I’ve been to Japan a few times and have always enjoyed my time there. The people are friendly, the streets are clean, and everything is so different to what I’ve seen in Scotland or Korea.
On my first trip to Japan I went on my own, speaking not a word of Japanese and knowing nothing about Fukuoka – the city in which I would spend the following few days. That’s the way I like to travel. I like the adventure of rolling into a strange city and putting my faith in luck and chance that things will turn out alright.
I soared from Busan to Fukuoka on a high speed ferry, landing in the strange little city in the evening. When I stepped into the immigration hall I was met with a giant line of arriving passengers – all of them were Asian.
I thought nothing of that little racial quirk, given that I’d spent the previous seven months in Korea, surrounded by Korean people, rarely seeing anyone who wasn’t Korean. But there were hundreds of us in a room, lining up to go through immigration, and every single person except me was waved through.
Suicide and I have a relationship.
I would not say we are friends, but we go way back.
Way back to that day in 1975 when I was four years old and my father took the rope of a robe and tied it around his neck.
It’s the relationship I just can’t shake. It’s always there.
It was there when my mother moved us, not just from the house he died in, but the state.
It was there when I slept in my mother’s bed next to her for several years. She would buy me colorful new bedding hoping to lure me back to my room, but the sheets went unused.
It was there as I sat in our back room watching videos of my father over and over until the tape wore out and his image went missing.
It was there when each new school year I secretly hoped he hadn’t really died and had just lost his memory roaming the world aimlessly. He’d be my new math teacher and during attendance he’d see me and snap out of it.
It was there when my mother made me take down a photograph of him from my bedroom. And wouldn’t explain why.
It was there when I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s features. And there when my mother would tell me to stop making a certain face, so closely resembling him in that moment, upsetting her with just my smile.
It was there as I saw her huddled on our couch reading, alone.
It was there as I asked my friends each night on the phone if they were really my friends. Did they think I was funny? Pretty? Smart?
It was there when as I grew older I kissed more boys than I should have. And there when I excused those boys who turned out to be liars or cheats, and let them back into my bed.
It was there when I worried, at the end of my own rope, if it was my time now. The words would whisper from deep within and I knew that these same words spoke to him. I thought about following the sounds.
It was there when my grandfather after a few Grey Goose and tonics would grow quiet and sigh, “stupid kid” under his breath, but loud enough for me feel each word.
It was there as I traveled from place to place seeking out information. I went looking for his thesis at his college, now my college. I got his autopsy report and held it in my hands. I had dinner with his friend and felt jealous at his memories of him.
It was there when I got married and he didn’t walk me down the aisle.
It was there when I made my husband promise that if we had a son we would not name him after him. I did not want to chance being sad each and every time I called after my child.
It was there as thirty years later I found myself in a Survivors After Suicide group therapy meeting pleading and hoping to no longer be so burdened by his action.
It was there when I swore I did not want it to be there any more.
I was more than just the girl whose father killed himself.
It was there when determined to do good work I signed up to be a grief counselor. I cried as I toured the facility for the little four year old girl that I was that did not have a place like that. And it was there when I sat during the first day’s training and knew I would quit. I had a secret. I was two months pregnant and there in that moment I realized I was no longer interested in being so enmeshed with death, with suicide. I wanted to concentrate on this new life, not the one that I had never really known.
It was there when my son was born in an emergency, dire situation. “No. Why me?” I thought. “I have already had my tragedy.”
It was there when as my son got stronger, I realized I too had great strength from many years of practice.
It was there when we named our son after each of our grandfathers. And it was there, but by my invitation, when we gave him my father’s Hebrew name, needing to connect them. I needed to honor him.
I am determined to share with my son how my father lived. That includes how he died. But it will no longer be the first and only information about him.
My father was charming.
He made people laugh for a living.
He proposed to my mother in Italy.
He struggled with his weight.
And he killed himself.
My son will know these things.
My father’s baby picture hangs on my son’s bedroom wall along with all of his other grandparents’ baby pictures. Each night, I tell my son how much they love him. I have come to refer to my father as Grandpa Daddy. He holds equal weight each night with the other grandparents. But when I scan the pictures, it is Grandpa Daddy who my son most resembles.
Sometimes I get sad as I say our goodnights and place my son in his crib.
I am sad that they will not know each other. Sad that he is just a photograph to him.
I am sad that I never really got to know him, except through other people’s memories.
I am sad that he died, but not as sad for how he died.
There in that moment, after thirty years of hard work, how he died does not seem as important.
It does not go away. It is always there.
But now more like just a little bit over there.
Not right here.
I live where toddlers cram spongy Cheerios into jellyfish mouths, trip and lurch like damp little drunks, and hone elimination skills on a squat plastic potty. I’m not actually present for any—my day-hour rituals are of a more droning and fluorescent nature—but some things are safely assumed.
