Chorus by Melissa Grunow
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” —Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
We stand in drizzling rain outside a Chinese cafe, slightly shivering in thin jackets. We had met for dinner and stayed nearly forty-five minutes past closing time. Our conversation spilled over into the parking lot when we finally noticed the glares from the wait staff ready to go home for the night. Scott is shifting his weight a little. The story he’s telling is winding down and there is—for the first time all night—momentary silence.
“So,” he says. “This was fun.”
I nod and smile a little to encourage him to go on. “It was.”
“We should do this again.”
“Sure,” I say. “Any time.”
“But I have to tell you,” he begins. I stiffen from simultaneous anticipation and dread. “I haven’t dated since probably graduate school. So,” he pauses. “I guess I don’t know what that means.”
He’s forty-nine years old. I do the math quickly and realize he hasn’t dated since the nineties. The decade of my childhood. “It doesn’t have to mean anything,” I say. I pause for a moment and ask the question I probably shouldn’t ask. “Why so long?”
“There was a relationship,” he starts. “I’d rather not get into the details now, but let’s just say things didn’t end well. So I decided not to date for a while, and that turned into years.”
I nod a little, my lips pursed. I rock my body to quiet the dozens of thoughts bouncing around inside my mind, including one tiny alarm bell.
“There’s an expression in sign language,” he makes a gesture with his hands. “It literally translates to ‘Train gone.’ It’s like when we say, ‘You missed the boat.’ So, I guess you could say I missed the boat.”
“Train gone,” I repeat, kicking at the asphalt.
I wear a watch given to me by Jason, an unkind ex-boyfriend. The day and date aren’t set correctly, and I don’t know how to fix them.
Jason is a living, breathing phantom, complete with half his face, half his soul, hidden by a mask. It’s evil hiding evil, breeding deeper evil. He said “I love you” with his gifts and “I hate you” with his words. My instincts in reading others are challenged by people who lie to me, who deceive me, who convince me that I must be mistaken. Jason is one of those people. When he’s angry, his voice is strong, the language stunted and punctuated. His face gets fixed in a snarl, and I notice the root of one of his front teeth has darkened brown.
There is no goal other than to continue to move forward. It’s a dance, march, and a glide. My arch never touches the ground. Instead weight pressures an arc, a clip-clop against stone, a gait—Flip, scuff, slide, recover, forward push, and I keep going.
Jason yanks my hair to keep my attention. His eyes lie. His lashes are long and lush, hiding truth, disguising delayed interest. I can’t explain what his motivations are. I just know I can recall times where he looked at me and downright hated me.
“You’re just a bipolar slut,” he says.
“The difference between you and me,” I tell him. “Is that I’ve been diagnosed.”
The definition of addiction is anything that causes you pain, but you continue to do it anyway. The curse of an addict is to chase the one thing that can destroy you.
I carry on an email flirtation with a colleague who works in another building, exchanging smiles and greetings whenever we do happen to cross paths, but never get to the point where we exchange phone numbers or spend any time together outside of work. I make occasional visits to River City to physically connect with a man twelve years my junior; yet, the bond we share is so strong, so sacred, that I will always, eventually, find myself on the road, travelling across the state to connect again. My office flirtation and sporadic road trips are enough for me until the feelings of loneliness and worthlessness bury themselves deep inside, festering abscesses that I can’t ignore. So then I reach out again. Flirt, date, and eventually one of us quits the other. This is the process. This is the pattern. This is addiction.
Keep calm and carry what? A stick to fight off the boys, a younger version of my dad would tell a younger version of me. I don’t tell him about the guy across the parking lot, though, and I certainly don’t tell him about River City. I don’t have those kinds of conversations with my dad.
I have a dream about my office flirtation. I dream we’re walking through a downtown area hand-in-hand, window shopping and smiling at the interesting things we’re saying to one another. The dream takes place on a sunny day. Warm, friendly, and bright. There is a comfort between us that I can’t understand or describe because it’s one that I haven’t felt before in my waking life. In the morning, snowflakes the size of quarters fall and collect on the grass. I expect them to make the cling-cling-cling sound of slot machines, but they’re silent.
