Chapter 23, “Mental” by Marie K Johnston

 

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Chapter 23
So, to borrow the words of A.S. Byatt, Eve wanted to be “a poet and a poem.”  Her head was overflowing with romantic ideas of the world; I guess it was just a matter of time before it exploded.  She didn’t see that experience is one basket. She had two—one for ‘good’ experience, and one for ‘bad.’ It is hard to keep filling up two baskets when you only have two hands. Luckily for me, my hopes were dashed before they became too strong.  Ironically, I don’t even remember what happened to help me see that good and bad are always in balance, whether we can see it or not. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, and maybe Eve was the one who taught it to me because it seemed from such an early age that she didn’t get that. Or, better yet, that she did but refused to believe it. She was always smarter than me, that’s why she was always so interesting.

Divorce can do funny things to a child, maybe far worse things than we’ve discovered yet.  But it’s not our mom’s fault—she did the very best she could. The only reason Eve couldn’t process the divorce as well as me wasn’t because she loved my parents more or because she loved their marriage or our family more than the rest of us did. It was because she was still tripped up by the simultaneous existence of good and bad, and unable to see that in the balance between good and bad sometimes what you think of as ‘bad’ is really ‘good.’ I know that the divorce taught us two lessons: the first is that we are truly not beholden to anyone but ourselves; and the second, that what you think you see is not everything there is to see.  A third lesson, derived from the first two, is that nothing lasts.  The difference between me and Eve was in what we did with these lessons. She refused to accept them because she only saw them as being negative, but I was different and looked at them as an opportunity to help me avoid divorces in my own life. Even the word ‘divorce’ is so interesting. Two things that used to be one are now again two things. I saw in my life that I had already experienced many divorces, from my parents, my friends, from myself. Learning how to be alone and how to be with others is a lifelong lesson.

No one is perfect, not my parents, not me and Eve, no one. Eve thought this was terrible, I just thought it was the way it was (and didn’t think about how I felt about it). I guess that I should be grateful for learning these things before leaving home, even though I didn’t know at the time that they were lessons or that I had learned anything. I was still open enough to absorb them into my worldview before it became more solid, before I was more resolute in my ideas of things.  Unfortunately for Eve, our parents’ break-up came at a time that broke her sweet ideals of life into a million pieces.  She was always more strong-headed and definite than I was, maybe because I was so slow to make decisions and such a procrastinator. She thought she knew what she liked, whereas I never knew if I was going to like something new or not. She was the Hare, I was the Tortoise. She was the City Mouse; I was the Country Mouse. She couldn’t wait to move out of the house, and wanted to go straight to Austin. I stayed home for two years after high school and worked at a bookstore, living sometimes with our mom and sometimes with our dad before I felt ready to move to Austin where she was and college was and change was. That’s part of why we needed to be so close to each other, even though we sometimes drive each other insane. We were trying to understand ourselves by understanding each other’s differences. Her sickness is no one’s fault, really, but hers. But, I’m beginning to see that it was also inevitable at the same time, in a way that was not her fault, even though she was making choices the whole time. She didn’t understand dichotomy. It was just a word to her, one that she couldn’t even remember the definition to because she could not apply the word to an example from her own life. She was too smart for her own good, but that also meant that she would be smart enough to see how she had gotten tangled inside her own web. It also meant that she would figure out how to get out of that web, too, if she could also learn patience.

I think the whole family knew that something in her snapped back then.  We could sense it; we thought it was natural.  I think that our parents just thought she’d get over it, they couldn’t imagine that she wouldn’t.  They think that Eve hung the moon.  We all do, I guess.  Anyway, I remember thinking one day, after the divorce was finalized and Eve and I were sitting in our high school parking lot waiting for the car to warm up because it was winter and freezing, I remember thinking that day that something in her had died and might not be coming back.  It was such an overcast day, drizzly and dreary, and at the time I wished that the weather was influencing my thoughts and that they weren’t true, but I was pretty sure they were.  That thing in her was just too taunt and over-stretched, it couldn’t withstand all of the pressure.  It had to break.  

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Maybe you’re wondering why she didn’t actually commit suicide.  It wasn’t because Jeremy found her up there, not exactly anyway.  She won’t tell me anything, but he will, so I think I’ve figured it out a little.  I just don’t know how much longer she can stand to keep doing this to herself; something’s got to give. Watching her exhaust herself is exhausting because it is ironic that someone so strong can’t just yell out “uncle!”

Part of her problem is this nihilist thing: it reminds me of this thing that Nietzsche wrote, that people who have lost their ideals are worse off than people who never had any to begin with. He thought that losing your ideals negated the joy of having them in the first place because the experience led you to believe that the world sucked and that there was no point. The most interesting thing about Neitzcshe to me is that I used to think he was so negative, with his whole “God is dead” stuff, but he’s really a combination of idealist and realist. The interesting part is that when you read biographies about him, he had to struggle so much and might not have noticed all of the progress he made personally by writing for the progress of the rest of us. Eve’s like that—she can’t get out of her own way.  I can see that she is both idealistic and realistic, but she can’t admit it. She’s about 70% idealism and %30 realism now, and I know that to her it seems like she’s becoming pessimistic. It feels that way to her because she is out of balance. That’s why I feel hopeful. As she approaches a better balance between idealism and realism, she will find peace. It’s the way things work. It amazes me how lost we sometimes have to become in order to be found. I think that she also feels at a loss to keep developing herself; she doesn’t know how to see herself anymore.  I wonder what she thinks she sees when she looks in the mirror? Can you imagine hating your own reflection, or seeing something so distorted that it looks like some kind of monster when everyone else sees something pure and struggling? We who love her are transfixed by her inevitable growth. It is painful for her, it is painful for us. She was so one way, and we always knew she’d become a different way. But all the chartreuse buds on the new spring branches are also the brown crispy leaves that blow to the ground in the fall. It’s natural. It’s the way life works, and no one is strong enough to win against the way things work.

Anyway, Jeremy and I have been hanging out a lot lately, since that day.  He is doing much better.  He likes to talk about what happened up there, every time telling me something more or something different.  He seems more solid now, older.  He says that it started raining up there, a light rain, a kind of mist.  He says that for a long time before it started raining, the two of them were just sitting there—he was crying, she was just staring at the ground three stories down.  Neither one had said that they were there to jump.  He could tell she was though.  He couldn’t be sure that she knew he was. She kept throwing her cigarette butts down to the ground, watching them fall, laughing a little when they hit the ground, and saying “splat!” when they did.

This rain distracted them a little, and they started talking.  Jeremy said he was worried that it was going to start pouring, and they looked up to scan the sky for thunderclouds.  It was so dark, though, they could barely see.

It was one of those nights, Jeremy said, when you weren’t sure if there was a moon because it was so dark.  They started looking for the moon together.

