Ottessa Moshfegh is also the author of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Homesick for Another World: Stories, and McGlue.
I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange, young and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window. The sunlight in the morning illuminated the thin down on my face, which I tried to cover with pressed powder, a shade too pink for my wan complexion. I was thin, my figure was jagged, my movements pointy and hesitant, my posture stiff. The terrain of my face was heavy with soft, rumbling acne scars blurring whatever delight or madness lay beneath that cold and deadly New England exterior. If I’d worn glasses I could have passed for smart, but I was too impatient to be truly smart. You’d have expected me to enjoy the stillness of closed rooms, take comfort in dull silence, my gaze moving slowly across paper, walls, heavy curtains, thoughts never shifting from what my eyes identified—book, desk, tree, person. But I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life—the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.
And back then—this was fifty years ago—I was a prude. Just look at me. I wore heavy wool skirts that fell past my knees, thick stockings. I always buttoned my jackets and blouses as high as they could go. I wasn’t a girl who turned heads. But there was nothing really so wrong or terrible about my appearance. I was young and fine, average, I guess. But at the time I thought I was the worst—ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world. In such a state it seemed ridiculous to call attention to myself. I rarely wore jewelry, never perfume, and I didn’t paint my nails. For a while I did wear a ring with a little ruby in it. It had belonged to my mother.
My last days as that angry little Eileen took place in late December, in the brutal cold town where I was born and raised. The snow had fallen for the winter, a good three or four feet of it. It sat staunchly in every front yard, rolled out at the lip of every first-floor windowsill like a flood. During the day, the top layer of snow melted and the slush in the gutters loosened a bit and you remembered that life was joyful from time to time, that the sun did shine. But by afternoon, the sun had disappeared and everything froze all over again, building a glaze on the snow so thick at night it could hold the weight of a full-grown man. Each morning, I threw salt from the bucket by the front door down the narrow path from the porch to the street. Icicles hung from the rafter over the front door, and I stood there imagining them cracking and darting through my breasts, slicing through the thick gristle of my shoulder like bullets or cleaving my brain into pieces. The sidewalk had been shoveled by the next-door neighbors, a family my father distrusted because they were Lutheran and he was Catholic. But he distrusted everyone. He was fearful and crazy the way old drunks get. Those Lutheran neighbors had left a white wicker basket of cellophane-wrapped waxed apples, a box of chocolates, and a bottle of sherry by the front door for Christmas. I remember the card read, “Bless you both.”
Who really knew what happened inside the house while I was at work? It was a three-story colonial of brown wood and flaking red trim. I imagine my father sucking down that sherry in the spirit of Christmas, lighting an old cigar on the stove. That’s a funny picture. Generally he drank gin. Beer, occasionally. He was a drunk, as I said. He was simple in that way. When something was the matter, he was easy to distract and soothe: I’d just hand him a bottle and leave the room. Of course his drinking put a strain on me as a young person. It made me very tense and edgy. That happens when one lives with an alcoholic. My story in this sense is not unique. I’ve lived with many alcoholic men over the years, and each has taught me that it is useless to worry, fruitless to ask why, suicide to try to help them. They are who they are, for better and worse. Now I live alone. Happily. Gleefully, even. I’m too old to concern myself with other people’s affairs. And I no longer waste my time thinking ahead into the future, worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. But I worried all the time when I was young, not least of all about my future, and mostly with respect to my father—how long he had left to live, what he might do, what I would find when I got home from work each evening.
Ours was not a very nice home. After my mother died, we never sorted or put her things away, never rearranged anything, and without her to clean it, the house was dirty and dusty and full of useless decorations and crowded with things, things, things everywhere. And yet it felt completely empty. It was like an abandoned home, its owners having fled one night like Jews or gypsies. We didn’t use the den or the dining room or the upstairs bedrooms much. Everything just sat there collecting dust, a magazine splayed over the arm of the couch for years, candy dish full of dead ants. I remember it like those photos of homes in the desert ravaged by nuclear testing. I think you can imagine the details for yourself.
