Just three days before the White House National Security Advisor would be forced to resign—four days before Russia would deploy a missile violating a Cold War era arms treaty—a meme of world leaders awkwardly shaking hands with #notherpresident was making its rounds. And Andie was sitting in a DC hospital, phone in palm, watching YouTube clips of Abe and Trudeau fail and succeed, respectively, to extricate from Trump’s jerk-and-pull handshake. She was killing time waiting to be discharged after being treated for a mild concussion and getting six stitches above her right eye.
She had her purse up against her thigh and her feet flat on the floor—toes pointed towards the gap between the privacy curtains that the doctor and nurses wove in and out of coming to check on her. She refused to lie back and get comfortable as she was instructed to do. She wasn’t trying to be difficult, lying back just felt like a waste of time, of the moment, a waste of what she was in the midst of experiencing. She clenched and unclenched her toes. It felt good to be out of her heels. She’d felt a rush of warmth towards the nurse, and by extension all nurses, and then the world, when she’d been brought a pair of downy yellow chenille socks. Her bare feet had been pale and cold, she’d sat watching them turn the color of a new bruise. Now the soft fabric against the shine of the wax floor reflected an imitation of sunlight. It comforted her, and she was not easily comforted.
The political mess angered her and the state of the country, the world, shook her. Yet sitting there, she found her own current situation comical and she was grateful that what had happened to her had not been more serious. She felt grateful. Earlier that week, earlier that very morning—at almost any other point in her life, it would have been different. It was different.
She was in DC for work. For the International Association of Relationship Research conference. IARR, the letters stood bold against the bright orange-bordered lecture program that stuck out of her open handbag. She dropped her phone into the bag and pulled out the program—glossy beneath the fluorescent lights. There she was on the inside cover. Except ten years younger. Dr. Andrea Leigh Macias. Keynote speaker. Brown University (CLPS), Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences. DC, IARR, CLPS, so many acronyms. Earlier she had tried to joke with another conference speaker that she should permanently write her name as ALM. Their response was to tell her ALM stood for Audio-Lingual Method. Don’t try to joke with an Evolutionary Psychologist. Not that her own occupation, researching Interdependence Theory and analyzing the psychology of close relationships induced a laugh riot. Diving into the depths and inner workings of human emotion was enough to leave anyone numb.
Andie had just dyed over the gray in her hair and it had come out too dark. The silver strands turned, oxidized, into a dark copper. Tiger-tine stripes marked the frizzy stray strands by her temples. Her daughter called it, called her, a hot mess.
They were in the car, Andie driving to drop Julia off at school before heading to catch the train to DC.
“What does that even mean Julia?” Glancing in the rearview she brushed the sparse bangs the stylist said would take off ten years from her forehead. They didn’t help. The furrowed wrinkles between her brows had turned into full on trench warfare.
“Oh mom, just, you know.” At thirteen she’d begun shrugging Andie off, avoiding answering her questions with any thoughtfulness or depth.
“No, I don’t know.”
“It’s just …” her shoulders hitched up close to her ears, “it’s just you.”
She put her earbuds back in and turned up the volume. Andie spent the rest of the drive to the school listening to the buzz coming from her headphones—a sound that she’d come to associate with all youth.
Julia was out of the car as soon as it stopped. Stood there holding the door, looking impatient.
“Remember your grandmother is coming to pick you up. I get back from DC on Saturday.”
“Yeah, I know. You don’t have to tell me a thousand times. It’s written on like every calendar and post-it in the house.” Andie felt the sharp cold coming in. Julia hadn’t even put her coat on.
“I don’t know if I wrote down the number for the hotel, for the conference center—just in case.”
“Just text them to me, Mom.”
The scent of the cotton candy perfume Julia wore stuck-sweet to the interior of their Honda. Pieces of the glitter nail polish she’d sat chipping away at during the drive littered the passenger seat.
“Ok. Well, I’ll call you soon. Have a good day … love you.” She threw the door closed, muting Andie’s last words, and Andie sat there, the car idling, watching her daughter walk up to the school’s entrance.
Unlike the other girls slouching and milling around her, Julia moved with confidence and was surprisingly cool and graceful. Surprising to Andie because at that age she had most certainly been the poster child for a “hot-mess”. Aunts, Uncles, family friends all told her things like Niña, un día vas a romper corazones, One day you’ll be a heartbreaker. Esta chica va a crecer guapa. But she believed more in the failings of her own body—diminutive, flat-chested, skinny arms covered in soft, piled dark hair—more than she believed there was hope for a future self, for an implausible better version of her to emerge from her awkward shell.
