By Kim Dallesandro
The Westinghouse Building stands in the middle of broken dreams. Six floors high, gutted, engineered, plotted and planned into living spaces where we look outside and watch the despair.
My windows face a sweatshop and each day I watch the Hispanic workers lose a little more hope with each garment that is pulled through industrial sewing machines. Down in the street, I hear the yells of the homeless that surround the block, bringing with them the debris and filth of all that remains of their broken lives. They look at me with envy. I look away and can’t meet their eyes, for the truth is I am closer to becoming them than any of us realize. There is an anxiousness that prevails inside me, dangling so close to what we all fear so much. The space I occupy has no walls and I have learned how little space one needs to exist in the world. I have lost my ability to sit on a couch, eat at a table, using my bed as the only space I require. The rest of the loft is set up much like a furniture showroom for the sole purpose of storing what remains in my life. It has been a hard five years, and if I did not have the ability to sleep and dream, I believe I would have lost what little sanity I still possess. I must admit I never knew how easy it is to step outside of life and how difficult it would be to step back into it.
I’ll be there to love and comfort you, I’ll be there…..
The time is 3AM. The radio is working because the winds kicked up last night and the signal is always better when they are blowing. For just a moment, it all seemed normal. That’s how it always is at some point in every 24 hours, some fragment of the past gets through reminding me how it used to be. The books say embrace your life and start living. When I find my life, I will do just that.
My biggest decision upon waking is whether to get out of bed. If I get out of bed, the second biggest decision is how long to sit in the hard wooden chair next to the bed. Before I get back into bed. Although I am living in an open space, my furniture situated here, there- rarely do I venture very far from the bed. The furniture mocks me most days, so I avert my eyes and only look at the floor or the ceiling. The walls. It is my mind that I can’t get away from these days. Perhaps it would have been kinder had fate taken me in an accident years before. I would be spoken about favorably, leaving a legacy of success and courage against insurmountable odds. Often, I dream about how it used to be and am startled when I awake to find myself in the same 24 hours I just lived. I search for the courage each day to believe I can crawl out of this situation and begin to feel sunlight on my face, voices calling to me, and feel I am necessary in a life I no longer have.
I get a diet caffeine soda and light a cigarette. The noises of the urban landscape filter through my windows, the sun my indication that I am alive. The underlying sadness I run from rumbles in my chest and I feel tears in my eyes. It wasn’t supposed to end up this way. From the beginning, I have outrun the pain, the abandonment, the hurt until fate swooped down and I was stopped with this illness. I knew it would only be a matter of time before I would be saturated in it. Six long years it has taken for my surrender. I really don’t know what to do anymore, there is a confusion that I’ve never had, a hesitation that moves me from the chair back to the bed.
It’s like so many other lives, like yours perhaps. Mine began midpoint of the 1950s, a stepmother before I was a year old, and a father crushed from a failed marriage. There was always a tension, an underlying fear, bursts of adrenaline up down up down up down. It was a field of land mines, eggshells, broken glass. Tip toe tip toe. Learning to gauge where everyone was at emotionally, bracing for the violence, the release; me broken, afraid, waiting for protection that would never come.
“Get the Happy Family Cookies,” she would say with that crooked, insane smile that scared me to my kneecaps. And I would get up from the dinner table with my bandaged head and bruised body that no one would talk about and get the cookies, hoping that indeed we finally would be a happy family. I was married once to a man much like her, and I bought Happy Family Cookies, saw them on the shelf and it all flooded back into my brain. I was broken from his words, the cruelty and the anticipation of things that never happened, but could. I bought and ate the whole box that night sitting alone, hoping that indeed we finally would be a happy family.
I hope my daughter is not buying her own box of cookies because of me. That’s the other pain I’m plagued with. We are damaged and we do damage. Don’t mean to, try not to, can’t help but. There it is, that awful truth. I medicated myself for most of her early life, so she was spared a fate that could have been much worse. I also knew enough to fight to open up a future to her that even I had never known. I forgot that she would grow up and move on, I guess. When she left there was a moment I could not breathe, there I was again that scared little girl alone and afraid.
I never knew she sat afraid every time I went into a bathroom or closed the bedroom door. She knew about the needles, the drugs, the risk, and the fear. So she ate. And ate. For me, for her. She once told me that she wanted to put a big cushion between herself and the world so she could not be hurt. She told me that I should give her thousands of dollars for the therapy she needed from living with me. We both laughed it off, but I tell you, when I went to bed that night I cried myself to sleep.
