Possessed by Michele Filgate
Birdie peers out the poorly lit window of my ex?boyfriend's house, her paws perched on the top of the frayed couch. Her stare, a mournful stare I know so well, is with me during the long, monotonous drive from Maine to Connecticut. It's as if there's a specter with me in the car. I touch the back of my neck and will it
to go away. It won't.
I used to watch "Unsolved Mysteries" when I was a kid. There was
a particularly creepy episode in which a ghostly face floats behind a window. That face still looms in my imagination years later.
My dog haunts me, too. The worst ghosts are the ones that are alive. You yearn for them, and yet you have no closure. They continue breathing and eating and sleeping and dreaming. And you do the same.
Every dog on the street reminds me of her. Every goddamn one.
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" is an eloquent villanelle, an attempt at convincing us that we lose things, but gain resilience in the process. (Or, convincing herself that she loses things, but she gains resilience in the process.)
How many writers have sliced their hearts into confetti and thrown the pieces into the wind? Never sure of where the bits will fall. Hoping that by deconstructing, one can make some kind of sense out of it.
Bishop said in an interview with The Paris Review, "I've never written the things I'd like to write that I've admired all my life. Maybe one never does."
I admire the writers who gut themselves on the page. They hold back nothing; an empty cavity remains.
"I don't love you anymore," he tells me, out of the blue, and I am a book slammed shut.
We live in a starter apartment attached to a dentist's office on a busy route in Maine. The kitchen is barely a kitchen; we subsist off of egg sandwiches and Chinese takeout and Italian subs and occasionally barbeque chicken nachos from an overrated chain restaurant whose best feature, depending on how you look at it, is their animatronic moose.
He tells me he doesn't love me anymore. The words repeat in my brain on an endless loop; I'm a dry socket, an exposed nerve.
The next day, after I've made plans to move, he tells me he made a mistake, that he didn't know what he was saying, that he didn't know why he said it.
We both know why he said it. He wants babies. I don't.
I lie to him and to myself. I tell him that maybe I could have kids. I convince myself that that's the mature thing to do.
We move into a huge in?law apartment with a walk?in closet and a pristine backyard. Within a few weeks, we attempt to settle into our idyllic life by adopting a dog from the local animal shelter. Let's just go there to look, he says. But the instant I see her, I know I can't leave her there. She's a young shepherd mix who hides in the corner of her cage. I hold some kibble out to her and she darts towards me, grabs the food, and retreats back into her safe place. I look at her and think, I know you. I know what it's like to fear the world around you.
In the car on the way home, she pees on my lap, then hops into the back and crouches on the floor, terrified.
He names her Birdie. It fits. I picture a hummingbird, its nervous energy. Birdie would like to be that size. She's not, but she's as delicately beautiful as a bird. Her black and brown fur gleams like coins in the late afternoon sunlight as we drive along tree-lined streets.
The actual possession of something sometimes affords us no
greater pleasure than the mere idea that we possess it.
—Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books
I possess anxiety. I sometimes wonder if I was born with it curled inside of my body, incubating.
I see anxiety in all of its monstrous magnificence as a three?pronged plug I can power myself with until it fails to work and I'm left dazed and immobile, electrocuted.
I possess depression, a murky beast dwelling in impossibly deep caves. It attempts to lure me away from the light of day until I can't find my way back.
So far, I have managed to find the strength to crawl to the surface. There are times in my life when that has been almost impossible, when I'd rather stay in a sensory deprivation chamber, when numbness seems like the best option.
The impulse toward order is born of fear and desire,
and the impulse toward chaos is born of the same.
The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott believed
artists were people driven by the tension between
the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.
—Mary Ruefle, "On Fear"
We accumulate many things over our lives. Too many things. But we part with these items, too:
a pearlescent blue glass ring I bought in Paris and wore until it shattered,
best friends who turned into strangers
cravings for the Cherry Coke I drank all through high school
dogeared copies of some of my favorite series that I outgrew, like The Babysitters Club andSweet Valley Twins
Imagine, if you will, that what you possess, what you used to possess, what you will possess possesses you, and you need some kind of emotional exorcist to release you from the burden of carrying so many things around.
A dog is not a possession. It's a living thing that snuggles up to you on cold winter nights, curled in a ball underneath the blanket, occasionally licking your shin. It's a creature that looks at you in a way that says, I know you're sad. I'm sad, too. Let's be sad together.
Birdie possesses my heart.
Things that possess us weigh just as heavily as the possessions themselves. The absence of the thing that possesses us replaces the actual possession, and that absence grows and grows until it is lodged and stuck. It's amazing that we're not crippled by what we've had and lost.
Why do we want to own anything to begin with? Our emotions, our physical items, ourselves? We want a sense of control; we have the audacity to think we can control anything.
The only thing I can control is the size of my personal library. Almost every day several packages arrive in the mail; review copies or finished books. I'm always winnowing, always plucking the bad or uninteresting ones out like weeds, and leaving them on the stoop. One person's recycled objects are another person's treasures. When I first move into my current apartment, I find a note taped to my front door: Hi Neighbor, If the books on the stoop weren't actually free, let me know. You have great taste in books. Glad to be sharing a street with such interesting people.
"I'm a Birdie girl, in a Birdie world..."
We change the lyrics of ridiculous songs and make them sillier. Birdie stars in all of them. She likes when we sing to her. Her tail thumps against the cushion of the chair she's perched on.
We can't use our living room lamps for the first several months that she lives with us. The patterns they cast on the ceiling scare her. Eventually she learns to ignore them. Eventually she trusts us. Eventually she can't leave us alone for any amount of time, even when we try to have sex.
I stop wanting to have sex with my boyfriend. I'm grateful to Birdie for making it more of an inconvenience.
The baby question hangs between us like a hammock weighed down by rocks, stretched to its limits.
Eventually, the hammock breaks.
I move to New York City to take a job at a bookstore. Birdie stays with her dad in Maine because she can't handle the honking cars, the crowded sidewalks, the startling sirens that most New Yorkers barely notice.
At first, I pay half of her bills. I am filled with guilt, bloated, and about to burst. We had an agreement that I would take the dog if we ever broke up. J. holds me to that. He uses the dog to hurt me, to hold on to me, to punish me.
I drink and I eat and I miss her. At night, I go to an Italian restaurant after work and spend a ridiculous amount of money on wine and pasta and dessert. I am gluttonous in my grief.
Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am
I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?
—Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star
I miss Birdie and I write these sentences so I can see her in front of me. I write for selfish reasons and for self?punishment. I write with dumb hope that my former
dog no longer fears the shadows. I write to steal those shadows away from her, to attach them to me, instead.
Writers are monsters of their own making, sometimes shielding themselves from the words they need to use. My favorite writers use their sadness and worries, their regrets and pains, and they turn the ugly feelings into sentences that transcend the despair.
I am learning to confront my sorrows. To let them breathe, to introduce them to the world. I am prying those words out of me, letting them loose, knowing that I never really owned them in the first place. As others have done before me. As others will continue to do.
© Michele Filgate, 2016.
Possessed was originally published in Issue 28.1 of Gulf Coast Magazine and appears courtesy of Michelle Filgate.
Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Refinery29, Slice, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House,Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Salon, Interview Magazine, Buzzfeed, The Barnes & Noble Review, Poets & Writers, The Boston Globe, Fine Books & Collections Magazine, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Time Out New York, People, The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, Men's Journal, Vulture, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Capital New York, The Star Tribune, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. She teaches creative nonfiction for The Sackett Street Writers' Workshop and Catapult.
Possessed was read by Michaela Morton on 5th October 2016 for Truth & Consequences