This story is the result of trusting the writing process to unravel and explore some traumatic points in my life, occurring within about a 6 year span as a child. When I began writing, I had no idea how much would be revealed to me along the way. The personal struggles I address are shared by many and are very complex. To write this story in a linear, straightforward way would seem like oversimplification given the swerving and circuitous nature of time, emotions, illness, and relationships. It is through writing that I can most freely explore human constructs of perception; reality, imagination, dream, past, present, and future. Unfolding these complicated aspects in this story led me to a very simple realization: that love is a continuum, beginning within each individual but never ending.
Room 501, Love is a Continuum
I can only move up and down, being unable to yet straddle or dodge with sideways maneuvers. Each step feels like the feet are strapped in an unshakable pair of cinder block shoes, preventing me, despite the best of efforts, from moving onward. Defeated, I stop even trying to pick up my feet because it seems so pointless. In that final moment of stillness, I find myself suddenly in a hotel lobby surrounded by dark, permeating stares, obscuring the boundaries of reality and dream. Painted portraits encircle me, their eyes carrying more wisdom than any mortal being could possess. The centuries-old faces abruptly turn into my likeness and gawk at me with disdain as they plead for another self-scenario. For nothing that stands before them is acceptable, except for being the “gospel truth.” To look back into their eyes for answers is impossible; their gazes slip away every time I try to connect.
Ups and downs backbone my character, and also this building, which I can’t seem to escape. In an attempt to get away from these awful rubbernecking beings, I slowly make my way to the elevator and push the button “5” which illuminates and then I go rocketing up. Being inside the box offers no relief; it’s just a more claustrophobic version of the lobby. I am surrounded by intangible selves without a way to escape. The sharp angles split me in half, reflecting those deep internal immortal cracks, born from stabbing statements that were only said once out of the mouths of others but repeated so many times in my mind. Their sounds swirl and loop, like the brain was designed after those giant carnival lollipops. But instead of being bone-dry, brittle and easily shattered, the gray matter is like the thickest, most impermeable, swampy taffy. I am in a land far from home and from what is familiar, and it is here where I find myself the most unfamiliar of all things and beings around me.
The air is so thick in this hotel, I struggle for a complete breath. The humidity from the tropical climate entering through the doors and windows is further compounded by generations of beings, each with different smelling breath, melding into one distinct aroma when their exhalations hit the air. It’s palpable by every sense, the sheer number of souls, their depths and determination in creating change within these hotel rooms, talking through liters of rum, and with lips holding every form of tobacco product grown from the magical Cuban soil. A movement from the ground up, to find peace on this island has left bullet holes and bloodstains everywhere. It’s marred and scarred but still standing sturdy with a particular vision that emerges only from surviving being shredded apart and put back together over and over. Within it’s right angles, it has been the host and spectator of every human maneuver, from deathly battles to steamy shenanigans between the pressed-and-crunchy, sweat-absorbing cotton sheets.
The double doors finally open and I leave the elderly, self-operating vertical taxi. I make a right, finally with freely flowing feet, and return to my room, 501. I am surprised to see the door to my room is ajar, but I don’t fear for the safety of my belongings. A side effect of decades of repressing human rights by brutal force is low crime rates. Here you find a collective morale beaten into submission, so the laws of the land are almost always obeyed. My camera gear and the cash stash that is the only money I have access to throughout the whole trip, are precisely where I left them.
The room isn’t vacant, of course, no room in this restless place is ever really uninhabited. What I see when I return to room 501, is a colony of army ants all over the trail mix I had been snacking on during my flight over. These ants are always uniform in a cohesive parade to preserve what they know is most sacred. With their ruthless raids, they wipe out whatever so-called pests are in their way, to protect the queen ruler and her cycle of eggs. It has been said these kind of robot-like ants have decimated as many as 20,000 well-intentioned spiders with the ease and quickness of napalm. Even birds are vulnerable, and behave wisely by spreading their wings when they hear them advancing. Their prey fight back as best as they can, but they are out-marched by numbers and outmatched with cruelty. Nothing in their way stands a chance once those ants find their target and smell its blood or sweetness. These ants will eat anything, even their own kind, and they claim it’s all for the sake of preserving the colony! If it wasn’t based on instinct, I’d say their moral fiber is as dissolving as a fresh cloud of cotton candy on a dewy tongue.
