I recently took a book out of the library, one I came across by chance, a thorough and recent study of suicide. What a bleak book to borrow, I thought, imagining what others would think if they saw my choice. It has a dark cover, blacks and navy blues. I have watched myself be interested in the phenomenon of suicide for many years. I read an article once that described how people jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. It fascinated me. I read how one person survived his jump and described immediate regret the moment he leapt. And yet what I learned from the library book was how regularly and intensely the typical suicide feels excruciating mental pain, and I know now, after reading a new biography, that this is what Virginia Woolf experienced. And I have learned that although I spent many years thinking about suicide, telling myself it was my only choice, going through the motions of it once, my symptoms did not match the extremity of what I read about.
And yet I thought as I drove to work one more morning the other day, driving across the Rhinecliff/Kingston Bridge from which people regularly jump, that one of the things I don’t want to forget about or make light of is how desperately and consistently unhappy and uncomfortable I was for many years from 12 years old, increasing intensively through high school, excruciating through college and then Los Angeles, until the first little yoga cult in Manhattan gave me a straitjacket that calmed my nerves, after which the big yoga cult was a country club, and then the finding my way into a life where art and writing and relationship have started to take their rightful places. Not that all the answers are lined up in a row now, but I am not the desperate 20-year-old I once was.
I think of writing to the boyfriend of that time and asking him to send a DVD of the 20-minute black-and-white 16mm movie we made in the mid-seventies, just so I could watch myself as a 19-year-old. He wrote the script in one night on his electric typewriter that was on a small table pressed up against the wall right by the door of his scruffy studio apartment on a poor street in New Haven. Everything he owned or was part of seemed extravagantly more important and delicious than anything I had or knew. His electric typewriter, his own apartment, his cotton smocks from Guatemala given to him by a stepmother. The way he stayed up all night to write.
Making the film together is not really the right phrase. He wrote the thing then told me what to do when the camera was on me, which was all the time. I was the only main character. In the movie I am a girl who plays Russian Roulette and go to a shrink alot. It was demanding going through all the scenes, getting the props, showing up. His movie dominated our summer. It hadn’t started out that way.
I was going to spend the summer in Manhattan, live in the empty apartment of his childhood, work at the front desk of the newly opening U.N. Plaza Hotel, a fancy hotel that I had bought two suits for with my mother in the White Plains Macy’s – a white linen suit and a navy blue one, tailored and trim. I was going to make money, but Jeffrey careened when I told him. We had been together a year, though always apart because of school. Now he freaked on me, grew cold, wove a sticky impervious web around me the only way being to quit the job before it began, signing up instead for summer school at his campus where he was going to be because he wanted some film credits – his school being the one school my father had wanted me to attend because it was the only school my foreign father knew, my father such a stranger still after 20 years to American culture, only knowing Yale because his uncle something, something, something – somehow my father in his earliest years in the States, in his twenties, had washed up in New Haven, had a mentor there, had found a little community there in grad school for awhile, met my mother during that time, overdosed on pills there but survived. Always talked about this school as the only school and so of course when I suggested summer school there, there were no questions.
Just ease my boyfriend’s angst. Just quiet him down. Just get it back to how it was before I got the hotel job. It worked kind of. The immediate crisis stopped. I gave in.
I had been giving reading lessons to a man in New York City in the abandoned apartment of my boyfriend’s childhood. I told the man that I would have to stop the lessons because I wasn’t stayed after all. I was going to go to my boyfriend’s school. The man looked confused and I knew my story didn’t hold water. I had spent my mother’s money on two suits that now I didn’t need. She shrugged. I was a teenager. They’re crazy.