In the Heart of the Hall of Mirrors | Chris Dennis | Granta

In the Heart of the Hall of Mirrors

Chris Dennis

I was seventeen when I moved to Enfield, Illinois, a village with a population of 600, to live with my mother. I had only seen her twice over the past few years. At fourteen I ran away from home to live with a man who was nearly a decade older than me. My parents were divorced, and before my mother moved to Enfield, she and my father had been living in separate apartments on opposite sides of the Saline County Housing Projects. My mother had a new boyfriend then, who had pinned me to the wall by my throat because I’d said I didn’t think the Bible was divinely inspired. He was one of those guys who’d sober up every few months and become very emotional about Christianity. When I left home they all thought I was living with the other parent. When they found out where I was, they were either too uncomfortable to say anything or too consumed by their own tragedies to make me come home.

My boyfriend was a horny, depressed 24-year-old who worked as a paramedic. He liked horror movies and comic books and was occasionally suicidal. The first time he threatened to kill himself was after I’d mentioned wanting to go to a concert with a friend. He liked for me to sit at work with him, watching TV on a busted sofa during the long hours between emergency calls. One time I rode along in the ambulance with him while he transported a body to a medical examiner in Indiana. Over the course of a few years he groomed me, perhaps unintentionally, to depend only on him, to distrust my parents and to always be afraid of losing him. Our last summer together a friend came by to ask if I would spend the weekend with her. He smiled from his favorite chair as she stood in our living room, and rolled us two joints to take, but when he called her house the next day and we weren’t there, he left several increasingly desperate messages on her mother’s answering machine, threatening that if I didn’t come home, I’d never see him again. When my friend finally brought me back early Sunday morning, I was vibrating with panic and guilt. There were three kitchen knives laid out neatly on the coffee table, and a dramatic trail of pills leading to the kitchen sink. He wasn’t home. I insisted she leave me there to wait.

Maybe the thing with scaring children is that it’ll keep them close for a while – really close – but eventually they’ll be too afraid to stay. We fought when he came home, and a week later I left to move back in with my mother.

 

Until I was almost thirty, I’d have probably told you I loved my adult boyfriend and that he was fun and bought me things and that I felt desired and cared for by him, and that the only thought I had when he first grabbed me in a friend’s dark kitchen to kiss me was, ‘Holy shit this guy is so hot.’ But not long after my own son became a teenager, I started to feel very different about fourteen-year-old Chris’s relationship with this grown man. I began to rethink the very nature of adolescence. My child – this more competent, braver reflection of me, who looks so much like me that people have mistaken us for one another at a distance, but who is not me at all – has been guided by his mother with such insistent, nurturing force. She has instilled in him a sense of personal responsibility and self-management that I didn’t have access to at his age.

Once when my son was four or five and still slept next to me every night I dreamt that I was having a conversation with a photograph of my grandfather that sat on the dresser in my bedroom. He said to me, ‘Someone is walking up the stairs in your apartment.’ And I could hear that they were. I was asleep and we lived alone but I could hear the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs, walking into the bedroom, right up to the bed. I felt a hand on my back, someone very gently placing their entire wide-open palm right between my shoulders, and I opened my eyes. My son, who was facing me in the bed, opened his eyes too, so that we were staring directly at each other. He looked at me, then his gaze traveled to something right behind me and a look of terror crept over his small child-face. He said, angrily, ‘Who is behind you?’

‘Why are you saying that?’ I answered, louder and more accusatory than I meant to sound. But then he just closed his eyes again and fell asleep. I sat up and turned around. No one was there. It was just us alone in the room.

How does one relate to a child, except to walk back down that sad sidewalk on the way home from school, on a dry fall day, past the convenience store where my mother worked the second shift, toward the apartment where we lived, to meet a grown man who was waiting in his car on a side street to pick me up and drive me to a cornfield or a wooded area where we would – my God in fucking hell what was I doing out there all alone in the world?

It hurts to think of my mother reading this now. I do not want her to feel some grief over the past, because even if she’d tried to stop me from running away with the man, some bit of damage had already been done long before, and I still would have gone. I’d been heading toward him, or someone like him, for years.

This might be one of the kinder mirrors parenthood will hold up to your terrified, startled face: your own treacherous youth, offering a grain of empathy to build a full-grown fatherly heartache around. It’s an ugly road back to these moments where you now have to reparent yourself, knowing you’re the only one who understands enough about it to do the job right, with your newfound powers of consideration, and a new ability to comfort yourself.

 

My mother – such a tiny lady but with very long hair, like a wig. If it falls across her face while she is driving with the windows down, she will adjust it, carefully, with just her fingernail. She still carries a vast, shape-shifting version of religion, one that demands at times a tormented judgment of herself and others. She smiles so easily at little children. I have seen her be both generous and darkly critical in her assumptions about others’ intentions. Of course you already know this. Likely I’ve told you before. I’ve told you all of this. But I’m going to tell you again. My mother and I share a tendency to grow tired around people, even when it’s someone we adore, but are sometimes overwhelmed with affection toward them later when we’re alone, eating chips on the porch after dark. We are better at reflecting than reacting. We are very good at sitting in uncertainty. Or maybe we’re not. We like giving gifts – personal, expertly crafted gifts that prove what good listeners we are. Or maybe we never actually give them. Daydreaming is one way of planning the friendships we long to have. Our intentions must seep out just enough. Because I have found friends. I have found such astounding friends.

