Nine Lives Dirty
“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” Haruki Murakami
We all want to be wild and free, or at least, every Leo does. But what would we risk to get that life? Would you die for it?
Would you die for it more than once?
I was born like every other baby, kind of shriveled, red, and squalling. For the most part, I seemed like every other Leo child. I was a bright, daring tomboy with all of the carefree, unfettered ideas of any kid. And so it seemed that I would grow up wild, free, and confidant.
I don’t know when exactly the darkness crept in. It came calling so quietly, so insidiously, that I never even noticed it. My parents never noticed it. My family never noticed it. It hid in the guises of nightmares, of overactive imagination, of the troubles that often plague a family that rips up roots and moves across the country at least once a year. But every year as I grew older, that darkness grew wider and deeper and darker within.
By the time I was in high school, that Leo fire had all but gone out. The vestiges of that spark were hidden away in daydreams kept smothered and desperate longings kept locked away. When your brain stops producing the right chemicals at the right times, there is nothing you can do but feel the constant ebb as you drift away, unmoored. All I could do was cling desperately to any last spark, any last shred of light left.
There was nothing of the Leo left. Being an overweight, plain looking girl in this society really gouges through the brick wall of confidence Leos are supposed to have like nothing else does. The darkness was ever present, always chipping away at that Leo light. Not good enough. Worthless. Fat. Ugly. Burden. I blamed myself for too many things, for my parents’ separation, for my sister’s sojourn in the psychiatric, for all of my failings both real and perceived. All I had left was a fleeting memory of craving that life of wild and free.
But something was different now. I was an adult, and capable of making my own decisions. No matter how much I dismissed myself, I still had that power. Maybe there was something of the Leo tenacity and courage left as a bedrock under the black weight of fifteen years hard depression.
I woke up and left.
I moved far and wide. The darkness was still there, ever present, ever malicious, but I scraped up the last of my courage and pushed. I fought. For the first time, I fought myself for myself. I didn’t win, not even close, but there was a chink in the darkness, a little crack where everything that a Leo is supposed to be stood a chance of shining through.
And then I died.
It happened in an instant that lasted thousands of years. I was in a Chevy, faded baby blue and still smelling of cigars and gasoline. The sky, god the sky was a perfect blinding blue-white fresh from rain clouds. Windows down, I could still smell the mountain petrichor rich after the brief rain. The dusty mountains watched on, impassive, but the scant flashes of green from the rain made the landscape cheerful, almost welcoming. I drank down a breath, a rare bubble of contentment starting to form. I have always felt at home in the mountains close to the sun. Maybe it’s the fire of it, the sun itself trying to break through that darkness and reach for the light I let burn out.
It was simple, really, and I felt it happen in a helpless, static panic. The back tires, bald, summer tires, started to slip. I was coming around a curve, and the smooth, worn surface of my tires found an oil slick from the rain. I hit a signpost going almost 70 miles per hour, and the truck flipped. I remember the moment I understood everything, and I had no thought. I had no reaction. I was weightless, limitless, suspended between all things.
The cab crumpled. The windshield shattered in against my face. The sun was so bright it hurt. I tasted blood and gasoline and that gritty, pale flavor of glass.
It rolled again.
I never even shut my eyes, the world motionless and exploding at the same time and I saw it all.
So many things happened after that. Time was at a standstill when I clawed out of the window, broken glass dragging against my stomach. Someone found my glasses. They weren’t even scratched. Everyone was talking at once. What happened? Don’t move. Keep your head still. Come sit here.
I ignored all of it. I found the quilt my mom made me and my backpack and I started up the slope back towards the highway. There was only silence in my head. I couldn’t hear the wind or the roar of traffic.
I refused service with the paramedics after answering who is the president? What’s today’s date? What’s your full name? What happened? I slapped a few bandaids on my head and arm and stuck my thumb out. Where to? I couldn’t think that far ahead. I just needed away.
Later, and it was much later, I processed what happened. I walked away from a roll over with a few scratches, but something was missing. I couldn’t do many of the activities that kept me afloat when the darkness had started closing in. I remembered drawing, easy breezy lines that went where I wanted them to go, or painting the small details. The foundations of who I was up until that point were gone. I was someone else, new, untried, untalented.
I started working as a bike messenger, lost a lot of weight and packed on a lot of muscle, and I let the darkness close in absolutely. No light. No thought. I was a ghost maybe, or a shade. I had died, and no one ever taught me how to go on living after my very own death.
I learned a lot during the next few years. I dug deep and found the lion within. I took deep breath after deep breath, drawing in a life force older than time. The sun burned my skin, and I loved every minute of it. I finally fought fire with fire inside myself, pushing the darkness out bit by bloody bit.
I focused on courage, on not backing down. I got in fights that left me bloody and bruised on my head, or bloody and bruised on the asphalt. But I learned to pick myself back up and roll on. Slowly, oh so very slowly, I was becoming the lion.
I’ve always had a fascination with lions. Perhaps because everyone does, they’re beautiful, fierce, powerful creatures. But I think it’s because it was always easy to see myself in one. They’re golden like me, big like me, and they fight to survive like me. During this time, I internalized a lot of what defines a Leo. Courage. Bravery. Confidence. Loyal. Fierce. Most importantly to me, sunny and big-hearted.
It’s always been my worst, most deep seated fear that I will let someone in and they will see my darkness and go running. It has happened before, and it will happen again. But I try so very hard to hide it. So I drew on the friendly, gregarious nature of the Leo as an armor.
I had long since understood that I died all those years ago on an arid stretch of mountain highway, but I didn’t understand why I was back. Maybe my sins were too great to move on. Maybe this was purgatory. Maybe my darkness was hell. And then I remembered the faded little adage: cats have nine lives.
And then I died again.
I don’t remember much of this one other than a terrible sense of wrongness that started a few minutes before anything happened. I was unconscious for most of it, and the bits in between don’t make much sense. Later, when I was a little more lucid, a police officer told me that I was hit by a drunk driver while I was on a delivery. I was launched off my bike, over her car, and landed on my head on the other side.
At one point, I came to while I was still on the ground, helmet on, bag digging into my back. I opened my eyes, and a terrible pressure was pushing on me, pressing me into the ground. I couldn’t move, could only shout. I felt a warmth below me in the hot asphalt, and I was certain I was being dragged down through the he ground to Hell. It made me pass back out again.
Things were different after that. I woke up sore and stiff the next day, but taken so strongly with an urge to start drawing that I dragged myself up and out of bed. And it was back. I could draw, I could think, but I wasn’t what I used to be so many years ago. I still had a darkness, and I still do, but it was not so heavy, not so complete.
And resting comfortably in the place I used to house so many insecurities and loathsome hates, I found a Leo waiting within.
I am a Leo, a fire sign, but I had to light the fire myself. It was always there, waiting in the dark. I pulled myself out of countless bad situations and fights and even homelessness by clutching at the courage it takes to be a Leo.
Every Leo has her dark side, just as every lioness is built to take life. I have my darkness; I have my fire. I walk the thin between the two, a bridge built on a Leo’s foundation.