By nature, my fierce little roommates can never be idle and must remain on the move, planning the next attack and as quickly as they came, they are gone. Remember, they are all about protecting those oval life-producing gelatinous molds; a cycle that cannot stop to rest and protects at all costs. Sometimes we humans forget our fundamental connection with those oval eggs, and that we once spiraled through the vortex of the most adored, revered, treasured, glorified, delightful of all circles.
It is night now, and the deep darkness of this foreign sky is luring me with the promise of rest, but there is always a massive force of sleep-resistance within me. It’s jesting me extra fiercely tonight as I lay on a bed of concrete with scratchy, nestlike pillows. The pillows are not unlike the bivouacs those army ants work so diligently to create, then so quickly abandon. The problem, and it is a real problem, is that in relaxing the body horizontally, the mind will take over the now still energy of the body. I am left spinning and whirling through all sorts of thoughts and recollections….though my memories are not entirely real, but rather just representations of my perception of the past. And my dreams aren’t entirely unreal, because they are experienced in my mind, and isn’t that where our experiences and rememberings occur in the first place, before they are so imperfectly stored? Feelings experienced in dreams can even overpower waking emotions. The best dreams, the ones you are disappointed to wake up from, reach all the alcoves of the soul and the heart never before reached in full consciousness. Even though the events may not have actually happened in the flesh, that often seems of little significance because you still feel them when you awake. Right now, I’m so tired and I just want to dream those kinds of dreams. But we don’t get to choose our dreams or when we wake up from them, and unpleasant dreams come around for a reason too.
My left arm is aching, a remnant of broken bones and dreams in childhood, and now also functioning as a storm predictor. If I imagine hard enough, the storm has already arrived with rumbles of thunder that will calm me into that other level of consciousness I am so desperate to reach…strong inhales and soft exhales are like silent storms showering the human gullies, spilling over the bridge of the nose, and nearly settling on the finger imprint directly below. It’s water so old it now becomes new again, over the lips and cascading all over the skin. It doesn’t have a choice, or a say in where it goes, liquid emotion falls and flows with gravity and it’s preferred angles, it’s prey to momentum and to each departing breath. It will always run until there’s nothing left.
I’m back at the lift and I push the circle that will light up “15.” Part of me has now drifted off and away, but as calm takes over my body, my hemispheres are dueling with old demons that carry me to another uncomfortable bed. Loud-and-squeaky sterility and flickering ceiling panels of fluorescent lights nauseate me while the hospital-assigned psychologist talks at me. I must have misbehaved terribly, for they have even turned off the water in the sink in my room so I can’t even sneak a drink. They don’t know that I was diagnosed with insatiable thirst years prior. But telling anyone here is pointless, they won’t listen, they won’t hear me. But I am so desperate, I will sneak out of bed and figure out on my own how to get the water to come out of the tap by twisting and turning the hardware below the sink. I have to remember to turn the handles back, so the nurses can’t tell I was messing with them. The water is warm and tastes like diluted bleach but I don’t care, because each drop helps inflate my shriveled pink-popped-balloon-like tongue back to it’s usual spongy state.
I am a shell of myself on the outside and inside, and this is why I am not trusted to even leave the hospital bed without supervision. For over a year, I have been dangerously depriving my teenage body of it’s daily food requirements and yet still running, swimming, and incessantly pounding the plastic out of of my step aerobics stairs multiple times a day in my purple-everything room. I look at my hands, holding each other outside of the hospital blankets. They are the only thing in the room that will get my genuine eye contact.
The doctor folds his gray cardigan-covered arms, looking pretentiously over his spectacles and out the window. He says the disease I’m battling can take my life if I’m not careful, or a the very least cause infertility, or damage to my heart and other organs as they replace food as fuel for the body. He is trying to scare me, but he clearly doesn’t realize that fear has little effect on those going down the slide of slow suicide. He changes his intonation and speech pattern and looks confident that the next series of words coming from his mouth will be the wisest I’ve ever heard. He says, “Natalie, you’ve been running away from a dark tiger, but you have forgotten in your fury, to look back and see you lost him many, many miles ago. You can stop running now. You can stop running away now.”
