Authors: Julia Mayer
Copyright Â© 2011 by Julia Mayer
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A Feeling of Light
I couldn't stop staring at the razor on the rim of my bathtub. It was bright pink and sparkly. The handle was soft, and the blades were contoured to avoid cutting my legs when I shaved. And now, that was all I wanted from it.
I picked it up and turned it over in my hands. I looked at my hand, my wrist, my arm. I ran my left hand over my right arm, touched my cheek to my shoulder, and looked down. My shoulder felt so soft, and my arms were so smooth and clean. They needed cuts. I needed to ruin this. I needed to feel something, anything.
Suddenly, I was very aware of the tension in my shoulders, my clenched back, and my curled toes. I put the razor against my skin, just under my left shoulder, and I pulled it straight across. I saw the three horizontal slashes. I watched the blood run down my arm. The cuts were shallow.
I would get better at this over time. I would learn to break the razors I bought so that I could hold each blade individually and make deeper cuts. I felt the pressure drain out of me as I ran water over a washcloth. I used the washcloth to blot the dripping blood and clean myself up and then soaked the cloth until it looked clean.
It was just like my health teacher had said it would be. I had listened to her put down all of my other vices. She had told me that there was no such thing as safe sex, that marijuana was a gateway drug, and that if I smoked I would die within four years. And then I'd listened to her tell me not to cut myself.
I used to squirm when I heard people talk about cutting. Taking a razor to your own flesh never seemed logical to me. But in reality, it's wonderful. You can cut into yourself all the frustrations people take out on you.
All the pieces of my life started to come back together after that. My dad was happy with me again. He saw his sweet little girl coming back, the one who'd disappeared after Mom died. I was happy with myself because everyone else thought I was fine. They thought I was learning how to cope, how to live, how to be happy, and only I knew the truth. And knowing the truth gave me power over all of them.
Every cut, every welt, every scar was my revenge on the world for making me who I was, for all of the wrong paths they sent me down, for all of the bad things they had made me do. The cuts were revenge on my dad for everything he had put me through. And on my mom for leaving me. These scars were mine alone, and nobody could take them away.
I didn't do it because of my father's girlfriends, or “lady friends” as he called them. Though having them around the house certainly didn't help. They were everything I expected them to be. Based on this selection, I don't know how he wound up with my mom in the first place. The women he brought home were horrible. They were mean or patronizing or young or old or justâ¦strange.
Immediately after meeting me, one of them acquired the habit of walking away in the middle of my sentences. She would ask me a question and then just as I was responding, she would leave. And she was one of my favorites. At least she didn't pretend to try to befriend me. It was easier being invisible.
Another one was frightened of elevators. My dad had suggested we could all go out for dinner together so we could get to know each other, and I ran into her in the lobby of his office building. She was closer to the call button but didn't use it. Instead she stared straight ahead.
We stood there for a moment until I realized that she wasn't going to catch on to the problem. So I leaned over and pushed the call button. The elevator doors opened and I would have walked in, but she continued standing there, blocking the entrance. I don't know if she was expecting a magic-carpet ride into the elevator, but she refused to move in. So I suggested we take the stairs.
“What's the matter with the elevator?” she asked, scurrying up the stairs behind me. At least my father's office was only on the fourth floor.
My father wasn't purposely ignoring my feelings; he just didn't really give any thought to what sort of effect his dating would have on me.
It took at least half a dozen of these women before he found someone that even I couldn't hate. Caroline. She was sweetness personified, the first to care about how I felt about her appearance in my life. I wanted so much to hate everything about her, just like I hated the others, but she made it impossible. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't keep my vow not to like her. I opened up and let her in. I should have known that could only end in her leaving.
It wasn't a car crash, a horrible accident, or any sort of vicious death. It was just meâ¦being me. Caroline realized how hard watching my father date was for me. “Talk to him, Samara. He cares about you. He just doesn't know how to show it. Help him,” she told me. So I did. Dad and I were doing the dishes together one nightâjust the two of us.
