And take heart, this isn’t one of those “She was in so much pain–” (she was) “– and now her suffering’s ended!” kind of stories, (even though the suffering’s ended, but more on my end) or “It was her time,” “God has a plan”, “It was meant to be,” or any of the other ridiculous platitudes that etiquette has taught us to say when someone is in pain.
By the by, all of those last few statements are damaging. They’re not even worthless, they’re Express Delivery Pain, and they wreck a person who is grieving. Better to say nothing when you don’t know what to say. Moving on.
Naomi was an artiste.
She participated in yoga, dance, performance arts, stage combat and renaissance festivals. Naomi practiced with a few religions and philosophies, loved to read and visit museums. She had a very exotic look (she was born in Russia, and her heritage is of Rom descent), and her tattoos were beautiful. I loved how delicate her skin was, and how her hair shone in the sun. She always managed to look glamorous, no matter what she was doing. Her face was the embodiment of Resting Bitch Face.
Only a few years older than me, but she had some mileage on her. As a teen addict and rape survivor, she’d managed to gain herself a steady income, decent living arrangement, clean and sober (apart from cigarettes; cloves, especially, were her vice). She was very ‘jaded’, as one might say (if one doesn’t have more depth than a teacup). Naomi was ever so much more than jaded; she was downright grisly. She was overripe with experience. Her font of knowledge was brackish water from a sewer system. Naomi had truly seen the underbelly of American Life as a runaway, and it stayed with her.
And yet we became friends. Fast friends, actually. I was only just twenty-ish when Naomi steamrolled her way into my world via social media. We talked for hours sometimes, and both of us liked to draw Tarot for the other. It became a regular thing for me to travel out to the East Coast to see her. I was the maid of honor at her wedding, and her ex-husband (they divorced shortly after, but remained friends) still keeps in contact with me. I met several of her friends, two of whom I have also now flown out to see, separately from Naomi, although we would send selfies to her.
The thing to keep in mind, though, is that over the years, Naomi never put away That Habit that some broken youths just can’t kick: the need for drama.
It makes you feel significant. You feel like you’re at the center of a play that’s only interesting if you’re speaking or being pandered to. When there’s drama, you feel important and like your life is far more tragic, amazing, complicated, full of hardship or whatever else is on the agenda for the day. Cultivating drama and seeking it out in what would otherwise be considered (by many, not just me) very normal, everyday encounters– that’s an addiction for some kids that have fucked-up backgrounds.
I should know. I am one.
Naomi was the kind of person that, if I was sound asleep in the spare bedroom, she would come into my space unannounced, and flump onto the mattress beside me and sigh. LOUDLY. I fell for it the first couple of times, but after she complained that an author friend of ours (who’d allowed us to stay at his home while we were visiting the township together) hadn’t made a move on her, even though she promised to fulfill his every wish, I’d had enough. I needed sleep. So I pretended to stay asleep. She bounced a little more, took off her shoes and said, “I just need to sleep in here tonight.” I made a quiet noise and turned over. “But I guess you’re asleep and not up for talking, huh?” Naomi said this at normal volume, full of petulance. With another anguished sigh, she picked up her boots and stomped to the couch.
One of the many things we talked about, as the best of friends, was nutrition and dietary specifications. We liked to experiment with replacing ingredients to either cut carbs, help out with digestions, etc. Herbs and supplements were never far from our mind to reach for, rather than a bottle of Aleve. We’re not hippies (hippies don’t hate the way we do), but we try to listen to our bodies and respond to small cues. We exhaust other avenues before seeking out a doctor.
She’d had a hard time kicking a bout of thrush, and had had no real success with a limited-ingredient diet. One morning, she called and said, “Uh… my skin is orange?” and I knew, immediately, that she was extremely ill. “Go to the hospital,” I breathed out, “and call me once you’re there.”
Naomi had a very rare form of neuroendocrinal cancer. It essentially starts in your brain and blooms into a tumor in a random part of the body. And the cancer was choking her pancreas. The mass was inoperable, but it responded to radiation, and we hoped to direct the radiation to shrink the mass away from this badly-needed organ just enough to allow for a surgeon to cut away the cancer. Instead, it started to shrink right where it was, and after a shunt was implanted to allow her pancreas to work, Naomi’s body threaded a new artery *through* the tumor, and several other veins as well, so the pancreas could still receive blood flow and remain intact and functional. It was almost as if her body wanted to hang onto the mass, regardless of malignancy.
Once the tumor measured at about the size of a tennis ball, they began chemotherapy. I would fly down to be with her during the week at the suites, and we would lounge with the television for hours together. I’d make her curry, she’d help me craft mocktails, it’d be a nice time. But every single time I visited, she and her husband were fighting. Once, in the middle of a dinner with another friend at the beach, she called me to say that they were getting divorced and she needed me to take my things and go to a hotel. But by the time I arrived home, they were quietly ignoring each other and behaved normally with me. Everything was apparently fine. They divorced shortly thereafter.
When it came time for the annual oncology review, the tumor was still present in the same position, but it also wasn’t getting bigger. As most of her organs were functioning perfectly fine in spite of the tumor, she was cleared to move up the coast to Brooklyn. She invited me to her parents’ house in the country, but I declined. I had just become pregnant with my daughter, and I didn’t want to travel. Naomi said she understood, but there was an edge to her voice.
