Blue Like You
by KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO
The flesh is sad, alas, and I have read all the books.
- Stéphane Mallarmé
I grew up poor, I guess, though not the kind of poor that’s rhetorically advantageous. It wasn’t, that is, a son-of-a-mill-worker kind of poor — not yet — because it is an ongoing, unresolved kind of poor, the kind where you list class and poverty as research interests in your doctorate profile but come home to a family’s fridge of just condiment jars and a bottle of seltzer water and Judith Butler can’t really lend you a hand with that one, you dig?
My father was trained as a physicist in Ecuador and has used, in this country, his knowledge of gravity’s moods to master balancing eighteen bags of hot food on his bike at Wall Street noon, but he used it first to bend my childhood into a shape he liked: admittedly poor, but inconspicously poor, immigrant-poor, lives lived as a gamble that education would fix it all. We talked less than we read and we didn’t talk to anyone outside of each other. When my parents moved to Brooklyn in the 90’s, they moved to a tiny neighborhood where nobody spoke the same language, rejecting the enclave, a Babel of their own design where nobody could influence me but them. Books and foreign newspapers were stuffed into every corner of the house, piled above Bibles, as armrests and door stoppers. We read with urgency. How could we not have? Our ancestors famously lacked a written system and here we were, hemorrhaging language.
When we fought, we stopped talking but wrote each other letters that we left by the kitchen sink to find when we brushed our teeth in the morning. Milestones were pre-scripted:
Judy Blume for when I turned ten and started to bleed.
Keats and Neruda for the first time I liked a boy.
Eileen Myles for the first time I didn’t.
Gloria Anzaldúa for the very first time I heard “spic” directed at me.
Everyone has a list like this. The problem with mine was that it became religious; reading became a sacramental penance.
Then I got sick.
When doctors ask when it all started, I think of a line in a Les Murray poem — “from just on puberty, I lived in funeral” — but say I was around 16. When they ask whether I have ever contemplated suicide I ask them what they mean by contemplated and what they mean by suicide, but then they begin to write down words faster than I am speaking them, so I say no, no, not at all.
When I was still very little, there were uninspired attempts at things with outcomes I couldn’t have known how to think through — mouthfuls of toothpaste and capfuls of mouthwash, knotted rags under bathwater, traffic. They were harmless motions of sensuous violence; my esophagus may have burned and my palms may have moistened but it was nothing that couldn’t come undone by some red clover tea.
(I say red clover tea because that’s what I imagined the Pepper family drinking in Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, which isn’t exactly a handbook for living in the ghetto but it might as well have been. What I actually drank was warm liquid Jell-O prepared on the stove. It was red. )
Friends talk about my first three years of college as The Lost Years. I am not exaggerating when I say I remember almost nothing about them. At the end of my freshman year, an advisor gave me an anthology of e.e. cummings’ poetry, a slim little volume wrapped in bright paper. On the title page she wrote, “”To my kindred Franny.”
(I’d found “Franny & Zooey” in the spring.)
I came to Joan Didion through a Jezebel comment I found sometime after my sophomore year. The comment was a link to “On Self Respect” re-typed sloppily on a blog somewhere. That’s all it took.
I bobbed my hair like Joan’s, wore dresses and skirts long enough to graze the floor but not gather dirt. Her drink was bourbon and for a while I made it mine too, self-conscious when the bartender asked for a preferred label, embarrassed when I could not hold it, regretful after the third boy from a midtown sports bar whose name I could not remember. From Joan I learned to eat cucumber sandwiches on flattened slices of white sandwich bread my mother paid for with food stamps and learned to sit through panic attacks with my head in a brown paper bag except I used the white plastic ones from the corner Chinese takeout place instead, the ones with the yellow smiling faces. From Joan I learned it was okay to take expensive taxis, so long as I could cry in them. I read her packing list in The White Album as a check-off list: I was missing a typewriter so my friends found me two. Again, the bourbon. She wore leotards with stockings so I started to as well. They looked different on my body, hips and ass and breasts, not those of a steely postwar West Coast waif.
I get the impression, through Didion’s other essays, the ones written post-cry, that she wouldn’t much like me, that we wouldn’t be buds. In “On Keeping a Notebook,” she writes about being 23, “skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance.”
Didion’s over it, and me, and the girls I meet at parties who wear the leotards too. Her work inspires what Caitlin Flanagan called “a cult’s kind of fierce and jealously protective loyalty” because hearing about another person’s love for Slouching Towards Bethlehem is troubling —i t means we’ve landed “both a landsman and a rival.” But I know enough to know I’m not Caitlin Flanagan at the hunger games. We don’t fill out the leotard in quite the same way.
In Blue Nights, she describes how stressful it was to adopt her daughter Quintana Roo — named after a Mexican state — which is only aggravated when a social worker visits her home:
What if the social workers were to notice that Arcelia spoke only Spanish? What if the social worker were to happen into the question of Arcelia’s papers? What would the social worker put in her report if she divined that I had entrusted the perfect baby to an undocumented alien?”
What if my mother were to notice she’d entrusted her perfect brown baby to a rich white woman in dark glasses, smoking by the water in Malibu?
It didn’t matter, because I hoped the weight I carried would help me deserve my way into whatever space she made hallowed by her presence. I belonged more than the other leotard-wearing girls belonged. I really wished that fervently.
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes —
I wonder if It weights like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.
- Emily Dickinson.
I hoped that if she pressed her palm to my forehead, she’d find my sorrow sound.
