I got your photos. Didn't help a bit. You're still an enigma. One snapshot to the next you look so different I wouldn't even peg you as sisters much less the same woman. How is that?
So. I told you I'd send you my two different pictures, my conundrum, in answer to yours. Here they are. First, me as a bride. Unbelievable...me a bride. Though I'm not quite bridal am I? I don't know who I was that day but I do know I did love D. Loved him passionately. I can't look at our twined fingers, our tight clasped hands without a sharp crack. a jagged pain. I didn't deceive him. I didn't decieve myself. There was no concious attempt to hide. I didn't experience the deception but it happened nonetheless.
One week I was asking myself these questions. Can I possibly be? Could that be? Could that be me? I barely had a word for the concept. Not lesbian. I must have thought...homosexual. I remember feeling vague; the questions vaporous. My head, specifically, muffled, as if wrapped round twice in a springy, soft density like a grey, angora scarf. A cushioned blindfold. Like hearing sounds in the fog, I couldn't be sure from which direction the questions came, whether they had substance. I did make inquiry but the women I met were so sharp and sure...this was the early 70's...I didn't see anyone like me among them. So I decided it couldn't be. After all, how likely was it that I, of all people, could be queer? Most unlikely. Seemingly, the next week I was in love with a man. Don't assume a ruse. Don't assume a dodge. I truly fell in love. I wanted to marry this man. So I got married at twenty two.
I stopped drawing, stopped making things, stopped writing. All rebellion died. I went inert to the core. I just gave up. I succumbed and sank beneath the surface of the waves...a familiar feeling. I didn't see it at the time. It was just so easy to fall asleep because everything had been decided. That was it. The next fifteen years I was dead from the neck up and dead from the neck down. I remember very little. Thirteen years in David was born and he became the catalyst for the rest of my life. I became his mother and understood in a way I hadn't before how fragile children are. Each kid is no more than another flick of life in the cloud but every one begins, nonetheless, a unique and justifiable miracle. I really never knew that.
One day when he was about a year old, David dropped a spoon in front of Grandpa. My father leaned forward and he said, "Don't be so goddam stupid! What are you good for?" And when David started to cry threatened to give him a real reason to scream. The defiance of tears infuriated him. "Don't you cry! Don't you cry!" in a voice as heavy and menacing as a bar of red, hot iron, his hand pulled back ready to slap. And I flared like a rocket and got my kid the hell out of there.
Actually, this scene was repeated several times till one day I was riding in the car and something odd happened. The neccessesities of motherhood had forced me, finally, to deal with my agoraphobia and fear of driving. I was completing a turn, letting the wheel spin under my hands when a phrase...master of deceit...master of deceit...master of deceit...shot from nowhere and started pulsing in my head and burning in my chest. Insidious, it wouldn't go away. I didn't know what it meant. Within days, like someone was holding a gun to my head I had to make something to go with the phrase, the title. I can't describe the compulsion except to say it was like someone from behind had me by the scruff of the neck and was walking me forward hard. Their bony kneecaps pushing into the back of my soft, unwilling ones. A hot, heavy body, hard up against my back, weighing me forward. I had to pick up scissors and cut the silhouette of a body out of cloth. Freehand, life size. With no planning, no drawing. With no thought, for no reason. I didn't want to do it. It was painful. I didn't know how to make images anymore if I ever did. But I couldn't dodge it. Okay. I did it. Done. And - bang - next I had to draw my father's head. Worse yet. Worse yet. How can you draw with eyes shut? How can you make a likeness and evade eyes that paralyze, flesh that hangs like meat, mouth about to spill? With eyes half closed, open just enough to follow the pencil lines. Using my pencil like a long stick to poke a bad nest I drew him and drew him, over and over, over and over always ready to step back at any moment. I drew him so hard that his image was imprinted on to my white kitchen table and David, toddling by said, "Grandpa!' Repulsed and jubilant, the mix of emotion scared the hell out of me.
So the elements of a piece began to come together. Very little was conciously done. It was worked out blind, pushed and pressed by something within. For a long time the only colors I could use were red and black. Colors of anger and revenge. I was actively, ambitiously, hugely angry. I hauled him out of the cellar and pinned him to the wall. Literally. With needles, scissors, pins and a very sharp pen I humiliated and hurt him. That I was very aware of.
The thing was put away and taken out again repeatedly over the next three years. Getting bigger, more complex, never finished. When I worked, I worked in a vacuum. There were no words. There were no sounds. I hardly saw. I led with my burning chest and my closed throat. I'd get so far and look up...feelings would coalesce into familiar phrases...phrases I'd always known and spoken but not felt...but felt now. Felt with a kind of wonder and disbelieving belief. I'd pick up these strings of words and handle them curiously. Hold them up against me and quick look in the mirror and scare myself and the fog would roll in for a few more months till the compulsion to complete resurfaced.
