Thursday, August 01, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Part Five


Continued from parts One, Two, Three and Four.


What's an afterthought when applied to somebody's life?  One action doesn't reflect everything there is in a person, and not every aspect of their story is holy writ. You can look at it all with the Yeats line about how Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold or just shrug and mutter Whattaya gonna do? leaving it at that. It sums things up just as well but lacks poetry.

There isn't any poetry in self-destruction, at least not to the witnesses. The last thoughts of the instigator must have their own rhyme and structure, something that applies entirely to their own diminishing stations of the breath. They might be able to explain their motivation if they survive, or simply push it all away as far as possible to be explored no further.

All of this conjecture is ham-fisted on my part. Mea culpa. It's the only way that I can explain the brief presence of Celeste in the context of Zoe's story and not feel like I am somehow robbing her of her own voice in the matter. My only defense is that Celeste didn't talk about her suicide attempt. It happened early in Grade 11, let's call it October of 1984. Somebody told us what happened and it was briefly whispered about and after a week or ten days she came back to our theatre class with careful bandages on her wrists and a hospital bracelet that, for some reason, she wore for a long time.

Our class was closer than most, but the details around her attempt seemed only to be shared only among a small group of girls, her nearest and dearest. I wasn't privy to any of the background other than the basics; she'd been sad and moody (not unusual for teens in a performing arts high school) and the general consensus was that this had been a cry for help or just a really bad idea on her part. I also remember that there wasn't a hanging concern that she would try it again.

Maybe it was because it seemed so unreal to her friends in the first place, or perhaps it was just felt unreal to me. I was still raw after Antonella and didn't want to push the topic further or even think about it. Celeste only comes into Zoe's story briefly, later, without playing a part. My notice of her does. It's something that needs to be explained to understand the whole.

We haven't exactly kept in touch, but I run into her on rare occasions at get-togethers with mutual friends. Her scars are almost gone and aren't - now or then - a topic of conversation, but if you're one of those who saw them when they were new (even under her carefully placed bracelets and sweaters with overlong sleeves), you still notice traces on her wrists when she raises her glass of wine at a party.

It's all irrelevant now. I can't even tell you if her scars are horizontal or vertical or both. But a classmate with a graveyard sense of humour pointed out the differences in approach; blood clots easily from a horizontal cut, and flows quickly from a vertical slice. He'd remind you that's it's Across for Show, Down for Go. Or he'd pretend to cut a capital H into his wrist horizontally (H for Hospital) and vertically (H for Heaven), his routine probably picked up from a movie somewhere.

And he liked Celeste.

He was 15 years old and trying to be funny. And we were all friends at the time.
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Our first year of high school felt long and intense, more so than usual (perhaps) in a performing arts school. The adolescent spectrum of drama and crushes and awkwardness probably plays out pretty much universally, but you only appreciate your own story because you know it best. If you weren't studying the academics, you were rehearsing your chosen discipline and dabbling in other classes as a requirement or simply because you were curious and had the chance.  

Zoe had been precarious for almost as long as I'd known her. I don't know if she'd been anorexic by the clinical definition of the term, but she was at least familiar with the concept. You could see it in her chin and her forearms, disproportionately thin or bony. I'd known a few girls like that, usually (but not strictly) studying dance. For most of them, from a distance at least, it looked like a stage; some cut their hair, some wore heavy make-up and others stopped eating until some other look or practice or philosophy took over and replaced the fasting and purging impulses.

I can't remember if I had been told that Zoe had actually tried to kill herself before, but I knew she had talked about it. There were rumours of a overdose as far back as our Grade 10 year, at around the same time I was visiting Antonella in hospital. Something - a danger, a warning, an intent - had lingered over Zoe for what felt like a very long time. Chronologically, it doesn't quite work out that way. There were only eighteen months from the time I first met her to her funeral. Is that a long time, given the context? Let's say it was.

There's no background of unfulfilled longing towards Zoe from me, no unrequited crush or in-depth history. Just a few sweet moments here and there, no different than a handful of other people from the time. We chatted in the hallway sometimes and she was part of my circle of friends and I liked her. I took a nice picture of her, in a practice room where she and a friend had come to listen to me play the piano. I was buying a lot of sheet music at the time, mostly top 40 hits which I'd loan out or photocopy for friends.

I posted a different photo on Facebook a few years ago, one I'd taken of Zoe and Luke, a friend of mine who was dating her at the time. The photo had long since been relegated to no more of the sum of its parts as seen left to right; Lloyd looking curious, two girls I don't remember, Zoe in Luke's arms (both smiling), Oliver looking bored, Inez and Tasha in the background.

It was one of a group of old shots I'd posted for the amusement of anyone from back in the day. Then I overreacted - or something -  for reasons I can't quite describe. Luke was on Facebook as well and we hadn't spoken to each other since Lloyd's wedding half a decade before and we'd only passed a few of the prerequisite 'how's it going?' notes you get from past friends.

He made me think of that photo and I was increasingly convinced that it might not have been a great idea to post it. All the fragility of teenage romance aside (not to mention the very long passage of time), he might still not want to be reminded of it. That said - taking the photo down seemed excessive. While bringing up potentially bad memories for somebody I hadn't seen for years seemed thoughtless.

I finally sent him a note and a link to the photo saying I've posted some old shots, including this one with you. It might bring back weird memories. I'll remove it if you want, just let me know. It was a good day when it I took it.  Reading this years later, I realize I didn't use her name.

Luke, a decent guy then and now, responded with Even with all my political debates about Facebook, this is why I like it. Thank you for connecting with me. I appreciate your sensitivity regarding the pictures and I am grateful that you posted them. 

