The Boiler

Cassandra Morrison

THE KNOT

I was watching HGTV the other night, because as a twentysomething I spend more time than I’d like to admit watching people discuss the necessity of hardwood floors and the pros and cons of neutral paint colors so that one day I can purchase the perfect “fixer-upper.” But in this particular episode, new parents Jen and Jim, were looking to buy their first house in Florida. The older real estate agent was showing them a lovely home with plenty of natural sunlight and windows on most walls. However, when they came to what she suggested could be the nursery, the new mom became horrified as she looked around the room. I could see the look on her face and I knew that she felt The Knot. The nursery would be next to the patio with French doors surrounding it. The young mom said, “I would be so scared that someone would sneak in and steal the baby.”

The older woman assured her it was a safe neighborhood.

I would never buy that house either, Jen. But I think it’s because Jen and I are both neurotic.

                                                                                 *

I grew up with Stranger Danger and missing kids’ pictures on milk cartons. When I was barely walking, we went to the Shoney’s Restaurant down the street, which was usually full of grandmothers and day old Jell-O, to be greeted by a life-size Shoney the Bear. He was surrounded by friendly police officers to help guide us through this free, yet terrifying experience of making sure someone had references with which to remember me by if, and more likely when, I was taken. I had my picture taken with Shoney as a keepsake. And then one picture alone, and both my thumbprints rubbed with ink and recorded onto a sheet of paper that was mailed to my parents by the helpful police officers to ensure that I would more easily be found when I was kidnapped. I even got my little laminated I.D. in the mail, too. At the age of three, I put it into my tiny pink purse and carried it everywhere my parents carried me.

The fact that strangers could, and would, drive by and snatch children seemed like an accepted social notion to me. No one wanted their picture on the milk carton, so we learned to turn candy down, turn gifts down, be wary of ice cream trucks, never to talk to strangers, never to pet stranger’s dogs, and never to get in a car with a stranger. And if we ever saw a stranger, to tell an adult that wasn’t a stranger. And yet, it seemed even with the dressed up teddy bears and the colorful cartoons in the Public Service Announcements, that children kept getting kidnapped and killed. I knew that this meant that anyone not related to me would eventually kidnap and probably kill me.

                                                                                 *

I was a tiny ballerina once. My mom with her big 90s permed-out hair, took me to the Dancer’s Store and bought me the tiny black leotard, the tiny pink tights, and the tiny pink ballet shoes. She tied my fine mousey brown hair up into a bun, looser than most of the other girls’ because she’s never been good with hairstyles. We had been going to the YMCA for the ballet classes with Miss Babbette for about a month. I liked Miss Babbette. She had fine long hair like mine, but it was gray. She had the same black leotard and pink ballet shoes, too. And everything she said sounded like a song. When she told us to tip ourselves over like a tea pot, I heard, “I’m a little tea pot short and stout, here is my handle…”and pretended Miss Babbette was singing along. The huge room had one wall covered in windows and the other in mirrors, overlooked the outdoor pool. The old oak floors married the old oak handrails somewhere before the mirrors began and sat somewhere vastly above my twenty-four inch stature. It smelled a lot like Thursday’s swimming lessons.

On my last day as a ballerina, I learned I was going to be killed. When we all got our assignments for the annual production of The Nutcracker, I was handed a little brown mouse nose, which I immediately turned to my mom for help putting on my tiny nose. And then rehearsal began. There were masking tape Xs that me and the other brown mouse noses were to report to. Which I did, happily. We marched around following Miss Babbette as music played, and then Miss Babbette fell to the floor and all the other brown mouse noses did, too. That’s when The Knot first surfaced. I felt sick. My entire tiny body seemed tinier. I could feel the big tears welling up in my big blue eyes. I didn’t understand. Why were we falling down? Why did Miss Babbette say we had to leave our Xs?

We were dead.

We were all killed.

The other tiny ballerinas with little brown mouse noses simply left the stage to find the snack table with sliced apples and orange juice. As Miss Babbette and my mom used logic to console me, I tried to understand. I tried to stay strong like the other girls. But the tears kept coming. The Knot got bigger. We did another run-through, only this time I ran from my X straight to my mom. She pressed me tightly against her oversized turquoise sweatshirt that smelled more like swimming lessons than laundry. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be killed. Please Mommy, no.

So we left Miss Babbette instead. My mom told her she was sorry but I wouldn’t be able to be a mouse in “The Nutcracker” and she returned the brown mouse nose to Miss Babbette, whom I’m sure, gave it to some other tiny ballerina.

