Still Life

March 24, 2013

The girl at the beaten desk with hair akimbo wishes that the light in the dusty globe above her were more romantic, but what does she have to be romantic about, anyway?

Her clothes whorl on the floor in chaotic piles as if they’re trying to make their own feet, stand, and walk out of her life for good. A couple hundred books stick their snobby little spines up from their spot on the closet shelf, looking condescendingly through the open closet door at the strewn books among the mess that have managed to steal her attention. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, a triple combination set of scriptures, a worn, brown journal, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Bleak House, 1941. The Sorcerer’s Stone is tired and old — he hasn’t been picked up for years and doesn’t expect to be. Before I Fall is jealous — she was a splurge buy, still brand new, still unopened, still sitting on the shelf and muttering between her pages about how she’s a hot young adult novel and, therefore, should be the only book on the floor, because how could someone possibly choose Bleak House over her? I mean really. Catching Fire just thinks the girl must be incredibly dull. How could he know better? He’s only been outside of the closet twice, and one of those times was spent in the hands of a complete stranger.

But what does that matter? The clothes don’t care what the books have to say and the books don’t care what the clothes have to say. The clothes don’t care what the clothes have to say and the books don’t care what the books have to say. The only thing anyone cares to care about is getting down, getting worn, getting handled. Or getting out altogether.

The desk? What can he do about it? He watches the room warily, his reddish brown skin scraped and stained from battles with coasterless mugs and walls and pencils. He’s overdue for a polish, but he won’t say anything because he isn’t one to voice his concerns out loud. Papers slide across his head, and he says nothing. An aging laptop hums noisily above him, spewing out heat, and he says nothing. The lamp has a tendency to mutter about the bugs, and still, he says nothing. Bulletin board’s got it worse, after all.

Bulletin board hasn’t breathed the same since she was taken from her plastic placenta for the first time. Now she’s smothered: Imagine Dragon tickets in a shabby envelope, a “Women for Mitt” sticker stuck in the corner, a Japanese dream pouch that can never be opened hanging from a push pin; there’s a rough sketch of a hero, a yellowing square of newspaper proclaiming “Student by day, novelist by night,” a scripture, a Romney/Ryan button, a dreamcatcher, three months’ worth of visiting teaching contact information; there’s a spiritual resume, a tag reminding the girl to gently machine wash her Pride and Prejudice scarf from Etsy, an essay application that comes close to expiring every day; there’s a sleep schedule she’s never used, contact information for a man she’s never contacted, a metaphor for her life that she never remembers when she needs to; there’s a list of what successful people do, a picture of Jesus Christ, a red paper heart from the plate of cookies a stranger left at her house around Valentine’s Day, and two wedding invites from last summer that she catches herself staring at every now and again. Yeah, bulletin board’s got it bad, but she watches the girl every day and wonders.

The girl sits in her stiff flowered chair with her legs pulled up under her chin and jazz music streaming through her ears. Her dark hair, newly released from its bun, is a hurricane, raked with her fingers at least three times every thirty seconds. Dowdy sweatpants and a Hurd shirt a size too big are at least consistent. Oh, if only someone could see me now, she thinks to herself.

This is the moment that a human being isn’t supposed to experience in front of everybody else, if at all. This is  the moment when she is pitiful and she knows she’s pitiful and she knows that if other people were to see her pitiful, they would think it for the rest of their lives: “That girl is pitiful.”

What does she think about? How could she tell you in a way that you would understand?

A list?
school, that quiz she forgot to take, the fact that she worked so hard on that essay and she still didn’t get a good grade, that enormous, looming paper she doesn’t know how to squeeze in, finding a place to live next year, dating

But all of that is surface stuff, not the issue.

A lyric?
“This city is for strangers, like the sky is for the stars. I think it’s very dangerous if we do not take what’s ours. And I’m winning you with words because I have no other way. I want to look into your face without your eyes turning away.”

That’s getting there, she supposes.

One of the last things he said to her?
“The girl you are in writing is much different than the girl you are in real life.”


That’s the thing that torments the girl who runs her fingers through her hair. That’s the thing that weighs like a globe on her small, tender shoulders. That’s the sentence that imprisons her, burns like a hot iron. Not because it’s true, but because it seems true. It has always seemed true. The evidence:

Elementary school: shy, painfully self-conscious.

Middle school: not many friends, as self-expression was a real struggle for her.

Junior high: yearbook staff, the discovery of the nonverbal, the first realization that what she found so hard to say to people out loud could be compensated in writing.

High school: connections and friendships formed through writing, the discovery of another person’s soul and the tentative choice to expose her own, that moment when vulnerability lead to assault — “You’re (fill in the blank): mousy, quiet, cold, dressed weird, oversensitive, inconsistent, pitiful, annoying, boring, etc.” And it isn’t that she hates the ones who said so. They meant everything to her.

Seclusion, shyness, self-consciousness. The fear that doing that again, being so vulnerable to another person, will allow them to wound her. That’s what drives the inconsistency, the quiet distance, the Girl Who Sounds Better on Paper and sits in front of her bulletin board with the world on her shoulders. Not some devised reality that she’s uninteresting or unimportant.

And we can keep talking, pretending like this she is some girl in the distance, but she’s not. You and I both know that. I know her better than any one person on this earth. I know that finding real connections with other people is a real challenge for her. I know that her worst fear is not that she will be alone, but that she will be left alone, that people will come in, demand her heart, and then abandon her when she’s given everything. I know that she wants control, and when she has control, the writing and the person match. But when she isn’t in control, when the chance of heartbreak is higher, when the person often means more, she speaks less. She expresses less. She seems less.

I know the girl who sits in the stiff chair and worries about how she’ll ever be loved, and I want you to know her, too. I want her to risk everything to be herself with you.

Because she is me, and I am so tired of hiding.

Yearbook Notes
The Charmed Life of an Unattached 21-Year Old