*Notable Essay Best American Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2018
The dolls never slept. They stayed wide eyed and unblinking on their shelf in my small, overheated room, watching me watch the man and woman in the apartment across the way. As a child with insomnia, I was wide eyed, too, although I would have preferred sleep. Strangely, the couple never appeared in the window frame together. The white satin slip the slim woman wore as she crisscrossed the room left a kind of afterglow as the robed man replaced her in the frame, a lit, otherworldly image that kept me awake even longer. I wondered about the lives of these adults who were nothing like the grownups I knew, realizing at the same time that I’d never know anything about them.
The regiment of dolls, lined up at attention in neat rows, functioned as my personal sentry. I felt most reassured by the ranks of the exotically dressed foreign-born of many backgrounds who’d been brought to me by traveling friends and relatives. I suspected that they possessed secret military skills they wouldn’t hesitate to use if the need arose, especially the bearded, dashing one from Saudi Arabia whom my brother and I named Abdullah. With a big leather water pouch slung over his shoulder and vigilant, piercing eyes, he seemed confident, ready for anything that might happen during the night. Relieved, I’d eventually allow sleep to claim me.
The child in the hospital bed across from mine was crying inconsolably in the darkness. On the floor I could make out a rough-looking, shapeless stuffed toy. “Someone pick it up! Please!” he wailed over and over.
I strained to hear footsteps. Nothing. Shouldn’t a nurse come? Where could she be? At nine years old, having fallen off a low fence while visiting my grandmother in East Harlem, bashing my skull on concrete, I was sleeping in a hospital for the first time in my life. The concussion diagnosis was minor compared to that other trauma, and I fought the terror by assuming that the strange, sterile place where I found myself was governed by the same rules and expectations as in the adult world I’d experienced so far.
But no one came, and the child, perhaps five years old, became more insistent. “Someone! Please pick up Teddy!” he implored, both panic and despair in his refrain.
After what felt like forever, a nurse appeared. I sighed with relief as the woman in white bent over the low bars of the bed, her face very close to the boy’s, in a gesture that my nine-year-old mind likened to a wingless angel or at least, a comforting mother figure.
“Shut up!” she snarled.
Her voice was deep, like an animal’s growl, and as I heard those two words, my world crashed. A seismic shift occurred in my head, shaking my faith, upending everything I’d believed to be true. Only my physical, hairline fracture would heal completely.
I burrowed into my bed and pulled the sheet over my face, leaving only my eyes visible—and even then, I felt the need to hide completely, to erase myself. I played dead, a mute witness in the night, holding my breath, stilling my limbs, while straining to hear what would happen next. The child kept repeating his anguished plea, but this time the nurse answered, “Shut up, I said, or I’ll give you the needle.” I felt a sharp pain. I could not escape this blow, this knife thrust, this darkening of my once-bright heart.
In the Max Ernst painting, “Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale,” a girl/woman with wildly flying black hair holds out a small knife. Another lies on the ground as if she’s fainted. Or maybe she’s dead—to me, her dress has the look of a bandage or mummy wrapping. A faceless man carrying a bundled child seems to be running atop a red wooden structure. Far off in the sky are the two curved paint strokes universally understood to represent a bird.
I first came upon this deeply disquieting work in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan while researching surrealism for an independent high school project. Ernst said that it was inspired during a fevered hallucination of early childhood memories and dreams, which didn’t surprise me. I was completely mesmerized as if in a dream, pulled in shuddering but held by a fascination that kept me rooted, unable to move on to another painting.
And yet, despite the work’s title, I could find nothing threatening about the nightingale, so small and distant that it seems an afterthought. Some critics believe the female is “brandishing” the knife, presumably for protection, as she faces in the bird’s direction. In the scenario that I imagined, it’s the adults who pose the threat. The woman with the knife possibly just murdered the woman lying near her feet, who could be the mother of the kidnapped infant being carried off by the man on the rooftop. The bird is innocent, a remote observer of human evil. Of course, I couldn’t be sure, knowing only that this artwork powerfully communicated both mystery and menace.
It’s summertime and nearly dusk. My husband and I are relaxing in a rented house on a road leading to a tranquil bay nearby. We hear low voices and footsteps. At the window I see a family of five, all blonde, all wearing the tasteful pastel cotton outfits that could fill the pages of a Lands End catalog. They move slowly as if under water, their flip flops smacking the tar rhythmically like water slapping itself. A blue astral light blinks in the ear of the teenage boy. When they murmur, their perfect incisors gleam, biting through the dark like the moon’s mouth above their shoulders. I suddenly think of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” that sci-fi classic of deceptively normal-looking people who’ve actually been taken over by aliens. They go about their daily routine, hiding their nefarious plans.
