In the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, we abandoned Eloise’s Suburban and walked the wet, rutted road that led to her house. It was lightly raining, and there was an orange tint to the sky that made even the sagebrush look beautiful. There was a rainbow forming to the North, and a pair of desert cottontails bouncing in and out of a lone patch of grass.
The laughter in my throat was stilled by the heavy clomp of her boots in the mud. She was angry at her truck for running out of gas, angry at the rain, and angry at the whole world it seemed. She muttered and cussed, and insisted that I thought she must be a real fuck-up. What I was really wondering was how an empty gas tank could trigger what amounted to a self-flagellating tantrum.
“What a great start to your trip, huh? You must think I’m a real idiot.
“That fucking gauge was above E. You saw that right? That it wasn’t below E?
“I bet you’re regretting being here.
“I’m tired of shit like this always happening to me.”
After the third or fourth reassurance, I realized it didn’t matter what I said. Eloise was determined to be miserable. Her hostility was easily tapped, and there was a black hole to her being that she catered to as if it contained the only precious truth left in the world.
A mile-long walk left us standing on her porch, rain soaked and muddy, and I couldn’t help but think that with someone else, this might be a fun occasion. Leah would run for the wine glasses, Sheila would challenge me to wrestle in the mud, Jen would tell jokes, and then laugh so hard she’d have to stop walking. None of them would have done what Eloise did next –- which was to take off her boots and throw them against the garage wall.
“Never mind that those were my favorite boots,” she seethed to the mud-streaked plaster.
Later, I sat on a couch in her living room, listening to a litany of trivial, wine-soaked complaints. Her parents loved her, but not well enough. She had a stellar education, but not Ivy League. She had many friends, but no one who really understood her deep complexity. She had a trust fund, but it wasn’t enough to quit working. There were lovers that used, and lovers that left, and a sense of never being appreciated.
“It would be nice if even just once I got back 10% of what I gave to others, but I guess I’m screwed on that. Everybody I ever meet is so selfish.”
For four nights, I sat like a cypher in Eloise’s smoky living room, willing myself into stillness as I watched the stars through the skylights. She was an unlikely Scheherazade, a steely, bitter-eyed woman who seemed to have spent her life creating conflict so she would have an outlet for her combativeness. With every story, she seemed to grow fresh scars, counting and recounting the wrongs committed against her until there was no good will, and no right thing left in the world.
Instead of bolting, I found my curiosity turning morbid. There was a sour aftertaste to our one-sided conversations that was all at once revolting and intriguing. My incredulousness was stretched but not yet sated, not even when she told me the story about driving drunk, and the massive damages done to her lover’s face when she drove into a ditch going 80 mph. Even in that story, Eloise reigned as the ultimate victim. The lover sued, Eloise received a suspended jail sentence, and when the story hit the local newspaper it was humiliating.
“So her face – did they manage to fix it?”
“What? Oh. She lost most of her lower jaw and lower lip, but had lots of reconstructive surgery. Between the insurance company and me, she made out pretty well. I ended up having to go to treatment, though, which was stupid because I wasn’t an alcoholic — but who cares, right? I paid through the nose for that night. There are still people in this town who hate me…”.
On the morning I left, I woke up early and walked through the house, and for the first time noticed how beautiful it really was. Stained glass French doors led to a wrap-around patio. The floors were a dark walnut wood, and there was an exquisitely patterned red Persian rug in the living room. Abstract art hung neatly from clean white walls, lit from below with key lights. In four nights, I hadn’t noticed the antique chairs, covered in cobalt blue velvet, that framed the fireplace, or the soft white chenille of the couches. Either Eloise’s misery had sucked all the color and light out of the room, or I was so enchanted by it that I turned blind to everything else. In the pale yellow light of morning, I was reminded of a song by Sara McLachlan – “you live in a church where you sleep with voodoo dolls, and you won’t give up the search for the ghosts in the halls”. Eloise’s home was like a tainted church, a sanctuary lost to the cause of both old and ongoing wars.
In front of the airport terminal, Eloise handed me a folded up piece of paper and told me to read it on the plane. It’s just a poem I wrote, she said, something I wanted you to have.
Nobody heard her, the dead woman,
but still she lay in the abyss moaning.
I was much further out than you thought, she said,
and not waving, but drowning.
As if there were not enough reams of torment in her own life, Eloise resorted to stealing the tragic words of others. The poem was written by British poet Stevie Smith, and only slightly changed by Eloise’s interpretation.
I might have never known, but I discovered Not Waving, But Drowning in the county library when I was nine years old, and ran home to read it to my mother –- a woman who was drowning in an unhappiness I was powerless to change. I was always looking for words she would recognize –- that would move her in some way, or that let her know that while I didn’t understand everything, I did understand that she felt I was to blame in some way, and that I was sorry, sorry, sorry. For three decades, I waited for the day my mother’s secrets would spill, and we could forgive each other for the darkness. The right combination of words were never found. There was no grand rescue, no heroic act of forgiveness, no chance of saving either one of us from wanting what we could never have.
Yet, years after her death, I found myself drawn to sitting silently in the darkest shadows of other women, waiting for a hint, a revelation, or some epiphany. When I wasn’t actively seeking out the most brooding people I could find, they seemed to find me.
And the only thing I ever really learned from all those years of shadow sitting is that misery can travel beyond time and circumstance, and become a black hole that voids all light and swallows any possibility of good. There really is no mystery to the the forever-lost, the fucked-up, the hateful, or the chronically bitter. We move in this universe on differing parallels –- some paths are rife with danger and difficulty, and some are so easy that they seem supernaturally preordained, but most are a mix of challenges, habits, and celebrations. Sometimes there are choices, and sometimes there are unmitigable circumstances. We fall as often as we get pushed. We embrace each other, or we stand apart. We scar, berate, and rail against each other, or extend our compassion and love. We kick each other, or help each other up.
We are the secret, the key, the magical, elusive meaning of things that we search for in the clouds, ancient books, and new-age gurus. There is really no major mystery to who we are. We are what helps creates the other. In the largest picture, we are the source of each other’s love, misery, happiness, anger, regret, support, hope, longing, and despair.
Eloise and my mother were partially created by others on their path, as surely as Beethoven, Curie, and Van Gogh were. But instead of gathering love, they nurtured grudges. Instead of striving for happiness, they chose to lash out in anger and bitterness.
The worst monsters and tyrants in the world only exist by collective permission, as do the greatest thinkers, pianists, artists, and inventors. We don’t always agree with the collective, and often lack the power to enforce our differing will, but many of us accede our personal ethics as if our singular thoughts, ideals, or dollars had little value at all. We sit in the shadows of corruption, perverse politics, bad will, unjust laws, and miserable people until we are numb and feel them as inevitable.
And perhaps they are, at least until the collective masses experience a new call to enlightenment, but we don’t have to sit in the shadows and wait. We don’t have to sleep with voodoo dolls, or taint our sanctuaries with totems of death and misery. We can, instead, consciously choose to live in a way that honors our highest ideals.
We can stand and speak clearly instead of moaning. We can wave, and refuse to let ourselves be drowned.