How To Survive The Crash
Be not made a beggar by banqueting on borrowing.
In the quietest 80s, the advice book and therapy couch may have been the only sources of relief left to women who were feeling demoralized. In an era that offered little hope of real social or political change, the possibility of changing oneself was the one remaining way held out to American women to improve their lot.
---Susan Faludi, Backlash
1. Structural Integrity
In 1987, when the stock market reaches its peak, your mad mother, heavily medicated and temporarily stable, will come to town to buy you a bra.
Accept, first of all, that you grew up in a family with a breast fixation. "You girls were hard to wean," she said when you turned twelve to remind you of a time when the sight of her sprawled out on her bed half-naked did not embarrass you. "A woman's breasts are her most attractive feature," she says to you on the phone, "and if you don't have adequate support, your breasts will sag and your back will hurt." No matter how shabby the K-mart stretch pants and polyester blouses your mother has worn since her breakdowns began, she has never skimped on foundations. Remember how the bathroom in Cleveland was always crowded with her size 36-D brassieres and panties hanging to dry and how it seemed to you as a child that what was meant to stay inside was always outside in your mother's world.
When you are under stress, you dream that you are walking topless outside.
Or else you dream that your teeth are falling out. One gets loose and starts to wiggle, and then they all are rolling around the bottom of your mouth, cutting into your tongue.
Your molar aches when your mother calls to say she's coming to town. She has had false teeth since she was thirty, the age you are turning this October. She has a habit of removing her dentures in public restrooms and leaving them behind. You have many memories of running back to a diner, a bus station, the ladies room at Higbees, and looking for her choppers. She always sent you to find them because you were the jogger in the family, the one in good cardiovascular shape. It is possible you took up running simply so you could get in and out of these situations as quickly as possible.
When you are under stress, you feel that what is most private about you is outside for all to see.
Your mother will arrive in August, two days after your abortion. It will be hot and she will want to go swimming with you and your boyfriend and your grad school roommate, and you will have to make up a reason why you don't want to go into the inviting waters of Goshen, you who have always loved to swim. In the photos from this day, you will look as pale as rice and will be smiling strangely.
Of course, you didn't want her to come but you haven't seen her in fifteen months and if you waited any longer your grandmother would be too ill to manage with just the neighbor looking in on her, and besides, you feel sorry for your mother for having a parent with Alzheimer's to tend to when she herself could use some looking after. You still want to be good. You have always wanted to be good. Even when you have tried to be bad--in your sexual misadventures, in your long-ago stoner days--you were trying not to be the goody-goody-two-shoes others knew you to be. But in your mother's presence, you doubt your capacity for goodness.
Nonetheless, by your own accounting, if you put up with this visit now, at the worst time possible, you will be paid up with this years daughterly debt.
But it is hard to be good when you have just had an abortion and you are exhausted and furious with yourself for letting such a bad thing happen, and when your mother smokes in your apartment and demands around-the-clock coffee, demands that you tend to her like a good mother or good daughter would.
On the second day of the visit, when you are trying to wash out your bloodstained underpants without your mother's scrutiny, she will pop her head in your bathroom and tell you it is time to go buy that bra. "Sure," you say, smiling bravely. It is your duty to make her happy.
You feel like you are being led to your execution. You repress your memory of last night's dream: that your mother, murderous with rage at your failures, tried to cut your throat in her sleep. Now, it feels to you as the two of you walk past Thornes on Main Street in Northampton, that she intends to do her damage to you in public. The first thing you worry about is whom you will run into from your normal life. You pick the most unhip store in town to begin the expedition. Only old women shop here.
"I need to buy my girl a brassiere," your mother says to the saleswoman.
You are doing what you normally do, trying to keep a buffer zone of at least a foot between you and your mother, so the sales woman sees you but does not realize you are together. "We dont stock many training bras," she asks. "How old is your daughter?" She and your mother stand together like co-conspirators evoking the pre-pubescent girl of their imaginations. You know this girl very well yourself. She has been tagging along with you and your mother all morning, hiding her eyes underneath her hair, crossing her arms defensively across her chest.
