Friday, January 3, 2014

A simple snap of the wrist: short fiction

Marcy couldn't remember the first time she was 
jerked off-balance by a simple snap of the wrist.

The technique might have been perfected at home, when she was growing up. As the TV ad for the free yoyo in the box of Malto-Meal said: "Yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-YO-yo-yo" (to the tune of the Irish Washerwoman). It wasn't so remarkable then, as her sister Molly was thirteen and Marcy had just been born. It isn't very difficult to jerk a six-pound newborn on a string so it will dance, dance, dance on your hand like a malformed little doll.

This was her not-chosen environment for years. Everything about her was criticized, then the criticism was turned back on her: 

"Oh, you should stop being so self-critical." 

"For God's sake, when are you going to develop some confidence?" 

Her sister Molly, already an adult, played with her like a doll, exclaimed over her, then dumped her down in her crib and went out on a date.

Not to blame her, she was only a teenager, but it got much worse as she grew. Marcy was left in the living room with Tom, her sister's 30-year-old married boy friend, and both of them were drunk (drunkenness being encouraged when she was 15). The inevitable groping would go on in the dark, then when Molly found out, she would stare acid daggers of fury at her and say, 

"So, you want to go sit with my boy friend in there and romance him? Who do you think you are, anyway? What kind of slut would do that?" 

Yank, yank, yank.

Marcy made a life for herself, but it was hard, and her "craziness" was often remarked on, as if her sister had nothing to do with it.  Her "wedding present" was a statement, accompanied by a hard-eyed stare: "Gee, it must be great to have your whole life all figured out at age 19." Called on it later, Molly looked incredulous, said she didn't remember saying it, and looked at Marcy accusingly: how could she even think she could say something that mean? 

When Marcy moved from a small town to Vancouver, she expressed anxiety to her sister that she might not be able to adjust to such a leap. Her response, accompanied by  a shrug and a cool, matter-of-fact expression, was, "Then I guess you'll self-destruct."

At some point Marcy came to wonder: what is it about all this family poison that reproduces itself in your friends, the people who are supposed to be on your side?  At first Roseanne seemed fine, better than fine, and Marcy began to believe she had found her missing piece, the good sister she never had while growing up. But over time, the subtle jerking began. 

Roseanne, who very quickly became her best friend, soon moved away to a small town, and immediately began to believe she was terminally ill. She had no symptoms and refused to see a doctor. Marcy became frantic with worry and flew out to stay with her. Finally coerced into seeking medical help, she found out there was nothing wrong with her at all. But no one addressed the empty abyss inside her, and Marcy stifled the grumble of resentment that she had been sent out on a desperate rescue call for nothing.

Over time, more and more things happened, gradually insinuating themselves, sneaking in while no one noticed, things that were distressingly tangled, snarled up like a ball of useless marionette strings. The writing ambition she shared with Marcy when they met was soon abandoned, or at least denied. When she asked her friend if she had considered writing a column for the local paper (and later, keeping a blog), she made a sour, incredulous face and asked "What would I write about?", as if she had suggested climbing Mount Everest or calculating the value of pi (or, more likely, doing something incredibly stupid and even offensive). Her disdain covered a failed ambition, and Marcy thought she had seen that somewhere before.

Over the years, things escalated. Most of them weren't so much attacks as examples of "here, take this and fix it" or, at least, "listen to all of this unproductive ranting until you feel weary and sick of it and get nothing in return". And there was definitely a sense of entitlement. "Just give it to good old Marcy, I can always count on her." And then, that inevitable statement: "Oh, I feel a lot better now!"

After many years of attempts, Marcy wrote a novel about a silent film star, was excited about it - never thought she'd write a novel again - and showed Roseanne one of his short movies, wondering what her opinion would be. She looked at her with her head tilted at a strange angle and said, "Was he gay?" - then changed the subject.

The gay thing came up more than once, until Marcy realized she had never knowingly had any significant contact with a gay person, not because they didn't exist in her town but because she didn't want to.  When Marcy read a book about pianist Oscar Levant and was all bubbly and enthusiastic about it, Roseanne said in a disdainful, somewhat offended tone, "I thought he was gay." End of conversation, which was then steered to her own agenda. Apparently, anyone named Oscar was automatically gay, like Oscar Wilde. The disdain was automatic: let's write him off, shall we? The narrowness of her perception was shocking.

But the worst, and this went on for years and years (and years) was Roseanne's insistence that she should write a sort of hatchet job, a fictionalized expose of Canadian literature: all the petty, arrogant, narcissistic figures, editors, publishers, writers, hangers-on and wanna-be's. 

"Oh, I still think you should write it, Marcy. It would be so great. You could really stick it to those people and expose all their vanities and power-tripping to the public." Over and over again Marcy said, "But that would surely be the end of my career." A few months later she would say it again. She'd say, "But that would surely be the end of my career." A few months later she would say it again. She began to feel like a yo-yo yanked, a mouthpiece for her friend's frustrations as she rubbed her hands together and cheered on the sidelines, not so much for Marcy as for the expression of all her own frustrations coming out of someone else's mouth, risk-free.

Yank, yank, yank.