Eve scanned the sky in front of her, turned her head, looked all around.  She thought the moon was there somewhere, behind a building or something.  Jeremy looked all around, too.  They started sharing the bottle of vodka that Jeremy had brought with him, looking for the moon.  They started sharing Eve’s cigarettes, even though he hated menthols, because he had run out of his own. They didn’t still didn’t see the moon.  They got up, standing on the roof carefully, trying to maintain their balance but the roof was slanted and they were drunk—when he gets to this part of the story, it just kills me.  I can see them up there, with their arms out for balance, with their heads thrown back, talking to each other—“do you see anything?” “no, do you?”—it’s kind of sad and sweet and funny all at the same time. It’s also ironic that they came up there to jump off the thing that they were now trying not to fall off of.

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I didn’t understand why it was important to find that moon.  Jeremy says for him it had something to do with hope.  He says he and Eve haven’t talked about it since, so he doesn’t know if she felt that way, too. It was really early in the morning, and Eve had said that she was  afraid that the moon might have set.  They started talking about how weird it was that the moon set, just like the sun did, and how some nights it did and some nights it didn’t.  Jeremy asked me why that was, the first time he told me the story.

“You’re into science.  Why does the moon only set sometimes, and not every night?”

I could see that he was serious, so I told him that it has to do with the position of the earth and stuff.

“Oh,” he said.  “That makes sense.  I should tell Eve; she’d like to know.”

So, there they were, moon-hunting as Jeremy calls it now, in the mist and the dark.  Eve started talking about the phases of the moon, telling Jeremy that there were four phases, and that if they couldn’t find the moon tonight it was because of the phase it was in.

He asked her what phase that was, and this is where he starts to get excited when he tells you the story.

“So, I said, ‘What phase is the moon in when you can’t see it?’

‘It’s called a new moon.’

‘That’s weird…It’s new, but you can’t tell it’s even there?  Why would they call it that?’

‘I don’t know.  I guess because it’s about to be there, about to be a moon again.’”

Jeremy says that he remembers thinking how wonderful that was, that people had named this phase “new” instead of waiting to name the first visible stage that.  That people even recognized it as a phase was cool because it looked like nothing was happening up there but something was, you just couldn’t see it.  

I wonder if the people who named those phases imagined what the moon was doing in its new phase.  I can see them thinking that it was up there gussying itself up, in the bathroom with the door closed, taking a long bath to get all of the cosmic dirt off, polishing itself up, getting ready to shine again.  It kind of makes me laugh because it seems like such a childish way to look at things; it kind of makes me want to cry though, because it’s such a pretty way of seeing things.   

Anyway, after Eve told him that he says he just didn’t feel like jumping much anymore.  He asked her if she would drive him home.  She said she would, and they both climbed down.  She says she doesn’t remember being up there, or moon-hunting, or driving Jeremy home.  She actually didn’t drive them, they found Jacob before they found Sam and Jacob was going to take us all home.

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This was as it should have been. Sam was wise, but Jacob was wiser because he not only knew the things Sam knew, he could actually apply them in a consistently calm way. Sam and Eve butted heads, because Eve couldn’t see what Sam saw and Sam couldn’t stand it. Eve wanted Sam to be happy, and she thought she had to help him see things the way she did, and he wanted her to be happy and thought she would be if she saw things the way he did. Their love was big, but it couldn’t prevent them from getting in its way. The relationship she had with Jacob was different, though. They had been broken up for around two years at this point, but their love was stronger than ever. He had probably understood Eve because he had already been where she was. And he knew she was stuck, but he knew she’d figure herself out in her own time. But the interesting part was that the fact that they were in different places never caused either one of them any dissonance. To the point, I think, that Eve never even realized that she thought Jake was where she was. He knew better than she did, though, and probably recognized that she felt this way, that she couldn’t help it, and that she would grow out of it. Eve told me once that the reason they had split up was because they didn’t want to keep each other from growing—they loved each other that much. Even after the break up, though, they continued to love each other more—deciding that they were like brother and sister, deciding that being family to each other was better than being in love. Sometimes Eve preferred Jacob to Sam, but she didn’t know why then. She just knew it was okay, even though it was confusing to her. Jake had been the closest person to her for the past 3 years, and beyond their sexual love they had cultivated a huge, no-matter-what kind of love that could soothe her in some of her most difficult moments because she saw it as a testament that some things can remain pure and good forever. Even though they sometimes talked about the merits and difficulties of getting back together, the decision to not make a decision about that was the only decision in her life that she had been able to succeed in suspending. It didn’t matter to her whether they were ‘together’ or not. They couldn’t love each other more, and that was the most important thing anyway. It’s a good thing that Jacob was there, and much more sober than the rest of us.  It is a good thing that he could almost always be counted on when something really important was happening in Eve’s life. They found me half-asleep on the stairs, and put me in the in the backseat with Jeremy.  

I remember Jeremy telling Jacob how great Eve was, how smart she was.   I remember Eve was real quiet all the way to Jeremy’s apartment, so quiet that from the backseat I thought she had passed out.  She was just listening, unable to figure out how to say ‘thank you’ to Jeremy, or to tell him that she thought he was great and smart, too. Once we dropped Jeremy off, though, she sat up in her seat and started talking.  

“That Jeremy, I love that guy.  He’s so sensitive to everything; he’s so fragile.  Y’all should of seen him up there, worried that it was going to pour down raining.  He was worried that the streets would ice over and people would get into wrecks.  He’s funny,” she said.  She stroked Jacob’s hair, leaned back, smoking her cigarette.  That’s all she said, but I remember thinking that Jacob and I had missed out on something by not being invited to their rooftop soiree.  Jeremy seemed different because of it.  Eve did, too.

She passed out before she finished that cigarette, I know because Jacob yelled at me to wake up in the backseat (I had been awake, but just thinking) and throw her cigarette out the window.  She didn’t wake up when we pulled up in the driveway at home, either, and Jacob carried her inside.  It made me think of being really small again, coming home late at night from being out with our parents.  We’d both fall asleep in the backseat, but I’d always wake up as we pulled into the driveway.  Eve is the heaviest sleeper I’ve ever seen; my parents always said that she wouldn’t even wake up if a parade was marching through her bedroom.  Dad used to carry her inside until she was about twelve and finally got too big.   I opened the door for Jacob, and watched as he walked to Eve’s bedroom.  He carried her with her head on his shoulder, with his arms around her waist, and she looked like a little kid up there with her eyes closed.   

She looked almost free of that thing that held her, almost peaceful.  I told them goodnight, and sat out on the porch for one more cigarette before bed.  

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This morning, I woke up to the sounds of kitchen cabinet doors slamming shut, and the rattling of pots and pans.  It was early.  My pounding head and dry tongue reminded me that I should have done the water and aspirin thing before hitting the sack last night.  I slowly got out of bed, and made me way to the kitchen.

Eve was in there, dressed, making breakfast.  She was smiling.  Her hair was still a little damp from the shower, and it stuck a little to the sides of her face and her forehead, but she looked fresh and clean.  She asked me how I wanted my eggs.

I just stood there.

Then she said, “You know, it hit me this morning.  ‘If you’re not going to get busy living, then get busy dying.’ Do you remember who said that? I can’t remember.”

I didn’t.  I just smiled at her.  She seemed like herself again.

“You know what else?  Let’s switch names for the day, just for fun. Like we used to. Call me Lillith from now on, wouldja?” She told me.

“Okay, Eve,” I said.