“What can I do for you, Pumpkin?”
“Can we talk?” I let a plate with soggy bits of rice on it clink in the sink. “Iâ¦I'm having some trouble accepting that you date.” I held my breath, and then a haze seemed to wash over my mind. The rest of the words tumbled out in a fast stream. “I thought Mom was the only woman you could ever love, and now you've forgotten about her and you bring home these horrible women who don't even care about you and they're so mean to me. I don't understand how you could just forget.”
My father stood staring, stunned, with a half-dry glass in his hand. His mouth hung open and his eyes seemed unnaturally wide. Then he silently took my hand, still soapy with dish suds, and led me upstairs to my room. He opened my closet door and stood me in front of the full-length mirror.
“Look at you. I could never forget your mother.”
I shook my head angrily, choking back tears. “I'm not Mom.”
“I know that, but you have her in you. In your eyes and chin, of course, but also in your heart and mind. That's how I can keep living without being afraid of forgetting.” He turned me so that I faced him. “But I wish I had known you were so upset. You can tell me anything. You know that, don't you? It can be just the two of us for a while.”
The next day he broke up with Caroline. I could picture her in the restaurant, shocked, sad, and disappointed.
I hadn't meant for him to do that. I tried to tell him, but he insisted it was “right for us.” So, Caroline's disappearance was my fault. I'm not to blame for my mother's death. I'm not to blame for Ms. Herwitz's disappearance. Caroline was my fault, though. And I'll never forget that. I can imagine what she would say if she knew what had happened. If she knew it was my fault their relationship ended.
“I cared about you enough to connect and to help you connect with your father. And now this?” she would say. And she would be right. Was this how I repaid her? She was one of the only people who had tried to reach out to me. And in retrospect, after this, well, it didn't surprise me at all that so few people had tried.
It was around that time that I started to need cutting instead of wanting it. I broke a new razor, storing the handle in the dresser in my room with all the others that I had saved for no reason, grabbed one of the blades, and lashed into myself. I made four deep cuts at the top of each leg and allowed the blood to drip onto the white tile floor of the bathroom. I sat down and waited, and when most of it had dried, I washed up, washed the floor, and went to bed.
I tried to silence myself after Caroline left. I tried to quiet my mind and watch others be happy. I thought maybe if I could see how they were happy, I would understand how to be happy and I could be happy myself. I had always been happy when I had no one. It was when I opened up to someone that I got hurt. Every time.
My birthday was five months later, right before school started. My dad and I spent it together, just the two of us. A month later I met Ms. Herwitz, who would have been the best birthday present ever. Everyone has one of them: that incredible person who makes you rethink your entire life until that point and reshapes everything that comes after.
She had an annoying bubbly happiness that only comes from the kind of adult who had a perfect Disney-movie childhood. She was trim and fit. There was a kind of beauty about her that reeked of perfection. She seemed to have such an overwhelming belief that she was beautiful that you almost had to believe it yourself, even though she never seemed vain or self-obsessed. It's hard to describeâa glow, I guess. A lot like the glow my mother used to have. Or I thought she had.
Ms. Herwitz's first day in class concluded with a conversation about the meaning of life. For all I remember, we could have been talking about the Monty Python movieâshe was just a substitute; she had no bearing on our grades or anything so we were all just talking. One of the boys in my class said he thought his life was meaningless, and the conversation warped into something serious.
“Well, I think it's sometimes true that a life can have no meaning,” said Ms. Herwitz. “But it's really up to you.” She paused, and for some reason she chose to look right at me. “There is always another bad person. Another person who is evil and who hates and scapegoats. But there's only one good person. Only one person who stands up for what is right. There is a group of bad people, and there are an infinite number of people to replace the leader. But a good person is one of a kind. So be a good person and be one of a kind or be one cruel person of many. It's up to you.”
