By Lisa Mae DeMasi
Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be
violent and original in your work. —Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert wrote his famous quote in the mid-19th century, after he’d left his bourgeois law career and was in the Middle East enjoying prostitutes and engaging in orgasmic activity with a 14-year old Maronite boy. He finally contracted syphilis, showing just how much he risked for his subversion. Perhaps the advice, so oft quoted by literati, is really about the writer needing the bourgeois life in order to push against it. Only in that subversive act, can great writing can be born.
“Are you ready to get back into the circle of life yet?” my mother often asks as I work toward the completion of my book. Meaning am I ready to abandon my writing and go into debt for the SUV and the 2.5? Am I ready to stop being so subversive?
A year and a half ago when three Chinese writers, including the Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo, were sent to jail for “subversive writing,” it occurred to me that all writing, especially memoir, is in its act subversive. The writer is the one in the family who stands in the living room screaming about the elephant. Because no one wants to hear about the elephant, we write. Historically writers have been in a constant tug of war between the ordinary and the subversive. For Virginia Woolf, the dance was too much, and one ordinary day, she walked into the river with stones in her housedress. Hemingway expired on the lap of subversion with a 12-gauge shotgun. Ordinary is easier, subversion carries risks. But, I’d argue, we can’t help it.
For writers like me, whose upbringing appeared Betty Crocker and staid, subversion was a deep root pushing toward ground no one wanted disturbed. It started with my family’s move to Wellesley, Massachusetts. The women of Wellesley—ranging from nursing infants to the elderly—are well-educated, a size two, perfectly coiffed, marry physicians and attorneys, drive Mercedes and Range Rovers, and live in six-thousand-square-foot colonial homes and English-style Tudors. (For the record, my family lived in a four bedroom Dutch colonial.)
I was fortunate to live in Wellesley, but in 1980 as a high school sophomore, I didn’t feel fortunate. I was lost amid a sea of well-established cliques of jocks and preppies, until one winter day, a tough-but-glam girl sat down beside me. “School sucks.” Her blue eyes pierced mine. “I’m Sam.” Sam was important. She would be my portal to subversion.
“I’m Lisa.” When I told her I played softball, she said she’d gotten kicked off the team for smoking. I told her I didn’t fit in with the kids in the cafe. She told me the kids in the cafe were geeks. The cool kids hang out in the courtyard. “I’ll show you,” she said.
On that glorious morning, I gathered my roots, lapped them over my arm and followed Sam to the courtyard, a haven of hoods entombed in asphalt and joined by a catwalk to the cafe, making our hangout conspicuous. Everyone became privy to how cool the new girl was, bumming smokes from the homes, and sporting a wardrobe my mother coined “streetwalker fashion”—tight jeans, high heel clogs, and a vibrantly made-up face accessorized with a feather roach clip.
I began cutting class with four seniors who introduced me to hallucinogenic fungi. There I was, at the gym’s water fountain, swallowing a dried, dung-loving mushroom. Within minutes, I transcended into a dreamy web and crept along the corridors like Spiderman. Hurling my tongue to trees, I made the three-mile odyssey home, slipped into a dining room chair and tried to conceal my altered state. My mother, like any ordinary mother, had just placed dinner on the table.
My food burst to life. Meatloaf panted like a dog, green beans frolicked, forks performed somersaults, and pepper buzzed out of its shaker like angry bees. Amidst the fascination, I scanned my family’s faces for questionable glances. And because of the hallucinogens, I discovered a fact that would define me forever: my mother wore a halo. My mother was good. She was perfect. She defined the status quo. I was the opposite of it.
The following week, I was forced to contend further with this subversion. My report card had to be shown. Up until that point, I had delayed its delivery. “I’m new, they must have forgot mine,” and “they printed Z through N this week, M through A is next week.” When my mother saw my grades, she erupted. “Wait till your father gets home!”
My father, the man who remained glued to the neo-natal incubator years before as I fought for life, and when I grew older, held my hands when I walked about the kitchen on his shoes, had never lost his patience with me. But this time, a quick glance showed me the intensity of his grip on the report card. When the oppressive silence grew so heavy I thought I might implode, I uttered, “It’s not my fault.” From behind the veil of my hair, I said, “I didn’t ask to move to Swellesley.” Digging further in my teenage toolbox, I told them, “Your parents never moved you around.” I grew bolder, saying overtly what I’d been trying to act out, “It’s not fair. I hate it here. I used to be good in school.”
Stepping frightfully close and waving the crumpled card in my face, my father roared, “Then what are all these fucking f’s?!”
