by Lisa Fetchko
A friend of mine has a theory. Forget your parents. Forget Freud and Oedipus. It’s all about your siblings. You love them. You hate them. You’re in an endless Darwinian struggle against them for your parents’ limited time and affection (this part isn’t my friend’s idea, but rather a psychologist named Frank Sulloway’s)—it’s a struggle that defines who you are, what kind of work you’ll do as well as your political orientation. And that’s not all. Sometimes—forget your twisted relationship with Mom and Dad—you go ahead and marry your brother or sister which makes a lot of sense if you think about it: all those years of hugging and hitting, emulating and differentiating, arguing about whose turn it is to do the dishes or use the bathroom, who gets to sit in the front seat of the car, who takes whose side in the all-important struggle between the parents, who shields whom from the mistakes of the errant (should they be errant) parents, who gets the most love from the loving (should they be loving) parents, who reminds whom of which dastardly relative and hardly stands a chance. Who else would you marry if not someone who reminds you, in ways good and bad, of the person who taught you (whom you taught) to read and drive and feel the first stirrings of love and hate and jealousy? Who else if not the person who taught you about joy and admiration not to mention the earliest inequities, those first, great inequities: he’s short, I’m tall; she’s smart, I struggle; Mommy thinks he’s funnier than me?
I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about this until recently. My marriage was falling apart. My marriage had always been falling apart, but now it was really falling apart and we were worried about the kids so we went to therapy to try and make the break easier for everyone. Boy, was that interesting. My husband, it seems, had turned me into his autistic brother so he could work out the sibling rivalry he could never resolve with him because of his severe disabilities. In the meantime, I appeared to have married my sister who’s not only bright and charming, but volatile and self-absorbed, my sister whose troubles had something to do with the break-up of my parents’ marriage, a particularly traumatic event for me. This meant (in a nutshell although at first it felt like a gathering storm) that my husband was incapable of appreciating the people he loved because of his pent-up need for love and recognition from his parents who’d spent so much time worrying about his brother (way back when). And I was condemned, against my better interest, to bend over backwards to give him this attention so his volatility would decrease, so harmony would reign and chaos would not erupt, thereby bringing my parents’ marriage to an end (I hope you’re following this—I’m sorry it’s so complicated). All of which left us reeling for a couple of weeks, writhing and gnashing with that curled-into-a-ball-on-the-floor kind of anguish that makes human life so painfully interesting.
And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the Polish president’s plane went down, killing everyone on board including the president and several high-ranking members of the government. In the wake of the many tragic aspects of this crash—ninety-six lives lost, grieving family members and countrymen including the president’s identical twin, grimly photographed at the head of his brother’s casket, and the dreadful irony of Poles, more Poles, all those important Poles killed on their way to commemorate the grotesque slaughter of more than twenty thousand Polish officers and civilians in the forest of Katyn by the Soviets in World War II, incidentally fueling the troubling myth of Polish martyrdom (or so one Polish writer saw it on the editorial page of The New York Times a few days later)—I got to thinking about something I’m always thinking about although I sometimes wish I wasn’t: chain reactions, train of thought, stream of consciousness, karma. The maddening, the obsessive, the endlessly entertaining connectivity of things and what that has to do with telling stories.
In fact, it wasn’t the crash of the Polish president’s plane that got me thinking about all of this as much as something that surfaced in the press a few days later. The fog was heavy on the morning of the crash and the Russian air controllers told the Polish pilot not to land, but he ignored them—tried to land several times before making his final, fatal attempt. When investigators asked why the Polish pilot hadn’t followed the recommendation of the Russian air controllers, the following story came out: several years before, when another pilot told the Polish president he didn’t want to land in Tbilisi because of dangerous conditions related to Russia’s war with Georgia, the president chastised him. “If someone decides to become a pilot, he cannot be fearful,” Mr. Kaczynski said, “After returning to the country, we shall deal with this matter.” (1) Defiantly, the pilot refused to land, an act of insubordination that went unpunished although he became depressed when he returned to Poland—imagine the president challenging you like that, calling into question your masculinity. Kaczynski may have had his reasons for wanting to land in Smolensk on April 10th—Polish-Russian relations have rarely been good, the Katyn massacre is a thorn in the side of the Russians, despite their overwhelming guilt, and he may have thought the air controllers were trying to keep him away from the ceremony so it would be less visible internationally (there are those, of course, who believe the Russians caused the crash). Still, this would not be the first misfortune to arise from Kaczynski’s brand of Slavic bravado or—should we wish to strip it of its cultural components—human behavior in general. The bottom line? The crash of the Polish president’s plane may not have been an accident, it may have had something to do with what the president said and did.