Within a few months, I can tell you what the vast majority of our conversations were about:
-NYC is filthy
-her roommate is awful
-there are no pretty, single goth boys
-cancer is stupid
-hating her bosses
-hating her job
-hating her new roommate
-hating how she has to beg for attention from a guy she’s dating x6
-hating that nobody is nice to her
-hating the new job
-hating the other roommate, but only slightly less than the newer one, and never saying a thing about it to either of them
There was a notable shift in who she was as a person, and how she interacted with me, after I became pregnant. Perhaps it was because I was no longer available and had had her linked with my Emergency Contacts so my phone would always ring if Naomi called me. At some point, I broke my phone and never set up the Always Ring contacts in the new one. This lead to many impatient messages on the morning after, increasing in resentment the longer it took me to respond.
When my darling baby was born, cheerful and healthy, Naomi asked to be called the witchy godmother, and cooed at my wobbly infant. She sent me pastries from her favorite Jewish bakery, and shipped blankets with chewy spots for the baby. One day she told me that she felt much more attached and close to me and my child than she did her own sister and nephew.
Therein lays our friendship, at its core. We admired and adored the other from a distance, and shared intimate details of our love lives and inner feelings. I had been friends with Naomi for so long, when it became more one-sided, I chalked it up to the cancer and let it go. But I realized that it was just who she was as a person. She would always be the victim, the one who has it worse, who hurts more, who feels things so deeply no one could possibly understand what she’s going through. I began to avoid her questions of, “Do you have time to talk?” and only respond later when I could be more attentive, but by then, the moment (and the drama) had passed.
Finally, when my daughter was 4 months old and I was at the peak of my exhaustion and postpartum depression, Naomi’s gall bladder turned septic and she had to have an emergency surgeon to remove it. I knew she’d been at the hospital for about a week, and her boyfriend was making updates as best he could, but if I’d ever felt the energy to start texting or talking to anyone– not just Naomi– I would always stop before the first sentence left my fingertips. I wouldn’t have time for a conversation, or the energy to listen. I was pretty broken, and my gurgly baby was delightful and adorable and easy to handle but… postpartum depression is a monster. Perhaps I was wrong to think our friendship could survive a month without contact. Maybe I should’ve just sent the one or two-sentence text messages, just to let Naomi know that I was thinking about her.
But I didn’t. And for the better part of 6 weeks, neither of us reached out to the other.
And then she messaged me one day out the blue, opening with, “I am upset and I need to tell you what I’m feeling.” So I settled into Best Friend Mode and prepared myself for an hour or two of new/old complaints with minimal commentary on my part. But I was not prepared for what happened next.
“I almost died!!” she raged, “and you couldn’t even pick up the phone! But I’m just expected to remember every stupid detail about your kid!” and that’s about when she lost me. I’d heard about other people saying crazy things when their cancer gets to late-stage terminality, but I had also become (unfortunately) too experienced with people fighting cancer and then dying. And I don’t find this to be true.
My kid had nothing to do with this fight we were about to have. I tried my best to shelve the comment and look for what was underneath: she was in pain, she had no way of expressing it beyond rage and lashing out. I tried to commit to this conversation with everything I had, and I am still grateful that my kid was napping at that precise moment in history.
I listened and took in all of her words. I filtered out some of the hate and attacking phrases, and sent back a heartfelt apology, with a promise to do better in the future and to at least keep Naomi abreast of where I was emotionally. I apologized again, and said that I would understand if she needed to stay mad at me for a while, but I just needed to say the words “I’m sorry” first.
I’m not sure how everyone else on the planet receives apologies, but for me, all I want to hear is:
-acknowledge the pain that was caused, without excuse
-empathize as to how this could have affected you, were the tables turned
-admit fault, apologize sincerely
-have a plan for what to do differently next time (and/or how you intend to make it up)
Pretty sure I’d checked off all those boxes in my reply, but apparently, that’s not how Naomi liked her mea culpas, especially without a genuflection. I had ended my letter with love, but she instantly shot back, “Spare me diplomatic bullshit.”
I bristled, but was more hurt that she thought me insincere.
“I can see you are still very angry,” I responded, “so I’ll leave you be for now.” I was trying to just give her space to be angry without being more hurtful to me, and I thought I had conveyed that it wasn’t in my intention to block her out or turn away from her. I hoped my words had been received with love on some wavelength. That’s not what happened.
“I’ll leave you be for now.”
“what else is new”
That was over a year ago, in May of 2019. A lot has happened in the last 18 months.
Last week, I discovered that Naomi had been found dead in her bedroom by her parents. The cancer had progressed, she had had another emergency surgery, and she succumbed within a month. Her fight was finally over. Our mutual friends were sharing stories and crying over the loss of such a beautiful person, and what must I be feeling, as the very best friend of olde?
Well.. I felt relieved. I felt a tremendous weight fall away from my body.
Ah, yes, yes, I’m a horrible person, I know. Luckily, I also don’t care what anybody else thinks.
Was it surprising? Yes, of course. I hadn’t been in contact with Naomi for over a year.
Was *I* personally surprised? No, not at all.
Part of being the Best Friend meant helping her plan her will, her final wishes for rites and burial, for palliative care and, in case the worst of it came to pass, her plan for suicide. I had promised to assist. More than once, she used the phrase, “I don’t want to live like this anymore,” and I would comfort her as best I could, without asking if she was ready to die. One day, she told me she was ready, because the pain had become too much. I asked her to give me a day to get my affairs in order, and I’d get on the plane to NYC. By the end of the night, she’d messaged to say not to bother coming out, that she was fine.
