Strange Heroines

by Grace Mazzucchi

 

I lived alone for the first time in my late twenties, following the end of a six-year relationship that took me across four states and two countries before I finally landed on my own in the still grungy heart of Pittsburgh. The staircase of my 1950s steelworker apartment was narrow and pink, the exact shade of the inside of a mouth, which created an intensified feeling of interiority for the already hyper-interior world I was living, given my new abundance of solo time. The staircase steeply divided the third-story attic bedroom from the lower floor, and it came to feel symbolic for the divide in consciousness I experienced when finally falling asleep, alone, in my giant antique bed beneath the slanted ceiling. As in the famous scene of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, where the witch woman lifts, stiff as a board above the bed to float on air, I liked to imagine my own body floating, supernatural, outside of pain, while the house jigsawed to pieces around me. I had left my ex and was done mourning, but my newfound domestic solitude was eerie and I found myself already restless to find another partner. But I wanted to be beyond desire, like Tarkovsky’s witch woman, unattached to the sad failings of society and all its people, unattached to love, just to be: a body, needless and possessed by her own visions, levitating high among the trees.


In my bed at night this state seemed possible, maybe, but by day, an unattached persona reflected nothing of how I felt, hungry to be with people as hungry as I was. When I found myself so often alone, I stalked my way through the neighborhood and into bars, wild and eager to converse with anyone who was passionate about anything. As one could imagine, my unofficial dating method usually resulted in less than desirable conclusions. But one night, when “Lola” came on the jukebox I turned to the stranger in his cool denim jacket beside me, and said, “I always think he’s smiling so hugely when he sings this—which doesn’t necessarily go with the lyrics, but you can kind of feel—it’s euphoric, really.” This struck things up. The stranger’s name was Eric, and he too felt a complicated joy in the song, and, like me, seemed to experience it as almost “too much,” which was the place I always wanted to be, brim-full and about to spill over. Eric asked to walk me home and at the chain-link fence outside my apartment he asked me to call him. Old fashioned success.
 


A few nights later, I invited him over and we sat on my thinly-carpeted bedroom floor in front of my desk and somehow—I had not planned it, but how quickly we realized our shared affinities—we watched all four hours of  The Sacrifice on the computer without stopping. This is mythical to me now, almost impossible to sit still for that long, let alone on a first date. But Tarkovsky conjures mythical intensity, and I managed to be really into the film despite our both thinking about how close our bodies were to touching, despite our awareness of the thin river of air snaking between our crossed knees, the proximity between our fingers when one of us shifted. When it ended, and the screen grew dark on the flames, Eric talked nervously and said he wanted to kiss me but he knew he shouldn’t. I said ok, whatever he wanted to do. His wild bird energy overwhelmed in a way that would’ve tripped my panic at some other time in my life, but that year I was living without a mind to consequence, open to screwing around with people who didn’t have their emotional lives as together as I didn’t. In sum: I spent a lot of time sitting in the bathtub, fully dressed. It was cool and contained me, my body something lightly palmed, and leaning back I was eye-level with trees full of birds, whose song of alternating soft and shrill reminded me there was life outside myself or my own need for love.


Thus, as Eric erratically paced my room in his lovely torn t-shirt I let his energy roll through me. I recognized it. Nervously rambling, he pulled a book off the shelf. It was Wuthering Heights, which I had read at least five times. Eric had never read it—You should, I told him, and You can borrow it. He said ok, and that he had to use the bathroom. When he came back he was shaking and said he really liked me but he needed to go. Something had shifted—he felt unnervingly off and for a moment, I was afraid: he was a total stranger, after all, but I led him down the stairs and at the door he said how much he liked me, that if he didn’t go he would kiss me, that he was sorry, and then he left.


In the following months, I saw him a few more times at the same bar, but he always avoided my gaze, like we never watched four hours of a really intense film together, sitting in a way that made our arms and legs go numb because we were too afraid to move our bodies either closer or farther away. I wondered if something was wrong with me, but mostly I realized something was wrong with him. Still, it was a rough season, and rejection was difficult to disguise and, after all, I was the one who started things with the “Lola” remark. One crowded night we literally collided at the bar and he couldn’t avoid me and he said things had “gotten fucked up,” and he was moving back to Chicago to become an actor, and he would make sure to return my book first, Don’t worry. I didn’t expect to see it again, but I thanked him. I wished him luck. He did not look well. He looked like someone who was beautiful, but who was losing.


Several weeks passed and, depressed about life in general, I drove to my mom’s for the weekend to watch TV and eat packaged snacks. On the way back, crossing the Allegheny, the moon was so low and heavy in the sky it looked like it’d just been born, and I was amazed. I was amazed to be alive and witness to this moon. I was excited to go home to my frigid, lonely, narrow-staired apartment with its fake-wood paneling that I rented for $330 a month, under this moon. It lit the walk the whole way to my front door, which, upon opening, revealed Wuthering Heights propped up with a note in generic, blue ballpoint going sideways that said Thanks for letting me borrow this. I actually read it and you were right, it’s amazing. No signature. My eyes filled with tears that I still cannot explain. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
 


I never saw Eric again. I never told him that my favorite part of Wuthering Heights is how Cathy throws tantrums because she is so in love with someone she tells herself she can’t have (though she can), and later, how her ghost won’t let up because of it— rubbing its wrists to shreds all over the window she breaks to be let in, bleeding onto the bedclothes of a man who has absolutely nothing to do with it. I saw myself as much in Cathy’s childish ghost as in Tarkovsky’s stately witch—my heart swinging from excess to stoicism as I loved and failed at love, or rather, as I more often saw it, love failed me.


Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, was Tarkovsky’s definition of cinema. Cinema that imitates life. How much I felt, have always felt, the countless number of people passing me by, near and far, as possibilities, glimpses in a mirror that keeps moving. The fade of a person’s collar or the most delicate gesture, shredding a napkin in a bar, can undo me. How much, from my singularity, I try to enter that boundlessness and find love in all its forms. I felt that nightly from the antique bed where I slept alone, where I learned love could wait for weeks, months, years in hiding; and, knowing that, I talked to myself, I talked to strangers, I invited strangers to read the books or watch the movies I loved, to try and share it, to not feel alone, and—when they or I left, inexplicably, as it goes—to feel alone.


It’s odd to think so often of someone I barely knew, but I met Eric at a particularly crucial cut in the prism of learning about myself, so he has remained. He’s a vivid part of my consciousness, set to the tone of Tarkovsky’s madness, Cathy’s madness, the brilliance of feeling something so much you lose your mind, like an anchor speeding through the cold and wild dark. I wanted to feel impossible sums with someone, bursting as I was for always feeling so much alone. Thus, I loved Eric easily, in a troubled season when the reflection of deep blue windows in facing windows, on an early spring evening at dusk when the dogs began to bark, was almost too much to bear. When the swift but tangible embrace of a near stranger, his denim jacket brushing my cheek, made the floor drop out from under me. But I loved even more that he allowed me to realize that I was alone, as we all are alone, and with the gift of brushed shoulders, I was ok.


Meg Shevenock is a writer and private teacher specializing in giftedness and alternative education. She lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Times Literary SupplementBest New Poets 2006Prairie SchoonerDenver Quarterlyjublilat, and the Kenyon Review blog.

This column is edited by Bindu Bansinath and Sophia Richards. Click here to learn more about submitting your own material.

Illustration by Grace Mazzucchi. You can see her work here, and contact her at gracemazzucchi@gmail.com

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Meg Shevenock