I’ve been shoved into a darker bout of depression. It’s the darkest in a while. Darker than I can ever remember. I’m buried so deep that when the mania finally does snatch me back to the surface and into the sky, I soar along happily, surging with energy, knowing it won’t last, knowing it can’t last. Mania looks different each time she knocks on my door.
My therapist tells me, “Don’t make any major life decisions until you get this sorted out.” “This” means my depression, specifically bipolar disorder, specifically the meds to treat the disorder, meds that are attempting to quiet the chorus of obsessive thoughts and premature emotions that run the gauntlet of my mind.
Bipolarity. Binary. Duality. Dualism. Dichotomy. Contrast. Clash. Crash.
There is the position of the privileged and the plight of the oppressed. Psychology would define them as having a healthy relationship, when neither one’s sense of self-worth is more inflated than the other, but I can’t help but to root for the underdog, to be a hero in my own life.
My doctor prescribes a drug that is also used to treat epilepsy, as there are no specific medications for bipolar disorder. It comes in two huge pills that I have trouble swallowing, even with a large glass of water, and she insists on the name brand; she doesn’t allow the pharmacy to substitute the generic. I’ve never been a label person, but I comply.
She warns that weight gain is a possible side effect. I gain forty pounds in three months, maxing out my body at a size I never conceived of as possible.
“You just need to watch what you’re eating,” she says, refusing to try something else. “The Depakote is working, but you need to do your part.”
I leave her office in shame. It’s the most I can feel, the best fight I can muster. I’m lethargic. I have no energy, no metabolism, no will to do much more than to go through the motions of a day.
All I want to do is lie in bed and read books. Books. And more books. But nobody wants to pay me for that, and so I pull myself out of bed and get ready to go to work.
I’m a recluse. I’m like one of Herman’s Hermits, except I don’t sing. Instead, I simply don’t leave the house.
“That just makes you a hermit,” Janel says, laughing.
“I guess you could look at it that way,” I respond.
I let the dog out and go back to grading papers. I don’t have long moments of focus anymore. When I can get work done, I welcome the spurts of energy as long as I can will them to last.
You know when police will comb a lake looking for bodies when someone has drowned? I feel like the rake. I’m pulling through muck, moving slowly and coming up with nothing.
I go to sleep at 9 p.m. on a Saturday and wake up at 1:30 p.m. on a Sunday. I’m awake for two hours, sleep for two hours, awake for three hours, and finally go to bed for the night. I still struggle to wake up for work the next day.
I share this experience with my doctor. All she hears is “I struggle to wake up for work,” and concludes that I’m struggling with sleep in general. She prescribes me a new medication on the market that’s supposed to act as a sedative. I complain of lucid, taxing dreams, dreams in which the actions and conversations are so real, I start to believe they’ve happened. I’m disillusioned, living a life that isn’t real, building relationships that don’t exist.
When I complain, she increases the dose.
I have extreme bouts of paranoia, fear so debilitating that I sit on my kitchen floor with my back against my stove, hugging my dog, and paralyzed with suspicion that someone is trying to break into my house. I don’t go outside after dark, not even to haul trash cans to the curb. I walk a loop to every window three times, making sure each is double-locked. And still, I sleep with mace in my bedside table, terrified of the moment that I’ll have to use it.
At my next appointment, I watch my doctor schmooze with the pharmaceutical rep in the lobby, accepting gifts and samples, and I decide to do research. Latuda isn’t a sedative. It’s an antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia. A drug that was pushed on me, was pushed on her with the allure of free coffee and gift cards.
I stop taking it immediately, and I fire my doctor. I can overpay someone else for a hasty diagnosis and a thoughtless prescription.
The dreams and the fears subside. Gradually my sleep stabilizes. My weight does not.
On a water taxi in Italy heading away from Venice, I climb the steps to the upper deck to say good-bye to the city I’ve come to love in just two days. It’s a windy, sunny day, and I can see the Venice skyline in the distance, gradually getting smaller and smaller, nothing but wake between us.
I sit on a bench next our tour guide, Antonio. He turns to me and says, “Melissa, they built all of this for you,” he gestures to the ancient architecture in the distance. “And once you leave, oomph!” He brings his hands from above his head to his lap to mimic their collapse.