When I found out Naomi was dead, I felt a deep pain in my heart for the relationship that we had shared. For the actual friendship, the late night talks, snuggling with her dogs, sharing costumes and garb for holidays and vacations. We loved each other, truly. But not everything is made to last forever.
As I scrolled through the memorials and testimonies that people were contributing in her honor, I felt mildly amused, thinking, “I doubt Naomi ever told these people the things she told me.” And it hit me– I’m glad she’s dead.
No more drama.
No more unnecessary calls.
No more seeking out the worst-case scenario and *betting on it*, in every situation.
No more shrieking, no more “Okay, but just five more minutes–” stretching into an hour every time.
No more pity party the size of Houston.
No more of any of it.
As it would have fallen to me, eventually, to untangle and sort through the mess of feelings she’d stirred together and dumped on me in that final conversation, and try to make sense of our friendship going forward, it still wouldn’t have been enough. Naomi always needed grandiose gestures to make her believe that a person was being honest and truthful. And I have never been the person to do that.
It would’ve been my job to fix that mess, because that’s the way it had always been. Helping her to see another’s perspective, and not assuming the worst intention of her lovers. Reminding her to breathe before she speaks, and never say the first thing that comes to mind. These are behaviors that every grown adult must learn to master for themselves, so they can be contributing members of society.
I was 35 years old before I realized that Naomi was completely dependent on me. I had never realized that our friendship had taken that turn, but looking back, it was so obvious.
I’m so very grateful that she is no longer suffering from migraines, nausea, aching all over and weariness. I am happy that Naomi has passed. Her body was terrible to her. But the emotional hellscape in which she lived, every single day, was the real demon, not the cancer. And it was largely her own doing, because she could never back away from being the center of attention. She had to repeat everything she heard or suspected about a person. There was no irritation too small that she couldn’t launch a full-scale critical review, complete with scathing commentary. If nobody had told Naomi that she was pretty at least once a week, she would post a new selfie with a comment: “felt cute might delete later” and then praise every person who complimented her. The reason I know she did this intentionally is because she told me.
I’m glad she is dead. I am relieved that my friend has died. I am happier because she’s dead; a tremendous burden has been lifted from me.
I don’t even know what her family intends to do with Naomi’s remains, but I’m not going to call them and ask, or insist on carrying out her final wishes. That was a promise I made to a friend. The woman who called me names and vilified me at my lowest point is not my friend.
I’m not obligated to fulfill anything on her behalf. I’ll never have to unravel another one of her messes ever again. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m glad she’s dead.
Post Script: if this kind of thing truly makes your insides twist, I am pleased that there are still people out there who have only experienced wholesome relationships that are full of goodwill and reciprocity. But since finding my voice about this and learning to say how I feel without needing to justify it, it has been made clear to me that many, many other people feel this way about now-deceased people from their pasts, and for far worse reasons than the ones I claim against Naomi. So to those people who’ve only experienced equitable relationships, I salute you. For everyone else, go ahead and say it out loud. I give you permission to say “I’m glad they’re dead,” and then reflect on any good times you may have shared, or at least share why it is that you are glad they’re gone. It has given me tremendous closure. Maybe your family or mutual friends don’t or won’t understand, but that’s okay.
You can say it to me, here, or you can write about it on your own, or you can tell it to The Band. We are here for you. But either way, go ahead and say it, see if it helps free you the way it did for me.
Hey, let’s talk politics. No, not like “here’s who you should vote for and why” kind of politics, that’s not in keeping with how this site rolls. I mean your participation in politics. Specifically, voting.
Right now we are living in unprecedented times. A lot is about to change in our country so it’s more important than ever that you get out and make your voice heard the only way you can; VOTE.
Yes, there’s lots of words flying about on the internet that mail-in ballots will be tampered with or votes not full counted or this or that. The truth is it doesn’t matter what you read; voting is literally the least you can do to move this country in the direction you want it to go, no matter the party you align with. Don’t listen to the haters who says your vote doesn’t count; it’s the only thing you are able to do to decide the direction of our country right now, so what do you have to lose by voting? Nothing except maybe some time, and a lot of us have that in spades these days.
But depending on where you live, voting can be complicated or confusing, so I wanted to give everyone a heads up on a new resource that will assist you clearing up confusion about how to register and vote in your state. Plus, you may get a laugh or two from it, and who doesn’t need that right now? The site is Stephen Colbert’s Better Know a Ballot and it has information on how to get out your vote our in all 50 states, and because it’s Colbert it’s also pretty damn funny so you won’t have to feel so serious about the process.
Please understand this is not some cross-promotion scheme or anything, it is literally just for your information, in the hopes everyone will get out and vote on November 3rd. It’s important, it’s easy, and it can make a difference. SO VOTE!
A while back, I was spending some time reading the blogs here on Band Back Together. Usually I travel over to Mommy, Alcoholism, or other topics….this time I fell upon some PTSD posts, and thought I should share my story.
Back in February 2010, I was in a car accident that changed my life. I have a multitude of physical injuries with muscles and nerves and emotional/brain issues. At first the doctors were hopeful that time would resolve these with physical therapies but it’s a really slow process. I’m now under the care of a neurologist, undergoing testing. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is something I was diagnosed with when I visited a therapist who sat me down and did a simple checklist with me. Imagine, that one Big Black Thing can be determined… with a checklist.