While that wasn’t the wisest thing I had heard while being in a hospital, I have reflected on that string of sentences often. I am sharing this whole hospital wing with other girls suffering from the same affliction. The illness is a result of a complicated combination of genetic and environmental factors; none of which can be reduced to vanity, or simply just going a little too far with dieting. No, we are going through this out of a fierce desire to gain control over traumatic events that have happened to us; a coping mechanism to seek peace from the intense chaos in our lives. I wonder, did the doctor use his tiger metaphor on all of my wing-mates? Did he use it with that girl across the hall who lets out minutes of bloodcurdling screams every time a food tray is set out in front of her? Was she going to be alright? Were the rest of the girls there going to be alright? And for the love of dogs, what WAS that dark tiger all about? And maybe there wasn’t just one dark tiger but a whole sly streak of them taking on different sizes and ferocity at different points throughout my life. And also….don’t we all have “dark tigers” chasing us down? Why was my tiger eating away at me to the point of being 70 pounds and committed to a hospital to be force fed with an inhumane amount of water? Am I really supposed to stop running? If I do, and this dark tiger catches up to me, am I supposed to befriend him, call him “Felix,” and pet him until he purrs like a house cat? That might be alright, because I am not afraid of being bitten or scratched or any injury that only causes temporary physical pain. Especially not from animals, because I have never really been hurt by a single one. Am I frightened to look Felix in his fiery feline eyes fear of seeing my own reflection too clearly? One real look and I could lose myself in the unfamiliar flames of acceptance entirely. What would happen if I look, really look, and see that it’s all alright?
Roars of thunder disrupt my thoughts of running wild and away in captivity. Rows and rows of imprecise memories flow in and out as I walk through a new corridor of rooms starting with the number 9. I am a solitary silhouette standing between two converging horizontal lines, and many doors, as my mind roams to another sequence in time.
Inside the halls of Taylor Elementary school, I’m walking near my classmates in a line put together according to height. I am always the caboose of the class. There are so many daily reminders, and I worry, very often, that I will never catch up. Ever. When I get home from school, I like to sneak into my older sisters’ rooms and try on their clothes. They are both beautiful and about five feet and seven inches tall. I stand on the big trunk of clothes, which are now all disheveled, peering at my self-scenario in the long, skinny, silvery reflector hanging on the wall. I wonder what I will look like when I am like them, when their clothes fit me. I can’t fold their clothes back as nicely as they were before I ransacked them, and I might get in a little trouble for that. I try my best to make it look like I was never there, and make my way to bed. I’m lying horizontal and my fists are completely clenched and my eyes closed so tight they become little wrinkled slits…imagining, imagining with immovable breath, willing my body to stretch out, PLEASE.
My mind finally gives in, unable to withstand wakefulness any longer. But the dream that follows this one isn’t a preferable state of being, it’s really just one in the same as I ramble through the ninth floor. This time I want to take the stairs, I make it two flights up and stop there because I like the symmetry and repetition in the number 11.
My left arm had just been X-rayed. What needs to be seen specifically this time is the wrist area, to check how open or closed my growth plates are. I am fenced in by fear, and three generic posters. The posters are the ones we’ve all seen on the walls of doctor’s offices and other professional spaces, with their well-intentioned, “motivational” life slogans. In this room, there is one with a solitary wolf walking through a chilling, endless sea of snow with the word “Challenge.” Sharing the same wall, is another poster with a close-up of a tiger’s eye with “Determination” spelled out below it. On the opposite wall, hangs a third one that says “Creation” with a picture of a soaring eagle. The posters don’t hold my eyes very long; they are so straightforward, one half-look and the message is conveyed clearly and simply, and stays fully in tact in the mind without ever even needing to look again.