Walking on the beach earlier that day, I’d seen two men in the far distance who appeared to be dressed in white from their legs up to their necks. Oddly, the words “sun protection” didn’t enter my mind but “hazmat suits.” But maybe they were a mirage after all, not intimations of disaster.
The volume of Grimms’ Fairy Tales that I’d checked out of the library when I was eight filled me with horror by day and violent nightmares by night. To this day, I recoil recalling that in the Grimms’ version, Cinderella’s stepsisters chopped off their own toes and heels to fit into the golden (not glass) slipper. Evil characters were tortured in gruesome ways such as being thrown naked into a barrel of nails and having their eyes pecked out. But the most gruesome fates seemed to be reserved for the children—in one tale, a stepson is decapitated and cut up for stew that’s so tasty, his father asks for a second helping. Even the black line drawings in the book had the sinister quality of a dark, tangled wood where children could easily be lost and ensnared. After reading several of the stories, which filled me with revulsion and dread, I could read no more. “They’re just fairy tales,” I assured myself. “Nothing like this happens in real life.”
I’d seen a few older kids in the schoolyard verbally attack and even push around the smaller children, but if one of the nuns witnessed this behavior, she would swiftly intervene with great wrath. In my world view, that’s what grownups were there to do: protect the innocent and vulnerable. If the newspapers of the time reported horrendous stories of child abuse, as they do so often today, I was blissfully unaware.
During freshman year of college, I read Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow.” That 1925 short story set in Germany left a strong impression on me that persisted over the years. Recently, it occurred to me that I’d forgotten the plot–all I could recall was a little girl’s heartbreak during a party given by her teenage brother and sister. So I decided to reread the story, reacquainting myself with the characters: an aging university professor and his wife; their adolescent son and daughter; and the innocent “little folk,” Ellie and Snapper.
Why did this story affect me so profoundly when I remembered so few details? Now I realize that its significance for me didn’t relate at all to plot details. Everything came down to the story’s title, which perfectly described my childhood experience in the hospital.
For my school project, I spent hours in the Donnell Library, which was known for its extensive art archives, pouring over books about the avant-garde surrealism movement. Directly across the street was the Museum of Modern Art, where I could view some of the best examples firsthand or just wander the galleries and make my own discoveries.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for Giorgio de Chirico’s painting, “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street,” held in a private collection. Like Ernst’s “Two Children,” the work seized me and wouldn’t let go even though I encountered it only in one dimension, reproduced and bound into a book of art plates.
Eerie. Haunting. Desolate. Enigmatic. Unsettling. Again, there is a child, a girl rolling a hoop, her wind-blown hair and raised back leg indicating that she’s in motion. But is she real? Was she ever real? She’s been painted as a shadow of a girl, and she is moving in bright light down an empty street, maybe toward the source of that light. Up ahead looms the shadow of an over-sized adult, who is probably not human but a statue.
Whenever I gaze on this painting, I feel in my heart and on my bones the heavy menace of its scene. To the girl’s right is a circus box car, the rear door open to a dark, impenetrable interior. To her left are the repeating arches of a white colonnade, each entrance way filled with more shadow and unknown threats.
When MoMA exhibited this and nineteen other de Chirico paintings in 1955, the exhibition director, James Thrall Soby, wrote, “The figure of the girl is an unforgettable invention…One has the impression that even if she reaches the light, she is doomed, for she is herself a shadow, perhaps retracing the steps which led to her dissolution, her image invested with the horror of ghostly re-enactment. No other painting by de Chirico more piercingly conveys the sense of omen…”
When my playmates flung their dolls—uncombed or bald, filthy, one-shoed, sometimes naked—I felt myself shrink back. I wasn’t happy about my reaction and took pains to hide it so that I wouldn’t be seen as an outsider. My well-groomed dolls had too much self-possession and dignity to be neglected and tossed about and had given me the gift of their benign, predictable presence. Eventually they made room for a menagerie of stuffed animals—I remember a cat, dog, rabbit, tiger, lion, alligator and teddy bear, all safely residing in the Noah’s Arc of my bed.
I hoped the nurse wouldn’t notice me, occasionally peeking over the edge of the sheet. I hoped I didn’t exist for her. If she knew I knew, would she give me the needle, too? “O.K.!” the boy had wailed back after her threat, “But please pick it back up!” Before long his pleas stopped and I heard only soft whimpers. Then—silence. Because of his exhaustion and defeat? Or at that moment, was the child hugging his bear? Was there mercy?