"She's right here," your mother says, taking your hand and pulling you toward her. You know you are gritting your teeth and grinding them together. You can hear them. You also know you have a deep cavity in your molar. You can feel the dull throbbing move into your jaw. And you don't like the feeling of having these two women gaze at your still-swollen breasts through your T-shirt to assess your true size.
It is not a very nice store. The brand names are unfamiliar to both mother and daughter. The cheap nylon bras hang in the too-bright light. They will never provide adequate support.
"I'm not sure I'm familiar with Bali," the saleswoman says. "What do they look like?"
"Like this," your mother says. And with that she lifts up her top and flashes the woman.
You run, crying like a child, from the store.
It is a perfect summer day and residents of the Happy Valley are outside pushing strollers and eating ice cream cones. You bump into your jogging partner, Pete, who is with his dog, Stella, on his way for a late leisurely brunch with The New York Times full of the Iran-Contra scandal tucked under his elbow. He will tell you later that he was really struck by the look of panic on your face as you fled your mother, who, he says, was right behind you, clutching her handbag. "You never run that fast when we're together," he'll say lightly.
Later, when your mother's breakdown of that season is in full swing, when her anger toward you and the world has become murderous, you will think: If only I could have let her buy me a bra.
When she gets back to Cleveland, your mother phones you around the clock to tell you that you seemed "aloof" on the visit, which means that in her book of accounts, that visit didn't count. You are in major daughterly debt and you still have to pay up. On the two occasions when you don't answer the phone, she sends the police to your door, who believe they are looking for an underage runaway child of about twelve. She phones your professors late at night and grills them with impertinent questions about their private lives. She asks them if they have slept with you. She phones the secretary of the graduate program. Wherever you go, there are "While you were out" phone messages waiting for you from your mother.
Even your bedroom provides no sanctuary. All summer, there has been a construction project going on next to your apartment building and workers have been able to see into your third floor bedroom. There has been no escaping the sound of their work and their gaze. Your roommate and you have six fans rigged up to open windows throughout the apartment to suck out hot air, and even their propellers do not camouflage the noise. You hear pounding and drilling from seven in the morning until dinner every day. The windows rattle and you can feel the drilling inside your mouth; you even hear it in your dreams, especially after you discover that you need a crown on one of your molars and that you have TMJ from grinding your teeth.
To distract yourself, you stare at the workers and watch the annex next door emerge. What you think is that it's like a body; you watch a skeleton forming, the foundation, the spine of distinct rooms, the muscles of sheetrock, a nervous system of electric circuitry, and eliminative organs of plumbing, and it is not until these are all complete that the outer surface is built to gaze outward in haughty solidity.
Meanwhile, the news is full of Iran-Contra and the rising stock market, which is as bloated as you still feel. Your mother phones and phones. She has crashed hard. You feel yourself slipping, but there's no one to catch you if you fall so you buoy yourself up with high-heeled shoes, complicated underwear, and all of your thick, chemically restructured hair. Later, your friends will refer to this time as your "va va va voom" period. You will remember, though, that a part of you wanted to be twelve, flat-chested and not-yet-fertile, home from school on a sick day with a mother bringing in grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup while you lay under the covers looking vacantly out the window at falling leaves.
Your friends are going through their own versions of the crash. One goes into major hock to follow her new boyfriend to California where they pay someone to get them to walk on hot coals. Another friend is madly in love with a dancer who only sleeps with ballerinas with the bodies of tall twelve-year-old boys. This friend is short and curvy, with a 34-D bosom--you know this because you have seen her underwear hanging in her bathroom. Another friend is divorcing a man who won't sleep with her because she is "too fat and ugly to fuck." She is a beautiful woman: 5'7", a strong 135 pounds from riding her bike two hundred miles a week. Your women friends are the type of people that bake their own bread, go to the gym religiously, and meditate daily, but they are still trying to be better. They all read self-help books. You tell them that these books are apolitical and anti-feminist, that they don't acknowledge that there's something structurally unsound with the world around them. Then someone buys you one and you can't put it down.
You keep dreaming your teeth are falling out, that you are walking through Northampton topless, and that the rooftop above you is collapsing.