I don’t remember how old I was—maybe nine or ten—but I remember where I was with a great deal of clarity. It was wintertime in central Pennsylvania, the endless end of winter when the snow is no longer white and fresh but dry and chalky-grey. My mother and I were in the car, the small green hatchback we had for most of my childhood, in the parking lot outside the mall. It was the only mall in the city adjacent to my hometown and a dreary one at that, but those were the days when my mother felt trapped—in her life and that town—and we went there a lot. It was cold outside. My mother had turned off the engine because we had to run in to get something—a bathmat or a new snow shovel—but for some reason, she stopped to explain to me, with a long, clever example whose details I no longer remember, what stream of consciousness was. Her explanation was convincing in a way her explanations sometimes weren’t (later, when she tried to explain the idea of sexual pleasure to me in the same car in the same parking lot on a sunny summer day, I didn’t believe a word she said), but she was spontaneous that afternoon, interested in what we were talking about, and I was delighted to be able to put a name to something whose existence I’d already begun to think about: the way things come together in your mind in the most unexpected way, one after the next, the way there may be no rhyme or reason to this, but neither is it devoid of sense, the way you can lay down a line of thought and follow it backwards and forwards until you’re lost (or found).
With time, my thinking about this kind of thinking became more sophisticated. I discovered its roots in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. I read the modernists who took it from William James whose descriptions of “the stream of thought” in The Principles of Psychology are so stirring and to the point. For a while—in my prolonged On the Road phase, no doubt—I thought of this kind of thinking as more authentic than other kinds of thinking, more free and creative, a welcome respite, like getting drunk, having sex or traveling to a foreign country, from the overly-structured world around me. I’m older, now, and my mind doesn’t wander as much as it used to, but every now and then I’m hit with the same childish enthusiasm, that unexpected unraveling (or spooling out or flowering) which seems to happen in a flash, like the feeling of déjà vu or the sudden gush of a child coming forth, in childbirth, after hours of thankless labor. Reading 2666, Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus, a couple of months ago, I came across a scene in which a group of Mexican policemen are playing poker. Each of them is using a pile of jumping beans for poker chips, some of which the African-American journalist who’s narrating the scene, a depressive young man prone to hallucinations, sees jump and move. When I read about the Mexican jumping beans, my mind went hurtling backward. At the same time that I was reading forward to see what would happen in the poker game, a minor anecdote in Bolaño’s larger story, my thoughts were leading me, in a fluid stream that was both coherent and incoherent, random yet deliberate, sensual as well as intellectual to a moment (or a span of time) some thirty-five years before. Hurtling past the twenty years I’d spent soaking up Mexican-American culture in Los Angeles, past the film I’d shot in Mexico for an American producer, past the summer I spent studying in Cuernavaca and traveling in Oaxaca, past the year I discovered Octavio Paz and Sor Juana de la Cruz and Carlos Fuentes (whose Christopher Unborn is itself a hurtling back and forth in time), I arrived at a time when all I knew about Mexico (except for a single slide on a View-Master reel that showed a couple of fishermen standing in a narrow boat on a volcanic lake with an unpronounceable name that began with the letters ‘t’ and ‘l,’ holding huge, finely-woven nets that swooped in the air around them like butterflies), a time when all I knew about Mexico (except for whatever xenophobic claptrap had been handed down to me by the culture at large) was contained in a little plastic box of jumping beans. Those tiny plastic boxes (remember the tiny plastic clasps?) that you could buy in the United States in the seventies, the kind of novelty item they sold to kids at the check-out counter of every store at the Jersey shore, next to the pet rocks, the penny sticks and the hermit crabs desperately trying to scramble out of their cage, a handful of reddish-brown beans so old or fake or ill-cared for (if you leave them in the sun too long, it’ll kill the larva inside which is what makes them jump, i.e. wriggle away from the heat) that no matter how long my sister and I sat there watching them, no matter how long we sat on the steps outside whatever damp and salty duplex our parents had rented for the week that summer, warming them in our hands, they never seemed to move.
