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01 July 2006

Unpack your boxes

Leaving’s not the only way to go.” – Roger Miller
(thank you to Jill’s Living Room for permission to use this image of water on a poinsettia leaf)

Water_on_a_poinsettia“We were invited; I’m going” was all he said, unfolding to his full height. He pressed his small, round, gold glasses against the bridge of his nose as he stared down at me. He kept looking at me, silently, as he wound a burgundy knitted scarf around his neck. He didn’t break eye contact as he reached for his coat on the back of the couch, turned, and walked out without another word.

He hadn’t shown much emotion at the telling. I thought he would fight a little to keep me; he didn’t. I thought he would be surprised; he wasn’t. Instead, he left for a Christmas party.

While he was gone, I moved into the spare bedroom. With just a futon and lamp on the floor, it looked like a college dorm room, but I was a decade past that stage, him more. The whole house seemed temporary, transitory, unsure, not a final resting place—no rugs, no curtains, boxes still unpacked after living there a year. Some boxes had been picked up and moved intact so many times that they were waxy from wear. Why were we so hesitant to commit to bookcases, to shelving, to staying, I wondered as I looked for futon sheets in one of the boxes. What was it about unpacking that we both couldn’t quite bear?

OpheliaAround ten, I laid down on the futon, straight, on my back, my old, flat pillow beneath my head, pale freckled arms by my side, palms up. I lay imagining myself a Pre-Raphaelite painting: redhead floating down river, dead perhaps, certainly cold, immobilized by both despair and relief, too tired to be fearful yet. I squinted at a ceiling I would learn well in the coming months, trying to remember a poem I once knew—Ruskin? Rossetti?

I lay as like a chance shadow

In moving water, floating and not

A brief mention of reflected form;

There and not, each ripple separating me

And not even my own dread strong enough

To keep my form together.

I lay perfectly still, but felt like I was in moving water, rapids taking me somewhere new, where? Dangerous? Rocks? Rapids? My heart sloshed in my chest like it had suddenly detached from its walls and was free floating until I heard his Vespa fall against the porch steps two hours later; then it stopped sloshing, caught up on a stick in the stream, pummeled by rushing water past.

My pulse raced and clicked, like a metronome set faster. I could hear metal hit metal as he fumbled the key in the lock. I hadn’t prepared myself for the fear I suddenly felt; I should have left. He was capable of anything now.

What was I thinking, staying there?

Seven years before, I had sold the small blue Chevette Daddy bought me just before he died. “We don’t really need a car in the city,” I explained to Mama on the phone. “It’s more trouble than it’s worth. You can’t park anywhere, we’re near a Metro station, the police have a ticket quota system, cars get broken into all the time—it just doesn’t make sense to own one here.”

But I knew those weren’t the real reasons.

I sold it when I realized the wide range of drunkenness that a human could aspire to and attain. I sold it because I couldn’t live through one more call from a police station to pick him up, another DWI. I sold it because I knew one night the call would be worse, not him in a holding cell, but a child walking across Wisconsin Avenue for peppermint ice cream with her daddy and now dead, the victim of a drunk driver, him. No, that wouldn’t do at all. What on earth would the Southern Baptists think? That was it; the Chevette must go.

And oddly, as life will do, that decision put me in direct proximity to John. All those rides home. You build up a friendship like that, don’t you? One ride at a time?

They worked across from each other on P Street. “You’ve gotta go meet John. He’s a fantastic guy. Funny as hell. Brilliant.” Yes, he was, is.

I heard a stumble on the stairs.

I felt the bedroom door open and pretended to be asleep while he looked at me for a long, quiet time. What was he seeing, I wondered? Was he lamenting the loss, regretting the past, cataloging his boxes, wishing for time back?

I heard him breathe words, just barely, only two: “Damn you.” I lay there waiting for him to hurt me, shoot me, strangle me. It was possible, I knew immediately. My eyes fluttered wildly behind closed lids, light hitting veiny skin like riding in a car on a bright day through the woods—dark, light, dark, light, dark-light; I was trying to approximate the eye movements of sleep, not panic.

I knew he had gone when I heard him pee, creating crashing torrents of beer urine that reverberated in the quiet, still house. There was no flush; he forgot in his stumble toward our bed, now one pillow short.

Suddenly, without any warning, a gunshot in the next room tore open the quiet acquiescence with which we were adjusting to our new situation. Explosive, then a dampened thud, then nothing. My chest expanded violently. I felt strangled. I gasped for air. My shut eyes were now wide open as I mouthed the words, “Oh god, no. Oh god, no.”

My face went hot; my mouth filled with the taste of aluminum foil, then bile. “Oh god, no,” I said aloud. The sound of my own blood filled my ears, filled the whole room, house, street, neighborhood, town. My blood inside me; his flowing out. My heartbeat forced against the tight skin of my neck so violently I felt it could slash me open.

I knew immediately: he did this to get me back, that shot, the thud, the moments in between as he slid down the wall to the floor. He probably smiled as he pulled, the drunken bastard. I had tried so hard, so long, to save him, help him. Ultimately, perhaps I actually did, though not in the way I imagined.