I slept in the attic, on a cot purchased by my father for some summer camping trip he never took a decade earlier. The attic was unfinished, a cold and dusty place I’d retreated to when my mother had gotten sick. Sleep in my childhood bedroom, which was next to hers, had been impossible. She had wailed and cried and called my name throughout the night. The attic was quiet. Not much noise traveled up there from the lower floors of the house. My father had an armchair that he’d dragged from the den into the kitchen. He slept there. It was the kind of chair that shuttled backward at the pull of a lever, a charming novelty when he’d bought it. But the lever no longer worked. The thing had rusted into permanent repose. Everything in the house was like that chair—grimy, ruined, and frozen.
I remember it pleased me that the sun set so early that winter. Under the cover of darkness, I was somewhat comforted. My father, however, was scared of the dark. That may sound like an endearing peculiarity, but it was not. At night he would light the stove and the oven and drink and watch the blue flames whir under the weak overhead light. He was always cold, he said. And yet he barely dressed. This one evening—I’ll begin my story there—I found him sitting barefoot on the stairs, drinking the sherry, the butt of a cigar between his fingers. “Poor Eileen,” he said sarcastically when I walked through the door. He was very contemptuous of me, found me pathetic and unattractive and had no qualms about saying so. If my daydreams from back then came true, one day I’d have found him splayed out at the bottom of the stairs, neck broken but still breathing. “It’s about time,” I’d say with the most bored affect I could muster, peering over his dying body. So I loathed him, yes, but I was very dutiful. It was just the two of us in the house—Dad and me. I do have a sister, still alive as far as I know, but we haven’t spoken in over fifty years.
“Hi, Dad,” I said, passing him on the stairs.
He was not a very large man, but he had broad shoulders and long legs, a sort of regal look about him. His thinning gray hair stood up high and bowed over the crown of his head. His face appeared to be decades older than he really was, and bore in it a wide-eyed skepticism and a look of perpetual disapproval. In retrospect he was much like the boys in the prison where I worked—sensitive and angry. His hands shook all the time no matter how much he drank. He was always rubbing at his chin, which was red and drawn and wrinkled. He’d tug at it the way you’d rub the head of a young boy and call him a little rascal. His one regret in life, he said, was that he’d never been able to grow a real beard, as though he could have willed it, but he had failed to. He was like that—regretful and arrogant and illogical at once. I don’t think he ever really loved his children. The wedding band he continued to wear years after her death suggested that he’d loved our mother to some degree at least. But I suspect he was incapable of love, real love. He was a cruel character. Imagining his parents beating him as a child is the only path to forgiveness that I have found so far. It isn’t perfect, but it does the trick.
This isn’t a story of how awful my father was, let me be clear. Bemoaning his cruelty is not the point of this at all. But I do remember that day on the stairs, how he winced when he turned to look up at me, as though the sight of me made him ill. I stood on the landing, looking down.
“You’re going out again,” he croaked, “to Lardner’s.” Lardner’s was the liquor store across town. He let the empty sherry bottle slip from his fingers and roll down the staircase, step by step.
I’m very reasonable now, peaceful even, but back then I was easily enraged. My father’s demands that I do his bidding like a maid, a servant, were constant. But I was not the kind of girl to say no to anyone.
“All right,” I said.
My father grunted and puffed on the short butt of his cigar.
When I was disturbed, I took some comfort in attending to my appearance. I was obsessed with the way I looked, in fact. My eyes are small and green, and you wouldn’t—especially back then—have seen much kindness in them. I am not one of those women who try to make people happy all the time. I’m not that strategic. If you’d seen me back then with a barrette in my hair, my mousy gray wool coat, you’d have expected me to be just a minor character in this saga—conscientious, even-tempered, dull, irrelevant. I looked like a shy and gentle soul from afar, and sometimes I wished I was one. But I cursed and blushed and broke out in sweats quite often, and that day I slammed the bathroom door shut by kicking it with the full sole of my shoe, nearly busting the hinges. I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s. It was easy to hide behind the dull face I wore, moping around. I really thought I had everybody fooled. And I didn’t really read books about flowers or home economics. I liked books about awful things—murder, illness, death. I remember selecting one of the thickest books from the public library, a chronicle of ancient Egyptian medicine, to study the gruesome practice of pulling the brains of the dead out through the nose like skeins of yarn. I liked to think of my brain like that, tangled up in my skull. The idea that my brains could be untangled, straightened out, and thus refashioned into a state of peace and sanity was a comforting fantasy. I often felt there was something wired weird in my brain, a problem so complicated only a lobotomy could solve it—I’d need a whole new mind or a whole new life. I could be very dramatic in my self-assessments. Besides books, I enjoyed my issues of National Geographic magazine, which I got delivered to me in the mail. That was a real luxury and made me feel very special. Articles describing the naive beliefs of the primitives fascinated me. Their blood rites, the human sacrifices, all that needless suffering. I was dark, you might say. Moony. But I don’t think I was really so hardhearted by nature. Had I been born into a different family, I might have grown up to act and feel perfectly normal.