But going backward is not the same as going forward and going backward doesn’t always lead to such a scene of innocence. Alas, my experience of the flow, the train, the stream of consciousness, isn’t always this pleasant: it’s fraught, sometimes, with fear and blame and guilt. Which only makes sense considering the fact that most of us, in this country at least, are not Buddhist or Hindu, but rather Judeo-Christians or their hapless descendents, people who are not formed by open-ended texts like the Bhagavad Gita or the Kama Sutra, but by moralistic tales with clear-cut beginnings and (especially) endings: The Brothers Grimm, say, or Anna Karenina. When bad things happen (things we don’t like), when we do bad things (things other people don’t like), when our father and stepmother abandon us in the woods or we get a hankering for a dashing, young count when we’re married to a boring, old government official, the fear and anxiety this produces is bound to work its way into the stream (or so goes the Judeo-Christian version of things). As wide and free as the road may be (in retrospect or anticipation), as long and rambling and pleasurable, as ideal as it may be for reflection, telling stories or counting sheep if you’re up late, worrying, it may very well start or end with guilt—real guilt or a guilt perceived. According to the Buddhists, there is no self, just a series of deeds, no faith only action, but even though the karmic effects of everything we do are seen to shape the past, the present and the future, what’s bad and good is not so clear, there’s no big guy up in the sky looking down with a list. But in the West, we can’t seem to shake our ideas of causality. Just look at how people behave. In this day and age! They knock on wood, throw salt, avoid black cats. Ivy Leaguers, successful young men and women with advanced degrees, walk around muttering ‘from your mouth to God’s ear.’ You know what I’m talking about—all the superstitious rituals we’ve resumed after trusting God for a couple of thousand years. The western gods—the Jewish god and the Christian god—said hey, trust me, you don’t need to do that, in fact, you’re not supposed to do that, but everyone kept doing it anyway—picking up pennies and wearing that ugly, old hat to the game. Why else would we be doing all of this, how could it have made such a pithy, postmodern comeback if we hadn’t been doing it all along? Amor fati? It’s not so easy. Let’s face it—it’s tempting to attribute meaning to things when they happen unexpectedly, especially if they’re bad, especially if they seem to be connected, especially if you’re carrying around a little guilt. That crash, the Polish president’s threat. His brother, my sister! Is everything fated or weighted or what?
Here’s an example that’s rather innocuous, an imbroglio that wouldn’t have come about if it weren’t so difficult for me to say no. For years, I worked in my husband’s architectural firm, a small office we ran out of the house, a busy firm with a branch in South America and a sideline in real estate development. The kind of firm that used to be called a Mom-and-Pop operation—it was just the two of us plus a computer draftsman, a designer who brought in the occasional project and an associate in South America. The setup had advantages and disadvantages. Architecture is an unreliable enterprise, one of the first things to go when the economy is bad, so having the office at home reduced our expenses. For better or worse, we were always there for the kids. Our schedules were more flexible than they would have been had we had an office to go to—sometimes we worked all weekend, sometimes we got up late and had a leisurely brunch—all of which made it easier for me to take care of the kids, drive them to school and supervise their many activities. There are downsides to having a home office—it’s hard to stop working; it was chaotic when the kids were there, especially in the summertime; every time a client came, we had to clean the house. And then there was this, a minor detail but one that periodically drove me nuts: because of the home/office overlap, it was unclear, sometimes, to the parents who ferried their children in and out of our children’s lives—parents I often liked or counted on, some of whom were friends of mine—that I, the female, the primary caretaker, the happy face at concerts, birthday parties and soccer games, was actually working. I had a list of parents to avoid because they talked or lingered or didn’t know how to take their children away in a reasonable amount of time. “Oh, God.Jim’s coming? Tell him I’m on the phone.” “Sandra’s dropping her off? I’m going to the post office.” All of this was especially difficult for certain people to understand, stay-at-home mothers, in particular, some of whom, based on their imminent qualifications and their restless, driven natures, might have been working, probably should have been working, but