Spotlight: Reclamation

[creative nonfiction]

When I am three years old, I feel the burn of a cigarette on my arm. It is followed by an instantaneous, “Shit,” flick of the butt, and a cadence of apologies while my head presses against his chest. Inside, I hear someone orchestrating a wild percussion.

This is the only memory I have of my father.

*     *     *

“Easy to misinterpret as hostility or—look!—as a person who wants out of the relationship.”

My boyfriend, Greg, and I lie belly-side down on our bed, front-page research displays before us on the laptop. I point at keywords on the screen while he lies next to me, the laptop’s light reflecting off the curves of our faces—his stoic and patient, mine hopeful and nervous.

“Unmotivated. This is how I feel when I wake up. It’s why our apartment looks the way it does. It’s why, despite the fact that I am graduating soon, I still haven’t figured out what comes next… .” I stop, avoiding the snowball that rolls down the well-known mountain of guilt and anxiety.

“Irritable. Well, I don’t need to explain there,” I laugh, trying to ease the pain of explaining me. I think about arguments in enclosed rooms and how I run outside of them; a swift movement of my hand turning the doorknob, my hand squeezing and thrusting the thickness of the door, a result of a shutting that slams—the infamous freight train conducted by the madwoman with wind in her hair. I think about a car ride I took after a fight I don’t remember anymore, the one where he stood on our third floor apartment patio and watched me flick him off from a half-cracked window while I drove too fast over parking lot speed bumps.

I think about how depression holds a magnifying glass over your problems and eliminates your blessings like ants beneath a beating sun. I think about public places like the pasta aisle of the neighborhood grocery store where we talked about genetically modified food labeling; debated about the political decisions of genetically modified food labeling; argued about genetically modified food labeling being a human right, verses the plausibility of those who label; exploding about the necessary labeling of genetically modified food, whether we can trust the labels or not. Then, the existence of contradicting feelings—one where the pasta aisle compresses around me, and the other where my anger is expanding my body larger, my incessant need to get out before I am crushed, and the incessant need to get out before I crush. The organized grocery aisles swirled past me and mixed together—frozen bags and boxes of vegetables and lasagnas, bottles of olive oils and salad dressings, packaged sliced breads and pre-made dessert cakes—until I found the front of the grocery store, where I sat pissed off and terrified on a gray padded bench, next to a man with soft wrinkles and dark liver spots wearing a jet-black Vietnam Vet hat, who looked at me and smiled.

*     *     *

Depression is a pissed-off bitch.

*     *     *

When I am five years old, I stand behind the plastic side railings of the hospital bed and I cannot cry, unlike my mother and brother who stand next to me. I look at the drawing I made of my father, his body a cerulean blue box with macaroni orange stick arms and a canary yellow halo. He stands with a crooked smile next to a similar crooked-smiling boxed man with long beaver brown hair and matching beard.

*     *     *

We are lying in our bed of navy cotton sheets. I feel his hand move across my inner leg, his warm breath and lips that kiss my shoulder.

“Not tonight, Greg.”

*     *     *

Depression is a dried-up lover.

*     *     *

My family has always lived in Cape Coral, Florida—a town described as “for the nearly dead and newlywed.” Small businesses freckle various streets of Cape Coral with palm trees, churches, schools, and gas stations in-between. Our mall, the next town over, is named after Thomas Edison. It slowly retrogresses to its social surroundings. Two Christmases ago when I visited my family, my younger brother came running out of his bedroom, saying he heard on the radio that a man in the Dillard’s fired thirty rounds from his semi-automatic gun.

On a home visit during Labor Day weekend my senior year of college, I went to dinner with a best friend from high school—a girl I rarely speak with and only reach out to when I reminisce the pubescent era on the drive home. What started out as a glass of red wine at a restaurant with easy lights and a piano player; turned into vodka, flickering neon lights, and blasts of classic rock at a strip club, then blackness.

My friend shook my arm, “Colleen, we are here. We are at your house. Do you need any help getting inside?” Fuck. I recalled the night as I grabbed the seat belt, untangled myself, and slammed her car door while I held my black flats and made movements like a pinball to my mother’s front door: colorful shots in plastic cups; sets of licking lips sitting around a lit-up stage; a girl in a pink G-string who looks seventeen sliding up and down pole number one; a woman in a red G-string who looks forty sliding upside down on pole number two. This is a place I most likely would have visited in my senior year of high school, even my sophomore year of college. I smell of things like stomach acid, ash, and sweat.

The next afternoon, my mother held my face up as the surface of my body tingled, like when a foot falls asleep, and twitched like an eye open for too long, in episodes of hyperventilating. My fingers became cryptic branches that poked out in unnatural ways. My mouth gaped open and closed the way a fish’s lips do when he is caught and above water. I had forgotten how to breathe, how to move, how to blink. I am shit. I thought I was better than this town. It looked at me, squinted in recognition, pinched me, and swallowed me whole.

She told me, “Breathe, sit up, and stay with me,” and I wondered if I could die this way, if it was possible to live after this if I don’t, if I would get “better” like last time, if I would get like this again, like this time.

*     *     *

Depression is a thirsty motherfucker.

