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Waiting for Alice

Jasmin Merden / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | January, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,577 words)

Alice is destroying my marriage. It began unexpectedly and accelerated quickly, and now we’re in the thick of a potentially ruinous interpersonal struggle. Kerry (my husband) sees it as a contest between my passion and his pragmatism. I do too, but not in a bad way. I look at it this way: Our marriage is like a seesaw, which fulfills its function by rocking back and forth. Alice, at the moment, is the teeter point. As such, she’s complicated. She is also the most gorgeous creature who ever lived.

Alice has curly hair, the color of oatmeal. Mornings she can be found basking in the sunlight that floods the two front rooms of our apartment, either on my daughter Lydia’s bed or on the living room carpet. In summer, the ash tree blooms and fills the windows, and our city apartment looks like a country house. Alice looks like a duchess, curled on the hearth. She knows that at 5 p.m., when I bring my radio into the kitchen and start making dinner, Lydia will be home soon. Our front door is thin enough that we hear everything in the outside hall — goodnight kisses, lovers’ spats, newspapers landing at our neighbors’ front doors. We are one floor above the lobby, and Alice’s ears flatten against her head when the downstairs doors squeak. Lydia often pauses in the vestibule between the first and second door to inspect the packages that the postman has dropped. Alice holds her breath in that pause, listening for what comes next, which is Lydia banging up the stairs to our door. She is a small child, but very bangy; each step announcing her after-school weariness. Alice, having been trained not to bark, stands at our door with barely constrained poise. She quivers. When the knob turns, she backs up, paws the ground, and emits a single yip. Lydia’s backpack crashes to the ground — it gets heavier every year — and the rituals of reunion commence. Alice licks Lydia’s face, Lydia massages Alice’s ears. Alice turns in circles, Lydia says, “OK, Alice, OK! ” She picks her up and cradles her, rubs Alice’s nose with her own. Lydia’s father comes up the stairs. Lydia gets Alice’s leash. When the three of them return from the park, we will eat.

People often make fun of small dogs like Alice. She is a teacup toy poodle, she is under 10 pounds, and people say, “That dog is the size of a rat.” Yes, I want to say, and you are the size of a Great Dane. So what? In an interview, President Obama once said something unkind about “little yappy” dogs and Michelle shut him down. All dogs are dogs. All dogs look silly and mournful when wet; all dogs have urgent ears. A small dog is as likely to sniff or cuddle or growl or bark as a large one. Across all breeds, there is a common dogness. People think big dogs express salt-of-the-earthness in their owners, something that speaks of mud and skinned knees and free-range parenting. They think little dogs, on the other hand, reveal their owners to be tacky, or frivolous, or worst of all girly, as if delicacy is the province of only one gender. Alice feels no pressure though; she doesn’t care how she looks. She can be both graceful and awkward. She is ethereal when she lifts her paw; she is clumsy when she roots in the wastebasket. When we catch her, she looks up, her jaws clenched around a tissue stained with lipstick or an emptied bag of kettle corn. “Drop it, Alice,” we say. She narrows her eyes. “Alice, drop it.” She places her treasure on the floor, as though it were a wounded sparrow. Then she slinks away, a little angry. Alice also likes to chew toes; she stations herself at the foot of the bed while we watch TV. She brings her kibble from the kitchen to the dining room table, eating it from the floor while we eat. She will lick the inside of your nose if you let her. She is a dog’s dog. She’s a little girl’s dog. She is our dog.


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For my husband, the problems with Alice are many. She is expensive and she requires too many walks — Kerry, being the most responsible member of the household ends up taking her for most of them. She wrecks midday carnal relations. She stares. When we lock her out, she whines at the bedroom door. Someday she may get sick, so sick that we can’t afford her care, and it will be two — three if you count Alice — against one, in favor of deepening our debt to save her. Kerry would of course want to save Alice, but Kerry also wants to pay our rent. Alice annoys approximately one half of the 12 or so tenants in the building — the French woman who receives right-wing mail and the guy who works out of his home as a medium are most likely the ones who have called management about her paws skidding on the hardwood floor at all hours. The gray-haired couple upstairs barely tolerates children; potentially incontinent creatures don’t mix with carpeted hallways. Our downstairs neighbor does like Alice, as does her cat Bubby, who glides up the stairs routinely to request stomach rubs from Lydia. When Alice came, Bubby knew he’d better make friends with her. We don’t know how the FBI agent on the fourth floor feels, because that’s her job.

She will lick the inside of your nose if you let her. She is a dog’s dog. She’s a little girl’s dog. She is our dog.

Kerry fears neighborly rage, our one-year lease, and NYC’s scarcity of affordable housing. Kerry is cautious, Kerry is careful, Kerry is against extra spending, which is something Lydia and I are very much for. Lydia and I like new paperbacks and take-out burritos and postcards from the museum gift shop. We like bringing flowers when we visit friends, and chocolate, too, and tea. We are not good with margins and austerity, though when we got Alice we promised to be better. I have taken on more work and Alice doesn’t eat the finest dog food or anything. We frequently have scrambled eggs for dinner. Still, Kerry worries.

For Lydia and me, there is only one problem with Alice: She doesn’t exist. Actually, she might, but if she does, we don’t know her yet. We might have seen her picture online, at one of the rescue sites we frequent, but maybe none of those dogs was Alice.

The other night, we fought over Alice. Lydia, to my pride and shame, moderated. “I understand how Daddy feels, because you told him Alice wouldn’t be for a while, and then you and I started in right away. I understand how Mommy feels, because Daddy can never be persuaded of anything, and it’s not like we can compromise and get only half a dog.”

In our wedding vows, Kerry promised we could get a dog. “Two dogs, we’ll have to talk about,” he added, meaning one dog was OK, I reminded him.

“I didn’t know about the wedding vow, Daddy,” Lydia said.

Kerry looked abashed. But then he said: “Someone has to worry about the routine responsibilities. Mommy does housework on impulse, whereas Daddy does all the scheduled events, like laundry. I don’t want to be the dog walker because I am the only one who can keep a schedule.”

“Won’t Alice ever pee on impulse?” Lydia asked.

“You’re not helping,” I said.

Alice has become a dark cloud for Kerry, a constant pre-ulcerous stomachache. He never used to worry about our desire to get a dog because there’s a big clause in our lease: NO DOGS. It’s on a separate page. NO DOGS gets its own page, stapled at the back.