“You mean ‘Lillith’, Lilly.  Right?”  She handed me a glchrissakes of orange juice and we sat down at the kitchen table together.

“Yeah.  I mean ‘Lillith,’ Lillith.”

“Cool.”  She took a big bite of scrambled eggs, and bit off the corner of her buttered toast.  

I started eating, too.  The eggs had melted cheese in them, and a few pieces of shell.  I started laughing.  

“What?” my sister asked, smiling.

“These taste like the eggs Dad used to make us before school,” I told her.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”

“Hey, Eve?  ‘Lillith’ sounds weird to me.  I’ll just call you ‘Lilly,’ cool?”

“Cool,” said Lilly.  We smiled at each other.

Sisters.

“Hey, Eve, I was thinking about going for a walk after we eat.  Wanna come?” Lilly asked me.

I nodded.  Here we go, I thought. I understood why she wanted to switch names again. She wanted to be somebody else for a little while. The problem was we couldn’t pull it off anymore because now we had our own personalities. I played along, hoping it would help.

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Well, that’s not the end of this story, unfortunately.  I told you earlier that I wasn’t sure if it would have a happy ending, and I turned out to be right about that.  When I said it, though, I meant at the time that I wasn’t sure how to write one.  I assumed that in real life there’d be one, though, obviously.  I meant that I wasn’t sure if I was a good enough writer to craft an ending at all, one that seemed satisfying and complete.  But, here’s the next real life part: Eve, I mean Lilly, did try to kill herself again. Two weeks after that breakfast scene.  I’m just on my way to the hospital now to visit her.  Everyone will be there, and everyone will cry.  No one understands it, not even me.  I thought that writing this stupid thing would help me understand her, but it didn’t.  Oh well, what do I know anyway?  I’m only twenty-two, for chrissakes.  There is so much in general I need to know. I don’t even know what I don’t know.  

 

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Chapter 14 Excerpt, “Mental” by Marie K Johnston

 

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Chapter 14

Too many steps forward, waving her arms in the breeze she created, her tilted head looking behind her, looking at the sky.  Walking this way, Evelyn thought, should be helpful and would be meaningful if I didn’t feel as though I were walking on stilts.  This was the way she tried to ignore the familiarity of her surroundings, their womb-like qualities.  Soon she must break free from Austin, where she had become a woman and concentrated on collecting understanding from her memories to become a writer.  She must break free soon, cleanly and sharply, to consummate all past days and dreaming and striving–to drown the silent nagging fear of staying in this town with nothing to quell the boundless hoping but more familiarity and more memories. Evelyn was always somewhere, but she was never really present. Even in good moments. She was too busy trying hard to understand what was real by applying her knowledge of what was ideal. She had no idea that this was going to kick her in the chrissakes; our dreams and our nightmares can be almost too convincing at times, able to fool us temporarily by their richness and attention to detail. But today, she didn’t even know that the fact that she was asleep when she was awake was so much of the problem. In this moment, unfortunately, her ideals had won out and she was again transfixed. Balance would have to wait for another day. It was probably just that she was so self-absorbed; how else was she going to figure out what she wanted?

These summer days were passing smoothly, as a hiatus, as breathing space in her crowded mind.  These humid days, blended by the bonds of loving and being loved, blended by the soft peace of a connection to the spirits of others that enhanced her own spirit, presented themselves to Evelyn’s hunger like frothy waves.  The days whispered that she would be able to extract from her consciousness the sweet yearning of living and record it for others to understand.  The days whispered that it was natural and correct for her to succeed in extracting from all of her days the seeking spirit of humanity.  Sometime, sensing that she needed rest, the days would allow their fragrance—a scent of dew, ink and silence—to lull Evelyn into a pleasant slumber.  These days, filled as much with waiting as with living, she recognized as a time to prepare herself for new times. The pity of being creative, and young, can sometimes be the ability to believe yourself more than you can believe everything else. You can only see one way, your way, and not get enough outside of yourself to see how you are connected to everything else. Poor Evelyn, even though she felt happy at this moment. It was a shallow happiness, but it felt so deep. Confusing, huh?

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Her bare feet etched a cyclical expanse into the grass—a circle of the days she had lived and all of the days yet to be lived—but the meaning of the today in which her feet moved did not blend into the cycle of her life.  In this moment, conscious of witnessing the glassy sky and the slow deliberate motions of her body, Evelyn lingered in the acknowledgment of an ever-growing understanding.  Confident of her limbs and mind, her oneness, she glided against the tender boundaries of gravity. The extent to which she could go was recognized by some adults to be within the dangerous grasp of fanaticism, even if no one else could verbalize it to her in her language. When she wrote her first novella for a college class, all of the students and the professor had commented after reading the first section that, even though it was compelling, it wasn’t relatable because there had been no introduction of a conflict. Evelyn had actually argued with them, convinced that just because everyone else’s novel had always had a conflict didn’t mean hers needed to. What was the point of writing in a conflict, she had asked desperately?

“Because it’s true to life,” her professor had said. Even after Eve relented, she still spent the majority of that semester at a loss as to how to write in a conflict. What was conflict? How was one supposed to feel about it? Why did it exist at all? The one she did write in was to her at the time very small and discreet. Going back and reading it now in light of how ill she is, the worst part about the whole thing is that she had been writing about a conflict so big for her personally that she couldn’t even see it at all, and still can’t. She’s smart, though.

If my sister had just been able to learn how to get out of her own way before she got too caught up in her own cycles. If she could just learn that it is possible to coexist with everything. If she could just let go of a few of the wrong things to make room for a few of the right ones.

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“Eve…hey…” Lee’s voice echoed from somewhere against the solemn exalted ocean inside of her.  He bent to pick up her satchel and sandals from the grass, watching her laugh gently at herself.

“You caught me, I suppose…how did rehearsals go?” she asked.

“All right, for James not being there; he had a job interview—how have you been?”  he grinned back at her, thinking how lovely it was to see her body move because it was a visual expression of her mind. Or at least he thought so, the sweet innocent guy that he was. They were like little kittens, learning the difference between playing and fighting. But, like kittens, they could not speak to share this experience. They didn’t even know it was happening. They thought they knew what love was and that they were in it and that they were doing it right. They didn’t know any better.

“Sitting here, I just started thinking about the sum of all of my experiences—the sum is an understanding that will connect everything I’ve known to all that I will know,“ they began walking through the park now, she took her satchel from his arm and put it over her shoulder, he stroked her back lightly, “…and I am close enough to making sense of all of it to already ingest the serenity of it…That is why I was spinning, although I didn’t realize I had been.”  They looked at each other, smiling.  Meeting each other in the park, amidst the green life that flourished, was as natural as their similarities, they thought. Don’t blame them for being naïve, arrogant, and self-righteous. They were too young to understand why things like love, work, family and other relationships were so difficult to navigate through. They still thought they could do better than all the people that had ever come before them, right off the bat. It’s not their fault, but it was their mindset.  There were such exhilarating heights involved in these rudimentary philosophies, though, even though these heights were nothing like the ones that they’d reach later though conscious effort. Their relationship had begun by coincidence, for Evelyn often spent Saturday afternoons writing in the park and Lee walked home through it after practicing with his band.