Enter evening, when the babes retreat, the light dims, and the chorus lulls.
That’s the Monday through Friday breakdown. There are also weekends: two days per when the sauce in the sippy cup sparks spontaneous flits and twirls and lascivious text parades in lieu of wobbly grievances in the vein of “Milo drank my appul juuuice! Waaahhh!!”
It’s a whale of a deal, this only-in-New York living arrangement, with a couch-change price tag, eggshell walls you lose on the way up, appliances that glitter and clink expensive newness, and a porcelain bathtub with mineral curves so pure and sweet and sad that to bathe is to go back.
See also: a small unit set apart from the rest—a tidy afterthought with a big sure lock. But who’s fooled? My bedroom: porous like nobody’s business.
It’s pleasing to three-year-old Me, the amount of light, real and artificial, filling the room right now, and as I look down, my legs floating off the edge of the soft sinking couch that feels against my bottom just like the one we have at home, I watch my feet, striped in purple and red because of the socks I picked out myself and put on earlier. These aren’t the only stripes. There are others, ones made by the sunlight coming in through the window that is not a regular window like the ones at home, but a window with something on it so that the light makes lines as it enters the room. These lines go in a different direction than the ones on my socks, which makes little boxes on the tops of my feet. I keep on looking at my feet, because I think the lines look neat all together as they are, and a little like the floor in the bathroom at home, where I remember standing and looking up up up at my dad brushing his teeth. I wonder when I will see my dad again. It probably won’t be very long from now, because I remember wondering the same thing many times before and always, every time, I have seen my dad again. Suddenly there is a picture in my head of some quiet water, and I think maybe it is the water from earlier.
This arrangement is all wrong. It’s like my 31-year-old thighs, parallel to the floor and about three feet above it, are popping out of cartoon jail, wedged between three skinny pillars: pinched, chafed, wrong. My lower abdominal region is also constricted, made concave by a jutting, hard-plastic table-for-one. Suddenly I’m aware of airplane sounds, not from actual planes but from the mouths of women who hover above me, their lips moving in rapid succession. And suddenly—food! It hits me like a full-on air assault, rubber-tipped spoons loop-di-looping fast and furious toward my mouth, depositing quivering iridescent globs of creamed corn, mushy peas, mashed carrots and sweet potatoes and neon squash, next egg custard, berry medley, brown-ripe banana, pureed pears, applesauce, honeyed yogurt, more banana… I take it all in, too, determined not to make a mess. But I’m horrified, the whole thing is horrifying and I want it to stop. My stomach is really hurting and I’m so worked up I can’t even cry. Desperate for relief, I transform myself into an eel, sliding easily out from the chair and slithering to the center of the room, where the best toy is laid out: the giant road rug, complete with crosswalks and traffic islands and signs to the zoo. Coasting at leisure, I spy in the top right corner a small dark clump of trees, and, pausing for no more than a second, I disappear silently inside it.
On waking, wholeness. Precious.
Please explain what just happened.
Succede che sono venuta a new york scappando da una delusione d’amore..rifugiarsi a new york mi e’ sembrata la soluzione piu’ semplice.
It so happens that I came to New York to flee romantic disappointment. Hiding in New York felt so much like the easiest solution.
I usually wake up at the crack of 9. Then, I check email, pick up phone messages, make a few calls and do some cases for my insurance review work. By then, it’s after 11 and time to get out of bed. No wonder my husband has often observed that I’m the only able-bodied person he knows in danger of developing bed sores.
Whenever I can. Sometimes, a little here and there throughout the day, sometimes not for days or a week at a time.
What are you, my mother?
Why, thank you.
I knew before we even left Colorado that I wanted to write a memoir of our year on the road. So, I took a lot of notes—whether about conversations Tim and I had, or from places we’d visit. Once, one of the tour guides even demanded to know, “Do I need a lawyer?”
What do you think it was like for me?
Verrrrrry interesting. However, I’m off-duty, so let’s get back to your question.
It wasn’t easy. But, I really, really wanted to write this book – even if no one else ever read it. And, if someone actually did, I wanted to share how life-changing the experience was. That’s why I dedicated Queen of the Road to anyone searching for his or her inner bus. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as taking a whole year off; we all have some “other thing” to experience, to shake up our lives, and help us focus on what’s important.
So many of us work hard for so many years, wake up one day and ask, “Is this all there is?” Tim and I hadn’t realized how routine our lives had become – lacking a certain spark. We actually ended up being grateful for all the disasters we experienced on the trip (fire, flood armed robbery, my developing a bus phobia and finding ourselves in a nudist RV park, to name just a few), because ultimately, they taught us the importance of stretching and challenging ourselves, as well as helped us get our priorities in order.
