“Okay, if you could have any superpower, what would it be?”
“Telepathy, of course,” my mother replied.
“Of course,” I chuckled. “That would make your job easier, huh?”
“How about you?”
“Umm, I think…telepathic euthanasia.”
“Yeah. But I would only use it on really bad people–you know, animal abusers, child murderers, evil dictators… Maybe also for people who are suffering from a terminal illness and don’t want to live anymore. It would be quick and painless.”
“I get it, sweetie. I know you’d only use your Dark Phoenix-y powers for good,” my mother assured me with a smile.
We were killing time while we volunteered at the local community market. Every Saturday in the summer, my mother ran a stall selling t-shirts on behalf of the Summit Hill Psychiatric Hospital, and my grandmother and I took turns helping her. In the center of the table was a little placard that read, “Created by the patients of the Summit Hill Psychiatric Hospital, each one unique!”That just seemed deliberately ambiguous–did they mean the t-shirts or the patients? Sometimes I’d peer at those gaudy tie-dyes, arranged on the table in layer upon lurid layer, and try to imagine the people who had made them.
It was almost noon, and the smell of homemade soap now had to compete with the smell of frying food. My mother was trying to rustle up sales by channeling a strange combination of carnival barker and used car salesman. I went off on my usual circuit around the market to browse the stalls and pick up some falafel sandwiches for lunch. As I was heading back, I noticed that one stall table had piles of hardcover books with ornate gold lettering that would catch the sun and wink at you–like coins in the bottom of a well. The woman sitting at the table was small and thin. She wore dark glasses and cooled herself with a Chinese fan. She caught me staring at her and raised her hand a little. I returned a small smile.
“Mom, who is that woman?”
“Which one?” my mother mumbled through a mouthful of falafel.
“That sad-looking one,” I replied, pointing toward the stall.
My mother slid her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose and squinted. “Oh god,” she said, “I think that’s Victoria Sloan!”
“Victoria Sloan, the romance novelist. She was huge in the 80s. I think I read recently that she was doing a book tour for her autobiography. I never expected this!” My mother wiped the side of her mouth with a napkin. “What do you know about the 80s?”
“Not much. Just the music, since you play it all the time. Oh, and that horrible movie that you made me watch. The one where the horse dies.”
“The Neverending Story.”
“That’s it. Horrible movie. Psychologically scarring. Really mother, you should know better!”
“You turned out okay,” my mother retorted. “Anyway, the 80s was a time of immense materialism and narcissism. Dynasty, Dallas, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous…TV was like a love letter to capitalism, and the romance novelists of the day followed suit.” She crumpled up her sandwich wrapper and threw it in the trash. “Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele, and Victoria Sloan were the big three. They were always on the bestseller list, which was odd because no one would ever admit to reading their books. I liked Victoria Sloan the best, because although she followed the trend, she did things a bit differently. In Days of Love, one of the main characters, Foster Cabbott, is in a coma. Now, you hear about Foster all the time, how handsome he is, how charming, how incredibly wealthy and powerful. You spend the entire book expecting him to wake up. He never does! It’s all very meta, very Waiting for Godot, and for an 80s romance novel, it completely defied convention.”
“She sounds pretty cool.”
“She was pretty cool.” My mother looked across to the stall. “You’re right, she does look awfully sad. You should go and ask for her autograph.”
“Mom, you know I don’t do well with famous people.”
“Puh! You didn’t even know who she was until a minute ago.”
“Yeah, but now I do. You know how awkward I get. Remember John Goodman?”
My mother snorted. “How could I forget?”
Once when we were sightseeing in New York City, we saw John Goodman waiting at a crosswalk. My mother nudged my arm. As he walked away, I shouted after him, “I loved you in Cheers!” Mom patted me on the shoulder. “Nice work, baby doll, but he was in Roseanne, not Cheers.” I recalled the shameful heat that rose up in my body as I prayed that he would not turn around. If he had, I might just have spontaneously combusted.
It was fun to observe Victoria Sloan covertly. There was a tall, joyless-looking woman with her who brought her drinks and occasionally bent down to whisper in her ear.
“She is,” I mused, “an android created only to serve. She has no free will, only directives she must follow–programming.”
My mother laughed. “You would think they would have programmed her to use a hand fan. Poor Victoria has had to do it herself this whole time!”
I took a sip of soda. “She’s an Andalusian shepherdess, and Victoria Sloan saved her life, so now she is bound in servitude.”
“Oh dear, it looks like your shepherdess is getting ready to clear out.”
The large woman was gathering the books and packing them into cardboard boxes.
“Oh man, there goes our fun,” I sighed. “It’s weird–I feel like I should go up to her and say something. But, seriously, what would I say?”
