Megan Marie Sullivan
I do everything I can to keep the voices from taking over my head in the nighttime. I do this by shopping a lot.
We were the collectors, my mother and I. She owned an antique mall in the center of town twenty years ago. It was full of everything that anyone would want to collect. The warehouse space was arranged into fifty different shops and cases that sellers could rent to display their porcelain dolls, war medals, plates, jewelry, lady’s hats, old artwork, whatever they considered to be antiques. It was their job to keep it dust–free and clean, and my mom would evict anyone who couldn’t do it. And then there would be an empty space in the store, with a sign up that said “Case for Rent.”
I’d come into the store on the weekends and talk to the sellers who were there to arrange their wares and chat with customers. Some of the sellers were more gruff than others. They loved the things that they owned, they could hardly part with them sometimes. Some of the customers would have to prove that they were worthy to take home the shopkeeper’s barbies and election year medals.
The jewelry seller was the only one who was doing any real business. Of course, none of her wares were real antiques. And she sold them by spending about twenty minutes with every customer, no matter who they were, convincing them to try on this or that. I didn’t really care for her much.
I spent as much time as I could looking in the backrooms, the things that had been abandoned, looking for . . . . I don’t even know what. Everyone knew it was just garbage back there, and my little brothers, they thought it was haunted. They wouldn’t go back there for anything. The things that were worth any money were all out front, and actually cost money.
But to me, the real treasure was in the discovery. I could find a home for these things, these old dresses, framed prints, hardcover books on tax law. Only an idiot would throw it out, I thought, someone might need them, someday. A museum might want them. And I was the only one who knew that. I was the only one who cared.
My mother tolerated it mostly because she didn’t notice my scavengings among all the stuff that she brought home herself. Getting around the house was difficult, to say the least. Actually, it was mostly impossible.
In the living room of her expansive tudor revival, she kept art magazines stacked against the walls for decades, along with sketch books and painting supplies. She was very interested in starting projects, the gathering of the brushes and canvas and visual sources for ideas, but less so in the actual execution. A new project required new materials, so the old projects would lay in wait, untouched but ready.
Bundles of mail and papers lay scattered over baskets of laundry from last year. Books stacked like stalagmites. Paper grocery bags full of odds and ends waited patiently on the dining room table. Empty bottles of soap filled the sinks.
My mother collected perfume bottles, the liquid inside as vaporized as their actual value, but they made her happy, even as they gathered dust and cobwebs to our shelves and cabinets.
The usual rotation of plates, cups and utensils from cabinet to dishwasher ground to a halt.
But what were we going to do? We couldn’t just get rid of it, it was our stuff! We had saved it. So what if my brothers didn’t appreciate it? So what if they moved out and never came to visit again? If it was that big of a problem to them, then they didn’t deserve our family. Mom and I, we got along okay on our own.
Though sometimes things got really lonely. We didn’t go out much, unless we were shopping. We never had parties. We never really had holidays, even.
And it was so frustrating whenever she’d try to organize. The piles would move from one side of the room to another, but they never really left us. We cleaned for hours, nothing ever looked different.
My mother looked at me one day and said, “Nothing is wrong with me, Lilac. Nothing. I’m a thrifty woman, I know how to scrimp and save. If anyone tells you otherwise, you remember that I am your mother!”
She died in the backroom of that antique mall. It was a heart attack; I didn’t find her until hours later. She had wanted to be an organ donor, but everything inside of her was mush by the time we got her to the hospital.
My brothers and I sold the mall to cover the expense. We tried to sell the house, but I couldn’t part with it. I couldn’t part with my mother’s things. It’d be like killing her.
Plus, I just hate cleaning. Every time my brothers moved they’d use the house as a storage unit, and most of the stuff just stayed behind, forgotten. I held onto it because it might be worth something someday, and I had been tasked with keeping it. I couldn’t just toss it.
I didn’t know what to do to make money. I still had the mortgage on the house to pay and to feed myself. I used the money that Mom left me to buy into some work-from-home plans, selling stuff at parties and things, like healthy food and tupperware, but I didn’t have much luck, and I couldn’t understand why. The videotapes made it clear that as long as I kept at it, I’d make enough money, and soon people would come and join me and I’d make a percentage of the commissions from their sales, but the people never came.
It felt like revenge when I moved all the materials into the basement, but then it flooded, and everything got wasted. Over twenty thousand dollars just ruined in flood water. I still couldn’t bear to throw it out. If I thought of it, my knuckles would hit my forehead, my jaw clench until my teeth hurt.
My brothers tried to take the house from me, but they couldn’t do it. They’d have to find me a new place to live, and move all my stuff. I insisted. They couldn’t do it, they couldn’t argue with me. I won the battle.