It suddenly seemed such a long time since we had met. I was finishing graduate school; he was the only person I’d met who had read The Recognitions, the focus of my dissertation. I don’t know—it seemed a good reason at the time. Plus, he was tall and professorial; his room was filled with books. He was so smart, funny, tall.

Three years into it, we set sail aboard the S.S. Universe, living on bunk beds in a small room for four months, riding waves. We sailed right around the globe, circling like a ring or halo or life vest or strait jacket. We were floating on a river of debris, or was it desire? As Siddarta wrote, “what is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?”

We were like two islands in that small, cramped, underwater room. Ports of call sparked both of us to break out of that space as if gasping for air on the surface, our gills desperate for oxygen, but in different directions, never together. That was, to any other person, a sign. We didn’t see it. Not yet.

Typhoon32Rather, instead of unpacking those boxes we kept them in neat stacks—safe, packed, piled—a neatness that finally shattered, like the typhoon we sailed into. I didn't know it at the time, but he rode out the storm lashed outside to the ship’s upper deck to record the sounds, fierce winds and waves. We all nearly died on that ship, but damned if he doesn’t have a recording of it, packed away somewhere in a box. Don’t we all have our own river of debris?

I couldn’t move. I tried moving one arm, but my heart exploded. I bent one knee; my limbs all fell off. I have to call someone; I cannot do this myself. How in god’s name can I make this okay?”

In my quietest, most horrible moments of self examination, those moments where you pull the thread of some deep pattern, I realized that I kept repeating “Oh god, no” not because he was dead, but because he had forced me to deal with him one last time by shooting himself. I had to do something about what had happened in the next room. I wondered, desperately, quickly: Could I just wait until morning, or walk away from the house and never return? Maybe if I sleep, it will all go away.

“I can’t do this,” I said aloud, alone.

Patti_in_schoolThe pathology of my avoidance was never clearer to me than at that moment, though it had started in the second grade when Mrs. Goins towered over my chair, asking if I had urinated in my seat. “No, M’am,” I said, “not me.”

I was freckled and orange-haired, sitting in an undeniable pee pool at the time, a hot oasis of yellow, my own personal Niagara, my Rhine, my
Dead Sea
. Not a quarter-sized pool, but a pool so large it lapped onto the floor and made rivulets aching to inch their way to Blake Revis’ chair. He wailed in horror at the encroaching urine, undeniably mine. “I don’t know what you are talking about, Mrs. Goins,” I said.

Avoidance and denial weren’t possible now. Damn him for doing this to me. I waited, then rolled off the futon. I paused on my knees, forearms on the floor in front of me, hands flat and fingers spread so far they whitened. How would I ever explain this?

His body had fallen across the bed diagonally, legs toward the door, head off the other side at the far reaches of the room; there was no way to assess the damage but by entering. I stood still, suppressing vomit.

I took one step in. The room was smaller than I remembered. I took another step, lifting my foot over a photo album that lay on the floor against one wall, its pages at odd angles as if some had been ripped loose; otherwise—except for his body and my pillow—everything was in its place. I imagined this space as a room at Monticello, a red velvet rope across the door; I wasn’t supposed to enter here.

I couldn’t see his head from where I stood. I had to walk farther in, around the foot of the bed, my heart the size of my pillow, smothering me. I smelled death; it smelled sweet.

Cardboard_boxesHe looked oddly intact.

I felt myself lunge toward him in love, regret, loss.

His glasses were still on, but crooked, like he had been pondering Buber or Kierkegaard and moved the lenses aside to rub at one eye.

The smell wasn’t death, but Budweiser.

There was no blood. How could this be? I looked frantically around the room, trying to understand, my chest hollow, then full, hollow, then full. My eyes fell, finally, to that book of photographs from our trip around the world. It was askew on the floor, directly below where he had slammed it against the wall.

He moved out; I followed months later to a less haunted space. But there was the final matter of clearing out the behemoth storage shed out back—a place I never visited in the year we lived there—full of lawn tools and oil cans, I imagined.

John came to help; we were momentarily paralyzed after we opened the shed’s door and our eyes adjusted to the light: the ground inside was carpeted with compacted beer cans so deep they reached above our knees, no floor showing through crushed aluminum, representing (and not in that fun, metaphoric way) one uncontrollable year in which thousands of beers had been consumed alone in an unlighted, unheated, outdoor shed. I will long remember those metallic sounds as we waded through, like we were on the beach searching for starfish, gathering instead 36 Hefty leaf bags of his life.

Water_on_a_poinsettia_1Oddly, things sometimes become clearer when our eyes are full of tears, like drops of water magnify the veins on leaves when they sit on them after a rain storm. But how fleeting, that rain, that drop, that magnification. When small bugs climb up those stalks or the wind blows, the drop of water falls, leaving no evidence of its ever having been there except for the trace of the river it makes in leaving.

