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I'm in a perpetual phase of transition which doesn't seem to be phasing out.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Columbian Playgrounds

This story is dry, long and pretty boring and pointless, but I spent a lot of time on it so I'm posting it regardless.

A pretty girl in her late twenties was standing on the front porch of a big, historic white brick home. She was bent over a little, struggling to find the right key to the lock of the massive Prussian blue front door. Her left arm had the handles of 4 or 5 different large shopping bags dangling from it, tugging on her skin uncomfortably due to the weight of the objects inside. The other arm held two or three bags as well.  She was nearly breaking a sweat trying to balance all of these items and also get into the house. Instead of putting the bags down, she decided to just ring the doorbell.

A middle aged woman came to the door.

“Where have you been all day Eloise?” said the long-time “Ms.” And not “Mrs.” James. Who’d once been “Mrs. Rosencrantz” when she was married to the girl’s father.  She’d changed her surname back to her very Anglo-Saxon maiden one after developing, or maybe somewhat reinstating, an internalized anti-Semitism subsequent to her divorce. When she’d changed her name back years before she told everyone it was simply because she was tired of people misspelling and mispronouncing ‘Rosencrantz’.

“Oh just driving around mostly” replied her daughter.

“With gas prices the way they are? You really shouldn’t be doing that Eloise.”

“Well it helps me clear my head.”

“Where the heck did you drive to?”

“I drove down to Columbia.”

“Columbia! Good gracious Weezy, what in the world for?”
(Ms. James really wanted to say “what the hell for?” but was in one of her religious phases and had been going to church every Sunday for the past three consecutive Sundays.)

“I needed a change of scenery.  The historic part is pretty nice.”

“Good lord Eloise, you could’ve just gone over to the lake house or something.”

“I wanted to go somewhere new.  I’ve never spent any time in Columbia.”

“Well I don’t know why anyone would want to spend any time anywhere in South Carolina with the exception of Charleston. What’s in all those shopping bags?”

“I bought some antiques for the loft.  Robert will love them.”

“Eloise, you have got to wake up and accept the fact that you two are no longer together.  That loft is his bachelor pad now.”
Ms. James had always been a blunt person. She struggled to be comforting towards her children when she viewed their issues as petty or ridiculous, as was the case more often than not. Her childhood hadn’t been easy, and not in the same way that Eloise’s hadn’t. This always seems to create generational tensions amongst families.

“Well I’m going to ship them to him or just drive them down to Atlanta when he’s away on business or something and put them around the apartment and see if he notices when he gets back.”

This was a sort of confessional.  Eloise always told her mother things that she knew she would openly admonish.  While making this particular confession, she got half lost in images of the loft she used to call home, of the corners and shelves where she’d place the antiques she bought, and of the regally decorated bedroom she used to make a mess of. She felt a sort of ghost of her estranged husband holding her body as if she were prostrate. She lost her balance for a second and snapped back into the present, remembering that she was standing in the foyer of her childhood home, the foyer belonging to her mother, the foyer of the home where she once again resided.

“And he’s not my ex-husband mother. He doesn’t even want to sign the divorce papers.”

“Well I just don’t understand you two.”

“There’s nothing to try to understand. We’ve had some problems and we’re taking a break. We’re both patient people and neither of us are quitters.”

“You’re both stubborn is what you are.”

“Okay. Sure. You’re probably right, Mom. “

By this point they’d both shifted over into the adjacent living room. Eloise had plopped down onto the stiff burgundy upholstered sofa that had been in her mother’s family forever.  She rarely sat in that room and forgot just how stiff that couch was. She consequently irritated her lower back a little with the false expectation that she would be absorbed by this piece of furniture when she sat down. Her mom sat on a chair to the right of the couch and Eloise repositioned herself so that she was she was half-lying on her side with her bottom leg bent and the other stretched out across the body of the couch. Her left hand cupped the side of her face and she supported the upper half of her body with her elbow on the carved walnut wood arm rest.

She starred down at her other arm which she’d raised and bent so that her forearm was out in the air under her nose. The shopping bags had left little temporary white indentions in her skin surrounded by redness. Her erratic energy was burning out and suddenly she had buyer’s remorse. Her belly sank quite literally with a tenseness that required an awkward tightening of her abdomen muscles as she lay there. She’d forgotten to eat all day and associated her stomach pains entirely with post-mania guilt which articulated itself in her mind as a loathing, painful longing for him.  She had something else on her mind too which suddenly came to the forefront and led her to interrupt whatever her mother had been going on about:

“You know what’s weird about going to a different city?” She asked rhetorically and continued,

“What’s weird is that aside from the downtown areas, everything is exactly the same.”