“Just say you’re a fan. And tell her you want to be a writer too–that part’s true, at least.”
“Okay.” I took the sort of deep breath you take before you dive underwater and walked over to the stall. Her back was turned. I thought briefly of tapping her on the shoulder, but then I had a vision of the Andalusian shepherdess jumping forth and snapping my wrist.
“Mrs.…Mrs. Sloan?” I stammered.
“It’s Ms.,” she corrected as she turned around.
“I…I…just wanted to say that I’m a fan of your work.”
“Oh, really?” A hesitant smile spread over her face. “And which is your favorite?”
“My favorite? Well, I… My favorite is Days of Love. I like the way it defies the conventions of the time. I’m an aspiring writer, and I’d love to be able to write something that original someday.”
“Ah, you’re a sweet girl. What’s your name?”
She removed a pen from her handbag and picked up one of the books on the table.
“Oh, no, that’s not what I… I don’t have any money on me.”
She smiled and handed me the book. “It’s a gift.”
“This is the last time, Mom. You know I get sick reading in the car.
Keep smiling, kitten. You can do anything you put your mind to.
“I just love that she wrote kitten,” my mother sighed. “Aren’t you glad you went up to her?”
“I bet she had one of those transatlantic accents, that old Hollywood way of speaking?”
“I didn’t notice–I was too nervous.” The book rested on my lap. There was something really reassuring about its bulk. “I can’t wait to get out of high school and start taking some real writing classes.”
“I know, honey, but I really think you should consider doing some travelling before college. Take a gap year like I did. It made all the difference for me.”
“I don’t know…”
“The thing about travelling is you learn a little about the world and a lot about yourself. I think it would be good for you–and your writing.”
“Maybe if I don’t get into one of my top choices…”
“Italy changed my life. Did I tell you that when I was in Viterbo, I snuck into the Gardens of Bomarzo at night?”
I shook my head.
“They were built in the sixteenth century and are filled with these grotesque sculptures of dragons and giants and women with wings. It was like walking in a dream. The centerpiece of the gardens is the Mouth of Orcus. You walk up these ancient stone steps and into this massive mouth. The size and shape of the mouth give it peculiar acoustic properties. You’re supposed to be able to hear people inside it whispering from beyond the steps, but I was alone, so I didn’t get to experience that. I did think that I could hear my own footsteps coming toward me, though. It felt as if I was about to be greeted by my own self, but the sound always disappeared before the footsteps reached me.”
“Weren’t you creeped out?”
My mother chuckled. “I wasn’t, actually. I felt strangely calm, as though I had been waiting all my life for that moment. Above the Orcus Mouth, there is an inscription–ogni pensiero vola: every thought flies. Those words resonated with me because I’d been thinking of studying psychology. The whole experience seemed like a good omen.” My mother continued, “I’m not saying that if you travel you’ll have a similar epiphany, but you might… Anyway, enough of that for now. Are you up for a game of musical roulette?”
I laughed. “Of course I am.”
Musical roulette was our way of democratizing the music we listened to in the car. On the playlist were 50 of my mother’s favorite songs and 50 of mine. We added an element of chance by setting the play function to random so there was no telling whose music would come up. My mother liked to regale her friends with the story of the “inexorably long road trip” where almost all of my songs came up.
I pushed play, and the jangly guitars of the Travelling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care” came through the stereo.
“Oh! This is one of mine!” My mother dialed up the volume.
“Greeeat,” I replied. “I don’t hate this song, but the guy who sings the bridge–”
“Roy Orbison. Well, he always sounds like he’s on the verge of tears.”
That was the last thing I remembered about that day–Roy Orbison’s mournful voice and then the sound of breaking glass. Blackness came, but it was not absolute. It was blackness and the feeling of being turned over again and again.
My grandmother took me to a counselor to help me “process my feelings.” The counselor’s name was Anne Wilkes, and she insisted on being called Annie. Annie Wilkes–the name of the crazy woman in Stephen King’s Misery. Annie had a singsong voice and a little notepad, and she nodded along to everything you said, so the overall impression she gave was that of a waitress taking your order.
“Sometimes we feel a range of emotions–anger, pain, guilt–and we bottle these up inside. You probably learned a lot about this from your mother, but it’s not always easy to apply it to yourself. It helps to talk about your feelings, as we’re doing now,”–she smiled and rested her notepad on her lap– “but there are other things you could do to make these abstract feelings tangible. You could create art or keep a journal. When you feel anger or even guilt…it sounds silly, but you could punch or scream into a pillow.”