I lay as like a chance shadow in those rivers of tears, not even my dread strong enough to keep my form together, thinking it is better that we leave things in boxes. That way, nothing disturbs the water and the leaving is easier.

Isn’t it?

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Empty_boxIf life is a river of debris in which we are all floating, some are better swimmers than others. Some stay on the surface—bright, glinting in the sunlight, smiling pillars of society. And some struggle, the water shocking them with its coldness, the debris from other people’s lives snagging their clothes and pulling them down. What keeps them from surfacing—is it me? What is there to cling to in this river of debris if not each other? But in the clinging, are we drowning those around us? What is the proper salutation between people as we pass each other in the flood?

Leaving’s not the only way to go. Piles of boxes are metaphorical architecture. They tell a story. As Margaret Atwood wrote, “No one knows what causes an outer landscape to become an inner one.” Unpack your boxes, stay a while. Either commit to the swim or go.


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The fear that makes us resist change because we think we will die of the pain that change brings keeps us closed in a box created by our own minds.... It would be ridiculous to pretend that in our lives, in these physical bodies, which can hurt ve... [Read More]


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Oh, god, Patti. How difficult was this to write? It so closely mirrors some of the things I experienced with both my first huisband, and like an idiot, the husband I have now...
You are so perfectly, beautifully eloquent...What an amazing talent. I am simply in AWE of you.

This was so beautiful..i am haunted by the little girl and how she stays with us all...and i like your style of swaying in and out of the story so smoothly...with memories of childhood, influences of art, and comparisons to nature. You have an amazing gift. Dan Bowman showed me your site; it's one of my favorites. thank you


Powerful stuff, Patti. I'm glad you survived those days. ...and that can you write of them now.

(waves at atticus)

This was simply amazing. God, I am in awe of this piece. Profound and moving and just...gah. I am at a loss for words.

my earlier comment was in the wrong spot after reading a different post. i just read this one. wow. i am floored. so stunning and moving and disquieting. thank you for that. i need a bit of inspiration and i got boxes and boxes of it. thank you!

What an odd position it puts one in to realize what you pictured hadn't happened.

It opens the reluctant mental eye to what one's real reactions have been and the range of options.

Dear Friends - I have emailed each of you personally, but allow me to post a public thank you for not only your kind words, but the very passion and energy and just plain good vibes that come to me from each of you. Many, many thanks for stopping by, for not allowing the length of the essays to dissuade you (after all, they *are* long for blog posts), and for allowing me to know of your own insights. Your words enrich me.

Jesus...thank you for sharing this.

I think you are amazing.

In need of nourishment, I come here to wend my way through your thoughtful words, to blend a little, to laugh and remember a little.

Thank you.


Wow! I am in awe! Wonderfully written and so profound. I also think you are amazing!
Thank you.


As in,
what a good essay.
what an awful event/time/situation.
what craziness life dishes out.
how evocative your writing is.

wow. someone once commented on here that your blog is her new bible -- that every time she comes here she seems to read exactly what she was needing to hear. i feel the same.
the gunshot you heard was the awakening you needed. i heard a gunshot like that once too, and felt the exact same reaction you described here. it was the awakening i needed too, but instead of awakening to my need to leave, it just plain woke me up. sometimes goddess has to pull the trigger to get us to REALLY pay attention, hey? and how lucky are we when we realize it was just a warning shot...
thank you for writing. your words enrich my life and awaken me. thank you.

wow. someone once commented on here that your blog is her new bible -- that every time she comes here she seems to read exactly what she was needing to hear. i feel the same.
the gunshot you heard was the awakening you needed. i heard a gunshot like that once too, and felt the exact same reaction you described here. it was the awakening i needed too, but instead of awakening to my need to leave, it just plain woke me up. sometimes goddess has to pull the trigger to get us to REALLY pay attention, hey? and how lucky are we when we realize it was just a warning shot...
thank you for writing. your words enrich my life and awaken me. thank you.

That's probably one of the most powerful pieces of writing I've ever read. I'm not even sure how I found my way here, but what a gift it is.

you are an astonishing writer .... this is amazing stuff .....

I am fairly new to gmail and I just happened to be exploring this lazy Sunday morning and being a k.d. lang fan typed in her name under blogs and your blog came I started exploring and reading. MY GOD...I have found a goldmine!! You are wonderful, awesome, profound and have touched some places inside me that I think I have put a brick wall around for a long time. THANK you for all you are doing. I will be reading everything you do. You are a GODDESS of words. Funny how that little girl never leaves any of us...

Again - Wow!
Got here synchronously, also; (from Hamguin's Hiding Place & his loving comments about your workshop - & to HIS from a SoulCollager's site)
I appreciate the way you weave the story - both for yourself & for your readers . . . thank you for sharing!
I am almost 4 years out of my last toxic (tho not so dangerous) relationship, & can appreciate in your struggles - & the insights!
Oh, & that 'not me!' little girl - yep! I recall shaving my eyebrows in jr hi (WHY would anyone??!) & being asked if I had (having penciled some in - yikes!!) 'no . . . '

tee hee!

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