They say our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode when stressed, but I am all flight, a creature of air, Libra ascendant. Even my appearance is bird-like—small-boned, sharp-nosed, thick hair like a cap of starling-colored feathers. So I find myself at Dallas Love Field on a Friday in late October, the airport glittering purple and black, orange and green. Witches’ hats, pumpkin earrings, stuffed black cats, and Frankenstein-monster dolls spill out of the gift shops. I have a four-hour flight delay, so I buy a magazine called “World’s Scariest Places: Haunted, Creepy, Abandoned” and scroll through it while nursing a $12 glass of Prosecco.
Ten hours later I’m buzzing around my best friend Anthony’s apartment in Brooklyn on the outskirts of Prospect Park. I show him the magazine, and we begin to map out all the places we’d die to visit. His partner Nimuel, who hates Halloween anyway, is in the Philippines for his art show, so we have all the time and space in the world to inhabit our weird selves, to embark upon our morbid journeys. Anthony goes into his bedroom closet and emerges with a cylinder and a box of thumbtacks. He unrolls a world map and tapes it to the wall. I marvel at the fact that something so monumental could emerge from such a cramped space. What else is he hiding in there?
Anthony is short and broad-shouldered, ink-black hair, jet-black glasses, black beard flecked with gray. His body is covered in tattoos, movie monsters and pin-up girls and red roses snaked with thorny vines. “I’m thinking Isla de las Muñecas,” Anthony says, sticking a pin on the map just south of Mexico City, his fingernails chipped with black polish. I picture this island of haunted dolls: plastic babies littering the jungle’s lungs, pinafores torn, dead eyes glittering. “I may find some long lost relatives.” Anthony’s father is from Mexico, but he’s never met him.
“I want to go to Spreepark,” I say, pointing to the photos in the magazine. It’s an abandoned amusement park where broken carnival rides clutter the forest like candied hellhouses, and giant wolves open their synthetic jaws, wide as caves. I pick up a red pushpin and stick it in the heart of Berlin.
“You always want to do something that involves fairy tales,” he says.
“True. Speaking of, how about the Suicide Forest?”
“Aoikigahara,” I say, leafing to page 80 in the magazine. “The Sea of Trees. People walk in and get lost on purpose. Then they hang themselves in the trees or just never find their way out.” As morbid as this description is, I want to be engulfed in a flood of green: hemlock fir, Japanese cypress, and Fuji cherry trees encircling me like the arms of a goddess. A forest floor carpeted in sage-colored moss, plants spreading their roots out over the surface of hardened lava as if they were crawling. My eyes move East on the wall map, I find Japan and put a thumbtack near Mount Fuji. “I don’t want us to kill ourselves or anything. I just want to get swallowed up by the woods for a while. We could pretend to be Hansel and Gretel.”
“We already are Hansel and Gretel,” Anthony says. “My mom’s a wicked witch, both our dads are useless, and you married the Big, Bad Wolf.”
“There’s no Big, Bad Wolf in Hansel and Gretel.”
Anthony glares at me. “ You’re splitting hairs.”
Anthony and I met in an acting class when we were in middle school. Our mothers hoped theatre classes would help channel our dramatic personalities. On the first day of class, our teacher—a small, round woman named Dot—instructed us to find a “twin” we could mirror. Anthony and I were the two shortest kids in the class. We locked eyes across the room, then shuffled toward each other. “Pretend your partner is your mirror,” Dot said. “One of you start moving. The other one, imitate your partner’s movements.”
We felt self-conscious and silly at first, but after a few minutes, I couldn’t tell whose movements were leading and whose were following. And for almost two decades Anthony and I orbited the world like two mirror images, two twin moons, until he moved to New York to design clothing. Now he sells menswear for Marc Jacobs instead of creating, and I lecture about novels instead of writing my own. But when you’re twelve, your deepest wish is to find your own dark heart mirrored in another’s, and that’s what we had found.
“Here’s where I don’t want to go,” Anthony says now, picking up a black pushpin and putting it right where we are, in New York. “Kingsborough,” he explains, the institution where his mother was committed two years ago. “It’s just three train stops over. But the last time I was there, she was hurling her own poo at her roommate, and she crouched under her bed when they came to sedate her. It was a shit show. Literally. I mean I’ll go again, of course. But I don’t want to. I’d rather…I’d rather have my balls eaten by fire ants.”
“I don’t want to go to Shreveport,” I say, sticking a black pin in Louisiana. “Last time I saw my father, I had to chase him around the casino because he moves fast for a guy with Parkinson’s. And he was mainlining martinis. He kept forgetting who I was, but he had no trouble telling the bartender, ‘Beefeater Gin, three olives, straight up.’”
“What would you rather do?” he asks.
“I’d rather…Ummm…I’d rather have…a raccoon piss in my eye?” Anthony is better at the “I’d rather…” game than I am.