But two weeks ago, Lydia asked me to ask, just to be sure. Kerry said good, that will be an end to it. I wrote to building management. They wrote back the following:

“Dogs are decided on a case-by-case basis. Tell us your plan and we’ll let you know.”

I started in my chair. For so long, we had sighed and complained to our friends: “Our building won’t allow dogs. We want one so badly!” Now, it was a case-by-case decision and suddenly, Alice appeared. Kerry’s face clouded, his shoulders tensed. “Don’t tell Lydia right away,” he pleaded. I told him I wouldn’t, I understood the pressures of a dog, I was not as gung ho as he thought, I wanted to be measured, to wait until we had more security, to wait until Lydia could walk a dog by herself. I thought I meant it. I did mean it. But Alice kept looking at me. She looked at me from my lap, and she looked out from Lydia’s arms where the two of them lay snuggled on a Saturday, sleeping in. She looked at Kerry too, with love in her eyes, teaching him how to love her back. She looked at me so much that I gave in and began looking too, not just at her, but for her.

Here’s why.

Last year Lydia’s first grade class did a months-long unit on families. The three of us almost ended up in therapy as a result. All the kids brought their parents and their siblings on their presentation days. Baby brothers crawled on the floor in diapers, big sisters described middle school. Lydia came home scowling. “Angela doesn’t have siblings,” I said. “Neither does Riley.” It was no use. It seemed that all other only children went on lots of vacations or were devoted to sports that kept them busy or lived in high-rises with lots of other kids who came over all the time to watch movies. I stopped reading books to Lydia that had siblings in them. Meet the Austins, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Saturdays, all these large-family books disappeared into my closet.

It festered through winter. I explained to Lydia again why she is an only child. Mommy suffered a near psychotic depression during pregnancy, we can’t afford a second child if we want to stay in Manhattan, or if she wants to go to a weekly ballet class, or for us to replace her shoes as her feet grow. The choice to have one child makes sense.

I asked other parents of onlies how they handled the pleading; most people said that it hadn’t come up, that their onlies liked their situation just fine. Meanwhile, my daughter had mastered pathos at a Dickensian level. The vortex of her longing sucked up small pleasures, blotted out the sun, made me ache for a pregnancy that I knew could do me in. With sudden clarity, I realized I was a failure at homemaking, for what is a home without lots and lots and lots of kids? There had to be noise and crashes at unexpected times, and club meetings on the stairs, and walking a scrappy little sister to school. My life was a sham, it was not full, it was a cruelty inflicted on my one precious child. I began taking antidepressants.


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Eventually, winter let up. Lydia attended dance camp and learned inappropriate songs. Friends slept over. They built forts and they fought and out of sight things crashed to the floor. We had dinner parties and the house got messy. I worked to keep our apartment as full and gay as possible. It became a habit. We became hosts. We threw a Christmas party and a New Year’s dinner. Then I googled successful only children. Daniel Radcliffe is an only child. So too, Cary Grant and Carol Burnett. I felt better, even triumphant.

In The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud writes about how a family of three never looks like a real family when they sit down to dinner. When I read that, I recognized the sentiment, and I felt worse.

Then, on a bus one spring day last year, I sat next to a woman who was holding a black poodle on her lap. She massaged the dog’s head with her thumb. We got to talking. I told her my child loved dogs, and I wanted to get her one. The woman replied that her daughter was an only child, and the dog was the best compensation she could think of. Indeed, she said, the dog had worked wonders.

In the play The Member of the Wedding, there is this line, distilled and poignant. Lonely Frankie says it about Janis and Jarvis, her brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law. “They are the we of me.” The three of us are already three, but a vision flared: Alice could make us three even more of a “we.”

Kerry said the other night that he married me partly because I don’t think things through and I married him partly because he does. He was angry that I had told Lydia the building said “maybe.” I had promised to keep it under my hat. I was angry because he doesn’t understand how much we need Alice. He said: “I thought you were a grown-up.” I said: “I thought you loved me.”

The three of us are already three, but a vision flared: Alice could make us three even more of a ‘we.’

I do wonder if I should have my head examined. Alice is obviously something more than a dog to me, she is some sort of promise, some dream deferred onto which I can project realization. She is the anti-lonely, the kinetic and frenetic to energize the quiet world of three, she is also peace at bedtime, Lydia maybe falling asleep at a normal hour. There is a time in life when our parents shape and define it, they set the terms of what is both normal and possible. Alice is a way to expand my powers, to convince myself that I can stretch our universe, place one more star inside its boundaries. I remind Kerry we could not afford Lydia, either. I remind him how much we had to adjust to walking her in the park, too. He reminds me that dogs and people are not the same, and I shoot back that that’s the point — we are not making another baby, we are merely adopting a dog. There is always a counterresponse; it is a fight between two equally sane points of view. That’s why Alice is pushing us apart. To Kerry, she’s the sword of Damocles. To me, she’s the final click on the lamp’s dial, the one that brings us to the brightest wattage possible for our home. We are both right. The domestic seesaw rocks.

For as long as I’ve known him, Kerry’s had a plan. He runs the numbers, he thinks ahead. Where we’ll eat dinner and what time the movie is playing and whether the bus or the subway will be faster today. He uses calendars and maps and software. He is calm and efficient and brainy. He has tried to teach me to stick to a plan, too, with some success. I, in turn, have coaxed him to surrender, to trust that even unpredictable pleasures can be counted on: I am forever changing the plan, but I am always here. Little dogs yip and run around in circles and confuse the situation of your life. But they also build their world around you, and if you can endure the noise and motion, you get all those lovely kisses. To me, this is the perfect plan, the stable and the kinetic, forever in pursuit of each other. That’s us. That’s family. That’s Alice.

* * *

Leslie Kendall Dye is a writer and actress in New York City. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Vela, Electric Literature, SELF, The LA Review of Books, and others. She is at work on a memoir about mothers, daughters, drugs, and show business.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Naked City

Illustration by Homestead Studio, based off Oksana Latysheva & Vivali / Getty

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | December, 2019 | 16 minutes (4,411 words)

“No man is an island.”

John Donne

There is a theory that the mind is a collection of symbiotic identities, some conscious, some unconscious, that form an uneasy alliance for the sake of survival. Truthfully, that’s my theory, although I think I read something similar once. I am now working on a new theory, that New York City is similarly a collective, that what looks like a group of entirely separate individuals who happen to walk past one another all day long is actually one great organism.