In a recent letter to my friend Gina I explained how I’d been thinking about the Carl Jung quote, ‘The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.’ I explained how the quote unsettled me, because I worry my son has witnessed his father in too many pitiful moments, watched me made into a wretched person – addicted and incarcerated and unable to cope with the regular strain of a heavy life. But then I think of all the times he has seen me with my friends, when I’m good, when I’m most alive, when I’m seized by messy laughter at some depraved thing. I love that he’s sat on porch steps with my friends and me, watching us cackle at our own sideways jokes. It makes me feel at home in my own body. I like that my son has seen his father turn to comedy as a means of self-criticism, that he’s seen the sharp knife of my friends’ wit cut through his father’s own bad ideas, that he’s watched our attempts to dismantle the terrible things around us by making fun of them.

Some of the best memories of my mother are of her laughing at an old, horrible mistake, seeing her come undone with her friends when she is not my mother, or she is some new mother who cracks open her discomfort with humor. I remember one of her oldest friends swinging open our back door in the middle of the day, saying, ‘Some guy just drove through the alley behind my house with his dick out!’ My mother drew back in disgust, ‘What did you say to him?’ Her friend shrugged, and threw her hands out, ‘I told him to come back later.’ My mother’s face froze. She looked at me, then back at her friend, before letting out a laugh so piercing and sincere that it scared me.

 

Sometimes when I talk about my mother and father, my friend Amy will paraphrase the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, saying, ‘Every child is the miscarriage of their parents’ unattainable desires.’ Does it not chill your bones? It is difficult not to conjure a gruesome, improbable image.

While I was incarcerated Amy sent me the collected works of Oscar Wilde. She wanted me to read De Profundis (‘From the Depths’), a long letter that Wilde wrote from prison in Reading. ‘You should make notes or highlight things, so we can talk about it over the phone,’ she said. Phone calls from jail are timed, and expensive, so it helped to plan things out. Here are some of the things I underlined while reading on my bunk: ‘A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.’ And, ‘At every single moment of one’s life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been. Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol.’

Wilde remembers his awful trial. The prosecution attempted to illustrate his perversities, to criminalize evidence of his desire for other men. Some of his friends were called as witnesses, even a few men he’d once flirted with at a party. What would my friends say if they were called to explain every hookup and weird desire I’ve confided in them? Would you say, ‘Oh, Chris? So sane. So very, very sane.’ Because our love is a secret palace?

Wilde writes about how sickened he was by the horrors he heard, until suddenly it occurred to him in prison: ‘How splendid it would be, if I was saying all this about myself. I saw then at once that what is said of a man is nothing. The point is, who says it.’

So much of the anxiety that swallowed me up every day in jail was the fear of what my friends were thinking. You have to pay for the privilege to communicate with the outside world, and so I would have to wait weeks and months for the chance to explain all of my mistakes to them myself.

Time has a way of turning us against or toward ourselves. Laughing is also a way of controlling the narrative of our own failures, of strangling darkness with parody. It grants me a sense of authority over my life, in the simplest terms, a sense that I am the author of it, even if it only means carrying the world one piece at a time into the mirror-filled halls of my imagination.

 

That empty summer before my eighteenth birthday when I moved back in with my mother she’d only been living in Enfield for a few months, staying in the house of my great-grandmother, who had moved into a nursing home a few streets over. It was fifteen miles of vacant highway to the nearest restaurant or store. As far as I knew I was the only teenager in town, and I had no car. Until then my mother had never really had a home to herself. Her boyfriend had moved out, and later died in a drunk-driving accident. I returned to find her a single woman for the first time in her adult life.

There was an extra bedroom, with the palest green walls, where I would hide and smoke pot and listen to Fleetwood Mac and meticulously cut and paste little pictures from Spin magazine until I’d covered nearly half the room. I’d already dropped out of high school. I watched out the window each morning as my mother walked over to the neighbor’s to sit on the porch with her new friend, Joanne. Joanne was originally from Boston, and almost seventy. She was wonderfully loud, her voice hanging in her throat. She had large plastic eyeglasses and a uniform cloud of gray hair teased around her chalky face. She was a fan of polyblend slacks, and long earrings. She would scream across the yard at my window every day for me to come over and sit on the porch, ‘Christopher! Christopher, come over and talk to your mother and I! You’re not going to sit indoors.’ For Joanne, the real moments of a person’s life only occurred outdoors. And so of course I did, and without really meaning to or knowing it was happening Joanne became my friend too, because she was my mother’s friend and because her laugh was so shrill and filled up her small body so thoroughly. She loved to talk about herself, and told me violent stories of organized crime during her childhood in the city. This was thrilling to someone who’d only ever seen the small towns of southern Illinois. I loved her old life, which was the point, to have my mother and me fall in love with her life and then, in turn, with her. She had an intense collection of antique candy dishes and several paintings of the Virgin Mary purchased from mail-order catalogues and would sometimes, if the conversation dragged, bring us inside to show them to us. Joanne kept a small garden and would call us over to pick tomatoes for her while she sat on the porch yelling, ‘No!’ if we reached for one she didn’t think was ripe. Perhaps my mother was lonely, because Joanne wasn’t always kind, or maybe my mother found some sort of strength in being helpful to someone for whom gratitude didn’t come easy. Maybe a constant longing for ungiven thanks was something my mother had grown used to. It was instructive, though, to watch her being a good friend to someone she only barely knew.

