We waited and waited but it didn’t seem like the marine layer would ever burn off. Lily had a date with a boy we hadn’t met named Colin, and I texted her to come outside so we could talk. And then I interrogated her about how she knew him, his precise age, what she liked about him. That was about it. I was happy for her, and said your hair looks nice (she’d curled the ends). And after she went inside I returned to my book, hoping it would be good for her.
It’s true what my friend Miriam says about the book: a real page-turner, but leaves an uneasy feeling, how it taps into some voyeuristic drive. The protagonist is a chronic cutter, it actually describes that, a kind of sensation that makes my insides turn. How did I go a good 40 years of my life unaware of this? How is it in our culture, where we live, that Lily’s friend group is doing that? And we have to be thoughtful about dispensing razors when she wants to shave, a kind of checkout process. Or consider the ethics of disclosing to friends’ parents when Lily shares information that’s distressing about their kids. Like how the neighbor boy stabbed himself in the thigh but missed. And if that’s even true, or exaggerated. Better to stay out of it.
But Charlotte is still a kid she says (I asked for how long, and she said 18), and just got exposed to Gary Numan, the song Cars, for her fifth grade concert. Before performing each song one of the kids would recite a write-up about the song: the year it came out, where the artists were from, fun facts. Like Cars: I didn’t know Numan had Aspergers, or that the song was meant to convey some insulated sense of safety that technology represented, by way of the car: a place to retreat, to hide.
Rain was expected so I cut the grass, the first time I’d done so in a good four years. We’d let the yard guys go to cut back on our expenses, and it took me some time to remember the inner-workings of the tractor. But when I got back on it I felt in control and powerful, sweeping back and forth across the lawn, back and forth until it was smooth and clean, and I’d collected every last blade.
I’d never had the impulse to cut, never wanted to learn about it even. But it provided a release that was addictive, maybe a kind of distraction from other pain the cutter couldn’t process. There was only one person I’d known who did that: he was the best friend of a girlfriend’s brother, both of them in the Marines, barely 21. He was sitting down by the river underneath a tree and waved us down to show us something, and by the way he held it in his hand I assumed he’d found a baby bird, he held it so tenderly: but instead it was his thumb, wrapped in gauze. I think we all knew that was bad, there was something worrisome about that, but it was too late for him. I’d never been to a 21-gun salute but that’s what they gave him, a couple weeks later.
So what’s wrong with me that I’m engrossed in this book about someone else’s pain?
Charlotte wanted to watch Beat It she said (another song she’d been exposed to), but I started with Billie Jean instead, as she hadn’t seen that. And here it was: a memory so vivid from when I was her age, would it resonate? But when I glanced over she was engrossed, like inside the screen watching him mouth the words, watching him spin and jerk his hips. Could we listen to Michael Jackson now and separate what happened to him afterwards, from this moment in time? How he was so clearly at the top of where he was going, right there and then.
It’s been a strange year of change: the kind of change you don’t expect and the kind you think should come, but doesn’t. The repetition of days and sing-song quality when it feels like I’m caught in an eddy, waiting for something to happen. I sometimes think about how I must appear to others, the ones who matter most. I don’t take a lot of time in the mirror. I do my 50 push-ups and sometimes more, finish with downward dog or hero’s pose. And then I have to consider that, whether it really is.