Julia inherited none of her awkwardness. She was already a head taller than most of her peers, and growing with ease into the dark-haired brooding kind of beauty that had eluded Andie. She wondered what Julia’s father must have been like at that age. She wondered what the man was like at all for that matter. All she knew of him came from headshots, a resume, health statistics, hobbies and achievements listed like facts that represented all the things she’d hope for, that she had wanted in her own youth, a father that looked like all the other Connecticut dads: blond hair, blue eyes, tall, white toothed, cashmere crew neck sweaters, suits & ties, Audis and Saabs.
The train of cars behind her had grown. Agitated parents began to drive around her down the narrow drive to get between the orange traffic cones that designated the area for student drop-off. A caring father drove up alongside her and punched his horn. She turned towards him as he mouthed “bitch” before pulling in front of her to let his son get out of the car.
She didn’t move until the last bit that she could see of Julia disappeared through entrance of the school.
Thirteen years ago, when Andie had called her mom to tell her she was pregnant with Julia—to explain she’d used a donor—she expected her mother to be shocked, to respond with some religious sermon, a statement on what the pope had to say on the matter, but she had only sighed and sounded annoyed.
“Lo se, Andréa. It’s not as if you have un montón de novios. Estaría feliz if you just found some man to take care of you.”
“Mamá, que pensamiento tan anticuado. It’s so un-feminist.”
“Don’t talk to me about that, I’m the most feminist person … I worked two jobs raising you and your father was never around.”
Her mother always did that—talked about her father as if he’d just spent a lot of time at work or hanging out with the guys, like the dads of the suburban protestant New Englanders she’d grown up around. Clinical distancing and denial—Andie had learned what to call it in college. Her mother spoke of her father in denial of the reality that when Andie was two he left them, left their tiny Bridgeport Connecticut apartment, left the States, to go back to a wife in Columbia.
“It’s not about that Mamá.”
“I’ll tell you what it’s about, it’s about que te mimaba. You’re spoiled and too picky.”
Her mother changed subjects by offering a piece of advice, an old wives’ tale really.
“Bueno, don’t look at anything ugly. If you see something ugly when you’re pregnant, your baby will be ugly too.”
“Ok, well, see you in nine months then.”
She immediately regretted speaking. There was a silence, but then her mother began to laugh. It was a laughter that carried up through her full-bodied—it was the way she laughed with her friends, never with Andie.
“Hijole sangana, me estoy meando encima y, y—entonces pues, you better not look in any mirrors.”
And Andie had laughed too.
The rest of the drive to the station Andie thought about the years of phone calls and conversations with her mother. The nagging, the child-rearing advice. Her mother wasn’t always wrong, at least not when it came to Andie’s relationships. She didn’t have any prospects. Who had the time for all that? She sure didn’t, though her male colleagues seemed to do just fine. Long-term marriages, affairs, exchanging stories of one-night-stands. Andie didn’t trust men enough to have one-off sex. Besides, she had a much steamier threesome going between herself, a glass of wine, and late-night Cinemax. Or even watching David Tenant save humanity as Dr. Who. Heck, watching Jamie Bamber brood as Lee Adama on Battlestar was a hotter endeavor than most of the dates she’d had.
She parked her car and dragged her suitcase into the train station. She bought a snack and settled in to wait, catching a glimpse of herself from where she sat, reflected in gray shadowed movements in the tinted vending machine Plexiglas. There she was, a sad looking woman in a droopy grandma—cardigan eating a chalky candy bar from a vending machine at an Amtrak station, watching a stupid movie—an undeniable waste of data on her phone. A few days earlier she had been bored, taken a quiz on Facebook “How Date-able Are You?” Her result had been, Not Very. And what she just saw of herself confirmed it, maybe caused her to lose points retroactively. New result, Flat-out Undatable.
She thought back to the last time she’d had a man stay the night. Julia’s school counselor sometime back in late January, two years ago. She’d dropped Julia off at the school parking lot where the buses were waiting to take them on an overnight trip. She’d ended up being chatted-up by a guy that looked uncomfortable wearing jeans. She must have been staring because he made his way over to explain.