My mother, in her high-pitched close-to-a-meltdown voice, yelled, “You’re grounded! Forever!”
The path to reform entailed my mother picking me up promptly at 2:21 p.m., followed by expeditious delivery into solitary confinement until 6 a.m. the next morning. I lost sight of subversion, including the entombed courtyard and hallucinatory fungi, and was seduced back into the ordinary. It was so much easier being ordinary, if one could manage it. After begging (on my knees), I was permitted to return to conventionality: the varsity softball team, where I made first string, along with another sophomore, our phenomenal pitcher, Marilyn.
I worked ordinary well. For a while. I lettered in three varsity sports and my senior year was nominated co-captain of the softball team. A clutch hitter with a 500 batting average and a seasoned outfielder, our coach plugged me in as Marilyn’s catcher. Most likely because I was the only one who would kneel behind the plate while a screaming, wild change-up traveling 90 M.P.H. headed my way. I got clobbered a lot but seldom did a ball or person get by me. We placed first in our division and went on to compete in the states.
Mrs. Rosenfield, a sweet English teacher, who wore her fuchsia lipstick on her incisors, had patiently tolerated my rebellion, perhaps because she understood the need for writers to vacillate between the ordinary and the subversive, and she provided an essential reference that granted me admission to my parent’s one and only designated choice — a Catholic women’s college three miles north. Perhaps Catholicism, more than any other denomination, courts subversion most of all.
Regis College, a school set in the Massachusetts hills, looked right out of Town & Country. I blended with the other freshwomen in a curriculum with “a sound liberal arts base” targeted to “develop the whole person.” The oil paintings in College Hall had seen it all— matronly habits, slacks, short skirts and finally, skin-tight leopard-spotted leggings. I wasn’t wearing these, but they were suitably fashioned on a bubbly blond with hair so big it nearly scraped the ceiling.
My parents, despite the 3-mile proximity, let me live on campus so I could excel independently. In actuality, this afforded me the ideal setting to act like Belushi in “Animal House.” Subversion was again hard at work. My roommate, Prudence Dearheart and I had landed a dorm on the top floor of the administrative building, an area referred to as “The Boat.” The Boat overlooked the tree-lined campus drive and was located above a foyer used for prominent gatherings of distinguished guests.
The Boat housed a total of eight rooms and a common area with uncomfortable furniture. In the distance, a spooky catwalk led to the convent. The place was old and dusty in a comfortable sort of way, an institutional icon of an era gone by with aged Victorian style, secluded stairways, and ghost stories. With the exception of a hunched nun who faded in and out of sight at the far end of the corridor, it felt like home.
Things among the sixteen girls in The Boat went smoothly until everyone got their period at the same time, formed cliques, engaged in catfights and ganged up on Prudence over her pimples and prim demeanor. The Boat was an award-winning reality show. And my subversion, as subversion will when faced with close quarters and too many rules, kicked into gear.
Consequently, I gathered an accumulation of “offenses.” One in particular involved placing a white plastic patio chair on the flat tar roof outside our dorm window. We managed to keep a low profile when it came to tanning, but I neglected the chair and it blew to the outer edge and melted on the roof. The thing, like some kind of fraternity ornament, could be seen like a beacon from the college’s main drive.
The Dean called my parents and informed them of other “offenses,” including rigging coin receptacles, streaking, turning on the cold faucet while the blind girl bathed, stuffing a pillow under my clothes to look pregnant when prospective freshman toured campus, and locking Spanish girls who talked too long in the phone booth. But in my halo-wearing mother’s eyes, the worst offense was that I was in love. Not the kitty love of 18, this was deep soulful and unbearably sweet. It seemed to have its roots beyond its years.
On Fridays, The Boat emptied for the weekend, and I stuck around campus studying, working out and spending time with my boyfriend Michael, who was allowed to sign in with the priest-in-training downstairs, but had to leave by midnight before the building was so locked down an elusive group of international terrorists couldn’t break in.
My parents hated Michael. This made him more necessary, more appealing, but most seductive was Michael himself and our connection. Michael was Irish-Italian, cute, athletic, quick-to-laugh and had long curly eyelashes. He was also emotionally available, something odd, almost unheard of, in my family. Despite seeing one another every day, he sent me stacks of love letters. We listened to Springsteen, tooled around in the MG, and consumed bottles of Midori.