Truth be told, I was a glutton for punishment. I didn’t really mind getting bossed around by my father. I’d get angry, and I loathed him, yes, but my fury gave my life a kind of purpose, and running his errands killed time. That is what I imagined life to be—one long sentence of waiting out the clock.
I tried to look miserable and exhausted when I came out from the bathroom that evening. My father groaned impatiently. I sighed and plucked the cash he held out. I buttoned my coat back up. I was relieved to have somewhere to go, a way to pass the evening hours other than to pace the attic or watch my father drink. There was nothing I loved more than leaving the house.
If I had slammed the front door hard on my way out, as I was tempted to, one of those icicles overhead would have surely cracked off. I imagined one plummeting through the hollow of my collarbone and stabbing me straight through the heart. Or, had I tilted my head back, perhaps it would have soared down my throat, scraping the vacuous center of my body—I liked to picture these things—and followed through to my guts, finally parting my nether regions like a glass dagger. That was how I imagined my anatomy back then, brain like tangled yarn, body like an empty vessel, private parts like some strange foreign country. But I was careful shutting the door, of course. I didn’t really want to die.
Since my father had become unfit to drive it, I drove his old Dodge. I loved that car. It was a four-door Coronet, matte green, full of scrapes and dents. The floorboards had rusted through from years of salt and ice. I kept in the glove box of the Dodge a dead field mouse I’d found one day on the porch frozen in a tight ball. I’d picked it up by its tail and swirled it through the air for a moment, then slung it in the glove box with a broken flashlight, a map of New England freeways, a few green nickels. Every now and then that winter, I’d peek at the mouse, check on its invisible decomposition in the freezing cold. I think it made me feel powerful somehow. A little totem. A good luck charm.
Outside I tested the temperature with the tip of my tongue, sticking it out into the biting wind until it hurt. That night it must have been down close to single digits. It hurt just to breathe. But I preferred cold weather over hot. Summers I was restless and cranky. I’d break out in rashes, have to lie in cold baths. I’d sit at my desk in the prison whipping a paper fan furiously at my face. I did not like to sweat in front of other people. Such proof of carnality I found lewd, disgusting. Similarly, I did not like to dance or do sports. I did not listen to the Beatles or watch Ed Sullivan on TV. I wasn’t interested in fun or popularity back then. I preferred to read about ancient times, distant lands. Knowledge of anything current or faddish made me feel I was just a victim of isolation. If I avoided all that on purpose, I could believe I was in control.
One thing about that Dodge was that it made me sick to drive it. I knew there was something wrong with the exhaust, but at the time I couldn’t think of dealing with such a problem. Part of me liked having to roll down the windows, even in the cold. I thought that I was very brave. But really I was scared that if I made a fuss over the car, it would be taken away from me. That car was the one thing in my life that gave me any hope. It was my only means of escape. Before he’d retired, my father had driven it on his days off. He’d wheeled it around town so carelessly—parked up on curbs, screeched around corners, stalled out on no gas at the dead of night, scraped it alongside milk delivery trucks, the side of the AMP building, and so forth. Everybody drove drunk back then, but that was no excuse. I myself was a decent driver. I never sped, never blew through red lights. When it was dark out, I liked to drive slowly, foot barely on the pedal, and watch the town roll by like in a movie. I always imagined other people’s homes to be so much nicer than mine, full of polished wood furniture and elegant fireplaces and stockings hung for Christmas. Cookies in the cupboards, lawn mowers in the garages. It was easy to think of everyone having it better than me back then. Down the block, one illuminated vestibule made me feel particularly disparaged. It had a white bench and a blade by the door like an upturned ice skate to scrape the snow from your boots and a garland of holly hung on the front door. The town was a pretty place, quaint, you’d call it. And unless you’ve grown up in New England, you don’t know the peculiar stillness of a coastal town covered in snow at night. It is not like in other places. The light does something funny at sunset. It seems not to wane but to recede out toward the ocean. The light just gets pulled away.