“Nice one,” he says.
“Or home,” I say, putting another black pin in Texas. “I don’t want to go home.”
I remember yesterday morning in Texas. As I huddled in my bedroom closet, I heard sounds of glass breaking and the guttural cries of a wounded animal. A cacophony of noise engulfed my house, but I didn’t venture out until I heard a door slamming and a motorcycle engine revving, then quiet descended over the house like a thick curtain. The kitchen looked as if a nursery of raccoons had ransacked the place. Shards of glass glinted on the floor, and open drawers spilled their contents of silverware and whisks, magnets and pens, one drawer face completely torn off. Beer from a smashed six-pack still fizzed on the countertop, filling the kitchen with the smell of bread dough. One of the tiles in the floor had a large chip in it. How do you break a tile? I thought. My next thoughts were: My house, my kitchen, my floor, my tile because I remembered my marriage counselor Dr. Mabli’s question: “Does he break your things or his?” At least that wasn’t my beer.
Then, as I sat on my suitcase in the doorway of my bedroom, marveling at all the worlds I had access to with a simple swipe of the thumb, I looked up the definition of “borderline” on my phone, the Madonna song from childhood trilling through my head. The American Psychological Association said: “A condition characterized by being almost but not quite a sociopath or psychotic or narcissist or neurotic.” But I thought about all of the other possible definitions of “borderline.” I imagined a seam intersecting sea and sand. I thought of the long rim cleaving my husband’s body from mine. I heard the hiss of a slit stitch, a fringe that could fray, like worn silk, spilling down our spines and splitting wide, gulfing into a gully too ample to breach.
After I packed my bags, I scrolled my phone again for an exit plan, a magic portal I could click open and disappear through. Instead I found an article: “How to Leave a Partner with Borderline Personality Disorder.” For some reason an image flashed in my mind—me as a kid riding the Zephyr roller coaster at Pontchartrain Beach, over and over in giddy dips and loops, the smell of burnt sugar ribboning through my tangled hair. But in that moment, I felt like my seatbelt was stuck shut, and I was lurching and pitching, careening through the dark, seasick as a green-gilled sailor who’d love nothing more than the sight of land. “Go ‘no contact,’” the article suggested. Good luck with that, I thought.
But the next online portal I opened took me to the website for Southwest Airlines, and I booked a flight to LaGuardia. Just. Like. That.
Saturday Anthony has to work, but I wake up early and walk across the street to Prospect Park with my journal and a cup of dark roast from Tugboat on Flatbush Avenue. Sitting on a park bench, I identify with all the winged things, noting the difference between a monarch and a pearl crescent butterfly, a witch moth and a black swallowtail. I watch the flight patterns of cormorants and geese, detect the scree of a hawk, the scream of a jay, the chirp of a sparrow. And when I hear the autumn song that sounds like, “Oh… pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty,” I know a blood-red cardinal roosts nearby.
But my own flight patterns are tricky for me these days with Noah’s fears of abandonment. In May I took my nephew Kai to Galveston Island to visit the campus where he wants to study ocean engineering. We watched as the Sea Life lab students released ten rehabilitated sea turtles back into the Gulf of Mexico. All ten round bodies turned themselves toward the ocean like compasses, their flippers making little sand angels as they crawled back home, one by one, getting swallowed by the murky waters. Kai and I wiped our faces with the backs of our sleeves, the Gulf Coast wind thrashing us. “I got some sand in my eye,” Kai said, sniffling.
“Yeah, I know. Me too,” I said.
While I was on the Coast, Noah started taking fentanyl, an opiate more potent than heroin that one of his rich friend purchased off of the Dark Web. “This killed Prince, you asshole!” I yelled at him when I returned home to find a few traces of white powder still lining the inside of an orange pill bottle and Noah deep in the throes of withdrawal.
“We thought it was Oxy,” Noah said.
“Like that makes it any better.”
That night on Anthony’s couch, lulled by the Q train’s whir and the conductor’s bright monotone: “Next stop: Coney Island,” I dream about one of the turtles from Galveston. She has thirteen scutes spiraling across her calloused carapace, one for each new moon of the year. I lug her to safety, pivoting the broad disk of her back around like a ship’s helm until her tail curls toward me, but she shimmies out of her casing like a burlesque dancer, and I catch her glass-green belly in my hands. And in the morning I know it means I’m not Athena, not Artemis, no virgin goddess of war. I lay my weapons down in earnest, too keen to slither out of my armor, too quick to let love pummel all of my softer parts.
Last April, after even Dr. Mabli told me to give up, I wrote Noah a letter asking for a separation and flew to San Diego to present at a film-studies conference. That’s when Noah started threatening to kill himself. It’s October now, and he’s still living in my house. And I have no idea what might await me when I go back home Monday. But I always go home. I have a decent job and three rescued dogs. I have an aging mother who needs my care and a teenaged nephew who still wants to be my friend. And I’m as addicted to Noah as he is to drama. Maybe I’m even as addicted to drama as Noah is to me.
