“Yeah-no, it was good. Intense, kinda-sure, but no-yeah, really good stuff,” she said over the phone, with that irksome-but-admittedly-strategic manner of speaking where one negates something just affirmed, then confirms something she just denied.
And, really, hat’s off to Annika for successfully employing “yes” and “no” so simultaneously, so often, in so many of our conversations, with such smoothness: how she managed to annoyingly-but-strategically avoid any sense of responsibility associated with a having a clear opinion—while, of course, sounding fervently decided—was down-right magical, a talent fit to be studied by politicians globally, universally.
And yeah-look-no, it used to drive me mad, actually. But years of practice—particularly these more recent ones, where my patience muscles have gotten (Jesus Christ, have they gotten!) significantly more exercise— have taught me that of all things to fight over, another’s less-than-satisfactory habits of verbiage doesn’t have to be one of them if you kinda-sure already know what they mean. While I couldn’t be convinced she liked the commentary on suicide I’d recently written and posted, I also couldn’t know if she didn’t like it. And I could (irony hopefully acknowledged) live with that.
And anyway, I thought while exiting the little linen shop (how did I get into a linen shop?) that I was perusing through nonchalantly— nearly dropping my water bottle, my backpack, and The Broom of the System at being immediately rammed into by the impressively self-reproducing river of French chatter, crunchy shopping bags, and seductive cigarette smoke that made up the street Rue de Saint Catherine—Anyway, she’s the one who brought up the piece anyway.
And I shrugged to her on the phone, like I sometimes do, half to reintroduce the straining bag straps to my shoulders, half to shake away thoughts fit for the Very Good Things to Think About But Now Isn’t Really A Good Time mental file.
Because it wasn’t something I felt like talking about, really. And it was probably why Annika was currently delivering out posi-negis like a foreign diplomat during an alliance hiccup, poking and prodding around in order deduce the reason behind my uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm about… myself.
“Well I’m glad you liked it, I guess, thanks,” is all I said back, my lumbering evolving into the strut of the woman lancing on just ahead of me. Long steps. High chin. Crisp steps. Ears chasing shoulders out, looks like. Long steps. Pretends face is sunshine, probably.
“Why doesn’t she write something nice though?” came a voice in the background of Annika’s end.
“So I take it you’re at Mom’s.”
“You are indeed correct-o.”
“Don’t have her get me wrong!” Mom’s voice called again, “It was really good!” Her hands were no doubt elsewhere employed, as they always were, and I could practically see her neck straining to separate head from body and deliver itself straight into the Annika’s device. Unnecessarily shouting, as she always was. But years of practice—yes, these more recent ones, where my patience muscles have gotten significantly more exercise— have taught me that of all things to fight over, another’s less-than-satisfactory habits of intonation doesn’t have to be one of them if you know there’s love underneath.
“But what I’m saying!” A kerfuffle ensued, a flurry of raspy technology tossing where Mom, no doubt, has just swallowed Annika’s phone; she’s dried, wiped, scraped her hands of whatever domestic surgery she’d invented for herself, and stopped shouting. “What I’m saying is that you’re so talented, Katrina.” She sounds exasperated, and my eyes narrow while I flex my patience and practice my stride. Long steps. Remember. Love. Under. Neath.
“Why don’t you use it to write about happy things? Things people will feel, you know, good about reading? Why do you have to talk about all that dark, intense stuff.”
You sound, I thought angrily, a lot of like the people who got me there in the first place.
And Annika—whom I gave, right after she was born, the secret access code to the frequency on which to think so that we could communicate telepathically without our parents knowing what we were talking about— heard me.
A second kerfuffle, a commotion of exchange, and Annika’s back on the line. “What Mom meant to say,” she rushes, “Is that it’s hard for a mother to read, you know? Especially when it’s her daughter who’s writing about a girl who wants to kill herself. That’s all. She liked it, she really did.”
Excellent translation work, I think.
Don’t get mad at Mom, she’s thinks back, and suddenly I feel like I’m a lion, some sort of dangerous animal, that’s escaped; like Annika’s this zookeeper with a hand out stretched out front, standing in front of a bunch of terrified elementary children, speaking slowly and cautiously that we’re all just friends here, right? Right? Can’t I just turn around, like a good kitty? There’s a good kitty, go back to sleep….