I’ll never forget that bright jangle of the bell over the liquor store door since it rang for me nearly every evening. Lardner’s Liquors. I loved it there. It was warm and orderly, and I wandered the aisles for as long as I could, pretending to browse. I knew, of course, where the gin was kept: center aisle on the right if you’re facing the cashier, a few feet from the back wall, and just two shelves of it, Beefeater on top and Seagram’s below it. Mr. Lewis, who worked there, was so gentle and happy, as though it had never occurred to him just what all that liquor was for. That night, I got the gin, paid, and went back to the car, laid the bottles on the passenger’s seat. How odd it is that liquor never freezes. It was the one thing in that place that simply refused the cold. I shivered in the Dodge, turned the key, and drove slowly home. I took the long and scenic route as the darkness fell, I remember.
My father was in his chair in the kitchen when I got back to the house. Nothing special happened that night. It’s just a place to begin. I set the bottles down within his reach on the floor and crumpled the paper bag in my fist, threw it at the pile of trash by the back door. I walked up to the attic. I read my magazine. I went to bed.
So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes—a prison for children. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate.
In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.
Friday meant a noxious aroma of fish was wafting up from the basement cafeteria and through the cold quarters where the boys slept, down the linoleum halls and into the windowless office where I spent my days. It was a smell so pungent and punishing I could detect it even outside in the parking lot when I arrived at Moorehead that morning. I had built up the habit of locking my purse in the trunk of my car before I went in to work. There were lockers in the break room behind the office, but I didn’t trust the staff. My father had warned me when I’d started there at age twenty-one, naive beyond reproach, that the most dangerous individuals in a prison are not the criminals but the very people who work there. I can confirm this to be true. Those were perhaps the wisest words my father ever told me.
I’d packed a lunch consisting of two squares of Wonderbread, buttered and packaged in tinfoil, and a can of tuna fish. It was Friday and I didn’t want to go to hell, after all. I did my best to smile and nod at my coworkers, both awful middle-aged women with stiff hairdos who barely looked up from their romance novels unless the warden was around. Their desks were littered with yellow cellophane wrappers from caramel candies which they each kept in fake crystal bowls on the corners of their desks. As awful as they were, the office ladies ranked low on the list of despicable characters in my life over the years. Working day shifts in the office with them, I really didn’t have it so bad. Having a desk job meant I rarely had to interact with one of the four or five terrifying and pig-nosed correctional officers whose job it was to mend the wicked ways of Moorehead’s young residents. They were like army sergeants, rapping boys with batons on the backs of their legs as they shuffled around, restraining them in schoolyard-style choke holds. I tried to look the other way when things got hairy. Mostly I looked up at the clock.
The overnight guards would get off shift at eight, when I arrived, and I never knew them, though I remember their exhausted faces—one was a loping idiot and the other a balding veteran with tobacco-stained fingers. They’re not important. But one daytime guard was just wonderful looking. He had big hound-dog eyes, a strong profile still softened with youth and what I thought, of course, was some sort of magical sadness about him, and hair that gleamed in a high ducktail—Randy. I liked to watch him from my desk. He sat in the hallway that connected the office to the rest of the facility. He wore the standard starched gray uniform, well-oiled motorcycle boots, a heavy set of keys clipped to his belt loop. He had a way of sitting with one flank on the stool, one off, a foot hanging midair, a posture which presented his crotch as though on a platter for me to gaze at. I was not his type, and I knew so, and that pained me though I never would have admitted it. His type was pretty, long-legged, pouty, probably blond, I suspected. Still, I could dream. I spent many hours watching his biceps flick and pump as he turned each page of his comic book. When I imagine him now, I think of the way he’d swerve a toothpick around in his mouth. It was beautiful. It was poetry. I asked him once, nervous and ridiculous, whether he felt cold wearing just short sleeves in winter. He shrugged. Still waters ran deep, I thought, nearly swooning. It was pointless to fantasize, but I couldn’t help imagine one day he’d throw stones at my attic window, motorcycle steaming out in front of the house, melting the whole town to hell. I was not immune to that sort of thing.