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Chapter 13
This twirling girl-being’s sparkling skin,

clothed in flowing filmy white,

flings limbs and legs in pirouette spin;

her natural grace at full height.

 

Her vision sweeping a circle span

of all that the beach contains,

she remembers that other human

lives share with her the sand’s grains.

 

Outward from introspection she slides,

to study strangers faces;

filled with hope, to a stop she glides

to learn from others’ graces.

 

Into the waves’ froth run children’s feet;

upon the sand, lovers walk.

An artist muses upon a seat

of sun drenched rocks.

 

Beneath umbrellas, the elders sleep

in dreams that wake memory;

into the flesh of time slowly seeps

all bittersweet destiny.

 

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They pulled up in front of the antique store, and through the windows Chloe’s form stretched upon a ladder.  She placed a rose-colored vase next to a row of books, then (after nodding her head at the boss whom the girls could not see) replaced it next to a set of teacups on the shelf below.  Evelyn honked and Chloe glanced up, waving to them with a sideways smile.

“That means this has been going on for at least half an hour,” commented Catherine.

The navy air of night soaked in from the rolled down window and into Evelyn’s skin.  She rested her head against the seat, humming to the radio and smoking her cigarette with slow, deliberate puffs.  Catherine fumbled through her purse, looking for lipstick.  Soon the shop door opened, and Chloe’s face emerged.  Her boss stopped her, speaking words of no importance other than seeking to delay him from the drive back to his lonely apartment; Chloe waited patiently until he decided to lock the antique shop’s door and wave good-bye.  Then she smiled to the girls, jumped down from the curb and bounded into the back seat.

“Hi, guys!  I hope you haven’t been waiting long, my boss kept gibbering on again…” Chloe leaned against the window with her legs stretched out upon the long seat.  “When does Lee go on?”

“In about thirty minutes or so, we’ll get there in plenty of time,” answered Catherine.

 

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They passed through streets flooded with cars—others’ destinations and lives were mere seconds of contact through the Volkswagen’s windows.  Each barely seen face and all of its secrets were flashes of humanity to be taken in and discarded.  

They pulled into the muddy driveway, parking after Evelyn’s careful maneuvers through narrow spaces.  A street lamp illuminated the bus and their faces as they stepped from it: light flashed upon red metal poetry, Chloe’s blond ringlets, Catherine’s scarlet earrings and Evelyn’s brown head beneath blue velvet.  From where they stood they could hear Lee’s band warming up on the second floor.  The girls walked into the doorway and waved at Colin, who motioned for them to come over and talk to him.  He was an actor who spent his nights selling tickets to save for New York, and after Lee’s shows he usually went out with them.  He always let the girls in free. Catherine and Evelyn waved to them as they ascended the stairs.

The smoky air curled its way to the ceiling against dim lights and wooden beams.  The two girls found a table close to the stage, Evelyn sat down and Catherine went to the bar.

Lee’s body was sprawled upon a chair, cradling his guitar.  She watched his hands moving against its neck and heart and the soft light spilling down which gleamed in instant flashes upon his fingers, the silver strings and glossy wood.  A smile glowed serenely from beneath his bent face.  Evelyn smiled, acknowledging her love for this man who loved her life as she loved hers.  She so loved to watch him, hearing his raspy drawl and the intent rhythm of his hands; she loved the long precious moments that were her selfish enjoyment before he realized she was there, loved the beam of his face against his glossy disheveled hair when he realized she was there, and the change in his features for the rest of the show as he played for both his love and hers.  This is what she thought, and these thoughts made her happy. She was not interested in having these thoughts challenged, and would have probably been capable of stabbing the poor fool who brought to her attention the fact that thoughts are not as good as a real relationship. She sipped the beer that Catherine brought her, resting her face against her hand, humming to Lee’s voice.

Evelyn and Chloe had designed the band’s name upon an old sheet last fall for Chloe’s brother, Robert, who played drums.  They were spending the day at Robert’s apartment when he asked them to paint a backdrop for their shows.  The two girls had agreed, loving to paint; but Evelyn had never seen the band play together and wanted to watch them perform first.  She had been enthralled by Lee, his movements, his voice, his absorption in stretched seconds of sound.  That evening, during the gentle explosion of his own kind of sweet noise, he watched her and thought he sensed in her a recognition of the pain involved in pleasure and she watched his mouth and limbs and thought that he had found a way to realize his ideals.  That had been the connection, the instinctive draw that pulled them to each other—the thought of both that both had found expression of the other’s deepest struggles. The mural that Evelyn and Chloe created, filled with bursts of violet, red and blue, with sun and grass and stars, with the impression of a child flinging his limbs to the sky, she and Lee both thought of, in their own ways, as an explanation through paint and cotton of the natural state of humanity.

 

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Their ideas were just variations of the same theme, so similar and so very different. This dissonance could not stand forever. It’s no one’s fault. It is funny how we can’t really know anyone until we really know ourselves, and cannot love anyone until we really love ourselves first. Otherwise, they are too many assumptions and no communication between two people for them to realized that they are assumptions. There are just two people, sitting next to each other in the same car, who suddenly realize they both had a steering wheel once the car breaks in half. The sad part is that the love was real, however based it was on ideals that aren’t real. They were good people, but confused. They were too young to know that then.

 

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Chs 11 & 12 (with poem excerpts), “Mental” by Marie K Johnston

 

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Chapter 11

In a push of exhaled breath, she

throws back her head to the sky;

her chest, arms and face begin to whirl

beneath nature’s canvas, and she cries:

 

“Let loose the tendrils of sorrow,

nourishment from sun I borrow;

against this day, my soul does thrive—

it is a joy to be alive!”

 

Her open mouth tastes of the sweet brine

that floats from the gentle sea;

barefoot circles in the sand design

her lifelong philosophy:

 

“With each moment upon the earth,

I will rejoice in this—my birth;

my sensate being will be free

to feel all that this life can be.”

 

Squinting at the painting, Evelyn backed up so that her eyes could connect the intricacies of texture and shading into field, flower, sky.  She realized her breath had been held, perhaps by the hand that had transformed silent paint into an explosion of life.  The transformation amazed her, but would it have gone unnoticed if this painting were not hanging serenely from the smooth marble walls of a museum?  She recalled something a professor once said that if someone secretly switched the Mona Lisa with a computerized replica, people would not realize the difference and remain overwhelmed by the sight of Da Vinci’s “brushstrokes.”

Out of habit she reached to adjust her hat, an overgrown chauffeur’s cap made of electric blue velvet.  She had worn it daily for as long as she could remember. There it would rest patiently upon her head or in her satchel, quietly collecting ideas until a frothing boil of inspiration would shock through to her hand, which would then instinctively shoot up to the vibrant blue brim.  It was a subconscious gesture that made her friends smile, her boss edgy and strangers raise their eyebrows at the girl enthralled by a traffic light, a closed cafe or a painting.

On her way out of the museum, she tore a piece of gum in half and slid it into her mouth.  Cool metal kissed her flesh for an instant before the door opened and a thick, oppressive humidity soaked into her.  Steam rose from the shallow puddles on the sidewalk; she laughed softly as she stomped both feet into a little puddle, cracking her pensive expression into a myriad of flying drops.  An elderly man walking towards the doorway gave Evelyn a sideways glance that made her want to laugh.

