It has been nearly six months since I began this book. I wrote that bit about Philippe and the cave, and the merchant’s impending betrayal, and quit. The semester ended. Christmas happened. The new year came and went, my father’s health improved, and then I went to Chicago and was nearly undone by a dull, painful double vision in each eye. When I tried to focus the images, I felt overwhelming nausea.
That was March 1, 2012. Three cities, four doctors, an Emergency Room scare, a panic attack on the floor of a Walgreen’s, and nineteen days later, I ceased to be a medical marvel and finally received a diagnosis from a neuro-opthalmalogist who assured me that with daily exercises my vision would be 100% restored by July.
At its worst, I could read only a page or two before a small pain began to hum and buzz beneath and behind my eyes, accompanied by nausea and light sensitivity, the need to cover my eyes with a hot heavy compress, the familiar feeling of being unable to breathe, panic rising in my chest and swelling in my throat. The inability to perform the simplest of tasks—answering an email, reading the back cover of a book, surfing the Internet—driving me slowly crazy. After a few hours of rest, I could try it again.
Inevitably a time came when I did not want to try at all.
The counseling center on campus referred me to a psycho-therapist and during our first session, why not, I told her about the panic attacks. I told her I had one Xanax left, and when she gave me the option I told her no, medication would not be part of my treatment. I told her that after years of heavy drinking I decided one day to quit and would not start now with pills. I told her about my fear of death, my phobia of dead animals, decomposing animal parts, severed body parts. I told her I did not remember my childhood, did not remember anything up to the age of 15, did not remember my sister. She told me to pay attention to my body, said, The mind may forget the trauma but the body was there, and it remembers.
For two weeks I paid attention to my body and asked myself, again and again: What is it I don’t want to see?
And then—not without warning, not without the past fifteen years’ worth of warning—I remembered something obvious, something that explained quite easily my years of memory loss.
But I have decided not to make this book about that. It was never supposed to be about that, and it won’t be now just because I have the recall. In place of this reveal, I offer Jeanette Winterson’s instead:
“There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful.
“[. . .] I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.
“I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself” (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, 8-9).
So I have taken myself on vacation. It is beautiful here. You can’t go out without sunscreen and dark glasses, even at dusk, which is when I walk the dogs.
My skin is turning brown. My hair is frizzy, wild. My shoulders are as dark as the soles of my feet are bright, luminous. I write by day and by night, and I sleep with the windows and doors open. I hear the same bird make the same strange squawks at the same time every evening. I hear the insects in their darkness, in my darkness. I sit at night on the unlit terrace, my bare feet on the still-warm bricks, and listen to the wind rush through the huge, papery palms above. I smell the sea and look to the stars and feel connected with something large, something human and age-old—what a homesick sailor felt, perhaps, a thousand years ago, lost in his own solitude, the scents of the sea rising up and surrounding him, surrounding me, the stars his guide, and mine for a different journey, the wind on his face, same as the wind on mine these centuries later, rustling the palms.
Yesterday I ventured out of the villas and into the village for the first time and enjoyed a cold glass of wine that sweated as I sweated. I watched the sailboats come and go. I did not stay to see the sun set behind them. It would have been too sweet.
Tonight I am treating myself to a fancy dinner-for-one on the ocean, only slightly aware of the seaside wedding and the other tables around me set for two or four or more. Seafood stew: tomato broth, shrimp, mussels, scallops, squash. The heat of the stew and my wine, and the rough and steady breeze from the unending ocean waves and their relentless, raging roar, feel incredible. I have the strength in me to destroy something, but for the first time in fifteen years I don’t feel the need to. The sun sets, and my fellow diners and I raise our glasses to it and to each other.
I go to the pool almost every day. I read a chapter in the villa, where it is cool, then a chapter outside, on a raft under the beating sun. I read at least a book a day, and write at least a line. I write as many lines as I have inside me, waiting to get out.
My eyes are becoming able again, gaining strength by days.
Winterson: “Every day I went to work, without a plan, without a plot, to see what I had to say. And that is why I am sure that creativity is on the side of health. I was going to get better, and getting better began with the chance of a book” (Why Be Happy, 173).
Duras: “Solitude also means, either death or a book” (Writing, 7).
It is the same for me. I believe this with all my heart: either death or a book.
So here I am, fighting for at least the chance of this book. I have taken myself on vacation to a place where I feel alive, where I feel a deep longing for creativity reawakening within me, and I am fed by moments—catching a lizard in the villa and setting it free outside, its tiny lungs heaving beneath its iridescent skin, the discovery of a mama bird atop her nest just above my front door, the way her two black eyes watch my every move, and the ever-always moment of that noisy, human-less silence of the living that goes on and on, whether with us or without.
“Because I decided here was where I should be alone, that I would be alone to write books” (Duras,Writing, 4-5).
A five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Molly Gaudry was nominated for the 2011 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry. She is the author of We Take Me Apart, which was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Awards for Poetry and has been nominated for the McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize. She is the founder and creative director of The Lit Pub. More at http://www.mollygaudry.com/.