I find this idea reassuring, because life here can make you feel not just unimpressive, not just peripheral, but entirely negligible. I have lived in New York for more than 22 years, which I am sorry to say is more than half my life. In that time, I have never stopped asking the question: Do I belong here? Am I woven into the tapestry, or am I a dangling thread? How does everyone seem to know one another, and where is everybody going? Why is the line at Sarabeth’s so long? Why are the libraries closed on Sundays? Was there a memo about wearing Hunter rain boots? Why are dogs not allowed in my building? Every day, I am confronted by mysteries. But if New York City is actually dependent on every last person within its boundaries, deriving not just energy but also narrative structure from all who move through it, then maybe I’m not negligible after all.

I have never stopped asking the question: Do I belong here? Am I woven into the tapestry, or am I a dangling thread?

I have tried to explain to others the feeling I get on a typical day in the city — that we are all characters in some sort of Yiddish short story, but it’s unclear who are the heroes and who are the villains, whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, who are the stars, and who are merely the background. You see and hear so many things in a day. So I’ll start from the beginning — the beginning of yesterday, that is, and go through one whole day, and hope that you’ll come along for the ride.

***

Yesterday began like many others. I was in the check-out line at Zabar’s, and I overheard an exchange that intrigued me. A middle-aged woman in nondescript, baggy clothes, her hair a combination of layered bohemian chic and I-don’t-care gray — a West Side classic — was talking to another woman, who was younger.

“We’ll go downtown to my place, we’ll have a cup of coffee, and we’ll talk. Later, I’ll put you in a cab. Sound good?”

I composed a silent plea. Take me too. I can’t think of any place I’d rather go than downtown to your place, for a cup of coffee. I felt strongly that this woman had curtains — big silk curtains — and her apartment had a sitting room and a poodle or two sprawled on the rug. Her place had a view of a public garden, and there was primrose in bloom, and maybe a fountain, and people smoking, and other people kissing, and a few in the midst of lovers’ spats, and rain kissed the earth, just there, in that garden. A cab! Is there anything to excite the imagination more than the hailing of a cab after someone unexpectedly asks you over for a cup of coffee? I wanted the younger woman’s problems, whatever had invited the older woman’s concern. The word “downtown” had become a cashmere shawl, one I wanted to be wrapped in immediately.


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The checker put my groceries in the bag. I trudged home, feeling blue. Once again — not at the center of it, not where the action was, the discourse, the problems, the connection. At home, I made myself some coffee, but there were no silk curtains, no poodles, no conspiring or commiseration.

***

A short time later, I traveled south to my dance studio, Steps, which sits in a hub of Upper West Side activity. You’ve got the Beacon Theatre just across Broadway, the Ansonia just south, and next door, Fairway Market, which is a holy pilgrimage in itself. I’ll say just this: Fairway has an entire room devoted to cheese. Also: things you didn’t know you wanted, because you didn’t know they existed. Artichoke paste. Lambrusco vinegar. Garam masala. Chocolate latte balls — $1.25 a bag.

On the elevator at Steps, I witnessed an altercation. A young, paunchy man wearing earphones got on before this other woman and almost held the door for her. I say almost because he held it for a second, then let it go too soon, before she was safely inside, so the door banged into her. She didn’t need a hospital or anything, but there was no question he was in error. The elevator takes approximately three hours to get from the lobby to the third floor — where the classes are — and back. Catching the elevator is therefore a big deal, as is holding the door for that one last person who is desperate not to wait three more hours for the next ride. The woman quietly harrumphed. Message received. Wild-eyed, the paunchy man said, “I HELD THE DOOR FOR YOU.” She did not accept the falsehood. “You did NOT hold the door for me,” she replied. “You let the door SLAM on me.” Enraged, he replied, “I am not talking to you.” “It sure sounds like you are!” she shot back, and he became so angry that I prayed the elevator was almost at the third floor. I didn’t fear for her safety, but maybe a little I did. When she walked off the elevator, he cursed her. I don’t mean he used foul language, I mean he cast a hex. Sarcastically. “Hope your tendus aren’t all sickled!” he said.

You don’t want to get caught sickling your tendus.

Performing arts shade! (A tendus becomes sickled when you point your foot in the wrong direction, which is a gross dance error, the equivalent of a social gaffe while interacting with, say, the queen of England. You don’t want to get caught sickling your tendus.) All at once, I felt kinship with both the aggressor and the victim in this elevator standoff. I don’t know exactly what defines New Yorkers, but it has something to do with our ability to keep the rhythm of these altercations without missing a beat, like children playing double Dutch.

***

In the sunshine of Studio II, a motley collection of dancers was warming up for the 10 a.m. ballet class. The teacher is tall and blond and haughty — so imperious her instruction borders on camp. She speaks with a British-implied accent and adorns her daily performance with an array of hairstyles and lipsticks. Her smile is lopsided and sudden, just enough to alert us that her condescension is mostly for show. She has a fabulous accompanist and sometimes there are 100 people taking class. It’s ballet with a cabaret atmosphere, and I suspect people love this teacher because she makes them feel like party guests. The spectrum of humanity attends. At the barre, one sees principal dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, so immaculately sculpted and graceful that they strike one as circus performers or possibly even figments of the imagination. Also at the barre: an elderly woman in a wig who carries her ballet shoes in a plastic bag from the liquor store.

We are all freaks in this room — spiritual cousins of sorts, worshipping at the same church. Here we find rapport and community, gossip and disdain. The mighty sylphs chat with the old loons, and the rest of us try to figure out where on this spectrum we fall. Everyone here is drawn to ballet as a monk is drawn to prayer, and this commonality surpasses — if only in this hour and a half — our jagged differences in achievement.

Everyone here is drawn to ballet as a monk is drawn to prayer, and this commonality surpasses — if only in this hour and a half — our jagged differences in achievement.