“The slim jeans,” he’d said. “just trying to fit in with the kids.” Which Andie thought was a weird statement to make.
“I get it.” She answered, though she really didn’t. Why did this man, who had to be close to forty, care what a group of kids thought? Maybe she had been curious to learn why he cared, maybe her behaviorist researcher mode kicked in and she couldn’t back down. She couldn’t remember how or why exactly but they talked, got dinner, got drunk, and he ended up coming back to her home.
She and Julia had just adopted an orange tabby that had developed this thing where he pooped on the floor when they were out of the house for too long. Revenge poop, Julia had called it. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t good since the HOA had just re-carpeted each townhouse in the complex in a light shade called canvas.
Not a good start to the night. Counselor-guy waited in their cramped living room while she scrubbed at the soiled carpet by the front door and hallway. In the depths of research Andie never bothered straightening up around the house and every surface from couch cushion to end table was papered in her research notes, Julia’s Geometry worksheets and Social Studies essays.
She could hear him flipping through loose pages.
“What the hell is this?” He called out from the living room, “A Multidisciplinary Study of Mind, Behavior and Vulnerability. Is this your work?”
She didn’t want to reply. He kept reading.
“Neurobiological connection—the ability to feel connected is an imperative. What unravels connection? Shame.”
Picking up cat shit had leveled off the buzz from the four glasses of wine at dinner. She wanted him to stop reading. She wanted him to leave, but had difficulty extricating herself from these types of situations. He just kept going.
“Shame, easily understood as a fear of disconnection: The, Is there something about me, that if other people know or see, they’ll find me unworthy of connection? What protects the individual from personal and social feelings shame? Jesus Andrea, what is all this? He appeared in the kitchen, where she was washing her hands. He was clutching her notes in his hands. He wasn’t wearing his shirt.
They went into the bedroom—he’d just stripped out of his skinny jeans. In the light from the hall Andie could make out the red indent lines the seams had left on his pale thighs. He had just lurched onto the bed when the cat broke out in a fit of meowling—really going at it. Loud enough that her hearing aid addled neighbor banged on the wall. She wondered how Mr. Marchant’s frail arthritic hand managed to hit something that hard. The whole thing from cat shit, to cat screaming, to angry octogenarian had pretty much killed the attempt. Andie was glad she hadn’t had to deal with taking her clothes off. Anyway, it was obvious that the cat didn’t trust this guy, and if he didn’t, why should she? After all, since he’d come through the door there’d been nothing but disruption. She’d hated that.
Andie checked the station clock opposite where she sat. As usual, the train was running late. She crumpled up the candy bar wrapper and shoved it into her sweater pocket. She looked around the station. The janitor shared a joke with a passing station attendant as he emptied out the trash bins. A woman hovered by the vending machines, muttering to herself about the bottled water costing two-fifty.
The handful of people traveling had all congregated on one side of the station. Andie sat at the other end, alone, on the side of the station closest to the restrooms. It hadn’t been a wise choice. But she didn’t move. Didn’t want to get suckered into any small talk. She always felt roped-in, obligated to engage. She wished she had the power to ignore. Mom, what would your superpower be if you could have one? Julia had asked her when she was younger and going through her Marvel superhero phase. She wanted to say things like, the power to be numb to the world, the power to ignore the things that worry or annoy me, the power to not be powerless or annoyed. But of course, she answered with something like the ability to breathe underwater or to fly.
Sometimes she tried to romanticize her loneliness. She imagined that to someone watching her, some outsider surveying the scene, she might look like a figure in an Edward Hopper, surveying a stretching emptiness. She related to the women Hopper painted—rendered bare, raw, naked, frozen by their windows, searching. He captured their humanness—made their loneliness intimate. His compositions, his scenes did not stop at the edge of the canvas. They carried your eye and continued on beyond. They could almost convince you that the isolated scene was a part of the whole, part of the larger world. She had always wished she could see what they saw.
She’d been going to these kinds of conferences for years. For IARR she’d been either a panelist or key speaker for the last eight years—they invited her as an expert on human connection and the psychology of socio-marital relationships.
Dr. Andrea Leigh Macias leading expert in the Psychology of human connection. That’s what she was touted as by the university. Andie bore through it—smiled at conferences, suffered through wearing high heels in the hopes that in gaining a few inches she’d appear more confident. But what she truly hoped for was that no one at the university, that no other researchers, that no one around her, would ever know that she was the proverbial complete and total hack.