Then the bank tried to foreclose on the house, said that I was destroying it with my stuff. How could that be possible? And so what if I missed a couple of bills? What was it to them, with all the money they had?
Well it turned out that they didn’t have that much money, because the bank went out of business before they could foreclose, and nobody bought the bank, so things got eerily quiet for a few months. In the house, it was getting harder and harder every day to walk through all the stuff that was building up. I could barely cook in the kitchen anymore. If I reached the burner, I could hear it ticking, but no blue flames would appear.
My mother never told me how to relight the pilot.
But I was joined by friends – a couple of birds at first, they were my new neighbors, since most of the people in the houses around me had moved out. The birds multiplied quickly, and I loved every one of them, just as I loved my house, at the same time that I hated it – the walls, with their angry voices, growing thicker every day, keeping me inside, safe from prying eyes.
I’ve been around this block several times this week. The guy who owns the little grocery store stares at me every time I pass his shop. He won’t let me come into the store for directions again. He says I smell like stinky feet.
His store smells like old fish.
My mother owned a store when I was a child.
She died in that old store, from pneumonia. It was a shack in an urban wasteland by that time. There was hardly any light in the building, and the dust was thick in the air and the smell of feet would stay on your clothes long afterwards. I’ve been in the neighborhood for sometime now, looking for the store. I’ve got a doll with me that I need to return. I think I’ve been looking for a few weeks now. Up and down the blocks of quiet warehouses along the highway, calling out her name.
Since I’m lost people give me change and I eat at the burger place if I can find it. I sleep in a space up under the bridge, if I can find it. If I can’t find it I just keep looking. I don’t care how long I have to look. I have to get my mother’s store back. It’s the only connection I have left to her life.
The phone hasn’t rung in twenty minutes, and as the seconds tick by, I become more nervous and excited. It’s possible that I could get something accomplished before I leave today. Or, conversely, this could mean that the phone will never ring again.
I can’t help but think that my mother never had this problem. Her store was always busy with customers. If it wasn’t, she would call them up from her little black book of contacts and tell them that they must come down, she had a new set of teapots that they absolutely had to see. Calling her customers was never a problem for her. She loved the people that came in, loved showing them things, loved pushing the things on them. They were just things, I thought, just stuff. Stuff I had to dust.
And then dealers would come to the back garage with more stuff and she’d say “What? This junk? What am I supposed to do with this junk?”
She’d pay them only a quarter of what they asked for, and when it got on the shelves, the floral lamps and dishware sets, she’d say to her customers “Darling, I couldn’t bear to part with it. I’ve had it for so long, it’s practically a family treasure, but if you must, you must, please, this is a store, not a museum. if you love it, I’ll steal myself.”
And I’d think to myself, “Please buy it please buy it, I don’t want to dust it anymore, please.”
Every Monday was another torture session with the dust rag. My mother never really cared for anything in the store; it just had to look shiny. “Lilac, make it shiny!” she’d yell from the front of the store as I toiled away.
She’s the ear-worm of life, even long after her death. Would she like this report I’m creating? Would she like this lunch–and–learn class that I’m putting together? Probably. But she’d probably have something to say about how it could be better. She always did. Even if I can’t think of what it would be, I just know I’m always missing the thing that would make it right for her.
I never regretted this quality until my fifth assistant quit on me. And I noticed a shop girl giving me a funny look when I was talking to her about a dress. I was trying to guide them, give them my opinion, just based on what my mother, the ultimate perfectionist, would have to say. I can’t say I was becoming her, that wasn’t the point. She was just continuing her life through me. But it wasn’t that she was living vicariously through me, it’d be more accurate to say I was her cremation urn.
Since my phone hasn’t rung in twenty-five minutes, I decided to take a little action, and called my assistant.
“Gala, can you reach out to Dr. Daniel Tobias, you know, from that television show? I just found out he lives in town. Can you see if he can do a home visit today?”
“Do you have his number?” she asked.
“No, that’s why I hired you.”
“I’m on it,” she said as she hung up.
Ten minutes later, I had Dr. Tobias on the phone. He was perfectly nice, but said he was teaching the rest of the afternoon.
I told him I needed him today. He said the earliest he could be there was 4:30. I decided I could wait that long. I still had this report to do, a website UX analysis to write up, and all those clients to call back, and if I was fortunate, I might close that training package in Helsinki. That was a $200,000 deal, and would put us a little bit ahead of our sales schedule.
But the phone started ringing again. Before I could accomplish any of those things, the clock rushed me home.