A tiny woman stood behind me at the barre. She smiled and said hello. She knew me from the playground I frequent with my child. How was life? How was school? What grade was my daughter in now? Good. OK. Second. Her girls were fine, she said, except for one thing. What was that? I asked. They were both enrolled at the School of American Ballet (S.A.B., as it’s known around here), and they weren’t happy. The School of American Ballet is a “feeder school” for New York City Ballet, which, for many people, is the pinnacle of the art, the highest goal, the shiniest of prestigious places. It’s also known for being a hotbed of sexism, not to mention a place keen on anorexia as a way of life. Still — New York City Ballet! My daughter takes class at another, saner place, but even at 7, she’s heard of S.A.B. It’s where the perfectly turned-out, smooth-bunned, pearl-earring-bedecked baby giraffes are going when they make a sharp turn and head into Lincoln Center. I researched when the annual audition day was — sometime in early spring. I don’t know what made me do it, except of course I do: At the center of New York City’s ineffable glory are cosmic sources of radiation — Times Square, the Chrysler Building, the grandiose arrangements of limelight hydrangeas in the main hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the School of American Ballet.

“Maybe we should go, just to see what the school looks like, Mommy,” Lydia said. “But what if you get in?” I asked. “I won’t go,” she said. “But how could you say no to S.A.B?” I asked. Then we both laughed and immediately remembered that neither of us wanted her at S.A.B. Mostly we remembered that. The other part of us remembered the tiny angels in the second act of the New York City Ballet Balanchine Nutcracker. They hold candles and wear floor-skimming wire hoop skirts, and they shuffle so rapidly across the stage that they create the illusion of floating. Lydia and I were given tickets to the dress rehearsal last year, and at the time, Lydia leaned over the balcony and said, “I want to skim the floor in a hoopskirt.” But only kids who go to S.A.B. can be angels in the New York City Ballet Nutcracker.

Lydia’s own dance school is not far from Lincoln Center. One day I saw a dancer departing the school and rounding the corner. As she passed under the Leonard Bernstein Way street sign, I caught sight of her T-shirt, which read Sing out, Louise, and I promptly fell over and died. This is a line from the Broadway show Gypsy, which has lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who for theater folk sits at the tippy top of Mount Olympus, with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter flanking him. What was great about the shirt was the shorthand — if you love the shirt, you and the wearer can be best friends. You can hug on the spot without formal introduction. (An exception to the no-eye-contact rule generally in play on the NYC streets.) I decided to get one of the shirts for Lydia for Christmas. (Gypsy is about the mother of all stage mothers. Whenever Lydia thinks I am getting too involved in her life, she pointedly whispers, “Sing out, Louise.” I immediately clam up. Smart kid.)

Greta is the biggest personality of the dance moms at Lydia’s school. She is tall and skinny — a gazelle in human form. She is a dancer herself, and her daughter, who takes jazz at Lydia’s school, studies ballet at — wait for it — S.A.B. From Greta, we get all the dirt: who’s dating whom and who’s fighting whom and which former artistic directors are showing up just before curtain to torment the dancers backstage (Peter Martins). She tells us inside things. For example, New York City Ballet dancers aren’t allowed to wear their stage makeup outside the theater, they have to wash it off before they go home. The makeup is copyrighted or licensed or something. It’s in their contracts. Greta makes me feel both closer to and farther from the action. She gives me the same feeling that the weekly arrival of our New Yorker magazine gives me — knowledge without inclusion; glamour, but not mine. I sometimes think The New Yorker exists exclusively to evoke this feeling.

***

In the late afternoon, I had an unpleasant errand — my yearly mammogram. I was headed downtown on the Second Avenue bus, when suddenly, it was nearly black outside; raindrops scattered on the windows like bullets. An omen. Weill Cornell Imaging is in a dreary medical tower on York Avenue. This neighborhood depresses me. If the earth were flat, and you walked to the edge of it, you’d be on York Avenue. It is just so far from anything that feels life-affirming. New York City’s heartbeat can best be felt on the West Side, pulsing through an artery that runs south through Times Square and north past Carnegie Hall, all the way up to the Metropolitan Opera House at 65th. Meanwhile, York Avenue is as far east as you can get without falling into the East River; it’s like a freezing cold finger — no blood flow.

She gives me the same feeling that the weekly arrival of our New Yorker magazine gives me — knowledge without inclusion; glamour, but not mine.

For a mammogram, you go to the ninth floor. This is Breast Land, where every staff member has been schooled in keeping people calm. When you can, please sign here, and How are you doing today? and Would you care for a chocolate or a bottle of water? You stumble along, get your locker, wipe off your deodorant, put a pink robe on, and breathe deeply along the hallway to the next waiting room, where you sit with the other naked-but-for-their-pink-robe ladies and stare out the window at the 59th Street Bridge, which from this close-up looks like a metal brontosaurus. This is the same bridge that Woody Allen lifted to iconic grandeur in the movie Manhattan, but when you look at it from Weill Cornell, amid the steam rising from the manholes on York and the sparse sidewalks around it, it just looks like an angry brontosaurus. Then the breast people call your name and your heart beats faster. A technician in pink scrubs leads you into the next little room, the one with the machines, and asks how your day is going, and rubs you down with freezing gel for an ultrasound, or covers your nipples for a mammogram.

Remember how I said New York is best described as a Yiddish short story? (Are there short stories in Yiddish? I feel that my people tend to run long.) What happened next could really happen anywhere, but somehow, it managed to be nutty in a way I ascribe to this city. You need to know a detail about me first. Two years ago I had a rib removed. It was the third rib, it was under my left breast, and it grew this tumor called a hemangioma — the same as those little strawberries you see on some newborns’ heads. The only way to make it stop growing was to take it out.

“The tumor has fractured your rib,” the thoracic surgeon told me. He prodded me in the chest with his forefinger. “Doesn’t that hurt?” He prodded again. “That has to hurt.” I hadn’t noticed. I had a 4-year-old. I was tired. The jabs, however, got my attention. “Now it hurts,” I said, ever the people pleaser. “’Course it does,” replied the surgeon.

So he took the whole rib, and in order to make my breast sit up properly, he put in a fake rib. The fancy term is “chest wall repair,” but no one outside medicine has ever heard of the “chest wall” so I call it a “fake rib.” A few months after that, I had my first mammogram. If you have not experienced a mammogram, picture a knife spreading a pat of butter across a piece of toast. But really, really hard. Or, as the tech put it, “Your breast is round and the machine is flat.” Or, just imagine a pain so intense that you find yourself clutching the sides of a cold metal machine as tears roll down your cheeks and your soul hovers above your body and everyone prays for the end. After that, I went home. A day later, my fancy “chest wall repair” broke. My fake rib detached from its fake bone anchor and descended into the void of my chest, causing an alarming bubble of air to rise up through my breast like a balloon every time I inhaled. So I had to do the thoracic surgery again. The second time, the surgeon put in Gortex, which he said he hoped would be more durable. Hoped? Back to yesterday.