There are a lot of memoirs about some terrible catalyst that forces the author to change his or her life. Our case was different because we volunteered for this experience. (Fine. If you insist on getting technical, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming. Geez.) It doesn’t have to take a tragedy to change our lives. Tim and I are living proof that we don’t have to wait. We can make the choice NOW to live our best lives.
Another important lesson we learned is that all that really matters is to be with the people you love. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Yet, that’s not how most of us spend our time. And, while it’s true that in traveling around the country we met incredibly diverse and unique people, we also found we all have one thing in common: Wanting to love and be loved.
The “bus thing” taught us how crucial it is to downsize and simplify our lives so that we don’t end up supporting a lifestyle filled with things instead of people. And, that… GULP… even includes shoes.
Do you really think a woman who stays in her pajamas all day outlines?
Uh, you’ve seen my picture, so I really don’t understand why you have to ask that question. Angelina Jolie, of course! Since she seems to have a lot on her hands these days, I’d be fine with Courtney Cox—although she’d have to lose some weight, first.
Why? Do you think if I were a proctologist I’d want to look up your butt?
I love show tunes, Stephen Sondheim, Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe. There are so very many great ones! Irving Berlin, Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein. I recently saw a great documentary on Johnny Mercer. I love Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell, Dan Bern, Duke McVinnie. I also love film scores, Bernard Herrmann, Georges Delerue. I love film so very much, I went to film school in Prague for two years, amazing city. Some filmmakers I love include Billy Wilder, Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, and Milos Forman.
When I was a little girl I wrote stories, being of low self-esteem; it was too fun so I stopped ’til I moved to NYC when I was 20 and the poems just arrived. I haven’t stopped since.
Something tends to spark a poem and it gels quickly. It has been this way since I began whether the source of inspiration is a photograph, an event, work or love. I don’t edit much at all but sometimes things get tweaked, often though they are left alone. I’m grateful for the process as I think with imagery just letting it come when it’s ready seems to be working. I trust it and know that any period of my life might be more prolific or not but I am very exuberant about other artists and enjoy watching movies, listening to music, etc. These are very nourishing activities to me and I don’t feel pressure to write every day or anything like that.
When I first started reading I was extremely shy and didn’t know if I’d be up to reading when my name was called so after Ellyn I put in parentheses (Maybe I’ll read…) and it stuck. I also like how the y in Ellyn goes with the y in Maybe but that just is pure serendipity!
I recently completed a poetry/music CD, Rodeo for the Sheepish. I have the most amazing collaborators, Harlan Steinberger and Tommy Jordan. The feedback for the album has been stellar. And we’re turning the CD into a movie, and hopefully a live show too.
If anyone out there has any ideas, as Tommy would say, we are delighted to hear them!
Absolutely, my pleasure!
So, truthfully, how did you come up with the questions you’re about to answer?
Well, here’s the thing. Every time I attempted to actually compose a self-interview, I ended up answering every question like a professional athlete—you know: It is what it is. Just trying to take it one game at a time. My understanding was that I was shooting B-12 into my ass. I play the percentages. So I did the one thing I know how to do in the face of sounding like a cheese dick: I asked people to give me questions to answer so that I wouldn’t sound like a cheese dick. And then, if I didn’t like their questions, I altered them to what I’d like them to be, essentially rewriting my own self interview. Kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but slightly less awesome. I also took some questions from transcripts I found online of Michael Silverblatt interviewing David Foster Wallace and Vikram Chandra. These questions are denoted with a handy asterisk.
I tap on his first floor window late
He parts the drapes, smiles faintly
Fag? I ask
He dresses for the cold
Joins me outside the residence entrance
We could be chest to chest
Steam enveloped in my shower
We could be front to back
Blanket wrapped in his bed
We could be mouth on mouth
Rain soaked in the park
We could be all this and
More anytime, anywhere
Redrawing the boundaries of our imaginations
Plunging into oblivion
Instead a thousand hours
In the cold dark we smoke
Inhaling exhaling three feet apart
On the butt-spangled walkway
Under partial moons and slapdash stars
Of the unremarkable
Schedules, forecasts, assignments
Without asking or having to he reaches into
My pocket for the lighter
It never goes
Some mix of
His understandable cowardice
Our lovely friendship
The twelve years
Drunk at the union or the pub
While the others carry on, their banter a perfect cover
He stares at me in a way that makes me itch
I can arrange him for you, he sneers, if I glance too long at someone
And I laugh as cruelly as possible,
Go on then
We gather our tools, go out to the patio and
Meet him halfway
Provide a signal or
Create an opportunity
I can’t, won’t and shouldn’t
He’s the one with
Illusions left to amputate
A big blank book of failures
My need is not him-specific
Only even projected in his general direction
Since he’s always right in front of me
Smoking, a thousand hours in the dark
I mean – I’d be gentle
Oh so gentle
But his heart needs to be a sieve
Whereas now it is a kite
Something is possible between us
I’m not sure what
But a thing is possible