What it’s like in my head is so difficult to describe, because words get mixed up in my brain. It’s been almost impossible to describe because it is unclear to me. I lose words. As I write blog entries, I have volumes of words in my head and cannot seem to get them out; they elude me. I tend to type paragraphs or sentences while chapters are locked in the prison of my mind. It is a very dark place I rarely explore these issues outside of therapy offices anymore. There, at least, they have the right questions, the ones that can open the cell door a bit.
Life hasn’t changed on a day-to-day basis. If I had a new ball of yarn, tightly and neatly rolled, I could easily begin to knit a scarf. If I took that new ball of yarn and allowed a puppy to play with it for an hour, it would still be a ball of yarn with the same length, color, and overall properties, but it would have imperfections. I can still use this yarn to knit a scarf that will keep me warm but the imperfections can be apparent if you look closely. The strength, however, will not be the same.
For example, I have a phone where all my appointments are stored, as are daily tasks such as picking up my kids from school, eating, sending paperwork, and calling friends to help with paperwork. I lose time. For example, last week I had a form to fill out to send away to the car insurance company. It was a very straightforward form but I would have to access other forms in my file folder to access my policy numbers and other information. I sat down to do this with the file folder beside me – everything I do has to be organized and focused. I got up to get a pen and ended up in a different room of the house doing something entirely different with no idea how I got sidetracked. I didn’t even realize until I walked past the table with the file folder on it.
I was immediately angry at this lost time.
I sat down again to complete the task. A while later my heart rate was up, my right leg was bouncing, I was becoming frantic because I just couldn’t understand it. I had rifled through my file folder countless times to find my policy number, which I knew was on many of the pages. Yet I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t remember how many times I’d looked through it. Did I look through it? I think I did. Try again.
My phone beeped to let me know I had to pick up my daughter from school in an hour.
What? I’d lost 2.5 hours! The pressure was too much. A huge breath exploded from inside me. I pushed up from the kitchen table knocking over my chair. I was furious! My head was pounding. I felt a stabbing pain at the base of my as my back spasmed and my hands were tingly.
The black doom was closing in upon me.
I ran to the bathroom, ran the cold water over my inner wrists, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, crying silent dry heaving sobs.
Then I was numb.
Breathing normally, I washed my splotchy red face and reapplied my makeup. I went to the kitchen for some Extra Strength Tylenol. It does almost nothing but I don’t take the anti-spasmodic medication for my back because it makes me a zombie. I tried to relax in my numbness and lost time until the alarm rang telling me I had 15 minutes to pick up my daughter.
I had 15 minutes until I had to be Mom, the mom I want to be – the smiling, patient mom. Not the numb, auto-pilot mom. So I put on the happy mask and prepared to give my daughters the memories they deserve, knowing that God provides me the strength. Until I can truly experience it, I will mimic it for them.
Just typing this makes me uneasy; it’s the tip of the iceberg for me. I don’t want to address the iceberg.
I implement controls for my daily activities, remaining hopeful that one day the PTSD will give up this lock on me.
I feel like I need a quiet place to sit down and reflect on all that has happened in the short (yet so very long) 25 years I’ve been here. The truth is, a quiet place doesn’t stop the bombardment of memories, the instinct to protect myself, to protect those around me, and to stop looking for clues of abuse and trauma in those I meet.
There are a lot of gaps in my childhood, most of which I’m thankful for, but there are moments that are so drastically burned into my memory that I cannot erase them no matter how hard I try or fight.
I remember the drugs – being locked out of the house, beating against the locked front door, screaming as loud as I possibly could for my mother to let me in, while inside there were people doing drugs. Locking me outside was their way of “protecting” me.
I remember fights, words so explicit I could only imagine what they meant. I remember fists meeting walls and flesh; I remember locking myself in my bedroom trying to keep myself out of reach from the drunken and drug-fueled rages my stepfather would fly into. I remember so vividly the pot full of spaghetti sauce flung against a dining room wall, splattered red, the pot lying sideways on the carpet…it looked like blood.
I remember my mom’s screams every night for a year, protesting his advances. I remember wanting to turn on the small radio next to my bed so that I didn’t have to hear it, knowing his rage if he heard it. If I cried, I knew I had to stop, otherwise he would surely give me something TO cry about. I remember my mom disappearing for days on drug binges, leaving me with him. I remember wanting to escape, to run away.
I remember him trying to rape me. I remember fighting him off and telling him that I would tell my grandmother. I remember him being almost too drugged to care. I remember running and locking myself in my bedroom and hiding while he beat on the door. I remember him coming into the bathroom while I was showering, sneaking peeks behind the curtain.
I remember being touched and molested by a boy in the same apartment complex who said that we were playing doctor. His brother molested one of my friends at the same time. I was seven years old.
I also remember the sounds of the ferris wheel, the smell of the funnel cakes and cotton candy, and the laughter of those walking around the LA County Fair, one of maybe a handful of “good” memories. He promised that he would protect me, that he would be a shoulder and a guiding light in my life, a support structure. He should have been. Instead he took the trust of an impressionable little girl and twisted it and abused it, just like he did to his wife.