If you have not experienced a mammogram, picture a knife spreading a pat of butter across a piece of toast. But really, really hard.

I reminded the technician in pink scrubs that I didn’t want my left breast scanned, on account of how the last mammogram broke my fake rib. It had been discussed already, I told her. Pre-arranged, all in my file, I told her. I was just reminding her. She was silent. So I said, “We’ll skip the left, OK? We’ll just do the right.” I stopped talking then, because she was reading my file with concern.

“We can’t screen one breast on a two-breast prescription,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked. “The right breast is one of the two breasts, right?”

“Doctors don’t like it when we change their orders,” she said. “If you want to scan the one, you have to scan the other.”

“But it was pre-arranged,” I croaked.

“She sent a two-breast prescription.”

“She didn’t mean to,” I argued.

“She must have forgotten.”

I began to sweat and wheeze. (If you have never had a rib crushed by a mammogram, you’ll have to trust me, once is enough.) She went to get her supervisor. The supervisor came in to tell me that they could not screen one breast on a two-breast prescription. We were getting nowhere. But then she said that a crushed rib was better than missing a malignant cell and so both breasts had to be scanned anyway. This made sense, and I began to imagine a cycle in which every year I put in a new rib after crushing the last one in the mammogram machine. The room started to tilt as I pondered my choice. The supervisor then said they did not wish to traumatize me, they wished only to make sure I was healthy. I think by then they realized that “healthy” was not, at this particular moment, the right word for me. I was floundering, somewhere near total incapacitation. It was now 6:30 in the evening. The office had begun to clear out. I could hear people saying “good night” and closing desk drawers. I was all that stood between the supervisor and the end of her day. I was alone with her — her and the machine — at the edge of the world, a brontosaurus roaring just beyond the window, black rain engulfing the medical tower.

“I can’t do the left breast,” I muttered, mostly to the wall. I cried. Tears ran. I wheezed again, then hiccuped, then I laughed. I told them not to worry, it was just the pink scrubs, the pasties, the fake rib, the large dinosaur, the end of the world. It was too much, you know? They nodded. They knew.

“We won’t press hard,” the supervisor said. She kept up her patter as she smoothed my pasties and squeezed my breasts into the flattening device, as though coaxing me into a straitjacket. They scanned both breasts. After, they gave me a Hershey’s kiss and a bottle of water.

***

Gusts of wind swept me up First Avenue. I joined the wet commuters on line for the 67th Street crosstown. I was full mammogram chic by now: sweaty, smelly, hair stringy and askew, rivulets of mascara pooling in the tiny lines near my eyes. I felt about as far from the ineffable radiance of the city as possible. I took out my phone to text Courtney, the mother of a little girl in Lydia’s class. She was watching Lydia, and I wanted to tell her that I was on my way back to the West Side.

“How was it?” she asked. (Courtney has had mammograms.)

“A brontosaurus tried to kill me,” I replied.

“Meet us at Santa Fe,” she wrote. “71st and Columbus.”

“‘I’ll get you a margarita,” she added. (Santa Fe has the largest, iciest frozen margaritas in existence.)

Twenty minutes later, I stood around the corner from the restaurant, waiting for Courtney and the girls. A spotlight illuminated a white satin pantsuit hanging in the window of a Columbus Avenue boutique. It was a one-piece, long-sleeved with a plunging lapel. It looked like a Star Trek uniform, but one that you’d wear to the Grammys. I stared at it for a long time, even as the storm threatened to drown me. The hem of my ancient linen pants was torn; I’d long since chewed off my lipstick. Hunger tore at me. I felt faded and chalky, as if my human color had been washed off by the rain. I wondered who was going to buy that suit. Where would she wear it? Probably, she owned Hunter rain boots and had a poodle. Maybe a greyhound. Her building definitely allowed dogs — she would never have moved there otherwise.

Courtney and the girls arrived and we walked into Santa Fe. The host led us to a booth. The girls told me about feeding the turtles in Central Park. Then there was the eating of french fries, and telling the kids to speak more quietly, and restaurant crayons — four to a set, in a tiny cardboard box. Then the married couple at the next table interrupted our conversation.

“Sorry,” the wife said. We don’t mean to keep staring, but there is a dog right outside the restaurant staring in.”

Sure enough, there was — a puppy with big black eyes and a soaking coat. He was tied to a post outside, the very definition of forlorn.

“He belongs to that woman at the bar,” the wife continued. “Poor dog!”

Courtney, who is about seven feet tall with a waterfall of honey blonde hair and a model’s face to match, stood up abruptly, and with a sort of movie star whoosh, gathered her jacket and rushed outside, the girls on her heels. They clumped around the little waif, patting and stroking and soothing. A few minutes later they returned to the table, where I’d remained, transfixed.

“I think the dog’s owner has been adequately shamed now!” Courtney said, as the restaurant gaped at the ill-fated dog. Pregnant women can’t get seats on the bus, pedestrians will knock over a person on crutches, but New Yorkers draw the line at wet dogs peering into restaurants. Sure enough, the embarrassed owner stood up from her spot at the bar, paid the bill, and went out to tend to her shriveled canine, even as she rolled her eyes at the collective presumptuousness that had forced her hand. It was like when someone scurries up or down the subway stairs on the left-hand side. This, with good reason, is not allowed in New York City. One travels up or down on the right-hand side in order to avoid head-on collisions and bodily harm. If a person — often a tourist — wanders to the left, a large crowd will force him to the right in a collective act of censure. For the greater good, of course.

Pregnant women can’t get seats on the bus, pedestrians will knock over a person on crutches, but New Yorkers draw the line at wet dogs peering into restaurants.

In the restaurant, surrounded by dog lovers and people-shamers and candlelight, the stars moved suddenly into position. Swaddled by the rhythms of an untameable city and its undomesticated regulars, the patrons of Santa Fe seemed a Hirschfeld tableau come to life. I was — for a flicker of a second — inside the city’s ineffable glow. I absorbed the warmth totally, like a cat stretching in a pool of sunlight. It was not just the food for a hungry stomach, it was not just the soundtrack of voices mixing with the flickering candlelight, it was not just the hasty alliance of animal lovers doling out opprobrium, nor the pleasurable flush of communal agreement spiked with the recognition of our tyranny and hubris. It was all of those things, yes, but it was also something more, something capturable only by some vestigial sensory organ as yet undiscovered by anatomists. Around me, the city’s plot lines merged into one great circular lane, and inside me, the five senses (and the vestigial organ) arranged themselves in symbiotic formation to produce one thing: joy. I felt mysteriously part of the city’s narrative in some way I hadn’t been a moment before. It was perfect. Then I blinked, and it was gone.

