i am not who you think i am

My flight landed early; the airplane lurched and leaned as it kissed the runway with the whoopsy-smear and crush of a high school make-out. But even with the tailwinds I arrived in Denver at 10:15, and by the time I took the escalator to the tram to the escalator to the elevator to the car to the house, it was 11:45. 

My mom went straight to bed, and my little sister met me in the darkened hallway just inside the door to the garage. "Hey sista," she said, barefoot in baggy shorts and no bra, and after a tight hug she returned to the computer and her homework.

I rolled my bag down the wide, dark hallway at a clip; my parents' house has always felt too full of air to me, too full of empty space. It's hard for me to sleep here; Ryan says it's the thin air at altitude but I know it's more than that.

I toss and turn and pray and peer into the deep black hole of my childhood bedroom, waiting for something - a sound, a flutter, a form - to spur my pulse to a gallop. The combination of having been a young girl bullied by her imagination, and having been the daughter of a woman born and raised in the American South, a place where ghosts are not a matter of if but where, and of what nature, means I do believe in spooks. At least in this house. 

There was a farmer who watched my mother sleep. There was a child in a nightdress.

I turned on all the lights in the yellow room. I unwrapped and propped up my iPad and turned on Captain America. After a decade of returning to this house and lying awake all night, I've found I can fill the creepy space myself, at least temporarily, with the cunning use of action movies and hard liquor. (I'm determined not to use distractions and treats to teach my sons how to cope with their feelings, but I'm a grown-ass woman about to sleep in a haunted house and I need Chris Evans and scotch to get me through.)

hey girl

I filled the deep soaking tub in the day-bright bathroom. I drew down the blinds to the backyard, quickly.

If my parents' house is a warehouse of haunted air, then my parents' backyard is the preferred night camping site of stabbing murderers recently escaped from the prison transport, a station in the Underground Railroad of violent psychopaths who stand in the deep blackness of the crabapple orchard and stare into the yellow square of bathroom window before thinking okay, maybe just one more and pulling on a pair of gloves snatched from the weatherproof storage chest that sits alongside the raised beds bursting with tightly-knotted cabbages and bush beans, fat with late summer but still sewn up tight.

I know there is nothing waiting to take me here. The very fact that I'm comforted by drawing the blinds proves that I'm not afraid of a predator so much as the fact that technically, there is space for one. A real stabbing murderer could probably find his way around, or through, the crepey blinds. But I just need to forget that there's a void out there. I just need the room to be finite. Some people can sleep with windows open. I can't sleep with a closet door open. I never dangle a leg over the edge of the bed. Not in this house.

When the movie Gravity came out, a friend of mine said he would never see it because space scared him. A lot of people laughed. You're scared of outer space? Well, it seems like you're probably pretty safe from outer space. Considering, you know, you're not an astronaut. Considering you live in Seattle and not on the International Space Station. How, exactly, does your nightmare scenario play out? How, exactly, do you get to outer space, like in your imagination?

I did not laugh. I felt the tingling in the backs of my knees that means my brain has just eased open the adrenaline tap, not enough for panic, but enough that I can't eat. If I were an animal, I wouldn't be streaking through the tall grass for my bolthole, but I wouldn't be grazing either. If I were a rabbit, my nose would tremble in the air.

The last time I went snorkeling in Hawaii I found myself on the edge of the reef, the place where the water suddenly chilled. Behind me unfurled a tapestry of coral, shimmering in pale blue water warm as a bath and full of waving urchins, tiny jewels of darting wrasse and tang, the sullen grouper cruising the rippling sea grass, dappled sunlight. Ahead of me, a wall of cold, black water, all the way to China. 

I knew that inky black space was full of something; I knew something would find me if I dared swim out into the cold, heartless water. My white skin ached in pebbled goosebumps, my breath scraped the tube. My knees began to tingle. When I turned back to the reef, the fish had vanished.

I understand why my friend is scared of outer space. I swam to the beach and ran, still wearing my fins, in the blundering lumber of a sea lion all the way up to the hot, dry sand. I wrapped a towel around my shoulders, tight. I didn't snorkel anymore on that trip to Hawaii. I had seen nothing, and nothing is the worst thing. Spielberg knew that.