He turned the parts of my childhood that should have been filled with sugarplum fairy tales and gum drop play scenes into nightmares. Nightmares of beatings, threats and scars. Scars that, while not visible, lie under the surface causing trust and emotional issues in that once 8-year-old child who has grown into a 24-year-old woman. I sat there as he told my mother matter-of-factly that he was going to blow up her car while I was in it. I stood up for my mom and told him that he wasn’t allowed to threaten her anymore and if he didn’t leave I was going to call the police. I was 8 years old.
I heard a few months ago that he died. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I can only assume it is with the lifestyle that he lived.
My mom was afraid to tell me. She was afraid that I’d actually care, afraid that I may have actually cried at the news. To be completely honest, I was so incredibly relieved. No longer would I have to hope that some unexpected person or family would have to deal with the disaster that came along with him. Not another child would have to go through nearly being raped by him. Not another woman would be raped, beaten or threatened with murder. Not another little girl would have to spend a Halloween inside the house in her costume, peering out the front window at him screaming and yelling at her mom. Not another child would have to go through any of that, ever.
At the same time, I have to thank him for it. I’m not sure if I’d be the person I am today if those things hadn’t happened.
I hope he got what he deserved while he was in prison.
I remember living on the streets in my mom’s car. I remember sleeping on her friends’ couches, floors and empty bedrooms. I remember moving in with my grandparents, giving my mom yet another shot to get on her feet. I remember it not working, her disappearing for days, only to come home in the middle of the night strung out. I remember her moving out of the state with her disgusting, attempting-to-be-intimidating shell of a man who abused her emotionally, verbally and sexually. I remember telling a children’s lawyer that I wanted my grandparents to have custody of me and her willingly signing the papers. I was 9 years old.
I remember being trapped in a community pool bathroom – held against the cold tile wall. I hadn’t slept for days before this and was too weak to fight back, not able to scream loud enough. Not that the screams would have done any good – we were the only ones at the pool. I said no, I said stop, I said get off me, I said don’t do that, I said no. He didn’t care. He was older, a bad boy, a friend of a friend. I had already lost my virginity so I guess he thought he wouldn’t be taking much from me. I still cringe or turn around and swing when someone touches my back or grabs my shoulder. I was told he was murdered a year after, and I felt relief. I was 15 years old.
I try to find validation in every relationship. I try to fix the man that I’m with, try to make him see that he can be better than he is. I tell myself I deserved the shit I put myself through. It’s hard for me to trust people, to comprehend the way they function rather than the way that I function.
In two of my relationships, the men overstepped their boundaries and threw me into a completely defensive mode. I threw them into a wall. I question whether I am now becoming the abuser instead of taking the abuse, but then I feel that even though I did physical harm to them, I was put into a bad position and took the action necessary. I still don’t like being cornered or pinned against a wall with someone screaming in my face.
The doctors didn’t expect me to make it through the birth process, let alone actually live. But I lived. My whole life I’ve struggled so as not to become a statistic, not to follow in the footsteps of my mother – to beat the odds. I made it. I made it this far and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up now. I have a child on the way; I am nearly 5 months pregnant and it’s a girl. Now I get to try my hardest to protect her from all of the things that happened me.
I’m excited … and absolutely terrified at the same time.
“You’re going to deny her now? After all this time, you’re going to turn hard and cold like she was?” the mighty oak asked without any thread of judgment, watching the rise and fall of the princess’s ragged breath as rolls of thunder began to crash in the distance and droplets of rain fell in soft pitter-patters to the ground. “You’re going to pretend as though she’s something ‘other,’ like a whipping boy that you can pin your transgressions on and escape? You could leave her here to die, knowing that she is as much you as you are her?”
“You’re a liar,” the princess hissed bitterly, and her younger selves recoiled as though they’d been slapped. Her eyes widened in shock when their eyes filled with glassy tears and their small, fragile fingers closed once more over each half of the key.
“It’s not a lie,” the elder of her younger selves insisted quietly, looking as though she were going to be sick. “And unless you accept her the way she is, for what she is–the apex predator that you created to survive in a world that couldn’t protect you from shame, humiliation, and fear–we’ll all disappear.”
Not-Her’s life flew behind the princess’s eyes in a wash of vibrant color and dull, sickly gray.
Not-Her crouching in the corner of the young prince’s room while he bawled in anguish, fury igniting in her face like the flames the dragon king used to set her own face ablaze so many times.
Not-Her comforting the queen as she grew sickly and frail, tormented by the guilt of not being able to protect her children until her heart turned to black ice.
Not-Her finding brief solace in meaningless moments that were gone in flashes of fabric and hastily closed doors.
Not-Her fitting an old, ornate key into a separate compartment of the enchanted cabinet where she found the rotting remnants of a frail, furious heart and careful etchings of a young dragon king isolated and bruised and shamed into nothingness, feeding a growing self-hatred that burned with raging fire.
Not-Her stirring mindless mayhem that would take would-be friends the princess had loved dearly from afar and banish them on white horses into the sunset, never to return.
The battered, broken form of Not-Her whispered something that was consumed by the growing wind and steadily pouring rain, and the trees looked on, saying nothing. Something shiny gleamed on its face–the queen’s mirror mask, the one the princess had traded so long ago to restore the parts of herself that she severed when they became too ugly and weak to protect the ones she loved. She briefly saw her own face reflected in the mask before its mouth moved and shifted.
The princess crouched next to Not-Her and inclined an ear toward its twisted lips.