Dr. Tobias met me at the train station, and we drove through the leafy streets of my suburb to the house I share with my husband and the three stepchildren.
The lawn out front was a little long. My husband has not gotten around to calling in the landscaping service yet. It was on his to-do list, but he operates a little differently than I do. He likes to keep the list in his head, taking care of things when he thinks of them. I’m not sure how he gets anything done.
Meanwhile, I’m constantly on the look–out for the perfect organizational software, while constantly keeping a running tab of to-do’s on my smartphone, and I have an alarm that reminds me every half hour that there’s still work to get done. I never sit down at home. I haven’t watched a movie all the way through in years. My list is so long now, I don’t think anyone could get it done in a lifetime. But I can’t complain. This is my life, this is how I have to live it.
I’m trying to explain all of this to Dr. Tobias as we walk into the house. I’m terrified by the possibility of what he will think of all this. My house, my stuff, the onions sprouting in the kitchen. I was going to make a quiche for my friend’s birthday, but they were the wrong kind of onions. In the end I just bought her cookies from the store and packaged them as if they were homemade. She asked me how I do it, I just shrugged. I didn’t want to lie to her or anything.
Before we go in, he asks me if this is my house. I told him that yes, yes it is.
I opened the door, invited him in, and asked him if he’d like a cup of tea, if he’s not too, too disturbed by the shape of things.
The look on his face goes through several changes. First, what I interpret to be general concern. Then, as he looks around the room, a sense of relief, followed by a growing confusion. But he’s trying to hide it, he is a psychologist, after all, and shouldn’t be throwing his expressions around willy-nilly.
As I shut the door behind us, he turns to me and asks, “and I’m to understand that this is your house?”
“Yes, this is my house,” my voice was nervous.
“And . . . . . you’re concerned about some OCD tendencies in your . . . .?”
“In my life. I think I might be a hoarding case, but I’m not sure.”
“You live here with your family?” he asks as we make our way to the kitchen, past a pile of laundry that needs to be folded, and Nancy’s school books laying out on the table.
“I do, my husband and my stepchildren. They’re great kids, I’d hate to think they are suffering if it’s my fault. Tea?”
“Sure. So, uh, how often would you say that you clean?” he asked. It was a loaded question. I had to be honest.
“Every couple of weeks. We also have – I hate to admit this – a cleaning person who stops by once a quarter if things get out of hand. We’re really busy people.”
“What’s your schedule like?”
“I’m up at five every day to exercise. Then I wake up the kids, we make breakfast together, my husband drives them to school, I take the train downtown, but after that, every day is different. They’ve got soccer and volleyball, my husband is a writer, and my schedule is very hectic. I travel a lot for work.”
“Do you ever miss your appointments or find yourself being late for flights, or anything?” His voice was low and gentle.
“Oh my God, all the time.”
“Tell me what that feels like.”
“Horrible.” I covered my cheeks with cool palms. “It would just be horrible to miss a flight. I don’t know what I’d do. I’d have to call Gala to reschedule, and it’d throw off our whole day. Except that usually she schedules things with a little leeway. She knows it always takes longer to get out of the airport than you would expect.”
There was a pause in the conversation. Dr. Tobias’s face was a blank mask. He was looking around the kitchen, taking it all in. The room was sunny. I like to keep the windows clear, so I dressed them in Venetian blinds, the nice wooden kind, with a red side curtain for color. For once, the kitchen was orderly, thank God. Sometimes we have dishes in the sink for more than a day.
“So tell me about a time that you missed a flight,” he asks.
“I . . . . well, let me think . . . . . . I mean, I believe I did once. I mean, how could I have all this anxiety if it’s never happened to me? I’m sure if I think about it, I could give you an answer.”
“Do you remember any occasions where you might have experienced an anxiety attack or anything close to an anxiety attack?”
I put down my cup of tea and thought about it. I wanted to remember. A time at work, perhaps? Or when I was planning my wedding? I remember feeling nervous about it, but people always describe me as calm and direct. I’ve never had to blow up at anybody because it was actually easier just to fire them.
“Lilac, can I be honest with you?,” asked Dr. Tobias, perhaps reacting to the blank look on my face.
“Yes, please, that’s why I asked you to come.”
“I don’t think you’re a hoarder. I think,–”
His eyes zeroed in on something behind me.
“What is that?”
I turned around, and spotted the portraits in the living room.
“Oh, those paintings?” I gestured with my finger over my shoulder, glancing back and forth from them to his face.
He stood up and walked over to the triptych.
I leaned my elbows on the kitchen island. “My mother painted them, supposedly they’re me.”
“They’re so similar, but,–”
I waited for it. He was a psychologist, he’d probably figure it out on his own.