You’ve made me a threat and I haven’t even said anything yet, I think, as a lion.
“Look, you don’t all have to like the things I write,” I say into the speaker, and meant it.
“And it wasn’t even that good!” I laugh to the sky, and meant it.
“And it wasn’t—” I don’t want them to hear I’m crying.
“—about me,” and I really, really meant it. And Annika hears the tears I tried to make invisible, and I feel her switching frequencies to give me some privacy, some personal space on our same wavelength.
“I know, Katrina.”
I felt like she didn’t, which was when it all became clear why I didn’t want to talk about this piece. I didn’t want to convince anyone the suffering little girl wasn’t me… because part of her truly was. But to add that I’d imbibed it with imagination wasn’t tasty to modern readers either. It wasn’t juicy if it wasn’t maybe about the author, and if she denied it—how wonderful—it gets yummier!—then it simply must be true, yippee and how awful! Or, as with the case of my family, they wanted to cuddle me or be scared for me… instead of doing the real literary, or even humanitarian, work of imagining where this girl could reside in ourselves. And that’s what made me cry.
I had no desire to explain those things, nada, zero. I’ve had to learn over the years—the most recent ones, by god, yes these most recent ones— when to (irony hopefully acknowledged) play dead.
So I was silent for a long time, saw the tram approaching through the throngs of people in the distance, and told them that I really get it, that I’m not angry, that I understand, and can see where she’s coming from. Yes, Mom, I sigh into the phone, I’ll totally give the happy-story thing a shot. Love you, bye.
I didn’t stir much during the twenty-three minutes of city transport, but the resulting walk from my destined tram stop to my desired bedroom is a kerfuffle, a commotion of exchanges, between three Katrina’s: one is slumping along the sidewalk like a beaten child, one is striding like a proud woman, one is slinking like an escaped lion.
She sounded like they used to, wept the little girl.
Those jerks, bit the woman.
Is it too late to eat them? asked the Lion.
They used to tell me I was so pretty, wept the little girl.
If only I stuck to smiling, bit the woman.
I’d like to eat them, said the Lion.
They said I made people happier that way, wept the little girl.
They told me I was ugly and stupid when I serious, bit the woman.
And look what happened, roared the Lion. All three pointed at certain broken pieces of the young lady in my latest story, the ones that looked like me.
“And you know what? I do write happy things,” I said, stepping through the front door, talking to nobody. “But Jesus, sue me for trying to be sincere, complex, and fictional all at the same time!”
“What was that?! Who’s home!?”
Hours later, in my journal, written in the sloppy, fast scrawl of someone evidently hot-tempered, is this:
I’m going to write a wonderful, amazing, insanely beautiful story. I’m going to make it the best story in the world, and it’s going to be about two people who go on long journeys of self-discovery. And every time they reach a point where they feel like they just made a huge, irreversible mistake (plot ideas: lost job, lost car, empty bank account, ran over cat) they end up keep running into each other in yet another charming, funny, and deep way (setting ideas: supermarket, New Mexico, a really low-rated motel in New Mexico*, Las Vegas, Finland) that always ends up making them feel better, and leading them right to where they need to be, it’s freaking fantastic. And at the last place (France?) they both run into each other and find that they both have been wondering about the other all this time, that no one ever managed to say things as powerful or as funny or as kind as this other person they kept running into, and one of them (both of them?) say something along the lines of “Because of you, I had to stop believing in mistakes. I tried, over and over again, to just give up. But they never stopped leading me to the best parts of my life… to you.”
And then there’s a really epic-but-not-too-long description of the French country side where they get married. And it’s really precisely written so that it’s believable, this is important.****
And then I’ll have one of them be a writer, and he writes something really serious and dark and intense, and the woman is so upset that she can’t even finish it and she leaves him, says she preferred him when he was young and happy, and then he dies from the the grief of thinking that he’d found someone who loves him for all his sides, all his colors, and being irreversibly heartbroken at finding out he was so wrong.