                                                                                 *

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the lord my soul to keep

and if I die before I wake,

I pray the lord my soul to take…

And if someone should take me in the middle of the night,

Lord please let mommy and daddy know where I am and that I love them.

I remember asking my mom if I could add the last line to my normal nightly prescribed prayer. My mom looked at me horrified, “Well of course you can pray whatever you want, but why would you think you would be taken? Where did you get that idea?” I knew there was no easy way out with that question, I had no idea really. I may have seen it on the news with the Jon Benet Ramsey kidnapping. I didn’t know, but I knew it was a fact.

I loved watching the news reporters talk about the little girl getting kidnapped because they always showed her picture. I was three years older than she was, but we were a lot alike, I decided. She wore brightly colored “Dolly-dresses” like me. We always called them Dolly dresses because we bought them at Dolly Parton stores, or that’s what I thought as a kid, but I realize now it’s probably because they look like dresses dolls would wear. Either way, I loved watching her on T.V. She was pretty, blonde, smiling, kidnapped and killed.

“Don’t be sad, baby. Nothing will happen to you, I promise.”

“It makes me feel sick and then I can’t sleep, so I ask God to help and make sure you know I love you, too.”

“Sick how?”

“Like a knot. “

I thought everyone knew what that felt like, but when describing it to my mom, I had the realization that everyone has at some point: when you learn that something you thought to be universal, is in fact not. As I described the lump in my throat, the way my head pounded and I could feel my eyes getting dry but becoming wet at the same time, the way my stomach hurt inside and outside, the way my skin felt like the nerves hidden underneath were going to fight the mesh covering them until they were outside and the way that my entire chest seemed to be on fire and the air would no longer be enough, she listened and then left the room quickly, absent-mindedly it seemed.

She came back with two orange Zantac tablets.

“It’s just heartburn, baby. Sleep good.”

                                                                                 *

In Blue Nights, Joan Didion writes about motherhood and grieving her daughter’s premature death. She also discusses how her daughter at a young age had vivid, reoccurring nightmares about someone she called “Broken Man.” Her daughter told her that after the age of five, she never had those dreams again. Didion says, “The lesson taught by the coverage [of kidnappings and murders] was clear: childhood is by definition perilous. To be a child is to be small, weak, inexperienced, the dead bottom of the food chain. Every child knows this, or did.” Children are weak. This reality is necessary to protect ourselves, perhaps. But what happens to the fear after the age of five? Maybe it just takes a different form, or for me, maybe it stays the same.

                                                                                 *

The thing about your fears is this: they could actually happen. Everyone I know is afraid of stupid things like birds or sidewalk grates or buttons.

-Buttons?

Yeah. My brother has a crippling fear of buttons.

-What kind of buttons like the buttons that a robot pushes to end our lives in the cartoons? Or the button the President has to declare nuclear war on anyone at any time?

No. Like the buttons on a shirt or a coat.

-Wait but how? How does he have clothes?

He doesn’t have anything with buttons on it that’s for sure.

-But he has three kids, how does he dress them?

They wear pullovers and Velcro things.

-You’re serious?

Yeah. I mailed him a package full of buttons once when I was mad at him. He didn’t speak to me for three weeks.

                                                                                 *

Sigmund Freud believed that all irrational fears were caused by an instinct. A deep-seated issue that taught us to react in a certain way to certain events. Something drives us to react irrationally to something that could be rationally dismissed. Fear, when used rationally, is a self-preservation tactic. Flight or fight. If you see a footprint in the mud behind your house that you live in alone, you are afraid because you know that there could be danger. When a pilot sees storm clouds up ahead, he knows to be alert and check with other pilots ahead, while the plane’s passengers only see the beauty of the oddly formed clouds.

A study from the Department of Justice reported that in 2002, of over 700,000 children that were reportedly abducted, only one hundred and fifteen were taken by a “stranger.”

But with high school came the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, and the idea of fight or flight seemed even more relevant. There was no Shoney the Bear to protect us from this Stranger Danger. As I sat in Ms. Hannah’s Honors English class with twenty-five other fourteen year olds, we watched as the images on the screen showed New York City under some sort of attack. We weren’t yet sure what kind. Even Matt Lauer wasn’t sure.

We watched the buildings go down and the terror on the faces on the screen. Ms. Hannah cried. There were no shrieks of hysteria from me or my classmates. We all sat staring, wondering what it all meant. As freshmen, we knew that there was most likely a thesis, with a narrative arc—conflict, rising action, climax, resolution.

