Staunchly, vol. 25: Girls of the Sunken City

(Originally posted: 6/2/17)

Hi loves, 

This was a challenging week, for reasons I will no doubt write about once I get my head on straight (everything is copy, right?). In short, an incident Monday night triggered some past trauma and my body had an extreme, involuntary reaction. I’m feeling much better and stronger now, and in control of my mental faculties—except, of course, when I see a particularly chunky corgi on the street or think about how the world is ending thanks to some inbred climate change deniers who think God just has a thing against polar bears.
I want to thank everybody for the words and gestures of support over the past few days. I can’t begin to express how much they mean to me. My heart is Grinch-level swollen with love and gratitude for this outpouring of empathy. The “gurllllll, been there” texts and phone calls have kept me afloat. I don’t necessarily want to be the kind of TinyLettrist that just randomly quotes Jane Austen, but here goes: “It is singularity which often makes the worst part of our suffering.” I couldn’t agree more, J. It is such a tremendous relief to feel some universality in your private dramas.
Now, down to business. Today I’m sending out a short essay that I meant to send out earlier this week to cap off May, i.e. Mental Health Awareness Month (whomp whomp). This is a story that has been needling me for a while. I have tried to write it 10 different ways. It is not obviously about mental illness and honestly, I’m not even sure it works yet. I’d love your thoughts.
Thank you guys again for being there when I needed you most. I cherish you all.
Staunchly yours,


To be melancholy is to be self-haunted, and among the many reasons this is an unsatisfactory explanation for living inside a jam jar inside an aquarium, foremost among them is that there are no good stories to tell of your bleak time in a beautiful place, and no specter to blame for the fact that happiness, though it should have been inescapable, evaded you.

– Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock


You are 10.
You are sitting knees-folded in the lobby of the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, staring up at your family. Above them, the domed ceiling is pressed with gold clamshells like thumbprints. A dark-haired woman you are about to meet stands a few feet away. You assume she is a stranger.
You are here with your mom’s side of the family. An undercooked batch of alabaster French-Canadians with strong noses and round chins like avocado pits. Your people. 
Your grandpa is dressed in leisurewear pastels. He has that tough nose everyone’s inherited. Your grandma has soft, sweet cheeks like microwaved marshmallows. Your mom’s hair is very “Meg Ryan” this summer. Your Aunt Yvonne and Uncle Mike are still together. Your Aunt Donna has yet to find Jesus or cancer.
(It’ll be more than a decade before you hear her speak of the metastasis with evangelistic vocabulary—of the devil spreading through her body taking good cells as captors for her sin.)
“You need to meet someone,” your mom says. She pulls you off the floor and leads you to the dark-haired woman.
You have never seen the woman before, but you think you might recognize her face from some of the framed photos at your grandparents’ house.
One in particular: a picture of four girls in matching leopard coats with big brown buttons and flat collars. Yvonne, Donna, and your mom are standing, left to right, youngest to oldest. Behind them is the fourth girl. She is much taller. Her hair is richly brown. On closer inspection, she isn’t matching. Her coat is leopard, too, but the print is slightly different—the spots are bigger and the collar is shawl-like. She is five years older than your mom, you have been told. She can no longer wear kid sizes. Her smile is tight. She is the fourth sister.
“This is Janet*,” your mom says. You can see all the muscles in her body tighten.
“Oh, you!” Janet says, too loud. Before you can stop it, her arms are around you. They are cold and unfamiliar, betraying her unpersuasive cheeriness. She pulls back to look at you, calculate how much you’ve grown. You don’t think she has ever seen a picture of you.
You remember a story your mom has told you from childhood:
Your mom slammed a door in her older sister’s face. They had been fighting. Later that day, Janet came up behind your mom and dug her nails, fashionably long in that glam 60s way, into your mother’s cheeks, breaking skin, and dragged them along the curve of her face, carving welts like a tiger sharpening its claws on a trunk. Their pediatrician thought your mom would be permanently disfigured. He looked at your grandpa when he brought her in like, how could you do this. So your mom has told you.
(You check your mom’s face for etchings. You check Janet’s hands for—what?—a tiny time capsule of flesh under her nails?)
You had always imagined Janet as the raven-haired other. A terror from the outside. Someone between a burglar and an unwelcome houseguest. Now you know she isn’t. Now she is standing here with your people.
You stare back at her coolly, begin to understand the mysterious contagion that lurks in your family cells.
You back away from her. You don’t want to catch her darkness.

