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« In Which Our Body Knows What Our Brain Does Not »

Focus on Landing


I stopped seeing my therapist because I couldn’t fit her into my schedule. Usually she would call until I managed to call her back, apologize, and try to squeeze an hour into some day of the never-ending week. But after seeing her a couple times upon returning to Chicago at the start of this year, and sticking to it, we fell off-track not because of me, but because her son’s school had been cancelled from a snow storm here in Chicago. She had to follow suit and cancel our appointment. I never made a new one, and she never called to see if I would. I still tell myself she gave up on me long ago. 


As I dressed to leave my packing and head out of my apartment tonight, I discovered that my last pair of pants, the third in six months, had torn in the crotch. One pair, simply from being worn every single day for two years; another pair had shrunk terribly in the wash, and this pair looked as though I had made a clean swipe with a razor. I only found the hole when I was relieving myself of the tea I'd been downing to keep myself awake in order to pack, which had not proved a perfect method. Staring down at my jeans slung between my knees, the clean slit was on the left of the central inseam, and to the right I found a second surprise mirroring the first: a darkly red stain about the size of a quarter. This Rorschach test froze me, my eyes reading the crotch of my pants like tea leaves, a clear omen of loss spelled out. One shape was the presence of absence, the other a reminder.


I pulled from under my bed a box I addressed from my previous Chicago apartment to my permanent New York address. It had never gone through the postal service, but instead served as a holding place for everything that had come from someone I once knew but whose face was now left in my memory as a slab of nondescript clay. After all the time that has passed between us, which had swollen from the miles that passed us early on, I could fit everything into one large Priority Mail flat rate box and still had plenty of room leftover. Duct tape and packing tape both ran the edges, folds, and corners of the box; I couldn't remember the last time I even looked at it. Probably when I last moved apartments, probably a year ago, probably whenever it was that I felt it was still relevant. I sat it on my bed, grey dust dragging onto my red blanket, and I left it there like a cake to eat in a gluttonous binge, all for me, because everything is for me.

I did not open the box for a long time as I kept getting distracted by the garden of U-Haul boxes blooming at a rapid pace in my living room, taped open for filling. I knew in the back of my mind that I was going to suddenly become a Pandora to my own life when I finally opened the box on my bed. I brought in a pair of scissors and stared inside without seeing anything before taking out every souvenir, one by one, with a guilty conscience.  

This was when I learned of his death in my life.


When it first seemed that my friend was dissolving from the very realm I wake in every day, I relapsed into my high school eating disorder. Upon reflection it makes perfect sense, a vain means to kill myself by without even thinking about it, thinking only of the body, thinking only of myself and my persona captured in others’ perceptions. Don’t they say it’s a form of control? I guess I wanted to write off my own story and not let Death decide it for me at some point down the road. Maybe I was smarter than I thought at the time and had already known my friend had become a ghost; I just wanted to be a ghost too. Or I just wanted to time-travel to the days of my youth when I struggled to figure out what that meant. But you can’t cheat on Death without looking foolish or like a vampire, so I now make a big breakfast for myself and try to curb the caffeine for my heart’s sake.

Maybe this is just life after art school and not life after death. I have a BFA, not a degree in thanatology.


I’ve realized recently that someone very close to me has died. It's not that I realized this only now because this person has actually passed away, nor because I wanted this person to disappear forever, but because whenever I've thought of this person I've actually been mourning every facial muscle's movement that had been and never would be. At this point his face is just that slab of wet clay thrown into a void when I try to remember it.

Nothing is set, nothing is solid, nothing is right; abstract or representational, but not real. I can only recall fragments of broken scenes: the angle of his head looking down at his hands, the angle of his head looking down at me, the angle of his head looking away from wherever I laid or sat or stood. I can see the back of his head, but not even that is sharp. His voice exists in uncertain earnest, as if I were lowering my own. The time that has passed between us is almost as long as the miles that keep on stretching it and I cannot let myself forget that.


