Learning to Fly
My mother was a beautiful bird who fluttered around people in a state of constant agitation. Terrified of being trapped, she was always opening windows, even in the middle of January, and rushing out of doors “to catch a breath of fresh air.” Once outside, she would disappear in an instant, only to return hours later, the wind and leaves and twigs in her hair.
No one ever touched my mother—not my grandmother, not my sisters, not even my father, at least not after I was born. She cringed at handholding, hugs, kisses, romance, and seduction in all its forms. One evening, at a cocktail party, I watched her shudder and run from a room when a man ran his speckled fingers across her bare arm, then leaned in close to tell her how lovely she looked in blue. She did look pretty—dressed in a silk gown and red lipstick my father had selected, a string of pearls around her neck. “What a ghastly man,” she said, her face flushed. “Putting his hands on me like that.” I followed her to the cloakroom where she sat, gasping for air before grabbing her coat and rushing out into the night, a trail of feathers floating behind her.
Like most birds, my mother was good at stuffing food down her children’s throats. She bragged that none of her children were picky eaters. “Open wide,” she’d say, forking a giant piece of liver into my mouth. I learned to swallow without chewing, bypassing the tongue, consuming large amounts of food at great speeds. I was not allowed to have opinions about taste or texture or hunger. “One more bite,” she’d say. And then, “Now, have another.”
I still remember my first day of kindergarten, sitting at my desk, holding my belly, round and hard as a basketball. I pressed it with my thumbs, trying release the pressure as the vet did with our heifers that got loose in the alfalfa field. Mrs. Wallace, the teacher, tapped my head. “Why is your stomach so big?” she asked.
“Oh, Mrs. Wallace,” I said. “That’s just breakfast. Wait till you see lunch.”
My mother despised those mothers who coddled their children. She especially disliked Dr. Spock—all that talk of treating your children with affection. “Not every parent wants a baby attached to her apron strings forever,” she said, adding, “If you gush over your children, why would they ever leave home?”
The year we raised a seagull, she complained about the fishy stench in our backyard and, one day, hurled it from our porch. “This is how birds learn to fly,” she explained. We watched it plummet again and again.
The Best Thing To Do
“There are things we don’t talk about,” my father said, but I never knew which “things” he meant. Even after my suicide attempt, my father wanted to control my narrative. If anyone asked why I was home from college, he told me to say I was just taking a break. “The less you talk, the better off we will be,” he advised. And, “The way I see it—there are things this world doesn’t need to know. After all, everyone has dark moments—times when they see night in the middle of the afternoon.”
After he picked me up from a hospital near Bryn Mawr College (my mother had refused to join him) and drove me home to the farm in Charlottesville, I lay in my bed for days, weeks, months. I don’t remember how long it was. Sometimes my father brought me peanut butter sandwiches and a ginger ale on a silver tray and left them on my bedside table. But my mother rarely saw me. A Bryn Mawr graduate, she was furious. “How dare she try to kill herself at my alma mater?” she asked my father.
“How many bottles of Bayer did you take?” she demanded the first day she came to my room, glaring down at me as I lay in bed, eyes pressed shut. “And how many pills were in each bottle?” She always counted things. Numbers, she once told me when I was struggling with math, explain everything. I didn’t have the energy to respond. There was a fog in my head, and I couldn’t assemble the right words. All my thoughts were scrambled like a TV screen with no antenna.
If I wasn’t asleep, I was daydreaming about bridges to jump from, trains to step in front of, and pills of all shapes and sizes and colors, wondering which ones and how many equals an overdose. The ER doctor had said I should try Tylenol next time—aspirin, he said, doesn’t “do the trick.” Then he lifted my hospital gown and sighed. “Such a pretty body—it would be a shame to kill it just yet, don’t you think?” His name was Derrick. I remember that, and his clammy hand on my breasts and a fly buzzing around the Pepsi can by my bed. I thought of Emily Dickinson, “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”
I had planned to major in English, and I knew all the famous literary suicides—how Ernest Hemingway shot himself in the head in his study, John Berryman jumped from The Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Hart Crane threw himself from the steamship SS Orizaba, Anne Sexton locked herself in a car with the engine running, and then there was Sylvia Plath who made suicide into an art form. I read everything she wrote, and even though I didn’t like it, I envied her—and wondered if I were an average poet, as manic and as pretty and as melodramatic as she was, and if I put my head in an oven, would I be eternally famous, too?