were not. One day, one of these mothers, a particularly tenacious one at that, insisted that our daughters have a two-hour play date in the empty slot in her daughter’s afternoon. I didn’t want to do it (I knew what was going to happen), but she caught me by surprise. Knowing her tendency to stay and chat, knowing, worse, the geographical layout of her afternoon, an important consideration in Los Angeles (her daughter’s school was close to our house as was the class she had to go to afterwards, but their house was not close to our house which meant that our house was a convenient stop-over in between), I warned her that I was busy, that we had an urgent deadline, that the kids could play but I was going to be busy. Busy, busy, busy. I must have said it a hundred times. In fact, there was no looming deadline. In fact, I’d been planning to go to the gym that afternoon—I hadn’t been in days, I really needed to go. But this was impossible to explain to that mother who was actually a friend of mine. She sees gym clothes, she sees leisure, she sees a cup of coffee with Lisa (maybe tea). Why, oh why, did I say yes? Maybe my husband was right, my disagreeable ex-husband who used to grumble, “Why do the kids always have to be doing something? Why don’t they just come home and watch TV?” I was in a bad mood all morning, worried about getting to the gym, worried about getting back so I could maintain the illusion that I was busy with a deadline, a deadline my friend would surely respect.
Well, of course, something came up in the office which made me late for the gym to which I was nonetheless committed. At half past four, I ran in the door. My friend, who was extremely punctual, would be arriving in fifteen minutes. Sweaty and vile, I ran upstairs to take a shower. In my haste to dry and dress, in my haste to foster the illusion that I’d been hard at work on that deadline, a crushing deadline that would lamentably prevent me from spending the next two hours gossiping with my friend about the many entertaining personalities at our children’s elementary school, I grabbed a towel out of the closet at the same time that I turned around, accidentally snapping the towel into my eye, dragging its scratchy cotton weave across the viscous membrane of my left eyeball, causing pain, discomfort and exasperation followed by a growing sense of panic (she was coming and I wouldn’t be dressed, my eye still hurt, it hurt when I blinked, was there corneal damage, a torn retina perhaps?). All of which took me down the following precipitous path, a train of thought that was decidedly bumpy, a stream that didn’t flow: there goes the rest of the day. I’ll have to go to the doctor, perhaps the ophthalmologist. Have my eye bandaged. Pick up some antibiotic drops whose side effects may include blindness and/or death (believe me, I read it on a bottle once and promptly threw it away). What if they prescribe the same medicine? What if I have to use it? What if I really do go blind? Who will run the office? Take care of the kids? Check their homework? Make pancakes on Sunday morning, the fluffy ones they really like? What if I die? They’ll never survive. And even if it’s only temporary—say I’m laid up for a week with a patch on my eye—I won’t be able to see, I won’t be able to read, who the fuck will drive? Even worse (my mind is speeding downstream as fast as I’m pulling on my clothes and listening for the door), I won’t be able to fly. You can’t fly if you’ve got a torn retina (I know I read that somewhere) so I won’t be able to use the tickets I bought to take the kids to see my father who rented a house at the beach in a couple of weeks, a trip he’s been neurotically planning for months. I’ll have to tell him. He’ll be angry. I’ll have to listen to his bullshit. I’ll have to listen to it until I can’t listen to it anymore and then I’ll have to say something—argue, shout, get angry, say all the things I’m always holding back. Things happen, Dad, things far worse than a torn retina have happened in this family and if you like, I’ll go into some of them right now—but no, he won’t want that although he’ll find a way to bitch and moan, make us all feel bad, disrupt the fragile peace the two of us have finally achieved, the fragile peace I worked so hard to achieve, harder than he, because he’s old, old and cranky, because no matter how much water (murky, churning water) has flowed beneath the bridge, I still like the guy and he likes me. So there you have it—the troubled flow of a guilty mind. All because the accountant called and kept me on the line, all because I said yes to that play date, all because I decided to go to the gym, all because of a little white lie, a hasty turn, a scratchy bathroom towel, an office in the home. Anxiety? Motherhood in the twenty-first century? Stream of consciousness on crack? This is not what my mother was talking about that day in the car. And that’s not all.