“Stop it,” the princess demanded, her breath catching in her throat as she fought to keep tears at bay. The coursing rain stained her cheeks anyway, bitter wind whipping her now-tangible hair into her face.
“Ugly. Lazy. Manipulative. Dirty. Disgusting. Annoying. Insecure,” Not-Her continued tonelessly as though reciting a well-worn list, one that it had memorized over years of careful repetition that fueled its nightmarish quest.
“I said STOP IT!” the princess screamed, grabbing Not-Her’s shoulders and shaking them roughly, but the memories only poured more clearly into her head as she maintained contact, and Not-Her gripped one of the princess’s hands with its own, its knuckles slowly turning white.
“I CAN’T!” Not-Her wailed back. Its caustic voice was magnified by the storm, catching on the bitter winds and throwing the same vitriol into the sky that had scarred the princess so deeply for so long. “PETTY. LOUD. DECEITFUL. WASTEFUL. SHAMELESS. RUDE. CHILDISH. CHURLISH. WRONG. RUINED. DAMAGED. BOASTFUL. BROKEN. POWERLESS,” it finished in a muffled, ragged scream, completing the riddle at last. The mirror mask, once bonded to Not-Her’s face to pay the price for the princess’s transgressions until she could no longer recognize herself, melted the way the princess’s own face once had to reveal a horrid, hideous combination of self-pity and self-righteousness.
The younger of her two selves had dissolved into frightened tears and panicked cries. She stuffed her fingers in her ears and screamed like the young prince had when he bore the weight of the princess’s sins, and the elder of her younger selves looked squarely into the princess’s face with eyes much older than she was, her tone quite direct.
“You’re just going to let her keep talking about us like that?”
“What choice do I have?” the princess asked miserably, feeling very annoyed when the elder mirrored an expression back to her that had likely once aggravated the queen.
“You always have a choice,” she said flatly. She held out her hand with half of the key, and the younger held out the other. The princess took the younger self’s half, but the elder’s closed tightly into a fist as the princess’s hand grazed her knuckles.
“But I’m still invisible. I’m powerless,” the princess whined, and the elder rolled her eyes, crouched down, and tucked a lock of the princess’s increasingly wet, bedraggled hair behind her ear as Not-Her took shuddering, wheezing gasps that rattled in her fractured ribcage.
“You’ve always had the power, my dear. You had it all along,” the elder quoted sagely, as the princess wondered when the wisdom of children had so eclipsed that of “adults” like her.
“Do we at least get the red sparkly shoes?”
The elder of her two selves snorted, rubbing Not-Her’s back in small circles as it dissolved into unintelligible whimpers and Not-Her’s right hand broke off with a snap, crumbling to dust that was quickly caked into the dirt.
“Are you going to wait until it’s too late?” the elder asked matter-of-factly, as the trees held their collective breaths and bore witness. “Or are you actually going to take responsibility for her and purge all the poison she’s got lodged in her gut? You can’t keep calling her ‘Not-Her,’ you know. It’s pretty dehumanizing.”
“She isn’t human,” the princess insisted in one final plea. One last denial.
“Then neither are you,” the elder replied, shrugging. “Or me. Or the other younger you. We can’t have it both ways. Of course she’s human. She just hasn’t acted like it; she played the victim until her victims played her. Now she’s played out. She’s done. Are you going to forgive her, or are you just going to keep pretending our whole life never happened?”
Not-Her’s left hand fell to the ground with a soft thud, and the princess realized with some bitterness that she was right. She couldn’t call it “Not-Her” anymore. Not-Her was a stubborn, brash, brazen anti-hero who believed her own inflated hype, and she was everything that the princess despised, banished from herself and enabled into armor like a vindictive, writhing mass of self-pity who got tired of taking the fall and the blame for the emotions the princess didn’t want to admit had consumed her like a black hole, leaving her vacant until she could accept that Not-Her was her after all.
“I’m sorry,” the broken specter wheezed in a frail breath that was quickly stolen by the crash of lightning and howling wind. “I tried.”
“I know,” the princess murmured sadly. “I thought I needed to be stronger to be saved, and that strength looked like you. But I was wrong. I learned. That’s all we can do, right?”
“I don’t want to go,” the specter whimpered, her voice suddenly vulnerable and childlike. “I’m scared. Nobody loves me. Nobody’s going to miss me when I’m gone.”
“I know you don’t want to go,” the princess repeated, finally torn to shreds by this last bitter defeat, this last abject failure, and realized that it was perhaps one of the first true triumphs of her entire life. “And you’re wrong. Sometimes, when I’m too afraid to rule our kingdom one day, I will miss you. And you are loved. I love you. We just never knew what love was until now. I just never thought anyone would love me if they saw this side.”
“I’m so tired,” said the ugly, battered, beautiful specter who sighed into the damp grass as she closed her eyes. “Am I good enough yet?”
“You were always good enough,” the princess said in a hushed voice, giving both halves of the key to the elder of her two younger selves. “I’m just sorry I never knew it. I was so busy searching for a prince to save me like the ones I read about in all of my story books that I didn’t realize I never needed one. I fashioned you into a knight equipped with vengeance, not forgiveness. That was my fault. You can rest now. I’ll take care of us from now on.”