Though I didn’t drink coffee—it made me dizzy—I walked to the corner where the coffee pot was because there was a mirror on the wall above it. Looking at my reflection really did soothe me, though I hated my face with a passion. Such is the life of the self-obsessed. The time I languished in the agony of not being beautiful was more than I care to admit even now. I rubbed a crumb of sleep from my eye and poured myself a cup of cream, sweetened it with sugar and Carnation malted milk, which I kept in my desk drawer. Nobody commented on this strange cocktail. Nobody paid any attention to me at all in that office. The office women were all so soured and flat and cliquish. I suspected at the time they were secretly homosexual for each other. Such persuasions were more and more on one’s mind back then, townsfolk ever watchful for the errant “latent homosexual” on the prowl. My suspicions about the office ladies weren’t necessarily disparaging. It helped me to have a little compassion when I imagined them going home at night to their disgusting husbands, so bitter, so lonely. On the other hand, to think of them with their blouses unbuttoned, hands in each other’s brassieres, legs spread, made me want to vomit.
There was a small section in a book I’d found in the public library that showed casts of faces taken of figures such as Lincoln, Beethoven, and Sir Isaac Newton after they’d died. If you’ve ever seen a real dead body you know that people never die with such complacent grins, such blankness. But I used their plaster casts as a guide and practiced very diligently in the mirror, relaxing my face while keeping an aura of benign resilience, such as I saw in those dead men’s faces. I mention it because it is the face I wore at work, my death mask. Being as young as I was, I was terribly sensitive, and determined never to show it. I steeled myself from the reality of the place, this Moorehead. I had to. Misery and shame surrounded me, but not once did I run to the bathroom crying. Later that morning, delivering mail to the warden’s office, which was within the complex of chambers where the boys studied and had recreational activities, I passed a corrections officer—Mulvaney or Mulroony or Mahoney, they all seemed the same—twisting a boy’s ear as he knelt down in front of him. “You think you’re special?” he asked. “See the dirt on the floor? You matter less than a speck of that dirt between those tiles.” He pushed the boy’s head down face first into his boots, big and steel-toed, hard enough to club someone to death. “Lick it,” said the officer. I watched the boy’s lips part, then I looked away.
The warden’s secretary was a woman so steely-eyed and fat she appeared never to be breathing, her heart never beating. Her death mask was impressive. The only sign of life she ever gave was when she lifted a finger to her mouth and a centimeter of pale lavender tongue came out to wet its tip. She leafed through the stack of envelopes I handed her robotically, then turned away. I lingered for a minute or two, pretending to count days on the calendar hanging on the wall by her desk. “Five days till Christmas,” I said, trying to sound cheerful.
“Praise God,” she replied.
I often think of Moorehead and its laughable credo, parens patriae, and cringe. The boys at Moorehead were all so young, just children. They frightened me at the time because I felt they didn’t like me, didn’t find me attractive. So I tried to cast them off as dunces and wild animals. Some of them were grown, tall and handsome. I was not immune to those boys either.
Back at my desk, there was plenty I could have pondered. It was 1964, so much on the horizon. In every direction something was getting torn down or built up, but I mostly pondered myself and my own misery while I arranged my pens in the cup, crossed off the day on my desk calendar. The second hand on the clock shook and bolted forward like someone at first terrified with anxiety, then, bolstered by desperation, jumping off a cliff only to get stuck in midair. My mind wandered. Randy, more than anywhere else, was where it liked to go. When my paycheck came that Friday, I folded it and slipped it into my bosom, which was hardly a bosom. Just small, hard mounds, really, which I hid beneath layers of cotton underthings, a blouse, a wool jacket. I still had that pubescent fear that when people looked at me, they could see through my clothes. I suspect nobody was fantasizing about my naked body, but I worried that when anyone’s eyes cast downward, they were investigating my nether regions and could somehow decipher the complex and nonsensical folds and caverns wrapped up so tightly down there between my legs. I was always very protective of my folds and caverns. I was still a virgin, of course.
I suppose my prudishness did its duty and saved me from a difficult life such as my sister’s. She was older than me and not a virgin at all and lived with a man who was not her husband a few towns over—“whore” is what our mother had called her. Joanie was perfectly nice, I suppose, but she had a dark, gluttonous streak beneath her buoyant, girlish exterior. She once told me how Cliff, her boyfriend, liked to “taste” her as she woke up in the mornings. She laughed as my face contorted in perplexity, then turned red and cold when I caught her drift. “Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that the most?” she tittered. I envied her plenty, sure, but I never let on. I didn’t really want what she had. Men, boys, the prospect of coupling with one of them seemed ridiculous. The most I desired was a wordless affair. But even that scared me. I had my crush on Randy and a few others, but they never went anywhere. Oh, those poor nether regions of mine, swaddled like a baby in a diaper in thick cotton underpants and my mother’s old strangulating girdle. I wore lipstick not to be fashionable, but because my bare lips were the same color as my nipples. At twenty-four I would give nothing to aid any imagining of my naked body. Meanwhile, it seemed, most young women were intent on doing the opposite.