I read once that there is something called “archaic understanding” — something that children have more of than adults. We lose it gradually, but it returns in streaks of primitive insight. An understanding of things in their deepest, mythic sense. Intuition — as brief and bright as a flash of lightning.

We walked home under lamplight glowing in the mist. Some piano music tinkled out of an apartment on 71st. Perhaps it was a party somewhere nearby. The streetlights mixed with the rain like watercolors, and we pushed on, blood cells pulsing through the mighty organism. The sound of the piano retreated — into some corner, behind a curtain, up the stairs in an alley one street over.

There is a line in Peter Pan about Mrs. Darling, and it goes like this: “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover, there is always one more; and her sweet, mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right hand corner.”

Like Mrs. Darling, this city is defined by something it will not relinquish. This something seems to be in plain sight just often enough to keep us charged in its pursuit. We race along the city’s streets, we chat and disperse and we hurry on again. Sometimes we stall in the midst of an eddy, looking up, just to spot it — the city’s kiss. Then it is time to retreat, to go home and heat the pan for dinner, linger over drinks, wonder what comes next — all the while secure in the knowledge that tomorrow, we’ll make another play for it — that one lovely kiss that shapes our days — because it will never be ours.

* * *

Leslie Kendall Dye is a writer and actress in New York City. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Vela, Electric Literature, SELF, The LA Review of Books, and others. She is at work on a memoir about mothers, daughters, drugs, and show business.

* * *

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

House Un-American

Bettmann / Getty, House photo courtesy of Author, Collage by Homestead

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | June 2019 | 24 minutes (6,524 words)

 

They say you can’t go home again, but I never stop trying. Sometimes I conjure the scent of jacaranda trees mixed with swimming pool chlorine, the sweet-then-sour first bite of kumquats, the faces of the little foxes in the bushes, the gleam of their eyes in the dark. The longer I live outside of Los Angeles, the more its mysteries call to me, as though the city itself were a piece of unfinished business. Maybe “unfinished business” is the very definition of home.

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Talking to Big Baby

Getty / Flickr CC / Photo illustration by Longreads

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | November 2018 | 10 minutes (2,966 words)

 

Amazingly, the fall weather arrives on the first day of September this year. It is not yet Labor Day, but it’s chilly on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The angle of the light has changed; last week it was still the light of late August: warm and glowing. Now it is a sharper ray, a crisper beam that strikes the gum-stained pavement that rolls beneath my daughter Lydia’s scooter.

We are on the way to the playground, but I have to get a jacket hemmed, so we stop at the dry cleaner, where my daughter dances and chats with herself in the mirror, and the tailor, haloed in perfume, remarks on how cheerful she is.

Sometimes she is,” I say, deploying the weary tone parents use to field remarks about their good fortune — the one that straddles pride and modesty and grace while assuring people that in raising our children we do endure a measure of strife.

There is a jar of Tootsie Rolls on the counter. Lydia asks for one, but it’s much too early in the day for candy. We bargain, and I tell her she can have one “later.” She pockets her treasure and we exit the cleaners.

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City on a Hill

Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | June 2018 | 11 minutes 2,944 words)

 

At the top of Riverdale, at the top of the Bronx, there is a city on a hill. The city exists within a single building; there are single rooms with no locks, each with a bed, a dresser, and — if the resident’s family provides one — a television set with which to while away the hours. Time is measured by the same clock as it is in other cities, but here it curves and collapses, compresses yet languorously stretches. Once a week there is a hairdresser and a manicurist, too. It is lovely — and dreadful. You can visit the citizens here, and you are free to leave when you are ready, if freedom is measured by the movement of one’s feet. My mother lives in this building, which is a nursing home. We signed the contract for her just last month, in what might have been human blood.

The city-building overlooks the Hudson River, which today glimmers silver under a portentous sky. It’s spring by the calendar, but winter has persisted in the Northeast. I trudge west from Riverdale Avenue bundled into my down coat, the wind biting at my neck. I like to pretend that my mother is expecting me.

She has lived there only a few days. I am acquainting myself with the place every time I visit. She lives on one of the dementia floors, the medium security floor, with other people who are social and display a level of intellectual competence that affords them the illusion of freedom — they do not require help from aides with dressing and bathing, for example, and they may choose where to sit at dinner.

She lives on one of the dementia floors, the medium security floor, with other people who are social and display a level of intellectual competence that affords them the illusion of freedom…

There is a code to gain entry to the elevator, and another to make the elevator move. We are asked not to let the residents know these numbers, although this seems to miss the point; no one who lives here could retain the numbers long enough to use them. Still, I take the piece of paper on which the nurse has written the codes and stash it deep in my coat pocket, checking it discreetly before punching in the numbers.

The unit has a hospital floor plan, which casts a gloom over the space, a reminder that this is a ward, not a home. Still, the idea of a central nurses’ station affords some comfort — someone is just down the hall in case of emergency. My mother has one endless emergency here — her own urgent need to leave.

She looks up eagerly when I cross the threshold bearing my weekly gifts — this time, a CD player, some photos to hang, cookies, fresh underwear and socks. Everything she owns must be labeled; dementia-floor residents can be found in each other’s clothing routinely. “You have to have a sense of humor about it,” my mother’s social worker tells me.


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Her room has a river view. I wonder what it’s like not to know which body of water it is that one sees through the glass; not to know that the sun will set over this water because one is facing west; not to know which way the bathroom is or what time it is or how to find the phone; not to remember the combination of numbers that will allow you to reach your children; to know you have children, but not to remember their names.

“It’s so large,” my mother says, as we stroll down the hall, gazing at the paintings on the walls. We take the elevator to the mezzanine, where we can get some food. We walk down another long hall, passing a small pool, a gym, a spa. “Isn’t this nice, Mom?” I ask, and she nods agreeably.

I hear music, an accordion bleating out a melody in a minor key.

Those were the days, my friend
We’d thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d thought we’d never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.