My sister (my sister!) gave me a tube of Burt’s Bees Lip Balm for Christmas one year. I think it came in a gift pack along with several other items—body wash, hand salve, buttermilk lotion. What I remember, though, is the lip balm. It was a nice present and I was glad to have it. I’d always been drawn to the earthy orange look of the Burt’s Bees products, ubiquitous at check-out stands in Los Angeles, with their scratchy charcoal drawings of Burt, a bearded man in a fisherman’s hat, and a rustic old beehive meant to call up simpler times. It’s the kind of thing I never think to buy myself although my lips are often cracked and dry. At first, I used it quite a bit—I kept it in my bag with a little bottle of sunscreen and those life-saving sachets of Aspirin-C—but after a while, I began to notice that something happened when I used it. Earth Friendly Natural Personal Care for The Greater Good™, perhaps. Paraben free, sulfate free, petrochemical and phthalate free, of course. But I was clearly allergic to something in the Burt’s Bees Lip Balm—the beeswax itself (my father is dangerously allergic to bees) or one of the many natural oils and extracts. Maybe it was the lanolin, a derivate of wool which always makes me itch. In any case, a day or two after I used it, my lips would become irritated, crack and bleed, triggering the cold sores I sometimes get when I’m sick or under stress. I would forget this, though, from one use to the next, only to remember it after I’d found it in my bag and put it on.
Around that time, I was having an affair with one of my husband’s best friends. I wish I could say it isn’t true, that this is the story of a man I met after my husband and I were separated, but alas, I was very much married and very much cheating on my husband, as much as I could be, that is, with a man who lived a couple of thousand miles away. But the day eventually came when I had to fly to South America, where he lived, which meant I’d get to see him again—he’s a very sweet man, by the way, one of the sweetest men I know. The weather was warm when I arrived, but my lips were chapped from the air on the plane so I rummaged through my bag, found the Burt’s Bees Lip Balm and put some on. When I woke up the next morning, my lower lip was cracked, a crack which subsequently opened up and bled. Forgetting about this, I went to see my friend—let’s call him José—and José and I went for a long drive along the coast, stopping, at one point, at a deserted rest stop overlooking the ocean. Oh, it was adolescent! The heat of the moment! The warm, sweet taste of his saliva in my mouth as we sat and talked and kissed and groped. But later, as we drove inland towards the hotel he’d booked us at the hot springs, I began to think about the cut on my lip, about the way my blood and his saliva had mixed. It had been so many years since I’d had sex with a man who wasn’t my husband that I couldn’t remember the rules: what were we doing? What had we done? What is it that you can and cannot do? It’s not that I hadn’t thought about this the other times we were together, but now it all sunk in. And in no time at all, in the middle of all that pleasure, my mind began to travel down the same old beaten path. My lip. His spit. My blood. His promiscuity (because the sweetest man, a resolutely single man, hadn’t just been sweet to me). You see where I’m going with all of this? Blood tests. Tragedy. My abandoned kids. Not that it made a lot of difference—I was used to living with that voice in the back of my head. And the hot springs were getting close. And we had the whole weekend before us. But José, an old friend of my husband’s—fellow devotee, in high school, of gawky, adolescent girls and dog-eared issues of Popular Mechanics—was having second thoughts. The closer we got to the hot springs, the more his face began to cloud over with the sorrow of doing it and the sorrow of not doing it. And somewhere on the highway heading north, a rutted, rural road that followed, for a while, the flat, swampy banks of the Río Negro, we called the whole thing off.