There was none of that as we watched the dust settle on television. The literal ashes of bodies and buildings covering the street. The new fear that taught vigilance, one that suggested that no one and nowhere was safe. My generation began to live with a certain anxiety that no longer would you be safe by saying no to the candy. And no longer would anyone give you the choice to live or die, but rather they would kill you, just because. All of the strangers were once again dangers. As the dust settled over the city of New York, a dust settled into all of our minds that there was no safety in numbers, no safety at all.

The irrational fear that Freud discussed became more rational, in our minds.

                                                                                 *

I live here, or just drop me off here. I just walk down that alley and then that’s the back of my building.

-I’m not dropping you off in an alley.

No seriously, it’s fine. I walk it every night.

-I can’t be the guy who drops you off though, and you get attacked.

Oh so it’s not safe here? I know it sounds dumb, but it’s kind of nice not knowing when I’m unsafe in the city. I don’t know enough to know that it’s a bad idea.

-Well, it is always unsafe. The last time I got attacked it was by high school boys and I knew it was going to happen, I could just sense it. And then they ran up to me and shoved a burrito on my head and took my wallet.

Whoa. Around here?

-Yeah. Two blocks, next to the Chipotle. The worst part was that I was on my way to see my ex. It was not a good time in my life.

See now I won’t even feel safe in my own alley.

-You shouldn’t.

                                                                                 *

Freud also believed that all fear is from one of two places: inherited by parents or from a traumatic event in the formative years. I’m not sure though because I don’t know what my parents are afraid of, and I had a relatively trauma-free childhood. I can agree, however, when he says that a child is purposefully taught to be afraid of certain things because they are small and helpless. As a child we were taught to be scared of Stranger Danger because we were not yet capable of determining who was dangerous and who was not. “In reality,” he says, “the child at first overestimates his powers and behaves fearlessly because he does not recognize dangers. He will run to the water’s edge, mount the windowsill, play with fire or with sharp utensils, in short, he will do everything that would harm him and alarm his guardians. The awakening of real fear is the result of education, since we may not permit him to pass through the instructive experience himself.”

But as we grow into adulthood, how are we supposed to couple this learned distrust for the world around us with the knowledge that we have to go out into the world and navigate for ourselves? We must live through these “instructive experiences” ourselves after a certain age. And we’re trusted to.

                                                                                  * 

One of the next defining moments of The Knot was when I was twenty-two-years old. I was no longer tiny, but I still tied my hair up in a bun, loose like my mom did because I am also not good with hair. It was no longer mousey brown, but platinum blonde. I had the same big blue eyes, and once again I was sure I was going to be killed.

The room smelled like bourbon and cigarettes. I find comfort in the taste of vanilla and cedar that seeps through every sip of bourbon. No matter whether it is a cheap imitation or an expensive barrel-aged bottle, it tastes like life is going to be okay. Justin’s parents had enough money so that we drank the nicer bottles usually, in large quantities. The walls were hard to see because of the black out curtain I kept on the one window in the room. I loved to sleep all day and rued the moment the sun tried to ruin this for me, so the black out curtain was my saving grace. I knew the walls were white at night because they always were in my dreams. I often had dreams about spiders crawling over them. I would wake Justin up in the middle of the night to kill them all.

Spiders in dreams means that you feel trapped or entangled in a sticky situation or relationship.

It was Memphis and it was hot. This summer was one of the hottest on record. The heat would’ve probably killed those spiders, had they been real. The humidity made the air feel like a wool blanket that you can’t kick free from. The apartment didn’t have central heating or air so nighttime was one of the few times you could even think about touching another human being for any reason. I was dating Justin, who was twenty-seven, 6’5’’ and weighed close to 235 pounds. After I woke him up to kill the spiders, he laughed and told me I was crazy, but stayed awake and we took advantage of the night air. After all the bourbon we had consumed earlier, it should’ve been no surprise to me that he passed out. Yet it was. His prickly beard pressed hard against my face and his hands went limp underneath my black lace bra, the smell of bourbon flooded my nostrils and he was snoring peacefully on top of me.

The Knot in my stomach came back, and once again my body felt tinier than ever before.

I was going to die.

I was going to be crushed to death.