With that, on one level at least, everything was cool.

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Associations. All of them slight but lingering. 

Zoe in a group of girls at a Friday night dance, all of them vamping to the Beach Boys' Surfin USA. Two or three of them doing the silly swim move and Zoe holding her nose for a second to do the dive (watch 10 minutes of any 60s surf movie if you don't know what I'm talking about). Bowie was popular, extended mixes of Let's Dance and Modern Love were a hit. Then back to the Beach Boys with Sloop John B, which half of the guys decided was a slow dance (anything to get their arms around a cute girl). The rest of the evening fades.
 
A choir practice. I signed up for choir for two years before realizing that I hated being in choir. It bored the hell out of me and I tended to forget about the rehearsals, which should have gotten me in trouble from Mrs. Burkhart, but she gave me a pass because I was an acceptable tenor or simply because she needed breathing bodies in the choir (I'm guessing the latter).

Mrs. Burkhart should also have harbored a dislike for me for saying something truly stupid to her before a practice; she had brought an old photo of herself from the Royal Conservatory in the early 1950s and I said You were quite pretty in your day without realizing that, just maybe, the day had not quite ended. I realized this a few seconds after I said it, under her glare. But there was something equally amused as appalled behind it, and she said Thank you for something that I think might have been a compliment, Michael... and the issue was closed.

A few hours before a concert evening, I was hating choir and working on not hating Lloyd. He was singing the lead in an arrangement of something poppy and inoffensive that I can't remember (the Barry Manilow tune One Voice was another offering that evening, which wasn't usually the style for our carefully fine-artsy school) and came up to me at the start of rehearsal croaking and wheezing Mike! I can't sing today! We're going to need you to do the lead!

For a few seconds I believed him. I'm not sure if he was looking to see hidden delight behind my eyes or abject terror. He got terror. I didn't know the piece well and would have been horrible. Then I saw him smiling and I offered a few well-detailed threats of violence after I stopped laughing. 

Mrs. Burkhart corralled us into a music room for warmups in two lines, tallest to smallest, and I walked into Zoe almost knocking her over. Michael, do your best to avoid causing permanent changes to Zoe's body, she said.

Zoe just batted her eyelashes and said That's not the kind of 'permanent change' I'd like you to make to my body, Michael... in a sultry tone of voice. I didn't expect that from her and probably blushed. Then she laughed, and whoever heard it laughed, and I laughed and that was it. Silly and nothing. Just something that comes to mind.
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In winter of '84, Lloyd and I went out on a Saturday night to hang out. We didn't hang out outside of school and had apparently decided to try it. We must have gone to a movie, probably something at the old Canada Square theatre which was sort of an art-house at the time (the term is used loosely; anything that wasn't a major studio release was considered an art movie) and drank coffee after the fact and didn't have as much to talk about as we thought we might.

This didn't make it a bad evening - I remember it fondly because we eventually ended up at Earl Bales Park, spinning his car into donuts in the deserted, icy parking lot. Both of our teenage guards fell down and it was just fast and ridiculous (no hubcaps flew from the car, although I hate to think about the stress the snow tires took). It's a weird touchstone, admittedly - feeling like the calm before the storm in retrospect, or something easier.  As stated previously, not everything is holy writ. It was just fun. Even serious teenage artists love doing donuts on a snowy night. 
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1985. My school offered two class trips for the March Break; one to New York and one to Russia. I wanted to go to New York to see Letterman and simply to be in New York, and I’d wanted to go to Russia since I’d been stuck at my grandmother’s house one summer with a copy of National Geographic’s Journey Across Russia. All signs pointed to a New York visit (the Russian venture was too expensive), but my uncle was interested and offered to pay my way if I could get him onto the excursion.

I approached the organizer and asked if I could bring a friend. He asked how old my friend was. I said 62 years old. He shrugged and cheques were delivered and we went to Russia.

I came back loaded with semi-legal Russian army swag and half-sized bottles of vodka (no drinking age over there) and boxes of horrible cigarettes for my friends who smoked. I loved my trip and would have loved New York and was told enough stories about it that I pretty much had the whole experience.

There was a week or so between the glow of March Break and everything that followed. I'd actually had been in the minority of most people and had been enjoying high school as a whole up to that point. If I complained about school life, my sister would tell me Other people go through all of the the same things and they survive. It seemed reasonable to me. I had close friends, I could take theatre classes, I played the piano for pretty girls and despite the standard problems with self esteem and some academic hangups, everything felt like it was working.

I talked to Zoe a few days after the break and don't want to remember it the way that I do. She didn't look good. She was sitting at her locker in a 3rd floor hallway and looked like she'd been crying, her voice was hoarse and there were used tissues beside her. She asked about Moscow and if I'd had fun, I told her I had and I noticed that her wrists were skinny again; I realized I didn't remember when they had looked normal.
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I don't have a mind that holds on to dates, especially not for something I don't want to remember. But I know exactly was doing the evening before hearing about Zoe; I'd been watching the Oscars. Prince won an Original Song Score award that year for Purple Rain. I'd bought the sheet music for that song and had loaned it to Lilia, a flute player whose locker was close to mine.

It doesn't matter. But it’s all linked by simple proximity to the events of  the next day. You can’t choose what remains; you're presented with the package entire, trivial and significant in equal parts.


Continued in Interlude (a Mea Culpa)

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

How accurate "you can't choose what remains"...so very true. I wonder if everyone's memories are so vivid? I often wish mine weren't, but I also believe there's a reason.

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