On the train Andie pretended to look through her notes to appear busy, so people would just leave her be. She hadn’t changed her speech in years. She always started off with two anecdotes about newlywed couples. One where a husband spent six hours a day in front of the computer, completely oblivious to the outside world, ignoring his wife—a wife who hoped that he’d eventually get bored of World of Warcraft. The other anecdote referenced the case of a young wife who couldn’t disconnect from her social feeds—couldn’t stop scanning article after article, post after post—and a husband who felt inadequate, that he couldn’t compete. She then went on to discuss these communication problems—how to get at the root. She gave the practicing psychologists who attended her lectures the tools to help their patients. She helped them to identify the true causes of miscommunication and subsequent feelings of rejection. She gave them strategies to plan out a course of treatment to stop the bleeding pain—the psychological equivalent of a styptic pencil. She had been told hundreds of times that her work had helped save families, friendships, and so many marriages on the edge of failure.
Her own longest relationship, the one and only that she’d tried to observe and analyze as if she were researching out in the field, had been years before Julia was born—with a much younger man—her former teaching assistant, Mark. He’d moved in with her after he graduated and couldn’t find work. He sat around the house for months in his boxers and t-shirt playing video games for entire days, talking through a headset to other young men in other parts of the country—all probably doing much the same thing, killing time not knowing what they were waiting for. Community gaming. One of her colleagues at the time had been researching the phenomena, and Andie was recording data for her, keeping a record of the time he spent gaming. Then she began keeping a record of their interaction as a couple. Not surprising, she and Mark didn’t talk much. In fact, he mostly ignored her or forgot she was there. Still, Andie remembered those times as being happy. He didn’t expect much from her and she was left to do whatever she wanted—shut herself in with research for the weekend, eat Chinese takeout for days on end, do her laundry at one in the morning if she felt like it.
But that relationship had fallen victim to what she’d recently overheard Julia and her friends call “ghosting.” He’d met some rare young woman while playing this stupid game, Call of Duty, and slowly his things began to disappear from around the house until he was just gone, leaving only an imprint where he’d spent so much time on the couch.
Weeks after Mark had left, Andie came home to find a letter slid under the door. An explanation. She recalled the feeling she had after reading it. She felt weightless, no, unsubstantial—when she thought about what it meant, what it said about her, that he’d left her, the comfort of the house, after falling for what was essentially a disembodied voice.
Relationships were only the tip of the iceberg. Her insecurities went beyond her personal life. In her latest work, she’d been accused of plagiarizing from a paper by venerable qualitative researcher Dr. Brené Brown. She’d wrangled her way out of that one. Her name was cleared through peer review. A miracle because it was true, she was a plagiarist—not a word for word one, but she hadn’t had an original research idea in years. She piggybacked off other’s work. She was constantly on edge—they know, they’ll find out.
She’d started having these reoccurring dreams of flying in a plane sitting between Melania Trump and a giant preening vulture—where hundreds of rats are let loose in the cabin. And sometimes, when walking in crowds of people, on campus, in the street, she’d think she’d seen rats scavenging. She didn’t want to know where that put her on the sanity spectrum.
The convention center, though it was open and bright, had the air of a space station, some removed outpost. There was also something dystopian about it. Maybe it was all the gray carpet. Maybe it was all the people in psychologist uniform—more gray on gray, they only ever wore muted colors. Or, maybe it was the disconcerting plasma screens set up on walls all around. It was a bad idea feeding news about Trump to a bunch of behavioral psychologists and social researchers—it fed the anger and tension. It made Andie anxious.
She tried and failed to pay attention in the few panels she attended. Panels with titles like: The Authoritarian Voter: The Psychology and Values of Trump Supporters, Love Me Tinder: A Psychological Perspective on Swiping and Wake Up! The Sleep Deprivation Link to Unethical Behavior.
She didn’t even try to hide it as she checked her texts and emails, hoping for an unsolicited word from Julia. It was just as well. Most of the time she just didn’t care about what anyone had to say. And when she did it only provoked jealousy within her—made her bite her nails in anger and anxiety, and she didn’t want to bite her nails. She’d just got a manicure. Paid thirty dollars to have her nails painted in some shade called tropical sunset.