 

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She did not mind walking alone.  It was peaceful, if she chose it to be, but the luxury of choosing was the intoxicating thing about it.  She could go wherever she pleased, without consulting the whims of a companion.  Evelyn needed the freedom of singular steps; it enabled her to observe the world around her without reserve.  She decided that the thing she liked best about herself was how freely she lived.  In this vein of thought, it often happened that she would exclaim out loud, either to herself or someone nearby each time she saw something on one of her excursions that delighted her.  She wished to find herself delighted often; and so, she often did.

Her cumbersome leather boots, oversized and bought on impulse at a vintage clothes store, sparkled in the misty sunlight while she waited for white neon permission to cross the street.  She glanced down at their extensive laces and brownness, reminding herself to pick up her feet to avoid tripping.  Walk flashed the small box.  An oldish woman dressed in a navy pantsuit spun the handle of her navy umbrella as she stepped off the sidewalk on navy high heels.  Two young lovers kissed in a white convertible, oblivious to time at the red lighted hiatus.  Evelyn smiled with her eyes, lips and cheeks, glanced at the sky, and passed the lovers’ embrace; her carefree step overtook the clatter of high-heeled patter upon cemented gravel.  Her smile remained and she gave it to the familiar sight of Lee leaning against the garden wall of someone else’s yard, his old guitar slung over his shoulder and used as an armrest.

“Distracted woman, walking down the street…” called Lee, her college boyfriend.

“Hey,” she laughed, reaching to shake the crepe myrtle branch above his head, spilling tiny rain-heavy lavender blossoms and their contents upon him.  Tender thunderstorm, she thought-said, kissing his wet nose gently and walking forward, glancing back to see him brushing his shirt clean.

 

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His hand, the one that was not resting upon his guitar case, slipped into hers.  She looked at him, their eyes locking while an impassioned Vivaldi serenade brushed through her mind, enticing her to love the earth-scented musician who walked next to her.  So close that his left leg almost brushed her right one, and he thought-said,” You smell like the Rain Goddess, you look as if you’ve just emerged from one of the puddles in the Johansen’s garden.  How could I resist you?’

And I you, was Evelyn’s reply.  They went along the sidewalk, and every so often he leaned over to touch her neck or ear with his lips.

He had enough muscle on his thin frame to suggest a steady flow of small time success.  He played the harmonica like a bird sang, inspired by the wind; and when he exhaled his inspiration, he gave others an inspiration of their own.  Or at least she thought so, being so very biased. He could be so peaceful—once she had found him by the windowsill sitting Indian-style, his gray eyes caught in tranquil ease and reflecting the sunlight like twin lucid pools.  And his laughter could reverberate through her with a clear ring of truth that is only felt by true split-aparts, just like the music he wrote. With the help of time they had come to share a bond without stipulation or restriction, an understanding that lavished honesty and security upon them both.  He understood without asking her why she did things and she understood him that way, too.

“Oh, I almost forgot, I brought you something…” she rummaged through her worn leather satchel, pulling out a much creased and folded postcard—black and white and kept in her copy of Wuthering Heights since she first read it when she was twelve, nearly nine years ago.  It was a couple in a cafe, ignoring the world beyond their arms’ reach.  She had found it while rummaging through boxes at a garage sale.  It had been stuck between the joining folds of a cardboard box, almost hidden…but the postcard woman’s face and the postcard man’s face had evoked in her a dull pang, a slow longing like a flame licking at an expensive matchbook.  She had planned to share such a glamorously unrealistic, romantic photo with someone who spoke through his eyes to make her feel the way she imagined the postcard woman must have felt, if even for the briefest moment.  On her first entire night with Lee she awoke to find him out on her small balcony with his feet propped towards moonlight and her worn copy of The Fountainhead in his lap.  She had run her hand through his wind blown hair, snuggling against him.  There they sat until first light, peach dawn, and morning all moved into night’s territory. Evelyn knew these were the things she had wanted and waited for; and what she had imagined as the postcard light, she felt inside her.

Lee took the card from her and seeing in her eyes that it was more than just a postcard, he looked through the crinkled paper and said, “Wonderful how this is us and so much less than us.”  He kissed her hand and paused for the briefest moment to close his eyes and breathe in her skin. She did the same thing. He turned the corner, and Evelyn continued home.

 

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Chapter 12

Sun shines amber through her hair;

and her tender eyes glow,

as the infinite ocean’s air

imparts to her what it knows:

 

“When I first saw, my eyes did see

only my own clear water’s leighs;

then upon the shore I crashed,

all horizon being ash.

 

“Eons passed, shore and I as one;

living beings around us, none.

But from our union there conceived

a single spark from which Life weaved.

 

“Burst from our love were sun and star,

soaring above us, to afar;

from my arms, our miracle shone

into human form, flesh and bone.

 

“Descendant of the sea and shore,

who also owns a mortal core:

inhale each moment, confident

that you will see all Life has meant.”

 

The sea’s breath whispers from a distance,

slipping into her ears;

and she decides that not a hindrance

will invade her living years.

 

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She found herself upon her balcony, and scooping up her soft crinkly skirt from the near-ground and up to her knees, she settled back in a chair and crossed her legs.  The finicky weather had turned breezy, and it softly pushed at her page.  Wondering where Virginia Woolf had written The Voyage Out, Evelyn imagined her profiled against the sea in a wooden lounging chair, with the gulls above and the sandy shore standing monument to her burning brilliance.  Evelyn tasted a salty brine in her throat, wishing in the back of her mind for Virginia’s voice to explain life and death and longing to her.

Pen and page connected Evelyn to the cycle of continuous energy that connected the flower petals and tree bark and falling leaves. She began to use places in her mind that were reserved for things her present body had not known, the windows allowing in experiences greater than those that were hers alone.  She slipped comfortably into this state, became all that she had been and was and might be in a drawn sequence that once realized would dissipate back into the air around her with a snap of unseen fingers.  She would recall a feeling of weightlessness that afternoon—a kind of weightlessness that brought happiness into her eyes, it was satisfying to do the work you loved. She was trying to work out why she sometimes felt so happy and then other times felt the same intensity of emotion, but it was sadness. She couldn’t understand why, even though she thought of herself as a hopeful person, she could still travel so far beneath the earth’s crust and wallow there in the hot darkness.

 

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Darkness was falling.  The air was becoming diffused with a deep violet that lingered above the sidewalk, muffling footsteps, dilating gas lamps.  Evelyn flipped her wrist to catch the time; then remembering that she never wore a watch, she smiled.  Catherine walked out onto Evelyn’s balcony with an apron tossed over her shoulder, and forced the humidity-expanded door to lock.  She pulled two long and swinging earrings from her front pocket, and with a tilted face she walked towards her next-door neighbor, assembling one crimson glass ornament and then the other.

“Milady Evelyn…where have you gone?” she said, snapping her fingers.  The wind had blown Evelyn’s hair and ashed her forgotten cigarette, turning her into a twilight statue.  “I figured you had lost track of time, so I came over to get you.  We’ll be late, did you forget about seeing Lee tonight?”

