"Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes." -Walt Whitman
Saturday, October 11, 2003
You could see it in her eyes
But imagine my surprise
When I saw you
-Steely Dan, Dr. Wu 1975
this story has no particular purpose other than to recount an experience. there is no moral or point to be learned. i'm not that good a storyteller.
october 9 was national depression screening day, a fact of which i was aware because my employer develops and manufacturers medications for this disease. and so on thursday i said a quick prayer for someone i used to know. let's call her lisa.
i met lisa a bunch o' years back, when i worked in publishing (nothing glamorous; it was one of the companies that publishes scientific journals). she was a walking pheromone storm. you have met a person like this at least once in your life, in some context or another. when lisa entered a room, every guy in the room (and several women) immediately mentally broke the seventh commandment. lisa wasn't exceptionally pretty, or even particularly sexy. what she was, was sensual. unstoppably so. it came off her in waves that knocked all cohesive thought out of your head and left you red-faced and breathing irregularly.
another coworker of mine (let's call him pete) became romantically involved with lisa, and the relationship seemed healthy to the rest of us while it lasted, which was a period neither noticeably brief nor noticeably lengthy. the only effect the relationship had on the rest of us is that (a) we knew why they were late to work and (b) now we were not only breaking the seventh commandment, but mentally cheating on a coworker as well.
time passed, as time does, and our little worlds spun their separate ways.
[this, dear reader, is one of those moments wherein i wish i had a blog years back. because the exact circumstances leading up to the next chapter of this narrative are very foggy. i recall that i called pete from a diner, but i cannot recall just when i phoned him, whether it was at the beginning, to get her number; or at the end, to ask him why he hadn't warned me. nor do i recall how or where i was before or after the event. i wonder when national intermittent amnesia screening day takes place.]
in one of my periods of noncohabitation with my wife (how's that for tact?), i found myself phoning lisa, and receiving an invitation to stop in for a purely plutonic visit. i knew she had suffered a series of almost unspeakable tragedies - the deaths of a sibling and both parents in three unrelated incidents; she and pete were no longer dating. she had left our mutual employer under very weird circumstances. i wondered how she was coping.
i arrived at her apartment (which i later learned was paid for by a social services dept) and rang the bell. a dog barked. lisa answered the door, warned me to take off my shoes lest the dog pee on them, and invited me in.
it was like linda blair living in a room shared by the three lone gunmen from the x files and meg gibson's jerry fletcher from conspiracy theory. stacks of newspapers and magazines full of circled paragraphs and sentences, clippings everywhere, notebooks with illegible scribblings.
this was a woman whose smile used to cause automobile accidents. that smile was now stained charcoal and yellow from nicotine. her nails matched her teeth, and the atmosphere looked and smelled of weeks' old smoke and too much desperate sweat. her hair, which had been raven black and shiny, was dull, frizzy, and streaked with grey. lots of grey. her skin was actually sallow, which is a bad color for living things.
she was, i think, 27 years old.
in the next hour, i learned of her recent past (working on hiding satellites in comet shoemaker-levy 9), her current exploits (trying to rightfully prove that she had authored several landmark papers in government journals), and her constant need for caution (because the agency was spying on her - she had recently removed the camera they had hidden in her refrigerator). she spoke in staccato bursts, and the conversation was like my first impression of steely dan songs: that there was something very interesting going on, but i wasn't catching onto what it was.
i realized i was genuinely frightened of this woman, who had shared countless lunch breaks with me, who had been to my home for dinner. i realized that this was what serious mental illness looked like. i wanted very much to leave.
after a half a dozen attempts to say goodbye, i finally managed to get out the door, retrieve my shoes, and wave farewell.
i haven't seen her in eight years. if i were a stronger person, perhaps, i'd track her down and check on her. but i know that i won't. i'm not sure if it's fear, or cowardice, or something else.
maybe it's the realization that my friend lisa disappeared long before i showed up at her apartment that night.