There was a party at the prison that day. Dr. Frye was retiring. He’d been the very elderly man in charge of doling out gross amounts of sedatives to the boys for decades as the prison’s psychiatrist. He must have been in his eighties. I’m old now myself, but when I was young I really didn’t care for elderly people. I felt their very existence undermined me. I couldn’t have cared less that Dr. Frye was leaving. I signed the card when it crossed my desk with precise, schoolgirl cursive, wrist bent high in sarcasm: “So long.” I remember the image on the front was a black ink drawing of a cowboy riding off into the sunset. Good grief. Over the years at Moorehead, Dr. Frye would come occasionally to observe the family visits, which it was my duty to administrate on a daily basis, and I’d watched him stand at the open doorway to the visitation room, nodding and clacking his gums and hmming, and now and then interjecting with long, wobbling fingers to point for the child to sit up straight, answer the question, apologize, and so on. And he never once said “Hello,” or “How are you, Miss Dunlop?” I was invisible. I was furniture. After lunch—I think I left that can of tuna in my locker, uneaten—they called the staff to the cafeteria for cake and coffee to bid Dr. Frye adieu, and I declined to participate. I sat at my desk and did nothing, just stared at the clock. At some point I got an itch in my underwear, and since there was nobody to see me, I stuck my hand up my skirt to get at it. As swaddled as they were, my nether regions were difficult to scratch. So I had to dig my hand down the front of my skirt, under the girdle, inside the underwear, and when the itch had been relieved, I pulled my fingers out and smelled them. It’s a natural curiosity, I think, to smell one’s fingers. Later, when the day was done, these were the fingers I extended, still unwashed, to Dr. Frye when I wished him a happy retirement on his way out the door.
• • •
Working at Moorehead, I wouldn’t say I was sheltered, exactly. But I was isolated. I did not get out much at all. The town where I lived and had grown up—I’ll call it X-ville—had no tracks of which there could be a wrong side per se. There were grittier areas, however, for the blue-collar and troubled people, a bit closer to the ocean, and I’d driven past their ramshackle houses with yards littered with children’s toys and garbage only a few times. Seeing the people on the roads, so forlorn and angry and uninterested, delighted me and scared me and made me feel ashamed not to be so poor. But the streets in my neighborhood were all tree lined and orderly, houses loved and tended to with pride and affection and a sense of civic order that made me ashamed to be so messy, so broken, so bland. I didn’t know that there were others like me in the world, those who didn’t “fit in,” as people like to put it. Furthermore, as is typical for any isolated, intelligent young person, I thought I was the only one with any consciousness, any awareness of how odd it was to be alive, to be a creature on this strange planet Earth. I’ve seen episodes of The Twilight Zone which illustrate the kind of straight-faced derangement I felt in X-ville. It was very lonely.
Boston in all its brick and ivy gave me hope that there was intelligent life out there, young people living as they pleased. Freedom was not so far away. I’d gone there only once, a trip I took with my mother to see a doctor when she was dying, a doctor who couldn’t cure her but who did prescribe medicine that would make her “comfortable,” as he called it. Such an excursion felt glamorous to me back then. It’s true that I was twenty-four. I was an adult. You’d think I could have driven anywhere I wished. Indeed, my last summer in X-ville, toward the end of one of my father’s longer benders, I took a trip down the coast. My car ran out of gas and I was stranded on a country road just an hour from home until an older woman stopped and gave me a dollar and a ride to the filling station and told me to “plan ahead next time.” I remember the wise woggle of her double chin as she steered the car. She was a country woman, and I respected her. That was when I began to fantasize about my disappearance, convincing myself bit by bit that the solution to my problem—the problem being my life in X-ville—was in New York City.
