Contrary to popular belief, happiness is not found in peace; it is weathered by it. The concept of peace is stagnant and, as humans, the last thing that we are meant to be is still and unchanging. We are dynamic beings, constantly learning and constantly growing. Happiness is not found in peace. Happiness is found in change, and happiness is found in growth---in the journey of coming into one’s own over and over and over again until we reach the finish line.
It was this new perspective shared by a random lecturer that I had half listened to during class that pushed me to confront a part of myself that my therapist, Dr. Augustine, had encouraged me to talk about for years.
We were both surprised--my fingers dialed the number and my lips moved on their own--when I called and asked for an urgent appointment, already on the subway heading to her office.
For the last five years I had been hellbent on protecting my peace. So obsessed with drawing a definitive, uncrossable line between who I had been before university and who I was now that I never dared to confront The Before or The After. I only wanted to exist in The After After, my now. And I had taken bus after bus after bus and worked shitty job after shitty job in order to gain enough distance and money to attend university and to, finally, move in the direction I thought was forward.
But, in pursuit of my peace, I distanced myself from the fact that running away from something was not always the same as running forward. I thought if I could ignore everything, divorce it so entirely from my person, then I could finally breathe again and open my eyes anew.
Once, when I was twenty and was heralding symphonies in the backseat of my friends’ car, I tried the wine that my mother drowned herself in. It was cheap wine from the grocery store, nothing special. And when I brought that freshly opened bottle to my lips, sweaty hands slipping on the neck, I was surprised to find that it tasted bitter and biting; it tasted like surviving and nothing like being alive.
Right now, however, sitting in my therapist’s waiting room, one hand occupied by my death grip on the arm of the chair and the other by my disposable cup filled with water from the ordinary water cooler, my drink tasted like biting into a fresh day.
And as they called my name, and I walked into my therapist’s office, my heart thundering in my ears as I drained the rest of the cup--it tasted like the first step towards healing.
It was the first time I had ever spoken about my family with anyone I had met in The After After. In therapy, it always had been like a gaping canyon that neither of us had been willing to cross for fear that it would send me out the door never to return or spiraling into an abyss I could never climb out of.
But those brief words about happiness that had stuck out during the guest lecturer’s mundane two and a half hour talk spoke to the part of me that was still a child, sobbing for her mother, and it wasn’t long that I sat under Dr. Augustine’s kind and welcoming gaze that the words began to bubble up, spewing forth like freshly opened champagne.
Once a successful polygraph examiner living an idyllic life, my mother had become a rare breed of aquatic, and the only way she could live was by immersing herself in a sea of alcohol.
I thought that, perhaps, if she stopped drinking--if she went even a second without securing her lips to the rim of her glass--that all of her would unravel right before my very eyes, not even leaving behind her grandmother’s beloved pearls or her clothes and--least of all--herself. The endless deluge of wine was also a crisp, cold anchor that kept her skin from unraveling, from revealing the tired, broken and undeniably human body that was hidden underneath.
It was as if what had happened had sapped all the goodness from her.
Her grief had been like a kelpie, dragging me unwillingly out to sea and drowning me as it sought the seabed, my own grief like heavy Virginia Woolf stones in my pockets, further preventing me from escaping her grasp.
I had walked around town, a girl drowning both in and out of her skin, and everyone watched with morbid marveling but no one knew what to say.
To this, Dr. Augustine explained to me that, oftentimes, when people don’t know what to say they don’t say anything at all. They wouldn’t approach you until they knew what to say.
But, in my case, no one had ever known what to say to the girl whose dad, a beloved teacher in the community, snapped one day and forced his children to a dilapidated barn where he murdered her younger sister, attempted to murder her, then killed himself.
They didn't know what to say when the mundane creaking of chairs would send her--me--into a panic attack because it would remind me of the creaking of termite infested floorboards underneath my father's steel-toed boots as he screamed me and my sister's name, the barrel of the shotgun dragging behind him, pulling up splinters of wood as the barn groaned in protest.
They didn't know what to say when the slamming of lockers sent me into flashbacks of how he had tripped over abandoned, cobwebbed milk pails then shot wildly thinking it was us, sunlight suddenly piercing the veil of darkness through the newfound holes. The sound made me clutch my little sister tighter to my chest, trying to stifle both of our heavy breathing despite the way that the mildew, dust, and fear choked us like a cobra around our throats.