There are people in my house, a bar night after party. I make my way from room to room cleaning up beer bottles and caps, straightening cushions, and offering refills. I walk through a doorway to find a friend’s friend snorting my cut Xanax off my kitchen counter. The rolled up dollar bill, though, that belongs to him. The party’s over. Everyone go home.
In River City, my not-boyfriend turns to me on a torturously cold February evening and says, “Never waste a cigarette, booze, or the company of a good woman.” With him, I fight feelings of overwhelming failure. How do I make sense of this?
River City is an illusion and my disillusion. “We do love you, Melissa, we all love you. And by we, I mean myself.”
“How are you feeling?” They always start these sessions with the most loaded of questions.
“OK.” Translation: I’m flat. But it’s better than being unhappy, isn’t it?
I start to question identity, self-efficacy, and independence. What will it finally mean to live? I’ve always been this way. Exasperated by my environment, but kept in check by one tiny concept—hope. Hope that it wouldn’t last forever. Hope that it really wasn’t what it seemed to be.
My bedside table is covered with pill bottles and books. Is this really the life that I want for myself?
When Cayce arrives at my house to pick me up for an afternoon gallery show in Detroit, I greet him in the driveway with a hug. My niece, Madison, follows in kind, running up to him with her arms outstretched, her blonde hair whipping behind her. He kneels down and scoops her up in a strange, father-like gesture I don’t recognize in him.
A year later when Cayce tries to kiss me at my birthday party, I think not of all the men who had pressed lips against his, but instead of his defiant attitude toward commitment and his tendency to have sex with lesbians, as if two gays keep you gay—even if they’re a man and a woman subverting mainstream sexuality and gender roles.
Logic challenges me. I want to be reasonable. I want to live moment to moment without jumping to what the future could look like for me and this other person, but I don’t know how to stay focused on today. I want to confront obstacles in the relationship before there is even a relationship, and that frightens men. At least I believe it frightened him. I want to work toward something meaningful, toward something of validity. He is stuck on hugs of greetings and salutations, but nothing more. I’m too old to train someone how to be in a relationship, and he’s far too old to learn. Our paths didn’t cross at the right moment in our lives. And with a seventeen-year age gap, it’s unlikely they ever will.
The wind blows my hair over my face, and I catch a whiff of my shampoo. Are men drawn to this scent? Or do I remind them of their mother or sister instead?
Can I be your daughter? Why don’t you have one? I’ll never be able to give you one.
The radio predicts -50 degrees with the wind chill overnight. When I arrive home from work, I turn the heat up a few degrees with two concerns on my mind: frozen pipes and my record high gas bill.
The pipes freeze anyway. Last time it was just the tub faucets. This time it’s the sink, too. I might lose my shit over this. I have very low limits of what I can handle and this sets me teetering right on the edge.
There are so many empty spaces. It’s a house too big for one person, but too small for three. I either have to get a man or a baby, but I can’t have both.
There is an empty room in the center of my home; furniture with no coverings, a closet without clothes. I keep the door locked, and I keep the curtains pulled. There is no sound; no crying in the night, no giggles at dawn. There is no scent of powder or shampoo, no cream to combat rashes, no faces to wipe clean. There is no stretched belly (nor was there ever), no rose blooming from seed. An empty room: there is nothing when there should be—something.
That’s how I know. It’s not that I can’t have both a baby and a man. It’s that I don’t have either. I hear a distant whistle outside my window, three short and one long, and the chugging of a locomotive along the tracks, a bell ringing as it passes through town.
Melissa Grunow is an MFA student in creative nonfiction at National University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Quotable, The Adroit Journal, 94 Creations Literary Journal, Eunoia Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and others. She teaches English and creative writing courses at a small college in Michigan, and is writing her first book titled River City, a collection of essays. Visit her website at http://www.melissagrunow.com/.
Jen May is a Scorpio and artist living in Brooklyn, NY with 3 cats. She currently illustrates Madame Clairevoyant’s horoscopes for The Rumpus as well as the blog StrawberryFieldsWhatever.com.