On Atlantis, the water looks food-colored, bright and artificial like gelatin molds or counterfeit money. It is the perfect shade and smell of blue, you think. It lays itself out for you like a feast: waterslides; waterfalls; shark tanks; lagoons; waterslides that lead you through waterfalls, under shark tanks, into lagoons.
Atlantis is big. Massive. Its scale is fictive and imperial and buoyantly wasteful. It feels like an offshore Disneyland or a submerged sea empire or a floating trash vortex. You want it all.
For days all you taste is pineapple. You suck every last drop of watery pulp out of plastic cups filled with virgin Miami Vices, layers of virgin pina colada under icy virgin daiquiri. You always speed past the strawberry to get to the fluffy, white mix at the base: a sugary and tropical sedative that you slurp while laying on lounge chairs and blasting NSYNC’s No Strings Attached on your shock- and water-resistant walkman between slides.
(You keep repeating your favorite song on the CD, “It’s Gonna Be Me.” The harmonies make you dizzy. Most of your friends are Justin fans, but not you. You love JC. He has wide-set blue eyes and short, spiky brown hair and biceps that look like they were carved from Carrera marble, which he often shows off in sleeveless tanks. You like not liking the pre-designated boy band heartthrob. Like feeling as if you have a sort of a rebellious way of thinking, are a bit of an iconoclast. Plus, Justin is dating Britney and they seem to be in love. What’s the point of lusting for someone you don’t have a chance with?)
You test every waterslide in the resort except the one that goes straight-down. You swim with dolphins and flirt with the other ten-year-olds and even some of the eleven-year-olds. You pee in the ocean. The strap detail of your red one-piece swimsuit leaves grill marks on your body from the sun. You strut around the beach like a branded calf.
You take lemon wedges from the drink glasses and squeeze them on your dishwater blonde hair. You convince your mom to let you have your hair braided on the beach by a woman who keeps her beads in an extra-large Wendy’s cup. You get six, thin strands of hair braided—three on each side of your middle part—with pink and white beads woven in. It is a painful process and they are very hard to shampoo around and sometimes slap you in the face when you run or turn your head around too quickly, but your mom wisely tells you that style and beauty are worth a certain amount of suffering.
Suffering for beauty. You are truly walking into the temple of womanhood. You are entering the prolonged state of awkward development. The rearranging of chemicals. The rounding of certain edges and corners. You are growing and freckling and just beginning to understand the ways other women adorn themselves with items to distract or amplify from the growth and the freckles.
Your older cousin has brought his girlfriend on the trip. She plays with you on the beach. She wears a small red bikini and has a tattoo of three Chinese characters on her back. You have never been close to someone with a tattoo before. You are captivated by the effect of ink on skin, by how it looks, when you’re digging her out of the sand, like you are unearthing a scroll.
(All the while, as you swim and slide, you never lose sight of your new aunt. She is quiet, doesn’t make any waves, sticks to herself mostly. But you always know where she is. How close she is to you. You can sense her coming. Everything gets tighter.)

The pineapple days are over the night your grandpa almost dies.
Your family is eating at a deli with vinyl booths called Murray’s in the middle of the resort. It describes itself as “New York-style,” which means the menu offers dishes like lox and matzo ball soup—Jewish-themed delights to ping the island-dwelling retirees’ nostalgia sensors.
You are contemplating the tropical flavors of corned beef and pastrami when your grandpa’s pacemaker gives. You wonder if maybe his heart just needs a good shake. That’s what you do with your walkman when it skips.
It takes the ambulance too long to get to him. Atlantis is too big. And people don’t die in paradise. But also: people don’t die in Paradise. So, he lives.

You go missing sometime the next afternoon.
You are sitting on the edge of the Lazy River, watching your family sail by on clear inner tubes along a calm loop of current. Your mom, bleary-eyed from a night spent in and out of the hospital, your dad, your cousins, your aunts, floating by in chunks of two and three. There is something unbearable about the thought of joining them.
It’s your last day in Atlantis. You want what you came for: waterslides, shark tanks, heart-pumping thrills like the sight of JC Chasez in a slim-fit tee.
So you walk away, in the direction of the slide that goes straight down.
It is maybe an hour or two before they find you. You will remember it as much longer.

You are underwater when you hear your dad scream your name. Your body floats weightless in the shallow end of a pool, your head submerged and the braids in your hair circling you like sea snakes.
Your eyes are open, raw against the chlorine and chemicals in the water. You always keep them open. You like the sensation hours later, the way they sting, feeling both hazy and electric. You like the excitement of knowing you’ve exposed them to some diluted danger, some artificial sting.
“We thought you’d been kidnapped,” he huffs, pulling you from the pool.

You will spend a lot of time in the coming years and even decades thinking about why you walked away—overanalyzing every move, as you always do; trying to understand why these two hours unattended-for feel like the beginning of a period of your life you spent underwater.
You were 10. You were antsy, greedy, willful. You wanted to go on waterslides and so you did. 
You were 10, standing along an aquatic conveyor belt, watching your family float by, body starting to rage with impulse, feeling so, unbearably lonely. 
You were 10, and with the fierce and underrated instincts of a young girl, had a sense of something coming for you. Something that had, at one point, come for Janet.

A vengeful melancholy, baked in your bones, just starting to rise. 

You are standing at the top of the tallest slide, the one that goes straight down, holding your breath. It's called the Leap of Faith. For good reason. 
You count down from five and slide into the entrance, a slick beige mouth that opens out into the whole of Atlantis. You fold your arms across your chest and let the mechanized current propel you forward.
Lying there alone, the beads in your hair clacking against the fiberglass, you prepare yourself to be reborn.
You take for granted the simple given of a safe childhood. When you go missing: your people will notice. They will come find you. Someone will pull you up.

* Name changed for well, obvious reasons.