The Art of Falling
“Perhaps one did not want to be loved as much as to be understood.”
-George Orwell 1984
I was six, seated at a table under fluorescent hash marks with my fellow classmates as we sketched out Valentine’s Day cards for our respected loved ones and guardians. I chose a deep purple rectangle of construction paper and was hunched over it like I was peering at needlework. Nothing else mattered but the task before me. With a black sharpie, I traced a heart out, the paper vertical instead of horizontal, so the end result looked a bit haggard, more depleted than the bloated shape I had imagined in my head. Regardless, I was satisfied. I showed off my paper to the boy next to me, a pasty kid with sandy hair and a bowl-cut that made him look like a mushroom, and he immediately squinted one eye and scoffed as I voiced my pride.
“Looks like a flattened camel,” he commented with a sweeping grin, something that stung in a concentrated way like a paper cut.
“No it doesn’t.” We were getting the attention of our other classmates around the table. It was a forum that manifested quickly, all those small eyes and piping voices always at the ready to join in, even if it was just to mimic those before. The adults never took us seriously, so when we were together, we could not help but chatter like monkeys, beat our chests and make ourselves known.
I continued with my defense. “It’s perfect,” I blurted, head held higher in my white turtleneck sweater. Sometimes I regarded myself as above the kids I was with, older and wiser at heart, and this made me even more bitter than most when grown-ups gave me that vapid smile, something like a glare that was being cast on their face and not part of their real features. I loved being around the older crowd, only because underneath my pint-sized guise, I felt as monolithic as a mountain. I felt my own heart was immensely swollen inside of my rib cage, and when I shouted off-the-cuff tunes and ran around the legs of the table at Thanksgiving, that was not the cause of immaturity, but of an itch I couldn’t scratch, a message I could not comprehend, let alone deliver.
The sandy-haired boy laughed meanly again, his eyes squinting into slits. He was crushing the stubby crayon in his hand.
“There’s no such thing as perfect.”
At these words, I was mortified. He spat the last word like it tasted vile in his mouth. I stuck my neck out more, set my shoulders.
“Yeah there is. I’m perfect.”
I realized I was coming off as smug, but this was okay.
“That’s a lie,” another boy chimed in. He had these wide blue eyes that stared at me thoughtfully, not like his cohort. “Nobody is perfect.”
I retreated a bit, shoulders down, and took in the heart under my folded hands, the skinny, sad excuse for a central organ. I wondered if this is what my own heart really looked like: a depression instead of a mountain.
“I’m perfect,” I countered, but softer.
“What, does your mommy tell you that?” The sandy-haired boy prodded. He was right. She did tell me this, and that was why it was such a set belief in me, an ingredient I trusted was listed amongst the scientific makeup of my body.
My head was down and I didn’t supply an answer. The boys backed off when the teacher Mrs. S, making her rounds around the classroom, wandered over to our table to survey our progress with more or less of the same, now tarnished, compliments my mother gave me.
“Good job,” Mrs. S delivered after spying my creation, and there was that smile. I copied her obligatory showing of teeth.
Secretly, I was thinking, my mother is lying to me. Mrs. S is lying. I scraped the heart before we lined up for lunch. I crumpled it like the paper it was.
I used to play these games. Supine on the brown carpet in my living room, I would dutifully hold the plastic mallet of a miniature bass drum that was given to me on my third Christmas. I held it like it was this mysterious implement, not an object for producing musical order, although it was still used to create a sort of order. I treated it like it was not attached to the body of the drum by limp string. It was an object entirely on its own, this flaring red bubble, a faceless compatriot.
The game was simple.
There was always a force: a strict, malignant being I saw as virtuous, a figure of wisdom. I would be the one holding the mallet, plunging it into my stomach with two hands, skewering myself as that force looked on and encouraged me. I would be the one holding the mallet, but this figure, always the presence of a man, was the indirect enforcer. He never told me what to do. The infliction of pain was my choice. I was testing my limits, digging deeper, trying to make the head of the mallet meet the floor underneath me. Then I would know I was invincible, and so would this man.
The man took on the appearance of a man with girth, likened to my uncle on my father’s side who was always wearing burly work boots and was the chief firefighter in his town. My uncle had never done anything to deserve this position of mute prison guard. In a moment of boastful delivering, believing my solitary antics clever, I relayed to my mother my game as well as my uncle’s role as overseer and caretaker. To my chagrin, her reaction was not full of validation, but full of severe worry. I felt incredibly discomforted, explosively messy like a full blender switched on without a top, as she asked, “Has he touched you?” I told her the truth—oh no, he hasn’t, that’s silly—and the subject was never broached again.
The games continued despite the now apparent oddball nature of them. The bathroom became a haven for these rituals of self-mutilation, only known to me then at my young age as the way things worked, the comfort a teddy bear or baby blanket was supposed to supply. The mallet was always my instrument and the image of the force, my provider and my destructor, stayed the same. From time to time the numbers grew, and other faces appeared in my head, all male, forming this council of stubbly chins bearing down at me. No matter how many men appeared, their hands were always in their pockets or crossed over their chests, dormant, as I happily drove the mallet down into my solar plexus. My pseudo-uncle looked on approvingly, his faint smile indicating I was doing a great job. A voice filled my head though his lips didn’t move.
