a specific poison to The Playwright because his own mother had used them before, while threatening to walk out on him as a child. She weaponized his vulnerability in these moments and enfeebled him by mocking his heartache.

At least you weren’t raped as a kid, J. would say coldly in response to his continued contention that those three words—I. Hate. You.— stung more than anything else in the world. And while he certainly agreed that being harmed so viscerally would have been much harder than having a momentarily merciless mother, he detached more and more as J.’s growing expressions of disdain increased. For a while, all intimacy between J. and The Playwright became strictly physical.

Before getting married in the theatre where they’d met off the cobblestone road in Nebraska, J. and The Playwright had fucked in just about every public place possible, only once drawing the attention of law enforcement. Situated in the poetry of a one-hundred-year-old cast iron fence, long after the railing had served its purpose and had become, rather, just ornamental, all tangled in the vines that spiraled down brick and onto its metal, J. would scream in pleasure as The Playwright got her off, making love to both her and the ghosts of the old space.

But since their shotgun wedding, their sex was basic; quick. And J. took this to mean that The Playwright just didn’t want to look at his new wife’s face—the way it got blunter the less sleep she got, the bigger her belly swelled, and the way her eyes looked all crazy, like hate.

J. believed The Playwright was accustomed to being adored, although she had very little evidence of this. Sure, he’d made a name for himself in the art scene of Omaha, nearly flirting his way into lots of money from rich people—people like Omaha Steaks and Berkshire Hathaway, people so rich that they didn’t even have names. And sure, he made art that was experimental enough to keep his heart warm but that wasn’t too abrasive as to critique his funders in any serious way. One year into their marriage, The Playwright joked that he was a “whore” just like her, and J.’s rage seethed to the surface, as this was ostensible evidence that he was revered, and she was trash.

Oh yeah? she’d replied. Well, let me know when you have a dick in your mouth for two-hundred bucks and then we can talk about our solidarity as whores.

 

There was a moment when J. was something other than what she became a second later.

The evening was like any other—a night at the theatre. A photograph of her and The Playwright and their tiny child, all of them perennially blinded by the setting sun in the image. They were all smiling, too. But after J. nursed the babe to sleep, she felt an overwhelmingly sinking feeling, unjustified, mostly, and accused her husband, who had been sleeping on the couch, of adultery.

 

I hate you, she screamed. And he rose from the couch in his gentle way, maneuvering his body around the coffee table that separated the two, and spit in her face.

J. was then someone—something—else forever and ever.

She stood with her husband’s internal discharge on her face, a translucent slime careening out of her eye and down her already tear-wet cheek. And she refused to wipe it away, refused to destroy the evidence of her husband’s meanness, of her husband’s hidden violence and the way he wished her dead; of the way all men secretly wish for women’s deaths–spitting on our graves, so to speak. The Playwright dropped his housekeys on the table and ran out the front door. And J. resolved to be stronger, to trust herself more, then, as she held her newborn in the dark, rocking back and forth on a green felt chair, evidence of her own death on her face.

Split into two; fully bifurcated. Here and then there, simultaneously. A woman without spit on her face and, then, a woman with it.

 

 

On Hysterics and Virtue

Women tell stories and men tell Truth, ostensibly.

Women, as it were, talk in circles. We gossip about one another and then come back to each other. We are here. And then we are there. And these things happen at the same time, often hysterically so.

Barthes, mourning the death of his mother in Mourning Diary (English ed: 2012), says:

Like love, mourning affects the world—and the worldly—with unreality, with importunity. I resist the world, I suffer from what it demands of me, from its demands. The world increases my sadness, my dryness, my confusion, my irritation, etc. The world depresses me.  

But he also wants us to know that his mourning, has not been hysterical […]. 

A man’s sorrow and narrative are an arrow; a woman’s is a terrifying Ouroboros. It seems fitting—circular, even—that my favorite X-Files episode, written and directed by Gillian Anderson, portrays Scully getting a tattoo of the self-sacrificing little snake. Time—and sadness—is different when there is no end.