Her keynote was being held in a large, windowless auditorium. They’d set up a small square of a stage skirted in a heavy black velvet fabric at the designated front of the room and three hundred metal chairs with gray upholstery at the headrest and seat were turned to face it. On either side of the stage were two giant screens set at slight angles. Fantastic, she thought. Now she’d be able to see herself in the periphery—it was the last thing she wanted. It was bad enough three hundred sets of eyes would be scrutinizing her she didn’t need to own self-scrutiny added to the mix.
The moderator called her out on stage. She wanted to close her eyes, she was never able to relax until the stage lights turned on and she couldn’t make out anyone’s face. Andie meant to give her rehearsed speech complete with stale archaic Internet devilifying anecdotes. But that’s not what came out of her. She froze, stood there saying nothing for much longer than was comfortable. Her mind went back to the notes, all the notes she’d pilfered, the threads of thought she picked up and whisked away from various parts of other people’s research—the same research notes that had been living, growing, scattershot about her house for the past two years. Then it just came out of her, all these words that weren’t hers, and couldn’t stop herself. Her body, throat, mouth, tongue were beyond her control. It was like a demonic possession. The physical Andrea did one thing and the consciousness of Andie another. They had become two separate beings. No, she told herself, that’s mad. She was logical. This was logical. This was classic—this was textbook Self-Damnation. She tried to stop but the speech just kept coming up through her. She tried to move her arms, to clamp her hands over her mouth. But instead her right hand reached out, pointed towards the screen and clicked the small button on the remote she’d been given to run through her slides.
The screens switched from showing her enlarged face to her PowerPoint presentation. The presentation she’d painstakingly edited over the years that now wouldn’t match up to this speech that was coming out of her. But, when she hit the button the slide that appeared on the screen didn’t show the images of couples in domestic settings that she’d hunted for on wiki commons but the word Shame, in large block print. Each time the button was pressed to switch the slide the word grew bigger.
“Shame,” She spoke it, near shouted it into the audience. The word itself showing two feet high in bold text on the screens beside her. “Is the thing that incapacitates connection. And shame, in this context can be read and understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”
Of its own accord, her thumb pressed the button for the next slide. “This is what we know about shame. Feeling shame is universal; we all experience it. The only people that don’t are those that have no capacity for human empathy. Yet, no one wants to talk about their shame, and the less you talk about it, if we hide it, numb ourselves to it, the more the experience of the emotion deepens.” She began to feel the creep of perspiration beneath her arms and at her hairline. “What underpins this shame, is the feeling and idea of not being good enough, the I’m not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough. And what lies behind this is excruciating vulnerability. Caused by the fact that, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
She spoke out to the blur of audience. “So how do we cope? The mechanisms that have evolved for us to cope with shame and vulnerability are poor. We numb. We drink, overeat, struggle with all kinds addictions, we isolate ourselves to not have to feel confronted. But it’s an ineffective way to cope.” The next slide displayed a familiar scene, Andie alone, drinking straight from a bottle of Two-Buck-Chuck, binge-watching something that looked vaguely BBC. “You can’t selectively numb emotion. You can’t take those feelings of shame, fear and disappointment, those things that leave you vulnerable and decide you don’t want to feel them. Not without consequences. When we filter out and numb those feelings that make us uncomfortable, we also numb joy we hobble our capacity for happiness. We can’t feel connected to others, to the world around us and then, we become miserable.”
“The other thing we do is that we make the uncertain, certain. There can be no gray area. Religion has gone from a sense of belief and embracing of faith to a rhetoric of certainty. I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up, and that’s it. The reality is that the more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we feel, the more we react—and it becomes impossible to reveal how afraid we are. We fool ourselves into not feeling fear by shielding ourselves with certainty and we blame others for our difficulties and failures.”
The next slides showed collages of Christian groups protesting Planned Parenthood and Gay Pride parades, then a giant stretched out photo of Trump and Bannon, with their eat shit grins. “This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame.” The following slide was a photo collage of her life. A photo of her standing to the side of a group of colleagues, the only woman in her department, taken after she’d been passed over for tenure—the only photo of her and her mother and father together. She sat fat and happy on her mother’s lap, both of them smiling for the camera. Her father stood next them looking away at something beyond the edge of the picture. In the center of it all a photo of her and Julia, from last Christmas, where she’s looking at Julia. Julia’s all smiles looking at her unopened gifts. Andie wanted to disappear, instead her voice got louder. “You know how blame is described in psych-research terms? It’s described as a way to discharge pain and discomfort.”