On Sunday Anthony and I take the Q train to 57th Street, the morning sun glinting through a frost-gray sky, our breath making smoke rings as we speed-walk, huddled, half a mile to the MOMA. Nimuel is a member, so we get to meander the white labyrinth of the museum before it opens to the public. We are first in line at coat-check where I hand over the tapestry coat Anthony bought me a decade ago at a second-hand shop in Chelsea. I need a new coat but I hate to part with this one, its lavendar faux-fur collar and cuffs encircling my bones like I’m the snow queen of Narnia.
Museums are like churches to people like us. We amble through the permanent collection first. I visit this sanctuary every time I come to New York, but it never ceases to enthrall me. I stand in front of Magritte’s The Lovers for a long while, the heads and faces of its kissing figures enshrouded in white fabric. I think of Magritte at age 14, watching his mother’s body as policemen hoisted it from the Sambre River, her wet nightgown wrapped around her face. I think about love as glamour, as bewitchment. I wonder if we ever really know anyone’s true nature.
But it’s the Louise Bourgeois exhibit that pulls me in with its own sort of enchantment. Giant, maternal spiders crouch above metal cages, forever mending their broken webs. Women turn into spirals, pivoting on pointed toes. I feel like each room is a decade in the artist’s long life, and I’m walking through her body, wrapping myself in the fabric of her memories. “If you bash into the web of a spider,” Bourgeois once said, “She doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.” Bourgeois cut up all the textiles of her childhood—bed linens, towels, tablecloths, handkerchiefs—and spent the rest of her life piecing it all back together again. Weaving was her way to make things whole.
“I knew you’d love it,” Anthony says.
“I need to buy the exhibition catalogue,” I say.
“It will be cheaper at Strand.”
So we take the N train to Union Square and wander the aisles of Strand Bookstore, lingering in the Art and Horror and Film sections. We buy a voodoo doll “for protection against people with bad taste in music,” then lug a pumpkin from the Park Slope Farmer’s Market home on the subway. When we cross the Brooklyn Bridge, the setting sun illuminates dust motes spiraling around the train car like glitter embalmed in ether.
The forecast predicts rain on Monday, so I know tomorrow morning I’ll stand in the fog and drizzle waiting for my taxi, my dark bob tucked into my red hoodie, my Union Jack rainboots making loud splashes in the muddy puddles on Ocean Avenue, like a little kid playing in the rain. After I get into the backseat of the cab, I’ll turn and blow kisses through the rear window, wait until Anthony can no longer see me until I start to cry.
But on my last night in New York, we cook deep-sea scallops dipped in squid’s ink, drink Velvet Devil cabernet, and eat black sesame-seed ice cream for dessert—all the foods that stain the lips and tongue. “Nimuel told me that if you eat black foods, you can cheat death,” Anthony says.
“You can also get stuck in the Underworld,” I say.
“But you still get to come up for air once a year,” he says, raising his wine glass. I do the same, thinking: No, not Athena. A different sort of goddess. One’s who’s eaten the fruit of the damned. The apartment is clammy with stale air and seafood smells, so we crack open the windows, and I feel my broken spirit scattering out of the apartment like a spider.
“Did you read Damage by Josephine Hart…or at least see the movie?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, that’s the one where the guy falls in love with his son’s girlfriend. The old creeper!”
“But it was Jeremy Irons,” I say. “He can creep on me anytime.”
“Sometimes I think I’m a better feminist than you are,” Anthony says.
“Oh, most definitely. But you should read the book, seriously, it’s really good.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll read it.” And I believe him because he’s the only person who reads everything I tell him to read.
“Anyway, in the book—maybe in the movie too, I can’t remember—there is one person for every person,” I say. “It may be a child or a lover or a sibling or a friend. For the mother in the book, it’s the son. For the protagonist, it’s his son’s girlfriend. I think maybe you’re my one person,” I say.
“Yeah, I know,” he says. “I always imagined we’d grow old together.”
“Maybe we will.”
That night we lie on Anthony’s bed, his jacket a dark hulk looming on the closet hook. It’s the night before Halloween, so we play The Shining on an endless loop like they do at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado. I think of these loops in our lives like symbols of the ouroborus, like snakes eating their own tails. Over and over, I wake in the night to hear Shelley Duvall screaming, “Jack, please don’t.”
LeeAnn Olivier, M.F.A. (Spindle My Spindle, Hermeneutic Chaos Press, 2016) is an assistant professor of English at Tarrant County College. Her poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in many publications, including most recently Sonic Boom, The Hunger, and Driftwood Press, a journal that nominated her work for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. She currently lives in Texas with her rescue-dog/familiar Bijou, where she likes to make art, practice yoga, drink wine, and host impromptu full-moon rituals on her patio.