The last thing I want to do at the end of a long day is relive it. All the same, here I sit. Rewinding, playing it back. If memories were on VHS mine would have worn out long ago. Little wobbles and interference, distortion in the soundtrack.
Please be honest, Mary Jane.
Are you happy?
Am I happy? I used to repeat the words in front of the mirror, practicing the different ways to say them. "Am I happy?" "Am I happy?" "Am I happy?" Doesn't matter, the answer's always, "no." I finally told her the truth.
She rewarded me with a therapist. A shrink. I could hardly keep the bile from escaping my throat the first time we sat on that faux leather couch, trying to make our family history seem like small talk. Thanks, Mom.
So the question sits before us still, after several hundred dollars and months of 30-minute inquisitions. This woman, in her thick wire frames and long woolen skirts, asks me if I'm happy the way waiters ask if you'd like another Coke. So I tell her anything. Yes, as a matter of fact I am happy. I've just received the grand prize in the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. Mother and I are going to trek around Europe. I've told her I am not. At least, not without my husband, Raoul, who is soon to return from the war. I've told her that happiness is an illusion. Once I told her that I'm practicing being miserable so that I might become a famous kamikaze. Anything, something, nothing.
That is, until I can't take it any more and I collapse into a miserable puddle on that goddamned couch. I surrender to her notebook and that little pen that moves so noisily as we talk. I give up and begin to cry. "Of course I'm not happy. Why the fuck should I be? He's dead and I might as well be, too."
Please, don't censor your tears.
The first thing she told me was that I needed to grieve. Even though this was the man who had hurt me, violated me in horrible ways night after night while my younger sister laid in the next bed, I needed to mourn his death? Even though this man used to hit my mother in the kitchen with egg beaters, call her a whore and a bitch and worse, I should be sad that he's gone?! This monster, this villain who had destroyed my whole world, was someone I should cry over losing?
"No offense, Doc, but father or not, he deserved to die."
"It's not about him, Mary Jane. It's about you, mourning for what he took from you. Get out your tears; cry for the part of life you lost so you can live the rest."
As if the thought of crying had never occurred to me. As if I didn't spend every evening, sobbing myself to sleep in the fetal position. To sleep, as if I made it there. My nightly wailing was what had brought us here.
"No, no, Mary Jane. That's good. That's progress. Just learn not to censor yourself so. It's repressive."
If my so-called "father" had learned to repress his behavior, we all would have been better for it. That thought spawned years of saline. I spent my late teens feeling like Alice, crying an ocean at the beginning of Wonderland.
You're the sweet crusader.
And you're on your way.
You're the last great innocent
Going away for college was the greatest thing I thought I'd ever do. If I could just get away from my mother, I thought, everything would be okay. I packed up my things in the middle of the night. From the front porch she screamed after me to come back, to stay, not to leave her. But she'd left me years ago. Like most fools, I was blaming the wrong person.
Take this moment, Mary Jane, and be selfish.
Less than a year later I was home, after a bad breakdown in the middle of the university commons. She picked me up in the rain and we drove home in silence. I'd hoped I might change the world, or at least find some beauty in it. Who was I kidding? I couldn't even make it to an 8 o'clock class without falling apart. Some crusade.
Worry not about the cars that go by.
Cause all that matters, Mary Jane, is your freedom.
Keep warm, my dear. Keep dry.
So now I work at a drugstore just off I-12. I jockey the cash register and put little yellow discount stickers on dusty bottles of nail polish. They're so old that there's this oily goop at the top and the paint has settled into sediment. I imagine that, some day, I'll be just like these bottles: on sale somewhere for ridiculously cheap, just waiting for a buyer. The only good thing about the place is I can smoke in the parking lot and watch the cars on the interstate.
When things get really bad, I picture them crashing into each other at 70 mph, twisted steel and rubber and screams enveloped in flames that hurl toward me. But most of the time I just picture the lives of the people shishing past. I think what it would be like to be on my way to a dance recital, a business luncheon, prison, anywhere. And I worry. Worry that one of those people is running away like I did, only maybe their father isn't dead.
But I'm starting to realize something, you know? I mean, really realize it. I can't control my life, let alone anyone else's. All the late nights of insomnia spent trying to sleep, when I could've just enjoyed the time awake. All the hunger I've ached through, just to gain the weight again. All the bruises I've absorbed, when I could've just gotten out of the way. Am I happy? No. But maybe that's because I've been trying too hard.
Lyrics quoted from "Mary Jane" by Alanis Morissette, which appears on her first album, Jagged Little Pill.