“We try to perfect everything.” The speech continued on describing the ways that people try to hide flaws, to deny that they have any, to make their flaws, their imperfections, their mistakes someone else’s fault. Photos of the White House pressroom flashed on the screens, images of Spicer deriding a mass of reporters. Horrible close-up photo clips of Conway, or as Julia called her, beef-jerky face.
The next slides were more horrifying to Andie. Instead of showing images, YouTube’d clips of her life played on screen. Shaky video footage of the house she grew up in—scenes of asking other girl’s parents to drop her off two streets away, pretending the nicest house on that block was hers. A clip of her at Julia’s age in her old bedroom hiding her Belle & Sebastian and Smiths CDs, before those first nothing-boys she’d attracted came over. That clip had scrolling text that read Andie gives up the things she loves just to fit in. Then there was a panning shot of her mother looking tired, disappointed alone in the house, and then a clip of the stranger she’d imagined her father had become—half hiding behind a palm frond, from some imagined scene of Colombia. Andie longed to cry, but the speech continued on expelled in what felt like waves of nausea.
“That last thing we do is pretend. We fool ourselves, lie to ourselves and others, that what we do doesn’t have an effect on people. We do this in our personal lives, as individuals. We do it collectively—we skirt the truth. Deny and deny. We claim that what’s happening is not real. Pretend it’s not our fault and we never fail to lay blame. Whether it’s on a personal level, or en masse.” Images of decade-old news clips covering the bailout, oil spills, recalls, bans, flashed before her. Then the next slides went dark before opening up to current acts of racism and violence pulsing across the giant screens. “What we need most from those around us to make meaningful connections, we might never get. We need for people to be authentic and real. To empathize, to admit, to apologize.”
“How can we escape this? How can we overcome vulnerability and feel connected, feel worthy of connection? How can we stop numbing, stop perfecting, stop pretending—how can we leave room for what lies between certainty and the unknown?
What it comes down to is this: having a sense of worthiness—a strong sense of love and belonging. And people fall into two categories here. There are those who struggle for connection, always wondering if they’re good enough and then there are those people who believe they’re worthy of love and belonging.
“And that’s the variable. Simply stated, the people who make strong connections, who feel loved and welcomed, believe that they are worthy of love and belonging. So, what are these people doing differently? Are they hardwired with that propensity?
“These people can be defined as, rather, they are, whole-hearted people. They live their lives from this deep sense of worthiness. What they have in common is a sense of courage.” As the words pushed through her, as she spoke them, Andie felt hate. How she hated those wholehearted people. Hated them from the darkest recesses of her envy.
“Courage,” the speech continued, “the original definition of courage, comes from the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart”—and when the word in its entirety first appeared in English, the original usage, what it meant was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. The wholehearted have the courage to be imperfect. They have the compassion to be kind, to themselves first, and then to others, and they have meaningful connection as a result of their authenticity.”
Andie was shaking, exhausted. Here it is she thought. Here now, the world could see her for what she truly was, lonely, afraid, struggling and lying, lying just to hold on. Her vision grew clouded for a second she began seeing double, but her voice continued on, steady. “The whole-hearted are willing to let go of who they think they should be in order to be who they are. The other thing that they have in common is this …”1
She didn’t finish the last sentence. The room went dark. Then everything was thrown into shadow as the amber emergency lights came on above the doorways. Andie was free to move. She pulled off the butterfly mic clipped to the collar of her blouse. She only wanted to be away from all those people. But there was nowhere to go. There were so many shadows writhing to get out. Out to what? Outside in the convention center there would be more people running in and out of psych panels and lectures—when it was useless trying to change human nature. Beyond that, in the city streets, in apartments, homes, offices and civic buildings, there would be even more people and their lies—lies, blame, resentment and loathing.
Andie crawled off the side of the stage and under the platform. She stayed there hidden behind the heavy curtain until she could no longer hear the shuffle of feet, until her ears no longer rang with the drone of voices, until the doors closed final on the moment, loud and echoing through the empty space.
It was ugly out there.