“Does your mother, by any chance,–”
“Progressive Aphasia.” I gave the diagnosis a dignified neutrality. My mother had lost her ability to speak and understand words, but it was so gradual that I didn’t notice it until her voice disappeared completely.
“Does she still paint?”
The floor creaked behind me. Like so many visitors to this house, he was examining each portrait in turn, picking out their differences and similarities.
As her disease worsened, she made a habit of painting variations of me daily.
In each one I look so tired.
“She died a long time ago. But yes, she painted hundreds of portraits. Those three are my husband’s favorites. We gave away the rest.”
Dr. Tobias came back to the kitchen table.
“My condolences.” He slowly sipped the artisanal tea.
“It was a few years ago.”
“So, getting back to it. I think you may have some other anxiety issues, but I’m not sure if what you’re suffering from is necessarily OCD. Now, I can refer you to one of my colleagues who specializes in–”
“You’re not going to treat me?”
Dr. Tobias turned his concerned look to me, his eyebrows in that perfect arch to frame him as caring and intimate. His bald head, just floating above the wrinkles of skin created by his eyebrows made him vulnerable and gentle, yet wise beyond his years in these matters. This was a look he used often with his patients, whether he was on screen or off, and I recognized it for what it was: a tool to control.
“Lilac, you’re a very special woman. My clinic is very focused on a specific treatment that probably won’t be of any help to you. I think you’d really thrive in a one-on-one environment with a counselor who could help you really understand yourself. Unfortunately the treatment that I offer is really meant for people who are struggling with a different set of issues.”
“But see, that’s why I need you to help me. I need someone with more experience than just counseling. You haven’t even seen my pantry.”
“Lilac, I don’t think I need to see your pantry. I think you’re fine. You’re just fine.”
Fine. I was fine. It was the worst diagnosis I could ever hear, and he gave me almost no preparation. I was devastated. How could he just come out and say that I was fine?
It didn’t matter anyway, he said he had to get back to campus for office hours, and my phone alarm reminded me that I had a yoga class in half an hour. I drove him back to the train station in an awkward silence. I couldn’t believe it. Just fine. How could I be just fine with all these ringing alarms going off in my head all the time?
I was on time for my yoga class.
Time is always a constant concern. I never have enough time. I have evening commitments. Every assistant I have had knows how important it is that I get out the office door before five PM, and the best ones stay until seven or so to help me catch up. I have to be in the office by 7:30 in the morning to get my work done. I have to work through the evening after dinner to get all my work done. I have to keep working. I have to work. I have work. I have to be working. I have to be a good worker.
I had a melt down in my yoga class.
Somewhere between the last dog pose and the resting pose, I knew I couldn’t handle just being in the class, just trying to be normal. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I handle the thought that maybe I wasn’t a hoarder?
Or maybe I wasn’t even sick?
I was holding back as much as I could while the instructor, a young man who had once trained as an investment banker, went through his routine chants and instructions, half in English, half in his broken Sanskrit terms. But when I found myself unable to pull my legs over my stomach for the walled headstand, people started to turn to look at me. I struggled with it. Over and over again, while the other women glared.
“It’s okay, Lilac, I know you do this every week,” he said, after my fifth attempt. Here he was, another man trying to be gentle again with my failures. “Maybe this is just not your week.”
I will never get this right, I thought to myself as the class came to an end, and even through the last part, the meditation part, which basically isn’t even part of the class because everyone takes naps, I was fidgeting through the whole thing.
I just wanted to get back up and try that headstand one more time. To prove that it was my week. It has to always be my week or else, I don’t know, what if I miss a week, and then, I can never get my weeks back? What then? Will I ever get my weeks back? Will I ever get another chance?
It occurred to me as I left that perhaps the sickness that I suffered from, whatever it was, I’d never know. I was functioning, in a way that was functional enough for my job, for my family, and the people around me sanctioned whatever pain I held because it was funding everyone else’s bank account.
How had she made it look so easy? Even after her stroke took away her ability to speak, she maintained an elegant studio in her assisted living facility, crafting portraits of each family member, and then variations on a theme – my face, in different lives I could have lived, if circumstances had not been what they are.
The short drive home felt longer than usual, and the road before me stretched out into the distance, endless. The passage of time before me, my life, an infinite dark ocean with no bottom, the shore on the other side was another world that no one here could know and no one returned from. The future felt as mysterious as my mother’s warehouse rooms in the basement of her store, filled with all those things she couldn’t sell, and couldn’t bear to part with either.
Megan Marie Sullivan graduated from Northwestern University with an MA in Creative Writing in 2012. She lives in Chicago and trains robots for a living