You search for signs of sanity everywhere in the world and do not find them.
At the moment your life feels most under siege, you begin having romantic fantasies about Keith, a former student. In the year since he took the class you TAed. for you have become close friends. You have long talks about ecology, metaphor, and the Beatles. He is the kindest person you know. You picture him in a white shirt kissing you in a stand of pine trees on the grounds of Smith College where you go on long runs with your buddy Pete. He is the age you were before your heart learned guile and subterfuge.
In the dream, you and Keith make mad love on the banks of Paradise Pond, the water splashing onto your entangled limbs, the moss and sludge oozing between you like extra hands. Your body is still young like Keith's, which reminds you that you never got to be a carefree twenty-year-old and you need to know what that feels like. Before and after the abortion, when you are healed enough to swim, you go with your boyfriend to his parents' small house on a lake and spend hours swimming back and forth, feeling the cool water caress your skin and re-playing this same fantasy again and again: white shirt, pine trees, water, kiss, kiss.
In this way, you find a way to leave the present. You were not in the room when your diaphragm slipped (like a Challenger rocket O-Ring that wouldn't seal, you wrote in your journal). You weren't there when you had your abortion, and you have not been fully present in the company of your boyfriend for months.
These are your grievances against him:
1. He smokes. (Which begs the question: why did you first start to date him anyway since you are allergic to smoke.)
2. He never exercises, and therefore, always says he is too out of shape to do any of the things you want to do, like go for hikes in nature.
3. Because of 1 and 2, he, at thirty-three, considers himself old. At almost thirty, you dont want to hear about being old.
4. On and off, he has suffered from depression, a condition you are unwilling to admit you have been fighting for a long, long time. (When you read The Drama of the Gifted Child you will realize you have been playing out the narcissist's dialectic of grandiosity vs. despair with this boyfriend. You will think of all the grandiose narcissists you know who find symbiosis with depressives--think Ronald and Nancy Reagan, think George and Kitty Dukakis--to make sure the depression they are running from is represented elsewhere, that what is inside them is manifest outside.)
5. Your boyfriend has seen you in your deepest despair. He saw you pregnant.
And he saw you with your mother. He knows the panic you are running from while you are busy being a popular teacher who just won a writing award. When you bought another Eighties glamour outfit after your mother left "to cheer yourself up" and put on more makeup than usual he said, "You look fake. This isnt the real you."
You break up with your boyfriend on your thirtieth birthday. Now, if anyone asks you why you are miserable you can say, "I just broke up with a nice guy so I could be in love with someone unsuitable who doesn't love me back," and then you don't have to think about your mother's visit, her recent breakdown, your father's long-ago death, your beloved grandmother's Alzheimer's disease, the abortion, and your lifelong worries about money.
You might also add, "I'm sad because our whole country is falling apart" but the truth is, you are glad when the stock market crashes. You rejoice. You feel vindicated at long last. "There, see?" you want to say. Gloomy Cassandra was right. On the Monday after your birthday, Black Monday as the rest of the country would call it, when the Dow Jones industrial average drops a record 508 points and $500 billion in wealth is wiped out in a matter of hours, you suddenly understand that the inside is now outside everywhere and theres nowhere to hide.
Ronald Reagan gets on the TV and tries to persuade his fellow Americans not to panic. What America needs that moment, Time Magazine insists--and you agree--is an adult. Someone with "focus, intelligence, communication." Reagan looks confused and tired. He reminds you m'ore of your grandmother every day. His voice lacks its usual bravado. He seems uncomprehending, disengaged, and resentful that anything significant should be expected of him at this time. For a minute there it seems that even he has stopped pretending, that he has stopped believing in his fables about his health and the health of the nation.
You no longer believe in your own fables.