My child’s favorite physicist is Brian Greene. Like Einstein and others, Greene says that there is no distinction between the past, present, and future. My child believes that this is undeniable confirmation that she has a right to refrain from making her bed daily—if it was made yesterday, she reasons, then it is also made today and, in the future, as well. I find the theory immensely comforting because it means that I will meet her again and again. It also means that if I harm myself irrecoverably from my addictions, I will continue to exist for her, ad Infinium. I suppose it’s a clever way to duck accountability for my own actions. My daughter loves me so much and yet, I cannot muster the strength to appreciate that love well enough to be, well, well.

I have been hysterical for most of life, and this has seemed, mostly, antithetical to virtue. Virtuousness has an end, it would seem, as laid out in the Bible: the virtuous wife does [her] husband good, and not harm, all the days of her life […] and [she] will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Lead a virtuous life or write a virtuous story and reap the benefits. A beginning. A middle. And an end. But there are so many other aspects to life and to telling stories that are circular in uncomfortable ways.

The uncle who grabbed my ass—hysterics.

The dance teacher who pawed at my young body—hysterics.

The man who touched my budding tits—hysterics.

There is no resolve, there is no end, because when I stare at the glorious face of my sleeping child at night, I know that she, too, will have to navigate the pawing and the grabbing and the touching. And so, in my wilder moments, I cut my daughter’s hair short, and I dress her as a boy, if for no other reason than to slay the Ouroboros of harm.

But it is not slayed in these moments. It is fed. It is fed with the antagonisms of femininity, the devaluation and dehumanization of femme-ness, it is fed with my own self-hate. And while the Ouroboros of time brings me closer to my child because of its inherent recursiveness, it is not an unescapable destiny. I can cut off the snake’s head and it will grow a new one, presumably, filled with hope and change.

I can relive all of this shit—and I am happy to do so, if only to meet my daughter again and again—and for no other reason than to create a snake that does different things and follows the curvature of a new way.

I try to focus on that.

 

Once, in Chicago, I bought coke off a man on the street. I ducked down in the cream-colored bathroom inside an innocuous, globalized hotel room—the kind with mass-produced art prints on the wall—and snorted the stuff. It made my nose bleed and was mostly bleach. I still got high. Awake when the golden light of our closest star made silhouetted lungs of naked tree branches, I caught the Blue Line to the airport. Or was it the Red Line?

A woman who’d clearly scored better shit than me hopped onto the train, smoking a cigarette and wagging her skinny finger at me: You virtuous bitch, she shouted over and over. I tucked my bloated face into the armpit of a fellow passenger and laughed until I cried. It was Easter morning and in my manic-induced paranoia, I wondered if maybe I had risen from the dead in that moment, too.

I returned to my home that was also a warehouse on north 33rd street, a warehouse that had kept rich women’s furs cool before my partner and I made it our makeshift homestead. Our “shower” was merely a mop bucket. My closet was an old refrigerator. When I fucked my partner in that warehouse on the futon flanked by the shit he hoarded—animatron baby dolls, records, machinery—I could smell the corpses of rats and it comforted me.

 

A blanket of lavender covers the sky—big, violent clouds reach far and wide with pink on their edges— and I show the girls where Jupiter is.

My daughter is dressed as an avatar from her favorite video game. Her friend is in pink, some kind of dollar-store character where the fluff of her tail hangs far below her Walmart sneakers.

The girl in pink is my daughter’s best friend.

And the girl in pink has a father who harms her, who harms all of us.

The girl in pink is only five years old but she tells me about blowjobs.

The girl in pink is only six years old and she tells me that she gets in bed with a man.

The girl in pink is only seven years old and she tells me that her father has sex with her mother despite her mother’s objections.

The girl in pink is eight years old and she comes to stay with me, often.

