Thursday, July 12, 2012
The Waiting Room
It's been almost three years now since the first August 3 that ever mattered to me and I feel like maybe I have trapped myself in that waiting space.
I have fallen into a habit of waiting for something to happen that will show me what I'm supposed to do next. I think I used to be better at figuring that out. I'd get a feeling about a thing and I'd just know, without a doubt, what the next step was.
I came home from my job at the newspaper one Friday nine years ago and I said to Charles, "It's time for me to leave." I was crying in the bathroom, I will tell people now, my shorthand explanation for how I knew it was time. And Charles had said, "Yes. Definitely. Do it." And I resigned on Monday.
When I made the decision to leave Southern Living two years ago, that felt right, too. I felt sure in my decision, in my next move. I would write a book, I said, and once that was done, the next right thing would reveal itself to me.
Now, I have no idea anymore what is supposed to come next and I realize that all those times before when I was so certain of myself and the next step, I was probably only fooling myself. I mean, really, look where it got me, all that certainty.
Charles is dead and will remain dead. I have been waiting for that not to be true. I have been waiting for this phase to end and the next one to begin, when he would come back and we could scold him for his horrible act and then hug him close and cry into the fabric of his collared knit shirt.
Now I know that I might one day be 90 years old and he will still be 38. I am older now than he was when he died and that will never not be true.
One day not so many years from now, my children will have the same thoughts. "I am as old as Dad was when he died. Now I am older than Dad was when he died. I might one day be 90 years old and my dad will still be 38."
I think, even before he died, I was waiting. I waited for him to stop taking pills. I waited for him to realize what he was throwing away. I divorced him and I waited for him to be OK so that I could move on with things. Something in me knew what I wouldn't admit aloud, that there was danger in moving forward.
So I waited.
Sometimes, like a good girl, I prayed. I did not ask for specific things. I dropped to my knees on the white tile floor of the bathroom - for some reason I was always standing at the sink, brushing my teeth or drying my hair, when the feeling would hit me - and I would ask for whatever was right, whatever was good, to happen. Please.
Like a good girl, I wouldn't presume to know what the right thing was. I have never been one to ask for what she wants, not from humans and not from some God I barely believe in anymore. This was my chosen weapon against disappointment. If you don't say out loud what you want, you can pretend you never wanted it in the first place. That boy you loved who didn't love you back. That miracle you needed to save your marriage. That relief you needed from carrying the weight of someone else's unbearable pain. That key that would set you free.
Sometimes the answer is no. Someone said that to me about prayer and I wonder when the answer is ever yes. Yes, here is your relief. What happens if your relief is someone else's death? What then? How the fuck do you live with yourself then?
You wait. (You curse too much.)
You grow very still and silent so as not to attract the attention of the cruel universe. In your years-long stillness, you think that maybe you have hit all the major plot points and nothing will ever happen again. You have graduated. You have married. You have given birth to your sweet baby boy. (Not necessarily in this order.) You have gotten a job in your chosen field. You have given birth again to the most beautiful girl in the world. You have moved. You have bought houses and sold them. You have divorced. You have watched as someone tucked a shotgun under his chin. You have grown still and silent and you have worried (hoped?) that nothing will ever happen again.
This is ridiculous, of course, but being ridiculous has never stopped thoughts from being nurtured and preserved in dark places.
For awhile I had a goal I could focus on. Put these words on paper. Choose the proper font for your bleeding wounds and tender scars. List the things that you wrap yourself in while you wait to heal. List the songs for your every mood, the lyrics that fit into Chapter 8 when you were crying yourself to sleep, into Chapter 17 when you needed to curse. Look for the good. Look for the end. Breathe in and out. Tell your story and believe it has meaning.
Get up every day and treat it like a job. Go to the coffee shop and type so that you can make something happen. Listen to the sound of people stopping for a moment on their way to somewhere else. Listen as they order their drinks and pass over their five-dollar bills, as they drop their change in the tip jar. Find comfort in the white noise of the people behind the counter chatting about weekend plans and trips to the beach, discussions regularly interrupted by announcements about tasks they will perform next - "I'm going to take out the trash" - about the inventory - "We're sold out of bagels."
Eventually, you will worry that all this writing and believing and striving for meaning is only a stopgap while you wait for whatever will really heal you.
For months and months, all I have done is wait to hear back from agents, people who say nice things and then say no. I have waited to hear back about jobs. Often I hear nothing. In this new world of easy communication and high-speed Internet, very few people can be bothered to send an email, a quick no, a form letter, a "thanks, but no thanks."
I have waited for people to read my book and tell me something, anything. I have learned that if you ask 10 people to read your book, five of them will do it.
When someone does get back to you, it can be so surprising that you end up sending that person a thank-you note for her rejection email. "I've been on that side of things more often than I've been on this side," she will say. And you will thank her again.
Because, God, all you want is an answer, something to put an end to all your waiting.
I feel like I've been floating in the middle of a vast lake. It's smooth as glass and the skies are clear at last, but I have no idea which direction I'm supposed to go, which section of shoreline I'm supposed to paddle toward.
A friend of mine, another member of the unemployed masses, wrote me about his plan to travel around Spain for a few months this spring, aimless wandering in between the last job and the next job, whatever that might be. I wonder if it's as much fun as it seems like it'd be or if it's one of those things that begins to wear on a person.
Is aimless wandering ever really aimless? Aren't you looking for something along the way? A story to tell. A person you can fall in love with for a day or two. A sign with an arrow on the road to somewhere. An arrow that points clearly toward the thing that will answer the screaming question that lives not in your head but in your twisted gut. What next? What next? What next?
The trick is to appreciate the journey, right? Insert inspirational quote here about wherever you go there you are, happiness is a journey not a destination, don't let the elevator break you down. Sing a snippet of What a Wonderful World. Take a photo of a cow in a field. Drink yourself into a stupor.
Fuck it, you say. Whatever, you say. You quote a line from a Meryl Streep movie. "Oh well, boo hoo. Now what?" You talk a good game and you keep sending out letters and then you give up again for awhile. You apply for jobs in other cities and you picture yourself wandering new streets and seeing new faces and following all the right signs. When nothing happens, you stop picturing yourself in those cities.
You picture yourself doing the next right thing. You breathe in and out in the place you're already in, still and silent.
And you wait.