At some point I got brave and brought what I'd done so far to show an artist friend. I remember feeling naked and sick to my stomach as she and her drop in guest stared at it. That's me up there. Don't you get it? Please get it. Please don't get it. Understand but don't know too much. Everybody has a hard luck story. Everybody's been abused. Everybody has an excuse. I'm not complaining. I swear. I'm just trying to figure it out. I'd tacked myself like a slug to a wall. All soft belly. Like a whore. All wide open legs. Their comments made me reel. This is good. This is worth something. Go finish it. This should be finished. It's good. It's disturbing. Finish it. I got in my car and promptly got lost. Couldn't find the highway to go home. Couldn't find the right way through the pound and the blur of exposure and elation till I stumbled past a drugstore and went in and bought a bag of candy and sat in the parking lot and let sugar run through my veins for about an hour till I was drugged enough to find my way back. No tolerance for pain. No tolerance for pleasure. Gotta run and hide.
So I worked it. At some point the drapery was added. Curtains swinging hard apart like someone was being thrust out onto a stage. Out you go goddammit! Like the bony knees walking me from behind I was shoving him forward hard. Fast hard push with both hands. You almost killed me. Someone's gonna know. I'd reach a pinnacle of feeling, feeling would spiral to a pinhole of fury and then I'd slide down and away again. Faces drawn years ago crept in. One, I recognized, after the fact, as my grandmother's. Like a reflection in the bowl of a spoon or the side of a toaster she'd emerged automatically, and entered the piece as much a testament to the meaness she rained down on me as the cruelty she'd drowned him in. She was his nightmare parent. Worse than mine. I could feel twinges of empathy. More colors came. Tinctures of green and purple. That at the end I could stand to add yellow, my favorite color, without feeling it would be defiled or endangered, that it could lie next to the rage of red and black and the bruise of green and purple, was proof the enormousness of feeling had shifted and grown quieter. He died somewhere midpoint. I wasn't sad, just relieved. I still couldn't forgive him. He wielded terror. Swung it like a club you need two hands to raise. What he did was willful, self indulgent, cruel. He inflicted emotional and physical rape. But I was less fog bound, bigger, smarter, less angry.
So the piece was successfull emotionally. To a lesser extent artistically but good enough to be juried into several museum shows. And the hard three year process was an education in how to make images again. The final composition was simple but the fruit of many incarnations. I'd been very busy for three years. I thought I understood why I had to make the thing but I was still too afraid to look at it dead on. It was still a matter of skidding glances.
One day, a long time later, about a year after I came out, I felt like looking at it. I never understood why I'd been compelled to pair the father's head with the grotesque body in quite the way I had. Didn't want to think about it. Now it hit me. The body was really weightless, dimensionless, a shadow. The picture I sent you doesn't show it but it's sheer, cut from black organza. See through. No solidity. Flat. No volume. It's boneless. Spineless. The wrists are flacid, incapable of rigor. Certainly the ankles are weak little things unable to support weight much less move forward. The whole body dangles, floats like a monsterous wraith from the father's head. Mute and drained of power. Hulkingly, undeniably present. But absent.
I saw the head was a mean caricature because that's what he had reduced himself to. He was three dimensional enough but cooked by the sear of some awful shame till he was a repellent reduction. I had let him take up occupancy, perch on my shoulders somehow. If my body was a battleground I'd been a collaborator. I'd looked the other way. I was off making pretend stories. But someone had stayed behind. I hadn't let him totally seize the territory. Somebody was rebellious enough to spit his image back in his face. The irony that I'd drawn the head in indelible ink was not lost on me.
The stage, the swinging drapery were easy enough to read. I'd thought it was only my father being thrust forward but of course it was me too. The thing was a self portrait after all and I'd always known it. It was a precis of the process I'd been forced to begin when my son was born. Outing myself in every way. Out of inertia, out of the house, out of the fears, out of the fog. If all the world's a stage...face the music and dance...and all that jazz.
The stuffed hands along the top and side were the last element to be added. My own hands, traced, cut from fabric and made dimensional. If the body was still without voice at least the hands had been inhabited sufficient to creep forward from behind and do the image making that would rouse the rest and leave a map to be deciphered later. And I suddenly saw them as a humorous signature of sorts, as well. We did this. We were here. The hands. When I made this piece it was a process, visceral and subterranean and that was the good of it. Coming back and reading it several years later the lesson was in the symbolism.
Without concious thought I'd made a picture of a bad bargain struck very early on. I'll empty myself of myself. I'll replace my voice with yours and so learn never to trust myself again. I'll flatten and weaken and dissapear. Just let me survive. Does this sound like I'm blaming him? Well, of course I am. He could have gotten help or stayed away. I didn't do it to my kid. A terrifying, terrified man. By day he roared with shame. At night he howled like a siren with what must have been horrible nightmares he wasn't aware of, couldn't wake up from. I don't know. Maybe he'd bound himself so tightly his circle of vision didn't extend to me. I think that must be true. I wasn't a separate human being. I was his daughter. My mother says he loved me. One day I showed her the completed piece. The Master of Deceit. In retrospect I see it was a small taste of what coming out to her as a queer would be. I was afraid to. What would she say? Would she be furious? Would she annihilate me with denial? She looked at it. I watched her blandly take it in. Oh that's your father isn't it. And that was it. No question. No comment. And if I needed it, that was my final reality test. Both blithe and blind she accepted it as a true portait.