The girl in pink leaves her socks everywhere and eats chips in bed, despite my constant reprimanding. I read the girls a bedtime story—The Girl Who Drank the Moon—and in the story there are strong women and monsters and pieces of paper that turn into birds. The girl in pink awakes with fear, screaming, and I remind her that she is here, that she is safe, and that she is in my daughter’s bed.

Despite all of that, the girl in pink wants only to return to her father.

Sleet covered by snow, the walk to her house across the street is slick. Nevertheless, I walk the girl in pink home, knowing exactly what she faces there. There is something comforting in the repetitive, despite its hurt. Because from the day we’re born, we know that when you leave a man’s timeline, you risk everything—the adoration and justification, the comforting sense that everything has a beginning, a middle, and end. You opt out of the arrow of time.

 

The masculine contention that good writing must be both climatic and original is the proverbial monster slayer, lending itself, inevitably, to the reification of white male saviorism. I think Mary Shelley understood this in a profound way. After losing a child, she wrote of the liminal space she’d occupied then, being a body that continued to produce milk without a suckling babe at her breast. There could be no savior, no end to the pain.

Alternatively, Chekhov described literature as his mistress and his doctoral degree as his wife. A virtuous ending indeed—a fuck and then, a degree. Fin. An arrow. “Progress.”

 

 

On Cannibalism and Fantasizing

J. was a cannibal, and it was something The Playwright had supported, for a time.

She took great pride in the fact that she had consumed her own placenta and even offered parts of it up to her new husband. It was more or less a kind of auto-cannibalism—her body was chalky in pill form and novel in vodka. Prior to her pregnancy, J. had tasted neither foot nor thigh, but had been crippled by a yearning to eat her offspring. Sweet milk breath and closed-eyes smiles, she wanted to consume it all. And her consumption fantasies were no more and no less a desire to make moments last forever: the dancing and the kisses and comforting things after bad dreams. The stories her child wrote and the art her daughter made… J. knew that she wanted it all to occur and occur again.

She curled her heart around her child to temper the knowledge gained from Samantha Hunt’s now infamous New Yorker interview, where she said of motherhood, I created a little death. J. knew that her consumption fetish was not conspicuous; there was no built-in or perceived obsolescence in her desires or storytelling. Unless, she thought, one believes that death is the same thing as becoming obsolete.

She often fantasized about a one room cabin off the gird with wild wheat and red sunshine, where her adult daughter—who’d perhaps suffered to some degree but not as greatly as J. had—came to stay. J. imagined covering her sleeping child in tattered blankets that smelled of bonfire as she maneuvered between hits of asthma medication and cigarettes. She fantasized in these moments that the Ouroboros had indeed grown a new, better head. Life would be different for her daughter, she thought. It already has been. And when they both get to meet again after their respective little deaths, filled with more star stuff and the dimples of spacetime, they will orbit one another with an even greater ferocity, J. thought.

Rimbaud wrote in A Season in Hell and the Drunken Boat (English ed: 2011), I loved the desert, dried orchards, faded shops and tepid drinks. I dragged myself through stinking alleys and, eyes closed, I gave myself to the sun, God of fire. And J. realized, then, that one could be a burning, bright star and also entirely impermanent; this cycle could also be wonderfully infinite.

In fact, that endless, bifurcated cycle was the only thing that made any sense at all. Herself, her life, split but recursive, returning again and again to the God of Fire.

 

 

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Rumpus original art by Genevieve Tyrrell


Juniper Fitzgerald is a mother, sex worker, and academic based in the Midwest. Her children’s book, How Mamas Love Their Babies, was published by Feminist Press in 2018 and was the first to feature a sex-working parent. Beyond her scholarly work, she has contributed to We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival and her writing has appeared in Tits and Sass, Mutha magazine, and The Rumpus. She holds a PhD in sociology and is a lifelong Gillian Anderson fan. More from this author →