At your birthday party, three days before the crash, you take a walk with Keith to Paradise Pond, leaving your guests to toast you in your absence. At the banks of the pond, you share some champagne in the fallen red leaves, and then you kiss him, and he kisses you back. The moment has arrived for you to confess your respective fantasies: they are almost identical. But then his eyes darken and you realize you have frightened him. He explains that he does not have enough experience with women to feel like your equal and that he needs to keep the fantasies as fantasies, that he has benefited from being infatuated with you but having you out of reach. You realize with a start that he has the integrity and backbone that everyone around you seems to lack at the moment, including yourself, which is why you fell for him. But you are embarrassed that he is being the grown-up you are supposed to be. Ever since your mother's visit you have felt like a twelve-year-old getting fitted for her first training bra.
You will remember Keith in years to come when colleagues develop romantic feelings for their students. You will say that you know from experience that somebody has to be the grown-up and leave fantasy in the realm of fantasy. You will say that you remember what it is like to need to be adored the way movie stars and presidents need to be adored, and that it's a sign of feeling empty inside. You will be glad that you only had to be a hollowed-out thirty-year-old once. This will remind you that when your mother was thirty, she gave birth to you. And she also lost all her teeth, probably from the strain of carrying you into this world.
The day before the crash, the AP wire will pick up a story about a sixty-year-old Cleveland woman who was stopped at the airport by Security with a butcher knife in her handbag. She was on her way to visit her daughter in the Happy Valley. She was on her way to extract her daughter's debts, a pound for a pound.
Before you finally fall apart, you go to a psychic fair in Northampton hoping to get some distracting good news about your future life. The man who reads your cards just stares at you for a long minute. Finally he says, "When are you going to stop pretending?" You dont know what he means exactly or what to say but you have to excuse yourself and run back to your bed, which has never felt more inviting, even though the construction workers are still outside your window.
You will stay inside for days. Your friend from workshop, James, will call to find out what happened to you. You tell him everything. He will say, "The good news is that you now know that you have more baggage than you thought. To the extent that you're freaked out about this young guy and your mother is the extent that you have baggage. It's something finite. At least now you know what you're dealing with. And isn't it a relief?"
You like hearing this assessment. It offers the comfort of a medical diagnosis. What you've got is nasty and requires surgery but it isn't fatal. You enter that fluorescent-lit room of knowing and not knowing. It is a good place to bring the big ball of everything you have carried for so long.
Accept that the gig is up. Admit that there's nowhere to hide. Your investments were in fly-by-night concerns, your infrastructure has been weakened, your past has caught up with you and it's time to do a sober accounting.
You still owe American Express five hundred dollars for the crown you charged for your molar. You have no idea how you will pay up without taking out another loan. All of your assets exist on paper only and carry interest with them. You have become a debtor nation.
What you do when these thoughts plague you, usually when you are walking past the bank, is to hurry home to your apartment where you kick off your pointy high-heeled shoes and collapse beneath the skylight. Because there are few physical outlets for your condition, you must cry. But when you are sprawled out on the floor, do cry quietly so as not to distract and distress your roommate who is watching Dynasty on the beat-up overstuffed chair that was given to you by the boyfriend you have treated so badly. If you are nice to her, she will give you a backrub with her feet.
If its a particularly bad night, don't even think about eating dinner. You don't need to starve yourself but your mission is to feel the precise texture and shape of your emptiness. You cannot fill this hollow space with anything. Not food. Not sex. Not the endorphin high of aerobics classes. You can't use it to as inspiration for great art because this is the place where nothing grows. It is the negation of abundance. The Empress Card, your signifier at all Tarot Card readings, has never been here. It is putty-colored, this blank place, like bread dough, but darker, and within it lurks something you cannot see or imagine, ever. It smells slightly sour, like yeast. It is located inside the body beneath the solar plexus but it is also found outside in the space between the people you know and sometimes in the weeds and candy wrappers and broken glass found in parking lots and behind the bleachers at stadiums where people have cheered for their heroes.
If this is real, and not just PMS, it will go on for some time. Weeks. Months. Try to be brave and private about it so that you dont lose all your friends. If you are lucky you will still be able to go outside and buy a newspaper and even go to your classes and meet your deadlines and get your good grades. You will feel, through the long winter ahead, acutely aware of the cold. Your frozen toes will ache. Your lips will crack and blister. If you are smart, you wont kiss anyone with those cracked, blistered lips. You will not kiss anybody for a long, long time.