Upon returning to Chicago in January, I was watching Winter’s Bone on my laptop and paused it to get up and microwave a mug of tea when suddenly I came down with a bout of the scissors. I found myself bringing a pair back with me from the kitchen. I walked straight into the bathroom, snipped off one ringlet close to my left-brain, and thought, “That’s nothing.” I continued to cut until I had a satisfying lump of my notoriously long locks, dead as they were, curling up in the drain of my mint-green sink. It has always been a color I’ve referred to more as hospital-green, but since the whole bathroom is in this palette I’ve grown fond of its aesthetic.

I’ve heard that people who get one tattoo suddenly become mildly addicted and begin to snowball into a lifelong pursuit of ink. Over the course of the days that followed my new hair I compared myself to what that addiction must feel like as I tried hard not to think about my scissors continuing to chop tresses and plaits. Friends who had always known me with my long hair were eager to see what it looked like now as I posted a provocative Instagram photo of a few locks in the green sink. The truth is that it wasn’t that drastic an alteration, but no one knew the details except for me.


“Just promise me you won’t go crazy.”
“I promise you I won’t go crazy.”


Tonight I went to see a movie by myself, a habit out of ease and convenience, and emerged feeling as though I had walked out of my own life. Perhaps it was from wearing my glasses for two hours, my distance glasses which were bumped up this winter from being just a "fine" prescription to suddenly needing a stronger prescription and, from what I can tell, will need to be upgraded again soon. For now, I manage through a disorienting headache if I wear them at the wrong time or for too long. Leaving the theater, my speed naturally set to a brisk New Yorker pace, I walked alongside a bus in the rain, its wipers the only sound I could concentrate on in the midnight emptiness of an otherwise-busy Chicago street. The wipers sounded as if they were skinning an adult deer. Over and over again, an audio loop of animals ripped apart like a teen girl shredding a t-shirt in manual angst.

I crossed the street, through the mist picking up quicker than the lightning was getting closer. I found myself touching the curb as the countdown hit zero, a secret goal I try to always make, convinced it was born of anxiety and a foreboding of society. This time I hadn't even seen the countdown, I just happened to cross at the point of null: you have zero more seconds to walk, you have zero more seconds to play in the street before you get yourself killed. Last week I found myself stepping back from the curb without thinking, as if my body knew something my brain had never processed, a ghost limb acting for me. I feel as though each train ride in the front car will be my last and whenever the el stops in a tunnel underground I remain calm as my eyebrows wilt involuntarily, my chest tightens, and I tell myself, "This is it." I always choose which car to sit in based on which passengers seem most likely to help me in the event of a dramatic emergency.


I had eagerly painted my left thumbnail with a color called "Strobe Light" (#200) on Saturday because it was on sale and because I was in Walgreens with my friend who does appearance as a personal skill set. It's a pale translucent pink with small pink glitter and bigger opalescent sprinkles. On only one nail, it caught my eye from time to time in the few days I had been wearing it and more often forgetting it.

This morning I decided to take a break from my packing and had several long phone conversations, during which I decided it would be a great idea to finish painting my nails. Coated heavily to really pump up the strobe effect, my plan to go glam backfired. It was as if I had undergone an Extreme Makeover and couldn't access my previous and analogue comparison of a self. Unable to escape the glitter haze on my hands, red and pink from packing and meticulously cleaning up the nail polish, I felt like a cheap party that dragged on for too long. 

It'll be a great look for the potluck rage I'm hosting on Wednesday night, a "rage" because I am trying to figure out the best term to market social gatherings as. I used the word "booze" because I thought if I left it at "drinks" people would think I meant soda and juice, and no one wants to be mistaken for middle school. 


Growing up we were taught the emergency weather drill in which we would huddle into the farthest corner of a room or leave it altogether to seek shelter in the spaces with no windows. I can recall an elementary school teacher, perhaps Mrs. Armstrong from second grade, giving a warning about how, during severe weather, we ought to avoid windows at all costs in our homes. I remember, during the next storm that came through where we lived in an exoburb of Manhattan, how I stood in the living room and watched the lightning through the three large windows that faced due South, how I waited to see if the lightning would reach inside and tag me.