It was a cliché then and it’s a cliché now, but having heard “Hello, Dolly!” on the radio, it seemed wholly possible for me to show up in Manhattan with money for a room in a boardinghouse and have my future roll out automatically, without my having to think too hard about it. It was just a daydream, but I fed it as best I could. I started saving my own money in cash hidden in the attic. It was my responsibility to deposit my father’s pension checks, which the X-ville police department sent at the beginning of each month, at the X-ville Bank, where the tellers called me Mrs. Dunlop, my mother’s name, and, I thought, would have no problem emptying the account and handing me an envelope of hundred-dollar bills from the Dunlops’ savings if I lied and said I was buying a new car.
I never once discussed my desire to leave X-ville with another person. But a few times, during my darkest hours—I was so moody—when I felt impelled to drive off a bridge or, one particular morning, had a compulsion to slam my hand in the car door, I imagined what relief I might feel if I could lie on Dr. Frye’s couch just once and confess like some sort of fallen hero that my life was simply intolerable. But, in fact, it was tolerable. I’d been tolerating it, after all. Anyway, that young Eileen would never lie down in the company of a man who was not her father. It would be impossible to keep her little breasts from sticking up. Although I was small and wiry then, I believed that I was fat, that my flesh was unwieldy. I could feel my breasts and thighs swinging sensuously to and fro as I walked down the hall. I thought everything about me was so huge and disgusting. I was crazy in that way. My delusion caused me much pain and confusion. I chuckle at it now, but back then I was the bearer of great woes.
Of course nobody in the prison office had any interest in me and my woes, or my breasts. When my mother died and I’d gone to work at Moorehead, Mrs. Stephens and Mrs. Murray had kept their distance. No condolences, no kind or even pitying looks. They were the least maternal women I’ve ever met, and so they were very well suited for the positions they held at the prison. They weren’t severe or strict as you’d imagine. They were lazy, uncultured, total slobs. I imagine they were as bored as I was, but they indulged themselves in sugar and dime-store paperbacks and had no problem licking their fingers after a donut, or burping, or sighing or groaning. I can still remember my mental pictures of them in sexual positions, faces poised at each other’s private parts, sneering at the smell as they extended their caramel-stained tongues. It gave me some satisfaction to imagine that. Perhaps it made me feel dignified in comparison. When they answered the phones, they would literally pinch their noses shut and speak in high-pitched whines. Perhaps they did this to entertain themselves, or perhaps I’m misremembering it. Either way, they had no manners.
“Eileen, get me that new boy’s file, that brat, what’s his name,” said Mrs. Murray.
“The one with the scabs?” Mrs. Stephens clanked her caramel, spat as she spoke. “Brown, Todd. I swear they get uglier and dumber every year.”
“Be careful what you say, Norris. Eileen’s likely to marry one of them someday.”
“That true, Eileen? Your clock ticking?”
Mrs. Stephens was always bragging about her daughter, a tall, thin-lipped girl I’d gone to school with. She’d married some high school baseball coach and moved to Baltimore.
“One day you’ll be old like us,” Mrs. Stephens said.
“Your sweater’s on backwards, Eileen,” said Mrs. Murray. I pulled up my collar to check. “Or maybe not. You’re just so flat, I don’t know what side I’m looking at—front or back.” They went on and on like that. It was awful.
I suppose my manners were just as bad as theirs. I was terribly grim and unaffected, unfriendly. Or else I was strained and chipper and awkward, grating. “Ha-ha,” I said. “Coming or going, that’s me—flat.” I’d never learned how to relate to people, much less how to speak up for myself. I preferred to sit and rage quietly. I’d been a silent child, the kind to suck my thumb long enough to buck out my front teeth. I was lucky they did not buck out too far. Still, of course, I felt my mouth was horselike and ugly, and so I barely smiled. When I did smile, I worked very hard to keep my top lip from riding up, something that required great restraint, self-awareness and self-control. The time I spent disciplining that lip, you would not believe. I truly felt that the inside of my mouth was such a private area, caverns and folds of wet parting flesh, that letting anyone see into it was just as bad as spreading my legs. People did not chew gum as regularly then as we do now. That was considered very childish. So I kept a bottle of Listerine in my locker and swished it often, and sometimes swallowed it if I didn’t think I could get to the ladies’ room sink without having to open my mouth to speak. I didn’t want anyone to think I was susceptible to bad breath, or that there were any organic processes occurring inside my body at all. Having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself. This was the kind of girl I was.