“I was just thinking… do you think that I’m happy? Do you think you are?”  Evelyn lit another cigarette and exhaled as she leaned back in her chair.

Catherine sat down next to her, and put her face in her hands, thinking.  “Yeah, for the most part, I am.”

“So am I…but do you ever want more?”

“What do you mean, more?”

“Oh, I don’t know—I mean, more than this…like it’s good but not good enough?  I want something else, and I don’t know what it is or how to get it.  You know, the kind of life you hoped you’d have when you were younger and didn’t know what to expect, I guess?”  Catherine noticed the energy beneath Evelyn’s brows, there was a calm self-assurance in her words that led Catherine to notice Evelyn’s idealism in a new way.

“Not really, I think things are fine.  I like my job, and I have good friends, and the city is great.  My apartment needs some work, and I could use a raise, but other than that I feel fine.  Are you okay?”

Evelyn knew that she and Catherine did not see things, see life, in the same way. “Oh, yeah…I didn’t have to work today, which was great.  Maybe I’ve just gotten restless lately, like I’ve outgrown something or like there’s something on the tip on my tongue but I can’t remember it, you know?”

 

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Chapter 8 of “Mental” by Marie K Johnston

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Chapter Eight

Sometimes I wish that it was still fashionable to put people in mental institutions permanently. I think that would be better for Eve in a lot of ways.  She’d have to either deal with things the way they are, or really go insane.  I’m pretty sure she’d eventually choose to deal with things.  Out here, she just continues to get worse.  I think she has too much freedom.  I mean, she’s been getting back pay for the past three months from that school she worked at, and that hasn’t helped a bit.  It’s just been getting paid to get worse.  She has too much free time, too much thinking time.  I think it’s made her worse.  I don’t know what to do with her.  She just stays in bed all day, sometimes crying, sometimes just staring at the ceiling.  She only perks up if Sam or Chloe or Jacob or somebody comes by to see her or take her out.  She’s just feeling sorry for herself, I know that she doesn’t have a real medical condition; but still, I wish that we could put her in an institution to make her wake up.

Oh, and did I tell you?  They found her up there with a book of Robert Frost poems, for chrissakes.  That stupid chrissakes poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  The thought of it makes me want to puke.  She believed in that damn poem, thought it was the chrissakes gospel.  She’s so pathetic.  I took away all of her poetry.  It just makes her cry, and I told her that Sam and I decided that she can have it back when she comes back, which just made her cry and roll over in her bed and pretend to be asleep until I left the room.  I stashed the box of books at one of my friends’ houses, so she’ll never find them. I feel like a bastard, but whatever.  Maybe she’ll get mad enough at me to get out of bed.

I remember one day, she came stomping into the apartment, fuming.  She walked past me and two of my friends who had come over to study for a big anthropology test we were having the next day, and she ran to the kitchen.  Throwing the refrigerator door open, she rummaged around in there, muttering “87…87…what the hell do they know?” over and over.  Finally, her face emerged from the fridge, and with beer in hand, she just stood there looking pissed and triumphant, slugging it down.  She was pretending to ignore us, I think, standing there reading stuff we had on the fridge—old recipes, articles, fortunes from late-night Chinese food binges, whatever.  Finally, I cleared my throat, not being able to stand her new mantra anymore, hoping that she’d shut up because my friends already thought she was a loon.

“Eve,” I implored, “we’re trying to study.  Shut the hell up!”

“Tell me, y’all, you know a lot about experiments, right?  The scientific method?”

We all just nodded, and I thought, here we go.

“Okay, then…explain this: I was feeling pretty good today, and then I took this frigging test at my doctor’s, and it’s a stupid 1 through 4 thing where you chrissakes numbers to your feelings because isn’t that so scientific, and on a scale of 100, I’m an 87 according to the stupid test.”

“What was the test for, Eve?” asked my friend Susan.

“Suicidal depression.”

“Oh,” said my friend Joanne.

 

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Eve just took another swig of beer, grabbed the rest of the six-pack, and went out on the porch to smoke herself to death.  She’s a chain-smoker, sometimes, like I said earlier.  This was one of those times.  We just kept studying.  

Sneaking reads at her journal made it even harder for me to talk to Eve because I was afraid I’d slip and she’d find out.  Even still, I expected to have a talk with her about this test later, but I didn’t because she ended up calling Chloe and they went out drinking until early in the morning.

In hindsight, it was one of the only times I’d ever seen Eve get mad.  I thought it was a good sign.  Chloe told me that Eve cried a lot that night, that Eve would say she had to go to the bathroom and then just stay in there and cry until Chloe came and got her.  

She really was suicidal, had just quit her job teaching and started going to a therapist for the first time in her life, just started taking Prozac, and spent three weeks in bed crying and sleeping and refusing to take anything but coffee and alcohol and cigarettes and maybe some soup.  She was a wreck.  On top of that, she and Sam had broken up right before she quit her job, and I think that was one of the things that sent her over the edge.

 

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I asked her why they had broken up.  It was a Sunday morning, and she had just driven back from his house.  They used to work on journalism projects together, and they had been gone all weekend in a small town a couple of hours away from Austin, working on a story together.  She is a pretty good writer too, my sister.  Anyway, she came home early that morning, and I found her on the porch crying and smoking and drinking black coffee.

“Who broke up with who?” I’d asked her, sitting down and lighting myself a cigarette.  We both smoke menthols, the worst kind of cigarette, next to cloves, anyway.  Our mom used to smoke menthols, so that’s probably where we got it from.  She used to give us chrissakes menthols, so I know that’s where we got it from.  Mom’s idea was that we were going to do it anyway, so she might as well help us save our money for college.  I think that was pretty stupid of her.  Anyway, back to Eve.

“I did.”  She got weepy again.

“Why?”  I knew that she loved him.  She had been in love before a couple of times, but I knew that Sam was really her first love (at least to her at that moment).  They had a pretty manic relationship then though, with lots of arguments.  They were both so stubborn and they both really loved to hear themselves talk.  He used to have a pretty nasty temper too; one time, Eve told me that they were fighting in the car on the highway coming back from spending a weekend with my mom and her new husband on their yacht, and Sam had started driving like a madman and refused to pull the car over to let Eve out.  “He actually said ‘Fine, go ahead,’ when I told him I was going to jump out of the car if he didn’t pull it over,” she had howled.

I’m making him sound like the bad guy, though, and in all fairness to him, the thing that sucked the most about Eve was the way she would test everything until it broke.  She didn’t really believe in much, thought that everything was a kind of sham to be exposed.  Especially love.  Sam didn’t get this really, because his parents are still married.  I told him, “Kudos for you, man.” one day, and he just laughed like it was no big deal.  Anyway, those two were nuts: they started talking about marriage and living in foreign countries together pretty much right after they met, so I had just expected it to happen, after they worked the kinks out of their relationship.  

“Why did I break up with him?” she asked me, and she started crying even harder, the kind of crying where you can’t get any air and you start kind of heave-choking.  I tried to calm her down.  When you cry that hard, you can’t talk at the same time.

