I spent a lot of time the summer I divorced sitting in what my family called the nervous breakdown chair, listening to what I personally called nervous breakdown music. Nervous breakdown music meant anything obnoxiously cheerful that I could picture soundtracking me in a montage where I was committing a crime spree. The details – murder, robbery – didn’t matter, so long as whatever it was would be rampageous and remorseless both. Nervous breakdown music meant the Beach Boys, basically, so I sat there staring into space listening to ‘Good Vibrations’ on my headphones on full volume, thinking: the vibrations are bad. The vibrations are very bad indeed. And the irony of this small thought gave me enough comfort to lift myself above my pain for a second, even two, at a time. I surveyed the vista of that pain with curiosity, as if it were the surface of another planet, before returning into my body with a sick thump.
Sometimes a ladybird would land on my softly-furred bare thigh, and I would watch it move slowly about. Sometimes I would allow a horsefly to suckle tenderly from my forearm. My aunt would scold me for this, applying repellant to me as if it were sun lotion, her hands more vigorous than they needed to be as she rubbed it into my skin.
They carry disease, she would say. Have you no sense of self-preservation?
I did not.
There she was, my aunt, suddenly at the other end of the garden, waving from a distance. The tears in my eyes were almost pleasurable. Did I want a drink? She gestured again, raising her hand to her lips and tipping back her throat. I nodded, but made no move to get up.
Two minutes later she appeared next to me as if by magic, tall glass bustling with ice. I popped the lever so that I went from reclining to sitting in one exuberant motion.
You need to shower today, she told me. You stink. She passed me the ice. I took a sip – gin and tonic, strong, as if prescribed.
And please, behave, she added.
Define behave, I said, finishing the drink in one. She slapped me in the face, paused, then did it again.
Pull yourself together, she said.
And like this, the hours in the nervous breakdown chair passed.
The nervous breakdown chair was an old camping chair, khaki-green and reclining, that had belonged to my father. It was stained with sunscreen, rusted, full of holes. It was a chair of great penance and history, noble in its decay. My father had taken it on fishing trips, folding it carefully into the boot, setting it up next to body of water after body of water. As a teenager, after he left, I had tanned on this chair, dragging it behind the ragged hydrangea bushes and exposing as much skin as possible. It was my sister who anointed it in its new, recuperative purpose as the nervous breakdown chair. She would sit in it for hours sifting her thoughts, watching the insects, contemplating the clouds. I remember my aunt sitting on the grass, taking her pulse. She would write down the numbers in the notebook we were not allowed to read. Her theories of care were still in their infancy, back then. Her glasses hung, pendulous, from the diamanté chain around her neck.
My aunt had been a teacher once in a school for girls, or a paediatric nurse, or an anaesthetist – hard to keep the information straight, perhaps she had been them all. Anyway, she had been working on the aforementioned theories of care for a long period by the time I returned that summer. They included the healing power of submission, the idea that cruelty wasn’t always cruelty, that the radio waves from phones made the cells of our brains glutinous, saggy. My aunt examined my phone as I sat across from her at the breakfast table, picking at my cuticles. I watched her scroll through something, my messages or my social media feed or my contacts, sucking her teeth, then I watched her put the phone in a drawer and lock it.
One walk, she told me. Forty-five minutes.
Through drizzle I marched myself along the lanes surrounding the house, alone, wearing a raincoat that came down to my knees. The air was thick and silent with water.
Tell me more about the Beach Boys and what they mean to you, my psychiatrist said from her box on the screen. The picture stuttered and froze. My laptop was propped on what had been my sister’s dressing table, still wreathed in the gauzy accoutrements of girlhood. Velvet scrunchies, a scarf draped over the ornate mirror. The photo frames were empty, white and staring.
I don’t wish to interrogate that, I said, which was my favourite phrase when speaking to her, I don’t remember where I learned it. Whenever I said it, she flinched very slightly; I was pulling the rabbit out of the bag. She sighed, or maybe it was another flicker of the screen.
How are things with your aunt? she asked. She hated my aunt.
I could hear breathing outside the door, the barely perceptible motion of feet on deep pile carpet.
Things are very good, I said.
The attachment hypotheses of my psychiatrist did not bear out. I knew, sentimentally, that I had been loved and was loved again, adult though I was, returned here, temporarily, to a foetal and delicate state.
My ex-husband had met my aunt only twice – once at our impulsive wedding and once after, at the house, when we sat on the lawn and ate a white sweet cake that crumbled everywhere.
Don’t bring that man again, my aunt told me, privately, in the kitchen, as if he was a timid date and not the person I had so recently pledged to honour, love and obey. I leaned against the counter and shaded my eyes against a beam of sudden light.
It’s true that he seemed to want to take me away. True that he had observed the mausoleum of my sister’s room with a prickle of discontent, that he had been found examining the unmarked jars in the pantry, that after using the bathroom I had discovered him sifting through the drawers in my childhood bedroom.
He would not understand that there was no peace in the house, really, outside of the nervous breakdown chair. The monstrous years of my late teens lay lined up alongside the rest of my life like bullets in a gun. There, in the home where they had taken place, they could feel as present as if they were still being lived. And yet I returned, for I needed to rub my cheek against their coldness and remember that I was still alive, that I would continue to be alive, that a person could change, that a person could be changed, that the things around a person could change, that the body was broken, that the body was pure, that the body was a conduit for the good and the evil and the beautiful, that the body was nothing and the body was all.
After a week or so in the chair, I was able to hover, unafraid, for almost a minute over the vista of my pain. I marvelled at the blood-red seams that threaded the pockmarked, brittle earth – was able to see where the dirt had been scorched, where the terrain was torn up and resettled. There was no foliage except for a scrubby blue forest. If I stayed up there long enough, focused hard enough, I could see a tiny, other-worldly version of me in a tiny nervous breakdown chair, contemplating a new future, limply eating a sandwich cut into four small squares. I could see my aunt at the edge of the blue forest, crouched down on hands and knees, peering from behind the trees as if I was an animal not to be startled, an animal that must not be allowed to bolt, something wilder and more beautiful than anything had the right to be. From my vantage point I could see her in her entirety; curls tinted a brassy copper and tending to frizz, long skirt patterned with purple daisies, orthopaedic shoes. From such a distance she seemed fragile, as if she could be flicked away with the movement of one hand, and yet she was unmistakably vibrant, out of step with the dry textures of my pain. Oh and it was beautiful to see her watch me, to feel myself seen, to feel myself an unknown and surveyed thing upon a strange earth.
And sometimes I did not watch from a distance, but zoomed right into where I was placed upon this barren, ruined landscape. The shoddy details of the chair, the pores of my skin, the enamel of my teeth, bluely thinning and scalloped at the edges. The honeyed flecks of my eyes. I went right inside my body to the cool and pulsing workings of my blood, and saw there was a sheet of ice inside of me, wedged right up between my ribs and my stomach, and this ice was unbreakable, and it became possible to believe, then – many tall gin and tonics down, the hovering presence of my aunt there at the edge of the garden, the heat-shimmering green lawn, too green, a theoretical green – that I would survive, I would survive above all things, it was even feasible that I might one day rejoice in my capacity to live, to remain living. More, I prayed to the sun, to the sheet of ice inside of me, which might have been the proxy for a soul. Again. Please.
I tried to disentangle which had come first – the monstrous years, or the sheet of ice – but it was impossible.
Like this, too, the hours in the nervous breakdown chair passed.
That’s my job, said the psychiatrist, regarding the disentangling.
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