But let’s go back to my sister for a moment. Remember? Bright and charming. Volatile and self-absorbed (I may be lying, I could be deluded, I might be the nastiest person on earth, but let’s assume that what I’m saying is somewhere near the truth). When we were kids, my sister had a guinea pig named Nipper. If I’m not mistaking Nipper for another guinea pig (an easy thing to do), I remember him clearly—those orange-white tufts of fur whipped into meringue-like peaks, the beady, feral eyes, the long, curved teeth. We had two cats, but my sister kept pestering my mother for a guinea pig and my mother finally agreed—my parents’ marriage was falling apart and I think she meant it as a distraction. My sister was excited when we brought the guinea pig home from the pet store. She named him Nipper, put him in a cage, and spent a lot of time taking care of him—feeding him, petting him, watching him scurry around her room (he liked to hide, I remember, underneath her bed). When Nipper died—I can’t remember how long we had him, it might have been a year, it might have been a month—we buried him in a shoebox under the birch trees outside my bedroom window. My sister—who was ten or eleven, maybe twelve—was beside herself with grief. At first, her grief was reasonable, a normal reaction to the frightening abyss children face upon the death of a pet (and one of the reasons psychologists say it’s good for them), but time went on and my sister’s grief didn’t abate—she cried herself to sleep at night for months on end. If you asked her what was wrong, she’d sob, gasping “Nipper,” and start in again. My sister has always been quick to sadness and anger, but she regressed, after Nipper’s death, in a way that reminded me of the tantrums she used to have when she was younger, head-banging tantrums that were difficult to watch or understand. Everyone, including my sister who went on to become an award-winning teacher at a big, urban high school, has a theory about her behavior: bad character (it runs in the family), food allergies, poor parenting, Nipper’s symbolic value as the dashed hope for peace and harmony in our family. In any case, here’s what it means for our story: I was the eldest, an easy child, or so they say, a pleasure to my parents, selfish people who’d had their share of difficulties. My sister, it seems, was unhappy from the start—fussy, tense, difficult to soothe. Because our parents couldn’t find (or agree upon) a way to deal with this, because they had so many other problems in their life together, they eventually came to the conclusion, a conclusion that wasn’t so much stated as acted upon, that I was good and she was bad. Alongside that dichotomy, there arose certain ideas about equity, ideas which my sister and I unknowingly absorbed. Because of my easy-going personality and the benefits it conferred on me—more love, less strife, better parenting—I was considered to have an advantage. My sister didn’t think this was fair (in spite of everything, our family was organized around the most democratic principles) and I, in turn, absorbed the notion that I should somehow compensate her for this advantage, a burden that carried with it feelings of guilt and resentment. A burden I didn’t understand. A burden that followed me all the way into adulthood, into the workplace, into the marriage I made (and eventually dissolved) with a man who felt cheated by life in a way that was similar to the way my sister felt cheated by my supposed advantages.
So who’s to blame? Nipper? My sister? The beeswax lip balm? Perhaps there’s no connection between these things—no link between cause and effect, the threat and the crash, my sister and my ex-husband—but we can’t seem to stop ourselves from making one. It’s difficult, in the Western world, at least, to wrap a story around something static, remain in a state of blissful contemplation. We’re always looking for a catalyst to help our story along, guide it back and forth along the rushing streams of thought, and it helps, it seems, if that catalyst is a dramatic one—a torn retina, a sexually transmitted disease, my sister’s drawn-out grief. How else would I get from the present day, with all my experience of Mexico, to the time when Mexico was just a box of beans to me? How else to account for the failures (and successes) of a marriage without falling into the abyss? Without the Polish president’s threat, we’d have a plane crash, not (perhaps) a tragic story of machismo. Without Nipper, without my sister’s grief and my husband’s brother, there would have been no love, no marriage, no life between us. And who wants that? Without fear or guilt, without the hope of meaning or pleasure, without the useful hook of causality, however contrived, there would be no story. No story, at least, that I know how to read.
1. “Polish Crash Inquiry Looks at Decision to Land,” The New York Times, April 12, 2010. [return]
Lisa Fetchko has published fiction in n+1, Rattapallax, Glimmer Train, and COLUMBIA: A Magazine of Poetry and Prose. In January 2011, she received an MFA in Nonfiction from The Bennington Writing Seminars. (10/2011)