My writing and self-portraiture feed off of each other. Recently, I noticed that water has been a common theme in my self-portraits. Because it is my goal to explore my inner landscape through self-portraiture, I thought I might gain some insight if I delved into the theme of water by writing. My initial line of thought as I began to write centered around Natalie Wood, who tragically drowned only one year after I was born. I suppose I have felt oddly connected to her and the darkness surrounding her death. That probably plays into my fear of water– along with that time I white water rafted in terrifying class four rapids on the Nile River–flipping twice!
In further pondering my draw to water, I knew I couldn’t ignore the fact I was born with a Branchial cleft cyst. It’s pretty rare, so most of you probably haven’t heard of it before. Sounds gross though, right? And in case you don’t feel like Wiki’ing to find out what it is, here you go: “Branchial cleft cysts are remnants of embryonic development and result from a failure of obliteration of one of the branchial clefts, which are homologous to the structures in fish that develop into gills.” Yes–I have a gill. A gill! Unfortunately, it doesn’t enable me to stay underwater for long periods of time like an actual fish, but it does likely make me feel more connected to water than I would otherwise.
It is probably strange to bring this all up in my preface, because I ended up NOT writing about water. This story took me on another journey and though several water-connected thoughts peeked out during the process, they swiftly swam their way out. Perhaps they will surface through a different story. So…the story I had intended to write about water, ended up instead being one that explores fire..huh, go figure. Opposite forces that are extremely powerful, potentially very destructive, yet also very helpful. This story was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the past few months–even taking a different title (The Last Space) at one point, before becoming this version. The emotional cycles that I went through writing this piece felt like forces of nature: tornadoes of frustration, waves of wishing, breezes of chaos rustling the leaves, and warm rays of sunlight illuminating a unique path.
Here is “The Fire in the Mirror,” a story from the alcoves of my imagination, my heart space, and the butterflies in my veins.
| The Fire in the Mirror
The year was 1966 and it was a particularly blazing August. Larry and I were coming up on a gas station off route 66 in Albuquerque. Dangerously low on fuel, Susannah York’s tank needed to be refilled before checking into the Luna Motel for the night. Susannah was Larry’s Ford Galaxie—and wow! She was such a sleekly designed creature! Susannah boasted a truly flawless interior of white crush grain vinyl seats and a lush Dynasty green exterior. As Susannah carried us into the gas station, I felt frustrated and consumed by a negative line of thought. I could not compare with her—Susannah—or the actress she was named after for that matter. She was the shining star in the galaxy in which I had found myself. This thought became a repeating mind loop and only made my traveling legs more discontent—they were restless and urgently begging me for motion. As we reached a stop, Larry and I glanced at each other quickly before lowering ourselves out of Susannah’s sparkly gates. To appease my twitchy legs, I told Larry I was going to walk across the street to the motel and asked him to meet me over there when he was done refueling. He nodded in approval with an almost-grunt as he lit up the last dangling cigarette in his pack of Gauloises smokes. He liked anything and everything French, but he wasn’t much for words—in any language. The sun was sinking but it was still putting off enough light to provide a clear pathway to the motel. The recently rained-on road reflected the colors of the setting red sun. The clouds had moved on— westward— leaving behind a breezeless dusk.
I was walking with a smile, but my mind started wandering into an uncharacteristic sweltering rage that matched the air temperature . What in the hell was I doing here? I’d been with Larry for nearly four years now, and at 26 that’s a significant portion of my precious twenties. If it weren’t for that voice and those eyes he uses to give me that look…ahhh that look! Certainly I’d have spent the last four years flitting about with god-who-knows-who doing god-knows-what…and I would be somewhere else tonight. I would definitely not be crossing the street alone in the middle of goddamn nowhere New Mexico this evening!