But I worried about her children. For years, Plath’s children slept in a corner of my brain, there behind a taped door with a plate of bread and two cups of milk on the bedside table, while Sylvia gassed herself to death. Did they wake to hear her open the oven, or take her last, raspy breath before her soul swam away like a fish in the air? Did they call out, “Mommy, Mommy,” or try to turn the doorknob or bang on the wall? Or did they sleep peacefully, only to open their eyes to a chilled, sunlit room, and then, as Plath had planned, eat their solitary breakfast while still in their pajamas, imagining it a morning picnic? How long did they wait before calling out, “Mommy, where are you?” Or, “I have to go the bathroom.” And when the nurse and workman broke into the apartment, some time after 9:00 AM, did they see their mother, her head stuck deep in the oven, her legs draped heavily on the kitchen floor like a macabre cooking experiment gone awry? Would journalists forever after want to interview them and ask questions about their mother and that fateful morning?
As my English professor explained, Plath had to choose between being a mother or a poet. Her death was her final poem. Ever since she died, biographers have claimed they have new insights into her last days. Even now, there are rumors of a final missing letter, perhaps written to a lover. As if all the literary world needs now is yet another message from Sylvia Plath, her words screaming off the page like a Siren song.
But Virginia Woolf I admired, Virginia with the name of my home state, Virginia of the waves and with a room of her own and a lighthouse, Virginia who drowned with a pocketful of stones. I thought of a time I, too, almost drowned—the feeling of inhaling water, trying to call for help, and being carried out to sea. How alone I felt with the sun, the ocean, the lit sky. I imagined the world, as if I were already on the other side, looking back through a one-way mirror. I studied the note Virginia left her husband. “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel I can’t go through another of these terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.” I reread the words, the best thing to do. What is the best thing to do when you are going mad? I thought of how my mother always said, “Don’t tell anyone if you are hearing voices. And don’t ever mention the visions you had as a child.”
“Do you think I should see a doctor?” I asked my parents on a rare night when they both came into my room to check on me. I had slept for at least a month by then. My mouth tasted like a swamp, and moss was beginning to grown on my back and legs. My father shook his head. He said our town was too small. There were no doctors good enough for me. “Time heals everything,” my mother added blithely. “Just get some rest. Maybe you’ll feel better in the morning.” When she closed the door behind them, I felt the underside of her coldness. Like that ache in winter when all the blood has left your feet and hands. Right before the numbness sets in.
The House Where I Grew Up
The house where I grew up began as a stone square, but my father, an architect, added two wings onto it so by the time I was born, it was shaped like a U with children’s bedrooms on the two sides. We could look out of our windows and glimpse each other getting undressed. “I see you naked,” one sister would call out through an open window. Another yelled back, “I see you in your flowered underpants!” From seven to nine p.m., I watched my older sisters and brother doing their homework, framed in the yellow light. At nine o’clock sharp, the house went dark, the day ending with a flick of the switch like a movie without credits. I lay back in bed and listened as the night sounds began. Horses whinnied and kicked their stalls, tree frogs clung to the window screens and sang love songs to one another, owls screeched and swooped over the fields, and one rooster crowed and crowed. My father said that was because he was an Andalusian rooster and came from the wrong time zone.
The lights only came back on was when one of us took sick. I’d sit up and bed and listen to a sister or brother crying out, “I don’t feel good!” My mother never woke—she slept through screams, thunderstorms, howling dogs, ringing phones, strangers and policemen knocking on the door. My father, half-asleep, drifted into our bedrooms on sock feet. In one hand, he held a glass of water. In the other, a Bayer aspirin. He believed in Bayer back then, owned stock in the company, and said it cured everything: nausea, diarrhea, flu, canker sores, nightmares, pinkeye, insomnia. “Take this,” he’d say, “and you’ll feel much better.” If one pill didn’t work, he’d give us another. I can still feel the aspirin burn as it entered my bloodstream like a tiny white tooth.
The Girl Who Wanted to Be a Cliché
How could she explain? She had always felt like a fish out of water. A dog without its day. Or something the cat dragged in when all she wanted was to jump on the bandwagon and join the club or sign on the dotted line along with all those suburban men in coats and ties, those Tom, Dick, and Harry’s with their lovely women, as fresh as daisies in their flats and pearls and pencil skirts. You could put them anywhere, in any novel or city in America, and they would have sex twice a week, always before ten at night, never at the eleventh hour, and it would not take long. They would come easy as pie. American apple pie. Time being of the essence. And no one would give them a second glance or eat their words or make them pay. That was their beauty—their enviable, everyday charm—their thoughts were always in a box like eggs in one basket or fish in a fine kettle. Even if they banged their heads against a brick wall or went to hell in a hand basket or were baptized by fire or barked up the wrong tree or never crossed the bridge, they would sleep like babies at night and wake every morning, just in time for their precious moments in the sun.