They didn't know what to do when even screams of joyous laughter sent me back to the moment that my little sister screamed and because I failed her in my fright, my shaky hand slacked from where it had been covering her mouth, and he found us.
Illuminated in the floating dust, he seemed to have morphed from our loving father to one of the shadows the rusted pitchforks scattered about had casted--all unforgiving, sharp edges devoid of humanity.
And then the shot gun was facing us, and I made to reach for a pitchfork, to pierce his unforgiving inhumanity with my own in order to save my sister but the shotgun was faster, the impact striking her so hard in the head that it ripped her purple scrunchie out of her hair where it fell to forgotten straw, home among brain matter, skull, and blood.
Then the barn was still. The crows that had been roosting in the rafters had long fled, abandoning their wailing, flightless chicks. And, now, it was just my father and me. Because Amy, sweet Amy who loved jolly ranchers and preferred green LEGOs over all, was no longer there. And I had been unholily baptized in what was left of her.
The wound in my shoulder, where the bullet that had struck her then me, didn't register as I stared at the intact part of her body still slumped in my arms. An ocean roared in my ears, louder than anything I had and would ever hear and it felt like every cell of me was both screaming and muted at the same time.
It didn't even register when he shot me. He said things to me before that but I couldn't remember what they were.
The last thing I remembered as darkness crept in the edges of my vision was him falling to his knees, throat choked with sobs, then him placing the gun in his mouth before my consciousness was swept away with the resonating sound of futures changing forever. It had felt like falling asleep, but sleep had never been as heavy as that.
No one knew what to say to the flashbacks that overtook me so quickly and sometimes without warning. What to do when they started.
How could you know what to say about that?
What could you say?
And so, not knowing what to say, they avoided me like the plague, parting like the Red Sea any time I was near.
Even the teachers, they avoided calling on me in class, even during the moments when I mustered up the strength to rise up out of my apathy and raise my hand. No one wanted to pressure me--to talk, to cry, to move, to do anything. But it was funny how no pressure felt like a hell of a lot more pressure than pressure ever had.
During The After, everything felt off kilter. It was like I was trying to walk across the hall and the floor was tilted impossibly--lockers falling open, papers sliding down with gravity, inertia doing nothing. At home, my mother had lost her job and it was common to find her passed out on the floor in the living room, clothes stained with vomit and piss. It was as if the gravity of my world had upended and everything that should have been stable had lost itself.
At home, at school, my eyes were glazed, half present and half right back in that barn, holding my sister to my chest and praying not to be found.
My skin felt like an uncomfortable, scratchy woolly sweater--the ones parents forced you to wear to appease your Aunt Gertrude. I wanted to rip it off, to expose the bleeding heart beneath before divesting myself of it entirely. But your life isn’t a sweater that you could just shrug on and off.
Except, I became determined that it would be.
Every time I came home to no electricity, to screaming lungs, to misguided fists, and to the kelpie swallowing my mother more and more; every time I passed my father’s pristinely kept study yet my sister’s sacred room which my mother had destroyed in a drunken rage, I internally knitted up more of myself, transmuting it into wool that I could easily slip off when the time came.
My life would be a sweater. And I would become a ghost.
It was a common narrative that deadbeat dads used to halfheartedly say they were going to the store for cigarettes or something or other and then they would vanish into the night--never to return, leaving their kids and their wife alone. And this was exactly what I did. Except, I had been a newly eighteen year old girl, and I had chosen to leave behind my mother because she had become more of my child by that time than a mother.
“Eislene, where are you going?” I remembered she had mumbled.
My heart had thudded in my throat, my pulse throbbing hard. “Just to the store,” I ultimately said.
It was a lie and, looking at her weary, bloodshot eyes, and vodka stained blouse, I had known that she was going to fall for it hook, line, and sinker. That seared, realizing that my mother--who used to run lie detectors--wouldn’t even be able to recognize such an obvious line.
“Bring me back some cigs,” was the last thing she said, “and juice.” For my mixers laid unsaid in the air, joining all the muted, screaming paragraphs between us.
And, without another word, just like those dads, I then disappeared into the night, and left her--and pieces of me, a discarded, knitted sweater--rotting in that house that had become an aquarium for grief.