One snowy afternoon during winter break, he drove to my parent’s house to pick me up, and my mother materialized and told us to stay home until the snow stopped. Figuring her apprehension wasn’t based on weather but on her feelings about Michael, we boarded the VW Rabbit — a lightweight vehicle composed of aluminum foil, an engine propelled by a squirrel or two, and banana peels for tires. My mother stood on the porch steps with her arms folded, the snow accumulating along her shoulders.
We sang to the radio while snow cast a cushy cover on houses and trees, even the horses we passed. It was beautiful, serene, until we entered a sweeping curve we’d navigated many times, and the VW’s tail swung, as if we’d become contestants in the “Ice Time Trial,” an autocross that takes place in Vermont on a frozen lake. Except we didn’t have our studded ice-racing tires, and there was an oncoming vehicle closing in on my door that didn’t have them either. Michael grabbed me, but it was too late. Knocked clean out of my shoes, I catapulted until colliding with the steering wheel.
The light was as bright as the sun.
And there, before the light, a figure stood.
I’ve made it to heaven, I thought. No more financial accounting. Glory be.
But as I drifted back into sleep, a familiar voice commanded, “Breathe, Leese, breathe.”
It was that halo-wearing mother of mine.
As I lay in the O.R. unconscious and bleeding, a surgeon created a fourteen-inch incision and discovered my pancreas and duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) were in pieces. Adjacent arteries and veins were punctured. A heap of intestines were lacerated. Blunt trauma to the pancreas is rare, challenging to repair. When the vascular areas near are punctured, it poses a high rate of mortality. Basically, you bleed to death.
But I didn’t bleed to death because I had so much more subversion to experience — the atrocity of graduate level accounting, grueling indecision as to whether to become a vessel of reproduction to save my marriage, divorce, traveling thousands of miles to find myself when I had left myself at home, and felon freeloaders—to name a few.
My surgeon with whom I formed an intimate internal relationship (meaning, he boldly went places no man had ever gone before), salvaged my pancreas by removing the lower third of my stomach. He stapled the incision closed, equipped me with a run-off device, and most likely asked for a double shot of a thirty-year old Scotch.
In secondary matters, I sustained multiple fractures and a hematoma the size of the softball that rolled through our first baseman’s legs at the state tournament.
During those touch-n-go days, I recall little except inquiring about my prized varsity letter jacket, which materialized in shreds; and my mother, reenacting Maclaine’s role in Terms of Endearment. The latter, a twice-daily frantic outburst, involved her madly pacing about the nursing station intermittently tapping her watch and pounding the counter. “It’s six o’clock! Time for the shot!! Where’s Lisa’s nurse…!! GIVE HER THE SHOT!!!”
I was elated when Michael visited. He discreetly situated his hand under the sheet, down between my abdominal drains and yanked it out when a nurse approached. He tried to look casual. She grew pie-eyed when she saw his hand: covered in Betadine, a reddish-brown tainted antiseptic.
“Kids,” she rolled her eyes.
When he came back in the room after cleaning his hands, my halo-wearing mother appeared. At the sight of his sprained ankle, she banished him from my life, executing the decision in her signature style of stunning finality. I had no whisper in the matter. If it weren’t for my focus on physical pain, I would have shattered. As it was, I spent all my energy getting well.
Five weeks after the accident, two nurses carried me like a wounded soldier to a shower chair. There, I inspected my emaciated midsection. A thick partially dried-up earthworm, sandwiched between two stitched-one drains, began between my breasts and extended down my torso. Where the skin bulged, a black staple mashed it down. I thought it couldn’t be part of me. But every time I looked, the ugliness was still there.
Finally, my staples removed, I said goodbye to the nurses who’d withstood my deranged demands, relieved my bed sores, washed my hair, wiped my stinky limbs, changed my bandages, cleaned my drains and tended to other hygienic needs that are frankly too gross to mention.
I recuperated at home, enjoying the solitude of an empty house where I could have tapped into spiritual insight—something that would have come in handy in the road ahead — but instead stumbled on how to arouse myself in the bathtub, enjoying a twinge of excitement before hauling myself out with the inflexibility of Frankenstein.
In the midst of this, I accompanied my mother to the grocery store, where a lady dressed head-to-toe in mink tore around an end cap. I happened to be standing in her path. She happened to be wielding a shopping cart. With the shrewdness of a bodyguard, my halo-wearing mother cut her off. “Watch it, she’s just out of the hospital, don’t put her back in.”
“Yeah,” I snidely remarked, eyeballing the coat.