And then the last page is her sitting at his funeral listening to the priest up at the podium, who opens up his book and reads his final chapter– which is actually incredibly sweet and kind and happy– and the story ends in this scene when she finds out it that his serious, dark, and intense novel was actually a story about the triumph of love the whole time, and the last words of her dead lover’s book was, “Because of you, I had to stop believing in mistakes. I tried, over and over again, to just give up. But they never stopped leading me to the best parts of my life… to you.” The end.
And then I dedicate and give it to Mom.
What my mother did in her youth to deserve such a petty, asshole of a daughter, I thought as I was falling asleep, I. Shudder. To. Think. And I fell asleep wondering if I’d just solidified the odds that I’d have one myself someday.
But as much as I want to write “But luck was on Karen’s side,” that’s not the real reason her petty, asshole of daughter didn’t write such a merciless, unnecessary revenge plot onto her mother’s conscious. And it wasn’t for sake of laziness either.
Nah, I didn’t act on my impulse because it was my mom’s out-of-this-world parenting that lead me to writing something much, much different.
Her daughter was absolutely bawling, and it was awful. But she held tight to her child, who was struggling for the door with such intensity that the clawing had drawn blood from both of them. “Let me go!” screetched the little girl. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”
“You can hate me.” The young mother was saying calmly between the toddler’s screams. “Go ahead, hate Mommy with everything you have. But I love you. I love you anyway, do you hear me? Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you.”
And this made the little girl go absolutely banshee: her scream’s only aim became to break it’s own voice box, her flailing dedicated to breaking every bone– anything to make sure her anger won. “I HATE YOU!”
But despite the pinching, the biting, the scratching, the mother held tight, and soon the little girl’s tantrum reduced itself to a whine, and then to a whimper. “Mommy…” sniffed the little girl, finally, her skin burning and her face buried in her mother’s lap. “I’m sorry, Mama.”
“I know, my love.” And despite the outward searing of her own skin, and the inside pain of watching such anguish run through the system of such a young creature, she bounced her knee slightly to complete the lesson, “Can you look up at me for a second? There we go, my sweet girl. Do you know why Mommy didn’t let you run away and hate her?”
The little girl, eyes still filled with tears, shook her head.
“Because you have to feel all that icky bad stuff, my love. No hiding. If you hate Mommy, you can feel of it with Mommy until it’s all out. Because I’m always going to love you, Katrina.”
This is how the little girl grew up to believe in miracles, even though she did not realize it for many, many years. Instead she nodded, and nodded, and nodded –all cried out, all hatred spent—and nodded until she was fast asleep in her mother’s embrace. A fuzzy, scorched warmth was vibrating off of them as the mother rocked her not-so-small daughter slowly in her arms, the two of them making up a strange human fireplace; the two became soft hearth of ending embers so sweet, so loving, that only the wise would recognize it as a sign that a wild, violent fire had to have once burnt there to leave it.
And the mother would do this her whole life for this particular daughter, who would get so angry when people loved her and she didn’t understand why. She was such a clever mother, always finding ways to hold her daughter close to her chest, even when they were far apart. Finding ways to appear into her daughter’s dreams, into her daughter’s thoughts, even into her daughter’s moral compass. Finding ways to always let her daughter know that her love would win, always, forever.
And her daughter, who grew to live until she was a very old and happy woman herself, always knew.
I wrote that story instead.
Because after I’d gotten all my anger out in pen, just like you taught me, I saw that all I was made up of was sadness that you didn’t think I wrote feel-good things.
And so, for your birthday, I wanted to illustrate to you how I’ve grown up because of you. That I take your lessons, I apply them, and I become a better person everyday for it.
And this was my best attempt at being sincere, complex, and feel-goody. I’ll get better with practice.
And that I looked up what “lion-hearted” meant (after I felt it the Lion in my chest on my way home) and it means someone who’s brave, bold, passionate, and noble. Someone who’s a fighter. And, I’d qualify, someone so strong they could defend their cubs against anything… even against themselves. But the description matched me less than it matched someone else I know… and then it all clicked.
Mama, that’s why you know my heart so well: you made mine out of yours. You made all three of ours out of yours.
Happy Birthday to one of the most sincere, complex, loving women I know.
Your Occastionally Petty, Asshole Daughter, Katrina
(who’s love for you wins, always, forever.)