Failing to Fall
Midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1973 turning 1974, I stand in an open window on the top floor of a small hotel in Heidelberg, Germany, assessing whether and how to kill myself. The window stretches floor to ceiling: French doors, flung wide, with long dusty curtains swept aside to let in the frigid, gusting night air, and a cacophony of pealing church bells. In the room behind me are some number of my college student companions—I have no memory of how many or which ones—on this winter-break junket to Europe.
My boy husband Hen is surely among them. It’s inarguable that much hashish is being smoked to see in the New Year. We’ve all been toking as often as possible for five or six days, ever since some daredevil cool-fool among us scored big in our port of entry, Amsterdam. I am eighteen, almost nineteen, a stoner among stoners to whom I have no other connection. I’ve had great affection since high school for any form of downer drug, but I’ve never had hash before this trip, and instantly I am enamored of the aromatic honey taste on my palate, and the sticky-sweet resinous smoke in my hair, and the languorous drone to which it reduces my twitchy consciousness.
But by New Year’s Eve, I’ve had so much I can't take any more. All I want is oblivion. As doped up on Baudelaire and Jim Morrison as on hashish, I summon death to take me. Shut me up, just please-oh-please shut me down in orgasmic, obliterating, pain-ending embrace.
Problem is, the top floor of the small hotel is the third floor, and I am not too stoned to reckon carefully whether the fall will be fatal. I look straight down at the ink-black pavement: insufficiently far away. I lean out, bowing slightly into the burning cold, and feel a swell of glacial joy almost take me, the way the big waves threaten to, too far from the shore at Cape Hatteras. The wild Dionysian clanging of the church bells—only once before in my life have I heard real bells in real belfries—urge me to cast aside reason, and fling myself freely toward divinity and insanity. With wind searing my skin and delirium budding in my brain cells I can almost believe that no difference, no boundary, exists between the pain that threatens to burst me and the sensory chaos of the night that beckons.
I step closer to the edge and lift one foot off the sill. I gaze down again, torn, uncertain, assessing. The drop is just not that far. I visualize my broken body on the pavement below: alive, bleeding, hurting. I do not want to hurt more than I already hurt. I imagine angry, upset people staring at me, shouting at me, handling me. Fear floods me. Fear of pain, fear of death, and fear of the pain of shame. I will be sent home from college, maybe locked up in an institution, certainly subjected to my mother’s judgment and blame. I will be, very publicly, what she has taught me most to fear becoming: a public failure and embarrassment. Scraped from the street in a foreign city, shipped home with much fanfare and injuries, maybe even lasting disabilities that will place me, indefinitely, inside her control.
No drama comes down that midnight in Heidelberg, except the crying jag into which I fall when I close the window and sag into some chair. I cry myself sick, without explaining why, and everybody who knows me is quite used to that.
Anything to avoid failing: that was the story of my life, then.
My daughter J took her first steps in the worn and grassless backyard of a secret safe house for battered women on a backstreet of a working-class hamlet in mid-state New York. I sat on the wooden stoop, a volunteer visiting for my weekly hour or two, flanked by women who’d come there to hide from men who, on bad days, wanted to kill them for failing to please. I’d begun this gig before I was a mother, soon after I quit my job in investment banking to stay home and write. I continued to visit while I grew bigger and bigger with pregnancy, and once J was born, I carried her there with me, strapped in a front-pack until she got so heavy and wiggly I put her down and let her cruise. Without ever quite admitting to myself why I went to the shelter I sought it out regularly, learning what I intuited I needed to know: how to run, what my rights were, and just how difficult and profoundly unsafe it would be to assert them.
This June day was warm and soft. All of us wore shorts. I glanced away from J and back again, and she’d done it: turned loose of my knee and set off down the gravelly path. At nine months she’d blacked an eye the first time she tried to walk with nothing to hold on to, but this time, at eleven months, she didn’t fall.
Off you toddle, my girl, in summer-gold light, unafraid—leaf shadow on your shoulders, and three bruised women behind you, cheering your impulse to get on your feet, and go.
On some school or Girl Scout fieldtrip, I once purchased little souvenirs in a mountain gift shop for each member of my family, taking care to pick just the right emblematic thing for each person. For my father, I confidently chose a silvered-plastic loving cup, two inches high, emblazoned “World’s Best Liar.” I don’t remember that I had any direct evidence of my father telling lies, but my mother told me so often what a liar he was that the gift seemed simply perfect. It was not until I presented it to him—and he turned on his heel, unmistakable pain and fury on his face—that I considered what the designation might mean to him. I was frankly stunned to realize he had feelings.
That betrayal of him on her terms made me loathe myself in that moment and any time I recalled it for years afterward. In each bout of regret I would try for a while to become more neutral toward him but it was too late; I had the habit of dismissing him, and he did not trust me. He did not like me, either. He told me as much at some point in his last years. How superior and stuck up I’d acted; how all I’d ever cared about was pleasing her; how as a result she gave me, at his expense, anything I wanted.
But my father did love me. He never injured me and he didn’t fight with me. For most of my life he stayed out of my way and off my radar, living his life and bearing his troubles in complete silence, as far as I was concerned. When I came home to visit as a young adult, infrequently until I had children, his bear hugs at the moment of my arrival and my departure book-ended whatever chaotic emotional engagement I’d had with my mother. Each time my children and I boarded a return flight to New York or Bermuda or Florida, he stood by himself on the observation deck to watch the plane out of sight, before driving home alone to his recliner and TV in the basement, and my mother, inert and fuming, upstairs.
I felt for him then. My children had softened me, my own miserable marriage had wised me up. His lonely, unrequited, old-man devotion made me burn with shame and pity I had no words for, then.
Christine Hale’s prose has appeared in Arts & Letters, Spry, Saw Palm, and PMS, among other journals. Her debut novel, Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press 2009,) received honorable mention in the 2010 Library of Virginia Literary Awards. A fellow of MacDowell, Ucross, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hale received her MFA from Warren Wilson College and teaches in the Antioch University-Los Angeles Low-Residency MFA Program, as well as the Great Smokies Writing Program in Asheville, N.C. Her just-completed memoir, In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation, is set in southern Appalachia where she and her parents grew up.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising these pieces?
A: How much I could remember, once I began to remember. The key to accessing the memory vaults of my childhood and young adulthood turned out to be objects. If I began by writing about an object, seeking just the right concrete details to capture not only its appearance but its emotional resonance for me, one object led to another object and another until a feeling-floodgate opened.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best and hardest-to-follow advice I've been given is to allow oneself to take pleasure in the process of writing. Fixation on outcome—the desire for a finished essay, novel, memoir—sends the Muse packing. She hates anxiety. When I can follow this advice I am a happy and productive writer. When I forget it, I suffer.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Inspiration for my memoir, In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation, (from which these pieces are excerpted) has come from Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life, Mark Doty’s Firebird, and Brenda Miller’s Seasons of the Body, among many others.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I write in a room of my own, a spare bedroom dedicated to my desk and my mess piled around it. I'm a neatnik in the rest of the house but my writing room reflects (I think) a creative looseness made possible by the order outside it. In this house my desk looks out on the driveway and the trees that line it (we live in the woods), but it's the window rather than the view that matters: I need to see sky when I'm feeling stuck.