As I sit on the exam table, I kick my feet, rhythmically clanging the cabinets underneath, simulating the silent sounds of my nerves banging around inside my body. I watch my swinging feet until a piercing canine cry startles me, sending arctic shivers through my backbone and then spiderwebbing out to my extremities. My eyes move side to side as I wonder why I am hearing howling in the doctors office. I peer over at my mother, unaffected by the noise as she reads an old copy of Better Homes and Gardens from years ago. I jump off the table and look out the window. I anticipate with a high degree of certainty, that I’ll see a big lost dog running wild and bawling in the parking lot; after all that would be a reasonable explanation for what I just heard. But I don’t see anything of the sort, just cars and their owners honking their horns as they navigate the painted-on parking spaces with very poor patience and abundant agitation. I press my hands against the window, my head between them until my nose meets the glass. As I step back, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window, and with my index finger, I draw a hasty zigzagged line on the condensation my breath has created. My gaze falls to the floor as I move backwards, hopping back up on the exam table, crumpling and tearing the paper barrier that lines it.
The wait with the posters continues. I don’t want to look at them but it can’t be helped if my eyes are to remain open. I look at the tiger poster, hoping it magically becomes something more interesting to help ease the monotony of my anxiety in that room. I lock eyes with the tigers’, then I try squinting, blinking my eyes in intervals..left….right…left…right. YES! The tigers’ eyes start swirling around in hypnotic circles. I’m transfixed and entertained, and something more that I can’t understand yet. I cannot look away for fear of realness returning.
The intense stare down is only interrupted when the doctor enters the room. He is holding a yellow folder containing the black and white bony images of my arm. He looks down at the pictures and starts speaking without sound, but I read his lips make these words: “so…it appears your growth plates are 99.9% closed, Natalie. This means it is too late for growth hormone therapy. There is nothing we can ever do to help you grow taller.” My shoulders and my mouth fall down. I cannot speak or blink, but give a polite nod and phony smile representing my appreciation for the doctor’s time. My mother thanks the doctor with actual words, and we walk through the reception area. We pass a lady behind the scheduling desk, with cheerful bright red lips and big white teeth. She tells me it’s my lucky day, because I get to pick out a sticker from the sticker basket. I’m not really present in any way; not seeing, not hearing, not swallowing or smelling. On any other day, with my senses in tact, I would have sorted through the whole basket to find the best sticker, hopefully a scratch-and-sniff one. Today I just take the one on top, not even breaking my stride. On the sticker is some kind of bird in flight, and out of reflex I take it off the slick backing paper and put it over my heart.
As I stepped into the parking lot a few minutes later, my 4’11” inch body falls to the pavement. I am not silent or my typically-composed self anymore, instead I am wailing in full hysterics. All I can shout out is, “no, no, no, NO!,” feeling that something so massive was just taken from me forever. My dreams are breaking apart and I am very uncertain about my ability to be happy in the confines of a child-sized body. But is it really that bad? I mean I know there are worse things, much worse things. But can I, with my very sensitive and passive nature, handle: the daily remarks, the continuous commentary, the glances of animalistic superiority that comes from one human being looking down at another human being, the constant feeling of invisibility, the rigid and confining calorie allotment, the clothes that never fit…… that I just don’t fit? At eleven, I already know all this will go on for as long as I do. Another cycle ends; a new one begins and I am momentarily awakened by sawing snores coming from across the room.
My eyeballs are dancing under their lids, at least until the beginning of Sia’s song “Alive” starts playing from my cell phone alarm. It’s so early it’s still dark, and the shuffling and chirping sounds of morning have yet begin. I am supposed to get up for another lecture on Cuba, but my body refuses to get out of bed and my mind refuses to be awake. I’m tossing and turning as I think how twigs make the most terrible tissues. My body is sprawled out on the forest floor as I water the woods with my tears. I can hear my friends in the distance, so many of them, laughing and carrying on. They are throwing me a party to wish me well on my imminent move from Arlington, Virginia, to Upper Arlington, Ohio. One of the voices making up the one-big-happy far off sound said something to me earlier in the night. It wasn’t’ unlike things said to me before, but on this night, his words collided hard with my particularly vulnerable state; I was preparing to leave, in my teenage years, away from every friend I have ever known. After he was done talking at me, my legs carried me off in the woods, where I spent the rest of my goodbye party, alone. With my eyes closed, I see him very clearly in those few, brief, ever-lasting moments. He’s very tall, and razor-thin; when the sun is low and our shadows become long, his shadow disappears entirely. He looked way down on me and said proudly, with a look that he was saying something smart, “you know Natalie, you’re pudgy but it’s not your fault. It’s just because you are so short.” Words have the ability to haunt your whole being if you don’t know how to stop them; if you don’t know how to take them back and turn them into something for yourself.