Just a little more, just a little deeper, and your proved transparency, your tolerance to pain, will make you impenetrable.
It became clear that to become perfect I needed to disappear. The living tended to idolize a person once they were gone, the flaws of that person shed like ponderous, ungainly weight once they transcended. My agenda was adopted. I was to sever myself from the opaque world completely in order to become sublime. Every fiber of my body would be loved in idyllic memory.
Being in the competitive realm of American public schooling had me develop more self-destructive traits, most of them as unconscious as the games I started when I was a three-year-old. My compulsive hair pulling, also known as trichotillomania, started roughly between first and second grade. It provided the same sort of comfort, released pent-up tension in my body. Instead of creating outward conflict that I could not control, I resorted to lashing inwardly with verbal abuse in my head, as well as pulling my hair and occasionally picking abnormalities on my skin once acne began to riddle my face and back. I coveted every mirrored surface, checked my appearance obsessively. I ran my hands over every angle of my body and face, pinched bone, fixed clothing to settle differently. I always felt this sensation that eyes were on me, whether it was my pseudo-uncle or a council of deities in the clouds. This presence in my life never enlightened me with words, but pressured me to be enlightened, to be better, purer, more perfect. Once I was on the level of a god, a legend amongst humans, then my mother would not have to lay comforting lies on me again. I could make the truth happen, but I would have to really want it.
In high school, I took my agenda to become an infallible, unearthly being to another level and developed an eating disorder, believing I was showing discipline forgoing food. By college, I had added exercise to my regiment. To my delight, my hipbones started to protrude and my breasts diminished, exposing a divot between them that I loved to press my thumb in, digging deeper and deeper. My sophomore year I was running 5Ks every night after having only consumed a bowl of cereal and a bowl of leafy greens. It was the only form of sustenance I allowed daily.
Come the beginning of October, I was officially a double digit on the scale. During marching band practices my heart began to feel strained, would pound perilously fast, my whole left arm experiencing shooting pains. I was in denial that it was actually happening. I would shake it off and continue playing my horn, standing straight as a rod about to be struck by some epiphanic lightning.
My band director, the infamous George Parks, had died of a heart attack mid September while the band was traveling to Michigan, to play, as he had called it with his usual bouncing enthusiasm, ‘in The Big House.’ He was only fifty-seven. I was nineteen. It seemed uncanny that I should have the same fate. If anything, Mr. Parks was the eternal entity in my life that had been revoked, his death a punch to my frail body, a clear message that perfection and infallibility were not attainable through any means. His sudden disappearance should have been a startling realization. Instead, it had only elicited more drive in me to reach my cinematic image of Athens, although this goal was truly a two-dimensional backdrop. It was a cardboard cutout feigning possession of a praising populace and eternal glory. In actuality, this city masked a desolate realm of death on the other side.
In November, I came home to a feast. On the morning before Thanksgiving, my mother uncovered my plight, flipped the baggy front of my oversized sweatshirt above my head and saw the gash marks, my ribs, and the perfect ditch between my breasts. That weekend I was taken to the hospital and referred to Overlook, a hospital in Summit that contained in its halls a top-notch eating disorder unit. I was intensely distraught, felt diminished along with my true physical build. My heart seized and fluttered for weeks, either due to malnutrition or anxiety. Death was a dream, now that I truly saw it for what it was beneath the façade of the city gleaming under the sun.
I was now in hell. Love and concern from family and friends fouled my image. I was not the invincible hero that returned home to accolades from elders and playful buffeting from cousins, but a cripple, the root on a flower torn off and put back into the earth. The perfection of my GPA, of my accomplishments, and of the awards I had received that semester had to be discarded in order to hold the weight of my disorder. It was a mountainous, messy burden. My parents and my doctors staved off the avalanche as I ate.
On Thanksgiving three portions of pie were laid out before me. Taking the saccharine back into my body again, the fat, cut deeper than the fist of a drum mallet, a razor. Home, hell, was death and rebirth in succession. It was figuring out how to breath again without abashedly sobbing.
I had heard stories about the fiction writing professor at my current school months before I even made my decision to transfer there. I possessed a vague image in my head of who he was during the time I was a patient in the Partial Hospitalization Program at Overlook Hospital. The decision to switch schools was slowly in the process of being made as I obsessively hunched over menu cards and spent hours sitting in testy, sophomoric stupors during meal times. I’d assume silent protests, legs twisted like a pretzel in my chair, as girls my age threw tantrums over whether there was cheese already in the veggie patties. If the latter was true, the melted cheese on top was an unnecessary influx of fat, an outrageous notion if the doctors expected us to eat after they had already disrupted the balance of the strict equilibrium we, the disordered, maintained.