When I got to school on Thursday, Ms. Herwitz was gone. My old teacher was back, and nobody seemed to really remember that Ms. Herwitz had even been there. I had just started to get to know her. I had spoken to her Wednesday afternoon; I'd specifically waited until everyone had filed out of the classroom and it was just the two of us. She'd stood, leaning back with her arms on the edge of her desk, still looking summery in her long, open, flowered shirt and black skirt.
“Ms. Herwitz, I want to talk to you about the piece we wrote in class yesterday,” I said. “You know, the one about what we'd do if we could have any job in the world?” I had written about designing clothes. I used to do that with my mom when I was little, and it reminded me of her.
Ms. Herwitz nodded, smiling and looking me in the eye. “I was hoping you would talk to me about that, Samara. Your writing is good, but you have to get out of your regular realm of thinking when you write for me. I want to see
in your writing. I want to see the person you hide from everyone, even yourself. This kind of writing is where you should let
The look of confusion and frustration on my face didn't stop her, but her smile softened. In that moment, her resemblance to my mother was uncanny.
“Nobody has one self,” she continued. “Most people have two, but my sense is that you have three. There is the self you present to the world and the person nobody ever meets. Everyone has those. But you have something more, something you see when you look in the mirror, something you're afraid of. The mirror sees something totally different. Let that person out. All the time, or if not all the time, then at least sometimes. At least in your writing.”
All I had wanted to do was discuss my paper. But what she said started the dominoes falling, even though I didn't know it at the timeâfalling toward what eventually helped me accept the truth of the discovery. It reminded me of a similar conversation I'd had with my mother so many years before, right before she died.
“Baby love, be yourself as much as you can, but be someone else as much as you need to be. Your true feelings are more important than anything. But sometimes, to get to share your true feelings, you have to hide them first. It means sometimes you're going to have to cry when nobody's looking so you can smile when they are. If you have to be someone else for a little while so you can be yourself for a long while, it's okay. But don't get so wrapped up in the person you're pretending to be that you forget who you are.”
And now here was this woman telling me exactly what my mother had, but in different words. I had been avoiding thinking about the advice my mother gave me. It was too hard because I knew it was how she'd spent her whole lifeâpretending to be happy. But Ms. Herwitz forced me to think of it again.
Then she did exactly what my mother had. She left, without so much as saying good-bye. Except instead of dying, she disappeared without a trace.
Nobody said a word about her on Thursday. When I asked other kids where Ms. Herwitz had gone, they shot each other deep glances that I couldn't interpret. It was like being in an episode of
The Twilight Zone
, except it wasn't strange. Not at the time. The disappearance just reinforced the facts: everyone I care about vanishes from my life. It seemed logical that Ms. Herwitz was the next to follow.
That day, a new distraction came into my life. I was so sure that I would be able to get through high school as a loner. I didn't think I needed anything more than my room and my thoughts.
I wasn't sure why anyone would try to be friends with me after all of the reclusive signals I sent, but Dee was always a better person than I was. It was the first time I had noticed her, but the school was huge and that didn't seem that unusual to me. What was weird, though, was that she just came up and started talking to me.
Even a month after school started, it was still warm enough that I could sit outside and eat alone instead of in the cafeteria. But here was somebody interrupting my solitude. She didn't give me a choice; she stood in front of me, hands on hips, and started talking.
“Hi, I'm Dee. I don't think we've met. I noticed that you were sitting over here under the best tree in the place, and I don't think you get to hog all the great space. I just moved into the neighborhood so today is my first day at school here. What about you? Did you grow up here?”
I glared at her. She was beautiful. She had coffee-colored skin and big, bright pink lips, and she smelled like the rain forest. Her hair was wavy and full. She was wearing a black T-shirt with a short sweater over it, a floral miniskirt, and dark tights. Her boots reached to just below the lacy end of her tights. And with one hand on her hip, talking to me, she looked like a doll. Just the way I'd dreamt of looking.