My first image broke the skin of memory at the age of three. It was nothing less spectacular than an outdoor performance of the opera “Carmen.”
Green peeling bleachers, an asthmatic breeze; live horses, cymbals and moustaches, parents and plumes, trumpets and veils and the coziest trickle of warm urine that spread out inside my diaper like my most cherished blanket that I clung to. The thing about pee is that it would inevitably turn on me, transforming itself into an invasive, clammy hand.
My beating pulse mocked the workings of the pounding drums in the orchestra. A muddy track circled the outer edge of this new world with the fresh stench of horse manure and that smell entwined itself with the velvet colors of twilight. Something about the purpled blue of the sky as it moved toward darkness allowed me a fleeting chance to interact with creatures that nobody else apparently saw, before the sky turned black and all disappeared.
My older sister called me a whack-job when I was older and I told her about the circus family, but I was positive I first saw them on that evening in the bleachers when a fissure in time cracked open and memory and the circus family first waved to me.
That family of white-painted faces, red smiles, black-lined eyes and ruffles around their necks became more ominous as I grew older. I called them a family because they were of differing sizes. Some were larger and others were dwarf-like creatures standing underneath them, all in a huddled mass. I’d wake up from a sound sleep to see them standing at the edge of my bed. Paralyzed, unable to even lift my head or scream – I would sweat and stare at them, an unmoving dead-lock in the dark until they disappeared, exhaustion overcame the fear, my stone-like body softened and I fell back to sleep.
I had always felt an ambivalent kinship with clowns after that. They never mocked me like my siblings did. The clowns did scare the hell out of me by showing up irregularly at the end of my bed. I was terrorized by the immobility that followed their arrival, unable to escape, but they never made a move to hurt or badger me like my brothers and sisters. I found out much later that there is a deep stage in the dream-state that children can lapse into when physical paralysis actually occurs in the body. I remember that feeling of helplessness and utter fright when I found myself unable to move or make a sound.
I was a sickly kid, always conjuring up some black-lung-like cough that rumbled from the depths of death, scaring the shit out of my parents. Every winter for a few years the bronchitis mutated into pneumonia and I remembered being carried out of the building in the arms of a nice neighbor, while I threw up all over his cashmere coat. I had reached the 104-degree temperature the night before and saw white spiders crawling all over the bath of rubbing alcohol my parents threw me into. The doctor had prescribed alcohol baths to bring the fever down. I screamed and clutched the sides while my dad held me in the tub as long as he could, until he could no longer thwart my hysteria and finally pulled me out.
Once my parents laid me in bed, the rift of dueling worlds opened again into that planet of alternate realities that calmed me down. Tiny ballerinas, the kind you see on birthday cakes, pirouetted around my head on the pillow. A marching brigade of little soldiers two-by-two prepared for battle. And monstrous dolls, the size of my classmates, peeked out from behind my dresser, my little desk and the doorway, blinking their eyes at me with those gaping, painted smiles. I reached out for them, but my mom would start crying and tuck my arms tightly under the covers. Once again, no one else saw what was right in front of me, so I kept it to myself as I got older.
Three consecutive years, from age six to eight, I was rushed to the hospital. I would try to mask the rumbling cough that rattled out of me and had the teachers whispering “tuberculosis”, until I was pulled out of school and sent to the children’s ward in the hospital for at least a month. I was put in an oxygen tent, which I could only take in short increments of five minutes or so. They pumped oxygen into this plastic dome they put over my head and shoulders. It was clammy, wet and hot inside and it made me feel completely claustrophobic and cut off from the world. The nurses would have to bribe me with ginger ale or a popsicle to keep me inside that tent for the 20 minute intervals ordered by the doctor.
I didn’t mind the time away from school and each year I received a big poster with all my classmates’ signatures on it. I would stare at it for hours and read each shaky signature. I felt popular. Most of the kids hardly knew me, but they still laboriously signed their names. The class was just learning cursives in school.
I am certain that this was the key that unlocked my desire for the other, the alien parts of us that we tend to keep to ourselves. I started writing a novel when I was seven. It was a story of a girl who ran away. I wish I had that #2 pencil-scribbled manuscript that I labored over, letter by letter, but it drifted off like the clown family into another freeze-frame of myself leaning over one of those desks my mother bought for me at the school rummage sale. Scratched in with initials and anonymous names in the chestnut-colored wood and the lid that opened to reveal my most treasured possessions: my lined paper, eraser, pencils, pencil sharpener and my novel as it grew without thought of regret or a backwards glance–pages of insurgency that as a child I never considered a first draft. They were the words that were meant to be there, just because they were, like the apparitions that I knew were real, but no one else around me was ever able to see.
published 2 July 2011