This house which I grew up in was situated at the top of a hill surrounded closely by dense forest and tall arboreal spires which were dewy and lush in the summer because green is the color of Westchester. In this house my room was at the end of the upstairs hallway, in the farthest corner from the common entrance, looking out at the nearby trees from two windows, under one of which was placed my bed.

The fear of a tree falling on the house, devastating the property and crushing my closet, my stuffed animals, and each of my bones, was a very real fear for me as a child. I knew it could easily become true and end up fatal. Whenever there has been lightning I have tried to will a bolt into my soles, but one just weak enough to let me live. I thought it would give me a superhuman homeostasis. My mother once claimed to have seen lightning inside our house, in the sunroom, which of course is made entirely of glass.


I read once about how men are more attracted to women during certain times of their menstrual cycle, and how during these same times women are more attracted to certain kinds of men. I tend to find myself more attracted to death around the time of my birthday, but the irony is too real to be hip. Birthdays are the most depressing time of the year because you never get what you want and you never give anyone what they want, but everyone still expects you to lead them in pleasing you and for you to be pleased by their efforts; when you aren’t happy on your birthday, everyone else feels inadequate. I’ve always wanted to spend my birthday in an airport boarding a plane for a long journey to a new airport far away, constantly in transit and unattainable.


I plan out my week and call myself spontaneous, but I wonder what the point is in doing either. “Maybe” is the safe answer to everything, I have learned; it’s also dumb to use as an answer. What I do know is that when I leave Chicago this week, I will be satisfied in knowing I have far succeeded who I was three years ago, that I have succeeded beyond a number of those around me. I have tomorrow and I have everyone else’s tomorrows and I do not keep them in a box.


After landing in New York, which happened after 48 hours of being awake, staying out with friends for one last night in Chicago, desperately packing until I ran out of tape (before I ran out of boxes), giving away 25 percent of the remainders of what I owned, and crying at the United Airlines check-in, I immediately fell into delirium. I couldn’t tell if I had ever been in Chicago and I didn’t know how long I had been in New York. Along these lines of confusion I could not quite discern still being awake or not.

I saw a close friend, Al, for the first time in a long time before she would drive back to Baltimore only hours after I arrived at her house. Al’s room was a vintage Wunderkammer of hand-picked family mementos and culture from children’s toys to high-brow intellect, from old high school yearbooks to souvenirs from her time living in Florence recently. I laid out on my stomach on Al’s comfortable twin bed, Dan laying beside me so we could both watch Al throw clothing into black garbage bags: solid colors in muted tones hidden away to sit in the backseat of her car because a past is always a mystery but your present is always on watch. “You’re like a living relic of a past I never knew,” I told Al. “What do you mean?” she asked. I tried to voice how, in that moment, I felt I was being someone I had always wanted to be in a previous era of our lives. I didn’t want to leave Al’s room with all of its history and secret treasures. Within ten minutes both Dan and I were gone in separate cars.

The next day I found myself being swathed up and down my back, across my shoulders, up against my neck, by two heavy hands. “John” wasn’t his given name and we would likely never tell each other any truth. He had a pressure and a heat to his hands that made me feel as though I had to keep my eyes closed; when I did, I was floating in a void I thought could be the upstream river of an afterlife, my only way to watch Earth being through my sense of touch. John had hands quite like lava and I thought of the ancient Egyptians embalming their corpses, beautiful Cleopatra and Nefertiti. I wondered if this was what it felt like to be dead and caressed. The skin of my feet was so thin it was like looking at blue marble.


Now I can begin the grieving process, if I want to be selfish, or I can accept that I’ve gone through this process for a long time now and I must move on for good. I’m ready to meet the ghosts of my life, only not without warning, not at night, and not when I’m busy. But what I really need to do is figure out how to get a ghost to stop haunting me when he isn’t even dead, or in other words, how I can admit to being the one who is a ghost here.

Shelby Shaw is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and artist living in New York. You can find her website here. She twitters here and tumbls here.

Images by Andy Denzler.

"Drive Me Home" - Northcote (mp3)

"When You Cry" - Northcote (mp3)

Northcote is the solo moniker of Matt Goud. His self-titled album was released on May 7, and you can purchase it here.

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Reader Comments (1)

very beautiful.
June 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteranumeha

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