And here's the irony. After he died I found he'd been in the closet. Pulled a file cabinet away from the wall and things tumbled out. A file cabinet slid tight against the back wall of his walk in closet, hidden behind his carefully hung row of tweed jackets, the precisely spaced shirts, his professor drag, his costume of respectability still hanging neatly after fifteen years of retirement. His odor of cologne and unwashed body, a miasma I had to cut through to reach the back wall just as I had to thrust the clothes apart, set the hangers jangling. How did I know to push hard apart to get to the back wall and wrench the file away? How did I know to do that? Why wasn't I surprised by the magazines, the pictures, the books? Homoerotic tittilation packaged as sociological treatises on either the myth or scourge of male homosexuality. Cheap paperbacks marked thirty five cents. Ugly, lurid, shameful covers. I knew they'd been found second hand in the basements of bookstores reeking of mildew and dust. I spent hours in those bookstores with my father. The names of flowers and a passion for books the two things of any value he ever shared with me and I recognized those books. And knowing my father I didn't have to open the books to know the pages would be full of slashed underlinings, vehement exclamations and denials in the margins. Without ever looking directly at my father I knew him very well. The sound of him, the smell of him, the weight of him. His counterfeit. His terror and blindness. The fear he fought back late at night alone in his airless, overheated, crammed to the ceiling with books study. A myopic man in a small pool of light using his pencil to wage the debate, to fight the war of shame in the margins of his books. To push back desire. To master his world. To deny, deny, deny. So I wasn't surprised. I'd seen those books before, seen them and knew about my father. His secret never surprised me. I always knew it and always forgot it.
So if that's the irony here's the really queer part. Yes, I know. With the discovery of his cache I knew I was queer too. Knew it as I stooped to pick up the brittle-spined paperbacks, the wrinkled magazines, the pages and pages of his handwriting too unclean to read. Knew it as I boxed them for disposal and then promptly forgot again as I carried them out to the trash. I always remembered what I'd found that day but for two years I forgot the film of knowledge that had come to me in that room. An unquestioning, uncurious knowledge that settled on me like dust and then promptly blew away when I walked out. It took a late night drive back from the Cape, an intense retelling of this story to a new friend for this last piece to just come back to me. I thought when I came out I'd reclaimed everything there was to know. I thought the closet was empty, the shelves cleared, the floor swept but no. I'd had fifteen minutes of knowledge about myself. Wore it like a small box hung over my head and then I'd forgotten again until the time came when I finally came out and didn't forget for good. I sound like Sybil don't I. Like some fugueing multiple but you know I'm not. I'm always me. I function. I just can forget things, lose things inside. Know and not know and not know I know. Skilled at deception. Yes, a master of deception.
I didn't come out for love of a woman. I came out because it was the last thing left to be unpacked. When I came out, finally, and all of a piece, burst out in the space of a day, my body was reclaimed, simultaneously and with vehemence. I knew the truth of the whole startling and surreal experience because I felt it in my body not my brain. It was the oddest sense of deja vu but on the scale of a lifetime. The most peculiar prickle of known but not known. It could not be denied. No longer dead from the neck up, dead from the neck down. This was not head talking. Since when had I ever been able to trust head? This was body being flooded and filled to the edges of my skin with electricity, power, strength. I filled space. I walked differently. I fit my body like a hand in a glove and all in the space of a day.
When I began The Master of Deceit, I had only a vague notion I wasn't straight. I'd do inexplicable things like write love letters to my best friend. Unsent of course, but it never occurred to me that straight girls didn't do things like that. I'd drive down to Provincetown, alone, to sit all day and watch gay people and wonder why I felt so illuminated with shame but thrilled and overcome with longing all at the same time. For me two and two did not make four. Functional amnesia is what my addition produced. This is the true story of why I didn't come out at eighteen or twenty or twenty two. Sexuality, who you need to love, who you lie with best is not more important than any other piece of the puzzle but deny it, be denied it and your life is misshapen and shrouded.
I'm embarrassed to think you might be interested in all this minutiae. You've heard a chunk of it before, more than once. My friends here only know it's a piece about my father, nothing more. Maybe I thought you'd appreciate this strange map of unknowledge, this cipher from who knows where more than those who know me better. And I know I wrote this to share my wonder at the human mechanism. What the mind can do and the body can hold. Possibilities within. Inside of every human an infinity of space and an ocean of possibilities. Sometimes big and lush. Sometimes compressed to a pinpoint waiting to do the Big Bang.