As she said this she realized there was nothing weird about it at all, that it was the opposite of weird and therefore terrifying and strangest of all, but continued because expressing indecisiveness in her own ideas to her mother would just set herself up to not really be heard. Ms. James was easily confused and perpetually distracted by what seemed like absolutely nothing, by pure anxiety, which sometimes took the form of thoughts like “I need to take Mimi to be groomed” or “I can’t believe Maria folded my pants twice over on the hangers again. What a stupid way to be passive aggressive, she’s just going to have to iron them anyhow.”

“Even the downtowns aren’t that different” Weezy added.

“They are all chalked full of antique shops and banks and attorney offices and pseudo-conceptual art galleries and college bars and local coffee shops that somehow all seem the same, with their grungy couches and pretentious art and sexy tattooed baristas.”

“I think Columbia is completely different and a lot less progressive than Charlotte” argued Ms. James, “And no one with lots of tattoos is sexy, Eloise, nor do they live in Columbia. You’re always embellishing reality to the point that it’s entirely fabricated. It’s not healthy.”

Eloise ignored the last part of her mother’s rebuttle, adding:
“Well sure Charlotte is much more of a metropolis, but you look around and everything is the same, all the people are the same, everything just feels identical and redundant, backwards and forwards and sideways and upside-down and right-side up, replicas of each other, replicas of nothing at all, of the end of history itself.”

Mrs. James in turn disregarded most of this little rant, finding it more absurd than indecipherable, though if she’d listened she would’ve probably found it to be the latter too, not because she was dumb, but because Eloise often spoke with a seeming lack of concern for her audience. This was a result of insecurity regarding her ability to verbally expound on her own thoughts (which was in itself a sort of self-righteousness), thus leading Eloise to be nervously garrulous even with family members.

Ms. James continued to stand up for the city she’d called home for over thirty years.  She’d grown up in rural Pennslvania fairly close to impoverishment, had received scholarships to Boston College and wanted nothing of the country life ever again. She moved South with Eloise’s father and older brother (a baby at the time) when Mr. Rosencrantz’s company transferred him. Charlotte was about the only Southern town aside from maybe Atlanta or Richmond she could ever see herself living.

“Well Charlotte probably has a much more diverse populous than Columbia.”

“Have you ever even spent time in Columbia?”

“I’ve passed through it a few dozen times.”

“How can you say what it’s like if you’ve never really been? That’s the same thing as me saying it’s exactly like Charlotte, only I actually spent some time there.”

“You can’t expect to have a full grasp of a place you only spent a few hours in, Weezy.”

“Well I know for one thing that Charlotte is only more diverse than Columbia on a purely racial level, which doesn’t matter anymore. Diversity doesn’t even mean anything anymore except to multi-cultural clubs on college campuses. The term ‘diversity’ is just a make believe term used to falsely illustrate that America has some culture, and a multitude of cultures at that.”

“Well I personally appreciate what a melting pot our country is.  Look at all the refugees and immigrants who’ve come here and discovered a better life. And I think it’s good that skin color is losing significance. That shows great strides for our country.”

“Oh good God, Mother.  That’s not at all what I was trying to get at.”

She moved away from a discussion of immigration, she had no interest in getting political, and really just wanted to talk aloud, regardless of whether her mom agreed or disagreed with her or even cared at all.

“Maybe it’s just all the corporate shops and restaurants that do it, I just don’t feel like I’m ever going to go anywhere or do anything new.”

“Of course you can Weez and you’ve already had plenty of opportunities to do so with Robert but you repeatedly turned them down. You could have had quite the ex-pat life if you’d only been a little braver.”

“It was hard enough getting comfortable in Atlanta. Uprooting is difficult.  All of these twenty-somethings want to travel the world and experience different cultures and all of that.  I was just learning the name of my grocer and getting a feel for his biography when I had to move back here, and that was challenging enough.”

“Your grocer? Eloise, that’s ridiculous. And you’re so friendly and extroverted, you could meet people anywhere with more in common with you than your grocer!”

“Ugh, Mom, you have become such a snob over the years.  It’s gross.”

Eloise knew that in a way her mother was right. She was contradicting herself. She found everything and everyone to be so trite, but only through the limited tunnel vision of her small little life. Despite her ingratiating, sweet persona, Eloise really didn’t branch out much or see a whole lot. Back in Atlanta she stayed within fifteen blocks of their loft nearly all the time. She’d rather corner her grocer and talk to him (who half the time clearly was too busy to chat, nor wanted to) than seek out real relationships.  She was limiting herself partially out of fear of the things she might find. It was easier to feel a sense of understanding of the world through literature and the Times and her secret viewing of shows like “Keeping up with the Kardashians” than to actually go out and experience things.  She was growing judgmental in her loneliness as a form of self-protection.  This wasn’t really her nature. Her mother was right, she was naturally outgoing and she liked people. Depression was making her hateful.  