But there was Larry. Larry the lover of Many, Larry the Tough Guy, Larry the laugher, Larry the Silent, Larry The Stare, Larry the mess maker, Larry the mysterious, Larry the simple, Larry the Artist. Yes, Larry the Artist. He told me he must have been born an artist, but even so, hard work must still be done. Yes. Life must be lived with eyes open to actually become an artist. Hands must get dirty, your elbows must fly in the trenches, and then you must become still—to be an artist. You must break down barriers and rules, you must question and question—and question again—only to realize there really are no answers. You must find your purpose and poke it steadily with a stick every day. This inner dialog stoked both my embers of inspiration and frustration. So I said out loud to no one as I crossed the street, “but tell me Larry, what good is it to be anti-establishment, and say ‘fuck it’ all to all of society’s rules if you relish in making your own hard set of them by which to judge others? And what good is it to live with your eyes truly open if you can’t see what’s right in front of you?” Larry the Ego. Larry the Id. Larry the Temper. Larry the hug-Larry the hug of all hugs. Larry, Larry, Larry. Oh, Larry.
My legs moved like sewing scissors, still stiff from the long drive, but they successfully maneuvered me to the motel check-in desk. I figured that Larry’s dizzying car-checking-circles-and subsequent blemish-removing handkerchief caresses would go on for at least ten more minutes. If only he showed me that kind of nuanced attention! And after the car-care, who knows how long it would take him to find a replacement pack of Gauloises. Part of me wanted to call a cab and just GO! Yeah…GO! I could…. For there must be so many adventures happening at that very minute and I could’ve be right in the middle of them! Yet, instead there I was standing invisibly in a hotel lobby. I was looking at a woman, likely in her mid-thirties and wholly engrossed in a copy of “True Confessions” magazine, and wholly ignoring me. She was so consumed with the story she was reading that she waited to finish it—despite my several loud throat clearing calls for attention— before looking up at me to begrudgingly begin the check-in process. While I had been waiting, I stared down at the bottle of whiskey sitting half-full on the desk next to her. When the receptionist disappeared into an adjacent room to get my key, I went for the bottle, which was an arm length out of reach. I flung my body halfway over the desk. My feet and legs were dangling perpendicularly in the air while my waist teeter-tottered on the counter—one arm holding on and the other reaching out for the bottle. Ahhh, I got it! I took an unnoticed, sizable swig and set it back down facing the other way than it was before. Just a little clue to make her wonder, or maybe I actually wanted her to call me out on it. Perhaps I just wanted her to see me and to ask me to sit underneath the desk with her and share stories and sips.
Or—did I just consciously uncover some kind of restless internal trigger for mischief? One that made me light up inside when it was pulled into action. It is important to separate mischief from malice though, I thought. I’ve always seen myself as peaceful and without the desire to harm anyone or anything. But I am a human, and after all it is just as unnatural to be entirely good as it is entirely bad. Could this explain why I, essentially a law abiding citizen, would steal a sip of whiskey from a stranger? And did I actually cause any harm in taking that swig? Was it malicious? Was it retaliatory? Why didn’t I just ask her for the whiskey if I wanted it so badly? Why didn’t I tell her she had been rude to ignore me and make me wait so long like that? Would I have done it if I hadn’t felt long-abandoned by Larry, and then made to feel like a nuisance by the owner of the whiskey bottle? Was it a response to the chain of general life events leading up to that point that made me feel sad, lonely and then ornery? Was I simply just “snapping” and the guilty feelings would eventually surface?
Upon her return, I winked-and-smiled at the receptionist—her name tag said Ronnie. As I handed her cash for the room, she handed me the key. I thanked her with a hint of whiskey breath and a sincere smile. I made my way outside, walking to my room—number 7—and desperate for some wind to pass through my long hair, circle down to my knees, and then maybe blow up my skirt—just a little. But holy hell if it didn’t seem to have only gotten increasingly still and hot. Or maybe it was the whiskey’s reliable way of warming. Either way, Larry’s car was still not in the little motel parking lot. It was too dark to see across the street to see if he was still at the station, but surely he’d be back any second. Or not. Tracking down those specific French sticks that mediate fire through the human body can take a long time. Or perhaps, I should have given Larry more slack. It’s quite possible that Susannah was having engine trouble—or something like that.
