If you can stand it, I will tell you a story. It isn’t a petty story, not a good, not a happy story. I like to be a happy Story. But I will tell it because I am cleaning. Because it feels light to do so. Because I want you to know you’re not alone. Because I want to assure myself that I here now am real, to look back and say, “I was real then too,” and remember where I’ve walked. Because it is difficult to remember something so painful that has melted from your bones.
At my worst, I weighed 103 pounds.
My love of birds has nothing to do with their lightness. They are foreign-minded things, hateful little shits, and I only care for the corvids and their rasp-throated cawing, except, except… they all have wings. The sky is theirs, the whole sky in its openness. I am not the whole sky. I can only envy it.
I am a ground-bound thing, and today I can think above, keep my head in the clouds, because at my worst I lay in bed all day, weighing 103 pounds with my ribs at angles with my elbows. There’s a certain strength that can come from walking through fire. Can come. It doesn’t always. You are not alone if it doesn’t get better.
But that’s what small towns can do. My bottom of the well came of a situation and not a way of whole-being. It wasn’t because my brain just “worked that way,” but because on the days I did not work—when I had work, which came later—I did not speak. 24, 36, 48 hours in silence in a houseful of nothing in a nowhere place between Sarasota and Fort Myers.
It wasn’t just the loneliness, though I was afraid of that, too. It was that at 28, I had gone nowhere. It was that at 28, I was tied to a boy who wanted nothing but to cut ties with the world and live in the middle of nowhere, a hermit’s life, when all I wanted was the buzz thrum bustle of a city at night, diner doors open, laughter in the streets, music wafting from open windows, sewer grates exhaling billows into the January nights, streets slick with wet and cold, worn like a rhinestone belt. And he was my only pillar in that small place, and then he deployed.
At first, it was just food, and food was about value and control. It was about joblessness. See, if I ate less, I could justify my place in a house where I made no money. If I ate less, at least I’d be controlling something, and giving back the pennies I did not consume. Everything else was in free fall, with no friends nearby, no work to be had, student loans above my head, and no creative outlets. If I made myself small, it somehow suited my valuelessness.
It did not end there.
I ate a chocolate. Chocolate is a fraught thing, all those women fussing over its fat. Those with eating problems do not eat chocolates. Thus my justification: see and be seen eating a chocolate, and I am not an anorexic. Even if it was the only thing I ate that day. There were some days when it was the only thing I ate.
It did not end there.
There was understructure.
At my worst, I was alone in the house, no money for gas, a fridge full of slowly molding food I did not want to eat, and nothing driving me forward. So I stayed in bed. At my worst, three days in a row I stayed in bed.
I lay there, not moving, not wanting to move, three days, without eating, and a glass of water undrunk on the headboard shelf. Three days without leaving the room. Three months, three years, three decades in three days, flickering into and out of consciousness.
I woke one time to a small black-furred head nuzzling desperately against my chin.
“Acacia,” I said. I tried to say. “I can’t move.”
But she became more insistent, butting my nose with the top of her skull. I raised my arm for the first time in ages and enveloped her in a hug. She purred against my chest.
Acacia had not had food for two days. “If I die,” I rasped, “I won’t mind if you eat me.” You see, cats will eat their dead owners a full few days before a dog will. I imagined my cats rummaging through the last of their kibble to find it empty, then nipping at my upper arms, tearing small hunks from my torso. It as not an unpleasant thought.
But then I wondered, what would happen after? After all my flesh was gone? What would they eat? My neighbors never checked in. No one called or emailed. It could be weeks before anyone knew. My cats would have nothing to eat…
It was this that made me sink down to the bottom on an exhalation, negatively buoyant. I had stopped feeding my cats. If I was gone, who would care for them? Who would scoop their litter? Who would fill their water bowls? They would die.
So I got up, peeling myself from the mattress in order to pour them some food. There was none. The bag lay tipped over, empty.
In the depths of my delirium, it was such an effort to find my keys. They were a mystery, far gone, an epic object, lost to the ages. And if I found them, I would have to start the car, drive out to the store, watch traffic. Too much effort. Instead, I left through the front door, and set one foot in front of the other, and walked the three miles to the grocery. It was easier than driving, I told myself. It was easier to explain it that way.
So I schlepped twenty pounds of cat food on foot because my depression could find no better way. When I poured it out in their bowls, Millie and Acacia gorged as if they’d never see food again.
After I fed the felines, I poured myself a bowl of cereal. The milk was sour, but I ate half of it anyway. I could only eat half, but I took pride in my accomplishment.
And the days after? I could always look over the edge into the abyss until I moved to Miami. Even here, there are days when it haunts me, yawning wide-mouthed and toothless. Those days are few, but I think of my cats. I think of those I love. It’s a candle flame against the night, but at least it’s a light. At least it’s a light.
To this day, I thank all the creator deities for the presence of black cats, and when one crosses my path, I leave small strips of meat in offering. Perhaps they will leave me my wings. Perhaps they will live another day, purring against a needy breast. But at my worst, I know it did not end there because of small black paws and rumbling ribs. I know that this crow still looks skyward because there is need in dark places.