Oh, Annie, I didn’t need a journal or a pillow to cry into–I had the Internet. I looked up Adam Warner, the man who drove into us, the man who killed my mother. Adam Matthew Keith Warner was drunk and driving on a suspended license when he hit us. I trawled the Internet searching for mug shots; I needed to attach a face to all the pain I felt. The photos were…not what I expected. In the first one I found, he looked almost cherubic with his lopsided grin and sandy brown curls. That picture wouldn’t do at all. In the next photo, his face was drawn, his skin was sallow, and there was the ghost of a bruise under his right eye. Still he smiled, and his smile was warm and wholesome. Finally, I found what I was looking for–his last booking, just three months before the accident. His hair was a mass of greasy coils, his eyes were dull, and his cheerful smirk had become a sneer.
I printed the photo and taped it to the ceiling above my bed. I focused on it every night, poured all of my hate and anger and sadness into it. Every night the whispers rose from my bed like those of a small child reciting her prayers. But these were not prayers; these were the opposite of prayers. Soon I noticed that the image was beginning to change. It was no longer just a photograph–his face had life and light. It was lit from within like a Chinese lantern. It was also no longer eight feet from me–the ceiling had disappeared, and his face was far away, shining like a star. From deep within my mind a thought surfaced. The thought was death. It was like a huge obelisk of black glass that had risen out of me. The thought radiated with a cold heat. It would take all of my concentration, but I could begin inching that thought toward that shining star, toward Adam Warner. I knew that if the thought reached that light, it would extinguish it forever.
The more I practiced the more easily the thought rose out of me. It was almost a physiological action now–the way your throat heaves when you’re about to vomit. The thought was dark and dense and incredibly hard, but it was also brittle, so as it moved through time and space, it would begin to crack and fracture. Shards of black glass would fall downward as it moved toward the star. One night, it came within a hundred feet of that glowing face and shattered completely, sending a shower of glittering splinters into the heavens.
“Have you considered medication? I have a colleague who could help you.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want drugs. I don’t want anything that would numb me, anything that would dull my senses.”
“Fair enough.” Annie smiled conciliatorily. “There are other, more natural alternatives. Transcendental meditation has helped a great many people with Post Traumatic Stress. It can help you feel calm and centered, lower your blood pressure, focus your thoughts–”
“Focus my thoughts?”
“That’s one of the benefits.”
“You can teach me this meditation?”
“Me? No. But I can refer you to an instructor who teaches a course.”
“That would take too long.”
Annie knit her brow. “You would need an instructor. You would need to discover your mantra. You would have to learn to–”
“The word or phrase you would repeat over and over again to help with the meditation.”
Thank you, Annie. Thank you.
That night, the ceiling disappeared and Adam’s face shone down like a star. I conjured up the thought again. It pulsed with energy; it was resonant as a bell. I beckoned it. Ogni pensiero vola. It lurched upward. Ogni pensiero vola ogni pensiero vola ogni pensiero vola ognipensierovola… I chanted the words over and over again until they became one word, repeated ceaselessly. The obelisk moved with intent; it shuddered and shook as it rose. Splinters fell from it, now larger pieces. I wondered if it would hold together long enough to reach the star. It was burning up like a comet, but still it rose. I always imagined that I would smash that face with the blunt force of the obelisk, but when at last it reached Adam Warner, only a single shard remained. The shard was as thin and sharp as an ice pick, and I pressed it against Adam’s forehead. It met with resistance. Ogni pensiero vola. The shard thrust into his head, and his eyes widened in a moment of comprehension. The light that had been shining began to dim and then finally disappeared.
Annie placed her little notepad in her lap.
“I’m sorry to hear that you’ve decided not to continue our sessions.”
“You’ve been great, Annie. Really. I just feel like I’ve gotten what I needed from them.”
“Well,” Annie replied hopefully, “if that’s how you feel…”
“It is. Thank you, though. You’ve helped me more than you can possibly know.”
“Meg, I wasn’t sure if I should bring this up now, but…Adam Warner, the man who was driving the truck that hit you… He died two days ago.”
“Oh,” I replied.
“He was found in bed; it was like he went to sleep and never woke up. They think it was probably a blood clot–from when he broke his legs in the accident.”
“How does this make you feel?”
“How do I feel?” I raised my eyes toward the ceiling. “I feel…calm, centered…focused.”
She nodded, picked up her notepad, and wrote something down.
So…I’ve decided to take a gap year, to chart my own course. Well, not entirely my own–I’ll be starting my journey in Italy. I’m flying into Rome on Saturday, and from there I’ll take the train north to Viterbo. I’ll go to the Gardens of Bomarzo as my mother did before me. I will ascend those stone steps and enter the mouth of Orcus, and in the darkness I will wait to hear the sound of my own footsteps rising up to meet me.