She made her way to the museum. It had been raining and she hid beneath her coat to keep dry and to keep the feeling of being hidden. She often ducked out to the museum when she needed a break or escape during these conferences. But there wasn’t any escaping the crowds. People moved along the halls all too slow. Parents let their children test everyone’s patience—just let them compete at squeaking their tennis shoes the loudest across the smooth floors. Not one, but two men stepped in front of Andie, blocked her view of the art, oblivious to her as they stood there looking at their phones texting. Rude and ignorant, didn’t they know that with certain paintings you have to back away to appreciate the fullness of the scene?
So few things in the world called to her, but she loved the awe invoked by medieval and renaissance art and music. And these people were ruining it for her. They should give people a test before allowing them into museums. Was it that she hated people? The only person she truly loved was Julia, but how did Julia see her? Why did everything bother her? Why did she categorize and divide everyone and near everything into binaries of awful and annoying?
In another life, she would have studied art and not people, though in a way they were similar. It was easy to think of paintings as mere artifact, objects suffused with meanings that lived behind the seal of a distant past, and not as representations of history, alive with what they had to tell the world. But Andie felt a connection to them, understood the movement through the stillness of the canvas—perceived their union beyond the separation of the frame. To her their importance screamed out through history. In the world #theypersisted, they mattered.
She made her way to the works by Veronese to the Martyrdom and Last Communion of Saint Lucy, her favorite painting in the gallery. There, in hues of red and gold, a young Lucy is rendered exposing her breast—a dagger thrust deep through her heart. When Andie was young the story of St. Lucy never failed to make her cry. Andie remembered back to the CCD classes that as a kid she’d been made to attend every Sunday after mass—she remembered the anger she felt towards those that sealed Lucy’s fate. For a long while they were on a list, a list not dissimilar to the one she kept of every person who’d told her Hillary was just as bad as Trump—a list that she recited to herself every night like Arya Stark.
One, Lucy’s father for dying, leaving his daughter to his wife’s mercy. Two, Lucy’s mother. Who had arranged for her only daughter to be married to one of their city’s wealthiest merchants. She didn’t know or care that Lucy, called by God, had converted to Christianity and made a vow to remain chaste, to keep her body sacred, and to live a humble life. And, she did not know that Lucy had given away all the wealth that she possessed—her dowry.
Three, the merchant. When he heard that Lucy had given away her dowry, that she had broken the contract of marriage, he turned her in to the magistrate, not only for breach of contract, but for a more punishable offense of enacting her own will and deciding to practice Christianity.
Four, Pacchius. Lucy was ordered to repent and to lay offerings a statue erected in honor of Pacchius, the governor of their state. But she refused, and Pacchius, not to be defied by a young woman, sentenced her to a punishment of his own twisted imagining. Lucy was to be taken to a city brothel and defiled.
Five, the guards. When Paccihus’ guards came to take her away they were unable to move her. The small girl stood her ground, immovable as a mountain. They tried hitching her to a team of twelve oxen and still they failed to fell her. No strong arm or militia of men and beast could take her. So, they piled bundles of wood around her and tried to set them alight. But the wood wouldn’t burn. In the end, they unsheathed their swords—cut her throat and pierced her heart. Lucy died with her blood running in the streets. Her name, her story would then be used as an example to incite alarm and anger at those deemed enemies of the Catholic church. But what had struck Andie about the story, so much so that she spent many childhood nights in tears, was that someone so strong of conviction could still be so vulnerable of flesh.
In the next gallery, she walked up to the painting of Susanna and the Elders, her gaze drawn to the beautiful nude figure of Susanna seated by her bathing pool—her luminous honey-tinged skin, face, chest, and stomach aglow where patches of dappled light came in through the lush green trees and trellis vine of the bower garden around her. Andie wanted to reach out and touch the canvas. She wanted to blot out the creeping images of the two old men that peered over the trellis wall at the unsuspecting Susanna. The biblical tale came back to her. She remembered the way it was taught to her. Susanna is caught in a moment, out in the open unguarded, unashamed of her body—unaware of the men watching her. In one moment of claiming freedom, of laying herself bare, naked—in daring to do what she wanted, Susanna put herself in danger made herself vulnerable to so much.
Andie walked past so many of these women rendered in contrasts of dark and light—in shades of molten red and imager-polished ambers. She stopped a long time to admire Rembrandt’s golden Lucretia. Arms flung open, wrist turned in aiming a dagger at her own heart in a ludicrous act of suicide to defend her family’s honor. One of the many women throughout history portrayed as figure whose virtue alone serves to inflame the desires of men like Sextus Tarquinius, son of the Roman tyrant Lucius Tarquinius.