Finally, she told me.  The way she said it, you could tell that she thought it was true.  Like he had found it on a stone tablet up on Mount Sinai and just delivered her The Word.

“He said I was a negative person.”  She went into another heave-choking jag.

“What the hell does he know about it, the bastard?” I yelled back in her defense. I was pretty good at being angry.  I was probably angry enough for the both of us our whole lives.  Maybe that’s why Eve never learned how to be angry; I was always beating her to it.  

 

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The thing about Eve is that she just takes everything way too seriously.  Some other girl, take me for example, would have laughed it off and shot back some pert witticism, then told Sam arguing was stupid and it would be more fun to go make it in his bedroom, or something.  But then again, I haven’t had many relationships, so what do I know?  You already know how fat I am, but there’s more to it.  I just don’t want anything to get in the way of my writing or my plans.  I want to dig around in the Valley of the Kings, or find the missing link between humans and apes, or something like that.  I want to go to graduate school and travel.  I don’t have time for love.  I wouldn’t mind having a bunch of meaningless sex though, to tell you the truth.  But, like I said, guys want ‘em skinny like Eve, and I think that’s too bad.  She’s a bag of problems, and I’m not.  They don’t know how sexy it is to have a little meat on your bones.  I wish I lived in a time that did.  But then the meaningless sex would be out of the question, and college too.  Maybe meaningless sex isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, anyway.  Look at Eve.

She’s had tons of affairs.  She and Chloe have sex like you wouldn’t believe.  Not with each other, I mean, but with guy after guy.  I think it makes you lose your objectivity.  It would for me, anyway.  I mean, if you can be compatible with so many different people, what’s the point of being in love?    

Anyway, I guess you’re probably wondering who found her up on the roof and all.  Maybe you’re thinking it was Chloe, but it wasn’t.  It obviously wasn’t me, either.  It wasn’t even Sam.  It was this guy we know, named Jeremy.  You want to know something really funny?  It sounds improbable, but I guess real life is.  He went up to the roof because he wanted to commit suicide, too.  See, he’s gay.  And can’t stand it.  He’s younger than us; he’s only nineteen.  The other funny thing about those two was that they clearly didn’t understand much about distances, or they would have known that you can’t jump off a three-story roof and succeed in killing yourself unless you land just right. Or maybe that’s why they wanted to do it in the first place. I have no idea.

 

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Anyway, gay Jeremy went up there drunker than sin and ready to off himself.  He was crying, he told me later, and his vision was all blurry so he wasn’t sure at first if he had imagined Eve up there or if she was actually sitting there dangling her feet off the edge.  He was a pretty decent friend of mine, had been over to the house enough to get to know Eve, had even borrowed some of her lipstick and body glitter too whenever we went out dancing.  He said he was really surprised to see her there, though, because he always thought that she was such a happy person.  Everyone did, until some of us saw her quit her job and go off the deep end.  But Jeremy wasn’t close enough to us to have watched all that.  He said he thought she must have just wandered up there drunk without realizing where she was, or that maybe she just wanted to get some air.  (Yeah, maybe some air time.) He said it must have been a blessing from God, finding her up there.  It snapped him out of wanting to die a little, it sidetracked him.

Apparently, Jeremy had been hospitalized once for slitting his wrists open when he was in high school.  His mom had found him in the bathtub, asleep she thought at first, in pink bubble bath.  When she realized that red stuff was spurting out of his wrists, she had driven him to the emergency room.  He had pretended to be unconscious the whole way because she kept crying and asking “why, why, why.”  That was Jeremy for you, so afraid to be gay that he’d rather be dead.  Sometimes I wish that Eve was gay, because if that’s all it was, Mom and Dad would have accepted it fine.  Okay, Mom would have had a fairly easy time with it.  Dad probably wouldn’t.  I don’t know exactly what her problem is, but it has something to do with making choices and dealing with them.  That’s what she always told me anyway.

Sometimes I think that our problem was foretold in our names. We both had the same English teacher in 10th grade, and she assigned the same project at the beginning of every school year: you had to research the history of your name, and write a paper explaining whether or not you thought your name fit you.  Well, Eve was pretty nonplussed about what she discovered about the story behind both of our names.  You probably already know that Evelyn is a derivation of Eve, the Biblical first woman who was made from Adam’s rib and created to be his subordinate companion, yadda yadda.  So did she.  The story of my name is what tripped her up.  Lillith was Adam’s first wife, created by God before Eve, according to the Torah.  This Lillith was apparently Adam’s equal, and they had an argument over who would be dominant in bed because Lillith didn’t want to lay beneath him.  He tried to rape her, and she left him and swam off into the Red Sea, later to appear as a demon or witch who’d eat infants in the dead of night in popular Jewish mythology, or so the story goes. At the time, Eve wrote that our names didn’t fit us because she thought that the two names represented contradictory forces in the psyche but we were two different people.  But that’s exactly why I think they do fit us.  To a tee.  We are genetically identical, but so different. She fights against being tame but still wants everything to go her way, I fight against being wild but still want everything to go my way. She wants to be tame and wild at the same time. So do I. We want to be at peace with the clash between our ideals and reality.

“I can’t control myself.  I don’t even know what I want.  I picked the wrong job, and I think I knew it the whole time, but did it anyway.  As a sort of endurance test.  I ruin everything, too.  Sam says that he wants me to tell him everything, so he can keep reminding me how normal I am.  He says it’s normal to feel this way.  But I can’t tell him everything because… I can’t believe I cheated on him. What kind of person does that make me? What does that mean about our relationship? I thought I really loved him. If someone could just shut my brain off for awhile, I’d get better so much quicker.  I need a vacation from myself, for chrissakes.”  That’s Eve talking to me over coffee on one of her better days, post-suicide attempt.  

She made me promise not to tell our parents about the “suicide attempt.”  I put that in quotes because whenever she says it she always makes those little quote signs with her hands.  She talks with her hands a lot.  So far I haven’t, told our parents about what she did, I mean.  But I just might have to, if she doesn’t snap out of this soon.  She’s got one more month of paid vacation until the school doesn’t owe her any more back pay; and if she doesn’t get a new job before then I’ll have to tell because we won’t be able to afford our apartment.  

Dad is still paying for me to go to school, which really does hurt Eve, I just found out.  Partially because he kept paying for me even though he wouldn’t pay for her, and partially because I’ve taken more than four years to be in school and she was in and out in three. I suppose she wants me to cut him off on principle, to stick up for her.  I just didn’t see what that would gain me, and I still don’t.  Especially after watching her and Mom struggle so much.  Actually Eve struggled more than Mom.  My mom’s loaded now…She just put her part of the tuition on a credit card.  But Eve had two jobs, and the burden of feeling guilty and being stubborn.  Eve’s the kind of person that doesn’t know how to receive help, kind of like my dad, and she hated the fact that our mom had to help her.    

 

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She used to say that the main reason she wanted to be a teacher was to help kids find their centers before the world shook them up.  She thought that she could help them be strong people, so that they wouldn’t feel such a shock when they got older like she did.   

I think she was a good teacher. I came in one day because she wanted the kids to meet me and for me to show them how I wrote, so they could see a different way of doing things. I watched her with them. She was like the chrissakes Pied Piper.  