In my full bed, with my white Egyptian cotton sheets that naturally stayed cool, with my black lace bra and matching panties, I could not move. The tears welled up in my eyes once again as I listened to each of his uneven breaths, and felt my own breaths becoming shallower with every exhalation. I tried to use what breath I had left to yell his name, simultaneously trying to somehow push the behemoth that he had become off of what seemed like my now tiny body. His long limbs suffocated my tiny ones. I lay there shouting his name, silently crying, knowing I was going to die.

Until finally, with a jerk of his head, he woke up and rolled off of me, confused as to why I was upset. I continued letting the huge tears find their way down my face. Between hiccupping tears, I begged, please, no, Justin, please don’t kill me. He promised me that he would never kill me. He held me tightly and let me cry. He laughed and told me I was crazy, again. But he still let me sleep facing away from the wall so that I could breathe in all the cool that one small fan could oscillate.

                                                                                 *

Freud talks about the “death drive,” or Thanatos, leading to the ultimate fear of abandonment. The death drive is something I can get behind, something that makes the most sense to me because it relies on self-destruction. It’s the idea that we are pulled to the pleasure we find in the pain and self-destructive tendencies that eventually lead to death. But this death drive leads to the ultimate fear of abandonment. I’ve never been afraid of being alone. I live alone, I move to cities alone, I travel alone, I see movies alone, I drink alone, I dine alone. I am alone a lot of the time. But abandonment and being alone are too very different things. Abandoning means there was another factor: a choice, that someone made to never return. Death, of course, is the ultimate abandonment.

I had never really considered death, outside of the context of kidnapping, until my grandmother died when I was twenty-four and I found myself unable to leave the gravesite. Unable to leave her. To abandon her. After she had been lowered into the grave and the other mourners had gone, I stood there staring, wondering what the next step was. Not really for my grandmother, but for me. How do I leave? Once we leave her here, she is completely alone. I am abandoning her. And in that moment I was hysterical and inconsolable.

I don’t worry about death as a deeply theoretical topic. I worry about being abandoned, kidnapped, killed because in every one of these scenarios, someone made a choice to leave me, to hurt me.

                                                                                 *

From 865-607-4365

I’m starting to get so weird, I should probably seek professional help—it’s like I’m scared for Michael to go out without me like I’m afraid he’ll be out and die and I won’t be there for him when he dies…and I hate when I know the maintenance people will be at the house when I’m not here because I’m afraid they’ll let a cat out and then a cat will be gone and I won’t be able to keep them safe and they’ll get run over…I just want all things safe and no one to ever die or go away. Getting out of bed is getting more difficult each day and I want to die before anyone else so I don’t have to deal with their death.

Received 8:05 pm.

From 865-705-1808

I don’t think this is that strange. I feel this way at least every other day. Doesn’t everyone?

Sent 8:10 pm.

                                                                                 *

Isaac Newton’s Third Law taught us that forces exist in pairs—every action has an equal, opposite reaction. And this applies to instincts, too, as with Eros and Thanatos. Eros is the drive for life, love, happiness. Thanatos is the death drive, for hate, anger, self destruction. Freud says that life is a constant battle to balance the two, or a decision to serve one and not the other. In Greek mythology, the poet Hesiod claims that Thanatos was the son of Nyx, night, and Erebos, darkness—and a twin to Hypnos, sleep. This description is most interesting to me because these three qualities are what I crave most in my life when I feel The Knot: night, dark, and sleep.

I wonder if the self destruction that our death drive encourages is in direct opposition or supposition to trying to find some control in the chaos. There are very real dangers in the world, things that I should be afraid of. But alas, I choose to be terrified of dangers that don’t really warrant the fear I give them. Is this my personal balance between my Eros and Thanatos? To put it simply: I choose not to acknowledge how terrifying the world truly is because it is too much for me to handle, but instead I fear unlikely events because I can indulge these fears, or read statistics that make me realize they are unlikely. I can be laughed at and called crazy. I can, like Jen, choose a different house based on my unlikely fears. These neurotic fears are manageable. The fears that aren’t neurotic are not so manageable.

In Blue Nights, Didion writes of her own fears, “Once she was born I was never not afraid. …The source of the fear was obvious: it was the harm that could come to her.”z

I’m afraid of the harm that can come to me, too.

_______________________________________________

Cassandra Morrison received her MFA in creative non-fiction from Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. She has just finished a book of hybrid fiction and non-fiction that discusses Southern culture, femininity and social neuroses. Her work has appeared in Chicago Literati, Entropy, The Establishment, The Stockholm Review and LitroNY. She is from the South, gets lost frequently and is a little bit basic.