By this time, everything was externalized; the whole world was her yo-yo, convenient for never taking responsibility. Her public persona was of a warm, earth-motherish figure who took casseroles over to people she could not stand, a "see how nice I am" gesture while seething inwardly and constantly feeling "betrayed". Finally it became a volcano of bile, with Roseanne's "best friend" the only recipient (deemed "safe" because she didn't live there). Marcy saw her friend yanking the string on her disabled husband, cutting him off from his friends because for some reason she didn't approve of them. Yanking her 20-year-old daughter around, saying it would be "better for me if she didn't date" and going crazy with anxiety because she stayed out till midnight with her girl friends. (She said she would be home at 11:00!) 

After a while it was just an accumulation, and Marcy realized her friend was basically lost. Episodes came back to her that were wildly frightful and so dysfunctional that she couldn't get her head around it. She used to call her friend her "sister", and now she realized that she WAS her sister in all but blood, a frightening and even horrifying replication.

She came to see that she had taken on the role of "safe" confessor: safe because she didn't live there and would be sure to keep her mouth shut. But the more distorted and fucked-up Roseanne's observations became, the more she realized that, far from being safe, she was a repository for a twisted reality that bore very little relation to the truth. Thus her friend could say anything she wanted to, knowing Marcy couldn't call her on it; after all, she didn't live there and didn't know what was really going on.

But of course, when she finally stepped back, it was HER fault for ending a perfectly wonderful relationship for no reason and no warning, out of the clear blue sky.  Roseanne honestly didn't seem to know what had happened between them, an infuriating situation, acres of  blank empty oblivion surrounding what used to be - what should have been - a fine and focused mind.

Marcy writes in her journal, trying to get her mind around it all: 

I wonder sometimes how and why it gets so fucked up. It's horrible to see the worst patterns repeat and repeat, to be jerked around by someone who genuinely believes she is kind and giving. Someone with virtually no self-knowledge, but with a rich library of acid criticism of others, a library she does not use so much as push her friends into and lock the door.

Once when she asked Roseanne what happened to her writing ambition, she said, "It went away." This was a bizarre statement, to be sure; not "I gave it up", not "it was too hard", not "I couldn't stand to risk rejection", but "it" "went away", a separate little entity which got up on its little legs and crept out of her life all by itself.

There has been a theme all through their friendship: Roseanne constantly worries, obsesses that people think she's "crazy". Her behaviour in her town is so circumspect as to be stifling, but she won't let herself out of the box. The craziness swirls around and around in a corked bottle like a tiny, concentrated little genie. But if the genie ever emerges, her three wishes ("escape, escape, escape") won't come true.

Or maybe they will! For a long time now Roseanne has been looking up apartments on the internet - for herself, not including her chronically ill husband - secretly, while insisting she will stay in her town "another 10 to 20 years" (meaning, until he dies). Out of a heavy sense of "duty", she is waiting it out, as if drawing chalk-lines on the wall. Marcy sees that the person she had befriended all those years ago has been replaced by a stand-in of near-Stepford proportions, obsessed with what other people want her to be.

She also sees that, aware of it or not, she has been insidiously trying to torpedo her career for a very long time. There is a slightly nasty, vicarious feeling about it, a knee-slapping sense of "wouldn't it be a hoot" (if she alienated every single person who ever helped her publish her three novels). She was an intelligent woman. Didn't she think this through, or was it a deliberate cobra-strike?

Sometimes people outgrow each other, yes, but does it have to be so painful? Does the manipulation have no end? Invisible strings still yank and twist. Roseanne will have to turn back on herself now, but the choice of looking in the mirror is unlikely, as is the chance she will make a real friend in the community that she can actually talk to.

Marcy writes:

I hate it when I end up carrying someone, and it has happened more often than I care to admit. There must be some need in me, some desperation or fear that if I don't pander to that person's sick need, I won't have any friends at all. Probably that's true. It is tremendously hard to deal with and I have been struggling for some time, mostly with anger as more and more memories emerge, along with more and more anger. My sister too sees herself as a benevolent Mother Superior figure, religious, Christian, unconditionally loving and accepting, praying about everything (especially me!) because it makes her look better to herself. The truth is, she doesn't exist. I have wiped her out. Every few years, too cowardly to do this herself, she yo-yos my brother into checking up on me, making a report.  I suddenly remember the Bob Dylan line from Desolation Row:

"When you asked me how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?"

Some kind of joke. I know that she hopes for one of two responses:

a) That I'll be a total mess, or dead, in which case she will pretend to grieve and tell herself, well, after all, it was inevitable, wasn't it? In spite of all her fervent prayers and  sincere attempts to help, she knew it was going to happen all along.

b) That I'll be doing well, and she will fly into a fury and say, how can she be so horribly selfish when she tried to destroy the family?

Is there winning here? Does it exist?

Still struggling, but no longer in quicksand - more like an insect emerging from a chrysalis - she writes:

Every once in a while I get piss-angry about all this, and my only solace - hell, it's more of a universe than a solace - is the family I have co-created with my husband of over 40 years, the one Molly said I didn't deserve and attained only through a sort of random lottery win.  (Weirdly, she even killed Rob off once, saying "if anything happens to him I'll help you raise the children" - co-opting them at the same time.) I even married into a relatively sane and basically benevolent, loving family who does not drink or use or molest little girls. I am their kin now in every way but blood.

It's not supposed to happen that way, it's the exception, causing my sister to say, no doubt, "Well, you see, nothing happened! Your childhood was fine. Everybody loved you. In fact, they loved you more than you deserved."

Get a big pair of scissors, please. Pinocchio's strings are cut.

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