 

If the heart has a great hall then it must also have a dungeon. There are obviously mirrors on the ceiling of the dungeon of one’s life, too. We may review the little tortures as if they’re happening to someone else. From one angle this offers perspective, from another it allows us to behave like a judgmental voyeur, even to ourselves. I have a learned tendency to criticize my own capacity for pain, even if I’m the one inflicting it. This is one of the mirror’s greatest tricks, to display another you that you can blame for the very things you have done to yourself.

What I mean to say is, I have learned from my friends how crucial it can be to tilt your head a bit if you’re feeling bad, as a way of checking to see if it’s you or the world who’s behaving badly.

 

I stayed with my mother in my great-grandmother’s house for a year, and in the summer of 1999 Joanne died of lung cancer. It was a smoldering-hot day and I walked the three blocks down the main street in Enfield to the only funeral parlor in town. I stood there sweating quietly beneath the drop ceilings, staring at the dated decor, the uninspired landscape paintings and fake flowers. I was in an ugly pair of pants and a shirt I’d bought the day before at a thrift store in Carmi, not really knowing anyone except my mother, who was talking with the other neighbors. There is no way to say this correctly, to convey the terror, but I had forgotten that Joanne had an identical twin. Surely I had met her once? But when her sister came walking into the funeral parlor my body felt stunned along every nerve ending, and I was instantly someone who did not know himself, or where he was. It was not a matter of ghosts or the undead, but instead an absolute distrust in reality. I thought, ‘Oh, wait – I’m not at a funeral. I’m at a party. Who invited me here?’ I could only imagine that I had misunderstood the event. Why did I even think I was at a funeral?

When I told you this story, twenty years later, Melissa – because it has suddenly become very clear to me that all along this was a letter to you – you laughed. And the joke was: what a fantastic crack in reality! Isn’t it good to be known in this way? We grew up in the same county, but didn’t know each other until we were just old enough to drink. We share a delirious joy in the hysterias of childhood, in the charming stupidity of adolescence, and a certainty that at any given moment reality is a bold, ridiculous fucking lie. Even if we can’t always make it out or point directly at it, we know the change in perspective is coming; any second, the mirrors will shift and there will be a better version of the world beneath or above or beside the one we’re experiencing now. It’s comforting of course to know that pain will change. We might only be standing a little further back, but from here, it’s hysterical.

Isn’t it reassuring how naturally our children reflect this allegiance to the kingdom of the absurd? Isn’t it something to see their brilliant disregard of principles, that my mostly reserved, straight son indulges our acidic queer theatrics, that he’s seen the trashiest parts of life refined in the campiest fires of his father’s faggot heart? Would it be too much for me to mention now how many generations of descendants it took to complete the Palace of Versailles? Every numbered Louis seemed more unhinged than the last, all of them taking their turn, standing inside the original Hall of Mirrors. By then the royal home was a maze of grandiose camp. It took multiple lifetimes for it to arrive there. Isn’t it funny to think about, looking back on our own little lives spent in so many trailer parks, and at all the times our parents turned on the utilities in our names to avoid paying the previous bill? Somehow, against their first impulse for us to be nurses or gas station managers, we became writers. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. How did that happen? Or does it make perfect sense? ‘Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol.’

A friendship can be a terrifying, marvelous risk, an attempt to rise out of your own body and into someone else’s, because a friend is also sometimes a way of discovering another self, a surprise twin in the funeral parlor of life.

 

Perhaps what I also mean to say, Melissa, is that during those hateful months I spent in jail I had a dream that I was sitting at one end of a very lengthy antique dining table and you were seated at the opposite end. The table was spread with an enormous amount of vivid, polished wax fruit – even in my dreams the metaphors are food-related – and we were laughing raucously, to the point of tears, because we were both so very hungry and had sat down to enjoy a beautiful feast when we realized that all the food was fake. We were ravenous. And somehow that was the funny part. It’s as if we both understood that if all there was to consume was comedy, that warped variety of joy, we would fill ourselves up until there was room for nothing else.

 

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress, Carol M. Highsmith, Hall of Mirrors at Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Grand Prairie, Texas, USA, 2014

Chris Dennis

Chris Dennis is a writer and public health educator from southern Illinois. He is the author of Here Is What You Do. Other work has appeared in Granta, the Paris Review, Playgirl, McSweeney’s, Literary Hub and Guernica. He holds a master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship.  

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