Some of those kids’ lives scared me to death.  One of them, a girl, had been sent to juvie because she had punched her mom.  Another one had a rare degenerative muscle disease; he was dying, and happened to be the smartest kid in that class.  One of them had been beaten and molested by her father.  Another guy had a mom who was in jail for selling drugs and he had lived in foster homes since he was ten.  A lot of them were pretty normal though, and funny and sweet.  Some were so painfully shy that they reddened whenever we asked a question to the whole class, as if they were willing themselves to disappear.  I don’t know how she dealt with teaching for two years; I wouldn’t have been able to do it.  

Anyway, we’re all glad she quit, that job was killing her.  All the pressure, all the responsibility.  Even her therapist said that it was probably the hardest job you could get right out of college.  It was just too much for her.  I remember watching her sit up all night grading papers.  Can you imagine having to slog through 120 papers, written by kids who didn’t know how to spell or write a complete sentence or even care?  She told me that in general her students only had a third grade reading level and didn’t know the difference between a noun and a verb.  What was she supposed to teach them anyway, for chrissakes?  And she was one of the ones who cared about what was going to happen to them.  She used to come home, exhausted from the day, pour herself a glass of wine and tell me or Sam or whoever about this kid and that kid and how the system had failed them and how she didn’t know how they were going to get through high school but that they were getting passed on anyway by her principal to make the numbers look good.  She just couldn’t believe it.  We tried to tell her that it wasn’t her responsibility.  Sometimes she cried about those kids.

Last week, her first period class sent her a “get well” card through the school’s secretary.  I found it in the mailbox, didn’t know what it was or I wouldn’t have let her have it, and when I handed it to her she took it into her bedroom.  I came in when I heard the wailing.

It was filled up with their little notes. They wrote to her: “Come back soon, S.O.S.” and “Help, we hate the sub,” and “We miss your laugh,” or “We love you, Ms. S.”  She couldn’t stop crying for hours.  She just sat there and cried and cried.  

I told her to stop thinking about it.  That she was just beating herself up over it, and that didn’t her therapist say that being too hard on yourself is a major aspect of depression?   I had to go to class, I was taking this novella class as an elective, actually it’s the class I’m writing this for, and because it was a workshop class I couldn’t miss it.  I had to leave her there, crying, so that I could catch the bus on time.  I told her to call a friend, go out and do something else, to make herself stop thinking about it.

 

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Chapter 3 Excerpts, Part Two, “Mental” by Marie K Johnston

 

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…We are civilized savages.  The freeway is near her house, and homelessness sometimes hovers at the intersection.  One afternoon she and Jacob planned a Friday picnic, and rushed home to don the shorts and sandals that are customary when wooing newborn spring.  A new beggar stood with them and waited at the red light, displaying a cardboard sign intoning, “Everyone needs help sometime in life.”  She felt compelled to buy him a sandwich, so they hurried from the house to a nearby deli; rushing back to the intersection with their offering, they found he had gone.

After that day she watched for him, expected to see him faithfully displaying his eloquent misfortune, and was disappointed for weeks until finally she pushed him out of her short-term memory.  Then as mysteriously as he had gone, he reappeared.  Renewed with her foolish need to “save” him, she sped home and this time decided to make him a lunch lest he vanish once more.  She walked her lunch across the eight-lane overpass, locating him on the weedy bank of the freeway.  He counted money feverishly, absorbed, her voice powerless against the roar of eighteen-wheelers and Ford trucks.

“Sir…sir?” she had faltered, silently rehearsing the speech she’d planned during her frantic walk.  Her heart pounded in her head, her ears pulsed.  Sensing her, he quickly hid his money, explaining that he lacked only thirty more dollars for a motel room.  

She cleared her throat, thrust her paper sack offering across the white cement barrier and entreated, “Your sign really got to me.  I wanted to give you this, to encourage you to keep trying and not to lose hope…” she trailed off, losing the meaning of her words as his eyes pierced through her face.  She imagined that he could see the tight muscles beneath her skin, could see the blood throbbing through her temples.

He grabbed the food, tearing the carefully folded paper to size up its contents.   He couldn’t be more than thirty, she guessed, but the deep creases in his oiled leathery skin spoke of wasted youth.  She could tell he was young only because of his eyes—the richest blue, more cobalt than cerulean, an almost divine shade.  They glowed out from his ruined toothless grin like Mayan lapis, as if in protest of our civilization.  

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She was taken aback when he gesticulated with the bag, spilling its contents obliviously in order to get his point across to her.

Trance-like, he moaned,” it’s all in the in-flec-tion, really, when you come right DOWN to it…isn’t that disappointing?  It doesn’t reeeaally mat-ter what we sssayyy, huh?” he hissed, “The im-port-tant thing is the say-yingh of the say-yingh, and can never simply beeeee the buzzzzzingh of the beeeees, but their honey that weeeee craaaave.  It is time to forget what you have learned because—it wasn’t right.  NO!” he shouted,” No!”  

She stood stock-still like an animal, incredulous and dumb.  

“Awh…” he tilted his head and the two tiny oceans in his sockets swayed, “you look disappointed.  I’m sorry that you took it so seriously,” he mocked her, chuckling out the syllables.

“We should all have fun, right?  Lots of fun, with…with a cherry on top.  We shouldn’t need to be so serious, so grave, now, should we?  Why do you think we are so grave?  Mortality.  Sleep.  Peace and fear.”  He paused to cackle, allowing his glee to wash over him completely.  She started backing away like an automaton, not looking behind her.  He pursued her, leaning now over the wall which tax-paying citizens had erected between them, a wall neither one had helped pay for.

“Oh, come on, don’t tell me you people still believe in fear?  Even though you think you’re the only intelligent beings in the entire universe?  How archaic.”  He lifted his eyes to the sky, as if to direct his ranting to the remote and unsympathetic clouds.  “Beam.  Light.  Silence.  Lust,” he chanted, sarcastically.  

She turned and lifted her American-fed thigh to flee, looking back to see him fly over the waist-high wall like a true Olympian.  “What are you looking at?” he demanded of her.  

 

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“What do you see when you look with your lookers at that thing you look at?”  He fumed, walking toward her as if in one of her excruciatingly slow-motioned dreams, and she ran but got nowhere nearer home just like in one of those reoccurring childhood nightmares.  

With deliberate emphasis, relish, he doled out his tirade: “Do you see beauty, or yourself?  Do you see solace, solace in the way the light reflects off the mirror and pretends to cast your reflection in its warm glow?”  

From beyond the intersection, she heard him howl, “I must be blind!  I see nothing.  Where is it?  How are you supposed to look at it?”  

And then, as she rejoiced at actually feeling her feet smacking the pavement, she caught his last words—“Relax your eyes!”—as she pressed toward freedom.

 

Thank you, dear readers, for joining me in reading some of my work! I hope you liked it!

Stay tuned for more! I’m going through “Mental” today!

 

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I’m Gonna Write About This!

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I’m in a good mood–for a change! Anyway, I am getting that old familiar feeling again, dear readers!

I want to write about something!

That makes it true, you know…

(Article in Progress: will add the graphics and rest of text later!)

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