*     *     *

When I am six years old, I am inside a hot yellow plastic tube on the playground at recess. Inside, I scream. I want to run away, but I want to stay, and I can’t understand why these feelings exist at the same time. I want the boy outside to go away. He has done nothing to me, but when he tries to come inside, I hit him anyway.

*     *     *

On our first date, Greg and I met one another nearby in downtown Orlando, Florida. Several weeks before, he had asked me to go downtown one night, which made me think all things uncomfortable—excessive drinking, loud music, and heels. I declined and filed him in a mental manila folder titled, “Downtown-at-Night Guys” next to the empty “Downtown-During-the-Day Guys,” a significant difference of don’t-take-me-seriously and take-me-seriously.

I continued to talk to him on the phone, a surprising flare of curiosity considering the guys I had been recently turning down in my single life. The more we spoke, the more I envisioned the both of us downtown in the daytime—a place I seemed to have subconsciously kept vacant. Like when he told me his reason for chartering a fraternity on campus was to reinvent the typical group of guys who congregate to bench weight, drink hard, and attract girls into an estab-lished group of respectful brothers who would be good enough to one day stand next to each other at their weddings. Or that he shamelessly told me when he was younger, the only dog he ever had was a toy—a stuffed German Shepherd he gave haircuts and named Peach.

He stuck out like a bookmark amidst the beige manila coloring. I wanted the Sunday farmers’ market of raw and organic produce, food trucks and their condensed aromas, pedestrian crossings that lead to hole-in-the-wall restaurants with innovative tacos and imported pineapple sodas, the rhythm from street guitarists, him.

During our walk, Greg tripped over uneven brick sidewalks and his gray shirt developed sweat stains in the shape of goose eggs—a terrible choice of color for Central Florida’s heavy atmosphere—all of which I had genuinely observed as adorable. We talked about our dreams and thoughts over raw fish wrapped in seaweed: his idea for a science fiction novel, my hopes to write and publish a memoir. We started topics of conversation, digressed to other welcomed topics, and each unfinished conversation left us in the midst of their peaks to live in a parallel world.

*     *     *

When my therapist talks about medication, he tells me they are, “simply pills that bring out the strength within.” I could comply and admit that they are, in fact, just tools to build a bridge that start after the smoke of a psychological trigger, internal thunder, aggressive silence, and end at happy trees, trotting unicorns, and a glistening Jesus.

When he talks about mental control, I could tell the counselor that he’s right, I do have it within me to be better—a trivial and repetitive fortune cookie message consistently vomited, dripping off of bumper stickers, elementary school posters, tattoos, Facebook statuses, high school posters, self-help books, Tweets, pamphlets, my counselor’s thin lips, my mother’s quivering lips, my boyfriend’s bitten lips.

But no. Depression is picky. She grabs a pan, sifts out gold, and keeps the dirt. She is an indistinguishably unmotivated, irritable and paralyzing prevalence. She is the catalyst to most, if not all, arguments. She teases, reaches for the flame of connection and pulls back before the swirls on her bony fingertips burn into a smooth plane; maintaining the value of her impetuous and tyrannical identity, an identity that lingers in freezing waters, layered beneath thick ice, clear enough to still see what exists on the other side, me before depression took hold.

*     *     *

Depression is the bitch I know the best. Depression is the me I know best.

*     *     *

I don’t know who I am. I know who I have been, who I could be, who I wish to be. She is intangible, but she exists. This “she” blurs in and out of my life but this “she” is the me who dreams confidently of being a writer. The me who makes love to her boyfriend because she wants to and not because she feels she has to. The me who can say no to things she doesn’t believe in anymore, like strip clubs and overindulgences of alcohol. The me who braces herself for the release of love she found hidden below, the little girl who lost her father when she was five. The me who can spit in Depression’s face and tell her to shut the fuck up when she takes control. The me who is a mixture of a bitch, a lover, and a good woman all at the same time, just because she is human.

The me who I will grab a hold of some day and plan the rest of my life with.

*     *     *

Together, we stand on a rock. Lower rock formations, shiny and slick, surround us in stacks. The trees are a color of bright green I’ve never seen before—except for adjusting the contrast on a color photo. Above us is the waterfall of the Rainbow Falls Trail I picked out, 2.7 miles of hiking down and 3.6 miles of driving to the hiking lodge, pointing with my finger at a spot on the plastic map ridged like a topography globe.

Rainbow Falls is the highest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies. Below us is a family of hikers standing next to a sign warning them not to climb on rocks near the waterfall, as several people have fallen to their deaths, and many others have suffered serious injuries over the years. The family looks up at us and walks on.

Rainbow Falls got its name from the rainbow it produces in its mist. At the highest rock, the mist tinges my neck and face and my pores contract, like eyes squinting with happiness. This is the first and only time I have hiked a mountain, seen a waterfall, and felt in that moment I knew who I was and who I would always be: a woman with the world at her feet.

I close my eyes. Greg says something but his words are obscure among my state of mind. I open them and our eyes meet, his brown and curious, mine hazel and wet.

“Greg, can you do something for me?”

“Of course.”

“Can you remind me of this place?”

Ladd_AuthorPhoto_optColleen Ladd is a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Creative Writing. She’s been published in The Feminist Wire and is currently working any chance she gets to save up to go to graduate school for a MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in non-fiction. She wants most in life to be a part of something bigger than herself.