The scare of illness or accident often lulls us back to the safety of the ordinary. Because I couldn’t handle the rage I felt for my mother at a time when I was depending on her for everything, there seemed nothing left but to go over to her side. The ordinary side that doesn’t do complex emotions or passion as a whole. The side that picks villains. I became angry. When Michael’s friend Dave arranged to pick up his wardrobe, I piled the clothes in the kitchen. “Hello, Lisa”… “Hello, yourself.” “I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you and Michael.” “Just take his crap out of here.” I went to Scarlet O’Hara lengths to avoid him and threw away all his love letters.
But one more, postmarked from Aspen, found its way to me five years after the accident, I’m opening a chapter of my life that took forever to close…The accident screwed me up for what seems like an eternity. I was deeply in love with you and then you dropped out of my life completely. I was emotionally very young which didn’t help the situation. I felt responsible for being behind the wheel and still haven’t learned how to deal with it and move on…
By then I was engaged to be married. Subversion had kicked my ass so fiercely, I’d been dancing with the ordinary since the accident, trying to stay away from fear, from feeling. My fiancé was flat. Plain. Predictable. 5’7” tall, he wore glasses and weighed one-hundred-and-eighteen pounds carrying two sacks of quarters. The son of loving elderly parents, he’d grown up west of Boston. His mother called potatoes “b’daydas,” the day after Friday “Saddadee,” and the number after thirdy-nine “foddy.” Tom’s father rarely spoke, but when he did, it was over Sunday’s roast-beef and turnip dinner. “Mama, pass the blood”… “Mama, I’m ready for my tea.”
After I got Michael’s letter, I made my way out to Colorado with my friend Suzanne. She was driving west for her roommate, who had suffered a meltdown and required her car within two days or I’m going to kill myself. Referencing the business stationary he’d sent, which noted his place of employment, we drove 8,000 miles and hunted him up in a retail store. Moments after I asked for him, Michael materialized.
When we managed to pull away from one another, we attempted to articulate years of feelings. Due to the constraint of his fifteen-minute break and a sales clerk standing there, this resulted in pie-eyeing and dead air. A dreamy reunion nearly five years to the day my halo-wearing mother banished him. I returned to the car feeling raw, deflated and filled the subsequent hours traversing packed snow through the Rockies at 50 M.P.H. Why didn’t I return to Aspen after delivering the ’74 Volvo to one of the healthiest, most balanced-looking individuals I’ve ever seen? Especially in light of my looming marriage to Tom?
Only years later did I understand. During my solitude after the accident, when I was recovering in my parent’s house watching rays of light beam in from the hall, shifting the shadows, I sometimes wondered how my mother could inflict the loss of Michael on me after she had endured her own deep losses. As a teenager, my mother’s older sister became pregnant and died in childbirth with the child. To talk about it was taboo in the family. Then, during the week of her marriage to my father, my mother lost both of her parents to cancer. My mother’s incredibly progressive physician advised my father to “get her pregnant” in order to “keep her mind occupied.” My mother became pregnant immediately, shoving the enormous grief for her parents on top of an already existing layer.
My mother’s grief was unprocessed. She rarely mentioned her sister’s name. When she did, she was unable to articulate further. Probing for information seemed inappropriate, unnatural. It remained a haunting subject. And she remained a storm surge with the potential to reach a Category 5 hurricane, a far cry from the gorgeous, spunky cheerleader she used to be. The volatile, deep scarring had made its mark well before I came along. This scarring can drive a person into the deep well of ordinariness. A place where pain and passion can’t be felt.
My mother had not been thinking of the bond between Michael and me, she had been thinking about ruling out the catalyst that had the potential to bring her more loss. I don’t think she would have been capable of managing that loss.
If I could rewrite my mother’s life story, I’d give my right arm. Perhaps, then she would have understood that the terrible car accident I experienced as a nineteen-year-old was only due to inclement weather, not my love’s attempt to eliminate me from her life. Perhaps, then, she could have embraced me as when I was devastated, as opposed to slipping into a chair, miles away, and asking “are you going to cry?”
Because I can’t rewrite hers, I rewrite mine, over and again, to understand why I left. Why I left that day in the middle of a snowstorm. And why I left again, driving away from the boy who understood subversion is necessary. I went back to the fiancé who seemed so much what my mother wanted for me: a man who could not hurt me because I did not really love him.
I did not stay with Tom, of course. I became a writer. I joined the tribe of those who push against ordinariness in our lives and write about what it hides: a government’s oppression; a sister’s loss; the unbearable feeling that love brings; and always always: that silent, glaring elephant in the family room that so often defines Flaubert’s coveted bourgeois.
Copyright 2014 DeMasi