“I’m not a snob Eloise. I was just trying to make a point. You haven’t put yourself out there when you’ve had the chance and your marriage is on the rocks because of it.”

Robert cheated on Eloise when he was in Saigon, a trip he’d invited her on, like every other trip he took, and he traveled often. He told her about it.  She wanted to work things out and start going on more trips with him.  He wanted a break.  She was left to wonder if he loved the beautiful little eighty pound Vietnamese girl whose image Eloise had grown to invent more and more vividly in her mind as time passed.

“How did we even get onto this topic anyhow?” Eloise asked, scraping her brain for a way to change the subject. “Oh I remember now….Okay, so I drove around Columbia mostly disappointed and disinterested, and ended up in an old money neighborhood just like this one. I came across a plastic playground that looked exactly like the one Jake, Nora and I used to play on down the street. Everything was the same except in reverse, it was a mirror image of our playground. Even the strategically planted Bradford Pears looked like they were on the same landscaping blueprint as our park, just flipped over. You know Dad used to always gripe about the degradation of floor plan creativity whenever he went to a soirĂ©e at someone’s newly built home.  The playground kind of reminded me of that.”

“Your father griped about everything, Eloise. He had such a big chip on his shoulder that it’s astounding he didn’t walk lop-sided.”

“From what I remember Dad had wonderful posture….Anyway, I got to thinking about how some little girl, the middle child of three, with divorced parents, one of them dying or dead, probably innocently swung on those monkey bars before she understood anything. Then in another epoch, she snuck there late at night with other teenagers. She probably started her period way later than other girls because of gymnastics and then quit gymnastics to read books, and then got fat from sitting around and reading so much and then took to powdering her nose and consequently got thin again, but without all the bulging muscles, and eventually got sent to a beach resort rehab facility by her wealthy extended family and so on and so forth…My long lost parallel.”

Then Weezy thought to herself about how parallels never connect for eternity and that it doesn't even matter that much if there are people like her out there living her life, robbing her of her own individuality without even knowing what they’re doing. She was doing the same to them.

“Eloise you sound so immature and half-mad right now. So what if you’ve had some misfortunes and made some bad decisions. And I highly doubt there is someone out there living a life identical to yours, and if there is, I really don’t see why or how it could possibly affect you or be relevant at all.”

Ms. James could come across as quite the bitch, but it was out of guilt that her children, despite their upper middle class social standing, had to deal with several tragedies, some of which she could, and others she certainly couldn’t, have prevented. Still she felt that by twenty-nine Eloise should have overcome most of her grievances and it frustrated Ms. James that the past was being brought to forefront.  It was rare that the past was discussed in their home, with the exception of a funny story or a warm memory here and there. She didn’t want her children to suffer, but more than anything she wanted them to be strong people. To show weakness was the greatest sin of all to this Puritan.

Weezy knew that it was futile to discuss her inner turmoil with her mother, yet it was in the frustration of this limited communication that she was able to take herself very seriously. She could only take herself seriously when she felt that she had to convince someone of something, especially someone she couldn’t convince of anything. It’s in these moments, when people take themselves so very seriously, that they are the most comic of all.
She began laughing hysterically at herself, at her mother, at everything.

“I go around feeling so sure of myself and of my life and it only takes the sight of a playground to make me totally crumble. I’m always questioning whether or not I believe in God. I thought about it the whole way home, Mother. I’ve never been outside of myself enough to wonder if he believes in us. He does. Which is completely absurd and a waste of time.”

Weezy was a proclaimed atheist. She believed in God, but was absolutely sure he didn’t exist or maybe it was the other way around, she was never really sure.
“Well of course he does Eloise. He made us in his image. And he loves you very much.”

“You’re right mom. You’re right! You’re right! You’re right!”

“I think you should go lie down Weezy.  Why don’t I warm up leftovers from supper and bring them up to your room?”

Ms. James all of the sudden was struck with legitimate concern for her daughter.

“That’s okay. I’m not very hungry. I’m just going to go to sleep early.”

“Okay, that’s probably a good idea. It’s all going to work out Eloise. Things just take time.”

Weezy rushed up to her bedroom with leftover adrenaline from her hysteria in the living room. She got a suitcase out of her closet and began packing a bag. She was going to sneak out and drive to Atlanta. She turned on the radio and Tom Petty’s  “American Girl” was playing.  She turned up the volume and started dancing like crazy as she packed. The song ended and she collapsed on the floor in tears and fell asleep.