On a wingless flight, I’m floating like a ghost down the corridor from room 501 in search of that big, movable box that transports it’s contents to ever-shifting levels. I need to be taken to another level, and beg to no one for it to be soon. The doors open and there is an outpouring of members of the China Philharmonic Orchestra joyfully playing their instruments as they exit the elevator. They continue in their merriment moving down the corridor, too consumed with their instruments to notice me or just nod hello. My eyes shift to the seemingly endless circular numbers on the wall; maybe I can go wherever I want, what a relief that would be. I push the “10” circle and go up again, and the next sequence of events choses me and not the other way around.
I look up to see that I am on level 10, but the doors will not open and I’m locked in. I find a corner in the big box and push myself forcefully against the old wooden interior, submitting to the inability to escape. My limbs are wrapped around my core in a ball of protectiveness, sensing what is about to happen. Sometimes my body moves too much and too fast and gets hurt. I’m a decade and a few months old, and I’m in 4th grade gym class. With boundless energy, I bounce down a blue mat and sling my body into a round-off back-handspring, something I have done many times. But this time was different, and something definitely went wrong. My left arm didn’t rotate and release when it was supposed to, twisting the radius and ulna all around. The sound of the bones being busted and the connective tissue being torn apart copies that of thick carrots being snapped in half. I look at my forearm, which is now a sad banana-shape. I meander to the end of the mat, everything around me is fuzzy, floating and dream-like. The lenses in my eyes shift to fun house mirrors, and my ears only hear low whale-like vibrations treading water in slow motion. My classmates are all stretched out and distorted, with long mouths and noses, flapping their limbs around. I am staggering towards my gym teacher, Ms. Carson. Her eyes turn into big aqua-blue balloons when sees me. I don’t say a word to her, I just point at my brand-new deformity. Though her eyes have deflated to their normal shape and size as she ushers me to the nurses office, I feel her nervous energy all around me as she tells me it will be alright. She says it over and over; so many times it must be for her too.
The nurse, in a state of panic, puts together a make-shift cast out of cardboard and gauze and makes a call to my house. My dad is home sick from work; lucky for me because my mother was out Christmas shopping and unreachable, and I really need to get this arm situation taken care of as soon as possible.
Sitting in the nurse’s office, I look at my cracked and disfigured arm until my dad walks through the door. He is sporting his worn-and-crinkly brown leather jacket over his maroon velour shirt and red-brown plaid trousers. Pants like that make me smile and deserve to be called “trousers,” or “slacks.” He sees my arm which makes his face a paler shade of white than I had ever seen before. He manages a brave smile on his moon-white face, and some comforting words which convinces me to release my emotions and free my filled-up storage bank of tears.
Walking to the parking lot until we reach my Dad’s caramel colored 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III, he helps me to carefully get positioned in the car for the ride to the hospital. I sit up front, resting my arm on the large leather console between the passenger and driver’s seat.
I have a terrible recollection for physical pain but I am sure it was intense given the extent of the injury. It is easier to recall the smoky-cow-hide and old-spicy smell of the leather seats in the Mark III. My dad’s right foot often seemed magnetically repelled by that car’s brake while making turns. On most rides in that car, my younger sister and I could be found laughing and smiling, as we would slip-slide from side to side in the back seat, rounding the bends in the road. But not that day; he minded the brakes that day.
The wait in the ER was hours, and seemed even longer. A sweet soul sitting next to us, seeing my peaked father and my gruesome-looking arm decided to give me two gifts. Through old, arthritic hands she made me a paper tiger and rabbit to keep me company, which made me smile while we waited.
Any kind of pain will quickly wear out the body, but also prevents sleep no matter how tired you are. There is a large analog clock on the wall to our left and above our heads. I look at it again and again, time has never moved this slow. Inside a mixture of discomfort-induced-delusion, exhaustion and a timeless vacuum, my new rabbit friend starts to grow actual fur, and develops real eyes and a moving mouth. I keep a close watch on the tiger, assuming he might do the same thing, but no, he stayed silent and still. He stayed paper. My head spins around the room, scanning to see if anyone else is startled by this unusual occurrence. If it is noticed by anyone else, they are not acting like it’s anything out of the ordinary.
