Christina Roussos and Jenny Lane are working on a new devised theater project, based on a story of a girl who disappeared in the 1930s, and they’re collecting stories of women who have left, to use as inspiration. They asked me to write one, to share on the blog Reasons for Leaving, and since I wrote it up, I figured I’d share it here as well. Thanks Christina!
I leave everything. I’m leaving all the time. Falling back behind my eyes, searching out the home inside my head.
In 2003 I left every day. I left for work. I would do the things you do when you leave for work, when you work a job, a job that requires desk sitting for 9 hours a day.
Staring at my computer screen, trying to ignore the cells that looked each like a tiny prison locating and relocating on the cash flow projection spreadsheet. Wondering what was going on in my apartment. There were the bugs, to be sure, crawling over every kitchen surface, licking the remnants of last night’s diced onion. Cats roamed free, lounged in pools of sunlight, scratched long, sinewy scars into my couch. Books sat still on wobbling shelves, and my husband drank.
I could see him drinking just as clearly as I could see my reflection in the monitor. I ate dumplings for lunch, masses of dumplings, and beef chow fun, while reading David Copperfield. I put on weight. I was never into Dickens before, like anyone I’d had my Miss Haversham festish, but Dickens was long, and meandery, and gave me leave to leave myself. The mounting moutain of beer and liquor cans that climbed to the roof of the under sink cupboards fell away in the pages and words.
Before leaving in the morning I would count the bottles and cans. I would note the number in my date book. It felt like there was control in this somehow, it felt like at least this way I knew what was really going on. I would confront him once we were both sober, which was not a frequent occurence. I would say “you’ve been drinking in secret.”
“No I haven’t,” he would say. But I knew the truth, I had the count, it was logged in black and white in my own hand. The evidence was there. I would point out the can mountain, the airplane bottles. “Those are from a long time ago,” he said. I never knew how to reply. For a while I would stop counting. For a while I would just clean out the cupboards and dump the refuse into the recycle bin for the old Chinese woman to dig through. For a while I would believe him, then realize that our definitions of “a long time ago” were aeons apart. I wanted to believe him so badly that I started to think I was crazy, that I’d miscounted, that someone had broken into our apartment, drank a shit ton of booze, and left the bottles for me to clean up.
Wake by the sound of the clock radio alarm, snooze, wake for real, shower, grab a yogurt, and run out the door, get on the train, come up with a plausible excuse as to why I was late. Looking around at my fellow commuters I would see the dread, the acceptance of that dread. The work day spread out before us all, spread out like an oil slick, and what I wanted to do was leave. I would take the subway to the end of the line, then I would start walking. That was the plan.
It didn’t matter that yesterday I had taken the train right to my job, got off, worked a full day, and gone home again. It didn’t matter that I would have no money, no prospects, no place to go. All that mattered was leaving, and I wanted out so bad.
I could see myself out there in the wind. My back to everything I ever knew. A bag slung over my shoulder and my trusty grey oxfords on my feet. I imagined my scarf swirling into the maelstrom with my hair, behind me a wasteland of ideas and people, of city fabrics torn to shreads in the onslaught, and somehow I am the only survivor, to face the unpopulated earth alone. What luxury it would be to have no one to talk to but myself, no direction to follow but my own. This was my perpetual fantasy, but I felt so bound, I didn’t know how to break free.
One day in August there was a blackout. The City was overheated and everyone was trying to cool down at once so the whole thing blew. My monitor went off before I could save my multi-colored cash flow projection spreadsheet. The lights went off, too. The co-workers wondered aloud what was happening, recalled their own terrifying moments from nearly two years past, when the Trade Centers came down and they’d all streamed up town, away from the smoke.
I thought how easy it would be to drift into the City and out of it again, to make no mark, leave no trace among these people fleeing disaster. I pictured myself heading into all these people, like an ocean of voices and footfalls, of sticky hair and body smells, only to emerge from the pack on a solitary road heading anywhere, so long as it was away. I would do it. I would go. I would flee!
Tomorrow’s paychecks were sitting in my top left desk drawer, ready for distribution. I slipped mine out of the stack and into my handbag before following everyone out. I knew that I wouldn’t be in the office the next day, or perhaps ever again. There was a calm urgency that prevailed as we walked down the dark stairs. Once out into the street, once the word came round that it was just a blackout, the urgency subsided. Everyone chatted as they headed for the bridges and boroughs.
This clarification did not ease my mind. Disappearing amidst chaos is plausible, disappearing in a blackout is just irresponsible. The weight of responsibility rushed in on me, and I felt a hyper-urgency to get home. We lived across town, and I practically ran the whole way. Straight down Houston, then right, then left. Ten years earlier we would have only come to this corner to cop, but now we lived here.
I dashed in, and up to the second floor. My husband lay on the cat scratched couch in the dimming sunlight. I shook him awake. “It’s a blackout,” I said, “it’s just a blackout, don’t be scared.”
“What?” he said, “are you home early?” He tried to rouse himself to sitting, but then lay his head back on the pillow.
“There’s been a blackout,” I said, “the power’s out, it’s nothing big, don’t be scared.”
“The whole city?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “my office went dark, and the whole way home the lights were out.”
“Cool,” he said, “let’s go check it out. Why’d you think I’d be scared?”
“I was worried you’d wake up,” I said, “and not know what was happening, or where I was.”
“I’d wait for you,” he said.
We went to a bar on the corner of Clinton and Stanton, and drank until we’d consumed all the melting ice. The next day we cashed my check in the only check-cashing place open below 14th man. A terrified man sat with a shotgun and a pile of cash behind bullet proof glass in the lantern illuminated darkness.
How I felt was reflected back to me in his eyes. Trapped, cornered, guarding himself against everything, everyone, especially the potential impending disaster, that he courted just by being where he was.