What kept me going were stories my friend imparted on me about her creative writing professors, this one man in particular being my favorite to hear about due to his corky, unreal nature. Without my friend’s stories, the laughter that accompanied them, the conscious exaggeration of detail, and my outlandish yet entertaining additions, I would have never found my passion again. Without the infamy and mystique she had constructed around her professor, I would have never been enticed to enter the program.
She would call me up on the phone late at night when I would be home from the hospital.
“He wore a color today.” The narratives of her Advanced Fiction class would begin with a description of the professor’s sullen wardrobe, an ensemble that consisted mainly of three mute colors: black, grey, and dark blue.
“I mean, it really didn’t count,” she would muse. “They were these light red pinstripes on his black button-down. Maybe fuchsia.”
She would then go on to recount the various questionable motivational techniques he had imparted on his students in workshop.
“He wants us all to suffer. He told us that. He said, ‘I love when people suffer for their art. I want you all to suffer.’ Then some girl said she had writer’s block and he told her to hold a lighter to her hand.”
I was usually a ball of hysterics on the other end, out of breath, cradled on my favorite spot on my couch in front of the fireplace. (I was always cold.) Sometimes it was the most I laughed during that uncertain time I was officially a ‘sick person’. This man became garish in my mind, a cartoon character. His head was haloed with a rain cloud. His trademark items were a suit jacket and a limp grey scarf. His outline was darker than most, a bold contrast. This was because he held mysterious shadows in his contours, the echoes of the millions of lives he had lived. Once, my friend quoted him saying, “I was looking to abduct souls.”
“He may be a henchman for death,” I offered, spurred by my fantastical imagery.
“Oh, he’s terrifying,” she said, agreeing. “You’ll see.”
I was sitting on a low wall outside the NAB, or the New Academic Building, smoking a cigarette, my legs crossed. I liked to sit there throughout the semester to watch the leaves fall in their various stages. Most of the leaves had fallen already. The withered remnants of such were scattered on the ground underneath the towering spires of tree branches. Their sturdy, outstretched limbs, as well as their deep-rooted bond with the earth, assured continuity.
It was mid November, a year since I had initially been treated for my eating disorder. I was an enrolled student at Farleigh Dickinson University in the Creative Writing program, and I had just departed the classroom where my Fiction Writing class was held with the professor previously known as the harbinger of doom and darkness. I would never be able to completely negate the two-dimensional image of him that I had created, but he had also become a human being in the meantime, someone capable of carrying out three-dimensional gestures. On breaks he talked about his family. He lit my cigarette once. He called me ‘kid.’
If after class he spied me sitting on my ledge, he would stop in his departure as if his coat had been momentarily snagged on a branch. He would offer a slight smile, and when I told him I had nowhere to be, I would walk with him back to where his office was located, a loft on the third floor in the mansion.
“So, what’s your story?”, he asked me one day as we made our descent down the road to the circular driveway and the steps in front of the main door. His voice, for the most part, was eerily monotonous, mesmerizing instead of dull, and there was a slight lift at the end, an amusement in him that could never go unchecked.
Up to that point I had forgone dishing the deeper parts of myself to people. It wasn’t that the new environment still felt too fresh to trust anybody. It was because I felt discouraged allowing a raw phrase to slip from my mouth, was too full of shame to ever unleash one of the pent-up, exotic creature-like words out of my head where they were safe from ogling. If I voiced a sentence and wasn’t satisfied with even one word, I was guilt-ridden the rest of the day, denouncing my title as writer, as artist, as educated human being. I don’t know whether it was his own collection of zany sayings that inspired me to talk freely, or how truly unshakable he seemed, a sort of dust cloud that moved around hard light like an impenetrable shadow. All in all I am glad I did. I told him everything that had happened to me in the last two years at my previous university, condensed, of course, as the path to tread was short. He stood outside with me for awhile in the driveway as he heard me out unflinchingly. He even recollected a bizarre, macabre story himself about his own friend who had had an eating disorder. She had been purged of it, in a sense, when she had nearly died being flattened by an oncoming car.
After a short silence following this he said, “I’m glad you told me.”
I was still unsure about my lapse of convent-like stolidity. Perplexed, I pressed, “What, that I have an eating disorder?”
“Yes, but no. About your anxiety.” He paused, looked off into the distance, and then trained his focus on me once again. The next line he delivered was spoken from somewhere warm and deep, and I don’t doubt it still would have made a plume of smoke appear despite the chilled weather.
“Don’t think you ever have to be perfect for me. I mean, you see how class is run. I am the most flawed person on the face of the earth.”
I stared at him, hit with a sort of happiness he could hardly know I was experiencing. It was dull at first, as every feeling is, this sort of unsure clause hammering through my system trying to latch on to my soul. The words he had just let loose as easy as an exhale of breath, causation of living, was the grail I had been searching for all these years from various people, just this simple, given sentence spoken out loud. He had given me humanness, then the validation of being such.
“Yeah,” I went on to say, covering up my initial shock with a shrug of my shoulders—a shaky lift and then a weighty release. “I knew that. I knew you didn’t expect perfection from me. I just get this way.”