Tired of waiting, I walked to the hotel room with only my purse. My luggage was still riding in the trunk of Susannah York—wherever that was. The room was nice and simple, as expected. Red and orange plaid blankets covered the twin beds–matching curtains concealed the large front window. There was a small TV in the corner next to the draped window, brown carpet with repeating white diamond shapes, and a gold framed mirror opposite the beds. I caught a quick sideways glance of my reflection in the mirror and was immediately hit with a case of full body shivers–so powerful, they knocked me to the floor. Sitting on the carpet, I averted my gaze to the door out of panicked reflex. I felt like running fast and far from this feeling. But I didn’t. After a couple of minutes, I pulled myself up-first on all fours, then to my feet. I fearfully covered my face with my hands, then I dropped them to my sides. I took another look. This time, I studied the face looking back at me—my face–and for the first time I recognized myself. The familiarity went deeper than the reflection on the glass–which can hide so much–but this time I saw all the layers behind it. This was me–all the past versions, present version, and future versions. And I no longer felt tired of waiting. Prior to that moment, I had always been waiting. I had always been holding my breath, all the while being surrounded by an abundance of air. I had always been bored, all the while being surrounded by beauty and mischief.
It seems revelations can happen suddenly, or they can happen slowly, constantly, and silently over a lifetime before presenting their sonic boom. This felt like the second variety—and the status-quo just no longer made sense to me. The sonic boom would require an internal status-quo shift in response. Wouldn’t it be something powerful—something wildly wonderful—to be engaged enough in my self worth to deal head-on with frustrating situations instead of letting them trample me? What if I required my inner rebel to become active—to no longer ignore that place in my guts that makes me fight for me? Would I be able to truly find my voice? If I could do that…it would break things wide open, wouldn’t it? For all the times when the rules seem backwards and broken, for when horribly painful situations stab my spirit, for when complicated circumstances arise that were never meant to fit in neat-and-tidy boxes…well, maybe something could be done! What if for each time I was true to myself and intentional about it, I would be given a new breath of life? Surely this would bring more solace, smiles and strength to my days. At that moment, I realized, I wasn’t in “goddamn nowhere New Mexico” after all. Indeed, anywhere could be somewhere when truly present with a big, open heart in the flows of life. The sense of freedom that followed these new breaths might make the old ways seem too confining and suffocating. To be that free seemed both exhilarating and frightening. It is in the rigid space of fear—where we have learned to live up to this point—where all the lines of transformation sometimes get crossed and tangled up. For it is certainly the case that old habits get hostile when there is talk of change.
The feeling—the sonic boom—it was as if rapidly reproducing ravens had been using my body as their breeding ground and are now desperate for their exit! So was I going to get completely tripped up in this transformation or was I going to try and do something with all this fiery force I was feeling? To ignore this fire–my fire— would surely turn my mind all robotic-like, my guts into cold sludge, and my heart-space into ashen chambers. The rattling was igniting sparks from every starved rebel cell in my body—each and every one screaming to no longer be neglected or abandoned. Maybe it’s so easy to complicate that which is really so simple; that all of this all really had to do with feeling--feeling things as fully as possible and moving along in life expressing the self, instead of repressing it. Oh my ravens!! Had I found purpose?
For the love of liquor! All this trashing around inside me was making me desperate for some fresh air And just as I stepped outside, Larry arrived. He was slowly cruising along with a constant trail of Gauloises smoke obscuring his face before exiting the driver’s side window, and of course there was a second waft trailing from Susannah’s tailpipe. And as I watched Susannah so gracefully slide between the lines of the last available parking space, the wind kicked up. I took the biggest breath of my life and then smiled at Susannah– appearing radiant even in the dark. I stood in the beams of her headlights–an illuminated silhouette–looking up at the star-filled sky and not waiting. Not waiting for anything.
About the author/artist:
Natalie is 65% Swedish, 45% German, 35% English, 1% Cherokee, 400% Goofball, 400% Rebel.
Most days she is too tall to wear pants.
She is best known for her solid math skills, bad handwriting, and reliable sarcasm.