I smile; it is comically, tragically apropos for a nursing home. Still, I guide my mother toward the music, which is both lively and disturbing, as though accompanying the final sequence in a horror film.

We arrive at a small ballroom in which a crowd of mostly wheelchair-bound seniors sit, nodding to the music, enlivened and demonstrating as much to the height of their ability. It reminds me of bar mitzvahs I attended long ago — the wall-to-wall carpeting, the tinny music reverberating in the stale, enclosed space. I turn my head toward the door and notice a bird cage. It’s actually a glass enclosure, in which parakeets and cockatoos chirp and flit from one end to the other.

“Let’s find the café, Mom,” I say, and she replies that she will follow me anywhere.

I direct her out of the ballroom. We walk until at last I see sunlight. They call it the River Cafe; it looks like a bodega. Here we can buy cookies and toiletries and coffee. Booths line a glass wall affording a dazzling view of the water.

“Look at the view!” I have been saying this a lot today, as if the sight of the river were recompense for her confinement.

“Yes, it’s lovely,” she replies, “It’s very nice.”

She is uneasy, asking me constantly if after this tour I will be taking her “out of here.”

“Look at the view!” I have been saying this a lot today, as if the sight of the river were recompense for her confinement.

Yes, I tell her, we are going to my sister’s house, it’s not far at all, we are walking there.

“Thank god,” she says. “ I can’t tell you how happy I was to see you walk in.”

* * *

Almost no new memories imprint; I am struck by the specific details she retains: my entrance into her room, what she felt like at that instant, how desperate she felt just before. Will this crystallized moment be sent down the pipe to long-term memory? Or will she have it only for today?

We buy a cookie then leave the café. On the way to the elevator, a small room set up like a museum alcove catches my eye. Pickles and Egg Cream reads a sign overhead. It’s an exhibit of dioramas in which a woman named Ruby G. Strauss has recreated scenes from her parents’ years on the Lower East Side. I peer into a scene of passengers exiting the subway stop at Broadway and 14th Street, another of Strauss’s grandmother’s garden in summer, wedged between two tenements, a line of clothes drying above children skipping rope and a man in a straw hat reading the paper. There are dozens of little figures holding tiny props: a man drinking wine by a cathedral radio in his parlor, a bride and groom on their wedding day, a grandmother wearing wiry glasses, knitting.

Like the parakeets, the dioramas are too easy a metaphor. Life under glass. Life observed through glass. Life imprisoned within glass walls. I pull my mother out of the alcove. Her eyesight has been failing, so for her the exhibit is a blur.

I punch the code in and the elevator arrives. We emerge on the first floor and exit through the lobby, passing a collection of dolls made in the images of American First Ladies. I can see my mother’s reflection — her long coat and dark hair — in the glass that encases the dolls, moving swiftly and enthusiastically toward the lobby door.

A shock of cold wind hits as it slides open.

“It’s really a nice place,” I say. “In spring all these trees will bloom and they have barbecues in the garden.”

“Yes, I’m so lucky,” my mother says. “Are we leaving now?”

As we walk down the hill toward the guard booth, I think of an Isaac Asimov book I read in my youth. In Caves of Steel, he envisions a futuristic city complex where New York City once stood. It is entirely enclosed, without a drop of fresh air seeping into its midst, contained under metal domes.

The air is so qualitatively different outside the walls of the pavilion in which my mother now lives, which hums with the electrical energy of a well-run hotel. Its seamless wall-to-wall carpet obliterates any hint of nature, the scent of cateria food permeates the first floor corridors, the ring of elevator cars creates a perpetual dinging soundtrack in the lobby.

A siren goes off, as though a dog had jumped a security perimeter. It’s my mother’s electronic bracelet, which they’ve attached to prevent her from wandering off the property. I negotiate our departure without alerting my mother to this indignity.

We proceed eastward on a paved path. Alongside the path runs a tall metal fence that separates us from some tan, patchy grass — the sort that works as visual shorthand for the ravages of winter. I’m breathing better now, as is my mother, who has all morning complained of agitation.

“I was so glad when I saw you in the doorway,” she says again, as we walk into the wind toward Riverdale Avenue. We cross it and as we do, seem to travel through a time portal. The red-brick houses are narrow and built right next to one another; they have small porches, and I see a window sign declaring that We are all made in God’s image. There is a cozy, nostalgic compression to the neighborhood, some sense of Americana that is absent from the busy streets of Manhattan, where I live. I see errant crocuses defying the angry winter wind and a daffodil or two, flags, rusty porch swings, and broken children’s wagons on tiny front yards.

“Where are we going?” my mother asks.

“To your daughter’s house,” I reply. “We’re almost there.”

“That’s right,” my mother says. “I know I have to go back tonight, to the place, but I don’t want to think about it now.” She smiles and plays with the electronic bracelet on her arm, unaware of what it does.

I bring up the river, again, out of habit.

“There’s a beautiful view from your room, Mom,” I say, finding my own smile sinister.

“Yes — ” she starts. “I’m so lucky.”

Another universe unfolds inside my sister’s house. It is organized along the principle of family: children’s bedrooms, toys organized by age appropriateness and size, a kitchen stocked with packaged soups and treats young children like. Still, the wreckage of six children and two dogs is everywhere in evidence: chewed pillows, fights underway, dirty dishes on the table, crayons on the floor. My mother settles on the couch after asking if she can be of any help. She smiles at me, looks around for my sister, asks where the house is. I am not sure how to answer. I tell her it is down the street from where she lives, but this means almost nothing to her. We are supposed to give her something to do, something to occupy her hands and provide her with a sense of her necessity; I have read that all humans need this. Sometimes we do find tasks, but sometimes we lack creativity and tell her she should just relax. She cannot relax; there is nothing relaxing about perpetual confusion. She asks again if she can help. I ask her to pick up the crayons. I find later that she’s put them in the dishwasher.

Noam, who is 7, kisses his grandmother when it’s time for me to walk her back. He looks at her as though in love, and I wish this were all she needed, all anyone needed. I assure her that she will return to this house soon. Right now, it’s time to go. She sighs; I hear a whistle in her breath that betrays more than passing reluctance.

The clouds have drowned in the ink of a night sky; I sing a familiar tune and hold my mother’s hand as we walk back to the nursing home. I assure her I’ll be back soon. It jangles my heart, this wrongness, this dropping off, this dislocation of a family member, the exile imposed by decline. The lobby murmurs with electricity, the First Lady dolls stare expectantly from behind their glass.