I went into Boston the day I decided not to take anti-depressants. I went into Boston because it was hot and I lived in an un-airconditioned dorm with some 250 girls and 250 boys — a righteous halving guaranteed by the housing algorithm and replicated in every other sphere at the college except the finals clubs, where the vulgarity of ratio was the whole point. All the girls wanted to lay on towels with their backs to the sun and the boys all wanted to play Frisbee. I wanted to be away from them.
After reading in the sun for a few hours, everything started to look bathed in an incandescent vapor, sleepy and white like a wet sheet of tissue paper held against a flame. I had forgotten my sunglasses at the dorm and the blue-white gloss of the magazine pages I was holding hurt my eyes. A group of shirtless boys threw around a football. The girls shared a joint. There were ants on the dress I’d pulled down to my waist to tan. When I sat up to brush them off, one of the football-throwing boys came over to see if I wanted a beer. I unscrewed the cap of my orange juice bottle and held it under his nose. He asked what I was reading.
I was reading an essay in an old copy of The New Yorker I picked up from a pile of unread issues. I chose it because I liked the cover — a bundled up woman in a fancy hat walking a dog in the snow. It was a Malcolm Gladwell review of two books, Gary Greenberg’s Manufacturing Depression and Irving Kirsch’s The Emperor’s New Drugs.
I was moved by it in the way you are moved when you are looking to be, by whatever. I could just as easily have found Jesus or Libertarianism or the Grateful Dead during that time. I was looking. Anyway, this part, the conclusion, stood out, and I tore out the page and carried it around for a while until too many wash-and-tumble cycles turned the paper into a dusty pulp.
Maybe we think that since we appear to have been naturally selected as creatures that mourn, we shouldn’t short-circuit the process. Or is it that we don’t want to be the kind of person who does not experience profound sorrow when someone we love dies? Questions like these are the reason we have literature and philosophy. No science will ever answer them.
Those last two sentences — that was it. Seventeen words, seven of them nouns, only three verbs, none of them poetic or philosophical or exceptional. But they imbued the poetic and philosophical and exceptional with a talismanic majesty and so they made sense to me and so I abandoned my treatment.
My senior year, I sort of emerged whole and without a backstory, like Athena fully-armed born from Zeus’s forehead. I mean, that was the reception — how else do you explain abrupt and sudden there-ness? Whenever I’d go get dinner at the dorm where I had lived for more than two years, classmates and resident advisors stopped me by the fountain drinks to introduce themselves and ask if I was a transfer student.
September was a liminal space. One too-warm night, I sat by the Charles, along the joggers’ path, and tried to light a cigarette with a red plastic lighter I picked up at the dollar store the afternoon I decided I would smoke. (I decided I would smoke like I had decided, in high school, that I would love Bob Dylan. It took a few spins before I stopped pretending I liked the taste.) It was very windy and the lighter was not working and my thumb was striped purple from trying. A clean-shaven guy in a thermal walked over, and said he’d help. I handed him the lighter. When he continued to talk, I realized he was severely retarded. The whole of that scene overwhelmed me and I so wanted to be away from the water. I took back the lighter, must have said sorry, and ran to the ice cream shop a few blocks away. I called my mother.
She visited that weekend. We ate takeout from the Square and she cleaned my room in the near-dark while I slept. When she wasn’t cleaning — and there was a lot of cleaning, the first thing to go is cleaning — she made her way through a stack of imported tabloids from the library about octogenarian Spanish duchesses with frosted hair and their bullfighter boyfriends. When she left, and she left, she left my room very clean, sticky-clean, the clean of Clorox and Sweet Williams.
In October, a professor friend from Colombia rented a car and drove us to Providence to watch a performance of “Adios, Ayacucho,” a play about a Peruvian peasant who returns from the dead to find and bury his body. A boy I desperately wanted to like invited me to a party that was secret garden themed but I didn’t have a floral dress and I didn’t have money to go to the Downtown Crossing Mall so I bought a few stems of hydrangeas and attached them to a metal hanger I’d bent into misshape.
It was raining and traffic was slow. While María drove, we gossiped about the Spanish department and about President Uribe, that lying motherfucker, while I fastened petals to wire with ribbon and scotch tape. By the time we arrived at the party, just after midnight, the police had shut it down. At the end of the night, the boy I was with gathered my wilted petals, waxy and excreting futile juices, off his futon and into a Kleenex I threw out myself.
I could scrape the colour
from the petals
like spilt dye from a rock.
If I could break you,
I could break a tree.
I rode the bus back to my dorm with the crown in my hands, the pale pink ribbon coming undone around the peeling gold wire, the scotch tape not even worth describing.
By November, I was fine. A very wealthy man, a family friend who for years had given me shopping bags full of his dead father’s books to read, paid for a gentle electric current therapy. He didn’t like that I opted for the highest pressure and so he told me to stop and also sent me stories and books, so I stopped and I read them. The treatment was very gentle and it was very nice and it helped me go to sleep at night but it dyed everything a kind of blue. So I read William Gass’ On Being Blue and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and every Bukowski poem with the word “blue” in the text. Google Books is great.
Some weeks before I took the train into Boston, the day I decided not to take anti-depressants, New Directions published Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho. Bolaño was dying of liver problems when he wrote it. He dedicated an essay in it to his hepatologist, Victor Vargas. The essay is called, “Literature + Illness = Illness.”
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New Haven. She last wrote in these pages about sex and the ivory tower. She tumbls here and twitters here.