I go to sleep with the lights on at my parents' house, a freshly-vacuumed home of brick and wood that has never yet delivered me or anyone I love into the arms of a waiting murderer, or a demon of the night, thirsty to live in my blood.

It doesn't have to make sense. You lie awake in a crisply-made bed, down the hall from your dad and mom and their shotgun, with the red light of the armed alarm system glowing steadily on the wall. You know, still, you are not safe.

Your imagination whispers it so much that your brain begins to remember it, the specter of an empty-eyed farmer just out of sight in the black room, the doughy-faced murderer in the orchard. You spend so much time building the fantasy that your well-constructed house of horrors becomes not a pretend set, but a remembered site, a place you managed to survive and - oh, God - have returned to once again. The cold, hungry fathoms that nearly swallowed you whole? Your brain remembers them. Your heart pounds the way it does when you look at the twisted metal and jeweled windshield of the car that gave its life for you last night. It happened. I remember. What happened? Nothing.

After Chicken was born my natural anxiety spiked, and what used to be a quirky mania twisted into a life-choking phobia. Postpartum anxiety begins as an acute state; I coaxed mine into chronic, glaring, perennial bloom.

One evening as I sat on the couch nursing my 3-month-old, Chicken's lips molded in a perfect open-mouthed kiss on my nipple, his soft body limp but for the rhythmic flex of his white throat, a rat ran across the power lines right in front of the window. And then another one. And then another one. Chicken began to cry; suddenly the milk was gone. My legs went numb. If I'd been a rabbit, I'd already have been gone. I was a human animal, so I taped black construction paper to the windows. I needed the room to be finite.

But every time I left the house I scanned the ground, the trees, the power lines. I walked on the street side of the sidewalk, even with the baby in the stroller. I could see cars coming a block away, but rats were fast, filthy, and waiting in the tiny burrows of crumbling mortar in rock walls. Lush carpets of leafy ground cover were lairs, the unguarded open garage of a weekend hobbyist, an invitation.

I spent Chicken's first year imagining what it would be like if a rat bit my son. I could picture the room, the dusky early-morning light, how my view of the crib would grow clearer as I approached. I would look over the rail and see the child, the bite, the rat. Sometimes in my fantasy the beast would still be attached to my baby's toe, wrist, or cheek. Sometimes it would be scampering around the screaming baby; I often saw it thrashing and slipping in the sheets like an eel through kelp in shallow water.

I spent so much time on it, in fact, that my brain began to remember it, rather than wonder about it. Every time I saw a rat, even a dead one half-eaten by crows and clearly no longer a threat, my legs went numb. I had a list of places I could not revisit: 56th and 3rd. The curve in the jogging path along the Fremont Ship Canal to Salmon Bay. I found a new, blocks-longer way to the store. I stopped running that path.

This is an insane response for a person who has never been harmed by a rat. Yet this is a perfectly rational response for a mother whose child has been bitten by a rat.

Of course my legs went numb - remember when a rat bit the baby? I remember it. A rat has never bitten my baby.

Of course I'm terrified of my parents' house - it's full of ghosts and surrounded by murderers. No ghostly moan has ever woken me from sleep, no hand has ever harmed me here. Regardless, I slept a restless 4 hours last night, in the room I grew up in, after a hot bath and a scotch and a long day before.

I am not who you think I am, if you think I am the kind of person who lives in the world and believes its rules apply to me. I am not who you think I am, if you think I am a sane person, tamed by logic and gravity and good, solid numbers. I am not who you think I am, if you think I believe my senses more than the wild, spinning mind that always, always finds a way to be afraid, even of nothing. Especially of nothing.

I'm an animal, a soft one, a fast one, a creature who was born understanding she would be hunted until she lost. My brain does this by itself.

I can hide it, but not stop it. I can crack jokes about it, defensively, broadly, like a kid with new braces who does the robot at recess. "I totally understand why outer space is scary, man. I'm scared of deep water. I know, we crazy." LOL.

My mind builds rooms for me to return to, places where the worst things have happened, and they are real to me.

Hello, my name is Katie. I am not who you think I am. 


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