The Other Place

October 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

For a long time I wandered aimlessly. It felt like a long time. It didn’t feel aimless, however, or not in any carefree way: I was being driven by necessity, by fate, like the characters in the more melodramatic novels I’d read in high school, who would rush out into thunderstorms and lurk around on moors. Like them I had to keep moving. I couldn’t help it.

I had an image of myself trudging along a dusty or lumpy or ice-covered road, carrying a little bundle on a stick, like the hobos in comic books. But that was much too droll. More like a mysterious traveller, striding inexorably forward, entering each new town like a portent, then vanishing without a trace, mission accomplished.

…. I would welcome each new dislocation, unpack my few belongings with alacrity and even joy, then set out to explore the neighbourhood or district or city and learn its ways; but soon enough I’d begin to imagine what I’d become if I stayed in that place forever. Here, a stringy-haired intellectual, pasty-faced, humourless, and morbid; there, a self-satisfied matron, shut up in a cage of a house that would not be recognised as a cage until it is too late.

Too late for what? To get out, to move on. Yet at the same time I longed for security. It was a similar story with men. Each one was a possibility that quickly become an impossibility. As soon as there were two toothbrushes, side by side on the bathroom counter in trapped stagnant, limp-bristled companionship – I would have to leave.

…. Set against my desire for fecklessness was an opposite and more shameful desire. I’d never got over the Grade Two reader, the one featuring a father who went to a job every day and drove a car, a mother who wore an apron and did baking, two children – boy and girl – and a cat and a dog, all living in a white house with frilly window curtains. Though no house I’d ever lived in possessed such curtains, they seemed foreordained. They weren’t a goal, they weren’t something I’d have to strive for: these curtains would simply materialise in my life because they were destined. My future would not be complete – no, it would not be normal – unless it contained window curtains like these, and everything that went with them. This image was tucked away in a corner of my suitcase, like an emergency wardrobe item: nothing I wanted to wear at the moment, but worse come to worse, I could take it out, shake out the wrinkles, and step into it.

I couldn’t keep up my transient existence forever. I would have to end up with someone, sometime, someplace. Wouldn’t I?

But what if I missed a turn somewhere – missed my own future? That would be frighteningly easy to do. I’d make one hesitation or one departure too many and then I’d have run out of choices; I’d be standing all alone, like the cheese in the children’s song about the farmer taking a wife. Hi-ho, the derry-o, the cheese stands alone, they used to sing about this cheese, and everyone would clap hands over its head and make fun of it.

…. In my more rebellious moments I asked myself why I would care about being shut out of the Noah’s ark of coupledom – in effect a glorified zoo, with locks on the bars and fodder dished out at set intervals. I wouldn’t allow myself to be tempted; I’d keep my distance; I’d stay lean and wolflike, and skirt the edges. I would be a creature of the night, in a trench coat with the collar turned up, pacing between streetlights, my heels making an impressively hollow and echoing sound, casting a long shadow before me, having serious thoughts about topics of importance.

…. At the time I’d set out, all women were expected to get married, and many of my friends had already done so. But by the end of this period – it was only eight years, not so long after all – a wave had swept through, changing the landscape immediately. Miniskirts and bell-bottoms had made a brief appearance, to be replaced immediately by sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts. Beards had sprouted, communes had sprung up, thin girls with long straight hair and no brassieres were everywhere. Sexual jealousy was like using the wrong fork, marriage was a joke, and those already married found their once-solid unions crumbling like defective stucco. You were supposed to hang loose, to collect experiences, to be a rolling stone.

Isn’t that what I’d been doing, years before the widespread advent of facial hair and roach clips? But I felt myself too old, or possibly too solemn, for the love beads and pothead crowd. They lacked gravity. They wanted to live in the moment, but like frogs, not like wolves. They wanted to sit in the sun and blink. But I was raised in the age of strenuousness. Relaxation bored me. I thought I should be making my way in the world, wherever that was. I thought I should be getting somewhere – in my case, as things so often were, somewhere else.

~ Excerpts from “The Other Place” by Margaret Atwood


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