As her delicate specter crumpled and faded away, the princess lifted the veil over the empty space where she’d once cut out her own heart rather than face the pain, humiliation, rage, shame, fear, failure, and remorse that spun inside her like a wheel and threatened to crush what was left of the parts of herself she loved most.
At least, the ones she thought she loved most.
“Strong. Worthy. Smart. Important,” she whispered, and the tears that spilled from her eyes mingled on her cheeks with the rain. She wasn’t afraid anymore. “Healthy. Beautiful. Productive. Empowering. Clean. Worthy.” She still had plenty to account for, but in the past, she was so sure that such a reckoning would ruin her the way she nearly had been as a child–until she realized that she was already destroying herself. “Engaging. Secure. Kind. Assertive. Honest. Frugal. Accepting. Polite. Mature. Unruffled. Curious. Rebuilt. Restored. Humble. Fixable.”
“Powerful,” her elder self finished, taking the younger by the hand and enveloping the princess in a tight hug.
“That’s the spirit, dear,” one of the trees said kindly, and they laughed.
The princess delicately took the compartment that they had fetched from the enchanted wardrobe with both halves of the key fixed tightly in the lock. Her younger selves skipped away from the clearing, laughing. Joyful.
The princess watched them for a moment, pensive. She realized she missed the false self she’d allowed to supplant her for so long as she dwindled away in cowardice, but she was glad to see her go. To find peace.
“Is that the route we’re going, dearie?” another crooned as a chipmunk scampered quickly up its trunk. “Order us around and use us up until our corpses are sucked dry and then move on to the next castle? The next dark forest? It’s a pity this isn’t Transylvania; you’d have more friends of your kind there.”
“I don’t have any friends, and if you don’t help me, I never will. Please help me hide this key,” she pleaded, feeling her specter growing closer as the sun set and the shadows grew long.
“I’ll take it,” a delighted childlike voice piped up, and behind her stood the embodiment of her slightly younger self, twirling in the breeze without a care in the world. “I’ll hide it somewhere safe.”
“No, pick me!” said another, looking up from the picture book she’d been reading beneath a tall oak tree. The child looked identical but even smaller, hunched on the ground as though trying to take up as little space as possible. “I know all the best hiding places.”
The trees fell silent and watchful, and the shadows lengthened ever further into the clearing. A bright, sinister laugh caught in the wind as the shadows coalesced into a her that was her and wasn’t her at the same time. Not-Her flashed an impish smirk, and its lifeless, dull eyes fell from one child to the other.
“Can’t you just go away?” the princess snapped, loathing Not-Her and the slimy, fetid aura which left lingering trails of filth in the devastation that followed its noxious path.
“Oh, darling, once you decided to offer your heart to a stolen child–whichever you choose in the end–you let me out to play and now I’m here to stay.” The sing-song lilt of the Not-Her’s rhyme took on a malicious edge, and it was true–when the princess looked down at the key in her hand, its edges had become translucent, and Not-Her began to solidify.
Not knowing that this choice would cost her sweeping graveyards of friendships that chipped away in small pieces at the soul she’d worked so hard to keep whole, the princess closed her eyes and felt two small hands close over hers. When she opened them, the “stolen children” –eerie echoes of her past selves whose playful laughter remained even after their departure– had taken the key with them.
The wind whispered through leaves that shook on their branches and Not-Her cocked its head to one side as though trying to decipher the words. Already some of the imperfections had smoothed; the raised red bumps vanished from its skin, its face was no longer brittle and broken, the pockets of baby fat she’d loathed had disappeared from its waist, and a dark twinkle shone from its eyes.
“What does that mean?” the princess asked slowly, watching in growing horror as her own skin grew luminous and she could see the dewy grass sharpen behind her rapidly vanishing hands.
“Haven’t you ever heard of irony?” Not-Her asked in an imperious tone, staring down at the princess as she shrank and faded while the sun sank behind the trees into an explosion of golds, pinks, and purples that washed over the sky until they were streaked with falling darkness. “You can’t exist while I’m out walking around, stupid. After all these agonizingly boring years of biding my time and waiting for you to expire on your own, I’ve finally come alive–as was always meant to be–and you’ve dwindled down into so much insignificant nothing. Sucks to suck, don’t it?”
“That’s not what I wanted!” the princess cried, the leeches tightening their enclosure around her throat as the last of her voice came out in a long, keening wail. “This isn’t fair! It isn’t right!”
“You’re pathetic,” Not-Her sneered, finally sauntering over with a spring in its sprightly step, tucking the princess’s hair behind her ears and preening its own shining locks with long, polished, perfect nails. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you to read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line, moron? All those years of reading and not an ounce of common sense, even after all those sycophantic nobles went prattling on about how you had so much ‘potential’ and ‘promise.’ What a waste. You would have ended up a failure anyway if it weren’t for me. And the best part?”
Not-Her got even closer as the princess had nearly disappeared, bending over and leaning in close as if to share a priceless secret. “Nobody will even know you’re gone.”
The princess clutched the cavity where her heart used to be, her fingers skimming over the infinite infinitesimal gashes that scarred her nearly transparent flesh. Her mouth opened in a silent scream, and Not-Her threw back its head and laughed hysterically as though it were the funniest joke it had ever heard, sashaying out of the clearing without a backwards glance and, if the princess wasn’t mistaken, with a raised middle finger.