Lucretia’s virtue is boasted of by her husband to anyone he comes in contact with. But it is her weakness and flaw. The story is that Sextus is received as a guest in Lucretia’s house while her husband is away and that he sneaks into her room during the night. Sword to her throat he professes love to her and tries to persuade her into the act, failing that he threatens to shame her. If she did not submit, he would rape her and kill her and next to her body he would place the corpse of a slave with his throat cut. That way it would seem that she had been killed in the act of adultery.
Andrea never understood why Sextus wasn’t bright enough to figure out that leaving her alive she would most certainly tell her husband she’d been raped … but at any rate he didn’t. He raped her and fled. And, though Lucretia’s husband and father both deem her an innocent victim, she still ends her life in order to maintain her honor, their honor—and not live as a defiled woman. Provoking her husband to state that she was truly the most virtuous of wives.
Her rape and death is then held up serving to enrage a rebel army—spurring them on to victory over a despotic king and ending in the formation of the Republic of Rome.
Lucretia, Susanna, Lucy and countless others, were the OG (the original, as Julia would say it) unsanitized versions of MPDGs, Manic Pixie Dream Girls (a term Andie had read in the New Yorker). Their lives steeped in shame and shrouded in death—fulfilled the very same role as their modern-day counterparts, to serve as examples to incite men to action.
The museum was full of them, these muses and martyrs. Ultimately powerless and silenced within their very own stories.
She walked through the gallery rooms moving through centuries of history—in the east garden court atrium, the museum was holding a concert. They must have been playing for some time, but Andie hadn’t been paying attention hadn’t really been listening. When she saw the performers on the small central stage she stopped still, tried to hear them sing, but how could she? People were moving their metal chairs to accommodate oversized bags. Rustling their programs, discussing whether to leave and come back or shell out the cash for a museum lunch, and there were the babies, one babbling nonsense the other crying, the same children squeaking their shoes, an old man coughing into his closed fist. Unable to stand it she walked fast to find an exit.
She had to fight her way through more people now. More families, couples and tourists were coming in from the rain—shaking water from their coats and umbrellas onto the marble floor. Andie hadn’t noticed. In one hard angry step she slipped, lost balance and fell. The sound of her head hitting the floor rocked through her. The sound of all the movement around her stopped. There was no dark or light. There was nothing, she felt nothing. Not even the weight and breadth of her body lying still.
Then it came and pulled her out of the gray. She felt it carry her. Singing. Voices so textured she ached to hold her palms open, to feel each strain of music run through her fingers like water. But there was no space to move in, or to reach out from, she was already a part of it, a single note moving in a sweep of sound—clean, pure, rounded, whole. The veined marble halls, pillars and floors reflected her sound and the sound of all that surrounded her. The music rose, each phrase curving upwards—all the sound reaching through eternities of depth. Rising with it felt like rushing through the velvet dark of a warm summer night.
Oh, she felt it, the beauty—heard the music in the giving way to being vulnerable—in relying on the space, the world, around you—to give you breadth and life. The song she was a part of called out over the imperfect: the crying children, older couples shuffling by with heavy feet, a cough, a laugh, people shaking the rain off their umbrellas, the silence of those wandering alone.
It carried her forward, flowing through it all—then they began to descend. And she heard the pain and vulnerability, of everything around her. She heard it, and she carried its sound at the depth of her core, and she fell into the whole of it, all the beauty.
As she fell, the ghost of that feeling held her as if she were suspended above all that grounded her.
An older woman had stopped to help and knelt by her fallen body. Andie could feel the warmth of her hand through the bunched-up tissues pressed tight to stop the bleeding. Opening her eyes, she saw faces concerned and kind. A young man draped his jacket over her and had given up his scarf for her to use as a pillow. The security officer she passed on the way in moved towards her, offering a paper cup brimming with water, and she knew that help was coming.
1. Speech adapted from Brené Brown’s TedX talk, On Vulnerability
Suzzanna Matthews-Amanzio is a graduate of Mills College in Oakland, California. While she considers California home, she grew up in New England and has lived, studied, and traveled abroad: from Latin America to Spain, the Caribbean to the Pacific, Newfoundland to Japan. She currently lives in Dublin, Ireland, where she is working on a collection of short stories.