It jangles my heart, this wrongness, this dropping off, this dislocation of a family member, the exile imposed by decline.

I punch in the code and we ascend in silence to the second floor. My mother suddenly squeezes my hand and tells me she loves me.

The air in here is stale as ever. Both of us feel the panic return.

I have an impulse to seize my mother’s arm and run. I want to bring her home and put her in bed and sing to her until she falls asleep. Instead, I pick out a nightgown and pat her head. She tries not to cry.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Mom,” I offer.

“Will you?” she asks.

And I retreat — from her, from her pain, from mine, from the city on the hill.

I punch in the code and the humming box takes me down. First floor. Past the First Ladies. Out into the night air. Onto the BXM2 bus, which will carry me home to Manhattan.

* * *

Reality is a a series of universes with membranes loose and undulating. Where does one end and the other begin? Is there a wall between the perceptions of the “demented” and the rest of us, who retain enough memory to support a more continuous vision of our histories, our days, to support a logic dependent on past and future? Or is it more a window, or more alarming yet, a swinging door?

All realities exist near porous borders — for example, my mind has flown into fantasy as I mentally retrace in words the cavernous, tiny universe of my mother’s nursing home complex. I’ve fashioned it into a cave of steel, in the image of another reality, stolen from within the pages of fiction. The path between it and my sister’s house is now a time machine of my own construction, my sister’s street is a world built of images I see in the past of a country in a time before I was born. My mother merely wants to know whose house we are visiting; her “sane” daughter, her guardian, is dreaming of the way in which streets, houses, concrete walkways, and riverside high-rise complexes splinter and spiderweb outward into separate communities from the moment humans began interacting with time. Which of the two of us, my mother or I, is more connected to reality as we define it as an everyday convenience? Surely my mother’s questions are more practical, more connected to pragmatic concerns, than mine, which are based on hallucinatory impressions of time and space. I have fallen somewhere on this visit, stumbled and slipped into fantasy, allowed the home that keeps my mother safe to drive me close to madness. I am not sure where anything begins or ends anymore, not sure that anything does.

The bus is turning off the Major Deegan Expressway now, it rolls steadily down Fifth Avenue. The trees on either side, illuminated by a flush of light from a streetlamp, are bare and white and wild-limbed against the black sky. They incline toward the street, forming an archway under which we sail. There’s the time portal again, coming into view: the buildings lining the avenue, stately and majestic, are alive with the ghosts of the 19th century, one can see the horses and carriages clopping underneath the arboreal canopy, one can smell the pipe smoke and the dirt, see the women in full skirts hurrying across this boulevard two centuries ago.

How easy it is to slip into reverie, to slip across the boundary from one reality to the other, one fancy to the next, especially in this city. New York is known for its boundaries between rich and poor, but also for the suddenness with which the neighborhoods change. Swank lobbies with doormen line one block, graffiti-worn bodegas and chain link fences line the next. This is how fast Madison Avenue shifts between 94th and 96th Street.

My mother is confined in her cave of steel, trapped within the boundaries of her forgetfulness. I am trapped in my own universe of half dreams and meditations. Her worries are immediate and connected to the hardness of her reality, mine are existential, free to float philosophically above her everyday concerns.

We walk the halls of her city on the hill together, unavailable to each other, trapped under different kinds of glass.

My bus drops me at my West Side stop; I exit to the sight of hot dog carts and the scent of park-bench smokers, to the music of barking dogs and basketballs bouncing. Though now walking a familiar route home, the sensation of wandering does not abate. Maybe it is merely the tableaux of street life shifting and sliding past that evokes my dizzy sense of dislocation. I think it is something more, though — I walk as if chased by the wind, or worse. I slow down, speed up, ascend the stairs to my apartment; still I am pursued. I go to bed and dream of the city on the hill. It is now a castle in which old people turn young, wrinkles are smoothed into satin flesh, the people dance and flick their skirts and sing.

We walk the halls of her city on the hill together, unavailable to each other, trapped under different kinds of glass.

A river runs past this castle, and boats too, in which the people make their escape. I do not see which boat my mother takes, or who ferries it, but when I return for our next visit she is not waiting on her bed for me, gazing at an unknown vista. I am so very glad — when I arrive at her threshold — that this time I do not see her there. She has crossed the perimeter between her world and my reverie, traversed the undulating boundary between reality and fancy, between mother and daughter, between dementia and freedom.

But this — this is only in my dream.

* * *

Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress and freelance writer based in New York City.

* * *

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Illustrator: Katie Kosma

It Isn’t That Shocking

Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | May 2018 | 22 minutes (6,055 words)

 

It is a truth not nearly enough disseminated — despite all the discussion about depression and the recourses for those who suffer from it — that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can work. I had it six times in the basement of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City in 2003 when I was 27 years old.

I’d awakened the morning before my first treatment in my mother’s apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. I remember staring into the mirror, mute. My mother said: “You look haunted.” What was my mother seeing? I remember seeing “it” too. My face was cradled in my hands, as though they held up its sagging contents. I looked captive, as though I were staring from behind prison bars.

For the previous six months, I had been unresponsive to a host of psychotropic drugs called in as a breakwater against a tidal wave of morbid depression. Who had I been? The details: I was a college graduate who had been a child actor. I was a chatty and expressive person, prone to melancholy moods but capable of romantic enthusiasm for life. I had been, simply, a human being, before illness descended and set off deterioration. Now, I was a clump of raw nerve endings.

It’s an old story. Much like prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, depression, I often think, is the world’s oldest ailment. But old or not, it is my story too.

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The Problem of Pain

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad, with code forked from Munchen He.

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | November 2017 | 10 minutes (2,770 words)

The onset of a southern California rainstorm, as seen from the back seat of my mother’s Toyota Corolla: A single raindrop lands with the sound of a bullet against an armored car. A splash across the windshield — heart stopping. As the sky shifts from pearl gray to dense slate, the fusillade comes faster, staccato, rapid fire. The car is engulfed in water, great pooling streams slide across the windshield; the wipers can barely keep up. The rainwater mixes with oil drops on the road — a hazardous blend: The tires struggle to gain traction and the car swerves on the suddenly slick pavement.

I awake tonight to a first bullet in such a cascade, but it is not rain.

It is pain.

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