You will do your accounts. You will accept responsibility for every bad decision you have ever made. You will calculate exactly how little you have. There is something liberating about this knowledge. You live in a time when you are told every day that you are only something if you have everything, and since you have nothing, you are nothing, and this knowledge will free you to be just that. This, you decide, is what Buddhism is about. You might say you are becoming a Buddhist but that would mean something, which would be meaningless, and you know that there is no comfort to be found in any category of meaning and thought, every tautology you used to tease out with your restless brain.
You can finally put grandiosity and despair behind you when you realize that you, your story, and your old fables about who you are and where you are from are just fables, and that they are also really boring. When you accept this, you can walk into a different room where the music is not so operatic.
It is best to watch, in moderation, the television shows that sicken you the most: The Wheel of Fortune is good, especially when it is interrupted by Iran-Contra developments and more bad news about the stock market. It is good to listen to the Presidents glib speeches, the ones you used to avoid. Pay careful attention to all that you find repugnant in the world and in its leaders and look for their counterparts within yourself. Study your cellulite in the mirror. Re-read your worst lines from your fiction until you are immune to them. Imagine the room filled with every man youve ever slept with; listen as they discuss your shortcomings, comparing notes. Imagine a table filled with every meal you have ever eaten, every sugar-coated snack gobbled compulsively, piled up on your tiny card table that passes as the dinner table, piled to the ceiling, breaking the table into splinters. Picture your mother's eyes glazed with whatever darkness she manufactures and understand how you look when you return her gaze with your frightened eyes. Understand that this is what lurks beneath the compensatory smile you fix upon the world.
Relive the worst moments of your whole life until you run out of them. Imagine that you have a quota of tears that have to be shed each day. Tell yourself that your tears are like writing mistakes; you have a finite number of them you are required to make, and after that you can get on with things.
This is how it happens: You go down with the ship without a life jacket. You don't quite sink. You go over the handlebars without a helmet, like you did one day last summer. You bounce. The Challenger explodes in a fury of flame and Chernobyl rains radioactive showers over your ancestors homeland but somehow the Earth is spared. The stock market plummets again but maybe this is the destabilizing event that will jumpstart the revolution. You do not mind having to give up duck patte. You never really liked it that much. It is so fatty.
You keep thinking that the worst that could happen has happened and you have survived, but then theres always another worst and still you survive. You tell yourself now and then that you are getting to the bottom of it. You are that old lady on the commercial who says "I've fallen and I can't get up." Maybe you will need dentures soon.
Tell yourself that grief is not the same thing as self-pity. Tell yourself that you are crying about more than your smallness and your many failings and that you are still a political and spiritual animal, a citizen of a land you really care about.
To survive, you must convince yourself that you are more than the sum total of these things: the waves in your hair, the scar on your forehead, the stories you have written and will write, your shameful treatment of a nice man, boy-with-backbone's rejection, your debts. That you are more than the sorrows of your parents. More than the desperately positive attitude that until now has kept you from falling. More than your goals. More than memory and longing and loss and your plans for a triumphant future.
More and also less.
One day you'll feel good enough to look out the window again. Outside, the annex to the house next door will be built and there will be people living inside it looking out.
Outside, by a slimy pond at Smith College, there is an empty champagne bottle buried under dead leaves and snow in the place you stood when you hoped Keith would see your new Bali bra, the one your mother mailed you after she got back to Cleveland and before she tried to visit you with a butcher knife in her handbag. You will find the bottle next spring and throw it in the recycle bin. By then this whole chapter of your life will seem like a story from someone else's life, you will be so over it.
Natalia Singer teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, and environmental
literature at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. She is the
with Neal Burdick, of Living North Country: Essays on Life and
Northern New York. Her fiction and nonfiction have been widely published
magazines and literary journals such as Harper's, Creative Nonfiction,
Iowa Review, The North American Review, Ms., O: The Oprah Magazine,
Schooner,and has appeared in anthologies like Microfiction and The Best
Writing on Writing. She has won several national awards for her
including the World's Best Short-Story contest, and she has been a
of a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts for nonfiction