March 4, 2008
Her face is a map of the world . . .
You can see she’s a beautiful girl . . .
And everything around her is a silver pool of light
The people who surround her feel the benefit of it.
— Kate Tunstall, b. 1975, Scottish singer-songwriter
“Suddenly I See”
I can’t tell you how or why it happened. I can only tell you when, and where. When? 5:34 pm, March 4, 2008. Where? The main entrance of the Lehigh Valley Mall on MacArthur Road in Whitehall, Pennsylvania.
And what was this happening? The lifting, felt as a physical event, of the depression that descended on me some seven and a half weeks ago and accompanied me like a witch’s familiar everywhere I went. Melanie, I call her. My black bitch, envisioned as a black Labrador retriever. She is part of my personality, and I will never be without her. Indeed, I would not want to be without her. She carries within her the things that make me tremble, the things that help to make me who I am. It’s just that sometimes, instead of walking or sitting quietly at my side, she jumps onto my shoulder and digs her claws in and it takes a great deal of exhausting positive self-talk to counteract the buzz of her breath in my ear.
If I’d been standing outside myself observing myself as I walked toward that moment at the main entrance of the Lehigh Valley Mall, I would have judged it an unlikely moment for anything positive to happen. It was raining, and I was there killing time.
I was in the region to attend an important men’s basketball game between the Marauders of Millersville University and the Golden Bears of Kutztown University for a playoff berth in the PSAC championships next weekend. I was alone because Ron had decided to go to the equally important Millersville women’s playoff game on their home court. Before the game I was supposed to have dinner with a friend who also has an interest in the MU-KU matchup, but the plans had fallen through, the fourth such snafu in as many weeks. As I drove past the Kutztown exit to the Lehigh Valley Mall, I was beginning to think that this is one of those relationships that is just too hard to maintain, that as much as we might mean to some people, our lives are sometimes too crowded and too complicated to really be there for each other.
I hadn’t visited the Lehigh Valley Mall in more than two years. New construction has put blocks of shops where parking lots used to be. The blocks are full of “lifestyle shops,” stores that sell things no one actually needs. There’s a Sephora (high end makeup and skin care products), White House/Black Market (clothes in only black or white in sizes below anything I’ve ever been able to wear), Williams-Sonoma (high end kitchen ware), and a Coldwater Creek. That one is actually my favorite store, but we have the same row of shops in two different places at home, with a new one planned at yet another location, and in wending my way around to find a parking space I just sighed for the sameness of everything.
After I parked I walked through the Barnes & Noble that connects from the parking lot to the mall’s main entrance. I went in there mostly to use the bathroom. A bookstore is like an attractive nuisance for me. I can’t just walk in, use the bathroom or buy a magazine I know I want and leave. No, I wander along the shelves, running my fingers over the spines of books, reading titles, reading jacket blurbs, sighing because there are so many novels by first-time authors published already, so many human situations already explored that there can’t possibly be any left, so many pretty packages as shallow and overhyped as Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, all telling the same story: a young woman feels lost within herself and keeps doing things that make the lostness worse.
I pushed open the door and bent my head against the damp wind that swirled through the canyon the crowded buildings make. I was thinking through the scenario in the manuscript I am currently struggling to shape, that I have a scant ten days to turn into something that will please the first readers at Bread Loaf. Can I make it as snappy and commercially appealing as some of the prose on the shelves at B&N? Do I want to?
I lifted my head then and saw my reflection as I approached the door. With the lifting of my head and the squaring of my shoulders I felt, actually felt as a physical event, the retracting of the black bitch’s claws. And as I reached for the door I saw not myself but Anne Hathaway as she looked in The Devil Wears Prada. And I laughed. Out loud. Because that is so far from the reality of what I have ever looked like that I knew it had to be a vision, sent by some benevolent spirit with a sense of humor. Close your umbrella, said Anne the reflection. The storm is over. And she waved before she turned and left.
And so it is. Millersville won. I drove home encased in a silver pool of light, though it was pouring rain again. Before I sat down to compose this I wrote a thousand more words in my manuscript. and an outline for the final two scenes. And I looked through my calendar to see when another good time to see that KU friend might be.
Thanks to all who stayed with me through the rain and the cold and the cloudy, cheerless days, who worried about me, who asked after me, who held me in their hearts even if they couldn’t hold my hand. I couldn’t have done it without you.
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