“You know, dear,” one of the trees murmured, shifting uncomfortably, “she didn’t tell the whole truth. It’s not like you’ll be gone forever. You’ll still watch like a silent passenger–as she did for so many years, fed on a steady diet of selfishness, recklessness, insecurity, instability, and rage–and there’s still a chance you can take her place.”
“How?” the princess mouthed in a final frantic plea as her two younger selves peered around one of the trunks on opposite sides, the younger looking at her with something akin to confusion blossoming over her face as the elder’s was a mask of pity, eyes brimming with unshed tears.
“Well, that’s the hard part, you see. You’ll have to watch everything she does with your eyes wide open, and one day, when you’re strong enough again to withstand your own erasure and confront the truth, you’ll have to hold yourself accountable for her transgressions. She was born from you, you know,” it finished reproachfully, as though this was obvious information that the princess should have already known.
And perhaps she had.
She just hadn’t wanted to believe it.
Her elder younger self walked over and took the princess’s vanishing face in her small, unblemished hands. “I forgive you,” she whispered, as the last of the princess faded against the inky expanse of sky that glittered with stars. “It was selfish and mean, choosing to hide. Locking up the last part of you because you were too scared to face her alone in the darkness. But you were only trying to protect us. You didn’t know. And if you hadn’t, she would have poisoned us with resentment and bitterness and numbness, and then we really would have been gone. This way, we just kind of… fade. Until you can defeat her.”
It would be many years before the princess would finally be ready to fight back. Just as she grew stronger by forcing herself to watch and suffer the humiliations that Not-Her concocted with arrogant glee, Not-Her did also by forcing herself to forget that the princess had ever existed through sheer force of will.
Not-Her led many would-be princes into bogs that would trap them like quicksand, basking in the praise of the dragon king and the queen as trophy cases piled with achievements that looked solid but felt hollow. Not-Her proved shamelessly insatiable, gobbling friendships like chicken wings and picking its teeth with the bones, filling endless trophies with the excuses for its behavior until it needed to earn more just to make space for the deflections and denials that stacked until they flowed onto the floor.
All the while, the princess watched, and over time, she tried to suspend her judgment. She rationalized the devastation that Not-Her created, gaslighting herself before she realized that a single match could send her up in a raging inferno.
She pined for each prince to save her, lamenting their slow, confused descent into the marshes in horror–one after another.
Surely one of them would see through Not-Her. Surely one of them would be strong enough to stand up to Not-Her, though the princess watched in a bizarre, sadistic commiseration as some of the princes turned out to be Not-Hims in disguise, twisting Not-Her’s own game around on her. The princess soon learned to spot them long before Not-Her, wishing she were a poltergeist who could shake sense into Not-Her and lock it back into nothingness.
She hated Not-Her.
She wanted nothing to do with Not-Her.
She was ashamed of Not-Her.
She, like ghosts around her who rose from the graves of friendships gone awry to watch the mindless devastation, harshly judged every move that Not-Her made until Not-Her stumbled into the clearing one day with arms bent at impossible angles, neck hanging awkwardly limp with its head twisted the wrong way, and once-proud eyes that had glittered with cold, calculating malice now cast down in humiliation and defeat.
“Oh, how are the mighty fallen,” the princess murmured to herself, tracing the skin around her own face that had somehow healed into something less brittle, something that didn’t flake into oblivion at the slightest breath of wind. Not-Her shuffled awkwardly to face away from the princess in order to look exactly where the princess was standing, its bloated head swollen under the weight of its poisonous pride. Not-Her had come into its own scales at last, and cheap copies of the dragon king’s that had once terrified the princess into submission littered its fragile skin like scattered tiles.
“Are you happy?” Not-Her wailed, its face caked with snot and crocodile tears that the princess didn’t buy for a moment. “Is this what you wanted when you tried to escape all those years ago?”
“All the education in the world didn’t teach you a damn thing,” the princess muttered, staring down at her hands in surprise as the delighted laughter of children rang like bells through the trees. Their last conversation rose to the surface of her memory, and she snorted. “Irony, indeed. You’ve been free for years, yet all you have to show for it is boundless intelligence and not an ounce of common sense.”
“Please,” Not-Her begged, and something in its empty eyes shifted. Remorse bled in dark rivulets from its pores, and if the princess wasn’t mistaken, it truly appeared to be…
“Please don’t let it kill me. It hurts. It hurts, and I don’t want this. I want it to stop. I want it to end. I can’t take it anymore,” Not-Her sobbed, and when its form collapsed unceremoniously into a misshapen heap on the ground, the princess nudged it with her foot and sneered.
“All high and mighty now, are we?” one of the trees twittered, observing shrewdly as the Not-Her faded slowly and the princess gazed down in disgust, wearing her years of silent observation like a mantle across her shoulders.
“What do you mean?” the princess snapped. “This… This thing has eaten over half of my life and left me for dead. It’s torched bridges, been reckless with hearts–including its own–and now it wants me to pity it on the same grass where it tricked me into sacrificing myself into nothingness.”
“Yes, dear, but you made the choice,” another tree reminded her gently. “No one forced you to the clearing. No one else ripped out your heart and hid it where not even you could find it so it’s never broken. You did all of that.”
“Don’t give me that self-righteous–” the princess began, but she gasped in horror as the outlines of her own hands began to fade once more and Not-Her became faintly opaque.
Silently, her younger selves approached from between two of the trees with the two halves of the single key she’d given them so long ago clutched tightly in their small, mighty fists.