I got pregnant specifically to stay alive. Being young and on my own since I was 11, I knew in my 20th year that I needed someone to care for, someone that needed me, someone to validate my existence. I could not and still can not do this for myself. I have waited all my life to be saved. The only person I fear today is myself. I have become capable of being all those persons I have run from my whole life, sitting here on this hard wooden chair 5 floors up surrounded by the paper debris of my life, unable to escape it any longer.
“She won’t put on a shirt, she wants to wear the jeans without a shirt.”
“Without a shirt?” asked my stepmother, fixing herself a Coke in a large glass with ice keeping one eye on the soap opera that was on. It was a hot, humid day somewhere in America, on some military base. Those details did not matter. It was, in the end, always the same wherever we went.
The ironing board was set up in the living room, in the freezer were all the delicate handmade dollies ready to be starched and ironed. She took a drag of her cigarette and rolled her eyes. I had always wanted to be a boy, strong and confident. Able to take care of myself and those around me. A solider. I asked for trucks, guns and tool boxes for Christmas. I had a metal car and a 3 wheeler tricycle, an old army coat and canteen Daddy had given me and I was ready to win the war. It took someone from outside of myself made up to make me strong enough to voice my wants. My war was with my stepmother, though no one knew. Or if they knew, no one said anything. Waking on this morning, I had bruises under my arms near my armpit, with perfectly shaped bloody scabs that matched my stepmother’s perfectly manicured fingernails. There was a large knot on top of my head from the impact born of not moving fast enough, a little black and green was showing up above my eye. I was learning to be a soldier with the neighborhood boys. They were pretending they were their fathers and me I was learning to defend myself.
“She’s playing War with the boys, and she wants to dress like them.”
My stepmother walked back to my room and told me to clean up my bedroom and put on a shirt. She gave me a long look, THAT look while the smoke from her cigarette curled around her face. That creepy smile, crooked and somehow unstable appeared. And I knew. I felt it in my heartbeat, I felt it in my brain – the tingling of fear that rose from the bottom of my feet and spread all over me. I had an urgency to run, yet I just stared back, unable to say anything, my mouth suddenly dry. “What are you staring at, Kimberly? Put on your shirt and get this room cleaned up so you can get outside.” Kimberly. See, I knew. When she called me by my full name, I knew. Later or tomorrow, I would be chipped away a little more, shown my place, humiliated and shamed for daring to cross her. I wouldn’t know when it would come. That would be too kind. I would live with the anxiousness and mounting fear, becoming more clumsy and withdrawn, careful and quiet, calculating when when when when… until with almost a relief it would erupt. The violence, the blood, the crying without tears – “Stop acting like Sarah Bernhardt,” she would say as she hit hit hit, pulled, tugged, hit hit hit… and I would scream, beg and cry but no tears came anymore. Followed by her careful tending of my wounds, soft words how if only I was good, better, dutiful anything but what I was these things would not happen. She would pull a chair into the kitchen and drag me up on it, pushing my head into the sink to wash away the blood. I would close my eyes and soak up the words while she cleaned up the cuts – “You shouldn’t have run in the bathroom to get away, Kimberly, then you wouldn’t have cracked open your head on the faucet… put your head over here, Jesus, Kim why can’t you just do what I ask? Hand me the ointment, no not that… see, see how stupid you are?” Slap. “I’ve lost all patience with you, Kimberly, do I need to beat it into you?” Slap. “What do I need to do to make you realize what you are doing to me?” Slap. Again and again she would hit me on the head, holding my hair so I couldn’t get away. “God dammit, Kim when will you learn? Maybe you need stitches, but I think this is good enough. Don’t tell your father, God knows he worries enough about you as it is. Working day and night for you and your sister. For what, this? Come home to this? Here, dry off your face… turn your head so I can dry your hair. Stand up straight, Kimberly.” Slap. “Stop acting like a martyr. Here, blow your nose. Are you feeling better? Let me make you something to eat, sit down over there. Maybe some juice and a cookie… want a cookie? Sit down.” Gently, she would help me down from the chair I was standing on by the kitchen sink and help me sit down at the table. I would just look down, beaten and ashamed. And she would be soft and helpful as she put a cookie and glass of juice in front of me, tenderly moving my hair behind my ear so I could eat. I knew what love was.