The rabbit, which is now standing upright on his hind legs on my flat, outstretched hand, says, “psssst….psssst, hey, Little One!” I respond, “well, hello there bunny friend! I am really so happy to see you, it’s so boring here and it’s taking FOREVER!” The rabbit nodded his head, not in agreement, but in sympathy. “Pay no mind to time, Little One, for you are like me and deep down you understand that time doesn’t flow in a simple line. See that clock over there? It’s a circle, just as it should be. You can not actually lay the seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years out on a flat and basic number-line, which so many people like to do. Time is very tricky and clever and goes in circles, one big circle like the big earth ball spinning on it’s axis, except it has no rules to follow. It can even go backwards and skip ahead when it needs to. The only thing we really know about time, is that it is timeless and everything is perception. And hear this, Little One, this is why you can never completely escape your character. The things that have happened to you make up your character and can never be extracted. But they can be shaped and molded into different representations, and that is what will help ease your pains and make the good things even better. I try to follow the rabbit’s reasoning, but this is complicated, and I’m only 10, but hopefully it will all sink in eventually.
The rabbit isn’t finished with me yet. “Little One, because time is an illusion, I can see deep into your entire soul when I look into your eyes. I can see all of your battles lost and won and how they are one in the same. You’d be wise to listen carefully here because this is much more important than understanding time. You better start loving yourself, and indeed you really should, because really that’s all you have for yourself and for others, and you are going to want to keep it moving along. Love is a continuum, Little One.”
My attentions are jolted away from the talking rabbit when my name is called, and when I look back I see that he is paper once again. A wave of relief comes over me as it’s finally my turn to get medical attention, however, I already sorely miss my rabbit friend. I am put in a wheelchair and rolled into a room with several staff, and very large novocaine needles on the tray next to the bed, ready and waiting to numb me up. I am transferred to the bed, sitting up. They take my limp arm, holding it up as they inject it with several syringes of the numbing agent, and then move it towards a device I can only describe as a tall stand with Chinese finger traps. Each finger and thumb are carefully placed in the traps as my dad stands next to me. A nurse rushes over to my Dad and insists he sit down across the room. He is on the verge of passing out from flu, and from observing his daughter’s arm being put through some kind of ancient torture device. Using their hands, they reset my arm bones back as close as they could to where they are supposed to be. I am so glad my other hand is free and able to hold on to my paper tiger and wise rabbit. As opposing animal forces, they give me balanced energy, or at the very least provide me with the strength of distraction and companionship.
The bones are set, my arm is wrapped up in a temporary cast and as I am being wheeled out in a bed to get X-rays to make sure everything is lined up correctly. I feel the bones slip out of place and I tell the medical staff, but they are reluctant to take a ten year-old’s word for it, so they continue with the X-rays. Upon seeing the results, the doctor says to me, “sure enough little girl, you were right, the bones definitely slipped, but I’m surprised you could feel it, you should be too numb!”
So, back into the traps my fingers go, to reset the arm bones, and then to re-wrap the damage. Again. And then one more time. After the third time, they tell me, “if the bones slip again this time, we will have to operate and put pins in your arm to hold everything together.” Not wanting that outcome, I look at my tiger and my rabbit and with the sternest of whispers say to them, “this is our last chance, we have to get those bones to cooperate, they are really misbehaving! Such bad, bad bones, never doing what they should!” I close my eyes and they stay closed for a long while as I take deep subterranean breaths and concentrate harder than I ever have before, trying to picture the bones aligning and staying there. I imagine how scared and out of place they must feel. I thought how they needed love, encouragement and kind vibes, from me, to get back in place and to stay there. As the nurses wheel me to the X-ray machine again, they say “HOLD STILL, LITTLE ONE.” Yes, I am a little one, and I gave them all a sly I-know-something-you-don’t-smile. I knew my bones would hold still that time. And they did.
I am awakened by a loud noise in the musty-mildewy hotel hallway. I roll over, trying to find repose amongst such unfamiliar sounds and smells. Eventually, I find my way back to a solid state of slumber.
To read my other short story, click here: The Gray Attic: 1989