Shaping my Style:
Of Transience, Melancholy and Morbidity, Pt 1
October 17, 2013
“My most faithful and by far most entertaining bed partners have been dead white guys,” I often tell my friends when they ask me why I am still single.
It isn’t surprising that I have spent years searching for ghosts of the expatriates, nor is it surprising that my art is a reflection of their style. For the past 17 years, I have immersed myself in Romanticism through Modernism, spending much of my spare time lost in the bookbindings and margins of literature and art. For that matter, it is the same space I have occupied throughout most of my life.
As a dyslexic child searching for the means to overcome my violence-induced silence, fearing the wrath of my mother should I utter the incorrect formation for the simple words that fill a toddler’s world, “ama” instead of “mamma,” or “obble” rather than “bottle,” I turned to books, silently slamming my way through doors and hallways, throwing heavy books toward my siblings until they would indulge me by reading yet another story to keep my short temper at bay.
It is no wonder I had an imaginary friend with whom I would spend hours conversing, talking in an incomprehensible babble, strangely understood only by the church’s nursery attendant. This same imaginary friend quickly abandoned me when he, too, became recipient of my mother’s wrath.
One Saturday afternoon, as my father rested on the hard, saw-dust cushioned chrome and vinyl kitchen chairs that somehow years later would find their way into “retro” vintage shops, I walked up to him, maintaining the silence imposed upon me by threats of violence from my mother, and motioned him to bend down toward me with the universal index finger signal, “Come closer, please.”
He had just come in from working on the family station wagon, the same one that following the divorce would serve as makeshift tent for my brother and I when we would join him on his weekend fishing trips.
I remember two smells from my childhood fondly, both associated with Saturday morning treks with my father: the acidic, pungent smell of the corral where he would throw me barebacked and alone onto a beautiful white horse for a ride through Colorado’s dusty plains and the smell of spare car parts at Ed Williker’s junk yard.
Even before my parents' divorce, Saturdays were always the same. My brother and I would do “manly work,” while my older sisters remained imprisoned in the house to fulfill their duties of house cleaning, laundry and dishes. While I loved helping my mother feed dripping wet clothes through the old-fashioned wringer or handing her clothes pins as she snapped the squished, flattened garments back into life before hanging them to dry on the clothes line or dreamt of one day creating beautiful fountains as I watched water cascading from one dish to the next, the persistent rash on my arm prevented me from satisfying the typical “womanly” duties assigned to my sisters.
Instead, I had to tag along with my brother and father, picking up the next used (recycled, vintage or sustainable) object for my father’s DIY mechanic, landscape or carpentry project.
On this particular Saturday, the three of us had picked up some greasy part from the junk yard, and my brother and I diligently handed my father tools from his heavy, immaculately organized tool box like nurses at a surgeon’s table. His single barked command, “Wrench, 5/8” or “Screwdriver, Phillips” would be met with the silent passing of the requested tool. I had spent the day basking in Colorado’s warm October sun, but as the sun began to set, the wind had picked up and the temperatures had plummeted. The bright floodlight over the hood of the car was enough to keep my taller brother warm as he peered into the dark recesses of the engine, spread cadaver-like before us. But when my father noted my shivering hand as I passed him the next tool, he barked, “Tee-gee, go in and help your mom fix dinner. It is too cold for you.”
I sheepishly obeyed, dragging my feet toward the kitchen, knowing I would rather face the wind and colder temperatures before the hot, boiling wrathful anger I would meet in the kitchen. The moment I stepped in, the door was slammed behind me, and a different sort of commands were shouted my direction, ones I could never seem to remember as vividly as I did when my father would ask for the tools of his trade. The shouted commands for “flour, salt, shortening, frying pan” never permeated my young psyche as thoroughly as those earlier requests issued from my father. I far preferred the dust and oil of the carport over the bleach and grease of the kitchen.
That evening, as I followed my mother’s commands, the same wind that had forced me indoors also kept blowing the back door open, and each time it did, my mother, cursing, would yell it back into a closed position with me serving as the instrument of its obedience. After what she identified as the “umpteenth time,” she added, “bolt it shut,” an action I had just completed when my father, too, unbeknownst to us, had also just completed his car-surgery.
As I turned the bolt, I happened to lock him out, and his reaction was more violent than the wind: he slammed the door wide open, breaking the deadbolt, throwing my tiny frame against the wall with his strength, leaving a door-handle sized lump on my forehead.
A few minutes later, as I was nursing my goose-egg sized bump, my imaginary friend fatefully (and fatally) suggested I retaliate. After my father leaned down toward me, I whispered in his ear, out of the critical hearing of my violent mother, “Blmblmblmb (my friend’s name, the sound I made by quickly shifting my tongue from one corner of my mouth to the other while mumbling my first spoken words, ‘obble’ and ‘ama’), told me to give you this,” and promptly slapped him in the face.
He was startled, not merely by my slap but also by the fact that I had broken my typical silence, and repeated what I had said. My mother reached for her favorite tool, the metal spatula, and promptly whipped me, adding, after enacting her wrathful fury upon my backside, “Give THAT to your friend.”
My imaginary friend never resurfaced, and the conversations I had with him ceased. Instead, I returned to my nearly non-verbal existence, dragging my heavy books from room to room, remaining silent other than the sound of the angry slams of closing doors and loud thumps as I would drop a book at the foot of my next sibling story-reader.